Integral Transformation Editorial: November 2012
The Failures of Science
By Armand Diaz, Ph.D.
There are literally piles of solid, well-done scientific studies that show that placing feeding tubes in most elderly patients does not extend either the quantity or quality of their lives, and in fact often leads to complications like pneumonia, and even to death. Yet the placement of feeding tubes in this population continues apace. Physicians, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners must - on average - be at least partially aware of the research, yet it does not change their decision-making appreciably.
As a professor teaching graduate students in speech pathology (speech pathologists are the primary professionals assessing and treating swallowing problems), I have brought this up with my students. Speech pathology is now very concerned with Evidence-Based Practice, and a cornerstone of this is familiarity with scientific research. I have my students read the research. I even have them read articles about how speech pathologists are among the professionals not following the rather obvious conclusions of the research - they are still recommending tube feedings. Amazingly, even after reading relevant research and thoroughly discussing the issue from many angles, many of my students continue to say that they will recommend tube feedings for elderly patients.
We like to think that we can make decisions based on information, and so much the better if that information is scientifically validated. But as my students have been so consistent in demonstrating, we tend to only pay attention to evidence that supports our current way of thinking. It’s great that scientific evidence sometimes encourages us to act and believe as we already do, yet it seems to have little capacity to change our attitudes.
Consider climate change. We have made this a political issue, because we don’t want to change our consumption habits or the economics that underlie them. Yet even if global warming were not attributed to our emission of various gasses into the atmosphere, we could still recognize that the climate is changing - and significantly. Looking at global average temperatures, the deterioration of polar ice, and the drastic shift in weather patterns ought to be enough evidence that something is happening. Even if we leave aside questions about the cause, surely we could plan better to deal with the consequences.
Apparently not. Lower Manhattan has been extensively rebuilt in the years after September 11, 2001, but Hurricane Sandy proved that no additional measures to protect against the sea have been taken. As Joe Nocera pointed out in The New York Times, other communities in the area have taken measures - after being devastated by a hurricane or two - building sea walls to prevent storm surges from hitting their towns. But despite all the evidence, New York has not changed its behavior.
It’s discouraging to see that evidence doesn’t change behavior. It appears that experience is necessary. We can’t do the math in our heads, we need to actually see the devastation and economic cost in order to act differently. Surely, though, after such a bad experience we will plan better for next time.
Apparently not. New Orleans was ripped apart by Katrina, yet very little changed in the way of planning. The sea wall was built a bit higher, but neighborhoods below sea level remain where they were, and building codes for the city remain essentially nonexistent.
So, is the public guilty of failing to pay heed to evidence? Certainly. Presented with evidence of any kind, even the scientifically-validated kind, we pick through like a savvy chef looking for a ripe tomato. We take what we already know we like.
Think of how quickly you pick up on the latest research that confirms what you already knew, or thought you knew. Vegetarians love studies that implicate meat in disease. Coffee lovers beam about studies that show health benefits of caffeine, but aren’t so sanguine about research that shows health risks.
That leads us to the question of scientists. If consumers of information have bad habits, that doesn’t mean that the purveyors are entirely on the up-and-up. Scientists have a fatal flaw in their approach: they think they are objective. The accepted dogma of science is that one follows the evidence in clear, step-by-step fashion. One accepts the results of a well-done study, no matter if it supports of contradicts one’s preference - in fact it’s better to have no preference at all.
Scientists, alas, are also people, and no amount of training can get them into that Mr. Spock-like state of pure objectivity they pretend to have. Unable to recognize their own prejudices and preferences, they fail to see how bias subtly creeps into their objectivity.
Scientists like to think that they can be objective if a drug company gives them a few hundred million to asses the value of a new drug. They like to think that they aren’t motivated by rewards, prestige, and other things affect mortals. They like to think that they don’t follow the latest fashion-trend in their area of expertise. They like to think that they are above the influence, whatever the influence is.
Take drug research, for example. For most of the last thirty years, simply awful studies have supposedly shown the dangers of cannabis. That those studies are consistent with federal drug policy in the United States has surely helped them get published, because any college student with a research design class under her belt could easily pick out the problems with the studies and their conclusions.
On the other hand, careful research that has been done on the positive benefits of cannabis and other drugs has had proportionately little impact (Click here for the MAPS website). Of course, there has been very little of this research done, in part because governments have frowned on funding it. Yet there was very little outcry from the scientific community about that: where was the quest for objectivity and truth when scientists were asked to stare down the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency)?
In addition to various personal and political pressures, the scientific community has adopted a number of positions that limit their field of inquiry. There is a strong trend towards a materialist perspective, for example, that makes it hard for those investigating psychic phenomena and other nonmaterial things to get a fair hearing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against scientific inquiry. I’m a big fan. But I recognize that rational inquiry is going to take a back seat to values. In other words, most of us aren’t going to change our values and behavior based on scientific evidence (knee-jerk reactions like giving up eggs for a year aside). If we want to make changes, we’re better off tackling the value question straight on. It may seem a shame to make good information depend on the apparently nebulous world of values, but the failure of science is demonstrable - we just don’t change based on evidence.
As for scientists, they could do themselves a great favor by recognizing their personal, political, and professional biases. That’s not to say that they ought to conduct their research so as to create a specific result - that would be a sham science and a disaster for us all. Rather, the scientific community needs to recognize its biases so that they can be factored out of the research. It is only to the extent that we are aware of our preferences and beliefs that we can steer a straight course. An unrecognized belief or bias will act as a magnet to our compass and inevitably pull us off course.