19 February 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 87

"Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves."
-- Richard Feynman

After spending the weekend and most of Monday trying to force a post that didn't want to be written, I have given up and admitted that it won't kill me to have two Book Club posts one after the other in February. Besides, I really want to start reading further. Don't you? =)

And in case you are way ahead of me and want something else to read . . . Last meeting, Melanie pointed out some connections between our fears about the environment and our fears about the economy. And it was while taking part in a seemingly unrelated discussion on another blog did I realise that there are also connections to our fears about autism and cancer. Read on and weep!

Pages 402 to 476

It seems unfair to Sarah Jones that I've neglected to mention her until this point of the readalong, which includes her least flattering moment yet. Before this, we've seen her as a competent personal assistant, a fit amateur athlete, an adventurer who makes a great "buddy" in an environment as hostile as Antarctica's, and an "extremely beautiful" woman even by Hollywood's inflated standards. But now we see her having jealous second thoughts about a man she recently dismissed as too wimpy for her.

So how do you think this is going to end? For the sake of structure, it makes sense for Peter Evans to end up with Sarah: they've already been through so much together, have worked as a team, and have even rescued each other from danger. But Jennifer Haynes makes a good romantic prospect as well, inasmuch as she and Evans are both lawyers and both went through the same process of questioning the media reality. I really like the scene in which they are filmed for the B-roll footage--and not just because it gives us our first big idea for this post.

"Look: every scientist has some idea how his experiment is going to turn out. Otherwise, he wouldn't do the experiment in the first place. He has an expectation. But expectation works in mysterious ways--and totally unconsciously . . .

". . . hundreds of studies prove again and again that expectations determine outcome. People find what they think they'll find. That's the reason for 'double-blind' experiments. To eliminate bias, the experiment is divided up among different people
who do not know each other. The people who prepare the experiment do not know the people who conduct the experiment or the people who analyze the results. These groups never communicate in any way. Their spouses and children never meet. The groups are in different universities and preferably in different countries. That's how new drugs are tested. Because that's the only way to prevent bias from creeping in."

So much for my "scientific" approach to haircare. =P Not only did I have the expectation that it would work, but I also had, from the very beginning, a predisposition to weirdness and a willingness to commit to something inconvenient as long as it closed. Those must have been factors, too. And there's a sad, stultifying sense in which temperature data, which has been collected, tested and analysed by a single research team, is about as good as my "no poo" data.

Now the question is whether it is still possible to get unbiased data. The theory of global warming having been publicised by the mass media so that it is what "everybody knows," can any climate researchers operate in enough of a vacuum to keep their findings from being thrown out of a trial? I don't know, but if the answer is what I suspect it is, then this is one big knife wound that the well-meaning media has just inflicted upon climate research. 

In this section, we also get a rebuttal to some of the more lyrical and sentimental "arguments" about why we should be good stewards of nature. And now that Evans has been through his rite of passage and emerged looking like proper hero material, another character gets to play the straight man and buffoon.

It was a pleasant spot, with sunlight dappling the forest floor, but even so the television cameras had to turn on their lights to film the third-grade school children who sat in concentric circles around the famous actor and activist Ted Bradley. Bradley was wearing a black T-shirt that set off his makeup and his dark good looks.

"These glorious trees are your birthright," he said, gesturing all around him. "They have been standing here for centuries. Long before you were born, before your parents or your grandparents or your great-grandparents were born. Some of them before Columbus came to America! Before the Indians came! Before anything! These trees are the oldest living things on the planet; they are the guardians of the earth; they are wise; and they have a message for us:
Leave the planet alone. Don't mess with it, or with us. And we must listen to them."

Now, I've been known to personify nature on occasion--but gosh, I hope I never sounded as prosy as Ted Bradley does here! The scene in which he films a nature talk in Sequoia National Park makes even better satire than the earlier B-roll scene. The contrast between Hollywood's manipulation of reality and the forest as it actually is tells us a lot more about the relationship between media talking points and the facts than Bradley's turn having his dogmas dynamited. 

But I'm not too easy about Jennifer's setting him straight on the sequoias. In my short life, I have read, believed in, and stopped believing several contradictory theories about the ancient days--and her explanation of what California's landscape was like twenty thousand years ago seems no better and no worse than the ancient astronaut theories, which don't even go back as far. I don't mean to be insulting or mulish about this; but just last meeting I took to heart Crichton's message about not letting what may happen a millennium from today derail our lives, and so it's kind of clashing with any attempt to inform our lives with a theory about what happened twenty millennia before today. Until I can look at something that backs this up (which may happen when we get to the appendices!), let's just do an Ancient Aliens marathon and play a drinking game, okay?

Discussion Questions:

1) If our expectations determine our results, how do we non-scientists know that we're not just stuck in a cycle of confirming our own opinions?  
2) What's your favourite story about what the earth was like 20,000 years ago?
3) And just because I can't resist . . . Team Sarah or Team Jennifer? =P


Sheila said...

I want to write a longer comment later -- this whole series has been fascinating to me, though I haven't read the book, and I keep having good things to say and no time to type out a long comment.

BUT, I just came across this article and it seems .... eerily parallel.


Enbrethiliel said...


Wow. Thanks for the link!

If this is where your thoughts are leading, I think you'll have a field day with the very next post! ;-)

Sheila said...

The question I really want to answer is this one: If our expectations determine our results, how do we non-scientists know that we're not just stuck in a cycle of confirming our own opinions?

The answer is, we don't. And we can choose to accept this with a bit of humility, or just plow on ahead as if we were sure when we aren't.

Doctors do not tell us, "This pill is more effective than a placebo for curing your condition, but you should know that 15% of patients experienced no improvement and 2% experienced unpleasant side effects." We wouldn't want them to. We want them to say, "Take this pill; you will feel better by Tuesday." But in reality, the former is what they *know,* and they have no knowledge at all about how *your* case will go.

And very often they have to act where there is no double-blind, placebo-controlled study. For instance, vaccination. It's unethical to vaccinate a child and then willfully expose them to the disease to see if they get sick. All we can do is vaccinate them and then see if their bodies make the right kind of antibodies. Then we say that the vaccine has worked -- but whether or not they get sick when exposed to the illness is always a bit uncertain. If doctors said, "We think this will help; here is the data that makes us believe so," I would respect that. Unfortunately they like dealing with hard facts to the point that they will act like they are even when they are not, and will say "Your child will not get the illness if he has his shots." Sure, that's *close* to the truth of what they know .... but they are expressing a level of certainty that they don't have.

I sell a baby lotion that I think helps babies sleep better. From my experiments, it seems to help with my kids. But there are SO many things that affect their sleep that I really can't know for sure. So I tell people that it may or may not help, that based on the ingredients it ought to help, that my experience suggests that it does, but I can't be sure. Perhaps it would sell better if I offered some kind of guarantee. But people do buy it; they tell me it *seems* to help, and that's a level of knowledge I'm comfortable with -- since after all there is no risk involved but six bucks.

Sheila said...

When there is risk involved, I think we will make much better choices when we consider the degree of certainty with which we know something. For instance, if I'm about 75% sure global warming is a big hoax, does that make it okay to leave my car idling for an hour so I don't have to get into a cold car in the morning? Or is the potential risk of this behavior mean I should take it easy on unnecessary emissions, just in case I'm wrong?

If we all realized how likely we are to be wrong, would we maybe be more respectful of others' opinions and less likely to think they're idiots when they make different choices than we do?

Last of all, we should leave room for the possibility of knowledge not learned through science. Ancestral knowledge is a source I trust a great deal, because it comes from things that have been tried, not for a six-week study, but over generations. Has there ever been a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study saying it is safe to eat carrots? No, but if they were toxic, someone would have noticed after all this time!

Common sense might have saved quite a few scientists over the years from stupid errors. A humble obstetrician a century ago wrote that he had heard from the midwives he knew that cutting a baby's "navel-string" too soon after birth was "very injurious" and so he always waited a few minutes. Modern obstetricians aren't so humble, and so it became the custom to cut the cord as soon as the baby was out, even if it wasn't yet breathing. Now they've finally gotten around to some randomized studies, and sure enough, it's much better to wait. Only took us fifty years to realize the granny midwives were right!

And that is why I drink milk with the fat in, even though the nutritionists tell me I should be drinking skim. I figure sooner or later they'll realize we were supposed to drink it whole after all. That's why I do quite a few of the "crunchy" things I do -- I figure if people have been doing it this way for generation upon generation, it may not be helpful, but it is very unlikely to kill me. Someone would have noticed!

Enbrethiliel said...


I think it stuns us a little to think that although we have sent men to the moon and licked several once-deadly diseases, we are still so unsure about a lot of things. All I know (but of course can't prove, haha) is that although we can never be 100% sure, neither are we 100% in the dark, which means we have enough to go by.

When I read your paragraph about pills and placebos, I remembered my own (non-scientific!) research into and experiments in "hair science." There have actually been times when I wished I had a microscope so that I could really study the effects which different solutions have on my hair. And because of the way I talk (not to mention how great my hair looks, natch!), my friends now think I'm an expert and want me to treat their hair! And that's when I say something like, "This tea rinse will probably be more effective than Conditioner X because it doesn't contain ___, ___, and ___, and because rosemary and peppermint have a centuries-old reputation for strengthening the roots, but everyone's hair is different and I can't promise you that it will stop your hair from falling out."

Plus, unless someone starts looking into "what works" on his own, it's hard to share a perspective which includes so much uncertainty. Take one particular friend of mine hopes that I perfect my "formula" soon so that we can try marketing it. =P When we're new to something, I think we all assume that there is a norm that the majority fit into and only a small handful of "exceptions that prove the rule." I think this is why new models that divide people into four or more "types" are so popular: they help us to organise all the exceptions without worrying that it's all just chaos. But then again, why worry about all those people you have no control over and may never even meet? Why be so "international," as we've been saying?

PS -- If I lived in the US, I would have bought some of your lotion . . . for myself! ;-)

Sheila said...

I shouldn't have marketed it so narrowly to babies -- several adult facebook friends recently tried it and like it too!

A health blog I read talks about the importance of an "n=1" study. That would be a study with one subject, yourself. Until you've done a study on how something affects *you,* the jury is really still out on whether it would be a good or bad idea.

Re: your comment on that other blog about breast cancer -- I have noticed the same phenomenon. One person in a group of mothers says, "So and so's baby died of SIDS." There's a moment of shocked silence and fear, and then she might add, "She had put the baby down on his belly to sleep, so ...." And we can all breathe a sigh of relief because *we* would never do that and so our babies are safe. Even though no one knows if putting our babies down on their backs actually helps. We convince ourselves it does so that we aren't afraid.

Or how one time I asked an attachment parenting group about my son's screaming meltdowns. One person announced that I must not be doing AP correctly because a child that feels really loved will not have problems. I am sure that made her feel better, but it did *me* no good! Ditto if you tell a group of strict mothers you have done everything they do, but your child still won't behave. The obvious answer is, "Clearly that method is not working for your individual child, even though it works well for ours." But instead they say, "You must not being doing it right" .... because they want a guarantee that this sort of thing doesn't happen if you follow the rules!

Unfortunately, in parenting as in medicine and everywhere else, there are no guarantees.

Enbrethiliel said...


That anti-SIDS precaution has always baffled me. In the Philippines, babies sleep on their stomachs all the time. It's supposed to keep their heads from flattening. After bringing up four children with nicely shaped skulls, my mother can't look at a baby on his back without telling whomever is caring for him to flip him over!

Sheila said...

Mine sleep however I can get them to sleep. Usually tummy, if not in my arms. They are just such bad sleepers that if I tried to follow the official rules, they would never sleep at all.

And yeah, flat heads are now a standard problem in America. But they say SIDS deaths have gone down .... so have smoking and formula feeding, though, so it's kind of hard to say.