Do you believe that there is an objective reality — that is, are there things that are true, that can be proven to be true, regardless of opinion or belief? It may seem like a silly question — it did to me. But for some unknown reason, I keep running into people who seem to insist that opinion trumps evidence, that in questions of reality, that it’s simply my opinion against theirs, and no matter how much evidence there is, it still comes down to that.
This has surprised me greatly. It seems to me to be self-evident that while our senses can (and do) fool us at times, that some kinds of evidence can be used to draw conclusions, and that the amount and strength of that evidence can become insurmountable to the point that no other conclusion may be drawn but the one that represents reality, or at least, a very close approximation to it.
We’ll start with a simple example. Aristotle proposed that the speed at which objects fall to earth is dependent on their weight — his opinion was that heavy objects fell to earth faster than lighter ones. Galileo disagreed. Certainly that was a matter of opinion… up until he tested it. In 1589, he did an experiment. He took two objects of differing mass, and dropped them simultaneously from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and both objects hit the ground at the same time, thus giving evidence that Aristotle was wrong, and that the speed that an object falls at is independent of how heavy they are.
When we talk about good science, though, there is something known as replicability and peer review. In the modern world, most experiments are more complicated than that. There is nearly always the possibility of an error in any experiment. The errors can be tiny, and not strongly affect the conclusions that the scientist makes or they can be totally misleading. Therefore, there is a process. When I do an experiment, and I come up with some brand new conclusions as a result, that’s not the end of the story. A good scientist will share the details and results of an experiment, along with his conclusions in a respected journal for his fellow scientists to read. Scientists will question the methodology, the data, and/or the conclusions — it’s not personal, because that’s how science works. Scientists do not accept anything without question, nor should they. And as it turns out, the theory that objects fall at a fixed speed, regardless of their mass, has been tested time and time again over the years. And except for variations based on aerodynamics (for example, try dropping a bowling ball, and a feather or a paper airplane from the same height), the results have always been the same. It’s the type of experiment that is so easy to do, that physics students in almost every high school in the country have probably performed it. And I guarantee that in every case, Galileo’s observations and conclusions have been confirmed. That is perfect replicability, meaning that Galileo discovered one key facet of reality, a reality that is the same whether you believe in it or not.
With more complex experiments, involving all sorts of potential sources of error, scientists will try to replicate experiments, maybe adjust the experiment in some way, trying to make improvements to it, or simply trying to attack the problem from a different angle. There may be many attempts to replicate the results. And if very few people, if any, are able to, then more questions are asked — what was different the first time? Did we do something wrong, or was there a problem with the original experiment? Maybe some mechanical or electrical device that was used was malfunctioning, or maybe we simply don’t understand what happened.
But lets say that you do an experiment. And it turns out that the results were not a fluke, that other scientists can replicate that experiment and get the same results. And peer review has found that other scientists, after looking at your experiments, and those of everyone trying to replicate the experiment and determined that you are correct, that there is no other conclusion that better fits the evidence than what you claimed, then you have a theory. That theory becomes a model of reality as we know it, and will remain so, until we have evidence that forces us to adjust that theory.
Which brings me back to what I was talking about at the beginning: reality. Let’s have a thought experiment — Aristotle and Galileo met at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and were arguing about whether or not heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones. Galileo proceeds to drop a 10 pound and 20 pound weight from the top of the tower, and both of them hit the ground at the same time. But let’s take this one step further — Aristotle does not believe the results, and so he also drops a 10 pound and 20 pound weight from the top of the tower. And in HIS experiment, the 20 pound weight hits the ground 5 seconds sooner than the 10 pound weight, thus proving that the nature of reality is subject to belief. In this fictional world, science and the scientific method would have to completely be abandoned, and belief would be the engine for everything in the world. And this seems to be the nature of the world that many people believe in, where belief trumps objective reality.
I’ll give you an example. I encountered a person recently who believed that acupuncture was good for relieving pain. As it turns out, whenever you are dealing with treating symptoms, instead of a specific disease or disorder or damage, psychology can get in the way. Pain is a phenomenon that is experienced in your brain. You feel pain in your leg because your brain says you are feeling pain in your leg. If I were to kick you in the leg, a signal would be sent from the neurons in your leg, to your brain, and then you just might feel it as pain.
Let’s say now that you have a tension headache. Your head is hurting and you take an aspirin. For most people with tension headaches, you will get some relief from that headache. But one interesting thing that scientists discovered is that if instead of giving you an aspirin, they gave you pill that has no medicinal ingredients at all (say, a sugar pill), but that you are told is an aspirin, that a certain percentage of people (approximately 40%) will ALSO feel some relief. This has been called a Placebo effect. Exactly how a placebo works is a mystery to me, but it does, in about 40% of people. But lets get something straight — that sugar pill did NOT actually relieve the person’s headache, because it could have been ANYTHING. Your own brain stopped the pain. Somewhere belief came into the picture — the belief that you would feel relief helped your brain to give you that relief. A brain is a wonderful thing. But more than half of the people who take the placebo will not experience a placebo effect at all. And when results are that unreliable, you don’t rely on them. You would not rely on a barber to give you a good haircut if only 40% of the people who visited him were satisfied with that haircut.
Which brings me now to acupuncture. The majority of research has shown primarily, that any positive effects of acupuncture comes primarily from the placebo effect. Believers in acupuncture tend to talk about something known as ‘qi’ (pronounced ‘chee’) and meridians. Qi is, supposedly life-force energy, which isn’t a type of energy that is recognized by science. You cannot collect Qi in a battery, you cannot cook your food on a Qi-powered stove. Qi does not attract objects the way that electromagnetism does. You cannot detect Qi with any known device. If Qi exists, it thus does not seem to have any interaction at all with matter EXCEPT for (in the opinion of those that believe in it) acupuncture needles and the human body. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, qi does not exist. It is fictional, invented by ancient chinese philosophers as an explanation for what they saw in the universe. People hate not understanding how the world works, so when they cannot explain something, they make shit up. It’s called ‘the god of holes’. When we can’t explain something in terms of actual science, we make up supernatural explanations for them. Normally, those supernatural explanations go away, once we understand how things REALLY work (like pain and nerves and so on). But some people try to keep those superstitions alive in spite of actual science that really DOES work.
There is another term that believers in acupuncture use, and that is ‘meridians’, and it too comes from ancient chinese tradition. The belief goes that qi travels along these meridians to our major organs, and somehow sticking needles at specific points along those meridians will interfere with the qi in ways that result in the relief of pain, or even (according to some) curing a variety of ailments. But scientists have NEVER been able to find evidence of the existence of meridians, let alone qi. So most believers have come to accept that there is no such thing as qi, or meridians, but they still practice acupuncture, without any clue as to how (or I would argue IF) it works.
There has been much study of acupuncture, with some odd results. It seems, for example, that studies that originate in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, (and to a lesser extent, Russia) uniformly support acupuncture as being effective. It’s odd though that western studies have not been quite as enthusiastic. One would almost guess that this is a case of belief trumping reality. But that would be absurd. A more likely explanation is what scientists have concluded after examining those trials, that the quality of those experiments were quite poor, with poor randomization, blinding, and use of control groups.
Furthermore, recent studies have shown that if anyone, even a non-skilled acupuncturist, inserts the needles into random locations instead of ‘acupuncture points’, even totally avoiding the so-called meridians, that there is no difference in effect from using a skilled acupuncturist to apply needles using the ancient practice. In fact, you don’t even have to insert needles at all. there have been experiments that used wooden sticks that never pierce the skin, and those also have shown to be equally effective to acupuncture. In other words, acupuncture is nonsense — there is something else that is going on, something clearly related to the mind and belief, something like a placebo effect. But current studies go even further than that — all evidence shows that actual science-based medical intervention works better than both placebo AND acupuncture. So why would anyone ever choose acupuncture over, say, an aspirin? An aspirin, or ibuprofen, or other pain reliever is going to work better than either sugar pill OR acupuncture. And that is the actual reality as demonstrated by experiment.
Once upon a time, when I was a kid, I complained that I had a pain in my right arm. A friend, and probably he meant this as a joke, and not as a actual therapeutic help. But when I told him that I had a pain in my right arm, he obligingly punched me in the left arm, and then asked me ‘Does it feel better now’? And I answered, laughing,’well now my left arm hurts also!” And he asked, “Yeah, but what about your right arm?”. And I realized that, yeah, my right arm hurt less. But I would never ever recommend trading one ordeal for another. So next time you have a headache, forget about needles, forget about sugar pills, and forget about slamming your hand in a car door. Take an aspirin or advil or whatever works best for you (if it’s approved by an actual MD, of course). There is a real, objective reality. And while belief can be powerful, trust that there is an objective reality, that trumps belief. Some things are true, whether you believe in them or not.