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Real Science

What exactly is science?

Michael Rosenthal

(2/2018) Our previous discussions of a number of topics, including acupuncture, UFOs, and Bigfoot pose the more general question, "what exactly is science?" Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb summed it up well in a recent statement: "Science isnít a matter of belief; itís a matter of evidence." Until firm evidence is discovered that stands up to scientific scrutiny, it is not appropriate to say that something is true. People really want to believe that UFOs represent visitors from other planets in our vast universe. It is not unreasonable to believe that with the size of the universe we on Earth are not alone. But, until evidence is found that firmly proves that the observations weíve made are due to extraterrestrial visitors, we cannot say that we have been visited by aliens. Thus far, no such proof exists. Loeb said, "Deciding whatís likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. Itís worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge."

How about acupuncture? The previously discussed fact that Johns Hopkins University Medical Services is now offering acupuncture is a striking point. There is no scientifically accepted explanation for acupuncture relieving pain; so we cannot be sure it is not the Placebo Effect. Thus, we must continue to seek evidence about how it works in the human body to try to better understand the science behind the effect.

After a long career in science education in colleges, Iíve given a lot of thought to what makes a person want to become a scientist. Of course, I ponder my own motivations. From childhood, I was drawn to science, at least in part because it was so concrete, reproducible, and provable in its facts. Now, all these years later, I still feel the same way. I always liked the fact that phenomena were reproducible and explainable. I felt the arts were for fun, but science was serious as a career. In my years of teaching chemistry I looked for the mindset in beginning students, and I came to have good accuracy as to which of them was a scientific thinker and was likely to achieve a successful scientific career, and which of them needed to choose a different career path. Since some students bloomed later than others, I always tried to not make my judgment too soon, but by the end of first-year chemistry, I could usually tell who was a scientific thinker and who was not. My colleague and I used to joke that we would print cards with directions to the sociology department to give to some students at the end of the year for those students, ambitious and bright as they may be, but who were not scientific thinkers. I always said to my students that they should seek the intersection between what they loved and what they were good at learning and doing, and follow that path to a career. That is one of the reasons I so favor a liberal arts and sciences education that does not demand a commitment to specialization before introducing the student to a variety of disciplines.

Now letís apply this discussion to something more recent and specific. It was reported recently that a 61 year-old California man planned to launch himself 1,800 feet in a home-made scrap metal rocket to prove the earth was flat. As it turned out, he had to postpone his flight since he was unable to get permission from a federal agency to conduct the experiment on federal land. He thus planned to make his launch in an unincorporated community in the Mojave Desert along Route 66. The flight was planned to be a mile long at 500 miles/hour, and was announced to be his first step in his flat-earth program, and from that he would prove the world is a disc. Unlike controversial subjects there is no scientific doubt, proven in many, many ways that the earth is a sphere. Could this man really be serious in his professed belief? The idea of the earth being flat is not new. There have been believers and organizations for several hundred years that believe in and promote the idea that the earth is flat. Some are religiously connected. But there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support this notion, and all scientific evidence thus far supports the earth being a globe.

One of the clearly pseudo-science notions in our society is the use of homeopathic drugs. Homeopathy, of which we have written previously, is based on an 18th century idea that substances that cause disease symptoms can, in very small doses, cure the same symptoms. Modern medicine (science!), backed up by numerous studies, has disproved the central tenets of homeopathy, and has shown that homeopathic remedies are worthless at best and harmful at worst. Under U.S. law, homeopathic remedies are required to meet the same approval rules as other drugs; however, a 1988 policy of "enforcement discretion" has allowed homeopathic remedies to be marketed without FDA approval. Though the FDA is not yet moving toward an approval requirement for these products, they are planning on looking harder at those drugs that might be a health risk. What moved the FDA to start to worry about these drugs? More than a year ago homeopathic teething tablets and gels were found to contain belladonna, a toxic substance also known as deadly nightshade, of which the foliage and berries are toxic when ingested. There is controversy over its use; it has been in use for medicinal and recreational purpose for centuries, and is legal in some parts of the world. You may read the Wikipedia entry and decide for yourself, but I wouldnít get near it!

What prompted the FDA concern is that these teething tablets were linked to 400 injuries and to death in 10 children. The level of belladonna in them was found to be too high. Homeopathy has grown into a $3 billion dollar industry, but in my mind, it is indeed at best ineffective and at worst dangerous. Britain has taken action to stop physicians from prescribing homeopathic drugs, where they are described by Britainís National Health Service as "at best a placebo."

As I have said in previous Real Science articles, I would not take any drug that does not have FDA approval.

To close, letís examine some news about horoscopes. Astrology has been with us for a very long time. I remember an astrology column in my home town newspaper when I was growing up in Ohio. Newspapers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia still produce astrology columns, even daily horoscopes. Astrology goes back to ancient Babylon, 4,000 years ago, and is about a century old in newspapers and magazines. Horoscopes, some say, give people a sense of security, and as one writer put it, a spiritual touchstone. But there are those who really believe. There is a My Path Astrology School in New York. We pass astrologers and fortune tellers in many places in our travels, and their presence indicates that there are real believers, not just those who are seeking amusement.

Iím sorry, but there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support astrology.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal