The Religion of Science

I know, it’s been a long time again. I think the longest break I’ve ever taken from my blog. I’m not certain about that, but I don’t have the energy to verify it. I’m having a pretty good ME relapse – I’ve been mostly confined to my sofa, save for short bursts of activity, for most of a week.

I realized just how sick I was when I noticed someone being wrong on the internet and I didn’t have the will to do anything about. I know this is a shortcoming of mine – I can’t just watch someone be wrong and let it go. I feel compelled to offer facts that I can prove. I don’t try to force the other person to my perspective, but I do try to offer facts that might help them change their mind, should they be willing and open minded. I am willing to change my beliefs when presented with evidence that contradicts them, so I hope that others are willing to do so as well. I mean, that seems to be the ideal way to be, right?

So, science. I want to establish up front that I like science. A lot. I liked it so much that I went to college and got a degree in biology. I believe in the scientific method. It freaking rocks. I like that we can get results from scientific experiments and that we can replicate them. Using those results, we can solve problems, or create new ones if we are so inclined. Yay, science!

On the other hand, I feel that some people have allowed what they believe to be science to become their religion. They defend what they think is true, insinuating and sometimes outright saying that anyone who dares question the validity of their beliefs is an idiot. That’s not ok.

For the sake of my point, let’s just say that religion and God and all that are real. I’m not asking you to actually believe in them if you don’t want to, I’m just asking you to see the analogy I’m going to present. In fact, let’s limit it to the Christian God for the sake of this argument.

There are a lot of Christian religions – do you know why? Because each group believes that the other groups got something wrong. The Christian religions mostly follow the bible, and they mostly get the same information. The difference is interpretation. In this argument, the real God handed down some information about who he is and what he expects of you. The problem is, he handed it down through human beings. From the first recipients of the word of God on down, it’s been a giant game of telephone.

When you go to church, you go to hear someone’s interpretation of the word of God. More to the point, you go to hear someone’s interpretation of someone else’s interpretation of the word. Along the way, through all these translations, some facts might get distorted or misunderstood. That allows members of a church to have legitimate disagreements, and sometimes the disagreements are so big that the church breaks into smaller sub-religions. It has happened throughout history, and will likely happen again.

Science is a lot like religion in this very important respect – you are hearing someone’s interpretation of what they observed after an experiment. Science is real, but sometimes one’s perception of it is… inaccurate. This can come from an experimental mistake, a bias (the experimenter wants a certain result or is being paid to get a certain result), or simple misinterpretation. What’s important is that the “scientific” information most of us receive is translated through an imperfect human being.

I read a book called, “How We Do Harm” by Dr. Otis Brawley. He quoted someone he learned from when he was younger as saying (and I’m quoting from memory, so read the book if you want the exact quote), “Figure out what you know, what you don’t know, and what you believe, and label them accordingly”. That quote really stuck with me.

A lot of what we call scientific fact isn’t fact at all. The scientific community doesn’t “know” many things, it just believes them. Just drawing from my own life experience and study, I’ll talk about medicine, specifically health and nutrition. For most of my life doctors “knew” that cholesterol in your diet was the reason we get heart disease. They “knew” that diabetes is a genetic disease, and you couldn’t do anything to prevent it. Except, they were wrong.

Turns out, dietary cholesterol doesn’t have much of an effect at all on blood cholesterol levels. Also, type II diabetes can be reversed with a low glycemic index/load diet. A lot of physicians say exercise is also imperative to reverse the progression of type II diabetes, but I managed it through diet alone. So, based on my experience, that’s likely just a belief, or at least not applicable to all people with a glucose regulation issue.

I recently saw a video in which a Mayo Clinic doctor pointed out that only 38% of current medical practices have been proven to be helpful – the other 62% have either not been studied or have been proven to at best not help and at worst harm patients.

But this was all science when it was implemented, right? Irrefutable fact? No, not fact, just belief. So yes, science is real. But the problem is that human beings create the studies and interpret the results. Mistakes are made and perpetuated.

I have personally been guilty of not differentiating what I know from what I believed. Read my blog from the time I got sick until I figured out what was wrong with me. I said a lot of “this is it…” and “now I know what’s wrong”. I know now that my illness is more complex than I thought at first. I know some of the things that are going wrong. I do not know what else may be hiding in here. I believe that it is manageable, but not curable.

One of the things I remember from church when I was a kid was the leadership telling me that I was not to question what I was taught. That questions marked me as a non-believer, a doubting Thomas, and that I might go to hell for trying to make sure what I heard was the truth. I feel like I am hearing that about science now – don’t question the almighty science, or you will be branded an idiot.

As a scientist, I am telling you, the scientific community and knowledge base is imperfect. The people who are telling you what science knows are imperfect. It’s ok to question. It’s ok to come down on a different conclusion than I have. You’re not an idiot, you’re just thinking for yourself.

I had this conversation with my husband very recently. I commented that some people have started treating science like it’s religion, with unquestioning belief in everything labeled “science”. Then I saw this video today, and I knew it was time to talk about it with more people. I hope that what I have to say makes an impact.