Never put ‘science’ before reality.
It has been one of those weeks where several little experiences, some professional and some personal have come together in my mind and catalysed a thought process that has led me to a conclusion that even I wouldn’t have believed possible before now. I’d like to share those with you, to see what you think.
I’m a big fan of the scientific approach to thinking; of thoroughly testing ideas with a logical, somewhat un-emotional mindset and of not calling it too early or getting carried away by emotional observations and details. But this approach does have its limits:
- Parent scientifically and you would no doubt fall short of building a solid parent/ child relationship based on mutual vulnerability founded on closeness and trust.
- Produce food scientifically and while what you create might be logical, practical and edible it won’t necessarily be appealing (remember the lab grown meat anyone?)
- If all selecting a life-partner required were a scientific approach, those dating site algorithms would see you coupled up in no time, having avoided bad dates, relationship false positives and heartbreak.
and so on and so forth.
I have always appreciated that humans are more than a sum of all their scientifically explainable parts and that is one reason why the over-thinking rationalism of atheism has never quite hit the spot for me. But that’s just our personal lives, our inner minds and what makes us tick. Surely when you are trying to find a cure for cancer or a treatment for depression your spiritual and religious beliefs can and should be hung up with your over-coat? After this week I’m not so sure…..
So this week I came across these three scenarios where the ‘hit-it-with-the-science-stick’ approach just didn’t seem to fully cut it in a way that was most significant. Here they are:
1) I watched a documentary about a woman who had spent a significant amount of time as a young child lost in the Colombian rainforest in the company of monkeys. She was now in her sixties and telling her story which seemed, for the most part, to be believed with what I can only describe as an in-humane dose of skepticism by the panel of experts that had been selected for the show to scientifically validate her life-story. A primatologist joined her in the forest to give his expert opinion on what she knew about the monkeys so PROVE that she did indeed spend time there, psychologists interviewed her to test her memories and assess her for ‘false memory’ syndrome (to see if her brain had played tricks on her and made much of it up – stretched the truth so to speak) and the body was subjected to various tests including x-rays to find out if she had been through a period of malnourishment which might prove as further evidence for (or against) her experiences.
I enjoyed the program but found it deeply disconcerting that rather than sit and listen to this woman, letting her stories, experience and energy fill the room and come alive she was somewhat broken down into test tube pieces and tested as a series of experiments. Fine, so it may have been how the film was edited but I found the suggestion that the ‘science trumps your mental capacity to process this’ mindset deeply disturbing and wholly inappropriate. I felt that the scientific tools were being placed before the bigger picture, that the method and egos of those applying these methods were held in more esteem than the subject. I wouldn’t necessarily call this ‘scientific bias’, more a case of the scientists feeling that they knew more than enough about the subject ‘human’ to not spend too much time observing ‘it’ as a whole, that this human would react as humans do and therefore could be processed through a series of tests and a result spat out the back. Given that it was taken as fact that this woman had indeed spent SOME time in the forest and that only the amount of time and the degree of her monkey association were being brought into question surely this woman should have been treated as a most interesting, un-usual and unique human and observed with the same degree of interest, enthusiasm and willingness to learn as you would approach any new species with to save missing anything?
2) The second scenario this week was a conversation had about micro testing. The (PET) Preservative Efficacy Test is seen as the gold standard of cosmetic micro testing. A product is challenged with bugs over a set period of time to see if it can counter the bugs, thus keeping the formula safe and suitable for human use. However, while rationale behind the PET is sound, it can’t be applied to everything – water-free and water in oil formulations often don’t perform well when tested against typical PET protocol and this is not because the formulations are dirty or flawed but because the test method puts them in an alien environment. I won’t go further into details about this here as it is worth another blog post but suffice to say that the ‘we must run every cosmetic through a PET and it must pass to be safe’ mindset doesn’t cut it and is at odds with our real-life experience that shows these powders and water-in-oil formulations to be relatively robust in real life situations, much more so than their oil in water or water based cousins. It isn’t that the science is wrong, more a case of the science having its limits and those limits being over-looked in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach, as in the example above but it did further cement my thoughts that we really do need to step back and see the human picture, the every-day reality BEFORE jumping in with our scientific tool kit.
3) The last example was a snipped from the EU Commission Recommendation of 22nd September 2006 on the efficacy of sunscreen products and their claims. While the bigger picture of the snippet I’m about to discuss makes some sense, the wording in this fragment of could-be-law worries me.
Paragraph 15 and 16 talk about the importance of a balanced coverage between UVA and UVB wavelengths in a quality sunscreen product and that the two should be related – an increase in protection in one should be followed by an increase in protection in the other. They also mention there being biological evidence that UVA cover should account for 1/3rd of UVB (from persistent pigment darkening study results). This is all fairly logical given what we know about solar radiation. This segment of the document talks about the methods that should be used to test for UVA/ UVB coverage in humans.
(17) While these testing methods should be used as reference
methods, preference should be given to in vitro testing
methods delivering equivalent results, as in vivo methods
raise ethical concerns. Industry should increase efforts to
develop in vitro testing methods for the protection against
both UVB and UVA radiation.
This detail underpins the newest EU based sunscreen legislation (2012 here in Australia) and the many thousands of hours of work that has gone on behind the scenes to find a way of taking humans out of the UVA equation.
While I am aware that this may all seem a little hard to follow for those of you who don’t regularly read cosmetic legislation documents I wanted to include it here for discussion as the words that have been sitting uncomfortably with me since reading this are that ‘preference should be given to in vitro test methods that give equivalent results’. Basically the document is re-iterating the importance of moving away from using humans to test sunscreens on and replacing that with ‘test tube science’ (In vitro). There are good reasons why this is an honourable direction to take and investment to make. The sun is a known carcinogen and applying a known carcinogen to humans as happens in the testing process is seen as unethical – people get burned during testing and we do know that sun burn can lead to cancer.
This is yet another topic that could fill a couple of blog posts in its own right so I’ll keep it simple but do understand that there is so much more to say. My concern is that given the applied relationship between the sun, the sunscreen and the skin does it EVER make sense to take the human out of the equation? And is it right to put a scientific method (with its one-size-fits-all philosophy) ahead of reality? Yes sun is a known carcinogen but so is alcohol and let’s face it, that is still tested on humans……….
So where does all of this leave me and my relationship with science?
I guess that this week has taught me that ‘keeping it real’ is not just a throw away line it is an insightful and massively essential mindset to carry with you always. Reality – as in what you see, feel, touch, smell and taste in every-day life IS valid and should never be pushed aside in favour of a re-producible scientific experiment. Yes science can tell us more about some parts of the whole but it can’t process the whole picture like a human can and I’m glad of that.
Science is awesome, experiments are fun but at the end of the day it can only confirm what we already know.
And that would be fine if we had all the answers and were in a ‘classify and organise’ phase but we are not.
What the world needs now is innovation, fresh eyes, adventure, new solutions and creative thinking.
And when it comes to the crunch humans beat robots in the real world.
So let’s keep our eyes and minds open and not forget what we are doing this for.
Love, peace and understanding.