That Which is Not Studied by Science

Another aspect of fleshing out what science is, is that which is less visible, that which is not included in science experiments.

In cultures that prioritize evidence-based research, topics which are not validated via science tend to be labeled as not reliable, quackery, woo, or synonymous words of disregard. Yet, there are many, many reasons why reliable science study is not performed in a number of situations. As well, in situations where science research is done, many factors influence how that research study is designed. A few limiting and/or shaping factors include:

  • Cultural norms – Cultural biases of scientists, the interests of funding organizations or scholarly departments, and more – such sources have much influence on what does and does not get chosen for scientific research. An anecdote from sex researcher Dr Lehmiller’s highlights bias against certain taboo topics such as sex. Lehmiller writes, ‘there’s almost no funding for sex research… Sometimes, even getting accepted in our departments, by our colleagues, is hard.’ [1][2]
  • Scientists’ purview of knowledge Scientific American writes, ‘scientists have systematically assessed only a minority of the psychotherapies invented so far.’ [3] Beyond psychotherapies, imagine how many therapeutic, mindful, or wellness practices are not well known in many science communities. [4] How many ceremonial and traditional healing practices must exist the world-over.?How many scientists have hard of these, let alone found a path towards studying such practices?

    My point is, if a group of scientists are not aware of a certain practice it is far less likely that said practice will see the light of a science lab. Further, for those scientists involved in designing experiments – their knowledge, or lack thereof, about a given practice and it’s cultural context will influence what sorts of questions are asked and how the scientists interpret the collected evidence.
  • The way an activity is performed does not lend itself to rigorous experiment design – There are certain types of experiments regarded as more reliable than others in science practice, such as blind and double blind studies. Dr Oreskes speaks of this, using an example of “flossing one’s teeth”. While the practice is well known, a participant will always be aware as to whether they are, or are not, flossing their teeth. In this way, studying the practice can not really be done “blindly”. The very nature of flossing ones teeth makes it impossible to conduct a certain high standard of clinical trial.

    Oreskes notes, ‘dentists… look at teeth every day and they can see that people who floss have healthier gums than people who don’t.’ To put this another way, experienced dental practitioners are advocates of flossing, even if rigorous science experimentation is not able to validate their claim. The shape of the practice does not fit the shape of a science lab, so to speak. [5]

    Related, therapy practices which involve a large degree of improvisation – such as in a dance, art, or other traditional therapeutic settings wherein a practitioner does not keep to a strict format with each patient – these are similar to teeth flossing in that the shape of these practices do not often fit the shape of certain standard experiment designs. The practice is not conducted the exact same way each time, yet science experiments require such consistency. Thus, such varied forms do not easily lend themselves to science inquiry.
  • Ethical guidelines – Strict guidelines are often in place to protect participants from profit-driven pharmaceutical companies like the one mentioned earlier, and other such bad actors. On another hand, if a group of scientists are acting in good faith, hoping to learn more about physiological processes evoked during different types of trauma, with the hope of identifying effective resilience strategies – these scientists will be limited in how they go about evoking responses in participants. That is, it is not ethically permissible to create a highly traumatic experience for participants to endure. Thus, scientists must figure out different testing avenues in order to study physiological effects of trauma. This is a small example of how ethics help shape what is studied scientifically. [6]
  • Technological capacity – many aspects of Einstein’s theories could not be tested due to technological limits. 100 years later, scientists are still finding new evidence supporting, or not supporting, some of his theories – because they now have the tools to do so. [7] In another branch of science, the invention of virtual reality technology (VR) is greatly shifting how modern social cognition research is performed. [8]

These examples are far from exhaustive. They are meant to give you just a taste of the sorts of reasons why any given practice or topic may not be, yet, validated via scientific methodology. More factors influence what is tested in the science stew. I put these few examples forward to clarify a point which I do not often hear spoken about:

A lack of science evidence does not mean a theory is invalid, nor a practice ineffective. A lack of science research means precisely that: there is a lack of science research.

sources+notes

  1. Lehmiller, J., & Romm, C. (2018, July 18). My life as a sex researcher. The Cut. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://www.thecut.com/article/what-its-like-to-be-a-sex-researcher.html
  2. Dutt, K. (2018, December 17). How implicit bias and lack of diversity undermine science. Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved March 25, 2020, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/how-implicit-bias-and-lack-of-diversity-undermine-science/
  3. Lilienfeld, S. O. (2012, September 1). Are all psychotherapies created equal? Scientific American. Retrieved December 20, 2019, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-all-psychotherapies-created-equal/
  4. A few likely examples of practices which are not so common to most scientists might include: – Shaker healing rituals, Bagua, Ojibwe healing ceremonies, Sexological Bodywork, or Martin’s style.
  5. Radsken, J. (2019, October 22). In ‘why trust science?’ Naomi Oreskes explains why the process of proof is worth trusting. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/10/in-why-trust-science-naomi-oreskes-explains-why-the-process-of-proof-is-worth-trusting/
  6. Ethical issues in trauma research. ISTSS. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2021, from https://istss.org/education-research/istss-research-guidelines/ethical-issues-in-trauma-research
  7. Guardian News and Media. (2011, May 7). Albert Einstein was right, say scientists, 100 Years on. The Guardian. Retrieved February 26, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/may/07/scientists-prove-einstein-right
  8. Chemero, T. (2020, April 8). “epilogue: What embodiment is”, to appear in Nancy Dess (ed.), embodiment, routledge. Academia.edu. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from https://www.academia.edu/42667044/_Epilogue_What_Embodiment_Is_to_appear_in_Nancy_Dess_ed._Embodiment_Routledge
%d bloggers like this: