There has been a lot of discussion lately about the (ironically) biases within contemporary science: a discussion I embrace wholeheartedly, as it seems to be particularly relevant to the future of our healthcare. The discussions show how even science, known for its unbiased and objective methods of enquiry, can develop preferences for certain worldviews over others, without evidence to uphold these views. Thus, the pursuit of knowledge can be influenced, and even held back by biases existing within the scientific and medical community.
On January 13 2013, Rupert Sheldrake, a renowned member of the scientific community, gave a provocative talk titled the science delusion on TED, whose conferences attract worldwide attention to new, cutting-edge ideas. Sheldrake proposed that modern science is being held back by ten assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. He states that, when you subject each of these to scientific scrutiny, you see that they are not actually true. The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality, in principle. The fundamental questions are answered, leaving only the details to be filled in. Sheldrake argues that science would be better off without its dogmas: freer, more interesting and more fun. The dogma’s he challenges in his talk are:
1. Nature is mechanical or machine like
2. All matter is unconscious
3. The laws or constants of nature are fixed
4. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same
5. Nature is purposeless
6. Biological heredity is material
7. Memories are stored inside your brain
8. Your mind is inside your head
9. Psychic phenomena like telepathy are not possible
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works: that’s why governments only fund mechanistic medicine and ignore (or minimally fund) complementary and alternative therapies.
The talk was subsequently banned from the TED site, with the criticism that Sheldrake misinformed the public since several of these dogmas are already active areas of science. And this is true! Many scientists have challenged the above mentioned dogmas with their findings. But how many people, including scientists, are aware of this? How many medical doctors apply the findings from neuroscience, quantum physics, and epigenetics – and utilize the power of the mind, for example, in their daily practice with patients? This is the message Sheldrake tried to convey: to challenge mainstream science with findings from not so mainstream science. Findings that could have huge implications to the way we practice medicine, especially when treating chronic conditions.
Another important talk, also on TED, was delivered by Ben Goldacre, on what he as a medical doctor, finds to be the “biggest problem in medical science today”: publication bias – “a problem so prevalent that it reaches the core of evidence based medicine.”
In his talks “Battling bad science” and “What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe”, Goldacre outlines the many different ways in which pharmaceutical companies that fund medical research distort evidence. For example, positive findings are twice as likely to be published, while negative findings tend to disappear, thus distorting the overall outcomes on a certain drug. New drugs are compared to placebo rather than a drug that is already on the market to show its superiority. Or when compared to the old drug, the old drug is subscribed in such high end range dosages that it will almost certainly cause adverse effects. What is most significant about Goldacres talk is the acknowledgement that many scientists and medical doctors involved in medical research know this, but blindly accept this ‘minor’ shortcoming of evidence based medicine. “This is a disaster. We can’t prescribe if we don’t have access to all the information.”
The above discussions reflect the fragmentation that can be observed within science, the medical profession, as well as the general public. There are those who are skeptical of anything that is ‘non-scientific’, yet are unaware of the supporting evidence of non-mainstream medicine. On the other hand, there are those who have lost all faith in science, given the biases described earlier. And of course there is a group that walks the middle path and that embraces the best of both worlds, which is seen in integrative medicine. Whichever group you identify with, staying in one box is almost always limiting your views. If we want to provide people with the best healthcare available for their specific individual needs, and if we want science to stay true to its original purpose (to enquire) we have to distinguish good science from bad science, and accept that there are alternatives to mainstream medicine that haven proven to be more effective for certain conditions, or equally effective but less toxic and/or invasive. Being critical, not blindly accepting the status quo, is important to the generation of new knowledge and growth. Being skeptical based on set worldviews is not.
Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are incapable of forming such opinions. (Albert Einstein, 1953)
For this reason alone I find Sheldrakes talk a valuable contribution, which is certainly worth sharing with the world.