Empirical Methods: Empowerment or Estrangement?

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In casual conversations with some herbalists, I have encountered a distinct antiscience bias. How did this arise? Scott Adams provides a clue in The Dilbert Principle (HarperBusiness, 1996):

“All the technology that surrounds us, all the management theories, the economic models that predict and guide our behavior, the science that helps us live to eighty–it’s all created by a tiny percentage of deviant smart people. The rest of us are treading water as fast as we can. The world is too complex for us.”

Right on, Scott! Science may provide answers, but the process has become so far removed from the reality of everyday life that many have become estranged from it and no longer feel empowered by science or its promises. Sometimes even scientists and researchers like myself can feel overwhelmed by the shear force and momentum of scientific progress.

To make matters worse, certain scientists (and, unfortunately, some physicians) claim to have all of the answers, and they often create antipathy with their callous and superior attitudes. Their failure to acknowledge the inherent limitations of science causes some people operating outside the traditional medical community, including many herbalists, to become frustrated with the ­scientific establishment.

Scientists might do well to remember that empirical science as practiced today has changed little since it was formulated by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his Novum Organum (1620). We have added various bells and whistles, such as double-blind studies with a placebo, 95 percent confidence intervals, and computer software with multivariate statistics, but the essence of what scientists practice is still Baconian. If an observation or event cannot be measured by our five senses (or mechanical extensions) and statistically ­repeated, then it falls outside empirical science. Gods, goddesses, and miracles (and, some might add, parapsychology and homeopathy) are relegated to a belief-based world. This does not mean that they do not exist; rather, it means that empirical science cannot prove that they exist.

Certainly far from perfect, empirical science is the best tool we have for making sense of the world in which we live. At the same time, we are continually refining and redefining how we interpret reality. I vividly remember how my geology professor laughed at Alfred Wegener’s hypothesis that continents drifted. Today, Wegener’s concept of Pangaea, first published in 1912, has provided a conceptual framework for interpreting our planet’s history and predicting its future.

For all of our scientific advances, some things don’t change much. Today, any competent physician will tell you that the cornerstone of the treatment of any chronic disease is proper diet, exercise, and psychological attitude. Often these three factors together work better than any modern (or ancient) drug. This recommendation is not new or the result of years of scientific study. In fact, the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval manuscript on health, explains that the keys to a long and healthy life are good eating habits, exercise, sufficient sleep, and emotional moderation.

So why is science so far removed from our everyday lives, and why do some herbalists oppose what science has to offer? Surely science has made enormous progress; people live healthier, longer, more productive lives. As in any conflict, all sides will be better served when they recognize the boundaries of what they can do and acknowledge the contributions made by others. Only then can we hope to bridge the gap between traditional medicine and alternative therapies, and only then can we hope to provide the best medical care for all.

Art Tucker is a member of the Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board and a research professor of agriculture and natural resources at Delaware State University, where he has taught since 1976. He is well-known for his work on the taxonomy (scientific classification) and essential oil chemistry of herbs.

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