Empirical Methods: Empowerment or Estrangement?

Opinion viewpoints to consider on the subject of science and holistic tradition.

| January/February 1997

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.

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