Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Impermanence & Limitations of Science (WEIRD)

Interesting architecture on UCSD campus

It seems bizarre that as we make more scientific progress, we seem to also see more deniers of science (or are they just louder?). Science seems to have failed in several fronts, especially in complex studies in psychology and sociology where scientists were unable to reproduce the results of the majority of research featured in peer-reviewed journals. As non-researchers, we have seen science fail as well in medicine and nutrition, where we continue to read conflicting results and recommendations for what procedures and drugs work and what ingredients are healthy or unhealthy.

One problem is that we are treating science as a collection of knowledge fixed in time, rather than an approach whose results will continue to evolve as technologies and methods to narrow down the variables improve, and more data points can be gathered in a consistent manner.

One concept that has now been labeled is the bias in conducting scientific experiments, especially in psychology and neurology.

Remember the optical illusion you studied in intro psych class where there are two arrows, one with greater than sign on one side and less than sign on the other, contrasted with one with less than sign on one side and greater than sign on the other? (Click here for image) The former line looks longer and the latter looks shorter, when in fact they are of equal length. We are told that human brains process this information as such. It turns out that it is not a physiological fact that our brains process that information as such, but rather, our brains learned to see the lines as such. When researchers showed the optical illusion diagrams to tribal groups that lived outdoors, they observed no such optical illusion (read the full article on it, here). Because those of us from Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic  (WEIRD, a term coined by Joseph Henrich) societies live in dwellings with sharp corners (e.g., where the walls meet the ceiling of our houses), we have LEARNED perspective just as painters of Italian Renaissance developed a technique to display it in their art.

How many scientific facts of “human nature” did we get it wrong, because they were only tested on WEIRD population? I’m not sure, but probably many more than we think. Here’s one study outed as a result of WEIRD-limited test participants, and not at all generally “human”: it was believed that humans lacked a set of vocabulary to describe scent when all the other senses had descriptive words other than itself (e.g., we can describe the color of bananas as yellow, size as x centimeter or inches in length, heavy or light, etc. with abstract words rather than using any other nouns, like “it is the color of lemons” but we seem to lack descriptive terms for smell). They believed that “olfactory abstraction is impossible”. Because other senses had abstract vocabulary to describe them, scholars concluded that the sense of smell was less important to humans. But it turned out that Jahai people of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand use dedicated words that describe scent. Read the full article, here.

(The original conclusion seems so outrageously far fetched, even if we didn’t know about the WEIRD bias, but I suppose this conclusion was formed before the Whorfian hypothesis was accepted.)

Distressed that we’ve been tricked by science all this time? Don’t be. It’s just part of the process of science where the knowledge of WEIRD bias will improve and revise the previous understanding. More scientific education is necessary, not to teach the facts derived from our current status of science, but to not accept data presented by science as impermeable facts, learn what caveats must preface the findings and to be skeptical when assumptions are hidden.

As Robert Fritz said,

“We rely on our concepts of reality more than on our observations, because it’s more convenient to assume.”

It may be the a key contributing factor to WEIRD-focused science stating the most general case of representing the whole human kind, because the reality of the ones conducting science is WEIRD. We must combat our own reality as biased assumptions to be truly scientific.

The upside for me is that all the cognitive dissonance that were presented as part of being human may not be part of human pathology and physiology but a learned response for WEIRD, and that we did have a choice to have a whole different set of mindset, for better or worse.

Photo: University of California at San Diego campus. The inscription on the sculpture book’s cover reads, “Then wilt thou not be loth to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far.”




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This entry was posted on December 10, 2015 by in Culture, Education, Linguistics, Psychology, Science and tagged , , , , , , , .
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