Thursday, July 01, 2010


Blue Mill Road is a beautiful example of everything people believe New Jersey is not. As you drive down the road, you encounter old colonial churches, farms, willow trees curving over sparkling ponds, and tunnels of foliage created by trees that have crossed the street at their apices, embracing each other with their branches. I often drive down this road on my way to work, one of many possible ways to go.

Today, I drive into work listening to Richard Einhorn, drinking the tea I’ve brought with me in a travel mug. I’m hoping the caffeine will shake the cobwebs that seem to envelop my brain, mostly the consequence of summer allergies. I hardly ever drink coffee in the morning—there is no use in making a whole pot of coffee and then abandoning most of it when I go to work. I used to stop at KC’s in Chester for coffee, but she is opening her shop later and later these days.

There have been many studies about the health benefits of coffee these days. One study suggests that coffee can prevent rheumatoid arthritis. Another suggests that coffee can stave off Alzheimer’s disease. I’m a bit suspicious of both of these studies, because they draw conclusions based on correlation, rather than hard evidence. Correlation does not imply causation, as the old saying goes. If I eat an English muffin for breakfast every morning, and don’t develop heart disease, that doesn’t mean the English muffin prevented me from getting heart disease. But I’m seeing a lot more “studies” these days that draw such simplistic conclusions.

In our attempt to understand complex things, we often are guilty of reductionism. I recall a British TV show that had a doctor examining the age, eating habits, exercise habits, and stress levels of various individuals, and then giving them the number of years they had to live. This is stupid. Even if all those factors are important, they in no way can account for one’s personal genetics, never mind the possibility of getting hit by a bus on any given day. But assuming that we’re just talking about health—the factors that determine your health are extremely complex, just as your psyche is extremely complex. No self-respecting therapist would have a session with you and then start labeling you based on psychological theory or DSM definitions. Jung himself said that theory was not very useful when dealing with individual cases. Similarly, physical health cannot be fully evaluated and labeled, even with all of the diagnostic technology doctors have at their disposal. This is why, unless you have a specific and easily identifiable ailment, doctors frequently can’t figure out what’s wrong with you. Knowledge of biology, chemistry, and physiology are necessary background, but interpreting individual cases is more of an art than a science—there’s not one answer for a given set of symptoms.

I’m not sure if reductionism comes from human laziness, or just a sense of being overwhelmed by all the factors involved, and needing a quick solution to satisfy the mind. One thing is for sure—it’s not a great idea to start preaching about how bad certain things are for you based on this kind of reductionism. That’s what got the anti-vax movement started; if anyone had bothered to properly peer-review Andrew Wakefield’s paper (and also checked his profit-motives for the study), we might not have new outbreaks of whooping cough and other preventable diseases. It is true that there may be other reasons for these outbreaks, but you can’t ignore the influence of that movement.

Science is a beautiful thing, when executed with integrity. However, in our secular society, science is the new religion, and people often accept it and things that look like it without question (or enough questions). It’s that thing people don’t understand, so if they see these kinds of oversimplified studies—which are not rigorously scientific—they believe them because they think they ARE scientific. They don’t know enough to question it. And they don’t have time. Add the distortion of the media, and you have a different kind of cultural monster.

I am by no means a hardcore skeptic. After all, I believe in ghosts, God, astrology, and lots of other things that skeptics dismiss as idiotic. I tend to believe in things that I find valid by my own experience. However, my own experience doesn’t apply to everyone, and the most logical, fact-based conclusions are the ones that society as a whole ought to rely on, assuming anything can be relied on. Nothing is ever 100% right or guaranteed, but we need some measurable basis for large-scale decision making. This works pretty well, as long as we remember that uncertainty still exists, and individual cases usually don’t fit blanket definitions precisely. Science, after all, is about questioning and re-questioning—and not believing you have any kind of absolute lock on truth.

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