Sunday, February 19, 2012

Scientific knowledge

I was four years old and very fond of watermelon. I asked my mother where watermelons come from. She could have answered that they came from the store where she had found them. Or from Spain, since there was a label on the melons that they were imported from Spain. But she responded more thoroughly. She explained to me the hidden secret of fruits. They have all the seeds. That is what distinguishes fruits from vegetables, she said. A potato is a vegetable because it does not have seeds. A melon is a fruit because it has seeds. She explained further that if we took a seed from a melon and planted it in the earth, a new melon grow out of the ground. She took some seeds and planted them along with me in the flower bed. She knew that in a few weeks I could see small green melon stems growing out of the ground. But I had no time to wait several weeks. That's an eternity for a four year old. So I took a handful of melon seeds with me down to the sandbox, ate all the seeds and swallowed a lot of sand from the sandbox. The seeds went down well, but it was worse with the sand. I had to go to the stream and drink water to be able to get the sand down. I was convinced that I would now get melons to grow in my stomach. I realized that my experiment was unsuccessful when I started to itch in my backside and had the visit the doctor with my mother to get medication for small worms. How I was able to get them from my cat, was a new story for my mother to tell. 

When I started school, I learned more about botany. Everything my mother had taught me is a scientific subject that has been around for a long time. I can read in books from India on how they tried to divide plants into different groups already 4000 years before Christ. One of the students to Aristotle named Theophrastus (371-286 BC) is the one who is described in Europe as the founder of botany. He wrote a 10-volume work called Historia Plantarum which he describes over 500 plant species. The Swedich scientist Carl vom Lineé that has been given credit for the modern way of classification within botany. He wrote in 1735 a work called Systema Naturae where he classifies over 4400 animal species and 7,700 plant species. He divided plants in kingdoms, 25 classes, orders, genera and species.

Scientific knowledge is largely about knowledge that are classified in various ways. There are strict requirements for how this knowledge is collected, how to evaluate the findings and how to classify them. A person who claims to have found scientific knowledge must share it with others in a scientific community. People who are "doing science", scientists, are very interested in each other's findings. They read all the time about what others do and many try to repeat what has been done to see if it's true. Scientific articles are written in mass quantities. These are discussed among scientists worldwide that again new articles are written for and against what is read. Scientific knowledge has become so large that even research is done on scientific knowledge. Scientists also do research on the themselves and ask what is scientific knowledge? What characterizes scientific knowledge? Where are the limits of what is acceptable for scientific knowledge and what is unscientific? Does faith have anything to do with science? And many other questions. When I teach at Østfold University College, I base my teaching on research-based scientific knowledge. This is an obligation I have as a teacher. I teach my students to think scientifically and that they strive for a thoroughness that is required to call onself professional. To understand a little better what this scientific knowledge is, it might be good to go ahead negativistically , ie, describe what is not scientific knowledge.

An example of what cannot be regarded as scientific knowledge today is homeopathic solutions. Many people resort to such means to get rid of their ailments. Many also say that it works. The fact that many say that it works is not sufficient scientific evidence to call it scientific knowledge. One has to perform many controlled experiemnts over a long time to explain the phenomenon and describe what happens. To create a homeopathic solution, you takes a drop of
"active ingredient" and diluting it in a certain way with 99 drops of pure water. This first dilution is called C-1. To create a C-2 solution, one takes a drop from C-1 and dilute it with 99 drops of pure water. You continue in this way with the dilutions. A C-5 resolution means that the "active ingredient" is diluted 10 billion times, but still there are molecules from the "active substance" in the dilution. C-12 is a dilution corresponding to a drop in the Atlantic Ocean. A C-15 solution is a drop in all the world's oceans and there will be no molecules of the "active substances" remaining in the dilution. Yet you continue in a homeopathic solution and dilute the "active ingredient". C-18 is of astronomical proportions, yes it is like a drop in the universe. A homepathic solution should be between C-18 and C-30. The assumption behind a homeopathic solution is that dilution leads to potentiation of the effect. This has been examined many times in different scientific communities and they always conclude that a homeopathic solution is pure water. Those how use homeopathic solutions argue that the water has a "memory". "Water memory" is a phenomenon that remains to be explained with scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge has concluded that a homeopathic solution is pure water.

Still, many believe in such phenomena and confuse it with scientific knowledge. I do not believe in homeopathic solutions, but tried it anyway once for cold sores that I have been plagued with throughout my childhoods. When I studied psychology (undergraduate) in Bergen at the beginning of my 20 years of age, it was so bad that I had to take painkillers to sedate the pain before I took my oral exam. A neighbor of mine said she could help me with a solution that she was sure would help. I asked what it was and got the explaination I have quoted above. I thought that it was certainly not dangerous to try it. After a week of using the homeopathic solution my cold sores were gone and I have not had them since. I could have used this as "proof" that homeopathic solutions work. I was quit my cold sores. I have confronted medical science with my findings and doctors have responded that cold sores usually disappear by themself when you're over adolescence. The fact that two things happen simultaneously, does not mean that there is a causal relationship between them.

The discussion of homeopathic solutions continues, along with many other phenomena that appear to have an effect without the use of scientific knowledge. My advice is to be critical but at the same time open; ask questions and seek answers; and  do not accept easy answers to difficult questions. These are some of  the building blocks I use in my quest for scientific knowledge.

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