I've been following the rBST discussion off and on (reading sporadically as
I catch up, that is) and it is a grand demonstration of some "human-ness"
in both it's strongest and weakest manifestations. But, then again, it's
also possible to transform weaknesses into strength as we understand more.
I have been fortunate to be at a university where Roger Williams, now in
his 90's, is still seen on campus, and to know a personality to go along
with his writings and research. In his early days, before he discovered
the first of the B-vitamins, there was a controversy in animal nutrition
over the benefits, or lack thereof, of yellow corn over white corn for
feeding hogs. It has been to my benefit to hear his recollections and know
his personality in order to better understand how science works. When
scientists listen with respect to the "uneducated" (translate to read
"non-technically educated in formal school") people who work day to day and
observe carefully what happens, the synergy can be truly amazing.
The yellow corn vs white corn is a good lesson, and maybe should become a
"myth" for teaching scientific methodology. For some time the "scientific
facts" seemed to be clearly showing that there was no difference, yet some
farmers insisted that yellow corn was better. It was only after the
relationship between carotene and vitamin-A came into the picture, and then
the nutritional role of vitamins began to be recognized, that scientists
recognized important things in foods that weren't being measured.
Furthermore, the "well designed" experiments were conducted under
conditions that weren't very relevant to the "real world."
The "final" explanation in favor of the farmers' claim was that the
experiments were conducted where there was an ample supply of carotene or
vitamin-A from other sources in the diet, whereas on the farm vitamins were
limiting and yellow corn became a significant source of vitamin-A.
Scientifically speaking, however, there was much acrimonious discussion
about the "dumb farmers". Since no chemical differences could be
consistently found between yellow and white corn using the tests available,
the data was considered "proof" that there was, indeed, no difference.
The main thing proved was that there was "bad science" afoot. Science can
never prove anything true. That fact is reflected in the format of
hypothesis testing in statistical analyses. The null hypothesis of "no
difference" is where we begin a test, but the real interest is in the
"power" of the test to distinguish a difference if it does exist. We never
prove the null hypothesis "true," but only "fail to reject it." And, if
that's not enough of a limitation, there is still another less explicit
limitation in formal scientific procedures of learning and generalizing. We
assume comparable conditions when extrapolating from test conditions to
elsewhere. THAT limitation cannot even be simulated to understand how it
may limit the relevance of our scientific studies, since we don't know what
"other" conditions we need to simulate. This topic also has been actively
discussed recently under "verification and validation of models" banners on
the network. Internal consistency may be achieved, but under an
inappropriate paradigm. Also, without sufficient testing internal
consistency may be more apparent than real. We never know what we don't
know, but we may be open-minded enough to recognize what we didn't know!
Since science cannot lead us to "truth" then why do we use scientific
methodology? To me it is another tool to use in organizing my thoughts and
helps me ask certain kinds of questions more clearly. If I get results, it
helps me communicate what I learned, provided I am sensitive to and honest
in recognizing the limitations of what I learned. I am most impressed with
the collegial nature of "great" scientists, such as Roger Williams. It's
when we place our values on the "discoveries" rather than on the
"discovering" that we begin to use science inappropriately. Life becomes a
terrible burden if I feel like I have to defend something's truth rather
than use the ever-present partial truths as a catalyst for discovering.
I'm into enjoying adventure in doses matched with my capabilities, not
suffering by unnecessarily adding to the weight of the pack on my back. I
recommend the process with skillful use of all the tools at our disposal;
it lightens the load! It also tends to facilitate progress, provided that
we know where we are and where we are going. (Not knowing THOSE is THE
weak link, in my experience.)
R. H. (Dick) Richardson * (512) 471-4128 (w)
Zoology Department * (512) 471-9651 (FAX)
University of Texas * (512) 476-5131 (h)
Austin, TX 78712 * email@example.com