Before I get started on how scientific narrative may limit our thinking — and what we can do to expand it instead — let me tell you that Zat Rana expressed this whole idea in the clearest, most concise way I can imagine.
“In a world where we have complete information about everything, reason can give us certain answers; in the real world, however, where we are not even close to having all the answers — a world where words are fallible, where perception is fallible, where imagination is fallible, reason is more of a guide than it is a hallmark of truth.” — Zat Rana, What Does It Mean To Be Spiritual? A Rational Answer.
Thank you, Zat — it seems like you said it all already! But nevertheless, I will try to explore this further by pointing to how this influences us on a practical level.
I think that a general observation like the one above, made from a bird’s eye view, also demands specific examples. This way we can really grasp how relevant this is to our daily lives.
The “impossible” combination of a horse and a hot-dog
Recently, my most inspiring person is Ellen Langer — an academic, author and, maybe most importantly, an experimenter. She coined the term “the psychology of possibility” — an approach to any kind of research or investigation that focuses on finding out what’s possible rather than what’s universally true.
One of the reasons I find her so inspiring is because she has the ability to convey high-level ideas through incredibly simple stories. Let one of her anecdotes be a prelude to our exploring of the limitations of science.
When Ellen was a little girl, she used to be an A+ student. She would memorise every piece of information presented to her — including the captions under textbook pictures. One day, Ellen went to a horse event. As she was admiring one of the animals, the owner asked her:
Can you please look after my horse for a sec, so I can go and get him a hot-dog?
Little Ellen nodded and watched the horse, at the same time thinking to herself: A hot-dog, for a horse? But horses are herbivorous and therefore don’t eat meat. Doesn’t this man know that?
The owner returned in no time with a hot-dog in his hand. To Ellen’s grand surprise, the horse ate the hot-dog. This was the moment when, as she put it, she realized that “virtually everything she knew was wrong — at least some of the time.”
A simple statement — horses don’t eat meat — can be seen as either an absolute fact or a probability. The narrative of science usually makes us think about such statements in absolute terms. However, absolute certainty is nothing but an illusion which arises when we ignore the specific circumstances of a specific horse at a specific point in time.
But what happens if we choose to pay attention to these things? What if we take into consideration how hungry the horse is and whether or not the meat we want to feed him is mixed with some plant ingredients? Surely our assessment of a situation may change, depending on how much nuanced data we are willing to take into account.
The same is true for any conclusions reached through the scientific method. They also depend on how much detail a scientist is willing to take into account. The problem is that, as non-qualified recipients of scientific studies, we tend to overlook how many variables they do not take into account.
How scientific dogma is created (or avoided)
To be able to say that something is absolutely true, we need to have all the relevant data. I will risk saying that this is something that science nowadays is incapable of attaining.
“Right now, the knowledge we use to assert the laws of physics is based on only 5 percent of the Universe, with the remaining 95 percent being clouded away by dark matter and dark energy — entities that we don’t have good assumptions about.” — Zat Rana
Accepting the incompleteness of data and flawed observation and measurement tools, we cannot reasonably pursue scientific research as a way of finding out about absolutes. The conclusions reached by the scientific method are based on what a human can think of and measure — which is, by default, limited. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we treat scientific findings as probabilities of how phenomena may unfold in the future, rather than certainties.
An example I love is the recently famous “1.5˚C” IPCC report on global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientists are well aware that no matter how meticulously they follow the scientific method, the phenomenon they are describing is too complex to talk about with absolute certainty.
Although their report is currently treated as the world’s most reliable scientific source of information about climate change, the authors themselves present the information as probabilities — rather than pretending they talk about certainties. If you read the report, you will find it packed with nuancing phrases such as “likely”, “high confidence” or “medium confidence”. Words like “certainly”, “always” or “never” hardly ever occur.
To me, this indicates a high level of science, since the people pursuing it are clearly aware of the limitations of their method. But science in its more common implementation often overlooks how much it doesn’t know. And that’s when we enter the narrative of dogma.
A perfect real-life example is medical science in action — the way we approach health and treat diseases.
Your health depends on your doctor — true or false?
“The hallmark of any dogma, whether religious or scientific, is the attempt to use today’s information to do away with the unknown unknowns of a future without accepting that this future could very well prove us wrong, just as the past has been proven wrong, again and again, whenever we have entered a new paradigm.” — Zat Rana
Isn’t this exactly what we do as a society when comes to treating health conditions? We widely assume that the best we can do to treat a disease is to go to a doctor who uses the information she possesses today, which are based on the past studies constructed from arbitrarily selected information, to advise us on what action we should take in the future in order to get better.
Okay, that came out as a long sentence — but I hope you got the point.
We are using generalized statements based on the past as the best indicators of how we should behave in the future. Now, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that if we saw these indicators as suggestions (or possibilities). But what happens most of the time is that we treat them more like indisputable orders.
We give up on the possibility that we ourselves have access to relevant information about our own health, which the doctor doesn’t possess.
For example, just like assuming that horses don’t eat meat, we assume that our visual impairment is incurable. We shut down to the possibility of ever seeing better, no matter what we do and how our circumstances change. We get our minds fixed on the belief that our vision can only deteriorate and never improve.
And that could be the very reason why our eyesight doesn’t improve — not that it is objectively impossible, but because we believe it is impossible.
History has proven many times that things remain impossible only until a person who doesn’t know that comes and makes it possible. That’s why opening ourselves to the new possibility and being sceptical about what we think we know is crucial. Without it, we never move forward. We don’t even give ourselves a chance to move forward.
Acknowledging that brought Ellen Langer to the path she has been on ever since her encounter with the hot-dog-eating horse. She now calls it “The Psychology of Possibility” — investigating what can be, rather than what is. The results of her experiments in the area of health and healing have been a huge contribution to changing the perspective on disease and disability treatment.
One of the flagship examples of her work is the “counterclockwise study” which showed that it is possible for the effects of ageing to reverse. In 1981, Ellen took a group of men in their eighties out to a “time travel retreat”. For a week, the men moved away from their usual environments and lived together in a house adapted to look as if it was 1959: 22 years earlier. The participants were instructed to talk about the 1959 events in the present tense. They also watched movies, read news and listened to music from the époque.
After the week-long retreat, the men were tested for various physical and mental capacities. Ellen and her research team noted improved memory, muscle flexibility, vision and other “age indicators” in all participants. Biologically, the men seemed younger after a week of living as if it was 1959 and they were in their sixties again.
Ellen Langer’s experiment seems to show that what was commonly believed impossible — reversing the process of physical and mental ageing — was, in fact, possible. What it took to find this out was giving it a try. Not just by creating a physical setting for the retreat — but, most importantly, by questioning the scientific consensus on the matter.
Mindfulness as a way to surpass confirmation bias
“All research passes through three phases. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
The idea of confirmation bias is now widely popular and you are probably well aware of its existence. But just to be sure, let’s recall a simple definition cited by Wikipedia.
“Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.”
We usually think about this tendency as a moderately limiting mind’s fallacy that occurs from time to time in our daily life. That’s correct. But we may often overlook the fact that it also affects scientific research — simply because any research is conducted by scientists who experience cognitive bias as well.
And so, no matter how objective a scientist is trying to be, more often than not she will look for a confirmation of the hypothesis she formulated prior to the study.
“For a researcher, variability is typically a curse. It can mean a difference between a publishable study and one that goes straight to the file cabinet. Essentially, researchers test their hypotheses, be it a drug treatment or assessing the effectiveness of ukulele instructions, by seeing whether it can improve conditions enough so that they notice a difference beyond that which occurs by chance or “natural” variability.” — Ellen Langer
When a researcher tests a drug for effectiveness and she already anticipates it to be effective, she is more likely to pay attention to the evidence that supports, rather than contradicts, her hypothesis. This is just confirmation bias at work — but this work happens to influence what the society is going to believe about a certain type of drug or disease.
But enough about the flaws of the scientific method. With all its limitations it is, and likely will remain, the best way to accumulate our collective knowledge about the world. The point is not to reject science — but to find a way to be less ignorant and healthily sceptical about all types of “facts” we encounter on a daily basis.
Since the world is way too complex for us to mentally engage with and verify all the nuances, the solution may need to be found in our way of being. In our attitude, which plays such a big role in how we process information, form beliefs and, as a consequence, how we behave in the world.
Arguably the simplest way to surpass the confirmation bias and other limitations of science is by bringing more mindfulness into your life. And I don’t necessarily mean meditation or any kind of “special” states of awareness. I mean simple, everyday mindfulness that allows you to pay attention to what is happening at the moment.
Most importantly — it allows you to pay attention to the fact that things change.
Possibly the biggest limitation of not just science, but also the human mind, is that it frames reality as if it was stable. Once we establish a “fact” that horses don’t eat meat — this is our “truth” forever. As Ellen Langer points out:
“People believe they should have certainties. They should know something so well that they don’t have to think about it anymore. That’s wrong. Since everything is always changing, since everything looks different from different perspectives, we have to be careful not to confuse the certainty, the stability of our mindsets with the underlying phenomena. Things are changing. You want to hold them still, hold them still. But, in fact, they’re different. And if we can appreciate that, the inherent uncertainty in everything — everything stays interesting to us.”
From this perspective, mindfulness is first and foremost understood as perceptual sensitivity to change. If we train ourselves to pay attention to the present moment, we naturally start appreciating a more nuanced reality. The reality that is fluid and transforming right in front of our eyes.
And once we notice that change is an intrinsic quality of life — maybe it will be easier for us to open up to new possibilities. First, we may accept that some horses, under some circumstances may eat meat. Then, we may discover possibilities that are more relevant to us.
You may be able to heal yourself. You may find the love of your life. It may not be too late to fulfil your dreams. Anything may be possible — but only once you choose to consider it as such.