The Scientific Outlook On Life
Ronald Ebert
August 2001

"The trouble with most folks isn't so much their ignorance. It's know'n so many things that ain't so." -- Josh Billings.

I don't want to write articles, whether for the web or publication in journals, that won't make an original or unique contribution to knowledge or our outlook on knowledge. For a long time I have refrained from posting anything on the web other than a brief description of who I am and copies of my published articles. Most of what I'd say has already been well said by others, particularly the many competent academics who have posted information on the web and members of the skeptical community, particularly my fellow list members on Taner Edis' Skeptic Internet mailing list. But lately in interacting with certain people I have been reminded of something I already knew - there is a widespread lack of awareness of why we should believe some things and not others, and people don't know how to acquire the necessary information about what to believe. These issues have not been well addressed, especially in the popular literature.

We have many decisions to make for our personal lives and for our society at large. How we take care of our health, what we should eat, how to best use resources such as water and power, how to preserve the environment, and how to maintain a good quality of life are just some of the many issues that we deal with. In order to handle these things competently we need the best information we can get. In all our history, there has been only one successful system of acquiring reliable information about the world. That system is science.

Contrary to popular belief, science isn't about finding absolute truths. Science is about finding our confidence in theories that we develop to explain phenomena. Instead of a black and white "this is absolutely true/this is absolutely false" we have a range of confidence, from very low to very high. Theories that explain the causation of earthquakes or Alzheimer's disease are examples in the low confidence end of the scale. The specific causative factors are not well known at this time and it is likely that a number of unknown variables are involved for each theory. On the other hand, we have theories like evolution and relativity in which our confidence is so high that, while they are not absolute truths, they are so well confirmed that not to believe them would be perverse.

All scientific theories are testable, at least in principle. There have to be situations in which it is possible that new evidence could show the theory to be false. An example for evolution would be the discovery of mammals in 600 million year old rocks, which is a time in which only much simpler life existed. For relativity, it would be the discovery of a material object that travels faster than light. We don't expect such things to ever be discovered, but the important point is, they could be. If you have an assertion in which you can't think of any conditions in which it could be proved false, then it isn't a part of science and it is highly likely that it has nothing to do with objective reality.

Science is also self-correcting. Theories, hypotheses and ideas of any sort are always subject to revision if new evidence comes along to falsify them or there is a novel way of re-interpreting old evidence. The requirement that theories be based on empirical evidence and the self-correcting nature of science are its greatest strengths and are the things that distinguish science from all other purported "ways of knowing".

There are many things that people believe in which are not based on empirical evidence and the methods of science. In some cases it does no harm to believe in these things, but in other cases there may be a significant personal or societal impact. The abortion debate is one example of how the beliefs of certain religious sects are detrimental to society. At the time of this writing, there is a debate in the U.S. about whether embryonic stem cell research should be funded by the U.S. government. This research has the potential to develop cures for intractable diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. The religious conservatives tell us "life begins at conception", and doing anything other than allowing that life to fully develop is wrong. Well, yes, life begins at conception but the same is true for cockroaches. They don't really mean life, they mean personhood begins at conception. But does it? We know from the findings of science that sensations, feelings and conscious thought are only possible with a brain and nervous system. These don't develop until late in the growth of a fetus. Until that time we have living tissue but it is no more a person than any other living tissue, like cockroaches.

The religious conservatives would counter that God puts the soul in at the moment of conception, and that's what makes the person. But this is a faith-based idea without the slightest shred of empirical evidence. In fact none is possible as the idea is non-falsifiable. Indeed, the existence of "soul" is a faith-based idea that can't be falsified. There is not the slightest bit of empirical evidence that personalities or conscious thought can exist outside of a functioning brain. Believing in a soul may bring us emotional comfort, but if we want to look at the world as it really is rather than as we would like it to be, then we have to conclude that souls are not objectively real. There really is not a moral issue in using early stage embryos to advance medical science.

Destructive beliefs can also apply to our personal lives. I knew of a person who developed cancer. Instead of seeking out the best medical treatments, he went to Mexico to get chelation therapy. He didn't want to suffer through chemotherapy and he believed the claims of miracle cures from the chelation practitioners. He died of his cancer several months later. There are many similar claims from the so-called alternative medicine proponents. They tell us that their methods are safer than invasive, side-effect ridden therapies such as chemotherapy and organ transplants. They claim that their methods are ancient and natural, as if this justifies their validity. But just because something is ancient doesn't mean that it's effective or even safe. And "natural" is no indication of either efficacy or safety. After all, poison ivy and snake venom are natural.

There are many claims made that violate well-confirmed scientific laws and theories, both in medicine and in other fields. Advocates of these claims often play on our emotional strings, appealing to our sense of fairness, our belief that we are unique and different from others, our sense that there must be magic in the world, and our acknowledgement of authority - theirs, of course. So how is a person to tell truth from falsehood, especially a person who isn't familiar with the topic at hand? There is no authority in science in the sense of some person decides what is true and that's that, but we can have some confidence in what the consensus of researchers in a field may conclude about some issue - as much confidence as they themselves have.

But to find that out, we have to rely on the scientific literature - both refereed scientific journals in which original research is published and that research is critiqued by others, and journals and magazines in which such research is reported and oftentimes commented on by science reporters with good knowledge of the field. Science reporting journals and magazines will often give us references to the original research, so we can look it up for ourselves and see exactly how it was done, though it may be difficult to understand it if we haven't had training in that field. Reporting journals and magazines have developed a reputation on how accurately they report findings and developments in science. Here is my take on the some of the better ones that I read on a regular basis:

Science - A highly respected American-based journal that publishes original research but also has an extensive "news and views" section where findings are discussed and analyzed in less technical terms than research papers. Science has a greater emphasis on the biological sciences than the physical sciences.

Nature - Another highly respected journal, published in Britain with wider coverage of international developments than Science and more even-handed coverage of the scientific fields. Nature also publishes original research and has an extensive news and views section. Many scientists consider Nature to be the most prestigious journal of them all.

Science News - An American-based news-reporting magazine that does an excellent job of covering developments in all fields in science on a weekly basis. Science News is a magazine that sticks to actual developments and what the researchers of those developments and other researchers in the field say about those developments, with no independent editorial comment offered.

New Scientist - A British-based news-reporting magazine with a greater emphasis on international developments than Science News. They are more "colorful" than Science News. They cover more speculative developments, have a more informal writing style, and offer a lot of editorial comments on developments in science. If you want a magazine that is more fun to read but is still reasonably accurate in its reporting, this is the one.

Scientific American - A well-respected American-based magazine that has a news section and offers articles by researchers about developments in their fields at a level that is understandable to people who work in other fields of science and to the public at large, to a large extent. Scientific American's articles used to be more technical in their language and in the information covered, but in the past few years the articles have been more generalized with less detail and less technical language. I suppose that's good or bad depending on how much depth of understanding you want and what you need to learn to understand the information.

Science News, Scientific American and Science are commonly available in many public libraries. New Scientist occasionally is but Nature rarely is. But all of them are available in college and university libraries. Unless you are a member of such an institution, you usually can't borrow these materials, but you can read them inside the library for free.

So how does this work? If you are one of the rare people who is really fascinated by developments in science the way I am, you'll read one or more of these on a regular basis and catch developments of particular interest and usefulness to you as they crop up. If your interest isn't as keen but you still want to know about particular findings, you can use Internet and library databases to find them. Each of these journals and magazines has a web site but unfortunately there is only a limited amount of information there. Still, you might get lucky. Off the home page of this web site you'll find a link that in turn has links to most of these publications. (Or just go here.) You can go to any of them and do a search there and see what you get.

Unfortunately there is no freely available central site on the Internet at the time of this writing that will allow you to search through most or all such journals and magazines for a topic of interest. I think the best option for a person without academic resources to use is to go to a college or university library and ask the reference librarian for help in looking up information. Your tax dollars are helping to pay for that institution and you are entitled to the free help. In my experience, no one walking in off the street and asking for such help has ever been refused. Reference databases in public libraries will also be helpful but they are not as comprehensive.

Can such information really make a difference? Yes it can. There are many useful developments that crop up that the general news media and the public ignore or don't find out about, or else information is taken and is then badly distorted in general reporting and public discussions. There are plenty of examples of the latter that I won't go into. But I have an excellent example to offer of the former that, if you are interested in living the healthiest life you can, you'll be keenly interested in.

There is an enormous amount of medical quackery out there, with untested herbs on the shelves that are really crude drugs with largely unknown and very possibly harmful effects, claims of treatments and cures by alternative medicine practitioners that violate laws of physics, chemistry and biology were they to work as claimed, and politicians who take the money from the promoters of such claptrap and then pass laws preventing the proper testing of these claims. Yet amidst this sea of garbage there is a handful of properly verified findings of foods and supplements that really do make a difference. Over the years I have found science news articles of each and began using them as soon as I was satisfied through verification of the original research that they are for real. All of these findings apply to supplementation of a balanced diet and for people who get proper amounts of exercise and rest. Doses were determined on the recommendation of researchers or else duplication of equivalents given to lab animals in trails. As of the time of this writing, here they are:

Magnesium - Low magnesium leads to cardiovascular diseases. Supplementation of magnesium daily results in significant declines in blood lipid levels, reduction of cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and reduces the build-up of fatty deposits on arterial walls. Magnesium supplements can also help prevent problems in pregnancy. See Science News, 4 June 1988 page 356 and April 7 1990 page 241. I take 500 mg daily.

Vitamin E - Vitamin E is an antioxidant that mops up free radicals, which cause oxidative damage and are responsible for a number of degenerative diseases including heart disease and cancer. There is a danger in overdosing with it, however. I take 400 IU daily, which should be well below the overdose point but high enough to get the benefits. See Science News 10 August 1996 page 95, 22 February 1997 page 127 and 1 March 1997 page 135; and Pelton, Ross Vitamin E slows aging process. American Druggist v216, n6 (June, 1999):52 (2 pages).

Vitamin C - Vitamin C is another antioxidant that mops up free radicals. It is particularly effective in the prevention of cataracts. See Science News 18 October 1997 page 244 and the Journal of Internal Medicine, 2000; 248 (5), 377-386. I take 500 mg daily.

Conjugated Linoleic Acids (CLA) - Supplementation with CLA provides numerous benefits, including fighting cancer, enhancing immunity, and ridding the body of fatty, artery-clogging plaque. It also reduces the severity of type 2 diabetes, helps control allergies, helps keep weight gain under control, and increases muscle mass. See Science News 3 March 2001 page 136. The article cautions that there are CLA formulations on the market that don't supply the CLA claimed on the label. I am using one of the manufacturers that reliably supplied the researchers with their formulation. I take 3 grams of CLA daily. Pay particular attention to the ratio of CLA to inert ingredients in the formulation.

Blueberries - Blueberries have been shown not to merely slow down age-related declines in memory, balance and coordination, but to actually reverse them. Old rats given blueberry extract supplementation were actually able to perform about as well as young rats in these areas. I eat one cup a day, raw or in foods like blueberry muffins. Blueberries contain various anthocyanins, a subcategory of flavonoids responsible for the deep blue color of blueberries. They are responsible for these benefits. Cooking blueberries does not destroy the anthocyanins as is evident from the lack of change of color. See Science News 18 September 1999 page 180 and The Journal of Neuroscience, September 15, 1999, 19(18):8114-8121.

So what difference do these supplements really make? I'll tell you my subjective opinion, but first remember what I said about there being no absolutes in science and that the findings in science cover a range of confidences. The confidence level in these studies is fairly high. Even so, I'm equivalent to just one lab rat. Effects attributed to a causative agent may instead be due to the placebo effect, unrecognized or unknown variables, or in the case of a degenerative condition a spontaneous remission that would have happened anyway. Doing properly controlled studies can reduce these possibilities but can't altogether eliminate them. Also keep in mind that I do eat a balanced diet, I do a lot of hiking, and I'm not overweight, important factors all by themselves. Now having said that, here are my subjective impressions. Take them for what they're worth.

I'm 51 years old. I've been taking these supplements a few months after seeing each report. The last one is the CLAs, which I've been using for about four months now. I feel like superman. My strength, energy levels, and stamina seem to be turned back to the way they were some 15-20 years ago. I am clear-headed nearly all the time and my memory is fairly good.

Ask me how I am 20-30 years from now to get a better idea of the effectiveness of these supplements.

Richard Feynman said that science is a way of trying not to fool ourselves. I think we'd live in a much better society if most people understood how science discovers truths about the world and would use the findings of science to make decisions in their lives and for our society as a whole.

Back to my home page