A Sutra a Day: IV-19 – Blinded by Science

Feb 2, 2013 | Philosophy, Science/Skepticism/Technology, XSutras, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali | 0 comments

In studying today’s message from Patanjali (as below), it seemed to lend itself well to a phenomenon to which we all fall prey – even esteemed and supposedly detached scientists – so I decided to ask my husband in as a guest blogger to describe it. So here’s Daniel:

I found this definition of science on a website:

“Science is a way of understanding the world, not a mountain of facts. Before anyone can truly understand scientific information, they must know how science works. Science does not prove anything absolutely — all scientific ideas are open to revision in the light of new evidence. The process of science, therefore, involves making educated guesses hypotheses that are then rigorously and repeatedly tested.”*

It’s a pretty good summary, but it doesn’t mention the biggest obstacle to scientific discovery: scientist.  Scientist are people with all the flaws we all share.  As the scientific method as developed over the last 200 years, science has taken that into account.

We are all biased.  We believe what we believe and we, with absolute consistency, find evidence that backs up that belief.  It called confirmation bias and it’s something that human beings are very good at.  We will notice when confirming evidence is presented to us and we’ll not notice when contradictory evidence appears.  It’s the reason why most people believe that people are crazier on full moons, even psychiatric nurses and police officers.  They will experience a busy night, note that it’s a full moon and it will confirm their belief.  If the busy night isn’t a full moon it’s just a busy night.  When this effect is studied it’s found that there is no effect.  People are pretty equally crazy all the time. [http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/03/27/3464601.htm]

Scientists are just as susceptible to confirmation bias as the rest of us.  They want their hypothesis to be true.  They are very motivated to be right.  So science has developed ways to limit the effect of bias that the scientist naturally brings to his or her work.

The most obvious example of this is the randomly controlled double blind study that is used as the “gold standard” study in medical research.  It’s known that subjects of such a study are biased by the mere fact of being part of a study.  They want the treatment to work and they want to please the researcher.  So, to control for this, they are randomly assigned to receive either the drug being studied or a completely inert placebo. As a further control they are “blinded”. No participant in the study knows whether they have received the drug or a placebo.  As a further control the researchers are “blinded” so that they don’t know who has receive the drug.  That is intended to remove the possibility that the researchers’ bias will influence the subjects.

The results of the study are not known until an independant statistician studies the results.  And even here there is the possibility of bias creeping in.  I have heard of triple blinded studies where even the statistician doesn’t know who received the drug and who received the placebo. Science, as a method, takes into account the power of personal expectation on the outcome of research. It’s known that even rigorous randomly controlled double blind studies are subject to bias, just not very much.

When scientists, those people who we think of as the most detached and objective in our world, need to go to such lengths to keep their personal biases from dominating their work and their lives, we might want to wonder about how our own certainties.  We’ll always find proof that we are right about what we believe, and those beliefs will steer the ship of our lives, but are we being steered by our bias? And how can we know?


Na tatsvabhasam drsyatvat

In addition the mind is a part of what is perceived and has no power of its own to perceive.*
*Patanjali’s Yogasutras, translation and commentary by T.K.V. Desikachar.


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