Science and Common Sense
Anyone who spends time wading through the reams of what passes as social research these days quickly comes to the conclusion that social science merely confirms what common sense already tells us.
Consider studies like the one demonstrating that students exposed to regular pop quizzes tend to retain the material better than those students who don’t take the quizzes. Or the landmark study in the late 1960s that looked at why some people managed to escape a life of poverty and crime in the ghetto, and some did not. The answer, after pages of multivariate and regression analysis of causes, correlations and standard deviations? Luck and good timing.
As one might expect, these nuggets of hitherto unknown knowledge were paid for by public tax
dollars. It’s enough to make one think of becoming a conservative.
Now British medical researchers have blazed even more provocative paths in the search for knowledge
by conclusively demonstrating the prayer and meditation are good for one’s health. In a study reported
in the December 2001 issue of the British Medical Journal, volunteers who recited the Ave Maria
prayer or a transcendental meditation chant exhibited slower and more relaxed breathing, improved
blood oxygen levels and better cardiovascular efficiency.
The conclusion: Prayer and meditation are good for you. Slow down, get your mind off yourself, learn
to relax and smell the roses. It’s good health.
This isn’t exactly news. People have been reporting similar effects for the past several thousand
years. What is news is the fact that we accept nothing as true and verifiable these days unless it has
passed through the rigor of scientific analysis and testing.
Common sense and experience tell us that negative emotions and major stress can play havoc with
blood pressure, the endocrine system and the like. We’ve known for centuries that milk from a mother’s
breast is the very thing infants need to thrive. But until we had the data, until we could irrefutably
prove what experience taught us, we doubted that experience and question many of our common sense
notions about health and human behavior.
Now, a lot of this is a good thing. We’ve learned that using leeches doesn’t remove disease from
the body. We’re not cutting out entire sections of the brain anymore to cure people of mental disorders;
we’ve finally accepted the proof that smoking tobacco can kill you. Medical progress and the
intelligent application of the scientific method have led to huge improvements in our lives, and all
of us would be immeasurably impoverished without it.
But it’s like the boy who only has a hammer and is compelled to hit everything with it, whether it
needs hammering or not. To the extent that we think we have to pass everything under the relentless
gaze of science — and more to the point, the relentless machinery of the scientific establishment —
we come to distrust our common sense observations about much of life, our ability to share those
observations with each other in informal social networks and a rich lore of stories, and our ability
to trust our instincts, intuition and each other.
A case in point is the public’s growing use of alternative medicine, which generates more economic
activity these days than allopathic primary care. Many of these techniques, remedies and products
have been passed down through cultures for centuries, creating a rich and storied tradition. Some
work, some don’t, but that’s not the point. The important thing is that alternative medicine is
getting the attention of the medical establishment and is being quickly incorporated into modern
delivery systems because of consumer demand and its attendant economic power. We can forecast a time
when no one will remember where these techniques and herbs came from, but will recognize only their
scientific nomenclature, commercial brand name and imprimatur of some professional association. The
traditions and stories will be gone. All that will remain is scientific technique and marketing.
If that sounds far fetched, imagine the future of religion. Already physicians are telling us to
get in touch with our spiritual selves. Can the science of religion be far behind?
Personally, I’m not going to worry about it. I’ve been drinking red wine for years and feeling
guilty about it, until I learned of scientific proof that it’s good for the heart and general health.
The news hasn’t changed my behavior. It’s just made me feel better about myself.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.