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Science and ‘plausibility’

There are now proponents of something called ‘science-based medicine’ who are calling for the elimination of health care practices that do not meet the ‘plausibility’ test, even if ‘results’ are shown on studies.

For years there was the call that if there were no scientific studies, the modalities or practice must be harmful and/or useless, and now the call is that even if there are studies which show results, we must ignore them if the modality doesn’t meet ‘the plausibility’ test.

Let’s examine this.

What exactly is this thing we call ‘plausible’?

When we use the word ‘plausible’ we are basing it on ‘reason’. We are saying that does not seem possible based on what we understand the world to be.

Plausibility is thus based on that which we know and understand. Is that not a biased assumption given that we all have relative ignorance i.e. limits to our knowing and understanding?

Thus is not ‘plausibility’ based on our own ignorance and not ‘knowing’?

There is a famous story about Quetzalcoatl who stood on the shore in South America. He and the Aztecs had never seen ships before. He was the first to see something on the horizon, the Spanish Armada as it was approaching. It was only until he had ‘seen’ it that others with him were able to see the ships. Their sight was based on the ‘known’ and it was utterly implausible to them that there would be ‘ships’ carrying people to invade their lands and thus they saw nothing. The fact that it was ‘implausible’ based on their life experience did not mean that it could not happen. In fact, it still did happen even though they could not see it happening.

It is natural for us not to want dangerous practices to be around. We are in danger in science if we attempt to dismiss things based on our own limited understanding of what science is.

Humility is key in science and we must always be open to observing and understanding.

  • Newton’s theory of light was rejected as being implausible.

  • Darwin’s theory of evolution was rejected as being ‘implausible’.

  • Marshall’s theory of a bacteria called helicobacter pylori causing peptic ulcers was rejected as being ‘implausible’.

  • Harvey’s theory of the circulation system was rejected as being ‘implausible’, all based on the understandings of ‘science’ of the day.

Yet all of these things came to be accepted in time as temporal truths.

Thus the ‘implausibility’ argument actually held back societal evolution by rigid adherence to the limited ‘known’.

In science one is welcome to have an opinion and to express consideration based on the known, but if we arrogantly and aggressively defend the ‘known’ and say that all that does not match the ‘known’ is wrong or harmful, then we are at the risk of shutting down progress in understanding, as our history in science shows us.

Aggressive defence of the ‘known’ on the basis of the ‘plausible’ has held back progress in science and society.

True science is about advancing understanding of how life is and how life works.

If we do not have the answers, then we must remain ever open to observing, as was Quetzalcoatl, his openness allowing him to see the ships despite his limited life experience. If he had stuck to the ‘it’s implausible’, he would never have seen the ships and the Spanish who arrived with them. And importantly, if he had not ‘seen’ them, the people with him would not have been able to ‘see’ them either.

Even if things seem implausible to us, in humility, true science invites us to consider respectfully and evaluate, or at least allow evaluation, and not dismiss out of hand.

Only when we can consider respectfully, will we have an environment that allows true progress.

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    Photography: Dean Whitling, Brisbane based photographer and videographer of 12 years.

    A versatile commercial photographer who shoots corporate portraits, architecture, products, events, marketing material, advertising & website content. Dean's philosophy - create photos that have a magic about them.