Posted by: Alton | April 17, 2009

Oversimplification

“Oversimplification has been the characteristic weakness of scientists of every generation.”

-Elmer McCollum, A History of Nutrition, 1957

Yes, that quote is blatantly lifted from Chapter 9 of Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes certainly found some gems for that book. But the point is well taken- and no less true about most aspects of life than it is about science.

Simplification, and rendering the perceptual into the abstract, are both natural processes. Both are quite necessary to function, and served a very strong evolutionary imperative- if your brain couldn’t simplify all the perceptual data of “Yellow with black spots, high speed, moving at my face, my, those bits are pointy” to “Danger” quickly, your brain would probably not have made it through the hunter-gatherer phase of human ancestry. These concepts are well understood nowadays, and seem fairly reasonable.

But how does this apply to wellness?

Simply put, it’s that oversimplification process at work, whenever anyone draws a conclusion from data. Science isn’t in the business of drawing conclusions. Rather, data, properly interpreted, implies connections, and from those implications, you can infer hypotheses. Hypotheses aren’t categorically true- and are implicitly full of supposition. They’re not rigid, stark, and well-defined bastions of truth to be defended. Rather, they’re the summation of the foundation of data that they were based on. If the data doesn’t support the hypothesis, then 100% of the time, the hypothesis must be adjusted/altered/thrown out. There’s really no ambiguity there. All it takes is one well-contextualized counterexample.

So for those of you wanting to read more on studies, or read articles about scientific advances, pay close attention to the language used. If you see language that seems too strong- it probably is. Remember that the more abstract and removed a concept is from the thing which it attempts to describe, the less accurate that representation will be- and so the weaker the declarations made using it must be, in order to avoid compromising the character of the concept.

Some of my favorite books reference the concept of the abstract being full of vagueness and half-truths. My favorite quote on the subject sits at the top of my first post on this blog, regarding how “the ancients spoke in paradoxes, for they were afraid of uttering half-truths.”

How lucky we all would be, if modern scientists were so considerate of the burden of proof that is invoked so casually. Observational studies run afoul of these problems quite frequently- by definition, such studies are –extremely- abstract in nature, only allowing for vague suppositions based on differences between two (or more) cohorts- essentially trying to build from the macro world down, rather than from the physiological data up. Observational studies don’t ever lead to hypotheses- they can only tell you where to start looking, and even then, only in a very general way.

I actually use these concepts in my Aikido training quite frequently- the richness of the sensations of technique throughout my body are impossible to summarize. There’s plenty of verbal guidance provided, and descriptions of technique, but ultimately it always comes down to the physical reality of the situation. There’s this constant sense that the best method of finding the true way is to put yourself into the situation and experience it for yourself, time and again- because no amount of abstract representation can properly express the full nuance of a throw- and every time through the technique is a completely new experience, dependent on the full range of characteristics of both participants.

Not entirely unlike data points for a hypothesis, really. And the best hypotheses, like the best training, always holds itself accountable to the physical reality on the smallest scale, reinforced with repetition ad nauseum.

More thoughts on abstraction tomorrow- I’ve got a lot bouncing around my head, as promised. This actually would also segue really well into a discussion of artificial intelligence and language- but I think I’ll leave that aside for now, as it’s Friday, and I think I’m going to go relax with some tea now, instead.

-Alton

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