Monday, September 8, 2014

Are We Over-scienced?

In this highly technological age, it seems we have become too dependent on science to provide all the answers.  We are prone to look to and take at face value the judgments of scientists on many questions that are easily answered with common sense and experience.  Furthermore, when advertisers come up with impressive, scientific-sounding phrases or make reference to some arcane scientific concept, we are too overwhelmed and impressed to challenge the conclusions.

During my master gardener training we were given a good example.  A neighbor asks, “What’s the best time to trim my tree in front?”  The neighbor rightly understands that there are more ideal times for trimming certain trees, times of year when the tree will be less stressed.  Before answering, the master gardener wonders why the neighbor wants to trim the tree.  The neighbor responds, “Every time I mow the lawn that low branch hits me in the face.”  The right answer of when to trim the tree has moved from the realm of science into the realm of common sense.  “Trim off the branch before you mow the lawn again.”

A second example came a few weeks ago from a health report on local television news.  The essence of the story can be summed up as:  It’s summer and the grocery store has a good stock of nice, fresh fruit, which is good for you.  Buy it and eat it.  There was a lot of talk about the health benefits and antioxidants, but the main message was to eat fruit.

My grandmother was born in Eastern Europe in the 1890s.  After immigrating to the US, she lived near New York City and kept a small vegetable garden in the backyard.  She knew that fruits and vegetables were good for you.  Her mantra during meal times was, “Eat your green stuff!”  No one had to tell her about antioxidants and other exotic components of fruits and vegetables.  It was just common knowledge.  Just like most people today, Grandma didn’t know what an antioxidant was or how they were good for you, but unlike most people today, it wouldn’t have mattered to her at all.

Finally, this headline made the fluffy news recently:  “Huge Weddings Lead to Better Marriage, Says New Study.”  I read several different articles on this research report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia primarily because the headlines were so misleading.  The facts are:  they interviewed 418 couples and split them up by size of their wedding, yielding two or more smaller sampling groups.  They found that those with larger weddings, more than 150 guests reported themselves as happy more often – not that they were consistently happier.  No evidence shows that the large wedding led to happiness or the tendency to stay married.  (Correlation does not prove causation.)  More likely some conditions that led to a happy marriage were also more conducive to having a big wedding:  greater financial resources and a larger support system to name just two.  Finally, the study followed the couples for only 5 years, which is hardly a long time for a marriage, and depended on self-reporting, which has highly questionable validity.  A big wedding is not, as the headline suggests, a key to a happier marriage.

The trouble today is that we depend too much on scientific recommendations and scientific jargon and not enough on what we already know.  Advertisers constantly try to wow us or scare us with the results of research studies and trigger words like antioxidants, justice, organic, sustainable, and probiotics, or chemicals, low testosterone, mercury, quantum mechanics and carbon dioxide.  (Whatever happened to Beta-carotene?) They know we daydream about and will pay good money for magic answers to lose weight, to get rich and to stay married, all the while knowing in our hearts that all these are only achievable with hard work.

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