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A Different Way to Heal?
Body on a Bench
 
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How We Know Know What We Know 3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 |

By Jacqueline S. Mitchell

Photo of Alan at the MicroscopeJune 4, 2002
I
n "A Different Way to Heal?" experts use science to put alternative therapies to the test. Chiropractic and therapeutic touch don't fare so well. Acupuncture yields some interesting results, while herbal remedies prove extremely difficult to even test. Many people try alternative therapies and claim great success. Why isn't this proof enough of their effectiveness? In science, obtaining evidence is a rigorous, sometimes lengthy process. What does that process entail? And how did it come about?
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The Origins of Science

As with many other aspects of Western culture, the scientific method dates back to ancient Greece. From Greek philosophers, we have inherited the idea that rational underlying principals govern the natural world and that human beings themselves are capable of rational thought.


Many people try alternative therapies and claim great success. Why isn't this proof enough of their effectiveness?

"Those assumptions are not really anything that you can prove within science," says Sandra Luft, a philosopher and historian of ideas at San Francisco State University. "They're the assumptions you have to have to even do science."

Working on this set of assumptions - that the natural world is knowable by humans - Greek philosophers adopted the notion that one could obtain knowledge via a set of methods.

"That was the big leap," says Luft. "The methods changed, but modern science is just a variant of that fundamental assumption that knowledge is a function of method."

Philosophers of science debated the methods for centuries to come. Aristotle came to believe that one could obtain knowledge through careful observation, an important tenet of the scientific method. But, from the Aristotelian perspective, feeling better after using a natural remedy is proof that it works. The problem is that our senses are unreliable, not testable and often misleading.

"From sense perception," says Luft, "it's obvious that the earth does not move, that heavenly bodies revolve around it - the geocentric world view."

Image of Pythagoras
Greek philosopher Pythagoras maintained one could use math to model the natural world.  

It was the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras and later Plato who rejected reliance on sense perception as a route to knowledge. Pythagoras and Plato maintained that one could use mathematics to analyze the natural world. Though Aristotle's emphasis on pure observation dominated science through the Middle Ages, quantitative, mathematical methods gained ground during the Renaissance.


Aristotle came to believe that one could obtain knowledge through careful observation, an important tenet of the scientific method.

An important step toward the modern scientific method was the marriage of observation and empirical evidence represented by the telescope Galileo built in 1609. Galileo was not the first to build a telescope, but with the relatively new device, he quickly revealed the presence of the moons of Jupiter, sunspots and other formerly unobservable phenomena. These discoveries viscerally demonstrated how unreliable human sense perception could be. Scientists now saw the need to have objective instruments verify what their senses told them.

According to Luft, the Renaissance - with its preoccupation with aesthetics and representation of reality - provided the perfect backdrop for this cultural revolution.

Image of Building
Renaissance architect Brunelleschi used perspective to create this realistic painting of "The Baptistry of San Giovanni" in 1412.  

"Aesthetic ideas were very important. Renaissance art has a great deal to do with the nature of space," says Luft. "With a grounding in mathematics, Renaissance artists were beginning to achieve three dimensionality in space using the art of perspective."

The realistic art of the Renaissance helped mainstream the notion that mathematics could represent reality. By the end of the Renaissance, the modern scientific method was in place.
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3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 |

Images: www.stangrist.com

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