study after study, researchers testing drug therapies and
even some surgeries have found that significant numbers of
patients report feeling better after taking a sham pill or
having a sham procedure. Dr.
Andrew Leuchter and Dr.
Jon Stoessl have actually measured physical changes in
response to placebo treatment in some of their patients. Their
findings give us rich new insight into our ability to heal
ourselves, but they also confound
the scientific testing process. In science, obtaining evidence
is a rigorous, sometimes lengthy process. What does that process
entail, how did it come about, and what do researchers do
about placebos' powerful effect?
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Origins of Science
Aristotle's notion that observation led to understanding
is still a basic tenent of the modern scientific method.
with many other aspects of Western culture, the scientific
method dates back to ancient Greece. From Greek philosophers,
we inherited the idea that rational underlying principles
govern the natural world and that human beings themselves
are capable of rational thought.
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."
Aristotle came to believe that one could obtain knowledge
through careful observation, an important tenet of the
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.
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."
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
taking a pill - even a sugar pill- is proof that it works.
use of the telescope to discover the previously unknown
moons of Jupiter illustrated the need for instruments
to check human perceptions in science.
problem is that our senses are unreliable, not testable and
often misleading. 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 he quickly used
the new technology to reveal the presence of Jupiter's moons,
sunspots and other formerly unobservable phenomena. These
discoveries viscerally demonstrated how unreliable human sense
perception could be.
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