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The Wonder Pill

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How We Know What We Know 3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 |

Norman Rockwell painting of "Family Practice"In 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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The Origins of Science

Painting if Aristotle
Aristotle's notion that observation led to understanding is still a basic tenent of the modern scientific method.  

As 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.

"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."

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

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 taking a pill - even a sugar pill- is proof that it works.

Painting of Galileo
Galileo's use of the telescope to discover the previously unknown moons of Jupiter illustrated the need for instruments to check human perceptions in science.  

The 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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3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 |

Images: Norman Rockwell Print: 1947 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing Co., Indianapolis, IN All rights reserved. ;; NASA


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