Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Superstitions, Spaceships and Covid-19

This week I listened to prominent voices praising the success of the SpaceX rocket ship and the work of the scientist involved there, while at the same time publicly rejecting the guidance of other scientist on how to best prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.  This got me thinking about what people understand or don’t understand about science and the scientific method.

Scientists working in the areas of space flight and disease prevention both utilize the same scientific methods in their work.  The scientific method is a way to systematically discover what is true in nature.  It’s a way of logically making progress in our understanding about nature. It’s not a political or religious statement.  In fact, Albert Einstein famously described the differences between science and religion with these words, “Science can only ascertain what is, but not what it should be...”   Knowing what is…is pretty important for astronauts, medical scientists and all of humanity.

As previously mentioned, the purpose of a scientific method is to better understand the reality of nature.  In the absence of a scientific method, societies are left to rely on unsubstantiated opinions, beliefs and superstitions.  The definition of superstition is any belief or practice based upon one's trust in non-scientific forces.  

Scientific Method
Most of us that drive cars, fly in airplanes, ride elevators or take medicine are showing a high level of trust in science already.  In fact, we trust our very lives to it daily.  Superstitions, on the other hand, arise from either a misunderstanding of science, or a greater degree of belief in magic.  Magic is defined as the use of means such as charms or spells believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.  Not many of us, no matter our religious affiliations or political preferences, want to fly into space or ride an elevator to the top floor dependent on charms and spells to get us up and back safely.  I think most of us would appreciate the use of the scientific method to ensure our safety.

Have you ever said or heard someone say, “Knock on wood!” to prevent something bad from happening?  That’s an example of superstition!  It’s unlikely scientists, using the scientific method, would actually find that knocking on wood prevents bad things such as Covid-19 infections from happening.  

During this pandemic many superstitious remedies and cures for Covid-19 have been promoted including:

One televangelist in the USA urges his followers to touch their televisions as a means of vaccination by proxy to prevent the Covid-19 infections.
A politician in India encourages the practice of yoga to prevent Covid-19.
Others encourage the drinking of cow urine.
In the middle east drinking camel urine and visiting pilgrimage sites are said to heal people or prevent them from getting infected by Covid-19.
Some have claimed, without evidence, that vegetarians are immune from Covid-19.

Most of these superstitions can be easily proved or disproved by testing them using the scientific method.  

Science is not static.  Science is a journey of discovery.  Our futures will largely be defined by our scientific progress, so it is important that we understand the underlying scientific methods that are used to build our future.

*Scientific Method - A process of checking conclusions against nature. After observing something, a scientist tries to explain what has been seen.

The explanation is called a hypothesis. There is always at least one alternative hypothesis.

A part of nature is tested in a "controlled experiment" to see if the explanation matches reality. A controlled experiment is one in which all treatments are identical except that some are exposed to the hypothetical cause and some are not. Any differences in the way the treatments behave is attributed to the presence and lack of the cause.

If the results of the experiment are consistent with the hypothesis, there is evidence to support the hypothesis. If the two do not match, the scientist seeks an alternative explanation and redesigns the experiment.

When enough evidence accumulates, the understanding of this natural phenomenon is considered a scientific theory. A scientific theory persists until additional evidence causes it to be revised.

Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist | Leadership Strategies at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.