Science or Art?

After reading the article titled "Alternative medicine- A faith based cure or science?" Sreeparna, I was inspired to throw in my two cents on the topic. Being a research scientist and having recently developed an amateurish interest in Homeopathy as well, I probably fall

in the category of those Sreeparna describes as having "no clue to the science" and their knowledge being very "superficial" !!


First regarding the science of homeopathy – by saying that homeopathy is more an art than a science I would be getting ahead of myself. The ‘problem’ with science is that it requires proof and not just qualitative proof. The standard procedure for running experiments is that one maintains "scientific controls". At the risk of offending animal lovers I give you the example of two mice used for experiments. They are siblings, both are of identical age, they are kept on the same diet and living conditions and then both are infected with a particular disease. Now one of them is given the experimental cure and the other is not. So mouse 1 is the “experiment” and the mouse 2 is the "control".

The question an ideal scientific experiment tries to answer is – All else maintained exactly the same, what effect does the introduction of (or a change in) variable X have on the system.

The key to good experimental proof is the ability to isolate variables. What happens when that cannot be done? We see a "confounding" of variables or "cross-talk" between them. Which means that a change in Variable X not only affects the result that is being observed but also changes Variables Y and Z in the system So at this point how do you know whether the result was due to X,Y or Z? There is a whole field of statistics called Design of Experiment that deals with this problem. In the real world, it is nearly impossible to run an "ideal" experiment and the question that most scientists ask is not whether something will affect an experiment, but whether it will affect it sufficiently to be considered important.

Now to address those homeopaths (and artists) who may have taken umbrage to my reference to homeopathy as an art – The primary difference between art and science in my humble opinion lies in the total number of variables that are producing a significant effect on the result and how quantifiable those variables are. Increase the number of variables sufficiently and it leaves the domain of science. Why? Because it is too confusing and complicated and the "confounded" variables cannot be untangled any more. If my point about the overwhelming volume of variables sounds trivial, here’s the proof. The interaction of two variables can be plotted with a 2-D graph, of 3 variables in a 3-D graph. Now introduce a 4th variable and you promptly require four 3-D graphs to illustration the relation between them all. We find ourselves knee deep in data with just 4 variables and that just to create a graph based on observations. We as humans are limited by our senses. The very senses which allow us to survive on a daily basis also limit us when we try to think beyond. Try thinking beyond the 3rd dimension and you have an example of how our visual perception limits our ability to think beyond what can be physically seen.

Science consists of a set of laws derived from observations. These laws have certain boundary condition and within those boundary conditions, the laws are immutable. The ability to reduce a set of observations into a well defined set of irrefutable laws is a necessity of science. When we encounter a field where those laws hold true at times and fail at times, no longer have an “exact science”. A lot of science is not an exact science, especially when it comes to medicine and the reason being a large number of tangled variables some of which cannot be isolated or measured.

Homeopathy is one such instance where there are records and observations galore, but no hard laws which would warrant it entry into the world of science. This is the problem that plagues the clinical testing most holistic medicinal approaches. Something that is ‘holistic’ affects the whole body and hence one cannot isolate any variables to derive conclusive proof. So for now, homeopathy must reside in the domain of art and not a science, but that does not mean that it is ineffective?

But the question to be asked is – Can we appreciate the beauty in a painting without knowing the length and angle of every brush stroke that went into it?

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