148 thoughts on “The Believing Brain

  1. daedalus2u says:

    K, every single one of your objections applies to CAM and other belief based treatment modalities, but even more so.

    1. There is a clear conflict of interest in not running any clinical trials and simply asserting that a treatment works without testing it.

    2. Supplement manufacturers can and do falsify data to suit their purposes. They fake data, they put untested products in what they sell, they sell stuff without testing it, they put real drugs in their fake supplements, they lie to themselves about what they are doing, they lie to their customers about what they are doing.

    3. Examination of claims by a flawed organization is better than no examination of claims by anyone but those who will profit from those claims.

    4. A short trial goes on infinitely longer than the trials of zero duration, the trials that CAM products are put through.

    5. When zero demographic groups are taken into account, not all demographic groups are taken into account.

    6. Individuals react individually to what ever unknown substances are in the CAM products they are sold. CAM has no techniques and makes no effort to eliminate harm to consumers of CAM products that are not even tested.

    7. CAM practitioners have no guidelines to follow.

    Because SBM is not perfect (mostly because it is practiced by humans with human-like constraints in a world with limited resources), we should throw out SBM and do something else?

    None of your objections have to do with the core tenets of SBM.

    Dr Hall does not “believe” in any drugs. She has looked at research that has correlated treatment with drugs of certain compositions for certain indications as part of treatment, which treatment has produced certain resolution of symptoms in certain populations. When the data changes, as more research is done, Dr Hall will revise what she considers to be the appropriate treatment.

    What are you proposing as an alternative to SBM? Other ways of knowing? Going into a trance and in that trance-like state decide what is the most appropriate treatment?

  2. kulkarniravi says:


    I am not asking to throw out SBM or medicine. All I am saying is that stop pretending that modern medicine is completely scientific – it is dangerous. It promotes the idea that modern medicine is somehow foolproof and people should believe in it and its practitioners without question. With so many holes, it is best if laypeople did their own research and consider all the benefits v/s risks of each medicine, alternatives if any and the choice of not taking any medicine at all in many cases.

  3. weing says:

    Who said modern medicine is completely scientific? We are on the way, yes, but we have not gotten there yet.

    “it is best if laypeople did their own research and consider all the benefits v/s risks of each medicine, alternatives if any”

    You really think laypeople have the knowledge base to do this? Anecdotally speaking, that has not been my experience. I spend a long time educating patients about the various options that they have.

    “and the choice of not taking any medicine at all in many cases.”
    If they know the full consequences and take responsibility for them. I inform my patients all the time, and let them decide whether they want the medicines or not. It’s their life. I don’t always agree with their decisions, like the patient with curable renal cancer who refused surgery, sometimes I do, like the elderly woman with unresectable pancreatic cancer that declined chemotherapy.

  4. Harriet Hall says:

    @ kulkarniravi,

    You are reading into our posts a dogmatism that was never there. No one has suggested that modern medicine as currently implemented is either completely scientific or foolproof. And it is not a question of anyone “believing in it without question.”

    It is reasonable to reach a provisional conclusion based on the currently available evidence. Science is unquestionably the best method for evaluating the truth of a claim: that is not a belief, but a fact that has been demonstrated. As currently practiced, there are many flaws in science-based medicine. We discuss many of those flaws on this blog. The logical response is to do everything possible to avoid flaws and correct errors, not to reject the whole system just because it is flawed. There is no “other way of knowing” that can hope to outperform science.

    Good doctors “do their own research and consider all the benefits v/s risks of each medicine, alternatives if any and the choice of not taking any medicine at all in many cases.” If your doctor is not doing this, you are right to question him or to look for a better doctor. If laymen try to do their own research, at best they will find the same evidence that a good doctor has already found; at worst, they will misconstrue the evidence and reach false conclusions.

  5. daedalus2u says:

    K, all you are doing is making a gigantic straw man. If modern medicine was completely scientific, the authors of this blog would have found no need to have such a blog. The very existence of this blog disproves your disingenuous straw man assertion.

    Are you suggesting that the alternative you propose, lay people becoming experts via google-U is somehow “more scientific”?

    When it is clear that you don’t understand what SBM is, or what “modern medicine” is, by what basis are you suggesting that your alternative will be better?

  6. Harriet Hall says:

    “And yet you continue to believe in these drugs. So what does that say about your claims that you “know” they work?”

    I do not “believe” in these drugs. I don’t claim to “know” they work in a deep sense; I only reach a provisional conclusion based on the available evidence; and when better evidence comes along, that conclusion changes. Sometimes our conclusions will be wrong, but the scientific process will eventually put us right. That is the best anyone can hope to do. It seems to me you are setting up some kind of absolutist straw man and missing some of the subtleties of what science really says.

  7. Imadgeine says:

    Seem to recall that the outlook for diabetes was pretty darn grim before the scientific discoveries that led to insulin therapy. Along with lots of other non-acute conditions. Where were those ancient wise old lore based therapies when my grandmothers needed them. Or my father either. Dead by 34 because he had rheumatic fever in the days before antibiotics were available.

    Trouble with CAM practitioners is that they sometimes don’t know when to show people the door and send them straight back to the hospital. Do not pass Go. Do not give me £200.

  8. Harriet Hall says:

    “Even the bedrock concepts of “scientific method” and “falsifiability” have their weaknesses and limits, not to mention the problems with induction mentioned by someone upthread, as well the problems with inference to the best explanation. Yet these concepts are repeated in this forum as some sort of mantra of ultimate truth.”

    I, for one, have never meant to imply they were some sort of mantra of ultimate truth. And I don’t think others have either. I think we consider them the best available methods for sorting out practical truths.

    As for improbability and impossibility, every individual has to make a decision about where to draw the line between reasonable openmindedness and the kind of openmindedness that allows the brains to fall out.

  9. kulkarniravi says:


    You are building your own strawman. I am not promoting any supplements or alternatives to anyone. I am just suggesting that everyone should do their own due diligence.

    Health is a very complex issue and no one else can take your health more seriously than yourself. Given all the holes in the modern medicine above, laypeople have no choice but to do their own research. It could be defective or even faulty, but it is still better than no research at all, as it could happen if you totally depend on your doctor.

  10. pmoran says:

    Health is a very complex issue and no one else can take your health more seriously than yourself. Given all the holes in the modern medicine above, laypeople have no choice but to do their own research. It could be defective or even faulty, but it is still better than no research at all, as it could happen if you totally depend on your doctor.

    I am sure you don’t mean that. “Defective or faulty research” is leading people to believe that they can entrust their lives to “alternative” cancer treatments that can be shown to have a near-zero chance of working, even when conventional methods offer them an excellent chance of cure. That is where too much mistrust of the medical profession leads.

  11. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    windriven wrote:

    degrees Celsius or degrees Fahrenheit? These are consistent and broadly agreed upon units of measure. Each is internally consistent

    Temperature is also something reproducible and stable, but you need to know a lot of thermodynamics to be able to define it.

    One might think that one takes the expansion of mercury or alcohol to measure
    it. The problem is the expansion can be accurately measured, but equal intervals on the alcohol scale are not equal intervals on the mercury scale.

    The point about Fahrenheit / Celsius / Kelvin: These are nowadays agreed upon linear transforms of each other.

    With length and masses and electrical charge you can add lengths together this helps a lot in devising standards. But if you have pots of water at temperatures A, B, C, D there is no simple way of determining whether or not
    the difference between A and B is “the same” as between C and D.

    The example of temperature shows that for some definitions you need a lot of theory. All the same, in physics the phenomena are often very stable so you can develop a theory of measurement.

    Before you picj some standards of measurement you must be pretty sure of the stable nature of that which you want to meaure.
    This subdiscussion started with the problem of a faulty clock. That’s easy. If you can build one clock, you can build two. Then you can compare whether they at least give the same number of seconds between two events, or whether one hour plus one hour equals two hours (on the clock).

    If you use clocks or kilograms as metaphors for things in general science you
    risk losing sight of the fact that you can measure time, distance, mass and temperature at all because of deep consistency laws of these magnitudes. I don’t know how to say it.

    For general scientific concepts there are – apart from the laws of logic – no such deep laws that enable you to start on a program for perfecting measurement bij imnproving standards.

  12. tmac57 says:

    Oh…I see SBM is holding it’s monthly Kulkarnival!
    Which way to the dunking booth?

  13. Harriet Hall says:


    “everyone should do their own due diligence.”

    Your last comment seems to reduce your message to something like “informed health care consumers can make better health care decisions.”

    An analogy: trusting your auto mechanic blindly could be a big mistake. If your mechanic wants to install an expensive new part in your car, you should have some understanding of what that part does, why the mechanic thinks the old part is defective, whether a used or rebuilt part could be obtained more cheaply, and whether your car might still run safely and reliably if you chose not to replace the part. If your mechanic is wrong, you might be wasting your money, or your car might have some other undiagnosed problem that could cause an accident or a breakdown.

    If that’s all you mean, no one could disagree with that. No need for “other ways of knowing.” Merely an application of common sense.

  14. Pingback: Day2 |
  15. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Large thread. But on the aspect of non-belief (science).

    @ wales:

    “Even the bedrock concepts of “scientific method” and “falsifiability” have their weaknesses and limits, not to mention the problems with induction mentioned by someone upthread, as well the problems with inference to the best explanation. Yet these concepts are repeated in this forum as some sort of mantra of ultimate truth. I didn’t realize that there were legitimate criticisms of these concepts until I began to read philosophy of science.”

    – Of course testability is promoted as fact and theory, because a) it is used and it works, we can tell what doesn’t work (the fact) b) it is itself testable, see a) (the theory).

    Eventually the process converge by elimination. For example, as physicist Sean Carroll notes “The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood”:

    “A hundred years ago it would have been easy to ask a basic question to which physics couldn’t provide a satisfying answer. “What keeps this table from collapsing?” “Why are there different elements?” “What kind of signal travels from the brain to your muscles?” But now we understand all that stuff. (Again, not the detailed way in which everything plays out, but the underlying principles.) Fifty years ago we more or less had it figured out, depending on how picky you want to be about the nuclear forces. But there’s no question that the human goal of figuring out the basic rules by which the easily observable world works was one that was achieved once and for all in the twentieth century.

    You might question the “once and for all” part of that formulation, but it’s solid. Of course revolutions can always happen, but there’s every reason to believe that our current understanding is complete within the everyday realm.”

    – Induction (and inference) is useful to form hypotheses, however it fails to explain science as process as induction is the circularly used to explain induction.

    Circularity is in itself not a problem, in fact a theory is founded on the some of the facts it predicts so a completely tested theory is momentarily tautological. But you need testing to drive home (and punctuate) circularity. Induction by itself isn’t an explanation.

    – Inference to best explanation is a philosophical idea.

    – Philosophy (of science, say) can only tell internal consistence, not external validity. If you can’t tell what is wrong, you can’t tell what is right. It is story telling, and can’t be used to understand anything factual and especially science.

  16. daedalus2u says:

    windriven, you should read the wikipedia entry on the kilogram.

    The kilogram is still defined as the mass of a specific piece of metal, the IPC. If that piece of metal changes, so does the kilogram, or rather the kilogram stays the same because it is defined that way, but everything that depends on the kilogram changes.

    The problem with the IPC changing is why science does not hinge on belief. It hinges on definitions, observations and logic. Every scientific measurement that depends on the kilogram, is traceable back to the IPC. It is not that scientists believe that the IPC is a kilogram, the IPC is the kilogram by definition. It is not a question of belief, it is about the definition of the kilogram.

    If the IPC did get destroyed, then the kilogram would be redefined, but the people who’s job it is to take care of such things, really don’t want to do that unless they absolutely have to.

  17. windriven says:


    I generally find your comments erudite and helpful but I think we must be totally misunderstanding one another on this. We can engage in an esoteric discussion on the fine points of metrology – I’m a physicist and would be happy to oblige – but I don’t see how that has much bearing on the discussion at hand.

    You took exception to my simple observation that it is the relationships that matter not the units used so long as those units are consistent. This subdiscussion did not, as you suggest, start with clocks. It started with my response to pdawg’s apparent assertion that flaws in human cognition necessitate flaws in science and the scientific method. Clocks were a sideshow abandoned by pdawg early on.

    My point was and remains: it is the relationships between physical properties that matter, not the units that we use to measure them. We can make our measurements in base 10 or in base 2 or in base 16. We can use the metric system, the imperial system, or whatever system of measurement the peoples of Persei Omicron use. The units of measure are arbitrary. The fundamental relationships are not.

    Since you resurrected the clock business – and with homage to Einstein, clock lover extraordinaire – take a clock, any clock, running at any period … we’ll call that period a schnutz. So long as that clock is absolutely consistent, so long as the schnutz never varies, and so long as we all agree to use the schnutz as the basic unit of time, we can incorporate that into every formula that features one or more terms in units of time. Eventually, we might learn to define the schnutz, say, in terms of the the emission spectra of some element. But you see, there is no magic in the second, the minute, the hour or the schnutz. The magic is in the frequency of, say, the photon emitted when an electron of a given atom moves to a lower shell. We can express that in cycles per second or cycles per schnutz without changing our understanding of the universe one iota.

  18. windriven says:


    It is slightly more accurate to say that the IPC standard is our best representation of the kg. In a perfect world we might state the kg to be the mass of whatever-the-number-is quantity of, say, platinum atoms. This would be a fairly stable unit of mass. The IPK is an approximation of that idea.

    Your mention of the standard kg changing mass goes right to the heart of my point: the units of measure do not matter, the relationships between physical properties is what matters. As the wiki article mentions, mass is the only remaining unit of measure that is defined by an artifact, in this case a man-made approximation of a large but definite number of platinum atoms.

  19. kulkarniravi says:


    Both you and Weing use the auto mechanic analogy. That is very interesting. I have observed that approach to healthcare among doctors. My body is not a car! There is much more at stake here than a few hundred or thousand dollars. I can throw away my car and buy another. On the other hand, I have only one body and one life. What’s a few more drugs seems to be doctors’ thinking. I am sorry but my body is not a car!

    You are right, my whole message can be summarized thus:

    “informed health care consumers can make better health care decisions.”

    But you see it takes a lot of debate, lot of soul searching on the part of the healthcare professionals and consumers to get there. That’s the whole point of this debate. So it is not a waste of time after all.

  20. weing says:


    “What’s a few more drugs seems to be doctors’ thinking. ” Huh?
    How did you get to that from “my body is not a car?”

  21. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:


    So long as that clock is absolutely consistent, so long as the schnutz never varies

    That’s the whole point. Nowadays we know how to do that with clocks. But if you have a sundial (and define the schnutz to be the time between sunrise and sunset) or if you measure time by counting your pulse then you get into trouble. Introducing water clocks and sandglasses have other problems.

    But I agree with you: the basis for physicist’s metrology is the discovery that a great many phenomena run according to fixed laws that can be expressed in terms of space and time. But that makes them unsuitable as a metaphor for things from the realm of thought about reality for which there are not such laws to help you.

    Then only internal consistency and agreement with facts remain, and if you worry that an idea might be ‘faulty’ merely by comparing it to another idea, I would suggest that you don’t have to start comparing with other ideas. You might start with internal consistency.

    If you find, for example, that proponents of homeopathy make a mess of definitions, contradict each other and themselves then that is a strong indication that they are wrong.

    When they start about paradigmata, you know that by acting as if they have an internally coherent theory like classical mechanics they are basically saying: “So what if my clock runs different from yours. All clocks are equal and ‘some clocks are more equal than others’ doesn’t apply.” But by picking the metaphor from the core of physics they are actually claiming an internal consistency that they don’t have.

  22. Harriet Hall says:


    Your body is not a car, but the same basic principles of critical thinking and consumer protection apply to consulting an expert about your car and your body. Sure, you should be even more careful when it comes to your precious body. I’m afraid I don’t really see your point.

    “You are right, my whole message can be summarized thus:
    “informed health care consumers can make better health care decisions.”
    But you see it takes a lot of debate, lot of soul searching on the part of the healthcare professionals and consumers to get there.”

    Not really. If you had just said that in the beginning there would have been nothing to debate. Everyone agrees with that. There is no need for doctor-bashing or appeals to other ways of knowing.

  23. windriven says:


    On this you and I are in the most complete agreement. The homeopath and many other devotees of quackery thrive on appearance rather than fact. In some cases their spells and potions appear to be efficacious when the fact is that improvement owes to regression to the mean or to placebo effects. Their jabber appears to make sense to the scientifically illiterate because they string together words that sound scientific but that obscure rather than elucidate.

  24. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:


    The kilogram is still defined as the mass of a specific piece of metal, the IPC.

    (should be IPK)

    I have to support windriven in saying this is immaterial. As we have seen with the other units, they can be redefined as soon as a method is found to produce a standard that is more stable and allows a more accurate measurement.

    Let me take the kilogram as example. Before you even think about choosing standards you first must be certain that mass is a conserved quantity. You better establish that weight is exactly proportional to inertial mass (and not dependent on the proton-neutron ratio). The concept of mass occurs in the equations of physics. Probably the best definition would be the mass of a single atom of known composition (which amounts to defining the Avogadro constant as a fixed number), but technology hasn’t advanced far enough to count off exactly 602,214,200,000,000,000,000,000 atoms of Si-28. Or maybe count only 6,022,142 of them and then have a way of checking that something else has exactly 10¹⁶ times the mass of that.

    But before you are going to choose a unit, you must be quite certain that the concept you want to measure by that unit has a certain stability, and can be measured at all. If you think of stickiness or beauty or degree of nonsensicality yopu see what I mean. In physics there is a derived concept, entropy, (dimension energy per kelvin) and I think you would have a lot of trouble measuring the entropy content of an object, let alone comparing it to a unit.

    If all that is in place: a stable theoretical concept capable of being measured in some reproducible way, then the choice of the unit is more or less arbitrary. The fact that we can meaningfully discuss whether the IPK is losing mass shows that there is underneath of the definition 1 kg = 1 IPK an even more powerful concept, namely that of conservation of mass.

  25. kulkarniravi says:


    No one likes to be put under a microscope and I understand that. But the stakes here are too high to leave the healthcare to self proclaimed science worshipers. There is a lot of gap between what you claim to be scientific and what really goes on. So all these aspects of theory and practice of medicine have to be debated in public and exposed so that everyone gains. And there is no harm in considering alternatives (including herbs and supplements) when modern medicine throws up its hands or worse.

    1. Harriet Hall says:

      We have done our best to explain that we are not “self proclaimed science worshipers,” that we recognize the limitations of science and that we use it because it is the best tool we have. The issues you raise HAVE been debated, largely by the very doctors you distrust. When modern medicine has no answer for a problem, you could grasp at straws and offer yourself as a human guinea pig in an uncontrolled experiment, and try any untested remedy you choose to believe in. You might benefit, or you might be harmed. Without science, you have no way of knowing.

  26. tmac57 says:

    kulkarniravi-There might be no harm in ‘considering’ alternatives,but there CAN demonstrably be harm in USING alternatives in some cases.

  27. windriven says:

    Hey kulk-

    The modern medicine that you hold in such contempt has conquered polio, smallpox, a raft of infectious diseases, developed life prolonging treatments for everything from AIDS to coronary artery disease to breast cancer.

    Are you, with a straight face, arguing that “the stakes here are too high to leave the healthcare to self proclaimed (sic) science worshipers?”

    Staring at your navel in search of enlightenment has achieved exactly what? In India – home of the yogic search for enlightenment – average lifespan is 10 years less than in the US and EU.

    You babble like a fool and then retreat to the claim that you only advocate for consumer education. Education doesn’t mean opening one’s mind to every hare-brained notion that comes along. Education includes developing a critical faculty to separate truth from bullcrap.

    Perhaps the effort to improve health care consumer education should begin with kulkarniravi.

  28. daedalus2u says:

    windriven, and JWN both of you have completely missed my point. It is not more accurate to say the IPK is the best representation of the kilogram. The IPK is the kilogram. The IPK is the definition of the kilogram. There is no other kilogram than the IPK.

    If the IPK were damaged, it would still be the kilogram unless and until the definition of the kilogram was changed. Likely what would happen is that the kilogram would become undefined until they figured out a way to redefine it.

    We don’t know that mass is absolutely conserved. We think it is, and to within the limits of what we can measure it does seem to be conserved, but we don’t know that mass is conserved. When the IPK was created it was not known if mass was conserved. The IPK was pre-relativity and pre-radioactivity. They actually made a bad choice in choosing platinum because platinum does have a few radioactive isotopes. The mass of platinum does change over time. The mass of the IPK does not change because that is the definition of mass.

    Real scientists don’t have a belief that mass is conserved, they have the tentative hypothesis that mass is conserved to a pretty high degree. How high a degree? To the degree that the conservation of mass has been measured. They may do their calculations on the basis of assuming that mass is absolutely conserved, but if there was good data that mass was not conserved they would change their assumption (it would have to be extraordinarily good data).

    The whole point of science is to be able to tie ideas back to something other than belief, to tie ideas back to data. It is sloppy (and unscientific) to do otherwise. In practice there is little difference between assuming mass is absolutely conserved and assuming it is conserved within the limits that have been measured. Conceptually there is a big difference. The difference is what does one prioritize, one’s belief, or what can be measured in reality? Scientists have to defer to reality, no matter what their beliefs are. That is essentially the definition of a scientist.

  29. windriven says:


    Exactly enough for millions who will never suffer the disease. The failure to completely eradicate the disease isn’t with the science, isn’t with the medicine, it is the lack of political will to vaccinate everyone and eradicate the few remaining pockets of the virus.

    Apparently the Gates Foundation will fill that breach. Thanks for the link.

  30. windriven says:


    Is it then your contention that Avogadro’s number changes with variations in the mass of the IPK in Paris?

    You seem to confuse the artifact with the principle. F=MA. The force required to accelerate Avogadro’s number of C12 atoms from one velocity to another does not vary with changes to the mass of a bar of platinum in Paris.

    Now we could all agree on a different fundamental unit of mass and with that would change, among many other things, Avogadro’s number (as the definition of a mole would change).

    The IPK is our best effort to create an artifact that approximates the kilogram to a high degree of accuracy. But the concept of kilogram does not change with changes to the artifact.

  31. windriven says:

    “Likely what would happen is that the kilogram would become undefined until they figured out a way to redefine it. ”

    More likely they would simply mill a new IPK. The IPK does not exist in isolation. It is part of a web of interrelated units of measure and the mathematical relationships that describe the universe that we inhabit. We can arrive back to the mass of a kilogram from any number of other units – none of which depend on an artifact to define it.

  32. windriven says:

    Sorry. I misspoke. I said the IPK does not exist in isolation. In fact it does. I meant to say that the kilogram does not exist in isolation.

  33. kulkarniravi says:


    If you read what I have written carefully, you will see that I have given credit where it is due (i.e., modern medicine has addressed infectious diseases, identified hygiene as important, provides great emergency care, wonderful diagnosis). So you are attacking a strawman.

    Rest of your ad hominem attacks ignored.

  34. daedalus2u says:

    In principle the kilogram could have been defined in any number of ways, but it wasn’t. You can’t “get back” to the kilogram in any number of different ways. All of the possible derivative ways that could be used to “recover” the IPK if it was lost were derived from the IPK originally so using them to get the IPK “back” would be circular but with measurement error at each step in the circular pathway.

    Avagadro’s constant is defined as the number of atoms in one mole.

    If the IPK changes, then the number of atoms in a mole changes. That change is at the level of uncertainty in the measurement and is what sets the level of uncertainty in the measurement.

    But if you want to talk about the IPK “changing”, you are not really talking about the IPK because by definition it does not change. You are using the terms in a different sense.

    I appreciate the difference, we act as if one kg is always one kg as if it was an actual physical constant, but it isn’t, it is the mass of a specific hunk of metal. In virtually all circumstances the difference doesn’t matter, but at the most fundamental level it does matter and uncertainties in the mass of that hunk of metal propagate through all our measurements and all our understanding of physics and chemistry.

    When we put on our super-precise-minutia-detailed-nerdy-obsessive-scientist-hats we have no beliefs, just data, and every statement is a statement about data and relationships to that data with error propagation through every measurement to conclusions.

    We don’t really know if mass is conserved absolutely, we only know mass is conserved to within a certain degree of uncertainty, the degree of uncertainty that we can measure. That measurement is only relative to other things. Once you start talking about absolute certainty in things like conservation of mass you are not doing science, you are doing belief.

    I do think it is pretty likely that mass is conserved exactly. The reason I think that is because if it was not, then things like non-causal “action at a distance” would have to occur. But that is a hypothesis, it is not something that is known, or (as far as is known now) can be knowable.

  35. wales says:

    Windriven: “The failure to completely eradicate the disease isn’t with the science, isn’t with the medicine…” Not entirely accurate, read the last paragraph of the article. Because the live vaccine is widely used in much of the world, we will have to contend with VDPVs for some time. This is why the US stopped using live vaccine.

    My point is that even the best of science often has unintended consequences. And no that doesn’t make me anti-science, just realistic.

  36. windriven says:


    “You can’t “get back” to the kilogram in any number of different ways.”

    Really. You apparently understand the concept of a mole and of Avogadro’s number. The IPK could disappear from the face of the earth but the concept of the gram and hence the kilogram would remain intact, the mathematics would work the same, and a new IPK that would be just as meaningful as the original could be constructed.

    Is there a certain circularity to all this? Of course, the kilogram is an arbitrary unit. But that doesn’t prevent the theoretical reconstruction of the mass that we arbitrarily assign the name kilogram. You seem hung up on an arbitrary unit of measure that is in and of itself unimportant. It is the relationships that matter.

    Looked at from a different perspective, let’s assume that the IPK disappears and because of arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of an IPK, the kilogram unit is abandoned and replaced with, say, the mass of Avogadro’s number of protons*. So what? A conversion factor is added and our mathematical understanding of the universe remains unchanged.

    *I chose protons because physicists have looked fruitlessly for evidence of proton decay so daedalus2u’s concerns about stability would be addressed.

  37. daedalus2u says:

    windriven I think you are really not understanding my point. For most uses, for selling a kg of onions for example, the casual idea that you have of what a kilogram is would be sufficient. For some applications it is not. You have no way of knowing which is which.

    The only reason we know about those relationships is because they have been measured and those measurements match our expectations at the limits of our abilities to measure them. We have no way of knowing if those relationships continue to hold once we have ways to measure them with greater degrees of precision.

    Whether protons decay is unknown.

    You can assume protons don’t decay, but that is an assumption which might be ok for some uses, but not for others. It is like assuming mass is invariant with velocity as in Newtonian mechanics. To a very good first approximation that is correct. In light of relativity it is not correct.

    You want to accept the relationships that science has derived without accepting any of the error bars or uncertainties in the data that was used to formulate those relationships. That is not how science works. The concept of “belief” is to attach an arbitrary precision of 1 to the truth of an idea. That is not science, that is pseudoscience. Things can have a precision of 1, but only when that is part of their definition.

  38. windriven says:


    Buddy, I’m just going to roll my eyes and move on. The lower limit on proton stability is on the order (as I recall, so don’t bother to write to correct me unless this is off by a meaningful amount) of 10^30 years. Good grief, that’s almost as long as it will take to pay off the national debt!

    Science is, in part, the process of reducing uncertainty.

    Your fifth paragraph wholly misstates my position. I have never suggested that there aren’t margins of error and can’t fathom what ever gave you to think that I had.

  39. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    I almost feel guilty having brought this up by going into the details of the definition of basic units. Wrt the kilogram daedalus has a point. Nowadays units of length, time and temperature are defined in a way that anybody can develop a measuring machine. It used to be that a meter was just the 10,000,000th part of the distance from pole to equator, but after measuring that distance once, they decided on a platinum meter. But the kilogram is just that single piece of metal. I amd sure that sooner or later they will redefine it (e.g. the mass of a ball of silicium of prescribed radius). As the radius and the sphericity and the isotopic content can be measured very precisely that is much better: if you want a kilogram, you make just a ball like that.

    The ideal definition is one where anyone can build a measuring machine, without having to go to one single object.

    I don’t think this is really important, my protests were directed against the use of these things as a metaphor for other things that are much less precise and well defined.

  40. HH said in response to kulk* “Sure, you should be even more careful when it comes to your precious body. I’m afraid I don’t really see your point.”

    Except for the fact that you are putting your body AND your children’s bodies in the car. When you find that your brakes, power steering, etc has been repaired improperly, suddenly your body feels very much like the car. Otherwise we’d all still think the Ford Pinto is a fine automobile, good milage, stylish colors, what could go wrong, besides losing a couple thousand bucks?

    *who, apparently needs a refresher course in the concepts of analogy, simile and metaphor.

  41. daedalus2u says:

    JWN, I think your point was well taken to illustrate how humans can do science with imperfect brains that are subject to beliefs that can be in error. It doesn’t take belief to do science, just keeping track of what is data, what is definition and what the relationships are between them.

    I was trying to emphasize how science can be done in the complete absence of belief. If you can do science without belief, then wrong beliefs can’t block you from doing science.

    I am not saying that this is how scientists always do it, but when your intuition is unreliable, this is how you have to do it. This is the opposite of the “other ways of knowing” that CAM practitioners use. When you don’t know, and you know that you don’t know, you fall back on the data.

  42. windriven says:

    @JWN and daedalus2u

    Yes, we can engage in an arcane dialog about vanishingly small errors in measurement systems. But it is absolutely wrong to fixate on an artifact. The universe cares nothing of a chunk of platinum in Paris. It is the mathematical relationships that matter and those relationships are independent of the units we use to describe them. I will again state the obvious: if the IPK disappeared tomorrow we could easily construct a new artifact that is at least as accurate a measure of our notion of ‘kilogram’ as the one that disappeared.


    Perhaps I am alone in totally missing any part of your argument that suggested, “how science can be done in the complete absence of belief.” I, in fact, took your argument as quite the opposite: that science, that the relationships that define the universe, are in some way dependent on a man-made artifact.

  43. yeahsurewhatever says:

    That pithy Feynman quotation comes from a 1964 lecture at Cornell University, and that particular little clip of it is on Youtube at v=b240PGCMwV0

  44. wales says:

    And then there’s N. David Mermin’s joke:

    Question: What is the difference between theoretical physics and mathematical physics?

    Answer: Theoretical physics is done by physicists who lack the necessary skills to do real experiments; mathematical physics is done by mathematicians who lack the necessary skills to do real mathematics.

    Here’s an entertaining piece on who originated the infamous “shut up and calculate” comment frequently attributed to Feynman.

    Mermin on a thoughtful Feynman comment regarding philosophy of physics:

    “He said that he “always had a great deal of difficulty understanding the world view that quantum mechanics represents,” and added, “I still get nervous with it.”2 Nobody who felt that way would ever respond with “shut up and calculate” to conceptual inquiries from the perplexed.”

Comments are closed.