Canada Health Alliance

What Does – and Doesn’t – Make Us Sick

Tow Cowan

What makes us sick and what doesn’t make us sick? To answer that question, our first step is to understand how we as human beings come to know something. There are two basic ways. First, we can have a sensory experience of something that tells us that this thing is real. We might study a particular tree in its habitat and see whether it produces fruit or observe what type of birds it attracts. Or we could study frogs and learn about where they live, what they eat and their interaction with the wider ecosystem.

But there are also things for which no sensory experience is possible, perhaps because they’re too small to see. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but in this situation, we have to do something called “science”— meaning looking for and establishing the existence of things that we don’t experience directly through our senses.

When we do science—and this is important—we have to make sure, during every single step of the process, that we haven’t altered the nature of the thing we’re studying, or even brought that thing into existence through our intervention. Analytical chemists understand this; they tell me that in their line of work (which amounts to finding things they cannot experience through their senses), they have to validate that their procedures—taking something out of its habitat and shining a light on it or adding chemicals—didn’t in fact actually create what they ended up with. Otherwise, they can’t know whether or not the thing actually exists. Stated another

way, when researchers test cause and e!ect by changing an independent variable to see whether it has an e!ect on a dependent variable, they have to make sure, every step of the way, that they are measuring just the relationship between those two variables. This is the essence of the “scientific method.” When we don’t follow the true scientific method, we can end up in a world of illusions, delusions and make-believe.

What if there is no possible way to do an experiment? In that case, you are relying on something that is more like faith, and you should acknowledge that. You should state, “This is what I believe to be true and I’m going to dedicate myself to figuring out whether I can validate that it actually is true.” In other words, the goal is to go from “I believe” to “I know.”

Image: Leohoho @ Unsplash

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