Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Science is hard

This is a great story of how the cure for scurvy was forgotten. Basically, the British realized early on that lemon juice would prevent it very effectively, but they didn't really know why (and perhaps more importantly, they seem to have been fairly unaware of this ignorance). So when they switched to other solutions that various theories held would be equally effective (eating preserved limes with the vitamin C destroyed, avoiding tainted meat but failing to eat fresh meat, etc), the scurvy came back. It wasn't until the mid 20th century that the true explanation was finally verified. Turns out, science is hard: it's really easy to come up with explanations for facts and really hard to be sure which one, if any (of the ones yet thought of), is right.

Serendipitously, even though that story was published a few years ago, I read it the same day this perfectly appropriate xkcd cartoon was published:

I like to make fun of engineers and physical scientists for how easy they have it* since rocks kinda just obey a few laws and are easily controlled and predictable. Experiments are easy to control and replicate and there aren't the plethora of confounding factors that come with humans being human and exercising their infinitely faceted free will. I do think this makes economists very good at thinking about alternative explanations and being very harsh judges of any inference from data; the success of this approach is why economics is invading the other social sciences and even medicine. On the other hand, introspection is useful guide when trying to think of new hypotheses about human behavior that the physical scientists don't have at their disposal, and the obvious difficulty that created for scurvy makes me(even more) amazed at how far science came in such a short time. Good job guys.

*Yes I'm kidding.

[Link stolen from SlateStarCodex]

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