Tuesday, June 16, 2009

When We Mistake What We Can Know for All There is to Know

The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.

Michael Pollan, 2007

These nicely crafted words are from the book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals. Michael Pollan was describing what happened to the health of plants when we reduced what they need to live to Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK). We started providing plants with NPK only (through synthetic fertilizers). Michael Pollan states: once we reduce complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however, important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else. This is exactly the problem with the misapplication of evidence based medicine (EBM). There is the tendency to overlook everything else. EBM is a very good tool for evaluating studies. These studies happen to follow the reductionist paradigm. We should never allow reductionism to overcast our thoughts. We should not allow EBM to overlook everything else and assume there is nothing else to know.


  1. I couldn't agree more. In fact, this is also true in almost all aspects of science. This seems to be a natural human tendency that is hard to escape.

    I would also caution from going the other end of the sword, which is far less common, that is the tendency of believing everything else but scientific theories. It's very difficult to strike the balance, because nobody knows where the happy medium is.
    All of this reminds me of some Quran verses
    "وما أوتيتم من العلم الا قليلا"
    "وفوق كل ذي علم عليم"
    There's also a nice poem by Imam Ali (pbuh):
    ما حوى العلم جميعا احد
    لا ولو مارسه الف سنة
    انما العلم بعيد غوره
    فخذو من كل شيء حسنة

  2. Yes, the challenge is how to stay scientific and systematic while not falling in the trap of thinking there is nothing more to know.