Thursday, December 29, 2011

This Just In: Science Proves ... Nothing!

I love good science. There's a kind of elegant, brilliant sanity to a well-crafted and carried-out study. They often make me smile inside when I hear about them. 

I was up on Whidbey Island channel-surfing one rainy Sunday afternoon when I happened upon Bill Gates Senior speaking on the University of Washington’s public access channel about a person who conducts such studies. He was introducing Pat Kuhl, co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Learning at the University of Washington. She was talking about the critical period in children’s brain development when language is most easily acquired - the point where children switch from being little citizens of the world to culture-bound listeners and learners. Some pretty amazing things can take place during this time when the language window is open. In the talk Pat described an experiment where one group of 18 month old children joined with their mother and interacted with a young graduate student who playfully spoke Mandarin to the mother and baby for 20 minutes, twice a week for twelve weeks. A control group of children were offered a neutral activity with mother and a graduate student present.

In the follow-up, it turned out that those children exposed early to Mandarin later showed as much ease in learning the language as native-born Chinese children. This was not the case for children in the control group. But here’s the finding that really caught my attention: the children exposed to early second language learning (and the specific language learned doesn’t appear to matter), demonstrated greater neural executive function and stronger ability for directed attention! It’s as if the additional neural real estate that became connected up early as these children acquired the language skills, also somehow managed to strengthen the whole overall network. I would predict that this improvement in executive function would also translate into greater immune function – fewer sick days home from school, and greater impulse control – fewer behavioral problems in school. And all from briefly optimizing the early language learning window in infants.

There was another discovery from this research that I also found fascinating: Dr. Kuhl’s team also ran groups of children exposing them first to audio recordings, and next, to video recordings of native speakers. In each case, little new learning occurred. The finding: for early learning to work best, it needs to be … social learning! Living brains, hearts, minds and bodies need to communicate directly to other brains, hearts, minds and bodies. Score a big one for us social neuroscientists! ;-)

Pat’s work is pretty rigorous, controlled science, which I love. But I also love so-called “junk” science. A scientist colleague and teacher, Steve Porges, recently gave me permission to look at such science and confess the truth, which is that I find it immensely interesting. And in fact, what makes it interesting in my mind is often what makes it most worthy of further study. 

Take the work of Dr. Ryke Geerd Hamer, for example. If I understand his work correctly, Dr. Hamer claims he can look at a brain scan of a hospital patient, make an accurate diagnosis of their malady, and in addition, tell you the precise earlier trauma (which often occurred in childhood) that precipitated and lies at the root of their illness – a pretty remarkable claim. Not surprisingly, Dr. Hamer has not been welcomed with open arms by members of the medical establishment. Is his work “junk” science? It’s really not for me to judge; better would be for me to secure some funding and actually hire researchers to test it.

Or, take another example, that of Evy McDonald. Evy was diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. As a registered nurse, she knew she had been given a death sentence, and like a good patient, she quietly went home to die. But in the midst of her dying, she somehow managed to turn fully toward her illness and become intimately familiar with it. Quite surprisingly and unexpectedly, she ended up curing herself! She later came to identify the seven essential steps she took that were an integral part of her cure. Is this good science?

Whether it’s good science or junk science, here’s something that my colleague Anne Peterson recently pointed out to me: science proves nothing! She was reminding me that no matter how much we might want to, we simply can’t make science our deity. As The Escort pointed out years ago in the movie, Heaven Can Wait, it’s all about “probability and outcome.” Thus, it’s not for nothing that good science essentially only works to fail the null hypothesis, something it's very easy to forget in the wake of discovering exciting, unexpected findings.

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