Understanding Science

Almost everywhere we turn, we read some approach is “evidence-based” or “scientifically supported.” If we bother to look behind those labels, though, we often find that these claims are not based on as solid a foundation as it might seem. That is often because most people are not as scientifically literate as we ought to be in a world that is so influenced by science.

This starts with a misunderstanding about what science actually is. Many of us are confusing parts of science with science itself. Let me explain. Science is a system that contains many parts. Those parts range from exploratory research to solidly confirming systematic reviews and meta-analyses – move along the gamut of evidence. These parts contain everything from hypotheses to full theories. When science is claimed to be reductionist, this is often because people mistake the parts for the whole. Of course, a single research paper might look only at a small aspect of, say, evolution. And yet when that paper is integrated into the larger whole of evolutionary theory it is no longer reductionist. It becomes a system.

So, one paper, no matter how much its findings are touted, is not science and it does not show anything, especially not that something is scientifically supported. To make that claim, we have to make it based on an understanding of the whole system, which integrates theory with research that tested hypotheses that emerged from the theory (although hypotheses are not always developed from a full-fledged theory, eventually individual research studies have to be integrated into a theory that explains the findings).

Let’s look at a couple of exampled: EMDR and TSY. EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and TSY, Trauma-Sensitive Yoga, are two approaches that are offered to help people heal from traumatic experiences. From a scientific literacy perspective, I see some crucial differences between the two. Both have research evidence that suggests that they are effective in helping people cope with and heal from trauma.

Yet, EMDR offers little in terms of an explanation as to how that actually happens. There are some speculations that it might be because somehow moving ones eyes connects the left and right brain hemispheres and thus allows for more integration. However, this is called into question by the finding that there does not seem to be anything unique about EMDR as compared to cognitive-behavioral therapy. Moving our eyes (or fingers or sounds) does not seem to add anything, which makes sense since we cannot explain how it might add something.

TSY, on the other hand, might have more of a theoretical grounding as the developers hypothesized that it might help with impulse and emotional regulation. It is clear how that might work. Yoga can help us learn to detect what is going on in our bodies, a crucial skill to have when we want to not react impulsively but instead chose our actions. If we cannot feel that we got triggered, we do not have this choice. The research on TSY so far supports this hypothesis, thus there might be the possibility of integrating theory with research evidence.

To me, this seems to be a crucial difference, which appears to be missed by most researchers and pragmatic skeptics Or maybe, I am missing something. What do you think?

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