Rhett Allain over at Wired has written a series of short and interesting posts on how the scientific community usually presents and describes its work.
Well its just a theory
Three science words we should stop using
What's wrong with the scientific method
In them he discusses how the general public is often confused by terms used to describe the scientific process and scientific discoveries. For example the words “theory” or “law” have different meanings for scientists than they do for the general public.
In his posts he suggests that there might be a better way to describe the scientific process. Science he says, is really just about building models that describe reality.
“Really, that is what we do in science. We try to make equations or conceptual ideas or computer programs that can agree with real life and predict future events in real life. That is science.”
Not only does looking at science this way make it easier to understand, he also argues it makes it a lot more fun. He says the process of creating a scientific model isn't a whole lot different than the work we did as children to construct model cars or doll houses.
Our current medical system of course strives to be science based. Treatment decisions are made based on models of how the human body works or how a disease develops and progresses. For example, here is a model of how statin drugs work to reduce cholesterol in the body and of the cholesterol transport system in general:
The Framingham Risk Score is a model of risk factors that have been found to influence when and how quickly cardiovascular disease will develop and progress.
However the medical system doesn't accept just any model. It tries to only recognizes those supported by strong evidence. In other words someone needs to show that a given model accurately predicts some type of future event.
So how is that evidence evaluated by the medical community? Steven Novella discusses this question in the following post:
In this post he outlines a list of four criteria that have to be simultaneously met before most doctors will begin moving off of a currently accepted model and onto another.
1- Methodologically rigorous, properly blinded, and sufficiently powered studies that adequately define and control for all relevant variables (confirmed by surviving peer-review and post-publication analysis).
2- Positive results that are statistically significant.
3- A reasonable signal to noise ratio (clinically significant for medical studies, or generally well within our ability to confidently detect).
4- Independently reproducible. No matter who repeats the experiment, the effect is reliably detected.
To see how this criteria is applied, you may want to take a look at reports like the following. Both these reports, which are written to help doctors decide how to evaluate and treat patients, begin by discussing how evidence was selected and evaluated.
“Adult Treatment Panel III (ATP III)”
(Background and Introduction, Development of an evidence-based report, page I-1)
“ADA Clinical Practice Recommendations”
(Introduction, Grading of scientific evidence, page S-1).
Here is just the Introduction.
If you have ever found your doctor less than receptive to an alternative treatment you learned about from a book or article, Dr. Novella's list should give you a better idea of what it will take to convince your doctor otherwise. This is an admittedly high bar to meet. But as the Doctor notes:
“Rigorous science anchors us to reality. Without it our beliefs will drift off into a fantasy world that caters to our emotions and desires but has little connection to reality.”