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Science and conventional knowledge

By Luis Cabrera

A few nights ago, I was having a nice dinner at a local restaurant with a couple of friends. Both of them are currently going to medicine school, and they will be physicians soon. Somehow, the conversation veered on to exercise in our lifestyles and the pros and cons of it. As an avid runner, I expressed my personal opinion about it, and as usual, I had nothing but praise for the active lifestyle. The known rewards such as improved health and looking and actually feeling better came up as my main defense points. After talking about it for a while, one of them said that exercising actually increases the metabolism, thus making the body age prematurely. I was surprised by her reasoning and responded back with a question about the lower heart rate (and thus, lower number of total heartbeats for a lifetime in an individual) that higher performance athletes experience. She did not have an explanation for this, and although I had validated a point, I did concede on her being the expert on the matter and far more knowledgeable than me on the issue.

The episode mentioned above is just an example of something we encounter often in our world. The notion that just because an individual is not an authority or certified expert in certain areas, his or her opinions are of inferior value to those who do carry the titles. It is very true that there is no substitute for years of study and research in a subject, and to pretend that just about anybody with a superficial knowledge in something can match that is a simplistic approach. Yet to assume that someone’s point of view does not deserve appreciation or consideration based merely on a perceived conclusion is also simplistic and foolish. As the old adage says, one does not need to be a shoemaker to know if the shoe fits.

Science has a way of trying to debunk common wisdom. Scientifically acquired knowledge is always trying to disqualify ancient ideas. The experts writing an article or expressing an opinion on television try to educate the rest of the population on day-to-day affairs. Common currents of thoughts such as not getting wet in the cold because of fear about getting sick or other things that were passed onto us from previous generations are under constant and relentless attack from the savvy and informed opinion of those who proclaim to be authorities in certain topics. There is nothing wrong with this type of thinking that these individuals are well-learned and studied in their area of expertise benefits us all. The problem comes when they do not listen to other opinions. Opinions based not so much in the books but in life experience.
One would never argue with a professional doctor on the best treatment to be followed by a patient, or with an aircraft engineer on how to build and maintain an airplane engine. There are other subjects though, mostly where human interactions are concerned (like politics and social relationships), that deserve everybody’s point of view. For example, in my case above, as far as I know, the person I was having dinner with is not a runner. Therefore, listening and appreciating an opinion from someone who actually does this thing as a daily routine seems as the logical path to me. Again, this does not apply to every aspect, but in many areas, theory alone cannot triumph empirical experience. There are lots of issues where common wisdom also has a say in the grand scheme of things pertaining an area of study.
I remember when I was a kid, or even today when I listen to older people and they complain about this doctor or that politician. I used to dismiss their ramblings as just ignorant talk, but now that I am older, sometimes I notice myself agreeing with them. Maybe their experience gained through many years of life has in fact made them wiser. It turns out my grandmother was right when she used to yell at me in Spanish, “Quitate del chiflon porque te va a hacer dano” (Move yourself from the draft or you’re going to get sick). I do not recall reading that in any book, but to this day, it holds true that if I get out of the hot shower and I do not cover myself before entering a cool room, chances are I will get a cold. I think that we all share some stories like this, anecdotes of old bits of knowledge and wisdom that often we do not see in our modern world.

To finish my argument, I want to once again establish that I have nothing against science and I am myself an avid reader and seeker of substance. However, I do believe that sometimes professionals should be more open to common, colloquial principles. It would be too far-fetched to include any of these in the books unless scientific experiments were conducted, but on a more personal day-to-day life approach, they should be taken into account. Pure unscientific observation has its own merits most times. After all, concepts such as boiling water before consumption and/or salting the meat for conservation have been around for a long time: hundreds – if not thousands – of years before a scientific explanation was achieved. These ideas likely came directly from observation, and it is doubtful that any proper scientific methodology was followed in those early days. Either I am somewhat correct or I better stop running before my face shows some wrinkles. Oh wait, it’s already too late for that.