Moment of Inertia, Issue #9 | Materials and Methods

It's been said that you can never step in the same stream twice. In a world where every action and reaction perpetuate more actions and reactions, how much can we really know? 


Materials and methods

I don't think the topic I'm musing over for this editionofMoI is particularly unknown to anyone. The Butterfly Effect may or may not be a valid modelofcausality, but I don't think anyone would contest that every action creates a cascadeofreactions - it's just likely most reactions are very mundane and don't effect things in ways that are meaningful to us. In the domainofthe hard sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, etc) manyofthese cascading reactions can be mitigated through careful experimental design and repetition to determine trends.

In clinical and behavioral sciences, among others, though, these mitigation approaches become increasingly compromised by perhaps the worst experimental subjects possible: ourselves.

As conscious, self-aware beings, we interact with experiments differently than cells, molecular compounds, or sub-atomic particles. Even when we're specifically told not to, we deviate from our normal behavior when being studied (and can you help us?!). Furthermore, we very often try to game the system, or look for patterns or motives that aren't actually there. Even on placebos, clinical trial subjects often report improvements in their condition... at least until they find out they're on a placebo.

Given the immense compromising factorofour pesky self-awareness, it would seem the best experiments are the ones we don't know we're a partof. While that might seem like a good idea at first, it can certainly be the beginningofa slippery slope to research subject abuses (see, the Tuskegee Study, among others). Such studies, comprisedofunwitting participants, are few and far between.

Will it ever be possible, then, to perform some experiments without the perpetually confounding factorofourselves? When the subjectofresearch is humanity, it would seem the answer is no. To remove the actual human element would mean to replace it with a simulated human element, and to truly replicate that you'd need to reproduce a good bitofexistence - a task that's daunting at best and more likely mathematically impossible (how could you make a perfect copyofthe universe that fits inside the universe?). That's not even considering the likely possibility that such a well simulated human would just cause all the same issues we ourselves already generate. Ultimately, the whole human experience is an experiment - so maybe we should treat it with the same care, planning, and preparation we dedicate to our experiments in the lab.