On Not Knowing

In my last original post, I had heard that water has memory, but I didn’t know enough to decide either way.

I did some digging, and it turns out that the water studies were not conducted in a scientific way, nor were they peer reviewed. There’s no way to substantiate any of the claims made. In other words, pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo. Good to know.

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Rory the Tiger, confused – Artwork by Ruby Wang

Now that that’s been cleared up, let me turn to my main point for this post. I want to reiterate a point I brought up in that previous post: it’s both extremely uncomfortable and incredibly rewarding to admit that we don’t know something.

I think we internalize this discomfort with not knowing from a young age. We learn to only speak when we know the answer.

Here’s a good time to enact what I’m advocating for: I don’t know how people feel about saying they don’t know something in other parts of the world. Or even here, really, so I’m speculating based on things I’ve read and my own observations in North America and Europe.

Within this realm, parents and older siblings often chide children for asking too many questions. It’s annoying and time-consuming, and probably the parents and siblings don’t know the answer half the time. This situation can make them uncomfortable, especially for parents, since they are socially responsible for their children’s education. If they don’t know what information to give their child, have they failed in their role?

While there are many outstanding teachers in the world, many are forced to silence curious children. The goal of public education is to get children to pass standardized tests and learn the required material laid out in a narrow curriculum based on memorization, rather than research and discovery.

This trend of consuming information instead of seeking and building knowledge continues into adulthood. At work, seeming unsure might lead clients, bosses, and coworkers to distrust your abilities. Saying you don’t know merits chastisement, even to the point of getting fired for “incompetence.” (I’m not saying there aren’t actually incompetent people, just that learning is a process that takes time and acceptance of errors.) Instead of providing training and allowing employees to grow into their positions, many companies – including those in the arts – want their new recruits to come fully formed with years of experience and lots of energy. When David Bowie put out his first album, no one expected a success, but they gave him the benefit of the doubt and let him explore his sound in the studio for multiple subsequent recordings. Nowadays, if you don’t sell enough copies right off the bat, you risk being cut from the label.

So we feel that it’s uncomfortable and inhibiting to admit we don’t know something. Yet in reality, no one can claim to know everything. If we can start accepting this condition in ourselves and others, we may build a more honest world.

We will also start to recognize our own strengths and to value those of others. If I can admit that I don’t know something about medicine or physics or politics, then I can find someone who does know. In this way, I can become smarter and more informed.

We will all become better at discerning good information from bad if we practice finding out what we don’t know. It’s not enough to click on the first Google hit. SEO, paid ads, and popularity play a huge role in what’s at the top; facticity and accuracy do not.

It’s also not enough to read a few lines or even a few paragraphs on a topic and call it “learning.” Most things that are “known” are way more complex than a simple explanation will suggest. It’s always good to examine opposing views, because someone can be very convincing without being right. It’s also important to look at the person’s claim to authority, which can mean many different things. Their positionality in the world (which social labels they fall under, where they live, and many other factors) will influence their perspective as well.

Learning through discovery is hard, much harder than reading a “fact” and then regurgitating it. But we don’t really know anything until we’ve looked at it closely from many angles and sat with it for some time. Otherwise, we’re just repeating words that someone else said. We can’t actually own the knowledge as a personal intellectual asset. We’ve accepted information as true without having any understanding of what makes it so.

Sometimes new information emerges and what we previously “knew” becomes obsolete, shown to be incorrect. Other things can change from moment to moment, place to place, person to person. Democracy doesn’t just mean one thing; neither does religion, or even a specific type or subtype of religious belief. Sufi Islam is very different from the Sunni persuasion. Pagans vary across the board. And of course individual circumstances affect interpretations and practices, so you can never come up with a timeless, immutable law of Sufi practice or any other human endeavour.

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Rory the Tiger, confused – Artwork by Ruby Wang

I don’t know a lot of things. When I write a post expressing an opinion, I often second-guess the validity of that statement. In other parts of my life, I try to present myself as knowledgeable as frequently as possible; obviously I’m not immune to the socialization process. I also tend to simply remain quiet when I don’t know something, hoping that someone else will fill in the blanks.

However, training in research methods has spilled over into my daily life. The first thing we all should know is how to find solid, valid information. Then we should know how to examine it, test it, shake it up, and see if it still stands.

Of course, we all have limited time and resources at hand, including life experience or education in various subject areas. To some, something might seem obviously untrue, while someone else might be convinced by its apparent value and what looks like supporting evidence. We also need to respect this type of difference (without being afraid to challenge another person’s viewpoint, of course).

We can’t all know the same things, no matter how hard we try. In this light, it seems worthwhile to question our own received knowledge and try to really understand why we think we know what we do. This approach just might help us all get smarter, while simultaneously producing the joy of discovery and the solace of mutual respect.

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Does Water Have Memory?

A few days ago, I heard about the idea that water has memory. Of course, when people say such things, I have to wonder what they mean by the word “memory:” does water have memory like humans have memory (e.g. being able to recall emotional experiences)? Or more like how bees have memory (e.g. knowing how to navigate to the same place they were before)? Or maybe like mud has memory (e.g. retaining a footprint)?

The point is that I don’t know. I know nothing about this science, if science it really is. My first inclination is to say it’s probably not true, at least not in the New Age-y sense in which it was implied.

Here’s one of the things that put me off the idea: apparently, if you play classical music to water, it takes on a beautiful shape at a very minute level, whereas heavy metal makes it all crooked and jagged. This sort of idea immediately makes me skeptical, since it fits too neatly into social snobbery about “good” vs. “bad” music. It seems more likely to me that the acoustic properties of the different types of music affected the shape of the water crystals, not that it had a negative emotional response to some quality of the music. Sound is a physical entity. (Also, what do they mean by “classical” music? Was it a nocturne? A slow piece for solo cello? A dance piece for piano quartet? Or a more dramatic orchestral piece? I’m sure each one would shape the water differently. The same applies to heavy metal, some of which is actually quite gentle.)

Here’s an example of how sound can do seemingly “magic” things with water:

But the fact that this connection doesn’t sit well with mean isn’t evidence.

I still don’t know. I can’t say with any kind of certainty that my hypothesis is correct. I haven’t examined the science and I’m not sure I’m properly qualified to understand and judge it all anyway.

And sometimes that’s okay. It’s okay to live with not knowing, at least for a while. In school and other areas of life, we often learn that not knowing is a crime. If your teacher asks you a question and you say you don’t know, you might be ridiculed or shamed for not having done the homework or not paying attention in class. Instead of teaching how to find out what you don’t know, the response is that you should just always know, or else you should shut up.

Not knowing is uncomfortable. Admitting it out loud is even less comfortable. But not knowing is what drives curiosity, discovery, creativity, and innovation. We need to recognize what we don’t know before we can move forward.

Without admitting that we don’t know something, we will never take the steps to learn about it or to invent a way of doing the thing we don’t know how to do.

So next time someone tells me something that sounds implausible to me, I’m going to try really hard to just say, “I don’t know.” It might be off-putting to them and uncomfortable for me. But the payoff will be worth it, because it will allow me to consider an idea more openly, instead of dismissing it on some emotional basis.

Too Much Sleep and Not Enough Research: The Blunders of Popular Science

Whether shift work, high-performance careers, or the incessant appeals of infants, many of us just can’t get the sleep we want. So when a miraculous day off appears, the freedom to sleep in feels like the best thing that has ever happened.

Yet somehow, after ten, twelve, or even fifteen hours of sleep, we wake up groggy and still sleepy. The refreshment we craved has eluded us even after a bout of solid sleep. How can that be?

That’s the question posed by Wired science reporter Nick Stockton in his article “What’s Up With That: Why Does Sleeping In Just Make Me More Tired?”

Stockton explains that sleeping in upsets your body’s sense of time in the same way that quickly crossing time zones leads to jet lag. Your “biological clock” gets confused and your cells don’t know how much energy you need at what time. This part of the article makes sense.

He should’ve left it at that.

He then goes on to explain how sleep scientists have linked regular oversleep with health issues, specifically “diabetes, obesity, and even early death.” He lists a number of factors that could induce oversleeping, from alcohol and drugs to a lumpy bed that inhibits deep sleep, thereby causing you to feel tired for longer.

The article starts to leap from subject to subject with no transition or explanation. We start off with oversleeping being like jet lag, and then suddenly we are talking about regularly getting nine to eleven hours of sleep in a twenty-four-hour period (which is not like jet lag at all, since it’s regular). All at once, he turns to the subject of irregular sleep hours and how those who sleep in the day can trick their brains into thinking it’s nighttime. We are just getting our bearings when Stockton switches over to what happens during a sleep cycle and how to improve the overall quality of your sleep by changing your sleep situation. At this point, we try to catch our breath when he sprints over to discussing recognized disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy, one of which causes you to stop breathing in your sleep and the other which makes you fall asleep at inopportune times. He tenuously links these conditions to his topic with the line, “In addition to all the other terrifying aspects of this disease, it’s not doing your quality of sleep any favors.” We are far from the realm of oversleep at this point.

In the end, Stockton recalls his original point, advising readers to  establish “some equilibrium between your weekend and weekday sleep.” Huh? Most of the article has nothing to do with this kind of imbalance and a lot of the health issues he presents don’t actually have anything to do with oversleeping.

Although a punchy, enjoyable writer in terms of style, Stockton doesn’t seem to know what his article is about. He never defines oversleep (is it sleeping more than you usually do or sleeping more than the social or scientific norm?). He answers the question in his title in the first four paragraphs and then takes a nosedive into a bunch of tangentially related material.

He also sets up an artificial causality not present in the scientific studies he cites. Although cliche, we have to remember the famous statistics phrase: Correlation does not imply causation.

Just because memory loss or diabetes is more common in people who sleep more than is scientifically accepted as normal in this part of the world, we can’t assume that the relationship between a health condition and sleep is unidirectional. In fact, one study he cites from Harvard makes it explicitly clear that the jury is still out on how any of this works:

“Another possibility is a two-way street between sleep and memory: sleep quality may affect memory and thinking, and the brain changes that cause memory and thinking problems may disturb sleep.”

I’m not arguing that sleep has no impact on health. However, popular science writers like Stockton tend to ignore other possibilities. Their presentation style, if not their actual arguments, suggest that what they say is an absolute fact. But maybe people who work a lot have diabetes because they don’t eat well, not because of their sleep. Perhaps someone who chronically “oversleeps” (whatever that means – we still don’t know) has some other condition that leads to both longer sleep duration and earlier death.

Nobody knows. Scientists don’t know, and they will be the first to tell you that sleep studies are still in their infancy. The world has only had the technology and social conditions to study sleep objectively since around the mid-twentieth century (see, for example, Kenton Kroker, The Sleep of Others and the Transformations of Sleep Research, 2007).

It’s no wonder we’re still confused.

So instead of pretending we have all the answers, let’s allow ourselves to live with our lack of knowledge. And let’s cut the muddled pop science articles trying to create coherence out of limited scientific evidence.