The Decline Effect

I read an article in the New Yorker awhile back by Jonah Lehrer on something called the “decline effect” about what might be wrong with the scientific method. This kind of stuff always intrigues me because I secretly think that a lot of the scientific method, or science, is, well, … annoying, pedantic, slow, overly complicated, elitist, bogus, incomprehensible, a racket, and unnecessary. There. I said it. Now you can start throwing stones or throwing up, depending on your proclivity. I am not trying to be provocative (well, maybe a little), just honest.

In 8th grade, I took biology and memorized “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.” I had to. I hadnt much idea why I had to, but I went along. And then in college I got a clue about it. My documentary film teacher and I were chatting one day, and she’d asked me what I wanted to focus on in my studies, what department I would be concentrating in. I shrugged and said something to the effect of, “I think all that compartmentalizing is crap… I want to see connection, to study it all.” She gently explained to me that it ALL is broken up into those parts to help us make sense of it.

I’m fairly sure that I wasn’t convinced that day, but something nagged me about that for a long time until at some point it sunk all the way in. We make meaning of what is mind-numbingly complex (life, the universe, nature, sound, each other) by chunking stuff into bits and naming it. We then describe relationships between those chunks to gain further clarity and understanding. In doing this, we also create for ourselves a way to talk about it.  Pretty cool. We can now not only relate to it, but to each other about it.

But the key here to me is that we create it. Not the stuff itself, but the bins we stick it in. Like, for example, all this stuff is fish. And all that stuff is mammals. And they are the same because they both are alive (and some people eat them) and they are different because some breathe air and some breathe water (okay, now you have some idea why science and I don’t get along). But the point is we create all these groupings and names and categories and sub-classifications, and then the Dewey decimal system to keep track of it all, so that we can pretend we actually understand – to feign our getting it.

But the only ones who have ever really gotten it are the sages. The gurus. The enlightened ones. And they don’t give a rat’s patoot about science. They just KNOW. This isn’t my idea, of course. Plato talked about Divine knowing, recollection – not rote memory of learned facts, but re-membering, piecing back together the wholeness that we, in our childlike attempt to understand, cut into so many smaller and smaller pieces. (And by the way, the word science derives from the verb to cut.)

And how do these enlightened ones know? They go inside. Into the vast dark quietude of silence, and fly through the planes seeing worlds, feeling the deep pulse of life, hearing the buzz of all existence, and start to sing along with it. No test tubes, no lab rats, no proof, no charts and graphs and super computers stuffed full of data. So much data that the word starts out plural just to show you how big it is.

Now, I’m not saying there is no place for science. I just totally disagree with old Nietzsche. God is not dead because of science. Science is just a small child looking into the heart or the mind or the eye or the God-knows-what of the Infinite, and trying to prove it. Seems just a bit ridiculous to me. Futile. Now maybe in the lab there is a quiet stillness that resembles the interior of the guru’s mind, and in the white lab coat, experimenting away, the scientist is the same kind of explorer. I can see old Copernicus peering out into the night sky, seeing far more than his eyes were capable of, saying get your heads out of your equant and SEE, feel the truth.

Ben Birchall / PA.

And then vindicated by the calculations (and the telescope, what a wonderful invention) of Galileo. And thank you, Mr. G, for giving us all a way to accept the unseen, the unknowable, the common sense…because that is what all deep wisdom becomes to the one who knows it.

So, what does this have to do with the decline effect? Well, after all this time, it turns out that scientific inquiry is on its knees to the will of the human mind. What the decline effect names is the phenomenon of the known becoming the doubtable.  Yes, evidently what scientists have come to take for cornerstones of knowledge are not able to be repeated in scientific study. Not repeated even once, much less multiple times. What’s up with that? Dr. Schooler asks in Lehrer’s article, “why can’t I repeat my groundbreaking findings?” Turns out that it’s because even the scientific method is rigged. Rigged by the human mind, the human heart, the will to want, to believe. So, for example, if the science journals prefer to publish articles that FIND something, then scientists are encouraged to find something. So, all these findings are created, not found at all. As Lehrer says, “the act of observation is simultaneously an act of interpretation.”

What it comes down to is knowing. I am not talking about crazy knowing, like denying the Holocaust, or believing we were made in a single day from the Lord’s hand or Adam’s rib (although there is an important kind of truth in metaphors). No. I am talking about the knowing that comes from being here, paying attention to what is happening, and going inside to hear the truth of what is being sung. Not in the voice of the mind, but in the voice of the soul. The part of us that doesn’t need to cut into smaller and smaller bits, but is totally enthralled with the whole big BIGNESS of it All.

And how do you tell the difference? I guess if you’re asking, it’s still the mind. And that’s okay. It means there is more journeying to do. After all, it’s free will and nothing is true at all except what is. Ain’t that the darndest thing.


About Rebecca Reynolds

Leadership Guru; Systems Thinker; Complex Problem Solver; Facilitative Leader...also LOVE life, dog Wiley, good food, Malbec, forests, oceans, yoga stillness, the boxing bag, ballroom dance, and movies.
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