Controversial Science Studies

Richard Kaskiewicz

The history of science is littered with a myriad of debate and controversial studies undertaken to exact scientific progress. Take the theory of evolution, or the heliocentric model of the solar system, as two well-known examples. These theories challenged the societal norm and had stark implications on the nature of humanity.

In more modern times, the controversy is less of a crisis of faith and more bordering ethics and morality. Until recently, these were left unchecked and the decision of what is right and what is wrong was just made by the researchers and the funding bodies. Only once the boundaries were pushed too far did science gain the ethical framework within which we work today. Despite this, mankind has gained crucial knowledge and insight from these experiments that have guided many aspects of science and how we view the world.

(and if this article leaves you wanting to know more about ethics in science, there will be a link to a recent episode of Eureka!, our science podcast, at the end, for you to learn more!)

The Stanford Prison Experiment

None are perhaps quite as famous as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Conducted by Philip Zimbardo and his team in 1971, this experiment took a group of students at Stanford University and randomly assigned them into 2 groups: one group became the prisoners, and one became the guards. The basement of one of the University’s buildings was set up to be a similar condition to those found in a maximum-security prison.

The guards were given a set of menial tasks that they had to ask the prisoners to perform; if said prisoners did not complete the task, refused to partake, or disobeyed any direct order; the guards were instructed to give out an appropriate punishment. I might add, the use of force was not authorised.

Soon into the experiment, the prisoners refused to clean their plates after a meal and thus were instructed to do 50 press-ups; to which many of them refused. This led the guards to hand out harsher punishments, e.g. giving no meals. The prisoners continued to challenge the guards’ authority and several days into the 2-week long experiment, a heavily abusive environment in which physical and emotional force (i.e. not letting prisoners sleep and harassment) was utilised by the guards to gain compliance. The situation greatly escalated and the conditions became significantly abhorrent, yet it was still days before Zimbardo, whom had assumed the mantle of warden, aborted the experiment – leaving many of the participants at least temporarily traumatised.

The interpretation of this was that under certain situations, even people who are overall morally good will inevitably U-turn, strengthening the notion that absolute power corrupts. This has been used to explain some of the atrocities and abuse witnessed in many prisons and internment camps.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Milgram Shock Experiment

The next most famous, is probably the Milgram Shock Experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Before the experiment, the participants were left in a room and told to socialise with the others there, essentially making friends. They were then split into 2 groups: teachers and learners, and taken to separate rooms. The teachers gave the learners a set of memory tasks, administering an increasing level of a painful electric shock for every subsequent task they failed. Unbeknownst to the teachers however, the learners were a group of actors, whom had pre-recorded cries of agony and pleas begging the teacher to stop the test. No-one was really being shocked, but the point was that the teachers thought they were.

After failing to complete several tasks successfully, the dial reading the levels for the shock began to show danger and the actors would begin to scream and bang on the walls, imploring the teacher to stop and that they couldn’t take it anymore. Despite this, there was a man stood behind the teachers wearing a lab coat and holding a clipboard, conveying a sense of authority. These individuals would tell the teacher to continue, to which all participants did, despite them revealing how distressed it was making them and how they did not wish to harm the learner, whom they had become friends with prior.

Eventually the level of shock surpassed a lethal quantity and no teacher had outright abandoned their role.  In due course, the screaming and cries from the learner stopped and all that could be heard from the other room was silence, several teachers stopped at this point, but the majority continued on, encouraged by the authority figure, even though they thought they had killed or seriously injured their learner, whom they thought could have been them if not for the actions of luck.

This experiment proved to show that that people will obey authority figures, even when the task they are performing strongly works against their code of ethics. This reasoning was used to explain many of the Nazi war crimes and absolve many participants of these in the Nuremberg trials, who as the saying commonly falls, were “Just following orders”.

There are many more of these ethically dubious experiments that have been conducted, which if done today would land the researchers with a hefty prison sentence. However, if it were not for these experiments, much of what we know to be true today, especially in the field of psychology, may never have been revealed.

 

Link to Eureka: https://www.mixcloud.com/EurekaOnForge/eureka-ethics-episode/

Ouch!

Richard Kaskiewicz

Pain is something that the vast majority of us will be subjected to on a daily basis. But what is pain exactly, how can we describe it or alleviate it? Why do we feel pain in the first place?

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Image Credit: Maxpixel

The etymology of the word ‘pain’ can be traced back to many different places, but as for many things, we can probably thank ancient Greek or Latin. The world probably descends from the early Latin the word “poena”, which was used to describe punishment, and later changed to mean suffering or hardship. One apt definition would be that pain is a sensation that hurts. Then again, for you to define ‘hurts’, you need the concept of pain.

An interesting thing about pain is how we describe it, and the resulting subjectivity. Say you had to describe your pain to your friend, you might say something along the lines of, “a burning pain”, or “a piercing pain”; you’d have to use other words to describe the sensation. All of these are physical things that your friend may only understand to a certain degree. But what if the pain is emotional, how would you describe this? Imagine a doctor trying to treat your symptoms; they would need to know where your pain is as well as its severity, in order to prescribe appropriate, safe and beneficial treatments.

Thus, some methods of classification have been tried to be implemented, though to little avail, such as the dol unit, which was developed in the 1940s as a way to quantify pain inflicted on the human body. This idea was ultimately scrapped and never really applied, as one of the researchers stated “Everyone feels pain differently. Some people have conditions that should cause great pain, but don’t. Others have no sign of a physical problem, but are in great pain. Your level of chronic pain can’t be assessed in a scientific test or screening.”

To help overcome this, medical professionals now routinely categorise the harder-to-describe pains as acute or chronic. Acute pain is commonly associated with injury and is normally short lived, whereas chronic pain continues for a long time, or is reoccuring.

There are further complex medical terms within the two categories, but as they’re unknown to the layman, doctors often just ask them to rate their pain using pain assessment charts. These tend consist of 10 increasingly distressed faces, and the patient must chooses the one they empathise the most with.

This technique is also considered too subjective, but more promising research came from the University of Colorado in 2013. They used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (Real-time MRI scans) to quantify signals to the brain based on different levels of heat. This measured the effects on the brain directly, negating subjectivity and giving objective empirical measurements that could predict pain intensity with 95% accuracy.

This however, may not be useful for emotional pain, which unlike physical pain is actually caused by withdrawal symptoms. If the brain is no longer being flooded with the neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, that were making you happy beforehand, it craves them and compensates for the lack of the “feel good” hormones by creating more stress hormones like cortisol. This might explain why it took so long for you to get over your ex.

You may now be wondering why we feel pain in the first place. Pain is essentially your body signalling that something is wrong. The pain pathway starts with contact with a stimulus, which could be physical or chemical. These are recognised by nociceptors (pain receptors), which then relay signals through nerve cells to the central nervous system. This then sends signals to the brain warning of the danger and the damage occurring to the body. If the pain is too great and intense, though, your body may even bypass signalling to the brain first and allow you to react with reflex – such as moving your hand away from a hot stove.

People with defects in this pathway, commonly known as congenital analgesia, do not feel pain. Although this sounds great, it often causes premature death of the afflicted individual and debilitating injuries in early life. Children often bite through their tongue whilst still too young to understand their condition. Blindness is also common as they may get things in their eyes, like dust and glass, and not realise. Many sufferers end up injuring themselves severely and then continue to exacerbate damage, resulting in hospitalisation. The majority may also be unware that they are suffering from illness and the body may not respond effectively to remove invading pathogens, leading to more damage and a greater risk of death.

So, you may not like it, but pain may be the only reason you have got this far in life. So next time your body is telling you something is wrong, you may want to postpone the paracetamol and listen.

The Science of Stranger Things

Richard Kaskiewicz

This article contains spoilers.

Now you may well have seen the eight-episode miniseries full of 80s nostalgia, which has become somewhat of a sensation over the last few months. I’m talking of course, about Netflix’s Stranger Things. And if you haven’t, well… Go! Watch it now! What are you waiting for?

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The show centres on the investigation of ‘who, what, where, why, and how’ relating to a string of sinister disappearances befouling the quaint little town of Hawkins, Indiana. Soon our protagonists find themselves falling deep down the rabbit hole into a world of government conspiracy, mysterious powers, and most importantly, alternate dimensions.

Before we begin, I must clarify that the science I will be talking about is purely theoretical and thus we can’t confirm any of it is true. Nevertheless, the idea that space and time could have some components and parameters that we cannot observe has been the subject of debate for several decades, and has been thought by many to be a real possibility.

During the series, the kids’ teacher explains gaining access to and moving within another dimension using an analogy involving an acrobat and a flea suspended on a tightrope. The acrobat can move both forwards and backwards along this rope in the obvious long direction, in correspondence to the dimensions we are aware of. A flea, being much smaller, can still move forwards and backwards, but can also explore additional dimensions by moving ‘upside down’ on the rope. This is similar to the way theoretical physicists often explain this concept.

This extra direction around the circumference of the rope is so small that it is almost unperceivable to the acrobat, and the underneath is hidden from their view. It is incredibly difficult, nigh impossible for the acrobat to transverse, despite the fact that it’s still the same rope. Another way to think about this is to think of our world as the page of a book. We’re free to move around the surface area of the page but due to our limits, we cannot move from page to page – despite the next page being just a fraction of a millimetre away.

A much larger problem arises if we consider trying to transfer entities between the two dimensions. In order to do this, you would literally have to change the physical reality of space and time, tearing a hole through it. With our current concepts of physics, this would take more energy than the sun has produced so far in its lifetime. In essence, as a civilization we would have to be way more advanced.

So what about other interpretations of alternate dimensions/universes?

Unless you’ve spent the last ten years living under a rock or in an alternative dimension (in which case, congrats for finding your way here), you’ll have heard of Schrodinger’s Cat, a famous thought experiment devised by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger in 1935.

A cat sits in a box alongside a vial of poisonous gas and a radioactive element that decays (emits radiation) randomly. If the element decays, the vial of gas breaks, killing the cat. The radiation emitted by the element exists in what is called a superposition, which essentially means that it subsists in a state of being both ‘decayed’ and ‘not decayed’ at the same time, until the lid of the box is opened and the outcome is observed – collapsing the superposition and resulting in the observation of either a cat that is alive, or dead.

A hypothesis was soon suggested that perhaps two different universes are created when the superposition collapses; one in which the cat is dead (radiation emitted), and one in which the cat is alive (no radiation emitted). Considering the number of observations we make that could have multiple outcomes, this suggests that millions, if not billions, of universes are created every second.

Taking this further, we can apply this concept to decision making.

The ‘daughter universe’ theory says that if you follow the laws of probability, every outcome that could come from one of your decisions, would each create its own range of universes — each of which saw one outcome come to fruition.

For example, if you had the option to wear two different sets of clothes this morning, one universe is created for either choice. Then, for each of these universes, more and more would be created stemming from each parent universe. In one universe, you chose the sequined dress over a shirt and jeans, thus creating two universes. In this universe you might be subject to further decision-making. For instance, having chicken or a burger for lunch, and so on and so forth. Eventually this would create a quite simply unimaginable number of universes.

It is on these notions that we are lead to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the beginnings of the multiverse theory, where any and all possibilities can occur simultaneously in different universes. Each dimension is different from our own, some quite subtly, others dramatically.

The point is that any and all eventual possibilities exist in one way or another.

If you are still interested in the possibilities of multiple dimensions and universes, lots of material has been written on the subject – far too much to be discussed in a short article.

So maybe we exist on one page of a whole endless library of universes, stacked end to end and on top of one another, and all we need to do is find a way to turn to the next page. Though, do we want to face the Demogorgon?