What is Science?

What is Science?


It seems like an easy enough question, yet many massage therapists seem to misunderstand exactly what is meant by the term. Why do I say that? Well, consider a common comment from massage therapists who are not particularly science-minded:

"Science doesn't know everything!"

(Or, similarly, "Scientists don't know everything!")

In fact, scientists themselves are the most aware that they don't know everything. They live with ambiguity and uncertainty, they question everything. They are professional questioners. The day that scientists come to know "everything" is the day they can all pack up, go home, and learn to play the flute.

Science is the business of asking questions about how the natural world works and looking for honest answers. In science, one attempts to strip away preconceived ideas. One tries to overcome bias by cultivating an awareness of potential biases and accounting for them. Experiments and hypotheses are presented for scrutiny by peers in an attempt to uncover and discover errors in experimental design, flawed thinking, or possible alternative explanations. In this manner, over time, truth should prevail, even if it is temporarily delayed.

In science, it is understood that at any given point, our information is incomplete. All knowledge is provisional. Some is supported by a lot of evidence that has stood the test of time. The theory of gravity, for instance, is pretty well established. It would take something very, very big to overturn it and if that ever happened, it would affect so many other sciences that it is not likely to happen.

Other ideas in science may not be so firmly established. One cannot be too attached to any particular hypothesis lest it be proven wrong the day after tomorrow. To be truly science-minded it to be willing to change your mind when the evidence calls for it.  Hypotheses must conform to the evidence, to facts. If new evidence suggests that our hypotheses are incorrect, we must change our hypotheses to fit the evidence, not try to manipulate the evidence to fit our hypotheses. This is one of the most important principles of science to understand.

How pseudoscience differs from science

One of the distinguishing characteristics of pseudoscience is that it does not follow this principle of adapting they hypothesis to the evidence. Sciency-sounding words and concepts are used but they are used incorrectly and inconsistently. Pseudoscience is not concerned with the facts, it is concerned with preserving an idea. It ignores important facts, contradicts what is known about how nature works, and avoids close, objective scrutiny. Often, in pseudoscience, excuses are made for why a claim defies objective measurement. However, it fails to answer the question: if a claim cannot be verified, how can the claim be made at all? Pseudoscience does not adapt to the evidence but, instead, tries to pick and choose which bits of evidence it will use and ignore the rest. Pseudoscience is often used to sell quackery and take advantage of people's ignorance.

How can a non-scientist tell the difference?

How does a non-scientist tell the difference between genuine science and pseudoscience? Cultivating science literacy is one way. Carl Sagan talked about having a "baloney detection kit." Science literacy is not just about what facts you've memorized but learning what questions to ask. When a claim is made, what evidence is there to support that claim? What is the quality of that evidence? Is it plausible? Does it fit with what we know about how the natural world works?

Science and massage therapy

The field of massage therapy in the U.S. has grown out of tradition and folk medicine. Attempts to describe the experience of massage were often made without much understanding of how the body actually worked and were handed down without question or examination. Sometimes the means to peer inside of the body to examine exactly what was happening within just were not available. In the absence of this ability, explanations were attempted from the outside. This was acceptable in the past but no longer do we accept unquestioningly that which is claimed but not supported with evidence. Massage therapists today are beginning to ask science-minded questions and look for honest answers. What evidence is there to support this idea? Does this fit with what we know about how the body works? Do we know this for sure or are we guessing?

The field of massage therapy often draws individuals who are more intuitive and empathic than science-minded. They may feel threatened by science or think that science somehow takes the "magic" out of the therapeutic encounter. I want to assert that nothing could be further from the truth and that knowledge and understanding how the body actually works enhances the therapeutic encounter. In the past, some massage therapists actually opposed the teaching of anatomy, a notion that even intuition-based therapists would find laughable today, because they thought it would interfere with their intuition. How can learning something make you less competent?

Neil deGrasse Tyson has expressed eloquently the passion, depth, and beauty that science can bring to life. The stunning images in the background are brought to us by scientists.

As massage therapists become more science literate and science-minded, our therapeutic ability will be enhanced. Thinking accurate thoughts enables us to interact honestly and effectively with our clients. Understanding clearly what is science, what it is not, what is its proper role in our work, and how it can help us will make us better therapists and help us make better decisions in our lives.




Submitted byrcarrollmassage (not verified)on Wed, 08/14/2013 - 9:33pm

Thank you so much for the work you are doing!! While I am empathic, I believe entirely that asking questions, dissecting a client's complaint of pain, understanding the body systems and biomechanics, allows me to address the issue for fully. The empathic part is a requirement, in my mind, to effectively support my clients that have chronic pain, or are recovering from injury. I believe in science based massage therapy completely. It is what differentiates me from other MT's. Proper SOAPs and client history allows me to track methods that worked, or methods that don't, so I can be more effective in treatment. I work with prescriptions from MD's and PT's to combine methodology. My heart centered presence is what my clients enjoy.

 Science is in no way in opposition to bringing compassion and empathy into the treatment session. In fact, pain science has affirmed that the quality of the therapeutic encounter can have as much impact as the modality used. We know that humans respond to caring, focussed attention and gentle touch. Massage therapists, in particular, are very good at making use of that. 


Unfortunately, some of my colleagues seem to have a mistaken idea of what, exactly, is science and the role it should play in massage therapy. I hope to promote the idea that science is, in fact, our friend, not our enemy, and the more one understands about how the body works, the more it can enhance our sense of wonder and deepen our interaction with the client, not take away from it.