Ellen Langer

A Mismatch of Theory and Evidence ·


Last week I was visiting a friend who was telling me about a trip to India that she and her friends took many years ago. They met a guru and asked a bystander to take a picture of them with him. Two pictures were taken, using two different cameras. When they got home and developed the film—digital cameras didn’t yet exist—they found themselves in the photos but the guru was missing. How could this be? When we can’t explain a phenomena, we dismiss it out of hand and that’s what many people who see the pictures do. Interestingly, they often accept without question other phenomena that they also can’t explain.

When we’re faced with findings that our theories can’t accommodate, we too often throw out the data. The other alternative, of course, is to abandon the theory, but we don’t often let go of the mindsets that attach to theory. Scientists are no different from the general public in our mindless adherence to long-standing views. Eventually, there may be a paradigm shift when the evidence for a new view becomes overwhelming, but much progress may be lost in the wait. No amount of evidence for example, for some “paranormal” phenomena, would currently be accepted by most scientists. My own research teeters at times on the edge of believability for some, when it shows that if we change our mindset our body changes accordingly. Publishing in leading journals helps gain acceptance. While I’ve taken this approach, it often means dealing with reviewers who also are stuck in soon-to-be outdated theories.

We need to open our minds to possibility. Who knows what could be in store for us if we do. I personally have no desire to disappear from photos, although looking thinner than I may be would be a nice alternative.