2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Professor, Translational Neuroscience Division, School of Medicine, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

My Favorite Explanation: Why Curry, Wine And Coffee Cure Most Ails

What makes an explanation beautiful? Many elegant explanations in science are those that have been vetted fully but there are just as many beautiful wildly popular explanations where the beauty is just skin deep. I want to give two examples from the field of brain health.

When preliminary mice studies showed that an ingredient in dietary curry spice may have anti-Alzheimer effects, I suspect every vindaloo lover thought that was a beautiful explanation for why India had a low rate of Alzheimer's. But does India really have a low Alzheimer's rate after adjusting for life span and genetic differences? No one really knows.

Likewise when an observational study in the 1990s reported wine drinkers in Bordeaux had lower rates of Alzheimer's, there was a collective "I knew it" from oenophiles.

The latest observational findings now link coffee drinking with lower risk for Alzheimer's, much to the delight of the millions of caffeine addicts.

In reality, neither coffee nor wine nor curry spice have been proven in controlled trials to have any benefits against Alzheimer's. Regardless, the cognitive resonance these "remedies" find with the reader far exceeds the available evidence. One can find similar examples in virtually every field of medicine and science.

I would like to suggest two conditions that might render an explanation unusually beautiful: 1) a ring of truth, 2) confirmation biases. We all favor explanations and test them in a manner that confirms our own beliefs (confirmation bias). A small amount of factual data can be magnified into a beautiful fully proven explanation in one's mind if the right circumstance exist—thus, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This may occur less often in one's own specialized fields, but we are all vulnerable in fields in which we are less expert in.

Given how often leading scientific explanations are proven wrong in subsequent years, one would do well to bear in mind Santayana's quote that "almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it". As for me, I love my curry, coffee and wine but am not yet counting on them to stop Alzheimer's.