Asking Better Questions

My attention was recently directed to an interesting blog post by Lee Jussim in Psychology Today that questions whether most published findings in the field of social psychology are actually false.  He writes about how the results of erroneous published studies become accepted as scientific fact, along with the results of solid, replicated, and validated studies.  When some published studies are dubious and others are solid, the community of scientists and the public at large cannot determine what is valid and what is not.  Similarly, in areas of health and medicine, popular reporting of scientific papers frequently overblow results that are unimpressive, or dead wrong.

One problem is that people become married to their beliefs and misconceptions.  They are more likely to believe results and agree with opinions that align with their prior beliefs and discard those that don't, an effect known as confirmation bias.  Everyone suffers from this, and it takes concerted effort to recognize the tendency in ourselves when we discard information that contradicts what we believe.

People who consciously engage in this type of critical thinking and self-evaluation generally consider themselves to be skeptics, and have built a skeptical community around exploring these issues.  When evaluating a claim of any sort, skeptics begin by evaluating their understanding of basic science.  The first questions: Is the claim scientifically plausible? If so, is the person presenting the claim doing so in a way that is logically consistent and intellectually honest?  If so, does the new evidence support the claim?  If new evidence contradicts previously-collected evidence, is it robust enough to overturn what was previously thought to be true?  At the point where all these answers are 'yes', skeptics will tentatively update their beliefs, conditional on future evidence coming along which prompts them updating it again.

What does all this have to do with architecture and specifying?  A few things come to mind.  First of all, the science guiding the practice of architecture is particularly weak and riddled with confounding issues.  In particular, advocacy has largely supplanted science when it comes to 'sustainable' and 'resilient' architecture.

Most egregious among the ways that advocacy has taken over the minds of architectural designers is the misplaced belief that materials containing health hazards are inherently dangerous and must be eliminated.  Real risk is a combination of hazard and exposure; even chemicals that carry significant health hazards may not be risky at all when properly managed to minimize exposure, used in small concentrations or used in combination with other products.  For architects to not only full-throatedly advocate for but also arbitrarily select products based on a hazard-only assessment could be doing a serious disservice to their clients.  Instead, they should follow more scientific risk-based assessments when they're available, and prioritize known criteria like performance and longevity.  Architects are not asking about risk analysis, but that's the correct question to be asking.

Another problem area is so-called 'evidence-based design' in healthcare facilities and the claim that biophilia - a claim of an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems having an impact on people beyond mere enjoyment of nature - has an effect on healthcare outcomes.  One of the scientific studies that most frequently is cited for the support of biophilia as a concept for architectural design is “View through a window may influence recovery from surgery” by Roger S. Ulrich published in Science in 1984.  But like Dr. Jussim pointed out, just because something is published in a peer-reviewed journal, that doesn't make it true.  Ulrich's study was small, lacked a control group, and the results were underwhelming.  Despite this, big claims about the benefits of biophilia have taken hold in the communal belief of architects, and architects are trying to sway owners to spend money that may not provide any of the promised value.

Given that much of what we believe is unreliable, we should be actively asking questions about things we think we know, and figuring out ways to find reliable and valid answers to those questions.  Once we do, we must update our beliefs based on the new answers.

Until architects' actual knowledge catches up with what we think we know, the best we can do is be humble, acknowledge to ourselves and our clients that our knowledge is incomplete, and make only claims that can be substantiated by reliable science.

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