In standard science-report prose, MSNBC begins:
Given the choice, you probably prefer your home porcelain throne to using a public toilet. But for more than 20 million people in North America, peeing in a public restroom is no simple matter.
People with a “shy bladder,” a real condition also known as paruresis, are fearful of urinating when other people are nearby.
So is the considered opinion of “Carl Robbins, director of training for the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland in Baltimore, who has worked with paruresis patients for more than 20 years.”
What concerns us is the phrase “real condition,” whose opposite, we may infer, is “imaginary condition,” in the sense of a condition thought to be real but actually not; it is instead a figment of over-active imaginations, or a construction based on misinterpretations.
In this case, everybody—that is, everybody who cared to think about the subject—already knew about shy bladder based on observations taken with their own eyes, or from reports from others, or from their own experiences. That is, we already knew that some people at some times suffer (if that is the word) from shy bladder. The behavior called shy bladder was seen to be true and was well known.
So why did MSNBC, and the many other affiliates who reported on Carl Robbins’s press release, say with a mood of “at last we know” that shy bladder was a “real” condition? Presumably the reporters already knew it was real. So why say it?
There are two reasons. The first is a kind of worshipful scientism which works like this on a person’s thinking. “I have believed a thing, but now a scientist has told me what I believed is true, therefore it is true.” Before hearing the report, this person had full confidence in his belief based on the evidence of his experiences. But after hearing the report, a small doubt enters in the form of, “What I believed could have been wrong. ”
This small doubt is instantly relieved because a higher authority has confirmed the belief. But a residue of doubt lingers. Not about the belief, which is indeed strengthened (perhaps even inappropriately), but in the confidence a persons has about other beliefs that have not yet been “confirmed.” This is often of no great consequence, and can even be helpful in areas where people opine on subjects with which they have no experience (fundamental physics, chemistry, etc.). These are rare situations, though.
The habit of looking to science to confirm (or disconfirm) everyday beliefs can be harmful, especially when those beliefs are about the behavior of other people. Science here—that is, scientists here, like sociologists, psychologists, economists, and so on—have shown they are as prone, or more prone, to error than non-scientists. Just look at how often these fields have changed their “fundamentals” over the past century.
The second reason the report used the words “real condition” is another form of scientism, this one where a scientist cannot bring himself to say whether a thing is true unless that thing can be explained by a theory.
Recall that we already knew, based on years and years of experience, that some people had shy bladder at some times. It is natural and of interest to ask why. But regardless whether we can figure the answer, it does not change the evidence we have that the thing itself is true.
It is a mistake, therefore, to say that the thing might not be true because we cannot say why it is so, or because we cannot say how it fits into some theory. You might not understand how a jet engine works, but your observation that the plane flew you from A to B still corroborates your belief that planes can fly (and it doesn’t matter that some other guy does know how the engine works).
Now, it sometimes happens that a scientist is right to reject observational evidence because that evidence does not fall within that expected by some theory. But this is rare, because this means the evidence really is in error. I have in mind such things as faulty sensors in a chemical process, or information on food recall questionnaires.
It is more likely that a scientist discounts genuine evidence because it does not fit into a cherished theory. Or he is more likely to accept dicey evidence because that evidence corroborates a desirable theory. Once again, these mistakes occur more often in the less quantitative sciences.
Carl Robbins issued his press release because he was able to classify shy bladder with a scientific sounding Greek term, itself implying consonance with some theory of human behavior to which Robbins subscribes. Whether that theory is true is not of interest to the question of whether shy bladder exists, because we already knew it did.