Humors

by Will on August 25, 2010

That, I learned yesterday evening, is what the fluids in your eyeballs are called. There are two kinds of humors in the eye: an aqueous humor in front of the lens, and a jelly-like humor in the ball proper.

This brings to mind the old medical idea that personality was controlled by the balance of one’s “humors” (that is, precious bodily fluids). You’ve probably come across this idea. It says that there are four kinds of people, determined by which of four bodily fluids predominates in their body:

Phlegmatic: you have lots of phlegm in you. You are therefore calm, detached, aloof, perhaps prone to writing long, discursive blog posts on academic topics

Choleric: you have lots of yellow bile in you. You are therefore angry and temperamental. You have probably been taken into police custody at some point.

Melancholic: You have a lot of black bile in you. You are therefore full of malaise and ennui. You probably spend a lot of time at cafes, brooding over T.S. Eliot and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sanguine: You have a lot of blood in you. You are therefore a cheerful, ambitious, lustful go-getter. You would seem to be the winner in this game.

The point is that, as humans, we have an inexorable need to construct systems of meaning and explanation, to build narratives that purport to answer the question that troubles our minds: “Why?” Most of the time we don’t have enough information to come up with answers that are true, but it doesn’t matter: once we have some plausible answer, we are satisfied.

The scientific method, by and by, gave us a way of testing the hypotheses that people propose, and sorting out ones that seem to hold true from ones that don’t. But it still only allows us to do this slowly and imperfectly. Most of us are not practicing scientists, no scientist has the time to test every theory, and scientific findings are not usually widely dispersed. It is a known paradox that, even of theories put forth by practicing scientist, only a small minority hold up: the more science happens, the more untrue theories there are in the world.

So it’s inevitable that a lot of folk science will be getting passed around at any given time: about things that affect our health, about why social conditions are as they are, about money and the economy, and so on. We are prone to hear this folk science and think: “sounds plausible: probably true.” So it’s always likely that a large portion of our ideas about what’s happening are mistaken.

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