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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Enemies of Reason

Sunday, August 12, 2007

In an era in which science is under threat from religious fundamentalism, medical quackery, and general scaremongering, there has been a scientific backlash against all forms of thinking outside the scheme of rational empiricism. This is evidenced in the Channel 4 documentary entitled "Enemies of Reason," in which Richard Dawkins chases down such "primitive" beliefs and outmoded ways of thinking which "impoverish our culture." Likewise, in the United States, the biologist Jerry Coyne recently asserted at Edge magazine:
We don't reject the supernatural merely because we have an overweening philosophical commitment to materialism; we reject it because entertaining the supernatural has never helped us understand the natural world. Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism—none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota.
The economic and political reasons for this polarising antagonism are understandable (see this previous post). However, in historical terms this total rejection of supernaturalism can be challenged. The first half of my research thesis examines the history of supernaturalist encounters from within - rather than opposed to - mainstream empirical science. It shows how, from Athanasius Kircher's Mundus Subterraneus, through the nineteenth-century's Society for Psychical Research, through James Clerk Maxwell's thermodynamic demon, to Marvin Minsky's demonic model of consciousness, rationalists have engaged with the supernatural when science reached the limits of Enlightenment methods of enquiry. And whilst science since the Enlightenment has driven us through multiple technological revolutions in a remarkably short span of time, it is worth remembering (as Coyne clearly has not) that for the majority of human history supernatural ways of interpreting the world have been the dominant ones, and human knowledge and technology still developed over this far longer period, albeit much less spectacularly.

In my view, then, the distinction between scientific and supernatural epistemologies is not quite so polar as scientists such as Dawkins or Coyne make out (though I appreciate their motivations). I should add that my argument does not assert that supernatural methods are in any systematic way better than rational ones, nor that things like ghosts or demons or astrological effects exist in reality, only that thinking that they might exist and using alternative methods working under that assumption can produce insights normal science would struggle to reach were it to follow its normal tangents. Once the alternative approaches map out the new ground, often quarantined from normal practice by being labelled "thought experiments" or "placeholder terms," science invariably assumes control once again in matching, or falsifying the match between, hypothesis and reality. I have to be supremely careful in my research that whilst re-evaluating the historical value of supernatural modes of enquiry, I also demarcate the limits to it, where rational science takes over with its time-honoured methodological reliability.

The best way to tackle the assertion that supernaturalism is the equal to science, would be through systematically deconstructing supernaturalist claims and exposing them as empirically unreliable, whilst allowing that in special cases supernaturalism offers a subtle sub-set of the methodologies at its disposal. Nevertheless, given the level of scientific illiteracy among the general public, the influence of a press generally insensitive to the difference between good and bad science, and, in my own field, the belief among postmodern academics that science is a relativistic and ideological epistemology, it is very tempting to do a wholesale demolition job of supernaturalist beliefs, and lose the subtlety of their merging with rationality. Thus the acerbic tone adopted by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their critique of postmodernist theory, tellingly entitled Higher Superstition; the aggressive manner adopted by Richard Dawkins; the patronising voice adopted by popular defenders against Bad Science, such as Ben Goldacre and David Colquhoun.

But when I read the response to Dawkins' programme by Neil Spencer, the Observer's astrologer, I realised that in spite of the nuances of my research it can be very difficult to avoid taking this directly oppositional stance in the public sphere, when the claims made are so obviously empirically false, and the tone of the supernaturalist thinker is just as acerbic as that of the scientist about which he complains. Inspired by the methods of Goldacre and Colquhoun, I tried to deconstruct his counter-attack in which he asserts the value of superstition, astrology, and alternative medicine. I start with astrology:
There was the usual objection to astrology dividing people into 12 Sun signs, and my usual reply: that's eight more than the Myers-Briggs personality test used by commerce. Actually, astrology's basic personality types number 1,728.
Rather than "more being better," one would expect that a personality model that divides people into four types will be more reliable than one that uses 1,728, since even a randomised response to the Myers-Briggs test would give a subject a 1-in-4 chance of being placed in the correct category (although as I understand it the test actually uses 16). It is not feasible that I fit neatly into one of 1,728 personality types, whereas all standard personality tests do not give absolute categories, but percentages which allow for people to straddle groups. Further, the Myers-Briggs test relies on subjects answering questions about themselves, and draws conclusions from that data based on aggregate samples of a large population. By contrast astrology draws conclusions from the stars, and applies them to people based on nothing more than the coincidence of their birthday. Rather than people determining the range of possible personalities (which is what we do tacitly in everyday life when meeting another person for the first time, with a large degree of success), astrologers cherry pick from a pool of personalities and apply them to people according to the rigid and arbitrary rule of celestial mechanics. As Dawkins showed, a reading for one star sign such as Capricorn has the same predictive value for an individual of a different zodiac, as for the person actually born in January.

But if the numbers game does not work, there's always the name game:
Am I bothered by Dawkins calling me names? Not really. I'm in some esteemed company - Resurgence publisher Satish Kumar, and Dr Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital (and the Queen's physician) - also fall under Dawkins' stony disapproval.
Declaring himself unaffected by being called names, he nevertheless decides to name them instead, assuming we will be impressed where he was not. So, in keeping with this intelligent tactic, let us name names back at him: Pinker, Crick, Maxwell, Darwin, Kelvin, Einstein...Actually, rather than going on with this squabbling, which is conducted on the level of a playground argument, lets switch to some serious empirical scrunity:
Homeopathy's supposed cures are, according to Dawkins, merely the result of the placebo effect. 'It's our own minds that cure the pain,' he concludes. How that explains why animals respond to homeopathy isn't confronted.
I'm not sure which study Spencer was thinking of in asserting that animals respond to homeopathy. It certainly wasn't the large-scale, double-blind, placebo controlled trial on dairy herds in Sweden in 2003, which found no evidence of effect, but a "considerable risk to animal welfare" in the continuing use of the treatment. Nor was it this study from the Veterinary Record in 2006. Or this one from Oslo. Or this from Canada. In fact, if you use Google Scholar to search for "homeopathy animal placebo," you will be hard pressed to discover any of the evidence Neil Spencer cites (or, rather, fails to cite, given that he gives no further references).

But wait a minute. Clearly I am the one being silly by looking for such scientific studies at all. Perhaps the failure to detect any difference between placebo and homeopathic remedies is precisely that:
Everything must be subject to randomised, controlled double-blind trials, just like medical drugs - 'drugs that work' as Dawkins insists.
Now instead of tackling Spencer by evidence, I'm just getting angry. That bloody medical science, always so pernickity when deciding whether or not to produce expensive quantities of a drug and release it into a large medical population; so annoyingly demanding in its tests for the effectiveness of alternative therapies. There is certainly a case for containing the burden of proof on medical trials, and separating responsibility for testing from the pharmaceutical companies which produce the treatments (Goldacre himself comments on this in The Guardian this week). But in the meantime, I'm not sure I trust the coin-toss method.

Though having said that, according to Spencer, we are not certain of getting better even by drugs which have been subjected to such a lengthy, scientifically controlled testing process:
The medical profession admits that the success of approved drugs can be as low as 60 per cent.
True. But according to a study in the quacks' journal Homeopathy, the success rate of that alternative therapy is around 70 per cent, so not much better than mainstream medicine. (Though the study asked patients who had paid for and received homeopathic treatment - with no placebo control - whether they thought their condition had improved. Surprise, surprise, having handed over wads of cash, many of them did.) And when you consider that most mainstream medicine will often be treating otherwise chronic, life-threatening illness, whereas homeopathy will tend not to be used by people lying incapacitated in intensive care wards, the apparently lower success rate of some approved drugs is understandable.

Finally, keeping the argument at its markedly unsubtle ebb, we get back to names again:
Galileo was, after all, astrologer as well as astronomer. Likewise Johannes Kepler, who was preoccupied with Pythagorean mathematics and Platonic solids. Isaac Newton was fascinated by alchemy, as was Robert Boyle, father of chemistry.
It is noticeable that all these scientists date from before the eighteenth century, and it is entirely consistent with theories of paradigm shift that the new scientific methodology did not immediately replace the old, supernaturalist speculations. Today, four hundred years on, and having consistently proved its superiority, one would hope that the scientific revolution has been completed.

Nevertheless, the fact that it has not remains interesting; in the esteemed company of Boyle and Newton, I am intrigued by astrology and alternative therapy too, or I would not be dedicating a substantial chunk of my thesis to it. Likewise, the Times Higher this week reports of the nine "psi" research groups across UK universities. As parapsychologist Chris French explains, "The fact is that the majority of the population does believe in this stuff, and a sizeable minority of the population claims to have had direct experience of the paranormal. If psychologists have nothing to say about this topic, they are missing out on a broad part of human experience." Indeed, Dawkins' own programme featured a psychologist interested in the depth of belief in water dowsers; comically, they continued to believe they could dowse, despite their success rate being exposed as no better than would be expected by chance. I was disappointed Dawkins as an interested scientist did not ask the follow up question, which is that dowsing outside the laboratory conditions must have some effect, given its survival into the twenty-first century. Possibly water dowsers are excellent interpreters of natural signs, such as increased vegetation or changing lie of the land, and might well use this entirely explicable if implicit method, rather than explicitly a twitching branch, to predict where water might run. Learning how they become so expert at interpretation would be fascinating, as indeed was Derren Brown's analysis of the manipulations of "cold reading" used by spiritualists at seances (believe me, once the illusionist reveals the subtle pressures they exert on an audience, those who continue to do it believing they are actually communicating with spirits seem nothing more than silver-tongued salesmen).

As serious researchers correctly suggest, there is no doubt that astrology, supernaturalism, ghosts are part of human culture. Whether they exist or not in the physical world, they undeniably exist for half of us in the mind, which is why even the most rational of scientists sometimes use them in thought experiments to provoke the scientific community into debate. They are therefore worthy of physical, psychological, and in my case literary study, and it is this significance that proponents should assert. Were they to do so, they would make opponents like Dawkins appear to be attacking a straw man, and one moreover which allows itself to be subjected to the same rigorous empirical enquiry as the more mainstream science of which he is an exponent.

But this will never happen, so the view has to remain thus: it is interesting that humans fall for it; it is interesting that it once was thought to work; it has generated some valid knowledge in the past. But just as I could use a flint to light a fire, but prefer a match, true science has a way of getting things done which alternative therapies and superstitious beliefs simply cannot match. This is why I, like Dawkins or the other defenders of reason, find it hard to otherwise than to mock and patronise the absurd beliefs and false claims of a "primitive" such as Spencer.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:50 pm

2 Comments:

Blogger David Colquhoun said...

There is a difficult line I think, between being forthright and being patronising. Both I, and I'm quite sure Goldacre too, have no intention at all of being patronising. Neither do I find Richard Dawkins "aggressive" though religious people are fond of saying that he is. The God Delusion was closely argued and tackled all the relevant arguments carefully.

The problem is that rationalism got nowhere when it stuck to dry academic assessments of the evidence, with conclusions carefully buried under a veneer of political correctness. Once scientists took on journalists at their own game, things began to change. Having first examined the evidence, and deciding on the basis of that evidence that homeopathy (for example) is bunk, it seems that the easiest way to communicate the conclusion is to say straight out "homeopathy is bunk" and "the medicine contains no medicine", Scientists (and, at least as much, social scientists) should be better at using plain words, I often think. And the great thing about blogs is that you can give all the references too. That, to my mind, is not being patronising. On the contrary, we are saying you don't have to believe me, go and read it for yourself.

I think that Ben Goldacre has brought about a revolution in science journalism for which we should all be grateful.

7:14 pm  
Blogger Ishmael said...

I take your point that neither yourself nor Ben Goldacre intend to be patronising, and that there is a fine line between being patronising and being forthright. But that issue of intent was the central one of my post. In this, I started off by trying to deconstruct Neil Spencer's astrological claims through rational argument and found myself, in the process of writing, finishing up thoroughly angry at the lengths I was having to go to in rationally to demolish claims that are already self-evidently empirically false. Ultimately, I certainly (and self-consciously) ended up as patronising.

If this happened to me, a literary student who started out with open-minded good intentions, then goodness knows what exercises in frustration trained scientists such as yourself must be going through. Was "patronising" an inapt word to describe the results of that process in the case of Goldacre or yourself? Probably so, from your perspective. But from the readerly perspective of a homeopath or wi-fi scaremonger, I suspect I would feel like I was being spoken down to in many of the contemporary responses to bad science, including my own.

Take Ben Goldacre's recent post, "The End of Homeopathy." Even whilst explicitly talking to an idealised "intelligent and respective" listener, the model of a dialogue with a homeopathy "fan" (elsewhere termed "quack") implies as I interpret it a one-way lecture, whilst the rhetorical questions do seem to turn the relationship into one of teacher and child:

"Well, it could be that," says your honest, reflective homeopathy fan. "I have no way of being certain. But I just don't think that's it. All I know is, I get better with homeopathy."Ah, now, but could that be because of "regression to the mean"?

The idealised "intelligent and respective" listener might be able to take such comments on the chin. In practice, the homeopathy "fan" like Jeanette Winterson will probably just get angry, with this superficial, intuitive response acting as an unfortunate buffer from her engagement with the serious empiricism that underlies Goldacre's writing, and which reveals homeopathy to be a sham at its foundations.

Given my own experience of trying to tackle homeopathy on its and science's own terms in the "Enemies of Reason" post, I understand perfectly why Goldacre chooses to - perhaps cannot help but - adopt this sort of tone, the straight talking which you see as the "easiest way to communicate the conclusion...that homeopathy is bunk." But though "plain talking" may be the easiest (even inevitable tone), is it ultimately the most effective way of qualifying the claims of homeopaths, or other forms of bad science?

For example, as homeopaths respond to Goldacre, so the likes of Terry Eagleton responded to The God Delusion by focusing on its style, rather than seeking to understand its evidence base. That one of our most experienced cultural critics failed to read beneath the surface of The God Delusion suggests to me that Dawkins' may not have chosen the best strategy in his "plain talking", as I explored in this post.

Indeed, the case of Richard Dawkins shows just how hard it is to choose the "best" way to combat religion or bad science. Dawkins possesses quite a literary mindset and writing strategy: The Selfish Gene is every bit as enjoyable as a novel, and shows that he, like the best novelists, anticipates how his words and style are going to be received, as well as what he thinks them to mean. So Dawkins is almost certainly aware that he is going to be perceived to be aggressive, even if his intention is to critique religion (or the enemies of reason) rationally. He has admitted that his may ultimately not be the best approach, risking loosing the larger science war by seeking to win a few skirmishes. The fact that he persists in spite of his considered judgement, then, reveals the depth of his frustration which prevents him of doing anything but provide robust rebuttals of religion which theists like Eagleton read as unsubtle, superficial diatribe.

The conclusion from my own experience in tackling homeopathy, from Goldacre's writing, or from The God Delusion's reception, is that the issue is not so much whether defenders of science should be "plain talking" or "sticking to dry academic arguments," but that they/we cannot help but do the former. Unfortunately, this leaves readers such as Eagleton or Winterson completely missing the fundamental, empirical points.

My fear is that the belief that results from this approach - a belief inculcated by the language of "strategies," "skirmishes," talking "straight out" etc. - is that this contest constitutes a "science war." Like the "war on terror", this implies that this is a competition that can be won decisively, and in so doing it risks denying the value of a dynamic culture in which science, the arts, religion and, yes, cult healing, interact and react with potential benefits for the whole.

This was the second point of my post. In the example I used there, water divining exists in the world, and is believed by many to work; it has been, and remains, a successful meme. To out it as an enemy of reason in the war on science, is to risk being blind to any intrinsic interest and benefits it might have; for example, water diviners may have a peculiarly attuned sense of environment that allows them to predict where water will occur (an effect that to them seems to come from earth magnetism). Understanding their ability sympathetically to know their environment may have positive results for us all. Likewise, would the worthwhile academic studies of the placebo effect have been conducted so extensively, were it not for the existence of homeopathy which a strong placebo effect ultimately deflates? The presence of the "other" side of reason can allow reason ultimately to assert itself the more strongly, and should not therefore be dismissed out of hand as bad science

(I am not suggesting - patronisingly! - that you, Goldacre or Dawkins are not already aware of this. Dawkins did suggest in his programme that investigating homeopathy as a practice of treatment with a strong placebo effect might show mainstream medical science how it could better engage with patients; likewise Ben Goldacre consistently draws attention to the intrinsic interest of the placebo effect).

The big question, then, is how we regulate such a productive multi-culture. Is it, as Paul Feyerabend says in Against Method or my postmodernist colleagues in the arts might argue, that "anything goes," since all knowledge is relative? Certainly not. Is it in educating from an early age about how to evaluate competing claims to truth, knowing that someone shouting "Genesis is right" does not have the same empirical authority as a well-researched evolutionary scientist? Absolutely so, but the Royal Society was recommending this back in 1985, and little seems to have changed. Very whimsically, I have proposed a libel law for science to act as a homeostat on its representation in culture. Whilst in theory not preventing the likes of homeopathy to exist in the first place (protecting freedom of speech and opinion), such a law would give scientists ownership over their work whilst in practice preventing some of the worst manipulations or misuses of their evidence. Such a law is, of course, a thoroughly unrealistic expectation. Thus the best alternative is that the likes of Goldacre or yourself or Dawkins are around to counter the enemies of reason.

As you say, a blog offers a way to combine plain words with "giving all the references" through links. But whilst the blog, and journalists like Goldacre, may have started a revolution in science journalism that has broken from the entrenched rationalism that got nowhere, revolutions rarely end up where they began. As I perceive it, the current moment of change is one in which scientists cannot help but do other than "plain talking" in what is presently construed as a "science war." Because it potentially risks blinding science to the benefits of alternative ways of thinking (such as water divining, placebo effects etc.), I don't believe this will benefit society as a whole in the long run. And I don't believe it is the most effective means of communication of science and its benefits in the present. The question I admit that I cannot yet answer is what is the alternative? In the absence of a solution, and whilst we cannot help but combat bad science through straight talking, the blog may well be the best current option...but it should not be the final word.

6:09 pm  

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