Jun 26 2012

Protoscience vs Pseudoscience

I was recently pointed toward an upcoming conference called, “1st Global Conference: Protoscience, Health and Well-Being.” The e-mailer was concerned, correctly, that the conference represents the tendency within the humanities for, “positioning the sciences as just one of the possible world views that is not ‘privileged’ over any other world view.” I completely agree that there is this persistent post-modernist view in some corners of the humanities. Further, this view has been enthusiastically adopted by some proponents of sectarian health methods (so-called CAM). Anything that undercuts the role of science in determining the legitimacy of a medical intervention is welcome to those who wish to promote unscientific methods.

Here is part of the introduction of the conference:

The popular experiences of alternative healing, DIY and free and open source technology are everyday experiences of the contemporary individual. These experiences are being conceptualised by Fuller (2010) as ‘anti-establishment science movements’ which tacitly challenge the highly socially positioned ‘scientific expert’, the social agent of the establishment science. In the field of health, these movements are challenging the biomedical domination in the field. One of the responses to deal with the authority challenges has been the absorption of selective alternative healing practices (such as acupuncture, homeopathy) into the established health systems while reasserting the central place of biomedicine with continued usage of the referents ‘alternative’ and ‘complementary’.

There is a tremendous amount of spin and historical revisionism in this short paragraph. First, I disagree that homeopathy and acupuncture are being absorbed into mainstream medicine. (Homeopathy remains firmly on the fringe, while acupuncture is making some headway.) Rather, these and other modalities are being pushed into mainstream medicine by political maneuvering and general deception. Advocates in influential positions, like Senator Tom Harkin, and pushing their agenda past individuals who are largely uninformed and apathetic. In the last century homeopathy was pushed through for FDA approval by Senator Royal Copeland, a lone advocate. Acupuncture is being pushed into the US military by one or two vocal and tireless advocates. There is no movement among mainstream scientists or physicians to absorb any of these methods – they are just being effectively promoted by advocates while the mainstream reaction is mainly that of the “shruggie.”

Further, the terms “alternative” and “complementary” are terms that were created and are promoted by advocates. They are not derogatory terms invented by mainstream scientists to marginalize these modalities, as the conference introduction implies. They are used with the intent of creating a false category of medical interventions for which a double-standard is being created (for publication, research, insurance coverage, and the standard of care). Mainstream push back against the insertion of unscientific methods into medicine largely opposes the use of these terms.

The e-mailer is spot on with his characterization of the philosopher of this conference being anti-science. The reference to: “the highly socially positioned ‘scientific expert’, the social agent of the establishment science,” is clear post-modernist language. Scientists are portrayed as privileged social agents, and the term “expert” is put into scare quotes. This is a decidedly anti-intellectual position (which is ironic for those those who typically present themselves as intellectuals). The conference is looking to promote bottom up, do-it-yourself healthcare, very much in the tradition of, “someone has to stand up to those experts.” (ala Don McLeroy). The comparison to an infamous creationist is deliberate – the CAM movement is just as much an anti-scientific movement as creationism and employs many of the same tactics.

They are trying to make this a social fight between the establishment “biomedical” model and the empowering grass roots model of health care. It is not, however. It is a fight between intellectual honesty and legitimate methodology vs deception and pseudoscience.

The notion that “science” is just another narrative is absurd. At its core science is a set of methods for looking fairly and objectively at all available evidence, isolating variables so we can make some judgments about their individual contributions, carefully defining terms, and using consistent and valid logic. If “science” is rejected as a socially determined narrative, then which aspect of science are they rejecting, specifically. In practice what CAM advocates are promoting is the selective use (cherry picking) of evidence, not isolating variables (mixing variables so that effects are confused), using sloppy methods, poorly defining terms, and using invalid or inconsistent logic. If you read the criticisms of the “social agents of the establishment science”, for example here or at science-based medicine, you will find countless documentations of such bad intellectual behavior on the part of CAM advocates. That is the core of our criticism – bad thinking, bad evidence, bad logic leading to unreliable conclusions that all seem to be biased in a certain direction.

Talking about the “establishment” and empowering individuals is all a distraction from this central reality. It is a massive non-sequitur. It has taken humanity centuries to develop careful methods of observation so that our conclusions about how the world works can be as reliable as possible. This is still, in fact, a work in progress. The post-modernists want to flush all this down drain because the reliable conclusions are inconvenient to their philosophies. They are not advocating “protoscience” – they are advocating pseudoscience. Changing the name does not change the reality.

16 responses so far

16 thoughts on “Protoscience vs Pseudoscience”

  1. MikeB says:

    All it does is rain here, so I’m pissed right now.

    Reading this just about makes my head explode. I’m a former English major. I stopped short of getting a PhD when I realized what a crock the whole field of “theory” is. You can thank the novelist’s worldview for giving us “Postmodernism.” I now teach writing, and I explicitly reject the literary model in favor of teaching critical thinking skills and skepticism. Pay back.

    That phrase you quoted–“the highly socially positioned ‘scientific expert’, the social agent of the establishment science”–oh, it just about made me vomit.

    I’m waiting for the whole scientific/medical establishment to say “F you” and just pack up their tools and leave the scene. Let the CAM freaks go without the “positioned experts” for awhile and see what happens.

  2. ccbowers says:

    “I’m waiting for the whole scientific/medical establishment to say “F you” and just pack up their tools and leave the scene. Let the CAM freaks go without the “positioned experts” for awhile and see what happens.”

    This is the opposite of what needs to be done. We need to get even further away from this position, because its not just “CAM freaks” who are affected. There is a whole population out there who should not here these bogus messages unopposed, and this is what is being advocated here. I realize that this is probably just a statement of frustration, but this is even worse than the shruggies attitude

  3. uncle_steve says:

    “The popular experiences of alternative healing, DIY and free and open source technology are everyday experiences of the contemporary individual.”

    As a person who uses Linux on all his PCs, I find this very insulting. It seems he is trying to equate free/open source software with quack medicine. Just because Linux/Android and open source are alternatives to Windows and iOS, doesn’t mean they are in the same boat as “alternative”(quack) medicine.

    It is ridiculous to even attempt to compare the two, but by any objective measure, Linux systems WORK; alternative medicine does not. For everyday usage, Linux/Android works as well if not better than Windows or iOS. When it comes to hardware compatibility or specialized software programs, there may be some problems. These problems are fading away as Linux improves. Unix/Linux servers have long been the backbone of the Internet.

    Love it or hate it, there is nothing inherently anti-scientific or woo-like about Linux, Android, or free/open-source technology. Computer scientists and software engineers at some of the world’s largest IT companies use it every day for their work and many contribute to Linux and other open-source projects to help make them better.

  4. SARA says:

    ccbowers and MikeB

    I’m not sure that Mike isn’t right, in a less extreme version. I wonder if we don’t create a sort of Striesand Effect by fighting so loud and hard.

    We fight and it brings the controversy into more and more living rooms. And now people who would normally just go to a doctor and get scientific advice are considering homeopathy instead.

    Controversy brings attention. We want them marginalized, but we effectively help them with the controversy.

    Not that they don’t try to stir the controversy as well by attacking science like it’s a conspiracy laden, feudal system that cannot be trusted. But had we ignored their lobs, they would probably have fallen on generally deaf ears in the majority of people.

    It was never possible to ignore some lobs. You can’t ignore things like the vaccine issue.
    Still, acupuncture and homeopathy – I think they would have risen and fallen in the fringes if we hadn’t agreed to return the fire.

  5. ccbowers says:

    “I wonder if we don’t create a sort of Striesand Effect by fighting so loud and hard…

    Still, acupuncture and homeopathy – I think they would have risen and fallen in the fringes if we hadn’t agreed to return the fire.”

    You are viewing this from a skepic’s perspective, but outside of sketpicism “loud and hard” and “return the fire” does not really apply. Your descriptions do not apply to the mainstream attitude concerning these topics. If there was such an opposition all along, we could have had a different reality in which homeopathy did not get the priveledged position it now has

  6. Cornelioid says:

    MikeB: I’m not any kind of humanities instructor, but i wonder if there are resources out there you like for critical thinking in the humanities classroom? I’d be glad to spread the word amongst my academic friends. . . .

    SARA: Weren’t acupuncture and homeopathy brought to the forefront in the first place due to voices from the fringes, rather than scientific criticism? (I’m thinking of James Reston for acupuncture and of Copeland and Harkin, as Dr. Novella mentions, for homeopathy.) A success of the skeptical movement has been getting people exposed to criticism of alt med while they’re still in college (as they search around for info online). Moreover, it seems to me that the broader campaign to produce a more critically thinking culture needs a collection of shared narratives, and these are some of the most dramatic examples of wishful thinking undermining evidence and logic.

  7. thirdtruck says:

    Agreed, uncle_steve. As a developer, the DIY and open source comparisons hit me out of left field and made me downright angry.

    DIY might champion self-directed creation but it still relies on sound science and engineering to work. I would not expect to find any of Novella’s lightbulb fairies here.

    “Open source” usually just refers to a category of licensing models. The term came about to distinguish mere legal elements from the ideologies of the free/libre software movement (http://www.fsf.org/about/). While the conference description mentions free/libre software, the choice to lead with “open source” makes them sound as informed as your average television news science reporter.

  8. SARA says:


    I’m mostly just making a pointless point, since its not like we can put the genie back in that bottle, nor do we have any data that avoiding the fray would create a smaller group of believers. It’s just an idea.

    However, in my opinion, creating shared narratives should not even be on the list of reasons why we enter the fray. At all. Either we do this thing for the greater good of society – to develop a more rational population that recognizes the value of science, or we are just doing it to entertain ourselves. I think we are doing it for the first one.

    I also don’t think increasing the ranks of skeptics is the answer to creating a more rational population, although it certainly is a good thing. And I am defining a skeptic as someone who actively seeks to fight things like CAM and company.

    The population can be passively rational as far as I’m concerned, they merely have to be smart enough to recognize the stupidity of alt meds, teaching creationism as science. That will eliminate the problem. They buy, vote and act rationally and I’m all kinds of satisfied.

    I doubt we will ever get there, but I’m in a mood today, so…

  9. locutusbrg says:

    @ sara
    “I also don’t think increasing the ranks of skeptics is the answer to creating a more rational population, although it certainly is a good thing. And I am defining a skeptic as someone who actively seeks to fight things like CAM and company.”

    In my opinion a little limited and parochial view.

    Given the the premise of your definition of a skeptic, I would agree with your statement. The public view of skepticism is negative, elitist and exclusionary.
    No reason to try to change that. Lets keep bringing rational thought with the few numbers we have now. No chance that increasing the ranks of skeptics will have an impact on creating a more rational population anyways. I mean what the point 3 guys with a shovel or 6 trying to fill in the pacific ocean not going to work either way.

  10. tmac57 says:

    Cornelioid said

    I’m not any kind of humanities instructor, but i wonder if there are resources out there you like for critical thinking in the humanities classroom? I’d be glad to spread the word amongst my academic friends. . . .

    The Great Courses offers a course called ‘Your Deceptive Mind:A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills’ that is very good and thorough. It’s 24 1/2 hour lectures on DVD or audio (I recommend the DVD which comes with a course guidebook). I forget the name of the professor though…;)

  11. SARA says:

    @ locutusbrg

    In my opinion spreading critical thinking is unlikely to accomplished by skeptics fighting against CAM, etal. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the skeptical movement is unnecessary or not doing good.

    Those things are symptoms of a larger problem – the fact that we teach our children very little about how to think and problem solve. We don’t teach them evaluate information. We don’t teach them to research a question.
    We teach to memorize facts.
    We teach them to not question the information as provided – but to listen and take it in.
    We teach them to research by assigning onerous research papers, rather than teaching them the glory of answering their own questions with investigation.
    We basically program lazy thinking.

    If we want to change the lazy thinking we need to change the system that teaches that way. We need a fundamental shift in focus in the educational system.

    That is the fight that means more to me than railing against CAM and company. It’s not that I don’t find these things appalling. It’s that whatever victories are won are temporary because none of it attacks the root of the problem.

    Fighting against the ideologies like the Texas Republican Party’s stand against critical thinking and attacks on fixed beliefs. Putting money and man power into studying the best ways to teach the skill set of critical thinking. Pay for lobbies that will help overhaul education. Pay for adult education on rational thinking.

    And those goals can be accomplished. It will take a long time, but it can be accomplished.

  12. locutusbrg says:

    @ Sara
    My misinterpretation.
    Clearly my poorly typed sarcasm was misplaced.

  13. etatro says:

    I welcome the post-modernist discussions regarding the culture of science. A little bit of introspection on our profession and academic culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How we decide: 1. Which questions we ask, 2. Which questions are important, 3. Which questions are even valid, 4. Which answers / methods / evidence are valid/good/right. Should be open for debate by scientists and non-scientists alike. The post-modernist (or historian) narrative that “science is just another narrative” isn’t going to go away, and we need to engage it. I have found that it makes me a better scientist to think about the critiques of the profession and the culture. Steve is right that science is a method or a system. But you can’t escape that there are research professions and research culture — it’s all localized by your discipline, location, or whether you’re academic or industry. But I would prefer not to resent the external pressure to self-evaluate and rather, welcome it and use it as an opportunity for improvement.

    A pertinent example might be in examining how we design studies around funding sources. The most recent podcast episode of Point of Inquiry interviewed Stuart Firestein (which I recommend) who had some pretty scathing critiques about how NIH decides to fund research: constantly requesting hypothesis-driven research rather than “fishing expedition” (a deadly criticism that will kill all but the most well-connected grant applications). The idea is that we have a hypothesis which is our best estimation on how or why a phenomenon is occurring, and we’ll design projects to support this hypothesis — we inherently introduce biases in research by designing projects (not just experiments but whole projects) that are more likely to support the hypothesis, rather than discovering something new and interesting.

    It doesn’t hurt to ask: 1. Why do we respond to NIH by designing studies this way? 2. Why did the NIH decide to do it that way in the first place? 3. Is it working?

    Just food for thought that introspection about the scientific culture (not “science the method”) isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  14. Cornelioid says:

    @ SARA: I don’t mean that shared narratives should be a common goal, but that they can provide cohesion in a movement partially defined by our (if i may include myself) willingness to criticize each other. My freethought group draws upon classic pseudosciences to give context to more difficult issues all the time. Meanwhile, i agree that drawing everyone into “skepticism” as a time-consuming discipline is unrealistic and unnecessary.

    @ tmac57: It’s on my “when i have money” list. Thanks. : )

    @ etatro: I agree that it makes sense to welcome postmodern critiques per se and only to draw the line at false equivalences. Occasionally i’ll point someone to Natalie Reed as a jumping-off point. Would you suggest other pro-science postmodernist critiques of scientific culture as cross-disciplinary bridges?

  15. etatro says:

    There’s a book out there called Liberal Democracy 3.0. It explores the political implications of expert knowledge for a liberal democracy. If knowledge is not evenly distributed, upon what basis can the philosophy of equal rights be sustained? If I am much better informed about a particular topic, why am I afforded the same “vote” as someone who doesn’t have the same knowledge. This is particularly pertinent in our US bicameral system, where in the Senate, a senator from a rural state represents fewer (and less educated) people than in a more populated state. (e.g., Montana compared to Massachusetts). For completeness: liberal democracy 2.0 is the US model of federalism / British model of Parliament, and liberal democracy 1.0 is the ancient Greek demos.

    There’s the classic book by French author Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution. I found this very difficult to get through with its sentence structure translated from French, it had very convoluted sentences and very long paragraphs.

    Though I do agree — it is important to beware of false equivalencies. I am not convinced (at all) by the post-modernists. I forget who said it (maybe misquoting or mis-attributing Dawkins??) – anyone who thinks that the laws of physics are simply a social construct are welcome to challenge the social norm from my balcony. When I was a post-doc, I had a roommate who was a history of science PhD student — you can imagine the late-night discussions with open minds, mutual respect, a pint or three, and balcony.

  16. frikkie5000 says:

    I found this post particularly interesting. I think people very often misunderstand the role of post-modern ideas in relation to science, especially in the social sphere. While I do agree that rampant po-mo can be at least as dangerous as bio-terrorism, there is something to be said for the whole “science is yet another narrative” idea.

    The very notion that “science is yet another narrative” can be absurd, presupposes the idea that science is inherently better than any other epistemological position. The only way we can reach that type of conclusion is if we rig the playing field by arbitrarily proclaiming that the progress made via science is the measuring stick. While there is nothing wrong with that, I think sober-minded post-modernists would like us to admit that we pulled a fast one on ourselves while we weren’t looking.

    Science cannot be used to justify its own merits as this would obviously be a circular argument. While the logic driving science might not be all that arbitrary, our preference for it is arbitrary (depending on your definition of arbitrary). I am not suggesting we should abandon the scientific paradigm, but we must be careful of becoming scientific imperialists.

    In short, science is the preferred paradigm because it is the best way to address our practical concerns. If our practical concerns were different, we’d value a different mode of inquiry. As a former (still am, just not formally) student of philosophy, I’ve always felt that things get very blurry when you try and differentiate between pseudo-science and proper science. At some stage you have to establish a demarcation criteria and justifying these without alluding to semi-circular arguments is near impossible.

    An excellent book that pre-empts post-modern ideas without degrading into annoying strains of relativism is Max Horkheimer’s book “Eclipse of Reason”. I can highly recommend it.

Leave a Reply