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.

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