Enemies of reason

This was the title of a television programme last night which featured my favourite arrogant scientist, Richard Dawkins. His assertion was that science was under attack from ‘new age’ mumbo jumbo.

He had a little interview with Deepak Chopra which highlighted the real problem. Dawkins was trying to trip up Chopra for using the principles of quantum physics in his new age philosophy (I haven’t read any of Chopra’s work so my apologies if this is an inaccurate term). Chopra explained he used the term as a metaphor only then set about berating Dawkins for his arrogant adherence to a mechanistic viewpoint.

This is the key. The greatest strength of science is also its biggest weakness. Science can only deal with the quantifiable. It needs to do this for the duplication of experiments. This has its drawbacks as was explained last week with the example of bats.

Before the equipment was developed to measure sound frequencies beyond our own hearing and someone was curious enough to suggest a rational explanation, the bats’ method of navigation through the dark was one of esoteric speculation. Science eventually proved a previously unknown phenomenon.

Let me give you my example.

As a lottery player, you are told one day that you have won a huge sum of money. Your physiological reaction is measured via your heart rate, sweat production etc.as waves of euphoria wash over you. Using the scientific method, from an observers viewpoint, nothing has been added to the organism to produce this response, so the observer has to try and divine why this response occurred using a mechanistic model. The response is measurable, but the cause is not, so the model breaks down.

With medicine, you can administer a quantifiable cause (say a dose of heroin) and see the effects. Science likes this kind of scenario; it fits into its mechanistic model of the world.

Okay you could argue that an idea was administered to the subject. Go ahead and quantify an idea. Is that electricity, light, magnetism, sound – what? Science gets stuck in this kind of environment – look at the trouble it is currently having with consciousness.

Just to complete the scientific experiment procedure with our lottery winner, you could administer the same idea to a subject who has never played the lottery and you wouldn’t get the same reaction. This is because the subject would know the information was false. Therefore it is not the idea itself but the belief in the idea which produces the effects. How can science quantify belief?

So we have an effect caused by a thought or a belief. Anyone who has experienced the spectacular physical changes that can occur with a powerful revelation knows this to be true. If you can create these effects with a thought, it only takes a little leap to imagine that lights, magnetism or voodoo could also create these effects if the subject believes that these things have those powers.

In the programme, Dawkins kept referring to the placebo effect as if it was some kind of magic trick of little value. But surely, it is the placebo effect which needs to be studied. Why does it occur at all?

I also found it slightly odd that science embraces concepts such as string theory or an eleven dimension universe and yet doesn’t allow mystical or spiritual speculation even though science tells us we are all physically interconnected through matter.

Just for the record, I am neither anti science, nor pro ‘alternative therapies’.

4 Responses to “Enemies of reason”

  1. factician says:

    Actually, I think you might be missing the point. Before you can look for a mechanism, one should look to see if there is an effect. Take your bat example, above. Scientists knew that bats could navigate in total darkness. They had no idea how, and required machines to measure sonar that didn’t exist yet.

    If you apply that to most alternative therapies, you discover that for most of them, there is no measurable effect that is better than a sugar pill. What is the point of postulating fairies and magnetism and water with memory, when there is nothing to explain? Most alternative therapies have an explanation for why they work, but nonetheless don’t work. They’re putting the cart ahead of the horse.

    Folks who practice alternative medicine should first ask themselves, “Can I prove that this works?”, long before they start making up stories about how their brand of magic(tm) works.

  2. Ivor says:

    Surely, the horse is the sugar pill effect, and the cart, the many explanations?

    There has to be some benefit to these alternative therapies for so many people to use them, and there is – the placebo effect.

    The point of the post was to remind people that science has its limitations (as illustrated by the bats) and that it is the placebo effect that needs to be studied (which science can’t do at this point in time).

  3. N says:

    I often sing the praises of John Diamond’s excellent book “Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations”. He points out that sometimes the apparent effectiveness of alternative therapies are in fact the delayed effects of normal medical practices.
    Desperate and frustrated people trying something alternative after such as chemotherapy has apparently failed, attribute the improvement in their condition to this, when there is a known time lag associated with chemo.

    So, it is not always the placebo effect which makes alternative therapies “work”, sometimes they steal the thunder of mainstream medicine.

  4. Ivor says:

    Good point. A lot of people turn to alternative therapies when mainstream medicine has ‘failed’ them. It should also not be forgotten that some people get better of their own accord without any medication.

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