Sunday, August 7, 2011

The scientific method and discourse

Since the announcement of a possible merger between the college of sciences (COS) and the college of liberal arts (CLA), many faculty members at our university on both sides of the divide could be heard complaining. In a mixed-party conversation, a CLA colleague vocalized concern that in a merged college, liberal arts would be strong-armed by the sciences, philistines who might not be aware of other ways of knowing.

I was curious about this seeming paradox of alternatives to the scientific method, so I asked to be enlightened. "Discourse" was offered as an example of another way of knowing. This got me thinking about scenarios where this approach might be appropriate. Perhaps an autobiography that describes the suffering of a minority could strike a cord with others who experience the same pain. Similarly, such a narrative could convey the meaning of oppression to outsiders. While the scientific method might be appropriate for studying the brain chemistry underlying emotions, it is not applicable in the human activity of communicating emotions. There is no hypothesis that is being testing, so I am fine with this concept.

Immediately after vocalizing my thoughts, my moment of clarity was yanked away by the accusation that the scientific method is clearly not always appropriate in science. Data can be misinterpreted, protocols changed after the fact, and falsity propagated by stubborn scientists who are too arrogant to change their minds. No scientist would ever claim infallibility. I felt that the accusations were extreme and did not ring true.

I was then lectured on how eastern holistic medicine such as acupuncture, long ignored or belittled by science, was now becoming accepted by western medicine, as was therapeutic touch. I was flabbergasted by this misinformation. It just ain't so! Since I could see the fruitlessness in an appeal to reason, I remained silent and changed the subject.

Sadly, health insurance companies are being strong-armed by patients who are demanding that alternative medicine be covered. When an insurance company caves, it implicitly implies that there is validity to alternative approaches when in fact, these treatments have been shown by double blind experiments to be ineffective. In the end, we all suffer as precious resources are squandered on worthless treatments.

Then there are politicians such as Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who have a special interest in alternative medicine and who have used their power to create a government-funded clearinghouse for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) research. As a result, The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was established, and now garners a yearly budget of $130 million. While there is a need for studies of alternative approaches that are not potentially lucrative enough for pharmaceuticals to foot the bill, the research is heavily biased by true believers who control the funding, rehashing treatments that have be shown over and over again to be ineffective.

The downside of this "research" is that it bestows the air of legitimacy. As a result, there is growing support for alternative medicine.

If this is what our comrades in CLA generally mean by other ways of knowing, then it does not belong in academics. While all new ideas deserve to be heard, ones that have been shown to be false and counterproductive need to be put to rest as a historical curiosity - a lesson in how the mind can be fooled and how we can avoid making similar errors in the future. We need to learn the difference between a closed mind and letting go of notions that are known to be false unless reliable new evidence is brought to light.

While I have been generally in support of government involvement in healthcare to insure universal coverage for all, the fact that centralization gives politicians the power to decide what is science gives me cause to reconsider my position. One may protest that government is not so capricious; but, consider that the French healthcare system covers homeopathy, an idea that is utter nonsense both in its inefficacy as established in scientific studies, as well as in the fact that its basis runs contrary to all that we know. Sadly, even private insurers are covering alternative medicine; so, both government and the private sector have failed us in optimizing health outcomes.

Once again, I am too exhausted to fight a war that long ago has been won on the battlefield of reason. For further reading, I recommend the report prepared by the Center for Inquiry, which describes the history and science of acupuncture; and Robert Park's excellent piece on alternative medicine.

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