October 13, 2013

"It is precisely in the area of medical treatments that the science-pseudoscience divide is most critical..."

"... and where the role of philosophers in clarifying things may be most relevant," write Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry.
Philosophers nowadays recognize that there is no sharp line dividing sense from nonsense, and moreover that doctrines starting out in one camp may over time evolve into the other....

The borderlines between genuine science and pseudoscience may be fuzzy, but this should be even more of a call for careful distinctions, based on systematic facts and sound reasoning. To try a modicum of turtle blood here and a little aspirin there is not the hallmark of wisdom and even-mindedness. It is a dangerous gateway to superstition and irrationality.
This seems so patently obvious to me — and, I'm guessing, to you — so why the longish column in the NYT? One thing is that the Times already ran a column on "The Enigma of Chinese Medicine" that said "that some traditional Chinese remedies (like drinking fresh turtle blood to alleviate cold symptoms) may in fact work, and therefore should not be dismissed as pseudoscience." And take a look at the comments by NYT readers. For example:
This article could easily have been written one hundred years ago. It's full of adverse assumptions about various therapeutic methodologies. It lumps the clearly dubious, like astrology, with demonstrably useful modalities, like acupuncture or TCM ((Traditional Chinese Medicine). It implicitly condemns qi as an unverifiable methodology, which it is not. It assumes that telepathy is in the dubious category, which, at this late date, it is certainly not. The overall problem, and irritant, in this article, is the authors' revealed ignorance of the extensive respectable literature on the validity of the modalities, methodologies, and phenomena they disparage....
I'm feeling an irritant and it's not the authors' revealed ignorance of the extensive respectable literature.


Beldar said...

Unfortunately, our rationality and judgment are often most compromised when — sometimes because — we're ill.

Nonsensical junk medicine often induces people to forgo real treatments that could at least help them and in many cases could cure them.

Quacks prey on the distressed. I have zero sympathy for those who peddle fake medicine. They ought to be more aggressively prosecuted for fraud.

betamax3000 said...

Re: "It assumes that telepathy is in the dubious category, which, at this late date, it is certainly not."

It Is Like He is Reading My Mind.

Gabriel Hanna said...

One traditional folk remedy may be scientifically tested and shown to be effective, but that will tell you nothing about the effectiveness of any others.

Acupuncture has been shown to "work" regardless of whether the needles are placed according to Chinese medicine or simply at random. This is not evidence for Chinese medicine, but against it--sticking needles into random places ought to be a disaster for a patient if Chinese medicine is true.

Telepathy, after nearly a century of study, has never produced any results distinguishable from statistical noise. How is it not, then, dubious?

betamax3000 said...

Naked Bob Dylan Robot Says:

Alternative Methods of Pharmaceuticals is Addressed in the Following Line:

"Johny's in the basement, Mixing up the medicine"

In This Context Johnny Is Operating Outside of Conventional Medical Practices: Is This Pseudo-Science, Or Simply an Extension of His Experiences in Variable Chemistry? Perhaps it Relates to the Inevitable Connection of Science and the Money Needed to Access Science, as Elaborated in the Following Lyric:

"The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off"

Is the Man in the Trenchcoat Equating Payment with Relief of Symptoms?

In These Two Examples One Can Discern That There Is an Undercurrent of Distrust in Science; This Distrust Can Also Be Seen in the Description of Medical Practice in the Following Lines:

"The hysterical bride in the penny arcade
Screaming she moans, "I've just been made"
Then sends out for the doctor who pulls down the shade
Says, "My advice is to not let the boys in".

It is Important to Note That the Lines That Immediately Follow Replace the Conventional Doctor with the Unconventional Practitioner:

"Now the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside
He walks with a swagger and he says to be bride
"Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride
You will not die, it's not poison".

The Discrepancy in Remedies to the Bride's Affliction Underscores the Questioning of Accepted Science and the Search For Relief From Other Sources. This Can Be Seen as a Rejection of Modern Science, Yet a Less Cutting-Edge Practitioner Is Shown the Same Scorn:

"The country doctor rambles".

Perhaps the Succor That Science Cannot Provide is Supplied in the Following Lines:

"Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy,
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers..."

Henry said...

I'm waiting for the astrologers to show up to set that NYT reader in his/her place.

* * *

I read a few comments. The one that stands out is the one that first compares Qi to quantum vibrations, then to the warming of air molecules by sunlight.

Quantum vibrations. You need a really really skinny acupuncture needle to adjust those.

betamax3000 said...

Naked Bob Dylan Robot Can Explain Anything.

chuck said...

Even modern medicine has a history of magical, medieval thinking in it: stress -> ulcers, cold-mothers -> autism, fatty food -> arterial plaque, etc. The common thread is reasoning by analogy, which can be a useful tool when dealing with situations that are little understood, but probably doesn't work that well in medicine.

Carol said...

Medicine is already riddled with pseudoscience, hence all these Integrative Care units around the country and coverage for chiropractic, acupuncture and other crap. Placebo cure is real, baby!

Phil 3:14 said...

Medical marijuana:

-smoke is a harmful delivery medium
-euphoria is not a therapeutic endpoint

Mountain Maven said...

We were commenting today at breakfast today how our relatives who avoid MD's and indulge in alternative medicine are not as healthy as those of us who go to real doctors and take their advice.

Steven said...

Lovely. I tend to be suspicious of philosophers (who do things like claim to be materialists and then sneak back in an 'epiphenomenal' soul), but, yes, "there is no such thing as 'alternative' medicine, there’s only stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t."

The big problem in medicine insufficient rigor, not insufficient credulity.

Jupiter said...

One little-noticed pernicious effect of using health insurance to pay for medical care is that once the lobbyists for some form of quackery manage to get it included in the mandatory "treatments", it is there forever, and in fact appears thereby to be legitimate.

Tibore said...

"The big problem in medicine insufficient rigor, not insufficient credulity..."

I could respond by noting that medicine's problem is often the opposite - that the medical field's rigor often leads to language that by necessity for accuracy leads people to think in terms of maybe and possibly instead of "demonstrated association" and "x percent efficacy".

But at the same time, my own critiques have also encompassed the issue of rigor. For example, on a Medscape forum discussion from last year, many doctors themselves, frightfully enough, have criticized evidence based medicine - a standard that is intended to help health care practitioners adhere to a more scientific modality in practice - as being the contrary of critical thinking, when in fact it's ideally supposed to be the opposite, to aid critical thinking and inform (as opposed to substitute itself for) personal judgement. Which indicates a willingness for many medical professionals themselves to elevate anecdote over data, my point here being that I'm surprised to see in this day and age open rejection of a more scientific and rigorous application of knowledge to the "art" of health care.

On a side note, is Pogo still around? I'd love to hear his take on that.

Anyway, lack of rigor? I refuse to use a brush broad enough to criticize all of medicine. At the same time, even in the medical field itself, evidence of such exists, so it can't be said that the charge is unfair. It's not the whole story, not by any stretch, plus many of the professions themselves are confronting this and working to correct it. But no one can deny there are issues, cases, and examples of this. The only issue is how widespread it is.

I will agree, however, that insufficient credulity is often a problem in medicine. But for all the fingers of guilt pointed at the medical profession, the far, FAR larger problem has always been on the part of the patients, not the practitioners. The most impossibly ideally evidence-based practitioner can do nothing if a patient elects to substitute pseudoscience for sound advice.