Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [8]: Science and Snake Oil

snake oil salesman 2

Science requires that its findings be falsifiable:  you have to be able to prove them wrong. That they might be right isn’t enough; if they can’t be wrong, they’re not science.

Belief in the supernatural isn’t falsifiable, therefore it’s not science:

“Most supernatural religious beliefs aren’t falsifiable. The existence of a God who created and manages the world according to a fixed eternal plan, Jesus’s miracles and resurrection, Heaven, Hell, Satan’s presence on Earth — these can never be disproved.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History,by Kurt Andersen (2017)

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because no one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense.

“We often see what we already believe is there, not what is actually in front of us. Perhaps the greatest of all examples of this are religious experiences. People with religious experiences always see in their visions what they have been taught all their lives. For example, a Muslim will never see a vision of Jesus in his religious experience and a Christian will never see Mohammed.

“All scientists know that the methods we use to prove or disprove theories are the only dependable methods of understanding our universe. All other methodologies of learning, while appropriate to employ in situations when science cannot guide us, are inherently flawed. Reasoning alone — even the reasoning of great intellects — is not enough. It must be combined with the scientific method if it is to yield genuine knowledge about the universe.”

The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)

Consider falsifiability’s take on homeopathic medicine:

“Homeopathy, its fake medicines prescribed to cure every disease, is a product of magical thinking in the extreme.”

Fantasyland

“We can find many ways to criticise the premises of homeopathy and dismiss this as pseudoscience, as it has little or no foundation in our current understanding of Western, evidence-based medicine… Even if we take it at face value, we should admit that it fails all the tests: there is no evidence from clinical trials for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies beyond a placebo effect. Those who … continue to argue for its efficacy are not doing science. They are doing wishful-thinking or, like a snake-oil salesman, they’re engaged in deliberate deception.

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

“Homeopathy was the original ‘alternative medicine,’” Kurt Andersen writes. He describes how it was soon joined by mesmerism, phrenology, séances, and traveling snake oil salesmen, brought to us by illustrious champions such as Methodist John Wesley, Presbyterian Sylvester Graham (as in graham crackers), John Kellogg (of cereal fame), and “Dr. William A. Rockefeller, Celebrated Cancer Specialist” (father of John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil), Along the way, it helped to spawn “New Thought” religion — e.g., Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science churches and today’s New Age movement.

Alternative medicine works because of the placebo effect:

“Many nostrums were the products of knowing charlatans, but many of the most successful inventors and promoters were undoubtedly sincere believers themselves. If the patients who had faith in the miraculous treatments, they could even seem to work. The term placebo had just come into use as a medical term.

“The upside was that homeopathy inherently fulfills the Hippocratic Oath:    . Homeopathic medicines contain negligible active ingredients. If thousands of homeopaths and millions of patients, as Mark Twain said, wanted to ‘bribe death with a sugar pill to stay away,’ that was their problem.”

Fantasyland

In her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, Lissa Rankin M.D. tells how she switched from conventional to alternative medicine after realizing that lots of people in placebo control groups actually do get better taking those sugar pills. They may be in the minority, but still…. I once heard a medical researcher tell a group of MS patients to “Find your placebo — if you think it will help you, it probably will.”

But placebos aren’t science, and the “Scientific Proof” in Dr. Rankin’s book title is off target. Last time we heard about the science behind your GPS. You don’t want it to “probably” work, or work just some of the time, or so rarely it’s a “miracle” when it does. You want it to work every time, everywhere. If it doesn’t, then the science behind it has been falsified (proven wrong), and it’s back to the drawing board.

Eventually science and investigative journalism teamed up to put the snake oil peddlers out of business:

“[At the start of the Twentieth Century,] medical science advanced, and the American Establishment decided to put an end to large-scale quackery. The new mass-market magazine Ladies’ Home Journal stopped accepting ads for patent medicines, and Collier’s published a game-changing eleven-part  investigative series on the ‘tonics,’ ‘blood purifiers,’ and ‘cures’ racket — and a year later the Pure Food and Drug Act became federal law, putting most of that industry out of business.”

Fantasyland

We’ve been digressing a bit. Next time, we’ll get back to what this has to do with consciousness and the self.

War – What is it Good For?

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War what is it good for - Springsteen

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing

You might know the song — either the original Edwin Starr 1970 version or the Springsteen cover — so good it made the infamous Clear Channel post-9-11 no play list. You might click the images or the links and have a listen — put you in the mood.

Owlcation provides the textbook explanation that wars are fought for economic or territorial gain; to further religious or nationalist interests; for self-defense or revenge; because of civil strife; or to bring about revolution. Those are rationalizations — things politicians and academicians say after the fact — but whether war is good for any of that is another issue. And it takes rare honesty to say we need war because it’s good for medicine, science, technology innovation, the economy, and the advance of civilization generally — all of which has been said.

Medicine

“For some historians, the Great War and the Second World War together form an ‘age of catastrophe’ or even one single war with a long break. The First World War also inaugurated a profound change beneath politics, in a realm largely hidden from journalism or military and political history. The Great War remade the human body itself.

“The doctors who identified this new human body saw an organism that organises itself, regulates itself, integrates itself, yet was extremely brittle. It was marked by fragility buried under the skin. It shattered easily, even worked against itself. The great number of injured and maimed bodies enabled doctors to create new kinds of medicine, physiology and psychiatry.

“Hints of this new conception of the body were present before the war, but when tens of thousands of soldiers returned with visible and invisible injuries, disordered hearts and broken psyches, it forced medicine to change too. Triage efforts on the battlefield had been sped up and regularised, and the entire front had become something of a giant medical laboratory for testing ideas and therapies. Many soldiers who, just a few decades earlier, would have died of their wounds now survived them. All of this changed the nature of the relationship between surgeons, physicians and psychiatrists, and patients. With survival, previously unknown pathologies emerged. The way in which medical scientists talked about the patient changed: they now described the patient’s body as an integral whole….”

The Maimed And The Healing:  The Casualties Of The First World War Brought A New Understanding Of Human Fragility And Wholeness Aeon Magazine (Dec. 13, 2018)

Science, Innovation, And The Advancement Of Civilization

“Were he alive today, the seventeenth-century Dutch astronomer and mathematician Christiaan Huygens might tell us we’d be fools to think that ambitious undertakings in space can be achieved without massive military support. Back in the 1690s, as Huygens thought about life on Mars and the other planets then know to populate the night sky, he pondered how best to foster inventiveness. For him and his era, profit was a powerful incentive (capitalism was as yet unnamed) and conflict was a divinely endorsed stimulation of creativity:

It has so pleased God to order the Earth… that this mixture of bad Men with good, and Consequences of such a mixture as Misfortunes, Wars, Afflictions, Poverty, and the like, were given us for this very good end, viz. the exercising our Wits and Sharpening our Inventions, by forcing us to provide for our own necessary defenses against our Enemies.

“Yes, waging war requires clever thinking and promotes technical innovation. Not controversial. But Huygens can’t resist linking the absence of armed conflict with intellectual stagnation:

And if Men were to lead their whole Lives in an undisturbed continual Peace, in no fear of Poverty, no danger of War, I don’t doubt they would live little better than Brutes, without all knowledge and enjoyment of those Advantages that make our Lives pass on with pleasure and profit. We should want the wonderful Art of Writing if its great use and necessity in Commerce and war had not forc’d our the Invention. ‘Tis to these we owe our Art of Sailing, our Art of Sowing, and most of those Discoveries of which we are Masters; and almost all the secrets in experimental Knowledge.

“So it’s simple:  no war equals no intellectual ferment. Arm in arm with trade, says Huygens, war has served as the catalyst for literacy, exploration, agriculture, and science.”

Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang (2018)

The Economy

“[In February 2009, just after the Great Recession of 2007-2008,] an international group of economists, officials, and academics met under the auspices of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society to discuss how the world might manage to emerge from its worse-than-usual financial crisis. The Center’s director, Nobel Laureate in economics Edmund Phelps, argued that some financial regulation was called for but stressed that it must “discourage[e] finding for investment in innovation in the non-financial business sector, which has been the main source of dynamism in the U.S. economy.” What’s the non-financial business sector? Military spending, medical equipment, aerospace, computers, Hollywood films, music, and more military spending. For Phelps, dynamism and innovation hand in hand with capitalism — and with war. Asked by a BBC interviewer for a “big thought” on the crisis and whether it constituted “a permanent indictment of capitalism,” he responded, “My big thought is, we desperately need capitalism in order to create interesting work to be done, for ordinary people — unless maybe we can go to war against Mars or something as an alternative.”

“A vibrant economy, in other words, depends on at least one of the following:  the profit motive, war on the ground, or war in space.”

Accessory to War, Tyson and Lang

Personally, I’m with the song’s last stanza —

Oh no, there’s got to be a better way
Say it again, there’s got to be a better way.

More coming up.