Home / Is Science Just Another Opinion?

Is Science Just Another Opinion?

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

I've heard it said countless times that science is just a set of opinions and that it is no more valid than anyone else's. That assumption underpins much of the justification for Woo theory, whether it's the existence of some undetectable energy called Qi, or some healing energy that is assumed to exist inside us, or the existence of chakras, or the apparently remarkable properties of magnets and crystals. Science, it has been claimed, is arrogant in assuming some kind of privileged access to knowledge of the world, in setting itself up as the arbiter of truth. In this view, science is preventing us from having choice, restricting us to believing only what is given to us by scientific authorities. This view even had its own absurd academic variant called postmodernism that tried to make this theory profound by using obscure, and often meaningless language.

Scientists are very used to this sort of comment and invariably it arises from a poor understanding of how science progresses. The first, and perhaps most important, principle of science is that the theories which explain our knowledge are independent of the beliefs and values of the proposer. It does not matter, at all, what the scientist thinks or believes — the theory must rest on its explanatory power and the supporting evidence. Science is not a belief system.

Secondly, it isn't science that constrains us and takes away our choice in what to believe about the way the world works. It's the world itself. It doesn't matter what any scientist thinks about gravity, or the boiling point of water. These things are completely independent of any world-view the scientist might have. The choice in what we believe is still there, but whether it corresponds to reality or not is not our choice. Nature doesn't care what we think.

Science makes strenuous efforts to ensure an accurate correspondence between theory and reality and the reason our choice is restricted is because external reality constrains us. We cannot simply decide that water boils at a different temperature or redefine the value of gravity. These are real, tangible external constraints. Scientific experiments are all about identifying and understanding those constraints.

So when it comes to talking about medicine, and whether or not some therapy works, we have to test it against the real world and not simply stop at the point when we've made up the theory. It's not scientists who are being undemocratic in restricting our choice of belief in a medicine. We can all, if we want to, believe that homeopathy works. But it's testing it in the real world that will tell us whether the theory is right or not. It has been tested, and homeopathy doesn't work. And that doesn't change just because someone spends money buying it.

Let's think about magnets, just for a moment. We can buy therapeutic magnets which, we are often told, will improve our health. But just in order to generate an MRI image, we need a massive electromagnet, the size of a small room. The reason is that in order to get the image, you have to perturb the protons in the hydrogen atoms of water using intense electromagnetic radiation. Just that tiny peturbation requires a massive magnet. Now think about the size of magnet that fits around the wrist and what effect that is supposed to have. This is not opinion, or someone's point of view. It's the real physical world dictating what is actually possible — irrespective of the opinions of any scientist. The peddlers of these magnets won't explain how they think they will work — because they are constrained by the physics of the real world. It's in their interests not to know.

One of the reasons scientists are so often maligned is because companies often cite pseudoscientific arguments to support the sale of products, and the media sensationalise the typically cautious scientific claims. In that context, when we distrust the products (because marketers almost always hype), we also distrust the scientists. We are often right to distrust scientific results, especially when they are produced by institutions which represent commercial interests. Science that doesn't meet a high standard of evidence, subjected to open peer review, is unlikely to be trustworthy. But that doesn't mean science is just opinion. It's actually the opposite. It refuses to accept opinion as sufficient, it doesn't accept a person's word or belief as sufficient, it doesn't accept anecdotal biased reports as evidence. It demands a test against the real world. And when it's proven wrong, it changes.

Powered by

About Bob Lloyd

  • Nekkocite

    I liked the intent of this article until the writer mentioned postmodernism. His assumption that the philosophy is absurd shows a lack of imagination and understanding of how truth can be both subjective and object; That its is finding the balance between both that helps us progress as a species and a culture. The very fact that he referred to it as “postmodernism” and not hypermodernity or supermodernity is evidence that they are not very knowledgeable of the subject.
    The premise of this this article is wonderful. Science is undoubtedly not an opinion. However I think you would get more readers if you didn’t initially come off like such a pretentious douche bag.

  • Marius, the difference between science and your position is that science would not presume to know about supernatural beings, their viewpoints, their intentions, their very existence.

    You confidently explain that your god is laughing and weeping, that there is something called true science which will agree with his intentions, and that everything else is false.

    Although that’s clearly a devout expression of your belief, it doesn’t tell us anything more than what you believe. To find out about the real physical world, we need to interact with it, study it, do experiments, check our data, formulate theories, test them and drop those that don’t stand up.

    In that process, which has shown itself to be so remarkably useful that it even gave you a keyboard, we learn a great many things which we can demonstrate to be true. In that process, we have no need of believing in any supernatural beings. That belief brings nothing to the table.

    Far from knowing next to nothing, we already know a lot based on an accumulation of knowledge which we can demonstrate. Our predictions about the physical world really do come true. The truth of scientific theories is evidenced in the real world. Science does not require any beliefs of scientists since it is not a faith-based system. That means that you too can propose your theories about the physical world and test them to see if they are right.

    To my mind science is opposed to religion because of what religion says about how the world is. For example opposition to the theory of evolution, stories about the flood, the belief that the earth is only 6000 years old, etc. But even believing all that, you could still propose scientific theories and test them. For example, based on those religious beliefs you could advance the theory that the flood took place, and then disprove that theory with the accumulated evidence that it did not.

    No reason at all to wait for the arrival of a superbeing that you happen to believe in.

  • I’d like to know how you know this? You don’t sound very humble to me.

  • Marius Muller

    Science,science,so many people debate science.This is the truth and only truth;People have elevated science as the be all and end all of all knowledge .Scientists like Darwin and Einstein and most others are really such pathetic figures.The reason being that in spite of their extremely limited knowledge which they themselves considered to be rather fantastic knowledge,they failed to see the simple truth before their own eyes i.e.that God is the only creator of all things.All the opinions of men from scientists to religious leaders really means absolutely nothing in terms of affecting the real truth of all things.Everything is subject to God and His scientific ,religious ,political and all other decrees.God laughs and weeps at the arrogance of foolish men who think they know it all when in fact we all know next to nothing.When will people realise that their bickering and arguing is a useless exercise aimed at one person trying to be more “intelligent” than the next one.True science will agree 100% with God and His Word the Bible alone and nothing else.Be prepared for a host of very red faces when God Almighty returns and the scientists look like naughty schoolboys for whom a very serious punishment awaits.Let us be authentic scientists and acknowledge that the ultimately correct scientist,politician or whatsoever else is God,any other view is simply false.So what,you may ask?just be very humble about the very little you actually know.

  • I know it is wrong, but sometimes it should be allowed. My grandmother only replies to eastern bullshit. Sure, it doesnt really work, but she responds to it
    so, we dont question it infront of her

  • Robert, there are two significant problems in using the placebo effect as a treatment. The first is that it’s unpredictable. It doesn’t affect all people, nor in the same ways, nor can it be assumed to continue working.

    The second is that it relies on the patient being lied to, and continuing to believe the lie. That’s a significant ethical problem for many people.

    And on the evidence, when Prof Edzard Ernst looked at it, the only vaguely positive result came from a trial that had a poor methodology, which couldn’t be accepted as evidence.

  • @33

    from the studies I have seen, it has a slightly stronger effect than a placeboo, but not by much. Again, though, one wonders, if a non-harmful cheap procedure works as a placebo, why not use it

  • Deadful, I think you’re right that Nagel is well aware of the absurdity of postmodernism. This interesting summary paper looked at the central claims of postmodernism and shows why they needed to be rejected:
    Paper by Tak Wing Chan

    There are plenty of other technical philosophical papers around in the same vein. It’s just that many people view any challenge of these premises as one-sided and ill-informed.

    In posting my article, I was quite deliberately arguing that science IS NOT just another discourse. Quite deliberately one-sided, because the other side is irrational and leads to absurdities, as is shown in the link.

    I must say that it’s interesting that although people like Sokal can take on and take apart postmodernist philosophy, none of these philosophers seem to be able to take apart particle physics. I suppose the philosophers are just word technicians and don’t have the sophistication to address real physical problems, or would that be one-sided? 🙂

  • “An ordinary run-of-the mill scientist is neither disposed nor sufficiently equipped to deal with the problems of scientific research and method; only the best of them have the ability or the inclination.” – that is breathtakingly arrogant in its assumptions.

    That’s where you’re wrong, Bob – again. They’re technicians, glorified technicians but technicians nonetheless. “Research assistants,” remember the term. Only the greatest of the bunch are making the discoveries, the select few. But most of them are little cogs in a big wheel. They aren’t even aware of the scope of the overall project most of the times – for security and other reasons. It’s all compartmentalized. Your view of science is so glorified it’s truly out of this world.

    But that’s OK, I understand it, Bob. Everyone needs their God, I suppose, so you have found yours. I’m happy for you.

  • Here, Dreadful,

    You might want to look at this brief review.

    In case you’re interested, I posted a link on my thread (#1429) to Sokel’s own website and massive amount of literature generated thereby.

  • Did I say that he does? I presented it as a more balanced view, didn’t I?

    Still, Bob’s presentation was crude and one-sided. And so was Sokel’s, which puts all postmodernistst in the same bag.

    (But don’t worry. Sokel created enough controversy to make a name for himself, more so that his researches in physics would ever do, and he can now retire writing.)

    Did I claim that science is just another philosophical discipline? I don’t think I ever have. And I don’t think you’re saying that.

  • As to the relative values of either discipline – they’re incommensurables. I’m surprised you’re even fielding this question.

    Roger, it’s the whole point. It goes to the heart of the claim that science is just anoth philosophical discipline and is subject to the same rules of interpretation.

    Good article – thanks for the link. But why do I have the sneaking suspicion that Nagel is not arguing quite what you think he’s arguing?

  • Somewhat more balanced article: “The Sleep of Reason,” by Thomas Nagel.

  • Well, I’m glad you’ve got it all figured out, Bob, because greater minds than you haven’t yet. And yes, the first page of this article does read like from “Science for Idiots.”

    Rather than presenting your intended contrast from the get-go and get to your point outright, you just couldn’t help yourself from peddling the most complex of matters under the guise of utter simplicity. So yes, your ideology is showing (in that it was counterproductive). I just called you on it, that’s all.

  • Nothing to do with being enamored (sorry, American spelling), Dreadful, that’s how I think. And if you believe the issues are as clear cut as he presents them, you’ve got another think coming. There are valid points on either side (just as there are fools on either side as well – I don’t mean Bob here.) But his presentation was way too one-sided and seemingly nonproblematic that it merited a reply. So yes, it do see the forest and the trees.

    And whatever gave you the idea I was knocking scientific progress and didn’t recognize the value of science?

    As to the relative values of either discipline – they’re incommensurables. I’m surprised you’re even fielding this question

  • Roger, sometimes I think you’re so enamoured of philosophy that you can’t see the wood for the trees.

    Modern science may have been born out of philosophy but it has developed into an entirely different discipline, largely thanks to the enormous range of practical products of scientific work.

    In contrast, can you point us to the things arising from the work of, say, Nietzsche or Bergson that we use every day?

    Bob’s quip about the gender of electricity is actually quite telling.

  • It’s a shame you choose to dismiss my points as rabid positivism. The attacks on positivism and the Vienna Circle can be seen as a crisis in epistemology as much as a critique of science but far from being a devastating critique, they had no lasting effect on scientific practice. They did however sprout many new branches of philosophy. That in itself is quite telling.

    “An ordinary run-of-the mill scientist is neither disposed nor sufficiently equipped to deal with the problems of scientific research and method; only the best of them have the ability or the inclination.” – that is breathtakingly arrogant in its assumptions. A close reading of the book by Sokal, I suggest, will clear up many of those, if I might say so, ill-informed views. And it’s also an excellent response to the Fish article in passing.

    Annexing Einstein to the philosopher camp is really rather poor. One of his more interesting complaints about philosophers is:
    “Philosophers had a harmful effect upon the progress of scientific thinking in removing certain fundamental concepts from the domain of empiricism, where they are under our control, to the intangible heights of the a priori.”

    Oh, and I have delved into the detail for more years than is probably good for me. But enough of the ad hominem… 🙂

  • You might consider the following article, Bob, to get some perspective.

    And a word of advice, Bob: Don’t take everything as gospel truth just because you see it in print – including this article by Stanly Fish.

  • Should be “Bob.” Sorry, Bob.

  • Very ill informed statement, and now you’re displaying what all along I suspected as rabid positivist bias. The distinction between the traditional kind of narrative and the kind of work that science does is more than sufficiently clear cut, at least by the most astute of writers, but you choose to lump all those who question Project Enlightenment into one camp without apparently having bothered to delve into much detailed – except by way of an overarching critique and an attempt to reinstate the old, naive view of science but such neopositivists as Lakatos. Which only suggests the superficiality of your understanding and knowledge (as though four degrees were better than one).

    You don’t have to wait for the latter 20th century philosophers to find poignant and devastating critiques of positivism and logical-positivism, but can go as far back as the Vienna Circle in fact, to works by such as Wittgenstein and followers. What’s also lost in your hasty dismissals is the rather basic fact that it is the business of philosophers to comment on the ways of science by ways of meta-discourse. An ordinary run-of-the mill scientist is neither disposed nor sufficiently equipped to deal with the problems of scientific research and method; only the best of them have the ability or the inclination. Einstein was more of a philosopher than a scientist and his revolutionary ideas emerged from philosophical attitudes of thinking about problems in the material world. He had to resort to mathematicians, like Schrödinger, in order to express those ideas in the language of mathematical physics. The same goes for Heisenberg and a host of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century.

    Since you provided a text, here’s one for you: Try Patterns of Discovery Patterns of Discovery, and when you understand it to the point of being able to discuss it, then we can talk. But I doubt whether you’ll be able to bring yourself back to the point when you were a child and questioned everything. You’re too well-formed, John, and too sophisticated for your own good.

  • It’s interesting how often philosophical difficulties are assumed to reflect scientific difficulties, as if the progress of science depends on epistemology. It doesn’t. Science doesn’t need to validate itself against some philosophical position. Rather epistemology has to catch up with how science progresses.

    The debates between Kuhn, Feyerabend, and the later more detailed analyses by Lakatos et al show very well how epistemological paralysis can result from a process of doubting both theory and observation.

    The postmodernists compounded this by pretending that science was just another narrative, an opinion just like any other. Those who are interested might like to look up the excellent book by Alan Sokal called Beyond the Hoax, in which he exposes the nonsense promulgated by the postmodernist philosophers. Incidentally, while they were trying to work out the gender of electricity, science was busy getting results.

  • Prolix,

    Why don’t you visit my article, the link is this if philosophical discussion is your cup of tea.
    We’re trying to tackle French thinkers like Foucault and Lyotard in connection with their view of the crisis facing postmodern societies.

  • Prolix

    Another defender of science who apparently has never read any modern philosophy of science. You can try reading this.

  • I agree with a great deal of what you’ve said Bryan, about the fallibility of science, about how what we were taught 40 years ago was quite wrong.

    The point surely is that we can now SHOW that it is wrong and provide a better, more comprehensive theory, with better predictability, and more explanatory power. In some cases, we find that research unravels an old theory and doesn’t necessarily give us much more than a lot of questions. But that’s fine. We just have some more questions on the agenda, something more to focus on in the search for answers.

    But acknowledging that science always makes mistakes, is not the same as saying that our knowledge is unreliable. We work with the best knowledge we have available, always open to finding out that it is wrong. That, of course, is no justification for replacing what we already know, with a theory that is based on speculation. Speculation has an important role in challenging and questioning theories. But the real work starts with the investigation.

  • Well some people prefer a more open mind than provided by ‘science’ – for example, someone measures water boils at 100C, but then that varies with surrounding atmospheric pressure, or what’s in the water. Likewise I enjoyed the article here on skepticism of big pharma, which though uses a form of the scientific method, is still heavily biased toward marketability, and failed studies are likely to get no more press than failed homeopathy, unless it cost a billion dollars or so. Today, particle physics in all our textbooks older than 5 years are WRONG about what we’re made of. “We ‘used to teach'” that we’re made of atoms, but we “now know” that we’re only 4-5% atoms (themselves made of electrons and other particles that resolve into several types of quarks), and the rest is “dark matter and dark energy” (which sounds like a code to me, for “we’re not sure yet, just that it’s something besides electrons and quarks”). We were dogmatically taught by science class that two objects cannot occupy the same space, until bosons were discovered. Nothing can travel faster than light until … Well I hope you get the idea, that ‘science’ puts an overzealous reliance on something, just because there are thousands of carefully controlled documented experiments, which can actually hinder the open mind needed to solve new problems. Newtonian physics force fails at galactic or subatomic scale (So, we learn the scientific “F = gM1M2/(r^2)” is only true ‘for objects close to the earth’). In my science class in school 40 years ago, they called the force inside the atom “nuclear glue” and more recent books identify with “gluons” and “the strong force”. At galactic scale, as the universe ‘expands’ our observation of motion no longer fits the ‘near the earth’ paradigm either. These would sound like science fiction, and even for many scientists, still are, or at least the kind of thing that most scientists in most non-quantum fields will blithely ignore. But Einstein’s death, after 20 years of unfinished work on a unifying theory, provoked Michio Kaku to pursue it. If you don’t know who that is, Wiki or go to iTunes and put his name in title or subject and enjoy a couple of free hours on thought provoking with “Physics of the Impossible”. There’s an amusing story of how we almost got a bigger collider than Hadron, here in the U.S., but instead we spent a BILLION dollars digging a big big hole, and ANOTHER BILLION dollars filling it in. Kaku explains the forces that lead to this failure, so painfully yet humourously, that I’d rather imagine anyone reading this please listen. In short, it’s possible that one short-sighted question, and one scientist’s one-sentence answer, killed an otherwise powerful project for U.S., so now we have the smaller Hadron in someone else’s country. This reminds me of a quote from Contact, something like “first rule of govt spending, why build one when you can [do whatever it is] for twice the price.”

    So what relevance to medicine? There are human forces within us that influence our behavior and our response to food and medicine. And food will also influence our emotion. But at some macroscopic or subnanoscopic level, thoughts cause things to happen. Read the introduction in Gladwell’s Outliers which shows a community with LESS THAN HALF the incidence of heart disease, with no link to heredity, diet, exercise, activity, or treatment to explain it. The source does explain it (you can probably read this part on google books or at amazon.com), but the explanation does not fit with typical science discussion. Watch “What the Bleep do we know” for further exploration by quasi-scientists who recognize the deeper links, which ‘science’ may someday find in the Dark Matter and Dark Energy that only now are recognized. I don’t buy into “…Bleep…” or “The Secret” much, since they focus way too much on individual selfishness, and short-term interaction (like the party scene, superficial attraction, food/sex metaneurochemical responses, etc.), yet fail to pursue long term connectivity, friendship, shared knowledge, macromind, etc. I do assert though, that pursuing personal connection to the maker of all things, and asking wisdom, knowledge, discernment, and understanding (as repeated again and again throughout Proverbs, and elsewhere like James 1:5; 3:13,17) will lead to far better utilization of science than we currently have. Otherwise I get more out of a South Park satire, “blessed be science…”

  • Acupuncture is an interesting case because although back in the late 70s, the WHO endorsed its use, it relied on many uncontrolled trials from China. When the Cochrane Collaboration studied those trials, the results were very different. The Cochrane Collaboration showed that the results of trials did not support anything more than the placebo effect. Indeed, a trial sponsored by the National Institute of Health in America conducted by Daniel Cherkin, of 640 back pain sufferers found that sham acupunture (in which either the needles didn’t puncture, or were in the “wrong” place) was just as effective.

    That has to cast significant doubts as to whether there really is any effect beyond placebo in acupuncture at all. Supporters of acupuncture regularly claim that it is one of the strongest supported of Woo medicine, but in fact the evidence is very very poor, if anything at all.

    Readers might want to have a look at the research from Professor Edzard Ernst, the Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, and check his credentials too – he practised homeopathy until he conducted trials as to its effectiveness and was appalled at the nonsense.

  • Jeanne

    I think that science doesn’t accept ‘eastern’ medicine because we already have it included for the real reasons. Take acupuncture, we already know and utalize nerve locations and clusters for treatments, without all the psudo-religious stuff there.

  • @7 what thing can not be proven with science yet you think is needed to know

  • @6 you are not actually selling the lies, you are selling the cure, which is caused by lies

    that said, i research all medications in depth, so placeboo and me dont get along

  • Jeanne, I appreciate your comments and you’re right that Woo includes, to my mind, not just medicine, but also religion. Science proceeds by testing theories based on accumulated data and although there may be scientists overly wedded to their own theories, the scientific process is ideally suited to questioning and criticising them. It’s the best method we’ve ever had for distinguishing between opinion and fact.

    I totally agree with you that without the rise of irrationality, we wouldn’t be having this conversation but it’s not just religious irrationality. There’s an entire industry based on marketing nothing more than placebo using confusion and disinformation. It includes nonsense about detox, dietary supplements, free radicals, anti-oxidants, as well as all the mystical stuff about Qi, meridians, channels, chakras, etc. These business exist because people are encouraged to believe irrational stories rather than think critically.

    It’s important because it can steer otherwise sensible people to replace real cures with imaginary ones, but also because it confuses people about their own biology and physical reality making them very much more susceptible to other wacky ideas, and hence getting ripped off.

    I know including religion as Woo is deeply unpopular with many people but we have to ask why religious ideas are given some kind of exemption when we discuss irrationality. You’re quite right to include it.

  • Decembre, it’s a very bold claim to make that the leading cause of death is iatrogenic – meaning that it is caused by adverse effects of treatment. To establish that would require just the kind of controlled clinical trials and meta-analyses that I’ve referred to. You might believe that it is the leading cause but suppose we didn’t bother to treat malaria, TB, measles, smallpox, etc. Or never intervene in heart attacks or appendicitis. Can we seriously think that the intervention is a cause of the problem? But let’s take the hypothesis seriously. How could anyone establish whether or not it is true? How do we distinguish between just the opinion and the fact? Arguing simply that it is the case isn’t enough, is it? That’s just the first part – next comes the investigation, the data, the identification of evidence, and before you know it, you’re doing science…

  • However, I think that, as is frequently the case with very smart people in specialized fields, there can be a tendency to become entrenched in a particular pattern of procedure.

    That’s hardly a problem unique to scientists.

  • Bob and Christopher — First, I didn’t realize that this discussion of science was primarily about medicine, or I wouldn’t have raised those extraneous issues. Sorry. Second, I don’t think scientists are cold and uncaring; on the contrary, I think their greatest motivation is to serve humankind in increasingly improved ways. However, I think that, as is frequently the case with very smart people in specialized fields, there can be a tendency to become entrenched in a particular pattern of procedure. But more important, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation were we not living in an odd moment of social time when ignorance is trying desperately to squelch intelligent inquiry and deny the truth of science in favor of the passionate fiction that occupies huge segments of religion. I’m still more of a Woo person, as Bob calls it, than either of you are probably comfortable with, but I’m not a crazy Woo person; I do get it.

  • decembre

    …There are millions of people spending money buying nothing. …B.L.

    And NONE of them were ever sick from it although cured.
    Now i repeat what i said before, iatrogenic sickness IS the LEADING CAUSE of DEATH in the USA.
    And we haven’t checked yet on the sick that die at the hospital from new deseases that medicine invented unconsciously.

  • Jeanne, re your #20, there actually IS scientific evidence for emotions and if there actually is “so much of life and human experience that cannot be calculated or proven”, it is because it hasn’t been done yet, not that it can’t be done.

    I must echo Bob’s remark about science; it is not at all cold or unfeeling in my opinion, but hallmarked by curiosity and love. It is only the charlatans that fear science that try to discredit it by depicting it in this way…

  • James, despite devotion from the many followers of the faith of homeopathy, there is no evidence of water memory. It really has been exhaustively studied and there really is no evidence. The Cochrane database lists all the research it has assessed including those with poor methodology. It says categorically that there is no evidence to support homeopathy.

    The World Health Organisation recently condemned the practice of homeopaths claiming to be able to treat malaria and even AIDS with homeopathic remedies. Despite very vocal claims from this hugely profitable industry, they have still not been able to produce ANY scientifically credible evidence. They’re lactose pills with no active ingredients.

  • Jeanne, I don’t have a problem with medicine wherever it comes from if it is shown to work. Of course, we need to try to understand how it works, if it does. But Chinese Traditional Medicine has no consistent theory of how the body works, no consistent diagnostic techniques, and no rationale beyond mysticism.

    The reason anecdotal accounts are not treated as evidence is because of their unreliability. People who have spent money on a cure that they expected to be useful are biased towards supporting it. The reason clinical trials are double-blinded and controlled is precisely to eliminate that bias. All that an anecdotal account in favour of a treatment shows is that the person believes the treatment works, not that it really does work. And the difference between the two is important.

    It’s perfectly true that there is a huge amount of human experience that cannot be calculated and proven, but health isn’t one of them. We can and should test whether a claim to treatment and cure actually works. We do have the means to do that using double-blind, controlled, randomised trials which very effectively sort out the ones that work from the ones that don’t.

    There’s nothing cold or unfeeling about science and it’s attempts to understand the physical world. Scientists are people too with all the usual feeling and emotions of love, compassion, etc, with shared values of justice and mercy. It’s a common mistake to claim science is cold and unfeeling.

  • James Pannozzi

    “We can all, if we want to, believe that homeopathy works. But it’s testing it in the real world that will tell us whether the theory is right or not. It has been tested, and homeopathy doesn’t work.”

    Try Ennis’ paper (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p181)? She started out to disprove the “water memory” theory, but her experiment instead confirmed it. After diluting away all the molecules of a stimulant substance, the experiment showed biological effects as though the missing molecules were still there.
    This is unexplained by science and remains under research. Her experiment has been repeated and confirmed. Nobel Prize winning scientist Brian Josephson made comments favorable to the possibility of a scientific theory supporting Homeopathy – see “Is Homeopathy Nonsense – and Why It May Not Be” on his website.

    And, most recently, we have research recently announced from the winner of the 2008 Nobel prize which indicates a possible theory.

    Professor Luc Montagnier, a French virologist who co-discovered HIV and who won the Nobel Prize in 2008, and co-workers published the results of a series of experiments investigating the electromagnetic properties of highly-dilute biological samples.

    Montagnier L, Aissa J, Ferris S, Montagnier J-L, Lavallee C (2009). Electromagnetic Signals Are Produced by Aqueous Nanostructures Derived from Bacterial DNA Sequences. Interdisciplinary Sciences: Computational Life Sciences, 1: 81-90.

    Those who attack Homeopathy by acknowledging the curative effects and then attempting to write it off as “placebo” effect, an idea which was smashed by research in a Journal of Clinical Epidemiology paper not long ago are spouting uninformed nonsense about Homeopathy. We must accept that there is some research out there and wait for real scientists to do their work.

    Meanwhile, if you happen to get the flu, there it is, sitting right in the highly regarded Cochrane research database, that Homepathic Oscillicocinum, shortened the duration and intensity of the flu, though it had no effect on prevention. Is this definitive? No. Is it proof? No, of course not. That is understood.

    Pretending that Homeopathy does not work is really an insult to thousands of dedicated and perfectly capable MD’s and other health professionals that use it routinely … and quite successfully. The scientific confirmation will come in time, but to disregard the healing power of Homeopathy, or worse, to deny it, represents an unscientific elitism which is, in my opinion, dangerous to real medical science.

  • I’m curious, Bob: do you give any credence whatsoever to Eastern medicine and other alternative (alternative in the West) therapies? Also, I don’t understand why “anecdotal evidence” — the experience of many people in regard to a specific treatment or other phenomena — should be completely discredited and discarded as valueless. I completely respect the scientific process and completely oppose bringing faith-based ideas to the tables of science or government. But there is so much of life and human experience that cannot be calculated or proven. Is there scientific evidence for love, compassion, justice, mercy; where do feelings and ideals figure into scientific theory? (I’m just wondering…)

  • Personally, I don’t understand what the hoopla is all about. Was the author trying to posit the methodology and the status of science against diverse belief systems (such as the three main religions)? If so, it’s a dead horse and hardly deserving of effort in the 21st century. So against whom, really, is the argument directed? Who is the straw man?

    On the other hand, the cursory treatment (barely two pages) given to the description and the merits of the scientific method is of the most naive kind, after the long-discredited tradition of crude positivism, and shouldn’t make the grade even in the average undergraduate program, never mind gradual studies seminars in the philosophy or the sociology of science.

  • There have been many clinical trial tests of homeopathy, double-blind, randomised, and controlled tests, all of which demonstrate no difference between homeopathy and the placebo effect. By far the most thorough analysis of these trials was conducted by Dr Aijing Shang and published in the Lancet in August 2005. He demonstrated with hard data that homeopathy was indistinguishable from the placebo effect, a view endorsed by the Cochrane Collaboration.

    It is very easy to accept that something we have bought has done us some good, but clinical trials are needed to demonstrate that it really was that treatment that causes the benefit. Anecdotal accounts are not evidence. After more than 100 years of investigation, there is not a single shred of evidence that homeopathy does anything at all. Sad, but true. There are millions of people spending money buying nothing.

  • decembre

    @Bob Lloyd … We need to distinguish between the opinion and the fact. …

    Why then not listen to the success people got with homeopathy ? Is this not scientific?
    I for myself, a non beleiver, was asked many years ago to try it. It worked.
    30 years taht i haven’t met with a doctor but my friends all did and they all discovered they were sick. Now, they’re on pills, they call that health !

  • Just a quick comment about open-mindedness. Science is incredibly open-minded because it makes open the data and theories in peer-reviewed publications. Literally anyone can come along and propose a theory that better explains the known facts, challenge them, and argue their case.

    But science also takes it a stage beyond opinion. Once someone advances a theory, let’s say healing energy, science expects some evidence or data to make it worth considering. This filter isn’t closed minded, it’s just rational. We need to distinguish between the opinion and the fact. Literally anyone can invent an alternative therapy based on fanciful ideas (I’ve done it myself in my book) but if we want to know if it reflects reality, we need some way of testing it. That’s not closed minded either – it’s taking the theory seriously.

  • I’m always worried when an argument depends on appeals to some “sixth sense” because in my experience, it invariably is a faith-based argument, both in claiming that the sense exists, and in the supposed data it provides.

    Standing the test of time is something which science does abundantly well. But that’s not the same as saying that traditional beliefs are valuable simply because they are traditional. Beliefs change when there is sufficient evidence to show them to be incorrect, unless the believer closes themselves to such change.

    So we certainly have an accumulated knowledge based on experience but we get our understanding of natural processes by studying them, producing theories which explain them, and testing the predictions and observations based on those theories. Simply assuming that experience is correct is unreliable. In the past, illness was variously attributed to the wrath of various gods, miasmas, sin, curses, and lots of other completely incorrect causes. Until the germ theory of disease, these had all stood the test of time and experience.

    Experience need not be a rootless belief, of course, but if there are claims to experience things which are undetectable, for example such things as healing energies, Qi, chakras, and the like, these genuinely are rootless. Because quite simply, they are NOT rooted in reality, but in belief. If they really are based on experience, it should be possible to demonstrate their existence using relatively simple experiments.

    If someone doubts the existence of say electricity, it’s very easy to demonstrate it and convince them. But in the case of Qi and healing energies, you can’t. Instead there’s an appeal to a sixth sense, some mystical belief, or just plain evasion. That’s why many Woo practices are hard to distinguish from fraud. If a scientific theory is incorrect, it’s open season for critics to demonstrate it and everyone wants to see the data.

  • Ruvy: thank you for proving, yet again, in comment #11 that you are incapable of any kind of basic honesty, that you lack personal integrity, and prefer lies to facts. Now we all know for sure exactly what kind of person you are…

    Jeanne: I have a lot of time for spirituality, although none for the inadequate and embarrassing mumbo jumbo of the three strands of monotheism that currently afflict humanity so badly and grotesquely.

    Furthermore, I would defend anybody’s right to believe absolutely anything they want to. The problem is when these petty know it alls try to make policy based on their beliefs or impose their views on others.

    There would be far less social and global conflict if these faithist views were kept well away from the levers of government and law.

    All life, not just human and probably not just Earthly, is interconnected and interwoven and there is much to wonder at and to be spiritual about in that simple fact.

  • decembre

    Scientists lie, science lie too.

    Lately, 21 researchs made in a US University for large pharmaceutical company were all fraudulent causing thousands of injuries or death not yet accounted for.

    Iatrogenic sickness is the number one killer in the USA.

  • Christopher and Bob — Any belief can be misguided or silly or even downright stupid. It only becomes dangerous when the believers try to foist it on others.

    I AM one of those mystical types, although I’m eclectic and unconventional about the mumbo-jumbo I believe in, and I recognize my beliefs are opinions (and they aren’t consistent), not Great Truths, and it’s of no importance to me whatsoever if others agree with my ideas or not; I don’t feel I have to be part of a school of belief for my ideas to be legitimate for me.

    The fact that our society is split by a spiritual divide with rabid Faithists on one side and superior Rationalists on the other is most unfortunate. There is a difference between religion and spirituality. The former is mythology based on scripture and a drive to convert The Other; the latter is a personal, often confused sense that something exists that is greater than ourselves, and if we’re lucky, it provides a sense of comfort and connection with others.

    The fact that historically, as well as presently, religion has tried to discredit if not obliterate science, is one of humanity’s greatest failings. But the idea that the only truths about life are those that can be documented by science is unimaginative and cold.

    As any gifted practitioner of the lively arts can tell you, the creative process is a humbling and unsettling one, because at some point, whatever it is you think YOU are creating takes on a life of its own, and an honest artist will admit that he is in many respects merely a talented channel for some force/source outside himself.

    As they sang in “Oklahoma!,” “Oh the farmer and the cowman should be friends.” In a truly free and rational society, those who live by the proven strictures of science should be able to co-exist with those who look into the sky and see not just glittering masses of matter, but the magic and mystery of stars.

  • Sorry, Chris. Your own words testify against you and have, comment after dreary comment.

  • Ruvy, I would really appreciate it if you would stop endlessly repeating your lies about me being closed-minded on this subject.

    As I have stated many times to you, I really don’t mind if there is one or more deities but no honest person could accept that there is any convincing evidence to support the suggestion.

    Furthermore, it is also clear that you are the one that actually has a closed mind as no amount of reason can ever change the fixed ideas that you believe in, whereas I am perpetually open to the idea of change and the notion that my views might be proven wrong, two concepts that are impossible for you.

  • Jeanne, although you frequently make a lot of sense, you are way off the mark with your comment that “not everything can be tested or proven by classic scientific principles”.

    If anybody is guilty of “stubbornness, insensitivity, and downright hubris” it is all those mystical types who insist on believing in all kinds of implausible mumbo jumbo despite the absolute lack of any evidence to support any of their misguided and potentially dangerous beliefs.

  • …there is also legitimacy in the various expressions of the sixth sense, those things that stand the test of time and experience, rather than concrete testing in a lab. I think this unwillingness to accept any possible truth in something that can’t be scientifically proven leads to dangerous forms of stubbornness, insensitivity, and downright hubris — especially in the practice of medicine. Science is far more than opinion – but experience is also far more than rootless belief. Both a sensitive scientist and a rational layman should be able to accept the possibilities inherent in this idea.


    I couldn’t have said this better. kol hakvód! All honor to you! Not only do you pose the appropropriate response to the author, you also posit the appropriate response to Mr. Rose above, who can be and often is as closed-minded as the most closed-minded and bigoted of theologians (people I’ve had to deal with on occasion, to my displeasure). For your reading pleasure, I suggest this essay I wrote on a lecture given several years ago in Jerusalem by Dr. Gerald Schroeder. Enjoy!

    moadím l’simHá

  • Bob, you are for the most part, of course, entirely correct: good, independent science is not a biased opinion, it’s a proven fact. However, not everything can be tested or proven by classic scientific principles, which largely rest on what the five senses can perceive, even if highly sophisticated equipment is needed to perceive it. But there is also legitimacy in the various expressions of the sixth sense, those things that stand the test of time and experience, rather than concrete testing in a lab. I think this unwillingness to accept any possible truth in something that can’t be scientifically proven leads to dangerous forms of stubbornness, insensitivity, and downright hubris — especially in the practice of medicine. Science is far more than opinion – but experience is also far more than rootless belief. Both a sensitive scientist and a rational layman should be able to accept the possibilities inherent in this idea.

  • On the placebo effect, my problem is really two-fold. Firstly, the placebo effect is unpredictable – we can’t tell who will be susceptible and in what circumstances, and it changes over time. Someone who experiences it, may well not experience again. So although, if it exists, it might calm a patient and reduce their stress, you can’t rely on it as any kind of treatment. It might simply disappear.

    But the second problem is that it only works if the patient is continually lied to, and they continue believing the lie. They have to believe they are getting treatment when they are not. I have an ethical problem with the idea of lying to people as a form of treatment.

    But there’s an entire alternative medicine industry worth billions of dollars in the US alone, which sell the placebo effect and even the pedlars experience it through the anecdotes of their customers. Is it ethical to sell lies, even if the customers like them?

  • Ruvy, you’ve made a really important point in that although the scientific method works to expose bias and weakness in theories, those individual scientists who spend years developing their work, are understandably attached to it. They have a vested interest in being right – often their careers depend on it.

    Einstein was well known for his cosmological constant, a number needed to make his theory work. Sometimes, such attempts yield insights that help science progress but it is the peer review that exposes the mistakes. Einstein was very willing to admit he was wrong when faced with the evidence.

    Another classic example is Charles Darwin himself who, worried about the reaction from academics, delayed publication of the Origin of Species for more than twenty years. In England at the time, you could only be a professor if you also took holy orders so no academic institution would challenge the power of the church – evolution was a head on challenge to the hypothesis that species were immutable, a central tenet of Christianity at the time. That shows that even great scientists are subject to intense personal pressures and the peer review system helps to overcome them. If it wasn’t for the Geological Society and the Royal Society supporting Darwin, his theories would never have seen the light of day.

    So you’re absolutely right. Scientists are human like everyone else but it’s the peer review system that allows scientific theories to stand on their merit, and also helps scientists resist personal bias and outside pressure.

  • Ruvy, that is why scientific research is subject to peer review and testing, so as to filter out any one individual’s possible human frailty.

    That is just one of the many reasons that it is more reliable and trustworthy than the arrogant know it all nonsense that faithists believe in – and why they ultimately can’t quite be trusted with important decisions, their dogma gets in the way of the truth.

    That is something that a lot of people simply don’t get…

  • Ruvy

    Science is not a belief system. It is a method for perceiving, gathering, organizing and testing the validity of data.

    But unfortunately, scientists are human, just like the rest of us. They become attached to ideas that they want to believe to be true – and then bend fact to theory. Einstein did this – only to rue it as his biggest mistake in his investigations into physics. A fellow who had found out that evolution seems to explode out, rather than progressing at a steady rate, as theory held it to be in the 1920’s locked his evidence in a drawer – he wanted to keep his job, and scientists around him would have kicked him out of his job had he proposed something so heretical to scientific “orthodoxy”

    Science – just like every other discipline humans pursue – is subject to the weaknesses of human nature. This is something that a lot of people simply don’t get – yet is such a damned simple idea.

  • A superlatively well-argued and lucid article that should be required reading.

    In particular, this paragraph: “The first, and perhaps most important, principle of science is that the theories which explain our knowledge are independent of the beliefs and values of the proposer. It does not matter, at all, what the scientist thinks or believes – the theory must rest on its explanatory power and the supporting evidence. Science is not a belief system.”

    This is the part that a lot of people simply don’t get – yet is such a damned simple idea.

  • While my scientist inside agrees with all of this, the palceboo effect is strong with Americans