27 February 2013

For the elebenty bazillionth time, Nazism and Stalinism were NOT caused by secular, rational, scientific values

It’s like whacking gophers in that classic arcade game; no matter how many times you debunk the argument that too much reason and science gave us Nazism and Stalinism, it keeps popping back up. Which it did in a Facebook discussion I participated in recently. Apparently, all one has to do is promote reason, critical thinking and the scientific method as the only paths to (provisional) knowledge and eventually someone will feel obligated to play the ‘rational totalitarianism’ card as a corrective. Someone like the quitting Pope Benedict XVI, or the philosopher John Gray, the latter being schooled by his confrere A C Grayling on why making a tenuous connection between 20th century totalitarianism and Enlightenment values – which include a healthy respect for science – is so full of fail.

In his typically elegant prose, Grayling demolishes the idea that Nazism and Stalinism were the logical culmination of overzealous rationality and ‘scientism’:

As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects, and ones which the rest of the Enlightenment-derived world would not put up with and therefore defeated: Nazism in 17 years and Soviet communism in 70. They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal. They even used the forms and techniques of religion, from the notion of thought-crime to the embalming of saints in mausoleums (Lenin and Mao, like any number of saints and their relics, invite pilgrimage to their glass cases). Totalitarianism is not about progress but stasis; it is not about realising a golden age but coercively sustaining the myth of one. This indeed is the lineament of religion: it is the opposite of secular progressivism.

Other critics of scientific rationality like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Ardono are also guilty of false equivalence when they paint science as just another kind of totalitarian ideology, with the same capacity to oppress. In the introduction to The Britannica Guide to the Ideas That Made the Modern World, Grayling again rebuts these critics by pointing out the fallacies of their arguments. He writes:

In the crisis of the 1930s and 40s the oppressive power that Horkheimer and Adorno had in mind was Nazism, which they saw as the Enlightenment’s self-fulfillingly paradoxical outcome: in their terminology, “instrumental rationality” had been transformed into “bureaucratic politics”. In effect, Horkheimer and Adorno were claiming that the Enlightenment empowered capitalism and with it a deeply oppressive form of managerialism that served its interests to the exclusion of all others. 
This analysis does not survive scrutiny. Nazism drew its principal strength from a peasantry and petit-bourgeoisie that mostly felt threatened by capitalism, so it is not the latter which was the source of oppression, but in fact the former, viewed as descendents of the various constituencies that had most to lose from Enlightenment and which therefore reacted against it. The votaries of Nazism, had they lived in the eighteenth century, would have defended the traditions of absolutism, whether in Versailles or in heaven, against the “instrumental rationality” which expressed itself in the eighteenth century as secularizing and democratizing impulses.

And the key passage, with my emphasis in bold:

As this implies, the same answer can be addressed to the other example cited by critics as an inheritor of Enlightenment principles, namely Stalinism. The general point to be made is that totalitarianism, of which Nazism and Stalinism are paradigms, is a monolithic ideology that demands the unwavering loyalty and obedience of all. Whether in the form of a religion or a political movement, it is precisely opposed by the Enlightenment values of individual liberty, freedom of thought, consent of the people, rational argument, the constraints of evidence, and the absence of controlling hegemonies.

Not exactly rational guys.

So, for the umpteenth time, a commitment to reason and science does not lead to genocide, or gas chambers, or gulags, or personality cults, or delusions of ethnic superiority. Quite the opposite.

I’ll let Grayling have the last word, since he says it so well.

By resisting the counter-Enlightenment pessimism of Horkheimer and Adorno in this way one sees, by the intended contrast, how much of the Enlightenment remains operative in the contemporary world as the same force it was historically intended to be: a force for progress, for liberty, for rationality.


18 February 2013

Dr Oz thinks that promoting quack medicine “empowers” people

The New Yorker has an article by Michael Specter on Dr Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon who is also the host of ‘The Dr. Oz Show’, a hugely popular US television program watched by millions of Americans. Dr Oz is notorious for his refusal to disavow ‘alternative’ medicine as unscientific and unproven; he promotes quackery like ‘miracle’ foods and cures, anti-GMO and anti-vaccine propaganda, Reiki, acupuncture, homeopathy and psychic powers alongside real, effective medical advice. To quote one of his critics, the cardiologist and professor of genomics Eric Topol, Dr Oz’s lack of discrimination between evidence-based medicine and alt-med can mislead people, since “how are consumers to know what is real and what is magic? Because Mehmet offers both as if they were one.”

Echoing the singer Tim Minchin, Specter writes:

Scientists often argue that, if alternative medicine proves effective through experimental research, it should no longer be considered alternative; at that point, it becomes medicine. By freely mixing alternatives with proven therapies, Oz makes it nearly impossible for the viewer of his show to assess the impact of either; the process just diminishes the value of science.

Neurologist Dr Steven Novella (who has been a guest on ‘The Dr. Oz Show’) is another critic of Dr Oz, writing in a blog post that “Promoters of alternative medicine [like Dr Oz] only pay inconsistent lip-service to science, but the core of their philosophy is that science is optional,” and that this is “a very dismissive attitude – the casual dismissal of scientific evidence simply because it contradicts a pet belief.

The problem of shoddy methodology in medical science, whether in research or in the media, is also touched on by the physician and writer Dr Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Science. As a media personality, the issue of how entertainment values and populism subvert medicine is pertinent to Dr Oz’s case. He seems to think that truth is a democracy, that facts are determined not by the careful examination of reality but by popular vote. These personal beliefs about truth and facts are a core factor in Dr Oz’s promotion of quackery, as this passage from Specter’s article reveals:

”Either data works or it doesn’t,“ I [Specter] said. “Science is supposed to answer, or at least address, those questions. Surely you don’t think that all information is created equal?” 
Oz sighed. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it – that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true – was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

Dr Mehmet Oz is an epistemological relativist; to him, there is no such thing as objective truth, and unsubstantiated medical claims are just as valid as those backed by a mountain of evidence. With such a rotten ideological foundation, should it surprise us that his house of medical knowledge is so unsound? The tragedy is that Dr Oz has an impressionable audience of millions, many of whom may be harmed, not empowered, by the relativism of ‘America’s doctor’.


04 February 2013

Evidence-based medicine should include ALL the evidence

Medicine has a dirty little secret: not all clinical trial results for drugs are reported, with positive results being “around twice as likely to get published as negative findings”, according to Dr Ben Goldacre, a medical science writer. Dr Goldacre calls this bias “a cancer at the core of evidence-based medicine” and has written a book, Bad Pharma, that addresses this widespread problem.

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) should take into account all clinical trial results, and not just cherry-pick the outcomes that match the drug manufacturer’s expectations, or quietly sweep the failed tests under the carpet. It isn’t evidence-based medicine if it doesn’t include all the evidence, even the negative ones. Those of us who criticise ‘alternative’ medicine for its lack of rigour and flawed methodology should be just as critical of similar trespasses in EBM. In fact, by claiming to be scientifically committed, EBM should be held to a higher standard of conduct.

There’s a petition calling for private and public medical researchers to publish all clinical trial results, both successes and failures, with test methods clearly described. Please sign it to show your support for evidence-based medicine that truly lives up to its name.

Here’s a TED talk by Dr Goldacre on the pernicious bias shown by drug researchers for positive clinical trial results, and why it has to stop. You will not find a more passionate, or animated, defender of proper evidence-based medicine.