Scientism and Pseudoscience: A Philosophical Commentary

homeopathyI have built a reputation for being a critic of scientism, which my dictionary defines as “excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.” Indeed, I am putting together a new volume on the topic for Chicago Press, which will be co-edited with my long time partner in crime, Maarten Boudry (a couple of years ago we put out an analogous collection on pseudoscience, a topic that I actually see as in some sense the mirror image of scientism). The contributors include colleagues who participated to a workshop I co-organized with Maarten at CUNY’s Graduate Center back in 2014.

But “scientism” can also be a label that defenders of pseudoscientific notions use to dismiss good science they don’t like, from evolutionary biology to atmospheric physics. So a paper I recently published in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry takes on this alternative aspect of scientism, chastising a number of authors who rejected a very sound critical paper on the ethics of homeopathic “treatments.”

What happened was that back in 2012 the journal Bioethics published a commentary by K. Smith entitled “Against homeopathy—a utilitarian perspective.” In it, the author mounted an ethical challenge to homeopathic practice, framed in utilitarian terms, as the title obviously suggests (though a similar critique, I think, could be mounted also on both deontological and virtue ethical grounds).

Smith presented a systematic argument that began with an explanation of the theoretical implausibility of homeopathy and, in particular, of the two fundamental principles of the practice — the “law of similars” and the “law of infinitesimals.” He then engaged the empirical literature on homeopathy, finding it woefully insufficient to establish any of the claims on which the approach is based.

Smith also very carefully examined the possible benefits of homeopathy, including non-invasiveness and cost-effectiveness; its holistic approach; the possibility, range, and strength of placebo effects; and its fostering of patients’ autonomy regarding healthcare decisions. He concluded that “the benefits of homeopathy are rather minimal.”

Next, Smith went on to equally systematically analyze the possible disutilities of homeopathy: the risk of failing to seek conventional healthcare; the waste of resources that results from supporting homeopathic practice (since it is known not to work, outside of placebos); the problem raised by unwarranted credence, i.e., the credibility that homeopathy gains when it is endorsed by medical practitioners or healthcare agencies; the simultaneous weakening of support for evidence-based medicine and the weakening of support for types of “alternative” therapies that actually do work (e.g., some forms of meditation, massage, etc.). His conclusions were that “investment in homeopathy by public healthcare providers is unethical as it entails a waste of resources … the effect [of such investment] is important and amounts to a serious net disutility.”

I would have honestly thought all of the above to be a rather uncontroversial no-brainer. But, of course, I was wrong.

Bioethics published four responses to Smith’s paper (together with Smith’s counter-response), and that’s where things got interesting, and the s-word began to be carelessly thrown around. Let me give you some of the highlights:

One of the respondents, R. Moskowitz, began with the strange assertion that “if homeopathy is based on a mystery, that does not prove it to be a fake,” a type of “reasoning” that could just as well be used (and in fact has been used!) to defend the practice of astrology. He then went on, boldly and strangely, to turn the criticism that homeopathy works by placebo and via the natural self-healing of the human body into a positive: “can a higher compliment be paid to a medicine than that its action cannot be distinguished from a gentle, spontaneous, and long-lasting cure requiring no further treatment?” Well, if a medicine does not do anything beyond the spontaneous healing of the body, is it still medicine? And why do we charge patients for it?

A second critic, I. Sebastian, brought up a fallacious argument from authority, citing Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier’s (a virologist) support for homeopathy as somehow relevant to the discussion, in lieu of actual evidence originating from properly controlled, large, and well-statistically analyzed experiments. She characterized “allopathic” medicine as based on a deductive-nomothetic model (thus displaying only a superficial understanding of the philosophy of science), claiming that that is not the “model” adopted by homeopathy, for which somehow uncontrolled and anecdotal evidence is supposed to be sufficient. She then went on to accuse Smith of thinking that Mahatma Gandhi was unethical (because he was a proponent of homeopathy), which is an example of a colossal non sequitur (as well as yet another recourse to irrelevant authorities — Gandhi was not a medical researcher). Finally, and without any irony whatsoever, she concluded: “If Dr. Smith’s argument were simply an exercise in ivory tower philosophizing, it would be of little concern — but knowing that the health and in fact the lives of others may be affected by such thinking is very disturbing.” Indeed.

The third critic of Smith was one P. Bellavite, who rather idiosyncratically, preferred to focus only on a defense of the homeopathic principle of similitude — the idea that diseases causing certain symptoms are to be cured by the ministration of substances that produce similar effects on the body. He engaged in a manifest example of mumbo jumbo, i.e., talk that appears to be technical but in fact says nothing of substance whatsoever. His mention of “reorganizing regulation systems” and of “neuro-immuno-endocrine homeodynamics” was an artful mix of vacuities and obfuscatory language, as Smith clearly saw in his rebuttal.

Finally, let me turn to L. Milgrom and K. Chatfield, the authors who explicitly invoked scientism in the context of the exchange we are analyzing. To begin with, their response was self-contradictory: on the one hand, they wished to defend homeopathy on the ground of scientific evidence; on the other hand, they accused Smith of being scientistic precisely because he demanded such scientific evidence. It is either one or the other; they cannot have it both ways. Nonsensically, Milgrom and Chatfield complained that Smith avoided utilitarian scrutiny of conventional medicine, which of course not only was not the scope of the original article, but also would help homeopathy not at all.

We then come to the crux of the issue with the following extended quote:

“More perplexing is Dr Smith’s claim that homeopathy could weaken support for science-based medicine. Such fear is rooted not in science but in scientism, i.e. the unscientific belief that compared to other forms of knowledge, science is the absolute and only justifiable access to truth. Taken to the extreme, scientism defaults to Internet-fueled inquisitorial intolerance which, supported by certain academics, sections of the media, and (usually anonymous) blog sites, systematically vilifies anything considered ‘unscientific,’ e.g. the campaign to undemocratically rid Britain’s NHS of its homeopathy/CAM facilities. Fortunately, not all share such fundamentalist views, especially at the frontline.”

And here is my counter-commentary from the paper, in full:

To begin with, notice that Smith has never claimed that science is the “only justifiable access to truth,” much less that scientific knowledge is “absolute,” claims that truly would qualify as scientistic. He has simply treated medical research as a science, from which it follows that any claim about the medical efficacy or lack thereof of any treatment ought to be substantiated with the best scientific evidence available. I don’t know about you, but I quite like the medical advice I receive to be science-based. Notice also the semi-paranoid reference to undemocratic conspiracies to undermine homeopathy. As Smith himself explained in his rebuttal, public information campaigns about the lack of substantive evidence in favor of a particular practice, and calls for it not to be funded with taxpayers’ money, are — on the contrary — eminently democratic. Finally, also notice the use of the pejorative term “fundamentalism,” accompanied in the paper by a reference to an article by Holmes et al. where the word “fascism” is repeatedly used when writing about demands for scientific approaches to medical research. This sort of highly emotive talk — accompanied by precious little substantive evidence to back up one’s extraordinary claims — is one of the hallmarks of pseudoscience and in this case also represents an egregious, ideologically motivated misuse of the term “scientism.”

So, as you can see, my criticism of real instances of scientism does not preclude me from seeing clearly when the term is simply used as an excuse for lazy thinking and patently pseudoscientific “theorizing.”

46 thoughts on “Scientism and Pseudoscience: A Philosophical Commentary

  1. Massimo, I recently had the following discussion with a science writer of a well known dairy in Mexico.

    He wrote an article claiming that practicing vegetarianism is bad for health, endorsing all of his claims in just one published pepper (http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchObject.action?uri=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0088278&representation=PDF).

    Well, I’m almost a vegetarian (I eat some fish now and then), and although I’m well aware that maybe my food habits may not be very healthy, I thought his argument had some flaws and pointed them to him in a comment: not just his entire criticism was based in only one study, but he discarded vegetarians as endorsing pseudoscience. So I explained to him that there is still alot of scientific controversy in this issue and also that comparing vegetarianism with pseudoscience was a bit naive and irresponsible because must vegetarians endorse this practice not because we wanna be healthy but because we have big issues with the way animals are treated by the industry and about environmental impact.

    He answered to me that I was endorsing pseudoscience and that I will die eating my “herbs”. I felt so weird because I don’t see myself as the kind of person that will endorse pseudoscience, but maybe I am.

    So, what do you think, I’m I being pseudoscientific? is being vegetarian something unhealthy?

    And if not,

    How should we react when a science writer witch has acces to such a big audience says such things? I regularly follow him, and this text surprised me. He almost always says coherent things.

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  2. jorgelaris,

    Vegetarianism is a dietary practice; it is neither science nor pseudo science.

    Some forms of vegetarianism may be derived from pseudoscientific principles; others are well grounded in established, scientifically derived nutritional theories; still others developed ‘organically,’ so to speak, within cultures that needed to find sustenance without dependence of meat or dairy, which will largely prove sound, but not without certain issues than can be addressed through supplements.

    The point is, if you wish to pursue vegetarianism in a healthy manner, consult a nutritionist, or a medical doctor (preferably one without your friend’s evident bias). Then you’ll have a consult with a scientifically informed advisor that you can wave in your friend’s face, if that gives you any joy.

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  3. I have been a vegetarian for 37 years now and have never taken supplements except briefly because of undiagnosed Coeliac disease. Certainly I do have dairy. Mainly I don’t like meat.

    Sounds like this science writer is spouting pseudo science. Yes, vegetarians will die. Everyone will die.

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  4. “I never cease to be amazed by the sheer amount of effort that goes into misinterpreting Dawkins!”

    What misinterpretation would that be? A gene is not programming or designing anything, blindly or otherwise.

    The are a pattern in a molecule.

    He gets completely carried away and tortures the metaphor well beyond the point that it has any value at all for clarifying what is actually happening.

    I said I knew it was a metaphor. I said that “seems” to forget this sometimes.

    I never cease to be amazed at the sheer amount of effort you put into misinterpreting me Coel.

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  5. Coel,

    Here is my original comment you were asking me to back up:

    I must say that I find the relentless and unnecessary design and agency metaphors of the Dawkins school irritating and unhelpful, but I can fix that with the simple expedient of not reading any more of his books.

    Of course I always got that it was a metaphor, but Dawkins himself appears to lose sight of this in his more purple passages.”

    So to say as Dawkins does “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” Is clearly a design and agency metaphor, not a truth.

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  6. Which is a nice segue back to the subject at hand.

    Look at how creationists jump all over these metaphors and how they use them.

    What they don’t say is that mainstream biologists mean these literally.

    Because, despite what PZ Meyers may tell you, they are not idiots.

    What they do say is that “evolutionists” hide behind the metaphors, because a dispassionate description of the plain unvarnished facts would sound self evidently absurd.

    This is quite a different kind of pseudo science than the paranormal investigator.

    What I wonder about are the homoeopathy crowd. Are they closer to the handfuls crowd, or the ID crowd.

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  7. Hi Massimo,

    “To be fair, he seems to gladly lend a big help to people who misinterpret him!”

    I said this very thing to him on twitter. That was the exact moment he blocked me.

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  8. Hi Robin,

    What misinterpretation would that be?

    Your misinterpretation that Dawkins “forgets” the metaphorical nature of some of his language. Your quote was: “Dawkins himself appears to lose sight of this in his more purple passages”, so perhaps you’re only saying that that’s how it appears to you. In which case, ok, but hundreds of thousands manage to read him without misinterpreting him that way.

    He gets completely carried away and tortures the metaphor well beyond the point that it has any value at all for clarifying what is actually happening.

    Different people react in different ways to how something is presented, and nothing is optimal for everyone. If you don’t find Dawkins’s extended use of metaphorical language helpful then ok, but plenty of people do.

    Is clearly a design and agency metaphor, not a truth.

    He is also careful in his books to clarify exactly what his metaphors mean. And, given that interpretation of his language, the statement you quoted is indeed true. You are being overly pedantic here.

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  9. Hi Massimo,

    I partially disagree with Coel about the difference being one of quality. There is a lot of bad science out there, which is science nonetheless.

    Perhaps any disagreement is pretty minor. On my quality continuum, we have “good science” a bit below unattainable perfection, then sloppy science, and a bit further down we have badly done science. Then, below that in quality we have badly done science that people persist in believing even though the mainstream has thoroughly discredited it, which we call pseudo-science. This seems pretty much in line with your comments.

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  10. I read it in its context, to see if I was being pedantic.

    But still it reads like he thinks that we really are robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve a particular molecule.

    He should really learn to employ phrases like “so to speak” or “as it were” instead of “this is a truth which continues to astonish me”.

    I may be wrong, but it strikes me as absurd to talk, even metaphorically, of there being any sort of agency in evolution, even blind agency. It strikes me as even more absurd to point to one part of the system and say “that is the rationale”,

    It seem misleading and pandering to the foible of wanting to see agency in everything. What would we lose if we dropped all of that sort of talk? Nothing that I can see.

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  11. While I think it’s good that we here seem quite opposed to homeopathy and other apparent examples of pseudoscience, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised by their prevalence, simply given common social beliefs. If there is a demand, a supply will surely be addressed in an adaptive market. But how might we improve this situation?

    I would suggest working on the demand side, which is to say, helping people gain more faith in science. Though homeopathy practitioners may indeed promote their industry (and so may appear to be villains who take advantage of the stupid and the feeble) it’s surely the market which motivates them. Rather than attempting to fight the market, a more effective path may be to help change it.

    Coel,

    If you consider my ideas “opaque,” “trite,” and “wrong,” then it is strange that you’ve never proposed any challenges to them, and going back to March of last year when a mutual friend introduced us. Instead I suspect that you’ve come to resent me for your inability to develop worthy arguments against my positions, and that this has culminated in your quite nasty response to me on Sunday (which Massimo has of course deleted). But what now? Will you silently permit your anger to build up once again, or will you and I be able to discuss our ideas in a civilized manner?

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  12. Hi Robin,

    But still it reads like he thinks that we really are robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve a particular molecule.

    Sure, and that is exactly what he indeed does think — where the meaning of the phrases is explicitly and clearly explained in terms of Darwinian processes. He is not attributing consciousness or intelligence or deliberateness to this process, which is why he uses the word “blind”.

    He should really learn to employ phrases like “so to speak” or “as it were” instead of “this is a truth which continues to astonish me”.

    OK, so you, personally, don’t like his style. No problem. People are different. Plenty of people do like his style and find it very helpful in understanding such concepts. Millions of people — literally — have read his books and understood science better as a result.

    I’m rather amused by the suggestion that he “should really learn” from you how to do science communication better. Are you *really* failing to understand his intent here, or are you just putting effort into seeing if you can find a way of misinterpreting him?

    I do realise that — baffling though it is to me — that some people really can’t get what he’s saying. Mary Midgley is the obvious example.

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  13. Coel,

    “Mary Midgley is the obvious example”

    I think you keep confusing Midgley’s sarcasm for lack of understanding.

    Robin,

    “This is quite a different kind of pseudo science than the paranormal investigator”

    Are you suggesting that evolutionary biology is a pseudoscience?

    jorgelaris,

    as others have pointed out, vegetarianism is a perfectly rational (and healthy) choice, that one can make for ethical or health reasons, or simply because one doesn’t like meat. I think the Mexican journalist was the wacko here. (Of course that’s not to say that *some* vegetarians or vegans do make pseudoscientific claims. For instance, the idea of the paleo diet as healthy and natural probably is pseudoscience.)

    Alan,

    “So some see science as trying, like classic verificationism, to restrict meaningfulness of claims to data-based foundations. But they see that (e.g.) moral and aesthetic claims appear to be meaningful without such foundations, and clumsily try to slide homeopathy’s claimed meaningfulness in on some like basis”

    Yes, now I see what you meant. Well, but it’s not meaningfulness that is being restricted to evidence-based approaches, only the verification of health claims. And I doubt anyone can make a serious argument that health claims are aesthetic rather than empirical.

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  14. Hi Massimo,

    I think you keep confusing Midgley’s sarcasm for lack of understanding.

    Maybe in the latest piece. However, it’s clear that in her early writings about Dawkins on this topic she did indeed simply fail to understand, and she has never really admitted her error, which is why I don’t give her the benefit of the doubt.

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  15. …she has never really admitted her error, which is why I don’t give her the benefit of the doubt.

    Coel I enjoy people who admit their past mistakes as well (such as Massimo, who has mentioned once being a platonist I believe) but in practice I also appreciate the political dynamics of the real world. Here I think it’s generally found that concessions of past mistakes harm a person’s influence, and therefore the most influential generally avoid this. Thus I’ve come to accept a lesser standard. I merely hope for people to get things right in the end, though publicly I’ll let them do what’s necessary. It’s a pragmatic position simply given that for the most part people seem to be, if not outright “idiots,” then at least “herded sheep.”

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  16. Eric,

    Will you silently permit your anger to build up once again …

    I’m not in the least angry. Why would I be? You asked me what I thought of your posts about your scheme for revolutionising psychology and similar sciences, and my reply about them being a mixture of “opaque”, “trite”, and “wrong” might have been a bit blunt, but you asked me what I thought and if people do that I tend to answer.

    … it is strange that you’ve never proposed any challenges to them …

    That’s because I can’t make head or tail of them, nor see any merit or even substance in them. In order to be able to make a sensible response to a comment, that comment has to pass a threshold of being comprehensible and sensible enough to reply to. Sorry, I could probably word that in a more sugar-coated fashion, if I were any good at that sort of thing. I realise that diplomacy is not my strong point. But I’m not the only one who tends not to engage with your comments about revolutionising psychology and philosophy; possibly for the same reason.

    I suspect that you’ve come to resent me for your inability to develop worthy arguments against my positions, …

    As a general rule of thumb, if someone tries saying something several times and it doesn’t get replied to, it is most often because no-one can make sense of it or see any merit in it. It is generally not — despite the fond imaginings of the authors — that it is of such brilliance and insight that it is far beyond the capabilities of others to reply to, such that everyone is silently squirming or fuming or muttering to themselves or fearing for their jobs, or anything such.

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