09 June 2009

Bad Humanities

I like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. I think it’s one of the best and most important blogs on the internet, with a really good set of well-updated links. I think the scientific method and post-Enlightenment rationalism are quite easily the best and most reliable ways to understand the world, and I agree that where there are limitations and human error involved, for the most part it is scientists who are the first to acknowledge and fight them, for example with double blinds and high sample-sizes.

But a lot of its readers, and occasionally its writer, have fallen for the post-postmodern backlash. Now I’m a humanities graduate, French and German language and literature, and as such I wouldn’t dream of claiming another branch of humanities, say, Women’s Studies, was all bollocks because I didn’t understand it. Nor would I criticise the Russian department for not taking into account French grammar. I certainly wouldn’t have the danglies to wade into something as far removed from my field as the sciences by, say, reading one or two bad nuclear physics texts then claiming that the entire discipline was smoke and mirrors/the Emperor’s New Clothes/mutual mental masturbation because it used big words I didn’t know. Yes, I’ve put forward tentative theories about physics, but I’ve not actually rubbished the entire science, and to my knowledge I’ve never used ‘scientist’ as a synonym for ‘cretin’ as has been done for ‘humanities graduate’.
But there’s a nasty little thread running through, for example, this nasty little thread, that levels exactly those accusations against “postmodernism”. For example:
I always wonder whether people writing this type of thing mean what they say - or whether it is just an exercise in wordplay. Or maybe i'm just not clever enough to see the point.
Which is why science is the greatest of human achievements and pomo is a ridiculous verbal construct, a bunch of words (many of which are given arbitrary or false meanings) masquerading as philosophy. Oh, and these guys are professors and assistant professors for the same reason Chomsky is regarded as a linguistics expert and homeopathy degree courses are offered. All narratives are equally valid... Whether intended or not, that's exactly how post-modernists present themselves, and in an obfuscatory literary style that so befits the pointless idiocy of the term "post-modern". It's what happens when physical reality becomes too difficult or distasteful to follow and it becomes necessary for some to invent alternative "realities" and delusions (fairytale castles of which to elect themselves King). The Emperor's new clothes...
The telling part in that last one is the “pointless idiocy of the term”, basically a self-righteous admission that you don’t understand. Like shouting at your waiter for speaking Spanish. A couple of posters also demonstrated a clear lack of understanding of the entire branch of academia that they were railing against:
Just noticed that the paper's first author, Stuart J Murray (PhD) is: "Assistant Professor of Rhetoric & Writing" and "Trained in philosophy and rhetorical theory and criticism"
- I think "rhetoric" is the word that stands out here. The whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as the kind of convoluted and turgid speeches the old Iron Curtain politicians were wont to give.
This one has confused the older, more academic sense of ‘rhetoric’ as a part of the medieval Trivium and the newer, popular sense of ‘empty but pretty speech’. And is rather smug about it.
“What are the current social and political conditions under which scientific knowledge appears to be ‘true’?”
Eh? If we elect a new government will medical treatments stop working? Is that the kind of thing they're getting at? Will gravity stop working and pacemakers fail to keep heart attack victims alive? I think what they are saying is there is no such thing as absolute truth and the views we have of EBM are wrong, because the evidence actually depends somehow on what state the country (or the world, I suppose) is in and if things were different then the evidence would therefore show us a different truth. The truth is bent to (or by) political considerations and social conditions. Possibly. Sounds like bollocks to me, anyways.
This one seems to have oversimplified and misunderstood the whole idea of subjective truth, and assumes that the evidence will change rather than our reading of it, and that postmodernists think the earth and sun moved differently in relation to each other when the Catholic Church had Galileo under house arrest.
They seem to be arguing against Evidence Based Medicine using philosophical wordplay without providing any concrete examples of it's failure or any example of something better.
I have picked up the occasional sociology text and once struggled my way through a Foucault primer. I have to confess I struggled with it, it just seemed to be a collection of anecdotes used to inform an argument that made unprovable assertions.
But these two have made a more subtle mistake. The discipline they are attacking is not about drawing conclusions from data, but applying principles to texts or observations. It might not seem very scientific, but it’s not exclusive to “PoMo”. You could just as soon demand statistical evidence for the Platonic Ideal or Hegel’s dialectics.

The Sokal affair, incidentally, makes a similar mistake. The scientific accuracy of his essay was, unsurprisingly, not so important in a humanities journal. The principles he puts forward are consistently and rigorously argued in relation to physics, and furthermore, he had taken a particularly unorthodox point of view. While it may not be acceptable in the sciences to say something unusual and provocative purely to open debate, this is common in the humanities, Social Text’s open editorial policy even actively encouraged it. The humanities place far more emphasis on rebutting and refuting arguments than the sciences, publishing an ineptly-argued or shoddily-researched essay in a Deconstruction journal is equivalent to publishing a failed experiment in Nature, though not factually accurate, it is still a valid contribution to the discourse. He has in fact shown, explicitly and tacitly, that he doesn’t really understand postmodernism. What he and many other anti-postmodernist scientists do by this, is criticise the humanities for not using their methods. Or, in more PoMo terms, he has falsely presented his social norms as universal, and become confrontational after suffering severe culture shock.

Basically, what we’ve got here is a large number of scientists, first getting angry at a branch of the humanities for criticising science without understanding it (in their defence, the specific abstract they were discussing did seem to know very little about science), and then attacking a very wide branch of the humanities, and sometimes the entire department, because they don’t understand it. Sometimes, of course, they don’t bother waiting for the humanities to criticise science. This massive display of hypocrisy taps into one of the particular problems facing science and evidence-based medicine, and one of the areas where alternative medicine, homeopathy, snake-oil and nutriwoo have an advantage.

There are no limits to what science will investigate, to what, in theory, can or can’t be disproved with dispassionate, empirical investigation. Science is, in that sense (the philosophical, rather than the political), totalitarian in its aims, in that it claims to apply to the totality of human thought. For those less familiar with its usage in postmodern discourse, the word can seem a lot more aggressive and critical than it actually is. But the obvious limit to what empiricism can prove is the validity of empiricism. Claiming that evidence-based medicine has been proven to work is as pointless, tautological and circular as arguing that evil is bad, that sexual perversion is immoral, or that the Bible is true because it says so in the Bible. Basically, any argument in favour of science is either pragmatic or entirely epistemological, and so has always been the territory of philosophy. The problem with empirical science’s dominance in this area is that it has developed as an entirely different mode of thought, and scientists, as a rule, do not concern themselves with the philosophical mode of thinking as part of their profession. Alternative healers do: philosophy, magical thinking, associations and spirituality are usually key to their methods in one way another. This means they are usually better schooled in the epistemological argument and thought needed to debunk and defend medical practices than proper doctors.

Rubbishing areas of the humanities because you don’t understand them is not just ignorant, arrogant and unscientific, it’s bringing a knife to a gunfight because you think guns are an illusion. Ben Goldacre, and especially his more arrogant readers, need to remember that Bad Science is not actually a science blog, but one on media studies and politics, and that they are basically scientists wading into the humanities. Although Goldacre generally does a very good job, this wilfully ignorant disdain and distrust for any recent development in the humanities (as one poster put it, ‘postmodernism’ is “a bit of a catch-all phrase for anything, well, after the modern times of the 80s”) does neither science journalists like Goldacre nor the cause of evidence-based medicine any favours. If you don’t believe me, try thinking up a logical, evidence-based counter-argument to this.


  1. A very good post and one that needs a wider audience. I'm not sure Goldacre himself is particular deserving of criticism here - it's his more annoying followers that piss me off. He was on Radio 4 expressing bemusement at this sort of thing a few weeks ago, but I don't think he considers discussion of it a sign of weakness in this same way as some of his dickhead fans do. I have a few posts on the badscience forums and came to a similar conclusion as you.

    It's not just that most anti-postmodernists don't understand postmodernism but it's more that they (I use "they" quite generally here for most critics of pomo) just like to snark at the words used in critiques of social science, which is especially odd given that many critiques are pointing out how hideously bad a lot of social science is. Chomsky himself, incidentally, likes to snark at the pomo vocabulary and their contributions. There's plenty of examples of really really bad postmodernism and lit theory, and they're subjects that it's easier than most to bullshit in, but that's not really the point. The universal dismissal of those silly postmodernists and their silly words isn't a million miles away from "haha, look at those physicists talking about supernova nucleosynthesis - what a load of meaningless shit!". As a shortcut, it's useful to consider anyone laughing at the classic example of Baudrillard's "The Gulf War did not take place" to be someone with whom further discussion should be terminated with prejudice.

    There's a series of mostly appalling threads about economics there (of which this is one that I posted in - my username there is, for half-amusing but ultimately tedious reasons, nyron) in which one or two users took it upon themselves to defend the scienciness of really awful economics and point and laugh at one of the best modern-day critics (and, as I suggested, satirists) of the subject for using words like "epistemic". Truly bizarre. In my ceremonial capacity as an economics graduate, I think I've been promising a long reply to every post for months now but I really don't think I can be bothered.

  2. Hadn't noticed the economics thing, but yeah, it doesn't surprise me. There's a pecking order you see, and, since you outrank me you can say "Yeah, all that French Poetics stuff is wank", but you're NOT ALLOWED TO DO IT WITH SCIENCE. Similarly, anyone can dismiss anything that ends in studies but God forbid they say anything about our subjects except "you must be frightfully clever".

  3. I know this is late but I'd really like to know how the validity of empiricism can be proved without resorting to pragmatic arguments of tautology?

  4. Well, that's basically my point, I don't think it can. Which is why empiricists will need to get good at that sort of thing if they ever want to win the debate.

    My question though, would be, how can the validity of empiricism be proved without resorting to pragmatic arguments of tautology?

  5. But if you don't think it can be proven, then isn't the question meaningless?

  6. Well, proof is generally meaningless here. You don't really need to prove the value of empiricism to empiricists. So the people you want to win over aren't the people who can be won over with proof alone.

    But if I'm honest, I'm slightly baffled as to what you're getting at here.

  7. That's what I'd like to know: how do you convince people for whom proof isn't enough? In your post you argue people need to develop a philosophical mode of thinking to counter arguments by alternative healers who use such thinking to debunk proper/mainstream medical pratices. What kind of philosophical arguments can be employed to fight such people as alternative healers?

    Heh. Let me collect my thoughts and I'll try and write a better post about I'm getting at. Sorry if I sound a little dense.

  8. I guess it depends who you're trying to convince. You have to find out what their definition of truth is. If you're trying to convince Christian fundamentalists, you need to find a bit in the Bible. If it's postmodernists, you need to give up entirely on ever convincing anyone of anything including yourself, and go from there.

    As for alternative medicine, I'm not entirely sure of the epistemological root of their beliefs. I get the impression it's a lot more tactile and phenomenological and somehow tied in with Eastern philosophy or something. Like I said, I'm not sure. But you definitely have to find their epistemological beef with science and empiricism and fight them on those terms.

    Right, your turn: How do you convince a scientist of the absolute truth of the Word of God?

  9. I'm back.

    I think I finally understand what you're saying. Different people have different standards of truth and two such people might as well be speaking different languages. That's depressing.

    Well I suppose I'd try and convince a scientist of the validity of personal experience: I know the Bible's true because I've experienced it. And if you open your eyes to the world, you'll finally see it.
    Yes I get it now.

  10. And they'll be desperately trying to explain to you that there's empirical evidence for evolution while you stand there giving them blank looks and pointing at a picture of Jesus.