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Everything is Religion.

4 January 2017

As a person employed to find objective, accurate, predictive answers to questions about the future of the systems I analyze, I like to think of myself as a scientist. That’s what science is, of course – a system or tool or process by which accurate models and predictions of the natural world can be made. As our understanding of nature increases, we can build better tools. With better tools, we can refine our predictions. Some of the tools are physical objects, like pipettes or computers; some are conceptual like calculus and algebra.

But in fact, many many more things are presented as science than actually are. In some cases, it’s pseudoscience designed to misinform, confuse, and exploit. This is especially true in medicine. Things like homeopathy, acupuncture or dry needling, “detoxification” (not relating to actual acute intoxication), and even – to a large degree – supplements and vitamins. For the most part, these things are useless, and can even cause harm, presented as science but really about a spiritual sense of wellness.

But it’s true of things that most people seem to think are real sciences too. Consider political science and economics. We use sciencey words and tools, we perform rigorous experiments in model environments, and we collect data and develop conceptual frameworks. But for the most part, they have no predictive value whatsoever. Studying one economy doesn’t teach us lessons about how another economy will react to similar interventions. We cannot predict elections reliably.

And yet we make predictions and fight, sometimes violently, over their likely effects. We see data points and invent narratives that fit them, making post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacious conclusions. But really, these are religions. Conservatism and liberalism are religious opinions about how the world should work. The same is true of capitalism and socialism. They hold very little predictive value, and are not even coherently defined in a way that allows us to identify them in the real world with rigor.

And finally, science is treated as a religion by scientists themselves in many ways. We scientists, doing real science with real predictive value, want to be seen as priests. We want the public to simply believe what we report, despite not having the access, education, or capability to verify or integrate the concepts and results. We act like ancient mages with access to secret knowledge. We condescend and criticize when the public doesn’t credulously accept what we say.

Most scientists seem to subscribe to the “deficit model”; the idea that if everyone just had more information they’d agree with us. After all, we did the science. But there’s plenty of real scientific evidence that the deficit model is bullshit. People don’t believe just because they see convincing evidence presented by a magister. That’s not how humans work. We believe based on our social systems, our communities, and on things we can personally perceive and witness. This is well-known, and yet scientists reject it because it doesn’t fit their own religious model of dissemination.

Science, real science, is messy. It relies on statistics and repeated observations, and takes time to establish inferences and theories. A single result from a single paper should rarely be taken as a new established fact. We fall in love with our results and we feel personally attacked when they aren’t accepted immediately, even though we criticize others for failing to be objective about their tenuous new findings.

Science itself in not a religion, no; it is a system. But it does have sacred cows, and we all want to be its ministers.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Aimee permalink
    4 January 2017 13:27

    If you had seen the video I saw (on a TV show years ago; wish I could remember what it was) showing a woman in Beijing undergoing open heart surgery, fully conscious and with acupuncture only for anaesthesia, you would not call acupuncture bullshit pseudo science. Unexplained by western medicine, sure. But that’s not the same thing.

    • 4 January 2017 13:30

      I don’t deny the existence of unique and bizarre phenomena. But acupuncture has never been shown to have effects distinct from placebo in any independently-observed or blinded trial. Nor does it have any remotely plausible mechanism.

      Video fakery, on the other hand, is highly plausible. But like I said: religion. People believe in acupuncture regardless of its complete lack of evidence.

      • Aimee permalink
        4 January 2017 14:13

        I don’t know that there has been much of an attempt to prove, disprove, or discover the method behind the effectiveness of acupuncture. Maybe you do. It occurs to me that there is a strong vested interest in western medicine in NOT researching alternative medicines. It’s my understanding that in China, acupuncture is routinely used as anaesthesia for all kinds of fairly major operations. That’s a hell of a placebo effect! (By the way, although I have had acupuncture on a couple of occasions, I didn’t notice any particular effect on the issue I was seeking treatment for).

      • 4 January 2017 14:22

        The idea that “western medicine” (whatever that is – do you mean evidence-based?) has a vested interest in not investigating “traditional medicines” is risible. Traditional plants and remedies are under CONSTANT exploration and routinely result in new therapies.

        The idea that there is a concept of “traditional chinese medicine” is similarly farcicle – it was wholly abandoned until Mao revived it in the 1950s in order to pretend he was providing for the needs of the rural Chinese populace.

  2. Aimee permalink
    4 January 2017 13:28

    Homeopathy, now that is some bullshit. 😉

  3. Aimee permalink
    4 January 2017 14:21

    Click to access acu%20and%20anaesthesia.pdf

    This looks like a pretty good paper, from the abstract. From 2006.

  4. Aimee permalink
    4 January 2017 14:39

    By “western medicine” I mean the tradition which grew out of 18th century Europe and which displaced traditional medical practices the world over, and which currently enjoys hegemony in the western world. It is nominally evidence based – I hope you wouldn’t try to argue that it is wholly so. As you point out, it is as much a religion as any other tradition, and its acolytes get mighty prickly when challenged (cough cough *mirror* cough cough). As far as the continuity of Chinese medicine, I find your statement hard to believe, and wonder where you got your information. Certainly it is disturbing to me that you are willing to simply dismiss the existence of a thriving tradition which is currently serving many millions of people, simply because it “appears” to you to be unscientific. When you haven’t even made a survey of the scientific literature to find out if that is true (ten minutes looking turns up several studies). It may be that western designed scientific studies have been unsuccessful in discovering a method of action, but that is also true of hundreds of drugs and treatments that we use every day. None of that has any bearing on the observed and perceived efficacy of acupuncture as anesthesia and treatment for nausea and other disorders. If your response is the predictable “the placebo effect is
    Powerful” I say: “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    • 4 January 2017 15:11

      I’m not rejecting “traditional medicine” I’m rejecting the dichotomy. Scientific investigation incorporates effective treatments wherever it finds them. And rejects the ones that don’t work. Insofar as “traditional medicine” consists of treatments proven not to outperform placebo, then yes, it’s discardable.

      But much simply hasn’t been investigated properly yet. And shows promise. But an puncture isn’t one of those. It’s pretend medicine. Well proven.

  5. Aimee permalink
    4 January 2017 17:22

    That’s simply not true, that acupuncture is “well proven” not to outperform placebo in a number of applications – bit since you seem determined to believe that it has been (again, without looking at the literature) we will leave it there.

    • 4 January 2017 17:30

      In fact I’ve looked closely at the literature and have a friend who wrote his PhD dissertation on the subject.

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