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How Do They Do That?


Lewis Jones

Volume 6.4, December 1996

When the British Medical Association published its first report on “Alternative Therapy,” it pointed out that “orthodox medicine will not exclude a treatment because its mode of action is not understood.” This sounds like a reasonable attitude to take. The favored example is usually the case of aspirin. This derivative of powdered willow bark was introduced in 1899. But another eighty years had to pass by before it was known that it worked by inhibiting the enzyme that produces biologically active prostaglandin.

These days, alternative therapies and claims of the paranormal are commonly defended by the same line of argument: “We don’t know the mechanism, but that doesn't matter as long as it works.” It seems like a call for simple tolerance in the face of incomplete knowledge. And in the case of aspirin, it was just that. It may seem curmudgeonly to insist that results alone are not enough, and that attention needs to be paid to the mechanism. Well, I guess that makes me a curmudgeon.

In the first place, it has always struck me as deeply suspicious that someone would herald the existence of a new and surprising phenomenon, and then just walk away from it, and claim to have no interest in how it works. If you had been the discoverer of the totally unexpected phenomenon of X-rays, would you have shrugged off the whole thing and washed your hands of any further involvement?

Would this not suggest that you not only had done little in the way of serious investigation yourself, but that you might have some curious disinclination to encourage investigation by others? As James Alcock reminded us in Parapsychology: Science or Magic? (Pergamon, 1981), “within two months of his discovery of X-rays, Roentgen had identified seventeen of their major properties.” Now that’s more like it.

It becomes impossible to take seriously any of the astrologers (including Gauquelin and his “astrobiology”) when you realize that not one of them appears to have the slightest interest in discovering a possible mechanism. The nearest thing we ever get is analogy, not theory. (“Gravity can act across space, can’t it? Well then.”)

“Events that ‘cannot happen’ according to received wisdom rarely gain respectability by a simple accumulation of evidence for their occurrence,” writes Stephen Jay Gould; “they require a mechanism to explain how they can happen.” The lack of any curiosity about mechanism alerts us to the likelihood that someone prefers grinding axes to grinding out experimental procedures. It increases our respect for the founder of evolution that in the early stages he was profoundly disturbed by his inability to answer the question how. In Gould’s words: “Darwin returned to London without an evolutionary theory. He suspected the truth of evolution, but had no mechanism to explain it.”

There is a general belief that until Wegener came along, scientists were compulsively blind to the obvious possibility of a fit between the continents of Africa and America. In fact, there was never any doubt about the shapes and what they might mean. What was lacking was any conceivable mechanism for pushing entire continents across the surface of the globe. But as soon as plate tectonics provided a causal mechanism, the theory of continental drift took off. As Philip Kitcher has pointed out, geologists “do not respond to a particular earthquake by stating some ‘principle of plates'.”

Faced with a firm believer in the existence of witches, you are unlikely to be offered a simple demonstration of a woman turning into a toad. But in view of the enormity of the claim, it would be fair to ask how. Since believers will never have personally witnessed this transformation either, they should at least be willing to explain why they find the mechanism plausible.

Notice that in practical matters of life and death, no one disputes that the question how is vital. If you were accused of murder, it would scarcely do for the prosecution to simply claim that you “obviously” did it. With no satisfactory answer to how, the case would be at an end.

On the night of September 27, this year, certain communities in various parts of the world beat gongs and tom-toms to restore the light of the moon after the eclipse. You may have noticed that this procedure was entirely successful. If you disagree, then you will have relied on asking yourself the simple but powerful question: How?

Those whose professional life revolves around the assessment of psychic events are especially prone to dismiss the importance of mechanism and to show little interest in searching for it. As statistician Chris Scott once wrote, this “encourages a further suspicion: that parapsychologists are, by motivation, not problem-solvers, but mystery-mongers.”

Psychoanalysts have a great deal to answer for in this regard. Psychologist Stuart Sutherland (in Breakdown) has reminded us of “all the poor wretches who have endured to no purpose the pain of analysis, and the fact that the mystique of analysis may have prevented psychologists from attempting to develop more effective procedures for dealing with mental illness . . . . Most hospitals in both Great Britain and North America can instance cases of women who were treated for frigidity by analysts, only to discover eventually that they had a vaginal lesion; or of men who underwent the pain and expense of an analysis to cure depression or agitation, only to discover that their thyroid glands were not functioning properly.”

I will concede only this much: if the claimed results really occur, then (and only then) might you be given a temporary benefit of the doubt; but even so, only on the assumption that you will waste no time in getting on with the task of finding out how the thing works. Only then, as in the case of aspirin, can you begin amending and refining and improving the outcome. In cases where there are no confirmed results of predictions in the first place, even the search for a mechanism is a waste of time.

Lewis Jones

Lewis Jones is a science writer in the U.K.