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Demarcation and Pseudoscience

Thinking About Science

Massimo Pigliucci

Volume 38.1, January/February 2014

My colleague Maarten Boudry and I just put together a collection of essays (Philosophy of Pseudoscience, University of Chicago Press) on what philosophers call “the demarcation problem,” the issue of what exactly separates sound science from bad science and pseudoscience. It’s the kind of somewhat arcane issue of interest to philosophers and the kind of people who read the Skeptical Inquirer, but it is notoriously difficult to get the general public involved, despite the fact that pseudoscientific practices often have (negative) consequences on people’s welfare.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened a recent issue of the New York Times (September 28, 2013) and saw an article by Stephen Asma (a philosopher, it turns out) focused on the demarcation problem! This should have been good news (Hey! The most widely read paper in the world is talking about demarcation, and they asked a philosopher to do it!), except that the headline immediately gave me a bit of trepidation: “The Enigma of Chinese Medicine.”

And sure enough, my fears were unfortunately confirmed. The piece begins with a gory episode where Asma, who is married to a Chinese woman, is at a Beijing restaurant and complains of a cold. The proprietor of the restaurant—prompted by Asma’s wife—brings a live turtle to the table, slits its throat, and offers the fresh blood to Asma, who takes it (albeit uncomfortably), goes home, and “somehow” begins to feel better in the course of the following days.

Let’s set aside for a moment the ethics of brutally killing an animal that can feel plenty of pain just so that your cold becomes less importune. Asma isn’t so naive as to actually infer a causal connection between drinking turtle blood and improving cold symptoms. He mentions the placebo effect but he says, “Who knows, maybe one of these days science will discover that turtle blood does contain some chemical that has an effect on the common cold virus.” Yes, maybe. But even so, it wouldn’t be a validation of Chinese “medicine,” understood as a coherent body of practices and theories about human health. It would be just another example of a folk remedy arrived at by random trial and error that turns out to work for perfectly “Western” scientific reasons. As comedian Tim Minchin aptly put it, if “alternative” medicine works, we simply call it medicine.

The rest of Asma’s article is full of half good points and abysmal non sequiturs (which, for a philosopher, really ought to be a no-no!). For instance, he correctly points out that Karl Popper’s idea of falsification as the demarcation criterion between science and pseudoscience is too simple to account for the actual complexities of the scientific process. But then he goes on to claim that being “well versed” in logic doesn’t guarantee you won’t believe in woo. His example? Arthur Conan Doyle’s (Sherlock Holmes’s creator) belief in the curse of Tutankhamen. Asma seems to have mistaken the logical powers of Doyle’s (fictional) creation for those of the novelist, and at any rate of course acquaintance with logic doesn’t guarantee that one accepts only true beliefs. So what? Should we therefore throw out logic and critical thinking altogether?

But the real kicker arrives near the end of the article, where Asma compares Chinese medicine’s concepts of qi energy and body “meridians” with natural selection, genes, and the Higgs boson. Well, you know, they all refer to invisible entities, and they all carry “explanatory power.” Seriously? Asma himself seems to balk at the enormity of his own parallel, as he quickly adds that, admittedly, “the metaphysical causal theory [on which Chinese medicine is based] is more controversial.” Well, if by “more controversial” you mean entirely made up without a scrap of evidence and in likely contradiction of known physical laws, yes, I’d say that’s more controversial.

After telling his readers about his adventures with turtle blood and feng shui, Asma continues: “While lying on the acupuncturist’s table in China recently, I wondered if I was too skeptical or too gullible about qi.” I wonder whether the reader will be able to guess which way my own judgment on the matter lies.

The crucial question, of course, is why is an otherwise accomplished writer and philosopher like Asma writing this sort of stuff (not to mention why it gets published in the New York Times). I will not speculate on possible psychological motives (as I mentioned above, his wife is Chinese), as I don’t know the guy personally. But this sort of thing is unfortunately not unheard of among even very prominent philosophers: in the last few years philosopher of mind Jerry Fodor has coauthored a book about Darwin being wrong, and philosopher of mind (another one!) Thomas Nagel has published a volume in which he questions the current methodological and metaphysical commitments of science itself (without really offering a sensible alternative).

It is good to have people from outside of science, but who are well acquainted with its inner workings, to keep an eye on the epistemic warrant and underlying assumptions of scientific theory and practice. That’s what philosophy of science (and also history and sociology of science) at its best is supposed to do. It keeps the conversation going, and hopefully minimizes the scientistic tendencies of some practitioners of science, infusing a bit of humility and prompting more transparency in the whole enterprise. But Asma, Fodor, Nagel, and others aren’t doing science—or philosophy, for that matter—any favors by indulging in misguided criticism and the sort of “open mindedness” that Carl Sagan warned against (your brain may fall out). The demarcation problem is a serious one because science has extraordinary social cachet and commands huge sums of public financing, as well as because pseudoscience maims and even kills people. But please let turtles live in peace, and get used to the fact that there just isn’t a remedy for the common cold. Nor are there such things as qi energy and meridians.

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York–Lehman College, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. His essays can be found at rationallyspeaking.org.