And why David Tredinnick is dangerously wrong. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/feb/25/astrology-help-nhs-claim-conservative-mp-david-tredinnick In many of my pieces over the years on this blog and on my old website at www.nagara.co.uk, I have touched on the theme of ethics and how rationality can be a guide to public policy as well as science and technology.
Tredinnick’s ideas are not radical or medically interesting; they are dangerously wrong. One of the greatest problems humans face is the issue of suffering and how to prevent it or make is more bearable. Even though there are many reasons to think that psychological suffering is less easy to test and measure than physical suffering, we can at least, by ethical means, test and measure the latter. Science, religion or esoteric beliefs can not tell us with 100% absolute certainty that suffering is real but there are very few people who are convinced it is not, especially when faced with the pain and anguish we all witness everyday. And the research into the existence of pain, for example, is extensive. Of course one can not counter unfalsifiable assertions that none of us are real or that we are all merely holograms in some giant galactic computer programme so I think it is uncontroversial to say that we do actually exist and that suffering is real. You will note that in situations where it is claimed suffering is either not real or religiously or spiritually defined, the levels of suffering are extremely high and hierarchies horribly rigid. The rigid structures of an unscientific state
As an environmentalist, I worked for many years helping to frame public policy in the area of energy conservation, recycling and sustainability and often found myself up against Climate Change deniers, corporate interests, political opponents and bureaucracies that were seemingly unconcerned about the fate of the planet and the plight of the poor. Yet, having persuaded many of those interested parties that energy conservation was both an environmental, ethical and political imperative, I was often thwarted in my proposals by my allies in the Green movement; not because we disagreed on the need to provide solutions to problems but because my solutions were based on evidence rather than green rhetoric; there was a strong antipathy towards evidence-based decision making and improved technologies because our opponents wrongly claimed those areas of endeavour for themselves and so science was damned by association.
In medicine, those opposing forces, the sometimes non-rational and sometimes cuddly Greens and the claimed ‘rational’ proponents of Business As Usual, are both stuck in the mire of confirmation bias, into which we all are prone to fall and that science tries to ameliorate or banish all together. So the extent to which a shared ethics of reducing suffering might be achieved is compromised on both sides. Galileo Galilei, imprisoned for the crime of rationality. Science and technology is not, however, value-free in its development or application. The fact that, say, pharmaceutical companies are driven by profits and market share clearly skews the extent to which their evidence is truthful and accessible. But that does not mean the evidence itself is wrong or right, merely that it is sometimes dishonestly displayed. In cases where a drug or therapy is shown to be little more than a placebo or is just about as effective as doing nothing or no better than existing therapies, it is clear that we would all prefer Big Pharma not to claim otherwise and not to charge us and/or the NHS for the privilege of adoption, let alone subject ill people to greater suffering. Like-wise, to suggest that astrology might be a beneficial tool for our doctors and nurses is similarly reprehensible.
When Ben Goldacre wrote Bad Science he was accused of being in the pay of Big Pharma, such was the knee-jerk division of opinion from many Greens and, naturally, from the Alternative Medicine industry even as his book, Bad Pharma, applied similar critical analysis to evidence-based medical technologies. There was not a rush of apologies from his critics. In less scientific times, Galileo only just escaped with his life though he died under house arrest for challenging the power of the state and church. And even now, in some U.S. states, atheists are barred from public office by law – even though such laws are unconstitutional. Not surprisingly, such laws are supported by Creationists who do not believe in science or evidence but their own unchecked, untested opinion or, worse, in opinion that has been checked and found to be wrong.
The schism, between those who trust evidence rather than opinion and those who would rather promote mysticism, is getting ever wider even as conventional religions shrink. One of the problems is that anti-science advocates are mistrustful of rationality and often not hugely conversant with the way science operates and just how immensely reliable it is. When science is used for destructive purpose, we can all claim to be rightly appalled, even if our sensibilities have been dulled by exposure to suffering. Yet few of us would say that the science that causes a bomb to maim and kill was created by accident; the rules that apply to the physics and chemistry of a bomb are the same rules that apply to every other activity we undertake and experience. In that sense, scientific rules are neutral even if the means of acquiring them was not; they model phenomena that occur regardless of whether individual humans know about them or not. In the case of astrology, homeopathy and other non-evidence based activities, there are no known mechanisms for their effectiveness and no evidence to say that they are effective in the first place, yet huge numbers of people claim the opposite. But democracy is not only about the numbers of people who believe something or the numbers of supporters a technology might claim. It is also about the numbers of people who can rely on a technology being effective, regardless of faith, religion, cast, gender, sexuality or skin colour – unless the technology is specifically of use to one of those groups for reasons of practicality such as the science and technology of sex. In that sense, we can say that the recipients of technology are not heterogeneous but the use of science can be for anyone who is interested.
Not only can science be learned by anyone, it can be used by anyone. The reliability of science, having been tested by scientific methods and applied by technologies, is intrinsically democratic in its eventual ubiquity whether developed by fair means or foul. The physics, chemistry and biology that underpins all the technology we like is the same as the science that underpins all the stuff we abhor; not because some science is good and other science is bad but because people are ethical and unethical in intent and deeds. Technology is the application of method and knowledge by people and displayed in rudimentary form by other animals – it is a cultural activity representing value-judgements made by those who create it. Science, and the scientific method, is by comparison an activity that, though prone to many of the faults of technology, has within it the safeguard of testing and the requirement of prediction. To pass those tests, the science must be reliable regardless of who carries it out. At the ‘high’ end, access to science is very limited because of the massive cost of research but, once established, some of the most ground-breaking and reliable scientific laws that govern our day-to-day experiences (all are really just reliable models) are extraordinarily easy to use. So when some advocates for astrology claim that gravity between the moon and a new-born baby (why not the foetus or the sperm or the egg?) effects the character of the baby, why are those people reluctant to get out a calculator and work out the gravitational attraction between the two? Perhaps it is because they usually don’t know the first thing about how gravity is modelled. Those of us who have done ‘o’ level or GCSE physics will know that the gravity between the Sun or moon and a baby will be tiny and completely swamped by the gravity between the baby and close surrounding objects, not least The Earth; there will be no vector between moon and baby to measure. Stars, being so distant, will likewise have miniscule effects and no discernible vectors. The formulae for those simple calculations are very easy to find and can be done by any numerate person with or without a £3 calculator. In other words, all we know about gravity would have to be wrong for the astrologers to be right.
When faced with the understanding that gravity is not the mechanism, astrologers then claim electromagnetism or quantum mechanics to be the answer. By the same token, those aspects of science are equally good in as much as the models are 99.999% accurate or better; again, if the astrologers were correct, then all the science would have to be incorrect and we know it isn’t. But we do know the science is incomplete. At this point, lovers of all things New Age claim that, OK, maybe science simply hasn’t yet found a mechanism to explain how (crystal healing or homeopathy or astrology – enter the New-Age belief here) therapies work. But before it’s reasonable to look for mechanisms, it has to be shown that the therapies or beliefs do actually work. Astrology, though thousands of years old, and practiced by millions of people is not a science, it is a technology applied unsuccessfully in the absence of science. The age of a technology, as we know from many discredited activities and cultural activities from witch-dipping to trial by fire, is no test of its efficacy or accuracy. And those ancient technologies that do work have no trouble passing modern tests; the efficacy of aspirin or the engineering of the flying buttress, the hydrology of some S. East Asian water-temples, the evaporation ice-freezers of N. Africa that gave the world sorbet centuries before modern refrigeration, and many other aspects of ancient science and engineering. Some ancient tech works and some doesn’t. We also know that billions of people can believe in something that has no scientific or evidential base, such as reincarnation or ghosts or God or angels, which do not always improve democratic participation or peaceful coexistence. In other words, personal belief, even if shared by a majority, is anti-democratic compared to scientific models that can be shared and used by all. Theocratic states are not known for their freedoms or democratic systems. For those reasons, public funding should be limited to evidence-based medicine. Activities we all enjoy that are demonstrably bad for us, or have no evidence either way, should not be funded by the state and, assuming they do no harm, be allowed to continue.
It is no surprise that the main opponents of science throughout history have been people in positions of power or authority who wish to quash the democratising influence of science. At the micro-scale of social interactions between individuals and small groups, power is often maintained by those who claim to be more ‘sensitive’ or ‘sympathetic’ or ‘spiritual’ or ‘caring’ than those who do not believe. By the same token, the triumph of opinion over evidence leads to justifying murder and torture. Without rational discourse, pretty much anything goes. Within the Alt-med scene and Green politics, such devaluations of tested evidence are rife. When tests for the efficacy of a New Age belief fail, as they do time and time again, adherents often claim that the testers (or laboratories, or TV studios or locations) were unsympathetic to the idea being scrutinised. The negative attitude to scientific conditions (safeguards against cheating) and the view that scientists are not somehow fully human, immediately places the position of the adherents as superior; not because they know more but because they profess to having special powers that the scientists somehow lack. In other words, the scepticism and testing to which scientists subject their own ideas everyday is seen as in opposition to good things like sympathy; there is an assumed hierarchy of those who belong to a caring and morally superior group and those who do not. Most scientists are routinely called ‘arrogant’ or ‘insensitive’ by New Agers because scientists subject the ideas of others to the same rigours as their own ideas; the same scrutiny with which their ideas are scrutinised by other scientists. Science is unforgiving in the sense that poor testing and scrutiny will be thrown out until it is shown, by peer review, testing and calculation, to be reasonable. But the certainty with which scientists, and those accepting of the scientific method, use the laws and models of science is not born out of personal opinion or faith but out of the painstaking work of others; science is the one activity where arrogance and insensitivity will find you out. Not because scientists are different or special or lack arrogance (they are as multifaceted as anyone – and some are arrogant) but because accepted methods have to be able to be repeated and used by anyone. When a scientists says, ‘we know’ what she is saying is that ‘everyone has access to the knowledge and it has been shown to be reliable regardless of what any one individual thinks or opines’. By comparison, New Age beliefs like Astrology have no reliable, accessible and easy to use formulae; everything is a personal opinion, an interpretation, an intuition or a sensitivity; personality aspects that we all display but do not change the known laws of physics one way or another.
Quantum Mechanics, in which the forces being measured are incredibly minute compared to the forces being used to measure them, is too often cited by Alternative practitioners as a sort of cover-all for stuff that is not fully understood or simply made up on the spot. The popular idea that human sentience might change the outcome of an Q.M. event is a kind of tautological Deepity statement some scientists make to big-up their own mystery and cult of expertise; on a trivial level it’s true because human experience has created the experiment in the first place, but in all other aspects it’s a metaphor because there’s no reason to suppose Q.M. events don’t happen everywhere and one can not intervene without changing Q.M. states. Sadly, those random and often ill-defined claims by some scientists have been wrongly conflated by New Agers with Probability Theory, Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, Young’s particle-wave slit experiment and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle as if all science is really up for grabs and unknown Quantum effects are responsible for explaining all that is inexplicable.
There are many reasons to oppose Tredinnick: he is wrong and his beliefs should not be publicly funded; funds are scarce and should not be taken away from tried and tested technologies and only fully tested evidence-based therapies should be publicly funded (if only that were true for Big Pharma) except in exceptional circumstances such as a terminally ill person opting to try an experimental drug. Religion and the state should be separated and we should embrace the freedom of secularism. For me, the overwhelming reason is that the promotion of systems of belief that have no testable evidential base tends to shut down rational discourse in other areas. It is a fact that you are reading this. If you have read this far, you will have been able to read. If you are able to read, or talk, or listen, or understand then you will have already accepted that any concept will require reasonably reliable common areas of language for discourse to take place. If, for example, you say ‘cat’ and I always see a cake in my mind and my word for cat is ‘leaf’ and your word for cake is ‘cloud’, we are not going to get anywhere. Language, including body language, is how we communicate. Testing ideas by the scientific method is the only reliable language we have to ascertain if an idea is to produce reliable, better than chance, results. When something is testable, it should be tested. When it is not testable, when it is unfalsifiable, then it should remain in the private sphere.
Astrology, like Christianity, would take years to understand fully but massively complex ideas are no more likely to be true than simple ideas. The complexity of astrology is not however the same type of complexity as, for example, biology or, indeed, astronomy. Science, through both reductionist and whole-systems analysis, has enabled both the macro and micro systems of biology and astronomy to be known with some amazing predictive accuracy even if some important aspects still elude us. By comparison, astrology is very, very hard to test because even peer groups of astrologers find it impossible to agree on how such tests might be conducted and scientists have had no intelligible scientific guidance from astrologers as to what might be a valid test. Even when tests are carried out with the help of the world’s leading astrologers, the rank and file of astrology find fault with the methodology. In short, astrology is an untestable proposition and is so unlikely to be a useful model that it falls into the category of religion. It’s a deepity; on a trivial level it is true (without stars and planets we would not even exist so the stars and planets have effected us) but no testable explanations or mechanisms have been put forward as to how it works as advertised, as it were, as a predictive tool for health outcomes, character traits or psychological aspects of individuals. Astrology, if true, would overturn all known physics and be the most amazing discovery. The same might be said of homeopathy. Yet the people who claim to be experts have no valid explanations for mechanisms or their claimed better- than-chance success rate. Experts in biology, physics and chemistry by comparison have the collective knowledge to produce reliable, predictive tools. By supporting Tredinnick and those like him, immense harm will be done to the NHS and our political discourse. It’s a very, very small step from saying ‘evidence doesn’t matter’ to accepting the power structures of theocracies and cults and the continual rise of despots and gurus.
Ancient technologies and ancient power structures have produced terrible regimes which, in the absence of science, led to terrible suffering for thousands of years. In the modern age, the political system, the banking system and a huge number of corporations have reaped all the benefits of science through the control of technologies but not the humanity of the scientific method that asks for evidence from others before imposing ideas on us all. From the pyramid scam that is Fractional Reserve Banking to the lie that consumerism has no limits and from the politics of ‘trickle down’ to the outright nonsense of ‘we’re all in this together’, and from the abuses by military forces to genocide, those in power have relied on society’s collective ignorance of evidence. Most of the world’s population are untrained in critical thinking and unable to use simple formulae. As it was in ancient Rome, empires are built not from freely available and reliable evidence but from the manipulation of superstition and rhetoric in which opinion trumps data, especially where suffering is concerned.
Nick Nakorn 26/02/2015