Sunday, March 05, 2006

A close shave with Occam's razor

Why has the scientific community been so unwelcoming to such New Age gurus as Rupert Sheldrake, Russell Targ, Deepak Chopra, Harold Puthoff, and the like?

Larry Dossey is one of the best-known (and best-selling) of the alternative medicine gurus. In his book Healing Words he suggests that "the answer has less to do with the quality of the data than with the psychology of scientists themselves." He offers a dozen reasons why scientists and skeptics reject the "evidence" for the healing power of prayer:

1) Western materialistic beliefs exclude the possibility of prayer-based healing.

2) It is human nature to resist change.

3) Cognitive dissonance (the discomfort people feel when there is a conflict between their perceptions and their belief system).

4) Spiritual healing is often equated with "mysticism."

5) Prayer-type healing may occur outside of conscious control.

6) The "power of others" may be feared (to influence our lives negatively).

7) One's own healing powers may be feared.

8) Healing power is believed to be possessed only by people who are strange or different.

9) The lack of replicability of healing phenomena.

10) Healing has laws that appear to differ from those of other sciences.

11) Healing is often allied with specific religions that emphasize faith and belief.

12) Careers and financial investments are at state.

Let me comment on each of these purported reasons why most scientists are skeptical of psychic and divine healing. What I have to say generally applies to other New Age pseudosciences:

1) Western materialistic beliefs exclude the possibility of prayer-based healing. Certainly, states of mind affect the body, but there is presently no conceptual framework within science that makes remote prayer-based healing likely. If thoughts can influence living organisms at a distance, then we have missed something very fundamental about the way the world works. To accommodate such effects, a major scientific revolution would be necessary. Revolutions in science do occur, but only when the data suggesting change is overwhelming. As the astronomer Carl Sagan said: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." So far, the claims for psychic or divine healing are not convincing, relying almost entirely on anecdote or statistically and procedurally suspect experiments that are unreproducible by skeptics (see Further Reading below). To compromise the fabulously successful intellectual underpinnings of science on the basis of statistically marginal and irreproducible experiments would be folly.

2) It is human nature to resist change. True. This is certainly a danger in science, as in every other human enterprise. Any reliable way of knowing must be conservative to some extent; if every idea is awarded equal currency in the marketplace of ideas, then no progress towards truth is possible. As I have said on this site before, science must be radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change. Admitting psychic or divine healing into the belief system of contemporary science would be radical change, to be undertaken only when the weight of evidence in overwhelming.

3) Cognitive dissonance (the discomfort people feel when there is a conflict between their perceptions and their belief system). Yes, of course, cognitive dissonance applies as much to individual scientists as to anyone else. This is why the scientific way of knowing is organized as a collective enterprise, and why all references to religion, politics, gender, etc. are excluded from scientific communication. The goal of science is that every idea will have its feet held firmly to the fire of collective empirical scrutiny.

4) Spiritual healing is often equated with "mysticism." Spiritual healing, quantum healing, etc., do indeed smack of the processions, prayers, self-flaggelations, holy water, and blessings that characterised prescientific medicine. Scientists and skeptics are rightfully cautious about avoiding a slippery slope that would lead back into "mysticism."

5) Prayer-type healing may occur outside of conscious control. Dossey's implication is that scientists are control freaks, resisting anything that involves the workings of the unconscious. He is right, in this sense: The controlled experiment, consciously designed and executed, is the gold standard of science. Unless, and until, psychic or divine healing manifests itself reliably in controlled experiments performed (or evaluated favorably) by skeptics, it is unlikely to find a place in the scientific world view.

6) The "power of others" may be feared (to influence our lives negatively). This may operate with individual scientists, but it is hard to see how it could significantly effect the collective enterprise.

7) One's own healing powers may be feared. Ditto.

8) Healing power is believed to be possessed only by people who are strange or different. Rational people are rightly skeptical of ideas that are preferentially embraced by the supermarket tabloid newspapers. Dossey says: "People who are uncomfortable with healing may attribute these powers to mediums, guides, channelers, kooks, weirdos, or religious nuts." Or perhaps scientists are rightly skeptical of ideas that kooks, weirdos and religious nuts preferentially embrace.

9) The lack of replicability of healing phenomena. Dossey admits: "It is true that healers have not been able to reproduce results with reliability and consistency." And this is indeed the crux of the matter. "Science accepts many phenomena that are inherently unpredictable, from electrons to earthquakes," says Dossey. And it is true that electrons obey quantum laws that are not deterministic in the classical sense, but we can perform experiments with electrons that exhibit exceptional reliability and consistency. Our entire electronic lifestyle is based on the reliability and consistency of electronics. Earthquakes cannot be individually predicted reliably, but the laws of rock fracture and slip are understood with great reliability, and even a cursory glance at a global earthquake occurance map shows the power of plate tectonics to account collectively for quakes.

10) Healing has laws that appear to differ from those of other sciences. Psychic and divine healing do not have laws. If and when such laws can be reliability demonstrated, science will be amended to incorporate these phenomena.

11) Healing is often allied with specific religions that emphasize faith and belief. True. Science has succeeded (as have Western democracies) by defining and defending itself as a secular enterprise.

12) Careers and financial investments are at stake. Of course this applies to individual scientists, to scientific labs, and even to entire fields of research. It also applies to the Larry Dosseys, Deepak Chopras and other purveyors of books and lectures advocating alternative healing therapies. No one is immune to the foibles of human nature.

Further Reading

Larry Dossey, M.D., Healing Words.

For Robert Baker's critique of the 131 laboratory experiments compiled by Daniel Benor and offered by Dossey in support of psychic healing (involving yeast cells, algae, insect larva, plants and animals) go here and here. The cited experiments are only marginally statistically significant, and unreproducible. Baker writes: "However, when we consider the quality and credibility of these studies we find that 10 of these are unpublished doctoral dissertations, 2 are unpublished master's theses, and all of the rest were published in parapsychological journals." Until his recent death, Baker was professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Kentucky.

For a hair-raising look at pre-scientific medicine, see Grace Goldin's Works of Mercy: A Picture History of Hospitals. It is from Goldin's book that I got the description of the Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.