Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Michael Hanlon: Beyond Belief - Why Does Quackery Survive When Science Is Making Life Better?

Another good article from Michael Hanlon at Aeon Magazine. In this piece he looks at the many ways primitive thinking is blocking the progress that science allows. These two sentences offer a brief statement of his thesis here:
As the ideals and technological spin-offs of the Enlightenment make our world ever more unified, unreason continues to flourish. This is something that many thinkers find to be as puzzling as it is distasteful.
And this:
Scientists are distrusted in a way they were not 100 years ago. The whole scientific enterprise looks to many like some sort of sinister conspiracy, created by the industrial establishment to make money at the expense of our health and our planet. ‘Science’ (rather than greed, incompetence, laziness or simple expediency) gets blamed for the degradation of our environment, pollution and threats to species.
But there is good reason for some of this distrust - we are consistently lied to and essentially poisoned by Big Pharma and their blind search for the magic pill to cure every illness. This is not the fault of the science, but it is often the fault of scientists who are paid by the drug companies to research their new wonder drugs - and the poor results are buried while the good results (often more statistical than real) are published and reported on as though this is the magic pill we all have been waiting for.

There is much to agree with here, but there is also a sense that he is simply promoting the scientisim agenda.

Michael Hanlon is a science journalist and a Templeton Journalism Fellow. His latest book is Eternity: Our Next Billion Years (2009). He lives in London.

Beyond belief

Unreason, like the poor, will always be with us. But why does quackery survive when science is making life better?

by Michael Hanlon
Published on 11 March 2013 | 2,300 words

Corn follies: a protest in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels over genetically modified maize crops. Photo by Thierry Roge/Reuters

We live, we like to think, in a reasoning age, if not always a reasonable one. Over the past century we have seen spectacular advances in our understanding of the universe. We now have a fairly coherent, if incomplete, picture of how our planet came into being, its age and place in the cosmos, and how the physical world works. We, clever monkeys that we are, understand the processes that lead to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the factors that influence climate and weather. We have seen the rise of molecular biology and major improvements in public health and medicine, giving billions of people longer, healthier lives.

Indeed, life expectancy is on the rise nearly everywhere. Infant mortality continues to plummet. Humanity has actually managed to eradicate one of the greatest scourges of its existence — smallpox — and we are well on the way to destroying another — polio. It is astonishing, this triumph of reason. As a species, we should be proud.

But of course it is not that simple. As the ideals and technological spin-offs of the Enlightenment make our world ever more unified, unreason continues to flourish. This is something that many thinkers find to be as puzzling as it is distasteful.

In December 2011, the Academia Europaea (a European academy of humanities, letters and sciences) organised a conference at Cambridge University to examine the nature and causes, and possible cures, on ‘Reason and Unreason in 21st-century Science’. I took part in the talks and edited the subsequent transcript, which will be published later this spring. The experience gave me a fascinating insight into the exasperation that many scientists feel at the primitivism that is holding us back.

Let me give one example. The brilliant biotechnologist Ingo Potrykus, emeritus professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and his colleague Peter Beyer, professor of cell biology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, have developed a modified form of rice in which Vitamin A is present in the kernel, or the bit you eat (it is normally present in the leaves, but of course we throw those away). Vitamin A deficiency is not a problem in the West. In the Third World, however, where people depend on rice as a staple and often eat little else, it affects something like 400 million people, irreversibly blinding around half a million children a year.

Their ‘Golden Rice’ would solve this problem at a stroke. This GM variety is no more expensive to grow or cultivate than normal strains, and it will require no special chemicals or tie-ins with big biotech firms to cultivate. In fact, Potrykus told the conference it would be free for poor and subsistence farmers. It tastes the same as normal rice. And it has been available since 2000. In a sane world, it would have earned Potrykus and Beyer a Nobel Prize. Yet not a single child in Bangladesh, India, the Philippines or Cambodia has benefitted from this new crop.

The reason is simple: relentless and well-funded campaigns against transgenic technology by (mostly European) NGOs and Green campaigners. Their efforts have led to bans on Golden Rice in the very countries where it could save millions of lives. These warriors against ‘Frankenfoods’ are, even if inadvertently, to blame for the blindness of maybe 3 million children. As Potrykus said at the conference: ‘If our society will not be able to “de-demonise” transgenic technology soon, history will hold it responsible for death and suffering of millions: people in the poor world, not in overfed and privileged Europe, the home of the anti-GMO hysteria.’

What lies at the root of this panic, and others like it? One factor that is often ignored by champions of reason is that science is hard, and getting harder. In the mid-19th century, the ideas of British naturalists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace took hold in part because they were so simple and intuitive (and in part because Darwin was such a clear writer). In those days, it was just about possible for an educated layman to get a grip on the cutting edges of science, medicine and technology. The same feat would be laughably impossible today. The intellectual giants of the 19th century were probably the last humans alive able to know just about everything important that could be known. Today, it is a challenge to know everything about even a tiny subset of knowledge. There are professional scientists who know nothing more than laypeople (and often rather less) about the world outside their own narrow disciplines. It is hard to become a molecular biologist, or a doctor, or an engineer. Yet it is relatively easy to grasp the ‘precautionary principle’ — the belief that, in the absence of scientific proof that something is harmless, we must assume that it is harmful. But, as Lewis Wolpert, professor of cell and developmental biology at University College London, has pointed out, this addled creed would have led early humanity to ban both fire and the wheel.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the proliferation of courses in alternative medicine that erupted like boils throughout Britain’s universities in the early 1990s. It might have less to do with human credulity than with the fact that squirting coffee up people’s bottoms or dangling crystals over their bosoms is easy, whereas acquiring the biochemistry and anatomy needed to be a proper doctor is very difficult.

That inestimable scourge of quackery, David Colquhoun, honorary fellow in pharmacology at University College London, has been waging a 10-year war against ‘magic medicine’ with some success. Most of the wackier courses, such as Spiritual Healing — which Colquhoun described in the Financial Times in 2009 as ‘tea and sympathy, accompanied by arm waving’ — and Angelic Reiki — which he said was ‘excellent for advanced fantasists’ — have now disappeared. Increasingly, it is only the more respectable backwaters of alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, that are still replenished by tuition fees and state funding. A collective embarrassment seems to have taken hold in the chancelleries of the new universities.
Read the whole article.
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