Monday, June 8, 2009

Diluted Objectivity 2

In response to The Black Cat, See:

I should start with aspects of my viewpoint that seem most relevant to this topic. I'm a former corporate consultant now living in Patagonia, developing systems for managing development of scientific theories. I work with the Project Management Institute on ethics, and my spouse took formal training in homeopathy. We view advantages such as intellect, wealth, knowledge, and education in matters of science, war, philosophy, logic, medicine, etc. as imposing responsibilities on the individual. We had a great deal of discussion about the ethics of studying homeopathy because of the associated abuse, yet decided that it was better to err on the side of more information, and she took the course. Having read much of her class materials, the claims made in homeopathic training are not completely unknown to me. Also, I struggle daily making the case for application of scientific and project management best practices, and reading this blog as an enthusiast really hit a nerve – much like the silence is the enemy rant

My bride and I are humanists and subscribe to the first principle of compassion, and second to avoid doing harm. We regard homeopathic practice as risky, perhaps even dangerous depending on a variety of complex circumstances, but do not feel carte-blanche freedom to condemn it either. However, if we were to do so, I would hope that condemnation would be with greater acknowledgement of personal bias and I would like to think: more scientific objectivity than Phil's treatment here, which I believe he would agree is a superficial rant.

I feel Phil's anger, disgust, and outrage over the death of this innocent girl, and share it.

You say "Phil's statement about homeopathy is completely correct", which may be true in the sense of accuracy. It is possible to be completely accurate, and yet totally misleading. If you would like to disagree with my criticism, please share why "homeopathy is antiscientific" is correct in every detail with regard to the homeopathic certification course material matching wikipedia's homeopathy entries and evidence of the apparent homeopaths on the thread seem to believe: the scientific method is proper and that evidence matters as a guide to truth. Some disagree that the science is being applied correctly however, and believe it is misleading. This does not make them un- or anti-scientific, and can only be addressed with a clear methodological argument based on good knowledge of science practice. It seems to me that focusing on our common goal of seeking the most reliable knowledge is more productive for scientists and homeopaths. Debate opponents ensnared in pseudoscience can learn more easily when approached this way, and scientists typically gain as they are forced to explore the roots of the scientific method in explaining exactly where a fault lies. The fact that many, perhaps most homeopaths fall for and/or espouse pseudoscience is a significant distinction from anti-science which rejects science as a reliable guide. If Phil or anyone else wishes not to make that distinction and use a single category for both anti-science and pseudoscience viewpoints, or any other position, as fair appraisers they should use the strongest case offered by the opposing view rather than the weakest. Taking the most extreme homeopath-related irrationality and painting all homeopath adherents with that brush is unfair and fallacious, which I think you know. If you disagree with my criticism in this situation, please explain why this it is improper to consider his claim to be a straw-man fallacy.

You assert "Homeopaths still claim that their treatments can have real effects beyond the placebo, including curing serious illnesses." The omitted word that causes the statement to mischaracterize is "some" - "Some homeopaths do this", I agree. In fact, there are real, clinical inducements that benefit the patient for such overstatements because the more confident the practitioner "expertly plays the part of heroic savior", the greater the placebo effect. In my opinion, both the overstatement on one side and the decision to disregard health benefits due to placebo effects on the other need to be justified. The additional burden for those of us in science is to go through the effort needed to distinguish and fully acknowledge (even if uncomfortable), situations when evidence suggests placebo effects produce health impacts exceeding the expected pharmacological response. In the case of this little girl however, the placebo effect on the parents caused this child basically to be tortured to death. I don't believe Phil's piece shows sincere effort to scientifically examine the specific cognitive flaws (which we all possess) that led to this horrific tragedy, I would ask respectfully that we consider digging deeper into the cause than the 30 seconds required here to attack homeopathy.

This is not an endorsement or defense of homeopathy and agree that there are no effects beyond placebo, but placebo effects can also prevent great harm that eludes such measures. One example is prevention of over-prescription. Reductionist analysis fails profoundly in measuring this because the formulation of medical efficacy is insensitive to such factors. I agree 100% that some people will die from inappropriate homeopathy, but I would bet that 20 times this number die from infections spread in hospitals due to inadequate hand sanitization driven in large part by staffing assigned to maximize "efficiency". One of my hot-buttons comes from the realization that I've profited greatly from enabling violence and financial enslavement on a massive scale. For-profit operations are driven to push for maximum efficiency because that's what they measure. When people suffer and die, it is not measured in operational efficiency metrics because accounting and economics are insensitive to such results. The inability to recognize such evidence, to evaluate and take action on important environmental, systemic, or global causes, conditions and effects is shared with what many homeopaths deride as "Western medicine", as well as what homeopath critics call "woo".

We seem to agree the primary claims of homeopathy, placebo effect and lack of side effects are not in dispute. I think it appropriate to address these up front if one wishes to claim "science" as a basis for analysis. Completely ignoring primary claims of a belief system in order to focus on tabloid horrors strikes me as lacking objectivity.

I believe it generous to call "mischaracterization" comments supported by opinion columns like under the circumstances. Opinion columns are certainly not an appropriate source to use if one is criticizing opponents for failing to adhere to best practices of science, so that criticism seems a bit hypocritical - but in his defense, Phil merely appears unaware of this cognitive blind spot. Please note that I'm not saying the oversights are of equal risk: I think his position is more correct, but the justification remains more irrational than some which might be made for an opposing view. Phil claims this opinion piece clearly shows homeopathy CANNOT work. This is only true if one make an unjustified restriction to the definition of "work" that Phil does not acknowledge, which again, I think is an error of overconfidence, and "mischaracterization" does sound less aggressive to me than "hypocritical", "irrational", etc.

The other sources linked suffer similar flaws, and these are followed by an anecdote.

I was disturbed to read what looked like shameful chest-puffing claims implying fatherly love dismisses any need for doubt because opponents subscribe to a belief system that "flies in the face of reality". Such a comment misleads people about the very nature of science on which my work rests. Science is the most reliable method for determining facts ever discovered by our species, but facts always turn out later to be misleading in some way. Publishing mis-informing appeals to "reality" (and "truth" is another common offender) corrode science awareness and provide ammunition to anti-science arguments. We should not appeal to an ultimate, unknowable "reality", but rather approach topics fairly, acknowledging scientific reasoning lies on a cognitive spectrum and is not a completely unique mental process.


Jason said...

I'd say that something is unscientific if it doesn't conform to the scientific method.

Please show me the studies, published in peer reviewed science journals, that support homeopathy as an effective treatment for anything.

BurntSynapse said...

Hi Jason,
Lots of things are what we consider scientific, yet fail the "method" test, such as statements of knowledge or definition. For example: "The sun is powered by fusion." does not follow the scientific method, it is merely a conclusion based on evidence, some of which did conform to the scientific method. Determining good criteria for assessing theories is very difficult, especially when we are working in areas of high uncertainty.

As for the studies on homeopathy that I reviewed, I'm afraid I don't have them, I wish I did - but I believe they were in the British Journal of Medicine and cited studies on the clinical impact of the placebo effect. My objection is that there seem to be "placebo deniers" who dismiss the effect without justification. We tend to regard claims without reasonable justification as unreasonable, something scientists should avoid in debates, IMO.