In shocking news: science is not perfect. Then again, these days no one much, save for Richard Dawkins and a bunch of frothing tosspots on Facebook, claims it is perfect. Science is imperfect. If you don’t believe me, ask Einstein. Or, ask a scientist who is more conveniently alive. Perhaps a scientist currently being kicked out of her lab at CSIRO. She will tell you scientific study is undertaken in an imperfect world. She will tell you that the method can never be so pure that it outruns the worst prejudices of its age, the worst impulses of the market or the very worst neglect of Malcolm Turnbull.
Due to this this worldly imperfection, and a bunch of other complicated reasons I’d have to consult an old uni textbook to remember, science is imperfect. But this doesn’t mean it’s bollocks. To paraphrase something Winston Churchill once paraphrased: science is the worst way to explain the physical universe, except for every other way we’ve ever tried.
Science. What you gonna do? Pop on your mosquito repellent (thanks, CSIRO) take your life-saving antibiotics and relish your indoor plumbing is what.
This is not to say that science should get a free pass in your hall of ethics simply because it has done so much good. This is not to suggest that citizens remain silent when they fear that deployment of scientific discovery threatens their health or their liberty. It is, however, to suggest that some of them pour a big old green smoothie in their kale-holes before they make another noise. This may give them time to think before they say occult and unscientific things like “climate change is a deception”, “vaccination causes autism” or “you can cure your cancer with all the yummy fruits and vegetables listed on Belle Gibson’s app”. And plenty of putatively sane people, including my media colleagues, were saying that pseudo-scientific thing until the young entrepreneur was disgraced. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
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For the moment, let’s agree that science is imperfect and see how well we recover from there.
Science is imperfect. It has produced some fatal mistakes and has itself been mistaken. There is no doubt at all that some scientific findings have been formulated far less by method than by ideology. Western science has subjected homosexual men to medicalised torture and non-white persons to the brutalising charge of lower intelligence. Science will continue to produce flawed results and serve power just as surely as I will continue to break out in a rash every time I hear the phrase “quadratic equation”. My imperfect understanding of an imperfect method notwithstanding, I don’t get to say that science is bollocks. Especially not while I’m enjoying the benefits of wi-fi (thanks, CSIRO).
Increasingly, though, large numbers of people do say that science is bollocks. Or, more specifically, they say “There’s Things They Don’t Want You to Know” and they become convinced that there is a better and more perfect science concealed by those impure state and corporate kinds of science. A more natural sort of science that they can really understand.
This irrationalism brought us Belle Gibson. It brings us “nutrition experts” like Pete Evans, whose eyes of bright televangelist blue have many hypnotised into thinking that he is more a dependable source of dietary information than all of medical science. Pete recently told his 1.5 million Facebook followers they should not trust a discipline that tests its hypotheses on mice instead of people. This post received more than seven thousand “likes” — I propose these Facebook users function as laboratory animals for our most high-risk medical experiments forthwith. Seven thousand rats, one stone.
Such suspicion of science is as old as the widespread public knowledge that science exists. Which is to say, we have been looking sideways at science ever since the dawn of mass culture. Why shouldn’t we? Science is hard. But we do so more instrumentally in certain eras. Private citizens tend to be encouraged to favour “natural” or “commonsense” pseudo-descriptions of the physical universe over science when the economy in the lav.
Actually, people tend to accept all sorts of irrationally simple explanations when the economy is in the lav. Hatred for non-Christians is one such idiotic creed fostered by Western state leaders in times of economic downturn. You’d really think that Europe might’ve scared itself straight after that whole “cruelly punish those of other faiths for our own stupid banking decisions” thing turned out so badly the first time. But the cult of nationalism is now reborn in Europe and makes frequent guest appearances in our own nation, as it does in the poison gob of Donald Trump.
This is not to suggest that we in the West are currently minutes away from fascism. (I only entertain this fear on my bad days.) And this is not to suggest that faith in a natural, pure and commonsense pseudo-science, such as that we accept from Pete Evans but now reject from Belle Gibson, has an inherent link to nationalistic stupidity. But it is a very similarly structured stupidity with a very similar function. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) provides opaque explanations for problems so tricky, they appear to most of us as opaque in any case. Why try to understand the movement of capital or the progression of cancer when we know very well that we can’t?
The belief that an ill, whether cancer or catastrophic debt, can be set right by a “simple” and “natural” prescription is the kind of belief that serves fascism. And I’m not saying here that Paleo is Dachau’s gateway diet; although, it’s probably worth mentioning that some of those souls tortured in this horrific place were set to work on a medicinal herb garden for the homeopathic Third Reich. I am, however, saying that we must be wary of the “damn all the book learnin’” explanation for any problem we don’t, and can’t, fully grasp. Especially when this quickly becomes a mass explanation. Especially when this is delivered by a charismatic plain-talker who assumes an air of persecuted innocence. (“They’re trying to silence me!”) Especially when this has some pseudo-scientific basis in an imagined natural law.
I don’t really want to be that Godwin guy who says, “You know who else liked natural medicine?”, but heck; Hitler really liked herbs a lot. There were several material reasons for the Nazi promotion of CAM, not the least of which is that “Aryan” doctors were sent to war, Jewish doctors were slaughtered or imprisoned and a state-endorsed “natural healing” practice emerged to appease sick Germans. But there were cultural reasons as well.
As Edzard Ernst, who was the world’s only Professor in CAM right up until he pissed off His Royal Herbness Prince Charles last year, has said in a range of articles on the Third Reich and CAM, there were many reasons Hitler loved himself some natural hocus pocus. “The general belief is that (CAM) had nothing to do with the sickening atrocities of this period. I believe that this assumption is not entirely correct.”
Ernst goes on to cite many examples of Nazi quackery and urges for a more comprehensive academic study of the Things Natural Medicine Doesn’t Want You to Know, which include the “advancement” of the study of homeopathy by the Third Reich and the fact that we all should be really, really suspicious of anyone whose premise is “let’s do things like they did in olden times”.
What Ernst doesn’t do is give us a satisfying account of how “simple” and “all natural” explanations of the world accommodate fascism. He can’t, because he’s a scientist, and therefore imperfect. But there are other Germans who explain how these faith-based explanations of a complex world can control populations. Notable among them is Theodor Adorno who gave much of his life to comparing the imposition of stupid faith by the Third Reich to the apparently voluntary acquisition of similarly stupid faith in liberal democracies, such as the USA. This book is a good and (for him) very readable introduction to his thoughts on why we believe in dumb hocus pocus. The short version: an easy way for us to deal with life in mass culture and the scientific Enlightenment that produced it is to choose whatever mystic-but-apparently-rational explanation is handy. It’s the Jews. It’s the Muslims. It’s that we’re not eating enough kale.
Pete “Kale” Evans brings us comfort. His urging toward an (entirely fictitious) past is mystic. His citation of (often discredited) one-off scientific studies passes as rational. While it is true that his message of “eat more vegetables” is good, it’s only good because it tallies with just about every single recommendation by any dietitian ever. The rest of the stuff that he emits is pseudo-scientific mystic fart, which may compromise the physical health of its adherents and certainly does compromise the health of our public conversation. We cannot permit the presentation of mystic opinion as fact.
Which brings us, finally, back to La Gibson …
*Read the rest at Daily Review