The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, July 18, 2008

Crashing Into Reality

I feel like I should be trying to write more funny entries, but I keep writing stuff like this. It’s nothing new, the sort of thing I’ve griped about before, but it bugs me, and it’s my blog, so there.

A few years back, I was at a beach with some friends. A fellow who was a friend of one of my friends tagged along. I will call this fellow Brian, because I can’t remember his actual name. It was a nice evening, warm but not uncomfortably so, and relatively dry air despite the proximity of the ocean. We were enjoying ourselves immensely, and at one point Brian and I ended up at the back of the group talking about science fiction books.

After a few minutes, Brian asked what I did for a living. I told him that I was an archaeologist. Brian became silent, and just glared at me. After a few minutes of this, I asked him what was wrong.

“You’re out to destroy our faith.”


“Yeah. You’re one of the anti-Christian people.”

“What the Hell are you talking about?”

“Archaeologists dedicate their lives to trying to prove the Bible wrong in order to destroy Christianity.”

I then proceeded to explain that A) I am a North American Archaeologist, meaning that the Bible is completely irrelevant to my own work, and B) archaeologists aren’t out to prove or disprove anything in particular, we go where the evidence leads – and if the evidence agrees with someone else’s beliefs, that’s okay, but if it disproves those beliefs, well, that’s okay, too.

I thought of this conversation recently when I heard someone going on a diatribe about how medical science is solely about trying to “destroy people’s health in the name of profit!” This person was, not surprisingly, trying to convince people to buy into that great-grandmother of snake oil fraud, homeopathics*.

Now, there are plenty of shady dealings in the medical industry, make no mistake. But one has to be intentionally ignorant to not notice that medical research has resulted in at least a few small advances in furthering public health, like, oh I don’t know, curing polio, finding the vectors for transmission of HIV (thus allowing its prevention), dietary research and effective guidelines, and creating vaccinations for rabies, just to name a few. Or, hey, how about revealing that microbes spread disease, and hey, that soap stuff is pretty handy for preventing this. However, medical research (along with chemistry and physics) has also demonstrated that homeopathics are nothing but a sham, and was thus undercutting this person’s worldview.

And this has all got me thinking about why research is viewed as threatening by so many people. The basic goal of good research is not to prove or disprove a point, it is simply to follow evidence and get as close to reality as possible. Now, there are researchers with agendas, yes, and there are things outside of pure evidence that do influence research, true. However, over the course of time, these things tend to wash out – agendas change and/or fade, outside influences shift, but the data remains existant and methods sharpen and improve, meaning that, even though a blind alley or wrong direction may be chosen temporarily, it tends to be corrected over time. The end result is that research in general, and science in particular, tends in the long run to move along without any particular direction towards proving or disproving one idea or another.

The problem for many people is this – if you hold a belief that is based on assumptions (a belief without or despite evidence such as: the Bible is inerrant, homeopathy is something other than nonsense, cooked food is bad for you, or that L. Ron Hubbard is a god and his teachings will allow you to alter your blood’s salinity), then you are going to be threatened by any person, people, or institution who are honestly attempting to find truth without an agenda. And the problem is two-fold: A) someone who holds such a belief has based their worldview on a shaky claim that is likely to be toppled by scrutiny, and B) the clinging to beliefs derived by fiat rather than evidence and reason puts such an individual immediately at odds with reality and any exposure to a systematic method of examining reality is going to seem alien – so alien, in fact, that many folks I meet don’t know the difference between an assumption-based worldview and one based on evidence, hence the fact that many folks incorrectly perceive science as being simply a religion (despite the fact that the methods of the two could not be more different), or just another “way of knowing the world” no different from any other – despite the fact that methodologically it is unique and wildly different.

Add this to the basic human desire to not be proven wrong, and you have a potent stew to serve up at a denial of reality dinner. And this is a problem, not only because it means that there are a whole lot of people who are, put simply, basing their worldview on what are really superstitious assumptions and failing to recognize that their worldview may not be based in reality. These folks then become hostile to anyone who introduces a bit of reality, and (based on my experience, anyway) withdraw farther away from any sort of reasonable discourse or engagement with the real world that they live in.

* Now, I know that someone is going to write to me claiming that homeopathy works because they got some herbs that cured some condition, etc., etc., etc.. Homeopathy often gets confused with naturopathy (which includes the use of herbs), but is something completely different. Homeopathy is the practice of taking a substance that causes an illness in a well person, diluting it to miniscule amounts (often to the point that any given dose of a homeopathic treatment contains none of the allegedly active ingredient), and then using that to “cure” a sick person. If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Which is probably why homeopaths don’t seem to object to people confusing them for naturopaths – while naturopathy is not nearly as effective as many people seem to think it is - and some of the more popular remedies are actually completely useless - there are some naturopathic remedies that actually work – but there are no homeopathic ones that do, so being confused for naturopathy works in the homeopath’s favor.

1 comment:

Chris said...

On homeopathy:

Having had the sheer "pleasure" of working for a vitamin company for a few years, I must agree that homeopathy, and many vitamin supplements in general are, still to my mind anyway, questionable in their effects (look how badly Airborne got shredded: What was interesting was that our product development was mostly reactive. We had already developed our bread and butter multivitamin tablets, so our meetings generally boiled down to the salespeople whining about the latest big trend (deer antler velvet tablets, for example - and yes, I mean the fuzz from developing deer antlers. And yes, some people actually swallow these tablets) and wanting it under our own label by next week. I believe that they now have a large staff of researchers, but when I was there, we did minimal research in looking for clinical studies, and were more interested in turning a quick buck. No one gave a shit about whether it worked, but if there was a market, they wanted to sell it. A scary business indeed, but the basic multivitamins are probably good for you, and the FDA keeps a fine eye on all label claims, so do some of your own research before going out and buying calcium derived from fossilized coral (yes, that's another actual product...).