Columbia University Columbia College, Chicago philosopher Stephen Asma knows how to get readers’ attention. He starts his New York Times essay for “The Stone” with a story about his wife suggesting that he drink turtle blood to cure a cold. He drinks it, cut with grain alcohol.
Asma gets better, which isn’t too surprising since he has a cold, and those do tend to go away on their own. But no matter, the rest of his essay attempts to use philosophy to equate alternative medicine with science and to suggest the lines between science and pseudoscience are not as sharp as we might think.
Well, there is no problem applying scientific testing to folk remedies, though in my personal opinion people should deal with their colds and leave the turtle blood in the turtles.
But then Asma suggests that the theory behind Chinese Medicine, which involves a form of energy called qi, is similar to the theories that predicted the Higgs Boson and genes.
Can qi theory be scientific in this more rigorous sense? Skepticism seems reasonable here because no one has seen qi directly. Even the meridians (or channels) of qi in the body remain undetectable to Western instruments, yet T.C.M. practitioners spend years mastering the meridian anatomical charts.
Are they chasing an illusion that takes authority from tradition alone, or are we still only at the commencement stage of discovery? Qi energy looks unfalsifiable, but maybe the promissory note will soon be paid. After all, scientists theorized, hypothesized and assumed the reality of the gene (a unit of heredity) long before anyone actually observed one. And the Higgs boson was posited in the 1960s, but only confirmed in 2013. Will qi energy be confirmed as the causal underpinning for the often-reported correspondence between acupuncture and healing?
It reminded me of a recent chat I had with theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who said the most common and frustrating misconception about theorists is the notion that that they just make up random things. The theory that predicted the Higgs Boson explained an observation – that the fundamental particles had masses. The existing theory alone – the Standard Model – did not explain this. The Higgs mechanism had to square with the Standard Model and the observed masses. A nice explanation of this idea comes from this piece by Brian Greene in Smithsonian.
In any case, the theory behind the Higgs had to fit with a lot of precise observations.
And the gene? From the work of Darwin and Mendel, scientists knew there had to be some physical mechanism for transferring hereditary traits. Darwin and Mendel tested their ideas against nature. So the gene wasn’t just some notion people dreamed up.
At Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne has a good counterpoint to Asma that focuses on the Darwinian front.
Sadly, Asma then goes off the rails, implying that Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t solid science because it “didn’t correspond to the experimental method of the falsifiability model.” Bollocks! Has Asma even read Darwin carefully? In The Origin and other books, Darwin is constantly testing his theories against alternatives, and the alternatives (e.g., creationism) against evolution. The chapters on biogeography and embryology, for example, show how observed facts are consistent with “descent and modification,” and not with creationism. There are innumerable observations that could falsify evolution, too, and Darwin mentions those (one would be a consistent failure of artificial selection to change wild plants and animals).
I decided to call another philosopher, Massimo Pigliucci, who I suspected would have a different take, since he writes a column for the Skeptical Inquirer and wrote a book about pseudoscience called Nonsense on Stilts.
“They have nothing to do with one another,” he said of qi, genes and the Higgs. The latter two were the best explanations possible for rafts of observations and experiments. The idea that qi is an explanatory resource on par with natural selection is, in Pugliucci’s words, “nonsense”. He also took issue with Asma’s example meant to illustrate the limits of logic – the fact that Arthur Conan Doyle believed in the curse of the Pharaoh. Why, asked Pigliucci, did Asma have to resort to a fiction writer? Probably because Asma couldn’t pin any crazy ideas on, say, Bertrand Russell or Stephen Weinberg.
And finally, even if the turtle blood did prove to cure colds, Pigliucci agreed this does not stand as a valid test of qi. If turtle blood really did work in a systematic way, it might be through the same standard biochemistry by which other drugs work. Or maybe it had something to do with the grain alcohol.