Can science be “alternative”?

Some years ago I published a book titled Forbidden Science (Alternative Science in the US) and came in for considerable criticism over my choice of title. People glared sternly at me. How can science be forbidden or alternative? they demanded. Science is just science, isn’t it? Everything else is superstition.

Here’s an interesting case history that shows things are not as straightforward as they seem.

Over several decades, pressure mounted in Holland for the Dutch National Health Service to offer complementary or holistic medical therapies, and a vocal lobby has campaigned for the introduction of homeopathic remedies on the country’s NHS. Dutch skeptics were equally vocal in opposing the spending of public money on treatment they regard as quackery.

To settle the question, the Dutch government commissioned a study of clinical trials of homeopathy by medical scientists at the department of epidemiology and health care at Limburg University, led by Paul Knipschild, professor of epidemiology. Their task was to analyse studies that had been done on homeopathy and say whether the investment of public money was justified by the evidence.

The team analysed 105 published studies. They found that 81 trials revealed positive results while 24 showed no positive effects. They concluded that ‘there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homeopathy, but only by means of well-performed trials.’ (British Medical Journal 1991, 302:316-323).

The story so far might be encouraging to those who believe that complementary or alternative medicine may have something to offer. But it was what happened next that is the real point of this article. The team leader, professor Knipschild, carried out a study of how new evidence on alternative medicine affected the beliefs of the medical profession.

First he carried out a study of the effectiveness of a ‘fringe’ method of diagnosis that is widely held to be pure quackery by conventional medical science; the technique known as Iridology, where the state of a patient’s health is diagnosed from inspecting the iris of the eye. Knipschild’s study found positive evidence for the effectiveness of the technique, as with homeopathy.

This time, however, instead of simply publishing his findings, he first surveyed a cross section of his Dutch medical colleagues with a questionnaire. Did they believe Iridology was effective?

Not surprisingly, he found that a few were believers, many were undecided and said they wanted further evidence, while a substantial number said that the whole idea was plainly absurd and merely a means by which charlatans extract money from gullible victims.

Knipschild then circulated his findings on Iridology to his colleagues pointing out the positive results he had obtained. Once they had digested this new information he surveyed them again on their attitudes: did they believe in Iridology? It was the findings of this second survey that are so interesting.

For he found that the true believers welcomed the findings uncritically; the undecided were interested to see positive results and suggested more work be done, but those who previously said the whole thing was nonsense continued to insist that it was nonsense despite the findings of his study. The discovery of new empirical evidence had no effect at all on their beliefs because it conflicted with those beliefs. (Soc. Sci. Med. 1990 31:625-6).

Remember, we are talking here about some of Holland’s most intelligent and experienced medical scientists, responsible for the health of thousands of their fellow citizens and for the annual expenditure of millions of pounds of public money. These men and women are not fools or charlatans. But their medical opinions are partly founded not in evidence and experiment but in something else: something in which they have even more faith than the research findings of Holland’s primary centre for epidemiology.

It seems to me that this ‘something else’ is a generalised, unconsciously felt, almost mystical belief in scientific rationalism. This belief makes some scientists (and quite a few non-scientists) believe that they are able to predict what is true and what is untrue about the natural world, without the need to perform any experiments or analysis, merely by reference to a ‘common sense’ rationalist model they share. One might say (after Sir Karl Popper) it is a ‘closed’ form of science.

So subjects such as homeopathy are often dismissed out of hand as unscientific nonsense, not because they have been studied but because they threaten to violate the accepted canons of scientific rationalism.

But if the evidence shows that many scientists are unwilling to be persuaded by experimental evidence, then how are new discoveries ever accepted by science? One answer is that of Nobel prize winner and physicist Max Planck, who said, ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’

The ‘alternative’ of my title refers not to some new kind of science, hitherto undiscovered: it refers to a scientific attitude that is the opposite of closed: an approach that is willing to confront anomalous and disturbing data, even when that evidence is deeply traumatic to our settled world view.

Alternative science, open science, is the science of Newton, Einstein and Dirac — it just hasn’t had time to become respectable yet.

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