Scientific Inference, part 1 of 4

March 30, 2009 at 9:45 am

Last week I listened to this bloggingheads diavlog between Lipson and Stemwendel and I found it to be really interesting since a lot of philosophy of science and sociology of science is implicit in their conversation. The focus of their conversation is alternative medicine (which they agree is mostly hogwash) and particularly Senator Harkin’s advocacy of continued funding for the National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Stemwendel seems to think there is some value in finding the null and disproving kooky ideas, but Lipson takes an even harder line and argues that ideas which are nonsense on the face of it don’t deserved to be dignified by an empirical test (in part because of the problem of false positives being exaggerated by publication bias). I entirely agree with them about the relative merits of traditional vs. alternative medicine and I actually get angry when I hear bullshit about thimerasol or magnets or vague “toxins” but I also had a series of reactions to this issue on a meta level.

Nonetheless, my initial reaction to this was, wow, talk about social closure. Here we have an instance of a contested field and the dominant faction in the field is arguing that the subordinate faction is ipso facto illegitimate and its ideas don’t even merit a hearing. Even though I support the dominant faction on the merits this still seems like the kind of thing that would make J.S. Mill and Karl Popper turn over in their respective graves.

Then I was thinking about how this social closure problem is particularly severe since there’s the structural bias that, unlike traditional medicine, alternative medicine can’t get funding from big pharmaceutical companies and so it’s government grants or nothing. This is a common argument you hear from alternative medicine advocates but when you think about it, it doesn’t really make sense. The argument has several implicit assumptions:

  • Alternative medicine is not commercial
  • Alternative medicine can’t be protected by intellectual property law
  • Intellectual property law is the only way to capture rents from intellectual property

All of these assumptions are false. First, Alternative medicine actually involves a lot of commerce (which unlike traditional medicine is on a cash basis as it’s usually not covered by insurance and thus, if anything, it’s even more commercial). Some of this could be covered by intellectual property law (most of the little gadgets and doodads they produce are patentable) but much of it is not. Nonetheless this doesn’t mean that the sponsors of research can’t make money off of it. You could imagine scenarios under which research could be a kind of club good allowing the sponsors of the research to capture most of the rents flowing from it. For instance, pomegranates have been around at least since Persephone ate those seeds and so it seems like they would be long since off-patent, and hence there would be no private sector incentive to sponsor research promoting pomegranates. Nonetheless a major pomegranate processing company did sponsor research into pomegranates which is why you now see all those ads talking about antioxidants. The processor owned enough of the market that they were able to capture the rents associated with research making pomegranates more attractive, even though at first glance they seem like a commodity. Likewise you might imagine that some kind of major alternative medicine facility (like the Victorian-era resort in “The Road to Wellsville”) could profit by promoting techniques even if it couldn’t patent them.

My final thought was to unpack what it means to say that even if a hypothesis is testable, it is such utter nonsense that it doesn’t deserve to be tested. For instance, consider the claim that putting magnets in your shoes will align your energy field which will improve your health. It would be easy to design a very rigorous experiment that would test this hypothesis. In this sense Popper and the positivists would approve of it as a hypothesis. However the hypothesis is completely incommensurable with the body of scientific knowledge about human physiology. In other words, it falls outside the paradigm. A lot of people (especially those who haven’t actually read Kuhn) see paradigms as a bad thing, a mechanism for social closure and close-mindedness. However Kuhn makes a positive case for paradigms in that it is impossible to come to the world as a naive empiricist and accomplish anything useful. A paradigm is necessary to give order to the world sufficient to motivate hypotheses and make sense of specific findings. In this sense when Lipson argues for defunding NCCAM he’s really making a very Kuhnian argument — we have a paradigm, it seems to be a pretty good paradigm (i.e., it has few anomalies and continues to inspire productive research agendas), and let’s not get distracted with stuff that falls outside of it.

Since we’re now getting into the philosophy of science, over the next few days I’ll be posting my lecture notes on the subject in a series of three posts.

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