Scientific Sting Ops.

Academic rigour is often expected in matters of scientific and rational discourse, but this isn’t always guaranteed,and this is why peer-reviewed papers constitute the minimum standard of acceptability in the communication of science, with the consensus view that indicates the acceptability of results and implications of research being a better indicator of the validity of whatever does get through peer review, in this short essay, I hope to illustrate why something like this is the case.

Sometimes, however, standards are simply not met, and while the following examples are not strict examples of kooky stuff getting through peer review journals they are close enough.

The first one is the Sokal affair, Alan Sokal, a physicist, in 1996 managed to get an essay titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” published in a journal called Social Text(at this point you may want to take the detour and enjoy Sokal’s brilliant hoax essay here)

There had been this trend amongst quite a few postmodernist academics to make blind assertions about the nature of objectivity in science , and Sokal provides ample evidence of this by citing them in the paper, I quote the apposite section below

But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics1; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility2; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of “objectivity”.3 It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz’s analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics4; in Ross’ discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science5; in Irigaray’s and Hayles’ exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics6; and in Harding’s comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular.7

So aforementioned wibble that he cited from the writings of postmodern philosophers all seem to portray a world where the scientific consensus is not grounded in objectivity but in the ideological biases of the researchers doing the work (which is manifest nonsense and exposes the droolingly anencephalitic thinking of the postmodernist ignoramuses who comment on science despite knowing sweet bugger all about it) , this opinion of course extremely prevalent in elements of society like the media, a brilliant counter to this attitude by Dara O’Briain can be found here

So now, back to the Sokal affair, to get to the bottomline, he wrote a load of tosh and Social Text published it without requisite fact checking just because of his credentials as a phycisist and they wished to include an article by a Phycisist, not least in an issue that was dedicated to arguing that science was shorn of objectivity, and it bloody worked in the end because it was accepted and published by Social Text even though Sokal refused to make editions, just because he was a phycisist, which is a logically fallacious appeal to authority.

It was only exposed as a hoax after Alan Sokal himself let everybody know in a magazine called Lingua Franca, and that document can be found here , he also wrote another piece as a follow up explaining why he executed the hoax, and that can be found here

He explains his primary motivation thus, by invoking a quote by someone else

I did not write this work merely with the aim of setting the exegetical record straight. My larger target is those contemporaries who — in repeated acts of wish-fulfillment — have appropriated conclusions from the philosophy of science and put them to work in aid of a variety of social cum political causes for which those conclusions are ill adapted. Feminists, religious apologists (including “creation scientists”), counterculturalists, neoconservatives, and a host of other curious fellow-travelers have claimed to find crucial grist for their mills in, for instance, the avowed incommensurability and underdetermination of scientific theories. The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is — second only to American political campaigns — the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.

— Larry Laudan, Science and Relativism (1990, p. x)

And anybody involved with the utterly nonsensical “chalega” or “everything goes” attitude , not least the rationalists I have had the pleasure of knowing, will immediately recognise that the subversion of truths about observational reality is at the heart of every doctrine driven nutter in the world who, to summarise, would assert that if doctrine and reality differ, the former is right and the latter is wrong and also be able to appreciate how pernicious an influence it can have on important issues like policy-making, ranging from climate change to proper scientific education (look no further than the right wing in the US of A)

The problem amongst some sections of the postmodernist academia at least was an endorsement of such obviously misinformed thinking, exacerbated in some other cases by the complete lack of understanding of what constitutes the scientific picture of observational reality, and to expose this in an effort to promote better academic standards was one of Sokal’s motivations, and I suppose he pulled it off brilliantly.

This brings us to the second part of the Scientific Sting Ops special, the Lachlan affair.

Like the people endorsing postmodern anti-intellectualism people in the alternative medicine community often hold similar viewpoints, where people often attempt to pass off kooky stuff that can claim lives as scientifically rigorous not by ensuring that high standards of EBM (Evidence Based Medicine) are met, but by attempting to bypass standards of evidence altogether, including a over-reliance on case histories and confirmation bias that are characteristic of anecdotes pertaining to those case histories.

In other words, if they had to pass an exam, they wouldn’t do it through scoring high marks, but by lowering how much they need to score to pass, in effect sacrificing empirical rigour for purposes of kooky medical viewpoints (I would again argue that these are doctrines, things like the Galenic concept of humour or “like cures like” or “less is more” are held to be axiomatic by the systems of “medicine” that utilize them with no effort made to verify them, which automatically converts them to unquestionable dogmas)

Other features include arguments from authority, allegations of conspiracy theories against big pharma, and as anybody who has spent time on RatSkep in the same thread as a certain annoying homeopath will tell you, asinine arguments suggesting that some conventional meds don’t work, ergo CAM must, all the while completely being unable to provide evidence.

John Lachlan decided to investigate if an argument made with the inclusion of the aforementioned features would manage to gain acceptability at a CAM or “Integrative Medicine” conference, he cooked up a fabricated CV to confer a sense of authority and came up with an utterly ridiculous concept, reflexology of the arse (lol)

He was asked to submit an abstract, which he duly made up and submitted, and this led to acceptance for presentation at a conference in Jerusalem, at an international level convention no less. Lachlan’s expose of this issue can be found in the British Medical Journal (please see the link here)

His abstract makes all the claims characteristically seen from opponents of scientific rigour wherein measures to ensure rigour are challenged using ad hominems against proponents of such standards “close minded” and arguing that alternative therapies are not amenable to testing by rigorous, high quality DB-RCT (Double Blind – Randomized Controlled Trials) while disguising a bleedingly obvious hoax that would require a full frontal lobotomy or its cognitive equivalent to be held as valid (homonculi in the bum, really?!) while simultaneously making an appeal to authority.

Guess what, it got accepted, and the rest they say is history.

People might still insist that this was just a conference, and just one conference, but the core principle underlying Lachlan’s scientific sting op is still essentially valid, that lowered standards of evidence must never be used as a tool for sneaking nonsense into medicine, lives could be saved or lost, it is that bloody serious.

He of course echoes this sentiment in the BMJ paper when he says, and I quote

“So called integrative medicine should not be used as a way of smuggling alternative practices into rational medicine by way of lowered standards of critical thinking. Failure to detectan obvious hoax is not an encouraging sign”

Talking of appeal to authority, I think it is often used all too much, and for some reason people are really vulnerable to it, and it is not a surprise that people in positions of authority often use it as if it proves any bloody thing (“I have X years of experience, ergo I am omniscient” would be a very apposite praraphrase when describing the reactions of teachers who were challenged with evidence through my academic career until now) and I know that is a case history and I am obliged to present empirical evidence about the effects that appeals to authority can have, so, as a final exhibit in this short essay, I would like to introduce you to the Michael Fox experiment, a popular account of which may be found here
and the actual paper can be found here

To put it simply, if you make your qualifications look impressive and spout nonsense in dulcet tones you can expect to be taken seriously.It also strikes me as funny that the actor in the Dr.Fox experiment was a Mr.Fox, and we all know that people who solicit your votes are , erm, Foxy.

Remember, reason and logic are your friends.

My 1700 odd words.


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