Friday, October 31, 2008

Science and its Enemies

I have grown increasingly convinced that the greatest threat to science today comes not from the usual suspects--creationists and the like--but rather from the "holistic science" movement. Unhappy with the findings of "reductionist" science, they attack the fundamental methodology upon which all modern science is based, usually in conjunction with a disgusting degree of self-righteous moral opprobrium. Take, for instance, this gem from (in)famous organic agriculture activist Vandana Shiva:
"In order to prove itself superior to alternative modes of knowledge and be the only legitimate mode of knowing, reductionist science resorts to suppression and falsification of facts and thus commits violence against science itself, which ought to be a search for truth. We discuss below how fraudulent this claim to truth is."
This is from her essay Reductionist Science as Epistemological Violence, which is in my view not merely an outstandingly wrong-headed document, but also the sociopathic ramblings of a dangerous fantacist:
"Medicine is generally presented as an area in which modern science has the most achievements and successes to its credit. But there is increasing evidence that modern medicine and therapeutics have themselves become a source of disease and death. According to Ivan Illich, diseases brought on by doctors are a greater cause of increased mortality than traffic accidents and war-related activities. Iatrogenic illnesses cause between 60,000 to 140,000 deaths in America alone each year, and leave 2 to 5 million others more or less seriously ill. The situation is worst in establishments which generate medical knowledge, viz. university hospitals where one in five patients contracts an iatrogenic disease which usually requires special treatment, and leads to death in one case out of thirty.

'Scientific medicine' extends its monopoly even to those cases of common diseases in which people would get well without therapeutic intervention. It only converts simple problems into serious or fatal ones."

This flies so far in the face of well-understood historical fact that it boggles the mind that this author is not only taken seriously, but is regarded as a great authority and even a "hero" by many in the west. I, for one, owe my life to the achievements of modern science and medicine--I was born with a condition that even thirty years ago was usually fatal. And as a historian, I am all too aware of just how much better the present day is than the "natural" past idealized by people like Shiva. Life in the not-to-distant past was nasty, brutish, and short--and the reason it's better now is because of modern technology that has been enabled by "reductionist" science.

Shiva concludes that:
"Protest against reductionist science is emerging in all spheres. In India, for instance, the famous 'Chipko' movement is a movement against reductionist forestry; organic farming movements are challenges to reductionist agriculture; and health-care movements are projecting alternatives to reductionist medicine.

Since the monopoly of special interest groups over peoples' lives is mediated by the state, these movements have political implications. The search for alternatives to reductionism is basically a political struggle which cuts across material and intellectual domains. The non-reductionist alternatives that people across the world are building together is a non-violent science that respects the integrity of nature and man and truth and seeks liberation of the people, which is what science is, or should be, all about. And when a large number of little people think alike and act together, major changes may well be in the offing, including a change in worldview."

Apparently, Shiva is under the unfortunate delusion that reality is some kind of political choice. Given the facts on the ground, I believe that what the world needs is more science, and considerably less pseudoscientific hogwash based on undefinable concepts like "the integrity of nature." Wishful thinking and misplaced nostalgia are the absolutely wrong prescriptions for the many challenges facing the world today. It's true that the gifts of science have all too often been used for destructive ends; but this is no more an argument against reductionism than the possibility of choking is an argument against eating solid food. I, for one, know what side I'm on.


Charles Barton said...

I don't focus on multi-culturalism in Nuclear Green, but in my other blog bartoncii, I have discussed it. Multiculturalism is a form of post-modernism. The entire approach denies that truth is of no value, and that every narrative has equal truth value to every other narrative. Given such a viewpoint, the claim that scientist are seeking truth is meaningless, and the truths of science are of no more value than the lies of outright swindlers.

Ashutosh said...

Well said. Shiva is one of those typical far-left postmodernist environmentalists. It's hard to take almost anything she says seriously.