Sunday, November 29, 2009

What is the placebo effect?

A fancy scientific term for that old-fashioned thing called "the power of mind." Consider the following from Vinoth Ramachandran:

I might mention that I have long known that prayer was a placebo; but upon learning recently of a study that showed that a drug works even when you know it is a placebo, I immediately started praying. There are two Ramachandrans—one an arch skeptic and the other a devout believer. Fortunately I enjoy this ambiguous state of mind, unlike Darwin who was tormented by it. It is not unlike my enjoyment of an Escher engraving.

I hope I am not the only one that finds alarming such gross insensitivity to truth in a professional scientist. The grotesque taste for "truthiness" over truth evident in Ramachandran's "placebo piety" speaks for itself. Of additional interest, for this post, is Ramachandran's explicit endorsement of the efficacy of so to speak "consciousness therapy" apart from any physical intervention. (HT to Jime for his discussion of empirical evidence for the causal efficacy of consciousness.) Presumably, a physicalist would say it is the auditory (physical) effect of words-related-to-the-placebo-effect-in-question which trigger healthy responses in the brain… but then why can't science just become regimented pep talks? Or is it just that?

For Ramachandran praying to nonexistent deities is good for his health; thus does Escheresque art trump the scientist's instinct for veracity. What Ramachandran seems to forget is that Escher's art is fascinating precisely because it is art––a fabrication of unreal worlds which, admittedly, throws interesting light on our real world by contrast. Indeed, perhaps the greatest display of Escheresque ambiguity is the existence of Escher's art itself. For Escher consciously and freely created his bizarre images by "playing off" normal reality, not by denying the truth of the world we inhabit in favor of the unreal worlds he illustrated. Escher could never had produced what he did had the world functioned like the worlds depicted in his art. Without the 'canvas' of reality, Escher would have had no stable, comprehensible platform on which to make such marvelous illusory worlds. Thus, by subverting the 'canvas' of truth and reality to the illusion of his perversely pious placebo, Ramachandran is but a half-baked Escherite. It should be some solace, though, that he keeps good scientific company on account of his half-and-half recipe for truth. Niels Bohr, a leading proponent of the Copenhagen interpetation of quantum mechanics and pioneer of the principle of complementarity, was also fond of black-and-white contrasts, so fond, in fact, as to take the Yin-Yang circle as his crest of arms. In typical yin-yang fashion, Bohr was fond of saying that a great truth is one the contrary of which is also true. Yet, as Stanley Jaki notes, it is a very open––or, by complement, a very closed––question whether Bohr would have been as tolerant of the contrary of his atomic theory.

The complacency for truth which Ramachandran displays towards placebo piety––a double standard he would hardly accept in his own field, neuroscience––seems especially eerie in light of the recent Climategate scandal (which I discussed earlier). Whatever the truth may be about climate change––and I fully grant that climate change is a reality, albeit not one simply put down to human industrialism and CO2––what is sadly evident from the CRU emails and documents is how leading climate "scientists" saw fit to conform data to a desired model. In an absolutely fascinating post, "Climate Change and the Death of Science", the author (whose name, I believe, is Kevin McGrane) notes how the idea of "post-normal" science has warped science itself most visibly under the banner of the climate change movement. I quote:

Once there was modern science, which was hard work; now we have postmodern science, where the quest for real, absolute truth is outdated, and ’science’ is a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction to underpin the latest lying narrative in the pursuit of power. Except they didn’t call it ‘postmodern’ science because then we might smell a rat. They called it PNS (post-normal science) and hoped we wouldn’t notice. It was thus named and explicated by Silvio O. Funtowicz and philosopher Jerome R. Ravetz, who in 1992 wrote the paper The good, the true and the postmodern, and in their 1993 paper Science for the post-normal age, where they promoted the idea that "…a new type of science – ‘post-normal’ – is emerging… in contrast to traditional problem-solving strategies, including core science, applied science, and professional consultancy… Post-normal science can provide a path to the democratization of science, and also a response to the current tendencies to post-modernity."

Elsewhere, according to McGrane, Ravetz opines, "For us, quality is a replacement for truth in our methodology. We argue that this is quite enough for doing science, and that truth is a category with symbolic importance, which itself is historically and culturally conditioned." In the same vein, McGrane reports, Ravetz says,

"…climate change models are a form of 'seduction'…advocates of the models…recruit possible supporters, and then keep them on board when the inadequacy of the models becomes apparent. This is what is understood as 'seduction'; but it should be observed that the process may well be directed even more to the modelers themselves, to maintain their own sense of worth in the face of disillusioning experience.

"…but if they are not predictors, then what on earth are they? The models can be rescued only by being explained as having a metaphorical function, designed to teach us about ourselves and our perspectives under the guise of describing or predicting the future states of the planet…."

Sound far-fetched and unfair to ascribe such "post-normal" duplicity to those exposed in Climategate? Well, for one thing, consider the use of inverted data to substantiate anthropogenic global warming. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

"…even a partial review of the emails is highly illuminating. In them, scientists appear to urge each other to present a 'unified' view on the theory of man-made climate change while discussing the importance of the 'common cause'; to advise each other on how to smooth over data so as not to compromise the favored hypothesis; to discuss ways to keep opposing views out of leading journals; and to give tips on how to 'hide the decline' of temperature in certain inconvenient data."

Similarly, writes Robert Tracinski,

"These e-mails show, among many other things, private admissions of doubt or scientific weakness in the global warming theory. In acknowledging that global temperatures have actually declined for the past decade, one scientist asks, 'where the heck is global warming?... The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't.' ... I don't know where these people got their scientific education, but where I come from, if your theory can't predict or explain the observed facts, it's wrong."

Oh, if only science were so simple, if only it weren't such a human endeavor. Alas, in a vein reminiscent of the Escheresque taste for a vision over a verity, Tracinski adds that "Judging from this cache of e-mails, they [i.e., the CRU scientists] even manage to tell themselves that their manipulation of the data is intended to protect a bigger truth and prevent it from being 'confused' by inconvenient facts and uncontrolled criticism." As only one instance of controlling criticism, there is the stonewalling of Vincent Courtillot, a French geo-magneticist whose research indicates that "Aside from a very cold spell in 1940, temperatures were flat for most of the 20th century, showing no warming while fossil fuel use grew. Then in 1987 they shot up by about 1 C and have not shown any warming since. This pattern cannot be explained by rising carbon dioxide concentrations, unless some critical threshold was reached in 1987; nor can it be explained by climate models." That's certainly one way to "discover" anthropogenic global warming. Let's call it anthropogenic anthropogenic global warming and give humans the credit we really deserve!

The seductive power of useful fictions––placebo politics––shows up, at a higher level, precisely in the climate change debate. For climate change––which, as McGrane notes, is a term suspiciously distinct from climate science––is nothing less than a useful fiction defended under cover of darkness for "the good of humanity." As always, socialist utopianism sacrifices truth––whether it's the sad truth of primal human fallenness, the middling truths of climatology, or the glorious truth of ultimate human redemption solely by grace––on the altar of idealized human bliss. What also becomes evident is that, if the power of rhetoric is sufficient to boost one's own health and to shape global energy policy, the power of consciousness--the sheer power of immaterial will despite the inconvenient indications and limitations of physical reality--emerges once more as a potent causal power in reality. While the efficacy of intentional action does not grant one the right to abuse it for Escheresque duplicity, the abuse of the will in science suggests there is much more to human agency than mere stimulus-response determinism. Indeed, the ability of Ramachandran and various reckless climate scientist willfully to violate the "input" of their senses and informed rationality suggests that a will affectively drawn to truth, rather than its own immediate good, is essential to rational compliance with the truth.

As I hope to elucidate in a subsequent essay, if determinism is true, and the human will is not free in a contrafactual way, then there is no way of saying that the truths that humans affirm in a regnant scientific paradigm are true, only that there is no way for determined rational agents not to affirm them. If, however, determinism is false, rational humans are free to reject false theories and creatively pursue new lines of inquiry, a flexibility which seems essential to science as a rational tool for arbitrating between truth and falsity. In turn, if rational freedom of the will is real–-as science, language, and moral responsibility strongly indicate––then so is absolute truth, since, as I said, only a will affectively attached to truth as something objectively greater than the immediate, lesser "truth of one's own well being" can will actions in accord with truth. If truth is not objectively greater than one's own immediate good––or, by analogy, the species' climatological good––then truth just is one's immediate good, and, as appalling as it sounds, the Escheresque utilitarianism of post-normal science seems fully justified.

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