Monday, 11 April 2011

You're probably a neo-modernist... at least one respect. That's because the backlash against the rise of 'alternative medicine' is a quintessentially neomodern phenomenon (hint: if you're pro-alternative medicine in any major way, you probably don't want to read this blog). If you've ever complained about the lack of good evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy or chiropractic, then been frustrated (or driven to screaming rage) by the argument 'well, science doesn't know everything', you're a neomodernist.

One of the major defining features of postmodernism is relativism, which says that there's no such thing as objective truth (that is, truth which is independent of the opinions of individual human beings). Therefore, says postmodernism, if two people produce different bodies of scientific evidence, there's no way to decide which body of evidence is 'correct'. It doesn't matter how the evidence was produced or how scrupulous the experimenters were, both bodies of evidence, even if they conflict utterly, are valid.

So, when a homeopath says 'science doesn't know everything', what they mean is 'your science doesn't know everything, because my science - regardless of my total lack of appropriate qualifications and training, and the woefully poor design of my studies and experiments - disagrees'. Naturally, this is a frustrating thing to have to deal with (particularly when the $%&@ers are getting subsidised to supply the NHS out of our tax money).

I should at this point refer you all to Dara O'Briain's brilliant skit on alternative medicine (check particularly around 1:50 somewhere), which covers these issues more entertainingly than I can - I'm a bit too worried about intellectual seriousness, po-faced academic that I am ¬_¬

Anyway, neomodernism says that that the postmodern reliance on relativism - and it gets into every aspect of postmodern thought one way or another, like a bad smell - is simply misguided. It was relevant for the postmodernists to bring up relativism as a tool of cultural understanding, because modernist attempts to pronounce judgement and proscribe treatment to 'backwards' societies certainly make for uncomfortable - and often wildly inaccurate - reading, but they took it far too far. This is really a legacy of Nietzsche and Existentialism ('If God is dead, then everything is permitted' and all that jazz - I'm sure I'll have more opportunity to explain this at some point, but now's not the time).

Neomodernism responds to this all-annihilating relativism with the simple point that actually, there are facts. It may be hard to tell what's right and wrong, but you do know the way to the post office. There may be no such thing as objective beauty, but if you turn the kettle on, it boils the water (unless it's broken).

It's such a stupidly obvious point that it seems impossible that the postmodernists could have made the relativistic mistakes they have (though it's far from the most stupidly obvious mistake ever made by a philosopher). But the fact that there is a reality - an objective reality (close enough) - out there means that some forms of relativism are simply false. Of course, no relativist could ever credit the idea that any doctrine could be simply false, but all we need to do is wish such people luck finding the post office...

If there is an objective reality, then there are more and less appropriate ways of learning about it. The documented, trial-and-error, experimental method of science is one of the finest ways of accumulating knowledge that mankind has ever come up with. In terms of its practical value - the total quantity of knowledge produced - it is galaxies ahead of any alternative. And whatever the status of ultimate truth, there can be no denying that the conclusions of science, when turned into practical devices, are reliable. Light bulbs give out light. Computers compute. Cars enable travel at speeds and over distances far greater than a human being can manage without.

The same principle applies to medicine - if you want to discover if a medicine is effective, there is an established procedure for doing so. Bureaucracy notwithstanding, the procedure is established FOR A REASON; namely, that it identifies what treatments are effective and what aren't. Apply treatment, in such a way as to minimise the placebo effect; compare progress of treated patient with untreated (and with alternative treatments); fund, support and buy the treatment which comes out on top. Check that all studies involved are as free as possible from economic bias.

It's not irrational prejudice to prefer the most effective method over alternatives; it is, in fact, perfectly rational behaviour. Neomodernism says that rationality (roughly defined as conduct tending towards making the world a better place) is one of the basic standards by which all activity should be judged. What this basically means is that common sense should prevail.

So there you have it; you're probably a neomodernist, at least in so far as you know the way to the post office.

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