Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry on why pseudoscience is dangerous. (I’m reading their edited collection The Philosophy of Pseudoscience.)
There is no question that some folk remedies do work. The active ingredient of aspirin, for example, is derived from willow bark, which had been known to have beneficial effects since the time of Hippocrates. There is also no mystery about how this happens: people have more or less randomly tried solutions to their health problems for millennia, sometimes stumbling upon something useful. What makes the use of aspirin “scientific,” however, is that we have validated its effectiveness through properly controlled trials, isolated the active ingredient, and understood the biochemical pathways through which it has its effects (it suppresses the production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes by way of interference with the enzyme cyclooxygenase, just in case you were curious).
Asma’s example of Chinese medicine’s claims about the existence of “Qi” energy, channeled through the human body by way of “meridians,” though, is a different matter. This sounds scientific, because it uses arcane jargon that gives the impression of articulating explanatory principles. But there is no way to test the existence of Qi and associated meridians, or to establish a viable research program based on those concepts, for the simple reason that talk of Qi and meridians only looks substantive, but it isn’t even in the ballpark of an empirically verifiable theory.
Well maybe just by talking about Qi and meridians, people make them effective. In a meridian Qi-esque kind of way.
I kid. I don’t believe in the magical powers of jargon. Jargon deployed that way makes me want to smack things.
In terms of empirical results, there are strong indications that acupuncture is effective for reducing chronic pain and nausea, but sham therapy, where needles are applied at random places, or are not even pierced through the skin, turn out to be equally effective…
Placebo effect, in other words. Speaking of placebo effect, wouldn’t you think it wouldn’t work if you know it’s a placebo? I use diphenhydramine as a sleeping pill often, and the other day I Googled it out of curiosity, and found that its effect wears off after three days and then it’s just a placebo. Ok, except it didn’t make any difference knowing that. I loudly announce that I’m taking a placebo now, just so that everyone including the pink pill will know I know it’s a placebo – but I go to sleep anyway. Very weird.
Philosophers of science have long recognized that there is nothing wrong with positing unobservable entities per se, it’s a question of what work such entities actually do within a given theoretical-empirical framework. Qi and meridians don’t seem to do any, and that doesn’t seem to bother supporters and practitioners of Chinese medicine. But it ought to.
But meridian is such a pretty name.