relativity of falsification?

IMG_1568“It seems entirely reasonable to believe in the effectiveness of T.C.M. and still have grave doubts about qi… The causal theory that’s concocted to explain the practical successes of treatment is not terribly important or interesting to the poor schlub who’s thrown out his back or taken ill.”

In the train to Roissy airport, I read an old New York Times, as I had no time to download today’s issue. One surprising article was about Chinese medicine, for it was written by a philosopher (or at least a professor of philosophy!) but did not hold much depth in its analysis. The writer was making an argument about the relativity of Scientific proofs, mixing Popper (of course!), Kuhn and Feyerabend (whose deconstructionism he misrepresented as a complete abandon of the scientific method) with Conan-Doyle’s belief in spirits and curses. As if a (talented) writer like Conan-Doyle could bring any scientific weight in the debate… And opposing Western versus Eastern science. The author actually seemed to question the relevance of Popper’s falsification principle, on the grounds that (a) established science does not readily accept falsifications of its current theories and (b) beliefs may turn into scientific theories if we find new experimental ways to test (falsify) them. Point (a) is confusing Science with the scientific establishment, which has repeatedly proved itself a bastion of conservatism (even though caution makes sense as well), while point (b) sounds like opening a Pandora box fuelled by extreme relativism: see e.g. “Maybe in years to come we will discover some subtle chemical properties in turtle blood that ameliorate certain illnesses“. There is no relativity in the way (reproducible) experiments are conducted and analysed. I liked (not!) the argument that masters of Traditional Chinese medicine took years to learn their anatomical maps, as it reminded me of medieval medical doctors having to master astrological maps to gain their degree… As a very minor aside, I also got surprised that the Buddhist author of the article agreed to have a turtle killed just to drink its blood towards treating a cold, while entertaining (reasonable) doubts about the efficiency of the treatment!  (Disclaimer: I am not dismissing traditional Chinese medicine versus occidental medicine, as I think they both involve both empirical learning and a-scientific aspects. This is about the philosophical arguments in the article.)

After writing that piece in the train, I alas missed my flight to Warwick (by 3 minutes, not due to writing the post!) and then checked the paper on the Web where I found this much more detailed criticism by Jerry Coyne (professor at U of Chicago and author of a book called Why evolution is true?)

2 Responses to “relativity of falsification?”

  1. On your point (b), don’t forget that Popper said all science begins with myths.

    • I did not know that quote, it is quite a nice one! Feyerabend also argued that science is much closer to myth than a philosophy of science is prepared to admit.

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