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Taking Evidence Seriously: Alan Sokal goes Beyond the Hoax

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In 1996, Alan Sokal, a Professor of Physics at New York University, wrote a paper for the cultural studies journal Social Text, entitled: Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. It was reviewed, accepted, and published. Sokal immediately admitted that the whole article was a hoax – a cunningly worded paper designed to expose and parody the style of extreme postmodernist criticism of science. The story became front-page news across the world. Sokal has now written a book for OUP called Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, which publishes in the UK this week. In the below post, Sokal writes about taking evidence seriously, and the implications it has for public policy.

This blog originally appeared on The Guardian’s Comment is Free site.

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” a senior adviser to President Bush told the New York Times in the summer of 2002.

It might seem obvious that public policy ought to be based on reality and evidence, but the implications of taking seriously an evidence-based worldview are far more radical than most people realise.

sokal_beyond-the-hoax.jpgHere’s one example: the British government is now introducing standards of competence in homeopathy, aromatherapy, reflexology and other “alternative” therapies, in order to protect the public from inadequately trained practitioners. That sounds nice, at first glance. But what, precisely, does it mean to be “competent” in a system of pseudo-medicine that has never been demonstrated to be efficacious beyond the placebo effect? Perhaps for its next act, the NHS will introduce bloodletting and trepanation, duly guaranteed by rigorous standards of competence for practitioners.

Despite the utter scientific implausibility of homeopathy – in which the “remedies” are so highly diluted that they contain not a single molecule of the alleged “active ingredient” – the NHS actively promotes homeopathy on its website and provides homeopathic “treatment” at the taxpayers’ expense. And there are five homeopathic hospitals in the UK, of which four are funded by NHS money.

No one, not even the health minister, knows how much the NHS spends annually on unproven (or disproven) complementary and alternative therapies, because the NHS does not bother to keep track – but estimates range from £50m to £450m. Granted, that’s a tiny fraction of the £92bn NHS budget, but it’s still money that could give thousands of cancer patients provably effective therapies that are now denied for cost reasons.

Here’s another example: the government under former prime minister Tony Blair assiduously promoted state subsidies for faith-based schools. Of course, “faith” is here being used as an ecumenical-sounding euphemism for “religion”, but the word is still revealing. For what is “faith”, if not the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they lack adequate evidence?

After it was reported that a publicly-funded Christian school in Gateshead had been teaching creationism, Blair was asked in parliament whether he was “happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in state schools”. Blair (always the consummate politician) avoided a direct answer, but defended the school in question and said “in the end, a more diverse school system will deliver better results for our children.” Shall we also, in the name of “diversity”, subsidise schools teaching that the moon is made of green cheese?

Of course, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish Britons can rightly complain that the state has long funded Church of England and Roman Catholic schools. But the proper remedy is not to extend state patronage from Christianity to other superstitions; rather, it is to implement a complete separation of church from state, and more generally to insist that taxpayer-funded institutions have no business propagating dogmas unsupported by evidence.

Moreover, segregating children of Muslim parents from children of Christian parents for separate indoctrination is woefully misguided. Instead, why not bring together students of both backgrounds in a high-school history class to examine the historical evidence bearing on the composition of the New Testament and the Qur’an?

The extreme example of the government’s cavalier attitude towards truth and evidence was, of course, the selling of the war in Iraq. Rather than dispassionately using intelligence information to help evaluate policy options, Bush and Blair’s operatives pressured their intelligence agencies to find “evidence” – exaggerated, tendentiously interpreted, or simply fraudulent – supporting a predetermined policy. The result is the mess we’re now in. Globally, the Iraq war has helped recruit a new generation of militants for al-Qaida; in the Middle East, it has strengthened Iran. All of this could easily have been predicted before the war. And of course it was: not only by leftists, but also by those few conservatives who had not succumbed to the hubris of overestimating their own power.

The bottom line is that all of us – conservative and liberal, believer and atheist – live in the same real world, whether we like it or not. Public policy must be based on the best available evidence about that world. In a free society each person has the right to believe whatever nonsense he wishes, but the rest of us should pay attention only to those opinions that are based on evidence.

Recent Comments

  1. roger

    Hear, hear

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