I’m doing a poor job at keeping up my blog (funny how teaching 2 classes and working on a dissertation will do that) but I wanted to share this link and this link to pharma chemist Derek Lowe talking about quack science and medicine, because it’s pretty much exactly what I would say. Especially the stuff about the quest for “natural.”

Natural isn’t necessarily good for you. Lots of natural things are poisonous. They don’t want to be eaten/ingested.

Also, a big point that Derek mentions just briefly but that I think is really important is the (false) idea that we are, by default, perfect and healthy. Modern medical interventions, “lifestyle” problems, bad upbringing, or other human mistakes are required in order for poor mental or physical health to result, and we would all be happy, well-adjusted, and cancer- and disease-free if we would shun the evil ways of modern science/industry and get back to living/eating/bathing/parenting the way that Nature intended.

There’s this related idea out there that it is possible to optimize. That there is some ‘perfect’ way to live, and if you can just find that perfect way, you will have perfect health and well-being. I actually think this kind of thinking comes about from living in a technological society surrounded by things that are designed to function in a particular way, and if you use them correctly, they’re not supposed to break (and if they do, you can collect on that warranty and get a new one). But our bodies aren’t warrantied. They’re not even designed to work properly. They’re designed (by natural selection) to work WELL ENOUGH, MOST OF THE TIME, to have babies that survive to do the same thing. That’s it.

And nature can only work with what it’s given. It doesn’t design out of whole cloth. We’re really just a set of kludgy hacks–unlike in software development, nature can’t say “Screw backwards compatibility–we’re going to do a complete architectural redesign with the next version, because that will let us have better features and performance!” Nope, you get whatever features and performance are possible within the constraints of the current system. Slowly. Incrementally. And non-intelligently (so even if a better system is THEORETICALLY possible given the current system, if the cards don’t end up falling that way, it doesn’t happen).

So there aren’t guaranteed to be “natural” solutions to any of your problems… in fact, there aren’t guaranteed to be medical solutions (another weird thing I see a lot–anger if there is nothing a doctor can do for someone, even in non-life-threatening circumstances, because “they should be able to fix you”).

Personally, I can’t wait for cyborg bodies.

Right now there’s a bit of a storm in a teacup about a bill introduced in Tennessee–original home of the Scopes Monkey Trial–that putatively would protect teachers from being sanctioned if they refuse to teach evolution, or if they teach intelligent design, or if they don’t worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

On one hand, after reading the full text of the bill (it’s very short), I’m a little confused. The bill states that educators

“shall endeavor to create an environment … that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues”

and that

“teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught,”

while explicitly clarifying that these protections do not apply to religious ideas (as if the number of times the word “scientific” is repeated does not make that clear).

So I’m having a hard time seeing what the fuss is about. Most stories seem to be downright misinterpreting it. One editorial concedes that the actual language of the bill refers to protecting science education and not religion–but then goes on to suggest that this is doublespeak that somehow contains a hidden loophole, and the intent is really “to replace scientific principle with religious ideology.” (Moreover, I’m not sure how a bill that encourages critical teaching and protects teachers from sanction for encouraging discussion–essentially, protecting their speech–is “an attack … on First Amendment guarantees of speech and religious freedoms.” I don’t know how this would be true even if this bill really DID explicitly allow/encourage teaching “alternative theories” to evolution, unless it required doing so.)

On the other hand, there is something really powerful about false controversy, and this bill explicitly uses evolution and global warming as examples of “controversial” science topics. Both happen to be excellent examples of false, intentionally manufactured scientific controversy where, in actuality, no scientific controversy and only political controversy exists.* This bill reifies these topics’ “controversial” label. In fact, what makes me skeptical about this bill is that (as many point out in these hand-wringing articles) if it is being honest about its intent, the bill is unnecessary. But if it is being disingenuous, I want to know what kind of voodoo turns

“This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion”

into something that promotes “an atmosphere in which myths and fairy tales would prevail over science.” I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but that is some truly amazing doublespeak.



* If you think I’m sounding like a paranoid conspiracy theorist here, read Frank Luntz’s leaked 2002 memo to G.W. Bush, especially pp. 137-143. Apparently Luntz has changed his tune, because he has started using his opinion-creation powers for good rather than evil.