Saturday, April 30, 2011

Scientism and Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan often repeated the catechism: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." On the surface, the assertion sounds reasonable. But think a bit deeper, and it becomes evident that this is not just irrational but a justification for fascism (or, perhaps more accurately, scientism).

First, is there any objective measure of what is ordinary and what is extraordinary? Is this a black and white dichotomy, or do we have ranges of events and ranges of experience? For example, in the case of homeopathy, on what basis would it be decided that a 200-year old medical science, well respected in many countries of the world, is extraordinary? I submit that in this world, everything is natural - nothing is supernatural. So even the extraordinary events (including experiences) - events that fall outside of what is common or expected in a particular locale, at a particular time, or for a particular community - are natural.

Second, what qualifies as extraordinary evidence, and how much extraordinary evidence will suffice? Demanding extraordinary evidence is a recognition that the already existing evidence would be sufficient to substantiate conventional wisdom. At what point does the demand for extraordinary evidence become just an excuse to suppress knowledge and propagate dogma?

Third, even if a reported event is extraordinary, why should it require more evidence than anything else? An extraordinary event is bound to be a rare event, at least, for the person(s) reporting the event or for the person(s) receiving that report. So already it is likely to be difficult to acquire even ordinary evidence for an extraordinary event. In my estimation, acceptance of probable validity should ordinarily require evidence that is very substantial. Why set a higher standard than that for an event that is extraordinary, in other words, uncommon because it is outside the range of someone's day-to-day experience? Does this not set an unreasonably high hurdle for progressive innovation?

Fourth and finally, who decides what is ordinary and what is extraordinary (or what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, what is decent and what is indecent)? Would it benefit society to have an ardent advocate of national socialism in such a role? Clearly, it would not. So then who would be the appropriate authority to classify anything as extraordinary (assuming that such a classification serves an important purpose - something beyond the awarding of a gold medal to an exceptional athlete or the sentencing of a serial killer to prison - which I do not)? In my estimation, an authority with that much power would have to possess extraordinary qualifications. Only an extraordinary person would be capable of determining what is extraordinary and what is ordinary. Such an extraordinary person would have to be not just intelligent but also worldly wise and courageous. Most important of all, s/he would have to be a moralist with a universal social outlook. Giving so much power to anyone else could do immeasurable damage to society.

EU Legislation on Herbal Remedies

The fact is that this legislation recognizes the efficacy of herbal remedies. That is a good thing. But once you recognize the efficacy of the remedies, you have to worry about the way in which those remedies may be abused and also the way in which those remedies may conflict with other drugs that a patient may require or be taking. Hence, regulation is required, and the EU recognition of that need is ultimately a recognition of herbal remedies.

The main problem is with the regulatory process, which is very costly and largely devolves upon the consumer (via the small to medium scale producer or distributor). Medical care is a fundamental requirement of life and hence the cost of medical care should be borne by society as a whole and not by the individual citizens. Unfortunately, due to capitalism and considerable variation in the laws of the EU member states, the way in which the EU legislation is enforced will largely depend on the system of medical care in the EU member states.

Protesting the EU legislation is not a solution. And taking up that protest across Europe is a pointless and possibly counterproductive measure. What is needed is the establishment of PROUT to ensure a patient-oriented rather than profit-oriented medical system.