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author: Christine Luk

Sokal and alternative therapies

The infamous physicist Alan Sokal, who gained a “reputation” in SSK and STS by his critical parody “Transgressing the boundaries: the Hermeneutics of Quantum Physics” published in Social Text in 1996, recently launched another round of assault to what he called “pseudo-medicine” in his public lecture “What is science and why should we care?” given on February 27 2008 in London (podcast available from the Guardian)

His talk commenced with his discontent and fury with the school of “social construction of science/ scientific knowledge/ scientific facts” by quoting excepts from notable scholars in SSK and STS such as HM Collins, B. Latour, B. Barnes, D. Bloor, K. Hayles and demonstrate how their writings on “social construction of science” constitute a hazardous move toward intellectual relativism and vanity. Then he traversed to what he conceptualized as a “second set of adversaries of the scientific worldview”, namely the advocates of pseudo-medicine. By “pseudo”, he meant the sloppy and unscientific mechanism by which alternative therapies such as homeopathy can function within the existing knowledge system in science.
According to Sokal, the utter scientific implausibility of homeopathy lies at its “unproven (or disproven) mechanism by which homeopathy could possibly work, unless one rejects everything that we have learned over the last 200 years about physics and chemistry….” and that “existence of such a phenomenon would contradict well-tested science, in this case the statistical mechanics of fluids”.

In short, Sokal is angry about the sum of money spent on promoting homeopathy because he saw homeopathy as antagonistic to “credible” methodology in Western science. Since western science is the canonical archetype among the existing knowledge systems, everything against it is relegated as “bad science”.

What is the other side of the story? According to some defenders of homeopathy, the preference for homeopathy stems partly from the recognition of impossibility of separating such an ever-changing body from its environment–health is affected by diet, water, air, mood, stress, relationships, the past, colors, work, and so on. Often, people turn to alternative medicine to address these concerns. Emily Martin elaborated on the interconnection between (internal) immune system and (external) environment:

“Inside the citadel of science, there is a group of scientists who are focusing on the links between the immune system and the world outside the body. much as alternative medicine treats the body in its life environment. They are claiming that the immune system is a self-organizing network, a complex system of the sort Vera Michaels evoked, But today these scientists are considered ‘unconventional’ and their views controversial….” (Anthropology and the Cultural Study of Science: From Citadels to String Figures 1997: 139)

Alright, enough of the acrimonious dispute. Now is there any way to reconcile the dichotomous views? If we believed in Sokal’s criticism on the deconstructive (and thus destructive) signpost the school of “social construction of science” is taking us to, how can we be more constructive? Apparently some people believe in homeopathy and some people don’t. But is it simply a matter of faith? What is at stake here? Power asymmetry? Credibility & authority? Misconception? Disciplinary and institutional barriers?

Are sarcasm and parody and mutual hatred the best way to handle the dispute?


4 comments for “Sokal and alternative therapies”

  1. Homeopathic remedies at standard dilutions (e.g., Hahnemann’s recommended 30C) are just water. It’s no surprise that randomized clinical trials show that it doesn’t work. I don’t see that your suggested reason for preference of homeopathy provides any evidence that it should work, as opposed to perhaps illustrating dissatisfaction with methods of scientifically validated medicine. (BTW, what’s the basis for the statement that health is affected by color? Color of what?)

    The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has spent over $2.5 billion of U.S. taxpayer money since it started almost two decades ago, and has produced no effective treatments for any disease. Its only positive result to date is that ginger capsules may reduce nausea due to chemotherapy. On the other hand, it has given funding to researchers with felony criminal convictions and medical board disciplinary records.

    It seems to me that Sokal has an excellent point–to the extent that STS researchers are actively promoting spending on things like NCCAM (as Woodhouse, Hess, Breyman, and Martin did in their April 2002 S3 paper when they wrote “Yet complementary and alternative medicine receives no more than token funding, so understanding is limited regarding such treatment methods as high-dose supplements, botanicals, off-book uses of conventional drugs, and mind-body therapies”, p. 306), they are contributing to this significant social opportunity cost.

    Here’s a commentary that points out that NCCAM’s annual budget could fund 75-100 five-year NIH R01 grants in areas that actually produce beneficial results:


    Posted by Jim Lippard | September 10, 2009, 10:21 am
    • Even since the 70s, there’s been a tradition among anthropologists of science and medicine pioneering in studies that regard medicine as a cultural and sociotechnical system, rather than an isolated, realist entity within which rationality and efficacy are internally determined. For instance, the variety of patient strategies and choices, the changing patient-curer relations are seen as factors contributing to what constitute medical efficacy instead of positive laboratory results and their compliance with theoretical models.

      Efficacy is commonly understood as the ability to produce a desired or intended result, aka, what works, as my physics professor invariably puts it. So the skepticism surrounding alternative therapies is whether a method works and why it works. The important questions are how to decide and assess “what works”. What is considered as “working”? How do we know something is working or not? Who has the right to determine what is working or what is not? These questions are indispensable if we are to “truly” understand “what works” and they are not as value-free as Sokal believed (or wanted to believe),

      My odd encounter with my roommate last night could help explain my point. I found an overdue bottled coffee in my closet expired on January 2009. My roommate screamed as I was sipping it. His anxieties came from his aversion to me doing something unhealthy, irrational and suicidal (he tried to talk me out of it by reimbursing me the cost of the coffee). My response was that I don’t believe in some random numbers printed on a glass-bottle mass produced in a factory whose owner concerns less about my safety and probably knows nothing about the scientific efficacy of their products than his/her annual income. So I took a small mouthful and finished the whole bottle as I found out it tasted just as same as an unexpired one. I felt normal and did not suffer from any food poisoning. Now is my attempt unscientific and irrational? But I turned out fine, and the expired coffee “works” for me. Is this not a sufficient piece of evidence? Why should I trust the manufacturers or physicians more than my own feeling in determining the functioning mechanism of my body? After all, Western medicine also rests on the idea of vis medicatrix naturae, the natural healing power of the body, the theme of resistance and the strengthening of resistance to disease which comes right down from the time of Hippocrates and Galen.

      Posted by Christine Luk | September 10, 2009, 2:19 pm
  2. Controlled trials of the Gonzales technique for treatment of pancreatic cancer (using such methods as coffee enemas) were recently conducted (not randomized since most of the patients wanted the Gonzalez treatment). Gonzalez claimed his method tripled the average pancreatic survival from conventional treatment, but after the study was complete the investigators sat on the results for four years before publishing them.

    The results showed that the Gonzalez proteolytic treatment cut survival rates to a little over a quarter of what they were under conventional treatment (average survival of 4.3 months versus 14 months).


    Is this not strong evidence that the Gonzalez treatment doesn’t work?

    Posted by Jim Lippard | September 22, 2009, 8:30 am
  3. BTW, I agree with your skepticism about expiration dates on products, which are no doubt highly conservative and partially motivated by economic incentives, as a form of “planned obsolescence.”

    It’s reasonable to challenge such claims, offered without any rationale or justification, which is also my point about both homeopathy and the Gonzalez treatment. Why should they get a pass when they not only lack any plausible theoretical basis, but fail when subjected to scientific investigation?

    Posted by Jim Lippard | September 22, 2009, 8:42 am

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