You need to read this

This was published over at the Science-Based Medicine blog a few months ago and caught my attention thanks to today's blog post over there. It's a droll account of how the nonsense that is 'Complementary and Alternative Medicine' managed to sell itself not just to the public but to the medical establishment to the point that it gets written about in medical journals and taken seriously by people who should know better.

What is particularly interesting to me in this is the use of language to effect this coup. Change language and you change perception indeed.

Well, Jeff, quackery is a pejorative term. Some time ago we recognized that words raise emotions and mental pictures. We recognized the cognitive dissonance raised by them, so we tried to eliminate quackery. We recognized the cognitive dissonance raised when one discusses acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, and healing at a distance as if they were quackery when we made claims. For a century, most people just could not allow for the possibility that these things really work.


So over time we recognized that we had to do something about our language. That would be the first step in enabling the thought revolution that is upon us, and changing the paradigm in medicine and science. We simply changed the adjectives, and gave alternate names to the methods, added a few phrases to eliminate negative reactions, and shifted the negative terms to descriptions of the Medical Establishment (and, note the caps in that one.)

And along with that, we took advantage of a shift in perception, to be sure that the public would adopt a non-judgmental attitude. Of course, we had to wait decades for that attitude to mature to the point that they would be willing to give our claims a hearing, whereas just thirty years ago they would have dismissed the claims out of hand.Not only did we get that non-judgmental mind-set, but with it, a strong negative reaction to a description that contained an opinion or one that used any kind of loaded language to describe an underdog - no matter how true or justified that language happened to be. Fortunately for us, a wave of change spread across the intelligentsia, especially in the universities and the literary community, reinforced by the press.

Thoughts inevitably turn to Orwell, but also to Deborah Tannen, Francis Wheen, Barbara Ehrenreich and many others who've been trying, each with the tools at their disposal, to point out that what we're doing is tantamount to, as my brother put it, 'shooting ourselves in the foot while being chased by a steamroller.'

Science and Literature

In his article May 11 article for the Boston Globe titled Measure for Measure, Johnathan Gottschall writes:

We literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves. So instead of steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition, the field wanders in continuous circles, bending with fashions and the pronouncements of its charismatic leaders.

Something that frustrates me no end about literary theory is its lack of understanding of the sciences, particularly when it purports to draw from them. Witness theorists who present their musings as meaningless mathematical formulae or draw on an at best limited understanding of physics. Nevertheless, these theorists manage to impress, because they most often happen to be addressing people who have no interest in either mathematics or physics (or biology or chemistry) and who are therefore happy to take their word for it because the theories in question are interesting and seem to make sense in context.

The other frustrating thing about literary theory is precisely its irrelevance to anything outside literary theory. Certainly it enhances the reading of literature and provides new and startling ways to conceive of the world created by literature and, given that literature is often seen as a reflection of real life, the world itself. But while it contains ideas and philosophies and suggestions that are a joy and a challenge to explore, it ultimately doubles back on itself without actually providing answers and students are left right where they started.

At the same time, it irritates me when the science bloggers I read make offhand, dismissive comments about the humanities and those who study them, saying things like "Even the arts students understand that intelligent design is bogus."* No we're not scientists, but why does that automatically make us the morons of academia? ID is a shoddily presented argument. You need only basic reason to see that, not deep scientific knowledge.

And while we're on common misconceptions, why are scientists so often cast as drones lacking all imagination? The rigors of method notwithstanding, I can't see a scientist as anything but imaginative. What is the development of a hypothesis if not a creative act?

We seem to be stuck in this very high-school perception that the arts=flaky vs. science=nerdy. Gottschall argues that this is simply unnecessary:

Above all, these changes would require looking with fresh eyes on the landscape of academic disciplines, and noticing something surprising: The great wall dividing the two cultures of the sciences and humanities has no substance. We can walk right through it.

I think he's absolutely right. If we all actually bothered to get to know each other, I think we would all realize that we are, at heart, all knowledge-obsessed geeks.

*This quote is illustrative only. It reflects only the tone of various statements littering the web, not the actual content.

Things you didn't know you didn't know

The Bad Astronomer's at it again with a great post called Ten Things You Didn't Know About the Milky Way Galaxy. I actually did know a few of those things, but certainly not all. I can do little more than look at stuff like this in absolute wonder. We know so much and yet everything we learn simply points to how much we have yet to find out. If there's anything I feel any sort of reverence for, it's that spirit of inquiry that makes us explore everything from galaxies to the tiniest, microscopic organisms that inhabit our world, just to find out what makes them tick.


The Telegraph recently carried a story about levitation and how it could be used to help nanotechnologists keep "tiny objects from sticking to each other." It can do this by reversing the Casimir force, which causes things to be drawn together in the first place. In theory, this could be used to levitate whole humans and, more importantly, move large objects.

The Casimir force is a consequence of quantum mechanics, the theory that describes the world of atoms and subatomic particles that is not only the most successful theory of physics but also the most baffling.

The force is due to neither electrical charge or gravity, for example, but the fluctuations in all-pervasive energy fields in the intervening empty space between the objects and is one reason atoms stick together, also explaining a “dry glue” effect that enables a gecko to walk across a ceiling.

Now, using a special lens of a kind that has already been built, Prof Ulf Leonhardt and Dr Thomas Philbin report in the New Journal of Physics they can engineer the Casimir force to repel, rather than attact.

For more on the Casimir effect and the Casimir force, see The Casimir Effect: A Force from Nothing. For more on this story, see Perfect Lens Could Reverse Casimir Effect.