The New Statesman, a lefty British politics magazine (which just underwent a snazzy revamp), published a column by Ziauddin Sardar, an otherwise perceptive writer, entitled “When Knowledge is not the answer.” Without putting too fine a point on it, it is the stupidest essay I have read in a long time. He is responding to the letter sent recently by 13 prominent doctors to the NHS, criticising its funding of so-called alternative therapies in the face of widespread scientific evidence of their lack of effectiveness.
Sardar says “Of course, those who argue that alternative medicine is not scientific are correct. It is based on a different way of knowing about it…. It is not amenable to scientific questions.” After a not implausible definition of “ways of knowing” — scientific versus ethical, say — he has claimed that “these, and other, ways of knowing are equally valid. They are what philosopher Michel Foucault called ‘regimes of truth.’ Thus you can’t use the method of physics if you want to understand homeopathy or use qualitative [sic] methods to appreciate yoga.” I’ve always wanted to get Foucault into here, but this is just crap. Ethical knowledge is indeed different than scientific knowledge, since they are addressing unrelated questions — “How should I live?” versus “how does the world work?”. But alternative medicine is addressing the very same questions as “establishment” (let’s just call it “correct”, shall we?) medicine: “How do I stop this cough?” The tests of its success are exactly the same, therefore: does it work, repeatedly, trial after trial, better than doing nothing at all? Not, has it ever seemed to work in an anecdotal case? Indeed, we are not only allowed, but required to “deny the claims of countless people who know it [alternative medicine] works” and ask whether, in fact, they are right.