Thursday, 16 July 2009

Theology and pseudoscience

I keep revisiting Ben Goldacre's Bad Science.

I was rereading the first chapter today, about detox treatments. He spends a few pages explaining how to do a scientific test on a detox foot spa (claimed by the manufacturers to release toxins from your body) which can clearly demonstrate that all that is created is rust and chlorine as a result of electrolysing salt water with iron electrodes, whether or not you put your foot into it. Then he writes this striking paragraph.
Now, with findings like these, scientists might take a step back, and revise their ideas about what is going on with the footbaths. We don't really expect the manufacturers to do that, but what they say in response to these findings is very interesting, at least to me, because it sets up a pattern that we will see repeated throughout the world of pseudoscience: instead of addressing the criticisms, or embracing the new findings in a new model, they seem to shift the goalposts and retreat, crucially into untestable propositions.
He then goes on to describe several such untestable propositions: e.g. that the toxins aren't actually released into the footbath (so they can't be measured) but rather the footbath stimulates the body to get rid of its toxins (whatever they are) in its normal way (whatever that might be), or they talk about a "bioenergetic field" (which also can't be measured), and so on.

And I was struck by a remarkable parallel. This is the story of theology over the past few hundred years as scientific discoveries have progressively shown that more and more phenomena previously thought to be God at work are now known to be the operation of unchanging natural laws. The reaction has been to redefine God in untestable way - as God-of-the-Gaps, and then eventually as a God who works through the laws on nature rather than performing miracles which disrupt them, for instance as Tillich's "Ground of our Being".

No comments:

Post a Comment