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Contrary to the beliefs of some, science is not an impenetrable body of settled fact that must be defended at all costs in the name of truth. When science becomes a worldview—a philosophy of life, a metaphysical framework that explains existence—it is no longer science; it is scientism.
Anti-Holistic Conspiracy or Reality?
Contrary to the beliefs of some, science is not an impenetrable body of settled fact that must be defended at all costs in the name of truth. It is not a means by which to determine truth or to achieve absolute certainty. Neither is science a worldview. When science becomes a worldview—a philosophy of life, a metaphysical framework that explains existence—it is no longer science; it is scientism.
A series of recent events have something peculiar in common. There was a call for Dr Oz to be removed from his academic post at Columbia University. Measles hype triggered a spate of legislative efforts across the country designed to restrict freedom of vaccine choice. The FDA decided to conduct a regulatory review of the status of homeopathic medicines. And most recently, a rather odd series of articles appeared in the press downplaying the significance of Chipotle's move towards a GMO-free (genetically-modified organisms) menu.
The common thread is that these events were fueled by extremist elements within the scientific world whose intent is to control the narrative of what is and what is not considered to be acceptable or "real" science. These fundamentalist and corporate agitators, who act ostensibly in the name of science, can be likened to religious zealots who seek to impose their version of sacred scientific dogma upon the general public while at the same time prohibiting what they believe to be new heretical ideas from receiving a fair hearing.
It is instructive to reflect upon the complex and long standing historical tension between science and religion, a phenomenon that lies at the heart of what has come to be known as our modern culture wars. Caught in the crossfire of this unholy war is a wide array of holistic therapies, many of which are backed by a great deal of both experimental and experiential evidence. Nevertheless, they tend to be regular targets for defamatory rhetoric from extremist detractors on both sides of the polarized divide.
The example most commonly cited by historians of science is that of Galileo's contention that the earth revolves around the sun, a fact that directly contradicted Church dogma of the time. Fast forward to the contemporary debate over the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on our planet. With equal fervor both sides dispute opposing views with absolute certainty as to their convictions, whether scientific or religious. It is believed by many that there is room for only one position, as if it is not possible for elements of both to co-exist. Apparently it is not believed possible that a higher power could have set the evolution of the universe into motion.
On the surface, the culture wars appear to break down along partisan political lines, however, the field of holistic health can make for some strange bedfellows. Holistic therapies are generally embraced by more educated, liberal leaning persons who distrust Big Medicine on the grounds that medical treatment can be accompanied by a lot of side effects that place one's health at risk. On the other hand, some on the right have also defended holistic medicine as a symbol of self-determination, especially libertarians who distrust Big Medicine as a threat to their personal freedoms.
Reflecting a similarly unusual mix, some vaccine critics are holistically oriented liberals, some are right-wingers who mistrust government interference, and not a small number represent those who have seen first-hand the dangers of vaccines. It is also true that vaccine critics are often lambasted by liberal elites who place their faith in what they perceive to be the science that supposedly supports vaccines, a position that runs contrary to their general suspicion regarding the motives of PhRMA and Big Medicine. In other words, there is no bright line that divides holistic supporters and detractors.
In contrast to Galileo's era when Church authority had the final say on matters of "fact," the modern culture wars often break down into shouting matches over who is on the side of science and who is not—as if to say that science is always on the side of truth while all others base their views on unreliable and/or superstitious sources of information. Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for the last years of his life on the grounds of religious heresy. One gets the distinct feeling that some in the scientific establishment would like to charge vaccine critics and holistic medicine supporters with scientific heresy.
Public internet forums are often dominated by partisan extremists who have little tolerance for opposing views. Self-appointed defenders of science, for example, paint GMO critics as anti-science, regardless of the fact that there is growing evidence that GMOs are creating a number of problems for the environment, the food chain, and the health of the populace. Defenders of science tend to get away with their partisan rhetoric largely because we live in a highly scientific age. Most people who haven't stopped to give serious consideration to these issues tend to passively assimilate the general cultural zeitgeist, which is the belief that science is correct simply by virtue of the fact that it is science. All one has to do is make a statement, then claim that it is supported by science, and most people will tend to believe it. It's a perk that comes with acquiescence to conventional cultural consensus.
Faith-Based Scientific Skepticism
Public opinion regarding controversial scientific topics is heavily influenced by an increasingly superficial media that fails to dig deeply and instead chooses to amplify views held by corporate stakeholders. The media also tends to parrot opinions espoused by those who make the most noise. Such noisemakers often represent small but very vocal minorities.
One such minority is a growing community of scientific skeptics who see themselves as the guardians of science, ready to protect it from imaginary forms of scientific blasphemy or, as skeptics call it, pseudoscience. Organized skepticism is fast becoming a malignant force that masquerades as science but functions as a very deceptive and effective form of scientific thought police. Its purpose is to undermine all perceived threats to what it believes to be the one and only true form of legitimate science. In the process of attacking, among other things, holistic therapies like homeopathy, acupuncture, herbalism, and even nutrition, skeptics inadvertently besmirch the reputation and credibility of genuine science itself.
It is important to understand how and why we have come to this impasse. Most people are not aware of the differences between science, pseudoscience, and scientism. Even the most well educated, including many scientists themselves, are not familiar with the issues involved. The culture war between science and religion, also known as the science wars, is largely a function of misinformation. At bottom, it is a function of a blurring of the lines between scientific fact and scientific faith.
As a society that has forsaken its spiritual roots, American culture instead tends to increasingly place its faith in science, technology, medicine, and what has been referred to by many as the myth of scientific progress. Bolstered by our collective faith, science and technology march on, usually to the benefit of corporate interests, but often without critical review, without ethical restraints, and at the expense of our environmental and personal well-being. Those who dare to question science are likely to be the recipients of a great deal of scorn.
So, how can we extricate ourselves from this blind allegiance to science that isn't really science? It will require self-education and discernment, starting with an examination of the very nature of science itself. The definition of science, that discipline that we all think we understand, is not as clear-cut as it seems. Even philosophers of science disagree over the definition of science. It turns out that science isn't as scientific as one would think, primarily because it is based upon a number of very important foundational beliefs that, paradoxically, are not capable of being scientifically verified.
Few would deny that conventional medical science operates from a materialist paradigm. It assumes the physical body to be the foundation of all health. All illnesses of body and mind are presumed to have their origins in the physical body. Medicine focuses its resources on learning how to manipulate the material body as a means of curing illness.
Holistic healing operates from a very different paradigm. It assumes body, mind, and spirit to be integrated facets of the whole person. Holism recognizes, therefore, that material interventions alone are not sufficient to heal all illness. Additional routes to healing include techniques that involve an understanding of human consciousness, bioenergetics, and other factors that play a role in the development and treatment of disease.
Both paradigms utilize a variety of scientific methodologies. No one disputes that conventional medicine is a science. It is also true that acupuncture, homeopathy, Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, are sciences in their own rights. They are, however, very different sciences in the sense that, just like conventional medical science, they begin with different scientifically unverifiable foundational assumptions.
It can be said that conventional medicine is not a pure science because it must begin with metaphysical propositions. Conventional medicine assumes the physical body to be the foundation of its metaphysical worldview (even as it gives lip service to the power of mind), while holistic medicine views illness as a more complex phenomenon involving material and immaterial factors. It is not possible to prove that one philosophy is any truer than the other. One can only judge them by the results that they produce. It is clear to me that each has its strengths and weaknesses and that, together, they form a more complete system of healing.
Differentiating Science From Scientism
Why is it, then, that conventional medicine is the one faction that consistently puts forth the view that it is the only viable scientific approach to illness and healing? The answer to this question is to be found in our definition of science. Science is a methodology by which we attempt to understand the natural world. Scientific method is a means of investigating natural phenomena. Science is a very practical tool for acquiring knowledge. It is not rigid and inflexible. Science changes over the course of history. And I believe that science will continue to change along with the evolution of human consciousness.
Scientism, on the other hand, is an ideology that has many similarities to fundamentalist forms of belief. The common denominator to all fundamentalist positions is the absolute certainty of the rightness of their claims. They leave no room for dissent or differences of opinion. The fascist impulses of scientific fundamentalism serve first and foremost to restrict freedom of thought. Scientism is an abuse of scientific authority that justifies just about any claim that one wishes to make, all in the name of science. Scientism is, in actual fact, anti-science. Mainstream medicine would do itself a big favor by separating itself from all scientistic influences.
Problems naturally arise when one is unable to discern the differences between science and scientism. This is precisely the loophole that skeptics seek to exploit. It is not enough to simply engage in scientific activities; skeptics believe they must go out of their way to invalidate or, as they like to say, "debunk" all competing sources of information and knowledge. The hallmark of scientism is its need to discredit perceived threats to its worldview. This is accomplished by sowing confusion about the nature of science, what it is, and what it is not. Scientism makes claims that sound scientific but that have no actual basis in science. Skeptics understand the power of real science and they co-opt that authority to advance their unscientific agenda. That agenda is aimed primarily at maligning three main targets: 1) religious belief 2) all forms of holistic medicine and healing, and 3) fields of knowledge that seek to understand human consciousness such as parapsychology, psychic studies, and spirituality.
For example, scientistic propaganda is used to silence critics of vaccines and GMOs as if their concerns have no basis in science, an idea that is patently absurd. Scientism also seeks to counter religious beliefs regarding the origins of the universe as if to say that the Big Bang is a proven scientific fact. Of course, the Big Bang is a theory, a theory perhaps as speculative as any higher intelligence-mediated theory of creation. Neither position is provable via any scientific methodology. Scientism even attempts to refute religious belief itself on the grounds that there is no scientific proof for any god. Skeptics seem to have forgotten that there is no way to disprove the existence of a god either. It should be noted that a large percentage of skeptics are atheists who find solace in the illusion of certainty that their worship of science provides.
Given the rising tide of scientistic fervor in technologically advanced cultures, it is easy to see why the culture wars have intensified. Spiritually inclined persons are rightly concerned about scientific imperialism and its general disrespect for religious freedom of thought. Some religious leaders who are unable to differentiate science from scientism understandably direct their criticisms at what they perceive to be the lack of appropriate boundaries of science in general.
Genuine science acknowledges that its domain is limited to things of the natural world. Serious scientists understand that religion lies outside the bounds of scientific knowledge. The real culprits, therefore, are skeptical promulgators of scientism. Skeptics fail to respect these bounds and make it their business to violate them—in the name of science.
As a consequence, issues of real scientific concern such as climate change get muddled in the minds of the general public and mixed up with fabricated scientistic concerns like the supposed lack of safety of homeopathic medicines or the so-called irrational beliefs of citizens who demand that foods with GMO ingredients be labeled. Holistically minded patients have similar concerns regarding scientistic imperialism. So do holistic medical practitioners, perhaps even more so, because their activities pose a direct threat in the minds of those who place their faith in the authority of materialist medicine.
Dishonorable Strategy and Tactics
Skeptics are known to resort to a variety of deceptive, unethical, and malicious tactics in order to achieve their goals. One such tactic is to claim that the idea they wish to discredit is simply not scientific. If it is not scientific, the argument goes, then it must be discounted. Taking the logic a step further, if it is not scientific, then it must be pseudoscientific. "Pseudoscience" is nothing more than a medical swear word used to silence heretical ideas. It is a bogus, fabricated term that conveys the message, "your science doesn't play by the rules of our science." The real pseudoscientists are skeptics who promote unscientific ideas in the name of science.
I will use my own profession of homeopathic medicine as an example here. Skeptics have been known to repeat ad nauseum the mantra that homeopathy is not a science because there is no scientific evidence to support it. Any reasonable person with an open mind will fast discover that this is simply untrue. Homeopathic methodology is quite rigorous and there is a growing mountain of research that confirms its biological activity and efficacy. To state otherwise is an outright unscientific falsehood. Similar claims as to the lack of evidence in support of many nutritional and herbal treatments are also baseless. But this doesn't stop skeptics from intentionally making such claims.
When skeptics are reminded of the existence of numerous homeopathic studies, their next tactic is to find fault with the quality of those studies. They scour the research looking for the tiniest of flaws, which are then magnified beyond all reason. If the same critical eye were turned toward conventional medical research, there would be nothing left standing. The entire foundation of scientific medicine would burn to the ground.
When unsuspecting persons challenge skeptics by sharing their personal success stories involving homeopathic treatment, they are excoriated for being naïve, unscientific amateurs whose experiences constitute invalid evidence in the court of scientific opinion. This, to me, is perhaps the most insidious consequence of scientistic fundamentalism. It has programmed many, professionals and laypersons alike, to believe that their personal experiences are "merely" anecdotal and count for nothing. But "anecdotal" is really just another one of those disparaging medical swear words. It is used to denigrate first-hand experience as unredeemably biased, as if to say that nothing can compete with pristine research studies conducted by objective-minded scientists. How else would it be possible for doctors to ignore first-hand accounts by parents who report the regression of their previously normal children into autistic states with hours or days of being vaccinated?
The irony is that those purportedly unbiased research studies turn out to be the same ones funded by vested corporate interests, the findings of which are routinely overturned by the latest studies also sponsored by Big Medicine. The not so secret secret is that randomized controlled trails (RCTs) have been elevated to their undeserved superior status largely to serve the pharmaceutical industry. Such studies allow tiny increments of statistical difference to justify the value of drugs that are oftentimes quite dangerous. The goal is FDA approval. Once side effects are acknowledged and the damage has been done, the monetary returns have been maximized. The cost of liability constitutes only a small percentage of drug company profit margins.
When skeptics are desperate they resort to the final tactic, which is to claim that homeopathy is not scientific because it cannot be explained in conventional medical terms. The blatant silliness of such a proposition should be clearly evident. By this standard, all scientific investigation of poorly understood phenomena would come to a halt. And a drug like aspirin would have to be taken off the market on the grounds that scientists don't really understand how it works.
What really bugs the medical thought police is that holistic medical theory is actually onto something very important. And that poses a threat to medical sovereignty in the sense that holism has developed effective methods of dealing with mind-body problems in ways that conventional medicine is unable to emulate. By virtue of its materialist philosophy, conventional medicine has no ability to understand the mind-body connection and its role in the development of illness. And its dogmatic nature ensures that an ever-growing array of holistic methods for influencing the psyche, consciousness, and the bioenergetic life force remain off limits to mainstream medicine. Short of changing its metaphysical framework, the only thing left for medicine to do is to downplay the role of mind in illness while simultaneously imposing its outdated views on the scientific world by a variety of unsavory means. That translates into a growing tendency to embrace fundamentalist scientistic tactics in order to maintain its grip on power.
To recap, modern technological medicine plays a distinct role in health care that it has legitimately earned. It deserves that status so long as it acknowledges its own limitations and respects the roles that other forms of medicine and healing can play. The minute medicine seeks to impose its views, it loses its status as a science and becomes an ideology. The mainstream media and general public are often confused by misinformation spread in the form of scientistic propaganda. That propaganda can be spread by unwitting mainstream practitioners, by corporate interests, by avowed skeptics, and by confused laypersons. Organized skeptics exploit this confusion in order to advance their anti-holistic medicine agenda.
As a consequence, most people's opinions regarding holistic medicine are based upon a spectrum of information ranging from deliberate lies to trustworthy information. A great deal of discernment is required to sort fact from fiction but, for those who make the effort, it can translate into potential rewards in terms of personal health and well-being.