Friday, August 13, 2010

The Virology Journal Retraction: Desecrating Faith, Incapacitating Science

My other hat is subsidized by NYU, so when the recent controversy about an article at Virology Journal -- a diagnosis of apostle Simon Peter's mother-in-law using the passages from the books Matthew, Mark, and Luke of the bible, by Chinese University of Hong Kong researchers -- came across my screen, I couldn't help but think about a not-so-long-ago case of journal retraction. Hark back with me to 1996 when a seemingly-devilish physics professor from NYU, Alan Sokal, decided to test a little grumble of his. As Sokal eventually explained, with a quote and a statement, at Lingua Franca:

The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is -- second only to American political campaigns -- the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.

-- Larry Laudan, Science and Relativism (1990)

For some years I've been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I'm a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

To test his inadequacy, Sokal wrote a parody article for a special "Science Wars" issue of Social Text, a reputable publication, titled, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." It was published. You can read his account of the so-called "Social Text Affair" here. There was some ugly fall-out, accounts and recounts (some of the noise, I imagine, owing to the fact that Sokal chose a pub edited by peers of the same university, NYU). It wasn't quite a mass scandal but it was pretty damn ugly.

As the modest (new and green) editor of a modest (non-scientific) publication on religion and media, I'm apt to see the editor's side in a small way. I edit and approve some stuff that I would never designate as representative of my own views. It's good to have diversity of opinion; what shakes out in the curation and discussion is sometimes insightful and instructive. But social science -- nor faith, nor "tolerance" -- isn't science.

Some months ago now I had a post here about a Christian Science Monitor story that made the case for increased training of doctors in "spirituality sensitivity." As I stated in the piece, I found it absurd that -- necessary interpersonal skills aside -- doctors should, when making diagnoses, account for the 75% of Americans who think God can heal them. Be sensitive to a patient's beliefs but don't short a patient of the facts simply because they (and you) want to hold out hope for a miracle. A diagnosis (however variable) is a diagnosis, regardless of whether the patient (or doctor) believe in God or Allah or the green monster.

I grant that the body is inexplicable; I've seen patients who have outlived their diagnoses, whose pain defies drug research, whose will to live makes them indomitable. But these are the rare cases that don't make the rule, and if science can't explain a 96 year old woman with inoperable cancer, on a respirator for 3 years and still, if not kicking, alive, I accept it as proof that there are too many variables for us to make sense of it all. We don't know everything (nor do we have to) but we do know what has been scientifically proven.

So when a story like the "research" of an illness experienced 2000 years ago makes the pages of Virology Journal and then is noisily retracted, I think Sokal was onto something. He writes, again from his Lingua Franca piece:

While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important questions that no scientist should ignore -- questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.

In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths -- the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.

It's the premise of the Virology article (more on the retraction here) that I have issue with. With little evidence (well, actually, none) beyond bible verses, the researchers go through a litany of potential afflictions, ruling out the most obvious, then decide that they've identified the earliest recorded case of influenza. Writes, Tara C. Smith at Aetiology:

They go on to dismiss a significant number of other viral pathogens, as well as demonic influence (phew! Those are so hard to get rid of):

One final consideration that one might have is whether the illness was inflicted by a demon or devil. The Bible always tells if an illness is caused by a demon or devil (Matthew 9:18-25, 12:22, 9:32-33; Mark 1:23-26, 5:1-15, 9:17-29; Luke 4:33-35, 8:27-35, 9:38-43, 11:14) [1]. The victims often had what sounded like a convulsion when the demon was cast out. In our index case, demonic influence is not stated, and the woman had no apparent convulsion or residual symptomatology.

It's hard to see how a scientific investigation can be conducted using un-proven conclusions or assumptions -- particularly one's that involve the casting out of demons by Christ.

Yet, the point of this post isn't to brow-beat Virology Journal or to praise Sokal for his "gotcha," but to point to a prevalent use of faith (or political ideology or social objective) to address (and distort and refute) scientific issues. From Intelligent Design (read Lauri Lebo's recent article at Religion Dispatches about the Discovery Institute's continued efforts to distinguish intelligent design from creationism for the sake of having it taught in science classrooms), to abortion (faith that a fetus is a person entitles a fetus to constitutional rights?), from global warming (unbelief in things seen is faith in capitalism) to end-of-life rights (accepting that elders will die is somehow a denial of the "sanctity of life," and a last shot at redemption through suffering) political ideology, faith, and ignorance of scientific fact, continue to make scientific inroads.

Why make faith into a science? (I get making politics into a science and even making ignorance into a science, power is a splendored thing) Isn't one of the beauties of faith that it is free? That it's inexplicable and magic, outside explanation? That it's changing and personal and untethered to things like gravity and research, location and law? And isn't that the beauty of faith? I can't help but feel that the merging of faith and science -- not as a study of intersections and influences but a reliance on one to somehow prove or disprove the other -- somehow desecrates the former and incapacitates the latter.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

So many have let capitalism usurp their Christianity, that it can no longer work. Sad.

August 29, 2010 at 3:07 PM  
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