What Have the Philosophers ever Done For Us?
Finally, Hawking opens his latest book, The Grand Design, by writing:
Disciplining the Stroppy Teenagers
inlightoftheevidence // Nov 15, 2010 at 11:41
I know evidence is important to you, and I share that commitment. So, I am somewhat surprised to see Michael Loughlin referred to as a “Post-Modern Theorist”. The evidence demonstrates otherwise.
Have you read a single publication by Loughlin? I am sure you must have, given your commitment to evidence; so I’d be grateful if you might point us to evidence for Loughlin’s alleged Post-Modernist credentials.
Only, I have read quite a bit of Loughlin’s work, since he was first referred to by you here, and I find that rather than being an anti-science, anti-evidence post-modernist theorist he is quite the contrary. He is a philosopher who has published many damning criticisms of post-modernism, in various contexts (including Health). Moreover, his own views seem to be more than respectful of evidence. He is clearly a realist, (in philosophical parlance), who meets those who propound antirealist and relativist views with a healthy dose of scepticism. This scepticism has led him to engage very critically and in some detail with anti-realists and relativists in many articles published in peer reviewed journals, and in his book (many of those he engages with might be legitimately characterised as post-modern theorists).
So, I put it to you that the evidence suggests that Loughlin is not a post modernist.
Regarding his alleged ‘hatred’ of Ben Goldacre, again I’m somewhat surprised at your line here.
Loughlin seems to be wanting to ask one thing of the EBM movement: what is your account of evidence? We can all employ the word evidence, but unless we’re clear as to what it is that counts as evidence then our employment of that term becomes empty and simply rhetorical. Loughlin makes this request as someone whose own philosophical predilections and beliefs (which is clear if you read his work) are such that he clearly has no problem with the demand of medicine being evidence-based (or any other domain of enquiry).
But, of course, here is the problem: Unless we clarify what we mean by evidence, then we’re simply employing the term as a buzzword.
12 David Colquhoun // Nov 15, 2010 at 13:05
Thanks for that comment. Yes, i have read several of Loughlin’s articles, thanks largely to my long correspondence with Andrew Miles.
Perhaps I should have said “post-modernist influenced”. Certainly Loughlin rushed to the defence of an out-and-out postmodernist article which Goldacre (and also I) had dissected. The quotation from Loughlin at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2881 seems to me, on its own, quite enough to preclude his views from being taken seriously in discussions of health matters.
I’ll confess that I find his views, and those of Miles, quite hard to understand. They seem to be a mixture of libertarianism and post-modernist influence, that is not really very helpful.
The matter of what constitutes evidence is, of course, crucial but I don’t think that philosophers have made much contribution to that discussion. Certainly I find statisticians far more useful. RA fisher, Bradford Hill and their successors have defined rather well what we mean by ‘evidence’. In contrast, most working scientists are unaware of the arguments that go on between philosophers, and I’m not convinced they are missing much. Only too often, in a vain attempt to improve on what Fisher taught us about randomisation in the 1930s, they promulgate ideas that would actually harm progress if anyone took any notice of them. Luckily, they don’t.
13 inlightoftheevidence // Nov 16, 2010 at 14:17
Thanks very much for taking the time to reply David.
Is your correspondence with Miles published, or available in full anywhere?
Just to re-iterate. I see no evidence for Loughlin being either a post-modernist theorist or influenced by post-modernism. His published work clearly demonstrates that he is very critical of post-modern arguments. In addition, when he advances his own views these are clearly views that would be antithetical to those with post-modern predilections.
I must confess to being rather surprised at your own predilection for ad hominem attacks, given your expressed commitment to evidence. However, that aside maybe we could clarify a few things (please bear with me here):
Derrida was a post-modernist par excellence, we might say. Now, I believe his theory of meaning and Deconstruction in general to be demonstrably and irretrievably flawed. However, at the same time, I would argue that the criticisms of Derrida advanced by the American philosopher John Searle miss the mark and are based in willful misunderstandings of Derrida’s writings (this is not necessarily _my_ view, but it is a sustainable position to take and one taken by many). If I am to argue this, would it thereby follow that I am influenced by Derrida or post-modernism? Of course not. I would simply be concerned that one’s identification of flaws in Derrida’s theories not serve as illegitimate justification for the belief that any and all dismissals of Derrida are correct.
Put another way, however poor argument ‘x’ is that fails to justify invalid argument advanced by those who set out to criticise argument ‘x’.
Loughlin’s defence of that paper is clearly based in a belief that the critics were advancing poor arguments. It does not follow (and is simply factually incorrect to say) that he thereby is a post-modern theorist or is influenced by post-modernism.
This is a stance taken by the rational. It is a stance I would expect from those who genuinely respect science and evidence.
But this isn’t the real issue here, is it? As someone expressly committed to evidence (as am I) I think you weaken your own position by engaging in this sort of indiscriminate mud-slinging. Let’s resist the attaching of labels to people and engage in a rigorous but fair manner with their arguments. Or is it your view that libertarians and post-modernists (and those influenced by them) should be dismissed before being heard?
14 David Colquhoun // Nov 16, 2010 at 15:36
Postmodernists have been heard. Their absurd pretensions were demolished once and for all by the superb work of Alan Sokal. Apart from his wonderful book (part of the header picture on this blog. i recommend strongly his essay Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?In the case of Loughlin, anybody who writes as he does about Goldacre isn’t worthy of serious consideration in my view.
Returning to the subject of this post. perhaps you can explain why he should choose to ally himself with the anti-scientific quacks that form the backbone of the “College of Medicine”. I certainly can’t explain it.* [on this specific point, see my comment at the end of this quoted text]
15 inlightoftheevidence // Nov 16, 2010 at 16:21
Hi again David (if I may).
Of course, it serves your interests to ignore the points I put to you about your factually inaccurate depiction of Loughlin, your tendency to ad hominem attack and your tendency to sloppy reasoning (e.g. Loughlin criticises someone who is criticising post-modernism, therefore he must be a post modernist (despite evidence to the contrary)). But I, naively maybe, hoped for and expected more from you.
I have been explicit and clear that I have no interest in defending post-modernism. Indeed, in addition to the work you link to immediately above [Sokal], I could give you my own detailed criticisms of some of the central tenets of post modernism. But, once again, this is beside the point. Indeed, why I asked in my original posting if you had read Loughlin was because he approvingly cites Sokal when he advances his own criticisms of post-modernism. You must have missed this.
“In the case of Loughlin, anybody who writes as he does about Goldacre isn’t worthy of serious consideration in my view.”
You realise how this comes across, right? This is base tribalism. It doesn’t even gesture in the direction of rational debate. Are the words of Ben Goldacre simply beyond criticism? If so, are they so in principle? I ask this as someone who admires Goldacre’s work, admired and enjoyed his book [Bad Science], and recommend it to many people. [However,] he is not beyond reproach. No one should be.
Your final paragraph. Why not write to Loughlin and ask him (rather than surmising and then posting those speculations on your blog as if they were facts)? I suspect he will answer that he has not “allied himself” with these people. One is not automatically allied to the views of one’s colleagues, simply in virtue of them being colleagues; nor is one allied to the views of a journal editor, in virtue of having published in their journal.
16 David Colquhoun // Nov 16, 2010 at 18:59
I dispute your comment about tribalism. It is much simpler than that. I simply agree with Goldacre and find Loughlin’s comments quite offensive. The context was Loughlin’s reaction to Goldacre’s comment on a paper by Holmes et al. with the title “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism” [download reprint]. Of this paper, Goldacre said
“Even from looking at the title, you just know this academic paper from the September edition of the International Journal of Evidence-based Healthcare is going to be an absolute corker. And it uses the word “fascist” (or elaborate derivatives) 28 times in six pages, . . .”.
My own comments were rather less flattering. The paper is post-modernist through and through and Loughlin leapt to its defence, hence my comment. Perhaps it would help if you were to tell us your own opinion about Holmes et al.
it was here that I called it a day.
- One might ask, why does it matter?
- One might dismiss the three scientists we’ve here discussed as unrepresentative of science in general. And
- One might, I guess, agree with one or more of them.
Well, in reverse order: (3) I don’t agree with them, as I’ve outlined. (2) I am not sure whether they are representative, but I do not think that question is too important, given what my answer is to the first of these three questions (1): to reiterate, that question was “why does it matter (what Colquhoun, Atkins, and Hawking believe)?”