Thursday, June 04, 2009

Science, Knowledge and Noblesse Oblige

The matter of Simon Singh and the British Chiropractic Association rumbles on.

For some strange reason there are many who still try to characterise the situation as a freedom of speech issue. If there was absolute freedom anyone would be able to say what they wished to anyone else, do what they wished to anyone else, a complete free for all. It would also deny people freedom from unnecessary and undue harassment and harm. Usually, there is a balance with everyone being able to say and do as they wish, up to a point.

Simon Singh could easily have made his points on chiropractic procedures without using the word “bogus”. You do not have to be more than an average “word smith” to achieve that.

However, there is also a problem which many have overlooked. Just because someone is a scientist that does not make them sufficiently knowledgeable, generally able, or qualified to move into areas outside their own.

The first sentences of the Preface of “What is Life” by Erwin Schrödinger (Cambridge University Press Edition, page 1) reads as follows:

“A scientist is supposed to have a complete and thorough knowledge, at first hand, of some subjects and, therefore, is usually expected not to write on any topic of which he is not a master. This is regarded as a matter of noblesse oblige.”

Noblesse Oblige:
Literally “the obligation of honourable, generous, and responsible behaviour associated with high rank or birth “
Merriam Webster Dictionary

In practice the implication is that those who have inherited, or attained, a position with which comes wealth, power and prestige, also comes social responsibilities including a moral obligation to act with honour, kindliness and generosity.”

In this context and similar, a scientist should keep to the subject, or subjects, that he has mastered, tread very carefully if he ventures outside them and moderate his behaviour towards others.

A physicists going well outside his area or making strident assertions without proving those assertions hardly fits with those requirements on any count; not just the chiropractic matter but the repeated use of the word “lies” in the book “Trick or Treatment”, co-authored with Edzard Ernst.

Admittedly with Edzard Ernst it could be argued that he is not outside his area of expertise, or at least supposed expertise. However, his ways of delivering judgements tends to wards the strident, seeming to have become more unpleasant, and he is co-responsible for the repeated use of “lies” in the book. However, since he, along with Simon Singh does not know the definition of Spiritual Healing, or any idea of the “mechanism” and he carried out experiments on the subject that failed to rule out an obvious variable, one wonders how competent he is. To spend fifteen years as a Professor of Complementary Medicine and not know the definition of a major topic in the field, let alone make such basic errors in experiments, is a major achievement, albeit a perverse one.

Admittedly, Schrödinger goes on to write:

“For the present purpose I beg to renounce the noblesse, if any, and to be freed of the ensuing obligation. My excuse is as follows:”

… which I will leave any interested reader to follow up.

However, the point is that Schrödinger was well aware of his limitations and the dangers of stepping outside his field of knowledge and expertise. Not only that, when he did so Schrödinger progressed with extreme care, a tightly argued and carefully structured approach, and always conscious of his limitations.

Contrast that with the approach of Simon Singh and, is his own particular way, Edzard Ernst; neither of them are remotely in the same league as Schrödinger. Their approach to science and evidence, let alone analysis is nowhere near that level.

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