Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Math and Science

Placebo Defect

I’ve been invited to design a very rough draft for a course on Science and Public Policy over the next couple of weeks. It would be an elective course and, since the course won’t have been offered previously at this university, it is uncertain which students would attend – it might attract students from the sciences who would like to learn more about communicating to policy makers, or students from the social sciences and humanities who would like to learn more about science, or some combination of the two.

I’m looking forward to designing the course, and would appreciate any suggestions for topics and/or readings appropriate to undergraduate students in their second year or higher.

While I’m thinking about popular perceptions of science, I wanted to pass along this anecdote, from an Australian morning TV show – Channel Ten’s 9 a.m. with David and Kim.

The show was discussing the recent British clinical trial of TGN1412, an immunomodulator developed by TeGenero. The trial, organised by PAREXEL, recruited eight volunteers, of whom six received TGN1412, while the remaining two received a placebo. Although the drug had appeared safe in animal trials, including primate trials, all who received TGN1412 during the human trial rapidly became critically ill. The incident has sparked an intensive review of this clinical trial, as well as questions about the protocols for human clinical trials more generally.

On 23 March, Dr. David Ritchie had been invited to explain the trial to the morning show audience. After hearing Dr. Ritchie’s breakdown of the trial, host David Reyne was apparently confused why, given the life-threatening reactions experienced by six trial participants, the two participants who had received the placebo fared so well. As ABC’s MediaWatch reports:

David Reyne: Some of these guys were given a placebo.

Dr. David Ritchie: Correct

David Reyne: I don’t really understand what a placebo is, but it seems to have, to have saved them! And wouldn’t it make sense that every time a trial like this takes place, that there’s a placebo on hand.

@” Channel 10, 9am with David and Kim, 23rd March, 2006, quoted by MediaWatch

Dr. Ritchie does eventually set things right – you can check the transcript or the video to see how.

The Social Structure of Scientific Revolutions?

In the previous two posts on 11 March and 12 March, I’ve provided fairly extensive commentary on Bent Flyvbjerg’s approach to historically-grounded critical theory. My core critique is set out in these earlier entries. Here, and in the entry to follow, I intend only to sketch out a couple of placeholders for other issues raised by Flyvbjerg’s book, issues that I hope to be able to pursue at greater length over time. In this entry, I wanted to take up the thread of Flyvbjerg’s understanding of the relationship between the natural and social sciences.

I have argued previously that, while Flyvbjerg criticises the transcendence of objectivist and instrumental forms of reason, he seems to treat this transcendence as a type of conceptual error — a flaw of reasoning that can potentially be corrected by better thinking (in this case, by an appropriation of the Aristotelian concept of phronesis as a counter-balance to keep other forms of reason in check). I have also suggested that a fully consistent historical social critique would move beyond this line of argument, to explain both the appeal of the concept of phronesis (if this is the ethical value the critical theory wishes to wield), as well as the appeal of objectivist and instrumental forms of reason. I have argued that Flyvbjerg doesn’t fully perceive the need for these final steps, and therefore falls short of providing an adequate basis for a consistent historical social critique. Here, I wish to explore some of the implications of this failure for his understanding of the relationship between the natural and social sciences.

When Flyvbjerg discusses the relationship between the social and natural sciences, he diagnoses the social sciences as suffering from the application of a standard of truth or a mode of reasoning inappropriate to their proper object. The natural sciences, in his account, can validly search for universal, historically and socially invariant, objective, and timeless truths because their object of analysis is inanimate matter, whose properties do not change across time and space. That the natural sciences have based their activities on an appropriate standard of truth and mode of reasoning is evidenced by the fact that – however slowly – these sciences do have succeeded in making cumulative progress in their understanding of the natural world. Even if theorists such as Thomas Kuhn have successfully shown that scientific progress does not proceed precisely as the scientific ideal would have it, still, Flyvbjerg argues, progress is made, and our understanding of, and command over, the material world can meaningfully be said to advance.

The social sciences, by contrast, have failed to make cumulative progress, even while struggling valiantly to apply the same standard of truth and mode of reasoning. The reason, according to Flyvbjerg, is that the social sciences have as their proper object of analysis a very different kind of object – an object that is also a subject, an active agent capable of responding to the theorist, who is in turn embedded in the same historical and social context as the theorised. This special object of analysis is suited to a very different kind of reason and mode of knowledge – which Flyvbjerg expresses through the concept of phronesis, which he understands to mean a kind of reflection on the collective social lessons learned through practical engagement with our shared history.

Without contesting Flyvbjerg’s assertion that there is a meaningful distinction between the natural and the social sciences, I would like to problematise the tacitly naturalistic way Flyvbjerg seeks to account for that distinction’s existence. In Flyvbjerg’s account, the essential distinction relates to the object of analysis: inanimate nature – matter – on the one hand; animate, self-aware humanity, on the other. What is interesting to me about this distinction is that Flyvbjerg’s own historical-genealogical method could be used to raise an interesting question: not all human cultures have divided their experience of the natural and human worlds so starkly as does ours; many cultures have lacked a concept of “matter”, in the specifically modern sense of secularised, objective “stuff”.

I suspect that, if we were to tease out this thread a bit further (and I unfortunately don’t have time to do this here), we could arrive at an interesting understanding of what the social sciences could contribute to the natural sciences: an understanding of how and why the natural sciences came into being, of how and why natural scientific questions and answers remain socially meaningful to us, that would move beyond the notion that these sciences emerged only (to rehearse what is becoming a well-worn theme) as quasi-natural “discoveries” that corrected the poor (religious or superstitious) thinking that preceded them historically.

Such an approach – and, again, I cannot develop this here – would not require a lapse into conceptual anarchy or nihilism. It would simply require an understanding of why scientific knowledge, and the forms of perception and thought that underlie them, resonate so strongly with us – why it is comfortable for us to perceive the natural world in terms of inanimate nature, and to draw a sharp distinction between nature and human social life. This form of understanding is not something, I would suggest, that the natural sciences are likely to provide for themselves – it requires distinctly social scientific (and critical theoretic) forms of historical analysis: an investigation of the socially and historically specific dimensions of our shared culture that makes appeals to objective, timeless truths, on the one hand, and instrumental rationality, on the other, make so much apparent sense to us, in this time and place.

Aside from accounting for the current transcendence of natural scientific and technological approaches, I suspect such an investigation would also cast light on something Kuhn has noticed: the historical periodisation of scientific revolutions. Where Kuhn suggests an explanation for such revolutions that is effective internal to the scientific community, he leaves unexplored the many tantalising connections between shifts in scientific interest – and in the forms of perception and thought that express themselves in the formulation of specific scientific problems and the adoption of specific types of scientific theories – and potentially related shifts in other dimensions of social life.

As I said at the outset, this entry will have to remain in the nature of a placeholder for a future analysis. I have posted this, not so much to criticise Flyvbjerg for not attempting something I am also not prepared to attempt, but to point to a promising potential line of inquiry for a critical theory that would seek to understand the social and historical basis for the transcendence of the natural sciences and the dynamism of technological development in contemporary society.