About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, April 30, 2007
Teaching “alternative science” in universities
What is going on here? This isn't an example of newfound openness of academia to new ideas. For one thing, ideas such as homeopathy, acupuncture and the like are anything but new. Second, there is no such thing as “alternative” medicine: there is only stuff that works (as assessed by empirical evidence) and stuff that doesn't. Homeopathy demonstrably doesn't work (beyond the usual placebo effect). As for acupuncture, there is scant evidence that it may have some effects, but most certainly not over the wide range of ailments its practitioners claim it can cure, and – perhaps more importantly in terms of university education – it surely doesn't work because the theory is right (there is no such thing as Qi energy). So, homeopathy is complete junk, while acupuncture may deserve some additional empirical study and at any rate is in need of a complete theoretical overhaul.
What is going on isn't even that for the first time academia is opening the doors to nonsense. The early universities in Europe, which started around the 12th century, were teaching all sorts of crap, simply because people – even smart and educated ones – didn't know better. Today we still have plenty of humanities departments teaching such obviously self-contradictory postmodernist ideas as the “fact” that authors of books don't matter, only the text is important (where did the text come from, then?) or that all opinions are simply different cultural perspectives worthy of equal consideration (so why is it that post-modernism alone can claim the mantle of truth?).
What is happening, rather, as hinted at by Colquhoun in the Nature piece, is that universities are increasingly being run as commercial operations on the model of private corporations in a capitalist market. They cater to “clients” (not students, or the parents who pay the hefty fees), and increasingly compete not for the best education money can buy, but for the hippest, most trendy or most politically correct curriculum, regardless of its intellectual content or lack thereof. The people want homeopathy? Let us give them homeopathy, say the various Deans, Provosts, Presidents and other administrators bent on raising money from alumni rather than on improving the quality of the places they are supposed to be running.
This will not work for the same reason that a “market based” anything (except, perhaps, economy) doesn't work. “The markets” maximize one thing and one thing only: economic efficiency. But human life in general, and education in particular, are not just a matter of economics. Sure, we all have to balance our budgets, including universities. But my main goal in life is to care for the people I love and to contribute to society in the ways I am best able to. It isn't to run an efficient banking operation. The money I earn, save and invest is one of the means to my goals, not the goal itself. Similarly, universities certainly do need to raise money through tuitions, state grants, and private donations, and need good administrators to allocate that money wisely. But such administrators ought to keep in mind that the financial resources they manage are the means to the real ends of their institutions: to provide students with the best knowledge available to humanity and, more importantly, with sharp critical thinking skills enabling them to tell the real McCoy. Then again, perhaps too much critical thinking isn't in the interest of those in power, from politicians to administrators to captains of industry. Or am I just being too paranoid here?