By Keir Liddle
“They laughed at Gallileo”
It is a move so familiar in debate and discussion on pseudoscience that it has become known as the Gallileo gambit and promopted Carl Sagan to remark:
“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
The point Sagan makes is simple and has become oft quoted whenever this wearisome fallacy rears it’s silly little head. It is clearly not enough to have the establishment reject or resist your theory or hypothesis to declare it the truth. Your theory or hypothesis must also be subject to confirmation by the robust mechanisms and procedures of the scientific method and be found to be correct.
In modern usage the Galileo gambit has been employed in relation to all manner of alternative and complementary therapies. However Galileo is not the chosen example of establishment challenging maverick as that dishonour belongs to the “saviour of mothers” one Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.
Semmelweis was a 19th century physician now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. His discovery was that the incidence of puerperal fever could be reduced by the act of hand washing. This may seem strange to us in modern times, where it seems every hospital wall is adorned with instructions to wash our hands to keep infection at bay, but this idea was not popular with the medical establishment of the time. Semmelweis theories were rejected as in his day many doctors were affronted by the suggestion they should wash their hands. As a result His theories were not accepted until some time after his untimely death (from a condition that his discovery could perhaps of prevented) still largely ignored by his contemporaries.
It is the rejection of his theories by the 19th century medical establishment that has made Semmelweis the hero of proponents and apologists for any alternative medicine that has been shown not to work by the scientific method. Cancer quacks, homeopaths and supporters of nearly every kind of unproven or disprove treatment invoke his name and the 19th century medical establishments rejection of his findings as a way of dismissing a modern medical establishment that says their favourite alternative or complementary therapy doesn’t actually work.
There is one glaring problem with this strategy.
The medical establishment that rejected Semmelweis is somewhat different from the largely evidence based medical establishment of today. To conflate the two is astoundingly nonsensical an to pretend there has been little or no progress in medicine and science in 200 years. Semmelweis is in fact a hero of the very evidence based practices that the quacks and their supporters seek to dismiss and denigrate as close minded and ignorant.
It is true to say that medicine has it’s share of mavericks who have rallied against the conventional wisdom and received knowledge of the establishment of the time: James Lind, Florence Nightingale, Alexander’s MacLean and Hamilton. But what these mavericks share in common with Galileo and Semmelweis is not simply that they challenged the establishment of the time but that they did this with evidence.
Despite early studies and trials on the whole evidence based medicine is something of a recent development pioneered in the last century by figures such as Archie Cochrane, who founded the medical research organisationCochrane collaboration. However it has since taken hold of the medical establishment and now modern medicine proceeds largely guided by research and evidence. I don’t want to paint an image of modern medicine as ‘perfect evidence based practice’ I simply want to make the point that is light years ahead of the medical establishment in centuries past as regards it’s view on evidence and science.
It is the evidence based medicine revolution and the resulting change in the views and norms of the medical establishment that renders any allusion to the medical establishment habitually rejecting maverick ideas and theories redundant. By and large evidence based medicine has tested all these maverick ideas and theories, particularly the sterling work of Edzard Ernst, and in general those theories backed by evidence have been accepted and those that aren’t have been rejected.
So the next time someone chooses to invoke Galileo to support whatever pet theory or nonsense they believe in I may quote Galileo back at them (well I might paraphrase it slightly…)
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has asked us to forgo their use.”