Acknowledging belief in the truth: who delimits the science

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Kateryna Ruban, Historician, Ph.D. candidate in history at New York University, Soviet Medical History Researceher
Катерина Рубан

When someone raises the question “Where is the borderline between the science and pseudoscience?”, then “exterior to the circle” person won’t feel himself comfortable to answer it. Every answer will be either too naive and banal, or on the contrary – provocative, and will excite the indignation of those, who do research activities on a day-to-day basis.

I’m dealing with the history and the anthropology of science, and I’m always very curious to know how the scientists struggle for the limits between the recognized and unrecognized knowledge, between the “science” and “belief”, and this very history of struggle for the recognition, its political and economic dimension, seems to me of utmost importance to understand what is the science, anyway.

While studying the history of medicine, I realized that this is the practice area, where politics and scientific theories have distinct clashes. My goal is to reconstruct the arguments, to get wind of the thoughts of the doctors living at a certain time, what was their perception of one or another disease, how did they treat it, and how this is fit into their broad political thinking.

Therefore, I have troubles in understanding what is meant when it comes to some universal concept of science. My vision of the “truth of science” is only grounded on such local, limited observations and comparisons as pre-revolutionary doctors for “women” and Soviet obstetricians-gynecologists, recent historical researches in Ukrainian and foreign universities, etc.

What makes certain representatives of Ukrainian science have no doubt to say that they are the one to determine what science is and what shall be moved beyond its borders?

That’s why, it is my belief that the topic of recent discussion “The enemies within: who is unneeded in Ukrainian science?”, held by Innovation House, is quite an interesting material for observation – how do the scientists identify themselves in the public, who is the “friend” and who is the “foe”.

But instead of fully justified attention to the very Ukrainian context, to plagiarism, crummy salaries, and anything and everything that reflects the overall situation in the country, the question on the scientific character and its limits, raised by this discussion, shall be given a broader historical context. This means that we shall pose it to those, who speak on behalf of the science and truth. How do people struggle for the recognition, what are the arguments and benchmarks, what makes certain representatives of Ukrainian science have no doubt to say that they are the one to determine what the science is and what shall be moved beyond its borders, as if this is the side work, underdevelopment, quack practices, or false pride.

Will the West ever help us?

Reference to the imaginary “West” as to the “real” science standard is often mentioned when you hear the alks of post-Soviet scientists. Discussion about the “friends” and “foes” was no different. Affiliation with “global knowledge” was the core task, and conversation used to turn into debating on who knows better how do the scientific institutions work in the “Western world”.

This is a very nostalgic situation of Cold War-era, when it appeared that the world was split into two pieces, and all you had to do is just choose whom do you stand with. Language, practical activities, and rituals of scientific institutions in the US and in Germany are widely different and, in view of this, accesses to the universities and to the rest of the “knowledge factories” vary, their end products are different too.

Current massive scale of so-called opioid epidemic in the US is just starting to unveil all the mechanism of the whole medical system – from research centers that develop new pharmaceuticals to the governmental authorities that take control of the clinical study effectiveness objectivity, and to the motivations and vision of doctors, who write out prescriptions to their patients.

Opioid analgesics have become the treatment standard of all the pain types due to heavy advertizing and substantial misleading information of both doctors and patients, most significantly of the state that controls the reliability and truthfulness of the researches that shall be considered by the doctors while concluding about the operation of pharmaceuticals.

OxyContin (oxycodone) tablets brought billions of dollars to its manufacturer and get millions of persons addicted to drug, who try to get this pharmaceutical at every possible way, which is often in the “grey zone” of medical lawfulness. Dozens of thousands of people annually die from overdose of this pharmaceutical, which clearly poses the question: what does the “scientific truth” stand for and why the cooperative knowledge verification mechanisms, that were developed long time ago, pride of all the medical professions and institutions, that are proud of their history and service to mankind mission, fail to be operative.

This somber situation of American medical industry is not in the least in order to say that Ukrainian situation is better or deprived of the same issues. Scandals about the public procurement of dubious quality pharmaceuticals, like Tamiflu for so-called immunity improvement are well documented, just as the extensive practice to treat symptoms that have long been considered to be diseases in gynecology, for instance.

The history of American and Ukrainian medical science about how the public (collective) and individual “interests” and “needs” are determined, and how the decisions in healthcare field are made – all this is a large-scale history that determines the existing state of affairs, rather than about theses on the objectivity and universality of the science.

At the boundary of science and pseudoscience

This dream of objectivity return, stating that there shall be the unambiguous divide between the science and pseudoscience, is completely naive and utopian – who shall draw this line and keep this border safe, from where the power of truth shall originate? In certain historical moments this role was played by the state, namely by the scientists, who abandoned the professional autonomy in favor of the authority of the state power.

This dream of objectivity return, stating that there shall be the unambiguous divide between the science and pseudoscience, is completely naive and utopian

As of today we can hardly imagine the return of powerful state control mechanisms over the researches or theses both in the USA and in Ukraine, – this control will require the whole bureaucratic army. On the other hand, it’s all about the principles of self-organization, group political decisions, rather than orders from above, therefore the strive for the introduction of the scientific character principles into the law, to make the text being published in Western periodicals, or to find the perfect “sifter” for the real scientists in any other way – is the strive for finding the external supporting point instead of drawing up rules for the everyone here and now, shifting for themselves and workmates.

One clearly defined “symptom” of this recent discussion confirms all the complexity or impossibility to draw the line between the science and pseudoscience, between the weird freak and academician, and between the scientific discussion and idle talk as well. While some of the speakers were giving their talks each after each and complied with the set format, others departed from the rules of the game, and declared themselves to be the “voice of the truth” and started to make impassioned comments and estimates of any talking point.

This belief in own truth, disregard of questions and answers procedure, of format and frameworks set by event moderator, constitute the situation, when the difference between the discussion and the sound of voices and thoughts is blurred, where you may hear only the loudest and the most stubborn persons. These “symptoms” are the mirror reflexion of the entire situation, where cooperative knowledge is being generated, where one believes in the set rules of the game, in the need for the formalities, hierarchies and verification procedures, while others believe in individually tailored mystic inspirations and in the power of their truth.

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Игорь Булкин
Игорь Булкин
Почему то считается, что наука – это царство беспристрастного разума, и стоит только найти правильные критерии – и научная жизнь нормализуется. Всё гораздо сложнее – наука насквозь социологична в плане никуда не исчезающей субъективности её физических носителей, имеющих свои пристрастия..В частности, цитирование может производиться как по когнитивным причинам (легальная форма заимствования чужого интеллектуального продукта, оказавшегося полезным), так и по социальным (продемонстрировать верность группе “мэтров” и сопровождающего их клана адептов). Во втором случае всякого рода хиршеобразные показатели будут отражать не качество работы, а её раскрученность в “рое” работающих в предметной области. А там свои закономерности корпоративного характера, вплоть до “ласкаве теля… Read more »