Thursday, 5 October 2006

Two Talks

Yesterday (Wednesday 4th October), I went to two contrasting talks. The first was by Harry Collins, of whom I have already said something about in my previous post, speaking at the University of Glasgow Physics Colloquium. The second was by David Reid, the director of the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital, speaking at the Glasgow Philosophical Society.

The talk by Collins briefly recapped his research into "Interactional Expertise", but the main body of his talk was devoted to the notion that you can be a physicist without maths. He goes so far as to advocating specific physics courses with no mathematics, to train physics-savvy grads for managerial roles in society. Now, if one looks at the spectrum of mathematical ability within the physics community, it varies by quite alot, from mathematical geniuses, like Witten, to the less adept (but perfectly satisfactory physicists) usually to be found in the laboratory:-). Just because not all physicists are at the former end of the spectrum (and I would count myself firmly in the middle of the pack, or even below due to atrophy), it would be wrong to conclude that simply the existence of mathematically less capable physicists means that it is desirable to try to teach physics without maths. Usually, great physicists (Collins presents Bohr and Drever as examples, which may be arguable) who aren't great mathematically succeed despite their mathematical failing, usually compensated by a formidable intuitive grasp of the physics. However, these people lie way outside the norm (for physicists) and they are the exception which proves the rule. One may argue that traditional physics courses are predicated on the assumption that students be mathematical, so it is not surprsing that physicists have in general greater mathematical ability than the general populace, hence the mere fact that physicists have mathematical ability (to greater of lesser degree) does not in itself show that you need maths to be a physicist. But I'd argue that what separates physics as a science from merely a collection of facts about the universe is that mathematical models give concrete form to theory, and without being able to grasp the language in which the models are described, one cannot really be called a physicist. Besides which, trying to teach physics without maths is a like doing a marathon walking on your hands, in principle doable, but ultimately fruitless.

The other talk was a different kettle of fish. I wasn't quite sure exactly what Reid was tring to say. Most charatibly, he is imploring a more humane, kind and individually tailored approach to patient care, or basically better bedside manner. I have no objections to this sentiment. Less charitably, he could thought to argue that a doctor should be concerned mostly with making a patient "feel" well, rather than concentrate on the notion of "disease". There certainly is some scientific evidence that psychological factors are important in physiological response to illness and treatment. However, one should balance the relative magnitude of this effect with respect to other physical factors. There are philosophical questions raised by this approach. We should bound ourselves in nutshells and count ourselves kings of infinite space. If we perceived ourselves as well or bettter, then the actual reality is not important.

Reid was quick to duck any questions on Homeopathy, preferring to concentrate his talk on his vision of Integrative Healthcare, where doctors are melded with the role of welfare officers and crisis talklines. Sprinkled throughout were potshots (via cartoons) at NHS managers and drug companies, easy targets especially since the majority of the audience seemed to be quite sympathetic.

I think underlying the current rise in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is the unrealistic expectations people have about medicine, a victim of its own success one may say. "Shit Happens" and when fate deals out a losing hand, people feel cheated by conventional medicine and seek alternative treatments to fill their hopes.

There are parallels between the fight against quack medicine and pseudo-science. Both stem from a mis-understanding of what science actually is and what its limits are. People prefer certainty, but if Science and Modern Medicine cannot provide that, they will seek out other forms of assurance. That's not to say that modern conventional medicine doesn't have its own failings, but the inability to "cure" the incurable isn't one of them, just like the inability of science to provide "truth". I cannot see a quick fix to this problem, apart from making everyone pass a basic course in philosophy (of science) and critical thinking.