Monday, 13 July 2009

Hello to Lionel R Milgrom

I would like to say a warm Hello to Lionel R Milgrom, who has greatly cheered me up.

I understand Dr Milgrom is well known commentator on complementary and alternative medicine, and in particular the application of modern scientific research to homeopathy.

What, however, has caught my eye was his response to the Ernst article in the recent British Medical Journal.

(I blogged on the Ernst article here; and the Ernst article is now available in full here - hat tip to both Musicweaver for hosting it and the wonderful Blue Wode for pointing me there.)

The first striking thing for me was his impressive list of qualifications:

"Lionel R Milgrom LCH MARH MRHom BSc MSc PhD CChem FRSC".

He must have taken great care to type each of these out correctly and, indeed, presumably in just the correct order of precedence.

For those of us with mere Arts MAs (and mine was unearned in any case), this is actually all rather intimidating.

Fortunately, the oppressive effect on me of all those qualifications was alleviated by his self-description as a:

"sientist [sic], writer, homeopath".


Well a typo can happen to all of us - there are certainly too many on this Blog - but sometimes a mistake can be revealing, especially when it can be juxtaposed with the careful precision of setting out of all those qualifications in just the right order: the outward assertion of scholarship.

But then I was struck by one of his citations - noticed first by the wise and always alert Le Canard Noir on Twitter.

Dr Milgrom begins one paragraph:

"Much of Dr Singh’s and Prof Ernst’s ire against CAM stems from a particular scientific mind set (logical positivism) which they appear to regard as incontrovertible truth."

Powerful stuff: but can it be substantiated?

It seems so, for there is then a footnote (one of rather many for such a short piece) to:

"Okasha S. Philosophy of science: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, 2002."

I was astonished.

I laughed, I am afraid to say.

The Oxford "very short introduction" series are crammers, albeit well-written ones.

As an arts undergraduate, they would be the sort of thing one would perhaps use to read into a new subject; but one would not dare cite it in an essay, even in the first term.

Perhaps homeopathy has been taken to heart here, and so the idea may be that a very short introduction to a vast subject is somehow more potent than a major monograph?

If so, perhaps an even more strident opinion would be sourced to an even more diluted authority?

Who knows?

But, in citing a crammer - which would embarrass a first year arts undergraduate - in the British Medical Journal, I am not sure Dr Milgrom has really aided his cause.


神経オタク said...

First, why does he feel the need to cite logical positivism? I'm fairly certain that general ideas expounded upon by multiple authors on specific schools of thought don't need a citation. If I mention Enlightenment-era rationalism, do I need to cite an authority to compare someone's ideas against the general aims of the program that ran from Descarte on? I would think not.

Second, he doesn't explain at all why the two are "logical positivists". Can he demonstrate that the two are guilty of hardline verificationism and speak only in terms of sense-datum and logical operators?

And why does treatment of medicine as an art make it inherently immune to trial-based procedure (a false dichotomy, certainly to place it as "not a science")? Dealing with complex systems is still manageable. That's exactly what statistical tests are for in science. Would he like to argue that all of experimental psychology is invalid on the same terms?

Zeno said...

Are you sure that's not meridians I can see on the cover of that science text book, Jack?

Tony Lloyd said...

I'm sorry Jack, you've got Okasha's book wrong. Not that it isn't short, not that it isn't readable by the layman but that it isn't cite-able.

Page 53 of Miller, David. Out of Error Aldershot: Ashgate has: "In his recent book Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction", for example, Okasha takes the supposed fact that scientists do look for confirming evidence as a knock-down argument against Popper's solution to the problem of induction.

The chapter in which the cite appears was originally a paper read at three international philosophy conferences.

These "Very Short Introductions" are not quite the next-door to Wikipedia that they might be if they were on more settled subjects, like Contract Law or Pulminary Diseases. The first book on Popper (Bryan Magee's), for example, was published in such a series. It's often in a book like this that an author can tackle the broad sweep of a subject, papers to journals do tend to concentrate on one minor point.

That being said Okasha's book really is accessible. Fabulously written and, with the exception of disagreeing with Popper, gives a wonderful overview of the subject.

(Graham Priest's on Logic and Ayer's on Hume in the same series are also excellent).

Needless to say Milgrom isn't quite on the money about Logical Positivism. There are still, regrettable, positivistic elements in the "applied" sciences. However they are much diminished and, the Simon Singh/discredited BCA spat is not about that. Neither is it a claim on the part of Simon Singh or Prof Ernst to truth, absolute or otherwise. It's about a faulty claim on the part of the BCA (these woo merchants simply cannot discern the difference between "proving false", "refuting the evidence" and "proving the opposite true").

gimpyblog said...

Hahah, in fairness to Dr Milgrom though, apart from the homeopathy LCH & MARH, he is a well qualified individual in his field - porphyrin chemistry. Unfortunately he took the woo cure and it corroded his rational faculties. His work on quantum mechanics is quite something apparently.

Philip Potter said...

To be explicitly clear, the reason citing a "very short introduction" is poor behaviour is because citations in a scientific debate are used as a source of evidence. Secondary sources such as textbooks are great learning tools, but they are not valid as evidence.

Incidentally, I own a copy of this book (and I recommend it to anyone curious). It's hard to see what statement he's trying to back up with this citation. He certainly doesn't justify his statement that Singh and Ernst are positivists. I think he's trying to support this one: "[logical positivism] effectively downgrades or ignores other important less scientifically defined forms of evidence."

Okasha's book only mentions logical positivism in comparison to Thomas Kuhn's seminal work "The structure of scientific revolutions", a work which destroyed the positivists' view of the absoluteness of science. One of his key points was regarding the theory-ladenness of data -- that is, the evidence you collect is measured according to the rules set by your theories.
For example, Newton's concept of mass is different from special relativity's concept of mass, and each theory tells you to measure mass in a different way. Since the measurement isn't universal to both theories, it can't be used to compare them.

One can see exactly why this sort of view appeals to CAM advocates: it seems say different theories can interpret the same phenomena through different measurements and come to independent conclusions, and there is no way to show any theory better than any other.

But (as the book itself points out) this is not the result of Kuhn's work at all. The earth-centred and sun-centred models of the solar system don't actually disagree on how to measure the position of heavenly bodies in the sky, and measurements of those positions confirm the sun-centred theory. Most theories do actually agree on how to measure most things, and where they agree, experimental results can be compared to determine which theory is correct.

Kuhn threw out logical positivism, but that doesn't mean that CAM is immune to scientific testing.

NRG said...

Finally, a link to the full Ernst article. Thank you! Paywalls are the bane of my online life - wish I could take a look at how Milgrom has managed to mangle the BMJ article he references to make it fit his bizarre view of medicine.

Think my favourite bit of his comment is the 2nd paragraph when he tries to suggest CAM is already being unfairly biased against in the media. He clearly lives on a different planet to the rest of us.

davidp said...

I like the fact that Milgrom refers to Sir Michael Rawlins whose letter immediately follows Milgrom's. Milgrom says

"Fortunately, wiser councils in medicine may still prevail, and not all (e.g., chair of NICE, Sir Michael Rawlins) subscribe to the kind of scientific ‘fundamentalism’ Dr Singh and Prof Ernst would wish to see foisted upon them."

But Rawlins concludes

"I call for honesty in health care. Science, not semantics" and "Never mind libel, keep metaphysics out of the courts!"

This seems to directly deny Milgrom the support he hoped Rawlins would give him and his fellow obfuscators.

Twaza said...

If you work your way past the rhetoric, Lionel Milgrom's position on CAM boils down to "trust me, I am better qualified than you, and I am well intentioned".

Human nature being what it is, you don't have to do much research to find out why you would want to NOT trust a doctor, lawyer, banker, teacher, politician, or priest who spoke like this.

Why should homeopaths and chiropractors be above the evidence?

Ramel said...

@davidP: The following letter is from Richard Rawlins, not michael. Although this should in no way distract us from the fact the Milgrom is a man who talks out of his backside.

DavidP said...

@Ramel: You're right. Sloppy reading by me.

Leslie B Rose has a later response on the BMJ site, "Re: CAM, free speech, and the law", directly in response to Milgrom, refuting the claim that Sir Michael Rawlins supports non-evidence forms of 'evidence'.

TK said...

I suspect we are in for an ever more feeble series of chiro death throes - they're not going to give up without putting up some sort of resistance.

On the up side - if medicine is as much an art as a science then Jack and I, with our Arts qualifications, can set up in practice now. The surgery is open...

TK said...

I suspect we are in for an ever more feeble series of chiro death throes - they're not going to give up without putting up some sort of resistance.

On the up side - if medicine is as much an art as a science then Jack and I, with our Arts qualifications, can set up in practice now. The surgery is open...

Jack of Kent said...

I am not sure if the world is quite ready for the sight of me and TK in white coats, with wide eyes and manic smiles, saying:

"We are Arts Graduates; what seems to be the problem?"

Chris K said...

Once again the law that anyone citing a long list of abbreviations after their name is likely to be saying something rather silly hold's true...

JJM said...

Jack, you wrote "I understand Dr Milgrom is ... in particular the application of modern scientific research to homeopathy."

I am afraid he does not practice science with regard to homeopathy. What he does, is posit that homeopathic remedies are effective, and then applies the math of quantum mechanics (QM) to speculation about how that can be true.

Note that I said he applies the math of QM, using "weak QM" theory. Weak QM dispatches with Planck's constant constant, which connects the math to reality. Thus, nothing he writes has any scientific value.


Croydon Bob said...

Ben Goldacre has had emails from Lionel Milgrom:

To quote Ben:
"jesus, you should see the rest of the bile this guy has been sending me, he hates doctors, he hates medical students, my talk was rubbish, i couldnt understand his work because i’m not as clever as him, i should expect abuse and get used to it, etc. "

Anonymous said...

Diluted... classic!

martinpblogformasswritingproject said...

Linus Pauling springs to mind, great chemist, truly deluded when it came to medical matters. Unfortunately the reverse is often true,as many medical doctors make poor scientists unfortunately.

msHedgehog said...

Logical positivism? Seriously? As in A J Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic?

I wonder what he thinks that means. Maybe the citation is supposed to tell us.

I have never forgotten the televised conversation between Bryan Magee and A. J. Ayer in the BBC series "Men of Ideas", also published as a book. It includes the following exchange:

MAGEE: It's enough in itself to explain the huge and passionate hostilities aroused by Logical Positivism. Authoritarian governments, like those of the Communists and Nazis, banned it altogether. Even liberals were disconcerted by it.
AYER: They thought it too iconoclastic.
MAGEE: But it must have had real defects. What do you now, in retrospect, think the main ones were?
AYER: Well, I suppose the most important of the defects was that nearly all of it was false.
MAGEE: I think you need to say a little more about that.
AYER: [Says a lot more about that]

I think it's just bonkers to say Singh is a Logicial Postivist. Although he might be somewhere near where Ayer ended up. He remained extremely interested in the theory of knowledge, I think, to the end.