Art, science, medicine, outrage.

I’ve seen come (and might have weighed into) some disturbing arguments on Facebook lately.  Things like cannabis oil being the magical hidden cure for cancer that millions of doctors, pharmacists, researchers and evil Big Pharma corporations are part of some sort of conspiracy to prevent the ‘truth’ coming, anti-vaccination, and so on.  And what I’ve observed is the complete inability of both sides to appreciate the thought process behind the other.  It’s like watching engineers try to communicate with graphic designers.  Painful.  There’s a lot of layers there, complex layers of emotion, past experience, fear, anger, guilt, and shame.  There’s a lot of shame.   One argument was that they would not be ‘blinded by science’ or science’s ‘big words’.  It was telling.

I’m in the somewhat unique position of being someone with an arts degree, a degree in medicine, and a parent who died of cancer, trying desperately after all treatment had failed to cure themselves with the magical cure du jour (Essiac if you’re interested).  The parent’s death happened first, followed by the arts degree, and finally the medical.  And sitting back and observing these raging blistering arguments on Facebook, worse on Twitter, has really got me thinking about just how far apart the fields of art and science have been driven, and how both have been siloed so much, that neither has any appreciation for the other, when they’re more intrinsically reliant on each other than most realise.

In my arts degree, I learned the power of the argument.  If you have a thought, and it’s plausible, you can argue your position until people agree with you.  You can redefine anything, that is postmodernism, you can question the meaning of everything, you can change it’s meaning if you want.  Gender is no longer a word that means male or female for example, and given the addition of social media to postmodernism, anyone’s opinion and definition is just as good as anyone elses, so long as you can find other opinions to back yours up.  And of course you can.  This of course, completely throws out respect for expertise, for process, for the years of honing ones craft that is science, or law, or engineering or medicine, or fine art or any of those things that suck you into a black hole of effort for years, only to emerge alone in a sea of Facebook opinion without any understanding of that process.  I think back to all of my essays, thousands of words of beautifully crafted arguments, backed up by leaders in the field.  All HD’s.   Your opinion is as valid as everyone who agrees with you.  You can use anecdotal evidence, indeed you’re required to, individual arguments are much more powerful and hard hitting.  It’s how the social sciences department of Wollongong University got an anti-vaccination PhD through – it wasn’t scientific, they could argue whatever they wanted and once backed up, it was valid.  It’s easy.  And it has a role.  Post-modernism has been wonderful at questioning those oppressive cultural norms, at deconstructing them and asking the hard questions of who we should be as a people.

When I started my medical degree, I’m a little ashamed to say that I had very little understand of the scientific method.  I would say that most people don’t.  I had to bring my year 10 level science up to scratch for the GAMSAT and that was painful and confronting.  There was shame.  It was the root of those ‘blinded by science’ arguments because studying science when you’ve grown up in an environment and culture that tells you that you can’t possibly be good at it because you’re a girl, feels like wearing a bikini in a blizzard surrounded by people in snowsuits.  It’s uncomfortable and painful and for me it was embarrassing.  The scientific method actually describes a process and it is the process of creating a fact.  People seem to get opinions mixed up with fact, as if one something happening to one person somewhere in the world can be ‘proof’ and not just a statistically random event.  How could you possibly tell the difference if you had no idea that a process existed?  And most really don’t.  The scientific method and the postmodernism argument actually have the same first steps, but science continues where postmodernism stops.  You have your opinion (your theory), you do your background research to see what has already been explored for that theory, and then you construct your argument (your hypothesis).  Postmodernism ends there.  What science does, is take that hypothesis and challenges you to carry out an experiment to prove or disprove it.  There’s the major difference.  There is supposed to be an impartiality there – you don’t emotionally invest in your hypothesis, the true unfeeling scientist does not care if it’s right or wrong, they just want to prove it either does or doesn’t exist (I say supposed because we’re all human and we all emotionally invest).  If your hypothesis was that gravity pulls you toward the earth, you could drop 100 balls from a height and argue that they would all fall down to the ground.  And so they do.  Your hypothesis is proven.  The next step is to then communicate your results, and crucially, other scientists then have to repeat your experiment and get the same result.  That is how a fact is born, a drug is made, an intervention realised.  And on the subject of drugs – first you have to prove it in a petri dish, then in an animal, then in an animal more like a human, then in a few humans, then a few more, then a lot more, and then others have to prove it, and after it’s on the market it has to be followed up and side effects reported into a register to make sure you didn’t lie about the whole thing.  This is done to avoid killing or harming people.  It takes 10 to 15 years and involves hundreds, if not thousands of people.  Watching the Charlie Gard case, where a doctor, a medically and scientifically trained doctor, offered a ‘treatment’ that was nothing more than a hypothesis, gave me chills.  It was my medical degree that taught me about process, of due diligence, and how gravely important these things are.

The chasm between the two fields grows greater every day.  I’ve had anti-vaxxers direct me to books by scientists and doctors, weighing into the ‘conspiracy’ for the great price of $29.99 (at least someone is making money), well written, plausible sounding books, all by scientists who appear to have completely forgotten about everything after step 3 of the scientific method.  There are so many vested interests, so much money changing hands for this crusade, and I am yet to see who benefits.

I think back to my father, desperately steeping that stupid tea into bottles and I get it.  I got it well before I ever did medicine.  You can’t use science and impartiality and common sense against the weapons of grief and loss and shame and fear.  Those feelings need to be named, the backstory needs to be understood before you can even start to have the realistic conversation, if you can even have it all.  I think to all the family meetings I have, day in day out, where I break bad news, where I tell people it’s not safe for their parent to go home, that they have a terrible progressive disease and no one wants to hear it.  Who would?  I don’t argue, I don’t respond with Facebook style outrage.  I acknowledge the fear and the pain.  I stay silent while they rage.  I tell them I’m sorry.  I don’t push the facts on them.  They stand silently on their own, proven by blood tests and brain scans and screening tools.  I think about those Facebook arguments, so fraught, so filled with outrage, so many complex layers of emotion – people’s backstories playing out through the lens of the argument du jour.  So much lack of understanding on both sides of each other’s process, how they came to be where they are and of who they are.

Barack Obama said in one of his final speeches, to get off the Internet and argue in person.  He was right.  You can’t truly explain your position, on why this is so emotional for you on social media.  One thing I learned in my arts degree is that ‘the medium is the message’ (McLuhan) – which means that it’s not just the content of the argument that is being conveyed that is the message, but that the medium which is being used is too (and he said this well before any meaningful social media).  Facebook, in spite of using real names, teaches us distance from each other, it teaches us mass outrage, mass bullying.  That if you have an opinion, be prepared for abuse and humiliation, of people shouting you down.  You internalise that message and carry it into the world and feel isolated and afraid as a result.  And in isolation your opinion starts to become a fixed and unmovable belief, often to the extreme.  And you find others within that extreme, people who ‘get’ you, so you’re not isolated anymore.  It’s us against them.  Except what you don’t realise is that everyone is doing it, just in different sets of fixed beliefs.  No one is much different.

So that’s my opinion.  None of it is fact, it’s mostly just observation and can easily be argued with.  What I’ve realised from all these observations is that we need to get the f*** off the Internet and get back into our world and talk to each other, without the backup of a thousand Internet bullies behind us.  Scary isn’t it?

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One comment

  1. I also have an Arts degree that I followed with a science degree, a clin psych degree, and now in the midst of a PhD in science.

    So I say this as someone who really loves science and who believes that the scientific method is really great. Science tries to be impartial, but it’s not. It never has been, from the notion of the impartial “objective” white male scientist; to testing substances and drugs only on male animals at a pre-clinical stage; to decisions about what gets funded; what gets published; how we define both statistical and clinical significance; what data is publicly available and what is not; dodgy practices by some branches of some pharmaceutical companies (I am *not* anti-pharma, and I believe things are getting better but in the psych pharma world things have not always been ok)…etc etc. Humans are flawed and fallible and like I said I think the scientific method (including longitudinal work and replication-replication-replication) is the best we’ve got in answering these questions about ourselves and health and the world, but I do think we need to stay ever-critical and alert and not buy into science as a new religion, because it is not perfect.

    OTOH I also think of postmodernism somewhat differently. I love Pomo but I see it more as knowledge and truth being context-dependent. This is on a larger scale than just “thing X didn’t work for a thousand people but it will work for you” of an angry Internet screed, instead grappling more with questions of what we see as health, wellness, disease and how that changes over time even though we like to pretend that it’s an objective, timeless distinction/cut-off, for example.

    I think we are coming from a similar place, though, in relation to Arts and Science. We need them both – we need them to keep inspiring and enriching, but also circling and questioning each other.

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