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Science in an Age of Endarkenment

August 15th, 2007 · 22 Comments

Guardian science web site image
How irrational thinking in government and universities has led to the rise of new-age nonsense in the name of science.

This article appeared on 15th August 2007, on the Guardian Science web site.

The Guardian made very few cuts to the original version, but removed a lot of the links. If you want to have references to some of the claims that are made, try the original, which I reproduce here. [Download this as pdf]

The Guardian Science site also has a piece on this topic by Alok Jha: Reigniting the enlightenment How do we win back our civilisation from the jaws of darkness?
Comments can be left there too.

A German translation of this piece has been posted at the Mental health blog.

A Russian translation (draft version) has appeared here . There is also a Russian translation of How to Get Good Science which can be found here.

Etymological note. The word endarkenment has been used by several people as an antonym for the enlightenment, but the first time it caught my eye was in an article in 2005 by Gerald Weissman, The facts of evolution: fighting the Endarkenment. The article opens thus.

“Those of us who practice experimental science are living in the best of times and the worst of times, and I’m not talking about A Tale of Two Cities, but a tale of two cultures.”


Science in an Age of Endarkenment


“Education: Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits. Now largely replaced by Training.”
Michael O’Donnell, in A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary (BMJ publishing, 1997).

The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong?

The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable.

This matters when people delude themselves into believing that we could be endangered at 45 minute’s notice by non-existent weapons of mass destruction.It matters when reputable accountants delude themselves into thinking that Enron-style accounting is acceptable.

It matters when people are deluded into thinking that they will be rewarded in paradise for killing themselves and others.

It matters when bishops attribute floods to a deity whose evident vengefulness and malevolence leave one reeling. And it matters when science teachers start to believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago.

These are serious examples of the endarkenment mentality, but I’ll stick with my day job and consider what this mentality is doing to science.

One minor aspect of the endarkenment has been a resurgence in magical and superstitious ideas about medicine. The existence of homeopaths on the High Street won’t usually do too much harm. Their sugar pills contain nothing. They won’t poison your body; the greater danger is that they poison your mind.

It is true that consulting a homeopath could endanger your health if it delays proper diagnosis, or if they recommend sugar pills to prevent malaria, but the real objection is cultural. Homeopaths are a manifestation of a society in which wishful thinking matters more than truth; a society where what I say three times is true and never mind the facts.

If this attitude were restricted to half-educated herbalists and crackpot crystal gazers, perhaps one could shrug it off. But it isn’t restricted to them. The endarkenment extends to the highest reaches of the media, government and universities. And it corrupts science itself.

Even respectable newspapers still run nonsensical astrology columns. Respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Peter Hain (Lab., Neath) set back medicine in Northern Ireland. David Tredinnick (Cons., Bosworth) advocated homeopathic treatment of foot and mouth disease. Caroline Flint condoned homeopathy, and Lord Hunt referred to ‘psychic surgery’ as a “profession” in a letter written in response to question by a clinical scientist

Under the influence of the Department of Health, normally sane pharmacologists on the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority, which is meant to “ensure the medicines work”, changed the rules to allow homeopathic and herbal products to be labelled, misleadingly, with “traditional” uses, while requiring no evidence to be produced that they work.

Tony Blair himself created religiously-divided schools at a time when that has never been more obviously foolish, and he defended in the House of Commons, schools run by ‘young-earth creationists‘, the lunatic fringe of religious zealots. The ex-Head Science teacher at Emmanuel College said

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm . . . is explicitly mentioned . . . we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”:

That is not from the fundamentalists of the southern USA, but from Gateshead, UK.


The Blairs’ fascination with pendulum wavers, crystals and other new age nonsense is well known. When their elders set examples like that, is it any surprise that over 30% of students in the UK now say they believe in creationism and “intelligent design”? As Steve Jones has pointed out so trenchantly, this makes it hard to teach them science at all. Welcome back, Cardinal Bellarmine.

Homeopaths and herbalists may be anti-science but they are not nearly as worrying as the university vice-chancellors who try to justify the giving of bachelor of science degrees in subjects that are anti-science to their core. How, one may well ask, have universities got into the embarrassing position of having to answer questions like that?

Here are a couple of examples of how. The University of Bedfordshire (in its previous incarnation as the University of Luton) accredited a Foundation Degree course in ‘nutritional therapy’, at`the Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN). The give-away is the term Nutritional Therapy . They are the folks who claim, with next to no evidence, that changing your diet, and buying from them a lot of expensive ‘supplements’, will cure almost any disease (even AIDS and cancer).


The IoN is run by Patrick Holford, whose only qualification in nutrition is a diploma awarded to himself by his own Institute. His advocacy of vitamin C as better than conventional drugs to treat AIDS is truly scary. His pretensions have been analysed effectively by Ben Goldacre, and by Holfordwatch.. See the toe-curling details on badscience.net .

The documents that relate to this accreditation are mind-boggling. One of the recommended books for the course, on “Energy Medicine” (a subject that is pure fantasy) has been reviewed thus.

“This book masquerades as science, but it amounts to little more than speculation and polemic in support of a preconceived belief.”.


The report of Luton’s Teaching Quality and Enhancement Committee (May 24th 2004) looks terribly official, with at least three “quality assurance” people in attendance. But the minutes show that they discussed almost everything about the course apart from the one thing that really matters, the truth of what was being taught. The accreditation was granted. It’s true that the QAA criticised Luton for this, but only because they failed to tick a box, not because of the content of the course.

The University of Central Lancashire ‘s justification for its BSc in Homeopathic Medicine consists of 49 pages of what the late, great Ted Wragg might have called “world-class meaningless bollocks”. All the buzzwords are there “multi-disciplinary delivery”, “formative and summative assessment”, log books and schedules. But not a single word about the fact that the course is devoted to a totally discredited early 19th century view of medicine. Not a single word about truth and falsehood. Has it become politically incorrect to ask questions like that? The box-ticking mentality is just another manifestation of the endarkenment thought. If you tick a box to say that you are fully-qualifed at laying-on-of-hands, that is good enough. You have done the course, and it is irrelevant whether the course teaches rubbish.

These examples, and many like them, result, I believe from the bureaucratisation and corporatisation of science and education. Power has gradually ebbed away from the people who do the research and teaching, and become centralised in the hands of people who do neither.

The sad thing is that the intentions are good. Taxpayers have every right to expect that their money is well spent, and students have every right to expect that a university will teach them well. How, then, have we ended up with attempts to deliver these things that do more harm than good?

One reason is that the bureaucrats who impose these schemes have no interest in data. They don’t do randomised tests, or even run pilot schemes, on their educational or management theories because, like and old-fashioned clinician, they just know they are right. Enormous harm has been done to science by valuing quantity over quality, short-termism over originality and, at the extremes, fraud over honesty. Spoofs about the pretentiousness and dishonesty of some science, like that published in The New York Times last year, are too close to the truth to be very funny now.

Science, left to itself, and run by scientists, has created much of the world we live in. It has self-correcting mechanisms built in, so that mistakes, and the occasional bit of fraud, are soon eliminated. Corporatisation has meant that, increasingly, you are not responsible to your conscience, just to your line manager. The result of this, I fear, is a decrease in honesty, and in the long run inevitably a decrease in quality and originality too.

If all we had to worry about was a few potty homeopaths and astrologers, it might be better to shrug, and get on with trying to find some truths about the world. But now the endarkenment extends to parliament, universities and schools, it is far too dangerous to ignore.

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Tags: Anti-science · Big Pharma · CAM · conflict of interest · corporate · corruption · management bollocks · Politicians · science · Universities

22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 crepuscule // Aug 15, 2007 at 14:21

    This ties in well with Richard Dawkins’ current Channel 4 two-parter, Enemies of Reason.

  • 2 David Colquhoun // Aug 15, 2007 at 15:18

    Yes the first part was excellent I thought. if anyone missed it there is a link to the video at http://dcscience.net/?p=18

  • 3 2-4-5T // Aug 16, 2007 at 01:14

    I wholeheartedly agree with most of what you say, but the other side of this coin is that science – and often medicine – are also guilty of over-reaching and over-selling themselves.

    In some respects anyway, the institution science has brought this down on its own head. In my experience there is frequently a deep distrust of science and technology. As a for example and because I have recently tangled with it, take the science of nutrition. It is always changing it’s mind. Now, good science is always changing it’s mind, that is the nature of research. But it becomes a problem when this years research is forced on those who are sick, and then the next month/year it is changed and then changed again. It’s a trivial example granted, but it applies to wider fields too.

  • 4 David Colquhoun // Aug 16, 2007 at 07:24

    “science – and often medicine – are also guilty of over-reaching and over-selling themselves”

    Agreed, In fact that is part of what I was trying to say. And much of the reason for that is the corporatisation and crude target-setting imposed by government and university bureacrats (e.g check here and here). These often reward poor science and bad behaviour.

    It isn’t helped either by the inability of most journalists to distinguish good science from bad, or to distinguish between association and cause, despite the noble efforts of Ben Goldacre.

  • 5 Dave A // Aug 16, 2007 at 18:21

    David,

    It’s an excellent article, and I completely agree with it, but I do have one point to make and would appreciate your comments. You mention herbalists. While there are undoubtedly unqualified herbalists, and plenty of herbs that do not have their claimed effect, many herbalists in this country have done 3 or 4 year BSc with 500 clinical hours. Now I take your point about degrees, but I understand that this degree is a very scientific one which is very focussed on truth.

    There are many proper clinical trials of herbs, some of which have proven herbs to have their claimed effect, and of course, in your profession you will be aware of the many drugs derived from herbs’ active ingredients. Given all that, it seems rather unfair to lump herbalism alongside homeopathy, which is, as you pointed out, rubbish. Similarly, you also mention herbalists as maybe being anti-science. On the contrary, while herbalists will always know the traditional uses, and I dare say they will make use of the placebo effect, I think many of them would be delighted with proper clinical trials to find out what really does and does not work.

    regards
    Dave

  • 6 David Colquhoun // Aug 18, 2007 at 23:07

    Yes indeed. Herbalism is quite different from homeopathy. Homeopathy is incompatible with all known science, and seems to be pure nonsense, Herbalism on the other hand, is just a branch of pharmacology, albeit a pre-1930 version of pharmacology from a time before it was realised how important it was to standardise the dose of active substance. There is a bit about this at http://www.dcscience.net/improbable.html#digitalis
    (hit ‘refresh’ if your browser doesn’t jump to the right spot first time).

    Yes herbalists know a lot about traditional uses, but sadly I think you overestimate their interest in doing good clinical trials. if they took more interest in them, herbalism would not be ‘alternative’. It would just be pharmacology.

  • 7 Dave A // Aug 19, 2007 at 20:05

    Thanks for the response. I don’t know how many herbalists are interested in trials. I may be overestimating. I certainly don’t see where their funding would come from, although maybe the big suppliers is a route.

    Thanks for the link – that page looks excellent. You are completely correct about standardisation. There are many herbal extracts which are standardised and have been clinically proven to have an effect, and these should be used where possible.

    I think my problem was with the way this good science part of herbalism was lumped in with homeopathy and implied to be anti-science. You have said that they are completely different. Surely we should be recognising that there is good science in herbalism and trying to extend that throughout the rest of discipline, rather than dismissing the whole topic as bad science. That is just misinformation, isn’t it? – the opposite of good science. There are certainly scientists who have this approach – the ones who have conducted proper scientic trials of herbs.

    regards
    Dave

  • 8 David Colquhoun // Aug 19, 2007 at 21:02

    This is a bit of a diversion from the point I was trying to make. But there is a very easy way to settle this. All “Dave A” has to do is to name just a few of the “many herbal extracts which are standardised and have been clinically proven to have an effect” (with references please). Then we can judge the truth of his claims.

    Companies like Weleda and Boiron make a lot of money, but they don’t spend it on good trials, but rather on subsidisng the Society of Homeopaths and “Biodynamic” agriculture. Weleda is represented in 29 countries and its German branch alone made a profit of 6.4 million euros in 2004. They could easily afford to do proper trials. Why don’t they? Are they perhaps afraid that the outcome might dent their profits?

  • 9 David Colquhoun // Aug 21, 2007 at 22:10

    There is an excellent comment from Germany, on the post ‘How to get good science’, http://www.dcscience.net/goodscience/?p=4#comment-23)

    It is just as relevant to the Endarkenment.

  • 10 bkotchoubey // Aug 22, 2007 at 14:51

    I believe that several different things are mixed in this article. People EVER believed in supernatural things; in this respect, there is nothing new in our days. Remember spiritual movements in the 19th century. Both Newton and Einstein believed in supernatural things, which did not hinder them to be who they were. I also believe in supernatural thing, although this does not help me to be like Newton and Einstein.
    I think the point is that Newton and Einstein clearly felt the border between their science and their faith. At a philosophical level, faith could stimulate research. But at the level of concrete studies, they were clearly separated, like the State and the Church in most modern democracies. They would never confuse what is faith and what is knowledge; what is the matter of belief and what is the matter of proof.
    This is I think where we now experience a real regress. Not that non-science (or “anti-science”) exists, because it existed in all times. Not that people believe in things which are not eveidence-based, as such beliefs belong to human nature. But that the non-scientific thinking is now perfusing SCIENCE.
    Three weeks ago Nature (2007, v.448, 2 Aug, 600-603; it’s worth to read!) published an article of Schiff et al, reporting on a deep brain stimulation in one unconscious patient. Neurologists observed his behavior while he was stimulated and while he was not, and found that during stimulation he was more aroused and alerted than during rest periods. Everybody who has a slightest idea about controlled studies would cry out. An observation of a single patient, in which I know that he is now stimulated, makes my evaluation biased to a highest degree. And this complete lack of control is presented by Nature as a “breakthrough”. Now, if this kind of evidence (“I observe a patient and he appears to me to get slightly better”) counts for the respectable branche of neurosurgery, WHY the same level of evidence should not count for homeopathy, for laying-on-hands, for psychoanalytic therapy for cancer, etc.?
    (The worst is, the paper in Nature was written by 16 respectable authors. It’s impossible to assume that they just did not know they made a bad study. They surely knew, but they did it, because the fact of publication in Nature is more important than quality. Is it what you call “Corporativism”?)
    To conclude: The mere existence of non-science, of people believeng in ghosts etc is not a problem, on my view. The problem is that within the science itself we act as the Enlightenment never took place.

  • 11 David Colquhoun // Aug 22, 2007 at 20:30

    I don’t disagree seriously with anything that bkotchoubey says. Nobody says that n = 1 cannot give useful leads sometimes (but often just misleads). The deep brain stimulation experiment will be considered to be a big advance only after it has been replicated. Homeopathy, laying-on-hands and so on can’t be replicated. That’s why they aren’t science.

  • 12 nickzi // Sep 7, 2007 at 04:07

    I generally agree with bkotchoubey, but I would disagree strongly with his assessment of Newton. The myth of Newton as pure scientist separate from but co-existing with a man of deep faith is only convincing if one ignores his sustained fascination with and practice of alchemy. To suggest that he saw a strict dividing line between science and faith runs contrary to the evidence assembled by his more recent biographers. We might want Newton to be the paradigm of rationality and science, but historical evidence to the contrary should not be ignored. It does not help the cause of science to ground our understanding of its history and practice in myth, rather than fact.

  • 13 David Colquhoun // Sep 8, 2007 at 20:50

    It’s hard to separate a person from the times in which he lived. Newton may well have had religious beliefs but many other enlightenment figures certainly did not. Voltaire (a great admirer of Newton) comes to mind.

  • 14 Mark Frank // Sep 9, 2007 at 10:15

    Great essay and I agree about the symptoms, but I think the diagnosis and treatment are more complicated than you suggest. As I understand it you are saying that anti-science is growing and science is suffering because of the way science is managed and run. And you are recommending a return to the days when science was left to itself and run by scientists.

    I believe the main causes of the growth of anti-science are not the decline of science, and the way it is managed, but broader social changes external to the scientific and academic community. For example, the growth in communications is having a vast effect. In some ways it is excellent. This blog is an example. But it also means any crackpot can set up a web site, look convincing, link up with similar crackpots round the world, and gain a following. The mixing of cultures and peoples round the world is also important – with the rise of Islam obviously playing a large part.

    There may also be problems with the management of science. It is depressing how easy it is for complete nonsense to gain academic credibility. But I doubt the answer is to return to the days when scientists managed science. Even if such a golden age existed, we cannot simply return to the past. This partly due to the nature of modern science. Much of it requires vast amounts of money (e.g. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider which will cost at least 2 billion euros) and complex multidisciplinary teams mired in politics and economics (e.g. climate change). Modern science also raises ethical issues (cloning, embryo research) that cannot reasonably be left to scientists alone. All of this requires management, political and other skills and knowledge which are different from scientific skills and knowledge.

    Of course, it is hard to manage science and scientists. As you say politicians, managers and bureaucrats have a different attitude to data from scientists. They have to make decisions based on uncertain and incomplete information. This means sometimes doing things on a hunch, choosing one option because there is a lot of backing for it, taking the path that looks like it might work. But we need to find a way for it to work in the world as it is. Indeed in many areas science continues to progress just fine and has no problem with telling truth from fiction despite a high level of management e.g. Information Technology.

  • 15 David Colquhoun // Sep 9, 2007 at 12:25

    Yes it is wonderful how people who seem to think science is illusory nevertheless seem to believe in it when it comes to spreading their daft ideas on the web. That isn’t really relevant to the problem though. Just a reason to put the case for reason more vigorously.

    The ethical problems are real enough, but I don’t think there is much disagreement about how they should be coped with, and again they are not really relevant to how you organise a university.

    It’s true that some bits of science are now very big. and CERN is an obvious example. but actually that is the exception, not the rule. In my own area most of the really big advances are still made by small groups -in particular by people who do the work themselves rather than by tagging their name on to papers written by an army of postdocs.

    In most cases the problems arise in basic research when science is managed by people who know nothing about science (like “HR” people), and by the susceptibility of some senior academics to follow like lemmings management practices that went out of fashion years ago in industry. That is what gives rise to practices that I described in “How to get good science”.

  • 16 Patrick Holford -a professor? // Oct 15, 2007 at 15:22

    [...] saga was discussed in “Science in an age of endarkenment” as an example of how university accreditation committees can produce long pompous official reports [...]

  • 17 Stephen Due // Oct 24, 2007 at 04:07

    It irritates me that pharmacies in Australia (where I live) now sell herbal medicines and complementary medicines alongside prescription medicines and products the value of which has been scientifically established. Pharmacists when properly trained are scientists and should not debase their calling by giving credibility to unproven products in this way. The desire to educate the public should outweigh the desire to make a profit out of their gullibility.

  • 18 Svetlana // Nov 1, 2007 at 04:14

    That is my website:
    http://spscience.narod.ru

    Website is new, so it looks still terrible :) But – “under a construction”! ;) It will be better.

    Its merits are:
    1. The Russian translation of “Science in an Age of Endarkenment”:
    http://spscience.narod.ru/SPgoodscience.html
    2. The copy of Quackometer’s webpage about malaria:
    http://svetlana14s.narod.ru/
    3. The Russian translation of “How to get Good Science” will appear soon.

    David, Thank you very much for the links of my website in your blog!

  • 19 Mojo // Nov 13, 2007 at 09:41

    On the subject of the “Endarkenment” here’s a quotation from an interview published in the Bookseller a couple of months ago, from someone who seems concerned about the same sort of thing:

    “I think of myself as a little scribe in the great abbeys of Cluny or Fontainbleu during the Dark Ages, desperately trying to hold onto something to pass on to another generation – I do! Because I think there is a bit of a Dark Ages in some ways, and I do think things need protecting and valuing.”

    The same person has a article in today’s Grauniad:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,2209998,00.html

    And here’s an older example of her writing:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/complementary_medicine/article1160470.ece

    Hmm.

  • 20 Bolg - The Chris Blanc Weblog :: The new dark age // Feb 26, 2008 at 20:21

    [...] The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable.^ [...]

  • 21 How to get good science: again // Feb 12, 2009 at 20:21

    [...] OK, it’s true that we have no way to be sure that the undoubted increase in top-down control has actually been the cause of the smaller number of Nobel prizes, but there is no doubt that it has wasted a great deal of time that could have been spent more profitably.  It’s intriguing that 1980 is also the time that Francis Wheen identified as being roughly the start of what I like to call the age of endarkenment. [...]

  • 22 The College of Medicine is in the pocket of Crapita Capita. Is Graeme Catto selling out? // May 5, 2012 at 00:15

    [...] May 2012. Well well, if there were any doubt about the endarkenment values of the College, I see that the Prince of Wales, the Quacktitioner Royal himself, gave a speech at the [...]

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