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I have always thought that our undergraduates had difficulty in expressing themselves clearly, in simple words. But they are models of clear thought compared with Christine Barry’s recent paper (Social Science and Medicine, 62, 2464-2657, 2006).

Barry’s work rivals Alan Sokal’s famous spoof paper, “Transgressing the boundaries: the Hermeneutics of quantum gravity”. Sokal’s paper opens as follows.

“There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows:
that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.”

Title of Sokal's book

Compare this with the opening of Barry’s paper.

“Calls for ‘gold standard’  randomised controlled trial evidence, by both biomedical and political establishments, to legitimise the integration of alternative medicine into healthcare systems, can be interpreted as deeply political. In this paper, the supposed objectivity of scientific, biomedical forms of evidence is questioned through an illumination of the multiple rhetorics embedded in the evidence-based medicine phenomenon, both within biomedicine itself and in calls for its use to evaluate alternative therapeutic systems.”

and, later,

“I wish to problematise the call from within biomedicine for more evidence of alternative medicine’s effectiveness via the medium of the randomised clinical trial (RCT).”

“Ethnographic research in alternative medicine is coming to be used politically as a challenge to the hegemony of a scientific biomedical construction of evidence.”

“The science of biomedicine was perceived as old fashioned and rejected in favour of the quantum and chaos theories of modern physics.”

“In this paper, I have deconstructed the powerful notion of evidence within biomedicine, . . .”

Just one difference, though, Sokal’s paper was a spoof, which brilliantly exploded the pretentious nonsense of post-modernism. Barry’s paper, is, I very much fear, intended to be serious.

To make matters worse, this work was funded by the Department of Health.

Sokal’s story is told in his devastating book, “Intellectual Impostures”. Strongly recommended, if you want to retain your sanity. [Link to Amazon]. Here is a quotation from the book, concerning Jacques-Marie-Emile Lacan (1901 – 1981), a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist.

[Jouissance = enjoyment; the word appears in French in the translations.]

In it the square root of -1 is related to erectile function in a piece of gobbledygook which shows an understanding of mathematics about as profound as Barry’s understanding of “the quantum and chaos theories of modern physics”.

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12 Responses to Christine Barry deconstructs evidence

  • […] an essay by Alan Sokal, published in Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads […]

  • […] Unbelievably, this prime piece of postmodernist bollocks is even worse than Barry’s paper! […]

  • Dr Aust says:

    Yes, depressing. She appears to be from the Dave “micro-fascism” Holmes et al. school of culturally relative po-(mo)-faced obscurantism.

    I’m mildly surprised she is in a School of Social Science and Law, and not a Dept of Nursing. It seems to be a recurring theme that the burgeoning numbers of B.Nursing students have to be taught actual science by sub-contracted (not to say mildly mutinous) bioscientists, while the academic staff of the Nursing Schools engage in scathing and boundary-transgressing cultural critique of the Holmes / Barry variety. Not to mention jouissance.

    Talking of which, I once sat through a whole plenary lecture on the pharmacology of sexual drive and erectile function in rats, during which the lecturer discoursed at length on whether “aphrodisiac” was a legitimate scientific term… …but I don’t recall him ever mentioning jouissance. Or the square root of -1, for that matter. Clearly a gross cultural (not to mention pseudo-objectivist) oversight on his part.

  • GrumpyBob says:

    I think she was an PhD student in anthropology. This article gives a flavour of where she’s coming from:


  • John Hooper says:

    Social Text should never have printed the Sokal/Bricmont paper.

    The editors should have smelled a huge rat based on the first two paragraphs being actually legible.

    Only one “hegemony” and one “epistemological” in two whole paragraphs should have been immediate grounds for rejection.

    And only people from the Derrida/Foucalt/Lacan school of mumbo-jumbo could ever doubt the validity of the second paragraph – this paragraph having taken us from caves to the stars (well, en route anyway).

    In their jumped up po-faced po-mo arrogance they assumed that Sokal was criticising this.

    They must have creamed themselves when they saw a paper from a lefty leaning physicist with the magic word “quantum” in it. Quantum seems to have become the holy grail for quacks.

    I had to put up with this BS in the LSE in the mid-70s. Papers that were so convoluted and self referential they disappeared up their own fundaments. The authors so proud that they had read the ramblings of these French nutters and were now part of some esoteric circle.

    Of course any comment along the lines of “that is total bollocks” merely met the retort that “you really need to understand Derrida”. No. Wrong answer. What you need to do is write in plain English.

    I assume this latest addition to the collection of nutters DC manages to identify produced her article on a culturally relative laptop. Lets hope she never has to fly on a non-evidence based aeroplane. Or there again . . . . .

  • John Hooper says:

    I read the article referred to in Post 2.

    Amazing proof of Godwins Law by the po-mo Canadians.

    They do not even wait for the argument to degenerate into stalemate but actually manage to get “fascism” into the abstract.

    My head is spinning from all this mumbo-jumbo and quackery. I am off to learn about “phenomenology, Foucault, bioethics, biopolitics, and psychoanalysis. . . . and posthuman “life” in digital and mediatized contexts.”

    I may be some time . . . . . . .

  • Thanks for the comments folks, Actually this is an old post and the date got changed accidentally when I was checking it to refer to it on the Guardian site, where Barry was cited as someone whom I’d criticised unjustly. I’ll put it back to the right date at some point.

  • John Hooper says:

    A serendipitous date change then !

    Otherwise I would never have discovered this waffle.

    How on earth could you be cruel to Barry. That would be like sorely traducing Osama Bin Laden.

    In any case the square root of minus 1 equals #NUM! (acording to Excel) which is what this bullshit and hokum leaves me.

  • DMcILROY says:

    Taking the context into account, I think Lacan’s “jouissance” should be translated as orgasm, rather than enjoyment.

  • twaza1 says:

    I was was about to ask “Does this sort of paper matter?”, and then I saw that Christine Ann Barry was supported in writing her paper by the Department of Health National Co-ordinating Centre for Research Capacity and Development.

    I therefore wish to problematise the deeply political rhetorics of the protagonists of alternative medicine and their attempt to establish a multiple evidential hegemony for transcendent transformational experiences, lived-body experiences, and the gaining of meaning.

    Barry’s main rhetorical technique (besides the pretentious style) is to attack straw men (it is always men; to attack straw women would be unseemly).

    The biomedical approach is assumed to be the RCT, and just the RCT.

    For an anthropologist she is strangely blind to the fact that biomedical science is a culture, a set of processes. And she is blind to the fact that RCTs provide only a small subset of the *tentative* answers to the immense crossword puzzle that is the science of healthcare.

    A recent publication shows what alternative medicine most lacks: a critical look at itself.

    The ADVANTAGE seeding trial: a review of internal documents. K. P. Hill, J. S. Ross, D. S. Egilman, H. M. Krumholz. Ann Intern Med 2008: 149(4); 251-8.

    This qualitative study (not an RCT) found strong evidence that a large pharmaceutical company promoted one of its products by publishing seeding trials. Seeding trials are clinical studies that are designed to seem as if they answer a scientific question but primarily fulfill marketing objectives. In other words, they are marketing framed as science.

    Are there any studies by the Complementary and Alternative medicine (CAM) establishment that are designed to expose (or at least minimize the influence of) biases, mistakes, stupidity, self interest, or fraud?

    If not, do anthropologists and consider this an impossibility?

    An RCT provides results one can be confident in (to a specified degree), provided that there are no biases, mistakes, stupidity, self interest, or fraud (weakness that all humans, anthropologists, alternative medicine practitioners, and biomedical scientists display fairly frequently).

    The biomedical approach places RCTs and other studies in a process and a culture which protects the gullible by actively trying to expose bias, mistakes, stupidity, self-interest, and fraud. This work is difficult, and results are slow to arrive and underappreciated when they do. But, this, not RCTs, is what makes the biomedical approach worth defending.

    Orthodox medical care is far from perfect. Which is why the orthodox medical establishment has processess to address this.

    I could go on, (and perhaps I will someday) about other blind spots in the athropologists/post-modernists vision. But, for now I will end with one more question that I would like Barry to answer.

    In discussing a study of homeopathy, Barry says “… many of the prescriptions of Butterbur in the trial would have been inert and useless”.

    How would one know this?

    I am thinking of marketing my own Butterbur remedy. It is just coloured water, But maybe no-one could ever find out that it is inert and useless. And my bank account could have a transformational experience.

  • […] his Guardian column in 2006. I had a go at the same paper on this blog, as well as an earlier one by Christine Barry, along the same lines. There was some hilarious follow-up on badscience.net.  After this, it […]

  • […] obscure corners of the literature.  Two extreme examples are the papers by Holmes et al. and by Christine Barry.  Apart from the fact that they weren’t spoofs, both of these papers bear a close […]

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