The Treatment of Alternatives at the Science Museum
I recently went to the Science Museum in London. One of the galleries within the museum is dedicated to the history of medicine. It contains a huge number of items from the Wellcome Collection, showing how our understanding of health and disease has evolved, from invoking evil spirits, through bloodletting, to the evidence-based therapies of today.
There have been some very exotic ideas put forward in the search for an explanation as to why we get sick and heal in a seemingly unpredictable way. Accordingly, a variety of weird and wonderful tools have been developed over the centuries to put these ideas into practise, a range of which are on display in the Museum. Accompanying these items are explanatory panels, allowing the visitor to go beyond pure mystery towards understanding and appreciation for the place different theories have in the modern understanding of medicine.
Mostly, these panels put discounted ideas in their proper place. Astrology, religion and occultism are all described in the same terms as humor theory and phrenology. The language used makes it clear that these ideas should hold no sway in the decision-making process of modern healthcare. Rather, they are “beliefs”, “supposed” to work in such-and-such a way. Without being patronising towards those who genuinely held these beliefs (notice the past tense), they could almost be seen as quaint. Indeed, it was not until 150 years ago or so that going to see a doctor became a useful thing to do with regards to your health. Before then, it was largely a matter of superstition and guesswork, with a considerable proportion of intervention doing more harm than good for the patient. [Interestingly, it seems that bloodletting has gone the other way, see this site for more.]
One area of the gallery, however, takes a different approach. A number of “alternative” types of medicine are on display, such as acupuncture and herbalism. In the case of these “living traditions”, it seems that all it takes for the ideas to be given credibility is for enough people to still believe in them, despite a lack of evidence for their efficacy. These issues are similar to those brought up in the debate over the UK Government’s funding for homeopathy, which I have written about before.
It seems unfair to me to put these treatments on a special platform of acceptance, when more exotic beliefs are rightfully portrayed as incorrect primarily on the basis that no-one believes in them any more. On the other hand, given the sheer size of the Science Museum (and indeed, the Wellcome Collection), I am sure they must have more important things to worry about, and limited resources with which to fix this stuff.
It is important to note that this is not the original incarnation of this part of the gallery. Apparently, it used to be a lot worse, including endorsements for organisations which actively promote the use of unscientific practices for treatments. To their credit, the Science Museum did listen to some of the complaints. You can read more about this here, here, here, here and here. Overall, though, it is a bit disappointing to see this kind of thing from a pair of organisations who are seen as leaders in the world of science communication.
I leave you with a couple of humourous clips about critical thinking and so-called “alternative” worldviews:
First, Dara O’Briain on critical thinking, being a nerd, and quackery, including the classic line,
If science thought it knew everything, it’d stop.
Second, Tim Minchin on being polite at dinner parties.