Living Traditions: Dead Facts
Today I had the opportunity to visit the Science Museum and see for myself the infamous Living Traditions exhibit which has caused such a furore amongst the skeptical community.
I was interested to see how the Science Museum framed the content they had on what they described as alternative medical traditions, but also wanted to see if it differed fundamentally from other exhibits. Was the Living Traditions an exceptional display? Did it violate the norms of the Science Museum? Are patrons going to be misled by the information presented in the exhibition?
As such, we (I visited with four friends) viewed four areas: the ground floor exhibit, the temporary exhibit entitled “Psychoanalysis”, the Climate gallery and the Living Traditions exhibit.
Ground Floor Exhibit
The exhibit starts near the main entrance and runs along a timeline, with a variety of inventions arrayed along the timeline. Exhibits which I remember include a toothbrush, vacuum cleaner and a portable ECG machine, neatly labelled and shown next to other contemporary inventions.
What I think is worth nothing here is that the hook was purely temporal – where in time the artefact originated. There was no explanation of the artefacts, no description of what they are made from, no discussion of the problem solved, and nothing about how they changed the world. In short, this was very much a narrative based on a social history of technology.
It was interesting – I particularly enjoyed my other half’s comment that the historical ECG machine is about the same size as the LifePak ECG machines carried on ambulances today – but people came away with no greater idea about the scientific principles, theories or engineering of the devices. Indeed, it was the discussions and questions that the artefacts engendered that were of the most interest.
For example, as we arrived at St Pancras I looked over at a Eurostar train and said I thought it was amazing that I could get on a train in London and get off in Paris. At the museum, I saw a reproduction lunar lander, and waxed lyrical about the fact that humans, in the space of 50 or so years, moved from being able to get a plane off the ground to landing on the moon. The fracking moon! That’s awesome – humans are amazing, and achieve phenomenal heights (literally!) when they put their minds to it.
Psychoanalysis is arguably one of the most pervasive theories of the twentieth century. Crudely put, Sigmund Freud theorised that it’s all about winkies, mimsies, mums, dads and fantasies, and theorised that by resolving subconscious desires (such as the desire to shag one’s mother or father) one could address personal and interpersonal issues.
Psychoanalysis has long been viewed as pseudoscience – a proposition which shares many of the characteristics of science but which is not subject to one or more of the normal constraints of such theories. Karl Popper criticised it by pointing out that it could sidestep criticism (well, no, Jimmy isn’t admitting to wanting to have sex with his mother, but he’s still in denial), and since theories which purport to explain everything effectively explain nothing it is discounted as a valid theory.
The exhibition was billed as “celebrating psychoanalysis today”, and had a number of, well, interesting, artefacts. The one which was the most fun (particularly as we had a 13 year old with us) was the sculpture of penises and hands in red silicone entitled Bloody Haemorrhaging Narcissus.
The exhibition seemed to be structured around various representations of how unconscious (I thought that subconscious was the word used in classical Freudianism?) desires can be manifested, including a cabinet of the every day, which reminded me of a Maslowian hierarchy of pathological and fetishistic needs (beer bottles, lipstick, iPhones, narcotics, fast cars and high heels).
I’m not sure that people would have left the exhibit any more educated about what psychoanalysis is (or purports to be), but again, the exhibition promoted discussion. And not a small amount of horror in my friend’s daughter
We then found our way along to the Climate Gallery, which involved going downstairs, along through halls and up more stairs. I was interested to see this exhibition space which was opened by Prince Charles, who used it to promote organic food (what else?). It was a blue-lit space, filled with interactive digital displays, a floor that seemed to be some kind of virtual world and a number of artefacts.
The entrance to the space is dominated by a large screen, on which are projected the following phrases:
Science can show us the carbon cycle is being disrupted…
…and how that adds more greenhouse gases.
Science can show us what’s already changing…
…and what might happen next.
Science and technology can help us respond to the challenges…
…What are our options for tomorrow?
Science can show us how Earth’s climate system works…
…and what can cause it to change
I found this peculiar, as it is generally accepted that science not only *can* show us these things (with the exception of number three), but that it has shown them. The third statement is interesting because it corresponds to what will happen in the future (and, in a series of statements showing incredible reluctance to be definitive about science, shows an incredibly scientistic approach).
I was interested by the display showing a section of a large tree, and a section from a stalactite. Next to it was a small caption (shown to the left) which briefly explained proxies; I didn’t look at the touch screen (and I was slightly put off by this, because I don’t want to have to work to get the information!), but I have no reason to believe it didn’t adequately explain the theories behind proxy data.
There was also a well presented video which presented the theory behind greenhouse gases (energy being stored in the covalent bonds between atoms in molecules such as carbon dioxide and methane) which was surprisingly in depth. But it wasn’t new, and people who have paid any attention the discourse are probably familiar with the scientific ideas behind climate change – it’s just their conclusions that differ!
Then some cockroaches ran in, and shouted down at the “puny humans” downstairs from the gallery that climate change meant they were going to win.
And that ultimately is the point, isn’t it? The planet *has* undergone climate change before, and climate change doesn’t threaten the planet. It just happens to threaten the environment favoured by a particular bunch of primates…
So what was the narrative? It seems to me that it was “humans are terrible, look what they’ve done, look how science identified the problem, and look, science will fix it to”. I’m not sure that’s a particularly useful approach to the issue; for starters, I generally find that kicking people in the shins before trying to communicate with them is counter-productive. It then presents science both as the prosecutor (“you are guilty of crimes against your planet!”) and as its saviour (“but we’ll save you!”), a story which seems strangely familiar to those familiar with Christian salvation theology.
Ultimately, I think this choice of mural on the back wall was revealing. Should we be living in an age of guilt, anxiety and seeking to rectify the sins of our forefathers?
The Living Traditions exhibit is located in the very eaves of the Science Museum within The Science and Art of Medicine exhibition. It’s firmly established within an historical and anthropological display which discusses where medicine has come from, and different attitudes to health.
Let me start by briefly discussing what health is. Well, the first problem with that is that “health” can’t be briefly discussed. For example, if you walked down the street and asked fifty people what they meant by health, there’d probably be sixty or seventy answers.
Ask me if I’m healthy, and on a good day I’ll likely say “yes”, whilst ignoring the chronic genetic condition which means I don’t produce antibodies and the psoriasis which means I have to take methotrexate (a chemotherapy drug) to stop shards of my skin dropping off me akimbo.
The fact is, you can’t discuss health without acknowledging the cultural and personal limitations of what health actually means to the people discussing it. And so, Living Traditions explores the cultural meaning of health in cultures where biomedicine is not the norm (and in many cases is simply not available thanks to the cost limitations).
Even in the Western (superior?) world, there are different conceptions, and there are conditions which don’t respond particularly well to the biomedical approach. A classic example of this is chronic pain which doesn’t respond to therapies normally offered by services.
And so we come to the infamous displays which are said to promote acupuncture and homeopathy.
I think the first point is that, as a friends daughter stated, “it’s all about history and what people believe”, and a historian friend stated “it’s clearly anthropology”.
Second, there is a fundamental different between describing what is and what ought to be. Indeed, so common is this form of argument that it’s described as the naturalistic fallacy, and I have seen many a criticism of an argument in which, for example, a bishop is criticised for damning homosexual behaviour on the basis it’s “not natural”.
Third, the acupuncture board states there is a body literature looking into the effectiveness of acupuncture, which is hardly uncritical of the practice.
Fourth, and to me perhaps the most pertinent, is that nobody questions that acupuncture, homeopathy and other therapies have an effect. People who have an opportunity to talk about the issues for an extended period of time with a practitioner will doubtless gain an insight into the issues and cope with it better, and the very act of doing something – acupuncture gets the individual to practice breathing patterns as the needles are inserted, and also increases awareness of the physical locations – will have an effect. After all, the people using the therapies aren’t stupid, and are often desperate to find something that will allow them to regain some control over a distressing aspect of their life.
The question isn’t about effect, it’s about efficacy – is it the therapy which is causing the effect or is it (bluntly) the placebo (or nocebo) effect which is being put to good use?
The thing I found really fascinating is the number of medical traditions which use the pulse as a key diagnostic indicator. I am very keen to see the descriptions from Ayurveda making their way into patient notes
The Living Traditions display is hardly out of place in a museum which explores historical context, cultural influences, epistemology and responses to a subject more than it explains scientific theories, and this caused me to reflect on the question asked by Rebekah Higgit in her wonderful blog post What are science museums for?.
The fact is, science, as an abstract conceptual set of knowledge, is pretty useless and uninteresting. It becomes interesting when it’s put to use, explains something about the world us, or viewed in different ways by different people. By framing science and technology within the human condition – by exploring it from an historical perspective, or looking at its cultural influences or how different people have used the same things in different way – it makes the subject accessible to us humans, constrained as we are by the need for a narrative structure.
I don’t think that science museums are there to teach – we get enough of that in school, and frankly it’s normally irrelevant and therefore boring. On that basis, science museums can only get people to think, to ask questions, to have their curiosity piqued and to promote discussions.
Other people have other priorities and may try to impose their own objectives onto other people’s projects, but this can clearly never work. After all, if I expect the governments new super-duper computer system to solve all of society’s ills, I am doomed to disappointment.
I also have another question: if the positivist world of the skeptics made it into a museum, what would it look like? Just facts, divorced of the humanity which gives them life? I’m not actually sure that’s somewhere I would want to go, and I’m sure that young people would reject another classroom lesson. I revel in the achievement of my fellow humans; after all, who wouldn’t be excited about our understanding of genetics, subatomic particles and medicines?
In conclusion, it strikes me that the very debate about the appropriateness of the Living Traditions is a mark of its success. And I find that deliciously ironic.