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.


Introduction to the Psychoanalysis exhibit

Introduction to the Psychoanalysis exhibit

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.

Bloody Haemorrhaging Narcissus

Bloody Haemorrhaging Narcissus (Tim Noble and Sue Webster) 2009

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 😀

Climate Gallery

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.

Science can show us how the carbon cycle is being disrupted, and how that add more greenhouse gases.

Science can show...

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).

Proxy Measures

Proxy Measures - next to the stalactite and dendrochronology sections

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!

Cockroaches shout at puny humans

Cockroaches shout at puny humans

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…

House of Cards

A house of cards - a metaphor for the Earth's climate?

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 Science and Art of Medicine

Wellcome to The Science and Art of Medicine

Living Traditions

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.

Acupuncture on the NHS

The Needle in the Haystack: Acupuncture on the NHS

Choosing Homeopathy

Choosing Homeopathy: A (dilute) Solution to Health Problems?

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?


Pulse: A Throbbing Constant Across Traditions

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.


About David Crowe

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

20 responses to “Living Traditions: Dead Facts”

  1. mariawolters says :

    I find this quote from your post really interesting:

    “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.”

    Well, I do go to museums to learn, and I take my children to museums to have fun AND to learn (if, as, and when they are in the mood); and what you’ve written so far means that the Science Museum has dropped precipitously down my list of places to visit in London. I’d rather go to the British Museum, where I’ve never been properly, revisit the V&A, take Richard Fortey’s Dry Store Room No. 1 through the Natural History Museum, … you get the drift.

    I think the Connect! gallery and the communication exhibition of the National Museum of Scotland (and, come to think of it, some of the stuff at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh) are excellent examples of how to communicate science, the facts and findings and processes, i.e. how to teach, without having to go all anthropological and histsci. Not that I don’t mind such a take on things – it’s just not what draws me into a science exhibit or museum, for that matter.

    How the world works is fascinating, and I love seeing it explained well, and to engage with exhibits that combine tactile, visual, and maybe even auditory means to communicate key points. That to me is the bare bones of a science and technology museum. If it doesn’t even do that well, I’m not bothered.

    • davidwaldock says :

      Thanks Maria. I suspect science museums are more about the human side than we realise, and I should point out that we didn’t visit all of the exhibits. Certainly, Launchpad has an excellent reputation as an engaging “how does this work?” exhibit which is aimed specifically (but not exclusively!) at younger visitors, but wasn’t something we saw (and therefore not something on which I comment in this post).

      Even then, I think a key role is to contextualise science, which is what happens when you consider consequences and and implications of theories and principles.

      Coincidentally, I didn’t say it above but one of the fellow attendees also said they wanted to learn and (particularly in the climate gallery) didn’t feel that the displays achieved that goal. I also enjoyed the history of tech display and Living Traditions much more than Psychoanalysis and the Climate Gallery, but there’s bound to be an element of taste in that!

      Finally, as a question (to anyone) can any museum avoid being a cultural space?

  2. mariawolters says :

    No, all museums are cultural spaces – but there are shifts in emphasis and weightings that can be applied. As we discussed on Twitter, different client / visitor groups will expect different emphases depending on the stated purpose of their museum and their own intentions, goals, and convictions. It’s mainly a case of matching the two.

  3. Scote says :

    “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.”

    Then you haven’t been to what I’d consider the better science museums, those museum’s mission being to teach about science. Getting people interested is part of teaching.

    If you want a museum that gets people to merely discuss things you should go to a “museum of interesting things.” Science is the tool we use to separate what is true from what merely seems to be true. A science museum that omits the conclusions of science has abrogated the “science” part of “science museum.”

    • davidwaldock says :

      I think I’d differentiate (possibly falsely) between teaching – the process of absorbing a set of factual information normally being fed by a teacher – and learning/exploring, all of which are a subset of education. I’m happy to have my ontology corrected 😉

      I think teaching (as I’ve defined it) is deeply counter-productive in informal environments, such as a science museum, where the opportunity to view different aspects of familiar subjects or to be challenged by alternative view points, are paramount.

  4. Stephen Curry says :

    David – very interesting post and perspecitve. But I think that your question: “if the positivist world of the skeptics made it into a museum, what would it look like?” is a bit of a narrow caricature of the skeptical concerns that have been raised by the exhibition. As far as I recall, no-one who has blogged about this has discounted the importance of taking a cultural approach to the museum’s presentation of science (though some commenters may have expressed more extreme views).

  5. Ken Pidcock says :

    Thank you for the photographs. I’m afraid I side with the critics. Both acupuncture and homeopathy have been subjected to extensive scientific investigation, and there seems little mention of this. There has been much debate over the place of acupuncture within the NHS, and a growing medical literature exploring the question of its effectiveness. Indeed there is. Is it too much to ask for a summary of the conclusions? As to homeopathy, it would have been nice to see something along the lines of this statement from the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: There are challenges in studying homeopathy and controversies regarding the field. This is largely because a number of its key concepts are not consistent with the current understanding of science, particularly chemistry and physics.

    • davidwaldock says :

      It’s worth pointing out that the museum doesn’t criticise Newtonian physics (or psychoanalysis for that matter) either.

      I have a great deal of sympathy for what you say about homeopathy, but I’m just not convinced that a clearly anthropological exhibit is the place to say “Dhruvi’s parents are of course wrong, all the evidence says that it’s just water”, when in fact I would guess that Dhruvi’s didn’t have a choice. And clearly Ian experienced a benefit from the acupuncture, probably because it gave him a measure of control, just like lots of people with intractable pain conditions do.

      As sated though: that’s about effect, no efficacy.

  6. Rebekah Higgitt says :

    Thanks for this post, David, which provides much of the context that some of the other commentaries have lacked. I would say, though, for those wondering what the SM’s up to, that there is much more to be seen than the galleries you have outlined: we have mathematics and computing considered, the history of flight, a very thorough and pretty intellectual history of technology since the Industrial Revolution, galleries dealing with space exploration, astronomy, agriculture, materials etc, not to mention talks, explainers and educatonal programmes.

    I am, though, confused by Maria’s comments at the top. If you go to the BM or V&A you tend have to work even harder than in these exhibits to be “taught” by them. I was in the BM last week and was struck by how little interpretation is provided within the galleries.And why, as she seems to imply, should the SM be in the business of catering for a different kind of visitor than other museums? If it only attracts and speaks to people who have already developed a sense of what science is and how it should be presented, then I think it has rather failed in it’s wider remit.

    The Edinburgh examples of science displays that Maria approves of are very much in the tradition of science centres rather than science museums (ie very interactive, focusing on basic principles, lack history, context and object displays). The SM does this within Launch Pad and elsewhere, but it, happily, does so much more. I wonder, though, if Maria recognises how much history of science and technology is actually displayed elsewhere within the National Museums of Scotland. They are dressed up as straight history, though, so it passes almost unnoticed. The Chamber Street Museum, though, started life as a museum of technology, science and industry, just as the London SM did – there are actually a lot of similarities there, but because it is no longer called a science museum we can avoid the kind of misconceptions that this debate has revealed.

  7. Chris Lawson says :

    David, why is it not appropriate for a science museum to make criticisms of an unscientific tradition? It doesn’t have to be worded as provocatively as you did — in fact, your wording strikes me as a bit of a strawman if you ask me — but since the museum does imply that the treatment worked, then it is making a statement of effectiveness.

    Also, the museum is dead wrong in claiming that “like cures like” is an ancient traditional belief. It was invented wholesale by Hahnemann in 1796. Since the museum can’t even report basic facts without getting sucked into the PR speak created by homeopaths, then you’ll have to forgive me for thinking it has failed in its mission as a science museum.

  8. Rebekah Higgitt says :

    I have to correct you view that the Science Museum claimed the treatment worked. Have a look at the picture above: it is clearly a patient reporting that (in their view) the treatment made them feel better and the text panel as a whole includes plenty of “believes”, “thinks” etc.

    Also, the idea of “like cures like” is, in fact, an ancient one, although homeopathy is much more recent. Hippocrates and his followers declared “opposites cure opposites”, but that was in deliberate response to the older ideas of sympathetic magic. The latter survived, however, and was still being investigated by the likes of Robert Boyle in the 17th century.

    • davidwaldock says :

      PS – like cures like is a derivative of sympathetic magic, which I’m sure has been around longer than the late C18.

      EDIT: my replies to Chris appear to have been hijacked and now look like they’re replies to Rebekah, sorry!

  9. davidwaldock says :

    Thanks for your comment Chris.

    To answer your question, I didn’t say the museum shouldn’t criticise “unscientific traditions”, I said the museum shouldn’t criticise it within this specific context. I think it’s deeply inappropriate to criticise the decisions made by people who are desperate for help and accept the help that is offered to them; chronic pain is notoriously unresponsive to biomedical approaches, and biomedicine is simply not accessible – either through lack of provision or lack of affordability – to many people in poorer countries. I would characterise my examples as caricatures rather than strawmen, but I’d not think that invalidates the point.

    And forgive me for being pedantic, but homeopathy and acupuncture (and probably all of the other medical traditions) do have an effect and are therefore effective. In the cases given, Dhurvi and her family felt better able to cope with Dhurvi’s condition, and Ian was less disabled from the pain. That’s an effect.

    Now, we can argue until the (holy) cows come home about whether or not the effect is from the remedy itself or from the patients interaction with the care provider – that’s efficacy not effectiveness – and about whether it’s efficient (ie cost effective) or ethical (I’d say no to all three, personally), but that’s not the issue.

    The issue is that Ian and Dhurvi reported their stories, and imposing our “superior” scientific knowledge won’t change their perception of what happened, nor will it help others in those situations. I for one would not want to look my nan in the face and tell her she can’t have a relaxing session of acupuncture to help relieve her chemotherapy-induced nausea, nor would I want to deny the limited healthcare options to the poorest in society.

    And whilst I remain sympathetic to the “scientific” position, I can’t help but feel that calls to criticise the experiences of people massively over-simplify the situation, and ignore the social implications of the position.

    A well-known skeptic said, “I don’t want people to die [unnecessarily]”. I’d go one further and say “I don’t want people to suffer unnecessarily” and I’d add to that “I don’t want my actions to contribute to that suffering”. As Rebekah said, I’m all for criticisms of homeopathy, but the right criticisms in the right place at the right time.

    This, in my opinion, is neither.

  10. Thony C. says :

    David, your whole post is excellent but you have exceeded yourself with your wonderful answer to Chris.

    Chris, the principle “like cures like” can be found in the works of Paracelsus in the 16th century and as David correctly says it only a formulation of a principle in sympathetic magic that is much older. In fact Hahnemann argued rather unconvincingly that he had not in fact borrowed the phrase from Paracelsus.

  11. Scote says :

    “And forgive me for being pedantic, but homeopathy and acupuncture (and probably all of the other medical traditions) do have an effect and are therefore effective.”

    No more so than dowsing for water is “effective”. You are using non-sceitfic equivocation to make your claim. By your thinking, everything which can have an effect is “effective.” Do wi-fi transmitters cause immune sufficiency and headaches? By your definition they do because some people think they do. Does raping a virgin really cure AIDS? By your argument, yes, it is effective, because some people feel that it works. You are, perhaps unknowingly, arguing for pre-scientific thinking.

    In the scientific context, no homeopathy is not effective, it has no biologically active treatment. It only “works” if people think they are getting treatment, and then it only affects non-specific subjective measures. And even then, the placebo effect only works on some people. It doesn’t affect objective measures like tumor size, etc.

    Science is a tool that helps separate what seems to be true from what is actually true. Homeopathy seems to work, but large scale, rigorous studies show that homeopathic medicine works no differently than water. It is theater, not medicine. And the omission of the conclusions of science, omitting the science part where science is used to separate what seems to be true from what is true, turns the exhibit from a potentially excellent teaching teaching opportunity for science into a tool of misinformation, using a the imprimatur of a science museum in advertising for anti-scientific medical practitioners. And your arguments are in support of that position.

    “I’m all for criticisms of homeopathy, but the right criticisms in the right place at the right time.”

    Hmmm…what could be a more appropriate place than a **science** museum? It isn’t like folks are saying the science museum should storm homeopathic practitioners offices and force them to set up science displays.

    • davidwaldock says :


      Thanks for your comments, although I suspect I’d probably take them with a good deal more seriousness if you had the courage of your convictions and gave a real name and email address. It’s disingenuous trying to discuss something when you don’t know anything about them.

      “Non-scientific equivocation” – just to be clear, equivocation is an objection which is raised when someone uses one word in two different ways, and as a result the reader cannot differentiate between the two meanings which renders the conclusions invalid. I have repeatedly defined the words “effect” and “effective”, and introduced other words to allow clear differentiation. That’s not equivocation, that’s pure up front definitionism, which I did to facilitate the debate.

      Now, you could argue that the common use of effect also embraces the meaning of efficacy, which I might even accept, but in fact the Science Museum, as Rebekah points out, doesn’t claim that they have an effect. They report that people who used them reported a benefit – and the statements are enquoted so you know it’s not the curator (and therefore the museum) making the claim. Heavens, if a thirteen year old could tell that it wasn’t being presented as “science”, I’m sure we can expect other people to come to the same conclusion!

      As for whether it’s non-scientific or not, of course it’s “non-scientific”, which is to say we’re currently arguing the pros and cons of an exhibit in the science museum. That’s not a debate about science, that’s a debate about values, so it’s scientificness is neither here nor there.

      However, bravo on the beautiful strawmen about electromagnetic sensitivity (EMS) and ‘raping virgins’; coincidentally, is this a new slightly milder form of Godwin’s law? I’m not convinced that accusing the person stood opposite one on an argument of advocating rape is particularly constructive!

      There’s two fundamental differences, I would suggest, between EMS & rape and acupuncture & the other Living Traditions, and keep your eyes open because they are quite subtle.

      1) The Living Traditions exhibit didn’t have displays claiming that EMS and raping virgins had an effect for anyone.

      2) Neither are established medical traditions.

      However, if one were to look at such issues as an anthropologist, one might draw on concepts of desperation, looking at the origins of the beliefs and considering how (for example) EMS has created a mutual support community in which people draw strength from people who are experiencing the same symptoms as them. However, I’d be surprised if I had to put signs up reminding people that raping people is generally considered bad form, as such social niceties seem to be universally recognised across a wide range of cultures, and frankly if someone did decide to use an exhibit in any science museum as a defence for sexual offence charges, I think there would be much laughter in court, and possibly the odd guilty verdict.

      It seems to me that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what anthropology is and how it does its job. It’s an observational social discipline in which the observer draws on a range of sources to study the behaviour of members of well-defined groups in an everyday setting in order to draw out the meanings, functions and consequences of human actions and institutional practices, and the implications thereof (with thanks to Hammersley and Atkinson).

      If an anthropologist starts projecting their cultural norms onto the group they’re trying to understand, they will fail, because, just as you cannot understand a game of chess by using the rules of snakes and ladders, you also cannot understand the culture and actions of (say) autistic patients and their families in India by using the rules of middle-class Britain. Hell, if Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has taught us anything it’s that people can’t even use the rules of middle-class Britain to understand the Traveller communities. Instead, one has to tease out the local rules, and use those to understand the situation.

      This isn’t about being pre-scientific, un-scientific, anti-scientific, pseudo-scientific, patho-scientific or any of the other demarcational adjectives, it’s about finding out how life is for people beyond one’s experience. That’s just not a science issue, it’s a discussion about the values and hopes of people, which cannot be reduced to scientific claims. And Living Traditions provides such a space, an environment in which we get a glimpse of the lives of people in rural India and people living with chronic pain, lives quite different to our own.

      If one cannot suspend one’s own beliefs to try to gain some insight into the lives of other people, then I have to say I think that’s a pretty sad state of affairs. Empathy seems to me to be core to our shared humanity.

      As for where is appropriate, typically policy debates (which is what this is, because much as you keep bringing up the technical side of it, such things are broadly irrelevant to debates in the public sphere) are best carried out in public. I’d suggest a campaign like the 10:23 campaign (which I analysed for a recent project, see is a good way to engage, or you could perhaps try to influence your MP’s position on the provision of alternative therapies on the NHS. We’re quite proud in Kent to have shut down the homeopathic hospital, so perhaps you could lobby your PCTs (or GP consortia when they’re up and running) to withdraw funding from there.

      However, the Science Museum – or for that matter any other museum – is probably not the place from which to run your campaign; and that’s one of the reasons that the Climate Change Gallery doesn’t really work for me, it’s preachy.

      And if I wanted to be preached at, I’d go to church. Or are you suggesting that science is somehow a replacement faith?

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