Sunday, November 09, 2008


There are two kinds of environmentalists. One kind which is a scarce breed consists of the ones who are willing to do cost-benefit analysis and apply rational scientific thinking based on available facts to suggest policy. The other kind, sadly even now the majority, are against nuclear power, are not averse to hijacking oil tankers to make their point, and are more concerned about the fate of koala bears than about prudent science-based solutions to climate change. These environmentalists often, but not always, include far-left anti-corporate activists. Many of them tout "holistic farming" and vague notions of glorified "scientific solutions" to the world's food, medical and environmental problems. Most jarringly, they hold many scientists in contempt and subscribe to the strange postmodernist view of science, wherein science is "just another way of looking at reality".

Vandana Shiva, who has a PhD. in physics from the University of Western Ontario, is unfortunately one of them.

Sovietologist brings one of her crazier articles to my attention. According to Shiva, the traditional reductionist approach to science is not only incorrect but responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Shiva thinks that the reductionist approach has harmed science and essentially should be side-lined and abandoned in favour of a more generalized "holistic" approach. Thrown out of the window are the benefits to billions that reductionist science has brought.

According to Shiva,
"In order to prove itself superior to alternative modes of knowledge and be the only legitimate mode of knowing, reductionist science resorts to suppression and falsification of facts and thus commits violence against science itself, which ought to be a search for truth. We discuss below how fraudulent this claim to truth is."
Shiva then helpfully rails against every application of science from medicine to agriculture to energy. I don't think it's even worth discussing the many glaring flaws and rampant cherry picking in her ramblings, but her opinions of medicine especially rankled me
Simple ailments have been cured over centuries by appropriate use of concoctions made from plants and minerals found in nature. 'Scientific medicine' removes the diversity by isolating 'active' ingredients or by synthesizing chemical combinations. Such processing first involves violence against the complex balance inherent in natural resources. And then, when the chemical is introduced into the human body, it is often a violation of human physiology.
Little does Shiva realize that by obfuscating the issue and presenting medical therapy as a "violation of human physiology" she is obscuring the fact that that's what precisely any foreign substance introduced in the body does. And by the way, perhaps Shiva has forgotten the billions of lives that "active ingredients" have saved all over the world. She gives the example of the psychoactive drug reserpine isolated from the beautiful flowering plant Rauwolfia serpentina. It was perhaps the first drug that brought dignity and benefits to countless patients of psychoses. Then, it began showing unacceptable side effects. But Shiva not only does not stress the benefits, but stops here. There is no discussion of scores of future anti-psychotic drugs which were focused on reducing these side-effects and improving efficacy. Even today we don't have the perfect drug for schizophrenia, but intense efforts continue in both academia and industry. For Shiva these efforts are trivial and even misguided.

Not surprisingly then, Shiva launches into an litany of benefits for "natural" concoctions. As with other extreme propaganda, there is a shred of truth to this contention. There is no doubt that many Ayurvedic medicines bring real benefits. However, there is merit to isolating the active ingredient from any such natural source and modifying it to reduce toxicity. That is how most drugs have been developed, by starting from an isolated natural molecule and then tuning its properties to reduce toxicity and improve potency. Shiva needs to educate herself a little about the process of drug discovery.

However, Shiva's real agenda, hidden all along, becomes clear at the end. If postmodernist leanings don't move you, compassionate socialist ones surely will:
But it is highly unlikely that medical science and pharamaceutical establishments will pay heed. For the reductionist medical science cannot but manufacture reductionist products and undermine the balance inherent in natural products. The multinationals that produce synthetic drugs in pursuit of fabulous profits and ignore their toxic side effects do not care. When they are forbidden to sell some harmful drugs in the home countries, they find a lucrative market in the third world, where the élites, including the medical establishment, are usually bewitched by anything that is offered as scientific, especially if it comes wrapped in pretty pay-offs. They give a free hand to multinationals to buy medicinal plants at dirt-cheap rates and sell the processed pills in the third-world countries at exorbitant prices and at enormous cost to the health of the people. The élites cannot accept that it would be more equitable socially, cheaper economically, conductive to self-reliance politically, and more beneficial medically for the third-world countries to use the plants locally according to time-tested indigenous pharmacology.

While multinational drug companies and the third-world political élites are out for profits, the third-world intellectual élites, eager to prove their scientific temper, join in a chorus to denounce indigenous therapeutics and related knowledge systems as hocus-pocus and their practice as quackery. It is through this mixture of misinformation, falsehood and bribes that a reductionist medical science has established its monopoly on medical knowledge in many societies.
That's right. The billions of lives that have been saved by the "elitist" multinational drug corporations are nothing compared to the virulent and rampant capitalism they have have infected third world populations with. If it's a private corporation, then by default it must be part of a global conspiracy to oppress poor people in developing countries.

As noted before, Shiva's entire essay contains too much cherry picking, straw man arguments and misleading information to criticize here. And again, Shiva tugs at the fine line between some legitimate objections to reductionist science and a full-blown irrational attack on its methods. We don't need Shiva to tell us that reductionist methods have their limitations; consider the recent emergence of fields like systems biology where scientists are trying to grapple to get a better perspective on overcoming these limitations. But no serious scientific critic of reductionist science will deny the immense benefits that it has served us since the dawn of humanity. Almost all the fruits of scientific research that we enjoy have come from reductionist science, and that will continue to be so. Disparaging wholesale the benefits of reductionist science and deriding the huge windfall of discoveries that reductionist science had bequeathed to us is a tremendous insult to the very edifice of scientific discovery. But then that's the standard agenda of the postmodernist-socialists; to contend that science is "just another way" of looking at reality and to charge scientists with having a "monopoly over the truth".

I have a simple suggestion for Shiva which I am sure she would not be loathe to accept. Next time she suffers from a deadly pathogenic infection, she should not take any antibiotic or drug manufactured by the evil companies. She should subsist on coconut water, isabgol and curd to ward off her illness. Shiva would then be truly walking the talk. Not only would she be proving her point about reductionist science doing her more harm than good and about antibiotics simply being one way among many to "look at reality", but her admirable bed-ridden efforts would be a true slap in the face of those evil multinational drug companies.

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