An Inconsistent Truth?

The Science Museum in London is a national shrine to human ingenuity. Its existence is a testament to the value that our society places on inquiry and innovation, its worth paradoxically underscored by the fact that, even in these impecuious times, entry is still free.

The museum sits grandly on Exhibition Road, just around the corner from my laboratory at Imperial College. Some lunchtimes I like to drop in, just to sit among the leviathans in the steam hall or to take a quick peek at some of the brassy instruments. There is a solidity and a magnificence to many of the exhibitions. It is a favourite place.

I was therefore surprised last week to come across a dispute about an exhibition on alternative medicine at the museum. A guest post by Alex Davenport on Marianne Baker’s blog criticised the Living Medical Traditions exhibition for its presentation of practices such as homeopathy and acupuncture without any accompanying evaluation of their worth. Prompted by his critique, the science museum responded on their own blog, defending the exhibition as one that provided “anthropological and sociological perspective on medical practices”. The redoubtable David Colquhoun was also critical of the low level of the scientific content in the exhibition and Marianne and Alex re-visited the argument in The Guardian.

On all these blogs quite a discussion ensued — some of it cantankerous (a ‘firestorm’ according to one participant) — about the proper manner for the science museum to present scientific information to the public. Prominent in support of the museum was Rebekah Higgitt at the Whewell’s Ghost history of science blog, who wrote to defend the anthropological, sociological and historical approach they had taken. She took to task those commenters who claimed the only way for the museum to improve the public understanding of science “is to tell them some science”.

This narrow view of the role of science museums has already been satirised — such is the fearsome speed of the blogosphere — and rightly so, but this response doesn’t address the argument put forward by Davenport,  Baker, and Colquhoun or what is for me the most interesting substance of the discussion. The sometimes testy blog conversation had echoes of an earlier exchange on the skeptical approach to astrology. Since I have just read Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, a wonderful and wise book on the collision of science and non-science, and been wondering about modes of scientific communication, I thought I’d take a closer look.

So yesterday I went to the museum.

Anatomical Man

Anatomical Man

The Living Medical Traditions exhibition is just one part of the much larger Science and Art of Medicine Gallery on the 5th floor of the museum. The gallery is a packed maze of glass cabinets — the exhibition relies almost wholly on an amazing and often wonderfully gruesome array of artefacts: scalpels, microscopes, eviscerated models and prosthetics. Starting with Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman practices, the gallery traces the development of modern medicine through the middle ages, into the Enlightenment and right up to the present day. There is a clear narrative about how the development of a scientific and experimental approach to physiology and disease has brought us — not always linearly — to our present understanding. The room may be frustratingly dim but many, many of the exhibits are brilliant. You should go and see it.

In the middle of the gallery, and clearly demarcated from the rest, you will find the Living Medical Traditions exhibition. There are notices at the entrance to explain its purpose. Since this purpose is at the root of the dispute, I will quote them in full. At one entrance there is:

Living Medical Traditions

Medical traditions have developed in all parts of the world. Here we describe different medical traditions. In contrast to scientifically based biomedicine, which is a relatively new approach to medical practice, some of these traditions stretch back over thousands of years.

In this section of the gallery, we have chosen to present four medical traditions: Ayurvdea, Unani Tibb, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and African medical traditions

Across the world, millions of people use these traditions. For example, 40% of people in China, a country home to nearly a quarter of the world’s population, use TCM clinics as their first choice.

The point is made that this part of the exhibition presents material that is different from “scientifically based biomedicine”.  However, that boundary is blurred by the way in which some of the material is presented. For example, part of the display on Traditional Chinese Medicine describes the work of Professor Shi Zaixiang who combines traditional approaches with “cutting edge” biomedicine. How that combination works is not explained. The display on African traditional medicine also describes — but does not explain — joint approaches to treatment by traditional healers and biomedical workers.

Also at the entrance is the following introduction:

Living Medical Traditions

When people fall ill the type of treatment they seek often depends on where they live.

This area of the gallery illustrates healing practices from around the world using objects collected by businessman Henry Wellcome, who died in 1936, and more recent material collected by the Science Museum.

Ayurveda, Unani Tibb, Traditional Chinese Medicine and African medical traditions are all explored. The area also features a number of personal stories from around the world that show how individuals choose medical treatments from different traditions.

A valid strategy in my opinion, but in what sense are these practices being explored?As a further notice explains, the exhibition is structured around the accounts of a small number of individual patients and practitioners:

Personal Stories

Around the world, medical traditions coexist, interact, compete and combine.

Here we describe local cases where individuals have chosen treatments from more than one medical tradition. Some visit practitioners who mix knowledge and techniques from different sources.

Individuals choose a practitioner for many reasons. Their choices may be guided by their personal belief systems or limited by geography or cost.

This is a potentially fascinating approach to the subject of traditional medical practices and one that is by no means out of place in a science museum. There is an acknowledgement that traditions intersect in complex ways that depend on local culture with more modern approaches to healthcare. But the material on display is too superficial to do the subject much justice. There are testimonies from individuals — some of them extremely interesting — but that is about all. In my mind each account raised intriguing but unanswered questions. There was no exploration of the individual experiences.

One story from Nepal recounted the case of Pasang, a woman who was injured in a fall and was treated at a nearby hospital. But she also sought out the ministration of a local shaman because she feared the fall may have been caused by a angry deity who needed to be appeased. Why did she choose both treatments rather than one or the other? Did she recover quicker because of the attentions of the priest? On these matters she is silent.

Professor Shi Zaixiang of Beijing University, whom I mentioned above, treated a group of patients who were all suffering nausea, vomiting, hearing problems and bouts of vertigo. Though his modern training suggested they had Ménière’s Disease, his traditional understanding suggested that “their qi energy wasn’t circulating correctly” and so also informed his selection of herbal remedies. But there is no comment from the Professor as to how he melds his modern and traditional outlooks. How, I wondered, does he reconcile the modern understanding of energy with the ancient? How, for him, does qi energy relate to the concept of energy that developed — in a fascinating way — from the studies of physiology and thermodynamics that were done in the 19th Century (explained in some my favourite exhibits elsewhere at the museum)?

These are just two examples but they give the flavour of material on display. What is particularly strange to me is the lack of interaction between the Living Medical Traditions exhibition and the rest of the gallery. Strangely, the approach to the scientific content is deliberately hands-off. In response to Alex Davenport’s blog post, the museum issued a statement explaining its approach (my emphasis in colour):

In our ‘Living Medical Traditions’ section of the Science and Art of Medicine Gallery we take an anthropological and sociological perspective on medical practices. We reflect patient experience in a global setting. We do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world.

Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in most parts of the world. Instead they currently offer the majority of the global population their predominant, sometimes only, choice of medical care. We do not make any claims for the validity of the traditions we present. For example, we include the use of acupuncture but do not say that acupuncture ‘works’. We consider that these ‘alternative’ medical practices are of considerable cultural significance. We also recognise that some may consider the inclusion of these practices in the Science Museum controversial.

As with all Science Museum galleries independent experts were consulted when developing this gallery. In this instance advice was sought from leading academics in the history of non-western medical traditions as well as practitioners and users of these traditions. We maintained editorial control throughout and resisted equating local medical practices with the western medical tradition.

This statement provides a clearer explanation of the aims and limitations of the exhibition than is offered to the public visiting the museum (and might usefully be placed at the entrance to the display).  In contrast to some of the commenters who have weighed in on this debate, I agree with the museum — and Rebekah Higgitt — that an anthropological and sociological perspective is a perfectly valid way to look at scientific matters such as the development and practice of medicine in different parts of the world. But why emasculate it by refusing to consider the extant scientific analyses of these practices, particularly when to do so undermines the anthropological and sociological approaches?

The exploration is oddly blinkered.

Why not evaluate the scientific underpinnings of these practices? Wouldn’t that be germane to an understanding of their anthropological and sociological meaning? Why is there no statement anywhere of the known controversial nature of homeopathy or acupuncture? Isn’t that a valid part of the sociology of these methods? Did the patient in the display choose acupuncture because of the weight of the phrase ‘traditional’ or because he had looked at the evidence? How exactly do practitioners combine modern and traditional approaches? That’s an interesting psychological and sociological question; is it a genuine fusion or an approach calculated to seed modern methods in cultures with long-standing traditions?

None of these fairly obvious questions is addressed. Strangely, given the subject matter of the exhibit, the museum has refused to take a holistic approach. And that’s a shame because the end result comes across as intellectually shallow.

The superficiality of the display is all the more  surprising because there are healthy doses of a combined scientific, anthropological and sociological approach elsewhere in the Gallery. Anthropological aspects are evident from the historical narrative, which outlines the increasingly mechanistic view of the human body and the causes of its malfunction. And many sociological aspects of healthcare are considered: the pros and cons of abortion are debated; the question of attitudes to vaccination is discussed; the practice of phrenology as a means of assessing mental faculties is described — in this case the museum is not afraid to report that it was ultimately “discredited and became a ‘quack’ subject”. The museum does a good job in places* of critiquing the science: the advantages of X-rays as a diagnostic tool are tempered by the revelation that the penetrating rays also cause cancer; prosthetics for those who suffered the scourge of thalidomide are also on display.

Vaccination Warnings

Vaccination Warnings

Why the inconsistency? Given the range and robustness of much of the main part of the gallery, the light touch in the Living Medicines Exhibition is puzzling. The museum claims it retained editorial control over the material gathered from practitioners for the display but how much control or judgement did it exercise? Not much it seems to me and as a result it has failed to make much sense — scientific, anthropological or sociological — of traditional medicine. I think the Science Museum could and should do this important topic much greater justice. At a time when public attitudes to medicine remain in such flux, even in the West where scientific approaches are perhaps most deeply embedded, the Living Medical Traditions exhibition is a missed opportunity.

I suspect that despite the ‘firestorm’ there is plenty of common ground between many of the people in the blogosphere who have recently written and commented on this exhibit. Now that the Museum has also joined the discussion, wouldn’t it be interesting to explore whether something positive might emerge?


*In other places it does not — the section in the main part of the Gallery on drugs being a case in point. The introduction contains a panel titled Homeopathic, Allopathic and Herbal Drugs. It begins “During the 20th century, allopathic or scientific drugs have come to dominate medicine in Western countries…” and ends “These cases (S.3-12) show only the development of allopathic drugs and the drug industry.” This is a bizarre take on modern drug development. The museum seems not to know that ‘allopathic’ is a term coined by Samuel Hahnemann, the founding father of homeopathy, and is used almost exclusively by homeopaths to disparage medicines that do not conform to homeopathic ‘principles’. On any objective assessment, the museum should revisit this display. There is little case for presenting the development of homeopathic medicines over the past 200 years since there hasn’t been any. But why is there nowhere to be found a clear explanation of the principles by which homeopathic preparations are prepared and formulated? The Gallery has a sections on biochemistry and drug molecules but nowhere is there an attempt to site homeopathy in relation to science.
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45 Responses to An Inconsistent Truth?

  1. alice says:

    Nice post and this calm approach is the way to go here, I’m sure.

    I agree with much of this. Yes, anthropological, sociological (and historical) readings of science are part of the stories a museum of science should tell, but as you say they should be woven together with the various strands of scientific explanations too.

    Moreover, the sorts of practices mentioned in this exhibit are part of our current medical culture (nationally, as well as globally) and medical history, even if they aren’t part of current scientifically informed medical practise. But then, so is the scientific rejection of these practices. As you say (and I think others have too), why not tell that as part of the sociological and anthropological story?

    I also agree that the museum’s blogpost gives more context which isn’t given to the visitor (and maybe should be…) but I’d also add that I found that note from the museum still somewhat insufficient. They seemed to be hiding behind a rather vague sense of sociological/ anthropological expertise here, which is probably why people have found it so easy to dismiss the quality of these ‘experts’. The museum is, afterall, arguing with people committed to an evidence-based approach – whey should say who/ what there sources are!

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Alice – I agree with you that the Museum’s statement leaves many questions hanging about their approach, particularly since I found their anthropology and sociology a bit on the thin side. But (although I know other’s queries have met with little response), I hope the museum might enter into more of a conversation with critics of the display. After all, I think we all share a love of the museum and what it can do.

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  3. Brilliant, Stephen. Couldn’t have said it better myself. The anthropological approach is perfectly reasonable, but to present current use of \traditional\ therapies that way, and not explore the issue of their \intersection\ with modern scientific understanding at all, is intellectually lazy (IMHO) and potentially misleading – esp. with the use of practitioners’ testimonies . Bravo.

    • Kausik Datta says:

      Totally agreed with Austin. If the Museum of Science is presenting the traditional therapy systems in a sociological and anthropological light, there must not be any ambiguity or chance of misinterpretation of the presentation as endorsement from the scientific community. I wonder, how those – who are defending the current display of “living medical traditions” – would feel should the Museum decide to include homeopathy, voodoo, shamanism, rooster-killing, et cetera in its gamut of so-called “medical traditions”?

      • Stephen says:

        Kausik – homeopathy is included in as one of the traditions. I don’t have a problem with it being discussed – or voodoo for that matter. But I do want to see the subject treated more fully.

        • Kausik Datta says:

          I agree. As you said,

          But the decision not to evaluate (mentioned in their statement) seems to me to have been a mistake since it omits an important bit of context for understanding these traditions.

          Very important, IMO.

  4. Stephen says:

    Ha – many thanks Austin. I trust you’re not just saying that because I am emulating you in content (and length)!? ;-)

    • I did see you were approaching Austin-esque levels of prolixity… but I would never be able to write this much without ranting or snarking…!

      I nearly posted a comment with at least some of these kinds of themes on Rebekah Higgitt’s blog, but in the end didn’t bother. And you’ve said it much better. And without swearing.

  5. stephenemoss says:

    Stephen – thanks for this measured analysis. The Science Museum is an important national institution with an international reputation, and as such it gives scientific credibility to that which it chooses to exhibit. I think in this case, the Museum (perhaps unwittingly) has given a rubber stamp of scientific approval to a subject that as we know, has little foundation in science. I haven’t seen the exhibition, but it sounds as though with Living Medical Traditions the Museum missed an opportunity to inform.

    • Stephen says:

      It’s a tricky one. My guess is the museum did think carefully about this before going ahead. But the decision not to evaluate (mentioned in their statement) seems to me to have been a mistake since it omits an important bit of context for understanding these traditions.

  6. Thanks for a very fair post. I can think of no excuse that justifies the blatant advertising by private practitioners, including pamphlets for their private practices, and the free hand that was given to them to make whatever extraordinary claims they wanted in recorded messages (three of which can be heard my post) This does not seem to me to be ‘anthropology’ at all in any useful sense of the word, but plain and simple advertising by people whom most would regard as contemporary snake-oil salesman. I fail to see how it can be justified by describing it as anthropology.

    In any case. anthropology itself seems to be deeply divided, with one a wing that thinks it is wrong to say that any ancient pre-scientific belief has turned out to be wrong. That is an attitude that seems to me to be quite inappropriate in a science museum (in fact quite inappropriate anywhere),

    I fear that the truth of the matter is simple. The “editorial control” must have been put in the hands of someone who was not a scientist, or at least someone who knows little about medicine. The Museum’s statement shows an admirable tendency to defend its employees from criticism. Sadly this also entails the the museum’s statement sounding like so much PR flannel, reluctant to grasp the criticisms that have now spread around the world. That is pretty ham-fisted PR.

  7. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Thank you, Stephen, for this calm and judicial post. I tend to agree with what you say here – I didn’t feel that I could comment on the exhibit itself, having not seen it, but my sense was that it was underdeveloped, possibly because of worries about its controversial nature. I don’t think there was a ‘PC’ concern about offending users of these therapies (although there were undoubtedly ethical considerations about the context in which the accounts by identifiable individuals were displayed) but how critics would react (which they obviously got wrong). I totally agree that the treatment of all the medical exhibits should be more consistent – issues of trust, belief and knowledge (or lack of) are often equally pertinent in the lay person’s use of evidence-based medicine, and the question of how the various traditions interact is worth exploring properly.

    My defence of the Science Museum itself, as far as it went, was due to my sense that this section was clearly demarcated from the rest of the gallery, and that anthropological/historical/sociological approaches are appropriate here and elsewhere in the museum (if done well). I think that you have demonstrated the first point amply. My initial concerns about the posts on this topic were that they were ignoring the context and the attempts by the Museum to explain the exhibit. I still think there was a degree of (conscious or unconscious) bias in presenting the exhibit in the worst possible light with selective quoting. David Colquhoun’s inflammatory claim that the exhibit includes “advertisements” for practitioners does not appear to be warranted.

    This lack of context (of the exhibit, of the surrounding galleries, and of the nature of the Museum’s object collections – which are, above all else, its raison d’être) encouraged the kind of comments to which my post objected. Even with your thoughtful post we get a comment about how we would feel about the inclusion of voodoo etc, and that the SM is somehow giving “scientific credibility” to these therapies. I am particularly annoyed about suggestions that this kind of approach might be OK for the British Museum, or wherever, but not the Science Museum. If it is an issue of public education, then how can this be any better? I can only read this attitude as a desire to present science without consideration of how it actually works (and doesn’t work) within society – and this really saddens me.

    Apologies for the lengthy comment!

    • Marianne says:

      I do not believe David’s claim is unwarranted at all, and indeed he hasn’t shown all of the advertising. I’ve got some better documentation and will be writing it up soon, including a comparison with the surrounding history of medicine exhibit, how they differ etc.
      So we should be able to have a more informed discussion about the specifics.

  8. Stephen says:

    Thanks for your comments, David and Rebekah. David’s style may be trenchant, but technically he is correct that the acupuncture display includes advertising for one particular practitioner. Now this could be considered a perfectly acceptable cultural artefact for a science museum but in the absence of an examination of the broader context, the effect is – albeit implicitly – to convey the impression that acupuncture works. It would have been better, I think, to have included another cultural artefact in the form of a reprint of a scientific paper which examines the efficacy of this method of treatment.

    The same is true of some of the other exhibits – there is a video on cupping, for example, in which the practitioner gives an explanation for the mechanism of the therapy which is at odds with modern physiology but there is no comment. As the museum has said in its statement (but not in the exhibition) there is no attempt at evaluation. The end result is certainly not an explicit endorsement of these traditional practices, but they appear to be accepted in a surprisingly unquestioning kind of way.

    But as I think we all agree – there is great scientific, sociological and historical interest and relevance in this topic, and it falls well within the remit of a science museum. I’m just disappointed that a better job has not been done. Do you have plans to see it for yourself? I would love to hear your assessment.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Thanks for this clarification, and I think that we are all agreed that the SM could have done a more thorough and consistent job on this exhibit. However, I am not sure that *all* participants in this discussion agree that historic, anrthopolgical and sociological approaches beloing in a science museum. If I may quote from Alex Davenport in a comment on my post:

      “It remains to me to be a bit of a mystery as to why we would need anthropology and sociology in the science museum, that’s the British Museums remit and I would expect to find cultural understanding and medical practises there.”

      And from David Colquhoun in a comment in response to mine on his post:

      “The Science Museum is meant to be about science (the clue is in the name), not about social or cultural history. It’s fine to include the history of science, of course, but [not?] in a way that is contrary to science.”

      For most historians of science, an approach that ignored social, cultural and anthropological topics and tools would be one that was deeply impoverished. And the idea that a science museum should not include exploration of “cultural understanding” of science is, I think, very strange. I only hope that Alex and David have a chance to see and appreciate a better exhibition that takes these approaches.

      I may be able to get to the exhibition next week, although I suspect that I won’t feel there’s much more to add!

      • Stephen says:

        Fair points Rebekah – I don’t subscribe to either of those particular views (though David leaves himself some room for manoeuvre) — and I did come across one or two other bizarre comments along the way. I’ll leave it to Alex and David to defend themselves, should they choose to do so!

        A culturally interesting question for me is the anger that alternative medicine so readily stirs up in working scientists. I’ve felt it myself – most readily when I come across alt. med. practitioners stealing scientific clothing to dress up theories and practices that are built on nothing. So I can understand the fury that these topics can raise. The question is how one can most effectively respond to alt. med. — and the answer to that probably depends on the particular audience i.e. practitioners should not be treated in the same way as patients. But I digress…

        • Alex says:

          “It remains to me to be a bit of a mystery as to why we would need anthropology and sociology in the science museum, that’s the British Museums remit and I would expect to find cultural understanding and medical practises there.”

          I apologise for using too certain language in my reply (I’ll have to edit and apologise on the original post) I guess even in the world of written comment, I commented without thinking. This comment actually goes against what I was originally arguing and it was stupid. However, (gulp), I don’t agree that the science museum has carte blanche to put an anthropological exhibit up without exploring the full scientific debate and, as is the case here, explaining to it’s viewers that the evidence does not back the claims made.

          Thank-you Stephen I mainly agree with your assessment and if the SM had done its job in maintaining it’s editorial right it could have avoided the whole discussion. Although I do find it stimulating and engaging, so one another level I’m happy it came up.

          Alex

          • Stephen says:

            Many thanks for the clarification Alex.

            I did post a comment on the SM blog about this post, hoping they might want to respond but haven’t heard anything yet.

      • Rebekah:

        As Stephen points out, you perhaps have to know some more of the “real vs unreal medicine” debate to see the (other) context of all this, which is the one that explains why it gets scientists and doctors so riled.

        Viewing and discussing these CAM things in a socio-cultural way is fine in a socio-cultural discussion. The problem is that that is then used, over and over and over again, to try and “validate” (and promote) them in the rather distinct arena of “what it is sensible to support in healthcare, and on what sort of evidence basis”.

        For a recent example, see this discussion by US blogger Dave Gorski of the recent strategic plan issued by NCCAM, the US (medical research) grant-funding agency devoted to CAM. NCCAM was set up at the behest of several powerful members of the US legislature, who have lobbied for and supported CAM in a way analogous to what Prince Charles and his friends have done in the UK. NCCAM has so far spent close to a billion Dollars without actually getting any nearer to figuring out if any of the CAM modalities “work” better than a placebo in a controlled trial.

        • Rebekah Higgitt says:

          Thanks for the link – I am, of course, pretty new to discussions about CAM, so it is good to understand where everyone is coming from. However, I still feel that a socio-cultural discussion is not inappropriate for the science museum (in which visitors will also be ignorant of the particular bug bears that haunt scientists and doctors) – although I do agree that visitors probably need to be given more information than they are in this exhibit in order to have that discussion profitably.

          As I’ve explained, my comments were not objecting to criticisms of this exhibit, but suggestions about what content and approach (as opposed, perhaps, to conclusions) are and are not suitable for a science museum. Now you guys know what riles historians of science and museum curators! ;-)

        • Stephen says:

          Wow – thanks for that link Austin. Pretty shocking – I had no idea even of the existence of NCCAM. I wonder could we get Beddington to pay them a visit? ;-)

    • Marianne says:

      See the aforementioned cupping bit here (from about 2:09)
      http://www.youtube.com/user/noodlemaz#p/a/u/0/abgNS65iuJo

      (sorry about our accompanying vocalisations of horror!)

      • Stephen says:

        Thanks for the video Marianne – I remember it as a particularly egregious example of the emptiness of the display. The ‘mechanism’ proposed for cupping is not discussed in any scientific way (despite some pretty fanciful assertions by the practitioner) and there is no mention of the outcome of the treatment.

  9. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Thank you from me too – I have replied over at Whewell’s Ghost.

  10. cromercrox says:

    Now, look here, Curry, that’s enough disparaging snark about qi. It’s saved my bacon in Scrabble on many occasions. (Captacha phrase ‘eparchic cycle’. Just sayin’)

  11. Stephen says:

    I have no objection whatever to the use of qi in that sociological context… ;-)

  12. If they manage to shoe-horn this stuff into the medical faculties in won’t be long before we all have “Qi Performance Indicators”.

    Be afraid….be very afraid…

  13. Stephen says:

    Qi-r up Austin – i am (almost) sure it’ll never come to that… ;-)

  14. KristiV says:

    I’ve decided to demand a 15-minute break when I arrive at work each morning, so that I can sink my qi, after dealing with traffic. My road rage is epic, in the sense that it causes profane Icelandic sagas to spill forth from my lips, replete with tales of familial revenge, ritual sacrifice, horse thievery, ship burials, transformation into wolves and bears, bird omens, and village torching. Definitely need to sink the qi (or its Norse equivalent).

    On a serious note – fantastic post, Stephen, and definitely a worrisome trend here in the US, especially with the existence (and funding) of NCCAM within the NIH, as mentioned by Austin. I also agree with David Colquhoun’s point about the inappropriateness of the “ancient beliefs can’t be wrong” attitude in a science museum.

    I have an undergraduate anthropology degree, with an emphasis in physical and medical anthropology, which dates to the times when giant dragonflies soared through Carboniferous forests, and even back then there was a strong scientific basis to many of the studies. We were encouraged to include medical science components, along with cultural and historical narratives, in our research papers at the undergraduate level. For example, I was interested in traditional cultural beliefs about the causes of congenital anomalies, and was encouraged to include recent scientific studies of fetal alcohol syndrome in my analyses. I doubt that my experiences were unusual for anthropology departments at the time.

    On a somewhat related alternative medicine tangent, I noticed recently that the name for the medical school yearbook here changed from Curandero (a traditional Mexican healer, still very much a presence in some Hispanic communities here) to Aescalapius, some time between 1972 and 1981. I’m curious to know the reason for the name change.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      I have to point out here that there is absolutely nothing in this display that puts across the idea that “ancient beliefs can’t be wrong”. They work very hard to show how flexible, intermingled and changing these various sets of beliefs are. They also present the whole display as ineffective medicine, contrasted to the ‘Modern Medicine’ display surrounding it.

      • Stephen says:

        I agree that the museum was not putting across the notion that “ancient beliefs can’t be wrong” but differ from you Rebekah in my recollection of the ‘message’ of the exhibition. To me it was more blurred and mixed than your contention that “they also present the whole display as ineffective medicine” – especially since traditional and modern practices were sometimes blended (e.g. in the Chinese medicine section) and there was no evaluation of how that worked.

        Moreover, even in the main part of the display (as I noted in the footnote to the post), there were included what I would call homeopathic canards, such as the reference to modern drugs as ‘allopathic medicines’.

        But hey, that’s just my view. I’m not going to shoot you over it. ;-)

        • Rebekah Higgitt says:

          Thanks for holding fire! I think that most visitors are more likely to take the “homeopathy is like drums and dancing” message away (which is made clear with objects) than the “but they do use some modern science” one (which is in text and will only be taken up by those who spend an unusually long time with the exhibit). My main reason for entering this debate is that I think there is no point in and no need to attack the Science Museum when there are other campaigns much more worth taking on.

          With “allopathic”, I think it is appropriate to use the term with regard to the 19th and early 20th century displays as this is the period in which it was coined and reflects the debates of the period. I think it is also fair to point out that “allopathic” is commonly defined as being “usual” or “conventional” treatment and, beyond practising homeopaths, is not usually meant pejoritatively, It might be possible to argue that the word merely reflects its origins and etymology (just as the words catastrophe and disaster reflect Ancient ideas about the influence of stars).

          • Stephen says:

            Well thanks for sticking the course Rebekah. What’s been interesting about this whole discussion on the exhibit is the revelation of how much baggage each of us brings to the interpretation of the same thing. Guess I should have realised that by now.

            Speaking of which, I wasn’t aware that allopathy was thought of by some as unencumbered by homeopathic influences. I have never heard the term used in a conventional setting but am happy to take a correction.

          • Stephen says:

            Returning to the subject of the meaning of alllopathy, I came across this review of Trick or Treatment on Amazon this morning. I know it’s just one anecdote (in a contentious area), but I would be interested to see an example where the term allopathy isn’t loaded with homeopathic ire.

            • Rebekah Higgitt says:

              My interpretation of allopathy was based on various dictionary definitions (medical and not, online and print) that – as well as commenting on the etymology and history – tend to describe it simply as “conventional”, “the usual form” etc. Miriam Webster Medical Dictionary had one definition relating to the idea of using medicines that create effects opposite to that caused by the disease (ie not homeopathy) and a second relating to making use of all measures that have been proved valuable.

              Given the use of the term within the historical display (which included consideration of the three groups of drugs used in the 19th century and the decision of medical colleges to stop approving homeopathic remedies) I doubt that the curators were completely ignorant of the origins of the word ‘allopathy’. However, they perhaps relied too much on these standard definitions, missing the continued pejorative use, and should have avoided it except when it properly represented actors’ categories.

            • Stephen says:

              Thanks for your persistence Rebekah. That first definition from the Merriam Webster Medical Dictionary is predicated on the assumptions of homeopathy (which I reject as ill-founded). The second sounds more promising (and free of the homeopathic value system).

  15. Stephen says:

    Thanks Kristi – good to have the insights of a genuine anthroplogist. I think your comment serves to underscore just how little anthropology went into the Science Museum’s display.

    The switch from Curandero to Aesculapius (hope I’ve spelled that right) is curious. Smacks of westernisation…

    And aren’t people in Texas allowed to rebalance their qi by getting their gun off…? ;-)

    • KristiV says:

      Yes, you got the spelling correct, Stephen – sorry, long day at work and no editing capability. ;-) Initially I thought the name change might have something to do with increasing numbers of female medical students in the class (who would be curanderas), but the timing doesn’t fit. Classes were still predominantly male during that period (now they are often >50% female). The medical school seems to acknowledge that curanderos are still a presence in some communities, and that patients may be treated by them (there are elective courses dealing with that issue), but doesn’t particularly encourage traditional medicine. With the yearbook name change, they may have wanted to distance themselves from non-scientific treatments (she types hopefully).

      Unfortunately, “yes” on the guns too … that’s why I stay indoors on New Year’s Eve (what goes up, must come down). o.O

      • Stephen says:

        Interesting – perhaps, as you say, the motivation was to imbue the training with a more scientific ‘ethos’… interesting sociology/psychology…!

  16. Pingback: Living Traditions at the Science Museum | Whewell's Ghost

  17. Rob Czar says:

    Can you be more clear about what kind of scientist you are? In my opinion, you are showing signs of a post-modern, anti-science perspective in which culture and talk are the primary ways of knowing. References to a sociological perspective are not the same as a scientific perspective. Unfortunately, the “softer” the science, the stronger the humanities influence and the less the scientific way of knowing is employed (by some in the field). With a humanities perspective, we get “multiculturalism” that is based on ideology and politics, not science. I support the “limited” idea that science museums should present the scientific way of knowing (i.e., knowledge based on empirical evidence) rather than knowledge derived from “respecting” alternative beliefs. Cultural perspectives belong in the culture museum. Cultures can, of course, be studied and analyzed scientifically. The display in question does not do that.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Cultures can be studied scientifically, and science can be studied culturally. Science is part of culture, both shaping and being shaped by the culture in which it is produced.

  18. Stephen says:

    Hi Rob,

    I’m not sure how you reach the conclusion that I am showing signs of a “post-modern, anti-science perspective”. For your information, I am protein crystallographer – this will give you more of an idea as to the sort of thing that I get up to with my group.

    I was trying to make the point that it is fair enough for the Science Museum to try to make sociological or anthropological points about the retention of traditional approaches, despite the advance of modern medicine, but that in this case they haven’t done a very good job of it — in my view.