It won't be by taking sugar pills…

By Grant Jacobs 02/10/2010 5


Doing the rounds of science blogs is this song, The Sounds of Science, based on Paul Simon’s The Sounds of Silence. The original plays in the opening and closing passages of The Graduate. (According to wikipedia, the original title has ‘sounds’ as plural, with later editions offering the singular. Grammatical nazism of an earlier era winning over artistic license, perhaps?)

Enjoy this without my criticisms below. It’s fine taken on it’s own, but being who I am, I’m inclined to offer a few thoughts…

As much as I understand the origins (no pun) of it, I’m not fond the recurring emphasis placed on Darwin and his works in these sorts of efforts. While his works are truly important, they were also works of their time, and biology has moved on a long way since then. His name and works, however still have the popular imagination. I imagine physicists are equally exasperated that Einstein still holds sway. I personally would have re-worked it without the references to Darwin (or fossils); I feel it would take little away from the message and be the better for it.

The lyrics – to me – have a mixed message starting and ending with evolution (and by implication creationism), but the middle portion refers to pseudo science of the sort I typically see in natural health remedy promotions, such as vitalism (chiropractic), or remedies with no active ingredients (homeopathy).

Evolution is a foundation stone of biology – one that many argue needs to be better taught in medical schools – but main basis of modern treatments are more to be found in (medical) physiology, biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology. Biochemistry in Darwin’s day was very poor by today’s standards; molecular biology and (modern) genetics were non-existant. (Biochemistry and genetics, in particular, are main contributors to the revision of evolutionary theory into the ‘modern synthesis’ during the 1940s and 1950s.)

In fact, some of Darwin’s own medical ideas fare poorly under today’s judgement, totally understandably with 150+ years of medicine science having since passed.

The opening and closing passages hint at religion v. science. There are people who mix religious beliefs and – wording this politely here – ’unorthodox’ health remedies, founding the latter in part or whole on the former, but the two are (more) often separable. Many of the people who tout or follow ’natural remedies’ are not religious. Some, if not most, of these people would offer words to the effect that they believe in evolution as a general concept.

The call for testing and peer-review of hypotheses are ones I have previously emphasised on these pages, and the lines referring to theory are a great précis of the notion, elegantly presenting theory as being above law. (As an aside: while biological systems obey the laws of chemistry and physics biology itself has little in the ways of laws. Evolution ensures that unorthodox ‘solutions’ are explored with the up-shot that for essentially all ’rules’ there are exceptions.)

It’s true there are far too many ’People clinging to old delusions / People jumping to conclusions / People holding superstitions that are obviously quite absurd.’ If you have tried to (patiently!) explain things to those with unorthodox ideas about causes and treatments for health issues, as I have, you will find this familiar.

It’s great to see the captions, too!

I’ve previously written about Singing for science, featuring a song about Tiktaalik.


Some related articles on Code for life:

Undiluted humour: If Homeopathy Beats Science

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Vitalism ideology in chiropractic advertising

Simon Singh & Prof. Ernst — The Truth About Chiropractic Therapy


5 Responses to “It won't be by taking sugar pills…”

  • >There are people who mix religious beliefs and — wording this politely here — “unorthodox” health remedies, founding the latter in part or whole on the former, but the two are (more) often separable.

    That may be true, but taking a broader view, the anti-fluoridation, anti-vaccine etc supporters appear to take their positions as an act of faith, just as the young earth creationists do. it seems impossible to get a response to the question “what experimental results would cause you to admit you are wrong”. There appears to be nothing that will convince them they could possibly be wrong.

    But scientists can all conceive of experiments that would convince them to change their minds on something. So in the sense of holding fast to an opinion regardless of the evidence that may be offered against their views, the religious fundamentalists and unorthodox health remedy people can be considered the same when it comes to trying to debate with them.

  • possum,

    That may be true, but taking a broader view, the anti-fluoridation, anti-vaccine etc supporters appear to take their positions as an act of faith, just as the young earth creationists do.

    I think you’re both right and wrong depending on precisely who you refer to 🙂

    I know the viewpoint you’re describing well. I didn’t overlook it (“that may be true, but”) but in fact had words to similar effect in an early draft, but pulled them.

    The problem, as I see it, is that the supporters of anti-vaccine, etc., views are a very broad crowd from a small number actively promoting the ideas, to adherent followers, through to people who really ought to know better but have fallen until the spell of the sales pitches as it were.

    You’d be right with the former, and mostly right with the second lot, but in my experience you can get some of the latter to think further. (Anecdotally, I find it’s particularly true if their concern lies with those around them (their kids, etc.) rather than themselves.)

    While the original promoters hold their views in an ideological way (sometimes reflecting deeper ideologies they are not directly presenting*) and hence “impossible” to sway, my perception is that the less-blind followers of them are more driven by ordinary concern, fear, wishful thinking and gullibility – the things generation after generation of cons, scams and plain misunderstandings play on.

    It’s why when those sorts of discussions arise, some of us prefer to address the readers not in the discussion (aka ‘lurkers’).

    While I’m writing: I’m not using my comments so much to nitpick and criticise, but to ruminate (and hopefully educate). Many lyrics have logical flaws, after all.


    * Some natural health ideologies seem secondary to religious views of vitalism or “natural intelligence”, or overly-literal interpretations of religious texts.

  • >You’d be right with the former, and mostly right with the second lot, but in my experience you can get some of the latter to think further.

    That’s great news. Perhaps I spend too much time reading US science blogs where opinions seem to be much more one side or the other with no room in between. Having said that, I acknowledge the ‘establishment’ isn’t always right, and I see that respectful debate can tease out details in a useful way. A recent Sciblogs exchange of views on vaccines produced (from dr mike I think) the best summary of why vaccines are good that I have ever seen.