Scientific perspective is so rational that it forgets
that the passion and foibles of human beings are part
of the dialogue and discourse of all ages.
is it about the placebo effect that makes it so hard to study
The idea of ritual is what science detests. The scientific
revolution is about getting rid of culturally embedded behaviors,
uncovering natural universals. A drug is a natural universal.
Penicillin works in Africa or Asia. A ritual depends on belief,
religion and imagination. Ritual is specific to culture. Placebo
effect is presumably about the appearance of things, the belief
in things, the ritual of things. There is something inherently
unscientific about it.
It may be that ordinary people have demanded the investigation
of alternative medicine. It may be that alternative medicines
have demanded the placebo investigation. But I think that
the NIH has really accelerated the placebo stuff. The big
NIH conference on the placebo effect in 2000 was very important
in initiating this conversation. NIH is a governmental bureaucratic
institution, but it also really tries to be innovative and
look into important questions.
were an activist in your student days. Do
you think of your work today as radical?
I think my work is radical in terms of science. But I try
to abide by scientific rules. I try to be imaginative and
innovative, potentially critical. I operate at the margins
and I don't march with thousands of other scientists. But
I work at the NIH and I fundraise for HMS. That's pretty straight.
I still haven't cut my hair though.
Some people caution that the surge
in alternative medicines signals the beginning of a non-scientific
Do you think we are entering one?
I'm a scientist, but I can live with superstition. Scientific
perspective is so rational that it forgets that the passion
and foibles of human beings are part of the dialogue and discourse
of all ages. I don't mean to say science is bad, but there's
a hubris there that science has all the answers and you've
just got to get rid of all the superstitious stuff and then
we'd have a great world. I think we have to get rid of the
arrogance and racism and intolerance and xenophobia, and that
would be more important than getting the public to be purely
Science's demand for privilege has to be negotiated, not automatic.
There are a lot of reasons to be disappointed with science.
In the same way, there are a lot of reasons to be really pleased
with it. Getting rid of the arrogance will make people more
appreciative of science, more than suppressing other tendencies
with strict rationalism.
think the NIH has every right and absolute responsibility
to be absolutely scientific in everything it does because
that's its job. But I can tolerate Haitian hoodoo medicine.
Hmong refugees have a right to Hmong medicine. And I believe
that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the right to pray to
the creator of the universe and I don't object if my wife
believes in astrology. I think patients have a right to that;
I don't care whether it's scientific or not.
career advice would you give to young scientists?
You really have to do what you love and what interests you.
Also, I believe it is never too late. I never did anything
with science until 1999-2000, and I'm on PBS now!
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