Science and the Felt Life

I’ve been reviewing critics of complementary and alternative medicine for a course I’m creating called “Critique of Health Practices.” It’s an odd literature. The criticisms are presented as an evaluation of alternative health practices from the perspective of the scientific method. Usually the alternative practices are found wanting. Critics typically show disdain, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly.

One of these critiques is a book titled Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Somehow I don’t think I need to spell out the book’s attitude for you. The first page describes a press conference held to launch the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. A group of alternative practitioners spoke passionately about their hopes for their modality of choice. “But there was no sense of conflict or rivalry. As each spoke, the other would nod in agreement.” The author found this “amusing.” He goes on to say that “[I] observed [it] numerous times during my own involvement in an NIH-funded center for complementary and alternative medicine.”

Here’s the odd thing. I thought being open-minded was a core value of the scientific method. I thought the purpose of the scientific method was to let the facts lead you to a better knowledge of how the world works. If someone has an unorthodox idea but he otherwise seems sane, why does he deserve to be ridiculed?

Because this book and others like it aren’t written for other scientists or for health practitioners. They’re written for you. They’re written to warn you off alternative health practices. In addition to setting the tone with scorn, these writers are also invariably alarmed by the growing use of alternative health practices.

By “practice” what I mean is the practical application of what you know. Where does what you know come from? It doesn’t fall from the sky. It comes from one of two places: you figure it out yourself from your own experience or someone tells you.

Those who wear the mantel of the scientific method describe it as inference of what causes and prevents illness based on careful observation—that is, figuring it out based on experience. Yet it’s not your experience. And you’re not figuring it out. It’s someone else’s experience in the practice of science and you’re being told what it means. That’s not a bad thing in itself—if you trust the someone who’s telling you.

This kind of authoritative voice that speaks for “science” has been culturally dominant for more than a century and has been speaking for at least 500 years. What that voice has been saying is that life as experienced by the individual human being does not exist in the absence of verified scientific knowledge—that is, what you experience isn’t real unless a scientist says it is.

The novelist Marilynn Robinson, in her recent book of essays Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, speaks to that exclusion. She calls the authoritative voice parascience. As her book’s title suggests, the delegitimated experience of the individual person is traditionally referred to as the mind. But in a better phrase, she refers to “the felt life”—that is, our sense of how things are.

That people are turning in ever-greater numbers to alternative health practices demonstrates, I think, that the felt life, our sense of how things are is very much alive. Parascience, however, is ascendant. So on the one hand, as Marilynn Robinson observes, those who speak authoritatively about the scientific method seem to be singing mostly to their choir. On the other hand, that choir defines what counts as science. And this fits very nicely into the power structure of our political economy.

In our book Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Health, we discuss a distinction made by the medical historian Robert Aronowitz in describing medical science and practice. On the one hand, specific disease is what medical practitioners diagnose and treat and what researchers study. On the other had, individual illness is the felt life of the person, his or her sense of how things are.

The dominant mode of medical and health science is interested only in the causes of specific diseases. It is inevitable that it would exclude alternative health practices because, so far, they’re the only science of individual illness—and health—available to us. They’re the only home for the felt life.