Smackdown, please (yes, Egnor, I’m talking to you)

Arrogance. It’s always about arrogance. Arrogance is the Great Distractor in science. It is a half-a-dozen logical/rhetorical fallacies rolled into one—argumentum ad ignorantium, non sequitur, tu quoque, ad hominem, straw man (yes, that’s not six yet, but I gotta give myself some flexibility here). These fallacies aren’t just rhetorical toys to play with in the blogosphere. They can be simple mistakes made when discussing an controversy, or they can be weapons used in place of a valid argument. They are particularly important when dealing with reality.

Reality. I’m not talking about a stoned, midnight bull session about whether dialectical materialism accurately describes the relationships between groups of people, or other such (sometimes interesting) nonsense. I’m talking about this table, this PC, this cup of coffee. Reality. Truth.

There’s a great blogger out there who is fond of repeating the fact that “the truth is consistent with itself.” Sure, we can argue the philosophy of reality, truth, perception all day and night, but in the end, in the real, practical world (the one doctors deal with), the truth is consistent with itself, and reality is that which we can observe. Reality is, by definition, everything.


You see, once you wander off the reality reservation, you open up your mind to all kinds of narishkeit. Take Dr. Michael Egnor, the creationist neurosurgeon. He holds some fantastical beliefs about mind-body dualism and creationism. His big thing is “non-materialist neuroscience“—an idea that is prima facie ridiculous, especially for someone who plays with brains all day, and can quite literally change someone’s mind with a scalpel.

Fortunately, in his latest attack, Egnor eschews the scalpel for a cudgel. He blindly pummels logic and truth into figgy pudding (holiday reference!). He was kind enough to demonstrate how illogical thinking leads to the adoption of idiocy. You see, as a neurosurgeon he has some cachet when it comes to neuroscience—sure, he’s very, very wrong, but it’s at least his field. But once he abandoned logic in his own field, he reached out to the creationist cults. Apparently their brand of crazy wasn’t enough for him. Now he has focused his rage—rage that reality apparently doesn’t conform to his beliefs—on other doctors. His latest rant is aimed particularly at Orac and Steve Novella, although I like to think he gave us a shout-out (he mentions some form of the word “denialism” five times).

He bemoans the arrogance of doctors. As we’ve discussed in this space ad nauseum, this issue, while real, is a distractor. In a massive burst of logical fallacies, he writes of the faults of science-based medicine, while offering no real alternative. He loves the example of physicians failing to wash their hands, a real problem. But what is his solution? Providing hand washing stations outside patient rooms? Employing Keystone check lists? Prayer?

Nope. He’s just angry. He bemoans the dangers of modern medicine, while at the same time praising his own hospital for using evidence-based measures to reduce medical error. He makes the ridiculous claim that those of us interested in science-based medicine don’t care about medical error:

I believe that much of the motivation for the “pro-science” priesthood isn’t patient safety or a genuine respect for scientific method but ideological hegemony. What bothers materialist ideologues like Novella and Orac is that there are people who challenge their materialist scientific worldview. There is a deep arrogance to the commentary and tactics of these defenders of science.

Um. No. What motivates us is a search for truth, for evidence, for the care of our fellow human beings. What motivates us is improving the care we deliver, reducing the errors we commit, and facing down those who would throw out the scientific approach to reality in favor of a vague fantasy. What does Egnor’s approach (whatever it may be) have to offer patients? So he believes that the mind is not brain-dependent—so what? Has this helped him improve surgical techniques, reduce error rates, improve morbidity and mortality? Doe he make sure to use a Sharpie to demarcate the soul before putting steel to flesh?

His real problem is with reality, not with doctors. Once again, arrogance is a distrator:

What bothers materialist ideologues like Novella and Orac is that there are people who challenge their materialist scientific worldview. There is a deep arrogance to the commentary and tactics of these defenders of science.

Um. No. Again. What bothers non-materialist ideologues like Egnor is that reality consistently refuses to bend to meet their expectations and beliefs. What bothers Egnor is that no matter how much he kvetches about other scientists, other doctors, other meanies, he is still wrong. The truth is consistent with itself, and Egnor’s statements are inconsistent.*


*(For the uber-geeks: “What the Klingon has said is unimportant, and we do not hear his words.”)