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My Homunculus Made Me Do It!

14 Dec, 10 | by Iain Brassington

Many readers will be familiar with the “Sokal Hoax”, in which a nonsensical paper was submitted to, and accepted by, the journal Social Text, thereby demonstrating the vacuity of at least some PoMo theorising.  Well, John MacLachlan has repeated the feat, having had a patently absurd abstract accepted for presentation at a conference on integrative medicine.  How absurd?  Well, even I saw through it.

That’s pretty absurd.

He does raise an interesting question, though:

I did also, to be honest, feel a little uncomfortable about it. There was an element of deception involved, and academic intercourse generally relies, to some degree, on good faith. I sent off the abstract in a spirit of fun, but then hesitated about making it public. I did decline the invitation (though I have never been to Jerusalem, and would have enjoyed the trip) but I didn’t want to cause harms by taking up a conference slot.

Should he feel uncomfortable?  I think not, but his question is well made all the same.  Is it wrong to set out to deceive the organisers of the conference?

One quick response may come from the Kantians, and be that deliberate deception is always wrong, no matter what the circumstances.  But Korsgaard has argued, famously, that things may not always be that clear; there’s at least one plausible reading of Kant by which it may not violate the moral law to deceive at least some people – notably, those whose acceptance of your truthfulness rests on a belief that you are unaware of their true motives.  Korsgaard herself admits that this would be to acquit the liar on a mere technicality – and she’s right about that, I think – but, still…

And are the organsiers of the conference guilty of deceit themselves?  That’s far from obvious to me.  Of course, there is a good many people in the fields of integrative and complimentary medicine who are out-and-out charlatans; but my hunch is that the worst you can say about a good many of the others is that they’re simply bemused and, in the Frankfurtian sense, bullshitting.  Though some of what they say may deceive, they aren’t guilty of deceit any more than the moon is guilty because I’m deceived into thinking it’s bigger when it’s near the horizon.  So even if the Korsgaardian Technicality is a valid move, it may not apply in this case.

Besides – and this is a slightly bigger worry – on the basis that it’d be reasonably easy to find out who the organisers were for the conference, we might have worries that, even if they are bullshitters, MacLachlan ought not to have published his letter in the BMJ.  By doing so, he risks making the organisers look silly.  And while it’s par for the course that people are sometimes made to look silly in academic life – I’ve teased people here for advocating magic dancing as a cure for cancer, for example – the difference here is that the explicit intention was to make them look silly.  Maybe the organisers set themselves up for that.  But on the charitable assumption that they do what they do in good faith, then to set out to make them look silly does look to be subtly different from simply exposing silliness where it’s serendipitously found.  I didn’t go to the magic dancing paper in order that I could then point and laugh.

And yet… if people who ostensibly should know better set up a conference that is so easily sent up, then lampooning might be in order.  And if someone as scientifically incompetent as I can see through the abstract sent, then it follows that just about everyone should know better.  So maybe a lampoon is OK.

Another approach may be that MacLachlan’s strategy makes use of deceit in order to achieve some good end, and is therefore defensible.  It’s quite often that we have to do things that are, in themselves, bad or wrong, in order to bring about some greater good.  But if we’re willing to countenance “constructive deceit” in this case, why not in others?  Why not use similar strategies as tools for public health promotion?  It won’t do to point out that MacLachlan is simply using falsity to combat falsity and error, because a good deal of unhealthy behaviour is probably sustained by falsity and error as well.  And yet we don’t tend to like the idea that doctors may set out to alter their patients’ behaviour by deceit.

Still, even if there is a strong feeling that MacLachlan’s trick is morally iffy, I don’t think that we can really blame him.  Maybe this is a nice example of the teleological suspension of the ethical.

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