Fighting logophobia

What do Jenny McCarthy, Riki Lake and Susan Somers have in common (beside the fact that they are B movie starlets who give medical advice)? All three women, like all believers in pseudoscience, suffer from logophobia. That’s right, they have a pathological fear of logical thought.

It actually goes deeper than a simple fear of logic, however. The real object of their fear is rationalism itself. Indeed, the term logophobia was jokingly coined by Nicholas Shackel to describe a serious phenomenon. In his paper The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology, Shackel explains that logophobia arises from:

… a sceptical doctrine about rationality (which they mistake for a profound discovery): namely, that rationality cannot be an objective constraint on us but is just whatever we make it, and what we make it depends on what we value….

Or, as philosopher Massimo Pigliucci succinctly observed:

In other words, they claim that reason cannot possibly solve every problem, so you can proceed with dismissing reason altogether.

Unfortunately, logophobia is widespread:

[It] can strike adult humans of all ages, genders and cultural backgrounds, especially when they have never been seriously exposed to the basics of critical thinking, or when they have grown up in the thralls of a powerful ideological system. The disease is preventable by early education, although it requires painful effort on the part of teachers and students alike. Once the subject is past middle school, it becomes increasingly difficult, and in most cases essentially impossible, to provide a cure; huge amounts of financial resources and time are wasted as a result.

There’s a version of logophobia that is particularly endemic among midwifery theorists. Midwifery logophobics are not timid about their anti-rationalism. Consider a recent paper entitled Beyond evidence-based medicine: complexity and stories of maternity care by Soo Downe, the doyenne of goofy midwifery theory. Evidence, a key requirement of rational argument, does not comport with the central claims of midwifery practice, so, of course, the very concept of evidence must be discarded:

From a Khunian perspective of ‘normal science’ as a social construct, current authoritative science thinking in medicine and health care has, until very recently, been strongly rooted in positivism. This has translated into a hierarchy that strongly favours the randomized controlled trial, based on the concept that bias in any experiment will corrupt the result…

Despite the entrenched acceptance of normal science in health care, it appears that authoritative, positivist, linear, risk averse, certainty-based thinking can only get us so far along the route of optimum health. This paper … illustrate[s] how maternity care clinicians can be introduced to [another way of] thinking through reflexive analysis of real life clinical narratives… a basis for answering the question, what is likely to work for this person, in this situation, given the range of evidence, and given their values and beliefs, my values and beliefs, and my clinical skills and knowledge?

It is truly remarkable how closely this adheres to Shackel’s explanation of logophobia: midwives shouldn’t be constrained by rationality, because rationality does not support many of the claims of midwifery. Since reality is nothing more than what midwives make of it, midwives based can base their “own” reality on what they value. And what they value is their personal beliefs about childbirth.

Those who value rationality, who are logophiles instead of logophobes, should not stand by idly while midwifery theorists brazenly attempt to replace science with “stories.”

As Piglucci reminds us:

… fighting the spread of logophobia is a primary responsibility of every critically thinking person and practicing scientist, despite the highly unfavourable odds against defeating it — which is why a thorough knowledge of the disease and of its symptoms is so crucial.

In the case of childbirth, this means a thorough knowledge of modern obstetrics, basic science and statistics. That’s why this blog exists: to fight the good fight against logophobia in contemporary childbirth discourse.