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Your Friday Dose of Woo: The revenge of semiotics

Three weeks ago, I reintroduced my readers to one of the most amazingly skilled weaver of woo tales who has ever lived. I’m referring, of course, to Lionel Milgrom, the man who can pepper his homeopathic woo with quantum nonsense the way Bobby Flay seasons his latest creation with various spices. Now, I’m about to admit a huge hole in my knowledge here. I realize that it seems simply unbelievable that I would have a hole at all in my knowledge, much less a major hole, but there you are. Not even cranky supercomputers are perfect, I guess.

The huge hole in my knowledge revealed by my examination of Milgrom’s brain-twisting verbiage, is the field of semiotics. I admit that I had never heard of the field before, or, if I had, I don’t remember it. Certainly I never studied it in school. From what I can gather, it has something to do with communication and how meaning is derived:

Semiotics is not widely institutionalized as an academic discipline. It is a field of study involving many different theoretical stances and methodological tools. One of the broadest definitions is that of Umberto Eco, who states that ‘semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign’ (Eco 1976, 7). Semiotics involves the study not only of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else. In a semiotic sense, signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects. Whilst for the linguist Saussure, ‘semiology’ was ‘a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life’, for the philosopher Charles Peirce ‘semiotic’ was the ‘formal doctrine of signs’ which was closely related to Logic (Peirce 1931-58, 2.227). For him, ‘a sign… is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity’ (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228). He declared that ‘every thought is a sign’ (Peirce 1931-58, 1.538; cf. 5.250ff, 5.283ff). Contemporary semioticians study signs not in isolation but as part of semiotic ‘sign systems’ (such as a medium or genre). They study how meanings are made: as such, being concerned not only with communication but also with the construction and maintenance of reality. Semiotics and that branch of linguistics known as semantics have a common concern with the meaning of signs, but John Sturrock argues that whereas semantics focuses on what words mean, semiotics is concerned with how signs mean (Sturrock 1986, 22).

I’m sure I’m going to piss someone off by saying this, but it sure sounds a lot like postmodernism. Well, not exactly like postmodernism, but I can see from a perusal of various primers on semiotics that the discipline is as surely as corruptible to serve woo-ish ends as postmodernism. Milgrom demonstrated that. But Milgrom was a piker in comparison to this next bit of woo. In Milgrom’s paper, semiotics was not the prime mover and shaker. Milgrom’s torturing of quantum theory was. However, now meet Dr. Sergio Stagnaro:

Sergio Stagnaro, MD, born in Sestri Levante (Genoa) 7th, december,1931, graduate in Medicine and Surgery 16th, november, 1956 at University of Genoa, specialized at University of Pavia on Blood-Gastrointestinal- and Metabolic- Diseases (1959), worked as internal physician in Clinica Medica of Genoa University (directed by Prof. Lorenzo Antognetti). He developed since 1955 the “old” method of bed-side diagnosing Auscultatory Percussion, founded, 1970, the Auscultatory Percussion-Reflex Diagnostics and eventually in 1990 the Biophysical Semeiotics, which allows the doctors to evaluate clinically the deterministic chaos of biological systems.

“The deterministic chaos of biological systems”? What the hell is that? Unfortunately, we will soon find out, but first more about Dr. Stagnaro:

The November 2007, he has founded Quantum Biophysical Semeiotics thanks to quantum physics knowledge, he learned by his friend Paolo Manzelli, former Chief of Chemistry Departement at Florence University. The results of his researches are in  more than 200 articles, partly posted on the most famous websites, and six books (“Nuovi Aspetti di Semeiotica Medica”, out of print, “Introduzione alla Semeiotica Biofisica. Il Terreno Oncologico”, “La Melatonina nella Terapia del Terreno Oncologico e del Reale Rischio Oncologico.”, “Le Costituzioni  Semeiotico-Biofisiche. Strumento clinico fondamentale per la prevenzione primaria e la definizione della Single Patient Based Medicine.”, “Single Patient Based Medicine. La Medicina Basata sul Singolo Paziente: Nuove Indicazioni della Melatonina.”, “Teoria Patogenetica Unificata” -the last five edited by Travel Factory in Rome-). From 1992 is Active Member of the New York Acàdemy of Sciences. His biography is mentioned in the most famous who’s who , among them Who’s Who in the World (from 1996 to 2009), Who’s Who in America (from 1996 to 2009), Dictionary of International Biographies, Who’s Who in the 21st Century (IBC di Cambridge), American Bibliographycal Institute 500 greatest Geniuses of the 21st Century (since 2007), since april 2007 he is included in the book “Outstanding Scientists Worldwide 2007”.

It looks to me as though Dr. Stagnaro is trying to give Milgrom a run for his money. I mean, how could he not with a woo called Quantum Biophysical Semiotics? My guess is that he’s going to go all “Secret” on us and try to throw a bit of quantum jargon around, tell us that it lets us or the universe–or something–focus “intent” and thereby create meaning. There you have it, instant woo-semiotics! (You’ll have to trust me right here when I say that this was going through my mind even before I read through some of the rest of Dr. Stagnaro’s website. He also seems to have a thing for vibrations or sounds, as do many good woo-meisters. After all, he’s constantly mentioning his Auscultatory Percussion.

What I’m having a hard time figuring out, though, is what’s special about Dr. Stagnaro’s auscultatory percussion. For those of you who aren’t physicians, auscultatory percussion is nothing more than tapping in various places on the body and, by feel and sound, figuring out if there’s fluid or air beneath. We surgeons do it all the time when we’re evaluating a person with a distended abdomen to see if it’s distention from air or if it’s distention from fluid (such as ascites). The former might indicated a bowel obstruction, among other things. Similarly, we tap out the size of the liver, or up and down the lungs to identify whether there’s a pleural effusion. It’s a very useful diagnostic maneuver and a part of the basic physical examination that all medical students learn. Yet to him it seems to be the answer to diagnosing everything, from the standard stuff even to osteoporosis.

But Dr. Stagnaro’s not done yet. It’s not enough to combine semiotics and quantum theory. Oh, no. That would be too pedestrian. Instead, he has to bring–you knew this was coming, didn’t you?–chaos theory into the mix as well:

Healthy physiologic function is characterized by a complex interaction of multiple control mechanisms that enable an individual to adapt to the exigencies and unpredictable changes of everyday life (2, 3). As implied by its name, non-linear dinamics studies systems, such as those in physiology, in wich out-put is not proportional to in-put. Physiologic processes show highly variable fluctuations resembling “chaos”. The term “chaos” describes an apparently unpredictable behaviour that may arise from the internal feed-back loops of certain non-linear systems.

This healthy variability is not just random, uncontrolled fluctuations, however. Allthough the precise mathematical definition of “chaos” is somewhat complicated, its presence in the body can be characterized by two things: first, it is there by design, for instance it is not caused by the random firing of neurons; second, the behaviour of a chaotic system is complicated and unpredictable.

As a matter of facts, vasomotility and vasomotion of every tissue-microvascular-unit physiolocically show an highly complex type of variability, “constrained randomness”, reminescent of “chaos”, which may be evaluated at the bed-side with the aid of a new physical semeiotics, Biophysical Semeiotics, as we demonstated previously (2, 3) for the first time clinically, by mean of numerous ureteral reflexes.

Ureteral reflexes? Dr. Stagnaro can tell all that just from ureteral reflexes? Surely he is the most amazing physician who ever lived! Apparently, Dr. Stagnaro can diagnose pretty much any condition just by percussing the flank and anterior abdomen in the standard fashion to measure kidney size, and so skillful at such percussion is he that he has somehow founded a whole new area of medicine based on it–and semiotics and quantum theory and chaos theory, oh, my:

Thus it is easy to recognize three interesting ureteral reflexes, i.e. upper, middle, and lower ureteral reflex, fundamental on Clinical Microangiology, since their accurate assessement, over the two last decades, have allowed me to found this new branch of Medicine, i.e. bed-side study of the microcirculation in all biological systems with the aid of Biophysical Semeiotics (Fig. 2).

There’s a lot of material on Dr. Stagnaro’s website. A lot. It’s impossible to boil it all down adequately in a single blog post. However, from what I can tell, Dr. Stagnaro claims to use auscultatory percussion to measure “ureteral reflexes,” although how I have no idea; it’s not as though you can feel or see the ureters. It’s true that in the operating room you gently squeeze a ureter it will start peristalsing (contracting rhythmically), but a ureter is a small narrow structure, buried deep within the body in the retroperitoneum lying on top of the psoas muscle. There’s no plausible way you can see it by physical exam, even in a concentration camp survivor. It’s just too small a tube (less than a centimeter in diameter) surrounded by too much muscle and other structures.

Not that that’s stopped Dr. Stagnaro from creating something he calls Clinical Microangiology, which he describes thusly:

Clinical Microangiology represents the clinical study of deterministic chaos of vasomotility, i.e., sphygmicity of small arteries and arterioles, according to Hammersen, and, then, of vasomotion, sphygmicity of capillaries and post-capillaries venules, in all biological systems.

This new discipline of Medicine, in fact, is based exclusively on “clinical” evaluation (using a stethoscope and assessing ureteral reflexes; See Technical Page N° 5) of autonomous and autoctonus movements of all structures of tissue-microvascular-units, among them Arterio-Venous Anastomoses (AVA), functionally speaking, of every organ, gland, and tissue.

Under basal physiological conditions, tissue-microvascular-unit motor activity shows an high degree of deterministic chaos, i.e. highest fractal dimension or dimensionality, which is its measure.

The calculation of this parameter, essential in Clinical Microangiology, by easy and practical way, can be performed with the aid of evaluation of disappearing time of caecal and/or gastric aspecific reflex: by elegant and refined way doctor quantifies in sec. “differential latency time” of caecal and/or gastric aspecific reflex, wich parallels its disappearance, as will be described in details later.

It’s amazing what one can figure out from so little. Isn’t that always the way with woo?

What I find interesting about Dr. Stagnaro and his woo is that he lists a lot of real reflexes that can be characterized at the bedside, such as the Valsalva reflex, which results in the heart slowing down when a person bears down and thereby increases intraabdominal pressure, or the vagal reflex, which can be invoked by massaging the carotid artery and which also decreases the heart rate. He then mixes all sorts of other things that aren’t so easily detectable on physical exam (such as the ureteral reflex). He then attributes all sorts of things to these reflexes.

And then he layers on a whole lot of “semiotic” woo:

When a biological system, due to diseases, different in origin, evolves slowly to pathological condition, both functional and/or structural, although function and structure must be considered as poles of the same equation, as states Leuckard, characteristic modifications of deterministic chaos happen in both local vasomotility and vasomotion and, at macroscopic level, in volume fluctuations of organ, gland, and tissue, where disorder is localized, allowing to draw related diagrams, illustrated in the site pages, dedicated to Biophysical Semeiotics, and, therefore, jet known to reader.

These physiological oscillations (trajectories), in fact, appear modifyed at microscopic as well as macroscopic level, causing progressive lowering of the fractal dimension or dimensionality, that from the physiological value, i.e., 3,81, lowers to about 2,57, as in the case of pancreas during Reaven’s syndrome, classic or “variant”, we described previously, slowly evolving to diabetes mellitus.

At this point, interestingly dividing physiological dimensionality and fractal dimension of Reaven’s syndrome slowly evolving to DM, or other disease, of course, the result oscillates around 6,81, f, or golden mean.

In our opinion, such magic numbers, which are really numerous in clinical microangiological evaluation, underline clearly the value of the chaos in Medicine.

Wow. Not only has he brought quantum biophysics, semiotics, and chaos theory. No, Dr. Stagnaro is a master. He’s now bringing fractals in and invokes the golden mean! I tell ya, it always comes back down to vibrations, as I’ve asked time and time again, what is it about woo-meisters and their vibrations and frequencies and waves?

I think I’ll conclude with one final bit of wisdom from Dr. Stagnaro. I fear I’ve done a very poor job explaining his woo to you all. I was also puzzled because I saw nothing about any actual semiotics. It’s almost as though Dr. Stagnaro just plucked the word out of the air because he liked the sound of it. But he does serve up a good heapin’ helpin’ of other woo, this time invoking evolution:

If the delay of one of the components is due to the internal component of natural selection, then obviously we can surmise that the rapid development takes the rooth in the external selection: imagination has overcome the exactness, i.e., in the mind of men, old and conservatory it seems that changing is akin to nightmare and madness.

In some fields, as Medicine, this fact is well-known. However, we have to reflect more deeply: in a lot of changing processes we find something like an abstract relation, which recurs as necessary component of a large variety of changes, e.g., form/function, exactness/imagination, structure/quantity. Some prefer one of the components: liberals, radicals, conservatories.

However, epistemological truth states that oppositions poles are, in reality, dialectic necessites of living world, like day and night. The obsolescence does not be avoided solely, neither by accelerating structure change, nor slackening functional changes. Hopeful could be the antagonistic combination of the two mental habits, surely better of both, separatedly considered.

Sure thing, Dr. Stagnaro. The only “antagonistic” mental habits I have right now are the perverse curiosity to try to figure out just what the hell you are talking about battling against the temptation to take your cornucopia of woo-filled prose and see if I can out do it.

Of course, if I tried to do that, I suspect that the fabric of space-time would rupture. We are, after all, dealing with quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and fractals.

And I still don’t know what semiotics is. Not really, anyway.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

15 replies on “Your Friday Dose of Woo: The revenge of semiotics”

The challenge in studying semiotics or postmodernism is that, unlike studying literature, or history, or medicine, they are not first-order fields. Both of them are the study of the way in which we think, and as such have been very useful. Scholars like Pierre Bourdieu, Thomas Kuhn, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault have really expanded our understanding of our own linguistic and cultural habits, the ways in which we both comprehend the world and limit our scope of action therein.

That said, there have been some truly awful intellectual and linguistic directions taken by postmodernism and semiotics: the former lends itself to a kind of nihilistic relativism which denies truth and meaning entirely; the latter to a kind of free-association in which things end up meaning rather the opposite of what everyone intuitively expects. There’s junk science in every field, and these are relatively new fields; the ratio is still kind of high and both tend to attract “maverick” and “ooh, it’s new and cool” types.

As I said before, the woo-use of semiotics draws on the way in which “signifier” and “signified” can be very different things: the way the flag stands for the nation, or “White House” stands for the presidency (or the nation). The wooists are taking that fairly straightforward process of unpacking meaning from language, and turning it into sympathetic magic. It’s no different from their use of quantum mechanics, and you won’t understand semiotics or postmodernism by reading Milgrom more than you’ll understand Heisenberg.

I don’t actually see much in the way of semiotics there, at least as someone with a Master’s degree in something resembling rhetoric understands semiotics, I’m afraid. I’m going to have to agree with Ahistoricality here — you won’t understand semiotics from Milgrom or this guy, because he’s not actually using the term in any of its accepted senses. (Despite your confusion about the multiplicity of definitions at the beginning of the post, they at least do cluster around one general subject area.) He’s using the term in much the same way as woomeisters use “quantum” or “energy” or any of their borrowed buzzwords.

To put it in two equivalent ways, the semioticist in me wants to say that Stagnaro and Milgrom have completely divorced the signifier “semiotics” from its intended signifier (that being the study of signs of all kinds and their various social baggages). The lowbrow pop culture enthusiast in me says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means…”

(For what it’s worth, it also doesn’t sound the least bit postmodern to me, either, at least not according to the kind of rigourous analytical frame in which I’m used to using postmodernism. Seriously, this hurts me about as much as yet another pronouncement from Egnor hurts you; it’s not that tough, you really don’t have to obstinately keep not understanding it for the purposes of trying to make some kind of point. In some disciplines, being aware of your cultural biases and being able to shift your frame of reference at will is really damn useful. I don’t know how applicable it is to the hard sciences, but on the other hand, I don’t know how applicable oncological surgery is to the cultural construction of mass transportation in North America as viewed in the popular media, either…)

I actually had to *read* Eco for some prof: it had very little to do with what I was studying at the time and was nearly as awful as the Michaud I had to translate(at least I fulfilled a language requirement with that). Which brings me to a (somewhat OT) question: if woo is concerned with the psychological, be it mental illness, cognition, developmental,or psychotherapy, should we still refer to it as *woo* or is it perhaps, *psoo*( for pseudo-psychology)?Or just “Poppycock”?

The wooists are taking that fairly straightforward process of unpacking meaning from language, and turning it into sympathetic magic.

Drat – someone beat me to it. “Sympathetic Magic” is exactly what we are talking about.

Mr Milligrom evidently missed his first semiotics lecture: the one where they make you write “the symbol is not the thing” 1000 times on a blackboard.

As for postmodernism and science: it’s easy to think of places where a little postmodernism would have moved science along a bit more quickly. Postmodernism night have a bit to say about creationism and ID: the biblical cultural bias, the tautology that every “effect” must have a “cause” (ie: doh, an “effect” by definition is that which is caused by something.)

You know, I have thought for some time that what the world needs is for people in the humanities to come to the aid of their colleagues in the sciences and defend them against the political attacks they face. Someone needs to articulate why we bother teaching science and math *at all* in schools.

“An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiar with the idea from the beginning.” -Max Planck

Ah, the magical wonders of Woo!

Way back in my misspent youth, I analyzed some Hegel from German to English, and during this exercise in futility (there is a lot of trouble connecting the two properly)…I figured out that Hegel basically was working industriously to redefine common German words like ‘Will’ and not William Tell or William the Conquerer but the mental/mythological meaning of this word so beloved later by Hitler and his gang…I digress…where was I?

Oh, the wooly wooness of verbiage: we see this all over the place. In Hamlet, Shakespeare makes fun of this sort of thing with Polonius. Then has a rather angry Hamlet run a sword through the gasbag. To most people, words are like clothing one must put on and then wear. They go to the wardrobe and seek out fashionable dross to drape over themselves so they will look intelligent and learned.

Most often, the very last thing they want to do is be absolutely clear about what their real intentions and real past is…like Polonius who conspired with the King to kill Hamlet’s father. The words are like a big cloud that obscures the True Nature of the person spouting these words.

A sane conversation or science involves a very careful use of words and great care must be taken to make certain the words match some sort of natural reality even in Quantum Physics, it can’t be divorced from actual electrons or photons or whatever one is describing.

Which takes us to the Great Master of Understanding Woo: the great books of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. There are many great characters in both books who create their own reality by torturing language or being very literal and logical while at the same time, totally insane and useless. These books are over 150 years old and it seems that people still have trouble digesting the true nature of these two very subversive books.

Maybe we should have these two books be studied thoroughly before students engage in other classes involving science, logic and language usages.

There’s a lot of confusion going on here. Semiotics isn’t postmodernism — although some ideas which may be associated with the latter (poorly defined) field are associated with uses of the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. The latter’s dyadic understanding of semiology (anthroposemiosis) must not be confused with Peirce’s triadic understanding of the nature of semiotics as sign-relations. Thus, the semiotician of logic (also a scientist) you should be looking at is Charles Sanders Peirce (plus, more recently for a lucid overview, John Deely’s Four Ages of Understanding — and don’t be frightened by the title). None of this is woo. The thing is this: when you look at the way physicists describe quantum particle behaviour it sounds quite remarkably like the way Peircean semiotics describes signs. They, too, are potentia which are only realised as signs when in sign-relations. Signs are ‘no-things’ which only become ‘some-things’ when some sense is pragmatically made of them. Anything, potentially, can be a sign, but only when it’s a sign *meaning something else* for *an observer* (who tries to interpret, or understand, it). Physicists’ ‘observations’ of subatomic particles are an obvious example. An observation, necessarily, organises and brings into being (realises) a relation (i.e. collapses the wave function so what is observed is always a particle — with always some ‘information’ lost, as is always the case in sign relations). I know this all sounds strange at first (and Peircean semiotics takes a while to get one’s head around), but, as open-minded scientists, you ought to be prepared to investigate properly before dismissing it as woo in every instance. It may be that Peirce (“the universe is perfused with signs”) was right, and that the difficulty with reconciling quantum physics with Newtonian physics rests on a problem of mis-description. There’s a load of stuff on the web on this (I googled “quantum physics and semiotics” and came across masses). I realise that the idea of a “semiotic universe” is likely to provoke nervous breakdowns, but, in the interests of scientific truth, it should at least be considered in a properly informed fashion and not dismissed out of hand. Biologists are gradually coming round to the (biosemiotic) idea that all living systems are relational/communicational, complex and evolving, bio-cybernetic systems (see also Developmental Systems Theory), so the idea that it’s “turtles all the way down” might be worth some serious consideration. Biologists had to face the “Haldane’s mistress” problem eventually; maybe physicists (heretofore safely quarantined) might need to get an unacknowledged mistress out of the closet also? I know this is career-wrecking stuff, but suppose that it is possible to unify quantum physics, Newtonian physics, biology, and human culture by understanding that they can all make sense (within a unifying theory) when re-described not merely in terms of ‘information’ but in terms of the (thus far mis-described, or incompletely described) evolution of semiotic phenomena? In this view, material causation would just be an evolutionarily necessary stage in the realisation of semiotic potentia (quanta?) as supervenient *semiotic causality* in biota, and then in human culture. I dare you to inform yourselves, and then think about it, because “Theories have four stages of acceptance. i) this is worthless nonsense; ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view, iii) this is true, but quite unimportant; iv) I always said so.” – J.B.S. Haldane

Wendy, remember these very important things:

1) Paragraphs are good.

2) Wall of text is bad.

3) References are also good.

4) That tl/dr means “too long/didn’t read).

5) It is really stupid to post on blog comments that are over a year old. Though if I had noticed, that is something I would have told Paul Murray. Though even posting a month after the last comment is also stupid.

Oops, change “I would have told Paul Murray” to “I would have told “Elaine Supkis.”

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