What’s So Special About the Geeks?

Who are the ‘skeptics’?  There’s celebrity woo-hunters, like Simon Singh (journalist, physicist), Ben Goldacre (journalist, almost fully qualified psychiatrist) and Brian Cox (TV presenter, physicist).  As successful media players, they have a public profile, readers, fans. But their reputation is critically fed by a substantial subgroup of skeptic supporters – groupies? – who follow them around in cyberspace and in the real world.  Who are these unsung skeptics?

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(should this be all Greek to you, then shut up, Bignose – he means Geek!)

The O.E.D. explains a geek as one “extremely devoted to and knowledgeable about computers or related technology. […] self-designation, not necessarily depreciative” and “obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit”.  ‘Science geek’ has not yet earned an entry even in the Urban Dictionary, but give it time:  this is a sub-group now (as in much skeptic newspeak, meanings shift – ‘science’ here no longer means science as we knew it but a vague, quasi-Newtonian-post-Darwinist dogma).  The word once meant a foolish/offensive/worthless person, which by extension became ‘dupe’ – someone who is easily misled, a fool.

It is worth noting then that the unelected king of the skeptic movement is one James Randi, a conjurer who has often pointed out that making dupes of people is his profession and his pleasure. It’s just his followers, the self-designated geeks, assume he doesn’t mean them… .

A tag cloud created from skeptic twitter biogs:  the interest focus, distilled into 30 words, of a wide network of twitter-linked skeptics who share in active efforts to discredit and ridicule the work of complementary practitioners everywhere, by fair means and foul.

Foul?  Depends on your point of view: Ben Goldacre prefers to call it “the simple, enduring pleasure of baiting morons”.   Like the growing trend to orchestrated mail deluges.  One ombudsman-judged mass campaign that was made public was declared officially ‘vexatious’.  And how about pretending to be a homeopathy student, stealing postings from a confidential practitioners’ forum, or passing university teaching material to blogger skeptics for ridicule and mis-representation in public?  A simple pleasure?

Because there is now a small army of such bandwaggoners, UK skepticism has become more than just a harmless hobby for Mr. Dawkins and friends. There’s almost 6000 people on the so-called badscience forums, more elsewhere. Many engage in the ‘pleasure’ of ‘moron baiting’ activism.  Almost all self-define as ‘geeks’.

That tag cloud reflects the aspirational more than the actual – so here, synthesised from the wealth of skeptic online self-expression, is a fine portrait of the would-be hero of rationalism: Average Skeptic Geek.

A bloke, of course (there are girl skeptics. But few).  He’s ‘into’ rock music and treasures his vintage Led Zep t-shirt.  His science comes from New Scientist. He works at a glass-clad company HQ outside Reading, in IT.  He’s 26: still young enough to have all the answers – or trust that someone else does and it’ll only be a question of time until he too has acquired the knowledge t-shirt.

Meantime he’s happy to copy what Simon (Singh) Says.  “200 studies show that homeopathy has no effect beyond placebo”. Has he read the studies, can he assess the methodologies? No (Even Simon hasn’t read them critically, actually – too risky; he might find out he got it wrong) – he isn’t a medic but a software guy.  He likes things in black and white, and his science is rooted in the simple ‘truths’ of the school syllabus, expanded by knowledge-lite ingested from celebrity-fronted TV shows.

Thanks to youth and luck he’s never been seriously ill so has little experience of just how ‘evidence based’ our health service is (not), and his insight into drugs effects is strictly recreational.  He applauds the skeptic bloggers who dissect interminably anything they consider ‘woo’, spends hours online in skeptic pursuits.  His activities, his consumption, his books by Dawkins, Singh et al, feed a deep need: to feel himself anchored in a reassuringly mechanical universe in which all the cogs click along explicably, and all gaps will fill ‘logically’ in the course of guaranteed progress. Of course he is ‘an atheist’.

His fandom embraces the ‘skeptic’ comedians who make this world view seem so right, so obvious, and easy laughs make him feel at one with the virtual community of bods who seem to have the truth on ‘life’ and the ‘universe’.  He doesn’t consider the ‘everything’ too much, that limitless expanse of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is the geek’s great fear.  That’s why he lashes out at people who offer a different viewpoint.  He has no hope of explaining everything from within the safety of the mechanistic paradigm .  So the fearful inexplicable morphs into ‘woo’ – cue the ‘enduring pleasure of moron baiting’.  Skeptic forums, skeptic pub meets: occupational therapy for the geeks?  Aw, bless ’em.


20 responses to “What’s So Special About the Geeks?

  1. Really the weather is too lovely today to deal with blog matters, but your comment deserves publication and response. I’d say you’re unusual in your fraternity (if that’s the word) because you’ve got hands on experience in medicine and relevant research, so you aren’t going just by what gets repeated at skeptic pub meets. Yet every doctor I’ve ever spoken to has confirmed that number crunching is only a small part of the ‘answer’ in medical care. I’ll keep saying it: research is what homeopathy needs to ‘measure up’. Think of all the leaps in science that have been uncovered just since EBM began to rule the waves – always because someone somewhere managed to see beyond accepted truisms. If homeoathy were appropriately researched, with proper funding, by people who understand both reserach and homeoapthy as a healthcare modality – if it were then still found wanting, I’d bow my head in shame and write no more. Meantime, I invite you to suspend judgment: homeopathy is a valuable, not to mention value-for-money, tool against many health problems that mainstream medicine has no answer for. Throwing it on the same slag heap as bloodletting and purging makes no sense until all avenues of research have been exhausted.

  2. Your “Geek” stereotype is amusing and certainly not all encompassing. Yes, I do consider myself Skeptic Geek! However, I’ve also worked in health care for 40+ years as a Medic in the Army, Registered Nurse, Hospital Laboratory Manager, Clinic Manager, Quality Assurance & Performance Improvement Coordinator, Medical-Legal Risk Manager and Quality Data Analyst. I work daily in gargantuan RCT and outcomes analysis databases that gather data from all over the nation and I do know what works in healthcare and how it is documented – It’s certainly not by anecdotal evidence! By ANY legitimate manner of analysis, homeopathy does NOT measure up as an efficacious modality.

  3. Hi Kaviraj, thanks for commenting. RCTs may be problematic and limited in application but in mainstream medicine they do have their place. The reasons why standard RCT methodology isn’t appropriate for homeopathy and many other complementary therapies have been widely discussed; Clare Relton’s work in this area is recommended, if you don’t know it. If research is inappropiate to the modality in question, patients lose out. More funding and further development and refinement of appropriate research methodologies in complementary therapies is what’s needed.

  4. The RCT is an unqualified piece of rubbish, when applied to non-CAM. […] A 100million users in the EU alone who say they did get better from homoeopathic treatment is indeed data about its effectiveness, rather than “anecdotal evidence”. Moreover, anecdotal evidence of so many is still evidence, regardless its careless dismissal.

  5. Thank you, Oliver. Fence, what fence? Them vs Us seems to me an unnecessary polarisation that doesn’t help patients – but it can’t be ignored. 200 years ago as now it’s not so much the doctors as people on the fringes of medicine and scientific thinking who largely hack at homeopathy. If only doctors dared to dismantle the fence.

    I am just looking into the promotion of ‘formal logic’ in medical decision making. IT-led, naturally. If trials comparing logic-based decision making devices to standard practice have been conducted, I haven’t found them. It would be interesting to see how the two measure up. If ‘the machines’ take over, doctors’ decisions may become ruled by the RCT. To date, they have not – with more than half of ‘commonly used treatments’ of unknown effectiveness, as Dr. Kaplan’s Pie Man tells us, how can they? Remove a large chunk of the average medic’s toolkit? Unlikely.

    Complementary therapies are low-cost yet effective. Patients trust and value complementary therapies, with good reason. Most of medicine isn’t evidence-based by the standards of formal EBM. As NICE guidance has recently re-iterated: EBM alone is not enough. Let’s have proper integration of biomedical healthcare with the well-established complementary modalities, and let’s get researching in that context.

  6. Oliver Dowding

    I think you’ve written an excellent post here. It strikes me as very rational, and in many ways you wouldn’t know from it on which side of the fence you sit.

    I love the contribution from Clumpy, in dismissing observation. You have to wonder whether these guys go about their daily lives with their eyes open and make changes to their movements and actions based on what they see. A car coming towards them, change direction? Every doctor observes and makes decisions based on those observations. The same is true with a homoeopath. We just aren’t slavishly adhering to RCT devised solutions, being aware of a much wider range of options to resolve both simple and complicated conditions. Long live the original, thinking, observational homoeopath.

  7. Thank you, Gardener. The credit for the drawing goes to a friendly artist. I love his portrait of the archetypal geeklet, who by himself may be gormless but isn’t nasty per se. Put him in a pack, switch on the twitter, and hundreds hack at Ms Robert’s article within the hour, with one baying voice – as you have seen. But only because their ‘ringmasters’ know just how to play them.

  8. I love your analysis and caricature. But you’ve been too kind! He could look less thoughtful, more grumpy and I’d really like to see his broken teeth (from gnashing them aggressively at anyone who audaciously disagrees with his world view).
    Whenever I dip into a skeptic tank of bile (eg the nasty online response to Rachel Roberts’ good natured reply piece about homeopathy in the Guardian a few months ago) I wonder why they spend so much time with their computers when it makes them so very cross and irrational. A little Nux vomica, perhaps a dose or two of Lycopodium to boost their confidence, or even a break from the screen every couple of hours for a glass of water might help cool their overheated brains and relieve the blood pressure…

  9. British Homeopathic Association, Society of Homeopaths, Homeopathy Research Institute. All warmly recommended. You’re right, the acronyms are not enough. Other complementary therapies have their own information bases, I’m not so familiar with their organisations, but I’m sure you’d find them quite quickly through google.

  10. I’m not really familiar with any of those people you mentioned (in fact, the only “Singh” I know is Khan from Star Trek). Nor am I familiar with the organizations you cited, though I tried Googling their acronyms and I couldn’t really get anywhere. Could you provide me (and others) a few links to their main pages? I’d be more than happy to find the relevant information from there, as I hope it’s clear I am sincerely interested in learning about alternative methodologies. I would probably identify as a “casual” skeptic regarding my methods of gathering information for personal use, though I’m open to anything that sounds plausible or verifiable. Thank you for your civility as well :).

  11. I wonder why skeptic responses here tend to ignore the actual topic: I was discussing the strange phenomenon that is ‘skepticism’, so-called, here by exploring the ‘geek’ as archetype. Not least because I’ve watched online and media aggression aimed at CAM practitioners grow increasingly vicious and vociferous over time – I would like to understand better why this is. Hence ‘thinking aloud’.

    I’m concerned with attacks on all CAM. Yet commenters home in on homeopathy and ‘evidence’. In About you can see that providing evidence to skeptics is something I’ve tried. I’ve also read other practitioners’ attempts in this respect. Such efforts are always treated in the same way: ridicule, contempt, an upped smugness factor – because in addition to the information itself, the respondent’s words can be shredded: double bonus points for CAM baiters.

    The BHA, SoH and HRI all have sound information on current research on their websites, with references – please look for yourself. Perhaps without the aid of pre-digested opinion by Ernst or Singh or Goldacre. You could also read my post ‘the plural of anecdote is data’.

  12. Thank you for your response. What would you then propose as an alternate method for proving the truth or falsity of a given method of healing? Anecdotal evidence fails on every point – it’s self-selecting and merely observational. If a method of healing doesn’t work with large samples of people in a controlled environment, then why should I trust it to work in my own household and with my family?

  13. Hi Clumpy – thanks for commenting. Your comment has been cut, as some others, to keep the blog clutter-free and to the point. For more on why I edit or delete some comments, please read the About page.

    I’m interested in your explanation: ‘belief in the scientific method’ as ‘the primary component of skepticism’. Too true: adherence to a particular slice of EBM has for many become an article of faith. While medical professionals and regulators as well as complementary practitioners know that RCTs have limited application, can give misleading results, and that kind of limited EBM methodology rarely forms the base for decision making in the NHS.

  14. Your bit about skeptics fearing “uncertainty” is telling. I think that a true skeptic (one who holds the beliefs of skepticism without embracing it merely as a fad or a way of one-upping others) understands that you can never truly prove a negative. But it’s nearly impossible to argue with the primary component of skepticism – a belief in the scientific method, that subjecting different groups to different treatments and deciding whether the results are significant is the best way to determine the truth or falsity of a verifiable claim.

  15. Hi Jah – yours is a good example of the classic skeptic demands around evidence. I and many others have done all that and more, but even high quality data is simply dismissed on a range of grounds that I’m sure you’re familiar with.

    Leaving aside the issue of how suitable the current EBM ‘fad’ is or isn’t for real-life applications, there are sadly few studies large enough to fulfil those EBM criteria. I don’t agree that means there is no evidence – it just means there isn’t, shall we say, satisfying evidence within EBM parameters. Most CAM studies that aim to fulfil such parameters are small – typically pilot studies – due to lack of money. And so usually they are dismissed as ‘underpowered’.

    But when we say ‘fine, give us proper research funds’, it is argued that investigating ‘implausible’ therapies would be a waste of scarce resources. Double-blind? No, it’s a double-bind…

    The Medical Research Council hasn’t awarded any money to CAM research for years – they didn’t reply when I asked more specifically about spending details on complementary modalities in the last five years. The last figures I heard for this were from 2005 I think – when about 1% of all UK public research funds was spent on all CAM therapies as far as I remember. Public money is only a drop on a hot stone in terms of health research. A proper, large-scale RCT costs around £1million. Will you help secure the money to do a whole series of appropriate, large-scale trials in homeopathy and other complementary therapies, please?

  16. Though I still remain sceptical (note the c) of your field, considering the fact that I have never seen any evidence for it, I do appreciate what you seem to be doing.
    I recognize your scepticism to the blind followers, as I believe any semi-conscious being should, and for that I applaud you.

    However, considering the levels of dilution […] Basic chemistry, as well as all our understanding of the natural world, flies in the face of it.) I find it hard to accept, even before the starting gun.
    […] Your criticism is most welcome, as I believe many of us need to hear it. […]
    Please, demonstrate your claims, not with anecdotes but with double-blinded studies, and I will be willing to change my opinion of your field.

  17. “Skeptics will never be fooled by woo”: woo = prejudice, ridicule; fooled = assumption; never = closed terms of reference. That’s why you are in the camp of the sKeptics, not sCeptics.

    Why not challenge yourself, turn this thing on its head? Try to consider e.g. ultra-high dilutions ‘as if’ plausible, explore the subject properly and without simply buying into what Messrs Singh, Ernst et al have to say on the matter? Even if you revert to your original stance as a result, persuaded you were right all along, you probably will have learnt some pretty amazing things along the way (although I have no evidence for this claim… must be worth a try, surely, if only to hone your critical thinking).

  18. Skepticism is healthy because it follows the logic [sic]. The burden of proof will forever lay with the claimant, not the skeptic. I would rather reserve my judgment in the face of unacceptable evidence than embrace the substandard. This is why skeptics will never be fooled by woo. It’s not an attack driven by fear. It’s a carefully thought out position.

  19. Hi Adam – your comment may stand in for the various others I have received that say in rather more words fairly much the same thing. I appreciate that you are not being terribly rude.

    Yes, I draw with a broad brush: the picture of the Skeptic Geek, like all good caricatures, is precisely observed – within the terms of reference. Let’s say I took lessons from the comdians who hang out with the celebrity skeptics. This blog is an antidote to the reams of skeptic ad hominems and ridicule I’ve read online for years. If you don’t know how un-sCeptical and how ideology-driven that segment of the online world is, then you have not looked with a dispassionate eye at the outpourings on badscience or JREF etc etc. Like I said in ‘About’: I’ve done all the providing evidence bit, the attempts at dialogue before – mere malice-snacks for the usual suspects: they would never take a word a CAM practitioner says seriously, no matter how well reasoned, or how sound the studies provided. If not resorting to personal attacks or unspecific ‘woo’-trashing, they just repeat the same old discredited Shang et al etc. Just ask Edzard Ernst, the king of the cherrypickers.

    And please remember this blog is a response to the malicious skeptic campaign since ASA rule change on 1st March. The zealots give their true colours away in their various online comments. Which you will readily spot if you are not blinded by zealotry yourself. Best wishes. “Don’t Call Me WooWoo”

  20. Interesting description of what geeks are like.

    Tell me, do geeks also resort to ludicrously over-simplified stereotypes of anyone they disagree with?