Tag Archives: Ben Goldacre

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.

Exploring the New Skepticism – the View from Woo

“Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” – so They did.

And the loose alliances which populate virtual and real spaces from the Badscience chatrooms to ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ hook-ups have it in for complementary therapies in the UK.

When on 1st March the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) remit was widened to include the web, the skeptics were in the starting blocks, ready to go with an orchestrated shop-a-homeopath campaign, and it’s going strong.  ‘Them’ against ‘Us’: a farce, and it’s not funny!  No room to breathe, to debate or question is left in the crammed confines of ideological scientism.  The new skeptics seem to have forgotten about sceptical enquiry or that key term of science vernacular,  ‘poorly understood’.

Instead there rises a newspeak certitude where skepticism means ideology, where science is reduced to mechanistic computability, yet elevated to quasi-religion.  Such scientism throws the homeopath and the tarot reader into the same pit of sinister woo peddling. 21st century skeptics don’t doubt who owns the truth: they do.  That’s why they are ‘They’.

Google ‘homeopathy’ plus ‘skeptic’ and that unbiased scientific term ‘woo’ (from ‘woo-hoo…’  spooky movie sound effect!).  You may find yourself wholeheartedly agreeing with what you find – or perhaps you haven’t given it much thought and have been entertained/taken in by the funnymen who make sport of ‘woo’:  often hilarious, always shallow, never scientific.

On the other hand you may find yourself shocked at the mega-doses of vitriol and palpable malice that are poured on homeopathy and CAM.  Would you agree with boycotting a yoghurt brand because the cows get homeopathic remedies sometimes? There are some skeptics inciting that boycott right now.  You may wonder also, in passing, how so many of ‘Them’ can find so much time to attack ‘Us’.

And who are ‘They’?  My unscientifically sound investigations show that most skeptics

  • have no personal experience of using complementary therapies
  • are not doctors
  • base ‘scientific’ credibility on a subscription to New Scientist

High profile skeptics, those who get to speak at gatherings, are a heterogenous bunch.  A survey of speakers from a selection of recent big-name skeptic events reveals, for amusement purposes divided into fairly accurate percentages,

  • 45.7% entertainers/performers – of whom 25% magicians and 18.7% comedians
  • 25.7% social scientists (including psychology, policy, philosophy etc)
  • 22.8% ‘real’ scientists with degrees (biology, pharmacology, physics etc)
  • 11.4% politicians and lawyers
  • 5.7% IT experts
  • 2.8% medical doctors

You could make your own pie chart (Lacking online tech skills, I can’t oblige). As can be seen, there is no ‘average’ skeptic celebrity.  Unless it be Stephen Fry.  Except that he is not average.  Misguided, but quite brilliant.  And of course, neither a scientist nor a doctor, so – in the topsy-turvy rationale of the new skeptic movement – ideally placed to judge homeopathy and other CAM.   Stephen: have you tried proper homeopathic treatment?  It could really help you!

Why this exploration of skeptic identity?  Because They do ‘have it in for me’.  I mean Us. Why would they pour so much time and resources into hounding complementary therapists?   Even Ben Goldacre has noticed that most of us are “well-meaning, caring people”.  The newly founded ‘Nightingale Collaboration’ exists to get as many homeopaths’ websites reduced to meaningless blurb as possible by inciting orchestrated complaints to the ASA.  The site provides instructions on how to turn even harmless and well-meaning information into an alleged ‘misleading claim’.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeopaths – most of whom practice solo under shoestring conditions – are being systematically targeted with legalese ASA complaints (some generated by a specially-created piece of software, so the blogosphere tells me)  The world of twitter has been a-chirp with exploits like “I’m releasing a weapon of quack destruction”.   I’m not sure whether grappling with understanding this strange mindset can make a difference.  Still, it beats ignorance.