Tag Archives: Skepticism

“This Mechanism Is Not Well Understood” – Lacunae in Science

Medline, that key repository of all things biomedical, holds more than 20 million citations.  Of those, over 1 in 200 state variations on one of my favourite sentences in science: today’s title theme (not well, not clearly, not yet, not currently…) – biomedical mechanisms defying science.  Searching Google at  ‘advanced reading level’ (aka ‘so not Yahoo Answers’) , the relevant terms turn up in 29% of indexed pages pertaining to health or science or medicine:  a rough measure to help along a general ‘I wonder’ about the Unknown in science and medicine.

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The ‘mechanism’ in many CAM therapies – notably in homeopathy – ‘is not well understood’.  Skeptics have been trying to transmute this – by media drip feed –  into ‘there is no mechanism’.  Or, as then-US-Defence-Secretary Rumsfeld explained to justify a war: stick with what we can see – ignore the ‘unknown unknowns’.

But even if all placebo-only allegations in relation to complementary therapies held true, would not this too mean homeopathy and other CAM must be ‘better understood’? Placebo is a frontrunner among the mechanisms in healthcare which are barely understood.  So where are the skeptic researchers investigating possible placebo aspects in CAM? Assumption, assertion and strange mud-slinging is all we get.

The louder skeptics in the UK have elevated themselves to a new science police, notably in the current ASA campaign that prompted this blog: persecuting individual practitioners, not large companies.  The ‘multi-million pound industries’ in CAM often cited by skeptic groups consist almost entirely of over the counter sales of vaguely alternative health supplements. Guess who owns Seven Seas, the biggest supplier in this market?  German pharma giant Merck.  Now there’s a really big target…  Yet the one-person CAM practices in little clinics up and down the country are what the right-thinking skeptic aims at.  Advice from the Woo-finder General to his hench-writers: pick anything on your chosen target websites – the ASA is duty-bound to investigate, and your complaint might just stick even if spurious.

One key argument between ‘science’ and ‘homeopathy’ (an arbitrary polarisation much fostered by skeptics) hinges around plausibility.  On whose authority?   Why would someone who readily accepts the wilder reaches of quantum concepts and the possibility of multi-verses, who expects that material proof of the Higgs boson is just around the corner, and doesn’t discount the graviton, insist so strongly that this one modality is simply impossible?  None but the most egg-headed of boffins have even a small proportion of the science pieces they need to puzzle together for themselves what makes sense in the big picture and what doesn’t.  Everyone else… takes it on trust.

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Here’s Brian Cox quoting a contemporary of Hahnemann’s , Humphry Davy – a ‘personal hero’ no less.  So let’s hear it for Samuel Hahnemann, pioneering thinker and embattled scientist, Professor Cox.  But no, he’s gone to the Dark Side: Brian Cox is proud patron of and speaker for those indiscriminate CAM-busters, the ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ movement – that’s the people who hire strategists to enthuse and instruct their acolytes in the art of malicious mass campaigning, the groups who teach debating techniques the better to hammer opponents with spurious ‘logical fallacy’ attacks, in short, the would-be freethinkers whose sole aim is to score points against what they present as rip-off pseudoscience (rolling everything from UFO conspirators to integrated medicine on the NHS into one tidy package).

"Fweee Bwian!"

But still we trust in Brian.  And Ben.  And Simon.  Even that dodgy Edzard with his movie baddie accent.  In spite of clear evidence of bias.  Trust – what a wonderful thing.  Safety, certainty.  If I trust that you tell me the truth, then I need look no further: a lot less hard work.  So if you adopt ‘the facts’ pre-digested from the Messrs Cox and Dawkins (sorry – Professors, to give them their correct, authority-bestowing titles), taking it in good faith that they have worked out the difficult bits you don’t quite get, then life is so much easier.  But isn’t that … just faith?  It certainly isn’t scepticism.

Meanwhile, lacunae of unknowing in the current information base of science and of medicine remain, the voids filled at need with apparently tidy cover stories. Like ‘it’s just placebo’.  Just?  Some things scientists know (and admit) they don’t know.  It’s the ‘unknown unknowns’ they struggle with but – unlike the benighted Rumsfeld – anyone, not just scientists, can embrace and face that completely open uncertainty… that’s how the ‘c’ gets back into scepticism.

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.