Tag Archives: Stephen Fry

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.