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Archive for the ‘pseudo-science’ Category

“He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.”

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Here’s Plato’s take on experts, evidence, and evidence of expertise. These words were first written more than 2,000 years ago – it seems both intriguing and perhaps also a bit depressing that they still have so much currency today.

The text below is from a dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, a well-known ‘sophist’ who made his living from teaching the art of persuasion – aka “rhetoric”. The word ‘sophistry’ is today synonymous with arguments that are superficially plausible, yet nonetheless bogus…

From Plato’s Gorgias

Socrates: …You claim to be able to train up as a rhetorician anyone who’s prepared to listen to your teaching on the subject. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And you’ll teach him all he needs to know to persuade a crowd of people – not to make them understand, but to win them over. Is that right?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: Now you claimed a little while back that a rhetorician would be more persuasive than a doctor even when the issue was health.

Gorgias: Yes I did, as long as he’s speaking in front of a crowd.

Socrates: By ‘in front of a crowd’ you mean ‘in front of non-experts’, don’t you? I mean, a rhetorician wouldn’t be more persuasive than a doctor in front of an audience of experts, of course.

Gorgias: True.

Socrates: Now, if he’s more persuasive than a doctor than he’s more persuasive than an expert, isn’t he?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: When he isn’t actually a doctor himself. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And a person who isn’t a doctor is ignorant, of course, about the things which a doctor knows.

Gorgias: Obviously.

Socrates: So any case of a rhetorician being more persuasive than a doctor is a case of a non-expert being more persuasive than an expert in front of an audience of non-experts. Isn’t that what we have to conclude?

Gorgias: Yes, in this instance, anyway.

Socrates: But isn’t a practitioner of rhetoric in the same situation whatever the area of expertise? He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.

Gorgias: Doesn’t that simplify things, Socrates? Rhetoric is the only area of expertise you need to learn. You can ignore all the rest and still get the better of the professionals!

Written by Richard Wilson

February 7, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Nick Cohen on the Simon Singh Chiroquack libel farce…

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From The Observer:

This week, Simon Singh, one of Britain’s best science writers, will decide whether to carry on playing a devilish version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He has already lost £100,000 defending his right to speak frankly. He could walk away. No one would think the worse of him if he did. Or he could go on and risk losing the full million by ensnaring himself in the rapacious world of an English judiciary that seems ever eager to bow to the demands of Saudi oil billionaires, Russian oligarchs and the friends of Saddam Hussein to censor critics and punish them with staggering damages and legal fees…

Reputable medical authorities could test the evidence and decide whether the treatments work or not. Instead of arguing before the court of informed opinion, however, the BCA went to the libel courts and secured a ruling from Mr Justice Eady that made Singh’s desire to test chiropractors’ claims next to impossible. Because Singh used the word “bogus”, the judge said he had to prove that chiropractors knew they were worthless but “dishonestly presented them to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public”.

The learned judge did not seem to understand that the worst thing about the deluded is that they sincerely believe every word they say. On Eady’s logic, a writer who condemns as “bogus” a neo-Nazi’s claim that a conspiracy of Jews controls American foreign policy could be sued successfully if lawyers jumped up and said neo-Nazis sincerely believed their conspiracy theories to be true.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 31, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Time to start calling “alternative medicine” by its proper name?

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Via Ben Goldacre’s Twitter feed comes this story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

THE parents of a nine-month-old girl who died from septicemia were responsible for their baby’s death because they shunned conventional medical treatment for her eczema in favour of homeopathic remedies, a court heard yesterday.

A homeopath, Thomas Sam, 42, and his wife, Manju Sam, 36, are standing trial in the NSW Supreme Court charged with manslaughter by gross criminal negligence after they allegedly resisted the advice of nurses and a doctor to send her to a skin specialist.

Instead Gloria Thomas, who was born in perfect health in July 2001, allegedly died with malnutrition and eczema so severe that her skin broke every time her parents removed her clothes and nappy.

It strikes me that “alternative medicine” is a rather generous term for practices, like homeopathy, which, despite the claims of adherents, have no sound basis in science and no proven benefit beyond the placebo effect.

My dictionary defines medicine as “the science of treating illness”. Dictionary.com gives us “any substance or substances used in treating disease or illness…” and “the art or science of restoring or preserving health or due physical condition, as by means of drugs, surgical operations or appliances, or manipulations”. To apply the term “medicine” to practices such as homeopathy which are neither scientific nor have any impact on illness,  therefore seems both inaccurate and misleading.

Within the natural sciences more widely, ideas which claim to be scientific but which rest on deception, dodgy methodology and exaggerated claims, are typically described not as “alternative science” but as “pseudo-science”. In referring to such ideas within medicine, it seems to me that a more useful and descriptive phrase than “alternative medicine” would simply be “pseudo-medicine”

“Alternative medicine” may sound like a neutral term, but implicit within it are a set of assumptions which skew the argument in favour of quackery from the outset. The very use of the term “medicine” lends credence to the notion that practices such as homeopathy are a) scientific and b) effective. By describing homeopathy as “alternative medicine” we are helping to couch the discussion in terms of either/or, and with it the idea that to accept an unproven quack remedy over the entire canon of evidence-based-medicine is simply another consumer choice, like selecting a different brand of breakfast cereal.

The supposed dichotomy between “alternative” and “mainstream” medicine can skew the debate even further. For many people – perhaps especially those on the left-wing of politics – these are anything but neutral terms. The term “mainstream” carries very negative connotations, suggesting conformity, mediocrity, and compliance with authority, while the term “alternative” represents the polar opposite. Thus we have the contrast between “alternative” and “mainstream” music (eg. Nirvana vs Britney Spears), “alternative” and “mainstream” media (Indymedia vs the Daily Mail), and “alternative” and “mainstream” politics (eg. Greens vs Conservatives).

Anecdotal evidence can obviously only get you so far, but among the people I know who embrace “alternative medicine” and take it seriously, I’ve been struck by the extent to which they see it as a lifestyle choice, fitting in seamlessly with their political views, musical tastes, and media preferences.  It seems to me that one way to tackle this problem at its root would be to start challenging the very terms on which the debate is  being conducted, and stop accepting “alternative medicine” as a valid description of toxic, pseudo-medicinal ideas like homeopathy.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 5, 2009 at 10:44 am

Skeptics in the Pub – evidence-based-policy-making versus policy-based-evidence-making

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Monday’s book talk at Skeptics in the Pub certainly wasn’t my best, though things warmed up a bit with the Q&A discussion at the end.

My main focus was on the value of scepticism in, and about, politics – and I put forward three key examples to try to illustrate this: the case of the Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko, the UK government’s misleading statements about Iraq’s “WMD”, and the South African authorities’ embrace of “AIDS denialism” in the year 2000.

All three of these cases arguably involved costly government decisions being made on the basis of bad evidence that had not been properly scrutinised.

Lysenko’s theories about agriculture were far-fetched and unworkable, but they were ideologically agreeable to the Communist regime, and after he rose to prominence the totalitarian nature of the Soviet system made it very difficult for anyone to challenge his authority. When Lysenko’s ideas were implemented in China, they contributed to a famine that is believed to have claimed up to 30 million lives.

The evidence cited by the UK government in support of its view that Iraq possessed chemical weapons was famously “dodgy”. It’s widely believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, lied about the strength of that evidence, and about the views of his own experts (many of whom, it later, transpired, had grave doubts about the claims being made), not only to the public at large and the UK’s Parliament, but also to many members of his own cabinet. One ex-minister, Clare Short, has suggested that Blair believed he was engaging in an “honorable deception” for the greater good. But whatever his motives, in lying to his own cabinet and Parliament, Blair was effectively shutting out of the decision-making process the very people whose job it is to scrutinise the evidence on which government policies are based. John Williams, one of the spin doctors involved in drawing up the famous “dodgy dossier” – which at the time the government insisted was the unvarnished view of the intelligence services – later admitted that “in hindsight we could have done with a heavy dose of scepticism” (though it should be said that some of his statements raise more questions than they answer).

In South Africa in the early part of this decade, President Thabo Mbeki chose to believe the unsubstantiated claims of fringe scientists and conspiracy theorists over those of established AIDS researchers – including members of South Africa’s own scientific community. Under the influence of denialists who insist that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that AIDS deaths are in fact caused by the lifesaving medicines given to people with HIV, Mbeki’s government chose to block the availability of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa – even after the pharmaceutical companies had been shamed into slashing their prices and international donors were offering to fund the distribution. It was only after a series of court cases by the indefatigable Treatment Action Campaign that, in 2004, the authorities began to change their position. A recent study by Harvard University concluded that the deliberate obstruction of the roll-out of lifesaving drugs may have cost more than 300,000 lives.

The broad conclusion I think all of this points to is that the truth matters more in politics than ever before. Because of power and influence that governments now hold, the consequences of a bad policy implemented on the basis of bad evidence can adversely affect millions.

In an ideal world governments would be engaging in evidence-based-policy-making: deciding policy on the basis of the best available evidence – rather than policy-based-evidence-making: cherry-picking or concocting evidence to support a decision that has already been made. But obviously this doesn’t always happen, and as a result wholly preventable mistakes continue to be made.

Don’t get fooled by “gay cure” pseudo-science. Rights groups protest Anglican homophobes’ London conference

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I won’t be able to make this but thought I should spread the word. The Anglican church does seem to have consistent form for dressing up the nastiest kinds of abuses in woolly platitudes. Grr…

From Nicholas Chinardet on Facebook:

A conference advocating techniques to help ‘cure’ people of homosexuality is to be held in London next weekend.

Held by the Anglican Mainstream Organisation, the event will have “a special focus on how religious professionals and friends/relatives can respond biblically and pastorally to those struggling with unwanted SSA (same-sex attraction)”.

This is my first attempt at organising a demonstration. I do however think that this vile event should not be let to happen unchallenged. A peaceful demonstration by proud gay people (and couples?) would I think be the right answer. Straight allies are very welcome too, of course.

Oh and invite your friends (even if you can’t make it). Thanks.

Date: 25 April 2009
Time: 13:00 – 15:00
Location: Emmanuel Centre
Street: 9-23 Marsham Street
Town/City:  London, United Kingdom

Click here for more details

Written by Richard Wilson

April 24, 2009 at 10:11 am

Christopher Booker embraces recycling

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Journalist Christopher Booker may affect to doubt the human impact on the environment, and the wisdom of recycling targets for our household rubbish,  but he appears to have fewer qualms when it comes to filling up space in his weekly Sunday Telegraph column.

In a warm review for the Spectator last month of the new book by fellow Sunday Telegraph pundit James le Fanu, Booker informed readers that “the greatest stumbling block” in Darwin’s theory of evolution was that:

evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested — the ‘Cambrian explosion’ of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals. Again and again some new development emerged which required a whole mass of interdependent changes to take place simultaneously, such as the transformation of reptiles into feathered, hollow-boned and warm-blooded birds…

What is psychologically fascinating about the mindset of the Darwinians is their inability to recognise just how much they do not know. As Le Fanu observes in a comment which might have served as an epigraph to his book, ‘the greatest obstacle to scientific progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge’. Blinkered in their vision, armoured in the certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the ‘Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise.

In his column for today’s Sunday Telegraph, Booker tells readers that “one great stumbling block” for Darwin’s theory of evolution is that:

evolution has repeatedly taken place in leaps forward so sudden and so complex that they could not possibly have been accounted for by the gradual process he suggested – “the Cambrian explosion” of new life forms, the complexities of the eye, the post-Cretaceous explosion of mammals. Again and again some new development emerged which required a whole mass of interdependent changes to take place simultaneously, such as the transformation of reptiles into feathered, hollow-boned and warm-blooded birds…

What is fascinating about the Darwinians is their inability to accept just how much they do not know. Armoured in their certainty that they have all the answers when they so obviously don’t, neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rest their beliefs just as much on an unscientific leap of faith as the â Creationists’ they so fanatically affect to despise. It is revealing how they dismissively try to equate all those scientists who argue for ‘intelligent design’ with Biblical fundamentalists, as their only way to cope with questions they cannot answer.

In Don’t Get Fooled Again, I highlight Christopher Booker’s recycling of the asbestos industry’s pseudo-science in downplaying the health risks of white (“chrysotile”) asbestos.

More on the “Booker prize for climate change claptrap”

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From The Guardian:

So here it is: your first sight of the Christopher Booker prize 2009.

It is named in honour of the Sunday Telegraph columnist’s amazing ability to include misinformation and falsehoods in his pieces on climate change and other environmental issues.

Believe it or not, this stylish trophy is made entirely of recycled materials!

Lovingly fashioned by master craftsmen in mid-Wales, it shows what can be done with items that are often treated as mere rubbish!

And this isn’t all. I am suggesting that the winner of the Christopher Booker prize 2009 take the holiday of a lifetime: a one-way solo kayak trip to the North Pole. Following in the footsteps of the great Pen Hadow, the award winner could use the trip to see for him or herself the full extent of the Arctic ice melt. The Guardian will support this intrepid venture by supplying THREE BARS of Kendal mint cake towards the costs of this expedition.

So here’s how you help the winner on his or her way to this prestigious and valuable award:

The award will go to whoever in my opinion and assisted by climate scientists and specialists manages, in the course of 2009, to cram as many misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods into a single article, statement, lecture, film or interview about climate change. This work must be available online. You score a point for every mistake, though one point will be deducted for every retraction or correction published by the author or the original outlet within a reasonable length of time.

Please use this special nominations page to make suggestions for this illustrious award – and don’t forget to include a link to the piece in question. This page will remain open until 31 December 2009 and I will keep you updated on the blog about some of the choice nominations throughout the year.