Swimming in a Sea of Pseudoscience

This past weekend, I was out at brunch when I saw a rack of free magazines in the restaurant's foyer. I picked out one of them, which as it turned out was a promotional brochure and schedule for something called the New Life Expo to be held in New York City this coming weekend.

I read on, and the further into it I got, the more appalled I was. If you thought that humanity was entering a new and enlightened age, this magazine will force you to reconsider. If you took your impressions of the human race from these pages, you'd have to conclude that we're barely keeping our heads above water in a sea of irrationality, one that freely blends religious mysticism and pseudoscientific gibberish alike. Every kind of nonsense that human beings have ever invented is bursting from these pages - and I don't doubt that this expo will attract legions of the duped, the gullible, and the woolly-headed to feed from the trough.

One of the recurring themes among presenters at the expo is 2012. They're all tremendously excited by the imminent arrival of this year, and they're certain, with the infallible certainty of all good apocalyptic prophets, that something momentous is going to happen. The amusing thing is that they don't agree about what it is. Among the possibilities touted are life-threatening catastrophes and pole shifts, the battle of Armageddon, the emergence of an Antichrist-led global tyranny, life-altering waves of light, the creation of glorified bodies by the Archangel Metatron, a great cosmic awakening, and more:


Some of the presenters at this event, I'm sure, are simple con artists who are cynically exploiting the gullible by learning the right buzzwords to stir into their word salad ("ascended", "enlightened", "indigo", "vibration", "natural", "angelic", "harmony", "dimension", "shamanic" and "consciousness" are perennial favorites). But it's the sincere ones that concern me more. At least some of these people are probably mentally ill, but they're not getting the help they need because they're surrounded by fellow-believers, creating an environment where psychiatric delusions are normalized and rewarded rather than recognized as symptoms. Here are two likely examples:

Like the demon-obsessed evangelicals who treat mental illness as an event of religious significance rather than a medical condition, New Agers are discouraging the genuinely sick from seeking help and treatment. Their endless doctrinal flexibility and limitless tolerance for the absurd are part of the reason for this. But I can't believe that no one among the organizers of this event noticed the symptoms or drew the obvious conclusion. It's more likely that they just see this as an additional source of income, whatever the consequences.

And money, of course, is a huge motive of the expo's organizers and presenters; they're not even shy about it. Ironically, some ads rail against the profit-driven corporatocracy and the greed of the mega-wealthy while hawking their own products and charging hundreds or thousands of dollars a pop for seminars and private consultations. Others promise that they can teach conference-goers the infallible way to acquire fabulous wealth for themselves, using the law of attraction, astrology, or whatever other fashionable nonsense is in vogue. Still others run the classic snake-oil salesman's game of enriching themselves by selling false hope to the desperate, promising good health with no effort or magical cures for incurable diseases. The cures on offer run the gamut: psychic powers, prayer, ionized water, "far infrared light" (a new one to me), fad diets, "detoxification", and classic scams like the Rife machine. One unintentionally hilarious ad apparently touts a raw-food diet as a means of healing gunshot wounds.

Most of the ads also display the credential inflation so common among pseudoscientists. Since most of their "specialties" require no knowledge and no certification, why not claim as many as you can? If one kind of bait doesn't hook a potential client, maybe another one will! In that vein, here's one who claims to be an MD as well as "an ordained rabbi in the Baal Shem Tov lineage, clan chief of the Lakota Spirit Dance, a Native American Sundancer, and a lineage holder in the Nityananda liberation tradition, and acknowledged as liberated by his two recognized enlightened spiritual teachers. He is an in-depth teacher in Advaita Vedanta, japa yoga, bhakti yoga, nada yoga, and karma yoga." (Busy fellow! - and he must be absolutely up to his eyeballs in student-loan debt.)

Like the Learning Annex, the organizers of the New Life Expo believe that appealing to the lowest common denominator is a can't-miss money-making strategy, and they're not wrong about that. For the most part, human beings are eager to be swindled, and lack the critical thinking skills needed to tell the difference between science and bullshit. I'd like to say that, unlike the theocratic believers organizing to take over the state, their brand of woo is harmless - but to people who let psychics make all their important life decisions, who rely on colonic cleanses rather than chemotherapy, or who encourage and enable psychotics and schizophrenics, it's not harmless at all.

March 18, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink20 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

• Witchcraft is now a recognized profession in Romania, subjecting its practitioners to income tax. Witches who are unhappy about this are responding pretty much like you'd expect.

• A female activist in Israel faces prison time for praying at the Wailing Wall. The telling quote:

"The religious world in Israel has become more and more extreme," Mrs Hoffman said. "Much like in Islam, religiosity is now measured by the distances at which women are kept from society."

• A 10-year-old girl in Canada becomes the youngest amateur astronomer ever to discover a supernova. (If you want to help, did you know that astronomers are enlisting citizen volunteers to classify photos of galaxies?)

• Swami Nithyananda, a popular Hindu guru, admits that he paid a blackmailer 1.4 million pounds to not release a sex tape of him and an Indian actress.

• High-ranking ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis is writing a tell-all book.

• The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Milwaukee files for chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of settlements for victims of pedophile priests. Too bad the whole organization isn't being liquidated and sold off to pay its creditors.

• The British Medical Journal concludes that Andrew Wakefield's paper linking vaccination to autism, which single-handedly gave rise to the anti-vaccination movement, was "an elaborate fraud" based on falsified data.

January 8, 2011, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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The Language of God: Science Works!

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

The tagline of this books is "A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief." I've seen that the central thesis of the book is trying to harmonize religion and science, so I was surprised to find Collins spending a lot of time talking about how he mapped the genome - I could almost read the nostalgia in his voice - including the privatization issue that arose when Craig Venter (Celera) got into the genome-mapping fray. Part of how Chapter 5 begins is useful because it gives the reader a foundation to understand how heredity, mutations, and evolution work; he'll touch more on those points later. However, Collins doesn't really further his thesis with his discussion of using genomics to tackle the hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin variety of sickle-cell disease or finding the cause of cystic fibrosis in the majority of patients - the deletion of just three letters (CTT) in the protein-coding part of a gene now named CFTR.

But these two stories do bring home a really good point that his readers should not ignore. Given that I have often heard that faith is belief in the absence of or despite evidence, and that Collins' goal is to harmonize science and faith, perhaps the BioLogos Foundation should adopt this as its logo (courtesy of XKCD):

Science: It works, bitches!

I ended up appreciating Collins' difficulty in discovering the cause of cystic fibrosis and his handling of hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin. Those were clearly problems that didn't have solutions before. So it dismays me when I read about problems we previously solved that are either willfully ignored or coming back through a campaign of misinformation.

The first category involves those faithful who think God alone will heal their children. I could see how one who wants to harmonize science and faith would contend that God gave humanity these awesome minds so we could come up with cures for diseases. (Of course, then they'd have the more difficult question of why God would give us diseases in the first place, but that's a different problem.) It seems every week, I read a blog post or see a news article about families who don't give their children medical attention to save their lives. Fortunately, people have begun to take action. Courts have been sending to trial (negligent homicide) parents whose children die from impotent placations to their equally impotent gods.

For the second category, this gets to a broader notion of pseudoscience. Clearly, Creation Science / Intelligent Design falls in this camp, but there are plenty of non-faith-centric areas of pseudoscience out there: acupuncture, chiropractic (link to audio describing chiropractic's start), and probably too many to list. My biggest pet peeve among pseudoscience quackery is the antivax movement, because it has a relative large body count. (It's not the only one with a body count, mind you; people have died from chiropractic, too.) It is not my intent to spend this blog post debunking the entire antivaxxers movement; interested readers should check out the Science Based Medicine blog, the Centers for Disease Control, and other science-based sites. Brian Dunning at Skeptoid has a great podcast discussing the ingredients in vaccines.

As always, don't take my (or anyone's) word for it - it should be up to you to conduct your own research to validate the facts and follow the conclusion the evidence points you towards. That said, I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to create their own cache of empirical evidence before reaching a conclusion. It doesn't seem very plausible for everyone to go out to conduct their own clinical double-blind trials to determine anything. But I think I have enough confidence in the bodies of evidence argued for by a general consensus among professionals in the field to warrant my conclusion in, say for example, anthropogenic global climate change.

The Internet is a great place to conduct one's own research, provided one doesn't get distracted by lolcats.

Other posts in this series:

December 19, 2010, 4:04 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink9 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

• Despite the good sense shown by the British Medical Association in lambasting homeopathy at their annual conference last month, the UK National Health Service has announced that it will still pay for water and sugar pills passed off as medicine.

• A court in Utah has thrown out the rape conviction of Mormon cult leader Warren Jeffs, due to a legal technicality, and ordered that the case be retried. Texas is still seeking to have him extradited to face similar charges, so it seems likely that he'll ultimately face justice.

• I was shocked to read of some ultra-Orthodox Israeli communities that are so extreme, they demand that their women wear burqas so as not to arouse the passions of men.

A Liberty University graduate defends the separation of church and state.

• In more welcome news, the U.K. education secretary has said he's interested in proposals for atheist schools, after Richard Dawkins made such a proposal in response to a law allowing faith-based and community groups to open their own publicly funded schools. And why not? If every church in England has its own schools - the article mentions Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu - why shouldn't there be atheist schools that teach students rationality and critical thinking?

July 31, 2010, 5:13 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments
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Britain Defends the Enlightenment

Despite the ongoing schism of the Anglican church, which I wrote about in my last post, I'm happy to see that there's still plenty of good sense and reason in the U.K. One outstanding example is this story from last month, where the British Medical Association voted to stop funding homeopathy in public hospitals. (UK readers, do you know if is this a binding vote or just advisory?) There's been some trenchant commentary on the decision, like this column from Ed West:

The most outspoken supporter of the motion, Dr Tom Dolphin, had earlier compared homeopathy to witchcraft, but then apologised to witches on the grounds that this was unfair. Homeopathy, he said, was "pernicious nonsense that feeds into a rising wave of irrationality which threatens to overwhelm the hard-won gains of the Enlightenment and the scientific method".

And from Martin Robbins, responding to a supporter of homeopathy:

Apparently 'thousands' of people - including Peter Hain's son - get better after taking homeopathy. This is absolutely true, but the problem is that most people get better anyway, whether you give them antibiotics, homeopathy, or a slap to the face. Humans tend to be quite good at healing themselves. Once you control for this sort of variable, the outcomes are much clearer.... the more rigorously we test homeopathy, the more it fails.

By way of response, defenders of homeopathy are reduced to reading from a by-now-familiar script:

Apparently... I'm displaying what Dr Le Fanu describes as "Dawkinsite arrogance", but there's nothing arrogant about researchers collectively testing ideas and accepting the results. What's arrogant is to ignore evidence when it doesn't produce the result you expect. Particularly when that evidence has been accumulating for two centuries – a period of time in which homeopaths apparently haven't even managed to agree on how much you have to shake the vial.

Yes, that's right - in two hundred years, homeopaths haven't gotten around to figuring out how many times a homeopathic remedy has to be "succussed" (i.e., shaken) in the course of dilution to activate its supposed curative powers. Do you really want to take medicine from people who can't be bothered to perform even the most basic tests on their own ideas? And what does it say about the homeopaths' level of devotion to scientific rigor that they've never even tried to determine this?

And this isn't the only good news out of England. It seems that Colin Hall, the recently elected mayor of Leicester, is a nonbeliever, and he's taken some commendable steps toward ending Christian privilege in his town:

Writing in this month's edition of the Leicester Secularist, the journal of the city's Secular Society, Cllr Hall, who will serve as Lord Mayor for the 2010-11 municipal year, said: "Contrary to the myths that certain organisations like to promote, the practice of observing prayers at the start of council meetings is a relatively recent one.

"I am delighted to confirm that I will be exercising my discretion as Lord Mayor to abolish the outdated, unnecessary and intrusive practice.

"I personally consider that religion, in whatever shape or form, has no role to play at all in the conduct of council business... This particularly applies in Leicester, where the majority of council members, myself included, do not regularly attend any particular faith service."

Although Hall's decision appears to have gone over smoothly with the majority, there was some predictable squawking from pushy Christians who are unhappy that their special rights are being taken away:

A Fellowship Pastor, Ian Jones, said: "I find it deeply sad that anyone would want to suppress the rights of others to pray.

"If someone has a problem with this practice, could they not simply join the meeting once it is over?"

Although the U.K. as a whole is friendly to reason, it seems its pastors suffer from the same disease that's endemic in America - the belief that they have the right to force their religion on others and that their free speech is being suppressed if they're denied this. I have a better idea, Pastor Jones: why don't you do your own praying before the meeting if you want to, and spare everyone else the wasted time of listening to your superstitious mumbling?

This isn't Mayor Hall's first action standing up for the rights of nonbelievers. He's hired the president of the local secular society to serve as the town's chaplain. When he took office, he also refused to take part in a service at Leicester Cathedral to ceremonially welcome him into his new role. As he wrote on Twitter, "Bear in mind though, I am Lord Mayor for all people of Leicester and not just those from the Church of England."

Hall's decision to stand up for secularism and conduct the people's business without giving special privileges to religion is a wonderful breath of fresh air, and something I wish we'd see more of in America. And for truth's sake, the U.K.'s current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is an atheist! You British people are just out to make us look bad, aren't you?

July 14, 2010, 7:24 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup: Net Drama Edition

The intertubes are exploding with drama this week! I'm still catching up on a backlog of reading material myself, but I thought I'd post about the more notable news items.

• First off, I just have to mention this because it's such delicious schadenfreude: Chris Mooney, atheist-basher extraordinaire, had a commenter earlier this year named Tom Johnson who claimed to be a scientist and wrote about how rudely and viciously he'd seen atheist professors treat their Christian colleagues. Mooney was much taken with these claims and devoted at least one entire post to promoting them. One little problem: Turns out "Tom Johnson" was an impostor who made this story up.

Mooney, allegedly a journalist, accepted this story uncritically because it fit his prejudices. And lest you accuse me of Monday-morning quarterbacking, quite a few of his commenters pointed out that "Tom Johnson"'s story seemed implausible when it was first posted. But Mooney waved those concerns aside, claiming he had personally verified the author's identity. Clearly, either this was a lie or his fact-checking was other than rigorous.

This episode is emblematic of what drives the accommodationists in general: sloppy handling of the facts, a lack of interest in understanding people's real motivations, and a refusal to engage with valid criticism. Note that, so far, Mooney has not apologized for slandering the reputation of the New Atheists based on lies.

• On a more depressing note: ScienceBlogs, a site that aggregates some of my favorite science bloggers, has blatantly violated one of the most basic rules of journalism: keep a strict separation between editorial content and advertising. The breach comes in the form of their appalling decision to publish a blog on food nutrition... by PepsiCo. Judging by its initial post, this blog will be straight-up corporate propaganda from Pepsi's PR department:

As part of this partnership, we'll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

I'm guessing what we won't be seeing is any reason why artificially colored and flavored corn-syrup water needs to be part of anyone's diet.

By selling this space to corporate flacks, ScienceBlogs' management has sullied the reputation of all the legitimate, non-bought-and-paid-for science bloggers whom they recruited to write for them. I have no idea what they were thinking. Actually, scratch that, I do know what they were thinking - they were thinking of the money Pepsi was offering them to do this. What I don't understand is why they let ethical considerations take a back seat. Shame on you, ScienceBlogs.

• On a similar note, although the Huffington Post has always been a haven for pseudoscience and quackery (especially the loathsome anti-vaccine campaigners), they've really outdone themselves now: they've given column space to David Klinghoffer, a creationist affiliated with the Discovery Institute, to publish a screed about how evolution was responsible for Nazism. Worse, they're censoring criticism of this decision from their own writers.

What's to be done with the Huffington Post? Is their credibility and scientific integrity so utterly ruined, at this point, that rational, progressive readers ought to boycott them? Or is it still worth our time to write articles for them promoting science and reason, on the theory that the best use of light is to bring it into dark places? What do you think?

• And lastly, on the topic of cranks - we all know of the crackpots and pseudoscientists who try to silence skeptics by filing nuisance lawsuits, sending frivolous legal threat letters, or otherwise using the legal system for harassment. Now another such outfit has sued Dr. Stephen Barrett, proprietor of the excellent Quackwatch site. Since truth is a defense, I expect this lawsuit to be dismissed in short order. But in the meantime, Dr. Barrett could use some help with his legal bills. The reality-based community ought to defend its own, and if you're as outraged by this news as I am, I hope you'll consider sending a few dollars his way.

July 8, 2010, 12:17 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink13 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

I'm happy to report that there's quite a lot of good news this week:

• The U.K. government recommends that primary school religious education classes should teach about "secular beliefs such as humanism and atheism", in addition to learning about major world religions like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. This is just one more symptom of how far ahead of us our European friends are in some respects - can you imagine the religious right frenzy that would ensue if a U.S. politician recommended teaching about atheism in public high schools?

• In a story that made me especially happy, Andrew Wakefield, the pseudoscientific doctor who's almost single-handedly responsible for the anti-vaccination movement, was found to have seriously abused his trust as a medical practitioner by a U.K. ethics panel. According to the ruling, Wakefield ordered unnecessary and invasive tests on autistic children (including spinal taps and colonoscopies), without securing proper ethical approval, in the paper that claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He also failed to disclose major conflicts of interest (he was being paid by trial lawyers looking to file claims against vaccine manufacturers). The General Medical Council ruled that Wakefield was "dishonest, irresponsible and showed callous disregard for the distress and pain" of the children, and is still evaluating a charge of professional misconduct that could lead to Wakefield's losing his license to practice medicine.

• And lastly, I'm glad to report that Scott Roeder, the Christian terrorist who shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, was convicted of first-degree murder by a Kansas jury this week. The judge rejected the defense's ludicrous request that the jury be allowed to consider voluntary manslaughter, and they returned the verdict after just 37 minutes of deliberation. Roeder faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison, the most fitting punishment for a cold-blooded and vicious killer like himself.

Although the cause of justice was served, this verdict can't undo the damage; Dr. Tiller's clinic will be closing for good, which means in a way that Roeder got exactly what he wanted. Still, the verdict sends a message that anti-choice zealots cannot commit these crimes with impunity. It may not be enough to discourage future acts of terrorism against abortion providers, but at least we have assurance that the rule of law is still operative in America.

January 30, 2010, 11:00 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

Here are a few edifying, inspiring, or (alas) infuriating stories that are making the rounds this week:

• First up, this truly outstanding piece from Wired on the anti-vaccination movement, An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All. This is what journalism is supposed to do: listen to the experts, survey the facts and adjudicate the truth, without the false-equivalency tactics that are the breath of life to kooks and advocates of pseudoscience. Here are a few samples:

In the center of the fray is Paul Offit. "People describe me as a vaccine advocate," he says. "I see myself as a science advocate." But in this battle — and make no mistake, he says, it's a pitched and heated battle — "science alone isn't enough ... People are getting hurt. The parent who reads what Jenny McCarthy says and thinks, 'Well, maybe I shouldn't get this vaccine,' and their child dies of Hib meningitis," he says, shaking his head. "It's such a fundamental failure on our part that we haven't convinced that parent."

To be clear, there is no credible evidence to indicate that any of this is true. None. Twelve epidemiological studies have found no data that links the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine to autism; six studies have found no trace of an association between thimerosal (a preservative containing ethylmercury that has largely been removed from vaccines since 2001) and autism, and three other studies have found no indication that thimerosal causes even subtle neurological problems.

...Kaiser Permanente reported that unvaccinated children were 23 times more likely to get pertussis, a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes violent coughing and is potentially lethal to infants. In the June issue of the journal Pediatrics, Jason Glanz, an epidemiologist at Kaiser's Institute for Health Research, revealed that the number of reported pertussis cases jumped from 1,000 in 1976 to 26,000 in 2004. A disease that vaccines made rare, in other words, is making a comeback.

• From the Times, an article on how cancerous tumors can spontaneously disappear, for reasons that are not yet fully understood. Think of this one the next time a faith-healing zealot claims that supernatural fetishism cured them of an incurable disease.

• Also, this superb editorial from the normally mediocre Maureen Dowd about the Vatican's increasingly archaic and misogynist attitude toward nuns (and women in general).

• And lastly, check out this piece from the Financial Times about the degree to which Muslim immigrants are assimilating into European society. Sarah Braasch, Daylight Atheism's correspondent from France (she actually lives in the area described by the article) tells me that some of this is overly optimistic and doesn't fully do justice to the serious problems of abuse and subjugation that some immigrants, especially women, still face. On the other hand, the doomsday "Islamofascists are taking over Europe!" scenarios so often pushed by right-wingers go too far in the opposite direction, ignoring relevant facts (such as the plunging birthrate among increasingly well-educated immigrant families) that tend to undermine their scare tactics.

October 27, 2009, 8:53 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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The Opportunity Cost of Pseudoscience

Last month, the U.S. government-funded National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine released a study which found that Americans spent $34 billion annually on alternative medicine. Although this is just 1.5% of total health care spending in the country, it represents over 11% of all out-of-pocket expenditures. The report estimates that about 38 million adults visited alternative practitioners in 2007.

Unusually for a mainstream media outlet, the Boston Globe offers a much-welcomed skeptical perspective on this news, via a quote from Public Citizen which points out the important fact that most of these therapies are untested and largely unregulated:

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, who leads Public Citizen's health research, has long criticized the government for what he considers lax regulation of prescription drugs and mainstream medicine. Yet, he also sees problems with the widespread use of dietary supplements.

"People think they are cleared" by the Food and Drug Administration, he said, when in fact they do not need proof of safety or effectiveness to go on the market.

"Mainly, they're ineffective," he said.

According to the NCCAM study, most alternative medicine spending goes to dietary supplements. Though supplements like fish oil and echinacea are massively popular, few of them have any clinically demonstrated effect, and even the ones that do contain active ingredients can vary dramatically in dosage and potency - which is, after all, what you'd expect from raw natural ingredients. The ability to isolate and purify the active ingredients found in nature, to deliver controlled doses at known potency, is the entire point of scientific medicine.

After supplements, some of the other alternative treatments mentioned in the study include acupuncture and homeopathy, both of which are useless placebos based on sympathetic magic and pseudoscientific theories about how the human body works. Another kind is massage therapy and chiropractic, which can be useful for some kinds of physical ailments but have nothing like the universal efficacy claimed by their more fanatical practitioners. Other therapies mentioned by the study include chelation, ayurvedic medicine, and "energy-healing therapy".

I can only view these figures as a massive missed opportunity. Not just a missed opportunity to educate the public about why we should rely on evidence-based medicine, although it's certainly that. But more than that, it's a societal failure: a misallocation of society's resources on an enormous scale. Just think what that $34 billion could have done if it were put toward genuine scientific and medical research - how many promising studies could have been funded, how many discoveries made, how many diseases potentially cured! (For comparison, the entire 2010 budget request of the National Science Foundation is only $7 billion.)

Obviously, there's no direct tradeoff here. Even if all Americans decided to reject alternative medicine, these funds wouldn't necessarily have gone to scientific research. Much spending on alternative medicine is for conditions that are still poorly understood or that have no effective treatment, since these are always the areas where pseudoscience springs up. What we're seeing here is an opportunity cost: the price we, as a society, pay for the decisions we collectively make about how to allocate our resources. Money that we spend on alternative medicine and other pseudosciences is money that we can't spend on areas that might genuinely improve our lives.

August 21, 2009, 6:42 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink44 comments
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Popular Delusions XII: Qi

A popular notion in traditional Asian cultures, as well as the garbled versions of Asian culture imported into the West by the New Age movement, is the idea of qi (or chi), the vital energy that permeates the universe and flows through living things. A wide variety of pseudoscientific beliefs are based on qi, and today's post will examine some of them, through the lens of an article in a local alternative newspaper I picked up touting qi's uses in interpersonal relations and healing.

The author, Deborah Davis, starts out by defining her terms:

Qi is the life force energy that animates all living things including humans, plants and animals.

As any skeptic should recognize, this is one of the oldest superstititions known to humanity: vitalism, the belief that there's something irreducible and magical about life. This belief has persisted for millennia, even as the progressive workings of science reveal more and more about how life works and leave increasingly less room for magic. We've studied bacteria, we've investigated the cell: at the bottom everything happens through the interplay of genes and chemical reactions. There is no part left over for qi or the soul or vital forces to play.

Next, she describes how to detect qi:

Stand or sit in a relaxed manner and take a few deep belly breaths... Now rub your palms together vigorously until they're warm. Hold your palms about six inches away from one another. Close your eyes and attune to any sensations between your hands (if you don't feel anything, bring your hands closer together).

...I usually begin my Qigong classes with this exercise and most people discover a magnetic pulse, as if there's a pressure between the palms.

What this passage describes is an excellent way of invoking the ideomotor effect, a phenomenon that's also exploited by pseudosciences such as dowsing and Ouija boards. Simply thinking about moving your hands in one direction creates subconscious muscle movements, which a sensitively balanced instrument such as a dowsing rod can reveal. Without an instrument, this is harder to notice, which is why Davis helpfully advises that the sensation may be almost indiscernible and that you should move your hands around until you feel something.

It's also noteworthy that what Davis describes is a standard technique used by hypnotists to gauge how suggestible a person is. More suggestible people are more likely to feel an imaginary force pulling their hands together in response to the hypnotist's prompting, which has interesting implications for people who believe in the power of qi.

Others feel tingling or heat. This is an entertaining exercise to share with your family and everyone will have a different experience, which may vary each time.

What Davis apparently forgets is that one paragraph above, she advised starting by rubbing one's palms together vigorously, which could produce sensations of heat or tingling for entirely non-supernatural reasons. But more importantly: "everyone will have a different experience, which may vary each time"?

If there is no consistency to the feelings she believes indicate the presence of qi - if everyone may feel something different each time they try it - then how does she know that everyone's feelings come from the same source? How does she know that all these infinitely variable experiences can all be attributed to one phenomenon which she calls qi? Any valid scientific theory must have a well-defined explanatory scope; a theory that can explain anything explains nothing. By contrast, being compatible with any possible evidence, real or hypothetical, is the mark of a pseudoscience.

Begin by sensing the energy field (Qi) surrounding your being; palpate the space about one to three inches away from your body with your palms. It's very subtle. Close your eyes to help you focus inward.

The above comments about ideomotor reactions and suggestibility apply here as well. But Davis, without noticing it, has given us a test for whether qi is real. If we can feel others' qi without knowing whether there's a person present, then we would have excellent evidence that this is a real phenomenon, even if we haven't found any other way to measure it.

As it happens, just such an experiment was carried out - by a nine-year-old girl. Emily Rosa, for a school science fair project, had qi-believing practitioners of "therapeutic touch" insert their hands through a hole in a screen and try to determine if another hand was present below theirs. Unsurprisingly, they did no better than chance; their results were indistinguishable from random guessing. Emily's results were published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, making her the youngest person ever to earn such an honor. If Davis or anyone else thinks they can improve on the performance of the practitioners in that study, I invite them to try it.

The article closes with this blurb about Davis' book:

This comprehensive guide includes Qigong routines for menopause, insomnia, cancer, osteoporosis, and sexual vitality.

Qigong for cancer? Breathing exercises and waving one's hands around might help with everyday stress, but to suggest this as effective treatment for a life-threatening medical condition borders on criminal irresponsibility. If there's any evidence that this technique can give any tangible benefit to cancer sufferers, we would welcome it. If there isn't, advocates of these ideas should stop offering false hope to the gravely ill.

In closing, I have one more question. Any website on qi will have elaborate charts of the "meridians" and "chakras" that track qi's flow through the body. My question is: How were these charts derived? Similar to Skeptico's astrology challenge, I want to know how the ancient people who first came up with these ideas determined all of this. What studies did they conduct, what experiments did they run? Can I see their data for myself?

These are not facetious questions; they are questions that scientists spend their careers answering. If we want to improve our understanding of some phenomenon, we need to tease apart all the threads of causation that contribute to it and test them individually to determine which ones can best be manipulated and in what proportion. If qi is not just a patchwork of anecdote and superstition, if there is something substantive to these beliefs, then there must be a body of evidence underlying it. Can skeptics of qi see this evidence for ourselves?

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January 22, 2009, 7:27 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink53 comments
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