Farewell to flakiness – or why I’m not entitled to my own opinion

A FlakeI was raised by people of great personal and moral integrity with reasonable intelligence who had no exposure to science or scientific thinking at all. This didn’t stop them having Opinions on things so it is no surprise that they were Flakes one and all. Bless ’em.

Flaky thinking is cozy, it provides comfort blankies such as “everything happens for a reason”or “someone was looking after me that night”. It also provides explanations which appear to be simple and easy to understand: ” stimulating the body’s natural healing processes” or “bright lines of golden energy”.

I’m not going to rip into acupuncture, auric photography, biomagnetic bracelets, biorhythm charts, cranial-sacral therapy, earth energy lines, feng shui, food sensitivity analysis, homoeopathy, osteopathy, reiki or any of the other forms of flakiness which I’ve spent money on in my time. To be honest, I cannot be bothered. Either you consider me to be foolishly narrow-minded because I dismiss them or foolishly forebearing because I don’t critique them and we both have better things to do with our time than argue the point.

Let’s just say that I spent my money on all of the above, probably thousands of pounds now that I look at the list, but I don’t feel ripped off; every one of them brought me a good 40 minutes of someone’s undivided attention and a nice warm placebo effect. I was lucky; it was a life-style choice not a fearful attempt to ward off cancer. But I wouldn’t spend my money on any of them again.

So what undermined my warm fuzzy view that the word “energy” means something when used metaphorically, that there are forces which cannot be measured by science, and that there is more to life than meets the eye?

Lots of things. Feel free to skip the list and cut to the conclusions at the end of the piece.

  • I check out the Asthma UK site and realise the approaches described are infinitely more cautious, detailed, rigorous and robust than the approaches of the herbalists I’d instinctively turn to.
  • My father, with cancer, is dramatically better after a stay in hospital which grants him at least another year of good quality of life.
  • A crystal healer describes the “lovely warm lines of yellow energy” flowing through her treatment rooms. When I ask her if she can see them she says “no, but Gordon has dowsed them and told me where they are”. The inane warmth in her voice sets my alarm bells ringing.
  • I read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
  • I have to describe my symptoms to the German pharmacist rather than selecting the herbal tinctures and ointments I’d choose in the UK; I find myself thinking “These German pharmaceuticals are very effective” and then realising that they might work well simply because they are pharmaceuticals and being German has nothing to do with it.
  • I work for a large petro-chemical company and find that the individuals there are responsible and serious people, and not in fact the spawn of satan who just don’t “get” it.
  • I acknowledge that the scientists working on GMOs are (a) intelligent and (b) not malicious. I think that they are wrong about genetically modified organisms being good for the planet, but acknowledge that if they are wrong then it’s not because they are stupid.
  • A friend sends me a link to DHMO.org and I realise just how easy it is to writes spurious science-speak which is manipulative and emotional.
  • A friend of mine compulsively adds and subtracts numbers to find co-incidences and meanings without noticing that if you manipulate any date enough you can reach the number 7, or 26.
  • I read something which explains that the phenomena described in all documented near-death experiences (tunnel vision, a distant light, etc) are also consistent with specific forms of neurological shut-down.
  • I develop an increasing respect for the methodologies in my own field, and by extension for standards’ based methodological approaches in others. In other words, I come to prefer rigorous testing to instinct.
  • I have a relationship with a statistician.
  • I come across evidence that a feeling that there a ghostly presence in the room can be reliably triggered by certain localised electro-magnetic phenomenon.
  • I read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.
  • I regularly flick through copies of the British Medical Journal and discover that the research studies are of varying quality but explicit about their limitations and scope.
  • Triptanes provide effective migraine relief.
  • I read Snake Oil by John Diamond.
  • I start a post-grad degree and within a few months become imensely more picky about authorities and references.

Ok. It’s not a particularly impressive list: a lot of it is based on a distaste for poor critical thinking in others which of course doesn’t demonstrate any improvement in my own, the books are pop-science even if the scientists are credible, the rest of it is un-referenced and at this distance in time I have no way of checking where I got the information about near death experiences and ghostly presences from.


But I think that the real epiphany is that I am only entitled to an opinion on subjects where I have some expertise. Guess what – experts really do know better. It’s a matter of knowing my limitations. I cannot bake cakes, design power stations or diagnose illnesses. I have no choice but to delegate those tasks. Generic intelligence is not the same as experience, training or qualifications and this is hard for people, particularly those educated in the social sciences or humanities, to accept.

Not all experts are equal, of course. Gillian McKeith’s “doctorate” is a tad light-weight to say the least, though the woman is undoubtedly sincere. We cannot accept the word of experts unquestioningly. We must continue to challenge and ask the pertinent questions – how did you arrive at that conclusion – how large was your sample-size – how well conducted has your research been – where do you get your funding, and so on. But challenging does work: 20 years of hindsight bias, selective memory, anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect do not equal one double blind controlled trial. Sorry.

Some people argue that science is just as much a matter of belief as religion is. It isn’t of course. I’ve argued that you have to trust the scientists but as Reagan put it you “trust but verify”. You can by definition repeat and test a scientific experiment or demonstration. You cannot test bach flower remedies, post-modernism or god. In fact there’s even a commandment against it.

This of course means that the opinions of true experts whose conclusions are based on testable and repeatable methods vastly outweigh yours and mine. We are entitled to doubts, concerns, worries, uncertainties and even rage, anger and disgust. Those are emotions and emotions are not opinions. We must also remain entitled to challenge – that is what accountability is.

Comfort blankies - do not forget to boil them to keep them sterile, otherwise they can harbour germs.  Unfortunately boiling may damage the warmth and softness of your blankie.To some extent I do miss the warm fuzziness of flaky thinking, but on the other hand if you acknowledge that real life is unfair, that shit happens, it becomes much easier to deal with. Nastier, but more straight-forward. There are a few flaky things I still adhere to: meditation, NLP and yoga specifically, though I’m not going to defend them here. The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation. To be honest, I doubt it’s got any validity to it, but does have the merits of being (a) internally consistent and (b) not yet countered by harsh scientific enquiry. However you look at it, the idea that bad things happen to good people for no reason is a nasty one.

I had been going to illustrate this with one of the Cadbury’s Flake ads but I couldn’t find the girl painting a picture in a poppy field in the rain, so I decided to show you this instead which did at least make me laugh.

14 responses to “Farewell to flakiness – or why I’m not entitled to my own opinion

  1. Very well said. This is, of course, the problem with politics these days as I’m sure you were alluding to.

  2. Ouch! Read “Reincarnation: A Critical Examination” by Paul Edwards [Prometheus Books].

  3. Hmm, guilty of much of the above. But not as much as my mother, who latches onto every new thing as it floats past in the ether, has fun, then discards it for the next new thing. With her, we’ve lived through tissue salts, iridology, innumerable weird diets (she’s on the “cardiac diet” at the moment), healing with propolis, and much much more. Her various obsessions have taught me to be a lot more sceptical, although my tendency is towards flakiness.

    Loved the video.

  4. Thanks folkrockgirl. Yes, I am worried and disgusted by the fact that the truth is out there, in labs, in academic papers, in class-rooms, but still we and those who govern us choose to ignore it. None so blind as those who won’t see.

    Ah. Thank you anticant. Amazon resellers are wonderful people, but I do wish you hadn’t told me that. I was fond of my one remaining comfort blankie.

    Glad you liked the video Charlotte. It’s a world view that works for so many people and most of the time it does no harm. I worry about my friend Ulrike though who is treating her cancer homeopathically because chemotherapy is poison.

    Thanks all for reading and for commenting.


  5. From where I sit typing this, I can see three bottles of homeopathic medicine, and I consider myself very lucky no one has sent me a crystal lately. I don’t believe in alternative medicine. Hell, I don’t believe in ‘real’ medicine. With real medicine, I assume someone checked, so I don’t need to believe in it. I don’t believe in tables.

    But I am still taking the homeopathic stuff. Cosmic insurance scheme, or delusional ‘nana-ism?

  6. Good mannners perhaps, if they are gifts? Funnily enough I’ve just freecycled some crystals.

    Was it Voltaire who said you might as well believe in god, in a godless universe it doesn’t matter if you do, but if there is in fact a Great Auditor in the Sky then it does rather matter if you don’t.

    I do recommend “Snake Oil” though.



  7. No. It was Pascal. And take comfort – the reincarnation book, while seriously convincing, is hilarious in places, not least its dissection of popular icons like Kubler-Ross.

  8. I am actually looking forward to it. Nervously, but looking forward. Thanks for the recommendation.



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  10. The truth about alternative medicine is unfortunately not simple. Certainly many alternative practitioners are poorly trained even in their own discipline, let alone in science and scientific thinking. Surely there are charlatans out there. Of course spending an hour with a patient is healthful, all else equal.

    But all these and other reaosns do not explain the many successes of high-quality alternative practitioners with serious chronic diseases that are considered incurable. These successes are too frequent to be explained away as spontaneous remission or the placebo effect — in the sense that these explanations are just as facile as the alternatives that they try to displace.

    Since Dawkins is mentioned in the post above, I would like to point to a reply I wrote to his recent treatment of homeopathy in The Enemies of Reason TV documentary:

    Is Homeopathic Medicine the “Enemy of Reason”?

  11. Most of the things that you say, by your own definition are to say the least unreliable because you have your own biases. But opinions are opinios. Me to choose from and that is great.
    “You cannot test bach flower remedies, post-modernism or god. In fact there’s even a commandment against it.”
    –Does this mean that you are against testing? Or just assuming we shoudl not test certain things? — But then, I think we can(my humble opinion) or will be able to in teh vey distant future. Eventually, we will verify that God is a physical entity of a given kind, otherwise we are praying to what? A ghost? An Idea? God may be in a physcal form less dense and less visible than a table or rock or our bodies, but within our bodies, with physical characteristics completely different to what we think IS physical. With whose chords did God speak to people in ancient times? Or was it pure imagination?

    I am digressing here and trying to speak my mind since all these thinsg are worth thinking about. Good conversation, anyway.

  12. Hi Mayaritte,

    The point I was making there is that it is not possible to test bach flower remedies, post-modernism or god. I wasn’t saying one should not or must not, but that one can not. Can’t be done. There’s nothing to test. (The comment about the commandment was a slightly flippant change of direction, and not relevant to the the main point).

    It’s not possible to use the gold standard of testing and perform a double blind controlled trial of any of those three things. If you do it with the Bach Flower Remedies or homoeopathy, or most alternative medicines, either they fail or their practitioners set restrictions which prevent you from conducting the tests. Post-modernism is just teflon-coated slipperiness on ice, and those who follow god, like those who use Bach Flower Remedies, reject the testing method and claim that it’s faith or nothing with the big one. So you cannot conduct tests, or if you do the entities fail them.

    You ask what people pray to. and I think you answer yourself. It’s my opinion that people are, at best, praying to an idea, and most of the time praying to themselves. I think that experiences of a deity are a result of the mind deceiving itself, in the same way the mind deceives itself with an optical illusion. You could call that imagination, I guess, but I think it’s down to the way that people are wired.

    Thanks for dropping by, and thanks for all your recent comments.


  13. David, I didn’t notice I’d missed you there. I didn’t mean to do so, and although it was so long ago, I’ll drop by the site you mention and take a look.

    My apologies.


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