Tag Archives: homeopathy

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.

Truth, stardust and comfort blankies

We should be able to do it now. We should be able rise above superstition, supposition and woolly thinking. We have arrived at the once-in-a-species chance to combine wisdom with knowledge and transcend both.

For the first time in our history we have the data. We really do know things. We have researchers and academics finding things out and publishing them as if their jobs depended on it.

We are also joining the gaps between these pieces of knowledge to some extent. Climatologists train as mathematicians and physicists first, but climatology also draws on the skills of botanists and archaeologists and palaeontologists and zoologists and lepidopterists and… well you get the idea. Not just climatology. Bristol University provides a taught Masters in Archaeology for the Screen Media. The list of connected specialities is huge.

And finally, we have methodologies. There were many seminal innovations in the 20th century: the internal combustion engine, flight, digital computing, penicillin, genocide, but the one without which none of the others would have had any effect is the development of methodologies. It was the development and application of manufacturing processes which enabled the Model T to roll out of the factories in Detroit in its hundreds of thousands. It was the development of a methodology for genocide which meant that six in every eight European Jews were killed in the 1940s.

The relevant methodologies though are the ones for generating information, for finding hard data and separating it out from theory, hypothesis and speculation. So, not only do we know stuff, we have reliable ways of sorting out true stuff and sifting out the plausible stuff, putative stuff, speculative stuff and down right wishful thing.

The ostrich-eye view

However we have not outgrown our comfort blankie. We prefer the warm cosiness of superstition and woolly thinking to the hard realities which face us and – and this is the really unforgivable thing – we tell ourselves we are looking at the evidence and drawing our own conclusions. We are doing nothing of the sort. We lie.

There are examples of this all the time. I once heard a taxi driver saying “75% of all cars on the road are red: if you think about it, it’s true”. The fact that he had failed to look through his windscreen and see that three in four cars are not in fact red was worrying enough. But the fact that he thought he had gone through a verification step pushed me off my mental cliff. What on earth did he think he was doing when he ‘thought about it’? What did ‘thinking about it’ mean to him?

This happens in commercial environments too. I recently distracted a meeting for five minutes by trying to understand if the statement “20% of balls are blue” meant “20 balls in every 100 are blue”, or if it meant “each ball is pie-bald and has a blue patch covering 20% of it”. Eventually the person I was asking the question of snarled “it’s just an expression” and I had to bite my tongue not to reply “no it’s not an expression, it’s a number”. I paraphrase, but I still say he was talking bollocks.

It is this intellectual laziness and moral cowardice that enables intelligent, educated and otherwise thoughtful people to believe in medieavalisms such as astrology or crystal healing or spiritualism or tarot cards. It’s incredibly simple to demonstrate astrology – just run the thing backwards. Collect data on people’s personalities and the events of their lives, and get an astrologer to tell you where the stars were when each person was born. You could limit them to a specific year if you felt generous. If astrology works, you should be able to run it backwards as well as forwards. You could take the same approach for tarot readings. If homoeopathy has more than just the placebo effect, then it should be demonstrable. It isn’t, and one has to conclude that it doesn’t.

Actually, homoeopathy is a case in point. The less a person engages with the methods and concepts of evidence based-medicine, or experimental and evidence-based science for that matter, the more likely they are to accept homoeopathy on trust. (Mind you, the only evidence I have for this is anecdotal and my argument is deductive – but this proves my point – we can now validate and categorise both the data we use and the conclusions we draw from it). What is worrying though is that the reasonably well-educated and predominantly middle class patients of homoeopaths believe that their faith in homoeopathy is worth as much or more than the evidence-based practice of medicine, despite the fact that medical science actually is curing more people year on year and this information is readily available. There’s none so blind as those who won’t see.

Stepping up to the line

By contrast, one of the most fascinating programmes on British radio at the moment is In our Time with Melvyn Bragg. Lord Bragg made his name in literature, humanities and the arts; he is nobody’s fool and no kind of intellectual slouch. However, he struggles with some pretty simple mathematical and scientific concepts whenever the subject is outside his own cultured fields. Fair play to him, he tackles the subjects and tackles them well. But it is astonishing to hear someone as polymathic as Bragg flounder in the midst of really very simple science. And then one realises just how innumerate and scientifically illiterate even the most educated and cultured of us are and – even more worryingly – that this is not seen as any kind of problem.

Almost half a century ago C P Snow argued that someone who does not understand the second law of thermodynamics is as uneducated and uncultured as someone who hasn’t read Shakespeare. He also says “if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.”

The madness of crowds

On top of that, we don’t get it. We all feel entitled to an opinion in this democratic age. Like the taxi driver, we do not realise that we cannot think. We all feel that our opinion on – for example – evolution is as valid as the next person, even if the next person is a geneticist or an anthropologist or a palaeontologist and we aren’t. In fairness, the failure is in our education system where people are encouraged to ‘think for themselves’ without being taught how to think critically or being given the basic tools of analysis. This is the downside of democracy. We dumb down to our lowest common denominator. I am not going to argue against democracy: as Amyarta Sen points out, it is the only demonstrable safeguard against famine for a start.

Looking further up the slippery pole, we glimpse our leaders, chosen by us mainly from graduates who studied humanities or social science or business or law. It is not just that they are ignorant. The thing that gives me the great big hairy heebee-jeebies is that they believe that they are ‘informed’ and that being intelligent is enough. They do not accept that some subjects are too technical, too specialised or just plain too hard for the lay person, no matter how intelligent, to grasp, and that some things simply cannot be paraphrased. We are being led by people who just don’t get it, and who don’t actually know that there is stuff to get.

However, I do believe that responsible government requires our winsome elected leaders take and act on the professional advice of specialists even if we don’t like it. Interestingly Thatcher was the political leader in the 1980s most alert to the challenges of climate change. She was a scientist and understood the methodology, even if it had been decades since she’d actually done any chemistry.

Our bad

We are failing the great moral test of our times and retreating into the comfort of a new mediaevalism, surrounding ourselves with ideology and doctrine and the warm and righteous certainties of fundamentalism. We have the chance to rise above all this, to step into reality and claim our inheritance as intelligent and wise children of the stars.

Instead we are sitting in the dust, looking for comfort by casting runes, and that will bring about the ruin us all.