XKCD Query Bad Science Alert

by Henry on July 12, 2010

XKCD’s Cartoon is pretty funny today, but is worded in a way that seriously understates homeopathy’s order of suck.

The I’ve diluted the semen 30x’ bit is technically right, but it suggests to the average reader that there is 1/30 as much semen as in the original sample. In fact, as John Sladek says in his wonderful survey of pseudo-science, The New Apocrypha, the average amount of the original substance that yer average homeopathic medicine has is much, much smaller. So much smaller that it’s hard to envisage.

… the smaller a dose is, the more powerful its effects. Homeopathic drugs have been diluted to one decillionth of a grain … the homeopathic apothecary takes a pint of the pure drug, mixes it in ten pints of water, throws away nine pints and mixes the remainder in ten pints of water; then he repeats the process sixty times … Martin Gardner compares it to ‘letting a drop of medicine fall in the Pacific, mixing thoroughly, then taking a spoonful. But a decillionth is a far, far smaller dose than this. Try to imagine a globe of water the size of our solar system. Then imagine that every star in the galaxy, and in every other visible galaxy, is surrounded by a similar globe of water. All the water is combined, and into it we drop one 1,000 millionth of a drop of water, mix thoroughly and take as directed … if the purest imaginable water is used in a real homeopathic drug, it must still contain far more natural amounts of even the rarest elements on earth, than it can possibly contain of the medicine.

I’ll leave it to those with more time, arithmetical ingenuity, and basic medical knowledge than me to calculate the likelihood that even a single spermatazoon lurks in the stick-figure’s sample. But I’m pretty sure that the odds ain’t great.

Update: As ‘belle le triste” notes in comments:

But the principle of homeopathy operates by the so-called “law of similars”: what you’re diluting isn’t what will cure the problem, it’s what would (in non-diluted doses) cause the problem. Thus a homeopathic application of macro-diluted sperm would be being deployed to prevent pregnancy, not to cause it.

XKCD is unquestionably guilty of bad homeopathy. Can somebody please revoke his license?

{ 151 comments }

1

alex 07.12.10 at 1:39 pm

I’m boggling at the explanation of that ‘decillionth’ thing. Since there’s only so much water in the world, [and even less of it both fresh and clean] how could one actually do such ‘diluting’? One would just be reusing the same water over and over again… Though I suppose that is rather the point…

2

KCinDC 07.12.10 at 1:47 pm

Alex, if you do it in multiple steps, as in the quoted passage, you don’t need that much water. Diluting by a factor of ten 60 times is equivalent to diluting once by a factor of 10^60.

3

alex 07.12.10 at 1:51 pm

A misleading explanation, then… it’s not the water that got big, it’s the dose that got small… ;-)

4

belle le triste 07.12.10 at 1:58 pm

But the principle of homeopathy operates by the so-called “law of similars”: what you’re diluting isn’t what will cure the problem, it’s what would (in non-diluted doses) cause the problem. Thus a homeopathic application of macro-diluted sperm would be being deployed to prevent pregnancy, not to cause it.

5

MattF 07.12.10 at 2:01 pm

There’s really no need for arithmetic here. The benchmark for “number of atoms that represents an amount of stuff that is about human-sized” is Avogadro’s number– 6.02 x 10^23. So, the number of atoms of ‘stuff’ remaining after 60 ten-fold dilutions is zero.

6

sg 07.12.10 at 2:03 pm

isn’t the NHS funding this now…? Or is it naturopathy?

7

Substance McGravitas 07.12.10 at 2:06 pm

Careful! Don’t let anything else near the water! Ever.

8

Henry 07.12.10 at 2:07 pm

belle le triste is _absolutely right_ and I should have noticed this too. Better homeopathic-theorists-masquerading-as-cartoonists-on-the-internets please!

9

Waldo 07.12.10 at 2:18 pm

Their fondness for homeopathy could explain a lot about the British Royal Family.

10

qb 07.12.10 at 2:23 pm

But the water remembers how much solute used to be in it! Or something.

11

Jacob Christensen 07.12.10 at 2:27 pm

Isn’t the idea that the mix should be so diluted that the resulting fluid would in fact contain no actual spermatozoon but through the wondrous workings of psyc… sorry, homeopathy the water would remember containing the stuff?

Still, I would guess that the chances of conceiving were greater if both parties wore tin-foil hats during the act.

12

Jacob Christensen 07.12.10 at 2:30 pm

One more thing, re: belle le triste’s comment: Wouldn’t the argument work if the couple was trying to cure childlessness?

13

Salient 07.12.10 at 2:32 pm

Wouldn’t the argument work if the couple was trying to cure childlessness?

No. Sperm does not, generally speaking, cause childlessness in women.

14

belle le triste 07.12.10 at 2:36 pm

I think the argument is along the following lines: the water “remembers” how it organises itself round and progressively “defeats” the toxic element during the series of dilutions , and passes this capacity to defeat the toxin on to the body that absorbs the water.

15

Richard J 07.12.10 at 2:48 pm

Would a homeopathic solution of latex be the appropriate solution then?

(Alternatively, a 30x solution of Judy Garland’s back catalogue.)

16

justlanded 07.12.10 at 3:00 pm

If I may expand on belle la triste’s comment. This “medicine” would not prevent pregnancy as much as cure pregnancy. In other words, if you were already pregnant, you could cure it by taking this concoction.

17

Henry 07.12.10 at 3:03 pm

On second thoughts, there is another possibility. The exoteric meaning of the cartoon is clearly that homeopathy is evil and unscientific. But could there be an esoteric meaning too? That Randall Munro, under the guise of generic scientific skepticism, is subtly signalling that he too is a homeopathist and that the _real reason why the couple will not get pregnant is that they are using a homeopathic contraceptive device._ This might be called the “Straussian exegesis”:http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2003_archives/001589.html of XKCD. It also raises the interesting question of why homeopathic true believers are not prepared to put their money where their mouth is (or; rather; not where their mouth is) and use homeopathic contraceptives. The results would be quite interesting.

18

Richard J 07.12.10 at 3:05 pm

It also raises the interesting question of why homeopathic true believers are not prepared to put their money where their mouth is (or; rather; not where their mouth is) and use homeopathic contraceptives. The results would be quite interesting.

The obvious data point here is the persistence with which homeopaths keep on pushing homeopathic preventatives against malaria, I think.

19

marcel 07.12.10 at 3:40 pm

20

Theophylact 07.12.10 at 3:49 pm

@ #10 and #14: What persists is the memory of the diluter, not of the water. Double-blind experiments have established conclusively that when the homeopathist doesn’t know whether he’s using his own drug or pure water, the placebo is exactly as effective.

21

Jacob Christensen 07.12.10 at 4:09 pm

@13: Homeopathy is obviously too advanced for my poor brain. What I can say, is that it is an issue in German politics – the Social Democrats and the CDU want to stop sickness insurance funds paying for homeopathic treatments while the Green Party oppose such a ban. To quote the Green spokesperson:

Wer die Kosten im Gesundheitswesen dämpfen will, sollte sich dort um die großen Mitnahmeeffekte kümmern, die keinen praktischen Nutzen für die Patienten haben

You can’t make this stuff up.

22

Substance McGravitas 07.12.10 at 4:20 pm

Have any insurers gone into the business of homeopathic remedy preparation?

23

Hidari 07.12.10 at 4:35 pm

Even Martin Gardner underestimates the effect of some homeopathic dilutions. From the Wikipedia entry on homeopathy.

‘A popular homeopathic treatment for the flu is a 200C dilution of duck liver, marketed under the name Oscillococcinum. As there are only about 1080 atoms in the entire observable universe, a dilution of one molecule in the observable universe would be about 40C.

Oscillococcinum would thus require 10320 more universes to simply have one molecule in the final substance’.

And I thought the gin to tonic ration at my local J.D. Wetherspoons was bad.

24

Jim Harrison 07.12.10 at 4:35 pm

The theology of the thing is this: homeopathists believe that their rituals work by the operation of the operator, not the operation of the operation. Absent the intention of the adept, the appropriate morphic resonance will not be impressed on the water during the dilution process. Homeopathists, at least the ones I’ve spoken to, are well aware that stray molecules of many varieties are present in any water sample. These impurities are irrelevant and have little effect. Will and belief are required to achieve the desired placebo effect by proxy.

25

Hidari 07.12.10 at 5:28 pm

Incidentally, that should read 10 to the power of 80 atoms in the observable universe, not 1080, a number which would make the universe considerably smaller than current theory predicts.

26

jre 07.12.10 at 6:05 pm

A couple of years ago I dropped an email to Brigitte Mars, Boulder’s herbal diva, cautioning against an overdose of Oscillococcinum.

Her reply, in its entirety, was “Many blessings, Jim!” Which would be an undiluted blessing, or a mild homeopathic curse, I think. Still trying to sort it all out.

27

Jeremy A 07.12.10 at 6:43 pm

Sladek’s description, dramatic as it is, is still misleadingly generous to homeopathy: it leaves open the faint suggestion that if you drink some of the big galaxies-blob of water you will get some of the “medicine” albeit a teeny tiny amount. But Hidari’s quote in #23 puts us more on the right track: any drinkable quantity of the solution is unlikely to have any medicine whatsoever. In any quantity of the “medicine” there is a finite number of molecules, and if you dilute it enough using the procedure Sladek describes (where you dilute the “medicine,” throw most of the resulting solution away, then dilute it again, etc.), after a while it becomes statistically unlikely that your solution has any molecules of the medicine left. There is no more solute, only solvent.

This, together with homeopathy’s “hair of the dog” approach, explains why the “strongest” homeopathic remedies are the most diluted: they have gotten rid of all the crap that would otherwise cause the symptom you’re suffering from, and are closest to a pure placebo.

28

Martin Wisse 07.12.10 at 6:45 pm

I don’t know what it’s like in the UK, but here in the Netherlands homeopathy has been *ahem* diluted to mean “any sort of vaguely natural, sort of benificial herbal cure for minor complaints”. None of that sympathetic magic malarky is admitted to in public…

29

Anthony 07.12.10 at 6:47 pm

Some homeopathic remedies work. For example, found at Dr. Boli’s blog, this ad.

30

Colin Danby 07.12.10 at 7:00 pm

31

Kieran Healy 07.12.10 at 7:33 pm

I remember in the ’80s Anthony Clare had this series — maybe called QED? — where he investigated common beliefs with controlled double-blind studies. Examples included Murphy’s Law (tested with buttered toast dropped on varyingly expensive carpet), Graphology, and Homeopathy. The Graphology one got a sample of actors and monks to write out the same letter and then had self-professed graphologists analyze the personality types. They didn’t do better than chance. For the Homeopathy one, I remember a biochemistry professor explaining the dilution factors as above, with a similar analogy of how, to be guaranteed a molecule of the original stuff, you’d need to drink a volume of water equivalent to the volume of the earth, “and that’s a very big pill to swallow”. The show wanted a test that would avoid placebo effects, so they took a herd of dairy cows with mastitis, split it in two, and had the farmer spend a week putting (blinded) the designated homeopathic cure in the treatment group’s trough and the equivalent amount of water in the control group’s trough. To the irritation of Anthony Clare, the cows given the homeopathic treatment got better, and the control group didn’t.

32

piglet 07.12.10 at 7:33 pm

It’s not hard to understand why homeopathy is popular: Everything that could cause harm has been diluted out. This puts homeopathic remedies ahead of many others in terms of both efficacy and cost-benefit. And that is not a joke.

Jacob 21: the article you cite refers to both homeopathy and “Naturheilverfahren”. As Martin mentions in 28, in the German use of the word homeopathy is often conflated with herbal medicine (which is unfortunate, since those are really separate concepts). It is hard to tell from the article whether the dispute is really about homeopathy proper.

33

Tom Hurka 07.12.10 at 7:38 pm

I love the Straussian exegesis of a cartoon. But then why didn’t I see it? When Allan Bloom said rock music ruins the imaginations of young people he was really telling sophisticated readers that he was a major-league head-banger.

34

bianca steele 07.12.10 at 7:45 pm

Berlioz rocks!

35

nick s 07.12.10 at 7:47 pm

I thought the gin to tonic ration at my local J.D. Wetherspoons was bad.

Though this reminds me of how the same underlying principle has been followed towards vermouth in martinis.

36

Hidari 07.12.10 at 8:05 pm

#35

Don’t get me started.

According to Buñuel the best way to make a Martini is to get your frozen gin and then hold it up to the sun, with a bottle of vermouth between the gin and the light, such that the light beams carrying (presumably in a homeopathic stylee) the ‘memory’ of the vermouth pass through the gin.

Anything else: sorry, simply too much vermouth.

37

marek 07.12.10 at 9:36 pm

There is a simple rule to getting full value from an XKCD cartoon, which is always to read the title tag (which usually pops up in a little box if you hover a mouse over the image). It usually takes the first level joke in the cartoon off in another direction and sometimes the second joke is even better than the first. But as the image has been copied without the title, those looking at it here will be missing half the fun:

Dear editors of Homeopathy Monthly: I have two small corrections for your July issue. One, it’s spelled ‘echinacea’, and two, homeopathic medicines are no better than placebos and your entire magazine is a sham.

38

Matt McIrvin 07.12.10 at 10:18 pm

Actually, piglet, that’s not true: as Martin Wisse said, in practice the word “homeopathic” gets applied rather broadly to substances that don’t necessarily have these absurd dilutions, so they’re not necessarily harmless or inert.

I’ve seen at least one doctor chew out people making these sorts of jokes over this particular point–there are patients who believe that, because of the dilution levels, “homeopathic” remedies may not cure them but they at least won’t poison them, and sometimes they’re mistaken.

39

Matt McIrvin 07.12.10 at 10:28 pm

…and I see you already got Martin’s point, anyway. Never mind.

40

Ted Lemon 07.12.10 at 11:29 pm

One other problem with the xkcd version of homeopathy is the assertion that “belief in homeopathy is not evolutionarily selected for.” While probably true, the evidence would suggest that it also is not evolutionarily selected *against*, which makes it something of a pointless (albeit funny) observation.

41

Josh 07.13.10 at 12:46 am

Tom Hurka, applied to sex rather than music, that’s a great rebuttal of what the world though was Bloom’s hypocrisy.

Apologies if it’s been noted on CT before, but here‘s another homeopathy cartoon.

42

PHB 07.13.10 at 2:39 am

The pedants are getting it wrong.

There are two principles of homeopathy. The first is the law of similars, the second is that the strength of the medicine increases with dilution. XKCD is referring to the second law while ignoring the first.

Plus, I suspect that being a hunnam infirmus, XKCD almost certainly realized that the cartoon was broken when he wrote it and did so intentionally so that you folk could then come out an complain that it was bollocks in the wrong.

43

skellic 07.13.10 at 4:21 am

concerning martinis-

bunuel makes the mistake of actually bringing the highly energized vermouth near the gin. for a truly homeopathic concoction, one should follow churchill’s suggestion: simply look towards france and whistle the marseillaises. if the gin has any sympathy for the allies, it will join in solidarity with the vermouth.

44

bdbd 07.13.10 at 4:47 am

Stick figure sperm are 2 dimensional — like this ~o ~o ~o — which changes the dilution requirements markedly.

45

Substance McGravitas 07.13.10 at 5:16 am

Twiki!

Also: should you brush your teeth before taking a homeopathic remedy?

46

Marc Mulholland 07.13.10 at 8:22 am

As it happens, “intravaginal administration of serial dilutions of … seminal plasma” is indeed a recognised treatment:
http://www.clinicalmolecularallergy.com/content/6/1/13

47

chris 07.13.10 at 2:05 pm

While probably true, the evidence would suggest that it also is not evolutionarily selected against

Unless you substitute homeopathic treatment for real treatment otherwise available to you for serious medical conditions. Which some people do.

48

Salient 07.13.10 at 3:36 pm

Since nobody’s mentioned it so far, I’ll go ahead and mention that a wide variety of homeopathic remedies are prepared in droppers containing anywhere from 17% to 20% grain alcohol. So if we’re taking homeopathy to be largely faith-based, we could more precisely call it the Eastern-ish answer to the Wild West’s “shot of whisky and a prayer” approach.

49

David Bernstein 07.13.10 at 3:37 pm

Perhaps Henry and I can finally bond about something: our mutual disgust at the pseudo-science of homeopathy.

50

neil 07.13.10 at 4:36 pm

belle la triste is right. Mock bad science if you will, but know that mocking someone’s beliefs while completely failing to understand them makes you look ignorant, no matter how disdainful you may be of those beliefs. This isn’t about tolerance, it’s about intellectual honesty. If you think homeopathy is too stupid to be worth your attention, then you shouldn’t make fun of it. If you think it’s worth making fun of, you should understand what you’re making fun of.

Creationists pull this nonsense all the time.

51

Substance McGravitas 07.13.10 at 4:45 pm

If you think homeopathy is too stupid to be worth your attention, then you shouldn’t make fun of it.

If you write sentences that make no sense you shouldn’t post comments.

52

alex 07.13.10 at 5:27 pm

Presumably by Neil’s standard it is not possible to mock the Catholic Church unless one has a degree in theology? In which case many of us are in grave trouble…

53

The Modesto Kid 07.13.10 at 5:28 pm

Hidari@25: nicely done.

54

neil 07.13.10 at 5:32 pm

That’s obviously not my standard. But at least you read my comment before mocking it. See how easy that was?

55

ScentOfViolets 07.13.10 at 5:39 pm

It’s interesting that in the ecology of pseudoscience, certain misbeliefs are obvious fads, like pyramid power or magnet therapy, while others enjoy multigenerational popularity. What separates the two? In the science community, you have cranks who are to do this earnestly insisting that Einstein Was Wrong. Cold fusion? Not so many people still digging into it. Is there some way to predict the longevity of these fads and fallacies in the name of science? Could it be something as simple as cost?

56

Substance McGravitas 07.13.10 at 5:42 pm

It’s interesting that in the ecology of pseudoscience, certain misbeliefs are obvious fads, like pyramid power or magnet therapy, while others enjoy multigenerational popularity. What separates the two?

The potency of the conspiracy theories of their repression?

57

Hidari 07.13.10 at 6:16 pm

#55

Now you are into the sociology of pseudo-science, a subject I find much more interesting than pseudo-science itself. Why are there ‘fashions’ in strange beliefs? And why are some of these beliefs just so extraordinarily popular?

For example: here’s a Trivial Pursuit question for you.

What was the biggest non-fiction bestseller of the 1970s?
(No Googling!). Given it some thought? Well you’re all wrong.

The best selling non-fiction book of the 1970s was The Late, Great Planet Earth by Christian nutter Hal Lindsey. 28 million copies sold by 1990. Much more interesting to me than simply laughing at Lindsey, on the (unarguable) grounds that he is

a: mad and

b: stupid is to ask what it was about his work that struck such a chord, at such a time?

(Here’s a clue, in my opinion. Immanuel Velikovsky’s ‘work’ was also extremely popular at about the same time. This was also about the time that religion started to play a far more important part in American politics).

Some people are under the impression that people have ‘always’ believed nonsense and that these beliefs are atavistic. But not at all. For example, having an astrology column in a newspaper is a very new thing: it only goes back a few decades. In fact, in my University library, I was once glancing through a scholarly history of astrology (written in the 1950s) and in the preface it had words to the effect of: ‘Many people would question why anyone would wish to write a history of astrology, given that its unscientific tenets are no longer believed by any sensible person, and as a belief system it has been confined to the dustbin of history’ (or something like that).

How times change.

58

Jim Harrison 07.13.10 at 6:40 pm

Scientific explanations may be trumps, but there are an enormous number of suits in play in the overall game so its explanations wouldn’t win very many hands even if people were aware of ‘em. Since the real sciences simply don’t address very much of what people care about, pseudosciences are bound to flourish in the vacuum, especially since the cultivation of complicated systems of nonsense supports the vanity of people with middling educations, i.e. the middlebrow.

59

Anand 07.13.10 at 7:08 pm

I would like to a moment to note – for the sake of many, many Indians who take Gandhi’s words as Gospel – that his opinions on homeopathy (“Homeopathy cures a larger percentage of cases than any other method of treatment and is beyond doubt safer and more economical and most complete medical science.”) are unsupported by scientific data, were already unsupportable by scientific data at the time of the quote and altogether incorrect.

60

Hidari 07.13.10 at 7:57 pm

# 59

Did Gandhi actually say that? I put the quote in Google and only got many, many homeopathy sites, whose views on Gandhi I would consider to be of the same level of trustworthiness as their views on medicine.

61

Anand Manikutty 07.13.10 at 8:41 pm

@ Hidari – I believe he did. It fell into place with his idea of “ahimsa” and non-violence which, obviously, is not quite the same when applied to the human body. (Tagore also had some weird ideas about homeopathy. I am sure I can dig up the quote.)

Sometimes, the biggest risk really *is* to not take one. This is as true in health management as in anything else. The Indian government is risking the health and wellness of thousands of people by institutionalizing this quackery. It would be a good idea to risk (some) popular discontent and simply discontinue support for homeopathy.

I will note that homeopathy is big in India, and seems to enjoy governmental support as well. I was just Googling for some information on this, and so this might less than reliable. There are, apparently, over 200,000 homeopathic doctors there and more than a hundred degree colleges. They may also be subsidzing some of these medical colleges because the annual fees seem ridiculously low. The Government of India should really think about derecognizing all these degree colleges and use the money for something else. The opportunity cost is too great.

There, India. I just saved you tons of money! You are welcome.

62

Substance McGravitas 07.13.10 at 9:37 pm

63

Hidari 07.13.10 at 9:47 pm

64

PHB 07.14.10 at 2:49 am

@neil 50

Your claims are themselves rather ignorant of the principles of satire. If someone holds two stupid beliefs, it is fair game to poke fun at either in isolation by providing an absurd illustration of it, even if doing so does not provide a fair and balanced view of their belief system. XKCD is not purporting to educate people in the beliefs of homeopathy, nor is he purporting to provide a definitive debunking of their absurd, bogus and patently ridiculous claims.

There are plenty of people who do provide such critiques, just are there are people who provide learned critiques of the theological and moral bankruptcy of the Catholic Church. Priests, shamans and witchdoctors throughout the ages have made a nice living from the claim that good things will come to those who accept their belief system. But at the end of the day, none of those critiques are quite so concise as that given by Private Eye: “Little boys used to want to go into the priesthood”, “Now its the other way round”.

65

noen 07.14.10 at 2:52 am

Hidari
“Now you are into the sociology of pseudo-science, a subject I find much more interesting than pseudo-science itself. Why are there ‘fashions’ in strange beliefs? And why are some of these beliefs just so extraordinarily popular?”

People need to feel like they have a certain amount of control over their lives. Alternative medicine gives them the feeling that they have a say in what happens in their lives. So why turn away from traditional medicine? Well, here in the US a lot of people in my social class don’t have reliable access to good healthcare. What access we do have is through large impersonal institutions whose staff are underpaid, tired and even hostile to patients.

About a year ago I had a abscessed tooth that was giving me a lot of pain. So much so that I couldn’t sleep and could feel tenderness going up towards my eye. An untreated tooth abscess will kill you. So I went to the county hospital emergency room. I waited for hours. When the doctor did see me she told me that they couldn’t do anything for me because it wasn’t life threatening. She suggested I make an appointment with their dental clinic, this was Friday. She also offered me a hypo for the pain. I got charged 300 for the visit and 150 for the shot. The dental clinic told me on Monday to call back in a week a so because they were booked up.

I relate this not to talk about my troubles but to give you an idea of why people might reject standard medical care. I feel nothing but rage for that doctor, that clinic and the people in government that enable this abusive system to endure. I notice that every time I interact with the health system I come out on the short end. Sooner or later they screw me. The people who did help me were those at the Indian dental clinic. It cost me 30 dollars and the darvocet was free.

I think the same psychology is at work with people who reject immunizations today. The medical institution in the US today are not just large and impersonal, they are abusive. They are also in the pocket of the pharmaceutical corporation who lie cheat and steal for a buck. They fake their research and when their products kills people there are no consequences.

There are carcinogens in your milk, mercury in your fish, arsenic in your water, hormones and antibiotics in your meat. There is no reliable health information in the media at all, it’s all lies. In fact, it’s worse than lies. True honest medical information is forbidden in the media because that would hurt an advertiser.

So from my point of view, if I were a bit dumber, a bit less educated, more afraid and felt more helpless. I sure would want to turn to something that gave me the feeling that I had some control over my life. Something that was affordable, more personal and no more likely to kill me than anything else. Yeah, I’d go for that.

66

PHB 07.14.10 at 2:54 am

Oh and a meta point concerning claims of ignorance in Internet debate. I have noticed that usually, but not invariably, the party that starts making such claims quite often turns out to be rather ignorant themselves.

67

Jeremy A 07.14.10 at 3:14 am

Hidari, you’re interested in the sociology of pseudo-science; have you drawn any conclusions?

Your comment @55 rang a bell. Are you familiar with Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder? The opening story about ants is worth the price all by itself, and it just gets better after that. Anyway, part of the book is devoted to puzzling over why the progress of science does not eliminate pseudo-sciences. He suggests an explanation that goes sort of like this (though he puts it better):

1. Scientific advances brings new discoveries.
2. New discoveries reveal wondrous things. (The New World! Sunspots! Subatomic particles! Black holes! Weird creatures that live in boiling seawater!)
3. The wondrousness of these things leads people to think that the world is a magical place.
4. This, in turn, gives license to belief in all kinds of weird stuff. After all, science has shown that really weird stuff is possible.

68

John Quiggin 07.14.10 at 6:45 am

A truly awful story here of anti-vaccination campaigners harassing parents bereaved of their child (too young to vaccinate) by pertussis. Fortunately, the loonies are facing some legal consequences.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/07/12/2951629.htm?site=northcoast

69

John Quiggin 07.14.10 at 6:49 am

Another belief popular in the 60s and 70s was that of an imminent revolution. As I mentioned in an early CT post,
http://crookedtimber.org/2004/09/30/revolution-and-revelations/
this idea has pretty much disappeared (as I think have the ideas of Velikovsky and von Daniken), while the popularity of Christian eschatology has been unaffected by Lindsey’s failures.

70

qb 07.14.10 at 7:26 am

If you think homeopathy is too stupid to be worth your attention, then you shouldn’t make fun of it.

Sounds like a recipe for not making fun of stupid things. Or for thoroughly investigating wildly implausible theories. Either way, good luck with that.

71

belle le triste 07.14.10 at 11:16 am

People telling people that I’m right (on the internet) about the need to get things right need to get my name right (on the internet).

Exactness when you’re making fun of stuff is all about the away crowd; can’t be bothered shortcuts are all about the home crowd. Different games demand different tactics. The actual details of homeopathy are of course interesting and odd: lack of curiosity is an unbecoming flaw in intelligent people; but time is short for one and all, and distraction can very easily become procrasturbation. Relevance is a triage.

72

PHB 07.14.10 at 12:14 pm

@John Quiggin 68

There is a similarly bogus pseudo-medical group in the US purporting to be the American College of Pediatricians. This poses as a disinterested group of doctors but is actually a right wing advocacy group that clothes their disgusting bigotry in the mantle of scientific medicine. They manage to get themselves quoted in the press as a legitimate group fairly often.

73

Substance McGravitas 07.14.10 at 2:20 pm

Another belief popular in the 60s and 70s was that of an imminent revolution. As I mentioned in an early CT post,
http://crookedtimber.org/2004/09/30/revolution-and-revelations/
this idea has pretty much disappeared

I don’t think it’s disappeared, it’s just found a new breeding ground on the right instead of the left. Sometimes they’re scared that the left is gonna do it, and sometimes they’re proud to announce their own intention to do it.

74

Henry 07.14.10 at 2:29 pm

bq. Perhaps Henry and I can finally bond about something: our mutual disgust at the pseudo-science of homeopathy.

On homeopathy, if not on many other subjects, we agree.

75

Hidari 07.14.10 at 3:05 pm

#69, 73

As John points out, many people are under the impression that pseudo-scientific beliefs have always been with us and that’s that. But actually, the popular tolerance for ‘weird’ beliefs varies over time, and some beliefs go in and out of fashion. For example, astrology (as I pointed out) was pretty much dead in the 1950s and 1960s. On the other hand, in the late 19th century, there was a huge amount of interest (apparently) in animals (especially toads) being found, apparently alive, in ‘prehistoric’ rocks: a belief that has now completely died.

Which leaves the question of why do these ‘fashions’ in pseudo-science happen? As Substance McGravitas suggests, perhaps the original CT post linked to at #69 might be explained by saying that it was when (and because) people stopped believing in a Communist revolution, that (admittedly a different group of people) started to believe in a Christian revolution (i.e. the End of Time).

A standard objection to Marxism is that ‘it’s just a religion’, with the ‘classless society’ being simply a secularised version of Paradise after the Last Judgement. Not sure if I agree with that, but if one goes along with it, then one can trace the rise of the Christian millenarian movement to the decline of the New Left: the ‘Hal Lindsey’ school have, so to speak, de-secularised Marx’s secularised utopia and restored its (perhaps) inherently religious nature.

And why in the 1970s? Well, in well known study Israelis who were stressed (by the threat or reality of missile attacks) were more likely to express ‘superstitious’ opinions, and superstitious thinking generally is linked to loss of control. In the 1970s, especially in the United States, people felt increasingly paranoid (assassinations, riots, apparently meaningless wars) at the same time as the American Dream seemed to fail (economic recession, defeat in the Vietnam war).

Why homeopathy? Well you have to look at things such as the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s, which led to increasing power being handed to Big Pharma and medicine becoming far more of a money orientated thing. People felt (and feel) more and more pushed around by giant, faceless corporations. Homeopathy’s long ‘touchy feely’ consultations thus become very attractive. At the same time (and again, this is even more the case now) capitalism’s atomisation of the social means that, instead of finding social meanings through (say) political parties or trade unions or ‘social protest’, we find the meaning for our actions and existence through the market, and the idea that you can buy some tailored (i.e. individualistic) medicine that will alleviate vague, ‘lifestyle’ illnesses again becomes highly attractive.

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Henry 07.14.10 at 3:18 pm

I’m with Cosma Shalizi’s version of “Dan Sperber”:http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/reviews/explaining-culture/ here (and more generally; his stress on how many and perhaps most of these fads are likely chance fluctuations rather than the product of underlying logics that necessarily conduct towards the one or the other specific set of weird beliefs because of class, capitalism, etc).

77

piglet 07.14.10 at 4:08 pm

Forgive me for trying to spoil the party (which I won’t succeed doing) but the level of discussion here has been somewhat under the potential of CT. You are talking as if it were obvious what is “science” and what is “pseudo-science”. Well it’s not. Even without bringing up economics (which would be fun but derail this thread), it is an old myth that there is a clear and unambiguous distinction between science and not-science and I am really surprised I have to mention this in this forum. In the case of homeopathy, in my view the data do not support the theory but it is not true that the theory itself is obviously absurd, at least not more than many other theories. Then there is the problem that evidence for homeopathy being effective exists. (Most of) that evidence can probably be explained by placebo effects bu you know what: that may be good enough. A lot of supposedly scientific medicine is on shaky grounds and as noen eloquently explains, the real-world experience that most people have with “school medicine” is mixed. Failures of school medicine can be explained, of course. Sometimes they are real failures and will hopefully be corrected. Sometimes they just appear as failures (the patient may have had bad luck). But does anybody here doubt that immense amounts of pharmaceuticals are prescribed on scientifically more than shaky grounds, that clinical studies are being manipulated and unwelcome results suppressed? Does wide-spread skepticism towards the medical establishment really require an explanation??? Add to this the fact that the achievements of scientific medicine, impressive as they in my view are, are frequently overstated. I hope you have read Lewontin’s critique pointing out that increased life expectancy has little to do with the progress of medicine. People have heard scientists promise the cancer cure for how many decades now? How long since gene therapy was supposed to be 10 years away from the cure etc. (and hasn’t produced any progress so far, except to kill a couple patients)? Are you really surprised people are looking for alternatives?

78

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.14.10 at 5:31 pm

Based on my observations (friends, relatives), it’s all about our desire to believe in miracles. Miraculous cures, miraculous solutions in general (religion, politics, etc.). A snake oil salesman will never go hungry.

Magnetic bracelets are too cheap – they go out of style. Homeopathy, apparently, is a more suitable product.

79

PHB 07.14.10 at 5:36 pm

@piglet 77

No, homeopathy is total bunk. It is very easy to identify it as pseudo-scientific. And it is not necessary to resort to Popper (whose purpose was to raise the bar on science as high as possible).

First the ‘Law of Similars’ has no theoretical or experimental support. There is no reason to expect that a substance that produces the same symptoms is going to provide any therapeutic effect in any dose whatsoever.

Second, there is no theoretical or experimental support for the notion that dilution increases therapeutic effect.

The issue here is not simply the lack of a scientific theory, it is the complete lack of any support for the central claims in any theory generally accepted as ‘scientific’.

If either of the claims was true we would expect that the mechanism that gave rise to them would in turn give rise to other phenomena that could be observed, measured and studied. This is absolutely not the case.

That is not the same as claiming that all alternative medicine is total bunk. In particular it is pretty easy to see how certain remedies in Chinese medicine work, some of the herbal cures administered contain vast quantities of steroids. And certain claims of reflexology turn out to have some basis in neurology. The nerve fibers and decoding circuits in the brain have common paths, there is considerable potential for cross-talk. Which is why it is possible to give a woman an orgasm by jiggling her toes in the right way.

The grand claims made by certain alternative medicines do not have scientific basis. There is no scientific basis for claims made by certain chiropractors that their remedies can cure any form of illness. There is no scientific basis for claims that reflexology has significant therapeutic benefits.

As for the alleged failure of medical science to live up to certain expectations, eighty years ago we had no real answer to bacterial infections, today almost all are treatable using anti-biotics. In the past fifty years science has developed an explanation for the working of viruses, cancer and prion diseases. Effective treatments have been developed for a wide range of viral infections and we now have an understanding of the detailed mechanism that causes cancer. Thats not a bad rate of progress. Has any alternative medicine made any progress whatsoever in that same time?

80

PHB 07.14.10 at 5:38 pm

@ Henry V. 78

In other words, for a person with a terminal illness a belief in homeopathy is similar to Pascal’s case for believing in God: if correct the return is large, if incorrect nothing is lost.

Only in the real world the loss suffered from believing in nonsense is very significant.

81

Substance McGravitas 07.14.10 at 5:40 pm

You are talking as if it were obvious what is “science” and what is “pseudo-science”. Well it’s not.

How different are the mental leaps that make science vs. the mental leaps that make pseudoscience?

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Hidari 07.14.10 at 5:52 pm

‘Which is why it is possible to give a woman an orgasm by jiggling her toes in the right way.’

Could I possibly be introduced to your wife?

83

Colin Danby 07.14.10 at 5:53 pm

Pro-homeopathy arguments are often extended tu quoque rants.

It does, though, illuminate one attraction of woo — not just the illusion of control, the illusion of knowledge. Quacks dispense comforting certainty: you’re sick because your vital forces are low, this doesn’t align with that, all in a metaphorical language that’s easy to grasp. (And of course it’s carefully pitched out of the reach of systematic testing.) Real doctors are more likely to confess that they don’t know what’s the matter with you.

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noen 07.14.10 at 6:06 pm

piglet
“A lot of supposedly scientific medicine is on shaky grounds and as noen eloquently explains”

I don’t think that is a problem for science, I think it is a political problem. Some pharmaceutical corps are doing bad science and that this undermines public confidence. People then turn to other explanations out of fear and despair.

85

chris 07.14.10 at 6:26 pm

Does wide-spread skepticism towards the medical establishment really require an explanation?

Skepticism toward the medical establishment need not, and should not, be accompanied by non-skepticism toward everything that isn’t the medical establishment.

Even if the establishment is wrong about something, some or even most of its detractors are likely to be wrong too.

86

Henri Vieuxtemps 07.14.10 at 6:42 pm

In other words, for a person with a terminal illness a belief in homeopathy is similar to Pascal’s case for believing in God: if correct the return is large, if incorrect nothing is lost.

Yes, except it’s not necessarily as dramatic as a terminal illness. It could be something as trivial as, say, allergies. There is no effective cure for allergies, and that’s an opportunity for a miracle cure. Why not spend a couple hundred bucks if there is even a remote chance to get rid of it? And then, if by chance you feel better that year, you may become a true believer. And True Believerism is what makes the movement.

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Jeremy A 07.14.10 at 7:14 pm

@ John #69

Von Daniken’s ideas disappeared? You wish.

I found my son tuned into Discovery Channel’s “Ancient Aliens.” Von Daniken’s name wasn’t mentioned in what I saw, but a gang of other credulous yet credentialed people were filling in for him. Stuff on the level of “Here is this one little bird sculpture found in one single solitary ancient Egyptian tomb. See how it looks a little like a modern airplane to those of us who know what modern airplanes look like? Gosh, maybe this means that ancient Egyptians could fly! In modern-looking airplanes! And of course it must have been aliens who gave them the technology, so there may have been ancient aliens!”

The show was sometimes responsible enough to do some debunking on its own, but overall it was catering to ancient-aliens fans. So for Daddy this was an exercise in teaching son how to debunk this bullshit.

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noen 07.14.10 at 7:34 pm

“I found my son tuned into Discovery Channel’s “Ancient Aliens.””

I saw that, god it was horrible. What really offends me about those kinds of conspiracy theories is they assume that no humans could have ever come up with these things on their own without ancient (and white!) aliens giving them to the poor stupid natives. They really play on the racism of their audience. It’s entirely plausible that the Egyptians had toy gliders just like the Chinese had toy ornithopters.

On Bullshit
“bullshit has no truth value — that is, it is neither demonstrably true or false”

Sure, but there’s just… so much of it.

89

piglet 07.14.10 at 9:20 pm

I stand by what I said. I’m not making a case for homeopathy but a case for a lack of integrity in the “scientific” medicine community that needs to be addressed at least as urgently as the lack of integrity of many supporters of homeopathy. And also that is not a tu quoque argument. My point is that if you raise the question of how certain beliefs become popular (which I think is an important one), you can’t simply ignore the context. You have to include in your discussion how the “scientific” side contributes to the phenomenon, for example by a lack of integrity and by raising unreasonable expectations that lead to disappointment.

90

piglet 07.14.10 at 9:34 pm

“Skepticism toward the medical establishment need not, and should not, be accompanied by non-skepticism toward everything that isn’t the medical establishment.”

No disagreement here but I doubt that is a good description of most “alternative medicine” consumers. I think many people who use alternative medicine (and I’m sure everybody here knows a bunch of people in that group so it’s easy to find out) don’t have strong opinions about it and don’t reject establishment medicine either. There are some who do but I think that’s a tiny minority.

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piglet 07.14.10 at 9:37 pm

“Real doctors are more likely to confess that they don’t know what’s the matter with you.”

Do you have evidence for that claim? Scientific evidence, preferably?

92

piglet 07.14.10 at 9:56 pm

Based on my observations (friends, relatives), it’s all about our desire to believe in miracles. Miraculous cures, miraculous solutions in general (religion, politics, etc.). A snake oil salesman will never go hungry.

Need examples?

Today we are learning the language in which God created life. … With this profound new knowledge, humankind is on the verge of gaining immense new power to heal. (Remember that one?)

“Blessings From The Book of Life Decoding the human genome will yield a bounty of biotech miracles that will transform our lives in the next 40 years.” (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2000/03/06/275208/index.htm)
(Check out the specific predictions for 2010.)

Also interesting:
https://omniclimate.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/how-bold-predictions-hurt-science/

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piglet 07.14.10 at 10:15 pm

I strongly recommend this article by James M. Wilson, Science 8 May 2009:
Vol. 324. no. 5928, pp. 727 – 728, DOI: 10.1126/science.1174935

A History Lesson for Stem Cells

When President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order on 9 March 2009 rolling back the previous administration’s restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, he took pains to temper Americans’ hopes for quick fixes. “At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown and it should not be overstated,” the president said. “I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek”. Unfortunately, some stakeholders in hESC research have failed to exhibit the same restraint, effectively promising cures for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, macular degeneration, and hearing loss, to name a few. (emphasis added)

Studies of hESCs and their non–embryo-derived counterparts, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, will likely deepen our understanding of cell differentiation, human development, and birth defects. Hopefully they will also lead to novel therapeutics for some diseases, and I applaud President Obama for giving scientists longer leashes as they explore this exciting field. But in today’s clamor of stem cell enthusiasm it is possible to detect haunting echoes of the early and ultimately troubled days of gene therapy.

The field of gene therapy began with laboratory studies in the mid- to late-1980s and grew linearly during the 1990s. Very early in this evolution, clinical trials were initiated, and their number and overall patient recruitment figures grew in step with the science. During that period, gene therapy was touted as a potential cure for a huge array of ailments. By 2000, researchers had launched more than 400 clinical trials, testing the approach against a wide spectrum of illnesses. Yet the Food and Drug Administration concluded in a September 2000 review, “the hyperbole has exceeded the results” and “little has worked”. Although the field has improved since then, with notable successes against inherited blindness and immune deficiency, those successes are shadowed by several tragic adverse events, including treatment-induced cancers in some volunteers and, in 1999, the death of an 18-year-old, Jesse Gelsinger, in a gene therapy clinical trial that I led. Gelsinger’s death initiated a chain of events that seriously derailed the field.
(…)

Frankly, I have no time for the “we rationalists vs those superstitious believers” rhetoric. Nobody who knows a minimum about history and sociology of science can take such simple-mindedness seriously. Science has done immense harm as well as good, has produced plenty of bad theories that we now read about with disbelief but that were fully respected in their time, has served as cover for political oppression in myriad ways. The saving grace of science has always been that true scientists understand their own limitations. Science needs humility. Arrogant science becomes insufferable and people will always be turned off by it.

94

PHB 07.15.10 at 2:13 am

@Hidari 81

Wouldn’t it be rather more chivalrous of you to ask me if I would visit your wife?

95

vivian 07.15.10 at 2:23 am

So then Piglet, why do people seem to love arrogant pseudoscience? You got it exactly backwards: People hate arrogant doctors who say “if it’s not showing up on my tests, then it’s all in your head,” but adore arrogant quacks who say ” you definitely have my syndrome, here’s this very expensive treatment and please, do tell me more about your problems.” All things considered, I’ll take the worst of the folks who reason in public with evidence over the worst of the quacks. And the best of science is a hell of a lot better.

96

ScentOfViolets 07.15.10 at 3:16 am

Frankly, I have no time for the “we rationalists vs those superstitious believers” rhetoric. Nobody who knows a minimum about history and sociology of science can take such simple-mindedness seriously. Science has done immense harm as well as good, has produced plenty of bad theories that we now read about with disbelief but that were fully respected in their time, has served as cover for political oppression in myriad ways.

That might be true . . . but how does that explain the legions of cranks beavering away to prove Einstein Was Wrong? I don’t see how your theory covers that.

Or take that perennial favorite, trisecting an angle. Yes, people are still working on that one. On a more up to date math topic, apparently there are legions of cranks out to show that all this talk about different orders of infinity is just so much hooey; apparently a goodly number of them are expend a great deal of energy to show that the number of integers (or rational numbers) is the same as the number of irrational numbers.

Again, I don’t see how your theory explains that one.

97

Dr. Hilarius 07.15.10 at 4:44 am

As a former scientist married to a practicing biologist I have to take issue with the idea of science being arrogant. There are certainly individual scientists who are arrogant but as I group I have always found them (at several major universities) to be quick to admit the limitations of science. They do get irritated when confronted repeatedly by nonsense like homeopathy. Why would any reasonable person invest much time in debating psychic surgery or remote viewing? However wrong, and it often is, science does require proponents of a theory eventually to produce some evidence or to be based on assumptions consistent with evidence of how the world works.

Religiously based pseudo-science may be a special subset of irrationality. Faith healing is vigorously propagated by con artists for financial benefit. It might not be considered pseudo-science given its claims are based on divine intervention. It does persist no matter how many times individual faith healers are exposed as frauds or the lack of verifiable cures, suggesting similarity to pseudo-science based on “scientific” principles.

Ooops, I’m late for my orgone treatment. See you.

98

Walt 07.15.10 at 8:46 am

piglet, how is that long quote even relevant, other than completely demonstrating the utter superiority of conventional medicine to alternative medicine? People made wild claims, which were debunked in clinical trials. Homeopathy advocates make wild claims which are imperviously to debunking. Advantage: conventional medicine.

99

ajay 07.15.10 at 10:49 am

There are certainly individual scientists who are arrogant but as I group I have always found them (at several major universities) to be quick to admit the limitations of science. They do get irritated when confronted repeatedly by nonsense like homeopathy.

There isn’t quite so much vocal crankery in other areas. Professional historians would probably become just as combative – and some of them might well become just as arrogant – if there was a large number of people who repeatedly asserted that most historians were liars and that the Roman Empire really persisted into the early 18th century, or that Napoleon and Louis XIV were the same man. In areas where history really is a political plaything (Irish history, say, or mediaeval Balkan history, or archaeology in Turkey) this is pretty much what happens.

100

Hidari 07.15.10 at 11:07 am

#94

I would but she ran off with her chiropodist.

Thangew thangew you’ve been a lovely audience I’m here all week.

101

PHB 07.15.10 at 12:40 pm

@Dr. Hilarius 97

The reason a sane person looks into pseudo-science is that others do so. In particular the Russian Colonel who runs their information-engagement operations is into various types of Psi-ops.

They still do the remote viewing and action at a distance nonsense. And its not so hard to see why it has a hold. Every senior officer in the Russian army was educated in a school system based on the pseudo-science of Marxist-Leninism. The nonsense poisoned everything they did since.

You can’t teach science in a country where asking questions or demanding proof gets you a ticket to the gulag. To do well in Soviet science it was much better to be a charlatan than an honest man. A charlatan had no difficulty making up results or stealing from the West. Honest research would inevitably expose such activity and create a real personal risk for the exposer.

102

alex 07.15.10 at 12:59 pm

Well, I’m glad we cleared that up.

103

Matt McIrvin 07.15.10 at 1:26 pm

I’m not so sure magnet therapy isn’t one of the perennial ones. It’s recurrent, at the very least; it was big 100 years ago, and also in the 1770s when Mesmer himself was pushing it for the first time.

104

piglet 07.15.10 at 2:15 pm

SoV 96:

“That might be true . . . but how does that explain the legions of cranks beavering away to prove Einstein Was Wrong? I don’t see how your theory covers that.”

I haven’t proposed any “theory”. Your remark is in the category of trolling.

Walt 98:

“piglet, how is that long quote even relevant, other than completely demonstrating the utter superiority of conventional medicine to alternative medicine?”

It is relevant in the context of Henri Vieuxtemps comment 78, to which I referred in 92. And whether that quote demonstrates anybody’s “utter superiority” is doubtful. Jesse Gelsinger died, after all, because Dr. Wilson needed his gene therapy study to succeed. Had he died in the hands of what you call “quack”, Gelsinger would have (rightly) become a cause celebre for the anti-quack crusaders. Things being as they are, Gelsinger has been forgotten and Dr. Wilson is writing editorials for Science magazine. I commend him at least for the honest content of that editorial but frankly, he deserved punishment for endangering the lives of patients. (I recommend you read up on the background if you have never heard of Gelsinger).

Hilarius 97:

“As a former scientist married to a practicing biologist I have to take issue with the idea of science being arrogant.”

Nice coincidence, I’m also married to a practicing biologist. Where do you get the idea that I am promoting the “idea of science being arrogant”? My remark was something like “science becomes intolerable *when it lacks humility*”, not “science lacks humility”. I hope we don’t need to convene a logic seminar to clarify the difference.

At this point, I can only suggest that you guys start reading what I actually wrote, not what you’d like to read into it.

105

chris 07.15.10 at 4:36 pm

@piglet: The idea that science should have some humility is a good one, but surely you can’t possibly be ignorant of the fact that demands for science to have more humility very often come from people who have just lost on the merits and are trying to obscure that fact?

The saving grace of science has always been that true scientists understand their own limitations.

IMO, the saving grace of science has always been that when one scientist has been wrong, another has pointed it out, and eventually, proved it. It takes truly extraordinary outside pressures like Lysenkoism to (locally and temporarily) stop science from fixing its own mistakes.

P.S. It seems a bit unfair to blame “science”, as if it were a uniform mass, for the sensationalized media results that “promise” cures for X disease within Y years. Such statements clearly aren’t scientific theories or conclusions in the first place, even if they are uttered by people whose profession is “scientist”, and to the extent that their failure to come true should discredit anyone, it should be the speaker only (except maybe if there is widespread agreement within the field on the correctness of the prediction, which there generally is not). Indeed, I would bet that most such statements are more aspiration than prediction even to the (unrepresentative) utterer.

106

ScentOfViolets 07.15.10 at 5:21 pm

“That might be true . . . but how does that explain the legions of cranks beavering away to prove Einstein Was Wrong? I don’t see how your theory covers that.”

I haven’t proposed any “theory”. Your remark is in the category of trolling.

Uh-huh. Why do I get the impression this is (lame) attempt to duck the question? But since you object to that word, how about I say this instead: How does that explain the legions of cranks beavering away to prove Einstein Was Wrong? I don’t see how your explanation covers that.

Any objections now? Or will you answer the question?

107

piglet 07.15.10 at 5:50 pm

“It seems a bit unfair to blame “science”, as if it were a uniform mass”

Of course, but you understand that everybody can use that argument. I am aware that there is no such a thing as “science” in the singular, but then there is no such a thing as “pseudo-science” in the singular. The claims about the miracle cures of fads such as gene therapy that I cited above are very representative, and I am glad be able to cite Dr. Wilson as witness. You cannot explain that away. That doesn’t discredit the whole scientific enterprise, and I never suggested it did.

One more point. There used to be a strong tradition of science criticism on the left (I was particularly influenced by Gould, Lewontin and the like). With the right since Bush going frontally anti-science whenever it suits their interests, it seems that the left has completely forgotten its critical knowledge and now feels compelled to circle the wagons with whoever claims to represent science. We need to do better than that.

108

piglet 07.15.10 at 5:52 pm

SoV 106, I have no idea what this is about. It would help if you could point to what statement of mine exactly you object to. Preferably with an accurate quote.

109

ScentOfViolets 07.15.10 at 6:21 pm

I’m not so sure magnet therapy isn’t one of the perennial ones. It’s recurrent, at the very least; it was big 100 years ago, and also in the 1770s when Mesmer himself was pushing it for the first time.

I was dubious about that one even as I wrote it down, as I still see advertisements for magnetic bracelets being pushed as a health aid all the time. I left it at that because I don’t see this as rising to the level of popularity, of, say, chi balancing, homeopathic medicine or acupuncture.

In any event, there seems to be something there which I can’t quite put my finger on which elevates some crank notions into perennial fads while others either fade away or at best go in and out of fashion at long intervals. Let me list a few examples from different categories.

I’ve already mentioned the “Einstein Was Wrong!” set – why are there so many people determined to prove otherwise, and why doesn’t QM come in for a similar hit? Oddly, it seems that this crowd also has a definable political bent, which would be – of course – libertarian. On the math side (Mark Chu seems to be one guy who’s made it something of a crusade to demolish this nonsense), there are legions of people who are out to prove that there are just as many natural numbers as there real numbers. This talk about “orders of infinity” is just so much gibblegabble they seem to think.

Someone mentioned “The Late Great Planet Earth” as a 1970’s best seller. Well, one avid reader of that stuff would be my dad. He moved us back to Missouri on the strength of Dr. Hal, just so he could join up with the “The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord” crowd. I mention this because he’s also a believer in the 100 mpg carburetor that “they don’t want you to know about” despite the fact that he’s a mechanic who should know better and despite the fact he’s been shown with facts and figures why that isn’t possible. While I really don’t keep track of such things, I think this one is a fad. It is nevertheless, part and parcel with the “free energy machine” crowd that have been around forever, whatever the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics may have to say on the subject.

On the health side, there seems to be an ongoing fascination with “supplements”, for example, the megavitamin crowd. I’ll admit that I’ve taken a wide variety of these supplements, everything from massive doses of vitamins E, B, and C to chromium picolinate, St. Johns Wort, glucosamine chondroitin, etc. The difference between me and a lot of people seems to be that I stop taking them when enough evidence rolls in that they don’t do anything for you, and other people swear by them long after this has been established (by the way, are there any new supplements that anyone wants to recommend?)

Another category would be odd animals and odd animal behaviours – during the halcyon days of Steve Austin, Bionic Man Saskwatch was being sighted by everyone’s third cousin, in modern times not so much. But Nessie still seems to be getting a good deal of favorable press. I’ll include UFO sightings in this one. This is another phenom that seems to have peaked in the 70’s and then dropped off, though I’ll concede that this is a case where the popularity may be cyclic as well. Oh, and I might as well throw strange places in here as well, such as the Devil’s Triangle. At one point, there was a school of thought who held that there were actually twelve such areas on the Earth, iirc.

Anybody see a pattern, or think they see one? Could it be something as simple as the financial cost of maintaining the belief?

110

ScentOfViolets 07.15.10 at 6:26 pm

SoV 106, I have no idea what this is about. It would help if you could point to what statement of mine exactly you object to. Preferably with an accurate quote.

I haven’t objected to anything you’ve said. I’m referring to what you said here and permutations thereof:

I stand by what I said. I’m not making a case for homeopathy but a case for a lack of integrity in the “scientific” medicine community that needs to be addressed at least as urgently as the lack of integrity of many supporters of homeopathy. And also that is not a tu quoque argument. My point is that if you raise the question of how certain beliefs become popular (which I think is an important one), you can’t simply ignore the context.

My question is how do you fit other crank phenomena into this paradigm where the scientific context is important. Offhand, I don’t see how that works for the “Einstein Was Wrong” crowd.

111

PHB 07.15.10 at 6:46 pm

At least part of the reason for acupuncture maintaining its popularity is as a cover for prostitution. Acupuncture tends to substitute for massage in areas where massage parlors are heavily regulated.

But it really isn’t fair to put acupuncture in the same bracket as homeopathy as it does not claim to have a scientific basis in the first place. Homeopathy does claim to be scientifically based and apes the forms but not the substance of science.

Oh and @Hidari, 100 – She hot-footed it then?

112

chris 07.15.10 at 7:19 pm

it seems that the left has completely forgotten its critical knowledge and now feels compelled to circle the wagons with whoever claims to represent science. We need to do better than that.

That’s odd, it doesn’t seem like that at all to me. The Huffington Post in particular is frequently criticized by other politically leftish sources (e.g. PZ Myers) for giving too much uncritical acceptance to pseudosciences. (And by some politically non-leftish sources, too, but since your point was specifically about the left, that’s less relevant.)

I think there is mostly a consensus that the remedy for bad science is better science, not “alternative ways of knowing” or throwing up our hands and exclaiming that we just can’t know anything. But that doesn’t involve giving criticism-proof status to any particular scientific conclusion — just demanding that the challenger theory come armed with better proof than the defending champion it is aiming to displace. Which is, you know, science.

The claims about the miracle cures of fads such as gene therapy that I cited above are very representative

I doubt that. Maybe if you survey 100 mass media outlets, 80 of which are running the same AP story and the other 20 plagiarizing it and rearranging enough words to avoid a lawsuit…

and I am glad be able to cite Dr. Wilson as witness.

How can one person possibly prove representativeness? Has this Dr. Wilson conducted a literature survey of published literature in the field of gene therapy studies to measure what fraction of papers include specific promises of cures for specific diseases in specific time periods?

113

piglet 07.15.10 at 7:55 pm

SoV 110, you quote me saying: “My point is that if you raise the question of how certain beliefs become popular (which I think is an important one), you can’t simply ignore the context.” Well that’s what I’m saying. Now what was your question again? (You don’t need to answer that).

114

ScentOfViolets 07.15.10 at 8:33 pm

Iow, Piglet, you got nuthin’ and it explains nuthin’. Which you could have just said at the very beginning instead of starting out by accusing me of some sort of trolling.

I’ll just remember this whenever I see a post by you from here on out. Or as you say, put the rest of your comments in the context of the way you’ve been performing here ;-)

115

piglet 07.15.10 at 9:21 pm

SoV, it’s a matter of reading and understanding English sentences. You are only embarrassing yourself.

116

ScentOfViolets 07.15.10 at 9:49 pm

Sigh. It’s usually pretty easy to tell who’s zooming who, and one of the indicators is who is being specific and who is not. You’re not being specific, you’re not even really making any sort of statements to advance your argument. You are, however, proving to be a dab hand at name-calling.

But I’m willing to be proven wrong. What is it about “reading and understanding English sentences” that I’ve gotten wrong? So wrong that it’s embarrassing?

Be specific, and show, don’t tell. Now go ahead and explain the antics of the “Einstein Was Wrong” crowd, or the people who continue to insist that there’s only one kind of infinity “in context”.

Since I’m wrong, dead wrong and embarrassingly so, this should be very easy for you to do, right? So let’s see what you’ve got.

117

piglet 07.15.10 at 11:07 pm

SoV, I won’t tolerate your trolling. You asked me to “explain” why some people try to refute Einstein (96 and again 106) even though nothing I have said had any connection with Einstein. You have been misreading my comments (as you admit in 114) and now you try to ridicule me for not having said what you thought I had said. Apparently I “should have said at the beginning” that I don’t claim to have a theory of everything, instead of simply assuming that nobody capable of reading would assume I had said something that I haven’t. Understand that nobody here needs that nonsense, get over it, and shut up.

118

ScentOfViolets 07.15.10 at 11:40 pm

Oh, just what are you going to do since you “won’t tolerate” my behaviour. You need to stop with the fake dudgeons and the synthetic outrage. My questions are entirely reasonable ones, and further, other people have questioned what you wrote as well. Thus, not only do your accusations lack merit, they are also insulting – not that you’ll ever do the right thing and apologize. Now let’s go yet again to a typical paragraph of yours that lead to my questions:

I stand by what I said. I’m not making a case for homeopathy but a case for a lack of integrity in the “scientific” medicine community that needs to be addressed at least as urgently as the lack of integrity of many supporters of homeopathy. And also that is not a tu quoque argument. My point is that if you raise the question of how certain beliefs become popular (which I think is an important one), you can’t simply ignore the context.

Nice snip of what I earlier quoted btw. Notice I’m not calling you dishonest or a troll because of that. I’m merely asking about the sort of context that would make questioning Relativity popular (an particularly, popular amongst libertarians.) It seems like that follows pretty easily from what I’ve quoted.

Notice also that – per my previous post – you don’t have any specific complaints about my supposed failure of reading comprehension, let alone gone about showing they actually exist rather than simply telling us about them.

Or how about this bit:

Frankly, I have no time for the “we rationalists vs those superstitious believers” rhetoric. Nobody who knows a minimum about history and sociology of science can take such simple-mindedness seriously. Science has done immense harm as well as good, has produced plenty of bad theories that we now read about with disbelief but that were fully respected in their time, has served as cover for political oppression in myriad ways. The saving grace of science has always been that true scientists understand their own limitations. Science needs humility. Arrogant science becomes insufferable and people will always be turned off by it.

It looks to me as if you’ve merely seized the opportunity to go off on a rant of your own that doesn’t really have a lot of basis in fact, and that you’re “understanding in context” was just some sort of rhetorical springboard.

Your latest post merely confirms that. But asking questions to ascertain that fact doesn’t make me a troll; if anything, it makes me a gentleman for not immediately charging out and telling you to abstain from any personal rants. Finally:

You have been misreading my comments (as you admit in 114) and now you try to ridicule me for not having said what you thought I had said. Apparently I “should have said at the beginning” that I don’t claim to have a theory of everything, instead of simply assuming that nobody capable of reading would assume I had said something that I haven’t.

Well, I’d say it looks like I understood you just fine, and no, I didn’t “admit” that I misunderstood you, and actually, your initial reply was:

I haven’t proposed any “theory”. Your remark is in the category of trolling.

Uh-huh. That’s both respectful and informative. Would it have been too hard to say that the whole “in context” thing was you speaking ex cathedra, and that it applied only to medicine, not to any other field of science? That would have been much better for all concerned – you in particular.

119

ScentOfViolets 07.15.10 at 11:42 pm

Oh, the obligatory “I’m going to stop wrestling the pig” should be applied here. No point in any more insulting discussion.

120

piglet 07.16.10 at 2:11 am

“I’m merely asking about the sort of context that would make questioning Relativity popular (an particularly, popular amongst libertarians.)”

You are certainly free to ask that question, and maybe it is a good question to ask. But you didn’t ask it in any of your earlier posts, until 118. What you DID ask was:

“That might be true . . . but how does that explain the legions of cranks beavering away to prove Einstein Was Wrong? I don’t see how your theory covers that.”
That sounds like trolling, looks like trolling, and smells like trolling. Maybe it isn’t – appearances can be deceptive. In any case, I never set out to “explain the legions of cranks beavering away to prove Einstein Was Wrong”, or to provide a theory that would “cover that”. The most benign interpretation is that you were misreading my comments. If you weren’t, you were trolling.

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piglet 07.16.10 at 2:12 am

(F**k, formatting emergency)

I’m merely asking about the sort of context that would make questioning Relativity popular (an particularly, popular amongst libertarians.)

You are certainly free to ask that question, and maybe it is a good question to ask. But you didn’t ask it in any of your earlier posts, until 118. What you DID ask was:

That might be true . . . but how does that explain the legions of cranks beavering away to prove Einstein Was Wrong? I don’t see how your theory covers that.

That sounds like trolling, looks like trolling, and smells like trolling. Maybe it isn’t – appearances can be deceptive. In any case, I never set out to “explain the legions of cranks beavering away to prove Einstein Was Wrong”, or to provide a theory that would “cover that”. The most benign interpretation is that you were misreading my comments. If you weren’t, you were trolling.

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ScentOfViolets 07.16.10 at 2:32 am

Sigh. The most benign interpretation Piglet, is that you didn’t understand what I was asking. Looking over what I originally wrote, I don’t see how you would think that the rewording makes the question any different. And in any event, you still haven’t explained why or how you interpreted my question as “trolling”.

Ah well. That’s how you roll, I guess. So unless you want to apologize to me – and I certainly deserve an apology for the way you’ve been behaving – I see no reason to continue this discussion with you. Though as I said earlier, I will file away your behaviour here for future reference.

123

alex 07.16.10 at 7:31 am

Get a room, you guys, please!

124

Tim Worstall 07.16.10 at 8:03 am

“Wouldn’t it be rather more chivalrous of you to ask me if I would visit your wife?”

Not sure: I think that chivalry requires that I ask you how this is done and then I work with my wife (as a scientific experiment of course) to try and replicate the result.

As to this “science” and “pseudo-science” distinction. I’ve obviously missed something, for I thought that the process of science was how we distinguished between the two?

125

Hidari 07.16.10 at 8:08 am

#124 But a one off experiment proves nothing. Only a meta-analysis can provide us with the, ahem, hard scientific evidence we require.

So if you all pop round to my house tonight……make sure you bring your car keys…….

126

sg 07.16.10 at 8:46 am

eeeeewwwww!

Does this trick only work on girls?

Surely there are videos describing the techniques?

127

alex 07.16.10 at 10:14 am

Not on YouTube. Shocking, frankly. This kind of information needs better dissemination.

128

Tim Worstall 07.16.10 at 11:17 am

“This kind of information needs better dissemination.”

Quite: isn’t this what journals are for, the spreading of seminal results?

129

Harald Korneliussen 07.16.10 at 11:25 am

I don’t know if neil’s assertion, that critics should learn more about what they’re criticizing, is appropriate in this case. But often, it seems to be.

A case in point: Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy) once wrote a big “debunking” of astrology. He basically kept repeating over and over that since stars are so far away, there are no forces that can affect what happens to you on earth (he listed them: Gravitation? No. Weak electromagnetic force? no. etc etc.).

Well, duh. But if he had thought about it a bit, he’d realize that there are three types of explanation an astrology believer can choose to “explain” the supposed correlation between planet’s position and significant life events. Those are:

1. The position of planets and stars cause human life events.
2. Life events causes the position of planets and stars.
3. Something else causes both human life events and the position astronomical objects.

And if he had spent half a minute talking to an astrology believer, he’d realize it was the third. Astrology believers generally believe in determinism. They explain astrology with symmetries in the universe present from beginning – either deliberately, because it was set up that way by God, or merely out of spontaneous natural symmetry.

This is a position which can be criticized, but that was not what Phil Plait did. He just attacked his own idea of astrology, and dismissed me as an astrology supporter when I contacted him about it (I am not.)

130

alex 07.16.10 at 12:25 pm

Tragically, of course, explanation 3 is much sillier than explanation 1, so there’s no real win there for the astrologers.

131

JanieM 07.16.10 at 12:55 pm

Re Harold @ 11:25 a.m.

Too bad people like the one in Harold’s story go around “proving” how stupid other people’s beliefs are in a way that inspires the question, “If you’re so smart, why are you so stupid?”

132

Churm Rincewind 07.16.10 at 4:13 pm

Harald Korneliussen writes “…there are three types of explanation an astrology believer can choose to “explain” the supposed correlation between planet’s position and significant life events. Those are:

1. The position of planets and stars cause human life events.
2. Life events causes the position of planets and stars.
3. Something else causes both human life events and the position astronomical objects.

And if he had spent half a minute talking to an astrology believer, he’d realize it was the third. Astrology believers generally believe in determinism. They explain astrology with symmetries in the universe present from beginning – either deliberately, because it was set up that way by God, or merely out of spontaneous natural symmetry.”

I do not think that is quite right. The theory of astrology is nowadays based mainly on Jung’s concept of synchronicity, which postulates the existence of acausal relationships. So the argument for astrology is not that the state of the heavens causes events in an individual’s life, but that simultaneous occurrences in the heavens and in a person’s life are related, and if we understand that relationship we can “read” one in such a way as to reveal meaning in the other. This is not such an uncommon idea. It might be argued, for example, that this idea underpins Freud’s view that a person’s dreams, which may have no apparent relevance to their daily situation, can be “read” or “interpreted” in such a way as to usefully reveal meaning in their quotidian behaviour. Thus, according to Freud, a dream of being rescued from water can be read as referring to your relationship with your mother.

Astrology makes the exactly the same claim, as indeed would readers of tea leaves, Tarot cards, and so on. But I think astrologers would go even further, and argue that it is the “reading” which is the difficult bit, and there astrology has an overwhelming advantage simply because, unlike Freud’s language of symbolism, it’s been around for literally thousands of years and so there has been an opportunity for the synchronistic connections between human life and the stars to be throughly explored and understood.

The difficulty, which Freud ignored but which Jung embraced, is one of scale. Freud shied away from the question of whether the meanings he attributed to various symbols are true for all peoples in all countries at all times. This may have been because that suggestion would imply a universal governing dynamic underlying all human behaviour and experience throughout history. Jung called this the “collective unconscious”, though most people just call it God.

But the whole notion of acausal relationships goes back a long way in mainstream thought. It has been one of the conventional solutions to the Christian dilemma of how free will can exist if God is omniscient and omnipotent – if I commit evil, and God is the fount and origin of everything, does that mean that God made me do it? No, says (for example) Boethius. The fact that God knew you were going to do it, and that therefore your act of evil was necessary and unavoidable, does not mean He caused you to do it. So there is a relationship, but it’s not a causal one.

I fear I am wandering a bit off topic here. My main point is that astrology and divination are not as intellectually bankrupt as might be supposed.

133

ScentOfViolets 07.16.10 at 5:57 pm

Ah, since all alternative candidates seem to have been disposed of, here are my thoughts on the relative popularity and staying power of the various pseudosciences: apart from what seems to be a random walk, pseudoscience lasts to the extent that it is difficult to disprove. Pyramid power was pretty big for a few years, but since none of the claimed results never manifested (we did a really cool project with that one in the seventh grade), and since these results were easily isolated, it was bound to crash and burn within a half a decade.

This would explain why Saskwatch sightings are so rare now, but Nessie seems to be as popular as ever; back in the mid-70’s there really were large parts of the American Northwest that weren’t very accessible. That’s not so true now, of course, hence the low interest. It also explains perennial health fads, insofar as there will always be placebo effects to consider and there will always be confounding variables; “I still have a cold, but it’s not as bad as it would have been if it weren’t for those megadoses of vitamin C.”

The other consideration is cost, both of the monetary kind, but also the cost in intellectual preparation and personal effort. Why doesn’t QM have the same detractors as Relativity? The math is much harder. With SR, are you really need to set up a dedicated career of crankery is high school math. It’s much easier to set up complicated Rube Goldberg scenarios to “disprove” the Twin paradox than it is to actually learn linear operator theory. This goes for math crankery as well. The Cantor diagonalization proof is actually pretty easy; any reasonably intelligent junior high school student can follow it. Thus you have legions of cranks busily constructing correspondence schemes – some of them quite complicated – that they think will shut down Cantor and earn them eternal fame for taking down one of the big guys. You won’t see this sort of energy directed at, say, any of a number of famous conjectures and theorems in projective geometry stated in the language of sheaf theory simply because the amount of work to put into the subject just to understand the questions and why they are important is beyond the capacity of most cranks.

This applies in spades to alternative medicine. The remedies that “they don’t want you to know about” are not only efficacious, they are also cheap and within the budgets of the credulous and easily gulled. Megavitamins? Accupunture? Aroma therapy? Cheap, cheap, and cheap.

I’d say that this explains about 90% of the variance.

134

engels 07.16.10 at 10:39 pm

Arrogant science becomes insufferable and people will always be turned off by it.

It has to be noted though that for a large part of the present population, science is insufferable and they will always be turned off by it.

135

engels 07.16.10 at 10:51 pm

Another belief popular in the 60s and 70s was that of an imminent revolution. As I mentioned in an early CT post, this idea has pretty much disappeared (as I think have the ideas of Velikovsky and von Daniken)

Other crazy things the Far Left thought in the 60s: that there was going to be a global nuclear war in which we’d all die. Those idiots! It NEVER happened!

136

PHB 07.16.10 at 11:27 pm

You know back in the day I remember profs telling me that you won’t find everything in books. Now the same caution has to be given to YouTube?

It is very simple, remember the old Texas Instruments calculators where you could press two keys to simulate the effect of pressing a third? That is due to multiplexing, the keyboard is read out using a common set of 8 input lines that are common to every key in the same row. The firmware reads out each column in turn by setting the col select line high.

Well turns out that a similar principle is at work on the old neural circuitry and in the decoding system in the brain.

Now I guess I could try to make some YouTube videos offering proof. But what would that prove anyway – have you seen ‘When Harry Met Sally”? I think it would be rather more fun to set up an online forum and see what techniques work for what people.

The measurement problem here is that we are exploiting features of systems that are not consistent. Think about how long it took men to find the G-Spot (OK they were too busy trying to find the sauce of the Nile) and we still have troglodytes who don’t believe in the g-spot.

137

PHB 07.17.10 at 12:37 am

@sg

You want a ewe? Shouldn’t we at least start systematic studies on humans before going off onto other species?

I have very limited data to work with here, cannot confirm or deny effect on males. All I know is it has little effect on me.

So step one in this process is to make a toe twiddlification machine so that we can get some repeatable measurements here, then hit craigslist.

138

engels 07.17.10 at 12:41 am

I mean if we are to make decisions on how to conduct research based on what people are ‘turned off’, or on, by perhaps we should liquidate MIT and put the money towards Lady Gaga’s next video?

139

PHB 07.17.10 at 1:19 am

@ engels,

You obviously didn’t go to the same parties I did when I was at MIT is all I can say.

@SoV

So you are suggesting that rather than start the online forum to do some wikiResearch into recreational neurohacking for sensual pleasure, I should form a cult instead?

140

John Quiggin 07.17.10 at 1:24 am

engles @135. Nice snark, but I still take the risk of nuclear extinction seriously, and think we were pretty lucky to dodge it back in the 50s and 60s. The risk (probability of extinction in any given year) is much smaller now, and there’s even some chance that we will find some way of getting rid of nukes before they get rid of us.

OTOH, looking back, I don’t think there has been any point in my lifetime when a leftwing revolution was even a remote possibility, despite what we all thought at the time.

141

engels 07.17.10 at 2:43 pm

Sous les pavés, la plage!

142

alex 07.17.10 at 3:29 pm

Indeed, and as the Generation of ’68 now teaches us, if you can retire to la plage on a sweet index-linked pension at 50 or 55, being leftwing has worked out pretty nicely for you. Shame about the banlieusards, but hey, c’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?

143

engels 07.17.10 at 6:04 pm

What’s the English for ‘ressentiment’?

144

Dr. Hilarius 07.17.10 at 7:11 pm

SofV at 133: I think you are onto something with the idea of affordability being a factor in pseudoscience persistence. Psychic surgery was a hot bit of crankery for a while but quickly died out. The demise may have been due in part to “tumors” being shown to be chicken guts, but may have been due to the unavailability of the procedure to most people. It takes money and effort to get on a plane to the Philippines for “surgery.” Pyramid power was easily accessible but also easily falsified. My razor blades stayed dull no matter how long under a pyramid. Ambiguity of result is possibly another factor supporting persistence (you will meet with success in the coming year , your interpretation of the Hanged Man is off).

As for revolution in our time? Sometimes being wrong is more fun than being right.

145

Alex 07.18.10 at 12:50 am

Why doesn’t QM have the same detractors as Relativity?

Probably because QM is weird enough already. It’s hard for any nuts to come up with crazier unrealities to the really existing reality.

I still take the risk of nuclear extinction seriously

I don’t think there has been any point in my lifetime when a leftwing revolution was even a remote possibility

I don’t think it’s logical to hold those two beliefs simultaneously. If you take the risk of nuclear armageddon seriously, then surely the potential for almostanything to happen should be respected?

146

Substance McGravitas 07.18.10 at 2:16 am

If you take the risk of nuclear armageddon seriously, then surely the potential for almostanything to happen should be respected?

Why?

147

Tim Wilkinson 07.18.10 at 2:11 pm

Substance MCGravitas @56: (“certain misbeliefs are obvious fads, like pyramid power or magnet therapy, while others enjoy multigenerational popularity. What separates the two?”) The potency of the conspiracy theories of their repression?

I’d say not. I get the impression that those are mostly concerned to explain rejection rather than repression, and are epiphenomenal, arising from defensive rebuttal of the meta-argument: ‘if this theory were any good the scientific ‘community’ would have accepted it’.

Not only that, but such ancillary conspiracy theories are often merely imputed. The ‘read-ahead’ appraoch provides a lazy shortcut to rebuttal: something like a closure principle gets you from ‘disagrees with received opinion’ to ‘must think the received opinion is corrupt’, which gets you to a conspiracy theory, and it’s case closed.

e.g.: noen (who will no doubt be deeply gratified to learn I otherwise agree with him/her) @88: “…Discovery Channel’s “Ancient Aliens.”” I saw that, god it was horrible. What really offends me about those kinds of conspiracy theories is… etc.

This kind of thing buys (or at least feeds) into the pernicious tendency to associate theories about ordinary corruption, covert ops etc. (i.e. politics carried on by pretty ordinary* means) not only with scapegoating propaganda and historical mythology, but also with unscientific and superstitious beliefs. I think such a tendency has serious consequences for the quality of public debate.

*In the colloquial Australian sense as well as the standard compositional one

148

Tim Wilkinson 07.18.10 at 2:41 pm

re: noen (who will no doubt be deeply gratified to learn I otherwise agree with him/her)

Except that bullshit normally does have a truth value.

149

bianca steele 07.18.10 at 9:07 pm

IIRC Harry Frankfurt’s point, to which noen was alluding, was that the statements of someone who BSes don’t have a truth value–because he doesn’t care.

150

Tim Wilkinson 07.18.10 at 9:55 pm

He does say (IIRC) that bullshit involves a lack of regard for the truth-value of one’s statements. But I don’t want to get into that, so I hereby retract whatever it was I said on the subject.

151

Anand Manikutty 08.02.10 at 12:41 am

> Except that bullshit normally does have a truth value.

It is important to be cognizant of the fact that some people may be compulsive liars.

So, actually, bullshit may not have a truth value. On the one hand, you could have a manager who says that their open source software is the best in the industry, is unbreakable and is the world’s best. On the other hand, you could have a manager who says he reports to the CEO, who says that it is company policy not to email people outside the group, or who says that he worked for various big-name software companies. Whereas the second category of bullshit does have a truth value, the first category does not.

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