Who among us would not go to the ends of the earth to save their children from a life-threatening illness?
I know I would, and I’d cling to every last vestige of hope, no matter how remote. Despite my usual insistence on rigorous thinking, I’d abandon logic, reason and rationality if I thought there was the slightest chance of finding a cure, even in the craziest of crazy quack medicine. I might even take up religion in my desperation, and all of that would be fully understandable, just as it is in so many parents whose children are facing exactly that predicament.
It would also make me a very unreliable witness.
That’s why, when Roger Daltrey claims that homeopathy saved his son, or a mother says she still believes in the Burzynski Clinic, I have every sympathy for them as a parent, while at the same time remembering that we are all prone to magic thinking, and none more so than a parent in terror of losing a child. When all hope is gone, that’s when people turn to religion, so maybe we should have a look at that and see what religion has in common with alternative medicine, but before doing that, perhaps we should examine how people conduct their normal lives.
If I suggested to you that I had a new treatment for back pain that involved facing Memphis Tennessee and singing the Armenian national anthem backwards, you’d probably have some doubt, even if your back was in agony. You’d want evidence.
Show me, you’d say.
Well, I’d tell you, the evidence is that I say it works.
That’s not evidence, you’d tell me. You made it up.
All right then, I’d say. What sort of evidence do you want?
Well, you might say. Who else has done it?
Nobody, I’d say. It’s a secret. But I have a good witness.
See him over there? That’s Ron. He’s got very bad lumbago, and he firmly believes I can fix him. So there!
Did you fix him yet?
Right. In that case, fix him now.
See what you’re asking there? You’re asking for evidence with reasonable enough questions, but guess what — those questions are science, pure and simple, or as our grandparents used to call it, common sense. Science is nothing more than applied common sense, and yet increasingly among the ignorati, I see it being used almost as a term of abuse. As if somebody who has devoted their life to clear thinking is somehow diminished by that effort, and inferior to someone who’s prepared to believe any old bullshit, provided there are some crystals involved.
Common sense was always sceptical: ask anyone who tried to persuade their mother they got home at a reasonable hour. And yet time and time again, I come across people who never studied anything in their lives denigrating science as if it was some sort of belief system, instead of what it really is: common sense.
They can snow all their clients by talking about science. Love it.
Religion is belief without question and so is pseudoscience. You accept what the priest or pseudopriest tells you, pay your money and be quiet. Religion requires you to suspend your disbelief, to set aside your natural scepticism and instead to accept whatever you’re told. Pseudoscience requires you to do the same. Both demand that you stop asking diffult questions and just accept that you believe whetever you’re being told.
This is where pseudoscience and religion overlap. Neither has any supporting evidence.
Science, as I keep saying, is nothing more than clear thinking written down. What has happened to our society when people who dedicate their lives to rational thought are somehow the suspects? Is it the rise of the Know-Nothings? The X-Factor generation? All life is evidence-based. All our actions are driven by statistics. That’s why you decide to risk your life crossing the road but might not be so keen to go sky-diving. You make a scientific assessment of the danger and act accordingly.
Scientific thinking is hard-wired into the nature of human beings and anyone who suggests otherwise is either lying or not capable of understanding that fact. Either way, I have no respect for people who dismiss an argument on the grounds that it’s scientific. They’re saying that because you thought it out carefully, it’s wrong. Nonsense.
Science is the habit of asking for evidence. It’s that simple. If you have the evidence, we’ll all agree with you. If you don’t, go away until you find it instead of trying to shout down the people who ask for it.
I suppose there’s nothing new about any of this. Throughout history, people have wished for the magic answer instead of the hard slog, but this intellectual laziness has reached a new low with alternative medicine., which seems like the ultimate contradiction in terms. If something works, it’s medicine. If it doesn’t work, it’s nothing.
How do we know the difference? Test it and see. Obviously.
Let me enter a caveat here: I don’t care how the medicine works. This is not a plea for the drug companies. If standing on one leg and singing the Armenian national anthem can be shown to work, I’m all for it, but I want to see the figures. If Ron got better after doing it, I want to see the figures for how many other guys got better spontaneously without singing the anthem. Then I can tell if the anthem made any difference.
What I don’t want to hear is Ron telling me that the Anthem treatment cured him. He doesn’t know, any more than he’d know if his knee got better after a trip to Lourdes. He’s the patient, not the researcher, and so, tragically, are the parents of sick children who can often fall victim to extravagant claims from less-then-ethical doctors.
Society at large has been conditioned to be suspicious of science, and I’d have to say that this is due to poor teaching in schools and compartmentalisation of subjects. It’s as if society had been taught to resist clear thinking. Pause. Light-bulb on! Is that why our country is in its current state? Maybe if we had a few scientists thinking their way through our fiscal crisis instead of an uneducated fool like Bertie Ahern, we might not find ourselves in our current predicament, but that’s a by-the-way.
More importantly, we need to ask ourselves why we have such an aversion to clear thinking and such an attachment to magic.
This is not healthy.