During the last two decades, I have had ample occasion to study the pseudo-arguments of charlatans when trying to defend the indefensible. Here I will try to disclose some of them in the hope that this might help others to identify charlatans more easily and to react accordingly.
Let’s say someone publishes a document showing evidence that homeopathy is a useless therapy. Naturally, this will annoy the many believers in homeopathy, and they will counter by attempting to make a range of points:
- THEY WILL STATE THAT THERE IS EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY. For instance, proponents of homeopathy can produce studies that seem to ‘prove’ homeopathy’s efficacy. The facts that these are flawed or irreproducible, and that the totality of the evidence is not positive does hardly ever bother them. Charlatans are born cherry-pickers.
- THEY WILL SUGGEST THAT THE EXISTING EVIDENCE HAS BEEN MIS-QUOTED. Often they will cite out of context from original studies one or two sentences which seem to indicate that they are correct. Any reminders that these quotes are meaningless fall on deaf ears.
- THEY WILL SAY THAT THE PUBLISHED EVIDENCE WAS MISINTERPRETED. Often the evidence is complex and can therefore be open to interpretation. Charlatans use this fact and spin the evidence such that it suits their needs. Charlatans are spin-doctors.
- THEY WILL SAY THAT SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE IS OVER-RULED BY CENTURIES OF EXPERIENCE. The notion that millions of satisfied customers cannot be wrong is used frequently to distract from negative evidence. The fact that such experience can be due to a host of non-specific effects, the natural history of the condition or regression to the mean will not convince the charlatan.
- THEY WILL SUGGEST THAT THE AUTHOR IS PAID BY BIG PHARMA TO TRASH HOMEOPATHY. Whenever seemingly reasonable arguments have been exhausted, overtly irrational notions or blatant lies will come into play. The allegation that anyone criticising homeopathy is corrupt is one of the most popular such notion. The truth does not have a high value in charlatanry.
- THEY WILL SAY THAT THE CRITIC HAS NO TRAINING IN HOMEOPATHY AND IS THUS NOT COMPETENT. Equally popular is the claim that only trained and experienced homeopaths are able to judge over homeopathy. This pseudo-argument is most handy: experienced homeopaths are invariably believers, and the notion essentially claims that only those who believe in it can judge homeopathy. In other words, criticism of homeopathy is by definition invalid.
- THEY WILL SAY THAT THE CRITIC HAS PREVIOUSLY BEEN CRITICISED FOR HIS POOR RESEARCH. Similarly, homeopaths might claim that the critic is someone who is being criticised for being a very bad scientist; therefore, it would be a mistake to trust anything he or she says. Ad hominem is the name of the game!
- THEY WILL TRY TO RIDICULE THE CRITIC. Readers of this blog will have noticed how some commentators belittle their opponents by giving them laughable nicknames thus undermining their authority. The obvious aim is to make them look less than credible. Charlatans are like little children.
- THEY WILL CLAIM THAT IN OTHER AREAS OF HEALTHCARE THE EVIDENCE IS ALSO NOT CONVINCING. The ‘tu quoque’ fallacy is popular for distracting from the embarrassingly negative evidence in quackery – never mind that problems in the aviation industry are no argument for using flying carpets.
- THEY WILL POINT OUT HOW SAFE HOMEOPATHY IS COMPARED TO OTHER DRUGS. This is another form of the ‘tu quoque’ fallacy; it works very well for distracting from the problems with homeopathy and regularly convinces lay people.
- THEY WILL SAY THAT MEDICAL RESEARCH IS GENERALLY SO FLAWED THAT IT CANNOT BE TRUSTED. The fact that some medical research is less than rigorous is used here to claim that evidence in general is unreliable. The best solution is therefore to go by experience – a big step into the dark ages, but charlatans don’t seem to mind.
- THEY WILL REVERSE THE BURDEN OF PROOF. Homeopathy (or any other alternative therapy) may not have been proven to be effective, they claim, but it has not been proven to be ineffective. Therefore, they say, we must give it the benefit of the doubt. The facts that a) science cannot prove a negative and that b) we therefore should use those treatments that are supported by positive evidence is being ignored by charlatans.
These 12 pseudo-arguments are in my experience the most common defences of charlatanry. I am sure there are others – and I would be delighted if you did elaborate on them in the comments section below. Thanks!