MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

We were all born stupid, but it requires continuously hard work to remain dumb. A SCAM-obsessed, belligerent twit – the type we regularly encounter in the comments section of this blog – is not born but evolves during years of agonisingly tough work. At least, this is my impression. Certain traits (e. g. lack of self-doubt, bloody-mindedness, arrogance, egoism) might help, but the rest is a development that must follow certain steps.

THE INITIATION

An event is needed to start it all off. Often this is a very personal experience such as an illness which is unsuccessfully diagnosed and treated by a series of ungifted physicians. Eventually, our man (less frequently woman) comes across one particular SCAM. He tries it and his aliment subsequently is much-improved. Understandably, he is impressed and, unable to think critically, becomes a proponent of this particular SCAM.

INITIAL ‘RESEARCH’

Next our man takes the (not entirely irrational) step of reading all he can find about his newly discovered SCAM. Not having a science background, he falls for the plethora of uncritical BS that pollute the Internet. The more he reads, the more confident he becomes that SCAM is quite simply wonderful. And the more he studies, the clearer he realises that the news about the wonders of SCAM is being suppressed by the pharma/establishment mafia which is keen to hide the knowledge about SCAM for fear of losing their profits, jobs and income.

LOATHING

Naturally this insight triggers increasing resentment. How dare they suppress the information that would save thousands from suffering? How do they manage to sleep at night knowing that they are viciously hindering progress? Our man started his SCAM-journey by being mildly critical of conventional medicine (which could of course be a good thing). Now this sentiment is fast turning into a deep loathing. He is unable to see a single good point about conventional healthcare and he is becoming convinced that all who are engaged in it are cynically out to harm their fellow human beings. Consequently, he is less and less able to engage in a meaningful discussion with anyone who is not of his opinion.

THE DECISION

Our man arrives at the point where he makes a conscious decision to reject any information that contradicts his by now ‘superior’ knowledge of health, medicine, science and SCAM. He has seen clearly that such information is false, biased or misleading. The people who call themselves experts are bought by Big Pharma and cannot be trusted. They control the medical press where they publish their evidence. Yet, our ignoramus knows that their evidence is false and their science is corrupt. Reliable evidence, our man decides, is defined as evidence supporting his views. People who disagree with him are his personal enemies.

ADVANCED ‘RESEARCH’

Instead of reading any of the many papers that contradict his thinking, our man decides to dig deeper and deeper into BS. He now conducts ‘in-depth research’ by concentrating purely on what his gurus have put on the internet and published in their books. Peer review is not necessary; in conventional science, it is merely a smokescreen to hide the corrupt machinations of the establishment. In other words, our man has firmly established his home on ‘mount stupid’ (see below) and has turned into the belligerent fool we sometimes encounter on this blog. His over-confidence prevents him from descending into the ‘valley of despair’.

THE FOCUS

What he needs now is a pair of blinkers which allows our simpleton to eliminate all the disturbing information from ‘the enemy’. He now focusses on all the material that confirms his opinions. Any facts that might contradict them are denounced as propaganda from the ‘status quo’ and thus ignored. Accepted knowledge from the areas of physiology, pathology, pharmacology, etc. is pushed aside as just another bit of fake news from the medical mafia. He is unable to move on by learning; all he does is confirm his prior belief though a semblance of research. At this stage, our dimwit considers himself now a leading expert in his SCAM. His near-total lack of understanding of related issues and fields has become irrelevant. His self-confidence is at its peak, while his knowledge stagnates.

THE MISSION

Our belligerent ignoramus is full of anger about the fact that his supreme expertise is not taken seriously outside the echo chamber of his SCAM. He thus decides to go on a mission and preach the gospel wherever he can find a platform. Others may politely caution him pointing out that he might have misunderstood many of the basic principles involved. He is, however, unperturbed and proud of the half-knowledge that he managed to acquire during the process he calls research. Confronted with the repeated rejection of his bizarre notions, he eventually gets aggressive and starts insulting those who fail to follow his delusions. His mission is preaching the gospel of SCAM and, for that purpose, all means are necessary and allowed.

Our cantankerous twit has developed a serious neurosis. Nothing can free him from his paranoid obsessions and conspiracy theories. One by one, his opponents realise the extent of his problems and abandon discussing with him. This merely confirms his prior belief that, on this blog, everyone is in the pocket of Big Pharma. Deeply disgusted he stops debating and looks for another forum where, at least for a while, he can display his profound ignorance.

10 Responses to The making of a SCAM-obsessed, cantankerous twit (the Dunning Kruger Effect in action)

  • The making of a SCAM-obsessed, cantankerous twit (the Dunning Kruger Effect in action)
    ======================================================

    We were all born stupid, but it requires continuously hard work to remain dumb. An obsessive, belligerent twit from the pseudo-skeptic community – the type we regularly encounter in the comments section of this blog – is not born but evolves during years of agonisingly tough work. At least, this is my impression. Certain traits (e. g. lack of self-doubt, bloody-mindedness, arrogance, egoism) might help, but the rest is a development that must follow certain steps.

    THE INITIATION

    An event is needed to start it all off, against a background of annoying people not accepting his obvious authority. Often this is a very personal experience such as a newspaper report of an illness which is unsuccessfully diagnosed and treated by a series of ungifted physicians. Eventually, our man (less frequently a woman, and almost always an atheist) comes across one particular SCAM (Successful Complementary Alternative Modality) cynically attacked on a ‘skeptical’ blog. He is completely fooled. Unable to think for himself, but drawn along and comforted by follow-my-leader thinking, he decides to becomes a vocal opponent of this particular CAM. A pseudo-skeptic troll, putting in his two-pennyworth whenever he is triggered by a key-word such as “homeopathy”, “chiropractic” or “acupuncture”.

    INITIAL ‘RESEARCH’

    Next our man takes the (not entirely irrational) step of reading all he can find about his newly discovered hobby on all the skeptic websites he can find. Not having a science background, he falls for the plethora of prejudiced BS that pollutes the Internet, but never actually studies the subject in question, only opinion pieces about it. The more he reads, the more confident he becomes that this his chosen target is quite simply bullshit. And the more he ‘studies’, the clearer he realises that he can do his bit by spreading the word that all CAM is dangerous BS with no research or record of success whatsoever – that it doesn’t work, can’t work, never will work – so you take the skeptic word for it, and never even consider trying it. After all, trying something just because it’s worked for others would make you some kind of fool.
    Instead his audience should rely entirely upon “safe and effective” Pharma ongoing treatments, even when told there is no conventional cure. (Just go away and die, why don’t you.) And any of those so-called side-effects you hear about (including not having a cure, and patients dying from said conventional treatment) are all in the mind. Damn fools.
    He discovers the “placebo effect” and experiences a breakthrough moment. Something so obviously a better explanation (for the cures that he denies ever happened), that there is no reason at all to go so far as actually proving it (or even understanding it). He is hooked.

    LOATHING

    Naturally this insight triggers increasing resentment. How dare ‘they’ suggest that anything is even comparable to conventional Pharma? How do they manage to sleep at night knowing that they are viciously hindering progress?
    Our man started his pseudo-Skeptic journey by being mildly critical of anything unconventional (since conventional is obviously always best, and he learned about it in school), but now this sentiment is fast turning into a deep pathological loathing. He is unable to see a single good point about unconventional healthcare and he is becoming convinced that all who are engaged in it are cynically out to harm their fellow human beings. Consequently, he is less and less able to engage in a meaningful discussion with anyone who is not of his opinion.

    THE DECISION

    Our man arrives at the point where he makes a conscious decision to reject any information that contradicts his by now ‘superior’ knowledge of health, medicine, science and CAM. He re-names it SCAM. He has seen clearly that such information is false, biased and misleading.
    He knows the true experts are all working with Pharma and are the only ones to be trusted. Often he reads somewhere that there has never been any research, ever, about his target CAM and that no positive results have ever been published. Just once in a while he actually follows a link but is unable to interpret a scientific paper, so relies instead on a skeptical blog report about it. Our ignoramus just knows that their positive evidence is false and their science is corrupt. Reliable evidence, our man decides, is defined as evidence supporting his views. People who disagree with him are his personal enemies.

    ADVANCED ‘RESEARCH’

    Instead of reading any of the many papers that contradict his thinking, our man decides to dig deeper and deeper into BS on skeptic websites. He now conducts ‘in-depth research’ by concentrating purely on what his gurus have put on the internet and published in their books.
    Peer review is not necessary; in conventional science, it is merely a smokescreen to hide the corrupt machinations of the establishment. He knows that journals are utterly reliable, former editors have said so. It is all about the supremacy of Science as given to us by Authorities. In other words, our man has firmly established his home on ‘mount stupid’ (see below) and has turned into the belligerent fool we sometimes encounter on this blog. His over-confidence prevents him from descending into the ‘valley of despair’.

    THE FOCUS

    What he needs now is a pair of blinkers which allows our simpleton to eliminate all the disturbing information from ‘the enemy’. He now focuses on all the material that confirms his opinions. Any facts that might contradict them are denounced as marketing material or insane ramblings, and thus ignored. In recognition of the Scientific Method (everything without an acceptable RCT evidence base is false), any challenge to Established Knowledge or potential advance from the areas of physiology, pathology, pharmacology, etc. is pushed aside as just another bit of fake news from ‘alternative’ idiots
    He is unable to move on by learning; all he does is confirm his prior belief though a semblance of research, almost all second-hand. At this stage, our dimwit considers himself now a leading expert in his target CAM. His near-total lack of understanding of related issues and fields has become irrelevant. His self-confidence is at its peak, while his knowledge stagnates.

    THE MISSION

    Our belligerent ignoramus is full of anger about the fact that his supreme expertise is not taken seriously outside the echo chamber of his pseudo-skeptic buddies, and that ordinary patients have the temerity to choose for themselves. He thus decides to go on a mission and preach the gospel wherever he can find a platform. Others may politely caution him pointing out that he might have misunderstood many of the basic principles involved. He is, however, unperturbed and proud of the half-knowledge that he managed to acquire during the process he calls research. Confronted with the repeated rejection of his bizarre notions, he eventually gets aggressive and starts insulting those who fail to follow his delusions. He relies on ad-hominems where he is losing the argument. He changes the goal-posts. He relies upon distraction. Above all, he follows the prime pseudo-skeptic fallacy that lack of evidence means lack of effect. His mission is preaching the gospel of Skepticism (as re-defined by Shermer, Randi et al.) and, for that purpose, all means are necessary and allowed.

    Our cantankerous twit has developed a serious neurosis. Nothing can free him from his paranoid obsessions and conspiracy theories. One by one, his opponents realise the extent of his problems and would like to abandon discussions with him, because he has turned into an online playground bully. But some realise the dangers of his continued propaganda establishing itself as accepted thinking, so feel they must engage, even though they despair of the possibility of his developing insight. This merely confirms his prior belief that, on this blog, everyone else is totally deluded and only he and fellow Skeptics are the cleverest of the population. Deeply disgusted he stops debating, starts his own blog and gains a like-minded following. A blog where, at least for a while, he can display his profound ignorance of inherent methodological bias and act as a beacon for the similarly afflicted.

    He may be reading now. And just about to comment.

    • Well done, Will. You demonstrate the Professor’s example perfectly with your unerring ability to grasp the wrong end of the stick and wave it around triumphantly. Much as I hate to puncture your over-inflated ego with nasty, inconvenient things like, ooh, you know, facts, one little bit of your laughable parody stands out:

      Next our man takes the (not entirely irrational) step of reading all he can find about his newly discovered hobby on all the skeptic websites he can find. Not having a science background, he falls for the plethora of prejudiced BS that pollutes the Internet..

      “Not having a science background..”???

      Will. Having a science background is EXACTLY what draws people to question the claims made by the liars, fools and charlatans in SCAM-land. Look at the people who post on this blog. Most are educated to degree level in science and medicine.

      You, as ever with SCAM freaks, take delight in making foolish, unevidenced claims and believe that “truth”=”I said it”.

      We in SBM patiently deconstruct your nonsense.

      But, as ever, you do not listen and will not learn. Science listens to valid criticism and corrects itself. SCAM does not.

      Run along, little boy, and take your feeble attempts at wit elsewhere.

      • @Lenny

        “Most are educated to degree level in science and medicine.”

        Lenny, indoctrination does not equal education.

        • I am always amused when people criticise science and the scientific method via their smartphone. A device which was devised by and functions via the the very ideals they disparage.

          Presumably RG has been educated to a high level in the sciences and found the concepts taught to be fundamentally flawed? Or is it that nasty science keeps showing RG’s position to be wrong, so science must be wrong because RG is always right?

  • A favourite quote:
    “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
    Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

  • This is an interesting treatise on the aetiology of SCAM belief. Some random thoughts and remarks:

    What he needs now is a pair of blinkers which allows our simpleton to eliminate all the disturbing information from ‘the enemy’

    Psychology recognizes this development as cognitive dissonance, and ignoring or denying all offending information is the most common way to deal with it.
    In circles of ex-creationists, the term Morton’s Demon was coined to describe this fascinating mental phenomenon, analogous to Maxwell’s Demon (a clever physics thought experiment that seemingly defied the second law of thermodynamics).

    You also describe traits like arrogance as minor contributing factors. I beg to differ, and think that these traits are more important than that. In the case of alternative practitioners, they are paramount – one could say that they are essential job requirements. Arrogance, delusions of grandeur and neglect of critical thinking skills are absolutely necessary to function as a homeopath. After all, a humble, sensible homeopath would have to admit that the principles of this type of alternative ‘medicine’ are not only unlikely from the onset, but that they fly in the face of everyday common sense. Lemonade doesn’t taste better the more it is diluted, hunger isn’t satisfied by sitting behind an empty plate. And why would evolution equip us with this immensely complex biochemical system of proteins, enzymes and not to forget the immune system to keep us healthy and functioning, when some shaken water could achieve the exact same thing? And the idea that one can identify effective medicines without involvement of any patients or disease is nothing but ludicrous.
    So in defence of their own sanity (FWIW), alternative practitioners keep their nose high up in the air, and simply proclaim to be Right, period.
    Note that this arrogance and hubris only shows when their authority as a healer and health expert is challenged(*). To other believers, and in particular towards patients, they keep up the appearance of a very likeable, attentive and patient person – which is another job requirement, as homeopaths in particular by definition listen to people’s life stories by way of ‘patient history’, in order to obtain as many ‘symptoms’ as possible.

    *: As I have personally experienced close-up; here’s the story:
    Some years ago, I noticed that homeopaths increasingly promoted ‘homeopathic prophylaxis’ (i.e. some sugar crumbs as a substitute for real vaccination) on their Web sites. This was accompanied by all the (alas very familiar) myths, lies and slander about real vaccination, clearly aimed at instilling FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) about regular vaccination into insecure parents of very young children, and by all sorts of homeopathic treatments for ‘vaccine injury’.

    I decided to try and do something about this – as this was obviously threatening the health of our most vulnerable citizens, i.e. children. To my surprise and horror, the Dutch Health Inspectorate and other official authorities said that they could do nothing about it (mostly as a result of a legal hiatus that I won’t go into right now). The only organization that would accept my complaints was the Dutch Consumer Advertising Council (Reclame Code Commissie or RCC) – and they not only accepted my complaints against several individual homeopaths, they also ruled in my favour in all cases. However, one prominent Dutch homeopath made use of the opportunity to defend himself in front of the actual council, with me present as well. Unfortunately, I have no recordings of this event, but oh boy, an event it was. The man could barely contain himself from the moment he laid eyes on me, and the atmosphere was like one of those epic thunderstorms looming. Once in front of the council, he delivered a monologue rant, taking almost all the time allotted to our case, trembling with fury and indignation. How dare I, a mere electronics tinkerer, challenge his knowledge and authority with regard to sickness and health? How dare the Advertising Council judge his expertise? After all, they were just lawyers who knew a thing or two about marketing and advertising, but nothing about the exalted art of healing. After this run-up, he launched into a Gish Gallop of all the usual fallacious ‘reasons’ why homeopathy was absolutely efficacious (argumentum ad populum, observer bias, correlation = causality etc.), how regular doctors ‘only treated symptoms’ and refused to take homeopathy seriously (of course complete with Big Pharma conspiracy arguments), and why he and other homeopaths should be allowed to claim what they did, as they knew best how to ‘treat people, not disease’.
    After some 40 minutes he was finished – and during that time, I was very glad of the one empty chair between us, or he might have lashed out at me physically; I could literally feel his anger and tension – and to my shame I must admit that I enjoyed it immensely; it was all I could do not to sit there with a huge grin on my face.
    In the remaining few minutes, I was given a chance to present any arguments of my own that I might feel important. I merely referred to the dozens of pages of arguments and scientific evidence that I already contributed to the case in the preceding months, and said that this basically negated anything and everything that was just said. No lengthy arguments, no emotions, and I didn’t even refer to the homeopath personally – in fact, I acted as if he wasn’t there at all. I imagined that the man must have almost exploded with anger … After the proceedings, we left the room, and it seemed like a very good idea to wait inside until the homeopath had left the building first …
    I have never seen him since, but the last time I looked, his Web site still bore the ‘scars’ of all this (“We are not allowed to tell you … forced to present this disclaimer … by an unscientific person who knows nothing about homeopathy …”)
    I still look it up once in a while, whenever I’m in need of a smile, and need to remember what these SCAMmers are really like.

    • Just as a follow-up to Richard’s excellent post, for those interested in the concept of cognitive dissonance, a very readable introduction is: Tavris, C., & Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me): why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts (1st ed). Orlando, Fla: Harcourt.

      • It should be noted that cognitive dissonance, Dunning-Kruger effect, and confirmation bias are by no means limited to alternative medicine practitioners.
        And the effects of indoctrination and cognitive ease, as employed in propaganda campaigns, are by no means negligible.

        Meanwhile I feel my take on Edzard’s earlier thesis has been amply demonstrated, with the inclusion of the usual spurious factoids, straw man attacks, ad-hominems, misunderstanding of science (it isn’t the exercise of authority, you should know) and pseudo-skeptic imagined superiority.

        But then, I would, wouldn’t I?

        Bless.

        • “amply demonstrated”
          QED

        • Sure, scientists are also humans, so they also have a strong built-in tendency to simply believe what they see, to think that they are smarter than they are, and sometimes even to fudge and forge data in order to gain respect and recognition, to name just a few adverse traits.

          There is, however, a big difference between science and alternative belief systems such as homeopathy. Science has developed a set of procedures called ‘the scientific method’, which is explicitly geared towards eliminating all those human traits that muddy observations and understanding of the world around us.
          No, the development of the scientific method has not been an easy process, because aforementioned human traits are VERY hard to weed out of human thinking and human observation – not to mention the fact that quite a few people actively oppose the process, preferring to live in a sort of fantasy world of their own making. And yes, it is still very much a process in development. In my opinion, we’re only beginning to get things right in the past five decades at most, with still a lot of problems to be solved (e.g. the many negative effects of publication pressure and competition among scientists).
          But this does NOT mean that science can be dismissed as ‘indoctrination’ or ‘just a belief’, and neither does this mean that human behaviour of individual scientists somehow invalidates science.

          Science is BY FAR the best way we have to understand (and increasingly control) our world. The mere fact that you can reliably spread your opinion – no matter how insignificant – ACROSS THE ENTIRE WORLD in mere seconds is already very compelling evidence for this, not to mention the huge progress we made in our understanding of ourselves as living creatures.
          If, however, around 1800 we would have chosen to listen to homeopaths(*) instead of proto-scientists of that day, our world would be vastly different. Medicine would effectively have stopped developing, and we would still take things for granted that we can hardly imagine today, e.g. that one in every four or five newborns would not live to adulthood, and that a simple scratch today could have you end up six foot under in a fortnight, to name just a few.

          And yes, this also means that today’s homeopaths (and most other alternative practitioners) are deluded fools, who stubbornly cling to a belief system that was already proven wrong almost 200 years ago. Quite often, they even believe that they know better than real medical science, which makes them not only arrogant fools, but unfortunately also rather convincing to other people – because it is also a very human trait to start believing someone who himself fervently believes in something (although there are some other contributing factors as well, such as the false promise of painless and harmless cures).

          Dr. Ernst’s treatise may have some strong wording (hey, it’s his personal(!) blog, not a scientific paper), but he is basically right in describing how people come to believe all sorts of silly things that fly in the face of common sense and even superficial observations – not only homeopathy, but also creationism, conspiracy theories, and flat-earthism, to name just a few.
          And the funny thing is that you exhibit a very human trait as well: instead of simply contributing evidence that there is nothing wrong with homeopathy/alternative treatments, and thereby proving Dr. Ernst wrong, you instead try dragging him down to the level of aforementioned deluded fools by accusing him of all the same traits that make these fools believe what they do … And yes, this has a name: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tu_quoque

          *: This idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. At first, homeopathy actually appeared to achieve far better results than contemporary regular medicine (e.g. in the ‘treatment’ of cholera), which led to a huge rise in the popularity of homeopathy. Only in the course of subsequent years, it was discovered that homeopathy’s success was not founded on its own efficaciousness, but on the generally poor outcome of regular medicine – medical interventions of that time very often did more harm than good. Homeopathy boiled down to simply doing nothing (but with elaborate placebo rituals and ‘medicine’) – and only now do we know that ‘doing nothing’ is the best approach in the majority of (minor) ailments. But regular medicine has made tremendous progress since then, whereas homeopathy is still completely stuck in its original 200-year-old magical belief.

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