By guest blogger João Júlio Cerqueira
A word of caution to all the skeptics out there defending Reason, Science, and the Truth. This is a summary of a long story and only about one of many battles. It is not a very beautiful story but it is what it is. I’m a medical doctor, influenced by some of the great minds of our time, all of them familiar to you, Edzard Ernst, Steven Novella, David Gorski, Harriet Hall, Kimball Atwood and so much more (thank you all, for everything that you do).
I started reading skeptic blogs in 2013 and was amazed by the lack of critical thinking about science production and the lack of knowledge about pseudoscience in the medical community. And if this was bad in the medical community, in the general population it should be close to apocalyptic…
In 2017, I was confronted by a medical doctor that imported the great pitches of international charlatans. From alkaline diet, bioidentical hormones, colonic cleansings all through the “health benefits” of drinking diluted saltwater…yes, this is a real thing. He was transformed into a television celebrity, wrote one of the bestselling books in my country, and only a few people were horrified by what was happening. How? How can someone that says that kind of stuff could have this kind of reach in the media? He even sold foot detox!
So, frustrated by the lack of action of the regulatory institutions and the lack of critical approach by the media, I decided to create a blog that I called SCIMED. Using what I had learned through the years with “the masters of skepticism”, I tried to teach and convince people why pseudoscience is useless and dangerous. Why those selling pseudoscience are a danger to society and are only after the wallet of scientifically illiterate people.
Thanks to hard work and a lot of luck, the blog started to have a decent public projection. Started to get invitations to interviews in the media, invited to speak at conferences, started to write in the opinion section of mainstream journals, appearing on television, invited to do a TEDx talk, was invited to be one of the subscribers to the first world manifesto against pseudoscience and even had the pleasure to be a speaker in a conference side by side with Edzard Ernst, one of my heroes!
It was like something was changing. Well, it was not.
With public projection, came the problems…people calling my employers to get me fired, physical and death threats, constant harassment by email or in social media, doxing, and false accusations about my personal and professional life. You name it. And I endured…I considered it the dark side of defending Science and Truth.
In April of 2019, I was invited to represent my country´s Medical College in a debate about pseudoscience on television, prime time. I was very excited and emotion clouded my reason. I didn´t think about the consequences. And well, it was a shitshow.
The audience was dominated by alternative health practitioners. The moderator was sympathetic with alternative health practices. And of course, the people representing the alternative health practitioners didn’t play by the same rules. They used deception, lying, testimonials, and all the logical fallacies you can think of.
But what really took me over the hedge was a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner with connections to the Chinese Government, a constant presence in the mainstream media, that started to sell “acupuncture anesthesia” as something valid. Talking about how he, more than 20 years ago, used this practice to help perform surgical procedures. For me, that was a disrespect for all the people that suffered at the hands of Mao´s Chinese dictatorship. All the people that suffered excruciating pain, being operated on without general anesthesia only to sell East Snake Oil to the West. The “miracle” of acupuncture and Eastern medicine. The propaganda.
We exchanged words in the debate and that continued into social media. In the days after, I was called everything you can imagine by the defenders of alternative therapies. And this man took the opportunity to write that I was “short, ugly and bald” and that I have an “inferiority complex” because of that. That I´m a lousy doctor that cannot compete with his clinics. That only a masochist woman would want something with me.
But I endured. I could not stop feeling disgusted by the lack of shame of these people. I could not let go. Like Gaad Sad, I feel physical pain when someone is bullshitting. It makes me physically sick that people can say outrageous things with a serious face.
So, I wrote a blog post to explain the myth and the horror of acupuncture anesthesia and to dismantle other claims said by that man, like “all babies born with fire in the
liver…if you treat that problem, you can prevent infertility and cancer metastasis in the future!”. Preventing metastasis of a non-existing cancer… And I used a lot of adjectives: dumb, ignorant, charlatan, and snake oil salesman.
In November of 2019, this man goes to a wannabe Joe Rogan show and tells all sort of outrageous things like “Chinese people are so many because Traditional Chinese Medicine was very advanced for those days” or “until recently Traditional Chinese Medicine was more effective treating cancer than Conventional Medicine” or “Homeopathy works but they don´t want you to know…see this Documentary”. Again, I used sarcasm, irony, and a lot of adjectives.
And then, legal problems…
Soon after I wrote this last blog post, I received a letter from the court saying that I was being sued by this man. I hired a lawyer and made a lengthy response to all the accusations, more than 100 pages. Nevertheless, I have been charged with seventeen defamation crimes, awaiting trial, for defending the truth. For defending the people that Institutions refused to defend.
My country, Portugal, legally recognizes “Non-Conventional Therapies” like Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Osteopathy, Chiropractic, and Naturopathy. My country, instead of defending the consumer, took the option to give these people the legal right of robbing people. I thought that the COVID-19 pandemic would change that a little bit since pseudoscience contributed zero for solving the problem, alternative practitioners embraced negationism about COVID-19, and Traditional Chinese Medicine was put in the corner. It was Science that came to the rescue with vaccines.
But now, when the pandemic is finally getting managed in my country, the snakes are starting to come out of hibernation to sell snake oil. And the media are giving them credit, again, like nothing has happened…nothing has changed, except for me.
Right now, I face four legal battles, for defamation. Besides this man, I have another lawsuit from a Nurse that promotes Reiki and Traditional Chinese Medicine, other from a Naturopath/Quantum Doctor and, lastly, from a Medical Doctor that was the head of the “Doctors For the Truth”, an organization part of an international network of Health Professionals that still denies the science about COVID-19.
So, this is my prize for all the hours battling liars and charlatans. The regulatory institutions don´t care. The mainstream media and Social Media don´t care. They are like brokers. They always win no matter if the stock market goes up or down. They will use you just to fuel the battle between science and pseudoscience and make money out of it. Why do you think the “Disinformation Dozen” still exists, besides some gestures of goodwill by the Social Media giants?
What I learned and you should learn…
I learned that it is pointless trying to convince people to change their minds on social media… People don´t follow reason, follow emotion, and something closer to religious belief. People want to be right, don´t want to learn what is right. Facts don´t change the minds of believers.
I learned that “True Skeptics” are unicorns. Everyone is a rational, skeptical person that values truth, reason, and science until you hit some nerve, some irrational belief that they hold dear. And then the “skepticism” goes down the drain. The more topics you talk about, the lonely you will be. And then you became a unicorn or, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell in the book “Talking to Strangers”, a Holy Fool: the truth-teller that is an outcast.
The COVID-19 pandemic just made things a lot worse…People started to getting hit by the pandemic in their quality of life and you start seeing hardcore skeptics doubting the most basic science and common sense. You even see some of your personal heroes like John Ioannidis going down the rabbit hole. Making the same basic mistakes that he spent his life point out about science production!
You start to see the animal inside us taking ground, what William James argued: if something improves your chances of survival, is not that the “truth”? The pragmatic, utilitarian truth? We saw irrationality in all its splendor, people negating reality, trying to conserve their way of life, making sense of events they don´t control. Fighting for control. Reason went to sleep and a lot of skeptics ceased to be…
So, I came to ask for your help… After two years of enduring the Sword of Damocles over my head, the energy to continue is running out. The SLAPP (Strategic lawsuit against public participation) they call it, is making a dent in my will to continue to fight against irrationality and charlatans.
So, I came to ask for your help, the International Skeptic community, for covering the legal expenses. I already asked for the support of my country’s skeptical community but it was not enough…only after two years of this marathon probably will take another two, I took this decision. I´m not proud of this, I´m angry that these people, besides robbing the sick and fragile giving them false hope are now making those who fight them spend money and probably pay “compensation” for not be silent about charlatanism. You can support me through Paypal or Patreon. Thank you in advance and I will keep you up-to-date.
You can donate to PayPal:
On 20 February 2021, I published on my blog a comment on a new study of an Ayurvedic remedy for COVID-19. The study was in my view suspect, and I expressed this as follows:
I have the following concerns or questions about this trial:
- Why do the authors call it a pilot study? A pilot study is merely for testing the feasibility of a trial design and is not meant to yield definitive efficacy results.
- The authors state that the patients were asymptomatic yet in the discussion they claim they were asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic.
- Some of the effect sizes reported here are extraordinary and seem almost too good to be true.
- The claim of no adverse effect is implausible; even placebos would cause perceived adverse effects in a percentage of patients.
- If the study is solid and withstands the scrutiny of the raw data, it is of huge relevance for public health. So, why did the authors publish it in PHYTOMEDICINE, a relatively minor and little-known journal?
An article in The Economic Times’ reported this:
Patanjali Ayurved released what it called the first “evidence-based” medicine for Covid-19 on Friday. It claimed it has been “recognised by the WHO (World Health Organization) as an ayurvedic medicine for corona”. Patanjali promoter, yoga guru Baba Ramdev, released a scientific research paper in this regard at the launch, presided over by Union health minister Harsh Vardhan and transport minister Nitin Gadkari. The Ayurveda products maker said it has received a certification from the Ayush ministry. “Coronil has received the Certificate of Pharmaceutical Product (CoPP) from the Ayush section of Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) as per the WHO certification scheme,” it said in a statement. Under the CoPP, Coronil can be exported to 158 countries, the company said, adding that based on the presented data, the ministry has recognised Coronil as medicine for “supporting measure in Covid-19”.
Am I the only one who fears that something is not entirely kosher about the study? (This is an honest question, and I would be pleased to receive answers from my readers)
What happened next is most puzzling. After putting it on Facebook several times, I got banned for 72 hours from posting this article or anything else on Facebook. When this period had elapsed, I put the article in question again on Facebook. Subsequently, I was banned again but this time for 7 days. Facebook gave the following explanation:
You can’t post or comment for 7 days
This is because your previous posts didn’t follow our Community Standards.
No one else can see these posts.
Your post goes against our Community Standards on misinformation that could cause physical harm
We usually offer the chance to request a review, and follow up if we’ve gotten decisions wrong.
We have fewer reviewers available at the moment because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. We’re trying hard to prioritise reviewing content with the most potential for harm.
This means that we may not be able to follow up with you, though your feedback helps us do better in the future.
Thank you for understanding.
On Twitter, the hype had begun even before its text was available. Priti Gandhi, for instance, tweeted:
Yet another feather in India’s cap!! 1st evidence-based, CoPP-WHO GMP certified medicine for Covid-19 released today. Congratulations to @yogrishiramdev ji, @Ach_Balkrishna ji & the team of scie…
As I did not feel I had broken any rules, I protested against the bans each time. When the 2nd ban was over, I posted my article yet again and, sure enough, yesterday I got banned again, this time for 30 days. Here is how they let me know:
You can’t post or comment for 30 days
This is because you previously posted something that didn’t follow our Community Standards.
This post goes against our standards on misinformation that could cause physical harm, so only you can see it.
Learn more about updates to our standards. On Twitter, the hype had begun even before its text was available. Priti Gandhi, for instance, tweeted: Yet another feather in India’s cap!! 1st evidence-based, CoPP-WHO GMP certified medicine for Covid-19 released today. Congratulations to @yogrishiramdev ji, @Ach_Balkrishna ji & the team of scie…
As the reason for the ban always seems to be the Ayurvedic study, I suspect that some party interested in the product is behind the complaints that lead to the bans. I find it extraordinary that I can be banned repeatedly without having done anything wrong and without my objections ever being considered.
Governments and key institutions have had to implement decisive responses to the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Imposed change will increase the likelihood that alternative explanations take hold. In a proportion of the general population there may be strong scepticism, fear of being misled, and false conspiracy theories.
The objectives of this survey were to estimate the prevalence of conspiracy thinking about the pandemic and test associations with reduced adherence to government guidelines. The survey was conducted in May 2020 as a non-probability online survey with 2501 adults in England, quota sampled to match the population for age, gender, income, and region.
Approximately 50% of this population showed little evidence of conspiracy thinking, 25% showed a degree of endorsement, 15% showed a consistent pattern of endorsement, and 10% had very high levels of endorsement. Higher levels of coronavirus conspiracy thinking were associated with less adherence to all government guidelines and less willingness to take diagnostic or antibody tests or to be vaccinated. Such ideas were also associated with
- general vaccination conspiracy beliefs,
- climate change conspiracy belief,
- a conspiracy mentality, and distrust in institutions and professions.
Holding coronavirus conspiracy beliefs was also associated with being more likely to share opinions.
The authors concluded that, in England, there is appreciable endorsement of conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus. Such ideas do not appear confined to the fringes. The conspiracy beliefs connect to other forms of mistrust and are associated with less compliance with government guidelines and greater unwillingness to take up future tests and treatment.
The authors also state that the coronavirus conspiracy ideas ascribe malevolent intent to individuals, groups, and organisations based on what are likely to be long-standing prejudices. For instance, almost half of participants endorsed to some degree the idea that ‘Coronavirus is a bioweapon developed by China to destroy the West’ and around one-fifth endorsed to some degree that ‘Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain’.
The survey did not include questions about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). This is a great shame, in my view. We know from previous research that people who adhere to conspiracy theories feel strongly that SCAM is being suppressed via some sinister complot by the establishment. Moreover, we know that SCAM enthusiasts tend to believe in vaccination conspiracy theories. One might therefore expect that proponents of SCAM are also prone to conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus.
When reading some of the comments on this blog, I have little doubt that this is, in fact, the case.
The spread of misinformation has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, including topics such as immune boosting to prevent COVID-19. This study explores how immune boosting is portrayed on the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers compiled a dataset of 227 webpages from Google searches in Canada and the USA using the phrase ‘boost immunity’ AND ‘coronavirus’ on 1 April 2020. They coded webpages for typology and portrayal of immune boosting and supplements. They recorded mentions of microbiome, whether the webpage was selling or advertising an immune boosting product or service, and suggested strategies for boosting immunity.
No significant differences were found between webpages that appeared in the searches in Canada and the USA. The most common types of webpages were from:
- news (40.5%),
- commercial (24.7%) websites.
The concept of immune boosting was portrayed as beneficial for avoiding COVID-19 in 85.5% of webpages and supplements were portrayed as beneficial in 40% of the webpages, but commercial sites were more likely to have these portrayals. The top immune boosting strategies were:
- vitamin C (34.8%),
- diet (34.4%),
- sleep (34.4%),
- exercise (30.8%),
- zinc (26.9%).
Less than 10% of the webpages provide any critique of the concept of immune boosting.
The authors concluded that pairing evidence-based advice for maintaining one’s health (eg, healthy diet, exercise, sleep) with the phrase immune boosting and strategies lacking in evidence may inadvertently help to legitimise the concept, making it a powerful marketing tool. Results demonstrate how the spread of misinformation is complex and often more subtle than blatant fraudulent claims.
The authors did not search for evidence to check whether any of the named interventions have any influence on the immune system. As reported previously, this review did just that. Its authors aimed to evaluate evidence from clinical trials that studied nutrition-based interventions for viral diseases (with special emphasis on respiratory infections). Studies were considered eligible if they were controlled trials in humans, measuring immunological parameters, on viral and respiratory infections. Clinical trials on vitamins, minerals, nutraceuticals and probiotics were included.
A total 43 studies met the inclusion criteria:
- vitamins: 13;
- minerals: 8;
- nutraceuticals: 18
- probiotics: 4
Among vitamins, A and D showed a potential benefit, especially in deficient populations. Among trace elements, selenium and zinc have also shown favourable immune-modulatory effects in viral respiratory infections. Several nutraceuticals and probiotics may also have some role in enhancing immune functions. Micronutrients may be beneficial in nutritionally depleted elderly population.
There were 15 studies with a high score for methodological quality. Here is what their results showed:
- No significant difference in incidence of winter-time upper respiratory tract infection in children with high versus low dose vitamin D.
- Significantly less acute respiratory infections in elderly individuals with vitamin D versus placebo.
- Higher TGFbeta plasma level in response to influenza vaccination but no improved antibody response in elderly, vitamin D-deficient individuals with vitamin D versus placebo.
- No effect on lower respiratory tract infections; however, a protective effect was noted on upper respiratory tract infections in elderly individuals with vitamin E versus placebo.
- Neither daily multivitamin + mineral supplementation at physiological dose nor 200 mg of vitamin E showed a favourable effect on incidence and severity of acute respiratory tract infections in well-nourished, non- institutionalized elderly individuals.
- Better improvement in the clinical status, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation in children suffering from pneumonia with zinc sulphate versus placebo.
- Selenium-yeast increased Tctx-antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity cell counts in blood before flu vaccination + dose-dependent increase in T cell proliferation, IL-8 and IL-10 secretion after in vivo flu challenge in healthy volunteers.
- Frequency and duration of acute respiratory infections during the first two months was unaffected in healthy elderly with ginseng versus placebo.
- Broccoli sprout homogenate favourably affected immunological variables in healthy volunteers.
- The incidence of illness was not reduced, however significantly fewer symptoms were reported and the proliferation index of gd-T cells in culture was almost five times higher after 10 weeks of cranberry polyphenol supplements versus placebo.
- Higher antibody titres against all 3 strains contained in the seasonal influenza virus vaccine than the placebo in healthy elderly individuals with a sea-weed extract versus placebo.
- Non-inferiority was demonstrated for Echinacea compared to oseltamivir in early treatment of clinically diagnosed and virologically confirmed influenza virus infections.
- Significant reduction of cold duration and severity in air travellers with elderberry supplement versus placebo.
- Increased NK cell activity with probiotics versus placebo in tube-fed elderly patients.
- Titres against the influenza B strain increased significantly more with probiotics compared to placebo in healthy elderly individuals.
A study from the US found that belief in conspiracy theories is rife in health care. The investigators presented people with 6 different conspiracy theories, and the one that was most widely believed was the following:
THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION IS DELIBERATELY PREVENTING THE PUBLIC FROM GETTING NATURAL CURES FOR CANCER AND OTHER DISEASES BECAUSE OF PRESSURE FROM DRUG COMPANIES.
A total of 37% agreed with this statement, 31% had no opinion on the matter, and just 32% disagreed. What is more, the belief in this particular conspiracy correlated positively with the usage of alternative medicine.
The current popularity of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is at least partly driven by the conviction that there is a sinister plot by the FDA or more generally speaking ‘the establishment’ that prevents people from benefitting from the wonders of SCAM.
But where do those conspiracy theories come from?
How do they evolve?
A new article investigates these questions. Here is its abstract:
Although conspiracy theories are endorsed by about half the population and occasionally turn out to be true, they are more typically false beliefs that, by definition, have a paranoid theme. Consequently, psychological research to date has focused on determining whether there are traits that account for belief in conspiracy theories (BCT) within a deficit model. Alternatively, a two-component, socio-epistemic model of BCT is proposed that seeks to account for the ubiquity of conspiracy theories, their variance along a continuum, and the inconsistency of research findings likening them to psychopathology. Within this model, epistemic mistrust is the core component underlying conspiracist ideation that manifests as the rejection of authoritative information, focuses the specificity of conspiracy theory beliefs, and can sometimes be understood as a sociocultural response to breaches of trust, inequities of power, and existing racial prejudices. Once voices of authority are negated due to mistrust, the resulting epistemic vacuum can send individuals “down the rabbit hole” looking for answers where they are vulnerable to the biased processing of information and misinformation within an increasingly “post-truth” world. The two-component, socio-epistemic model of BCT argues for mitigation strategies that address both mistrust and misinformation processing, with interventions for individuals, institutions of authority, and society as a whole.
This makes a lot of sense to me, and it seems to apply well to the BCT in SCAM.
To mitigate BCT, the authors advocate asking:
- Who do you trust or mistrust and why?
- How do you decide what to believe?
Effective mitigation strategies, they state, may necessitate wholescale approaches that:
- confer resistance against BCT by utilizing inoculation strategies that counter misinformation where it occurs (e.g. online),
- teach analytic thinking within educational systems at an early age,
- restructure or otherwise impose restrictions on the digital architectures that distribute information in order to label or curb misinformation and promote “technocognition”.
These are no small challenges, and I am proud to say that, in the realm of SCAM, I am doing what I can to tackle them.
Recently, I have received this message via the comments section of my blog:
“you’re actually an evil old nut-job Ed—been following your pharma ‘science’ bullshit for years—all opinion and ignorance and anti-science”
Don’t get me wrong, such attacks do not bother me – not any more. On the contrary, they amuse me. At one stage, I even started collecting them. Nowadays, I usually ignore them.
But this one is somewhat special. Therefore, I decided to analyse it a bit. The author essentially makes 9 claims:
- I am evil.
- I am old.
- I am a nut-job.
- I am called Ed.
- I conduct pharma science.
- I publish bullshit.
- All I state is opinion.
- I am ignorant.
- I am anti-science.
Yes, that’s quite a list. Let me try to tackle it one by one.
- Am I evil? I have had many ad hominem attacks before but, as far as I remember, nobody has yet alleged that I am evil. I looked it up, evil means: wicked · bad · wrong · morally wrong · wrongful · immoral · sinful · ungodly · unholy · foul · vile · base · ignoble · dishonorable · corrupt · iniquitous · depraved · degenerate · villainous · nefarious · sinister · vicious · malicious · malevolent · demonic · devilish · diabolic · diabolical · fiendish · dark · black-hearted · monstrous · shocking · despicable · atrocious · heinous · odious · contemptible · horrible · execrable · lowdown · stinking · dirty · shady · warped · bent · crooked · dastardly · black · egregious · flagitious · peccable. I am obviously the wrong person to judge, but I do not think that these attributes describe me all that well.
- Yes, I am old, 72 to be precise.
- Am I a nut-job? I looked that one up too. It’s a mentally unbalanced person. Call me biased, but I don’t think that this applies to me at all.
- No, I am not called Ed.
- I am not quite sure what ‘pharma science’ is supposed to mean, but one thing I do know for sure: since I research so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – and that’s about 30 years now – I have not taken research funds from the pharmaceutical industry. And before I very rarely did.
- As I have published a sizable amount of papers and blog-posts, there must have been a bit of BS in some of it. But I do not think it can be much.
- All I state is opinion? Oh really! Opinion comes into blog-posts regularly; without it my stuff would be boring like hell. But ALL of it? I don’t think so.
- Am I ignorant? Yes, certainly; there are lots of things I don’t know, even in medicine. But in SCAM I do know quite a bit – even if I say so myself.
- Anti-science? That last allegation is probably the most far-fetched of them all. No, I am not anti-science, never have been and never will be.
So, Paul – the author of the comment preferred to remain anonymous and simply calls himself Paul – I have tried to give you credit where I could but, on the whole, I fear your ad hominem attack is yet another victory of reason over unreason. I thank you Paul for two reasons:
- firstly for the just-mentioned victory; it always feels good to be on a winning side,
- secondly for the stimulus and motivation to carry on doing what I have been doing for many years; your comment has shown me how much needed my work is in disclosing quackery, correcting errors, teaching critical thinking and responsibly informing the public.
We probably all think we know what is meant by ‘pseudo-science’. But, in fact, the more you think about it, the less certain you are likely to become. Many very smart people have tried shed some light on this question and, in the end, had to admit that it is far from clear.
In his book ‘Decision Making and Rationality in the Modern World‘, Keith Stanovich makes a fresh attempt to tackle the problem. Here is a list of criteria that he deems important:
• The use of psychobabble – words that sound scientific, but are used incorrectly, or in a misleading manner. For example, “energy therapies” for psychological problems are often premised on biofeedback, meridian lines, quantum energies, and a host of other concepts that may sound impressive, but lack evidence.
• A substantial reliance on anecdotal evidence. Evidence for pseudoscience is typically anecdotal and consequently difficult to verify. For a class example, instructors may want to show students the Q-Ray bracelet website 1 and read the many quotes submitted by Q-Ray users. Although the quotes sound compelling, there is no scientific evidence to support any claims attached to them. In fact, the Q-Ray company lost a lawsuit in 2011 and was ordered to refund over $11 million dollars to people who purchased a Q-Ray bracelet.
• Extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence (Truzzi, 1978; Sagan, 1995). In pseudosciences, assertions are often highly implausible in light of existing knowledge yet are not backed by convincing evidence. For a class example, instructors may wish to describe how infomercials promoting Q-Ray bracelets state that the “bracelet rips [pain] right out of the body 2.” and are “designed to optimize your natural positive energy 1.”
• Unfalsifiable claims – Most pseudoscientific claims are incapable of being refuted in principle. For example, proponents of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) believe the human body has an invisible energy force called Qi (Zollman and Vickers, 1999). Qi is a crucial component of TCM, even though it cannot be measured or tested scientifically.
• An absence of connectivity to other research (Stanovich, 2010). Connectivity refers to the extent to which assertions build on extant knowledge. For example, homeopathic practitioners state that homeopathic treatments become stronger as they become more dilute, and that water has memory. Both of these claims run counter to established scientific knowledge (Singh and Ernst, 2008).
• Absence of adequate peer review. Peer review is far from perfect, but it is a key safeguard against error. Instructors may wish to encourage students to contrast the claims advanced by the authors of peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed articles.
• Lack of self-correction. Pseudosciences frequently persist despite refutation. Often, proponents of pseudoscience will use the idea that since the treatment or idea has been used for thousands of years it must be correct (e.g., astrology), an error often called the ad antiquetem fallacy (or, argument from antiquity).
Yes, I know, nothing fundamentally new here. Nonetheless, I thought the list was thought-provoking, particularly as it harps back to themes which we have discussed regularly on this blog. Stanovich’s list is certainly not comprehensive. Feel free, if you think you can add new aspects to the features that characterise pseudoscience.
You have probably guessed it: I am not a fan of Donald Trump (he made several previous appearances on this blog, see here, here here and here). There are many things that I dislike about him, and his attitude towards vaccination is but one of them. Researchers from Australia and from my own University (!) have conducted two studies on this subject which I find extraordinary and important. Here is their abstract:
Donald Trump is the first U.S. President to be on the record as having anti-vaccination attitudes. Given his enormous reach and influence, it is worthwhile examining the extent to which allegiance to Trump is associated with the public’s perceptions of vaccine safety and efficacy. In both Study 1 (N = 518) and Study 2 (N = 316), Trump voters were significantly more concerned about vaccines than other Americans. This tendency was reduced to non-significance after controlling for conspiracist ideation (i.e., general willingness to believe conspiracy theories) and, to a lesser degree, political conservatism. In Study 2, participants were later exposed to real Trump tweets that either focused on his anti-vaccination views, or focused on golf (the control condition). Compared to when the same respondents were sampled a week earlier, there was a significant increase in vaccine concern, but only among Trump voters who were exposed to the anti-vaccination tweets. The effects were exclusively negative: there was no evidence that anti-vaccination Trump tweets polarized liberal voters into becoming more pro-vaccination. In line with the social identity model of leadership, Study 2 indicates that some leaders do not simply represent the attitudes and opinions of the group, but can also change group members’ opinions.
I find this paper so important and excellent that I take the liberty of quoting from the authors’ discussion:
Both studies showed that people who voted for Trump in the 2016 Presidential election were more concerned about vaccines than other voters. When it came to general concern about vaccines, this “Trump effect” was entirely accounted for by the fact that Trump voters are not only more politically conservative than other Americans but also (and independently) more predisposed to believe conspiracy theories. In fact, the tendency for Trump voters to have greater concerns about the MMR vaccine in particular was not explained so much by their political conservatism as it was by their conspiracist ideation.
Study 1 illustrates that Trump voters are particularly prone to anti-vaccination attitudes. Study 2 further demonstrates that these attitudes are not static: it shows that a revered, prototypical ingroup member can actively exacerbate this propensity to endorse factually unfounded beliefs.
One overarching debate about the influence of political leaders is the extent to which they shape supporters’ views, or merely reflect them. Study 2 makes clear that the “Trump effect” is not merely a case of Trump holding a mirror to people’s pre-existing views: his messages have the power to change attitudes. As such, future research needs to
take seriously the impact of Trump as a change-agent, one that is impeding the broader campaign to increase vaccination uptake and to eliminate infectious diseases.
So, the ‘Trump-Effect’ on vaccination attitudes is strongly negative. This leads me to suspect that the ‘Trump-Effect’ on many other issues is just as profoundly detrimental. For the sake not just of public health, let us hope that the US public will dismiss their dangerous president when they go to the ballot in just a few weeks time.
He is biased against it!
He cherry-picks the evidence!
He does not understand homeopathy!
If you are one of the many who believe such notions, please read on.
The website of the NHS England has a fairly detailed account of homeopathy. Here is the section entitled ‘What can we conclude from the evidence?‘ – but I recommend reading the full text:
There have been several reviews of the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said there’s no evidence that homeopathy is effective as a treatment for any health condition.
There’s no evidence behind the idea that substances that cause certain symptoms can also help treat them.
Nor is there any evidence behind the idea that diluting and shaking substances in water can turn those substances into medicines.
The ideas that underpin homeopathy aren’t accepted by mainstream science, and aren’t consistent with long-accepted principles on the way the physical world works.
The Committee’s 2010 report on homeopathy said the “like cures like” principle is “theoretically weak”, and that this is the “settled view of medical science”.
For example, many homeopathic remedies are diluted to such an extent that it’s unlikely there’s a single molecule of the original substance remaining in the final remedy. In cases like these, homeopathic remedies consist of nothing but water.
Some homeopaths believe that, as a result of the succussion process, the original substance leaves an “imprint” of itself on the water. But there’s no known mechanism by which this can occur.
The 2010 report said: “We consider the notion that ultra-dilutions can maintain an imprint of substances previously dissolved in them to be scientifically implausible.”
Some people who use homeopathy may see an improvement in their health condition as the result of a phenomenon known as the placebo effect.
If you choose health treatments that provide only a placebo effect, you may miss out on other treatments that have been proven to be more effective.
Since 1948, homeopathy had been part of the NHS, there were 5 homeopathic NHS hospitals, and the costs for homeopathy were covered. Why would the NHS decision makers suddenly turn against it? They must have loved homeopathy for at least 4 reasons:
- It is inexpensive.
- It has support in high places.
- It did not cause any direct harm.
- It had many supporters who fought tooth and nail for it.
It is therefore hardly reasonable to assume that the NHS is biased against homeopathy. But, why do they now say that it is
- not effective beyond placebo,
- and can cause harm by making people miss out on effective therapies?
The answer is simple: BECAUSE THESE STATEMENTS ARE IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY OF THE BEST EVIDENCE AVAILABLE TO DATE.
So, here you are: the NHS now confirms what I (and many other experts) have been saying since years. And we all insist on the fact that this not because we are biased, stupid, uninformed, paid by BIG PHARMA, or want to deprive anyone of anything. We do it for one reason only:
BECAUSE IT’S THE TRUTH!
When chiropractors try to play medical doctors, their patients are in danger. When they try to play epidemiologists, we might all be in danger. Already in April 2020, the Australian ‘Patrons of Chiropractic Science’ issued a press release on COVID 19 stating:
Good function of the body’s joints, particularly within the spine, may improve neurological function, which is important for an effective natural immune system. Treatment by a qualified and experienced chiropractor offers one of the most effective methods to improve and maintain good spinal joint function. The chiropractic profession attends to many patients, and like all other health workers, the profession truly cares for the welfare of every individual.
Now they have gone further. Their press release of 18/8/2020 states amongst other things:
- Approximately 1.5% of those infected with SARS-CoV-2 may die; all people with a compromised immune system, that being the aged or those suffering a co-morbidity;
- 98.5% of those infected with the COVID-19 virus suffer either no symptoms, mild symptoms or treatable symptoms no worse than seasonal influenza;
- COVID-19 positive test numbers are largely irrelevant, as 98.5% of those testing positive will simply develop natural immunity and recover as the virus moves through the population. Recent studies by the UK based Centre for Evidence Based Medicine confirms increased COVID testing is the primary reason for increased case numbers, which have little relationship to mortality. The focus on case numbers is again designed to engender public fear and compliance;
Patrons of Chiropractic Science demands that the Victorian Government and its senior health officials cease distorting facts, stop blaming Victorian non-compliance for the increased positive testing numbers, and assume full responsibility for the aged care deaths and the current economic damage.
Simple facts: it is critical and more effective to isolate and protect the high-risk groups, effectively quarantine return travellers, but cease the illogical isolation of the vast majority of the population who are not at risk as the virus naturally circulates, and allow them to recommence working to save many businesses and initiate economic recovery.
Implying that regular chiropractic manipulations improve immunity or protect people from the corona virus is bad enough. But the new press release is worse:
- It is not true that only people with impaired immune systems, of old age, or affected by other diseases die of COVID 19.
- It is not true that all of the 98.5% who do not die have treatable symptoms not worse than a flu; an undefined percentage of the survivors suffer from very severe and sometimes long-lasting conditions.
- It is not true that 98.5% of those testing positive will simply develop natural immunity and recover; many will not recover completely, and the question whether mildly affected individuals develop immunity and for how long is as yet unanswered.
- It is not true that COVID testing results are unrelated to mortality; the figures need, of course, careful interpretation; the percentage of positive tests per number of tests done, for instance, should be independent of the frequency of testing.
- It is not true that the vast majority of the population are not at risk, if the virus were to circulate naturally.
All this looks to me as though the ‘Patrons of Chiropractic Science’ are in urgent need of learning some science. Meanwhile, it would be most helpful, if they could keep quiet.