Leaving The Land of Woo
You can order a hard copy of Leaving the Land of Woo from Amazon or from www.leavingthelandofwoo.com.
Copyright © 2009 Bob Lloyd Published by Synogenes.com email@example.com All rights reserved The moral right of the author has been asserted Cover design by Claire Lloyd ISBN: 978-84-613-5099-5
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Preface.......................................................................................1 The Land of Woo......................................................................3 But you have to believe in something...................................4 Academic Woo and anything goes.......................................5 Fiction and reality.................................................................7 Summary..............................................................................7 Clearing the ground.................................................................10 How do you dislodge an idea?............................................11 Proof and disproof..............................................................14 Anecdotal evidence............................................................15 Observational evidence......................................................15 Evidence from measurement.........................................16 What's an hypothesis?........................................................17 Controlled, double-blind, randomised trials.......................18 Summary............................................................................19 Medicine and mysticism..........................................................21 The difference between magic and science.........................21 But everything's possible, isn't it?.......................................24 Physical laws and what they mean................................25 If Woo is right, science is wrong...................................27 Alternative medicine..........................................................29 Strange forces and unseen causes..................................30 Pseudoscience, sham theory, and wishful thinking.............35 Scientists have proved........................................................38 Hobby Woo and delusional Woo........................................40 The harm of Woo...............................................................42 How to spot Woo................................................................44 Food Woo................................................................................48 Human nutrition – the basics..............................................49 Oxidation, antioxidants and free radicals............................51 Toxins and detox................................................................52 Can eating things detox you?..............................................53 Cholesterol, fats and fatty acids..........................................54 Colonic irrigation...............................................................57 Chelation therapy...............................................................57 Metals.................................................................................58
Dietary supplements...........................................................59 The essential elements of Food Woo..................................60 Summary............................................................................60 Religious beliefs and theories about the world........................62 Religion and reality............................................................63 Biblical versus geological time...........................................63 The flood............................................................................64 Evolution............................................................................65 Religion and the immaterial...............................................66 Alternative hypothesis...................................................67 People and souls.................................................................68 Meditation..........................................................................70 Prayer.................................................................................71 Spirits, Ghosts, Angels, Leprechauns.................................71 Religion and morality.........................................................73 Do religious people behave morally?.................................74 Where do morals come from?.............................................75 Where do souls come from?...............................................77 The spark of life............................................................77 Evolution gets in the way again..........................................78 Theology is not theory........................................................80 Summary............................................................................81 Psychic Woo............................................................................83 How can we check psychic claims?....................................83 Supernatural apparitions.....................................................84 Explanations for visual apparitions.....................................85 Mediums and séances.........................................................86 Exorcisms and consecrations..............................................87 Psychic abilities..................................................................89 What counts as statistically significant?.............................90 Predicting cards and other random events..........................91 Psychics and the military....................................................92 Psychics and the police.......................................................93 Summary............................................................................93 Rational thinking.....................................................................96 The advantages of rational thinking....................................97 Attitudes to the rational......................................................99 Rational equals unemotional?......................................100 Creativity opposed to rational thinking?......................101
Either artistic or logical?.............................................102 Summary..........................................................................103 A short compendium of Woo................................................104 Acupuncture...........................................................104 Alexander Technique.............................................105 Apitherapy .............................................................105 Applied kinesiology ..............................................105 Aromatherapy ........................................................105 Astrology ...............................................................106 Ayurvedic medicine...............................................106 Bach flower therapy ..............................................106 Chiropractic ...........................................................106 Chromotherapy ......................................................107 Colloidal silver therapy .........................................107 Colon hydrotherapy – colonic irrigation.................108 Crystal healing .......................................................108 Cupping .................................................................108 Dietary supplements ..............................................108 Dowsing ................................................................109 Ear candling ..........................................................109 Faith healing ..........................................................109 Fasting and detox...................................................110 Feng shui................................................................110 Hatha yoga ............................................................111 Herbal therapy .......................................................111 Holistic medicine ...................................................111 Homeopathy ..........................................................112 Iridology ................................................................112 Macrobiotic lifestyle ..............................................112 Magnet therapy ......................................................113 Massage therapy ....................................................113 Medical intuition....................................................114 Naturopathic medicine ...........................................114 Neuro-linguistic programming ..............................114 Orthomolecular medicine ......................................115 Osteomyology .......................................................115 Osteopathy .............................................................115 Polarity therapy .....................................................116 Prayer ....................................................................116
Psychic surgery .....................................................116 Reflexology ...........................................................117 Sclerology .............................................................117 Therapeutic touch, Reiki........................................117 Traditional Chinese medicine.................................117 Conclusion........................................................................118 Leaving the Land of Woo......................................................119 Sniff Therapy – an alternative con....................................121 Taking apart Sniff Therapy...............................................122 The obvious verdict on Sniff Therapy..............................125 What have we learned from this?.....................................128 Summary..........................................................................130 Why this stuff matters............................................................132 Protecting the gullible.......................................................134 Conclusion........................................................................136 In lieu of references and footnotes.........................................139 Suggested reading topics..................................................140 Human Biology...........................................................140 Basic Science...............................................................141 Evolution.....................................................................142 Religion.......................................................................142 History of Science.......................................................142 Personal Note........................................................................144
This short book doesn't have lots of footnotes and references and you don't need to have been to college to be able to read it. It's about thinking for yourself, thinking rationally and clearly, and getting your head out of medieval beliefs and rituals. If you are religious, I hope this book will help you to question your beliefs. Even if you remain religious at the end of it, and I hope you won't, you will have seen how religious ideas can be subjected to critical appraisal in the same way as any other ideas. If you are one of the many people who are tempted to try homeopathic medicine, a trip to the chiropractor, or maybe sample that new special kind of therapeutic massage, this is for you. If you have ever parted with your hard-earned cash in exchange for some therapy that had mystical explanations, you owe it to yourself to read this book. My intention is to encourage you to question what you have so far taken on trust, to move from a position of believing to one of being sceptical. Instead of believing until otherwise convinced, I want to persuade you to question beliefs at the outset and I'll show you that, far from being an outrageous point of view, it is the basis of how we safely negotiate our way around the world. It's not a difficult ride, and you don't need to learn lots of new things. If you follow the argument of this book, you will emerge at the other end with a healthier, sceptical attitude. You will be less gullible, and more cautious about extraordinary claims. You will understand something about evidence, the methods of science, clinical trials and physical laws, and you will understand what Woo is and why many of the claims from the Land of Woo are without foundation and should not be trusted. You can still enjoy the fun of entertaining fanciful theories of how the world works in the Land of Woo, but you won't be paying for it. Enjoy the book and keep your mind open. Just don't let any fool fill it up with nonsense.
Acknowledgements My grateful thanks go to the many people who have tolerated and sometimes even encouraged my questioning of their theories and beliefs, and put up with my annoying questions and objections. In the process they have helped me to clarify my own reasoning. My heartfelt special thanks must go to my wife Claire, who has by now read the manuscript at least as many times as I have, and whose remarkable attention to detail has immeasurably improved it. But her contribution is much greater than that. Over many years she has engaged with the ideas of the book, countered them, defended them, challenged them, and found many errors and omissions, and her path has inevitably informed my own. I hope I have done justice to the quality of those conversations. I also acknowledge my debt to my father, Reg Lloyd, who encouraged me from a very early age to think for myself, to question theories, to look for and evaluate evidence, and to build knowledge on secure foundations, always being open-minded and ever willing to be proved wrong. I had absorbed this central tenet of science before I even knew what it was called. Disclaimer There are many genuine practitioners who honestly believe they are providing effective care for their customers, whether or not they are correct in this belief. This book is concerned with the ideas and theories underpinning those beliefs, and assessing their rationality, not with claims made by specific individuals or groups. I have taken every effort to establish the accuracy and fairness of the information presented here but it is in the nature of the subject that explanations from Woo practitioners are scarce and flimsy. In expressing my opinions throughout the book about the rationality of claims and the effectiveness of the therapies, I draw on the available evidence but it is for the reader to decide which practitioners and therapies to trust, if any, and to investigate their specific claims themselves. The burden of proof ought to be with them to demonstrate the evidence for their claims.
The Land of Woo
The world abounds in interesting, curious, fascinating, and challenging phenomena. There are so many areas of human study and knowledge that we have insufficient space even to list them. So much is known about our world and even our universe that it already far exceeds the capacity of any single individual. Much of that knowledge came at considerable cost and effort to those pioneers who asked the questions and sought the answers. As never before, we can build on the foundation of a deep understanding of physical, chemical and biological processes, and we can direct our efforts at finding out more and more. The fascination and wonder arising from our study of the natural world, far exceeds anything that we can deliver as fiction. Science fact really is stranger and more challenging than science fiction. Nevertheless, there are many people who have not had access to this world of knowledge, or who perhaps through disenchantment with their early experience of science, have remain closed to its progress. Despite being intelligent, welleducated, thinking people, they do not approach extraordinary claims sceptically. Sometimes it is because they do not realise that such claims are indeed extraordinary, and that they demand explanation and evidence. For example, someone who does not know what the liver does, will be far more susceptible to misinformation about detox. What we are calling The Land of Woo is that growing sector which relies on mystical or unfounded beliefs about how the world is, and how it works. It includes religions because these are based on substantial claims not just about how we ought to live, but about how the world actually is. Most religions claim various things about original causes, supernatural beings, apparitions able to change the course of human destiny, souls, extra-terrestrial places like heaven and hell, angels and demons,
The Land of Woo 3
miracles, and omniscient beings. There is a commercial sector of Woo which includes those businesses based on alternative medicine and therapy which propose radically challenging theories of how the human body functions, and there are also those people who make claims about paranormal activities including ghosts, and psychic phenomena. The Land of Woo is a very popular tourist destination for those seeking a different landscape, maybe for a mental holiday but perhaps for some people a place to live permanently. The intention of the chapters that follow is to take a critical look at these claims and to assess the credibility of the theories that underpin them. It is my hope that in helping readers to adopt a sceptical viewpoint, to look at and assess the evidence, to criticise the theories, they will be able to see the Land of Woo for what it is - a land of superstition and ignorance, where the gullible or simply the unwary are encouraged to take on trust extraordinary and unfounded claims about the world we live in.
But you have to believe in something...
Sceptical thinking has always had a bad press. Debunking unreasonable claims is rather like taking the sweets from a child or telling them that Father Christmas doesn't exist, and it leaves people feeling betrayed, made a fool of, exposed for their gullibility. The killjoy sceptic is of course a tiresome individual because fantasy forms an important part of our lives. Sometimes we just don't want to be reminded of how the world really works. But at the same time we make decisions in our lives which are important to us, and we want them to be made on the right basis. We decide what to do based on what we believe. We all need to believe something, just in order to function in the world. When we get on a plane, we need to believe that it will fly rather than simply that it might fly. When we have an operation, we need to believe that the anaesthetic will actually make us unconscious. For those decisions, we have to have
The Land of Woo 4
very strong justifications for the belief. Of course, when our lives depend on it, we demand very good reasons. Having the pilot tell us he believes the plane will fly is not enough. We want the plane to be designed and tested according to rigorous engineering standards, based on the known principles of aerodynamics. We choose what we want to believe in, but when we take important decision we are very critical of the reasons. The more important the decisions, the better reasons we demand. If we are making decisions about our morality, our conduct, our health, our safety, our children, we owe it to all concerned to look long and hard at the reasons. We do have to believe in something but it has to lead to predictable and reliable knowledge about the world. Yet in the Land of Woo, we are continually expected to accept theories of the world for which there are no good reasons. There is nothing negative about being sceptical. By rejecting unfounded theories and wacky ideas, you are affirming your rationality, your creative constructive thinking, your involvement in the real world, your active participation in knowledge, experience and society.
Academic Woo and anything goes
It was fashionable in the academic world of the 1980s and 90s to consider all approaches to knowledge to be equivalent and they were referred to as discourses and narratives. For these academics, knowledge consisted not in something objectively verified against the properties of the real world, but subjectively. These academics called themselves postmodernists and their philosophical approach was called postmodernism. But if everything is just an opinion, all theories are equivalent and all of them are equally likely to be right. Or so they argued. Therefore, they said, scientific theories should not be given any priority in establishing what is and is not the case. For many years, this movement held sway in academia,
The Land of Woo 5
convincing otherwise rational people that they could no longer trust scientific theories, that scientific research was selfjustifying and therefore unable to provide what they saw as the truth. They were largely unaware of how scientific theories were tested and corrected through open review and challenge, through experimental testing against predictions in the real world. Although the scientific world carried on without them, continuing to make substantial progress, the attitudes engendered by this academic movement pervaded many aspects of society. The media translated the deliberately obscure language of the post-modernist writers into articles glorifying any and every wacky idea. On the grounds that academics were claiming that scientific research did not necessarily find the real causes, the media felt entitled to support and promote any and every alternative theory, however groundless. It was a heyday for Woo. Suddenly, all theories were considered equivalent, however absurd, contradictory and bizarre. The conflict with present knowledge was simply one of those things, not to be taken seriously. By the 1990s, scientists had realised that such academic nonsense needed to be addressed. Two physicists, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, created a storm in the academic world when they submitted a completely absurd spoof paper to a journal called Social Text containing pseudoscientific gibberish and contradictions buried in obscure language. Amazingly, it was taken seriously, accepted and published. When Sokal and Bricmont themselves identified it as a hoax, the postmodernists were exposed for the poseurs they really were. Such ideas still persist in the dusty corners of some university literature departments. Unfortunately though, the more important and wider damage was already done. A generation of students, without any scientific background, were taught that the scientific method was little more than opinion, where scientists simply argued they were right. Newspaper and magazine articles no longer paid attention to evidence, clinical
The Land of Woo 6
trials, testing hypotheses, providing the reasons to support extraordinary claims. Just like many of their readers, they were off in the Land of Woo.
Fiction and reality
It seems strange that we should have to discuss the difference between fiction and reality but unfortunately many people assume that it doesn't really matter how things are. Once we dispense with the need for evidence, theories are nothing more than acceptable stories. But there is a fundamental difference between fiction and reality. We can change fiction with almost no effort. We can change the plot, the characters, the motives, the actions, the locations, and so on. It's simply a matter of rewriting it. Unfortunately reality is not like that. We cannot simply rewrite how the human body works, or how chemicals react, or how physical structures behave, or how gravity acts. The external real world constrains us. The Land of Woo is a fictional land in which theories are offered as stories of how some people think things are. We might recognise some of the character names like bone and blood, liver and brain, but we soon see that their characteristics are quite different from those in the real world. Whereas in the past, we had no alternative but to offer the best theories available, theories that we now know to have been fictions, nowadays we have a wealth of accumulated knowledge. We don't need to make up stories to explain what we already know.
We've identified the Land of Woo as a place where we find extraordinary claims about how the world is, its history, and the nature of reality. We find extraordinary claims about how the human body works. We find claims that there are therapies which, with the minimum of intervention and fuss, can bring
The Land of Woo 7
about extraordinary improvements in conditions which conventional medicine apparently fails to address. Religions ask us to believe that there are non-material superbeings who are omniscient and all-controlling, with extraordinary powers to change the nature of the universe. These superbeings can simultaneously listen in on the thoughts of all humanity and apparently suspend all physical laws. In each of these cases, we are asked to believe something for which we have no good reasons. We are expected to believe them because someone else says it is so. In other areas of our life, such a strategy would be dangerous, possibly even fatal. Suspending our scepticism is a serious step and we should not do it lightly. All of these extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence before we can take them seriously. We have also seen how misguided academic theories such as post-modernism undermined the value of scientific enquiry and provided a cover for irrational alternative theories. Although post-modernism is now thoroughly discredited, there are many university-trained non-scientists who retain their poor understanding of the scientific method, and the prejudiced opinion that science is just another narrative. Some of those people may well be in positions of power, running companies, governments, and educational establishments, making policy about science investment and training. Fiction is different from reality. We can change fiction to suit ourselves. Reality though constrains us, and we can't simply ignore the way the human body functions, how chemical reactions take place, how physical laws operate. When there's a conflict between theory and reality, we have to change our theories, not make up fanciful stories about how the world works. We formulate experiments to test the predictions we get from our theories, put them in the public domain along with the results we've obtained ourselves, and invite peers to try to reproduce the results, criticise our ideas, and come up with better theories. In short, we do everything we can to eliminate bias in our understanding of how things really are. We subject our ideas to
The Land of Woo 8
tests in the real world to see if they are right. But as we'll see in the chapters that follow, Woo is not like that at all. In every case, it follows a short-cut to the conclusion, avoiding any test with reality, with how things really work. Very different rules apply in the Land of Woo.
The Land of Woo
Clearing the ground
In the modern world, our mental space is up for grabs. Anyone who comes along with a catchy idea, however wacky, competes for our attention because, more often than not, there's money involved. Ideas sell commodities and whoever can be persuaded to go along with those ideas will be in the market for buying something. Women who are persuaded that they have cellulite, or even might have cellulite, will be inclined to spend large sums of money trying to get rid of it. If someone tells you that your gut needs “good bacteria” and you believe it, then you'll probably go and buy some yoghurt. We are all bathed in the ideas that pervade our culture and we are encouraged to go along with them. It's often a lot easier that way. Sometimes we can see the really silly ones from a long way off and we just ignore them. But when ideas are so pervasive that almost everyone goes along with them, we are led to believe they are actually true. Sometimes they are not. We're being had. A very simple example comes from medicine. In the UK and right across Europe throughout the seventeenth century, the medical treatment of bleeding, draining blood from veins or removing it with leeches, was considered completely acceptable. No self-respecting doctor would question the treatment. It wasn't until a fellow called Alexander Hamilton counted the death rates and found that more patients died with the bleeding than without, that the idea was gradually questioned and then abandoned. It was a silly idea that had taken root and had remained unquestioned. In some countries, such as the United States and Iran, the dominant ideas are religious and people are expected to trust in one or more deities, to observe religious rituals, and to behave
Clearing the ground 10
according to a religiously approved code of behaviour. Depending on which religion you choose, there are different codes of conduct, different rituals, but a substantial overlap in the values. But is it reasonable to go along with such ideas? Do we have reasons for accepting them, or should we apply the same critical standards as we employ in other parts of our lives?
How do you dislodge an idea?
Once an idea gets into our heads, it's very hard to shift it. We invest a certain amount of psychological capital in being right and being wrong makes us feel bad. So we tend to support our own ideas once we have them. Some folks will argue vigorously for what they believe in, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. That's the power of our own psychology. We want to be right. But sometimes we're not. The question is, how do we find out? And having found out we're wrong, what do we do about it? These were difficult questions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because the dominant ideas of society were being questioned by all kinds of events. There were revolutions in the nineteenth century all across Europe and things were being questioned which had been previously unchallengeable. Whether it was about the right of kings to rule, or the power of the established church, people were asking for reasons. In nineteenth century England, the universities were controlled by the church. If you wanted to be a professor, you needed religious sponsorship or you had no hope. That meant that universities would be well-advised not to question the ideas promoted by the religious institutions. But some people braved the hostility of the academic and religious community and thought the unthinkable. Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin each advanced theories that questioned the account of the history of the world given in the Bible. It was considered outrageous, and the simple fear of the reaction kept Darwin from publishing his own work for more than twenty years.
Clearing the ground 11
In order to break down the idea that the world was only 6000 years old, Lyell amassed huge quantities of geological evidence, travelled all over the world, and did exhaustive research. Darwin too, from the early voyage of the Beagle through more than twenty years of detailed research, drew together an enormous quantity of evidence. During that century particularly, a method was refined that was designed to allow the free questioning of ideas, without allowing powerful bodies to influence the result. It separated the authors from the responsibility of what the evidence showed. Researchers would advance their ideas to explain observations already seen. They would advance theories to explain how things worked, and make predictions which they could test to see if those theories could point to new discoveries. Once the theories were in the public domain, everyone was invited to reproduce the results of experiments and offer their own observations. If the theory was inadequate, it would be modified or even abandoned. No longer was it acceptable to simply assume, you had to take account of the facts. The Royal Society's motto was Nullius in verba, a Latin phrase that means “take no-one's word for it”. Sometimes a theory would adequately explain some things but not others. Researchers would be encouraged to update and modify the theory based on their own experimental observations and the whole review process would repeat itself. This method has been the most productive ever for establishing how things work, how natural processes occur, the structure and functioning of living organisms, the properties of materials, and all of our technological progress. It is called simply the scientific method. It's not fancy, difficult, nor secret. But it is unbiased. You cannot produce biased results if you follow the scientific method correctly. It's not easy to do science though. You have to think very carefully about the design of experiments and eliminate the sources of bias, question assumptions, ask others to check your results, open your investigation to public scrutiny. It takes a great deal of personal
Clearing the ground 12
courage to advance a theory and present your evidence knowing that the rest of the scientific community will take it to pieces looking for weak points, questioning your evidence, posing alternatives, and adopting that sceptical viewpoint. Now let's get back to business. Suppose I believe that there is a supernatural entity which created the world, can read everyone's minds simultaneously, is omniscient, all-powerful, and invisible. How do I go about questioning this, subjecting it to scrutiny? How can I tell if this theory is one worth supporting and defending? There are two directions we can come from. The first is the believer viewpoint. We start by saying I'll believe anything until I'm persuaded otherwise. The second is the sceptical viewpoint where we say I don't believe things unless there is a good reason. If we think we are in between, then we've already started to apply sceptical reasoning, but perhaps not yet consistently. We are brought up initially to believe because as children, it's a matter of safety that we believe our parents and follow what they tell us to do. Parents are the source of much of our knowledge of the world and so we naturally trust what they tell us. We resist the temptation to eat certain things because we are told they are poisonous. We avoid fire because we are told it will burn us. If they tell us there is a God, we will believe it. If they tell us the moon is made of cheese, we believe it... until we have reason to doubt it. But once we do have adequate reasons to doubt it, we'll stop believing. That's the believing viewpoint. Parents tell their children not just what they know to be fact but also their own particular beliefs. Even in the absence of any convincing evidence, parents will pass on their beliefs to their children. Provided that the children are dissuaded from questioning them, those beliefs will persist and will pass from generation to generation. Religions are transmitted across generations largely by parental action and supported by social acquiescence. It is therefore very difficult for individuals to challenge religious beliefs because they are often implicitly
Clearing the ground 13
challenging what their parents taught them. There is a psychological resistance to questioning what our parents told us. So to give up religious ideas involves more than simply changing your mind. The sceptical approach is one which we naturally adopt when we are considering new phenomena. When we are trying to work out how something operates, we typically look for justification for our ideas. This lever moves that wheel because it's connected at that point. When we study animals, we carry out observations and try to explain behaviour based on them. We draw our theories from experimental and observational results. We are looking for predictability and order which we can use in our interactions with the world. This is a natural and productive way to accumulate knowledge and test theories. We abandon theories when we can disprove them. Our theory remains acceptable so long as it completely explains the currently known data. As soon as data are found which contradict the theory, the theory is found to be inadequate and is re-examined.
Proof and disproof
There has always been an entertaining debate about whether or not it is possible to prove the existence of an invisible allpowerful god. Without direct evidence, you have to rely on indirect evidence. We can't see electrons but through the secondary effects we can be certain they exist. Religious people have often suggested a similar argument for the existence of a god. Creation, the richness of nature, its complexity, its diversity, are all to be considered evidence of a creator. So let's take a minute or two to consider what evidence is. Evidence is anything which can be presented to establish or demonstrate the truth of a statement. It can be strong or weak, direct or indirect, circumstantial, credible, reliable, unreliable, incomplete, valid or invalid. It comes in many forms of varying quality.
Clearing the ground 14
Let's quickly take a look at some different types of evidence and what weight we ought to give them.
We've all heard the stories of someone who drank water from a certain place and suddenly their cancer went into remission. Or someone who went to some kind of alternative therapist and reported remarkable improvement in their condition. That's called anecdotal evidence, it's a report from an individual of their personal impression of what happened to them. Anecdotal evidence is a very fickle type of report. It relies on the individual faithfully reporting what in fact happened to them but it is inevitably affected by their opinions, feelings, perceptions, assumptions and beliefs. All these can and do affect the quality of anecdotal accounts. For example, someone who has paid for a treatment and who believes it works or desperately wants it to work, will be unlikely to report that it doesn't. Anecdotal evidence, with the best will in the world is always subject to bias, both positive and negative. For the account to be considered trustworthy, that bias somehow has to be removed.
When we observe events, animals, behaviours, we pay attention to what we are interested in and record what we see. That's observational evidence. For example, we watch the thermometer when we boil water and observe and record that it reached 100 degrees Celsius. This is a strong form of evidence, providing that it can be reproduced. Where an observation cannot be reproduced, we are in doubt as to whether it is representative of what actually takes place. It might be an experimental error. Reproducing evidence is an important part of the scientific method because it eliminates the likelihood of experimental error (unless everyone is similarly
Clearing the ground 15
Evidence from measurement
Sometimes there are aspects of the world we can directly or indirectly measure. This is a very precise form of observational evidence which can be used to test the predictions of theories. If our theory predicts that a certain force will be of some particular magnitude, then if we can measure it directly, we can tell if our theory stands up or falls down. A great deal of scientific work goes into refining measurement, at greater and greater degrees of accuracy, because of its value in disproving theories. We have a variety of forms of evidence which will contribute to supporting or disproving a theory. If we want good evidence, we have to do the work of removing bias so that the same evidence is obtained regardless of the opinions and beliefs of the observer. But there is another criterion which is used as well and that is consistency. Theories are expected to explain at least as much as the theories they replace. So for example, a theory that suggests there is a cosmic force that pervades everything (let's call it Qi) has to also explain how that relates to known forces such as electromagnetic and gravitational forces. Theories that do not address the question of consistency with the known and demonstrable laws of physics are not saying anything useful about the real world. In the case of the proposed force, Qi, we have to be able to demonstrate firstly that it exists and that requires that we show we can reliably detect it. It has to be a bias-free, reproducible observation for us to trust it as evidence. In other words, someone needs to explain how it can be detected and then let others also detect it. Next, we need to measure its effects. Once we are at that stage, we have established it as a real phenomenon, a proper object of scientific study and one which requires an explanation. That's when our theorising comes in. Scientists do not believe in science - because there is no requirement for any scientist to believe anything. Their
Clearing the ground 16
theories and evidence must stand up independently without any reference to the beliefs, values, or opinions of their proposers. Science is NOT faith-based. So given a theory, how do we go about testing it? We use hypotheses.
What's an hypothesis?
When we use the word in conversation, we often just mean an idea, a suggestion or an opinion. But when we are being serious about establishing the truth of some claim, it's much more precise. An hypothesis is a statement which can only be either true or false. It is a statement that can be tested and most importantly, proved wrong not proved right. As an example, take the hypothesis: All swans are white. This hypothesis cannot be proved true but it can be proved false. It can't be proved true because we cannot physically check all of the swans in the world. But it can easily be proved false by finding a single swan that is not white. That's how hypotheses work. They are statements which can be disproved. Finally we come to a very long-established principle about how complicated a theory needs to be. What is known as Occam's Razor (after William Occam, 1285-1349), is a simple enough rule. Whenever you are proposing a theory, it should be complicated enough to explain all the available data, but no more complicated than that. In other words, we don't put unnecessary bits into a theory. If we are explaining an illness, and a specific bacterium can be shown to cause it, we don't need to add to the theory other possible causes such as spirits or undetectable essences. Keep it simple, but keep it sufficient, is another way of saying the same thing. There is a good reason for Occam's Razor apart from
Clearing the ground 17
keeping things simple. If the theory has other irrelevant details in it, then testing it becomes much more difficult and even on occasions impossible. Introduce any undetectable essences or forces into a physical theory, and it becomes untestable. The moment you appeal to immaterial essences or undetectable forces in any theory, you are really saying I don't want to know how it really works.
Controlled, double-blind, randomised trials
That mouthful sounds very imposing but it's shorthand for the kind of experiment that produces genuinely unbiased results. Over decades, scientists have worked hard to find ways of getting experiments which are completely independent of the opinions and beliefs of the experimenters, and also of any patients. The ideas are very straightforward and they are invaluable in sorting out real from fake science. Please think about these three following points carefully because we will use these ideas throughout the rest of the book. When we are evaluating treatments, we want to organise tests so that other people can do the same ones and check our results. If we are wrong, we want to know about it – remember we are trying to disprove, not prove our theories. Controlled means that there is one group of people who don't get any of the test treatment but everything else. This is done so that if the illness cleared up on its own, we'd know about it, and also we can use it as a baseline to compare any differences attributable to the treatment given. Double-blind means that neither the patient nor the person giving the treatment knows whether they are actually giving and getting the real treatment. This is done so that neither the patient nor the person giving the treatment can influence the results. Finally, it's randomised so that there's no pattern between those allocated to real and non-existent treatment so no-one can predict the results. There are real problems with any clinical research that
Clearing the ground 18
doesn't comply with these conditions. If there is no control group for example, we cannot tell if our treatment had any effect at all. Any effect seen could have been caused by anything else at all. When we organise a control, we have two groups that are identical except for the test condition. If they end up different, it was because of the treatment. If we don't make it double-blind, then either patient or therapist or both, know about the treatment and the placebo effect can skew the results. The placebo effect is where the patient's belief that they are receiving treatment makes them behave as if they had actually received it, and they therefore persuade themselves that they feel better. Without double-blind, we cannot rule out the placebo effect. Their behaviour could have been influenced by the knowledge or expectation of what was happening. If we don't randomise, then it is possible that either the patient or therapist could have worked out which group the patient was in. Then whether consciously or not, the views of either could have interfered with their perceptions of the results or their behaviour during the trial. Scientific and medical journals demand these standards of the research they publish because they know how important it is to have unbiased results. Any publications which do not uphold these standards are publishing untrustworthy results.
Where does all this leave us? We know that in the past we have accepted many of our ideas uncritically and that some of them will have been wrong. We looked at how we consider new phenomena, from the believing and sceptical viewpoints, and we've thought a little about what evidence is. We looked at the approach taken by science based on reproducible evidence, and we've thought about how theories are developed to explain observational and experimental data. We've also looked at why some evidence is stronger and some is weaker. We looked at bias and the need to remove it before we take evidence
Clearing the ground 19
seriously. We also looked a little at how we prove or disprove something and discovered, perhaps surprising some people, that in fact science disproves theories rather than proves them. We've seen that science does not depend on believing, and that it is independent of the beliefs, values, and opinion of scientists themselves. Then we had a glimpse at Occam's Razor, that principle that keeps theories just simple enough to explain what they need to explain and nothing more, which stops us adding in unnecessary and untestable assumptions. Finally we looked at the gold standard of clinical research, the controlled, double-blind, randomised trial. We looked at why this is not an optional standard, but a vital requirement for medical research to be considered trustworthy. Publications that don't meet this standard could be publishing biased and untrustworthy results. We now have a good set of thinking tools to look at all sorts of extraordinary claims. We have an easy and consistent way of considering all sorts of theories, and of assessing whether they make sense and should be supported. Now we're ready to move on.
Clearing the ground
Medicine and mysticism
At various times in our past, illnesses have been attributed to an imbalance of the humours, to the anger of gods, to a miasmic cloud, to magic, to sin, and to a variety of other malevolent influences. During those dark times, the human response to illness was governed by those beliefs. People were ostracised, bled, chanted over, subjected to rituals and ordeals, and though some survived, many died of their illnesses or their treatment. The Land of Woo was teeming with a plentiful supply of theories about what caused bodies to get ill, and clear recommendations about how to treat them. It was the best we had to go on at the time. Those who survived the ordeals and recovered were immediately identified as evidence that the treatment was effective. Those who died were victims of the illness and were unlucky. And that's as far as it went. Anecdotal evidence was given the status of proof. If someone had survived the illness, and the treatment, then clearly there was every reason to continue using the same methods. But we all now know how badly flawed that reasoning is.
The difference between magic and science
We have already referred to the dangerous practice of bleeding patients. Not only did it not cure people, but in some cases directly led to their death, as in the case of George Washington, who had five pints of blood removed in an attempt to treat pneumonia. We can look back to how illnesses were treated in the past and we now view some of those attempts as totally bizarre. But why do they appear that way to us now? Surely there must have been some reason why intelligent people supported them? They couldn't be so unreasonable, surely? The reasons are
Medicine and mysticism 21
interesting and help us to understand the difference between magic and science. If a child complained of toothache nowadays, we would take them to a dentist to have the tooth examined, perhaps X-rayed, and any tooth decay treated. But in the absence of our understanding of how tooth decay occurs, what the effect is on the nerve in the tooth, what needs to be done to prevent the decay spreading, and the technology that needs to be employed to relieve the pain and repair the tooth, in the absence of all that, we might have reasoned very differently. We might have decided that the pain in the head is caused by madness. Or we might have decided that it was a curse, put on the person to prevent them telling further lies. Or we might simply assume that the tooth was bad and had to be pulled out. We would base our judgement on what we thought we knew. And if we did not rely on evidence for our knowledge, in many cases it would simply be wrong. Reasonable people believed incorrect things because the foundation of their knowledge was inadequate. They did not yet know how to test and confirm their knowledge, to distinguish between theory and fact. They lacked the investigative methods and tools needed to challenge existing ideas. At some stage, someone studied the growth of tooth decay, identified the agents that caused it, and produced a theory based on that knowledge. Because it was a testable theory, they could predict that if those causes were absent, tooth decay would be reduced. It may be that there were other as yet unidentified causes, but reducing the known causes would have a noticeable effect. The use of scientific study enabled us to gather knowledge of how things actually work. The theories of old came under scrutiny and better, testable theories were proposed, then investigated. That's what happened in the case of the treatment of bleeding patients. If you bleed weak patients already suffering from an illness, more of them will die. That was no longer simply an opinion – it was based on observational clinical evidence. And so the practice was dropped.
Medicine and mysticism 22
Magical thinking is attributing causes to supernatural entities and forces. It often involves mistaking correlation for causation. When two events often occur together we say they are correlated. For example, we could say that when ice cream sales increase, so do the rates of drowning. That's not causation, because ice cream does not cause drowning, but it is correlation because they often occur together. When one event inevitably brings about another, we use the term causation. For example, removing seven pints of blood from a human being causes death. To accept causation, we need not just the correlation, but also a statement that if the cause was absent, the consequence would not have occurred. So, back to the magic. Magic relies on an unsubstantiated assertion about the cause and there is no way to test the claim. Anger from the gods, a curse from a witch, sin? No way of testing these theories! But if any of them is believed, it will lead to actions which may prejudice the health of the individual. Science is altogether a safer option. If the theory is wrong, then searching for contradictory evidence has a good chance of exposing it. Scientific theories are forced to selfcorrect because everyone is invited to disprove every theory. Medicine is based on the idea of identifying causes and this is a very effective way of understanding how to treat illness. Identifying the symptoms and then isolating the causes provides the basis for diagnosis and therefore points to possible treatments. But if we fail to identify the relevant symptoms and/or fail to identify the testable causes, we have no chance of selecting an appropriate treatment. Therapies that do not have an efficient, repeatable method for diagnosis will not identify illness correctly and will therefore be unable to relate treatment to the cause. In reality this means that each practitioner could diagnose something different from the same set of symptoms, each diagnosis being unrelated to the real cause.
Medicine and mysticism
But everything's possible, isn't it?
We hear many claims that science doesn't know everything and that there are lots of things that are possible but haven't yet been discovered. That's a perfectly reasonable viewpoint which every scientist would agree with wholeheartedly. However, the collection of human knowledge may be modest but there are very many things we know a great deal about. We can identify the chemical composition of stars. We can detect and measure subatomic particles. We can decode the genome of living organisms. We know the age of the universe within less than 1% error. We can do brain surgery, create artificial limbs, replace hearts, cure devastating illnesses that once ravaged human populations. We certainly don't know everything but that doesn't mean we know nothing. Because our knowledge is built up painstakingly, by observation, experiment and testing, we are building on firm foundations so our knowledge is cumulative. It may surprise some readers to hear that we know that the physical laws apply throughout the universe so we don't expect elements to behave differently on other worlds. Chemistry and physics are the same throughout the universe. This is not an arrogant claim but a scientific conclusion based on painstaking research and the accumulation of evidence. That means that it is not true to say that everything is possible. Some things are definitely not possible. We already know very many things which we can demonstrate to be true. Our knowledge of human anatomy tells us for example that blood is pumped around the body by the heart. We know enough now to be able to replace the valves inside human hearts when they are damaged. That existing knowledge allows us to treat medical conditions that would previously have been fatal. So how should we react to a claim that people are using strange, powerful, but mysterious forces to bring about cures? Given our well-established and tested knowledge of the forces we can detect in the universe, what are the implications of the
Medicine and mysticism 24
discovery of these new forces and energies? Of course, science progresses year on year and there are always refinements and sometimes even upheavals in our understanding of the laws of the universe. When someone proposes a new force, previously undiscovered, it is right and proper that the idea be taken seriously and then be subjected to critical evaluation. We know of three fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetic, and nuclear. Energy comes in the following forms: mechanical, gravitational, thermal, electrical, chemical, nuclear, and mass. Energy can be converted between different forms but the total amount of energy remains constant. Forces and energy are governed by universal physical laws, and they are considered laws because we have evidence, and justified theory, that they cannot be broken. Einstein's theory of relativity, a remarkably consistent, accurate and powerful theory, relies crucially on the law of conservation of energy. The discovery of additional new forces or energies would tip the world of physical science upside down. All of our existing understanding of the physical world would be affected. For example, if someone could show that there was a universally available energy source (such as Qi), then it would necessarily need to be accounted for in the law of the conservation of energy. So whilst it is true that there is a great deal we do not yet know, it simply isn't the case that all things are possible, nor that fundamental physical laws can be broken. If our understanding of those laws is incorrect, then it is experimental science that will provide the evidence.
Physical laws and what they mean
When we went to school, we learned certain physical laws which we were told applied throughout the known universe. In our science classes, we were given countless demonstrations of the reliability of that knowledge. When we boiled pure water, it really did boil at 100 degrees Celsius. And when we froze it, it really did freeze at zero. We could test it any number of times
Medicine and mysticism 25
and we always had the same result. Some laws were always true and the great scientists were collecting them and showing us the consequences. Based on our knowledge of these physical laws, not only could we understand how things worked, but we could predict how they'd behave as well. When we turned a coil inside a magnet, we could generate electricity but we could even work out how much, and then measure it. By using our scientific method together with the laws we had already established, we could build on our knowledge. You can't build anything on magic except illusion. Any new theory has to be able to explain what we already know at least as well as the existing theory. Sometimes, we speculate. We think outside of the box, ask “what if...” questions, propose fanciful strange ideas, postulate bizarre or unusual possible causes. But before we take them seriously, we do some work to see if we can test the predictions against the real world. Magic stops after the first fanciful step. Whether it's claiming that there is a mystical force called Qi, or claiming to be able to see an aura around people, or detecting an imbalance in life forces, or whatever, these are simply magical claims. For them to be taken seriously, we have to go a stage further, formulate them into a theory and make testable predictions. There are some physical laws which we have established by continuous observation, which we come to believe to be universal. We typically need to refine them as we make better measurements. For example, the laws discovered by Newton need corrections provided by Einstein when applied to very small or very large scales. These laws are approximations which get better and better with increasingly accurate measurements. In many cases, mathematics alone suggests the presence of physical laws which can then be tested empirically. For example, in the field of particle physics, mathematics is an indispensable tool.
Medicine and mysticism
If Woo is right, science is wrong
The founder of chiropractic, D. D. Palmer, claimed in the 1890s that 95% of human illnesses were caused by misalignment of the spinal cord. That's a claim that is very easy to test, and of course disprove. Very few honest health practitioners would support that claim because they will be aware of the vast accumulation of medical knowledge which contradicts it. But the basis of chiropractic health care still depends on the central idea that the alignment of the spine is able to affect the state of the rest of the body. With no adequate explanation of how such alignment affects the rest of the body, the claim is magical, pre-scientific, and as such compares with theories such as blood-letting. Acupuncture is very popular, based on the idea that there are meridians, energy lines which cross the body, which can be stimulated by gently rotating needles inserted through the skin. Acupuncturists have failed to agree on the specific locations of these meridians and are unable to provide any means of detecting their presence. In the absence of any means of detecting these energy lines, their very existence must be in doubt. So how do the claims of unorthodox medical cures shape up when examined scientifically? If new energy fields and channels cannot be detected, there is neither anything to measure, nor any means of detecting their consequence. If we cannot show that there is some consequence caused by them, we have no possible means of detection. The scientific approach to such a problem would be to search methodically for the evidence of existence and publish the results. Without this evidence, no claims can be made. If we cannot detect these strange energy fields and channels, we clearly cannot make statements about whether or not they are aligned or misaligned. Crucially, we cannot tell if or when anything we do has affected them. We cannot honestly claim to be able to use them in any form of treatment or therapy. But there is a more serious problem for some of the claims from the Land of Woo. If causes are attributed to some magical
Medicine and mysticism 27
energy, then this challenges those theories that already explain what we know. Often there is a conflict between what we know to be true, and what these alternative Woo theories claim. One example will illustrate this clearly. Homeopathy relies on the notion that a small quantity of a poison or toxin that causes an illness will bring about its cure, and that diluting that small quantity repeatedly actually increases the potency of the treatment. We can demonstrate the falsity of the first claim directly. A small quantity of mercury or lead or arsenic does not cure poisoning from mercury, lead or arsenic. It makes it worse. And it is easy to demonstrate arithmetically that the levels of dilution in commercial homeopathic preparations ensure that there is no trace of the original material remaining. For homeopathy to work, it must therefore be possible for a non-existent agent to have an effect on the physical world. This contradicts the known laws of physics. Either homeopathy is right, or our accumulated body of scientific knowledge is right – but they can't both be right. And this is the case whether we are talking about Reiki, ear candles, feng shui, chiropractic, homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine, and all the other characters that populate the Land of Woo. If any of them are right, science is wrong. It's not simply that there may be some knowledge that these people have that has evaded science. They are saying that science is based on physical laws that are not laws at all. Just as the parting of the Red Sea would have required an abrupt rewriting of the laws of physics, all of these practitioners would be suspending the known laws of the universe during their consultations. Most of them are completely unaware of their radical challenge to the whole of scientific knowledge and are singularly ill-prepared to consider it at all. Many have simply learned and believed a sales script. They simply believe and expect their customers to believe and pay. We are justified in demanding why they have not already collected their Nobel Prizes for science.
Medicine and mysticism
There are many motivations for people to consult what they see as alternative medicine. Not least is their frustration when having consulted their doctor, they are given generic medication and sent away without a clear diagnosis of their condition. They feel they have not been treated effectively. Sometimes this is a fair complaint, but often it is not. When a patient goes to the doctor with what is clearly a bacterial infection, then a broad spectrum antibiotic is likely to be the most effective treatment. It is a pointless and costly waste of time and money to go through the process of identifying exactly which bacterium is responsible for the symptoms, because the treatment will be the same in every case. So although the doctor may not know exactly what caused the symptoms, their recommended treatment is, for good rational reasons, the best available. Sometimes of course, the patient is frustrated that the doctor cannot alleviate the problem. People who go to the doctor with persistent back or joint pain often feel that the conventional general practitioner has little to offer. In some cases that is perfectly true. Not enough is known about how to manage chronic pain, or the causes, and doctors themselves acknowledge that physiotherapy and pain killers are often the best they have to offer. Sometimes, the patient is frustrated by the lack of individual attention given to them by busy local practitioners. In the doctor's waiting room, there are many people who will get perhaps five minutes each. In order to meet their targets, the doctor will diagnose quickly and will often prescribe generic medicines as the most likely effective treatment. The patient feels as though they have been moved down a production line. Sometimes the patient is led to believe by propaganda in the media that there are alternative causes which the GP is ignoring. The patient is encouraged to doubt the advice of the GP, to assume that there is a another world of medicine, an alternative world which offers greater chance of relief and cure.
Medicine and mysticism 29
This is a powerful marketing message broadcast by a very large industry. So there are clear reasons why people want something better and will be attracted to advertisements which talk about holistic approaches and patient-centred treatment. The contrast between queues and individuals, between the patient and the person, between treatment and attention, are all very alluring. That's the kind of consultation the consumer-patient wants. A onehour consultation, with lots of questions about the person's lifestyle and activities, gives the impression of being a much more thorough examination. But is it? The word holistic means entire, total, all. In medicine it reflects the idea that symptoms may be caused by many factors, not all of which are visible. To adopt a holistic approach, a medical practitioner is expected to ask relevant questions related to a range of possible causes. A general practitioner will ask a variety of questions, perhaps about sleep patterns, diet, activity level, stress and strain, other medication, drinking habits, other recent injuries, genetic factors, and lots of others, but they will focus their questions on those two key factors: relevant questions, and possible causes. They will not ask questions which are unrelated to the illness, and they will focus on possible causes for which there is clinical evidence. They do this to avoid misleading patients into thinking there are causes for their illness which have no clinical evidence. It is an important part of their ethics of honesty and openness, that medical practitioners do not make unsubstantiated claims. It is important to note though that all general practitioners adopt a holistic approach when they take the case history. It is an essential and normal part of conventional medicine, not something alternative.
Strange forces and unseen causes
Here are some samples from recent alternative medicine websites indicating the kind of forces, energies, and causes that are claimed to be related to our ailments. We are simply taking
Medicine and mysticism 30
a cross-section here from a huge pool in order to illustrate the variety of speculative theories which are used to justify alternative techniques. What follows are their claims. Reiki: It is administered by "laying on hands" and is based on the idea that an unseen "life force energy" flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one's "life force energy" is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.... There is no need to remove any clothing as Reiki will pass through anything, even plaster casts. Crystals: Each crystal has a unique vibrational resonance that can be used to restore stability and balance to the body's energy systems. Chakra balancing: Having your chakras balanced is important. Open and balanced chakras allow your life energy to flow naturally. An energy medicine practitioner trained in manipulating the energy flow of energy (sic) can assist you in getting misaligned chakras back to functioning properly. It may take one or more appointments with a practitioner to get your energy levels up to par. Ayurvedic medicine: The five elements - ether, air, fire, water and earth are the foundations on which the Ayurvedic interpretation of all matter and life is based, they are not to be interpreted literally however, each represents qualities and different types of force and energy, as well as some form of physical manifestation. The elements do not act in isolation Medicine and mysticism 31
three different combinations of the elements, called tridosha, are what form the basis for diagnosis, treatment, cure and health maintenance in Ayurvedic medicine. Each individual's constitution is determined by the state of their parents' doshas at the time of conception, and upon birth a person has the levels of the three doshas that is right for them. Life and all its forces can cause the doshas to become unbalanced which can lead to ill health. Aromatherapy: When an essential oil is inhaled, the molecules enter the nasal cavity and stimulate the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system is a region that influences emotions and memories and is directly linked to the adrenals, pituitary gland, the hypothalamus, the parts of the body that regulate heart rate, blood pressure, stress, memory, hormone balance, and breathing. This makes the effects of essential oils immediate in bringing about emotional and physiological balance. Aromatherapy can be used for a variety of health conditions, such as allergies, stress, bruises, burns, diarrhoea, earache, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), energy, insect bites, relaxation, poor digestion, headache, menopause, insomnia, nausea, bronchitis, colds, flu, sinusitis, sprains, wounds, shingles (herpes zoster), muscle and joint pain, arthritis, nervousness, restlessness, and scars. The Elements of Woo Starting with Reiki, we see one of the most extreme departures from the real world. Not only do its practitioners claim there is some special life force which they can tap into, but they claim that only those who have had the skill passed to them by another Reiki practitioner-trainer, are able to use it.
Medicine and mysticism 32
The practitioners say they can pass energy into a person with lower energy thus bringing about an improvement in their health. This proposed force can apparently pass through anything. What would we need to know to assess this claim? At the very least, we would need a means of detecting the energy that the practitioner is selling. If we were filling a car with petrol, we would expect to be able to measure the amount we'd bought. The volume tells us the amount of energy we've obtained. There is of course no available means of detecting this Reiki energy. If the practitioner does nothing, you would be none the wiser. Without any means of energy detection, the practice cannot be distinguished from fraud. Crystals are formed when molecules, atoms or ions are arranged in a repeating regular structure making a solid. The crystals are held together by chemical bonds and the process of crystallisation is well-understood. All objects (not just crystals) have a fundamental frequency at which they will vibrate. Some crystals, such as quartz have a special property. When they are distorted by a magnet and then released, they will emit an electrical signal at a particular frequency. But when it is claimed that this electrical signal, which is only released under very specific circumstances, can restore “stability and balance to the body's energy systems” we have already jumped from a shaky understanding of chemistry, to claiming something very grandiose about the human body. But because of our accumulated knowledge based on scientific enquiry, we understand a great deal about how energy is moved around the body. We know how resources are digested, how the chemical reactions are regulated, which factors increase and impede the rates of reactions, and so on. We can only make claims about these crystals if we are prepared to throw out what we know of human biology. Chakra balancing relies on the idea of a “life force”. The theory claims that such life force consists of an energy which must be able to flow freely around the body. Having “chakras” aligned, it is claimed, is important to allow this flow to take
Medicine and mysticism 33
place properly. If the chakras are “misaligned”, we have problems. The notion of chakra is mystical, and refers to a kind of energy centre which some claim is located in the spine. Others claim there are centres distributed throughout the body. What should we require of the theory before we take it seriously? As an absolute minimum, we would need to have some evidence that chakra represented something real, something which could have an effect on our bodies. Secondly, if we had such evidence, we would need to know something about the alignment of these chakras and how it could be identified. But even supposing we had been able to establish the phenomena of chakras as real, we would still be left with a fundamental problem: how is the misalignment supposed to be related to the physical state of real bodies? By what mechanism can such effects be brought about? Again, in the absence of evidence of the existence of chakras, any claim to have realigned them is indistinguishable from fraud. Ayurvedic medicine draws on some very ancient traditions seeking inspiration in the mystical beliefs of the past. To the original Four Elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, thought in ancient times to be the basis of reality, Aristotle added the aether in order to represent the non-material world. In Tibetan philosophy, the fifth element is space. In Chinese philosophy Fire, Earth and Water are joined by Metal and Wood. In Taoism, Air is replaced by Qi, a mystical form of energy. Ayurvedic medicine is immersed in this pre-scientific world of mystical beliefs and seeks to relate those concepts to the appearance of illnesses. It postulates something called dosha, an Ayurvedic body type consisting of various combinations of elements, which define the appropriate balance. Since this theory is rooted in pre-scientific beliefs, it requires a rejection of the totality of modern scientific knowledge. Fire is not an element but a chemical process, the rapid oxidation of a combustible material. To form an acceptable theory, we would need to be able to show the existence of dosha and to show its inheritance. We would need a consistent means of tracing it from generation to generation.
Medicine and mysticism 34
We would need also a means of showing that such doshas could be out of balance. But again, even if we had some evidence for this, which we don't, we would still need a means of relating it to the health of the human body. Once again, we are unable to tell the difference between this and fraud. Aromatherapy is often looked upon kindly because it is considered a form of massage with nice smells. But the theory claims much more than this. It claims that smelling particular chemicals can affect the body and that as a consequence it is possible to bring about specific changes. It draws on some modern medical knowledge to justify its claims, for example, by linking changes in the limbic system to the state of the rest of the body. The limbic system is a collection of structures in the brain. A great deal is known about the limbic system and it is clearly a very important structure in the maintenance of hormonal balance, behaviour and memory. Aromatherapy is thus making a connection to established scientific evidence but the claims then made are extravagant. It is clear that relaxing massages do in fact relax the customer but any additional claims to influence the human body must be viewed with the same sceptical eye as the other claims in the Land of Woo. Can aromatherapy really help with insect bites and scars? How would we tell? We'd question the theory in the same way as we always do. We look for the evidence. And once again, we don't find any. Aromatherapists can certainly claim to provide relaxing massages but any further claims are dubious.
Pseudoscience, sham theory, and wishful thinking
The small sample above illustrates a common pattern amongst Woo candidates. Most of them introduce another form of energy, beyond what is currently known, which can only be detected by the practitioner. Occasionally, as in the case of crystal theory or aromatherapy, there is some attempt to relate Woo to existing scientific theory to provide some vague plausibility. In the case of crystals, there is a fundamental
Medicine and mysticism 35
frequency for crystal (as for all objects). In the case of aromatherapy the limbic system is affected by smells. But thereafter, having made reference to scientific knowledge, they seek to extend their claims well beyond anything reasonable or justifiable. Others take the mystical path, straight into the unidentifiable, undetectable, energy. Life forces, Qi, chakras, doshas, channels, meridians, and the like, all lack any evidence even of their existence. Of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But nor is it a justification for accepting the theory. There is no evidence either for the proverbial Flying Spaghetti Monster, so loved by Pastafarians the world over. The absence of disproof alone is not sufficient grounds for believing a theory. We can reasonably ask, if such theories are so lacking in any evidence, and are internally inconsistent, and contradict so much of what we know about the world, why do so many people seem to accept them as valid? We often hear the justification “they can't all be wrong, can they?” The short and unfortunate answer is, yes they can. Our history is full of wrong theories, mistaken beliefs, incorrect assumptions, inadequate explanations. The treatment of patients by bleeding was unquestioned for decades until someone decided to measure the results and find out the truth about what was happening. Without that effort to check and investigate, they could all be wrong, and were. Without Darwin's detailed researches we would still believe in the immutability of species. Marketing is a powerful tool used to change people's behaviour and although we all like to consider ourselves immune (we're much too smart to be taken in...), in fact companies use advertising because it works. If people can be persuaded that their gut needs additional bacteria, they will run out and buy “probiotic” yoghurt. If they can be persuaded that their spine has the undetectable subluxations causing digestive problems, they will spend money on a chiropractor. Marketing generates sales by modifying behaviour. If you change
Medicine and mysticism 36
someone's beliefs, you can change their behaviour. And pushing fatuous theories about how the body works, generates new markets for these businesses. The spreadsheet overrules any sense of scientific honesty. The use of scientific terms is a powerful tool in persuading people that the information can be trusted. Hair shampoo advertisements now contains all manner of meaningless pseudoscientific terms. Anti-wrinkle creams contain amazing chemicals which are claimed to reverse ageing. We are bombarded with all kinds of product-related claims. Each time there is the slightest cautionary report in the medical journals of a possible link between some food and some medical condition, the marketers launch products exploiting the fear they create by misrepresentation. Swamping genuine science is a suffocating layer of pseudoscience, misinformation, and marketing-created hype that is designed to subvert the results of careful research into tools to change behaviour to boost product sales. It is not at all surprising that people are so vulnerable to claims made from the Land of Woo. Pseudoscience is very alluring. For those not too familiar with scientific methods, rattling off some medical information about the limbic system gives the impression that the source of information is reputable, trustworthy, correct. And that confidence is seamlessly transferred to the more bizarre claims which follow. It's not surprising that so many people are taken in. It requires a consistent sceptical approach, the kind you'd use in buying a car, to see through marketing which uses pseudoscience. Sometimes we are given a theory which talks about energy and forces as if they were already shown to exist. If we don't already know something about energy and forces, perhaps from school days or a science course, we may simply assume that they have now been discovered. After all science is discovering new things all the time and we are led to accept the theory uncritically. But these are sham theories, little more than fanciful ideas joined together. As such they are no more valuable as descriptions of how the world works than pure
Medicine and mysticism 37
fiction. Although purporting to tell us something reliable about the world, they have skipped the crucial elements of a theory, the evidence, the explanatory power, the ability to predict and test. Finally we have those who indulge in wishful thinking. These devotees of Woo don't require a theory. All they need is customers willing to go along with a mind-set, a collection of vague ideas that make life seem nicer, a way of looking at the world that is in tune with their beliefs, often very pleasantly based on harmony, cooperation, love, peace, and respect for the environment. Such positive values are important in their own right but unfortunately are not sufficient to justify claims about how the world actually works. Those mystics who think they are tapping into deeper realities may really believe it, or maybe they just suspend the exacting standards needed for real knowledge in order to feel better about themselves and the world. As long as they don't take money off people, they are doing little harm.
Scientists have proved...
How many times have you heard that phrase? We already know that scientists don't prove things, they disprove them. But such is the need of marketers to give credibility to their dubious claims that they will use not just scientific sounding phrases, but will also cite scientific references. Sometimes advertisements will carry the statement that some product is endorsed by some institute or association apparently with scientific credentials. But what happens when the manufacturer owns or sponsors that institute or association? How much credibility should we give to scientific papers which prove how effective the product is when the institute that did the research is owned by the manufacturer? The answer is very little. But we already have the tools to evaluate that kind of research. We should ask if it met the gold standard of clinical
Medicine and mysticism 38
research: controlled, double-blind, randomised trials. Secondly, we should ask if the journal is genuinely peer reviewed, which means reviewed by people who are commercially independent, with an established scientific reputation for impartiality and openness. It is very easy for a large corporation to sponsor low quality trials designed to endorse particular products. The research could well be incomplete, partial, with insufficient controls. They don't even need to publish the actual data. We need to ask if the editorial aim of the journal is to endorse a particular form of therapy or product line, or genuinely to seek new knowledge based on strict scientific criteria. Scientific research is typically published in academic journals which are run by societies. They have editorial boards populated by leading practitioners in the field and their reputation is based on the quality of the material they publish. But where the society is actually a trade organisation, the material that is published can fall well below acceptable scientific standards. Many of the journals of chiropractic publish papers which do not conform to the high editorial standards expected of leading scientific journals. The bottom line is that, if the research cannot be reproduced, or is not based on standards which insist on objectivity and freedom from bias, it does not matter who claims the results. They are still suspect. Scientists do not make extraordinary claims without offering extraordinary evidence. Normally they make very cautious claims, backed up by extensive evidence, and they themselves identify the weak parts of any theory employed. Scientists are intensively trained to be highly sensitive to the limitations of their data and theories. So when a marketer, magazine or newspaper claims that scientists have proved something, the most likely explanation is that they have taken the cautious statement from a scientist, and turned it into a headline, or an advert.
Medicine and mysticism
Hobby Woo and delusional Woo
So what sort of people fall for the Land of Woo? Some highly intelligent people consult chiropractors for allergy treatment even though they haven't seen any evidence that it works. There are people who despite being rational in all other areas of their lives, will fervently recommend homeopathic medicine. Apparently rational hard-nosed business people will swear blind that someone manipulating their neck alleviated their sore knee. What exactly is going on? There are those who lack the scientific understanding to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience, between real and sham theory. They are subjected to the marketing pressures which we have already noted. What they believe depends to a large extent on the strength and content of the marketing message. Those are people willing to accept what they are told because they trust the authority of the person telling them. They trust the marketing message and suspend their critical judgement. Often we'll hear them say, if it didn't work there wouldn't be a market for it. But they have made a mistake. The correct statement is “if people didn't believe it works, there wouldn't be a market for it.” These are subtly but crucially different statements. Markets abound in examples of useless and pointless products nevertheless selling well. “There's one born every minute,” as the phrase goes. But there are two other groups of people who are big consumers of Woo. One group consists of those who are essentially entertaining themselves with fanciful ideas, outlandish theories, wacky cures and therapies, who simply enjoy the experience of stepping outside of the real world, into the Land of Woo. If they had appendicitis, they would go to a hospital, not a homeopath. If they had a broken bone, they'd have it set rather than rely on a crystal. But if they had a skin rash and the cream from the doctor didn't seem to be working, they would willingly swallow some Ayurvedic medicine, or some herbal remedy. The notion that “it might work” entertains them and the lack of
Medicine and mysticism 40
evidence is not part of the equation. It's fun, harmless enough, and interesting. The very weirdness of the idea is the appeal. These followers of hobby Woo provide a huge market for therapies, books, videos, and all sorts of accessories. They like fiction. They are entertaining themselves. For the hobby Wooist, it really doesn't matter too much which branch they happen to be on at the moment. The tree of Woo is just an interesting place to be and moving from branch to branch is what it's all about. Therapeutic touch? I'll have some of that. Homeopathy, why not? It is completely irrelevant that the theories of these different forms of Woo might conflict. “It might work” applies uniformly to all the untested, unevidenced claims in equal degree. It's simply amorphous fun. It's rather like sampling different foods, or buying a funny hat on holiday. It's not serious. But the other group consists of those who genuinely believe they are tapping into a deeper reality. They genuinely believe that there are chakras, meridians, life forces, auras, energy fields, and previously unknown forms of energy. They believe they are gifted in some way, able to transmit their powers and perform works of healing. These people are delusional. But how did they come to accept those beliefs in the first place? Some therapists believe they are doing good because of the anecdotal reports of the people who have paid them for their sessions. The placebo effect for them isn't a phenomenon that skews evidence, but a confirmation that they are doing something useful. They don't understand the difference between real treatment and apparent treatment. Their misunderstanding of the value of anecdote as evidence leads them to convince themselves that they are doing good. They are the victims of their own placebo effect. There are many honest, but delusional, therapists in this category. Lacking the scientific understanding and appreciation of evidence, they have accepted their own marketing because their customers in turn convince them. There are of course those who know full well that what they do is sham, ineffective, preying on the gullible, but it's a nice
Medicine and mysticism 41
little earner. They console themselves that as long as they do no (actionable) harm, and the customers are kept happy, it doesn't matter whether they are doing anything real or not. They are pyramid-selling delusion. Some schemes, such as Reiki, insist that the powers can only be passed from one devotee to the next trainee, thus ensuring that self-teaching isn't going to work. That's a closed franchising system in which someone buying in recovers their costs by taking in others, either as “patients” or “trainees”. It's the small business model favoured by franchisers who can recover their costs quickly and pass the risk onto others. One important point to note here is that if the therapist studies science and discovers the lack of evidence and the sham nature of Woo, they could no longer practice without risking a charge of fraud. Knowingly passing off fake cures as genuine cures is fraud. If they don't know the science, they can't be charged with knowingly passing off false cures. That's a powerful incentive to remain ignorant about real human biology. But does any of this do any real harm? Unfortunately, in some cases it does.
The harm of Woo
In the case of those people who only ever resort to Woo for trivial ailments, clearly this is of no great significance. If they want to spend a lot of money buying homeopathic sugar pills, why shouldn't they? It won't cure them of anything at all, but it won't harm them either. And if they sleep with a crystal under the pillow to try to cure an allergy, it won't cure them but it won't harm them either. So on the face of it, it seems a pretty benign activity, at worst harming only their wallets. But there are some important consequences too. What would you think of a parent who, instead of taking their child to the doctor to get treatment for pneumonia, gave the child homeopathic medicines whose supposed active ingredient had been diluted to the point of absence? And if the child died,
Medicine and mysticism 42
would you say the parents had acted responsibly? What if homeopaths were promoting a homeopathic cure for AIDS as they have been doing in Africa? What would you think about the ethics of such a claim? Do you think they should have to produce evidence before making such a claim? How about treating malaria? Should homeopaths be allowed to advertise that they can offer such a cure? These are stark examples of how unfounded therapies can lead, and in some cases have led, to death. If a persuasive practitioner, building on the hopes of the sufferer, convinces them to adopt an unproven therapy instead of a conventional proven treatment, it can cause untold harm. Cancer patients are particularly vulnerable and apocryphal accounts of tumours unexpectedly going into remission abound on the internet. If cancer patients are led to replace known effective treatments with unproven alternative therapies, they may well be buying a death sentence. That's not melodramatic, it's fact. But there is also a more subtle effect. When people are persuaded to drop their sceptical attitude, they become much more open to other unfounded claims. If you accept that homeopathy might work even though there's absolutely no evidence for it, then you will equally accept another improbable, implausible alternative that also has no evidence. Your gullibility is greatly increased. That makes it easier to sell you something else which also has no evidence. It's a win-win for the marketers. By undermining the value of the scientific method, of the cautious and self-critical progress of science, of the need for evidence and testing, our hard won knowledge becomes just another commodity to be adulterated and sold. Knowledge of human biology is mangled up with notions of chakras and channels, energy fields and strange forces. We get ridiculous unscientific claims about detox and free radicals, caffeine, salt, and nutrients. We are bombarded by strange chemicals with bizarre names in cosmetics which apparently have magical properties, and people can no longer tell the difference between evidence-based claims and marketing hype. That suits the
Medicine and mysticism 43
marketers but it undermines our ability to make reasoned judgements. We need to restore our critical abilities to take back control over those decisions that affect our nutrition and our health. When our behaviour becomes conditioned by belief in unfounded theories about how the world works, we lose our power of rational thinking and we become more likely to follow the loudest noise.
How to spot Woo
Woo crops up in all sorts of areas but there are some clear indicators which should arouse our suspicions. Here's a short checklist: An undetectable source of energy or force is the active ingredient. If this were true, the discoverers would have already collected a Nobel Prize for medicine. They probably haven't. The technique relies on a theory that is inconsistent with known human biology or other known science. Anyone talking about pulsing cerebrospinal fluid in the ankles, for example, has no idea what they are talking about. They talk of aligning, balancing, readjusting, compensating, invisible things like energies or forces. They have no tangible means of measuring or controlling what they claim to be doing. They are unable to explain how whatever they do, results in a healing effect, without recourse to another unknown or mystical force. For example, they might explain that massage relaxes you but fail to explain how that will improve your immune system. They will expect, without any grounds, that you will need a course of treatment which will require the same mystical process to be repeated.
Medicine and mysticism 44
There will be no evidence of clinical trial quality to substantiate any of their claims. None of their evidence will be from controlled, double-blind, randomised trials.
Here is a short checklist of questions you can ask practitioners of alternative medicine. Ask all of the questions, record the answers, and then weigh up just how trustworthy their claims really are. If they refuse to answer, have nothing to do with them. Don't agree to pay anything until you have evaluated their answers. You are checking to see if you want to buy what they are selling. Apart from anecdotal evidence, how do you record and judge the effectiveness of the therapy you offer? Apart from what the patient says, how do you tell when a treatment has not worked? How do you know that you are detecting Qi/chakra/energy fields/meridians/subluxation/doshas... and how do you measure the change? How does what you do, affect what you are measuring? Is it demonstrable? What studies have you undertaken of human biology and to what level? Can you, for example, tell me where the pituitary gland is and what it does? What is a controlled, double-blind, randomised trial and why is it essential in collecting evidence of clinical effectiveness? How does your therapy work? Specifically, how does what you do, bring about the specific changes?
• • •
Once you have that information, you can judge whether their proposed treatment has anything to recommend it. I repeat, don't agree to pay for anything until they have answered
Medicine and mysticism 45
these questions and you've had a chance to think about their answers. Summary We started this chapter with a look at the difference between magic and mysticism, and science. We saw that magical thinking relies on unjustified claims about how the world works. It provides theories in the form of stories which are never tested, often because they are themselves untestable. In contrast, science derives its theories from data. Theories are not simply stories or descriptions of how the world is thought to be, but they also provide means of making testable statements which can be used to find out if they are true. In medicine that provides a mechanism for correction. If a theory is wrong, clinical evidence can show it up and the theory can be corrected. So medicine can get better and better. Diagnostic techniques can improve, clinical knowledge can grow. We explored the idea that everything is possible and showed how in fact it isn't. Although there are many things we do not yet know, we have accumulated a great deal of knowledge which allows us to predict and control the external world with a great deal of success. Physical laws are established by scientific experiment and these are independent of the ideas, values, and beliefs of scientists. For this reason, if someone finds a new form of energy, then the whole of science is affected. It isn't simply filling a gap in science, but a radical challenge to our accumulated knowledge. We looked at a sample of alternative medicine claims and looked at the magical thinking behind them, and then examined how sometimes the vocabulary from science is used to provide credibility. Sham theory does not provide the predictive element necessary for the design of experiments which can disprove them by testing them against the real world. They are therefore simply fictions. We looked at the difference between reputable peer-reviewed scientific material, and the sort of material published by trade publications masquerading as academic journals.
Medicine and mysticism 46
We made a distinction between hobby and delusional Woo and looked at the motives of those subscribing to magical theories, and we identified some key characteristics of Woo practitioners. In particular, we showed how ignorance of how the world works is an important defence against the charge of fraud. Not knowing, for the Woo practitioner, is a safer legal stance than knowing. We looked at how the placebo effect can also convince the Woo practitioner themselves providing they rely only on anecdotal evidence. We then looked at the harm that Woo does, and provided a way of spotting Woo in its many forms and offered a short list of pertinent questions to ask anyone trying to sell you Woo. We are now well-primed about health Woo, but what about food?
Medicine and mysticism
We all know that what we eat greatly affects our health. We know from medical studies, for example, that high blood cholesterol is associated with heart disease. We know that if we eat too much food, we put on weight and that obesity brings with it many health problems. And since we buy the food we consume, our beliefs about our diet and nutrition directly affect our spending activity. It is therefore an irresistible target for marketers and advertisers. If food consumers can be made to believe that their nutrition requires a particular supplement, or products with particular characteristics, that makes money for the producers. The more concern that can be generated about the adequacy of the normal diet, the more marketing space there is for new products, and therefore increased profits. Food marketers have a vested interest in creating doubt, confusion, and uncertainty about nutrition. We have seen a massive growth in the number of nutritionists who claim to have expertise in human nutrition. One way in which professions promote the skills of their members is to insist on certain recognised qualifications, obtained through regulated examination. That is the case with dieticians in the UK, who have to complete a degree course in a university, or if they already possess a degree in a relevant subject, complete postgraduate study. Without this very strict and exacting training, you cannot practice as a dietician. By contrast, a nutritionist does not have to have any qualifications at all. In fact, you or I can put up a plate and start practising as a nutritionist any time we like, whether or not we know anything at all about human nutrition. Sometimes nutritionists claim to have qualifications but often these are paid for on short courses in institutions that are similarly taught by self-declared experts. Without the rigorous
Food Woo 48
regulation of exacting scientific standards, nutritionist qualifications are worthless. There are many foodies foraging in the land of Woo. They talk about dietary supplements, detox, an enormous range of diets, and seem to possess arcane knowledge about the importance of various elements such as Zinc and Selenium. They offer scare stories about free radicals and the importance of antioxidants. If they are nutritionists, it is quite possible that they have little or no understanding of any of this stuff.
Human nutrition – the basics
Our food contains what we need to survive but not in a form we can use immediately. It has to be processed first into simpler chemicals that the body can use. That is what our alimentary canal is for. It consists of an elaborate pipe that passes through the body from the mouth to the anus. As food passes through, it is treated by being mixed with biological chemicals called enzymes. These chemicals are actually proteins that chop up the large chemicals in food into smaller pieces. Our food consists of basically three types of chemicals: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Different parts of the alimentary canal have different enzymes, some working in very acid environments (like the stomach) and some in mildly alkaline (like in the mouth and small intestine). Different components of the food are digested in different places. Sugars are broken down in the mouth by an enzyme called ptyalin (enzymes often have obscure names...) and proteins are broken down in the stomach and small intestine by enzymes such as renin, pepsin, and trypsin. Fats are broken down in the small intestine by enzymes called lipases. Nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream from the gut, along with water. Anything that isn't absorbed that way, is removed from the body through the anus. Inside the gut, there are colonies of bacteria. The majority (around 85%) are beneficial whereas the remainder can in some circumstances be harmful. The balance is maintained because the harmful
Food Woo 49
bacteria are starved of nutrients preventing their growth beyond a safe level. The process of burning up those simpler chemicals to produce energy, also produces bi-products which need to be removed from the body. These unwanted chemicals are produced in the body tissues. The lymph system feeds them into the bloodstream which carries them to the liver and the kidneys. The liver will store unused carbohydrate sources of energy as a chemical called glycogen where it provides a reserve energy store for use during starvation. The liver does a number of jobs. It breaks down old red blood cells, makes protein for the blood plasma, makes bile to help in fat digestion, and it even makes some hormones. It also breaks down any chemicals which are toxic. It is the body's very own detox mechanism. The other breakdown products are removed by the kidneys and will be excreted as urine. The body takes the simple products of digestion such as glucose, amino acids and simple fats, and makes the larger chemicals we need, such as proteins. But there are some chemicals we need which we cannot synthesise inside our bodies. For example, every red blood cell contains a protein called haemoglobin which binds to oxygen so it can be carried around the body. In the centre of the haemoglobin molecule is an atom of iron. We need to eat that iron in some food or other. Fortunately iron is available in very many foods such as meat, fish, poultry, beans, and lentils. Unless we suffer from an illness, it is hard to produce iron deficiency (anaemia) in humans. We also need tiny amounts of other chemicals called vitamins. But if we eat a balanced diet, we get all the nutrients we need. Now let's take a look at some of the claims and see if there's any basis for them.
Oxidation, antioxidants and free radicals
We are often told in advertising and the associated articles that our health is at risk from oxidation and free radicals and that therefore we need to increase the amount of antioxidants in our diet. Certain foods, we are told, are rich in antioxidants and these will prevent the harm caused by those free radicals. Unless we understand this vocabulary, we only get the message that we are at risk and should eat something recommended to offset the danger. For marketers, a little ignorance goes a long way. So here's the low-down. Oxidation and reduction are two sides of the same coin – you don't get one without the other. Oxidation refers to the loss of hydrogen or electrons, or the gain of oxygen. So for example carbon can be oxidised to carbon dioxide (addition of oxygen). Reduction refers to the gain of hydrogen or electrons, or the loss of oxygen. So for example, an atom of carbon can be reduced with four atoms of hydrogen to make methane (adding hydrogen). Most biological processes involve oxidation-reduction. Our bodies oxidise glucose to carbon dioxide and at the same time reduce oxygen to water. That's an absolutely vital process for all of us. Without oxidation we wouldn't be able to extract energy from our food nor breathe out our carbon dioxide and we'd die. So oxidation itself is not a problem, it's a normal part of human metabolism. Similarly reduction is not a problem either. Free radicals are molecules that have an unpaired or spare electron, which makes them highly reactive. They are looking for anything to restore themselves to a more stable state. Not all free radicals are that reactive. For example two atoms of oxygen together form a free radical that is perfectly stable. The reactivity of free radicals is essential for some of our biochemical reactions including those involved in the breakdown of harmful bacteria and in nerve transmission. But they can also be a problem if they are not contained. They have been associated with ageing, with some cancers, with
Food Woo 51
Parkinson's disease, and many others. Uncontrolled, the free radicals can cause a great deal of harm. And that's where the antioxidants come in. The human body has a number of mechanism to control the actions of free radicals including the enzymes superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, and glutathione reductase as well as vitamins C and E. Should we then be worried about getting enough antioxidants to cancel out the harmful effects of those free radicals? Fortunately, we can get a plentiful supply of antioxidants without really trying. They are readily available in fruit and vegetables. But does adding additional antioxidants improve our health? The trials that have been done so far show no benefit in the case of heart disease and cancer incidence nor with the progression of existing illness. But it's worse than that. Trials have shown that people taking beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E as supplements actually have worse health. Beta-carotene increased death rates by 7 per cent, vitamin A by 16 per cent, and vitamin E by 4 per cent. Check it out for yourself. Adding extra antioxidants affects the body's own mechanism for balancing the effects of the free radicals, so it is not even yet known that it is a safe procedure. Many scientists now believe the whole hype about extra antioxidants in the diet was misguided from the beginning and that there is no evidence of any benefit. But we do know that it's a $20 billion industry in the USA.
Toxins and detox
When we talk about toxins and detox, we are assuming that there are chemicals in the body which we need to remove for our health. We already know about the breakdown products of digestion which our body naturally removes but we are also drawn into thinking that there are other harmful chemicals which get into our bodies. There may be contaminants in our
Food Woo 52
food, perhaps pesticides, antibiotics, poisonous metals, or the products of harmful bacteria, and it is claimed that these too need to be removed. The assumption is that the human body's own way of eliminating these toxins is inadequate. The range of toxins listed in detox web adverts found in just two minutes include: ammonia, lead, food additives, cigarette smoke, carcinogens, arsenic, herbicides, fertilisers, plastic packaging (seriously), aluminium, mercury, preservatives and hormones. Suggested mechanisms for detoxing your body included taking pills, changing your diet, wearing foot pads, colonic irrigation, and a variety of high speed products including drinks and chewing gum. But if we have such toxins within us, they will be within tissues, possibly bound to other molecules, involved in chemical reactions, having a metabolic effect. When people are poisoned by industrial chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides, there is always an initial process of identification because without understanding the nature of the poisoning, we cannot know how to go about removing the poison. The complexity of the metabolic reaction makes this investigation essential. Those who offer generic solutions to the problem of toxins clearly don't realise this, or else believe one solution fits all.
Can eating things detox you?
Clearly you can restrict the entry of certain substances into your body by choosing your diet carefully. You can avoid alcohol or caffeine if you want to, and you can adjust the composition of your food, perhaps adopting a deliberately unbalanced diet to eliminate certain foodstuffs, but it is wise to consult a qualified dietician before doing anything radical. Unbalanced diets can lead to dietary deficiency and even malnutrition. But gently restricting calorie intake will slow down weight gain or may even reduce weight and that is more likely to be beneficial than harmful for most of us. Proactively changing your diet, despite it being
Food Woo 53
recommended by most detox marketers, is not the same as removing toxins from the body. The detox marketers claim that they have dietary supplements that can remove toxins from the body. If they do not identify the toxins, their claims can never be tested, and therefore never be disproved. They therefore avoid the charge of fraud. If a dietary mechanism for the elimination of toxins is to work, there must be some agent which gets to the tissues around the body which can bind to the toxin (a process known as conjugation) or denature it (through oxidation). If it binds, then the composite molecule has to be eliminated using the body's own mechanisms. These specific claims are testable if and when the toxin is identified. But there is no scientific evidence for the accumulation of toxins in the body. So eating something to eliminate them is a nonsense. They are not there in the first place.
Cholesterol, fats and fatty acids
Cholesterol is one of those chemicals which occur naturally in the body and without it, we wouldn't be able to synthesise certain hormones called steroids. Steroids form part of a larger group of biological chemicals called lipids, which also includes fats. These steroid hormones are vitally important to us and it is their fatty characteristic that allows them to pass through cell membranes easily. If we didn't have any cholesterol, we couldn't make those hormones inside our bodies. So cholesterol, far from being really bad, is actually essential. But like many things in the body, an excess can be harmful. Fats are chemically different from both carbohydrates and proteins because they have a different structure. Just like other foodstuffs, our gut breaks down fats into simpler components which are then used to build up the chemicals we need. Fats come in different varieties and they have different properties. Steroids for example, have a complex ring structure, whereas fatty acids are much simpler. Within the fatty acids, we have
Food Woo 54
saturated and unsaturated which simply refers to the type of chemical bonds holding them together. Some fatty acids are made inside the body, but others we need to get through our food and we call those essential fatty acids. There are only two of these: linoleic acid and alpha linoleic acid. All the other fatty acids we can make ourselves. The terms LDL and HDL are touted around as well. LDL refers to low density lipoprotein in contrast to HDL which refers to high density lipoprotein. All lipoproteins enable fats and cholesterol to be transported around the water-based blood system (because they are soluble) but HDL has often been incorrectly referred to as “good cholesterol” on the grounds that a high LDL level is often associated with cardiovascular disease. LDL is sometimes even used as a test for it. The issues are confused further because it is known that until oxidised, LDLs are pretty harmless and it's those dreaded free radicals which can do the oxidation. That led to claims that to counter the LDLs you needed to eat more antioxidants but the research is inconclusive. So rather than modifying your diet to increase antioxidants, by far the most sensible thing to do is to limit the amount of animal fats and full-fat dairy products you eat. The term polyunsaturated fatty acid simply refers to the structure of these essential fatty acids contrasting them with saturated fatty acids. We also hear the term omega used frequently, for example omega 6 fatty acid. What this refers to is the position of an unsaturated chemical bond in position 6 of the fatty acid chain. There are also omega 3 and omega 9 fatty acids though we don't need the 9 variety because the body can make them itself. Omega 3 and 6 are important to us because they are necessary for the production of biological chemicals we need. The language of chemistry is used to describe the structure of these chemicals but that doesn't stop the advertisers makings use of them too. Nowadays it is common to see milk enriched with omega 3, and there are many health products advertising these supplements. Omega 3 and 6 comes from a variety of foodstuffs particularly oily fish, but also soya and rapeseed oil,
Food Woo 55
and leafy vegetables. It is still controversial whether or not dietary supplements of omega 3 and 6 makes a significant difference to health and research is ongoing. Nevertheless it is clear that the quantity of these fatty acids in the diet has declined over the centuries and some scientists argue that this change in diet may affect the incidence of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. Research is continuing into these hypotheses. Taking omega 3 supplements is unlikely to lead to excess since the body simply excretes what it doesn't need. Although cholesterol is found in foodstuffs, generally we get our cholesterol by synthesising it in the liver. We make around 75% of the body's cholesterol and get the rest from our diet. It gets recycled with the liver excreting it into the bile that flows into the small intestine to help with the digestion of fats, then a lot of it is reabsorbed later in the gut. All foods containing animal fats contain some cholesterol and it's the continual high level of cholesterol which is harmful, leading to congestion of the arteries. Saturated fats are particularly associated with high cholesterol levels and that means foods like full-fat dairy products and animal fats. There is no doubt that high cholesterol levels are associated with heart disease and that reducing cholesterol is a recommended good health strategy. It is therefore important to realise that if you undertake a low carbohydrate diet, your relative proportion of fats may increase and you are therefore likely to increase your intake of cholesterol. So where does all this leave us? Since we can manufacture internally almost all the cholesterol we need, then as long as we have a balanced diet containing the two essential fatty acids, we can safely avoid full-fat dairy products and animal fats, keeping our cholesterol down to a safe level. There is some evidence that the omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are helpful but we can get those through a balanced diet. If we choose to take extra, it won't harm us unless we suffer from specific medical conditions so it's fairly safe. Mention of the chemical jargon is almost always there to increase sales by providing them with
Food Woo 56
scientific respectability but as with other branches of Woo, the effect is to confuse and cast doubt in order to encourage sales.
This involves pumping water into the large intestine (colon) through a pipe inserted into the anus with the intention of flushing out material from the gut. This process will certainly remove material from the gut, but the Woo claim goes beyond this to argue that it also removes dangerous toxins which build up in the body. But there is no evidence that toxins accumulate in the gut. This is a remnant of a disproved scientific hypothesis from the nineteenth century. The gut, by necessity is largely waterproof. Absorption of water from the gut takes place through a tightly-controlled biological mechanism. Nothing pumped into the colon will cause any chemicals in the bloodstream to be flushed out. If there are any toxins in the blood, they will still be there after colonic irrigation has finished.
This is a routine clinical medical treatment for poisoning with heavy metals such as mercury or lead, or metalloids such as arsenic, and it was initially developed to treat gas attack victims from World War I. The chemicals in the chelating agent were injected into the patient and they bound tightly to the arsenic atoms, forming a water soluble compound. Because it was water soluble, it could then be eliminated from the body through the liver and kidneys, the body's own mechanism. Some detox marketers now offer such chemicals as a possible treatment for coronary artery disease but there is no scientific evidence to support it. Although chelation therapy is a recognised clinical therapy for certain forms of poisoning, its use has been usurped by the marketers of Woo to treat nonexistent poisoning. There are safety concerns about the introduction of such
Food Woo 57
powerful chemicals into the body as they have the potential seriously to disrupt our finely balanced metabolism.
There are many metals that are essential for the body to function. These include iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, sodium, potassium and copper. Each of these metals is ingested in chemical combinations in food. Iron is essential for the formation of haemoglobin in the blood. It is abundant in meat, fish, poultry, beans, and leafy vegetables. Its level in the human body is self-regulating and excessive iron leads to toxicity. Unless a person is suffering from a medical condition, it is difficult to develop iron deficiency. Zinc is enormously important to human biochemistry and is found throughout the body but especially in the brain, kidney, liver, bones and muscles. It is involved in the regulation of the nervous system. It is abundant in all red meats but also beans, wheat and nuts. It is difficult to be zinc deficient but too much additional zinc in dietary supplement carries the risk of toxicity. Magnesium is essential for the production of nucleic acids, the building blocks of DNA. Magnesium is at the centre of the chlorophyll molecule, the pigment in all green vegetables. Although through poor or deliberately modified diet, it is possible to experience magnesium deficiency, it is abundant in tea, coffee, green vegetables, nuts, and even spices. It is almost impossible to produce an excess of magnesium because, since almost all magnesium salts are soluble, the kidneys will filter it out very efficiently. High concentrations of magnesium though have a laxative effect. Calcium is essential for bones and teeth and is plentiful in dairy products, nuts, oranges, and even seaweed. It requires vitamin D for absorption through the gut. However, adding extra calcium in the form of dietary supplements can actually slow down the rate of calcium absorption itself.
Food Woo 58
Sodium is enormously important in human biology helping to regulate body fluids, blood pressure, and in enabling nerve transmission and muscle contraction. Because of the common use of salt as a seasoning most people take in more than ten times their daily requirement and although salt is excreted through the skin, excess sodium intake can be harmful to people with high blood pressure. In hot climates, insufficient sodium intake can result in cramps. Potassium is a metal very similar to sodium and it too is involved in nerve transmission and in fluid balance. It is extremely difficult to generate a potassium deficiency with a balanced diet because it is very common in fruit, vegetables and meats. An unbalanced diet, or one unbalanced by design, can lead to potassium deficiency. Potassium deficiency is most commonly seen in patients undergoing treatment for renal failure in which potassium is lost along with sodium. Healthy individuals need no additional potassium. Copper is essential to human metabolism and is found in muscle, liver and bone and it is used in the metabolism of fats. Copper is common in the normal diet in green vegetables, potatoes, beans, nuts and shellfish. All of these metals are self-regulating in the human body, are abundant in a balanced diet, and far from being toxins, are essential to metabolism.
It is only necessary to supplement our diets when we have a known deficiency. The blanket intake of additional vitamins and minerals will not only be filling any particular deficiency, but may also lead to toxicity. For example, although the B vitamins are easily excreted, it is possible to produce toxicity by excessive intake of niacin, pyridoxine or folic acid. An interesting exercise is to compare the compositions of typical dietary supplement pills and say, a potato! A medium -sized potato already supplies 45% of the daily need for vitamin C (an orange will make up the rest), and a good chunk of all the
Food Woo 59
other vitamins. You also get thrown in calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium. A balanced diet is by far the best source of nutrients.
The essential elements of Food Woo
The customer has to be convinced that his or her existing diet is inadequate in some way and that it needs to change in the direction of a product. The inadequacy takes two forms: a dietary deficiency, or a failure to remove toxins. The customer is presented with some well-known dietary information, perhaps tables of recommended daily intake of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, or lists of vitamins, or the composition of various foodstuffs. The very real health risks of obesity and poor diet are stressed, but whereas the science points to the need for a balanced diet and exercise, Woo marketers bring in additional requirements. As well as eating sensibly and exercising, you are told you also have a need to remove toxins, and to supplement your diet with their products. Having used the real science to set the scene and convince the customer that they are receiving good advice, they get some good advice (eat properly, exercise) and some bad advice (that they need detox and/or supplements). Science is used to put the customer at ease before they are (sometimes literally) sold a lemon! Summary We need to look at how human nutrition really works and not trust the self-appointed nutritionists with their fanciful stories. We now know a bit about the important metals, the vitamins, the enzymes, how the gut functions, and we know that claims about toxins are unfounded. We understand about oxidation and reduction, and what free radicals are, and we know that the detox brigade are misrepresenting science. We've looked at some of the science behind the vocabulary
Food Woo 60
of cholesterol and fatty acids and seen that there is some inconclusive evidence in support of the significance of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. But more than anything else, the clear message is that eating sensibly without recourse to supplements gives us the best chance of a healthy digestion. So now we can dispense with the food fads, the nonsense diets, the supplements, the scares about toxins and free radicals and trust in a sensible balanced diet. Goodbye to the land of Food Woo.
Religious beliefs and theories about the world
Religious people tell us that there are one or more invisible gods who either individually or collectively control our destiny, our universe, and all that is in it. They draw ethical and moral support from revered texts. They themselves try to follow codes of conduct defined in varying degrees by religious organisations, based on their expectations of an existence after their earthly death. Reality for them consists of an earthly, material existence lasting the normal life-span of human beings, and a post-death immaterial existence based on the judgement of one or more deities. This post-death phase varies between religions but all have an element of judgement in which the fate of the individual is considered against the backdrop of their earthly actions. For many, their religious faith is the basis of their morality and without it they feel they would not be moral people. It may be fear of retribution, or the desire for heavenly approval, but for them, morality and the values they hold are inextricably bound up with their religious faith. Without religion, no morality. We'll test that claim a little later. But religions also have made claims about how the world is. Religious authorities have offered their opinions on how the world came to be the way it is, and just as in science, their theories have been adapted as new information has become available. Nevertheless, there are certain fundamental statements about how the world is, which deserve to be taken seriously from our rational point of view. Religious ideas have no special status in this regard: if they are making claims about the real world, we can investigate them rationally.
Religious beliefs and theories about the world
Religion and reality
The Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) each have a version of the creation story in which a god creates the world from nothing. There are religious explanations for the arrival of different species, for the distribution of certain tribal groups, and for the physical characteristics of the land, as well as accounts of miracles and strange phenomena. When religions make such statements about how the world is, these can be formulated as hypotheses which can be subjected to test. In other words, they can be disproved given appropriate evidence. Historically, religious authorities have been vigorously opposed to such enquiry and there is a long history of persecution of those who, even if they themselves were religious, sought to explore the truth or falsity of religious claims about how the world actually is. In the case of extraordinary events, such as reported miracles, we can consider not only the poor quality anecdotal evidence (for that is all we have) but we can also look at the consistency of these theories with what we already know about the way the world works. As is always the case with anecdotal evidence, we cannot establish that the account was accurate and unbiased. In these cases independent reproducible evidence is not available. How then can we investigate these religious theories about the world, these accounts of extraordinary events? One way is to look at what would have had to be different from what we already know is true, in order for these events to have taken place, and to look at alternative theories that can adequately explain the reported observations.
Biblical versus geological time
How do we go about establishing the age of the earth? Given a biblical account which puts it at around 6000 years, how do we go about questioning this figure? What would constitute acceptable evidence?
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 63
In the nineteenth century, a devoutly Christian English geologist called Charles Lyell investigated the slow deposition of sediments which produced fossils and concluded that the age of the earth must be very great indeed. His observations required a process on what we now call the geological time scale. This undermined any notion that the earth was accurately dated by the Bible. His evidence of fossils, of rock strata, and his extensive studies around the world, convinced him that millions of years were required. Nowadays, we have a very accurate technique called radiometric dating, which uses the known characteristics of the decay of radioactive isotopes to work out how long the earth took to get into its present state. The accepted figure based on these measurements is 4.64 billion years, and that's to within 1% accuracy. So it's relatively easy then to disprove the biblical claim of the age of the earth. Anyone who doubts the refutation can investigate the theory, the measurements, and check all the evidence for themselves.
It is claimed that there was a flood which covered the whole of the world around 6000 years ago and that all life after the flood derives from a very small group of survivors. This theory was believed almost universally in the Christian world until the seventeenth century when the accumulated evidence started to cast doubt on it. So can this claim be refuted? Is it an hypothesis open to disproof? Clearly if evidence can be found of life on the geological time scale, then this contradicts the theory that life only began some 6000 years ago. The evidence is provided by the fossil record which, using dating techniques, puts the earliest fossils at around 2.7 million years old. This is clear evidence of biological activity. Although some religious critics have argued that the whole of the fossil record was deposited close to 6000 years ago, in perhaps as little as 150 years, the reliability
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 64
and accuracy of the dating techniques leaves this objection incredible. So the evidence provided from the fossil record together with the radiometric dating techniques disproves the flood hypothesis. Further evidence from geography, palaeontology, archaeology, genetics, and many other disciplines supports the case against the flood hypothesis. We can therefore be confident that there was no flood, at least on the scale recorded in the Bible. As a result Lyell sought and found an explanation for why marine fossils are found even in mountains. His theory of how mountains formed, a precursor to the theory of continental drift, removed what little remained of his earlier belief in the flood.
The doctrine of the Christian church was that all species were put on the earth by a divine creator, ready-formed and complete, and that they were immutable. There was a fixed number of species. This doctrine was taught in all the universities across England, mainland Europe and America. It was unquestioned. It is understandable then that Darwin delayed his publication of the Origin of Species for more than twenty years because he feared the reaction from the religiously-committed academic community. Darwin though had not just incontrovertible evidence that species did change, but that they were all changing continuously and that new species arose. This was dynamite. Not only were species not put on earth by the divine creator, but as a normal matter of course, new ones arose naturally. A central doctrine of the church was demonstrably wrong. But Darwin had gone further and developed a theory that explained in considerable detail how new adaptations arose, how survival competition favoured those species bestadapted. He lacked the knowledge of genetics that we now have and yet he had explained in common terms how a simple
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 65
mechanism produced the incredible diversity of life, how complex organs arose by a slow process of evolution, in short how the richness of living organisms did not require a divine creator. We have to be clear here. The hypothesis that fell was the immutability of species. That hypothesis was wrong – species are not unchanging, immutable. That was bad enough for the church of course, but the delivery of a theory that explained everything that was observed left nothing for the divine creator to do. Evolution now has a huge amount of supporting evidence ranging from the fossil record, geographical distribution, comparative anatomy, molecular variance, mitochondrial DNA, studies of speciation, and so on. Despite more than a hundred and fifty years of continuous study, there has been no evidence at all to disprove the theory. It remains one of the most challenged and successful scientific theories of all time.
Religion and the immaterial
Many religious people accept that biblical texts are largely anecdotal. They were written at a time when modern technology was the cart so it is unreasonable to expect any kind of scientific consistency. The Bible, they argue was allegorical, using stories to illustrate important truths. The Old Testament, they say, is a collection of handed-down stories and they should not be taken as literal truth. For them, the essence of religion is what it says about the immaterial. We are asked to accept a side of reality which has no embodiment that we can detect, but which has crucial importance for the way we live our lives, and what will happen to us when we leave our bodily form. Here we see the biggest divide between the two viewpoints, believing and sceptical. Starting from the believing point of view, we accept all of this until such times as we get a reason to disbelieve. Starting from the sceptical point of view, we do not accept any of it in the absence of evidence. But in the absence
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 66
of evidence, both camps are starved of the means of changing their point of view. Neither can move. How then can we sensibly discuss these claims? If we cannot detect the immaterial, how can we establish that it is there at all? And how can we investigate a claim about what happens to our immaterial self after our death? Is it even possible to begin to think seriously about this? We can approach this by way of an analogy. Suppose I produce a contrary theory which sounds equally plausible, potentially one of many such theories. By what means would we choose which, if either, theory to support? This approach is a reasonable one since it will identify the reasons we might have for believing one theory rather than another. If we cannot reasonably choose between them, then the religious version is no better than one invented for the purpose of the thought experiment.
Let us suggest the following utterly unsubstantiated theory. There are at least one hundred additional dimensions of immaterial reality and we all exist in all of them simultaneously. When we die, we lose only the material dimension and continue to live on forever without a corporeal existence at all. Death is the loss of a single dimension among many and has no significance for our life. This hypothesis is not advanced seriously but is presented just to show how easy it to use immateriality as an idea in formulating an unreasonable idea. But can we really treat it as an hypothesis? Can it be disproved? Absolutely not. The very essence of the immateriality argument is that it is immune from evidence and disproof. Neither the Christian immateriality argument nor my own can be falsified. Neither can say anything as an hypothesis.
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 67
Any argument that relies on undetectable immateriality is non-falsifiable and therefore cannot be tested. Any conclusion drawn from such a non-testable hypothesis is itself suspect.
• But in our case, how do we choose between the two arguments, the religious one, and my own. Neither can be rejected because neither theory can be disproved. We cannot even say that one is more likely than the other to be true or false. Since we cannot choose between them, we have equally good reason to reject them both unless or until there is some evidence to support either of them. If we choose to accept one of them, we ought similarly to accept the other. The immateriality argument is very tempting. It removes criticism in one sweep placing itself outside of the realms of the rational. How often have you heard the expression “it's a matter of faith”? Surely in such an important matter as our very lives and conduct, we owe it to ourselves to investigate this matter of faith?
People and souls
An important part of most religions is that there is some part of us which is separate from our bodily form and which will somehow live on after our death. Some people call this our soul or our essence. When we sit in silent contemplation we think we can hear our own thoughts. It is the idea that a part of us can hear what the rest of us is thinking, that gives rise to this idea of the immaterial part of us living or existing inside our brains. We are aware of ourselves looking out of our own eyes. This selfawareness gives us the feeling that there is something more apart from the brain, something separate, something immaterial. Some philosophers have talked about this as mind,
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 68
something separate from the brain. Scientists generally have supported the view that mind is a property of brain, the result of consciousness. Postulating an immaterial essence, whether we call it mind or soul, permits the idea that something will live on after the body has died. This conception of the brain then has religious connotations and favours the believing viewpoint, whereas the sceptical viewpoint supports what we perceive as mind being a property of the brain. If we ignore the implication that when the brain ceases to function, this will also stop that self-awareness, we may be able to remain comfortable with the notion that this essence or soul will live on without the brain. But if we are sceptical, we will see brain activity as including consciousness and selfawareness. When the brain ends, so do they. So let's look at the evidence. Why do people talk about the self within, the soul? Is there something there that we all recognise and respond to? And if so, can we look at any evidence, put together some hypotheses and actually test any of it? We know already that humans are self-conscious individuals, able to monitor their own thought processes and feelings, aware of their own brain activity. That experience of monitoring our own thoughts makes us feel that there is something more than our bodily existence. But does that really point to an immaterial part of the self which is independent of bodily form? Does it really support the idea of souls? Neuroscience has already established that our brain, that complex neural network, is self-aware, that it references its own state, and knows what it is doing. We can consciously direct its activities, think about specific things on demand, remember things, imagine things. We also know that artificial simulations of brains, such as the Blue Brain Project, show advanced learning behaviours. It is likely that it is only a matter of time before one such simulation shows signs of consciousness. This would demonstrate that far from being a mystical activity, consciousness is a natural property of human brains and is probably present in varying degrees in all
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 69
mammalian brains and possible others. Such practical evidence would help bring to a conclusion the arguments about the difference between mind and brain. Mind would be just a property of brain and not something mystical and immaterial. Many rational neuroscientists believe that the idea of a soul is just an expression of our sense of self, our selfawareness, which is a natural property of our brains.
For centuries, people have known about the benefits of sitting in silent contemplation, relaxing and letting our minds roam free for a while. Such relaxation techniques are widespread across many cultures and are often reported to produce feelings of elation, euphoria, floating, of losing touch with the body. Such deep relaxation is sometimes described as getting in touch with that inner essence, but is it really getting in touch with anything? How do we know? Deep relaxation causes many metabolic changes in the body including changes in the levels of the hormone serotonin. A rise in the serotonin level produces a feeling of lightheadedness. So a simple, reproducible effect (lightheadedness) based on relaxation is explained simply by a change in hormone levels. But of course that doesn't disprove the soul hypothesis since relying on the immateriality of the soul removes it from the scope of any evidence. Nevertheless, we have a perfectly adequate explanation of the detectable physical sensation which does not require anything immaterial. Occam's Razor says not to overcomplicate the theory and in this case, we can explain the feelings produced in meditation by a simple reference to the serotonin level. We have no need of notions of spirituality. There is nothing in the phenomenon of meditation that leads us to the conclusion that there is some spiritual essence to be found. Introspection and relaxation, together with the serotonin effect, is sufficient.
Religious beliefs and theories about the world
In prayer, people believe they are communicating with a deity and in some cases that the deity is communicating with them. They feel they are being heard and possibly that they are hearing the response. The only possible evidence to support these claims must come from the individual themselves and there can be little doubt that they believe they are communicating. How do we investigate this claim? We cannot ourselves detect the communication, so we simply have to believe that the person praying believes they are communicating, whether or not there is any real communication taking place. But many people believe many things which are untrue. People in a delusional state, perhaps schizophrenics or deeply prejudiced people, will believe totally what they claim. We need to get beyond a simple statement of belief to look at some testable consequence. So what about when people claim that prayer makes a difference to some illness, or event? Well, that is something which can be tested. And it has been tested with people praying for cardiac patients in a controlled, double-blind, randomised trial. When tested with a clinical trial, prayer was demonstrated to have no effect on patients' recovery rates. Whatever reasons might be advanced to explain this, the evidence shows that the claim that prayer helps people who are ill has no support. That's not the same as disproof. Remember, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But it does mean that we are still waiting for a reason to believe it has any effect at all.
Spirits, Ghosts, Angels, Leprechauns
Since many religious people believe that they both talk to and receive messages from divine entities, this opens the door to all sorts of potentially supernatural beings. Some religions talk about gods, angels and demons, some
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 71
have representatives of the gods who have supernatural powers, some are the incarnations of souls often lost or troubled, and sometimes there are hybrids which are human-deity crosses. Whatever your choice of religion, you have opened the door to the possibility of supernatural beings. Now the problem becomes choosing amongst them. If there is one and only one god, that inevitably means choosing to reject a large number of the alternatives. It is often said that monotheists such as Christians and Muslims are really atheists who have just one god left after removing all the others. But how do we choose which to accept and which to reject? One interesting way is to pair off the supernatural beings and choose which one is the more acceptable but this can be very difficult. For example, we could compare the angels of Christianity and the leprechauns of Irish mythology. Angels, it is claimed, serve the Christian God, and leprechauns serve the Lord of the Fairies. Both can appear to humans, intervene in their lives, both are messengers, both are mostly invisible. There are anecdotal accounts of sightings for both and descriptions of their purported activities handed down orally through the ages. There is no rational reason to accept one and rule out the other, just as there is no basis for accepting the Christian God but ruling out Zeus, Thor, Odin, or Ganesh. Once we postulate the existence of immaterial beings with supernatural powers, we are dispensing with any notion of rationality. We have no basis for judging between angels, leprechauns, sprites, goblins, unicorns, demons, devils, djinns, ghosts, spectres, spirits, ghouls, wraiths, zombies, werewolves, phantoms, souls, or gods. If we have a reason at all for believing in any one of them, the same argument applies to all of them. And if we choose to accept the existence of any one of them, we are hard pressed to rule out the existence of the others. There is an inevitable connection between religion and the Land of Woo – belief in undetectable phenomena for no good reason.
Religious beliefs and theories about the world
Religion and morality
Many religious people believe that their morality comes from their faith and that without it, they would have little to guide them in questions of right and wrong. Some look to religious books to guide them about how to live their lives, what values they should hold, and what should be considered acceptable and unacceptable conduct. They fear that an atheistic society would have no basis for judging between right and wrong. Many religious people acknowledge that historical religious books such as the Bible, the Qur'an, and the Talmud, relate to societies which were primitive compared to our own. They acknowledge that they will not find examples of discussions of the morality of stem cell research in books written many centuries ago. But they claim these religious books still have a relevance. So there is a clear problem with using religious written sources to inform us about morality and ethics. There will be nothing specific to look at and we can only ever try to get general principles. But this leads to a second problem. How can we distinguish the general principles derived from religious books, from the general principles passed to us by our parents and relatives, peers and colleagues, and society generally? Surely, we are influenced by all of them. Our ethical and moral values are derived from a wide range of sources. If this is the case, what would be lost if just one of those sources was missing, for example, religion? We would clearly not be left with no moral guidance. We would still be able to make ethical decisions, take into account the interests of others, weigh up right and wrong, make decisions which we believe to be fair and just. So it's clear that the absence of religion would not leave us without morality. But let's follow this a little further. What specific values are held by the religious that are different from those humanist values upheld by most societies? Almost all societies, for example, condemn murder, assault, theft, lying,
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 73
cheating, and other crimes against people and property. There is no reason to believe that this would be different in the absence of religion. What then provides the special motivation for religious people to behave correctly? Since society already has the sanctions of law, and public disapproval, together with the psychological need for people to remain included within a community and therefore to conform, what additional motivation does a religious person have? Clearly it cannot be specifically the need to help others since there are vast numbers of generous atheists who do the same without religion. Nor can it be the desire to comply with the law since this applies to all citizens irrespective of their faith. Most religious people will explain that they wish to go to heaven, or paradise, or Nirvana, or some better place after they die. But they also believe that they will be judged on the basis of their conduct while they were alive, and for that reason, they will behave well. They are implying that they personally could not trust themselves to behave well without the threat of damnation in the next life. Atheists behave well because they have ethical and moral values that they feel it is right to observe, without any threat of punishment, and without expectation of reward in an afterlife.
Do religious people behave morally?
If religion were a reliable form of ensuring that people behaved morally, we would have no religious criminals. Instead we see in the world very large numbers of religiously motivated violent people, who are willing to injure and kill their ideological enemies. Far from being a constraint on immoral behaviour, all of the world's orthodox religions (including Buddhism) have inspired violent movements which have led to extensive bloodshed. The empirical evidence suggests that far from being a source of moral wisdom, religious ideas are in dire need of being tempered by social moderation, which comes from society at large.
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 74
It is questionable whether any religious books are able to offer a consistent morality. If we look at the Christian books, particularly the Bible, we see a God who exacts genocidal vengeance, smiting, maiming and blinding his opponents. We also see the same in the Qur'an and the Talmud. Hindu books such as the Mahabharata glorify the violent behaviour of Prince Arjuna exacting vengeance. Mixed with these tales of violence, we have socially acceptable principles such as opposition to killing, and stealing. But we also have a deafening silence on matters such as slavery, rape in marriage, sex with children, and many other socially abhorrent practices. It takes a determined editorial effort to extract socially acceptable morals from the material in historical religious books. Most of the material has to be discarded if we are to find something morally acceptable to modern society. Given the evidence that religiously motivated people can behave in ways quite opposed to acceptable social morality but remain consistent with their religion, we cannot accept the claim that religion should be the source of morality.
Where do morals come from?
Morals come from society, not religion. As times change, religions fall into step with society, not the other way around. As medicine advances, new moral choices arise and our society finds ways of addressing the issues that confront us. Is it acceptable to intervene to keep alive someone in a persistent vegetative state? Should stem cells be used in transplantation research? Should we use animals to develop vaccines for humans? Religion gives us no guidance on these issues despite the fact that religious authorities constantly claim expertise in these matters. What religious authorities do is to attempt to extrapolate the sort of ethical judgements recorded in religious books and apply them to the modern context. This is an increasingly tortuous process leading to many dangerous judgements. One startling example is the decision of a Pope to condemn the use
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 75
of condoms in Africa in the fight against AIDS. His adherence to the principle that it is unacceptable to use condoms at all, led him to a judgement that inevitably results in the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Such a principle exacts a enormous social price and it is difficult to see how such morality can be justified by reasonable people. In reality, we learn our values from our parents, with whom we contest them, our friends, our colleagues, our relatives, and all the culture around us. We think about moral and ethical questions when we listen to songs, watch television programmes, read books, hear people talking, get involved in arguments and discussions, see films, or just simply think to ourselves. Our morality changes in line with society. In Christ's time, slavery was considered not just as acceptable, but as an important part of maintaining the harmony of society. Christ has no recorded objection to slavery, whereas no Christian would endorse Christ's silence on the matter. Even into the fifteenth century, weddings with children as young as nine years old were considered acceptable, especially amongst the European royal families and Mohammed was also reported to have taken a wife aged nine. Nowadays we would denounce such practise as child abuse. That's what happens when we fail to recognise that morality is not static, but changes with the historical development of society. Some of the values of our society are uncontroversial though we always make exceptions. We say you shouldn't kill, yet we send an army into foreign countries to search for and kill certain people we call terrorists. We say you should not steal, and yet the major economies were based on stealing land and resources from foreign countries. We say you should not lie and deceive but we have international diplomats trained in precisely those skills. Morality is a social compromise in which shared values are constantly negotiated. We don't judge our values against religion, we judge religion against social values. Even religious people do this all the time.
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 76
Where do souls come from?
There are problems with the theory of souls. At some stage they must come into being and yet persist beyond the lifetime of the individual. Numerically, they must be growing exponentially even faster than the human population since souls don't disappear. Christianity teaches that there is a rather unpleasant place, called hell, which is the destination for those souls that are not accepted into heaven. This terrifying prospect has the obvious effect of encouraging obedience to the demands of the religion. Risking eternal, and painful, damnation should not be done lightly.
The spark of life
But it has always been difficult to identify just when a soul is expected to appear. At conception? Before conception? Some time after conception? What about other sentient animals? What happens in the case of twins, and what about Siamese twins? Do they have two souls? Or share one? There is also the phenomenon whereby two fertilised eggs fuse into a single foetus. What happens to the other soul? Does the baby have two souls? Is one killed? These are not catch questions or mere wordplay. Any theory of souls will have to face these questions head on and provide some explanation. Biological research is making rapid progress in understanding the basis of life itself. Already cells can be reprogrammed to develop into different types. Tissue can be regenerated. Components of cells from different sources can be assembled to form functioning tissue. The mechanisms which control cell division and development are already fairly well understood. But the so-called bootstrap problem remains to be solved. Even though we can take already living tissue and control how it behaves, we have yet to take synthetic material and have it show evidence of life. Religious people refer to the spark of life, that bootstrapping of the biological system so that it starts to grow. Some religious people believe this is what the soul is
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 77
all about, though others deny this - it would require that all life, including bacteria, would have that spark and therefore possibly souls too. Few Christians are prepared to pray for bacteria. Already there are experiments that demonstrate the self assembly of cell elements, tubules, and membranes, and the silica-based minerals called zeolites suggest a surface which could have catalysed the formation of the first organic molecules. If the properties of those molecules led to the formation of more complex combinations, we may find that the spark of life is simply the collection of chemical properties that these biological molecules have. Of course, we don't yet know how to bootstrap life. But it is reasonable to expect the biological sciences to develop techniques in the future. Life is a phenomenon which gives up its secrets to science. We do not need to postulate a spark of life. Let's stick to Occam's Razor.
Evolution gets in the way again
Given our evolutionary lineage, at some stage human beings must have become differentiated from our ape ancestors. We know that gorillas and apes split from our evolutionary line between 8 and 4 million years ago leaving us to develop towards humans. Since it is widely believed that animals such as apes do not possess souls, then at some time in the distant past, presumably at or around the time when speciation occurred, proto-humans acquired this characteristic of possessing souls. So between 8 and 4 million years ago, if the Christian doctrine is to be believed (and we don't ignore our scientific knowledge), souls made an appearance in the ancestral root that led to humans, and didn't arise anywhere else. So either there was some one-off event when souls were distributed, or else they came about naturally. Since none of the branches of Christianity seem to claim this momentous Pliocene event, we will look for an alternative explanation. If this Pliocene event did not take place, then man wasn't put on the earth ready-formed with a soul to rule over nature as he
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 78
decided, but actually evolved a soul. This seems to be the only interpretation consistent with the evolutionary path to Homo sapiens. This is entirely consistent with the idea that the soul is another word for self-consciousness, a brain activity which is demonstrable in varying degrees in a number of species. But it is not consistent with the idea of souls in the Christian doctrine. In fact, if we follow this line of reasoning, there must have been a time when proto-humans were mating with partners who did not possess souls at all. Their offspring may or may not have possessed souls depending on whether they had the appropriate inherited genetic mutation. And the expression of genes is often not a simple presence or absence, but one of degree. Evolutionary adaptation takes many generations. If souls are encoded in DNA, we may have a biological mechanism for their arrival in Homo sapiens but one which removes the need for any divine intervention. But it also allows for humans without souls. If we reject the idea that it was a heritable characteristic, we have simply moved back the point of soul-injection to some point in the last 400,000 years or so. Certainly it's earlier than 4000BC but we still have that problem of where and how it happened. Our primate ancestry stretches back 65 million years and during that time there were various branches on the way to our own line of descent. It is important to ask what might have happened to those unsuccessful branches of our human ancestry? After all, we are the only surviving species of the genus Homo. Homo habilis for example died out around 1.4 million years ago. They used stone tools but did they have souls? Did the Australopithecines have souls too? These are not idle questions but an unfortunate consequence of the belief in immaterial souls. Science didn't cause these awkward problems; they are caused by the tortuous path taken by theology in its attempts to defend the dogma contained in ancient books. Theology is not about establishing the facts of what is. It is about defending religious dogma.
Religious beliefs and theories about the world
Theology is not theory
There are many very clever religious people who pit their wits against sceptics in order to provide explanations for the extraordinary things claimed of their god. Frequently this involves very deep and abstract thinking about the religious texts, finding acceptable explanations which avoid the constant clashes with the science of the material world. Occasionally events are described as allegorical, meaning that the descriptions are used to illustrate something else and should not be taken literally. In dispensing with the literal meaning, we are left with interpretation. When the acceptable interpretation is deemed to require theological expertise, we have the very essence of the matter removed from public debate. Those trained in the textual analysis of religious works typically form part of the religious establishment, a layer of experts able and willing to remove controversy into an area of studious isolation. But the finding of allegorical meaning is something people do every time they read a novel. They see plots and sub-plots, characters, events, conflicts, places, all sorts of details which they read about and react to, getting meaning from what they see. We can all produce different interpretations, so why should we accept the meaning identified by those who are already religiously committed? If religious books hold the key, then anyone should be able to analyse them and find the answers. Why should theological knowledge be restricted to those possessing faith in what they expect to discover? In science, we call that bias. But open investigation of religious texts is a dangerous idea for many religions. Ayatollahs, imams, archbishops, priests, and cardinals all have a vested interest in a particular interpretation of the texts. Open textual analysis would undermine their role as religious experts. For that reason, the Christian church opposed for a very long time the spread of literacy, precisely to prevent alternative interpretations of the
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 80
Bible spreading amongst a literate population. So theological debate is not the same as putting theories to the test. It is a means of avoiding having religious claims assessed objectively. It is the exercise of reconciling the interpretations of religious dogma with the socially acceptable values of the times. The more influence religious bodies and authorities have, particularly in the institutions of government and education, the less compromise they will have to make with a changing society. That is why religious institutions are often fundamentally reactionary, trying to resist social change. There are occasions when the political conflicts of a country radicalise priests and the lower religious orders, but their theology and the interests of their religious institutions remain reactionary. Theology is a form of biased literary criticism, attempting to breath new life into old dogmas through the creative interpretation of old books. It attempts to show that religion is profound, because theologians live in academic institutions, but also steers the religious institutions away from confrontation with the real world of science. When there are major ethical issues, theologians are on very weak ground. Their dogma gives them little to work with, and there is nothing in theology that makes people particularly skilled in ethical and moral thinking. Arguably having to explain and justify ancient writings, limits the ability to think rationally about ethical and moral questions. That's certainly one clear explanation of how the Pope can end up allowing so many people in Africa to die for dogma.
We've seen how religions make claims not just about how to behave, but about how the world is. They make claims about the origins of the earth and life which can sometimes be tested. The biblical theory of the age of the earth is easily refuted by dating techniques and the fossil record dispenses with the theory of the Flood. We have seen how Darwin's theory of natural selection not
Religious beliefs and theories about the world 81
only refuted the notion of the immutability of species, but demonstrated that a divine creator was unnecessary. We saw how by postulating an immaterial side to reality, the believing viewpoint prevents such theories from being tested. We are left with a gulf between the believing and sceptical viewpoints. To get past this difficulty, we used the technique of postulating equally plausible alternative theories to show that there is no basis for choosing between them. If all are equally plausible, why choose a particular one? We examined the idea of souls and related it to our selfawareness which is a property of our brains. We questioned whether there is any reason to believe that souls are anything more profound than that self-awareness. Meditation produces its effect by raising serotonin levels. Prayer makes communication claims that are indistinguishable from the delusional claims made by schizophrenics. It is shown to have no effect on patient recovery. Opening the door to supernatural beings results in the problem of selection, choosing which beings to accept and which to reject. We saw that there are no rational reasons for rejecting any if we accept any one of them. All supernatural beings are equivalent and therefore equally irrational. Morality does not come from religion. Rather religions have to adapt to changing social values, a process facilitated by theologians. Instead of religion justifying morality, it is the rationalisation of religious dogma that tries to make it acceptable to society. The question of souls is problematic. Trying to decide when souls arise leads us to adopt the view that, given our evolutionary past, souls too evolved but they are really nothing more than our self-consciousness. If we accept religious ideas, such as spirits and souls, we automatically become open to the Psychic Woo.
Religious beliefs and theories about the world
Psychic Woo tends to fall into two main camps which occasionally overlap. In one camp are those who stress the presence or influence of otherworldly beings such as spirits, ghosts, poltergeists, beings perceived either directly by our senses or through the results of their actions. Apparitions, vivid dreams, objects moving, noises, strange feelings, reawakened memories, forebodings and anticipations, these are seen to stem from the activities of immaterial spirits of one kind or another. In the other camp, are those who claim specific extraordinary powers for certain human beings such as the ability to predict the future, see far away events or inside closed containers, read minds, move objects, or detect hidden resources such as water. Often such abilities are restricted to a small group of people who claim to have developed their abilities or who received special training from equally endowed individuals. Some individuals claim to be able to contact the immaterial spirit world, acting as a conduit for communication, often with dead relatives. They call themselves mediums and profess to be able to pass and receive messages for other people present, in theatrical events known as séances.
How can we check psychic claims?
Before we look in more detail at these extraordinary claims, we need to think a little about how we will be able to tell whether or not these events are real. Clearly some claims can be subjected to controlled, double-blind randomised trials such as attempts to predict the contents of hidden containers, or mind-reading. In such cases, it is relatively easy to collect high quality data providing the subject is willing to cooperate with the trial. But in other cases where there are only the firstPsychic Woo 83
person reports to go on, such as reported sightings of ghosts, this often comes down to distinguishing between honest belief, whether or not delusional, and dishonesty. There are of course large numbers of charlatans who use the techniques of performance magic to persuade their customers that they are witnessing paranormal activity, and one way to illustrate their actions is to reproduce them in the light of day. To demonstrate that a séance is such a show, it is often enough to reproduce the effects, but this will not convince people that spirits do not exist. We repeat that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So here, we have the same dilemma of proof that we faced when looking at religious superbeings. In this situation, we adopt Occam's Razor and look for the simplest explanation that explains the known facts. If we can reproduce the effects of, for example, a séance using ordinary commonplace techniques, then we have no need to believe in supernatural beings for an explanation. We have then two approaches we can use: the controlled trial for specific claims of personal abilities; reproduction of the events with ordinary techniques for those claiming supernatural causes.
When we see something indistinct and strange, perhaps a vague outline of something in the shadows, we try to figure out what it could be. We compare what we are seeing with things we are familiar with looking for a match. If we find a match, we tend to convince ourselves that that is indeed what we are looking at. We see something small moving in a tree, we think it is either a squirrel or a bird. If it seems to fly, we opt for a bird, even if we cannot make it out clearly. We are predisposed to rationalise what we see into things we recognise. If we can't find a match, it stimulates our curiosity and we are open to a wider range of possibilities, which encourages us to speculate, even to invent possible objects that could fit the
Psychic Woo 84
image. We are looking for an explanation and don't yet have a match. If we already have the belief that human beings once dead persist in the form of some immaterial spirit, we are open to the belief that they still occupy some space, and perhaps are also able to contact the world of the living. This belief is a necessary prerequisite for the belief in ghosts. We would not entertain the notion of an apparition or ghost unless we also believed that there were immaterial essences of dead people that persist beyond death. Belief in ghosts follows on perfectly naturally from religious belief although many Christian churches are hostile to the idea and discourage it. Nevertheless 32% of Americans claim to believe in ghosts. In order for talk of ghosts to coexist with religious beliefs, it is necessary to locate the place where ghosts are said to exist, somewhere in the context of heaven and hell. Many explanations of ghosts rely on some indeterminate place between earth and heaven, claiming ghosts are souls that are trapped and unable to go to heaven because of some emotional pull from the living. This explanation neatly provides an emotional link between the person and the apparition and provides a key psychological influence on the subject. Visual apparitions then give the subject the impression of a visit from a person already dead. Similarly, if it is perceived that some objects have moved, they will be willing to consider the notion that the cause is some immaterial spirit residue of a dead human being. Sceptical subjects will search far wider for a rational explanation than will those who believe in such possibilities.
Explanations for visual apparitions
When we awake from sleep it takes a short time for our body to respond, to come back to full consciousness after deep relaxation. Shortly before we wake naturally, we have a period of rapid eye movement (REM) in which we frequently dream. REM amounts to about a quarter of our sleep time and involves
Psychic Woo 85
very low muscle tone, essential if we are to avoid thrashing about during dreaming. We don't want our muscles to carry out the actions of our dreams. Consequently, when we come out of REM, sometimes this sleep paralysis persists for a few minutes, leaving us apparently awake yet still dreaming and barely able to move. Sometimes we have already partly opened our eyes and are getting images which are mixed with our dreams. We may think we are moving when we are not, and we may see people or faces which are not really there. This sleep paralysis is well-known and understood as a natural part of REM, and is also associated with creative activity in the brain during which we make new associations between people and events, and refresh our memories. It is entirely expected that vivid memories should make an appearance during sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis can be increased by breaking the established sleep cycle - by staying up very late or getting up very early and a common recommended treatment is to adopt a sleep pattern of going to bed at 11pm and getting up at 7am. Introducing a regular pattern to sleep greatly reduces the incidence of sleep paralysis. It is common during times of stress, when sleep patterns are significantly disrupted, for sleep paralysis to cause patients to see disturbing visions, or images of lost loved ones. During grief particularly, sleep paralysis will bring to the surface many images and memories which are commonly identified as ghosts of deceased relatives and friends.
Mediums and séances
Mediums claim to be able to get in touch the dead relatives and friends and communicate in varying degrees. They often perform a theatrical ritual séance to prepare the customers and apparently to draw in the spirits. Details of lost relatives are obtained from the customers which provides sufficient material for the medium to identify and find a spirit. Various paranormal explanations are given, such as spirits
Psychic Woo 86
being lost and needing to complete some communication to become free, spirits being troubled by unfinished business, unanswered questions, and the intention is to allow them to rest in peace, a phrase which resonates with religious beliefs. There are now many books written by mediums who have come clean about the nature of the deception and the techniques used. For example, once the audience are complicit in the event, they are predisposed to identify themselves with any message apparently coming through. They themselves drive the positive reinforcement of the experience. All of the experiences of séances have been reproduced by the Randi Foundation using standard techniques of performance magic. Using Occam's Razor, we therefore have rational explanations for what are perceived to be supernatural events and we therefore have no reason to believe in the supernatural nature of séances.
Exorcisms and consecrations
Since both of these require religious beliefs of one kind or another, we are dealing with the untestable existence of supernatural beings. Exorcism is believed to be the removal from a living body of some other undetectable supernatural being. The notion of possession is a very powerful cultural belief which provides a primitive explanation for human actions. When a human behaves in a strange way, one explanation is that they are made to behave that way by some malign influence. If that is accepted as an explanation, the cure is clearly to remove the malign influence. This may involve magic ceremonies to life a curse, casting of spells to counteract it, eating various substances to poison the invading spirit, or performing some ritual to cast it out. Such resonance with the biblical stories of casting out devils make such rites appealing to the religious. The Catholic church itself has an official Rite of Exorcism which is considered a very serious undertaking and requires the permission of a bishop. Apparent indicators of possession
Psychic Woo 87
include, curiously, many of the so-called psychic abilities for which there are no explanations, such as knowledge of hidden or remote things. The Anglican church has its own Deliverance Ministry which apparently includes some people trained in psychiatry, presumably to identify the delusional. Once again, the bishop has to give approval. In both of these churches, there is a reluctance to go along the path of exorcism because they claim the most probable cause of the problem is delusion and mental illness. Although this seems innocuous enough, some exorcism ceremonies, particularly among some African fundamentalists, can involve subjecting children to extreme treatment. In an effort to cast out a perceived devil, the child can be subjected to extremes of punishment which threaten their health and even their lives. If the irrational belief in possession by devils is allowed to persist unchallenged, then individuals can be subjected to mistreatment in attempts to exorcise them. Even if the exorcism is not violent, the psychological impact of such rituals is highly questionable. It is interesting to wonder how religious authorities can claim to distinguish between the irrationality and delusion of possession, from the irrationality and delusion of believing in spirits at all. Consecration is the religious process of dedicating people and things to the service of a god. People such as bishops are consecrated in a ceremony referred to as ordination, but so are things such as altars, chalices and tablecloths. In the Catholic church, there is a special consecration, called the Eucharist, in which during a religious service, it is claimed that bread and wine are literally turned into the body and blood of Christ. Most Protestants believe this to be symbolic only. The literal truth of such a claim is easily formulated as an hypothesis which can be tested and falsified. Following the religious service, we can test the composition of the bread and wine and confirm that it is unchanged. Catholics get around this clear empirical problem by claiming that what changes is not the appearance of the bread and wine, but the thing itself, a
Psychic Woo 88
deeper, undetectable reality, an essence which we can't perceive. Of course, such a claim is a perfect parallel for the notions of Qi, that undetectable energy so favoured by alternative therapy Woo. Theology abounds with arcane disputes about when exactly the change (which is undetectable) takes place. You would get similar mystification asking a Reiki practitioner to explain when the change occurs.
When people say they possess special abilities such as mindreading or predicting the future, they can often be tested to validate their claims. If someone claims to be able to anticipate the next card to be turned over in a pack, it is easy to run a trial to see how successful they are. Let's think our way through one such trial. We clearly want to make it objective so we need to be sure that the subject has no chance of interfering with the pack of cards, and cannot read any hidden signs on the pack itself. We would therefore keep them separate, perhaps even in a different room or separated by a screen. We would also want to make sure that the person turning the cards is not in league with the subject in case they pass covert signals. But we need to know something else as well, and that is the normal incidence of someone guessing the cards. Clearly if we guess, sometimes we will be right and we need to know what level of correct answers we would get by chance alone. That forms our control. Having both tester and subject kept ignorant of the other forms the double blind part of the trial, and we could randomise as well by pairing off testers and subjects at random. We could even introduce a higher element of random order into the cards themselves by using equipment to provide the randomness. A random counter could choose the suit, and another random counter, the value of the card. That would remove any influence of the handling of the cards altogether. Such trials conform to a high standard of scientific
Psychic Woo 89
investigation. If psychic abilities are present, then detecting higher success rates than our control group would provide supporting evidence, but not proof, whereas consistent failure to produce results beyond chance, would be significant supporting evidence that the claims were false. We cannot formulate an hypothesis which can be falsified because failure to detect psychic powers or to demonstrate them, does not prove their absence. Instead, the hypothesis is formulated by a statement such as: In a trial X, under circumstances Y, subject A is able to demonstrate prediction at a level above chance to a statistically significant degree. That is a falsifiable hypothesis and would give us a reasonable basis to reject someone's claim to possess psychic powers. It wouldn't show that psychic powers didn't exist at all, but it would show that in those circumstances, that person couldn't demonstrate them.
What counts as statistically significant?
If I am guessing cards in a pack, how many would I expect to get right? It's a mathematical problem which we can solve fairly easily. In 52 cards all different, the chance of me guessing the correct one first time is 1 in 52. When that one is turned over, I'll know it is no longer in the pack. The chance of getting the next card right is now 1 in 51. The chance of guessing both cards right will be 1/52 x 1/51 or 1/2652. Of course, the chances of getting every single card right is 1 over 52 x 51 x 50... and so on, which is to all intents and purposes, zero. Actually it's roughly 1 in 81 followed by 66 zeros. If I am prevented from seeing the card, the odds of getting them all right are even worse because every chance is 1/52. In 52 successive guesses replacing the card each time, I could expect to average 52 x (1/52) successes which is just 1. So in 52 guesses, it would be reasonable for me to be right just once. So if someone consistently managed say ten or fifteen
Psychic Woo 90
successes, we'd be on to something. Even if they managed success 1/6 of the time, we'd be on to something. But maybe that's a really tall order. How about predicting the score on a die? It has six sides each with a different number. By chance we would expect to get it right 1/6 of the time. So a level that is significant for the cards, wouldn't be significant for the die. But in this case, if someone consistently scored say a half correct with the die, we'd be on to something. We use these calculations to identify what someone could produce by chance alone so that we can see when there is evidence to support a claim of some predictive ability. We can also test our mathematical prediction against a control group to confirm that we are right in our assessment of the chance level. We use a measure called the P value to indicate what is the probability of the subject getting that result by chance alone. For example, we often report scientific experimental results with a P value of P<0.05 and this means that it is at most only 5% likely that such results arose by chance, so it is 95% likely that the cause was the one we are testing. If it was P<0.01, that is even more extreme, not more than 1% likely to have arisen by chance alone, and 99% likely that it was the cause under test.
Predicting cards and other random events
Unsurprisingly laboratory tests of predicting random events have failed to show anyone with any unusual ability. Trials of mind-reading, locating objects, and seeing into containers, all gave results at or below the level expected by chance alone. Self-proclaimed psychics have always performed just the same as anyone else when put under laboratory conditions. Between 2000 and 2010, the James Randi Foundation has been offering $1 million for anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers under laboratory conditions. It has remained unclaimed because to date no-one has even got through the preliminary tests. But when it comes to predicting future events, the water is
Psychic Woo 91
muddier. This is because there is never a perfect match. We always have to relate the predicted future to the present real world since psychics never predict impossible things. They don't for example predict the freezing of the Atlantic Ocean, or the disappearance of Australia. They always predict from a selection of the possible. That means that each of those predicted events has a probability of occurring anyway. Often it is very difficult to identify that probability. For example, if someone predicted that a particular political party was to win an election, all sorts of polls and pundits would offer evidence one way or the other. Many would already have calculated probabilities. Adding another event that a particular person would get a particular post, is also a matter of probability. It is therefore relatively easy to create vague scenarios which have the illusion of prediction but which have a relatively high probability of some match in the future. Of course, the ability to predict the future would enable individuals to make fortunes at gambling and it would also be a valuable military weapon. This military prospect attracted the interest of both the Americans and the Russians, who each spent millions of dollars/roubles testing psychic powers. Both failed to produce any results.
Psychics and the military
Imagine the military use of being able to psychically tune into a foreign place and see what is happening. Spies, without ever leaving home, could find out what is going on in foreign countries, embassies, battlefields. It would give the military an amazing advantage and whether that was the reason, or cold war fear that the other side would harness it first, both the US and Russia undertook research programmes into remote viewing. The US project was modestly called Stargate and ran from the early 70s to the mid-90s, a total of 24 years of experiments. During that time they spent millions of dollars and tried unsuccessfully to use these skills to find Colonel Gaddafi to
Psychic Woo 92
bomb him, and to find a missing aeroplane in Africa. After thousands of failed experiments, eventually the CIA pulled the plug, finally admitting that there was no possible use for such a phenomenon that was so inconsistent and unrepeatable that it couldn't be relied upon, couldn't be learned, and couldn't be trained into people. Not to mention the fact that after 24 years, they had no evidence at all to support even its existence. All they had to show for the quarter century was a collection of untrustworthy interpretations of vague drawings collected by experimenters who were committed to proving their beliefs rather than objectively assessing evidence obtained under controlled circumstances. Remote viewing remains fatally short of any supporting evidence but it has a wealth of evidence of failure.
Psychics and the police
It is popular to think, because there are police dramas on TV which have psychic characters involved in investigating crime, that this happens in real life. However, a survey carried out in 2006 by UK-Skeptics of the police forces of the UK showed none of them either using psychics in any investigations, or accepting such offerings as evidence. Psychic claims are outside the scope of the law and therefore cannot be used either to provide evidence or to influence the direction of an investigation. Police officers will accept any information offered but as was repeatedly made clear in the survey, such material offered by psychics was always of no use. It is simply not true to claim that psychics are used with police in the UK to assist in crime detection and investigation. They do however routinely sell stories to tabloid newspapers to publicise their claims.
Psychic Woo is widespread and latches onto primitive
Psychic Woo 93
religious beliefs. By opening the door to supernatural beings, religious belief enables believers to give credibility to the spirits of dead people, to the possibility of communicating with ghosts, and the possibility of malign influence from supernatural influences. It is a more primitive form of religion than is comfortable for the modern churches but it is a perfectly logical consequence of their beliefs. That is why it is so difficult for them to shift such mysticism and occultism. We know that despite massive prizes on offer, extensive laboratory investigation, major government programmes, and every opportunity for providing evidence, claims of psychic ability always fall flat. We have many public exposures of the activities of mediums. We also have good rational explanations of the phenomenon of seeing ghosts. Sleep paralysis can be invoked on demand under clinical conditions and the phenomenon of seeing ghosts can be investigated. Clinical medicine and neuroscience explains the phenomenon without recourse to supernatural causes. The real explanation is both simpler and testable. There are clear psychological reasons why people want to preserve their contact with dead loved ones, and strong emotional pressures to produce the imagery and vivid memories. There are excellent emotional reasons why people would want to pass messages to their dead relatives and it takes just a little stretching of common religious belief to make them accept that it is possible. But we know also of the trickery and fraud used by mediums to convince their willing customers. It is a callous exploitation of emotional vulnerability on the grounds that if the customer can be lied to successfully, they will feel better at the end of it. They are saying “I will lie to you and con you out of your money but that's OK because I have fooled you into feeling better.” It's the placebo effect. When it comes to people making claims of special psychic abilities such as predicting the future, dowsing, moving objects by thought alone, reading minds, and the like, all of these controlled trials have shown the claims to be false. By measuring their performance against the control group,
Psychic Woo 94
we can avoid being impressed by the occasional chance success. By using simple mathematical calculations, we can identify the expected differences if their claims are correct, then observe what happens. When we do that, we show that the socalled psychics are just making empty fanciful claims. We don't need to fall for it any longer. Whether it's belief in spirits, or someone's ability to predict the future with a dream, or reading minds, or finding water with sticks, these extraordinary claims fall apart as soon as you begin to investigate them. Psychic Woo is Woo just the same. If you stopped believing in fairies and unicorns, you should also have stopped believing in spirits and ghosts. We don't believe that ESP exists until someone can show evidence of it. After more than a hundred years of trying to find it, we're still waiting.
If we decide to climb a ladder, we first check that it is supported properly. If we cross the road, we first check for oncoming traffic. If we buy a car, we check that it is in good condition. In hundreds of circumstances every day we use our rational thinking to look after ourselves. When we take part in sports, we think rationally too. We decide on the level of risk and judge whether or not it is acceptable. We might go for canoeing but not free fall parachuting, jogging but not caving. Our assessment of the risks and benefits are part of the calculating we do all the time. Sometimes we get it a little wrong and have accidents, or perhaps miss out on something we might have enjoyed. Sometimes our timidity works against us, and sometimes being over-brave is dangerous. We learn to make those adjustments, but by and large, our rational way of thinking works pretty well. In making other kinds of decisions, we weigh up the risks and benefits again. Buy a house or rent? Change the car or go on holiday? We use what we know of the real world to inform our decisions and it's crucially important that we use the facts. We wouldn't agree to buy an imaginary car, or one that runs on undetectable energy. We wouldn't by a house in another dimension. Rationality requires that we relate our activity to the real world. We have a water leak in our house. We need a plumber who understands how the water system in the house works and who can fix it quickly. We don't want someone who is talking about some undetectable Qi, or energy channels that are somehow misaligned, when the water is flowing across the floor. An electrician who has a completely radical theory about electrical energy won't be trusted to wire a plug and for good reason. We'd first want them to demonstrate that the new theory still
Rational thinking 96
leaves us with a properly wired plug and a functioning system. How strange then that in some areas of our lives we are positively encouraged to suspend our rational thinking. Even though our social values are derived from our interaction with people we relate to and trust, we are asked to accept that an omniscient superbeing is responsible, can read everyone's mind simultaneously and is able to change the universe and all in it on a whim. We are expected to change our behaviour because of some future judgement made by this invisible being. When we are ill, we are expected to go to someone who claims extraordinary ability, able to detect undetectable energy sources, or effect cures with unexplainable techniques based on theories that they themselves cannot explain. And many people do just that. It's not that their reasoning is faulty; it is absent. They are just not applying their rational thinking to these particular areas. We have seen in the previous chapters that we can adopt two different stances: believing and sceptical. We have seen that knowledge about how the world works is very effectively obtained by the sceptical viewpoint and that the believing viewpoint cannot distinguish between fact and fiction. Consequently, any major decision which affects us should be taken with the sceptical viewpoint rather than the believing viewpoint. Even if the ideas about religion and alternative medicine turn out to have some merit, the sceptical viewpoint is still the appropriate way to take decisions that affect us.
The advantages of rational thinking
Those who accept the sceptical viewpoint are open-minded to new theories, new discoveries, new explanations for how things work. Their critical approach to theories helps them acknowledge weaknesses in their own arguments, to be more honest in putting forward their ideas, to be less dogmatic. Knowing that a theory is only as good as the evidence and its explanatory power means they they are less likely to persist with a belief when the evidence stacks up against them. They
Rational thinking 97
are more in tune with the progress of ideas and discoveries. Those who accept the believing viewpoint are psychologically disposed to defend their beliefs, often against any and every opposition. They will feel under threat, perhaps personally, when their beliefs are questioned. For them, their beliefs are often not just ideas but are intensely personal, define their very being, and require defence. When their beliefs are challenged, they feel it as a personal sleight. This is why so many religious people demand legal protection for their ideas in the form of statutes against blasphemy. The rational person justifies their actions by their own personal values which come from their involvement in society. They are accountable to themselves and those around them for their actions, and are responsible for justifying those values personally. No-one hands them a ready-made morality, and they have to be involved themselves in each of their ethical decisions. When a rational person is faced with an extraordinary claim, they look for the evidence, reasons to accept it, they have doubts, they check the consistency with what else they know. Very many extraordinary claims are relegated to the back list of “not enough evidence”. Those that get through the filter are genuinely worthy of consideration. So that initial rational filter enables them to focus on the truly useful and interesting new ideas without wandering around dead ends. By contrast, the credulous, those adopting the believing viewpoint, are gullible to almost any well-publicised approach, however inconsistent, contradictory, or unfounded. They will spend time reading about crystals, energy flows, chakras, spirits, and the like, without ever finding a reason for doubt because there never will be any evidence. They are therefore perfect consumers of Woo. Rational thinking is what we use as human beings to negotiate our world. Our brains developed this potential as a response to the dangers in the primitive environment, and with that ability came our growing self-awareness as thinking individuals, able to direct our own thoughts. Returning to a
Rational thinking 98
believing viewpoint is retrogressive, turning our backs on our own thinking abilities. A credulous consumer, willing to accept anything he or she is told, is an extremely important addition to the marketplace. Those people who are willing to accept supernatural beings and mystical forces into their lives will also be willing to let tangible money flow out of their wallets. By contrast, the rational sceptical individual will be unwilling to spend money on untested, unevidenced, mystical notions. For that reason, rationality gets bad press. Thinking rationally is depicted as being unimaginative, unemotional, and cold. We'll take a look now at some of the attitudes to rationality.
Attitudes to the rational
We have all seen the caricatures of the cold, calculating scientist, seeing only a world of facts and figures, of experiments and data, unmoved by music or poetry, unloved and unloving, interested only in the harsh provable reality of the inanimate external world. He is analytic to the point of distrusting his own emotions, he is unable to appreciate art seeing only the techniques and materials, his world is cold, devoid of human feeling. The people around him are remote, kept at bay, prevented from interrupting the flow of his thoughts. He is the ultimate rational individual. Only through such divorce from everyday feelings and experiences can his rational thinking guide him to his goal. Although it's entertaining to develop such an extreme character in fiction, it's a pervasive impression that many people have of those people who can think rationally. The assumption is that if you can think rationally, you must also be deficient in the emotional department. If you are logical, you therefore can't be creative. If you are analytical, you can't be spontaneous. Fundamentally, if you think rationally, you are condemned to being short of those very characteristics that
Rational thinking 99
might make you fun. It's a powerful argument against being seen to think for yourself, to be seen to be rational. For teenagers and young adults eager to be accepted by their peers, the last thing they want to appear is not-fun! Even if they were fun, getting involved in discussions and arguments about why homeopathy is a load of nonsense, will not endear them to their more fun-loving peers. So they don't do it. They let it go, and the rational case goes unheard. Amongst people not used to thinking about theories, evidence, causes, explanations, the appearance of someone questioning what everyone else seems to support makes them very uneasy. The atheist in a workplace with religious colleagues, may have to accept some hostility from those who feel their personal values are being attacked, even if they are not. Let's take a look at some of these prejudices and what we can do about them.
Rational equals unemotional?
One of the commonest beliefs about rational people is that if they are logical, they are therefore unemotional and unfeeling. This stems from the belief that rational people are more in control of their emotional state. If they are less given to emotional outbursts, they must be repressing their emotional side. For thinking people, this caricature is offensive and insulting. The facts don't bear out this black and white picture of how rational thinking takes place. It is known that people who have brain damage which impairs their emotions, have difficulty thinking rationally. Brain activity during rational activities increases in those areas associated with emotions. When people are emotionally aroused, activity in the brain areas associated with rational thinking also increases. It is not possible to be rational without being emotional. Being emotional is a rational activity. What is true for rational thinkers though is that they are often aware of the influence of emotions on their decisions.
Rational thinking 100
They are aware also how emotions can skew decisions both positively and negatively, and they choose the appropriate mixture for the type of decision they want to take. A decision about effective treatment for an otherwise fatal illness needs to be taken as objectively as possible. The place for emotion is clearly in dealing with the individual, but when evaluating the results of tests of effectiveness, emotion can skew the results making them untrustworthy. Control of emotions in certain circumstances is not something negative, something to be disparaged. It is a positive and mature exercise of self-control. Just because you think rationally does not imply that you are in any way emotionally repressed – far from it. It means you have a healthier understanding of the role of emotions in decisionmaking, which will make you a more responsive and caring individual. By understanding the role of emotion in all decision-making, you are better able to make good decisions.
Creativity opposed to rational thinking?
We've all heard this one too. Rational people can't be creative: the drive to think logically pushes out all those creative urges and leaves the individual dull, unfulfilled, and boring. That flash of inspiration, it is argued, can only come about if we suppress the logical side of our brain. Some people use what we know of the areas of the brain associated with logical and creative thinking to argue that there are types of people who are more dominated by one side or the other. Linear and sequential thinking seems to involve the left side of the brain more, whereas random jumps and associations seem to occur more in processing in the right side of the brain. But all thought involves both sides of the brain in differing degrees. The left brain seems to be good at processing abstractions and symbols, whereas the right brain is more involved in processing concrete, real, physical things. But we use both all the time. Now consider some really creative activities like graphic design, or writing music. The designer has to be able to
Rational thinking 101
manipulate symbols, spatial relationships, real colours and contrasts, sizes, spaces, at the same time as understanding the abstract significance of the images produced, the emotions generated in the viewer, the sensations and perceptions, and so on. The musician has to be able to relate the abstract shape and structure of the composition with the emotions generated by the sounds, with the combination of the real practical requirements of playing the music on real physical instruments, the technical constraints of the score and the orchestration, timing and intonation. There is an absolutely essential involvement of both sides of the brain in any creative activity. Any creative person will stress those different aspects of the creative process at different times. They will analyse, experiment, speculate, measure, introduce random elements, repeat previous work, borrow from others, sometimes being systematic, sometimes following apparently random associations that come to mind. They will go with the flow but also impose rigorous control, break all the rules, then follow them, see what happens, then structure it. They cannot be creative without also using their sense of rationality. Just like thinking rationally, thinking creatively is a skill that can be taught and learned. It can also be self-taught.
Either artistic or logical?
Many schools divide their pupils into categories based on whether they will study arts subjects or science subjects, implicitly stamping them as either artistic or logical/analytical. The education system has encouraged this assumption in its timetabling, selection criteria for higher education, and throughout universities. People come out of school thinking that they fall into one camp or the other. How often have you heard, “I was always artistic, I was no good at science.” People are taught at an early age that they belong to one type or the other. By conforming to the expectations of educators, they not only restrict themselves to certain activities but deny themselves other opportunities to develop the corresponding skills.
Rational thinking 102
Concentrating on artistic and expressive activities often involves denying time to developing technical and analytical skills. It's self-fulfilling: people respond to the typing by themselves reinforcing the typing. Artistic skills can be taught and so can logical thinking. There's no contradiction at all. It's just a question of acquiring skills. Summary We've looked at rational thinking and why we use it in all aspects of our lives. We've seen that when we make important decisions, we insist on rational explanations. We've contrasted the consequences of rational thinking and the magical thinking of those who adopt the believing viewpoint. Although magical thinking is entertaining and has its place, when we are taking decisions that matter to us, it is potentially harmful. We looked at the difference between being a consumer and being a believer and saw why Woo marketers very much prefer the latter. We've examined some popular prejudices about rational people and seen that rational thinking does not imply lack of emotion, nor lack of creativity. On the contrary, we've seen that emotional and rational thinking are intimately connected, and that creative activities always include exercising rational skills. We've seen how the labels attached to young people, dividing them between arts and sciences, encourages these prejudices. Now we're ready for a critical look at some representative Woo offerings.
A short compendium of Woo
This chapter provides a short compendium of the range of Woo currently available. It cannot be comprehensive since there's one born every minute. If there is a possibility of a product and someone willing to buy it, somebody will come along with the appropriate combination of Eastern mysticism, pseudoscience, and outlandish claims, with a convincing collection of anecdotes from satisfied customers. All they need is someone to come along and swallow it, sometimes literally. Please take a while to run through the list and consider for each one, what aspect might make you think twice before you hand over your hard-earned cash. I am hoping that by now, you will at least have some serious reservations. Many of these proposed therapies will seem to you to stretch credibility to the limit, but if the potential customer knows little about how the human body works, and is impressed by either Eastern mysticism or pseudoscientific terms, or both, they may be taken in. And if you doubt that these are indeed taken seriously, a brief scan of the internet will identify businesses run on precisely these beliefs, taking money regularly off customers who know no better. I hope this list serves as a reminder that even if there is one born every minute, it doesn't have to be you.
Based on the idea of energy lines or meridians. An undetectable form of energy called Qi is encouraged to flow along undetectable channels, stimulated by the insertion of needles, sometimes to a depth of 7cm or more. Although side effects are rare, vital organs and blood vessels can be punctured. There is no evidence that acupuncture is effective against any disease. Any effects of acupuncture are due to the
A short compendium of Woo 104
A technique of studying the movement of the body to detect stresses and strains, poor posture, and unnecessary physical effort. Originally intended as a process of self-education rather than as a therapy. During instruction, students show better control and less stress but this is not maintained without practice. As a self-study method of controlling posture and tension, it has some benefit. If promoted as a therapy, the claims are suspect.
The belief that bee products, honey, pollen, venom, etc, are endowed with healing powers. Claims have been made that it can even cure autoimmune disease. There is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case nor that it cures anything at all.
This seemingly scientific-sounding treatment relies on the idea that muscle strength is indicative of the overall state of the body. There is no scientific evidence for this being the case nor any evidence that the technique can diagnose illness or ailments. Nevertheless some chiropractors will add this to their list of services and charge for it.
The theory that aromas can influence the limbic system of the body are correct but the claims of aromatherapy go well beyond what is evidenced. Claims to any form of therapy are unreasonable. The anecdotal reports of relaxing massage with pleasant smells seems consistent with claims of stress reduction. However there is no evidence of any form of therapy, or cures of illnesses.
A short compendium of Woo 105
This is the belief that the relative position of the planets and stars directly influences events in the world, specifically the destiny and fate of human beings. Many astrologers base their predictions on tables of planetary positions in an ephemeris but unfortunately most such books are based on inaccurate tables constructed around the time of Kepler in the 17th century. Despite many attempts to find it, there has been no significant correlation beyond chance between astrological predictions and real events.
Ayurvedic medicine relies on a medieval classification of elements, typically Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Space. Abstract metaphysical concepts are mixed with proposed herbal remedies. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine are mostly ignorant of both the active ingredients and their pharmacological effects. Since herbal remedies contain many identified and unidentified active ingredients, and since there are no standards for safety and quality in their production, they constitute a potential health risk. Despite ancient documents recommending medicines, their age does not ensure accuracy nor efficacy, merely belief. There is no evidence to support Ayurvedic medicine.
Bach flower therapy
The idea that extracts of certain plants in a 50:50 water:brandy mixture will alleviate stress is indistinguishable from the (brandy-assisted) placebo effect. Leaving out the expensive plant extract has been shown to be at least as good in bringing about relaxation.
This is a therapy based on the idea that by manipulating the
A short compendium of Woo 106
musculo-skeletal system the general health of the body is affected through the nervous system. It is based on the unscientific belief of the founder, D. D. Palmer, that 95% of illnesses are caused by subluxations, deformations of the spine. Although many chiropractors treat back injuries, many also make claims to be able to treat a wide variety of illnesses including childhood colic and asthma. Such claims are being challenged due to the absence of evidence from trials which meet the required standard of clinical evidence. It is possible that chiropractic techniques can benefit back pain sufferers but even here, the evidence is weak. Claims to treat other conditions are suspect. The theory behind chiropractic is non-scientific. Particular techniques, such as cervical manipulation in which the neck is severely jolted, have been heavily criticised on safety grounds and there have been cases of ruptured arteries in the neck. Accepting such a technique on the basis of an unscientific theory is taking an unnecessary risk.
The idea here is that colour can be used to balance some unidentified and undetectable energy, thus bringing about improved health. Coloured lights are shone on various points of the body in the belief that specific frequencies and intensities provide different healing potentials. This is utterly without any rational basis and although it is sold as a therapy, one has to question the honesty of such claims.
Colloidal silver therapy
Some people believe that the metal silver has therapeutic properties. In fact it's a metal which in high concentrations can cause a toxic reaction called argyria, which causes permanent greying of the skin and can inhibit antibiotics and other medicines. Selling silver as a therapy is banned in the US because it is unsafe.
A short compendium of Woo 107
Colon hydrotherapy – colonic irrigation
This strange idea assumes that introducing water into the large intestine via the anus, will remove toxins from the body. It is utterly without basis and shows considerable confusion about human biology. At best, the technique will wash out part of the alimentary canal but it will have no effect on blood chemistry. Introducing pipes into the anus is itself a risky procedure which can lead to perforation of the rectum and large intestine. Only the very foolhardy would undertake this procedure voluntarily.
This is based on the belief that crystals have healing vibrations which are able to affect the body, sometimes through undetectable chakras, so that the body becomes free to heal itself. Although there are fundamental frequencies at which all objects vibrate, this theory is non-scientific and practitioners are often more concerned with the colour of the crystal rather than the composition. There is absolutely no evidence to support the practice of crystal healing.
This is the practice of placing containers of hot air on the skin so that on cooling, the skin is sucked in and raised increasing blood circulation. Sometimes it is placed over a supposed acupuncture point, sometimes it is used to draw blood. Claims that this treats anything are without basis. The most you will get is a bruise.
It is extremely difficult to suffer vitamin deficiency eating the average western diet. Therefore dietary supplements are generally pointless unless there is some underlying illness (for example anaemia) or a grossly distorted diet. Any supplement
A short compendium of Woo 108
needs to be related to the specific biochemically diagnosed deficit. Excess of vitamin A causes a toxic reaction so taking too many supplements can be dangerous. Excess of vitamin E has been associated with increased deaths from heart disease. The body does not need extra supplies of vitamins, amino acids, metals, and cofactors. A glance at the contents of some dietary supplements will show that the overwhelming majority of them are already contained in the common potato.
This is the belief that a Y- or L-shaped rod held in the hands can be used to detect subterranean material such as water, oil, bodies, metallic or other objects. Although it attracts insistent believers, trials have consistently shown that this is a nonphenomenon. It doesn't happen.
This is the practice of placing one end of a candle in the ear and lighting the other end with the belief that this will exert negative pressure and draw out toxins and wax. It is claimed that the process can remove impurities and toxins from the body. It is utterly without basis. Not only are there no toxins to come out of the ear, but there is also no negative pressure to draw such toxins and wax out. It cannot work, and does not work.
This is the religious belief that prayers or rituals can call into presence a divine entity which will effect a cure. Case studies of those claiming to have been cured through such an experience have shown that there were no cures. Prayer has consistently shown itself to fail. It is also pertinent, although obvious, to point out that many illnesses are apparently immune to faith healers such as fractures.
A short compendium of Woo
Fasting and detox
Going without food, or radically changing one's diet can have serious biochemical consequences. The body will use carbohydrates for energy first, then it uses glycogen from the liver, then it moves on to fats. After a few days ketone levels build up in the blood and this can cause major changes in blood chemistry. Detox therapies are based on the notion that various toxins build up the body and need to be removed. The liver does this very effectively and naturally. Many of the so-called toxins are not toxins at all. Many of the major metallic elements (calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, copper, iron, zinc) are necessarily present in the body and the level is selfregulating. Interfering with these levels artificially, either by deliberately restricting intake, or using so called Chelation Therapy (using chemicals like EDTA normally used to treat acute lead, arsenic, uranium and mercury poisoning), will alter the delicate balance and can make people quite unwell. Detox theory is based on a very poor understanding of human biology. Classifying something as a toxin first requires an understanding of its role in human biochemistry. If anyone is proposing detox as a therapy, they have little or no understanding of the way the human body functions and should not be trusted.
This is really a form of interior design in which mystical claims are made about the importance of orientation in the positioning of furniture. More sophisticated practitioners will use a luo pan, a Chinese compass, to identify the auspicious directions. Since Qi, the energy flows which the practitioner is trying to align, are undetectable, it is simply a form of marketing mumbo-jumbo to differentiate interior designers from their competitors. There is no evidence to support their mystical claims.
A short compendium of Woo
This is a form of yoga based on physical exercise, poses, positions, breathing exercises, and meditation. It comes with Eastern mystical philosophy based on the ideas that physical exercises improve certain mental and spiritual aspects. As with all versions of yoga there are certain physical benefits derived from the exercise and relaxation. The spiritual claims are unfounded because they are untestable.
This is based on the idea that herbal remedies used in the past must have worked and that therefore we should continue to use them. Neither belief is justified. If they worked in the past, and we have no evidence other than written anecdotal evidence, we don't know the active ingredient, nor its concentrations. Nor do we know what else is in the herbal medicine that may interact with, counteract, amplify or weaken the effects. Without any control on the contents of the herbal medicine, we are trusting in the pre-science beliefs of medieval people. There are clearly some plant extracts which are effective medicines, quinine for example from the bark of the cinchona tree. Extracting that, purifying it, and using it in a controlled manner proved useful in treating malaria. But most herbal medicines are of questionable quality, of uncertain content, and have an uncertain effect. With the possible exception of St John's Wort, no evidence of efficacy has been found. In the case of St John's Wort, we know it interferes with more than half of prescription medicines, including oral contraceptives, because it inhibits an enzyme needed for uptake from the gut.
Holistic simply means whole, complete, total. It is used by alternative medicine practitioners to imply that conventional science-based medicine does not treat the whole individual. In fact, when a doctor takes a case history, that is precisely holistic
A short compendium of Woo 111
medicine. Conventional medicine concentrates on relevant details associated with possible causes, and therefore concentrates on those aspects most likely to result in treatment and cure. It is often believed that this focussed questioning by medical practitioners reflects a lack of understanding of the holistic nature of medicine. In reality, it is the most effective mechanism for identifying likely causes and treatments. There is no reason to believe that wider questioning including a wide range of possible but very unlikely causes, will result in a more focussed or quicker diagnosis. Conventional medicine is holistic medicine.
Based on the principle of “like cures like”, and “successive dilution”, this is a non-scientific theory which contradicts the wealth of known physical, chemical and biological science. Like does not cure like. A small amount of arsenic does not cure arsenic poisoning. A small amount of additional sugar does not cure a hyperglycaemic diabetic coma. Similarly, dilution does not increase the strength of a medicine. Despite massive delusional support brought about by enormous amounts of marketing, is difficult to distinguish this therapy from fraud.
This is based on the belief that the iris in the eye reflects the general state of health of the patient and that it can be used to diagnose systemic diseases. The iris though does not undergo substantial change during the course of a person's lifetime. Controlled trials have consistently shown that practitioners cannot diagnose anything from test irises they have seen. If they can't diagnose, they can't treat.
The idea here is that health is maintained by eating grains,
A short compendium of Woo 112
vegetables and beans. The sound advice to eat a varied and balanced diet is often mixed with Eastern mystical ideas, undetectable energies and grandiose medical claims. Despite a claim to the contrary, there is no evidence that it is a cure for cancer. There is some risk in adopting radical diets. Unless a full balanced diet is maintained providing the essential carbohydrates, proteins and fats, vitamins and essential elements, dietary disorders will result and those following strict macrobiotic diets are more susceptible to scurvy and malnutrition.
This is based on the belief that magnetic fields have therapeutic properties. Patients are subjected to magnetic fields or sold magnetic material to wear. The use of magnetism in medicine as a controlled diagnostic tool has been growing with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) but this uses a wellestablished physical principle in which, at the atomic level, protons are aligned temporarily by a very strong radiofrequency electromagnetic field. This allows differences to be seen between soft and hard tissue. It requires the use of a massive electromagnet. It has nothing whatsoever to do with magnet therapy. Studies of therapy involving magnets have shown no detectable effect. Magnets sold by the practitioners are far too weak to influence bodily tissue in any way at all. The sheer size of magnets required for scanning equipment illustrates the absurdity of these claims.
Massage works by relaxing muscles and muscle groups by physical manipulation. By increasing blood circulation and reducing muscle tension, the patient is relaxed. Claiming anything further of massage is mystification. For example claims involving undetectable energies, balancing, detox,
A short compendium of Woo 113
harmony and the like, are all marketing hype. There are now hundreds of varieties of massage Woo, often sold by practitioners who claim some kind of qualification which can generally be obtained by attending a short course from a Woo institute at considerable cost, and are often worthless. Those claiming to provide cures are risking the charge of fraud.
This is where practitioners claim to use their intuition to identify the cause of physical or emotional conditions. It is as close as one can get to the traditional witch doctor looking for signs of a demon. There is no clinical evidence to support the use of medical intuition. That is not to say that doctors do not often have intuitions, simply that when intuitions are trialled, they fare no better than guesses. Genuine medical practitioners question their hunches and look for the evidence.
This is a stress on the body's self-healing rather than the interventions of modern medicine. Surgery, pharmaceuticals and radiation are avoided in favour of life-style changes. Naturopaths may also be opposed to vaccines and antibiotics. All forms of naturopathy rely on concepts which contradict known basic science. Since they may offer diagnoses at odds with clinical science, there is some risk associated with reliance on naturopathic doctors.
This is based on the idea that we can unlearn learned behaviours which contribute to symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and learning disorders. Although it sounds as though it is related to neuroscience (and therefore pretends to have some scientific respectability) it is non-scientific and unrelated to any neurological science. There is no empirical evidence for the efficacy of NLP.
A short compendium of Woo 114
This is the belief that western diets are deficient in essential components required for health and therefore we need substantial quantities of supplements. These proposed supplements include vitamins, proteins, amino acids, antioxidants, fatty acids of one kind or another, and even micronutrients. Despite the apparently scientific name, it is unscientific. There has been no evidence found to support the claims that the western diet is deficient in these essentials, nor that supplements have a beneficial effect on health. Instead, those who supplement excessively with vitamin E have a higher death rate. It is dangerous to treat your diet as a hobby.
These practitioners, who are either chiropractors or osteopaths, seem to have refused to be regulated by law, changing their designation to osteomyologist rather than have to abide by the requirements of their professional chiropractor and osteopath associations. The UK law required both chiropractors and osteopaths to be registered and controlled, so practitioners who designate themselves as osteomyologists can avoid this limitation. These practitioners have no defining philosophy except that they wish to practice manipulative techniques without the restriction of legal control. Anyone can designate themselves an osteomyologist with no training whatsoever.
This was originally based on the idea that the musculoskeletal system can interfere with nerve and blood supply around the body, and that therefore manipulation of the bones and muscles can remove the obstructions and allow the body to function. It has moved on from the early days of shaking children with Scarlet Fever. Now it tends to be concentrated on manipulating the spine and joints to alleviate pain. Joint
A short compendium of Woo 115
manipulation may alleviate pain providing the practitioner understands physiotherapy. But osteopathic manipulative treatment has no known effect on overall body health. Cranial Therapy used by osteopaths claims to be able to detect and cure diseases by detecting the movement of cranial bones. This is quite simply impossible because after early adolescence, the cranial bones have fused together – they cannot and do not move. When the diagnostic skills of osteopaths detecting such cranial movements were tested, they all found something different – exactly as expected when detecting a non-existent phenomenon. Don't believe people who claim to detect this stuff – it doesn't exist.
This is a form of therapy based on the belief in a form of energy called putative energy. It uses Eastern mystical vocabulary and practitioners claim to be able to balance the natural flow of energy through the body. In the absence of any means of identifying, detecting, or measuring the energy, it is difficult to distinguish this therapy from fraud.
This is a religious form of contemplation in which believers are convinced they are being listened to by a supernatural being, and in some cases also able to receive a response. Prayer has been consistently shown to have no effect on the physical world. In a controlled, double-blind, randomised, trial of cardiac patients, those who had people praying for them did marginally worse than those who did not.
This is the dramatic removal of tissue, pathological matter, from a patient with bare hands, without leaving any trace of an incision. It is broadly accepted as a form of medical fraud but remains an entertaining television example of irrationalism.
A short compendium of Woo 116
This is the belief that various regions of the foot map to other areas of the body so that massaging or applying pressure to specific points can improve health. There is no consensus amongst practitioners about how this is supposed to work, nor which regions are related to which other areas of the body. Some practitioners claim to use some form of Qi, an undetectable energy, whereas others simply stress the benefits of relaxation. Reflexologists have consistently failed to diagnose known medical conditions. There is absolutely no evidence to support claims of cures using reflexology.
This is the belief that, rather than the iris, the sclera or white of the eye displays the current medical condition of the patient and can be used in the diagnosis of illness. This is utterly without foundation and when tested, practitioners could identify nothing.
Therapeutic touch, Reiki
This is the idea that some form of energy can be passed from one person to another via touch or some unidentified mechanism, in such a way that the healing potential of the recipient is enhanced. Some claim to exercise this healing power at a distance, even between countries. A famous scientific paper written by an 11-year-old girl, Emily Rosa, in 1998, reported how she conducted a controlled, double-blind, randomised study of her own as a classroom project, and demonstrated that the practitioners performed worse than could be expected by chance. It is difficult to distinguish these therapeutic claims from fraud.
Traditional Chinese medicine
This claims that the mystical concepts of ancient Taoism,
A short compendium of Woo 117
Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, correctly describe how the body works. It relies on notions of an undetectable energy called Qi, channels for such energy called meridians, a strange concept called jing (which includes kidney essence), and a variety of other abstract ideas. The complete lack of any diagnostic techniques means that each TCM practitioner will produce a different diagnosis and they will then offer uncontrolled substances of largely uncertain content to treat unidentified ailments. You wouldn't do that to your dog.
I hope that you now see clearly the irrational elements that infect the Land of Woo; the mystical energies and forces, the superbeings, the outlandish claims about the human body, the exploitation of the lack of scientific understanding, the sheer lack of evidence to support any of them, the reliance on belief to sell a product. This brief compendium could not possibly be comprehensive. It would itself run to thousands of pages, such is the extent of this differentiated market. But hopefully it has served as a good indication of the scope of irrational ideas and their pervasive influence in the Land of Woo. There will be countless variations on offer, each with their suspicious, unfounded claims, each with their marketing differentiators, but it should now be easy to compare them to their generic equivalents. We've had a trip around the Land of Woo and seen what's there. Now, it's time to leave it – for good!
A short compendium of Woo
Leaving the Land of Woo
We've now moved a long way from our starting point of examining how and why we trust claims about how the world works. We've seen how the sceptical point of view is the one we use most in our daily lives to provide the right degree of open-mindedness and caution, to look after our safety, and to avoid being taken in by silly, nonsensical ideas. We've seen how the Land of Woo relies on us adopting a believing point of view, suspending our natural caution, and accepting extraordinary claims without good reasons. We've seen how religion is part of the Land of Woo, insisting on belief in supernatural beings of various types, existence beyond death, and spirits and souls, for which there are no good reasons. We've also looked at how alternative medicine has sprouted an incredible number of claims about how the human body works, offering fantastic mechanisms for therapies in the absence of objective evidence. Again we are asked to accept the claims with no good reason. We've seen how Woo depends on both a lack of understanding of how the world really works, whether it's how the human body functions, or understanding concepts like force and energy, and our willingness to accept unjustified theories. Our ignorance leaves us prey to sham theory which, although it might use the same words, has nothing to do with a scientific understanding of the natural world. We now know that many of the businesses in the Land of Woo are selling a product based on undetectable forces or energies, using proposed mechanisms that the practitioners themselves cannot explain and sometimes cannot even understand. Such theories are generally in conflict with the known physical laws of nature and we know now that if the theories of the Land of Woo are correct, then the physical laws on which our working technology is based must be incorrect. If
Leaving the Land of Woo 119
the Land of Woo is correct, not just some but all of our science is wrong. The forces and energy we know about just don't behave the way the world relies on. But of course, we know that technology works – that's not in doubt. Planes do fly, X-rays do detect bones, glasses do help our eyesight, electric bulbs do produce light. We now know why we cannot claim such success for the Land of Woo. Because it doesn't work. We've had a look at a short compendium of samples of Woo to see which ideas and beliefs they are based on and identified those which are unsupported by evidence. We have seen that the scope is vast and growing, there's one born every minute. We've looked briefly as well at the kinds of prejudice that can face those who try to think rationally, those who weigh up objective evidence when taking decisions, those who take the claims of Woo seriously and check them out. We've seen some of society's assumptions about the social characteristics of people who develop the skill of thinking rationally, and we've exploded some myths about being imaginative and creative. We now know you can't be creative without being rational, and imagination draws on many different forms of thinking. Now we need to look at the changes which we need to make to get away from the Land of Woo. Among us are people who have vaguely entertained the idea that these therapies might work. They might even have parted with money at some time in the past, buying homeopathic medicine, trying some kind of Woo massage, taken Ayurvedic medicine or some Chinese herbal remedy. We're still here so it clearly didn't do us major harm, but we now want to adopt a more rational approach to our decisions about our health and welfare. Rather like getting away from an addictive drug, we are breaking away from irrational thinking. And just as in the case of addiction, we have patterns of behaviour, in this case irrational thinking, which we have repeated over and over. We are susceptible to irrational ideas, pay attention to them, take them seriously even when we suspect there are no good reasons.
Leaving the Land of Woo 120
In this chapter, we'll propose a completely new, unsubstantiated and irrational alternative medical therapy. We'll invent a completely fictitious theory to support it and we'll use some real scientific information dishonestly to encourage people to believe it. In other words, we're going to design our own scam, our own fraudulent therapy, making extraordinary claims with no evidence, and propose various forms of therapeutic activity based on it. If this were a real scam, we'd be advertising, accepting clients, and charging money. But we're too honest for that. This is just an example to illustrate how we can produce a seemingly credible alternative therapy from almost nothing at all.
Sniff Therapy – an alternative con
The basic idea is that one of our main senses is smell. Here's our made-up alternative therapy. Smells can make us react in all sorts of ways. We'll claim (with no good reason) that our sense of smell is much more powerful than many people realise and that it affects the whole of our well-being. We'll also claim that the sense of smell directly affects your emotions, your physical state, and your energy balance. (I made that last bit up!). The olfactory receptors in your nose are connected to the olfactory bulb in the brain and from there it also connects to the amygdala which is associated with emotions, and the hippocampus which is associated with motivation and memory. (All true!) When we take a brief sniff, we are actually restoring in a small way, the natural balance of the body. (I made that up!) Repeated light sniffs provides a holistic and non-invasive way of restoring the balance in our bodies.
Leaving the Land of Woo 121
It will reduce stress and open our bodies to the restorative flow. By stimulating and enhancing our sense of smell, we improve the body's self-healing potential. (I made all that up too!) Thousands of people have already experienced the benefits of therapeutic sniffing. (That's right, I made that up too...) The therapy consists of controlled sessions with a trained therapist which last about an hour. Typically the first twenty minutes is shallow breathing to open the channels so they are receptive. Then a period of around twenty to thirty minutes, inhaling a selection of aromatic materials graded to produce the correct level of stimulation. The session ends after a warm down period when the channels are relaxed back to their normal state. I must stress, this is all made up! If I was exploitative and interested in taking money off gullible people, I'd invent an Institute, award myself a Practitioner Certificate, possibly award myself Trainer Status, print a few more Certificates, and make up some impressive looking adverts. I might also write my own recommendations... That's all good fun, inventing an alternative therapy. I did run a check on the internet and as far as I know, no-one has yet tried making a business out of this idea but we'll see. But just in case, let's now apply our rational thinking and see what we make of it. We'll see lots of the elements from the Land of Woo and we'll see how to get away from them.
Taking apart Sniff Therapy
Let's assume that we don't know much about human biology. We know that there have been lots of scientific advances in the last twenty years so let's go with the flow. “Smells can make us react in all sorts of ways”
Leaving the Land of Woo 122
That's certainly true. We can all think of smells that make our mouths water, and also smells that make us run away. That statement seems to be true. “Our sense of smell is much more powerful than many people realise” We can't tell if this is true or not without knowing how much other people know. But it sounds plausible. Maybe our sense of smell is more powerful. But we are being asked to believe this without good reason. “It affects the whole of your well-being” This is quite a strong claim. The whole of my well-being includes my whole body, my mental health, my heart and lungs and liver, my skin and blood, my nerves. That's a very strong claim to make without good reason. So we are being asked to believe this too. And yet, it sounds plausible because we are always told similar things. But we haven't been given any reason. “The sense of smell directly affects your emotions, your physical state, and your energy balance” We all have direct personal evidence of the first two parts. Smells can affect our emotions and physical state. That's why perfumes are produced, and why the smell of good food makes us salivate. But then there's the third part, slipped in almost unnoticed. We are told about energy balance. We don't know what is meant by this energy balance, and we are tempted to think they are referring to the same energy as the physicists and biologists. We don't know what it is that is supposed to be balanced. We are expected to believe that the practitioner understands this even if we don't. But remember, I made it up! “The olfactory receptors in your nose are connected to the olfactory bulb in the brain and from there it also connects to the amygdala which is associated with emotions, and the hippocampus which is associated with motivation and
Leaving the Land of Woo 123
memory.” This is packed with medical-sounding information and it's factually correct. The nerves do go from your nose to your brain and do connect to other areas. Those areas in turn are involved in emotions and memory. But the purpose is not to explain anything, but to get you to accept the account as authoritative. Those weasel-words “associated with” give you the illusion that the theory is justified when in fact it's not. “Sniffing... restores the natural balance of the body” Here we are expected to accept two ideas, not one. The first and most important is that we are asked to believe that our bodies are out-of-balance. We don't know what that refers to, but we are asked to believe it anyway. Secondly, we are asked to believe that sniffing can affect this unidentified imbalance and restore it. Notice that we have no way of detecting this imbalance or measuring the effects. If it doesn't exist, we have no way of telling. “Holistic,... non-invasive,... reduce stress,... restorative flow,... channels” Here we introduce some words that people will have heard before and perhaps grown to accept as plausible. Holistic is all about the total person, so that's bound to be good. Noninvasive, has to be a plus. Reduce stress? Well we all want that. Restorative flow? No idea what that means but it sounds like a good thing. The overall impression is that we are being given an explanation. But it doesn't explain anything at all. “improve the body's self-healing potential” This sounds marvellous. We know that when we cut ourselves, the body heals itself so we already accept this idea. Improving anything sounds good too, so we get the impression that this is bound to do us good. But what we are not told is how! There is no explanation.
Leaving the Land of Woo
The obvious verdict on Sniff Therapy
First let's think about the grain of truth used to appeal to us. Smell is certainly a human sense that can provoke emotional and physical reactions. Mentioning that gives the idea some initial credibility. The additional information about the nerves and the regions of the brain makes it sound authoritative when it's not. We have the appeal to something that might be true, namely that the sense of smell might be more powerful than most people realise. We just don't know if this is true or not. Then we have a number of unfounded claims for which there are no good reasons. There is no good reason to believe smell affects all aspects of our well-being. In fact there are good reasons to think this isn't true. How, for example, do smells affect the state of my ankles? There is no good reason to believe sniffing affects any kind of energy balance, particularly the type that isn't even identified. There is no good reason to believe that sniffing has anything to do with a natural balance because we don't know what that natural balance refers to. It sounds good, but it's meaningless. And there is no good reason to believe that we are in any way enhancing the body's ability to heal itself. We can accept that bodies do that because we all recover from cuts, colds, etc. But we have been given nothing to make us believe we are doing anything to help the body by sniffing. The point of all this is not to show how gullible we are. We already know that because we've all been taken in at some stage in our lives. The point is to show that we can identify quite easily and quickly what constitutes a good reason. When we add up what we've been told, we can see that apart from what we already knew about our own sense of smell, there's nothing remotely rational in this therapy. It's clearly a con, a scam, a fraud. We have to remember that we are being asked to buy a
Leaving the Land of Woo 125
product in the same way as we buy a car, a fridge, a television. It is being marketed to us using terms that make it sound appealing, scientific, proven, trustworthy. As consumers we would apply a sceptical viewpoint and check all the claims. But we are asked not to behave like consumers but like believers. If we behaved like consumers, we would be much more critical in assessing the claims. If someone tried to sell you a television claiming that it could access an unknown energy source, you would demand evidence. If a dentist offered to treat tooth decay using therapeutic touch, you would not trust them to do a good job. Ask yourself why not? Applying the same reasoning to any of the alternative therapies will enable us to figure out whether there are any good reasons for us to believe them. So here's a quick check list of how to assess claims from the Land of Woo: • Which of the statements are factual? That means, which ones can be confirmed? Which ones are known to be true because they've been checked? Which statements are claiming properties of the body or the world which are doubtful or incorrect? For example: “blood moves around the body in arteries and veins” - true; “cerebro-spinal fluid pulses throughout our entire body” - false. Which statements are claiming things about the body that we are unsure about? For example, “enzymes are needed for the proper functioning of our nervous system”. If this looks important in supporting their claims, we need to look it up in a reputable source. That means consulting something like a human biology book, or an online encyclopaedia such as Wikipedia. The chance of there being a human biology mistake in Wikipedia is very low compared with the likelihood that the marketers are making false claims. Are there statements about strange forces or energies? Does it contradict the scientific evidence we already have? If there are, and physics doesn't
Leaving the Land of Woo 126
already know about it, we can confidently expect their theory to be wrong. If it conflicts with what we already know, the therapist ought to be able to explain which bits of modern physics are wrong... and show you their Nobel prize for science. Are there significant parts of what we are being told for which there are no good reasons? If there are, ask yourself why they don't supply those reasons. If their theory is well-established, and supported by evidence, they would be able to provide a substantial amount of support and explanation. What evidence, apart from anecdotal accounts, is there that the therapy is doing something beneficial? We know that paying customers generally claim they have spent their money well. We want to know what unbiased evidence there really is, of the sort provided by controlled, double-blind, randomised, clinical trials. If they don't know what these are, they are not themselves in a position to assess whether their therapy works at all.
Finally then, consider all of the claims critically. Look at what evidence they use, if any, to support their own beliefs, and see whether that constitutes real unbiased repeatable evidence. If they say they have academic journal articles, ask them if those journals are reporting controlled, double-blind, randomised trials. If they are not, the evidence is poor at best. More likely it's not evidence at all but anecdotal accounts, the sort we have already had to discount. Consider whether they themselves are victims of the placebo effect, convincing themselves from the anecdotal evidence of already convinced patients. This method can be applied to all branches of Woo including religion. Although breaking with religion is emotionally much more difficult because it often means challenging family and community tradition, there is no reason why the ideas of religion should be immune from critical
Leaving the Land of Woo 127
questioning. If someone asks you to believe something, you owe it to yourself to check that there are good reasons for doing so. In our completely fictitious case, Sniff Therapy, we generated an example of Woo and showed how easy it is to put together a plausible scam. (If anyone feels this was not plausible, they might investigate sound therapy, which claims similar properties for chanting.) Had we dressed our scam up a little more, perhaps including some lying down with relaxing music, or introducing therapeutic joss sticks, it might even have started to attract some serious delusional interest.
What have we learned from this?
If we can create a credible alternative therapy with so little reference to the real world, so can others. And they have! In many cases, they blended a marketing mix with just the right quantity of scientific sounding words, Eastern mythology, vague ideas like holistic and self-healing, and enough familiarity to draw in customers. They use the allure of the whole person to capitalise on the pressures on GPs, the long waiting lists, and the short consultation time available. They convince themselves as well as their customers using that wellknown placebo effect so that we go away thinking we've had some treatment when we haven't, and they are confident that they are providing a valuable service. It is inevitable that the question arises as to whether these businesses are fraudulent. Indeed, to accuse anyone of such a charge is a serious step and requires positive proof of the intention to deceive, the falsity of the claim made, and a number of other conditions. Since the presence of undetectable energy is by definition untestable, it is never possible to prove the falsity of these claims. Consequently, there is a legal cloak behind which the Land of Woo can hide from the charge of fraud. Unless the practitioner, knowing that the claims are false, exploits the ignorance of the customer and knowingly misrepresents the facts for their gain, little can be done. This is
Leaving the Land of Woo 128
the reason why so much consumer protection legislation fails to prevent the spread of Woo. It also limits the scope of bodies such as the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK. The recent case of Dr Simon Singh illustrates the legal dangers inherent in exposing the irrationality of these therapies. At the time of writing, he is defending a libel action based on his criticism of chiropractic claims to treat childhood colic. Instead of being based on a scientific evaluation of the evidence for such a claim, the case rests on the interpretation of the word “bogus” by a controversial judge. In UK libel law, you are guilty until you can prove you are innocent and so Dr Simon Singh is assumed to be guilty of libel unless or until he can prove otherwise which in turn requires him to prove a different understanding of the word from the judge's own. This is the legal equivalent of the believing viewpoint – they believe him to be guilty until he provides evidence to the contrary. If something might be true, they therefore assume it is until they are convinced otherwise. Since the therapists themselves are (or will claim to be) truly convinced of the power of their therapy, they will escape charges of fraud. For fraud to occur, they need to claim the treatment works when they know it doesn't – a powerful incentive in itself to avoid any scientific understanding of the body or natural laws. If many of these practitioners were to undergo scientific training, they would possibly lose their livelihoods or risk fraud charges! At the very least they would have to curtail their extraordinary claims and offer more modest services which respect evidence and the standards of science. In the case of our totally fabricated “Sniff Therapy”, so long as we claim to believe it, and convince others, there is no legal obstacle to setting up a practice. We can avoid the charge of fraud very easily despite the therapy being based on nothing at all. Unless we ourselves are shown to be convinced that it doesn't work, the law won't touch us. We can even set up our own institutes and associations, run training courses, issue awards, and ramp up an entire marketing exercise to make money from the gullible. We might even be able to persuade a
Leaving the Land of Woo 129
university to let us teach a course, even a degree course. Consumer legislation won't stop us. The libel law will actually protect us from critics. But the lesson should by now be very clear. If we can fabricate an alternative therapy with so little regard for the way the world really works, so can others. They don't need to be deliberately dishonest to do this. They just need to have a disregard for the facts and an ignorance of basic science and human biology. A highly developed commercial instinct for taking money off gullible customers of course helps enormously.
In this chapter, we have used a fabricated alternative therapy to illustrate both how easy it is to create Woo, and also to evaluate it and dismiss it as nonsense. Our Woo therapy is no less credible than all the others on offer, drawing on scientific terminology, building on common beliefs, claiming unevidenced effects, and drawing the believer into the sale. The mechanism is transparent because we presented it that way, but it's the same with all the other forms of Woo. We ended up with a short list of rational questions we can ask when someone offers us a Woo product, whether it's a type of massage or belief in a god, a crystal or a chiropractor, so that we can distinguish between the reasonable statements and the unreasonable. These are not new questions. We'd ask the same of someone selling us a new TV, or a car. We then looked at the thorny issue of fraud. How can we tell if the Woo business in front of us is acting fraudulently? We saw how the fact that Woo claims are untestable gives the practitioner a legal cloak providing they are not knowingly misleading. And that in turn gives them an important interest in remaining ignorant of how the human body and the world actually works. For practitioners of Woo, it is legally safer for them to remain ignorant of human biology and physics. And of course, if they can find customers equally ignorant, they will
Leaving the Land of Woo 130
generate more sales. Consumer legislation designed to protect customers against unfair treatment often cannot control these businesses. Customers are converted into believers and so their natural caution when buying products is reduced. In addition, since the libel laws assume the guilt of those charged rather than their innocence, the debate centres not on the evidence, but on the interpretations by libel court judges.
Leaving the Land of Woo
Why this stuff matters
Rational thinking is a useful skill. We can put it to work in any and all areas of our life, whether we're buying a car or deciding if we should believe in a god, whether we're planning a holiday or resolving a problem in a relationship. It doesn't replace the emotional thinking we all do; it simply complements it in varying degrees. Some decisions require more objectivity than others and in those situations, we concentrate on more analytical and evaluative thinking. Some decisions have a higher emotional content. Sometimes we find there is a conflict between what we know rationally should be the right decision, and the emotions we feel. We sometimes call it head versus heart. These are often ethical or personal decisions: putting a child up for adoption; agreeing to turning off a life-support system; ending a destructive relationship; having a pet put to sleep; this list is endless. In most practical decisions, we have to employ many different types of thinking. Sometimes we have to go with the emotional decisions regardless of the consequences, and at other times we need to overrule the emotions and think dispassionately. The balance is part of our character and it changes during our lives. If we cannot employ our rational thinking at times when it is truly needed, we are at the mercy of the marketers and pedlars of Woo. If we have an unexplained pain and we go to a homeopath, they have absolutely no chance of treating the cause. Either it goes away on its own, or it doesn't, but whatever happens will have nothing to do with homeopathy. All we'll do is spend money on nothing at all. We might try someone claiming to be able to perform healing touch. Again, the Woo merchants will take money for nothing. No treatment, no cure. If we are of the believing type, we might be able to exert some influence on ourselves through the placebo effect.
Why this stuff matters 132
We might persuade ourselves we are doing something useful and therefore feel a little better. But the Woo is doing nothing. On the other hand, if we are able to exercise a little rational thinking, we'll have the pain, figure out roughly where in the body it is and what might be causing it. We could possibly identify if it is muscular or associated with some organ. We can think about recent activity (was it the tennis that strained my arm?), and we can compare it with known ailments. We judge its severity, and the likelihood that it will cure itself, and then decide whether to seek a medical diagnosis. If we want to know what's wrong, we want to be confident that the diagnostic technique will be consistent and effective. When someone suggests going to a Woo merchant, we ask how the treatment works and find no-one knows, but we hear lots of positive anecdotal evidence. “I had something like that and he cricked my back and it's fine now.” We ask what evidence there is that the treatment was effective and find again only the anecdotal, so we ask about clinical trials. We get blank looks. We question the theory and find it's contradictory, impossible without breaking universal physical laws, and find that our friends don't know about them. We point out how the human body works and find our friends didn't know much about that either. Then we find they paid for sessions themselves and are convinced it was money well spent. So we turn down the offer and save our money. Our well-meaning friends were taken in by Woo, lost their money, but convinced themselves it was well-spent. We hope they don't do the same if they have something serious wrong with them. We ask them why there are no homeopathic Accident and Emergency departments, or healing touch dentists? And why can't Ayurvedic medicines cure typhoid or pneumonia? And why doesn't praying work? And how come faith-healing can't help broken bones? As the questions stack up, the absurdity of dismissing the accumulated wealth of scientific knowledge, becomes overwhelming. No-one likes to be told that they believe in magic, make-belief, fairy tales, because everyone assumes they
Why this stuff matters 133
have grown out of them. But do we really want to be sold these ideas, to have them influence important areas of our lives? Being rational is cool because we are reclaiming control of our lives, removing the fatuous, the nonsensical, the unfounded, the absurd, theories pushed by the purveyors of Woo. We don't get hoodwinked by alluring marketing promises of extraordinary cures, however much we might like them to be true. We make decisions which are loaded in the right direction for us. We treat our health as important, and not just as a hobby. We stand responsible for our own ethical decisions, willing to justify them on the basis of our own beliefs and behaviour. We adopt a sceptical viewpoint with an open mind so that new ideas are welcomed and considered seriously. We build on our knowledge and increase the control over our lives without being side-tracked by wishful-thinking. We keep a distinction between entertaining ourselves with fiction and fantasy, illusion and distraction, and the needs of dealing with the real world. We can tell the difference between them. We understand the limitations of science, how evidence is accumulated through hard painstaking work, and how theories and hypotheses are challenged and disproved through evidence. Our rational thinking doesn't impede our emotions, our creativity, our artistic abilities, not does it in any way prevent us being sociable, gregarious, and fulfilled human beings. Becoming rational human beings is part of growing up for us and when we stop believing in sprites and goblins, the toothfairy and other childish fictions, we also gain that ability to question the existence of gods, angels, demons, leprechauns and all the other supernatural beings.
Protecting the gullible
If we waste our own money, it's our business, our choice, our fault. We have only ourselves to blame. If after thinking about the products on offer, we still decide to buy them, then where's the harm?
Why this stuff matters 134
In the case of a rational individual, able to weigh up the claims made, to look at the evidence and make an informed decision, there's no problem. But what happens in the case of someone who doesn't understand how the human body works, who has a chronic painful condition and is having difficulty getting treatment? She has heard marvellous things about the new Woo and is encouraged to give it a try by a friend. If the Woo does her no harm, and if she is susceptible to the placebo effect, she may even feel a little better. But she will not have received any real treatment. She has paid money for a treatment she has not received. Whatever was causing the problem will either have gone away of its own accord, or it will still be there. In most countries there is legislation to protect consumers, making sure that what is sold is fit for purpose, that people are not able to make unjustified claims, and that their advertising must be fair and honest. In the case of the Woo industry, that standard does not yet apply. Homeopaths can claim to treat malaria, even cancer. Chiropractors can claim to treat childhood illnesses like asthma, aromatherapists can claim to improve your immune system. How does the consumer legislation relate to these claims? Essentially, it doesn't! And simply believing in the therapy is enough to get around any claim of fraud. But people are vulnerable. Those in pain, those confused or ill-informed about how the body works, those who are taken in by talk of life-forces, Qi, channels, chakra, and the rest, are vulnerable consumers. But in our modern consumerist age, the opportunity to take money from customers is considered more important than protecting their interests. Governments will not act against a big industry, however dishonest the principles on which it is built. What chance does a consumer have against an alternative medicine industry that grosses billions of dollars annually? TheMedica.com claims the global aromatherapy market alone grosses more than $400 million. Ayurvedic medicine grosses $60 billion out of a total herbal medicine market of over $100 billion. Even crystal
Why this stuff matters 135
therapy is claimed to be worth $50 billion globally. These are staggering sums which even at a tenth the size would be an embarrassing indictment of our ability to think reasonably. Irrationality is very big business. So no government is going to lead the way against it.
We started the book with a look at how we change our ideas, how we question something which we previously believed, and how we reconcile our beliefs with our increasing knowledge of the world. We discovered both that we are reluctant to give up our beliefs and that the believing viewpoint can become impervious to evidence. Any theory based on invisible, undetectable forces or beings remains unaffected by evidence – there can be no such evidence. But at the same time, such theories, be they religious or medical, can make no rational claim to any kind of effect on the real world. Having broken off the link to the material world, with no tangible means of detecting any influence, they are therefore making extraordinary claims which they want people simply to believe. In the Land of Woo, credulity is king. Those who insist on the existence of these immaterial, undetectable forces, energies, and superbeings, are insisting that they do not want to know how the world really is. Religion openly casts itself adrift of the real world and this is the problem of theology: how to insist on the relevance of mythical beings when it is patently obvious that moral values are social in origin, when it is demonstrable that nothing fails quite like prayer, when religious books are anachronistic and contradictory? Religions make use of powerful social institutions to indoctrinate people, especially young children. Churches have always focussed on educational institutions as a means of recruiting into their irrational beliefs. And because they are not directly selling a product, religions can afford to rely on more ideological influences. The promotion of faithbased initiatives in the UK is a tangible consequence of the
Why this stuff matters 136
influence of religious organisations in government. This will lead to more children indoctrinated into religious ideas, already primed for the land of Woo, their critical faculties suspended automatically the moment religion is mentioned. The Woo merchants of alternative medicine though have a product which they want to sell. They therefore have to provide something which will convince a customer to buy. The cash nexus requires that something is seen to be bought and that means convincing the customer to come through the door and buy a consultation. Websites abound in fanciful claims about cures for everything from childhood colic to scars, to respiratory problems to immune deficiency. As justification for their claims they use theories based on undetectable forces and energies, which therefore provide no justification whatsoever. The sale of the placebo effect is in full swing with those affected becoming walking adverts for more of the same. The less informed practitioners themselves, often very poorly educated in science, are convinced by the anecdotal evidence of their deluded customers, and the cycle continues. The consequences of the growth of Woo are significant. Not only is there the potential for people to delay seeking genuine treatment for serious medical conditions while they experiment with worthless nonsense, but they are being charged for the privilege. Where governments are duped into going along with non-evidence-based treatments, they are diverting funding away from effective treatments. In the UK, it is a national disgrace that the Health Service maintains a Royal Homeopathic Hospital when there is no evidence that homeopathy can treat any condition at all. That funding could be providing real treatment for patients. When people do not understand elementary human biology and are taken in by talk of chakras, channels, meridians, and the like, their understanding of their own bodies is confused. Instead of increasing their understanding of how the world works, such fanciful theories undermines the knowledge people acquired during their education. Science is reduced from an effective method for extending real knowledge, into a
Why this stuff matters 137
marketing slogan. Since science is repeatedly misrepresented in the press and in advertising, the general understanding of scientific evidence is undermined and people become less able to judge when they are being duped. All this suits the Woo pedlars. A confused customer provides the opportunity for an authoritative statement from the marketer, regardless of how absurd the theory. The purpose of the exercise is not knowledge but a sale. The Land of Woo is not just a bit of a laugh, a mental theme park where for a price, you can ride the chakra train, or whizz around on the big dosha. It has serious consequences too. We have world leaders who believe they have a hotline to supernatural omniscient beings. We have people teaching our children that the world is only 6000 years old. We have people claiming they can cure illnesses by wiggling someone's toes. It's time for us to defend the knowledge and understanding that we have obtained by four hundred years of methodical scientific work. We keep an open mind, but as Carl Sagan said, not so much as to let our brains fall out!
Why this stuff matters
In lieu of references and footnotes
This book has avoided the use of references and footnotes not because the contents are not evidenced, but because this whole book is about taking no-one's word for it, not even some academic journal article or learned book. Instead of littering the text with reference numbers and footnotes, a practice which is often intimidating and can give a false sense of authority, I urge the reader to do the following. If something is said which you either do not agree with, or doubt its truth, take steps yourself to find out about it. You can investigate many things online and quickly get a sense of whether something has been exaggerated or the information is incomplete. Use your doubt to motivate yourself to check the details. There are many books which promote Woo. It is a lamentable fact that bookshops have shelves and shelves full of Woo nonsense, far outnumbering books on real science and medicine. It is easier to find a book which talks about healing energy than it is to find one that honestly and accurately discusses human digestion. I offer here a list of suggested topics which will help the reader get a good understanding of basic human biology and physical science. I have been reluctant to recommend specific books because such a selection necessarily reflects personal preferences and my intention is instead to encourage the spirit of enquiry. Find your own preferences and search out material on the suggested topics. You will quickly build up your confidence in your own ability to acquire knowledge. That is far more valuable than buying a specific recommended book. A word of caution is in order. Writing material on a website requires no expertise in any particular subject – people can and do make things up. So consulting a reputable source is important. A well-designed website or book is no guarantee of
In lieu of references and footnotes 139
the accuracy of the content, so it is important to be just as sceptical of the source as the content. Having said that, the basic principles of science are so well-established and known that there is a wealth of reliable material available both online and in hard copy form. Having reached this page, you should be well-equipped to spot the tell-tale signs of Woo in its many different guises.
Suggested reading topics Human Biology
In order to avoid being taken in by claims from Food Woo, we need at least a basic understanding of the main systems of the human body. That includes the alimentary canal and digestion, the blood system including bone, the spleen and the liver, the nervous system including the brain and nerves, the cardiovascular system including the heart, arteries, veins and capillaries. But it also involves knowing a little about the tissues and organs of the body as well and what they do. The organs of the human body have specific functions and knowing these helps you question the bizarre claims of Woo practitioners. When for example a chiropractor tells you the spine influences all of your organs, you can ask why a transplanted kidney, which has no connection to the spine, still functions perfectly? You also need to know something of the chemistry of the body. You need to know a little about the main hormones, what they do, and where they are produced. Then if someone claims that stroking your feet changes the hormone balance, you can ask which hormones, and how is the change detected. You need to know what vitamins are and where we get them, how enzymes help us digest food and where they come from, how we fight bacteria and other infections, and how we grow. These are fascinating subjects and the information is now available at the touch of a button. Such knowledge stops you
In lieu of references and footnotes 140
being gullible to misinformation and gives you confidence. You can find a great deal of information about all of these topics online and you can do much worse than reading the explanations in Wikipedia. Just buying and reading a single book on human biology will dispel many of the myths of Woo.
Many of the pedlars of Woo make incredible claims about energy and forces and without some understanding of how these really work, you are at a disadvantage. How can you understand what is implied by energy channels if you don't know what is meant by energy? If someone is offering to help you eliminate free radicals, how can you test their claim without knowing what they are? But this doesn't mean that you have to go back to school again and study physics and chemistry (though you might find it fun). Instead it's worth looking up a few topics online. You should find out about the different forms of energy and how they are converted from one to the other. You should understand how energy is measured and controlled, know the difference between electricity and magnetism and understand the different types of forces. This knowledge alone will help you judge the claims made by people to channel and align various forces. It is interesting to look at some of the history of science to see how our knowledge came to be known in the first place. By getting an overview of how much we now know we can judge the claims of others to know extraordinary new things. Knowing how difficult it was to detect subatomic particles, we can wonder about how easy it seems to be to detect Qi (unless you are a scientist of course). By understanding the use of the scientific method we can understand why scientists are always cautious about their own claims and we can be suspicious when we see tabloid headlines announcing the latest scare.
In lieu of references and footnotes
No other scientific theory has been so attacked for so long and grown stronger by the continual accumulation of evidence. It provides us with an understanding of how our species developed and how our own biology relates to the rest of nature. At the same time, it is a wonderful demonstration of how we do not need supernatural theories to explain how the world is. Reading something about Darwin's ideas and his fears of the religious establishment will enrich your understanding of how science works, and how religious dogma undermines it.
If you have never done so, try reading some atheist arguments against religion. By thinking about the morality of those who profess religious faith, we can more clearly see how society generates moral codes and how the responsibility for ethical judgements are ours. Breaking free of the emotional link with a supernatural god is an important part of thinking rationally. It is illuminating to read the major historical religious texts. Comparing for example the stories of the Talmud, the Bible and the Qur'an gives you an understanding of how these myths were passed down from common tribal sources. Seeing the violent behaviour of a god approved enthusiastically helps you understand how religion is used to justify aggression. Seeing the similarities between religions, helps us understand the social and political aspects of organised faiths. But reading these texts also shows starkly how selectively the material is presented. You will see approving references to genocide and extreme violence along with entreaties to love and honour. You will come to see these books as sources for anthropology.
History of Science
Did Isaac Newton really run the Royal Mint? Was Darwin really a country gentleman? Did they really do surgery in
In lieu of references and footnotes 142
Moorish Spain in the 11th century? When did they discover the germ theory of disease? When was oxygen discovered? Finding out these things is fascinating and easy. Just ask yourself a scientific question and use a search engine. In five minutes, you'll know. There are many good books around as well but any knowledge you acquire of scientific discoveries will help you understand the extraordinary nature of Woo claims. Often you will know the truth about what they are incorrectly claiming in the Woo adverts. The history of science gives you a context in which to understand the sheer effort involved in scientific work. Sometimes it takes years and years of painstaking effort to achieve a scientific advance because they needed to get past the dead ends and incorrect results, the poor experiments, the wrong theories, and the wrong questions. Getting a sense of the achievement helps put the discoveries in context.
In lieu of references and footnotes
During the writing of this book I have attracted some fairly stern criticism along the lines that if people enjoy their delusions, who am I to take them away? In particular, if someone believes in mediums and thinks they are communicating with a dead relative, isn't it cruel to disabuse them? If someone believes that homeopathy works, isn't it unkind or disrespectful to point out that it is nonsense? The question of respect has also been repeatedly raised. Shouldn't I show respect to people who have strongly held beliefs and therefore refrain from questioning them? If they genuinely believe in God, or Chinese medicine, what right have I to attack their deeply held belief? Isn't that simply insulting them? But how can you challenge deeply held beliefs if the very questioning itself is perceived as insulting and disrespectful? I have thought long and hard about these questions, not least because I care a great deal about the feelings of friends and family. Very many of my friends subscribe to at least one branch of Woo, sometimes many and I risk their disaffection in publishing this book. It is my own position that ideas themselves do not deserve any respect at all. They are simply ideas, to be kicked about, criticised, dissected, analysed and unceremoniously discarded when better ones are proposed. They have no rights because they are not people. Ideas do not deserve respect, but people do. For that reason I consider it completely reasonable to attack and refute ideas and theories without reserve. Partly that is due to my scientific upbringing in which theories have to stand up for themselves independent of anyone who happened to propose them. If the evidence doesn't fit, then the theory changes. We don't withhold evidence in case the proposer of a theory might feel offended. Instead we trust to the maturity of
Personal Note 144
the person involved. We trust them to appreciate that we are criticising ideas. Clearly, people who hold religious views identify themselves very strongly with those beliefs and often portray a criticism of their faith as a personal body blow. That is unfortunate and unjustified and it gives rise to unreasonable actions such as the passing of blasphemy laws, and restrictions on the rights of journalists, performers and cartoonists, particularly in connection with comedy and satire but also even in the reporting of science. Religion particularly claims a special status, exempt from criticism. By claiming that faith is a personal matter, the respect for the person is surreptitiously broadened to include the ideas themselves. This means simply that if I hold a strong view, you are not allowed to criticise it without being seen to be also criticising me personally. Such a position would be considered outrageously totalitarian in any area except religion. We all benefit by identifying and exposing irrationalism and if a few egos are disturbed in the process, although that's regrettable, it is not sufficient reason for limiting the growth of knowledge. Those days are long gone. Withholding criticism of irrational ideas on the basis of the sentiments of individuals is intellectually dishonest. But it is worse than that. Withholding criticism in the presence of irrationalism gives it a continued passive acceptability which itself sustains the exploitation of the gullible. We can preserve the sensibilities of the people who don't like their ideas being criticised only at the expense of allowing such irrationality to continue unchallenged. To me, that is unacceptable. It is instructive to compare the situation with the expression of racist views. If an acquaintance made a racist remark, some people would look away guiltily and change the subject rather than confront the racism, without expressing their abhorrence and without criticising the individual. His/her sensibilities would be preserved at the expense of failing to oppose an odious ideology. I find myself unable to do that; it would make me feel disgusted with myself.
Personal Note 145
A lesser case is where an individual describes their new business selling so-called therapeutic crystals to gullible people and again the friend keeps quiet, preserving the idea that there is nothing wrong with such activity. As a consequence, perhaps hundreds or thousands of people are relieved of their cash in exchange for nothing of value. Some see no problem with this, it's just business ripping people off as usual, but I regard it as immoral and unethical. I regard it as fraud whatever the strict legal position. It is my hope that people will read this book and understand that Woo is not just a trivial bit of nonsense, but has real corrosive effects on thinking. It leads people away from genuine medical treatment, distorts their ability to think reasonably about their choices, undermines their understanding of how the world and even their own bodies work, and makes them much more susceptible to scams and fraud. This is not neutral entertainment, it's not just fiction. It's a massive exploitation of the gullible in a multi-billion dollar industry. When I refuse to sit silently by while people around me talk about magical cures and mystical entities, I too am expressing my right to some respect. I too have the same right to voice my rational thinking, to not be insulted by the expectation that I will go along with nonsensical ideas. Although we can often understand the reasons for their irrationality perhaps as well as they do, in general they do not afford others the same degree of respect as they demand for themselves. Religious ideas are deemed to deserve special respect. Views about health are personal opinions to be respected too. But when we are expected to passively accept these expressions of irrationality, we are being complicit in the spread of delusional ideas. If through social pressure we are deterred from voicing sceptical opposition to irrationality, we are being drawn into passive acceptance. It is not acceptable to be treated in this way. Of course, it can be difficult sometimes to discuss such issues without provoking a hostile response. It can sometimes take only the mildest critical remark about irrationality to
Personal Note 146
bring out a histrionic response. Challenging Qi or homeopathy can sometimes provoke a similar reaction to insulting Allah in front of a Muslim. That's not a coincidence. Both are defending irrationalism in the face of scepticism. Any of the Woo therapies which rely on the placebo effect are based on continuously lying to customers – the placebo effect can only continue as long as the customers are being told lies and are convinced by them. Unless and until we stand up to the passive acceptance of Woo, such irrational ideas will continue to feed the market of non-existent cures, fake treatments, and fanciful expensive theories about how the world works. It's a massive, global business, defended by growing mass delusion involving fake university degrees, fictitious qualifications, absurd theories, dishonest marketing and advertising, and the inane repetitions of anecdotes by those who have little or no understanding of evidence. Whether it's believing in supernatural beings, Qi, homeopathy, detox, dietary supplements, or ghosts and mediums, we are being dragged into delusional thinking in opposition to the growth of genuine knowledge. I for one can't sit by and let that happen.
academic journal....127, 139 Academic Woo..................5 acupuncture......27, 104, 108 Alan Sokal.........................6 Alexander Technique.....105 alimentary canal......49, 108, 140 alternative .......................15 alternative medicine. 4, 29p., 45, 97, 111, 119, 135, 137 amino acids......50, 109, 115 anaemia..........................108 analytical.......99, 102p., 132 anecdotal. 15, 21, 41, 45, 63, 66, 72, 105, 111, 127, 133, 137 angels................3, 71p., 134 antibiotics.........53, 107, 114 antioxidants.............49, 51p. Apitherapy ....................105 apparitions...............3, 83pp. Applied kinesiology ......105 argyria............................107 aromatherapy..32, 35p., 105, 135 arsenic..............53, 110, 112 artistic.................102p., 134 arts.................................102 assumptions...12, 15, 20, 36, 120 asthma....................107, 135 Astrology.......................106 atheist...............73, 100, 142 autoimmune...................105 Ayurvedic...28, 31p., 34, 41, 106, 120, 133, 135 Ayurvedic medicine........28, 31p., 34, 41, 106, 120, 135 Bach flower therapy.......106 bacteria.....10, 29, 36, 49pp., 53, 78, 140 Beagle..............................12 belief................................85 beliefs. .1, 3, 13pp., 20p., 34, 36pp., 41, 48, 62, 85, 87, 93p., 98, 100, 104, 111, 120, 127, 134, 136, 144p. believer viewpoint............13 believing.......1, 13, 19p., 36, 66p., 72, 95, 97pp., 119, 132, 134pp., 147 Beta-carotene...................52 bias. .12, 15p., 18pp., 39, 63, 80p., 127 Bible...11, 64pp., 73, 75, 81, 142 biological processes.....3, 51 blasphemy................98, 145 bleeding.............10, 21p., 36 bloodstream.............49p., 57 bone. 7, 40, 58p., 115p., 120, 140 brain..........7, 24, 32, 35, 58, 68pp., 79, 86, 100pp., 140 Buddhism.......................118 calcium.....................58, 110 cancer...15, 43, 52, 113, 135 candling.............................2 carbohydrates....49, 60, 110, 113 causes. .3, 6, 17, 22p., 26pp., 70, 84, 94, 100, 107, 109,
112 cellulite............................10 cerebro-spinal fluid........126 cervical manipulation.....107 chakras....31, 34, 36, 41, 43, 98, 108, 137 channels....... 27, 36, 43, 96, 104, 118, 122, 124, 135, 137, 141 Chelation Therapy....57, 110 childhood colic.......107, 137 Chinese compass............110 Chinese herbal remedy...120 chiropractic. .27p., 39, 106p. chiropractor 1p., 37, 40, 105, 107, 115, 135, 140 Chiropractors...40, 105, 107, 115, 135 Chromotherapy..............107 CIA..................................93 cinchona.........................111 clinical research......19p., 39 code of behaviour.............11 cofactors.........................109 Colloidal silver...............107 colonic irrigation...... 53, 57, 108 conjugation......................54 consistency.....16, 63, 66, 98 control group.....19, 90p., 94 controlled..... 11, 18, 20, 39, 45, 52, 57, 71, 83p., 93p., 111pp., 115pp., 122, 127, 141 controlled, double-blind, randomised trials...... 18, 39, 127 Conventional medicine.....8, 30, 112
Copper.............................59 cosmic force.....................16 cramps..............................59 cranial bones..................116 Cranial Therapy.............116 creative.......... 5, 81, 86, 99, 101p., 120 creativity................101, 134 crystal....31, 36, 40, 42, 108, 135 crystal healing................108 crystal therapy................135 crystals. .31, 33, 36, 98, 108, 146 Cupping.........................108 cure....21, 24, 28p., 32, 42p., 87, 105, 109, 112p., 116, 132p., 138 Darwin.......11p., 36, 65, 142 deities.........................11, 62 demons..... 14, 16, 24p., 28, 45, 65, 69, 71p., 78p., 84, 90p., 96, 117, 134, 136, 142 detox......43, 49p., 52pp., 57, 60p., 110, 147 devils.......................72, 87p. dietary deficiency.......53, 60 dietician...........................48 digestion....32, 50, 52, 139p. discourses and narratives. . 5 dislodge an idea...............11 disprove..... 14, 17p., 20, 27, 38, 54, 57, 63pp., 70, 134 divine entity...................109 djinns...............................72 dosha.....................34p., 138 double-blind...18pp., 39, 45, 71, 83, 116p., 127 Dowsing...................94, 109
Ear candling...................109 Eastern mythology.........128 EDTA............................110 electricity.................26, 141 electromagnetic. .16, 25, 113 Emily Rosa....................117 emotional....32, 85, 94, 99p., 114, 125, 132, 142 energy.......25, 27, 31pp., 41, 43pp., 50p., 96pp., 104, 107, 110, 116pp., 123, 125p., 139, 141 energy channels........96, 141 energy flows.............98, 110 enzymes...... 49, 52, 60, 111, 126, 140 ephemeris.......................106 ESP..................................95 ethical decisions...... 73, 98, 134 evidence.......... 6pp., 11pp., 19pp., 25, 27, 30, 34pp., 38pp., 52, 54, 57, 63pp., 74p., 77, 84, 90pp., 97pp., 104pp., 111, 113pp., 117pp., 123, 126p., 129, 133pp., 142, 144, 147 Evidence from measurement .........................................16 exorcism........................87p. experiment........6, 12, 14pp., 18p., 24p., 67, 78, 91pp., 99, 102, 137, 143 experimental observation..... 12 fairies.........................72, 95 Faith healing..................109 Fasting...........................110 fats........49p., 59p., 110, 113
Feng shui..................28, 110 folic acid..........................59 Food Woo........48, 60p., 140 forces..... 16, 18, 23pp., 30, 32, 36p., 41, 43p., 93, 99, 118pp., 126, 135pp., 141 fraud....... 33pp., 42, 54, 94, 112, 116, 125, 129, 135, 146 free radicals..... 43, 49, 51p., 60, 141 fundamental frequencies 108 Gaddafi............................92 geological evidence..........12 germ theory....................143 ghosts......4, 71p., 83pp., 94, 147 ghouls..............................72 glucose..........................50p. glutathione peroxidase.....52 glutathione reductase.......52 glycogen...................50, 110 goblins.....................72, 134 good bacteria....................10 graphic design................102 gravitational...............16, 25 haemoglobin..............50, 58 Hatha yoga.....................111 healing touch...............132p. heart.......24, 32, 48, 52, 109, 123, 132, 140 heaven............62, 74, 77, 85 hell.......................59, 77, 85 herapy......57, 106, 116, 122, 128 herbal....2, 41, 106, 111, 135 herbal remedies..............106 high blood pressure..........59 holistic..30, 111p., 121, 124, 128
holistic medicine.........111p. homeopathy. 28, 41, 43, 100, 112, 132, 137, 144, 147 hormones............50, 53, 140 hosphorus.........................60 hypothesis.... 17, 57, 64pp., 70, 90 imagination....................120 immaterial..... 18, 62, 66pp., 72, 79, 83, 85, 136 immaterial essences. . .18, 85 immune deficiency.....2, 137 immune system........44, 135 Iridology........................112 iris..........................112, 117 iron......38, 49p., 58, 98, 110 irrationality..........136, 145p. Isaac Newton.................142 Jean Bricmont....................6 Joint manipulation..........115 kidney essence...............118 kidneys.......................50, 58 kidneys, the body's own mechanism.......................57 knowledge.....5pp., 13p., 19, 22, 24pp., 33pp., 38p., 43, 49, 73, 80, 97, 133p., 136pp., 141, 143, 145, 147 Land of Woo......1pp., 7, 21, 27p., 35, 37, 40, 49, 72, 118pp., 122, 126, 136, 138 laws of physics...........16, 28 lead..... 5, 23, 30, 32, 39, 41, 43, 53, 58p., 73, 75, 108, 110, 136, 138, 146 leeches.............................10 leprechauns...................71p. like cures like.................112 liver....7, 50, 57pp., 66, 110,
123, 140 logical...................94, 99pp. luo pan...........................110 Lyell........................11p., 64 macrobiotic.................112p. Macrobiotic lifestyle......112 magic.....21pp., 26p., 44, 84, 87, 133, 146 magnesium...............58, 110 magnet........26, 33, 113, 141 malaria.............43, 111, 135 massage.....35, 44, 105, 113, 120 measurement......................2 medical intuition............114 mediums...83, 86p., 94, 144, 147 mercury....................53, 110 meridians.......27, 36, 41, 45, 104, 118, 137 metalloids.........................57 metals............53, 57pp., 109 micro-nutrients...............115 military............................92 miracles........................4, 63 moral values..........73p., 136 morality. .5, 62, 73, 75p., 98, 142 muscle......32, 58p., 86, 105, 113, 115 muscle contraction...........59 muscle strength..............105 musculo-skeletal system 107, 115 music................99, 102, 128 mystical......26, 34, 36, 44p., 69p., 99, 110p., 113, 116pp., 146 mysticism.................94, 104
natural balance....121, 124p. naturopathy....................114 needles.....................27, 104 Neo-Confucianism.........118 nerve transmission.....51, 59 nervous system....... 58, 107, 126, 140 Neuro-linguistic programming..................114 neuroscience.......69, 94, 114 niacin...............................59 Non-invasive..........121, 124 nutritionist..................48, 60 observational evidence. 15p. Occam's Razor. 17p., 20, 70, 78, 84, 87 occultism..........................94 omniscient. .4, 8, 13, 97, 138 Orthomolecular medicine..... 115 osteomyologist...............115 Osteopathy.....................115 oxidation........34, 51, 54, 60 oxidation-reduction..........51 paranormal activities..........4 parents...13p., 32, 43, 73, 76 performance magic.....84, 87 pesticides.........................53 phantoms..........................72 physical laws....8, 24pp., 28, 119, 133 physical manipulation....113 physiotherapy...........29, 116 placebo.......... 19, 41, 105p., 127p., 132, 135, 137, 147 Polarity therapy..............116 Police...............................93 possession.....................87p. post-modernists..................6
potassium.................59, 110 prayer.......71, 109, 116, 136 predicting the future...89, 94 prediction....................90pp. probability.....................91p. Proof and disproof...........14 proteins....49p., 60, 113, 115 pseudoscience.....35, 37, 40, 104 Psychic......4, 83, 89pp., 116 putative energy...............116 pyridoxine........................59 Qi.......16, 26, 34, 36, 45, 96, 104, 110, 117p., 135, 141, 147 quinine...........................111 Qur'an.................73, 75, 142 randomised....18, 20, 39, 45, 71, 83, 116p., 127 rational..... 6, 29, 40, 44, 62, 68, 70, 72, 85, 94, 96pp., 120, 122, 125, 132pp., 146 reduction............51, 60, 105 ree radicals.......................51 reflexology.....................117 Reiki........28, 31pp., 42, 117 religion. .11, 62p., 66, 72pp., 81, 94, 97, 119, 127, 136, 142, 145 religious rituals................11 Royal Homeopathic Hospital..........................137 Royal Society...................12 Scarlet Fever..............2, 115 sceptical..... 13p., 35, 37, 43, 66, 85, 97, 99, 119, 126, 134, 146 science.....8, 12, 17pp., 27p., 35, 37, 40, 42pp., 60pp., 69,
78pp., 94, 102, 104, 111p., 114, 120, 129, 134, 137pp., 141pp., 145 Scientific and medical journals............................19 scientific method.....6, 8, 12, 15, 26, 37, 43, 141 Sclerology......................117 séance......................84, 86p. self-healing....114, 122, 124, 128 silver..............................107 Sleep paralysis...........86, 94 Social Text.........................6 social values...............76, 97 sodium.....................59, 110 soul..................................79 souls......68p., 72, 77pp., 85, 119 sound therapy.................128 spectres............................72 spirit. 17, 70pp., 83pp., 94p., 98, 111, 119, 139 spiritual..........................111 spleen.............................140 spoof..................................6 sprites.......................72, 134 St John's Wort................111 Stargate............................92 stress.......30pp., 83, 86, 102, 105p., 114, 117, 122, 124 subluxations.............37, 107 successive dilution.........112 superbeings. .8, 84, 118, 136 supernatural..... 13, 23, 71p., 84, 87, 94, 99, 116, 119, 138, 142, 147 supernatural being....87, 116 séances.............................87
superoxide dismutase.......52 supplement.......................48 Talmud...............73, 75, 142 Taoism.....................34, 117 TCM..............................118 technical......................102p. theology..............79pp., 136 theory......6, 8, 12pp., 16pp., 22p., 25p., 33pp., 44, 64pp., 70, 77, 80, 96p., 105, 107p., 110, 112, 119, 121, 127, 133, 136, 138, 142pp. therapeutic touch.....41, 117, 126 therapies.....7, 40p., 43, 104, 110, 119p., 126, 147 therapy....4, 27, 29, 32, 35p., 39, 43, 45, 57, 105pp., 110p., 113, 116, 121p., 125, 127pp., 135p. therapy ..................112, 116 toxin...................28, 54, 110 toxins.........52pp., 57, 59pp., 108pp. Traditional Chinese medicine.........................117 treatment..10, 15, 18p., 21p., 27pp., 32, 36, 40p., 43, 45p., 57, 59, 86, 88, 101, 105, 112, 116, 128p., 132p., 135, 137, 146 undetectable energy.....96p., 107, 113, 117p. undetectable essences....17p. unemotional..................99p. unicorns.....................72, 95 uranium..........................110 vaccines....................75, 114 vitamin A.................52, 109
vitamin C.........................60 vitamin E..........52, 109, 115 vitamins..50, 59p., 109, 113, 115, 140 vivid dreams....................83 werewolves......................72 Woo........ 21, 27p., 32, 34p., 37p., 40pp., 44, 48p., 57,
60p., 72, 83, 93, 95, 98, 104, 118pp., 122, 126pp., 132pp., 143p., 146p. wraiths.............................72 writing music.................102 yurvedic medicine..........106 zinc.....................49, 58, 110 zombies............................72