How Pseudoscience Holds Us back

Altruism Squandered

Not long ago in Nepal, I met an Australian girl who clearly cared deeply about helping others. So she made a natural choice: to dedicate her life to medicine. A laudable aspiration: people like this are an asset to humanity. There was just one catch: she had specifically chosen to focus on traditional Chinese medicine.

She told me of the years she was planning to spend learning the vast Chinese system of treatments and therapies. Which is all well and good, until you consider that there is little scientific evidence that any of it works. I watched her and a young Swiss fitness enthusiast argue about whether it is a good idea to eat breakfast or not. Her argument in favour was that “the chi in your stomach is high between 7–9 am”.

For me, her argument fell apart as soon as she made an explanation that wasn’t based on evidence or any known physical mechanism (there’s zero reputable evidence for the mystical life-energy “chi”, the “balancing” of which underlies the whole Chinese medicine system). At best, it’s an archaic model of the human body that is far better explained by the action of the nervous system and other well-understood systems.

Chinese medicine is full of such poppycock: an arcane cornucopia of dogmatic treatments and explanations. This isn’t to say that some effective treatments aren’t lurking in there somewhere: “artemisinin, for example, which is currently the most effective treatment for malaria, was fished out of a herbal treatment for fevers”. As this Nature article explains:

“Constructive approaches to divining the potential usefulness of traditional therapies are to be welcomed… [but] claims made on behalf of an uncharted body of knowledge should be treated with the customary scepticism that is the bedrock of both science and medicine.”

It was obvious that this young woman held no such skepticism, readily signing up to believe anything the ancient Chinese canon prescribed. So we are faced with the tragedy of this young woman’s sincere and significant investment towards helping others all going to waste… mostly… or at least being tragically misguided by an inability to think critically. Think what she could achieve in an entire career of medical science… she could even filter the effective Chinese treatments from the ineffective / damaging / placebo ones. Typically English, I didn’t say anything, and regretted it later.

Another instance. Last week at the end of a yoga class I was invited to a “Reiki and crystal healing” workshop. I could barely believe my ears, taken aback before politely declining. But then it clicked that people who subscribe to such therapies certainly aren’t stupid, they just want to help… they just don’t know how. Their sincere efforts to help others are rendered impotent by their lack of familiarity with evidence-based reasoning. It’s heartbreaking: millions of well-meaning, deeply good people, who genuinely care and are genuinely trying to help, end up wasting their efforts on pseudoscientific healing methods (which is a big industry).

Altruism is perhaps humanity’s most precious resource (consider where we would be as a species without the ability and motivation to benefit people other than ourselves), and a plague of pseudoscience continues to squander it as people direct their time and efforts towards strategies with little or no basis in evidence.

What’s worse, there’s also a significant, worldwide movement of business-owning quacks who peddle pseudoscientific cures, therapies and products, in a pernicious exploitation of people’s lack of evidence-based reasoning. At its most harmful these ideas get people killed, as when people turn away from proven treatments towards alternative therapies that either don’t work, providing no more than a placebo effect, or are actively damaging to the human body. “Faith healing” has denied thousands of people access to medical care in favour of prayer, sometimes with fatal consequences. Millions turn to Indian Ayurvedic medicine and end up dosing themselves with toxic heavy metals.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t stay open to the ideas of fringe science, ancient treatments, and wacky inventors. The crazy stuff is actually very important: sending feelers out to the edges of our understanding is crucial for progress…

“The day before something is a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea” — Peter Diamandis

…but it is also crucial that we submit everything promising to rational and scientific analysis, preferably peer-reviewed, so we can be confident that it actually works, thus advancing human knowledge and saving time and effort going forward. Pseudoscience can become science, but it’s often best to wait until that happens until launching into anything (like a career in Chinese medicine). In cases where no scientific evidence is yet available, critically analysing anecdotal reports often gives the most reliable indication of efficacy.

A Barrier to Progress

Without scientific thinking, altruistic movements cannot evolve towards the strategies that actually work, and instead stagnate, drowning in dogma or unfounded belief. An example: German psychoanalyst Dieter Duhm’s “Terra Nova” (New Earth) plan of healing biotopes (a worldwide network of sustainable communities) is so inspiring, so visionary, and has many robust logistical elements within it.

In laying out his framework, Duhm begins: “The basic condition is the recognition of the need not only of political reform but of a fundamental system change. We need a new foundation for human culture, a new concept for the cohabitation of our planet and for the co-existence of humankind with all fellow beings.” Can’t argue with that! How thankful that people really care about the world and its people, and are looking to catalyse deep system changes for a better world…

In the next sentence, however: “This concept already exists! It is contained within the higher world order, which we call the ‘Sacred Matrix’ and it is anchored in the genes of every living being, at least as a potentiality. The essence of this matrix is the unity of all beings; the universal information pattern which connects all of them (see my book The Sacred Matrix). For some decades we in the Healing Biotopes project have worked on an attempt to reshape community and environment in accordance with the Sacred Matrix. Humankind has largely lost sight of this pattern. The patriarchal-imperialist-capitalist system generated a morphogenetic field of war under which life on Earth has suffered unspeakable cruelty for many millennia.” Facepalm.

“Higher world order”, “Sacred matrix”, “Universal information pattern connecting all beings” are all pure new-age twaddle. Morphogenetic fields are pure pseudoscience (no evidence).

Now it is true that all organisms are united by their basis in the physical laws of emergence and complexity, self-organisation, and gene-based evolution, but to attribute to this union of all beings an ill-defined “sacred matrix” adds literally nothing to our understanding. It’s utterly vague: a fictional theory with a bad explanation, which ultimately crumbles because no specific physical mechanism is described or even alluded to (i.e. which specific particles constitute the sacred matrix, where are they, and how are they organised / behaving / interacting?). (Asking “how does that work, physically?” is a commonly effective filter for identifying hollow pseudoscientific ideas.)

I find this situation sad. Duhm is clearly a really good guy who has devoted his life’s work to helping others… someone we should uphold as an inspirational, pioneering figure… but his strategies are mired in pseudoscience, suppressing his ability to help the world.

As Sam Harris says, far more dangerous than bad people are bad ideas, and the real tragedy is when bad ideas are holding back the sincere efforts of good people. Their hearts are in the right place, but their reasoning isn’t.

The Antidote

The best offensive against a post-truth era is spreading the tools for rational, scientific thinking, carrying out experiments, and becoming aware of our many innate cognitive biases in order to combat them.

The list of topics considered (by scientists) to be pseudoscience is a long one indeed, and one well worth being familiar with as you navigate the modern world. The overarching similarity between all of these topics is a lack of credible evidence. People who believe in these things aren’t thinking critically about them; and often aren’t aware of their personal biases — which are often subtle or even subconscious — and how these biases affect their interpretation of evidence.

All movements towards individual and societal progress need to have a foundation of scientific reasoning beneath them, or they will simply waste everyone’s time and effort. With the entirety of human knowledge now instantly accessible, a mechanism to sift through and critique information to arrive at the truth is an essential tool (philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 10 guidelines for critical thinking are nice introductory guidelines).

Our saving grace here is the Scientific Method. Wikipedia opens:

“The scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”

I like to think of the scientific method as a process that simply maximises the chances of you reaching the correct explanation about something, with the essential caveat that you are never absolutely certain of any explanation, are always willing to update or correct it in light of new evidence. In the quest for a better world, that method is invaluable. It is precisely this process of experiment-based knowledge-acquisition and subsequent error-correction that means we aren’t all shivering, miserable peasants with cholera, hoeing the fields for mouldy turnips.

One shining example of applying evidence-based reasoning to altruistic causes is Effective Altruism, an organisation which seeks to direct money towards charities with the highest positive impact on the most amount of people, based on scientific analysis of what actually works (e.g. funding deworming treatments before the more fashionable giving of books and laptops in developing countries).

Science does not, and never will have, all the answers. But it’s sure as hell given us some good ones: a mechanism of testing knowledge that whittles it down to the truth (or as close as we can get with the current evidence), allowing us to manipulate the physical world into life-changing technologies.

One crucial feature of the scientific method that will improve the efficacy of any altruistic movement, technology or treatment is error-correction.

“The rationality of the scientific method does not depend on the certainty of its conclusions, but on its self-corrective character: by continued application of the method science can detect and correct its own mistakes, and thus eventually lead to the discovery of truth” — Teddy Ward, Empiricism.

Far more important than being right, is the openness to being wrong. If you don’t have that attitude, you can’t error-correct your beliefs in order to be right at all! And the chances of you being right about something first time aren’t always great, as Daniel Kahneman’s exposition of our cognitive biases, Thinking Fast and Slow, famously showed.

If we do not willingly change our views, beliefs and behaviours in light of new evidence, our knowledge can never advance. We should question everything, applying the spirit of scientific enquiry to our own lives, just as Hermann Hesse’s masterpiece Steppenwolf called for the necessity of “rigorous self-examination” (and I think in the modern age of unprecedented access to ways of hacking our mind and body for a better life, self-experimentation is equally called for). How else can we hope to correct our innate faults and biases, so as to guide our behaviour towards that of active, creative, effectively benevolent actors in the world? Only by clearing the untamed foliage of our minds can we find new paths to follow, new shrubs to nurture.

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