Archive for July, 2009
One of the things I consider key to approaching things skeptically is valuing truth over comfort. I would rather know what is really going on than be told a comforting lie. But for this week’s question, I’m going to set that aside to ask: which pseudoscience do you wish was real?
Do you think it would be really cool if an alien spaceship really had crashed in New Mexico in the late 40s?
Would you love to be able to commune with the dead? Perhaps you could channel Einstein and help him collaborate with Stephen Hawking, or find out what Newton thinks about relativity?
Do you wish you could dowse for your car keys when you lose them in the morning?
Tell us what woo would be fun if it were true, what you would do with it, and why!
As many of you good, fine, upstanding and downright skeptical people will know, I like to hear from you. I love getting your feedback, your comments, and your general thoughts – from the thought-provoking and informative, all the way through to the outright bizarre (yes Colonel Molerat, I do mean you).
Perhaps just as many of you may also know, I’m somewhat prone to receiving other comments, too. I’ve been – in my short but somewhat-surreal skeptical career - labelled a paedophile, a fascist akin to the BNP*, accused of making myself look foolish and of having nothing more meaningful than my scouse wit – and that’s just what I can recall off the top of my head. Fortunately, I kinda love it.
But I must admit, even my usually-calm blood was somewhat boiled by an exchange I recently had/am having on Facebook, in response to one of my regular (and actually rather innocuous) updates. The feedbacker had, as far as I can see, taken offence to the question of the week that arose during the last Skeptics in the Pub (that’s right, I’m blaming you guys for this one!) – What would you sell your soul for? Feel free to answer that if you haven’t already, by the way…
The nature of her feedback was somewhat remarkable to me – partly in the vehemence in the attack of British skeptics in general, and of me in particular. But the other thing that struck me was the lack of direction – I can only assume from the tone and the aggression that she is a true believer, but curiously I have no clue what in!
So, as part of our on-going look at basic skeptical topics, lets take a look at the Ouija board.
First things first: does it work? Actually, yes it does!
“OK, great, that’s settled then”, I hear you say, “Lets all go and commune with the devil and some demons or spirits, and find out what the future has in store.” Well hold on, wait a moment there – it’s not that simple I’m afraid. After all, this is a sceptical website. You didn’t think it was going to be that easy did you?
Most pseudomedical modalities can be divided into three distinct types.
The first of these is detox, where a pseudomedic takes it upon themselves to declare arbitrary substances “toxins” and seeks to purge them from your body. c.f. chelation, colonic irrigation, quack diets, etc.
The second is vitalism, which holds that there is some sort of “vital energy” or spark which “powers” your body. Any flaw in this vital energy will make you sick; fixing said flaw will make you well. This forms the basis of acupuncture, chiropractic, reiki and therapeutic touch – just about anything that requires the manipulation of our “energy fields” (whatever the hell that means).
The third type of pseudomedicine is the homunculus. An homunculus is a tiny effigy, or other representation, of a human being, most familiar to philosophers from the homunculus argument; and to Doctor Who fans as Mr Sin from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. In a medical context, an homunculus is when a part of the body is said to represent the whole. The quack, er, I mean, holistic life therapy coach guru specialist… or whatever… then diagnoses (by reading) or treats (by manipulating) the patient’s malaise via the homunculus. This approach forms the basis of reflexology, iridology and (to a lesser extent) palmistry and phrenology.
Homunculus therapies are pre-medical and pseudoscientific, with a view on how the body works that hasn’t changed since the middle ages. They take no account of anatomy, chemistry, biology or evolution. Face it, if you have e. coli in your kidneys, it doesn’t matter how hard you rub the middle of your foot, it’s not going to go away.
That bastion of love and tolerance, the Daily Mail, seems blissfully unaware of this and has cheerfully published an uncritical and credulous story by Christopher Middleton, describing a visit to the “holistic dentist” Dr John Roberts. Dr Roberts runs a dental practice in West Yorkshire which combines ordinary dentistry with quackery, and calls it an “holistic approach”. Middleton’s article focuses on “tongue diagnosis”, which Roberts claims he can use to identify his patient’s medical problems.
For blues musicians Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson (no relation), it was the ability to play the guitar better than any man who came before them. For Stanley Moon in the 1967 film Bedazzled, it was the love of a waitress in a Wimpy restaurant. For Keanu Reeves it was the chance to work in a top law firm (not, as perhaps would have been wiser, a degree of acting ability). And for Homer Simpson, it was a donut. It seems we all have a price, and the Devil is a pretty shrewd negotiator.
Personally, I’d really test the fella, see how far he could go. If I could sell my soul for, say, a guarantee that hell would stop being such a crappy place to spend eternity, I think that would be a decent deal. You know, scatter a few cushions, stick in a pool table, get rid of all that fire and brimstone and gnashing of teeth, and Hades could really be a decent hang-out. It’s essentially a bit of an eternal fixer-upper. Plus, I can imagine I’d get some serious respect from the population of Hell for putting an end to their eternal damnation and torture, so that would really start me out on the right foot, socially-speaking.
So, with this in mind, what would you enter into a Faustian pact with the horned-one for? What would you trade-in your immortal soul for? And what impact might that have on your day to day life?
Leave your answers, as weird, wacky and wonderful as you like, below the fold.
With the swine flu death toll recently exceeding 700 mortalities worldwide according to the WHO (that’s the World Health Organisation by the way – we at the MSS are not in the habit of contacting Roger Daltrey and co for updates on global mortality rates), understandably many people are scared. Even members of The Who, I dare venture, are scared (OK, that time I was talking about the rock band; the World Health Organisation know no fear). After all, despite the relatively tame death tolls of recent potential pandemics – SARS topped out at around 770 mortalities worldwide, and Bird Flu at just 250 – the threat of a genuine influenza pandemic is all too real, as the 50 million deaths from Spanish Flu between 1918 and 1920 are testament to.
With good fortune and a prevailing wind, the excellent work of the WHO (again, the health guys not the ‘My Generation’ chaps) will continue to help contain and cope with the spread and treatment of the virus, so their advice is generally not to panic, to avoid unnecessary risks, and to essentially let the WHO do what the WHO do. So being cautious but un-panicky is what we’ll do, and we’ll soldier on, make the odd joke, while listening to both the WHO and The Who (while potentially also watching Dr Who), and as best as we can try not to spread germs nor fear.
Which would be fine, if homeopaths and the rest of the pseudomedical community weren’t out there treating a pandemic as a cash cow. Google something along the lines of ‘flu cure‘, ‘swine flu remedy‘ or ‘fuck me those pigs are going to kill us all‘* and you’ll be confronted with all manner of homeopathic, dietary, herbal and generally all-round magical cures. And it’s to one of these fringe, whack-job, dangerous and completely bullshit quack-remedies my attention was drawn today, namely Flu Defence – a herbal pill with claims so unbelievably nonsense-filled and appallingly-unscientific, they really do need to be taken apart one by one. And if you’ll indulge me, that’s precisely what I’ll do… Read the rest of this entry »