Question of the Week: Taxing Scientific Illiteracy


I don’t get a lot of time to read, unfortunately, which is why podcasts are so fantastic.  I can sit at work and listen to a podcast, but I can’t sit at work and read.  Audiobooks are the same.  Any authors reading this: please, tape your book as an audiobook and whack it on iTunes.  Or the chances are, I won’t get time to read it.  Please.  As a favour?  To me?

That said, on a recent trip down to Cheltenham for the Open horse racing festival, I found myself on a three-hour train trip (each way) and at a loose end.  So I took the opportunity to read the book at the top of my reading list; Ben Goldacre’s magnificently cutting Bad Science.  Truly fantastic book–if you haven’t read it, then you must.  Now.  Really!

One thing that surprised me, however, was Goldacre’s attitude to homeopathy and indeed alternative medicine in general.  Goldacre appears to take the view that alternative medicine represents a tax on scientific illiteracy.  If people are willing to go and spend a good chunk of money on what amounts to a bag of placebos, well that’s their choice.  I’m not sure I agree.  What do you think?

Should alternative medicine be viewed as a tax on scientific illiteracy?  Do those who know have a responsibility to educate those who don’t?  Should educators make special efforts for people who wear scientific illiteracy as a badge of honour?  Or should medical interventions, legitimate and pseudoscientific, be subject to state regulation and required to back up claims of efficacy with robust scientific data?

Answers on a postcard please.  Or, actually, just put them in the comments below.  Probably easier.

  1. #1 by Gittins on November 19, 2009 - 11:17

    Surely it’s taxing everyone regardless of scientific literacy when alternative medicine is available on the NHS.

  2. #2 by LZ on November 19, 2009 - 11:34

    I agree with Gittins on this one. Why should we all, albeit indirectly via taxes, pay for this nonsense. I disagree with homeopathy for many reasons (e.g. it kills people to name but one) but to make me pay for the privilege of knowing I’m helping to kill people? That’s just bad taste (never mind Bad Science).

  3. #3 by Stu on November 19, 2009 - 13:10

    Alternative medicine? Why call it medicine? These people should in prison never mind struck off (can woo peddlers be “struck off”)! Certainly they shouldn’t be paid by the taxpayer just for being good listeners. I also agree with Mike – Bad science is a cracker.

  4. #4 by AexMagd on November 19, 2009 - 13:45

    Much as the idea makes me laugh, ultimately I don’t want people – no matter how infuriatingly ignorant – to be dying in a preventable way. Really, as a medical doctor, neither should Ben Goldacre.

  5. #5 by Andy Wilson on November 19, 2009 - 15:51

    I can see his point. To see it requires a certain dogmatic stance regarding who is right and wrong. Dawkins like certainty of the non-effectiveness of homeopathy.

    I have sympathy with that position. Unfortunately you have to call some people scientifically illiterate to express the point. I don’t like that part and I feel that other, less inflammatory, words could have been used. It also remains true that people have a right to believe whatever crap or good stuff they want to. And branding them as illiterate takes away from that in my view.

    I agree with Gittins. It seems that the reverse is definitely true. Offering homeopathy on the NHS feels very much like a tax in the scientifically LITERATE to me.

  6. #6 by Mike on November 19, 2009 - 16:19

    Many alternative medicine proponents also prey on desperate people with nowhere else to go. I refuse to blame the customer in that case.

    You (or rather, Goldacre I suppose) also say scientific illiteracy as if it’s a condition you can’t get rid of. If someone doesn’t understand the science, then the system has failed them.

  7. #7 by Marsh on November 19, 2009 - 17:02

    As I mentioned on this week’s show, for me it’s pretty simple – saying alternative therapies are a tax on the science illiterate is like saying accidentally overdosing on a drug because you couldn’t read the label properly is merely a tax on the actual illiterate. We can’t go around deciding who does and doesn’t deserve the quackery – instead we should educate people to help them know better, either through teaching them to read and be literate, or teaching them to think critically and be scientifically literate.

  8. #8 by Suzie on November 20, 2009 - 10:17

    I think the people who practice so called alternative medicine are as good as murderers. They practice this nonsence when real medicine saves lives and to add insult to injury tax payers have to foot the bill. These parasites only go for the gullable and deluded, who beleave centeries old remadies will cure them and the proven, well tested real medicine is left in the shade, com on Britain get out of the medeval ages and into the 21st centary.

  9. #9 by Mike on November 20, 2009 - 14:03

    Do you feel the same about people who overdose because they refuse to read the side of the bottle? Or because they refused to learn to read, were proud of the fact they couldn’t read, then overdosed because they couldn’t read the bottle?

    Arguably, this is a closer analogy than people who are illiterate through no fault of their own.

  10. #10 by Gavin on November 20, 2009 - 14:42

    Using ‘alternative’ therapies is certainly a result of scientific illiteracy, but I don’t think that should stop those who know better trying to educate these people.

    There will always be people who ignore the advice of real doctors and family members, but if just a small percentage of people listen, it makes it all worthwhile.

  11. #11 by Marsh on November 20, 2009 - 15:43

    Nice analogy, I’d not really thought of it that way before. Still, I’d say even those who refuse to learn to read shouldn’t be punished by an overdose – they should be taught the value of reading, and should be told how to take the medicine safely anyway.

    Their own stubbornness shouldn’t be their death sentence.

  12. #12 by Michael on November 20, 2009 - 16:13

    Sorry in repeating myself from another blog here but the Malaria leaflet distributed by the NHS says that homeopathy doesn’t work. Now how can they say that when also funding a homeopathy hostipal? Just because the head-of-state and her genetic retards use it? Someone (Mike) should get a petition going and get everyone (who is sane) to sign it and send it to Number 10 Downing Street for the attention of the ‘Chief Lord of the Treasury’ and Mike should then prostrate himself across the door threshold (for maximum TV coverage) and beg the Lord to abandon funding this ridiculous folly. Then Mike could get onto a lot of TV junkets and be famous. The the MSS would get golden calves made of californium bequest-ed by horrendously rich advocates of science. Everyone knows that proper scientists are proper rich. Or is it the bad scientists who earn the money? I am confused.

(will not be published)