The Seven Most Common Thinking Errors of Highly Amusing Quacks and Pseudoscientists (Part 3):
To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “Conspiracy is the last refuge of a quack.”
Assertions of conspiracy receive a great deal of play in the claims of quacks and pseudoscientists. These range from the ridiculous to the…well, even more ridiculous. No matter what their details may be (e.g. whether the enemy is “the government”, Big Oil, Big Pharma, the AMA or all four), all conspiracy claims serve the same function:
They divert attention from the failures of the person making the claim.
And, no matter what the details of the particular failure may be, at the root is the same issue:
The failure to provide data to support their claim(s).
So, whether it’s the automobile engine that runs on water (suppressed and sabotaged by Big Oil) or the “fact” that chelating out mercury cures autism (suppressed by “the government”, Big Pharma and the AMA), the reason that these conspiracy “theories” are proffered is always the same:
They can’t prove their claim(s).
After all, if someone had a working model of an automobile engine that could run on water, or the clinical data showing that chelation could cure autism, there wouldn’t be any reason to complain about interference from “the government” or Big Oil or etc.
So, what is it that the conspiracy claims do? They allow the quack or pseudoscientist to make their unsupported claim(s) and blame someone else for their lack of support. This is really no different than claiming that “the dog ate my homework”, except that there is no “dog” (and, of course, there was never any “homework”).
This brings us to the other problem with the conspiracy excuse: plausibility.
Ask yourself, which is more likely; that a single person (or small group of people) might lie (or be self-deceived) or that an entire bureaucracy or corporation, filled with people who might have something to gain by revealing a guilty secret, might conspire to suppress information?
Before you answer that, consider this – the difficulty of keeping a secret rises with the number of people who know the secret. This can be mathematically represented thus:
D = n^(n-1)
Where D is the difficulty of keeping something secret and n is the number of people who know the secret.
Even without the math, anyone who can read the newspaper knows the ability of “the government” or other large organizations to keep embarrassing information secret. What makes you think that the “secrets” about water-fueled automobile engines and chelation curing autism would be any different?
In short, claiming conspiracy is a near-certain indicator of quackery and/or pseudoscience. It is the adult (or, more properly, “pseudoadult”) version of “the dog ate my homework”. In addition, it is not even plausible, given the inability of “the government: and other large organizations to keep secrets.
Thinking Error 5 – Personal Infallibility:
One thinking error that comes up extremely often is the error of personal infallibility. This one seems to be shared not only by the quacks and pseudoscientists but also by their victims.
Personal infallibility does not necessarily mean that the person thinks that they are never wrong (although some do), but refers to a more subtle belief that their observations are an infallible source of “fact”. I find this a particularly amusing belief, especially in the context of modern technology’s ability to deceive the senses, displayed every day in movie theatres across the world. Yet, despite this near-daily demonstration that “seeing is NOT believing”, quacks, pseudoscientists and their faithful followers and apologists persist in deferring to their own experiences as if they were infallible.
The root of this problem is the human ability to find patterns. We are genetically adapted to find patterns in the world around us; we are so good at this that we are continually finding patterns when none exist. We “connect the dots” in optical illusions and we see causation in coincidence.
One of the most important steps on the path to what we now call “science” was the philosophy of the Empiricists. They held that the only way to learn about the universe was to observe it. This contrasted starkly with other “natural philosophers” of the time, who felt that they could sit in their drawing rooms and libraries, drinking brandy and philosophizing about how the universe worked. Like many of the quacks and pseudoscientists of our day, they felt that actually getting in the lab or in the field and seeing if their hypotheses worked was irrelevant. After all, some of the finest minds in the world (theirs and their associates) had agreed that the sun and planets circled the earth, so what was the point in getting cold and tired peering through some blasted telescope?
Although the Empiricists eventually won the day (although their opponents continue to populate the chiropractic and naturopathic colleges), there was a small flaw in the philosophy of Empiricism that needed correcting. You see, while large-scale physics and chemistry are fairly deterministic, there is a great deal of variation and even randomness in biology (and in physics and chemistry on the smaller scales). As a result, it is often difficult to tell if a change seen in a biological system is due to an experimental intervention or simply due to random variation.
Because of the stochastic nature of biology (which, by the way, includes medicine), it is very easy for a researcher to see a change in an organism and erroneously attribute it to some intervention they have made when, in fact, the change was not related at all to that intervention. In addition, since many of the changes seen in biological organisms are hard to measure quantitatively (e.g. pain, depression, language ability), the observer is often called upon to not only observe but to be the “measuring instrument”.
This is the reason that the multiple subject, double blind, placebo-controlled study is considered to be the “gold standard” in research (except by those whose “claims” are disproven by such studies). This is not to say that good data cannot be gotten any other way, but this is the standard to aim for.
So, what’s so great about the multiple-subject, double-blind, placebo-controlled study? Let me explain in parts:
Since biology has a great deal of inherent random variation, a single organism (a single person) is not a good indicator of what the population is like. After all, I am not a good example of what the human population is like since approximately half of the world’s population is of a different sex. Likewise, there are people shorter and taller than me, lighter and darker in skin color, etc.
The way to arrive at what the population looks like is to take a larger sample. You can predict mathematically the likelihood that your sample is an accurate representation of the population based on the sample size (and the population size) – the bigger the sample, the greater the probability that it reflects the reality of the population.
In addition, biological organisms change over time – if they don’t, they’re probably dead. As a result, certain changes will happen regardless of whether an intervention occurs or not. Studying a larger group will “average out” these spontaneous changes, since – by random chance – a roughly equal number will occur before and after the intervention.
Taken out of order (for reasons that will become apparent), placebo-control is a critical part of biological experimentation, especially when the subjects are humans. A placebo, in general terms, is a treatment that is similar enough to the studied intervention that the subject receiving it (and, ideally, the person giving it) cannot tell it apart from the “real” treatment, but it has no effect. Most classically, it is a sugar pill or saline injection that is the same color and consistency as the treatment under study.
Failure to use placebo control has tripped up any number of medical researchers, including some who are legitimate scientists. Among "real" researchers, this most commonly occurs in behavioral interventions (where interaction with the “therapist” can be as big a factor as the “therapy” is supposed to be) and surgical interventions (where questions of ethics may prevent a “placebo” surgery in human subjects). Unsuspecting quacks often fail to realize that their interaction with the patient may be causing the change they measure, rather than their “therapy”. Charlatans count on it.
In human studies, failure to use a placebo can lead to falsely believing that a therapy has a beneficial effect when, in fact, it is the expectation of benefit that causes the subject to feel better. This has been borne out time and again in pain control research, where supposedly effective therapies have been overturned because subjects receiving a placebo had the same degree of relief. In pain studies, approximately 30% of subjects will report "good" or better pain relief with a placebo.
This is sometimes erroneously referred to as the “placebo effect”, which is an oxymoron. A placebo has – by definition - no effect. It is the psychological effect of the subject believing that they will feel better that causes the effect.
Double blind means that neither the subject (the organism being studied) nor the observer knows whether any particular subject is receiving a placebo or the studied therapy. A single-blind study would be when the observer knows but the subjects do not.
The advantage of a double-blind study is that not only do the subjects not know who is “supposed” to feel better, but neither do the observers. This is especially important if the measurement of “success” or “failure” of the treatment is not completely objective. When measuring blood pressure or heart rate, it is not so important that the observers not know who received the placebo, since these measures leave little or no room for observer interpretation. However, if the measures are more subjective - such as behaviors, pain, depression, social interaction, etc. - then observer interpretation can be affected by the knowledge of who is “supposed” to get better and who is not.
None of this is hidden knowledge and none of this is particularly new. Yet, every day I read about patients, parents and practitioners who declare, “I see an improvement – are you calling me a liar?” These people are unaware – or are in denial of their awareness – that we humans often see exactly what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. To think that we can be truly objective – especially when it involves ourselves, our loved ones or a hypothesis we are in love with – is to claim an infallibility we are not capable of.
So, when you hear someone say, “I saw it with my own eyes!”, be sure to ask (at least to yourself), “Yes, but what would someone else’s eyes have seen?”
Coming up: Cherry picking – it’s not just happening in the orchard.