A Pantomime of Science

A criticism often levied at the quackometer is that it is very broad brush. Fair enough. It is often quite general in what it says, but it is only a bit a web script after all. The quackometer is intended to be a spring board into the exploration of health claims. Improvements in the new year should make this easier. However, the central premise behind the quackometer is that when someone uses words like ‘vibration’, ‘energy’ or ‘quantum’ in the context of a health claim, then almost invariably pseudoscience is being used. And, as the black duck would say,

…it is full of scientific jargon that is out of place and probably doesn’t know the meaning of any of the terms.

So, is this a reasonable statement to make? Let’s explore a recent example, picking up from my recent blog entry on Professor Dame Diana Mossop.

Quick Recap: The Mossop Philosophy is that she can make stronger and more effective homeopathy/Bach remedy pills by using flowers picked under a full moon and utilising copious amounts of vodka. This captures the ‘vibrational energies’ of the flowers so well that even viruses can be killed, allegedly.

So let’s look at some of her science explanation behind this healing practice and see if it really is science and if she understands anything about what she is writing.

To start…

Light is vital for the survival of all forms of life force. Without light life cannot be sustained. Light varies in colour, depending upon the frequency and wavelength…

The last word of the first sentence is a bit of giveaway. Omit the word ‘force’ and you might stand a chance of defending this sentence (almost), but by invoking a ‘life force’, the Dame shows that she is a true believer in the élan vital, or the life essence, or cosmic soul. The life force is supposedly the non-physical essence that turns the inanimate into the animate. And of course it is completely unscientific. There is no evidence to suggest that such a thing exists at all. Science has been doing a perfectly good, parsimonious job of explaining life through chemistry. Julian Huxley compared the belief in the élan vital to believing that trains run by an élan locomotif.

Let’s do Diana a favour and drop the last word and see if we can do any better. So, is light vital for the survival of all forms of life? Quick experiment. 1) Switch off room light. 2) Wait one minute 3) If the blog stops here, then you know the Prof is right. OK. Starting now…

… Right, I am back. No ill effects noted. I do this experiment most nights, so I am not too surprised. Then again, many creatures live in dark caves or at the bottom of the sea and never see any light. Bats navigate without light. Blind people cope very well. Maybe we are missing something here. All I can say is that the Prof is not very clear here.

Next, “Without light life cannot be sustained.” Does the Dame mean that life is dependent on the energy gained during photosynthesis by plants? If so, why not say that? But even that is not true with discoveries of ecosystems at the bottom of the ocean where volcanic vents provide the energy source to drive the living systems there. So again, either wrong or just plain confused.

Light varies in colour. Well ,that is a very human centric view of light. Light has ‘colour’ in just that tiny strip from the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes are sensitive too. Outside of that strip we have the infrared, ultraviolet, radio, x-ray and gamma-ray regions. When we usually talk about light, it is just our (quite literally) narrow interpretation of electromagnetic radiation. That radiation is defined by its wavelength, or its frequency. Note, how Mossop says ‘wavelength and frequency’ betraying no knowledge of the mathematical relationship between the two. One or the other will suffice to define colour.

So, from the silly misunderstandings and howlers to the positively batshit:

When white light enters the body through the eyes it is split into the different frequencies of colour by the pineal gland which acts as a prism. This colour rainbow travels through the body, from the hot, low frequencies of infra red and red , which relate to the earth based, or chakra, parts of the body, to the cool, high frequencies of ultra violet and violet, which relate to the crown chakra of the mind and soul.

Now this gets a bit depressing. I would not mind, but supposedly serious health writers have told me to read about Mossop’s work before denouncing it as quackery. Can a seriously educated person really believe that ‘light enters the body through the eyes’? Did they not draw a diagram of the eye in biology classes with retinas and optic nerves? Do they think the inside of the head is glowing with light that came in through the eyes? Can they really believe that the pineal gland ‘acts as a prism? I can’t imagine its optical properties are any different from chopped liver. Has Mossop ever obtained a pineal gland, put it next to a glass prism and then compare and contrasted the results? I severely doubt it.

How does Mossop believe the different colours then travel through the body? Installed fibre-optic cable? Wouldn’t these light beams be obvious when the body got opened up? And is she not aware that cooler objects glow red whereas hotter ones glow blue? Blue is a higher energy colour than red. Her lack of understanding of optics, physics and biology is staggering considering the gall she has in trotting out this nonsense.

The ‘explanation’ goes on to mention lots of stuff about vibrations and colours, all without cited evidence of course and with many more basic clangers. Read the stuff about proteins and weep.

The observation is then, that apparently educated people, who can write for newspapers and be considered health experts, can be taken in by this stuff. I would have thought that some basic high school science knowledge would be sufficient. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a postgraduate science education. The quackometer recognises this and is really just using ‘rules of thumb’ to spot quacks. Can we not do this in everyday life too? Maybe people just don’t believe me when I assert that using ‘vibrations’ in a health context is nonsense. After all, we would have to start talking real physics – not made up Mossop Physics.

Well, there are other ways of spotting quacks that are not just about use of language. The emerging badscience wiki lists a number of factors that one can look for based around the claims being made, the presented evidence and the character of the person making the claims.

Let’s look at some of the badscience quackospotter checklist criteria and see how Mossop stacks up…

Claims

  • A wide range of ailments can be treated with the same product
  • Couched in vague terms, “detoxify” “re-balance”
  • Promise cures will be rapid, dramatic, free from side effects
  • Marketed to essentially healthy people
  • Emphasise risks of conventional medicine
  • Lack of direct claims of efficacy
  • Use of the terms “can help” or “will aid”

Well, from ridiculous claims about viruses to just general ‘imbalance’ phytobiophysics has a cure for you. ‘Electrical rebalancing’ is the vague term of choice. Having said that, the actual product selector does not list viral diseases, but just contains vague ‘illnesses’ such as fatigue and puberty(?). So, the claims made look like quackery. Claiming a product can treat a virus is obviously illegal unless it is a registered medicine. Quacks are often quite good at separating their wild healing fantasies from their actual product claims.

Evidence

  • The available evidence is – at best – contentious or controversial within the medical community.
  • Unpublished research
  • Dodgy tests (e.g. “hair analysis,” etc)
  • Anecdotes or testimonials
  • Endorsement by celebrity, “scientist” or prominent CAM therapist.
  • That the treatment has been well recognised in other countries, or times.

The most hilarious claim made on the site is about having written seven unpublished books. Mossop uses a ‘Galvanometer’ to do her tests. Although I had no idea a galvanometer measured frequencies. I thought it measured electrical currents? As for anecdotes – yep, a supermodel and an athlete are used to show how damn effective these things are. No doubt Jodie March is fully trained to conduct medical trials and be careful to avoid placebo effects, wishful thinking, confirmation biases and other traps. African tribesmen, no less, taught Mossop about the healing properties of plants. No doubt the same people whose life expectancies are being severely shortened by the avoidable tragedy of HIV in Africa.

Character

  • Using titles that may be confused with mainstream ones, such as Dr or PhD, “Fellow of”, list of letters after name.
  • Dresses simple ideas up as complex / mysterious / requiring special knowledge (available to you for price of book) – baffling with bullshit rather than dazzling with clarity
  • Background in self help industry, or commerce, but not science.

Could Professor Dame Dianna Mossop really be trying to use her titles to make us think she is mainstream?

What is quite clear is that the Mossop Philosophy is nothing more than straightforward pseudo-science. It is a pantomime of science complete with its magical worlds, wishful thinking, stereotyped language and funny dames. But just as theatre critic would not mistake Jack-and-the-Beanstalk for real theatre, why should a health journalist mistake phytobiophysics for real medicine? A sports writer that thought quiddich needed to be covered on the back page would be thought to be insane, or had too many trebles. A financial journalist who puffed up fraudulent stocks would be imprisoned. A political hack who believed Blair about weapons of mass destruction.. Let’s stop there.

The sad reality is that one way quackery thrives is by newspapers giving it uncritical column inches. It is not as simple as saying that journalists write this stuff because people want to read it, as I am sure is the case with the horoscopes. Conversations with several journalists now have convinced me that it is not just the usual cynical hack writing what the readers want to hear and buy. No, it is often the case that the health writers cannot tell their healthy arses from their diseased elbows. Their sub-editors are no better and just don’t care Their readers end up confused about science, deluded by quackery and swindled by fraudsters.

It looks like there is very little understanding of common science terms from quack healer through to journalist. I feel like screaming at Diana Mossop, ‘Just what is it that is vibrating in your vibrational medicine????’. The quackometer is quite justified in being broad brush about the use of jargon when confronted with such nonsense.

So, coming soon: the first annual quackometer awards, where I will announce the winners of the quackiest newspaper, quackiest article and quackiest journalist as discovered by the quackomter’s automatic newspaper trawl. Can’t wait.

On this theme…

4 Comments on A Pantomime of Science

  1. My pineal gland doesn’t do any of that stuff, luckily for me!

    It always amazes me how people are willing to believe any sort of tripe in relation to their health – often in preference to anything based on real evidence told to them by somebody who has real qualifications in medicine, pharmacy etc.

    Great website by the way.

  2. Maybe she's done a lot of mushrooms in her time…she's seen a few winters!
    I get the whole thing about the rainbow light travelling through the body…maybe you need to go forage a few little liberty caps to further your research this year!! Lots of Native American tribes used the power of fungi to heal all ills…
    Prevention is better than cure in my opinion, so look within and don't listen to doctors!!

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