Sometimes it can be hard to tell science from pseudoscience. On the surface, both can look the same. What is remarkable is how deep this mimicry goes. It is not enough to have a magic sugar pill that can cure all, you also have to have pharmacies, letters after your name, registration and regulatory bodies, brass plaques, published papers, white coats, diagrams, scientific jargon and conferences. This diverse and magnificent epiphenomenology is well explored in this blog.
The late physicist Richard Feynman called such stuff cargo cult science. He mocked activities that took on the appearance of science but missed “a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty”. The phrase ‘cargo cult’ was taken from pacific islanders, who after the Second World War, adopted the practices of the American airmen based on the island and built runways, control towers and lit fires as landing lights in the hope of attracting the planes carrying wondrous goods. It looked like an airport with many people doing the same sort of things as you see in an airport – but of course was a pantomime.
This weekend, in Copenhagen, you could have visited the European Quantum Energy Medicine Conference 2008. It is worth browsing their web site. It look so real, so professionally put together and very inviting. One can imagine what was going on there over the past few days. Coffees, chats, chances to meet up with old colleagues and collaborators, chances to spy on old rivals, interesting talks, dull talks, gossip about the next big result, swapping tales of funding crises, bemoaning paper work, overstepping the mark in the bar in the evening, regretted passes, and so on. Just like a real academic conference. But this is nothing but a cargo cult.
How can we tell? On the surface it is not easy – but there are massive tell-tale giveaways – and we will come on to these. But first, let’s explore a little deeper at what went on this weekend in Denmark.
The first big giveaway is of course the use of the language of quantum mechanics in a medical context. It’s a sure sign of quackery. We really need not go any further to come to this conclusion. Of course, the delegates here will tell us that we are stuck in some ‘Newtonian paradigm’ of medicine and the ‘energy medicine’ is the future. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
The list of speakers and their subjects are fascinating. We are treated to Dr. Mae-Wan Ho who describes herself as a ‘radical biophysicist.’ Those of you who may frequent Borders in London may be aware of her rag, Science in Society, that delights in publishing any fringe scientific musings. We have people talking about biophotons, living matrices and neutrino power. We have people asking questions such as “can we integrate the Chinese meridian system with quantum wave theory”, “Can we change the past using only our intention?” and “Can we make the human biofield visible?”.
So many words that sound like science and so little meaning behind them.
But it is all not fun and frolics. I note that Jane Lloyd of Edutherapy is speaking about how children with ‘learning needs’ can ‘meet their full potential’ with the edutherapy programme. This involves a “remote, interactive bioresonance programme”. Looking at their web site we find that Edutherapists will post you a metal cylinder called an e-capsule. This then allows them to ‘deliver the programme’ to you and collect your money without the worrisome bother of actually having to visit you. Magnificent.
The homeopaths show up too. ‘Dr’ Jeremy Sherr is here to talk about how magic ‘energy’ sugar pills can treat AIDS in a talk entitled, “Homoeopathy for AIDS in Africa: An Energy-Information Treatment.”. This is pretty low. People in Africa already have to suffer the theories of Matthias Rath . One might want to complain to the Society of Homeopaths as they explicitly forbid their members from making claims like these. Unfortunately, Sherr is a Fellow of the Society of Homeopaths and we know how the Society like to deal with such complaints.
But if you are still wondering about this and thinking they might have a point about quantum energy being the future of medicine, what is the big giveaway that this is a cargo cult?
The answer can be summed up in one word: data.
There is no data at this conference. There are no results of carefully conducted and controlled experiments where we can assess the validity of the claims being made. All the talks appeared to be hypothesising or promoting particular variations of their quackery. Without data there can be no critical appraisal. No advancement or validation of ideas. There is no way to refute or accept any healing claim. And this is the cardinal sign of quackery – the complete lack of critical appraisal and the willingness to test and examine claims. There will be a hundred anecdotes and assertions of facts – but nothing other delegates could take away and replicate and test. And that makes it pathological science.
I will end with the words of Feynman on cargo cult science. I doubt I could ever hope to better what he has to say on the subject.
But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.
In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.