Most skeptics are familiar with the term ‘pseudoscience’, which means non-scientific activities masquerading as science. Examples include astrology, alchemy, so-called ‘alternative medicine’ and ‘creation science’.
Less well-known is the term ‘pseudoprofundity’, which means claptrap masquerading as profound wisdom. Deepak Chopra springs to mind, when he uses pseudoprofound terms such as ‘quantum healing’ and ‘dynamically active consciousness’.
‘Love is only a word’ is a more general example of pseudoprofundity which Daniel Dennett calls a ‘deepity’ – the pretension of depth. This is a phrase which sounds like it contains a great depth of wisdom by virtue of being perfectly ambiguous. The philosophical blogger Jonasan writes that on one level it is clearly false that love is only a word. ‘Love’ is a word, but love itself is not (the inverted commas are important). The fact that ‘love’ is a word is also trivially true. We are thus left with a statement which can either be interpreted as obviously false or trivially true. Jonasan notes that by failing to exercise our powers of analysis on this statement we end up thinking about both meanings together, rather than separating them and perhaps seeking clarification about which meaning is intended. This gives an illusion of profundity.
Stephen Law has pointed out that you can also achieve this effect without the need for an ambiguity in meaning. Ordinary trivially true platitudes such as ‘death comes to us all’ can be elevated to the level of profound insight if enunciated with enough gravitas. Likewise, one can take the other side of Dennett’s deepities – that of self-contradiction – and use it without even needing the trivially true side. Law again gives us one of the finest examples in ‘‘sanity is just another kind of madness’. It sounds profound doesn’t it? Except that sanity cannot be a form of madness because they are defined as opposites.
a soothing antimicrobial action that helps fight off the bugs that can cause colds and flu and provides symptomatic relief from upper respiratory tract infections.
Others, such as those promoted by Swisse and Blackmores, claim to be “traditionally used in Western Herbal Medicine to provide symptomatic relief of sinusitis, hay fever and upper respiratory tract infections”. And the Swisse and Blackmores products (and many others) add additional ingredients, commonly vitamin C, which is claimed to be beneficial for “immune health”.
Scientific evidence is based on the scientific literature, such as trials in humans. Traditional evidence is based on theories outside modern conventional medicine, such as Western herbal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine and homeopathy.
A search of the medical journal database PubMed failed to find any clinical trials on the combination of horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) and garlic (Allium sativum), with or without vitamin C. Nor were any clinical trials found on horseradish alone.
The authors of a 2014 Cochrane review concluded there was insufficient clinical trial evidence supporting garlic in preventing or treating the common cold. A single 2001 trial (from the Garlic Centre in the UK) suggested garlic may prevent the common cold, but more studies were needed to validate this finding. Claims of effectiveness appear to rely largely on poor-quality evidence.
A 2013 Cochrane systematic review explored whether taking vitamin C (0.2g a day or more) reduced the incidence, duration or severity of the common cold. The 29 trial comparisons involving 11,306 participants found taking vitamin C regularly failed to reduce the incidence of colds in the general population.
Regular supplementation had a modest effect in reducing the duration of common cold symptoms by a few hours. The practical relevance of this finding is uncertain. The authors felt this level of benefit did not justify long-term supplementation. Finally, taking vitamin C at the onset of cold symptoms was not effective.
Vitamin C deficiency can impair immune function, but this is uncommon in Australia and best prevented by eating fruit and vegetables.
The TGA accepts a traditional indication if that use has been recorded in internationally recognised traditional sources for a period of use that exceeds three generations (75 years). Traditional indications or claims don’t mean a product actually works – that requires scientific evidence.
Recently, more and more purveyors of complementary medicine have been making “traditional” claims for their products.
If consumers are to make an informed choice about medicines claiming traditional use, a mandatory statement is required on the label and on all promotion explaining what this means. It should be explained to consumers the “tradition” is not in accordance with modern medical knowledge, and there is no scientific evidence the product works.
Without such a disclaimer, consumers will be misled and the TGA will be seen to be endorsing pseudoscience. But to date, industry, the TGA and government have refused to take on-board such proposals.
Earlier this year I co-published a paper, together with my collaborators Stefaan Blancke and Maarten Boudry, entitled “Why Do Irrational Beliefs Mimic Science? The Cultural Evolution of Pseudoscience,” that I think readers of this blog will find interesting.
The ABC’s flagship science journalism TV programme, Catalyst, has riled the scientific community once again. And, in a similar vein to Catalyst’s controversial 2013 report on the link between statins, cholesterol and heart disease, it has now turned its quasi-scientific attention to a supposed new peril.
Its “Wi-Fried?” segment last week raised concerns about the ever-increasing “electronic air pollution” that surrounds us in our daily lives, exploiting a number of age-old, fear-inspiring tropes.
Instead, we’re interested in using the segment as inspiration to revisit an ongoing question about scientists’ engagement with the public: how should the scientific community respond to issues like this?
Should scientists dive in and engage head-on, appearing face-to-face with those they believe do science a disservice? Should they shun such engagement and redress bad science after the fact in other forums? Or should they disengage entirely and let the story run its course?
There are many of examples of what scientists could do, but to keep it simple we focus here just on the responses to “Wi-Fried” by two eminent Professors, Simon Chapman and Bernard Stewart, both of whom declined to be a part of the ABC segment, and use this case to consider what scientists should do.
Just say no
In an interview about their decision to not participate, Chapman and Stewart independently expressed concerns about the evidence, tone and balance in the “Wi-Fried” segment. According to Chapman it “contained many ‘simply wrong’ claims that would make viewers unnecessarily afraid”.
Stewart labelled the episode “scientifically bankrupt” and “without scientific merit”. He added:
I think the tone of the reporting was wrong, I think that the reporter did not fairly draw on both sides, and I use the word “sides” here reluctantly.
Indeed, in situations like this, many suggest that by appearing in the media alongside people who represent fringe thinkers and bad science, respected experts lend them unwarranted credibility and legitimacy.
Continuing with this logic, association with such a topic would mean implicitly endorsing poor science and bad reasoning, and contribute to an un-evidenced escalation of public fears.
But is it really that straightforward?
The concerns Chapman and Stewart expressed about the show could equally be used to argue that experts in their position should have agreed to be interviewed, if only to present a scientifically sound position to counter questionable claims.
In this line, you could easily argue it’s better for experts to appear whenever and wherever spurious claims are raised, the better to immediately refute and dismiss them.
On the other hand, if scientific experts refuse to engage with “scientifically bankrupt” arguments, this could send a more potent message: that the fringe claims are irrelevant, not even worth wasting the time to refute. So this would mean they shouldn’t engage with this kind of popular science story.
On the third hand, their refusal to engage could be re-framed to characterise the experts as remote, arrogant or even afraid, casting doubt on the veracity of the scientific position. So to avoid this impression, experts should engage.
But wait, there’s more.
Participation in these kinds of popular science shows could also tarnish the reputation of the expert. But not appearing means missing the opportunity to thwart the potential harm caused by fringe, false or non-scientific claims.
And what about an expert’s obligation to defend their science, to set the record straight, and to help ensure people are not mislead by poor evidence and shonky reasoning? Is this best done by engaging directly with dubious media offerings like “Wi-Fried”, or should relevant experts find other venues?
Should scientists engage anti-science?
Well, this depends on what they think they might achieve. And if one thing stands out in all the to-ing and fro-ing over what scientists should do in such cases, it’s this: the majority of proponents both for and against getting involved seem convinced that popular representations of science will change people’s behaviour.
But there is rarely any hard evidence presented in the myriad “scientists should” arguments out there. Sticking with the Catalyst example, there is really only one, far-from-convincing, study from 2013 suggesting the show has such influence.
If you really want to make a robust, evidence-based decision about what experts should do in these situations, don’t start with the science being discussed. In the case of Catalyst, you’d start with research on the show’s relationship with its audience(s).
What kinds of people watch Catalyst?
Why do they watch it?
To what extent are their attitudes influenced by the show?
If their attitudes are actually influenced, how long does this influence last?
If this influence does last, does it lead people to change their behaviours accordingly?
Of course, we applaud the motives of people who are driven to set the scientific record straight, and especially by those who are genuinely concerned about public welfare.
But to simply assume, without solid evidence, that programmes like Catalyst push people into harmful behaviour changes is misguided at best. At worst, it’s actually bad science.
I resolved to wait and see whether they lived up to their public commitment. Maybe they would surprise me with their rigorous approach to protecting the public from the so-called “fringe” elements of the profession. I say “so-called” because some of the views that cause concern emanate from positions of considerable influence with chiropractic ranks.
I have not been the only one with these frustrations. An article by A/Prof Ken Harvey in the MJA Insight publication last year highlights some more direct action he has undertaken in an effort to drag chiropractors kicking and squealing into line with the same professional standards that seem so routine to other groups.
When followed up some months later it is clear little effective action has taken place. More than half of the misleading claims were still present in the complained-of websites. Only one of the ten clinic websites reported to CBA had removed the claims. The misleading and unprofessional claims that the CBA is tasked with regulating are still there, five years after it was first highlighted to them, and seven months after the CBA announced its intention to start getting serious.
The Board holds ongoing concerns about advertising by the profession that may be seen as misleading and deceptive. In particular, there have been a number of concerns raised about chiropractors’ advertising that indicates that there may be a lack of understanding of evidence and evidence-based practice.
Worryingly, the CBA’s credibility problem goes beyond advertising regulations. By continuing to lend its gravitas to some of the continuing professional development (CPD) activities that attract approved hours, I would suggest the CBA itself may end up looking like it has problems understanding the concept of evidence-based practice.
Here is an example of an activity approved by the CBA via their delegated authority to the Chiropractors Association of Australia (CAA). It specifically says on the website offering these online modules:
The Paediatric CPD Program is approved in Australia (by the CAA on behalf of AHPRA).
One of the modules on offer in this program is on Craniosacral Therapy. Craniosacral Therapy is an entirely made up and ineffective pseudo-therapy based on what “evidence” exists in the literature. It is implausible and has no credible reason for being promoted as a treatment for anything. To allow practitioners to offer it is entirely inconsistent with a commitment to evidence-based practice.
Here is another howler CBA might rather forget. Obtained by the medical media website 6minutes.com.au, it shows the CAA National approving CPD hours on behalf of CBA for chiropractor Tim O’Shea’s visit to Australia a couple of years ago. Note that CAA specifically pointed out that they were happy for him to use the Board’s imprimatur in his marketing.
CBA subsequently overturned the approval for claimable CPD hours after an investigation prompted by outrage from the more science-based chiropractic community and negative media coverage.
The CBA’s previous inability to professionally manage an investigation of an injured child has not been forgotten either. The failings of that case, including inappropriate public discussion of the highly confidential AHPRA report I have detailed previously.
Just have a look at the slap-downs being handed out by the other AHPRA Boards. Bear in mind also that the chiropractors disciplined by the Board so far have only been disciplined for advertising code breaches. The inappropriate treatment that they actually may be providing, if their advertising is anything to go by, has received little attention.
These ongoing frustrations within the profession have resulted in the formation of a new professional organisation based on professionally progressive ideals. The early signs are positive that this organisation may provide leadership and representation that is more in alignment with what the rest of the scientific health-care community expects from their colleagues in the 21st century. Whether Chiropractic Australia can influence the Board to take a similarly progressive stance against pseudoscience in their profession remains to be seen. It is a daunting and perhaps forlorn task but I wish them well in their efforts.
So after five years of hollow threats and effete regulatory action, the Chiropractic Board of Australia has “written to every chiropractor registered in Australia via the newsletter to remind them what is legal, and what the Board expects” according to the current Chair in a media release. They have also set out at length in their newsletter the standard to which they wish to hold their profession.
I guess it’s just too bad for the public if average chiros treat this latest “campaign” by their supine regulator with the same unresponsiveness they have shown for the last five years. Reform-minded chiropractors might prefer to see a few outrageously unprofessional colleagues temporarily put out of practice pour encourager les autres.
I think when one looks at the efforts of the CBA over the last couple of years, it’s hard to be confident that the public’s interests are being adequately protected. The reluctance of the fractured chiropractic profession to go along with even the most basic self-regulation standards seems intractable with a light touch. The strongest enforcements by the CBA have been brought about by public shaming from the media or within their own profession. As it stands they are the Caspar Milquetoast of regulators.
Many people take herbal medicines, including traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) thinking they are doing something positive for their health. Ironically, in many cases they may be doing just the opposite.
Have you ever wondered what is actually in the herbal medicine products you buy? Has the herb on the label been replaced with another herb? Have pharmaceuticals been snuck in?
Making sure that a tablet claiming to have 500 milligrams of paracetamol really does contain 500 milligrams of paracetamol is relatively easy, there are established assays to measure paracetamol routinely. But how do you test for herbs?
Most herbal medicines are pills or powders that have removed all trace of structure we would normally use to identify plants, and many plants have no chemical signature that is able to definitively identify them. And what about all the other possible contaminants and adulterants that could hide in the complex brew of chemicals from herbal medicines?
We used a three-pronged approach, combining DNA sequencing, toxicology and heavy metal testing to elucidate the true composition of 26 TCMs purchased at random from the Adelaide Markets; most were either for colds and flu’s or for general wellness.
What did we find?
Summary of the contaminants in traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) tested in this study that contained toxic metals, undeclared or illegal contents as determined by DNA, toxicological, and heavy metal screening methods. Each TCM tested is represented in the diagram as a tablet; blue shading on tablets indicate AUST L listed medicines, red shading are not-listed with the TGA regulatory body. TCMs deemed non-compliant
for DNA (green), toxicology (pink) and heavy metals (yellow) or a combination thereof, are represented within the Venn diagram. Coglan et al.,Sci Reports 2015
Nearly nine in ten of these medicines had some form of undeclared substance in them as either adulteration or contamination. Sixteen of TCM’s had more than one contaminant or adulterant.
While around half of these medicines were not listed with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and should not have been available for purchase, contaminants were found in both TGA-listed and non-listed medicines. These adulterants/contaminants included pharmaceuticals and toxic heavy metals.
Plant and/or animal DNA from species not listed on the labels were also found. The most concerning finding was snow leopard DNA (snow leopards are an endangered species), which was detected in one medicine. DNA from pit viper, frog, rat, cat and dog was also detected in several medicines.
Among the pharmaceuticals found were paracetamol, antihistamines, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, and stimulants such as pseudoephedrine. Of particular concern were drugs such as warfarin, which have significant potential for harm if not taken under medical supervision, and ephedrine, which is banned in Australia.
Significant levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead were found in over half the medicines. In at least four of these medicines following the directions on the label would expose you to over ten times the TGA’s regulatory limit for heavy metals in medicines.
What does this mean?
Herbal Medicines. Megan Coglan
Are the levels of undeclared materials in these products adulteration or contamination? In adulteration, the material is added deliberately. In contamination, the material is added inadvertently, for example, through unclean workplaces or herbs grown on contaminated soil.
Whether a compound is a result of deliberate adulteration or contamination has different regulatory implications. It can mean the difference between banning a substance or cleaning up the workplace.
It can be tricky to decide which is which. In TCM materials, for instance, heavy metals or toad venom may be added as part of the treatment. However, by looking at the patterns of materials we found, we can get some hints.
One TCM claiming to enhance weight gain with appetite stimulation contained pharmaceutically relevant levels of the drug cyproheptadine, a known appetite enhancer.
In another, ephedrine was found without any evidence of DNA from plants of the Ephedra genus, suggesting that in both cases the drug was deliberately added.
Intriguingly, high levels of arsenic were often found with similar levels of lead. Lead arsenate has been used as a pesticide, and the high levels may come from persistently contaminated soils.
What this means is that you should be very careful about choosing and purchasing TCMs. Definitely avoid any medicine that does not have an ARTG listing (it should have a number like AUST L 123456 on the front of the bottle). But even medicines with these AUST L labels are no guarantee of safety.
This also highlights the importance of informing your health practitioner if you are taking TCMs as adulterants might interact with conventional medication to cause adverse effects.
What are the regulatory implications?
Unlike countries such as the United States, where many herbal medicines are regulated as dietary supplements, in Australia, herbal medicines are regulated through the TGA as medicines.
TGA-regulated medicines can be approved as either “registered” or “listed”. Most herbal medicines are classified as “listed”. Unlike registered medicines such as paracetamol and warfarin, the evidence required for approval is much less stringent.
In many ways it is an honour system, where the herbal medicines sponsor says there’s no evidence of harm, and they hold documentation that shows this. Mostly, the evidence is historical, claiming that people have been using it for generations without evidence of harm. As well, if the compounds are on the TGA’s list of “generally recognised are safe” materials extensive safety testing is not required.
In Australia, nearly 2,000 new herbal medicines are registered each year.
In a TGA survey in 2012-2013, 145 complementary medicines were tested. Around 83% of complimentary medicines surveyed were deemed to be non-compliant, with 6% failing due to product composition, formulation or manufacturing.
Using a combination of new molecular approaches, our survey found a much higher level of adulteration and contamination in TCMs than found in the TGA’s surveys. Adding DNA ingredient screening to the TGA’s armoury of analytical methods would help ensure that undeclared ingredients are not included in the herbal medicines we consume.
The herbal medicine industry is a billion dollar international industry, with products travelling all over the world.
Globally, we need a better auditing “toolkit” to ensure consumers of herbal medicines, as well as people testing their efficacy, are not being misled.
This research, we think, provides a roadmap to more effective regulation of the herbal medicine sector.
* The results of our screening have been passed on to the TGA, which is following this up.
Scientists maybe celebrating the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but there was also a death in 1915. It was one of the many deaths of simple and intuitive physics that has happened over the past four centuries.
Today the concepts and mathematics of physics are often removed from everyday experience. Consequently, cutting edge physics is largely the domain of professional physicists, with years of university education.
But there are people who hanker for a simpler physics, toiling away on their own cosmologies. Rightly or wrongly, these people are often labelled cranks, but their endeavours tell us much misconceptions about science, its history and what it should be.
I regularly browse open access website arxiv.org to look for the latest astrophysics research. Real astrophysics, that is. But if I want to take a look at what pseudoscientists are up to, I can browse vixra.org. That’s right, “arxiv” backwards. The vixra.org website was founded by “scientists who find they are unable to submit their articles to arXiv.org” because that website’s owners filter material they “consider inappropriate”.
There are more than 1,800 articles on vixra.org discussing relativity and cosmology, and many don’t like relativity at all. Perhaps one reason why cranks particularly dislike relativity is because it is so unlike our everyday experiences.
But the varying passage of time is nothing like our everyday experience, which isn’t surprising as we don’t swing by black holes on our way to the shops. Everyday experience is often central to cranky ideas, with the most extreme example being flat earthers.
Thus many crank theories postulate that time is absolute, because that matches everyday experience. Of course, these crank theories are overlooking experimental data, or at least most of it.
History and linearity
One of the most curious aspects of pseudoscience is an oddly linear approach to science. To be fair, this can result from an overly literal approach to popular histories of science, which emphasise pioneering work over replication.
A pivotal moment in relativity’s history is Albert Michelson and Edward Morley’s demonstration that the speed of light didn’t depend on its direction of travel nor the motion of the Earth.
Of course, since 1887 the Michelson-Morley experiment has been confirmed many times. Modern measurements have a precision orders of magnitude better than the original 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, but these don’t feature prominently in popular histories of science.
Interestingly many pseudoscientists are fixated on the original Michelson-Morley experiment, and how it could be in error. This fixation assumes science is so linear that the downfall a 19th century experiment will rewrite 21st century physics. This overlooks how key theories are tested (and retested) with a myriad of experiments with greater precision and different methodologies.
Another consequence of the pseudoscientific approach to history is that debunked results from decades past are often used by buttress pseudoscientific ideas. For example, many pseudoscientists claim Dayton Miller detected “aether drift” in the 1930s. But Miller probably underestimated his errors, as far more precise studies in subsequent decades did not confirm his findings.
Unfortunately this linear and selective approach to science isn’t limited to relativity. It turns up in cranky theories ranging from evolution to climate.
During the birth of physics, one could gain insights with relatively simple (and beautiful) mathematics. My favourite example is Johannes Kepler’s charting of the orbit of Mars via triangulation.
In the 17th century, Johannes Kepler used elegantly simple mathematics to chart the motion of Mars. Johannes Kepler / University of Sydney
Over subsequent centuries, the mathematics required for new physical insights has become more complex, as illustrated by Newton’s use of calculus and Einstein’s use of tensors. This level of mathematics is rarely in the domain of the enthusiastic but untrained amateur? So what do they do?
One option is to hark back to an earlier era. For example, trying to disprove general relativity by using the assumptions of special relativity or even Newtonian physics (again, despite the experiments to the contrary). Occasionally even numerology makes an appearance.
Another option is arguments by analogy. Analogies are useful when explaining science to a broad audience, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all of science.
In pseudoscience, the analogy is taken to the point of absurdity, with sprawling articles (or blog posts) weighed down with laboured analogies rather than meaningful analyses.
Desiring simplicity but getting complexity
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of pseudoscientific theories is they hark for simplicity, but really just displace complexity.
A desire for naively simple science can produce bizarrely complex conclusions, like the moon landing hoax conspiracy theories. NASA/flickr
Ardents of the most simplistic pseudoscientific theories often project complexity onto the motives of professional scientists. How else can one explain scientists ignoring their brilliant theories? Claims of hoaxes and scams are commonplace. Although, to be honest, even I laughed out loud the first time I saw someone describe dark matter was a “modelling scam”.
Again, this isn’t limited to those who don’t believe in relativity. Simple misunderstandings about photography, lighting and perspective are the launch pad for moon landing conspiracy theories. Naively simple approaches to science can lead to complex conspiracy theories.
Some have suggested that pseudoscience is becoming more popular and the internet certainly aids the transmission of nonsense. But when I look at history I wonder if pseudoscience will decay.
In the 19th century, Samuel Rowbotham promoted Flat Earthism to large audiences via lectures that combined wit and fierce debating skills. Perhaps in the 19th century a spherical world orbiting a sun millions of kilometres away didn’t seem intuitive.
But today we can fly around the globe, navigate with GPS and Skype friends in different timezones. Today, a spherical Earth is far more intuitive than it once was, and Flat Earthism is the exemplar of absurd beliefs.
Could history repeat with relativity? Already GPS utilises general relativity to achieve its amazing precision. A key plot device in the movie Interstellar was relativistic time dilation.
Perhaps with time, a greater exposure to general relativity will make it more intuitive. And if this happens, a key motivation of crank theories will be diminished.
Will general relativity become more widely understood via popular media, such as the movie Interstellar?
Michael will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 4 and 5pm AEDT on Tuesday, November 24, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.
Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and yours truly have published a paper on what we call the “epidemiology of pseudoscience.” Here is the abstract, to give you an idea:
What makes beliefs thrive? We model the dissemination of bona fide science versus pseudoscience, making use of Dan Sperber’s epidemiological model of representations. Drawing on cognitive research on the roots of irrational beliefs and the institutional arrangement of science, we explain the dissemination of beliefs in terms of their salience to human cognition and their ability to adapt to specific cultural ecologies.
I love the Mind Body Spirit Festival – I really do. But I don’t love having to part with the (grrrr…..) twenty dollars just to get in. My partner tried her hand at The Secret or the power of positive thinking and attempted to get in for nothing, but the security guard shattered her confidence.
Luckily an essential oil called Confidence was readily available from the nearby Pro-Oils stand. This place made it all worthwhile. I happened to find a bottle of Clear Thinking – perfect for a Skeptic like me. I took one long, deep sniff, right to the bottom of my lungs. Somehow my world appeared better, sharper, colours were more vivid, my mind cleared, my thoughts were more focused, yes… I just inhaled a bunch of liquid herbs. You too can buy a 12ml bottle of Clear Thinking on Show special for…