Pseudoscience – Why Are We So Easily Fooled?

Jamie Hakham

From Astrology to Homeopathy, people believe a wide variety of things that have no basis in any concrete science. With the world currently in a furore over ‘fake news’, we thought we’d take an analytical eye over why people believe in bad facts and faulty logic.

Pseudoscience takes many forms, and affects practically every group of people, from the poorly educated all the way up to Nobel Laureates. Take Francis Crick’s belief in directed panspermia (remember the beginning of Prometheus, where the Engineer ‘seeds’ Earth? That.), or Luc Montagnier’s ‘experiments’ in homeopathy with DNA. Clearly, one’s scientific literacy might not have much to do with a belief in pseudoscience.

2000px-Science-symbol-2.svg.png

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We’re going to look at one strand of pseudoscience, and tease out the different ways its proponents make it look appealing, and the different ways they use to convince themselves of it. Let’s take a look at Homeopathy, one of the more enduring pieces of unsubstantiated drivel to have emerged as pseudoscience, in a very long time.

Quickly though, let’s do the one thing that pseudoscience aficionados rarely do well; research: first preached in 1796 by one Samuel Hahnemann, with the premise that ‘like cures like’. His ideas were based on Paracelsus’s work in the 16th century, and before that possibly even Hippocrates around 400BCE. Basically, what Samuel postulated was the law of similars; where a thing that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure those same symptoms in sick people. So, if you have a cold, you can cure it by taking something that would also give you a runny nose, watering eyes and a sore throat – like a chili pepper.

The other core tenet of Homeopathy is ‘dynamisation’, or serial dilution. Practitioners hold that the more diluted a substance is, the more powerful it becomes. Usually these dilutions are presented at ‘30C’, or 1060 times dilution. For reference, the theoretically maximum possible dilution of anything is one molecule of substance against the entire universe; or 40C. Moreover, in 1L of water, the lowest amount of detectable substance is about 12C. Homeopathic treatments can go up to 200C.

“But wait! You just said -”

We know.

It’s worth pointing out that there isn’t a single well-substantiated piece of evidence even suggesting that homeopathy is anything more than a sham. So, why do people believe in it? We’re going to break down these reasons into three main camps, but they aren’t exclusive groups; people who believe in one camp may very well believe in the others.

The first, and a major one, relies on an appeal to nature. This is the belief that because a substance is naturally derived, like many homeopathic substances, it is better for the human body than something artificial or man-made –  like practically all conventional forms of medicine. Following this faulty logic then, while anti-venoms are almost always particularly artificial and therefore bad, cobras are entirely natural, and should be hugged at all times! This is a depressingly common tactic, ranging outside of ‘traditional’ pseudoscience – ever seen a food packet proudly proclaiming that it’s ‘all-natural’, instead of telling you it’s good, or otherwise why it’s better than its competitors?

Secondly, word of mouth & the placebo effect plays a big role in all of this. For example; “I took this homeopathic remedy, and it cured my flu! Amazing!”. As humans, we instinctively rank personal stories highly when it comes to making our own decisions. It’s a useful trait; it stops us making mistakes other people do. But, as in this example, we can’t make a properly reasoned, informed judgement from a personal story. That’s the reason why eye-witness testimony isn’t considered ultra-reliable evidence any more. That’s why it’s so important that we remember that just because A happened, and then B happened, it doesn’t mean that A caused B to happen. This is almost certainly happening here. Doctors’ recommendations for mild flu are usually just fluid and rest. In most of us it clears up on its own. Taking your homeopathic remedy might appear to work, because your body is already on the way to clearing the infection naturally. Correlation, not causation.

The third, and perhaps the most interesting, are the conspiracists; those who believe that ‘Big Pharma’ are out to silence or otherwise denigrate homeopathy on the grounds of relentless capitalism. In this, they are no different from the other ‘Big Pharma’ that works on GMOs, or the ‘Big Oil’ that quashes solar development, or ‘Big Energy’ which ignores cold fusion. Here, they set themselves up as the underdog, another position we as individuals overwhelmingly take the side of. They set themselves as David against Goliath, fighting the good and righteous fight. For those already sceptical of big business, this is an attractive proposition. It’s related to a distrust of authority, whether that’s distrusting the ‘established science’ or the veracity of official statements. It’s not limited to pseudoscience of course. It’s a core tenet of all conspiracy, and makes about as much sense there as it does in our examples. That is to say, none.

Add in an unhealthy amount of fearmongering (Vaccines cause autism, fluoride makes you stupid, GMO’s will destroy everything), the ability to selectively hear the facts you want to hear, and you have the basis of practically all pseudoscience, from biological (Antivaxxers, Neopanspermia, AIDS denialism, etc.) to physical (false moon landings, climate change denialism, flat earthiers), and beyond into the social sciences.

Now that we’ve given you all the facts, we’ll bet you’re wondering how to fix it; how to change these hearts and minds – how to show them the light. We’d like to say that we can do it through improving education, by engaging in honest debate and discussion and by opening access to science for the layperson. But, until more people make make science more accessible, all we can do is be vigilant. Try to make sure we’re not spreading pseudoscience to people who haven’t heard it yet – to catch those fence-sitters before they make the leap to the wrong side.

Should Vaccination Be Compulsory?

Jamie Hakham

This is a discussion about the how vaccination should occur, rather than the concept of it. That is, we’re not going to be discussing autism, mercury poisoning, or any other discredited, unscientific, or just plain wrong arguments so-called anti-vaxxers use when dismissing vaccines. Got that? Good!

Let’s instead boil this argument down into its simplest form. Should my choice, as the individual, to not vaccinate my child, be considered more important than the government’s advisement to the contrary? Or, to put that into plain English: is personal choice more important than common welfare? In case you should run out of topics to discuss on Christmas day, we’re going to give a brief overview of both sides of the vaccine argument, and some links to further reading. Won’t that be fun!

Arguments for

There are two main arguments here: a scientific one, and a legal one:

First off, there are always going to be people who, for whatever medical reason, can’t be vaccinated. This is usually due to advanced age, congenital illness, or some other medical condition – but also includes those who are also too young to have received their vaccines yet. These people rely on what is known as ‘Herd Immunity’. This refers to a state where an overwhelming majority of people (around 95%) are vaccinated against a disease. This means that the disease can’t travel through the population to reach those who aren’t protected against it.

vacc

The benefits of herd immunity (Image Credit: wikimedia)

Therefore, if vaccination isn’t compulsory, it’s nigh-on impossible to make sure that these vulnerable members of society are protected by the rest – think back to the recent outbreaks of measles in the US and UK that claimed the lives of people who were unable to be vaccinated due to health reasons.

Secondly, and here it’s going to get a bit legal-ese, we have to deal with what’s known as personal autonomy, and how that relates to parental consent. That is, is it right for you to refuse vaccination for yourself, but also for your children? Refusing vaccination for yourself is your personal choice – you become a ‘fringe rider’ of society’s healthcare, benefiting from it without participating. While ethically dubious, it’s well within your rights over your body.

However, if the question concerns your child, it all gets a little bit more complex. That’s because your kid can’t legally consent to anything – it’s not their choice. Therefore, you, as the parent, are legally capable of consenting for them in matters like vaccination. But, this child also has the right to a healthy life, up to and including preventative measures – like vaccination. If your personal views mean that your child doesn’t receive such preventative measures, it conflicts with that right. Therefore, if vaccination isn’t compulsory, how can society be sure that the rights of that child are upheld?

Arguments against

 There’s a couple of reasons here, and they’re both relatively practical:

Firstly, this discussion does not claim that vaccination is a bad thing. Rather, compulsory vaccination has been shown, counterintuitively, to be less effective at increasing vaccination coverage, due to exemptions, as in the US, or due to it’s simple unenforceability, as in Italy. It’s suggested that this was because people are more likely to do something if they are empowered to do it, rather than forced. And, with trust in government at all-time lows, compulsory vaccination is likely to lead to even greater levels of truancy.

A better system is the one currently in use in the UK, where vaccination is free, and strongly recommended. The result is a vaccine coverage of roughly 94%, which is directly comparable to the US for the same vaccines, for significantly less bureaucratic effort.

Secondly, studies have shown time and time again that people are poor assessors of risk, and that most opposition of vaccines is linked to a poor understanding of the facts and risks involved. Many people misunderstand the chemistry, biology of vaccines, show a lack of appreciation for the statistics involved, or have issues outside of the science of vaccines. Forcing these people to do something they don’t understand is a sure-fire way to make martyrs of them, gaining them publicity and popularity. For example, Jenny Mccarthy, a now well known anti-vaxxer, who has become one of the louder voices linking vaccination with autism.

Surely, as modern society, we should focus on educating those less knowledgeable, in order to allow them to appreciate their actions. When Italy moved from a compulsory to a more liberalised system, they found that simply providing and disseminating correct information was hugely important in increasing vaccine uptake. And furthermore, increasing scientific literacy should be a general goal for all of us, and this is a perfect ground to educate those who need it.

Summary

Vaccination is, in the scientific consensus, an ethical imperative. It’s our first line of defence against some of the worst diseases in the world. In almost every case the risk of side effects is significantly lower than the risks posed by the disease vaccinated against. Ethically, it is imperative that every single eligible individual is vaccinated, for the good of the whole community.

In practice, however, forcing the thing seems to have unwanted negatives, either because people don’t understand the science, or are mistrustful of its source. In this modern age of information, however, is it a government’s prerogative to supply the facts, or should people come to conclusions on their own?

Food for thought

Jacobsen vs Massachusetts: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1449224/

CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/multiple-vaccines-immunity.html

Opticon: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/opticon1826/archive/issue8/articles/Article_Biomed_Sc_-_Fine-Goulden__Vaccination_Publish.pdf

BMJ: http://www.bmj.com/press-releases/2012/05/14/should-childhood-vaccination-be-mandatory

Economist: http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2015/02/archives

Herd Immunity: http://www.metronews.ca/views/2015/02/10/why-vaccines-for-kids-should-be-mandatory.html

Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertpearl/2015/02/05/measles-vaccination-must-be-mandatory/#89b1acf7d987

NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/03/23/making-vaccination-mandatory-for-all-children/in-britain-vaccinate-with-persuasion-not-coercion

Cultural Perspectives: http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/cultural-perspectives-vaccination