net.wars: Question, explore, discover…action!
by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 11 February 2011
Here's a thing I bet you don't know: when 350 people simultaneously dump a small vialful of small sugar pills (also known as 31C homeopathic belladonna) into their mouths and bite down it makes a helluva CRUNCH.
It was a great stunt, but made a real point: homeopathic "remedies" rely on the notion that you can dilute a substance until there is nothing left of it and the stuff you dilute it with – sugar, water – will somehow "remember" the contact and relay the substance's effect. Which means that by the lights of anything we know about chemistry they have no effect beyond that of a placebo. Why, especially in this time of economic crisis, are we funding it on the National Health Service? Because, the (last) government said (PDF), efficacy is only one of many criteria, and…people like it. Equality of access to sugar pills, dontcha know.
The CRUNCH was at 10:23 on Sunday morning, the time (and the campaign name) chosen from Avogadro's number, the point of dilution past which no molecule of the original substance remains in the solution. The bottle says belladonna; the reality is sugar pills.
Why are people so willing to believe? A lot of the patterns of what Bruce Hood called "supernatural thinking" are visible in the very young children whose development he studies.
"Children are not blank slates," he said, echoing my first thought when I heard Richard Dawkins talk about children's indoctrination with religion. "Children believe things they think are plausible. That's the case for all of us." This is the downside of being human: "They already have misconceptions by the time they're 12 months old." Even a very young human brain is optimized for seeing patterns, particularly patterns that look like faces. By the time children are three or four, they're thinking about ghosts and spirits. By the time they're four or five, they already have the notion of mind/body dualism and essential energies.
The upshot, he said, is that as adults try to organize the world in their minds, even extremely rational people will find that under the right circumstances the misconceptions they had as very young children will emerge. "We don't throw bad ideas away." Stress, illness, and aging all can compromise reason.
One of Hood's examples involved a test in which people were asked to stab pictures of loved ones in the eyes. They know they're pictures; they know it won't hurt them…and yet they resist doing it. Even the most experienced, hardened skeptic can react like this: I suggested to James Randi once that he should mount a mass voodoo demonstration by asking skeptics around the world who had Randi dolls to take the three voodoo pins and simultaneously stab them in the heart. He got a very uncomfortable look on his face.
So: granted that supernatural (or magical) thinking is endemic, what do you do?
Well, for one thing, said Eugenie Scott, a former university professor and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, you bear in mind that, "What matters is what people hear, not what you say." Ultimately, she added, "You are trying to persuade people, so you have to think how to communicate."
It's true: you're not going to get very far making people feel that you think they're stupid. What skeptics can do, suggested Hayley Stevens as part of the ghost-hunting panel, is to suggest alternative explanations. There is no question that people have powerful experiences they can't explain; skepticism is not about denying the subjective reality of those experiences but about trying to understand what might have caused them.
For Stevens, the more helpful approach is to help people think about the experience rationally. Rather than just saying a particular report must be sleep paralysis, she suggested, explain what it is, explore how it might be affecting the person, and offer them different resources for understanding it. "Never say this is the answer; say this is what we think it could be," she said. Often, keeping a "ghost diary" can provide valuable clues or help a person work out a likely cause for themselves.
Although: that might move people on from thinking magically, but it doesn't necessarily draw them to science or that stuff many people seem to find scarier than ghosts, mathematics. For that, you want Colin Wright, who juggles, then explores how juggling works (and how to write it down) by using mathematics, and then uses mathematics to predict where there might be tricks jugglers are missing. The result goes something like this. With a lot more fun.
But going back to the big CRUNCH. As Steven Novella, who spoke about neurology, wrote afterwards, it was a stunt, not a scientific experiment. Even so, it made a serious point: you can down a randomly purchased bunch of these things without harm because they have no effect whatsoever. As the late journalist John Diamond wrote, there's no such thing as alternative medicine; there is just medicine that works and medicine that doesn't. CRUNCH.
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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).
net.wars: Question, explore, discover…action!