The lowest common denominator of pseudoscience and politics

I once attended a lecture by the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees at the University of Lincoln where he said that studying the cosmos was not that complicated. Real complexity lays in molecular biology, with its almost infinite number of ways all the individual components can interact.

The complexity of our biology and the heterogeneity of our genetics is why side effects of pharmaceuticals are unavoidable. The concept of side-effect-free drugs is utopian and therefore does not exist. The truth is however, many people do not like complexity, they like simplicity. It’s why, to some extent, they turn to alternative medicine because reducing cholesterol by realigning the chakras seems far more straightforward than taking a 3-hydroxy-3-methyl-glutaryl-coenzyme-A reductase antagonist. Alternative medicine also offers side-effect-free therapy and so suddenly utopia seems it might be real after all.

The ethical conduct of the pharmaceutical business is also far from utopian but that is because it operates within the complexity of democratic capitalism. Practitioners of alternative medicine however, like to simplify this as much as they simplify the pharmacology. It’s much easier to think of big-Pharma as just evil than worry about all the interactions that exist between business, governments, financiers, patients or the public. 

Psychologists will tell you that we have a tendency to mentally reduce complexity to the lowest common denominator because we can make decisions that way with a lot less effort than if we have to think too deeply.  In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about system-1 and system-2 in this respect. System-1 is when the brain says, “shadow - must be a tiger - run”, while system-2 says, “perhaps I can use fire to illuminate the shadows and it might also keep tigers away but statistically tigers are quite rare and so fire might be better for cooking."

Politics and society are also two highly complex subjects that are often reduced to the lowest common denominator of system-1 thinking. In my youth, all the problems of society were blamed on “the blacks”, then it was the Asians and now it’s East Europeans. Same lowest common denominator, different scapegoat. 

If you think it’s too much of a leap to go from alternative medicine to immigration then consider what the leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, said in a TV debate about the EU referendum. In response to a question about the role of the pharmaceutical industry in Europe he said, “I see the way they [Pharma] are very good at putting out of business people who produce alternative medicines.”

Nigel Farage not only sees benefit in simplistic alternative medicine over the much more complicated pharmacology of real drugs, his Brexit campaign also sees EU immigration as the cause of all Britain's problems. I will say one thing about Nigel Farage, his application of the lowest common denominator is consistent.

Three hundred and fifty years ago a new philosophy swept across the European continent. Today we call it The Enlightenment and it sparked the beginnings of democracy, rationality and intellectualism. But democracy, rationality and intellectualism are not a menu from which to pick and choose, they all go together. Loose our rationality or forget our intellectualism and democracy will surely follow.