Medical science versus pseudoscience

I first became aware of pseudoscientific nonsense when I was a chemistry student back in the 1970s.  I particularly remember many of my fellow students buying little plastic pyramids in the belief it gave them more ‘energy’ or made them smarter - particularly around exam time. A good friend of mine was an acupuncturist and was prone to pointing out meridians on the diagrams in my anatomy textbooks, almost as if the authors had forgotten to include them.  I admit I was tempted by some of this but I never really bought into any of it. Perhaps my memory of events has edited itself since that time but I recall that when I challenged the dubious beliefs of some of those around me, I was answered with “science doesn’t know everything” and “there’s more to the world than science you know.” There seemed to be a dividing line between the natural and the supernatural and you either believed in the latter or you didn’t.

Nowadays I find things rather different. Many pseudosciences are trying to hijack real science and I don’t just mean those shampoo advertisements that plagiarise technical-sounding language. Some pseudoscientists are actually proclaiming themselves as the true scientists whilst portraying those who disagree with them as blinkered and ignorant. In many ways my early experiences when science was just dismissed as ‘not knowing everything’ was a more honest approach compared to the current trend that attempts to turn truth on its head.

There are creation scientists, for example, who try to prove the Earth is only 6,000 years old because of their particular interpretation of the Bible.  They believe in the literal truth of Noah’s flood and even have something they call ‘flood geology’.  This type of religiosity is in principle no different, in my view, to many of the medicine based pseudosciences. And of all the medicine based pseudosciences homeopathy above all has made a supreme effort to claim the scientific ground for itself. To illustrate my point, there is a website that promotes homeopathy called, ironically, Science-based medicine that says it "wants to differentiate good medicine from bad medicine, promote good medicine and watch for pseudo-medicine". The contradiction is breathtaking as there’s not only no evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy, its very premise is inconsistent with just about every known law of science.  Another website uses the term ‘homeopathic microdoses’ which is personally a little gruelling as I have conducted a great deal of research into microdosing which has nothing whatsoever to do with homeopathy. Like creationism, if the evidence doesn’t support the homeopathy fantasy, then the inconvenient science just has to be reinvented.  It’s easy to dismiss this as the work of cranks but homeopathy is perniciously dangerous as it’s been promoted to treat very serious conditions such as cancer, diabetes and infectious disease such as scarlet fever. People have died because they turned to homeopathy rather than effective medicine. 

Science has given us much in the modern world, including real effective medicines and vaccines and perhaps it’s this success that the pseudoscientists wish to latch onto. The problem is however, that the very way much of the gibberish is sold in the false name of science exposes its own perversion; for saying something is scientific is not synonymous with saying it is correct.  Science is not so much about facts but about a method of getting to the facts. It starts with a hypothesis (or just a guess as Richard Feynman used to say). The hypothesis is then tested to destruction with the very intent of proving it wrong. Only if it stands up to this deep scrutiny does it become promoted to a theory, but even then it is open to modification and disproof.  Science is the toughest of masters.  It is indifferent to egos or careers and can shoot down someone’s pet theory without a second glance (I have personal experience and so I know). Those that just want to evoke the name of science in an effort to support their own point of view find this very hard to grasp. And then criticism of their fantasy often triggers personal derision in response. 

The majority of pseudoscientists have had no scientific training. They are like someone proclaiming themselves a world-class concert pianist without ever having had a piano lesson. They get onto the stage and then just bang away at the keys. They might attain a following of those who enjoy such avant-garde music but then they claim that their rendition of Mozart's piano sonata is far superior to that played by professional pianists who have spent years perfecting their art. This does not mean that science is the exclusive property of scientists - far from it. It just means that if you don’t understand something, you can’t just make something up to fill the gap.

Our understanding of nature is evolving and changing all the time and it’s pretty likely that the physics of20 years time will be saying different things to what it does today.  The discovery of dark matter and dark energy, for example, are likely to lead to a rewriting of the standard model of physics. The rigour and robustness of this science however, versus that of homeopathy research (if that’s not an oxymoron) are light years apart.  For homeopathy to be proven correct, it would be like suddenly discovering the sun does orbit a 6,000 year old Earth after all. Not absolutely impossible but the evidence to prove it would have to be extraordinary.  In the meantime there will be those that will blur the edge between science and pseudoscience to sow the seeds of confusion. I find this worrying, not because I feel that science itself is threatened in any way but because healthcare should not be based on buyer-beware.