Friday, March 28, 2014

No, I won't just let it go

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in / and stops my mind from wandering / where it will go - Lennon/McCartney
If your job is repairing leaky roofs, you would not tolerate people who made a habit of attacking them with pick axes.

As I understand it, the human brain has a natural tendency to be leaky, letting in all sorts of nonsense. The methods we've developed over the past several hundred years of scientific investigation are the only ones proven to effectively separate the reasonable from the bunkum and allow us to patch the holes and keep the nonsense out.

In my role as a physics teacher, I have the opportunity to demonstrate that you can explore everyday phenomena through observation and analysis and discover the rules by which the universe operates. Things don't fall down because I tell you they do; instead, our experience demonstrates that they fall and our analysis tells us how they will accelerate. Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation is not important because it came from Newton, but because anybody can derive it given sufficient data and math skills, and because we can make reliable predictions about the motion of objects from it.

Pseudoscience, on the other hand, relies on unverified and unfalsifiable claims that go against everything we know about the world. Homeopathy relies on water molecules remembering where they've been (which they don't). Acupuncture relies on the flow of Qi (which is not detectable) through meridians (which have not been found). Energy bracelets release negative ions (they don't) that align your body's natural energy field (which doesn't exist). When tested in properly designed scientific studies, we find that these and other fantastic claims perform no better than placebo - and the better designed the study, the smaller any beneficial effect.
Some simple methods to identify questionable claims. 

But what's the harm? So what if you enjoy a palm reading or your daily gargle of coconut oil? Who cares if your uncle feels his power bracelet improves his golf game? What does it matter if your Facebook friends spend their weekends tracking Sasquatch in the woods of Vancouver? Why should it matter if Mayim Bialik refuses to vaccinate her kids?

There is financial harm. The incredible waste of money on sham treatments is vast and disturbing. Power Balance made enough in their scam to (temporarily) sponsor the LA Kings NBA arena. Purveyors of scam treatments cleverly advise that it may take more than one treatment or will recommend regular preventative treatments to maximize the money they can collect from their victims. Dowsers in California are currently collecting hundreds of dollars per visit to supposedly locate water for drought-stricken farmers.  And not to make a slippery slope argument, but the public acceptance of each pseudoscientific product encourages the creation of more scams.

There is medical harm. When people substitute sham treatments for proven ones, they fail to get the medical attention they need. Preventable diseases are on the rise due to unscientific fear of vaccines. And people are given false hope by sham practitioners. At the same time, beneficial products, such as Vitamin A fortified Golden Rice are delayed or blocked due to unscientific thinking.

But equally troubling is the long term intellectual harm that presents "magic" as a viable alternative to scientific understanding, threatening to roll back the progress we've made. In order to accept pseudoscience, you must reject science. Every false claim that is accepted without justification is another pick-axe hole in the roof that undoes the work that I dedicate every day to accomplish.

No comments:

Post a Comment