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02/08/2014

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Open Space: Could snake oil fund cancer research?

Everyone would win, proclaims Mark Stevenson

The geeks are on the march with increasingly vocal and co-ordinated calls for an end to pseudo-science.

Indeed there is now fine cottage industry in vitriolic disdain aimed at those who tout homeopathy, crystal healing, vaccine denial (and the rest), admirably spearheaded by the likes of Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Robin Ince over here, Penn & Teller and James Randi in the US and Sanal Edamaruku in India, who famously challenged holy man Pandit Surender Sharma to prove the claim that he could kill another human being using only mystical powers. Edamaruku offered himself up as a willing guinea pig on live TV where Sharma spectacularly (and unsurprisingly) failed to kill his rationalist nemesis. Likewise politicians who indulge in what Mark Henderson pithily calls ‘evidence abuse’ in his forthcoming book Geek Manifesto should, it is argued, be subject to a public drubbing.

All irrational

Irrationalism though is very human, and the nearest place to see someone who cherry picks evidence and is ruled more often by emotion than reason is in the mirror. Even the most outwardly ‘rational’ of us harbours a festering pit of assumption, un-evidenced opinion and prejudice. Our most iconic scientists are not immune as Michael Brooks’ recent Free Radicals brilliantly documents. On a personal note I’ve seen more than a few scientists rendered about as rational as Charlie Sheen by alcohol, love disasters or a perceived snub by a colleague.

This then is where science and critical thinking skills come in – a framework of checks and balances, putting some filters around our bug-ridden brains so that what eventually dribbles out is something approaching the truth. And let’s be honest, science has been astonishingly successful at curbing our in-built nuttiness. One can only admire how this cognitive safety harness has continually come up trumps for its nutty creators.

But is there a middle ground to be found in the snake-oil wars? One that admits we all choose which irrationalities we’ll indulge in (and allows us to practise them) while admitting they may be harmful?

Everyone’s a winner

Here’s a suggestion. I call it the ‘pseudo science and quakery emissions trading scheme’. It works in a very similar fashion to carbon trading where a cost is put on your CO2 emissions. You can continue to emit CO2, but there is a financial consequence. Why not then set up a similar scheme for emissions of pseudo-science and snake oil?

So, as a homeopath you can continue pushing your placebos, but if you claim them to be anything more you will be sent a bill at the end of each quarter calculated against a number of evidence-abusing criteria, the size of your customer base, how many times you appropriate sayings from eastern philosophy without understanding them much, your client-facing hours and how many pictures of flowers you have on your website. The money would then be given to, say, cancer research or some similar medical research charity.

Everyone wins. Quacks can carry on trading but they at least know there is now an actual financial cost to peddling nonsense (a tax that would have to be itemised on any client’s bill). Some rationalists might even begin to see practising quacks as good thing – generating a much-needed extra revenue stream for genuine medical research. And homeopaths, faith healers and crystal wizards could legitimately claim that they were now doing something to fight cancer.

And why not fundraisers where rationalists actively go to homeopaths and ask to have their intellects abused? ‘Dilute it some more!’ they might cry… knowing that for every moment the charade continues, extra pennies go towards the rationalist cause.

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Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson is writer, businessman, comedian and founder of the League of Pragmatic Optimists. His first book An Optimist’s Tour of the Future (Profile Books) is out now. www.anoptimiststourofthefuture.com www.leagueofpragmaticoptimists.com.
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