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Why are people who reject conventional science so in love with its trappings?

The bizarre unrequited love affair between bad science and the real thing

On 18 January, 1803, George Foster was hanged for the murder of his wife and child, whom he had drowned in Paddington Canal. He “died easily,” according to The Newgate Calendar, but then his body was handed over to Professor Giovanni Aldini, an Italian physicist and nephew of Luigi Galvani, the bioelectrical pioneer whose name lives on in phrases like “galvanic response.”

Aldini and a number of “professional gentlemen” retired with the corpse to a nearby house, where the Professor applied electricity to it. “On the first application of the process to the face,” records the Calendar, “the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.”

To say this came as a shock to those present is something of an understatement. “Some of the uninformed bystanders thought that the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.” One of the gentlemen present, a surgeon named Mr. Pass, went home and promptly died of fright. The experiment and others like it captured the imaginations of intellectuals of the age though. They inspired a young Mary Shelley, and found their way into the pages of Frankenstein, perhaps the first science fiction novel.

Two centuries ago, electricity was the quantum physics of its age, a mysterious and poorly understood force that was the subject of bizarre and grotesque experiments to understand its relation to life. Ideas about energy and life force appear again and again in pseudoscience, so it’s not surprising that electromagnetism formed the basis for all kinds of quackery, from galvanic resurrection to antigravity via radionics, a branch of nonsense that seeks to cure illness with radio waves. The famous tin foil hat, the bulletproof vest of the quack world, was invented to protect the brain of its wearer from the force.

Quantum: the new woo

Since the 1970s, quantum has supplanted electromagnetism as the woo du jour. Deepak Chopra, America’s most infamous guru (although he hates the term) has established himself as king of quantum mysticism. His theories can seem long, confusing and impenetrable at first, but they almost always end up following the South Park “profit” meme – Step one, step two, ????, PROFIT! – where “????” is replaced with “quantum”.

Thus we learn that meditation can alter a person’s state of mind, causing [something quantum] which can heal AIDS; or that consciously raising your ‘awareness’ removes negative energy which does [something quantum] that means you can live for 100 years or more. These aren’t new ideas of course, but standard New Age tropes dressed up in fancy terms, like applying lipstick to a pig and then asking that pig to do brain surgery.

That terminology can be powerful, too. “To a physicist,” physicist Chad Orzel complained, “Chopra’s babble about ‘energy fields’ and ‘congealing quantum soup’ presents as utter gibberish, but he drops enough names and technical terms to sound superficially like somebody with real knowledge of physics, making it really hard for those of us who really know how the universe works to convince non-scientists that he doesn’t.”

Quantum physics is the perfect manure in which to plant the seeds of nonsense. It describes a world that is completely beyond normal human experience, where the laws of physics we rely on are turned upside-down, where particles can both be and not be in a particular position, and where we routinely encounter phenomena that even hardened physicists call "spooky".

In that respect, it’s not that different from electricity. Our brains are full of the stuff after all, and we have very little understanding of the role that the sophisticated electrochemical circuitry in our brains plays in consciousness. In the absence of answers, it’s not entirely crazy to believe that electricity could in some way act as a ‘life force’ or that electromagnetic fields could be the basis of consciousness. At least one researcher I know believes it entirely plausible that his iPhone might be in some way ‘aware’.

Those who exploit these holes in our understanding have long been the bane of scientific rationalism. Tobacco companies pursued a strategy of doubt manufacturing to persuade the public a debate existed when, in fact, it did not; a similar strategy was used against climate change as well. The fact that science is by definition a game of probability rather than certain makes it easier for charlatans – if evolution is “just a theory”, and “we don’t know everything” then it becomes easier to crowbar new fads and fancies into the public mind.

Not even a conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theorists are adept at this. Almost all pseudoscience ultimately boils down to some kind a conspiracy theory – how else to explain the establishment’s refusal to allow the idea to succeed? Thus climate scientists are engaged in a Warmist conspiracy to god-knows what end, energy companies are engaged in a conspiracy to deny the existence of free energy, the pharmaceutical industry is suppressing homeopathy and a cure for cancer, and so on.

The term “conspiracy theorist” has always been a bit of a misnomer. A theory, broadly-speaking, is an attempt to explain a set of known facts in a coherent and testable way. Conspiracists work with the gaps between facts, and so just as mysterious or confusing events like 9/11 or the disappearance of Flight MH370 prove fertile ground for conspiracism, so the fringes of science tend to provide the best basis for quackery.

Of course bullshit often goes hand-in-hand with the inappropriate use of concepts in many walks of life – business, for example, or the works of Malcolm Gladwell. What makes pseudoscience so interesting is its slavish devotion to real science, which goes far beyond the mere appropriation of term. Adam Savage once exclaimed, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” Quacks also reject your universities, conferences and peer-reviewed journals and substitute their own.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to visit Abha Light in Nairobi. Not a tribute to a Swedish pop group, but a homeopathy institution run by a Yogic nun named Didi Ananda Ruchira.

In the late 90s, an American woman named Barbara Lynn gained a diploma from the British Institute of Homeopathy, became a Yogic Nun, and emigrated to Nairobi where she set up a homeopathic clinic under her new name. At the time of my visit I found a thriving clinic, research station and college dedicated to teaching homeopathy and spreading it across the continent. Her organisation, Abha Light, had spawned health centres and mobile clinics across Kenya; even a major “laboratory”.

What fascinated me, beyond the scale of her success, was the extent to which she set about recreating something that resembled modern medical practice. You might expect people who reject science to reject the whole culture of science too, but she issued diplomas to her students, accredited by an organisation linked to the University of Middlesex. She talked of laboratories and research and trials. In almost every respect bar the most important one, her organisation was a typical science-based research clinic.

This was replicated by others operating in the region. Jeremy Sherr, who drew the ire of skeptics for suggesting that HIV might be cured by homeopathy, had established similar operations in neighbouring Tanzania. Sherr, renowned in his field, sought to conduct trials using local hospitals to provide HIV testing, published research articles in homeopathy journals, wrote textbooks and attended conferences around the world to describe his work.

When I visited Sherr, it was clear that his ambitions extended far beyond homeopathy. At his base near Kilimanjaro he had established a mini aid empire in collaboration with a local NGO that sought to tackle such diverse issues as domestic violence, the plight of AIDS widows, issues around HIV stigma and testing, and rural development. He had set up a local farming cooperative, and even a small theatre group.

Evidence? What evidence?

The strange relationship between homeopaths and evidence came to a head in 2009, when the British Homeopathic Association gave evidence to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee. The BHA posted lists of studies and metastudies that they claimed provided scientific evidence for the effectiveness of their treatments, only for the papers to fall apart on closer inspection as it emerged that in many cases they were substandard, from dubious sources, quote-mined, or all of the above. I asked Jean-Pierre Boissel, a scientist prominently cited by the BHA, whether he agreed with their interpretation of his work: “Definitively, no!” was his terse response.

That quacks cite dodgy evidence is hardly surprising, but what’s odd is that they cite peer-reviewed science at all when they reject the processes and findings of conventional science at every opportunity. Perhaps the strangest example of this is the Answers Research Journal, a creationist publication whose basic premise is that the answers to anything can be found in one chapter of the Bible.

You might think I’m about to post a list of crazy-sounding articles from the journal so we can take the piss out of them. Well let’s try. The most recent study published is called Documented Anomaly in Recent Versions of the BLASTN Algorithm and a Complete Reanalysis of Chimpanzee and Human Genome-Wide DNA Similarity Using Nucmer and LASTZ. The one before that is A Young-Earth Creation Human Mitochondrial DNA ‘Clock’: Whole Mitochondrial Genome Mutation Rate Confirms D-Loop Results.

Yep, not laughing now are we. These aren’t the disjointed ramblings of loopy fundies but serious research efforts by dedicated amateurs, along the lines of the more data-driven climate sceptics. The first article claims to have found a bug in computer algorithms used to compare genome sequences, with the result that the author believes chimp DNA is only about an 88 per cent match to that of humans, rather than the 98 per cent commonly quoted. The second has something to do with mutation rates and mitochondrial clocks and - to quite literally cut a long story short – suggests that human evolution couldn’t have taken more than about six thousand years.

This of course falls into the category of “I don’t know what you just said, but I do know bollocks when I see it.” To try and debunk this stuff would take a solid afternoon, and result in the kind of tedious detailed arguments on the Internet that could easily stretch for another six thousand years of creation, if the Lord doesn’t lose patience with us first. And so it sits there, building up largely unchallenged, occasionally sucking in an unsuspecting Googler.

Why are the people who reject science such big fans of it? Why are they so intent on recreating the tools, methods, institutions and traditions of science? Why call yourself a doctor if you reject modern medicine? Why publish journal articles if you reject the idea of randomized controlled trials? Why attempt to run your own equivalent trials? Why reject evolution and then devote yourself to the study of genetics?

Western saviours

Part of the answer may be the cover that such institutions provide. There is a long history of quacks and charlatans cloaking themselves in the paraphernalia of respectable institutions to provide cover for their activities. In recent times, the self-styled “Archbishop” Jim Humble created a church to protect his ‘Miracle Mineral Solution’, a treatment implicated in at least one death that involves treating people with an industrial cleaning chemical. His reasoning was set out in blunt terms in a newsletter to his followers:

"Look at the Catholics. Their priests have been molesting women and children for centuries and the governments have not been able to stop it. If handled properly a church can protect us from vaccinations that we don't want, from forced insurance, and from many things that a government might want to use to oppress us."

The ironically-named Humble is rather more outspoken than many quacks, but while others aren’t quite so blatant about it there’s a clear pattern of people using the trappings of institutional science and medicine to achieve goals that might otherwise be out of their reach.

When I talked to African science journalists at a workshop in Kenya a couple of years ago, a key challenge they faced was that of Western “saviours” coming over with seemingly-impressive qualifications, setting up practice in areas with little local oversight or regulation. To be blunt, it’s easy in many parts of the world for a white man in a suit with a university certificate to be taken at face value, even if the certificate is a diploma in homeopathy.

"Deep down, a lot of pseudoscientists want to be scientists"

It would be easy to characterise quacks as fraudsters, and many are quick to do so. The more that I’ve investigated them over the years, however, the more I’ve watched them, studied them and spent time talking to them, the more I’ve come to feel that there’s something more at play. Many of them show a genuine love of science and scientific inquiry, and a firm conviction that they really are doing good work. Deep down, a lot of pseudoscientists want to be scientists.

The overwhelming impression I got from visiting Lynn and Sherr in East Africa was that these were highly motivated, professional people who in another life perhaps could have been conventional medical doctors, working for someone like MSF. Somehow life had put them on a different trajectory, but through stupendous effort and perseverance they’d carved out their own, functionally similar niche, a niche that cast them in the role of the expert savior and scientific explorer.

Science has come a long way since those professional gentlemen crowded into a small London townhouse to watch a twitching corpse, and the truth is that for all the talk of citizen science, it’s no longer a game for amateurs. Just as our desire for exploration has been squashed in an age of atlases and Google Earth, so the professionalization of science and the rapid advances made in the last few decades have closed of outlets for people’s curiosity.

It’s not surprising that there are people who rebel against establishment knowledge, who want to find their own cures and treatments and solve their own puzzles their way. There is no shortage of great challenges to solve, and so for the ambitious quack the world can still be a vast playground, where they can play doctors and nurses not with friends or dolls but with the lives of real people in need.

This article was originally published in Little Atoms magazine. Pick up your copy here

Martin Robbins is a writer and talker at the messy border of science and culture. He is a columnist at VICE, and blogs for The Guardian and the New Statesman.