Scepticism and the Democratisation of Science

Those of us who inhabit the great ivory towers of academia sometimes forget that there is a grassroots passion for science outside the walls of our venerable institutions. I recently attended a talk organised by Skeptics in the Pub, Coventry. It was an encouraging experience, with some interesting lessons.

A speaker called Michael Marshall (no relation) is currently touring various “Skeptics in the Pub” venues. He has an unusual job description, since he is employed as a full-time sceptic by the Good Thinking Society. Backed up with a PowerPoint presentation, he gave an amusing and stimulating pitch – somewhere in the territory between Dave Gorman and Ben Goldacre.

An assortment of self-proclaimed psychics was the first subject of the talk. At first glance they seemed risibly easy targets: but it transpired that some are wealthy and famous; some even inveigle their way into families affected by tragedies such as missing children.[1] Perhaps most unsettling was that at least one had successfully sued The Daily Mail for claiming that she might be receiving instructions through an earpiece while on stage.[2] The speaker was careful not to repeat the allegation: a comment on our nation’s libel laws.

Next up was a beautifully designed and executed ‘n of 1 crossover trial’ of the effects of the Shuzi bracelet on penalty kicking performance.[3] For £59 this device claims to improve sporting prowess using “Nano Vibrational Technology” to “separate your blood cells and enhances brain cognitive abilities”.[4] I hardly need tell you the results, but the device is no longer marketed in the UK.

The final act was the story of the worldwide mass homeopathy overdose organised for 10:23am on 6 February 2011. This dramatically demonstrated that homeopathic remedies, generally diluted so much as to contain no active ingredient, can have no therapeutic effect beyond that of a placebo. The timing of the event, 6/02 at 10:23, obliged the media to explain Avogadro’s number.[5]

Are there any lessons for health care in this? The appetite for knowledge (epistemic greed) is greater than our capacity to produce it, so there is a ready market for pseudo-knowledge. The whole purpose of the scientific method and scepticism is to challenge our innate credulity. The use of the media to raise awareness was masterful. Only one of the examples in the talk is funded by the NHS, so that is progress of a sort. But most importantly, the sceptics and their fellow travellers remind us that the scientific method is not the preserve of a professional elite, it is for anyone to use.[6] The corollary is that belief in the efficacy of water imbued with quasi-spiritual properties (holy water) is not the monopoly of non-professionals.[7]

— Tom Marshall, Deputy Director CLAHRC WM, Prevention and Detection of Diseases

References:

  1. Power J. Joe Power, the man who sees dead people – Police investigations. 2013. [Online]
  2. BBC News UK. Daily Mail payout to Sally Morgan over psychic ‘scam’ article. BBC News [Online]. 2013-06-20.
  3. Marshall M. Is the Shuzi sport band a brilliant technology or a waste of money? The Guardian [Online]. 2012-09-04.
  4. Shuzi. Official Shuzi Website. [Online]. 2013.
  5. The 10:23 Campaign. The 10:23 Challenge 2011. [Online]. 2014.
  6. The Merseyside Skeptics Society. The Merseyside Skeptics Society. [Online]. 2014.
  7. Perry R, Watson LK, Terry R, Onakpoya I, Ernst E. British general practitioners’ attitudes towards and usage of homeopathy: a systematic review of surveys. Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies. 2013; 18(2), 51-63.
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One thought on “Scepticism and the Democratisation of Science”

  1. The general public are more likely to be able to participate in science and feel able to critically appraise it, if they feel able to understand it. So, if we truly want to empower people in science, maybe we should make a start by using language that more people are likely to understand.

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