When Skepticism Goes Too Far

We can all agree that Scientology is the root of all bullshit.

Crispian Jago is out to rid the world of “unevidenced beliefs.” He displays these in a Venn diagram, which was picked up by Boing Boing. In Jago’s view, concepts as diverse as angels, reiki, and ouija boards are all shams perpetrated on a gullible public, “completely bereft of any form of scientific credibility.”

Well, hold that thought. The New York Times reports that “a new study of acupuncture — the most rigorous and detailed analysis of the treatment to date — found that it can ease migraines and arthritis and other forms of chronic pain.” It used data from 18,000 patients. I would call that scientific credibility for a practice classified under “quackery bollocks” in Jago’s diagram.

To be sure, many of the “bollocks” Jago references are concepts rooted in belief, not proof. Does that mean they are useless, or worse, harmful to society? There are indeed many snake-oil salespeople out there, getting rich off suckers who believe what they hear. It is a tragedy that schools in our society would even consider teaching “intelligent design” alongside evolution. While they might otherwise be harmless, ayurvedic medicines often contain dangerous amounts of heavy metals.

But even if a treatment doesn’t have a medically-proven benefit, is it worthless? If you haven’t yet, you should watch this 3-minute video on placebos right now:

If a placebo can be as effective as real medicine—if “our minds create the medicine”—who are we to say that an elaborately-packaged placebo isn’t a valuable treatment? And if certain placebos work for certain cultures—qi in China, shiatsu in Japan—must we defile these cherished institutions, irrespective of their cultural value?

And it isn’t just slander of sugar pills that should concern us. In the case of acupuncture, Jago called it nonsense when the science hadn’t really been done. What other treatments is he deriding without adequate proof? I suspect that yoga and meditation might have made his diagram just a few years ago, before rigorous studies indicated their benefit.

At the very least, responsible thinkers should tolerate practices that help society, regardless of their proven effectiveness. Beyond that, an openness to things science doesn’t yet understand will hasten that understanding instead of hindering it. Closed-mindedness is the real “bollocks.”

~ by Grant on March 30, 2013.

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