Belief in God, pseudoscience intimately related
Whether people believe in invisible spirits or questionable pseudoscience, they’re tickling the same primitive spot in their brains that makes human beings susceptible to the miraculous over the probable.
Indeed, we are a species that far too often tends to instinctively believe in least-likely hypotheses. It is the same tendency that makes us immediately sense a dangerous stranger in the shadows when things go bump in the night. Usually, of course, it’s just wind jostling the trees outside, or perhaps the heat pump kicking in. It’s the same somewhat paranoid instinct that leads us to sense omnipotent divinities in an empty sky.
This tendency to arbitrarily exaggerate the potency and efficacy of various debatable claims in the real world, particularly in the health-care field, is, well, unhealthy, according to Lisa Pryor, a new medical doctor who expressed her concerns in a recent article in The New York Times: “How to Counter the Circus of Pseudoscience.”
While recently slogging through the internet morass of “alternate-health practitioners, wellness bloggers, whole-food chefs and Gwyneth Paltrow,” Pryor wrote, she wondered, ironically, whether she might after decades develop “the same tone of authority of the average naturopath.” Disturbingly, much of the information so confidently touted by online New Age practitioners is manifestly false, she said. Yet, for physicians, she has seen, arrogance tends to recede inversely as more knowledge is gained.
Pryor said experienced doctors view humility, not hubris, as the essential virtue in health care, that they be humblingly aware of all they do not know. “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves,” British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once said, “but wiser people so full of doubts.”
As a science-based profession, Pryor stressed, physicians are constantly trying “to prove ourselves wrong.” The goal is to learn to better provide care to patients, not to increase accolades for glorified doctors. Doubt is the thing.
In the meantime, Pryor writes, “even those who are intelligent and well-educated are swept away by the breezy confidence of health gurus, who are full of passionate intensity while the qualified lack all conviction, to borrow from Yeats.”
The problem, she notes, is a psychological tendency toward cognitive bias called the Dunning-Krueger Effect. The effect is that the less people know the less cognizant they are of how much more they don’t know, thus increasing the tendency to miss errors and fatal flaws in reasoning. The opposite is true for those most knowledgeable.
Another challenge is that quasi-qualified naturopathic practitioners use a different vocabulary and mindset than mainstream medical professionals, and their assumptions derive from a different “astral plane,” as Pryor phrases it. So communication is conflicted and divergent. “It’s kind of like an aerodynamics engineer trying to argue about alien spacecraft with the founder of a UFO museum,” in Pryor’s cheeky view.
It’s also very similar to debates between religious believers and doubters, as the former uses the language of unquestioned faith, the latter the jargon of questioning skepticism.
Unhelpfully, the proclamations of self-styled health gurus are often “half right,” she wrote, which aids their project when they use formal-sounding medical language with an air of authoritye.
But, in pseudomedicine, the half that is not right is still wrong, making the whole concept suspect. And in religion, what is believed is still unverifiable.