Quacks, Quackbusters and the Myth of Certainty — Confessions of an ontological outsider
Quacks and quackbusters may have disparate beliefs but both share the same blind certainty in their own truth. This article examines the the limits of science and the myth of certainty.
IT SILENTLY FLEW ACROSS THE NIGHT SKY in a straight line, a triangle of three dim lights defining a circular object before flipping over, doing a right-angle turn, and shooting off behind the roof. I watched this display earlier this summer whilst lying with a friend on my balcony as we chatted and stared up into the warm summer sky. If she had not seen exactly what I saw, I would have doubted myself and put it down to my imagination (conventional aircraft don't fly completely silently and certainly don't make rapid 90 degree turns). But she did see what I saw, and so I just chalked it up as another unusual experience.
I have experienced many strange events in my life, and each time I have I just quietly observed, my rational mind disengaged because it is unable to categorize the experience. Categorization only happens after the event when the rational mind kicks in again. "Fuck, we just saw a flying saucer!" she said. (It was round, like a saucer, and flew… so that is a fair assessment. But we cannot say that it was full of little gray beings or that it was from outer space — that was not part of that experience.) A case of shared delusion — perhaps a case of folie a deux? Possibly… but then this whole world could be a shared delusion or a virtual reality and you may well be a pink elephant having a dream of being a human. Open the doors to the possibility of shared delusion and anything and everything becomes possible. I personally do not entertain that explanation (unless I am feeling ontologically anarchical), and anyway, seeing flying circular UFOs in the sky is not an uncommon experience, at least more common than imagining that we are sleeping pink elephants.
I do not get particularly excited by unusual or "paranormal" experiences because they have been an occasional but integral part of my experience since I was a small boy. So I naturally accept that "there are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy." And why shouldn't there be? Do we really believe that scientific rationalism, which is only a few hundred years old, has managed to model every nuance of the universe? Of course not! What hubris! And yet, that was the attitude of classical physicists' at the end of the 19th Century, as illustrated by the eminent Irish physicist, Lord Kelvin, who advised young people of that day not to take up physics as it was all but finished, with only decimal point refinements to look forward to. (He did admit that there were a couple of small clouds on the horizon regarding the Michelson-Morley experiment and black-body radiation — a slight understatement considering that these two anomalies whipped up into the hurricanes of relativity and quantum mechanics which blew away the very foundation of classical physics.)
Certainty… I am always a little uncomfortable around those who has too much of it. You see them worshipping in churches, synagogues and mosques; you see them killing in the name of God, Science, The Medical Establishment and Economics; you see them at universities, and hospitals with a strings of letters after their names; you see them setting up shop as bogus healers, home-made gurus and alternative scientists; you see them down at the pub with the loudest voices. These are certain ones, the ones for whom there is little novelty to reality because they have it all figured out, or at least they think they do.
Certainty runs right across the board, from orthodox belief systems to alternative belief systems: I have met many so called pioneers and quacks from the alternative world that share the same stupid certainty as blinkered orthodox scientists, skeptics and quackbusters. The demarcation between reasonable and unreasonable divides only the certain from the uncertain, not so much the orthodox from the alternative. We are fooled into thinking that the is this big battle between orthodox and alternative ideologies because each is being represented by its most vocal and certain proponents. I have known orthodox scientists and medical doctors who have been more open-minded than proponents of New Age beliefs and alternative science/medicine. And of course vice versa — society's educational, corporate and legal systems are oriented almost entirely towards orthodox belief systems, which is why so many orthodox doctors and scientists are so closed to alternatives. But they don't have an exclusive on bigotry; it is found in both camps.
As an editor of an alternative magazine, I am aware of the over-certainty of some of those involved with alternative and New Age ideas and technology. And this certainty is encouraged by the New Age dictum, "We create our own reality," and "You will see it when you believe it." As a result, criticism of any kind is derided. I found that out when I wrote what I believed to be quite reasonably critical articles on a few of the leading New Age teachers, only to get pilloried for being a doubter and closed-minded. And the irony is that other articles I have written and authors I have promoted have been dismissed by the quackbusting and orthodox contingent, who regard sites like this one as New Age BS.
But what happened to genuine open-mindedness and discernment? Why do people have so much emotionally invested in taking a particular stance, whether that stance is orthodox or alternative? Because they have allowed their beliefs to define who they are. In other words, they have ego invested in their world-view, which is why they are so reluctant to have that world-view challenged. We all do to some extent, and for each of us there is a particular threshold of contrary evidence that we will need before changing that world-view. If our entire social standing, income and self-esteem are linked to any particular set of belief systems, we will irrationally hold on to those beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence, and we will construct pseudo-rationalisations to support our intransigence.
How can we tell how much ego is enmeshed in our belief systems? When they are challenged in some way the degree to which we emotionally react to that challenge is an indicator to the degree with which we have taken our belief systems to heart. And so we get individuals like James Randi, who have made lucrative careers out of skepticism, acting highly emotionally. Can you imagine Randi turning around and acknowledging that there might be some truth in aspects of fringe science or in some of the paranormal observations that he previously derided? Unlikely! His income as a professional septic would dry up, his social standing in the scientific "rational" community would be in tatters, and the friends that love him because he shares a similar world-view in a mutual support of egos would be gone. (He is a showman, not a rational and scientific man.)
Quack or quackbuster, alternative scientist or orthodox… whatever club you belong to is no assurance that you are not closed-mindedly defending belief systems merely to prop up your sense of self. For many, the protection of certainty has become a full-time occupation.
Battles usually only rage only between those that are certain, those who display high levels of emotions defending their beliefs. By contrast, the more open-minded are happy to live and let live, provided that belief systems are not imposed on them. For the open-minded, freedom of thought is more important than its flavour, so they usually only get emotionally involved when that freedom is being challenged, not when particular ideas are being challenged.
There are two main ways that human beings rationally process the reality that they experience (some would say there is only the first). The first is in the scientific reductionist way and the second is in the holistic way. (There is a third main possibility called emergentism but this is really just reductionism with the novelty of complex systems thrown in.) Scientists and orthodox medical doctors are mostly reductionists, although there are now a growing number that are moving to the holistic camp.
Scientific reductionism makes the assumption that everything we experience in the world can be explained by the mechanical behaviour of the atoms and molecules (components) that are believed to be the foundation of that world. So consciousness, for example, is ultimately just the illusion that is created when enough neurons network together, each neuron being just a huge collection of molecules and atoms that are blindly following only the laws of physics. There is no "ghost in the machine". The philosophy of reductionism is a foundation belief of modern science, and all the modern technology we have today is evidence of its success.
The other perspective is called holism. From the holistic perspective, no such reduction is possible because the whole system is greater than the sum of its components. So consciousness, for example, cannot be entirely explained by the interaction of the 100 billion neurons in our brains, which themselves cannot be entirely explained by the blind giggling of the atoms and molecules that make up each neuron. Something new and irreducible appears at each level of increasing complexity.
Whilst holism seems more intuitive to most people, especially non-scientists because things like consciousness seem light-years away from the blind behaviour of atoms and molecules, the new science of complexity (an offshoot of chaos theory) gives ample rational room to take out the mystery from such emerging phenomena. What complexity highlights is that the emerging properties of complex systems (such as a massive array of neurons) cannot be predicted by the sum of its parts because the mathematical models of complex systems are too difficult to solve and therefore futures cannot be entirely predicted. (The value of scientific models is that they predict outcome, otherwise they are just philosophy, and though complexity theory is unable to give precise solutions, it is able to often give probabilistic "fuzzy" solutions, often with the aid of computer modeling.)
Holism was believed to be all but dead in the scientific community until the arrival of quantum mechanics at the start of the 20th Century. Quantum mechanics deals with the mechanics and energy exchanges that are believed to be most significant at atomic and sub-atomic scales. It was the product of reductionist research into radiation, and yet the mathematical model has many holistic aspects to it (exemplified by Bell's Theorem of distant particle entanglement), despite the fact that it is not dealing with such fundamental and "simple" sub-atomic particle interactions. This is a huge conceptual problem for many scientists, who prefer to use quantum mechanics operationally — just to get numerical results — without having to think to much of its philosophical implications. And for this reason, many scientists are holding out for the theory to be superseded by one that is less probabilistic — less fuzzy — so they can get back to some straight-forward determinism.
But so far, quantum mechanics is one of the most accurate scientific theories that we have today for most of what goes on at the sub-atomic scale and, some would argue, for some of what goes on at a macro human scale such as consciousness. However, even if quantum mechanics was replaced by a deeper more deterministic theory, that would still not give reductionism a monopoly in science because mathematics itself scuppers any hope of complete reductionism in the form of Godel's Incompleteness theorems. (Had Godel come up with these proofs a little earlier he would have saved Russell and Whitehead a lot of wasted sweat in trying to formalize the foundation of mathematics.)
What is important to realize is that holism and reductionism are not scientific facts but just two different philosophies or perspectives with which to organize observation. Ultimately, these perspectives are untestable and unfalsefiable — and more a matter of personal taste. Reductionism can represent a highly successful approach in producing useful reality models or maps, but that is very far from saying it has a monopoly on producing "useful" maps. What is useful to one person may not be useful to another. At this moment in time, reductionist maps are given the greatest air-time because society currently has an obsession with reductionist technologies — technologies based on modularly and deterministically building up complex systems from simple systems.
Holism, however, also produces what many consider to be "useful" reality maps in its "top-down" approach as opposed to reductionism's "bottom-up" approach. Holistic technologies might include spiritual healing, acupuncture, homeopathy, qi gong, kundalini, yoga, kriya yoga etc. Just because these technologies cannot be understood from a reductionist point of view does not necessarily invalidate them because holism and reductionism are just different perspectives in which we arrange our observations.
Both holistic and reductionist perspectives can and are used with an investigative technique called the scientific method, which is just a formalized version of what most of us do in ordinary life anyway. We look at the world and from that experience we construct hypothetical models of that world. For example, we notice that every time we eat a particular food, we come out in a rash, and so we form a hypothesis that we are allergic to that food. If this is being done scientifically, it has to be quantified in some way (the redness and size of the rash would be measured). Although we all become attached to our models of the world to some degree, in theory we should be constantly try to falsify that model with new data. If it holds up, in time that hypothesis becomes an established scientific theory (in everyday parlance it becomes a "fact" or scientific law). However, just because it becomes established as a fact or law does not mean that it then becomes immune to the continued process of falsification — in theory anyway. In practice, once something becomes established theory it is much harder to topple it in the face of contrary evidence.
Why does the scientific method focus on falsification? Because with falsification, we are more likely to take a hypothesis or theory to the limit; we are deliberately looking to tear it down. If the scientific method was based on merely gathering corroborating evidence, the pressure on hypotheses and theories would be far less intense. Falsification is therefore a fast-track route to finding reliable scientific theories or laws.
Scientific theories and laws taken together produce a detailed mathematical model or map of reality, allowing us to predict the future. (All science is either categorisation or prediction — the ratio between the two moving towards categorisation the further up we move into complex systems, from physics, to chemistry, to biology, to psychology etc.) That predictive ability of science produces our remarkable modern reductionist technologies. This flat screen that I am using to type this article, for example, is really just a controlled electronic environment which can be used for a specific purpose because it is predictable. If I type the letter "f", the letter "f" appears at some time in the very near future. That is scientific determinism for you.
Paranormal phenomena are just events that we or others experience that are not predicted by our prevailing scientific models or theories — they are not indicated on our maps. Does this mean that they are illusory? Maybe, maybe not. If you believe that your map IS reality, then they are definitely illusory. You are one of the 100% certain ones — you are a bigot. If you believe that your map merely models reality, you have three choices with regards to paranormal experiences (either yours or other people's):
- You reject the experience as illusory, a deliberate hoax or a data glitch and not even think about modifying your reality maps.
- You accept that the experience hints at the shortcomings of your map and think up experiments that would allow you to to gather corroborating evidence to see if modification of your reality maps is necessary.
- You accept the experience as carrying enough weight for you to immediately start looking to modify your reality map. (The road to Damascus option.)
Most quackbusters fall at the very first hurdle: they confuse their reality map with reality itself and therefore regard paranormal phenomena as non-existent by definition. Those that are more sophisticated and understand reality maps still dismiss these phenomena but this time on the grounds that there is not enough reliable evidence to warrant redrawing of the maps.
People hold particular beliefs (whether those beliefs are orthodox or alternative) because of one or more (usually several) of the following:
- Personal experience
- Psychological need
- Psychological fit
- Emotional reasons
- Culture or community
- Authority of another
- Fallacious and pseudo-scientific reasoning
- Scientific reasoning
It is easy to recognize the subjective elements in all except perhaps the last two. Science is popularly believed to give us a truly objective model of the world, one with which we can judge all other models and reality maps. However, what is interesting about the process of scientific investigation is that it is not as objective or rational as most people think:
First, we have the question about the scientific method itself. It is not in itself falsifiable but based more on common sense (like neodarwinism), and as falsifiability is a central component of scientific enquiry, the scientific method itself is not technically science but more a philosophical postulate.
Second, the type of hypotheses that we postulate from our experience is coloured by our worldview, our language, our psychology, the hard-wiring of our brain and nervous system, and the limits to our imagination. Scientists, aware of this subjective element, use something called Occam's razor to try to minimise it — a psychological fudge that advises the choice of the simplest hypothesis with the least variables, something that is unfortunately also open to interpretation (one person's simplicity is not necessarily another's). And because scientists try to reduce subjectivity as much as possible, the types of theories and hypotheses that are considered tend to be mathematical (statistical if the system being modeled is complex). Aspects of nature can certainly be modeled mathematically, but this may be more to satisfy our need for pseudo-objectivity than because it is the "best" description of reality. (If we are more holistically inclined, we may put forward a more holistic model for testing.)
Also, go out on a limb too much with what you research and you will quickly find your career in mainstream science is damaged. Few scientists are willing to take that risk (even physicists have to pay mortgages!) and so generally scientists will give a wide berth to anything that is too controversial. The same, of course, applies to medical practitioners who are unlikely to embrace any treatment or propose any clinical research that has any chance of jeopardising their pharmaceutical funding and government grants.
Third, the type and amount of corroborating evidence that we require to test our hypotheses is subjective. Usually, some sort of critical mass of evidence will be required before the scientific establishment modifies or completely rewrites its reality maps and the amount will subjectively depend upon how much the degree to which orthodoxy is being challenged or how attached the scientific establishment is to that orthodoxy. If the theory seriously challenges the prevailing orthodoxy rather than just add another piece of the orthodox puzzle, the research is unlikely to get published in serious peer-reviewed journals, and as a result, it will not be taken seriously by the scientific establishment and the rest of society that look up to the intellectual authority of the scientific establishment, regardless of the quality of the research.
(A catch 22 for sure: too challenging and it will not get published; and if it is not published, the establishment can reject it on the basis of a lack of peer-reviewed evidence. And if only a holistic model can explain the data, it has not got a chance in hell in getting in a leading scientific publication.)
And this does not just apply to positive evidence: absence of evidence will be more likely read as evidence of absence if there is scientific orthodoxy at stake. In other words, much alternative research falls at the first hurdle because the researchers are not willing or cannot get the funding to look deeper, modify the experimental parameters, and see if they can eke out a positive result. (The only alternatives that are taken seriously are those that promise commercial success.)
There are also ethical considerations in relation to of what kind of research society allows to take place. These are set culturally, and are liable to change over time. For example, we can all accept that experiments that were acceptable for the Nazis during World War II would not get passed ethics committees today, but sometime in the future perhaps animal research might also become equally repugnant to society, and this will have a significant effect on the nature and course of science, especially in medical research.
Fourth, if we do decide to change our maps we can incorporate the new data in several different ways depending upon what we subjectively feel are the foundational or fundamental features of our map. (A geographical map can be political or and topological amongst many different designs, all of which are correct but emphasising different perspectives. Yes, this happens in science too.)
Fifth, and this one is tied up with some of the points above, the type of questions we ask reality and our very perception of it will depend upon our current maps which will outline our basic reality paradigm. Paradigms can be highly selective and contain many blind spots.
Sixth, those involved with scientific research will be aware that results can and are often contradictory. Even research into physics throws up many anomalous results, although most of the contradictions appear in complex systems. It is entirely a subjective bias that we try to homogenize theories and experimental results into one neat and non-contradictory body of knowledge. Scientists, and especially medical doctors, like to make this assumption, not understanding that experience is a little more jagged than our neat smooth theories.
So science is not based just on objective "facts", but selected facts subjectively arranged into theories that are artificially fitted together to give a consistent overview. It is as much an act of creativity as it is an act of uncovering truth, and much of the selective processes are cultural rather than "objective". With so many subjective elements polluting the scientific process of knowledge accumulation it is no small wonder that any consensus or semblance of objectivity is reached at all. And yet, as has been mentioned, the scientific process produces a body of knowledge that works extremely well — modern reductionist technology works.
How can this be so? For two possible reasons: either the subjective elements are (usually) small enough not to significantly interfere with the objective extraction of truth, or reality itself is somehow influenced by our expectation — by our minds. Of course the latter possibility is ludicrous and smacks of naive New Age BS, so almost everyone in the scientific world will go for the first option. But it is important to realize that, as neither of these options is actually falsifiable (due to our ability to set the level of proof required depending upon our beliefs in this regard), choosing between them is entirely a subjective preference — they are merely philosophical positions that give the scientific process context.
The New Age BS possibility, if you take it further, makes the scientific method more a process of mass dreaming than the objective accumulation of knowledge. If you introduce the possibility that mind can affect reality, then scientific knowledge as we know it, breaks entirely away from its objective tether to float free on a subjective sea, and all experimental controls go out the window. And that won't do at all for those that are more conventionally minded, which is why any form of "mind over matter" is most strongly resisted by the scientific community. (This despite scientific evidence supporting this ludicrous possibility, which you can find summarized in one of Dean Radin's books). Also, quantum theory certainly hints at a role for consciousness in collapsing the wave-function, although this is just one philosophical interpretation of the quantum model.
The point that I am making here is that even hard sciences like physics are not 100% objective, as is popularly believed. So when evidence for paranormal phenomena go up against physics, for example, there is actually a surprising amount of subjective latitude for how that evidence is weighted in terms of its validity, and whether or not further investigation is undertaken. This is how quackbusters like James Randi are able to offer $1m dollars to anyone that can demonstrate evidence of any paranormal event, because he stipulates "test conditions agreed to by both parties" — in other words, Randi can use the latitude given in the subjective component of his experimental conditions to ensure that nobody is able to claim his million dollars. (Not very objective but great showmanship!)
Ironically, the same applies to Victor Zammit's offer of $1m dollars to any skeptic who can disprove the existence of life after death. He has the same subjective latitude that Randi has to make sure that he never has to pay out the money by insisting that any adjudicating committee for the evidence is "appointed jointly by the offeror and the applicant". In practice, they are very unlikely to agree on the level of doubt in "beyond reasonable doubt" that is required. You read Zammit's statements and they seem very logical and very defined, their subjectivism hidden well behind highly empirical vocabulary. However, Zammit, like Randi, is only displaying ignorance of scientific epistemology by assuming that the Scientific Method as completely objective. In this way, neither of these men's million dollar offers are quite as sensational as they might first appear, and neither gives any extra scientific weight to their proponents' objectives.
This subjective latitude built into the Scientific Method does not imply that science is necessarily afloat in a sea of subjectivity either, unless of course you modify your view of subjectivity so that it can include consistent shared experience (which is always a possibility). The scientific method may contain much subjective latitude, but it is systematic and not just random, chaotic or entirely a figment of the imagination. The label of "pseudo-science" is not entirely relative: one man's pseudo-science is not necessarily another's science — pseudo-science that does not respect the rational systematic accumulation of knowledge (no matter what the flavour of the subjective elements) comes across as BS no matter what your perspective. This is where many New Age teachers like Gregg Braden and David Hawkins fall down. Their theories are clearly not scientific, and yet they dress up their legitimate non-scientific theories as science, complete with scientific terminology. Braden, for example, repeatedly uses the phrase "scientists do not doubt this" in his lectures, whilst Hawkins muddles his terminology and resists scientific objectivity by making his calibration theory unfalsifiable (if the theory doesn't work, the fault is with the practitioner who is calibrating at under 200). As a result, their non-scientific theories gain the credibility that our society affords scientific theories. (Whether this is deliberate or just a display of ignorance, is open to conjecture.)
Once again, I am not saying that the theories Braden and Hawkins put forward are rubbish per se, only that they are scientifically rubbish. To judge anything as rubbish you need a measure or map key by which to judge it. Braden and Hawkins, like all pseudo-scientists, supply that measure by presenting their theories scientifically, which opens them up to being judged scientifically. When their "scientific" theories are then found wanting, there is little point then appealing for a less-scientific assessment. The fact is that theories presented scientifically tend to hold more weight in the public imagination, and the pseudo-scientists of this world are constantly in a balancing act of scientifically colouring their theories enough to give them authority, but not too much as to get them scientifically dismissed. In my opinion, this whole process lacks integrity. It would be far more honest for these sorts of individuals to present themselves as mystics rather than scientists.
So the vocabulary used to describe theories does give some measure by which those theories can be judged. However, things are not clear-cut here either as much scientific vocabulary is now in the public domain, with a less-rigorous definitions. And so words like energy, vibration, quantum etc. used in a popular way might just be the best fit to describe aspects of our reality which are not adequately describable by our language. (Language can be considered to be the painter's pallet by which we describe our reality maps to others. If we are missing the colour blue, for example, the blue aspects of our reality map will remain unconscious, unless we borrow a colour we are not using and use it as a substitute for blue.) So when a friend tells me that he can feel this enormous energy or vibration running up his spine, I don't hold him to a precise scientific definition of those terms. I understand his usage of what might originally have been scientific terminology and know roughly what he is trying to communicate. (He might also use the term "chi" or "mana", which are less scientific.)
So a balance must be made, and again, where you make that balance is subjective. The bottom line is that irrespective of its exact objective/subjective mix, even just a smattering of subjectivity gives the scientific establishment and those that champion it enough control to run it like a private members' club (if the scientific process was 100% objective then "objective reality" would solely dictate its direction and detail — but this is certainly not the case). And we all know that private members' clubs are pretty tight about who they consider for membership.
Like countless people around the world, I have personally had many experiences that would not currently make membership to the "what is possible" scientific club. Those experiences might have been seriously considered in the past and may be considered at some time in the future, but for now, they wouldn't even get to to be aired to the membership committee. And the reason for that is that science, as it is currently practiced and represented by most scientists, has become institutionalised, political, closed, short-sighted and bigoted (this tends to happen when any knowledge system becomes formalized and institutionalised). Long gone are the days when the scientific community would accept such mysteries as worthy of its attention. (There are a smattering of rogue scientists who bravely operate outside the remit of the scientific establishment, and they are producing some of the most interesting research.)
This exclusion is nothing to do with science's objectivity. With a different flavour of its subjective components, objective science would no doubt have either moved in a different direction or have been more inclusive of what has now been relegated to "fringe" science. This is an important point that even professional scientists often misunderstand because so few really know what science actually is. They "do it", they don't think about its epistemology. Having said that, physicists are usually the most sophisticated in understanding the process of scientific modeling because they have had to grapple with "crazy" models such as quantum theory which are so counter-intuitive. As we move away from atomic physics to molecular physics (chemistry) and then on to self-regulating and regenerating systems of molecules (biology) and up to medical doctors and psychiatrists (philosophical neanderthals), what little appreciation there is for science's epistemology decreases substantially.
It is an unstated fact that biologists, and especially medical doctors, can generally be regarded in as having the least understanding of scientific modeling, which is why they are often the most vociferous and dogmatic in defending scientific materialism and rejecting any sort of "unusual" phenomenon or data. (This is encouraged by their massive funding — bribing — by the pharmaceutical industry which certainly skews further whatever objectivity still remains in the scientific process.) So if you are looking for an intelligent philosophical discussion about epistemology, don't talk to a medical doctor or a biologist — ideally try to find a physicist (and a quantum or particle physicist at that).
Modern medicine is notorious for applying linear solutions to non-linear problems (complex chemical pathways are notoriously difficult to control, let alone understand), and as a consequence it is very far from the life-promoting system that most believe it to be (the non-profit Nutrition Institute of America estimated that it is responsible for over 780,000 deaths in the the US alone each year, making it the number 1 cause of death). This tragedy (and it is a tragedy on an epic scale) can happen because doctors have created a medical reductionist system to treat the complexities of the human body, a task that can only fail (and it is failing). And this practice of using an inadequate medical map has been encouraged by the pharmaceutical industry that bankrolls and promotes the medical orthodoxy because only reductionist maps allow the control and ownership that is needed for commercial success.
Does this mean we open our doors to every quack and alternative therapy going? Of course not. Conventional medicine excels at acute medical problems (emergency situations) such as automobile accidents or a heart attacks, but it can be unhelpful with chronic medical conditions such as cancer or arteriosclerosis because these conditions tend to be far more complex and therefore less amenable to simplistic cause-and-effect understanding. Holistic therapies that include lifestyle and more gentle alternative systems of healing can deal with chronic illness far more effectively over time because they are whole-body approaches that don't even try to offer a "magic bullet" solution. The monopoly modern medicine has enjoyed over the past century has turned it into a Frankenstein monster, its cohorts using its massive pharmaceutical funding and their blind certainty to ruthlessly stamp out opposition, whilst the monster itself ravages our society in the name of medical "care" and "health". Why do we give medical doctors so much respect when ignorance is ignorance no matter how many letters appear after your name.
Most professional debunkers and quackbusters are entertainers and medical doctors (mostly retired or soon-to-retire), milking their role for all that it is worth and defending the scientific materialism with which they have been so indoctrinated. This gives them a slap on the back from the orthodox scientific community and a more important role in society than they would otherwise have. Debunking and quackbusting certainly puts one on the front-line, something that every attention-seeker and self-promoter craves (debunkers and quackbusters usually get more attention in their new skeptical roles than they ever did in their professions as doctors or entertainers). The more certain you are the more attention and kudos you receive and the higher your earnings, which is why debunkers and quackbusters are often some of the most bigoted and dogmatic individuals around. I have had the displeasure of trying to engage a few of the higher-profile ones in debate over the years and have found only intransigent stupidity. These are the fundamentalists of scientific materialism, and you get about as far with them in a debate as you would get from a bible-bashing Christian or an Islamic extremist. I put them all in the same fundamentalist category.
This pseudo-objectivity which is promoted by scientists who do not appreciate the level of subjectivity in the scientific method is promoted by quacks and pseudo-scientists as well. David Hawkins is a prime example of a medical psychiatrist turned New Age BS merchant, spinning out very obviously pseudo-objective pendulum calibrations for the truth /vibratory rate for different people, events and concepts etc. Then there are alternative diagnostic tools like the Quantum Machine or NES that, in my opinion, are deceptively promoted by their inventors as objective diagnostic tools. (This is not to say they have no value or are not based on some interesting fringe scientific research that may well be valid, but the way they are promoted and the language that is used in their promotional literature, you would think they were scientific diagnostic machines en par with MRI technology.) The same can be said for homoeopathic concentrations that also rely on pseudo-objectivity (again, this does not mean that homoeopath does not work, only that the pseudo-objectivity that is used to promote it is misplaced).
Now compare those with something like the internet quackometer, a computer algorithm written to access the degree of quackery of any particular web page. It does this by analysing the frequency of words like energy, organic, vibration, nutrition, homeopathy, healing etc. The more they appear, the "quackier" the page. I actually have some sympathy for the site owner because I know the frustration of listening to individuals pedaling goods and services on the back of cringing pseudoscience, but the quackometer falls into the same error that those it is aimed at fall into. A quackometer provides an absolute scale, in the form of a computer algorithm, by which to objectively calibrate something that is quite subjective, and in so doing it presents a pseudo-objectivity that is every bit as misleading and tiresome as the pseudo-science it targets. I am aware that it is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat, and it betrays the shallow epistemological understanding of its originator.
So once again we have a case of quacks and quackbusters falling into the same errors, making the same stupid assumptions because both need contrived objective calibrations by which to validate their own certainty and reject that of their opponents. And on the back of this pseudo-objectivity they ride high in their blind certainty. Indeed, quacks and quackbusters often share the same smug expression of one who believes he has the truth. (Michael Shermer has the classic "I'm right" smirk which you will see in any edition of Scientific American.)
There are alternative practitioners, fringe scientists, healers and religious leaders who defend their corners rationally, open-mindedly and with humility, just as there are many orthodox scientists who do so also. (Humility comes from accepting the possibility that you might be wrong.) There is none of that cynicism displayed by the cocksure. I can have a serious debate with them because they are willing to question their own epistemological foundations — they are open-minded and even if they choose to stick to a position that is contrary to your own, you can respect them for that because they are aware that it is ultimately a choice. The epistemology and ontology which put into context our entire experience is a subjective choice, one that is strongly influenced by what sort of person you are. It is not a scientific consideration. The context cannot be falsified; only the content can be falsified either in relation to self-consistency or in relation to the context. But there are no absolute measures.
Arthur C. Clarke wrote that, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I like that. He understands that reality, whatever "it" is, is far greater than the models or maps we use to describe it. In fact, you it might be true to say that raw reality is ultimately unknowable. Wittgenstein wrote: "What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence." We can only speak about maps and models of reality; we cannot speak about reality itself. That can only be experienced, in silence. The awareness of awareness is probably the closest we come to experiencing reality. Some might call this deep meditation, but that is just another concept.
Personally, I choose to use maps and models of reality that are far more extensive than the current scientific or cultural maps and models available. I do this because they are more useful to me for navigating the places that I go, both inside and outside, and categorizing the states of mind that I experience. Rather than reject my experience because it is not on the "official" map — a recipe for psychosis — I would rather choose reality maps that validate my experience. I don't care if some of my experiences are not supposed to happen because they do not appear on the official reality maps. Unusual experiences should be cherish because they are the keys to the ideological prison door behind which most of humanity unwittingly live. They hint at a world of greater possibility, a world that you can only glimpse if you have the humility to lay aside your certainty, even for just a moment.
The maps I use are also constantly growing, revising, being coloured in, and sometimes being blown away altogether by experience. They are not fixed but flow freely, moulding themselves around experience. Sometimes I will use different maps for different terrain, maps that often contradict each other. My tube train map of London is clearly different to the bus route maps, but both are useful in different circumstances, depending on what level you are at. If we understand that maps are just useful tools that model an ineffable reality, then we can resist the temptation to have one consistent master-map that somehow hints at what reality is. This is a fundamental and prevalent category error.
I also know that the maps that the types of maps we habitually use determine how we view ourselves and how we behave in our society, and that the maps currently promoted by the establishment seem to be recipes for personal and societal dysfunction. The three prevailing reality maps at this time are free-market capitalism, scientific materialism, and religious fundamentalism. The first map, free-market capitalism, encourages those that habitually use it to place a monetary value on everything including themselves, and to constantly be striving to increase that value. This map pits one person against another in a competitive struggle for wealth accumulation, a struggle where the end justifies the means, the richer get richer and the poorer poorer. This map is actually supported largely by the second map, scientific materialism, which also encourages a disconnected, materialistic and "end justifies the means" approach to reality. The third prevailing map, religious fundamentalism, encourages intolerance and discourages freedom, and has been responsible for more bloodshed and social strife than any other map in the history of our planet.
These prevailing maps promote pathological behaviour in those that use them and I think it is a crime that we continue to indoctrinate our children with such limiting vision. It is as a direct consequence of using these maps en masse that we have a modern society that has become so dysfunctional.
So I don't care if the reality maps I use are derided or dismissed by many of those in the scientific community, the medical establishment, the alternative communities, governments and religious/spiritual organizations. I don't care because I know that these individuals, whether quacks or quackbusters, orthodox or alternative, only poison our society with their small-minded certainty, a certainty which masks a deep ontological insecurity that drives them to constantly try to impose their ideological straitjackets on the rest of humanity. Most people spend their lives building up belief systems that protect them from the ontological uncertainty of infinite possibility.
Life is inversely proportion to our level of certainty: the more certain we are, the deader we become inside. Those who let go of even just a little of that certainty experience the aliveness of greater possibility, and display the tolerance of those who reject fundamentalism. This is not to advocate complete relativism because some types of "objective" reality modeling are extremely useful (science needs to be expanded, not rejected).
The question is: how do we create a balance between the open-mindedness of greater possibility and the necessary systematic restrictions of practical technologies and healing modalities? This is not easy because, as we have seen, there is no objective method by which to identify that point. But what is certain is that, at this time, an exponentially growing number of people are pushing that point in the direction of greater possibility because where it has been officially set by society is no longer appropriate for the our general level of consciousness. Things have become too restrictive and destructive, and it is time to let in some fresh-air.
Everywhere, those that revel in certainty — both scientific and religious, orthodox and alternative — are strongly resisting change. They are on red-alert at this time because what started off as just small ripple of dissenters who wanted greater freedom from society's limiting and controlling systems has today grown to a tsunami. People have grown weary of establishment-imposed ideological restrictions and are no longer prepared to toe the official line of possibility. That is why New Age movements and alternative healing systems are becoming so popular. But we need to be careful not to substitute one certainty for another, one fundamentalism for another. Only greater awareness of the reality map-making process (greater epistemological and ontological sophistication) can ensure that we outgrow the myth of certainty for good.
If our minds create reality, then we need some level of certainty to create a consistent reality. If we believe a particular medical treatment, for example, will work, it is more likely to work. This is the well-known placebo effect. So although this article exposes the mythical status of certainty, the author acknowledges that there are times when some level of certainty is important. We just have to be wary if those levels of certainty become so high that we do not let in new possibilities.
Quackbusters.com is the highest profile quackbusting site online and and is run by retired medical doctor (surprise, surprise) Stephen Barrett. Barrett is very vocal in his dismissal of anything remotely alternative, but he will also dismiss out of hand any research (even orthodox) which he does not agree with. But all is not what it seems with Barrett and his quackbusters website. According to investigative journalist Helke Ferrie:
Barrett tells us that "Neither Quackwatch nor I have any financial ties to any commercial or industrial organization" and "Quackwatch has no salaried employees" and is funded by personal donations and profits from publications. "If its income falls below what is needed… the rest comes out of my pocket." His and Gots' [Gots runs quackbusters with him] pockets are interesting, to say the least. The funding sources of their organizations were readily available on the Internet until recently; in the early '90's he stopped disclosing such information [I wonder why?]. The last annual report to list donors was published 1991 where we find all our toxic friends: Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland (both of genetic engineering fame), the Nutrasweet Company (neurotoxic aspartame etc.), Union Carbide (as in Bopal disaster), the producers of pesticides, fertilizers, and fluoride Dow Chemical, Dupont, Cargill etc., the biochemical warfare and pharmaceutical producers Eli Lilly, the Uniroyal Chemical Company, all the big petroleum and pharmaceutical companies, and various refined sugar producers and refined food producing giants. Two thirds of the world's economy is controlled by this list of North American Big Business. With friends like that, who needs to worry about telling the most fantastical lies in public?
You don't have to be a genius to work out that Stephen Barrett probably has some serious conflicts of interest, and yet he is held up by the scientifically illiterate (mostly bone-headed retired doctors) as a paragon of scientific skepticism and a defender of "real" science. This is the ugliest side of ignorance because, by dismissing valid alternatives, it ends up costing lives. You can read Helke Ferrie's excellent article here.