How many of us have spent money on alternative therapies, cures, homeopathy, crystals, magnets, food supplements, detox, and the like? The truth is, millions of us, and there seems to be no shortage of people willing to suspend their rational sensibilities in order to become the credulous consumers of Woo.
Someone tells us they are aligning our chakras, or correcting our energy balance, or detecting subluxations in our spine, and we simply say fine, OK, and hand over the money. How come we don't act like the suspicious consumers we normally are?
If someone came to us and offered us a TV that worked on a new kind of energy, or offered to cure a chipped tooth with healing touch, we'd laugh them out of the room. We don't employ alternative electricians, or holistic plumbers, and you don't see homeopathic Accident and Emergency Departments. We know this already, and yet when it comes to our own health and nutrition, we turn off our caution, accept any old story, and buy it. Why is this?
In our daily lives we adopt a sceptical viewpoint, which means that before we accept something as true, we look for acceptable, convincing reasons. Before walking out into the road, we check for oncoming traffic. Before buying a car, we check that it is in good condition. This sceptical viewpoint is an excellent protection mechanism against people who would rip us off, and it also makes us check the facts. In matters of safety, having very good reasons is important. Before climbing a ladder, we don't just hope it is well supported, we check and check again. When we fly, we don't just expect the plane to fly, we insist it be designed and built to a high technical standard based on the accepted principles of engineering and aerodynamics.
The other approach is a believing approach, which we were given largely by our parents. It was important for us to believe our parents because by and large, what they told us was both true and important for our safety. But most parents pass on to their kids not just what they know to be true, but also their own beliefs, things they only believe to be true. So we inherit many of the beliefs of our parents, some of which represent things that are factually true and some that do not.
When it comes to our actions as consumers, we normally act sceptically, as if we already know that people who are selling things may be out to get our money at any cost, including deceiving us. So we are cautious, critical, sceptical. That works fairly well. Those who would rip us off have a harder time doing it. Those who are telling the truth pass with flying colours.
But when it comes to Woo, that land where claims don't have any evidence, where remarkable therapies rely on unidentifiable energy sources, channels, chakras, and the like, we are expected NOT to act as consumers, but as believers. Instead of adopting a sceptical attitude in which we say we'll only accept a claim if there is adequate evidence, we are led to adopt a believing viewpoint in which we'll accept anything unless there is evidence against it.
If we can be dissuaded from looking for the evidence, and simply believe anecdotal accounts, our critical faculties are diminished. We are more likely to believe the products do what we're told, and more likely to buy them. That's exactly how Woo works. Anecdotal accounts from satisfied customers tell us these things work. But those accounts are from people who, having spent money on the therapy or treatment, want to justify their expenditure. They are the last people who will advertise how they wasted their money. But as long as we are encouraged simply to believe, the marketers are tapping into the childhood training we all received.
It's rarely left simply to a bald demand for belief, however. There's always some kind of theory attached to it. It might involve aligning chakras, manipulating doshas, unblocking energy channels, or as in the case of Reiki, transferring something which cannot be detected. Outside of the believing viewpoint, this would arouse the maximum suspicion that we were being conned. If someone put fuel into your car, you'd want some tangible measure to show how much had been added. And yet, many of us willingly suspend this need for evidence when it concerns our very health and well-being.
Sometimes, to help us make the jump into the imaginary world, the marketers of Woo products annex some of the vocabulary of science and pretend that their theories are on a part with scientific study. Aromatherapists will refer to the limbic system in the brain, chiropractors will talk about the nervous system and musculoskeletal structures. But then they will make an unjustified jump, perhaps, for example, claiming that the musculoskeletal system can influence the immune system. Having encouraged us to accept what sounds scientific, they surreptitiously lead to transferring our belief across to the unjustifiable Woo theory.
If we behaved like sceptical consumers instead of believers, we'd never even put our hands in our pockets let alone hand over real money. We'd be up in arms over the attempt to get us to believe something that isn't justified, that has no evidence, and we wouldn't be so quick to put our faith in anecdotal evidence.
Science proceeds very cautiously, gathering data, proposing theories which are then tested, disproved, rewritten, retested. We design experiments with great care, with control groups to eliminate bias both in the experimenters and the subjects. We use double-blind trials so that even the experimenters can't predict who is getting real treatment. We publish the results and invite others to reproduce them for themselves. We ask other researchers to criticise the results and the theories, to offer their own data. We do this because we want to know how things really are. We don't accept a story, we want the facts. Because of this rigorous openness and objectivity, science can learn cumulatively. We can build on our knowledge.
When someone claims to be able to cure illnesses by wiggling toes, or light massage, they are not just ignoring the way the real world and the human body works. They are spreading delusion and misinformation. Of course, they might genuinely believe what they say if they are working from a position of relative ignorance. For example, if they honestly believe that there are toxins that accumulate in the human gut even though there are not, they won't realise that they are spreading misinformation and may genuinely think that they are providing a valuable service.
It is not at all uncommon to find that people offering services such as light touch massage, Reiki, healing touch, and aromatherapy have a very poor understanding of human biology and basic science. A quick check of websites advertising these services will turn up all sorts of strange ideas about how the world is supposed to work and all manner of unreasonable healing claims. We can still find chiropractor sites which claim to be able to help childhood colic, asthma, and other illnesses without any clear clinical evidence to support it. In the UK, members of the professional associations have been urged to remove such claims. Without understanding something about the science behind these claims, we are often at the practitioners' mercy. We cannot easily look at the medical research because it is locked away in expensive, inaccessible research journals. If you don't happen to have free access to a medical library, you can't easily check the evidence.
But you can do a great deal to question these claims and assess their reasonableness. For example, you can look at the nature of the evidence. Anecdotal evidence is unreliable because it necessarily contains bias. Clinical trials use controlled, double-blind, randomised trials to remove the bias, and that is the quality of data required for acceptance as genuine evidence. Anecdotes from customers who have paid do not count because they are self-selecting as positive – only those who think they bought something valuable will be willing to offer anecdotal evidence. The negatives, those dissatisfied, are automatically removed – they do not provide testimonials.
Once you dispense with the anecdotal cover, you can think about the reasonableness of the theory. For example, if someone claims to be able to cure a range of chronic illnesses simply by light touch, you have to wonder why everyone doesn't do it, including general practitioners. And why those therapists haven't already picked up their Nobel Prize for medicine.
If someone claims access to a new source of energy, you have to wonder what then happens to the Law of Conservation of Energy, which amongst other things, underpins Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Finding a previously unidentified source of energy would have world-shattering consequences far beyond the confines of the therapist's office.
We can rely on our basic knowledge of biology. When someone suggests colonic irrigation to remove toxins from the body, we wonder about the fact that the gut is largely waterproof. Any toxins in the blood will still be there after the pipes have been removed from the anus! And in any case, we know that the liver does a perfectly good job on its own, and that there is no evidence for toxins accumulating in the gut.
A little basic science goes a very long way in countering our gullibility when we are faced with Woo merchants, but the most important thing is to adopt a sceptical approach. Instead of believing until we are shown evidence to the contrary, we act cautiously and sceptically and say simply, "First, show me the evidence".
We can ask alternative therapists a number of basic questions to judge the quality of their knowledge and their products:
- Apart from anecdotal evidence, how do you measure the success of your therapy, and how do you identify the failures?
- How do you identify the presence of Qi/chakras/subluxations/channels/meridians/etc and what exactly do you measure?
- How does what you do affect these quantities, and how do you demonstrate the evidence of the effect on those quantities directly?
- What controlled, double-blind, randomised trials have been conducted and what did they show? Where can we see the data?
Before we hand over any money at all, or commit to anything, we should study their answers and judge whether what they are offering exists in this world.
Woo is not simply a bit of fun. It's a massive multi-billion dollar industry built on a poor understanding of science and human biology, and a credulous population willing to spend money based on unreasonable beliefs. Often it cannot be prosecuted as fraud because that requires a wilful misrepresentation of something known to be false as true. If the therapists themselves have no idea how the real world works, they are not misrepresenting anything – they are simply ignorant of the facts. Their very ignorance of science and human biology is their best defence – a cruel irony on those hapless customers.
Those who can think this through for themselves are not likely to be exploited, but there are millions who have chronic illnesses, and have difficulty getting treatment, who are lured to this fantasy therapy world. They are vulnerable consumers who are not protected by consumer legislation. They are fed wacky theories about how the world is, and encouraged to believe nonsense about how their bodies work. In some cases they are even drawn away from essential proven treatments.
In the UK, this Summer, a science journalist, Dr Simon Singh, was accused of libel following an article he wrote in a UK newspaper criticising claims by some chiropractors to offer treatment for childhood colic, asthma and other illnesses. He argued that unless there was clear clinical evidence, they should not be making such claims. This seems eminently reasonable. However, the libel case in fact rests on the interpretation of the word "bogus" by a controversial judge. In the UK, once charged with libel, you are guilty until proven innocent. The case could potentially bankrupt Dr Singh.
Last year, Dr Simon Singh and Professor Edvard Ernst wrote a book called Trick or Treatment which exposed the real nature of alternative medicine. It is well worth a read, and buying a copy and avoiding just one encounter with the land of Woo will actually save you money.