The two species problem of New Atheism

The dove's Tarzan impression went down a treat at parties.

One claims to be friendly. There’s an asshole around somewhere. A number are accused of being militant. There is a multitude who are silent out of either fear or choice. A whole bunch like to distinguish themselves from the old variety. They can be polemical, loud, reasonable, bigoted, intellectual, philosophical, pragmatic…in fact, the only trait they all share is a lack of belief in a supernatural, personal creator of the universe.

And yet, if you were to stumble across a community of godless ones, you could be forgiven for naively thinking there were just two distinct species – Accommodationis warminfuzziness, and Newatheist confrontationist. The former are fratricidal backstabbers who are sleeping with the enemy, while the latter are brash bigots who risk making a mess of things by frightening off the customers.

Every week a blogger somewhere will point out how dangerous New Atheism is for Old Atheism. This will quickly be followed by another blogger using accommodationist as a pejorative, listing how their criticisms against fellow atheists is simply not cricket, and how they coddle those nasty Bible bashers. Each article will proceed to spawn a fetid tail of comments that gradually decay into barely coherent sentences that might be illogical if they weren’t initially illegible.

And so the conversation goes. On. And on. And on.

To what end does this occur? There’s a question worthy of a sociological PhD. What initially seems to be quite obvious quickly becomes something of a mystery.

On the surface, this maelstrom appears to ultimately be about science. Religion is antagonistic to science, you see, so to make science better, you need to do something about the religion problem. Atheism – the absence of a belief in supernatural personalities who govern nature – is the pill to cure the ill. Simple.

Science is about specific terms. About precision. A reasonable evaluation of the evidence and criticisms of beliefs and methodology. It’s a brutal ecosystem of predators where only the fittest ideas survive. Yet when one looks at the New Atheist discussion, science is the last thing that you’ll find.

So while it might well be under the guise of defending science literacy, there is the unmistakable smell of bigotry tainting much of the discussion. People aren’t just mistaken, they’re stupid or evil. Hyperbole is common place, where all religion is always bad. While individual opinions vary, a culture persists which has turned the discussion into a bloody, muddy battlefield of traded insults, fabricated facts and barely contained hostility.

Criticism is a dirty word. Evidence is dismissed for spurious reasoning, assumptions, wishful thinking and faithful claims. Definitions are vague and quickly dissolve into strawman and ‘no true Scottsman’ fallacies. In short, what we understand to be ‘New Atheism’ has all the heat and anger of science but little of the rigor or mutual respect. And it claims to be defending it.

There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. Let’s all live and let live, right? If one approach doesn’t work, another will.

The mediators are somewhat like a ring species for Accommodationis warminfuzziness and Newatheist confrontationist.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

Science communication suffers from a lot of confounding factors in the community, of which religious faith is but one. To atheists, it’s an important one. Making ground on these problems will take good information and calm, rational thinking. If atheists feel that there is a specific problem attacking science, what better tool to solve it than the tools of science itself?

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ACARA’s Bent Spoon: A cowardly end

Adam and Eve

Human evolution 101 in the new Australian Curriculum...apparently

The backstory to this article is relatively simple in concept, even if complex in detail. For the details, please feel free to browse through ACARA’s Bent Spoon 1, Part 2 and Part 3. For those who feel it’s ‘tl,dr’; at TAMOZ 2010, the Australian Skeptics ridiculed the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for their draft proposal of the National Curriculum. I could summarise their initial reasoning, however it’s best to go straight to the source nomination made by English teacher Michael Adams.

In any case, on the back of this criticism the Australian Skeptics decided to review their decision. Four months later, they’ve come to a decision – it stands.

In their review media release, they acknowledge that criticism existed;

At the time, some bloggers and commentators criticised the Skeptics for this decision, citing the draft nature of the curriculum. Others responded with approval of the Skeptics’ stance.

There were three individuals who openly voiced their criticisms via blogs. Mine was one. Deb Hodgkin’s ‘She Thought’ article was another. The third was Bruce Everett’s ‘Thinker’s Podium’ article. There were other sympathisers, however for all purposes these are the three that address the decision to present the award to ACARA in detail with an explicit opinion. There are no other blog articles – supportive or critical – that I know of. And the criticisms went far beyond any concern for whether it was a draft or not. In fact, only one blog even mentions this – in an offhand set of parentheses – as a point of contention.

That there was so little response isn’t all that surprising. For one thing, it’s my view that few people would have a strong opinion on the matter either way. Although it’s education (which typically ranks highly in the concerns of the average citizen), the mechanics of educational policy and pedagogy is a field few people can discuss with citations, experience or clear understanding. Another reason is that the award has a low profile, with little to no media coverage, therefore not many people even knew of the ‘controversial’ awarding outside of those who attended TAMOZ or read the Australian Skeptics website.

In any case, within these three blogs can be found specific criticisms of the claims made by Australian Skeptics, which reflect what is felt to be a lack of understanding of the curriculum. None have been presented. No alternative links, criticisms or views have been quoted or even paraphrased.

Before I tease apart their media release on their review, I want to make clear as to why I’ve taken the time to address something few people know or care about. I don’t for a moment think it’s had any real impact on the decisions made by ACARA (in fact, from what I do understand, few – if any – within the authority – seem to even know of the award’s existence or seem to hold much concern for the views of Australian Skeptics), nor on the implementation of the national curriculum. It was a toothless exercise.

What does concern me is that where education is the key to developing effective thinking skills, Australian Skeptics have demonstrated no understanding of the system or practice they are criticising. Far from role modeling effective evaluation of a topic, presenting facts and data, engaging relevant experts, and directly addressing criticisms, they’ve arrogantly chosen to engage in ridicule without substance and avoid addressing the actual criticisms of their decision.

The media release states that the reviewers requested to remain anonymous. I have no desire to know who they are specifically, as it’s irrelevant. However in order to validate if they have experience which lends confidence to their contributions, their qualifications and relevant history would go far.

Australian Skeptics have chosen to make this decision public. If a media article supported a spurious claim by citing reference to ‘a number of experts’, I wonder how many of these skeptics would feel satisfied that it was so? Yet here, it’s acceptable.

Their justification starts with,

both in their appraisals and in the curriculum content that there is some confusion between a ‘syllabus’ and a ‘curriculum. The draft document is a curriculum that has the role of delineating topics to cover and basic premises inherent in those topics. As such, the draft fails on several fronts.

In general terms, a syllabus is the course material that is to be taught by a school, such as the actual content and assessment items required in order for it to qualify as a board subject. On the other hand, the curriculum informs this by way of providing a cohesive structure.

The claim that a national curriculum is supposed to delineate ‘topics to cover and basic premises inherent in those topics’, is overly simplistic to the point of risking being wrong. Since it forms a core reason for their award, it pays to examine this against a more involved explanation of what a curriculum does, as the difference makes it clear why their claim is without merit.

ACARA describes a national curriculum as per the following;

The Australian Curriculum sets out what all young Australians are to be taught, and the expected quality of that learning as they progress through schooling. At the same time, it provides flexibility for teachers and schools to build on student learning and interest.

In a nutshell, it’s not just the content, but the expected quality of it presented in a way that allows teachers as professionals to apply it with an appreciation of their students’ diversity. It is not a ‘delineation’ of content into topics, so much as a collection of skills, values and contexts that insinuate and suggest ‘what’ to teach so children across the country are all at the same level of understanding.

For some points, specific content will be secondary. It won’t matter if a child from Queensland has read ‘Animal Farm’ while a child from Tasmania hasn’t (but who has covered ‘1984’ in detail), for instance, so long as they’re each capable of critically evaluating a narrative, or discussing the importance of effective governance.

In other cases, content is important. The periodic table of elements is vital for understanding chemistry in later years of science, so is included in the curriculum in year 9.

There is always going to be some overlap between a syllabus and a curriculum, as the syllabus extends the curriculum by way of providing a practical schema. A good explanation of the difference can be found here. So, to state there is ‘confusion’ between the two after boldly misrepresenting the national curriculum’s aims doesn’t bode well for our alleged experts.

Nonetheless, moving on…

The claim is further expanded upon by stating;

For example, evolution is mentioned for the first time in courses for Year 10, which is the final year covered by the curriculum. We consider that this fundamental concept is intrinsic to studies in prior years, and therefore should have been raised much earlier.

On one hand, they’re claiming that there is ‘confusion’ on the fact that the national curriculum is being presented in some ways as a syllabus, only to have them wish evolution was explicitly raised earlier. The fact of the matter is that aspects important to understanding evolution are common throughout the curriculum. What isn’t present is the word ‘evolution’, as that topic specifically covers some complicated material that relies on that prior knowledge. For it to be more explicit, it would start to represent a syllabus by describing the content in greater contextual detail.

For example, in year 5 biology students are required to understand ‘Living things have structural features and adaptations that help them to survive in their environment‘. Adaptation is defined as a ‘physical or behavioural characteristic which is inherited and which result in an individual being more likely to survive and reproduce in an environment’.

No, evolution is not mentioned as a phenomenon here. Evolution is more than adaptation, and explaining this is not the role of a curriculum document, but at best a resource or (on the outside) a syllabus. Yet adaptation is necessary in understanding how evolution works, hence this particular topic breakdown is important within the structure.

Going further,

There are many missed opportunities to explain how science works and address scientific method. Frequent imprecision increases the risk of the teaching of science being contaminated with pseudoscience.

I can find a large number of statements such as ‘Suggest improvements to the methods used to investigate a question or solve a problem’ (Year 5, Science Inquiry Skills) which makes me wonder if they’ve even read the same document as me. Could there be more shoved in? Possibly, however one of the concerns of teachers is the amount of material required to be covered in a school year, which led to a revision that caused substantial cuts (including, ironically, a mention of Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace whose alleged ‘omission’ initially formed a significant focus of the original award nomination) to lighten the curriculum.

It is presented as a major concern by critics that Australian Skeptics were criticising a ‘draft document’. Perhaps some did. I didn’t. Deb didn’t. Bruce mentioned it once in brackets, admittedly. I was more concerned that there was no suggestion of their engaging in the review process beyond an exercise of ridicule.

We acknowledge this observation, but point out that a draft curriculum is an important position statement on course development and content, and even at that stage is presumably not without considered and considerable input.

If the Australian Skeptics were so adamant that the draft is an ‘important position statement’ and that it required ‘considered and considerable input’, why didn’t they do just this? Why use mockery, when involvement in the actual consultation would have been far more productive?

In summary, the review substantiated the original decision using the same vague, unsupported justifications;

Overall, the reviews substantiated our own assessment that the draft curriculum was weak. A curriculum should set minimum standards, but this draft created too many openings for less able teachers to make errors or to introduce pseudoscientific concepts as proven; there were too many missed opportunities to establish correct methodology; and there were not enough mentions of important tenets of science, including scientific method and evolution.

After detailed expert review, we have concluded that the 2010 Bent Spoon award to ACARA was justified and should stand.

Far from demonstrating an understanding of how the education system works, they refer to nameless ‘experts’ while presenting a simplistic view of what they’re criticising. And rather that present the criticisms clearly and plainly, they’ve chosen to generalise and evade.

There is little more than can be said on the topic as it draws to a close. Australian Skeptics – or, to be fair, a small but significant representative panel of this community – have chosen to distance themselves from the politics of our education system rather than engage with it. It is a unfortunate act of short sightedness on their behalf, yet one I can only be grateful for since this embarrassing behaviour sadly represents their view of what constitutes good critical thinking on matters that they are emotionally attached to.

Published in: on April 6, 2011 at 9:09 pm  Comments (9)  

Another man’s poison

leper

Acne, leprosy...same thing...

Tribal Science has now been out on the bookshelves for an entire month. I’m awaiting news on how well it’s doing, yet the handful of reviews it’s received – not to mention informal word-of-mouth feedback – have been pleasantly encouraging.

My local paper ran a relatively lengthy review, which for the most part was positive. Yet there was one thorn on this rose which stuck a little.

Now, there are always two ways to handle criticism – as an anabolic exercise, where growth and learning is the outcome…and tantrums. Tantrums are rarely good, so this is an opportunity worth unwrapping.

The reviewer took fair exception to my statement, ‘Disease exists within a tribal construct, as a difference between mere individual variation and social dysfunction.’ It wasn’t so much that he disagreed with it, but rather that he felt it was a meaningless statement worthy of comparison with Alan Sokal’s famous journal paper.

I have to admit it’s possible I completely misread my potential audience by making a claim without giving due consideration to prior knowledge or beliefs, therefore not presenting adequate reasoning.

It’s a rather heavy statement to make, in hindsight. In my western, post-industrial, scientifically-appreciative culture, disease is a relatively simple concept. It’s something that makes you feel unwell in some way. Some diseases are bad enough to kill you, and others make you a little grumpy and uncomfortable. But if you don’t feel an appropriate level of goodness…for all purposes, we can say you’ve got a disease of some sort.

Unfortunately, I take my objections to this conventional view so much for granted, accusations of pseudoscience come as a surprise. And, of course, they shouldn’t.

Stating that disease is a social construct smacks so much of extreme post-modernism, it makes sense that anybody with a passion for science is going to bristle. It’d be as ludicrous as believing a person could be both alive and dead, depending only on who you ask.

Yet while disease is objectively a feature of biological functionality, functionality is subjectively related directly to the environment. Including the social environment. In the very least, it’s a functionality that reduces a perception of well being in some way, which is determined by the behaviour and beliefs of those around you.

Being lactose intolerant makes no difference if you’re in a community that doesn’t drink milk. It’s a variation of no real consequence. If everybody relies on it for its sustenance, you’re in a bit of trouble – your variation in function could spell your demise.

Nowhere is this definition of disease more important than in mental health. Variations in behaviour (which unless you’re a dualist can be considered to be strictly a condition of one’s neurology) can be a hindrance to that sense of well being. Depression, anxiety attacks, and even ‘dubious’ dispositions such as Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder are directly related to human interactions. In Japan, the condition ‘hikikomori’ describes an acute withdrawal from society, and is rapidly coming to be viewed as much of a problem as depression is in the west. While there might well be physiological similarities between it and anxiety in the west, treating them as synonymous conditions risks missing subtelties in their etiology and potential treatments.

Of course, some things are considerably universal. Being unable to contribute to the community because you’re laid up in bed with a fever, in agony, is desired as much by some Polynesian fisherman as it is by a Japanese businessman. But what if you’re laid up in a hut because you’re menstruating? Few would consider this to be a disease given so many women ‘suffer’ from this uncomfortable period, yet if this same variation in functioning existed in just a minority, it would be indistinguishable from the western perception of a disease and would result in the same medical behaviours.

American medical anthropologist Allan Young describes disease as;

a kind of behavior which would be socially unacceptable (because it involves withdrawal or threatened withdrawal from customary responsibilities) if it were not that some means of exculpation is always provided.

Young, A. (1976), Some Implications of Medical Beliefs and Practices for Social Anthropology, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 78, No. 1 pp. 5-24

Similarly, historian Charles Rosenberg claims;

[d]isease is at once a biological event, a generation-specific repertoire of verbal constructs reflecting medicine’s intellectual and institutional history, an aspect of and potential legitimation for public policy, a potentially defining element of social role, a sanction for cultural norms, and a structuring element in doctor/patient interactions.

Rosenberg, C., (1989) Disease in History: Frames and Framers, The Milbank Quarterly, Vol. 67, Suppl.1

In terms that aren’t so fancy, when your body functions in a way that is defined by your culture as intolerable – whether it’s experiencing a certain level of discomfort or being unable to contribute or interact in an acceptable fashion – the community behaves as if you’ve got a disease. Culpability is reduced. You’re pitied, not punished. A ritual is enacted that attempts to alleviate the symptoms or return functionality.

This is most notable in how conditions are treated when they aren’t labeled as diseases. When drug dependency is defined as a disease there is a perception of reduced responsibility, for instance. ‘Insanity’ can be entered as a defence for unacceptable behaviour, making the difference between a sentence in a prison and resources being dedicated to your rehabilitation in a mental health facility.

Yet disease is such a staunch biophysical concept in our society, we find it difficult to peel away the layers and question what determines an acceptable level of discomfort, an acceptable physical challenge, an acceptable interaction.

It’s an important question to ask when limited resources are devoted to repairing biology viewed as faulty, when a pill is popped for a dysfunctional child, or when we struggle over whether an alcoholic deserves derision or a helping hand. Yet it deserves more than a passing line in a book, as well, especially without sufficient explanation.

Published in: on April 4, 2011 at 8:39 pm  Comments (5)  

Minus 10:23 – The little campaign that could

Avogadro

Also known as 'the mole man' to his friends.

On the first weekend of February this year, anti-homeopathy demonstrations were held in twenty-three cities spread across ten countries. Groups of skeptics took to the streets with a simple message for the public – there is nothing in a homeopathy remedy other than a solvent. No active compounds, no medicinal molecules. Nada.

The 10:23 campaign – so-called for the 6.02 x 10^23 particles in a mole of any substance – focused on the chemistry of homeopathy in an effort to provide the public with a grain of science with which to make a better choice. As a means of attracting interest, many participants chose to ingest quantities of homeopathic remedy in order to emphasise their claim that homeopathy was not like a conventional pill, with active components that increased with dosage.

I’ve written before on the tendency for participants to engage in activism without asking whether it is demonstrably effective. And contrary to how it might seem, I’m actually in favour of such activism, in principle. Grassroots movements have the capacity to bring about significant changes in society, and 10:23 has shown success in achieving significant output. The message is simple and consistent, and the campaign carries media appeal.

However, output is but a small factor, and often risks being a misleading one when used to denote success. Therefore the question is; what factors should activists consider in changing the public’s medical behaviour?

Target acquired

Perhaps an even more fundamental consideration is simply ‘why bother at all?’. Why make the effort to change how others see homeopathy? Why engage in activism at all?

Ethically speaking, it would be difficult to justify wanting to change another’s behaviour for any reason other than an altruistic one. Public confusion over herbal remedies and the pseudoscience of homeopathy might offend rationalist values, but unless it carries some form of public risk, it’s hard to sell as anything but bigotry.

There is a clear case for claiming that irrational behaviour can lead to poor decision-making, creating undesired consequences for those responsible. When a person wants good health and chooses medication presenting a poor risk-benefit ratio, sympathy demands some form of intervention.

In regards to homeopathy, the fact that the medication is nothing more than an innocuous solvent presents close to zero risk for a near zero benefit. Instead, the harm is claimed to lie in the possible inaction of the individual in seeking scientifically supported health treatment. Additionally, it is proposed that homeopathy is strongly associated with sociocultural beliefs that lead to further health decisions that are incompatible with scientifically supported medicine.

In other words, homeopathy is harmful when people avoid treatment that might be more helpful as a result of believing they’re already being treated.

Who’s ‘at risk’?

Identifying members of this subpopulation is tricky to do, especially for a globalised event. Use of homeopathy varies significantly between countries. A survey of the German population found just over one in ten had used it as a medication at least once[1], while in Australia it’s only one in twenty[2]. In any case, this is not necessarily the target ‘at risk’ population, but rather those who have used homeopathy for any reason.

In the United States, 4.4 per cent of the population have reported to rely on alternative medicines to the exclusion of conventional treatments[3]. While I was unable to locate the proportion of homeopathic uses in this specific instance, a report[4] by the National Center for Health Statistics (CDC) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded 3.6 per cent of alternative medicine use by individuals in the US over the age of 18 was homeopathic.

In rough terms, that amounts to a possible 500 000 people in the United States who could potentially use homeopathy and not much else to treat their ill health. Of that, it’s hard to judge how many would change their mind when treated with a serious illness.

Of course, that’s a significant number of people, and of those there’s still a real risk of serious illness or even death for some individuals. In European countries, this figure could be far higher. The point is not that such a miniscule fraction of the population is insignificant – it’s that it is an extremely narrow demographic to target, if it’s their behaviour a campaign is to change.

Fighting vitalism with science

The campaign relies on presenting a mechanism for homeopathy as unscientific. The fact that there are no chemically active ingredients in a homeopathic solution is promoted in order to demonstrate that the homeopath’s claims are ‘impossible’. While this is true, there is an unstated assumption that this fact will have an influence (either direct or indirect) on the behaviour of a target demographic.

No homeopath would argue that there are chemically active components remaining in their tinctures. There are two significant schools of ‘mechanism’ explaining why the remedy works in spite of this. One is practically materialistic – the solvent’s molecular properties change in the presence of a solute. The other is vitalistic – an essential force or property from the solute remains in the solvent. Neither is scientifically supported, however neither relies on chemistry as it is conventionally understood.

That means for an individual to accept the efficacy of homeopathy, a belief in textbook chemistry and physics must be superseded by alternative evidence. This alternative evidence appears to overwhelmingly take the form of social influences, with values in ‘holistic’ beliefs and a mistrust of conventional medicine[5].

For a person to merely try homeopathy, however, it takes nothing more than curiosity acting upon the social acceptance of the efficacy of this ‘natural’ remedy.

For the message ‘there’s nothing in it’ to create change, it must resonate with a firm appreciation of the laws of chemistry and physics, to the point that there can be no wiggle-room for the possibility of vitalistic or pseudoscientific mechanisms. In other words, the person must prioritise values in science while being ignorant of what homeopathy truly is.

There is no doubt that a sizeable percentage of the general ‘curious’ population falls into this category. And it is this group who might well be persuaded to put that bottle of diluted diluent back on the shelf.

Yet how likely is it that our target group consists of individuals who prioritise chemistry and physics over vitalism and personal, unblinded experience? Chances are slim.

Another target

Of course, it might not be important to directly target those members of the population who are at the greatest risk from their own choices. Some would patronise them by calling them ‘true believers’, claiming they would be beyond change anyway. By changing the behaviours of the ‘casual curious’ users, the culture of alternative medical use might shift, potentially even affecting the market in ways to reduce distribution and maybe even see the culture itself dissolve.

It’s a crafty idea that would work if the culture and the market were indeed supported by people who prioritised science over essentialism or social beliefs.

Unfortunately, while about half of new users of complementary or alternative medicine are those who are merely curious about trying something different, it’s unlikely that dissuading them would have an appreciable impact on alternative medicine culture or marketing. Just as a small percentage of the population are responsible for the majority of visits to conventional healthcare providers, alternative healthcare is buoyed by a minority of users. A study by the American Medical Association ‘suggests that only 8.9% of the population accounted for more than 75% of the 629 million visits estimated to have been made to CAM providers in 1997[6]’ Changing the minds of nine out of ten ‘casual’ or even potential users, in other words, is unlikely to even dent the alternative medicine culture or industry.

10:23 might have reached a lot of people, but it would be misleading to readily assume this is the same as striking at the heart of the problem. Even if it manages to polarise populations and become a popular event, success can’t be measured in nodding heads.

Is all therefore lost?

Not necessarily. The 10:23 campaign demonstrated that through social media it’s possible for passionate people who embrace scientific values to gather in great numbers for an altruistic cause. As a resource, this is a tremendous asset that could potentially save lives.

The question is, what, exactly, is it targeting? The casual user, or the at-risk population? The average casual user is more likely to misunderstand what homeopathy is and be persuaded by scientific values, but is far less likely to abstain from other forms of medical treatment, using it in a ‘complementary’ fashion. In a best-case scenario, success with this demographic could reduce the pharmacy-shelf purchases of homeopathic ‘cold and flu’ remedies who rely on the confusion between ‘herbal’ and ‘homeopathic’.

Yet to have an appreciable impact on the demographic at risk of making decisions that impact on their health, it pays to understand the cause of the problem being addressed and enact a plan in accordance with it. With few exceptions, most investigations into the reasons why people turn to homeopaths (as opposed to merely using over-the-counter remedies) conclude that some form of dissatisfaction with conventional treatments is involved[7]. Whether it is a poor personal experience with a doctor, undesired side effects from medication, failure of medicine to work or a misdiagnosis, conventional medicine is actively rebuffed for homeopathy.

The 10:23 campaign’s ‘overdose’ publicity required little spin for alternative medicine advocates to subvert to their own agenda, playing on fear of conventional medicine by arguing that homeopathy is not only remarkably effective, it is safe.

What of other indicators? Interestingly, education is positively correlated with use of alternative medicine in general, as is poor health status[8]. Far from ignorance on what medicine is, it is more often a combination of illness being combined with a personal, essentialist philosophy that leads people into alternative medical cultures. Knowing what scientists say is not the same as valuing scientific beliefs, hence repeating the facts is not synonymous with winning appeal in such instances.

Correlations also exist with compatible philosophies such as environmentalism or personal ‘spiritual’ growth, indicating that alternative medicine subcultures are far from discrete social groups. Indeed, research warns against treating the demographic as a homogeneous collective. Hence while target opportunities are indicated through certain correlations, such as attitude towards medicine and personal philosophies, it’s too easy to make generalised assumptions that aren’t strongly reflected in the population, such as education level, socioeconomics and ethnicity.

Where to from here?

For activism to be successful in changing public behaviour, it must resonate with pre existing conditions, or ‘opportunities’. The 10:23 campaign could arguably have succeeded with opportunities in the fraction of the public who act out of ignorant curiosity, and as such might affect ‘casual’ homeopathy use. Those same opportunities are unlikely to exist within populations at risk of poor health decision making, however, which is the demographic most often cited as potentially suffering harm from homeopathy.

Is there a way for activism to impact on this group at all? Are they really just ‘true believers’ beyond help, or is that a simplistic dismissal?

Given the opportunities in this case lie in attitudes towards conventional healthcare and personal ‘sympathetic’ philosophies, any effort to really reduce the harm caused by alternative medicine needs to be constructive in improving the perception of science and conventional medicine, rather than destructive and antagonistic towards irrational beliefs. Stunts that ridicule alternative medicine must give way to presentations that put scientists and medical practitioners in an affable light, that demystify medicine and demonstrate not just its effectiveness, but as a sympathetic community.

It would perhaps be a refreshing and positive angle for future campaigns to focus less on antagonistic tactics, and more on reinforcing positive attitudes towards the role of chemistry and physics in medicine. Connecting the public to the strength of science in decision making is a challenge worthy of a mass of passionate people. And just maybe it might mean homeopathy would one day join humour balance and phrenology as a historical curiosity in our medical past.


[1] Bücker, B; Groenewold M, Schoefer Y, Schäfer T, (2008), The use of complementary alternative medicine (CAM) in 1 001 German adults: results of a population-based telephone survey”. Gesundheitswesen, 70 (8-9): e29–36.

[2] MacLennan AH, Wilson DH, Taylor AW, (1996), Prevalence and cost of alternative medicine in Australia, Lancet 347 (9001): 569–573

[3] Astin, J., (1998) Why Patients Use Alternative Medicine Results of a National Study, JAMA (19):1548-1553

[4] Barnes, P.M., Powell-Griner, E., McFann K., Nahin, R.L, (2002) Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults: United States, Division of Health Interview Statistics and National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health

[5] McIntosh C., Ogunbanjo, G.A., (2008) Why Do Patients Choose to Consult Homeopaths? South African Family Practice, Vol 50, No 3

[6] Wolsko P.M., Eisenberg, D.M., Davis, R.B., Ettner S.L., Phillips, R.S., (2002), Insurance Coverage, Medical Conditions, and Visits to Alternative Medicine Providers – Results of a National Survey, ARCH INTERN MED, Vol 162 pp 281

[7] McIntosh C., Ogunbanjo, G.A., (2008)

[8] Astin, J., (1998)

Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 9:11 am  Comments (2)  
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Teaching in the black box

Tyndall's lecture

"No...it's 'wingardium levi-OH-sa'," a lone voice in the audience cried.

I remembered using biuret solution in my old biochemistry classes at university, many moons ago. It’s a pale smurf-blue liquid that darkens in the presence of protein. Along with benedict’s test and the primary school favourite of iodine-on-starch, classroom food chemistry commonly relies on such demonstrations to provide students with the practical means to analyse unidentified substances.

As a teacher, I found using solutions like biuret reagent introduced a tiny dilemma. While I was pleased that students were engaged in problem solving, this liquid was simply a magical device for enchanting an answer from a recipe. I found similar problems in teaching mathematics – whatever came out of the small black box on their desk was the solution. So what if the calculator said the ant was a metre long? Who cares if the solution turned purple in the presence of sugar? That’s the answer that the black box produced, reality be damned!

Recently I discovered I could make biuret solution from material bought at the hardware. Drain cleaner and garden variety ‘bluestone’ (copper sulphate crystals) to be exact. Add some protein powder and watch that baby turn purple. Best of all, the materials aren’t commonly associated with lab coats and Erlenmeyer flasks.

I’ve found over years of making and finding science demonstrations that science works best as a process of connections. No child is familiar with biuret reagent. Many have come across sodium hydroxide in the form of Draino, or copper sulphate pentahydrate as a soil additive. From familiarity connections can be built far more easily than mysterious tinctures. Suddenly science is embedded in the real world of hardware stores and garden centres, leaving Hogwarts far behind.

So-called ‘black box’ science is all too common in education. Input goes in one end of the box and output comes out the other side. In between is all polyjuice and Quidditch. I still cringe at any science show that attempts to excite children by demonstrating a chemical reaction by referring to the reagents as ‘potions’.

The demonstration has a long, proud history in science communication. Sir Humphry Davy and his successor, Michael Faraday, were well known for their spectacular lectures. Every baby boomer in Australia knows ‘why it is so’ when an egg is sucked into a bottle. ‘Don’t tell, show!’ is almost second nature in science education. And for good reason. When it comes to constructing knowledge, our brains have a bias for personal experience.

Yet in communication, this can be a double edged sword. The surrounding context for such experiences carries tremendous weight when successfully incorporating an idea into a mental model.

A classic example is the observation of a saucer of water water rising into a glass inverted over a lit candle. Many a child has gone away believing they just saw air disappear as it was burned by a flame, creating a vacuum. The reasons for this misinterpretation are numerous; maybe their prior knowledge led them to assume matter can disappear. Or their teacher provided them with a poor metaphor. Perhaps there were other demonstrations they’d recently engaged in that created confusion about the underlying physics. The teacher simply could have provided incorrect information.

In any case, that same potency behind the demonstration that was of such benefit can prove to be the source of misinformation if used without due thought given to the culture of the audience, or if its execution goes awry. As every magician knows, it’s not just the slight of hand that deceives an audience, but your story entangled with their expectations. Magicians who fumble their narrative or fail to understand their audience can be as nimble as they like – the rabbit will still be obvious in the hat.

It still shocks me when I come across science presenters or teachers who confess to not having tested a demonstration before going ‘live’, or use metaphors that are even more complicated than the phenomenon they’re explaining. Often a presenter or educator will attempt to go for flash and entertainment at the expense of audience connection, compromising on tight similes by investing in drama, noise and pyrotechnics.

Having now personally found, created or modified over 150 science demonstrations (one a week for the past three years, more or less) from simple materials, I’ve learned a couple of things. One is to always do a trial run. Two, never underestimate what your audience might find interesting. And three, know the limits of what is being observed. Lest your audience walk away with fantasies of one mile long ants and polyjuice potions instead of an appreciation of how useful science really is at explaining what we see.

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 3:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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