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?


Minus 10:23 – The little campaign that could


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

"'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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The placebo protest: under the microscope

Placebo pills

Protesting makes me feel good.

At the end of April last year, I wrote an essay on the rise of protest-based demonstrations as a means of engaging with the public on certain irrational beliefs. While the 10:23 homeopathy campaign and the so-called Boobquake protest were the two references I provided, other examples such as the atheist billboards in the US can be arguably included in the category of what I termed the ‘placebo protest’.

In its simplest terms, protests can be described as any collective’s attempt to coerce others into changing behaviour or taking action, making it a fairly broad category that can include many different forms of public engagement. However, the term also suggests the active opposing of an existing social condition, so is commonly negative or antagonistic in nature. A campaign that promotes the message ‘don’t eat pizza from Joe’s” is a protest, while ‘eat at Joe’s Pizzeria’  is less likely to fall into that category.

While academic literature varies somewhat in the precise boundaries of what constitutes a protest, there is a consensus amongst outreach researchers that any attempt to impact on public behaviour relies on specific environmental conditions (termed ‘opportunities’) to succeed. Identifying these conditions can make the difference between winning people over and wasting resources trying.

A good example of identifying opportunities involves understanding how a target demographic interprets a particular message. Using communication tools that convey subtle variations in meaning between sub-cultures risks losing key messages in translation; using stunts, demonstrations or slogans that mean one thing to the protester (or extend from a culture within that group rather than one understood externally) and another to an audience could make any effort to change behaviour somewhat impotent, or even counter productive.

A significant impediment to identifying opportunities in a demographic is a lack of  – or wide variation in – explicit goals. Terms such as ‘promoting education in…’ and ‘raising awareness of…’ are commonly bandied about without objective qualifiers or even a hint of an observable indicator. Often, the qualities of the target audience might be too broad or be presumed without good evidence. Without clear aims or targets there is an added risk of ad hoc justifications of success, typically relying on output (audience scope and reach) to represent impact (change of behaviour).

For a form of outreach to be a placebo protest, however, there is one last important feature – those engaged have to demonstrate little interest in evaluating the circumstances or effectiveness of their actions. Like placebo medicine, placebo activism is practiced not with a true desire to blind oneself to bias, but simply to feel better on having acted, regardless of the true impact of their efforts.

While I can’t accuse all individuals who are engaged in any single protest campaign of doing so for merely placebo reasons, there is some irony in that a number of people will happily offer explanations for their participation that aren’t unlike the same explanations many users of homeopathy or natural medicine offer; ‘soft science like sociology or psychology is too ineffective to study the effects of what I intuitively already suspect to be true’, ‘it takes all types of action to make a difference’, ‘doing something is better than doing nothing’, and ‘it might not work for all people, but what’s the harm in trying?’

Central to the placebo protest is the apparent assumption that sharing feelings is synonymous with sharing knowledge. An emotional reaction to a wrongdoing leads to encouraging others to see it as silly, immoral or dangerous. That’s not to say this is always ineffective (history is full of examples of fear campaigns that are immensely successful in changing behaviours), however when it comes to rational outreach, should it be the desired approach?

Boobquake was proposed as a scientific study, for example, however was presented more as a satirical exercise poking fun at an Iranian prayer leader’s claim that the exposed skin of females is positively correlated with earthquakes. Either way, it’s unclear as to what – precisely – the point of the exercise was, if not an outlet for indignation. Many people have their own view of the agenda, whether it was to promote scientific values, encourage people to understand more about tectonics, or to simply ridicule a specific view (thereby encouraging an emotional reaction in the population to an emotional claim).

The actual impact, regardless of the intentions, is unknown. Was it antagonistic towards the goals of many feminists? Did it polarise views or change them? Were a significant number of people more aware of the science of earthquakes, or of the importance of statistics in science? It’s not clear. Yet there was still a sense of ‘success’ given it had a large output.

When the sense of success carries more importance than a true understanding, however, science loses out. This is the placebo protest. For a community of people protesting in the name of science, it is a rather bitter hypocrisy.

Likewise, when the association of American Atheists launched a billboard campaign in time for Christmas, 2010, telling people ‘You know it’s a myth!’, it’s hard to know what the real aim was. At face value, it might serve as encouragement for members of the driving public who hold some theistic beliefs to abandon them. How successful was it? Are billboards an effective means for spending such funds, or could they have achieved the same (or better) results by spending it elsewhere? If they’re successful, how did it compete against the reciprocal billboard funded by Catholics stating ‘You know it’s real’?

What of the 10:23 campaign, now in its second year? Interestingly, one individual decided to take a closer look at the 2010 homeopathic ‘suicide’ stunt and seek some evidence of its impact.

As a part of a research project, David Waldock sampled reports from the mainstream and social media and analysed them in relation to the event. Focusing on a single objective of the campaign – ‘To educate the public about the full story of homeopathy, to cause them to question and become opinionated about homeopathy’ – he found that the context of the various forms of media discussion changed from being more scientific and clinical to being more political, tending towards language that reflected regulation rather than the specific mechanics of the practice.

Of course, this lays the foundation for a rather interesting discussion. Given evidence of a discourse that is leaning towards regulation, should this be the goal of future protests? Is it better to influence politics and act top-down, or should activists continue to focus on changing attitudes from the bottom-up? Are resources being well used if this is the response, or should they change?

The important thing is, useful discussion can now progress further on the back of potential evidence than on blind assertions. David’s work is by no means the final word on the matter, but it has at least provided grist for the mill and is a clear attempt at marrying observed consequences with actions.

For activism to be successful, it needs to be done with evidence, experience and expertise. Currently, protests and stunts seem to be performed more as a means of expressing frustration, anger or bigotry than a measured way of encouraging a change of culture. As such, success is measured by how many people know you’re upset.

Yet if we truly wish to combat the poor consequences of irrational thinking, we need to identify what makes outreach effective, and distinguish this from occasions when it is merely a way to placate the irate.

The Others



Medicines stupid people use (nb., I'm not one of them).

“How can skeptics have a dialogue with homeopaths?” Michelle asks that modern well of insight and wisdom, ‘Yahoo’. “[W]ithout pointing out the stupidity of their arguments? I’m thinking about the paranoid ramblings about big pharma as well as the ignorance of simple science.”

Ignoring for a moment the framing of Michelle’s query, I was interested to scan through the responses for a solution two centuries of debate on the topic might have overlooked.

“Crucially, homeopaths lack the educational level to understand how their potions can only be water,” says Dave, a top contributor. Another top contributor says, “They only start with the fallacies to avoid providing evidence – so no matter what they crap on about, keep dragging them back to evidence.”

“Never argue with an idiot, they’ll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience,” says Flizbap 2.0.

And on it goes. There are some that advocate avoidance of engagement without resorting to well-poisoning or flippant antagonism, but for the most part the advice involves engaging in a behaviour anthropologists and other social scientists refer to as ‘othering‘.

Regardless of the intentions, the practice involves judgments of inferiority or impeded progress based on observations of contrasting social beliefs, behaviours and values. It is born of ethnocentrism, where observations are made with the assumption that one’s own experiences define what is objectively desirable. The result is a sense that a group of people, ‘them’, is inferior to one’s own company, or ‘us’, on account of differences in beliefs and values.

By the dawn of the 21st century, however, ethnology has had enough of an influence on the developed world that it’s become difficult to ‘other’ non-local cultures without seeming naïve or xenophobic. Most people have come to see that subsistence farming or hunter-gathering is not a mark of inferiority or low intelligence, and limited technological dependence is a socioeconomic issue rather than a cultural or cognitive failing. Openly claiming a village in the Papua New Guinea highland is ignorant, stupid or indulgent in logical fallacies would probably raise eyebrows, leading such discussions on cultural practices to be couched in less derisive terms. While the debate over racial intelligence might continue, it’s harder to find people who justify their beliefs by pointing out contrasting traditions, lifestyles or cultural practices.

However, within national borders, ethnocentrism returns with all of the ignorance of our colonial ancestors. If it’s one habit we can’t seem to shake, it’s that our nationalistic heritage has embedded in us a strong correlation between culture and country, as if by being white and sharing an accent our cultural values must be homogeneous. As a result, othering occurs far easier with those who appear (at least superficially) to share an ethnic background.

What’s missed is that within our own community there are shades of culture and sub culture that pool, ebb and overlap. Healthcare is just one example, yet one that has significant consequences beyond other examples of cultural behaviour such as art or language. Medicine in the context of a scientific product leads many to interpret healthcare as a ‘culture without a culture‘. Science and medicine is typically presented as timeless, truthful and above all, objectively correct. It’s strictly biophysical, with its sociocultural component reduced to a vestigial nub.

As such, it’s far easier to other those who demonstrate contrasting medical behaviours. Lack of intellect or education can be easily held up as reasons for their alternative beliefs without evidence, as it’s assumed that all else must be equal. As such, archaic and empty solutions such as ‘better education’ or legal enforcement is suggested as a way of making people see sense.

In truth, there is a multitude of reasons why people use alternative medicines, few of which (if any) have much of a direct link with a level of education or cognitive deficiencies. Rather, values in what constitutes good evidence, familial traditions, cultural identities and distrust of contrasting sociocultural groups play far greater roles in determining health behaviour than university degrees or brain function. In other words, the very same factors medical anthropologists deal with abroad when studying any other health culture are responsible for the same alternative beliefs in our own community.

The question on how best to address culture change is also just as relevant here as it is elsewhere. It’s all well and good that African or Indigenous communities retain their cultural heritage, but what does one do when it conflicts with treatments for HIV, alcohol abuse or diabetes? This is a question a good friend of mine is currently researching through the Australian National University; as you might expect, the resulting discussion demands more than a simplistic ‘they need better education’ or ‘they’re just stupid’. Yet it’s not a novel dilemma; whether it’s vaccination, water sanitation, nutrition or infant care, the question of how to effectively assist diverse communities in improving and maintaining their health and wellbeing has occupied anthropologists for years, producing rich debate and diverse results.

Ironically, those who propose answers for Michelle seem to identify as individuals who would normally value science as a way of presenting useful solutions to a problem. Why then do few seem to be informed by research? Why are the answers without citations or references, seeming to be based on little more than personal hunches or folk wisdom?

Based on my own experience, few would be inclined to look further as they already assume to be correct. Science works for some things…unless you already think you know, at which point it’s all rhetoric and pedantry. Social science is a soft science, therefore gut feelings and intuition are as useful (if not more so).

Michelle’s question and many of the answers reveal the roadblock we face here in our efforts to address alternative healthcare. Rather than treating it as a legitimate sociological question, where science might provide some insight, the issue is reduced to a dichotomy of smart vs. stupid, of educated vs. naive. When those are the questions we ask, we certainly can’t hope for any productive answers.