Brussels, October 13-16, 2005
Yes, it is bizarre what some people believe. But there you go, there’s nowt so queer as folk (an English informal saying; said to emphasize that people sometimes behave in a very strange ways, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, it would be a dull world if we all thought the same), and there’s an end on it.
Except, except, that some people’s bizarre beliefs seem to get up other people’s noses. So much so that there are even a few bizarre academics who spend their time and tax payers’ money enquiring why other bizarre people adopt bizarre beliefs. Does it matter? Is it worth starting to save up for the next European Skeptics Congress?
Well yes, after three enjoyable days at the 2005 Congress, I think all this does matter, and I think it probably will be worth going to the next European Skeptics Congress (Ireland, 2007) – provided, that is, that the European Skeptics promise to start taking their own medicine. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, or ce qui est bon pour l’un l’est pour l’autre, as we Europeans say.
I should note straight off that the 2005 Congress was well organized, with a (mostly) excellent set of contributions, a nice venue, good logistics support, and even a much appreciated book-stall.
There is also a first class website for the Congress . It’s a pity that the programme had nothing on Skepticism and the E.U., but perhaps that’s a subject for another time.
I suppose that most readers of this page will want to read about the final event on the programme. I think the Congress organisers foresaw this as a barbecue-with-fireworks, where Rupert Sheldrake would be spit-roasted by the assembled company, led by Dr. Jan Willem Nienhuys (ex University of Eindhoven), with Prof Johan Braeckman (University of Ghent) to see fair play. It didn’t quite turn out like that.
But before talking about the Sheldrake event I must give an overview of the Congress as a whole. You can find summaries of all the talks on the Congress web site (see end note 1). I have also put links to the Congress web site’s nice biographies of the speakers into this text.
Reports from the front line
First then there were reports from the skeptics’ front line. Herbal fraud in the Netherlands: Libidfit (Marie Prins, NL) related the tale of a "400-year old recipe used by the Royal Court" that is undoubtedly efficacious for flaccid Royal males, but only, it turns out, thanks to some undeclared, and much less than 400 year old, additional molecules of Viagra.
From the Sokal affair to the Teissier affair (Professor Jean Bricmont, University of Louvain, BE) ran from post modernist fun and games – which are still not over (see end note 2) – to the more recent affair of François Mitterrand’s astrologer Dr. Elizabeth Teissier whose doctorate was awarded her by the Sorbonne, no less.
From Africa, Professor Fadel Niang (Ecole Supérieure Polytechnique – Senegal) had an excellent presentation on Pseudosciences, libertés médiatiques et esprit critique en Afrique de l’Ouest (Pseudoscience, exaggerations in the media, and the critical approach in West Africa).
Finally back in Europe and On the policy of some Dutch medical-scientific societies towards their members, practicing alternative medicine: reproachable negligence by Dr Cees Renckens (Westfries Gasthuis – NL), a skeptical doctor at the front line, who described how he had detected questionable practices of certain Dutch internists, neurologists, clinical chemists and dental surgeons; and blown the whistle. The results were somewhat variable.
Overall it seems to me that skeptical detecting is a good sport, but that the technology has not advanced much since the time of I.J Good (see end note 3).
Then there were presentations by academics; by those who are teaching their students how to think skeptically – Richard Monvoisin (EDISCE, FR) Forewarned is forearmed – How to use examples of pseudoscientific gaps and insidious philosophical trends in science magazines to teach critical thinking and by those who do research, trying to understand whats going on in the minds of uncritical believers;
James E. Alcock (York University – Canada) “The appeal of alternative medicine”.
Barry Beyerstein (Simon Fraser University – Canada) “Errors of perception and reasoning that make bogus therapies seem to work”.
Michael Heap (University of Sheffield – UK) (no biography found on the Congress website) “Let’s wave goodbye to the unconscious mind”.
Christopher French (Goldsmiths College London- UK) “The Haunt Project: Can we build a haunted room?”
The teaching approach seemed to me very Cartesian, first teaching a typology of errors, then applying it to dismember someone else’s straw man. I would prefer to teach critical thinking via a bit of hands on enquiry (lets try to walk on water, on fire), or at least via Socratic dialogue, in the fashion of Oxbridge supervisions. But perhaps that’s not judged cost-effective, in these cash-strapped times.
Among the academic researchers, I was heartened to listen to some good plain common sense, for example:
Alcock: “…the appeal of alternative medicine is not dissimilar to the appeal of evidence-based medicine as it was traditionally provided by family physicians in the past… There is much more to medicine than medicine.”
Beyerstein: “…the majority of those who sell bogus products, however, are not deliberate frauds, but sincere but self-deluded.”
Heap: “If activities cause us fear, anxiety, guilt, anger and so on we often avoid doing them; this avoidance can be habitual and we may not be fully aware that we are doing this. … the therapist helps the person to confront the things that he or she is avoiding through anxiety and so on, and to be able to deal appropriately with them.”
But the Congress flier says … it will be necessary to understand what’s making them (bogus therapies and pseudoscientific stories) so attractive and why — among other things — politicians so often lend them a helping hand.
I do not judge that such understanding was demonstrated, at least not in the sense of being able to predict what strange things people will believe next. Perhaps, after all, its enough to conclude that
“there’s nowt so queer as folk”.
The speakers certainly did demonstrate that some in our society are vulnerable to poppycock dressed up as expertise, and that we can’t always rely on our official gatekeepers to filter it out. However,
see end note 4 for a case of official gatekeepers who have done their job. Perhaps the 2007 Congress should try to draw up a gate-keepers’ score-sheet; goals for and goals against.
Its not easy, though. Knowing nothing about the affair of The WHO and homeopathy, I was carried away by Professor Willem Betz (VUB Brussels BE) "…Organisations that sell or promote un-scientific or anti-scientific medicine have infiltrated the decision making levels of the WHO. The latest scandal was the secret attempt to prepare a dishonest pro-homeopathy propaganda pamphlet for publishing. Is was only thinly disguised as a scientific study …". Strong sceptical stuff.
But after the Congress I cross checked on WHO’s website… and found this: New WHO guidelines to promote proper use of alternative medicines. Adverse drug reactions to alternative medicines have more than doubled in three years. "WHO supports traditional and alternative medicines when these have demonstrated benefits for the patient and minimal risks", said Dr. Lee Jong-wook, Director-General of WHO. "But as more people use these medicines, governments should have the tools to ensure all stakeholders have the best information about their benefits and their risks".
Doesn’t seem dishonest to me. So is Professor Betz over-stating his case (no-score draw)? Or did WHO secretly beat a retreat (Betz 1, WHO nil)? Until bureaucracies publish a mea culpa, keeping a skeptical score is going to be difficult.
For levering stories out of laboratories, or out of bureaucracies, investigative journalists are are the full-time professionals. It was therefore very good to have an analysis from a watcher of the media, Frits Van Dam (Universiteit van Amsterdam) Fluctuations in the use of alternative cancer therapies through the years, the influence of mass media. And it was even better to listen to real working journalists; Dirk Volckaerts (BE) On Ethics and Credibility in Newspaper Journalism; Luis Alfonso Gámez (ES) Paranormal in the Press. A skeptical point of information for millions of readers, and Hans van Maanen (NL) Sex and science.
All the journalists underlined the importance, and the efficiency, of journalistic ethics, and I don’t think that their stories from the newsrooms supported the assertions in the Congress flier that … All too many bogus therapies and pseudoscientific stories get unbridled attention … Accuracy and truthfulness are all too often sacrificed on the altar of the news breaking scoop…. I suppose it depends on what is meant by "too many", "too often".
And here the problem is, as Professor Jean-Paul Van Bendegem (VUB Brussels) showed in his talk 2 + 2 = 4, or whatever you want, "In a sense you have to be a bit of a mathematician to get the mathematical "feeling" (for what is totally convincing evidence)". The size of that "bit" is non-negligeable. I speak with passion, having wrestled for the last 18 months with the felicitious, indispensable, but for me as non-mathematician, impenetrable Jaynes .
Which brings me to Paranormal beliefs: the psychological approach by the unfortunate Dr. Jean-Michel Abrassart (Centre for psychology of religion Louvain-la-Neuve BE). In response to a (my) question about his analyses of the relationship between predispositional and situational factors x, and belief in paranormal phenomena y, Dr. Abrassart replied that he could not say whether the values of r which his computer had calculated for him were correlation coefficients, or Spearman’s rank coefficients.
At this point I would have hoped that the EuroSkeptics would have howled for blood, or thrown paper darts, or at least chanted the Belgian Skeptics’ mantra (end note 6). But the room fell silent, and no-one followed up.
The Congress flier asks "How good is your critical remark when the pseudoscientific claim gets all the attention?" To my mind, critiquer les autres. c’est s’exposer à la critique (people who live in glasshouses are best advised not to throw stones). But from this experience I conclude that Skeptics are not too good at autocriticism.
The closing debate
So finally to the end of the Congress and the Sheldrake versus Nienhuys spit-roast. Dr Sheldrake was on first. Sheldrake of course is not a University professor. On the contrary, he comes well prepared, and he speaks fluently and clearly, as if he really wants to communicate. He marshals his arguments with precision, he provides (so far as I can judge) evidence for his statements, and he brings his nul hypotheses out into the open, ready to be shot down by the force of disproof.
In my judgement, Nienhuys’ counterattack failed. Sheldrake mostly discussed his work on animal behaviour. His hypotheses were there for the taking. I cite just one example, on the apparently coordinated movements of flocking birds. Sheldrake claimed that this coordination cannot be explained by individual reactions, because eye-brain-muscular responses are too slow. A quick check with Google after the congress gets me a paper in Nature in 1984 that seems to agree, and to provide an alternative, the Chorus Line Hypothesis of Manoeuvre Coordination in Avian Flocks (end note 7), which does not involve morphic resonance.
This is an alternative nul hypothesis that is testable. I don’t know whether it has been tested or not; but it should be easy to find out (end note 8). And I guess that there must be more, probably one for each of Sheldrake’s hypotheses. But it seems Dr Nienhuys had not done his homework. He did not have any data or analyses to hand, and his attack fizzled out.
So in the questionnaire that was (commendably) distributed to the participants for filling in afterwards, I scored the encounter, not "game set and match to Sheldrake", but at least Sheldrake 40, Nienhuys love. A small cluster gathered around Sheldrake at the end of the Congress. They seemed to be talking with him, rather than pumelling him to the ground, so perhaps they agreed with me.
The opportunity of a real skeptical public test of opposing hypotheses has been missed this time. Perhaps for Ireland in 2007?
3. I think it was I J Good who wrote: "A crack-pot scale" and "A crack-pot scale applied", but I last read these in the 1960’s and have been unable to find the reference.
4. (a) "Skin-Cap products are easy to use and offer excellent results. This point has been confirmed by clinical studies carried out in many countries all over the world and articles that appeared in numerous publications… "Skintreat.net. (b) FDA Warns Consumers Not To Use Skin-Cap "The Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers about treatments for dandruff or psoriasis called "Skin-Cap." These products contain prescription-strength corticosteroids, which might pose a health hazard to many people …." Federal Drug Administration.
5. Edwin Thompson Jaynes. Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. Cambridge University Press, (2003). ISBN 0521592712. "The book will be of interest to scientists working in any area where inference from incomplete information is necessary." Copy (incomplete) available on the net.
6. "Nerien nier à priori, ne rien affirmer sans preuve". Comité Belge pour l’Investigation Scientifique des Phénomènes Réputés Paranormaux. ("Reject nothing a priori, assert nothing without proof". The Belgian Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Paranormal Phenomena).
7. The Chorus Line Hypothesis of Manoeuvre Coordination in Avian Flocks (1984) by Wayne Potts, Nature, Volume 309, May 24, 1984, pages 344-345. See also the notion of synchrokinesis of Uwe Kils whereby small movements of individuals copied through the shoal provide an accurate movement towards better conditions. Here is a big list of references.
8. The chorus line hypothesis – note added in proof. Dr. Sheldrake tells me that indeed "I discuss Potts’ chorus line hypothesis in my book The Presence of the Past, and show it is not a real alternative – Potts, who invoked it, proposed that birds responded to a maneuver wave in the flock, and these are now modelled on computers by field models. So if your research had gone further, it would have led back to the field idea. And if Nienhuys had brought up the point you made, I would have replied by pointing this out. So although your point was that he was poorly prepared is certainly true, this is not a particularly fair example."
Links to speakers’ biographies at the Congress website
James E. Alcock
Luis Alfonso Gámez
Michael Heap – no biography found on the Congress website
Sheng-Xian Li – no biography found on the Congress website
Fadel Niang – no biography found on the Congress website
Jan Willem Nienhuys – no biography found on the Congress website
Jean Paul Van Bendegem
Frits Van Dam
Hans van Maanen
Richard Hardwick is a botanist. He lives in Brussels.