Medical Skepticism: Today’s Scientific Cultural Disease

Originally published on the Progressive Radio Network, August 5, 2019
© Richard Gale and Dr Gary Null PhD

Modern day Skepticism is one of those annoying contagions that won’t go away. It is rather like a persistent Candida yeast infection. It is painful to common sense. Worse, Skepticism flares up when you least expect it. On the internet, primarily on Wikipedia, its ideology and propaganda go largely unnoticed, camouflaged by sharp criticism serving as a non-appointed jury rather than an objective voice of logic. Therefore, we have no reservations in stating that the extreme scientific reductionism represented by Skepticism, especially biological and medical skepticism, is a serious threat to medical innovation, scientific discovery and in the long term public health. Although Skepticism has been a worldview dating back to the nineteenth century, today’s Skepticism is far more radicalized. Because Skeptics believe they represent the pinnacle of scientific materialism, many of the movement’s celebrity gurus feel they are the entitled saviors to redeem modern civilization from thousands of years of past history when human societies utilized medicinal plants and ancient mind-body practices to treat illnesses and the role of religion, spiritual practices, faith and belief to promote a sense of well being and psychological wholeness. As with so much of our dysfunctional postmodern world, Skepticism is therefore a natural outgrowth of white-dominant, patriarchal entitlement that continues to plague postmodern society. It is another perversion of identity politics however disguised under the banner of science.

Within the larger Skeptic movement is a faction that goes under the name of Science Based Medicine (SBM). For the past 25 years, modern medicine has been steered by what is commonly known as Evidence Based Medicine (EBM), a widely accepted theory that sound clinical decision making for treating diseases should rely upon reliable evidence from randomized clinical trials and high quality published papers and meta-analyses.

In principle, Science Based Medicine largely supports Evidence Based Medicine. And to their credit, SBM’s foremost spokespersons Steven Novella and David Gorski opening criticize EBM’s shortcomings, including the now epidemic of erroneous research being published in medical journals, the increasing trends in professional bias in order to reach positive results, and journals’ financial incentives to publish junk studies. However, considering EBM’s flaws and failures, SBM perceives itself as the next great leap for modern medicine in order to establish scientific consensus on medical discovery and therapeutic practices by including the plausibility principle. Repeatedly, without any sound understanding for why a certain alternative health therapy either succeeds or fails, Skeptics invoke plausibility as the only necessary criteria to discard outright non-conventional practices and therefore to advocate against funding research to investigate any promises they may hold.

Yet relying upon the plausibility argument is simply a lazy-person’s way to lie to oneself. And Skeptics are easily outraged whenever accused of entertaining subjective biases that taint their evaluation of medical therapies outside their cherishing-held belief system. Whenever Skeptics are confronted with a scientific or medical narrative that is contrary to their own subjective biases, and in the absence of a scientifically valid argument based upon strong evidence to support Skepticism’s counter-narrative, the Skeptic mind simply fills in the blank with the “plausibility” argument. Plausibility thereby is conflated with reality. In one of his many screeds against homeopathy, Gorski undertakes his typical long-winded attempt to discredit the evidence that defines “plausibility bias,” also known as “belief bias.” It is not surprising therefore that SBM’s most militant voices convey a brutally amateurish understanding of human psychology.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Yale reported in their paper “The Curse of Knowledge in Reasoning About False Beliefs” that there can be a “curse of knowledge bias” that contributes to false beliefs used by young children. That is, the researchers report, “adults’ own knowledge of an event’s outcome can compromise their ability to reason about another person’s beliefs about that event. The curse of false beliefs as contingent upon the plausibility argument goes to the heart of the “science wars” between Skeptical materialist views of medical science and advocates of non-conventional medical practices, including nutrition, naturopathy, Chinese and Ayurveda medicine, etc., whose world view is less narrowly linear and more akin to modern systems theory and the physics of cause and effect. What some psychologists call the “plausibility fallacy” is nothing other than being convinced about an irrational assumption that a plausible explanation is final proof. Aside from exaggerating its belief in the power and value of science, Skepticism in the biological sciences can more accurately be described as nihilistic skepticism, a trenchant to assert impossibility a priori and to convert reasonable doubts into unreasonable incredulity. When understood in this manner, SBM can be viewed as a kind of skeptical medical imperialism, an excess of science that muddles its own subjective and biased values with being scientifically factual. Do not schizophrenics also apply their twisted reasoning and logic in order to convince themselves about the truth in their hallucinations?

From the standpoint of quantum physics, perhaps the gold standard of the modern hard sciences, implausibility is never a certainty, and not a yardstick to banish and ignore something that might only have a slight possibility of being true. In physics, it is always worth pursuing further. But rules of proof in Skepticism do not follow sound scientific inquiry. It is not surprising therefore to find that most militant skeptics, aside from Cal Tech astrophysicist Sean Carroll, hold professions in the life sciences. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist; Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; Jerry Coyne and PZ Meyer are biologists; Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker are cognitive scientists and philosophers; Paul Offit, Ben Goldacre, Stephen Barrett and most of the active members of the SBM cult are practicing medical physicians.

We can review a case of applying the Skeptics own “plausibility” criteria to a medical legal decision that they have fervently disapproved of. It is an excellent example of how Skeptics’ irrational beliefs in fact trump rational plausibility.

Skeptics and pro-vaccine advocates alike were appalled at the US Court of Federal Claims’ August 2007 decision to award damages for vaccine-induced autism to the family of Hannah Poling, a 19 month old toddler who received five vaccines during a single pediatrician visit. Prior to the case, the Court’s rulings under the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program relied solely on the “preponderance of evidence” (EBM’s criteria) for assessing causation for vaccine-injuries. In other words, subjective testimonies, for example by the parents of vaccine-injured children, were excluded from the evidence. However, the Court changed its rules to include “plausibility,” and this is what led to the Court’s conclusion that it is biologically “plausible” that vaccines and their toxic ingredients can trigger adverse conditions leading to autism. This was the Court’s ruling regarding Hannah Poling.

To further appreciate Skepticism’s culture, we might wish to consider the words and writings of former Skeptics who have turned against the movement and the New Atheism, which popular Skeptic organizations including SBM have aligned themselves.

PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, has a reputation for being one of the more belligerent militant celebrities in the Skeptic movement. Myers along with Skeptic Jerry Coyne and astrophysicist Sean Carroll were largely responsible for the censoring of biologist Rupert Sheldrake and alt-historian Graham Hancock from the TED talks. However even the Skeptic movement has become too much for Myers. In his public statement on Free Thought Blogs to announce his resignation from the movement, he wrote, “it is clear that ‘scientific skepticism’ is simply a crippled buggered version of science with special exemptions to set certain subjects outside the bounds of its purview.”

“Skepticism has no sacred cows, “ writes Myers, “I was also annoyed by the skeptic movement’s appropriation of the term “scientific” all over the place… except that it’s a “science” that doesn’t make use of accumulated prior knowledge, that abandons the concept of the null hypothesis [the assumption that there is no relationship between variables in a population selected for statistical data collection], and that so narrowly defines what it will accept as evidence that it actively excludes huge domains of knowledge. It’s toothless science that fetishizes “consumer protection” over understanding.”

In effect, Myers is accusing the Skeptics of “false-belief” reasoning, the curse of their perception of plausibility.

Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist and philosopher now teaching at City College of New York, is a former prominent Skeptic and columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Pigliucci too has withdrawn from the “skeptic and atheist movements (SAM)”. He notes that the movement “has become a somewhat inhospitable environment for philosophical dialogue.” It “worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little.” He also accuses the movement as being saturated with “groupthink” and narcissistic regard for its own intellectual stubbornness “that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists.” Finally, Pigliucci identifies a fundamental problem that we too have encountered in Skeptic websites, blogs and notably Wikipedia, which is an atmosphere of “public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit [their] own opinions all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.”

Fortunately, SBM literature has been for the most part unsuccessful in breaching the halls of the medical establishment. One of SBM’s projects was the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health (CSMMH), which published the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. The journal, which claimed to be “the only peer-reviewed journal devoted exclusively to objectively analyzing the claims of alternative medicine,” a statement repeated in its entry on Wikipedia, has nevertheless been ruled as extremely one-sided and biased by the National Library of Medicine. On three separate occasions the journal was denied inclusion into the National Institutes of Health’s Medicine/PubMed registry of reliable medical and healthcare publications. Seemingly, SBM’s attempts to keep its public relations hoax of “scientific evidence” through a journal were short-lived. The Commission seems to now be defunct and no longer operative.

Careful readings of SBM diatribes, essays and opinion pieces will raise serious doubts about the sanity of its authors. During a talk at a National Capital Area Skeptics’ gathering, when asked by an audience member why he defends genetically modified foods, David Gorski made the disingenuous reply that “all foods are genetically modified” — a likely reference to a fallacious belief in the now thoroughly discredited “substantial equivalence” hypothesis made in the 1990s to argue that genetically engineered crops are no different than their natural counterpart.

There are many positions that SBM authors take that we regard as grossly negligent. Many of these views are little more than blindness and a biased stubbornness to deal with the reality of the nation’s health crises. It is always easier to remain ignorant than to learn something outside your church or belief system. One in particular is SBM’s strong support for opioid medications. Although, Gorski acknowledges the opioid crisis as a horrible failure of the drug industry and federal regulators his only solution is for more responsible usage of these life-threatening drugs. This was stated in his diatribe against an effort by Oregon State’s Health Authority to counter opioid epidemic of injury and death by having Medicaid cover non-drug based treatments for pain relief such as “acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy and other alternative treatments.” Two years earlier SBM Skeptic Jann Bellamy criticized similar efforts in Ohio to combat its opioid drug crisis. Although there is an enormous body of peer-reviewed literature clearly proving these non-pharmaceutical practices for pain reduction, simply because they are not in SBM’s tiny worldview, state health officials’ efforts to find a way to counter this national catastrophe are chastised for having been seduced by quackery.

Aside from its waging a scientific war against non-conventional medicine, there is a more disturbing goal in SBM’s agenda.

Lecturing at the 2015 annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, SBM founder Steve Novella outlined the definition and mission of Science Based Medicine and explained how SBM differs from the more internationally accepted EBM and its standards for determining the legitimacy of medical therapeutic protocols. Among SBM’s goals, Novella mentions 1) lobbying efforts and advocacy for “science-based” legislation, 2) to better market SBM on the internet, and 3) educational efforts to inform the public about science-based medicine in general and “skepticism.”

SBM also sees itself in the business of consumer protection. In his article “SBM on Wikipedia in Every Language,” Novella introduces the Society for Science-Based Medicine (SfSBM) initiative to create an SBM Wiki on the internet that would complement Wikipedia. Five years later, the SBM Wiki has not seen the light of the day and its Society seems to be temporarily inactive. Nevertheless, SBM continues to have extraordinary success in making its presence felt on the internet, particularly on Wikipedia entries. SBM-affiliated groups such as the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia have composed approximately 650 pages infused with SBM and Skeptic rhetoric and content that are overwhelmingly biased interpretations about natural health and non-conventional medicine. Therefore Novella has nothing but praise for the “excellent job” Skeptic editors have achieved for “increasing the quality of Wikipedia,” and feels a close kinship towards Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales’ Skeptical disdain towards alternative medicine.

Novella and his Society have also taken on the role of being the successor to Quackwatch. Novella writes, “The core of the [SBM] Wiki is comprised of articles generously donated to SfSBM by Stephen Barrett — essentially thousands of articles that make up Quackwatch. Transforming this into a Wiki will allow ongoing editing and updating, breathing new life into all those old articles.” The goal is “to list reliable science-based medical information everywhere on the web.”

Consequently SBM is the inheritor of the Quackwatch legacy and has taken on its mission to continue to the Skeptic assault against alternative medicine, with very few exceptions. Novella was an adviser for Quackwatch.

As we have documented on several occasions, Barrett’s Quackwatch operated more as a public relations effort to undermine non-conventional medicine than serving as a reliable scientific source for accurately critiquing medical practices such as Chiropractic, acupuncture and Chinese medicine, energy medicine, naturopathy, massage and bodywork among others. Similar to the frequent rants on SBM’s blog, Barrett seems to hold a pathological obsession with conflating non-conventional medical treatments with money-making scams, while ignoring any possibility that the practitioners of alternative medical systems do so out of a sincere desire to benefit and treat their patients with non-toxic therapies.

Despite SBM’s many of efforts to become more effective in proselytizing its version of extreme medical reductionism within the mainstream media, it has remained marginalized and unrecognized by practically all conventional medical institutions. Outside of the Skeptic community, leading SBM spokespersons such as Gorski, Novella, Mark Crislip and Harriet Hall are frequently referenced despite the fact none of these individuals are regularly invited to be keynote speakers at professional medical or scientific conferences outside of the Skeptic community. Clearly their message is too extreme and regressive for medical authorities and prominent medical journals. Perhaps because of its many internal fallacies and flaws, SBM has had no other alternative for making its presence felt except to take advantage of the internet’s weaknesses to get its message out to the public.

But it is SBM, and now also Skepticism in general’s entry into consumer advocacy that should most outrage the public. In 2018, Skepticism’s flagship organization the Center for Inquiry filed a lawsuit against CVS pharmacies in the District of Columbia for presumably deceiving customers by selling homeopathic remedies, notably the cold/flu remedy Osciloccinum. The suit sets a dangerous precedent that we might expect from an ideology that would embrace a doctrine of scientific materialism, eliminate freedom of medical choice, and create homogeneous regime for a one-size-fits all paradigm solely based upon the pharmaceutical paradigm.

As we have reported on several previous occasions Quackwatch served largely as a quasi-think tank on behalf of private corporate interests, most important being the pharmaceutical industry. Stephen Barrett’s other organization, the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) was an offshoot of the American Medical Association’s Coordinating Conference on Health Information (CCHI), a covert operation that grew out of the AMA’s now defunct Committee on Quackery. Both the NCAHF and CCHI were consecrated by federal health agencies, yet neither operated with any institutional oversight or scrutiny, government nor otherwise. Although Barrett and his supporters consistently deny that the NACHF and Quackwatch have any association with private corporate interest and the government, NACHF’s parent organization CCHI has a wide range of surreptitious enterprises that included relationships with the Federal Trade Commission, the FDA, the American Pharmaceutical Association, the IRS, US Office of Consumer Affairs and the Better Business Bureau.

Operating under the disguise of “consumer protection,” Quackwatch assumed the task of information gathering about the uses of Chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, vitamin and supplement therapies, and non-conventional medical modalities and its’ practitioners. A Canadian lawsuit against Barrett ruled that “The sole purpose of the activities of Barrett and Baratz are to discredit and cause damage and harm to health care practitioners, businesses that make alternative therapies or products available and advocates of non-allopathic therapies and health freedom.” During a separate court hearing, Barrett conceded his ties to the AMA, the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA.

Finally, it may be remembered that Barrett served on the American Council on Science and Health’s (ACSH) Board of Scientific Advisers for over four decades! Similar to Quackwatch, the ACSH calls itself a consumer advocacy organization and claims to support evidence-based science. Nevertheless, its platforms are radically pro-industry and advocate for genetically modified foods and industrial agriculture, nuclear power, vaccine mandates, natural gas and the deregulation of toxic chemicals. Practically every Trustee member has direct ties to large corporations. Attorney Gary Ruskin identified the ACSH as a front group for the “tobacco, chemical, fossil fuel, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries.” A Mother Jones report uncovered that in 2012, ACSH donors included Chevron, Coca-Cola, Bri stol Myers Squibb Foundation, Bayer Cropscience, Procter and Gamble, Syngenta, 3M, McDonald’s, and tobacco giants such as Altria and Phillip Morris. It also cemented close ties with the Koch family, the owners of Koch Industries and the major funders of the Randian pro-industry American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC. Whether or not Novella and the other missionaries of SBM are aware, Quackwatch largely served as informational enterprise on behalf of ACSH’s efforts to protect and secure the corporate financial interests that may be threatened by cheaper and natural health practices.

Although Quackwatch is largely an inactive organization that continues to archive hundreds of grossly outdated articles criticizing alternation medical practices, and some cases with references 20 to 30 years old, it is still regarded as a legitimate source to reference on Wikipedia. Now SBM envisions itself as the new generation of apostles to further advance the Quackwatch mandate. And it has the support of the Skeptic movement behind it.

We need to ask why SBM spends most of its attention on discrediting and disparaging alternative medicine and making attempts to lobby against funding for these therapeutic modalities, including common sense nutrition. In the meantime, billions of dollars are wasted annually by the insurance industry and patients on many prescription and over the counter drugs that have little scientific basis to conclude they are effective, let alone safe. How many herbs have received black box warnings compared to corporate drugs? This is one reason why SBM’s pretension to be a responsible consumer advocate is a ruse. SBM, as with Skepticism, is primarily in the scam business to proselytize a materialist ideology with all of the familiar anthropological trappings of a religious cult. Quackwatch was the same, which is one reason why you will not find a review of the Vioxx drug scandal that was responsible for the deaths of 60,000 patients on its website. If SBM would put more attention on the serious health risks of just a single common over the counter drug, acetaminophen or Tylenol, imagine how many people it would save compared to its fear mongering about supplements such as Vitamin C and Omega-3 fatty acids.

Fortunately, scientific discovery will eventually pass by Skeptical medicine as non-conventional medical practices not only become more popular among patients, but also better accepted by the medical establishment. While Skeptical science has a hold on much of American and British medicine, this is not the case most of the world.

Indeed, SBM’s mission may remind us of the ancient Greek story about Sisyphus — a mythological moron, so filled with his own intellectual hubris and skills at trickery that Zeus condemns him to eternally roll a boulder up a hill in the depth of Hades. Sisyphus is a fitting mascot for the SBM cult. But do not think this is our analogy. In fact, Novella pridefully referenced Sisyphus as a worthy logo for SBM. Our mission is to continue to debunk SBM’s Skeptical intentions thereby adding more weight to its boulder. In time Sisyphus will hopefully be exhausted and roll back into the fires of the underworld.