Modern Skepticism: Western Civilization’s Scientific Wahhabism

Originally published on the Progressive Radio Network, October 25, 2019

© Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD

The history of scientific and medical research is pervaded with examples of denigration and suppression by a dominant scientific elite. In the absence of dissent, innovation and vision that promises progress and reform, a population succumbs to conformity and eventually stagnation. We only need to look at Iran under the control of ayatollahs, the fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Wahhabi sect’s zealots in Saudi Arabia to get a snapshot of a repressive and ill culture that emerges when conformity is obligatory and dissent is outlawed and persecuted. Science, after it contorts into a secular religion unto itself, can likewise become totalitarian. Scientists are not less immune to bias, prejudice and fanaticism than the most staunch religious extremist. It is now time to make a concerted effort to expose the movement of modern Skepticism in its true colors. Not unlike religious militants who breathe fear and paranoia, contemporary Skepticism likewise is becoming less tolerant of scientific research and non-conventional medical practices outside its doctrinal domain. As the movement becomes more empowered, bolder and more popular, it is succeeding in its infiltration of our university campuses to convert young adults and draw them into the madrassas of their journals and Skeptic conferences where they are indoctrinated in a remarkably reductionist and bland philosophy of human existence. On the medical front, Skeptic Wahhabism finds its most regressive and hysterical voice in a faction known as Science-Based Medicine (SBM)

The Society for Science Based Medicine, founded by Yale neuroscientist and prominent Skeptic Steven Novella, was launched to advocate for a reductionist scientific rationality, founded upon Skepticism’s principles and strategies. In 2009, the Society launched its Institute for Science in Medicine, a non-profit organization with a mission to influence public health policies and establish standards based upon its medical determinism at the exclusion of other medical options that the Institute criticizes. High on the Society’s priority list is the condemnation of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), which includes accusing naturopathy, homeopathy, massage, chiropractic medicine, nutritional therapy and supplements, and all faith-based and Mind-Body healing modalities as “pseudoscience” and “quackery.” Practitioners of these non-drug based therapies are also categorically labeled as irrational, charlatans, frauds, conspiracy theorists and quacks. The followers of SBM within the Skeptic network operate in their delusional belief in their absolute authority, hyper-diligence and ultra-orthodoxy. Medical research favoring conventional medicine is more often than not framed as unwavering facts, irrefutable and unassailable truths, which leave no room for open discussion and debate for dissent outside their paradigm.

SBM may be understood as a recent splinter faction, a break-away group, from Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) that has aligned itself with radical Skepticism. EBM is often recognized as one of the great advances in modern medicine to emerge during the 20th century. Although SBM endorses EBM’s premises and principles, it also considers it as incomplete.

In his article “Hard Science and Medical Schools,” Skeptic David Gorski writes,

“EBM [Evidence-Based Medicine], although a step forward over prior dogma-based medical models, ultimately falls short of making medicine as effective as it can be. As currently practiced, EBM appears to worship clinical trial evidence above all else and nearly completely ignores basic science considerations, relegating them to the lowest form of evidence, lower than even small case series. This blind spot has directly contributed to the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine and so-called EBM…”

Consequently SBM hails itself as the future paradigm for evaluating medical science and recommending best practices and treatments. Yet its failure lies in contributing absolutely no original research to improve the practice of medicine. Rather SBM is a repository of sarcasm, mean-spiritedness and criticism, and a harbinger of a medical Inquisition in its witch hunt to defame CAM practitioners and their therapies

In recent years, the American Medical Students Association has sponsored an Integrative Medicine Day. Novella, Gorski and other Skeptics have damned this effort as “quackademic medicine” and have published articles excoriating the study of natural health treatments as a threat to science. Writing for the New York Times, CAM science journalist David Freedman called the medical Skeptics “prickly anti-alternative medicine warriors.”

But Skeptics have a long way to go to establish SBM as a “new and improved” medical paradigm. The tides are turning in the opposite direction. In 2011, US News and World Report reported that 40% of American adults swore by some form of alternative and natural, non-drug based medicine, and 46 medical schools had CAM departments. Novella was characteristically swift to denounce the report with his customary nonsense. Four years later, the Association of American Medical Colleges reported that 126 of 132 medical schools across the nation offered required courses in alternative medicine. That same year, a survey and analysis published in the Journal of Advanced Medical Education Practice, among the 127 different CAM course listings gathered in the study, the most frequent were traditional natural medicine, acupuncture, spirituality and herbology. Twenty-five percent of courses were associated with personal growth and self-care practiced alongside CAM and conventional medical protocols. In the largest national survey of its kind, researchers from UCLA and the University of California, San Diego, measured medical students’ attitudes and beliefs about CAM. The survey found that 84% of medical students believe that conventional medicine would benefit from natural integrative and complementary beliefs, ideas and treatment modalities. Seventy-seven percent felt conventional physicians who learned other complementary medical disciplines would benefit their patients.

Novella’s and Gorski’s Science Based Medicine blog literally functions as a clearing house for other Skeptics to source opinionated and prejudiced essays to criticize and debunk CAM therapies. Even a brief visit to the SBM blog will reveal that approximately 90 percent of its content is vicious and scientifically shoddy in its attacks against non-conventional medicine, often accompanied by long-winded rants against those who practice these natural therapies. The site largely serves Skeptics on the internet and Wikipedia to fuel them with ammunition in their anti-CAM campaigns.

A major criticism regarding many of Wikipedia’s health pages has been the predominance of amateur editors and Skeptic acolytes with no professional background in medicine, let alone alternative medical systems. This is a problem that runs rampant on the encyclopedia. Novella believes that Skepticism is a discipline unto itself and those who criticize alternative medicine based upon the standards of Skepticism are “experts,” regardless of their professional credentials. Therefore, he argues that for attacking any given CAM system that Skeptics define as pseudoscience, “[p]hysician skeptics are not needed and have nothing particular to add.” In other words, as long as Skeptics remain loyal to their ideological principles, the mob has authority to rule over the public discourse about CAM. However, Novella and his fellow Skeptics delude themselves with their faux expertise. As biophysicist and neuroscientist Vincent Billock at Ohio State University’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences states, “Things that do not fit into the existing paradigm are hard to think about.”[1] And it is with certainty that Skepticism’s leading voices are simply unable to wrap their minds around biophysical and quantum properties that may account for the efficacy of alternative, natural medical systems such as acupuncture, homeopathy and energy medicine. It is simply outside of their paradigmatic, reductionist way of thinking. Therefore we might excuse them for their intellectual dwarfism.

For the simple reason that modern medicine has become increasingly nested in a complex structure of institutional, political and economic relationships, efforts to arrive at any truth regarding alternative medical therapies are plagued by the power dynamics enforced by the dominant system (i.e., the conventional corporate-driven medical institutions where profits are paramount and patients are secondary). Consequently, CAM disciplines often confront a malicious environment, largely framed by Skepticism, that is determined to silence any scientifically viable evidence that indicates alternative and natural medical treatments may be safer and more effective than conventional protocols.

In its over-the-top efforts to destroy CAM therapies, we might ask what does Skepticism have to offer the public as a viable medical course of treatment? Quite simply it is only the same old business-as-usual medical system entrusted to us by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. In a perfect Skeptic world, everything Skepticism haphazardly labels as “pseudoscience” and “quackery” — including Chiropractic, naturopathy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese and Indian medical systems, homeopathy, mind-body and energy medicine, etc — would be ruled illegal. In return Skeptics can only offer patients a medical system that is rapidly decaying.

Skeptics are adamant that, besides their own publications, only clinical research published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals should be awarded credibility. However, according to Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, “much of scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.” Many notable physicians and professors of medicine have noted the dire state of clinical research appearing in professional journals, including former chief editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Marcia Angell (now at Harvard Medical School). In Angell’s estimation, “It is simply not possible to believe much of the clinical evidence that is published.”[2] She also worries about the enormous financial interests and influence drug companies have with medical school faculties. The integrity of medicine is being completely lost and Skeptics’ failure and refusal to put more attention towards this trend that is really harming the lives of countless people in order to continue with its witch hunts against natural health displays an arrogance that shows deep disregard towards public health.

More disturbing, a University of Manchester meta-analysis of studies involving over 337,000 patients published in the July 2019 issue of the British Medical Journal determined that “one in 20 patients are exposed to preventable harm in medical care.” Given the over-prescription rates in the US, it is not inconceivable that Americans are subject to much higher risks at the hands of conventional medicine. As Yale medical school professor who represents his profession’s train wreck of preventable injury and death, it is unconscionable that Novella would apologetically exclaim that “as a skeptical neurologist… I am not going to spend my time delving into and engaging in debate over the possible mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease. There are scientists who are doing that. But I will engage with those claiming that near death experiences are evidence for an afterlife because most scientists don’t bother.” With 4.25 billion retail prescriptions estimated to be filled in the US this year, each carrying safety warnings, many being severe, Skeptical obsessions with sick people being prayed over or visiting a homeopath are unscrupulous and in the case of Skeptic physicians perhaps barbarous.

Novella opines that “billions” of dollars are being wasted by the government to fund research into CAM practices. “My primary issue is alternative medicine,” writes Novella, “the abject infiltration of fraud and pseudoscience into the institutions of health care. This results in the wasting of billions of dollars, diverting research funds, and causes direct harm to the health of individuals.” Besides his exaggeration, Novella’s claims are laughable after we review the facts. During the past 20 years, the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has spent less than $2.5 billion; this year it will spend $146 million on grants for CAM-related research, and almost all the grant awards are small. This includes funding for many different kinds of CAM therapies — from nutritional supplements and dietary therapies, acupuncture, botanical medicines to mind-body relaxation techniques. The graph below from the NCCIH’s website reveals how widely this $146 million has to be distributed:

Therefore, for any single CAM therapy, the total amount is tiny. Quite frankly, this is a pittance of expenditures compared to the $39.2 billion of taxpayer dollars handed out annually for conventional medical research to approximately 300,000 researchers at over 2,500 medical institutions.

For this year alone, the NIH will spend $2.3 billion to study cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death in US), $7.4 billion for cancer (the second cause of death), and none for the third cause which is medical error. Half a billion dollars will be spent on research related to depression. And how successful has this “investment” been? Tens of millions have been spent alone to chase genes that are believed to be associated with depression. This has been a total waste now that the most comprehensive study of its kind to review so-called depression genes has recently concluded that the “hypotheses about depression candidate genes were incorrect and that the large number of associations reported in the depression candidate gene literature are likely to be false positives.” The NIH’s PubMed database lists over 4,000 studies for the presumed SLC6A4 depression gene, which has now determined to be bogus.

Prof Brian Martin at the University of Wollongong in Australia is widely acknowledged as the world’s leading authority about the sociology of dissent and suppression in the modern sciences. According to Martin’s outline, Skeptics suppress their imaginary enemies, which they create for themselves, by concerted character assassination, efforts to enforce censorship, blacklisting, creating obstacles for funding, and the dissemination of outright lies and misinformation. Followers of oppressive thought, whether they be Skeptics or Wahhabi radicals, demand consensus opinion. Those who oppose the consensus are regarded as foolish and therefore should be targeted for contempt. As the Saudi regime fears the shifting of the pendulum away from its medieval interpretation of Islam, so too Skeptics blatantly make efforts to suppress that which competes with their deeply held scientific beliefs and ambitions. It is a shared psychology to kill the messenger. Fortunately, this is not the Soviet Union where the crime of being a renegade scientist peeking outside the accepted institutionalized science meant forced labor or death.

Skeptics’ intolerance of new ideas that challenge their limited view of reality in order to sustain scientific consensus, wrote Cornell’s Thomas Gold in his important 1989 essay “New Ideas in Science”, is representative of “a herd mentality.” New ideas, such as Science-Based Medicine or atheistic science, according to Gold’s premise, are “not always right just because they are new,” nor are old ideas such as acupuncture and the theory of subtle energy or ancient Ayurveda medicine “always wrong because they are old.” “If we were driving in the wrong direction,” Gold continues, “in the direction where no new ideas can be accepted — then even if scientific work goes on the progress will be stifled.” Skepticism’s animosity to the new ideas brought forth by visionaries such as Drs. Rupert Sheldrake, Luc Montagnier, Deepak Chopra, Dean Radin and many others, is not unlike the conventional musicians of the time calling Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “an orgy of vulgar noises.”

Modern Skepticism is a continuation of earlier Scientism, a kind of quasi-religion of secular thought founded by the early naturalists. Naturalists declared that the only thing that exists is the natural world and everything else is unfounded, and therefore illusory and to be shunned. It follows the old tired adage that “I will only believe in what I can see, smell, taste, touch or hear.” In short, Scientism, in Swedish philosopher Mikael Stenmark’s words, is based upon the epistemic principle “there is nothing outside the domain of science, nor is there any area of human life to which science cannot successfully be applied.” Skepticism, purports to be rational yet simultaneously is incapable of ascertaining other forms of non-scientific truth, such as subjective experience, consciousness, ethics and morals, and metaphysical and aesthetic truths. Although the scientific method is incapable of ascertaining or disproving other truths, nevertheless they too follow reason and logic, often every bit as rigorous as Skepticism’s reductionist determinism.

Consequently, Skepticism fundamentally breaches the fundamental norms of scientific dialogue and practice by resorting to a systematic strategy of suppression. This includes erroneously discrediting or silencing scientific claims and even scientists who propose theories or advocate for non-conventional medical interventions that challenge the dominant medical establishment. Yet this inherent symptom in Skeptical elitism has been with our civilization for centuries. We might consider examples such as Louis Pasteur’s germ theory first being denounced as “ridiculous fiction.” John Logie Baird, the inventor of the television, being labeled as a “swindler” by the British Royal Society. Or Lord Kelvin, perhaps Europe’s most infamous elite scientist in the latter part of the 19th century described Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays as an “elaborate hoax.” When the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener proposed his theory that all of the world’s continents were once a single land mass, he was thoroughly ostracized by the scientific community and died an outcast. Today, the continental drift theory is recognized worldwide as a geological fact. When E.L deMole invented the tank, the British admiralty called it :”idiotic and useless… Nobody has asked for them and nobody wants them.” One of the more humorous examples is Warner Brothers Studio’s founder H.M. Warner declaring, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” in 1927. And of course Darwin’s theory of evolution, one of the gospel texts of modern Skepticism, was first regarded as utter nonsense by the scientific community of its time. There are numerous additional examples.

Today the heretics who Skeptics criticize as quacks include Dr. Luc Montagnier, the French Nobel Laureate in Medicine for having discovered the HIV virus. Now, Dr. Montagnier’s attention has turned towards research in “DNA transportation,” which shares very close properties that form the basis for homeopathy’s efficacy. If the conclusions in his paper “Electromagnetic Signals Are Produced by Aqueous Nanostructures Derived from Bacterial DNA Sequences” receives widespread acceptance, Andy Coglan, writing for The New Scientist, stated it would be “most significant experiments performed in the past 90 years, demanding re-evaluation of the whole conceptual framework of modern chemistry.” Yet the response from Skeptics was brutal. Gorski accused Montagnier of being infected with a “Nobel Disease” – a term found in the Skeptics’ Dictionary. Gorski writes, “it didn’t take Montagnier very long to devolve into crankery.” And in his thought-provoking essay, “Brilliant Scientists are Open-Minded About Paranormal Stuff. So What?”, Scientific American writer John Horgan, which reviews many of the most important scientists in the modern era who entertained possibilities outside of the scientific status-quo of their times. But today many of them including William James, Carl Jung, and physicists Max Planck, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrodinger, David Bohm and Brian Josephson, all who believed in the possibility of paranoramal phenomenon and experience, are designated as loony by Skeptics for holding such views.

Our current 21st century Skeptics are simply a continuation of this same elitist insolence that has been a formidable deterrent to scientific progress since the days when the medieval Church persecuted science altogether.

Not dissimilar to the mutawwi, the Saudi religious police who “compel obedience” to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, Skeptics serve the scientific elite and strengthen their control over the dominant scientific paradigm whether or not they realize it formally. During a debate with physicist and Buddhist scholar Dr. Alan Wallace, astrophysicist and Skeptic Sean Carroll restated the hubris frequently entertained by a scientific elite; that is, science now knows everything about the universe that it needs to know.

During a TED talk shortly following 911, Richard Dawkins took a clue right out of what could have been an al-Qaeda manual and made his plea for “militant atheism.” Although Dawkins was specifically calling for an unapologetic and disrespectful rationalist crusade against religion, his fundamental premise has been embraced throughout the Skeptic movement in its efforts to silence, ridicule and demonize all who advocate alternative medicine and question conventional pharmaceutical drugs, vaccination and industrial and genetically modified foods, pesticides, the junk food industry, etc. Medical treatments that fall outside the dominant elites’ paradigm are categorically ruled as hoaxes and frauds.

One radical Skeptic group that has swallowed Dawkin’s “militant atheism” whole is Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW), founded by Susan Gerbic. GSoW actively seeks out and trains recruits to serve as an army of a Skeptic editors to wage Wiki wars against those who research or advocate alternative medical treatment modalities. These Skeptics are now the most active and organized Wikipedia editors administrating the encyclopedia’s CAM content.

Gerbic speaks about her organization’s guerrilla tactics openly. On the Skeptic website Skeptoid, she writes in her article “Helping Build a Skeptical, Scientific Wikipedia,” that Wikipedia’s Skepticism is “one of the most amazing powerful projects that exists today in the world of scientific skepticism. That project is Wikipedia…. The information inside Wikipedia is so influential and powerful that we, as skeptics, need to make sure that the reader is getting correct information and leaving notable citations that they can follow if they want more information.”

The Center for Inquiry (CFI), the Skepticism’s centralized hub that serves as the great madrassa for Skeptic fundamentalism, fully embraces Dawkins’ atheistic Scientism. In 2016, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science merged with CFI. Its stated mission is to “foster a secular society based upon reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values.” Laudable words, but the Center fails horribly to tolerate, let alone respect, the freedom of others to their beliefs and the freedom to choose a medical intervention of their choice. Any discipline of inquiry that is performed outside the Center’s narrow interpretation of science is condemned as heresy, exposed and publicly maligned. Everything that deals with religion and spirituality, the paranormal, unexplained phenomena, and alternative and natural medical modalities are accused of con-artistry. Other leading major Skeptic groups are the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council of Secular Humanism, the James Randi Educational Foundation, Stephen Barrett’s Quackwatch and Michael Shermer’s Skeptic Society.

The extent of Skepticism’s network should not be underestimated. Its tentacles reach into university departments, the mainstream media and major newspaper and magazines, alliances with the pro-industry front organizations, Washington lobbying activities, the pharmaceutical industry and of course throughout the internet, notably Wikipedia. The graph below charts the many relationships Skepticism has brought into its network:

For the most zealous Skeptics, scientific “truths”, guided solely by “reason” (which Skeptics are unable to adequately define), is the only religion humanity should follow. It identifies itself as an intelligentsia and praises its superiority as a humanoid subspecies above anyone who questions or challenges their faith in scientific reductionism. This is the dark side of what has been termed Scientism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines scientism as “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation.” It is tantamount to a hubris that believes it can explain everything. In his book When Atheism Becomes Religion, Pulitzer Prize journalist Chris Hedges presents the argument that this extreme mindset, cloaked in the god of reason and science alone, is today’s “new fundamentalism.” Because science is solely concerned with discovering facts about our material existence, Skepticism is neutral towards universal human values and ethics aside from the cold values that science offers.

Commenting on Scientism’s determinist ideology, Robert Wuthnow, chair of Princeton’s sociology department, writes, “Scientists are drunk on hubris, in it for the money or their own glory, and sadly incapable of any humility.”[3] Anyone reading the blogs and articles composed by Novella, David Gorski, Harriet Hall and others within the SBM militia, will quickly observe the pretentious conceit noted by Wuthnow. But Skeptic propaganda goes beyond the confines of rationalist critiques of alternative medicine’s claims. They express a contemptuous disdain, and vile hatred, towards practitioners and advocates of the alternative medical paradigm and anyone who dissents from the conventional medical establishment.

Skeptics, who cling upon the words of SBM’s gurus, are a curious mix of proponents for Orwellian fascism and a quirky technological totalitarianism, which Aldous Huxley warned about in his 1958 follow-up to Brave New World. A world of scientific McCarthyism is the utopia they pray to. But conventional definitions of fascism and totalitarianism don’t accurately apply. Instead, Skepticism is the darker side of Liberalism, with noticeable parallels to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist and autocratic absolutism. These are the Liberals, in our opinion, who find no fault in bombing Muslim nations back to the pre-Islamic sands of Arabia, criminalizing therapeutic touch, faith healing and vaccine resistance as physical abuse, and stamping all currency with “In Science We Trust.”

The good news is that Skepticism is rapidly losing touch with today’s health and social trends. Its scientific cherry-picking, inverted conspiratorial mentality, and refusal to recognize scientific facts contrary to their rigid beliefs, such as the huge body of evidence discrediting the safety claims of genetically modified foods and vaccines, are losing popular ground. Its own bias towards that which it lacks knowledge and refuses to understand has given rise to Skepticism’s own intrinsic conspiratorial theories and misguided perceptions of humanity and the human condition. For years biologist PZ Myers has been a prominent figure within the Skeptic network. Yet even Myers has lost patience with the growing dogmatism and despotism in the movement. He has written:

“I found the intolerance and narrowness of a great many skeptics so frustratingly oppressive, that I had to simply announce that I would have nothing more to do with the skeptical organizations, and stepped away from them as a waste of effort.”

Eventually Science-Based Medicine will be remembered as a failed scientific effort because real science continues to make new discoveries beyond reductionist certainties. It is little more than a perversion of Auguste Comte’s 19th century skeptical philosophy at a higher order of magnitude, who held no reservations against science becoming an evangelical religion. In fact, he proposed that “positive” scientism would create a “special class of men” to serve as the guardians of a new dogma to replace religious belief. Modern Skepticism is simply a more vulgarized version of Comteanism that has today become our civilization’s rationalist Wahhabism. Without Science-Based Medicine’s support from the Skeptic network and Wikipedia’s militant Skeptics, it would deservingly collapse into the dustbin of history.

 

NOTES

1 Manzotti, Riccardo. The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World are One. OR Books: New York, 2018

2 Angell, Marcia. The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It. Random House: New York, 2004

3 John Evans. Morals Not Knowledge. University of California Press, 2018