Day 2 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series TAM

10522439_10204090633403483_1996658285948963115_nAs was the case last year, the second day of TAM is rather brutal – there was a complete day of programming, running from 09:00 until around 18:30, followed by various dinners and then concluding (for some, of course) with Penn & Teller’s Bacon and Donut party.

We left the bacon madness at 01:00 or so, meaning that the phone call at 07:00 was rather unwelcome. It was also rather pointless, seeing as it was from some Spanish person who has been calling us since the early days of July, even though our Spanish has not improved one iota since the first of her 8 or so attempts to share her thoughts with us.

Morality Science Skepticism

Homeopathic anecdotes aren’t data either

When I tweeted the negative sentiment below, about the author of a book on how to ‘treat’ your toddler with homeopathy, little did I know that the irate replies would still be coming in 6 hours later.

homeopathyYes, my tweet was hyperbolic, and the answer to my question – in a direct sense at least – is most probably zero. But what the question hopes to provoke is reflection on the indirect consequences of recommending that parents treat one-year-old babies with homeopathic ‘remedies’ instead of medicine. Even if, as one person admonished me, the book claims to “aid basic ailments like constipation and insomnia. Hardly life-threatening.”

First, because the reply presumes that parents can diagnose a basic ailment in the first place. If a parent is told that her child’s constipation can be treated with homeopathy, she might persist with that course of treatment for long enough that the problem becomes more than “basic”, requiring proper medical attention. And the time wasted in seeking that, or in not giving the child proper medicine, could indeed be life-threatening. Ask Gloria Sam, the 9-month-old who died when her (perfectly treatable, and not life-threatening) eczema was ‘treated’ with homeopathy instead of a visit to a GP.

Second, because the book claims more than that, and my critic was cherry-picking examples. Other things that homeopathy can treat, only according to the Amazon blurb, are “breathing difficulties” and “vomiting”, both of which seem to be things that you’d hope concern parents more than simply inspiring the application of some sugar pills or water (in other words, a homeopathic “medicine”).

Because that is of course the third, and most important reason. Trial after trial has shown that there’s nothing to it beyond the placebo effect, something that a group of friends and I satirically demonstrated by joining the 10:23 protests a couple of years ago, where we each downed a bottle of a homeopathic ‘remedy’ (I think mine was arsenic). Here’s James Randi doing the same, taking a bottle of ‘sleeping pills’ as he often does to make this point (the clip also includes him making other arguments worth hearing).

And no, there’s no good evidence to suggest it has to be more than placebo, “because it works on animals” – we’ve got no reason to believe it works on animals any better than it does on humans (in fact, the perceived effect on animals seems to simply be an effect on humans, in terms of how they perceive the treatment and health of their pets).

But evidence isn’t what defenders of homeopathy are interested in. For them, anecdotal evidence is ‘argument’ enough, even though they would never stop to think about how they would reject similarly weak claims if they came in a version they don’t like. Kitten blood! It works for me! Crystals! Prayers to the Pink Unicorn! (Or, prayers to a ‘real’ god, just not one of the ones you happen to believe in.)

Racists defend their views with anecdotal evidence, as do sexists – reality is ignored in favour of confirmation bias. And we don’t think that doing so is a good, or a reasonable thing to do. Because the evidence is meant to matter, and the evidence isn’t “up to me”, and the experiences I might have had or not had. Part of the point of science is to provide us with resources that offer objective guidance, because we go into decisions knowing that – by and large – we’re too prone to various cognitive errors to be trusted.

The point is that a double-standard applies in people who are willing to defend their consumption and prescription of homeopathic ‘remedies’, in that they are willing to accept a very low standard of evidence on the grounds that the risks are low – “any responsible homeopath”, I’m told, “will advise their patients to take antibiotics where necessary, or to seek conventional treatment”.

But some homeopaths are less responsible than others. The coroners report was pretty clear in highlighting how Penelope Dingle would have suffered far less harm if not for her homeopath’s advice, and more generally, as Ben Goldacre makes clear in the Lancet, homeopaths simply get in the way of effective treatment:

Homoeopaths can undermine public-health campaigns; leave their patients exposed to fatal diseases; and, in the extreme, miss or disregard fatal diagnoses. There have also been cases of patients who died after medically trained homoeopaths advised them to stop medical treatments for serious medical conditions.

More prosaically, you’re simply wasting money if you spend it on homeopathy. This is one of the most annoying #middleclassproblems for me – alongside things like anti-vaccination sentiments, or obsessions with angels, or The Secret – in that it’s only the middle and upper classes who have the luxury of glamorising their anecdotal evidence in such a fashion. If homeopathy worked so well – given that it’s possible to produce it so cheaply – why would Bill Gates (etc.) not simply distribute it to those dying of malaria instead?

Of course “Western” or allopathic, or “chemical” (pick your favourite pejorative term) can’t cure everything. Nothing can. But homeopathy doesn’t outperform a straight placebo, meaning that any good effect you observe after taking a homeopathic remedy can’t have anything to do with that remedy. And much of ‘regular’ (by which I mean, real) medicine does. Furthermore, the stuff that doesn’t work – and the doctors that are quacks – tend to get driven out of the market over time.

Except for homeopaths, partly because of this almost religious devotion to “alternative” medicine (and the associated conspiracies around mainstream medicine), and partly because what homeopaths say, and prescribe, involves completely unfalsifiable claims. And that’s a bad thing – not only in general, but particularly when lives are at stake.

Check out What’s the Harm for a partial catalogue of homeopathy’s victims.


#TAM2013 wrap-up

Those of you who also attended The Amaz!ing Meeting last weekend were probably as overwhelmed by content as I felt, and continue to feel. Halfway through the first of three full days (8am – 6pm) of plenary sessions, I blogged some impressions – but that proved to be the last time I found the time to write anything about what was going on. Not only was the schedule very busy, but it was filled with content of sufficient quality that I could hardly bring myself to miss anything, despite the fact that evening entertainment, then drinks at the Del Mar and elsewhere, meant an average of 4 or so hours of sleep per night. TAM is worth not sleeping for, or at least 2013’s edition (my first) was.

Some of the SiN writers (with me on Randi’s right).

To supplement what I’ve already said about the first morning, here’s some comment on (aspects of) the rest of the programme:

Cara Santa Maria: Perhaps the lowlight of the entire weekend for me. Beginning a talk by telling your audience that they might want to temper their expectations, in light of the speaker having played poker until the early hours, didn’t seem like the most effective route to audience engagement for me. When the talk that follows was mostly personal anecdote, my skepticism turned into downright annoyance.

The philosophers: One of the things that made TAM far more intellectually rewarding than most of the conferences (in related areas) I’ve been to in recent years was the strong representation of philosophers on the programme. Speaking as someone who studied, and has now taught philosophy for the past 15 or so years, having these creatures on the stage is by no means a guarantee of comprehensibility or enjoyment, as each can delight in being more obscure and technical than the other. Plus, philosophy is often home to needless obscurantism, or sometimes, simple bullshit. But Massimo Pigliucci, Peter Boghossian, Susan Haack and my SkepticInk colleague Russell Blackford all gave engaging and insightful talks. Watch them all when the videos appear on YouTube – I’ll certainly be re-watching them. Susan Haack was particularly good, I thought, speaking on credulity and its consequences.

Bacon & donuts: Penn’s party on Friday night was good fun. Ribald and loud, he ensured that all pretensions were checked at the door, and entertained us mightily in the process. Beginning with a rant regarding Dr. David Gorski’s (also on the programme) open letter to Penn regarding Penn & Teller’s appearing on Dr. Oz’s show, Penn basically told Gorski that if he was here, he wasn’t welcome and should simply f*** off. That effectively set the tone, whether or not you agree with Penn’s response to the letter – this was not a place for sacred cows. (Gorski was there for the first few minutes, but left shortly after this rant began.)

James Randi: What an inspiration to those of us who spend time “fighting the fakers” (the theme of this year’s TAM). The man is unfailingly generous with his time and his affection, and continues to set an example for the rest of us of how one can fight the fakers while retaining sympathy for their victims, who frequently merit our understanding rather than our condescension. His career has been guided by exposing the fakers in order to help the next (hypothetical) set of victims from becoming victims – and ridiculing those who fall for the tricks and promises of charlatans does nothing towards that worthwhile goal.

D.J. Grothe and the JREF in general: The event would not have been the success it was without meticulous planning and careful, attentive execution. Besides the occasional tech glitch with microphones or slides, everything went off smoothly. For an event this size – 4 days of content, with over 1000 people in attendance, this is no mean feat. So, thanks and congratulations to all of you who were involved in making TAM such a success.

SkepticInk: It was great to meet, or in Russell’s case, re-acquaint myself with, my co-writers on the SkepticInk network. Russell Blackford, Caleb Lack, Ed Clint, Damion Reinhardt and John Loftus were all great fun to hang out with, and we made the most of TAM, attracting plenty of interest at the SiN table (selflessly manned for many an hour by Ed Clint in particular). We were able to have numerous fruitful discussions, which will hopefully result in the network growing from strength to strength.

To conclude, an index of how rewarding I found TAM2013 to be is simply this: even though getting there involves at least 24 hours of transit and a frightening impact on my bank balance (not because TAM is unduly costly, but because 1USD costs 10ZAR), I fully intend to go to every TAM after this. It was just too much fun – and too instructive – to miss out on again.

Here are a couple of other round-ups, from Bob Blaskiewicz and my SiN colleague Caleb Lack.