“You already have been fooled,” said James “The Amazing” Randi, a magician and pseudoscience investigator, in a lecture on Tuesday. “When I came out here, I took the microphone. I didn’t really need it. It simply is a beard trimmer.” He then proceded to shaved in front of a laughing audience.
But being fooled isn’t always a laughing matter. The Lorne Trottier Pseudoscience Symposium, a two-day gathering of scientists and skeptics, discussed how willing people are to believe the erroneous in science, and what those beliefs mean.
The symposium took place last week at the Centre Mont Royal and in the Leacock Building. The lecture halls were crowded both days. During Randi’s lecture in Leacock, many had to sit on the floor.
Michael Shermer, the editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine, explained how people can often be confused by a number of natural occurrences in everyday life.
“Patternicity is the tendency to find patterns in meaningful and meaningless noise,” he said.
Shermer distinguished between Type I errors—where we erroneously think we are in danger when we are safe—and more dangerous Type II errors—where we mistakenly think we are safe when we are in danger. Humans, Shermer said, also tend to find patterns where there are none can lead them to false beliefs. Often, where we find correlation, we assume causation.
The medical use of snake oil one of the most ubiquitous example of pseudoscience. Observing that Chinese water snakes were mobile and well-lubricated, Chinese extracted oil from them and bottled it as a cure for joint pain, a practice that later spread to other parts of the world. The original snake oils did not treat joint pain at all, but were relatively harmless compared to today’s “snake oils.”
Matthias Rath, a German vitamin salesman and modern “snake oil” peddler, is “a very bad man,” said Ben Goldacre, an award-winning British writer, broadcaster, and doctor. Rath took marketed his vitamins not only to America and Britain—where people can afford to buy unnecessary vitamin supplements in an attempt to cure their cancer—but South Africa’s poor as well.
Rath took out full-page ads in South African newspapers claiming, “The answer to the AIDS epidemic is here.” He claimed that anti-retroviral drugs were a drug company conspiracy to kill Africans. Instead, he said, his vitamin pills were the answer to AIDS. Between 2000 and 2005, the South African government compounded the problem by denouncing anti-retroviral drugs. According to Goldacre, an estimated 300,000–350,000 people died unnecessarily during this period.
David Gorski, a surgical oncologist and managing editor of Science-Based Medicine, addressed other dangers of pseudoscience. Gorski told the story of a woman named Michaela who got cancer and, scared of the illness, postponed seeing a doctor. When she finally went in, she had a large Stage IIIB tumor on her breast. She underwent chemotherapy and her cancer started to recess until only a red dot was left.
Michaela then discovered German New Medicine, a school of medicine founded by Ryke Geerd Hamer, which proposes an alternative, pseudoscientific theory of disease based on psychological trauma. Hamer convinced Michaela that her cancer was a result of inner conflict and that she must stop chemotherapy. She did. Her cancer relapsed and she died.
Fortunately, not all the event’s speakers were so morose.
The entertaining James Randi headlined the second day, discussing, among other things, pet blankets with magnets in them, which theoretically help pets rest better. Randi addressed the dangers of radon water, the ineffectiveness of homeopathy, and pens that identify fraudulent bills.
Randi mentioned one particular homeopathic medication, Oscillococcinum, made from the liver of a duck “killed with kindness or [dead] from old age.” Randi says you could make so much medicine that, “with the sun at the centre of a big sphere and the orbit of Pluto on the other side and then a little bit beyond that, you can make a sphere that can be filled with homeopathic pills from that one duck liver.”