When the Science Goes Away 4 - Pied Pipers of Science

With science, "consensus" is meaningless and bears no inherent relationship to truth.

It would be an odd discussion of science that didn't cite any professors, and indeed, that's how we started first article in this series - with Prof. Feynman's definition of true science:

"It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are.  If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong."  [emphasis added]

 - Dr. Richard Feynman

That's real science.  You get an idea and see if it works.  Until reality matches, your theory is unconfirmed and has little scientific value.  To Prof. Feynman, the meaning of "experiment" was obvious, but we must amplify.  Suppose you collect data, confirm your theory, and publish a paper.  That's not a complete experiment.  It doesn't count until other people follow your instructions, collect their own data, and get the same result.  This is called either "repeatability or "replicability."  A true "experiment" is defined by many researchers getting the same results.  If someone announces a result without sharing the underlying data or sharing the email chain that led up to it, hang onto your wallet!

The Madness of Crowds

The first article in this series mentioned Carl Sagan's best-selling book The Demon-Haunted World which discussed many different forms of bad science.  One of his memorable points came on p 25, "Science is more than a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking.  I have a foreboding ... when the [American] people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; ... we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness."

Prof. Sagan likened fake science to demons manipulating the gullible, and thought of science as a candle in the darkness of superstition, seances, alien abduction, and other forms of fakery.  He discussed in scientific terms what the Bible, from a religious perspective, calls "science falsely so called" - things that claim to be secret knowledge that can be studied and learned if you pay enough, but are fake.

We believe that his best illustration of human gullibility was his Chapter 13 account of a deliberate faith healing hoax staged by James "The Amazing" Randi, a stage magician who took great interest in finding fraud among psychics, faith healers, and other charlatans.  In 1988, Australians media started receiving press kits announcing that world-renowned faith healer Carlos was to appear in Australia.

Pages 225-240 show how large crowds came to Carlos' stage appearances and his popularity was growing rapidly... until Australia's most popular TV program revealed that the whole thing had been a hoax.  The producers thought it would be instructive to show how easily a "faith healer" could bamboozle the public and persuaded Mr. Randi to put the show together.

The producers ran a wire from a radio to a hidden speaker in Carlos' ear so that Randi could give him hints.  Carlos practiced gazing into space when baffled to give Randi time to tell him what to say.

Not one Australian newspaper checked the details in Carlos' press release.  The New York radio station WOOP on which he claimed to have made his national debut did not exist.  He generated a video of his "successful show" at a New York theater by walking onstage and bowing while the audience was applauding the real performer.  Nobody checked with the theater to see if Carlos had actually been booked there - which, of course, he had not.

Faith healing can be especially convincing because of the placebo effect.  Placebos are "any medicine adopted to please rather than to benefit the patient."  Our National Institute of Health tells us that during WW II,

When Beecher [an army medical officer] found himself running out of pain killers while tending to U.S. soldiers on the Italian front, the story goes, he told the wounded soldiers that a saline-filled syringe held morphine. Many soldiers, thus deceived, were comforted.

When Beecher assured his patients they were getting morphine, which they knew to be a potent painkiller, many severely wounded soldiers felt much less pain after getting the shot.  If people are able to block pain if they're convinced that they've been given a painkiller, what's wrong with using placebos besides denying revenue to drug manufacturers?

Actually, there is a reason not to do that: a placebo that makes patients feel better without curing the disease can mask a serious condition and bring great harm.  Beecher's fake painkillers gave soldiers comfort when he had nothing better, but if the real deal had been available, their healing would have been significantly sped up because the pain would have been blocked for real.

The NIH reported that it had been said that Steve Jobs brought abut his untimely cancer death by relying on "complementary and alternative medical (CAM) therapies, including acupuncture, botanicals, and dietary changes."  The problem was that Mr. Jobs' specific form of pancreatic cancer was so rate that there were virtually no data on how best to treat it.

... what many journalists failed to note is that the evidence supporting any specific conventional treatment approach (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy) for GEP-NETs comprises a slim literature, and the evidence base for use of CAM therapeutic approaches for GEP-NETs is virtually non-existent. After a delay of nine months after diagnosis, in 2004, Jobs opted for surgery. He died 7 years later. ...

Steve Jobs' decision to try an unproven therapeutic approach in the face of medical uncertainly was no different from similar decisions routinely made by many cancer patients. Jobs' example teaches that even those individuals with access to the most resources cannot make informed decisions about the use of conventional and/or CAM therapies if the information does not exist[emphasis added]

Mr. Jobs' particular pancreatic cancer is quite rare, so there were essentially no genuine scientific data to help him choose treatments.  Mr. Jobs informed himself as well as he could, directed his treatment, and lived for 7 years after the initial diagnosis.  Clearly, it wasn't an obviously wrong decision; he did no worse than anyone else, and better than most, considering the total lack of a demonstrated scientific cure.

We mention Mr. Jobs' case, while barely scratching the surface of Prof. Sagan's accounts of human gullibility about fake cures, to point out that although Bat Soup Flu has affected far more people worldwide than pancreatic cancer, we know very little more about it than we know about Mr. Job's extremely rare cancer.  To name but two uncertainties, Mr. Elon Musk tells us that he took 4 Covid tests, two of which indicated that he had it and two of which indicated that he did not.  By definition, that's not science, in that an effective test should be reliable and repeatable and those clearly were not.

The same article reports on Erykah Badu who tested positive in one nostril and negative in the other.  We have vast amounts of covid data from all over the world, but how much of it is accurate or scientifically meaningful?

What are we to make of the widespread reports of surging numbers of people testing positive for covid?  Mr. Musk and Ms. Badu either have or do not have Bat Soup Flu.  Half of the 6 tests given them are therefore definitively wrong, for a 50% error rate.  Indeed, we have reason to suspect that Mr. Musk counts in the statistics as two covid cases - after all, he did receive two separate positive tests, both of which would have been separately reported to the same authority that includes people who died in motorcycle crashes in the covid stats.

With error rates and bureaucratic idiocies like that, how many reported cases are really covid, and how many have really died of covid?  Mr. Jobs was a bit better off - he did indeed have pancreatic cancer, that test told him the truth.

Carlos was not a faith healer - he knew he wasn't, and eventually, so did the world.  But the people he healed didn't know that, at least not at the time, and they felt better.

For a faith healer, the truth will eventually come out.  For a politician, though, it doesn't matter, so long as people stay fooled until the next election.  In the next article in this series, we'll apply the lessons of Randi's fake healing, the placebo effect, and utter uncertainty about what is happening with covid to the current national hysteria about the disease.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Science.
Reader Comments

Good article, and to the point.

December 17, 2020 12:17 PM
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