Has it really only been two weeks? A mere two weeks since everybody’s favorite advocate of The One Quackery to Rule Them All promised the woo-friendly readers of the “health” section of that wretched hive of scum and quackery, The Huffington Post that he would “provide further specific evidence of the unscientific attitude and actions from those individuals and organizations who are leading the campaign against homeopathy.” Like pretty much every skeptic who’s made any sort of name for himself, no matter how minor, in having fun taking down the pseudoscientific nonsense known as homeopathy, I fervently hoped that I would make the list of the two prominent skeptics whom Ullman blames more than anyone else for a “disinformation campaign against homeopathy.” Of course, given that homeopathy is based on disinformation mixed with magical thinking (sympathetic magical thinking, to be precise), one would think that Ullman would try to dilute the disinformation (with succussion between each step, of course) and use it as a remedy. In any case, skeptics everywhere waited with bated breath to find out who would receive the honor of being named an enemy of homeopathy by the ultimate woo-meister homeopath himself. (And even homeopaths don’t come woo-ier than Ullman.)
They need wait no more. Yesterday, the answer was revealed in a post on HuffPo entitled Disinformation on Homeopathy: Two Leading Sources:
Two of the leading antagonists to homeopathy are James Randi (U.S.) and Tracey Brown (UK). This short article is not meant to be exhaustive on the disinformation campaign against homeopathy, but providing profiles of these leading antagonists to homeopathy will hopefully shed light on the nature of their information and how trustworthy they may or may not be.
Losing out to Randi is, obviously, not a disgrace at all. Randi is, after all, Randi, an icon of the skeptical movement whose contributions to skepticism and critical thinking are legion. In contrast, I had no idea who Tracey Brown is when I read this. It turns out that I should have, given that Brown is the managing director of the U.K. science advocacy group Sense About Science. As you may recall, Sense About Science has been relentless about countering pseudoscience in the U.K. and is known for its campaign to Keep Libel Laws Out of Science. No wonder Ullman would dislike Brown so!
Before he starts, Ullman tries to assure us that he’s not launching ad hominem attacks:
Please know that this review and critique of Mr. Randi and Ms. Brown is not an ad hominem attack on these two individuals. I have a great amount of respect for Mr. Randi as an entertainer and magician, and Ms. Brown is a highly-competent public relations professional. They may also be quite lovely people too, but whether they are nice or lovely or entertaining or competent is not the point of this article. Instead, this article reviews their actions, their priorities and the organizations that they have represented, all of which are reasonable and appropriate areas for critique and are not personal attacks on who they are.
Not surprisingly, much of what follows, in addition to the usual misinformation and pseudoscience that Ullman likes to promote, consists of ad hominem attacks. For example:
James Randi is not just a homeopathic and alternative medicine skeptic, he is also a climate change denier (Randi.org).
If James Randi had serious concerns about fraud and deception in medicine and science, one would think that he would not be silent on the rampant chicanery considerable fraud regularly committed by conventional medical and “scientific” researchers and by Big Pharma companies. However, Randi is a great magician, and he is clearly a recognized expert at misdirection.
The advantage of Randi’s climate change position is that he stands with and by Big Oil and Big Corp. To quote the church lady, “How convenient.”
So, let’s see. Ullman’s claim that he’s not launching ad hominem attacks is followed by portraying Randi as being a pharma shill who also stands with “Big Oil” and “Big Corp.” Does any of this have anything to do with Randi’s criticisms of homeopathy? No, it does not. Even if all of this were true (and it is not), it would be irrelevant to the scientific and skeptical arguments made against homeopathy. Ullman’s simply trying to poison the well with ad hominem attacks, his denials that that’s what he’s doing notwithstanding.
I’ve criticized Randi myself for the huge mistake he made in falling for the talking points of anthropogenic global warming denialists. However, from my perspective, Randi’s mistake was primarily one of omission. He basically wrote an opinion without having studied the issue, and it showed. It showed badly. However, just because Randi made a mistake about AGW doesn’t mean he’s mistaken about all science. He knows homeopathy cold and has demonstrated it again and again. Yet, instead of addressing Randi’s arguments about homeopathy, Ullman spends most of his time whining about the Million Dollar Challenge and bringing up unrelated topics, like AGW, finishing up with a truly vile and despicable cheap shot at Randi based on his personal life that puts the lie to Ullman’s pre-emptive denial that he’s engaging in ad hominems.
Ullman’s even worse when it comes to Tracey Brown, whose past connections to the Communist Party he gleefully recounts, later referring to her as a pharma shill. Truly, I must say that I’ve never seen an ad hominem calling a person, in essence, a Commie pinko and a corporate shill at the same time! Either inconsistency doesn’t bother Ullman, or he’s so eager to attack Brown that he seemingly can’t make up his mind whether she’s a Commie or a Capitalist flack defending corporate interests.
All of this was then followed by this strange attack:
In 2010, SAS and a collaborating organization, the Merseyside Skeptics Society, gained significant media attention by promoting demonstrations that ridiculed homeopathy by asserting that “there is nothing in homeopathic medicine.” Although the Merseyside Skeptics Society is also called “Skeptics at the Pub,” one would think that the media would easily recognize the low level of discourse that would emerge from a group with this name, but not when professional public relations people are pulling some strings.
Come on, now. This is just silly. Skeptics in the Pub meetups are nothing more than informal ways for skeptics to get together and talk skepticism. I’ve been to several such meetups myself, both locally and in other cities when I’m traveling. Notice how he denigrates the Merseyside Skeptics not because they made bad arguments against homeopathy. He can’t. So instead he basically does the equivalent of mocking the Merseyside Skeptics because they hold Skeptics in the Pub meetings.
Ullman’s blatant ad hominems aside, though, does he offer any substantive arguments in support of homeopathy or refuting criticisms of homeopathy? What do you think? Of course he doesn’t. He can’t. Instead, he lays down howlers like this:
The demonstrators each imbibed an entire bottle of a homeopathic medicine to “prove” that there is nothing in it and, strangely enough, to show that they could not commit suicide by ingesting it. It is a tad ironic that these demonstrators equated the ability to commit suicide with a drug as a way to prove that it provides therapeutic action! And these demonstrations were further shown to be “unclear on the concept” of homeopathy, because ingesting a whole bottle of a homeopathic medicine would not prove or disprove anything. At best, it may be akin to using a nail instead of a needle to attempt to disprove acupuncture (clearly, this is garbage in, garbage out thinking).
Actually, it’s Ullman who’s “unclear on the concept,” particularly given his most inapt analogy. After all, if homeopathic remedies have any action whatsoever, then it should be possible to increase the dose to the point of causing toxicity. If, no matter how much homoepathic remedy you take, nothing happens, then that’s an incredibly strong indication that there really is nothing there. Of course, basic physics and chemistry are more than enough to demonstrate that in homepathic dilutions above around 12C or so, it’s incredibly unlikely that there’s a single molecule of the active compound.
In addition, Ullman complains about how the British documentary series Horizon recruited James Randi to investigate Jacques Benveniste’s infamous experiments on homeopathy and to try to replicate the experiments of Madeleine Ennis. These experiments have been held up by homeopaths as “evidence” for the memory of water, but in reality what other scientists and the producers of Horizon, along with James Randi’s help, demonstrated is that Benveniste’s and Ennis’ experiments were fatally flawed and could not be replicated. The details are presented in this transcript of the show. One notes that it is very different from the description that Ullman provides. Particularly ironic is this statement:
When Professor Ennis was ultimately sent the protocol, she was shocked at what she received. This protocol was not her experiment (Ennis, 2004). In fact, it was clearly a study that was a set-up to disprove homeopathy.
Well, not exactly. Science and scientific experiments are designed primarily to falsify, not to prove, hypotheses. That’s where Ullman gets it wrong. He wants an experiment to “prove” homeopathy. That’s not science. Trying to falsify the key concepts behind homeopathy is. If homeopathy can stand up to such hypothesis testing, then that’s an indication that the hypotheses that represent the central concepts of homeopathy might have some validity. They didn’t.
Ullman is also very unhappy about the British House of Commons report on homeopathy last year. I wrote about this report when it came out; it was very good for a governmental report. To discredit it, he relies on, of course, more ad hominems. He attacks Evan Harris, the MP who was a driving force behind the report and points out that he was defeated in his next election “by a 20-something-year-old candidate who had no previous political experience,” implying that it was the report on homeopathy that led to his defeat, a highly unlikely proposition. If anything, the report on homeopathy didn’t have as much of an effect on government policy as it deserved to.
Not surprisingly, in the end, Ullman concludes his post with a rather prolonged and equally pathetic rant against medical “fundamentalism,” which is pure irony, given that it is homeopaths who are the most fundamentalist of all. They never deviate from their pseudoscience, no matter how much evidence shows it to be nothing more than magical thinking sprinkled with a dash of pseudoscience. He even concludes with a typical crank prediction that his pseudoscience will triumph:
Thomas Kuhn, the great physicist and philosopher of science and author of the seminal “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” asserted that “paradigm shifts” seem only outrageous or revolutionary to those people who have invested themselves in the old paradigm… but to all others, the paradigm shift is a natural evolutionary development to virtually everyone else. The deniers of homeopathy are simply “too invested” personally and professionally in the old medical and scientific paradigm, while the rest of us consider the maturation of medicine and science as long overdue.
It has been said that dinosaurs tend to yell and scream the loudest before their fall… and it seems that we are all witnessing evolution at work.
It is not a coincidence that you could find almost exactly the same text on a creationist blog, on a quack blog (well, actually, it already is), or on the blog of an anthropogenic global warming denialist. All cranks believe that someday they’ll be vindicated by science. It’s very rare that they’re right, and in the case of Dana Ullman the odds of his being right about homeopathy being vindicated are equivalent to the odds of finding a single molecule of the original homeopathic remedy in a 100C dilution.