Join me on BBC Radio 5 Live tonight - skeptics vs woo


Tune in to Richard Bacon's talk radio show on BBC 5 Live tonight, where I'll be fighting the skeptic's corner for the evening's debate: Should we all be looking for our inner self?:

Some therapists claim the key to a fulfilling life is finding your 'inner self'.
But is it all just nonsense?
Is our inner self a powerful healer that can give us peace and confidence in life?
Or is it just a load of hocus pocus?
We'd love to hear from you: call 0500 909 693, text 85058 or email

I suspect I'll be up against someone from the bizarre InnerSelf website, which seems to be a mix of bland aphorisms with extremely dangerous health advice.

You can listen on digital TV, digital radio or online, everything kicks off at midnight. But don't just listen - call, text, email, get your voice heard in the public debate of science! The best caller / comment read out on air will receive a special SciencePunk prize.

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I've listened to it now.
I think a little political media training may be in order for you Frank. You kept getting referred to as the 'cynic' rather than a skeptic and almost the entire discussion of alternative therapies was about hypnosis - where your answers unfortunately came across a little incommittal. I think there are some gold standard arguments against alternative therapies that you didn't use.
First, there are a lot of studies looking at both acupuncture, reiki, reflexology and homeopathy that show them to be useless in double-blind trials.
Second the basic point about which alternative therapy has been abandoned due to the results of these sorts of double blind trials (basically none of them as evidence doesn't seem to be important to the practitioners).
Finally there is the basic danger of alternative medicine - that of using it when proper medicine is the correct option and thus losing out on the proper treatment. One of your co-panellists mentioned that his daughter was '24 hours' from death with AML and yet she survived due to her inner strength.
You never asked whether proper medical treatments were used in this case and whether it would be a good idea to chose alternative treatments instead of tried and tested childhood leukemia treatments (treatments that are almost 90% effective in this disease).

I thought it went OK. Richard Bacon was always going to present things in black-and-white terms (you naysayer, you). I hadn't quite expected him to claim that if someone goes to a hypnotherapist and subsequently quits smoking that it means ("ergo, ipso facto") that hypnotherapy works and then claim that the scouse lad didn't get benefit because he wasn't susceptible to it but it wasn't a huge surprise. The scouse lad's response that he'd only ever seen it work in movies was then followed by Bacon admitting that he'd had to fake a response when he'd tried it for TV. (I thought you came out of the discussion with the Buddhist rather better than the other guests too.)

Radio 5 phone-ins (like many, if not most others) are pretty much tabloid radio so I tend not to listen unless I'm given good reason to. (Glad I tuned in last night though.)

Well done Frank, I think you deserve a stiff drink. It was a bit disappointing that the whole "debate" was essentially one big derail - I didn't really consider any of it to be about the inner self. Perhaps that was for the best...

I was concerned by Quentin Wilson(?)'s notion that his daughter's recovery was due only to her willpower. What does that say about people whose conditions get worse? Is it therefore their fault for not believing enough? It sounds uncomfortably like, if I may attempt to coin a phrase, Spiritual Darwinism. Not a nice notion.

By Bill S Preston Esq (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

I felt it went as well as could be expected - I missed a few opportunities to deliver hits but the show's emphasis is more on good-natured bluster than refined argument.

It would have been nice to get beyond the subject of hypnosis, especially into the more dubious stuff expounded on the InnerSelf website. I resolved to do this after the half hour, but irritatingly the final 30 minutes was entirely devoted to stuff like phoning Timmy Mallet. Such is the way.

I too noticed the last half hour skipped the topic completely and went into pure silliness.
Still, I think the show helped highlight an important point for me. That is that the basic skills necessary to understand scientific reasoning (understanding of basic logic and statistics and knowing the difference between correlation and causation) is almost entirely lacking in the general population.
If this is the case (as illustrated by both Bacon and Wilson on the show) then simply pointing out scientific facts or the overwhelming scientific consensus on a question will be insufficient to convince a lot of people since they will give equal weight to anecdotal evidence of individual cases.
I have come to the conclusion that the best tactic is to use metaphorical examples to force people to think rather than specific scientific results.
As an example lets take the smoking and hypnosis situation.
It was obvious that a single case of someone giving up smoking after hypnosis was enough to convince Bacon - and probably a lot of the public too despite being told that there's no good studies that confirm its effectiveness and that its just as easy to find individuals who have had no effect whatsoever.
It might be an idea to describe a situation where you have 20 people who want to give up smoking who are sold a 'magic pill' for 100 pounds. The pill contains nothing. Its just a sugar tablet with no drugs and no 'magic' involved, but the customers don't know this.
At the end of the test 5 people have completely quit smoking.
Does this mean that the magic pill really does work?
Or is there other possible explanations.

I think this is analogous to hypnosis and smoking but it allows people to see immediately that effects can happen for other reasons (for instance stronger willpower in a proportion of cases).