I had never heard of That Mitchell and Webb Look before – it’s a British comedy skit show featuring the comedy team of David Mitchell and Robert Webb. Fortunately we now have the wonders of the intertubes and we Americans can view their skits on YouTube.
The skit that is likely to go viral and vastly increase their profile in the US is this one – Homeopathy A&E (A&E does not stand for the Arts and Entertainment network, but Accident and Emergency – what we would call the ER or ED in the US).
They manage to pack a lot of wit and sarcasm into just a few minutes. They show homeopathy and related woo for what it is – a silly fiction, not worthy of anything but ridicule. Here is the money quote – one physician comforting the other for killing all of his patients with serious diseases, says:
“…when someone comes in with a vague sense of unease or a touch of the nerves, or even just more money than sense, we’ll be there for them, bottle of basically just water in one hand, and a huge invoice in the other.”
That just about sums up a huge chunk of so-called alternative medicine – the more benign part.
The skit also highlights for me the power of satire. It has the power to crystalize the essense of an argument or situation better than more straightforward forms of communication. It can bring into clear focus the core hypocracy or absurdity of a situation. It also removes from claims that are silly at their core the cloak of legitimacy and respectability. That is a cloak that proponents of homeopathy desperately want, but don’t deserve.
Homeopathy is a 200 year old pre-scientific notion that is derived from superstitious sympathetic magic – that “like cures like” because things have an “essence” that can be imbued. It also violates physics and chemistry by claiming that the more a substance is diluted the more powerful it becomes, even when diluted beyond the point where there is any difference between the solution and pure water (“bottle of basically just water”).
It is important to marshall rational and scientific arguments against homeopathy, to counter the claims of its proponents. But doing so also unintentionally grants homeopathy a patina of scientific legitimacy – it appears to the public as if it is something about which scientists can and do debate. So if some of these “scientists” say it works, maybe they’re the ones who are right.
This is a conundrum in which scientific skeptics often find ourselves, and mostly we just ignore the researh that suggests that by engaging with pseudoscientists we legitamize them. One solution is to balance the serious scientific discussion with a bit of satire – to put the pseudoscience into perspective. We need to make it clear that we do not take things like homeopathy seriously. We look at it more as a menace to public health that needs to e dealt with, like a scientific curiosity – a cautionary tale about how horribly wrong human reasoning can go, and a “teaching moment” about logic and legitimate scientific methodology.
Some skeptics bristle at sarcasm and ridicule – they argue that it is off-putting and counterproductive. They have a point, but one that I think is often over-sold and misses the legitimate use of satire in dealing with the absurd. I prefer balance – say that homeopathy is absurd pre-scientific superstition, even make fun of those promoting it (not the average user, but the prominant promoters), but then explain in careful and thoughtful terms why homeopathy is implausible and that the clinical evidence shows it does not work.
The question of what is the most effective approach for skeptics to take in dealing with true-believers, promoters of nonsense, and pseudoscience in general is an admittedly complex one, and I don’t pretend to have definitive answers. That is why I’m OK with my skeptical colleagues taking different approaches to their skepticism. I don’t think there is one proven way to go about it, and various approaches seem to have their strengths and weaknesses. I am comfortable with the balance I and the SGU currently take – but we are also constantly monitoring feedback and listening to arguments on all sides so that perhaps we can improve our approach going forward. I also think the internal debate on this question is healthy.
Individual skeptics should feel comfortable going with their strengths. Mitchell and Webb are professional comedians, and they have pulled of this bit of satire better than I ever could. Penn and Teller are also professional performers and excel at the “in your face” approach to skepticism. Tim Minchin uses music to spread reason. Others take a deliberately soft approach. I tend to take a somewhat academic approach (being an academic), while the Rogues each have their own style that we blend together on the SGU.
It’s all good.