Are nonsense ‘cures’ for cancer a ‘soft target’?

I confess to wondering whether Edzard Ernst’s recent increased activity at The Spectator website has arisen due to the latter’s cynical recognition (following the lengthy reaction to Tarek Arab’s naïve, quackery-appeasing dreck) of his sure-fire clickbait potential. Certainly, a run of homeopathy-centric articles this month (May 2016) provoked some of the harpies who descend on these things in order to promote their cult to potential converts. And, inevitably, this draws reaction from those of a sceptical bent.

Ernst’s latest article – The internet is full of nonsense ‘cures’ for cancer. Don’t be taken in – is (so far) rather quieter (because it doesn’t have the word ‘homeopathy’ in the title?). But is no less important – in fact, more so. And among the listed ‘wide variety of alternative therapies [which] cures cancer’ claimed by copious websites is, indeed, homeopathy. And what happens beneath an article on the internet, warning of nonsense ‘cures’ for cancer on the internet? Why, commenters pitching up with their nonsense ‘cures’ for cancer on the internet. Fortunately, this particular thread is not too lengthy (yet). But there is a lot of this shit-spreading out there (check out the threads below those other Ernst articles with ‘homeopathy’ in the title) – and the spreaders can be viciously argumentative.

There has also been a bit of a fuss recently concerning a talk delivered to sceptics* at a sceptic conference, by science writer John Horgan – subsequently posted at his Scientific American blog – who took it upon himself to ‘bash skepticism’, declaring that he doesn’t much like the company of ‘capital-S Skeptics’. This has received plenty of reaction from various disgruntled sceptics. (See Horgan’s subsequent posts for his responses and for links to various others who have addressed this.) And whilst it never hurts to occasionally challenge contrarily, I too frowned at one or two of the points raised.

Horgan lambasts ‘tribalistic’ sceptics for focusing on unimportant ‘soft targets’, amongst which he includes… homeopathy:

‘You are extremely critical of belief in God, ghosts, heaven, ESP, astrology, homeopathy and Bigfoot. You also attack disbelief in global warming, vaccines and genetically modified food.’

‘These beliefs and disbeliefs deserve criticism, but they are what I call “soft targets.” That’s because, for the most part, you’re bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you. You end up preaching to the converted.’

So, ‘Skepticism’ is a tribal club with an ineffectual membership unable to project its ‘bashing’ critiques beyond the boundaries of its uninfluential echo chamber. As you might imagine, this has been seized upon with glee by one or two of the homeopathy cultists: for example, dunce-dunny, Sandra Courtney, who somehow considers that the grouping of homeopathy amongst a list of belief-based obsessions, including astrology and Bigfoot, somehow reflects well on her precious.

Sandra and Horgan

Unflattered by his adoption as Courtney’s new fluffing tool, Horgan responded by pointing out that he considers homeopathy to be a crock. Yet, though he acknowledges it deserves criticism, he doesn’t consider it a substantial issue worthy of sceptics’ time and effort. Why? Because some people he loves are into it? Because he’s concerned about being perceived as an asshole? This, it suggests to me, is ‘Offence by proxy’ – the defensive reaction on behalf of some other person(s) who would take offence to what you say, even though your arguer doesn’t, really.

Sorry, John, but I disagree. As Edzard Ernst and others have recently pointed out, there’s an awful lot of nonsense out there. Though epitomic, it’s not (always) about the bashing of homeopaths and homeopathy per se; rather, the counter-activity of many sceptics is motivated by where the row over it is played out – in online public fora. Because it is in such places that the tactics of the homeopathy propagandists are writ large: mediate the illusion of equal debate, à la that re-branded version of creationism, intelligent design – ‘teach the controversy’. Does John Horgan really think he’s the only sceptic who’s given this any thought? Does he not think many if not most of us are close to someone(s) in thrall to some or other belief system? Does he not think those quackery promoters with whom we argue online have never provided us with copious argumenta ad populum; have never accused us of ineffectual negativity? It’s not them we seek to reach, John – they’re lost. In too deep. Too far gone. Funny, but I don’t think I’ve ever viewed scepticism as an attempt to de-convert those brazenly guilty of the unethical practice of promoting and marketing their miracle cure-all, or their sycophantic propagandists/apologists. Rather, we consider it worthwhile, in exposing and calling out these menaces to public health, to try to reach those who might be susceptible to their disingenuous rhetoric. Those who are prone to the fallacy of the natural, and to the false equivalence ‘Either/Or’ conspiracy theories of anti-medical science New-Agers. Those who think aping the choices of ignorant and uninformed celebrities is cool. Those taken in by deluded do-gooders who seek converts to reinforce their perpetuating delusions. Those swayed by charismatic charlatans who profit from the vulnerable and gullible.

And to highlight and counter the irresponsible CAM-promoting activity of those who hold responsible public roles; such as ‘Minister for Quackery’, David Tredinnick MP, an avid homeopathy devotee prone to misleading Parliament, and who just this past month has again been raising the issue of CAM with connection to cancer.

Soft targets? Ought we to leave this be? Or merely back off occasionally, like Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, who considers homeopathy “rubbish”, but wouldn’t criticise Prince Charles for using it on his animals? Well…



(*Or skeptics, if you prefer; I’m English, okay?)


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