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The philosophers want more power

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tamsin shaw

tamsin shaw

Canto: Well I suppose the apparent detection of gravitational waves should be capturing our attention more than anything else right now, but it’s very well described in The Economist, and in many other places, and we’re no astrophysicists, and we did promise to focus a bit more on philosophical issues, so…

Jacinta: But we’re no philosophers. But we’re philosophasters at least, so let’s have a go.

Canto: Well I came across an article on Three Quarks Daily which vaguely gave me the irrits, so with your help I want to explore why.

Jacinta: Right. The essay is called ‘The psychologists take power’, the author is Tamsin Shaw and it was originally published in the New York review of books.

Canto: Yes, and on reading it in full I find it an interesting but confused piece, which seems to take the failings of certain individual psychologists as an example of the failings of psychology as a whole, and even of neurology. Shaw seems to be entering the philosophy versus science debate, on the side of philosophy, but I don’t find her arguments convincing.

Jacinta: The essay seems to divide into two parts, first a general critique of psychology and neurology, which can be summed up by the title of a philosophical essay by Selim Berker, which she quotes approvingly, ‘the normative insignificance of neuroscience’. The second part is an account of how certain professional psychologists, practitioners of the ‘positive psychology’ pioneered by the influential Martin Seligman, colluded with the US government in providing dubious evidence for the psychological effectiveness of torture in eliciting valuable information from ‘enemies of the state’. Shaw clearly wants to link these unethical practices to what she might want to call ‘the normative insignificance of psychology’.

Canto: Yes, and it’s a bit of a dangerous game – you might as well label Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, or Althusser’s murder of his wife, as examples of ‘the normative insignificance of philosophy’.

Jacinta: Ha, well Althusser was declared insane at the time, no doubt by psychologists, who would be examining Althusser to determine whether he was, while strangling his wife, capable of understanding and following the normative rules of his society. Such determinations are hardly normatively insignificant, even though, no doubt, individual psychologists might make different determinations, due to levels of competence, corruption, ideological considerations and so forth.

Canto: Right, but let’s look more closely at Shaw’s essay, and pick it apart.

Jacinta: Okay, but first let’s make a philosophasters’ confession. Shaw mentions eight or so books or sources at the head of her essay, which form the basis of her discussion, but of those we’ve only read one – Pinker’s eloquent tome, The better angels of our nature. And we don’t intend to bone up on those other texts, though no doubt we’ll refer to our own reading in our responses.

Canto: And we are reasonably familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work and ideas.

Jacinta: So Shaw begins her essay with the overweening ambition of behaviourist extraordinaire B F Skinner, a pretty soft target these days. I have no problems with criticising him, or Freud or any other psychologist whose theories get way out of hand. Shaw’s concerns, though, are specifically about the moral sphere. She feels that a new breed of psychologists, armed with neurological research, are making big claims about moral expertise. Here’s a quote from her essay:

Neuroscience, it is claimed, has revealed that our brains operate with a dual system for moral decision-making.

Canto: I like the ‘it is claimed’ bit. Claimed by who? Someone has put forward that hypothesis I’m sure, along with their reasons, but most neurologists bang on about neurology being a field in its infancy, and most findings are highly contested, it seems to me.

Jacinta: Shaw may be referring to the work of Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist not a neurologist – who distinguished between system 1 thinking (intuitive, less conscious, rough-and ready) and system 2 thinking (reasoned, conscious, more changeable depending on inputs and knowledge). But really there are many dual-process theories going back at least to William James. But Shaw is explicitly referring to the fMRI imaging work of the neurologist Jonathan Cohen, who analysed brain activity when subjects were asked to think about moral hypotheticals.

Canto: Yes and she’s quite straight about describing the two systems apparently highlighted by Cohen’s research and the brain regions associated with them, but becomes scathing in dealing with Joshua Greene, Cohen’s co-researcher, whom she quite deliberately introduces as a mere ‘philosophy graduate student’, whose interpretation of the research she describes thus:

Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology. Since primitive human beings encountered up-close dangers or threats of personal violence, their brains, he speculated, evolved fast and focused responses for dealing with such perils. The impersonal violence that threatens humans in more sophisticated societies does not trigger the same kind of affective response, so it allows for slower, more cognitive processes of moral deliberation that weigh the relevant consequences of actions. Greene inferred from this that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values—for example, justice—to which personal harms and goals such as family loyalty should be irrelevant. He has taken this to be a vindication of a specific, consequentialist philosophical theory of morality: utilitarianism.

Jacinta: Okay, so here’s where psychology – especially evolutionary psychology – first comes under attack. It’s often said to present just so stories, which are necessarily highly speculative, as if they are facts. But I would question whether these speculations, or hypotheses, are unverifiable (forget about falsifiability, a term made popular by Karl Popper but which has come under heavy criticism since, both by scientists and philosophers of science, and I suspect Shaw has simply used it as a ‘double whammy’ to vilify Greene), to me they’re important and useful, and in any case are rarely presented as facts, at least not by the best psychologists.

Canto: So how do you verify this hypothesis, that fast, rough-and-ready responses for dealing with immediate dangers are systematically different from slower, more sophisticated responses that deal with the ‘impersonal violence’, the many restraints, justified or not, on our personal freedoms that we deal with on a daily basis?

Jacinta: Well one obvious way is through neurology, a scientific field still in its infancy as you say. Clearly the system 1 responses would be shared by other complex social mammals, whereas system 2 thinking is much more language-dependent and unique to humans – unless cetaceans have developed complex language, which is far from being out of the question. New techniques for mapping and exploring neural pathways are coming up all the time, as well as non-invasive ways of exploring such pathways in our closest mammalian relatives.

Canto: Good point. So to go to the second part of the above quote, Greene is presented (and I wonder about whether Shaw is fairly or accurately presenting him) as finding system 2 thinking as superior because it deals with more abstract and less personal values, whereas I would prefer to think of this system as a further adaptation, to a human existence that has become more socially complex, systematic and language-based. And in this, I’m apparently in line with the thinking of psychologists Shaw takes aim at:

Many of the psychologists who have taken up the dual-process model claim to be dismissive of philosophical theories, generally. They reject Greene’s inferences about utilitarianism and claim to be restricting themselves to what can be proved scientifically. But in fact all of those I discuss here are making claims about which kinds of moral judgments are good or bad by assessing which are adaptive or maladaptive in relation to a norm of social cooperation. They are thereby relying on an implicit philosophical theory of morality, albeit a much less exacting one than utilitarianism.

Jacinta: But I detect a problem here. You’ve talked about adaptation to the fact of growing social complexity, and the need to co-operate within that complexity. Shaw has written of a ‘norm of social co-operation’, by which she means an ethical norm, because she claims that this is the implicit philosophical theory of morality these psychologists rely on. But that’s not true, they’re not claiming that there’s anything moral about social complexity or social co-operation. We just are more complex, and necessarily more co-operative than our ancestors. So it’s kind of silly to say they’re relying on a less exacting moral philosophy than utilitarianism. It’s not about moral philosophy at all.

Canto: And it gets worse. Shaw claims that this phantom moral ethic of social co-operation is greatly inferior to utilitarianism, so let’s look at that normative theory, which in my view is not so much exacting as impossible. Utilitarianism is basically about the maximising of utility. Act in such a way that your actions maximise utility (act utilitarianism), or create rules that maximise utility (rule utilitarianism). So what’s utility? Nothing that can be measured objectively, or agreed upon. We can replace it with happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, or Aristotle’s eudaemonia, however translated, and the problem is still the same. How do you measure, on a large-scale, social level, things so elusive, intangible and personal?

Jacinta: Yes, and look at how laws change over time, laws for example relating to homosexuality, women’s rights, the protection of minorities, and even business practices, taxation and the like; they’re all about our changing, socially evolving sense of how to co-operate in such a way as to produce the best social outcomes. This can’t be easily bedded down in some fixed normative ethic.

Canto: Yes, Shaw seems to imply that some deep philosophical insight is missing from these psychologists which makes them liable to go off the rails, as the second half of her essay implies, but I’m very doubtful about that. But let’s continue with our analysis:

Rather than adhering to the moral view that we should maximize “utility”—or satisfaction of wants—they are adopting the more minimal, Hobbesian view that our first priority should be to avoid conflict. This minimalist moral worldview is, again, simply presupposed; it is not defended through argument and cannot be substantiated simply by an appeal to scientific facts. And its implications are not altogether appealing.

Jacinta: But surely she’s just assuming that ‘they’ – presumably all the psychologists she doesn’t like, or is it all the psychologists who posit a two-tiered system of decision-making? – take the view that avoidance of conflict is the highest priority.

Canto: Well I must say that Jonathan Haidt seems to take that view, and it’s something I find uncomfortable. So I agree with Shaw that Haidt ‘presupposes that the norm of cooperation should take precedence over the values that divide us’, and that this view is dubious. It’s just that I suspect my own view, that there are values more important than co-operation, is also a ‘presupposition’, though I dislike that word. But more of that later perhaps.

Jacinta: Right, so Shaw refers to the sinister implications of a minimalist Hobbesian worldview, supposedly held by these psychologists. What are they?

Canto: We’ll get there eventually – perhaps. Shaw describes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, stemming from Martin Seligman and practised by Haidt among others, including Steven Pinker, whose book The better angels of our nature was apparently influenced by this movement:

In that extremely influential work Pinker argues that our rational, deliberative modes of evaluation should take precedence over powerful, affective intuitions. But by “rationality” he means specifically “the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games,” rather than any higher-order philosophical theory. He allows that empathy has played a part in promoting altruism, that “humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering.” But nevertheless our “ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary.”

And here’s where I see another problem. Pinker is here criticised for not subscribing to any ‘higher-order philosophical theory’, but Shaw doesn’t attempt to outline or give examples of such higher-order theories, though she does refer to empathy – an important factor, but one that doesn’t obviously emerge from philosophy.

Jacinta: Right, and we’ve already referred to utilitarianism and its problems. This reminds me that years ago  I read a sort of primer on ethics, I think it was called Moral Philosophy, in which the author devoted chapters to utilitarianism, Kantianism, rights theory and other ethical approaches. In the final chapter he presented his own preferred approach, a sort of neo-Aristotelianism. I was intrigued that he felt we hadn’t made much progress in philosophical ethics in almost 2,500 years.

Canto: Well, his may be a minority view, but it’s doubtful that our changing laws derive from philosophical work on normative ethics, though this may have had an influence. I do think, with Haidt, that there’s a great deal of post-hoc rationalisation going on, though I’m reluctant – very reluctant actually – to embrace the relativism of values. And this brings me to the nub of the matter, IMHO. To go back to an old favourite of mine, Hume: ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. A fairly notorious pronouncement, but I take the passions here to be something very basic – the fundamental drives and instincts, largely unconscious, that characterise us as humans…

Jacinta: But doesn’t Hume break his own is-ought rule here? He says that our passions rule our reason, which may or may not be true, but does it follow that they ought to?

Canto: Please don’t complicate matters. Hume also wrote this, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view, and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.

So these true interests of mankind…

Jacinta: Hang on, so there he goes again, gaily bounding over his own is-ought barrier, saying that in order to work out what we ought to do we need – pretty well absolutely – to determine our interests, what in fact makes us human, what we actually are.

Canto: Well, precisely…

Jacinta: Or what we have evolved to become, which might amount to the same thing. So we need to study our evolution, our genes and genetic inheritance, our brain and its inheritance, and adaptive growth, and maybe the physics of our bodies…

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

Canto: So we need neurology, and genetics, and palaeontology, and physics and psychology, all of which contribute to an understanding of what we are. Without them, normative ethics would be empty theorising.

Jacinta: So I suppose you’re going to write a rejoinder to this ‘normative insignificance of neurology’ essay? Something like ‘the insignificance of normative ethics without neurology’?

Canto: Ha, well that would require reading Selim Berker’s essay, which I’m not sure about – so many other things to explore. But I should end this discussion by saying a few words about the second half of Shaw’s article – and I’ll pass over many other points she’s made. This section deals with the collusion of some psychologists, practitioners of the above-mentioned ‘positive psychology’, with the CIA and the US Department of Defence in the commission of torture.

Jacinta: And what exactly is this ‘positive psychology’?

Canto: Well, to explain that would require a large digression. Suffice to say for now that it’s about using psychology to make us more resilient, and in some sense ethically superior, or more benign, humans. Shaw dwells on this at some length, but claims that in spite of much rhetoric, these psychologists can only offer what she calls the bare, Hobbesian ethic of avoidance of strife. However, she herself is unable to point to a more robust, or a deeper, ethic. She presumably believes in one, but she doesn’t enlighten us as to what it might be. And this is very striking because the tale of these psychologists’ collusion with the Bush administration  on torture, and the huge financial gain to them in applying ‘learned helplessness’, a theory of Seligman’s, to the application of torture, is truly shocking.

Jacinta: So it would be a question of what, in their make-up, allowed them to engage in such unethical behaviour, and was it the lack of a deep ethical understanding, beyond ‘bare Hobbesianism’?

Canto: Right, and my answer would be that, although two psychologists took up this lucrative offer to ‘serve the state’, there would have been others who refused, and would any of them, on either side, have made their decision on the basis of some rigorous normative ethic?

Jacinta: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have colluded with that sort of thing for all the terracotta warriors in China, but I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been for deep philosophical reasons. I just have a kind of visceral revulsion for physical violence and bullying as you know, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d facilitated the premeditated cruel and unusual punishment of others. I’m not even sure if it’s about empathy, but it’s not a particularly reasoned position.

Canto: Yes, and so the only way to understand why some people are more prone to do unethical things – actions outside of the ever-changing standards of community ethics – might be to look at individual psychology, and neurology, and genetics, which takes us further away from normative ethics than ever.

Jacinta: Yes, and didn’t we read, in Sam Kean’s The tale of the duelling neurosurgeons, about a poor fellow in his mid-fifties who suddenly started engaging in paedophile acts, something he had never showed any signs of before? A brain scan revealed a large tumour pressing on parts of the brain responsible for higher-order decision-making (to put it over-simplistically). When the tumour was removed he returned to ‘normal’, until some time later he regressed to paedophile acts. A further scan showed they didn’t remove all the tumour and it had regrown. After another more successful operation he was cured and never diddled again. But the consequences of his actions for his victims when ‘not himself’ would have required him to be punished, on a consequentialist ethical view, wouldn’t they?

Canto: Very good point. And yet, and yet… can it be true that we’ve barely gone further in our ethics than the Golden Rule, or Aristotle’s mean between extremes?

Jacinta: We’re animals, don’t forget. Okay we’re animals that have managed to detect waves from space that are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton, but we’re still not that good at being nice to each other. And the extent to which we’re able to be nice to each other, and follow social norms, that’s a matter of our individual psychology, our neurology, our individual and cultural circumstances, our genes and our epigenetic profile, so much particular stuff that philosophical ethics, with its generalities, can’t easily deal with.

Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2016 at 8:37 am

Traditional Chinese medicine? You must be joking

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bear bile, a TCM that tortures and kills bears and prevents humans from receiving effective treatments - just one of the horrors of TCM

bear bile, a TCM that tortures and kills bears and prevents humans from receiving effective treatments – just one of the horrors of TCM

If we don’t know what’s in them, it’s very difficult to predict the interactions, … that’s obviously of great concern if they are been given to children, or pregnant women, the potential outcomes there are very serious.

Murdoch University biochemist Dr Garth Maker

There’s nothing particularly positive to say about naturopathic treatments generally – some of which (homeopathy, reflexology, iridology, acupuncture and cupping, to name a few) are not so much ‘natural’, whatever that means, as examples of comprehensively failed hypotheses (hardly worthy of the name). But so-called traditional Chinese medicine is on the lowest rung, considering how much damage it has done, not only to humans but to other species that have been horribly exploited in its name. The latest damning finding about what is actually contained in many of these unregulated pills will probably barely create a ripple amongst the anti-science crowd, but nevertheless it needs to get as much publicity as possible. You never know, maybe someone, somewhere will take notice (and we’re fighting a real battle here, because if you go online to find out about TCM, you’ll find the whole internet disturbingly skewed towards the positive). Please, if only for the sake of the children exposed to this crap by ignorant parents, let’s do something about this. It’s an effing outrage.

Written by stewart henderson

December 13, 2015 at 11:36 pm

group think revisited, or how to improve your mind

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Confirmation bias (and the benefits of social reasoning) in a nutshell:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? Luke 6: 42 New International Version


The argumentative theory of reason

The recent New Scientist collection, Being Human, includes an essay, ‘The argumentative ape’, by Dan Jones, which is worth reading and contemplating for any teacher involved in encouraging her students to think richly about current ethical or political issues. In my college, NESB students study ‘English for academic purposes’, which involves a lot of basic grammar and vocabulary at the lower levels, and academic presentations and essays at the higher levels. In these ‘discussion’ or ‘argument’ essays and presentations, students are required to examine the pros and cons of some chosen activity or decision, such as the proper driving age, the consumption of GM food, or even whether humanity has benefitted or blighted our planet.

However, there seems to be a contradiction in asking students to write, and be examined on, individually written ‘discussion essays’, when discussions and arguments are group rather than individual activities. More importantly, if we want to improve our students’ understanding of current issues, perhaps we should be placing more emphasis on group discussion than on individual analysis.

This is hardly a new idea. The ancient Athenians, founders of democracy – decision-making by the people – built their city around the agora, a gathering place for public talk and argument. This design was quite deliberate, as all Athenian citizens were required to contribute to discussions from which civic decisions were made.

‘The argumentative ape’, however, provides contemporary evidence about the evolutionary importance of argument in human society. It describes a thesis put forward by European researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, that human reason evolved not so much to assist us in more clearly understanding our world, but to argue, to persuade, to convince others of our position, our right-ness. So, it evolved socially. And there appears to be some evidence for the more general ‘social brain’ hypothesis, in that a clear correlation has been found between the number of individuals in a primate group and the average brain size of that particular species.

Now one essential problem here should be obvious, as it was to Socrates in his battle with the sophists. The most persuasive arguments aren’t necessarily the best. So it’s natural that along with persuasiveness, skepticism would have developed, as humans sought to evaluate competing arguments.

Through scepticism we’ve identified many types of fallacious reasoning, and ways we have of convincing ourselves in the process of trying to convince others. Confirmation bias, or motivated reasoning, probably tops this list, as it is extremely pervasive if not universal. As Mercier points out, using confirmation bias seems counter-productive if you wish to arrive at correct results, for example in scientific research, but it can be highly effective in argument, as your bias commits you to garnering a multitude of arguments for your position while ignoring, and thus rendering insignificant, all arguments against. If we accept an argumentative theory of the evolution of reason, then, we will see confirmation bias not as a flaw, but as a device to strengthen our own arguments, and the ability to detect such biases would in turn be a device to undo or diminish the arguments of others.

how individual reasoning is affected by the larger group

Experimental psychologists have found many ways in which our reasoning can be affected or manipulated. Take, for example, the framing effect. It has been found, and regularly confirmed, that how the same problem is worded will affect our decision. Jones presents the scenario, used by psychologists, of a small village of 600 people threatened by a deadly disease. In scenario one, if Plan A is adopted, exactly 200 people will survive. If plan B is adopted, there will be a 1 in 3 chance that all will survive, and a 2 in 3 chance that none will survive. When this scenario is presented to subjects, the majority invariably choose Plan A. However when, in scenario two, Plan A is framed with the slight difference that exactly 400 people will die (with no change to Plan B), this is enough for the majority to flip over to Plan B. This consistent result has been explained in terms of ‘loss aversion’ – we prefer to avoid the explicit loss of life as expressed in the change to Plan A in scenario two. Significantly though for the argumentative ape hypothesis, this loss aversion bias is strengthened when we have to justify our decision to a larger group. We have a ready-made justification as expressed in the framing. It’s probable that we always have in mind what the larger group, or ‘society’ will think of our decision, but when this need to justify ourselves is made explicit, the ready rationalisation is more likely to be adopted.

Other effects of apparently faulty reasoning, such as the attraction effect and the sunk-cost fallacy, have been detected in psychological studies, and all have been shown to be enhanced when there is an explicit need for justification. The ‘argumentative’ thesis claims that we tend to choose the most easily justified option rather than what might be best.

Confirmation bias for me, scepticism towards you, and how it pans out

While this may seem a pessimistic outlook on our use of reason, the counterbalance lies in our ability, from clear evolutionary need, to identify and so counter the faulty arguments of others. This pattern follows a familiar evolutionary trajectory, in which a predator evolves a means to capture its prey, leading the prey to develop a defence mechanism to protect itself against the predator. Scepticism helps us to avoid being sucked in and ‘devoured’.

The result for group reasoning is that bias and the scepticism can balance each other out, leading to a greater recognition of the weaknesses in our own opinions and the strengths in those of others. And experimental evidence backs up this result. To quote from Jones’ article:

In one convincing study, psychologists David Moshman and Molly Geil at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln looked at performance in the Wason selection test – a simple card game based on logical deduction. When thinking about this task on their own, less than 10 per cent of people got the right answer. When groups of 5 or 6 people tackled it, however, 75 per cent of the groups eventually succeeded. Crucially for the argumentative theory, this was not simply down to smart people imposing the correct answer on the rest of the group: even groups whose members had all previously failed the test were able to come to the correct solution by formulating ideas and revising them in light of criticism (Thinking and Reasoning, vol 4, p 231).

He also points to research indicating that groups are more creative in their thinking than individuals (see sources below).

Implications for teaching, or how to best facilitate the best group thinking

Evidence from a series of studies by Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania suggests that a group’s individual skills are not the best predictor of the group’s overall performance in problem-solving. These studies were designed to measure the ‘collective intelligence’ of the group, in something like the manner of IQ tests for individuals. She found that those groups who scored highest were the most inclusive, allowing maximal participation within the group. Sensitivity to the moods and feelings of others helped groups to score highly, and the best groups were those with the greater number of female members, presumably because females have a greater social sensitivity.

Group thinking can, of course, backfire. Groupthink in fact has long been seen negatively, but this is because people with the same cognitive biases often congregate together, as with political parties and religious organisations, or gravitate towards similar professions, such as the police or the military. In such groupings it’s often the case that the group moves collectively to quite extreme positions. Where group thinking would be expected to work most effectively is precisely in a college for NESB students from different cultures and backgrounds, in which individuals are challenged by widely different but (hopefully!) cogent opinions.

As educators, we need to consider the best outcomes for our students. Clearly there is pressure, in an individualised results-based system, to push for individual skill in argumentation, with the resultant high test scores. However, the evidence for group interaction in improving students’ understanding of the many issues focused on in essays and seminars at the higher levels is clear. Of course the situation is complicated by the fact that many students at EAP2 and EAP3 levels still don’t have the  grammatical and lexical skills to present cogent arguments in English, so that it’s often hard to determine whether their difficulties are those of reasoning or of language. Even so, I believe it is vital to take advantage of the cultural diversity of students’ experience and knowledge (even within identical language groups) to encourage interaction that will challenge biases and create awareness of a variety of perspectives. Hopefully this will enliven their thinking both within the college and in their studies beyond Eynesbury.


Some sources are found in the links. Here are others.

D Sperber and H Mercier,”Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory”, Behavioural and brain sciences: Published online March 2011. Mercer elaborates on the theory very interestingly in a video on this website

Williams Woolley, Anita, ‘Collective intelligence in human groups’, April 2012: Center for Collective Intelligence:

D Moshman & M Geil, 1998 ‘Collaborative reasoning: evidence for collective rationality’. Thinking and reasoning V4 issue 3:

Written by stewart henderson

November 26, 2015 at 6:57 am

Is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

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Jacinta: Okay so here’s a topical topic. I was listening with baited breath – I can do that, I’m a multi-tasker – to Malcolm Turnbull’s post-election speech the other day, and along with the whole nation I heard him extoll three ‘roolly good things’, in his estimation. The holy trinity – freedom, the individual and the market. Did y’all hear that? And I thought, Jeez, the libertarians among us will be doing cartwheels right now. And I further thought ‘hang on a minute Malcolm, turn that bull around’.

Canto: I see, so you prefer slavery, group-think and state control?

Jacinta: Ah very good, but let’s prise ourselves out of the straightjacket of ideology and slip into something more comfortable, like reality. Of course freedom’s a good thing, but of course it has its limits. And of course individuals are great, but as any mathematician will tell you, all individuals are members of a set, that’s actually what makes them individuals, and the market..

Canto: That’s not a very good analogy, I don’t think – that one about individuals.

Jacinta: That wasn’t an analogy.

Canto: Well… maybe, but bringing maths into it isn’t very helpful.

Jacinta: Okay. Okay, let me focus on the individual thing, because that’s probably my biggest gripe – it all flows from a misconception of the individual, IMHO.

Canto: What flows?

Jacinta: The horrors of libertarianism. I’ve been bottling this up for years, now I’m going to let it all seethe out. And it just so happens that ‘All hail freedom, the individual and the mighty market’ is essentially the libertarian mantra. Of course I don’t take Malcolm’s mellifluencies too seriously, but libertarianism really shits me.

Canto: But really – politics? Can’t we talk about water on Mars? Or Homo naledi?

Jacinta: Well, there is world enough, and time…

Canto: Bullshit.

Jacinta: Ok I’ll try to be the soul of wit. Libertarians – and I know they come in all shapes, sizes and political colours – tend to believe in small government, minimal regulation and the invisible, wonderfully shaping and fixing hand of the market. I got my first dose of libertarianism years ago when I read – or tried to read – Anarchy, State and Utopiaby the American philosopher Robert Nozick. I could barely comprehend it, but I could see it was underpinned by a sacrosanct notion of rights, particularly the rights of the individual. It was also, I thought, an overly rational analysis of how individuals might aggregate. Or rather, that’s how I’ve come to think of it since. I had no idea what to think of it at the time.


Canto: So how do you think individuals aggregate?

Jacinta: No no what I think doesn’t matter, it’s more about what history and psychology and sociology tells us. And they tell us about families and extended families and kinship groups and trade affiliations, becoming ever more extended and convoluted as societies grow. And all this without any concept of rights.

Canto: Okay I think I see where you’re coming from. You think the individual shouldn’t be seen as the central human unit, or political unit, you’re wanting to emphasise social connections.

Jacinta: Of course! We didn’t get where we are now, the top predators of the biosphere for better or worse…

Canto: The fat controllers of the planet…

Jacinta: We didn’t get to this situation as individuals, we got here because we’re the most socially-oriented mammals around. Our language, our technology, our superior brainpower, these are all socially constructed. And our systems of government are just ways of organising and trying to get the best out of this dynamic, interactive, co-operative and competitive society.

Canto: So there are legitimately diverse views about the role of government. So what’s wrong with that? Libertarians just happen to lean towards the individualist, unregulated, small-government side.

Jacinta: Well, as I’ve said, I’m not so much interested in opinions as in what actually works to create the most effective society…

Canto: You’re trying to be scientific, but the question of what makes for an effective society will have different answers, not based on science. Some will say an effective society is one that looks after its minorities and its disadvantaged, others will say that diversity and dynamism is key, and this means inevitably that there will be winners and losers. How can there be an objective, scientific definition of an effective society?

Jacinta: Okay, I concede your point that there are a range of legitimate views on this, but I would be guided by what works, and that would reduce the range of legitimacy. Extreme libertarianism – of the ‘there is no society, only individuals’ kind – seems to me to be paradoxically an outcome of the success of certain societies in educating and empowering their members, so that they start to fantasise about themselves as ‘self-made’ and owing nothing to anyone. It’s delusional and would result in scrapping all history has taught us about the communities of language and shared knowledge and values which have shaped us. It’s an ahistorical ideology which has never been instantiated anywhere. Not to mention its arrogant (and ultimately self-defeating) selfishness. Of course the other extreme is also unworkable, that of communism with an equal share of communal goods, which would stifle innovation and diversity and would have to be imposed from above.

wtf? Most people don't give a tinker's toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

wtf? Most people don’t give a tinker’s toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

Canto: Which would be self-contradictory because in communism, there is no ‘above’, presumably absolute equality is just meant to happen naturally…

Jacinta: There’s no perfect or perfectly fair society, just some are fairer than others, and it’s an endless balancing act, it seems to me, between encouraging the freedom to develop ideas and ‘get ahead’, and protecting others from being exploited and done down. So to me it’s a matter of pragmatism and endless adjustment rather than gung-ho ideology. Individuals are pretty well infinitely complex so you would expect society to multiply that complexity to to a new level of infinity.

Canto: But I notice that many libertarians tend to avoid going on about ‘society’, they prefer to focus their ire on ‘the state’, as if it’s the enemy of society.

Jacinta: Oh yes, good point, the rhetoric goes that the state is this abstract, inhuman monster that steals our money, stifles our initiative and makes a mess of everything it touches. Insofar as it consists of people, it consists of really dumb or power-mad types who haven’t seen the light and just don’t realise that society functions better either without the state or with a minimalist one. They’ve never been able to point to any evidence to support their claims though. Essentially, the libertarian ‘state’ has been trialled in the real world even less than the communist state, its polar opposite, has been.

Canto: So how is it supposed to work?

Jacinta: Well, clearly there are libertarians of many different types and degrees who would argue endlessly about that. But many of them seem to think it would grow ‘organically’ through adherence to certain basic principles, one of which has to do with the primacy of private property, though I’m not sure how to articulate it. Another is that no law or imposition should be applied that interferes with an individual’s liberty, the idea being I think, that you’re free to do what you like as long as it doesn’t interfere with everybody else’s right to do what he or she likes, which when you think about it is a recipe for disaster, because who decides between competing claims – for example my right to enjoy the peace and quiet of my own residence versus my neighbour’s right to play shite music all night with the volume up to eleven?

Canto: Aww, is that neighbour still bothering you Jass?

Jacinta: Fuck off. Actually what really bothers me is the obsession with private property and ownership. Coming from a pretty impoverished background, I was always more fond of the ‘property is theft’ mantra. And that reminds me of a story from my youth. I was living in a share-house very close to the spacious grounds of Saint Peter’s College, the biggest and most exclusive private school in South Australia. It must’ve been school holiday time, and we decided to take our racquets and balls and have a hit around on one of their tennis courts. There was no fence or anything, we just walked in and started playing. There was no net either, so it wasn’t a particularly serious hit-out, but we were absorbed enough not to notice a fellow scurrying across the greensward to tick us off. The look of outrage on the face of this fellow was unforgettable, it was as if he’d caught us pissing on the altar…

Canto: Which is exactly what you were doing mate.

Jacinta: His get-up was unforgettable too, he had this bright orange cravat, and sort of pantaloons with braces as I remember…

Canto: You’ve forgotten the candy-striped jacket and the Old Boys’ cap…

Jacinta: No, it was too hot for that. Anyway, I remember his words, more or less. ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know this is private property!!’

Canto: Ah yes, a defining moment in the Great Australian Class War. So you made mince-meat out of him with your graphite, carbon-fibre and kevlar weaponry?

Jacinta: Well, we were just teenagers. I remember we stood our ground for a while, more out of shock than anything. So he went on haranguing us about our outrageous behaviour and threatening to call the police, so we wandered off. But I was so infuriated when I realised what was happening. I wish I’d confronted the guy, and I ran though imaginary narratives in my head many times afterwards. It was a defining moment for me, actually, it crystallised for me my attitude to private property…

Canto: Which is?

Jacinta: Well, it’s never been very important to me – I mean, as part of his harangue, this guy said something like ‘how would you like it if someone came into your garden and started..’, and my honest answer would’ve been that it wouldn’t have bothered me, certainly nothing like the way it bothered him. And the comparison was odorous anyway, I didn’t own any spacious grounds, I wasn’t born into that world. The way this guy mentioned private property, as if it was his Lord and Master, to be protected and fought for with life and limb, it just sickened me.

Canto: You were outraged?

Jacinta: Yeah, I suppose our intellectual positions are just post-hoc rationalisations of some basic feelings.

Canto: Reason is but the slave of the passions and all that. Anyway, I’m keen to get on to some of those more interesting topics. So let’s get back to the original question – is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

Jacinta: Well the correct answer is that he didn’t say enough, in that first Prime Ministerial speech, for us to make that inference. He believes strongly in freedom. So do I, of course. He believes in the individual. So do I, and I believe individual expression and effort should be nurtured. He believes in the market or markets. I most certainly do too, as sources of exchange, cross-fertilisation, community and growth. The devil or delight is in the detail. I mean, I’ve called his statement a libertarian mantra, which it is, but it’s also classical liberalism. In the end, though, we need to judge governments on their actions, not their words. We’ll have to wait and see.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2015 at 10:06 am

kinesiology, TCM and depression

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a kinesiology wheel - proof positive of profundity

a kinesiology wheel – proof positive of profundity

Jacinta: So, Canto, the new USSR hasn’t posted recently on old Wesley Smith and his wellness treatments. I think we should post on another one of those.

Canto: Oh god, do we have to? I’d rather talk about black holes or the edge of the universe…

Jacinta: I know I know, but, you could think of Wesley’s treatment centre as a black hole of sorts…

Canto; Yes, and like the other kind, the more you look for them the more you find them, and they all have similar properties…

Jacinta: Hopefully, though, they’re not as dangerous…

Canto: Well, that depends. The real black holes are light years away, whereas there’s a black hole of a wellness centre just around the corner from me.

Jacinta: Kinesiology. That’s the subject for today. Know anything about it?

Canto: No, except that, presumably, old Wesley offers it as a treatment. And kinetic energy is energy of motion, right? So, let me guess, kinesiology is the science of getting your energy system moving so fast that it flings your toxins out of every available orifice leaving you feeling not only light-headedly well, but thoroughly exercised, and of course exorcised.

Jacinta: Well I doubt if it’s as scientific as that, but you’re on the right track. Actually there are two meanings of kinesiology. It’s the scientific study of bodily movement, in humans and other animals, which means applying anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, neuroscience, and even robotics, to the understanding of  movement. And then there’s the naturopathically bullshittical meaning of kinesiology as deepily ancient chi-based treatment, much along the lines you just mentioned. And it’s this second meaning, as presented by the Australian Kinesiology Association (AKA), that we’ll be focusing on.

Canto: Chi wizz, this could be fun. Are they really into chi?

Jacinta: Oh yes. Their website gushes with it. It’s teeth-gnashing stuff actually. Apparently it combines western science with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to promote your spiritual well-being, among other things.

Canto: Hey, I’ve got an idea. You’ve heard about James Randi’s million-dollar challenge?

Jacinta: The one to psychics, promising a million to anyone who can provide scientific proof of their psychic abilities?

Canto: That’s the one, and I don’t know the details, and of course they all argue that it’s rigged against them, but it’s a good kind of bad publicity for psychics at least, but what if we offered a million dollars to anyone who can provide solid, or liquid, or gaseous evidence of the existence of chi?

Jacinta: Canto, we don’t have a million dollars.

Canto: But we don’t need a million dollars, we know there’s no such thing, right?

Jacinta: Uhhh I don’t think it would work that way. We’d need a rich backer, but in any case we wouldn’t get any takers. Having looked at a few forums discussing chi, its supporters usually say that, though it’s undoubtedly real, it’s not detectable or measurable by western methods, because it’s part of a wholly different mindset, a different way of knowing, a spiritual understanding that takes years to develop. They say, for example, that only by believing in chi can you unlock its healing powers.

Canto: So it’s placebo energy?

Jacinta: Okay small-minded little-faith man, let’s move on to kinesiology. The practice clearly takes advantage of the scientific cachet of kinesiology as body movement studies. Here’s what the AKA has to say about it:


Kinesiology encompasses holistic health disciplines which use the gentle art of muscle monitoring to access information about a person’s well being. Originating in the 1970’s, it combines Western techniques and Eastern wisdom to promote physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Kinesiology identifies the elements which inhibit the body’s natural internal energies and accessing the life enhancing potential within the individual.

Canto: aka bullshit.

Jacinta: Ha ha, but get what it has to say next:


The maturity of ‘Complementary Therapies’ is shown by some of Australia’s major health funds now paying rebates for many therapies, including Kinesiology. This acknowledges what is happening in the health sciences in the 21st Century. Australians spend over $1 billion annually on therapies not part of mainstream medicine. Kinesiology is one of the fastest growing of these and is now practised in over 100 countries.

Canto: Popularity as evidence. They’re really keen to show how legit they are.

Canto: Their choice, isn’t it? Survival of the brightest?

Jacinta: Maybe so, but I think the phenomenon’s worth pondering more deeply. How long does it take to become a qualified doctor in this country?

Canto: A GP? Well, for example, the University of Adelaide offers a six-year MBBS, that’s a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, to start off, but in order to get into that you need really good year 12 results – what they call your ATAR score (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) plus you have to pass a UMAT test, that’s a 3 hour multiple choice thing. UMAT stands for Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test. Oh, and then you have to do well in an interview before a medical panel. So once you’ve been accepted and done your 6-year MBBS, you can apply to do Australian General Practice Training (AGPT) – or maybe you can apply while you’re doing the MBBS and integrate it into your undergraduate degree, I’m not sure. Anyway the AGPT takes another 3 0r 4 years, so it’s a pretty long journey.

Jacinta: Well, thanks for that fulsome response, it well illustrates the gap between evidence-based medicine and naturopathy. I see they’re very much into four-letter acronyms (FLAs) in that field. TLAs aren’t good enough?

Canto: Yes they like to consider themselves more lettered than others. But I should also point out that once they’ve been accepted into the ranks of GPs, or any other medical specialisation, they’ll automatically be able to access the latest medical knowledge in their field. In fact they’ll be bombarded with it, and will be expected to keep up to date. Whereas naturopaths are usually relying on ‘traditional’ techniques and ‘ancient’ herbal treatments, none of this new-fangled invasive or big pharma stuff.

Jacinta: Well I suppose there are a few properly qualified doctors who are into naturopathy, but by and large you’re right. So why is it that so many people are choosing naturopaths over these highly-trained and knowledgable practitioners of the latest evidence-based medicine?

Canto: Well, isn’t it because they aren’t getting what they want from GPs or other specialists? Whatever that might be. Holistic treatment, as they like to call it. A sense of trust. Something psychological, I suspect.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s that – some doctors are still not getting the message about how to share information with their clients, and how to see the approach to health as an interactive process. But it could be that evidence-based medicine is the victim of its own success?

Canto: How so?

Jacinta: Well these days, and WHO figures bear this out, patients are increasingly presenting with chronic conditions. That’s to say, the ratio of chronic illness to acute illness is increasing, and I’d say that’s largely due to the success of evidence-based medicine in the treatment of acute illness. Now of course chronic conditions can be serious and life-threatening – 60% of the world’s population die of them, according to the WHO – but they represent a whole gamut of complaints, from degenerative diseases to niggling backaches, neuralgia and the more difficult to pin down stuff such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, or the chronic itching that some attribute to Morgellons disease. And then there’s depression…. So some of these ailments are met with skepticism or at least contradictory responses from trained medicos…

Canto: ‘Medical experts are baffled… ‘

Jacinta: Precisely, and many naturopaths see this area as their niche. They can get in and ‘listen’ to the client and treat her ‘holistically’ – that’s to say sympathetically. Much of it is feel-good treatment, so much more pleasant than what’s offered by hard-nosed, know-it-all, condescending doctors.

Canto: So it’s all perfectly harmless, then?

Jacinta: Well perhaps mostly, but there are obvious problems with giving too much legitimacy to these largely bogus treatments. An example of this is precisely what the AKA says on its website, that the ‘maturity’ of naturopathy is proven by the fact that many of their therapies are attracting health fund rebates. This is complete BS, it’s simply a populist move from the health funds, who know full well that naturopathy is here to stay, regardless of evidence. This of course gives the Wesley Smiths of the world more legitimacy and increases the chances of people with serious health issues being led to think that naturopathic shite can cure them.

Canto: Well, doesn’t that get back to survival of the brightest?

Jacinta: Maybe, but what about the scenario – and this has been played out – that a seriously sick child has been given a bogus treatment in lieu of real medicine, and has died of something perfectly curable, courtesy of her parents?

Canto: Mmm, couldn’t that be handled case by case? The parents could be up for gross neglect, and the associated naturopath could be had up for bogus claims leading to the death of a minor or something, and be barred from practising… or given some more serious penalty. Anyway we need to wind this up. Is there anything more specific about kinesiology we should be concerned about?

Jacinta: Kinesiology is generally associated with chiropractic, which is about as bad as it gets. As with naturopaths in general, some kinesiacs are more into woo than others, but the AKA website goes on about acupressure and meridians, and no credible evidence has ever been presented that acupressure points or meridional points actually exist. They’re of course part of TCM, along with vital energy and various other concepts and treatments that have no evidence or coherent mechanism of action to back them up.

Canto: You mean rhino horns and the penis bones of dogs don’t cure anything?

Jacinta: Sorry but rhinos are going extinct for an ignorant fantasy, not to mention the 12,000 or so asiatic black bears being kept on farms so that their bile can be extracted for ‘medicine’, which often drives them to suicidal frenzy. Other creatures being decimated by TCM include sharks, seahorses, tigers, turtles and saiga antelopes….

Canto: OK enough, I’m getting depressed. The final verdict on kinesiology?

Jacinta: Well it seems to be just a variant of chiropractic stuff, though probably even more unregulated, with a greater admixture of TCM woo. I have nothing more positive to say about it than that.

Canto: Whatever next…


Written by stewart henderson

August 20, 2015 at 10:17 pm

it’s all about evidence, part 2: acupuncture and cupping

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a picture of health

a picture of health

Okay, having been sick myself with my usual bronchial issues, I haven’t made much progress on researching the ‘alternative’ treatments offered by Wesley Smith and his colleagues at the Wellness Centre. I must admit, too, that I’ve found it a bit depressing focusing on these negatives, so I’ve been working a bit on my Solutions OK blog (a few posts still in preparation) which focuses on being positive about global issues.

So before briefly dealing with acupuncture, I’ve discovered accidentally through looking up Mr Smith that ‘wellness centres’ or ‘total wellness centres’ are everywhere around the western world, including at least one more in Canberra itself. It seems that this is a moniker agreed on by practitioners of holistic medical pseudoscience world-wide, to create a sense of medical practice while avoiding the thorny issue of medicine and what it actually means. But maybe it does partially mean treating people kindly? I’m all for that. Laughter is often quite good medicine, especially for chronic rather than acute ailments.

It’s an interesting point – ‘alternative’ medicine is on the rise in the west, and the WHO informs us that by 2020, due to its own great work and that of other science-based medical institutions, the proportion of chronic ailments to acute ones will have risen to over 3 to 1. It’s in the area of chronic conditions that naturopathy comes into its own, because psychology plays a much greater part, and vague ‘toxins’ and dubious ‘balance’ assume greater significance. That’s why education and evidence is so important. There are a lot of people out there wanting to smile and seduce you out of your money.


There’s no reason to suppose acupuncture is anything other than pure placebo. It’s similar to homeopathy in that it proposes a treatment involving physical forces that, when tapped, can produce miraculous cures, and it’s also similar in that these forces have never been isolated or measured or even much researched. In the case of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, its inventor, conducted ‘research’, but with no apparent rigour. See this excellent examination of his approach.

Acupuncture posits Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) as an energy force – apparently invisible and undetectable by mere science – which operates under the skin and is ‘strongest’ at certain nodes where experts insert needles to stimulate it. There’s not much agreement as to where exactly these nodes are, how many there are, or how deep under the skin they’re to be found. Is everybody’s Qi the same? Is the Qi of other mammals identical? If you haven’t enough Qi, can you have a Qi transfusion, or will you be contaminated by the wrong Qi and suffer a horrible death? Amazingly, acupuncture practitioners have no interest whatever in these life and death questions. Why has nobody thought to operate on a patient and withdraw a sample of her Qi, considering that the stuff has been known about since ancient times? It’s a puzzlement. And with that I’ll say no more about acupuncture.


Cupping, or cupping therapy, is fairly new to me – I mean I’ve heard about it over the years but I’ve never bothered to research it. It was apparently used in Egypt 3,000 years ago, and it’s considered a part of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). How it got from Egypt to China is anyone’s guess, but when used there, it’s associated with our old friend, the non-existent Qi. Yes, according to TCM, much disease is due to blocked Qi, and cupping is one way to fix it.

Briefly, there are two kinds of cupping, wet and dry, with wet cupping being the more ‘invasive’ and used for more acute treatments. The idea is to create a vacuum which draws the skin up in the cup and increases the blood flow. The cup, or the air inside it, is heated, and when the cup is applied to the skin and allowed to cool, the air contracts, ‘sucking up’ the skin. With wet cupping the skin is actually punctured, so that those nasty but never-quite-indentifial ‘toxins’ can ooze out. By the way, next time you go to your naturopath to get your toxins removed, ask them for a sample, and don’t forget to ask them to name those toxins. Perhaps you could look at them under a microscope together.

There’s very little in the way in the way of evidence to support the effectiveness of cupping, and as you might expect, the best ‘evidence’ comes from the most poorly controlled trials. Serious and obviously dangerous claims have been made that cupping can cure cancer. Here’s the American Cancer Society’s response:

“There is no scientific evidence that cupping leads to any health benefits….No research or clinical studies have been done on cupping. Any reports of successful treatment with cupping are anecdotal. There is no scientific evidence that cupping can cure cancer or any other disease.” 

If cupping was effective, this would be easily provable. No proof has been offered in thousands of years, and there’s no credible scientific mechanism associated with the treatment. You’ve been warned. It’s your money. Why hand it over to these parasites?

it’s all about evidence – part 1

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I wrote an open letter to a homeopath recently, and received an interesting response, which I’ve promised to deal with publicly. My letter was sent by email at the same time that it was posted on this blog, and this was followed by another couple of emails back and forth. Here they are.

Wesley Smith to myself, April 13 2015

Hi Stewart

I thank you for the courtesy of bringing your article to my attention.

Can you please publish the following corrections to your blog:
To the best of my knowledge, Wesley Smith has never made any claim to be a medical practitioner and I wish to correct any inference in my article “An open letter to a Homeopath” that Wesley Smith misrepresented his qualifications or is not suitably qualified under Australian law to practice or write about complementary medicine. At the time of publishing I was unaware that Wesley Smith is a AHPRA registered Chinese Medicine practitioner (CMR0001709253). Furthermore I withdraw any implication that the phrase “the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired” may suggest that Wesley is not of sound mind, or is not fit to either educate people about or practice complementary medicine. Furthermore I acknowledge that I have no knowledge of the appropriateness or otherwise of the qualifications of any of the practitioners at the Live Well Spa & Wellness Centre and therefore I withdraw any inference that any of Live Well’s practitioners may be practicing in their chosen fields without appropriate qualifications.

Stewart I have absolutely no interest in debating you, please advise me when you have published the corrections.

Kind regards

Myself to Wesley Smith, April 18 2015

Hello Wesley
At no place in my blog post did I write that you claimed to be a medical practitioner, I simply pointed out that you were not one, as far as I could ascertain. Whether you (or your colleagues) are permitted under law to practise complementary medicine is neither here nor there, and I didn’t address that matter in my article. My concern is to point out that homeopathy is not a valid treatment, a view with which the NHMRC concurs. Nor are the other treatments I mentioned in my piece, none of which have scientific evidence to support them. I will of course not be making any changes to my article. Of course it doesn’t surprise me that you absolutely don’t want to debate me, as it would absolutely not be in your interest to do so.
Stewart Henderson

Wesley Smith to myself, April 20 2015

Hi Stewart

I would have had absolutely no concern if you kept your criticism focused on homeopathy or acupuncture. I don’t agree with you but I’m hardly going to loose sleep over that.

My concern is that you were lazy with your research and published your opinions as if they were fact. You also weakened your argument when you made it personal by disparaging me, Live Well and it’s practitioners. Not only is that sloppy writing and a lazy way to make an argument it is also defamation. I have given you the opportunity to make the appropriate corrections which you have rejected, therefore I will pursue the matter via legal action.

Stewart, my research into your background tells me that you have an arts degree, it’s interesting that you choose to write about a topic for which you seem to have no qualifications. Apparently you work, or have worked at Centacare in Adelaide? Their website homepage states “we believe that everyone has the right to be treated with respect and dignity.” Sounds like great advice and perhaps a tenet you personally would do well to reflect upon especially when dealing with people with whom you disagree.

Kind regards

Myself to Wesley Smith, April 23 2015

Dear Wesley
Thanks for your response, which I will be posting in toto on my blog in the near future, together with my response. Your complete lack of interest in addressing the matter of evidence, which was clearly the issue of my blog post, is well noted. I don’t wish to have a private email correspondence with you, as I’m interested in complete transparency and openness. I’ll address all your ‘concerns’ on my blog, with my usual gusto and good humour.

So now we’re up to date, and I’ll try to suppress the sense of disgust and contempt I feel for this individual, and deal with the issues.

Firstly, let’s look at Wesley’s email number 1. It is, of course, intended to be threatening – ‘make these corrections to your blog, or else…’. The first ‘correction’ is to my ‘inference’ (it looks like old Wesley has been consulting a lawyer) that Wesley has been claiming to be a doctor when he isn’t. As I pointed out in my response, I made no such inference. The point is, when someone heads up an institution called the ‘Live Well Spa and Wellness Centre’, any reasonable soul might expect that individual to be a medical practitioner, working with a staff of medical practitioners. In fact that was exactly what I expected (oh and I think a court of law would agree, Wesley). Imagine my surprise when I found that there were no MDs on the premises!

The second ‘correction’ he wanted was the removal of the phrase ‘the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired’, because it suggested he wasn’t of sound mind. I’ll look more closely at that ‘depth of crazy’ shortly, but first I’ll make the obvious point that people believe all sorts of crazy things (though they don’t usually make their living out of them) – that the moon landing was a fake, that September 11 was an inside job, that vaccines cause all sorts of diseases, etc, but we don’t think they should be committed, we just try to get them (usually unsuccessfully) to think more reasonably. I’ve tried to do this with Wesley by pointing out the absurdity of homeopathy from a scientific perspective – again unsuccessfully, because he’s completely unwilling to even discuss the matter.

When I wrote of the ‘depth of crazy’, I really meant it, and this is not my opinion. My opinion isn’t worth a pinch of shit, actually, and nor is Wesley’s. All that matters is EVIDENCE.


Get it, Wesley?

So let’s do a review of the treatments Wesley’s clinic, or whatever he calls it, offers.


I gave a fairly full account of homeopathy here, where I referenced Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, Chapter 4 of which gives an even more comprehensive account of the pseudoscience. I’ve also written more recently about it here, and of course in my criticism of Wesley Smith. I’ve also referenced Wikipedia’s excellent article on Homeopathy, and while I’m at it I’d like to defend Wikipedia as an excellent, and well-referenced source of reliable scientific information. If you feel unsure about what it presents, you can always check the references for original sources. I should remind readers, too, that Wikipedia has been put under pressure by practitioners of ‘holistic medicine’ to give more credence to their methods, and its founders and gatekeepers have heroically refused. I won’t go into detail here, but the story is well-presented by Orac on his Respectful Insolence blog.

So I’m not going to rehash the absurdity of homeopathy here, but since Wesley makes the claim that I was ‘lazy with my research’ and ‘published my opinions as if they were fact’ (when in fact I focused entirely on the NHMRC’s comprehensive and negative findings regarding the practice), I will give here a list of just some of the books, academic papers, scientific articles and government and medical society factsheets that report negatively on the multi-million dollar homeopathy industry, and pseudoscience in general, as well as the major figures in debunking medical pseudoscience. They’re in no particular order.

Dr Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, esp Chapter 4 ‘Homeopathy’ – Dr Goldsworthy works for the NHS in Britain and is a broadcaster, blogger and writer on science-based medicine

Raimo Tuomela, ‘Science, protoscience and pseudoscience’, in Rational changes in science.

Kevin Smith, ‘Homeopathy is unscientific and unethical’ Bioethics Vol 26, Issue 9 pp508-512, Nov 2012

Stephen Barrett, M.D, ‘Homeopathy, the ultimate fake’, on Quackwatch – a well-referenced site, but note the hilarious-sad reader responses!

Orac, aka Dr David Gorski – Gorski is a surgeon and scientist, and writer of the Respectful Insolence blog, which deals mostly with the health claims of pseudo-scientists. His posts on homeopathy are too numerous to mention here, just type in homeopathy on his blog.

Edzard Ernst, “A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy”, and “Homeopathy: what does the ‘best’ evidence tell us?’ – Ernst, a former professor of complementary medicine, has published innumerable articles on the subject in academic journals. He co-wrote Trick or treatment? with Simon Singh, which deals critically with homeopathy, acupuncture and various other pseudoscientific treatments. His emphasis on scientific evidence has made him many enemies among the CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) camp.

The Cochrane Collaboration – an independent, non-profit NGO – partnered since 2011 with the WHO – in which over 30,000 volunteers work together to provide the best healthcare evidence.

Shang et al, ”Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy”, The Lancet 366 (9487): 726–732 – This study, conducted by a number of scientific collaborators, is regarded as one of the best and most relevant studies available for proof of homeopathy’s lack of efficacy. To quote from its conclusion: ‘Biases are present in placebo-controlled trials of both homoeopathy and conventional medicine. When account was taken for these biases in the analysis, there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies, but strong evidence for specific effects of conventional interventions. This finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects’.

World Health Organisation – the WHO has warned against the use of homeopathy for major diseases, though, generally speaking it has taken a softly, softly approach to the pseudoscience, presumably for political reasons. Here and here are reports about the WHO’s warnings. 

NHMRC – Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council. It has conducted a comprehensive review of homeopathy, which I reported on in my criticism of Mr Smith’s ‘wellness centre’.

Science-based medicine and the FDA (the US Food and Drug administration). The Science-based medicine blog, contributed to by a number of writers, is dedicated to expose as quackery everything that Mr Smith and his ilk are promoting. The report linked to above criticises the FDA for abdication of responsibility in dealing with homeopathy. It also points out that American pharmacists are calling for tighter regulations. Homeopaths have had it too easy for too long. The FDA is finally beginning its own investigation into the pseudoscience.

I could go on – there are many many more articles and sites I could mention, but you get the point. Homeopathy is a joke, and there are many videos poking fun at its ‘science’ – for example, here, here and here. A movement designed to expose its fraudulence, the 10:23 campaign, had people ‘overdosing’ on homeopathic pills, which usually have warnings about dosage levels on the bottles(!) And yet we still have people buying into this shite – quite possibly in increasing numbers.

I don’t know Mr Smith personally. It might be that he’s a very nice if deluded fellow who treats his clients very well, adding to the placebo effect of his ‘remedies’. The placebo effect appears to be very real and we’ve only just begun to investigate its power. On the other hand, Mr Smith may be a charlatan who is cynically exploiting the vulnerability of his rich but deluded patients – his ‘wellness centre’ is in a leafy suburb of Canberra, not exactly the poorest region of Australia. Of course it’s more likely that he’s a bit of both – we deceive others best when we’ve already deceived ourselves.

However, to judge by his email responses, Wesley isn’t as much of a sincere believer as he should be, because he’s far far more concerned with protecting his reputation and with making threats, than with exploring the evidence, and thence, the further application of these homeopathic treatments (I mean, if the ‘like cures like, in infinitesimal doses’ system works, then why couldn’t it cure every cancer known to humans?). In my earlier post I suggested to him an exciting project of getting his fellow homeopaths and their satisfied clients together to ‘crowd fund’ research which would prove homeopathy to be true once and for all. And yet Wesley doesn’t even effing mention the idea. AMAZING!!!!

 Well, not, actually. Mention this idea to any homeopath, and the response would be the same. They’re totally uninterested in any real research. Testimonials and anecdotes are enough for them. They just want the evidence to be less rigorous – less real and more ‘imaginary’.

Wesley has made threats about defamation, presumably because I wrote that he’s mired in crazy – which he is. This post is already too long, so I’ll investigate the other crazy treatments he and his team offer in later posts, starting with acupuncture. But as to his threats, the man must be living on another planet if he’s not aware of the many websites, some of which are mentioned above, dedicated to exposing the pseudoscience practiced by people like himself, for financial gain. They generally use far harsher language than I have. If you’re going to set up a practice devoted to procedures which seem to share only one feature – that none of them are accepted as established science – then you’ll need to develop a thicker skin, even if you can’t develop any sensible arguments to support them.

And one more thing – Wesley has tried to cast aspersions on me as a mere English graduate. I think on my ‘about’ page I describe myself as a dilettante, which most certainly and proudly is what I am. However, as a blogger, I suppose my official position is that of a journalist. Freelance of course, with the emphasis on ‘free’, as I’ve never earned a cent from it. No defamation action could ever succeed against a journalist who’s trying to expose ‘sharp practice’ through the investigation of evidence, but perhaps Wesley thinks he can intimidate ‘small fry’ like me with his threats and arrogance. I don’t get much traffic here because I’m hopeless at and positively resistant to networking. But I do know how tight-knit and supportive the sceptical community is when anyone tries to threaten it as Wesley has, because I’ve been observing it for years, and if Wesley tries any further intimidation, I suppose I’ll have to pull my finger out and start letting people know what’s happening. It’ll probably do me a power of good.

Anyway, in later posts I’ll be looking at acupuncture (briefly, as I’ve already dealt with this one before), cupping, kinesiology, bowen therapy and other treatments offered by Wesley and his team.