Why Are Woos So ANGRY?

July 18, 2008 at 9:52 pm (Alternative Medicine, Bad Science, Homeopathy, Religion, Supplements, Woo) (, , , , , , , )

David Mabus gets slightly annoyed with atheists

Chiropractic *is* evidence-based...

Despite the cuddly image Alt-Med types like to project, they do seem to get ever so angry when their ideas are discussed. There was David Tredinnick on food supplements and alternative medicine [“however, I had to warn her that if the issue was not taken seriously, there were people-I did not use the term lightly, it just came out of my head-who were tooling up for war”] for a start. Alternative medicine is worth going to war for. Apparently. Tredinnick believes in the gentle healing power of homeopathy and food supplements – not to mention aromatherapy. While I have nothing against a good old-fashioned placebo like homeopathy, suggesting that homeopathy doesn’t work is likely to get you a barrage of abuse from true believers. Or a declaration of war, perhaps.

Anecdotally, I have noticed that anger and confusion are often present at the same time. I looked in Pubmed and Google Scholar to see if I could find any papers on the concurrent presence of the two states of mind. There was a small study on post-operative confusion in elderly male drinkers being associated with a history of aggression – here. But that doesn’t back up my anecdata about the general population. In a PDF about challenging behaviour (from the Queensland Community Care Conference), I was able to read about the impact of the dementia on the person’s ability to interpret, understand and react to the world in which they live. “Verbal aggression- associated with confusion and anxiety” was mentioned. But, again, it doesn’t apply to the general population or to the angry woos I’m interested in discussing here. [PDF]. I also got 22 hits on Pubmed for “aggression associated with confusion” – they do seem to be present together in some medical conditions as well as possibly being concurrent in those not suffering from a medical condition but whose ideas or ideals are being challenged. Dementia and psychosis were the main topics in papers related to aggression associated with confusion, but as I say people who (as far as I know) have not been diagnosed with any kind of disorder also seem to exhibit signs of this combination and it’s them I’m really interested in – at least for the purposes of this post. The studies I looked at on Pubmed do not refer at all to the anger and confusion of Alt-Med types (unfortunately), but I did at least find it interesting as a related issue when I was trying and failing to find papers on confusion and aggression in either the general, or the woo population. I need to find some psychology and psychiatry journals. Or learn how to search Pubmed properly.

I’ve noticed before (again, anecdotally) that when someone cannot win an argument because they lack the ability to defend their position or because their position is, in fact, indefensible, they often become frustrated, angry and/or upset. Perhaps we should accept that sometimes we just have to let people be wrong? Explaining their wrongness to them might only confuse and enrage them – if that is the case then what we say won’t be constructive or helpful. On the other hand, if what they are saying is dangerously wrong I think it would be responsible to ensure that a rebuttal of their misinformation is available. Facts to counter unfacts, so to speak – I think increasing the signal-to-noise ratio of the internets is one way to attempt to nullify counterknowledge. Homeopaths advising people on malaria prophylaxis or holding an AIDS symposium – there’s one example of dangerous wrongness. Nutritionists advising detox diets that could lead to hyponatremia is another. Posters on JABS advising that parents: don’t vaccinate; do withdraw medication; and do switch off baby monitors. All dangerously wrong – and all worth countering. But it’s often not worth arguing with the proponents of this misinformation. It’s not like they are going to change their mind is it? [“You can’t reason a man out of a position he did not reason himself into”.] So that’s my first unevidenced hypothesis on why woos are angry – it’s because they are confused and unable to evaluate the truth of their position.

My second unevidenced hypothesis is that Alt-Med types are angrier than the generally superstitious. What I mean by this is that alternative woo seems to be a risk factor for aggression in a way that organised, mainstream woo (like the Church of England) is not. From the comments I’ve received on my blog, the nutritionists and homeopaths (especially the ones using ‘Dr’ as an appellation, for some reason) seem to be the angriest and the religious seem to be the most reasonable. Weird, but explicable – if it is the case that it is the alternativeness of the woo that makes the proponent more prone to anger. In my post on McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion?, several persons of a religious persuasion wrote some rather nice comments. One quoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning [Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees takes off his shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries] and one rightly made the point that what people do in God’s name is not necessarily sanctioned by God and finished with “so the point is if everyone would just agree on loving thier neighbor. What a more wonderful world it would be!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” there was no need for all those exclamation marks, but I appreciated the sentiment. Linky. I also had an intelligent comment on a piece about a preacher who had tortured his children by putting safety pins through their tongues, telling them God had had his tongue cut off in the Bible. The comment made broadly the same point as Exclamation Man [people are inclined to use religion as an excuse for their bad behavior. This does not necessary even mean the religion endorses it] and the commenter later thanked me for adding a comment to the effect that a religion should not be held responsible for all acts committed in its name. Very nice and polite these religious types. Except the one who told me that I wasn’t allowed to debate religion [Quote: Religion is the base of all cultures and the one area you do not go into debate about. You respect it. That is why there is a BCC to protect the religion. You are not allowed to express any opinion on any religion as it offensive and when people live by that value you are playing with fire] and then listed people who had offended God and died – John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe and Tancredo Neves among them. He also pointed out that the man who built the Titanic said “not even God can sink it” [Quote: The result: I think you all know what happened to the Titanic]. I think God fucked up on that Titanic thing – he killed the people on the ship rather than the builder who insulted him. Bit illogical if you ask me. Still, generally the church woos do seem to be more chilled out than the non-church woos.

Woo anger is sometimes expressed as an angry CAPITALISED comment on some kind of blog or forum. Sometimes it takes the form of Legal Chill and Other Threats. Sometimes it is more calm and controlled, taking the form of a drive-by from someone like Dana Ullman or Dr George J Georgiou, who appears here complaining about the ignorance of allopathic medics. Ignorant? Dr G was only being quite mildly rude – perhaps one could call that a homeopathic insult? How worked up do woos get? Depends – anti-vaccinationists can get a bit mardy sometimes (although in the case of those who suspect vaccine damage in a relative the anger is understandable). Here’s a comment from JABS: “As far as the ‘LOONY BLOGGERS’ are concerned …I guess that there is not much to worry about since the only people that would waste their time reading their NONSENSE would be OTHER LOONIES” and here’s another, referring to Doctors: “the harm and genocide done by thses medical quacks” and here’s one that I think is an excellent example of aggression and confusion:

Quails eggs anon troll(ITS NOT AN OMMLETTE) as i said to Occam go suck eggs yours are still waiting to hatch.Occam -annon et-als views are only viable if you buy into the immune-vaccine response (which just incase you ve missed it ,i and many on here DONT)All postings you post lack evidence human hard evidence???and only figures and nice pictures to support what you spew on behalf of PHARMA


Repeated punctuation marks, combined with seemingly random capitalisation and mild insult (troll indeed). I have a feeling that the typos in this post may be due to posting while angry. There seemed to be more aggression and confusion over at the Bad Science forum when Mr Coghill turned up. Referring to Ben’s Creatures, a motley bunch of sneerers, this: “Where is the computation of how much money the Government receives from cellphone licences??? What a load of B******T you cranks hand out, with your hysterical rantings and smug self congratulations for fictional victories”. Of course, sceptics can be tactless and insensitive too – perhaps even rude. It’s easy to get carried away on the internet (own up – we’ve most of us been there), but I note this from Ben Goldacre on his blog when Mr Coghill turned up: “Firstly, can we be clear, I would strongly prefer people not to be rude to Mr Coghill” and here on the thread about the Radio 4 show Rise of The lifestyle Nutritionists when someone pointed out how amused they were by Sue McGinty’s definition of ‘phenotype’: “i actually thought sue mcginty from BANT was very nice, and although our discussion was very revealing about the culture within the profession, i wouldn’t want anyone to be mean about her as an individual”. Not the kind of thing I have ever seen on JABS, or forums about homeopathy or blogs and websites about nutrition.

Here’s some comments from Dr Briffa’s site: post on MMR. His second comment starts the capitalisation thing: “So, it follows that there is NO DEFINITIVE EVIDENCE THAT MMR DOES NOT CAUSE AUTISM”. A subsequent post includes a sarcastic remark about a commenter “Back again JDC, striding in like an intellectual colossus…” (fair point though – I’m not exactly the sharpest tool in the box), and he goes on to accuse another commenter of “quite breathtaking stupidity” and continues in the same vein: seems there really is no end to your stupidity; I think there’s a very high chance indeed that you’re not as bright as you think you are…

So, I think woos have aggressive tendencies. Either they are because they are confused and cannot deal with it – or because they are maverick, non-mainstream and they feel defensive when debating people they perceive as mainstream because they feel as if they are in a minority and in danger of being overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. God knows why, but I’m still interested in understanding this. If anyone fancies doing research into angry woos then please do so [go on, please – it’d be interesting. Honest. Well, I’d read it anyway]. And make sure it’s not behind a paywall – I may be interested in finding out more, but I don’t have an institutional log-in and I don’t fancy spending $25 on the off-chance I might learn something.

EDIT: Today, a commenter on my blog wrote this: JDC325, you are an idiot. I hate idiots. If he thinks I’m an idiot I suppose it’s fair comment to say so, but why would someone hate idiots? [/Confirmation Bias]

Another edit: Dr* T has had a visit from someone called Dr Sensible [Captain Sensible’s brother, perhaps?] – it seems he’s not particularly angry, but he is incoherent and slightly rude. There’s a bit of Ad Hom from Dr Sensible regarding the intelligence of Dr* T and a weird assumption that his comments will be blocked.



  1. dvnutrix said,

    jdc – some time ago, Wulfstan posted this (which should all be read as a quotation) in response to the Briffa/dowsing/kinesiology thread:
    I pass no comment on this set of Bad Science awards (nothing to do with Ben Goldacre). Apparently, Victor Herbert, M.D., J.D. and Tracy Stopler Kasdan, M.S., R.D. wrote:

    a majority of the gurus of questionable nutrition practices are in fact sociopath/psychopaths, as delineated in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III).

    These Bad Science award people say:

    This statement is so bizarre that it doesn’t deserve comment. It should be pointed out, however, that Herbert’s paper

    “Misleading nutrition claims and their gurus”
    was, as usual, published in a non peer-reviewed journal (Nutrition Today)…

    Herbert V, Kasdan TS. Misleading nutrition claims and their gurus. Nutr Today 29:28-35, 1994.

    Over-stated but it is one of those things that feels as if it has a kernel of something useful at its core. However, you could probably make the same broadstroke judgment about anyone who is dedicated to an idea.

    As long as people tool up for war with aromatherapy oils and leave at that – not my cup of tea, but that’s OK. But, by and large, such a vindictive and odd crew that it would be unwise not to be a little apprehensive about what they have in mind – given the calibre of the people who will be planning their strategy and conducting their research and intelligence briefings for them.

    During the Battle of Jutland, British Admiral David Beatty followed the wretched progress of the engagement with uncomprehending dismay as the battlecruisers exploded, and famously remarked that: “… there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” One of the contributing factors seems to have been the storage of the propellant – it was too easy to detonate with disastrous consequences. “One wag would comment that, at Jutland, the Royal Navy expended more propellant on itself than it did on the Germans.”

    It’s unlikely that Holford did himself any favours with his endorsement of Martin Walker’s ramblings. Time will tell whether the Observer thinks it is worthwhile maintaining Briffa’s association with them, given the nature of his recent posts and his remarks about Horton, Diabetes UK etc.

    Aphorism for the day: anger – it can be self-destructive.

  2. apgaylard said,

    Given that the alt.med types claim to be able to cure emotional problems, including anger, this biblical observation seems apt: “Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23)

    They really need to take a chill-pill or a nice cup of Arjun Tea or whatever is their particular delusion. Their inability to practice the inclusive, holistic, touchy-feely gospel they preach when faced with reasonable questions would appear to show their claims to treat such conditions in an appropriate light.

    I had an incoherent Dr Damien Downing stop by to give me a lecture. He went non, “is apgaylard actually Adrian Gaylard, a ground vehicle aerodynamicist? If so, how does that qualify you to discuss my job?” and then later observed, “You can track it all back to the great Richard Feynman, who also said “Science is a belief in the ignorance of experts” — which is why apgaylard has as much right as I do to discuss this stuff.”

    This seems to be an example of inchoate anger. Brings to mind Milgrom’s recent call to arms, “Time to get ANGRY; to get UNIFIED; to get BUSY DEFENDING homeopathy/CAM” coupled with his inabaility to get to grips with things like evidence, honest quotations, reading what he cites…

    Definitely think there’s a topic here. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    dvnutrix: Like the Jutland analogy. One of the other problems was that his battlecruisers had been built according to Admiral Jackie Fisher’s dictum: speed is armour. Jutland showed that this is not the case. There’s a nice lesson here for alt.med world – just because a respected and charismatic leader propounds an idea doesn’t mean that it’s true.

  3. Martin said,

    apgaylard said: “Given that the alt.med types claim to be able to cure emotional problems, including anger, this biblical observation seems apt: “Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23)”

    Taking this further, unfortunately into a mess of semantics, assertions and anecdotes, it seems to tie in with my experience that the more dedicated a Christian gets, the more angry and intolerant they seem to become.

    Of course, a lot of this anger is defensive in nature. I wonder then if there’s a relationship between the amount of emotional capital a person invests in a belief, the amount of attack they perceive that belief to be exposed to, and the vigour/anger in their response.

  4. Nash said,

    From having met Homeopaths and other alties, I can tell you they have no sense of humour. They take themselves very seriously indeed. You won’t find an altie Phil Hammond.
    As long as you keep a striaght face, you can tell them the most outragous rubbish and they will lap it up.

    I would second Martins comments about the emotional capital they invest in their beliefs.

  5. leet01 said,

    There does seem to be a war going on here. The alternative medical types think that everything would be so much better if people listened to them. However, if you do listen to them and ask the basis for their views they get angry. If you laugh at them they get angrier still so I am rather at a loss to know how to deal with them other than signing up for a degree course in dietetics!

    Nash says the alties don’t have any sense of humour. If anyone has any record of complementary therapist telling a joke I would love to hear it.

  6. Jared said,

    Your posting was not an evidence based attempt to fairly describe those who subscribe to various ‘alternative’ health beliefs – it was a rant that invokes faulty generalization and caricature. It’s really no better than the rants on the other side that vilify doctors as uncaring, greedy individuals or which deny that pharmaceuticals have some benefits along with their side effects. But that’s ok.

  7. jdc325 said,

    Hi Jared,

    I used the word ‘unevidenced’ twice in my post and derivatives of the word ‘anecdote’ three times. I thought I had been quite clear that my post was not evidence-based. I apologise if this is not the case.

    I was also a bit surprised that you referred to my piece as a rant. I thought if anything people would think it too waffly rather than too ranty. I wrote the piece in a calm frame of mind and cannot see any overblown or aggressive language, so am struggling to see why this is a ‘rant’.

    Thanks for stopping by Jared – I appreciate the feedback.

  8. Jared said,

    Maybe you are right and I was too quick to judge. I stumbled onto this blog, and it conjured up images of a running feud.

    I suggest anyone with anger issues practice evidence-based aromatherapy. I am a big fan of jasmine:


  9. Radioactive afikomen said,

    Your post makes some very interesting oberservations. But (no offense), you were rambling for much of the post. The part where you detailed your search for specific studies was particularly ramble-some, and the whole paragraph distracted from your point. Other parts, while important (they helped build your case), come off as unnecessarily wordy; your words-to-information-conveyed ratio is a bit high.

    Just some writing advice. Hope I don’t come off as aggressively lecturesome : )

  10. jdc325 said,

    “Just some writing advice. Hope I don’t come off as aggressively lecturesome”
    Haha, no – thanks for the feedback. I think you’re right. I could have written a considerably shorter [and better] post. In fact, if I’d waited I could have just used a pic of Radovan Karadzic (cheers for the suggestion Colmcq) – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7519039.stm (there was a cracking bit on the news where the reporter referred to Karadzic “writing a load of barmy nonsense” – why don’t the media refer to AltMed as barmy nonsense more often? It would be fun to see the rabid responses.

  11. LeeT said,

    No, I don’t think you were off on a rant. I do share your frustrations at the alternative medicine industry. One does have to be very careful so as not to upset its supporters. However, one uncontroversial challenge I like to put to them is to define alternative medicine. It is alway interesting to listen to their replies …

  12. LemmusLemmus said,

    I think your post may already contain the answer to why you didn’t find much on google scholar: If you would have searched for “frustration aggression”, you would have had lots of hits. Something like “‘hurt feelings’ aggression” or “defensiveness aggression” might also be worthwhile. And if you want to take it further, try a google search for “deep inside I know I’m wrong, so I’m going to lash out”.

  13. Skeptics’ Circle 92 « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science said,

    […] can learn about the premature scare-mongering about mobile phones; reiki for rats; why are woos so angry and many other […]

  14. D. C. Sessions said,

    You may be confounding cause and effect. I have observed that many woos are not so much angry because they are woos but woos because they are angry. The religious at least include a sizable population who have reasons besides anger, and thus are on balance less likely to be angry.

    Note that this totally /post hoc/ explanation accounts for the observed phenomena, but at present does not seem to have predictive power sufficient to form the basis for experimental verification.

  15. jdc325 said,

    D.C. Sessions – thanks for the comment. I had thought that being woo was a risk factor for aggression, I hadn’t considered that aggression could be a risk factor for becoming a woo.

    Re: “…at present does not seem to have predictive power sufficient to form the basis for experimental verification” – are you considering experimenting on woos? ;)

  16. D. C. Sessions said,

    Re: “…at present does not seem to have predictive power sufficient to form the basis for experimental verification” – are you considering experimenting on woos? ;)

    Been doing it for years, although calling MHA anything remotely like “controlled” is an egregious abuse of language.

  17. Dr* T said,

    Cheers for the link JDC – the way to deal with these people is gently baiting – be polite, consistent & succinct. They’ll resort to ad hom in oooooooh 6 minutes?
    (Certainly according to Ozzy Dan here but he might be all talk and no trousers :)

  18. jdc325 said,

    I’d just like to point to this on anti-fluoridation campaigners threatening to kill politicians: crikey.

  19. dave mabus said,

    we’re pulling the plug on this bit of blasphemy called *Pharyngula*


  20. Mike said,

    A study seeking correlation between aggressiveness and ability to perform different kinds of cognitive tasks or fear would be interesting.

    My hunch is that aggressiveness increases with fear of embarrassment by being exposed as stupid. The aggressiveness is a defensive response to shore-up any possibility of being shown to be wrong.

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