Shameless Charlatans

January 20, 2009 at 4:08 pm (Bad Science) (, , )

Oliver Burkeman’s column in the Weekend magazine in the Guardian had some interesting information on the unembarrassability of charlatans.

In a new book, Born To Be Good, the scholar Dacher Keltner makes a powerful case that embarrassment is evolution’s answer to the “commitment problem”: it’s in everyone’s interests to collaborate for long-term gain, but how do you weed out the conmen who want to take advantage? Perhaps because they’re unembarrassable.

Embarrassment is, apparently, signalled by microexpressions that are universal and impossible to fake. What embarrassment does is to “[reveal] how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us together”. This perhaps helps to explain another phenomenon (here comes the digression) – the reticence of some people to apologise, to admit an error, or to correct mistakes that appear in work they have published.

They seem to be simply shameless, possibly because they don’t have the same regard for the rules as others. For example, that what one says should be what one believes to be true rather than what one believes they may get away with. Or that one should correct one’s mistakes when they are pointed out. Reading Bad Science Blogs has given me the opportunity to see several examples of this phenomenon.

Failing to acknowledge or correct your errors does not make you a charlatan. It does in my opinion, however, make you a poor scholar and a bad scientist. RP Feynman talked of having “a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty” and this is something that is sadly missing in the work of most nutritionistas and homeopaths (among others). They are not only engaged in alternative medicine, they are engaged in alternative science.

At times, they refuse to even engage in debate. They threaten to sue (legal chill) or they refuse to accept blog comments (failure to engage) Orac calls this “throwing comments down the memory hole” (if I may paraphrase slightly). Orac on Sherr.

Burkeman on embarrassment. Feynman’s Caltech address. Keltner profile. Googlebooks – Keltner on the forms and function of embarrassment. [EDIT: abstract of a Keltner paper on embarrassment.]

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