AltMed and The Dangers of Homophily

February 6, 2009 at 3:01 pm (Alternative Medicine, Bad Science, Dangerously Wrong) (, , , )

Outwith Alternative Medicine, homophily may limit us in all sorts of ways in terms of depriving ourselves of experiences we may otherwise have enjoyed. I think the main danger of homophily in terms of Alternative Medicine is that people with certain dangerous beliefs (homeopathy can cure Aids, vaccines cause autism, measles is safe) will reinforce these beliefs by seeking out like-minded people who share their ill-founded and alarming viewpoint (“value homophily”).

This will make members of forums such as JABS less likely to ever accept that they are just plain wrong. Not only do they hold a faith-based position, but they further entrench themselves into this position by seeking out those who agree with them. Oliver Burkeman reports in his Guardian column that Ethan Zuckerman claims that “homophily causes ignorance” – and Zuckerman could well be right. Burkeman uses the example of another “controversy” – but instead of MMR and autism gives us “[homophily is] also why, say, creationists imagine that the debate over evolution is an active and unresolved one: in their social circles, it is” [my italics]. As McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook put it “[h]omophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience.”

Links; Ethan Zuckerman; Oliver Burkeman; (mentioned in Burkeman’s article – looks pretty cool); McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook in the Annual Review of Sociology.



  1. Andy Lewis said,

    It is not just alt med that suffers from homophily. Lee Smolin, in his book The Trouble with Physics describes in lots of detail how string theorists have become a closed group that does not consider descent from other physicists who might approach unification in different ways. He blames this closed and protected circle for the lack of major advances in physics over the past 25 years.

    He examines what science is and shows how good science is dependent on communities that allow and encourage ‘unorthodox’ views.

  2. Dr* T said,

    Hadn’t come across the term ‘homophily’ before. V interesting.

  3. Warhelmet said,

    It is interesting but I’m not at all sure that I agree. I suspect that homophily is actually heterophobia (made up word?) a fear of the different.

    Something that I’ve noticed is that there are some online communities that have fewer links to things outside of the shared interest. If you look at where other than that community you see certain online identities, anecdotally at least, members of what you might describe as “homophilic” are less likely to post elsewhere outside of the community. And less explicit links to off topic stuff.

  4. jdc325 said,

    Andy – excellent point. I’ve got a copy of Smolin’s book at home. I think I’ll dip into it tonight and have a fresh look at Smolin’s arguments on string theorists being a closed group.

    Thanks for the comments all.

  5. Epsilon Semi-Moron said,

    What Dr* T said.

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