The Promotion of Counterknowledge

March 24, 2009 at 6:09 pm (Alternative Medicine, Anti-Vaccination, Bad Science, Bloggers, Briffa, Conspiracy, Dangerously Wrong, government, Media, Nutritionism, Patrick Holford, Religion, Supplements, Woo) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

[BPSDB] Those promoting Counterknowledge are winning. Possibly because the public actually don’t really care that much*. (Damien Thompson’s book Counterknowledge is available from local libraries in my area, yet I am the first person in the 14 months since it has been in the library catalogue to borrow it.) It is also possible that Counterknowledge is spreading at least partly because people with a measure of influence in society are among those who promote it. Members of the British royal family, politicians, the mainstream media, celebrities, Alternative Medicine practitioners posing as authority figures, members of churches, and even universities have helped to promote Counterknowledge. Not to mention maverick scientists such as Andrew Wakefield. Those with less authority are playing an important part too, though. For example, full-time conspiracy theorists such as the owner of the whale.to website are disseminating bullshit that is reproduced on forums such as What Doctors Don’t Tell You, or JABS.

Prince Charles has complained to Edzard Ernst’s employers (in my opinion the complaint was essentially made because Ernst was doing his job properly – see the below dcscience.net link for more), has a pro-AltMed lobby group the Foundation for Integrated Health that “attempts to make the hard-pressed NHS spend more money on unproven and disproved treatments” (dcscience.net/?p=89), and his Duchy Originals brand has been criticised by bloggers and fallen foul of the MHRA. Little can be done to combat Prince Charles’s daffy ideas short of pointing out their inherent daffiness – it’s not as if we can vote him out of office.

As for politicians… while people will remember Tony Blair on faith schools, they may not recall Peter Hain on Alt Med or Ken Livingstone on MMR. There’s also Nadine Dorries and David Tredinnick. Politicians are vulnerable, unlike Prince Charles, as they can be voted out. This may make it worth lobbying MPs who promote pseudoscience and counterknowledge.

The media. Ah, the media. Where do I start? Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog has, at the time of writing, 135 posts in the ‘media’ category. Near the top of the list come the following newspapers: Daily Mail**, Times, Telegraph. The BBC, unfortunately, is also heavily featured – we should be able to rely on the Beeb for accurate information [from Wikipedia: The stated mission of the BBC is "to inform, educate and entertain" (as laid down by Parliament in the BBC Charter); the formatting is mine.]. One problem with the media is that they are self-regulated – the chairman of the PCC’s editors’ code committee*** is Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail are, in my view, the worst offenders in media promotion of counterknowledge (having, apart from a multitude of other sins) been at the forefront of the campaign against the MMR vaccine. That their editor is head of the editors’ code committe does not inspire confidence. We need a regulator with teeth. The PCC is no such thing and should be replaced. Tom P has posted some excellent suggestions on the badscience.net forum.

Celebrities? Madonna and Kabbalah come to mind. Or how about Cliff Richard – his comments in response to the Cochrane review of antioxidants were reported by both badscience.net and HolfordWatch. Or for more damaging promotion of Counterknowledge by a celebrity, you can check out Jenny McCarthy, the famous anti-vaccinationist and actress/model, on the blog Left Brain/Right Brain. We need to learn to stop taking celebs seriously and to begin laughing uproari0usly at their ludicrous ideas.

AltMed practitioners putting themselves forward as figures of authority should surprise no-one. From Dr Ms Gillian McKeith to ex-Professor Patrick Holford. Dr John Briffa’s qualifications are impressive, but he doesn’t seem to have recognised qualifications that are specifically relevant to the “nutritional and naturally-oriented medicine” that he has a special interest in (for example, he gives advice on diet but is not a qualified dietitian – unlike those who are allowed the title of registered dietitian). Nutritionists, of course, do not need any specific training as this (unlike registered dietitian) is not a protected title – anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.

Churches: Cardinal Trujillo believed that some European-made condoms were infected with HIV deliberately and, according to the BBC, also claimed that some anti-retroviral drugs were infected “in order to finish quickly the African people”. Let’s be clear – Trujillo was a man with some influence. He was a Colombian Cardinal Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church and president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. The influence that churches have should not be misused in order to promote pseudoscience – but I’m not sure how one would begin to do anything about it. Suggestions are welcome.

Education? The Improbable Science blog has plenty of examples of universities promoting quackery – http://dcscience.net/?cat=4 – and some people have taken to referring to certain establishments as “wooniversities” such is the nonsense that has appeared in certain of our higher education institutions. The criticism of their antics seems to have had an effect, as some Unis are now dropping their AltScience degree courses.

When it comes to maverick scientists, the first one I think of is Andrew Wakefield (see bottom of page for more links). Brian Deer’s website has more on his story. Rogue doctors can be investigated by the GMC. I’m not sure who we complain to about rogue scientists, but if they are members of any organisations you can always complain to the organisation about the conduct of one of their members.

Conspiracy theorists abound – whale.to being just one example among many. Edge Media TV exists solely to air conspiracy theories and has a forum to enable fans to pass on their own conspiracy theories. Charlie Brooker wrote an excellent review of this channel. Like celebs, these people should not be taken seriously under any circumstances. Especially http://whale.to/. This site has spawned its own law of the internet – Scopie’s_Law.

More – Links Etc

http://counterknowledge.com/; Trujillo obituary; Blair & faith schools; a search of badscienceblogs.net for Andrew Wakefield; quackometer.net on WDDTY (What Doctors Don’t Tell You); a blogger looks at the JABS forum; the politicians I named above are all Labour or Tory – to redress the balance, here is a piece that refers to Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik’s beliefs about the transference of psychic energy; a recent badscience.net post summed up some of the issues with press reporting of science and health – British journalists go out of their way to cherry pick which evidence they cover, and then explain the risks and benefits in what has been shown to be the single most unhelpful way possible.

*Feynman discussed the irrelevancy of science in elements of the modern world in his book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (and suggests that science is irrelevant to some because they are not engaged by anyone wishing to discuss the evidence for their claims) and Christopher Merle has a quote from the essay here.

**The Daily Mail are a disgrace. You can read recent Daily Fail posts on this blog here, here, here and here. Not that I’m in any way obsessed.

***JQH’s blog post, a complaint to the PCC, has a comment from Andy Lewis pointing out the Dacre/PCC situation.

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5 Comments

  1. draust said,

    Hmm, think you’re being too respectful towards John Briffa’s qualifications, jdc. The Briff-ster has the bog standard letters of a Univ of London medical graduate (MBBS), plus an intercalating BSc degree (means he spent one extra year during his medical degree completing the final year of a bioscience degree course).

    Nowadays the London Medical Schools make EVERYONE do an intercalating degree, so they are churning out well over a thousand people every year with this set of qualifications just in London alone. Of course, it is true to say that these youngsters didn’t all win the Prizes that Dr B lists so lovingly on his profile. Example:

    UCL Medical School prize for contributions to extra-curricular activities 1990

    The Briff-ster, by the way is nor on the General Practitioner’s register, and does not list any medical college memberships (exams) on his website, like the (difficult) MRCP or MRCS, or even the (less difficult) MRCGP.

    An alternative phrase might be “Dr John Briffa has an actual medical degree and a B.Sc., so he does have more real qualifications than either McKeith or Holford”.

  2. jdc325 said,

    Well, his qualifications are impressive in comparison with mine but I like your alternative wording Dr Aust.

  3. Rob A said,

    jdc325, do you have just a CSE in woodwork, like Paul Merton?

  4. jdc325 said,

    CSE in woodwork? I wish I had a CSE in woodwork…
    I like Paul Merton, BTW – I think he’s very good on Just A Minute.

  5. endlesspsych said,

    Dunno quite how I managed to navigate to this page – but suffice to say (As much as the term appeals) I’m not a fan of counter knowledge.

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