Wooing the Public: The Potential Dangers of Pseudoscience

Profiting from pseudoscience is a disturbing consequence of scientific advancement. Jonathan Hodson asks if it’s damaging for science, and, if so, what can be done about it?

As a physicist, hearing the phrase ‘quantum healing’ probably makes you cringe. A troubling side-effect of the complexity of quantum physics is that its terminology is exploited to sell questionable concepts to the public. Of course, most of the time this is completely harmless. You have probably seen the ‘quantum mechanics can do anything’ trope in popular media where the word ‘quantum’ is used synonymously with ‘magic’. However, sometimes it can be damaging, both to people, and to science as a whole.

As science becomes more advanced, it becomes more difficult for the general public to understand. Phrases like ‘parallel universe’, ‘uncertainty principle’, ‘entanglement’ and the word ‘quantum’ itself are frequently used specifically to confuse the public. These ideas can be considered as being ‘odd’ and counter-intuitive, opening up space for interpretation that can be used to distort the facts, making quantum pseudoscience easy to sell to the public. The appropriation of these words also makes it difficult to argue against the peddlers of this pseudoscience, with them essentially ‘borrowing authority’ from actual experts.

Robert Lanza, a Professor from the United States specialising in stem-cell research, believes that he has proven the existence of an afterlife using quantum physics and ‘biocentrism’ – the idea that the universe only exists because our consciousness creates it. This idea, Lanza says, along with the multiverse theory, means that when we die we are reborn in another universe. He cites the double slit experiment to back up his claims, saying that photons behave differently when observed. This is obviously a complete misunderstanding of the observer effect, which does not require the ‘observer’ to be sentient for it to change the behaviour of a quantum particle.

Regardless, media outlets picked up on this story with gusto, trampling over the corpse of scientific rigour in their wake. Lanza’s concepts were reported to be linked to actual theoretical physicists’ ideas in an attempt to lend some weight to them, and journalists chose quotes based on their ability to sound intelligent without actually saying anything at all. For example; “Life is an adventure that transcends our ordinary linear way of thinking. When we die, we do so not in the random billiard-ball-matrix but in the inescapable-life-matrix.” All of this culminates in the distortion and corruption of science, and its misrepresentation to the public, and more worryingly, to politicians.

This worry stems from the fact that politicians have control over the funding for science, so their exposure to this ‘quantum woo’ can be detrimental to scientific advancement. If enough politicians were to subscribe to ideas like Lanza’s, funding could be directed away from useful research and funnelled into dead-end pseudoscience. Sadly, this is not just a hypothetical situation; there are still ongoing debates over whether to stop funding homeopathy as a part of the NHS.

Quantum quackery

However, the proliferation of pseudoscience isn’t just the fault of the media. Another much more harmful form of pseudoscience is propagated by people who stand to make a great deal of money from the public. Deepak Chopra, a former doctor, has written numerous books centred around ‘quantum healing’ as a form of alternative medicine, 21 of them becoming New York Times bestsellers. As of 2013, these books were netting Chopra around $8 million per year (Forbes) and had made him famous enough to be invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show and featured in ‘People’ magazine. All of this, including his 2.6 million twitter followers, shows that this particular brand of nonsense seems to be convincing enough for a very significant number of people to believe it.

This is alarming to say the least, since people might forgo traditional medicine to pursue pseudoscientific healing methods, especially if they are desperate. Chopra has been quoted as saying; “[W]hen all you do is prescribe medication, you start to feel like a legalized drug pusher. That doesn’t mean that all prescriptions are useless, but it is true that 80% of all drugs prescribed today are of optional or marginal benefit.” The reputation of science becomes a secondary concern at this point, since peoples’ lives could actually be in danger – it is worth remembering that even an informed person like Steve Jobs unsuccessfully attempted to allay the onset of cancer with alternative medicine.

What can we do about it?

Pseudoscience is a difficult thing to combat, especially when you consider that numerous surveys show that over 20% of Americans believe in astrology. It is also difficult to call out frauds, since most of them are unwilling to listen to conflicting points of view, and their superficial use of language makes accusations of quackery amount to threats of libel lawsuits.

The first step towards eliminating this quackery might be to include education in the scientific method and techniques for spotting pseudoscience in the school curriculum. This could include elements of how peer review works, scientific methodology, scientific writing, reliable information sourcing, and common scientific misconceptions. Students need to be made aware of the difficulties in actually discovering new science, and just how easy it is to be wrong. They should be able to question dubious claims made by the media or “professionals” which are cunningly disguised as facts.

There would be several benefits to this educational approach. Obviously it should stop as many people being taken advantage of, hopefully improving peoples’ confidence in real science, especially medicine, and stopping them from seeking inferior alternatives. It might also prevent people from latching on to reactionary articles that propagate conspiracy theories, such as those written by anti-vaccine advocates. Finally, it could be very valuable for students who want to continue in scientific study – the ability to spot fallacious reasoning or skewed data is very helpful in a scientific career, and I believe that the study of how science works in the ‘real world’ is underrepresented in the curriculum.

A second step in curbing the propagation of pseudoscience actually involves scientists themselves. Although you might not want to hear it, arrogance is widespread amongst scientists, and when confronted with outlandish theories, many of us are quick to mock. For many people, this would reinforce their suspicion of the scientific community and push them further towards ideas like Chopra’s. It is important not to dismiss these people as “loons” and instead try to educate them. Is it not understandable that they’d prefer to live in a world where treating their ailments is as simple as following some rules set out in one of Deepak Chopra’s books, rather than having to go through harrowing surgery or chemotherapy?

A large part of a scientist’s job is to communicate their knowledge to the public, and the public are much more likely to listen if the person explaining the science is friendly and approachable, and provides answers in a straightforward way. An effective way of doing this is through popular media. ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ is a good example of a programme that helps the public to better understand science in an accessible way – more programming like this would go a long way in busting common science myths.

To conclude, it is clear that curbing the spread of scientific misinformation is very difficult. A lot of people will continue to believe in ideas like ‘quantum healing’ or astrology because it’s easier and perhaps more comforting for them to view the world this way. However, I believe that with a few changes to the school science curriculum, and a small change in scientists’ attitudes, we will prepare future generations to be more discerning of science that’s reported in the media and touted by dubious individuals.

Wooing the Public: The Potential Dangers of Pseudoscience

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