Don’t be a skeptic.

Active.com is often a good resource for training tips, articles on workouts, diet, and expert opinion. Every now and then it contains garbage, like a factory that processes nuts there can often be a deadly allergen in the product. I don’t self-define as being a skeptic. It’s a loaded term that connects with the skeptical movement that is in itself a response to the lack of critical thinking in this country and the world. I’m an iconoclast. I resist defining myself by association with any particular group because joining with a group often carries with it guilt by association. I am a critical thinker and I apply critical thinking to everything that I do.

The article in question http://www.active.com/mindandbody/articles/5_Natural_Cures_to_Heal_Your_Body.htm?cmp=11-1599&utm_source=sendible&utm_medium=feed was an interview with Scott Jurek, an ultramarathon runner, physical therapist, and vegan. It offered “5 Natural Cures to Heal Your Body” after a brief interview with Jurek. The “natural cures” were harmless enough, with reasonable warnings and brief notes about efficacy. Acupuncture, which has shown time and again to be nothing more than placebo, was indicated as such, and they even were smart enough to mention that herbal remedies are not under FDA approval. But Jurek’s statement, “Homeopathic therapies allow me to access my body’s healing potential” was put in without any correction or deconstruction. Homeopathy is a very specific modality, it is absolute worthless junk science, and it’s not to be confused with other modalities that also fall under the Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (sCAMs) umbrella.

In brief, Samuel Hahnemann invented homeopathy in the late 1700’s. http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/homeo.html It predates germ theory and has been debunked in double blind studies to the point where further testing is pointless and a waste of money. The British Medical Association (BMA) recently declared it witchcraft and the NHS has wisely banned it completely. It has no merit beyond placebo, often failing even to reach that baseline of efficacy.

The Active.com article didn’t correct Jurek’s statement, questioning if he meant homeopathy or another type of sCAM. Like so may of these kinds of articles it allowed the anecdote to stand as evidence; lazy reporting.

To a critical thinker this stands out as the first landmine. Magazines, blogs, newspapers have all absolved themselves of responsible reporting. It’s the asshole at the party saying, “I didn’t say blame the Mexicans, I’m just repeating what someone else said!” As far as I’m concerned repeating bad information without questioning it is only slightly less bad than inventing the lie to start. Propagation of bad data, like repeated use of the non-word irregardless, has allowed it to come into the public mind. Repetition of falsehoods, even when presented as false, cement the original concept in people’s minds as truth. Memory is fallible, which is why anecdotal data is worthless.

When Active.com pushed this article into my Facebook feed I commented on it pointing out the error in Jurek’s statement and warned people to use the information with great caution. What followed were comments defending homeopathy incorrectly, people selling their own home remedies, and other nonsense. After I posted further comments defining phased trials, FDA approval, the harmful results of D-SHEA, and evidence debunking the article’s points, I was attacked as a shill for Big Pharma.

This should not come as a surprise. The hallmark of the poorly informed is to assume a binary argument. If you are against A you must therefore support B. This is what’s called a false dichotomy, a classic logical fallacy. If I am against homeopathy I must therefore support Big Pharma. I pointed out that we weren’t having a discussion about Big Pharma, but we could if they wished. That particular argument would require a discussion of at least two parts, the scientific methodology of pharmaceutical companies and separately, of their business practices. However, it is possible to have a discussion only about the efficacy of one modality without invoking anything else. Apparently, not to the defenders of sCAMS.

Believers in sCAMs reject logic and evidence in much the same way that George Bush rejected facts when it didn’t fit his worldview. They will toss out 10 studies proving unequivocally that their belief in something has no foundation or cannot physically function and then cling to a single anecdotal tale of “worked for me!” An athlete like Scott Jurek has done a tremendous amount of work to get where he is today and accomplish incredible physical feats. In interviews he comes off as humble, trains without structure, and plays around with distance and speed as he feels like it. This bears all the marks of someone gifted on a genetic level towards athleticism. Which, if true, means he can smear peanut butter on his feet and run three times as fast and twenty times as long as me. Does this mean I should start smearing peanut butter on my feet? No, it means that he has an advantage that I can never equal so I need to find what works for me. That means following chains of evidence and looking at things carefully to see what has merit and what is magical thinking.

The magical thinking piece is the most deceptive of all because it keys into our hopes. I train hard in a structured way in the hope that I will get stronger and faster. I’ve seen it work for me in the past, I’ve seen it work for others, and the evidence is strong across thousands and thousands of test cases that certain methods have merit and others are junk. I use the ones with merit. Periodization, high intensity interval sessions, regulated diet. These are evidence-based conclusions. And yet the grind of training and reading about training and only seeing a small change is maddening. Terrible is the day that an injury occurs and so great is the need for healing that anything is looked at as hopeful. SCAMs are not bound by evidence and are therefore able to make grand claims about curing all ailments. Because they aren’t under FDA approval they can scream “SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN TO WORK” when what really happened is they spiked the results of a phase 1 trial. (In simple terms if you want to sell a weight loss formula you can find 10 mesomorphs in a gym who burn fat quickly, pay them to stop working out and eat like shit for a month to pack on quick weight, then feed them your sugar pill and let them go back to their normal regimen and claim their rapid results are because of your sugar pill. That’s a phase 1 trial. FDA approved drugs must pass through two more phases moving into larger pools and blinded studies before ever reaching market. Not sCAMs!)

Read the Active.com article and watch how deftly they duck real analysis of the efficacy of these “natural” remedies. They pay lip service to the criticisms but it’s sandwiched in between The Promise and Who Should Try It. It’s a reverse shit sandwich – caution in between two slices of credulous shit.

When reading articles like this I suggest being wary of several things. First, is the article offering to sell you something? Most sCAMs have a pitch at their heart. Since they don’t actually do anything they are trying to sell you a remedy you’ll need to use for a long time with a price. (Multi Level Marketing schemes like Herbalife and Amway would be examples.) Often the seller will blame you for the remedy not working because you didn’t believe in it enough. Gladly, real medicine doesn’t require your belief in it to work. It works because it has a mechanism that can be proven and replicated. Second, is the article riddled with logical fallacies? Does it have internal consistency and is it diligently pointing out factual errors? If not, it’s sloppy reporting and it will show itself in every paragraph. Third, be critical. Don’t just accept what is presented as fact. Research the claims made by the article. Google is a bad method of researching sCAMs because Google ranks pages based on popularity, not on factual content. Because sCAMs rely on anecdotal data to prove themselves, they have exploited the infinite monkeys banging away at an infinite number of keyboards that is the world wide web. Use resources like PubMed http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed which is millions of articles of scientific testing and reporting on efficacy. Look at Consumer Reports about products, seek the double blind studies done by independent laboratories with nothing to gain from the outcome. We used to ask this of our journalists but those days are long gone. The fourth estate was sold by corporate realtors and responsibility pushed onto the victim of bad information.

If doing your own research is too intimidating or time consuming at the very least go back to the questions I listed above. Is someone trying to sell you something and therefore has something to gain by your participation? Does what they’re presenting not make a lot of sense as you consider it? Are they making arguments from authority or confusing causation with correlation? Are they using an argument from antiquity? (If it’s ancient, it must be true! Dental bloodletting and leeching are ancient but we don’t do them anymore.) Learn just a few logical fallacies and you’ll build a better bullshit detector. http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx

You don’t have to be a skeptic or self-define as a skeptic to do this stuff. Being a critical thinker just starts with asking questions. I ask that people prove what they’re claiming, just back it up with evidence. I’m a sucker for hopes and dreams and the promise of a better tomorrow, you just have to prove to me that you have tools that work. Then I’ll follow.

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2 responses to “Don’t be a skeptic.

  1. I DO self-define as a skeptic because I NEED that skeptical movement. I am a very poor skeptic when left to my own devices, but I try. (I also got a kick-ass freelance job because I occasionally post on skeptic forums and blogs.) I am unlikely to do primary research to find out if a claim is true or not, but at least I try to vet my sources of information a bit more carefully than I used to.

    Thanks for writing this. I plan to pass it around.

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