By William Raillant-Clark
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house – not what you would typically expect at a symposium on science. This year’s Trottier Symposium was entitled “Confronting Pseudoscience: A Call to Action,” and it would not be out of order to conclude that many in the audience were surprised by the emotion on stage, and by extension, in the seats.
How very powerful it is to hear a researcher’s voice tremble as he describes the needless suffering and deaths of the victims of quackery. Many facts were presented at the event, but the most important was clearly that beyond the merchandising of lies, pseudoscience causes real human suffering every day.
Dr. Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptics magazine, opened with a detailed explanation of why we are physiologically inclined to draw certain conclusions from evidence presented to us, and how this can be easily exploited. “We are pattern-seeking primates, we learn by association,” Shermer said. “We tend to find patterns in meaningless information, to assume that all rustles of the grass are dangerous predators and not just wind. We tend to assume that every pattern is real, it’s a part of natural selection.” He illustrated his point with a number of humorous examples. The point itself was less amusing: “When people feel out of control, they are more likely to see patterns. There is a well-known link between superstition and control.”
Many in the audience might have been squirming by this stage, aware that a breast cancer specialist would be presenting next. How many had witnessed a loved one or friend tormented by this inhuman predator, only to then also fall prey to the peddlers of myth and false hope? This reporter is relatively fortunate in the sense that although his mother died at 43, she only turned to crystals and herbs after exhausting medical treatment. Dr. David Gorski offered more stories of those who were encouraged to turn their backs on their doctors and suffered a much more terrible and immediate fate.
Gorski’s presentation was not all gloom and horror, however. In fact, the bright side to pseudoscience is that it is easily debunked, provided the appropriate tools are available. Gorski gave the example of testimonials of women who claim to have been cured of cancer by vitamins, and discussed the differences between primary therapy and adjuvant therapy. Primary therapy is treatment of the actual cancer, and adjuvant therapy decreases the risk of recurrence. He showed how, statistically, some women will survive several years after surgical excision of a tumour. He also pointed out that testimonial is the most important weapon in the arsenal of the quacks, especially because “dead women don’t write testimonials.”
Expanding on this theme, Dr. Ben Goldacre, a columnist at The Guardian, spoke of the dangers of unscientific health claims, touching on vaccine scares and vitamins, about his professional battles against quackery and about the damage that British libel law can inflict upon scientific debate and rationalism. As was the case with the other presenters, however, raw emotion soon emerged. In Goldacre’s case, it came when he began to speak about access to AIDS treatment in South Africa and the positions that government has taken following pseudoscientific advice from Westerners. Many in the audience were surely left wondering how catastrophes of this kind are allowed to happen.
For those who couldn’t be there, the event was filmed, and can be viewed at: http://bcooltv.mcgill.ca/ListRecordings.aspx?CourseID=3113