“How do you know that?” – the ultimate nullifier

In Marvel comics, there is a device known as “The Ultimate Nullifier” –  a weapon that is apparently capable of utterly destroying any target the user chooses, as well as the user her/himself if her/his mind is not sufficiently focussed (those of you who don’t read comics will probably find this idea a bit ridiculous; those of you who do read comics will think it’s not ridiculous enough).

Back in July, Vancouver was visited by PZ Myers, author of one of my favourite science and atheism blogs, Pharyngula. During his talk, PZ brought up the role of skepticism in evaluating any claims about the world, particularly religious ones, and invited us to ask an important question when facing a claim that you’re not sure about: “how do you know that?” This question is, within the realm of science, the ultimate nullifier… of sorts.

Let’s pretend I have a friend who is really into reiki – a form of Japanese faith healing. She tells me that she can heal my diseases by passing her hands over me and directing positive energy into my body. I, of course, am skeptical – probably more so than I would be if she had told me that she was going to massage away my stress or something that at least has a biologically plausible mechanism. And so I ask her “how do you know that?”

She tells me about chakras and meridian lines and The Goddess Breath Method (those of you who aren’t familiar with “alternative therapies” will probably find this idea a bit ridiculous; those of you who are familiar with this kind of woo will think it’s not ridiculous enough). She tells me that by directing energy into my chakras that I will rebalance my energy flows and expel the foreign energy that causes my dis-ease (yes, they actually do spell it like this). I’ve studied human anatomy, and there ain’t nothing like a “chakra” or a “meridian line” anywhere to be found. And so I ask her “how do you know that?”

She shows me a bunch of websites and testimonials from the millions of patients who have been treated with reiki. As an epidemiologist, I point out that showing the numerator without the denominator is useless – how many people were treated and didn’t get better? Is it an equivalent number? Is it less? Is it more? Surely there are “dis-eases” that resolve themselves on their own – how does she know that people aren’t just responding to a sham treatment because they believe in it?

As we go father down, I learn that every time someone takes a controlled look at reiki (or acupuncture, homeopathy, intercessory prayer, rolfing, crystals, psychic surgery, or distance healing), they find no reason to support my friend’s claim that it will heal anything. The few studies that do suggest that it works either have a small sample size, lack proper blinding, or have no control group – common ways of finding effects that aren’t actually real. Basically, her claim of magic healing powers is based on nothing but personal belief and junk science – not exactly what I want when I’m in serious medical trouble.

There is a limitation to this question, however. Many people like Deepak Chopra and Ray Comfort abuse the word “know”, taking it to mean “believe very strongly”. They insist that science isn’t the only “way of knowing”, and that human intuition or divine revelation (sometimes through scripture) are just as good as science at determining reality. There’s certainly an appeal to this kind of statement – after all it is pretty arrogant of scientists to claim that theirs is the only version of the truth.

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that, if it were true, we’d see far more overlap between intuition, revelation and science. Revealed wisdom (for example), when tested through observation, would consistently give similar results to those determined according to non-revealed scientific “wisdom”. It would certainly be at least internally consistent – many different groups of people would achieve similar insights, and have overlapping revelations. However what we see instead are diverse groups claiming to have “truth”, but having very different versions of it.

A better question, perhaps, is “why should I believe you?” Ray Comfort is free to assert (without evidence) that he knows that Jesus is the supreme being who watches and judges mankind (but not other animals). Why should I believe that just on his say-so? To avoid everlasting torment? Maybe, but that threat is really only credible if I believe him already – if I reject his imaginary friend then I most certainly reject the punishment that imaginary friend has in store for me. Why should I believe Ray more than my Hindu neighbour down the street – both can point to ancient holy books, miracles, millions of followers; what makes Ray’s “truth” more true than Raj’s?

All claims should be held to an external standard – some kind of way of measuring them against observed reality. It doesn’t matter if they’re claims about magic energy healing or invisible sky genies or political theories – if they aren’t borne out by some kind of controlled, observable evidence, then they’re just statements of belief. It’s fine to have beliefs (I think it’s preferable to have ideas, but whatever), but a statement of a belief is nothing more useful than a personal preference. I think that Radiohead peaked with OK, Computer; my buddy Stu thinks that they’ve gotten steadily better after that – they’re just statements of belief.

Saying that I believe in chakras doesn’t make it any more true than if I say I believe in phrenology or caloric theory or the four elements of matter. Saying that I believe it so much that I know it certainly doesn’t change that. My believing in it doesn’t grant it some kind of legitimacy – it just makes it harder to give me actual medicine.

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  1. says

    Thanks for that, Spencer. A good resource for anyone who has friends into chiropractic (like a former classmate of mine) or acupuncture (like some current friends of mine). Everyone can use a periodic refresher that sometimes the “prevailing wisdom” is just completely wrong.

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