Why scientists have a tough time combating quackery

More is emerging about tennis player Novak Djokovic’s crackpot views.

The tennis star has a track record when it comes to questionable scientific claims.

In his book Serve to Win, Djokovic described how in 2010 he met with a nutritionist who asked him to hold a piece of bread in his left hand while he pressed down on his right arm. Djokovic claims he was much weaker while holding the bread, and cited this as evidence of gluten intolerance.

And during an Instagram live, he claimed that positive thought could “cleanse” polluted water, adding that “scientists have proven that molecules in water react to our emotions.”

According to Dr David Nunan, a senior researcher at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, “on the balance of probabilities it is highly unlikely that such claims are true – at least not by current conventions of scientific theory and practice.”

One paragraph in that news item however caught my attention because it illustrated a recurring problem that scientists have when asked by the media about nutty views. They just cannot bring themselves to express their views forcefully but instead are cautious.

In his response to Djokovic’s weird claims, Nunan speaks about the ‘balance of probabilities’ which immediately allows believers in bizarre theories to think that there is a good chance that their claims might be true. For them, the saying “Give them an inch and they will take a mile” should be rewritten as “Give them a tiny probability and they will take it to mean 50%”. For them, the only alternative to certainty is a 50-50 chance.

I don’t blame Nunan. Scientists tend to be rightly cautious in their pronouncements when they speak to the public or the media because they know that there is no certainty. They do not speak of the two extremes of probabilities, 0 or 1. Actually, they often use the word probability or likelihood not in any mathematical sense but to convey their judgment based on the evidence, and since it is a judgment, they are cautious about expressing things in absolute terms, always leaving a window of doubt.

In private, they speak differently. I bet Nunan would have told his friends and colleagues that Djokovic was talking utter rubbish.

Meanwhile Djokovic’s supporters, including his parents and the Serbian government, keep saying the he is being held like a prisoner, which is of course nonsense since he can leave at any time provided that he go to the airport and leave the country.

These pampered elites are all the same. The slightest limitation on their ability to do as they like is seen by them as a monstrous deprivation and they begin to whine like crazy.


  1. Jean says

    I understand the desire to stay prudent when stating scientific opinions but the 2 examples in that quote are as absurd as saying that not only a teapot but a full tea set ready for serving might be orbiting Mars. But I also assume that journalists are happy to keep this ambiguity going.

  2. K says

    One problem--when dealing with USA nuts, at least--is that they feel entitled to their own facts. The more whackadoo they are, the firmer they cling to the idea that the Constitution grants them freedom of their own facts.

  3. says

    It is not simply a matter of ignorance -- there is ample times a million amounts of good information out there -- there is no amount of combating quackery that scientists can do, because the quacks aren’t interested in facts and are not concerned about reality.

  4. morsgotha says

    re: #2 K says
    I think it is more like they confuse freedom of speech is also freedom from consequences.

  5. mnb0 says

    Don’t worry. Some scientists are not cautious at all. A fine example is the Flemish scientist Marc van Ranst. He’s very amusing.


    “Let’s call a cat a cat, Willem. You’re a nutcase. You can write down all your knowledge of virology, immunology and epidemiology on the backside of a small post stamp. There will be even room left. But as soon as we are confronted with a salsa epidemy all listen to you, dance teacher, with a lot of pleasure. However at this moment I don’t give a flying f**k for your gibberish and your home country best shouldn’t either.”

    Breaking news: Australian court as granted Djoko access.

    Result: dance teacher WIllem sued him, he received death threats, the dance teacher defended those death threats and Van Ranst had to go in hiding.
    Best strategy for scientists is to focus on providing reliable information and leave such combats to amateurs like me.

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