We think it’s about time to reclaim the word ‘sceptic’ from the anti-natural medicine skeptic movement – and yes, the difference in spelling is entirely deliberate! As we’ll see, they are two entirely different things.
We were very interested in a recent episode of the morning discussion show ‘In Our Time’, on the UK’s BBC Radio 4, entitled simply ‘Scepticism’. The programme, hosted by writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, traced the history of the proud philosophical tradition of scepticism, which has its roots in the ancient Greece of Plato and Socrates.
At its core, classical scepticism is the belief that it may be impossible to know anything with absolute certainty – that all beliefs and dogmas are equally subject to doubt and questioning. Doubt, and not negative assertion of the ‘such-and-such cannot possibly be correct’ type, is the true sceptic’s watchword. As such, philosophical scepticism has much in common with, and indeed has greatly influenced, the ideal of the modern scientific method: to objectively question the world around us, while realising that there can be no absolute ‘truth’ – only a balance of probabilities.
Here’s an interesting situation thrown up by ‘true scepticism’. Sceptics have had great fun demonstrating that the dogmas of religion are unsupportable. And yet, taken to its logical conclusion, the sceptical rejection of all human reason can create the tranquillity through which many believe God can work; Michel de Montaigne, a noted sceptical thinker, concluded that, “After scepticism, man is like a blank tablet, upon which the finger of God can carve whatever word He wants”.
Bringing this line of thought up-to-date, the modern sceptical paradox is that a philosophy based on questioning all sides of a particular argument now finds itself harnessed to the ‘anti-natural’ cause. Such skeptics, typified by organisations such as Sense About Science, appear to find themselves firmly in a pro-GM, pro-mainstream medicine, anti-natural healthcare position. For a start, if scepticism leads us to question all sides of an argument – to reject the intrinsic ‘rightness’ of any position – how can the skeptics be so loudly pro-mainstream medicine and against all the alternatives? What scientific data are they using to support the very dubious view that genetically modified (GM) crops will resolve world hunger? Strictly speaking, it should be impossible for sceptics to describe themselves as ‘pro-science’ or ‘pro-technology’, since that clearly associates them with a belief in the correctness of modern science – an utterly non-sceptical position!
Not only that, but while philosophical scepticism has had enormous influence on the modern scientific process, the modern skeptic turns his or her back on the scientific method by ignoring centuries of human experience – and the clinical experience being gathered every day by practitioners – as ‘anecdote’. Only randomised, controlled trials in human subjects will do to prove any treatment approach worthy of consideration. So, it seems that the ‘pro-science’ ‘skeptics’ are actually in some respects ‘anti-science’, and they’re certainly not sceptics. Their position is effectively a form of intellectual fraud — and that’s being kind.
Chris Woollams runs the charity cancerACTIVE, which provides information on non-mainstream cancer therapies – a red flag for many skeptics, including Prof David Colquhoun of University College London. Colquhoun wrote a piece on his blog accusing Woollams of illegally profiting from cancerACTIVE. When Woollams protested that this was entirely untrue, Colquhoun admitted as much on his blog – without removing the offending article! In the meantime, Colquhoun rallied skeptic friends via Twitter, to pen their own poisonous articles. Colquhoun only removed his defamatory post upon legal advice, presumably that he was guilty of libelling Woollams.
Perhaps today’s ‘anti-natural’ pseudo-skepticism will one day be condensed into a short chapter — of academic interest only — in scepticism’s rich history.
Let’s remember that an open and questioning mind is one of the greatest gifts a human being has.
Updated: 18 Jul 2012
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