Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Need For Scrutiny

Acupuncture doll. Archie McPhee store, Ballard...Image via Wikipedia

The 30-Second Skinny There's little better evidence for an intervention than the double blind randomized placebo controlled trial, but these trials still need to be properly scrutinized. In one double blind trial on acupuncture as a treatment for smoking cessation, the drop-outs were distributed across the three groups in a way that suggested that the blinding simply hadn't worked, making the resulting evidence all but worthless.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Narconon London - Fun With Paperwork

Narconon boothImage via Wikipedia

The 30 Second Skinny The Church of Scientology will often change its story to best suit its audience. By comparing publicly available reports these "economies of truth" can be placed under the spotlight. Narconon London for instance has suggested to regulators that they do not offer a residential rehab service but suggest to the public and to the Charity Commission that they do.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

What's True For You

30 Dumb Inventions - L. Ron HubbardImage by mandiberg via Flickr

The Twitter account @scientology is currently posting through links to the site. Interestingly the website is being more open about some of their more fringey beliefs, such as an affirmative response to "Does Scientology believe in mind over matter." The site also places on each page the following quote from L Ron Hubbard:

"What is true for you is what you have observed yourself. And when you lose that, you have lost everything." 

It's a troubling quote because it ultimately puts personal truth above objective truth. This is not some accident of Hubbard's. The pursuit of personal truth at the expense of reality underlines many aspects of tech, from touch assists (which you're supposed to do until they work) to... well... mind over matter. Scientology takes this so seriously that they view anyone trying to "put in data" where it isn't wanted as an act of violence. This is somewhat ironic considering the amount of time they spend trying to put in their own data where it, too, isn't wanted.

But Scientology is supposed to be "the science of knowingness". What the above quote basically implies, is that Scientologists should avoid data that contradicts their own beliefs. In other words, if someone tries homeopathy and gets better, they should avoid trying to confirm their belief that the homeopathy cured them. This is not the science of knowningess, but the very opposite. It is a formalised turning away from reality. There is nothing to be lost by taking in more data, other than one's errors and delusions.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

There Is No Doctrine Of Exchange

Dianetics FlyerImage by seangraham via Flickr

The 30 Second Skinny Many people join Scientology on the promise that it will help them achieve their goals, but over time these personal goals fall away to be replaced by Scientology's own goals. The Church fails to fulfil its part of the deal and tends to behave as if it is the injured party whenever a parishioner or staff member calls them out on it.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Unkempt Kitchen

In Clay Shirky's book Cognitive Surplus he draws an analogy between website designs and kitchens. Looking at sites that promote user interaction (and specifically Grobanites For Charity) he noted that they tended to be more amateurish than the professionally produced corporate websites interested in acting as billboards for products, services and brands ( say). Shirky makes the point that if you walk into a designer kitchen, with marble tops and meticulous design, where everything is layed out with surgical precision and everything has its place, you may admire it but you will not feel comfortable assisting anyone who happens to be working in it. Were you to walk into a kitchen small and cluttered, then you are more likely to feel confident in beating a few eggs if required.

If skepticism is about engagement then that is a lesson we need to take on board. Many of the homeopathic sites fall very much into the latter category; many (though admittedly not all) skeptic and science sites fall into the former. It's not hard to see why; there is likely a good deal of overlapping between those who are itnerested in rational discourse, science and activism and the kind of skills that will allow one to create an all singing all dancing website.

Swain made the point that you should be posing arguments in a way that would convince, or at least inform, your mother. This goes far beyond just the words we use, but how we present both ourselves and the skeptic movement as a whole. Websites and blogs should be places where people who are not dyed in the wool skeptics should feel comfortable enough to discuss their ideas without fear of being browbeaten. The first step of that ought to be in web design; not necessarily to create deliberately poorly designed sites, but to at least look at the aesthetics of CAM sites, understand what they are achieving in their marketing by having their sites designed that way, and feed that into your own site design.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Prevention or Cure?

When Narconon school lectures came under the scrutiny of the Californian State Department, a point was made that is quite far reaching. They stated that, along with a lot of misinformation about drugs, the curriculum spoke of the incredible results Narconon alleges its controversial Purification Rundown gets. This, it was argued, was not a good message to impart to children to dissuade them from ever trying drugs. Put simply, if it is easy to become drug free, then there is less of a barrier to trying drugs. If someone gets hooked, they can always do the rundown, so why not do drugs?

The other dimension to that, of course, is that if you suggest that it's not possible to get off drugs, then people who are already on drugs will simply not try. The challenge of drugs control is to warn off non-users while at the same time offering hope to addicts.

Listening to a recording of Frank Swain's talk at Westminster Skeptic, I was struck that the same sort of problem exists with skepticism. Swain believes that the Skeptic movement, of which he counts himself a member, is beset by aggression and an unwillingness to properly engage; a situation that is making it largely impotent. Whereas Swain's view of the skeptic movement is somewhat contested as a reality, it is certainly the view many people have of the movement, and it is a view that is growing. Michael Marsh made the point on Twitter that, for instance, the 10:23 campaign alerted many people who otherwise would not have known that homeopathic remedies do not contain any physical ingredient. You can add to that Singh's spat with the BCA, which did much to publicise the fact that chiropractic was not, as many thought, conventional medicine.

Such publicity may do much to inoculate those uninvested, but it genuinely does little to those who have already mucked in with the ideas under scrutiny. Those in the movement are probably already aware of the arguments made against, for instance, the use of Randomised Double Blind Placebo Controlled Trials for homeopathy, say. These kind of arguments are borne out of a need to explain away negative results. If the science negates the outcome, then science must be at fault because "I know I'm right!". People who are of this mindset are hard enough to reach at the best of times, but the sight of a group of people en masse swigging down homeopathic remedies (incorrectly!), is certainly not going to convince them that they at least need to revisit their thinking.

I think that's the real problem with the Skeptic movement - that it is focused too much on prevention and not enough on cure. It is easy to think up stunts that show up ridiculous ideas; it is easy to use existing legislation to ensure that practitioners stick to the rules with regards trading and advertising. It's much harder to take a homeopathy user and make them change their mind. It's easier to dismiss a treatment for being no better than placebo, much harder to argue that placebo-only treatment is a bad thing when no other treatment is available. It is easy and maybe even fun to watch a Scientologist  run for cover when you call out "Xenu" but having them run into an org, when you really would prefer them to run out of one is clearly a result made of fail.

If these ideas are ridiculous, then the ridicule will speak for itself, and that should be enough to inoculate - the truth, just like in drug abuse prevention, is clearly the way forward. We can be honest about what the ideas are without sticking our tongues out, which ought to leave us with enough bridges left to engage with those who hold to them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Stupid Scientology

None of what follows is big or clever.

Last year, Cardiff councillor John Dixon found himself in London shopping for a wedding ring for his future wife. While wandering down Tottenham Court Road he passed the Dianetics Centre. Embracing social networking, he made the following tweet:

One of the London offices of Scientology at 68...

I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.

Now, this is perhaps not the greatest move in the world, if we're fair, but John Dixon has a right to his opinion as much as anyone else does. However that hasn't stopped the Church of Scientology from lodging a complaint, as reported here on Wales Online. This too is not a good move. The current level of scrutiny under which the church finds itself has stemmed from a long-running campaign to quell free speech. They have been left with protocols authored by Hubbard, who died in 1986. His "tech" was not prepared for the online world, perhaps ironic for a science fiction author.

Freedom of speech, which itself has been threatened by its own real liberation through the internet (the difference between handing out crank leaflets on street corners to setting up a website), defends itself. If someone attempts to quash it, then it simply speaks more loudly. Students of the modern age might like to make a guess as to what happened next.

That's right. The transgression, if transgression it was, occured on Twitter. An overly litigious  religion/cult/business decides it has a problem with someone saying it is stupid and gets legal, so those who would defend freedom of speech repeat the tweet, create the #stupidscientology hashtag, and see it almost instantly go to the top ten trending topics for the UK. The tweet that sparked off the episode picks up far more readership than it would have otherwise.

I shall not bore you with an explanation of the Streisand effect. If you are outside Scientology you know what it is; if you are in Scientology you will ignore it exists. I will say, though, that for a Church that claims to be the go to place for improving communication skills, they're skills are getting increasingly dusty.