Stuffy Inquirer

The Skepticality podcast and Skeptic Mag’s web site (9-page PDF file) have picked up on something I wrote on 5 July 2006. Thus, to keep you in the know, Dear Reader, I’ve copied the entry to Aard as well.

Skepticism, for those of you who don’t use the word fifteen times a day, means an unwillingness to believe anything without good reason. These days, it’s also an international movement that can be seen as the antithesis of a) New Age, b) pseudoscience. Skeptics don’t believe in herbal remedies, astrology, spiritism or self-improvement coaches. But they do believe in rational scientific enquiry and deliberation.

I’m one of the editors of the Swedish skeptic magazine Folkvett. It’s a quarterly publication of the Swedish Skeptic Society, Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning. (This actually means “The Society (for) Science and Popular Enlightenment”.) I’m also a subscriber to two big US skeptic magazines, Skeptical Enquirer and Skeptic Magazine. Skeptic Magazine is good fun, always a lot to read. But I’m dropping Skeptical Inquirer. It takes me a quarter of an hour to flip through it, because there’s very little in it I want to read. Here’s why.

S.I.’s content appears to be written by old men for old men. Now, many elderly people of course retain their intellectual vigor and curiosity. But many don’t. And few of them realise what they’ve lost. We all run the risk of becoming slightly pompous, a bit too fond of hearing our own voices, of losing touch with what happens now, holding on to what we learned in the prime of our lives as if it were timeless wisdom. (Ask me about this in 2046 and check out how I’m doing.)

The summer issue of S.I. reached me today. On the cover is a lady of about 65, holding a giant magnet to her head: the cover story is about medicinal magnets, which are of course a load of crap. It was written by the celebrated professor Bruce L. Flamm, who has practiced obstetrics and gynaecology for over 20 years and looks fiftyfivish in photographs.

Other features and columns in this issue were written by:

  • D. Alan Bensley (57)
  • Mario Bunge (87)
  • Kendrick Frazier (about 65? S.I.’s editor-in-chief. He’s been an journal editor at least since 1969)
  • Ragnar Levi (45)
  • Joe Nickell (62)
  • Massimo Pigliucci (42)
  • Massimo Polidoro (about 35?)
  • Paul Quincey (about 50?. PhD 1986)
  • Robert Sheaffer (about 60? CSICOP Fellow since 1977)

They’re all men, and their mean age appears to be about 55. This is perhaps not surprising given the age and gender of the editor-in-chief. And there’s no denying that these guys have seniority and authority. But there’s something lacking. A lot of the articles in S.I. seem to be about hoaxes and “mysteries” current when I was a kid. Uri Geller is still very much an ongoing concern in S.I. And in the current issue they discuss Central American crystal skulls again! Every issue carries an ad where the reader is invited to provide for the journal in his will.

I certainly don’t mean to say that all old folks are boring. But I do believe that, sadly, most old folks were a bit more fun back before they became old. Ideally, I think a journal should have contributors of various ages and genders, to tap the insights of people whose minds have been formed in different times and environments. So until Skeptical Inquirer lowers the mean age of its contributors and finds a few more ladies, I’ll stick to Skeptic Magazine.

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10 thoughts on “Stuffy Inquirer

  1. Uri Geller is still very much an ongoing concern in S.I.

    Undoubtably because Geller, despite being repeatably outed as a fraud, keeps rising from the dead. NBC has seen fit to inflict him on the television public again in a show called Phenomenon, less than a year after being caught on camera cheating on a similar show in Israel. Can you really blame the greybeards from reminding us of ground already covered?


  2. just curious about how you rate a newsletter I get from:

    I happened upon it by chance, and don’t have a scientific background, but find it interesting, informative, and entertaining to read. Your take?


  3. Martin, if some herbal remedy happens to work more often
    or w/o harmful side effects a purified chemical used for
    the same purpose causes, do you automatically dismiss the
    herbal remedy?
    I read your translation of the swedish doctor’s article
    on Cannabis. You know that’s the name of a herb, not a
    drug, but you don’t scoff it’s value.
    I wonder how the genial doctor concentrated it so well!
    As an essential oil? Then it would have a mix of chemi-
    cals, not just THC. One reason why some people prefer
    herbal remedies to purified chemical formulas is,
    either raw or concentrated, the herbals have a mixture
    of chemicals that may work better than one pure chem.
    For instance, I was told Cannabis has over 400 psycho-
    active cannabinols, not just THC. That’s why different
    varieties give somewhat different highs. The various
    cannabinols may have different virtues and stregnths
    by themselves, but together, in a raw herb, they are
    well proven to serve as the best or even only effective
    remedy for many complaints, for many people, sans bad
    side effects of prescription drugs legal in the USA.
    I guess you know these things about cannabis, in that
    case, why scoff herbal remedies in general?
    Also, you wrote “The summer issue of SI…The cover
    story is about medicinal magnets, which are of course
    a load of crap.” How do you know, offhand? If a lot
    of people get good results with them, or some get
    successful treatment of migraines, and other treatments
    don’t work for them? When the reason why something works
    is unknown, but it works, can it be always assumed it
    was because of a fluke or placebo effect? Better to
    find whether or not there’s something new &
    undiscovered if there’s a signifigant body of empir-
    ical evidence. At least it is known the brain emits
    it’s own magnetic feilds and so does the rest of the
    human body. So if it is subjected to strong magnetic
    feilds from outside, why is it so implausible there
    can be an effect? For the feild it produces itself
    might not be merely a side-effect of it’s workings,
    but may play a role in it’s working, no?
    On old-fogeyism – that I think is a sometime excess
    of habitual skepticism – one refreshing example of
    old-fogeyism’s remedy is of the ten year old boy in
    the USA who tried watering garden plants with vitamins.
    He tried several different vitamins in solution and
    found that some made plants grow better. Professional
    scientists confirmed his findings and it was realized
    plants produce vitamins to protect themselves from
    and repair free radical damage, as from solar UV rad-
    iation. It took a ten year old, free of preconceived
    notions to discover why plants make vitamins, some-
    thing that seems almost obvious, once explained, but
    science had missed it before him. Maybe due to excess
    I hope to write english as well as an educated Brit
    or Swede someday.


  4. I’m in Beijing’s humongous West train terminal with little time. Can someone else please explain to Betyar about the difference between anecdotal evidence and systematic studies, and why the subjective experiences of an individual are of little interest in medical and pharmaceutical research?

    Basically, Betyar, nobody wants to know what worked once for you or me personally. Scientists want to know what works reliably for anybody most of the time.


  5. Martin, I am largely with Betyar on this, despite having been quacked a lot as a kid. There certainly are many “remedies” that don’t work, and a lot of unqualified “practitioners” recommending untested products and theories. This doesn’t mean that ALL alternative medicine is nonsense. Many pharmeceuticals are derived from the active ingredients in ancient herbal remedies: aspirin from white willow bark, digitalin from foxgloves, quinine from a south american plant, etc.

    Most herbal remedies don’t work for all people, but then many of the health department approved treatments don’t work for everyone either, for instance some cancer treatments only work on a small minority.

    There is far less money to be made from herbal remedies than from pharmaceuticals, and so far less is spent on the research required to prove them, but gradually many are being proven (and many disproven too). 100 years ago no one had heard of vitamins, 50 ya they were generally considered newfangled nonsense, now the vitamin content is printed on the side of every packet of food. 5 years ago, pregnant with my first child, bottles of omega3 supplements came with warnings that they were not to be taken by pregnant women, now, pregnant again, Doctors are recommending them as they have been proven beneficial for babies’ development.

    While on the topic of pregnancy, there are herbs that have been used for centuries to cause abortion. They don’t work all the time or on all women, most have not been scientifically proven (although at least one has), and probably would not ever be approved for use in abortion clinics, BUT if you want that baby, you should listen to folk lore and avoid large concentrations of those herbs.

    Certainly be sceptical, don’t believe every claim made, particularly for the latest expensive wonderherb, but don’t dismiss all alternative medicine. In time some will be proven true, and some will be proven to be scams. Martin rightly points out that there is a difference between anecdotal evidence and systematic study. Traditional herbal remedies often fall inbetween, because they have been used for centuries with at least some success, but have not been statistically proven. Many of the lastest fads and super cures don’t even have that much backing. We need to be careful what we believe, and check out the evidence for each product. Remember, also that science is not static, but a constantly evolving body of knowledge. Decades ago it was scientific knowledge that asbestos was safe, the atom was the smallest possible particle and sepsis was dismissed by doctors and scientists as the unscientific imaginings of nutcases.


  6. Thank you Martin and Eleanora.
    I think the points of both of
    you are very appropos.
    As you said Martin: “Basically,
    Betyar, nobody wants to know
    what worked once for you or me
    personally. Scientists want to
    know what works reliably for
    anybody most of the time.”

    Eleanora, I couldn’t agree with
    you more-as far as my knowledge
    goes about nutrients, herbs,
    drugs and science.
    Apparently you know more about
    certain herbs and nutrients, so
    I cannot agree on details I am
    ignorant of, but I have years
    of experience with certain ones
    too. I find your approach very
    Yes, Martin, anecdotal evidence
    is of course not the same thing
    as systematic studies, but when
    much of the former is consistent,
    for large numbers of people,
    there is good reason for the
    latter. Sometimes science has to
    catch up with folk medicine and
    therapies that seem oddball bec-
    ause they don’t fit existing
    theories. It often takes a long
    time for science to explain what
    happens in nature and that job
    never will be finished. Some
    “quackeries” turn out widely
    effective, and science has to
    find the explanation for what
    it has to admit, but the world
    is full of perforated-skull
    ideas and quackeries. I am very
    careful what I beleive, but
    there are some very strange
    things that prove true. The
    cost of ignoring those is
    needless human suffering.

    In the USA it takes about 100,
    000,000.00 USD to follow the
    laws to develop a new drug.
    This in itself warps the public
    health situation in the USA.
    You cannot patent a herb. If
    it just happens to be more
    effective and safe for more
    people for some problem, it
    will never be tested or
    approved the same way, but it
    is very cost-effective compet-
    ition to the product of a
    government enforced monopoly.
    Drugs sometimes turn out
    dangerous even after approval.
    If people read on herbs and
    stuff and try them on them-
    selves and share them with
    a freind with a fitting
    problem, with some method,
    and unbiasedly share
    experience, good, bad or
    neutral, the People can rely
    on themselves and each other
    instead of being entirely at
    the mercy of “experts” who
    sometimes cannot help them,
    because they are trained to
    think synthetic drugs have to
    be best and they could lose
    their liscence for giving some-
    thing unapproved, even if it
    happens to be the only thing
    that works for that person.


  7. Betyar, the problem is that while it might be true that many people get good results with alternative treatments, how many is many?

    If a hundred people have tried magnets and fifty get a benefit then that’s interesting. If a million people try them and you can still only find fifty positive results then that’s a lot less impressive. The problem is that when only positive results are reported there’s no way to tell how many people tried the same treatment and failed.

    Another problem is that humans can get better using just about anything thanks to the placebo effect. Is it this that makes herbal remedies work or are the herbs having an effect? More worrying, could the herbal remedies actually be harmful and the positive placebo effect masking this injury?

    For instance I could sell cigarettes made with natural tobacco leaves as a treatment for stress. On top of that I could show you thousands of elderly people who have smoked every day without dying. Despite the claims of the Cancer lobby that smoking causes cancer, not one person who has died from cancer has ever reported cigarettes as the cause.

    This is why double-blind tests are used. It’s a way of making sure both test groups get the same placebo effect, so that you can look closely at the effect that herbal remedies have. Most importantly it ensures negative results are recorded as well as positive results.

    Unfortunately when you do this with a large trial group, it shows that the herbal remedies are often no better than a placebo, and sometimes worse.

    An additional problem is that alternative medicine practitioners are not trained to accurately diagnose illnesses. This means that relying on alternative medicine might be harmful if they miss serious illness. One way to test that would be to look at mortality rates among patients. Orthodox hospitals in the UK record who dies in them. If you go in for treatment you can work out your chances of leaving alive.

    I’m trying to get the same data from a leading belligerent alternative medicine society. They aren’t handing it over, because they don’t have it. Now if they seriously had an interest in people’s health, don’t you think they’d want to keep track of which treatments work and which ones don’t?

    But I’d agree with Elenora that herbalists aren’t automatically bad and Betyar that the funding of testing is a problem. One of the more interesting comments on this problem is at Bad Science which, oddly, is calling for more worse trials of medicines. The idea is that a trial doesn’t have to be be perfect, just good enough to prove a point.


  8. Alun et al, I appreciate
    your patience. I read the
    more worse trials art &
    related topics & comments.
    I have always been a science
    enthusiast & do not confuse
    beleifs aquired without
    rigorous, thorough standards
    of logical proof with it.
    What I do with and believe
    about herbs and nutrients
    is unscientific, but if
    you use certain things for
    years, on and off and they
    consistently have the same
    effects for you, you can
    tell well enough their
    effects for you. As for 2
    freinds who have used some
    of the same things and had
    complete remission from
    cancer, I say it’s an indi-
    cation they work, but of
    course it could have been
    other causes. I know of
    certain nutritional products
    I have used many years that
    consistently make me feel
    good and my freinds consis-
    tently say the same.
    Conversely, the more years
    I use things without apparent
    harm, the safer I think they
    are. I have more reason to
    beleive they are safe when
    I have built up to very high
    doses over time, without harm,
    just to find out.
    No, it’s not science, it’s
    just folk medicine, but I’m
    not at the mercy of drug-
    makers, doctors and hospitals
    that take all your money and
    send you home to die.
    It has always been some
    physicians favor therapies
    that help a little because
    a very effective therapy
    is less profitable than
    one that keeps you coming
    back. Cancer is a huge
    industry in the USA like
    that. Most doctors are
    good people and there’s a
    lot of things people need
    them for they can’t do for
    themselves, but they are
    trained and constrained
    to work with limited tools
    that are not always the
    best extant. Alright. That’s
    just opinion based on anec-
    dotal evidence by a non-
    proffessional – not science,
    but I have suffered for
    years because of a standard,
    allopathic, chemo oriented
    medical approach and am
    highly motivated to find
    prophilactics and alternative
    therapies that work.
    It isn’t just lack of under-
    standing of what science is
    that motivates so many
    people like me.

    Yet I am no air-headed new
    ager. I am thrilled to
    read Sci-Am, Western Philo
    and the science of logic.


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