Creationism, homoeopathy, and why we are all irrational; On reading Will Storr’s The Heretics

by Paul Braterman

The-heretics-978033053586101Is this book worthy of your time and attention? Yes. But this is not a book review, so much as a conversation with myself, triggered by reading it, and what follows is as much mine as his, especially as I have focused on those chapters that overlap my own concerns. There is no shortage of writings debunking creationism, or homoeopathy, or others covered here, beliefs that fly in the face of massive evidence, and yet this evidence has no effect at all on their believers. Why is this, Storr asks. What is going on? And what makes us think that we ourselves are so different?

Storr starts by telling us of his meeting with John Mackay, a Young Earth creationist, who was talking to an appreciative audience in a small town in Queensland. This seems to have been his first encounter with the full-blooded version of modern creationism, according to which evolution science and old Earth geology are fundamentally unsound, and the Bible is the infallible word of God. At the end of Genesis 1, God speaks of His work as being “very good”. “Very good” must mean no pain, and no death. It follows that tigers and tyrannosaurs coexisted happily with Adam and Eve in Eden, all of them adhering to strictly vegetarian diets, until the Fall went and spoiled everything. And “Tonight, the choice you have to face up to is this – do you put your faith in Darwin, who wasn't there? Or in God, who was?”

Mackay claims to be able to feel the presence of God. What turned him against evolution, he says, was a biology textbook he was reading as an adolescent, which followed its exposition of evolution with a chapter advocating atheism. Unfortunately, he does not tell us which textbook he was referring to, giving me no way of checking his perspective, although such a chapter would of course be completely out of place in a biology textbook.

Mackay's audience were universally sympathetic, a fact that Storr observed with bemusement that turned to dismay when, the following Sunday, Mackay mounted the pulpit to deliver a scathing attack on the wickedness of homosexuals and the compromising Churches who countenance their activities.

Mackay speaks proudly of debating with ordinary sane scientists or, as he would call them, evolutionists: “We frequently win public debates… They presume they will be fighting against theologians with no science degrees.” He himself has a degree in geology from Queensland, where he also took a class in genetics. As a teacher in a private school, he was able to promote creationism under the guise of “critical thinking”, comparing the claims of evolution and creationism as he saw them. He met up with Ken Ham, a kindred spirit, and together they set up the Creation Science Foundation. Mackay was forced out after some bitter infighting, and now directs a relatively small outfit known as Creation Research. The Creation Science Foundation, meantime, has turned into Answers in Genesis, a multi-million organisation based mainly in the US, famous for its Creation Museum and Ark Encounter Theme Park.

I have no doubt of Mackay's sincerity. His arguments against creationism will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has studied the subject. Didn't Darwin himself complain about the inadequacy of the fossil record? Why don't we ever observe intermediate species? What about polystrate fossils, tree trunks that project upwards through different geological layers, supposedly separated from them by huge banks of time?

“The first dinosaurs look like dinosaurs… The last ones look like dinosaurs too. So within that timeframe – even if you did put in a millions of years – they produce their own kind, just as Genesis says.”

Let me invite the reader to respond to Mackay's arguments, and to answer a question of my own: if your last common ancestor with a flatfish was 430 million years ago, how long ago, roughly, was the last common ancestor of a flatfish and a frog? (Answers at end)

Storr is in no doubt that Mackay is completely misguided. And yet, he says of Mackay and others pursuing the unreasonable,

“There is something noble about their bald defiance of the ordinary, something heroic about the deep outsider-territories that they wilfully inhabit… I feel a kind of kinship with them. I am drawn to the wrong.”

Storr gives us, later, more detail about his own past than I intend to divulge about mine, beyond saying that I too have explored strange places of the mind, and entertained bizarre beliefs.

Later Storr discusses Mackay with Nathan Lo, an Assistant Professor at the University of Sydney, who describes creationism as appealing because very easy to understand, unlike evolution which requires time and thought. Lo dismisses the leaders of the creationist movement as just in it for the money, prompting the kind of observation that makes this book so interesting:

“Nathan Lo and I… see ourselves as the rational ones, the clean-sighted bringers of 21st-century reason. And yet both of us, I have come to believe, are mistaken. We are wrong about the wrong.”

He joins a group who are taking part in a 10-day programme of extremely rigorous meditation. Halfway through, a woman participant starts screaming in distress, but he does nothing to go to her aid. Why not? Excessive obedience to authority. Later, he compares himself to participants in Stanley Milgram's famous electric shock experiment. Here, subjects were told that they were taking part in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning, and believed that they were administering electric shocks to the learner, who was in the next room. The subjects obediently administered increasing shocks, even when the person in the next room (an actor) started screaming, and many went all the way up to levels of shock clearly labelled as lethal and not to be used. Then there was the strip-search scam, where a bogus policeman claims be investigating a reported theft, gives a vague description that the management applies to one of the waitresses, and that waitress is then told to strip naked and cavort, kiss the “policeman”, and even submit to spankings, in front of the manager, and her boyfriend acting as chaperone. And does what she is told, with neither manager nor boyfriend raising any questions. And this performance has been repeated in over 70 diners throughout the United States.

Excessive obedience, according to Storr, is but one of the many ways in which our brains differ from the standards of rational judgement that we naïvely believe ourselves to be applying. Notice that I said “differ from”, not “fall short of”. We are evolved animals, and the brain has more investment (if I may so put it) in seeing us survive and prosper in our societies, than in making us aware of objective truth. We are influenced by others, and if enough of our neighbours say so, we will actually come to see one line as being longer than another, even when our eyes plainly tell us that it is not.[1]

That's the least of it. Storr finds himself forced to confront a much larger question, perhaps the largest question in the whole of philosophy: what really goes on inside our minds (or our brains; for me, as for Storr, these come to much the same thing) and how well does that enable us to cope with reality?

Storr deals with this question in a tightly argued (but, given the difficulty of the subject matter, surprisingly readable) chapter, of which I can do no more than convey the general favour. He quotes from Bruce Wexler's book, Brain and Culture, which describes the brain and mind as highly plastic and shaping themselves to the environment, until early adulthood. From that stage onwards, the process is reversed, and “much of the [brain] activity is devoted to making the environment conformed to the established structures.” From which Storr draws the unpalatable conclusion:

“Your brain is surprisingly reluctant to change its mind. Rather than going through the difficulties involved in rearranging itself to reflect the truth, it often prefers to fool you. So it distorts. It forgets. It projects. It lies.”

This is true for the brain of the deluded creationist. And Storr's brain. And yours. And mine. Our brains spend most of their time satisfying themselves that things are as we expect them to be, and spring into action (and denial) when this comfortable belief is disturbed.

Our entire sensory world is a construct. We see in three-colour vision, and our inner worlds are that extent richer than those of a skate, which has no colour vision at all, but poorer in ways we cannot even imagine than those of birds and insects that have up to six separate kinds of colour receptor. So colour is not something in the world, but a construct that we impose on it. Light itself has wavelength, but no colour. (Here Storr seems to me to be making a common philosophical error. When we are seeing normally, our colour vision is causally determined by the wavelengths of light impinging on our eyes, as well as by the way our brains process that information. Colour vision may encode only part of the information out there, and the particular code may be specific to humans, or even to individuals, but that does not invalidate the information obtained. But perhaps this is nitpicking.) Storr goes on to describe our inner world of perceptions as “A vision. A useful guess about what the [external] world might look like, that is built well enough that we are able to negotiate it successfully.” The point is that we do not handle reality, which is far too complex, but the model we make of it. Accuracy beyond what is needed is irrelevant for the serious business of surviving and reproducing, or even harmfully distracting.

Even our emotions are constructs, based on expectation. Depending on your culture, you will when drunk become more convivial, or more aggressive, or more sexually uninhibited, and some of these effects (I trust that no one tested for the last one I mentioned) can even be produced by alcohol-free fake drinks.

We deceive ourselves to protect our expectations without ever realising it. When told that a male applicant for the job of police chief has qualification A, while a female applicant has qualification B, most people will choose A as the more important qualification. Reverse the details, and most people will choose B. Ask them for their reasoning, and they will discuss the finely balanced choice between A and B on its merits, with no mention of gender. From the outside, it is clear that they regard police chief as a man's kind of job, and pick the criterion that best fits this preconception, but they do not know that this is what they are doing.

We scrutinise arguments attacking our position much more closely, and reject them on much slimmer grounds, than those that support us. And if, in the end and, we cannot avoid the realisation of conflict, we experience the discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. We now have three choices; we can deny that the conflict really exists, or we can change our minds to accommodate the new evidence (the least likely outcome), or we can build a fence round our preconceptions, and hold on to our initial beliefs with more fervour than ever. This helps explain why debates about such topics as creationism, or the reality of global warming, get nowhere, and anyone who has taken part in such a debate will realise how annoyingly the arguments that we direct at the other side merely boomerang. It's not fair. You just can't reason with them. The most infuriating thing is that they actually seem to enjoy taking such absurd positions. And, if fMRI results are to be trusted, they don't merely seem; when we strike a partisan posture, the pleasure centres in our brain light up. We are all, to use it Storr's expression, “deluded egotists”, and, worst of all, we like it that way.

Storr's next chapter is about a group of people that I belong to. He does not like them, and gives good reason for this.

He approaches the topic indirectly, through the story of a woman called Gemma Hoefkens. As Gemma tells it, she had malignant tumours in her brain and spine that were no longer responding to treatment, so she saw no point in staying in hospital, and betook herself home. She recovered, against all expectation, with the help of some little pills she was taking. These pills were homoeopathic Causticum (sodium hydroxide, drain cleaner) at such a low dose that, if it were not for impurities, we could be confident [2] that each pill contained none of the active ingredient whatsoever. Understandably, she attributes her cure to these pills, with unchallengeable conviction, as others in like case might attribute their cure to the intercession of a saint. 14 years on, she is a licensed homoeopath, and has made a video about her experiences.[3]

Homoeopathy is a procedure that cannot possibly work as claimed, because of the facts of physics. It starts with the nonsensical assertion that the cure for a disease is to be found alongside the disease itself. For example, the miasma from lakes (remember this dates back to the eighteenth century) is responsible for the fevers of malaria, but the bark of the willow tree growing by the lake reduces fevers (indeed it does; it contains a substance closely related to aspirin). It proceeds with the grotesque claim that a curative agent is more effective at lower dose. Now it may well be that the effectiveness per mg is greater at lower dosage, so that 20 mg of a drug is less than twice as effective as 10 mg, but you would certainly expect it to be at least equally effective, and probably more. Indeed, dose-effect relationships are one of the ways of testing whether a substance is having any real effect. Finally, homoeopathic remedies are commonly dispensed at what is called C30 concentration. This means that the original curative agent (which as we have seen could be something as bizarre as drain cleaner) is diluted a hundred-fold 30 times. At that rate, not even an ocean-full would have any real hope of containing a single molecule of the original remedy.[2]

Despite its complete lack of credibility, homoeopathy has been a subject of considerable research, and Storr's article [3] summarises this. And the results are clear.

Homoeopathy works.

In fact, I would have found it very surprising if it did not. By all accounts, UK homoeopathic hospitals are pleasant places to be in. Patients are treated with apparent professionalism by practitioners, many of them with genuine clinical qualifications, who pay attention to them and say that they are treating, not just a disease, but the whole person. At the end, they are prescribed a remedy that the therapist tells them, in all sincerity, has been tailored to their own individual needs. These are the ideal conditions for bringing into play one of the strangest and least understood of all medical phenomena, the placebo effect. Conventional medicine could learn a lot from the homoeopaths.

So do homoeopathic remedies work any better than placebos, dummy pills that never pretend to be anything more than dummy pills, administered under comparable conditions? That is a much more difficult question to answer, especially as it is notoriously difficult to prove a negative. A good study needs to be large enough to produce statistically meaningful results, and must be “double-blind”, meaning that neither the patients, nor the clinicians in contact with them, nor those evaluating each individual patient's results, know whether the patient has received the “real” treatment or a placebo. Most of the studies that have been conducted on homoeopathy were of poor quality, perhaps because of the small number of suitably qualified researchers with the desire, and the funding, to investigate what seems, in principle, a lost cause. Pilot studies were regularly not followed up, as one would expect if they failed to yield interesting results. The authoritative Cochrane Reviews has conducted nine metastudies of homoeopathy for various non-threatening conditions (it would obviously be unethical to test it on cancer patients), and report inconsistent but at times weakly positive findings. The consensus seems to be that homoeopathy really does work, but no better than placebo. This places protesters against homoeopathy in an interesting moral position. On the one hand, homoeopathy diverts resources, and we know of cases where people have died as a result of relying on it instead of standard medical treatment. On the other hand, some patients benefiting from the placebo effect will be left worse off if their faith in the “treatment” is undermined.

After that digression, let me return to Storr's real subject here, which is not homoeopathy but a group that I actually belong to, Skeptics in the Pub, who meet to discuss, and hear talks about, a range of intellectually interesting topics. Storr says that he is “curious about the Skeptics because, from an outsider's point of view, their main hobby seems to be not believing in things. Psychics, homoeopathy, chiropractors, ghosts, God…” I think Storr is being rather unfair here; topics recently discussed in my own (Glasgow) group include the effect of prison rates on crime, is talk therapy effective in treating schizophrenia, the origins of life, should we frack (this from a geologist who has made a special study of the topic; the answer is yes, but only if we can generate public confidence in the regulatory procedures), are surveys of happiness meaningful (we had one speaker who said no, a later speaker who said yes), and were women as constrained in Mediaeval Europe as Hollywood would have us believe (probably not). We have critically scrutinised the criminalising of pimps and the shaming of men who use prostitutes, with the help of Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Reader in Psychology and Social Policy at Birkbeck. We have had a talk from Mark Anderson, author of The Geek Manifesto, urging us to agitate for evidence-based policy-making, and we hold hustings before elections. You may notice a certain flavour here; a willingness to bring evidence to bear on complex topics where people have generally made up their minds on woefully inadequate evidence.

But Storr's main concern was the assembled skeptics' war on homoeopathy, and why they would bother. He wonders what prompts people to take Gemma's video, and superpose on it the word “Quack” coming out of her mouth at the beginning of every sentence. Apparently, someone did that. He also wonders at the motivation of those who took part in the “massive homoeopathic overdose” stunt, originally organised by Merseyside Skeptics under the slogan “Homoeopathy, there is nothing in it”, where large numbers of protesters worldwide simultaneously swallowed large numbers of homeopathic Belladonna pills without any noticeable effects whatsoever.

He spoke to Colin, a software engineer, who had not actually read any studies on homoeopathy, but said he was fascinated by its absurdity. His friend Dominic described homoeopathy as really silly, and looked forward to taking part in the overdose. To what end? To make people aware of just how silly it is. Had he read any scientific studies of homoeopathy? “Not personally”.

Confession time: neither had I, until I read Storr's book, which did not stop me from expressing my scorn towards it. Scorn that, as you can see from my earlier comments, is now considerably modified. And yet I strongly applaud the overdose stunt. And I feel a mixture of anger and contempt, not against the users of homoeopathic remedies, nor even the sincere believers who call themselves homoeopaths, but against the companies who manufacture (if that is the correct word) these materials, and the High Street pharmacists like Boots who market them, knowing exactly what they are doing.

As Dominic said, homoeopathy might stop people from seeking appropriate medical advice, although he did not know anyone to whom this had actually happened. Not too surprising really; people who visit homoeopaths and people who protest their silliness are unlikely to be on intimate terms. (There have, however, been court cases following the unnecessary deaths of children.) However, Dominic said he saw it as a consumer protection issue. What else did he do about consumer protection? Well, he subscribed to Which, and things like that. Mark, another visitor to the convention, was primarily interested in evolution, which he described as “incredibly easy to understand” (you may remember that Nathan Lo, evolutionary biologist, said the exact opposite). What evidence had he personally studied? Fossils. Had he actually studied fossils? Not personally, but then had anyone studied God personally?

Storr has to agree that the skeptics are right. They are promoting the results of science. And yet he finds their company depressing, and feels that he is not of their tribe. I know exactly what he means. Storr knows that he is wrong, and, as he says, drawn to the wrong. The sceptics are right; so righteously right, alas, that the ones he spoke to did not even need so much as an on-line search to verify their rightness.

As I write, there is a fierce controversy among sceptical and freethinking organisations in America about whether or not it was right to disinvite a certain speaker from a certain meeting in the wake of a certain tweet.[4] The issues are complex, but this has not stopped people on both sides from jumping to conclusions and then displaying selectivity bias, hardening of positions when challenged, animosity towards opponents, ad hominem arguments, emotionally laden non sequiturs, distorted perceptions of fact, appeals to group loyalty, and emotional blackmail, just like everybody else. I find this oddly comforting.

In other chapters, Storr discusses past life regression therapy, yoga breathing as a panacea, rationalist superstar James Randi and his psychic challenge prize (never even applied for, we are told; but Storr's investigations show otherwise), imaginary diseases, and… and…

But no point in my simply extending this list. Read the book.

Appendix: And what about those objections to evolution?

Yes, Darwin complained of the inadequacy of the fossil record and the lack of intermediate forms, but we have dug up a lot of new information since 1859, when the first edition of The Origin of Species was published. By 1863, in time for the fourth edition, we had the discovery of Archaeopteryx and its identification as intermediate between birds and their reptilian ancestors. In fact, we now know Archaeopteryx to be a great-uncle, rather than a direct ancestor, of modern birds, but that is by comparison with hundreds of other intermediate forms, enabling us to establish a bird family tree rooted among one particular group of dinosaurs, with both extinct and surviving branches. There will always, of course, be missing links in the chain, but the existence of the chain itself is now undeniable. So far from being a criticism of the evolutionary account, Darwin's complaint should be heralded as an implicit prediction, one that has been amply fulfilled.

Polystrate fossils are the expected results of rapid sedimentation, but so what? At one time there was thought to be a conflict between catastrophism, in which geological processes occurred with terrifying rapidity, and a uniformitarian gradualism according to which they were always slow, but both of these extremes had been abandoned by 1865.

And the time elapsed between the last common ancestor of a flatfish and a frog is exactly the same as the time elapsed since the last common ancestor of a flatfish and you, some 430 million years. If you don't believe me, go to the Timetree website and check. Your last common ancestor with a frog is somewhat more recent, at around 355 million years before present, and deserves to be called a proto-amphibian because it superficially resembles the frog much more than it resembles you, but you and the frog have both, by definition, been evolving for the same length of time since then. True, the changes in your line of descent have been more dramatic, including the ability to give birth on land, development inside the womb, warmbloodedness, and big brains, but your now extinct reptile-like and lemur-like ancestors are intermediate, not between you and the present-day frog, but between you and that remote proto-amphibian common ancestor. The distinction is important but subtle, part of why evolution is so often misundertood.

As for Mackay's claim that a dinosaur is a dinosaur is a dinosaur, this can only be based on self-inflicted ignorance. Diplodocus, Triceratops, and Tyrannosaur are at least is obviously different as a cow, a zebra, and a tiger. But for Mackay, these are all small matters, compared with his eternal salvation.

1] This is based on the behaviour of groups of students, asked to judge which of two lines was longer, and how the judgements were influenced by the opinions expressed by stooges pretending to be fellow-subjects. Storr refers to fMRI work suggesting that the students really were persuaded by their supposed colleagues, rather than deciding to go along with them, but as he says much of this kind of work is still highly controversial.

2] A cubic meter of water contains roughly 50,000 moles of water, or 50,000 x 6.022 x 10^23 = (near enough) 3 x 10^28 molecules. Dilute to C30, or one in 10^60, and you will have one of the original water molecules in around 3 x 10^31 cubic meters or 3 x 10^22 cubic kilometers. That's around a hundred trillion times bigger than the Atlantic Ocean.

3] Storr gives more details in this article. The video is available here.

4] For details, including my own views on the matter, see here