Lumping everything together

Why do sceptics lump all these things together – astrology, homeopathy, acupuncture, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, sightings of Elvis Presley, etc.?
Published by
Dr Michael Heap

Earlier this month (August 2010) the National Archives released Ministry of Defence files about sightings of UFOs in the UK from 1995-2003. On 5.8.10 a leader article on this subject appeared in the Times entitled ‘The truth is in here: The human mind, not alien life, is the source of UFOs and much other superstition’. I am sure that the writer of this leader is someone well-known in sceptical circles and is probably regularly designated ‘a sceptic’. The reason I say this is because the writer makes a link between UFOs and other diverse phenomena such as the Loch Ness Monster, spoon bending, clairvoyance, homeopathy, reflexology and anti-evolutionists. In other words, he or she ‘lumps all these things together’.

Before I continue with this theme, it is worth saying that, in my opinion¸ for such a leader to appear in the Times, reveals how far the cause of scepticism has come over the last 10 years. It also provides some vindication for adhering to the label ‘scepticism’. In the past, there has been much discussion about the potential drawbacks of this term, but persistence has paid off. As a way of describing a broad critical response to the plethora of unfounded and bizarre claims with which we are daily confronted, it has acquired a respectable connotation that is well understood.

Now back to this business of ‘lumping everything together’. This is a criticism that sceptics often face. Thus: ‘Why do you lump all these things together – astrology, homeopathy, acupuncture, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, sightings of Elvis Presley, etc.?’ The critic may go on to say, ‘I agree with you that astrology is a load of bunkum and that there is no real evidence that there is a monster in Loch Ness, but homeopathy has helped many people and you have admit there must be something out there that is causing people to report all these sightings of UFOs...’

This seemingly reasonable challenge should be defended robustly. There are very good reasons for lumping all these diverse claims and ideas together.

Firstly they are all widely held beliefs. What do I mean by ‘widely held’? Well, I could define it by coming up with a number such as the proportion of the population who subscribe to the belief according to surveys. However, I am not thinking in such precise terms. For the most part we can rely on our subjective impression and say that a belief is worthy of sceptical commentary when a sufficient number of people are exposed to it, adhere to it, and promote it in some significant way such as through the media. Thus astrology, homeopathy and the Loch Ness Monster clearly fall into this category whereas the belief that David Cameron is an alien from the planet Mercury or that there is a prehistoric monster in the Serpentine in Hyde Park do not. Obviously the first two examples and last two are, at least currently, at the opposite ends of the scale and there are grey areas in between, but this should not trouble us unduly.

A second shared feature of these claims is that if any of these ideas were true, then the consequences for our understanding of the world would be enormous and important revisions would have to be made to the consensus that guide our thinking in science, history, medicine, social policy, etc. This is one of the reasons for insisting that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’.

The third feature is that for any or all of these claims there is inadequate supporting evidence. (I personally never like to say that ‘there is no evidence whatsoever’ because there is always evidence to support a particular claim or theory. It is just that the evidence is usually completely unconvincing.)

So, for example, a claim that there is a prehistoric monster in Loch Ness is accepted by many people as is the therapeutic effectiveness of homeopathic preparations. If there were a prehistoric monster in Loch Ness, then this would have enormous repercussions for our understanding of how life has evolved on Earth; likewise if homeopathic preparations do have specific therapeutic effects, then the impact on our understanding of medicine, and indeed the fundamentals of physics, would be astonishing. For example, in the latter case scientists would have to devise theories that explain how homeopathy can bring about the changes that it does in a manner that is consistent with all other knowledge and observations about the property of matter that has accumulated over centuries of scientific study. Finally, there is little convincing evidence to support the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, likewise the claims of the therapeutic impact of homeopathy.

There is one more reason for ‘lumping all these things together’. It is that the claim to possess some special knowledge in an important area of life represents a claim for power and influence. Thus those people who, for the flimsiest of reasons, have asserted that there is a monster in Loch Ness have persuaded many people to devote much of their time, energy and money in attempting to obtain definitive evidence of the monster’s existence; a similar statement can be made about those who claim that they are able to treat medical conditions by homeopathic means. All power should come with accountability, and the scientific method is an effective means of ensuring this.