Questionable Motives

September 1, 2011

What is the medical version of the Courtier’s Reply?

Filed under: Homeopathy,Medicine,oogity boogity,Science,woo — tildeb @ 11:22 am

We find a perfect example of this detestable apologetic accommodationist approach for ‘sophisticated’ thinking over at Sabio Lantz’s popular Triangulations, offered up on platter in his post Why do you reject Homeopathy? This is the medical version of the Courtier’s Reply that invokes the need for some level of sophistication to be exercised in order to reject the tenets of homeopathy properly… while making room for what starts out to be hypothetical efficacy derived from it and morphs into actual efficacy associated with it.

Sabio lists three main categories into which a reader’s rejection may fall: tribal doubt (no other ‘tribe member’ accepts it so, being part of this ‘tribe’, you don’t either) , mechanism doubt (the mechanistic explanation is inadequate), and smattering of science (you believe some studies you’ve heard in passing that claim no evidence of efficacy). A fourth classification is for those who have done in-depth research into the applicable science and waded through all the counter evidence of non-efficacy before arriving at an opinion of rejection (similar to the level of knowledge about the finery that is needed before one is allowed to comment of the nakedness of the Emperor).

He is following the tried and true method of the accommodationist so that he can ask with a straight face, Do you agree that something can work in spite of the explanation offered? Notice the words ‘CAN WORK’. That sounds like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? But then, Poof! ; suddenly we’re talking about homeopathy as if it DOES WORK – even if this explanation is absolute bunk – which is slowly revealed to be Sabio’s position all along… beginning with the comment that “I strongly agree that much is to be learned from alternative medicines which has nothing to do with the science behind their treatments.” Really? And what might that be? How gullible people are? How undermining healthy scepticism helps woo-peddlers? How faith-based belief can be accommodated with conflicting knowledge? Do tell, Sabio; do tell. In this post, of course, we never do find out.

What he means by has nothing to do with the science behind their treatments , of course, is the LACK of good science, plausible science, that informs these alternative, complimentary, integrated, holistic, natural treatments… treatments  that are somehow qualitatively different from what we call efficacious medicine but still cause effect, but once you start down the path to presenting the Emperor as if he could be clothed – that woo treatments CAN WORK even if the explanation is wrong  – it is difficult to regain one’s intellectual footing. But intellectual integrity is never the goal of accommodationism; it’s all about appearing to be non judgmental about woo and hyper-critical of justifiable scepticism. The real goal at the end of the day for the accommodationist is to present himself as both a supporter and defender as well as a reasonable sceptic of woo (unlike those ranters and hyper-rational people who dismiss woo claims out of hand because they have no good reasons to believe them in the first place).  It’s tricky ground for accommodationists when the two – woo and scepticism – are in conflict from the get go (see here for why the treatment should banned according the British Medical Association).

Well, what is the explanation of homeopathy that is being dismissed by some level of ‘sophisticated rejection’?

Orac explains:

Most skeptics are aware of the two main principles of homeopathy, neither of which is based on anything resembling good science. The first principle is known as the Law of Similars, which is commonly phrased as “like cures like.” The concept is that the way to choose a homeopathic remedy is to choose something that causes the symptoms the practitioner wants to alleviate. Of course, there’s no general scientific or biological principle to support the Law of Similars. In reality, it’s nothing more than a variant of ancient concepts of sympathetic magic. Yet it is the main basis of all of homeopathy.

The second big law of homeopathy is known as the Law of Infinitesimals. This is the most famous principle of homeopathy that states that the way to make a remedy stronger is to dilute it, a principle that laughs at chemistry, physics, and biology. Indeed, common dilutions of homeopathic remedies (for example, 30C, which is 30 serial 100-fold dilutions, or a dilution of 1060) have been diluted so much that the odds that even a single molecule remains in the remedy are, well, infinitesimal. That’s why it’s not for nothing that skeptics frequently point out that homeopathy is nothing but water. It’s even loonier than that, though. The reason is that dilution is not enough. At each step, we are told by homeopaths in all seriousness that the succussion at each dilution step is critical to “potentize” the remedy. Samuel Hahnemann himself, the inventor of homeopathy, used to succuss his remedies by slapping them against a Bible. These days, in at least one case, a big company like Boiron have machines that do the succussion automatically for remedies like oscillococcinum up to 200C, which represents a 10400-fold dilution. Given that there are only around 1080 atoms in the known universe, readers can easily see the ridiculousness.

So here’s the thing: what is it that is actually being rejected? I think it’s the central tenet of any woo claim about efficacy  – a faith-based belief that supernatural forces can cause through natural treatment natural effect. Sabio suggests that there really, really, really is evidence of efficacy in some of these woo treatments (“I have demonstrated acupuncture to many folks (not just patients). What is real fun is to get a hyper-rational person to experience things they don’t believe exist”) and that this evidence is available (“But I wager you have not read the studies published by homeopaths showing effectiveness. I worked with an MD homeopath who published in Pediatrics about her research in Guatemala with homeopathic remedies used to treat diarrhea and showed an effect”). See? Homeopathy, says Sabio,  DOES produce evidence of efficacy, and there it is: the switch in language from the reasonable CAN WORK to DOES. But he doesn’t really mean supernaturalism at work, does he?

Let’s look.

Sabio actually means efficacy of placebo when he talk about efficacy: “It is funny how people can allow various placebos (to) work for them and yet now (sic) allow others.” Now think about that comment for a moment because it reveals the sneaky way accommodationists forgive promoters of woo for their lack of specificity… through the subtlety of language.

Sabio is suggesting that placebo is more than what it actually is:  self-reporting of feeling better. He present it as a thing, something you can allow or reject, something that works for you. But that’s not what placebo is, not what placebo means. What placebo means is that mood and belief can have a significant effect on the subjective perception of a treatment’s efficacy. Placebo is not any kind of additional ‘thing’ brought to bear by health care practitioners. Placebo comes only from the patient and its ‘efficacy’ is not directly physiological (although to be clear there are biological mechanisms by which mental processes can affect pain). That’s why placebo is often – and confusingly – referred to as an ‘effect’. But to be equally clear, the more concrete and physiological the outcome, the smaller the placebo effect. At its explanatory extreme, that’s why amputees don’t grow back new limbs no matter how much they may wish it to be.

Notice how Sabio slips in the notion that placebo works ‘for’ someone…as if to say if we build it they will come, that putting efficacy of placebo into the patient’s domain means the same thing as putting efficacy of woo treatments under the control of the patient.  This subtle change in language is insidious because it alters what placebo is – self reporting perception – into something it is not – an efficacious deliverable element of treatment with the patient’s permission. This confusion is rampant in the public domain and, in a nutshell, is the main driver of woo in health care: confusion about causal effect.

From wi-fi fears to chlorination of water, from acupuncture to reiki, from faith healing to anti-vaxers, the confusion about the need to link causal effect is neither clarified nor confirmed by accommodationists who pretend we can put aside causation to better respect faith-based beliefs while maintaining intellectual integrity. We can’t. It’s sneaky, dishonest, and cowardly, and comes at a high cost to respecting knowledge . And here’s why:

I think the notion of what’s true in fact (information that is reliable, consistent, and practical in reality) is knowable and dependable. This is what science is built on and we use practical applications based on exactly this everyday in every way of our lives. Accommodationists and apologists for woo take all this and assume it’s equivalent to some democratic vote. (Sabio: I hope to help interested readers to understand why people practice homeopathy and why millions of patients swear to its effectiveness.  So I am talking to those who are willing to consider not dismissing homeopathy out-of-hand, and instead make an effort to understand why others value it so strongly.) That’s not how reality works. You can’t vote against gravity and expect efficacy because millions want to lift its effects to make room for their anti-gravity beliefs any more than you can vote against evolution to make room for the oogity boogity of creationism or vote against science-based efficacious medicine to make room for homeopathy and expect me to sit by and nod and say how wise that is. It’s not. It’s a denial of what’s true in reality (see above description of what that means)… not a philosophical difference, nor a lack of rejection sophistication, nor any other mitigating term accommodationists would prefer to call it. Belief in woo is a denial of what’s true in reality (remember, see above description of what that means).
And it is downright dishonest to pretend that what’s true in reality (see above description of what that means) is only empirically available in some lab. It’s right in front of our faces all the time and we rely on accurate knowledge about it to function. We really must stop pretending that people who sow doubt about trusting in this knowledge (immediately testable and verifiable) rely on the same kind of faith woo believers exercise to maintain their ‘spiritual explanations’ about the supernatural. It’s not just different; it an exercise of hypocrisy that trusts this knowledge on behalf of their lives on a day to day, moment to moment, basis but then a rationalization using such fallacious arguments like the Courtier’s Reply and sneaky word substitutions to suspends this same knowledge to make room for some woo-soaked apologetic belief in oogity boogity.


  1. it seems like another adventure in missing the point. and the courtier’s reply is your go-to fallacy to keep from actually thinking.

    Recent studies have shown the effects of anti-depressants and drugs used to treat bipolar disorder have fallen in their actual effectiveness yet at the same time the placebo affect as risen 30%. Turns out the perceived affect of the drugs over-rides and effects the actual biological affect (not to mention the various homeopathic remedies the patients were using).

    In this podcast,Jonathan Schooler tells RadioLab about this affect and his journey to figure out what had happened to him, and why it was happening to other scientists too. After considering all the reasonable explanations (statistical quirks and procedural stumbles), Schooler found himself thinking that maybe, just maybe, the laws of nature are less solid than they seem. Maybe studying the effects of things affects the results and colors reality.

    It’s not a cut and dry scenario you always try to make it out to be.

    Comment by zero1ghost — September 13, 2011 @ 9:31 am | Reply

  2. The podcast is here(I think).

    The effect Z1G is talking about is the decline effect and like every supporter of woo tends to do, he suggests that this effect somehow undermines the reliability and consistency of good science by revealing that nature is far more mysterious than we know, which opens the door to suggesting that supernatural agencies and forces and effects are not unreasonable. To address that gross misrepresentation of what the decline effect really is, many science bloggers have taken the time and made the effort to explain it (here, here, here, and here). But of course, understanding – in terms related to what is explainable in this reality – does not serve the purpose for which such articles are quoted; the purpose is to undermine that which we know works very well without including any woo whatsoever. We can’t sell magic if too many people are properly sceptical!

    Yes, anti-depressants cause, I think, as many problems as they supposedly address. I think brain chemistry is deeply affected by how we think, which stands in contrast to the majority view that how we think is caused by brain chemistry. It does not surprise me in the least that with the self-correcting nature of medical science, we are starting to realize that perhaps depression may not be an illness caused by some chemical imbalance at all but a normal and natural chemical response to a way of thinking (and feeling) that is chronically dysfunctional. These sorts of disagreements occur all the time in science where all conclusions are provisional based on the arbitration of reality. That’s not a flaw or a weakness in the method but one of its greatest strengths. Too often the religious can’t wrap their heads around why this is so but assume that certainty is preferable than uncertainty, that pseudo-answers are better than admissions of not knowing, that making shit up and believing it to be true in order to populate the universe with secretive agencies with mystical purposes for each of us is better than being alone in an uncaring universe. But with good science comes humility, which is why charges of arrogance for scientific conclusions are so wide of the mark. Such fundamental disagreements are normal in the daily practice of good science and do not undermine its method at all. But let’s also be perfectly clear: such disagreements do not elevate woo, which fails spectacularly to undergo any similar sceptical rigor, to be worthy of equal consideration in favour of supernatural influences that offer us no evidence that “the laws of nature are less solid than they seem.”

    So in spite Z1G’s distaste for the Courtier’s Reply, it still offers a valid criticism of those who imply that non belief in implausible notions requires some level of sophisticated knowledge. It doesn’t. All it requires healthy scepticism applied to those who make truth claims but refuse to back them up with equivalent rigorous science.

    Comment by tildeb — September 14, 2011 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

  3. Who was your audience? Who exactly were you writing to? Either you’ve gone jock and are writing in the 3rd person or you’re preaching to the choir.

    Once again Sabio’s question wasn’t WHY, it’s on “what basis.” That’s not a courtier’s reply since it asks on “What Grounds do you reject homeopathic medicine?” Thus it’s not a Courtier’s Reply under the very definition. That’s why I said it’s you’re go-to answer when faced with actually thinking and explaining yourself, the very thing you claim to be all about. I like the Courtier’s Reply and do agree that it’s helpful. However, you over-and-misuse it.

    Comment by zero1ghost — September 14, 2011 @ 9:09 pm | Reply

    • My audience was for those who couldn’t find your link (I assume you knew where it was but others did not). I kept the same voice throughout.

      Sabio allowed only three choices all about states of knowledge about nonsense, none of which were straightforward and to the point – it is not your state of your historical knowledge that determines why you don’t believe your Marie Antoinette: you don’t believe in something of the same kind because you have no good reasons to. It’s just that simple. Yet throughout the comments, Sabio insists that each commentator chose one of his only his reasons about states of knowledge about the nonsense in order to reject it. That’s why I used the term ‘properly’, meaning only these three reasons were acceptable – were considered proper to reject nonsense. This raises exactly the point behind the Courtier’s Reply criticism: that non belief is presented to be a criticism of rejection that is not informed properly… according to those who assume authority to insist on some acceptable level, some ordained state, of knowledge first. This is what Sabio did in his post, pretending that only some state of knowledge must precede non belief. That’s bunk. The onus fall entirely on the one making a claim of efficacy to prove causal effect. Failing that – and homeopathy fails that spectacularly – the preordained state for rejection is not knowledge about homeopathy AT ALL; it is about seeing no good causal evidence, no informed reason to alter healthy scepticism to some vague state of agnosticism. This is really what Sabio was after, manipulating comments to first agree to select some state of knowledge prerequisite first so that he can continue to suggest that there really is something to homeopathy not because there is any good reasons to think their is any causal effect but to turn it back on sceptics that perhaps they don’t know enough to have the right to reject it’s false claims.

      So Z1G, I remain firm that what Sabio is doing – what you support in your attempts to undermine the method of science and its reliability and consistency – is to try to manipulate and abuse through the presentation of issues about some greater level of uncertainty and doubt about the nature of reality than there really is in fact in order to serve your beliefs – or in Sabio’s case, an agnostic allowance – in woo rather than do the hard work and prove causal efficacy under the same set of rules and obligations and methodology that science operates under. If you do that, then we have no issue of differences because we will be in agreement: you need no subject knowledge to reject a claim that has no merit in fact. To do otherwise and insist on some level of knowledge is playing the Courtier’s Reply plain and simple.

      Comment by tildeb — September 14, 2011 @ 10:57 pm | Reply

  4. the easiest way to block wonder and curiosity is through certainty.

    Comment by zero1ghost — September 18, 2011 @ 7:59 am | Reply

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