Thursday, 16 October 2014

On crackpots, science denialists, and false doctrine - a parable for the scientific age

Dealing with alt-health cranks is an occupational hazard in medicine. There's nothing like a little paranoia, a Google PhD and a dash of Dunning-Kruger to make the layperson who thinks that natural is best cross over into hard-core denialism. However, this one was different.

"The germ theory of disease is a myth," he intoned. "Koch and Pasteur were wrong. An imbalance of the four humours is always to blame for every disease. In fact, the field of modern medicine is a giant hoax. Metabolic disorders. Genetic disorders. All bunk. Bad humours explain all disease." He looked at me with that glazed look of triumph and braggadocio that is practically pathognomonic of the crank. Educating the crank is all but impossible, but as one of the most important roles of doctor is to teach the general public, I felt compelled to make one valiant attempt.

"The germ theory of disease has been accepted in mainstream medicine for quite some time." I pulled out my phone, and tapped on the screen. "Here. Here's a website which outlines the scientific basis of modern medicine for the interested layperson." I handed my phone to him. He looked at the article, looked at the author's name, then scowled, and returned my phone.

"It's written by a Catholic. If his theology is flawed, then why should I trust anything he has to say about modern medicine? If he can't interpret the Bible, then he cannot understand anything else. "

I took a deep breath, and picked up on his last example. "You do know that we've shown a link between genetic mutation and disease. Huntington's disease. Tay Sachs. Gaucher's disease. Cystic fibrosis. Ever heard of the Human Genome Project? Francis Collins, one of its former heads pioneered a technique which was instrumental in discovering the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis."

"Francis Collins?" His lip curled back into a sneer. "He's the fellow behind BioLogos. They're trinitarians! If he can't get his views on the nature of God right, then why should I listen to anything he has to say about genetic disease."

I took another deep breath. Right. This is going to be harder than I'd expected. Maybe I'd try to see whether his science denialism was restricted just to one area of medical science.

"Did you see the video footage of that fireball in Russia? They've found the meteorite responsible. Amazing to think that we've got material dating back over 4000 million years to the formation of the solar system. You should listen to what one of the astronomers at the Vatican Observatory says about meteorites. That's one of his research interests…"

"I hardly think that someone who believes in transubstantiation and the immaculate conception is capable of speaking with competence on this subject." he interrupted. "Besides, the universe is 6000 years old, and meteorites are specially created each year by God."

I gave up. Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens, and all that.

Note: The preceding story is a work of fiction, but unfortunately there are people who in all seriousness think that if a person is mistaken in their theology, then they can safely dismiss everything that person, or organisation says. In the face of such invincible ignorance, all one can do is to continue to advance the cause of critical thinking, and hope that such ignorance dwindles to irrelevance.