So What Do I Believe In Then?
"Why so serious?"
- The Joker, The Dark Knight
First impressions are important. A coworker's connection reportedly took a quick look at this website and its post titles and complained about the negativity that was wafting from them. With so many words about why this and that don't work, he wondered what it was that we did believe in then.
If you are used to a steady diet of wellness optimism, Oprah-style takes on happiness and health, and self-reported "open-mindedness", this website might turn you off. I get that.
Likewise, if you are accustomed to the type of science communication exemplified by I F-ing Love Science!-what I often refer to as "waving the flag for science" or science cheerleading-, The Body of Evidence and similar critical outlets might strike you as cynical and, at times, irate.
Before answering the opening question-what do I believe in, then, if I seemingly reject so much health advice?-, I want to address the necessity of the type of critical assessment that we do here and that is being done by Science-Based Medicine, Timothy Caulfield, Dr. Joe Schwarcz, and many others.
Flag Waving versus Critical Science Communication
I am aware of two broad categories of science communication. The goal of the first seems to spark an interest in science in the eyes of the public mainly by displaying its coolness. Science is what has carried us to space, and it is what allows us to see the nanoscopic world and create amazing new materials. The second type of science communication exists to criticize bad science, bad reporting of scientific findings, and all-out pseudoscience. To separate everything into these two boxes would constitute a false dichotomy; it's more of a spectrum, though I do find it useful at times to use this distinction.
While science cheerleading is needed (and certainly more popular), I am personally much more interested in scrutinizing the gap between the ideals of science and its practice. I am fascinated by the human element and how it "contaminates" the world of science and knowledge gathering.
This is crucially important to protect all of us against delusions and charlatans. Inaccurate ideas about the world can be disastrous. If you leave your apartment by the second-floor window to flaunt gravity, you will quickly find out that there is a world out there with laws that do not change based on your beliefs. Truthful information is required for our picture of the world to align with reality. Moreover, critical science communication can provide an antidote against the wallet-emptying cures of quacks. There are immoral people who simply want to use your gullibility to gain power and money. Those of us who are critical of these charlatans represent an important line of defence against them.
This type of scrutiny and criticism means that, by default, I will more often condemn than embrace, which obviously turns off certain sections of the population. But critical analysis of the sort is necessary if our society is to reject bad practices.
Avoiding Cynical Agnosticism
If I dismiss chiropractic, acupuncture, Reiki, applied kinesiology, crystal healing, and many preliminary scientific findings which cannot be replicated, what could I possibly believe in? Am I not just saying that nothing works, that it is futile to try anything, that open-mindedness is for fools, and that we should just enjoy the nihilistic ride in this cold, dark, meaningless universe?
I am critical precisely because I "believe" in science.
I "believe" that the best decisions are made in the presence of accurate information about the world around us.
I "believe" that science is the single best approach we have ever devised to gain reliable knowledge about the world around us.
I "believe" that medicine is made more dependable when it is based on a solid scientific foundation.
I "believe" that we can improve our health by following simple, evidence-based advice, like improving the quality of our sleep and exercising regularly. I "believe" that we can ignore fad lifestyle advice focused on obsessive fine-tuning of our health because, at best, it will lead to insignificant improvement and, at worst, might make us worse off (see antioxidant supplementation in cancer patients).
I "believe" that open-mindedness applies to new claims, but that thoroughly debunked assertions do not merit an endless supply of patience.
These "beliefs" are not anchored by blind faith (the most unreliable truth-seeking mechanism we have), but by predictive power. I know that science is the best system of knowledge gathering and assessment we have because, of all the ones we have tried, it has made the largest number of accurate predictions.
We didn't send rockets to the moon based on our intuitions.
Perhaps I ought to repeat this creed more often so as to give the optimists something positive to hang onto.