Mindless Alternatives

— Assessing credibility of alternative systems
John Smith—07/2005
Just because a system is alternative does not automatically give it credibility or equivalence to established orthodoxies — most alternatives out there are pretty mindless.

IF YOU VISIT Truth Radio's Break for News, a successful alternative news site on which you can find alternative news and views on a variety of topics, you will find a recording of Fintan Dunne's monologue on "Nuclear Power and The Global Warming Scam". On it, Dunne uses the opinions of Professor David Bellamy, a high-profile British environmentalist and botanist, to dismiss global warming altogether. Central to Bellamy's claim that global warming is a myth is the fact that "555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich , Switzerland , have been growing since 1980."

With information like this coming from a leading environmentalist, Bellamy is a dream "rogue scientist" for any government or corporation wanting to justify rejection of profit-restricting legislation, for example the Kyoto Treaty, which places limits on human greenhouse gas emissions. And I use the term "rogue" here because, despite what the professional sceptics would have us all believe, the reality of global warming and its link to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission is now accepted by the vast majority of climatologists.

But quite apart from those who would use Bellamy's alternative scientific opinion to avoid curbs on greenhouse gases, there are also those who thrill at any "alternative" evidence and opinion that seems to buck prevailing orthodoxy. Judging by his website, Dunne is most certainly in this category as he seems to embrace, like many, all things alternative. But the problem for Dunne in this case is that Bellamy — leading environmentalist Professor David Bellamy no less — knows as much about climatology as George Bush knows about international diplomacy. And it doesn't take a lot of digging to unearth this unfortunate fact, as George Monbiot has so adeptly done in his article Junk Science and his published correspondence with Bellamy.

Bellamy admitted to Monbiot that the source for his global warming contravening data was ex-architect Robert W. Felix's website www.iceagenow.com. On it you will find the quote that 55% of all 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich , Switzerland , have been growing since 1980, but absolutely no reference as to where it came from. In fact, Monbiot shows that its originator was most likely Professor Fred Singer, who vaguely attributes it to "a paper published in Science in 1989" but a paper that Monbiot was unable to find any trace of despite scanning through every edition of Science during that period. And even Bellamy had to admit to Monbiot that his "555 of all the 625 glaciers" was probably a mistype of "55% of all the 625 glaciers" — after all, "%" shares the same keyboard key as "5". In other words, Bellamy didn't just quote spurious data, he quoted it inaccurately!

This problem arose because Bellamy is a lateral thinker who enjoys the parry of challenging orthodoxy, and whilst it is invaluable to inject new ideas and viewpoints into the scientific community for discussion, when creative but undeniably spurious information is put out to the public with regards to an issue such as global warming — an issue that could scupper the Earth's entire life-support system — then "alternatives" can be quite deadly. Bellamy's case highlights the fact that just become something is alternative and challenges orthodoxy does not automatically give it credibility or even equivalence to the orthodoxy it challenges. But unfortunately, it is a lesson that is being ignored by much of the alternative community, who prefer to take Orwell's position in 1984 when he wrote, "Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness," and to use this position to happily give legitimacy to the wildest of alternatives.

In this case, Bellamy's arguments could be easily challenged because he presented them scientifically. In other words, as a scientist making scientific statements, his opinions had to be based empirical evidence — and evidence can be checked. In this case, the evidence does not stand up to scrutiny, and therefore his whole rejection of global warming resting on this evidence comes crashing down.

But that does not mean that global warming isn't a myth or that Robert Felix won't eventually be proved right. It does mean that the empirical evidence we have so far, and the scientific models from which we make predictions from this evidence, seem to suggest that anthropogenic global warming is a real phenomena. This may change in the future as science evolves and gathers more data, but considering what is at stake if we get this one wrong, most would agree that it is better to err on caution and cut emissions (unless you in the oil industry, in motor vehicle manufacturing or a Christian Zionist from the deep South).

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Yesterday, a friend of mine rang me up all excited about a new electronic healing device that she had found on the web called AIM or EMC2 invented by Stephen Lewis and Evan Slawson, who have set up an organisation based around this "technology" called the Energetic Matrix Church of Consciousness (www.energeticmatrix.com). AIM is basically an electronic device (at least I presume it is electronic because you can't actually find much information on it) that transmits healing frequencies to anybody who registers for around $1000 a year. When you sign up, you send in a picture of yourself or whoever you want healing for, and the picture acts as an "anchor" or "target" for the healing frequency generator. You never see the technology, but you can rest assured that it is working, somewhere in the world, for your 24-hour benefit… talk about a brilliant insurance policy. (This system is actually working around the principles of voodoo.)

There is nothing new about this: a friend of mine in her eighties has been sending healing to friends and family using a frequency generator and a target picture for many years. The difference is the Lewis and Slawson have created a whole "cargo cult science" — to borrow a Richard Feynman term — around their energetic concepts, and a great money-spinner to boot. And if you think I am insulting Lewis and Slawson by calling their system a cargo cult science, have a look at their brochure which carries the following disclaimer, "The devices used by EMC2 and the techniques associated with these devices have no acknowledged scientific or medical value whatsoever. The energetic concepts of the EMC2 ministry are a matter of faith…"

So why are so many scientific terms and concepts sprinkled through the AIM system literature if it is, by the inventors' own admission, not scientific but rather a matter of faith? The answer to this is that this is precisely because their system relies largely on the faith of those that participate in it: science and pseudoscience (the average person cannot tell the difference) automatically convey an aura of authority and legitimacy on any belief system or technology (pseudo or otherwise) associated with them. So if faith is an important factor, that faith is likely to be far stronger for the average person if the system is presented scientifically. Lewis and Slawson are unusual in that they declare their pseudoscientific status, a status reflected by the fact that the technology behind their system has been written up, not in a factual book or a scientific paper, but in a novel!

Just because this alternative healing system is based around faith does not of course mean that it doesn't work or that there is no scientific basis for their system. With faith we can move mountains — modern science tries to eliminate the placebo effect when in fact it should be trying to reinforce it because studies have shown that it is a much bigger factor in the equation than previously thought. (This also could imply some sort of link between mind and matter.) Lewis and Slawson have produced a "technology" that really might help those that believe it can.

It is also possible that the AIM inventors have found, by intuition, a technology that relies on yet-undiscovered laws of physics. But until that can be scientifically proven, it is pure fantasy. So how do we assess this type of alternative? The truth is that we objectively can't: this sort of alternative relies on presentation and testimonials to attract individuals into using it. And ironically, if a system relies on faith, articles like this one that question that system are counterproductive to those who would believe in them. My friend who introduced me to this system is one such person, and to her I sincerely apologize. There is a time and a place to assess a system that relies on the placebo effect — not when someone is in need of healing and wants to give it a go.

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Orthodox viewpoints are not always in the public interest, and often benefit only those that uphold them. For example, orthodox medicine, especially in the cases of chronic illness, is not usually the wisest choice, but it is a "choice" that is usually made by default because it is so strongly promoted by a trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry and an orthodox medical profession controlled by its money. Alternatives, on the other hand, give us an opportunity to break out into real choice which can be to our individual and collective benefit.

The problem for those interested in alternative systems is how assess them in relation to each other and in relation to corresponding orthodox systems. This process of selection can mean life and death to some people — for example, in choosing the treatment for cancer — and so it is important that we know how to make comparisons. It might at first glance seem straightforward: we just examine the scientific data and see which alternative is more effective in the case of medicine, or which system corresponds most closely with observed reality. Often, however, alternatives will have little or no scientific data, and this is not necessarily because they are ineffective or inappropriate but because examination of them has either been discouraged or avoided, or because they are based on systems that do not operate at a level open to direct scientific assessment (the benefits of homeopathy, for example, are notoriously elusive in scientific tests but millions of people seem to attest to its effectiveness).

In the two earlier examples of alternatives, the first — Bellamy's climate claim — most certainly is open to scientific assessment and it is relatively easy to see that his reasoning is false. His conclusion might turn out to be correct — who knows? — but the scientific reasoning that he uses to reach it is based on spurious data. Bellamy is a scientist making unscientific assessments. This, of course, does not stop those wanting no restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions — car manufacturers for example — as using Bellamy's opinion and his standing as a leading environmentalist to fight their corner. And it also does not seem to stop those, like Truth Radio, who just love to promote any alternative just for the sake of bucking the trend… and increasing audience figures.

The second example — the AIM healing system — is not open to scientific assessment as we know it because it is not a system based on any known science. But because it presents itself as science — using standard scientific models and terminology in its literature — it opens itself up to being rejected on these grounds. This system is more akin to a talisman than any real technology; and as everyone knows a talisman works only if the holder believes that it works. So we can safely reject the AIM healing system on the basis of how it is marketed. (Once again it may work by faith, but the authors' scientific justification just does not hold scientific water.)

So assessing alternatives involves judging them from the paradigm or belief-system by which they are presented or marketed. If a talisman is marketed as a talisman, then our acceptance or rejection of its effectiveness comes down to our personal belief in talismans. But if that talisman is presented to us as a scientific system, we can certainly reject that presentation on scientific grounds. Taking this approach allows us to rationally assess alternatives, even those that rely on faith and belief, which is important as there are so many out there jostling for our allegiance.

So those of us focused on alternatives might do well to remember that just because a system is alternative does not automatically bestow credibility upon it — most alternatives out there are actually pretty mindless.