Homeopathy and public policy - a match made in the moonlight?

Something in the water...

Such delicious paradoxes are rare events and should be relished. The House of Commons science and technology select committee exists “to ensure that government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence”. David Tredinnick, the MP for Bosworth, has just joined it. Upcoming business includes a discussion of how we can reduce the presence of pollutants in our water. The idea is to look at what chemicals should be allowed to remain in water discharged into public resources and at what level. Who better to assess the evidence than a champion of homoeopathy?

Homoeopathy involves dilutions of chemicals, often to the point where the medicine contains not a single molecule of the chemical that is supposed to be doing the healing. The higher the dilution, the more powerful the medicinal effect. Tredinnick has been a fervent supporter of the idea that the National Health Service should offer patients free homoeopathic treatment if they request it.

Scientists have suggested this is not the best use of scarce NHS resources, given that homoeopathy has been shown to be no better than a placebo. Yet Tredinnick has used his position in parliament to request that the government respond to “attacks by the socalled scientific establishment” by being “robust in [its] support for homoeopathy and consider what can be done so that it is used more effectively in the health service”.

Proponents of homoeopathy suggest that water “memorises” substances that have been dissolved in it. If this is true, not only is there no prospect of extracting pollutants from water, but the more we try to clean it, the more dangerous the water becomes. A logical position for Tredinnick to take is that the European Union’s Water Framework Directive is based on a misguided premise and the whole project should be dropped.

It will be interesting to see what Tredinnick makes of the evidence submitted concerning clinical trials by pharmaceutical companies. Submissions close on 22 February; we wait with bated breath for his interpretation of the question, “Can lessons about transparency and disclosure of clinical data be learned from other countries?” He has asserted in parliament that the long traditions of astrology-based health care in Chinese, Muslim and Hindu cultures make it worth considering introducing similar practices in the NHS.

Tredinnick knows, at least, that science isn’t easy: he has gone on the record to declare that radionics, which involves “the transmission of a signal that sends a healing process to someone remotely”, is “difficult for science to test”. That didn’t stop him suggesting that radionics might also be of interest to the NHS.

Tredinnick did go on to applaud science for discovering that “pregnancy, hangovers and visits to one’s GP may be affected by the awesome power of the moon”. Sadly, science hasn’t made this discovery; neither has it proved his assertion that arson attacks “increase by 100 per cent during a full moon”. This is a man who will be weighing up evidence about the best way to improve the use of forensic science by the police force in the UK.

When Richard Feynman defined science as the art of not fooling yourself – “. . . and you are the easiest person to fool” – he might have been thinking of Tredinnick. However, Andrew Miller, chair of the select committee, is unlikely to take Tredinnick’s assessments seriously. Miller is an Aries and they’re always very sceptical.

Pills for homeopathic remedies. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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"They’re turning the frogs gay": The psychology behind internet conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are appearing on both the political left and right. 

They’re turning the frogs gay.

If you have ever watched a video by the internet’s premier conspiracy theorist, Infowars’ Alex Jones, you will know that this is an undeniable fact. Chemicals in the water are turning the (frigging) frogs gay.

The blatant absurdity of this conspiracy theory (which scientist is perving on homosexual amphibians, anyway? Stop them) makes it one of the most widely mocked and memed of Jones’ outbursts. Yet despite the ridiculousness of the red-faced ranter, he has a large and vocal fan base that even includes the 45th president of the United States himself.

We seem to be living in an era where conspiracy theories are booming. From Hillary Clinton’s paedophile pizza parlour, to Russian hackers, Red Pillers, Obama's communist coup and Trump’s 4D Chess – the internet has been flooded with conspiracies from both the Left and Right. Dr Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who specialises in mass delusions, believes that social media has exacerbated conspiracy culture.

“We now live in a niche world, making it easier for people to construct their own reality - a world as they want it to be, not as it is,” he says. “A person who believes that Obama wasn’t born in the US can just visit sites that reinforce his or her beliefs." Batholomew explains that because of the internet, conspiracies can be passed on “at the speed of light”, while other experts have noted that emotions can also spread online, in a process known as “emotional contagion”. 

Yet though social media helps conspiracies to spread, the psychology behind them is age-old.

“Conspiracy theories are a product of our psychology and our psychology doesn’t really change over time,” says Dr Robert Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “A certain proportion of people have always been receptive to conspiracy theories.” But who are these people – and what happens to make them fervently believe in gay frogs?

Brotherton emphasises that the psychological biases at work in conspiracy theorists’ minds are biases that we all possess to some extent. The “proportionality bias” means that if something big happens, we intuitively assume that something big must have caused it. Some of us can accept when this isn’t the case – when a lone gunman, for example, is responsible for assassinating the president from a grassy knoll – but others go looking for alternative explanations.

Humans also have a propensity to seek patterns, so we bend over backwards to connect unrelated facts (side note: why do the two psychologists thus far in this piece have remarkably similar names? Is there a psychologist Illuminati?).

“Confirmation bias” also means that we accept information that confirms our beliefs and ignore that which doesn’t. Once these biases lead someone towards a conspiracy theory, they might develop a “conspiracy worldview”, whereby everything becomes suspicious. Brotherton explains, for example, that after the Watergate scandal was exposed, conspiracy theorists weren't vindicated like you would expect - but instead believed that the official narrative was a cover-up and that Nixon was set up. 

A Pizzagate post on 4Chan, outlining alleged patterns and meanings

Yet though the psychology behind conspiracies is timeless, Brotherton does note that certain factors exacerbate our willingness to believe. And this credibility is not limited to right-wing Americans.

“One of the things I think that is most revealing is how quickly conspiracy fears have shifted to the Left, especially in the States, since the election,” he says. The night before the election, videos spread on right-wing social media profiles claiming to show that electronic voting machines were rigged to vote for Clinton. When Trump won, Democrats began to believe that Russians had hacked the voting machines in favour of Trump (though claims Russia manipulated the election are rooted in fact, there is no evidence they tampered with the actual count).

 

A Pizzagate meme

Brotherton explains that cognitive dissonance is to blame.  “In an election, if you voted for the losing candidate, that makes you feel kind of bad because it’s not what you wanted, and makes you look kind of silly, like why would you vote for the loser?"

The most obvious way to reason this out is to accept the candidate wasn't so good, and agree more with the other side.

"Obviously that’s not what happens at all," says Brotherton. Instead, he argues, we tend to go in the other direction. Instead of admitting that our candidate lost because they had flaws, we theorise about hacking and rigging in order to feel as though we were right all along.

A false claim about Donald Trump's administration

Yet conspiracy theories do continue to spread among the far right as well as the left, despite their electoral gains. Dr Mike Wood, a psychology lecturer and expert in the techniques used by conspiracy theorists online, explains that those with extreme political views might still be drawn towards conspiracy theories, even when they gain some power.

This is because their extreme position means they are still unlikely to get to accomplish what they want to do. "They have to rationalise that in some way," Wood says. "Often that leads to conspiracy theories.”

A Pizzagate meme

Alienation, a lack of control, and uncertainly are all facts that lead someone towards a conspiracy worldview, explains Wood. As he puts it: “basically conspiracy theories are a way to try and make sense of the world that in that moment doesn’t particularly make sense.” According to Wood, victims of social exclusion do tend to take conspiracy theories more seriously.

“If the world seems like a very random and kind of capricious place where things don’t particularly make sense and you can’t really control what's going on, that's when conspiracy theories are at their strongest," he says. Conspiracy theories "allege that things that are happening are basically controllable". 

It is hard to say whether any of this is at work in the mind of Conspirator-in-Chief Donald Trump. The President has previously spread information from Jones’ Infowars, most notably when he claimed three million votes in the election were cast illegally. “I won the popular vote,” he tweeted alongside this alleged fact, perhaps attempting to explain away his own cognitive dissonance. Yet whether or not Trump believes the conspiracies he spreads, the psychologists I speak agree on one thing. Having such a high-profile figure spreading conspiracies means they're not going away any time soon.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.