by Harriet Hall, MD
People tend to limit their reading to sources that agree with their beliefs. We find ourselves mostly preaching to the choir; our message usually doesn’t reach those who most need to hear it. I recently received an inquiry from a science-based medical doctor asking how to approach others in building a bridge to clarify so much misinformation.
My first thought was that you can build a bridge but the real challenge is persuading people to cross that bridge. Like leading a horse to water…
How to approach others? That’s a tough question. The best approach varies with the individual and with where he is in his journey. Confrontation seldom works: it just makes people angry. It is counterproductive: it only serves to make them invent more rationalizations to defend their beliefs. Although sometimes anger can be a good thing. I got an e-mail from an acupuncturist who was incensed by an article I wrote saying that acupuncture was not based on good evidence. He set out to prove me wrong by looking up the evidence behind what he had been taught by his teachers about acupuncture’s efficacy for specific conditions, and when he couldn’t find any, he realized that his teachers and his textbooks had misled him with lies. He gave up acupuncture and went back to school to learn a science-based health profession.
If someone has never had his belief challenged and thinks it a universally accepted truth, it might do some good to show him otherwise. When I was in the dentist’s office earlier this week he asked me what I thought about detoxification. I told him I thought it was a pseudoscientific concept with no scientific validity, that proponents couldn’t even tell you what those “toxins” were, much less measure how much had been removed, and that there was no evidence that detox objectively benefitted patients. He had me repeat this to his assistant who was currently doing a detox. She looked at me very strangely and I may have created an enemy for life. But just possibly I may have started a small crack in her certainty that might someday widen to let accurate information seep in.
Some people respond to accurate information. I belong to the Healthfraud discussion list on Quackwatch and we have had several people thank us for providing accurate information, debunking false information, showing the fallacies in arguments for claims, and helping them learn about the scientific process. They tell us they have discarded their previous false beliefs because of what they read there.
When I spoke at a local college I mentioned that diet supplements are not regulated like FDA approved drugs and have been found contaminated with everything from insect parts to prescription drugs, and that dosages sometimes vary wildly from what the label says. One older student got very upset and said she was going right home to clean out her cabinet and throw all those products away.
I have gotten e-mails from people who decided not to waste their money at the Amen Clinics or on treatments with the DRX-9000 spinal decompression machine after reading my articles.
Unfortunately, many people do not respond to accurate information. Some people choose to form strong beliefs on hearsay or personal perceptions or ideological grounds without any input from science. Scientific information is irrelevant to them so they are not likely to change their minds no matter how much evidence from scientific studies you throw at them. It is useful to ask people what evidence it would take to change their minds. True believers frequently say nothing would change their minds: they know they are right and they are sure that testing would only serve to demonstrate the truth of their beliefs. It’s a waste of time to talk to these people.
I met a believer in dowsing and I gave him a book explaining the ideomotor effect, showing that dowsers had never been able to pass controlled tests, and debunking dowsing in detail. We held a public debate afterwards, and what he said was as if he had never read the book. He managed to just ignore everything in it: his “pro” side of the argument boiled down to two points: he’d personally seen it work and lots of people believed in it. That was enough for him.
Then there are people who are capable of responding to new information but don’t want to hear it. Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind’s made up. It’s more comforting to have a belief and stick to it than to deal with uncertainty.
Something I haven’t tried yet but want to: ask them if they know of something that doesn’t work but that some other people believe in. Once you find something they reject, you might be able to argue that logical consistency requires that their pet remedy be rejected on the same grounds. For instance, if they reject bloodletting to balance the humors but accept reflexology, you might point out that during the many centuries bloodletting was used, there were far more testimonials from patients and doctors than there are for reflexology today. So if they accept reflexology on the basis of testimonials, they should logically accept bloodletting on the same basis. If they reject bloodletting because science showed it didn’t work, they should look more closely at what science says about reflexology.
Humor can be effective in making a point, like the comedian who said “Of course science doesn’t know everything; it KNOWS it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would stop.” And like Mark Crislip’s “Alternative Flight.”
The best strategy would be to guide people to discover the truth for themselves and claim it as their own, but I’m afraid I don’t have the patience or the psychological acumen to carry that out. It’s too bad Socrates isn’t around to help.
I am not foolish enough to think I could ever influence true believers; but even for them, it might be possible to plant a tiny seed of doubt that might be reinforced by future experiences and might eventually grow into a plant. Dripping water can wear away the hardest stone over time. But realistically, I can only hope to reach the fence-sitters: those who have not yet irrevocably made up their mind.
I hope readers will share their own success stories and bridge-building ideas in the comments section.
Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about medicine, so-called complementary and alternative medicine, science, pseudoscience, questionable medical practices and critical thinking. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so), and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel. She is an editor and one of the five MD founders of the Science-Based Medicine blog. Dr. Hall writes the SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine, and is a contributing editor to Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, as well as a medical advisor and author of articles on the Quackwatch website. She recently published Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the recently released textbook “Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions,” and was appointed to the Executive Council of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
Healthy Skepticism is republishing selections from Dr. Hall’s blog with permission. Please visit Science Based Medicine.