13 December 2010

The Sokal Hoax 2: Alt med gets punked

Arse-cupuncture - coming soon to an alt med provider near you

What’s one way to tell if a system of thought contains utter bollocks? When its ‘experts’ can’t even tell the difference between its own official bollocks and a prankster’s totally made-up bollocks.

Several months ago, professor of medical education John C McLachlan played a joke on the organisers of the Jerusalem International Conference on Integrative Medicine. He responded to their mass-emailed invitation with an offer to present his studies of what basically amounted to ‘arse reflexology’. As McLachlan writes in his recent tell-all article:

My initial email and abstract were constructed to include appeals to authority, hints of conspiracy theories, and “scienciness”, but with an absence of evidence or plausibility.

Despite the almost undisguised nonsense in McLachlan’s prank proposal, the JICIM organisers swallowed it hook, line and sinker. They promptly gave McLachlan a time slot for his arse reflexology presentation, but he decided he had taken the joke far enough and didn’t attend the conference.

Like the physicist Alan Sokal before him, McLachlan put the intellectual rigour of mumbo-jumbo peddlers to the test, and they failed spectacularly. In 1996 Sokal managed to get a paper deliberately packed with pseudoscientific, postmodernist tosh published in a cultural studies journal. 14 years later McLachlan repeated Sokal’s trick, this time on alternative medicine proponents. Like the po-mo intellectuals punked by Sokal, the alt med experts couldn’t spot a howler because they were lulled by the presence of keywords that confirmed their biases. A system of thought that practised critical thinking and scrupulous examination of claims would most likely have seen the red flags marking out gibberish.

McLachlan’s prank has had a mixed response. Some have accused him of unprofessional conduct, even bullying. McLachlan admits that he had initial doubts as to the rightness of his actions. But I believe the following statement of his vindicates McLachlan’s deceit:

I do not believe that rational medicine could have been fooled with something so intrinsically ridiculous as in this case. Minimum standards of common sense should, I think, have led to a polite but firm rejection — or at least further inquiry. Alternative medicine is not noted for rigorous inquiry, for research designed to prove the null hypothesis, but rather accepts notions on face value. Therefore a face value test is fair.

It may have been all made-up, but I wouldn’t bet against the future appearance of arse needling/cupping therapy at your local alt med provider. Hope they credit Professor John C McLachlan as its inventor.


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