SkepticBlog correspondents received multiple copies of a troubling email that was sent en masse to students and staff at Singularity University in the San Francisco bay area. Singularity University is a private institution that offers courses on emerging technologies to people. It’s an unconventional company, with an unconventional staff: most of its programs are headed by true, established leaders in their field; but with a founding staff who are, in part, dedicated to certain ideas, some of which have yet to persuade the mainstream of current science. Chief among these is the idea of the “singularity” — that moment when scientific advancement passes a tipping point making virtually anything possible and turning society on its head. Most notably, co-founder Ray Kurzweil believes the singularity will allow him to live forever.
Recently, following a class, student Federico Pistono sent out the following email (his name has already been made public by the staff at SU):
yesterday, during the health track, the subject of homeopathy came up, and I am concerned that many seemed to be oblivious of what homeopathy really is.
I spent a good part of the past five years combatting pseudoscience, bad science, urban myths, and just plain old nonsense. Homeopathy falls into at least one of these categories. James Randi explains very clearly in this fun and informative video the truth about homeopathy:
It’s very sad how many still believe this is a “matter of opinion” or that “we don’t understand it, but it works”. No. It doesn’t. There is only sporadic anecdotal evidence, but when serious studies have been performed, it was found that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos.
Kleijnen, J; Knipschild, P; Ter Riet, G (1991), “Clinical trials of homoeopathy”,BMJ 302 (6772): 316–23, DOI:10.1136/bmj.302.6772.316, PMC 1668980,PMID 1825800
Linde, K; Clausius, N; Ramirez, G; Melchart, D; Eitel, F; Hedges, L; Jonas, W (1997), “Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials”, The Lancet 350 (9081): 834–43, DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(97)02293-9
Linde, K; Scholz, M; Ramirez, G; Clausius, N; Melchart, D; Jonas, WB (1999), “Impact of Study Quality on Outcome in Placebo-Controlled Trials of Homeopathy”,Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 52 (7): 631–6, DOI:10.1016/S0895-4356(99)00048-7
I will be happy to answer any of your questions privately, or in group.
Remember to keep a critical mind so as to not fall victim of unsubstantiated claims, but keep a mind open enough to let new ideas come in ;)
Federico’s email was concise, well-reasoned, and (of course) directly on point. Moreover, it contained a list of thorough references. Federico is to be congratulated for not taking whatever they were taught at face value, but instead presenting the fact-based current state of our knowledge about homeopathy. Then he took the initiative to proactively send this to “Everyone” (the recipients were not included in the forwarded copy of his email).
Good enough. But then Vivek Wadhwa, Singularity’s VP of Academics and Innovation, took a bizarre step. He forwarded Federico’s email to a mass list including students and staff (several of whom forwarded it to us). He gave Federico a public dressing-down, used hoary fallacious logic to encourage students to give pseudoscience equal consideration, and gave a platform to a homeopath (!!) to promote his business:
In the interests of balance and to show how there are two sides to every debate, I forwarded this email to one of my friends in Australia who practices homeopathy. Here are his comments.
Feel free to write to John and debate him. I am not the expert here. But I do believe that we shouldn’t close our minds to anything and that it is okay to challenge the establishment. Here, traditional medicine is the establishment–that fights against unconventional ideas.
Remember: it is always the most controversial ideas and concepts that lead to the greatest advances.
Vivek manages to hit just about every fallacy in the book. First, the idea of false balance, suggesting that there are two sides to the current state of our knowledge on a scientific theory. No, the scientific method produces our best understanding of a subject to date. It does not produce both that and its antithesis.
Second, the suggestion that there is a debate surrounding homeopathy. There is no scientific debate whatsoever about homeopathy. It is perhaps the most thoroughly debunked and implausible of all the prescientific medical schemes out there.
Third, the old “I am no expert, if you disagree, go debate someone else” dodge. If he is no expert, then he has no business writing this email to so flagrantly promote homeopathy to a student body. In fact, he should be openly challenged for doing this, as I am doing here.
Fourth, the suggestion that it’s closed-minded not to give homeopathy a fair shake. Homeopathy has been given its day. It has been exhaustively tested. It has failed all responsible testing. Dismissing something that has been proven not to work is not closed-minded; rather, it is closed-minded to reject what we’ve learned through testing in favor of a desired conclusion. If we are to be open-minded, we must be willing to accept what we’ve learned through the scientific method, even when it conflicts with our desired beliefs.
Fifth, the old standby of the alternative medicine community, the notion that the “establishment” (science-based medicine, in this case) is actively fighting against new, or unconventional, ideas. If this were true, then what does Vivek think all the scientists and molecular biologists who work in medicine are doing all day? Is it his idea that they are paid to make sure nothing new is learned? Ridiculous. The “establishment” (to use Vivek’s term, obviously intended to poison the well and suggest stodginess and conservatism) is able to exist only because of their occasional successes developing new therapies.
Sixth — and I’m actually quite amazed that Vivek was able to squeeze so much fallacious logic into such a short email — is his reminder that the most controversial ideas are the source of new advances. While this is often true, it’s true far more often that controversial ideas are controversial because they are wrong. Controversial ideas that have already been proven wrong are not something that a VP of Academics should be encouraging his students to investigate further. There are plenty of subjects out there that are not well understood, and this is where our limited academic resources are best expended.
Vivek then attached the email reply from his homeopath acquaintance. This is enough for today, but the homeopath’s email warrants a skeptical examination of its own. It is also brimming with logical fallacies, primarily the throwing out of non sequiturs and red herrings: failings of the pharmaceutical industry, claims that James Randi is a fraud, etc. None of this supports homeopathy in any way, of course. He also provides his own raft of citations: studies published in homeopathy journals, mainly. That Vivek considered this worthy of distributing to his students gives further cause for concern over his scientific credibility.
My hope is that this episode was a fluke and does not represent the standards of Singularity U. It will be interesting to see if there is any response or follow up.