Don’t forget the succussionPosted: May 25, 2017
I am currently rereading ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre. In the chapter on homeopathy, Goldacre sets out a number of problems with the practice. Specifically, he mentions the kinds of dilutions used by homeopaths. He asks us to picture a sphere of water with a radius equal to the distance from the Earth to the Sun. A homeopathic dilution of 30C would contain 1 molecule of the active substance in a sphere of water this volume. Homeopaths answer this critique by suggesting that water retains some kind of ‘memory’ of the active ingredient, even after it has been diluted.
Given that every water molecule has come into contact with countless substances, Goldacre finds this amusing:
“How does a water molecule know to forget every other molecule it’s seen before? How does it know to treat my bruise with its memory of arnica, rather than a memory of Isaac Asimov’s faeces? I wrote this in the newspaper once, and a homeopath complained to the Press Complaints Commission. It’s not about the dilution, he said: it’s the succussion. You have to bang the flask of water briskly ten times on a leather and horsehair surface, and that’s what makes the water remember a molecule. Because I did not mention this, he explained, I had deliberately made homeopaths sound stupid.” [Original emphasis]
There is much in this that reminds me of education’s homeopaths. We have the intense fear of ridicule. Satire is a devastating weapon against nonsense, so much so that Goldacre’s homeopath feels the need to complain about his argument to a higher authority. We have seen similar tactics in the social media education debate where offended parties threaten to launch defamation cases or complain to people’s employers.
More subtle, perhaps, is the appeal to spurious and irrelevant context. Bloggers like me are often accused of being reductive and not understanding the subtle nuances that more sophisticated and discerning pedagogues appreciate. For example, when I suggest that inquiry-based learning is ineffective for novices, there will be those who roll their eyes and shake their heads. It’s far more complicated than I appreciate, they will claim. In fact, inquiry-based learning works quite beautifully if you first bang it ten times on a leather and horsehair surface.