Hawking vs Paltrow: Pseudoscience must be ignored
12 October 2018 08:15
Here are two news stories from the past week. The first, as recounted in The Guardian, concerns a remarkable final paper by the late Stephen Hawking, completed by his physicist colleagues:
‘The rules of the quantum world demand that information is never lost. So what happens to all the information contained in an object – the nature of a moon’s atoms, for instance – when it tumbles into a black hole?
“The difficulty is that if you throw something into a black hole it looks like it disappears,” said [Professor Malcolm] Perry. “How could the information in that object ever be recovered if the black hole then disappears itself?”
In the latest paper, Hawking and his colleagues show how some information at least may be preserved. Toss an object into a black hole and the black hole’s temperature ought to change. So too will a property called entropy, a measure of an object’s internal disorder, which rises the hotter it gets.
The physicists, including Sasha Haco at Cambridge and Andrew Strominger at Harvard, show that a black hole’s entropy may be recorded by photons that surround the black hole’s event horizon, the point at which light cannot escape the intense gravitational pull. They call this sheen of photons “soft hair”.’
And now here is the actress and businesswoman, Gywneth Paltrow, responding in a BBC interview to claims that her ‘wellness’ company, Goop, profits from pseudo-science:
‘We disagree with that wholeheartedly. We really believe that there are healing modalities that have existed [for] thousands of years, and they challenge maybe a very conventional western doctor that might not believe necessarily in the healing powers of essential oils or any variety of acupuncture, things that have been tried and tested for hundreds of years. We find that they are very helpful to people and there is an incredible power in the human body to heal itself.’
Can you spot the difference? Hawking, even posthumously, is expanding the frontiers of human knowledge, enriching our understanding of the universe and how it works. And Paltrow is talking rubbish in order to defend snake-oil. One story concerns science. The other concerns nonsense.
In September, Goop agreed to pay $145,000 in damages to settle false claims made about in products, after district attorneys in California filed a suit against the company over its assertion that jade and rose quartz vaginal eggs could provide women with a ‘spiritual detox’ and that an essential oil blend could ‘prevent depression.’
This would be no more than a minor story about marketing silliness duly corrected – were it not for the broader social and epistemological context in which companies like Goop operate. From its inception, DRUGSTORE CULTURE has been militantly opposed to Post Truth, fake news and misinformation – all of which have spread alarmingly in recent years, thanks to the plummeting decline of trust in traditional institutions and the digital weaponisation of lies. Much of the debate on Post Truth and the triumph of emotion over fact has concerned political falsehood – in the Brexit debate and the election of Donald Trump. But the surge in pseudoscience and its impact upon public health are at least as alarming.
The rise of ‘scientific denialism’ reflects the growing conviction that scientists, in conspiracy with government and the pharmaceutical corporations, are in some way hostile to nature and the best interests of humankind. The most egregious form of this recoil from evidence-based science has been the appalling campaign against vaccination – initially launched by the (entirely bogus) claims of Andrew Wakefield in 1998 that there was a potential link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and the rising incidence of diagnosed autism. Wakefield’s work has been utterly discredited – and yet, in recent years, he has become a celebrity on the pseudoscience circuit, a populist maverick fighting the supposedly wicked scientific establishment.
And celebrity, turbocharged by digital media, is at the heart of this phenomenon: when the American model and television personality, Jenny McCarthy, claimed in 2007 that her son Evan’s autism was linked to vaccination, she was challenged to explain her certainty, given her lack of scientific credentials. ‘The University of Google is where I got my degree from,’ she insisted.
Paltrow’s confidence apparently has different roots. She refers to ‘healing modalities that have existed [for] thousands of years’, as though the durability of folklore were the same as evidence. But the most striking feature of all the alternative medicines she champions is that absolutely none of them has been successfully tested in double-blind, peer-reviewed experimentation.
Science is a method, not a body of knowledge. It is constantly disruptive, overturning old assumptions. The fact that a ‘healing modality’ – whatever that is – has been used in some cultures for ‘thousands of years’ is neither here nor there. Nor is word-of-mouth a reliable scientific test. The plural of anecdote is not data.
Paltrow’s claim that such pseudo-therapies ‘challenge maybe a very conventional western doctor’ deploys a familiar and intellectually contemptible trope – namely, that ‘western’ science is only one of many options available to patients looking for effective treatment. This is the medicinal equivalent of the Trump administration’s ‘alternative facts’: after your diagnosis, go and pick your therapy from the buffet. But, as the comedian Tim Minchin has joked: ‘Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.’ If a fashionable form of treatment is not offered by doctors and hospitals, it might be worth asking why.
The modish fascination with pseudo-science and its claims would be an ignorable folly were it not that it causes verifiable harm – as it already has in the reported surges in measles around the world following the vaccination scare. According to a paper published in the journal JAMA Oncology in July, analysing a huge data set of two million individuals who had cancer over a 20-year period, those who used complementary medicines were twice as likely to die before the five-year mark.
Less than 70 per cent of those who used complementary treatment were alive at seven years, compared with more than 80 per cent of conventional medicine users. And why? Because those turning to what Paltrow would call ‘healing modalities’ were much more likely to refuse conventional treatment like surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It would be a stretch to say that complementary medicine kills. But the psychology it reflects – and which unqualified celebrities publicly encourage – most certainly does.
It is especially absurd and infuriating that pseudoscience should be such a threat at a time when authentic medicine is advancing at such an astonishing rate. The potential of immunotherapy in the fight against cancer has barely been scratched. Some oncologists now describe themselves as ‘algorithmists’, so bespoke are the protocols that they prescribe with the help of state-of-the-art computer technology.
Testing for diseases such as HIV is becoming more and more sophisticated. And health tech is one of the most exciting fields in global science, as big-data analysis yields completely new insights into diagnosis and treatment.
At DRUGSTORE CULTURE, we are fascinated by this wave of human genius, and plan to devote our journalistic energies to what it signifies in the months to come – in celebration of real science, nutrition, health technology, more sophisticated exercise programmes, and the connection between physical and mental health. This will be the century in which our species learns to deal with climate change, longevity, and the consequences of automation on a scale never seen before. What it means to be human will change dramatically in the coming decades. This is so much more exciting than the out-dated phoniness of New Age quackery and pseudo-scientific narcissism. In this, as in so many fields, a change is gonna come. But, in the quest to understand our world more fully, we march under the banner of Hawking, not Paltrow.