Pseudoskeptical and pseudoscientific strategies used in attacks on homeopathy

Marcus Zulian Teixeira About the author

Dear Editors,

In October 2020, a manifesto against European legislation was posted on social networks, which supports the practices of Complementary/Alternative Medicine (CAM; “First worldwide manifesto against pseudosciences in health”), written by “pseudoskeptical” associations or groups without scientific expressiveness, and which present in their associative body individuals who are assumed to have the rights to criticize the health practices that they do not accept by personal, dogmatic, and autocratic opinions, systematically disparaging and denying any scientific evidence that substantiates them. In view of its wide acceptance, use, and worldwide recognition, homeopathy was the preferred target of this manifesto.

I say “pseudoskeptical” associations because the doctrinal current of true “skepticism” (sképsis in Greek means “examination” or “evaluation”), founded in ancient Greece by the Philosopher Pyrrhus (4th-century BC), argues, “it is not possible to affirm the absolute truth of anything, with it being necessary to be in constant questioning.”11. Dumont JP. Le scepticisme et le phénomène: essai sur la signification et les origines du pyrrhonisme. Partie 1. Paris: Vrin; 1972 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]. 415 p. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/DUMLSE
https://philpapers.org/rec/DUMLSE...
The term “pseudoskepticism” emerged in the second half of the 19th century, indicating the explicit tendency toward negationism, instead of evaluation and ethical and objective questioning proposed by Greek skepticism.

In 1987, Marcelo Truzzi (1935-2003), a Danish sociologist and professor of sociology based in the USA (Eastern Michigan University), elaborated a very illuminating analysis of the term “pseudoskepticism” or “pathological skepticism,” saying that it is used to denote the forms of skepticism which deviate from objectivity, dogmatically denying everything which is not known, instead of doubting, investigating, and accepting the evidence that appears with an agnostic and neutral position, with an open mind, and free from prejudice22. Truzzi M. On pseudo-skepticism. Zetetic Scholar. 1987 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]; (12-13). Available from: Available from: https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/pseudo.html
https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/p...
,33. The plasma universe. Pseudoskepticism. [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://www.plasma-universe.com/pseudoskepticism/#cite_note-22
https://www.plasma-universe.com/pseudosk...
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“Since ‘skepticism’ properly refers to doubt rather than denial-nonbelief rather than belief-critics who take the negative rather than an agnostic position but still call themselves ‘skeptics’ are actually ‘pseudoskeptics’ and have, I believed, gained a false advantage by usurping that label”22. Truzzi M. On pseudo-skepticism. Zetetic Scholar. 1987 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]; (12-13). Available from: Available from: https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/pseudo.html
https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/p...
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“Critics who assert negative claims, but who mistakenly call themselves ‘skeptics,’ often act as though they have no burden of proof placed on them at all, though such a stance would be appropriate only for the agnostic or true sceptic. A result of this is that many critics seem to feel it is only necessary to present a case for their counter-claims based upon plausibility rather than empirical evidence. […] Showing evidence is unconvincing is not grounds for completely dismissing it. If a critic asserts that the result was due to artifact X, that critic then has the burden of proof to demonstrate that artifact X can and probably did produce such results under such circumstances.”22. Truzzi M. On pseudo-skepticism. Zetetic Scholar. 1987 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]; (12-13). Available from: Available from: https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/pseudo.html
https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/p...

In his isolated analysis, Marcello Truzzi described the strategies used by pseudoskeptics to deny and disqualify new ideas and their respective scientific evidence: the tendency to deny, rather than doubt; double standards in the application of criticism; the making of judgments without full inquiry; tendency to discredit rather than to investigate; use of ridicule or ad hominem attacks; presenting insufficient evidence or proof; pejorative labeling of proponents as “promoters,” “pseudoscientists,” or practitioners of “pathological science”; assuming criticism requires no burden of proof; making unsubstantiated counter-claims; counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence; suggesting that unconvincing studies are grounds for dismissing it; and tendency to dismiss all evidence22. Truzzi M. On pseudo-skepticism. Zetetic Scholar. 1987 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]; (12-13). Available from: Available from: https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/pseudo.html
https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/p...
,33. The plasma universe. Pseudoskepticism. [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://www.plasma-universe.com/pseudoskepticism/#cite_note-22
https://www.plasma-universe.com/pseudosk...
.

Marcoen Cabbolet, researcher at the Department of Philosophy, Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, scholar of elementary particle physics44. Cabbolet M. Elementary process theory: a formal axiomatic system with a potential application as a foundational framework for physics supporting gravitational repulsion of matter and antimatter. Ann Phys. 2010;522(10):699-738. https://doi.org/10.1002/andp.201000063
https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1002/...
, in his essay “Tell-Tale Signs of Pseudoskepticism (Bogus Skepticism),”55. Cabbolet MJTF. Tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism (bogus skepticism). [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3
https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3...
warned that “pseudoscepticism, which typically is portraying someone’s work as despicable with scientifically unsound polemics, is a modern day threat to the traditional standard of discussion in science and popular science.”

Thus, “where the sceptic merely states that he doesn’t believe in someone else’s claims, the pseudosceptic comes himself up with claims and these are always (very) negative. But pseudoscepticism is not just making negative claims: the keywords are ‘dishonesty’ and ‘foul play’. And it is not aimed at finding out the truth, but at discrediting someone’s research.”55. Cabbolet MJTF. Tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism (bogus skepticism). [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3
https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3...

In another article66. Cabbolet MJTF. Scientific misconduct: three forms that directly harm others as the modus operandi of Mill’s tyranny of the prevailing opinion. Sci Eng Ethics. 2014;20(1):41-54. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-013-9433-8
https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/...
, Cabbolet addressed this “pseudoscience,” clearly and objectively describing “scientific misconduct” with several classic examples that lead to “negative conclusions about someone else’s work that are downright false.” He clarified that “three known issues are identified as specific forms of such scientific misconduct: biased quality assessment, smear, and officially condoning scientific misconduct.”

Cabbolet reiterated that pseudoskepticism is the central focus of this scientific misconduct, which has the objective of “uttering negative conclusions about someone else’s work that are downright false,” further suggesting that this posture may be “a calculated strategy,” rather than a passionate attitude, and provides recommendations for preventing and dealing with these three forms of scientific misconduct through educational and punitive measures66. Cabbolet MJTF. Scientific misconduct: three forms that directly harm others as the modus operandi of Mill’s tyranny of the prevailing opinion. Sci Eng Ethics. 2014;20(1):41-54. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-013-9433-8
https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/...
.

In the first quoted essay55. Cabbolet MJTF. Tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism (bogus skepticism). [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3
https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3...
, Cabbolet explains “seven tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism” in detail (Table 1), most of which were initially described by Marcelo Truzzi, through which the conduct and strategy of pseudoskeptics can be notably recognized.

Table 1.
Seven tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism according to Marcoen Cabbolet55. Cabbolet MJTF. Tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism (bogus skepticism). [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3
https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3...
.

Expanding the tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism, Cabbolet also warned of the fact that “pseudosceptics never publish a retraction”: “Usually in science, if researcher A publishes a claim and researcher B refutes the proof, then A publishes a retraction of the claim. But not so the pseudosceptic. Even when confronted with conclusive proof that his allegations are false, he will refuse to publish a retraction or to publicly acknowledge that the claims were fabricated: the typical pseudosceptic will stick to his fabrications as if not a word has been said […]”55. Cabbolet MJTF. Tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism (bogus skepticism). [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3
https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3...
.

As Cabbolet described55. Cabbolet MJTF. Tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism (bogus skepticism). [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3
https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3...
, pseudoskepticism is also observed in the reports of peer reviews of scientific publications, in all areas of knowledge, when the prejudiced and pseudoscientific opinion of a reviewer denies the publication of an article which disagrees with their dogmatic view, even if it fulfills all the requirements of the scientific method. This is commonly observed when we forwarded homeopathic scientific articles to non-homeopathic journals. Paradoxically, following a pseudoskeptical ruse (#7: straight to the mass media)55. Cabbolet MJTF. Tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism (bogus skepticism). [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3
https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3...
, the biased and prejudiced allegations against homeopathy are repeatedly transmitted through articles and opinion interviews in newspapers and various popular media, refraining from following the usual scientific path of submitting them to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Therefore, pseudoskeptics act according to two weights and two measures: they require homeopathic researchers to publish their studies in non-homeopathic scientific journals (although studies related to any medical specialization are published in specialized journals), but they discard this premise, disseminating their criticisms of homeopathy, propagating them in nonscientific mass media as “double standards in the application of criticism.”

Brazilian homeopathy also suffers constant attacks from pseudoskeptical groups just as in Europe. In order to demystify the pseudoskeptical fallacy that “there is no scientific evidence for homeopathy,” the Technical Chamber for Homeopathy (TC-Homeopathy), Regional Medical Council of the State of São Paulo (Cremesp, Brazil) prepared a Special Dossier in 2017 entitled “Scientific Evidence for Homeopathy”77. Teixeira MZ. Proofs that Homeopathic Medicine Works: Dossier “Scientific Evidence for Homeopathy” (Revista de Homeopatia, São Paulo Homeopathic Medical Association). Homeopathy. 2018;107(1):45. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0037-1613677
https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1055/...
,88. Teixeira MZ. Special Dossier: “Scientific Evidence for Homeopathy”. Rev Assoc Med Bras. 2018;64(2):93-4. https://doi.org/10.1590/1806-9282.64.02.93
https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1590/...
, which is available online in Portuguese and English in the Revista de Homeopatia, the scientific journal of the São Paulo Homeopathic Medical Association (APH).

The dossier encompasses nine narrative reviews in several lines of homeopathic research (i.e., historical, social, medical education, pharmacological, basics, clinical, patient safety, and pathogenetic) and two randomized clinical trials developed by TC-Homeopathy members contain hundreds of scientific articles published in several peer-reviewed and indexed scientific journals; it seeks to highlight the state-of-the-art in homeopathic research77. Teixeira MZ. Proofs that Homeopathic Medicine Works: Dossier “Scientific Evidence for Homeopathy” (Revista de Homeopatia, São Paulo Homeopathic Medical Association). Homeopathy. 2018;107(1):45. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0037-1613677
https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1055/...
,88. Teixeira MZ. Special Dossier: “Scientific Evidence for Homeopathy”. Rev Assoc Med Bras. 2018;64(2):93-4. https://doi.org/10.1590/1806-9282.64.02.93
https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1590/...
.

Bothered by the excellence of these lots of evidence, in November 2020, a group of Brazilian pseudoskeptics disclosed a derisory and fallacious manuscript (“Counter-dossier of Evidence on Homeopathy”) in the media and social networks to evaluate some of the articles published in the referred dossier according to “the best scientific rigor” and “inform the population about what science says about the supposed effectiveness of Homeopathy.”

Unfortunately, none of this happened in the aforementioned manuscript. Contrary to the announced “best scientific rigor” in the analysis of the articles of the dossier, what is observed throughout the text is a set of criticisms based on “pseudoskeptical strategies” to debunk and disqualify any scientific work: the tendency to deny, rather than doubt; double standards in the application of criticism; the making of judgments without full inquiry; use of ridicule or ad hominem attacks; presenting insufficient evidence or proof; pejorative labeling of authors; assuming criticism requires no burden of proof (absence of proof); making unsubstantiated counter-claims (nonspecific comments); suggesting that unconvincing studies are grounds for dismissing it; tendency to dismiss all evidence; vitriolic tone; false metaphors; and straight to the mass media among others (“Pseudoskeptic and pseudoscientific fallacies of the ‘Counter-dossier of Evidence on Homeopathy’”)99. Teixeira MZ. Falácias pseudocéticas e pseudocientíficas do “Contradossiê das Evidências sobre a Homeopatia” [Pseudoskeptic and pseudoscientific fallacies of the “Counter-dossier of Evidence on Homeopathy”]. São Paulo: Associação Paulista de Homeopatia (APH); 2020 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]. 43 p. Available from: Available from: https://pesquisa.bvsalud.org/portal/resource/pt/biblio-1145551?lang=en
https://pesquisa.bvsalud.org/portal/reso...
.

In highlighting these pseudoskeptical strategies in the detailed analysis of the presented criticisms99. Teixeira MZ. Falácias pseudocéticas e pseudocientíficas do “Contradossiê das Evidências sobre a Homeopatia” [Pseudoskeptic and pseudoscientific fallacies of the “Counter-dossier of Evidence on Homeopathy”]. São Paulo: Associação Paulista de Homeopatia (APH); 2020 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]. 43 p. Available from: Available from: https://pesquisa.bvsalud.org/portal/resource/pt/biblio-1145551?lang=en
https://pesquisa.bvsalud.org/portal/reso...
, we unmasked these pseudoskeptics disguised as pseudoscientists as the false and hypocritical image of being the “defenders of science,” as they call themselves in the aforementioned contra-dossier. The blindness caused by pseudoskepticism or pathological skepticism caused “experienced and renowned researchers in their areas of concentration” to incur childish errors in their prejudiced analyses, such as simple attentive reading of the texts they attacked in a fallacious way, denoting noncompliance with basic premises of the scientific method.

“The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt” (René Descartes, “Discourse on Method”).

REFERENCES

  • 1
    Dumont JP. Le scepticisme et le phénomène: essai sur la signification et les origines du pyrrhonisme. Partie 1. Paris: Vrin; 1972 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]. 415 p. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/DUMLSE
    » https://philpapers.org/rec/DUMLSE
  • 2
    Truzzi M. On pseudo-skepticism. Zetetic Scholar. 1987 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]; (12-13). Available from: Available from: https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/pseudo.html
    » https://www.anomalist.com/commentaries/pseudo.html
  • 3
    The plasma universe. Pseudoskepticism. [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://www.plasma-universe.com/pseudoskepticism/#cite_note-22
    » https://www.plasma-universe.com/pseudoskepticism/#cite_note-22
  • 4
    Cabbolet M. Elementary process theory: a formal axiomatic system with a potential application as a foundational framework for physics supporting gravitational repulsion of matter and antimatter. Ann Phys. 2010;522(10):699-738. https://doi.org/10.1002/andp.201000063
    » https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1002/andp.201000063
  • 5
    Cabbolet MJTF. Tell-tale signs of pseudoskepticism (bogus skepticism). [cited on Apr. 01, 2021]. Available from: Available from: https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3
    » https://philpapers.org/rec/CABTSO-3
  • 6
    Cabbolet MJTF. Scientific misconduct: three forms that directly harm others as the modus operandi of Mill’s tyranny of the prevailing opinion. Sci Eng Ethics. 2014;20(1):41-54. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-013-9433-8
    » https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-013-9433-8
  • 7
    Teixeira MZ. Proofs that Homeopathic Medicine Works: Dossier “Scientific Evidence for Homeopathy” (Revista de Homeopatia, São Paulo Homeopathic Medical Association). Homeopathy. 2018;107(1):45. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0037-1613677
    » https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0037-1613677
  • 8
    Teixeira MZ. Special Dossier: “Scientific Evidence for Homeopathy”. Rev Assoc Med Bras. 2018;64(2):93-4. https://doi.org/10.1590/1806-9282.64.02.93
    » https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1590/1806-9282.64.02.93
  • 9
    Teixeira MZ. Falácias pseudocéticas e pseudocientíficas do “Contradossiê das Evidências sobre a Homeopatia” [Pseudoskeptic and pseudoscientific fallacies of the “Counter-dossier of Evidence on Homeopathy”]. São Paulo: Associação Paulista de Homeopatia (APH); 2020 [cited on Apr. 1, 2021]. 43 p. Available from: Available from: https://pesquisa.bvsalud.org/portal/resource/pt/biblio-1145551?lang=en
    » https://pesquisa.bvsalud.org/portal/resource/pt/biblio-1145551?lang=en

  • Funding: none

Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    15 Oct 2021
  • Date of issue
    June 2021

History

  • Received
    01 Apr 2021
  • Accepted
    26 Apr 2021
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