how webcomics tackle woo with humor and logic

October 24, 2010

Once upon a time I took on homeopaths’ claims that diluting something hundreds of thousands of times is an idea that Big Pharma finds so dangerous, it must be suppressed at all costs. But if potentization was such an immensely powerful method, I asked, why wouldn’t businesses embrace it to save tens of billions a year in production costs? Just a few batches of medicine or vitamins would ever have to be made, so companies can save mountains of cash they could use to hire new employees to handle the increased volume of sales, pay a massive dividend to shareholders, and give their existing employees new perks. Well, Jonathan Rosenberg’s strip in Scenes From A Multiverse took that idea and ran with it, applying potentization to a not-so-local diner.

In the same vein, the always terrific xkcd made a handy chart for how woo of all stripes could be used by the business world and scientists to save and make trillions of dollars, if it was, you know, real. I know that the alt med crowd really, really loves its conspiracy theories, but when the woo you’re pitching could make people a fortune if it yielded consistent, reliable, and measurable results in experiments, and those very people ready and willing to take big chances on making a buck aren’t doing it, or toy with the idea and abandon it, only those in complete denial and with no grasp of logic would resort to a conspiracy about protecting one’s profits with a campaign against their favorite pseudoscience. How pray tell would anyone save money if she has to keep on spending cash to make real world products, especially if there’s nothing expressly forbidding her to adapt the very same techniques that supposedly allow quacks to circumvent the basic laws of chemistry and physics?

Unless of course we borrow from Mike Adams’ paranoid logic and conclude that pharmaceutical companies are secretly using potentization themselves in the secret factories built under their existing plants, supplying a steady stream of nearly infinitely diluted medicine, lashing out at homeopaths so others won’t learn their dark secret. But that really wouldn’t explain why it costs an average of $800 million to bring new medications to the local pharmacy, but I’m sure that part of it has something to do with actually having to meet safety and efficacy standards rather than just use a legal loophole to sell tens of billions of dollars worth of placebos

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  • Paul

    There’s a type of techno-woo called TMS (**). Alt.therapists buy a device for several grand, which consists of a crudely made box with about $20 worth of electronic parts from Radio Shack. The Woo is that it’s an oscillator circuit that resonates with the “frequency” of viruses, bacteria, cancer, etc. Then you look up the complimentary “frequency”, dial it in, and it cures whatever it detected.

    Crap of course, and actively banned by the medical device regulator here in Australia (one of the few times they’ve acted against woo), although it keeps re-appearing under different names.

    (** From memory. Not transcranial magnetic stimulation. Later: Google says no. Says syncrometer, or “zapper”. But I’m sure there was a TLA. Thermo-something-something.)

    But what if it worked? How awesome would that be? Not for the makers of the original device and their alt.therapist-customers, because they are clearly idiots, but for mainstream medicine/science/engineering. Even ignoring the Nobel Prize. Anything that these crude devices could do would be easily reproduced on chip, allowing for miniaturisation and automation, and mass production. A $20 bracelet/pendant that constantly monitors (and treats) your health. Automatic protection and treatment of livestock without expensive drugs or toxic “drenches”.

    And if it worked as advertised, an understanding of the theory behind it would open up massive new opportunities for development. Not just health. If these “frequencies” can detect and eliminate viruses, bacteria and abnormal cells, they must be able to detect and manipulate any target molecule; think computer-aided molecular chemistry, any engineering, rapid prototyping, DNA sequencing, etc etc etc etc etc…

    The idea that anyone from “mainstream science” wouldn’t want this device to be real, is ridiculous. The same with homoeopathy, dowsing, etc etc. If they worked, if there was a genuine phenomenon, the version used by the believers would be trivial compared to what real scientists could do with underlying principles. Physicists started with the photo-electric effect and ended up with quantum mechanics, for christ’s sake. And a thought experiment about photons became relativity, then the big bang theory. Imagine what they could do with auras! Or crystal energy! Or…

    It often feels like the believers actually lack the imagination to see the true implications and potential of their “theories”.