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July 28, 2008

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Well done! I never considered the idea of provenance as a debate tactic against woo and its purveyors. A novel argument is quite impressive, and distinctly un-woolike.

It must have been: "Ich wette, Ähnliches wird duch Ähnliches geheilt!"

Excellent. You articulated a lot of nagging things in the back of my mind that I havent had time to deal with yet.

While it doesn't in any way detract form your argument, 'like cures like' has roots in folk history - IIRC it's mentioned in Stanley Rubin's 'Medieval English Medicine' (out of print, I think, and not terribly well written).

Homeopathy fans also love those 19th century studies showing homeopathic hospitals getting better results than conventional ones (shame they don't have any evidence from the most recent century, but hey, whatever you can get).

Just trying to say that there is some evidence or tradition to support some woo, the difference is that they don't reject the stuff that's investigated and found to be bunk.

If I'm not mistaken, the only provenance for "like cures like" and related claims is simply the folk notion that Charlotte speaks of, which is essentially sympathetic magic. That tradition is extremely ancient and (obviously) extremely persistent, but it is really more superstition than anything else.

What's interesting is that inoculation and, later, vaccination superficially seem as if they could have derived from the same idea -- and they actually work! The difference is that Edward Jenner, for example, did NOT come up with smallpox inoculations because of any quaint folk idea of "like cures like," but because of his own observations of actual cases of illness, which he then tested by experiment. The resemblance in vaccination to "like cures (or protects against) like" is thus purely coincidental.


~David D.G.

Here's a site about color photography from Russia and Central Asia around 1900.

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/empire.html

It has a good illustration of how the images would have been built up using the colored filters, as well as some pretty amazing old pics.

Here's the page explaining the technical stuff:

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/making.html

Actually, ordinary sympathetic magic held that opposites cured. The idea of like clearing like developes from the work of the 16th century alchemist Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoheneim (oridinarily known as Paracelsus, but who can resist that name?), as does the smaller concentrations--for instance if he treated an infected wound he would make a poltice with just a tiny amount of horse manure to draw out the corruption in the infection.

Nevertheless I consider your argument a good one.

It really marks a shift from authority based on revelation to authority based on research.

If I may expand as an afterthought: The ancients thought of everything such as astrology, medicine, etc., beginning in prehsitory or some other early time when it had been handed down by the gods in a perfect form and constatnly getting worse as human imperfectins degraded it through the generations--we, on the other hand believe in progress as described here (well, except for a few French and Belgian intellectuals).

Skeptico,

Great, great post. up there with Pretty Soon (one of my favorites). Good work! I;ve got nothing to add.

Helena,
I continue to enjoy your contributions and your knowledge on "history of ancient woo" (tm). I still would like to see a short book or article form you on that. Consider that to be just friendly encouragement. :)

Does this mean that Quantum Healing ™ is more likely to work than Ancient Healing??

I might have misunderstood this concept (or at least its application to science), but the idea of provenance smells a little of an appeal to authority to me. I don’t see why the origin of the idea matters at all, as long as the numbers add up and it does what it's supposed to?

Would it be correct to say that the Theory of Relativity had a lack of scientific provenance in 1905 when Einstein released his first paper?

Btw, I also enjoyed the high information-to-slur ratio of this post.

Martin, if the example of relativity was making your point that just the data is important I think you missed the mark.

However brilliant Einstein was, he did not create the Theory of Relativity in a vaccuum. There was lots of work and observations that was done before him. Sure he tied a lot of stuff together, but it was not out of the blue and it didnt contradict earlier results.

This actually reminds me of one of my recent posts pointing out that Blacklight energy is doing something similar. The owner has written a book in which he claims to unify physics, then he started his company around it the theory. The problem is that the theory comes form nowhere and actually has to ignore previous verified observations in order to be right.

Einstien incorporated his and others observations to create the theory.

Of course you are right that the data is important, but what led to that data is equally important for sniffing out nonsense.

It's not an appeal to authority because he argued (correctly) that conclusions still require proof. Provenance can make a claim plausible, but it is still proof that makes it valid.

New claims like relativity may seem bizarre and revolutionary when they are introduced, but relativity also explained a number of unanswered questions, and did, despite requiring Einstein's genius to see it, follow from previous knowledge. This made it worthy of further inspection and refinement, and ultimately experimental support was found. Had that not happened relativity would have been trashed, provenance or not.

In contrast, woo claims are generally created with out any logical basis, be it existing theories, questions, or evidence. Because of this, were one to be correct it would only be by dumb luck. Further, lacking provenance there is a greater burden of support required for a new idea to become a reasonable candidate as a working explanation. It speaks volumes that the purveyors of woo are so resistant to testing their ideas, and to acknowledging the (mountainous) evidence against them. Not really a surprise, since they didn't seem to need any evidence to get their ideas in the first place.

"It speaks volumes that the purveyors of woo are so resistant to testing their ideas, and to acknowledging the (mountainous) evidence against them."

- Yes, and add to that the point that it is they themselves who claim that their ideas/products work in a reliable, predictable, detectable manner, and they who accuse scientists of dogmatically refusing to accept their work as scientific.

Everyone: My first thought when I read the post was "sympathetic magic," but I'm glad to see that ground has been well-covered. Great post, Skeptico.

Martin:

I might have misunderstood this concept (or at least its application to science), but the idea of provenance smells a little of an appeal to authority to me. I don’t see why the origin of the idea matters at all, as long as the numbers add up and it does what it's supposed to?

When talking about the "origin" of the idea, it's not about the who, but the how and why and what. Newton described it as standing on the shoulders of giants--his work was built upon what had come before. That's all that Skeptico is talking about: tracing the progression of ideas through history, creating a genealogy of understanding. While demonstrating that your hypothesis builds naturally out of existing theory is not enough to demonstrate that the hypothesis is true (that's reserved for experimentation and evidence), it does lend plausibility to the hypothesis. It all relates back to the whole "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" thing--provenance slightly lessens the extraordinariness of your claim.

Would it be correct to say that the Theory of Relativity had a lack of scientific provenance in 1905 when Einstein released his first paper?
Nope, because Einstein's relativity built on a variety of previous notions in science. Go ahead and check out the Wikipedia page on Special Relativity; Galileo is cited in the first paragraph. But, more specifically, it's implied in Newtonian mechanics that all uniform motion is relative to frames of reference (it wasn't Newton who'd put it that way, but it was scientists before Einstein). Simply, when I look out the window of a moving train, I feel as though I am stationary and the trees and landscape are quickly moving to my rear. Conversely, if I'm standing alongside the railroad tracks, I feel as though I am stationary, and the train is moving. And if I am floating outside the orbit of the Earth, I feel that I am stationary and the people standing alongside railroad tracks are spinning around at a dizzying pace. That's all relativistic, long before Einstein played with matters.

The big revelation of Special Relativity, though, comes largely out of Maxwell's equations for light--specifically, as Skeptico cited, the constant c, the speed of light. Einstein demonstrated with special relativity that since c is a constant, time and space must not be absolute constants, as Newton had thought them to be. One of Special Relativity's biggest contributions was throwing out Newton's privileged inertial frame of reference and demonstrating that all inertial frames of reference are equally valid, and are measured against the constant speed of light (in a vacuum).

Heady stuff, but not without precedent.

I hate to give the woo babies any ammunition, but nobody has yet mentioned snake anti-venom. Hey, just because it works in one case does not mean that, should I ingest say, a so-dilute concentration of Mad Cow that it could not possibly contain a single molecule, it's going to do a thing for me.

Hey Martin:
E = f(lamda)
f(lamda) = MC^2

Einstein did the heavy lifting to prove the Converse Law holds true.

Ok so provenance is a property that is interwoven into the fabric of science itself, and thus all scientific discoveries have provenance? That kind of dilutes the concept a little for me, but come to think of it also made it stronger.

Techskeptic:

Sure he tied a lot of stuff together, but it was not out of the blue and it didnt contradict earlier results.

From my wikipedian knowledge of Special Relativity, I would say that SR was a bone shattering contradiction in the sense that it turned our view of reality on its head with the introduction of “space-time”. I realize however that the laws of Newtonian mechanics hold in the limit when speeds approach zero, so in that sense it didn’t contradict earlier results, at least not for the above special case. My initial thought was that this is not building upon something, but rather tearing down the existing theory and erecting a new one. But I now understand your objection to this, and of course it was not a revelation out of the blue so I will meet you half-way and propose that he buried the Newtonian ideas of how things worked and build his new theory of relativity on top of the grave site.

Skeptico:
When using the word “slur” it was directed at the general content of the web and not this blog in particular.

Breakerslion:
What is f(lamda) ?

Revelation out of the blue: You were trying to say that energy is a function of wavelength. Right. It's been a long summer.

(it's lambda with a 'b' by the way :)

"I hate to give the woo babies any ammunition, but nobody has yet mentioned snake anti-venom."

I'm a bit confused by this -
Snake-anti venom isn't homoepathy and not really even "like cures like" - stimulating antibodies to something isn't curing an existing infection/envenomtion, it's slowly building up immunity so you don't get infected/affected by the causative agent next time.

Ok so provenance is a property that is interwoven into the fabric of science itself, and thus all scientific discoveries have provenance? That kind of dilutes the concept a little for me, but come to think of it also made it stronger.
I think it's possible for a scientific theory to not have a clear line of provenance, though it would be difficult at this point. Six or seven hundred years ago, when our knowledge about the universe was a fraction of what it is now (which is still a fraction of what it will be in the future, hopefully), it might have been easier and more likely to come up with something brand new. It's hard to think of any examples, though--even that long ago, most new theories were still overturning old theories and hypotheses. If you go back far enough, those hypotheses often cease being based in any kind of scientific methodology (I'm thinking of humours, stars in the firmament, and so forth), but still persisted and attempted to explain existing phenomena nevertheless.

The likeliest candidates for theories without provenance are brand new discoveries. For instance, when they actually discover what dark energy is, you could argue that it might be a theory without provenance, based on the observations of the actual material. You could also argue that the theory still builds out of the work of folks like Hubble, but I think the trail of provenance is going to be an awful lot shorter.

The key to all this is that if a hypothesis is supported by the evidence of observation and experimentation, it will become accepted regardless of provenance. It's possible that some discovery will come far out of left field and be based solely on new observation, and provided that such observations are valid and repeatable and verifiable, those will be enough to support the new theory.

From my wikipedian knowledge of Special Relativity, I would say that SR was a bone shattering contradiction in the sense that it turned our view of reality on its head with the introduction of “space-time”. I realize however that the laws of Newtonian mechanics hold in the limit when speeds approach zero, so in that sense it didn’t contradict earlier results, at least not for the above special case. My initial thought was that this is not building upon something, but rather tearing down the existing theory and erecting a new one.
And, like I said in the previous paragraph, lots of new theories--maybe even most--revise some earlier, cruder theory. Einstein didn't necessarily introduce space-time; what he did was link the two together and demonstrate that, contrary to Newtonian mechanics, there's no perfect, absolute, stationary frame of reference. Every frame of reference is relative to every other one, and the "absolute," as shown by Maxwell, is the speed of light in a vacuum, c. Einsteinian relativity doesn't bury Newtonian mechanics; it incorporates it. After all, Newtonian mechanics is very good at describing things on a certain level or in certain situations; you don't need anything more than Newtonian physics to get to the moon, for instance. But in other areas, Newtonian mechanics breaks down and is unable to describe phenomena accurately. This was known, and was a problem, before Einstein hit the scene (and partially led to his discovery)--the Michelson-Morley experiment is a good example. It falsified the idea of the luminiferous aether, the medium through which light was thought to travel, by demonstrating contrary to their hypotheses that the speed of light didn't change, regardless of what direction one approached the beam from (that's a bad explanation, chances are Wikipedia goes about it in a clearer way).

And here's why provenance is so commonplace in science: it's the holes in the current theories that tell us where we need to look and figure stuff out. When scientists are aware of anomalies in a current theory, and places where the current models break down, it provides rich ground for devising new hypotheses and performing new experiments and learning new things about the universe. It's hard to venture off into the vast unknown, but when you've got big neon arrows pointing at little patches of unknown, you have a better idea of where to look and maybe even what you're looking for.

And that's why we have so many scientists looking for a theory of quantum gravity right now; the current models of general relativity and quantum mechanics both describe the universe very well within their own spheres, but (like Newtonian mechanics a hundred years ago) break down under certain conditions and cannot accurately describe various types of phenomena--black holes, for instance, and other singularities, such as the Big Bang; both theories are very well validated, but each suggests a conflicting hypothesis about the nature of gravity, and there's no clear answer. We know where the weak spots are, and we know that any Grand Unified Theory will have to incorporate both theories into the larger understanding of the universe (just as Einsteinian relativity incorporated Newtonian mechanics), the trick is in figuring out what that GUT looks like.

Great post & comments! -- The contrast between science and woo-claiming-to-be-science can only be understood if science is also understood.

In contrast to science (and the idea of provenance), what woo does is start with a complex of assumptions and then add layer upon layer of extra assertions.

For example: assume that humans have chakras; assert that these chakras can be in or out of balance and that being out of balance creates a disturbance in the life of the person.

Finally, insist that this electric gizmo-thingy which costs $350 will balance your chakras for you.

"What, you don't think it works? Prove it!"

As Skeptico points out, anyone who agrees to set up an experiment to test the gizmo is doing a disservice to scientific method, because the "theory" doesn't have the provenance to warrant being taken seriously. This has nothing to do with an appeal to authority, but lots to do with not wasting time and resources.

"I hate to give the woo babies any ammunition, but nobody has yet mentioned snake anti-venom."

Huh, if a homeopathetic person gets bitten by a snake, I would love to see whether he/she would prefer the scientificly tested anti-snake venom to a homeopathetic diluted version.

The words "you bet your life" come to mind just thinking about this..

Excellent post Skeptico - and nicely summed up: "if woo claims had to be derived by experiment, there wouldn’t be any woo claims."

Cheers,
jdc.

Huh, if a homeopathetic person
I like the idea of a homeopathic person, but I'm pretty sure they'd drown before you reached the right dilution.

I really think this article nails a very subtle, but fundamentally important point. It also reveals why even the mildest suggestion of criticism causes such a storm of insults and a smoke screen of elaborate avoidance strategies from new agers: they believe their "knowledge" comes from divine inspiration, and therefore any questioning of it is perceived as a personal attack on them or on their spirit guide.

In the absence of peer-reviewed testing or any other form of criticism, market forces are the only mechanism which excludes certain ideas and promotes others.

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