Thursday, November 15, 2007

Legendary Legend or Mysterious Mystery?

Orac's been keeping up with an obvious urban legend, and here's his latest. What really annoys me is that when the woos "researching" it keep failing to find evidence of it, they just add another level of conspiratorial thinking on top of the previous level.

Here's the rundown of the legend: Supposedly, some kid by the name of Chad Jessop "cured" his melanoma with some "natural means", but The Big Bad Government is forcing him to undergo chemotherapy (which doctors say is not appropriate for the condition, anyway), and when his mother showed up in court to protest, somehow the judge threw out her right to hire an attorney, had her arrested without anyone present raising a massive stink, and issued an omnipotent gag order that forbade the press from talking about it.

You buying this? No, me neither.

Add onto the absurdities of the tale, people who tell us, essentially, "Some unnamed guy who personally knows them says it's true" or "I'm that guy. It's true." Yet, despite all these alleged witnesses, there's no evidence that can be tracked down, no paper trail, and, apparently, no one can even name the judge who allegedly did this (UPDATE: Someone named her and pulled out a spontaneously combusting straw man in the process). It seems like every time someone adds another red flag that signals "urban legend!", they claim it's evidence in favor of it being a growing conspiracy.

It seems to me like a case of woos having to convince themselves they were right beforehand, like Akusai expressed. Here, they have a story of villains obviously in the hands of the evil Big Pharma doing evil things and covering them up perfectly. Sounds a lot like that urban legend about this woman getting a magic carburetor part that pushes her up to 300 mpg before the Men in Black steal it and cover the whole thing up. Well, gee, the woos keep telling us Big Pharma/Big Oil is villainous and do those sorts of things, therefore this legend must be true. (And I certainly won't argue against Big Oil being bad, but that's not my point.)

The latter tale about the magic carburetor doesn't strike me as much different. It involves something that any rational person should see as fishy (one single part no one can get giving a car efficiency higher than the laws of physics allow), and evil people who cover it up, despite the fact that if such a thing existed, it'd be plastered all over the internet and available for testing by anyone. They invent a crime (creating and not releasing a super fuel efficiency booster/free energy machine) and a cover up.

The Jessop tale involves believing in a judge who can violate the Constitution at will and silence everyone about it. On top of that, it requires believing that not one person was willing to violate the gag order. They invent a series of crimes (Constitutional violations, needlessly subjecting an allegedly cured individual to an uncomfortable and probably expensive medical procedure) and a cover up.

Both of these smell like propaganda to get people angry at a particular enemy. It's like a recruitment drive for alties and free energy woos. Make a cartoonishly evil villain and hope they don't notice the cartoonishly part so that they can join you (and maybe send money) in the fight against the fake evil. Usually because you don't think they're smart enough to understand the real, more understated evil, or even if there's a real evil to combat.

I'm not saying the tale's impossible (that's a word largely slated for woo use), but everything about it is a red flag against its probability. I could very well be wrong, and such a travesty could possibly have happened. But I see no convincing evidence it did. I'll change my mind when the evidence comes in, because I'm not interested in being right beforehand on gut instinct. I'm interested in being right at the end, based on evidence.

Whether woos like it or not, it's okay to be wrong on your first guess. The coolest things happen when scientists find out they were wrong, because that means they've developed a better picture of what's right and change their mind accordingly. Woos, however, will stay the course, rather than admit they're fallible.

EDIT: If there's any truth at all to this story, here's what I think it probably is: Kit got treated with caustic black salve, and was (hopefully) cured, getting a nasty scar when surgery would probably have been much cleaner, safer, and definite. Mother gets stuck in some red tape about insurance, which gets exaggerated into the propaganda tale it is now. After the truth comes out, there'll be a possibility that the caustic salve didn't get it all, and if it resurfaces, the woo community will just ignore that, preserving their popular melodramatic fiction over the actual events where they may be the ones to blame.

1 comment:

Lifewish said...

Consider inductive reasoning (or falsificationism or whatever). Broadly speaking, this operates off the principle that assuming the universe has uniformity can't do any harm, and may do some good.

There's a pathological case where this isn't true: where the universe is actively trying to make your life difficult. In that situation, the uniformity assumption is a death-trap. Just imagine trying to win a poker game by rigorous experimentation - you'd get 0wned.

The human brain has access to a different kind of rationality designed to handle these cases. It's a rationality aimed at (to quote Neal Stephenson) condensing fact from the vapour of nuance. It uses rules like "once accident, twice coincidence, three times enemy action". It's not rational in the usual sense - but, insofar as rationality is ultimately pragmatic, it has an equal claim to the title.

So in a sense you could say that conspiracy theorists aren't really irrational - they're just jumping the gun slightly by engaging this secondary mode of rationality before they know there's something there to be investigated. The problem is, of course, that once it's been engaged it can't be turned off. When later tests come back negative, that just means your enemy is even smarter than you thought.

Any thoughts on this thesis?