‘How can you deny my experience?’

[BPSDB] A few months ago someone commenting on a blog post (I think it was on Gimpy’s blog) described how some of his family were allegedly cured of illness by homeopathy, and asked ‘How can people deny my experience of this’?

I did not have time to reply on that occasion, but I thought that the question deserved a serious reply, and I considered how I would have replied to it.

To deny or belittle someone’s experience is a serious matter, especially when that experience has been a tragic one (which fortunately it hadn’t been in this case). For example, people who have pointed out the strong evidence that autism cannot have been caused by the MMR vaccine have found themselves accused of being sceptical or uncaring about the experience of the autistic children or their parents, even though that is clearly not the case.

So, if I respond to the homeopathy questioner, ‘no, I don’t think your family were cured by homeopathy’, am I denying his experience? The answer is ‘no’, but the reason is not an obvious one.

I would not deny the experience that the members of his family had the experience of being ill and getting better. As I do not know him personally, I cannot be in any position to deny or affirm it, but I tend to assume that people are telling the truth unless I have evidence otherwise, or unless the stakes are very high. In the interest of discussion, I accept that he had that experience.

Similarly I would not deny that the questioner’s family members had homeopathic treatment for their illness. Again, this is something I am happy to take his word on.

But that is not all there is to the claimed ‘experience’. There is an additional claim that they got better because of their homeopathic treatment. This is not an experience. It is an explanation. Even if the family members were made better by the homeopathic treatment, this explanation cannot be experienced directly.

An explanation is a story we create describing the supposed causes of events or phenomena. An explanation may be true or false, and we may sometimes be able to use our experience directly to confirm an explanation, for example, if we see someone knocked down by a car or shot with a bullet, we may be able to say that the cause of death was the accident or the shooting, and ignore the fact that the dead person had (say) serious heart disease or a brain tumour. But causes are rarely that obvious, which is why in cases of death we expect a doctor to certify the cause of death, with in some cases the need for an autopsy or an inquest.

In science, explanations are called theories. (I am simplifying here, but a scientific theory is basically an explanation for a whole lot of observations). The reason why science exists is that explanations are not obvious, and the most seemingly obvious explanation is often the wrong one. Scientists have to consider all the possible explanations for the phenomena they are studying, and try to weed out the wrong ones by looking for the evidence that contradicts them and shows that those explanations are wrong.

We are often led to the wrong explanations by the fact that we do not have all the evidence. We tend to jump to the conclusion that most pleases us and fits the evidence that we have (or that we are prepared to consider, because very often people ignore evidence that does not fit their preferred explanation).

As an example, watch the TV programme The System by Derren Brown if you get the chance. In this programme, Derren supplies a young woman with correct forecasts on the outcome of a series of races. By the fifth race, she has overcome her scepticism and is willing to believe that Derren has a ‘system’ that enables him to predict the results correctly, and she borrows a lot of money to place on Derren’s prediction for the sixth race…

What she doesn’t know (and apparently does not consider as a possibility) is that she is part of an elaborate version of a scam that is commonly used by share tipsters.The true explanation is simply that the programme team has sent out different predictions to a large number of people, and she just happens, by chance, to be the one who received all the correct predictions for the first five races. There is really no reason to suppose she has better odds than pure chance of winning on that sixth race. The evidence was not available to her (or she did not consider it) to determine the real reason for her winning streak.

Of course, there is a lot more to the programme than that, and Derren is too much of a showman to give all his secrets away. We know in all his programmes that he is keeping information from us. We understand that stage magicians do not really do ‘magic’ (the apparent explanation for what they do) but that if we had more information we would know the real explanation for the tricks that amaze and amuse us.

And yet… so many of us fall for the same ‘trick’ when it is done by nature rather than a magician. We jump to an explanation that does not take account of the knowledge  we do not have (or that we ignore). The questioner in the blog was in the same position as Derren’s ‘victim’ in the programme. She assumed that there was a ‘system’, even though she did not know the full facts and more knowledge tells us that this could not be the case. The homeopathy questioner assumed the ‘most obvious’ explanation, that the homeopathic remedies were responsible for the getting better. But that is not ‘experience’. There are other possible explanations, that the questioner’s experience cannot rule out. Most of these are impossible to discuss without knowing the details of the cases. But the  most obvious explanation is that the patients would have got better anyway without assistance. This is the explanation that homeopathy ignores, but science cannot. It is why science advances all the time, while homeopathy is stuck in a time-warp of ignorance.

To summarise: I do not deny the questioner’s experience that the patients got better, and that they took homeopathic remedies. But that the homeopathic remedies caused the improvement is not part of his experience. It is an explanation. The difference between science and homeopathy is that science is obliged to question this explanation and test it against evidence. Homeopathy does not do this.