My twitter account “@standupmaths” is the expected mix of mathematics and jokes (with possibly more maths than people initially expect before they slowly acclimatise). But every now and then it is hijacked by myself as I release a flood of tweets to taunt a homeopath. Most likely Dana Ullman.
People often ask why I take my collection of teachers, maths enthusiasts and comedy-fan followers and use them as a digital stick to poke a homeopath. The subject-matter itself comes as no surprise – my views on homeopathy and Alt Med in general are well known – but rather that I would waste my time pestering someone who is so extremely unlikely to change their mind.
My policy on these things is simple; I will not waste my time arguing with people who adamantly believe in homeopathy, biodynamic cosmic energy, astrology, hidden messages in prime numbers, the Moon landing hoax or anything else on the made-up-shit-spectrum except for one tiny exception: If there’s an audience.
Twitter is the perfect combination of ready-made audience and homeopaths who will engage with you despite themselves.
My main conversational partner is Dana Ullman. This is because there are plenty of easy targets in the Land of Hippies but I don’t want to just go after some poor retiree at home who has developed an interest in homeopathy and a website from the late 90s. That would prove nothing. I go after Dana Ullman because he is described as “homeopathy’s foremost spokesman”, is a member of the Advisory Council of the Alternative Medicine Center, is a prolific author and writes for the Huffington Post. Here’s his wikipedia page. And, unlike some other Alt Med people, he doesn’t realise that just shutting-up and never responding is the most-effective defence against skeptics.
I was bored at home on a sick-day yesterday, and as I was curled-up on my sofa I noticed Dana had tweeted a link to some nano-particle research. I’m not going to bore you with a transcript of such an encounter (you may have already had to live through it in real-time), but here’s a rough outline with my chat with him last night:
This is a brilliant Alt Med strategy where they link their therapy (homeopathy) to a legitimate scientific area of research (nano-materials) and then put forward proper scientific papers from that area as proof of their Alt Med methods.
As always, I then ask him how nano-particles can explain such things as “homeopathic dolphin sonar”, or any of the other non-matter things homeopaths claim to be able to dilute with water. The fantastic thing about the Alt Med continuity is that even the most serious practitioners will never break-rank and say how ridiculous the fringe aspects are, and so they all end-up looking silly by association. I have no doubt Dana hates the people who claim to dilute the Berlin Wall as a remedy, but he can’t publicly say so.
The closest he has ever come was probably yesterday, when he decided to call me out as making up the dolphin-sonar people for use as a straw-man argument. Thankfully diluted dolphin-sonar has been sold by Ainsworths – homeopathic suppliers to the Royal Family – and is still readily available online.
This follow-up is a classic move where he completely changes argument-tack (suddenly my made-up straw-man is real and he’s defending it) as well as packing the tweet with several other layers of wrong as a kind of ‘argument chaff’. I consider this burst of logical fallacies as a DoS attack on your brain’s logic systems; there’s suddenly so many incorrect points to counter that you lose track of the original argument.
Tactics aside, the question still remains: why would I engage with these people even given there is an audience in attendance? It’s because while I have no intention of ever changing the arguer’s mind, I do hope to increase general awareness of just how ridiculous some aspects of Alt Med et al are. A lot of people are vaguely aware of homeopathy as a kind of natural herbal thing (much like thinking chiropractors are kinda just a type of physiotherapist) but when they see a leading practitioner trying to defend diluting nano-particles of dolphin-sonar, they see it for the 18th century wishful-thinking it really is.
There is no better way to show people how silly homeopath is than to get the people who believe in it, to discus and defend how it works in a public forum.
So, sorry to everyone who follows me on twitter for maths+jokes and then is suddenly subjected to some member of the pseudo-science community dancing about, trying to justify their wacky beliefs. Just take not of how ridiculous their arguments are and then wait for normal numerical tweets to resume.
And for those of you who follow me for the Alt Med bashing: don’t forget that it’s you guys I’m trying to wean onto maths.