Thursday, 4 April 2013

Is Martin Robbins skeptical enough?

Martin Robbins, blogger for the Guardian, spoke to a packed audience at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub this week.  It was not the usual venue (which has a great meeting room but no atmosphere), but a real pub called the Port Mahon in St Clements.  The down-side of this is that the room was long and narrow, filled with an audience of 50 or more, and if you were unlucky enough to be sitting near the back it was difficult to hear or see.  In fact many were not lucky enough to be sitting at all, but the atmosphere was friendly and nobody was complaining

Still, I got more than the gist of his string of anecdotes about quack medicine in Africa, with tales of Joseph Obi in Gambia, Jim "Bleachgate" Humble, Homeopaths without Borders, the 'Real Medicine Foundation', and Jeremy Sherr.

His source of information was a period of a month or so in Africa a couple of years ago.  He had been generously supported by The Wellcome Trust. He and his team were quite successful in their attempt to find quack 1st-world medics plying their trade, but he was keen to point out that some of their associates actually do good charitable work.

Perhaps I was most surprised by his message about skepticism.  He clearly demonstrates a skeptical attitude on a lot of topics, and yet he seems to doubt the value of skeptical blogging in the Western world.  He asks why more skeptics don't get out to Africa to see for themselves what is going on there and to try to do something about it.

And yet . . . he has just been there on a well funded mission and clearly managed to do nothing that is very useful.  Yes he brings back a message about quack medics practising their trade in African countries, but then tells us that nobody here will do anything about it, and that it might even be a bad thing if they did.

To me it is obvious why more skeptics do not go on these missions.  For a start there is no source of funding, whereas quack medicine funds itself.  Secondly, anyone who thought about it would understand that Western quack medicine is probably no more harmful than the indigenous quack medicine practised by witch doctors and shaman. I for one am not a fan of interfering in developing countries. 

If we have learnt anything in recent decades it is that well funded and well-intentioned charity often manage to do more harm than good. 

Amateur skeptics are hardly likely to achieve anything better are we?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wasn't there, so can only go on your report. I don't have any problem with interfering - rather a loaded word - as long as it's making a positive difference. There are pitfalls to beware of, but I prefer not to dismiss the idea out of hand.

On the subject of sc(k)eptical bloggers, he seems to be voicing an opinion I've heard quite a bit in different forms. I don't know that I agree with it, but I can see that you could view at least some bloggers as just writing crowd-pleasing stuff ("Here's my latest clever debunking of homeopathy") that doesn't change anything. I don't move in those circles enough to say whether he's right, but it's certainly something to be aware of and avoid.