A couple of weeks ago, my younger sister (very smart woman, highly educated and well-read) told me that she was seeing a chiropractor to treat the carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist. I assumed that the chiropractor had given her some excercises to strengthen her wrists, but when she told me that the chiropracter had instead told her that the problem was really in her neck, alarm bells went off.
I asked my sister if she was sure this guy was a reputable chiropracter and not a quack, she assured me that he was. I then asked her if he gave here a full body x-ray at the first visit (yes, he did). I asked whether he blamed everything on “subluxation” (yes, he did). I asked whether he told her that a minimum number of visits would be required to deal with the problem (yes, he did). I then told her that these were all things that indicated the chiropractor might, in fact, be a quack.
Well, first she asked me where I got my information, and I told her that I had read it on a number of websites, including www.quackwatch.org and www.chrirobase.org. She then told me that I shouldn’t believe everything I read, especially on the Internet, and that the people who run those sites probably have an axe or two to grind.
And she is, of course, perfectly correct (at least insofar as not trusting everything you read). And this made me realize how unstable the foundation of my skepticism might possibly be.
I am not a doctor, and don’t really know how the spine and various nerves in my body interact. I have read articles from doctors and scientists who state that chiropractic “medicine” is, on the whole, complete bunk, and I tend to believe it, but I don’t have any first-hand experience.
I am not a physicist and cannot say from personal experimentation that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant, and yet I accept that this is the case because it is “common knowledge.” Therefore, I tend to be skeptical about UFOs and reject the idea that they are interstellar crafts piloted by aliens.
I have read articles and seen TV programs where people have claimed to have made crop circles with boards attached to ropes, and I believe this to be the actual cause of crop circles. And yet, I’ve never seen anybody actually make a crop circle this way, and thus have no first-hand knowledge that they can, in fact, be made this way.
Whenever a particular claim is made that seems to me to be unlikely, I turn to the “experts” to see what they think. Invariably, the claim is debunked, and I feel smugly self-satisfied with the knowledge that my skepticism was justified. But was it really? How I can really know that the “experts” are correct? Those who believe in UFOs, crop circles, chiropractic medicine, etc., have just as many “experts” on their side – it’s just that I don’t accept the validity of their authority or testimony.
One difference, of course, is that “legitimate” experts make claims that are reproducible, whereas the quacks seem to have a problem with that. To which my sister responds, “Well, every time I go to the chiropractor I feel better.”
Anyway, seeing as how we are not all Renaissance men with a degree in every scientific discipline, how do we justify our skepticism? How skeptical must we be of those who debunk what we perceive as unlikely? How much of our “skepticism” is merely cynicism justified by the “experts” we choose to agree with?
Does anybody other than me ever worry about this stuff?