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Australasian ScienceWords have meanings.

Iíve written here before about the hijacking of the word "skeptic" by people who should properly be called "deniers". It was even adopted by an anti-vaccination organisation when they were forced to change their deceptive name. They, like climate change deniers, insist that they are the true skeptics because they question the orthodoxy that is supported and promoted by the majority of scientists. They love to point out that science isnít a democracy or a popular vote, that Ignaz Semmelweis was ignored, and that "they all laughed at Galileo". None of this changes the fact that they are misusing the word "skeptic".

Iím sure that many readers here will have the same reaction as I have to the appearance of the word "quantum" in discussions of alternative medicine and the magic power of devices advertised on late night television to cure baldness or remove wrinkles. Back in the day when they sold medications with radium in them and advertised that the radioactivity was a cure-all it might have been accurate to say that quantum effects were involved, but I donít think that you can say the same thing about the sorts of things itís legal to sell today. Iíve seen quantum effects claimed as a possible mechanism for homeopathy, but I think the only relationship is that a "quantum" as understood by a nuclear physicist is almost unimaginably small as is the amount of active ingredient in a homeopathic "medicine".

As a journalist I sometimes think that I am required to misunderstand the expression "quantum leap" and to apply it to dramatic changes. As a quantum leap is about the smallest distance that anything in the universe can travel and make a difference Iím never very impressed when someone offers it to me as a measure of improvement in something new. I was told that my new computer was a quantum leap more powerful than the old one. When I started explaining that I wanted more than one such leap because I had many more memory bits that needed state changes and lots more screen pixels that needed exciting to make light the salespersonís eyes glazed over.

I spent several years at university studying cognitive psychology and at least once a week Iím exposed to an incorrect use of the expression "cognitive dissonance". As the word "dissonance" suggests, this is a discord or disagreement between at least two things. It is a form of psychological discomfort, usually arising because someoneís actions are in conflict with their beliefs or principles. The person then attempts to resolve the dissonance either by modifying what they do or by rationalising or justifying the breach of principles.

A personal example is that when working for a computer consulting company a few years ago I was ordered to rob a client. The word "rob" wasnít used but I was explicitly told to maximise billing without delivering a finished product, so that more invoices could be submitted in the future. Iím sure I could have found many legitimate reasons to comply Ė the salary there was good, if I didnít do it someone else would, we were a relatively small part of the total project cost, the client would need ongoing support in any case, Ö . Iím pleased to say that I resigned the next day. It was the only satisfactory way for me to remove the dissonance. Another example is that one of my oldest friends is a young Earth creationist. We each use the friendship to justify not trying to convert the other person.

The misuse of the term I continually see is it being used to describe a situation where someone is offered correcting information when they are saying something wrong or unscientific but refuse to change their mind. Creationists donít suffer any dissonance when offered evidence for evolution or the age of the Earth Ė they simply ignore it. Believers in homeopathy arenít swayed by explanations of chemistry or geometric progression; they would be placed in a dissonant situation if they received real medicine to treat an illness. An example I see regularly is to say that vaccine deniers have cognitive dissonance when presented with evidence of the safety or efficacy of vaccines. In fact they simply reject such information as being propaganda, or they produce some maverick "scientist" who disagrees. They would have cognitive dissonance if forced to have a vaccine for essential international travel, because this would be a case of a conflict between action and belief.

All of this places me in a situation of true cognitive dissonance, as it must do for a physicist offered quantum hair shampoo*. The principle is to robustly correct the error, the action is to maintain politeness. Sometimes this is difficult, but if it was easy psychologists wouldnít have to talk about cognitive dissonance at all.

* Footnote: I made up the term "quantum hair shampoo" and then I checked Google. At least it's only a brand name and they don't seem to be claiming that it cleans by quantum effects.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the September 2014 edition of Australasian Science
Australasian Science

A modified version of this article was published in the June 2015 edition of The Skeptic

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