Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fight the ignorance

One blog that I read daily is the Neurologica Blog which is run by Dr. Steven Novella. His articles are always very interesting and informative even when the topic is a complex scientific/medical issue. (I highly recommend his podcast the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. He and his fellow "rouges" can always be counted on to provide a humorous and informative look at science and skeptical news of the day.)

I want to comment on this article in which Dr. Novella examines the legal and social issues of "free citizens giving medical advice." He wonders how we protect the public from those who spout bogus medical advice while at the same time upholding the basic right of free speech. Novella doesn't claim to have the answer, but I wanted to comment on something he says at the end of the article. Here's what he says
"...although I think we do need to thoughtfully tighten up our regulation of the giving of medical advice, any legal remedy is extremely problematic. The far better solution is to educate the public so that they can recognize nonsense when they see it. This, however, is also a very imperfect solution as it is far easier to spread misinformation than it is to correct it."
He is skeptical of legal remedies, as I am, and offers education as a possible solution. I think this solution can actually be more powerful than he understands.

I think we as individuals can start by changing expectations about what is acceptable in society. Educate the credulous; call bullshit on those who perpetuate bogus claims; don't let snake oil salesmen go unchallenged - call them out in a public forum. Setting such expectations creates true organic law that is a better reflection of values shared by individuals in society. Political legislation creates constituencies of power that pit groups against each other and creates a market for pull. (DRM is an example of legislation that doesn't reflect the reality "on the ground" but has powerful constituencies that have the ears of politicians.)

Is this idea of "organic law" via expectations a perfect solution? No. But it is at least more nimble than political legislation which punishes the many to stop the few.

I also believe we have to be careful when informing others about pseudo-science and other false claims. I was recently in a discussion with a friend about natural medicines and homeopathy and I was a bit harsh in my criticisms. If I had to do it over again I would most likely take a different approach because in the end I think my harsh tone was counterproductive. There are times, however, when just calling bullshit is necessary.

You'll read more about this idea of "organic law" if I ever get back to live-blogging Law, Legislation, and Liberty. Until then, fight the ignorance!

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