Nassim Nicholas Taleb Defends Homeopathy on Twitter November 23, 2015

Nassim Nicholas Taleb Defends Homeopathy on Twitter

Author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, recently tweeted his support of homeopathy, with a series of statements:

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing picked up on the tweets, writing that Taleb (who had previously raised eyebrows with his positions on GMOs) had “crossed a Rubicon” in support of fake science with these statements.

… he defended homeopathy as harmless placebos that divert hypochondriacs from taking too many real pharmaceutical products.

In pursuing this line of inquiry, Taleb ignores the great body of peer-reviewed, published evidence about the real harms of homeopathy, which fall into two categories: first, people with real medical problems… substitute placebos for effective therapies.

Second, that people who take homeopathic remedies for difficult-to-diagnose or imaginary ailments waste public/insurance money (in healthcare systems that fund “Complimentary/Alternative Medicine”) and are apt to overmedicate with both homeopathic and real medicines — a 2015 paper looked at 45,000 patients and determined that homeopathic treatments “led to more productivity loss, higher outpatient care costs and larger overall cost.”

Taleb’s position reminds me a little bit of Chris Arnade‘s regrettable 2013 piece on atheism and religion. Yes, belief in this fake thing may be utterly false. Sure, I may know a better way. But maybe those people need a superstition to bide them over; maybe they just can’t handle the truth.

That kind of thinking smacks of a patronizing superiority, combined with a thoroughly defeatist attitude. It suggests that quackery is necessary because the problem of dealing with reality is just too big or difficult for some people.

As it happened, Taleb was not happy with Doctorow’s criticism, tweeting on Friday that Doctorow had strawmanned his position, and was either stupid or (and possibly also) dishonest to have done so.

Considering that Doctorow didn’t make the claim Taleb is attributing to him, I’m not really sure how this qualifies as a strawman. Still, I suppose it’s a fitting way to wind up the debate, in the grand tradition of Twitter arguments: digital poop flinging. It’s not really over until that goal has been met.

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