The Selective Skepticism of Lynne McTaggart

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The Selective Skepticism of Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an author and leading alternative health proponent who was the foil for my first ever Neuroskeptic post, nearly 10 years ago. Ever since then I have occasionally been following McTaggart’s output.

McTaggart is believer in things like a Zero Point Field (ZPF), a sea of energy that reconciles mind with matter”, an opponent of vaccines, and someone who thinks that spiritual and psychological change can cure advanced cancer.

Since my first post, I haven’t written more about McTaggart because I had little to add to what I’d said, but a recent post of hers got my attention: The Unfairness Pill. Here, McTaggart talks about how over-the-counter painkillers suppress empathy:

We’re living in unfair times – one of the most unfair in recent history. And now my husband Bryan Hubbard may have come up with a reasonable answer as to why.

It may have something to do, believe it or not, with aspirin and paracetamol or acetaminophen, those everyday painkillers we buy and consume by the shovelfuls to blunt the pain of everyday living. The problem is, as Bryan discovered, these painkillers also blunt our emotions…

Recent studies show that a single dose of acetaminophen blunts physical pain, but also numbs us to social pain like hurt feelings or the outrage we generally feel when things are unfair, or even our positive feelings toward a social group.

Now, this post got me thinking, because I read those painkiller studies too. In fact, a blog that I follow closely, The Neurocritic, has a number of posts looking at this body of work, showing that the evidence for a link between aspirin and unkindness is shaky at best. I also think that if it were true that these very commonly used drugs are psychoactive, we’d probably have noticed it sooner.

But I’m not writing this post to talk about painkillers. Rather, what struck me about McTaggart’s post was how, throughout it, she uncritically repeats the claims of the scientists who carried out this work – and these were mainstream scientists, doing conventional academic research, publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

Yet this is the same Lynne McTaggart who has built her career on criticizing mainstream science and medicine and promoting unconventional alternatives. In other words, she is skeptical of mainstream science… but only some of the time.

We can also see this selective skepticism in McTaggart’s magazine, which is called What Doctors Don’t Tell You (WDDTY). In fact, a more accurate title might be “What Doctors Do Tell You”, because most of the content (in the News section especially) is based on published medical research by doctors and scientists.

This week, for instance, WDDTY reported that Heart attack victims more likely to survive if cardiologist is away. This story fits the anti-mainstream-medicine editorial line of WDDTY, but it comes from this paper, published in a mainstream peer-reviewed journal, and written by medical doctors. The paper is based on a very weak result (adjusted p=0.05) but WDDTY report this piece of mainstream research without any caveats.

Certainly McTaggart and WDDTY are not alone in this kind of selective faith in science. I’ve blogged about the phenomenon of ‘selective skepticism before’. The real problem, in this case and more broadly, arises when people are only skeptical of things that they already disagree with on prior grounds.

If someone were to reject all academic science as corrupt and bogus, then they would at least be consistent in their attitude, but I can’t think of anyone who does this. Rather, we see people who will blanket reject (let’s say) the whole of social science, except evolutionary psychology (or vice versa, depending on their politics.) What we like, we keep, and what we don’t like, we find a way to reject. Selective skepticism at work.

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