Anti-GMO Statistician Nassim N. Taleb Now Defends Homeopathy

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Over a year ago, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb co-wrote an ignorant paper on the precautionary principle and its supposed lethal application to genetically modified foods. In it, the authors made several errors. They asserted, without evidence, that genetically modified crops are more dangerous than conventional crops and failing to consider the benefits of GM crops in preventing vitamin a deficiency, blindness and death (instead falsely comparing it to letting poor people play Russian roulette to get out of poverty).

Despite critics writing several detailed refutations, Taleb retained the irrational belief that no “intelligent comment” had been made. A person even tweeted Taleb the above article from Debunking Denialism and after spending a total of two minutes on it, Taleb declared that it was “not very intelligent”, “full of flaws” and “even downright stupid”, despite the fact that it had demolished the central claims made by the authors.

As if this was not enough, Taleb has now gone full-blown anti-science. In a couple of recent tweets, he went so far as to defend homeopathy at length. He falsely claimed that homeopathy was harmless and thus totally ignoring documented expectancy side-effects as well as the problem that people with real dangerous medical conditions (such as cancer) might avoid science-based intervention. He also completely misunderstood and mocked the psychiatric condition known as health anxiety, thereby implying that those individuals are better of with homeopathy than psychotherapy. In a final twist of incomprehensible absurdity, Taleb stated that superstitions such as homeopathy can sometimes be rational, particularly if they somehow “prevent you from listening to forecasts by economists”.

Homeopathy is not “harmless placebo”

Taleb starts out by making the common claim that homeopathy is harmless:

Taleb defends homeopathy

Homeopathy is not harmless. It is certainly pharmacologically inert on its own, but this is not the same as harmless. First, promoting homeopathy might make people with dangerous medical conditions forgo science-based treatments. Second, homeopathy can be accompanied by negative expectancy effects called nocebo effects. Third, unscrupulous alternative medicine sellers can mix in pharmacologically active substances that can have potentially dangerous health consequences. In the United States, all of this is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Taleb also claims, without any evidence, that homeopathy can prevent over-treatment and iatrogenic damage. A quick search on PubMed for “homeopathy iatrogenic” reveals a total of 8 papers. 5 papers are published in the journal Homeopathy, 1 is a criticism of homeopathy written by Edzard Ernst that questions the belief that homeopathy is risk-free and the remaining 2 papers are surveys on how homeopaths view themselves and where homeopathic centers are located and what they attempt to “treat”. A similar disappointment is found when searching for “homeopathy overtreatment”, resulting in only a single paper that claims that homeopathy is cost-effective. This conclusion was contradicted by a 2015 paper in PLoS One that looked at almost 45 000 patients, which showed that additional treatment with homeopathy led to more productivity loss, higher outpatient care costs and larger over all cost.

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Superstitions are not rational

Taleb continues his ignorant defense of homeopathy, this time going so far as to claim that superstitions “can be rational”:

Taleb defends homeopathy

As we saw above, homeopathy is not harmless. The second argument provided by Taleb is that superstitions can be rational if they reduce anxiety. Yet this leads to an interesting contradiction: if alternative medicine “reduces anxiety”, then so to must science-based medicine since the latter actually treats medical conditions. So if both real medicine and quackery “reduce anxiety”, then, according to Taleb, both X and ~X must be rational. This makes precious little sense. It must also be pointed out that since alternative medicine probably does not reduce anxiety in any practically significant way, it is a false hope that prevents people from seeking effective treatment for anxiety.

His rant about how superstitions such as homeopathy is rational if it dissuades people from listening to economists and other “experts” is too incoherent to address.

Taleb does not understand health anxiety

A person on twitter replied to Taleb suggesting that people who use homeopathy use more medication, perhaps alluding to the PLoS One paper mentioned above that showed that homeopathy was not cost-effective. How does Taleb respond?

Taleb defends homeopathy

He completely denies it. The key point that Taleb is missing is that people with health anxiety do have a serious medical issue: health anxiety. They deserve to receive science-based treatment for this condition, such as psychotherapy, instead of being dismissed and offered homeopathy and lies.

Conclusion:

Previously, Taleb had contained his anti-scientific nonsense within the field of genetically modified crops and food. Now, he has broken all boundaries and started defending homeopathy. He thinks homeopathy is harmless, even though it can dissuade people from science-based treatments, may have harmful nocebo effects and may contain contaminants from active ingredients. He claims, without any evidence, that homeopathy reduces overtreatment or adverse events. Taleb even goes so far as to claim that superstitions can be rational. Although Taleb has made useful contributions to the analysis of risk, his claims about GMOs and homeopathy are disastrously wrong.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

13 thoughts on “Anti-GMO Statistician Nassim N. Taleb Now Defends Homeopathy

  • November 19, 2015 at 06:16
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    Emil Karlsson,

    So it sounds like Nassim Taleb decided to multi task. I wonder what type of anti science stupidity he’ll promote next. I’m not surprised that someone who would promote baseless paranoia would promote homeopathy as well.

    • November 19, 2015 at 15:38
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      In some way, it fits with the “crank magnetism” phenomena were someone who promotes nonsense in one area also starts promoting it in other areas. Perhaps anti-GMO movement have enough commonalities to alternative medicine movement that once you buy into one of them, it becomes much easier to buy into the other.

      Perhaps he views himself as a radical, and this is what radicals against mainstream science/medicine do. I also recall that he has had throat cancer in the 90s, so he may have come into contact with alternative medicine at that point, since it is popular among cancer patients.

  • November 20, 2015 at 14:52
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    I hereby declare my own superstition of avoiding Nassim Taleb rational: It is, by his own definition harmless, lowers my anxiety, and the consequence is a rather nice dose of avoiding his bullshit…

  • November 20, 2015 at 16:34
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    I don’t want to go against the grain, but his “defense” seems mostly like playing devil’s advocate and part of a general “free market” philosophy. He isn’t defending homeopathy as a functioning treatment. In fact, having read one of his books he seems pretty big on empirical evidence.

    I disagree with his view, but I don’t think it needs to be demonized.He is wrong. He won’t readily admit it. However, it is an interesting avenue of thought. We all agree that homeopathic medicine is useless and potentially harmful. If homeopathic meds were restricted to be safer, could they possibly provide some societal benefit? It seems that people are wasting their money, but arguing that sugar pills are a waste but that a 60″ flat screen is not a waste is arbitrary.

    Please don’t be immediately reactionary.

    • November 20, 2015 at 17:57
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      He isn’t defending homeopathy as a functioning treatment.

      Anyone who has to revert to falsehoods in order to prop up the “benefit” side of the equation is pretty clearly defending homeopathy. It should also be noted that his arguments are common among defenders of homeopathy: “harnesses the power of placebo”, “reduce anxiety”, “has no side-effects” etc. If it walks like a duck and quack like a duck, it probably is a duck.

      Even if we, for the sake of argument, assume he was merely playing the devil’s advocate, the fact that he has so many followers means that he is spreading potentially deadly nonsense to over 100k people. His behavior has costs.

      However, it is an interesting avenue of thought.

      No, it is not. It is right out of the homeopath playbook and it has been refuted thousands of times already.

      If homeopathic meds were restricted to be safer, could they possibly provide some societal benefit?

      What benefit? Placebos do not have a practically significant positive effect in the vast majority of cases, often require doctors to deceive patients and cost a lot of money.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11372012
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15257721

      It seems that people are wasting their money, but arguing that sugar pills are a waste but that a 60″ flat screen is not a waste is arbitrary.

      People do not buy a 60 inch flat screen TV to cure their cancer. They buy it to enhance their entertainment experience. The reason why homeopathy is a waste of money is that people do not get what the homeopaths promise: a working treatment or cure.

      Please don’t be immediately reactionary.

      Be assured that the arguments that Taleb and you bring up have been refuted by scientists and medical doctors for many years. It is not being “immediately reactionary”, but a standard deployment of scientific skepticism.

    • November 21, 2015 at 18:39
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      Thank you for all of your long-term support and encouragement. I owe a substantial debt to everyone like you who contribute to spreading content from this website.

    • November 22, 2015 at 01:27
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      Emil Karlsson,

      You’re welcome! Glad I’m able to help

  • November 23, 2015 at 12:06
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    After Taleb’s comments on GMOs he posted an image and “quiz” on disease resistance to try and illustrate his point about GMOs. It was laughably uninformed about how biology works (100% disease, 100% resistance….. yeah, because that happens in real life), which only reinforced how out of his depth Taleb was commenting on agriculture, biology, genetics, and GMOs.

    Needless to say, myself and several others who pointed out his misunderstanding of natural systems were blocked. Probably so no pesky “intelligent comment” in response could be made refuting him. Let’s see how he goes with being Tweeted this article.

    • November 23, 2015 at 17:52
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      Taleb blocked me on Twitter after I pointed out that the patent for glyphosate expired 15 years ago. Hard to argue against facts, so he took the easy way out.

    • November 24, 2015 at 03:13
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      Why does that not surprise me.

      His acolytes/cult followers are clearly a carefully cultivated herd of yes people. No dissent in his ranks.

    • November 24, 2015 at 06:06
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      Emil Karlsson,

      It sounds like he took the easy and cowardly way out.

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