Science 1; Quackery 0

MP900337366A German biologist has been ordered by a court to pay 100,000 Euros (more than £70,000) to a doctor who rose to his challenge to prove that measles is caused by a virus, as opposed to his own view that measles is merely psychosomatic. Although the doctor, David Barden, provided the necessary proof, the quack biologist Stefan Lanka refused to pay up. Hence the court case to make Lanka honour his pledge.

This is great news on different levels. There are many financial prizes offered by sceptical organisations to anyone who can prove the reality of various paranormal and quack claims, the most famous being the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge. But there are others, and the total prize money available around the world goes far beyond that. Apart from a few claimants who have nothing to lose by trying their luck, none of the big names in the psychic or quack arenas will attempt those challenges.

Commonly, they claim that those challenges are bogus anyway, even fraudulent and that a winning claim would not be paid out. But the honest reply to those claims is simply that the sceptical challenges are fair and legally sound: a failure to pay out for a winning claim would leave the sceptic challengers open to legal action with severe penalties over and above any prize money they offered in the first place. There are simply no takers from the ranks of the most prominent paranormal and “alternative medicine” practitioners, who rake in a lot of money annually from writing and practising nonsense that sometimes puts lives at risk, even if those practitioners genuinely and truly believe their own nonsense.

Let’s be down to earth here: the most prominent woo people in the world are going to suffer a blow when they can’t pass a sceptical, but scientific, test of the extraordinary claims that they can’t get past ordinary scientific peer review anyway, where a monetary prize is not the goal, but an addition to scientific knowledge is.

I notice, of course, that there are several challenges like this one aimed at scientists and in particular sceptics, by people who are regarded by many as outright cranks. Their challenges tend to be based on anything except testable evidence. There are some well known challenges from people like Kent Hovind, Victor Zammit and others (I’ll leave it to you to Google it for yourself), who have offered lots of money to anyone who can disprove their claims (in other words “prove a universal negative”), but based only on their own personal judgement, or the judgement of some alleged unnamed committee appointed by themselves.

That’s not how science works, and in this case, it has led to the downfall of someone who appears to be actually qualified in a biological science, but who has allowed his personal beliefs to override his logical thinking faculties. I don’t know all the details of this case, but it is reasonable to suppose that Lanka was just a bit too self-confident, forgetting to allow himself the usual get-outs of the woo fraternity. Maybe he asked for scientific evidence, in which case he condemned himself by forgetting to say that his prize offer would be only at his own discretion. I don’t know, but given the fact that woomeisters continuously speculate in discussion that a court of law would accept this or that evidence, perhaps they might shut up now.  A law court is not the place where scientific matters are resolved; a court is where matters of law are decided.

Perhaps this will send a clear enough message to the purveyors of anti-science: go ahead and take up Randi’s – or any other legitimate – challenge. The courts will back you up if those challenges are, as you claim, fraudulent.

For some reason, however, I don’t think there’s going to be a stampede in Randi’s or any other sceptics’ direction.

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