The Skeptical Optimist

Some readers of this blog may be surprised to learn that I'm very optimistic about the future of science and medicine.  Over the past few years, I've criticized many different frauds, fakes, bad scientists, bogus claims, quack medical practices, and scam artists.  I will continue to do so.

But deep down, I'm an optimist.  Science has transformed our lives over the past century, thanks to a list of discoveries far too long to write down, including cures and vaccines for many childhood diseases, better ways to heat and light our homes, and faster ways to travel and communicate. I'm confident science will continue to make progress on all sorts of problems affecting our species. One reason I focus my criticism on pseudoscience is that every minute spent on bad science is a minute that could have been spent on real science, moving us closer to genuine treatments or real scientific discoveries.

I also write on occasion about true breakthroughs, such as the recent success using stem cells to treat damaged hearts, or last year's development of a vaccine against the Ebola virus.  It's good to remind ourselves that good stuff is happening despite all the nonsense being pushed by quacks out there.

But I'm a skeptical optimist.  All real scientists must be skeptics: we know that initially exciting results often turn out to be statistical flukes, experimental errors, or just plain randomness.  We have to check and double-check our results before publishing, and even then we sometimes make mistakes.  Our training makes us skeptical whenever we hear about some amazing new breakthrough, even when we are hopeful that the results are true.

But we can't let pseudoscience take precious resources away from real work.  So it's back to the front lines in the ongoing battle against the anti-science forces: watch this space tomorrow for my choice for the worst quackery of 2011.

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