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An Interview with Dr. Harriet Hall, M.D.


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2016/11/15


An interview with Dr. Harriet Hall, M.D. She discusses: a short preface before the interview; geographic, cultural, and linguistic personal and familial background; influence on background; original interests in medicine, science, and skepticism/critical thinking; some benign consequences of skepticism’s absence; some historical and big negative consequences seen from its absence; some personal favorites of egregious examples of alternative medicine without efficacy; some individuals that promote pseudoscience, bad science, and non-science as medicine in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary; failure of prayer in studies and similar examples and outcomes; and the best tools to fight against fallacious beliefs and claims, especially in medicine.

Keywords: Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Harriett Hall, science-based medicine.

An Interview with Dr. Harriet Hall, M.D.: Elected Fellow (2010), Committee for Skeptical Inquiry[1],[2],[3]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, &bibliography & citation style listing after the interview.*

1. To begin the conversation, we need a short preface. Upon receiving the interview request, you mentioned Outliers and Outsiders for the theme of the series. I mentioned some interviewees and sub-themes within this series because it is an exploratory set of interviewees with trends throughout it. You did not self-identify as an outlier or an outsider. What did you mean by that?

I consider myself to be firmly inside the mainstream of science-based medicine. The practitioners of alternative medicine, the cranks, and the quacks are the outsiders. I don’t consider myself an outlier in the sense of someone who differs from other members of a group. I would accept that I am near the top of the bell curve in that I am far more rigorous about scientific standards than the majority of physicians, and I have spent far more time learning about human psychology, research pitfalls, and critical thinking skills.

2. Now, in terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your personal and familial background reside?

I don’t think that sort of information is very meaningful. What matters is whether my thinking is rational and evidence-based, not what factors in my background might have influenced me to think that way. But I’ll oblige. I grew up in Seattle, Washington in a WASP culture, speaking English. My father was a professor of engineering and my mother was a housewife. I learned to speak fluent Spanish and I lived in Spain for seven years, which gave me insight into other cultures.

3. How did this seem to influence development?

I think what most influenced my development was the opportunity to get a good education and read a lot of books. From a young age, I believed I could learn to do anything and could choose any occupation; although I did have to deal with a certain amount of prejudice against women.

4. You earned a B.A. and an M.D from the University of Washington. You are a retired family physician. What were the original interests in medicine, science, and skepticism/critical thinking for you?

I was not a science nerd; my BA was in Spanish language and literature. I was better at humanities than at science, but I chose to study medicine because I found medicine fascinating and because it offered a practical career. I think I always had a propensity to question authority and dogma, and I stopped believing in God by the age of 13; but I didn’t really become a skeptic/critical thinker until I started reading Skeptical Inquirer magazine and skeptical books, long after I was out of school. I was attracted to skepticism because it taught me that I was wrong about some of the things I had believed or never really questioned, and I found it very satisfying to correct my errors and learn truths about reality. I didn’t start writing until after I retired (I retired from the Air Force Medical Corps as a full colonel after twenty years service, the day before my 44th birthday). I found I could use my medical knowledge to educate the public about critical thinking and false beliefs about health.

5. What are some benign consequences of skepticism’s absence?

I don’t think there is anything benign about the absence of skepticism. Skepticism means not accepting beliefs without evidence, and that’s crucial to every aspect of life. If people don’t go by evidence they’re likely to make mistakes, whether it’s choosing a washing machine or deciding whether to get vaccinated. Skeptics are willing to admit that they could be wrong. I think that the biggest problem the world faces is people who are absolutely certain they are right about anything. Some people might consider belief in homeopathy to be benign, because the remedies are only water and have no side effects. Some people believe that placebos are benign, and “after all, they make people feel better.” But patients have died because they used homeopathy or other placebo treatments in place of effective treatments.

6. What are some historical and big negative consequences seen from its absence?

Where to start? Religious wars, persecution of minorities, genocide, denial of global warming, preventable diseases coming back because people refuse vaccines… I could go on and on.

7. Your main research and criticism is directed at alternative medicine. What are some personal favorites of egregious examples of alternative medicine without efficacy?

There’s no such thing as alternative medicine; there’s only medicine that has been proven to work and medicine that hasn’t. Once something has been proven to work, it’s not “alternative,” It’s just “medicine.” By definition, alternative treatments are not supported by good enough evidence to have earned them a place in mainstream medical practice. Perhaps the most egregious example is dilute homeopathic remedies, where every molecule of the active ingredient has been diluted out of a remedy. Homeopathy has been tested. It doesn’t work. It couldn’t possibly work unless our knowledge of physics, chemistry, and biology is wrong. Another egregious example is therapeutic touch and other types of “energy medicine” that claim to be manipulating an imaginary “human energy field.” Scientists have never detected any such thing, despite their ability to detect and quantify all kinds of energies down to the subatomic level. I have a 10-part video lecture series on YouTube where I discuss science-based medicine and all kinds of alternative medicines, with many more examples.

8. Who are some individuals that promote pseudoscience, bad science, and non-science as medicine in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

I could name lots of names, starting with Dr. Oz, AIDS denialists, cancer quacks, infamous Internet promoters of pseudoscience, and anti-vaccine zealots; but the more interesting question is whether they actually believe in what they are promoting (some are charlatans just out to make a buck, but I think most really do believe) and if so, why. That is covered in my video lecture series. It basically boils down to the way the human brain works. We are far more impressed by stories than by studies, we are so good at pattern recognition that we see patterns that aren’t real (like the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich), we tend to jump to conclusions before we have all the evidence, and we let emotions trump reason. Science and critical thinking don’t come naturally to us; it requires a lot of education and effort to overcome our brain’s default thought processes, and not everyone can do it.

9. There are long-standing traditions such as prayer, where the efficacy is asserted by practitioners. Also, it tends to be claimed as unamenable to scientific and proper medical testing, which does not seem true/seems false. It has been done. When properly tested in double-blind, randomized trials, prayer fails the tests. What are some other similar examples and their outcomes?

All medical claims can be scientifically tested. Homeopaths claim that their treatments are too individualized to be studied in a randomized controlled trial like drugs are, but that’s nonsense. They could do their individualized prescribing and the patients could be randomized to either get what the homeopath prescribed or a placebo control. The two options could be coded, numbered, and dispensed by a third party who didn’t know which was which. Energy medicine practitioners could be tested to see if they can actually detect a “human energy field.” Therapeutic touch practitioners have been tested and have failed miserably.

10. James Randi makes continual reminders about everyone with the possibility of being fooled, even the scientifically educated and those with an inclination for critical thinking. Dr. Michael Shermer points to the Baloney Detection Kit, which was inspired by (the late) Dr. Carl Sagan. Those seem like good starts. You are associated with some initiatives such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Institute for Science in Medicine, Quackwatch, and Science-Based Medicine.[4],[5],[6],[7] What seem like the best tools to fight against fallacious beliefs and claims to you, especially in medicine?

If people have arrived at their beliefs without evidence, they are not likely to change their beliefs just because we show them evidence. And people violently resist the idea that they could have been fooled by others or could have deceived themselves. We are not likely to change fallacious beliefs; our goal is to put accurate information out there where seekers have a chance to find it instead of only finding false information. We direct our efforts at those who haven’t yet irrevocably made up their minds and at those who maybe haven’t even thought about the subject yet. Those are stop-gap measures. We are engaged in a neverending, Sisyphean struggle. The real solution would be to teach critical thinking skills to all children starting at the pre-school level, with constant reinforcement throughout education including the post-graduate level.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Hall.


  1. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. (2016). CSI Fellows and Staff. Retrieved from
  2. Institute for Science in Medicine. (2016). Institute for Science in Medicine. Retrieved from
  3. Science-Based Medicine. (2016). Science-Based Medicine. Retrieved from
  4. (2016). Quackwatch. Retrieved from

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Elected Fellow (2010), Committee for Skeptical Inquiry; Board & Founding Member, Institute for Science in Medicine; Advisor, Quackwatch; Associate Editor, Science-Based Medicine; (Retired) Family Physician.

[2] B.A., University of Washington; M.D., University of Washington.

[3] Photograph courtesy of Dr. Harriet Hall, M.D.

[4] Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. (2016). CSI Fellows and Staff. Retrieved from

[5] Institute for Science in Medicine. (2016). Institute for Science in Medicine. Retrieved from

[6] Science-Based Medicine. (2016). Science-Based Medicine. Retrieved from

[7] Quackwatch. (2016). Quackwatch. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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