The Inception of the Polish Sceptics Club

Maciej Zatonski, Tomasz Witkowski

In 2010, people in Poland spent over 2 billion PLN (about US$700 million) for esoteric services. There are about forty million people living in Poland, which means that the average citizen (including newborns and the elderly) spent over 50 PLN (US$17) on these services. In the past eighteen years the most spectacular nationwide charity event (The Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity) collected less than 400 million PLN (US$130 million). Let’s hear it again: in the past eighteen years we have donated about 20 percent of the money we spend every year on fairies, talismans, voodoos, curses, and exorcisms. In 2010 (the best year for Polish charity), we were able to donate 43 million PLN to improve early cancer diagnosis in children. That’s forty-six times less than the money Polish people have thrown away for fortune tellers. This comparison quite effectively shows the preferences and beliefs of an average Pole. After the years of communism, when all signs of “spirituality” were strictly controlled or even repressed by the government, Polish people have used their freedom to provide themselves the “care” of homeopaths, chiropractors, fortune tellers, wizards, radiesthesists, bioenergy therapists, and other tricksters.

Polish Sceptics Club logo

What’s even worse is that Polish universities do not protect themselves from this pseudoscience. Medicine and pharmacy students are offered courses on homeopathy and alternative medicine. Pedagogical studies are teaching educational kinesiology or the Doman Delacato patterning method. Even renowned universities include neurolinguistic programming (NLP), Bert Hellinger’s family constellation therapy, and Carl Simonton’s “treatment” for cancer (and many more questionable therapies) in their psychology curriculums. Polish scientists rarely protest against such practices. This is the reason we have founded the Polish Sceptics Club (PSC)––an organization focused on informing the public about the real value of pseudoscientific claims, promoting proper scientific knowledge, and guarding against pseudoscientific practices (particularly in medicine and psychology).

Our club officially came into existence in 2010, but our members have a lot of experience and have extensive achievements and merits in the realm of revealing pseudoscientific claims. Andrzej Gregosiewicz from the Medical University of Lublin is the “godfather” of the anti-homeopathic movement in Poland. In 2006 he lost a lawsuit with Boiron (a French manufacturer of homeopathic products) after he criticized Oscillococcinum (a popular “treatment” for common cold and flu). Two years later the district court in Warsaw rejected the case of the Polish Chamber of Commerce “Polish Pharmacy,” whose president claimed that professor Gregosiewicz’s publicity lead to a significant decrease in medical professionals “specializing” in homeopathy. This verdict was a precedent in a war with homeopathy: a single medical practitioner won a lawsuit in court against multimillion-dollar homeopathy manufacturers. For over ten years Gregosiewicz has published numerous peer-reviewed papers on homeopathy and other alternative “therapies.” Due to his activities the sales of homeopathic products recently dropped about 25 percent.

Debunking of pseudoscience in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy is the main activity of Tomasz Witkowski, a science writer. One of his most spectacular actions was the publication of a pseudoscientific paper popularizing nonexistant psychotherapy in a popular psychological journal. Detailed description of this hoax, its purpose, and the nationwide discussion that arose in Poland after his Sokal-style hoax can be found in the article Psychological Sokal-Style Hoax published in 2010 in The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice (Vol. 8: 1, 50–60).

Another important event initialized by Witkowski was an Open Letter in Defense of Reason addressed to the Polish government and protesting against including among government lists of legal occupations such “proficiencies” as astrologist, fortune teller, bioenergy therapist, reflexologist, and dowser, among others. This campaign was supported by over five thousand people, mostly scientists, and lead to numerous public discussions; it was described in Skeptical Inquirer (34, 2010).

Witkowski’s books also incite emotional debated among psychologists, therapists, and teachers. His book Forbidden Psychology. Between Charlatanry and Science was the first Polish book ever to discuss the problem of pseudoscientific abuses in psychology. The second part of this popular book is about to be published.

Maciej Zatonski is known for debunking unscientific therapies and claims in clinical medicine. He is a lecturer at Medical University of Wroclaw and is actively involved in encouraging people to trust in scientifically proven therapies rather than fairies, myths, and tricksters. He is a leader in public understanding of science in Poland and is highly engaged lecturer in this field. His struggle to clean up medical curricula from obsolete or bogus therapies was recently noted by the Polish Academy of Sciences. Zatonski is also known for promoting evolution and evolutionary sciences.

Before PSC was officially founded, we protested together against numerous absurdities in public spaces in Poland and were highly engaged in the popularizing of science and reason. One event widely covered in the Polish media was An Open Letter against the Spread of Pseudoscience, sent to the rector of the University of Opole. The authorities of the University allowed for the organization of a commercial event and a lecture with self-proclaimed healer Georg E. Ashkar, who claimed to “cure” 100 percent of all cases of cancer, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma—for a fee, of course. We have protested against organizing such events at public universities and against funding of public universities by pseudoscientific tricksters.

We have actively engaged in the actions of other European skeptical organizations during the fourteenth European Sceptics Congress in Budapest in 2010. Witkowski prepared a lecture entitled “Fashionable nonsense still in fashion” and Zatonski presented his speech, “Medicine––art, science or craft?”

Shortly after the Polish Sceptics Club was founded we organized the 10:23 Campaign in Poland in two major academic centers in Warsaw and Wroclaw. The first public overdose of homeopathic “medicines” was widely discussed in national media. After a few weeks the media was still writing critically about homeopathy. This was probably the first time in Polish history when the attention of the general public was focused on fake treatments.

In less than a year after creation of PSC we have managed to set up a “new tradition”: monthly meetings in the Falanster bookstore café in Wroclaw. During those meetings we organize lectures promoting science and critical thinking and debunking myths and pseudoscientific claims in psychology, medicine, and other areas of knowledge. The meetings are open to the general public and everyone is welcome to join the lectures and participate in open discussions. The meetings start in the late afternoon and sometimes the discussions end very late at night. They are becoming increasingly more popular among citizens of Wroclaw and are a thorn in a side of those making a living by tricking their customers into pseudoscientific claims and treatments.

We have also started to prepare an online version of a dictionary of various therapies. It is an attempt to collect, systematize, and describe various therapies and psychotherapies in single place on the web. Many people from Poland have volunteered to work on the project. Therefore we hope to offer to the public a complete source of knowledge that could prove useful when choosing a therapy or rehabilitation technique.

The latest idea that we are currently trying to launch is a large-scale media campaign entitled “Psychology is Science, not Witchcraft.” We would like to continuously be able to focus public attention on numerous false beliefs and scientific absurdity in psychology. In the spring of 2012 we will concentrate our efforts on presenting the real values (or actually the lack of them) in projective tests in psychological diagnosis––especially in the opinions prepared for Polish courts and jurisdiction. Students, scientists, and lecturers from five major universities have already engaged in our project. We believe that soon others will follow as well.

The above-mentioned brief examples of our work were chosen from our most spectacular activities. Our plans still require a lot of work and discipline to make them a real success. Most members of PSC spend their time working with patients and students and chatting with their friends and relatives, which creates strong foundations for critical thinking every day. The biggest obstacle we face is conformity and ignorance of a large part of the academic world and a very strong support for pseudoscience that has rooted deeply into Polish soil.