Archives for category: skeptics

Cognitive Dissonance is described as the mental state a person experiences when their long term beliefs are somehow shown to be completely wrong-headed. It’s not a nice feeling to find out that your beliefs are ridiculous, so typically your brain will work overtime  to reduce this dissonance. The internal dialogue goes something like this: “I am a good, reasonable person, and a good, reasonable person would never indulge themselves in something batshit crazy, so if something is wrong with this picture, it’s got nothing to do with good, reasonable me”.

This line of thinking is, of course, a recipe for total fucking disaster.

There are a few tried and tested strategies that people have used to reduce this cognitive dissonance. Let’s look at them.

The Martyr Syndrome

When the world is agin you, it might be that you are wrong; but of course it’s more likely that you are part of that great tradition of saints and saintesses who went to their deaths for professing their beliefs. We’re thinking Joan of Arc here, who was burned at the stake in the 15th Century; or Saint Sebastian who was turned into a human pin-cushion in the 3rd Century. The issues nowadays might be about refusing marriage licenses to gay people, but look at the trouble you are making for yourself. Surely your willingness to go to jail is strong evidence that you are on the side absolute truth? Except that it isn’t. Jim Jones, Anders Breivik and the nut-jobs who boarded those airliners in 2001 all felt they were great martyrs despite their causes being absolutely fucking evil and insane. Martyrdom is simply an indication of how strongly you feel about your beliefs, not whether those beliefs bear any resemblance to reality.

The Galileo Syndrome

Galileo was a 17th Century scientist who famously went on trial for declaring that the Earth and all the planets travelled around the sun. Since then, Galileo has been cited by all sorts of cranks and nut cases, feeling sore after their crazy ideas were ignored or criticised by scientists and professionals. “Galileo was laughed at too”, they declare, somehow convincing themselves that the ridicule is evidence that their idea is spot on correct. Er, no. It’s just evidence that people are taking the piss out of your ideas. Real evidence of validity requires a hell of a lot more work. All sorts of mad beliefs have been the subject of mockery: Scientology, aura healing, foot reflexology, astrology and creationism, to cite a few examples off the top of my head. And guess what? They still very much merit all the derision they get. University physics professors get it the worst, apparently. Would be geniuses who believe they have out-Einsteined Einstein, regularly send them 800 page manuscripts, demand they read them immediately and then get monumentally upset if the professor passes on the opportunity. Here is a list of crackpot theories that would make your brain melt.

Bad, Bad People

When the flaws in their grand theories have been pointed out, it’s much easier for some people to attack their critics than to defend the merits of their convictions. The critics are mad, bad, in the pay of Big Whats-it, or otherwise compromised or evil intentioned. Never mind that some of their opponents might know what they are talking about, or might be much better acquainted with the literature or practice. This war against their critics can become quite a preoccupation. Anti-fluoridation activists have been known to ring the employers of their critics, demanding they be sacked. Or even worse: a few years ago, climate change deniers hacked into the servers of the University of East Anglia in order to “prove” that climate change researchers were behaving dishonestly. After no less than seven high profile investigations into the affair, the scientists were completely exonerated. Anti-GMO activists are currently using Freedom Of Information Act legislation against food researchers to make a similar case.

It’s All a Big Conspiracy

The extreme situation is where the brave Galileo constructs this elaborate framework of persecution that often goes all the way to the top. Because their beliefs have been demolished, now it’s not that the critics are just bad, but they are also well-organised. This is the default position of many anti-vaxxers, anti-fluoridation protesters and chemtrail fanatics.  The theory goes that if you pay or compromise enough people, they will do your bidding exactly the way you want them to. I sometimes wonder if these people have worked in any organisation – no matter what size – where internal competition, incompetence, misunderstandings, jealousy, favouritism and pettiness completely rule the roost. No human organisation is perfect, and while they might be able to get their shit together for a while, it’s unlikely to last very long. So what is it? A massively organised conspiracy against your crappy pet theory, or something much more mundane: that you haven’t done half enough work to convince people who might actually know what they are talking about?

Those Poor Deluded Souls

A friend of mine was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for most of his life. When I asked him how he managed to keep his beliefs together when confronted with the occasional well-informed debater? He told me they didn’t matter, because no matter what they said, he was absolutely certain they were wrong. This is similar to the perspective of an ex-Scientologist I know, who, when he was part of the cult, looked on non-Scientologists as somewhat inferior. When you have beliefs like this, it’s quite a strong inoculation against reality.

Ignore Them and They’ll Go Away

Some people simply pretend that their critics are not there. Even in the face of the worst criticism of their ideas, they simply press on, convinced of their righteousness. The master of this was Peter Popoff, a US faith healer and out-and-out fraud, who is still in the business of taking money from desperate people years after he went bankrupt after being exposed in the most public way possible. James Randi (featured in the video) calls people like Popoff “unsinkable rubber ducks” because they just carry on regardless of what’s thrown at them.

Change the Goalposts

This one is not so much about ignoring your critics as changing your position on specific objections while keeping the main thrust of your beliefs intact. Many commentators have noticed that creationism has evolved (ha!) over the years, first from a strict biblical view that assumed that men had a missing rib and the world was created in seven days, to Creation Science, to a more flexible view of time, to Intelligent Design, to “Teach the Controversy”. There are plenty of other examples of this. When the original ideas are exposed as complete bullshit, a new design comes along with the ability to change shape and better adapt to adversity like that robot in Terminator 2.

Hmm, there must be one more reaction…

Oh yeah.

Admit You Were Wrong

Ha ha! As if.

Lots of people around the world do not take any homeopathic treatments. Lots of people do. Both groups tend to live to similar ages and are largely prone to the same conditions as they go through life.

You can think of it as a kind of thought experiment. On one hand, you have people who tend to see illness as something to wait out. Most illnesses – sniffles, coughs, pains, lows, wheezes – they come and go. It’s often a matter of tolerating them until they eventually die down and disappear. Maybe an analgesic, if necessary, will temporarily ease the symptoms. On the other you have people who, at the first sign of a cold or an ache, it’s off down to the homeopath for a dose of oscillococcinum, or whatever you are having yourself.

This intrigues me, because as far as I can see, in both cases the outcomes are pretty much the same. It’s just that in one case, there is this persistent belief that some kind of external remedy needs to be taken. This belief is always confirmed once the symptoms die down, as they normally do.

That’s why I regard homeopathy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You see, every time it’s called on, it seems to work. The prescribed remedies actually seem to do the trick. Until one day, they don’t.

The normal, non-homeopathic person will then trot off down to the doctor to find out what’s going on. The homeopathic person has so much invested in their beliefs that they will wait it out, possibly consulting their homeopath a few times, thinking they need something else. All the while, time is ticking away. The old reliable sheep has suddenly revealed itself to be a wolf, and yet the patient is oblivious to this. They convince themselves, until they have no choice, that the growl they hear is just a new kind of bleating.

I don’t think this is healthy. Homeopathy, because it appears so successful for lesser ailments, works against people when they actually need to go to the doctor. It works against their pets, their kids and other family members. Not only do you have to contend with a change of health, you have to deal with a change in your belief system, and that might just be too difficult to accept.

Better, I think, to leave the pills out. It’s not true to say they don’t do anything. While they certainly don’t do anything good, they have the strong potential to make situations worse.

I want to talk about bad ideas and good ideas.

Bad ideas originate from many directions. They can be based on the convictions of so-called gurus – the L. Ron Hubbards, or the Andrew Wakefields of this world – whose insane teachings are cherished like nuggets of gold by their many advocates. They can be based merely on a distrust of officialdom, such as is evident in the comments of the New World Order zealots, or the many and varied conspiracy-theorists in our midst. They can arrive from wishful thinking, like belief in angels or the Loch Ness Monster, or the idea that ancient aliens founded cities on the planet long before we arrived. They can be based on literal interpretations of ancient scriptures, evident in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and Christianity. They can capitalise on fear or feed ancient prejudices, leading to pogroms, slavery and racism.

Bad ideas are like viruses. They are most successful when they exploit the parts of our brain that deal with our strongest emotions – love, fear, joy, loss and hatred. In this way they can persist for generations. Superstitions, astrology, homeopathy, fairy belief, white power, anti-semitism and witch-hunting all have a long, inglorious provenance, but this alone doesn’t make them good ideas. Not one bit.

Bad ideas inhabit a twilight zone, bolstered up by groupthink, forgiven with generous excuses and defended by Byzantine forms of apologetics. When the emperor has no clothes on, attacking the small child becomes the order of the day.

Bad ideas hurt. They sometimes kill. Quack medical practitioners, their heads stuffed with bad ideas, can give advice that endanger their clients’ health. Unscrupulous charlatans can empty the bank accounts of the unwary as they offer them false hope about themselves and loved ones. Governments have gone to war based on bad ideas. Bad ideas cause world leaders to bluster and prevaricate while the world’s climate changes, decade by decade.

Good ideas, by contrast, originate from systems that expose ideas to reality. When ideas don’t work, they are jettisoned in favour of better ideas. Over time, the best ideas rise to the top. Practical trades, such as plumbing and bricklaying, have no time for bad ideas, because they simply do not work. The currency of these professions are good ideas – ones that have stood the test of time, that do what they are intended to do.

Good ideas emerge from science and engineering all the time. We put men on the moon due to a string of great, practical ideas. The computer on your lap, that phone in your pocket, that car you drive, the pacemaker keeping your father’s heart ticking – they all happened because people built good ideas upon good ideas upon good ideas – a solid pyramid of innovation.

Good ideas are hard to come by. Bad ideas are ten-a-penny. In medicine, bad ideas cost lives, so there is a continual search for ideas that have the potential to do great good – to extend the quality of our lives and ease suffering. We’re still not there but each year a few new useful ideas are discovered. In the end, that’s a positive, hopeful story.

We look at race relations differently. We look at human rights and animal rights differently. We look at gender relations and sexuality differently – not because they are the faddish thing to do, but because they concur with objective reality. They match with how things really are when they are put to the test.

I understand the danger of bad ideas. I greatly value good ideas. And that is why I am a sceptic.

Normally, in the political sphere, the business meeting or on the Internet, there is nothing like a good debate to flush out the issues and get people thinking more deeply about their views. It helps us make up our mind on subjects we might not know a lot about.

Debate has its limitations, however. Some people are better than others at performing it. Irrespective of the merits or strengths of the arguments, good debaters will make themselves appear sympathetic to the audience. They will use pathos and evoke emotion. They will use humour and make use of clever soundbites where possible. There is an element of conjuring in the best debaters: little rhetorical tricks that we in the audience may not be aware of, but can do wonders to get people onside.

There is also a sense that the best ideas from each side can lead to a better position overall. Seeking a middle ground is a viable position for a disinterested viewer to take. The argument can be made that if both views are being represented, then they are somehow equal, and that there are important points to be gained from both sides.

When it comes to scientific issues, public debates don’t work quite so well. First of all, no matter how good a debater you are, it has no effect on the underlying science. A skilled creationist debater can argue until the cows come home that God created the Universe in 6 days. He can use every rhetorical device and trick in the book to persuade his audience, but it doesn’t make evolution and a 4.5 billion year old Earth any less true. So too with gravity,  or any number of well established scientific theories. These theories were not developed in the courtroom, or by TV debates, or by pressure groups, or forums on the Internet. There was no appeal to the public to decide their veracity. They came about in the lab, through field work, experimentation, data analysis and published papers. Sure, there would have been debates – many of them – but these debates are technical and professional ones, focused on the quality of the evidence and the methods used. Such arguments rarely play well in front of a TV audience.

Secondly, once scientific theories are established, there is no middle ground. Just as 1 plus 1 is always 2, that too is usually the case in science. Reality works in particular ways. Gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear physics and biochemistry all operate on strict physical laws that don’t change just because someone doesn’t like them. A good thing it is too, as our computers, the cars we travel on, and the boilers for our hot water would not work if it were not the case.

You can’t just come along and equate your opinion or belief, no matter how deeply held, with a well established scientific principle, unless you have serious evidence to back it up. There is no sense that creationism is partly true. No sense that the successive dilutions advocated by homeopathy are of any practical use. Why? Because their advocates have not brought any useful evidence to the table, properly supporting their beliefs, while at the same time accounting for everything else that the existing scientific theories tell us. To take the middle ground in such cases, you are comparing apples, not with other apples, but with a copy of a facsimile of what once used to be an orange but now could be a giraffe, or anything you are having yourself. A scientific theory can only be modified or upended by better scientific evidence, not by a change in public opinion.

Equating pseudo-scientific opinion with well established science is known as “false balance”. It’s widely practiced in the media, where the he-said / she-said debating format is in wide use. A frequent outcome is that a casual listener can come away believing in nonsense, merely because the rhetoric on the nonsensical side of the argument was more persuasive than the expert view.

False balance is everywhere. Creationists in America have tried every trick in the book to inject their particular brand of stupidity into the US education system. There have been incessant efforts to put alternative medicine on a par with actual medicine, despite a long-standing failure to establish scientific plausibility, or to prove their modalities work better than placebo. Climate change deniers are active in the public sphere, using techniques borrowed from creationists and tobacco companies to cast doubt on the research. In Ireland, anti-fluoridation groups are seeking to change public health policy, despite numerous research studies giving fluoridation a green light at low dosages. All of these groups use public debate and public pressure as proxies instead of proper scientific research – because the science does not support their position.

Many prominent scientists are reluctant to engage in debates of this nature because it gives the other side a recognition that they don’t deserve, and offers the possibility of losing a debate because their rhetorical skill might not be as good as the other person’s. These are genuine concerns, however it’s a problem because public pressure and public debate can, and does, move the needle. It is possible for laws to be changed despite the best efforts of scientists. Legislators are rarely scientifically educated themselves. Simply avoiding debate gives all kinds of pressure groups a carte blanche to force through the most wrong-headed legislation possible.

I am minded of Christopher Hitchens, who never shirked any debates, even when his opponent’s points were extreme, terrifyingly offensive and in no sense based on reality. He recognised that how we learn things is based on science, but how we move forward is by public debate. We need both the sense of discovery and the ability to persuade. We need good communicators who can counter the propagandists from the other side while making a forceful case for science in public policy.

The following video is an oldie but a goodie. Dara O’Briain outlines the problem of false balance better than I ever could.

I did a radio interview a few weeks ago, and in it, I discussed homeopathy, acupuncture, salt therapy and chiropractic. Needless to say, the interview was followed by a range of alternative practitioners all calling in to defend their methods. The interviewer also read out a number of texts and emails, all pretty much saying the same thing: that I was just a closed-minded begrudger who should be a bit less dismissive about things he doesn’t understand.

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“Thinking” by ores2k (CC Licenced)

It’s a common belief that sceptical people are somehow lacking in imagination and empathy. According to some, when we look at the world, we moan and groan at the stupidity we see around us. Somehow, most other people are lesser beings, and while we cast doubt and criticise, they are out in the world getting on with their lives. What a miserable, negative lot we are!

The thing is, I don’t see it like that at all. As a person, I’m not terribly negative about things, and most other sceptical people I know have similar attitudes. Indeed, what I see around me, when I visit sceptical conferences and organise my own get-togethers, are wildly interesting people. Among the sceptical community, you will find writers and musicians; painters, comedians and poets. You will find fantasists, willing to consider life far into the future and worlds yet to be discovered. You will meet people with great talents, and those with huge burdens to bear. There is a passion to our discourse, some sadness, and many, many laughs. The sceptical community is just like any community on the planet, as varied and fascinating as a patchwork quilt.

So, what makes us different? If there is something that distinguishes us from others, it is this: we are driven by a curiosity about how the world really works. From this, we believe that the best way to understand it is to consider the evidence that exists for it. If you are asking us to accept something as true, we will ask how well it is supported. If it has good backup, it will be discussed, considered, explored and toyed with for the possibilities that it may offer. If it has little or no support, then acceptance will be withheld, until such time, if ever, that better evidence comes to light. Over time, you develop a sense of whether an idea is worthwhile or not: a “baloney detector kit”, as it were, helping you sort the good ideas from the bad ones.

A glance at my bookshelf reveals books about the origins of life, the story of Galileo, the scramble for Africa, Richard Feynman, the Ice Age, the Crusades, the stories of civilisation, great epidemics and the life and times of an executioner in 17th Century Nuremberg – hardly the library of a cynical begrudger. It would pain me greatly if I was ever to be parted from them. I am possessed with a desire to know and understand what I can, and yet not be fooled in the process. To me, scepticism is part of the process of gathering knowledge. Without it, knowledge is meaningless, as you cannot distinguish the worthwhile ideas from the chaff.

Scepticism is a state of mind. It doesn’t mean I get angry every time I see something I disagree with, or that I’m always writing angry letters to newspapers complaining about the latest fad. Most of the time, it simply allows me to be discriminating in what I wish to spend time on. There are only so many battles you can fight.

That doesn’t imply that there are no issues to discuss. Scepticism gives me a perspective on which to look at the world, and from this viewpoint, I see charlatans – psychics, faith healers and cancer quacks – exploiting peoples hopes and vulnerabilities with non-existent cures. I see anti-vaccination groups scaring parents, thus bringing rare diseases back amongst our children. I see cult religions warping people’s lives when they could have been doing so much else. I see political think-tanks questioning the science on climate change, thus condemning future generations to a potentially dreadful future. These are issues that affect us all. My concerns are human concerns, focused on the best of what life has to offer us, and rejecting the worst. I’m just coming at it from a slightly different angle.

Ultimately, I think scepticism is a hopeful stance. I believe that we humans have the capability to extend our survival as a species and to make all our lives better during our short stay on the planet. We can solve many of the problems that beset us, but it will require hard work, trial, error and great insight. In the end, it’s less about ideology and more about the role of science, technology, education and a good dose of common human decency, in addressing the many challenges that we face, now and in the future.

So, it’s not all about begrudgery and negativity. Quite the opposite – scepticism is about intellectual honesty, unquenchable curiosity and truly great ideas. It is accessible to all, both young and old. As a perspective, it is valuable and satisfying, both emotionally and mentally. It is a viewpoint shared by many of the world’s greatest thinkers, scientists and innovators. If only our political classes would consider it more seriously! We sceptics still have quite a job to do to convince people that our stance is important and worthwhile, but in the end I am hopeful. After all, we have an important ally on our side: reality.

Homeopathy Overdose by Richard Craig (CC Licenced)

Homeopathy Overdose by Richard Craig (CC Licenced)

“What’s the Harm”? It’s another question that often comes up from supporters of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Is it not the case that most people attending alternative practitioners can expect to happily live long, chaotic and unexpected lives just as much as the next person?

Yes, but. There’s always a “but”. In fact, there are quite a few “buts”.

Let’s tackle the extreme cases first. There are many cases of people foregoing proper medical care in favour of CAM, thus prolonging pain and suffering for longer than is strictly necessary. In the worst situations, this can be life-threatening. There are many examples of people foregoing medical care for ineffective practices, much to their detriment. So, if you are really sick, go to a doctor. That also applies to your kids.

Other cases exist where semi-medical interventions are being performed, using acupuncture needles without gloves, performing chiropractic manipulation near the neck region, using actual medicines in homeopathic treatments, adding heavy metals to Ayurvedic treatments, triggering asthma attacks during salt therapy. While rare, such treatments have lead to medical complications because, by their nature, they border on real medical intervention, with all its attendant risks.

And then there’s just stupid, avoidable stuff that could have huge negative consequences if the practitioner gets it wrong. Ear Candling, I’m looking at you.

These are the easy ones. But, let’s say it’s not acute or life threatening, and the intervention appears totally safe. There’s no harm then, right?

I looked at the phenomenon of “It Worked For Me” in a previous entry, where I examined what might be going on for people who reported marked improvements in their condition after having CAM treatment. What this implies is, while people often report improvement, there is no actual improvement taking place. They may temporarily report improvement, but only until the condition reappears again sometime later.

If it doesn’t work, it might require another visit. Then another visit. Then another. Or multiple visits to different therapists in search of a cure. The problem may eventually get better, but that may have nothing much to do with the treatment. It’s just your body getting better naturally, as it would have done anyway, without any CAM intervention whatsoever. That’s a lot of money spent on nothing.

Many people take regular visits to alternative therapists, any time they feel poorly, or tired, or in pain. Given that most alternative treatments have been shown to work no better than placebo, it’s all a very effective way of spending a big portion of your income on something that could have been better spent on a holiday, or a new car, or saving for college, or whatever.

It’s also a great way of spreading nonsense. Some CAM practitioners feel themselves to be in competition with proper doctors, and so are not unfamiliar with spreading negative propaganda about the so-called “allopathic” medical profession. It’s not to say that the health service is perfect, but neither is it the bogeyman they often make it out to be. At the worst, the propaganda engenders a disproportionate sense of distrust in science-based medicine. Completely preventable diseases have been making a comeback because anti-vaccine nonsense continues to be perpetuated by some CAM practitioners and consequently, their clients. Children are referred to dangerous quacks because of a conviction by some that doctors are part of a conspiracy to hide cures from the general public.  So, while there appears to be no harm to you, you may be putting others at risk, simply by passing on bad advice.

Another way harm is spread is simply by perpetuating false hope. Sadly, there are some conditions and diseases where cures still evade us. People can be driven to their wits’ end, trying to find a cure or a treatment that will work. While doctors are expected to be honest with their patients in such cases, the CAM profession has far less qualms, and so clients are sent on distressing wild goose chases when perhaps they should be moving on towards more palliative measures. These are difficult, heartbreaking situations, but one thing is clear: nobody should be capitalising from such tribulations.

A question you might be asking is this: don’t medical treatments sometimes cause harm? Yes, but medicine usually looks beyond placebo into actual interventions, the bulk of whom have a great deal of evidence to back them up. These interventions can be harmful, but this is balanced against an improved outcome for the patient. Most alternative therapies are placebo at the best of times, so if little improvement can be expected, then neither should there be much harm in the intervention.

So, while active harm is rare, there are more indirect kinds of harm. Harm can be caused through inaction, or through spreading misleading information to others, or through the perpetuation of false hope. We shouldn’t look at alternative medicine as having no downsides. In the end, it’s never the best when people are forced to seek out solutions that don’t exist.

More thoughts on this issue from Science Based Medicine.

WhatsTheHarm.net – a database of alternative therapies going wrong.

Acupuncture Needle, CC Licenced via Acid Pix

Acupuncture Needle, CC Licenced via Acid Pix

“It Worked For Me” : these are the four words I always expect to hear when I get into a discussion on Alternative Medicine. In many ways, it’s very difficult to argue against. If you are not particularly careful in replying, you can come across as highly insensitive. How dare you assume that you know their circumstances better than themselves! Are you accusing them of lying? Furthermore, there is almost always a readymade refutation should you challenge any aspects of the assertion. It happened, you were not there, I was.

“It Worked For Me” is a minefield, and yet it needs to be tackled.

In the case of most alternative therapies, it’s implausible in the extreme for the putative cure to have been the cause of the recovery. Scientific studies have established, far beyond reasonable doubt, that homeopathic pills contain no active ingredient. These pills, by themselves, are utterly useless. Further studies have established that Chiropractic back manipulation is of no use beyond providing temporary relief to lower back pain in some cases. Other studies have demonstrated that Acupuncture, the insertion of needles in the skin, does little from a medical perspective. The list goes on and on. Whatever they say is working, it’s obviously not the particular treatments themselves.

And yet, many people swear by them. They had back pain, they went to an aromatherapist, and the pain disappeared. They felt very unwell, they went to a naturopath, and felt much better. Some people have reported the end of chronic pain and illness from going to alternative practitioners. They have reported the clearing up of allergies, the ending of depression, fatigue, lots of things.

So what is happening? Clearly, it’s difficult, without full information, to comment on any individual case, but here are some of the things that may be happening:

1) The Placebo Effect. The Placebo Effect relates to the tendency of people to report improvement after all manner of interventions, medical or none. Significant study has been done on this, and, while measurable improvement (beyond what would happen without intervention) is almost never seen, the effect refers to a strong tendency to make people feel better in themselves. It’s triggered by lots of things: the dosage, the nature of the dosage, the ambiance of the consulting room, the attitude and friendliness of the therapist, and much else. We all feel better from having spoken to someone who listens and helps us talk more easily. The Placebo Effect is particularly strong when it comes to non-specific symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, low mood and general feelings of un-wellness. It has less of an effect for specific, clear symptoms, such as cuts and infections.

2) Regression to the Mean. This refers to the natural tendency of the body to get better. Given enough time, back pain tends to get better by itself, sleep cycles are re-established, and allergies clear up, at least for a while. Just because a therapy was invoked before the recovery happened, doesn’t mean it caused or accelerated the recovery. It may have happened quite naturally, and there is no way of knowing this without careful analysis.

3) False Memory. Our memory of an event is actively re-created every time we recall it, so by necessity, many details of what actually happened tend to get lost, particularly the aspects that do not resonate with the main story. So it might be forgotten that the person was on antibiotics at the same time as visiting a homeopath, or that the recovery didn’t happen quite as fast as they remember. Even worse, the memory tends to become even more fixed with the telling as the weeks and years go by.

4) Belief contamination. We tend to view the world based on our inherent beliefs. Ghost hunters see and hear ghosts everywhere. Right-wingers tend to see left-wing conspiracies everywhere, and vice-versa. So too with people with an invested belief in their chosen form of alternative therapy. They will reach for signs of it working, even when the evidence is very slim.

5) Cognitive Dissonance. Once we have established a story about ourselves, we hate admitting we might be wrong about it. So when challenged on any aspects, our brains tend to go into overdrive to defend our position. This can have the effect of further changing our memory of it, bolstering the false memories even further.

6) Subjectivity. People don’t normally establish criteria for success beforehand, then judge the outcome based on these pre-existing criteria. Instead, there is a tendency to retro-fit a meaning after the event, which gives them much greater latitude to define what success means. The bar can be set as low as the person wishes.

7) Maslow’s Hammer, or “if the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail”. This is where people do not understand the limitations of their thinking. If we know of only one major way that a problem can be solved, we are unlikely to conceive of other alternatives to solving the problem. So, lack of knowledge of alternative modalities limits us to conceiving just one answer to the problems we have.

 

None of this, by the way, imputes deliberate action or foul play on the person making the claim. It’s just the way our minds work. When it comes to how our brain interprets the information we get from our environment, we are truly a funny lot.

If confronted with a personal anecdote and asked to explain it, it is far better to avoid engaging in a particular diagnosis, as you are unlikely to win that battle. It is possible, however, to engage in a hypothetical situation, on why we should be sceptical of personal testimonies. You could also imagine yourself experiencing a magic cure, then testing yourself on how you might have interpreted it incorrectly.

In the end, we are all too easy to fool. Convincing ourselves that a discredited modality works is the easy bit. Trying to establish that we might actually have got it wrong is much more difficult. “It Worked For Me”, as a reason for believing in a treatment, is simply not good enough.

epsos

Wooden Sculpture (CC image via EpSos.de)

Why is science important?

Some people think science is all about wild-haired, bespectacled geeks in lab coats, holding beakers and marvelling at their latest fantastic breakthroughs. Then there are the people who believe it to be some sort of church, where immutable truths are held in sacred reverence. Many consider it to be just a type of opinion, prone to change its mind with the same regularity as teenage fashion. In the worst case, it is condemned as an enterprise of pure evil, determined to foist dangerous chemicals, foods and drugs on a compliant public. All of these are lazy, small minded caricatures of what science is.

Put simply, science is about trial and error. Scientists test ideas against reality; dumping the failed ideas and retaining the successful ideas for further scrutiny. Ideas that survive multiple, repeated testing gain greater validity. Over time, the best ideas become part of the consensus of knowledge that helps us understand the world and Universe we live in. While all this knowledge is provisional, and subject to change with further evidence and testing, many of the best ideas are doggedly persistent, retaining their power and validity after many decades, and even centuries, of close examination. Gravitation and Evolution by Natural Selection are two of the more notable examples.

This process of trial and error is familiar to us all. Computer programmers, debugging thousands of lines of code, understand it only too well. Businesses test competitive strategies, rejecting ones that don’t add to the bottom line. Plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters rely on the fruits of hundreds of years of reality testing, every time they build a house. We eat mushrooms, salad leaves and shellfish, safe in the knowledge that someone, some time in the past, tried them, liked them, didn’t die of poisoning, and told others what they had just eaten. Science is all this, and more. Over the years, it has become very sophisticated in how it can tease out the best approaches from a vast array of flawed ideas.

Science is important because it tells us how things work. Often, it can explain why they work. So, when it comes to explaining something like why vaccines are today used against measles, the trained eye can explain it not only from longitudinal studies on the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, but also though an understanding of the mechanisms of the human immune system and the measles virus itself. Even if there is a lot more to discover, as in the cases of autism and cancer, science can provide a sense of what is known so far and what is yet to be discovered.

Science is furthermore important because it also tell us what doesn’t work and the reason why this might be so. So when crystal healers tout their garnets and quartzes as cures for depression, or when homeopaths claim that their sugar pills have medicinal properties, we can reliably challenge their assertions. Pseudo-scientific (“false scientific”) claims like this fly in the face of physics, biology and everything we know about physiology and mental health.

One wonderful thing about science is the many surprising insights that have been made about the nature of the world around us. Discoveries such as DNA, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and relativity – to name but a few – have revolutionised our understanding of the world while driving massive improvements in technology and the world economy. We need to keep in mind that without science, such discoveries would never have been made.

Science can also provide the most useful hints toward future discoveries, cures and treatments. The knowledge already built up leads to interesting pathways deserving of further research, and from this, real breakthroughs may arise. Without such a starting point, we are unlikely to make much progress in fields such as cancer control, neurological disorders, climate change and the many other problems of our times. To propose and promote solutions in such areas while remaining ignorant of existing knowledge about the problem is foolish in the extreme.

There is an integrity to science. Despite many different political systems around the world, there is no “Islamic science”, or “Eastern science” – it’s just science. The same methods are taught in science classes everywhere there is a commitment to good education. And despite many attempts by politicians and charlatans to interfere with the scientific process for their own ends, it stands firm, even if this means loss of funding and favour. This is particularly the case in the environmental debates of the present time.

For these and other reasons, science is worth promoting and defending. Many groups seem intent to promote anti-scientific agendas, or, more usually, cherry picking the bits of science they like, while rejecting outright the bits that don’t conform to their ideologies. It’s difficult to be blasé when confronted with such opposition. A lessening of the value of science, in our classrooms and public spaces, is ultimately a rejection of what we have learned as a species. It debases a process of inquiry that has served us so well in the past and should continue to do so in the future.

Here’s a heartwarming story from celebrity psychic Joe Power:

An atheist was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned
to her and said, “Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike
up a conversation with your fellow passenger.”

The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total
stranger, “What would you want to talk about?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the atheist. “How about why there is no God,
or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death?” as he smiled smugly.

“Okay,” she said. “Those could be interesting topics but let me ask
you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same
stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns
out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?”

The atheist, visibly surprised by the little girl’s intelligence,
thinks about it and says, “Hmmm, I have no idea.” To which
the little girl replies, “Do you really feel qualified to discuss
God, Heaven and Hell, or life after death, when you don’t know shit?”

And then she went back to reading her book.

Heartwarming, wonderful, except it’s complete bollocks, and falls into the trap of what some people would like to believe atheists think, as opposed to what is actually the case. At the time of writing, it has 357,000 likes and 239,000 shares on Facebook.

So, leaving out the smarminess of the putative girl in the story, the creepiness of any adult stranger trying to chat up a girl on a flight, and the fact that this conversation never took place and is a metaphor for the Atheism / Theism debate, this story still bugs me.

Atheists *don’t* claim to have special knowledge about God’s non-existence.

The implication in this piece is that most atheists somehow assume to know for certain that he doesn’t exist, enabling critics to accuse us of smugness, arrogance and a gross error of logic, in that we are trying to prove a negative. The child can then disabuse us of this arrogance by asking a simple question. Atheists can’t know for certain whether God exists, but if he does exist, we can legitimately ask what he actually does. Does he control the planets, the moon and the weather? Our current knowledge of astronomy implies something completely different, and altogether more compelling. Did he create the Universe? Then why did he make it so awesomely big, if our species has some role in his plan? Does he heal the sick? Then what about all the people he doesn’t heal, despite all their earnest pleas? Does he bring peace to the world? 2,000 years of brutal post-Jesus violence and genocide would suggest not. Does he comfort people in their suffering? Then why are Hindus comforted by their gods in the same way Christians find comfort in God? So what does God do, if he is said by so many people to exist? That’s really all atheists are asking. If he doesn’t do all that much (and there are often better explanations) then why invest so much effort and self-sacrifice in believing in him?

The girl’s question is a non-sequitor.

The response the girl gives is completely immaterial to the subject under discussion, and could be used for any situation, and even the other way around. Her intent is to imply that since you don’t know some things, then you can’t presume to know other things. Had the atheist decided to talk about paint, she could have used the same approach. Had her fellow passenger been a Christian, she could have asked the same question with precisely the same response. And, since atheists don’t presume to know in the first place, it’s a completely bogus argument.

Who is more likely to strike up a conversation about God with a total stranger?

Somehow, I don’t think many atheists are really that into foisting their views on others. The obligation to proselytise is more a Christian thing. We atheists don’t really care what you believe, so long as your intent is not to foist your views on others, or to re-organise society based solely on a presumed set of diktats from your god.

So who is the arrogant one?

By setting up this straw man argument, Power is implying that the God question should be out of bounds. To me, this is extraordinarily arrogant. How dare we ask questions. It appears that some things, no matter how illogical, unrealistic or wrong-headed, are supposedly immune from honest inquiry.

One thing I agree: atheists don’t know shit. In this respect we’re pretty much like everyone else, Christians included. We know some things well and other things not well at all. The difference seems to be, however, that we desire to know things, even if that means upsetting a few sacred cows on the way. How good it would be if this thirst for knowledge was appreciated by the very many people who liked Joe Power’s snide and dismissive Facebook post.

 

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: View of the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty. (Image: US National Park Service ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since September 11, 2001, two different stories have emerged about the attacks on that fateful day.

Story 1: The attacks were the planned and organised solely by Al Qaeda Islamist terrorists, headed by Osama Bin Laden. 19 terrorist operatives boarded armed with little more than box-cutter knives, boarded 4 passenger jets, overpowered the flight crews, and sent their planes towards New York and Washington DC, where two airplanes hit the World Trade Center, one plane crashed into the Pentagon, and another plane crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, having failed to reach its intended destination. The Twin Towers collapsed as a result of structural weaknesses caused by the impacts and burning jet fuel. The US authorities failed to prevent the attacks due to lack of co-ordination between intelligence authorities and insufficient information about the terrorists’ objectives.

Story 2: The attacks were planned and coordinated by Israeli and/or US authorities, mainly as a pretext for war against Iraq and Afghanistan and extending American hegemony in the oil-rich Middle East. The World Trade Center collapses were caused by controlled demolitions. According to some accounts, no plane hit the Pentagon – instead it was caused by a missile shot at close range.

Clearly, most people accept the former story, but a small redoubt of people fervently believe that the leadership of the free world tried to pull a fast one on them, and that there is plenty of evidence in this regard to disprove the official account. These people have spent an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to unpick the established narrative.

Which story to believe?

Story 1 has a number of points in its favour. 9/11 was set in the context of increasingly audacious violence from Islamist terror groups, from Kenya to London to Bali.  The 9-11 Commission Report recounts, in excruciating detail, the level of miscommunication, discord, lack of communication and underestimation that took place between intelligence authorities in the days up to and including September 11th. Members of the military and intelligence communities were themselves targeted and killed in the attacks. The US Government had to invest in a massive overhaul of security. It embarked on two colossally expensive foreign wars to protect its interests. There are multiple lines of evidence: tracing the movements of the killers, the actions of the different intelligence communities, senior government decisions, airport security, flight crews, passenger phone calls, Islamist leaders and many more – all adding to an overall narrative of events on the day. Few individuals from the thousands of people, who were players in the events of the day, ever registered any major dissent from the narrative. Neither has any major media organisation, at home or abroad, seriously contested the story. It’s a story of terrorists getting lucky against a security system that was less than watertight.

To accept Story 2, you must replace incompetence, discord and pot-luck with a tale of near perfect planning and co-ordination, on a vast scale. At each stage up to the attacks themselves, alert airport officials, brave passengers or crew members could have disrupted the government’s putative plans. The implication is that they would need to have been tipped off in some way – that they were in on the conspiracy. Only a handful of companies in the world could have staged a controlled demolition on the order of the World Trade Center. To do so covertly would have been even more challenging – taking months of meticulous planning. Why didn’t the world media investigate these demolition companies? What of the (surely abundant) evidence of the products of controlled demolition among the wreckage of the buildings? The clearance teams must have been truly excellent. If the Pentagon was not hit by a jet plane, what happened to all the passengers of Flight 77 and who helped clear up (or plant) the evidence? To accept this story, you must accept that an army of specially trained, and potentially psychopathic government operatives, were in place to maintain a subterfuge on this scale. The aftermath of Iraq and Katrina, and the sheer ineptitude of many officials at that time, does not help the conspiracy theorists’ case.

It is worthwhile reminding ourselves that mass collusion does occur and has occurred in the past. The history of the 20th Century provides us with many examples: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, the Cambodian killing fields, Pinochet’s Chile. However, these examples all had a common refrain: the hatred of a particular class of people to the point that eliminating them was seen as a good thing by the perpetrators. How the ordinary traders, administrators, managers and support staff of the World Trade Center fitted the mould of  non-people is something the conspiracy theorists need to properly establish. Then there is mass-collusion within organisations such as the Catholic Church and Scientology. But these organisations, by their nature, value absolute adherence to dogma, stifle freedom of speech and are contemptuous of dissent: again, hardly prototypes for the loud, free-speaking, most in-your-face country on the planet.

Conspiracy theorists will scream that the devil is in the detail, so if you are truly bothered, far better brains than I have pulled the detailed claims apart. Popular Mechanics did a full deconstruction of the Truther claims, there are a few grassroot sceptical sites and Ryan Owens has put together some good debunking videos also. Skeptic Magazine also ran an article on 9/11 debunking that’s worth a read.

So, if you believe that the 9/11 attacks were the result of an inside job, the weight of evidence is completely against you. You are not a skeptic, you are a denier; the burden of proof is on you. The focus should be on the many issues and developments that arose out of the attacks – some of which have that often have had a huge impact on personal freedoms and government power – and not on this bullshit.

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