Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Archive for January 2009

Astronomy vs. Evolution

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IYA2009yoe2009There is a battle brewing.  On one side is Astronomy; on the other is Evolution.  This is the 400th anniversary when Galileo first used his telescope to examine the night sky.  It is also the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the origin of species. All of these events have coincided in 2009 to make a battle between the Year of Astronomy and the Year of Evolution.  So who will win out in this battle of “year of”s?  Everyone, of course!

Year of Astronomy festivities:

International Year of Astronomy 2009

365 days of astronomy


Year of Evolution festivities:

Year of Evolution 2009

Darwin 2009 in Houston

Many more events are planned in both Astronomy and Evolution.  Enjoy!

Written by bort901

January 29, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Announcements

104th Skeptics’ Circle: The Skepticism Review and Education Program Edition…..

with 11 comments

Welcome to the Skepticism Review and Education Program (SREP). SREP is designed to deliver an unparalleled educational program to all those individuals interested in the myriad aspects of skepticism, critical thinking, and the use of reason as a guide through life. It is available for all members of the skeptical community and for anyone who wants to gain a more detailed understanding of this important subject. The following questions are based on submissions from a number of experts on skepticism. Answers will be provided upon completion of the exam.

If you are perhaps unsure if you have come to the right testing facility, please read the following two discussions on the true nature of skepticism by Seth Manapio from Whiskey Before Breakfast…The Blog and Sam Ogden from Space City Skeptics: “Again with the Definitions” and “What is Skepticism?“.

1. Which of the following spells from Magicks of the World is most effective?

A. Seduce a Professional of Choice Sex Spell
B. The Mysterious Shrinking Wallet Spell
C. Vegas Victory Money Spell
D. Break Them Up Love Spell

Submitted by Lord Runolfr from The Saga of Runolfr.

2.  What is the most effective means of handling an internet troll?

A. Shouting “Hey, isn’t that the third Billy Goat Gruff behind you!”
B. Staying completely still in the hopes that they will wander off, because troll vision is based on movement
C. Calmly and rationally countering their flawed arguments if only for the benefit of other readers
D. trollsuit

Submitted by Perky Skeptic from The Perky Skeptic.

3. Which of the following is not a method commonly used by practitioners of alternative medicine to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of healthcare consumers?

A. Legislation
B. Circumventing peer review
C. Marketing
D. Use of therapies that actually work

Submitted by PalMD from the white coat underground.

4. In addition to home decorating, the ancient Chinese science of Feng Shui can also be applied to which of the following aspects of daily life?

A. Diet
B. Parking
C. Internal Organ placement (1)
D. Day trading

Submitted by Bing from Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes.

5. Have you ever seen a UFO?

A. Yes
B. No
C. Not since last night’s probing
D. jIH ghaj ghoS Daq chargh lIj qo’! (2)

Submitted by Yoo from Stochastic Scribbles.

6. Which of the following best supports the theory of human klugery rather than intelligent design?

A. Klugery? Isn’t that some kind of sport involving downhill sled races?
B. No fossil record evidence of a monkey giving birth to a human
C. The human mind
D. Something about a banana (3)

Submitted by Greta Christina from Greta Christina’s Blog.

7. When debating conspiracy theorists, what response are you least likely to hear?

A. “That evidence was manufactured.”
B. “The conspirators are exceptionally good at secrecy and at hiding evidence of the truth.”
C. “The media are in on the conspiracy!”
D. “Has anyone seen my copy of Skeptical Inquirer?”

Submitted by Greta Christina from Greta Christina’s Blog.

8. The term “evidence” is used properly in which of the following statements?

A. You don’t have any evidence that catnip won’t treat my child’s fever
B. There is little convincing evidence that echinacea is effective in preventing the common cold
C. A lack of evidence from scientific studies that licorice root is effective in treating asthma means that there is evidence that it doesn’t work
D. There is no strong evidence either way for the use of milk thistle to increase a mother’s supply of breastmilk

Submitted by Andrew from the evolving mind.

9. Brother XII, an infamous early 20th centurly cult leader, was known by what other title?

A. Edward Arthur Wilson
B. The Egyptian god Osiris
C. Theosophist
D. All of the above

Submitted by Dr. Vitelli from Providentia.

10. Which of the following is not a weakness in the concept of evolutionary psychology?

A. Many aspects of human behavior, such as addiction, are not necessarily heritable but a result of social enfluence
B. Similarities  between identical twins may be based on the intrauterine environment as well as genetic effects
C. It has yet to explain the origin of life or that extra rib
D. Ignoring the potential role of so-called “junk DNA” on gene expression

Submitted by Gadfly from Socratic Gadfly.

11. Which of the following criteria is not important when evaluating the methodological quality of research on the psychological effects of induced abortion.

A. Use of an appropriate comparison group
B. Whether or not it has been featured on a segment of Oprah
C. Controlling for preexisting mental health status
D. Use of valid mental health measures

Submitted by Rense Nieuwenhuis from Curving Normality.

12. Which of the following responses to continued increases in the rates of measles infections in the UK would be most effective?

A. Graphic billboards that display the potential sequelae of vaccine-preventable illnesses
B. A public flogging of Andrew Wakefield
C. An ad campaign featuring the Spice Girls
D. A new Saturday morning cartoon called Jabby’s Playhouse featuring Jabby, an anthropomorphic talking hypodermic needle filled with rainbows and lollypops

Submitted by Dr. Aust from Dr. Aust’s Spleen.

13. According to a speaker during the recently held lecture meeting on Weird Science at the London CFI, twelve percent of UK students except as fact what pseudoscience supported belief?

A. Astral projection
B. Fairies
C. Young Earth Creationism (YEC)
D. Bowler caps

Submitted by Martin Freedman from No Double Standards.

14. Which of the following is a Darwin quote is being used as propaganda by the Discovery Institute to support the push for Academic Freedom in high schools and universities?

A. “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”
B. “If people came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys? And furthermore, why are there no monkey people swinging to work on power lines, which are something you don’t know about yet but trust me on this one folks.”
C. “I…..really…..believe that…..natural selection……..wrong…..”
D. B and C

Submitted by Jack from Homologous Legs.

15. Do Ninja Kitties steal more when there’s a full moon?

A. Yes, secondary to feline tidal waves
B. Yes, Joe Rogan told me that they do and he knows more about the moon than anyone
C. No
D. No, but only because they are distracted by the large saucer of milk in the sky (4)

Submitted by Kylie Sturgess from PodBlack Cat.

16. Which of the following claims regarding autism epidemiology has recently been credulously publicized by the mainstream media?

A. The genetic influence on autism is a multifactorial
B. Autism is a condition of developmental delay, not of developmental stasis
C. Autism is caused by an imbalance of body humours and/or adrenal fatigue
D. Increases in the reported rates of new autism cases are secondary to an environmental exposure and not to increased awareness or diagnostic drift

Submitted by Michelle Dawson from The Autism Crisis.

17. Which of the following is not an example of an effective use of one’s psychic powers?

A. Failing to see that your client actually committed the crime you are helping to solve
B. Sensing that your client’s dead grandmother had a name starting with an A, C, D, G, K, M, P, R, T, or W (5)
C. Predicting that reality television is a dying genre
D. All of the above

Submitted by Skeptico from Skeptico (6).

Answer Key: 1. B  2. C  3. D  4. A  5. A  6. C  7.  D   8. B  9. D 1 0. C  11. B  12. A  13. C  14. A  15. C  16. D  17. D 

1-2 wrong: Excellent. You’ve mastered the SREP. Go and share your preternatural Randiesque critical thinking skills to the world by writing a blog or starting up a local skeptics club.

3-4 wrong: Pretty good but maybe you didn’t read all of the posts. Even Novella was wrong once, I think. Try again and I bet you’ll do much better.

5-7 wrong: Not so good. You should immediately go back to the beginning and reread every post. You were perhaps distracted or drunk. Rebecca Watson is that you?

8-10 wrong: That’s pretty bad. Wake up! You’ve been sleep reading again, probably because of all those homeopathic sleeping pills you took. Now go back to sleep and try again later.

11-13 wrong: Terrible. Did you even read the posts? Try clicking on the highlighted words and then read what pops up.

14-17 wrong: Amazing. You’ve done so poorly it can’t be by explained simple stupidity. There must be a more sinister force at play here. At last, proof of the paranormal! 

(1) Should only be attempted by Mehmet Oz
(2) “I have come to conquer your world!” in Klingon
(3) The atheist’s worst nightmare by Ray Comfort
(4) Kitten’s First Full Moon is a classic 2005 Caldecott Medal winner and one of my daughter’s favorites
(5) Or Z
(6) Not Skeptiko

The next edition of the Skeptics’ Circle will be hosted by A and Z over at It’s The Thought That Counts in two weeks.

Written by skepticpedi

January 28, 2009 at 11:42 pm

Dietary Evolution Versus Culinary Design…..

with one comment

Belvidere, NE- When Home Economics teacher Fran Gill refused to read a statement about culinary design before her lesson on the origin of modern recipes, she was taking a stand. She had no idea that this simple act of defiance would create a controversy, at least a local one. For while national attention has focused on the events in Louisiana and Texas regarding the teaching of evolution, a small public school in Nebraska is having its own battle.

In 2008, the Belvidere school board, which consists of mayor Spooner Jenkins, who also serves as fire chief and deliverer of copies of the Ye Olde Nebraskian to 42 of the 43 houses every Sunday, voted unanimously to approve the forced teaching of culinary design(CD) in the town’s one room schoolhouse. The 43rd house in this picturesque community belongs to Maynard Wilks who refuses to subscribe to the statewide newspaper because of a long running feud with Myrna Miller, his neighbor and winner of the town bake-off 53 years running. When asked for more specific reasons he muttered, “No good Myrna Miller and her dagnab peach cobbler. Tastes like 3-day-old biscuits if you asked me!”.

This red brick building, which has been used as the town school since Randy Watson’s Chicken Taco Casserole stand went bankrupt in 1983, employs 1/2 of the town’s population. The other half are farmers and/or farming assistants. There are 3 students, Jimron Watkins, Susabell Watkins, and Jimron Watkins Jr., each of which are currently taking Home Economics 101 which has always been a popular course with students and teachers. Other courses offered at the school are Tractor Repair I, II, and Advanced Tractor Theory; Wheat; Corn; Cow Parts; The Art of Taxidermy; Careers in Soil Management; UFO Abduction Basics; Whuppin; and Algebra.

Most chefs and food scientists accept that modern recipes have, over billions of years, come to exist in their current form through a series of random ingredient additions resulting in more palatable combinations. Recipes more pleasing to the taste had a better chance of surving while those which offended the taste buds were cast aside. Of note, the Theory of Dietary Evolution does not comment on the origin of the first recipe although this is an area of extreme scientific interest. It does, with over a hundred years of solid scientific investigation to support it, explain how early recipes consisting of the most basic ingredients such as salt and pepper evolved into such modern entities as Baked Alaska and Chicken-Vegetable Kabobs.

Culinary Design supporters claim that the true evidence actually points toward an intelligent creator of modern recipes. And they disagree with those skeptics who feel that they have a religious agenda. “They are just trying to force god, or the holy chef as they like to call him, into our public schools!”, Floyd Watkins, father of Jimron Watkins, grandfather of Jimron Watkins Jr., and school janitor, gym teacher, hall monitor, and busdriver was heard to say by Jethro Laney, town car washer, sheriff, and head cook at Ronda’s $2 dollar cafe, where every item on the menu is $2 except for the World Famous $3 Dollar Meatloaf. When I pointed out the redundancy in using a dollar sign as well as the word dollar, Ronda growled, “The sign says 3 buck so that’s what you gotta pay for it!”.

So will this growing controversy tear the peaceful town of Belvidere, Nebraska apart? Will the expected influx of the media and other strange city folk affect the good natured attitude Belvidere is famous for. Only time and an upcoming trial will tell. The residents have called in lawyers from nearby Carleton, Nebraska, population 136, to represent the opposing sides on this issue. Carleton will send it’s two lawyers, both of whom will soon be graduates of the Correspondence College of Tampa’s Lawyer School. This will surely be a clash of titanic proportions.

Written by skepticpedi

January 25, 2009 at 10:13 pm

Posted in Evolution, Satire

Tagged with ,

Skeptics’ Circle Update…..

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The next edition of the Skeptics’ Circle will be held here on January 29th. Please email submissions to drclayblog AT yahoo DOT com by Wednesday at 6pm central time.

Written by skepticpedi

January 24, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Announcements

Two 150 ft crosses allows Grace Community to claim Houston as theirs.

with 21 comments

I am personally not a very religious person.  I am also not ant-religion. However, I do get offended and a little worried when a particular church proclaims that the city I live in is theirs.

Just north of Houston, Texas is the Grace Community Church.  It is your average megachurch, except for a peculiar billboard next to the freeway.  On this billboard is a picture of a large cross and the proclamation:

Marking our city

After staring at this billboard everyday while I am stuck in traffic, I decided to check out what exactly they mean by “marking our city.”  I had assumed that they were talking about their complex of church buildings. They aren’t.  The city in question is actually Houston itself.crossproject_markhouston

Their intentions can be found on the church’s website. They are planning on building two 150-foot tall crosses, one on each side of Houston on  I-45.  According to the website (emphasis mine):

These will stand as a proclamation of the Grace of God over Houston with a prayer tower inviting people to pray for God to move in our city

There is also a quote from Lou and Paula Gallardo (could this be the guy from Amerisciences?) that says:

A cross at each end of the city is a great dream and will draw people to God in an unprecedented way. I want Houston to be marked for God.

I know I am making a mountain out of a mole hill, but it still bothers me.  The assumption that everyone in the city believes the same as they do disturbs me.  Or worse, they know that others don’t think the same, but they don’t care or they want to convert the nonbelievers.

More information can be found here.

Written by bort901

January 24, 2009 at 10:07 am

More Uneccesary Deaths from Vaccine-Preventable Illness…..

with 5 comments

I am young enough to not have experienced practically all of the vaccine preventable illnesses first hand as either a physician or a patient. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a healthy respect for the amount of morbidity and mortality that they can cause. With one in particular, Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib), I at least know a large number of older pediatricians who have seen many cases. The vaccine against Hib was developed in the early 1980’s and nearly wiped this dreadful condition out here in America, but I have heard countless stories of residencies spent seeing young children with fatal or debilitating meningitis presenting with brains full of pus and children being suffocated by rapidly progressing epiglottitis, and the thought of this illness returning sends shivers down my spine.

At one time, Hib affected 20,ooo children each year. Since the vaccine, many states see one or two cases yearly and often none. Hib bacteria is still prevelant, but high vaccine rates and herd immunity have kept our young children safe. Unfortunately, the return of this disease may be happening, and if it does it will be because of the anti-vaccine nonsense that has so overtaken this country over the past two years. I received an emergency news alert from the CDC today revealing that Minnesota reported 5 cases of Hib in 2008, the largest number in children under 5 since 1991.

The alert provided some details of the cases:

“Three patients had received no vaccinations due to parent or guardian deferral or refusal of vaccinations. One of the unimmunized patients, a 7-month-old infant, died of Hib disease. Two of the remaining children received age-appropriate immunizations. One child, a 5-month-old, had received two Hib immunizations. The other child was 15 months old and was fully vaccinated for age but, subsequent to Hib infection, was diagnosed with an immune deficiency (hypogammaglobulinemia).”

Three of the children were not vaccinated, one had a condition which hampers the ability for the vaccines to work, and one had been fully vaccinated. That is not suprising, as no vaccine is 100% effective, and it perfectly illustrates the importance of herd immunity. There is a persistent and pushy minority of people in this country, led by clueless celebrities and pseudojournalists, who are so blind to the reality of science that they are willing to sacrifice not just the safety of their own children by refusing vaccinations, but that of every child in this country. It isn’t just the unvaccinated that are at risk. There are also the children too young to be immunized against Hib and other diseases, or with real medical contraindications as opposed to manufactured ones in addition to those in which the vaccine doesn’t confer protection.

This may end up as being only a statistical fluke, but increasing rates of vaccine-preventable illness are an inevitable result of increasing numbers of parents refusing to protect their children. We have already seen major spikes in measles infections, another potentially deadly diseases. The situation is a few years ahead in England, where there have also been outbreaks of measles as well as mumps. Hib is considerably more dangerous and if there are large outbreaks more children will certainly die.

If you know anyone who is considering refusing vaccinations for their child, please direct them to the CDC’s online information. Or, convince them to read Paul Offit’s recent book Autism’s False Profits. You may save a life.

Written by skepticpedi

January 23, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Posted in Medicine, Vaccines

Tagged with ,

Levels of pseudoskepticism

with 2 comments

Last week, I wrote how there were different levels of skepticism.  There a similar levels of pseudoskepticism.  Pseudoskepticism is the practice of promoting an unsubstantiated idea or theory using the language of skepticism.  Denial is a big part of the philosophy, but many logical fallacies are also to blame.  Frequently, the word skeptic is placed after theory.  For example, evolution skeptic and global warming skeptic are commonly seen.  Of course the word skeptic is not necessary and pseudoskepticism can take many forms.  The point here is that you can still have healthy skepticism towards any topic, but conclusions shouldn’t be be based on pseudoscience or plain old denial.

Below I have listed the different levels of pseudoskepticism as I see them.  Just like with my levels of skepticism, I don’t want this post to insult anyone, but to hopefully open people’s eyes to the shenanigans all around us.  I will be using examples from Intelligent Design proponents as I am most familiar with the movement’s methods and techniques.

Level 1 pseudoskeptic

The first level of a pseudoskeptic is someone who doubts a particular idea or theory.  There is a small difference here between the real skeptic and the pseudoskeptic.  The key difference here is that a skeptic will look at the evidence before coming to a conclusion.  In intelligent design, a skeptic would look at the two sides and conclude that there is a scientific consensus and actual evidence for evolution, while none exists for intelligent design.  The level 1 pseudoskeptic would look at the same evidence and conclude that since there is not perfect evidence for either, neither one is more likely to be true.     

Level 2 pseudoskeptic

The second level of pseudoskeptic is someone who has made up their mind for the pseudoscientific side of a debate in spite of the evidence to the other side.  This person outright denies that there is evidence contrary to their position.  They rely heavily on logical fallacies to prove their point.  They also claim that they are the real purveyors of science.  For example, evolution skeptics (or ID/creation proponents) outright deny that their are transitional fossils.  They also argue that evolution could not possibly happen because they couldn’t imagine how random mutation and natural selection could lead to the current state of life’s diversity (argument from personal incredulity).

Level 3 pseudoskeptic

A third level pseudoskeptic is someone who is spreading their false skepticism through a  website/podcast/ etc.  These people are actively trying to undermine real scientific observations and conclusions.  These people will often rely on non-experts or non-peer reviewed studies.  Anecdotal evidence or anomalies will also be presented.  In fact, anything but actual science will be presented.  One example from an evolution skeptic is Denyse O’Leary.  She has several blogs which attack evolution through the techniques mentioned above.  She has no real scientific training, but that doesn’t stop her from spreading her pseudoscientific wares.

Level 4

The highest level of a pseudoskeptic is someone who is well known throughout the pseudoskeptic circles.  These people have a large influence over the similar minded people.  One thing that makes people like this so dangerous is that they sound like the voice of reason to the unsuspecting.  It is not apparent without prior knowledge that they are not giving the accurate or complete story.  Often these people have no real training in the subject that they are focusing on.

One prime example of someone that has reached this stage is Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute.  Luskin exhibits all the characteristics.  He may not be as recognizable as Richard Dawkins or James Randi, but he certainly is well known in the “evolution skeptic” circles.  He repeatedly denies the existence of evidence for evolution, comments on scientific discoveries of which he is nowhere near qualified, and relies heavily on logical fallacies.

Written by bort901

January 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

NPR Listener Rends Fabric of Space and Time…..

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Philadelphia, PA-Chaos broke out today at the studios of WHYY-FM in Philadelphia when a caller refused to turn down his radio resulting in a tear in the very fabric of space and time, and the death or disappearance of hundreds of people.

“I don’t know what the heck happened over there”, Rick from Tuscon explained. “One minute I’m asking that dude from The Shield where he got his motivation from and the next all hell is breaking loose.”

Scientists are scrambling to piece together what exactly happened to leave so many of the people working at WHYY-FM that day dead or missing without a trace. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku of the City University of New York believes that there are a number of possible explanations. “The infinite feedback loop caused by the callers radio may have somehow elevated the harmonic of the missing individuals, carrying them fully, or partially, into a higher dimension. Also this may just be a big coincidence and a black hole simply formed in the middle of the building.”

Maggi Leyden, Executive director of Donor Relations at WHYY-FM and one of the few survivors of the horrific event, remains hopeful about the future of the public radio. “I can’t say that I’ll ever truly get over seeing Terry Gross ripped in half at the waist, but I can say that now would be the perfect time for listeners out there to support their local NPR stations.”

Written by skepticpedi

January 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Satire, Science, Uncategorized

Tagged with

What is Skepticism?…..

with 4 comments

The following post was submitted by Sam Ogden, an organizer of the Greater Houston Skeptic Society who also posts regularly at Skepchick.

At each gathering of the still fairly new Houston Area Skeptics, I meet folks just discovering their skeptical sides. Critical thinking skills may be somewhat innate in humans, and perhaps that is what has drawn these particular people to skeptic groups. They already seem predisposed to questioning things, just as any seasoned skeptic would, and they have no trouble following a line of reasoning for any given topic. But often the newer members are not yet familiar with what skepticism is exactly. Basically, they lack the language to describe it.

 So I wrote this item specifically for those people who may be new to skepticism, and who may not yet have a firm grasp of what exactly it’s all about.

 So . . .

 What is skepticism?

 The easy answer is, skepticism is doubt. Definitions from printed books and Internet dictionaries alike all say skepticism is something along the lines of:

 “. . . an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object. . . .”

 And I suppose for a quicky definition that’s as good as any. I mean, skeptics tend not to believe things just because. They’re usually the ones saying things like, “Hold on a minute. I don’t think that’s right.” There very well seems to be a high level of doubt among skeptics.

 But the truth is, there is more to skepticism than having doubts about something. Doubt doesn’t imply any curiosity. It doesn’t address a desire to know, to be as certain as possible about a given idea or claim. It doesn’t hint at a process by which one can determine efficacy, accuracy, or even reality. At best, doubt can be said to be an element of skepticism, though if we say that, we must understand that doubt is not a necessary element of skepticism. One can certainly use skepticism without harboring any doubts.

 So skepticism is not just doubt. But what is it?

 Skeptic magazine defines skepticism as:

 “. . . . a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. . . . .”

 And it’s the last part of that definition that I find most useful. Like science, skepticism is a method.

 This is why science and skepticism are intrinsically tied together. This is why many people use the terms interchangeably. The two methods are like members of the same family. And they work pretty much the same way.

 Let’s take a closer look at the scientific method.

 The scientific method is a method of discovery that is based on gathering observable, empirical, and measurable evidence for a particular phenomenon. It is highly reliant on the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of the observed phenomenon, and design experimental studies to test those hypotheses.

 These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. If they are not, they are discarded for another approach until the scientists can come to a conclusion about the particular phenomenon that is most probably true. It takes time and effort, but the rewards (and our level of understanding) are immeasurable.

 Simply put, the scientific method is the single most valuable tool ever conceived for understanding the universe around us. Not only are we able to figure out how things work and why, but through science, we can even manipulate our environment to better our lives. The conclusions we draw from doing good science are as honest and as accurate as reason allows. Science is that powerful.

But the scientific method is problematic; at least where regular folks are concerned.

It’s just not practical to apply the scientific method to everyday claims and situations. I mean, there are phenomena we encounter on a daily basis that spark our curiosity, and our desire to discover. Perhaps strange things are happening in our neighbor’s house, and we want to know if it’s haunted. Perhaps the claims of homeopathic medicines pique our interests, and we want to know if they really work. Perhaps our co-workers insist the bright lights in the sky last night were alien space craft, and we want to know if that’s true. Unfortunately, the majority of us simply don’t have the means to set up lab experiments, test hypotheses, repeat the tests, have peer groups study our data and scrutinize our tests and repeat them, and have independent lines of inquiry from all over the world repeat the process. The scientific method is just too bulky and cumbersome for us.

That’s where skepticism comes in.

We can look at skepticism as an express version of the scientific method; sort of a travel or pocket version that we can apply to everyday claims, ideas, and situations. It is a tool that basically does the same thing as the scientific method — it relies on evidence and the analysis of that evidence to draw conclusions that are most probably true — but it’s more practical for regular folks to use.

If we observe phenomena, or encounter outrageous claims, or encounter seemingly amazing ideas in our everyday lives, we can examine any evidence that may be present. We can leave any biases we may have behind and rely on a critical analysis of the evidence to discover what is most probably true about the phenomena.

By the way, the good critical thinker will use the qualifier “most probably true” because he or she knows the strength of his or her conclusion is a function of the strength and proper analysis of the evidence. He or she also knows that new evidence can be introduced at any given time, and if warranted by the new evidence, the initial conclusion must be altered.

Good scientists and good skeptics go where the evidence leads them, but they do not deal in absolutes. They are always ALWAYS looking for stronger, possibly even subversive, evidence. This is precisely how we know the conclusions drawn through science and skepticism are so strong. Sound scientific principles and sound skeptical proposals must take all comers and stand up to the scrutiny. That is an integral part of the method. One cannot close the door to new evidence and call oneself a scientist or a skeptic. Even if it looks as though an idea is invincible, even if it looks as though there is nothing in the universe that can challenge a conclusion of science or skepticism, the method must remain open to new evidence. Always.

And so, the good scientist and the good skeptic leave absolutes out of the equation, but they can be confident their conclusions are most probably true, because they have looked at all of the evidence with a critical eye and without any biases.

Now, the beauty of all this is, we are not obligated to apply skepticism as anything other than curiosity and a personal desire to know and understand things. We are free to use it or not use it as we wish. And that brings me to the message I like to leave with people when talking about skepticism and what it is.

I regularly tell people, “I am not so much a skeptic as skepticism is what I do”. I have a skill set. I have a method of examination that I apply to things that are important to me, but I am free to be tied to an idea, a claim, or a situation by nothing but my emotions, if I so desire.

But I will say that for those important things, a bit of skepticism really does wonders.

Written by skepticpedi

January 22, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Posted in General Skepticism

Tagged with

The “It’s All Good” Fallacy of CAM…..

with one comment

As a young mother comforts her feverish and uncomfortable infant, a handsome doctor enters the dimly lit exam room. The child’s mother and the bedside nurse look at him expectantly.

“I’ve got the results. There is an infection in your son’s spinal fluid, which was one of the things we discussed as a possible cause of his high fever and irritablity,” the physician explains to the now crying mother. “We need to start treatment right away and admit him to the hospital.”

After answering the distraught mother’s questions and discussing his treatment plan with her, the doctor leaves the room and begins to write orders in the patient’s chart. The nurse, eager to begin appropriate therapy looks over his shoulder with a confused look on his face.

“Excuse me doc, but you’ve got to be a little more clear on that order don’t you think?”

Written in barely legible doctor scribble, next to the date and time of the encounter and above his signature and hospital number, is the lone word antibiotics.

“What do you mean? This child is sick and he needs antibiotics stat!”

“Sure doc, but which one, how much and how often? Where did you go to med school again?”

“Clearly you aren’t current on the literature. Antibiotics have been around for decades and have been proven time and time again to treat infections. Millions of people take them every year. Now you are wasting precious time that could be spent caring for this sick child!”

The nurse, unhappy with the response, storms off to find assistance from his supervisor. The doctor, confident that he is providing competent medical are for his patient, expresses dismay at how closed-minded some of his colleagues are.

Naturally, the above situation is absurd, and the nurse is completely correct in questioning the physician on his order for “antibiotics”. What antibiotic, or antibiotics, are appropriate and at what dose? Through what route, oral or parenteral, should the antibiotic be administered? How often should it be given and for what duration? Five days? Two weeks? To condense the large number of antibiotics available in a hospital pharmacy into one all-encompassing term makes no sense. 

Antibiotics are drugs, often consisting of completely different chemical structures and with significantly different side effect profiles. There are varying degrees of effectiveness of each individual antibiotic depending on the bacteria/virus/fungus being treated, the location of the infection, the age of the patient, and the presence of comorbid conditions such as renal or liver failure. Calling for “antibiotics” in this fashion would never happen outside of a poorly written (is there any other kind?) medical drama on Lifetime.

As new antibiotics have been developed over the years, they are studied scientifically on an individual basis. Sure there are classes of antibiotics that work via similar mechanisms, such as breaking down a bacterial cell wall, or that might be effective in killing or delaying the growth of the same types of bacteria, but nobody would make a blanket statement, let alone write an order, like the one stated and written by our fictional physician. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is rampant in the world of so-called complementary and alternative medicine. It is employed by invidual practitioners and by large government agencies as a means of deceptively gaining a foothold for unproven therapies with little or no plausibility. Their targets are the hearts and minds of consumers as well as a growing number of academic medical institutions. In a number of instances, proponents of these therapies, buoyed by the media-fueled pseudopopularity of a variety of bogus therapies, funding from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and clever marketing, have managed to set up shop in our most hallowed halls of learning. 

A common saying amongst advocates of science-based medicine, and skeptics taking on the suprisingly successful incursion of unproven therapies into academic medicine, is that there is really no such thing as alternative medicine. I agree with this completely and would add that there is no such thing as complementary or integrative medicine either, regardless of what NCCAM puts on its website. These are marketing terms meant to distract healthcare consumers and providers from the reality that these therapies have either not been subjected to proper scientific study or that they have failed that study and are held aloft only by a foundation of tenacious, anecdote fueled belief. 

When proponents of alternative medicine, far too many of which being influential lawmakers, call for financial support in the form of taxpayer money, they tend to use a similar tactic. They hold up a small group of therapies that have been shown to be effective, typcially entities involving stress reduction, positive lifestyle changes like increased exercise and smoking cessation, improved nutrition, or various herbal remedies, as symbols of how wonderful alternative medicine is. This ignores two important realities. Not suprisingly, these proposed symbols of the success of alternative medicine have been co-opted from the science-based medicine which discovered them and established their benefit. More importantly, these alt med proponents are ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of what is considered CAM, whether legitimately or not, is absolute quackery. In other words, just because a good massage helps your migraines or decreases your fatigue it doesn’t mean that non-existant molecules of poison ivy will cure your itchy rash. The use by proponents of terminology like alternative medicine is just as preposterous as our handsome young doctor writing an order for antibiotics. Which alternative therapy? Acupuncture? Homeopathy? Quantum Reiki? And for what indication?  Each individual treatment must be investigated for efficacy and safety with the tools of science, not the machinations of politicians and idealogues.

In the not too distant past, treatments supported only by sloppy anecdotal evidence or poorly designed studies that were still being offered to consumers and patients as effective had a name. Rational minded folk were unapologetic when describing a bogus cancer cure or an implausible and disproven treatment for depression as quackery. But over the past couple of decades the quack has become the alternative medicine provider and the bogus treatment has morphed into alternative medicine, CAM, or integrative medicine. This was no accident. The change in terminology has served proponents of quackery quite well by successfully leading the public to think that these therapies or just another way of achieving health. Some may be, most will not. Only science can provide the answers. In the meantime, no therapy should be allowed to circumvent science because of semantics.

Written by skepticpedi

January 16, 2009 at 3:34 pm