Posts Tagged ‘Skepticism’
Below is an adaptation of a talk I gave as part of a panel at DragonCon, called “How to Combat Woo”. My fellow panelists included Phil Plait, PhD, also known as the Bad Astronomer, D.J. Groethe of the Center of Skeptical Inquiry and host of the podcast “Point of Inquiry”, Jeff Wagg, Communications and Outreach Manager of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and Maria Walters, founder of the Atlanta Skeptic Society and columnist on the Skepchick.org blog.
My son attended the Naval nuclear power school a few years ago, including a crash course in chemistry, physics, electronics, thermodynamics, other subjects needed to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant. The students tend to be top achievers, interested in science and math, and would frequently ask for the theory. They wanted to know WHY not just how. The instructors would answer “this is outside the scope of this course, please just accept this so we can move on.” So my son and his classmates drew large black dots on the backs of their calculators, with Sharpies. When they were told to accept information for the sake of expediency, they’d ‘push’ this button and say “I believe.”
I told you that story so I can tell you this story. All of us have a button labeled “I believe” that we push. The button may be as simple as “I believe that my spouse loves me.” Or “education is a positive thing for society.” But most people of the world have other buttons that they push. I believe in magic, ghosts, witches, homeopathy, aliens, psychics, conspiracy theories, or one of a hundred versions of a god. And that button might as well be drawn in Sharpie, because it doesn’t work anymore, it is ALWAYS pushed.
I’m an engineer by training, and like to draw diagrams and pictures. I can’t think without a pencil or marker in my hand. If you’re like me, you think that if you can just explain something, a scientific topic for example, clearly enough, that your audience will nod their heads and say ‘oh, yes, now I see! You’re right, and I will adjust my thinking.”
The problem with those buttons that are painted on, they have to wear off. We, as skeptics, want to slice right through the armor that believers have plated up around themselves, which have built up by custom, upbringing, anecdotes, personal experiences, fuzzy thinking, and from lack of exposure to the scientific method.
It took me almost three years to get my own mother to check Snopes before she forwarded emails to me. I’m her daughter, you think she would trust me, but I still have to carefully work with her on issues with her health. Just this week, she told me, rather reluctantly, that she had gone to a chiropractor for some lower back pain, because ‘she was desperate”. This, from a woman with chronic kidney disease that reads my blog posts. I had to persuade my aunt to throw away her bowel cleansing kits and pills to ‘improve her liver function” even though she couldn’t tell me what her liver function was supposed to be functioning as. But, now they check Snopes, and were at least embarrassed to tell me about the chiropractor. These are intelligent women, but they have been told their entire life that these things work.
And, indeed, they DO feel better after a visit to the chiropractor. It’s a bit harder to explain the concept of ‘regression to a mean’ to them. But I could not do it AT ALL with a single clear, simple, unemotional explanation.
Rather than creating the Grand Canyon in a 40-day flood, presenting skepticism to those with a painted-on “I Believe” button is more a process of rain beating the mountains down into the ocean, of the weeds splitting the foundations. It is slow, it is one-on-one, and it can be frustrating. However, this is how we teach, one person at a time.
Faster than a speeding case report. More powerful than a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Able to leap peer review in a single bound. Look! Up on the internet! It’s a story. It’s an anecdote. It’s a testimonial!
Every implausible and unproven quack therapy, from acupuncture to quantum healing, comes bearing testimonials of its effectiveness. These stories are typically brief, to the point, extremely powerful and, across the board, absolutely worthless. To anyone with a decent skeptical filter in place, the reliance on testimonials is an obvious sign of a complete lack of credible support for one’s claims. Yet to far too many people there is no introductory phrase more meaningful than “In my experience”. And no amount of published contradictory data or number of explanations from critically minded experts can match the effect from just one of the seemingly neverending supply of these uncontrolled, unblinded, and often tall, tales.
Sadly, even outright harm and suffering, or the complete lack of achieving the claimed benefit, are often unable to shake the faith of one who has stepped over the line that seperates credulity from a more critical approach to one’s health. It is far too easy to rationalize away these failures, placing the blame on themselves or the medical community, when the stranger whose gout was cured by taking goat urine supplements is trusted more than the family doctor. Perhaps the believer doesn’t realize that the near totality of the testimonials seen on television or on the internet are fabricated. Maybe they don’t realize that a significant number of them, as is often the case with fraudulent cancer cures, even when provided by real people are found to be the former words of the now deceased, victims of their disease process, their lack of critical thinking skills, and the bastards profiting off of them. It is more likely, however, that the undue influence of testimonials is hard-wired in the human brain, a remnant of something which at one point bestowed a survival advantage on our primitive ancestors.
There is a reason why quacks rely on testimonials. And that is because they don’t have science in their corner. Sure they will jump on poorly designed studies, usually coming out of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and published in biased pseudojournals, and tout them as proof of their legitimacy. But they will just as quickly denigrate methodological naturalism and the methods of so-called “western science” when better studies come along revealing their pet delusion to be a charade. The testimonial circumvents this problem, rendering science irrelevant. This is a recipe for disaster, or at the very least a lighter wallet.
Proven treatments don’t need stories. In my line of work I often am faced with parents who refuse recommended practices such as vaccines and the administration of intramuscular vitamin K for newborns. When I am discussing the care of a child with parents, and presenting them with treatment options or evidence-based prophylaxis regimens, I don’t tell them about the time I used a particular treatment and how it cured the patient, or how I had this one kid who suffered a poor outcome because they didn’t get something I recommended. There are too many uncontrolled variables in most clinical situations to trust such anecdotes. I have to rely on good data, which should not consist of anecdotes regardless of how many I might collect over my career. I would be no better than the quacks I often rant about were I to attempt to manipulate parents with emotional testimonials.
14%- “Of course doctors don’t think it works. You can’t expect to understand my healing powers with western science!”
21%- “God organized fossils that way to make it look like evolution is true…..as a test.”
25%- “My psychic abilities are always blocked whenever a skeptic is around.”
13%- “Recent high definition images of the surface of Mars don’t show any evidence of alien civilization because NASA is covering it all up!”
15%- “We haven’t found any physical remains of Bigfoot because it is an elusive creature and it is rare for fossils to form in the first place. So it is unreasonable to ask for that kind of proof that Bigfoot exists.”
12%- “Other researchers may be easily fooled but I have over thirty years experience in investigating ghostly visitations. I can tell the difference between a hoax and the real thing.”
One of the more common approaches that attending physicians take when teaching medical students and residents is the use of clinical pearls. Rather than cold, hard facts, such as the most common form of congenital adrenal hyperplasia being 21-hydroxylase deficiency, these pearls of clinical wisdom are more akin to generally accepted rules of thumb. My personal favorite example is the admonition to avoid poking the skunk. Poking the skunk occurs when labs are ordered which aren’t necessary in the care of the patient. Checking a basic metabolic profile when all you really need is the serum sodium is risky. In fact, it seems that the less vital a particular lab value is to management decisions, the more likely it is going to come back as falsely abnormal, which often leads to further unnecessary tests. I don’t like to stick needles in babies, although you might not think that if you spent a day with me at work, so this particular clinical pearl comes up pretty often on my rounds.
I also make a point, on an almost daily basis, to incorporate pearls of critical thinking into my teaching of medical professionals in training. Naturally, these tend to focus on my particular area of interest, the myriad and often contradictory therapies falling under the umbrella term alternative medicine. As I’ve said many times before, I prefer terms like unscientific medicine, or quackery to be quite honest, over alternative medicine, integrative medicine, or complementary medicine. These are manipulative marketing terms used to lull the general public into acceptance with a false air of legitimacy, and the academic community into the application of a double standard to the evaluation of safety and efficacy of these therapies. There is only one legitimate means of determining whether a treatment works, and that is with science.
One example of a very helpful critical thinking pearl that should be applied to the claims of a large number of so-called alternative approaches to health, is that there is often an inverse relationship between the number of symptoms or conditions supposedly treated by a therapy and the number that is actually treated. This is better expressed with the adage that if something is claimed to cure everything, it almost certainly cures nothing. The number of alternative medical modalities that fall into this category are numerous and experiencing seemingly exponential growth, however the most important example because of its acceptance by the general public as a legitimate and science-based practice is that of chiropractic.
Though nobody, even chiropractors themselves, have been able to define themselves in a way that allows a consistent and practical understanding of just what it is that they do, there are some safe generalizations which can be made. For instance, they tend to be spine-centered rather than the oft advertised “holistic”, and a significant percentage of them categorize themselves as “straight”. This distinction shares a dichotomous relationship with self-described “mixers”, which as the name implies are prone to incorporating a wide variety of decidedly non-spine centered therapies into their practice such as acupuncture, applied kinesiology, or nutritional supplementation, as well as some science-based modalities like standard physical therapy. Mixers outnumber straights by a large margin, and though they do make use of other therapies, they still primarily focus on the correction of a non-existant entity known as the subluxation.
Subluxations in the chiropractic sense, as opposed to the legitimate medical diagnosis, are as polymorphous as one would expect of something invented out of whole cloth* by a former magnet healer and spiritualist over a hundred years ago. Since 1895, the term has evolved into many different forms with all stages still believed in by varying numbers of chiropractors today. The manifestation which likely is accepted by the largest number of currently practicing chiropractors involves a proposed “complex of functional and/or structural and or pathological articular changes that compromise neural integrity and may influence organ system and general health”. This definition is so slippery as to be rendered utterly meaningless, and is a prime example of the inability of chiropractors to be able to establish a standard definition of who they are and what they do. This fact actually benefits chiropractors however, as it allows for a near limitless scope of practice and the ability to bill many insurance companies for the treatment of a phantom condition.
Regardless of whether a chiropractor is a straight or a mixer, they are likely to claim that they have special insight into your particular complaint regardless of what it is. With rare exception, chiropractors assert their ability to treat not just common musculoskeletal complaints, a category of conditions falsely considered by many to be their area of particular expertise, but the entirety of known medical maladies. Many will even treat one or more of a growing number of fictitious conditions such as adrenal fatigue or Wilson’s Thyroid Syndrome. This is often done overtly with outright claims of personal success in curing conditions ranging from asthma to zoster, with some even touting their ability to treat serious life-threatening illnesses like cancer and HIV.
Straight chiropractors take a different approach, boldly claiming only to treat subluxations, which then allows for the innate healing power of the human body to heal any disease state under the sun via an unimpeded spinal conduit. A critical evaluation of the medical literature reveals a far different reality however. After a little over a century of existence, there is essentially no good evidence that chiropractic care is effective in the treatment of any medical condition, or any made up one either. The one sliver of an exception is the treatment of acute lower back pain, which does appear to resolve under the care of a chiropractor. What they may not want you to know is that it has not been shown to work any better than more standard treatments such as physical therapy and the use of ibuprofen.
*The top link on google when inserting the phrase “invented out of whole cloth” takes one to an article on the history of chiropractic
Recently, Galen Rathbun and Francesco Rovero discovered a new species of mammal in the mountains of Tanzania. The new species is a member of the elephant shrew group and is called the grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis) It is a relatively small animal (<1kg) that lives on the forest floor. There are only two known small populations in the world.
The grey-faced sengi was initially discovered using camera traps in 2005. Rathbun and Rovero subsequently traveled to some very remote mountain tops in Tanzania to study the animals. During a two-week excursion, they were able to find, study, and capture several specimens.
Does this discovery lead to an increased possibility that there is a sasquatch lurking around the forest of North America? Although the grey-faced sengi is a relatively large animal to have been just discovered, it is a great deal smaller than bigfoot. Yet, this animal was easily observed in a camera trap. It seems much more likely that a large animal such as bigfoot would be seen in these traps quite frequently, if it exists. The ease at which the scientists were able to find the new animal also is a strike against the existence of bigfoot. The expedition to the mountains of Tanzania only lasted two weeks. Even in this short period of time, they were able to find and catch many examples of the sengi. People have been looking for bigfoot for at least the last 50 years and they still haven’t found any solid evidence.
The comparison of the search for bigfoot with the search and subsequent finding of the grey-faced sengi helps to illustrate the improbability of the existence of bigfoot. Together with the total lack of conclusive evidence (like droppings, fur, remains, heat signatures) despite their size and the necessary large breeding population brings the odds of their existence to nearly zero. However, no one can conclusively say that something does not exist, but we don’t know if the invisible pink unicorn exists either.
For an audio interview with Galen Rathbun about the discovery, listen to the Are We Alone podcast (towards the end, but the whole episode is good)
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
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?
B. Circumventing peer review
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?
C. Internal Organ placement (1)
D. Day trading
Submitted by Bing from Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes.
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
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
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…..is…..wrong…..”
D. B and C
Submitted by Jack from Homologous Legs.
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
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.