Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Survey: Americans don’t know much about religion

Posted in News by Skepdude on September 28, 2010


A new survey of Americans’ knowledge of religion found that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics in answering questions about major religions, while many respondents could not correctly give the most basic tenets of their own faiths.

Forty-five percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn’t know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes the body and blood of Christ.

More than half of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation. And about four in 10 Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the greatest rabbis and intellectuals in history, was Jewish.

The survey released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life aimed to test a broad range of religious knowledge, including understanding of the Bible, core teachings of different faiths and major figures in religious history. The U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the developed world, especially compared to largely secular Western Europe, but faith leaders and educators have long lamented that Americans still know relatively little about religion.

Respondents to the survey were asked 32 questions with a range of difficulty, including whether they could name the Islamic holy book and the first book of the Bible, or say what century the Mormon religion was founded. On average, participants in the survey answered correctly overall for half of the survey questions.

Atheists and agnostics scored highest, with an average of 21 correct answers, while Jews and Mormons followed with about 20 accurate responses. Protestants overall averaged 16 correct answers, while Catholics followed with a score of about 15.


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Acupuncture Not Effective in Stroke Recovery, Study Finds

Posted in News by Skepdude on September 28, 2010


Acupuncture does not appear to aid in stroke recovery, according to a new study published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

Acupuncture is often used to supplement traditional stroke rehabilitation, although its effectiveness is uncertain. It is necessary to have evidence of effectiveness from rigorous randomized clinical trials to recommend routine therapeutic use.

This study, perhaps the most comprehensive to date as it includes trials published in English language and Asian journals, was a systematic review conducted by researchers in South Korea and the United Kingdom. They included 10 studies (out of a potential 664) with a total of 711 patients who had had strokes.

“Few randomized, sham-controlled trials have tested the effectiveness of acupuncture during stroke rehabilitation,” writes Dr. Edzard Ernst, Peninsula Medical School, Exeter, England with coauthors. “The majority of the existing studies do not suggest that acupuncture is effective.” They note that the only two studies showing positive effect were highly biased and had poor reporting which made them less reliable that the others included.

The authors conclude that “the evidence from rigorous studies testing the effectiveness of acupuncture during stroke rehabilitation is negative.”


Read the full study for yourself

Interpretation: Our meta-analyses of data from rigorous randomized sham-controlled trials did not show a positive effect of acupuncture as a treatment for functional recovery after stroke.

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Aspartame – Truth vs Fiction

Posted in Science Based Medicine by Skepdude on September 15, 2010


If you believe everything you read on the internet, then is seems that a chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.

Hopefully, you don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and you don’t get your science news from e-mail SPAM, where the above scenario is a common theme. While there are many manifestations of this type of urban legend, I am speaking specifically about aspartame – an artificial sweetener used since the early 1980s. The notion that aspartame is unsafe has been circulating almost since it first appeared, and like rumors and misinformation have a tendency to do, fears surrounding aspartame have taken on a life of their own.

I am frequently asked my opinion about the safety of aspartame. Nutritionists often council to avoid the sweetener, citing unverified claims that it is unsafe. I was recently sent a chain letter warning that aspartame causes MS (which of course can be cured by simply avoiding aspartame), and Snopes informs me that this particular letter first appeared in 1998.

There are also hundreds of websites dedicated to smearing this much abused food additive. One site, run by Dr. Janet Starr Hull (she has a doctorate in Nutrition), responds to the latest report of aspartame’s safety by writing:

I will never accept the news of aspartame safety. I think it is a “business” decision to discredit/discount the research results that aspartame DOES cause cancer, major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances. Think about it – can you imagine the chaos that will occur when the truth of aspartame dangers is accredited. The FDA has known about the dangers, the corporations have known about the dangers, and the medical community (if it is really worth anything) has known about the dangers.

The statement that “nothing will ever convince me” is a huge red flag that someone is defending an ideological position, one immune to evidence or reason. Admittedly, in context it could be a clumsy statement that something is very unlikely. It would be very difficult to convince me that the earth is flat – I’m really saying that the existence evidence is overwhelming that the earth is not flat. But that is not what Dr. Hull is saying. She is specifically saying that she will dismiss any evidence that is contrary to her belief that aspartame is not safe on the a-priori basis that such disconfirming evidence is part of a vast conspiracy.

Of course, Dr. Hull also sells an aspartame detox kit, which might lead a cynical person to conclude that she cares more about selling alternative health products and stoking her sales with some unreasonable fear than about scientific evidence.

What evidence does she have for such a conspiracy? The argument from final consequences logical fallacy – big industry wouldn’t want it. It’s also not very plausible. Products get pulled from the market all the time when new evidence suggests they are not safe. Also, the final safety net for the consumer is legal liability. Class action law suits have bankrupted companies, even when the underlying claims were false. Imagine if they were true. Look how much the tobacco industry has had to fork over.

Now I am not arguing that corporations are all good corporate citizens or wouldn’t dream of sweeping some inconvenient evidence under the carpet. But I am saying that a decades long conspiracy among industry, federal regulatory agencies, the medical community, and multiple research institutions and individual researchers – all under the nose of the press and lawyers looking for big class-action suits – is implausible in the extreme. I am also arguing that we should fairly assess all the evidence, not just cherry pick the evidence we like and dismiss the rest out of hand.

What does the evidence say about aspartame? A recent published review of all available evidence, including hundreds of studies, concluded:

The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.

Multiple reviews, going back to 1985, conclude the same thing. Since this latest review there have been more studies, in various countries (how big is this conspiracy?), showing no link between aspartame and brain cancer, and a lack of correlation between artificial sweeteners and gastric, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers.


Further Thoughts on the Ethics of Skepticism

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on September 10, 2010


My recent post “The War Over ‘Nice’” (describing the blogosphere’s reaction to Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech) has topped out at more than 200 comments. That’s a lot by Skepticblog’s standards. In addition, many further responses have reached me through Twitter, blog posts, email, and direct conversation.

I’m not quite sure how to feel about all that. Certainly I expected some controversy. (After all, I was writing about a controversy.) But quite a few of the critical responses take up a theme that seems… well, kind of strange to me. Many readers appear to object (some strenuously) to the very ideas of discussing best practices, seeking evidence of efficacy for skeptical outreach, matching strategies to goals, or encouraging some methods over others. Some seem to express anger that a discussion of best practices would be attempted at all.

No Right or Wrong Way?

The milder forms of these objections run along these lines:

  • “Everyone should do their own thing.”
  • “Skepticism needs all kinds of approaches.”
  • “There’s no right or wrong way to do skepticism.”
  • “Why are we wasting time on these abstract meta-conversations?”

In a few cases, this laissez faire theme rings sort of hollow. (It seems to me that some who make this argument themselves promote certain approaches over others.) Let’s leave that aside.

More critical, in my opinion, is the implication that skeptical research and communication happens in an ethical vacuum. That just isn’t true. Indeed, it is dangerous for a field which promotes and attacks medical treatments, accuses people of crimes, opines about law enforcement practices, offers consumer advice, and undertakes educational projects to pretend that it is free from ethical implications — or obligations.

Before we talk about that, let’s first get this out of the way. No, there is no monolithic “one true way to do skepticism.” No, the skeptical world does not break down to nice skeptics who get everything right, and mean skeptics who get everything wrong. (I’m reminded of a quote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”) No one has all the answers. Certainly I don’t, and neither does Phil Plait. Nor has anyone actually proposed a uniform, lockstep approach to skepticism. (No one has any ability to enforce such a thing, in any event.)

However, none of that implies that all approaches to skepticism are equally valid, useful, or good. As in other fields, various skeptical practices do more or less good, cause greater or lesser harm, or generate various combinations of both at the same time. For that reason, skeptics should strive to find ways to talk seriously about the practices and the ethics of our field. Skepticism has blossomed into something that touches a lot of lives — and yet it is an emerging field, only starting to come into its potential. We need to be able to talk about that potential, and about the pitfalls too.

Professional Ethics


Recently on Vaccine Central

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on September 9, 2010

As many of you may know, my main focus has switched to my Vaccine Central blog. Here is a sampling of some of the latest entries I posted there:

My rug has been pissed on

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 30, 2010

A little while ago I wrote a little post titled Skeptics Gone Wild, in which I criticized the use of an argument, which I classified as an ad hominem, against Jenny McCarthy that goes like this:

Jenny McCarthy speaks of dangerous “toxins” in vaccines, yet she gets Botox shots, which include botulinum, one of the most toxic substances around, right on her face.

That post sparked a mini-war in the comments with Tom, of Dubito Ergo Sum, who disagreed with me (see comments on my Skeptics Gone Wild post). That mini war then spilled over on Twitter where we had a brief, so to speak, exchange of messages. I could post screen shots of the exchange but I’m not gonna waste time, as Tom has written quite an extensive entry in his blog about the whole thing, titled In which I piss on the ‘Dude’s rug.

Now these blogging “wars” tend to get longer and longer with each reply, so I will not go over Tom’s entry point by point but I will add some clarifications about the main points that he makes, in an effort to keep these entries as short as possible, and since I am not interested in conflict, but dialogue.

It appears to me that both myself, and Tom, have been affected by Phil Plait Don’t be a Dick talk, in different ways. I took Phil’s talk and turned it around on myself, and understood, and agreed with, what he was saying. Tom appears to have taken the opposite stance, the “hell no” stance that people like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins seem to favor. Which is fine I guess; what most of us are doing is highly personal and each of us will make decisions about how to go about it.

However, the more I read Tom’s replies, tweets and blog post, the more I agree with Phil’s talk, because I can see first hand how some of the points that he makes, and he does make some good points, are affected, at least in my eyes by the, dare-I-say arrogant, way in which he, at times, communicates them.

During our exchange, I have been referred to as: a self-proclaimed skeptic, poor Skepdude, a springboard, and apparently somehow I’ve led Tom to the pessimistic expectation that I would not approve his last comment on my blog, the only one of his comments that went to moderation for some weird reason, thank you WordPress, and wasn’t approved until later that day. Sarcasm is acceptable in debating I grant, but I must ask: how necessary is it when you have a good argument to make AND an audience that, presumably, understands logic? To me Tom’s reliance on sarcasm along the way means that he’s either getting personal satisfaction out of its use; or he thinks the audience witnessing our discussion will be more easily persuaded via cheap shots than a good argument, or that the sarcasm will make his real arguments more persuasive, or a combination, or some other reason I cannot think of.

So first, let us go over what sparked this whole thing specifically the personal attack on Jenny McCarthy: is it or isn’t it an ad hominem? to which my response is: Does that really matter much in relation to the overall message I was trying to convey? Even if I turn out to be wrong on my classification of it as an ad hominem, does the personal attack on Jenny McCarthy have any bearing on the arguments that she makes? I will refrain from repeating myself at this point. I will only direct the reader to my original entry and ask them to look at my tobacco example, then make up your own mind if adding the “Jenny shoots Botox on her face” personal attack is warranted or not, ad hominem or not!

Secondly, my position has been straw manned a little bit, I’d like to believe unintentionally. Never did I say, or imply I believe, in our exchange that in communicating to or with the public “we can ignore ethos and pathos, and argue on logos alone”, and if something I have said may have come across that way, well then I take this chance to publicly clarify that this is not what I stand for.

I may have been wrong in classifying the Jenny-Botox attack as an ad hominem (which I am not convinced of yet for the record), but my main point was that we should not allow ourselves to be sloppy thinkers, that we shouldn’t fail to cast a critical eye on our own arguments to ensure that we are not committing the same mistakes that we accuse the “other side” of committing, that the end does not justify the means so to speak.  How one jumps from that to arguing on logos only, I do not comprehend.

Of course, facts and statistics are dry and fail, on their own, to be very convincing to the general public; of course we need passion and the use of rhetoric, and emotions when discussing or debating these issues in public. I think that those are absolutely necessary to win in the court of public opinion, but that does not translate that therefore every rhetoric tactic is fair game, that every emotion is fair game, because I happen to believe, or to have come to the conclusion (whichever way you like to phrase it), that some don’t work as well as we think they do, at least from what I have heard psychologists say about human communication. But I do not intend to turn this into a “what’s the most effective way of communicating” thing, because I don’t think I can add anything besides personal experience to the debate, and we skeptics know how personal anecdotes can lead us astray.

The take home point here is that just because I am advocating against the use of ad hominems/personal attacks does not logically lead to the conclusion that therefore I am advocating for “arguing on logos” only. Are ridicule & sarcasm all there is for us to draw on? What about empathy? I don’t hear Tom making the case for expressing empathy anywhere in his defense of arguing with pathos.

The last point I want to make revolves about something Tom said in regards to the Ad Hominem. He maintains that if all you said is that Jenny is against toxins but she uses Botox, that would be an ad hominem, and we both seem to agree there. Then he also says that because we have other valid arguments to counter her toxins nonsense, the Botox thing no longer is an ad hominem, but it is demoted, so to speak, to a simple personal attack status. At least that’s how I understand his argument, I hope I’m not setting up a straw man here; I’d hate to do that, but my only comment is this: a logical fallacy is a logical fallacy, regardless if it is preceded, or immediately followed, by any number of valid arguments. In other words a rotten apple in a basket full of good apples, is still a rotten apple. Now, I am not a philosopher, and that may be a naive view, and I am willing to defer to the expertise of professional philosophers on this issue, but until then, this is what I think.

So, not being a philosopher by training, I have to say that I have but a layman’s understanding of the Ad Hominem. To my understanding it goes like this:

  1. Person makes claim X
  2. We point out something about the person (unrelated to X)
  3. We reject X based on 2

Now I am sure that there must be subtle variations and such, but the bottom line is we reject an argument someone makes based on some quality of the person, without really addressing the argument. So in Jenny’s case we have the following:

  1. Jenny argues that vaccines have toxins that are dangerous to children.
  2. We point out that Jenny uses Botox on herself

So where does that leave us? Well as both Tom and I have said, it depends on the context. The 3rd requirement for the Ad Hominem (therefore Jenny is wrong about toxins in vaccines) hasn’t been said in actual words. I maintain that when 1 & 2 are used together they imply, regardless of what the author may or may not desire to imply, that Jenny is wrong about 1, in certain cases based on the context. I specifically linked to a blog entry by Phil Plait that used the whole Jenny-Botox thing that I thought was a case where the implication was there hovering in the air, even if Phil may not have meant it that way. Go, read that entry yourself, and decide if I am right or wrong.

Now can the fact that she uses Botox be used in an argument in ways which would make it not an Ad Hominem? Sure it can, and Tom formulates examples himself, which are not the formulations I’m having an issue with anyway, but as he himself says it is still a personal attack, which adds nothing to the conversation. It is a poor tool to use in a public debate anyway (she can easily counter with “what does that have to do with vaccines? So I am misinformed about Botox, but I’m not here to discuss Botox, which is used by adults, but the health and safety of our children; so stop attacking my personal life style choices.“) in which case you’ve already lost the public opinion war, and you will be perceived as an arrogant person trying to belittle a mom who’s fighting for her son’s, and other children’s, wellbeing. Try explaining then that what you did was not an ad hominem attack.

If you think that facts and statistics are too dry, do you think that discussing in detail what is and what isn’t, philosophically speaking, a proper ad-hominem, would be more…wet for lack of proper terms, if what you’re trying to accomplish is to win the public’s hearts and minds?

CFI and the Non-mosque not-on Ground Zero-An inquiry

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 29, 2010

So the CFI has joined the discussion about the non-mosque not on Ground Zero with a press release, a very worrying to me as a secularist, humanist and skeptic, misguided press release.

The Center for Inquiry is troubled by the rhetoric of some of those protesting the proposed Islamic religious center and mosque near Ground Zero, and it especially deplores the growing politicization of the dispute.

That’s good actually; I am worried myself about the tone and the nonsense rhetoric being thrown around by those opposed to the non-mosque.

CFI also holds that the focus of the protests is too narrow; it would be inappropriate to build any new house of worship in the area immediately around Ground Zero, not just mosques.

What? CFI is worried by the rhetoric, because it is too narrow and it is only focused on Islam?

“The 9/11 attacks were an example of faith-based terrorism, and any institution that privileges faith above reason is an affront to those who were killed and injured in those attacks,” observes Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of CFI.

Oh Ron, Ron Ron Ron Ron Ron! Fox News is appalled because “The Muslims” want to have their own center near ground zero and you’re appalled because “The Religious” in general want to do that? And can you please tell us what is the appropriate radius around Ground Zero where religious expression of any sort shouldn’t take place because it would affront the victims and families of 9/11? Yes, Ron please specify the radius around Ground Zero where you think we should ignore the Constitution of the United States of America.

CFI fully supports the free exercise of religion; protecting the rights of believers and nonbelievers is central to CFI’s mission. Accordingly, CFI endorses President Obama’s recent statement reminding the country that Muslim Americans enjoy the same rights as other Americans and should not be treated as second-class citizens.

Except for a radius, to be specified by CFI, around Ground Zero that is. Way to support the guilt-by-association fallacious way of thinking Ron. See CFI cannot have its cake and eat it too; you cannot rely on the Constitution to fight creationism from creeping into our schools without accepting that the same Amendment of the Constitution demands the right of free exercise of religion be granted to people of faith. Doing that would be hypocritical and we all know, or should know, that hypocrisy has not room in rational inquiry.

UPDATE 08/29/10 – The CFI has issued an updated statement which supersedes the previous one. Here is the full text of the new, improved, statement.

The Center for Inquiry’s Statement on the Ground Zero Controversy

CFI fully supports the free exercise of religion; protecting the rights of believers and nonbelievers is central to CFI’s mission. Accordingly, CFI endorses President Obama’s recent statement reminding the country that Muslim Americans enjoy the same rights as other Americans and should not be treated as second-class citizens. There should be no legal impediment to the placement of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, just as there should be no legal impediment to the placement of a church, temple, or synagogue near Ground Zero.

Further, CFI laments the effort by some to turn the proposed Islamic center into a political issue. Government officials and candidates for office should not intervene in disputes over the alleged offensiveness of a place of worship. Such conduct violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Establishment Clause. Government officials should not be deciding who is a “moderate” Muslim any more than they should be deciding who is a “moderate” Christian or Jew.

A number of private individuals have protested the proposed Islamic center. The tone and substance of these protests covers a wide range. Some protesting the Islamic center have raised legitimate questions, but to the extent the objections to the Islamic center mistakenly equate all Muslims with Muslim extremists, CFI condemns them.

CFI maintains that an Islamic center, including a mosque, near Ground Zero, in and of itself, is no different than a church, temple, or synagogue. It is undeniable that the 9/11 terrorists were inspired by their understanding of Islam, and that currently there are far more Islamic terrorists in the world than terrorists of other faiths, but those facts are not relevant to the location of the Islamic center, absent evidence that terrorists are involved in this endeavor, and there is no such evidence.

CFI’s unequivocal support for the legal right of Muslims to place a community center near Ground Zero does not imply that CFI views the new center as an event to be celebrated.  To the contrary, CFI is committed to the position that reason and science, not faith, are needed to address and resolve humanity’s problems. All religions share a fundamental flaw: they reflect a mistaken understanding of reality. On balance, CFI does not consider houses of worship to be beneficial to humanity, whether they are built at Ground Zero or elsewhere.

This statement supersedes any prior statement issued by CFI regarding the Ground Zero controversy.

Much better, that’s what the first one should have read like in the first place.

Food Faddism and Child Abuse

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 29, 2010

Guest post by Kyle Tuttle

Fad diets are nothing new; they’ve been around for ages. And the reason they’re fads is that most people soon realize they don’t work and stop using  them just as quickly as they started. Unfortunately, there’s always another fad diet waiting in the wings.

The typical fad diet falls into one of (or a combination of) the following three categories:

  1. The virtue of a particular food or food group is exaggerated and purported to cure specific diseases, and is therefore incorporated as a primary constituent of an individual’s diet.
  2. Foods are eliminated from an individual’s diet because they are viewed as harmful.
  3. An emphasis is placed on eating certain foods to express a particular lifestyle.

The human body requires a base level of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to grow and function properly, and fad diets often disrupt this nutritional balance. The impact of this disruption can range from mild to devastating. In the case of developing children, the effects of malnutrition can be especially severe.

Two popular fad diets have been shown to be particularly harmful to young children:

  • Vegan diets. Vegans avoid foods made from animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy — each a natural source of the proteins, fats and vitamins (particularly B12) crucial to infant development. While advocates of vegan diets do often recommend mother’s breast milk as the optimal diet for children under the age of one, it’s rare to hear them acknowledge that infants fed only breast milk can still be malnourished if the mother follows a strict vegan diet.
  • Macrobiotic diets. These restrictive diets get progressively more limited as one gets older. Grain is the staple of a macrobiotic diet, present in disproportionately high levels, and at the expense of meat and dairy — the latter of which (as mentioned) is especially important in infants. In fact, scientific studies have shown a high prevalence of rickets and an increased risk of vitamin B-12 and iron deficiency in infants on macrobiotic diets.

While malnutrition is harmful at any age, it is particularly catastrophic for young children in their formative stages. An infant’s nutritional needs are distinctly different from an adult’s:

  • A deficiency of vitamin D and calcium can lead to rickets – characterized by dental deformities, decreased muscle tone, and softening of the bones, which can lead to skeletal deformities, including a misshapen head and bowlegs, among others.
  • A deficiency of B vitamins carries a whole host of malnutrition nightmares. For example, Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.
  • Due to the extensive growth and myelination of their nerve cells, children under the age two children require very high levels of dietary fat. About 50% of their overall calories should come from high-fat sources.

Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that subjecting an infant or young child to fad diets or cult diets that disregard established nutritional guidelines isn’t just irresponsible, but is in fact a form of child abuse. Consider the following cases, where parents were charged with intentionally harming their children through the use of overly-restrictive fad diets:

  • Jade Sanders and Lamont Thomas were each sentenced to life in prison for the death of their 6-week old son, Crown Shakur. The infant was fed a diet consisting almost entirely of soy milk and organic apple juice, and weighed just 3 1/2 pounds when he died.
  • Joseph and Silva Swinton were convicted of first degree assault after nearly starving their infant daughter, Ilce, to death on a strict vegan diet. At 15 months old, Ilce suffered from rickets, broken bones, internal injuries and suspected neurological damage.
  • Joseph and Lamoy Andressohn were acquitted of aggravated manslaughter but convicted of four counts of child neglect when their 6-month old daughter, Woyah, died after being fed a diet of raw fruits and vegetables. The child neglect charges stemmed from the condition of their surviving children, each of whom was severely malnourished.

Clearly, these are extreme cases, but they illustrate how dangerous fad diets can be when enforced on young children who have very different nutritional requirements from adults. Without intervention, a child can suffer permanent physical or mental damage, or even death. If an adult prefers to eat a vegan diet to protect animals, that’s their choice and their right. But when they have a child, perhaps that’s the animal they should be saving first.

This guest post was contributed by Kyle Tuttle, whose writing focuses on helping students find the right psychology degree. He can be reached at tuttletr33 at gmail dot com.

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The War Over “Nice”

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on August 27, 2010


Skeptics and parallel rationalist communities spend a lot of time on “inside baseball” — jargon-filled debates about technical matters that seem incomprehensible, dull, or ridiculous to outsiders. These shouldn’t be the main skeptical topics (shouldn’t we be busy solving mysteries and educating the public?) but some discussion on these matters is unavoidable and worthwhile. Many movement-oriented skeptics and organizations have things they hope to accomplish; with goals, there comes discussion of best practices.

Among these insider debates, none is more persistent than that of “tone.” Hardly a week goes by that some tone-related tempest doesn’t spill out of its teacup and across the blogosphere. And yet, these issues matter to many (including me). When people devote enormous energy to skepticism, dedicate careers to skeptical outreach, or generously commit volunteer hours or donations to skeptical projects and organizations, it’s natural that abstract internal debates about the soul of skepticism are perceived to have powerful importance.

The passions of many have been swept up in the ongoing scrap about Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “Amazing Meeting 8″ conference in Las Vegas. The skeptical blogosphere began buzzing even as Plait delivered the speech, and hasn’t yet stopped. The debate has reached a new level of feverishness in recent days, after Plait posted the entire video of the speech online. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a powerful speech which is well worth your time.)

The flood of reactions — many hundreds of lengthy comments, dozens of blog posts and a teeming ecosystem of competing tweets — seem to have broken down along two main axes of debate. One axis defends (or challenges) Plait’s factual assertion that civility tends to help skeptical communication, while incivility tends to hinder it. The other axis concerns moral values.

Talking Past Each Other

The empirical dispute about the effectiveness of civility has sometimes devolved to a clash of straw men. As PZ Myers responded,

It’s a little annoying. Everybody seems to imagine that if Granny says “Bless you!” after I sneeze, I punch her in the nose, and they’re all busy dichotomizing the skeptical community into the nice, helpful, sweet people who don’t rock the boat and the awful, horrible, bastards in hobnailed boots who stomp on small children in Sunday school.

I can relate. I’m similarly exasperated when it is suggested that “nice” skeptics are trying to enforce uniformity; or it is imagined that Phil’s speech was secretly “yet another attempt to erect a skepticism-free barrier around theistic beliefs”; or it is supposed that anyone wants to take anger and passion out of the skeptics toolbox; or, even, argued that “nice” skeptics want to “go with the flow, to pretend that a thousand issues, whether it’s homeopathy or religion or transcendental meditation or an absence of critical thinking or a lack of concern about our health, are OK because they make people happy.” Where does this stuff even come from?

All this noise conceals a non-trivial amount of consensus. In general, everyone actually agrees that passion, anger, comedy, and ridicule can be useful in the right context, when used carefully and well. Everyone agrees that face to face conversations are best conducted with kindness and respect. Everyone (PZ included) agrees that fact-based, collegial discourse is often-but-not-always the best outreach strategy. (Consider PZ’s stated position: “I think the best ideas involve a combination of willingness to listen and politely engage, and a forthright core of assertiveness and confrontation — tactical dickishness, if you want to call it that.” To me, this sounds surprisingly similar to Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” argument: “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.”)

In other places, the effectiveness debate has bogged down in red herrings. For example, Richard Dawkins complained that

Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. …when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. … I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule.

This is a serious misreading of Plait’s intent, and I think rather baffling. Phil Plait is an experienced public figure, a career science communicator. Of course he knows (as I know, and as Dawkins knows) that our largest and best opportunity for outreach is often the wider audience of third-party onlookers.

Indeed, the audience of onlookers are exactly where the empirical question matters most.


Power Balance Wristbands Probed

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 26, 2010


ANSA) – Rome, August 3 – Italy’s antitrust watchdog said on Tuesday that it had opened a probe into the companies which distribute the Power Balance wristband, which has become this summer’s fad.

The probe by the authority will focus on “possible inappropriate commercial practices” by the companies which sell the wrist band that promises to give “balance, strength and flexibility”.

The focus of the probe will be whether the consumer risks being misled by properties attributed to the product.

The probe will center on two companies: Power Balance Italy, which distributes the Power Balance brand in Italy; and Sport Town, a company which retails the product.

The two companies will have 15 days to submit medical/scientific evidence dealing with the composition of the product and its effects on the human body as well as information dealing with any possible side effects in regard to the consumer’s health and safety .

Neither company has at present issued any statement about the probe.

According to the producer’s website, Power Balance is “performance technology designed to work with your body’s natural energy field”.


SKEPDUDE SAYS – I’m certain that they can give them 15 weeks and they will still fail to come up with any scientific evidence. I suspect they’ll offer a lot of celebrity testimonials, and some Applied Kinesiology videos as evidence.