Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

In which I disagree with Brian Dunning

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on July 14, 2009

I feel guilty! I am going to commit skeptical heresy by going on the record as disagreeing with Brian Dunning on some issue. But that, I find, is the beauty of being a freethinker, like most skeptics are, or aspire to be. There aren’t, make that there can’t be, any sacred cows, any holy persons. Anyone’s ideas are open to critique and today I am going to respond to Brian’s Skeptoid Episode #160 “Sarah Palin is not stupid”.

Now let me start by saying that I admire Brian Dunning as I do few others. In my eyes he’s right up there with Randi and the Rogues. I do not think there is anyone who can pick apart some issue and analyze its inards the way Brian can, and I don’t think I’d ever find myself arguing with him on an empirical issue; he’d probably run circles around me. Thank goodness this particular Skeptoid Episode is not about a purely empirical issue.

The topic at hand is stupidity. Brian makes many statements about it on this intellectually challenging episode. Some I agree with, some I don’t. Before I proceed with my analysis I also want to point out that to some degree the topic at hand is philosophical, actually I think it is more philosophical than it is skeptical in nature. That is why, I think, me and Brian are not on the same page on this one.

He starts of with a statement that is bound to surprise some people.

I’m going to disagree with the popular perception that Sarah Palin is nuts.

Actually, I do not find that shocking at all. I do not think that anyone can seriously support the claim that Sarah Palin is nuts. That is too extreme. I personally have referred to her as a bimbo, but nuts is taking it too far. So no disagreement there. I just wasn’t aware that the popular perception of Mrs. Palin was so extreme.

Stupid people don’t tend to attract contributors, managers, supporters, and electorates. If she’d exhibited stupidity on the Wasilla city council, they probably wouldn’t have elected her mayor. If she’d exhibited stupidity as mayor, they probably wouldn’t have elected her for a second term. Her appointment to the Oil and Gas Committee by the governor was probably not because she’d behaved stupidly. Finally, stupidity probably does not characterize most successful bids to run for governor of one of the United States.

This I have a problem with. I do think that stupid people do attract contributors, managers, supporters and electorates. Look at George W. Bush. Look at Lindsay Lohan. Success in an area, be that politics, or entertainment, or even business, does not exclude stupidity. I just don’t see how that first sentence can be supported. We cannot throw out the statement “Sarah Palin is stupid” by pointing at a successful political career. I think one does not necessarily follow from the other. In fact, many of us would agree that George W. Bush’s first term was a lesson in stupid presidential behavior, but he did get re-elected, fairly in my eyes, for a second term.

If you call yourself a critical thinker, ad hominem attacks should not be the extent of your criticisms of those in whom you find fault.

Absolutely right, and that is probably the most important piece of advice to take away from this episode. Just pointing at someone and dismissing an argument they have put forward as wrong “‘ because he/she’s stupid” is not a trait someone fancying himself as a critical thinker possesses. Just because they’ve exhibited stupid behavior in the past does not give us the right to dismiss everything they say in the future.

Look at Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and consequently the United States’ greatest mass murderer of children. To best prepare ourselves to prevent this kind of thing happening again, we have to be sure that we accurately understand the motivations behind it. McVeigh is a guy who lived in a world of conspiracies. The people he surrounded himself with all believed the same thing: That the government was out to get them. When you live and breathe that 24 hours a day, when it’s your entire sphere of influence, it’s not delusional.

Actually, I think it is. By this line of reasoning delusions do not exist; no one is delusional because every delusional person really, really, believes in his delusions. I do not argue the fact that McVeigh believed wholeheartedly in the conspiracy, but that makes it not less of a delusion in reality. People do not choose to delude themselves, but there is a reason why we use the word “delusion” to describe this state of mind; because it is so much out of touch with reality. I am sorry but in my book a person that thinks there is a government conspiracy against him and that the proper response is a strike against civilians is nuts, regardless of the fact that he surrounded himself or not with the wrong people. I just don’t think that is an excuse, nor does it make his actions rational or normal.

It was a vicious circle. The more input he received, the more he sought out such information. Well understood perceptual phenomena like confirmation bias made it normal and healthy for McVeigh’s brain to reject information that did not indicate the government was out to get him. Eventually he got to a point where the best move — in the context of what he believed was going on — was to strike back, as violently as possible. We are better prepared to deal with Timothy McVeighs if we don’t allow ourselves the intellectually lazy shortcut of “Oh, he was just some nut.”

I do not think that is an intellectually lazy shortcut. I think it is a pretty accurate statement of the guy’s state of mind. Sure in his mind he was right; he thought he was doing the right thing, but that’s because his brain did not work properly (at least I think it did not given his behavior). I am afraid we’re getting a little too relativistic at this point. Even Hitler thought he was doing the right thing; in his mind he was sure he was right, but that does not lessen the severity of his crimes nor should it refrain ourselves for labeling him as a crazy SOB! I just don’t seem to put much weight to the context of what they believed. I think that should not be the standard against which their actions are measured.

Now Brian is right that we shouldn’t stop at “Oh, he’s a nut” and leave it there. In cases like McVeigh we should look at how he was able to keep feeding and expanding on his fantasy, because clearly he needed help which he did not get. But just because that’s not all we should say, does not imply that it shouldn’t be said at all!

The same goes for Sarah Palin, Ben Stein, Ken Ham, Bill Maher, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, and Prince Charles, all people who actively promote bad science or misinformation, and who believe they’re doing the right thing. That’s an important point that’s too often overlooked. With few exceptions, most honest promoters of bad information have good intentions. They’re not crazy raving lunatics out to get us. If you want to have an informed, rational conversation with one of these folks, and you want them to be receptive to your statements, approach them as you would any public figure who works hard in the public good. At a fundamental level, they’re on our same team: They want what’s best for people.

Ok, I’m willing to grant you that they have good intentions, but still I fail to see how good intentions exclude stupidity or nuttiness! One can be stupid and have good intentions. I am willing to grant Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey the benefit of the doubt, that they have good intentions, but that does not change the fact that the arrogance of their ignorance is colossal; that anyone who has no training on any given issue and goes around dismissing the expert’s advice and rate her own “Google University Education” as at par, or better, than the expert has a few screws loose.

How many times should we remind Jenny that there is no antifreeze in vaccines? How many times should we point out to her that all studies fail to find a connection between vaccines, or thimerosal, and autism? How many times do we do that before her constant refusal to face reality deserves to be called stupid? Her intentions seem completely irrelevant to the stupidity charge in my eyes.

Now, before someone interprets this as an all out attack on Brian’s episode let me recap. I pretty much agree with most of what Brian said. And I agree with his sentiment, if I am interpreting it correctly, that calling people stupid may not be the best way to go about winning converts to your case, which it isn’t. It seems to me the major disagreement seems to be in what I perceive, perhaps erroneously, as a very relativistic take on Brian’s part on the words stupid and nut. What I get from a listening of the podcast, and a reading of the online transcript is this: These things are relative; if you look at it from the point of view of the “nut” his behavior is not nutty at all. So you can’t call them that!

And I agree that this idea of stupidity is relative to one’s background, culture, education etc etc. I find honor killings extremely stupid, and cannot think of a person that commits it as rational or even normal under any sense of these words, while at the same time someone from his culture finds this behavior completely acceptable and probably would find my behavior, that of “allowing” certain behaviors from the females in my family, stupid. I get that. But I don’t see how one can jump from that to “you should not call them stupid or nuts“, which I perceive is what, at least in part, Brian’s entry implies.

Stupidity is not an empirical thing; we cannot test for it like we can for a viral infection; there is no stupidity test. As such we are all bound to have different standards, different levels of tolerance, but is refusing to call any behavior stupid, or any person nuts, the right stance to take? I personally find this refusal to take a stance a bit uncomfortable. Ridicule is a valuable weapon in the fight against woo and there are many instances when pure logic and information just won’t cut it. Take all the autism studies you want, put them in front of an audience against a weeping mother who “knows” that her kid “got autism” right after he got his vaccines, and see who wins the popular opinion. Of course calling the mother stupid will be even worse, but the point I’m trying to make is that the impulse to ridicule, to call someone stupid, is an emotional response and there are times when this response is more powerful than any critical analysis. On the other hand that’s not all we should do, otherwise we end up making fools out of ourselves.

I guess the take away lesson from this rambling of mine is that there is no one right way of being a skeptic. Our audiences, the people we are trying to reach, is a mix of different customers. Some need the strong rational approach Brian takes; some need the humor, and sometimes ridicule, that the likes of Jay and Rebecca on the SGU dish out; some need to be humbled by James Randi making them feel like idiots for falling for simple tricks (yours truly included!). All methods work depending on the audience, all are valuable, and so is, I think, calling stupid people stupid. There is such a thing as stupid behavior and it needs to be called to task. And if  a person consistently exhibits stupid behavior they may even be qualified to be branded a stupid person or a nut.

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Hair Transmission Homeopathy

Posted in The Quackometer by Skepdude on July 14, 2009


Cut free from the tethers of evidence and reason, homeopathy, as a system of thought, is free to soar into lofty heights of wild fantasy. Unrestrained by the weight of reality and the heavy ethical demands of accountability, practices and principles are able to float into almost any area that the imagination will allow. There are no maps to guide this flight of the bizarre and no compass to return the traveller to a safe base.

Despite two hundred years of existence, you will still find vigorous debates on homeopathic discussion boards about what exactly homeopathy is. There are homeopaths who will only ever give one pill. There are homeopaths that do not mind mixing pills. Some only accept remedies based on the original forms of testing, know as the ‘proving’. Others allow themselves to dream what a remedy might do. Homeopaths squabble about what is right, but can never resolve their difference because they have long ago abandoned objective means of settling disputes. An uneasy truce exists between the various schools of thought with only occasional cold war like peripheral fights breaking out, mainly in the form of a diatribe by one side denouncing heresies and calling for all homeopaths to unite under the scriptures of Hahnemann, the founder, and the One True Authority.

A few common principles bind the various factions together – the idea of similarity, that like cures like; the need to match the totality of symptoms to a remedy; and the idea of minimum dose – use the smallest amount of remedy possible. This last point means that homeopaths most often give no dose. The medicine has been so diluted away that not a single molecule remains. The beauty of homeopathy, and probably the reason that it is has done so well, is that it is a pure placebo therapy. There are no risks of side effects and the patent is quite free to allow nature to take its course and the complaint to get better on its own.

When the actual physical acts of homeopathy are completely inert and when practiced by people with no regard for critical self appraisal, the scientific medicine and the objective collection of data, one can expect a certain amount of evolution of ideas and the generation of variants.The only criteria that restrain such ideas are the need to keep the treatment inert, the philosophical acceptability to the vitalist mindset of the homeopath and, most importantly, its profitability in practice.

Thus, in the UK, we have seen the former founder of the Society of Homeopath, Peter Chappell, invent the homeopathic delivery of remedies by MP3 file. Since homeopaths invent cod explanations for their work along the lines that it is an ‘energy medicine’ or a ‘vibrational medicine’ then the thinking goes that because MP3 files can encode sound vibrations, then they can also encode ‘healing vibrations’. And so, we find Chappell running a little business where people can download MP3 files and play sounds of waves crashing as they worry that they might have swine flu.

It is in India though that we must look to see some true inventiveness. The country has more homeopaths than any other and the government appears to be quite happy to support all manner of quackery in the name of political expediency.

And so, I stumbled across the works of the followers of Dr. B. Sahni who runs the Research Institute Of Sahni Drug Transmission & Homoeopathy ( Without a hint of irony, the home page proclaims “Welcome to Medicine Free World“. The Sahni protocol is rather wonderful: a homeopathic remedy is chosen in the classical way, by matching symptoms to a remedy. The chosen pill is then dissolved in a vial and a single hair is then plucked from the customer’s head and placed in the vial with a little bit sticking out. The hair is then able to transmit the remedy back to the owner.


Acupuncture facelift-didn’t we do this already?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on July 14, 2009

I thought I’d already made fun of the acupuncture facelift nonsense. I guess it wasn’t noticed. So here I go again!

If you want some of the benefits of a facelift, but without the surgical procedure and the associated high costs and long recovery process, then you might consider acupuncture facelift.

Yeah sure, go ahead and consider it, but if you don’t reject it as utter rubish…you need help…professional help…just go see a shrink ok?

Actually, an acupuncture facelift is not a facelift in the traditional sense, and you should not expect to see the same dramatic results a conventional facelift can produce. So, what can you expect?

Uh, pick me, pick me! Non-dramatic results? Yes? Yayyy! What a clever way of saying it won’t do shit.

A more accurate term for an acupuncture facelift is “acupuncture facial rejuvenation” or “cosmetic acupuncture.” Although it is not a replacement for surgery, cosmetic acupuncture is a safe, painless, and less costly alternative for a traditional facelift.

Sure, and also did I mention that it won’t do shit?

Cosmetic acupuncture is a series of acupuncture treatments to the face, ears, neck, hands, trunk, and legs along channels (meridians) through which the life force (chi) flows. The treatments are designed to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, improve your complexion, reduce puffiness, soften deep lines and wrinkles, improve muscle tone, enhance circulation, and give your face a more relaxed, younger look.

Don’t you just love chi? I don’t know about you but my life force flows through my….you know! How long before we get penis enlargement acupuncuture?

Why do acupuncturists treat areas other than your face, ears, and neck? According to Chinese traditional medicine, many meridians start or end on the face while others have a remote effect on the face. Treating points along meridians away from the face has the effect of both benefiting the face and rejuvenating the entire body.

Of course, why not!

Depending on the condition of your skin, you may see noticeable results after the first session. Generally, practitioners of cosmetic acupuncture and their clients report that fine lines and wrinkles can significantly improve after just four or five sessions. A complete cosmetic acupuncture program takes about 10 to 15 sessions, and maintenance or “booster” treatments are recommended monthly or bimonthly.

You wanna bet whoever is offering this stuff has before and after pictures? Do you wanna bet the before pictures are taken in bad lighting with no make up and the subject is making a sad/neutral face, while the after are taken in the best lighting possible, with tons of make up and everyone is laughing happily? 10-15 session plus “booster” treatments to improve “fine lines and wrinkles”. Hmmmmmm?

A survey of several cosmetic acupuncture facilities found that some recommend having two sessions per week for several weeks, then one per week to the end of the program; others suggest one per week throughout. The bottom line is, it is up to you and your acupuncturist to determine a schedule that works best for you.

Obviously,  because it’s holistic you see, it’s about you and it’s meant to make you feel precious and taken care off. Don’t you just feel special?

The Atheist Cartooner strikes again

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on July 14, 2009

I really, really, like the person behind this blog. Click photo to go to Atheist Cartoons website.


Sudan women ‘lashed for trousers’

Posted in News by Skepdude on July 14, 2009


Several Sudanese women have been flogged as a punishment for dressing “indecently”, according to a local journalist who was arrested with them.

Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein, who says she is facing 40 lashes, said she and 12 other women wearing trousers were arrested in a restaurant in the capital, Khartoum.

She told the BBC several of the women had pleaded guilty to the charges and had 10 lashes immediately.

Khartoum, unlike South Sudan, is governed by Sharia law.

Several of those punished were from the mainly Christian and animist south, Ms Hussein said.

Non-Muslims are not supposed to be subject to Islamic law, even in Khartoum and other parts of the mainly Muslim north.

She said that a group of about 20 or 30 police officers entered the popular Khartoum restaurant and arrested all the women wearing trousers.


Sore Million Dollar Challenge Loser

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on July 14, 2009

Why are they such predictable sore loosers? Why Connie Sonne? If I had to make one psychic prediction I would bet everything that the MDC losers will inevitably claim that either they were cheated or that they did in fact pass the test with flying colors, even when they fall flat on their face.

Hi out there…now I know why Banacheck was “the card handler”. I have been cheated. I did find the right cards. And there is one more thing. At the stage, Banacheck said to me BEFORE he even looked in the envelope I had cut…and here is spade ace, the one you looked for!!!! I first hit me now about that ….but maybe you can see it yourself if someone get the video. I don`t care about the money, that wasn`t the reason why I came. So no matter what you think out there……I was CHEATED!!!!!

She capitalized the word cheated, so that settles that! Of course you were cheated dear Connie! Of course you did not do it for the money, dear Connie! May I suggest that next time you take the challenge and don’t do it for the money, that you arrange with the JREF to have the money donated, should you win, to the Red Cross or some other charity?