The topic of skepticism and religion comes up on a regular basis within skeptical circles, and I find I have to define my position on a regular basis. Because I host a skeptical podcast and contribute to several skeptical blogs, it cannot be avoided. This week’s episode of the SGU featured Eugenie Scott as a guest rogue, and the question of skepticism and religion came up. And, as predictably as the dawn follows the night, the old debate sparked up again.
Genie takes a position very similar to my own – that science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism, and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position. (I will call this the “agnostic” position for simplicity.)
However, I think many people are confused when we discuss this topic, especially since we often refer to “religion,” which can create the false impression that we think science cannot address any claims that falls under “religion” – it may, depending on what those claims are.
Science is a Process
I think the primary confusion stems from this – defining science vs religion as a set of beliefs vs a set of methods or processes. A commenter on the SGU forums represents this confusion well when they write:
“…what the hell kind of skeptic movement would give an approving nod to the theist saying ‘I’m a skeptic–I won’t believe in ghosts without good evidence, …unless they’re holy ghosts.”
His comment focuses entirely on the beliefs themselves, but the agnostic position is about method not beliefs. It is absolutely not about ghosts vs holy ghosts – it is about methodological naturalism (science) vs faith (not necessarily religion). Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith.
The content of the beliefs, however, does not matter – it does not matter if they are part of a mainstream religion, a cult belief, a new age belief, or just a quirky personal belief. If someone believes in untestable ghosts, or ESP, or bigfoot, or whatever – they have positioned those claims outside the realm of science. This, of course, is Sagan’s invisible floating heatless dragon – creating a belief that cannot be tested.
It is important, in my opinion, for skeptics to be crystal clear on this point, because often the purveyors of pseudoscience will try to evade falsification or the negative effects of evidence on their claims by positioning the claim outside of science. At that point the skeptic must acknowledge that science can no longer demonstrate that the claim is likely to be false, but rather the claim is no longer scientific and can only be an article of faith. You can believe in the kind of bigfeet that are immune to all scientific investigation, but then you have to also stop claiming to have evidence for this bigfoot, or that you are doing science. Belief in bigfoot has become a tenet of your faith.
t’s been a bad year for homeopathy, and it’s still February. The 10^23 campaign has been making a proper mockery of the magical medicine that is homeopathy, capped off with their mass homeopathic “overdose.” In Australia skeptics have been taking homeopathic websites to task for making unsupported health claims. And in the UK there has been increasing pressure to question NHS support for homeopathy – most recently the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee concluded that homeopathy is nothing more than an elaborate placebo and the NHS should completely defund and remove any support for homeopathy. This could be a death blow to homeopathy in the UK, and provide support for similar efforts elsewhere.
Last year was no better. Most memorable was this comedy sketch by Mitchell and Webb, who nicely skewered homeopaths and other cranks. When comedians are not ridiculing them, homeopaths were doing a fine job of lampooning themselves – the best is this video where Dr. Werner tries to explain how homeopathy works – pure comedy gold. Of course the best real explanation for how homeopathy works is here.
Even before the House Committee presented its final report, the embarrassing moments were being immortalized on YouTube, for example the head of a major UK pharmaceutical chain admitting that they market homeopathic products with full knowledge that they don’t work.
All of this has homeopaths a bit desperate, it would seem. They now realize that skeptics and scientists are starting to get traction with their criticism. This is good, because as I have argued before the more we get homeopaths and other pseudoscientists trying to defend themselves, the more they will do our work for us.
Thanks to commenter tl;dr for pointing out this video by homeopath, John Benneth. This is the best incoherent rant yet by a crank against skeptics. If I did not already know Benneth from his other videos, where he puts forward rambling technobabble trying to make homeopathy seem scientific, I could easily have believed this was satire. Benneth looks disheveled, distracted, and gets childishly sarcastic at one point. But that aside, the content of his rant is priceless.
Benneth decides to take on skeptics directly, and by name. He mentions Randi, Edzard Ernst, Simon Singh, Harriet Hall, Michael Shermer, and your humble servant (thanks for including me in such excellent company). He then proceeds straight to the logical fallacy aisle and fills his cart.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published the results of their latest study on the prevalence of autism. There is no question that in the last 20 years the number of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses has increased. What is also clear is that during this time there has been increased surveillance and a broadening of the diagnosis of ASD. Whether or not this accounts for the entire increase in ASD numbers, or if there is a true increase in there as well, is unknown.
Into that context, the CDC adds their most recent numbers, concluding:
In 2006, on average, approximately 1% or one child in every 110 in the 11 ADDM sites was classified as having an ASD (approximate range: 1:80–1:240 children [males: 1:70; females: 1:315]). The average prevalence of ASDs identified among children aged 8 years increased 57% in 10 sites from the 2002 to the 2006 ADDM surveillance year. Although improved ascertainment accounts for some of the prevalence increases documented in the ADDM sites, a true increase in the risk for children to develop ASD symptoms cannot be ruled out. On average, although delays in identification persisted, ASDs were being diagnosed by community professionals at earlier ages in 2006 than in 2002.
That 1 in every 110 children on average now carry an ASD diagnosis is not new news. This CDC data was actually released ahead of publication in October. At the same time a phone survey published in Pediatrics found 110 in 10,000 children carried an ASD diagnosis – or a little more than 1%. This 1% figure seems to be highly replicated – a National Health Services survey released in September also found a prevalence of 1% for ASD in the UK.
READ THE FULL ENTRY AT NEUROLOGICA
Dr. Jay Gordon is a pediatrician to a particular subculture of pseudoscientific celebrities, such as Jenny McCarthy. He lends his MD cred to this community. He also appears, in my opinion, to be a shameless self-promoter – one of those pop professionals (Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil) who has sold his soul for some easy celebrity.
Regardless of his motivations, he has been spouting arrogant nonsense about vaccines for years, essentially arguing that his clinical gut feeling and anecdotal experience trump the actual science. This is exactly the wrong approach to science-based medicine.
In a recent open letter on his website, he adds to the anti-vax chorus advising not to get the H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine. It’s almost as if this crowd wants to maximize the morbidity and suffering from this somewhat preventable disease. I know this is not literally true, but their ideologically motivated and confused actions will have the same effect.
Gordon starts his letter with, of course, some anecdotal evidence from his practice, admitting that he is seeing many cases of flu-like illness over this summer, but:
They all felt miserable, and they are all feeling just fine now.
The implication here is that H1N1 is not that bad. In an average flu season, 30,000 Americans die from the flu. By all accounts, we are in for at least a very heavy flu season, and H1N1 has been killing more young and otherwise healthy people as well as pregnant women (while the regular flu tends to kill the old and infirm). Again we see Gordon perfectly willing to substitute his own anecdotes for hard data.
READ THE FULL ENTRY AT NEUROLOGICA
Eat a balanced diet, containing foods from all the good groups, especially fruits and vegetables.
There – for the vast majority of people that is all the diet advice that you need for overall health. Get regular exercise, don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, and have good sleep habits – now we have covered most lifestyle risk factors. If people followed this basic advice they would significantly reduce their risk of the most common diseases and disorders.
Often, however, I meet or hear people who add unneeded complexity to what it means to have a healthy lifestyle, even while simultaneously ignoring more basic advice. I can’t tell you how many patients I have who spend hundreds of dollars a month on useless supplements while they still smoke.
The media, weight-loss, and supplement industries are no help. They offer a constant barrage of complex, often conflicting, misleading, or downright false health information. Meanwhile, many people have lost site of the basics.
Dieting for weight loss is the same. Everyone wants to know the secret to maintaining a thinner waistline. Low-carb diets have been all the rage for at least a decade, despite the fact that they don’t work. What does work is calorie control and exercise – eat a balanced diet in moderation and get regular exercise. Not always easy, but at least it is simple. (Again – this is for most people. Certain health conditions do require special diets.)
According to the British Homeopathic Association (does that mean the fewer members they have the more powerful the group?) June 14-21 is Homeopathy Awareness Week. I would like to do my part to increase awareness of homeopathy.
I would like people to be aware of the fact that homeopathy is a pre-scientific philosophy, that it is based entirely on magical thinking and is out of step with the last 200 years of science. People should know that typical homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point that no active ingredient remains, and that homeopaths invoke mysterious vibrations or implausible and highly fanciful water chemistry. I would further like people to know that clinical research with homeopathic remedies, when taken as a whole, show no effect for any such remedy.
In short, homeopathy is bunk. But here is a somewhat longer description of its history.
Homeopathy was founded by Samuel Christian Hahnemann (1755-1843), a German physician who had become dissatisfied with the medicine of his day. Hahnemann lived in a time before the rudiments of modern medicine had been developed, before the germ theory of infectious disease, before the first antibiotic, before systematic testing of drugs for safety and efficacy, before surgical procedures were performed with anesthesia or sterile technique. In his century, it is fairly safe to say, conventional medicine was more likely to do harm than good, and hospitals were a place people went to die, rather than get well. It is no surprise, therefore, that Hahnemann sought for an alternative to the classical approach of his day.
For many years Hahnemann’s search was unsuccessful, until he stumbled upon what he thought was an amazing observation. He took a small amount of cinchona bark, which contains quinine, the drug used to treat malaria, and developed the symptoms of malaria. From this observation he developed homeopathy’s first law, similia similibus curentur, or let likes be cured by likes. In other words, drugs which cause specific symptoms can be used to cure diseases which cause the same symptoms.
Also, to put this in perspective we need to examine the English libel laws, which are themselves a scandal. The person accused of libel is guilty til proven innocent, and bears the burden of proof that their statements were true. Worse than this, however, is the fact that in English court the expense of defending a libel case in often in the tens of thousands of dollars, or more. Even if one successfully defends a libel case, it can be financially ruinous. Therefore, the threat of libel is an effective intimidation tactic. Strategically, it is much better to just settle (which means being silenced) that to incur the outrageous court costs.
Even worse, English courts will and have claimed jurisdiction over libel cases, even if the author is from another country, published in another country, and the target of their criticism is from another country. All that is necessary is for someone in England to have read the material. In the age of the internet this means that we are all potentially affected by the ridiculous English libel laws. This has lead to so-called libel tourism, where claimants will try to get their libel case heard in English courts.
Simon has decided to take a significant personal hit in order to pursue his defense for two reasons. The first is to stand up for his criticism of the BCA and their “bogus” treatment of childhood medical conditions with manipulation. The second is to urge the British government to reconsider their libel laws. They really are anti-free speech and anti-science. They are a menace to free-speech throughout the world.
Maybe David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm and one of the major proponents of the notion that thimerosal in vaccines was largely responsible for the recent increase in autism diagnoses, is sincere when he claims he is not anti-vaccine. I say that because he has backed so far off from his stance that vaccines are the culprit – not completely, and without overtly acknowledging his past errors, but has put some significant distance between him current position and his prior certainty.
In his 2005 book Kirby asks the question:
Did the injection of organic mercury directly into the developing systems of small children cause irreparable harm? It’s a plausible proposition, and a hugely important question. If the answer is affirmative, someone will have to pay to pick up the pieces.
He coyly insists he was just asking questions, but the book makes a strong and, in my opinion, one sided case that there is “evidence of harm” – specifically evidence that thimerosal was a major contributor to autism. It also builds a case for a grand conspiracy to hide this fact from the public. Kirby then made a career out of promoting the notion of a link between vaccines and autism with government and professional malfeasance. He became a hero of the anti-vaccine movement.
Yet he insisted, implausibly, he was not “anti-vaccine.” As recently as December 2007 Kirby was writing this nonsense in the Huff Po:
But if thimerosal is vindicated, or shown to be a very minor player, then what about other vaccine ingredients? And what about the rather crowded vaccine schedule we now impose upon families of young children? And what about reports of unvaccinated children in Illinois, California and Oregon who appear to have significantly lower rates of autism? Shouldn’t we throw some research dollars into studying them?
By this time the handwriting was on the wall – thimerosal in vaccines is not linked to autism. After moving the goalpost several times on the evidence, it could be moved no longer. The removal of thimerosal from the routine vaccine schedule by 2002 was followed by a continued increase in autism disgnoses – without even a blip. The predicted (by Kirby and others) precipitous decrease in autism diagnoses never came.
Kirby and the anti-vaccine crowd moved quietly over to the other ingredients in vaccines, in what has been called their “toxin gambit.” This move, more than anything else, is what convinced me that this was all really about being anti-vaccine. The MMR vaccine was vindicated. Now thimerosal was vindicated. So there must be something else in those vaccines that’s the problem – even though there is no evidence to link vaccines at all to autism.
Now Kirby has quietly backed off even more. He writes:
I believe that most ASD cases have environmental triggers (probably more than one) that activate certain genetic predispositions (again, probably more than one) and create some of the symptoms that we call “autism.” I also believe that vaccines may have played a role in triggering some – though certainly not all – cases of regressive autism. Even if that number is a small minority, it seems sensible to me to study the mechanism of action, in hopes of finding clues to the development of autism in all those other children.
Kirby is slowing moving over to the position of the scientific community he has so long criticized for not listening to parents and being blind to the true causes of autism. He’s not quite there yet, but now it is mostly a matter of emphasis. His position now seems to be that autism is a complex set of disorders with many genetic and environmental contributions. Congratulations – that is what scientists have been saying for years.
The story of the giraffe’s neck is a classic of high school biology textbooks. For this reason everyone “knows” that giraffes evolved longer necks in order to reach the leaves at the top of trees. However, this has never been clearly established and the real story is much more complex. There is, in fact, an enduring controversy over exactly what factors lead to the elongation of the giraffe neck, highlighted by a recent study examining one hypothesis – sexual selection.
But before we get to that study, some background on giraffe necks.
The most obvious feature of the giraffe is its long neck. For some reason the evolution of the giraffe neck became the standard example in textbooks. Stephen J. Gould did a survey of biology textbooks and found that 100% used giraffe evolution as the example to distinguish Lamarckian evolution from Darwinian evolution (which itself is based upon a misconception of Lamarck’s career, but that’s another story). Meanwhile, Darwin did not use the giraffe’s neck as an example of natural selection, and regarded it as a speculative “just so” story.
Since Darwin there has been speculation and controversy over the evolution of the giraffe’s neck, but never any consensus. There is therefore a stark contrast between the scientific reality and the textbook fiction regarding giraffe evolution – but what’s new.
The standard (textbook, that is) story is that ancestral giraffes were selected for longer necks because that enabled them to reach leaves higher up in trees than other animals. Therefore in times of scarcity they would have access to food that other animals could not access, and this conferred a survival advantage. There is nothing wrong with this story, and it likely holds a kernel of truth. There is simply no evidence to support this particular selective pressure, and there are plausible competing hypotheses. Unfortunately the giraffe fossil record is sparse, so we cannot turn to fossil evidence to settle the question.
It is true that the giraffe’s reach does give them access to leaves in tall acacia trees. It also gives them access to leaves deep within trees. However, giraffes also feed off low bushes by bending their neck, and they do not show any preference for high or deep leaves during the dry season when food is scarce. So at least at present the long neck does not seem to be a significant hedge against starvation.
An alternate hypothesis is that the long neck evolved in response to the evolution of long legs, which themselves evolved for some other reason, such as speed in evading prey. Giraffes cannot support themselves with their knees bent. In order to drink water on the groun they must splay their forelegs (with knees straight) and then use their long necks to reach the ground. Therefore it is possible that necked elongate simply to keep up with the growing limbs.
Other hypotheses include the increase in skin surface areas for cooling, and increased head height to keep a better eye on predators
There are numerous ways in which thought processes go astray, leading us to false conclusions, even persistent delusions. Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.
Science itself is a set of methods for avoiding or minimizing errors in observation, memory, and analysis. Our instincts cannot be trusted, so we need to keep them in check with objective outcome measures, systematic observation, and rigid control of variables. In fact bias has a way of creeping into any observation and exerting powerful if subtle effects, leading to the need to completely blind scientific experiments. Good scientists have learned not to trust even themselves.
One of the most common and insidious bits of cognitive self-deception is the process of anomaly hunting. A true anomaly is something that cannot be explained by our current model of nature – it doesn’t fit into existing theories. Anomalies are therefore very useful to scientific inquiry because they point to new knowledge, the potential to deepen or extend existing theories.
For example, the orbit of Mercury could not be explained by Newtownian mechanics – it was a true anomaly. It and other anomalies hinted at the fact that Newton’s laws of motion were incomplete in a fundamental way. This recognition eventually lead to Einstein’s revolution of relativity theory.
Pseudoscientists – those pretending to do science (maybe even sincerely believing they are doing science) but who get the process profoundly wrong, use anomalies in a different way. They often engage it what we call anomaly hunting – looking for apparent anomalies. They are not, however, looking for clues to a deeper understanding of reality. They are often hunting for anomalies in service to the overarching pseudoscientific process of reverse engineering scientific conclusions.
What this means is that pseudoscience almost always works backwards – that is its primary malfunction, starting with a desired conclusion and then looking for evidence and twisting logic to support that conclusion.
With regard to anomalies the logic often works like this: “If my pet theory is true then when I look at the data I will find anomalies.” The unstated major premise of this logic is that if their pet theory were not true then they would not find anomalies. This is naive, however. Another component of this line of argument is the broad definition of anomaly.