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UFOlogists besmirch Sagan, then Galileo

Posted in Bad Astronomy by Skepdude on October 23, 2008

A. J. Gevaerd, the editor of “Brazilian UFO Magazine” is what I would charitably call a crank. He once interviewed a guy in his magazine who claimed that Jesus is tied up in the UFO phenomenon — of course! — along with other things that would make my head all asplodey to write about.

A few months ago, he wanted to start a new research center to study UFOs, called the Carl Sagan Institute.

Now, I will give you a moment to make comical head-shaking noises and wipe your ears out with your fingers. Yes, he wanted to name his pseudoscientific center after Carl Sagan, one of the leading and most vocal critics of the UFO phenomenon.

Now, you might say to yourself, “Maybe Gevaerd will be critical and apply Sagan’s skepticism to the study of UFOs.” Hope springs eternal! But then there is the inevitable fall, you realize, remembering that whole Jesus-returning-in-a-UFO thing above. Yeah. Oh, and in Gevaerd’s own words:

Many think that Sagan passed away without knowing the result of his search … But that is far from the truth. Sagan had a close relationship with north-american governmental agencies dedicated to the UFO phenomenon investigation, and even Joseph Allen Hynek, considered the father of Modern Ufology, guaranteed that Sagan had a profound knowledge about the alien presence on Earth.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “BAD ASTRONOMY”

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Galileo, Semmelweis, and YOU!

Posted in Denialism by Skepdude on August 11, 2008

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “DENIALISM”

To wear the mantle of Galileo, it is not enough to be persecuted: you must also be right.
–Robert Park

I used to spend a lot of time on the websites of Joe Mercola and Gary Null, the most influential medical cranks of the internets (to call them “quacks” would imply that they are real doctors, but bad ones—I will no longer dignify them with the title of “quack”). I’ve kept away from them for a while in the interest of preserving my sanity. Unfortunately, Orac reminded me this week of the level searingly stupid and dangerous idiocy presented by these woo-meisters.

In light of this, it seems reasonable to reexamine the Galileo gambit. When a “discoverer” of some new medical “miracle” is dismissed by the medical establishment, they often invoke the ghosts of Galileo and of Ignaz Semmelweis.

Galileo and Semmelweis are a pair of historical figures that share a common story—they both made significant scientific discoveries, documented the evidence for them, and were reviled by certain authorities, but eventually honored.

Ideas are cheap. I believe that my idea to use a flow sheet to track my diabetics’ care leads to better outcomes. I have precisely NO evidence to prove this, but it doesn’t harm me or my patients, and there is at least peripheral evidence elsewhere that this is a good idea. There is also a plausible hypothesis behind this—if I have one piece of paper that contains the critical data for a diabetic, I can see right away if their blood pressure or cholesterol are above optimal levels, I can see what their weight is doing, and I can see if they have engaged in proper preventative care, such as eye and foot exams. There is also a small body of data to support the practice. It would not surprise me if someone studies this in the future and finds my method lacking, especially vs. electronic health records. When necessary, I’ll happily modify my practice in a way that benefits my patients.

Let me summarize the characteristics of a “good” clinical science thinking, in this context (no, I’m not gonna go all Popper on y’all):

    Relevance: an idea should bear directly on a real clinical problem
    Testability: it should be possible to test the idea to see if it has merit (this includes Popperian falsifiability).
    Plausibility: the idea should have some basis in reality and should not have been birthed de novo from between someone’s buttocks. It should not require a “suspension of disbelief” or “open-mindedness”.
    Abandonability: the poser of the question should be willing to abandon the idea if it is proved false. Moving the goal posts, invoking a conspiracy, or any other deus ex machina is never necessary for a good idea.
    Modifiability: an idea can be rationally modified and retested if it may still contain a kernel of truth despite failing one or another tests. Any idea that is held so tightly that reality must be modified to fit the idea should be highly suspect.

There is an enormous literature on what constitutes science, etc. This is just a little guide to reading on quackery, crankery, and other idiocy.

When you encounter possible medical crankery, a couple of questions to ask yourself are “cui bono“: who benefits? Is the answer “patients”, “medical science”, or “one dude with a P.O. box”?

The other question is, “where’s the evidence?” (remember, no conspiracy theories or you violate Pal’s Law).

Or, as Dawkins so acerbically put it:

If you are in possession of this revolutionary secret of science, why not prove it and be hailed as the new Newton? Of course, we know the answer. You can’t do it. You are a fake.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE ORIGINAL ENTRY AT “DENIALISM”