Archive for the ‘Skepticism’ Category

The collapse of society that H1N1 brought (oh wait, it didn’t)

January 23, 2010

Going into the fall and winter flu season, the concern in the popular media was what the scope of the H1N1 flu virus would be.  Would it be like previous H1N1 or Avian flu worries, which proved to be ultimately exaggerated, or would this be the time that we’d all be glad for our vaccines?

Amongst conspiracy theorists, however, there was a far more serious allegation being put forward.  What you heard depended, of course, on who you asked, but I had a rather extensive debate with a few different people who argued the following:

1) The H1N1 virus was created by “Big Pharma;”

2) The virus was being transmitted via the vaccines;

3) The vaccines would spread the sickness far and wide, resulting in drastic death and illness across the world;

4) This outbreak would give world governments (in particular, for some reason, the US) an opportunity to quarantine its citizens in “internment camps” that, according to folks like Alex Jones, were popping up everywhere just in time, including mass orders of body bags to process the deceased;

5) The combination of mass internment and mass illness would give the New World Order the opportunity its been waiting for: a chance to overtly wield its power over the world and eliminate our freedoms once and for all.

My argument was very simple: the vaccines were created to respond to a predicted mutation of H1N1; they used ingredients that had a history of success (in the case of the adjuvants used in Canadian vaccines, they had been used in Europe for over ten years); and that the risk of contracting H1N1 greatly outweighed the risk of getting the vaccine.

This last argument in particular has been vindicated.  Though there was no mass H1N1 outbreak (“news” groups like Prison Planet are celebrating the return of millions of vaccinations), it is even more telling that there hasn’t been a sudden rise in illness associated with the vaccination, and there has been no coup of our liberties.  The beauty of conspiracy theories is that you can always come up with post-hoc explanations: the New World Order has decided to bide it’s time and will wait for another opportunity.  One has to wonder, though: if the New World Order exerts all of this power covertly, what reason would they have to ever be overt in their takeover?  According to some conspiracy theorists, they’ve already been controlling our media, our government, our economy, our schools, our science labs, for decades; surely that’s satisfactory enough.

Meanwhile, as Robert Nelsen argues for Forbes, some 14,000 lives were lost as a result of H1N1.  Conspiracy theorists will no doubt engage in endless debate about what really killed these people (epidemiology is not always easy), but I’m waiting for a good number on how many died from the vaccine.  As far as I can tell, the doomsday predictions have failed to come to fruition.  Then again, that fits right in with the pattern of history.

The trouble continues in Uganda

January 11, 2010

About a month ago, I reported the law suit against Leo Igwe for attempting to derail the practice of religiously-supported witch burning in Nigeria.  Unfortunately, Nigeria is not the only place that superstition and a belief in supernatural religious practice has led to the untimely demise of many seemingly innocent people.

Newstime Africa reports that a Ugandan government official has acknowledged that child sacrifices have been on the rise.  Where we normally see these sorts of extreme tactics negatively correlated with welfare, we see the opposite in this case: because the sacrifice of children is supposed to lead to greater financial success, those who are doing well personally are even more committed to sacrificing children as, by their view, they’re receiving confirming evidence.

Human sacrifice is on the increase in Uganda according to a government spokesman. This barbaric crime is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly. Witch doctors claim they have clients who regularly capture children and bring their blood and body parts to be consumed by spirits. One witch doctor confessed for the first time to having murdered about 70 people, including his own son.

This continues the trend of limited critical thinking skills being demonstrated even at the highest levels of Ugandan society, following in the wake of proposed legislation to make being gay and HIV positive a crime worthy of the death penalty (legislation designed, in large part, by “The Family”, a US consortium of Christian politicians).

Religious Superstition taken to the extreme in Africa

December 5, 2009

For about 6 months now, the Center for Inquiry has been battling against a practice that seems rather archaic here in North America: witch burning.  Led by Norm Allen, the executive director of African Americans for Humanism for CFI, there has been a growth in skepticism, particularly amongst the youth communities.

News comes today, however, of a law suit against CFI’s Nigerian representative, Leo Igwe.  In particular:

The suit, scheduled for a hearing on Dec.17, is seeking an injunction preventing Igwe and other humanist groups from holding seminars or workshops aimed at raising consciousness about the dangers associated with the religious belief in witchcraft. The suit aims to erect a legal barrier against rationalist or humanist groups who might criticize, denounce or otherwise interfere with their practice of Christianity and their “deliverance” of people supposedly suffering from possession of an “evil or witchcraft spirit.” The suit also seeks to prevent law enforcement from arresting or detaining any member of the Liberty Gospel Church for performing or engaging in what they say are constitutionally protected religious activities. These activities include the burning of three children, ages 3 through 6, with fire and hot water, as reported by James Ibor of the Basic Rights Counsel in Nigeria on August 24, 2009. The parents believed their children were witches.

Hopefully the law suit will be laughed out of court.  Religious superstition should not be permitted to override a human’s right to live, and kudos goes to CFI for their continued battle in often hostile environments to spread science and reason to those who need it most.

Deepak Chopra: “Skeptics trust in nothing”

December 2, 2009

The Huffington Post is a paper that I came across quite a bit in 2008.  Though it had many interesting articles during the 2008 US Election, it’s leftish slant still left a lot to be desired.  In particular, the Huffington Post has run articles and op-eds supporting a lot of junk medicine, including homeopathy and the anti-vaccination perspective.  So it was no surprise when they published an article where Deepak Chopra, a true master of “woo,” complained about how skeptics are, in essence, pathetic nihilists who’ve never been ahead of the curve.

First, it stands to reason that Deepak Chopra has a very rational reason why he dislikes skeptics: Chopra firmly believes in the New Age mystic principle of what he calls “Quantum Healing.”  Put simply, it says that the mind can heal the body.  Take no need of any medicine; you have all that you need sloshing around in your skull.  Chopra makes use of the randomness seen in Quantum Mechanics at the sub-atomic level to suggest that there is also something going on between the mind and the body which is beyond our senses.  Touting this principle has led to a fair amount of success for Chopra, who gets his fair share of recognition for his philosophical outlook.  The only catch: there is, of course, no evidence for such a thing.

It is here where the rubber meets the road.  Skeptics such as myself pride themselves in a certain standard of evidence; anyone who ignores claims with significant supporting evidence is adhering to it dogmatically, and something certainly frowned upon within the skeptic community.  Indeed, the skeptic who acknowledges strong evidence quickly is the strongest of the bunch.  Chopra, though, sees things quite differently:

It never occurs to skeptics that a sense of wonder is paramount, even for scientists. Especially for scientists. Einstein insisted, in fact, that no great discovery can be made without a sense of awe before the mysteries of the universe. Skeptics know in advance — or think they know — what right thought is. Right thought is materialistic, statistical, data-driven, and always, always, conformist. Wrong thought is imaginative, provisional, often fantastic, and no respecter of fixed beliefs.

Here I think Chopra is heading down the completely wrong path.  Practical skeptics embrace the wonder of science, and have reverence and wonder for that which is unknown.  Our sense of awe is fully engaged by the natural, empirical world without ascribing it to something undemonstrated; it is enough for me to look into the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and feel an incredible sense of unity and solidarity simultaneously.  When I look into the sky, I see my connection to the universe and find it unfathomable in a way Carl Sagan might have described: I’m but a mote of dust in the wind, yet I’m made of the same starry stuff that everything else is.  There is real awe in such a moment which need not be answered by mystical claims.  I think, on the other hand, it is perfectly sufficient to give a natural account of what we know, and remain humbled by our ignorance of that which we don’t know.

Contrary to Chopra’s assertion, skeptics do not think they know in advance what right thought is: they simply believe what the strongest evidence indicates.  When the evidence changes to support a different opinion or hypothesis, the skeptic community goes along with it.  As an example, I think here of the large number of skeptics who came to accept Global Warming due to a preponderence of evidence in support of it.  Interestingly enough, the recent emails leaked from the Climate Research Unit in the UK are sparking new arguments in the skeptic community about the validity of Global Warming.  So clearly, skeptics are open to new ways of thinking about things and are, in this particular case, very non-conformist.

The problem here is not one of being ideologically driven; it is a question of standards of evidence.  By all means, a skeptic will accept a principle like quantum healing, but you must be able to demonstrate such a thing.  It is only by providing positive evidence for our claims that we are able to deduce the real from the non-real.  An idea that is wonderfully imaginative is only useful if it advances our understanding of the way the world really works; whether it is the product of fantasy or not is irrelevant.  So here comes the final blow from Chopra:

So whenever I find myself labeled the emperor of woo-woo, I pull out the poison dart and offer thanks that wrong thinking has gotten us so far. Thirty years ago no right-thinking physician accepted the mind-body connection as a valid, powerful mode of treatment. Today, no right-thinking physician (or very few) would trace physical illness to sickness of the soul, or accept that the body is a creation of consciousness, or tell a patient to change the expression of his genes. But soon these forms of wrong thinking will lose their stigma, despite the best efforts of those professional stigmatizers, the skeptics.

I hope it is immediately clear how flawed such an argument was.  Chopra feels that if he can just show one instance where people thought wrongly in the past, it can support his assertion that people are thinking wrongly now.  Yet this method of equivocation is invalid here, since there are two separate claims.  The reason physicians came to accept that the mind played a role in treatment (noticeably the placebo effect) was because the preponderence of evidence supported such an assertion.  Case studies were put forth in medical and psychological journals that showed the relationship between a positive outlook and positive outcomes.  Of course, the evidence didn’t demonstrate that one could be healed just by having the right state of mind, but that doesn’t stop Chopra.  No, it is we skeptics who hold evidence in the highest regard that are of wrong thought.  If only we would stop subjecting his ideas to the same burden of proof that allows us to ensure the highest degree of reliability in our personal beliefs, we’d get to the same “ahead of the curve” type of thinking that Chopra is espousing.

By all means, skeptics will ride the wave at the front of the curve side-by-side with Chopra, but we’ll wait until we’ve got good, reliable reasons to do so first.  It is in that which we trust: that the best evidence will ultimately rise to the top, and by proportioning our beliefs to the amount of evidence that supports them, we can be reasonably sure that our actions are justified.

The Value of Skepticism

November 27, 2009

When we look at the whole of human history, there is no doubt that we can find a plethora of beliefs that were held by a majority which proved themselves to be false upon closer inspection.  I think here of some very obvious examples: that the Sun went round the Earth, that illnesses could be relieved by bloodletting, or that enslaving another human being was a moral action.  In recent history, claims of paranormal or supernatural experience, dubious claims of alternative medicine, or even simple things like a fear of going into the basement, should give us pause to wonder if the beliefs on which we are taking our actions are reasonably true.  I doubt very seriously that any reasonable person wants to take an action that is unjustified, and I am sure you are in agreement when I say that we want to believe things because we have our own reasons for believing them, rather than accepting those ideas that are passed on to us by our social environment without critical analysis.

The best way to accomplish these two goals is to apply critical thinking and skepticism to all claims put forth.  Here I think of the 17th Century French philosopher René Descartes, who brought about a revival in skepticism when he sought to establish truths in life that were indubitable; that is, ideas that could not be doubted.  Though I think in practice we need not subscribe to a form of radical skepticism that would leave us in a state of complete lack of knowledge (a state of epistemological darkness), I think the best way to ascertain truth is to withhold assenting to a claim until we have been presented with supporting arguments or evidence that we consider sufficient.

This question of sufficiency is a tough one to answer, as it relies on a subjective view of what constitutes as good evidence, and the grey area between certain knowledge and complete lack of knowledge leaves a lot of room for each of us to determine what is sufficient for us to believe.  Still, I think there are tools we can use to prevent ourselves from being deceived by other people and our own internal biases and psychological make-up.

Namely, I think understanding what constitutes good science and what constitutes good reason will allow us to separate the wheat from the chaff.  When assessing arguments, it is important to be able to identify logical fallacies and poor evidence.  If we can use these tools to determine what arguments are good and what arguments are poor, we can proportion our beliefs to the evidence and reason that warrants such a belief.  By doing so, we can be relatively confident that our beliefs are our own, that they are reasonably true, and that any action we take based on those beliefs is justified and rational.