Archive for the ‘skepticism’ Category
Hello from the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, venue of The Amaz!ng Meeting 8! For the next four days I will be covering the event by providing daily summaries of all talks attended. Also representing Woo Fighters are Barbara Drescher and (thanks to a generous last-minute sponsor) Matthew Newton, taking part in what should be a mentally stimulating, invigorating, and highly enjoyable convention.
I want to express my deepest gratitude to those who donated in support of Woo Fighters and allowed for us to take part in this great opportunity. Your gracious donations are enabling me to gain firsthand experience in being a part of the critical thinking community, which will provide inspiration and understanding that will fuel endeavors in the promotion and application of critical thinking. I also would like to thank those who spent time and energy in getting the word out about our request for donations – your actions are worth a great deal and are greatly appreciated. Thank you for the support, everyone!
There is a wealth of information about TAM available online. Those who are interested in keeping up with the convention should check out the following:
Skepticality Speaking Beyond BS – To be broadcast live on Ustream (link to be included as it is available)
As for my presentation summaries, programming runs through the evening so updates should be posted in the later evening or early the following morning. I am honored to be taking part in TAM 8 and am very eager to pass the information on, so stay tuned!
The details are covered very well by Orac, who says:
The favored laboratory of anti-vaccine practitioners and the “autism biomed” movement, a commercial laboratory known as Doctor’s Data is suing Steve Barrett, the man who maintains the excellent resource Quackwatch, for criticism Dr. Barrett leveled against it, criticism that Doctor’s Data richly deserved (in my opinion, of course).
Fighting these battles is extremely expensive and no legal defense funds exist for grassroots activists. Please blog about this to raise awareness and donate what you can to Quackwatch to help Dr. Barrett defend his right (and our rights) to tell the truth.
Here’s a mini run-down of the woo-logic that is to follow, straight from the self-proclaimed soyologist, Jim Rutz:
- Soy is very popular today.
- When soy is consumed, estrogen rises within your system.
- Elevated estrogen levels feminize you.
- Gay men are feminine.
- Pregnant women who eat a surplus of soy are feminizing their male fetuses.
- Male babies who admit to being gay later in life that are born from soy-eating mamas need to realize that it was from the soy.
- The rise of homosexuality is due to the rise of soy popularity.
How’s that for a well-developed proof of causality? According to Mr. Rutz’s “logic,” I bet if we ban soy from society, the homosexual population will die off completely and evolve out of our gene-pool; what a novel and effective solution! Let us delve into the “facts” that he gives us and dispel them, shall we?
Okay, we can go on and on about the soy and estrogen levels debate, but that is not the delicious, non-soy “meat” of this article. There is hard science out there that is currently debating the merits and dangers of soy-intake and hormone levels. I am certainly not a chemist or biologist, so I will leave it to them to dissect my edamame and decide if it should still be served at my favorite sushi restaurant or banned by the US Department of Health and Human Services. What bothers me most is the outrageous title of his article, Soy is making kids gay.
After he starts his article with claims that could sound somewhat credible regarding soy and estrogen levels, he completely loses me with this paragraph:
Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That’s why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today’s rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products. (Most babies are bottle-fed during some part of their infancy, and one-fourth of them are getting soy milk!) Homosexuals often argue that their homosexuality is inborn because ‘I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t homosexual.’ No, homosexuality is always deviant. But now many of them can truthfully say that they can’t remember a time when excess estrogen wasn’t influencing them.”
Excuse me? Soy commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality? Where is the journal publication on that one, because I would love to read it. Since when does estrogen-increase cause homosexuality? And does that mean that gay men have smaller penises than straight men? I have some friends that would beg to differ, but I digress…
If Rutz wants to argue that homosexuality is directly related to estrogen levels, here’s a nice scientifically-validated review he should probably read: Sex, Cells, and Same-Sex Desire: The Biology of Sexual Preference. According to this review, there has been no reliable conclusion that estrogen levels are related to determining sexual orientation. Even more recently, there have been contradicting studies that relay differing results on the degree of testosterone levels in both types of men. Brodie, Gartrell, et al (1974) concludes that testosterone levels in gay men are higher than in heterosexual men. However, Starka, Sipova & Hynie (1975) asserts the opposite to be true.
And how does his statement of homosexuality always being “deviant” tie in to any of his previous arguments? That statement makes no contextual sense whatsoever.
Furthermore, I would also like to know where he got his statistics of homosexuality being on the rise today; I doubt he takes into consideration the notion that more homosexuals may feel comfortable with “coming out,” in our progressive society today, and therefore it may seem like there are more homosexuals now than ever before.
There is just way too much here for me to argue against and I probably should not have bothered in the first place considering his credentials stem from a non-scientific background. After all, his biography touts that he is the Founder/Chairman of Open Church Ministries, an adjunct professor at Covenant Bible Institute and a copywriter in the field of investment and alternative health.
Honestly, if I would have first checked his credentials, perhaps I wouldn’t have wasted my time blasting this guy, but rather just giggled and clicked the “x” button on my browser. But the bothersome part of this article is that it comes up on Google as a self-proclaimed scientific notion, and common folk may take it as such. That is what concerns me; and that is why I felt obliged to dispel his grandiose and ill-informed statements. Now let’s hope that my blog comes up within the same search for “soy” and “gay.”
In related news, here’s a great video clip from the award-winning documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So,” discussing the nature of homosexuality and its common misconceptions. Interestingly, a study is referenced that could be considered to be in Jim Rutz’s favor regarding hormones and fetal development. Take a look for yourself and tell me what you decide:
Brodie HK, Gartrell N, Doering C, & Rhue T (1974). Plasma testosterone levels in heterosexual and homosexual men. The American journal of psychiatry, 131 (1), 82-3 PMID: 4808435
Cecco, J. P., & Parker, D. A. (1995). Sex, cells, and same-sex desire: the biology of sexual preference. Part II. Journal of homosexuality, 28 (3-4), 215-446 PMID: 7560927
Starka, L., Sipova, I., & Hynie, J. (1975). Plasma testosterone in male transsexuals and homosexuals Journal of Sex Research, 11 (2), 134-138 DOI: 10.1080/00224497509550886
*Some editing and language added by Barbara A. Drescher
Some people promote theories and treatments that they claim to be scientific, but are not. On this website, we often refer to such dubious claims as “woo” or pseudoscience. These often troublesome theories and treatments are widely advertised on the internet, on TV, and in the psychology or self-help sections of commercial book stores. But because some material in these venues is legitimate, it is important to know how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.
Here we provide a useful toolkit which can be used to identify pseudoscience. The following warning signs are just a rough guide and should be used with some care, because the distinction between science and pseudoscience is rarely clear-cut. Nevertheless, the more warning signs, the more suspicious of a claim you should be.
Warning signs that something is not scientific:
- It cannot be tested.
Pseudoscience is often either impossible to test or excuses are made which keep it from being tested.
In some cases, when evidence does not support the claim, instead of abandoning their ideas, pseudoscientists add conditions to their theories or explain away the evidence so that it is impossible to test the claim empirically. For example, a psychic who cannot demonstrate mind reading or other psychic feats under carefully controlled conditions in the laboratory might claim that “the skeptical vibes of experimenters” are blocking his or her psychic powers. Such an excuse makes the claim untestable.
In other cases, pseudoscientific theories cannot be tested right from the start.
- The basic theory does not change in response to evidence.
Genuine science adapts and updates its theories in response to new evidence, especially refuting evidence. In contrast, pseudoscience tends to maintain its initial claims and instead dismisses or ignores counter-evidence.
- The claimants avoid peer review or other outside verification.
Peer review is the checking of scientific-journal articles by other scientists. Although it is by no means perfect, peer review is an effective, if slow, safeguard against human error. Pseudoscientists tend to avoid close scrutiny. In many cases, their descriptions of procedures and mechanisms are vague and the terms they use are undefined (e.g., “energy”). In other cases they may claim that “orthodox science” conspires against them.
- They only look for evidence which confirms their hypothesis.
In science, studies are designed to disprove hypotheses, not to confirm them. This is because confirming evidence cannot tell us if the hypothesis is always true or if we have simply not seen a case in which it is false. For example, we could test the hypothesis that all birds fly by dropping birds from a bridge. We would confirm our hypothesis many times over, but we would not discover that it was wrong unless we happened to drop a chicken, penguin, or ostrich.
Scientists look for evidence that their theories are false. Pseudoscientists, however, often look only for evidence which supports their beliefs.
- The claimant insists that their theory is accurate because it has not been proven wrong.
Pseudoscientists typically say that it up to critics to disprove their claims, and until they do they should hold firmly to their beliefs. However, the burden of proof is on those making the claim.
- The claim defies what established science has told us about the world.
Pseudoscientists often claim to have discovered a completely new way of looking at the world, one which requires existing scientific knowledge to be tossed out. For example, “psychic surgeons” claim to remove tumors from a patient’s abdomen without cutting the skin. This is considered an extraordinary claim as it defies the laws of nature as we know them. Such claims require extraordinary evidence.
- The claimants attempt to persuade using anecdotes.
Pseudoscientists tend to rely on evidence that is testimonial – engaging and vivid personal stories. These stories are often touching and persuasive. Although such testimonies may be useful starting points in the early stages of scientific study, they rarely provide enough evidence to accept a claim. That’s because they are often difficult to verify, unrepresentative of people’s experiences, and open to alternative explanations that pseudoscientists haven’t considered.
- The claimants use confusing and inappropriate scientific-sounding jargon to persuade.
Pseudoscientists sometimes use jargon which hides the lack of substance in their claims. Scientific or highly technical words are used to impress the reader and make it look like science. Technical or scientific terms are often used out of context. For example, the claim that a product regulates the flow of ions in the body is a misuse of the term “ion”, which refers to states of a molecule, not something that flows in the body.
- The claim has no limits.
In science, theories are specific and treatments have limits. In contrast, pseudoscientists often claim that their theory or treatment applies to just about everything. For example, sham treatments for ADHD also claim to treat or even cure autism, learning disabilities, and other behavioral disorders even though these disorders are completely different in nature and have different causes.
- The claimant rejects counter-evidence from specific testing because it is not “holistic”.
“Holistic” is often used to mean “treating the whole person.” Buyer-beware if “holistic” is used in such a way as to explain away unfavorable results, or to undermine the value of testing specific parts of the treatment or theory.
Note: These warning signs were adapted from Lilienfeld, Lynn, and Lohr (2003, pp. 5-10).
Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., & Lohr, J.M. (2003). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology: Initial thoughts, reflections and considerations In S.O. Lilienfeld, S.J. Lynn, & J.M. Lohr (Eds.), Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, 1-38
This has been a very difficult post to write.
You see, I have been skeptical about the skepticism movement’s ability to inch forward at a faster rate than we slide backward. Frankly, I have many concerns about the current community that I hope to address at my blog in the near future. Mostly, I worry that the work is neglected as it is overshadowed by the community itself. Given the benchmark of more than $1500 in 8 hours I discussed in my original post, this was a test of how enthusiastic people are about moving the cause forward.
So, did you pass? Well, I guess that depends on how you look at it. I have mixed feelings myself.
First Things First
Thank you. Thank you to everyone who retweeted, shared, or blogged about this effort. I cannot tell you how much those gestures mean to me and these students. I am fully aware that many people are barely able, if at all, to afford the trip themselves and the support you gave by sharing links and in every other way was extremely valuable.
To those who were able to donate, I will thank you so often that you will be sick of hearing about it.
In two weeks, we raised $670, not including a donation from me. That will send a Woo Fighter to TAM8.
Bigfoot will not be at the meeting, but a Woo Fighter will. The donations will cover the conference registration and hotel room with a little bit left over for meals. What it does not cover will be added to my donation, which covers website hosting and some significant materials to help the members raise funds on their own for next year (super-secret stuff, mostly, but I have already hinted at a few things if you are paying attention).
Most of these donations were made in the first week and I declared the first goal met. Christos was very, very excited and all of the plans were made.
Then, this morning, Christos received some sad news which prompted him to arrange travel Greece to be with his family for a while. He was grateful to the donors and concerned that the efforts would be wasted, but I assured him that even this close to TAM there were Woo Fighters who would be both excited and able to take his place. I am extremely happy to announce that Dylan Keenberg will be attending and, to show his gratitude, has committed to blog as much about his experiences as possible.
Please introduce yourself if you see him. He really does look a lot like Penn Jillette when he dresses in a suit and ties his hair back.
Well, $670 is nothing to sneeze at and it is sending a very worthy student to a conference at which he will gain valuable knowledge and experience that I am certain will be put to good use. He will meet many great people, make some friends, and be inspired.
As promised, I will help, inspire, and nag him to submit a proposal to present next year.
The mixed feelings I have are related to those left behind, but they have more to do with the distribution of the donations. What I had hoped for was that the hordes of people who read blogs, participate in discussions, attend meetings like TAM, and identify with the movement, but do not tend to be active in outreach, would donate a few dollars each – small donations in large numbers that I believe make up the bulk of what is collected when money is thrown together quickly for a specific purpose. If the masses had responded this way, I would be thrilled with the nickels and dimes and the votes of confidence that came with them. That is not at all what happened.
I think that for that kind of fund raising, the plea needs to be shared, retweeted, or reposted by someone with an insanely large readership, such as PZ Myers or Phil Plait. Nothing like that happened. It seems that Woo Fighters is not yet on their radar or perhaps they donot find it a worthy cause to promote. Whatever the reason, we did not see the volume of hits that would be needed for anything remotely like Jen McCreight’s effort.
$670 came from 11 people.
It should be clear that most of them were quite large.
I did not get permission to name names (I neglected to ask), but I will name two people who have publicly acknowledged their donations in blog posts about the drive. In addition to a very generous donation, Kylie Sturgess devoted two entire posts to this effort, mentioned it repeatedly, and is probably responsible for the surprising proportion of donations from Australia. Heidi Anderson, of She Thought also devoted a post to it and made a sizeable donation. These are two of the most selfless people I know, although neither would characterize themselves as such. I am very proud to call these women friends.
I am disappointed in the community in general because these wonderful nods – the donations and the promotions – came almost exclusively from people like Kylie and Heidi, who have already devoted all of their spare time – and much of their not-so-spare time – to the cause. They work hard, not to promote themselves, but to promote the cause, the work. They are engaged in real outreach, real education in critical thinking. They do their part already.
And yet, it is exactly these people, the ones who do the work, who know best what the movement needs. It is the opinions of these people which matter most to me. So their approval is priceless. It tells me that we (the movement) are indeed on the right track, whether the hordes understand what that track is or not.
I hope that each of these 11 people will tune into the blog during and after TAM8 for Dylan’s updates and be pleased with what they have done. I am.
The first post written for the Woo Fighters website was written by Barbara Drescher, and it was titled “My Inspiration for Woo Fighters“. What it was is just that, an explanation from start to finish of how she became interested in skepticism. What was described was a very deliberate path of events which led to the current day. Now, alongside with ICBS Everywhere and many panel appearances, she has brought together the Woo Fighters, a collection of approximately half a dozen students interested in skepticism.
A good exercise in life, not just for skepticism but for anything, is to take great interest in people’s motivations. Not just what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. What’s of particular interest to me is the “why” of why people become involved with skepticism. I’m assuming most of us are trying to spread the tenets of skepticism, and realizing why people get involved in the first place is to the advantage of all of us. I had a friend who began to participate in a lot of cancer research fundraising, and when I asked him why, he told me that his mother had recently gotten cancer. Most people involved in any type of activity have a strong connection to whatever they’re doing, in one way or another.
So I started looking at people who are “doing good” for skepticism. It was interesting to read in Why People Believe Weird Things that popular author Michael Shermer was a fundamentalist Christian long before he arrived at where he is today. A lot of people would see fundamental Christianity as incompatible with skepticism, and it would only seem as if Dr. Shermer did as well. Brian Dunning describes his earlier days on the internet attempting (unsuccessfully) to start intelligent discourse on various message boards. It’s a little harder to dig up the origin stories for people like Phil Plait or Steven Novella, but it seems clear that at some point everyone was pushed in the direction of skepticism, and for it has contributed very much.
So what makes them, and you, different from everyone else? When you see a video on something like The Sprinkler Rainbow Conspiracy, what makes some of us laugh, some of us sweat in terror of Barack Obama, and some of us “head to the blogs” to try to teach people that this isn’t right? Is skepticism a “get ‘em while they’re young” kind of deal, something inherent in our personalities, or what? The good people involved are here “because it happened to me”, now for people to reach this point I need to know exactly what “it” is.
HowLifeWorks.com, a website whose title assumes omniscience, allows one to discover within its health & beauty section that perhaps your hair washing habits are a waste of time, and that the effectiveness of your current shampoo brand’s molecules are sub-par at best. The sponsor of this advice, Kronos Hair Care (who strategically does not show up until the very end of this advertisement disguised as a scientific article) claims that current shampoos on the market are constructed in such a way that does not allow for the “large” shampoo molecules to penetrate our tiny hair cells and follicles. In essence, says they, we are washing all the nutrients (and our money) down the shower drain. Kronos claims that in order for us to have nutritious hair, the nutrients must get to the very roots for it to be any good and to “think about it this way—if you wanted to fertilize a plant, where would you pour the fertilizer? On the leaves? Of course not! You’d pour the fertilizer on the root and the soil where it’s needed most.”
This piqued my curiosity. Am I wasting my money on my organic green-tea mint, for color-treated hair, delicious-smelling shampoo? My hair seems rather healthy, but maybe it is a pure coincidence. Had I not ever used shampoo, but rather Dawn dish soap my whole hairy-headed life, maybe my hair would still look as averagely-luscious as it does today! So let us find out, does shampoo actually clean and nourish our hair?
According to renowned chemist Joe Schwarz, Ph.D, there is sufficient molecular evidence to support that shampoo and its molecules (although no mention of their supposed “largeness”) do a fine job of cleaning hair. But that’s where the blonde or brunette buck stops. We can get our hair clean, but since our hair is essentially dead protein, there is no zombifying or resurrecting-nutrient in this world that will bring our hair back to life again. Want to read his take on the matter via Washington Post? Check it out: Secrets of Shampoo.
Later on in this article–er, advertisement, Kronos claims to have results that “boost hair volume and body by an unprecedented 96%; increase hair hydration by 91%; improve luster and shine by 96%; reduce split ends and breakage by 96%.” Can one actually measure hair luster and shine? Where are they getting these percentages? Do they have special Luster Quality Assessors (aka LQAs) that compare one set of locks to the other in some special machine perhaps nicknamed Luster Lucy 3000? Now I am curious . . . . (after Googling for a few seconds) . . . Lo and behold, I have, at the very least found this: Development of a device to measure human hair luster. Well, I’ll be darned! However, I have yet to see any of Krono’s “results” published alongside their data set and/or methods. If they did use a Luster Lucy 3000, however, they may be onto something.
Now, whether or not Dawn dish soap or cow manure would do a similar job could prove to be an interesting experiment on its own, but one I would rather not try on my own hair. After all, Dr. Schwarcz bluntly expresses the rather morbid truth of our hair’s deadness; so why waste money on fancy shampoos that promise to essentially add nutrients to a mass of death on top of our skulls? Perhaps I am a slave to marketing and all the pretty packaging it presents, but for now I will stick with the pomegranate-scented, lather-laden stuff.
Everyone has their own beliefs about the world, whether they be about the existence of God, a correct stance on abortion, or what best product to clean a kitchen table. Some of these beliefs are grounded in knowledge and reached through critical thought, while others stem from an extensive list of biases originating from the physical and mental pasts of our brains. As it sometimes happens, beliefs reached via the latter pathway can be untrue, and even have a chance to do damage. One major goal of skeptics, of “Woo Fighters”, is to teach critical thought so much of this needless damage never occurs. But what damage are we causing with our critical thought?
This past Cinco de Mayo I visited Olvera Street, a historical part of Los Angeles. To celebrate this day each year events are held, music is played, food is served, and dozens of temporary shops open in between buildings to take advantage of tourists. If you go into one of these shops, you’re done, because you’ve already seen everything the other shops have to offer. While I was there I took a few pictures of some items I found interesting. The first of note is a book titled 1001 Dreams, which claims that symbols and objects in any person’s dream represent objective meanings. And for the low low price of whatever this book cost, you can use this information to become rich or fall in love or something.
If that’s not your thing, you can purchase magical candles. The one to our left claims to release “dis-ease” with universal healing energies. It’s also tall and purple, so it’s probably more likely to look ugly than cure cancer. Or maybe you would like a candle in money green, one capable of “the money I need, the universe will send, opening the path to wealth without end.” We could use some money right now, maybe we should get some of those. Or you can simply buy one of the pink candles for love. If you decide to buy one of these products, you’re probably not going to unlock the secrets of the universe, become rich, or fall in love. But you’re probably not going to kill anyone either. You’ll just be out a few dollars, and that’s just a matter of opinion. Maybe that dream book has some really cool pictures inside, you don’t know. But what am I missing out on, what are we missing out on by making fun of what these products promise to offer?
Maybe quite a bit. In a recent paper titled Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance, researchers found that the “inconsequential creations of irrational minds” were actually quite consequential. I don’t want to bore you with the details, or maybe I want you to read the article, but the gist of their conclusion was that good-luck superstitions people hold have tangible benefits over a lack thereof on the performance of many tasks. So these “useless products” might actually help. This small fact is no reason to abandon the spread of critical thinking through current and future generations, however, it is important to have a strong understanding of why many people do not think critically, and fall into cognitive traps. These strange beliefs subsist because they are not useless to us at all.
But wait, before you go!
For the last half of June, The Woo Fighters are raising money to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Many have already contributed, and any donations towards sending the next generation of skeptics to TAM8 are wildly appreciated. Thanks!