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Skepticism: A Double-Edged Sword? A Philosophical View

Blinded by the truth by Lorraine Daley

After a long day of working as a slave/intern at a prestigious university on the other side of the country, I came home to my summer sublet, plopped down on my rented bed and called my mother. The usual small-talk ensued, recounting my long day of data coding and having to walk miles in the humidity due to my car-less summer situation. With every day that passes, I feel tremendously more educated, skilled, tired and accomplished; so why do I feel so utterly dumb and fraudulent sometimes? I blame my mom (and, mom, if you’re reading this, I promise this will turn out to be a compliment if you just keep reading instead of gasping from shock while instantaneously shooting me an angry text message).

My mother and I have a genuinely supportive and balanced relationship. We share an abundantly inquisitive and ever-questioning nature, but where I primarily defer to science for explanations, she will often rest within faith. I am not necessarily referring to religion, although that can be regarded within this context. What I am talking about here is the on-going battle between skeptics (question everything) versus believers (accept some unexplainable things and move on). This conversation betwixt my mother and me somehow moved towards discussing clutter in the home or workspace. She was quick to reference Feng Shui and how firmly she believes that she cannot be happy in an area where the furniture, colors and light are not arranged to her liking. Being the skeptic, I started to laugh it off and retorted with, “Are you sure it’s Feng Shui and not just the idea that you’re an interior designer that designates your happiness with a place?” I tried bestowing upon her the pseudo-science of Feng Shui and even though she listened to me earnestly, her response was something along the lines of, “Well, whatever, Feng Shui or not, I know that when my place is arranged just so, I am much happier. And if my place is cluttered, my mind is cluttered.” I stopped arguing. Why would I argue with her on that, when she has already decided it is so, and if it makes her happy? Why should I try to show my mother that her happiness more than likely stems from some other causal nature? I was satisfied that my mom was able to find a way for her to analogize her happiness via Feng Shui if that’s what makes her feel good. Besides, I cannot earnestly say that I disagree with her.

Here’s where my belief-system comes out to play: I believe we must choose our battles. We must know when to question and when to stop questioning. I believe the question we really need answered is to decide our ultimate desire: Truth or Happiness? I refer to the two as being mutually exclusive because if either are “ultimates”, it appears to me we cannot have both. If we yearn for Truth, then we risk never being truly happy, because we will not be pleased by every answer we seek; with every Truth comes beauty and/or despair. If our ultimate desire is Happiness, we risk not ever knowing the Truth because we might rather turn a blind eye to answers that may not please us. Who hasn’t heard the phrase “ignorance is bliss?” What do you think? Given the choice between happiness or truth, what would you choose (although I am quite certain of most of your answers considering the biased reader sample of this site)? Do you think we can truly have both?

I am proud of my skepticism and I doubt I will ever stop questioning, but I have begun to know when it is best to hang up the critic’s coat and when to leave it on. If the end result of some pseudo-scientific claim is seeing a loved-one’s smiling face, I don’t understand why I would try to take that away from them. If their specific belief isn’t hurting anyone–and that essentially could be the vital argument against beliefs–I would rather shut my mouth and respectfully bask in their faith-driven happiness; perhaps even share that faith and enjoy the quiet repose it brings with it.

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Warning Signs That Something is Not Scientific

*Some editing and language added by Barbara A. Drescher

Some people promote theories and treatments that they claim to be scientific, but are not. ResearchBlogging.orgOn 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

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“Because It Happened to Me”

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.

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Science Education? No, it’s time for fat education.

This “skepticism stuff” is largely about teaching people to think critically and intelligently, under the assumption that doing so will improve the length and quality of all of our lives. Skepticism is indeed a process, and why I think it’s great and essential for us to spread it far and wide, maybe we’re aiming too high. Providing competent medical care to children and shaping the mental workings of future generations are all well and good, but you’d really have to be an optimist to think we’re ready to begin at that level.

So let’s start a bit lower. Have you ever read the comments sections provided under news articles posted on websites for news agencies such as CNN and NBC? It’s definitely an experience. They’re often so bad, someone actually wrote a script that transforms particularly bad YouTube comments into Richard Feynmann quotes.

Some of my favorite bizarre things to read are posted by what I can only describe as “fat denialists”. That is, these people are suspicious of science’s “opinion” that being overweight is unhealthy. Realize I’m not saying that everyone has to be skinny to be beautiful, or that to be “hollywood skinny” is even genetically attainable for the hardest of dieters and exercises. I’m talking about people who view scientists professing the unhealthiness of high calorie and sedentary lifestyles as enemies of humanity.

There are two locations I’m drawing the following comments from, the first being an article about caskets made specifically for the overweight, the second being a promotional video for a new ABC Summer program titled “HUGE” (I’m not even making that up).

The mistrust is pretty rampant here:

I would tell people go with the weight that makes you feel good and not let these know-nothing-and-I-have-a-degree-to-prove-it doctors from telling you other wise…

It is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT to love yourself for who you are on the INSIDE than who you are on the outside. I plan on being large for the rest of my life just to prove that to people.

There is nothing worng with being HUGE but there is something wrong about not loving yourself enough to take care of yourself

The assumption that average weight individuals must be unhappy, and that being large and “living life to the fullest” are equivalent statements are probably the worst pieces of rhetoric here. I don’t even need to link you to a bunch of journal articles to show you that being overweight is bad for you. In fact, along with smoking it’s the greatest cause of death in the United States. And all the top causes of death in the US share one characteristic: “preventable”.

These fat denialists are a growing community whose continued existence is being actively encouraged. I don’t see how we can promote more advanced forms of personal responsibility in light of the failures of such basic ones.

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The Detrimental Effects of Critical Thinking

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?

Dreams

"1001 Dreams" Book

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.

Healing

Candles with the power to heal!

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.

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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!

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A Brief Introduction to Youth Perception of the Skeptic Community: Something’s not quite right.

What does science mean to skepticism? A large portion of the individuals involved in spreading information and awareness about skepticism come from academia and possess advanced degrees. Even our organization, The Woo Fighters, defines its members as “defenders of science”. The terms “scientist” and “skeptic” can be used almost interchangeably, with scientists seeking to make conclusions based on evidence as freely as possible from human biases, and skeptics seeking to emulate that same thought process.

The advent of the popularity of online blogging has given skeptic organizations a large amount of flexibility when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of skepticism. From these articles, some individuals from the growing audience of readers are recruited to the scientific school of thought. But what are they really being recruited to, what do they believe they’re a part of, and how does this affect the public’s overall perception of skepticism?

As affirmed by several reputable sources, skepticism is a methodology for gaining knowledge through critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. And that’s it. The definition of this word can never go beyond that point, and if you try to add any qualifiers you’ve already gone against what you hold most dear. Even if languages are living, breathing things, the process of skepticism is in the method, not the word. If this is supposed to be what skepticism means, what are new skeptics being exposed to?

One important thing to note is that online skeptic communities draw a younger crowd than they did before the popularity of the internet. The Woo Fighters are currently a group of twenty-something students, and I wasn’t even alive before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re talking young, young people who may not even be aware of Carl Sagan’s first use of the term “scientific skepticism”, or early groups such as the James Randi Educational Foundation. What we start with is what we believe science to be, and what we learn about skepticism is what we find available on the internet.

So what is the information we start with? Pop science! 3-2-1 Contact was a bit before my time, but Bill Nye the Science Guy was just perfect. It even has “science” in its title, so you know it must be legit. Stephen Hawking and his Brief History of Time is practically the face of what it means to be a brilliant thinker in the eyes of the public (although there are of course others who are idolized in rather amazing ways). As I alluded to before, promoters of skeptic thought tend to be people who highly value the pursuit of knowledge. And this is where we’re coming from as children. A new, younger generation, who may or may not try to define skepticism in the image of what they believe it to be.

And what are we finding? If you type “Science Blogs” into Google, your first hit is going to be P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula, and while it’s only a personal blog, it’s still one of most admired and linked to blogs by many skeptics. If you search for “Skeptic Blogs”, you’ll find yourself at Skepticblog, a collaboration of many different authors such as Brian Dunning, Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, and countless others. There are even skeptical blogs written almost entirely by women, such as SheThought and Skepchick. These blogs are all directly related to one another in the material and events they choose to cover. There are of course hundreds of more blogs relating to skepticism not mentioned here. I need only to focus on a small number involved in skeptical “current events” to illustrate my point:

The definition of skepticism is elegantly simple, yet there are so many organizations in conflict. Why are some skeptics angry about P.Z. Myers’ recent leaps of logic? Why does the previous blog even exist? Why did the Skepchick community recently fragment, aren’t they all fighting to promote the same skepticism? Not all, but many skeptic organizations have become exclusive communities, all fighting for their very own version of critical thought, their own version of the singular definition of skepticism.

The young, burgeoning skeptic grew up with an idea of what it meant to be a scientist, learns what it means to be a skeptic, and finds that something isn’t quite right. The skeptic community is in conflict with itself, completely obscuring even the most basic idea of why many came together in the first place. Separate skeptic organizations exist not as mutually beneficial groups (as they should), but as factions. And this is what we see, and this is what we’re taught skepticism to be, and this is what we become. Everyone can’t be right, so who is?

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