Cork Skeptics

Promoting Reason, Science & Critical Thinking in Cork City & Beyond

Great skeptical battlefields

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Terracotta Warrior (via Mike Stenhouse/ Flickr / CC Licensed)

One of the great things about skepticism is its diversity. There is a skeptical angle in so many areas of human interest. All you need to do is look under the cover of the marketing and you are bound to find some strange ideas hanging around. Consequently, skeptics are interested in all sorts of things, ranging from ghosts, to conspiracy theories, to alternative medicine, to UFOs; as well as the psychology, the history, and the philosophy that accompany such strange and bizarre thinking.

It can be easy to dismiss skepticism as purely a fascination with exotic and extreme ideas, but there is also a very serious side to skepticism. It’s one of the reasons why there is a skeptical movement in the first place. The world of delusional belief sometimes clashes with the world of reality in a way that can cause real casualties.

Here is a brief list of some of these battlegrounds for skepticism. The list below is by no means exhaustive. You may wish to add some of your own. It’s sometimes the case that even the most innocuous delusion can have serious consequences when brought to an extreme.

Anti-Vaccination

Although arguments against vaccines are as old as vaccines themselves, a concerted effort to challenge their use took shape in the 1990’s, when Andrew Wakefield published his findings in the Lancet, a well respected medical journal. Wakefield asserted a link between the childhood MMR vaccine and the onset of autistic spectrum disorders. Although his findings were subsequently found to be fraudulent and the paper withdrawn, the cat was out of the bag. The paper gave impetus to a wide variety of people who preferred to believe in a simple cause for autism, rather than the complex reasons uncovered by researchers. Celebrities such as Carol Vorderman, Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher have been to the fore of the vaccine denial movement while websites such as the Age of Autism link vaccines to all sorts of other disorders. The result has been a drop in vaccination, particularly in the UK, France and the US. Consequent with this is a rise in viral illnesses such as whooping cough and measles. While most children recover from these illnesses, a small percentage are seriously affected, with children dying in some cases. Vaccine denial has consequences to public health because some people – very young babies and people with compromised immune systems – depend on herd immunity to keep them safe from these diseases. A large number of follow up studies have been performed, none of which found a link between vaccines and childhood autism. The relative safety of vaccines has been shown in multiple further studies. The war simmers on, however, with anti-vaccine proponents taking more extreme and conspiratorial viewpoints as their evidence base is undermined.

Creationism

Creationism is a belief that God designed all creatures on the planet to a plan and that species are immutable. More extreme (yet commonly held) creationist beliefs assert that the world is just 6,000 years old and that the Earth and everything on it was formed by God in literally seven days. This bizarre view flies in the face of evolutionary biology and a host of other scientific disciplines. To convinced creationists, evolution is cast as a godless nihilistic belief in dire conflict with the Bible. Although not particularly a problem in most of Europe (Turkey being a notable exception), battles continues to arise in areas where well-funded Christian or Islamic fundamentalists have a strong political influence. Successive attempts have been made in the US to permit creationism, or one of its many variants, to be taught in public schools.  Most of these attempts have been rejected by various US courts and grassroots skeptical opposition. The issue is important, because it exposes the lengths to which powerfully connected religious organisations will go to interfere with science education and science policy if it conflicts with their dogmas.

Alternative Medicine

Alternative Medicine (a.k.a. Alt-Med, Integrative Medicine and Complementary and Alternative Medicine [CAM]) is a hugely diverse area with many supporters and acolytes. It encompasses a large body of therapies and putative cures where there is either insufficient scientific evidence to establish their efficacy, or where the available science has shown them to be ineffective. Examples of Alt-Med include Chiropractic, Osteopathy, Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Anthroposophy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chelation Therapy and Kinesthesiology to mention just a few. Although much Alt-Med predates modern medicine, it has experienced a come-back over the past few decades. This is, in some ways, a reaction to the systemisation of organised medicine and the inevitable side-effects or downsides of some medical procedures. With little objective evidence available to back up their claims, proponents liberally quote testimonials and anecdotes, antiquity and popularity as proof of effectiveness. Most Alt-Med therapies are promoted as completely safe, which is unsurprising as most of them are mere placebo. Apart from the fact that many Alt-Med proponents make wild, unsubstantiated claims to promote their remedies, there are some serious issues concerning its promotion and use. Alternative Medicine can needlessly prolong suffering. Irresponsible Alt-Med practitioners have, on occasion, dissuaded patients from more beneficial medical therapies. Alt-Med acolytes have been to the fore in preventing useful and necessary medical therapies from being implemented in places where they are badly needed, a harrowing example being the proliferation of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa (see below).

Global Warming Denial

Scientists have known for a century that an increase in carbon dioxide can cause an increase in heat absorption in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, a convincing case for warming, and particularly man-made warming, has taken a long time to establish. Warming on a planetary scale is a slow and complex process, so a vast amount of data needs to be collected over decades. Even in the last 100 years, Earth’s temperature has fluctuated greatly, but the underlying trend is unmistakeable. Multiple lines of evidence point to a warming trend that can’t fully be explained through natural factors such as the sun, but which correlate very well with mankind’s increasing demand for fossil fuels. It used to be that global warming and climate change was a relatively uncontroversial part of the sciences. Due to recent international reports and agreements, it is now highly polarised and politicised, despite the fact that the great majority of climate scientists have become convinced by the scientific data now available. Climate scientists have been vilified by certain sections of the media while propaganda services, masquerading as independent think-tanks, receive massive funding from vested interests to cast doubt on the global warming findings. The tactics being used by deniers are almost identical to creationists, and tobacco illness deniers before them. Global Warming denial has become a statement of faith amongst the US Republican party, pitting science against ideology. Given the entrenched views, it could be decades before the issue is resolved: time that could be better used translating the scientific findings into useful action.

HIV/AIDS denial

AIDS is one of the great scourges of our age. Caused by a fast-mutating virus with a long incubation period, it is a very difficult disease to control and manage. Left untreated, it is almost always deadly.  According to the World Health Organisation, over 25 million people have died from the pandemic. Fortunately, anti-retroviral drugs have been developed that contain the illness, often offering many years of extra life to people infected with HIV. Despite this, AIDS researchers and activists have been engaged in a long battle with people who claim that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. These HIV deniers scored their biggest successes in South Africa, where, despite the epidemic growing to alarming proportions within the population, the Mbeki government refused to sanction or support anti-retroviral treatment for the illness. Given solid scientific and international support, HIV denialism has diminished as a major issue, with some of its more prominent supporters moving on to other fields of research.

Witch Hunting

Witch hunting is based on a belief that certain people are using magical powers or indulging in occult rituals in order to disrupt society. Accused people, blamed for everything from crop failure to illnesses or unexpected deaths, may be persecuted, ostracised, injured and sometimes killed – all because of a shared delusion among the community. As it is a “guilty until proven innocent” form of indictment, it can be enormously difficult for accused people to clear their name. Although widespread witch hunting disappeared from most societies many centuries ago, it continues to make its presence felt in some areas of the world. In the last decade, childrenalbinos and elderly people have been targeted as witches in Africa, often with tragic and fatal consequences. Similar stories have emerged in IndiaSaudi Arabia and the UK.

Cancer Quackery

While we could lump it in with the rest of Alt-Med, cancer quackery deserves its own special place on this list. Cancer remains one of the greatest problems besetting humanity in this century. Although there has been some progress over the last 40 years in the fight against cancer, far too many people have had their lives cut short by it, or, more precisely, the many different afflictions collectively labeled as cancer. No-one is immune: from leading cancer doctors, to pharmaceutical executives, to cancer quacks themselves; belying the main contention of the alternative cancer cure lobby that somehow an elite group are keeping the best stuff to themselves. Cancer quacks prey on the most vulnerable people, often demanding huge fees, while providing no convincing evidence of efficacy. While it is understandable that people in such situations will be willing to try almost anything, often the only long term “positive” outcome is the enrichment of charlatans. Cancer, along with many diseases that are difficult to cure, is an enormous challenge for medical research. The doctors, researchers and specialists simply haven’t yet figured out how to treat and cure many of these diseases. The trouble is, neither have the quacks. They are just better at pretending they do, and they have lucrative financial incentives.

Psychic Counselling

Psychics – people who claim to have supernatural knowledge or powers – come in many shapes and sizes. Psychics have made tidy fortunes through one-to-one counselling, as psychic performers in front of large audiences, or more recently through lucrative phone services. Psychics claim abilities that have never been verified through independent, objective testing. The techniques used are identical to mentalists, yet mentalists never claim to have psychic abilities. It’s easy to dismiss this as part of the normal patchwork of modern life, but in practice, psychics are often dealing with people who may be at a low ebb in their lives, or dealing with traumatic issues such as bereavement, illness or a relationship breakdown. They may benefit more, in the long run, from counselling by properly qualified professionals using evidence based techniques. Psychic counselling shares similar issues with alternative medicine in that there is a strong risk that valuable time is lost consulting psychics when potentially more fruitful avenues could have been used, or that psychics, convinced of their own powers, actively dissuade clients from other treatment options. There is a long list of people who have been manipulated and defrauded by psychics, or provided with information that has subsequently turned out to be utterly untrue.

9 thoughts on “Great skeptical battlefields

  1. I think you should at least address the fact that most “climate change denialists” describe themselves as “sceptics”. At the very least, this indicates that there are different ways of understanding what’s meant by “scepticism”. It seems to me that this really has to be addressed by anyone who professes an interest in “scepticism”.

    Many distinct ways of thinking have been called “sceptical”. There have been Cartesian sceptics, Humean sceptics, and others. I accept that some of these ways of thinking (such as Cartesian scepticism) were powered by quite immodest and extravagant theoretical assumptions, the very opposite of what most of us would associate with a “sceptical” frame of mind.

    But they all involve the withholding of belief. To call a particular variety of belief-withholding “denial” – and your opposed non-withholding “scepticism” – seems like an abuse of language, if not an attempt at some sort of linguistic conjuring trick!

    • Obviously there are some semantics involved: you can after all be sceptical of anything. Here’s the meaning of scepticism or skepticism as I see it: there is a great burden of proof built up on a particular side of the subject from the available scientific data. Enough at least to provide a strong degree of consensus among the people who understand the science and the issues involved. Scepticism becomes denial if the evidence is continuing to build up, but no matter what the scientists say, they are wrong, they are all in it together, and no amount of information from the scientists will convince you. I’m interested now. What would convince you?

      • That is a good definition of skepticism, and denial is an extreme form of skepticism. Sounds right.

        This definition reminds me of the small groups of people in Europe centuries ago who decided to not beleive in God, at least as the church defined it then. At that time the Church provided the science and it had a strong degree of consensus among its scientists (Priests) about the science and the issues involved. They would send in crusaders to slaughter these unarmed non-believer heretics in their homes. They did this because it was the consenus that non-believers would bring the wrath of God on all people everywhere, and so they needed to be slaughtered.

        It was regrettable of course, but it had to be done to save the planet if you will.

        Sound familier?

  2. Here’s the meaning of scepticism or skepticism as I see it: there is a great burden of proof built up on a particular side of the subject from the available scientific data. Enough at least to provide a strong degree of consensus among the people who understand the science and the issues involved.

    The trouble is, much the same might have been said (and probably was said) by phrenologists (or the like) in the nineteenth century. Their opponents, who regarded phrenology as a pseudo-science, didn’t count phrenologists as scientists, nor their “data” as any sort of evidence at all. It didn’t matter how much consensus there might have been among phrenologists, nor how much it seemed to phrenologists that a great burden of proof was mounting up on their own side, because their opponents thought the whole methodology of phrenology was flawed.

    Scepticism becomes denial if the evidence is continuing to build up, but no matter what the scientists say, they are wrong, they are all in it together, and no amount of information from the scientists will convince you.

    Well, I agree it’s reasonable to say that anyone who denies the obvious is “in denial”. But there are many areas of human thought in which we can’t observe things directly. I’m thinking of the great variety of “theoretical” opinions people can have, both good and the bad – in science, religion, pseudo-science, politics, economics, what have you. Nothing is obvious in these areas, and if someone withholds belief in one of them he is not denying the obvious, but genuinely being sceptical. His scepticism might be silly, misguided or worse – there are some crazy kinds of scepticism – but it still counts as a form of scepticism.

    In the nineteenth century, those who thought phrenology was a pseudo-science did not think that the evidence for it was “continuing to build up”. That must have been very frustrating to phrenologists, and their claims about evidence would have been frustrating to the opponents of phrenology. Each side looked unreasonably “deeply entrenched” to the other side, because they counted different things as sound scientific methodology and as evidence.

    I’m interested now. What would convince you?

    I’d be convinced of practically anything as long as it started out as an honest, reasonably simple explanatory hypothesis, and was later found to pass some real tests. I wouldn’t mind if computer models were used to derive the hypothesis’s consequences so that it could be tested. But I withhold belief when models are used as an alternative to observational testing, or when “data” do not result from observational tests, but are used instead as the starting point for “data-fitting”.

    By the way, various claims are made about climate change, and I actually do believe many of them. For example, I believe in the greenhouse effect. I believe that there has been considerable warming. But I don’t think the warming has been “monotonic” enough for us to say with any confidence that greenhouse gases have been solely responsible, and the effects of water vapour are unclear. Solar variability has been neglected. The main claims I withhold belief from are about “catastrophe”. These claims are made by people who have no “inside knowledge” of catastrophe. They don’t have any such knowledge, because no one has it. Furthermore, to my understanding they don’t seem to fully grasp evolutionary theory or how human technology develops over the course of history.

    • Apologies for the delayed reply; I’ve been up the walls with work over the last 2 days. The fact that I am writing this after midnight might explain the brevity of my reply.

      I’m not convinced you can make a strong parallel with phrenology – an obvious pseudoscience to us today – as the implicit assumption is that phrenology and climate science are equivalent and that scientists of today have no better tools to critically evaluate phrenology today as they would have had back then. Quite clearly science has moved on, and the standards of evidence required today are pretty stringent. Obviously if I was making a purely “ad populem” argument that “they all believe this, therefore they must be right”, I could rightly be shot down in flames, but it’s not just this. The methods that modern climate scientists use must pass muster from a scientific perspective, both among their peers, in addressing their critics, and within wider society. You could of course get a “science progresses by funeral” paradigm in operation, but it normally results in quite a clear split between two scientific camps with the old boys on one side, and the young guns on the other, pointing out the large holes in their orthodoxy. I’m not sure we’re seeing this. It’s pretty heavily in favour of global warming because the many trained eyes that have looked at the evidence have almost all reached the same conclusion.

      I get where you are coming from with the denialist argument, and I would agree that people coming into this issue can be, and should be seen as sceptical in the proper sense of the word when taking the issue on board. There is however another element to denialism where there are people steeped in the issue over a long period, who have had all their main arguments demolished, yet despite this, continue to hold the party line. They are impervious to the idea that they may possibly be wrong. It’s not denial in the sense of denying the obvious, it’s denial in the sense of holding on to an idea, even when your main arguments have been debunked thoroughly. Denial is a kind of irrationalism. Obviousness may be applicable to some arguments, but not to all. Evolution might not necessarily be obvious to all, but evolution denial most certainly exists.

      Not that I am an expert on this (I am an expert on few things and even those few things that I might be an expert on are not all that obvious to me), but it strikes me that there are at least 2 aspects to climate science: the observational data gained from multiple sources of evidence (ice-cores, tree-rings etc), and the models looking into the future. The observational analysis is seeing warming that can’t fully be accounted by the usual explanations, but which is accounted by the increase in fossil fuel use. No models required for this – would it be fair to call it a kind of accounting exercise? The models are developed by applying the best understanding of the physics of the atmosphere to past and future scenarios and seeing how they develop and correlate. Certainly, while this is not necessarily an invalid approach, it might be a lot more up for debate, requiring a lot of critical commentary. You might make some bad assumptions in your model, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the observational conclusions are all wrong because of it.

      I am also a bit peeved by catastrophism as a sole basis for saying that something is true (the stridency has a lot to do with why many people were turned away from global warming over the years), but from what I see, that’s not how many of the scientists are actually addressing the issue. From what I see, scientists are a very cautious lot, couching many of their conclusions in disclaimers and explaining the context and limitations of their views. They normally don’t make bald or bold statements if the evidence is not sufficiently robust. I think we need to separate these two approaches.

  3. I’m not convinced you can make a strong parallel with phrenology

    Sorry if my analogy between phrenology and climate science was unfair. I didn’t mean to load the dice in my favour so much as illustrate a more general point: when two radically different ways of understanding a “rigorous” discipline come into conflict, appealing to its rigour or to consensus among its practitioners simply can’t cut any ice with the other side.

    For example, if 99% of biologists (say) agree that humans are descended from fish, that won’t sway Creationists one little bit. If 99% of rabbis (say) agree that God exists, that won’t sway agnostics one little bit. Nor does it matter how rigorous either discipline may be. We have to roll up our sleeves and go deeper, to the nature of evidence, to what makes for decent methodology, and so on.

    I deliberately chose phrenology because it was hotly contested in its time, as climate science is today, and strange as it may sound, some of its central guiding ideas were perfectly OK: it assumed materialism, that the mind is inextricably bound up with “what the brain is doing”, that the brain employs physically localized “modules” and so on. But it wasn’t really explanatory, and it couldn’t really predict anything.

    Analogously, the greenhouse effect is perfectly OK as a central guiding idea: there definitely is a good case for saying more CO2 entails more warming. But other factors have to be taken into account: the greater the concentration of a greenhouse gas, the smaller the cumulative effect of successive units. And there are complicated, poorly-understood “feedback” effects, both positive and negative.

    Worst of all, no generation of humans has ever been able to say what life would be like in 100 years’ time. Our ability to foretell the future has only got worse with the advance of technology and the acceleration of change. The people who seem to have been “least bad” at it are science fiction writers, imaginative people who know a bit of history and a bit of popular science, rather than people who are familiar with a very narrow area largely unrelated to human flourishing (or its opposite).

    Quite clearly science has moved on, and the standards of evidence required today are pretty stringent.

    I’d say those standards are significantly worse, although – actually, precisely because – superficially they seem more rigorous. They’re worse because the essential reliance of science on hypothesis is disguised, and the subsequent necessity of testing tends to be ignored. The appearance of rigour often takes the place of explanation, or predictive power.

    Why is reliance on hypothesis disguised? – I’d say the main culprit here is rigour in statistical methods. There is no question that the mathematics of modern statistics is rigorous. The question is: Does it give use decent reasons to believe its results? I’d say for the most part No. Most of these methods were “conceived in sin” by involving mere extrapolation from samples. I have no problem with statistical methods that start off with an honest (but very uncertain) guess and then test the guess by comparing it to observed samples. What I can’t accept is the “noting of a correlation” in a sample followed by extrapolation to the entire population, without any regard for whether that sample is genuinely representative of the population. This is the ultimate source of endless garbage in newspapers about coffee/wine causing/preventing cancer/Alzheimer’s.

    Sorry to keep on about this, and no need to reply if you’re busy, it’s because I find these issues endlessly fascinating. Your blog is an excellent information resource and source of intellectual stimulation. Thanks!

    • I think there is a better analogy than phrenology, and that might be evolution. For many decades, evolution has remained a widely accepted theory among scientists despite the fact that it was more observational than experimental. One of the reasons for widespread acceptance was many multiple, independent lines of evidence all pointing in the same direction. So, in order to disprove evolution – say you found a fossil rabbit in a Cambrian layer – you would still also need to find great fault in all of the other lines of evidence that point in the same direction; something Creationists don’t quite get. Evolution, of course, is also bolstered by experimental studies, including a ground-breaking experiment on E-Coli in Michigan State University a few years ago.

      So, if you base ideas on global warming on one set of studies – the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere alone, then fine. It’s open for criticism, analysis and everything else. But if there are many lines of observation, then it gets trickier. If you are basing your ideas on one mathematical model using one set of mathematical assumptions, I agree, it’s open season. But if other models, using different, but nevertheless valid, assumptions, looking at completely different things, also seem to point in the same direction, then it might be worth sitting up and paying attention. Where climate science is at, to my understanding, is far beyond the “lets extrapolate this simple study to everyone, everywhere”. It has had to be opened up to far more data-points, incorporating far more sophistication – feedback cycles and albedos and what have you – in order to see if the original hypotheses break down when greater detail is applied. The thing is: they don’t. Like evolution, the original hypotheses might have required modifications as a result of subsequent studies, but they still remain to be comprehensively disproved.

      One thing I get, though, is that there is a world of a distinction between “I don’t know” scepticism and “They are all lying” scepticism (i.e. denial). I can accept the “I don’t know” bit – it’s an honest statement, possibly requiring us all to get more up to speed with the research and the science. Maybe even after we do it, we still won’t know, but at least it’s a better class of not-knowing. What we see, however, are loads of people braying that anthropogenic global warming is not happening at all. How do they know that’s the case? If they are continuously adamant that climate scientists can’t predict the future, what gives them the certainty that their hypothesis is right instead? Do they have some climate model in their back pocket that no-one has heard of? That’s an intellectual road-block if ever I saw one. It’s a type of argument from ignorance: what they are saying is, if we can point out flaws in the scientific consensus, then our argument, by default, must be the correct one. I suspect from your writings that you tend to side more with the first camp on this.

  4. I think there is a better analogy than phrenology, and that might be evolution. For many decades, evolution has remained a widely accepted theory among scientists despite the fact that it was more observational than experimental.

    I’m not sure if experiment is necessary for genuine science – arguably astronomy does no experimentation (stars etc. being too big and far away to “do” anything with them). But observation is necessary, I agree, and that goes right to the heart of my complaint about climate science. I would argue that it has fundamentally misconceived the role of observation in science.

    Interesting that you rate climate science so highly! I’m assuming you have as positive an opinion as I do of evolutionary theory – I rate it as science’s highest achievement. So I’ll try to explain the difference as I see it using evolutionary theory as an example. As I see it, what makes evolutionary theory so brilliant is its stunning explanatory power. It explains so much, so well, that Daniel Dennett called it “universal acid”. And it suggests many fruitful new approaches in other areas (such as psychology and economics). It endlessly delivers the feeling of “the key turning in the lock”.

    Most explanation occurs when a hypothesis (about stuff we can’t observe directly) implies things we can observe directly – things that baffled us before, such as the peacock’s tail, or the ratio of the sexes in bees.

    That logical pattern – of hypotheses implying observable stuff – occurs in testing as well as explanation. A hypothesis is tested when it (plus some other assumptions) implies something that can be observed in the future. If that something actually is observed as predicted, the hypothesis passes the test. The difference between explanation and testing is: in the case of testing, no one had thought of making the observation before; in the case of explanation, observations had already been made, but they baffled us because they were “unexpected”. They didn’t “fit in” with what we already believed – in other words, we didn’t have a decent reason to expect them, because we couldn’t think of anything reasonably simple that implied them.

    In evolutionary theory (and I would argue in all respectable sciences) the hypotheses are not “based” on the observations, but the other way around: the hypotheses tell us what we should be able to observe, and if we do actually observe what the hypotheses say we should observe, then the hypotheses are corroborated. To put it as a simple slogan: “theories imply observations; observations do not imply theories”.

    But if we look at climate science, I think we see that pattern reversed: instead of hypotheses implying observations, we see observations (or something like them – “proxies”) implying theory (or something like them – models). These models are constructed ad hoc and repeatedly fine-tuned to fit the observations. That’s the wrong way round, and that’s the main reason climate science looks wonky to me, and very unlike evolutionary theory.

  5. There is nothing Skeptical about the Cork Skeptics.

    It is a misnomer. It should be called the Cork Orthodoxy Society.

    Consensus in Science is an Oxymoron. There isn’t even a consensus regarding global warming being of a man made origin although we hear lots of nonsense political propaganda saying there is.

    Ultimately AGW is a not validated and the steps taken to supposedly control it is nothing more than racketeering.

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