Skeptical Thinking


I have often said, Faithful Acowlytes, in my many long rants, that if someone provided evidence of some daft contentious claim or other I would, like any good scientest and skeptic, be completely prepared change my mind.

It appears that today is that day.

You may remember my post Hunting Unicorns, in which I talked about my personal path to my current rationalist and skeptical view of the world, and in which I stated that if one wanted to prove the existence of unicorns, then all one need do, is provide the unicorn.

Time Magazine reports that North Korea has finally done so.

Yes, North Korea, a bastion of logical discourse in a world beset by superstition and irrationality, tells us that they have not only confirmed the location of the burial site of the unicorn ridden by King Dongmyeong, the founding father of the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, but that they have reconfirmed it!

The proof is unassailable: the unicorn grave site is indicated by a rock carved with the words ‘Unicorn Lair’. I mean, how much more does anyone want?

Also, Tetherd Cow researchers have uncovered a picture of North Korea’s current Glorious Leader riding a descendant of King Dongmyeong’s wondrous mystical steed:

Let’s see the skeptics refute that, right?

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Thanks Atlas!

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CERN, in Geneva, has been holding over the last few days a conference called ‘The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?’

Decoding this for you: it’s a convening of scientists and various religious commentators to attempt to find a way to square religion with the uncomfortable facts that science throws up to challenge it.

After pausing for just a moment to reflect on whether Betteridge’s Law should be applied to the conference title, let’s hear what the first speaker at the conference, Andrew Pinsent had on his mind according to BBC News Europe. Science, he said, risked:

“…trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

Of course, he does not really mean ‘philosophy’ here, because science has always engaged with philosophy, from the very earliest of Greek knowledge at least, and probably before that. No, he has lumped philosophy in there in order to stack it squarely on the side of religion and divorce it from science because he needs to do that to set up his argument. As is almost de rigeur for religious thinkers(i) these days, he starts by depicting science as a mechanical process devoid of any wonder or beauty, so that he can make those things the sole domain of religion; science will make us into machines, religion is the only chance we have to stay human.(ii)

Why do religious people think like this? It’s profoundly offensive for a person such as myself who has no religious belief to hear that I can’t, apparently, experience the world as anything other than cold mechanical processes. Does Mr Pinsent have no clue at all that by voicing this opinion he is saying ‘Those of us who hold religious beliefs are better than the rest of you’?

You can see that I am predisposed already to think that this CERN conference is likely to be a pile of horseshit. Mr Pinsent goes on:

‘Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas’

What a brainless pronouncement. This man is confusing science with industrial manufacture. Why is he speaking at a conference at CERN? What does he even mean by ‘science in isolation… [is] not so good for producing ideas’? Isolation from what? Its ideas maybe??? WTF?(iii)

Further down in the BBC article we hear from co-organiser of the conference Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, who said that the discovery of the Higgs particle:

… raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer.

Yeah, and you know what Canon Dr Wilton? The Anglican Church can’t answer them either. Nor can any other religion on the planet. Making up a story does not count as an answer.

Another of the speakers at the conference, Professor John Lennox from Oxford University, is on record as having taken Stephen Hawking to task for asserting that we do not need to entertain the idea of a ‘God’ setting the Universe in motion:

When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for ‘the blue touch paper’ to be lit to ‘set the universe going’, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?

Who lit the blue touch paper if not God? Oh, how about a rainbow-coloured unicorn, or a jolly green elf? They’re at least as plausible as candidates for holding the matches as the Christian God. The fact is, the beginnings of the Universe are shrouded in mystery. Mystery, as in ‘We don’t know – it’s a mystery’ not ‘It’s a mystery and therefore it’s the God (that I personally believe in) that was written about in an ancient book full of irrational beliefs!’ We’ve had other things that were shrouded in mystery in the past and they’re not now. Many of those things (the Earth-centered Universe; the order of life on Earth; lightning; the processes of human birth, of the cardiovascular system, of the brain; the giant fossil bones in river beds) were once mysteries, in just the same way as religion sees the beginning of the Universe now. It is a constrained mind that can’t make the equation here.(iv)

This kind of nutty religious noodling simply makes me furious. These people don’t want a serious philosophical debate, no matter how they may be couching it. Having a genuine philosophical discussion about these kinds of big questions might be of some value. Having a religious discussion is entirely worthless because they’ve already made up their mind that they know the answer.

Canon Dr Wilton sums up his hopes for the CERN conference by saying:

By the end… we might find new ways of understanding our own positions.

By which he means ‘I’m never going to change my mind, because I hold an irrational belief that can’t be swayed no matter what. But maybe I can get scientists to cut me some slack and stop being such a nuisance with their infernal ‘facts’.’

Canon Dr Wilton has no intention whatsoever of ‘finding a new way to understand his position’ – not in any meaningful way, in any case. Faced with a mystery, he just calls ‘God’ and that’s the end of it. That’s not how science works. Science is able to entertain the idea of a mystery without making a pronouncement. Or, science can contemplate the proposition that an old bloke with a white beard set things in motion. Or that it’s turtles all the way down. Or that we’re in someone else’s computer simulation.

The difference is that scientists just don’t merely presuppose one of those things and set about trying to convince everyone by talking it up. Science needs evidence, something religion is remarkably short on.

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Addendum: As I was writing this over the weekend, the BBC site published an update to the conference. It was refreshing to see, at last, some thoughts from an actual scientist – physicist and all-round sensible person Lawrence Krauss:

One gets the impression from a meeting like this that scientists care about God; they don’t. You can’t disprove the theory of God. The power of science is uncertainty. Everything is uncertain, but science can define that uncertainty. That’s why science makes progress and religion doesn’t.

Contrast that to this further waffle from the Professor John Lennox, who we heard from above:

If the atheists are right, the mind that does science… is the end product of a mindless unguided process.Now, if you knew your computer was the product of a mindless unguided process, you wouldn’t trust it.

I doubt Professor Lennox has even the faintest clue how utterly stupid a declaration like that sounds. It’s just another way of saying ‘But look at how amazing humans are! That can’t just be a product of evolution!’ Well, Professor Lennox, it can be and it is. Your lack of understanding of how things work does not, as I’ve said, imply the existence of a God, no matter how much mystery there is in the process.

Andrew Pinsent also features in the update, once again attempting to create a division between science and philosophy, as if scientists can’t be philosophers. Just look at his language – it is careful and insidious. Lawrence Krauss, by contrast, makes it clear that the issue here is science and religion, not philosophy. If you’ve read any of Krauss’s books, you will know that, like all good scientists, he’s no stranger to philosophy.

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Thanks to acce245 for throwing this one my way.

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Footnotes:

  1. I use the word advisedly, because I actually don’t believe many of these people really think. []
  2. Whatever ‘human’ actually means. We are now completely augmented by the science we have created. We are already ‘machines’. Maybe Mr Pinsent thinks we should go back to the pre-fire veldt. Oh wait, we were using tools even then. []
  3. I’ll allow that Mr Pinsent might have been quoted out of context here – it’s hard to tell in the BBC article. It goes on to tell us that Mr Pinsent says we ‘need to get back to the ideas of Einstein’ – as if somehow there are no great thinkers in science anymore. This is the comment of a person with a profound lack of knowledge of science and scientists. It’s a mark of people who want to seem like they’re talking knowledgably about science to refer to Albert Einstein – the only great scientist they know. Mr Pinsent, you might like to read up on some of the great modern ideas people of science: Richard Feynman; Roger Penrose; Geoffrey West; Stephen Hawking; Garret Lisi – oh, and I could go on for pages… But when you’ve finished, then tell me with any earnestness that science is no good for producing ideas. []
  4. And, aside from that – as I’ve written on these pages before – it is entirely possible that at some stage or another we might run up against the limits of human comprehension. There is nothing that says that we will necessarily be able to understand the Universe. This is no license to presuppose God, however. []

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Faithful Acowlytes! Have you put on a few pounds over the winter?(i) Has your flat stomach been Autocorrected into a flab stomach? Would you like your former Olive Oyl profile back once more? Well then friends, let me tell you all about the miraculous LifeChange Diet, featuring amazing ‘bioresonance’ drops! Yes, these wondrous drops in conjunction with ‘a strict low calorie/low GI diet’ just about guarantee that you’ll shed those unwanted kilos in no time.

But first, before we get too excited, we might examine the above magazine clipping (thoughtfully sent in by Cissy Strutt) with the TCA Bullshit Magnifier™ to see what it throws up.

First of all, you might be forgiven for thinking that popstar-cum-clotheshorse Carmen Electra has anything at all to do with the LifeChange Diet. She doesn’t. Well, not the LifeChange Diet being promoted in the text by Sydney naturopath Danielle Berends, anyway. But maybe that’s my mistake. The credit does say Carmel Electra, so perhaps it’s Carmen’s lesser known twin sister doing the promoting. You might also be forgiven for thinking that the drops Carmel is talking about have anything to do with the drops that Danielle is hawking. They don’t. At least, if they are the same product, they don’t make a big thing of it on the LifeChange Diet website, and probably for good reason: HCG Platinum Drops are not in the good books of the US Food & Drug Administration, who have found the drops to be in violation of numerous FDA standards and that ‘…there is no evidence that they are generally recognized as safe and effective for their intended uses.’

But hey, it’s not hard to accidentally put the wrong photo and caption on your text, right? Maybe these ones were meant to go on the story ‘Bogus Weight Loss Drugs promoted by Idiot Celebrity’ and there was a bit of a mixup. It’s easy to see how that could happen.

So, what then does the LifeChange Diet website have to say about these awesome homeopathic drops. Let’s look at the Bioresonance page (because we just know that’s gonna be good):

The LifeChange Diet combines an easy to follow structured diet program with bioresonance technology, in the form of specially formulated bioresonance drops.

But what is bioresonance technology? That’s a very common question.

Bioresonance technology was introduced by German scientists in the 1970’s. Its foundation is based around the body’s energy system.

In bioresonance therapy, the transmission and receipt of electromagnetic frequencies is used to identify and support your energetic status.

All the cells in your body emit and communicate via electromagnetic frequencies. In a healthy body, this communication is free and the body functions as it was designed to do.

Well, I agree that ‘What is bioresonance technology?’ is probably a common question from those hearing of this scheme. Indeed, I asked it myself, although it was more along the lines of ‘Jesus H Christ, what the fuck is bioresonance technology?’ But, the internets being right at our fingertips & all, it’s only a moment’s work to fire up our favourite Search™ engine and plug in ‘bioresonance’ and ‘German scientists’. The very first result we get is this Wikipedia(ii) article on ‘bioresonance therapy‘ which begins with the explanation that ‘Bioresonance therapy is a pseudo-scientific medical concept…’ I guess that wasn’t much of a surprise. Bioresonance was ‘discovered’ in 1977 by Franz Morell who, after seeing a Scientology E-Meter, created his own version of it, along with a whole heap of baloney to explain its supposed working mechanism. Needless to say this centers principally around the vagueness of concepts like ‘electromagnetic frequencies’ and ‘energy flow’ so beloved of woo peddlars across the globe, a club of whom we must consider LifeChange a card-carrying member.

Simply put, the wondrous drops that the LifeChange Diet promotes as part of its weight-loss scheme are nothing more than magic water. Yet again.

I guess you all saw it, right, at the beginning of this post? The diet promoted by this racket – ‘a strict low calorie/low GI’ food intake – by itself will guarantee that you lose weight. The magic drops are total bullshit, and I say these people know it.

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Footnotes:

  1. Antipodean seasons are in effect here on TCA. []
  2. Support Wikipedia! Donate! []

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While we’re on the subject of people misunderstanding science, the Guardian reports that American illusionist and ‘endurance artist’ David Blaine is in the middle of a stunt that has him standing for 3 days and 3 nights on a platform inside a 1 million volt electrical field generated by a Tesla coil.

‘I have a chance of surviving,’ said Blaine in a previous Guardian interview, an observation which, if you know anything about the science involved, is something of an understatement. Yes, he does have a ‘chance of surviving’ – pretty close to 100% chance, in fact, as long as he remains inside the metal suit he’s wearing, which creates for him a perfect Faraday Cage.

The vox pops from the Guardian video once again demonstrate the utter lack of science education in the general public. Says one overly impressed bystander:

They say it’s a million volts? Nobody could take that. Nobody could take more than 300 volts! People gonna die right away. Seriously.

No, seriously Mr Punter, you should brush up on your basic physics. You’re at greater risk of being mugged in the audience than David Blaine is from being electrocuted.

Really, the most impressive stunt being performed here is Blaine attempting to stay awake for 72 hours. That’s not easy. But even if he does fall asleep, he is protected from physical falling by a safety harness, so the biggest damage he’s ever likely to experience is to his reputation.

Tetherd Cow Risk Assessment: you could let your granny do it. It’s at least as safe as letting her pour whisky over her chest.

UPDATE: Here’s a REAL daredevil, doing something actually impressive with high voltage (as part of his job, no less).

Suck on that David Blaine.

Rats, Roundup and Rotten Research

There have been interesting developments in the news these last few weeks, regarding science, the way it’s practised and the way it’s reported. Notably, but not exclusively, there has been an incident where French scientists announced that they had established direct links between extremely high incidences of large cancerous tumours in rats, and maize that had been genetically modified to resist the weedkiller Roundup.(i) Their research had been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and, on the face of it, the findings of the two year study are terrifying. This, of course, is BIG news for media outlets that want to sell stories off the back of the already high level of distrust of GMOs among the general public.

Except.

It turns out that there were a few things not quite kocher about this whole affair. For a start, the researchers had taken the unusual step of levying a journalistic embargo on the announcement of their results, requiring interested parties to sign non-disclosure agreements that would prevent them from showing the research to anyone before the findings were publicly announced. The effect of this was that outlets who had access to the story – not wanting to be last on the block in bringing the very latest news to their readership – published the findings as soon as the embargo was lifted, without taking the precaution of having the details checked by other experts. Indeed, when the story hit the streets, criticism of the study, the peer review process and the way the journalistic embargo was used was quick to come from numerous informed parties. What we had here was a situation that New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin calls ‘single study science‘ where the results of solitary instance of unsupported research is announced to the world as a definitive conclusion. All good scientists are very nervous when they hear this kind of thing. But it gets worse. When scrutiny was brought to bear on the experiments themselves, it became clear that there were many, many procedural problems with them. For example, the control process used for the tested rats was highly questionable, as was the statistical analysis of the data. Not only that, the type of rat chosen for the study is particularly prone to the spontaneous development of cancerous tumours. There has been a lot written about this incident over the last few weeks, and its deconstruction is not the main thrust of this post, so I won’t dwell on it further.(ii) It’s sufficient to say that, given the way the scientists concerned went about publicizing this research, there remain many questions to be answered about their experiments, the way they chose to inform the community about what they had found and the peer-review process that let the research be published. What we can say is that far better scientific scrutiny is needed before we can establish whether a link exists between Roundup modified maize and cancer in laboratory rats.

That’s not the news you got from the mainstream press, though, because even though many outlets were quick to publish followup clarifications, the main purpose of the embargo was achieved and the less-discerning mainstream media mostly went with the ‘Scientists PROVE that GM corn causes hideous tumours!‘ story.(iii) Even writers for journals like the Guardian (that should know better) have demonstrated their partisanship by reflexively defending the French scientists involved.(iv)(v)

Cooking the Books

Moving on, elsewhere the New York Times brings news of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that finds that, in a review of over 2,000 retracted scientific papers in biomedical and life sciences, an astounding three-quarters could be attributed to scientific misconduct (41.3 percent being actual fraud or suspected fraud). Taken in concert with a tenfold increase in retractions themselves over the last decade, this is a disturbing finding.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, said:

It convinces me more that we have a problem in science”

If you view this research in concert with the GMO affair that I detailed above, and other recent missteps of science like the Darwinius debacle, it is plain that Dr Casadevall is right. We have a problem in science.

Crucially, though, the problem is in science, but not with science itself, and this is what I want to talk about today. It might seem that the delineation I just made is splitting hairs, but I believe that it is important that we understand the difference between what science is, and the way in which it is undertaken. It seems to be that, to some, the philosophy of science encompasses its practice also, and when they talk about ‘science’ they are conflating the two things. Indeed, I recently had a discussion with the editor of a reliable online news outlet over his claim that the GM story showed ‘the imperfections of science’. My view is that it does no such thing. What it does show is that some scientists who were keenly aware of the enormous credibility of the scientific process exploited their understanding of how its mechanism works to give themselves a chance to get some high profile exposure. It shows the imperfections of some humans practising science, which is an entirely different thing. The editor’s explanation for his stance was that he believed science was the whole kit & caboodle – the philosophy, the practice and the practitioners ‘with their human failings’. I told him that I thought it was extremely perilous to look at science in this way. ‘If a chef served you a bad meal,’ I asked, ‘Would you blame that on gastronomy? If a banker ran off with your life savings, would that be the fault of economics?’ It is, I said, not a defect of the scientific process that some people use it ineptly or fraudulently.

Villagers with Flaming Torches

What worries me, and it’s something of which I have become keenly aware over the many years of Tetherd Cow,(vi) is that for a great number of people, probably the majority, science is something like a ‘point of view’ or a ‘belief’ that is adopted by a cult of people that call themselves ‘scientists’ in the same way as someone might decide to take up religion. Those of us who understand science well go to quite some trouble to explain how much in error that notion is, how science differs significantly from religion and pseudoscience and opinion, and why it is preferable to any of those things as a reliable way of negotiating our existence.

Many folk, on seeing headlines like ‘Science is Wrong Again!’ don’t make a definition between the the bad or unprincipled execution of science and the strict protocols and requirements of proper science itself; between, if you like, the chef and gastronomy. In essence, they’ve eaten one bad meal prepared by sloppy kitchen staff and the experience has given more substance to their already-formed conviction that there is something wrong with the whole idea of cooking food.

To make the situation worse, when scientists are canny enough to appear to follow the rules set down by scientific enquiry, and then their results are called into question outside the mechanism that science itself holds up to keep it on the straight and narrow, it just confirms people’s distrust of something of which they’re already suspicious. If the scientists themselves can’t agree on things, well, isn’t that exactly like religion?

My concern is that in a time where we’re in desperate need of science – of rational, unflinchingly critical appraisal of our world and its problems – the kind of behaviour we’re seeing from scientists in increasing numbers is doing profound and possibly even irreparable damage to the discipline.

To get people to understand that the practise of science as a way of navigating the universe is preferable to the hobbles of religion and superstition, it’s crucially important that people who write about it don’t portray it as a belief system made up of practitioners who can define it in any way they choose (whether by intention or by incompetence). Unlike religion, science is able – indeed, is required – to examine itself and fix its shortcomings if necessary. This facet of science allows it to become stronger and stronger as time passes, and it is this strength, this reliability, that makes it such a formidable tool. Bad practitioners of science should be outed as such. These are people who understand and rely on the power of science and exploit it to their own ends. They are not scientists, because to be a real, proper scientist takes guts. To be a real scientist requires that you look reality right in the eye and suck it up when what it tells you doesn’t agree with what you’d hoped, what you’d expected, or what you’d like. To be a real scientist, you need to practise science. And all real scientists know exactly what that means.

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Footnotes:

  1. An important thing to note about the research is that the Roundup itself was under test, as well as the GM maize. Few commenters make a distinction when writing about this. []
  2. There is an excellent examination of some of the problems with the study here on Discover, should you want to read more. []
  3. Exaggeration for effect. There were no actual headlines that said that, but I bet that’s how many anti-GMers read it. []
  4. The Guardian article I have linked here is an illuminating read. For a start, it glosses over the study’s ‘methodological’ errors as if that’s a small thing. In science, methodology is EVERYTHING. It also fails to address a key objection to the whole affair – that journalists were tricked into publishing the results at face value, rather than being allowed to follow the more usual process of getting some views from other experts in the field. []
  5. Even though it’s not germane to the point of this post, I want to make it clear that I’m not really a supporter of GMO, at least not in the way that it allows big companies to stake monopolies on food supply. I can see the great good that can come from some kinds of GM, but I am deeply suspicious about the commercial interests that control it – particularly Monsanto who I think are about as evil as you can get for a corporation. I’m far more relaxed about the science, probably because I understand it a little. It’s not the science we have to fear here, it’s the greed and duplicity of humans who wish to exploit it. The problem is that most people can’t actually separate those two concepts. []
  6. Almost unbelievably, next January will be the 8th anniversary of TCA. []

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Those of you who visit the Cow to read my skeptical take on all things weird and woo might be interested in my new blog Hummadruz. On Hummadruz I’m focussing exclusively on matters of sound & music – my own fields of expertise – and the huge amount of nuttiness that can be found therein. To kick off, I’m taking a look at a phenomenon that’s currently in the news: The West Seattle Hum. The Hum is a strange vibrating buzz that appears in West Seattle from time to time, but has manifested quite significantly over the recent Labor Day holiday.

I hope you’ll come and join the discussion over at Hummadruz. I am always on the lookout for weird and wacky audio phenomenon to examine, so if you have any favourites, be sure to let me know.

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