From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 9 No. 11
4 November 2010
To be able to cite a poll is now the shortest cut to economizing both on thought and on research. --Christopher HItchens
In this issue
New Skeptimedia posts: The Disconnect in Disconnect (more cellphone fear mongering), "God in America" --not really (television tackles American religious history), Sam Harris on Science and Morality, and movie review of Clint Eastwood's latest film, Hereafter.
Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at skepdic.com/updates.html.
Wooeee!....my article on criminal profiling is listed in Top 50 Resources for Students Attending Online Criminology Schools. I'm number 41, and the link goes to "criminal profiling: cold reading for cold cases."
Herman Boel, whose translation of the SD into Dutch was recently published, informs us that he and the book were invited to participate in the largest book fair in Belgium in the city of Antwerp. Copies of the Dutch translation can be purchased from Lannoo.
Merchants of Doubt
Some skeptics make a career out of doubting stories told by people who say they believe they've been contacted by aliens, the Virgin Mary, or the ghosts of strangers. Many in the general public don't see beyond the doubting. They don't realize the amount of investigation and critical thinking that undergirds our doubts. They have no idea of the background knowledge in science and the psychology of belief that skeptical inquirers have. They are unaware of the amount of logical training in rhetoric, particularly in argument evaluation and fallacy detection that many skeptics possess. They hear the word skeptic and they think "doubter." Or worse, they think "debunker." They don't think "critical thinker," "someone who evaluates all the relevant evidence before assenting to a belief."
Reputation affects the ability to influence, of course. The presence of contrarians and deniers makes our task more arduous. (Our task, as I see it, is to find the most reasonable beliefs about the paranormal, supernatural, pseudoscientific, and other "weird things" and present them in ways that influence other people.) Contrarians and deniers are professional merchants of doubt whose task is to oppose by any means those beliefs they deem in conflict with their political ideology. The main offenders have been scientists who lie, mislead, and deceive about science in an effort to oppose anything they see as a threat to capitalism and a free market. One of the main things these contrarians see as an enemy of free enterprise is anything that smacks of government power or regulation that isn't directly related to national defense.
In Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway cite several physicists, including Frederick Seitz (1911-2008), as some of the worst offenders: eminent scientists who sold their souls to prevent government interference with business (even if it was the tobacco industry knowingly selling a hazardous product) or the environment (even if it meant increased mercury pollution from coal-burning plants or danger from acid rain, destruction of the ozone layer, or global warming). Seitz was no lightweight and when he wrote papers for the Wall Street Journal (whose editors and owners share the anti-government position of the deniers and contrarians) they were guaranteed to be published, be influential, and have no worry of any negative response being published in rebuttal. According to Wikipedia:
Seitz was president of Rockefeller University, and president of the United States National Academy of Sciences 1962–1969. He was the recipient of the National Medal of Science, NASA's Distinguished Public Service Award, and several other honors. He founded the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and several other material research laboratories across the United States. Seitz was also the founding chairman of the George C. Marshall Institute, a tobacco industry consultant and a prominent skeptic on the issue of global warming.
Never mind that Seitz was an expert in solid state physics and was pontificating outside of his field of expertise on issues regarding health and the environment. Ronald Reagan liked him and several other physicists who worked on the so-called "Star Wars" initiative. (Some of the other scientists who sold their souls were Fred Singer [b. 1924], William Nierenberg [1919-2000], and Robert Jastrow [1925-2008].) Reagan used their work to spread anti-government propaganda with the mantra "We don't know what's causing it," where "it" was anything involving a need for government regulation, e.g., acid rain. Singer's view seems to be shared by most of the soul-selling ideologues who continue to oppose government involvement in regulating business or the environment: the aim of environmentalists is to destroy capitalism and replace it with socialism. (For more on this issue, see David Morrison's "The Storms over Climate Change" in the latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec 2010.)
Can we expect the mass media to help the public distinguish between scientists who are more interested in defending capitalism than they are in educating people about the state of our current knowledge? It seems that blatantly biased reporting like that from Fox News, MSNBC, and The Wall Street Journal are becoming more the rule than the exception. The addition of media like The Huffington Post has introduced a new set of problems. Even the media that are "neutral" just report that Senator James Imhofe says that global warming is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public. Don't expect the journalists on NBC or CBS, or those writing for The New York Times, to go out on a limb and write: Of course, the senator is full of equine fecal matter and is scientifically illiterate.
Carl Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward, exposed the Watergate conspiracy that brought down Richard Nixon's presidency, says that the media is more interested in manufactured controversy than in the best obtainable version of the truth. To expect the media to expose the poverty of data and the ideology of the agendas that drives the deniers and contrarians is to live in a fantasy world.
The merchants of doubt have been involved in a number of different issues but they use the same basic strategy (known as the "Tobacco Strategy"). Classic examples include:
1. The Tobacco Lobby's campaign to spread the notion that cigarette smoking does not cause lung cancer;
2. The Discovery Institute's campaign against evolution to "teach the controversy";
3. The campaign of climate change deniers;
4. The campaign of the HIV/AIDS deniers;
6. The campaign to scare people into believing that cell phones cause brain cancer;
Now comes another merchant of doubt in the form of one John Ioannidis, whose work has been used to cast doubt on all medical-research studies. David Gorski of Science-Based Medicine has done a thorough deconstruction of the waves of doubt flowing from Ionannidis' work. One glaring example comes from MSNBC, which reports that "most medical claims are misleading." I should note that Gorski's concern is not with challenging Ioannidis but with how the media and the merchants of doubt who tout alternative medicine are using Ioannidis' work to undermine scientific medicine:
I find nothing at all threatening to me as an advocate of science-based medicine in Ioannidis’ two most famous papers, Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research and Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. The conclusions of these papers to me are akin to concluding that water is wet and everybody dies.
Neither the media, the merchants of doubt, nor the general public are likely to focus on the most positive implication of Ioannidis' work: science changes with the evidence. One might as well reject science altogether if being wrong in the past is the key measure of its value. Another positive implication is that science ultimately weeds out bias. How? By its methods. Clinical trials can't eliminate all possible bias, but they are much more likely to reduce bias than relying on observation and anecdotes.
Ioannidis focused his research on a selection of highly regarded research findings. He found that 41 percent were wrong or conclusions were "significantly exaggerated." Steven Novella of Science-Based Medicine has raised the question of what result one would get if sCAM studies were included. Science tests many kinds of hypotheses, some of which are pretty farfetched (like homeopathy). How do you evaluate these studies? Many sCAM studies are small and poorly designed, but find just what they're looking for. Likewise for many psi studies. Larger studies show that they're all wrong. So what? Isn't that progress? How is this a bad thing? The same is true for many studies in medicine: small studies are done that are often contradicted by larger, better designed studies. Isn't this a good thing?
It is true that many studies are published that are biased and that the researchers are paid by pharmaceutical firms to publish the biased papers. It is true that some journals are phony and run by the pharmaceutical industries. It is also true that scientific medicine criticizes these practices. In any case, the existence of bias and error in many studies doesn't exempt one from giving each study that is published a fair hearing. Scientific medicine, unlike sCAM, learns from its mistakes. As Steven Novella says: Ioannidis' "work should serve to improve the quality of scientific medicine, [instead] it is being used by some cranks to attack the scientific basis of medicine." Novella writes:
Alex Tabbarok wrote this superb summary of Ioannidis’ research and put it into a much more meaningful context. He points out that statistics alone would cause many positive research results to be false positives. This results from the fact that most new hypotheses are going to be wrong combined with the fact that 5% of studies are going to be positive (reject the null hypothesis) by chance alone (assuming a typical p-value of 0.05 as the cutoff for statistical significance). If 80% of new hypotheses are wrong, then 25% of published studies should be false positives – even if the research itself is perfect.
But there are other factors at work as well. Tabbarok points out that the more we can rule out false hypotheses by considering prior probability the more we can limit false positive studies. In medicine, this is difficult. The human machine is complex and it is very difficult to determine on theoretical grounds alone what the net clinical effect is likely to be of any intervention. This leads to the need to test a very high percentage of false hypotheses.
As some of you may know, one key principle of science-based medicine is to give a great deal of weight to the issue of prior probability, i.e., don't waste your time testing modalities that have near zero probability. "The implications of Ioannidis’ research, therefore," writes Novella, "is not to undermine or abandon scientific medicine, but rather to demonstrate the importance of re-introducing prior probability in our evaluation of the medical literature and in deciding what to research." Sounds reasonable, but I wouldn't expect the merchants of doubt to mention it and the media probably won't know what you're talking about.
Creating doubt isn't bad in itself. Recognizing the difference between reasonable and unreasonable doubt and not exaggerating the implications of doubts are an essential part of critical thinking. A skeptic identifies reasonable doubt and draws appropriate inferences in an effort to arrive at the most reasonable position. The ideologue and the crank use unreasonable doubt to draw inferences favorable to their beliefs and biases.
More EMF fear
Speaking of merchants of doubt. Power companies in Maine are being criticized for introducing "smart meters" because they might pose a health hazard. "The science is so unclear at this point that we don't want to blanket entire neighborhoods with radiation while scientists are debating this," said Elisa Boxer-Cook, a vocal critic who wants Central Maine Power Co. (CMP) to stop installing the meters. Actually, the science is clear about this: the danger is nothing compared to the dangers of taking a long walk in the sunshine.
Boston.com reports that "a louder protest has come in California, where cities have passed moratoriums on the meters, demonstrators have blocked installation of the devices, and regulators have received thousands of complaints."
John Leopold, a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, epitomizes the success of the merchants of doubt. He said: "I'm concerned about what we don't know. I haven't seen any scientific information that would lead me to believe there's a problem, but there are significant questions." Really? Somebody with no data but with lots of anecdotes about headaches and insomnia asks questions and they become "significant"? Why?
CMP estimates the meters will reduce about 2 million miles of driving a year by its meter readers whose jobs are being eliminated. That's small consolation to those who fear EMFs are destroying their health despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary and who don't even consider all the unhealthy pollutants that will be removed by less driving and less consumption of foreign oil (CO, CO2, NOx, etc.).
Scalia Praises Irrationality as Rational
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, appointed by Ronald Reagan, apparently has studied theology and has convinced himself that the irrational is rational. “It isn’t irrational to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses to miracles,” Scalia said. "What is irrational is to reject a priori, with no investigation, the possibility of miracles in general and of Jesus Christ’s resurrection in particular — which is, of course, precisely what the worldly wise do.” The "worldly wise" is code for "non-believers." In his speech before the St. Thomas More Society, Scalia did not reveal where he gets his information about why non-believers reject miracles and other supernatural claims. Divine inspiration, perhaps.
These unwise words on what's rational come from a man who not only believes stories that claim there were eyewitnesses to The Resurrection, but who also believes in the virgin birth, the stigmata, the Trinity, and that the cracker he eats at Sunday Mass has been transubstantiated into a godman. By the way, five other Supreme Court justices apparently share Scalia's religious views: Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alioto, and Sonia Sotomayor. I say "apparently" because, although they are all Roman Catholics, one can't be sure they all believe everything the Roman Catholic Church teaches.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry inspector general has finally admitted that the dowsing wands used by police as the front-line defense in the country's fight against bombs are worthless. Aqeel Al Turaihi admitted that "many lives have been lost due to the wands' utter ineffectiveness." The ADE-651 is a pseudoscientific piece of junk that, according to Lt. Col. Dennis Yates, "did, in fact, significantly contribute to an unknown -- and pathetically large -- loss of innocent lives."
The bad news is that "when faced with the inspector general's findings, Interior Ministry officials didn't pull the devices from hundreds of checkpoints ... around Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Instead, they shelved the report and quietly granted immunity to the official who signed the no-bid contracts worth at least $85 million."
The devices remain ubiquitous across Iraq.
Internationally recognized evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen died on October 16th of a respiratory infection. He was a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and is best known as a maverick who originated the "Red Queen" hypothesis. It was the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass who said: "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that." Van Valen's thesis was that the struggle for existence never eases, so that no species or lineage ever pulls ahead for long.* We're all doomed to extinction. Even God's chosen people.
Imagine No Religion....
The British Humanist Association is encouraging "non-believers and the seriously lapsed" to answer "no religion" on the 2011 census. The aim is to challenge "religious privilege in Britain." Apparently, there has been an increase in the number of 'faith' schools in Britain, as well as an increase in public funding of religious groups. By tradition, bishops have a right to be in the House of Lords and public schools can have compulsory worship.
Anytime you see "amazing testimonials" and "business opportunities" together on a website, you can be pretty sure you're dealing with scum.
Another sure sign you are dealing with quackery is a claim for a medicine that was "invented by a teacher" or "discovered by a drummer." The former is still the byline for Airborne; the latter is the calling card of Quietus for tinnitus. According to those who sell it, Quietus is a homeopathic medication that "helps" provide relief from the ringing, buzzing, humming and roaring in the ears. They won't divulge its ingredients, however. It is sold only via their website. You can't order it on the website, though. In fact, no pricing is given. You have to call an 800 number to order "while supplies last." There is no cure for tinnitus, but there are some things you should know if you have "ringing in the ears." One of them is don't waste your money on homeopathic remedies. If you must use homeopathy, use the tap in the kitchen.
Speaking of Airborne
Recently I sent the following letter to the manager of my favorite grocery store in Davis (at least it was until Trader Joe's arrived, the place where Airborne placed its first big order):
A couple of days ago, as I was having my groceries scanned at the Nugget Market in Davis on East Covell Blvd., I asked the cashier if anybody was buying Airborne, which was on prominent display at the checkout. He told me it was a good seller. When I commented that the product is worthless as a cold remedy and that the company had paid out millions of dollars for false advertising, the cashier confidently assured me that I was mistaken. I was thinking of Zicam, he said. He was wrong, though I would have been equally irritated if my favorite market was promoting Zicam at the checkout.
I realize that it is not the job of my local supermarket to educate the public about the worthless products we buy as “cold remedies,” but I request that you at least consider not putting on prominent display products that have paid millions in fines for false advertising. Airborne paid $23.3 million and agreed to stop claiming it was an effective cold remedy. The product is legal to sell, of course, but in my mind Nugget shares in some of the taint of Airborne by prominently displaying the product next to the checkout stand during the beginning of the cold and flu season.
I received a prompt and courteous reply with information in it that I could not verify. The store director wrote me that he understood that the woman who originally invented Airborne sold the business a few years ago and the new business owners made changes to the product, after which it became suspect. I could only verify that Victoria Knight-McDowell and her husband hired a management company to run things after the false advertising troubles. Anyway, the next time I visited Nugget, the display was gone.