Tag Archives: pseudoscience

Putting Homeopathy to the Test

HomeopathyHomeopathic products often make a lot of outrageous claims. Given that these products are just water, or sometimes water and sugar, anyone with a gnat’s worth of common sense doesn’t believe those claims. Nor are they backed by any evidence. It’s no wonder homeopathy is called the “air guitar of medicine:”

It should not be a shock to learn that homeopathy has no basis in scientific fact – should anyone doubt this I invite them to peruse Edzard Ernst’s systematic review of the practice.
Homeopaths have gone to incredible lengths to avoid having their air guitar of medicine tested in any rigorous fashion. Instead, they have created their own self-justifying means of establishing that it works. They call this “homeopathic proving”.
A “proving” typically involves a dozen people, who will take a homeopathic remedy and record their thoughts, feelings and even dreams. These diaries are then used to “discover” what the remedy can supposedly cure.

Ernst’s review of more than 2,000 studies, referenced above, noted (emphasis added):

Collectively they failed to provide strong evidence in favour of homeopathy. In particular, there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions.

Ernst’s study reviewed 225 research papers, 11 independent studies and 1,800 medical studies on the health effects of homeopathy and found no reliable evidence in them to back its homeopathy’s claims of effectiveness. It didn’t work any better than any other placebo. In fact, the study concluded, “homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are serious or could become serious.”

In simple terms: homeopathy is bunkum and don’t use it if you’re sick. It doesn’t work. It can’t work because it is not based on science, not on research, not on medical principles, not on chemistry or biology. It is based on magic and superstition.

That’s what you get when you buy a homeopathic product: magical pills.

But in any nation connected to the internet there are enough gullible folks that homeopathy manages to fool someone. Like alien abductions, 9/11 conspiracies, feng shui, acupuncture, crystal therapy, psychic surgery, angels, bigfoot, chemtrails, gluten-free fads, detox fads and other wacky notions and conspiracies, homeopathy has a ready audience of people willing to open their wallets, and close their minds.

As a writer noted in The Herald, it’s hard to combat superstition with science:

Many preventable deaths and serious illnesses have been caused by the use of homeopathy over real medicine. And qualified, caring, medical experts worldwide are at their wits ends trying to counter the hype and nonsense spread by many in the homeopathy business who are trying to increase the huge profits they make out of their sugar and water pills.

That’s what it’s really all about: that huge profit. Scamming the public out of its money.

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The Continued Rise of Anti-Intellectualism

I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true. Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter*

BizarroAnti-intellectualism Is Killing America, says the headline in this recent Psychology Today story. The subtitle reads: Social dysfunction can be traced to the abandonment of reason.

I wrote about anti-intellectualism as the new elitism back in late 2013. Since then, it seem the trend has not only increased dramatically, but the backlash against it has grown. However, the opposition trying to restore reason is neither organized nor has the same sort of shiny baubles to attract adherents the anti-intellectual side has. Cold reason cannot compete for attention against the Kardashian derriere or UFOs on Ceres.

The article’s author, David Niose, wrote:

America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance…

I read that the same hour I read a press release that starts, “James Van Praagh Opens His New School of Mystical Arts.” It opens:

Talking to Heaven has just been brought closer to home. After thirty-five years of talking to the dead on television, radio, and through live demonstrations, New York Times bestselling author, psychic medium and spiritual teacher James Van Praagh is making dreams come true for his students and fans. In May of 2015, Van Praagh launched The James Van Praagh School of Mystical Arts, an online academy where students can tap into their psychic, intuitive, healing and mediumistic abilities, and be personally guided and mentored by the popular medium.

Clearly when this sort of egregious claptrap garners any uncritical attention, the anti-intellectual side is winning. And if anyone is daft enough to shell out $1,600 USD for an eight-week course on fairy dust, they have already lost their ability to think critically and clearly. Or perhaps they never had it – the skills of logic and reason are, apparently not taught in public school.

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The Paleo-Fantasy

PaleofantasyPerhaps the best – and certainly the funniest – description of what happens to your life when you pursue pseudoscience fads like the “paleo” diet is here on Popsugar. It’s laugh-aloud funny and too good not to be shared. I loved so many lines it’s hard to pick one or two, but from the description of making inedible “paleo” cookies:

The cookies look exactly the same before they are digested as after. They are eternal and unchanging. As time passes, they don’t decline in quality or taste because they can’t. They’ve already started out at theoretical zero on that scale.
I weep as I take a bite. These cookies will outlive me unless I destroy them.

For a more serious critique of the “paleofantasy” diet, read this piece on Scientific American:

The Paleo diet not only misunderstands how our own species, the organisms inside our bodies and the animals and plants we eat have evolved over the last 10,000 years, it also ignores much of the evidence about our ancestors’ health during their—often brief—individual life spans (even if a minority of our Paleo ancestors made it into their 40s or beyond, many children likely died before age 15).

Not to mention the main issue raised by nutritionists and anthropologists: the “paleo” diet is mainly based on mean, but our ancestors ate a lot – some say mostly – vegetables:

A paper out just this month suggests even Neanderthals–our north country cousins and mates– may have eaten much more plant material than previously suspected. Still, the more macho camps paint a picture of our ancestors as big, bad, hunters, who supplemented meaty diets with the occasional berry “chaser.” Others suggest we spent much of our recent past scavenging what the lions left behind, running in to snag a half-rotten wildebeest leg when the fates allowed. Although “Paleolithic” diets in diet books tend to be very meaty, reasonable minds disagree as to whether ancient, Paleolithic diets actually were. Fortunately, new research suggests a clear answer to the question of what our ancestors ate.

And what about the insects? Paleolithic humans ate them, probably a lot of them:

If you’re really going to follow a paleo diet, you ought to be eating bugs, “lots and lots of bugs,” Daniella Martin argues in “Edible.” The diet, after all, suggests we should eat more like early hunter-gatherers did, and what could be easier to hunt and gather than bugs? (Martin uses the term “bugs” interchangeably with “insects” to refer to “terrestrial invertebrates.”) The creatures are packed with protein and other nutrients. In some non-Western cultures they are considered a staple; in others, a delicacy.

Watch the TED Talks, above, for a brilliant explanation why the “paleo” diet fad is just a paleo fantasy.

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John HageeTEOTWAWKI – The End Of The World As We Know It – has been predicted ever since humans looked up in wonder at the sky and decided it was peopled with invisible beings. Beings who wanted to do us harm, it seems. And as quickly as we people the sky, there developed an industry predicting when they would harm us, which soon led to the invention of the cash register.

Wikipedia has a long list of dates predicted for the end of the world over the last two millennia. So far, every prophecy has been wrong. But because we’re here now, you already knew that.

That doesn’t stop televangelist John Hagee from joining the growing list of failed prophets. Oh, and not only is he warning us about it, he’s written a book about his predictions too, made it into a movie and a theatrical event, and will host a live TV show about it on April 15. Ka-ching! the cash register sings.

Unsurprisingly, there’s almost always a commercial hook on prophecy these days… the more money you shell out, the greater the likelihood you’ll be saved. Apocalyptic prophecies seem to make people open their wallets a lot more than usual, so it’s good business. And look at all the free media attention it garners!

Like any good angler, Hagee is playing his audience, making sure the hook is set firmly. He wants them to believe in the so-called blood moon prophecy, when,

…an ongoing tetrad (a series of four consecutive lunar eclipses—coinciding on Jewish Holidays—with six full moons in between, and no intervening partial lunar eclipses) which began with the April 2014 lunar eclipse is a sign of the end times as described in the Bible in Acts 2:20 and Revelation 6:12.

Of course, it’s all bunk. It always has been and always will be. End of days, end of the world: not happening. Eclipses are natural and frequent occurrences, not some supernatural event.

I’ve written about these failed predictions in the past – including Howard Camping and Jose de Jesus Miranda and the so-called Mayan doomsday – all of them a load of codswallop (or, as Conrad Black might call it, “diaphanous piffle…”) brewed from a potent stew of religious and/or New Age mumbo-jumbo, spiced with gullibility, fear and ignorance. And topped with gobs of liberally cherry-picked, quotes from a religious source – usually the Bible (and often from the wacky and usually misinterpreted or misunderstood Book of Revelations).

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Canadian Ambivalence Towards Religion

A new Angus Reid poll underscores the changing, ambivalent nature of Canadian attitudes towards religion, but there are many things about the poll that concern me and make me question its methodology and whether an inherent bias influenced the results.

First of all, what is “religion”? That may seem obvious, but there are conflicting definitions, and often religion is used interchangeably with the terms faith and belief,  although that is incorrect usage and they are, in fact, different.

I think it’s important to be clear when asking people about religion exactly what you mean by the word ‘religion’ – and I cannot find anywhere in the questionnaire that this was defined. It is, however defined on the analysis webpage. But was it explained to respondents?

For me, religion is generally the organizational structure and hierarchy – political, social, cultural – that creates the framework in which faith and belief operate. People sometimes reject religion – the controlling organization – without rejecting faith itself.

Wikipedia defines religion with a broad brush but it ignores the political, controlling structure:

…an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.

Dictionary.com adds this, but again missing the hierarchical nature of religion:

…a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Google’s search produced this definition, which is far too narrow, since it excludes Buddhism and other non-theistic practices:

…the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

Search online for the definition of religion and you will quickly discover how wide-ranging the definitions are, and that many of them do not agree on basics. For example, many definitions include belief in supernatural beings, rituals, a distinction between sacred and profane objects and acts, and prayer. But these are traits of some religions, not a definition of religion itself.

Nor was the word “spiritual” defined (again it is on the analysis webpage), although question four asks people to define whether they are spiritual or religious. Yet the term spiritual is even more vague and fraught with complexities than religion, in that it can mean “…almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience… a process of transformation, but in a context separate from organized religious institutions… a blend of humanistic psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.”

Here’s what Angus Reid has chosen for its definitions as per its web page, both of which strike me as very narrow and restrictive. Their definition of religion would exclude Buddhism and Taoism, for example, since neither include supreme beings. And the soul is a contentious definition because (aside from not being defined here), it assumes a belief in one. And is spirit the same as, say, team spirit, so baseball is a spiritual activity on the same plane as meditation? To me, this is both sloppy and vague.

It remains unclear whether these definitions were presented to participants:

Spiritual: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

Religious: relating to or believing in a religion…forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being

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Extraordinary Claims

Extraordinary claimsAs the poster for the Centre for Inquiry notes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a popular catchphrase for the skeptical movement, but should be an intellectual policy for everyone.

Regardless of what is being claimed, it requires evidence at the same level of the claim.

Anecdote is not evidence, please note, especially personal anecdote even with the corroboration of other witnesses. People often “see” what they choose to see, and interpret events and objects according to preconceived ideas. Seeing UFOs instead of ordinary aircraft, or chemtrails instead of mundane contrails are examples of this. Evidence is something concrete; a body of facts, not simply interpretation or disingenuous claim.

The Centre lists many claims as the poster indicates – a list that continues to grow – along with a brief introduction to each: claims, evidence and conclusion. Some like leprechauns, the Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, dragons and Xenu seem pretty obviously mythological or (like Xenu) totally fabricated. Others will certainly raise an argument among some religious believers  or the superstitious – angels, magic, Heaven, hell, the afterlife and similar religious topics included (it does not yet list Santa Claus, but I expect it will come)..

As RationalWiki puts it,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence was a phrase made popular by Carl Sagan. It is central to scientific method, and a key issue for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere.

The actual phrase was coined by sociologist Marcello Truzzi, but it has been around in other forms for several centuries. In his 1748 work, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (chap. 10.4.), David Hume wrote:

In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence… No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

Simply because a lot of people believe in something, or accept it as factual doesn’t mean it is true. In a letter to Adam Smith, Hume wrote:

Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude…

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Bad News For Balderdash

Truth is truthA recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:

THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.

Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc.  – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.

Fact ranking  – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.

Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.

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Evolutionary Dead-Ends

Some people seem genetically inclined – perhaps I should write doomed? – to believe in nonsense: believe in conspiracy theories, in myths, legends, superstitions and supernatural, in magic, in pseudoscience and pseudomedicine. Nothing – no amount of fact, truth, education, reason or contrary evidence will change their minds. The harder you try to correct them, the more firmly they believe.

Watch, if you can, this painfully dim woman trying to dismiss paleontology and evolution as she blunders through Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on the evolving Earth and comments on the displays. It’s a tough video to view for anyone with an IQ bigger than your shoe size. Within seconds you’ll be wincing and asking yourself “Can anyone really be this stupid or it is a joke?”

Yes, they can be that stupid. I couldn’t make it all the way through in one sitting. I had to stop and clear my head. Shake it, drink wine. Who is this woman, you ask? According to Patheos, she is a public nuisance who is also a

…self-described “homeschooling, Tea Partying, conservative mother”

Okay, I have a low opinion of all of those categories even without the head-shaking, face-palm-encouraging video.

Dragons? She really believes dragons were dinosaurs and humans walked around the planet with them? Cave paintings of dinosaurs? (This has been long debunked by better minds than mine). She believes in a global evolutionist conspiracy theory trying to hide this stuff?

Maybe this critique will be easier to follow and less painful to watch:

or this one:

or even this condensed version.

One even has to have some sympathy for the museum staff who suffer such fools among their visitors. It almost makes me wish there were a higher power who could ensure such wingnuts don’t reproduce. Just a prod with that magic finger and *zap* they’re out of the evolutionary game. Damn, too late for this one…

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