The death of critical thinking or just bad journalism?

Woo hooThere was a recent article on Patheos.com with the scary headline, “Young People Are Choosing Horoscopes and Crystals Over Fundamentalist Religions.” The last part of that might seem good news, but the first part is highly troubling. It suggests a continued descent into the New Dark Ages where science, logic, and reason are replaced by woo hoo.

Let’s be clear from the start: astrology is bunk. Magic rocks are bunk. Guardian angels, reiki, homeopathy, psychic readings, tarot cards, energy healing, reflexology, phrenology, and iridology are all bunk. None are based on anything close to science, reality or fact. At the very least destructive they are mere entertainment, at their worst they are a cultish belief in magic and superstition. But the piece is more sensationalism than fact.

The author of the Patheos article – supposedly a skeptic who describes it as a trend towards a “less violent form of nonsense” – writes,

Believe it or not, I don’t oppose this. We should be moving away from fundamentalist adherence to ancient dogmas, and more toward this type of relaxed take-what-works-and-drop-the-rest approach. And if you can make yourself feel better without hurting anyone, I say you should go for it.

No, no, no. The test for meaning, for benefit, relevance, utility or truthfulness is not whether it makes you feel better. That’s simply being selfish. You can get the same from eating ice cream or splurging on something you want to own. The news is full of politicians – local to federal – doing something to benefit themselves, not the people they supposedly serve. Epicureanism notwithstanding, there ought to be a benefit to more than just yourself.

Not harming anyone is good, of course, but by itself not good enough to make it the sole basis of anyone’s beliefs or practices. Where is the ethical or moral substrate? The greater good? Too easily not harming anyone can become simply avoidance and excuses for not actually doing something.

But who is to determine harm? if children see their parents believing in something, they are likely to follow suit. Nonsense is as harmful to their minds as a religious cult. Believing in magic stones can easily lead to question all forms of science, reason and medicine (hint: New Age anti-vaxxers…)

And for all their faults, fantasies and flaws, at least most religions have a moral and ethical basis – you don’t get that in any form of woo hoo. It’s trite to consider all aspects of religion as “nonsense” just because you dismiss the supernatural aspects of it. 

Furthermore, belief – even in nonsense – spreads like a virus. Look at the anti-GMO and anti-gluten fads, the anti-vaccine wingnuts, the chemtrail and reptiloid conspiracies, and every diet fad. Behind all of these woo hoo beliefs are hordes of con artists, bullshitters and hoaxsters eager to get rich by prying money away from the gullible. Being scammed or conned by them is surely a form of harm.
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What is science? It’s not this stuff.


Recently in a Facebook post, two of us were squabbling in typical Facebook-fashion over “alternative medicine” and related treatments (many of which came into the discussion as links to pseudoscience and/or charlatan’s websites).

As is my wont, I continued to debunk these with links to actual medical sites and discussions on the topic from health services, universities and real doctors. The other person posted a link to a piece that had Dr. Nuzum – a naturopath*, not a medical doctor, who promotes himself and his products heavily on YouTube and social media – comment thus on fingernail ridges:

“…in oriental medicine, we have—there are ridges that go long ways down from the cuticle to the end of your fingernail. That is from gut inflammation, gut dysbiosis, and mineral deficiencies are what that points to.
Lines that go across the fingernail, those again, in oriental medicine, that would indicate an oxygen deficiency or not getting enough oxygen into your system.
“So, if you have the lines going from the cuticle to the tip of the finger, that typically, in oriental medicine, indicates gut dysbiosis, or gut inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies.
“And so, if you have lines going down your fingernails, the types of things you want to be looking at would be green foods, probiotics, minerals, multivitamin-type supplements. Those are the types of things that you would want to use.
…If there’s a line going across the fingernail, that points to an oxygen or breathing deficiency. And that would be something we’d need exercise and proper diet, and things that would support lung health and gut health at the same time to correct those.”

Caveat Emptor!The type of things he recommends are, of course, the very products he sells on his own website and promotes online (ka-ching!). But remember his advice about treating vertical lines:  vitamin supplements; and for horizontal lines (also known as Beau’s lines, a medical term which Nuzum doesn’t use – and may not even know): exercise and diet (spoiler alert: the latter is dangerous claptrap).

When I called it (and some similar New Age health posts that lacked proper scientific citation) baloney on Facebook, my verbal opponent posted this response:

…anything can be debunked! I agree science can disprove so many things. I am not encouraging ignoring allopathic medical care. I also believe choices in medical care should be presented.

Well, that’s not true. You cannot debunk gravity, for example. Or the speed of light. Or the body’s need for oxygen. Or a spherical earth, evolution, the electromagnetic spectrum, the temperature to boil water, photosynthesis and so on. Scientists may dispute the causes or effects of some phenomena such as climate change, or black holes, microwave radiation, or the extinction of the dinosaurs, the existence of a Higgs-boson particle, and supersymmetric string theory, but not to debunk them: to understand and more fully define them. Scientists endeavour to either fit new ideas into our existing knowledge or to revise that knowledge to accommodate new discoveries.

You can, however, debunk water having feelings, homeopathy, astrology, UFO abductions, chemtrails, detoxing, pH balancing, psychics, ghosts, healing crystals,  the anti-gluten fad, the anti-GMO fad, the anti-vaccination fad, magic, reflexology, iridology, reiki, channelling dead people, Donald Trump’s claims about immigration and a whole lot of other silly, New Age, sometimes dangerous, and always unfactual things.

And from every thing I’ve read so far, you can also debunk what “Dr” Nuzum says about fingernails. Quite easily, in fact. But first…

I shouldn’t have to caution readers about taking advice about food and diet from the people who want to sell you the methods, products and services they say you need. But just in case you missed it the first thousand times I warned you about it: don’t take medical, dietary or health advice only from the people who sell or manufacture the products they recommend you need to be healthy. Demand to see the peer-reviewed studies that prove the efficacy of what they promote BEFORE you shell out money for them. If the seller hasn’t got any proper in vivo studies to support their claims, you’re being conned.

I hope that will be the last time I need to remind you. And I really shouldn’t have to remind you about taking advice from people with diploma-mill certificates, either. So let’s move on.

Continue reading “What is science? It’s not this stuff.”

WiFi hysteria again

Scared of wifiEvery so often, old crackpot ideas, hoaxes, cons and plainly silly pseudoscience resurface online under the guise of Trump-like alternate fact. Scary stories about chemicals in your food, fake health tips, and Facebook-stealing-your-photos nonsense compete for attention with actual news and factual stories. The old bromide about wireless signals (WiFi) killing things is just one to come back to life this week on Facebook.

(You already know Facebook isn’t a reliable source of anything factual, even though factual content does get shared now and then. More common are the wingnut conspiracies, hoaxes and codswallop, along with cute kitten videos. Facebook is the place where what was once called the fringe has a cozy place alongside the mainstream, and New Age charlatans prey on fears and fantasies.)

This latest story beings pread on FB comes from a UK site called “Stop Smart Meters” originally published in 2013. SSM is one of those wacky “all wireless is evil and the government is behind it” sites that thrive despite the overwhelming scientific research that debunks their crazy notions. Break out the tin foil hats. These sites are to electronics, physics and biology what the Food Babe is to nutrition and chemistry: bunkum.

While it’s easy to scoff at this as just a fringe community, it’s more tragic that usually reliable media sites and sources (like ABC News) picked up the story and reprinted is, uncritically, without analysis or examination. This only helps spread the bunk and give it a semblance of credibility, while diminishing that of the media itself. It’s worse when these articles use words like proof or proven alongside the conjectures, allegations and fantasies.

Whether they be about chemtrails, creationism, magic crystals, auras, ayurveda, homeopathy, angels, chakras, UFOs or anti-vaccination claptrap, these pseudoscience sites all feed off each other, spreading the viruses of ignorance and fear. They share one another’s stories as if publishing on one wingnut site gives the conspiracy credibility. And they have a huge, gullible audience who treat their version as gospel and any debunking as a Satanic attack. Plus, they usually have some magic potion or bean to sell you for protection against those things that go bump in the night…
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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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