Archive for the ‘skepticism’ Category

Skepticism and personal demons

2014/06/14

Humanism isn’t just a lofty label to attach to what I aspire to, or to identify myself with a particular sect of humanity. It’s also a reminder to myself about how I want to live.

Today, I want to share something I read a while back on Greta Christina’s blog – a personal account of her struggle to reconcile her ideals as a skeptic with her daily life.

She opens her account with this question:

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

On the one hand, she believes that society has an insanely inflated idea of the dangers of excess body fat, and that this distortion is especially bad for women’s emotional well-being. In her own words,

My attitude towards my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist fat-positive movement: I wasn’t going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be — eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. — at the weight that I already was.

On the other hand, she has a knee problem that makes it very sensible for her to try to lose weight.

Now, I suspect that many of the rational types in the audience are already shrugging and thinking, “What’s the issue? Follow the evidence, lose the weight, problem solved.”

But of course, anyone who has ever been through the emotional turmoil of unsuccessful dieting in the general atmosphere of society’s condemnation of excess weight can tell you that it’s not that easy. There is a minefield of emotions to navigate through, even when one has a very supportive and accepting social circle.*

Here’s an example that Greta Christina relates:

It’s really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it’s hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.

So, she doesn’t just want to assert the right answer; she is also after ways to make it work in the messy, emotional rough-and-tumble of real life.

What I’m looking for is psychological tips. Ways of walking through the emotional minefield. Ways of framing this that make it more sustainable.

That’s how she closes the article.

Fortunately for those of us who want more, she has a follow-up article or two. And an ongoing blog that occasionally dips back into this intimately personal (but immensely valuable) journey.

Footnotes:

* To be perfectly clear, I have not been through such emotional trauma firsthand, but I have at least one very close friend who has walked that minefield. I have the blind luck to have a naturally thin frame: on the ancient savannah, I would have starved in the first half-decent drought. As it is, I can indulge in the gastric excesses of our culture without visible consequences. But I must remember, a healthy diet and regular exercise are as good an idea for me as for anyone – most of their benefits are not dependent on body size.

 

Labels that define me

2014/06/03

This post was originally inspired by a very animated discussion with Jamie Ian Swiss in the this 2012 episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

Long-time readers of this blog have learned something of my political views, my personal life, and various other things. But one thing I may never have explicitly done is lay out how I think these things interconnect.

For example, I am an atheist and a humanist. Some people think that “humanist” is just a euphemism for “atheist”, since most people who label themselves humanists are also atheists. But there is an important difference. In this article, I will briefly trace out some of the connections.

First, at the root, I consider myself a humanist. Though I consciously took on the label only a short time before beginning this blog, I think it has basically formed the basis of my approach to life since I was very young. As Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” That captures my two core values: compassion and the pursuit of understanding. To me, that is what humanism boils down to. (Notice that this definition doesn’t imply atheism.)

Now, I think the best way to pursue understanding is through scientific skepticism – I am a skeptic. I once quoted Steve Novella (of the above-mentioned podcast, Skeptics Guide to the Universe) defining skepticism: “Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.” It’s not hard to form a belief; the trick is to filter good beliefs from bad ones. Skepticism is the toolkit for successful filtering.

One of the least important of my labels is atheism. This label simply means that nobody has yet convinced me that any god exists. It is one of many results of applying skepticism to claims that come at me. (Others of more consequence include accepting evolution, rejecting homeopathy, avoiding health fads, and a current push to learn more about Bayesian reasoning.) Though it has little importance in my epistemology, I would say that it is socially important. Atheists in some countries live under threat of violence and death. Even here in Canada, we are sometimes the targets of bigotry and hostility. So it is important for those who can safely do so to visibly identify as atheists (at least), so that others become aware of our existence and our normal humanness.

Another label that I like to hold is that of scientist. I am still very junior in this pursuit, and claim no particular prowess in it, but it is (in my mind) one of the most noble applications of skepticism, and I hope someday to contribute something significant to human knowledge through my scientific work.

I also have far more personal, less philosophical labels. I am a Mills by descent, and I have close ties with my family through shared traditions, history, and simple familial love. I am a daddy – a label whose meaning evolves as my children (now 4 and 6) develop into ever more amazing and surprising people. In no particular order, I am also a husband, a writer, a homeowner, a teacher, a son, and many other things. I try to exercise these parts of my identity in a way that aligns with my core values – values that come from my personal background and are defined, to some extent, by the main labels “humanist”, “skeptic”, and “scientist”.

There is much more to say about identity and labels, but I think this will suffice for now.

Conservative health?

2014/06/01

[In an ongoing renewal of this blog, I have come across a draft article that was neglected well past the expiry date of the current events it describes. However, I feel that the ideas are still worth airing, so with a little editing I'm releasing it into the wild.]

I have moved back to the province of my birth – beautiful, bountiful Alberta. It happens that an election was held shortly after our return, in which the decades-long domination of the Progressive Conservative (PC) party may be overturned was extended for another four years.

I have a tendency to lean more liberal than my Albertan family and friends – and it may not surprise them that I am writing a post critical of the PC party. What might surprise them is that my current criticism is for a failure to be sufficiently conservative.

I was perusing the PC leaflet that arrived in our mailbox before the election. (similar to the platform statement here [PDF]), and discovered a policy whose motivation is most transparently vote-buying rather than holding to a consistent political ideology. At the top of page 8 in the linked file, we read the following:

Alternative medicine plays an increasingly important role in preventative health, and needs to be considered in a holistic approach to wellness – especially in cases where naturopathic, homeopathic, chiropractic and other therapies help patients attain personal health goals. Qualified patients will be able to claim up to $500 per year for these treatments starting in 2013.

How is paying for new treatments with unproven efficacy (often, proven inefficacy) either socially or fiscally conservative?

Alberta, the wealthiest province in Canada thanks to the various economic benefits that derive from rich oil deposits, currently has a struggling health system. Many people are without a family doctor. Oh, we do have a public health system, and it’s a fair sight better than what they have south of the border, but it’s far from perfect.

And here is a nominally conservative party, electing to subsidize witch doctors. (I’m not going to go over the arguments. If you don’t know why I’m so negative about “alternative medicine”, browse the Science-Based Medicine site.) All of the approaches mentioned in the PC literature – naturopathy, homeopathy, and chiropractic – have failed to pass the tests of efficacy that we rightly demand of real medicine.

My guess, gleaned from the greasy language of the document, is that they have perceived a popular trend toward alternative medicine, and want to be seen as open-minded.

Bah.

Let me plant a flag here. I may be a social liberal. I may think that the government has no place dictating private life choices – from who you marry to how you manage your reproductive health. But when you’re putting public money toward public health – as I think we should – then the treatments paid for by that money damned well better have evidence supporting their usefulness.

And if you’re one of those open-minded individuals who likes to ask, “What’s the harm in trying new techniques that haven’t been proven yet?”, let me point you to a site where someone has done more than just ask the question – he’s tried to find the answer. It’s called What’s the Harm? It’s not pretty – there is a body count.

Sadly, as I hadn’t been resident here for the required 6 months, I didn’t get to vote in this election. But I will be voting soon enough. And sharing my opinions. What would I like to see in a party or candidate? I’d like to see the following:

  • uphold basic civil liberties (not generally a problem here – the anti-abortionists and anti-gay-marriage types seem to be on the back foot, even in conservative Alberta) (see my recent post about abortion in federal politics)
  • support democratic voting reform (my choice would be to switch to single transferable vote from our current first-past-the-post) to create a more representative form of representative democracy
  • commit to evidence-based regulation wherever possible (for example, in licensing and funding of medical practitioners and practices)
  • maintain a social welfare net that includes universal healthcare, a welfare system that encourages people back into the workforce when they are unemployed, and minimum wage laws that ensure a viable living salary for anyone who is employed

So, you know, not much.

Contending with Bart Ehrman

2013/04/29

This post reviews an essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the latest installment in the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge that I undertook some time ago. This time I’m looking at Daniel Wallace’s essay “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”.

I was looking forward to Daniel Wallace’s essay, because it is the first to directly address a professional skeptic whose work I’ve seen*. Wallace speaks to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for scriptural corruption – that is, the position that the texts of the Bible as we have them are not the same as those penned by the original first-century authors. He doesn’t address Jesus Interrupted (the book that opened this Challenge), but Ehrman’s earlier book, Misquoting Jesus (MJ from here on). So I had some more Ehrman to read. I didn’t mind – he’s a clear and engaging writer, and it was nice to have an excuse for a sidetrack from the apologetics.

Interestingly, the main disagreement Wallace has with Ehrman isn’t a deep split over how to approach the problem of New Testament studies. They both appeal to the same sort of evidence. They even agree on some key conclusions: of the seven major examples where Ehrman suggests important doctrinal points depend on passages that have been changed, Wallace flat-out agrees with Ehrman on three of them. (That is, Wallace agrees that the passages as we have them were not written by the original authors. He denies that this fact undermines important doctrines.) On the other points, he disagrees in highly technical ways, so that I cannot competently referee the disagreement.

What sort of differences can I evaluate?

Well, Ehrman focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are authentic, and Wallace focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are inauthentic.

Call me conciliatory, but maybe they’re both right. Maybe the original texts of the New Testament books were fairly close to what we have today. But, using evidence available to us, we cannot be certain how close, or on what points. A belief in Biblical inerrancy seems to be fatally undermined by the evidence. But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.

The great lesson I took away from Ehrman’s book is that the evidence that has survived is undeniably altered in some places. There’s a whole lot of evidence that has not survived. (Ehrman and Wallace both talk about “patristic” writings – by early church fathers – that talk about texts we do not have any more.) What changes may have taken place without leaving a paper trail for people like Ehrman and Wallace to follow? All of the key evidence has spent most of its history in the hands of people who were hell-bent on making sure we believe one story: the now-dominant, orthodox story. It is biased evidence. Even knowing that, I’m willing to take it as probably being fairly close to the original, for the most part. But those qualifications (“probably” and “fairly close”) stand.

So much for the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, some of the content of this article is more personal. Wallace’s rhetoric leaves me with strong doubts about his inclination to be impartial. He uses the term “radical” about any view that departs from orthodox Christianity, and anyone who promotes such a view. And he distorts Ehrman’s own claims in rather easy-to-spot ways. Here is one of his main accusations (p152):

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” argues Ehrman. Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that most variants are inconsequential – involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like – and that only a small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.

(As a side note, even before I read MJ, the math of this jumped out at me. Less than 1% of 400,000. Wallace is basically saying, “Ehrman exaggerates. There are only upwards of four thousand meaningful and viable variants in the New Testament texts.” Is that supposed to inspire my confidence?)

And here is a passage from Ehrman that gives the claim Wallace pounces on (pp10-11):

Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).

Do you notice the immediate context of the line Wallace quoted above? The very next sentence completely undermines Wallace’s claim that Ehrman is alarmist in his rhetoric. Ehrman raises readers’ interest with an impressive statistic, then provides context, encouraging us not to over-interpret that statistic. Wallace claims that “Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm layreaders on issues where they have little understanding.” What about undermining a colleague’s credibility with selective quote-mining?

So Wallace is quite willing to use misleading rhetoric to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. But let’s return to the actual claims at hand.

I am open to the possibility that Ehrman overstates the corruption of the biblical texts. Wallace is right that Ehrman would probably sell fewer books if he put more emphasis on the uncertainty and less on the possibility that the texts are altered. On the other hand, Ehrman came to these conclusions from within an evangelical belief system. He was a believer; he learned about the texts; and the evidence forced him against his inclination to reject the inerrantist position he preferred. That gives him far more credibility as an unbiased investigator than those who believe their salvation and self-identity rely on the conclusion they defend.

The question of how unchanged our modern reconstructions of the New Testament are from their original forms is a fascinating debate from a sociological standpoint. But I think I should close by pointing out that, however this debate comes out, it doesn’t really affect the underlying question at issue in the Challenge: does a god – the Christian God or any other – actually exist? If the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are exactly the words written by the first people to put them to paper, and if those words faithfully record the recollections of the early Christians, it would still just be a report of the beliefs of some ancient people. It would, at best, make the merest smidge of a difference in my estimate of how likely a god is, or the possibility of life after death. It would have no affect on my moral rejection of the idea of substitutiary atonement or the doctrine of infinite consequences for finite actions.

Footnote:
* Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy (an area of interest to him, but not one where he is an expert), not his science (where he is a recognized leader in his field). This essay takes on Ehrman in his home arena: New Testament studies.

Rational magic

2012/10/29

I like to think of myself as a rational person. This is an uphill battle for someone like me, a conglomerate of biological systems jury-rigged one on top of the other since my ancestors were worm-like proto-chordates. But it’s a battle worth fighting.

I also like science fiction and fantasy novels. To some, this seems to conflict with the rational, truth-seeking, reality-loving side (though in fact it only encourages and reinforces it).

Well, now both sides of my geekiness can wallow in a new realm of literary and logical deliciousness.

Imagine this: some tiny event in Harry Potter’s past means he grows up among scientists instead of among vindictive, spiteful relations. When his letter from Hogwarts comes, he responds not with open-mouthed wonder but with the skepticism of a rational materialist. (This is without changing a jot about how magic actually works in Rowling’s universe, mind you.)

This is the premise of Eliezar Yudkowski’s fan-fiction epic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It has been underway since January last year, and is now up to 85 chapters (and counting). I blasted through them all in a dreadfully short time, and am now waiting impatiently for the next installment. I am thinking of starting at the beginning and listening to the podcast version, just to fill the time.

If you liked Rowling’s Harry Potter books at all, and seriously want to improve your rationality, then I can only imagine this will be a delightful romp for you.

But then, it is a stretch for me to imagine anyone not enjoying Rowling’s books for any reasons that are not sad and dogmatic. And I find it difficult to sympathize with anybody who doesn’t want to improve their own rationality.

Yudkowski has preserved the tone and spirit of the original books quite nicely. Anyway, I’m not going to waste any more of your time, or risk dropping any spoilers. Go, check it out. Let me know if you like it.

Skeptics in the Pub: Joshie Berger

2011/06/30

Deena and I went to the Boston Skeptics in the Pub on Monday to see Joshie Berger.

The first few minutes at our table – before Deena (my social grace) arrived – were characterized by halting attempts at conversation, punctuated by slightly less awkward silences. One of my table-mates sported a t-shirt depicting a harmonic series, with the basic wave equation “λ=c/f”. The other wore squid earrings. I thought with satisfaction: Yes. This is my tribe. These are my type of people. (I happened to be without any trappings of geekery. Well, except for the two pens stowed in one pocket, alongside a notebook. Just in case.)

(Image from SkeptiCamp 2009 site.)

The main reason we had decided to spend this rare and precious kid-free evening here was Joshie Berger. We had listened to his conversation with the rogues on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe earlier this year, and were eager to hear him talk again.

We were not disappointed. To a surprisingly small crowd (maybe 20 people, if you count the bar staff), Joshie talked about what it was like to be a Hasidic Jew. To have been one, and not be any longer. To have a sister still in thrall to that misogynistic culture (even in the heart of liberal New York). To have so many friends living a lie – disbelieving as he does, yet unable or unwilling to leave like he did.

What I found most moving was when he set aside the jokes, the laughing, the amazing, amusing exposition of human folly and ridiculous beliefs. When he vented a little bit of anger. Not at the believers (they mainly earned his contempt), but at some of the would-be peacemakers in the skeptical movement.

“How dare you tell me to make nice?” was his gist. “After all the pain and suffering that religion put me through, still puts me through, how dare you tell me not to voice my anger?”

I couldn’t help but nod. Oh, sure, I am one of the peacemakers. I try to find common ground. I read books by apologists. I seek out dialogue in university chaplaincy, or at a Unitarian church. But Joshie’s anger wasn’t aimed at me. It was aimed at those who go further, who say that all skeptics (/atheists/humanists/whatever) should be peacemakers. That we should never, any of us, publicly mock or deride believers. Which, for a community that values freedom of expression so highly, is a very odd sentiment.

I did not have a religious upbringing. I don’t have Joshie’s scars; I don’t have the ongoing pain he has of separation from his loved ones. I need people like Joshie. I need people to remind me that such cruelty exists. That there are people who, because of their beliefs, put themselves and everyone in their reach through misery.

I’m terrifically grateful to people like Joshie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christopher Hitchens, and all the rest, for reminding me that there are dangerous beliefs out there. I’ll fight bad beliefs my way – and hopefully reach some people. They will fight bad beliefs their way – and reach different people. Skepticism/humanism/atheism needs all of our approaches.

Exploring language

2010/12/20

Thanks to Steve Novella of the Neurologica blog, I have discovered a new toy to play with: the Google Ngram Viewer. I’d like to share it with you, and encourage you to play as well.

You may have heard of all the books that Google has been digitizing for their Google Books project. (It caused some stir among publishers and writers – it seems to have been sorted out now.) Well, the Ngram Viewer is a very Google-esque* way of looking at word count statistics from that huge collection of books.

Let’s say you’re curious about the relative popularity of two words – say, “humanist” and “atheist“. Well, you enter them as search terms, and voila:

humanist/atheist unigram graph, 1800 to 2000

Relative frequencies of "humanist" and "atheist" in the Google Books corpus, from 1800 to 2000.

We can watch the relative frequencies of these words over time. Unexpectedly (to me at least), we see “humanist” (blue) overtake “atheist” (red) during the first half of the twentieth century, following a couple of decades (20s and 30s) tracking together.  I’ll leave it up to readers to try to infer the reason for this inversion.

The term “n-gram” (yes, pronounced the same as “engram”, but there’s no connection to neuropsychology or Scientology) is used in corpus-based linguistics to denote sequences of words. A unigram is a sequence of 1 word; in the graph above, we compare the frequencies of two unigrams (relative to the total number of unigrams in the corpus). A bigram is a sequence of 2 words. Trigram: 3 words. From there on, it is common just to use the number: 4-gram, 5-gram, etc.

One more unigram comparison that I thought was interesting: function words. Check out this graph comparing “the”, “and”, “of”, “for”, “a”:

Unigram frequencies for selected function words, 1800 to 2000.

Unigram frequencies of "the", "of", "and", "a", "for", from 1800 to 2000.

What is interesting here is that the relative (and even the absolute) frequencies show very little change over two centuries. Think about all of the change in the language that those two centuries represent – from shortly after the founding of America to around the time of the latest millennial fever. And these five words have shown such amazing constancy. Sure, there is some change, but compare those to the changes in other graphs, and the difference is clear.

So, let’s check out a bigram comparison. Here’s a chart of “national debt” and “social security”:

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security"

Bigram frequencies for "national debt" and "social security" from 1800 to 2000.

I’m no political scientist, but it looks like interest in social security leaped onto the scene in the late 30s, and has been slowly climbing ever since, while talk about national debt (in the English-speaking world) has steadily declined basically since the earliest samples in this corpus.

I could go on all day about this, but I’d rather leave it to you now. Before you take off to do your own informal surveys of this delicious data repository, let me offer a couple of caveats.

First, the numbers are only as reliable as the sources. What are the sources? Google gives some information on this. They note some sources of error; they also acknowledge some inherent biases. For example, there are more computer books in recent years than in the 1800s. Whether this is a problem or not depends on the sort of question you’re asking, and how you are interpreting it.

Second, there are different numbers of books in different time periods. They actually go back as far as 1500, but you get problems when, say, a particular year only has one book published. (Check out the results for that nice constant graph of function words, if you go back to 1500.)

Third, always always keep in mind what it is that you’re measuring. These graphs do not measure belief (search “bigfoot, ufo, unicorn“). They do not measure popularity or approval (search “murder, charity“, or the “national debt, social security” illustration above). They simply measure how often people mention the words (or bigrams, trigrams, etc) in published books. (Periodicals are excluded.)

Having said that, it is still a delightful way to while away a day. If you’re stuck for ideas, here are a couple of classic sources of interesting patterns:**

  • What are the relative frequencies of different number words? Is there anything systematic here? Any surprises?
  • What are the relative frequencies of gender-marked pronouns (“he, she”, for example)? How about gender-marked nouns (“man, woman”)?***

Have fun, my merry scientists!

Footnotes:

* Google-esque: powerful, easy to use, with the potential to distract me from real work with its endless possibilities to explore.

** Before doing any search, see if you can guess what the results will be. Form a hypothesis, give a reason for your expectation. If the results agree with your expectation, congratulations! If not, see if you can explain why. Does this new explanation generate predictions about some other word frequency pattern that you could now test?

*** There is at least one pair of gender-marked nouns that seems to reverse the general trend. Can you find them? Why would they be different?

In the company of woo

2009/12/29

I find myself in the company of woo, and as a skeptic it is bringing me some grief.

It’s all about homebirth – planning to deliver a baby at home, attended by a midwife, rather than in a hospital.

Deena and I came to homebirth through an examination of the evidence. (Here’s a discussion I participated in on the Bad Science forums before Kaia’s birth.) We were convinced, by scientific studies and analyses, that planning a home birth here in the UK was at least as safe as planning a hospital birth, given a competent attendant and a handy hospital in the event of complications. So we went for it.

However, many people choose homebirth for less evidence-based reasons. They cite personal intuition, or the “naturalness” of it. Not just as reasons to prefer homebirth, but as evidence of its safety.

At Edinburgh’s Pregnancy and Parents Centre (a haven for various types of woo, as well as useful support groups and great toddler activities), when we went to the “home birth support group” to relate our experiences and our evidence-based approach, it was alongside others promoting woo of various flavours as part of their support of homebirth.

A recent post on homebirth at Science-Based Medicine has stirred up an epic-length discussion, with passionate defenders on both sides. I’ve participated, but fear that just being on the homebirth side has made me, in some people’s eyes, an advocate of woo.

This is the problem: I agree with the woo-birthers that homebirth can be safe, but I disagree (passionately, vigorously) about why this is a legitimate position. And the disagreement isn’t immaterial. At the homebirth meeting, someone recommended homeopathy to treat post-partem haemorrhage. One of the most serious and potentially life-threatening complications of pregnancy, and she advised drinking high-priced water. That is dangerous advice, and I wish I’d been quick-thinking enough to respond persuasively (rather than sitting like a lump and grinding my teeth).

What is a skeptic to do? On the one hand, having someone agree with me in one breath, and back me up with an appeal to intuition in the next, makes me want to revisit and question my beliefs that much more carefully. (That’s something a skeptic should be doing anyway, for all their beliefs, but who has the time?) On the other hand, to adapt Niven’s 16th law, “There is no belief so true that one cannot find a fool believing it.” Just because someone agrees with you for bad reasons doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I came to my belief about homebirth on the basis of the science, and I’m determined that only science will dissuade me.

But there’s also the whole social side. Just as many of my fellow atheists wrinkle their brows at me when I say I go to church, many skeptics seem to do the same when I talk about homebirth. Atheists often assume that the word “church” is synonymous with supernatural beliefs and submission to a holy text, things that would feel alien in our Unitarian church. Similarly, many skeptics assume that, because it’s associated with modern medicine, hospital-based birth is inherently safer.

I’m tempted to close by declaring, evangelist-style, that skeptics must beware of this tendency to take association as evidence. Its association with woo-birthers says nothing about the safety of homebirth; nor does its association with high-tech hospitals demonstrate the superiority of hospital birth.

But perhaps a more humble conclusion is in order. Here goes:

I promise to keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict my current beliefs.
I promise to honestly communicate any changes of position that such evidence might lead me to.
I promise to avoid being swayed by other people’s assumptions (whether or not they are skeptics).
I promise to make every effort to pin my beliefs to the evidence, and nothing else.

Confession of a born essentialist

2009/12/15

We have an innate tendency to psychological essentialism. Bruce Hood articulates this tendency well (see his book Supersense). His most vivid example is the serial-killer’s shirt. If you are given a nice shirt – one that fits well and suits your style and wardrobe – and told that it once belonged to a serial killer, how will you react? Most people will avoid the shirt – even avoid touching it. Of course, the shirt contains no “serial-killer essence”, but the association sparks something deep our psychology: we want to avoid objects that are associated with bad things.

This was probably hugely adaptive in our evolutionary history: if you avoid touching things that have been handled by, say, a seriously ill person, you are less likely to become infected yourself. It doesn’t matter if the reason you avoid them is rooted in an accurate knowledge of the germ theory of disease or an improbable metaphysical notion of guilt-by-association – if it saves your life and is affected by your genes, it will give you a selective advantage over people without the trait, or with a weaker version of the same trait.

Essentialist psychology provides a compelling explanation for why people would believe in certain immaterial properties of matter even if the universe is completely material. Which leads some philosophical naturalists (humanists, atheists, etc) to smugly think that we’ve risen above the illusion: we see through the illusory sense that our instincts push us into. We aren’t tricked into god-belief or imagining a life after death.

Well, it’s not that easy.

I was playing with Kaia (my 2-year-old daughter), and she told me that her doll needed a nappy change*. As an expert, I was invited to conduct the procedure. I used a nose tissue to wipe the doll’s bottom.

When I went to put the tissue back in my pocket (for future use), I was momentarily overcome by my inner essentialist. I had a strong sense that the tissue was unclean. All simply because of an act of imagination!

I quickly realized what was happening, and put the tissue in my pocket anyway. In fact, once I became conscious of the illusion, it quickly dissipated. Thank goodness for skepticism. I wonder if I would have recovered as quickly if I had not, a few years ago, attended a talk here in Edinburgh given by Bruce Hood.

Have you ever had a “silly essentialist” moment like this? How did you react? How did you feel once you realized what was going on?

* I feel I should point out that this wasn’t one of those modern imagination-free dolls that actually produce wet nappies.

Homeopathy at Boots: an open letter

2009/12/02

In a move reminiscent of the very successful Australian Skeptics open letter to pharmacists, the Merseyside Skeptics Society has issued an open letter to Boots pharmacies.

This is in the wake of a parliamentary subcommittee meeting on the status and labelling of homeopathic remedies sold in pharmacies (“chemists” in this country). If you have time, check out the transcript here – a long but interesting read. (Thanks to Mike for the heads-up.) Here’s Ben Goldacre’s summary, as one of the people who gave evidence at the meeting.Link
Boots sells homeopathic products. By association, it lends medical authority to these products – which have been demonstrated, so far as good research is able to demonstrate, to be medically indistinguishable from placebos. That is, they are not real medicine, and do not replace real medicine. The will not protect you from malaria; they will not protect you from H1N1. They won’t even cure your headache. If your headache does get better after homeopathy, there are three much more likely explanations: (1) it was a random coincidence (unsatisfying, but sometimes the world works that way), (2) it was going to get better anyway (you can’t tell this from a single case, but a large study of many people could), or (3) your belief in the treatment had a real effect on your malady (a very cool possibility – see Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science for more, or go read his blog).

Though they sell them, the Boots representative who spoke to the committee admitted that homeopathic treatments have no good evidence supporting their effectiveness in dealing with any health complaint. His best argument for selling homeopathy comes out in this excerpt from the start of the transcript:

Mr Bennett: We do indeed sell them and there is certainly a consumer demand for those products.

Q4 Chairman: I did not ask you that question. I said do they work beyond the placebo effect?

Mr Bennett: I have no evidence before me to suggest that they are efficacious, and we look very much for the evidence to support that, and so I am unable to give you a yes or no answer to that question.

Q5 Chairman: You sell them but you do not believe they are efficacious?

Mr Bennett: It is about consumer choice for us. A large number of our consumers actually do believe they are efficacious, but they are licensed medicinal products and, therefore, we believe it is right to make them available.

Q6 Chairman: But as a company you do not believe that they necessarily are?

Mr Bennett: We do not disbelieve either. It is an evidence issue.

They don’t have good evidence that they work, but people want to spend money on them. This is a disgustingly cynical attitude toward the public, and toward Boots pharmacists’ own responsibility as front-line dispensers of medicine.

I include the open letter below. I will also be contacting Boots. If you are interested in this issue, I encourage you to do the same.

An Open Letter to Alliance Boots

The Boots brand is synonymous with health care in the United Kingdom. Your website speaks proudly about your role as a health care provider and your commitment to deliver exceptional patient care. For many people, you are their first resource for medical advice; and their chosen dispensary for prescription and non-prescription medicines. The British public trusts Boots.

However, in evidence given recently to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, you admitted that you do not believe homeopathy to be efficacious. Despite this, homeopathic products are offered for sale in Boots pharmacies – many of them bearing the trusted Boots brand.

Not only is this two-hundred-year-old pseudo-therapy implausible, it is scientifically absurd. The purported mechanisms of action fly in the face of our understanding of chemistry, physics, pharmacology and physiology. As you are aware, the best and most rigorous scientific research concludes that homeopathy offers no therapeutic effect beyond placebo, but you continue to sell these products regardless because “customers believe they work”. Is this the standard you set for yourselves?

The majority of people do not have the time or inclination to check whether the scientific literature supports the claims of efficacy made by products such as homeopathy. We trust brands such as Boots to check the facts for us, to provide sound medical advice that is in our interest and supply only those products with a demonstrable medical benefit.

We don’t expect to find products on the shelf at our local pharmacy which do not work.

Not only are these products ineffective, they can also be dangerous. Patients may delay seeking proper medical assistance because they believe homeopathy can treat their condition. Until recently, the Boots website even went so far as to tell patients that “after taking a homeopathic medicine your symptoms may become slightly worse,” and that this is “a sign that the body’s natural energies have started to counteract the illness”. Advice such as this directly encourages patients to wait before seeking real medical attention, even when their condition deteriorates.

We call upon Boots to withdraw all homeopathic products from your shelves. You should not be involved in the sale of ineffective products, because your customers trust you to do what is right for their health. Surely you agree that your commitment to excellent patient care is better served by supplying only those products whose claims can be substantiated by rigorous scientific research? Or do you really believe that Boots should be in the business of selling placebos to the sick and the injured?

The support lent by Boots to this quack therapy contributes directly to its acceptance as a valid medical treatment by the British public, acceptance it does not warrant and support it does not deserve. Please do the right thing, and remove this bogus therapy from your shelves.

Yours sincerely,
Merseyside Skeptics Society

—–

Other blogs and websites have noted this, including Skepchick, The Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, Bruce Hood, Bad Science, A Glasgow Skeptic, RichardDawkins.net, Bad Homeopathy, and New Humanist.

Also, various newspapers have picked up on Boots’ strange position: The Telegraph, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Guardian (and Ben Goldacre again, and their liveblog of the meeting), Times, and Mirror.

Feel free to comment and link to any I’ve missed.


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