sarahmichigan: (Default)
I know that even as skeptical as I am about a number of issues and beliefs (alternative medicine, the supernatural, and so on), that I am not immune to believing things without having good proof for them, or believing them for emotional reasons. I think this article does a good job of explaining how someone can be very skeptical and logical in one area of life while being a bit of a sucker in other areas-- think Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the eminently logical Sherlock Holmes, and yet who was also scammed by little girls who faked a fairy sighting.

There is the issue of "confirmation bias", to be sure. We tend to remember and emphasize evidence that bolsters what we already believe and disregard evidence that would disprove our belief.

Also relevant is the issue of "argument by emotion"- we often believe things because of some strong emotion we have about a subject rather than because the facts.

However, something I've thought about before but hadn't really put into words is that we don't have the time or expertise to be able to be skeptical about everything. It's sort of a time-saving shortcut to believe the conventional wisdom on a variety of things because nobody has the time to skeptically investigate every claim, every belief. And I don't have expertise on every area of life to know whether a claim is reasonable or not- I could be totally scammed about an economic theory, for instance, because it's not an area I've studied much.

Here's an example: I have little boxes of baking soda in my fridge and my freezer. I'd always been told that they keep your fridge and freezer smelling better. But where is the proof? What scientific study has been done? Or is this just propaganda by Arm and Hammer to keep sales up? It hadn't even occurred to me to be skeptical about this claim until I read an article that mentioned in passing the fact that the claim hadn't been tested.
sarahmichigan: (Default)
Last week while I was at the gym, I unwisely left my Skeptical Enquirer  sitting in an unlocked public locker, and when I went back to fetch it, a curious gym-goer had nabbed it and was showing it to his companions. I did manage to win it back, but only after he asked me why I liked it and where he could get a copy.

It's not surprise that he coveted my Skeptical Enquirer - I LOVE this magazine! What other magazine covers topics from explaining the mysterious noises in a "haunted house" to exploring the pseudoscience in Super Hero stories to debunking the supposed link between vaccines and autism?

The current SE he was coveting was taking a critical look at unsupported claims of chiropractic and providing a clear-headed explanation of why homeopathy doesn't have any effect beyond the placebo effect. I don't think the article on homeopathy would convince the die-hard believers in homeopathy, but I think it did a good job of laying out the problems behind the theory for those who are still on the fence about it.

SE also does a lot of basic education in the scientific method and philosophy of science and examines the intersection of religion and science and even art and science. In fact, the art and science issue from late 2006 was probably one of my favorites. 

You can read some, but not all, of the articles from past issues here, if you're curious:
sarahmichigan: (Default)

This is mostly for my own reference since it includes a debunking of two often-repeated myths, a) that we only use 10 percent of our brain and b) that we all should be drinking 6-8 glasses of water per day.

There's nothing wrong with drinking water throughout the day, but it's practically a religion with some people...

sarahmichigan: (Default)
Someone tried to use the "Appeal to Antiquity" on me the other day in an argument about acupuncture. I found it wholly unconvincing.

After all, it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe for millenia as well, but that doesn't mean that the theory of "geocentrism" is correct.

(For those of you bored by my fallacy series earlier this year, don't worry; I'm not making it a regular thing, but I think it's fun to note them when I find real-life examples.)
sarahmichigan: (Default)
I know some people probably find my bashing of many alternative remedies and treatments and dismissals of them as "bunk" to be annoying. However, I have to say that the reason I get so het up about these things is that I do not think that believing in them and using them is always harmless.

At best, I think people are harnessing the power of belief/mind-over-matter/the placebo, and they might be wasting a bit of cash that could be better spent elsewhere.

At worst, people make really bad, frightening decisions about their health and health care based on pseudoscience, and this disturbs me greatly. I'm somewhat hostile to many of the people that push these remedies but less so to people who use them. I don't think people are stupid for using them, I'm just concerned about them wasting money and perhaps spending energy on unproven remedies instead of researching and pursuing treatments that have a better track record and science behind their effectiveness.

Case in point: I've been reading through the archives of the autoimmune community, and one woman was very sick with some condition that was likely rheumatoid arthritis, though she had trouble with doctors over this since her test results weren't conclusive. She went to a naturopath who took her off her meds, told her she was sensitive to MSG and to stay away from it, and gave her some nutritional supplements to take. The poor woman suffered for several more years before going to an M.D. who definitively diagnosed her with RA and put her on some drugs that actually provided her some relief.

Of course, you can get bad diagnoses and stupid advice from regular Western doctors as well- I've got enough skepticism to spread it around pretty evenly.

You don't have to agree with me, but where I draw the line is:
a) does the explanation for how this alternative treatment works reference actual physical processes and entities (as opposed to some reference to mystical "energies")?
b) is the method proven to work in double-blind scientific experiments?

If the answer to one or both is 'yes,' I keep an open mind. If the answer to either or both is 'no' I'm more skeptical.

For instance, I think that accupuncture probably does have some use as a pain-reliever, and as far as what I've read, it has stood up to some standard Western scientific testing. I don't think you need to posit Qi energy and/or meridians/pressure points to justify how it works. Putting needles in people probably releases endorphins and/or other happy chemicals that are know, via Western science, to relieve pain.

Homeopathy? Don't believe in it. I don't believe that diluting a substance in water to the point that none of the active chemical is left is useful or that the chemical has some how left its "imprint" on the water. Sounds like gradeschool make-believe to me, and no reputable scientific tests have shown homeopathic remedies to have any effect beyond the placebo effect.

My passionate feelings about the subject are not because I scornfully believe that people who put their trust in alternative remedies are stupid or naive or whatever. My passion about the subject comes from my feeling that a) users are often not very well versed in the scientific method and are too credible and b) people selling these remedies are unethical and taking advantage of people who are frightened, in pain, and/or desperate for help and relief and possibly not getting compassionate care from their traditional Western doctors.
sarahmichigan: (Default)

CB: You disagree with the majority of weight experts. They tell us that overweight is one of the leading causes of premature death, for instance from heart attacks, but also from diabetes and other diseases. Why do you disagree?

LB: I disagree because I have looked at the evidence. Reputable studies, published in well-respected, peer-reviewed journals, actually show that people in the "overweight" category live longer than those in the "normal" weight category.

CB: And what makes you sure that you are right and they are wrong?

LB: My experience from having worked closely with many obesity researchers who are more conventionally-minded than me is that they are so strongly mired in their assumptions, that they don't look at the evidence. Those that willingly engage, change their beliefs. The evidence is quite convincing.

x-posted all over the damn place
sarahmichigan: (Default)
Headlines like this one really piss me off. They just give creationists and the like ammunition when editors write sensationalist headlines like "New Fossil Ape May Shatter Human Evolution Theory!"

What the new discovery does is revise part of the timeline of human evolution, but it's not like the new discovery invalidates human evolution theory as a whole or anything. What it actually does is provide another missing link that changes the timeline of where they thought pre-humans split off from other primates. But that doesn't make a very sensational headline.

Shame on Nat'l Geographic, which I usually enjoy.
sarahmichigan: (Default)
Growing children need fat, including sat fat, in their diets. Up to 35 percent of calories from fat is perfectly fine for toddlers and even teenagers. And adult women have a slightly higher need for fat in the diet than men do. Interesting stuff in this age of hysteria over dietary fat:
sarahmichigan: (Default)
I refuse to fear my food.

I will not panic about conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and worry that I'm poisoning myself.

I will not believe that potatoes, carrots, or bananas are "bad" for me because they have too much sugar or simple carbs.

I will not live in fear that the fluoride in my green tea or the soy sausage and broccoli that I eat are going to depress my thyroid fuction.

I refuse to beat myself up for eating french fries or other treats because the trans fat is going to make me die young.

I refuse to live in fear that a couple servings of fish a week are going to make my brain turn to mush from mercury poisoning.

I will not assume that I eat too much wheat and gluten and that I'm making myself sick by eating a whole wheat tortilla or a piece of 12-grain bread.

I understand that some people do have life-threatening food allergies or sensitivities that make them ill when they eat certain foods. I understand people wanting to limit their intake of pesticides and herbicides from their produce. I understand that a lot of whole foods are very unlike the aboriginal seed stock they originally came from and they might be very different nutritionally than their ancient ancestors.

Caution and keeping up-to-date on nutrition and food science is a virtue, but I refuse to obsess about these issues to the point that it makes me live in fear. Food is to be used as fuel and is there to be enjoyed.

I will not fear my food.


May. 9th, 2007 11:54 am
sarahmichigan: (Default)
For [ profile] simianpower, the Walken dancing:

For [ profile] dionysus1999. You need to read "The God Delusion," too. I was listening to the bit about cargo cults in the car this morning, and I know you'd enjoy it. You might also like these links:
sarahmichigan: (point of view)
I've been listening to "The God Delusion" as a book on CD, and I found the part where he talked about Einstein's "god" to be quite interesting. It would seem that many science-y types have a sense of wonder about the way the universe is put together, and they sometimes refer to the wonders of nature as "god" or their sense of wonder as their "religion." However, Einstein clearly didn't believe in a personal god. I think a lot of my friends who are agnostic/non-believers with a strong science background probably have beliefs very similar to Einstein's version of "god/religion".

Some interesting Einstein quotes on this page:
sarahmichigan: (Default)
I know I post a lot about what I *don't* believe in or phenomenon or "alternative treatments" that I think are bunk. I don't dismiss all and sundry out of hand, and I have my superstitious moments as well.

Homeopathy is bunk, but herbs do work
I think homeopathy is bunk, but I do think that some herbal remedies are useful. I do NOT, however, always think that "natural"="good". I have deadly nightshade in my backyard, and it's been known to be a remedy, in small doses, for certain conditions. I wouldn't recommend using it, though, unless you've studied herbology for a dozen years. I think that many teas are good for relaxation, and I do know some simple first aid remedies that can be made from common wild plants or house plants (i.e. aloe for burns or plantain for insect bites). So, I'm not completely dismissive bout all alternative therapies and remedies.

Mixed feelings about other alternative treatments
I think that chiropractic is useful for certain back and spine issues, but not necessarily any more helpful than visiting a traditional physical therapist. And I think it's complete bunk when they claim they can cure things like asthma or allergies through chiropractic.

I'm fairly skeptical of the scope of claims made for acupuncture and acupressure, and I think that the explanation for how it's supposed to work (the flow of qi energy and so on) is pretty unbelievable. Yet, I know it's been clinically tested, and I think there's at least reason to keep an open mind about its usefulness, especially in the realm of pain relief.

I think many types of body work are bogus or at least the claims about how they work are bogus, but I do get a lot of relief from repetitive strain issues from traditional massage.

Why I don't put faith in Western Medicine, either
When I have had arguments with others about my skepticism and/or rejection of certain alternative treatments, the other person often says something along the lines of, "OK, if you want to put all your trust in Western medicine/allopathic medicine, then be my guest."

This assumes a false dichotomy. I have enough skepticism to go around for both! I do NOT trust Big Pharma or western doctors any more than I do naturopaths or herbalists. I DO, however, respect treatments that have shown to have effect beyond the placebo effect in repeated scientific studies.

I'm not dismissing the placebo effect out of hand, and I think that western medicines often "work" the same way that homeopathy "works." Study after study has shown that even for western medicine, your good relationship with your doctor and your doctor's belief in the medicine she's prescribing for you will often contribute to you getting better as much as the medicine itself.

Often, someone will seek alternative therapies, and they'll try treatment X without result, then Y, and then finally they get better when they try treatment Z. They exclaim, "Oh, I've finally found the right treatment!" and they become big advocates of treatment Z. This doesn't necessarily mean that Z made them better though; perhaps enough time passed that they just got better on their own. The thing is, I think this happens with regular western medicine too!

Say you get put on one anti-depressant or heartburn medication, and it doesn't fix the problem. So your doctor tries out two or three others, and finally, after the fourth try, your condition gets better. It doesn't mean the last medication was the silver bullet-- it could be that you've changed your lifestyle or eating habits or have dropped something stressful out of your life, and the depression would have lifted or the heartburn would have gone away even if you hadn't tried any medicine at all.

Does this make me superstitious?
As for being superstitious; surely, I don't believe in god or any supernatural phenomenon. But this doesn't mean I'm wholly 100 percent logical or that I don't have my superstitious moments. I don't believe that people get crazy during the full moon or that astrology is predictive. However, I DO tend to put a fair amount of stock in symbology.

I don't mean that when I see four crows flying south overhead that I think it's going to rain. I mean something more along the lines of, "If he bought THAT for her for their third anniversary of dating, it's a sure thing they're going to break up in the next few months." Or, "He dreamed that the refrigerator came alive and tried to eat him. Surely he's having some issues with this new diet he's just started." Or, "That guy she's crazy about is just like her Dad in a lot of ways. I bet she's going to have a lot of issues around abandonment with this guy, just like she did with her father."

I think partly this is superstitious on my part, but it's also legitimate psychological observation as well. I think that human beings do put stock, even if subconsciously, in symbols, and I do, too.
sarahmichigan: (Default)
This is going to be kind of anti-climactic since I've been thinking on it for a while and leading up to it, and yet it's going to be short. But here goes.

I'm an atheist because I think the burden of proof is on those who believe in ANY kind of supernatural phenomena. As far as I can tell, material, natural explanations explain the world and how it works and how it came into being just fine.

To me, positing a Higher Being (especially the more specific you get about what this being is like) to explain things is like saying that tiny black fairies contort their bodies to show the time on my digital watch rather than relying on naturalistic, material explantions about electricity and such.

Now, I understand why some people have an intuition that there just MUST be something bigger than us that created the world. That's fine, and I can understand that. (I have trouble figuring out, sometimes, how people go from "some higher being" to "my specific sect or doctrine," but that's another subject.) However, I don't have that intuition.

I remember when I was taking philosophy courses at Western Michigan University, and sometimes the professor would ask, "What's your intuition about that statment or assertion?" This was in the context of many philosophical arguments, not just ones about the existence or non-existence of God. I remember thinking, "Intuition?! This is supposed to be a philosophy course, and not a New Age class about how to fine-tune your ESP."

But really, when it comes to belief in a higher being of some sort, I think a lot of us are going off our gut feeling. My gut says that only the material world exists, and there isn't anything "super" above the natural world. Any weirdness that can't be explained by science can usually be explained by psychology.
sarahmichigan: (Default)
I like that they're examining health claims, and I've never been to Oregon, and there's a magic show!

some of the highlights:

Thursday, August 10
7:00–10:00 pm — Why Quack Therapies Seem to Work
-- Barry Beyerstein

Friday, August 11
9:00–10:15 am — Factors That Aid the Misinterpretation of Medical/Health Claims -- Ray Hyman
10:45am –Noon — The Floater Is in the Toilet Bowl: Flushing Out the Hidden Flaws in Alternative Medicine -- Wallace Sampson
2:00–3:15 pm — What Attracts People to Quackery? -- James Alcock

Saturday, August 12
9:00–10:15 am — The Power and Problems of Personal Testimony -- Loren Pankratz
10:45–Noon — Bogus Therapies and Self Help -- Barry Beyerstein
7:00–10:00 pm
3rd Annual “In the Trenches Award”
Close-up Magic with Jerry Andrus, Jay Frasier, Ron Friedland, Ray Hyman
sarahmichigan: (Default)
A link found via [ profile] windswept about the damage that can be done by Scientology's stance on psychiatry. "Tom Cruise Killed Mommy":

I thought [ profile] dionysus1999 would appreciate this, as well as the "bonus link" toward the bottom of the post about the agreement you must sign that says they can kill you.
sarahmichigan: (Default)
I've argued with people on-line about the supposed link between vaccines/mercury and autism, but have never been able to put together such a coherent Question-Answer response as [ profile] tacit does here:

Good discussion in the comments, too!
sarahmichigan: (Default)
A website dedicated to exposing the underbelly of Scientology. Thought it'd be of interest to several folks on my friends list, but especially [ profile] dionysus1999:
sarahmichigan: (Default)
There have been a couple memes going around: the first tells women how to avoid rape, the second is an angry response saying the burden shouldn't be on women not to get raped, but that men should stop doing the raping. I'm not even going to address either of those memes except to say that [ profile] lefthand had a good point in saying that the advice not to teach women self-defense was sort of counter-intuitive and that [ profile] windswept did a fine job of pointing out the riduculousness of the second meme as a whole (i.e. violent sociopaths aren't going to be swayed by an LJ post).

[edited to add: Now I'm thinking windswept wasn't addressing the "how to avoid rape" meme going around but rather was referring to another post; however, I think her criticism of that sort of idea/post applies to this meme as well.]

The main point of this post is that recently broke down an email forward of "Tips for Avoiding Violent Crime," pointing out what is good advice, what is general common sense, what is urban legend, and what parts are complete nonsense. I thought the snopes analysis was pretty good. Read it here:
sarahmichigan: (Default)


Four months ago, when evolution and "intelligent design" (ID) squared off in Kansas, I defended ID as a more evolved version of creationism. ID posits that complex systems in nature must have been designed by an intelligent agent. The crucial step forward is ID's concession that "observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building"—not scriptural authority—define science. Having acknowledged that standard, advocates of ID must now demonstrate how hypotheses based on it can be tested by experiment or observation. Otherwise, ID isn't science.

This week, ID is on trial again in Pennsylvania. And so far, its proponents aren't taking the experimental test they accepted in Kansas. They're ducking it.


Under the [Penn.] policy, "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, Intelligent Design." Notice the "of" before "other theories." The policy doesn't tell teachers to discuss gaps and problems in ID. It tells them to discuss gaps and problems in Darwinism—and then to discuss ID as an alternative "theory." The board's brief makes clear that the policy's aim is "informing students about the existing scientific controversy surrounding Darwin's Theory of Evolution, including the fact that there are alternative scientific theories."


So here's what ID proponents are offering to teach your kids: They won't say how ID works. They won't say how it can be tested, apart from testing Darwinism and inferring that the alternative is ID. They won't concede it has to be falsifiable. All they'll say is that Darwinism hasn't explained some things. But that's what the first half of the Dover policy says already. So there's no need for the second half—the part that mentions ID.

(emphasis added by me)
sarahmichigan: (Default)
I posted this in another LJ in the comments, as part of a discussion about science and "other ways of knowing".

As these cases and profiles indicate, psychics do not solve crimes or locate missing persons—unless they employ the same non-mystical techniques as real detectives: obtaining and assessing factual information, receiving tips, and so on, even sometimes getting lucky. In addition to the technique of "retrofitting," psychics may shrewdly study local newspaper files and area maps, glean information from family members or others associated with a tragedy, and even impersonate police and reportedly attempt to bribe detectives (Nickell 1994).

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