Archive for the ‘Skepticism’ Category

Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World Part 2: Starstuff and Our Connections to the Natural World…..

In The Most Precious Thing, the opening chapter of Sagan’s masterpiece The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he discusses the appeal of pseudoscience and the various belief systems held by humans throughout history. All of us try out different belief systems at one point or another as we progress through life, generally because they fulfill our emotional needs. Many of these are encountered during childhood and adolescence, but most adults try out new beliefs as well, whether it is a new religion, astrology, psychic powers, the charismatic story of a self-help guru or even an alternative medical practice like chiropractic or acupuncture.

Sagan describes how these beliefs fulfill our desires for personal powers, our hunger for spirituality and our desperate yearning for cures for diseases. They can calm our fears and reassure us that death is not the end. They can buttress our feelings of importance in creation and ensure that we are tied to the universe, if not the center of it. They can serve as a gateway to the feelings of wonder and majesty that we crave while going about seemingly mundane existences.

Sagan, as he so often does, perfectly encapsulates the feelings of folks like myself, who look to science rather than the supernatural or pseudoscientific to satisfy that aspect of human nature that has come to be known as spirituality or to provide a sense of wonder in our lives. As a counterpoint to Sagan’s approach, I always think of Yann Martel, who in his otherwise excellent book The Life of Pi takes a different tack. In the story, the main character tells two versions of his travails on the high seas on a lifeboat accompanied by an unsavory cast of characters such as a Bengal tiger and a vicious hyena. Or was it simply himself and a deranged cook? He asks which is the better story and I certainly agree with the characters in the book that are posed this question when they say that the story with the animals is.  Martel then writes, “and so it goes with God.”

Martel implies that the supernatural or pseudoscientific, in this particular case the existence of one particular version of a higher power, is the better story and is therefore more worthy of belief. To be fair, some in the religious community have not taken kindly to this assumption, equating it with postmodern claptrap, but it speaks to what the vast majority of believers, if not virtually all of humanity, is heavily influenced by. We all are emotionally impacted by a “better story” when it comes to spirituality and our connection to the natural world. Unfortunately, as countless polls over the past few decades continue to reveal our decreasing understanding of basic scientific concepts, the question is likely being begged by Martel and many others that the average person in America knows enough about science to make a fair comparison.

Sagan responds to the reality of the supernatural and pseudoscientific appealing to our human nature in typical and illuminating fashion:

“Although it’s hard for me to see a more profound cosmic connection than the astonishing findings of modern nuclear astrophysics: Except for hydrogen, all the atoms that make each of us up – the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the carbon in our brains – were manufactured in red giant stars thousands of light-years away in space and billions of years ago in time. We are, as I like to say, starstuff.”

Although it helps to reveal the astonishing and awe-inspiring reality behind our existence, Sagan’s astrophysics inspired sentiment is far from enough to fully grasp the grandeur of human existence as revealed by scientific inquiry. Evolutionary theory, the linchpin of our understanding of life on Earth, describes the next phase of how we came to be here on Earth. But when Darwin published his own masterpiece in 1859, he didn’t just set in motion the means to which we might understand why modern humans are what they are. Evolutionary theory explains, simply and elegantly, how we are related in fundamental ways to all life from the bonobo and chimpanzee to the sea cucumber and even to unicellular bacteria. It reveals how, bit by bit over billions of years, life has struggled to survive in varying environments. How it has evolved countless mechanisms to improve its reproductive success via a sloppy process with no specific goal in mind. And yet here we are. No claws. Weak. Naked and soft. Flightless. Completely incapable of survival for years after we are born. Yet here we are. Social. Communicative. Resourceful. Masters of a variety of environments through our ingenuity, drive and a thin rim of neural tissue built upon a forebrain shared by all other vertebrates. Not by magic or divine whim. Not because of a universal directive or a undetectable vibrational field. Evolution, properly understood, is by far the better story and science is the key to that understanding.

I often discuss so-called “big picture” concepts such as this with my oldest daughter who has only just made six years of age. My goal is for her to grow up having a firm grasp of the beauty and majesty of science, even if she does not come to care about the specific details as much as her daddy. A few weeks ago, while watching a television program about the human body, I explained to her how we are all starstuff, born in the hearts of enormous balls of plasma held together by one of the fundamental forces of nature, and how one day our individual components will return whence they came. How in a few billion years, when the star at the center of our solar system burns up the last of its hydrogen and enters its own red giant phase, the Earth will be engulfed. Showing no signs of fear, she sat quietly for a moment. I could almost hear her brain working its way around the information.

Children are born scientists because they innately know to perform the most basic and most vital of the components of the scientific method, and they are better at it than most adults. They ask questions. A question is a celebrated occurrence in my house and it is always met with an honest answer, even if it is “I don’t know.” It is okay for children to learn that their parents are not the repositories of all human knowledge. It does them a disservice to make things up or to suppress their curiosity by dismissing their inquisitiveness. But it is only truly valuable if the “I don’t know.” Is quickly followed up by “But let’s find out.” My daughter didn’t have a question this time, although they would come over the days and weeks that followed. She thought deeply for a while, smiled and replied, “That’s really nice.”

Carl Sagan and the Demon-Haunted World Part 1…..

I’ve been thinking about Carl Sagan a lot lately. This isn’t surprising considering what would have been his 76th birthday recently passed (November 9th), and a number of skeptical blogs and podcasts have covered this fact. Sagan passed away in 1996, a good 7 years before I stumbled into awareness of  the skeptical community, but his impact on myself and countless others since has been significant. He was, and is, a beloved icon of the skeptical movement, and deservedly so. Sagan championed reason and popularized science like none before or since.

While Sagan’s classic 1995 ode to critical thinking, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, wasn’t my first book focusing on science and skepticism, it certainly had the greatest impact. My personal introduction to skepticism, after watching an interview of him on the DVD extras for Penn and Teller’s television program Bullshit, was James Randi’s Flim-Flam, another classic that finds a home on many top ten lists. That book, along with the writings of Michael ShermerBob Park, Stephen Jay Gould and many others have influenced my approach to life greatly, but none like Sagan’s. It wasn’t just his ability to debunk pseudoscience, which I am especially fond of, or his ability to discuss complicated scientific topics in a way that those of us with lower intelligence quotients could grasp. Sagan’s gift was his ability to communicate the wonder of it all, the overarching beauty of a natural world with intimate connection between the tiniest elementary particles and galaxy clusters 85 million light years from Earth, or strands of nucleotide molecules and elephants. 

I’ve decided to pick up my copy of The Demon Haunted World and read it for the second time. My plan is to share what is meaningful to me as I progress through it, and to hopefully inspire others to read the book themselves.

In the first few pages of the book, Sagan wastes no time in describing one of the fundamental frustrations in skepticism. While being driven to a speaking engagement, he engages in conversation with the driver, an intelligent man with many questions about topics ranging from the supposed lost continent of Atlantis to the shroud of Turin. As Sagan politely shoots down each and every claim brought forth by the gentleman, he is struck with the notion that here is a man, curious about the natural world and motivated to learn, with a misplaced sense of awe. Rather than the wonders of scientific discovery, he is captivated by the unproven and implausible claims of pseudoscience.

Sagan writes,

“And yet there’s so much in real science that’s equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge-as well as being a lot closer to the truth. Did he know about the molecular building blocks of life sitting out there in the cold, tenuous gas between the stars? Had he heard of the footprints of our ancestors found in 4-million-year-old volcanic ash? What about the raising of the Himalayas when India went crashing into Asia? Or how viruses, built like hypodermic syringes, slip their DNA past the host organism’s defenses and subvert the reproductive machinery of cells; or the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence; or the newly discovered ancient civilization of Elba that advertised the virtues of Elba beer? No, he hadn’t heard. Nor did he know, even vaguely, about quantum indeterminacy, and he recognized DNA only as three frequently linked capital letters.”

Admittedly, the siren’s call of pseudoscience can be quite enticing. I speak from a certain degree of experience having been caught up in the world of paranormal research in my younger days. Like the driver in Sagan’s anecdote, I have always had a keen interest in understanding how things work. Not quite like my brother, who used to take apart mechanical devices so that he could put them back together, learning what makes them tick in the process, but on a more fundamental level. And I have always experienced an intellectual rush, so to speak, from learning about new scientific advances. M problem was differentiating science from baloney.

I yearned for insight into the mysteries of life but faced a number of hurdles, like cultural influences, the educational system itself and the way science is presented by the media and entertainment industries. I knew quite a few scientific facts, such as how to define a mammal, how fossils are formed or the order of the planets but I didn’t realize, hadn’t an inkling of in fact, how much there was that I didn’t know. And when I did attempt to piece together these random tidbits into a larger picture, I filled in the gaps of my understanding with what was available for easy digestion. I credulously watched television specials on alien visitors and the paranormal or read the Time Life series on ghosts and psychic powers uncritically. I even remember learning some medical “facts” from the commercials for a local chiropractor. Later, when I told my friends about it, I thought I was discussing legitimate science. I thought that these were the real mysteries of life. I didn’t have a clue what real science was or how it works.

The frustration that so many skeptics share, and certainly those involved in skeptical outreach, is that such a large impetus for belief in pseudoscience is that it fulfills the human desire for awe and wonder. But it is a meager gruel. One of the reasons why so many people look elsewhere for their wonder fix is that science is typically not presented in a flattering light to the public. Scientists are portrayed as nerds, or weird old men in white jackets with wild hair. Science is the butt of jokes and shown as boring, or overly complicated, or as just another way of understanding the universe, equal to any other. But good science, properly explained in the right context, is more awe-inspiring, more satisfying than anything that could ever be invented by the human brain.  

Sagan discusses the general state of scientific illiteracy but more importantly why it matters:

“It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential population growth. Jobs and wages depend on science and technology…..Consider the social ramifications of fission and fusion power, supercomputers, data “highways”, abortion, radon, massive reductions in strategic weapons, addiction, government eavesdropping on the lives of its citizens, high-resolution TV, airline and airport safety, fetal tissue transplants, health costs, food additives, drugs to ameliorate mania or depression or schizophrenia, animal rights, superconductivity, morning-after pills, alleged hereditary antisocial dispositions, space stations, going to Mars, finding cures for AIDS and cancer.

How can we affect national policy-or even make intelligent decisions in our own lives-if we don’t grasp the underlying issues?”

Despite the negative stereotype of skeptics, debunking is only a small part of what we do. Despite being much maligned, debunking is an extremely important role, but that is a topic for another post. Many of us consider the most vital role of the skeptic, however, to be that of the science popularizer. Unfortunately, very few actual scientists have proven to be any good at this. Besides Sagan, there is a very short list of people who have been able to achieve any significant mind share. Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are two very excellent examples. A number of non-scientist skeptics have answered the call as well, but it is an uphill battle. Still there is hope. The popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory and Mythbusters is very encouraging.

More to come.

Foundations of Skepticism: Confirmation Bias…..

In a prior post, I described one of the most vital supporting pillars of skepticism: the requirement for increasingly powerful evidence in support of claims that push the limits of plausibility and call into question fundamental aspects of our scientific knowledge. In this post, I’m going to reveal an inherent flaw in our ability to accurately interpret causal relationships in the natural world. This flaw, known as confirmation bias, serves as the driving force behind almost all unfounded belief systems and the primary reason why anecdotes and testimonials are unreliable.

Examples of confirmation bias are all around us. Nobody is completely immune to its sirens’ call, and partial immunity can only occur with awareness of the concept and a constant struggle to avoid its influence. The feeling one experiences when realizing that they are wrong, especially regarding something that they are emotionally invested in, is unpleasant to say the least. Our brains, and thus our minds, have evolved to avoid this feeling even if we must sacrifice an accurate assessment of reality. We do this via three different mechanisms, all of which revolve around our tendency towards biased selection of information that supports what we already believe to be true.

1. The selective collection only of information that confirms (biased collection)
2. The selective interpretation of information in such a way that confirms (biased interpretation)
3. The selective recollection of only information that confirms (biased recall)

The net effect of these mental mechanisms is the overemphasizing of only some of the available data or information regarding a claim. The best example that comes to mind, and one which melds this topic with the practice of medicine, is that of the commonly held belief in so-called lunar effects. This is the hypothesis that the full moon has effects on the human body. These include effects such as increased rates of mental illness and suicide, and spikes in birthrates. High percentages of medical and law enforcement professionals accept lunar effects as a true phenomenon despite the fact that they are highly implausible and have been thoroughly disproven by the collective data of over 100 studies. So why does this pervasive belief persist?

The answer is confirmation bias.

When a strange event occurs, or there is an odd cluster of events, during a full moon, such as the unlikely need for the delivery of a baby in a pediatric emergency department, many will  assign a causal relationship (biased interpretation) because they already believe in lunar effects. Others may make the connection for the first time because of prior exposure to legendary effects of the moon as with werewolves or its association with witchcraft, or because, after the fact, they hear of the many unusual things that have happened during a full moon from coworkers (biased collection). They may link the full moon to the strange event simply because humans are uncomfortable with the random nature of the natural world and a full moon is sexy. As storytelling primates, we often force explanations where none exist, and we love a good tale. This is what humans have evolved to do, and we do it better than any other species. At times, we do it too well. When a strange event or cluster of events occurs when the moon isn’t full, no connection is made. We do not interpret this as evidence against the previously assigned causal relationship (more biased interpretation).

Over the years, as the number of shifts in the ED pile up and random weird events continue to occur both during and not during the presence of a full moon, we tend to only remember the former (selective recall). Also, because human memory is malleable and changes with time and multiple retellings as in a childhood game of Telephone, strange events that did not occur during a full moon can drift to fit our beliefs. The occurrence of an ED delivery two weeks before and five days after a full moon two years ago may morph into that night we had two babies born during a full moon. The memory, although as false as a blatant lie, is no less real to the individual recalling it.

All of this is reinforced by the popularity of the belief, and to a lesser degree by misconceptions regarding the actual effects of the moon on the earth. Think tidal forces. Yes, it is true that the human body is largely made of water but in reality I am exerting more of a tidal force, or gravitational pull, on my keyboard as I type this than the moon does from 239,000 miles away. In fact, there is more gravitational pull on the earth during a new moon than a full one because a new moon lines up with the sun. But because of the dramatic visual stimuli that a full moon provides, this post isn’t about new moon madness.

So what are we do to about confirmation bias? Is it really an unavoidable pitfall? Well, perhaps not entirely unavoidable but it is an obstacle that has felled even the most powerful of minds. The best defensive strategy against this hardwired mental defect is an understanding of the fallability of human perception. The best offensive measure is  active exposure to information that does not fit within the cozy confines of our personal worldview. And giving scientific discovery more weight than personal anecdotes wouldn’t hurt either.

Foundations of Skepticism: Extraordinary Claims…..

The oft heard battle cry of the charging skeptic, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, is much more than a debate talking point. It is, after the scientific method, the most important fundamental principle of the skeptical approach to understanding the universe. And despite what proponents of pseudoscience and supernatural belief systems might claim when confronted, that the skeptic is closed-minded and should accept lower orders of evidence, it really isn’t all that controversial.

Everyone incorporates the extraordinary evidence requirement into their daily lives, even the most ardent of believers. If, for example, I told you that I had a penny in my left jacket pocket, you would be unlikely to protest. This is a routine occurence after all. The claim of transporting 1,000 pennies in this fashion would likely lead to instinctive doubt and the visual inspection of my left pocket, looking for the telltale effect of their weight, but you would be unlikely to call out for more powerful proof. Were I to claim that I just so happened to be carrying a Faberge Egg around, you would certainly request that I put my money where my mouth is. The chance that I would have one of these immensely valuable and rare entities is extremely low and calls for more than the anecdotal testimony I had provided.

Another example, and one more in line with my particular expertise, is that of homeopathy. For those uninitiated in the history and practice of homeopathy, here is a quick review. Roughly 200 years ago a German physician named Samuel Christian Friedrich Hahnemann grew disillusioned with the practice of medicine. He was right to question the trends of the day, which included practices such as bloodletting and dosing patients with mercury based compounds. Pre-scientific medicine often led to a worse outcome than if no treatment had been provided at all. But proponents of these modalities, like pushers of complementary and alternative medicine today, based their beliefs on anecdotal evidence and were led astray, just as Hahnemann soon would be.

Hahnemann noticed that the untoward side-effects of taking quinine, one of the only truly effective medications of the day, were similar to the actual symptoms of the malaria it was used to treat. He decided, based on his equally pre-scientific understanding of nature, influenced by a hefty helping of magical thinking, that the ingestion of a substance which causes a certain set of symptoms in healthy individuals will cure those same symptoms in the ill patient. He then set out to uncover the true curative power of every natural substance he could get his hands on. By collecting countless anecdotal experiences from healthy volunteers, usually friends and family members, he catalogued the supposed effects of these substances so that he might match the right substance with the right symptoms in his patients. The results were quite comical, as would be expected with such a process, with each substance being associated with long lists of symptoms ranging from the typical, such as nausea, to the ridiculous, such as feeling chills only between certain hours of the day or dreaming of criminals. No attention was paid towards whether or not these symptoms were coincidence or a result of influence by Hahnemann himself.

Hahnemann went on to invent the notion that more dilute concoctions were more effective. This led to the absurd dilutions commonplace in homeopathy today, most of which lead to treatments containing no molecules of the original substance. So when a homeopath recommends the ingestion of Toxicodendron radicans to cure your itch, you have little to fear of an allergic reaction to the poison ivy in the bottle or pill because, well, there is no poison ivy in the bottle or pill. And when an over-the-counter homeopathic conjunctivitis cure has belladonna listed as an active ingredient, you don’t need to call your local poison control center. You may have thrown good money down the toilet but you probably haven’t ingested one of the most toxic plants known to man. Of course there are many preparations of homeopathic remedies sold with measurable amounts of the original substances, and because of lax laws regulating quackery in America, a topic for another post, you can never really be sure that the carpet matches the drapes. There are known examples of companies using the homeopathic label to avoid the prying eyes of the FDA.

Despite over 200 years of use, there has yet to be shown a beneficial effect of any homeopathic remedy for any condition in properly designed studies, and it is widely considered by scientists and physicians that homeopathy is no better than placebo. This should come as no surprise because, despite the 200 years since its discovery, the claims of “like treats like” and of increasing efficacy with increasing dilution have never made any sense on a basic sciences level. They have zero plausibility and proponents have resorted to claims of magical water memory and quantum physics as mechanisms of action for their treatments when confronted with reality. Homeopathy stands alone at the top of the crap pile that is alternative medicine.

So when someone offers up a homeopathic remedy to cure what ails you, it is not closed-minded to expect extraordinary evidence to support such claims any more than it would be to expect a peek at that priceless piece of artwork stuffed in the left pocket of my fleece jacket. I might be fooled. I might be lying. On a personal level, it works for me just doesn’t qualify. Placebo effects and other biases inherent in determinations of efficacy can easily account for such a belief. And when it comes to specific remedies proposed by individual practitioners or the companies who profit from their sale, collections of anecdotes and testimonials are not enough. And for something that violates fundamental laws of nature like homeopathy does, a few equivocal studies are meaningless. Even a few outright positive studies should not be enough to convince you. Homeopathy is as extraordinary as it gets and the evidence should be huge. It should be so blatantly obvious that to deny it would be just as crazy as it was to believe in homeopathy in the first place.

Not everything is as off-the-charts crazy as homeopathy of course. Some claims naturally have more merit or plausibility than others. And there is no universally agreed upon algorithm for just how much evidence is enough for each specific claim. But as a general approach, the expectation of better evidence for claims less likely to be true has served humanity well. Unfortunately however, the human brain is hardwired to work against us when it comes to the appropriate acceptance of ideas even as it is equally hardwired to continually come up with new ones, and we must strive diligently to avoid being fooled by ourselves. Examples of the negative consequences of failure to do so are all around us, from ignorant entertainers spouting harmful anti-vaccine rhetoric to Nobel Prize winning scientists championing bogus cancer cures. The skeptical community is growing faster than ever, and slowly gaining more influence, but it is an uphill battle at this point. But I remain optimistic about the outcome.