I promised not to talk philosophy on this blog, but I lied. I'm compelled to post this.

Through a series of events that I won't go into (but some of you may be aware of), I have come to think of myself as a skeptic. ...This wasn't a label I bothered to use up until this year... it just never occurred to me: "scientist*" was enough.

It turns out there's a rather large community of skeptics on the web. I've taken to following some of them... but I find most of them off-putting, since they're too big into bashing Christianity. ...Not that I don't appreciate a good religion-bash now and then, but most of these people just won't shut up about it. It gets tedious.

So last night, I watched a movie that community skeptics are really excited about. For me, watching it drove home a lot of the thoughts I've had about skepticism on the web. Namely, I like the idea, but I don't think many of the proponents really "get" it. ...And I think they miss a few key points. I want to make three here:

  1. In this movie, as elsewhere, there's a mantra that things like homeopathy "don't give any facts". ...What they mean to say is that they don't give any scientific facts. And there's a big difference. It's a fact that they dilute their compounds incredibly. It's a fact that Sally Suckerman took the stuff and was feeling better within a month. ...And so on. They give facts, it's just that the quality of the facts is non-scientific. Some people actively avoid scientific facts... if they are doing so by choice, there's nothing we can say to convince them otherwise. But to say they are giving no facts at all is just... well... unnecessarily hurtful. Maybe this is a tiny point to make, but it's something that bugs me.
  2. There is little focus on the influence belief has on health, performance, and quality of life. Often, believing is enough. I point to Derren Brown (a hard-core skeptic) for evidence.
  3. There's a lack of thorough skepticism about science itself. The movie I mention makes lots of references to science that is harmfully biased, like the pharmaceutical industry. Skepticism only works if you can apply to yourself and those you trust.
I like being a skeptic, and I like that it seems to be a concept that is spreading. ...But I think we have to apply some of our own rules to ourselves if it is going to have any lasting meaning.

That said, there are some wonderful points in Skeptoid's movie. I loved his analogies for not teaching pseudo-science is science classes. I love that he snuck in black holes at the center of the universe as one of those "cool things" that may or may not be provable. (I'm not convinced black holes are what we think they are.) I think he did a good job of highlighting the most important falacies. It was a well-produced video, with a very steady camera and some cool graphics in the clinical trial section. And I really loved his explanation of how theories always have room for improvement! In fact, I think that was a point that needed to be stressed even more. I think that's the underlying virute of skepticism, science, and critical thought... and it should be sung to the mountains. ; )

Okay, that's off my chest. Now back to less controversial matters. : )

* Well, "supportive of science".


Victor said...

1) I disagree about homeopathy and facts. The facts you enumerated are facts about that belief system, but not facts of it. Sounds to me like what that movie meant was that homeopathy has no factual content.

it's the same distinction as between talking about riding a unicorn, and actually riding a unicorn. Meta-data and data.

2) Re belief, you might want to check out an interesting positivist fellow, one William James, who about a century ago gave his seminal lecture, 'The Will to Believe', where he explored the feedback relationship between beliefs and facts. Be careful where that leads however; though pragmatism itself is a weird enough position even without the 'will to believe' doctrine, if you explore it deeply enough.

More generally, i think the problem with any sort of community is that it is, well, a community, and hooks into all the tribal stuff we carry in our heads since birth. I suspect that by its very nature, community promotes groupthink. This is not necessarily bad, since it can be good groupthink, but it is nonetheless a form of thinking affected not just by veridical factors, but also by social ones.

This is an inherent conflict at the root of being a truth-seeking human... veracity and society are not cleanly compatible.

Jeremy Rice said...

I suppose I see your point, though I'm stuck on a few details.

By the same logic, a clinical trial produces no facts about the drug it studies, merely meta-facts. Perhaps 'facts' is the wrong word entirely (he does go on to say elsewhere that there's no such beast in science), but evidence.

Running with that, clinical trials are (scientific) evidence of the effects of a drug... and anecdotal evidence supports homeopathy. (pre-emptive comment: I am not defending homeopathy, which I personally feel is bunk. And I don't mean to single it out, I'm just using it as an example.)

That said, I don't think the unicorn analogy applies. The following is false:

"Sarah took emergence-E and didn't get sick on the plane" is to
"riding unicorns is fun" is to "unicorns"

It's true, as the video very clearly illustrates, that homeopathy's evidence are correlative, not causal. Thus, I can see where it's not evidence of support, and, by extension, isn't a "fact about homeopahthy". (It's a fact about Sarah.)


I think my broader point still holds: the way that people say "there are no facts about homeopathy" is not only wrong (there are facts about it, they're just silly ones), but not the right way to say it. Much better to say, IMO, there is no scientific evidence to support it. The point is one of science.

I did read up on pragmatism based on one of your earlier comments, though it... well, it smelled like a community. :) Perhaps I'll find the energy to read the book, though. :)

Very true about the human nature of community. And as such, I wonder if it's not such a "bad" thing. : )

And I like your summary.

r_b_bergstrom said...

Good post and discussion. The unicorn rebuttal and counter-rebuttal was very illuminating.