From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 12 No. 4
The true potency of symbols lies in their ability to alter our expectations and interpretations of the world. And our interpretations of the world are all we have— your consciousness is your reality— so, in a way, symbols do have magical power. --Matthew Hutson
Thinking Critically and Magically, Like a Scientist
In his entertaining and educational exploration of magical thinking, Matthew Hutson notes that thinking like a scientist doesn't always come naturally. According to Hutson, scientists take anecdotal evidence lightly, consider multiple explanations, and look for disconfirming evidence. Anecdotes can be vivid and emotionally powerful. They're concrete and immediate, making them easily accessible to most people's minds. Scientific data, on the other hand, are remote and abstract; they require knowledge and technique to evaluate. Scientific data are usually devoid of emotive impact, making them inaccessible to people who think with their guts.
Many people fail to consider alternative explanations because they're already committed to a belief that the accepted explanation supports. The natural tendency is to view supportive data with favor and non-supportive data with disfavor. Confirmation bias has the reins on this two-horse carriage: if one horse sees scientific data on the left, while the other sees alternative explanations on the right, confirmation bias will steer you straight ahead to anecdotes and the single explanation that makes you feel you're on the right path.
Critical thinking becomes especially important when we evaluate the scientific data, draw implications from them, and develop various hypotheses to explain them. If you have a naive understanding of perception and memory, however, you'll probably be doomed to die with your biases on.
By the way, the title of Hutson's book is The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane and it is book #22 in the "book of the week" archive for the Unnatural Acts blog.
Wrong Controls for Energy Medicine Studies
Many times over the past twenty years I've been corrected by well-meaning believers in various forms of energy medicine. Some have been kind enough to send me links to randomized control group studies that they think support belief in such things as tapping on the stomach to release negative energy while administering what strongly resembles some version of cognitive behavioral therapy. Here's a recent example:
I noticed your page on EFT, the 'subtle energy' based treatment modality. I know you wrote it some years ago but I thought I would point you in the direction of some research that you may be interested in looking at. Feinstein, D (2010). Rapid treatment of PTSD: Why psychological exposure with acupoint tapping may be effective. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(3), 385-402. Feinstein, D. (2012). Acupoint stimulation in treating psychological disorders: Evidence of efficacy. Review of General Psychology, 16(4), 364-380. Church, D. et al. (2013). Psychological trauma symptom improvement in veterans using emotional freedom techniques: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 201(2), 153-160.
Happy reading : ) On a side note, I feel I should mention that the EFT Manual was released to the general public by Gary Craig free of charge.
If you look at the first article mentioned, you'll find reference to a control group study, but the design of the study was not to show that tapping on acupoints matters. That study would have compared two groups getting EFT. One group would include the tapping, while the other would skip the tapping. Instead, this control group study compared those getting EFT to those on a waiting list.
Since EFT and other similar energy therapies use cognitive behavioral therapy--a treatment empirically validated in many cases--there is no need to claim that EFT doesn't work or can't work. It may work as well as any other CBT. Skeptical criticism of Craig and others like him is usually based on arguing that there's no evidence that the tapping or following a light or whatever technique is used to "release energy" or "remap the brain" or other such speculative decoration is essential.
When the granddaddy of all the energy medicines--acupuncture--was finally subjected to proper control studies, i.e., those that compared real acupuncture with fake acupuncture, it was discovered that sticking needles into someone is unnecessary to get beneficial effects.
Kent Hovind's Ridiculous Challenge
Before being sentenced to ten years in a federal prison, young Earth creationist Kent Hovind offered $250,000 to anyone who "can give any empirical evidence (scientific proof) for evolution." What Hovind considers scientific evidence indicates either his ignorance of science or his duplicity. To get the cash, one must "prove beyond reasonable doubt that the process of evolution ... is the only possible way the observed phenomena could have come into existence."
For those who don't remember their philosophy of science, here's a quick review of the relevant points. Theoretically, there is no limit to the number of possible explanations for any observed phenomenon or set of phenomena. It is logically impossible to prove that one explanation for the existence of all the various species on our planet is the only possible explanation. So, Hovind's money was safe from the beginning.
How scientists determine which of various competing explanations is the best one is a complex process. These days, however, the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing consciousness creating all species individually a few thousand years ago is much, much more implausible than the idea of evolution of species by natural processes over billions of years.
I write about this mostly-forgotten man and his challenge because he still has some sort of presence on the Internet and I still get email asking me why nobody has proved "that creationism is wrong" or that "evolution is the only possible way" species could have come about. I respond that nobody can prove that creationism is wrong in the sense of being impossible. Since the young Earth creationist (YEC) denies that the dating methods of science have any validity, it is pointless to demonstrate to them that the Earth is billions not thousands of years old. It is also pointless to try to prove to the YEC that extinct species existed millions of years ago or to try to correct their misunderstanding of processes like natural selection. On the other hand, I also tell these inquirers that many creationists accept that the Earth is billions of years old and that species have evolved from other species. Creationists such as Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and head of the National Institutes of Health, accept evolution, but they believe a god created the universe and the plan for evolution.
I expect to get a few more inquiries along these lines now that word has spread of philosopher Thomas Nagel's latest book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. I've only read a couple of chapters but so far the book has lived up to its reputation among big-name writers like Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. They think Nagel has lost his powers of deep thought and has produced a shallow work that will do little more than give hope to the defenders of so-called Intelligent Design. Even though it's not a science book, Mark Vernon of The Guardian calls Nagel's work "the most despised science book of 2012."
"I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life," writes Nagel. Maybe the argument will get better, but in the early chapters the only defense of the "incredulity" of the consensus view in science on these matters is to assert several times that the consensus view is incredible and offends common sense. Nagel admits he has no alternative explanation to materialism and what he calls "the reductionist neo-Darwinian account," but he thinks the true picture of reality as we know it will involve purposive mental elements. He rejects theism, dualism, idealism, and materialism because they don't pass the common-sense test. I've never been much of a fan of so-called common sense, as many of my critics have pointed out to me often enough. The reason common sense is so common, I've said, is that it doesn't make much sense. Anyway, I understand what most people mean when they talk about common sense. Sticking to the usual sense of the expression, I would say that Nagel's notion that there is something teleological in nature that is primary (though he doesn't think purpose is coming from any divine source) flies in the face of common sense. I find it much more incredible that purposive mind underlies the reality we know and is an intrinsic part of nature than the view that mind emerged from an arrangement of material parts. We are moist robots (Scott Adams) and meat that thinks (Terry Bisson). But we have perception and self-awareness. We don't perceive everything and we don't perceive everything about ourselves, but most of us perceive enough to recognize how magical and mysterious our brains are. Nagel's common sense tells him that consciousness can't be explained by a mechanistic, materialistic metaphysics.
To explain consciousness, a physical evolutionary history would have to show why it was likely that organisms of the kind that have consciousness would arise.
Even a dummy like me knows that that position is nonsense. You don't have to prove that consciousness was a likely product of evolution no matter what your ideological basis. Looking back at something like the Big Bang makes any kind of order seem highly unlikely when trying to predict 13-plus billion years into the future. So what? Sure, if you posited intentional mental "atoms" as a constituent of the universe, I suppose it would be more likely that mind would emerge at some point than if the only original "atoms" were material. In some ways, Nagel's concerns are reminiscent of the Spinoza/Leibniz divide in the 17th century. Neither Spinoza nor Leibniz was satisfied with the dualism of Descartes or Locke. Nor were they satisfied with the materialism of Hobbes. Maybe Nagel's next book with be called Why Leibniz was Right. In the meantime, readers can check out another Hovind-type challenge from Joseph Mastropaolo, who got some free publicity from The Guardian recently. I like the part where Mastropaolo requires that "Evidence must be scientific, that is, objective, valid, reliable and calibrated." Calibrated?
Is Aspartame a Neurotoxin?
A Ms. Jenkins wrote to me:
I was researching for Dr. Blaylock when I came across your web site. You really need to check out your facts on Dr. Blaylock. He knows that of which he writes about and you obviously do NOT. I know for a fact that aspartame, MSG, etc. are neurotoxins. They affected me!!! And only when I got off them did I get better. You really need to do your research before you go blasting someone. My advice to you would be for you to close down your web site....
Russell Blaylock is a neurosurgeon who believes, among other things, that aspartame and MSG are toxic substances causing brain damage. Ms. Jenkins didn't describe her symptoms or her diagnosis. All she revealed to me was that she used aspartame and MSG at one time and stopped using them, and now she is better. This is a classic example of someone who believes that personal experience trumps scientific studies. She's personally experienced that one thing came after the other, and the natural inference is that the first thing caused the second. She is not open to the possibility that there might be some other explanation for why she felt bad in the first place and why she feels better now. Anyway, what does the science tell us about aspartame and MSG? Are they neurotoxins?
Dr. Steven Novella of Science-Based Medicine writes:
What does the evidence say about aspartame? A recent published review of all available evidence, including hundreds of studies, concluded:
The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.
Multiple reviews, going back to 1985, conclude the same thing. Since this latest review there have been more studies, in various countries ... showing no link between aspartame and brain cancer, and a lack of correlation between artificial sweeteners and gastric, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers.
Like all such research, there is noise in the data (but no apparent signal). There is no pattern of evidence to suggest that aspartame causes cancer, autoimmune disease, neurological disease, diabetes, or anything else its critics claim.
For a detailed overview of and response to the claims about aspartame that people like Blaylock and Jenkins see the letter from David G. Hattan, Ph.D., Acting Director, Division of Health Effects Evaluation, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, posted in several places on the Internet. The devil's in the details, but the bottom line as far as aspartame being a neurotoxin is that aspartame in the amounts any human is likely to use it is safe, i.e., is not going to cause neurological damage. More references can be found in the Wikipedia article on the aspartame "controversy." I review Dr. Hattan's points in my latest podcast segment on magical thinking.
But it doesn't really matter that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the claim that aspartame is safe. The Blaylocks and Jenkinses of the world don't trust the scientific studies. The scientists are all liars, protecting their own interests and the interests of the corporations that have them on the payroll. Here's a link to a website of someone who represents the kind of conspiratorial mind I am talking about.
I would add a section on MSG, but I would just be repeating myself.
Each of us is carrying hundreds of environmental toxins in our bodies. That fact doesn't mean we are being poisoned. The quantities in most cases are so small as to be of little concern. Bruce Ames, a world-renowned cancer researcher, reminds us that "there are 10 milligrams of known carcinogens in a cup of coffee and that's more carcinogens than you're likely to get from pesticide residues for a year!" In case you're wondering, there are a thousand chemicals in a cup of coffee, but only 22 have been tested in animal cancer tests. Of those, 17 are carcinogens. Should you worry? Not according to professor Ames. Why? Because the dose of those chemicals in a cup of coffee is too small to worry about. Ames is the inventor of the Ames Test, which allows scientists to test chemicals to see if they cause mutations in bacteria. His research led to bans on such synthetic chemicals as Tris, the flame-retardant used in children's pajamas.
Dr. Oz "Investigates" the Dangers of "Mercury" Fillings
I put 'investigates' in scare quotes because Oz abuses the term in his recent program on the dangers of dental fillings. The blurb for the Oz episode on fillings reads:
From memory loss to mood swings, could your toxic teeth be to blame for your health problems? Mercury fillings are banned in some countries. Should you consider having your mercury fillings removed? Dr. Oz investigates.
Note that the blurb refers to "mercury fillings," even though the proper term is 'amalgam.' The fillings contain a mixture of metals such as silver, copper, and tin, in addition to mercury, which binds these components into a hard, stable, and safe substance. So says the American Dental Association (ADA). According to the Consumer Health Digest, Oz's "investigation" of amalgam fillings "mentioned the ADA's viewpoint but denied the group's offer to provide credible experts for the discussion."
The program featured appearances by two mercury-free dentists, a woman who claimed to have suffered from amalgam toxicity, and a demonstration purporting to show that brushing the teeth releases toxic levels of mercury vapor within the mouth. During the demonstration, Oz reached into a sealed box to brush the teeth of a mouth model that contained amalgam fillings and an instrument detected mercury vapor within the box.
The ADA issued a press release in response to Oz's "investigation," in which it condemned Oz's "reliance on sensationalism while ignoring sound science."
The demonstration on the Dr. Oz Show related to brushing amalgam fillings in a synthetic mouth model and measuring vapor does not simulate real world conditions in the mouth. For example, the mouth model is in a closed, dry environment, yet people have saliva in their mouths. The water protein barrier in the mouth reduces vapor activity. The amount of vapor released from amalgam fillings is so small it’s in the billionths of a single ounce. A noted researcher calculated that it would take nearly 300 amalgam fillings in real life for even the most sensitive person to exhibit symptoms.
Maybe the Dr. Oz show should be required to announce before each investigative segment: Warning! The Misinformation in This Program May be Hazardous to Your Health!
Defending Skepticism One Wikipedia Article at a Time
The guerilla skepticism on Wikipedia project continues. The mission, in case you don't know, according to founder Susan Gerbic, is "... to improve skeptical content on Wikipedia. We do this by providing noteworthy citations, and removing unsourced claims from paranormal pages. It is also our mission to improve the pages of our skeptic spokespeople. Why? Because evidence is cool. We train - We mentor - Join us." Check out the latest example of the team's work. If you are thinking of starting a new blog or podcast, consider instead that you might do more for skepticism by joining the guerillas on Susan's team.
Fighting the Fakers
The theme of The Amazing Meeting 2013, held in Las Vegas, is "fighting the fakers." Local fakers are excluded unless they are faking psychic abilities, paranormal powers, or supernatural miracles. This year's lineup includes Susan Jacoby, Dan Ariely, Susan Blackmore, Jerry Coyne, Harriet Hall, and many others. The festival takes place at that palace of reason, the Southpoint Hotel and Casino, July 11-14.
Fighting the Theists, Anti-Atheists, and Other Misogynists
A few years ago, Jen McCreight blogged about female atheists and how little recognition they get compared to the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, and other men. Last May, McCreight joined about two dozen other prominent female atheists for a Women in Secularism conference. Next month, the second Women in Secularism conference will convene in Washington, D.C. Even if you can't attend, I encourage you to take a look at the list of speakers and their credentials posted here.
Is there a connection between women's rights and secularism? You bet there is. Religion and superstition continue to harm women in ways men can't even imagine. According to the website for the event, "within the freethought movement, nonbelievers and skeptics are passionately debating the role of social justice, particularly in regard to gender equality and incidences of hostility toward women."
Heathens Release Infallible
Jim Underdown's band The Heathens has released their first single. It's called "Infallible" and is about a guy who wears ruby slippers and talks to imaginary friends.
Insults and Horse Laughs
If you look up "Crispian Jago" on Wikipedia you'll be asked if you mean "cristina lago," but most skeptics know that Jago is the creator of a deck of cards called Skeptic Trumps. Each card features a caricature sketch of a skeptic by Neil Davies and some humorous details provided by Jago. (Take a look at the card for Phil Plait for a good example.)
Jago posts his work on a blog he calls The Reason Stick. A recent posting of a Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense featured four intersecting ellipses of "bollocks": religious, quackery, pseudoscientific, and paranormal. Many skeptics found it quite amusing, including me. I posted a link on The Skeptic's Dictionary Facebook Page and so far the posting has 23 likes. One reader, however, found both the diagram and my linking to it offensive and mocking. He has since removed his comment, but he's posted before and is the kind of person who does not think ridicule is the highest form of flattery.