From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 13 No. 11
December 21, 2014
If people say things counter to the facts, we may not know if they are ignorant or in denial, but with enough research we can determine whether they are wrong....even if the world stopped burning fossil fuel cold turkey, it would take 10,000 years for the atmosphere to revert to its pre-industrial composition.--Faye Flam
Revised: William C. Rader, M.D.
Skeptical Synchronicity and why we do what we do
Within days of each other, Skeptical Inquirer magazine and a fundraising booklet authored by Michael Shermer from the Skeptic Society arrived in my mailbox, both focusing on conspiracy theories. That might be enough synchronicity to send some true believers into paroxysms of ecstatic self-affirmation. I was taken in, however, by their focus on not just conspiracy theories but on understanding why people believe in them. Why do we care why people believe things that are implausible or improbable? I suppose we care because we think that understanding why people believe these implausible or improbable things is a necessary first step in finding ways to get them to change their minds. Why do we want to change people's minds? Because false beliefs in conspiracies and superstitions have harmful consequences, not just to the individuals who hold them but to society as a whole. It is not healthy for society to have people believing that the Ebola or the AIDS virus was created in a laboratory on purpose to harm people. It is not healthy for society to have people believing that vaccines cause autism and that Big Pharma and the government know this and promote vaccination programs so they can keep people sick.
Mistrust in government is healthy to an extent, but the more conspiracies people believe their government is involved in, the more dangerous people believe their government is and the less likely they are to trust their government when it is for the greater good that they do so. It degrades the level of conversation and the overall intelligence of a society to promote irrational beliefs over rational ones, to encourage superstition rather than to expose it, to denigrate science rather than promote it. Nothing denigrates science and encourages mistrust of science more than the promotion of false ideas about health and medicine by the so-called alternative health community (except perhaps the false ideas put forth by climate-change deniers in Congress and those lobbying for Big Oil). Promoting such things as supplements of resveratrol (a polyphenol thought to have antioxidant properties) as good for preventing and treating cancer, as Joe Mercola does, is irresponsible. There have been no human studies to support the value of such supplements for anything, much less for preventing or treating any kind of cancer. Science is difficult and complicated. Several studies of resveratrol on cancer cells in petri dishes and on cancer cells in lab animals have shown promise. No respectable scientist would claim that such studies show that resveratrol can prevent or cure cancer in humans until studies on humans have shown that it works in real people. Jumping from lab studies on cells and animals to recommendations for humans without considering how important establishing the proper dosage of any chemical is in medicine encourages others to reason in the same incompetent way. Unfortunately, making unjustified causal claims about humans based on lab studies is something some universities are guilty of as well.
What evidence do we have that understanding why anyone believes, say, that 9/11 was an inside job or that ghosts talk to mediums or that resveratrol can cure cancer will help us change the believer's mind? I guess we should first ask what evidence is there that there is a consistent set of reasons for believing 9/11 was an inside job or that ghosts talk to mediums or that resveratrol kills cancer cells? We could ask the same thing about any belief. What evidence is there that people who share a belief in things, whether plausible or implausible, whether probable or improbable, share a set of reasons for their beliefs? We could delve even deeper and ask: what evidence is there that those shared reasons--supposing there are some--are important to our efforts to change people's minds about those beliefs? It might turn out that the shared reasons people have for believing implausible and improbable things are nearly the same as the shared reasons people have for believing plausible and probable things.
Why does anybody believe anything? One shared element of most beliefs is a connection to trust. By that I mean that very few of our beliefs come from first-hand experience and even those that do are based on trust in our senses, our memories, our mental abilities to fairly evaluate experience, and our trust in the methods we use to analyze and evaluate data. Most of our beliefs are based in some way on trust in what others say or believe. We're outraged when we find out that a source we trusted has either lied or betrayed our trust in some fundamental way. We don't like to be deceived when the deceit makes us look foolish or betrays some fundamental expectation of honesty. Kill a child and we despise you for it. Kill a child and tell us that a black man or a masked man kidnapped your kid and some people will automatically sympathize with you...until they find out that no black man or masked man was involved. When they do find out that you were lying and realize that they believed you, they will despise you even more. We know that many species make a living by deceit and many members of our society depend on others being gullible and trusting so they can rob them blind. Why do we trust some people and some reports but not others? Distrust is as valuable as trust when it comes to being happy in society. How do we learn to develop a good trust detector?
Let's forget about how infants or young children come to their first beliefs and concentrate on adults. Beliefs are cumulative. It's as if we are magnets that attract or repulse data that fit or don't fit with what we already believe. We're like bits of matter toward which some ideas gravitate and stick, while others don't. We're like filters, letting some ideas in, modifying some others, and blocking entrance to still others. Are there any rules we can discover that would help us identify why people believe what's implausible or improbable? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that not too many people believe that what they believe is implausible or improbable. Maybe in religion, they do, but I doubt that anyone who believes 9/11 was an inside job or that ghosts exist or that resveratrol cures cancer thinks their beliefs are implausible, much less improbable. Yet, we know from much experience that demonstrating the implausibility or improbability of such beliefs has little effect on changing people's minds.
So, what do the experts who study conspiratorial beliefs have to tell us about why people believe in implausible or improbable conspiracies? Not much, really. There is no 'conspiratorial personality,' any more than there is a 'fantasy-prone' personality or a skeptically-prone personality, that explains why people believe what they do. Each of us may be driven to our beliefs by what we consider to be good evidence, but we are also driven to our beliefs by cognitive biases, cognitive incompetence, ignorance, misplaced trust in others, or our own inability to understand what we perceive or remember. We're all driven to see significant patterns where there are none and attribute intentionality to the purely coincidental. We all confabulate. We all prefer certainty and order to uncertainty and chaos. We'd all rather be comfortable and secure than fearful and anxious.
One thing we do know about those who believe in conspiracies is that believers who tend to accept one conspiracy are likely to accept more conspiracies. But any attempt to come up with a profile of the believer in conspiracies is likely to be as fruitless as the attempt to profile serial killers or rapists. The filters we use to let beliefs in, modify them, or reject them are built from fibers constructed by the beliefs we already hold. If those beliefs are false, questionable, misguided, and implausible, then our filters will not be good guides to adding reasonable beliefs to our belief system. Since these filters differ for each individual, some social scientists think that a more fruitful line of research would be to look for "triggers," which I take to mean 'events external and situational' rather than 'what goes on in somebody's head.' (Click here for an example of such a trigger for the conspiracy-prone individual. Click here for Daniel Jolley's article on "The Detrimental Nature of Conspiracy Theories." Click here for an article on Ferguson as a trigger for conspiracy theories and here for an actual conspiracy theory triggered by Ferguson.) In Shermer's fundraising booklet on Conspiracy Theories, he cites Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent regarding triggers. In their book, American Conspiracy Theories, Uscinski and Parent argue that situations that induce anxiety and high stress lead some people to see patterns where there are none and "concoct, embrace, and repeat conspiracy theories." Also, conservatives and liberals both engage in conspiratorial thinking at about the same rate, but if liberals are in power, conservatives will be more likely to see conspiracies where there are none, while liberals will be more likely to see conspiracies where there are none when conservatives are in power.
Uscinski and Parent found that education seems to have an effect on the tendency toward conspiratorial ideation. Only twenty percent of post-graduates had a high disposition to conspiratorial belief, while over forty percent of those with no high school education were highly disposed to believe in conspiracies. This fact seems to indicate there is some difference between conspiratorial ideation and belief in such things as ghosts or questionable cancer cures. A small study published in the Skeptical Inquirer in 2006 found that education did not reduce the tendency to believe in haunted houses, psychics, telepathy, channeling, and other questionable ideas.*
Maybe it is best that those of us who are skeptics and non-psychologists stick to evaluating belief claims rather than trying to figure out why people believe what they do. Even then it is good to keep in mind that it is generally pointless to produce counter-arguments to implausible and improbable beliefs except to persuade some third party who might listen to both sides and realize which side has the stronger evidence and the better arguments. Why not just focus on trying to show why a belief is wrong than trying to figure out why anyone holds that belief? At least that way we'd avoid the pointless debate over whether it is skeptics or believers in the paranormal who believe what they do because of cognitive dissonance.
The Logic Escapes Me
Why do alt-med defenders believe that the cause of cancer and most other diseases is bad nutrition and living in a toxic environment? I have yet to come across any convincing scientific evidence for these claims. I grant that the evidence is overwhelming that good nutrition is essential to good health and that the lifestyle we in the U.S. are accustomed to is destroying the planet for future generations. But the evidence is not overwhelming that nutrition and supplements combined with detoxification can either prevent or cure cancer or any other disease (except, of course, the diseases that are caused by malnutrition).
Marcus Freudenmann, an interior designer and self-proclaimed visionary will be one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Integrated Health Conference to be held in my former hometown of San Diego. He moved his wife, a naturopath, and son from Germany to New Zealand to get out of the toxic environment he was sure was causing his son's health problems (described as eczema by Freudenmann). Apparently, the same toxic environment didn't cause Marcus or his wife any problems, at least none that he mentions. Nor did their son's condition improve when they removed anything that might be toxic from their household. They quit using washing powder and avoided anything with formaldehyde in it.
Eating an organic healthy diet was already on the daily agenda, but no matter what they tried, Benedict's skin eczema did not reside [sic] completely.
After years of battling the disease they ... immigrated to New Zealand, where ...After only a few weeks their son was able to sleep alone in his bed for the first time in his life. His skin healed extraordinarily and after 2 months only scar tissue remained.*
Did I miss something? They removed all toxins from the household but nothing changed in their son's condition for years. They move to New Zealand after a few years of this non-toxic, organic living and their son's condition changes. Therefore, moving to New Zealand was instrumental in their son's improvement. I didn't know New Zealand was such a cleansing country. Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. All we know for sure is that nothing happened after removing the toxins, and the kid's condition improved after they moved to New Zealand. But the Freudenmanns think they have convincing evidence that toxins caused their son's condition. They use this anecdote in their crusade to encourage like-minded alt-med folks to join them in confirming that the way to health is the way of the naturopath: natural healing, meditation, stress relief, diet, supplements, and detoxification. They even made a movie out of their quest to confirm their beliefs. It's called Cancer is Curable and you can read all about it on their website where they offer for sale many "miracle supplements." The visionaries use the URL www.miraclesupplement.com. The Freudenmanns are not alone. They are joined by many thousands of like-minded folks around the globe in the belief that organic food, supplements, and detoxification regimens are the keys to preventing and curing just about any disease known to humans, their pets, and various lab animals.
If cancer is caused by toxins and lack of proper nutrition, then why do only 3% of cancer cases occur before age 45? Or, what amounts to the same question, why do 97% of all cancers occur in people over 45 years of age? You'd think 45 years would be plenty of time for toxins and bad nutrition to kick in and do their damage. Cancer occurred much less frequently when the average life span of people was half of what it is now. Maybe that's because cancer is a disease of aging? Toxins in the environment may be influencing the cancer rate, but the fact that the average life span is now over 80 years might be influencing the cancer rate even more. Finally, are we supposed to take seriously the notion that nutrition suddenly takes a nosedive once we reach age 45?
Another non-scientist who has taken it upon himself to find a natural cure for cancer is an accountant named Ty Bollinger. He has a website called CancerTruth and he too has made movies based on his quest to confirm his belief that the alt-med folks know how to cure cancer but the science-based folks only know how to treat symptoms. Like Freudenmann and most other natural cure folks you'll run across on the Internet, Bollinger accepts the idea that the reason these natural cures aren't well known is because of greed. Big Pharma, oncologists, the AMA, the media, the entire science-based research community, are in it only for the money and that's why real cures, which are all cheap and natural, are not known or made available to the masses. No compelling evidence is produced to support these widely-held notions. What I find ironic is that most of the alt-med proponents make a decent living selling these nonsensical ideas along with their supplements and detox programs, while blaming capitalism for preventing natural cures from becoming a part of standard medical practice.
I wonder how many natural cures have saved millions in communist countries where evil capitalism and greed can't hinder the truth from being known. Why not move to North Korea? There should be no hindrance to natural cures in a country that hates capitalism almost as much as many of the American defenders of natural cures say they do. You might think that natural cures would be so big in an anti-capitalist, socialist country like Denmark that they've probably eradicated cancer by now in that lovely nation, but you'd be wrong. Denmark is called the "cancer capital of the world." Are we supposed to believe that this is because "allopathic" medical schools don't teach their students about the health dangers of smoking and alcohol or about the benefits of supplements and detox treatments?
"The countries with the highest cancer mortality rates in 2012 were Mongolia, Hungary, Armenia, Serbia and Uruguay ... Mongolia had the highest overall cancer mortality rate of any country in the world, with 161 deaths per 100,000 people, and liver cancer is largely to blame."* I doubt that this is due to Big Pharma keeping out the naturopaths and homeopaths while pushing patented medicines and alcohol instead of vitamins. Bollinger also claims that the FDA exists to protect Big Pharma, not the consumer. I imagine it would be better for the natural cure folks if they moved to a country with no government regulations, a place like Somalia, for example.
The fact that Big Pharma is greedy and making billions from the sale of cancer drugs that are overpriced does not take away from the fact that Big Pharma has produced drugs that have cured cancers and is spending billions more on research and clinical trials in an effort to produce better drugs that will cure more cancers.*
[new] William M. London, a professor of public health at California State University, Los Angeles, has evaluated Bollinger's work in several articles entitled "Untruths About Cancer in the Failed Quest for Cures'." These articles are posted on the James Randi Educational Foundation website and expose the various deceptive ploys used by Bollinger to foster mistrust in science-based medicine and trust in various forms of treatments that have never cured anyone of anything. [/new]
(To the two readers of this newsletter who are followers of Mike there-is-not-a-single-cancer-patient-that-has-ever-been-cured-by-chemotherapy Adams and who are going to ask me to name just one person who has been cured by chemotherapy: Lance Armstrong, but there are about 15 million others. I'd also like to ask Mike Adams to name one person who's been cured by, say, graviola.) For more on Adams, click here.
Global Warming Deniers, Contrarians, and Skeptics
Recently, I and many others associated with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, were asked to sign an open letter to journalists asking them not to call climate change deniers like Sen. James Inhofe 'skeptics.' You'd think that I might agree to sign such a letter since my Skeptic's Dictionary entry on climate change deniers begins like this:
Climate change deniers are contrarians who challenge the evidence that human activities such as deforestation and human behaviors that result in more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are causing changes in our planet's climate that may prove devastating and irreversible. Contrarians pose as skeptics, refusing to accept consensus conclusions in science on the ground that there is still some uncertainty. True skeptics raise specific doubts about specific claims and do not try to debunk a whole area of science by an occasional error or by the general lack of absolute certainty, which is unattainable in any area of science.
I didn't sign the letter even though I agree that calling people like Inhofe a skeptic is an abuse of language. Even so, I don't think anyone who identifies skepticism with people like James Randi or Michael Shermer is likely to think they are allied with Inhofe by calling him a 'climate change skeptic' as the The New York Times did. I also didn't feel comfortable putting my name on a document that declares: "By perpetrating this misnomer, journalists have granted undeserved credibility to those who reject science and scientific inquiry." Calling Inhofe a climate change skeptic doesn't give him credibility. Calling him wrong and detailing how he's wrong would have been something I'd have no qualms about signing. (Please read Faye Flam's opinion piece in Forbes, where she argues that Inhofe may not even deserve to be called a denier. He may just be pig-ignorant, but with enough research we can determine whether people like Inhofe are wrong.)
I also didn't feel comfortable signing something that declares: "Real skepticism is summed up by a quote popularized by Carl Sagan, 'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.'" I don't think I'd sign a letter from the American Philosophical Association that said "real skepticism is summed up by the statement 'nothing is certain' and asking those who call themselves scientific skeptics to quit doing so because the real skeptics are philosophers like Pyrrho, Arcesilaus, and David Hume.
I don't know where the idea for such a letter came from but the first signature is that of physicist Mark Boslough, who last November wrote a piece for the Huffington Post with the headline NPR Finally Stops Referring to Global Warming Deniers as "Skeptics." Boslough's article begins:
Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is famous for thinking that human-caused global warming is the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." His belief presupposes the existence of a worldwide conspiracy--sustained over many decades--by scientists of all nationalities, races, creeds, and political leanings.
Inhofe's alleged perpetrators include NASA, NOAA, the Pentagon, National Academy of Sciences, American Physical Society, American Geophysical Union, and virtually every other research and scientific organization in the world. Such a conspiracy would require collusion on a massive scale to fudge data and consistently lie to the public and policy makers without getting caught. Extraordinary claim? You bet.
Boslough then goes on to demonstrate why Inhofe is not an authentic or real skeptic but a denier. Authentic skeptics are honest, rational, logical, and produce evidence for their beliefs. "Real skeptics do not cling to absurd conspiracy theories for which there is no evidence, nor do they engage in obfuscation, misrepresentation, data fabrication, smear campaigns, or intimidation tactics. These are the methods of deniers." So far, so good. But then Boslough makes some claims about the deniers that make it sound as if he thinks they're part of a conspiracy to co-opt the word 'skeptic' to give them credibility.
....deniers have been successful at two things. First, they simply co-opted the term. Calling themselves "skeptics" gave them a patina of credibility. Many members of the media apparently didn't know that legitimate skeptics do more than cast doubt and disbelieve, so they dutifully used the word that deniers used to describe themselves.
Unfortunately, Boslough does not provide any evidence for this claim about a denier conspiracy to co-opt the term and dupe journalists. Nor does he provide evidence for his claim about the deniers being successful at convincing journalists that the term 'denier' is associated with the Nazi Holocaust "and is purposefully used by scientists and their allies as a slur to dehumanize critics and silence debate." These claims may be true, but it would have been nice to have seen the evidence, especially right after claiming that real skeptics produce evidence for their beliefs and don't cling to absurd conspiracy theories.
Anyway, the letter has gotten some play in the media, with most of the accounts I've looked at using as a hook the fact that Bill Nye "the science guy" signed it. The main benefit I see from the letter is that it calls attention to the issue of global warming and might wake up a few people by reminding them that Inhofe is likely to lead the Environment and Public Works Committee when the GOP takes control of the Senate next year.
Repressed Memory Therapy, will it never end?
Repressed memory therapy (RMT) is a type of psychotherapy that assumes that problems such as bulimia, depression, sexual inhibition, insomnia, excessive anxiety, etc., are due to unconsciously repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. RMT assumes that a healthy psychological state can be restored only by recovering and facing these repressed memories of sexual abuse. The danger of therapists creating--not necessarily intentionally--false memories of abuse has been well documented and all major psychological and psychiatric organizations warn that RMT is "fraught with problems of potential misapplication."* Yet, RMT continues to be practiced. One place where it was practiced until very recently is Castlewood, near St. Louis. Check out the website. You'd never suspect from the lovely photos, testimonials, etc., that should you send your child there you might soon be investigated for sexual abuse because of memories "recovered" during therapy and the legal requirement to report any claims of sexual abuse. Such a case was reported on last month by Ed Cara:
Nearly four years ago, Tom [Mitchell] and his ex-wife sent their daughter to an eating-disorder clinic called the Castlewood Treatment Center, outside St. Louis. In her five months there, Anna grew to believe she had recovered memories of a deeply abusive childhood that she had previously banished from her conscious mind. Since then, Mitchell has lived in the shadow of a horrific accusation: that he sexually abused Anna for more than a decade.
In 2012, "Leslie Thompson, 26, filed a lawsuit against the Castlewood Treatment Center in Ballwin, Missouri and her former therapist, psychologist Mark Schwartz, alleging that she was led to believe that she had “multiple personalities” and that she had repressed memories of being involved in satanic rituals, including the witnessing of the sacrifice of a baby."
Lisa Nasseff, 41, of Saint Paul, Minnesota, also sued Schwartz, claiming he hypnotized her into believing "she possessed multiple personalities and participated in satanic rituals." In addition to Nasseff and Thompson, Brooke Taylor and Colette Travers also sued Castlewood. Castlewood apparently settled out of court. Schwartz and his wife, Lori Galperin, who co-founded the treatment center, resigned from Castlewood and an affiliate they opened in California. Castlewood also hired at least three public relations agencies in the wake of these lawsuits.*
Schwartz and Galperin have moved on and now operate a marriage counseling clinic in Monterey, California. They still treat eating disorders, but do not mention RMT. Instead, they say they base their therapy on attachment theory. They also specialize in psychodrama. Let's hope they don't repeat the fatal therapy of Connell Watkins, a pioneer in the treatment of attachment disorder in children, and her associates, Julie Ponder, Brita St Clair, and Jack McDaniel:
....a video camera recorded the four Colorado therapists killing Candace, while Jeane Newmaker, a pediatric nurse practitioner from Durham, NC, watched. The therapists required Candace to assume a fetal position on the floor, wrapped her in a flannel sheet, piled over a dozen thick pillows, and pushed against the 75-pound girl with a combined weight of 673 pounds. At one point, the adults can even be heard grunting with effort.
While Schwartz and Galperin were at Castlewood, the website for the treatment center had this blurb posted: "Trauma can be caused by many factors early in life, such as unresolved experiences of child sexual abuse or rape....Although there is a large incidence of child sexual abuse such that one in three eating disorder clients have unresolved sexual abuse, there are also a large number of other traumas commonly associated with eating disorder. For example, when childhood bonding with caretakers has been problematic or when painful experiences in school with peers or dating were traumatic. Our therapists are trained in the latest trauma techniques for trauma stabilization and resolution, a requisite before the symptom can remit." (Emphasis added. A Google search for the italicized claim yielded 7 results, all with a connection to Castlewood. One wonders if this high rate was a matter of discovery or invention.)
It's hard to believe that RMT is still being practiced and we are still reading about therapists being accused of abusing patients by creating false memories of sexual abuse.
Scum of the Minute
The winner is Universal Medicine of Australia, whose founder Serge Benhayon offers such innovative health measures as esoteric breast massage (said to ward off cancer). Universal Medicine accepts no critics and has had their lawyers get Google to eliminate from search results websites critical of their practices, including Sharon Hill's Doubtful News. The attempted censorship isn't universal, however. In the U.S., for example, you can still read such things as the following posted on News.com.au:
AN alleged new-age cult, run by a former bankrupt who claims to be Leonardo da Vinci reincarnated, is expanding its multimillion-dollar enterprise with the help of Brisbane's medical mainstream.
Really, what could possibly go wrong with a healing system devised by a former tennis coach with no medical qualifications who thinks he's Leonardo da Vinci reincarnated? If he were in America, he'd have his own television show by now.
The End of the World
Finally, a self-proclaimed genius (who will go unnamed) has informed me that the end of the world (or its mathematical equivalent) will happen during the first week of 2015. Until then, I hope you in the northern hemisphere enjoy the longer days and you in the southern hemisphere enjoy the longer nights.
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