The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Primer on Skepticism

After three years of doing this blog, I figured that there just might be some folks out there who need a refresher on what it means to be skeptical. This can serve as a loose guide on critical thinking in general with some examples that most of us have seen before, and also might be useful in talking to novice skeptics or trying to converse with believers who could benefit from being led in a friendly way towards another way to look at the world.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed" Albert Einstein.

"Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends! Well, I say there are some things we don't want to know! Important things!" Ned Flanders

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool". Richard Feynman
Section One:
Ok, so what is science? When someone tells us something, what are the tools we use to evaluate what they have claimed? These are questions that have to be answered before we can become effective critical thinkers.
"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." Sherlock Holmes from A Scandal in Bohemia
Critical thinking has become somewhat of a catch-phrase, and in becoming so it has lost a portion of its meaning. Employing critical thinking involves looking at all sides of a claim before making a decision AND leaving that decision up to re-evaluation upon receiving new evidence.

Importantly, we have to understand the difference between a skeptic and a cynic:

Skeptic: from skeptikos thoughtful, from skeptesthai to look, consider

Cynic: a faultfinding captious critic; especially: one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest

There is an important distinction there to keep in mind and in your pocket to refresh any person who mistakenly calls you out as the latter.

Take a look at these pictures:
Helicopter and Shark
9/11 Plane?
What can we say about these? If you saw them in an email that gave you a story about the first one being nominated as National Geographic's Photo of the Year, taken off South Africa during a naval training exercise; the second being a photo from the World Trade Centre recovered from film found in the rubble of Ground Zero, would you believe the stories?

For most people, they would likely just say, "wow" to themselves and maybe show a co-worker or something, then go on with their day. It's not something worth worrying about or expending energy on. They are, however, great chances to exercise our skeptical muscles.

The first picture is amazing enough that you would have to ask yourself, "Why didn't I see this all over the evening news? ...or in the pages of, say National Geographic?" Maybe it's not so amazing after all, particularly when you find the original picture of the jumping shark somewhere else without the helicopter. Google-images is a wonderful thing.

The second seems likely enough at first glance, but not enough people think about seemingly unconnected, yet obvious things. Think about the temperature of September 11, 2001. In New York that day, it was 73.1F, or 22.8C, which means why is the man in the picture wearing a big coat and winter hat? Also, how did delicate film fall through over a hundred stories of falling debris, rubble and burning jet fuel, to be developed with no distortion or ill-effects whatsoever? Seems too good to be true.

A good general rule is that if it seems too good, it usually is.

If I said to you, "Hey, go to the bank machine and get me out $10,000. I'll take it and in my plan, I'll turn that investment into a 6x profit ($60,000) in six months." Do you get me the money? Of course not. But why not? What would be some questions you'd have for me? (thanks for the edit note, gb)

1. How does your plan work?
2. Is your plan legal?
3. What will you charge me and what does your fee include?
4. Have others done this with you?
5. What have the others, if applicable, thought of your plan?
6. Can I talk to some of others you've dealt with?

Basic questions that should leap into your mind when a Nigerian comes a-emailin'. Let's take this skill and apply it to some "therapies" out there in the public domain and see what pops up. Imagine you're a lawyer cross-examining a defendant or witness.

Cranio-Sacral therapy (CST): With this so-called "therapy", the bones in the skull are "adjusted" to allow or facilitate the healing of various conditions/ailments. Most folks out there don't know about their bodies, so they'll fall for this line from a seemingly knowledgeable person. This is the main problem with pseudoscience - it presents people (CST practitioners, homeopaths, herbalists, reikists, acupuncturists...) as qualified to talk about health-care when most of them know little about physiology, anatomy or actual scientific methodology. Then ignorant lay-people get convinced that their "chi" is out of balance and they need someone to push on their hard palate to re-adjust their energy flow - possibly avoiding or missing out on actual medical help that may get them through their difficulties. Most people won't take the time to look at the criticisms of a therapy they're using because they're financially invested in it and don't want to look foolish.

Some questions:
1. Do the bones in my skull move?
2. Why aren't football players or boxers injured way more often than I see?
3. If it is as easy as pressing on my head to fix my ails, why isn't this in hospitals?

Section Two:
"If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm." Marcus Aurelius
What do results in clinical trials mean? Do they mean that a therapy is either fantastic or useless?

As an example, let's look at Santa's supposed reindeer. We will do a test to see if reindeer can fly, so we take a sample of 100 animals and take them to the top of a twenty story building. One by one, we send them over the edge and, one by one, they plummet to a predictable messy, gory death on the sidewalks below to the horrified glares of on-lookers young and old alike.

One you have a pile of reindeer bits a hundred deep, what can you officially say about the subject of reindeer flight?

All you can say at this point is that these reindeer, at this time, in this location, under these specific conditions, either couldn't or chose not to fly. That's it. More testing is needed - preferably away from the peering eyes of those pesky PETA jerks.

Only one white crow is needed to prove that all crows are not black, but that crow must be scrutinized heavily to ensure that it is real.

Controlling your variables is crucial in experiments. It is the essence of the problems with anecdotal evidence. "Well, Bobby got acupuncture for his inflamed testicle and it worked great, so it must be real." No, maybe Bobby's testicle got better all by itself. Maybe Bobby got a shot from a real doctor a day before going to the acupuncturist. There are a lot of variables not accounted for in the story and as such, we have to be leery.

It is handy to ask yourself, "if x is true, then what would also have to be logically true?" Let's look at spoon bending as an example: It is supposedly an interaction between the "psychic's" mind and the metal - so why do they always have to touch it? They should be able to bend the spoon while I hold it. Also, if it's a mental interaction, why is it always a spoon that's easily bendable with hands? Get a three or four inch piece of steel bar and bend that. Oddly, "psychics" won't answer these questions.

Science is simply a method for finding out about the world around us, and is structured as follows:

Observation -> Hypothesis -> Experiment -> Results -> Conclusion ->Peer Review

That's it. There's science for you. When you see something like homeopathy, you can apply this template and realize that they came up with a hypothesis after seeing an odd observation, then just went with it all with way to conclusion, skipping over the entire testing phase. If any tests were done (and some rather entertainingly protesty ones were), they generally came out negative, especially when the important caveat that the controls were tight was followed.

Ok, so going back to Santa for a second, let's say you've diligently sat by your chimney for 29 years on Christmas Eve, waiting for the jolly old elf to make an appearance. He never has. You've seen the Grinch so many times that it's etched in your memory forever, but not once has Santa shown his butt.

On that 30th year, are you waiting with the same expectancy as year one? Hardly. Sometimes dousing or reiki or homeopathy can get all dolled up to look sorta like Santa's ass in a chimney, but when you look closer, it's just useless soot that could eventually burn down your house if you don't get it cleaned out.

Section three:
The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike." Delos B. McKown
Carl Sagan really was the man. I'll take my next example from him. I tell you I have a dragon in my garage. You ask to see it so I take you there.

No dragon.

He's invisible, I say.

Let's put flour on the floor so we can see his footprints, you say.

He flies, I say.

Let's throw paint around so we can see him, you say.

Paint won't stick to his scales, I say.

Let's get a thermal camera to see him, you say.

He's not a fire-breathing dragon and he's actually non-corporeal, so that won't work, I say.

Hmm, so is there a dragon at all?
Invisible Man
It sounds strange, but a claim must be falsifiable to be of value. If you can't prove it wrong then there's no use evaluating it. "Psychics" love to take advantage of this one when they say things like, "The missing boy is at the moment, walking by some water." Great, made up information that is of no use except to attempt to convince gullible (and usually sad, desperate) parents that they are of use to them in an investigation.

Section Four: Talking Heads - Not Just a Band from the 80's

Encouraging debate about a topic is the surest way to get to the heart of the matter. Earlier it was mentioned that you should think of yourself as an attorney when checking into something. Don't take the word of "experts", don't rely on anecdotes (the plural of "anecdote" is not "data"), and always always look for glazed-over pre-suppositions.

An idea in science must be put on a pedestal and allowed to be hammered away at by anyone who cares to throw something at it. This is how theories are tested. Those that stay on the pedestal become well-tested and time-tried (think gravity or evolution). Very few pseudo-science practitioners (if any) encourage this sort of testing because their pet ideas would not stand up, and they know it. These people get very defensive when questioned - which is the reaction of dogma, not science.

We cannot be attached to an idea just because it is our own or we adhere to the concept. In fact, the examples I cited above of gravity and evolution have both undergone significant changes from when they were first proposed - the latter so much that Charles Darwin would have a hard time understanding it now!

The scientific method was devised to keep subjectivity out of the lab and experimentation. When people don't understand this, you get examples like Therepeutic Touch (TT). People feel what is expected of them; "helped" patients tell wonderful stories about healing; the anecdote pile grows and grows.

Looking closer, TT is all about a practitioner being supposedly able to feel and manipulate a human energy field (HEF). This has never been shown to exist, let alone detect with bare hands, let alone work with it, let alone heal illness by working with it. It's an entire fraudulent health field house of cards that people jump into on the fourteenth floor, never looking down to see what's under them.

Most scientists worth their salt would love for an idea like TT to be true. It would be a fantastic route to exploring a new aspect of physiology and get recognized with a Nobel Prize in medicine. Alas, Alfred is not shaking in his boots about the potential of giving away the prize money to one of those folks anytime soon.

Section five:
"You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else."
Sounds harsh, right? Yes, science can be harsh at times, but it is part and parcel of being in a field that sometimes you have to give up beliefs you've had for a long time. Sometimes wanting to believe in something so strongly affects us physically; if someone tells us a convincing story, our tendency to take it as fact is unparalleled.

I saw a magic show once where a man had a key. He put it in my hands and put his hands around mine. When I opened my palms, the key was bent and the magician told me to touch it - lightly! - because it was hot. Sure enough, when I touched the key, it was hot.

Except it wasn't. I now know how that trick was done and only the heat from our hands was involved, but if I wasn't into magic a little bit, I would have sworn until this day that that key heated up.

Herein lies an interesting quirk about the "therapies" we've been discussing - many complimentary or alternative medicine (CAM) therapies need the patient to believe what is happening is working for it to actually have any effect at all. However, if it is the patient's belief that is healing/helping them/causing any effect, then the "therapy" itself is pointless and it is only the quality of the story that needs to be solid. You have to become entangled in psychology, not medicine.

CAM is comforting and for this reason, it is liked. It is an alternative (although an ultimately tragic) option from traditional allopathic medicine (TAM). Sometimes the truth can hurt. A lot.

Section Six:
The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four Americans are suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they're ok, then it's you." Rita Mae Brown
Statistics are just not well understood. If people understood the concept of homeopathy and some basic statistics/large number theory, no one would ever buy homeopathic crap. Let's look at another example, however.

A large number of misinterpretations occur when we talk about "miraculous" events. Take this fella.
Ganesha is a very popular god in India. Asked generally for siddhi or "success", and buddhi, "intelligence", Ganesha is the god of wisdom, literature, and fine arts. Ganesha is worshipped usually alongside with Shiva, Vishnu, Devi and Surya, plus sometimes a sixth god, Skanda.

Now look at this:
Ganesha potato
It's a potato, in case you can't see it well. It was bought by a fruit and vegetable exporter in India named Najmuddin Alibhai Jessani and was about to be eaten when his sister-in-law noticed the "resemblance" to Ganesha. Their living room was turned into a shrine where 60 - 70 people a day came to visit and left gifts of marigolds and, of course, money. (News clip, September 4th, 2002)

Ok, how many potatos do you think Mr. Jessani has to deal with during the run of a typical week as a fruit and vegetable exporter? Probably a lot. Let's run some quick numbers with respect to odd occurrences, shall we?

There are about 350 million people in Canada and the United States combined, ballpark. That means that in any given day, 350 legitimate one-in-a-million happenings are going to occur. Every day. 350 x 365 = 127,750 in a year. How many of those roughly 128 thousand are going to just melt your head?

It is true that the only really weird day, is the one where nothing extraordinary happens at all.

Section Seven: "I can see for miles and miles..." The Who

Objectively, there is no such thing as "alternative" medicine. There is medicine that is proven to work and then the other stuff. Once it is shown to be effective, then it just becomes "medicine". Suggestions of conspiracies and such are cop-outs by people who have no evidence behind them. Once the general public learns to apply skepticism and critical thinking for themselves, less and less chicanery will be foisted upon them and perhaps a new age will dawn.

Well, I can hope, can't I? Isn't that the difference between a skeptic and a cynic?

15 Barbaric Yawps:

At 7/1/09 2:58 pm, Blogger J. Dack said...

Best article I've seen on this site yet. Bravo.

At 7/1/09 3:18 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Thank you, sir.

At 7/1/09 6:03 pm, Anonymous gb said...

Why would anybody give you 10,000 so you can turn it into 6,000 in 6 months time? This loss of 4,000 would have me asking no questions about your abilities to accomplish this.

At 7/1/09 11:01 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Thanks, gb. I'm a math-tard and the situation has been rectified.

At 8/1/09 8:02 am, Blogger Fleegman said...

I agree, this is definitely one of your best. I now know where to point my CAM orientated friends so this article can do the dirty work of convincing them it's all a sham, rather than yours truly:

"Oh, hey, I read an article on critical thinking the other day, and it mentioned that Reiki thing you're in to... Check it out."

My hands are clean; thanks! ;o)

At 8/1/09 8:40 am, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

I'm glad to be of small service and happy you liked the piece!

At 8/1/09 1:34 pm, Anonymous Tony Burns said...

With reference to section two of your post, one of my favourite things to quote is "The plural of anecdote is anecdotes not data."

Nice summary Mike.

At 12/1/09 3:10 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About the naval excercise picture I would state that the shark attack is plausible. Very unlikely, but plausible.
The question I would pose about that picture is that how in the hell did they get the frickin' golden gate bridge to south africa?
Didn't hear any san fransisconians (or how do they call themselves these days) complain their bridge was missing

At 12/1/09 3:16 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Thanks, Tony! We still haven't had that Beer and Wings thing, dammit.

At 12/1/09 4:56 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

...and yes, Anon, I would certainly add the Golden Gate question to anyone willing to listen. That's one of the things that made me laugh the most when I got the whole "South Africa" email.

At 16/1/09 6:25 pm, Blogger Techskeptic said...

If I said to you, "Hey, go to the bank machine and get me out $10,000. I'll take it and in my plan, I'll turn that investment into a 6x profit ($60,000) in six months." Do you get me the money? Of course not.

Apparently a lot of Bernie Madoff clients have not read this post.

At 18/1/09 8:03 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the first photo, I wouldn't buy it, but that's because I'm an anorak where helicopters are concerned, and I can identify the helicopter in question as a Mil-24 (NATO designation "HIND-F") with Soviet (not Russian, Soviet) markings, which has no business being off the coast of South Africa in this day and age. Also, I've sen the original photo, with a different model helicoper (an American UH-60 Blackhawk variant) and no shark. And that's the Golden Gate bridge in the background, which isn't in South Africa.

That aside, I don't know what wrong with the "beautiful and unique snowflake" line. Snowflakes may be unique if studied up close (very close), but when there's several million in your driveway, you don't stop to marvel at the beauty and individuality of each one, but you shovel them aside. At the same time, the existence of a snowflake is highly fleeting, and subject to the same laws of physics as every other snowflake; when the thaw hits, they all break down into mostly water. In that regard, they're just like humans.

At 18/1/09 9:52 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Ok, the helicopter is an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. That information came from National Geographic magazine who corrected the false attribution of "nominee for photo of the year" that came with the hoax chain email. The picture is a composition of a U.S. Air Force picture (the heli) and a breaching shark off South Africa taken by Charles Maxwell.

I used the Fight Club line because I like it. If you want to get pedantic, the part I wanted was the, "...we are the same decaying organic matter as everything else", which is technically correct because snowflakes - despite their similarities to humanity as you've described - are not "organic matter". They melt, the don't decay.

And I agree about the Madoff comment. More people need to read my blog before doing any sort of major investing. It'd help, I think.

At 26/1/09 5:08 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Silly rationalist.

Reindeer "fly" in the sense that they were shamanic animals to Nearctic people. It's a poetic conceit. You can't blame those old lying/scamming/mind-jamming shamans for the fact that New Agers take this shit LITERALLY. New Agers can be skimmed for mucho profits. Think of it as a Dipshit Tax.

Also, Santa's reindeer are female. Males shed their antlers in the winter.

We're gonna use science intelligently...and we haven't even figured out how to use language after hundreds of thousands of years?

Acupuncture, CS, and other "holistic" "therapies" are shamanic techniques. The trickster/scammer/jammer uses them to short-circuit BOTH the rationality and superstition of the person suffering whatever they're suffering.

The middle way. The middle is always where you look for the clit of the matter, my dears.


At 23/10/09 11:56 pm, Anonymous Tomato Addict said...

By my calculations, 100 reindeer is sufficient to show (statistically) that the probability reindeer can fly is less than 3% with 95% confidence. If you want to get down to 1%, you are going to need another 200 reindeer. ;-)


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