The Dawkins/Plait Dilemma

On Wednesday night, DJ Grothe posted the following quote from Richard Dawkins on Facebook; “Atheists should not be abusive of believers. Instead, we should ridicule them.”.  I do not know the context of this quote and I would appreciate it if anyone who was actually there could expand on it. Dr. Dawkins said this during his interview with Michael Shermer at an event at Cal Tech.

As a stand-alone comment it, bring up an issue that has had many people in the skeptical community at odds for some time now.

Does ridicule really work?

At TAM 8 this past July, Phil Plait gave his now famous “Don’t Be A D!ck” speech. He posed the following question, asking for a show of hands, “How many of you came to skepticism because someone called you a moron?” A few people did raise their hands in the affirmative but it was a very small group.

His point was that when people feel they are being insulted, they tend to shut out logical arguments and revert to a defensive stance. Nobody enjoys being ridiculed for beliefs whether they are deeply held or not. Usually what happens is the person who feels insulted and attacked ends up clinging to that belief even harder than before. They also walk away with the idea that all skeptics are jerks. No one wins in that scenario.

The attitude that believers should be ridiculed is divisive and harmful to our cause as a group. If the goal is to build and expand our skeptical community, using Ad Hominem attacks only drives potential skeptics away.

Instead, we as a group need to consider the possibility that the person you are getting ready to call a moron may not ever have been exposed to critical thinking. Their ideas seem perfectly plausible to them because they may not have been taught that what they saw was really a weather balloon or that there is such a thing as sleep paralysis. They may not know what pareidolia is or that the autonomic nervous system makes them twitch when they’re dowsing for water.

Education is the answer, not ridicule. Asking someone “Have you thought it could be this?” instead of calling names is so much more productive. Engage them in conversation about their belief. Pose questions that will get them to think about other possible answers and then let them come to their own conclusion. Sometimes they come back later and thank you.

That being said, ridicule does have a place. Using humor to diffuse a tense situation can point out the ridiculousness of a belief. A joke has the potential to plant seeds of doubt in someone who is ready to hear it. A wonderful example of using humor to ridicule a belief can be seen here where people at this year’s ComicCon put on a counter-protested against the Westboro Baptist. Church protestors.

Penn & Teller have also had success with an In-Your-Face approach on their Showtime program, Bullshit. That show is one of the reasons I’m a skeptic. They have a no-nonsense tack to pseudo science and quackery. They also use tastelessness and humor to diffuse a tense situation. But lets face it; their approach is much more like a kick to the groin than a pat on the back. It can be (and has been) off-putting to viewers whose beliefs have been called into question. The difficulty with a TV show is that, aside from the P&T message boards, there is no one there to answer questions that might crop up during the show.

While the ridicule approach does have a minimal level of success, when we go after the idea and not the person, we have the potential to create a meaningful dialog where change actually has the potential to take place.

Take the time to understand, also, that everyone is at a different point in the exploration of skepticism. We’re overcoming millions of years of evolution by learning to think critically. Our brains simply aren’t wired that way. Learning new ways of thinking is difficult and when cognitive dissonance enters the picture, there can be actual, physical discomfort along with the emotional and mental stress of walking away from long-held beliefs.

Patience, education and humor are tools that we might consider adding to our skeptical toolbox. It takes patience to educate people who have not been exposed to or are new to critical thinking. Have a strategy in mind before engaging in a debate over a belief. George Hrab has an excellent one. When confronted with pseudoscience, he asks, “Really? And how does that work?”. Engage them. Get them to explain the belief. Asking for an explanation gets the person to think about what they are proposing especially if you gently point out other possibilities by asking “What if…?”. You probably won’t get them to change their mind during the discussion and that shouldn’t be the goal. Even though you’re probably right, this isn’t about being right.  It’s about planting a seed.

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Personal Heroes

Ken and I were fortunate enough to take part in the Amazing Adventure 5: Skeptics of the Caribbean sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation randi.org It was a wonderful, rum-soaked seven days full of laughter, bonding and skepticism.

We were also treated to the presence of the Amazing One himself, James Randi. For those of you not familiar with Mr. Randi, go to YouTube and search. He has been working to expose charlatans for a good number of years. His favorite adversary was Uri Geller. Yes, that spoon-bending guy.

Scientists actually studied what they called The Geller Effect. Mr. Geller never admitted that what he was doing was nothing more than a trick. He constantly swore that he was just doing something that came naturally to him. Scientists were actually fooled by this. If he were, after all these years, to admit what he had been doing, he would be sued for fraud by multiple agencies.

Randi also took part in the first card trick ever done in outer space. He created the Alpha Project projectalpha.html which fooled paranormal researchers for over two years. Banachek, who grew to have a full career in stage magic and mentalism, was one of the Alpha Kids.

He was also kind enough to take a personal interest in my own journey as a fledgeling skeptic. I have been very fortunate to be able to spend some one on one time with him. Thanks to Randi’s kindness and advice, I’m finding my footing in the skeptical world.

Another personal hero that I’ve mentioned in previous articles is the wonderful George Hrab of Geologic Podcast fame: The Geologic Podcast Home. His humor and insight have influenced my development as a skeptic. He’s the one that taught me, and keeps reminding me, that personal heroes are people just like me. Even though they’re giants, they still put their pants on one leg at a time.

From George I also learned patience in dealing with non-skeptical people. He was the first person I heard say that you cannot change the mind of a True Believer but you CAN plant the seed. He uses an adage from Patrick Swayze’s movie Road House. “Be nice. Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.”. And so, I try very hard to be nice even when I want to apply a baseball bat upside the head to knock some common sense into some of these people.

On the other end of that spectrum is my personal hero, Penn Jillette. From Penn I learned that it’s okay not to believe what everyone else believes. I’ve never really been part of the herd even though I spent most of my life trying VERY hard to be just that.  Please don’t misunderstand me, Penn is a very kind and compassionate man. It can be seen in some of the Bullshit episodes and his video blog episode about the man who gave him the Gideon pocket Bible. He just has zero tolerance for so-called psychics or other charlatans that cause harm or take advantage of people. This is evident from ANY of the episodes of Bullshit. I hope one day I’ll get the privilege of meeting him so that I can tell him personally what a difference he made in my life.

I am an adult, but I’ll tell you what; THESE are the people I want to grow up to be.

You Don’t Have To Be A Rocket Scientist

No, Really. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist…or any kind of scientist for that matter, to be a skeptic. Learning a new way of thinking is pretty scary. You wonder if you’re doing it right. Especially when you read posts on the JREF forum. It’s hard not to feel a little less than intelligent.

The wonderful think about the skeptic community is that we are a pretty diverse group. We have members of all ages, genders, ethnicities and education levels. One of the major players in the skeptical world, James “The Amazing” Randi, didn’t finish high school. He has traveled the world performing magic and working to educate people about charlatans and frauds. Mr. Randi is working on his 10th book currently.

Penn Jillette is a graduate of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College.  Teller, his partner, formerly taught high school Latin has been a guest lecturer at Oxford University and appears to have attended MIT. So even within famous skeptical partnerships there is a wide range of educational background.

Penn has written numerous essays and a book, “Sock”. His communication is insightful and thought-provoking. While he comes across as brash and overbearing, his writing indicates a much greater depth.

And then there’s me. I’m one of those jack of all trades types. I don’t have a formal college degree though I’ve attended Northwest College as a photojournalism major. Turns out I have no talent for photography so I dropped out. Then I tried animation at the Art Institute of Atlanta. I changed majors to graphic design because the redundancy of drawing frame after frame with only minute changes drove me nuts.

After a year and a half of graphic design I quit because I didn’t see how a degree in that field could be of help to anyone. I saw it as crass manipulation and I didn’t want to manipulate people on a mass level. Or any level for that matter.

Later I spent a year with the psych department of the University of Maryland. That’s where I took what would later become my favorite college class ever. Statistics. Even though I felt like my brain was leaking out my ears and half the time I didn’t think I had any clue what I was doing, that course taught me how to read medical studies and evaluate research. This is probably the most important skill I have.

Unfortunately after that year I didn’t feel that I could, in the end, be of help as a psychologist. I don’t think I have what it takes to listen to people’s problems day in and day out for years on end. So I dropped out.

Intertwined amongst all that is over 500 hours of training in various disciplines of hypnotherapy. There is no formal degree in hypnosis, though I looked at several unaccredited “universities”. When we moved to Florida my hypnosis practice collapsed. I still have that skill set though because I am a skeptic, I have set it aside. We still do not really understand how hypnosis works. I’ll be covering that in a later article.

Then, of course, there is all the time and money spent on training in Reiki, crystal healing and herbalism.

The point of this long, rambling bit of text is that even though there are lots of people with big, intimidating degrees from MIT, Oxford and Harvard, it’s people like you and me, the average person, that makes the skeptical movement grow. We learn new ways of thinking and exploring our world right here in our own living rooms. We go to skeptical events, we share ideas with others that may or may not be skeptical.

This is how the skeptical movement grows. With people like us just being skeptical.

Why It Doesn’t Work – Homeopathy

There has been furious debate for years about whether or not homeopathy actually works.  The main contention is that homeopathic blends are created individually for each person based on the determinations of a homeopath.  These results can be explained by what is known as the Placebo Effect. This effect has been explained very well by Dr. Ben Goldacre in this video:

To quote Dr. Stephen Barrett:

Homeopathic products are made from minerals, botanical substances, and several other sources. If the original substance is soluble, one part is diluted with either nine or ninety-nine parts of distilled water and/or alcohol and shaken vigorously (succussed); if insoluble, it is finely ground and pulverized in similar proportions with powdered lactose (milk sugar). One part of the diluted medicine is then further diluted, and the process is repeated until the desired concentration is reached. Dilutions of 1 to 10 are designated by the Roman numeral X (1X = 1/10, 3X = 1/1,000, 6X = 1/1,000,000). Similarly, dilutions of 1 to 100 are designated by the Roman numeral C (1C = 1/100, 3C = 1/1,000,000, and so on). Most remedies today range from 6X to 30X, but products of 30C or more are marketed.

A 30X dilution means that the original substance has been diluted 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times. Assuming that a cubic centimeter of water contains 15 drops, this number is greater than the number of drops of water that would fill a container more than 50 times the size of the Earth. Imagine placing a drop of red dye into such a container so that it disperses evenly. Homeopathy’s “law of infinitesimals” is the equivalent of saying that any drop of water subsequently removed from that container will possess an essence of redness. Robert L. Park, Ph.D., a prominent physicist who is executive director of The American Physical Society, has noted that since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.

Oscillococcinum, a 200C product “for the relief of colds and flu-like symptoms,” involves “dilutions” that are even more far-fetched. Its “active ingredient” is prepared by incubating small amounts of a freshly killed duck’s liver and heart for 40 days. The resultant solution is then filtered, freeze-dried, rehydrated, repeatedly diluted, and impregnated into sugar granules. If a single molecule of the duck’s heart or liver were to survive the dilution, its concentration would be 1 in 100200. This huge number, which has 400 zeroes, is vastly greater than the estimated number of molecules in the universe (about one googol, which is a 1 followed by 100 zeroes). In its February 17, 1997, issue, U.S. News & World Report noted that only one duck per year is needed to manufacture the product, which had total sales of $20 million in 1996. The magazine dubbed that unlucky bird “the $20-million duck.”

Actually, the laws of chemistry state that there is a limit to the dilution that can be made without losing the original substance altogether. This limit, which is related to Avogadro’s number, corresponds to homeopathic potencies of 12C or 24X (1 part in 1024). Hahnemann himself realized that there is virtually no chance that even one molecule of original substance would remain after extreme dilutions. But he believed that the vigorous shaking or pulverizing with each step of dilution leaves behind a “spirit-like” essence—”no longer perceptible to the senses”—which cures by reviving the body’s “vital force.” Modern proponents assert that even when the last molecule is gone, a “memory” of the substance is retained. This notion is unsubstantiated. Moreover, if it were true, every substance encountered by a molecule of water might imprint an “essence” that could exert powerful (and unpredictable) medicinal effects when ingested by a person.

This brings us to the concept of water memory. My understanding is that a homeopathic remedy is started with distilled water. Water is distilled by boiling the water and then condensing the steam into a clean container, leaving most if not all solid contaminants behind. Yet, if water actually has memory, this would imply that even distilled water would retain the memory of the substance(s) it has come in contact with. This includes everything from concentrated orange juice to human waste.

The head of the British Homeopathic association has been quoted as saying that she doesn’t really know how it works. It just does. Homeopaths use the excuse that medical science doesn’t always understand how medicine works. The difference here is that science is attempting to find out why it works.

Recently homeopaths in Australia have been forced to admit that there is no actual substance in their remedies. See the article here: http://www.drugs-forum.com/forum/showthread.php?t=116560 And here: http://jonn.co.uk/badhomeopathy/modules/news/article.php?storyid=112

In 2005 The Lancet published a body of studies. These studies concluded that homeopathic “remedies” are no better than placebos: http://www.medpagetoday.com/PrimaryCare/AlternativeMedicine/1609

Okay, so if there’s nothing in it, what’s the harm? The problem is that people are using homeopathy instead of medical science to treat themselves and their children. Of course people are entitled to do as they wish with their own bodies. When it comes to eschewing real medical treatment for their children, HERE is where there is a major problem.

http://whatstheharm.net/homeopathy.html 437 people have been harmed or killed due to the use of homeopathy over science.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why it doesn’t work.

Thank you for joining me for the first installation of WIDW. I hope you learned something today.

Best Explanation of the Placebo Effect

Ben Goldacre gives the best explanation for the placebo effect I’ve seen yet. He explains it in such a way that even me, a fledgeling skeptic, can understand it. Even moreso, he explains it so well that *I* could explain it to someone else. Please watch the video here:

Wives: Submit To Your Husbands

According to an article on Fox News, two UK preachers have come under fire for preaching that wives should submit to their husbands. “Vicar Angus MacLeay urged the congregation at St. Nicholas Church in Sevenoaks, Kent, to “submit” to their husbands. A few days later, Curate Mark Oden preached, “We know marriage is not working.”

According to Curate Mark Oden, one in four children have divorced parents. He seems to be inferring that figure is due to wives not submitting to their husbands.

The sermon caused outrage and one disgusted woman was quoted as saying “How can they talk that way in the 21st century?”

I find it highly interesting that these two men appear to be blaming women for the divorce rate. They also do not supply any data to support the figure one in four children come from divorced parents. Why is it acceptable to blame one gender for divorce and not the other? Where is the evidence to support the notion that a husband’s judgment is better than a wife’s simply because he is a man? Rather than blame women for the fact that “marriage is not working”, why not find out why it REALLY isn’t working? Would that presume that men are fallible in their leadership of the home?

Misogyny seems to be alive and well in the British Church.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Cloning Neanderthals

According to an article from Fox News, cloning Neanderthals to create healthy, living specimens could become a reality 944NqQ Of course years ago when Jurassic Park first came out, scientists were discussion the possible reality of cloning dinosaurs. Now, thanks to the incredible increase in computing power over the last few years, sequencing genomes for such a project is becoming a real possibility according to Archaeology Magazine.

Cloning is still an inexact science, however. Restoring the DNA of a specimen tens of thousands of years old faces the challenges of chemical changes, breakdown of the biological matter and a myriad of possible contaminants.

Even if those challenges can be overcome, the question still remains: Should this be done? If so, to what end? If Neanderthals were brought back, would they qualify for human rights? If there were colonies of them, how would they support themselves and their families? Would Geico be sued for hate speech or would they be the major employer for Neanderthal kind?

What do you think? Are Neanderthals close enough to us to be considered to have human rights? Would we have living vignettes in natural history museums? What effect would Neanderthal tribes have on our world today? On Religion and Creationism?

For more information visit http://www.archaeology.org/1003/etc/neanderthals.html


Captain America Against Free Speech?

Recently a new issue of Captain America was released. In it, he and his partner, Falcon, are hunting down a fake Cap who is “deranged and working with white supremacists” according to Canada Free press.com and many others 19825 While looking for the fake Cap, the two super heroes, out of costume for some unknown reason, stumble across a Tea Party Rally and watch from a roof top.

What I find pretty stunning is that both Falcon AND Captain America seem totally clueless as to what a Tea Party Rally even IS. In the first frame, Falcon asks “What the hell is this?” and Cap replies “It looks like some kind of anti tax rally.”. If you listen to any kind of talk radio, read newspapers or watch TV, you KNOW about Teabaggers as they call themselves. How is it that not one but TWO superheroes don’t know about this movement?

Okay, okay, so aside from the fact that they’re not real. We know from past experience that art influence the way we look at the world. Comics are art. It takes talent to create it and such things have been platforms for politics in the past.

This comic is especially disturbing because it implies that protesting the high levels of government spending is subversive. It also implies that the Tea Party protesters are anti-government, racist and violent. I personally never thought I would see the day when a paragon of virtue like Captain America would speak against free speech.

See the comic pages here:

UPDATE: My thanks to Mick for pointing out that I got a bit sucked in by talk radio. There is no place that Captain America actually voices an opinion against free speech. My mistake.

Being Skeptical About Emotional Issues

When an issue strikes close to home it is difficult to be skeptical about it.

A few days ago my oldest son suggested that homosexuality is a genetic disorder. As a bisexual woman, my hackles automatically raised and I became highly offended. When I calmed down, I realized that because this is something that affects me personally, I was letting emotion get in the way of being a good skeptic. The post I wrote in response to Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s comment that atheists “aren’t fully human” is a good example of that.

Now that I have calmed down, I have looked into it and here whataregd is the definition of a genetic disorder: A genetic disorder is a disease that is caused by an abnormality in an individual’s DNA. Abnormalities can range from a small mutation in a single gene to the addition or subtraction of an entire chromosome or set of chromosomes.

A disease has three definitions:

  1. A pathological condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism resulting from various causes, such as infection, genetic defect, or environmental stress, and characterized by an identifiable group of signs or symptoms.
  2. A condition or tendency, as of society, regarded as abnormal and harmful.
  3. Obsolete. Lack of ease; trouble.

So by definition # 2 from Answers.com, some people can define homosexuality/bisexuality as a genetic disorder because they regard it as “abnormal or harmful”. BUT, by definition one, he’s wrong.

His argument is that, within the parameters of mating, compared to almost every other species that mate to reproduce, that genetically it could be a disorder. Though he agrees that ‘aberration’ might be a better word. It was too funny. Hubby witnessed this yelling match that eventually degraded into “I’m more right than you are!”, followed by laughter.

I can see his point that, purely from a mammalian mating standpoint, homosexuality could be a harmful aberration. If homosexuality was the norm in non-human animal species, the population would drop significantly and many species would simply become extinct.

His entire point to the argument he posed was that, from an outside perspective, the genetic disorder idea is one possible theory. As skeptics we should be able to look at all points of view even when it hits close to home.

He’s right.

Snakeoil Salesman Gets Blasted On Dragon’s Den

Dragon’s Den is a Canadian-based show in which entrepreneurs pitch their products to potential investors. In the second show of the fifth season, the product “Bruce’s Juice” was introduced to the The Dragons (the title bestowed on the investors).

Bruce’s Juice was supposedly extremely purified water that contained “nano silver”. Whether this is colodial silver or some form of homeopathic silver was not made apparent. The entrepeneur claimed that his product can cure colitis, hepatitis, H1N1 and even cancer. The list of ailments this substance could supposedly cure was limitless.

The man had no medical research to back up his claims. He only presented a booklet with a list of ailments the substance in the bottle could supposedly cure.

He was, I am most pleased to say, BLASTED by The Dragons and told to leave.

Watch this sleazy shyster get his ass handed to him here:

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