Look at me, still talking when there’s Science to do!

In which Franklin chokes your friends list…scroll, my byatches! Scroll!

PART I: THE RANT

Every other year, the National Science Foundation does a survey of Americans’ understanding of basic principles of science and basic facts about the physical world. And every other year, the results are disappointing. In 2006, the last year of this exercise in the humiliation of the human species, we learned that about 70% of American adults do not understand what the scientific method is; 60% of American adults believe in psychics and ESP; half of Americans believe that antibiotics kill viruses; and nearly a quarter of all Americans(!) say that the sun moves around the earth, rather than the other way around.

It’s depressing, it is.

And the results from 2006 actually, if you can believe this, show some improvement over results from 2004 and 2002.

The numbers keep getting more miserable, too. A whopping 66% of American adults reject evolution, for example; more on that in a bit.

When these results are combined with other results from surveys on American ideas and beliefs, the gloom deepens. Various polls by CNN purport to show, among other things, that 80% of surveyed American adults believe the US government is hiding knowledge of space aliens, and 70% of American adults still believe that Saddam Hussein played a role in the attacks on the World Trade Center.


This level of anti-intellectualism in US society beggars belief. And it does a lot more than just make us look bad.

Some kooky, anti-intellectualist ideas, such as the notion that NASA faked the moon landings, are frustrating, but in the overall scheme of things not terribly important of and by themselves. Other ideas, such as the conspiracy theory that claims the government staged the World Trade Center attacks, reveal a deep-seated suspicion of government that’s so strong it overrides reason.

But some of these ideas are actively harmful. The ignorance of American adults about antibiotics and viruses means that many folks are inclined to take antibiotics when they can not do any good; overuse of antibiotics can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria which are a threat to the public health. Worse, the notion that vaccination is a “myth” used by evil scientists and doctors to “keep people sick” can cause people to refuse to vaccinate their kids, which leads to a susceptible population that offers childhood diseases a handy reservoir.

The “evil scientists” refrain is one that seems to be a common theme in the general voice of American anti-intellectualism. We’re not exactly sure what science is, but we’re sure that the people who do it are bad, motivated by dark, sinister goals of–I don’t know, keeping people sick or something. Whether it’s these anti-vaccination activists talking about the AMA or Greenpeace spouting uninformed bullshit about genetic engineering that they know isn’t true (says who? The founder of Greenpeace, no less), an active antipathy of science and scientists is the backdrop against which all of this anti-intellectualism is arrayed.

We even see this in American pop culture.

Video games like Half-Life and Resident Evil start with the same premise: a group of scientists, working together in a secret facility, brings about calamity and disaster; the solution to the problems they create is to go in and shoot stuff with a big gun.

Or a rocket launcher. Or a flamethrower. Or a railgun. Some of the things you use to shoot stuff with are pretty cool. But I digress.


PART II: The Problem

Americans are, by and large, woefully unequipped for rational, analytical thinking. The most basic tools of cognitive bullshit detection are simply not part of people’s toolkits; as a result, the most preposterous of ideas will sail through the minds of many folks unchecked, like a railgun through tissue paper.

Deepak Chopra, a minor star in the constellation of anti-intellectualism, once reacted to the idea that consciousness and personality are emergent phenomena from the physical processes of the brain by arguing that since brains are mostly made of water, saying that a brain is capable of consciousness without some outside spiritual force is like saying a bucket of water is capable of consciousness. This argument is, of course, utterly absurd; it’s a bit like saying since concrete is mostly sand, we can build skyscrapers out of sand. (The other stuff in there, and the physical structure, is important too, Deepak!) his argument was made only slightly more ridiculous when he then went on to say that yes, a bucket of water actually is conscious.

Water appears to be an obsession among certain parts of the New Age spiritualist crowd. One guy actually believes that water responds to human emotions and reads Japanese, and he’ll sell you a cure for cancer based on this “discovery.” If you have six hundred dollars in your wallet and a hole in your head, anyway.


I wish I was making this up, really I do. But, yes, there are folks who believe water has an emotional state. This idea came forth in the public consciousness through the movie What the Bleep Do We Know, a film that does for anti-intellectualism what Die Hard did for action-adventure flicks.

In this marvelous (for some value of “marvelous”) movie, we learn (among other things) that water “absorbs” human emotions. There’s this guy, you see, who turns out to be a friend of the producer, and he says that you can write emotionally-charged words on paper and wrap the paper around glasses of water, then you can freeze the water, you see, and the emotional “energy” will be absorbed by the water and change the crystals. Negative emotions, see, produce ‘ugly’ crystals; positive emotions produce ‘pretty’ crystals. This actually sounds plausible to enough folks that this guy sells a wide range of products, from books and CDs about emotional water to geometrically “clustered” water (at $35 a bottle) to gadgets that put your personal emotional energy into your food and water in order to make it better for you.

This shambling wreck of a movie communicates its message in an indirect way, by exploiting its audience’s fuzzy understanding of basic scientific processes and principles. It leads its viewers to factually incorrect conclusions by presenting factually accurate statements with careful framing intended to create inferences that aren’t true; for example, it talks about quantum mechanics and how the presence of an “observer” can influence a quantum state, then talks about the way our minds and emotional states can influence our immune system, and leads the reader to draw the conclusion that our minds can directly affect the physical world on a quantum level (which is not correct) without actually saying so directly.

To do this, it relies on ambiguities and fuzzy grasp of scientific terminology. Folks believe they know what the word “observer” means; when they hear it, they think of a person standing there looking at something. To a scientist, though, a person is not an observer; an observer is any particle which interacts with the observed system in a way that’s thermodynamically irreversible. The image that springs to mind when folks hear the word “observer” is wrong; the movie counts on this to lead the audience to a conclusion that is also wrong.

Profitable, though. The machines that program “emotional energy” into your water will set you back about $2500 US (plus tax and shipping).


One of the biggest problems facing anyone who cares about science and reason is the fact that folks sincerely believe they understand the concepts they’re grappling with, even when they do not. One thing I’ve seen is that everyone everywhere believes, truly believes, that he understands both quantum mechanics and evolutionary biology, while in reality, they don’t.

Nowhere is the gap between a person’s perceived understanding of a subject and the actual tenets of the subject as irritating as it is with evolution. I have met many people who passionately reject, even hate, the idea of evolution, but I have not yet met one who can explain what evolution is.

The list of misconceptions about evolutionary biology is endless. I could talk for days about the number of things folks think evolution says that it doesn’t, but then both you and I would be here for days, and I’m sure neither of us wants that. So in no particular order, some of my favorites:

– Evolution says there is no god. False; evolution says nothing abut god whatsoever, any more than astronmy, low-temperature physics, or agriculture say anything about god. Evolutionary biology (and geology and physics and astronomy and chemistry and astrophyscis and…) says that the world is more than six thousand years old, but it is silent on the subject of god.

– Evolution says that one species can change into another species, like a cow can change into a horse, but this has been proven false because there are no half-cow, half-horse creatures running around. Again, false; evolution says something completely different, which is that a a group of organisms that’s isolated and subject to adaptive pressure can and will change over time, to the point where it no longer belongs to the same species as the originals…but this process is extremely gradual, and does not at any time result in the birth of a creature halfway between one species and another. Eventually, given the right conditions, the right adaptive pressure, and the enough time, an initial population of cows might give rise to organisms that fill the same ecological niche that horses fill now, but a half-cow, half-horse will never exist.

-Evolution is about survival of the fittest; an organism that gets a mutation will spread it if the mutation helps it survive, and will not spread it if it doesn’t. Evolution relies on good mutations happening; the fact that there are bad mutations proves it doesn’t work. False; evolution is about the propagation of traits that allow the organism which holds them to reproduce. It doesn’t rely on mutation in the X-Men sense of the word; what it needs are a population whose members are different from one another, it needs for those variations to be inheritable, and it needs for those variations to determine, to some extent, reproductive success. That’s it.

If an organism has tentacles, and some have longer tentacles than others, and the ones with longer tentacles are more likely to reproduce, then over time the average tentacle length in the species will increase. It’s important to understand that a particular trait does not need to kill its inheritor to be selected against, and does not need to increase the odds of survival to be selected in favor of. It only needs to have an effect on reproduction. Even a tiny one. A trait that makes its possessors die younger but increases the odds that they will bear offspring by 0.001% will still be selected in favor of. Sometimes, the things that cause an organism to be more likely to reproduce don’t necessarily have anything to do with survival at all!

– For a structure to evolve, it must arise from simpler structures. If the eye evolved, it couldn’t evolve all at once. We should see creatures with half an eye. True; and we do. Very simple creatures like parasitic roundworms don’t have eyes; they have eyespots–simple clumps of cells slightly sensitive to light. That’s it. More advanced invertebrates have cup-shaped eyespots–a tiny improvement since they can get a general sense of the direction light is coming from, but still not an eye. Squid have round eyes lined with light-sensing cells, but they act like pinhole cameras–there is just a hole in front. No iris, no lens, no cornea, no eyelid. More complex fish have a lens but still lack a cornea or eyelid. Reptiles like snakes have an eye with a lens and cornea, but no lid–the eye is behind a special transparent scale. And so on.

– Science says we are more highly evolved than other organisms. False; evolution is not goal-directed, and every species, including ours, continues to be subject to adaptive pressure all the time. The virus that causes HIV, which evolves very quickly, could reasonably be said to be “more evolved” than we are!

– Evolution says all life is random, but if you mix chemicals at random, you don’t get life. False, and very annoying; it’s hard to understand where the notion of “evolution = random” even comes from, it’s so far off the mark. Evolution is about preserving structures and about natural selection, which is a most decidedly unrandom process. When you mix a bowl of chemicals, or parts of a watch, there is no mechanism that preserves increases in order; yet this is exactly what inheritance does.

– Science says that things go from an ordered state toward greater and greater states of disorder. Evolution violates thermodynamics. Which is what happens when folks take one thing they don’t understand, thermodynamics, and apply it to something else they don’t understand, biology. Entropy and disorder increase in a closed system, but this planet is not a closed system. If you add energy to a system from the outside, order in that system can go up. The earth has energy coming in from the outside…from the sun.

Ignorance about a topic leads to misunderstanding and misinformation about that topic. Sadly, though, it also leads to an inability to assess how much one knows about a topic, so those who most profoundly misunderstand something, like evolutionary biology or the Van Allen radiation belts (those bugaboos that the moon landing hoax nutters like to trot out as “proof” that visiting the moon is impossible), the less likely one is to know that they don’t understand it.

Which leads into…


PART III: WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

“But I’ve done the research!” folks will wail, when one attempts to say that, no, vaccination isn’t a myth, or yes, the World Trade Center was brought down by commercial aircraft, or no, NASA didn’t fake the moon landings.

“I’ve done the research!” In fact, someone once told me this while trying to argue that vaccination is a hoax perpetrated by evil doctors. “I’ve done the research, and I know it’s true!”

This person does not know what the “immune system” is or how it works. She does not know the role that various parts of the immune system play in fighting disease. She does not know the difference between a virus and a bacteria, nor does she know the basic theory by which vaccines operate. So I think it’s reasonable to say that she has not, in any way, “done the research” to gain the cognitive tools necessary to evaluate claims about immunology.

This is something one sees often–people who, sincerely and without intentional deceit, believe they have “done the research” to support some proposition about which, even after the “research” has been done, they actually know absolutely nothing. The majority of folks–including, I bet, some people reading this right now–believe that looking for arguments which support one’s idea is “research.”


There’s a book I like to talk about. It’s called How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallability of Reason in Everyday Life. It’s a very, very dry book; the author’s writing has the charm and wit of a robot wearing a pair of knit booties…but it’s an extraordinarily informative book. A chapter of the book is dedicated to the tendency of folks, when trying to support or refute an argument, to look only as far as the first idea that supports their position but no further. People believe this is “research”–you look for someone who says something that appears on the surface to support your position, then look no further than that.

I think this idea of “research” is one that our educational system does nothing to dispel. I’m sure most of you reading this have at one point or another been told to do a “research paper,” and most likely you were told that “research” means finding a list of folks who agree with your position, then citing those folks in the appropriate way. Guess what? That’s not research. When you do this, you will tend to look no deeper than the initial arguments that support your idea, and you certainly won’t investigate the validity of those arguments.


A wonderful example of this approach to “research” just recently popped up in a conversation I was involved in about the notion that pornography “causes” violence and rape. There are two factoids that the folks who see a casual relationship between porn and rape like to trot out, and you’ll see the littered all over anti-porn Web sites. Both factoids are statistical. The first is that Alaska has the highest per-capita rate of readership of men’s magazines in the nation, and also the highest per-capita incidence of violence, including rape, in the US. The second concerns Oklahoma City; in 1985, the city closed 150 porn shops and violent crime, including rape, decreased dramatically, while rising elsewhere in the state.

On the surface, these arguments might seem convincing. Deeper investigation, though, causes them to fall apart.

You see, Alaska has the highest per-capita readership of men’s magazines in the country. It also has the highest incidence of alcoholism, and the second highest rate of unemployment. Both alcoholism and unemployment are strongly and positively correlated with violence; higher incidence of both are tied to higher incidence of violent crime. When one controls for other factors such as unemployment and other statistical correlaries to violence, one actually finds a negative correlation between porn and violent crime; that is, higher rates of porn correlate, unintuitively, to lower rates of rape and violence.

The Oklahoma City claim is also flawed–or at least, incomplete. The two facts as stated are true: in 1985, Oklahoma City shut down their porn stores, and subsequently, incidence of violence and rape decreased. But further investigation reveals a lot was going on in Oklahoma City at the time: namely, in response to a homicide rate that was one of the worst in the nation, Oklahoma City introduced a number of sweeping anti-crime measures. They hired more police (itself statistically correlated to decrease in violent crime); started their first narcotic detection unit; and initiated a purge of corruption and fraud in the police departments. A reasonable person might conclude that these factors played a role in the subsequent reduction in crime.


There is a lesson here. Skepticism applies first and most importantly to arguments which support one’s ideas. The scientific method is fundamentally a technique of doubt; a scientist tries to disprove his idea, not prove it; the more it resists debunking, the more faith can be placed in it. Research does not consist of finding arguments in support of one’s idea. To “do the research,” look for facts that do not support your idea. Place value only in ideas which resist your most vigorous efforts to debunk them. If you believe that vaccination is a plot, and you read a book that says vaccination is a plot, you have not done the research.

This is a learned cognitive tool. That’s bad news and good news. It’s bad news because it does not come naturally; in fact, it’s precisely the opposite of what our instincts tell us to do. It’s good news because, really, it’s a simple tool; anyone can learn it. And that one tool opens the door to obtaining a whole new cognitive toolkit of bullshit detectors.

Maybe there’s hope for us after all.

180 thoughts on “Look at me, still talking when there’s Science to do!

  1. Americans are, by and large, woefully unequipped for rational, analytical thinking.

    When I was a boy, growing up in the public schools of NYC, we were taught critical thinking skills as a regular part of the curriculum. Given the state of affairs, I no longer believe this to be the case; the last two generations of children have not been taught how to think; rather, they have been told what to think. A small, but critical difference that has given us a populace of sheep.

    It’s very sad, and somewhat troubling to think what a few more generations will bring us. Perhaps we’re headed for the future painted in the movie Idiocracy after all?

    Thank you for an excellent, and thought-provoking essay.

    • the last two generations of children have not been taught how to think; rather, they have been told what to think.

      This is, in fact, the way most education has been conducted throughout human history. Occasionally, progressive/constructivist pedagogy will come into vogue, but it’s only for brief periods. Our population is no more sheep-like than any other population in history.

      • Respectfully, I beg to differ.

        I think my generation, and those before me, and those before me were more politically-aware in their younger years (in elementary school, we were watching the news about the presidential elections and discussing them in classes), were taught to question what they were being told in their classrooms, and were encouraged to read and discover on their own. This I directly link to an era when teachers were appreciated and better-paid, when teaching was seen as an honorable profession and held in high esteem, and most-importantly, when parents were not only more involved in their children’s education, but also taught their children to respect their teachers.

        No, I think the last two generations, as a general rule, and based on my own empirical observances, as both a teacher (in public school and college) and a student, have been programmed to be followers, and not leaders. They have been taught not to reason, not to think, not to question.

        This has led to a deterioration in our society on the whole, but can be evidenced in poor manners, the lack of common courtesy, the lack of civic pride, the lack of respect for teachers, and the fact that schools have to now install metal detectors on campuses out of fear for safety issues!

        Two generations ago, people trusted authority because for the most part, authority respected the trust reposed in them. That is no longer true; and it ended with the Nixon era (though since that time, we’ve come to discover we should have examined things more closely prior to that, beginning with the Korean conflict). They may have been more naieve, but not sheep. Naievete stems from not needing to question because you have faith in what you’re being told; sheep-ism (though that’s not a word really) is the byproduct of being trained not to think, ask, or care.

        • You draw an interesting distinction, between believing you needn’t question your leaders out of naive faith, and being specifically denied the tools to do such questioning.

          Since your age is not obvious to me, may I ask what years you and “your generation” were in, say, K-12?

  2. Americans are, by and large, woefully unequipped for rational, analytical thinking.

    When I was a boy, growing up in the public schools of NYC, we were taught critical thinking skills as a regular part of the curriculum. Given the state of affairs, I no longer believe this to be the case; the last two generations of children have not been taught how to think; rather, they have been told what to think. A small, but critical difference that has given us a populace of sheep.

    It’s very sad, and somewhat troubling to think what a few more generations will bring us. Perhaps we’re headed for the future painted in the movie Idiocracy after all?

    Thank you for an excellent, and thought-provoking essay.

  3. While I agree with you on (nearly) all these points, I think it’s worth saying that the scientific method is not the only worthwhile approach to examining the universe. There are many phenomena that don’t lend themselves particularly well to examination by purely scientific methods.

    Rigorous skepticism is extremely useful, but it can be abused just like any other tool. Just because the existence of something can’t be proved doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist.

    I think the most useful attribute for a scientist is an open mind.

    ~r

    • For a scientist, a critical mind is actually the most useful thing to possess.

      But ideally – there is a balance to be struck between an open mind and a critical mind. Cultivating both is key.

      Great article Franklin!

      • >For a scientist, a critical mind is actually the most useful thing to possess.

        An open, uncritical mind may be fooled, but will likely learn something along the way. A critical, closed mind is entirely stagnant.

        >But ideally – there is a balance to be struck between an open mind and a critical mind. Cultivating both is key.

        I agree entirely.

        >Great article Franklin!

        I also agree entirely πŸ™‚

        ~r

        • There’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a closed mind. In fact, I’d argue that they’re almost opposites.

          A critical mind demands valid, repeatable, observable evidence for a new claim, but once that evidentiary standard is met accepts it (pending better theories or conflicting evidence).

          A closed mind already has a conclusion or paradigm decided upon, and refuses to change its stance regardless of new information.

          • I didn’t equate the two. Your definition of the word isn’t in any dictionary I know, but I can certainly agree with it.

            I still hold that it first takes an open mind to practice science, because that’s where the new claims come from.

            ~r

    • There are many phenomena that don’t lend themselves particularly well to examination by purely scientific methods.

      Do you mean natural phenomena? Science, as the application of the scientific method, is the study of nature. Supernatural phenomena are outside the purview of science, except insofar as science can provide a natural explanation.

      • No such thing as a supernatural phenomenon. Anything occurring in nature is natural.

        What I’m saying is that some things happen that science cannot explain. In fact, most things that happen have yet to be explained by science. Mostly we just use a very limited set of techniques that we’ve painstakingly managed to figure out how to reproduce consistently.

        And western science is not the only way to develop these techniques. After centuries of pooh-poohing systems of knowledge from other cultures for being “unscientific,” a lot of serious scientific research is turning up evidence that, yeah, acupuncture and herbalism works, and certain highly-trained people can thrive naked in a snow storm and dry wet blankets with their bodies at -20 C.

        I think that saying that something doesn’t exist because it hasn’t been studied and cataloged by someone with a university degree is not only the height of arrogance, it’s actually pretty dangerous.

        ~r

        • …certain highly-trained people can thrive naked in a snow storm and dry wet blankets with their bodies at -20 C.

          I’ll grant you acupuncture and (some) herbalism, but this sounds a little… improbable. Do you happen to have a link or citation floating around?

          • Grandparent post is referring to (I believe) Tummo, a supposed practice of some Tibetan monks.

            I’ve seen video of monks sleeping out in the snow overnight, etc., but don’t have enough information to make a critically informed conclusion about it. The Wikipedia article cites some research it purports to be scientific, you could look that up. The video I saw claimed it showed that practiced meditators had the full power of mind-over-physiology, which set off my BS detectors immediately.

            I suspect that if it is real, it means that some conscious control over metabolic rate (and therefore body temperature) can be established: i.e. NOT a demonstration of universal conscious control over physiology.

            One hypothesis that seems reasonable to me is that adults in himalayan populations may retain a larger degree of brown fat than do most adults – it’s a tissue type present mostly in infant and hibernating mammals that functions basically as a biological furnace. That peoples adapted to high-altitude low-temperature climates might retain more adult brown fat wouldn’t be so surprising.

            If it’s real, I bet those monks are seriously hungry in the morning after a night out in the cold. Whatever they’re doing to stay warm must be burning calories by the bucket.

          • I’ll buy that. In my experience (as a martial artist, among other things) I’ve seen some pretty remarkable feats of willpower and what we might in this context call biofeedback control — but conspicuously not anything that demonstrably violates laws of physics or well-established principles of biology.

        • And western science is not the only way to develop these techniques. After centuries of pooh-poohing systems of knowledge from other cultures for being “unscientific,” a lot of serious scientific research is turning up evidence that, yeah, acupuncture and herbalism works…

          That’s not a flaw in science; it’s merely evidence that science was not applied to those claims until recently.

          “Traditional Chinese Medicine” is a great example. It makes many claims. Some of those claims, when tested in controlled conditions, turn out out be true, and some turn out to be false. There isn’t an alternative to double-blind studies which is as effective at separating true claims from false claims.

          Indeed, I think this is a great example of where the scientific method succeeds wonderfully.

          Traditional method: “This old manuscript says this herb cures this disease. I guess that must mean this herb cures this disease.”

          Scientific method: “This old manuscript says this herb cures this disease. Let’s try it and see if it does. Let’s test it on some people, but give a placebo to others, and see if the people we give the herb to improve. Let’s make sure that we don’t know who is getting the placebo and who’s getting the herb, so that our own preconceptions don’t cause us to subconsciously screw up the results.

          While we’re at it, let’s see if *parts* of the herb work as well as the *whole* herb. Let’s see if other herbs in the same basic family work as well as, better than, or worse than the herb in the manuscript. Let’s see if we can figure out if there are differences between this herb and others, and if those differences matter to the results.”

          When we do this, herbs that pass the test (or more commonly, components found in herbs which pass the test) often end up being called “Western medicine.” Herbs that fail the test are called “alternative medicine,” and are sold in bottles at General Nutrition Centers for $65 pop.

          • I guess I have two major points:

            1) People, including many highly-trained scientists, tend to ignore or dismiss phenomena that exist outside of the body of scientific knowledge. Often, even after scientific evidence starts to pile up (“extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” cries the armchair debunker).

            Coming up with pretty buzzwords like “placebo effect” might make the PHDs feel better, but it still doesn’t tell us what’s actually happening.

            2) The scientific method is not the only way to make discoveries. In fact, even many “scientific” discoveries are made intuitively or by accident, and only confirmed later using the method, such as the process you describe above.

            The medicinal tradition of the amazonian indigines is a good example. Many of those recipes are incredibly complex and finicky, and often just one step away from being deadly poisons. From a purely scientific perspective, it’s ludicrous that such an “unstructured” culture could come up with these concoctions, but clearly they work, and clearly they didn’t run a series of controlled trials to test each recipe.

            It’s also worth saying that the reductionist approach to medicine that you describe is largely a tool of pharmaceutical companies to make marketable products, not some noble pursuit of better healthcare for the masses. You can’t patent willowbark tea.

            The scientific method is a useful tool, but by its very nature it gives only a narrow window onto reality. I think we have just as much to learn by sitting down with those amazonian shamans.

            ~r

          • 1) People, including many highly-trained scientists, tend to ignore or dismiss phenomena that exist outside of the body of scientific knowledge.

            Yes, because people are flawed. But the fact that scientists (as people) are flawed does not mean the scientific method itself is. There is nothing about the scientific method that says, “if it hasn’t been studied it can’t exist.”

            From a purely scientific perspective, it’s ludicrous that such an “unstructured” culture could come up with these concoctions, but clearly they work, and clearly they didn’t run a series of controlled trials to test each recipe.

            Actually, from a scientific perspective, it’s not ludicrous at all. Long-standing traditional medicines *have* been subjected to a certain level of scientific scrutiny, albeit not one as systematic as, say, a double-blind trial. Science is, at its most basic, a system for testing and observing. Shamans in the Amazonion rainforest don’t go out in the woods and randomly pick plants based on their own intuition and nothing else. They use medicines that have been used many times over many years with good results. Their predecessors tested these concoctions, and those that repeatedly proved themselves useful were passed down. Those that were harmful–even fatal–were quickly eliminated from the repertoire.

            So what I’m saying is that even if indigenous medicines haven’t been subjected to scientific testing on the level that we’d expect from FDA-approved drugs, they *have* been tested in a scientific manner. The wisdom of the shamans is built up on trial and observation just like our western scientific knowledge is. They may pass it on orally instead of through peer-reviewed journals, but it’s pretty much the same process.

            I think people often get stuck in the trap of thinking, “Well, we can’t understand this scientifically, so therefore science isn’t adequate.” Once upon a time our scientific tools were not advanced enough to detect the existence of microorganisms. We couldn’t see them and yet there were phenomena (such as illness) that we couldn’t explain. That didn’t mean those phenomena were beyond the scope of the scientific method. It only meant our scientific tools, at that point, couldn’t study them. I’m quite certain that today’s scientific tools, as advanced as they may be, are not sufficient to study all the phenomena that exist. That doesn’t mean that the scientific method is useless for understanding those phenomena–just that we don’t have the tools to actually do it.

          • > Yes, because people are flawed. But the fact that scientists (as people) are flawed does not mean the scientific method itself is. There is nothing about the scientific method that says, “if it hasn’t been studied it can’t exist.”

            My point exactly. I have repeatedly said that I have nothing against the scientific method, only the way people apply it, or more accurately, mis-apply it

            > Shamans in the Amazonion rainforest don’t go out in the woods and randomly pick plants based on their own intuition and nothing else. They use medicines that have been used many times over many years with good results. Their predecessors tested these concoctions, and those that repeatedly proved themselves useful were passed down. Those that were harmful–even fatal–were quickly eliminated from the repertoire.

            Sorry, but this is not true. Going out into the woods and picking plants based on their intuition is exactly what they did. There is no tradition of testing these recipes, and frankly it’s hard to imagine any way that they could have. Some of these concoctions involve several types of hard-to-harvest plants combined in very sophisticated manners. There is no tradition of wasting dozens of maiden aunts testing the latest ayaheusca recipe. And realistically, if they had followed such a testing procedure, there wouldn’t have been enough of the tribe left to pass on the recipe.

            The shamans claim that the recipes come from spirit dreams emanating from the forests themselves. I’m not saying that’s literally true, but there is no justification for imposing our ideas of “scientific” progress on a culture of intuitive discovery.

            If you need other examples — where did penicillin come from? Or LSD? Even Newton and Einstein got the basic ideas of their theories from intuitive insight, confirming them rigorously only after the fact. Einstein is particularly eloquent on this subject.

            > That doesn’t mean that the scientific method is useless for understanding those phenomena–just that we don’t have the tools to actually do it.

            Again, I agree entirely. But again, the scientific method only gives us a very narrow view of reality, and certainly not the only valid one. Worshiping this one particular viewpoint over all others is just as limiting as worshiping one particular Book over all others.

            There are many more tools as you suggest. My challenge to you and to science is to find the tools that work, regardless of whether they fit into our preconceptions.

            ~r

          • You’re describing the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. A hypothesis is an untested idea about how something might work, which everyone gets, scientists and otherwise. But it becomes accepted as a theory (which does not mean “guess”) only after the testing process.

            Those shamans may have made a “guess” (hypothesis) based on some dream they have, but they only continue to use it after it’s proven itself not to kill the patient they use it on.

            It is exactly the same thing.

            Penicillin was “discovered” by “accident”, but was only added to the lexicon of medicinal tools after some form of testing proved it won’t actually kill the people they gave it to and would probably have some sort of benefit to it.

          • People, including many highly-trained scientists, tend to ignore or dismiss phenomena that exist outside of the body of scientific knowledge. Often, even after scientific evidence starts to pile up (“extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” cries the armchair debunker).

            Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof if they are to be believed; nobody ought to believe anything just because someone says it’s true without evidence. If the claims are true, the proof follows.

            The scientific method is not the only way to make discoveries. In fact, even many “scientific” discoveries are made intuitively or by accident, and only confirmed later using the method, such as the process you describe above.

            Precisely. Someone notices something odd, or has an idea, and then applies the tools of rigorous empiricism to confirm or rebut them. A discovery may have its genesis in accident, sure–but it’s empiricism that separates the wheat from the chaff.

            The medicinal tradition of the amazonian indigines is a good example. Many of those recipes are incredibly complex and finicky, and often just one step away from being deadly poisons.

            Yep, and they are developed after a pattern of ad-hoc trial and error experimentation. The shaman gets an idea, he tries it, the patient dies, he doesn’t try that one again.

            It’s also worth saying that the reductionist approach to medicine that you describe is largely a tool of pharmaceutical companies to make marketable products, not some noble pursuit of better healthcare for the masses. You can’t patent willowbark tea.

            I hear this canard all the time, but it isn’t true. You can patent pharmacologically active compounds extracted from natural substances; it’s done all the time. The pharmacological industry spends more money on conservation, especially rainforest conservation, every year than any other single industry group, largely because so many compounds found in nature are so useful as medicines. And yes, they’re patentable, and profitable.

            Not that patentbility is any indication of profitability. The alternative “medicine” industry is a multibillion-dollar industry, and they don’t need to patent any of their “medicines,” or even prove that they work.

            The scientific method is a useful tool, but by its very nature it gives only a narrow window onto reality. I think we have just as much to learn by sitting down with those amazonian shamans.

            The bottom line is this: If a medicine works, you can prove that it works. Pharmacologists do sit down with the shamans, all the time; in fact, companies ranging from Merck and Pfizer to the British firm Therapeutics regularly send researchers into the Amazon basin with local guides, cataloging and sampling vaious plant species used as medicines by the locals. The samples are then tested; those that work become incorporated into everything from antiparasite to antitumor drugs.

          • > Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof if they are to be believed; nobody ought to believe anything just because someone says it’s true without evidence. If the claims are true, the proof follows.

            But what does “extraordinary” mean? That’s not a scientific term, it’s an excuse to reject evidence because of one’s preconceptions. Calling something “extraordinary” because you don’t believe it is an act of faith and prejudice, not science.

            > A discovery may have its genesis in accident, sure–but it’s empiricism that separates the wheat from the chaff.

            I agree entirely. What I’m saying is that empiricism itself will not get us everywhere we want to go. It’s just one tool.

            > Yep, and they are developed after a pattern of ad-hoc trial and error experimentation. The shaman gets an idea, he tries it, the patient dies, he doesn’t try that one again.

            Again, no, that’s not the way it happened. You’re imposing your viewpoint to a culture where it does not apply. These guys didn’t test there stuff on humans or rats — they tested it on themselves. And we’re talking about alkaloid poisons from several sources combined in very sophisticated ways to preserve just one effect of the toxins while removing the others. It’s ludicrous to think they managed it with some sort of trial-and-error process.

            > I hear this canard all the time, but it isn’t true. You can patent pharmacologically active compounds extracted from natural substances; it’s done all the time.

            That’s not what I said. Of course it’s legal to patent and market compounds. But willowbark tea is still free if you have a willow tree and some hot water.

            ~r

  4. While I agree with you on (nearly) all these points, I think it’s worth saying that the scientific method is not the only worthwhile approach to examining the universe. There are many phenomena that don’t lend themselves particularly well to examination by purely scientific methods.

    Rigorous skepticism is extremely useful, but it can be abused just like any other tool. Just because the existence of something can’t be proved doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist.

    I think the most useful attribute for a scientist is an open mind.

    ~r

  5. Bravo! Very well said!

    A couple points on evolution: Some creationists confuse evolution with abiogenesis. The latter is, strictly speaking, outside the scope of evolution, though similar thermodynamic arguments apply. Though it is true that “mutation,” or any mechanism of increasing genetic diversity, is more or less random, natural selection is clearly directed. Alas, the idea that we are the pinnacle of evolution was once held by many scientists as well as by modern-day creationists (in the form of “God created man in His image”).

    • Yep–the confusion between abiogenesis and evolution is something I see all the time. Darwin’s book was called Origin of Species and not Origin of Life for a reason…

      Evolution is not random, but it isn’t goal-directed either, at least not in the sense that “the purpose of evolution was to create us,” which is a common error I see people make all the time. If it is goal directed, the goal is reproduction, not some final species form.

      • Directed by the fact that traits which lead to greater reproductive success, lead to.. well, greater reproductive success, and more individuals with those traits.

        • I just don’t see something having a natural effect as being the same as “clearly directed.” As I told Joreth, “directed” to me implies intention and forethought. Someone or something has to have set things in a particular, desired direction. But you seem to be saying that the end result of the directing is the very thing doing the directing.

          We could just be quibbling semantics here. I just see a lot of people anthropomorphizing evolution and attributing things like desires and goals to a process that doesn’t actually have them, so I am wary when I see terms like “directed” used in reference to evolution. My other thought was that maybe you believe a god or gods is directing the show, which is a belief I don’t share but I can respect–I certainly can’t prove or disprove it one way or another.

          • That’s why I prefer “nonrandom” to “directed”–it doesn’t carry the same connotations of a sapient “director.” The folks who say “Evolution says all life happened at random” are so far off the mark that they clearly don’t understand even the most basic tenets of evolutionary biology, but evolution is not “directed” by any sort of goal-oriented intelligent force.

        • D’oh! I just realized that you are not the person I originally aimed my question at. So when I say I was trying to see if you believed in god I was actually meaning the original commenter. I was unclear by that person’s comment whether they meant that evolution is clearly directed by a higher being, or in some other way, and I was trying to clarify that.

          I’m happy to swap opinions on the matter with you, too, but I was primarily trying to clarify the views of the person I was asking. Sorry for the confusion!

      • not by whom, by what.

        It’s directed by reproduction. If the organism can’t survive long enough to reproduce, or is out-reproduced by its competitors, those traits are self-selected out. Whatever gene doesn’t prevent the organism from reproducing itself gets passed on and whatever gene actively promotes better reproduction gets passed on in higher concentration.

        • I understand what you’re saying, but I disagree with the terminology. To me, the term “directed” implies that something is done with intention and forethought. Evolution doesn’t work that way. No one (or no thing) has declared, “I only want genes that aid reproduction to get passed on!” It’s just what ends up happening.

          When I hear people saying things like evolution is “directed” or that it has a “goal of” or similar things, it makes me wary. Because terms like these feed into a lot of misconceptions people have about evolution, such as that evolution works to produce ever more superior species (rather than just species that are best adapted to the particular environment) or that if something is an evolved trait, it must be morally correct.

          Of course, it may be that the person to whom I was originally asking the question believes that evolution is directed by a god or gods. Which was what I was trying to clarify–is this a difference of belief systems, a difference of semantics, or an actual misunderstanding of how evolution works.

          • Of course, it may be that the person to whom I was originally asking the question believes that evolution is directed by a god or gods.
            That’s a fairly common view among more science-oriented religious people. It’s what I believed when I was a Christian (I never believed in omnipotence), and it’s what my sister still believes, and she’s a biologist specializing in genetics.

  6. Bravo! Very well said!

    A couple points on evolution: Some creationists confuse evolution with abiogenesis. The latter is, strictly speaking, outside the scope of evolution, though similar thermodynamic arguments apply. Though it is true that “mutation,” or any mechanism of increasing genetic diversity, is more or less random, natural selection is clearly directed. Alas, the idea that we are the pinnacle of evolution was once held by many scientists as well as by modern-day creationists (in the form of “God created man in His image”).

  7. I only read through part 2

    that has to be some of the most intelligent things I have heard in awhile.

    you must know the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    No?

    well lemme tell you about him so you can be saved by the touch of his noodly appendage!

  8. I only read through part 2

    that has to be some of the most intelligent things I have heard in awhile.

    you must know the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    No?

    well lemme tell you about him so you can be saved by the touch of his noodly appendage!

  9. the last two generations of children have not been taught how to think; rather, they have been told what to think.

    This is, in fact, the way most education has been conducted throughout human history. Occasionally, progressive/constructivist pedagogy will come into vogue, but it’s only for brief periods. Our population is no more sheep-like than any other population in history.

  10. “I’ve done the research!” In fact, someone once told me this while trying to argue that vaccination is a hoax perpetrated by evil doctors. “I’ve done the research, and I know it’s true!”

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with a “friend” of mine, who informed me that it had been scientifically proven that black people were genetically stupider than white people. “I’ve done the research,” he said. “It’s all right there in the statistics.”

    Which told me quite clearly that he knew very little about a) statistics, b) psychology, and c) biological anthopology. All in one fell swoop!

    • It’s amazing how many folks–and sometimes, folks who are otherwise reasonable and intelligent–have bashed their heads against that particular brick wall. William Shockley, the physicist who won the Nobel Prize for co-inventing the transistor and then later went on to develop the integrated circuit, believed that blacks were genetically less intelligent than whites and even wrote a book about it, Shockley on Eugenics and Race: The Application of Science to the Solution of Human Problems. Even people who’re otherwise intelligent and educated can fall into these traps of poor reasoning.

      • Indeed. I think even the smartest people hit a roadblock when evidence seems to support something they’d already like to believe.

        That’s actually why I decided to spend a great deal of time learning about intelligence, genetics, and race — everyone whom I heard talking about it would say, “Well, obviously blacks aren’t dumber than whites,” without explaining why that was the case, and I realized it wasn’t right for me to believe that just because smart people were saying it and it was the good-liberal thing to believe. I was totally prepared to acknowledge any merit I found in The Bell Curve, much as it might pain me. Didn’t find much, of course, and then found some excellent debunkings of the book, but I had to learn a lot about genetics and stats before I felt comfortable saying “This is B.S.” with any confidence.

        I wonder if my friend who buys into The Bell Curve would benefit from further study, or if he’s already made up his mind, because he wants eagerly to believe that whatever the “liberal establishment” believes is wrong.

        • The entire book falls apart if you don’t buy their flat denial of cultural bias in IQ tests in the first 20-30 pages. I didn’t really see a need to go further.

          Ever read Guns, Germs and Steel?

    • I’m currently attempting to answer an anti-vaccination theorist. I recently made a post about some new findings about HPV and one person responded that Merk (the company producing the vaccine) wasn’t happy killing off the girls with mercury, now they’re trying to attack boys too.

      *sigh*

  11. “I’ve done the research!” In fact, someone once told me this while trying to argue that vaccination is a hoax perpetrated by evil doctors. “I’ve done the research, and I know it’s true!”

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with a “friend” of mine, who informed me that it had been scientifically proven that black people were genetically stupider than white people. “I’ve done the research,” he said. “It’s all right there in the statistics.”

    Which told me quite clearly that he knew very little about a) statistics, b) psychology, and c) biological anthopology. All in one fell swoop!

  12. For a scientist, a critical mind is actually the most useful thing to possess.

    But ideally – there is a balance to be struck between an open mind and a critical mind. Cultivating both is key.

    Great article Franklin!

  13. >For a scientist, a critical mind is actually the most useful thing to possess.

    An open, uncritical mind may be fooled, but will likely learn something along the way. A critical, closed mind is entirely stagnant.

    >But ideally – there is a balance to be struck between an open mind and a critical mind. Cultivating both is key.

    I agree entirely.

    >Great article Franklin!

    I also agree entirely πŸ™‚

    ~r

  14. This reminded me of a study that gave me some insight to the frustrating amount of ignorance and lack of… thinking things through carefully – that I’ve encountered in my years on this rock:

    The study claimed: People who do not know a lot about a subject usually overestimate how much they know, and how much they know compared to others – by a LOT.

    http://gagne.homedns.org/~tgagne/contrib/unskilled.html

    I do not know if some of the methodology is flawed – but it seems to fit the oft quoted and I have no idea who really said it first “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.”

    I think humans are always trying to connect the dots – that’s why there were myths about sun gods driving chariots across the sky. And I believe that as our knowledge and understanding of certain things has increased, that it has gotten more difficult for people to sift through which facts or arguments apply. And some of the concepts are complicated, relying on many other bits of knowledge to really have a person understand.

    This doesn’t even address people who cannot seem to connect the dots and think ahead to what the results of several sets of actions (say a set of rules in an online game) will cause people to do in response, or what people will do next/instead if a rule is changed.

    So yes, people need to think and be critical, but also in this huge amount of info that’s available, they need help to understand some of these things as ‘lay’ people while still having a reasonable understanding of the actual significant driving forces/principles (can’t find the right word for it right now) involved.

    I could go on about how my son’s math teacher was teaching estimating wrong and didn’t get why until I explained through WHY both numbers had to be rounded to the same place value. Or someone who thought they were helping someone in a game that involved percentages when their actions were hurting the other player, and so on. It’s everywhere. And I probably make mistakes too.

  15. This reminded me of a study that gave me some insight to the frustrating amount of ignorance and lack of… thinking things through carefully – that I’ve encountered in my years on this rock:

    The study claimed: People who do not know a lot about a subject usually overestimate how much they know, and how much they know compared to others – by a LOT.

    http://gagne.homedns.org/~tgagne/contrib/unskilled.html

    I do not know if some of the methodology is flawed – but it seems to fit the oft quoted and I have no idea who really said it first “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.”

    I think humans are always trying to connect the dots – that’s why there were myths about sun gods driving chariots across the sky. And I believe that as our knowledge and understanding of certain things has increased, that it has gotten more difficult for people to sift through which facts or arguments apply. And some of the concepts are complicated, relying on many other bits of knowledge to really have a person understand.

    This doesn’t even address people who cannot seem to connect the dots and think ahead to what the results of several sets of actions (say a set of rules in an online game) will cause people to do in response, or what people will do next/instead if a rule is changed.

    So yes, people need to think and be critical, but also in this huge amount of info that’s available, they need help to understand some of these things as ‘lay’ people while still having a reasonable understanding of the actual significant driving forces/principles (can’t find the right word for it right now) involved.

    I could go on about how my son’s math teacher was teaching estimating wrong and didn’t get why until I explained through WHY both numbers had to be rounded to the same place value. Or someone who thought they were helping someone in a game that involved percentages when their actions were hurting the other player, and so on. It’s everywhere. And I probably make mistakes too.

  16. Respectfully, I beg to differ.

    I think my generation, and those before me, and those before me were more politically-aware in their younger years (in elementary school, we were watching the news about the presidential elections and discussing them in classes), were taught to question what they were being told in their classrooms, and were encouraged to read and discover on their own. This I directly link to an era when teachers were appreciated and better-paid, when teaching was seen as an honorable profession and held in high esteem, and most-importantly, when parents were not only more involved in their children’s education, but also taught their children to respect their teachers.

    No, I think the last two generations, as a general rule, and based on my own empirical observances, as both a teacher (in public school and college) and a student, have been programmed to be followers, and not leaders. They have been taught not to reason, not to think, not to question.

    This has led to a deterioration in our society on the whole, but can be evidenced in poor manners, the lack of common courtesy, the lack of civic pride, the lack of respect for teachers, and the fact that schools have to now install metal detectors on campuses out of fear for safety issues!

    Two generations ago, people trusted authority because for the most part, authority respected the trust reposed in them. That is no longer true; and it ended with the Nixon era (though since that time, we’ve come to discover we should have examined things more closely prior to that, beginning with the Korean conflict). They may have been more naieve, but not sheep. Naievete stems from not needing to question because you have faith in what you’re being told; sheep-ism (though that’s not a word really) is the byproduct of being trained not to think, ask, or care.

  17. You draw an interesting distinction, between believing you needn’t question your leaders out of naive faith, and being specifically denied the tools to do such questioning.

    Since your age is not obvious to me, may I ask what years you and “your generation” were in, say, K-12?

  18. Wowβ€”you have to check out this customer review of How We Know It Isn’t So. The review provides a concise summary of each of the author’s main points and then wraps up with the conclusion quoted below. Mark your reaction as you go from the first to the second paragraph.

    Conclusion

    I believe these observations apply to the conservative Christian community as much as the rest of the world. Christians have a duty to look at their own beliefs with the same critical eye that they turn on the “liberal media.” I wish I could find books like this one by Mr. Gilovich written in the Christian community. We need Christian leaders who will take a stand for self-criticism.

    Let’s not use bad reasoning or bad science to promote good ideas. An example would be if creationists like me were more open about the evidence that seems to contradict creationism. We like to think that all evidence is in our favor, but I believe that if we were more public about the problems with creationist theories, more people would be impressed with our objectivity and reliability.

    Did you get a sudden jolt of disorientation when you read through the “creationists like me” passage? I’m glad that this person is all in favor of critical thinking, but is he so indoctrinated in religious dogma, and so woefully ignorant of science, that he doesn’t even catch a glimpse of the irony? Five gets you ten thousand this guy’s been home-schooled.

    • Eh. Really, I think the fact that he’s trying is vastly more important than his conclusions. If he’s sufficiently honest with himself and the evidence, he’ll come to the right answer sooner or later — and it does sound like he’s being honest.

  19. Wowβ€”you have to check out this customer review of How We Know It Isn’t So. The review provides a concise summary of each of the author’s main points and then wraps up with the conclusion quoted below. Mark your reaction as you go from the first to the second paragraph.

    Conclusion

    I believe these observations apply to the conservative Christian community as much as the rest of the world. Christians have a duty to look at their own beliefs with the same critical eye that they turn on the “liberal media.” I wish I could find books like this one by Mr. Gilovich written in the Christian community. We need Christian leaders who will take a stand for self-criticism.

    Let’s not use bad reasoning or bad science to promote good ideas. An example would be if creationists like me were more open about the evidence that seems to contradict creationism. We like to think that all evidence is in our favor, but I believe that if we were more public about the problems with creationist theories, more people would be impressed with our objectivity and reliability.

    Did you get a sudden jolt of disorientation when you read through the “creationists like me” passage? I’m glad that this person is all in favor of critical thinking, but is he so indoctrinated in religious dogma, and so woefully ignorant of science, that he doesn’t even catch a glimpse of the irony? Five gets you ten thousand this guy’s been home-schooled.

  20. There are many phenomena that don’t lend themselves particularly well to examination by purely scientific methods.

    Do you mean natural phenomena? Science, as the application of the scientific method, is the study of nature. Supernatural phenomena are outside the purview of science, except insofar as science can provide a natural explanation.

  21. No such thing as a supernatural phenomenon. Anything occurring in nature is natural.

    What I’m saying is that some things happen that science cannot explain. In fact, most things that happen have yet to be explained by science. Mostly we just use a very limited set of techniques that we’ve painstakingly managed to figure out how to reproduce consistently.

    And western science is not the only way to develop these techniques. After centuries of pooh-poohing systems of knowledge from other cultures for being “unscientific,” a lot of serious scientific research is turning up evidence that, yeah, acupuncture and herbalism works, and certain highly-trained people can thrive naked in a snow storm and dry wet blankets with their bodies at -20 C.

    I think that saying that something doesn’t exist because it hasn’t been studied and cataloged by someone with a university degree is not only the height of arrogance, it’s actually pretty dangerous.

    ~r

  22. Evolution says that one species can change into another species, like a cow can change into a horse, but this has been proven false because there are no half-cow, half-horse creatures running around. Again, false; evolution says something completely different, which is that a a group of organisms that’s isolated and subject to adaptive pressure can and will change over time, to the point where it no longer belongs to the same species as the originals…but this process is extremely gradual, and does not at any time result in the birth of a creature halfway between one species and another. Eventually, given the right conditions, the right adaptive pressure, and the enough time, an initial population of cows might give rise to organisms that fill the same ecological niche that horses fill now

    Unless you’re trying to point out that no individual organisms change species, or that the path is not predetermined, I don’t see how your account is any different than the supposed fallacy.

    but a half-cow, half-horse will never exist.
    But if horses had evolved from cows (aurochs), cow/horse transitional forms would exist somewhere along the way.

    • Unless you’re trying to point out that no individual organisms change species, or that the path is not predetermined, I don’t see how your account is any different than the supposed fallacy.

      The creationist argument says that evolution creates a process by which one species changes into another — which is true — but then goes on to make the mistake of believing that transformation is linear. I’ve seen it argued that if it were possible for a cow to evolve into a horse (which isn’t really quite accurate; an existing species doesn’t change into another existing species), then we must expect to see literal half-cow/half horse animals, like animals with the head of a horse and the body of a cow.

      We do see transitional species, but that’s not the way they look. The process by which one population gives rise to another population of a distinctly different species isn’t that linear, nor that abrupt. Not only would we not expect to see any animals with the head of a horse and the body of a cow, but the path from one ecological niche to another is rarely direct, and the intermediate species we would expect to see would likely bear very little resemblance to cows or horses. So little, in fact, that creationists reject the notion that they are intermediate species at all.

      In a sense, every species is an intermediate species, because evolutionary adaptation never stops.

  23. Evolution says that one species can change into another species, like a cow can change into a horse, but this has been proven false because there are no half-cow, half-horse creatures running around. Again, false; evolution says something completely different, which is that a a group of organisms that’s isolated and subject to adaptive pressure can and will change over time, to the point where it no longer belongs to the same species as the originals…but this process is extremely gradual, and does not at any time result in the birth of a creature halfway between one species and another. Eventually, given the right conditions, the right adaptive pressure, and the enough time, an initial population of cows might give rise to organisms that fill the same ecological niche that horses fill now

    Unless you’re trying to point out that no individual organisms change species, or that the path is not predetermined, I don’t see how your account is any different than the supposed fallacy.

    but a half-cow, half-horse will never exist.
    But if horses had evolved from cows (aurochs), cow/horse transitional forms would exist somewhere along the way.

  24. Franklin, you’ve managed to kill the remainder of my faith in humanity and my friends list. In one fell swoop. *applauds*
    However, I agree with what you’ve said. And you probably said it better than I ever could.

  25. Franklin, you’ve managed to kill the remainder of my faith in humanity and my friends list. In one fell swoop. *applauds*
    However, I agree with what you’ve said. And you probably said it better than I ever could.

  26. In 2006, the last year of this exercise in the humiliation of the human species, we learned that about 70% of American adults do not understand what the scientific method is; 60% of American adults believe in psychics and ESP; half of Americans believe that antibiotics kill viruses; and nearly a quarter of all Americans(!) say that the sun moves around the earth, rather than the other way around.

    Well, yes. But a recent survey says that about a quarter of all Brits think Winston Churchill was a myth and more than two-thirds think that Sherlock Holmes was real, so it’s not just an American thing.

    I have no hard evidence to this effect, but I suspect that levels of rank ignorance are pretty consistent across cultures.

  27. In 2006, the last year of this exercise in the humiliation of the human species, we learned that about 70% of American adults do not understand what the scientific method is; 60% of American adults believe in psychics and ESP; half of Americans believe that antibiotics kill viruses; and nearly a quarter of all Americans(!) say that the sun moves around the earth, rather than the other way around.

    Well, yes. But a recent survey says that about a quarter of all Brits think Winston Churchill was a myth and more than two-thirds think that Sherlock Holmes was real, so it’s not just an American thing.

    I have no hard evidence to this effect, but I suspect that levels of rank ignorance are pretty consistent across cultures.

  28. …certain highly-trained people can thrive naked in a snow storm and dry wet blankets with their bodies at -20 C.

    I’ll grant you acupuncture and (some) herbalism, but this sounds a little… improbable. Do you happen to have a link or citation floating around?

  29. Eh. Really, I think the fact that he’s trying is vastly more important than his conclusions. If he’s sufficiently honest with himself and the evidence, he’ll come to the right answer sooner or later — and it does sound like he’s being honest.

  30. Grandparent post is referring to (I believe) Tummo, a supposed practice of some Tibetan monks.

    I’ve seen video of monks sleeping out in the snow overnight, etc., but don’t have enough information to make a critically informed conclusion about it. The Wikipedia article cites some research it purports to be scientific, you could look that up. The video I saw claimed it showed that practiced meditators had the full power of mind-over-physiology, which set off my BS detectors immediately.

    I suspect that if it is real, it means that some conscious control over metabolic rate (and therefore body temperature) can be established: i.e. NOT a demonstration of universal conscious control over physiology.

    One hypothesis that seems reasonable to me is that adults in himalayan populations may retain a larger degree of brown fat than do most adults – it’s a tissue type present mostly in infant and hibernating mammals that functions basically as a biological furnace. That peoples adapted to high-altitude low-temperature climates might retain more adult brown fat wouldn’t be so surprising.

    If it’s real, I bet those monks are seriously hungry in the morning after a night out in the cold. Whatever they’re doing to stay warm must be burning calories by the bucket.

  31. Brilliant article, Franklin.

    One thing I’ve seen is that everyone everywhere believes, truly believes, that he understands both quantum mechanics and evolutionary biology, while in reality, they don’t.

    I’d be very skeptical of anyone who claimed to understand both evolutionary biology and quantum mechanics. After eight years in a lab studying the mathematics of evolution, and replicating it in both bacterial and digital experiments, I feel like I actually do understand it. (I can even define a quasispecies and explain why for such a beastie, fitness is not very relevant and “survival of the flattest” is far more apt!)

    Then every once in a while I try to study up on other fields of science … say particularly quantum mechanics and particle physics. After a couple of days I learn just enough to have a vague grasp of what those scientists are working on, and that beyond that I’d need to go back for ten more years of school to get it. QM is truly baffling stuff.

    • QM is truly baffling stuff.

      That may be the biggest understatement I’ve heard all year.

      And good point. Most of the scientists I work with, who have been working in their own fields for many years, do not claim to know much about other fields of science. Yet lay people with no scientific background frequently claim to “understand” a subject like evolutionary biology or quantum mechanics.

  32. Brilliant article, Franklin.

    One thing I’ve seen is that everyone everywhere believes, truly believes, that he understands both quantum mechanics and evolutionary biology, while in reality, they don’t.

    I’d be very skeptical of anyone who claimed to understand both evolutionary biology and quantum mechanics. After eight years in a lab studying the mathematics of evolution, and replicating it in both bacterial and digital experiments, I feel like I actually do understand it. (I can even define a quasispecies and explain why for such a beastie, fitness is not very relevant and “survival of the flattest” is far more apt!)

    Then every once in a while I try to study up on other fields of science … say particularly quantum mechanics and particle physics. After a couple of days I learn just enough to have a vague grasp of what those scientists are working on, and that beyond that I’d need to go back for ten more years of school to get it. QM is truly baffling stuff.

  33. 911 citation

    “Other ideas, such as the conspiracy theory that claims the government staged the World Trade Center attacks, reveal a deep-seated suspicion of government that’s so strong it overrides reason.”

    Bad example to make your point – “do the research”. In any case it is not vital to your thesis. Great stuff.

    • Re: 911 citation

      Bad example to make your point – “do the research”.

      I have–the research I’ve done suggests that the folks who maintain this conspiracy theory aren’t well-schooled in metallurgy, architecture, forensics, politics, or demolitions. πŸ™‚

  34. 911 citation

    “Other ideas, such as the conspiracy theory that claims the government staged the World Trade Center attacks, reveal a deep-seated suspicion of government that’s so strong it overrides reason.”

    Bad example to make your point – “do the research”. In any case it is not vital to your thesis. Great stuff.

  35. I’ll buy that. In my experience (as a martial artist, among other things) I’ve seen some pretty remarkable feats of willpower and what we might in this context call biofeedback control — but conspicuously not anything that demonstrably violates laws of physics or well-established principles of biology.

  36. A marvelous written stroll around the lawn of the biggest problem our species faces. I hope to get a chance to shake your hand someday.

    One thing that gives me a little hope when I see statistics that X% of people “believe” something absurd, is that a fair proportion of those people don’t actually act on the logical consequences of those beliefs. The beliefs seem to be more a way to feel good than a basis for decision making.

    • One thing that gives me a little hope when I see statistics that X% of people “believe” something absurd, is that a fair proportion of those people don’t actually act on the logical consequences of those beliefs. The beliefs seem to be more a way to feel good than a basis for decision making.

      Well, yes and no. Those beliefs offer a handle by which the people who hold them can be exploited. Misconceptions about basic biology and medicine allow the purveyors of fake “penis pills” and bogus remedies of ll sorts to take advantage of them (and incidentally provide financial incentive for these fraud artists to stuff my email full of penis spam).

      More generally, credulity and lack of skeptical and analytical reasoning allows folks to do everything from set up fake phishing Web sites to steal bank account info from the gullible to distorting elections with unsubstantiated claims about political candidates. So I do think people act on those beliefs, in thousands of small ways, every day.

  37. A marvelous written stroll around the lawn of the biggest problem our species faces. I hope to get a chance to shake your hand someday.

    One thing that gives me a little hope when I see statistics that X% of people “believe” something absurd, is that a fair proportion of those people don’t actually act on the logical consequences of those beliefs. The beliefs seem to be more a way to feel good than a basis for decision making.

  38. And western science is not the only way to develop these techniques. After centuries of pooh-poohing systems of knowledge from other cultures for being “unscientific,” a lot of serious scientific research is turning up evidence that, yeah, acupuncture and herbalism works…

    That’s not a flaw in science; it’s merely evidence that science was not applied to those claims until recently.

    “Traditional Chinese Medicine” is a great example. It makes many claims. Some of those claims, when tested in controlled conditions, turn out out be true, and some turn out to be false. There isn’t an alternative to double-blind studies which is as effective at separating true claims from false claims.

    Indeed, I think this is a great example of where the scientific method succeeds wonderfully.

    Traditional method: “This old manuscript says this herb cures this disease. I guess that must mean this herb cures this disease.”

    Scientific method: “This old manuscript says this herb cures this disease. Let’s try it and see if it does. Let’s test it on some people, but give a placebo to others, and see if the people we give the herb to improve. Let’s make sure that we don’t know who is getting the placebo and who’s getting the herb, so that our own preconceptions don’t cause us to subconsciously screw up the results.

    While we’re at it, let’s see if *parts* of the herb work as well as the *whole* herb. Let’s see if other herbs in the same basic family work as well as, better than, or worse than the herb in the manuscript. Let’s see if we can figure out if there are differences between this herb and others, and if those differences matter to the results.”

    When we do this, herbs that pass the test (or more commonly, components found in herbs which pass the test) often end up being called “Western medicine.” Herbs that fail the test are called “alternative medicine,” and are sold in bottles at General Nutrition Centers for $65 pop.

  39. Yep–the confusion between abiogenesis and evolution is something I see all the time. Darwin’s book was called Origin of Species and not Origin of Life for a reason…

    Evolution is not random, but it isn’t goal-directed either, at least not in the sense that “the purpose of evolution was to create us,” which is a common error I see people make all the time. If it is goal directed, the goal is reproduction, not some final species form.

  40. It’s amazing how many folks–and sometimes, folks who are otherwise reasonable and intelligent–have bashed their heads against that particular brick wall. William Shockley, the physicist who won the Nobel Prize for co-inventing the transistor and then later went on to develop the integrated circuit, believed that blacks were genetically less intelligent than whites and even wrote a book about it, Shockley on Eugenics and Race: The Application of Science to the Solution of Human Problems. Even people who’re otherwise intelligent and educated can fall into these traps of poor reasoning.

  41. Unless you’re trying to point out that no individual organisms change species, or that the path is not predetermined, I don’t see how your account is any different than the supposed fallacy.

    The creationist argument says that evolution creates a process by which one species changes into another — which is true — but then goes on to make the mistake of believing that transformation is linear. I’ve seen it argued that if it were possible for a cow to evolve into a horse (which isn’t really quite accurate; an existing species doesn’t change into another existing species), then we must expect to see literal half-cow/half horse animals, like animals with the head of a horse and the body of a cow.

    We do see transitional species, but that’s not the way they look. The process by which one population gives rise to another population of a distinctly different species isn’t that linear, nor that abrupt. Not only would we not expect to see any animals with the head of a horse and the body of a cow, but the path from one ecological niche to another is rarely direct, and the intermediate species we would expect to see would likely bear very little resemblance to cows or horses. So little, in fact, that creationists reject the notion that they are intermediate species at all.

    In a sense, every species is an intermediate species, because evolutionary adaptation never stops.

  42. Re: 911 citation

    Bad example to make your point – “do the research”.

    I have–the research I’ve done suggests that the folks who maintain this conspiracy theory aren’t well-schooled in metallurgy, architecture, forensics, politics, or demolitions. πŸ™‚

  43. One thing that gives me a little hope when I see statistics that X% of people “believe” something absurd, is that a fair proportion of those people don’t actually act on the logical consequences of those beliefs. The beliefs seem to be more a way to feel good than a basis for decision making.

    Well, yes and no. Those beliefs offer a handle by which the people who hold them can be exploited. Misconceptions about basic biology and medicine allow the purveyors of fake “penis pills” and bogus remedies of ll sorts to take advantage of them (and incidentally provide financial incentive for these fraud artists to stuff my email full of penis spam).

    More generally, credulity and lack of skeptical and analytical reasoning allows folks to do everything from set up fake phishing Web sites to steal bank account info from the gullible to distorting elections with unsubstantiated claims about political candidates. So I do think people act on those beliefs, in thousands of small ways, every day.

  44. Indeed. I think even the smartest people hit a roadblock when evidence seems to support something they’d already like to believe.

    That’s actually why I decided to spend a great deal of time learning about intelligence, genetics, and race — everyone whom I heard talking about it would say, “Well, obviously blacks aren’t dumber than whites,” without explaining why that was the case, and I realized it wasn’t right for me to believe that just because smart people were saying it and it was the good-liberal thing to believe. I was totally prepared to acknowledge any merit I found in The Bell Curve, much as it might pain me. Didn’t find much, of course, and then found some excellent debunkings of the book, but I had to learn a lot about genetics and stats before I felt comfortable saying “This is B.S.” with any confidence.

    I wonder if my friend who buys into The Bell Curve would benefit from further study, or if he’s already made up his mind, because he wants eagerly to believe that whatever the “liberal establishment” believes is wrong.

  45. I guess I have two major points:

    1) People, including many highly-trained scientists, tend to ignore or dismiss phenomena that exist outside of the body of scientific knowledge. Often, even after scientific evidence starts to pile up (“extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” cries the armchair debunker).

    Coming up with pretty buzzwords like “placebo effect” might make the PHDs feel better, but it still doesn’t tell us what’s actually happening.

    2) The scientific method is not the only way to make discoveries. In fact, even many “scientific” discoveries are made intuitively or by accident, and only confirmed later using the method, such as the process you describe above.

    The medicinal tradition of the amazonian indigines is a good example. Many of those recipes are incredibly complex and finicky, and often just one step away from being deadly poisons. From a purely scientific perspective, it’s ludicrous that such an “unstructured” culture could come up with these concoctions, but clearly they work, and clearly they didn’t run a series of controlled trials to test each recipe.

    It’s also worth saying that the reductionist approach to medicine that you describe is largely a tool of pharmaceutical companies to make marketable products, not some noble pursuit of better healthcare for the masses. You can’t patent willowbark tea.

    The scientific method is a useful tool, but by its very nature it gives only a narrow window onto reality. I think we have just as much to learn by sitting down with those amazonian shamans.

    ~r

  46. Franklin, I just posted using the same GIF. I’m glad you’re getting some use out of it.
    You might want to check my post & see how the Florida legislature is trying to make this WORSE by dumbing down teaching of evolution here.
    Of particular interest is the section of the article that delves in to the difference between a scientific theory and what the public BELIEVES a theory means. There’re some really humorous comments about gravity too.

    I follow it up with a piece from a professor of religion on how religion is dying in the younger generations, and how they can only hope fear of death that comes with middle age will scare people back. You have to believe that some of this enforced ignorance is so the power structures of such groups can maintain control.

    My mother asked me about “What the Bleep” the other day. She’s a college professor, and a bunch of her colleagues (admittedly, she’s an art teacher & they’re all liberal arts types, not science folks) had been touting how great & informative it is. I had to disabuse her of the notion.

    I ran in to the research issue last night.
    I’d commented in a forum that I don’t believe in the historical Jesus, as there is no good contemporaneous evidence he existed and there’re many things that point to the contrary.
    A few hours later I’m in an IM with a friend, and after 2 hours of chatting she says “Oh, BTW you’re wrong, Jesus was real.”
    I responded with the thing about contemporaneous history & how nothing was written until Constantine was made emperor 100 years later, and there’s a CONSPICUOUS lack of mention in Pilate’s letters & reports.
    She disagrees and comes back with the names of some Roman historians, and I reply that she should check the dates.
    She comes back with a Wikipedia (THOROUGH research) on the “historical Jesus” with the names of all these Roman historians… And I pointed out to her that all the information in the article she was citing made my point FOR me!
    Furthermore, there was a link at the top to a counter article with a bunch of research backing up what *I* was saying. I asked her if she’d looked at that & she replied “*I*DON’T*WANT*TO*!”
    She basically wanted to assert that I was wrong & she was right but she didn’t know the basis of her own belief and refused to look at anything counter to it.
    I pointed out that my uncle, who’s a minister & who teaches seminary, acknowledges there’s no historical proof but accepts the reality of Jesus on faith & I had no problem if she did the same. But that wasn’t enough. I had to buy in to what she was saying or I was wrong.

    That’s the mindset you’re fighting when railing against the anti-intellectualism in this country.

    Oh, and while I was typing this an ad for “Lipozene” came on TV. The number two bit of junk science/medicine (behind penis pills) we see all the time…fake weight loss.
    *sigh*

    • She comes back with a Wikipedia (THOROUGH research)

      There ought to be a Godwin’s Law for Wikipedia. If you’re arguing with someone and they cite Wikipedia as their evidence, you automatically win the argument.

      • And the really funny thing, as I noted, is that the article she cited PROVED many of MY points AND had a link to a COUNTER article that she refused to click on!
        Bad enough to cite such a questionable source, but you should at least make sure it doesn’t support your opponent’s claim & check the other linked materials LOL

      • That’s an argument that I frequently hear, but while vandalism and well-intentioned inaccuracies can find their way into wiki entries, the system as a whole has error correction mechanisms- including an emphasis on citations, and entries with inadequate citations being clearly marked as such- that make it sufficiently reliable to be an excellent starting point in researching all but the most contentious (and hence vandalism-prone) topics.

        In my personal experience I’ve found Wikipedia to be an invaluable and highly accurate tool. Yes, it shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but then no book should.

        • This was a debate on the existence of Jesus as a living historical figure.
          I’d call that pretty contentious, with arguments for especially likely to be suspect.
          In any case, responding “Well here’s a page on WIkipedia who says he was real, so it must be so” without doing any further research was what I was faced with.

          • In your circumstance I can completely see where Wikipedia would be of only limited use. My own use of Wikipedia generally focusses on using it as a reference to explain things (to idiots) like the Tiktaalik transitional fossil, what “fire” is, the Soviet space program, the chloralkali process, how lunar rovers were secured to the outside of the lunar modules, and electrolysis. In topics like these I find Wiki to be very useful, informative, and accurate.

        • Depends on the subject, I think.

          Wikipedia is a great resource for cultural trivia and cultural artifacts. For example, try this as an experiment: Look up the video game Half-Life on Wikipedia, then look up the Apollo moon landings on Wikipedia. Count the number of words in each entry. Then follow the links within Wikipedia to additional articles on the same topic, and count the words in those, too. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot more Wikipedia-space dedicated to the video game than to the Apollo program.

          Wikipedia has a lot of problems that extend beyond vandalism and simple factual ignorance. It’s weighted heavily in favor of current pop culture and geek topics. It has a number of reliability and social and political problems that can make it unreliable.

          When it’s good, it’s usually good as a starting point rather than a final destination. I’ve personally seen too many factually incorrect statements and too many revision wars for me to take Wikipedia seriously, though. (In one classic case, Wikipedia’s entry on McAfeeSite Advisor was edited to remove all references to problems with the service by a McAfee employee, and apparently nobody saw any conflict of interest there.)

          So, yeah, Wikipedia as a valid, accurate, and authoritative source for information, or at least information not related to pop bands and video games…not so much.

        • I find Wikipedia to be very valuable, too, especially for preliminary research into a topic I know very little about. It gives me great ideas (and links) for directions I should be taking.

          But as a magazine science writer, I would NEVER simply look something up on Wikipedia and then repeat it as fact. Yes, Wikipedia emphasizes citations, and people can go in and correct or question errors–but that only happens if someone catches those errors. It’s not a matter of saying, “Well, we have this article and we’re going to send it out for verification *before* we publish it.” (i.e. like a peer-reviewed journal) It gets published first and checked out–maybe–later. So you don’t really know if the article is undisputed because it’s correct and its citations are good, or because no one has bothered to question it and check its citations out yet. You can’t trust that someone has verified the source material, so you have to go out and do it yourself, if you truly want accurate information.

          And if you verify the source material yourself, why wouldn’t you use *that* in an argument, rather than the Wikipedia article?

          • And if you verify the source material yourself, why wouldn’t you use *that* in an argument, rather than the Wikipedia article?

            In my case it’s a matter of the audience and the subject matter. Generally, with the people whom I’m likely to refer to a Wiki article (paranoid conspiracy theorists) it’s difficult enough to get them to check out a single site let alone several, and the wiki pages tend to have the information that I need to convey aggregated together in a convenient form. Additionally, many citations refer to articles that aren’t available online, while I *know* that anyone with whom I’m debating has access to Wikipedia.

            I also have to deal with the limitation that many authoritative sources simply aren’t trusted by the people I’m trying to educate, while paradoxically a more “pedestrian” site like Wikipedia, while still viewed with suspicion, at least isn’t dismissed outright.

            I agree that Wikipedia isn’t the alpha and omega repository of knowledge, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise, but for most subjects it has tremendous utility.

  47. Franklin, I just posted using the same GIF. I’m glad you’re getting some use out of it.
    You might want to check my post & see how the Florida legislature is trying to make this WORSE by dumbing down teaching of evolution here.
    Of particular interest is the section of the article that delves in to the difference between a scientific theory and what the public BELIEVES a theory means. There’re some really humorous comments about gravity too.

    I follow it up with a piece from a professor of religion on how religion is dying in the younger generations, and how they can only hope fear of death that comes with middle age will scare people back. You have to believe that some of this enforced ignorance is so the power structures of such groups can maintain control.

    My mother asked me about “What the Bleep” the other day. She’s a college professor, and a bunch of her colleagues (admittedly, she’s an art teacher & they’re all liberal arts types, not science folks) had been touting how great & informative it is. I had to disabuse her of the notion.

    I ran in to the research issue last night.
    I’d commented in a forum that I don’t believe in the historical Jesus, as there is no good contemporaneous evidence he existed and there’re many things that point to the contrary.
    A few hours later I’m in an IM with a friend, and after 2 hours of chatting she says “Oh, BTW you’re wrong, Jesus was real.”
    I responded with the thing about contemporaneous history & how nothing was written until Constantine was made emperor 100 years later, and there’s a CONSPICUOUS lack of mention in Pilate’s letters & reports.
    She disagrees and comes back with the names of some Roman historians, and I reply that she should check the dates.
    She comes back with a Wikipedia (THOROUGH research) on the “historical Jesus” with the names of all these Roman historians… And I pointed out to her that all the information in the article she was citing made my point FOR me!
    Furthermore, there was a link at the top to a counter article with a bunch of research backing up what *I* was saying. I asked her if she’d looked at that & she replied “*I*DON’T*WANT*TO*!”
    She basically wanted to assert that I was wrong & she was right but she didn’t know the basis of her own belief and refused to look at anything counter to it.
    I pointed out that my uncle, who’s a minister & who teaches seminary, acknowledges there’s no historical proof but accepts the reality of Jesus on faith & I had no problem if she did the same. But that wasn’t enough. I had to buy in to what she was saying or I was wrong.

    That’s the mindset you’re fighting when railing against the anti-intellectualism in this country.

    Oh, and while I was typing this an ad for “Lipozene” came on TV. The number two bit of junk science/medicine (behind penis pills) we see all the time…fake weight loss.
    *sigh*

  48. 1) People, including many highly-trained scientists, tend to ignore or dismiss phenomena that exist outside of the body of scientific knowledge.

    Yes, because people are flawed. But the fact that scientists (as people) are flawed does not mean the scientific method itself is. There is nothing about the scientific method that says, “if it hasn’t been studied it can’t exist.”

    From a purely scientific perspective, it’s ludicrous that such an “unstructured” culture could come up with these concoctions, but clearly they work, and clearly they didn’t run a series of controlled trials to test each recipe.

    Actually, from a scientific perspective, it’s not ludicrous at all. Long-standing traditional medicines *have* been subjected to a certain level of scientific scrutiny, albeit not one as systematic as, say, a double-blind trial. Science is, at its most basic, a system for testing and observing. Shamans in the Amazonion rainforest don’t go out in the woods and randomly pick plants based on their own intuition and nothing else. They use medicines that have been used many times over many years with good results. Their predecessors tested these concoctions, and those that repeatedly proved themselves useful were passed down. Those that were harmful–even fatal–were quickly eliminated from the repertoire.

    So what I’m saying is that even if indigenous medicines haven’t been subjected to scientific testing on the level that we’d expect from FDA-approved drugs, they *have* been tested in a scientific manner. The wisdom of the shamans is built up on trial and observation just like our western scientific knowledge is. They may pass it on orally instead of through peer-reviewed journals, but it’s pretty much the same process.

    I think people often get stuck in the trap of thinking, “Well, we can’t understand this scientifically, so therefore science isn’t adequate.” Once upon a time our scientific tools were not advanced enough to detect the existence of microorganisms. We couldn’t see them and yet there were phenomena (such as illness) that we couldn’t explain. That didn’t mean those phenomena were beyond the scope of the scientific method. It only meant our scientific tools, at that point, couldn’t study them. I’m quite certain that today’s scientific tools, as advanced as they may be, are not sufficient to study all the phenomena that exist. That doesn’t mean that the scientific method is useless for understanding those phenomena–just that we don’t have the tools to actually do it.

  49. QM is truly baffling stuff.

    That may be the biggest understatement I’ve heard all year.

    And good point. Most of the scientists I work with, who have been working in their own fields for many years, do not claim to know much about other fields of science. Yet lay people with no scientific background frequently claim to “understand” a subject like evolutionary biology or quantum mechanics.

  50. She comes back with a Wikipedia (THOROUGH research)

    There ought to be a Godwin’s Law for Wikipedia. If you’re arguing with someone and they cite Wikipedia as their evidence, you automatically win the argument.

  51. There is a lesson here. Skepticism applies first and most importantly to arguments which support one’s ideas.

    So, my 9-year-old son–an aspiring geneticist and ardent atheist–just came in spouting some of his typical anti-God rhetoric. Personally I agree with him (that there is no God) but he likes to say things like, “Science has proven that God can’t exist” and other such unsubstantiated claims.

    Anyway, I figured it was a good time to talk about the concept you mention above. We talked about what skepticism means and how it’s important to apply it to your own beliefs as well as those of other people. So…yay you for providing a teaching moment! πŸ˜›

    Overall, nice post. I don’t think anti-intellectualism and a distrust of scientists is uniquely American (or particularly modern), but otherwise I agree with what you have to say.

  52. There is a lesson here. Skepticism applies first and most importantly to arguments which support one’s ideas.

    So, my 9-year-old son–an aspiring geneticist and ardent atheist–just came in spouting some of his typical anti-God rhetoric. Personally I agree with him (that there is no God) but he likes to say things like, “Science has proven that God can’t exist” and other such unsubstantiated claims.

    Anyway, I figured it was a good time to talk about the concept you mention above. We talked about what skepticism means and how it’s important to apply it to your own beliefs as well as those of other people. So…yay you for providing a teaching moment! πŸ˜›

    Overall, nice post. I don’t think anti-intellectualism and a distrust of scientists is uniquely American (or particularly modern), but otherwise I agree with what you have to say.

  53. > Yes, because people are flawed. But the fact that scientists (as people) are flawed does not mean the scientific method itself is. There is nothing about the scientific method that says, “if it hasn’t been studied it can’t exist.”

    My point exactly. I have repeatedly said that I have nothing against the scientific method, only the way people apply it, or more accurately, mis-apply it

    > Shamans in the Amazonion rainforest don’t go out in the woods and randomly pick plants based on their own intuition and nothing else. They use medicines that have been used many times over many years with good results. Their predecessors tested these concoctions, and those that repeatedly proved themselves useful were passed down. Those that were harmful–even fatal–were quickly eliminated from the repertoire.

    Sorry, but this is not true. Going out into the woods and picking plants based on their intuition is exactly what they did. There is no tradition of testing these recipes, and frankly it’s hard to imagine any way that they could have. Some of these concoctions involve several types of hard-to-harvest plants combined in very sophisticated manners. There is no tradition of wasting dozens of maiden aunts testing the latest ayaheusca recipe. And realistically, if they had followed such a testing procedure, there wouldn’t have been enough of the tribe left to pass on the recipe.

    The shamans claim that the recipes come from spirit dreams emanating from the forests themselves. I’m not saying that’s literally true, but there is no justification for imposing our ideas of “scientific” progress on a culture of intuitive discovery.

    If you need other examples — where did penicillin come from? Or LSD? Even Newton and Einstein got the basic ideas of their theories from intuitive insight, confirming them rigorously only after the fact. Einstein is particularly eloquent on this subject.

    > That doesn’t mean that the scientific method is useless for understanding those phenomena–just that we don’t have the tools to actually do it.

    Again, I agree entirely. But again, the scientific method only gives us a very narrow view of reality, and certainly not the only valid one. Worshiping this one particular viewpoint over all others is just as limiting as worshiping one particular Book over all others.

    There are many more tools as you suggest. My challenge to you and to science is to find the tools that work, regardless of whether they fit into our preconceptions.

    ~r

  54. And the really funny thing, as I noted, is that the article she cited PROVED many of MY points AND had a link to a COUNTER article that she refused to click on!
    Bad enough to cite such a questionable source, but you should at least make sure it doesn’t support your opponent’s claim & check the other linked materials LOL

  55. I think you horribly misrepresent people opposed to vaccination. I’m a former nursing student – took a lot of classes that helped me make decisions around vaccination (like microbiology and anatamoy & physiology) – and still chose not to vaccinate. I know a former nurse (now a stay-at-home mother) who made the same choice around vaccinations. It’s a complex dance assessing different risks (both the risk factors of the disease or complications AND the vaccine, including different versions there may be for vaccinating against the same disease) and maybe when I go back to nursing school (causing the risk factors for my particular child to change) or when there’s further research about vaccination I might choose to selectively vaccinate.

    Still, it’s pretty difficult to be a parent, facing mandatory vaccination in most places, and not have heard the arguments towards vaccinating. Most parents vaccinate without even looking at any argument one way or another for vaccinating. Not to say that some of the arguments advocating against vaccination are anti-intellectual (like some people try to argue against germ theory!), but most people who choose not to vaccinate are more concerned about toxic and cancer-causing ingrediants present in vaccines, the differences between natural immunity and the immunity vaccines give, adverse vaccination reactions, and other things, and weigh it against the severity of the disease, the risk of complication, the likelihood the child would be exposed to the disease, etc… It’s not just some half-ass conspiracy theory.

    And, for what it’s worth, as a parent, having some skepticism around what my doctor says is healthy, particularly since my doctor often does not follow what large medical boards, like the AMA, recommend. Having a daughter as young as a year old, I’ve had doctors offer medically unnecessary ultrasounds, antibiotics for an ear infection before testing if the infection was viral, antibiotics in an IV just as a matter of routine in birth, and elective induction. I’ve had doctors who recommended introduction of solids before six months. From giving birth (as someone who had a low risk pregnancy) and breastfeeding, it’s easy to see how parents don’t develop a blind trust of their doctors and then wonder about vaccination.

    I lost my point – it’s 2:30AM My point was that often objections to vaccination is built on science – an uneasiness with the lack of good, long-term studies on various components of vaccination (such as the effect of aluminum in vaccines), research from what almost any medical textbook will tell you about the disease a vaccine prevents, etc…

    • i’ve heard some non-conspiracy-like objections to not vaccinating as well, and the pro-vaccination stuff i’ve read (i’m not a parent, i was just curious about this a few years ago) didn’t really explain what the “other stuff” in the vaccine was for, and whether or not it had been adequately tested as “harmless” (or harmFUL for that matter – it just seemed like it hadn’t been tested at all). i’d read accusations of mercury and other heavy metals in vaccines, as well as other stuff that i couldn’t find reason for being there.

      i also think i read that there were a variety of different vaccines for the same thing, depending on which pharmeceutical company was producing/selling, and not a lot of understanding about what was in each cocktail of vaccines, and why one company chose one set of ingredients over another.

      it seems like one of those areas of science/medicine where people are told to shut up and believe what your doctor tells you because they have a white coat and snappy gloves, and therefore know better, whereas i’m pretty sure doctors are no more infallible than popes.

      • I think the information is available, but most people don’t bother to look for it.

        Thiomerosal, for example, used to be added to pediatric vaccinations (it’s not any more) as a preservative. It is an extremely potent anti-bacterial agent, so potent that just the tiniest trace amounts–a few parts per billion–are excellent preservatives. It was added to vaccinations beginning in the 1930s after problems with bacterial contamination of vaccinations began to crop up. Its use in pediatric vaccinations in the US was discontinued in 1992. Today, a phenol compound called 2-Phenoxyethanol, which is also used in antiseptics, lotions, perfumes, cosmetics, and other consumer products, and as a flavoring agent in steak sauces (the “smoky” part of “smoky flavored sauce” is this and other phenyl compounds), is used as a preservative instead.

        • I think the information is available, but most people don’t bother to look for it.

          Or they look in the wrong places & don’t believe contrary info.
          I have a friend who’s a serious radical vegan anti-western medicine hippie who has a young daughter who’s never been vaccinated.
          Her mom’s reason for doing so was all the paranoia about the vaccines she’d read in her “natural health” publications.

          I argued relentlessly with her & pointed out much of that info was out of date & WRONG (for instance her daughter was born in 2001 but she STILL insisted that all vaccines contained thiomerosal) and she insisted that any counter-evidence I offered was a “fabrication of the medical complex.”

          This woman is not unintelligent but she’s never shown any skill at critical thinking (I’ve known her since High School) and suffers from what I term an OVERLY open mind. She’s exactly the type of highly intelligent and creative but uncritical person who’s a target of cultists. She, in fact, lived on a cult compound for a few years.

          She’s a perfect example of the issues of anti-intellectualism and poor reasoning you’re talking about.

          What was REALLY scary was when she started telling me ANYONE could skirt Florida’s mandatory school vaccination policies by claiming a “religious exemption” and showed me literature from all sorts of groups promoting that sort of thing & encouraging those practices in others.
          When she couldn’t get away with it with her daughter, she decided to home school. That got me looking & apparently (according to one review I read) upwards of 50% of homeschool kids aren’t vaccinated.

          Sad, really.

        • Today, a phenol compound called 2-Phenoxyethanol… is used as a preservative instead.
          Really? I could have sworn I read that the manufacturers largely switched to single-dose packaging to eliminate the need for preservatives, and that this extra overhead was largely responsible for the vaccine shortages we’ve had lately.

          • Depends on the vaccination. Influenza vaccinations are still distributed in 10-dose vials; DT vaccines are available in 1-dose or 5-dose vials; pediatric DTP vaccines are available in 1-dose, 10-dose, or 20-dose vials. The MMR-II vaccination is available in single or 10-dose vials (when reconstituted) but doesn’t contain a preservative, as it’s delivered freeze-dried.

    • To be fair, most RNs and LPNs are not experts on immunology.

      One of the big problems I see is that the human brain is, when it comes right down to it, incredibly poor at evaluating risk. We worry about terrorists whenever we get into an airplane, but step into a car without a thought. We worry about our kids being kidnapped by strangers, even though more children die every year by drowning in their own bathtubs than are kidnapped by strangers. I think that people who try to evaluate the perceived “risks” of vaccination fall into the same trap.

      Vaccination is not risk-free. There’s always the chance you could be killed in a car wreck on your way to the doctor (which is, statistically speaking, more likely than any adverse reaction to the vaccine itself). But the risks of not vaccinating are a function of social behavior; those risks are zero if every single person in the world except you vaccinates, and become great indeed if nobody vaccinates.

      We’re a generation away from polio wards, iron lungs, and measles epidemics; I’m old enough to have a living relative who was severely brain damaged by childhood measles (today she’s mentally handicapped with a functional IQ equivalency of somewhere between 50 and 60, but that’s become increasingly rare–the generation after mine likely doesn’t personally know anyone who’s had measles), so I think that interferes with our risk/reward calculations.

      It also doesn’t help that people will make a big deal out of thiomerosal or other ingredients in vaccinations, without doing any research to find out what risks, if any, they pose–the hypothesis that thiomerosal is linked to autism has been completely discredited, but that doesn’t stop laypeople from still hanging on to it anyway, and I have talked to folks who worry that there might be trace amounts of formaldehyde in vaccinations but are ignorant of the fact that cheese and many other foods contain formaldehyde in concentrations hundreds of thousands of times greater.

      Since we’ve given vaccinations to literally hundreds of millions of people, even subtle health problems would have been spotted by now. The risk/reward equation is a numbers game–people who don’t vaccinate are betting on the people who do.

      The people who argue against germ theory drive me right up a wall. Over on the PolyMatchMaker Web site, I ran into a woman who bragged proudly that neither she nor anyone in her sexual circle had ever had an STD test, because they “knew” that viruses and bacteria don’t cause disease and that AIDS is a medical “hoax”–I swear I am not making this up–invented by the American Medical Association. Needless to say, her kids are unvaccinated.

      And what differences do you believe exist between “natural” immunity and immune responses provoked by vaccination?

      • To be fair, most RNs and LPNs are not experts on immunology.
        No, but we aren’t as ignorant about immunology as the person you chose to represent people who choose not to vaccinate.

        We’re a generation away from polio wards, iron lungs, and measles epidemics; I’m old enough to have a living relative who was severely brain damaged by childhood measles (today she’s mentally handicapped with a functional IQ equivalency of somewhere between 50 and 60, but that’s become increasingly rare–the generation after mine likely doesn’t personally know anyone who’s had measles), so I think that interferes with our risk/reward calculations.
        Brain damage from measles, in general, is really rare. When looking at potentially serious complications of measles, most relate to damage to the cornea, but such complications tend to be more common in the malnourished, immunocompromised, adults, etc..

        It also doesn’t help that people will make a big deal out of thiomerosal or other ingredients in vaccinations, without doing any research to find out what risks, if any, they pose–the hypothesis that thiomerosal is linked to autism has been completely discredited, but that doesn’t stop laypeople from still hanging on to it anyway, and I have talked to folks who worry that there might be trace amounts of formaldehyde in vaccinations but are ignorant of the fact that cheese and many other foods contain formaldehyde in concentrations hundreds of thousands of times greater.
        I think that many of the people who don’t vaccinate are the same people who would be unlikely to be consuming cheese with formaldehyde, because at least for me, not vaccinating is one part of a larger lifestyle from utilizing non-toxic cleaners to eating organic, vegan food.

        Since we’ve given vaccinations to literally hundreds of millions of people, even subtle health problems would have been spotted by now. The risk/reward equation is a numbers game–people who don’t vaccinate are betting on the people who do.
        That’s not true in all cases. Chicken pox would be a good example. Shingles is becoming more common. Apparently, part of what gives people lifelong immunity to chicken pox is repeated exposure to the disease either after vaccination or the disease. In areas where most children are vaccinated, people don’t continue to have exposure to the disease and as a result, there’s a higher rate of shingles. Shingles is a much worse disease than chicken pox.

        Some vaccinations are for diseases where the vaccination of others is pretty irrelevant to my child. Nowadays, we vaccinate newborns for Hep B – not a horribly contagious disease and pretty preventable by lifestyle choices (such as safer sex and avoiding needle drugs).
        And what differences do you believe exist between “natural” immunity and immune responses provoked by vaccination?
        The best documentation I have seen is chicken pox.
        And what differences do you believe exist between “natural” immunity and immune responses provoked by vaccination?
        At least in the case of rubella, titers done roughly a decade after vaccination are significantly lower for those who acquired immunity through vaccination rather than through having rubella. Now a low count doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it does show that long-term, there is a difference in immunity. And since high counts are associated with good immunity and rubella is a mild disease that we vaccinate mostly out of the harm that can befall fetuses, I would rather give my daughter the chance to have the piece of mind a high count could give her.

  56. I think you horribly misrepresent people opposed to vaccination. I’m a former nursing student – took a lot of classes that helped me make decisions around vaccination (like microbiology and anatamoy & physiology) – and still chose not to vaccinate. I know a former nurse (now a stay-at-home mother) who made the same choice around vaccinations. It’s a complex dance assessing different risks (both the risk factors of the disease or complications AND the vaccine, including different versions there may be for vaccinating against the same disease) and maybe when I go back to nursing school (causing the risk factors for my particular child to change) or when there’s further research about vaccination I might choose to selectively vaccinate.

    Still, it’s pretty difficult to be a parent, facing mandatory vaccination in most places, and not have heard the arguments towards vaccinating. Most parents vaccinate without even looking at any argument one way or another for vaccinating. Not to say that some of the arguments advocating against vaccination are anti-intellectual (like some people try to argue against germ theory!), but most people who choose not to vaccinate are more concerned about toxic and cancer-causing ingrediants present in vaccines, the differences between natural immunity and the immunity vaccines give, adverse vaccination reactions, and other things, and weigh it against the severity of the disease, the risk of complication, the likelihood the child would be exposed to the disease, etc… It’s not just some half-ass conspiracy theory.

    And, for what it’s worth, as a parent, having some skepticism around what my doctor says is healthy, particularly since my doctor often does not follow what large medical boards, like the AMA, recommend. Having a daughter as young as a year old, I’ve had doctors offer medically unnecessary ultrasounds, antibiotics for an ear infection before testing if the infection was viral, antibiotics in an IV just as a matter of routine in birth, and elective induction. I’ve had doctors who recommended introduction of solids before six months. From giving birth (as someone who had a low risk pregnancy) and breastfeeding, it’s easy to see how parents don’t develop a blind trust of their doctors and then wonder about vaccination.

    I lost my point – it’s 2:30AM My point was that often objections to vaccination is built on science – an uneasiness with the lack of good, long-term studies on various components of vaccination (such as the effect of aluminum in vaccines), research from what almost any medical textbook will tell you about the disease a vaccine prevents, etc…

  57. Directed by the fact that traits which lead to greater reproductive success, lead to.. well, greater reproductive success, and more individuals with those traits.

  58. There’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a closed mind. In fact, I’d argue that they’re almost opposites.

    A critical mind demands valid, repeatable, observable evidence for a new claim, but once that evidentiary standard is met accepts it (pending better theories or conflicting evidence).

    A closed mind already has a conclusion or paradigm decided upon, and refuses to change its stance regardless of new information.

  59. That’s an argument that I frequently hear, but while vandalism and well-intentioned inaccuracies can find their way into wiki entries, the system as a whole has error correction mechanisms- including an emphasis on citations, and entries with inadequate citations being clearly marked as such- that make it sufficiently reliable to be an excellent starting point in researching all but the most contentious (and hence vandalism-prone) topics.

    In my personal experience I’ve found Wikipedia to be an invaluable and highly accurate tool. Yes, it shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but then no book should.

  60. This was a debate on the existence of Jesus as a living historical figure.
    I’d call that pretty contentious, with arguments for especially likely to be suspect.
    In any case, responding “Well here’s a page on WIkipedia who says he was real, so it must be so” without doing any further research was what I was faced with.

  61. I didn’t equate the two. Your definition of the word isn’t in any dictionary I know, but I can certainly agree with it.

    I still hold that it first takes an open mind to practice science, because that’s where the new claims come from.

    ~r

  62. this generated an impromptu unschooling lesson w/ my step-kidling involving antigens, antibodies, looking up photos of them, ancient egyptian and persian medical knowledge, hieratic writing, and now we’ve moved into light and the bending and diffusion thereof.

    so thanks. πŸ™‚

  63. this generated an impromptu unschooling lesson w/ my step-kidling involving antigens, antibodies, looking up photos of them, ancient egyptian and persian medical knowledge, hieratic writing, and now we’ve moved into light and the bending and diffusion thereof.

    so thanks. πŸ™‚

  64. Depends on the subject, I think.

    Wikipedia is a great resource for cultural trivia and cultural artifacts. For example, try this as an experiment: Look up the video game Half-Life on Wikipedia, then look up the Apollo moon landings on Wikipedia. Count the number of words in each entry. Then follow the links within Wikipedia to additional articles on the same topic, and count the words in those, too. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot more Wikipedia-space dedicated to the video game than to the Apollo program.

    Wikipedia has a lot of problems that extend beyond vandalism and simple factual ignorance. It’s weighted heavily in favor of current pop culture and geek topics. It has a number of reliability and social and political problems that can make it unreliable.

    When it’s good, it’s usually good as a starting point rather than a final destination. I’ve personally seen too many factually incorrect statements and too many revision wars for me to take Wikipedia seriously, though. (In one classic case, Wikipedia’s entry on McAfeeSite Advisor was edited to remove all references to problems with the service by a McAfee employee, and apparently nobody saw any conflict of interest there.)

    So, yeah, Wikipedia as a valid, accurate, and authoritative source for information, or at least information not related to pop bands and video games…not so much.

  65. i’ve heard some non-conspiracy-like objections to not vaccinating as well, and the pro-vaccination stuff i’ve read (i’m not a parent, i was just curious about this a few years ago) didn’t really explain what the “other stuff” in the vaccine was for, and whether or not it had been adequately tested as “harmless” (or harmFUL for that matter – it just seemed like it hadn’t been tested at all). i’d read accusations of mercury and other heavy metals in vaccines, as well as other stuff that i couldn’t find reason for being there.

    i also think i read that there were a variety of different vaccines for the same thing, depending on which pharmeceutical company was producing/selling, and not a lot of understanding about what was in each cocktail of vaccines, and why one company chose one set of ingredients over another.

    it seems like one of those areas of science/medicine where people are told to shut up and believe what your doctor tells you because they have a white coat and snappy gloves, and therefore know better, whereas i’m pretty sure doctors are no more infallible than popes.

  66. I find Wikipedia to be very valuable, too, especially for preliminary research into a topic I know very little about. It gives me great ideas (and links) for directions I should be taking.

    But as a magazine science writer, I would NEVER simply look something up on Wikipedia and then repeat it as fact. Yes, Wikipedia emphasizes citations, and people can go in and correct or question errors–but that only happens if someone catches those errors. It’s not a matter of saying, “Well, we have this article and we’re going to send it out for verification *before* we publish it.” (i.e. like a peer-reviewed journal) It gets published first and checked out–maybe–later. So you don’t really know if the article is undisputed because it’s correct and its citations are good, or because no one has bothered to question it and check its citations out yet. You can’t trust that someone has verified the source material, so you have to go out and do it yourself, if you truly want accurate information.

    And if you verify the source material yourself, why wouldn’t you use *that* in an argument, rather than the Wikipedia article?

  67. And if you verify the source material yourself, why wouldn’t you use *that* in an argument, rather than the Wikipedia article?

    In my case it’s a matter of the audience and the subject matter. Generally, with the people whom I’m likely to refer to a Wiki article (paranoid conspiracy theorists) it’s difficult enough to get them to check out a single site let alone several, and the wiki pages tend to have the information that I need to convey aggregated together in a convenient form. Additionally, many citations refer to articles that aren’t available online, while I *know* that anyone with whom I’m debating has access to Wikipedia.

    I also have to deal with the limitation that many authoritative sources simply aren’t trusted by the people I’m trying to educate, while paradoxically a more “pedestrian” site like Wikipedia, while still viewed with suspicion, at least isn’t dismissed outright.

    I agree that Wikipedia isn’t the alpha and omega repository of knowledge, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise, but for most subjects it has tremendous utility.

  68. In your circumstance I can completely see where Wikipedia would be of only limited use. My own use of Wikipedia generally focusses on using it as a reference to explain things (to idiots) like the Tiktaalik transitional fossil, what “fire” is, the Soviet space program, the chloralkali process, how lunar rovers were secured to the outside of the lunar modules, and electrolysis. In topics like these I find Wiki to be very useful, informative, and accurate.

  69. To be fair, most RNs and LPNs are not experts on immunology.

    One of the big problems I see is that the human brain is, when it comes right down to it, incredibly poor at evaluating risk. We worry about terrorists whenever we get into an airplane, but step into a car without a thought. We worry about our kids being kidnapped by strangers, even though more children die every year by drowning in their own bathtubs than are kidnapped by strangers. I think that people who try to evaluate the perceived “risks” of vaccination fall into the same trap.

    Vaccination is not risk-free. There’s always the chance you could be killed in a car wreck on your way to the doctor (which is, statistically speaking, more likely than any adverse reaction to the vaccine itself). But the risks of not vaccinating are a function of social behavior; those risks are zero if every single person in the world except you vaccinates, and become great indeed if nobody vaccinates.

    We’re a generation away from polio wards, iron lungs, and measles epidemics; I’m old enough to have a living relative who was severely brain damaged by childhood measles (today she’s mentally handicapped with a functional IQ equivalency of somewhere between 50 and 60, but that’s become increasingly rare–the generation after mine likely doesn’t personally know anyone who’s had measles), so I think that interferes with our risk/reward calculations.

    It also doesn’t help that people will make a big deal out of thiomerosal or other ingredients in vaccinations, without doing any research to find out what risks, if any, they pose–the hypothesis that thiomerosal is linked to autism has been completely discredited, but that doesn’t stop laypeople from still hanging on to it anyway, and I have talked to folks who worry that there might be trace amounts of formaldehyde in vaccinations but are ignorant of the fact that cheese and many other foods contain formaldehyde in concentrations hundreds of thousands of times greater.

    Since we’ve given vaccinations to literally hundreds of millions of people, even subtle health problems would have been spotted by now. The risk/reward equation is a numbers game–people who don’t vaccinate are betting on the people who do.

    The people who argue against germ theory drive me right up a wall. Over on the PolyMatchMaker Web site, I ran into a woman who bragged proudly that neither she nor anyone in her sexual circle had ever had an STD test, because they “knew” that viruses and bacteria don’t cause disease and that AIDS is a medical “hoax”–I swear I am not making this up–invented by the American Medical Association. Needless to say, her kids are unvaccinated.

    And what differences do you believe exist between “natural” immunity and immune responses provoked by vaccination?

  70. I think the information is available, but most people don’t bother to look for it.

    Thiomerosal, for example, used to be added to pediatric vaccinations (it’s not any more) as a preservative. It is an extremely potent anti-bacterial agent, so potent that just the tiniest trace amounts–a few parts per billion–are excellent preservatives. It was added to vaccinations beginning in the 1930s after problems with bacterial contamination of vaccinations began to crop up. Its use in pediatric vaccinations in the US was discontinued in 1992. Today, a phenol compound called 2-Phenoxyethanol, which is also used in antiseptics, lotions, perfumes, cosmetics, and other consumer products, and as a flavoring agent in steak sauces (the “smoky” part of “smoky flavored sauce” is this and other phenyl compounds), is used as a preservative instead.

  71. First I want to thank you for an excellent article. Very eye-opening, to say the least. (am saying it anyway). And I am not a scientist, period.

    My thoughts roam first of all to Einstein, who spend most of his life trying to prove others wrong in their opinion of a `chaosΒ΄ (quantum mechanics?) in logic. And failed, of course.

    Next: I also do not think it a fair to assume that only Americans suffer from ‘thinking’ in the described ways (except the Darwinian theory – which is still banned from schools in certain states,I believe). I can safely say that the same happens here, in the Netherlands. (sadly: I have no other statictical data than my personal experience of press/media/film and some debates).
    But what can you expect when fundamentalistic thinking overrides (accepted) science, when people are made afraid of their own shadow, when clerics (of whatever belief/tenet) have more influence than the ‘ordinairy’ teacher/scholar.
    In any era it s been possible to manhandle crowds. To make them believe what s deemed necessary. To wage wars, to hunt others who do not think (I know, think is probebly not the best proverb to use) like the majority does. To manipulate! (Salem Witch trials, the recent hubbub re the Danish cartoonist in Islamic countries)
    Also, does the ‘average’person realise that much of History is falsified. That our calendar/timetable to-date is missing some 300 years. Of course not.

    Next topic: agreement amongst scientists. there s hardly a topic that ALL scientists in that field agree on. If only to make a name for themselves. What could that ‘ordinairy’ person know to be true?

    Still applauding you for the article, I understand that you re asking us, the readers, that to do research, is to be an advocate (of the devil).
    Am not sure I like to be of that order, lol.

    HMM, Netherlands
    hmm@polderdom.nl

  72. First I want to thank you for an excellent article. Very eye-opening, to say the least. (am saying it anyway). And I am not a scientist, period.

    My thoughts roam first of all to Einstein, who spend most of his life trying to prove others wrong in their opinion of a `chaosΒ΄ (quantum mechanics?) in logic. And failed, of course.

    Next: I also do not think it a fair to assume that only Americans suffer from ‘thinking’ in the described ways (except the Darwinian theory – which is still banned from schools in certain states,I believe). I can safely say that the same happens here, in the Netherlands. (sadly: I have no other statictical data than my personal experience of press/media/film and some debates).
    But what can you expect when fundamentalistic thinking overrides (accepted) science, when people are made afraid of their own shadow, when clerics (of whatever belief/tenet) have more influence than the ‘ordinairy’ teacher/scholar.
    In any era it s been possible to manhandle crowds. To make them believe what s deemed necessary. To wage wars, to hunt others who do not think (I know, think is probebly not the best proverb to use) like the majority does. To manipulate! (Salem Witch trials, the recent hubbub re the Danish cartoonist in Islamic countries)
    Also, does the ‘average’person realise that much of History is falsified. That our calendar/timetable to-date is missing some 300 years. Of course not.

    Next topic: agreement amongst scientists. there s hardly a topic that ALL scientists in that field agree on. If only to make a name for themselves. What could that ‘ordinairy’ person know to be true?

    Still applauding you for the article, I understand that you re asking us, the readers, that to do research, is to be an advocate (of the devil).
    Am not sure I like to be of that order, lol.

    HMM, Netherlands
    hmm@polderdom.nl

  73. I think the information is available, but most people don’t bother to look for it.

    Or they look in the wrong places & don’t believe contrary info.
    I have a friend who’s a serious radical vegan anti-western medicine hippie who has a young daughter who’s never been vaccinated.
    Her mom’s reason for doing so was all the paranoia about the vaccines she’d read in her “natural health” publications.

    I argued relentlessly with her & pointed out much of that info was out of date & WRONG (for instance her daughter was born in 2001 but she STILL insisted that all vaccines contained thiomerosal) and she insisted that any counter-evidence I offered was a “fabrication of the medical complex.”

    This woman is not unintelligent but she’s never shown any skill at critical thinking (I’ve known her since High School) and suffers from what I term an OVERLY open mind. She’s exactly the type of highly intelligent and creative but uncritical person who’s a target of cultists. She, in fact, lived on a cult compound for a few years.

    She’s a perfect example of the issues of anti-intellectualism and poor reasoning you’re talking about.

    What was REALLY scary was when she started telling me ANYONE could skirt Florida’s mandatory school vaccination policies by claiming a “religious exemption” and showed me literature from all sorts of groups promoting that sort of thing & encouraging those practices in others.
    When she couldn’t get away with it with her daughter, she decided to home school. That got me looking & apparently (according to one review I read) upwards of 50% of homeschool kids aren’t vaccinated.

    Sad, really.

  74. To be fair, most RNs and LPNs are not experts on immunology.
    No, but we aren’t as ignorant about immunology as the person you chose to represent people who choose not to vaccinate.

    We’re a generation away from polio wards, iron lungs, and measles epidemics; I’m old enough to have a living relative who was severely brain damaged by childhood measles (today she’s mentally handicapped with a functional IQ equivalency of somewhere between 50 and 60, but that’s become increasingly rare–the generation after mine likely doesn’t personally know anyone who’s had measles), so I think that interferes with our risk/reward calculations.
    Brain damage from measles, in general, is really rare. When looking at potentially serious complications of measles, most relate to damage to the cornea, but such complications tend to be more common in the malnourished, immunocompromised, adults, etc..

    It also doesn’t help that people will make a big deal out of thiomerosal or other ingredients in vaccinations, without doing any research to find out what risks, if any, they pose–the hypothesis that thiomerosal is linked to autism has been completely discredited, but that doesn’t stop laypeople from still hanging on to it anyway, and I have talked to folks who worry that there might be trace amounts of formaldehyde in vaccinations but are ignorant of the fact that cheese and many other foods contain formaldehyde in concentrations hundreds of thousands of times greater.
    I think that many of the people who don’t vaccinate are the same people who would be unlikely to be consuming cheese with formaldehyde, because at least for me, not vaccinating is one part of a larger lifestyle from utilizing non-toxic cleaners to eating organic, vegan food.

    Since we’ve given vaccinations to literally hundreds of millions of people, even subtle health problems would have been spotted by now. The risk/reward equation is a numbers game–people who don’t vaccinate are betting on the people who do.
    That’s not true in all cases. Chicken pox would be a good example. Shingles is becoming more common. Apparently, part of what gives people lifelong immunity to chicken pox is repeated exposure to the disease either after vaccination or the disease. In areas where most children are vaccinated, people don’t continue to have exposure to the disease and as a result, there’s a higher rate of shingles. Shingles is a much worse disease than chicken pox.

    Some vaccinations are for diseases where the vaccination of others is pretty irrelevant to my child. Nowadays, we vaccinate newborns for Hep B – not a horribly contagious disease and pretty preventable by lifestyle choices (such as safer sex and avoiding needle drugs).
    And what differences do you believe exist between “natural” immunity and immune responses provoked by vaccination?
    The best documentation I have seen is chicken pox.
    And what differences do you believe exist between “natural” immunity and immune responses provoked by vaccination?
    At least in the case of rubella, titers done roughly a decade after vaccination are significantly lower for those who acquired immunity through vaccination rather than through having rubella. Now a low count doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it does show that long-term, there is a difference in immunity. And since high counts are associated with good immunity and rubella is a mild disease that we vaccinate mostly out of the harm that can befall fetuses, I would rather give my daughter the chance to have the piece of mind a high count could give her.

  75. You’re describing the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. A hypothesis is an untested idea about how something might work, which everyone gets, scientists and otherwise. But it becomes accepted as a theory (which does not mean “guess”) only after the testing process.

    Those shamans may have made a “guess” (hypothesis) based on some dream they have, but they only continue to use it after it’s proven itself not to kill the patient they use it on.

    It is exactly the same thing.

    Penicillin was “discovered” by “accident”, but was only added to the lexicon of medicinal tools after some form of testing proved it won’t actually kill the people they gave it to and would probably have some sort of benefit to it.

  76. not by whom, by what.

    It’s directed by reproduction. If the organism can’t survive long enough to reproduce, or is out-reproduced by its competitors, those traits are self-selected out. Whatever gene doesn’t prevent the organism from reproducing itself gets passed on and whatever gene actively promotes better reproduction gets passed on in higher concentration.

  77. I’m currently attempting to answer an anti-vaccination theorist. I recently made a post about some new findings about HPV and one person responded that Merk (the company producing the vaccine) wasn’t happy killing off the girls with mercury, now they’re trying to attack boys too.

    *sigh*

  78. I understand what you’re saying, but I disagree with the terminology. To me, the term “directed” implies that something is done with intention and forethought. Evolution doesn’t work that way. No one (or no thing) has declared, “I only want genes that aid reproduction to get passed on!” It’s just what ends up happening.

    When I hear people saying things like evolution is “directed” or that it has a “goal of” or similar things, it makes me wary. Because terms like these feed into a lot of misconceptions people have about evolution, such as that evolution works to produce ever more superior species (rather than just species that are best adapted to the particular environment) or that if something is an evolved trait, it must be morally correct.

    Of course, it may be that the person to whom I was originally asking the question believes that evolution is directed by a god or gods. Which was what I was trying to clarify–is this a difference of belief systems, a difference of semantics, or an actual misunderstanding of how evolution works.

  79. i found a typo. i also totally agree, americans are some dumb people


    The Oklahoma City claim is also flawed–or at least, incomplete. The two facts as stated are true: in 1985, Oklahoma City shut down their porn [sotres,a nd] subsequently”

  80. i found a typo. i also totally agree, americans are some dumb people


    The Oklahoma City claim is also flawed–or at least, incomplete. The two facts as stated are true: in 1985, Oklahoma City shut down their porn [sotres,a nd] subsequently”

  81. I just don’t see something having a natural effect as being the same as “clearly directed.” As I told Joreth, “directed” to me implies intention and forethought. Someone or something has to have set things in a particular, desired direction. But you seem to be saying that the end result of the directing is the very thing doing the directing.

    We could just be quibbling semantics here. I just see a lot of people anthropomorphizing evolution and attributing things like desires and goals to a process that doesn’t actually have them, so I am wary when I see terms like “directed” used in reference to evolution. My other thought was that maybe you believe a god or gods is directing the show, which is a belief I don’t share but I can respect–I certainly can’t prove or disprove it one way or another.

  82. D’oh! I just realized that you are not the person I originally aimed my question at. So when I say I was trying to see if you believed in god I was actually meaning the original commenter. I was unclear by that person’s comment whether they meant that evolution is clearly directed by a higher being, or in some other way, and I was trying to clarify that.

    I’m happy to swap opinions on the matter with you, too, but I was primarily trying to clarify the views of the person I was asking. Sorry for the confusion!

  83. That’s why I prefer “nonrandom” to “directed”–it doesn’t carry the same connotations of a sapient “director.” The folks who say “Evolution says all life happened at random” are so far off the mark that they clearly don’t understand even the most basic tenets of evolutionary biology, but evolution is not “directed” by any sort of goal-oriented intelligent force.

  84. A bit of both perhaps. It does seem like everyone I ever meet anywhere believes that they know “what evolution says” and “what quantum mechanics says,” when really the number of people who understand either to any great degree is quite small. I cringe whenever I hear someone say “Quantum mechanics says that we affect the world just by looking at it” or “Evolution says all life is random.”

  85. A bit of both perhaps. It does seem like everyone I ever meet anywhere believes that they know “what evolution says” and “what quantum mechanics says,” when really the number of people who understand either to any great degree is quite small. I cringe whenever I hear someone say “Quantum mechanics says that we affect the world just by looking at it” or “Evolution says all life is random.”

  86. People, including many highly-trained scientists, tend to ignore or dismiss phenomena that exist outside of the body of scientific knowledge. Often, even after scientific evidence starts to pile up (“extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” cries the armchair debunker).

    Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof if they are to be believed; nobody ought to believe anything just because someone says it’s true without evidence. If the claims are true, the proof follows.

    The scientific method is not the only way to make discoveries. In fact, even many “scientific” discoveries are made intuitively or by accident, and only confirmed later using the method, such as the process you describe above.

    Precisely. Someone notices something odd, or has an idea, and then applies the tools of rigorous empiricism to confirm or rebut them. A discovery may have its genesis in accident, sure–but it’s empiricism that separates the wheat from the chaff.

    The medicinal tradition of the amazonian indigines is a good example. Many of those recipes are incredibly complex and finicky, and often just one step away from being deadly poisons.

    Yep, and they are developed after a pattern of ad-hoc trial and error experimentation. The shaman gets an idea, he tries it, the patient dies, he doesn’t try that one again.

    It’s also worth saying that the reductionist approach to medicine that you describe is largely a tool of pharmaceutical companies to make marketable products, not some noble pursuit of better healthcare for the masses. You can’t patent willowbark tea.

    I hear this canard all the time, but it isn’t true. You can patent pharmacologically active compounds extracted from natural substances; it’s done all the time. The pharmacological industry spends more money on conservation, especially rainforest conservation, every year than any other single industry group, largely because so many compounds found in nature are so useful as medicines. And yes, they’re patentable, and profitable.

    Not that patentbility is any indication of profitability. The alternative “medicine” industry is a multibillion-dollar industry, and they don’t need to patent any of their “medicines,” or even prove that they work.

    The scientific method is a useful tool, but by its very nature it gives only a narrow window onto reality. I think we have just as much to learn by sitting down with those amazonian shamans.

    The bottom line is this: If a medicine works, you can prove that it works. Pharmacologists do sit down with the shamans, all the time; in fact, companies ranging from Merck and Pfizer to the British firm Therapeutics regularly send researchers into the Amazon basin with local guides, cataloging and sampling vaious plant species used as medicines by the locals. The samples are then tested; those that work become incorporated into everything from antiparasite to antitumor drugs.

  87. > Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof if they are to be believed; nobody ought to believe anything just because someone says it’s true without evidence. If the claims are true, the proof follows.

    But what does “extraordinary” mean? That’s not a scientific term, it’s an excuse to reject evidence because of one’s preconceptions. Calling something “extraordinary” because you don’t believe it is an act of faith and prejudice, not science.

    > A discovery may have its genesis in accident, sure–but it’s empiricism that separates the wheat from the chaff.

    I agree entirely. What I’m saying is that empiricism itself will not get us everywhere we want to go. It’s just one tool.

    > Yep, and they are developed after a pattern of ad-hoc trial and error experimentation. The shaman gets an idea, he tries it, the patient dies, he doesn’t try that one again.

    Again, no, that’s not the way it happened. You’re imposing your viewpoint to a culture where it does not apply. These guys didn’t test there stuff on humans or rats — they tested it on themselves. And we’re talking about alkaloid poisons from several sources combined in very sophisticated ways to preserve just one effect of the toxins while removing the others. It’s ludicrous to think they managed it with some sort of trial-and-error process.

    > I hear this canard all the time, but it isn’t true. You can patent pharmacologically active compounds extracted from natural substances; it’s done all the time.

    That’s not what I said. Of course it’s legal to patent and market compounds. But willowbark tea is still free if you have a willow tree and some hot water.

    ~r

  88. The entire book falls apart if you don’t buy their flat denial of cultural bias in IQ tests in the first 20-30 pages. I didn’t really see a need to go further.

    Ever read Guns, Germs and Steel?

  89. Today, a phenol compound called 2-Phenoxyethanol… is used as a preservative instead.
    Really? I could have sworn I read that the manufacturers largely switched to single-dose packaging to eliminate the need for preservatives, and that this extra overhead was largely responsible for the vaccine shortages we’ve had lately.

  90. Depends on the vaccination. Influenza vaccinations are still distributed in 10-dose vials; DT vaccines are available in 1-dose or 5-dose vials; pediatric DTP vaccines are available in 1-dose, 10-dose, or 20-dose vials. The MMR-II vaccination is available in single or 10-dose vials (when reconstituted) but doesn’t contain a preservative, as it’s delivered freeze-dried.

  91. Of course, it may be that the person to whom I was originally asking the question believes that evolution is directed by a god or gods.
    That’s a fairly common view among more science-oriented religious people. It’s what I believed when I was a Christian (I never believed in omnipotence), and it’s what my sister still believes, and she’s a biologist specializing in genetics.

  92. What you mentioned regarding the portrayal of scientists as villains…

    I think that’s more a matter of believable writing than anti-intellectualism. Think about it, which is more easy to swallow; a bunch of scientists with government grants were working on something, fucked up, and created a monster, or that some idiot with a set of fingerpaints and old car parts was working on something, fucked up, and created a monster. If you’re not going to explain the source of the conflict with magic, a subject people are prone to avoiding in science fiction, your options are limited to natural disaster, some manner of accident or a scientist screwup.
    Merely my two cents.

    • Re: What you mentioned regarding the portrayal of scientists as villains…

      Actually, that’s a good argument that might very well be true. πŸ™‚

  93. What you mentioned regarding the portrayal of scientists as villains…

    I think that’s more a matter of believable writing than anti-intellectualism. Think about it, which is more easy to swallow; a bunch of scientists with government grants were working on something, fucked up, and created a monster, or that some idiot with a set of fingerpaints and old car parts was working on something, fucked up, and created a monster. If you’re not going to explain the source of the conflict with magic, a subject people are prone to avoiding in science fiction, your options are limited to natural disaster, some manner of accident or a scientist screwup.
    Merely my two cents.

  94. Re: What you mentioned regarding the portrayal of scientists as villains…

    Actually, that’s a good argument that might very well be true. πŸ™‚

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