My journey to skepticism was a meandering one with regular rest stops. I always thought psychics, astrologers, and Ouija boards were silly, but in the seventh grade I was friendly to notions of ghosts, alien visitors, Nostradamus, and the Loch Ness Monster firing from the Grassy Knoll.
That started to change when a friend picked up the James Randi book, Flim Flam! This terrific tome explained how fraudsters worked and outlined how misinterpreting or distorting data can lead to mistaken beliefs in phenomena such as the Bermuda Triangle
But in my late 20s, I still remained vulnerable to the appeal to nature fallacy and would accept personal testimony in lieu of double blind studies. Part of that was because of where I lived. I was surrounded by the Green Mountains, so when someone spoke about the power of nature, I associated it with the flowing streams, verdant hills, and amazing autumns I was treated to. The town I lived in had a population of 13,000, the same size as the place where I grew up. That’s where the similarities ended. Those 13,000 Green Mountain boys, girls, men, and women included Wiccans, burned out hippies, naturopaths, and all manner of spiritualists and spirit-seekers. While I doubted those who said they were communicating with garden fairies, I believed in the purported power of wheatgrass and took it as true when someone told me a pine cone cured their rash.
But those beliefs melted away as I started reading Discover and got a grasp on the basics of science I had sprinted from in high school and college. To try and make up for lost classroom time, I would pick up publications like Cliff’s Notes edition on chemistry. The good thing about it was that it was a $10 chemistry education. The bad thing about it was that it was a $10 chemistry education. But I was on the right path regardless.
The final holdout for me was Roswell. The government had changed its story about the incident so many times that it had little credibility on the issue. Further, it would be closedminded to think life could not exist elsewhere and arrogant to think Earthlings are without question the most enlightened creatures in the universe. My belief in a crashed spacecraft started to evaporate when I considered the time it would take aliens to reach us, even from a relatively close exoplanet. This got me looking into it deeper, and when I concluded four foot critters had not wound up in the New Mexico desert, my conversion to all-out skepticism was complete.
My gradual embrace of the movement is among the reasons I refrain from personal attacks on those who see these ideas from a more credulous perspective. We are all here to learn and should be capable of being persuaded by evidence. Besides, a personal attack will alienate the recipient, will be irrelevant to the point, and is unbecoming of a man purporting to blog about critical thinking.
Besides, I screw up, too. Today we will review some of the things I have gotten wrong in this forum. And I don’t mean just pointing I once wrote that Moline seemed to have about one chiropractor for every 2,000 persons when I now realize it’s about one for every thousand (sigh). Rather, we will look at when I have gotten substantive issues wrong, how I came to realize my errors, and what I have done about it.
The one that I most wish I had gotten right was when I wrote that 100 percent of Reiki practitioners have no medical training. I wrote this as a means of highlighting the practice’s lack of scientific backing or confirmatory double blind studies. While I have seen nothing since then to suggest Reiki has this evidence on its side, I was mortified to learn there are many nurses who ignore this and use Reiki on hospital and clinic patients. My mistake was being blissfully unaware that faux medicines had infiltrated legitimate institutions. When I learned that included hospitals in Moline, I launched an unsuccessful one-man campaign to change that.
Around the same time, I blogged that a person following the Paleo diet would have difficulty getting enough fiber. A reader who followed the diet pointed out the Paleo allows for plenty of crunchy vegetables, so my assertion was erroneous. I thanked him for pointing this out, noting that I want all nonsense exposed, even if it appears on my blog.
Next we’ll examine a point about which I was correct – but mistaken about what it meant. I wrote there was more formaldehyde in a pear than in a vaccine, which is true. But then I read on an anti-vaxxer’s blog that eating a substance was different having it injected subcutaneously because of the way the body would process it. By way of comparison, one could add a dash of mamba venom to the morning orange juice and suffer no ill effects. This does not mean that formaldehyde-containing vaccines are dangerous. It comes down to dose, and the amount in immunizations is far below the hazardous threshold.
This highlights the importance of being willing to consider angles that conflict with what we believe. While the anti-vaxxer was wrong on his overarching themes, he got this one item right. Because I considered this specific position and fact-checked it, I now know that when jousting with anti-vaxxers, I should reference dosage, not make the accurate but meaningless point about formaldehyde in fruit.
Keeping with emotionally-charged issues, I once wrote that circumcision was based entirely on religion and tradition and had no redeeming medical value. I have since learned of 40 studies that suggest there may be one benefit. One such study was of Ugandan couples, where the woman was HIV positive and the man was not. In the study, no infections occurred among the 50 circumcised men over 30 months, whereas 40 of 137 uncircumcised men became infected during this time. Both groups were given instructions on preventing infection and were supplied with condoms, though only one men in 10 used them.
The scientific reasons behind the HIV transmittal among the uncircumcised is that the inner surface of the foreskin contains Langerhans cells with HIV receptors, and those cells are probably the virus’ primary point of entry.
I maintain my objection to removing a healthy, functioning, highly innervated piece of flesh from the most vulnerable members of society. We don’t lop the breasts of developing females even though doing so would eliminate almost all instances of breast cancer. Circumcision should be an adult decision, as should the condom use that would prevent the great majority of transmissions from an HIV positive female to an uncircumcised male. But my future anti-snip rants will include the caveat that studies have shown it to reduce HIV transmission rates in Africa.
Moving on, I whiffed on my claim that there were no ape fossils in North America. I made this mistaken point while arguing against the likelihood of Bigfoot. A reader responded that there were indeed primate fossils on the continent. She provided a link to a reputable source, Popular Science. That article quoted Dr. John Flynn, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Flynn said the fossil record confirms there were primates in North America 50 million years ago.
I did not label him a shill for Big Sasquatch. I did not pull the secular equivalent to the Answers in Genesis statement of faith by declaring evidence invalid if it contradicted my unbending, preconceived notions. I accepted the proof and no longer make this disproved point when debating the existence of lumbering bipedal hominids outside a WWE ring.
Since I mentioned Answers in Genesis, let’s close with a claim from an admitted AIG disciple. Again, we will see that shutting off off everything from a person with which you disagree will eliminate the chance of learning something valuable from the exchange.
I wrote that bird and human embryos have gills, indicating common ancestry with fish. A creationist blogger responded, “Humans never have gill slits. We have pharyngeal pouch wrinkles which – if you squint just right – look a little like fish gills, but which are never slits into the baby, and which are never used in respiration and so are nothing like gills. No gills, no slits, no gill slits.”
He is correct on linguistic grounds, but not as far as this structure pertains to humans’ deep ancestry. What human embryos have are, in fact, not gills, but they are still signs of evolution. Dr. Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago biology professor emeritus explained, “Both chick and human embryos go through a stage where they have slits and arches in their necks like the gill slits and gill arches of fish. These structures are not gills and do not develop into gills in chicks and humans, but the fact that they are so similar to gill structures in fish at this point in development supports the idea that chicks and humans share a common ancestor with fish.” All vertebrate embryos develop these structures, which are almost certainly vestigial remnants of the clefts of our fish ancestors.
Tony Britain added that when saying the folds aren’t slits, creationists are “partly correct, if by slit one means an unobstructed opening from the outside of the neck region to the inside of the throat of mammal embryos. They are technically correct as far as normal mammal development goes, however this is not the case with all non-fish vertebrates, nor is it always the case with mammals including humans. In most normal amniotes, the only thing keeping us from having at least one open slit in our first pharyngeal clefts are the thin membranes of skin, the ear drums. Without your ear drums you would have open channels from your outer ears, through your middle ears and Eustachian tubes, into your throat.”
Vestigial wing buds of kiwis do not enable the New Zealand bird to take flight, yet we still call them wings. It’s the same concept with the human embryo feature. Whether called gills or pharyngeal structures, they are vestigial traits. Even though they no longer develop into functioning gills, they are homologous to those characters in organisms where such functions develop.
I have this argument in my arsenal only because I entertained a creationist response and investigated what he wrote. Never be afraid to consider competing notions; in fact, be wary of straying into an echo chamber.
My ideas will not always be right, as the above examples show. I have been wrong before and will be again. There’s no shame in that. The shame would come in not admitting it and failing to allow my thinking to, how shall we say, evolve.