“Points shaken” (Creationism)

In a column for the New York Times, Ross Douthat argues that science supports creationism. However, he never gives scientific support for any intelligent design hypothesis, nor does he explain how a god came to be or which deity is the correct one.

While science has yet to confirm the existence of Yahweh, Vishnu, or Ra, it has explained many phenomena previously attributed to gods, such as extreme weather, healing plants, and eclipses.

Let’s run through Douthat’s five points and examine them.

First, he claims that fine-tuning in the universe proves the existence of God. I am disappointed that he trots out such a hackneyed, many-times-refuted assertion. I enjoy a good intellectual spar and having a New York Times columnist, in a fresh work, resort to something this lame is, well, lame. His thinking is akin to arguing that a puddle holds the precise amount of water that it does is because the water was designed for puddle-filling purposes.

In a more original and thought-provoking point, Douthat posits that the notion of a multiverse strengthens the idea of God since some of those universes – or one of anyway – are suitable for human life.  But University of Chicago biology professor emeritus Jerry Coyne suggests that points away from such a deified notion. Coyne writes, “If God wanted to simply create life, with humans as its apotheosis, why did he go to all the bother of setting up multiverses, many of which don’t allow life?”

Douthat’s third point is that consciousness proves God. He claims physical processes are inadequate to explicate the complexities of consciousness, which run the gamut from comprehending the idea of color to doctoral theses on Greek philosophy.

This is at once the god of the gaps fallacy and special pleading. Further, Coyne notes that naturalism has shaped our understanding of consciousness, specifically, “the parts of the brain that are necessary for the phenomenon to appear in our species, the chemicals that can take it away and bring it back, and so on.” Moreover, science is an ongoing process that admits it doesn’t know everything and continues to search for answers. As Coyne explained, “Consciousness will be explained when we know all the parts required, and how they interact, for a being to become conscious.

Onto point four. Douthat feels that the comprehensibility of the universe itself proves God. However, this is more special pleading since whatever created God would have to  have instilled that comprehensibility in him, then the even more advanced god have done the same before that, ad infinitum.

He next argues that reputed sightings of demons, along with near-death experiences and feelings of overwhelming spirituality vindicate the notion of god. But if this is the case then ALL gods are real, along with ghosts, aliens, Bigfoot, and psychic powers. 

What’s more, these experiences can be replicated with drugs, chemical mixtures, and deep meditation. Astronauts in training often report mental and physical reactions similar to near-death experiences. Persons with psychosis or other severe mental issues also report profound, very-real-to-them accounts like this.

Finally, Douthat thinks that because evolution leads us to believe in things that are real and true, a ubiquitous belief in God points to his existence. However, no amount of belief makes something true.

Taken in totality, Douthat’s work breaks little new ground and the few original tidbits fail to satisfy the book’s stated goal of proving God through science.

“Little Schemer” (M&Ms analogy)

Van Halen famously insisted on having no brown M&Ms in their bowls backstage. This was not based on a color-based munchies preference, but was rather the band’s way of ensuring their contract had been read.


Another creative, albeit in this case distasteful, use of M&Ms will be the focus of this post. In this instance, the candies are at the center of a hypothetical, foreboding challenge in which a small fraction of them have been poisoned.


Presented a bowl in which, say, three percent of the M&Ms would have fatal results if ingested, a person is rhetorically asked is they would gobble a handful. They clearly would not, so the analogy then compares the sweet treats to Hispanic immigrants, Muslims, AIDS patients, or some other group the speaker holds in low regard. Perhaps only three percent of them are bad apples, but we need to chop down the entire tree since we have no way of knowing which is which. The analogy is usually employed by xenophobes but has sometimes been those on the far left to portray men as monsters that need guarded against.


Regardless of whether it comes from the left, right, or someplace else, the analogy is a mistaken one. When this comparison of people to candies is made, the speaker implies that demonizing an entire population is as legitimate as declining to gobble a handful of potentially deadly tiny round confectionaries.


To see how mistaken that analogy it is, use the point against the person making it. Let’s say someone uses the comparison to insist that we should err of the side of caution and deny entry to persons of Middle Eastern ancestry. Counter that position by saying that while most MAGA hat wearers are not violent hatemongers who would attack minorities, three percent of them might do so. Therefore all persons expressing xenophobic sentiments should be stripped of their citizenship and deported. Unless the proponent is likewise willing to embrace this position, he or she doesn’t truly believe in the comparison.


Further, the analogy implies that we could reduce the risk to zero by avoiding all M&Ms. In the same way that the color-coded National Terrorism Advisory System includes no all-clear and thus keeps us in a perpetual state of worry, the M&Ms in the analogy are meant to cause perpetual concern. The only way to be sure to avoid danger is to avoid them entirely. The candy analogy seems to work because most people would not eat one M&M if there was even a .0001 percent chance of being poisoned. But nothing is ever risk free and no analogy proponent would think we should avoid getting out of bed, an event that kills dozens of people a year.


Also, even if you happen to come across a dangerous member of the derided group, you may well escape unscathed, whereas with the poisoned M&M, death is a certainty for anyone who consumes it. Therefore, the danger posed by the group member is greatly exaggerated when compared with how likely they are to harm a specific person.

Finally, the analogy falls flat since M&Ms all look the same, except for the color difference, and there would be no way of knowing which ones were poisoned. But when it comes to people, background checks and indicators give us a good idea of how dangerous a specific Hispanic, Muslim, or other group member is likely to be.

“? and the Contrarians” (Just asking questions)

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The most hardened conspiracy theorists make reckless, baseless accusations based on wild conjecture that represent the most extreme examples of begging the question, which is when one assumes their premise to be true without offering supporting proofs.

Then there is a less-stringent type of theorist who paints themselves as being merely curious or skeptical. And if that’s what a person is genuinely being, fine. Good, even. But asking questions can be different than seeking answers. The latter may involve genuine research and querying sites and sources one holds in low regard. Most importantly, it means being willing to arrive at a different conclusion than what you might wish for.

This week, I saw an offensive and absurd meme which insists that the George Floyd tragedy was staged. The “evidence” is an assertion that the officer is resting the bulk of his weight on his free knee and that the police license plate has no numbers or letters other than “POLICE” in large characters across the breadth of the plate.

The answers to these issues could be found by seeking out physiologists or the Minnesota DMV. But those making such assertions make no such attempts. They merely pronounce victory over the brainwashed sheep and ignore any evidence that would come out during trials or investigations and assume an impossibly-large stable of crisis actors to pull off the ruse.

If an answer were to be offered, those posting such memes would reject the response, regardless of the science, the evidence, or the credentials of the speaker. We are nearly two decades removed from 9/11 and some people are still “just asking questions” about melting steel beams or how a passport could avoid incineration. These types portray themselves as open-minded and, by default, anyone who disagrees with this approach to be closed-minded. After all, who could be against examining and “just asking questions”?

But again, people who use this phrase are generally not actually just asking questions. Rather, they are disingenuously phrasing a hardened belief as a question while trying to maintain a façade of being reasonable and open to truth.

An anonymous Logic of Science blogger wrote, “Good questions stem naturally from known facts and evidence. In other words, they have a basis in reality.” Bad questions, such as those related to the Floyd tragedy, are without evidence and just unfettered conjecture being crammed into a predetermined narrative.

The blogger demonstrated the difference between a genuine question and one which only aims to make the speaker seem curious. He used an example from his field of herpetology. Regarding why aquatic turtles emerge from water to bask on rocks and logs, there have been suggestions that this action might be related to temperature, immune functions, or parasite cleanings.

“All of these are good questions…based on our existing knowledge of biology,” he wrote. But suppose someone ambles along and posits that maybe the shelled creatures are seeking escape from interplanetary interlopers who have invaded their lake.

“That would be a bad question, because it’s not based on any known facts. There is no reason to think that aliens are involved, and we’d need good evidence of the presence of aliens before it would be rational to even consider the possibility that they are involved.”

Indeed. Yet the conspiracy theorist response such dismissals is to declare the other person to be in on the plot, scared of the truth, or trying to hide something.

But since there is no rationale for thinking aliens are chasing turtles or that Floyd and his murderer are props in a ruse, these ideas can be discounted out of hand. Christopher Hitchens nailed this one when he declared, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

So wondering how COVID-19 came to be is a natural thought and could even be the first step in the Scientific Method of trying to find a cure.

However, asking, “Did Bill Gates orchestrate the coronavirus so that he could microchip us all” is a poor question. There is no evidence to suggest Gates devised the virus or wants to use the resulting vaccine to track our movements. Persons arrive at such conclusions by taking a circuitous route of cherry picking disparate points and ignoring the Law of Truly Large Numbers.

The “just asking questions” crowd rarely issues interrogative statements in good faith or seeks genuine dialogue. Anyone who asks if Bill Gates is going to microchip us via a future vaccine has already answered their own question.

There is nothing wrong with asking a question if one will examine the evidence and accept where it leads, but too often that’s not the case. I have presented strong evidence to the contrary when persons have asked if HAARP is controlling the weather. The response was not to thank me for the enlightenment, but rather a galvanizing of their beliefs. They were “just asking questions” based on those beliefs, not on wanting to know.

“Hire power” (Coincidences)

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There are those who insist there is no such thing as coincidences. And not by coincidence, most of these people are largely unfamiliar with concepts like the Law of Truly Large Numbers, subjective validation, selective memory, and post hoc reasoning. Additionally, they prefer to feel that they are in control, or that they at least have a benevolent higher force acting on their behalf.

This need to feel in control hampers the acceptance of randomness and downplays the role that luck, both good and bad, plays in everyone’s life.

Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Ralph Lewis told of a flight attendant who, through a series of mishaps, was unable to get onboard one of the ill-fated Sept. 11 flights. While this no doubt had deep personal meaning to her, there is no need to tie any cosmic force or higher power into it, any more than there is reason to put the blame for the lives lost on anyone but the terrorists.

Lewis works as a hospital psychiatrist, where he sees “patients grapple with the randomness of adversity and the lack of control over life’s outcomes.” Indeed, we as a species naturally seek patterns in life, to the point of finding a face in our Honey Nut Cheerios. This has often been beneficial, such as when our hominin ancestors recognized a trend that going near large-fanged beasts leads to ill results. Or their realization that a certain stripe or color meant a plant can be safely consumed.

But Lewis writes that we notice patterns so frequently that we detect them where none exist, and therefore erroneously tie together disparate occurrences. In some cases, that further leads to deducing that invisible entities conspired to make this happen. These forces can take the form of a god, demon, karma, or even vaguer concepts like spirituality, oneness, or there being “something more.”

A related factor is mankind’s love of stories. Lewis explains that we prefer “grand narratives with an overarching point and a satisfying end.” It’s bad enough when we are deprived of this at the movies. But when we are left without a satisfactory explanation for why a Kindergartener gets leukemia or why a man is wrongfully convicted, it’s much more difficult to grapple with.

Also coming into play is the Law of Truly Large Numbers. With billions of people undertaking hundreds of actions every day, it would be incredible if there were NO instances of amazing coincidences and occurrences. These can be explained with the Law and there exists no reason to infer into a higher meaning to it, no matter how much subjective validation may lead one to wish otherwise. Subjective validation refers to thinking something powerful is at work because it has personal meaning or connection. But the amount of emotion felt is unrelated to whether a fortuitous occurrence has a cosmic cause.

One reason people may think a hidden power is at work is because humans take more notice of events or items that impact them or that they find interesting. Lewis offered a hypothetical example of a woman who is contemplating motherhood.

She will likely pay more attention to baby product advertisements and may even interpret them as an omen. Similarly, when facing adversity or a serious illness, people can recoil at the idea of it being determined by random chance instead of a plan that needs to be foiled. A lifelong smoker who contracts lung cancer is unlikely to feel this way, but someone who has never lit up and becomes afflicted with the disease just might. While the feeling that our life and universe are being controlled can bring comfort and reassurance, in cases such as the non-smoking lung cancer patient, it can instead cause feelings of being abandoned and spurned.

But Lewis writes that when people understand that the universe has no inherent purpose or grand design for our lives, the mystery of why bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people vanishes. And anyway, our species’ evolution and its development of technology and civilization is more captivating and inspiring than assigning that history to supernatural forces.

“Flop secret” (Rhonda Byrne)

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Want to know a secret? You can have whatever you want just by thinking about it happily enough. However, steer clear of negative or scary thoughts, which can cause things you fear to happen. Actually, this isn’t so much as secret as is THE Secret, a movie and book by Rhonda Byrne.

Her premise entails more than suggesting that positive thinking can be one tool in a kit that helps foster desirable results. Byrne claims that wishing for something in a specific manner (which she sells) will have a causal effect. Do it well enough and stage four cancer patients can have the disease cured on the day they win the lottery.

This is accompanied by evidence-free claims that The Secret has been known and utilized by many great persons. The list reads like a casting call put out for history’s most forward thinkers and accomplished geniuses. We’re talking Buddha, Aristotle, Plato, Sir Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, and Ludwig von Beethoven. Curiously, none of these persons ever made reference to the exponential power of positive thinking. Maybe they were really good at keeping The Secret.

While a positive outlook and the search for silver linings can be of some benefit, the same cannot be said for The Secret’s insistence that people’s thoughts are responsible for bad things that happen to them. Anyone victimized by rape, tornadoes, drunk drivers, or childhood leukemia could have avoided this fate by adjusting their thought patterns.

That’s not the way it’s presented in the book or the movie, but neither is it a strawman. It is taking the idea’s philosophy to its conclusion.

Many persons have a romantic, wistful image about things from ancient days, which is one reason Byrne references Buddha, Aristotle, and Plato. People also like easy answers, even if they come at $179 a pop. They also like to feel in control. Put all this together, and one arrives at The Secret.

While it uses the appeal to antiquity, The Secret also employs that logical fallacy’s opposite number, the appeal to novelty. Byrne claims to be on the cutting edge of science by stating that quantum physics explains The Secret via the Law of Attraction. This can sound reasonable to a lay person, especially one who wants to believe, since attraction sounds like magnetism, which is a genuine phenomenon.

However, Byrne asserts that thoughts have energy and that similar energies are attracted to each other. These feelings are said to flow from the thinker in the form of magnetic energy waves, which force the universe around the thinker to vibrate at the same energy level as their feelings. That is not a genuine phenomenon, but genuine gobbledygook. Further, it has no relevance to quantum physics, which is the attempt to describe what goes on at the atomic and subatomic levels.

Common sense should come into play here. If one has no way to pay the rent that’s due in three weeks, sitting around envisioning money falling into one’s lap is a much worse way to spend precious time than applying for jobs.
There is a grain of truth to the idea that thoughts can influence behavior and actions. But there is no such grain associated with the idea of metaphysical entities existing for our access and manipulation.

“Back in my daze” (Youth bashing)

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Back in my day, we didn’t need social media to ostentatiously announce the shortcomings of these dadgum young’uns.

Nor did anyone decades, centuries, or even millennia ago. Adults have been ruminating about the current generation’s faults from Socrates to Weird Al. This would suggest that the stereotype is inaccurate. Each succeeding generation getting worse for 3,000 years would leave societies and cultures in ruins. Instead, humanity has consistently experienced a general uptick in the quality of life, education, medicine, housing, transportation, food, and innovation.

In order to reconcile this contradiction, University of California-Santa Barbara psychology professors John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler led a team that conducted five studies to assess people’s tendency to believe that kids these days are deficient, relative to those of previous generations, especially their own, or from generations they hold in high regard.

The studies measured three traits and found that U.S. adults believe today’s youth are indeed in decline. Researchers found the subjects were more likely to hold this position if they were good at a specific trait they were questioned about. For instance, authoritarian types strongly feel youth are less respectful of their elders than in years past, intelligent people especially think today’s youth are less brilliant than they were before, and well-read people think young folks enjoy picking up a book (or Kindle) less than they did.

The attitudes toward children’s intelligence is telling because intelligence has risen fairly steadily over the years and centuries. Still, intelligent people believed that children today were becoming less so. Adding authoritarianism to the mix showed this characteristic to be unrelated to person’s beliefs about children’s intelligence. This is further evidence that the Kids These Days Effect primarily afflicts those who are proficient in a certain area themselves. Put another way, there were kids in your day who were just as disrespectful, dumb, and lazy as the current crop you are criticizing. But selective memory and a tendency to generalize the current generation but not one’s own leads to a skewed perspective. And again, this is only true if the subject exceled in that area themselves.

Also a factor is people’s tendency to romanticize the past and think of it as the good ol’ days. They envision the 1950s as the days of Leave it to Beaver instead of as a time of entrenched segregation, and the 1870s as the time of Tom Sawyer instead of the era of Native American genocide.

“Watch botch” (Watchmaker fallacy)

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A creationist canard holds that if you find a watch lying on the ground, you would know it had to have been created, and therefore, when we look at our world, we know that it too was created.

This is mistaken for a number of reasons. First, most of us today know what a watch is and how it is made. But someone who had never been exposed to a watch before, say a time traveler from 500 CE or an inhabitant of the Nicobar Islands, saw one, he or she would have no reason to presume the timepiece had been designed.

An Answers in Reason blogger using the pseudonym Artificial Agent wrote that if the same person happened upon a cave, they would have “no reason to assume it was man-made, nor that it formed naturally as a result of plate tectonics and rocky structure.”

I saw a documentary in which Papua New Guinea natives were spooked by mirrors and fascinated by matches. With the islanders’ highly limited frame of reference, these inventions may have seemed like supernatural, intelligently-designed products, but this inference would not make it so. Similarly, Artificial Agent cited a BBC program in which a tribesman was taken into an urban area and interpreted a large truck to be a strange beast. This shows what happens when observers lack a frame of reference, and this lack or reference dooms the watchmaker analogy.

On a related note, Artificial Agent wrote that a person might see a puddle and presume the ground was made specifically for it since the puddle had just enough space to hold the water. The truth, of course, is inverse, and the puddle formed the way it did because of the ground’s shape.

And as stated before, we know how watches are made. But have no idea how a planet would be constructed. Thus, it is mistaken to infer that our universe has been created by an intelligent designer just because a watch was made by human hands.

Enlightenment philosopher David Hume argued the universe and a watch have too few similarities to assert that both were created. The universe consists of organic natural substances, while a watch is made of artificial mechanic materials.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argued that a person could only make a watch if they were more complex than their creation, and this goes for all things created and their creator. Therefore if Earth was created, it would have to have been designed by something more complex than itself. That creator, then, would have to be created something even more complex, and the creator’s creator made by something more complex yet, ad infinitum. 

“Focal plane” (Survivor bias)

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I sometimes hear tales about a childhood that consisted of unsupervised swimming, heavy whiskey drinking, riding in the back of a pickup truck, and living with asbestos and lead paint. This penalty-free daring continued in adulthood with helmetless motorcycle rides, and we’ve all heard from the 95-year-old great aunt who boasted about smoking a pack a day for three-quarters of a century. The insinuation is that none of these are a big deal since the person made it through unscathed.

But these are instances of survivor bias. Those who died doing those things are not here to tell us about it. There are also those who suffered nonlethal harm as a result. Dismissing those occurrences, especially when they are the norm, is the epitome of survivor bias, which relies on anecdotes over data. A person committing survivor bias focuses on entities that have made it through some selection, ordeal, or process, and assumes that represents the whole.

A person may say, “I wasn’t vaccinated and I’ve stayed healthy, so they’re unnecessary.” Or, “I have voraciously consumed ribs, eggs, and whole milk all my life and have below-average cholesterol. Those doctors and scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.” These conclusions take a sample size of one and apply it to the entire populace. They may even entail dismissing decades of properly-done research and empirical evidence. 

Moreover, even if a person turned out OK with a childhood of frequent smoking, drinking, and spankings, maybe he or she would have been even better without them. It might be more accurate to say that they turned out fine in SPITE of those things.

Then there’s the matter of where the ‘fine’ threshold lies. Is it merely maintaining mediocre employment while marrying, having children, and avoiding prison? I’ve heard persons who have managed not much more than this proclaim that they’ve “done OK.”

With regard to spanking, consistent research shows an increase in likely negative outcomes for those who are subjected to it. Unilaterally declaring that one has achieved an arbitrary benchmark of “doing OK” to assert that spanking is harmless is to dismiss sizable evidence to the contrary.

Another way of how it might work. One may say, “Vegans are so annoying, they always have to mention what they don’t eat.” But you are only hearing from vegans who tell you their dietary choices, not from those who refrain from doing so.

Survivor bias is also a regular feature of religion. In an interview with Larry King, Billy Graham cited a women who avoided a fatal crane plash through a series of delays that at the time seemed annoying but proved serendipitous. When Graham credited this to God, King pointed out there were scores of others who DID get on the plane.

Speaking of manned flights, the survivor bias term took root in World War II when Navy researchers studied damaged aircraft returning from missions. Their consequent suggestion was to add armor to the most-afflicted areas.  However, statistician Abraham Wald noted that researchers were only examining fighter planes that had made it back, meaning they could survive heavy hits to the affected areas. The better idea, he said, would be to galvanize parts of the plane that showed little to no damage since that is probably where planes that were shot down had gotten struck.  

Let’s look at some other examples. A study showed that cats which fell from less than six stories paradoxically had greater injuries than those who fall from six stories or higher. The initial suspicion was that the falling felines reached terminal velocity after righting themselves at five stories, after which they relaxed, leading to less severe injuries. However, a Straight Dope column suggested this was probably survivor bias since few dead cats would be brought to the veterinarian. Most of those who fell from six stories or more we likely killed on impact.

Now onto the plant world. Lianas are parasites that feast on trees, and the hosts of these unwelcome guests were seen to mostly be slow-growing and shade-tolerant. This led to a belief that lianas have stronger negative effects on these tree types. But further research showed liana infestation is actually more detrimental to trees that are light-demanding and fast-growing. So much more damaging, in fact, that it usually wipes them out, meaning researchers are less likely to find them.

The trees died, while failing mutual funds have a more figurative death. They are shuttered or absorbed into another fund. This means an investment company can accurately claim to be offering a better opportunity than what its track record would suggest since the mutual funds they are advertising are succeeding while those that failed have gone away.

During my time in Germany, I gazed in awe at the beautiful baroque architecture. But while it was amazing craftsmanship, that doesn’t mean J.S. Bach was surrounded only by stunning building designs in his time. It means those were the ones that survived because they were so amazing while the ugly ones were torn down.  

Likewise, most of us love stories with heroines like Barbara Corcoran, the Shark who turned a $1,000 loan into multibillion dollar business empire. But the idea that anyone with the right grit and inspiration can likewise become a successful entrepreneur, author, actor, soccer player, or inventor is survivor bias because we never see the failures. Nirvana and Apple both started in a garage, but there are many more bands and businesses who never left it.

 

  

“Mistake your claim” (Errors in this blog)

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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.

 

 

“Fool injected” (Anti-vax argument)

BITE

One of the keys to developing critical thinking skills is to understand the importance of addressing a point and not the person making it. Focusing on irrelevant factors like the speaker’s color, gender, ethnicity, politics, economic status, or background will leave one vulnerable to committing an ad hominem, specifically a genetic fallacy.

A few years ago, I came across a graph that purported to demonstrate that measles was well on its way out before the vaccine to combat it was introduced. It showed that the death rate from measles had dramatically declined before persons began being immunized for it. The conclusion was that the vaccine was inconsequential to the disease’s demise. To dismiss this as the ramble of an anti-vax loon would have been to commit an ad hominem. To address the point from a critical thinking perspective, I needed to examine the claim for truthfulness, then see if the whole picture was being painted, and also consider other angles.

When I did so, I learned that the anti-vaxxer’s point was accurate, but incomplete. While the death rate for measles was going down before the advent of the vaccine, the morbidity rate was not. Measles is an endemic disease, so populations can build resistance to it, but it can also be deadly when introduced to a new group. This, when combined with measles’ highly contagious nature and the susceptibility of preschoolers to it, explains why incidences of the disease spiked and descended several times, at approximately four-year intervals.

But there has been no such spike, or even a tiny bump, since the vaccine was introduced in 1964. In fact, there were 364 measles deaths in 1963, and none by 2004, a reduction of 100 percent. The anti-vaxxer’s chart showed how many persons were dying from measles, but not how many persons were contracting it. Advances in health care had enabled more persons to live with the disease, but only the vaccine eliminated it.   

Earlier this year, I again made myself examine an anti-vaxxer claim rather than dismissing it. For years, I had pointed out there was more formaldehyde in a pear than in any vaccine. But one day, I read an anti-vax blog that asked, “When was the last time you injected a pear?” The point was that the way a substance enters the body makes a difference and the blogger even noted that one could safely drink cobra venom.

And he’s correct. Swallowing the snake juice would be different from having fangs inject it into you. If one were so inclined to try the former, the gastrointestinal tract would break down the venom, similar to how the body digests proteins in food. Also, if one drank venom, it would never enter the bloodstream in active form. By contrast, when a snake bites someone, the victim has nothing beneath its skin or in its muscles to counteract the venom. Since it’s not broken down, the venom swims to the lymph glands and into the bloodstream, where it attacks the nervous system and heart, perhaps fatally.

But while anti-vaxxers are correct on these points, they again fail to understand that this has no bearing on a vaccine’s efficiency or safety. While a snakebite and a vaccine both involve injected substances, using this to compare the two is a false equivalency because one saves lives and the other ends them.   

Like the measles deaths graph, if I had dismissed the pear point because it came from someone I viewed as an anti-vax, pro-disease crank, I would have failed my critical thinking test for the day. Consider this an endorsement for avoiding echo chambers and contemplating various viewpoints. Sometimes the opposing view will be right; other times, it will be wrong, but will cause you to examine the issue and learn something you hadn’t realized. In this case, what I learned was the difference in how the body handles injections and ingestions, and the impact this has on a vaccine’s efficacy.  

The key is how much of a substance gets into the bloodstream because once it’s there, the body will process it the same, regardless of how it arrived. With snake venom, there are too many toxins for the body to handle and the poison makes its way to vital organs. While vaccines have ingredients that would be dangerous in high doses, these are in tiny amounts and toxicity is determined by dose, not ingredient. Further, venom contains active neurotoxins and vaccines do not.

Anti-vaxxers may argue that vaccines bypass the immune system, but again, they are being selective with the facts. Vaccines will bypass the body’s first line of defense, but they are designed to do so and won’t work otherwise. Vaccines contain antigens, which are dead or damaged viruses that are active enough to provoke an immune response, but too impotent to be harmful. This forces the body to develop antibodies against the real virus and thereby become immune to it. If the antigens were destroyed right away, they would never serve their purpose. Besides, antigens are not straggling interlopers, but rather they work their way out of the body like other foreign substances.

Since anti-vaxxers focus on injections, I wonder if their movement would have gained its sinister steam if it didn’t have scary needles to fall back on. What if vaccines were in chewable tablet or powder form and yielded a sweet taste as opposed to a sore arm? According to the Vaxplanations blog, the reason such an approach cannot be pursued is because oral forms of most vaccines would be incapable of getting past the gastrointestinal tract. Stomach acid, enzymes, and gut bacteria would render them useless. There are a few exceptions, such as the oral vaccines for rotavirus and polio, which work because both diseases are caused by gut pathogens.