Tag Archives: skepticism

A lesson In Skepticism: Assumptions Are Bad, but Great Discussions Can Ensue From Them Nonetheless

Recently, a friend shared this meme on Twitter. Like anyone who stands behind and supports our military, I couldn’t help but be a little put off by Lena’s supposed argument. So I quoted the tweet with “We all have our problems. Unless your problems are life and death, your problems don’t make you special, they make you normal.”

This meme appeals to those of us who feel a heavy debt of gratitude towards our military. Sadly I jumped to conclusions that I absolutely shouldn’t have, and neither should my friend I discussed this meme with shortly after.

While we took different positions, he and I both assumed that Lena was referring to her claims of assault/rape during college. Sadly for Lena, the accusations she made against a person she identified as “Barry” were deemed to be about someone who never met her, and she was forced to walk her statement back.

She later stated that “Barry” was a pseudonym she had given to her attacker. It just happened to coincidentally somewhat describe a man she went to school with named Barry, who was then sadly attacked in the media after many assumed he was her rapist. To her credit, Lena eventually confirmed he was not her attacker, but no doubt Barry endured a lot of unfair stress and insults to his character as a result.People will argue whether it was her exhibiting a Munchausen Syndrome type scenario, seeking attention by claiming to be a victim when she wasn’t. But unless you were there, or unless she ultimately admits no such attack happens, she should rightfully be taken at her word that she was assaulted. Rape is not so uncommon, especially when the parties are impaired (drugs and alcohol), as Lena admits to during the attack.

Being famous, she would also likely understand that she may open herself up to a slander claim if she identified her potential attacker by name, when that attacker has neither been indicted, nor convicted of such an assault. So her pseudonym claims are entirely plausible and even logical if true.

As I give her the benefit of the doubt, I also have nothing but sincerest sympathy for what she would have went through. While I think her literal words—as written in the meme—are effectively falsified by the meme, I absolutely understand and acknowledge that I have not known the fear of being raped, nor ever been the victim of any type of sexual assault. So while I absolutely sympathize—in that context—I cannot empathize.

It should be noted that there are many false rape accusations leveled at people for a myriad of reasons from later regret of a consensual tryst, to the aforementioned Munchausen Syndrome where people derive pleasure from playing the victim. But that being said, unless I am the accused and know I’m innocent, or witnessed the event with my own eyes and saw the consent, I will never claim a woman is lying when she says she was raped, and neither should you.

Because if they are telling the truth, how dare you make them feel like the villain in this equation when you have no knowledge of the truth. We have a presumption of innocence in this country. It’s based on the solid scientific principle of falsification, largely attributed to Karl Popper. Because of its greater likelihood of coming to a truth, it’s the moral way to approach such a claim as well.

So what was our mistake in the assumptions we made? There were actually a few.

  1. We both assumed that the text of the meme was what she said verbatim—it wasn’t.
  2. We assumed she was talking about herself—she wasn’t.
  3. We assumed it was about rape—it wasn’t.

My friend and I weren’t even in the same ZIP code.Lena Dunham endorses Hillary Clinton

As it turns out, Lena—being a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton—was supporting her campaign in an interview with Page Six (I could not find a reputable source to confirm what she said or where she said it, so I’m taking this with a grain of salt too). Lena is quoted as saying, “The other candidates are white men and they cannot understand, even if they can understand it intellectually . . . for what it’s like to be under that kind of attack, and I’m so impressed by the way she continues to soldier forth.”

Lesson learned, always be skeptical of memes, even if they’re shared by someone you trust. But nonetheless, there are many great discussions worth having about the assumptions we did make—even if they weren’t true—aside from the lesson we already learned about making assumptions.

So let’s take a couple of them on.


If she had been discussing women living in constant fear of being attacked by man, is that fair?

Well, yes and no.

From a purely literal sense, if you fear someone who is of no threat to you, that is effectively an irrational fear. But as famed psychologist and skeptic Dr. Michael Shermer explains, in man’s evolutionary history, we are prone to a phenomenon he calls patternicity: finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

Dr. Michael Shermer

As he goes on to explain (click the link above for a more descriptive example), if you assume something is a threat that isn’t and flee the scene, you’ve endured no harm. But if you assume no threat when there is one, you are likely to be harmed. So it makes sense we’ve evolved to assume things are threats, even when that assumption may be false, as an effective method of self-preservation.

So for women to assume that some men are predators, even if those men are perfectly honorable in their intentions, is not entirely irrational, even though the feared assault is highly improbable (most men do not assault women). They have my sincerest sympathy that a small segment of the male population have implanted this fear in them, even if they have nothing to fear from me personally.

So men, while it’s easy to get mad at women for assuming the worst in us, understand that it’s a simple self-preservation instinct which is entirely natural and beneficial to their safety. Just make a sincere effort to make them feel as safe as possible if you wish to quash that fear and/or get to know them.


If we address my reply to the Tweet, I believe this is also a worthwhile discussion to have—not all problems are equal.

I get depressed about being single, or not reaching the level of success that I feel I should have attained in life. But I do have a job, I’m reasonably healthy, and have a wonderful family and friends. So I rarely openly share my issues, because I feel some level of guilt for complaining about these things when I see a baby with Leukemia, a soldier who lost limbs in battle, or homeless and/or jobless people whose lives are largely without hope.

It is important that we empathize where we can with people, and sympathize with them otherwise, no matter what they’re problems are. It helps to bring our community together, and it’s just the right thing to do in my opinion.

But for the person doing the complaining, it’s also important to keep your own problems in perspective. Problems aren’t that different from a hospital’s triage.

Society’s efforts should be focused on the most dire problems first, and we can address the less dire ones when the emergencies have all been dealt with. For instance, if I encountered both a drowning baby and a guy who’s depressed he broke up with his girlfriend and just wants to talk, I’m probably going to try to save that baby and leave the heartbroken dude to sort out his own problems. If my love-struck compadre were to complain about my choice, I think we all understand he’d be out of line.

My underlying point though, is that almost everyone has problems. We all love to believe we are unique in our pain—and somehow most others have a nearly perfect life.

But is this true?

No one was more loved or respected than Robin Williams, and with his portrayal of a homosexual cowboy, and then Batman’s The Joker, Heath Ledger had just solidified himself as Hollywood’s newest top shelf actor. Both of these men, by all accounts, were on top of the world.

Yet sadly both of these men, with so much love and respect heaped upon them, with none of the financial stresses many of us face either, could bear to live life another day.

And frankly, I defy you to ask anyone about their problems and find someone who responds that they don’t have any.

While someone may not know your specific pain, they almost assuredly have problems you don’t understand either. If you want sympathy and respect, don’t assume you’re the only one hurting. You’re dismissing the pain others around you are enduring—that’s pretty insulting.

I can’t emphasize enough how important I think it is that we be open about our problems, and discuss them with others. Bottling them up often ends in self-harmful or violent acts. So making the effort to not alienate those you’d like to sympathize with is something I think we should all strive for when we do reach out for help. I believe my approach would yield a more positive social interaction.


So now that we’ve covered our false assumptions, let’s address Lena’s actual claim.

A large portion of political arguments these days are hyperbole and hyper-partisanship. All sides of the aisle tend to overstate their strengths, while dishonestly ignoring their weaknesses. I’d be skeptical of anyone making a political argument on the campaign trail. But that being said, does Lena have a point?

On the face of it, no. History is littered with politicians attacking other politicians. Hillary Clinton was by no means the first to be the brunt of hateful political attacks. Some of hers are only unique in that she’s a woman, but most arguments were against her policy or character—not the fact she’s missing equipment down below.

America has never had a woman president, nor even a female vice-president. For a significant portion of American history, they wouldn’t have been allowed to do so. They weren’t even allowed to vote before 1920, with the passage of the 19th amendment.

The heinous acts toward the black community in American history dominate our culture. There are a multitude of movies, documentaries, and other media depicting the slavery era and civil rights movement—far more than there are about the hardships and atrocities women have endured as a group.

Yet I suspect many may be surprised to know that black men had the right to vote after the passage of the 15th amendment in 1869, over 50 years before woman had such rights in America.

So women have gotten pretty poor treatment throughout history (not just America) without nearly as much attention given to that fact, compared to others.

I readily admit it’s plausible that a large majority of men will vote for another man. And, since many women still claim to support the traditional notion of being subservient to their male counterparts, many women may not necessarily vote for a woman either. This makes Lena’s underlying point more than fair.

Much like Obama overcoming the racial barrier on the path to the presidency, our first female president will likely have higher hurdles to jump than her male counterparts do to get there too.

However, if I can pose a hypothetical situation for a minute, I don’t think I could be easily convinced that if Republicans had chosen a well-respected woman like Condoleezza Rice, and Democrats had chosen  someone who’s largely scandal-free like Tim Kaine as their nominees, I’m not convinced Condoleezza wouldn’t have gotten the same votes Trump did, and Kane gotten most of the votes Hillary did—yielding the same result.

I think if we’re honest, it would have been a far better election, with a better outcome, no matter who won, compared to the two highly-hated candidates the big parties actually picked.

Hillary most assuredly lost some votes solely by virtue of her pesky second X chromosome, but I am firmly convinced that she lost far more votes be virtue of being laden with a series of potentially immoral, corrupt, and even potentially criminal acts.

I’m of the opinion she got far more votes by virtue of being a Democrat from people who didn’t like her, than she lost by virtue of being a women from people who would have otherwise voted Democrat. Most heated political arguments are partisan in nature, not sexist.

So is Lena’s argument valid? Somewhat. Do I think it cost Hillary the election? No.

I think Hillary Clinton’s actions and persona cost Hillary Clinton the election. Trump was arguable one of the most beatable Republicans in recent history. Laying that defeat at the feet of her gender seems improbable to me.

But if you disagree, there’s a comment section below…have at it. Debate is good! Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Misleading Stats, Bad Sources, and the Threat of Radical Islamic Terror

Recently, a friend of mine posted a meme from the Prepare to Take America Back Facebook page about a gun dealer who has bacon in his shop, and if a prospective gun buyer intends on buying a firearm from him, you have to eat the bacon. The purpose of course, is to prevent Muslims from buying guns.13432228_1052807718107590_6392247220183571472_n[1]

A lengthy discussion ensued, so I felt this was a good opportunity to promote skepticism over ideology and point out the flaws in the arguments by analyzing both sides.

The Actions of the Dedicated

If someone is so delusional as to want to murder a number of people at will for their god, it stands to reason they are not subscribing to a rational mindset. They are highly dedicated to an end result, and nothing other than a good person with a gun is likely to stop them. So I’m pretty sure if they’re motivated enough to murder, they could easily justify eating a piece of delicious bacon for the cause. It is likely only rational non-violent Muslims would be restricted from buying guns in this manner.

Remember, they’re not supposed to look at naked women either, but when Bin Laden was killed, he had quite the porn stash.

I should also point out that many gun owners have come out against No-Fly-List restrictions on gun purchases because a few innocent people end up on that list. So preventing law-abiding Muslims from buying a gun just because of the actions of a few violent ones seems rather hypocritical.

The Gun Rights Paradox

Gun rights advocates like myself point out that while it may be true that guns are the #1 tool used to murder people around the world, it’s a flawed argument if you’re using it to argue guns are likely to kill. There are nearly 80 million gun owners in America, but only approximately 32,000 violent incidents are performed by such people. Meaning that for every 100 gun owners, approximately 99.96 of them will harm no one who was of no threat to them.Armalite AR-15

While the numbers might be slightly different, you could replace the term “Gun Owners” with “Muslims” and make the exact same argument.

Like gun owners, most Muslims are indeed non-violent. So for gun owners fighting for gun rights by pointing to the above statistics to be ideologically consistent, they shouldn’t be promoting anti-Muslim views either.

The Constitutional Argument

The bacon scheme, while clever, many argue is a violation of the 1st amendment that seeks to prevent religious discrimination. But if we look at the verbiage of the first Amendment, it should be obvious it’s not an issue.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The 1st Amendment
The 1st Amendment

The first five words are, “Congress shall make no law.” As this is a private business owner, he’s not congress. The first amendment restricts government and protects him, not the other way around.

Aside from the Constitutional issue, the government may not discriminate because we all pay our taxes to it and it governs all of us equally, therefore we deserve equal protection under the law.

But whether it be the KKK, Black Panthers, Westboro Baptist Church, a Christian bakery owner not wanting to make a cake for a gay wedding, or this gun shop proprietor, in a free country, while government may never discriminate, they should never have the power to dictate who you are kind to or do business with. Let the free market sort it out.

Credibility Issues

The conversation that ensued on this meme was after a mutual friend commented “94% of terrorist attacks in America are committed by non-Muslims, look it up.”

I, of course, pointed out that since he was the one making the claim, the burden of proof was on him to cite his source, it was not our burden to look it up. So he cited this information from Global Research.

Global research sounds mighty official, but then they cited a graph they stated came from Princeton University’s Loonwatch. Princeton university, being a prestigious institution, should lend some credibility as well. But there’s only one problem—Loonwatch’s “About” page only cites Princeton as the source of the definition of the word Loon from Princeton’s WordNet® 3.0.  They may have attended Princeton (they don’t say), but there’s no indication this info is from Princeton University in any official capacity.Princeton-University[1]

Since Loonwatch didn’t compile the data, this makes Global Research’s citation of Loonwatch irrelevant.

As you read the about page, it becomes clear, Loonwatch are opinion bloggers just like me, with no intrinsic credibility that comes from being a well-respected institution or peer-reviewed publication.

Opinion writers only get credibility by citing credible sources, as we don’t compile any of the data ourselves, we merely interpret it. But the genetic logical fallacy requires that we not dismiss their opinion, even if they’re not necessarily a credible source, so we’ll soldier on.

Loonwatch made a graph based on this FBI.gov data, which is a credible citation and to be commended. The thing that differentiates me from Loonwatch is that I won’t be pushing a particular narrative. I will present multiple ways to construe the data so no context is missing. Loonwatch failed to do this, and thus why I’d argue my post is more fair in its analysis.

Graph Prepared By Loonwatch of Terrorist Attacks On US Soil from 1980 - 2015
Graph Prepared By Loonwatch of Terrorist Attacks On US Soil from 1980 – 2015

Loonwatch did little to show how they came to their conclusion. The FBI study, cites individual attacks and who was deemed responsible for them, but did not in any way segregate them into the convenient categories Loonwatch used on their graph, so I can only guess that maybe Loonwatch researched each group deemed responsible individually, and categorized them by categories of Loonwatch’s choosing. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s important that Loonwatch at least explain their methodology, which they didn’t.

So don’t take anything Loonwatch or I say to the bank. Look at the FBI Data provided, and come to your own conclusions. I just hope to promote critical thinking.

Misleading Statistics

The problems with the 94% statistic are numerous.

The first flaw is that it breaks the groups up into categories that aren’t mutually exclusive. For instance, you could have Latino Communists, so what group do they fall in on the above chart, Latinos or Communists? And wouldn’t Communists be considered an Extreme Left-Wing Group as well?

Second, the caption they have for the graph reads as follows:

Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Soil by Group, From 1980 to 2005, According to FBI Database

But Loonwatch’s groups are not how the FBI classified them. The FBI classified them by name, such as Al Qaeda, versus grouping them as Muslims like Loonwatch did, making the caption dishonest as they aren’t the groups “according to” the FBI as the caption states. That doesn’t mean Loonwatch’s interpretation of the data is inaccurate, but when people make false assertions like that, it talks negatively to their credibility, as they’re either being dishonest or sloppy in their work.

Thirdly: It counts each attack as one incident out of 316, no matter how many were killed or injured in that incident including many that resulted in no death or injury at all.

This means that they count the 9/11 attacks which officially killed 2972 people and injured an estimated 12,000 others as if they’re somehow one unit equal to the November 11th 2005 Hagerstown, MD arson which killed no one.Terrorism11[1]

Loonwatch headed their post by saying, “Terrorism Is a Real Threat … But the Threat to the U.S. from Muslim Terrorists Has Been Exaggerated.” As such, including incidents which resulted in no human harm, is certainly a bit misleading. The FBI was simply tracking terror attack numbers, but Loonwatch used that data to argue threats to the U.S., which aren’t quite the same thing. The non-injurious attacks may or may not have been intended to harm anyone (a threat), but only scare people into compliance (terrorism). It’s entirely possible those attackers purposefully sought to avoid being a threat to life and limb by bombing unoccupied property, effectively making them non-threats.

Analyzing the data myself

First, let’s eliminate the aforementioned incidents that resulted in no harm to anyone and we’re left with 44 attacks versus 316 to analyze. I’m eliminating these because the narrative is about who is a threat to Americans, so incidents which resulted in no harm should be irrelevant. I researched every group responsible individually to categorize them myself and determine which were Muslim and not.

Muslims committed 6 of those 44 attacks, or 14%. This is more than double the 6% Loonwatch presented, using their same metric. But, it still supports their underlying argument that non-Muslims committed more attacks than Muslims, by far.

After I had done that, instead of treating each incident as if they’re the same, I’m going to categorize them by how many were killed at the hands of terrorists, which is more relevant to the narrative of the threats to Americans.Terrorism10[1]

Of 3,178 terrorist murders, Muslims committed 2,982 of them (94%), which is ironically (and completely coincidentally) the same percentage, yet polar opposite, of the narrative Loonwatch portrayed. There were approximately 13,048 Muslim-committed injuries out of a 14,017, (93%) as well.

Now that may seem like I’ve refuted Loonwatch’s argument since that’s a 188% swing, but I haven’t. I’ve merely presented the same data in a different light.

To be fair, I will also point out that almost all of them are from the September 11th attacks. So one incident of 44 is severely skewing the data. But nonetheless, while Muslims don’t account for most of the incidents, by a landslide they account for the most deaths.

Using the same data Loonwatch did, I could make that argument, leave out the context I gave you, and give a conversely biased opinion to Loonwatch. It’s a lesson in how people leave out info without lying to lead you into a false impression.

What’s This Puerto Rico Stuff?

While we’re on the subject of skewing the data, I could eliminate the events in Puerto Rico as well.

While Puerto Rico is a U.S. Property, I think if you asked both Americans and/or Puerto Ricans whether they consider Puerto Ricans to be Americans, most would say no. They’re not a state, plus they’re not even allowed to vote in U.S. general elections. Again, the narrative was whether Americans are mostly under threat from Muslims, so adding Puerto Ricans to the list is a bit misleading to that narrative for most Americans

Eliminating non-injurious and now Puerto Rico attacks, I have 35 remaining incidents, of which Muslims were responsible for 6, or 17%, which still supports Loonwatch’s claim that non-muslims are responsible for more attacks.

Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico

We can agree to disagree on whether Puerto Rico should be excluded from this list or not, but at least I’m telling you I’m doing it, so you can make up your own mind.

Where’s the Current Data?

The FBI Crime Data table cited was 1980-2005. This is data that ended early in Bush’s second term. Click here for what the FBI gives for data after 2005. It’s vague at best, and not in a nice table like the 1980-2005 report, making it difficult to compile any data from it. Maybe the FBI has this info hidden away somewhere convenient for some reason, maybe they’re just lazy. But nonetheless, the data used for the argument is 11 years old.

But scrubbing through this less-than-helpful timeline from the FBI, while there were several terror attacks thwarted two were successful which killed thirteen people and injured thirty more, all committed by Muslim extremists. Add in the recent Orlando attack that happened after the Loonwatch study, there are 49 more deaths on that list, and you realize for the last decade, the only terror threat to Americans, if we’re going by recorded incidents, has been from Muslims.

Conclusion

I’m atheist, and thus against all religion, because I think religious extremists of any faith are capable of doing heinous things. But in the modern era, I do not think anyone could reasonably argue that most ideological unprovoked violent acts in the modern era are not committed by people who claim to be doing those acts in the name of Allah.

But it is important to understand that just because they are responsible for such violence, it does not in any way mean that a majority or even a disproportionate amount of Muslims are violent. Arguing the converse is pure bigotry. But the evidence is clear that for every one American killed or injured in a terrorist attack by non-Muslims, there have been approximately 93-94 who were harmed or killed by Muslims. A narrative that is rather different from the one made by Loonwatch, yet also entirely true.

I have no animosity towards Muslims that I don’t equally have against all religion, my only issue is with misleading stats to push a particular narrative. Whether someone is killed by a religious extremist, or killed by a gang member robbing a store, the end result is identical. As with anything in life, I believe it is important to remain skeptical and question everything, because data can always be presented in a quite misleading manner to serve someone’s agenda. I hold myself to a higher standard, but you can’t possibly know that. And you can’t know it about any other op-ed write either.

Who Can You Trust? A Guide To Questioning The Media

The internet is full of numerous people making claims. Whether it be memes with pictures of famous people saying something they clearly didn’t say, or quotes from famous people who actually did say it.

Abraham Lincoln Weighing In On the Internet
Abraham Lincoln Weighing In On the Internet

Point #1 I’d like to make is that a famous person isn’t more credible than any other person, unless said famous person is actually educated in the field of the claim being made. (Think Professor of Physics Brian Cox speaking on the subject of physics or science in general for instance).

Professor Brian Cox
Professor Brian Cox

Before we start, for purposes of this post, it’s important to define opinions, beliefs, and facts, as I believe they are mutually exclusive.

  • Opinion – A statement that has no right nor wrong answer.
  • Belief – A statement that does have a right or wrong answer, but that isn’t substantiated by evidence to know said right and wrong answers.
  • Fact – A statement that does have a right or wrong answer, and is supported wholly by evidence making it a demonstrable truth.

To give an example of these three, let’s look at someone who chooses a vegan diet.

If a person doesn’t want to be someone who exploits animals, or simply doesn’t like the taste; that is a matter of opinion and they should never be questioned on their choice, as there’s no evidence one can put forth to prove them wrong.

However, if they go vegan because they argue it’s healthier, that is a matter-of-fact statement. If they have no evidence supporting it, it’s merely a belief.

To make it fact, they would first have to define “healthy.” It could mean disease free, not obese, longevity of life, low cholesterol…the list is endless. From there, one would have to do or cite a controlled study comparing veganism to omnivorous or carnivorous diets, and prove it to be true. As such, such matter-of-fact statements, unlike matters of opinion, are indeed open to being questioned.

Now that we’ve covered those points, let’s kick this off with some simple thoughts to keep in mind when you read something on the internet, or see an advertisement on TV.

  • A claim sans evidence should be deemed as nothing more than an opinion or belief.
  • A claim sans evidence from an expert, is only an expert opinion or belief.
  • While an unsubstantiated expert opinion should be trusted more than an unsubstantiated non-expert opinion, neither should be deemed as fact.

Exploring the above three points; they often come into play when viewing a celebrity or expert-endorsed advertisement. They often make claims that you feel potentially make sense. But if you practice some critical thinking, you’ll soon notice that they can’t, don’t, or won’t cite any tests, studies, or evidence-based facts to back up their claim.

When watching a science-looking TV program, it’s important to understand that a proper expert would say “I don’t know” until they have actually seen or performed a study and gathered real evidence; not speculate profusely, presenting it as fact. (Think Ancient Aliens, Ghost Hunters, etc.)

Why do some experts speculate like this? Because science is a LOT of work! It involves loads of money, and a myriad of education and testing that can take years or even decades to complete. Not to mention, it also requires something to actually test. How can someone be an expert on Bigfoot if they don’t have an actual Bigfoot to observe and test, right?

Speculation however is easy; you just start talking.

So what are a couple of tell-tale signs you should look for when you see someone making a claim that you suspect might be less than trustworthy?

  • Is it an advertisement? If so, it’s biased, and should be ignored almost unilaterally. On a credibility scale, from zero being pure bullsh*t, and ten being “Take it to the bank;” advertisements are a zero. A celebrity endorsement likely ranks no more than a one, and an expert endorsement maybe a two. Why do endorsements add any value at all if they’re just being paid to say whatever their told to say? Because their credibility is on the line, so you’d like to think they care as much about their credibility as you do yours. But that being said, Dr. Oz proved this is still not that trustworthy.

    Dr. Mehmet Oz
    Dr. Mehmet Oz
  • If the advertisement cites an independent study, look up the study. If it’s legitimately independent, that sends it way up the credibility scale, and such companies should be commended for doing so. Although to be fair, if the independent study hadn’t been favorable, it would not have been in the ad, so it’s still partially comfirmation-biased as you’ll likely not hear any negative portions the study might have reported.
  • If it’s not an advertisement, does it actually give you evidence-based answers versus speculation? These pseudo-science shows, like the aforementioned alien, cryptozoology, or ghost shows are famous for presenting themselves as science, but being anything but. They bring dubious experts on who ask provocative questions, but then never follow it up with evidence-based answers. It makes them seem smart, but most of the time, it’s ridiculous nonsense with big words.

Why is this important? Ignorance is bliss, after all. Right?

If you were building a home, would you cut a framing board at what appears to be six feet to you (Not science)? Or would you measure the board (Science)?

People spouting unsubstantiated nonsense as if it is fact are some of the most dangerous people on the planet. They convince people who don’t know any better, to act on their claims as if they’re fact. Sometimes to grave consequences. Think Steve Jobs being duped to treat his cancer with “alternative,” instead of actual medicine. Such false medicinal advice may have cost him his life; a claim that cannot be proven since we don’t have two different Steve Jobs (one who took a doctors advice versus one who didn’t) to test, as the linked article points out.

At this point, I’m sure you are wondering who exactly you CAN trust. Assuming you don’t know how to, or have the means to carry out a proper controlled study, or do actual research yourself, I’ve prepared a makeshift credibility scale to help you suss out the chaff.

Scientific Journals, such as The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Science, The Journal Nature, etc., are the most credible science sources you will find.  They report controlled and peer-reviewed studies only. They don’t take money to print studies. And they even print retractions if a new peer brings information to light that falsifies a previous claim.

Websites like Snopes, Skeptoid, or Science Based Medicine are largely devoted to debunking false claims, and do a great job of bringing just well-researched facts sans opinion. I would trust them nearly as much as scientific journals.

Skeptoid's Brian Dunning
Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning

So what about non-scientific information like politics, human interest stories, etc.?

Unbiased news sources are a very credible venue. Reuters and the Associated Press are two of the most commonly cited news sources by other commercial news outlets, and this speaks to their credibility. They don’t do opinion, so when you read an article from them, it may be somewhat less interesting, but that’s because it’s just the facts.Fox News

News sites with opinion, like MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and more are still fairly credible, despite being laden with opinion—this is mostly due to their market share.

Carl Sagan once said, “If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.” If these mainstream outlets were consistently delivering false information, or didn’t make an effort to present both sides of an argument, this is exactly what the market would do to them.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan

While their ideological counterparts hate such news sources, independent minded people generally understand that while they’re biased, they at least validate sources and make an effort to be accurate and fair. It’s not perfect, but it’s at least reasonably credible.

Openly biased news sources like Drudge Report or The Daily Kos still have a market to answer to, and often break accurate information first due to their aggressive desire to defeat their ideological opponents. But I would avoid citing them as fact, because their information is suspect unless you can corroborate their findings with other news sources as mentioned above.

Blogs like mine are laden with bias. They are so small and rarely ever cited, that you should almost never consider blog claims as reputably truthful. If they cite credible sources along with their opinions (This is why I often do exactly that), it increases their credibility, but you should never treat them with full reverence.

Hopefully, you’ll start to notice that “opinion” is a consistent point to avoid when looking for the truth, but the bottom line is you should question everything. Question people who make claims without providing evidence. Question people who claim to be experts but can’t back up their opinion with fact. If you’re qualified, question proper scientific studies and do your own peer review.

Either way, enjoy the information you gather throughout life, just be skeptical every step of the way. Happy hunting!

Alternative Medicine: The Grand, Ignorant And Immoral Oxymoron

There can be no doubt, many people suffer from iatrophobia ​—a fear of doctors. Being poked with needles, recommended for surgeries, or placed on never-ending drug regiments can make people want to curl up in a ball somewhere and hide forever.

As a result of this somewhat understandable fear, people often look to alternative medicine for the answers to their problems. Whether it be practices like chiropractic, homeopathic, holistic, acupuncture—the list is mind numbing.doctor_needle2[1]

So first, let’s look at the definition of the word medicine.

med·i·cine
ˈmedəsən/
noun
noun: medicine; plural noun: medicines
  1. the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease (in technical use often taken to exclude surgery).
  2. a compound or preparation used for the treatment or prevention of disease, especially a drug or drugs taken by mouth.

When discussing the idea of alternative medicine, it should first be understood that there is essentially no such thing as alternative medicine.

  • There is medicine: practices or compounds that treat a medical condition or disease.
  • There is non-medicine: practices or compounds that  do not treat a disease or medical condition.

There is no middle ground here, the item in question either works, or it doesn’t work. The level of effectiveness may very, but there has to be a noted effect, above the margin of error or the placebo effect, or it cannot be considered medicine.medicine[1]

For hundreds of years, scientists have laid out the path to determine which is which. It’s called a clinical trial, an extension of the scientific method. While the concept goes back thousands of years, in the last century, the process is now pretty consistent and highly effective.

In a fictional example, I will create a drug called Libertol (I had to throw a little politics in this thing), and I will have invented it to treat a disease called oppressionitis.

Assuming I’m a drug company, I’m going to be biased to confirm that the millions of dollars I spent developing Libertol actually yielded a functional, and thus marketable product. Since that bias could either unintentionally skew my results, or raise concerns I might purposefully have skewed the results, I would find an independent party to test Libertol in order to rule out any actual or perceived biases I might have.

The independent testing facility would start by looking for a number of people with oppresionitis, and ask them if they’d be willing to submit to a study on a new drug to treat this horrible disease. For the sake of argument, let’s say we get 500 people to be our guinea pigs.

Clinical Study Map. Click for more info
Clinical Study Map. Click for more info

Why 500? Because “anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence.” (Great science maxim #1, there will be more) But what do scientists mean by that?

Imagine you flip a coin once, and it lands heads up. Would you then assume that every time you flip a coin, it will land heads up because of that one flip? Of course you wouldn’t. That is essentially anecdotal evidence. One, or barely more than one, instance is almost never to be treated as if its results are indicative of what should be expected on a consistent basis. This is also why you are wise to often get a 2nd or even 3rd opinion when seeing doctors.

So maybe you flip the coin ten times? It lands heads seven out of ten due to random chance, which is not only entirely possible, if I’ve done my math right, is likely to happen about 1 out of 8 times (15:125 to be exact). So does that mean a coin is prone to land heads up 70% of the time? Again, of course not. The more times you flip it, the closer it will get to its actual probability of 50:50 as the odds start to balance out.Coin[1]

So when doing a clinical trial, the more people you can test, the more accurate your results will be, and this is why we want 500 people in our above fictional example.

These trials are actually done in phases, with only about 20-80 people at first, if the drug ends up having detrimental side effects, you don’t want it to affect a large number of people, after all. But by the time the study hits phase 3, there will likely be thousands of participants being evaluated. But I’m simplifying the three phases down to one, and the process in general, for the purposes of this article.

Once volunteers are gathered up, half of them will be given the actual drug, the other half will be given a placebo (a non-drug). This placebo is designed to control for the placebo effect, a condition whereby a person will convince themselves a drug works, even if it doesn’t.

The placebo effect will generally not alter things that are purely quantitative, like blood pressure, heart rate, or other measurable conditions, but it can have quite the profound effect on subjective data, such as pain level and other issues the user merely reports on versus being tested with equipment.

The results of the group who took Libertol would then be tested against the people who took the placebo they thought was Libertol, and Bob’s your uncle—you have a result.

If Libertol actually worked, it would show as such by being more effective than the placebo was at treating oppressionitis. Otherwise, the results will come back as “no more effective than a placebo,” and Libertol would be sent to the ineffective drug graveyard in the sky, barring any noted side effects that may be beneficial elsewhere.

Viagra being one of the best examples of this phenomena, was originally designed for blood pressure issues, which it was horrible for, but turned out to be quite the rock star at “pitching tents.”viagra[1]

So the moral here, is that you shouldn’t take medical advice from someone who tried something once and it worked. There are infinite other possibilities to explain why it seemed effective, rather than it actually being effective. Instead, ask your doctor and if you’re a true skeptic, research yourself for clinical trial results.

I was recommended acupuncture by my neurologist for headaches, only to do my research using sites like sciencebasedmedicine.org. Much as I expected, I found that clinical trials showed acupuncture is “no more effective than a placebo.”

People who had actual acupuncture reported similar results, within the margin of error, to people who were treated with fake acupuncture where the needles were purposely misplaced. It has never been shown to be more effective despite its hundreds of years of history. The only “ancient Chinese secret” here, is that it doesn’t work.

Acupuncture
Acupuncture

While we place a lot of trust in doctors, not all of them adhere to the scientific method exclusively, some are flat-out quacks. But if you want medicine versus non-medicine, you should demand as such. So lesson learned, I won’t be seeing that neurologist again.

There are two types of alternative medicine practitioners:
Fraudsters who know they’re taking advantage of you, or
ignorant people who simply don’t know better. But why give your money to either one?

If someone is purposefully deceiving you for a fee, that is a horribly immoral practice where you take someone’s hard-earned money that could be used for something that would help them, and instead sell them something that won’t. If I lived in an anarchistic country, I would want to destroy every one of these sociopaths. They are valueless human beings, in my opinion.

But even if they’re just ignorant and think these practices actually work, they’re still taking your hard-earned money for something that doesn’t. Assuming you don’t have money to burn, why do exactly that?burning-money-e1340332352315[1]

It is true, an argument can be made that if the placebo effect does work for things like pain, giving someone a placebo might make them feel better without introducing foreign chemicals into their body. But it’s still inherently dishonest, and I would hope none of you would willingly pay someone to lie to you.

All health claims are scientific in nature, meaning there are biological processes that are either going to get better, stay the same, or get worse in your body after treatment. So trust in things that have passed the test of the scientific method, and understand that “that which can be destroyed by the evidence, should be.” (Great science maxim #2)

“Extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence.” (Great science maxim #3) This is what clinical trials provide beyond any reasonable doubt.

People like Harry Houdini spent their lives trying to debunk such fraudsters. Penn & Teller had a show called Bullshit on Showtime which aired for eight seasons debunking them as well. See an excerpt demonstrating the placebo effect here.

James Randi is famous for purposefully overdosing on homeopathy, taking a “lethal” dose, to show that if such a dose had zero effect, the prescribed amount surely must do nothing.

So if I am a libertarian, why do I care? Shouldn’t people be free to put into their body whatever they want? Absolutely!

While I would never prosecute a non-medicine consumer (I refuse to call it alternative medicine), fraud is a violation of your right to property, specifically, your money, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

These people get away with fraud by making non-scientific claims such as saying these things increase your energy or boost your immune system. An actual boosting of your immune system would essentially be an autoimmune disease where you body attacks its own cells. Something you really, REALLY don’t want. But it is effectively immeasurable since there is no number by which your immune system can be rated with, in a manner such as blood pressure or cell count.

I’d like to quickly dispel a couple of these myths by showing you the purpose, methodology and power of skepticism, or critical though, hopefully encouraging you to do your own.

Things like acupuncture, for instance, are said to be practices that are hundreds of years old (as if that is somehow evidence), and that doctors won’t often recommend them because there’s no money to be made. Might I point out that acupuncturists do in fact work for money? Therefore there is actually money to be made—they’re making it. In order to believe this argument, you must do no critical thinking whatsoever. I just dispelled it in one sentence.

People argue we have a cure for cancer, but drug companies are suppressing it to make more money on drugs that only treat cancer, not cure it. This one requires a little more skepticism, but let’s bring up some valuable points to debunk this.

  • Drug companies do make drugs that cure cancer. Chemotherapy and radioactive seeds are but a couple. We simply don’t have one drug that cures all cancer all the time, nor one drug that doesn’t have harmful and potentially fatal side effects as chemotherapy does.
  • This assumption also means that a drug company would have to invest the typically millions of dollars required to develop a drug that works, then shelve it without recouping any of that money as a return on their investment. Why would they develop it in the first place if they don’t want such a return? These conspiracy theorists are arguing how greedy drug companies are, then asserting a claim that they are purposefully throwing money away—an overwhelming contradiction.
  • Then we must also assume that the scientists who went to medical school, usually with the intent of saving lives, many of them specifically dreaming of being “the one” who cures cancer, spent years developing a drug that works. However, once realizing their dream of curing cancer, completely eschewed their ideals and agreed to suppress the drug for money. A theory that’s insulting to every moral medical student who ever slaved away for eight years in college to save your life.
  • Lastly, the above two bullets would both involve more than one person. The drug company has a board of directors, and the labs often have tens or hundreds of people on staff, yet not one of them headed over to CNN or Fox News to blow the whistle?

I could go on and on pointing out the logical fallacies and ignorance of thinking these ways. But hopefully my two examples of how to be a proper skeptic will inspire you to do more critical thinking of your own, instead of buying into these radical conspiracies. The life and the pocketbook you save could be your own.

P.S. I linked to an article debunking acupuncture above. Here is another debunking homeopathy with what is effectively simple, yet astounding math. I promise, it is worth the read. (Click the picture)

539838_10150934532972695_942140407_n-560x700[1]

Also, here’s a great video demo from Twitter’s @ScienceBabe

Is Evil A Passé term? An Atheist’s Thought Experiment.

Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)
Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an atheist. Since I wasn’t always one, how might I feel differently than someone who never had faith to begin with?

For instance, there are people who behave as though they hate their respective deity, then call themselves atheists. I’d argue those people are deists who hate themselves, yet blame their god for their own shortcomings instead of accepting personal responsibility for the way their lives are turning out.

zeus_1[1]
Mythological Greek God Zeus
In my mind, an atheist wouldn’t have any stronger feelings about God, Jesus, or Allah than they would about Zeus or Odin. To me, the only difference between mythology and religion is that the latter still has people who believe in it.

But one thing has curiously struck me lately; the concept of evil. Is this a passé term?

For those who are religious, evil is something put forth by the counterpart of their chosen deity. But I feel this term thwarts understanding of these acts by blaming a being like Satan instead of the perpetrator.

So let’s break down humans for a minute; or as we’re affectionately known in the biological community;  Animalia (Kingdom); Chordate (Phylum); Mammalia (Class); Primates (Order); Hominidae (Family); Homini (Tribe); Homo (Genus); H. sapiens (Species).

Regarding the kingdom classification of Animalia, that means that despite our own desire to feel special, we are ultimately just an animal in the animal kingdom. We are certainly the most intelligent, but there are many animals that are stronger, faster, or otherwise better adapted to their environment, as natural selection dictates.

So while we are special for our intellect, all animals have their own unique specialties, making us all special in different ways, or none of us particularly special at all; depending on how you want to look at it.

Homo-sapiens have evolved as well or better than any other species to life on Earth in many unique ways. For instance, because of our intellect, we’re the best at customizing our environment to suit our needs, instead of having to adapt like all the others. We build houses with air conditioning and heaters, after all.

We’re also intelligent enough to not only be excellent hunters, yet also quite adept at growing our own food. When’s the last time you saw an elephant planting a row of corn?

One trait that many overlook however, is our unparalleled linguistic skills. Because we are social animals, our advanced ability to communicate with others, whether it be face-to-face, or using technology such as the phone or internet, strengthens our society in ways other animals cannot achieve. Every time you ask for help and receive it, you’ve exemplified this.

Oddly enough, we’re the only animal smart enough to have observed and understood natural selection and the benefits it brings to life as a whole, yet we’re compassionate enough to try to prevent it by helping the weak among us instead of allowing them to succumb to whatever their inferior traits might be. If that’s not an ultimate display of commonly accepted morally benevolent societal behavior, I don’t know what is.

This can be seen in the way we help the disadvantaged through charity, medical care, etc. Or simply the endangered species list, where we actively work to preserve an animal that seems incapable of adapting to its environment as natural selection dictates it should.

stalin-hitler_1644235c[1]
Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin
But back to the term “evil.” The term conjures up names like Adolf Hitler, Paul Pot, Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin, et al., who are often touted out as examples, and it seems quite fitting on the face of it.

The reality is that if we define murder as the killing of an innocent life, the animal kingdom is full of mass murderers. Cheetahs are mass murderers of gazelles, but maybe we will give that a pass since they eat them to survive.

Lions however, will often kill cheetahs, not for consumption, but just to eliminate the competition for food. Not very sporting at all, if you ask me. So are they evil too? Of course not.

So what makes them different from human mass murderers? The fact that we are smarter, or that we understand the value of empathy and therefore can associate with the victim? In reality, it’s just that we are societal in ways that many other meat eaters are not.

The concept of morality is generally thought to be a religious one, where you are either with or against a particular dogma. Some people would argue that morals are universal, but this is a false premise. Whether it be gay rights, abortion, the death penalty, drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc., what is immoral to some is moral to others.

If we throw out the religious component, morality would generally describe behavior someone does for the good of society, immoral behaviors are to the detriment of it. While many deists would argue that without religion, there would be no morality, Professor of Psychology, Dr. Michael Shermer explains the evolutionary benefit of commonly held moral behaviors here. Evidence suggests we would be just as moral without religion.

When people think of natural selection, they often use the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which can be misleading. It conjures images of some unyielding beast who kills anything that gets in its way. But societal beings are actually “fitter.”

If a strong violent psychopath were going through the neighborhood killing people, he might be successful if everyone in the neighborhood were also a sociopath and failed to band together to combat him. But if the others unite, the psychopath would likely end up dead due to simple strength in numbers.

They wouldn’t do it for the thrill of killing as the psychopath does, but simply for the betterment of their group. Via the death penalty, war, self-defense, and vigilantism, we tend to weed out the violent psychopaths among us for our own mutual benefit.

Lethal Injection Table
Lethal Injection Table

Many like to think it’s because we’re exterminating evil, but if there is no deity or anti-deity, all we’re really doing is preserving our societal construct.

As for those we consider evil, they’re just psychopaths, pure and simple. People lacking empathy and the innate desire to contribute to the advancement of the human race through societal behavior.

When we think of them as evil, we feed their ego by giving them the impression that they’re somehow closer to a deity or otherwise superhuman. But if evolution has worked in our favor because we are societal, they are actually inferior—arguably, mentally handicapped beings.

As psychological research continues to advance our understanding of the human brain, there is hope we’ll find solutions to mental disorders like sociopathy and/or psychopathy. But in the meantime, it would be nice if we stop sensationalizing these people by calling them evil; they’re just genetically and behaviorally defective. Elevating their status to something superhuman by calling them evil, will only encourage their behavior.

We would not be alive today if not for skeptics. So what is one?

Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)
Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)

Although my writings are largely political, the other subject I’m passionate about is science and skepticism—the value of logical thought cannot be overstated. It seems that all too often people will believe what they’re told by a single media source, a politician, a political party, a professor, etc. But as the brilliant fictional “philosopher” Dr. Gregory House always said, “Everybody lies.”

Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House M.D.
Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House M.D.

Yet when I tell people I’m a skeptic, I get looks of confusion and apprehension. It’s as if I just told them I’m about to profess we never landed on the moon, that Bush was the impetus behind 9/11, that aliens are here among us, or that I’m part of some religious cult. So as a result, I wanted to put some of these myths to bed, but let me address the issues above before I go any further.

  • I believe anyone who believes we didn’t put a man on the moon is ignorant. Click here to see the Mythbusters dismantle these issues on the faked moon landing.
  • I believe anyone who thinks George W. Bush spearheaded 9/11 is disgusting, hateful, and ignorant. This has been thoroughly debunked by many members of the scientific community. National Geographic addressed the 9/11 conspiracy here involving several universities conducting independent studies—please watch. I’m not going to elaborate, they’ve covered it well enough. This nonsense is insulting to the military who would never follow such an unlawful order, even if it were given to them. Our military are far more thoughtful than these hateful idiots ever care to give them credit for.
  • What I know about odds and probabilities leads me to believe there is life in our universe outside of Earth. What I know about physics tells me it would have almost no way of getting here in tact. So yes I believe there is alien life, no I do not believe it has ever inhabited Earth.
  • I’m an agnostic/atheist. I do not believe in any supernatural or spiritual beings. The burden of proof is not on science, as such claims are not falsifiable. The burden lies with the people claiming such phenomena exist. I’m open to the possibility, provided there is any scientific evidence presented to support it—such evidence has yet to be presented.

So if it is not a cult and we don’t have meetings with strange customs like a secret handshake, wrapping our heads in tin foil, or creepy Gregorian chants, what is a skeptic?Tin_foil_hat_2[1]

Saying you are skeptic just means that you question everything (not doubt, just question), and apply the scientific method to answer any questions you might have. Here are a few statements I feel would accurately tell the tale of being a skeptic and some simple rules of thumb to bear in mind.

  • Rule #1 – Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Skeptics will have an evidentiary based belief system. The greater the claim one makes, the greater the evidence required to support it.
  • While we will often admit a creator is possible, skeptics are often non-religious. This is due to the overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence and the underwhelming lack of scientific evidence.
  • A skeptic will start from a null hypothesis—the idea that nothing is true until reasonably confirmed with evidence. If you tell me that magnetic wrist band will cure my headaches and increase my sperm count, you’d better have more than a testimonial, which of course are discredited by the placebo effect. Nothing less than a proper peer-reviewed study will do.
  • If we read some random meme on Facebook or Twitter which makes a provable claim, yet seems dubious in any way, we’ll usually assume it’s bunk and not even bother sharing it. If we’re curious, we might check it out on Snopes or other reputable sites, then share if we can confirm it to be true.070e54aedcf606e53698b9f0f2528a9e3f9ecd80b3cf90cd9ca6deb7f0eac351[1]
  • We place our trust in the science. Almost everything we enjoy in life, from gadgets to health care, we have because this method works—it has for centuries.
  • Skeptics are not conspiracy theorists. We don’t invent fantastic tales for shock value or ideology, we present logical arguments, we separate facts from opinions, and we let the chips fall where they may.
  • A skeptic would rarely believe in alternative medicines. If they really do work, proper scientific studies will confirm as much. At which point they’ll cease being alternative medicine and just be actual medicine.
  • A skeptic wants both sides of the argument. In politics, if a Democrat makes a claim, I want to hear a Republican’s or Libertarian’s rebuttal and vice-versa. If a scientist presents an idea, I want a similarly qualified scientist to challenge their findings. One side of a story is rarely accurate and you should be wary of anyone making a claim of absolutes in this manner.
  • We largely will often point out that shows about cryptozoology, astrology, alien abductions, ghost hunting, etc. belong on the The Sci-Fi Channel, not The Science Channel. While presented as science, they’re all largely full of utter nonsense. One cannot make scientific claims about Bigfoot if one does not have a living or dead Bigfoot standard to test.

So why is it important to be a skeptic? If you like being duped, skepticism isn’t for you—ignorance is bliss, right? But as Steve Jobs proved in 2003 when he opted for a homeopathic solution to his cancer instead of what his doctors recommended, being a skeptic can save your life. Jobs’ had been advised that his cancer was treatable and survivable if he were to undergo proper science-based medical treatment. By the time he realized his homeopathic option was bunk however, it was too late.

Steve Jobs - Apple Founder
Steve Jobs – Apple Founder

For those not familiar with homeopathy and why it is junk science, here’s a phenomenal article from Donald Prothero from skepticblog.com. As are all articles on their site, it is worth a read.

But let me go back further into history and explain why I believe mankind owes its very existence to skepticism.

When the black plague was running rampant, many had believed that this was God punishing humanity as he did during the flooding in the tale of Noah’s ark. As such, they felt that there was no way to intervene and stop this deadly scourge, and potentially that it was blasphemy to even try. While they may not have understood the scientific method or the concept of modern skepticism as we do today, it was indeed skeptics who decided that the plague might simply be a biological process with a cure instead of the will of God, applied scientific-like methods to the problem, and proceeded to eventually quash this most devastating of diseases.

While faith gives people comfort, and I would never try to take that away from them, when you start feeling the onset of a heart attack, a stroke, or any other medical emergency arise, who will you call first? 911 or your priest? If you answered 911, you’re already a bit of a skeptic. The next time you hear a claim that seems too fantastic to be true, grab your computer and do some research. I think you’ll find the scientific method quite rewarding once you get the hang of it.

*Please look to the left. You will find a header with a list of sites dedicated to science and skepticism. I encourage you to read as much as you can. While I’m an amateur who is just priming your skeptical pump, these are professionals who do this for a living. Learning is addictive, I hope you’ll check them out.

NASA and Global Warming: Respect The Method Or Don’t Do The Science

Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)
Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)

I don’t often weigh in on the global warming debate as I’m not a climatologist. I have made it clear however, that I believe in maintaining proper scientific skepticism in life.

First and foremost, I wish to say that I believe climatologists on both sides of the aisle have done good science. Mankind certainly produces a lot of CO2 which will no doubt have an effect on the environment, and these effects are worth investigating.

That being said, I wish to consider a few points.

Earth is rather large. Every organism living on this planet, along with objects in our solar system, are all variables that affect our climate. Accounting for all of them is nearly impossible.

The Blue Marble
The Blue Marble

Therefore, not accounting for all of them while making claims about how they will react to increased CO2 production, will always be educated guesswork.

Also, when climatologists make predictive models, as near as I can tell, they often make these models while assuming all other variables will either remain constant, or will not counteract the change, but instead merely succumb to it.

For example, imagine one were to observe two birds in their back yard; they look every day for a month, but on average, they always see about two birds. Now imagine this person throws a bag of bird seed in their back yard each day. Considering no other variable, one would assume the result would be an ever-growing pile of bird seed in their yard. In reality, their bird population of two would elevate to fifty or more birds, which wouldn’t result in a pile of bird seed as predicted, but a pile of bird poop instead.

With Earth being an ecosystem, as we animals (yes, humans are animals) produce more CO2, I’ve yet to hear anyone rule out that the plant kingdom, which would thrive in a CO2 rich environment, would not simply grow in numbers, evolve plants which consume more CO2, and/or spawn a new mechanism for filtering or consuming CO2 that we haven’t even imagined; in doing so, counteracting the increased greenhouse gasses produced by the increasing animal population. Just as the deer population, if left unchecked, will die of disease and famine, nature always seems to randomly, and quite unpredictably at times, find a way to maintain balance through evolution.

I’m not making this case mind you; again, I’m not a climatologist—please no hate mail. But one thing I do know is that predictive climate models have often been wrong. Eschewing climate science would be a terrible mistake, but let’s continue to compare actual results with predicted ones; leaving politics out of it for now, until we can accurately predict the effects, and effectively devise mechanisms to deal with the issues that we determine nature cannot naturally resolve for us.

There’s a saying I once heard that in science, most great discoveries are not followed with an exclamation of “Eureka, I’ve found it!” but instead, a far less exciting, “Hmm, that’s odd.”

Viagra was supposed to be a heart medication; it failed miserably. But oddly enough, it turns out Viagra can pitch a tent like a scout troop leader. Microwave ovens came about after Percy Spencer’s chocolate bar melted when placed near a magnetron and he wondered why. Post-it notes were a failed attempt at making a strong adhesive, which it clearly wasn’t. Instead of scrapping a million dollar project, 3M made lemonade out of lemons.

The list of happy accidents like these goes on forever. Science isn’t just about resolving a given issue, it’s also about investigating random discoveries that were often diversions along the way.

Sometimes however, good intentions can go seriously wrong. For instance, I took a tour of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky; I highly recommend it. In Mammoth Cave, as with all caves, the temperature and the humidity are basically constants. Mammoth Cave is a cool and damp ≈54°F 24/7/365. In 1839, Dr. John Croghan, a sufferer of tuberculosis, observed that the cave’s cold and damp air made him feel refreshed and well.

Tuberculosis hut, Main Cave, Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, KY, USA
Tuberculosis hut, Main Cave, Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, KY, USA

He bought the cave and opened up a tuberculosis clinic inside it. Today, we know that warm and dry air is best for people suffering from TB, but Dr. Croghan found out the hard way that cold and damp air is bad for it—all 15 patients died. Dr. Croghan didn’t follow the scientific method, he proceeded based on anecdotal evidence and a hunch. Such science, when lives are at stake, while often informative by virtue of observed results, is dangerous and irresponsible.

Let’s look at the scientific method in a nutshell.

  • A person has a question that needs answered.
  • This person then runs tests and collects evidence.
  • Based on the evidence, a hypothesis is formed in an attempt to explain the question.
  • A person then tries to disprove their hypothesis, a process known as falsification. The purpose? If you have a valid hypothesis, it should be true under any tests one subjects it to.
  • If the hypothesis passes these tests, one then publishes it for peer review. They explain their method for coming to such conclusions, their methodology at attempting falsification, and then allow others to review it, debate it, attempt to falsify it, and/or attempt to replicate it with total consistency.
  • Once the hypothesis has passed all these steps, only then does it become accepted wisdom, or even accepted natural law, such as Isaac’s laws of motion.


Recently, NASA’s Gavin Schmidt went on FNC’s Stossel and made brilliant points about the research NASA has done on climate change . He laid out the testing they’ve done, explained how they eliminated other variables, and thus concluded that mankind is increasing the CO2 in the air, and that this ever-increasing CO2 production will cause detrimental climate change. Hearing him speak alone, you could be easily convinced he had done his homework and was spot on in his hypotheses. From there however, it all went wrong.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt
Dr. Gavin Schmidt

Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion, otherwise you merely have the will of one man—which is the basis of cult. ~ Quote from The Master (a movie loosely based on Scientology)

Gavin Schmidt refused to sit next to Dr. Roy Spencer, a climate change scientist himself, with proper credentials, who happens to be skeptical of the climate doomsday scenarios often portrayed by others. In doing so, violating the process of peer review and meaningful discussion. His reason? He said he wasn’t interested in being part of a political debate.

Dr. Roy Spencer
Dr. Roy Spencer

The discussion however was not about politics, it was about the science of climate change. If Gavin Schmidt is unwilling to have his science debated, he has zero business doing scientific research at all, especially on the taxpayer’s dime.

If his science is correct, there should be no fear in defending against a skeptic. Every objection the skeptic might raise should be easily explained and dismissed if Gavin has done a thorough job and come to proper conclusions. If he cannot overcome a skeptic’s objections, then guess what? That means it isn’t settled science and his work is incomplete or even possibly false.

Convincing people the Earth is round and that the sun doesn’t revolve around it took time. But barring the most ignorant of idiots, we all agree that these statements are true now.

Al Gore
Al Gore

Those purporting climate change need to stop sensationalizing like Al Gore, debate educated climate skeptics intelligently, and stop acting like we’re all idiots for not buying what they’re selling.

As for the politics of all this? I believe we should not bankrupt the nation based on phenomena that is still not fully understood, and legislators must recuse themselves from the debate until it is. Because much like me, they aren’t climatologists either.

Sources:

http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/reflections/tuberculosis/cave.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tuberculosis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-it_notes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Spencer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sildenafil