“Everything Happens for a Reason”

That’s something that I hear nowadays several times a week. And it’s always bothered me. The person who says it — what kind of insight is that person claiming to have that the target of that ‘advice’ is meant to infer?

I recently bought a T-Shirt that, the moment I saw it, I knew it was something I had to wear.  It says “Everything happens for a reason”, and then below that it says “And that reason is usually Physics”. That pretty well summarizes my view on why bad things happen. You got into a car accident? That’s physics at work. Your dad died?  Well, that’s biology, which, if you look at it deep enough, depends on Physics. All of the mechanisms, atoms and molecules interacting in your body, even if they are parts of living organisms — if you drill down deep enough into what’s happening at the molecular level, medicine and biology and chemistry is reduced to Physics

OK, but that’s my non-religious, non-spiritual brain at work.  What the heck is THAT OTHER person thinking when he or she says “Everything happens for a reason”.  Is that meant to imply that there is an invisible hand at work, an intelligent entity that is thinking “Well let’s really screw with this guy now, make him miserable, make him suffer. But if he doesn’t die, if we don’t permanently crush his spirit, he’ll learn from it.”.  Or does this come more of a belief in fate than any kind of religious belief?

Fate, oddly, can be believed in without any kind of religious baggage. The concept of a mechanical universe is something that must occur to be a possibility to almost any student taking a Newtonian physics class. In fact, it kind of goes against some religious beliefs, that we have free will.  Because, really, if everything in the universe IS purely mechanical then everything, once set in motion (in a purely Newtonian universe) would behave in a predictable way. Even your thoughts, being the result of a mechanical process, are predictable. Of course, once Quantum Mechanics enters your thinking, you can begin to question how predictable things really are. But on the macroscopic scale, most everything can be tracked from cause to effect.

I’m starting to think that it’s a phrase that doesn’t mean anything other than “it’s something I can say when something bad happens to another person, and I can’t think of anything that would ACTUALLY be comforting. “Yeah, your Grandmother died but at least you still have your health”. “Yeah, you are sick, but at least you have a good doctor”. “Yeah, your doctor is a quack, but at least you know that now.”

Things happen, some of those things are bad. And that’s about it. If you need to know the reason, on the macroscopic scale, odds are it was just physics. I doubt that would be comforting to a lot of people.  But it does make me feel better.

Reality

Do you believe that there is an objective reality — that is, are there things that are true, that can be proven to be true, regardless of opinion or belief?  It may seem like a silly question — it did to me.  But for some unknown reason, I keep running into people who seem to insist that opinion trumps evidence, that in questions of reality, that it’s simply my opinion against theirs, and no matter how much evidence there is, it still comes down to that.

This has surprised me greatly.  It seems to me to be self-evident that while our senses can (and do) fool us at times, that some kinds of evidence can be used to draw conclusions, and that the amount and strength of that evidence can become insurmountable to the point that no other conclusion may be drawn but the one that represents reality, or at least, a very close approximation to it.

We’ll start with a simple example.  Aristotle proposed that the speed at which objects fall to earth is dependent on their weight — his opinion was that heavy objects fell to earth faster than lighter ones.  Galileo disagreed.  Certainly that was a matter of opinion… up until he tested it.  In 1589, he did an experiment.  He took two objects of differing mass, and dropped them simultaneously from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and both objects hit the ground at the same time, thus giving evidence that Aristotle was wrong, and that the speed that an object falls at is independent of how heavy they are.

When we talk about good science, though, there is something known as replicability and peer review.  In the modern world, most experiments are more complicated than that. There is nearly always the possibility of an error in any experiment.  The errors can be tiny, and not strongly affect the conclusions that the scientist makes or they can be totally misleading.  Therefore, there is a process.  When I do an experiment, and I come up with some brand new conclusions as a result, that’s not the end of the story.  A good scientist will share the details and results of an experiment, along with his conclusions in a respected journal for his fellow scientists to read.  Scientists will question the methodology, the data, and/or the conclusions — it’s not personal, because that’s how science works. Scientists do not accept anything without question, nor should they.  And as it turns out, the theory that objects fall at a fixed speed, regardless of their mass, has been tested time and time again over the years.  And except for variations based on aerodynamics (for example, try dropping a bowling ball, and a feather or a paper airplane from the same height), the results have always been the same.  It’s the type of experiment that is so easy to do, that physics students in almost every high school in the country have probably performed it.  And I guarantee that in every case, Galileo’s observations and conclusions have been confirmed.  That is perfect replicability, meaning that Galileo discovered one key facet of reality, a reality that is the same whether you believe in it or not.

With more complex experiments, involving all sorts of potential sources of error, scientists will try to replicate experiments, maybe adjust the experiment in some way, trying to make improvements to it, or simply trying to attack the problem from a different angle.  There may be many attempts to replicate the results.  And if very few people, if any, are able to, then more questions are asked — what was different the first time?  Did we do something wrong, or was there a problem with the original experiment?  Maybe some mechanical or electrical device that was used was malfunctioning, or maybe we simply don’t understand what happened.

But lets say that you do an experiment.  And it turns out that the results were not a fluke, that other scientists can replicate that experiment and get the same results.  And peer review has found that other scientists, after looking at your experiments, and those of everyone trying to replicate the experiment and determined that you are correct, that there is no other conclusion that better fits the evidence than what you claimed, then you have a theory.  That theory becomes a model of reality as we know it, and will remain so, until we have evidence that forces us to adjust that theory.

Which brings me back to what I was talking about at the beginning: reality.  Let’s have a thought experiment — Aristotle and Galileo met at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and were arguing about whether or not heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones.  Galileo proceeds to drop a 10 pound and 20 pound weight from the top of the tower, and both of them hit the ground at the same time.  But let’s take this one step further — Aristotle does not believe the results, and so he also drops a 10 pound and 20 pound weight from the top of the tower.  And in HIS experiment, the 20 pound weight hits the ground 5 seconds sooner than the 10 pound weight, thus proving that the nature of reality is subject to belief.  In this fictional world, science and the scientific method would have to completely be abandoned, and belief would be the engine for everything in the world.  And this seems to be the nature of the world that many people believe in, where belief trumps objective reality.

I’ll give you an example.  I encountered a person recently who believed that acupuncture was good for relieving pain.  As it turns out, whenever you are dealing with treating symptoms, instead of a specific disease or disorder or damage, psychology can get in the way.  Pain is a phenomenon that is experienced in your brain.  You feel pain in your leg because your brain says you are feeling pain in your leg.  If I were to kick you in the leg, a signal would be sent from the neurons in your leg, to your brain, and then you just might feel it as pain.

Let’s say now that you have a tension headache.  Your head is hurting and you take an aspirin.  For most people with tension headaches, you will get some relief from that headache.  But one interesting thing that scientists discovered is that if instead of giving you an aspirin, they gave you pill that has no medicinal ingredients at all (say, a sugar pill), but that you are told is an aspirin, that a certain percentage of people (approximately 40%) will ALSO feel some relief.  This has been called a Placebo effect.  Exactly how a placebo works is a mystery to me, but it does, in about 40% of people.  But lets get something straight — that sugar pill did NOT actually relieve the person’s headache, because it could have been ANYTHING.  Your own brain stopped the pain.  Somewhere belief came into the picture — the belief that you would feel relief helped your brain to give you that relief.  A brain is a wonderful thing.  But more than half of the people who take the placebo will not experience a placebo effect at all.  And when results are that unreliable, you don’t rely on them.  You would not rely on a barber to give you a good haircut if only 40% of the people who visited him were satisfied with that haircut.

Which brings me now to acupuncture.  The majority of research has shown primarily, that any positive effects of acupuncture comes primarily from the placebo effect.  Believers in acupuncture tend to talk about something known as ‘qi’ (pronounced ‘chee’) and meridians.  Qi is, supposedly life-force energy, which isn’t a type of energy that is recognized by science.  You cannot collect Qi in a battery, you cannot cook your food on a Qi-powered stove.  Qi does not attract objects the way that electromagnetism does.  You cannot detect Qi with any known device.  If Qi exists, it thus does not seem to have any interaction at all with matter EXCEPT for (in the opinion of those that believe in it) acupuncture needles and the human body.  Therefore, for all intents and purposes, qi does not exist.  It is fictional, invented by ancient chinese philosophers as an explanation for what they saw in the universe.  People hate not understanding how the world works, so when they cannot explain something, they make shit up.  It’s called ‘the god of holes’.  When we  can’t explain something in terms of actual science, we make up supernatural explanations for them.  Normally, those supernatural explanations go away, once we understand how things REALLY work (like pain and nerves and so on).  But some people try to keep those superstitions alive in spite of actual science that really DOES work.

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There is another term that believers in acupuncture use, and that is ‘meridians’, and it too comes from ancient chinese tradition.  The belief goes that qi travels along these meridians to our major organs, and somehow sticking needles at specific points along those meridians will interfere with the qi in ways that result in the relief of pain, or even (according to some) curing a variety of ailments.  But scientists have NEVER been able to find evidence of the existence of meridians, let alone qi.  So most believers have come to accept that there is no such thing as qi, or meridians, but they still practice acupuncture, without any clue as to how (or I would argue IF) it works.

There has been much study of acupuncture, with some odd results.  It seems, for example, that studies that originate in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, (and to a lesser extent, Russia) uniformly support acupuncture as being effective.   It’s odd though that western studies have not been quite as enthusiastic.  One would almost guess that this is a case of belief trumping reality.  But that would be absurd.  A more likely explanation is what scientists have concluded after examining those trials, that the quality of those experiments were quite poor, with poor randomization, blinding, and use of control groups.

Furthermore, recent studies have shown that if anyone, even a non-skilled acupuncturist, inserts the needles into random locations instead of ‘acupuncture points’, even totally avoiding the so-called meridians, that there is no difference in effect from using a skilled acupuncturist to apply needles using the ancient practice.  In fact, you don’t even have to insert needles at all.  there have been experiments that used wooden sticks that never pierce the skin, and those also have shown to be equally effective to acupuncture.  In other words, acupuncture is nonsense — there is something else that is going on, something clearly related to the mind and belief, something like a placebo effect.  But current studies go even further than that — all evidence shows that actual science-based medical intervention works better than both placebo AND acupuncture.  So why would anyone ever choose acupuncture over, say, an aspirin?  An aspirin, or ibuprofen, or other pain reliever is going to work better than either sugar pill OR acupuncture.  And that is the actual reality as demonstrated by experiment.

Once upon a time, when I was a kid, I complained that I had a pain in my right arm.  A friend, and probably he meant this as a joke, and not as a actual therapeutic help.  But when I told him that I had a pain in my right arm, he obligingly punched me in the left arm, and then asked me ‘Does it feel better now’?  And I answered, laughing,’well now my left arm hurts also!”  And he asked, “Yeah, but what about your right arm?”.  And I realized that, yeah, my right arm hurt less.  But I would never ever recommend trading one ordeal for another.   So next time you have a headache, forget about needles, forget about sugar pills, and forget about slamming your hand in a car door.  Take an aspirin or advil or whatever works best for you (if it’s approved by an actual MD, of course).  There is a real, objective reality.  And while belief can be powerful, trust that there is an objective reality, that trumps belief.  Some things are true, whether you believe in them or not.

Ignostic

I debated ever since I started this blog, whether or not I would delve into the thick morass of religious belief.  Almost everyone in my life has told me at one time or another that you cannot discuss religion, that it is dangerous, that it can break friendships, that it can be like a minefield.  I thought that I’d simply write my occasional article about all of my other interests, including skepticism, but somehow avoid religion in those discussions.  But, I also remember having great fun in late-night discussions in College with people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds.  So, to hell with it.  This may be the last time that I write about religion.  But my beliefs are part of who I am, and I’m not ashamed of that.

I’ve asked people about what they believe, because I’ve always been curious.  I think it’s a fine topic to discuss — I don’t attack, but I do question.  Especially when I was in college, and while I probably was subconsciously forming my own beliefs, I was fascinated in the diversity of opinions that existed.  There were things that I didn’t understand — words and concepts that kept coming up, and I was never quite satisfied with the explanations that I heard.  Because of the diverse nature of my friends and acquaintances, I found that even when I was talking about the same things, it became obvious that there was no one consistent answer.  Those questions included a very basic one “What do you think God is?”.  People SAY that they believe in God.  but if you ask two of them, especially, but not exclusively people of different religious foundations, how do you define the term “God”, you can get some very distinct, and sometimes difficult to understand answers. Sometimes those answers are not answers at all, because of their vagueness.   It troubled me that some people had a difficult time putting it into words.  How can you claim a belief and not even know what it is that you believe in?  I’m not talking about doctrine here.  I’m talking about what people actually believe.

Obviously, there’s the traditional Judaeo-Christian-Muslim belief that God is – by definition – the creator of the universe.  The problem is that it creates more  questions than it answers (it brings everything that we know to be true from direct observation and logic and science into question to the point of absurdity).  But that’s not the only definition I’ve heard.  I’ve had people tell me that  while they aren’t sure that God created the universe, they do believe in a ‘Higher Power’.  Higher Power is a term that has confused the hell out of me. It’s so vague that I once joked that “I don’t know if there’s a God.  But I may have a neighbor is smarter than anyone I know, and is great with his hands — certainly he’s a higher power.  I definitely believe my neighbor exists because I see him trimming his lawn.  Maybe he’s God.”

Then there’s non-western Gods.  When people around here talk about God, they often forget that the concept of God existed before any of the western religions.  And there wasn’t just one God, so clearly the definition of God cannot include ‘the creator of the universe’.  That certainly is one ATTRIBUTE of God that some people believe, but it CANNOT be the definition.  Hell, some Gods actually DIED in the stories that you hear.  One of my favorite stories from Norse mythology was of how Loki tricked Hodur into killing his own brother, Baldur, with a spear made out of mistletoe.  Heck, the whole legend of Ragnarok says that all of the Gods are mortal.  So there goes immortality as a requirement for Godhood.

Now, my point isn’t that belief in God is somehow ridiculous, no matter which God you believe in.  My point is that there have been in the history of the world, numerous beliefs.  And that is a problem to me. When someone asks me if I believe in God, what they are ACTUALLY asking me is not whether I believe in God, but if I believe in the same God as they do.  And in the history of my hearing that question, the answer has always been “No”.  There are things that I KNOW to be true, through my education in science and my experience as a human being that tell me that, for example, the concept of omniscience violates everything we know about quantum mechanics.  If you believe in an Omniscient God, you have to throw everything you know about the Uncertainty Principle into the trash and start again from scratch.  If you believe in an Omnipotent God, you have to pretty much trash ALL physical laws, everything from Newton to General Relativity to the conservation of matter and energy, and start from a belief in magic.  Science, among other things, gives you the boundaries of what is and is not possible, and if there is even one entity that can violate all of those boundaries, then those are not boundaries at all.  And as to the proposal that my neighbor is God, well I obviously was being facetious.  But I’d still sooner believe in that than I would accept that all of science is for nought, because I know for a fact that science works, that it results in reproducible phenomenon that obey regular rules of behavior.  Science gives us an orderly universe.  Once you claim that all laws are violable, then there are no real laws.  I simply cannot accept the kind of chaotic universe without rules that a Judaeo-Christian deity would require.

Does that mean that I am an atheist?  For a very long time, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was.  Sometimes I’d say I was agnostic,  sometimes an atheist.   I used to joke that “If it’s Thursday, then I’m an Atheist”.  And then, I discovered a word that totally encompassed my struggle with the concept of belief.  And that word is the title of this article:  Ignostic.  I had never heard that word before in my life.  Ignosticism basically says that you cannot answer the question of belief until you have a definition of God that is unambiguous.    And there is nothing more ambiguous, in my mind, when talking about UNIVERSAL truths, than a definition that varies based on what culture you are in.

When it comes to any particular God, my belief varies from Agnosticism to Atheism.  But one day, I know that someone is going to come along and say that their neighbor is God.  And he will introduce me to his neighbor.  And I’ll ask him “How do you know he’s God’, and he’ll tell me.  And I’ll probably say that that’s the dumbest definition of God I’ve ever heard.  And then I’ll think… But that guy certainly does exist.  And while it may not fit my definition of God (because I don’t have one, really), it certainly fits that guy’s definition.  So yeah, I guess I can buy it on the principle that given a  million impossible things, and one improbably thing, that I’m more willing to accept the improbable over the impossible.

Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye by Michael Shermer

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Michael Shermer’s newest book is a collection of 75 of his earliest skeptical essays from Scientific American. Some of the articles include additional comments due to new information. In some cases, the original articles had to be trimmed for length to meet SA’s requirements, so extra material may be included in these versions.

I first discovered Michael Shermer when I found one of his books, Why People Believe Weird Things in a big pile of science fiction books at a science fiction convention (this is actually less strange than it sounds — many people who read science fiction also tend to be deeply interested in science, and consequently, skepticism). I simply devoured that book. I also strongly recommend Why Darwin Matters

As a casual reader of “Scientific American”, I was well aware of his column in that magazine — quite often, I would jump directly to it after receiving each new issue. The articles are always intelligent, and concise, mostly entertaining, and they tackle interesting topics, sometimes in ways that I had not anticipated. This collection includes articles covering a diverse set of topics, including human nature and psychology, intelligent design, medical quackery, religion, the parapsychology, and so on.

One of my favorite articles — one that really stood out because of how it related to a recent on-line conversation I had, was actually about probability and the Law of Large numbers. When people talk about miracles, they usually refer to things happening that are not impossible, just extremely unlikely. What Mr. Shermer does is that he uses the Law of Large Numbers to explain that such events aren’t actually unlikely at all, but are, in fact, inevitable.

For example, a common story (and actually, a friend told me of his own similar experience) is that a person has a dream about someone, and the next day, they receive a phone call telling them that the person has died. On the surface, this seems to be most improbable.

“…suppose you know of ten people a year who die, and that you think about each of those people once a year. One year contains 105,120 five-minute intervals during which you might think about each of the ten people, a probability of 1 out of 10,512, certainly an improbable event. However, there are 321 million Americans (in 2015). Assuming, for the sake of our calculation, that they think like you, 1/10,512 x 321,000,000 = 30,537 people per year, or 84 people per day for whom this improbable premonition becomes probable.”

The book is very fast reading, largely because of the brief and concise nature of each article, and because Michael Shermer can present his ideas (and those of others) in very entertaining ways. The articles are divided up into chapters, entitled “Science”, “Skepticism”, “Pseudoscience and Quackery”, “The Paranormal and the Supernatural”, “Aliens and UFOs”, “Borderlands Science and Alternative Medicine”, “Psychology and the Brain”, “Human Nature”, “Evolution and Creationism”, and “Science, Religion, Miracles, and God”. Overall, there’s something for almost everyone interested in science, skepticism and why we often stray away from logic and sensibility in our beliefs. I highly recommend it, and I look forward to future collections of his SA articles.

The Benefits of Skepticism

Do you trust people?  How well do you trust them?  I ask this because, really, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t make it through life without giving people your trust.  But the question is, who do you trust, and for what?

I’ll give you an example of a time when I was younger, maybe 23 or so, when I was a bit more trusting.  I was on vacation in Acapulco, and during a long hike to an outdoor market, I met this attractive young German woman, maybe also in her 20s, or early 30s.  We spent some time walking and shopping together, and at some point she mentioned to me that she had been unable to cash a check at her hotel, and asked me if I could cash a check for her.  As I said, I was trusting and we had spent sometime together, and I enjoyed her company, so I cashed a check for her for $100.00.  I didn’t even take the time to look at the check after she gave it to me.  Then she asked me what I was doing on Monday, so I told her that I was planning to visit Taxco (a really pretty silver-mining town  up in the mountains).  I told her how much it cost, and she said ‘why don’t I join you then’, and I said sure!, of course!.  This was someone I wanted to spend more time with, so why not?  We were getting along so well, I thought.

The next day, she didn’t show.  As the time for my departure neared, I decided I’d try to call her at her hotel, but she was not listed as a guest there.  So I immediately thought I had gotten the hotel name wrong.  I found one that had a similar name, but she wasn’t there either.  So I went alone, feeling depressed.  Still overly optimistic, I tried to deposit that $100.00 check, and of course it bounced.

I’ve thought about that incident quite often now.  I realized that I had been conned.  I was so gullible that I hadn’t even looked at the check, which had some other woman’s name on it, a “Mr. and Mrs.” from a Midwestern state.  I’m not a stupid person, but I really felt stupid.  I came to the understanding that I didn’t make a mistake because I was stupid, but because I was too trusting.  This was someone that I had known for no more than an hour and already I’m trusting her with my money.  She seemed trustworthy, she was nice, she seemed to like me, we were having a good time, and I realize that that’s how con people  work.  They gain your confidence, and they are very good at it.

It’s how a person like Bernie Madoff was able to convince people that he actually could make them a lot of money.  He mostly victimized fellow Jews because there’s this psychological affect that says that people tend to empathize more with those who they see similar qualities in.  Those qualities can include religion, but also nationality, race, politics, and so on.  Most of us simply WANT to trust other people.  And USUALLY that’s a good thing.  But it’s also a way that people can take advantage of us, telling us things we want to believe.  Madoff was everyone’s best friend, and he was so good at gaining people’s confidence that his victims were introducing their own friends to Madoff.

My point is not that you should never be trusting.  My point  is that maybe you should use a bit of skepticism.  Maybe I could have saved $100 that afternoon.  I might have said that “I don’t feel comfortable giving you money, having just met you” — that would have been the smart thing to do.  And those people who Bernie Madoff tried to take advantage of, if they had been more skeptical, maybe they would have been more skeptical of the unbelievable earnings that the guy was claiming for his clients.

Now, it’s not just con men who may tell you things that just aren’t true — very often people actually believe the untruths that they tell you.  My own mom used to tell me that if I didn’t dress properly before I went out, that I’d catch a cold.  She really believed that. But it actually isn’t true.  Colds are caused by a virus, which means that if you catch a cold, it’s probably more likely that it happened when you were indoors with someone else who carried the virus.  Maybe that person sneezed on you, or on your food, or wiped their nose with their hands, and then handled the food that you ate.  And thus, you caught a cold.  Most people with a child in public school will tell you about how the kids keep sharing their colds and flus and passing it on to their families and so on in a vicious cycle.  How do we know this?  We know  because we have science to thank for that knowledge.

The importance of understanding how disease is transmitted is essential to our well-being.  We learn to cover our noses and mouths when we sneeze or cough, because we don’t want to spread whatever it is that we have.  It’s a social obligation — don’t make your friends and family, and even strangers sick, if we can avoid it.  But the fact that our own mothers told us things that aren’t true (falsehoods that we took for fact, and possibly spread to others, like a disease would spread), how many other things that we hear are actually true?  And isn’t it important in many cases that we actually understand how the world REALLY works?  In the case of colds, it directly has an effect on the quality of life of us and our neighbors — you don’t want people sneezing on you, we want our cooks and waiters to wash their hands before serving you.  But similarly, we want don’t want to be afraid of ghosts, if ghosts don’t exist, or foods, if those foods are actually safe.    There’s enough real stuff out there that we really should be avoiding, that worrying too much about fake stuff costs our attention to.

Back in 1983, there was a newspaper article published in Durand, Michigan.  It included the following:

Dihydrogen monoxide:

  • is also known as hydroxyl acid, and is the major component of acid rain.
  • contributes to the “greenhouse effect”.
  • may cause severe burns.
  • contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
  • accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
  • may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.

Despite the danger, dihydrogen monoxide is often used:

  • as an industrial solvent and coolant.
  • in nuclear power plants.
  • in the production of styrofoam.
  • as a fire retardant.
  • in many forms of cruel animal research.
  • in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing, produce remains contaminated by this chemical.
  • as an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products.

This was on April 1st, April Fools Day, and was meant as a joke.  In fact, it was published in the April Fools Day edition of the newspaper, and never intended to be taken seriously. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Dihydrogen monoxide  (aka DHMO, or Hydric Acid) is H2O — in other words, water.

Since the initial joke, though, there are people who keep falling for this.  Politicians have agreed publically to support the banning of DHMO.  After hearing that there is DHMO coming out of their faucets, people have complained to their water companies, who simply insist that their is no danger.  49% of candidates for a Finnish Parliamentary election said they would support restrictions on the use of Hydric Acid.  In California, there was a proposed ban on the manufacture certain foam containers when it was revealed that DHMO was an intrinsic part of the manufacturing process.

So what makes people fall for things like this?  It’s fear — fear of anything that sounds too technical (when I told friends about the DHMO hoax, one young woman, very seriously asked me ‘why are you calling it DHMO’, and thought I was somehow at fault for making it sound scary.  But no, that scariness is in people’s minds.  I did not make it scary. Everything in the above quote about the dangers of water is true.  But we don’t ask the right questions.  That DHMO is responsible for many deaths every year is true (it causes car accidents and drowning).  But how does that translate into being afraid of it in our junk  foods or coming out of our taps?  It shouldn’t.  We don’t ask the right questions.

Knowing that we are talking about water makes it easy because we are all familiar with water in our every day lives. But we don’t ask the questions about all of the many other things that people want to avoid or get rid of.  Some stuff IS deadly  (you don’t want to drink bleach, and some places, bleach is being sold as a cure).  But there’s a lot of stuff that we eat every day that doesn’t actually kill us, that people call poisons.  Wouldn’t it be better if, before we panic about that stuff, that we ask the right questions about it?  And shouldn’t we want to know what the scientific consensus is (if there is one)?  Shouldn’t we figure out, BEFORE we do something stupid and ban water, just how dangerous something is, and put that in the proper perspective to every other thing that we eat every day and does not kill us?

It all comes down to trust.  Don’t trust what your mom told you, because she might be mistaken.  Don’t trust what Dr. Oz or Oprah says, because both of them have a very poor record of spreading untruths and recommending products that simply don’t work.  Trust, but verify what your doctor tells you — he’s just one doctor, and he can be mistaken, or he can be receiving money from a pharmaceutical company, so verify that what he’s telling you is not a mistaken or outdated idea that he believes in out of habit.  And doctors are NOT scientists.  What you want to see is an actual consensus of scientists — particularly independent scientists.

It’s vital to know what is and is not true in this world.  It may or may not save your life. But it certainly can save you from a lot of stress.

What is Skepticism to Me?

In a recent article, I told a brief story about my discovery of Carl Sagan and how I admired his use of logic and physics to uncover the falsehood behind Velikovsky’s weird ideas.  But it could have just stopped there.  We all have experiences and encounters in life, but they don’t all result in evolving a life philosophy.  And for me, there was a lot more.  I’m going to talk about a few of my experiences in a later article.

But first, I just want to make certain that I’m speaking the same language.  I find that when I use the word Skepticism (or Scepticism, if you are British), that people confuse the word with Cynicism.  I want to correct that — you can be a skeptic or a cynic, or both, or neither one.  They are not the same.  A cynic is someone who tends to believe the worst in others.  If a person approaches a cynic on the street and asks for money for bus fare, the cynic may automatically assume that the beggar actually has money, that he’s chosen begging because he is lazy, and can make a decent living just sitting begging on the street (I’m not making this up — I know a couple of people who believe this automatically).  A cynic will assume, without evidence, that a politician that he doesn’t like already, is always lying, never stating what he really believes. Even if that politician says that the sun is going to rise tomorrow, you know for a fact that it won’t.  If that politician says something, then the opposite must be true. The problem with that is that even a known liar is capable of telling the truth. The source of an assertion is not proof of its truth or falsehood. It might be evidence, but it’s not proof.

On the other hand, a skeptic will not make up his mind without evidence.  That beggar — he’s not going to assume automatically that he’s lying about needing bus fare.  It may or may not be true.  But unless he actually sees the beggar continuing to beg elsewhere after he receives the money, or he actually sees that beggar get on the bus after receiving the fare, he’s not automatically going to make either assumption.  When he hears those statements from the politician, he may say that ‘well that guy has been caught in lies before, so I’m not going to trust him.  But that doesn’t mean that he’s lying now.

In other words, a skeptic doesn’t automatically believe everything that they hear or they read.  A skeptic always wants to know more before he makes up his mind.  He knows that almost nothing can be known to a certainty, but at the very least there should be evidence. And the more unusual the claim, the more evidence there should be before a skeptic will say, “Yes, that is probably true”, or “No, that is almost certainly false”.

I’ll give you an example.  I have a weight problem, as do a lot of people.  And I do my best to avoid sugar.  I don’t mean that I’ve managed to totally remove sugar from my diet, because that would be nearly impossible, and undoubtedly unhealthy (you don’t want to cut fruit out of your diet, for example).  But I’ve been criticised because I love my flavored waters.  They taste sweet, and the labels claim that they have zero calories.  But what they do all have is artificial sweeteners.  And I was kind of gullible about this, and I TRIED to eliminate them from my diet, and stick with only drinking water.

But humans are complicated beings, and we are evolved to crave sweet things.  And the result of denial is even greater desire for that which we are denying ourselves.  And one day I just bought a bunch of sugared soft drinks.  Willpower is a resource that we all have, and it can be used up.  And mine got used up, and when it did, I was suddenly drinking even less healthily than I had before.

So what I did is I did some research, particularly the Science-Based Medicine website. That website talked about the origins of the belief that artificial sweeteners are unhealthy. And one of the things that it said was that there was NO evidence that any of the claims regarding the dangers of artificial sweeteners, in general are true.  This is coming from a medical doctor, who has reviewed the studies.  At one point, there were studies that showed that a particular sweetener, aspartame, in absurd volumes over long periods of time, had caused rats to grow tumors.  BUT (and this is a very important but), in none of the studies involving human subjects, was there ever any evidence of a link between aspartame and tumors.  So I went back to my flavored water.  And since I’ve done that, I haven’t had another incident.

But there’s more…  one thing that made me HIGHLY suspicious of the claims of the dangers of artificial sweeteners is that none of the people who told me to cut out artificial sweeteners EVER specified WHICH artificial sweetener.  It would be like someone saying that you shouldn’t eat at restaurants because restaurants spread disease.  OK… but all restaurants?  Am I going to get sick every time?  Or is it more dangerous to eat the lettuce from the supermarket (because, of course, that happens also)?  And which diseases do they spread?  One thing that being a skeptic does to you is that it creates a kind of intuition. Generalized, non-specific claims ALWAYS come from non-expert sources.  They come from some guy who heard something but didn’t quite make note of the specifics. Furthermore without knowing the original source AND the actual details, there’s NO WAY you should trust such a warning.  ‘Some guy’ may be a doctor, or a scientist.  Or he may be a self-proclaimed expert.  Heck, he may be me.  And I’m nobody — you shouldn’t trust me, nor should you trust a celebrity, or a random clickbait website, even one professing expertise on a given subject.  But knowing who to trust is something I’ll save for a future article.

 

My Favorite Skeptical Websites

I am a skeptic, and I have been since I was a child or teen.  I don’t remember exactly how old I was at the time, but I remember reading an article by Carl Sagan about a huge pop-culture pseudoscience phenomenon of the day, Immanuel Velikovsky.  Velikovsky had really wild ideas about the history of the solar system.  I actually was not thoroughly familiar with his ideas, but what struck me was how Sagan was able to use common logic, and a basic knowledge of physics to thoroughly debunk Velikovsky’s imaginings.  But it wasn’t just that he had debunked him, but that it sent me on a path of thought that maybe not everything that I would read about or would appear on TV, might be true as well.  It was the start of my path towards skepticism and critical thinking.  And within the two decades or so, I gradually discovered that I was not the only person who was questioning unusual claims.  So here’s a list of websites that I’ve been educated by, or have found useful in the past:

The Logical Place: Falacies : I’ve been a computer programmer for decades, and hence logic is part of my business — if I wasn’t good at logic, I could not possibly be good at my job..  Yet I find that I’ve been guilty of making many of the mistakes of fallacious reasoning that are listed on this page.  I strive for logic, but humans are more creatures of emotion and bias and so on.  It’s easier to sway someone’s opinion in a discussion using emotion than logic.  That said, I still strive for logic, and this list is a good start towards discovering whether your own opinions or those of others are based on solid reasoning, or not.  Note that bad reasoning CAN, on occasion, still lead to the right answer — just because you got the right answer doesn’t mean that your argument isn’t bad.  One of the most frustrating things I’ve found is when someone I actually agree with uses bad logic to support his claims.  It can be quite embarrassing.

Snopes.com : Do you have friends or relatives who occasionally forward you e-mails that make unusual claims, or that tell you about something terrible that a politician or celebrity has reportedly done, or that a great disaster is coming?  Well, I have, though less so now than I used to.  And that’s because people often forward those e-mails to the people who run this website.  They try to verify such rumors and determine their veracity. When I’d get such an e-mail myself, and I couldn’t personally prove the veracity or lack thereof of that rumor, I’d search for it on snopes.com.  Once in a blue moon, snopes has actually confirmed that rumor.  Sometimes the stories will remain unconfirmed for some time.  But more often than not, they’ve been able to get to the actual truth behind the rumor.  Unfortunately, there are also websites dedicated to nothing more than CREATING false rumors in order to get people to visit their site.  But the Snopes website is one of the good guys, fighting, so you don’t have to, to figure out what is and is not true.

Doubtful News  : This fantastic website collects a variety of stories of interest to skeptical readers.  It includes stories about questionable claims regarding hauntings, UFOs, psychics, cryptozoology (egs. Bigfoot and Nessie), and alternative medicines.  The same person who runs this website also runs Practical Skepticism, a site more focused on the use of skeptical thought in our daily lives.  Although the latter site is not updated quite as often, I recommend them both.  Reading Doubtful News is one of the highlights of my day, and I’ll frequently comment on the articles there that are of particular interest to me.

Science-Based Medicine : This is a website run by a Dr. Steven Novella, a medical doctor who writes frequently about medical and nutritional fads, and myths and so on.  I frequently see friends and relatives of mine posting stories about medicine and diet and dangers lying in wait in ones foods.  Snopes is great for the more non-technical claims, but this website is my go-to place to check out the veracity of all things health and medical-related.  And btw, while I’ve actually used WebMD myself, I’ve found that they can be far too credulous of unproven claims at times.

The Straight Dope : Technically, this may not be a truly skeptical website.  But it is one that I find most entertaining.  Since 1973, Cecil Adams and the rest of the Straight Dope editors do their best to answer questions sent to them.  Currently, a new question or two is answered every Friday, and Monday through Thursday, they publish an old article from their archives.  They do make the occasional mistake, and when they do, they will come out with a correction.  Occasionally, they may not be able to get a definitive answer to a question.  And far too often, the answers can come off a bit smart-alecky.  But I still enjoy reading The Straight Dope fairly regularly, and on rare occasions, will participate in their forums.

At some point in the future, I may add to this list.  But that’s enough for now.  This is enough to get any budding young skeptic started.