Three resources in fighting the skeptical fight


In the afterglow err… aftermath of the non-debate discussion had on my last post demolishing astrology’s foundation, there are several posts you would benefit from reading, for various reasons.

First, What You’re Doing Is Important, by Surly Amy of Skepchick.

We skeptics are not contrarians, we try to make the world a safer place and to encourage advancements in technology and medicine. We strive for intellectual enlightenment not solely for ourselves but for everyone. We are one-part science communicators and one-part consumer protection advocates. But even with these idealistic good intentions we are often times the odd woman/man out at parties or around the water cooler. We are looked at as naysayers and argumentative, faithless, curmudgeons out to ruin fun and hope for everyone else. We are called know-it-alls or incorrectly considered close-minded. We are after all the ones that stand up and speak out when the majority wants to believe in homeopathy or angels or some sort of warm and fuzzy magical thinking. We burst bubbles, we dispel myths and sometimes we squash the fun of irrational fantasy. We explain how things really are. This outspoken bravery in the name of rationality often places us in the minority and that can be a very lonely and difficult place to be.

There’s also an anecdote about how a woman’ life, and the lives of her soon-to-be-birthed twins, were directly saved by medical science, and how if the couple had believed in natural childbirth, homeopathy, the power of prayer, or any of a number of other pseudosciences, all three of them might have died. Spreading skepticism is not JUST about bursting people’s bubbles. There’s a tangible utility factor.

Also, at Quiche Moraine, Mike Haubrich discusses the fundamental incompatibility between science and religion in Knowing the Problem of Induction, and a pullquote is relevant to the astrology discussion if you only replace “religion” with “astrology”:

In order to maintain confidence that a causal relationship between natural phenomena has been established, one scientific method that I learned was to disprove a null hypothesis using statistical tools to analyze my data. If the null hypothesis is not disproved, that means that the proposed hypothesis probably establishes a causal relationship and my investigation has yielded a good answer within a specified confidence interval. In other words, by following a scientific process, an investigator has come up with a good explanation for why something is so, or how something works.

This is only one of the methods that scientists use to discover how things work, one of the ways that people discover “how the world goes.”

Religion promises knowledge based on non-verifiable acceptance of authority, resignation to “mystery,” and the record of inscripturation. Apologists for religion promise to provide “other ways of knowing” that aren’t limited to verifiable, positivistic methods. Religion, in general, tells people that we can know for certain that the supernatural exists and interacts in measurable ways with the natural. Religion explains, in its “way,” the creation, miracles, interventions in personal lives and through catastrophic natural events. The explanations are authoritative but not testable nor replicable through any reliable means.

The post is an excellent primer on the problem of induction, as the post suggests, to boot. Do read it if you have any inclination to argue that science is compatible with religion.

And finally, given that much of the astrology argument devolved into netiquette (thanks in no small part to anonstargazer’s tender sensibilities), it’s good to know that Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds (aka Our Lady of Perpetual Win) wrote On the Utility of Dicks. Therein, she explains why it’s acceptable to be aggressive about defending rationality, regarding the recent fight the Twittersphere tried to spark between Phil Plait and PZ Myers over Plait’s talk at TAM8.

Then a friend gave me Flim Flam. James Randi told me how people had lied to me under the guise of nonfiction, under the guise of science. He was, in fact, kind of a dick about it. That’s not a very nice book by any definition of the word. It uses name-calling. It sneers.

But oh, it was exactly what I needed. I needed it both for the information it gave me and for the anger and vitriol. Without Randi’s vitriol, I wouldn’t have been able to make the clean break in thinking that I did. If he hadn’t been so clearly and visibly and sometimes nastily angry about the perversion of systems that were meant to uncover and convey the best knowledge we can have, I’d have been faced with the choice between a more classical skepticism, doubting everything that came my way, and clinging to the idea that what I believed had to be true.

The fight rages on many fronts. Sometimes being a dick WILL win you a convert. The fact that so many people seem to have such a vested interest in telling others that are ostensibly “on their side” to stop doing what they’re doing because they’re “not helping”, is rather galling. Especially since the assertion is made without proof, and there’s empirical evidence that some people respond better to an aggressive defense of rationality than to a milquetoast, wishy washy one.

Tomorrow we’ll do something a bit less heady, I promise. Keep fighting the good fight, in the meantime.

Comments

  1. Mitchell says

    Interesting articles, all three. However, it sometimes astounds me who atheists can indeed, accept that a negative, destructive stance is the primary option to get their important points across. I was incredibly pleased when you posted Bill Nye calling climate change deniers unpatriotic. Not because I got a schadenfreude thrill from it, but it finally showed the use of a science in the fight: psychology and an understanding that while a call to emotion may not be logical, it can be important.

    Attacking with logical argument does not always provide the emotional need that drew the intended convert to the wrong side in the first place. I think some of the reason that atheists/skeptics get labeled as naysayers is that for too many are happy just being “right”, and “winning arguments”. There’s difference between that and an actual movement for change, and that’s a responsibility to fill the emotional needs (even a little) of those who they expect to change.

    I’m not saying that to discount or attack your efforts, as you have gone through plenty of “Fuck Yeah, Science!” phases on here as you have “Fuck You Religion” ones. And like they say, anger is depression that gets shit accomplished, and there’s a lot to be depressed about in the world today. But I have little sympathy for atheists who say their path is “lonely”. You don’t have to be wishy washy to be positive. I think THAT is actually close minded thinking, and bit of a non-sequitur to boot. Case in point, this was the article that really changed my personal philosophy recently. It attacks no one, and speaks with understanding… and I am sure you have seen it before, but hey, worth pumping again in the vein of this post. :)

    http://boingboing.net/features/savage.html

    You don’t ALWAYS have to be a dick.

  2. says

    Heh. Good thing I’m NOT always a dick. I start polite when engaging someone directly, and work my way up to WHARGARBL as the situation merits. Though I’m dismissive and/or sarcastic of things we already know don’t work, and being dismissive is sometimes all it takes for people to think you’re directly attacking them rather than their unsupported beliefs. As evidenced by the astrology argument from yesterday/today. As for the emotions, well, I can get riled up now and then.

    Hadn’t seen that link, but I loves me some Adam Savage. Well worth the read.

    As for atheists’ loneliness, well, there are fewer pangs of loneliness now in my life than there have been in the past, when I felt like I was isolated in a sea of God-believers. Those feelings probably come mostly from heavily indoctrinated areas like some of the States. But I will say this — people around here knowing I’m an atheist is one thing. People ALSO being atheists is something entirely different. I’ve met very few of the latter. This is probably because of the drive to bottle up one’s non-faith.

    Good to see you around, man. I honestly had no idea you read my blog.

  3. Mitchell says

    I work in the social network industry and your twitter posts to Facebook. :)

    Bet you had no idea I was a Humanist either. :)

  4. Rich Wilson says

    I’ve been struggling with “speak up” vs. “don’t be a dick”. I recently made a religious comment on a blog that had nothing to do with religion and feel I went a bit over the ‘dick’ line, but it is hard to say “that’s dumb” without being sarcastic. I refuse to apologize for something I intend to say. Either I think it’s important and needs to be said regardless of the offense it might cause, or it isn’t. In my defense, I didn’t start the religious meander, but I did get asked (not by the blog owner) to cease.

    http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/if-a-tree-falls/#comment-37836

    in case anyone wants to venture an opinion: dick? Shoulda kept my fingers to myself?

    I know I’m not going to change the other person’s opinion on this, but I also thing the idea of an interventionist God isn’t a benign one. Preaching event A was God’s will leads to the obvious conclusion that events B and C must also be God’s will. So why does God want little babies to suffer via dropping tree branches?

  5. says

    A bit dickish, but you know what? You apologized nicely enough for it afterward. And you were right, which adds to my sympathy. Also, I LOL’d.

    The point here is, nobody’s telling the nice people to stop being nice. Well, Richard Dawkins encouraged “militant atheism”, which by his definition meant aggressive intellectual defense rather than violent physical offense. But aside from him, nobody’s telling Chris Mooney to stop baking muffins for theists. They’re just telling him to stop throwing the angry people who are on his side of the debate under the damned bus repeatedly. (And also to check his sources once in a while.)

  6. Miranda says

    I’m going to regret this. I can feel it, but here goes anyway.
    I am curious as to why you called natural childbirth a pseudoscience?
    When you say natural childbirth do you mean the people who want to go through labour in a blow up pool in their living room while the dad to be chants in an effort to help the labour pains? Or do you mean something else entirely?
    This is just a subject I’ve researched quite a bit for my own personal curosity and I’m interested in exactlly what you meant.

  7. says

    I hope Jason didn’t call natural childbirth a pseudoscience in the strict sense of the term. I think vague wording is likely the culprit here. Natural childbirth was likely mentioned as a mitigating factor, not necessarily to be conflated with pseudoscience…bad wording, I think.
    Speaking as a father of 4 children, and knowing several friends who have had children both in the hospital as well as at home, I think that some variations on the concept of natural childbirth can border on pseudoscience.
    If the parents buy wholeheartedly into the pseudo scientific idea that children are traumatized at birth by hospital birth, drugs,or surgery; this I think is unproven and borders on pseudoscience. It is only dangerous if those parents ignore the council of medical professionals or trained midwives in favor of an idealized or misinformed concept of birthing.
    What this boils down to is whether or not parents ignore or disengage themselves from proper medical advice in favor of unsubstantiated new-agey bullshit.
    I hope that helps.

  8. says

    Yeah, George pretty well has it. The problem was, the woman in question had HELLP syndrome that, if she was supposed to deliver via midwife, would not have been caught. I’m okay with your decision for “natural childbirth”, but I mean, do it in a hospital by refusing epidurals, so at least you won’t (necessarily) die if you go pre-eclamptic.

    So yeah, it’s not pseudoscience per se, as it is a potential risk factor if something really big goes wrong.

  9. says

    Miranda, part of the problem in discussing this is that there is a (not particularly organized) group of people who identify themselves as advocating natural childbirth who actively indulge in shaming women who seek medical attention during pregnancy and childbirth as medicalizing something “natural.” (Forget the percentage of women and babies who have “naturally” died during pregnancy and childbirth.) This is an extreme version of those who fought back against trends in the middle of the last century that told women they had no say in how their pregnancy would be treated, but there isn’t really any terminology that identifies who we’re talking about at any one time. There should be, but there isn’t.

  10. Rich Wilson says

    My personal take would be “be prepared to go to a hospital if you need to”. The vast majority of births can happen quite safely at home. There’s nothing wrong with having a baby at home, or having a vaginal birth after a c-section, or any of a number of other things that qualify as ‘natural’. It’s the insistence that anything ‘not natural’ is ‘bad’ that I think gets people into medical distress.

    And ‘not natural’ isn’t necessarily better either. A true skeptic doesn’t automatically accept the advice of a white coat just because of the colour of the coat. Circumcision, e.g. the turn away from the ‘white coat’ advice of a couple of decades ago is VERY slow, in particular in the US, but also in much of English speaking Canada.

  11. Miranda says

    I was just curious how natural childbirth got classified under pseudoscience. While there are those women who try to shame others into doing the all natural at home birth there is also a group that does the opposite. There are those who do their best to make any woman who tries to have an at home birth feel like they are hurting their babies. It’s a two sided argument with jerks on both sides.
    Anyway, question answered. Thanks.

  12. says

    Miranda, those who argue against home births have the data on their side, even if they’re being jerks about it. There’s a good discussion of it at Science-Based Medicine.

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=2392

    I’m pretty hopeful about the trend (at least in the U.S.) toward birthing centers, which allow women more control and generally more pleasant experiences without distancing them from emergency medical treatment in the case of something going wrong.

  13. Miranda says

    Actually, it’s not that simple. There have been very good studies done on both sides of the argument that always seem to lead to different conclusions.
    There is an intresting documentary that I have seen that you might find interesting. It is a pro-home birth documentary, but some of the studies and statistics quoted in are very interesting. I don’t agree with everything in the documentary but some of the documented history of how the birthing process has come to what it is today is downright fasinating.
    It is called “This Business of Being Born”. It interviews doctors, midwives, woman who have had home births and women who have not.
    http://www.givingbirthnaturally.com/the-business-of-being-born.html, in case your interested.

  14. says

    Heh. Lookit that. For people that can’t be bothered to copy, paste, and write the blockquote tags themselves (as Jamie Funk was evidently so inclined), I put a quote plugin on my comments.

  15. says

    Miranda, I haven’t seen the documentary (largely because I’m not having kids), but I am familiar with it. According to the SkepDoc, who is pretty awesome, its message is generally pretty good, except where it pressures women to consider a particular type of childbirth as the “right” kind. For example, where it promotes pain as a virtue.

    It’s worth noting, however, that the studies cited in the movie do have methodological weaknesses. When comparing births of similar baseline risk, the incidence of death in home births is higher. Individual parents may decide that the additional risk is worthwhile, particularly if their other options are not attractive, but they should still know there’s additional risk. That’s why I’d like to see people concentrate on providing better options very close to medical help, in case it should become necessary.

  16. anonstargazer says

    WOW! There would be no humans if your thoughts about natural childbirth were validated. Women have been giving birth without hospitals for eons and it is completely a personal choice. I opted for hospital birth, natural with no drugs, and it was a doctor’s decision to make his – four births in one hour, after just delivering triplets – that caused me to hemorrhage intensely, near causing my death. This fact was verified by midwives and his once cocky attitude was definitely and rightfully replaced with pale-faced fear at a possible law-suit. Thankfully, mum and bub were just fine and I braved it for another birth. Still within the hospital as I was too scared for the baby if anything was to go wrong at home, and with no doctor’s, just mid-wives and despite heavy scarring, I delivered perfectly, and naturally.

  17. says

    Personal anecdotes are nothing compared to hard data. Stephanie posted a link in her comment below you should really read.

    I’m glad everything worked out for you in the end. But don’t think that every doctor is your overworked doctor, that every hemorrhage is your doctor’s fault, or that every natural childbirth is the safest way. Because it’s not. Not every situation is like yours. I sympathize with the idea that yours is the most important to you, but you must understand you are not every woman, and yours is not every woman’s life.

    Case in point, the woman who would have died — taking her twins with her — in the linked article, if she’d done a natural childbirth the way you suggest.

  18. anonstargazer says

    OK, there is also hard data to be found by actually sharing stories with real life mothers who will also testify to their own horrid hospital birth details. These are easily swept under the rug by science because it’s just women, or just giving birth, or whatever. Babies and women still die in hospitals, in what is considered scientific care daily – so it aint all that. I do and have read numerous articles and statistics over the years and would like to point out that other than experiencing numerous personal nightmares with the medical field, that I was also an ‘emergency medicine’ educator, you know, someone that would teach doctors and nurses what to do within those first ten minutes of an emergency situation, so I am medically educated – beyond ‘new age’ theories.

    Melanie also quoted wonderfully and I was adding just one personal story, in what is literally billions of medically/scientific based stuffups regards hospital births. Ask anyone who has given birth how archaic the whole thing still is. Sure, they can give you gas, numb your spine or slice you open and save your baby, but the rest of it? You may as well be in your own bath. Things still go wrong and people still die. I do agree however, that is can be an extremely selfish risk to take as it is not just one life, but two. yet again, it is personal choice and not statistically supported enough for me to condemn it, especially vehemently ;)

  19. says

    I really can’t just sit here and let you make claims like this. Yes, some people have had horrid hospital births, some people have had horrid home births as well, the moral of this story is that childbirth is not always a smooth and simple experience.
    I am sympathetic to your own personal experience, although quite skeptical that your hemorrhaging was directly caused by your doctor delivering triplets near the same time as opposed to not being properly addressed as a result of his schedule. I wonder if a home birth would have turned out to be a better choice for you, given that you would have been likely miles from proper medical care.

    Your assertion that science sweeps anything under the rug because it is “just women” or “just giving birth” is both sickening and patently false. It betrays your own ignorance of medicine and science regardless of your credentials (quite dubious in light of your statements) and leads me to believe you are trying to argue from false authority.
    You are correct that babies and mothers still die in hospitals during childbirth, but certainly with less frequency than any other possible method. You, madam, are being disingenuous to imply otherwise.

    I would be much safer in a car crash in a Mercedes than in a Lada, but that does not change the fact that people still die in Mercedes.
    FYI I have four children, and during the birth of my daughter, my wife’s blood pressure dropped to dangerous levels. Had it not been for the expertise and competence of the medical staff, I might be a single father right now. To this day I can easily bring back all the emotions and horror I felt as I sat helplessly watching my wife slip into unconsciousness. At no point did I feel as though the staff thought she was “just a woman”.
    I am offended by your trite, idiotic remarks. It is attitudes like this that put the pseudo in pseudo-medical and pseudo-scientific advice.

  20. says

    No, there would be no humans if not for natural childbirth. No sexual reproduction, really, when it gets to brass tacks. I do think that you are missing something regarding the mortality rate of women who delivered naturally before the option of medically assisted birth came along. Evolution has not favored natural human reproduction in the way that woman’s birth canals and baby head sizes were inherited from our ancestors. (We evolved because our sex drive is strong enough to continue to “make” babies even after we have lost spouses to childbirth. We are a fecund species, yo.)

    As George says, the science of medically-assisted childbirth has come along way and even though it is not perfect I can say that as the father of two large babies I am happy that their mother is still alive. Even though I am not married to her any longer, she is a good parent to my kids.

  21. anonstargazer says

    George W.: I really can’t just sit here and let you make claims like this. Yes, some people have had horrid hospital births, some people have had horrid home births as well, the moral of this story is that childbirth is not always a smooth and simple experience.
    I am sympathetic to your own personal experience, although quite skeptical that your hemorrhaging was directly caused by your doctor delivering triplets near the same time as opposed to not being properly addressed as a result of his schedule.I wonder if a home birth would have turned out to be a better choice for you, given that you would have been likely miles from proper medical care.Your assertion that science sweeps anything under the rug because it is “just women” or “just giving birth” is both sickening and patently false.It betrays your own ignorance of medicine and science regardless of your credentials (quite dubious in light of your statements) and leads me to believe you are trying to argue from false authority.
    You are correct that babies and mothers still die in hospitals during childbirth, but certainly with less frequency than any other possible method.You, madam, are being disingenuous to imply otherwise.I would be much safer in a car crash in a Mercedes than in a Lada, but that does not change the fact that people still die in Mercedes.
    FYI I have four children, and during the birth of my daughter, my wife’s blood pressure dropped to dangerous levels.Had it not been for the expertise and competence of the medical staff, I might be a single father right now.To this day I can easily bring back all the emotions and horror I felt as I sat helplessly watching my wife slip into unconsciousness.At no point did I feel as though the staff thought she was “just a woman”.
    I am offended by your trite, idiotic remarks.It is attitudes like this that put the pseudo in pseudo-medical and pseudo-scientific advice.

    You know what George, I care less about this debate now, but how dare you attempt to discredit my experiences, work and birth wise. You do not know me, nor the validity of my word and I do not appreciate smears against my words, which are not false, by anyone.

    The doctor in question was elated when he walked into the room to a fully dilated woman after just returning from the other local hospital where he had just delivered triplets. It was about the second sentence out of his mouth after he checked my progress. Regardless of paying for private health, in those days, we were lumped with whomever was on call. HE decided to rush things along, totally went against MY body and ‘I’ bled heavily, dangerously and it is not for YOU or anyone else like you for that matter, to even breath a word of YOUR personal thought on MY experience.

    Good day.

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