Old style conservatives going into the wilderness

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield for $34.95, from Amazon for $25.16, from Barnes and Noble for $26.21 ($23.58 for members), and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

As the previous two posts have discussed, the nutters seem to be taking over the Republican Party. The old style conservatives, taken aback by the enthusiasm with which the party rank-and-file unhesitatingly clasped true nutter Sarah Palin to their collective bosom in 2008, are now feeling even more marginalized, alarming them so much that they see no future for themselves in the party.

David Frum, a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, does not like what he sees and writes:

We conservatives are submitting our movement to some of the most unscrupulous people in American life. This submission disgraces conservatism, discredits Republicans, and damages the country. It’s beyond time for conservatives who know better to join us at NewMajority in emancipating ourselves from leadership by the most stupid, the most cynical, and the most truthless.

Bruce Bartlett, a leading conservative economist, writes:

In my opinion, conservative activists, who seem to believe that the louder they shout the more correct their beliefs must be, are less angry about Obama’s policies than they are about having lost the White House in 2008. They are primarily Republican Party hacks trying to overturn the election results, not representatives of a true grassroots revolt against liberal policies.

For another conservative columnist Rod Dreher, the last straw was the absurd flake-out by people in his party over Obama speaking to schoolchildren. He writes:

It would be a pleasant surprise if conservatives who took the president of the United States addressing youths as an opportunity to stumble toward the fainting couch realized that they had made fools of themselves. Fat chance. Obama Derangement Syndrome is pandemic on the right — and it’s leaving conservatives like me politically homeless.

Dreher took to task Mike Huckabee who on his radio program treated a notorious nutter, actor Jon Voight, like he was sage, even though he was spouting bizarre anti-Obama drivel. Dreher writes:

To his great discredit, Huckabee, a pastor, let this crazy talk pass unchallenged.

Perhaps conservative elites like Huckabee really believe this kind of vicious invective, which right-wing radio talkers routinely disgorge as well. Or maybe they’re flat-out cynical. That is, they know that Obama is no more a socialist radical than George W. Bush was a fascist authoritarian, but they’re happy to ride the wave of populist spite because it suits their short-term interests.

Which means what, exactly? That winning is the only thing, and to hell with the good of the country, civil society and the possibility of intelligent debate about serious matters? Watching the school-speech insanity blow up on the right, a friend who has been deeply involved for decades at the top of Republican politics, e-mailed to say that she was done. The conservative movement is hurtling off a cliff — and she was bailing out.

Take me with you, said I.

Dreher correctly identified Fox News and right wing talk radio as the drivers of this movement. He discovers to his surprise that the charges that have long been made against Fox News, that it is a vehicle for right-wing paranoia and fear-mongering, may be actually true.

I’ve always taken complaints about the Fox News Channel as evidence of liberal whining and intolerance. But I don’t watch TV news. And then I tuned in to Glenn Beck’s popular Fox show the other night and saw him tutor his audience on the president’s conspiratorial plan to institute “oligarhy” (sic) in America. And I thought: How does a paranoid like this get on national TV?

But he should not be surprised. In the world of TV, high ratings and the money it brings in take precedence over ideology or party interests. It takes much smaller numbers to be a cable news leader than it does to win elections. While you need about 50 million voters to win presidential elections, if you get just 500,000 viewers in the 25-54 age demographic (just 1% of those voters) you will easily be a cable news leader. So cable news shows can aim their message at the fringiest of fringe groups and still come out as big winners in TV land while simultaneously driving the Republican Party into the ditch.

David Brooks is another conservative who does not like what he sees:

The one danger — the main danger of all this, the Glenn [Beck] and the Rush [Limbaugh] and all that — they’re not going to take over the country. But they are taking over the Republican Party.

And so if the Republican Party is sane, they will say no to these people. But every single elected leader in the Republican Party is afraid to take on Rush and Glenn Beck.

MSNBC talk sow host Joe Scarborough (a conservative who used to be a Republican congressman) also warns about the dangers of letting people like Glenn Beck rant crazily. Steve Benen lists other conservatives who are similarly alarmed.

Frum, Bartlett, Dreher, Brooks, and Scarborough are right to be concerned. The capture of the Republican Party by the nutters is not only bad for that party, consigning them to the electoral wilderness for years to come, it is also bad for the Democratic Party and democracy in general. Only highly partisan Democrats who think that winning is the only thing that matters can be happy watching the Republican Party walk into the wild.

A thriving democracy needs two vibrant parties that can articulate different visions of where they want the country go, and also to keep each other honest by exposing their lies. We have seen the rot that has set in because the US has already effectively become a one-party state when it comes to the interests of big business and war. If the Republican Party moves completely into the asylum, as it seems to be doing, the situation will get even worse. The Democratic Party can then serve unchallenged the interests of the wealthy even more easily than it does now, no longer feeling obliged to pay even lip-service to progressive causes. It can start new wars and continue old ones, continue to torture people, imprison them indefinitely without trial, and enhance wiretapping and other encroachments on civil liberties, all of which is what the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled congress is currently doing.


I came across this clever commercial online. I assume that it is running on TV as well.

Republican presidential hopefuls and the nutters

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield for $34.95, from Amazon for $31.65, from Barnes and Noble for $26.21 ($23.58 for members), and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Telling indicators of the strength of the nutter movement (consisting of birthers, deathers, and tenthers) within the party has been the fortunes of the prospective Republican candidates for the presidency. Sarah Palin is, of course, a true nutter and has always been much beloved by this group so her presence does not tell us anything new. But a good sign of the increasing nutter influence is that Palin’s fellow nutter, congresswoman Michelle Bachman (R-Minn), seems to be hoping that god will speak to her and tell her to run for the presidency, and former senator Rick Santorum is also toying with the idea although he was drubbed in his last campaign for re-election as US senator from Pennsylvania. Any party with a reasonable grip on reality would be embarrassed to have these people as prominent members, let alone have them as potential standard bearers.

What is even more significant has been the shifting of the rhetoric by people like Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty in efforts to woo the nutters. These two are conservative ideologically but up until recently they had seemed to be reality-based people. (See my earlier posts about Huckabee’s and Pawlenty’s politics.). In fact, Pawlenty is currently the governor of Minnesota, a state that usually elects moderate politicians, though Bachmann is putting a strain on that reputation. But he is not running for re-election, allowing him to pander shamelessly to the nutters, which he has decided to do by appealing to the tenthers and the deathers. The fact that both are moving towards nutterdom means that they think that this is where the future of the party lies.

In this they are emulating the 2008 strategy of Mitt Romney who seemed to be a moderate while governor of Massachusetts but moved quite a bit to the right when running for the Republican nomination in 2008.

Romney has not yet gone full-bore nutter but is also a good weathervane indicator of the strength of the nutter movement. As far as can be determined, Romney has no deep principles that he believes in, except that he thinks he should be president, so he can shift directions without much angst. Logic would suggest that he run as a sensible conservative and appeal to the adults in the party, and let the nutters split their votes among the panderers such Palin, Bachmann, Santorum, Huckabee, Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich. But if Romney also starts competing strongly for the nutter vote, then it is clear that the nutters have taken over the Republican Party.

The nutters and their allies gathered together at the Values Voter Summit held in Washington, DC, earlier this month. Nearly all the potential presidential candidates were featured speakers at the summit, although Sarah Palin* was once again a no-show, the asterisk (signifying ‘unconfirmed’) that accompanies her name in the publicity for these events seeming to be a permanent fixture as organizers become increasingly aware of her penchant for backing out of engagements at the last minute, claiming that she never agreed to attend in the first place.

In a straw poll on presidential preferences conducted at the meeting, the results were as follows: Huckabee received 29%, Romney, Pawlenty, Palin and congressman Mike Pence (R-Indiana) each got about 12%. Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, Ron Paul, and Santorum had single-digit shares of the vote. Romney won the last poll in 2007. You can draw your own conclusions as to what, if anything, this means.

The titles and descriptions of their breakout sessions reveal nuttiness in all its glory. I would have particularly liked to attend the one titled SPEECHLESS – SILENCING THE CHRISTIANS, where they promised to reveal how Christians are a persecuted group in the US. Here’s the description of the session:

Americans are at a greater risk of losing their basic freedoms today than ever before in the history of this nation. Political correctness and the voice of the liberal minority are undermining the morals and values of main-stream America. Christians are being silenced all across America: in the political debate, the public square, the schools, the workplace, and even in the sanctuary of their own churches. Through video, renowned author and commentator, Janet Parshall, takes you on a journey across the country to meet citizens who have been arrested for speaking out at a public rally, students who are being forced to attend classes that require them to recite verses from the Koran and to stage their own Jihad and activists pushing social tolerance to such an extreme that the Bible itself is being labeled “hate speech.”

Who knew? There is probably a Islamocommunofascistic jihadi re-education camp in your own neighborhood!

Next: So where does this leave the old-style conservatives?

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on the Values Voter Summit

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Update on the future of the Republican Party

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield for $34.95, from Amazon for $31.65, from Barnes and Noble for $26.21 ($23.58 for members), and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

When I last wrote on this topic in July, I compared the various factions within the Republican Party to see which segment was likely to take leadership. The four major groupings I identified were the old style conservatives, the rank-and-file social values base, the Christianists, and the neo-conservatives.

At that time I said that while there was no clear winner yet, the first group seemed to be on the outs in the party, the second group seemed to be becoming more vocal, while the third and fourth groups seemed to be lying low for the present, trying to gauge which way the wind was going to blow. I said that a good indicator of the relative strengths of the groups would be the prominence given to them by Fox News.

Since then the picture has sharpened somewhat, and the outlook for the party is not good.

What seems to be happening is that a highly vocal subset of the rank-and-file base, those whom I have called the nutters, seems to be becoming the public face of the party. This group has a visceral opposition to Obama, making wild assertions of him as a fascist and/or socialist and/or communist, has absurd ‘birther’ and ‘deather’ obsessions, and irrational opposition to any health care reform.

As if that wasn’t enough, to the birthers and deathers, you can also add the ‘tenthers’, people who think that the 10th amendment to the US Constitution, which states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”, can be used as a vehicle to block legislation they don’t like.

Ian Millhiser writes that tenther sentiment is not new.

Such retreat to fringe constitutional theories is one of the right’s favorite tactics during times of historic upheaval. The right-wing South justified both secession and the Civil War on the theory that the Constitution is nothing more than a pact between sovereigns that each state is free to leave at will. In the immediate wake of Brown v. Board of Education, 19 senators and 77 representatives endorsed a “Southern Manifesto,” proclaiming — in words echoed by modern-day tenthers — that Brown “encroach[es] on the rights reserved to the States” because the “Constitution does not mention education.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent much of his first term combating a tenther majority on the Supreme Court, which routinely struck down substantial portions of the New Deal.

In their latest incarnation, tenthers argue that “Barack Obama’s health-care reform is forbidden, as is Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.” They don’t stop there. They add that “The federal minimum wage is a crime against state sovereignty; the federal ban on workplace discrimination and whites-only lunch counters is an unlawful encroachment on local businesses.”

This kind of lunacy aimed at turning back the clock on landmark social progress has been actively promoted by the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio and TV talk shows and this hysterical rhetoric has been given huge amounts of publicity, encouraging these groups to think that they represent some kind of mass popular movement when in reality they are on the fringes of the body politic. As a result, this group seems to be influencing the Republican Party well out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Some of the Christianists like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, seem to be moving towards the nutter group, and the resulting coalition threatens to take over the party.

The Republican Party leadership seems to be caught in a bind. Although the nominal leaders in congress are not themselves rabid nutters, it is clear that they are fearful of them and will not say anything that is even mildly critical of the crazy rhetoric they spout. They cannot bring themselves to repudiate this vocal and passionate group and its advocates in the media, but realize at the same to time that to endorse these ideas is to declare themselves to be also nuts.

They have created a monster and don’t know what else to do but cling on to its tail.

Next: What we can learn from the potential candidates for the Republican nomination in 2012.

POST SCRIPT: Mary Travers

The folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary combined wonderful harmony with a lifetime of consistent support for social justice and progressive causes. Mary Travers died recently of leukemia at the age of 72. Here is the group singing one of their big hits If I had a hammer.

In I dig rock and roll music, they poked some good-natured fun at that genre and some of its practitioners.

The Adventures of Banana Man and Crocoduck

(My new book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield for $34.95, from Amazon for $31.65, from Barnes and Noble for $26.21 ($23.58 for members), and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Those two mighty warriors for Jesus, evangelist Ray Comfort and his trusty sidekick the aging Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron, have come up with a new scheme for fighting the evil theory of evolution which they, along with many religious people, think is threatening to bring about the end of civilization as we know it. Two days before the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species on November 21, they plan to distribute 50,000 free copies of the book at 50 prominent universities. The catch? They have added a 50-page introduction where Comfort will point out all the flaws in the theory. They can do this because the copyright has expired on Darwin’s book.
[Read more…]

God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom

My new book is now available! I received my copy in the mail yesterday.

My publishers say that the book can be obtained through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and also through your local bookstores.

I have a request to make of readers of this blog. If you have the time, I would really appreciate it if you could write reviews of the book on sites like Amazon and elsewhere, and make the book known to people and groups whom you think might be interested in it or might like me to come and give talks on it.

The book deals with the thorny question of the role of religion and the Bible in US schools. While school prayer has been one important facet of these attempts and has perhaps received the most publicity, the teaching of evolution has also been, at least in the US, the focus of many court cases involving various subtle shades of meaning and interpretation of the U.S. constitution, testing in particular the limits of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution, which states simply that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

My book interweaves this general history of religion in schools with the specific history of the opposition to the teaching of evolution in US classrooms, starting with the Scopes trial in 1925 and ending with the intelligent design Dover trial in 2005, focusing on how the nature of this opposition has itself evolved as a result of repeated setbacks in the courts.

The book’s dust jacket gives a good synopsis of the book.

In God vs. Darwin, Mano Singham dissects the legal battle between evolution and creationism in the classroom beginning with the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 and ending with an intelligent design trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005. A publicity stunt, the Scopes Monkey trial had less to do with legal precedence than with generating tourism dollars for a rural Tennessee town. But the trial did successfully spark a debate that has lasted more than 80 years and simply will not be quelled despite a succession of seemingly definitive court decisions. In the greatest demonstration of survival, opposition to the teaching of evolution has itself evolved. Attempts to completely eliminate the teaching of evolution from public schools have given way to the recognition that evolution is here to stay, that explicitly religious ideas will never be allowed in public schools, and that the best that can be hoped for is to chip away at the credibility of the theory of evolution.

Dr. Singham deftly answers complex questions: Why is there such intense antagonism to the teaching of evolution in the United States? What have the courts said about the various attempts to oppose it? Sprinkled with interesting tidbits about Charles Darwin and the major players of the evolution vs. creationism debate, readers will find that God vs. Darwin is charming in its embrace of the strong passions aroused from the topic of teaching evolution in schools.

Jim Paces, executive director of curriculum of the Shaker Heights City Schools in Ohio and one of the early reviewers of the book, said the following:

[This] captivating new book draws on his knowledge of both history and science to provide an expert analysis of the ongoing opposition to the teaching of evolution in America’s public schools. He offers a clearly written, concise explanation of the evolution-religion controversy which has continued to play out in local school districts across the country. This is an absolute “must read” for school officials and community members alike . . . indeed for anyone interested in a fascinating illustration of who decides what should be taught in our nation’s schools.

Barbara Forrest, professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, said:

In recounting the history of creationism through major legal cases, Professor Singham correctly exposes the fear that drives creationists to keep searching for ways to undermine the teaching of evolution despite consistent defeats in the federal courts. He shows convincingly that, while religious objections to evolution persist, such objections are ultimately powerless to stop the advancement of science. This book expands the growing list of excellent books available for anyone who wants to understand the phenomenon of American creationism.

Charles Russo, Professor of Education and Law at the University of Dayton, wrote in the Foreword that the book:

presents a highly readable and comprehensive analysis of this fascinating area. With the perspective of a physicist rather than a lawyer, educator, or social scientist, Mano Singham applies his dispassionate scientific eye in such a way that he presents fresh insights into the ongoing controversy over who should control the content of curricula, scientific or otherwise, in public schools.

At its heart, God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom offers a valuable learning experience for all of those interested in education, religion, science, and the law.

In a way, the readers of this blog shared in this book’s creation because its nucleus consisted of a series of posts that I wrote a few years ago.

I hope that those of you who read it find it as least as enjoyable as I did writing it. And, again, please write a review if you can.

Using placebos as part of treatments

Nowadays, the testing of new drugs often involves comparisons not only with placebos but also with older established drugs in three-way double-blind tests. What is emerging from these trials is that the placebo effect seems to be getting stronger, which means that new drugs in clinical trials are having a harder time showing that they are better than the placebo. Another consequence of stronger placebo responses is that some well-known drugs used is the trials as the older standard (and that had beaten the placebo in earlier tests) seem not to be able to do so now.

As Steve Silberman in Wired Magazine says:

Some products that have been on the market for decades, like Prozac, are faltering in more recent follow-up tests. In many cases, these are the compounds that, in the late ’90s, made Big Pharma more profitable than Big Oil. But if these same drugs were vetted now, the FDA might not approve some of them. Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 1980s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time.

It’s not that the old meds are getting weaker, drug developers say. It’s as if the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger.

But why would the sugar pill placebos be having a stronger effect now? One possibility is that we are getting better at doing double-blind tests, thus eliminating spurious effects that escaped detection earlier. For example it is found that certain assumptions used in drug testing (that geography does not matter) are now found to be not valid. Not only does the placebo response of the patient vary from place to place, so do the ratings by trial observers, leading to the unfortunate possibility that drug companies may ‘placebo-shop’, choosing for their clinical tests those areas where the placebo response is low in order to have their drugs seem more effective.

But the more interesting thing that Silberman points out is that the rising strength of the placebo response may be telling us something valuable about the power of the brain to influence our biochemical processes. The placebo effect may be more of a physiological response than a psychological one, and something that can be harnessed in favor of better treatments. Many of these effects are related to pain-reducing compounds called opiods that are produced by the brain. Placebos can act like catalysts, triggering the release of these opiods.

Researcher Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin finds that:

Placebo-activated opioids, for example, not only relieve pain; they also modulate heart rate and respiration. The neurotransmitter dopamine, when released by placebo treatment, helps improve motor function in Parkinson’s patients. Mechanisms like these can elevate mood, sharpen cognitive ability, alleviate digestive disorders, relieve insomnia, and limit the secretion of stress-related hormones like insulin and cortisol.

What seems to be going on is that our expectations of what the future will be like seem to play a significant role in how our brain influences our body. If we feel that a good result will ensue from a treatment, the brain releases chemicals that assist in creating that result. What placebos seem to be doing is manipulating those expectations.

It also works in reverse. There are things called ‘nocebos’ that work opposite to placebos, suppressing the beneficial brain functioning. “Cancer patients undergoing rounds of chemotherapy often suffer from debilitating nocebo effects—such as anticipatory nausea—conditioned by their past experiences with the drugs.”

This has led to a revision in attitudes towards placebos, shifting them from a problem to be overcome to viewing them as an additional form of treatment that should be better harnessed. Of course, there are limits to what placebos and the brain can do. As Silberman says, a placebo “can ease the discomfort of chemotherapy, but it won’t stop the growth of tumors.”

The success of modern medicine in treating many ailments may have strengthened the placebo effect by instilling greater confidence in patients that their treatment will work, triggering the release of opiods and dopamine. Furthermore, drug companies also advertise heavily these days, promoting the benefits of their products to relieve all manner of ailments and associating taking it with good things in life, such as beautiful sunsets, playing with children, enjoying the outdoors, sex, sports, etc. So placebos may be getting stronger because people believe that the drugs will give them a better future.

As a result, the very success of drugs in the past may be working against the drug companies now by increasing the expectations of drugs and thus creating a stronger placebo response. Furthermore,

Existing tests also may not be appropriate for diagnosing disorders like social anxiety and premenstrual dysphoria—the very types of chronic, fuzzily defined conditions that the drug industry started targeting in the ’90s, when the placebo problem began escalating. The neurological foundation of these illnesses is still being debated, making it even harder for drug companies to come up with effective treatments.

What all of these disorders have in common, however, is that they engage the higher cortical centers that generate beliefs and expectations, interpret social cues, and anticipate rewards. So do chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, Parkinson’s, and many other ailments that respond robustly to placebo treatment. To avoid investing in failure, researchers say, pharmaceutical companies will need to adopt new ways of vetting drugs that route around the brain’s own centralized network for healing.

It seems like there need to be developments in two areas. One is to find better ways to test for the true effectiveness of drugs that go even beyond the current double-blind testing. What may be necessary is to incorporate ‘open/hidden’ tests where the test subjects don’t know when they being given any treatment at all, whether it be placebo or drug. This will remove the placebo effect of expectations, giving a better measure for the effectiveness of the drugs.

The second development is to learn how to better use the brain-based nature of the placebo response as part of therapy. A judicious combination of truly effective drugs and the placebo response may be an important part of the future of medicine.

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Tom Tomorrow’s comic strip imagines how the health insurance industry would have operated in medieval times if it behaved the way it does now.

The placebo effect

In the previous post, I described the practice of homeopathy and explained why it should no longer be taken seriously. Now that we know that its originator Samuel Hahnemann was basically treating his patients with water, what made him think his treatment was effective? There is no evidence that he was a fraud or charlatan, foisting on his patients something he knew was bogus in order to take their money. He was probably genuine in his belief in the efficacy of his treatment.

It is likely that he was misled by the placebo effect, where patients recover from an illness due to any number of factors that have nothing to do with treatment provided by the doctor. People who want to believe seize on these random events and see patterns that don’t exist. For example, since colds get better after a few days, it is possible to get gullible people to believe that practically anything is a cure for cold since if you take it soon after the onset of symptoms, presto, the cold disappears in a couple of days.

Steve Silberman in Wired Magazine describes how the placebo effect was discovered.

The roots of the placebo problem can be traced to a lie told by an Army nurse during World War II as Allied forces stormed the beaches of southern Italy. The nurse was assisting an anesthetist named Henry Beecher, who was tending to US troops under heavy German bombardment. When the morphine supply ran low, the nurse assured a wounded soldier that he was getting a shot of potent painkiller, though her syringe contained only salt water. Amazingly, the bogus injection relieved the soldier’s agony and prevented the onset of shock.

Returning to his post at Harvard after the war, Beecher became one of the nation’s leading medical reformers. Inspired by the nurse’s healing act of deception, he launched a crusade to promote a method of testing new medicines to find out whether they were truly effective.

In a 1955 paper titled “The Powerful Placebo,” published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Beecher described how the placebo effect had undermined the results of more than a dozen trials by causing improvement that was mistakenly attributed to the drugs being tested. He demonstrated that trial volunteers who got real medication were also subject to placebo effects; the act of taking a pill was itself somehow therapeutic, boosting the curative power of the medicine. Only by subtracting the improvement in a placebo control group could the actual value of the drug be calculated.

The placebo explains why so many medical procedures that are now viewed with horror were standard treatments in the past. Bloodletting, bleeding with leeches, attaching maggots, dousing with cold water, were among the treatments once recommended. Charles Darwin suffered from all manner of undiagnosed ailments that included frequent vomiting and he subjected himself to various uncomfortable water treatments in the belief that they helped him. His beloved daughter Annie died of an unknown illness after receiving similar water treatments.

In my own building on the third floor is a small museum of medical history that contains all manner of gruesome-looking medical devices that no one thinks of using today but once were believed to be effective, even state-of-the-art. As long as the physician and patient had confidence in the treatment, it must have seemed to work.

Because of the repeated discrediting of medical treatments that were once considered effective, it has been suggested that the history of medicine is actually the history of the placebo effect, with new placebos replacing the old, leading to the uncomfortable suggestion that our current treatments, however sophisticated they may seem, are merely the latest placebos.

But there is reason to think that we now have a much better idea of what really works and what is a placebo because Beecher’s work led to the invention of the practice of double-blind experimental testing, where neither the patient nor the researcher collecting the data and doing the analyses knows who is receiving the experimental treatment and who is receiving the placebo.

By 1962, the government had started requiring drug companies to perform clinical tests with placebos in order to get approval and this has led to the elimination of outright quackery in medicine. Without such precautions, people can, even with the best of intentions, subtly distort the results to get the result they want or expect.

As a result of the widespread adoption of double-blind testing, there is good reason to think that our current practices are significantly better than those of the past, and that we are no longer so easily fooled by placebos.

Next: Using placebos as part of treatment.

POST SCRIPT: How double blind tests work

Double-blind tests are useful not only in medicine. Richard Dawkins shows what happens when it is used to test the claims of people who think they can detect the presence of water by dowsing.

It is interesting that when the tests show the dowsers that the “powers” they thought they had is non-existent, they make up stuff to enable them to continue believing. Does that remind you of anything?

Homeopathy and religion

Homeopathic treatment is based on the belief that if something making you ill, then a highly diluted solution of that same thing will act as a cure. It was introduced in 1796 by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann who claimed it illustrated the workings of the ‘principle of similars’ or ‘like cures like’. This counterintuitive notion may have sounded plausible in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and even now may sound plausible to those who know that vaccines consist of building antibodies to a disease by introducing into the body small quantities of the same or related organisms,

The levels of dilution used were quantified by Hahnemann by something called the “C scale” which meant diluting by a factor of 100. So 1C dilution meant diluting by 100, 2C meant diluting by 100×100=104=10,000, 3C meant diluting by 100x100x100=106=1,000,000, and so on. The substances are diluted in a stepwise fashion and shaken vigorously between each dilution.

A key feature of homeopathic belief is the “principle of dilutions” or the “law of minimum dose” which states that “the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness.” So a 7C solution is supposedly more effective (i.e., “stronger”) than a 6C solution, even though it is 100 times more dilute.

The development of the atomic theory of matter in the 19th century pretty much destroyed the scientific credibility of homeopathy. According to modern science, one mole of any substance contains 6.022×1023 molecules or atoms of that substance. This number is called Avogadro’s number. So for example, the element sodium has an atomic weight of 23, which means that 23 grams of sodium contains 6.022×1023 atoms. So if you took one mole of sodium (=23 gram) and diluted it to 12C (i.e., by a factor of 1024), you would have just about a single atom of sodium in it. If you go to even higher dilutions then the chance of having even a single atom of the original substance becomes vanishingly small. Since Hahnemann advocated dilutions of 30C, what he was giving his patients was water. Of course, the idea of the atomic theory of matter and Avogadro’s number was only coming to the fore in the early 19th century so Hahnemann could not know this.

But homeopathic treatments and practitioners are still around. How can people still believe in homeopathy now since we know that there is no active ingredient remaining and people are merely taking in water? This is where the parallel to religion comes into play. Both began in times when science was more primitive and the explanations offered by homeopathy/religion seemed plausible, or at least no worse than the competing explanations. But as science advanced and showed that the original explanations were untenable and better ones existed, people became split. Some accepted science and rejected homeopathy/religion. Others wanted to continue believing and so made up ad hoc theories to enable them to continue belief.

What homeopathy devotees did was find new reasons for believing, arguing that the shaking that occurred during the process of dilution (which they refer to as “potentization”) transmits “some form of information or energy from the original substance to the final diluted remedy. Most homeopathic remedies are so dilute that no molecules of the healing substance remain; however, in homeopathy, it is believed that the substance has left its imprint or “essence,” which stimulates the body to heal itself (this theory is called the “memory of water”).” But there is no evidence that water, a very much studied and well-understood substance, can carry with it any such memory.

Similarly, as science increasingly exposes the inadequacy of religious explanations for phenomena, religions invented theology with its own convoluted reasoning, trying to find ways to retain belief in god. It has ended up being forced to postulate a Slacker God.

Modern theological language is similar to that of modern homeopathy, making stuff up as they go along, introducing vocabulary and modes of operation that are so vague, elusive, and tenuous that they defy any systematic investigation, all in order to continue believing in something that has ceased to have any credibility.


The term ‘woo’ or ‘woo-woo’ refers to “ideas considered irrational or based on extremely flimsy evidence or that appeal to mysterious occult forces or powers.”

That Mitchell and Webb Look pokes fun at homeopathy and other forms of woo.

The lack of foresight in the Bible

Religious people like to dwell on the virtues of their holy books. They also like to claim that those books were either directly dictated by god or at least divinely inspired. But what is remarkable is that there is not a single thing in any of those books that shows any insight that could not have been held by an ordinary person living two thousand years ago or so with the knowledge that was at hand at that time. The lack of any hint of divine foresight in the Bible is striking.

For one thing, modern science has revealed that the universe is, by any measure, absolutely huge. Even the craziest of the religious crazies do not claim that the Earth is the center of a small universe and that the sky we see is just a bowl with holes in it. But as Carl Sagan pointed out, “[T]his vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religions.”

As Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York-Lehman College, says in reviewing Sagan’s book The Variety of Scientific Experience, which was based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures:

Sagan imagines how God could have dictated his books to the ancient prophets in a way that would have certainly made an impact on us moderns. He could have said (I’m quoting Sagan directly here): “Don’t forget, Mars is a rusty place with volcanoes. … You’ll understand this later. Trust me. … How about, ‘Thou shalt not travel faster than light?’ … Or ‘There are no privileged frames of reference.’ Or how about some equations? Maxwell’s laws in Egyptian hieroglyphics or ancient Chinese characters or ancient Hebrew.” Now that would be impressive, and even Dawkins would have to scratch his head at it. But no, instead we find trivial stories about local tribes, a seemingly endless series of “begats,” and a description of the world as small, young, and rather flat.

Sagan’s challenge is virtually ignored by theologians the world over. And for good reason: it is impossible to answer coherently while retaining the core of most religious traditions. The various gods people worship are simply far too small for the universe we actually inhabit, which is no surprise once we accept the rather obvious truth that it is us who made the gods in our image, not the other way around.

Images from the Hubble telescope reveal a universe of stunning beauty. But there are no hints in the religious books that the lights in the night sky are anything more than uninteresting dots. How hard would it have been for god to tell one of his prophets, say Elijah, to preach something along the lines of “Listen up, people! When you learn how to put two pieces of curved glass together to make distant objects seem larger, you are going to see things in the sky that will knock your socks off. Trust me on this.”

More recently, Sam Harris has made a point similar to Sagan’s :

But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy could be if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage like, “In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the Internet.” The Bible contains nothing remotely like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. (emphasis added)

Why doesn’t the Bible say anything about electricity, about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? Millions of people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, many of them children. When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will surely be reducible to a few pages of text. Why aren’t these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? The Bible is a very big book. There was room for God to instruct us on how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals. Please appreciate how this looks to one who stands outside the Christian faith. It is genuinely amazing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.

It would not have taken much for god to indicate that he was behind books like the Bible or the Koran. The lack of such hints is surely a telling sign that these books are nothing more than the writings of people who lived in those times and were creating a narrative that would serve their immediate purposes.

More thoughtful religious people are sensitive to this obvious defect of their holy books. What they do is try to retroactively claim credit for predictions by (as this Jesus and Mo comic amusingly points out) tortuously reinterpreting the language of their books whenever a new scientific discovery comes along. The atheist barmaid has the best question to ask when someone makes this kind of absurd claim.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on the Bible

The big tent of the atheists

Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently fall prey to the temptation to classify things in groups. I would have been in my element as a 19th century biologist implementing the Linnaean classification scheme of all living things. Recently I have been thinking that the term ‘atheist’ is associated with too narrow a meaning. In fact, I think that there are six different types of atheist.

The most common type of atheist is the explicit atheist. These are the people who say openly that they do not believe that god exists, and this is the group to whom the label is commonly believed to apply.

Then we have the covert atheists. These are people who no longer believe that god exists but do not feel that they can openly say so. The climate for atheists can be quite hostile in some parts of the world, enough to be socially ostracized or even lose one’s job, requiring such people to keep mum about their lack of belief. Others may keep quiet because they belong to religious families and may not want to upset loved ones by speaking about their lack of belief. I suspect that the ranks of elected officials in the US or those seeking such office have a large number of covert atheists.

Other covert atheists work for religious institutions as priests or rabbis or ministers or imams. I have argued before that there is likely to be a high level of covert atheism among religious intellectuals, with the faculty of religion departments in colleges and theological seminaries, upper levels of the clergy, and the Pope being particularly good candidates.

But others may keep quiet about their atheism simply because they like belonging to churches, perhaps for the camaraderie (in many small towns the church and school are the main venues for social gatherings), perhaps because they like to sing in the choir, or because religious institutions provide avenues for social activism. Such people are willing to not speak of their atheism in return for enjoying these benefits.

Then there are the functional atheists. These are people who, while they may or may not say anything about their belief or disbelief in god, or even bother much with this question, live their lives as if god does not exist.

Then there are the agnostic atheists. These are people (like Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan) who reject the label of atheist and choose to call themselves agnostics because they have bought into the mistaken belief that atheists are certain that there is no god. Since they don’t think one can know such a thing for certain, they call themselves agnostics. As I have argued before, such people are mistaken about what being an atheist implies and they could just as easily call themselves atheists without changing their views in any way.

The fifth category consists of the people I have been writing about recently, such as Karen Armstrong, H. E. Baber, and Robert Wright. They are the people who say they do believe in a god but when they go on to describe their object of belief, it turns out that they do not believe in anything that any traditional believer could relate to, since their god does absolutely nothing but seems to be simply an idea or an object of contemplation. I have called these people worshippers in the Church of the Slacker God but a snappier label for them might be the seemingly oxymoronic religious atheists.

Interestingly, R. Albert Mohler, who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also sees people like Armstrong as atheists, whatever they call themselves, and seems to agree with me that that her kind of defense of god essentially concedes the debate to atheists. He calls Armstrong’s argument ‘superficial’ and ‘theologically reckless’ and ‘elegant nonsense’, writing that “the exchange in The Wall Street Journal [between Armstrong and Richard Dawkins] turns out to be a meeting of two atheist minds. The difference, of course, is that one knows he is an atheist when the other presumably claims she is not. Dawkins knows a fellow atheist when he sees one. Careful readers of The Wall Street Journal will come to the same conclusion.”

The final category is the spiritual atheist. As the powerful arguments of the atheists sink in and people realize that they cannot be refuted, you can expect to hear many more statements of the “I am not religious but I am spiritual” kind, which usually signals that the speaker is on the way to atheism (or at least has given up on god) but is as yet unwilling to acknowledge this to herself or to others. Because the word spiritual has such an elastic meaning it provides a way out of the impasse for those who shy away from embracing the label of atheism but don’t want to be lumped with religious believers either. As usual, Jesus and Mo have a funny take on this.

The people known as ‘accommodationists’, who claim that the scientific and religious worldviews are either compatible or feel that the incompatibility should not be highlighted, can be found in all these groups. That label describes less of a personal belief and more of a preference for a political strategy.

So we see that atheists are ‘big tent’ people, welcoming all those who seek to escape from the intellectual straitjacket that religions put on people.

POST SCRIPT: Nutters day out

Max Blumenthal mingles with the crowd at last weekend’s demonstration in Washington DC which seemed to bring out the nutters. Some of these people are major-league weird.

And talking of nutters, you may be wondering what Orly Taitz, the person who was leading the ‘birther’ movement, has been up to. Her most recent case (one of many she has filed that challenged Obama’s right to deploy someone to Iraq because he had not proved his citizenship) was thrown out yesterday by a judge who, in a ruling remarkable for its mixture of ridicule and sarcasm, warned her that if she wastes the court’s time again with such nonsense, she would face sanctions

Taitz’s response to this stinging rebuke? She thinks the judge should be tried for treason! With Orly, the fun never ends.

A motion to have her disbarred for misconduct reveals depths of idiocy that even I had not imagined. This document is a list of just allegations that have not been proven but if even a small fraction are true they reveal a level of wackiness on Taitz’s part that borders on delusional.