From the creator of Video Skepdude

Taking the “super” out of supernatural

We often hear the word supernatural being thrown around. There’s even a television show, a pretty bad television show, by that same title. But what does supernatural mean? In laymen terms it means outside of nature, something which cannot be explained, cannot be touched by our senses, cannot be felt, smelled. In other words is not comprehensible, something we cannot and should not try to understand or explain.

It is a lame excuse for our ignorance.

See, the word itself does not have any meaning. If something exists, especially if this something can interact with our natural world, it must itself be natural, for we have defined natural as everything that exists. Trees and mountains are natural, the stars and the galaxies are natural, dark matter and dark energy is natural. Everything we know exists is natural. There is nothing supernatural about anything which really is there.

There are natural things which we cannot explain. Our knowledge and science is limited at this point in our existence. So there are things we have yet to discover and the more we discover, through the scientific method, the less will be left to the supernatural. Just like God, the supernatural also has been shrinking and shrinking with every advance of Science. And it will continue to do so as Science advances, but it probably will never die out completely as the nature we live in is full of mysteries, full of things for us to discover. Until we do, they will be branded as supernatural.

Defaulting to a supernatural explanation is anti scientific. Appealing to an unexplained phenomenon as a solution to another unexplained phenomenon is a useless exercise and a science stopper. In this prism, Intelligent Design is a science stopper to the contrary of its proponents claims. Inferring the existence of an Intelligent Designer, without plotting out what this Intelligent Designer should look like or behave like, is childish and scientifically dishonest. ID is the ultimate argument from Ignorance. Defaulting to an explanation which cannot be tested by science, simply because they’re not smart enough to come up with a natural solution, is pseudo-science, I don’t care how many PhDs you may have! A PhD means nothing if you cannot tell the difference between a scientific argument and a philosophical one.

Why are people so scared to admit that they don’t know? Why must they have an answer, even if it is wrong? Why is having a wrong answer better than having no answer? I don’t know, but for a lot of people this seems to be the case. When you’re arguing religion with a believer you will inevitably hear the argument that religion brings comfort to millions of people, as if that has anything to do with it veracity. A lie that makes people feel good is still a lie, and whoever propagates such lies is a liar, and that behavior cannot be justified by the results. The end does not always justify the means.

The supernatural explanation is lame. It is anti scientific. It epitomizes surrender, giving up. It’s message is clear: “Stop doing your science. Stop trying to explain things. The explanation is beyond you, beyond anyone. Stop! Stop! Stop!”. What good can come of that? Would we be here today, as a society, if people had obeyed this order in the past? The never ending quest for excellence, for improvement, for knowledge are the building blocks of Science. Dogma is the building block of the Supernatural. The choice is a no brainer really. Unfortunately lots of people seem to be willing to make the wrong choice.

May 30, 2008 Posted by | Critical Thinking, Logic, Science, Thinking Out Loud | , , , | 2 Comments

What is this Science thingy?

I ran across a nice quote from a certain Sir. William Bragg who apparently said:

The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.

That is such a nice quote, because it deals with a certain misconception that the general public holds about science and scientists in general. The general public’s view of a scientist is a geek wearing big glasses, with messy hair, and wearing suspenders who can blurt out all kinds of facts out of his head in a matter of seconds.

Now, having specific, technical knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient characteristic of a scientist. In its core, science is not about collecting facts, but explaining them. Science is a method of finding out why those facts are there, why they work the way they work. Making a list of facts is a small, but necessary, fraction of Science. Science answers many questions and “What” is only one of them. Mostly it is concerned with “How” or “Why” type of questions. Science is concerned with making predictions and testing them. It is concerned with the future more so than the past. It wonders what new facts could be discovered, not merely what has already been discovered and cataloged.

And that is why Science ROCKS!

May 28, 2008 Posted by | Science, Thinking Out Loud | | Leave a comment

Skepdude featured on Pediacast

Well not really, I am, as they say, blowing my own horn. But, an e-mail I send in was picked by Dr. Mike, at Pediacast, and he read it on the podcast, and he said he really really liked it. How cool is that? It’s the first time any of my e-mails to my favorite podcasts has been read on air.

I tremble with excitement like a teenager who just lost his virginity!

Anyway, what sparked my reply were some e-mails the good doctor had received earlier, accusing him of being arrogant, because he dared to take sides on the birth-at-home vs. the birth-in-the-hospital issue. Of course, he said that home births are riskier than hospital births, for obvious reasons. Listen to Episode 118 for the nitty, gritty details. And people really got mad and started writing angry e-mails accusing him, and the medical profession, or as such folks like to refer to as “western” medicine, of being arrogant, close minded and not open to new “alternative” treatments, as if such things really exist.

I took exception to this attack and send in an e-mail in his defense. I may have used the word “stupid” and “moronic” a couple of times, but the regular readers of Skepdude will not be surprised at that, now will you? Here at Skepdude we treasure freedom of speech and calling things as they are.

So without further ado, here’s the e-mail I send which was read, and picked as a favorite, on show #124. And if you are a parent, like me, you definitely want to subscribe to this podcast, that is only if you care about evidence/science based medical advice, which is what most readers of this heathen blog care about.

Hi Dr. Mike,

I was listening to Episode 118 “Listener Rants and Raves” and I just had to write in, in response to some comments that were made on air by some other listeners. More specifically I wanted to address the so-called “progressives” and CAM supporters. It is a common ploy used by proponents of alternative “medicine” to argue that “western” medicine ignores other treatments, and that it should be open minded to “alternative courses of action”. It is the same cowardly, whiny, argument Intelligent Design proponents use when the cry about being given “fair time” in our schools.

First of all, medicine is medicine. I don’t know what is meant by “western” medicine. Do they mean science based medicine? Medicine that works? Non-magical medicine? It is stupid, I think, to imply that science based medicine is not open to new treatments. Doctors, scientist and pharmaceutical companies spend lots of time and tons and tons of money in developing new treatments, drugs and technologies. A core characteristic of science based medicine is the never ending quest for new and better treatments. Anyone who disagrees with that is either stupid or dishonest.

What proponents of CAM are saying is to accept their “hypothetical” treatments as true, without questioning their validity. They have no scientifically acceptable evidence to back up their claims so they cling to anecdotal evidence and an argument about fairness and open mindedness, and of course CONSPIRACY. Anyone, who proposes home birthing as an alternative to hospital births is making the wild assumption that they are equivalently safe. Either that or they are willing to take the odds. The first is wrong and it does not need explaining. The second is moronic, and that does not need explaining either. In an attempt to make themselves feel better, they call themselves “progressives”, misunderstood geniuses. I call them Regressive, because anyone who shuns modernity in favor of thousand year old fables and superstition is progressing in the wrong direction.

I hope you take some time to read my message on the show. Since they are my words, not yours at least they can’t accuse you of being arrogant. They can go ahead and insult me all they want.

By the way, I loved the interaction between you and Karen and hope you give serious consideration to having her as a co-host permanently. I have no solution to your laundry problem that would inevitably arise in that case, but hey you’ve got a 13 year old. Let her earn her living! (Just joking of course)

Keep up the good work, and please do include more such rants on the regular show and if you could add a Forums page to you website where people could discuss such things that would be great too.

What do you think about the birth-at-home vs. birth-at-the-hospital issue?

May 22, 2008 Posted by | Critical Thinking, Science, Thinking Out Loud | , , | 2 Comments

On Scientific honesty

As you may have noticed over and over in this blog, I tend to place lots of confidence on the scientific community. Whenever extraordinary claims are made, I require extraordinary evidence. The only acceptable evidence, especially for serious matters, is the scientific kind. Scientific studies, which must meet certain standards, and the venerable peer review process are the cornerstones of Science as a process.

But, that does not mean that we should blindly believe a scientist, solely on the basis that he/she is a scientist. There was a recent article on the NYTimes, which talked about the Virginia Commonwealth University, which apparently has a strict contract with Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest tobacco company which forbids :

professors from publishing the results of their studies, or even talking about them, without Philip Morris’s permission. If “a third party,” including news organizations, asks about the agreement, university officials have to decline to comment and tell the company. Nearly all patent and other intellectual property rights go to the company, not the university or its professors.

But the contract, a copy of which The New York Times obtained under the Virginia Freedom of Information law, is highly unusual and raises questions about how far universities will go in search of scarce research dollars to enhance their standing. It also brings a new dimension to the already divisive debate on many campuses over whether it is appropriate for universities to accept tobacco money for research.

There are two issues at hand here. One is the funding necessities that most universities face. Somehow those bills have to be paid. As such I don’t see a problem with their accepting a contract which could be restrictive, in regards to the research conducted with money from that specific grant. The second issue is academic freedom (and I don’t mean the kind being championed by moron legislators around the country currently).

Say for example that a university gets a huge grant from a tobacco company in order to run a couple of research projects on the health effects of smoking. Say Prof. A, B and C are conducting the work. Say that Prof. D is also running the same kind of research but with other money. What if Prof. D’s research is not good news for the company that just gave the university a truck load of money? What kind of pressure would she find herself under from the Administration? Is it inconceivable that she will be forbidden from publishing her work, out of fear of loosing the big grant? No, of course it is not inconceivable. In fact, I would say it is quite probable.

About a dozen researchers and research ethicists from other universities were astonished at the restrictions in the contract, when they were told about it.

“When universities sign contracts with these covenants, they are basically giving up their ethos, compromising their values as a university,” said Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University who is an expert on corporate influence on medical research. “There should be no debate about having a sponsor with control over the publishing of results.”

Stanton A. Glantz, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine who has lobbied for banning tobacco money on campuses, said, “University administrators who are desperate for money will basically do anything they have to for money.”

And apparently, Virginia Commonwealth University violated its own rules when signing the contract.

Virginia Commonwealth’s guidelines for industry-sponsored research state, “University faculty and students must be free to publish their results.” The guidelines also say the university must retain all patent and other intellectual property rights from sponsored research.

Both of these provisions are being violated by the contract they have signed with Phillip Morris USA.

The contract also includes a longer than usual time for Philip Morris to review any possible publications by the researchers for potential patent or other proprietary problems — 120 days, with the option to continue for 60 days more. Again, this violates university guidelines, which call for reviews of no more than 90 days.

And they seem to be keeping it hush hush within the University as well.

At Virginia Commonwealth, few professors appeared to know about the contract; when told about it, a number of them said they were concerned about its secretiveness.

“It’s a controversial area, and I personally prefer transparency,” said Richard P. Wenzel, chairman of the department of internal medicine at the university’s medical school, who had not heard of the contract before a reporter’s call.

Dan Ream, the president of the Faculty Senate, said he, too, knew nothing about the contract.

“It hasn’t come up as an issue of debate in the Faculty Senate at all,” said Mr. Ream, who works in the university’s library. “I’m highly committed to open access to information. That’s one of the tenets of librarianship.”

A tenured scientist at Virginia Commonwealth, who would not be interviewed for attribution because he said he feared retribution against his junior colleagues, called the contract’s restrictions, especially the limitations on publication, “completely unacceptable in the research world.”

Thank goodness, there are checks in place to reduce the possibility of such influences. Study authors are required to specifically identify any conflicts of interest. And furthermore, the study must be replicated by other scientists before it’s conclusions are accepted. But that applies to the scientific world, not the public.

If a sensational study saying that smoking is not so bad after all will make the news within the hour. All follow up studies that say the first study was bogus may not even be mentioned, thus leaving the public under the assumption that there is in fact scientific evidence where none exists.

So, what’s the morals of this story? Stay away from arguments from authority. Scientist are just as prone to make mistakes, or commit fraud as other people. That is why the peer review process was instituted to begin with. But, don’t come away from this entry thinking conspiracy, and vowing never to believe science again. Science is the only system out there, that I am aware off, that has controls in place to catch such things and to correct itself. That is why Science has been so successful and has given us so much.

May 22, 2008 Posted by | Critical Thinking, Science | , | Leave a comment

Autism hearings continue.

On Monday, 5/12/08, the United States Court of Federal Claims began another hearing to decide whether vaccines cause autism.

The hearing is the second in a series of three in which the court is considering whether the government should pay millions of dollars to the parents of some 4,800 autistic children. In this hearing, parents are claiming that thimerosal, a preservative that contains mercury, damaged their children’s brains. Thimerosal was removed from all routinely administered childhood vaccines by 2001.

Every major study and scientific organization to examine the issue has found no link between vaccination and autism, but the parents and their advocates have persisted.3

Now, before I spell out my thought let me disclose that I am not a physician. I am not a doctor, don’t work for a pharmaceutical company. In short, I have no bias either way in this matter (except for a bias towards reason and reality.) On the other hand I am not qualified to have an opinion on the science of vaccines and thimerosal. As such my opinion is just that…my opinion based on what has been reported over the last few months.

As a new parent myself, I feel for the parents of children afflicted with any disease, not just autism. It is heartbreaking to see your child suffer and be unable to help, I know that. You’d cut off your own limbs if that would help, period. As such this entry is not to be construed as a tirade against the parents, but as a tirade against the people taking advantage of these parent’s pain, in order to fill up their own pockets with money, money, money. Because that’s what this is about isn’t it? Money!

There is a consensus in the scientific community that vaccines do not cause autism. Study after study has come out showing no connection whatsoever between them. There is no debate, no disagreement on the scientific community about this. In fact, thimerosal, was removed from almost all vaccines since 2001. Autism rates have not been declining since then.

So what this charade about parents taking their claims to court? Is a court qualified to have an opinion on medical issues? Because this is what this is isn’t it? Some people believe against all evidence that what the doctors say is wrong. They believe the medical community is wrong, or treacherous. So they turn to a judge. But how is a judge supposed to make a decision? Isn’t the judge going to have to rely on the same medical community these parents distrust? Where is the court going to get the scientific evidence if not from the scientific community itself? Or do they expect the judge to agree on them based on their anecdotal evidence and completely ignore all the scientific studies on the subject? I don’t really know what their hopes are.

What is the point of this whole thing anyway? They claim thimerosal caused their kid’s autism. Even if we grant that, you’d have to prove at the least recklessness on the part of the government or vaccine makers in order to get a reward. Just because one component in a drug/vaccine turns out to have undesired effects on some people, does that give these people the right to demand compensation? You can’t just go in there, claim that thimerosal from the vaccines made my kid sick and walk out with money. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t work that way. That is preposterous. Every drug has side effects, some even result in death, some of these side effects remain unknown until much later. We can’t have all the people that take such drugs, and experience these previously unknown side effects, demand compensation. Widespread use show all the possible effects, some of which would be impossible to detect in testing done before the drug went to the market. Are this minority of people supposed to get compensation as well? I find that logic disturbing.

All they have to support their case is anecdotal evidence. Some kid was developing nicely. Then they got some shots. A short time after that they started exhibiting sings of autism. The parent concluded that because the autism was noticed after the shots were taken, then the shots caused the autism. This is a classical post hoc fallacy. B happened after A, therefore B was caused by A. But such illogic don’t work.

How many other vaccines did this kid get before he was diagnosed with autism? As a new parent I know that vaccines start very early in a child’s life. The first vaccines are given in the hospital right after birth, or a few days after that. Another set is given by 2 months. The first flu shot is usually given at 6 months. They continue at a few month’s intervals during at least the first few years. So if vaccines cause autism, why didn’t they cause it earlier?

What else happened right after the vaccines? Maybe the kid spoke its first word after a vaccine. Are we going to attribute that to the vaccine? Maybe he started walking. Are we going to attribute that to the vaccine? Of curse not. Just because something happens after something else (temporally) it does not imply that the former caused the latter. So why do these people pick and choose where to apply their illogic. Why just vaccines and autism?

I think I may know why. People want answers. They don’t like to hear “I don’t know”. That is why religion is so important to so many people. It provides (incorrect) answers with certainty. All of a sudden you know. And that is why people like the “vaccines cause autism” line of reasoning. Something which was not understandable all of a sudden is. We have a bad guy, a villain. We have someone to fight. That feeling of hopelessness is eased. We feel like we’re doing something.

I don’t have anything against the parents (although I am sure there must be a few bad apples in there who are in this just for the money!). It must be horrible to have that feeling of hopelessness. Wouldn’t you fight with everything you’ve got, against everyone in the whole world for your kid? Of course you would. But it is the Oprahs of this world, who’d do anything for ratings that I despise. It is the lawyers who see an opportunity to make a killing that I despise. It is the people who propagate this misinformation to further their own financial interests that I despise. Yes, those people I despise profoundly. The parents I feel bad for and I hope that they can find some closure and go back to the important things, taking care of their kids. My heart goes out to them, but that does not mean they are any less wrong. Misguided, good intentioned, but wrong nevertheless.

May 13, 2008 Posted by | Critical Thinking, Logic, Pseudo-science, Science, Thinking Out Loud | , , , , , | 5 Comments