Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On Skepticism and Doubt...

"There are no privileged a priori substantive truths. This eliminates the sacred from the world (of history and science, at least). All facts and all observers are equal (in that what is claimed to be fact should be tested to see if it can be supported). There are no privileged Sources or Affirmations, and all of them can be queried. In inquiry, all facts and features are separable: it is always proper to inquire whether combinations could not be other than what has previously been supposed. In other words, the world does not arrive as a package deal- which is the customary manner in which it appears in traditional cultures (and in both strong political ideologies and religions)-but piecemal."

In his book 'Why People Believe Weird Things', Michael Shermer writes that 'skepticism or debunking often receives the bad rap reserved for activities-like garbage disposal-that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life, but seem either unglamorous or unworthy of overt celebration".
What does it mean to be a skeptic? Why should anyone ever be attracted to such an obviously cynical sounding word? Why define yourself by a negative word, that implies what you don't believe, as opposed to defining yourself by a positive, by what you do believe?

Skepticism comes from the Greek word 'skeptikos', which means "look about, consider, observe"
We are all skeptics in some way, we see it in almost every aspect of our lives. Carl Sagan wrote:

"We encounter it every day. When we buy a used car, if we are the least bit wise we will exert some residual skeptical powers -- whatever our education has left to us. You could say, "Here's an honest-looking fellow. I'll just take whatever he offers me." Or you might say, "Well, I've heard that occasionally there are small deceptions involved in the sale of a used car, perhaps inadvertent on the part of the salesperson," and then you do something. You kick the tires, you open the doors, you look under the hood. (You might go through the motions even if you don't know what is supposed
to be under the hood, or you might bring a mechanically inclined friend.) You know that some skepticism is required, and you understand why. It's upsetting that you might have to disagree with the used-car
salesman or ask him questions that he is reluctant to answer. There is at least a small degree of interpersonal confrontation involved in the purchase of a used car and nobody claims it is especially pleasant. But there is a good reason for it -- because if you don't exercise some
minimal skepticism, if you have an absolutely untrammeled credulity, there is probably some price you will have to pay later. Then you'll wish you had made a small investment of skepticism early."

Pascal wrote that humans are 'thinking reeds.' Both gloriously unique, and uniquely vulnerable. Our thinking can lead to destruction and brutality as often as it can lead to kindness and enlightenment. The ability to sort out good ideas from bad ones, fallacious arguments from the sound ones, does not come naturally or easily to us. It is something that as with anything in life, is developed. One must commit oneself to Socrates' famous declaration that "“The unexamined life is not worth living."

A thirst for knowledge, and a hunger for truth is that which should drive every human being. Too often we shy away from conversations with friends and family whenever they turn to 'serious' topics or philosophical disputes. We would much rather walk away from a conversation with someone who may lead you to question your own underlying assumptions and viewpoints, than take the Socratic approach and meet the challenge head on.

Skepticism gets a bad rap because of the impression that no matter how necessary it may be, it can only be regarded as a negative removal of false claims. This is not necessarily so. Skepticism is not a position to hold, but a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas. It is a method, not a position. It is an invaluable tool that every man should have in his utility belt. Proper skepticism weeds out bad ideas and lets the good ones flourish, if they've withstood critical examination. This world is replete with men all too willing to take advantage of a believing public. Life is full of uncertainty and questions, and our nature drives us to seek out those answers. The problem lies in the fact that there will always be men all too willing to claim to posses truth and knowledge that you too can possess, if only you pay a hefty fee.

"For example, take a fashionable fad, channeling. It has for its
fundamental premise, as does spiritualism, that when we die we don't
exactly disappear, that some part of us continues. That part, we are told,
can reenter the bodies of human and other beings in the future, and so
death loses much of its sting for us personally. What is more, we have an
opportunity, if the channeling contentions are true, to make contact with
loved ones who have died.
Speaking personally, I would be delighted if reincarnation were real. I
lost my parents, both of them, in the past few years, and I would love to
have a little conversation with them, to tell them what the kids are
doing, make sure everything is all right wherever it is they are. That
touches something very deep. But at the same time, precisely for that
reason, I know that there are people who will try to take advantage of
the vulnerabilities of the bereaved. The spiritualists and the channelers
better have a compelling case.

...Now, let's reconsider channeling. There is a woman in the State of
Washington who claims to make contact with a 35,000-year-old
somebody, "Ramtha" -- she, by the way, speaks English very well with
what sounds to me to be an Indian accent. Suppose we had Ramtha here
and just suppose Ramtha is cooperative. We could ask some questions:
How do we know that Ramtha lived 35,000 years ago? Who is keeping
track of the intervening millennia? How does it come to be exactly
35,000 years? That's a very round number. Thirty-five thousand plus or
minus what? What were things like 35,000 years ago? What was the
climate? Where on Earth did Ramtha live? (I know he speaks English
with an Indian accent, but where was that?) What does Ramtha eat?
(Archaeologists know something about what people ate back then.) We
would have a real opportunity to find out if his claims are true. If this
were really somebody from 35,000 years ago, you could learn a lot about
35,000 years ago. So, one way or another, either Ramtha really is 35,000
years old, in which case we discover something about that period --
that's before the Wisconsin Ice Age, an interesting time -- or he's a phony
and he'll slip up. What are the indigenous languages, what is the social
structure, who else does Ramtha live with -- children, grandchildren --
what's the life cycle, the infant mortality, what clothes does he wear,
what's his life expectancy, what are the weapons, plants, and animals?
Tell us. Instead, what we hear are the most banal homilies,
indistinguishable from those that alleged UFO occupants tell the poor
humans who claim to have been abducted by them."

Skepticism then is the tool that we must all learn to use in order to live an intellectually healthy life.
At its core, it is a very simple thing to do. When someone makes any sort of fantastic claim, we are the ones who say "That's nice, prove it. Or at the very least, show me the evidence".
And how then should we examine evidence? How do we weed out plausible explanations apart from 'non-answers'? Through the method of science. Science, at its core is the gathering of data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.

"A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some claims, such as water dowsing, ESP, and creationism, have been tested (and failed the tests) often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are not valid. Other claims, such as hypnosis, the origins of language, and black holes, have been tested but results are inconclusive so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses and theories until we can reach a provisional conclusion."

Science will never find any sort of 'ultimate truth'. Science deals with the natural world, and it is confined by the empirical and testable world. And that is fine. Science may not be the ultimate begetter of truth, but it doesn't need to be.

' All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.' —Albert Einstein

Science alone isn't enough however. One must also develop a hunger for truth and knowledge that will lead you to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, no matter how uncomfortable it may make you.
Philosophy then is is that area which all men ought to take an interest in. It is all to common for many people to be put off by Philosophy, thinking it nothing more than 'masturbation of the mind', or mindless wordplay. Yet philosophy is much more than that, it isn't petty quibbling over the meaning of words, but rather it is the search for the foundation of reality itself. From Metaphysics, to Ethics, philosophy seeks to find the very foundations of the even the most basic of our assumptions.

Why should we love philosophy? Because, as Bertrand Russel said: "The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy , though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to all the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value-perhaps its chief value- through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: Family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife."

At the very heart of philosophy is the ability of human beings to question the most basic dogmas of their times. At the heart of it then, is skepticism, that healthy skepticism that lies firmly in the middle between 'anything goes' gullibility, and 'nothing is to be believed' cynicism.

"Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear."

So then, whenever anyone makes any sort of fantastic claim, and wants you to believe as they do, it is our duty to make sure that their most basic assumptions are firmly established. If they are not, then, as David Hume said, 'toss it to the flames'. Whenever someone tells you, for example, that you should buy into Horoscopes and Astrology, one should make sure that their conclusions are based on a solid foundations. The question one ought to ask then is 'What evidence is there that the gravitational pull of any star or constellation has any effect whatsoever on a person's personality, as well as somehow indicate how his future will pan out. Why for example, is the gravitational pull of Jupiter on a human baby such a strong indicator of what kind of person he will be, when for example, the gravitational pull of a doctor at the time of birth is much stronger on the baby, than the planet itself, given its incredible distance away. If someone makes any kind of truth claim, they ought to be prepared to defend said claim against any possible criticism. As of yet, I've never received an adequate answer to my question to astrologers.

The number of fantastic and outlandish claims in the world are numerous, and one simply cannot take the time to study them all. Yet the simple spirit of doubting, of questioning, and of proportioning your beliefs only to what the evidence suggests, is available to us all.

With the rise of the information age, there are also numerous resources to consult instantly to try to verify a great portion of these claims.

One of these is the Skeptic's Dictionary

Yet another great resource is the Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

In the end, the only people we can trust is ourselves.
Why should we take anything anyone says as true?

We shouldn't.

Cogita Tute-Think for yourself.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Vaccines and Religious Exemption

In February, two OU freshmen were diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. In brief, meningitis refers to an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, known collectively as the meninges. Left untreated, bacterial meningitis is almost always fatal.

In other words, it’s nothing to kid around about.

As it turns out, both students had been vaccinated for meningitis—but that vaccine covers only four of the five main strains of the disease. Though they are a startlingly effective preemptive measure, most vaccines cannot promise 100% immunity.

I bring this up nearly three months later in light of a new development. As reported by the Post last Thursday, three Ohio state senators have introduced a bill that would require all students to receive a vaccine for bacterial meningitis and hepatitis B if living on campus at any college or university in Ohio. I applaud the efforts of these senators to ensure the health and safety of Ohio students—that’s us—but a particular detail of the report caught my eye. Perhaps unsurprising, a stipulation of the bill is that students should be able to waive the requirement on grounds of religious exception.

I will note here that the article also reports that students should be able to forgo vaccination on grounds of risks to their personal health. The safety of vaccination is a can of worms that I’m not particularly interested in discussing in this post, but I will state first and unequivocally that these sorts of appeals bear little weight in my mind. Vaccines are safe and effective. And any portion of the population which remains unvaccinated is a risk to public health. Period.

That’s that. But for students to resist vaccination and consequently become a risk to the health of innocent bystanders—and I want to make it clear that the following thoughts are directed specifically to students in dorm, as they will be the ones affected by this pending legislation—on grounds of religious conviction? For me at least, this is where things get interesting.

The Rules of Exemption

How exactly is religious exemption defined? According to Florida “vaccine awareness group K.N.O.W., “religious exemption is for anyone who has a sincere religious conflict with vaccination.” I’m particularly amused by the idea that exemption might only be granted on the basis of “sincere” religious conflict. I’ve yet to come across any litmus test or gold standard for religious sincerity. The wording is especially interesting to me because the K.N.O.W. FAQ also states that no agent may have the authority to request proof of the dissenter’s religious belief, nor are they able inquire about or discriminate between religious denominations.

In other words, you’re “sincerely religious” if you say you are. And why not? I have no problems there. I certainly don’t doubt the religious sincerity of many of my friends and family members. What I am troubled by is this: by these rules, it follows naturally that you can, as a dorm-dwelling student, forgo vaccination if you feel like it— and that’s all the reason you need.

Equally interesting is the group’s attempt to list the reasons that constitute a religious conflict, which reads as follows:

All vaccines are made in violation of God's Word. Vaccines are made with toxic chemicals that are injected into the bloodstream by vaccination. All vaccines are made with foreign proteins (viruses and bacteria), and some vaccines are made with genetically engineered viral and bacterial materials.

A conflict arises if you believe that man is made in God's image and the injection of toxic chemicals and foreign proteins into the bloodstream is a violation of God's directive to keep the body/temple holy and free from impurities.

A conflict arises if you accept God's warning not to mix the blood of man with the blood of animals. Many vaccines are produced in animal tissues.

A conflict arises if your religious convictions are predicated on the belief that all life is sacred. God's commandment "Thou Shall Not Kill" applies to the practice of abortion. When you believe that the practice of abortion should not be encouraged or supported in any way, a conflict arises with the use of vaccines produced in aborted fetal tissue even though you did not have any other connection with the abortions from which the vaccines are derived.

While I find these particular appeals mundane, it is interesting at least that they might try to distill a finite set of religious incompatibilities, and with an obvious bias toward the dogma of conventional fundamentalist Christianity. It almost seems that, for a moment, they’ve forgot their self-imposed rule—that they remain open to any and all convictions and creeds. Where are the rules to protect dissenting Pastafarians?

The Dangers of Exemption

All of that is interesting, but I’ve yet to get to the real heart of my concern. This new law in the Ohio senate was proposed for a reason—the measures therein are important, maybe even vital, to ensuring the future health and safety of students. Disease is dangerous. Disease kills.

Let me repeat that. Disease kills.

If you are not vaccinated, you’ve been negligent in regards to your own health. But worse-- because even those who have been vaccinated are still susceptible, you’ve become a danger to everyone around you. You are a risk to public health.

Most people reading have probably lived in a dorm at some point or another, and could attest to their relative filthiness. When you’ve got this many 18 year-olds living together in such close proximity, and sharing so much of their living space, what else could you expect? In dorms, kids get sick—and the sickness spreads.

Here’s the crux of the problem: Admission into a public university is a privilege, not a right. If you cannot adhere to the basic health standards of that university, for any reason, you do not deserve a free pass. If you cannot attend a university--and especially be admitted to live in its dormitories--because you refuse vaccination, how unfortunate for you. And if you’re really smart? How unfortunate for academia.

But how fortunate for everybody else.

This isn’t a matter of respect or tolerance or sensitivity. These things are all important—incredibly important—but their significance drops proportionately in the face of such a serious health risks.

Consider for a moment that the courts have successfully outlawed cigarette smoking in all public buildings in Ohio. While I support those laws for personal reasons, let’s be frank—the primary health concerns that sparked that legislation is dubious at best. Living with a smoker may be a danger to your health. Eating dinner next to one is simply unpleasant.

So I wonder why we aren’t able to seek religious exception to that law? “Pardon me sir, but I really must light up—it’s my religion, you see.”

I think a compelling parallel could be drawn here to the student who is admitted into a university dorm and chooses not to be vaccinated—and in this case the health concerns are very real.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the Bermuda Triangle...

I'm sure most of us who have watched the History and Discovery Channels (which is unfortunate actually, to see some of the few channels dedicated to science and the persuit of truth succumbing to such fantasies as cryptozoology and the paranormal), are familiar with the Bermuda triangle. What is the Bermuda Triangle?

"The Bermuda Triangle (a.k.a. the Devil's Triangle) is a triangular area in the Atlantic Ocean bounded roughly at its points by Miami, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. Legend has it that many people, ships and planes have mysteriously vanished in this area. How many have mysteriously disappeared depends on who is doing the locating and the counting. The size of the triangle varies from 500,000 square miles to three times that size, depending on the imagination of the author. (Some include the Azores, the Gulf of Mexico, and the West Indies in the "triangle.") Some trace the mystery back to the time of Columbus. Even so, estimates range from about 200 to no more than 1,000 incidents in the past 500 years. Howard Rosenberg claims that in 1973 the U.S. Coast Guard answered more than 8,000 distress calls in the area and that more than 50 ships and 20 planes have gone down in the Bermuda Triangle within the last century."

"Many theories have been given to explain the extraordinary mystery of these missing ships and planes. Evil extraterrestrials, residue crystals from Atlantis, evil humans with anti-gravity devices or other weird technologies, and vile vortices from the fourth dimension are favorites among fantasy writers. Strange magnetic fields and oceanic flatulence(methane gas from the bottom of the ocean) are favorites among the technically-minded. Weather (thunderstorms, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, high waves, currents, etc.) bad luck, pirates, explosive cargoes, incompetent navigators, and other natural and human causes are favorites among skeptical investigators."

I don't know about you, but when I was a little kid, the thought that such a fantastic phenomenom was real, and not only that, but also so close to where I lived (the Bermuda Triangle touches the northern part of Puerto Rico) gave me great excitement. However, is there really anything to be explained? Is there anything actually out of the ordinary going on in this area?

The short and simple answer is, probably not. If you take a look at this map, you will see just how silly the claims really are. Notice that most of the supposed mysterious disapperances and unexplained events have occurred outside of the supposed triangle. Many wreckages are not even included in this map because the scale of the map would not allow them to be shown, some were even as far away as Ireland and Portugal. How can this be?

A Square marks a ship or aircraft that "disappeared."
A Triangle marks a ship or aircraft that was found abandoned.
A Circle marks a ship or aircraft that sank, crashed, ran aground, or capsized.

I don't know about you, but I think it is curious to see that there is even a lost vehicle in the Pacific that is blaimed on the Bermuda Triangle.

Here is an excerpt from James Randi's 'Flim-Flam':
"The point is that, if it exists at all, this is certainly a most diffuse phenomenon, and it appears that it only proves, as a the old saw tells us, that 'accidents will happen.' I must mention that I refused to include on the map those alleged accidents that never took place at all or involved nonexistant craft or people. Also, you will not find here those 'vanishments' that took place somewhere along a thousand- to three-thousand mile-long plotted voyage that might have led the travelers through the Triangle."

'There are some skeptics who argue that the facts do not support the legend, that there is no mystery to be solved, and nothing that needs explaining.The number of wrecks in this area is not extraordinary, given its size, location and the amount of traffic it receives. Many of the ships and planes that have been identified as having disappeared mysteriously in the Bermuda Triangle were not in the Bermuda Triangle at all. Investigations to date have not produced scientific evidence of any unusual phenomena involved in the disappearances. Thus, any explanation, including so-called scientific ones in terms of methane gas being released from the ocean floor, magnetic disturbances, etc., are not needed. The real mystery is how the Bermuda Triangle became a mystery at all.'

For the most part, the reason the Bermuda Triangle has become so famous is because of certain snake oil salesmen...I mean...authors...who have deliberately twisted the facts in order to have them fit into a particular superstitious framework. Thankfully there are certain skeptics out there who have taken it as a duty to fact check books such as 'The Bermuda Triangle', 'Mysteries From Forgotten Worlds', and 'Without a Trace' by authors like Charles Berlitz.

A good book that sorts out this nonsense is The Bermuda Triangle Mystery-Solved.

One example described in this book serves to illustrate how careful one has to be in accepting what is asserted as evidence. According to one incident, 'thirty-nine persons vanished north of the Triangle on a flight to Jamaica on February 2, 1953. An SOS, which ended abruptly without explanation, was sent by the British York Transport just before it disappeared. No trace was ever found.'

Now, lets look at what really happened:
"The flight plan specified Jamaica as a destination, it's true, and this would seem to connect it with the Triangle. But the plane, when it was lost, was on a flight from the Azores to Newfoundland, in Canada, a flight that took it along a northwesterly path away from the dreaded area! The plan called for a stop in Newfoundland, then a flight to Jamaica. Since its terminal destination was Jamaica, the promulgators of the Legend called it 'a flight to Jamaica' without further explanation. Moreover, the plane admittedly was lost 'north of the Triangle'-nine hundred miles north of it! There is no mention of the weather, but the New York Times that day reported an 'icy, gale-swept North Atlantic...strong winds and torrential rains...winds up to seventy-five miles an hour.'
Then there is the mysterious SOS signal, 'which ended abruptly without explanation.' This sounds logical enough. An aircraft, lashed by a severe storm in the middle of the Atlantic in winter, gets into trouble, radios the standard international distress call, and crashes without further 'explanation'. A tragedy, but one that has occured hundreds of times around the world, and not at all strange or unexplainable. But it would have been, had not someone like Larry Kusche scrutinized the information that the promoters of this nonsense have offered the public to make their point."

A huge problem is the media, who give these authors the benefit of the doubt. 'Uncritical publishers regularly turn out books and periodicals without checking the accuracy of their contents. They call such trash 'nonfiction', and the public assumes that 'non-fiction' is synonymous with 'truth'. Some publishers even claim that the works they publish are researched thoroughly to ensure factual content, although this is not the case.'

Kusche reviewed another Berlitz book, 'Without a trace', in which he wrote: "His (Berlit'z) credibility is so low that it is virtually nonexistent. If Berlitz were to report that a boat were red, the chance of it being some other color is almost a certainty. He says things that simply are untrue. He leaves out material that contradicts his 'mystery'. A real estate salesman who operated that way would end up in jail."

There are many such examples, I wont write all of them in this blog because it will get too long, but if anyone asks, I can provide more in the comments section. Here is one short one: "The loss of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 is a good example of Berlitz's hyberbole and evasive writing. He tells us that the Eastern plane 'suffered a loss by disintegration' Sounds scary doesn't it? The image that arises in one's mind is of an aircraft peacefully humming through the sky and then suddenly beginning to break into peaces in midair for no reason at all. How strange. But not quite so strange when we discover that the crew of the plane had switched off the autopilot in the black of night over the Florida Everglades (where there are no ground lights for reference), worked on a flight problem in the cockpit, and failed to notice the loss of altitue until they flew into the ground-and disintegrated!"

It makes for a fascinating story, if it were a Science Fiction novel, but people for some reason keep repeating these stories as if they were true to one another without bothering to ever fact check. The world is a fascinating enough place as it is without having to attribute spirits to waterfalls, and blame mysterious lost civilizations like Atlantis for the every day failings of ships and airplanes.

"In short, the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle became a mystery by a kind of communal reinforcement
among uncritical authors and a willing mass media to uncritically pass on the speculation that something mysterious is going on in the Atlantic."