Friday, December 17, 2010

It is not cynicism, it's skepticism.

I am often troubled by comments that friends make - allowing the statements to go unquestioned would go against everything I'm hoping our society could achieve. On the other hand, however, I need to balance the desire to keep my wife from getting mad at me for "offending" a friend.

Typically I simply try my best to avoid topics where pure stupid can be exhibited by those who have done little (no) research on the area of discussion. However, there are times when it is inevitable, a topic is being discussed that asks for (no, requires) a response.

When my friend responded with a statement of idiocy (when they gently punched my shoulder I joked about having just got my flu shot (I got it months ago) but they responded about not getting the flu shot because it is a "scam" - they referred to homeopathy, at first, and then vitamins and supplements - for the record they were unaware that homeopathic "remedies" were not the same as "herbal remedies" nor did they know that 200C meant "1 drop in 'there-aren't-that-many-drops-of-water-in-the-whole-universe"). I stopped, for a second, and weighed, quickly the benefits and drawbacks of responding. My skeptical side won out (to the chagrin of my wife).

This person suggested that they (and their kids) take an homeopathic (or herbal - it's the same thing to them! :) ) "treatment" and the kids "never get sick" but "when they do get sick, I give them X treatment and it works". Either the kids "never get sick" or they do - but no time for semantics. Mark Crislip ( mentioned a quote in one of his podcasts that I often attempt to repeat (but fail miserably as you'll see): "If you have a common cold and take an over-the-counter cold remedy, you'll get better in about 7 days but if you don't take anything, your cold will get better in about a week."

Regression to the mean, the natural history of the disease and the FACT that most (all?) common cold viruses are self-limiting often result in people attributing a causal effect of a (non-)treatment with the improvement of a set of symptoms. The anecdotes that follow seem compelling and interesting but, as far as evidence goes, anecdotes are of little value - whatever the plural of anecdote is, it is not data.

I thought I would speak to them, a bit, about Airborne but when I mentioned the product, they quickly responded with "yeah, that stuff works great, I take it before I travel or when I start to feel a cold coming on". It put a smile on my face, I could hardly hold my excitement. Airborne was falsely claiming that its product could prevent the common cold or reduce the effects of it and the FTC called them on it - as a result they had to refund purchasers' money (

Explaining the airborne refund lead my friend to ask "why are you so cynical?" It is a question that skeptics, on occasion, will have to face. Ironically, we're not the cynics - we have a positive view of the strengths of science and humanity - someone who believes in homeopathy or is anti-vaccine or believes that 9/11 was an inside job (activate comment trolls!) is cynical - they're suggesting that the "medical industrial complex" or "big government" is actively trying to profit with no regard for their fellow humans/citizens. We (skeptics) have a positive view of humanity, not a cynical one. We just happen to require a little more evidence before we accept a life-affecting proposition.

Skepticism is a positive and healthy approach to take. It is educational and rational and can help one avoid scams, health risks and abuse. So go out, be skeptical - you're helping, not hurting, your fellow human, your family and your planet.

(As a side note: Ironically, this person, who is rather against the idea of germ theory (seriously!), carries around a container of anti-bacterial hand wash.)


Anonymous said...

I'm a climate skeptic but I'm not a climate cynic, correct? However climate deniers might be catagorized as climate cynics perhaps? At least it's better than being labeled a climate holocaust denier. Or whatever that was back in 2008-2009 when the climate alarmists were going insane.

RealityinSarnia said...

Climate change is a controversial subject foe me. I am a supporter of "Cool It" in that there is nothing we can do at this time to change the forces of climate change. China will not stop what they are doing, Brazil will not stop cutting down the forests. We will not stop using coal and oil. Time will tell what the earth will do to counter our presence. I think it will find a way to moderate the effects. It is just too complicated to conclude anything right now. The earth will survive and so will we but we may have to adapt. That is evolution!

sarniaskeptic said...

Just as I argue against anti-vaxers using "fear" as a method to "win" the argument, I think it is wrong for people to suggest that the world will end tomorrow if we don't do something.

RealityinSarnia - I strongly disagree. To argue to do nothing is silly. (The "nobody else is going to do anything so we shouldn't either" has always been a horrible argument - this isn't an all or nothing deal.) If, in the end, they're/we're wrong about AGW and we end up with a lot of our power coming from renewable resources, what have we lost? I realize that there are costs involved but using a finite resource for electricity generation can't be the end goal.

Conversation and moving to alternate (and viable renewable) sources can't be a bad goal no matter what the driving force is.

"Anonymous" - I don't know what you are.

Do you think that climate change isn't happening? Do you think that human activities don't contribute to it (if you accept it is happening)?

I would (do) call myself a skeptic - I would never call myself a psychic skeptic or an acupuncture skeptic. Why would anyone call themselves a climate skeptic? It seems like an attempt to legitimize a position that may not be legitimate.

(I may be reading your comment incorrectly but often when people call themselves "climate skeptics" they mean that they are skeptical of the claims about GW or AGW - as if to suggest that they are holding the more skeptical/scientific position. Science/skepticism still requires you to take positions/make decisions/accept propositions with imperfect and incomplete knowledge. Doing nothing until the information is perfect is hardly a defensible position.)

Whatever it may be, denial of evidence is not skepticism.

RealityinSarnia said...

"Cool it" is about putting money, time and effort into developing science and technology to solve the problem of CO2.

Putting money into subsidizing massive Solar Farms is stupid. Putting taxes on carbon is stupid!

The answer is more nuclear! When the wind don't blow and the sun don't shine, we are going to be buying coal burning electricity from the US just across the river and in Ohio. Until there is a way of efficiently storing wind and solar generated electricity, that is not the solution. Subsidizing those generator sources are going to cost us jobs and a lot of money as taxpayers.

So, I didn't say we don't do anything, I said we do things differently than what is happening.

Don't waste our money on solar and wind at this time if it is coming at a premium. Put it into nuclear and research. Don't think pumping CO2 in the ground will do anything either! Don't use food crops for fuel too!

"Cool it" is a book and they made a movie out of it which I am wanting to see.

Ryan Hulshof said...

What bothers the most about this is this weird anti-dichotomy that happens when people promote woo.

Someone can say " vaccines are harmful and don't work. " and i, as someone who is planning on going into the medical profession ( pharmacist.) is expected to not get offended. Even if this statement is completely wrong.

Now if i were to say " actually the research that shows that, has been shown to be false, and anyone promoting it generally is selling some kind of herbal crap, or shilling ( i hate that word, but it is appropriate. ) for someone who is. " now i am making an offensive statement.

Both statements are stating that a decent chunk of the population is being deceitful, and causing harm. The only difference being the anti vax statement is not grounded in fact.

At what point did society get so mixed up in subjectivity that opinions made contrary to, or without, facts are given more social protection that those based on facts?

People get too focused on trying to be the most open minded kid on the playground, and end up creating a situation in which people like us are afraid to talk about our beliefs, for fear of offending someone. While those that choose to give only cursory glances at facts when making their opinion are encouraged to voice their opinions.

What it really is, is this weird social contract most people have about not bursting someone's bubble. You don't tell me how christianity is wrong, and i won't tell you how wicca is wrong. You don't tell me how ghosts don't exist, and i won't tell you how homeopathy isn't effective.

And on and on it goes until everyone is living in their own little world. And on the surface this isn't such a bad thing, but when you actually stop to think, the only people who are actually benefiting are those selling crap related to woo.

Letting someone think a ghost exists, or vaccines are evil doesn't make it so. All it does is further the goals of the Alex jones', and Sylvia Brownes of the world.

And as a final thought, why, if you actually believe you are right, would you not be willing to have a civil debate about the subject? I have encountered the " why are you so cynical." argument myself. And it seems to be code for " i know i am going to lose this debate because i have not looked into the issue as much as you. But i want to keep my belief."