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The Power of Anecdotes

November 1, 2016 1 comment

I recently discussed a range of subjects with a quite intelligent and thoughtful religious person (yes, they do exist). These included topics such as whether “god did it” is a useful answer to questions we might have about the real world, what limitations science should have on the questions it attempts to answer, and the nature of morality.

Since I don’t have any particular religious view to defend I am open to look at all possibilities, but because of this I recognise that if I took all the possible sources of knowledge (all the religions, all the paranormal claims, all the philosophies, all the informal logic, and all the rigorous science) I would never arrive at any conclusion.

I would have to spend a lot of time carefully examining claims with little physical, objective evidence supporting them. I would have to reverse direction after taking a wrong turn because I followed misleading anecdotal evidence. I would spend so much time trying to collate all the various claims that I would have no time left to evaluate them.

That’s why anecdotes don’t count. In fact, everyone knows that anecdotes don’t count because they only look at a tiny proportion of them, specifically the ones which support the worldview the person favours. So a Christian will take a lot of notice of people who say they have been healed by Jesus but ignore claims of the power of crystals, or how a disease was cured after a person was abducted by aliens, or how the Asvins (Hindu gods of healing) helped a person who couldn’t be cured by conventional medicine.

I’m not saying all of these anecdotes are untrue, or that in a perfect world they shouldn’t be investigated. What I am saying is that an anecdote by itself has very little value. If we gave equal weight to all anecdotes in a fair way we would have to believe in a huge number of mutually incompatible ideas. We would have to believe dozens of gods were performing healings. We would have to believe in the power of crystals, of herbal remedies, of homeopathy, of alien interventions, and of hundreds of other things as well.

Just saying that (for example) Christian healing through the power of prayer is true but all the other stuff isn’t is classic cherry picking. If you believe in using anecdotes as evidence then you should believe all the anecdotes, not just the ones which agree with your preferred religion or new-age belief.

Or, you could believe none of them. And that is the far more rational approach that I take.

But we shouldn’t just totally dismiss anecdotes. If there is sufficient reason to think that a consistent pattern is emerging then the idea should be tested using more objective, systematic methodologies. I would suggest two approaches to testing whether the anecdotes have merit: first have an unbiased expert look at the evidence objectively; or second, set up a scientific experiment or trial of some sort.

For example, if a lot of people report that their health improves after friends and family pray to Jesus to help them (and remember that the Christian God will answer prayers according to numerous Bible verses such as John 15:7) then let’s test that claim. We know that people sometimes get better spontaneously, that they sometimes feel better because they think they should, and that there are many other confounding factors, so let’s test the claim using a double-blind trial.

And when we do we get very conflicting results. Most show no effect. Some show that the people prayed for get worse. Some show they get better. These are exactly the results we get when we test other ideas which have doubtful prior probability, such as homeopathy. Therefore, whatever the anecdotes tell us, we can say that our interim conclusion is that prayer offers no consistent solution to health problems. In other words faith healing and prayer don’t work.

Or, if we hear of an apparently miraculous cure of some sort, such as that attributed to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, then let’s have a closer look at the claims. It turns out in that case, that almost all the claims were untrue and that the conclusion that a miracle occurred is embarrassingly absurd (see my blog post “Sinner or Saint?” from 2016-09-07 for details). So we can reject that anecdote based on better evidence.

Remember, that these are interim results, but all results in science are interim so we shouldn’t treat them as any less certain than other conclusions reached in the same general area of human knowledge.

You might object and say that by dismissing anecdotes as evidence in themsleves that I potentially miss out on new discoveries. Well that is a risk I must take because if only one in a million anecdotes genuinely represent something new and real then I really can’t take any of them seriously and risk being mislead by the other 999,999. It’s that simple.

But Is It True?

October 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Today I attended a short customer services course. It was kind of fun in some ways and there were some interesting points made, but to a large extent it was just a generic rehashing of the stuff that we all know anyway without any reference to the particular issues faced by the organisation I work for.

I realised that the trainer had a particular way of looking at the world, which included using various “psychometric models” which I usually think of as being more pop psychology than real science, and I realised that everyone has their equivalent to these models which they use to try to understand the complexity of the world. They have models based on personal experience, on common sense, and on the shared wisdom of their particular community.

The problem is that these sources of knowledge are often wrong. Here are some examples…

Many people find it hard to believe that human activity can have a noticeable effect on the planet as a whole. They can’t believe that by taking as many fish as we want from the ocean that a species can be virtually eliminated. They can’t believe that by burning fossil fuels the climate can be changed. They can’t believe that pollution from farming can degrade the environment significantly.

Others find it hard to accept the findings of science. They don’t think the quantum nature of the world is real even though anyone can do an experiment to show that it is. They can’t accept that evolution is the only sensible explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. They think a simple religious interpretation of the universe makes more sense than the reality revealed by science.

And others have social and political ideologies which they cling to despite evidence. They might believe that countries which follow a more socialist political path aren’t good places to live. They might think that more guns is the best answer to increased numbers of mass shootings. They might think that free markets always give the best outcome for the majority.

Then there’s those who think organic food is always superior. Or that vaccinations are a bad thing and might lead to autism. Or that homeopathy, reflexology, exorcism, faith healing, reiki, etc are effective and a good alternative to science-based medicine.

There are hundreds more beliefs I could add to the list above but I think that is a good, representative sample and a substantial proportion of the population would accept at least one of them. And who knows, maybe they are right because it’s impossible to completely dismiss anything as completely untrue. There is always room for doubt. But a good interim conclusion would be that all of the above are doubtful at best, and completely false at worst.

If you look at a subject, like evolution, without any knowledge of the real discoveries of science, it is almost impossible to accept it. How could the incredibly complex organisms (including ourselves) on the planet today have arisen through “random trial and error” from simple chemicals in the distant past? It just doesn’t make sense.

But many things which all evidence indicates are true don’t make sense until you look at that evidence. How could anyone possible believe the completely counter-intuitive findings of relativity or quantum theory unless they were aware of the experiments and observations which show that the world at the sub-atomic level and at the greatest scales actually doesn’t work how we would intuitive expect it to?

If you consider what intuition really is – a set of heuristic rules we use to understand common experiences – it isn’t surprising that it doesn’t work in many extraordinary situations, especially those involving the most basic levels of the physical world, the most complex situations involving the behaviour of large groups of people, processes occurring over vast time periods, or phenomena outside the usual range of experiences of a person or his immediate group.

I’m not saying that everyone should re-examine all of their most cherished beliefs. I’m just saying that unless they do they really shouldn’t enter into debates with people who have actually made an effort to look at the facts.

And finally, do I suffer from the same problem? Well I guess I probably do because one of the basic attributes of people who prefer personal opinion to facts is that they don’t realise they are doing it. I do have to say though, that I make a real effort to look at alternatives to what I initially think is true and I do hold several ideas in a state where I accept they are doubtful. I think that if everyone made that sort of effort we would all be much better off.

Look at it this way: I might like an idea and it might seem to make sense, but is it true?

Nonsense is Nonsense

July 28, 2015 Leave a comment

There are many times when I have to check the date to see what century we are living in. Generally these occasions relate to crazy and antiquated beliefs, most often associated with religion and other forms of superstition. It’s difficult to believe that the outdated and ridiculous ideas often reported in the news can persist into an age where we should all know better.

So what’s the latest example of this phenomenon? Believe ot or not, it’s witch doctors operating in New Zealand’s biggest city, especially in the Indian community.

Of course, just about everyone is completely ridiculing the whole idea that witch doctor’s have any place in modern society but I couldn’t help but notice that other, very similar, forms of superstition are still accepted by most people.

For example, the claim that the witch doctors’ “patients” might be possessed by demons is (quite rightly) ridiculed, but if a similar claim is made by a person in a similar position in the Christian church it is taken far more seriously (although you do often notice an edge in those stories where it is implied, but not stated, that demonic possession is just silly).

So when one of the witch doctor’s victims says in horror: “He wasn’t a priest, he was a witch doctor!” I would wonder whether she was really all that much worse off.

Clearly from the point of view of getting a cure for whatever problem the person is seeking help for they are no better off with either practitioner, but I do have to admit that at least most priests don’t engage in such predatory charging regimes as the witch doctors do.

But what about other alternative medical practices which might not be quite so obviously false but might involve similar substantial fees for something which doesn’t work (beyond placebo effect, of course). What about our old friend homeopathy, for example?

Let’s compare witch doctors and homeopaths: they are both engaged with a superstitious worldview which has been discredited many years ago, they both promote medical techniques which have no credibility and have been shown not to work, they both accept substantial fees for the provision of these services, and they both exist in an unregulated environment where “anything goes”.

You might say that the patients (or victims if you prefer) who engage the services of these people are doing it as a result of a freely made decision and yes, I can see the merit in that point, so maybe we should be doing more (as a society) to point out how ridiculous these ideas are.

But that doesn’t just mean we should continue to ridicule witch doctors. Let’s extend that and also deride any belief in demonic possession, any idea that “vibrations” remain and have a medical effect even after all the original substance is gone, any belief that crystals have some mysterious healing energy, and all other support for potentially harmful superstitious beliefs.

And let’s extend that to a lesser extent to other therapies too. For example, there is little chance that acupuncture and chiropractic have any merit, at least in their pure forms. These aren’t as silly as demonic possession, of course, but they still deserve a healthy dose of skepticism.

In summary, I think it’s quite unfair to just pick on the Indian witch doctors (has anyone noticed a potentially racist element here?). If we are going to criticise dishonest, superstitious forms of healing let’s look at them all, including those with a certain amount of support in the mainstream.

After all, nonsense is nonsense, no matter what it’s origin.

SCAM

June 8, 2015 Leave a comment

As a skeptic, and someone dedicated to establishing the objective truth of various phenomena, I sometimes feel quite depressed when I see how many forms of pseudo-scientific, semi-intellectual, superstitious, and new-age beliefs are still quite popular.

But then there are times when it seems that some progress is being made too. For example, recently Australian doctors have been told to not prescribe homeopathic remedies, and pharmacists have been asked to strip them from their shelves. This has come from the official body for Austrialian GPs which has concluded that homeopathic products have no health benefits above placebo.

Before I go any further I should tell you exactly what homeopathy is. This is the dictionary definition: “a system of complementary medicine in which ailments are treated by minute doses of natural substances that in larger amounts would produce symptoms of the ailment”. For example, a homeopath might suggest a small dose of caffeine to cure poor sleep.

When I say small doses I really do mean small. In classic homeopathy the dose is usually so small that there is literally nothing left of the actual “active” ingredient and all that actually exists in the product is water (or filler if the remedy is in solid form).

Some forms of homeopathy have real doses of herbs and other naturally sourced components. In this case it really isn’t homeopathy any more, it’s herbal medicine, and the efficacy of that is another subject entirely (I would say the vast majority of herbal remedies do nothing, some might help a bit, and others will make things worse). I’m really talking about classic homeopathy (which was really invented in the early 1800s) here.

Here’s some of the nonsensical bullshit describing homeopathy I found on one of their more lucid web sites: “Today, homeopathic medicines are safe for all to use. They are dispensed as highly dilute, sub-molecular remedies that are free of the chemical side effects associated with other medicines.”

Well yes, that’s probably true. Since they do nothing they are relatively safe apart from possibly being used instead of a real drug which might help. And because they have nothing in them (apart from water or filler) then they are free from side-effects. In fact they are free from all effects!

Here’s some more: “The nature of potentisation is the mystery of homeopathy. What is understood is that the potentisation process imprints energetic information from the original substance onto the diluting liquid during the stages of succussion.”

Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand this because there is actually nothing to understand. It’s pure gibberish, including words that homeopaths made up to describe processes which don’t exist. Note this phrase “imprints energetic information” which is a classic in many forms of pseudoscience. When you see that you know you’re dealing with pure gobbledegook!

Finally, there is this: “This liquid is then prescribed according to the law of similars as either drops or medicated pilules to the unwell person. They carry the energetic information into the body to trigger a self healing reaction that moves the person back to a state of health.”

Pure drivel, and there’s that “energetic information” again!

I have never heard of a New Zealand doctor (I mean a real doctor here, not a naturopath, homeopath, or other quack) prescribing homeopathic remedies, although I have heard indirectly that some do. I do often see homeopathic products for sale in pharmacies though, which is disappointing but not surprising because pharmacies have commercial as much as medical priorities. So selling what people want – whether it works or not – just to make money is to be expected.

And that does bring up an interesting question. Should people have the freedom to buy products which don’t work if they want to? Well, maybe, but there a few reasons I would question this right.

First, it is against the Consumer Guarantees Act (part of New Zealand consumer legislation) to sell something you know doesn’t work, and after years of professional training all pharmacists should know that homeopathy doesn’t work.

Second, medical professionals are committed to serving the best interests of their patients, not providing them with something which won’t work and might be used instead of something which would be effective.

Third, the patient/medical professional relationship is an imbalanced one and it should be up to the expert, who has the greater authority, to guide the decision making process appropriately. If the patient really wants to use a useless or even dangerous remedy then the doctor or pharmacist probably can’t stop them (there are plenty of suspect internet sites which sell this stuff) but at least they shouldn’t be making it too easy.

So-called supplements and complementary and alternative medicine (please note the acronym SCAM is purely coincidental) have not been held to the scrutiny they should have been. Even though they are treated as medicines by some they are not tested or regulated to the same extent. The quality control in many cases is really poor, and they sometimes don’t even contain what the packaging says.

Also note that the argument that it’s better to use SCAM rather than conventional medicine because that way you avoid paying the big pharmaceutical companies doesn’t really work any more because those same big companies produce a lot of the alternative medicine. And yes, they must know that most of them don’t work!

Still, as I said at the start, there is hope because homeopathy is gradually being discredited and eliminated from sources which would normally have some credibility (like pharmacies). Maybe other ineffective or unproved alternative medical systems like naturopathy and acupuncture will be next. I’m optimistic that the world is becoming more rational and eliminating homeopathy is a good next step in that direction.

A Blight on Society

July 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Irrationality seems to be everywhere. In many cases it’s not a big deal if someone is irrational or not, for example I don’t really care about people who have crazy religious beliefs as long as they keep it to themselves… actually, who am I kidding! I do care because I just don’t like people having silly, irrational, superstitious beliefs, even if they superficially appear to be doing no harm!

But a greater problem arises when people’s irrationality does cause direct harm, as it often does in both obvious and in more subtle ways. There are so many places where obvious harm is caused that I don’t really know where to start, but climate change denial, anti-vaccination activism, and anti-fluoridation activism would be a few good examples. And that last one is the subject for this blog entry.

The issue of fluoridation has come to the surface here in New Zealand thanks to the initially successful action taken by a group in Hamilton. They actually persuaded the local council to remove fluoride from the water supply until medical professionals – especially the local district health board – and the results of a public referendum caused that decision to be reversed.

At the end of last year the Hamilton City Council ran a referendum on community water fluoridation which lead to the result of 23,000 voting yes and 10,000 voting no (on a 70 per cent turnout of voters). But even such a clear majority doesn’t make fluoridation the right decision, and neither does the fact that the majority of medical professionals support it. But, as I pointed out in previous blog entries, that does represent really strong support and if you want to contradict it you had better have really good evidence against it. And, of course, the anti-fluoridation activists don’t. Just like the anti-vaccination people don’t, and the global warming deniers don’t, and the anti-evolution nuts don’t.

So OK, debate is good, but there has to be a point where views which contradict established science are ignored unless something new and compelling is presented. But again, that never happens, because these groups just recycle the same old discredited propaganda over and over, and that wastes time and resources and often leads to bad outcomes for the majority.

In this case the District Health Board had to spend about $50,000 supporting its side of the debate, that side being the established scientific facts. And what were they defending against? Nothing with any merit, just the same old logical fallacies and deliberately misleading evidence (such as quoting the negative effects of fluoride many orders of magnitude higher than what is actually used). In a situation where health is so underfunded it seems a clear case of negative consequences caused by taking people with irrational beliefs too seriously.

The head of the DHB, who has just left the job, has said that the anti-fluoride group will never give up because they don’t look at the evidence, they have already decided what they want to believe and cherry pick the evidence (or what might be called pseudo-evidence) to suit. Their beliefs are based on an emotional attachment rather than a rational evaluation of the facts.

So what are the facts? First, fluoride is completely safe in the doses used in water supplies, and even in much larger doses the negative effects are largely cosmetic only. Like anything else, there is a level where major health problems will occur, but that is the same with everything and those levels are never approached in actual water supplies. Second, the support for fluoride leading to much better dental health is overwhelming and few experts disagree that it is very effective. Finally, sufficient levels of fluoride can be gained from toothpaste and tablets but many people (especially those in lower socio-economic groups) don’t get sufficient doses from these sources for various reasons.

So there is no real debate here (just like there is no real debate over climate change, evolution, or vaccination) and these people should just shut the hell up and go away. They really are a blight on society. If they come up with real evidence then they should have it published in reputable medical and dental journals and have policy changed that way. Oh, they can’t get their views published? I wonder why!

Consider the Odds

July 2, 2014 Leave a comment

When I debate people who believe in superstitious and pseudoscientific stuff there are a few fundamental flaws in their reasoning process I see over and over again. It doesn’t matter what the origin of the particular belief is, the reasoning tends to be the same. And it’s not necessarily that the errors they make are completely outrageous and obvious, in fact they obviously aren’t or I guess they wouldn’t be making them!

So what are these errors? They tend to reduce to poor handling of probability questions. Evaluating probability is important because, as I have often said in this blog, we can never be 100% certain about anything in the real world. Since nothing is ever totally certain when evaluating truth claims (and absolute truth claims should never really exist) it all gets back to evaluating chances.

Let’s look at some examples…

1. I’m not totally certain that evolution is the true explanation for the diversity of life on Earth but I am very confident that it is, and anyone who really looks at all the evidence fairly should reach the same conclusion. And I know that the origin of life is unknown and might always be uncertain because it happened billions of years ago and produced no fossils, but there are extremely viable theories which fit in with existing science so I see no reason to doubt them.

2. I’m not totally certain that global climate change is true and that humans are the major cause of it, but I am quite confident that it is (not quite as sure as I am of evolution but still quite confident).

3. I’m not totally sure that there is no need for a supernatural element to be introduced to explain all of the phenomena we see in the universe but currently there is insufficient reason to doubt conventional physical processes so that’s what I use as my working theory.

Note that it’s necessary to look at all the evidence and treat it all with the respect it deserves (and that will vary depending on its source) before deciding what the conclusion should be. If I wanted to pick and choose the evidence I could find “proof” for absolutely anything, and yes, that includes a flat Earth, alien reptile overlords… anything!

Climate change deniers are great at this, and because climate change is one of the least well proven theories it is even easier. But if you are convinced by the negative evidence try this: forget what you think you already know and do some searches for evidence using neutral phrases. Make a note of the evidence for and against and do take the credibility of the source into account.

Note the critical phrase here: “forget what you think you already know”. That’s the key because the underlying cause of the phenomenon I have already described is arriving at the conclusion before looking at the evidence.

And that is the real problem even though most people deny it. Obviously if biased people admitted that bias it wouldn’t be as strong, but it is always there, and that does include rational skeptics like me. I admit I assume the conventional scientific explanation is correct before I go looking but I make a real effort to look at the contrary evidence as well.

The advantage I have is that being a skeptic and science supporter I have no emotional attachment to any particular idea. People who deny science almost always have a political, religious, or some other irrational belief which leads them to that conclusion.

It’s fair enough to retain some degree of doubt over any idea. As I indicated above, I’m not totally sure about any scientific theory, but if I wanted to present a credible alternative to an established scientific theory I would need really good evidence. And cherry picking evidence from established opponents of mainstream science really isn’t good enough because these people’s ideas are generally well known to the community and have already been found lacking.

So if you want to disprove climate change don’t go quoting the ideas from a Canadian gardener (as one opponent of mine did) and if you want to disprove evolution don’t quote completely discredited pseudoscience from a religious site, and if you want to reject the findings of neuroscientists regarding the current scientific theories of mind don’t quote the musings of a retired philosopher.

We’ve heard it all before, OK? It wasn’t convincing when these points were first made and it is no more convincing now. Repeating the same discredited points over and over doesn’t make them more credible, it makes the person making them less!

So yes, I agree there are people who have alternative theories to evolution, there are some fairly credible people who doubt climate change, and there are some who think dualism has some merit, but look at these ideas on balance. Assign a probability to them. When almost every expert in the field and every expert in unrelated fields agrees something is probably true you should take notice even if you can find a few contrary opinions. The majority of experts aren’t always right but that is always the best way to bet!

If you still disagree with me then try this: think of an idea that you think is very unlikely to be true but isn’t totally crazy. For example, if you are a Christian then try Islam. Now do some research on evidence which is claimed to support this idea while ignoring the counter-evidence. Quite convincing, isn’t it? But you know it’s not true (or very unlikely to be) because you know you’re only getting one side of the story, right? Well that’s exactly how a neutral observer sees your claims.

The so-called evidence for Islam looks exactly like the so-called evidence for Christianity to a neutral observer like an atheist. You know the Muslims are deluded. Is there any chance that you are deluded in exactly the same way?

Think about it. And consider the odds.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

June 17, 2014 Leave a comment

One of the most common errors people make when reaching conclusions about the truth or otherwise of various claims involves the naturalistic fallacy. This states that natural things are good and artificial things are bad. For example, organic food is assumed to be better than “normal” food produced using standard farming techniques.

This idea isn’t totally ridiculous because many modern farming processes exist to increase the yield of crops, or to make them more resistant to disease, or to make them last better. Sometimes these aims might result in loss of flavour or even nutritional content. But is all of this – no matter how reasonable it seems – actually true?

Apparently not.

Recent evidence seems to indicate that organic food is unlikely to be much better and is often actually worse than conventional forms in almost every way imaginable. Every claim the organic proponents make is almost the exact opposite of the truth.

So let’s look at some of these claims…

First, organic food is produced by smaller operators and the whole process is more open and honest. Well no, organic food is often produced on small farms but these are controlled by the same big corporations who deal with conventional food. They use deliberately misleading advertising and cynically manipulate the rules to gain greater profit. The have also engaged in a massive propaganda campaign to influence public opinion.

Second, organic food is free of the dangerous chemicals found on conventional food, so it is both safer and better for the natural world. Actually, probably not. Organic food can be produced using pesticides and other chemicals but these must be “natural”. There are numerous problems with natural pesticides: they usually have to be used in greater amounts or concentrations, they are not regulated to the same extent as “artificial” chemicals, and because they are assumed to be safe (usually with no good evidence) less stringent safety precautions are taken.

Some studies show organic food has less pesticide residue but this is likely because only artificial chemicals are tested for. If all types were tested the organic food would probably have far greater amounts. And any small residue on conventional foods is far below safe minimum levels and can easily be washed off anyway.

So the number one reason people buy organic food is to avoid chemicals, yet the exact opposite is probably the truth. Note that there are some organic foods which really are grown without any chemicals – artificial or natural – but these are the vast minority and are likely to suffer from other problems.

The next claim is that organic food is better for the environment. Well there’s no real evidence that this is the case. When higher rates of organic chemicals are used it might mean the environment is more affected. And the lower yields from some organic food means greater areas need to be in production.

Next is the claim that organic food tastes better or is more nutritious. There is no consistent evidence supporting this claim either, except that some organic food has slightly higher concentrations of some nutrients, but this might be just because organic food tends to be smaller which naturally increases concentrations of everything.

So it’s far from clear that organic is better in any way. At the very best the results are mixed and both methods of production have their benefits. Maybe the biggest problem is that what might have been at one time a genuine attempt to grow better produce in a more sustainable way has now been hijacked by big business (this is based on US data and it might not be as bad in other countries).

In the US organic food costs about three times more than conventional. For that you get something which is probably less safe, often worse for the environment, is unlikely to have any health or taste benefits, and just makes big corporations even richer. If that’s what you want then go ahead, buy organic. But just be aware that things aren’t always what they seem!