Pseudoskeptica


Well, we’re all sick, so what better to do than peruse the slums of the skeptical internet and point out all the bad arguments pseudoskeptics make in the name of “debunking” pseudoscience. I had taken this up as a hobby a little over a year ago, but, because it’s really too painful to read some of the garbage that people are willing to say in the name of debunking what other people say (whether they are debunking garbage or not). They debunk things that are both pretty out there and things that are actually true. (And things that are both.) Unfortunately, their “arguments” do little to separate the truth from the chaff.

We start with a candid confession from Abel Pharmboy:

This blog was established originally to discuss the promise of natural products in human therapeutics, particularly to identify those herbal medicines that might have some potential for utility as medicines. However, a quick review of my posts reveals a majority of reports of negative outcomes of efficacy or other problems with herbal medicines.

That’s what you get for hanging out with Orac and Skeptic’s circle. And while I find valuable some of the entries saying that optimism on herbal medicines should be more guarded, I must express a disappointment at the paucity of articles like his about page. And his entry (which I can no longer find) about shamans who adjusted dose of hallucinogenic based on metabolism enzymes.

And then there’s the high priest of skeptical blogging, Orac. Some time ago, he instituted “Your Friday Dose of Woo,” where he picks the “tastiest woo” to “debunk.” For this past week, he “debunked” Sleeping Earthed. Now, mind you, I find their claims pretty incredible, too, and I’m certainly not going to spend $289 on a conductor with a wire hanging out of my window, but I don’t go around doing the intellectual equivalent of being them up on the playground.

In his “debunking,” all Orac does (until the interesting discussion about study design) is make fun of the journal, offer a random fact or two that may or may not be related to the discussion, offer a lot more that aren’t related (how did he get to EKGs?), and made some more fun of the journal. The commenters are even worse.

Orac has some interesting comments about the study design, and I think they are worth reading and considering. The results of this study are certainly to be considered preliminary, at most (and, unfortunately, studies like this with their conclusions overstated aren’t limited to the journal in question). And I think his design is worth trying out. The results of such a study would shed more light on whether the physical contact with earth hypothesis than Orac’s debunking.

It’s really too bad, because Orac has shown himself capable of logical and skeptical thought without having to throw out pseudoskepticism, as he shows in this insightful entry on the study that says that Britons believe cancer comes from fate.

Before we leave the Scienceblogs block, we stop by PZ Myer’s house, and, after admiring the cephalopods, take a look in this room. Ostensibly, it’s about some fact-ignoring guy who’s made a fool of himself. But then we get to the end and get this statement:

Work your way up the chain: ridicule Hardison, then Larson, and don’t spare the ridicule of Christianity, either.

Why stop there. Let’s go for all oxygen-consuming life forms.

Ok, we leave the Scienceblogs community, wondering what we missed. Or not.

Well, I didn’t look too hard, but it looks like Skeptico is regurgitating Orac’s writings on autism and worrying about what Sylvia Browne is going to do next. However, I have to agree with one of his predictions for 2007, that Randi’s million will remain safe, but not necessarily because no one can pass carefully controlled tests to confirm the existence of the things Randi’s claimed to disprove, but rather Randi has put himself as the sole decider of whether the test passes or not.

Robert Carroll is offering a workshop on the deep dark secrets of getting people to think critically for just $99! Act now, only 5 days left!

Interverbal offers the interesting (skeptical and not pseudoskeptical) assessment of an autism instrument used in a study looking at methylcobalamin (a variant of vitamin B-12). I kinda have to agree with him on this one. Autism research ideally will be conducted with instruments that have already been validated, in order to compare with previous research. In cases where previous instruments don’t consider some aspect that the study focuses on, a measure needs to be proposed and justified, preferably using the instrument in a variety of situations to show its validity.

Second Sight offers some pithy responses
about NOT(Neuronal Organization Technique) but not much else. I guess,
also, he doesn’t like psychics and seems to have the sinking,
suspicious feeling that someone, somewhere, might choose alternative
medicine over conventional.

Ok, brain rot is setting in. All this subjectivity masquerading as objectivity and criticizing someone else’s subjectivity is making my eyes spin. Since I’m sick, I’ll go help myself to some homeopathic beer.

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5 Responses

  1. Not wishing to be [over] critical, for the non scientifically minded, it’s hard to tell one from the other. The air of authority that cloaks science and pseudo science is not as obvious to outsiders as to those who inhabit the exclusive scientific clubs.
    Best wishes [I think everyone has some kind of bug at the moment] cheers

  2. That’s because the lines are pretty blurry. The Wikipedia article I linked to has some good pointers for telling the pseudoskeptical arguments from the truly skeptical arguments. But consider this:

    • The Amazing James Randi (creator of the million dollar -hoax- challenge) is an illusionist. He claims that because he has mastered the art of deception, he can tell hucksters from people who tell the truth better than scientists can. He also claims that duck farts are a “simpler explanation” of strange lights than the existence of UFOs, a rather strange statement whether you believe in aliens or not.
    • Bob Carroll is a professor of philosophy.
    • Stephen Barrett, who runs the quackwatch.com site and ruthlessly chases down chiropractors and sues them often acting as an “objective” expert witness in these trials, was a part time psychiatrist for a very long time, and never worked full time in the job. He failed the board exam (and therefore his qualifications to testify as an expert witness on medical matters is questionable), and let his last medical license expire in 1993.

    Some of these other pseudoskeptics are qualified scientists. Orac is an MD/PhD (cell biology) and performs clinical research under NIH grants. PZ Myers is a biology professor, and Abel Pharmboy has a PhD in Pharmacology. They often write interesting material and have interesting things to say, but then cross over into the pseudoskeptical when it comes to matters such as alternative medicine, discussions of life force (chi, orgone energy, prana, or whatever), or protoscientific studies (i.e. areas of research in which proper scientific methods are currently being used, but have not quite achieved repeatable, reproducible, or falsifiable results quite yet). (Wikipedia has a good discussion on protoscience as well.) Again, separating good science (including reason, doubt, and skepticism) from pseudoskepticism and bad argument has to be done on a case-by-case basis.

    In short, I view many pseudoskeptics the way I view fundamentalists — using a gross oversimplification of a system of thinking along with selective exaggeration and de-emphasis of principles and claims that everybody who doesn’t agree with them are <stupid , credulous, uneducated, whatever>.

  3. “(i.e. areas of research in which proper scientific methods are currently being used, but have not quite achieved repeatable, reproducible, or falsifiable results quite yet)”

    If it’s not reliable and falsifiable then it’s not scientific.

  4. Thus they are given the name protoscience, in anticipation that reproducibility and falsifiability of some statement about the subject will be established.

  5. Well, we’re trying to do something about these problems, and started out with a nice pseudoskepticism article, which I believe expands the concept and makes it a really objective matter. “All this subjectivity masquerading as objectivity and criticizing someone else’s subjectivity is making my eyes spin.” Nice summary.
    http://wikisynergy.com/~wikisyne/w/index.php?title=Pseudoskepticism

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