The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

I’m about to trash skepticism (as a cult) but before I do, I want to recommend that you get Steve Novella’s excellent new edition of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

I no longer call myself a skeptic. Well, actually, I probably never really did, but now I’m more explicit about that. Why? Two reasons. 1) Global warming and other science deniers call themselves skeptics, and I don’t want any confusion. 2) The actual “skeptics movement” is described as…

…a modern social movement based on the idea of scientific skepticism (also called rational skepticism). Scientific skepticism involves the application of skeptical philosophy, critical-thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).[1] The movement has the goal of investigating claims made on fringe topics and determining whether they are supported by empirical research and are reproducible, as part of a methodological norm pursuing “the extension of certified knowledge”.[2] The process followed is sometimes referred to[by whom?] as skeptical inquiry.

[source]

That’s all nice and all, but I discovered that the actual skeptics movement is made out of people not quite so cleanly guided by a philosophy, roughly one third of whom are not really skeptics (such as Penn Jilette and James Randi, who allowed their libertarian philosophy to drive “skepticism” of anthropocentric global warming long after the scientific consensus was established), “mens rights activists” (MRAs) who vigorously attacked anyone speaking out in favor of women’s rights, against rape, etc., and #MeToo movement poster boys, who have for years used skeptical conferences as their own private meat markets.

Besides, I’m an actual scientist, so I can be a fan of science without having to be a fanboy, which makes it easier for me.

I started writing publicly, blogging, partly to be an on-line skeptic, to take on politically charged topics, especially as related to evolutionary biology, but other areas of science as well (and more recently, climate change), addressing falsehoods and misconceptions. But I very quickly discovered that there multiple and distinct kinds of “skepticism” make up the larger conversation.

There is a lot of very low level, knee jerk skepticism that is little more than uninformed reactionism, based on, at best, received knowledge. That is about as unskeptical as it gets. The Amazing Randy says Global Warming is nothing other than natural variation. Therefore, I will believe that. Uncritically. Some of this is what I long ago labeled as “hyperskepticism.” This is where potentially valid skepticism about a claim is melded with hyperbole. “There is not a single peer reviewed study that shows the bla bla bla bladiby bla” coming from the mouth of a person who has never once even looked for a peer reviewed study about any thing. They hyperskeptic may create entire categories of things that include claims worthy of debunking, and put all of the thing into the debunked category even if they are not.

A fairly benign example of this relates to CAM medicine. “CAM” refers to “complementary and alternative medicine” like acupuncture, rolfing, and the like. These are mostly forms of treatment that have no basis in science, and probably don’t do anything useful even if they sometimes cost real money. Hypersketpics put all CAM into the same category and light a match to it. But, there is a subset of CAM that is legit … the very fact that I wrote that sentence just there will disqualify me, and my entire post, and everything I ever say — there will be comments below that say “I stopped reading when you said “there is a subset of CAM that is legit”. OK, hold on a second, count to four. One two thee four. Now that all the hyperskeptics have gone off in a huff I can continue … and I can give you an example. There are people who undergo regular, uncomfortable, sometimes painful or sick-making treatments as part of their normal medical routine. Chemotherapy, dialysis, that sort of thing. We know that the quality of an individual’s life can be improved, their stress levels, reduced, and thus, probably, the outcome of their treatments improved or made less complicated, if the environment in which they get the treatments are more comfortable. This is why dentists put ferns and pictures of the ocean in their waiting rooms. There is evidence to suggest that surroundings should be considered in design of treatment rooms, waiting room, etc. (See for example, Brown and Gallant, 2006, “Impating Patient Outcomes Through Design: Acuity Adaptable Care/Universal Rom Design. “Critical Care Nursing Quarterly. 29:4(326-341) and Ulrich, Zimring, and Zhu, 2008, “A Review of the Research Literature on Evidence-Based Healthcare Design. HERD 1(3). They hyperskeptic wants divide the world into evidence based double blind study proven and everything else, with everything else being always wrong in all ways. (Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but only for the irony.) This concept, of considering room and environmental design, now standard, did exist before CAM (those dentists and their ferns) but the study an implementation of stress reducing design as we now know of it comes from the CAM movement. What is needed is not closing down CAM, but making it accountable. It would probably get much smaller if that happened, but what is left of it would be useful.

Having said all that, the skeptical world includes a number of excellent and widely respected actual self-identified skeptics who have science or medical backgrounds, and who occasionally write books that everyone should read. One such individual is Steven Novella, who wrote some time ago a skeptics guide to the universe. Well, that book is out of date (universes evolve) and there is now anew edition: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

Four others contributed to this volume, Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein.

I do not agree with everything in this book. For example, although the discussion of placebo effect is excellent, I have a different take on it. I like to divide the effect up into different categories than I do, and I want to make a more explicit connection between the phenomenon called placebo effect and the role and meaning of a control. But for the most part, every single one of the more than 50 topics covered in this book is well treated, informative, and enjoyable to read. (See what I did there? I was a little skeptical of the book, so now, you know it must be good!)

Do get and read this book, get one for a friend for a holiday gift, and enjoy. But right now, before you even do that, to tho the Amazon page and find the negative reviews. There are only two now (the book just came out) but they are a hoot.

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5 thoughts on “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

  1. We know that the quality of an individual’s life can be improved, their stress levels, reduced, and thus, probably, the outcome of their treatments improved or made less complicated, if the environment in which they get the treatments are more comfortable.

    Something similar to that has been posited as the reason people who swear by homeopaths (I will assume that there is no disagreement that they are quacks), massage therapists, and the like, do so in spite of the fact that there is no evidence of true medical relief: the “practitioners” of those things tend to spend far more time speaking with their marks (uh, patients) than do real doctors, and that attention is greatly appreciated.

    1. some medical doctors and dentists are too busy seeing a great number of patients per day to talk to or relate in some human way to individual patients. If that is not comfortable for you, if you live in most cities and search a bit you can probably find one that makes going to them easier. I don’t think that is exactly the main kind of thing to which Greg was referring, though. In his example, the treatment was more effective or was more likely to be sought out because stress was reduced — or something like that.

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    2. I thought that massage was one of the very few “alternative” medicine treatments that was shown to be effective and is now part of real medicine?

  2. I can’t help thinking that there’s something rather culturally specific about the skepticism described. And therefore it’s not really a pure mechanism for enquiry if its not universal. It’s got baggage somehow.
    American baggage to be specific.
    But I havnt read the book.

    Never heard of rolfing.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolfing

  3. Re: “I no longer call myself a skeptic.”

    I was sorry to read that. It seems that “skeptic” is another word to have its meaning arbitrarily made useless by misapplication. We’ve already lost the meaning of “conservative,” at least when applied to resources, “conservatives” in the U.S. government decided that the way to conserve natural resources was to use them up as fast and as wastefully as possible, then began fighting to keep any safeguards for the most important natural resources: unpolluted air and water to a minimum, so as not to get in the way of short-term profits.

    As a geologist I’m sorry to say that the mining and energy companies; major employers and supporters of the geosciences for many decades, were not on the side of what I consider to be real resource conservatism. And the actions of the energy companies in keeping the information their own scientists had found for global warming to themselves and actively sowing disinformation about global warming were simply despicable.

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