Skeptoid


I recently discovered my new favourite podcast – Skeptoid. From the web site: “Skeptoid is a weekly science podcast dedicated to furthering knowledge by blasting away the widespread pseudosciences that infect popular culture, and replacing them with way cooler reality.” Host Brian Dunning created this podcast back in 2006 and has done over 250 episodes. Each is 8-12 minutes long and covers a single topic such as an unexplained phenomenon (like spontaneous human combustion), outrageous claims (“ionized bracelets” will cure all your ills), urban legends (plastic water bottles leech poison into the water), conspiracy theories (doctors and researchers cover up cures for diseases because it’s in their best interest to keep people sick), and pseudoscientific alternative medicines (diluting a tiny drop of toxin billions of times until there’s none of the toxin left in the solution will cure all your ills). Dunning investigates each topic, its history, the claims made by its supporters, and most importantly, its scientific plausibility.

Note that the idea of this show is critical thinking, meaning thinking for yourself, using proper scientific procedures to investigate and evaluate these claims, not attempting to prove or disprove a preconceived notion. The idea is not “anything mystical or supernatural is bullshit”, and he does not begin a podcast on such a topic by assuming that it’s bullshit. It may appear that way though, because pretty much all of the mystical or supernatural claims he’s investigated have been bullshit shown to be either wrong or untestable.

Something that should seem obvious but wasn’t at first is the first question he asks about any phenomenon. When talking about some unexplained phenomenon, the first question is not “how does it work” or “how do we explain it”, as I would have expected. The first question is “does it actually happen?” There’s no point in trying to come up with a scientific explanation for something if there’s no evidence that it’s ever happened. How is it possible for a human body to suddenly burst into flame? Well, who cares how if it’s never happened? You also need to watch out for implicit assumptions – trying to answer the question “is there a curse on King Tut’s tomb?” assumes the existence of curses. But “have an inordinate number of people involved with the opening of King Tut’s tomb died under mysterious circumstances?” is a valid question which can be investigated.

Things I’ve learned from skeptoid thus far:

  • Homeopathy is hogwash (I already knew that)
  • Astrology is hogwash (that too)
  • Most “near death experiences” can be explained by a lack of oxygen to the brain. People who experience oxygen deprivation but are in no danger of dying report extraordinarily similar symptoms.
  • No documented cases of spontaneous human combustion that cannot be explained by a normal fire followed by slow burning have ever occurred
  • Nostradamus was a noted plague doctor who made lots of predictions that were no more reliable than anyone else’s at the time. There has never been a case of a specific incident predicted by Nostradamus that later came true.
  • The people who were involved with the opening of King Tut’s tomb didn’t die of unusual circumstances with any higher frequency than any other group of people
  • Your hair cannot turn white because of stress or something frightening
  • Reading in the dark will not hurt your eyes
  • You do not need to drink eight glasses of water a day
  • Subliminal advertising does not work. The famous experiment where ads were displayed during movies for a fraction of a second and a huge increase in concession purchases was seen never happened.
  • Nothing toxic leeches from plastic water bottles
  • You can’t die from “skin suffocation” by painting your entire body. Even if you paint it gold.
  • Claiming that a health product is effective because it’s “all natural” is meaningless. Cyanide, salmonella, and E. coli are all natural; Tylenol is not.
  • Chiropractic was invented over 100 years ago by a man who had never been to medical school. It was based on “innate intelligence”, a spiritual essence that flows through the body and can be affected by magnets and spinal manipulation. Many chiropractors no longer believe this, but they are essentially unlicensed physical therapists. Chiropractors are not medical doctors and cannot write prescriptions.
  • In a crisis, a rush of adrenaline can give you more strength than you would usually have, but it cannot give you “super-human” strength, eg. enough to lift a car.
  • Aspartame is not a government mind-control drug, nor does it cause multiple sclerosis or any other disease

A couple of the episodes I especially liked were the ones on logical fallacies – describing the straw man argument, appeal to authority, ad hominem attacks, slippery slopes, and the excluded middle. I have to admit that I’ve used some of those same types of arguments myself from time to time, so it was good to get a description of what they are, how to recognize them, and why they are not useful. In fact, they’re worse than “not useful”, they’re actively counterproductive. If you resort to one of these logical fallacies in your arguments, it’s likely that you don’t have a strong position to begin with, making your argument look even less compelling.

When you do a podcast with over 100,000 listeners talking about how a particular alternative medicinal practice cannot possibly have the effect that it’s claimed to, someone will inevitably send you an email telling you how that particular practice saved him or someone he knows from certain death, and it’s too bad you’re so closed-minded. Dunning gets lots of these, and every now and again he reads and responds to them in a show. His responses are generally funny, but can be snarky and disrespectful, and sometimes downright mean and insulting. You can hardly blame him though, considering the insults he receives. He even did an episode on who’s more closed-minded – the skeptic or the true believer? The answer: both. And neither.

I haven’t even mentioned the biggest debate of all – creationism vs. evolution. I’ve written on this topic in the past, though not in a few years. In general, Dunning’s biggest problem with creationism is the faulty arguments many creationists use against evolution: “It’s just a theory”, “it can’t explain the eyeball”, “life has never spontaneously been created inside a jar of peanut butter“, etc. Some arguments against evolution are laughingly silly: “Evolution is wrong because atheists believe it, and we know that Hitler was an atheist” (which he wasn’t). “Evolution is wrong because it doesn’t explain how galaxies and stars formed.” Even the unbelievable “evolution is wrong because some evolutionary scientists are overweight“. And of course, there’s the “excluded middle” argument – either evolution or creationism is “right” and the other is “wrong”. These are not the only two options – perhaps God created the initial building blocks of life and let them evolve. Not to mention that evolution is a fact. We know it happens. It has been observed in laboratories. The claim that there is debate among scientists is false – there is no debate.

OK, I was wrong. The faulty arguments against evolution are not Dunning’s biggest problem with creationists. His biggest problem with creationists are the so-called “young earth” creationists, who believe that the Bible is literally true and scientifically accurate. The earth was created in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago. Humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. Carbon dating (and geology in general) is wrong. Take any piece of actual science that contradicts this and throw it out and say “God did it all”. When a scientist shows you scientific proof that you’re wrong, just tell them that “God did it in such a way that all your tests are invalid.” And who’s closed-minded?

So what?

You may say “What’s the harm? So some people believe that an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell in the 1940’s. Even if they’re wrong, so what?” and in that particular instance, and many others, you would be right. But one of Dunning’s biggest pet peeves is alternative medicine. If you pay big bucks for some “detoxification” pills that have no actual medicinal value, you’re getting ripped off by a scam artist. Even worse, if you believe that every illness you have is caused by undetectable misalignments in your spine preventing some undetectable mystical field from flowing freely through your body, you may decide that seeing a chiropractor is of more value to you than seeing an actual doctor. If I had used alternative medicine instead of going to the hospital when I had my pancreatitis attack in 2010, I would be dead. My mother, mother-in-law, and sister are all cancer survivors, and I assure you that they are survivors thanks to modern medicine. No amount of spinal manipulation, copper bracelets, wheatgrass juice, crystals, homeopathy, or all-natural herbal remedies derived from ancient Chinese wisdom would have helped them without real doctors practicing real medicine. This is one of the biggest dangers of pseudoscience.

All 250+ Skeptoid episodes can be downloaded or the transcripts read from skeptoid.com, or you can subscribe through iTunes. Watch out though – there are a number of ironic ads on the site for psychics and various alternative medicines because of Google’s logic in deciding what ads to place there. I have an upcoming article on one of those.

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