Several months ago, I gave a talk for the local chapter of the Center for Inquiry Canada on the subject of skepticism and its importance in our society. Here is a transcript of that talk, edited only slightly. Enjoy. For anyone unable to access the link, I’ll post the whole thing below…
Challenging Counterknowledge: Why Skepticism Matters
‘Counterknowledge’ is a term invented by author Damien Thompson which describes a particular type of information that is pervasive in society, but which bears little, if any, relationship with reality. ‘Theories’ about Atlantis and Lemuria, anti-vaccine propaganda, Young Earth Creationism, and Hollow-Earth geology are examples of this counterknowledge, along with moon-landing hoax ‘Theories’, 9/11 ‘Truthers’ and theories which claim that Barak Obama isn’t really an American. But these aren’t even the worst examples of Counterknowledge to be found. Wherever you look it seems you can find examples of forms of Counterknowledge which aren’t just foolish, but actually dangerous. Look at Homeopathy, in all of its myriad iterations.
I’ll use an example in order to make my point: Isabella was a 13 month old girl who lived in Australia. After a series of violent seizures prompted her mother to take her to a doctor, Isabella was prescribed anti-convulsant medication – the kind used to treat epileptics, in order to prevent these life-threatening episodes. Her mother, fearing that the side effects of the medication (hyperactivity and sleep loss) were worse than the problem, refused to give her daughter the drugs, opting instead to take her child to numerous alternative healers, including a psychic who argued that the convulsions were simply Isabella reliving a past-life trauma. As a result of this non-compliance, Isabella became a frequent visitor to the local hospital and eventually became the subject of a Health Services inquiry, which felt that enough of a risk was present to warrant monitoring the child to ensure that she was receiving her medication. One month before her death, Health Services stopped monitoring her and according to a subsequent inquiry, Isabella ceased to receive her medication. After the child’s death, the toxicology report showed that she had no anti-convulsants in her system; her parents had taken her off of the medication. Because the parents refused to allow an autopsy, the exact cause of the child’s death will never be known, but what is certain is that without her medication, the child’s seizures (which are life threatening, especially in such a young child) would have continued. http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/11/25/1069522605256.html
Russell Jenkins, a 52 year old diabetic from the United Kingdom, died after stepping on an electric plug in his home. Rather than have the wound properly treated and disinfected, he instead relied upon the advice of his homeopath, who directed him to place honey on the affected area. The wound became gangrenous and the infection killed him. Had he simply cleaned the wound and taken a course of antibiotics, this relatively minor injury would not have killed him. http://www.metro.co.uk/news/405720-healer-dies-after-letting-cut-foot-rot
The fact that these individuals died after following the advice of homeopaths isn’t strictly speaking, the point of the examples; each year tens of thousands of people die even while taking science-based medicine. What is important here is to note how credulous thinking and a rejection of science and evidence-based reasoning ultimately led to them (or their guardians) rejecting proven, effective treatment in favour of pre-scientific folk remedies which are of questionable efficacy at best. Modern, science-based medicine includes within it an acknowledgment of risk; for every 100,000 children vaccinated each year, one child may suffer an adverse reaction. But the trade-off is that by taking that tiny risk, those vaccinated will vastly reduce the chance that they will contract polio, measles, whooping cough, or any number of other life-threatening illnesses.
Roughly one third of Americans use naturopathic or Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM); the numbers for Canadian use are similar. In Canada, that means that approximately 10 million people use CAM over conventional medicine. Why? Modern medicine has a proven track record of saving lives and making people healthy. Thanks to conventional medicine, virtually no one dies of polio or measles anymore. The same is true of Scarlet fever, and cholera; Smallpox is all but eradicated, and slow, incremental advances in many fields of modern medicine have improved the survival rates for those with cancer, heart disease, and other ailments. We live longer, healthier lives than ever before, yet we as a society are increasingly distrustful of the very fields which have brought this moment about.
But medicine isn’t the only field where people are turning away from solid, knowable, empirical data and moving towards the ridiculous. Fully one quarter of Americans, and a growing number of Canadians believe that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were an inside job. The idea that 12 men armed with box-cutters, knowledge of flying, and an unshakeable faith in God and martyrdom could execute a plan which resulted in over 3000 dead is abandoned, in favour of a fairy-tale involving mass cover-ups, secret codes, remote-controlled jets and missiles, and controlled demolitions. It is a fable of conspiracy involving literally thousands of people, from government workers, to demolitionists and contractors, to law enforcement, fire departments, and the civilians aboard the planes and their families. It is a story of a plot that took either years or months to plan and execute (depending on the version you hear), and all evidence of such a plot has been hidden or covered up. Evidence which contradicts the conspiracy theory is used by the ‘Truthers’ as proof of an attempt to cover it up, and with each paper or report or statement by experts and officials, the conspiracy increases in size, as the authors are added to the list of insiders. These sorts of conspiratorial conclusions can only be reached if one is willing to suspend their critical faculties such that the implausible becomes mundane and acts of evil – but entirely believable – terrorism become instead harbingers of an impending New World Order. Is it coincidence that many of the websites that play host to conspiracies about 9/11 also contain links or forums devoted to conspiracies about the Illuminati, the Reptiloids, and other, shadowy groups who are thought to control the world? But these aren’t the only areas worth looking at. There is of course, the counterknowledge that lies at the heart of many religious organizations, or rather, at the heart of some of the doctrine espoused by such groups.
Roughly 40% of Americans believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that humans (and indeed all life) were created in their present forms by a supernatural being shortly after the world’s creation. This is, of course, Young Earth Creationism and if you think that its rhetoric is confined to the United States think again. In this example, we can see layers and layers of counterknowledge, each reinforcing the surrounding assertions and beliefs. That all life was specially created independently of each other at some point in the recent past is an empirical claim which even the most cursory of examinations will show to be false. The same holds true of the Young Earth hypothesis, which makes a series of unsubstantiated claims that are entirely devoid of supporting evidence. But tens of millions of people in North America and in Europe (not to mention elsewhere in the world) would rather accept these stories as truth than accept the evidence which shows otherwise. What is even more alarming is that the rise in Creationist belief in North America is being dwarfed by the explosive growth in Creationist rhetoric coming from the Islamic World – Turkey is currently the nation with the highest number of Creationists per capita to be found anywhere. The details of the arguments and beliefs of creationists don’t need to be discussed right now however; what is more important tonight is to examine how a skeptical position and the strengthening of our critical thinking faculties can help us to navigate the vast landscape of ideas and beliefs.
So now we come to the part about skepticism. What do I mean when I say that I am a skeptic? Well, without delving too deeply into the subtle but different species of skepticism, it is enough to say that by ‘skeptic’, I mean one who is guided in the formation of their beliefs by a desire for evidence and logical consistency. Put another way, as a Skeptic, my driving goal is to articulate my beliefs such that they accurately reflect reality. Skepticism places a large amount of importance on evidence; if I make a claim about the world, then I had best have evidence to back up the claim. I can scream from the rooftops that Unicorns exist and that the government is covering it up in order to keep the delicious Unicorn meat for themselves, but if I can’t provide evidence of Unicorns, then I’ll be hard-pressed to find evidence that the government is covering them up. Let’s consider it another way, and using an example which borrows heavily from the works of Carl Sagan.
Suppose I wake up early one morning to the sounds of a massive object walking past my window. I open the curtains and see an enormous dragon walking down the middle of the road. Jumping out of bed, I run downstairs and out the front door in pursuit. I run alongside the dragon for several dozen metres; I even reach out and touch the dragon’s hide. Then, the dragon launches itself into the air and flies away, leaving me standing in the middle of the street in my underwear. I now know that dragons exist! I need to tell the world! But wait a minute: a search of the street reveals no scales, no footprints, and no marks of any kind. There are no damaged cars or homes, and there are no witnesses to the event. Using some contacts I have, I make inquiries to the local air traffic station in hopes that they have an anomalous object recorded on their screens. They don’t. It appears then that I am the only person in the world to have seen this dragon – a dragon which has left absolutely no evidence of its passage. If I were to tell someone about this dragon, no one would believe me – and they’d be right to. Why should they believe something so incredible without any shred of proof? Would you believe me? Why not?
Sagan, one of the real founders of the modern skeptical movement stated in his book ‘The Demon Haunted World’ that “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”, and this is one of the guiding principles of skepticism. ‘Vaccines Cause Autism!’ Where is your proof? ‘9/11 was an inside job!’ Where is your evidence? ‘The world is 6000 years old!’ Why should I accept that when the evidence is clearly against such claims? In short, to any claim that seems incredible, the skeptic responds with ‘Prove it’. There is more to it than that however. In addition to its demands for evidence, skepticism requires of its practitioners certain skills, such as the ability to recognize fallacious – or faulty – reasoning. These kinds of arguments – logical fallacies, that is – are extremely common forms of bad reasoning. In fact, they are so common in argumentation that they are often grouped together under descriptive names for ease of remembering. Knowing how to spot logical fallacies is an incredibly important aspect of critical thinking, as doing so can allow you to avoid them. One of the reasons that they are used so often is that, on the surface, they sound like quite good arguments, and often convince people who are unfamiliar with them. I’ll give you a few examples of such logical fallacies – the most common ones.
- Ad Hominem: Otherwise known as attacking the person instead of the argument. This often occurs like this: ‘Al Gore says that Climate Change is real and that it is increasingly due to human activity.’ ‘So? Al Gore is a corrupt politician who hates American businesses because he lost his bid for president.’
- The Straw Man: If a person constructs a Straw Man, then what they are doing is mischaracterizing an argument or theory made by another and then attacking the new argument instead of attacking the original. Suppose I say that I am opposed to the privatization of the Canadian Health Care system because I feel that to privatize the system would harm those who would be unable to afford treatment, and my opponent counters by arguing that Opposing privatization is just a ‘PC’ way of saying that I am in favour of high taxation in order to cover the costs of public care, and because high taxes are wrong, we ought to privatize. This is a straw man; he has constructed an argument that I did not make, and then attacked it.
- Special Pleading: This fallacy is especially common amongst homeopaths and psychics alike. Special pleading is when a person fails to apply their principles evenly, or demands that their belief or practice be exempt from consideration for certain reasons. Psychics often are tacitly in favour of scientific methodology being used to keep them safe or healthy, but then demand that their ‘psychic powers’ be excused from scientific scrutiny for one reason or another. I’ve heard so-called psychics claim that skeptics shouldn’t be allowed to test them because skepticism interferes with psychic powers’ functioning. I’m serious. Homeopaths will demand that all ‘chemical medicine’ be subjected to the harshest scrutiny in order to make sure it is safe, but claim that their remedies and modalities are somehow ‘different’ and inaccessible to empirical research.
- Anecdotal evidence: ‘I know that Homeopathy works, because my uncle was sick once and after he started taking a homeopathic remedy, he got better!’ Such claims are problematic for a number of reasons. What was the uncle’s diagnosis? What did he have? Was it the correct diagnosis? How long had he been sick before he started taking the remedies? How long was he taking them before he got better? Would he have gotten better in the same length of time without the remedy? Was it actually the remedy that cured him, or was some unknown factor at play, such as the placebo effect? Finally, a sample size of one person isn’t really a good sample size.
- Biased sample group: This isn’t so much a logical fallacy as it is a form of bad statistical analysis. Take the example of a homeopath: ‘My patients all know that homeopathy works for them! They are all the proof I need that homeopathy works!’ But if the only thing the homeopath is doing is surveying her current clientele, then she is omitting all those people who went to her and, due to seeing no improvement, never came back. Surveying your regular clientele is artificially limiting your sample group to those people who already believe that the remedies work, while excluding those who don’t believe, or don’t know either way. This makes for incredibly misleading statistics.
There are many, many more of these kinds of fallacies, and once you know them, you’ll begin to see them everywhere you find conspiracy theories, junk medicine, and garbage science. It is important to stress that I’m not accusing all purveyors of counterknowledge of being liars; many homeopaths, alt-medicine dealers, Creationists and Conspiracists are not knowingly trying to deceive others; they are true believers who honestly think that they are disseminating something real. In fact, many of the Creationists that I’ve met – with a few notable exceptions – are True Believers rather than charlatans or fraudsters. The same holds true for a fair number of naturopaths and CAM practitioners. Many of us, myself included, often base actions off of beliefs which are factually wrong or otherwise faulty.
Part of what makes a skeptical position difficult to maintain is that it demands that we constantly interrogate out own belief systems and, if necessary to alter or abandon them if they are shown to be wanting. It is easy to be skeptical of the positions and beliefs of others; it is far more difficult to be skeptical of our own. It is because of the inherent difficulty of scrutinizing our own beliefs that many people opt more often than not to interrogate the beliefs of others, rather than pointedly examining our own. For the skeptic, encountering counterknowledge can – and ought – to serve a dual purpose; to analyse the counterknowledge claims themselves for flaws in logic or methodology, but then to also critically examine our own web of beliefs for similar inconsistencies. I used to stand against homeopathy in all its forms while at the same time visiting a chiropractor – a profession based upon a mountain of unscientific and demonstrably false assertions – the assertion that all ‘dis-eases’ arise from an improperly aligned spine, for instance. The application of the critical tools of skepticism forced me to address the fact that while condemning one form of quackery; I was participating in another, equally implausible modality. As a result, I stopped paying sums of money to a profession built upon the unscientific assertions of a 19th century grocer – and admitted to friends and family that I was wrong in my beliefs. Humble pie isn’t tasty, but it is a necessary part of a healthy intellectual diet. If for example, you consider yourself an Atheist, but you believe and follow the teachings of Buddha – including such supernaturally based ideas as Nirvana, Reincarnation, and Karma, then you may want to ask yourself how your beliefs are any different than those of the people whose religion you oppose.
Counterknowledge is, thanks largely to the internet, gathering supporters in steadily increasing amounts. The emergence of Web 2.0 – that is, the explosive growth in self-published blogs, webzines and alternative news outlets has proven to be a double-edged sword. In the face of an increasingly frantic news cycle – of the sort generated by the 24 hour news networks – blogs and other sites can serve as spaces from which to critique, question, and debate social and political issues, while at the same time serving as clearing houses of supplementary information about given topics. After the shootings in Tucson, Arizona earlier this month, while the News Channels hyped up the possible political affiliations of the alleged shooter, many within the blogosphere and elsewhere online began to ferret out the accused man’s blog postings, YouTube videos, and other tidbits of information that quickly brought to light the serious possibility of mental instability, an ‘angle’ the more traditional media had scarcely touched. But the modern Web landscape is also commonly used to market Counterknowledge.
For Creationists, no other single resource helps to bolster their worldview and provide new talking points than AnswersInGenesis an openly evangelical and deeply conservative website aimed at promoting Young Earth Creationism. The site is extremely well funded and user-friendly, and anyone who is disposed to favour the creationist viewpoint can quickly find bits of cherry-picked data and arguments to support their worldview. The same is true for 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists – 9/11Truth.org is one of the engines of the movement. Infowars.net, an online site run by Alex Jones of Conservative talk radio fame, is a fountain of New World Order Conspiracy theories, while abchomeopathy.com and The Huffington Post fill a similar role for homeopaths – and CAM practitioners in general. Each of these sites generates substantial traffic and their ideas are often found being uncritically repeated elsewhere on the Net, where they increasingly function as a sort of fifth column against science, reason, and evidence-based thinking. What’s worse, due to the incredible pressure to provide news, the major news networks in the United States, such as Fox, MSNBC, and CNN often feature guest pundits and speakers who represent these sites. Arianna Huffington is often featured on MSNBC and elsewhere and is uncritically accepted as a legitimate source of information, even though her website is one of the primary platforms for, among others, the anti-vaccine heroes Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. At other times, news agencies, in what seems to be an appeal to ‘fairness’ will engage in what author, blogger, and founder of Fark.com Drew Curtis referred to as ‘Equal Time for Nutjobs’; whereby bizarre views of fringe personalities were given equal time on the air with serious experts.
When a series of strange rock formations were found off the coast of the Bahamas for example, several news agencies featured interviews with scientists who specialized in geologic formations. These experts showed how the seemingly artificial rock formations were actually the result of entirely natural volcanic events which fracture the basaltic rocks into large, square blocks on the sea floor. Immediately following one particular interview with a geologist however, came an interview with an ‘alternative Historian’ who passionately argued that the blocks were a part of an ancient Atlantean highways system connected to an ancient harbour. By providing airtime on a national broadcast to such a theory, the news agency tacitly granted a certain legitimacy to the claim – even though there is no evidence of a mysterious sunken continent upon which lived a highly advanced civilization. News segments which discuss vaccinations for children routinely feature arguments or activists who claim that such vaccines are autism-causing ‘toxic’ substances which harm rather than heal those who receive them – despite all of the evidence to the contrary.
The role of skeptic is one that is increasingly under attack by the champions of counterknowledge. As society comes to embrace counterknowledge and other forms of irrational thinking, the task of the skeptic becomes that much more difficult, and more important. When societies cast aside their dedication to reason, science, and evidence-based thinking, they become more vulnerable to superstition, mysticism, and fraud. Children are taught that the very medicines which saved their grandparents from horrific diseases are now toxic to them and ought to be avoided, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Information systems which were predicted to open up a world of knowledge and information to billions have become some of the primary vehicles by which irrationality is spread. It is ironic that the intellectual pillars which have allowed us to become healthier, safer, and more secure are being undermined precisely because we have become healthy enough, safe enough, and secure enough to question them.
What I see in organizations such as the CFI is a potential vehicle for the promotion of skepticism and critical thinking in our communities. The CFI and organizations like it could, with a little effort, become a public resource in the service of creating a more skeptical – and I would argue, a more educated society. Skepticism, in addition to being a valuable tool, is also an end in itself; it both provides a goal in the form of developing a body politic that is less willing to be led by charlatans, con-men, and zealots (of all forms, political, social, or religious), while at the same time providing the means to achieve that goal. Skepticism leads us to question the extraordinary claims of homeopaths and conspiracy theorists; it encourages doubt in the face of the absolutism of zealots and demagogues. It also embeds within us what Harry Frankfurt calls the ‘Bullshit detector’ which can assist us not only in our navigation of the external world, but also helps to guide our inward-looking journeys. Being able to criticise and challenge the beliefs of our fellow citizens is a shallow thing if we cannot also question ourselves.
Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History by Damien Thompson
The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan – an indispensable book for skeptics of all kinds.
It’s Not News, It’s FARK: How the Media Passes off Crap as News by Drew Curtis
The Critical Thinker Podcast – an engaging and accessible introduction to the art of reasoning well.
The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe Podcast by the New England Skeptical Society
http://athens.indymedia.org/local/webcast/uploads/frankfurt__harry_-_on_bullshit.pdf – An excellent essay by Harry Frankfurt on the kinds of Bullshit that are out there.
www.skeptoid.com and the Skeptoid.com Podcast by Brian Dunning
http://counterknowledge.com/ – Exploring the many types of counterknowledge in contemporary society.
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/ – a skeptical and atheist website run by PZ Meyers
www.sciencebasedmedicine.org – a great skeptical resource for those who are interested in medicine
http://skepchick.org/blog/ – A great resource on skepticism from a feminist perspective
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_skepticism – a primer into Scientific Skepticism, or Skeptical Inquiry
http://www.skepdic.com/ – The Skeptic’s dictionary
http://www.logicalfallacies.info/ – A guide to Logical Fallacies