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Monday, November 28, 2016

Reclaiming Skepticism

Somewhere in time, scientific skepticism has been co-opted by frauds. Masquerading as bastions of logic, reason and critical thinking, these charlatans are anything but. The modern, pop science Skeptic movement is preoccupied with debunking, targeting their designated bad guys (ie: Food Babe, David Wolfe, etc.) and promoting an us vs them narrative by using weapon words like anti-(pick a topic), denier, conspiracy theorist and so on. Allowing themselves to be manipulated by industry, with or without pay, they advocate for corporate interests in the name of science. By proclaiming themselves as Skeptics, they are able to promote a chosen agenda while pretending to represent science. This is a con game.

Looking at a popular Skeptic website for their definition of what skepticism is, we find:

"Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity." - Skeptoid

Debunking is not skepticism. Anti-theism is not skepticism. Targeting an enemy and enforcing  designated 'correct' conclusions on pluralistic topics is not skepticism. Skepticism does not mean doubting everything. Skepticism is not cynicism. It is not a tool for self-promotion. It is not an identity. Skepticism is a way of thinking. It is not a method of evaluating claims - only science does that. This is an example of the appeal to skepticism fallacy.

It is clear what skepticism is not - I have outlined many such examples in previous posts. Just as important, if not more so, is understanding what skepticism is, or should be. Let us examine the practice of skepticism as 'ethical skepticism' - a more rigorous definition of the mindset as is being espoused by The Ethical Skeptic - a man who has generously devoted time to cataloging what many, myself included, have observed happening with Skeptics on our own, but do not have the ability, experience, training, or knowledge base to so eloquently describe as does TES. Since discovering his website I rely heavily upon this information, not simply because it is the most comprehensive and current I've seen, but because his impetus for creating a resource for the public comes from an altruistic place and this most certainly shows in his writing.

Ethical Skepticism

/ Epoché Vanguards Gnosis / : a means of disciplining one’s mind, practices and data sets in order to maintain objectivity in methods of science. The positive technique of developing a neutral phylogeny, cataloging existing and new data without prejudice. An aversion to obsessing over proof or the disposing of subjects, people and claims; while instead, focusing on accruing field observations and asking the critical reduction path, value and clarity enhancing, next question under the scientific method. Defense of the Knowledge Development Process through application of Ockham’s Razor and full scientific methodology. Opposition to all thinking which seeks to surreptitiously establish power through errant science or method, religion, institution, cabal, oligarchy, intimidation or ignorance – regardless of how ‘critical’ or ‘rational’ it purports to be.

Epoché is an ancient Greek word concisely defined as 'suspension of judgement' by Merriam-Webster. A vanguard is 'the forefront of an action or movement' and gnosis is a Greek word that  literally means knowledge. Suspension of judgement, therefore, is the front line of knowledge development.

Ethical skepticism is a way of thinking. Even if you are not a scientist by trade, it is a valuable skill to have when navigating scientific matters - something we must all do to one degree or another throughout our lives. Staying objective while making and cataloging observations can serve you well in your knowledge seeking process. Being obsessive over proof, targeting and neutralizing individuals, topics or claims (ie: debunking Dr. Oz, homeopathy and UFO sightings) is repellent to an ethical skeptic. Rather primary focus is on making and documenting observations, and asking the next appropriate question in the scientific method while using the REAL Ockham's Razor and complete scientific methodology to uphold and defend the process of knowledge development. No subject should be off limits for an ethical skeptic.

An ethical skeptic ought to vehemently oppose "all thinking which seeks to surreptitiously establish power through errant science or method, religion, institution, cabal, oligarchy, intimidation or ignorance – regardless of how ‘critical’ or ‘rational’ it purports to be." This is an important piece given the prevalence of these types of agendas and those Skeptic spokespeople pushing them featuring so prominently in the media as 'experts'. Learning to recognize those who would use 'science' to manipulate the public and understanding their tactics is paramount in turning the tide on fake skepticism.

Not everyone is buying the propaganda coming from the Skeptics, however. Dissent is met with much aggression and pigeon-holing by club members, who label people as 'anti-science', conspiracy nuts and the like. These types of tactics only highlight the fragility of the provisional stacks of knowledge they are so desperate to defend. An ethical skeptic should not be swayed by this type of social manipulation. The goal of ethical skepticism is to use the scientific method to alleviate suffering. This can be accomplished by not allowing oneself to fear the hordes of Skeptics who would try to silence inquiry into taboo or controversial areas of science, and by learning the tactics of Social Skepticism and exposing them. Only then can a paradigm shift occur. 

Even if one is not a scientist by trade, a skeptical mindset can still be cultivated in areas of information. Having a science degree and being science literate are not one and the same. Deferring to other ethical and trusted experts in various fields must be done whether one has a STEM degree or not. Regular citizens can participate in the knowledge development process, and assist those who are conducting research through various means. One should never feel as though they are powerless for lack of formal degree or position. 

Ethical skeptics are growing in numbers as a direct result of the blatant pseudoscience being pushed by Skeptics. Social media has done us a great favor in exposing the true nature of these imposters. The poseurs have limited time, and as such they get more and more aggressive in forcing their dogmatic conclusions on an increasingly mistrustful public. 

The time is now to stand up to the bullies by applying the tools of ethical skepticism. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Median Lethal Dopes

Here's a trend I'd love to see die. I can't go five minutes without seeing some snotty know-it-all whipping out the same argument every time someone brings up a concern with a food additive, or other substance. Most commonly though, it comes up when talking about the worlds most ubiquitous herbicide.

Note the condescending attitude of commenters, and lack of understanding of LD50 amounts. The higher the dose, the less acutely toxic something is, which two of these fail to grasp - but we'll get into that more while we take a look at the memes that often accompany these types of comments.

Exhibit A:

Here we have naturally occurring compounds from two edible plants used as an insecticide, being compared to the active ingredient in a synthetic herbicide. Both capsaicin and allicin have documented health benefits and theraputic uses, and can be easily washed off of food. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, a systemic herbicide formulation that contains proprietary ingredients to help it work better. It cannot be washed off.  The LD50 (lethal dose 50 or median lethal dose) is used to indicate how acutely toxic a substance is. In other words, how much it would take to kill you. This has nothing to do with chronic exposure, nor does it apply to chemicals with a non-monotonic dose response. This false equivalence theme continues with...

Exhibit B:

To view larger see the original chart in PDF form.

Here is a chart comparing the acute toxicity of numerous substances - salt, caffeine, pharmaceutical drugs, and pesticides, to riboflavin/vitamin B2. It was created by a lobbying group called Washington Friends of Farms & Forests, whose secretary and treasurer just so happens to be a Monsanto employee.

Speaking of Monsanto employees...

Exhibit C:

This is one I have addressed before in a previous post, Diluting The Truth. This is from Cami Ryan, Social Sciences Lead at Monsanto Co. Sarah Schultz of Nurse Loves Farmer referenced this chart as proof that "...the dose makes the poison. This goes for anything—not just pesticides used in agriculture!" Again, for the MILLIONTH time - this is simply not true for all substances. Sigh.

And now for...

Exhibit D:

No, genius, because Starbucks serves coffee to drink, not herbicide.


Exhibit E:

Photo by Compound Interest

This one is probably the most accurate, (even if virtually no one is eating apple seeds on purpose) however, it's like one puzzle piece rather than a full picture. It's not wrong so much as it's incomplete, and misused by Social Skeptics. Indeed, just because a chemical is present does not mean that it is harmful in the amount present, but that does not mean low levels of chemicals cannot be harmful, as in the case with endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). But Social Skeptics still try to fudge that picture up as much as possible - when they aren't just outright denying their existence or avoiding the topic. It should come as no surprise then that this particular graphic was commissioned by Sense About Science, known to champion chemical products while hiding ties to industry. It suits their agenda just fine, and SSkeptics are more than happy to help them.

While writing this piece, I decided to search 'the dose makes the poison' on twitter, just to see if any other graphics came up. Lo and behold...

Exhibit F:

I typed the link on the photo into my browser and came up with a review article discussing the pros and cons of phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) on human health. 'Science Mom' Mommy PhD has badly misrepresented the information in this review in her graphic. For instance, the authors state regarding the difference in public attitudes toward synthetic EDCs and phytoestrogens: "Source, rather than evidence for effects likely contributes to this incongruous attitude." This does not jive with her quote at the bottom of the graphic. The words 'likely contributes' does not mean 'the foundation for' last I checked. The authors in the review go on to say "The 1999 approval by FDA of the health claim that daily consumption of soy is effective in reducing the risk of coronary artery disease has undoubtedly cemented the idea in the minds of many that soy is beneficial for human health." Basically, the general public's attitude toward phytoestrogens has a lot more to do with the health benefits being touted - not purely a naturalistic fallacy which she implies here. Not only that but the graphic is taking what the review said about phytoestrogens and applying it equally to synthetic EDCs making it seem as though the risk is the same from either one when that's not what was said at all. I'll tell you what's really incongruous - Mommy PhD's ahem, creative interpretation of her citation for this picture.

The fact remains, that acute toxicity, sub-lethal harm, chronic toxicity, dose, timing, sequence, vulnerable populations, and many other factors make this a complex discussion that can't be boiled down into a meme. Even so, I doubt that SSkeptics will lay off this logical fallacy any time soon, as this is one of their core arguments. It would be in their own best interests though, as this gross simplification only serves to shine a giant spotlight on their scientific illiteracy in this matter.