Science: Logical fallacies Part 1

Logical fallacies have less to do with science and more to do with logic. Logic itself is a massive subject and one that can take a lifetime to master. Thankfully today we’ll only be covering a small section of logic. There are generally around 30 logical fallacies, although sometimes they can get broken down into more for clarity. To keep things simple I’m going to limit us to 5 fallacies at a time, otherwise these posts could end up being very long indeed.

Fallacies are categories of fallacious thinking. In a nutshell this means constructing an argument based on poor reasoning. Honestly this definition is pretty harsh. The reason logical fallacies are so important to understand in regards to science is because we all make them, and far more often than you might think. As you’ll see, some fallacies could even be linked to the shortcuts our brains take, which is often an evolutionary advantage despite being illogical. Getting past some of these is extremely difficult, as they’re practically hardwired into us. However, if we wish to uncover the truths of our world it is important we understand these fallacies, as they can be quite crippling to furthering our understanding.

Before we dive into the actual fallacies, lets briefly cover a little logic 101.

LOGIC 101

All arguments follow a certain structure. An example of this might be:

Premise 1: A = B.

Premise 2: B = C.

Conclusion: Therefore A must also = C.

A more tangible example of this might be:

Premise 1: Cows are mammals

Premise 2: All mammals are warm-blooded

Conclusion: Therefore cows are warm-blooded.

This is all very basic right here, but at the end of the day most arguments boil down to something very similar. Now for an argument to be believed it needs to be both ‘sound’ and ‘valid’. But what does it mean to be both sound and valid?

A valid argument is one in which the premises follow, as with the example above. An example of an invalid argument might be:

Premise 1: Cows are mammals

Premise 2: All reptiles are cold-blooded.

Premise 3: A cow is not a reptile.

Conclusion: Therefore a cow must be warm-blooded.

The problem with this argument is that although all reptiles are cold-blooded, that doesn’t immediately mean everything that isn’t a reptile is warm-blooded. What’s particularly interesting about this argument is that although it is not valid, the conclusion is still true. Just because an argument is invalid or unsound doesn’t immediately make the conclusion false. It just means it’s not true for the reasons the arguer is putting forth.

A sound argument is one in which the premises are true. An argument can be valid (everything follows), but unsound (the premises are untrue). An example of this might be:

Premise 1: Cows are reptiles.

Premise 2: All reptiles are cold-blooded.

Conclusion: Cows are cold-blooded.

As you can see here, the logic is valid. If cows were reptiles and reptiles were cold-blooded, then cows would be cold-blooded. But as I’m sure you know, cows aren’t reptiles. This argument is valid, but not sound.

The final example is that of an argument that is sound, but not valid. These probably won’t come up as often as they’re easier to spot, but for consistencies we’ll cover it.

Premise 1: Cows are mammals.

Premise 2: Lizards are reptiles.

Conclusion: Cows eat grass.

All these statements are true (sound) but the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises.

The one final thing worth mentioning in this logic 101 course, is that of assumptions. There are many gaps in our knowledge. In some cases we have a pretty good idea of what is likely, although we don’t know for certain. Using these ideas as premises can be dangerous, because if our assumptions are wrong then the argument may suddenly become invalid or unsound without our realising it. Where possible, try to avoid assumptions in arguments. That said, it is perfectly acceptable to use assumptions, it’s just fair to let the person you’re debating with know it’s an assumption. If they have a different assumption you may find yourselves with different conclusions and not understand why.

LOGICAL FALLACIES

So let’s take a look at a couple of starter fallacies.

Ad hominem

Ad hominem is Latin for “to the man”. This is where someone chooses to attack the arguer, rather than the argument. The idea is that if you discredit the arguer people will no longer listen to their point of view. Unfortunately this can be quite effective, but we should recognise it for the logical fallacy it is.

An example might be: “He’s just a Bible thumping Creationist; he doesn’t know anything about evolution.”

Of course the flip is equally true: “She’s an atheist, so she doesn’t get why religion is important to people.”

Although it might be true that ‘he’ doesn’t know anything about evolution nor ‘she’ about religion, it’s not true because of the first premise. For clarity, let’s break it down into our logic 101 system.

Premise 1: He’s a Bible thumping Creationist.

Premise 2: Creationists know nothing about evolution.

Conclusion: He knows nothing about evolution.

Hopefully you can see that ad hominem fallacies are valid, but unsound. That is, the premises logically follow, but premise 2 is not true.

Argument from personal incredulity (AKA: Argument from ignorance)

This is one of my personal favourites, because I see it coming up so frequently. Basically this argument amounts to:

X happens.

Y appear to be the only explanation.

Therefore Y is the answer.

Going back to our logic 101, this is an example of an invalid argument (doesn’t follow), however, it doesn’t immediately mean the conclusion is false. The conclusion very well may be true, but not for the reason the arguer is presenting.

This is also stepping into assumption territory. The arguer is assuming that Y is the correct answer, while other people may not make that assumption.

The reason this type of argument is fallacious is because the arguer may simple not be aware of other explanations. Just because you can’t imagine an alternative explanation doesn’t mean the one you have is correct.

Two of the most common examples of this type of fallacy I’ve seen are:

Premise 1: The universe is incredibly complicated.

Premise 2: Only an incredibly intelligent agent could create something so complicated.

Premise 3: God is an incredibly complicated agent.

Conclusion: God created the universe.

Premise 2 is our issue here (although there’s another fallacy hidden in Premise 3). It is a big assumption to conclude only intelligence can create complexity. Not only do we have counter examples of this, but there’s a whole universe of undiscovered things out there that could provide an alternative answer.

The other is most commonly used to explain UFO sightings:

Premise 1: I saw some strange lights in the sky.

Premise 2: Alien spacecrafts make strange lights in the sky.

Conclusion: I saw an alien spacecraft.

It may be true that alien spacecrafts could make lights in the sky. Our spacecraft do, so why not theirs? The assumption here is of course that these lights are in fact of alien origins and not our spacecraft. Oftentimes people who claim to have spotted UFOs say they moved in very strange ways. Ways that would be impossible for anything humans have created to move.

But that too is an assumption. Isn’t it at least possible (in this writers opinion, more likely) that the military happen to have made something that can move in very complicated ways that the sighter simply isn’t aware of?

Okay guys, this post is now over 1,000 words, so rather than tackling another 3 fallacies I’m going to leave it there. If you’re new to the ideas of valid and sound arguments this will no doubt be plenty for you to think about. In the next post I’ll pick up where we left off with another 5 or so fallacies.

Science: Introduction

Hello readers. My apologies for the extended hiatus. I’ve been gone for far too long, but I promise there is a good reason for it. You see, I set myself a rather ambitious task just before disappearing and it’s taken me this long to do the research for it. I honestly bit off a little more than I could chew too, and lost quite a bit of motivation as a result.

Fortunately, reading Carl Sagan’s ‘The Demon Haunted World’ has not only helped inspire me, it helped with quite a bit of the research I needed to do, compiling a lot of it all in the one place.

Anyway, the project I’ve been wanting to attempt is to give a broad overview of science. Since becoming an active atheist and engaging people in many discussions and debates, one thing I’ve found incredibly prominent is a terrible misunderstanding of what science is, what it does, how it works and why we use it. Frequently I find people have some issue with science, but upon examination I discover what they have is a strawman argument (don’t worry, we’ll be coming back to exactly what that is later) and that the problem isn’t with science, but with their understanding of science.

Frankly this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. The science people are taught in high school is an introductory course and often doesn’t cover many of the fundamentals. It’s only those who continue to study the subjects into late high school or better yet university, who learn all these details.

The rules of scientific investigation are extremely strict. Much more strict than the average person needs in their day-to-day life. The kind of skepticism needed to study quantum mechanics is vastly more strict than the skepticism required to discuss your weekend plans with a friend. Because of this most people don’t need scientific logic in their day-to-day lives and therefore have no desire to learn it in-depth.

The point I’m trying to make here is that if you haven’t heard of the topics we’ll be covering in the next few posts don’t feel put out. You’re not dumb, nor did you have a sub-par education. It’s a state most people find themselves in and most of us have little reason to fill this gap in our knowledge.

That said, here at Inquisitive Bliss we’re all about learning for the sake of learning, so come along for the ride and hopefully you’ll discover something new. Maybe you’ll even find a new-found passion for the subject. At the very least I hope you’ll have a deeper appreciation of science and it’s methodologies and maybe even discover some uses for a few of the topics.

There’s a number of topics I’d like to cover during the next few posts. This list may shrink or grow depending on my needs, but this is what I’m hoping to cover:

  • What is science?
  • What is the scientific method?
  • Falsifiability and why it’s important to finding knowledge.
  • The peer review process.
  • Correlation vs Causation.
  • Occam’s razor.
  • Logic and logical fallacies.
  • Science vs pseudoscience

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for the next few posts which will cover logical fallacies.

The case for Christ: Chapter 1 – Eyewitness Testimonies

‘The case for Christ posts’ are all in relation to a particular book by Lee Strobel, oddly enough entitled ‘The case for Christ’. It’s not often one has the opportunity to read such a well written piece of propaganda. These posts are intended to break down the book chapter by chapter and explain what is wrong either logically or factually in each. By the end of it hopefully readers will be more aware of what to look out for in biased writings.

Before the Interview

Strobel’s first interview is with a fellow named Craig Blomberg. A reputable enough fellow he seems a reasonable choice for an interviewee.

Before Strobel even gets started with the interview he’s already making mistakes. Firstly he places great importance on eyewitness testimony. This is already fraught with danger as we know these kinds of testimonies are often inaccurate. I could dedicate an entire post to how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, so I won’t go into any extra detail here, but just because you have a witness or two doesn’t prove the kinds of extraordinary claims Strobel would like you to believe. It makes even less sence to place such importance on claims made by people over 2,000 years ago, who spoke a different language, who lacked critical thinking education and who’s mental states we can only guess at.

The next big mistake Strobel makes (again before the interview) is to say that

“…eyewitness testimony is just as crucial in investigating historical matters – even the issue of whether Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God”.

The fact of the matter is no amount of eyewitness evidence could ever prove such a thing. Even if we could confirm that everyone in the Gospels is who they say they are, and that the testimonies they have given are accurate we could still not conclude that Jesus was the son of God. It would only prove the man could do amazing things and claimed to be the son of Yahweh. Another explanation is that he could have been the son on Zeus. Or an Alien with superior technology. Or a human, but from the future. The list of alternative explanations goes on. The best we could conclude from eyewitness testimonies is that the man (if he was a man) could do some spectacular things.

Again before the interview, Strobel asks the reader

“…how well would these accounts” (the eyewitness testimonies) “withstand the scrutiny of skeptics?”

At no point does Strobel actually consult a skeptic to answer this question. A sure sign of biased journalism.

Who Wrote the Gospels?

The first answer Strobel gets from Blomberg is

“It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous. But the uniform testimony of the early church was that Matthew…was the author of the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark…was the author of the gospel we call Mark; and that Luke…wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles”.

I’m not sure I’d go as far to say the Church’s teachings were “uniform” but it is certainly true that the early Church did teach this. What’s important here is not the answer given, but the way Strobel uses this information in later chapters. Right now Blomberg’s answer is ‘We can’t be certain who wrote the Gospels, but the Church believed they knew who the authors were’. Later Strobel creates arguments based on the assumption that the Church was right, completely ignoring the possibility that they may have been wrong. We’ll return to this idea later.

There is in fact strong evidence to suggest the Church was wrong on these facts. Firstly, none of the Gospels name the author. Surely if one of the Apostles wrote a Gospel they’d feel the need to attach their name to it, thus giving it extra credibility as an eyewitness account. But none of them do.

The Gospel of Matthew is written completely in the third person. In reference to Jesus and his disciples it always refers to “they”, not “we”. Even when Jesus calls the disciple Matthew to join him, the text reads “him”, not “me”. Very strange wording, assuming Matthew the Apostle actually wrote it.

The final few verses in John also eliminate the writer as being one of the Apostles. John 21:24 reads

“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”

Note the use of “we” here. It is referring to the writer and the reader, in reference to the disciple. This means the writer is differentiating himself from the disciple. The Gospel itself is quite clear that the writer was not one of the disciples.

As for the other two Gospels, Mark and Luke, although there is no strong evidence against the Church tradition (Mark was a follower of the Apostle Peter and Luke was a follower of Paul), there is also no good reason to think any of it is true. Neither Gospel mentions who its author is and all we have to go on is what the Church wants us to believe. But should we trust them?

Should we believe the Church?

Strobel then asks Blomberg whether anyone would have reason to lie about the Gospels authorship. Blomberg reasons that because Luke and Mark weren’t actually disciples, and that because Matthew was most likely the least liked Apostle (being an ex-tax collector) it is unlikely anyone would make this up. It would be far more convincing to attribute these works to actual disciples (or at least likable ones), than to choose these three people. But this isn’t necessarily true. Perhaps the author was especially crafty, and realising this logic deliberately chose some less renowned names to give that extra credibility. Or perhaps by the time the author was writing many of the disciples had already died. Obviously a dead man couldn’t write a book, so it would be much more believable to use a close friend. Blomberg is clearly biased by his own desires and doesn’t want to consider the possibility of deceit.

Finally it needs to be noted that Blomberg finishes this section by stating

“the gospel [John] is obviously based on eyewitness material, as are the other three gospels”.

Not only is this clearly wrong, as two of the gospels attest to, there’s no good reason to think it’s right.

There is one final quote in regards to John’s gospel that is worth noting. Blomberg says:

“For many years the assumption was that John knew everything Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote, and he saw no need to repeat it, so he consciously chose to supplement them. More recently it has been assumed that John is largely independent of the other three gospels, which could account for not only the different choices of material, but also the different perspectives on Jesus”.

The question must be asked, if John is truly one of the disciples, as was Matthew, how can they be independent? For the most part these two were together with Jesus during his ministry. It is very odd that two people would have such radically different views, both on the events of Jesus’ ministry and of Jesus himself.

Early Writings

In the next section Blomberg tries to give specific evidence as to why he believes the gospel writers are who the Church claims they are. He cites Papias, an early Christian writer saying Papias confirms it was Mark, the follower of Peter, who wrote the Gospel. Blomberg says Papias wrote that Mark “made no mistakes” and “did not include any false statement” and that “Matthew had preserved the teachings of Jesus as well.” Blomberg glosses over Papias, which is a mistake as there are several issues with his writings.

Firstly this is an exaggeration on what Papias wrote about Mark. The text actually reads:

“For he was intent on just one purpose: not to leave out anything that he heard or to include any falsehood among them”.

A valiant effort no doubt, but a far cry from his writings being free from error.

It’s also worth mentioning that this just isn’t true. The Gospel of Mark is not terribly long. Surely if Mark has written down everything that Peter had told him the book would be vastly longer.

As for Papias’ writing on Matthew, he doesn’t say where he received his information or when. Papias wrote somewhere between 110-140AD. This is more than enough time for the myth of authorship to build up. Papias writes that

“Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue.”

Firstly, there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest all the gospels were originally written in Greek, and secondly, the gospel of Matthew is much more than a composition of sayings. Is Papias even referring to the gospel of Matthew as we know it today?

As a final note, most historians don’t place great importance on Papias’ writings. Although there is no reason to think these specific quotes are incorrect it is well-known that a lot of Papias’ writings are wrong. Unless these writings can be confirmed elsewhere, it is difficult to give them much credibility.

Blomberg then refers to the writings of Irenaeus, which does verify the Church’s teachings of the authorship of the four gospels. The problem is that Irenaeus was writing in ~180AD, more than enough time for the mythical tradition to have built up.

Deliberations:

At the end of each chapter are a series of questions for reflection and further thought. I intend to answer all of these.

1. How have your opinions been influenced by someone’s eyewitness account of an event? What are some factors you routinely use to evaluate whether someone’s story is honest and accurate? How do you think the gospels would stand up to that kind of scrutiny?

We are fortunate enough with the gospels that we have multiple accounts to go off, and not only those found in the Bible. This is truly fantastic, because one thing I would use to evaluate the accuracy of someone’s story would be to compare it with other’s who were there at the same time.

Unfortunately the gospels differ significantly, both in their recording of history and their theological opinions. This is quite forgivable if the authors didn’t know each other or had heard the Jesus story much later in time, but when two of the authors were meant to be followers, and the other two disciples of other followers we should be skeptical.

2. Do you believe that the gospels can have a theological agenda while at the same time being trustworthy in what they report? Why or why not? Do you find Blomberg’s Holocaust analogy helpful in thinking through this issue?

Of course they can. But that doesn’t mean they did. Only sifting through the evidence can really answer that question. Mulling over the theoretical possibilities is a waste of time.

Blomberg’s Holocaust example is no doubt useful in terms of understanding his point, but it doesn’t get us any closer to answering the question of historical reliability.

3. How and why does Blomberg’s description of the early information about Jesus affect your opinion about the reliability of the gospels?

If you were to follow only Blomberg’s descriptions the early information about Jesus would be quite convincing. The problem occurs when you do further reading and discover the alternative opinions on what this early information may mean. It becomes much less compelling.

What I truly find interesting is how early Paul may have been writing. If Blomberg is right that Paul was writing mere years after Jesus death/resurrection, this could be quite compelling. Only further reading will tell for sure.

The case for Christ

Periodically I get into discussions with both theists and atheists online. Generally they’re useful, if for no other reason than to understand another’s point of view. But several months ago I got into a conversation with a particular theist on her blog, which has become quite enlightening. The conversation itself didn’t lead very far, as we very quickly realised we were in the ‘agree to disagree’ position. Thankfully we realised the reason for this was due to very different educations, and we agreed to try to share these lessons with each other.

This resulted in my recommending her a couple of books, and she several for me. Of all the books she recommended the one that stuck in my mind was, as you may have guessed, ‘The case for Christ’ by Lee Strobel. I’d heard of this book before and heard very divided opinions on it. The believers revere it and the skeptics can’t stand it. Hearing of it again from this passionate lady I resolved myself to rise to her challenge and get the book.

Roughly $100 later I left Amazon.com with copies of ‘The Demon Haunted World’ by Carl Sagon, ’50 popular beliefs that people think are true’ and ’50 reasons people give for believing in a god’, both by Guy P. Harrison, ‘Jesus, Interrupted’ by Bart D. Ehrman and, true to my word, a copy of ‘The Case for Christ’ by Lee Strobel. Maybe not the most balanced selection of books, but I did stick to my guns.

I chewed through ‘Jesus, Interrupted’ and cannot recommend it highly enough. Anyone who has even the slightest interest in the Jesus story should pick up this book. So far it is my favourite book on this topic. What I adore about it is that although it sticks to history, facts and science, it can be read by a believer without having a great impact on their faith. That’s not to say your opinions won’t change (I very much imagine they will, regardless of your beliefs), but it can be read without destroying faith. It is first and foremost a history book, not a philosophy book or debating manual.

Next I read through ’50 reasons people give for believing in a god’ and although it’s not nearly as good as I’d been lead to believe, it’s still worth a read.

Finally I plucked up the nerve to take a look through ‘The case for Christ’ and after only reading a few chapters came to a powerful realisation. This book is just so terrible that I can’t read it cover to cover and then write a blog post about it. It is riddled with so much bad logic, exaggerations, stretching of evidence, wishful thinking and on occasion, outright lies that the only way to truly give a good representation of this book is to read it chapter by chapter and give a report as I go.

What bothers me most about this book is that it is honestly very well written. I actually don’t think Strobel realises what an amazing piece of propaganda this is, as he seems to be utterly convinced by his own stories. But it’s not Strobel’s opinion of his own work that bothers me. It’s the fact that thousands, possibly millions out there are also eating it up, hook, line and sinker. And I truly can’t blame them. If this was the first book I’d ever picked up on this subject I’d be pretty convinced too. Thank goodness I chose to read ‘Jesus, Interrupted’ first, as both books raise many of the same points. Ehrman just does a much better job of it.

Strobel relies on people’s general lack of knowledge about the history of Jesus, and then suckers them in because it’s what they want to believe. It would be deplorable if Strobel realised what he was doing, but as he seems so convinced by his own stories it’s just kind of sad. That said, the number of people who are reading this and believing everything written within deserve the truth so they can make up their own minds about what to believe. That’s what I hope to aid with.

Let’s just take a quick look at the introduction.

Strobel is first and foremost a journalist (a point which we will return to another time), and begins the book with a story of a young man being sentenced for shooting a police officer. A vast array of evidence has been collected against the lad and at the end, he confesses to the shooting in a plea bargain. Everyone thinks the case is watertight.

It turns out the boy is in fact innocent, and the point Strobel wishes to make is that sometimes the same evidence, seen in a different light can lead to different conclusions. Sometimes all we need is to change our mindset. Although this is true at times, the way he goes about ‘demonstrating’ this is deplorable. It turns out he’s been keeping a truckload of evidence from the reader! For example, only one bullet was missing from the boys gun, but both the convicted and witnesses said they saw him fire the gun into the front porch. Shouldn’t that mean that there were two bullets missing from his gun? One for the porch and one for the policeman? Well as it turns out, yes. But heaven forbid Strobel might give you all the evidence up front to make up your mind.

The point Strobel is trying to make is that opinions can influence the interpretation of the evidence. He’s trying to be all scientific. But that’s not at all what’s going on here. The truth is he’s just conveniently ignored some rather damning evidence, which is completely the opposite of scientific. A scientific theory is meant to encompass all the available evidence. If it doesn’t, then you have a great big gap in your theory. You need to account for that evidence, not just ignore it because it’s inconvenient!

Strobel admits up front he was convinced of the boys guilt. But that’s not because the case was truly open and closed. It’s because he’s just not very good at accounting for all the evidence, and can easily be lead astray by the pressure of others (the police in this case). Strobel demonstrates this in the next few paragraphs when he talks about his previous atheism.

In regards to his earlier, atheistic beliefs about Jesus, Strobel admits he’d only ever taken a “cursory look” at the evidence. But it’s quite clear he also only took a cursory look at the evidence for a scientific worldview. He refers to evolution as a satisfactory explanation for “how life originated”. No, evolution only speaks on how creatures changed after their origins. If you want to learn the origins of life, you’ll need to research abiogenesis. This is incredibly basic stuff.

I don’t think Strobel is a particularly well read theist, but by the sounds of it, he was also a poorly read skeptic. And this theme carries on for at least the next few chapters, if not the entire book.

Over the course of the book Strobel interviews 13 academics (but not 1 skeptic – not very journalistic either apparently) and each chapter is dedicated to a new interview. Over the next few weeks I’ll be reading each chapter and writing a summary. At the end of each chapter there are a group of questions for further thinking. I’ll also be writing my answers to these.

So brace yourselves. This is going to be a long ride but hopefully a worthwhile one. Let’s dig into ‘The case for Christ’.

Will this be on the test?

I was reading an article the other day on one of my favourite science blogs and this phrase came up. The article was actually about how few scientists there seems to be in US politics compared to business people and lawyers, but it was this particular point that really struck home with me.

The point the author was trying to make is that people are interested in what they need to know to get the job done (which is great), but aren’t interested in learning anything beyond that, even if it’s interesting, informative and might actually be useful to their future jobs (which is bad).

Homer Simpson: I am so smrtThis attitude I think, is a very rare but very good example of true close-mindedness. There are some people who are only interested in learning what they think they need to learn to get the job done, to pass the test or to get paid and nothing matters beyond that. There’s no desire to learn for the sake of learning. No thirst for knowledge.

Now I don’t want to get too high on my metaphorical horse and preach that everyone needs to be or should be an intellectual, but nevertheless this attitude depresses me. What is particularly depressing is that this is a learned attitude. All you need to do is look at a child to know this is true. The little buggers are constantly exploring, constantly learning new things to the point they get annoying with constantly asking ‘why?’ At what point did we train this beatifully inquisitive nature out of them?

Speaking of children, I can remember one such occasion back in high school where a young lady ask me “How did you get so smart?” (seriously embarrassing question by the way, but true). I thought for a brief moment before responding “I read”.

The look on her face was pure depression. It was as if to say “Oh, I have to work for it?” She very quickly changed the topic after that.

It’s not like I was telling her she needed to read newspapers and scientific papers. At that stage in my life those kinds of materials bored me to death. This conversation took place in the school library, in the fiction section! Reading any kind of literature is good. It opens you to other points of view and ways of thinking, even in fairy tales.

Honestly I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make here. I don’t know how bad this is or even whether I think it should be changed somehow. Or even if it can be changed. Only that it depresses me. There’s a kind of strange joy that many people take in being deliberately ignorant. The girl in the above story, I have no doubt she wasn’t interested in reading because it was uncool. And that’s the sad part. Firstly that it’s not cool to be smart, and secondly that being cool is more important to people.

 

-Ignorance is not bliss. Nor is it cool. Stay inquisitive.

Should universities teach alternative medicine?

I got linked to an article on alternative medicine education today and it pissed me off so much I just had to write about it. And hey, it’s been a while since I did a rant piece, so this should be fun 😀

First off, the article can be found here: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/the-question/should–universities–teach–alternative–medicine-20120203-1qxb3.html

Honestly, it’s not so much as article as it is four opinion pieces, two on each side of the argument. Can you guess which two articles are better?

In a nutshell the articles are about the ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ (FSM) lobbying Australian Universities in an attempt to get them to stop teaching pseudoscience in their classrooms. Unfortunately this article doesn’t quote anything from FSM, but the first author does specify ‘Homeopathy, reflexology, iridology, energy medicine, tactile healing and kinesiology‘ as examples of these pseudosciences.

With this, I completely, 100% agree. These subjects should not be taught at schools, and certainly not in education houses as influential as Universities. If at some point these fields receive some credibility and there is actually some proof that they do anything other than drain a patients wallet, then fair enough, teach them. But until they are dragged out of the realm of psuedoscience and wishful thinking they should not be taught. Our schools and universities are there for teaching students what we do know, not what might one day be proven.

With that we move on from the intelligent, thought out responce to the question, and onto the absolute bullshit spewed by Dr Rob Morrison a researcher at Flinders University. Let’s break it down bit by bit.

“COMPLEMENTARY medicine treatments are used by two in three Australians each year and have been taught in universities here for two decades. The recent call by Friends of Science in Medicine to ban the university teaching of ”complementary medicine” presents a sad view of science and a shameless push to censor learning.”

I’m sorry, but what the fuck is ‘Complementary medicine’? Strangely enough Wikipedia redirects to ‘Alternative medicine’, so let’s not mince words here. Giving it a different and more pleasant sounding name doesn’t cover the smell of crap.

Apparently this ‘complementary’ medicine is used by two thirds of Australians and has been taught for twenty years. Fantastic, then you should have plenty of data to prove this shit actually works. But you see, if you could actually prove it works you wouldn’t need these stupid alternative names; it would just be ‘medical science’.  Put up or shut up.

And as for a ‘push to censor learning’, fuck off you ignoramous. This isn’t trying to censor learning, it’s attempting to limit bad teaching that might get people killed! I highly doubt you would stand idly by and let schools teach students the proper blood letting techniques, and currently homaeopathy has about as much credibility.

“There are two fundamental points proposed by this group. First, that healthcare practices should be based as much as possible on sound scientific evidence. This is easy to agree with.”

Thank fucking god.

“But ”evidence-based medicine” is a relatively new approach. Most medical and allied healthcare practices have not been rigorously tested.”

I’m not sure what is mean by ‘relatively new approach’, but I’m going to take a stab and suggest that was in the last 100-200 years. You know, roughly the time people stopped dying at the age of 40. In other words, around the time medicine actually started working fuckwit. And I’ve no idea where he gets the idea that medicines aren’t rigorously tested. I can’t say I’m an expert, but last I checked there were quite a few loopholes you had to jump through before you could get your latest pills on the market.

“Second, this group argues that abolishing the teaching of complementary medicine will somehow strengthen its evidence-based clinical practice. This is nonsense. A strong link between research and education helps communicate the fruits of research rapidly and effectively to clinicians. To impose greater barriers to this is counter-productive to quality care.”

So hang on, you think that if you stop teaching people how to do crackpot medicine, whilst teaching them how to do evidence-based medicine, you won’t strengthen the use of evidence based medicine? You sir, are a fucking moron. And as for getting research to clinicians quickly, fine go nuts. Clinicians aren’t students. They should have the tools to decide what are good practices and what aren’t. And if they fuck up, it’s on their heads. On the other hand if a bunch of students from a particular university start killing off patients, pretty bad for the university. Oh, and the dead patients.

“This year, Chinese medicine practitioners will be registered in Australia…There are few cardiologists who do not recognise the value of fish oil supplements in heart disease, and few geriatricians who are not aware of the importance of calcium and Vitamin D3 for bone health…Why would we shut our minds to these possibilities?”

I really want to rip this stupidity to shreads, but I feel the need to be fair. None of these responces refer to what the FSM were requesting be taken out of university courses. I’m assuming by the first reponse the request was to remove pseudosciences such as homaeopathy and crystal healing, and with that I agree. But if this includes removing all Chinese medicine then they’re being a bit overzealous. Of course some Chinese medicine works, and if it’s been proven to work it should be fine to teach it.

“There is no better place than our universities to rigorously discern what works from what does not.”

Okay, again to be fair this dude is a researcher and may just be refering to his own position. If that’s so, then yes, universities are a good place for people to research whatever they like and if they want to spend their time trying to validate psuedosciences then let them. But just because you’re researching this shit doesn’t mean you should be teaching it to students, and that is the question the article poses. Students are at a point in their career where they don’t have the mental tools to be able to process what works and what doesn’t; they’ll just take in what their teacher tells them.

Feel free to do your own research, just don’t drown your students in information that is currently being tested!

“This disregard for patients’ choice will only discourage them from disclosing complementary medicine use to their doctors.”

Wait what? How did we get on to patients choices? I thought we were talking about what should be taught to students? This is just so far removed from the actual topic it’s barely worth mentioning, but for the stupidity it conveys. You see, patients shouldn’t have to make choices about their health. Idealy, they should go to their doctor and their doc should tell them what the best cure is. The patient doesn’t have the knowhow to make a compentant choice. It’s akin to taking the average Joe off the street and asking him which buttons to push in the NASA spacecraft. It’s not a choice, it’s a fucking guessing game. Medicine and the human body are ridiculously complicated things and the idea that you should leave these choices in the hands of an overwhelmed patient is an incredible denial of responsibility.

 

The next article is by a student, Rob Pearlman. Honestly, nothing to add here. This dude sounds like he’s got his head screwed on straight. Hopefully a few more students think like him and these universities won’t be able to pull the wool over their eyes.

 

The final piece is by  Valerie Malka, a surgeon, and is almost as bad as the bullocks spewed by Morrison.

“FOR MORE than 10,000 years, natural therapies have been used, while conventional medicine is but 100 years old.”

Yes this is true, but as noted above you might want to look at the correlation between the last 10,000 years and the average age of death as compared to the last 100 years.

“They deserve the recognition universities have given them as they have healing modalities and benefits proven by credible and peer-reviewed research.”

If that is true, then no qualms. If it’s been tested and found to work then go nuts. That’s not pseudoscience.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 80 per cent of the world’s population relies on natural therapies to treat, prevent and cure diseases…”

And oddly enough 80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day. I’m sure there’s no connection between bad medicine and poverty.

“in Australia we have closed-minded colleagues determined to damage and bring into disrepute the entire natural health profession.”

I’m sorry, but would someone please slap this cunt? I am so sick of “close-minded” being another phrase for “doesn’t agree with me”. It is not close minded to ask someone to bring you proof before you start administering drugs, no matter if they’re natural or not

“Do the Americans have it completely wrong? Not only do they have dedicated courses in universities but almost 85 per cent of US medical schools offer elective courses in alternative and complementary medicine or include it in required courses.”

Umm, again I’m not expert, but isn’t the US medical system kinda fucked? Also, we’re talking about the country that has people trying to teach Creationism in high schools. Yeah, they’ve got it pretty fucking wrong.

“There is no better than modern medicine when it comes to surgery, emergency and trauma, but for almost everything else, traditional, natural or alternative medicine is far more effective…”

Okay, this here I think is part of the problem. Natural medicine and alternative medicine aren’t necessarily the same thing. Alternative medicine is medicine that has not yet been proven to work. Natural medicine is stuff like herbal remedies. Of course some of the latter work. Fuck me, some of the former might work too. But you don’t go around administering or teaching things that you don’t know work. It’s just irresponsible.

 

This last link is mostly a reference for a future post, but it should help emphasise exactly why we shouldn’t go around administering medicines we don’t know work.

http://www.news.com.au/national/babys-eczema-death-was-parents-fault/story-e6frfkvr-1225708504277

TED Talk Challenge #29: The child-driven education

TED Talk LogoAt the end of this talk, Sugata Mitra receives a standing ovation, and boy does he fucking deserve it.

In one of my previous posts I wrote that children are natural learners. They want to learn and are usually eager to do so. Mitra has some pretty strong evidence that this is indeed the case.

Throughout the past few years he has been going into communities that don’t have internet access and often have never seen or heard of a computer before. He installs computers into locations and for the most part leaves the children to their own devices.

Sugata Mitra and the hole in the wallYou will be flabbergasted at what these children can achieve in a period of a couple of months.

With only two TED Talks left to post I’m very happy I’ve found this one. This is the reason I watch TED Talks. It is inspirational and fills me with so much hope, periodically bringing me to tears at just how wonderful this technology, and more importantly these children are.

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html