Using pseudoscience to teach science

There may indeed be a place for creationism in the science classroom, but not the way the creationists want. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

We live in a time when science features large in our lives, probably more so than ever before. It’s important that people have at least some understanding of how science works, not least so that they can make informed decisions when aspects of science impinge on them. Yet this is also a time when pseudoscience seem to be on the increase. Some would argue that we simply ignore it. I suggest that we put it to good use and use pseudoscience to help teach about the nature of science – something that Jane Young has done in her excellent book The Uncertainty of it All: Understanding the Nature of Science.

The New Zealand Curriculum (MoE, 2007) makes it clear that there’s more to studying science than simply accumulating facts:

Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modeling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations (ibid., p28).

In other words, studying science also involves learning about the nature of science: that it’s a process as much as, or more than, a set of facts. Pseudoscience offers a lens through which to approach this.

Thus, students should be being encouraged to think about how valid, and how reliable, particular statements may be. They should learn about the process of peer review: whether a particular claim has been presented for peer review; who reviewed it; where it was published. There’s a big difference between information that’s been tested and reviewed, and information (or misinformation) that simply represents a particular point of view and is promoted via the popular press. Think ‘cold fusion’, the claim that nuclear fusion could be achieved in the lab at room temperatures. It was trumpeted to the world by press release, but subsequently debunked as other researchers tried, and failed, to duplicate its findings.

A related concept here is that there’s a hierarchy of journals, with publications like Science at the top and Medical Hypotheses at the other end of the spectrum. Papers submitted to Science are subject to stringent peer review processes – and many don’t make the grade – while Medical Hypotheses seems to accept submissions uncritically, with minimal review, for example a paper suggesting that drinking cows’ milk would raise odds of breast cancer due to hormone levels in milk – despite the fact that the actual data on hormone titres didn’t support this.

This should help our students develop the sort of critical thinking skills that they need to make sense of the cornucopia of information that is the internet. Viewing a particular site, they should be able to ask – and answer! – questions about the source of the information they’re finding, whether or not it’s been subject to peer review (you could argue that the internet is an excellent ‘venue’ for peer review but all too often it’s simply self-referential), how it fits into our existing scientific knowledge, and whether we need to know anything else about the data or its source.

An excellent example that could lead to discussion around both evolution and experimental design, in addition to the nature of science, is the on-line article Darwin at the drugstore: testing the biological fitness of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (Gillen & Anderson, 2008). The researchers wished to test the concept that a mutation conferring antibiotic resistance rendered the bacteria possessing it less ‘fit’ than those lacking it. (There is an energy cost to bacteria in producing any protein, but whether this renders them less fit – in the Darwinian sense – is entirely dependent on context.)

The researchers used two populations of the bacterium Serratia marcescens: an ampicillin-resistant lab-grown strain, which produces white colonies, and a pink, non-resistant (‘wild-type’) population obtained from pond water. ‘Fitness’ was defined as “growth rate and colony ‘robustness’ in minimal media”. After 12 hours’ incubation the two populations showed no difference in growth on normal lab media (though there were differences between four and six hours), but the wild-type strain did better on minimal media. It is hard to judge whether the difference was of any statistical significance as the paper’s graphs lack error bars and there are no tables showing the results of statistical comparisons – nonetheless, the authors describe the differences in growth as ‘significant’.

Their conclusion? Antibiotic resistance did not enhance the fitness of Serratia marcescens:

… wild-type [S.marcescens] has a significant fitness advantage over the mutant strains due to its growth rate and colony size. Therefore, it can be argued that ampicillin resistance mutations reduce the growth rate and therefore the general biological fitness of S.marcescens. This study concurs with Anderson (2005) that while mutations providing antibiotic resistance may be beneficial in certain, specific, environments, they often come at the expense of pre-existing function, and thus do not provide a mechanism for macroevolution (Gillen & Anderson, 2008).

Let’s take the opportunity to apply some critical thinking to this paper. Students will all be familiar with the concept of a fair test, so they’ll probably recognise fairly quickly that such a test was not performed in this case: the researchers were not comparing apples with apples. When one strain of the test organism is lab-bred and not only antibiotic-resistant but forms different-coloured colonies from the pond-dwelling wild-type, there are a lot of different variables in play, not just the one whose effects are supposedly being examined.

In addition, and more tellingly, the experiment did not test the fitness of the antibiotic-resistance gene in the environment where it might convey an advantage. The two Serratia marcescens strains were not grown in media containing ampicillin! Evolutionary biology actually predicts that the resistant strain would be at a disadvantage in minimal media, because it’s using energy to express a gene that provides no benefit in that environment, so will likely be short of energy for other cellular processes. (And, as I commented earlier, the data do not show any significant differences between the two bacterial strains.)

What about the authors’ affiliations, and where was the paper published? Both authors work at Liberty University, a private faith-based institution with strong creationist leanings. And the article is an on-line publication in the ‘Answers in Depth’ section of the website of Answers in Genesis (a young-earth creationist organisation) – not in a mainstream peer-reviewed science journal. This does suggest that a priori assumptions may have coloured the experimental design.

Other clues

It may also help for students to learn about other ways to recognise ‘bogus’ science, something I’ve blogged about previously (see Bioblog – seven signs of bogus science). One clue is where information is presented via the popular media (where ‘popular media’ includes websites), rather than offered up for peer review, and students should be asking, why is this happening?

The presence of conspiracy theories is another warning sign. Were the twin towers brought down by terrorists, or by the US government itself? Is the US government deliberately suppressing knowledge of a cure for cancer? Is vaccination really for the good of our health or the result of a conspiracy between government and ‘big pharma’ to make us all sick so that pharmaceutical companies can make more money selling products to help us get better?

“My final conclusion after 40 years or more in this business is that the unofficial policy of the World Health Organisation and the unofficial policy of Save the Children’s Fund and almost all those organisations is one of murder and genocide. They want to make it appear as if they are saving these kids, but in actual fact they don’t.” (Dr A. Kalokerinos, quoted on a range of anti-vaccination websites.)

Conspiracy theorists will often use the argument from authority, almost in the same breath. It’s easy to pull together a list of names, with PhD or MD after them, to support an argument (eg palaeontologist Vera Scheiber on vaccines). Students could be given such a list and encouraged to ask, what is the field of expertise of these ‘experts’? For example, a mailing to New Zealand schools by a group called “Scientists Anonymous” offered an article purporting to support ‘intelligent design’ rather than an evolutionary explanation for a feature of neuroanatomy, authored by a Dr Jerry Bergman. However, a quick search indicates that Dr Bergman has made no recent contributions to the scientific literature in this field, but has published a number of articles with a creationist slant, so he cannot really be regarded as an expert authority in this particular area. Similarly, it is well worth reviewing the credentials of many anti-vaccination ‘experts’ – the fact that someone has a PhD by itself is irrelevant; the discipline in which that degree was gained, is important. (Observant students may also wonder why the originators of the mailout feel it necessary to remain anonymous…)

Students also need to know the difference between anecdote and data. Humans are pattern-seeking animals and we do have a tendency to see non-existent correlations where in fact we are looking at coincidences. For example, a child may develop a fever a day after receiving a vaccination. But without knowing how many non-vaccinated children also developed a fever on that particular day, it’s not actually possible to say that there’s a causal link between the two.

A question of balance

Another important message for students is that there are not always two equal sides to every argument, notwithstanding the catch cry of “teach the controversy!” This is an area where the media, with their tendency to allot equal time to each side for the sake of ‘fairness’, are not helping. Balance is all very well, but not without due cause. So, apply scientific thinking – say, to claims for the health benefits of sodium bicarbonate as a cure for that fungal-based cancer (A HREF=””> Its purveyors make quite specific claims concerning health and well-being – drinking sodium bicarbonate will cure cancer and other ailments by “alkalizing” your tissues, thus countering the effects of excess acidity! How would you test those claims of efficacy? What are the mechanisms by which drinking sodium bicarbonate (or for some reason lemon juice!) – or indeed any other alternative health product – is supposed to have its effects? (Claims that a ‘remedy’ works through mechanisms as yet unknown to science don’t address this question, but in addition, they presuppose that it does actually work.) In the new Academic Standards there’s a standard on homeostasis, so students could look at the mechanisms by which the body maintains a steady state in regard to pH.

If students can learn to apply these tools to questions of science and pseudoscience, they’ll be well equipped to find their way through the maze of conflicting information that the modern world presents, regardless of whether they go on to further study in the sciences.


The magic of morality: scientifically determined human values

Ethics and morality are often regarded as beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. But certain values appear to be shared by all humans as species-typical adaptations. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics conference in Christchurch.

It was a pleasure to speak at the annual New Zealand Skeptics conference last year and hear from people representing a rich variety of scientific disciplines and other community organisations. A special thank-you to everyone who travelled from outside of Canterbury to support us following the recent earthquakes. I’m sure your lives are richer for visiting what is left of our city and sharing a few mild aftershocks with us! We enjoyed the morale boost from the weekend of friendly visitors, thoughtful presentations, light-hearted poetry, feasting and court theatre jesters, and the general atmosphere of proactive prosociality.

Relating to all these matters in the broadest possible sense, I discussed the subject of morality and morale. The theme of the conference was ‘building on solid science’, and I suggested that human wellbeing might be built upon a body of six core values. While my talk and this article are insufficient to address the topic fairly, I think a useful introduction can still be made, while avoiding an approach that would be either too complex or simplistic. I also mentioned the matter of priority – there may be many things that are important, but if everything is important, then nothing is important. Here I am aiming for what is most important.

I welcome questions, criticisms, assistance, and general sceptical inquiry of the points I make. Working as a clinical psychologist in a hospital injury and trauma service following the earthquakes, I cannot guarantee I will have time to respond individually to such feedback, but I will read it all and please know that I sincerely appreciate it.

What is Morality?

Morality is a subject that addresses big questions of existence. Who am I? Why am I here? What should I do? With varying degrees of awareness, everyone learns answers to such questions through processes of imitation, instruction, and inference. The answers take the form of moral models, which are ideas about human nature and right and wrong. Such models are explicit (acted upon with reflection), or implicit (acted upon without reflection), and impact the wellbeing of humanity’s billions on a daily basis.

Historically, considerable scepticism about moral models has been evident. “Those who promise us paradise on earth never roduced anything but a hell,” stated our own Professor Sir Karl Popper, summarising prior efforts of a utopian character. However, within many academic disciplines there has been an even stronger statement, a Humean consensus that science must concern itself with answering descriptive ”is’ or ‘fact’ questions, rather than prescriptive ‘ought’ or ‘value’ questions. This has been accepted as a truism by many, with attempts at scientifically based moral or value reasoning criticised as ‘scientism’ or the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, with dire predictions.

Challenges to these charges of scientism have arisen in recent years (Baschetti, 2007; Brinkmann, 2009; Kristjansson, 2010(, perhaps most influentially and eloquently from the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, in his 2010 book The Moral Landscape. In his book, Harris attacks moral relativism with a perceptive argument for scientific moral realism. As Harris explains, every single scientific ‘is’ statement ultimately rests upon implicit ‘ought’ statements – “all the way down” (p 203).

What logic can prove logic itself? What if you don’t value logic or empiricism? In such a case you destroy all of science, not just moral claims. 2+2=4, but only if you value mathematics. If people do not share such values there may sometimes be no way to convince them. However, there is also no need for the rest of us to take their arguments seriously either – any more than we need to convince everyone that physics or medicine can be helpful before we use it to improve at least our own wellbeing. Harris also argues that moral claims are universally claims about the wellbeing of conscious creatures (real or imagined), an area increasingly well illuminated by neuroscience and other sciences of the mind. In reality there is no choice but to go from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ and science offers the safest path to action, due to the collaborative scepticism and empiricism of scientific peer review process. These points and more are elaborated upon in his book, and I recommend reading it to examine the case in persuasive detail.

Ultimate, Universal, Unavoidable

The Moral Landscape argues that a science of human wellbeing is possible, based upon neuroscience and other sciences of the mind. Indeed, this is the very field of clinical psychology, broadly defined. Given evidence emerging and converging from the scientific literature, I would like to advance further and suggest that human wellbeing may be associated with six core moral values that are ultimate, universal, andunavoidable. I will briefly summarise and explain what I mean by this.

I use the word ultimate in the sense of evolutionary origins (Scott-Phillips et al, 2011) and values coded at the level of the genotype (Yamagata et al, 2006) that develop through processes of epigenesis (feedback effects of culture/environment upon genetic expression). Simply put, social organisms including humans must develop systems to (1) perceive patterns in their environment: (2) allocate time between competing needs: (3) regulate social relationships: (4) value inclusive fitness: (5) defend against threat: and (6) maximise all of these abilities within homeostatic limits. Certain system organisations tend toward Nash equilibrium or evolutionarily stable strategies, that outcompete other strategies. In other words, these values may not only be how life is, but how life must be, for reasons ultimately reducible to the laws of chemistry, physics and mathematics. Historically, evolutionary modelling using game theory simulations has been a prominent scientific tool in exploring the nature of such systems, for example in the domain of social relationships (Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981).

Six values also appear to be universally shared by humans as species-typical adaptations, as suggested by psycholexical and cross-cultural research. Psycholexical theory posits that because languages evolved, they are likely to contain words for patterns in the world (including patterns of valued personality) that are important to human wellbeing.

Across world languages, the thousands of words for describing personality appear to cluster in six main domains (Lee & Ashton, 2008). Additionally, across world ethical codes, philosophies and religions, six core values seem to be shared. They apply across the literature traditions of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Athenian philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and also seem integral to oral traditions ranging from the Masai of the African savannah, to the Inughuit of Arctic environs (Dahlsgaard, et al, 2005). Specific expression of these varies, as do a range of non-shared values. However, the cross-cultural nature of these six core values refutes claims of moral exclusivity by any one tradition, and given the thriving of societies lacking the non-shared values, these appear less generally important and perhaps even obfuscating or detrimental in some cases (Paul, 2009).

Six values also seem unavoidable, in the sense that people must develop them to at least a minimum degree to survive, and to a higher degree to thrive. Failure leads to high levels of dependence or institutionalisation – ranging from requirements for supported living arrangements, to psychiatric hospitalisation or prison. For example, low levels of intelligence characterise intellectual disability and dementia, and low levels of altruism characterise psychopathy. Conversely, high-level development of such values aides flourishing – enhanced wellbeing via autonomy, social connection and competence. These patterns of negatively and positively developed characteristics are the focus of psychiatry and clinical or applied psychology.


I have used the mnemonic I.T.E.A.C.H. to summarise six values, each letter representing a value word. An important caution is that this word set is only one possibility from hundreds of potential words across the six domains (Ashton et al, 2004). It is selected for memetic reasons, including being easy to remember, descriptive and prescriptive – and with the star for associations with light and enlightenment, bright and magical things, aspiration and inspiration, and matching the embodied metaphors of our intuitive folk psychology (Blackmore, 1999; Seitz, 2005; Winne & Nesbit, 2010). You probably have your own meaning attached to these words, but that meaning is not what I mean, or at least not only. Instead they refer to diverse but related phenomena across physical, biological, psychological and sociological levels of knowledge (Henriques, 2003), with consilience or ‘unity of knowledge’ as an aim (Wilson, 1998). “Words are only tools for our use” as the biologist Richard Dawkins has said (Dawkins, 2006). Nonetheless we must choose some words to use and these seem adequate. Choose your own if you prefer.

To briefly summarise these values then, Intelligence might be parsimoniously defined as pattern recognition, with some other words that cluster in this psycholexical domain being knowledgeable, perceptive, educated, curious. Temperance refers to the ability to temporally sequence actions adaptively, with some other words in this domain being conscientious, self-disciplined, organised, systematic. Equality refers to the ability to maintain mutualistic or non-zero-sum social relationships, with some other words in this domain being just, fair, honest, humble. Altruism refers to helping, with some other words in this domain being kind, warm, generous, compassionate. Courage refers to the ability to tolerate distress, with some other words in this domain being resilient, tough, intrepid, and brave. Lastly, Holism may refer to the ability to integrate the other five virtues, transcend prior limitations, and connect as part of a larger socio-cultural, and even evolutionary and cosmological perspective. I suspect other words in this domain reflect the frequent social context or status of such endeavours, with words such as extroverted, vivacious, inspiring, and spirited.

Building a Stronger Culture

The Moral Landscape argues that we should build morality upon solid science. In this article I have provided a brief glimpse of how, suggesting attendance to six core values. Development of such values is associated with increased wellbeing and decreased physical and mental health problems, as demonstrated by many randomised placebo controlled clinical trials (the scientific gold standard) of psychological interventions. The evidence is good enough to begin applying scientific approaches to wellbeing on a larger cultural scale than is currently the case (Henriques, 2005; Seligman, 2011). Data collected on the way can be used to adjust and amend approaches, via evolutionary processes of cultural variation, selection and retention. This is temperate scientific progress, rather than hotly impulsive or coldly compulsive dogma.

At the conference I was asked about development of these values, and about the role of the golden rule (“consider yourself and treat others accordingly”, as stated by Confucius for example) – widely known as a culturally universal endorsement of altruism. As suggested by its position in the star, altruism is central to the development of other values through valuing the wellbeing of self and others. Mammalian brains do not self-assemble like those of many reptiles, but rely upon nurturance to reach their full potential (Hrdy, 2009). Altruism has ultimate origins in evolutionary processes such as kin selection (Hamilton, 1964) and (together with equality) reciprocal altruism (Trivers, 1971). Parallel to this, skeptical inquiry is a process fostering the accurate pattern recognition that characterises intelligence. Yet, as I said at the conference, altruism alone is as useless as a body without head or limbs, incapable of seeing wisely or acting effectively – and intelligence alone is as a head detached from body and limbs, potentially lost in autistic pattern seeking or psychopathy. And even head (I) and heart (A) are lame, without arming methodically for action (T), standing as two to exceed the power of one (E), stepping forward despite distress (C), and reaching forever higher to transcend what has gone before (H). Simplified even further – head and heart, standing together, standing strong, and reaching out to help.

We aim to build our most important cultural institutions upon solid science rather than superficial superstition. Our challenge is to speak comprehensively but comprehensibly and reach as many people as possible. At the conference, chemist Michael Edmonds spoke of our chemical origins in the heart of stars as “starstuff”, and biologist Alison Campbell of our biological origins in the great evolutionary tree of life. In this manner an evolutionary cosmology to which we all belong is now introduced at new entrant level in our schools, providing fertile ground for sustaining knowledge to grow.

In terms of physics we are matter and energy, creating and destroying, yet neither created nor destroyed. Awareness emerging, submerging and re-emerging, evolving as it is revolving. As a psychologist, I am aware that to grow starstuff into flourishing form, human genes need memetic light. Symbolic linguistic devices such as these words, the “Bright-Star” above or Humanist symbol below, are examples of memes that might aid the teaching of scientifically based morality and brighter prospects for individual and collective wellbeing.

“When will you attain this joy?
It will begin when you think for yourself,

When you truly take responsibility for your own life,

When you join the fellowship of all who have stood up as free individuals and said,

‘We are of the company of those who seek the true and the right, and live accordingly;

‘In our human world, in the short time we each have,

‘We see our duty to make and find something good for ourselves and our companions in the human predicament.’

Let us help one another, therefore; let us build the city together,

Where the best future might inhabit, and the true promise of humanity be realised at last.”

The Good Book 9:4-11(Grayling, 2011).


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Have universities degraded to teaching ‘only’ scientific knowledge?

Alison Campbell considers the current state of tertiary education.

The title for this article is taken from one of the search terms used by people visiting my ‘other’ blog, Talking Teaching, which I share with Marcus Wilson and Fabiana Kubke. It caught my eye and I thought I’d use it as the basis of some musings.

We’ll assume that this question is directed at science faculties. Using the word ‘degraded’ suggests that a university education used to provide more than simply a knowledge base in science.

(If I wanted to stir up a bit of controversy I could say that it’s just as well that they ‘only’ teach scientific knowledge, however that’s defined. My personal opinion is that the teaching of pseudoscience, eg homeopathy, ‘therapeutic touch’ etc, has no place in a university, and it’s a matter of some concern that such material has appeared in various curricula in the US, UK and Australia, among other countries. Why? Because it’s not evidence-based, and close investigation – in one case, by a nine-year-old schoolgirl – shows that it fails to meet the claims made for it. You could teach about it, in teaching critical thinking, but as a formal curriculum subject? No way.)

Anyway, back to the chase. Did universities teach more than just ‘the facts’, in the past? And is it a Bad Thing if we don’t do that now?

I’ll answer the second question first, by saying that yes, I believe it is a Bad Thing if all universities teach is scientific knowledge – if by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘facts’ and not also a way of thinking. For a number of reasons. Students aren’t just little sponges that we can fill up with facts and expect to recall such facts in a useful way. They come into our classes with a whole heap of prior learning experiences and a schema, or mental construct of the world, into which they slot the knowlege they’ve gained. Educators need to help students fit their new learning into that schema, something that may well involve challenging the students’ worldviews from time to time. This means that we have to have some idea of what form those schemas take, before trying to add to them.

What’s more, there’s more to science than simply ‘facts’. There’s the whole area of what science actually is, how it works, what sets it apart from other ways of viewing the world. You can’t teach that by simply presenting facts (no matter how appealingly you do this). Students need practice in thinking like a scientist, ‘doing’ science, asking and answering questions in a scientific way. And in that sense, I would have to say that I think universities may have ‘degraded’.

Until very recently, it would probably be fair to say that the traditional way of presenting science to undergraduates, using lectures as a means of transmitting facts and cook-book labs as a means of reinforcing some of those facts (and teaching practical skills), conveyed very little of what science is actually all about. And it’s really encouraging to see papers in mainstream science journals that actively promote changing how university science teaching is done (eg Deslauriers et al, 2011, Haak et al, 2011, and Musante, 2012).

Of course, saying we’ve ‘degraded’ what we do does make the assumption that things were different in the ‘old days’. Maybe they were. After all, back in Darwin’s day (and much more recently, in the Oxbridge style of university, anyway) teaching was done via small, intimate tutorials that built on individual reading assignments and must surely have talked about the hows and the whys, as well as the whats, of the topic du jour.

However, when I was at university (last century – gosh, it makes me feel old to say that!) things had changed, and they’d been different for quite a while. Universities had lost that intimacy and the traditional lecture (lecturer ‘transmitting’ knowledge from up the front, and students scrabbling to write it all down) was seen as a cost-effective method of teaching the much larger classes that lecturers faced, particularly in first-year.

In addition, the sheer volume of knowledge available to them had increased enormously, and with it, the pressure to get it all across. And when you’re under that pressure to teach everything that lecturers in subsequent courses require students to know before entering ‘their’ paper, transmission teaching must have looked like the way to go. Unfortunately, by going that route, we’ve generally lost track of the need to help students learn what it actually means to ‘do’ science.

Now, those big classes aren’t going to go away any time soon. The funding model for universities ensures that. (Although, there’s surely room to move towards more intimate teaching methods in, say, our smaller third-year classes? And in fact I know lecturers who do just that.) But there are good arguments for encouraging the spread of new teaching methods that encourage thinking, interaction, and practising a scientific mindset, even in large classes. Those papers I referred to show that it can be done, and done very successfully.

First up: there’s more to producing a scientifically literate population than attempting to fill students full of facts (which they may well retain long enough to pass the end-of-term exam, and then forget). We need people with a scientific way of thinking about the many issues confronting them in today’s world. Of course, we also need a serious discussion at the curriculum level, about what constitutes ‘must-have’ knowledge and what can safely be omitted in favour of helping students gain those other skills. (This is something that’s just as important at the level of the senior secondary school curriculum.)

And secondly: giving students early practice at doing and thinking about science may encourage more of them to consider the option of graduate study, maybe going on to become scientists themselves. In NZ graduate students are funded at a higher rate than undergraduates, and the PBRF system rewards us for graduate completions, so there’s a good incentive for considering change right there!

Deslauriers, L.; Schelew, E.; Wieman, C. (2011): Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-4.
Haak, D. C.; HilleRisLambers, J.; Pitre, E.; Freeman, S. (2011): Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332 (6034),1213-6.
Musante, S. (2012): Motivating tomorrow’s biologists. Bioscience 62(1): 16.

Confessions of a New Age Skeptic

How should a skeptic relate to those who have other belief systems?

What does a skeptic and atheist do when they are part of a broader group that is quite loose on empirical evidence and critical thinking? A lot of us experience this to some degree, but I’ve wrestled with my engagement with a particular group I’m fond of for the last 20 years.

Convergence: Beyond 2000 (previously, “Towards 2000”) is an annual camping event that takes place in North Canterbury over the New Year break. Its tag line is: “Gathering every year for a co-creative festival celebrating nature, spirituality, love, and healing”. The event is alcohol and drug-free, has good facilities, and includes about 350 people.

Convergence is a place where the cultural norm is one of suspension of disbelief. All of the typical energy healing models are practised and taught there in workshop context by volunteer facilitators. Reiki, guru aspirants, channelers, tarot card readers, Mayan calendar adherents, fairy lovers, tantric energy, The Secret, massage healers … well, where do you stop?

I found myself coming along to the events first in 1992. I’d migrated from Canada and my flatmate and all his friends, who were a playful, friendly bunch, went every year and I was drawn into it. I was still coming out of 12 years of study and work as a mechanical engineer installing computer systems into paper mills and was quite happy to regress into a less linear approach to my perception of life and how to live it.

My first year I was quite guarded, being aware that there are people out there that attempt to get people away to events “just-like-this” with the aim of drawing them into some sect or other. All the warmth, playfulness and affection that seemed to be happening was pretty overwhelming and I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb. Fortunately, it wasn’t a sect, and I wasn’t pressured to be “one of us”, and I was generally engaged with at a warm, receptive level.

At Convergence in the first few years I remember often feeling discomfort while the friend I might be walking or talking with would leap joyfully into the arms of someone they knew from previous events. It took a lot of self-reassurance to stick with it, and in time I found myself being outrageously affectionate as well, and carrying that forward into my life. I’ve made a lot of friends at Convergence, and found my last two partners there as well (having a child with both of them). So, there have been a lot of good times inside my relationship with the group.

My other exposures to “hooey” weren’t disturbing. I’d lived already for a few years on a hippy commune near Motueka where I’d seen any number of loose approaches to life. In a way, it made me feel more sane being around people that I was genuinely very fond of but that obviously had one or two screws loose and rattling around.

This Xmas, having recently turned 50 and after having gobbled up the the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (and other skeptic podcasts) I joined the ranks of the NZ Skeptics. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I’m an atheist, a humanist, and I’m going to share that when it is relevant.

It’s still a learning experience for me. When do I say something? If a friend talks about the great course in acupuncture that they are in their final year of do I say what I believe? No, I haven’t, not often. But I do wonder the cost in not saying something. Did we lose an opportunity for intimacy? Did I miss giving them a test to their chosen life path, possibly sparing them some wasted years of hand-waving healing modalities? I’m still not clear on that one, being new to this.

“What’s the harm” is a classic response. I’ve reflected on my hippy years and now realise there was harm. The anti-vax/DIY home-birthing (without adequate support) crowd had three kids that are still paying the price. I’ve supported the deaf community as a social worker and found that there are years during which a lot of them go through milestone birthdays (anti-vax again). I’ve had my kids treated with bogus, outwardly professional therapies (waste of cash and time).

This year, when I went to Convergence I found the issue of my personal beliefs much more emotionally charged. I told quite a few people that I met that I had ‘come out’ as a skeptic. In saying this, I found others that shared my feelings.

Encouraged by my gathering support, in front of the whole crowd I ‘testified’ as an atheist/critical thinker and offered a workshop on the issue. The crowd barked with laughter and good will as I did it humorously. It turned out the others I’d spoken to prior to the meeting had initiated a workshop already!

In the workshop people spoke about the fear of diverging from the group norm, and holding their tongue while others spoke about their wild unfounded beliefs. They mentioned the discomfort of “having to” participate in opening rituals (blessing to the four directions…yadda yadda). And not knowing others that felt the same. We agreed that our general perspective was a healthy one for the fesitival, and one to be openly celebrated.

Next year we’ll open with a workshop for sceptics. It’s a beautiful event, and the acceptance is big enough to include critical thinking. And who knows, we may make us a few converts!

School of thought

Adam van Langenberg gives practical suggestions on how to run a high school skeptical society, based on his own successful experience.

In late 2010 I was fortunate enough to see noted US skeptics Rebecca Watson and Brian Dunning speak at the La Notte restaurant in Melbourne. As entertaining as these talks were, what really grabbed my attention was local skeptic Richard Saunders’ demonstration of the Power Balance scam. The more he demonstrated, the angrier I became. Angry because I’m a high school teacher and a lot of my students (and a few of our teachers) were wearing these things. Five minutes earlier I didn’t even know what they were; I had assumed they were one of those charity bands you see everywhere. Now my protective instincts were kicking in and I wanted to help my kids from getting sucked into this scam.

At school the next day I showed several of my classes the applied kinesiology techniques the salespeople were using. The students thought the tricks were very cool and a lot of embarrassed bracelet wearers suddenly started justifying their fashion choices:

“It was a gift!”

“I found it on the footpath!”

Mostly, though, they stopped wearing them.

The success of this led me to create the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society. We meet once a week and spend our lunch hour discussing specific pseudosciences, critical thinking techniques and debating the merits of scepticism. A brief speech at a school assembly brought over 100 students to the first sessions (a mass Zener ESP experiment) but numbers are now more stable with 20 – 40 kids on average.

One of the things that has surprised me about the group is how young most of the students in it are. By far, the majority are in year 7 and 8. I typically have around 20 students at those levels each week and about 5 – 10 from other year levels. I was a little worried that this might lessen the amount of deep discussion we could have but, as you’ll read later, I needn’t have been.

Favourite topics so far have included three weeks on logical fallacies and a month spent teaching the children how to cold read. I may have created some monsters here because they turned out to be quite gifted at it.

I truly believe that critical thinking and scepticism belongs in our school’s curriculum. Until that day comes, we are relying on teachers to inject it into their classrooms themselves. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of this. I know at least one science teacher who fervently believes that aliens have been landing on the Earth for many years and I worry about how many of their students have been taught to believe this.

I think that a sceptical society is the next best thing, as it brings the concept of scepticism into the community. People refer to me as “Mr Sceptic” (and occasionally “the dream crusher”) and many students and teachers have approached me for my thoughts on various ideas. “Sceptical” is now a word being used more and more at my school. My ultimate goal is to have every student understand what scepticism is and just how rewarding it can be.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I consider to be important when running a group like this. What follows are my ideas.

Make the sessions fun and relevant

Hopefully this one is a no-brainer. Children can have very short attention spans and if they’re not enjoying themselves, why would they continue? They’re forced to be in my maths classes so I can be as boring as I like but the sceptical society is totally optional. This is why I try to make my talks funny. It’s why I throw in as many jokes as I can. If you’re being funny, kids will listen because they want to hear the next joke. And if you can sneak in a bit of good stuff between the jokes they’ll probably learn something too.

There are plenty of fun activities around the internet that you can run. There’s an ESP experiment on the JREF site and Richard Saunders has videos up of water dowsing and ‘can you tell if somebody is staring at you?’ experiments. There are lots of astrological ideas as well, such as having astrological descriptors up around the room and asking students to try to guess which one is theirs. Activities like this can be real drawcards and get kids coming along who might not have ordinarily been interested.

That’s a key point – a ‘sceptical society’ probably won’t draw a huge crowd, but an experiment to see if anybody is psychic probably will.

Relevancy is also very important. We talked about Power Balance bands because all of the kids knew about them. They’ll all be aware of psychics, aliens and ghosts so those are topics that come up a lot. The vaccine debate probably isn’t at the front of their minds and it doesn’t come up as often, but it does come up occasionally and you’ll be pleased to know that the anti-vaccination mindset makes them very angry.

It’s important to follow the news and select the things that you think will interest them.

Don’t make it a science club

Be aware that to most teenagers ‘science’ means sitting in a classroom while a teacher talks about a bunch of boring stuff. You might get to do the odd experiment but there often isn’t that sense of mystery and beauty that we know science is all about.

So when I say don’t make it a science club, what I really mean is don’t make it an obvious science club. Sneak the science in. Make it a club about ghost hunting and astrology debunking and homeopathy ridiculing. While you’re doing that, briefly explain how you could use this thing called ‘single blinding’ to make an experiment. Then maybe throw in some ‘double blinding’ to show them how to make it better.

The next thing you know, your kids have learnt a bit of science and they’ve learnt why it’s important. If you’ve done your job right they’ll also have learnt why it’s just so damn cool.

Probably don’t make it a secular club

A few people from the sceptical community have gotten upset with me about this, some suggesting that if I’m not actively turning my students against religion then I’m basically wasting my time. Let me explain why I think this is a bad idea.

First of all, I think it’s a really fast way to get yourself shut down. Sure, a lot of schools have Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies so you could argue discrimination if you came under attack but I don’t think you’d get very far. Sometimes it only takes one angry phone call from a parent to get something cancelled.

More importantly, you don’t want to exclude religious people from your group. A lot of the kids who come along to my club are Christian or Jewish. The last thing I want is for them to feel unwelcome. I steer clear of religious topics for that reason alone. If somebody brings up testable religious claims (such as creationism) I’m always happy to discuss them, but I will never make them the focus of the session.

A lot of my children come from very religious families, who could quickly make a complaint and ban their kids from turning up. My kids all know that I believe in the big bang and the theory of evolution. My kids also know that I can have a respectful conversation with them about it, even if they disagree with me. There are plenty of other topics out there worth discussing.

Prepare to be asked about anything

One day I had an entire session planned around psychics. About five minutes in, a kid asked me if I thought it was alright to tell little kids that Santa exists. Normally I would have told them to wait until the end but most people in the room seemed genuinely interested in my answer. This answer turned into a conversation about the history of Santa, the philosophy of lying and funny Santa stories.

Should I have stopped the discussion and gone back to the psychics? Absolutely not. I knew I could always talk about psychics next week. Children’s minds are so inquisitive and always on the go. The most surprising things can interest them without warning. Go with it. The trick is to have as much knowledge as you can on many different topics. Being a specialist in a particular field is great, but it doesn’t really help when running something like this for kids. In my position, it is better to know a little about a lot of topics, rather than vice versa. Of course, the more I know about as much as possible, the better I can do my job.

Don’t dumb things down

If there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me about children, it is their almost unlimited capacity for impressively inventive cruelty. If there’s one other thing, it’s how much they actually understand. A couple of months ago a boy in my class started talking about transvestites. He wanted to know whether all transvestites were gay. A few others responded by suggesting that some of them probably are but not all of them. What followed was a wonderfully respectful and inquisitive classroom discussion. I sat back and watched, marvelling at how mature and understanding they were being. What really impressed me was that these children were 12.

Don’t assume that kids can’t handle ‘grown up’ topics. Medical minutiae might go over their heads but it doesn’t mean that they can’t ponder the issues involved. Want to talk about the ethics involved in prescribing placebos? They can handle it. Want to discuss terminally ill people reaching out to alternative medicine as a last resort? Go for it, just be prepared to handle some potentially delicate questions.

Children are easily influenced, so influence wisely

Children pick up everything, from diseases to attitudes. I don’t like angry, condescending adults so I don’t want my kids turning into them. We all know that you don’t change people’s beliefs with ridicule and personal attacks, so why start developing those habits in kids now?

When we discussed homeopathy, some of my students started laughing at people who use it. Obviously, anybody who believes in homeopathy is an idiot and deserves to be ridiculed. I don?t blame them for thinking this way because they are still very young, but it needed to be stamped out immediately. What if the patients were referred to a homeopath by a GP? What if they have no idea how it works? What if they’re at death’s door and are desperately trying something different as a last resort?

If you teach kids to look down on victims of pseudoscience, you are teaching them to be insensitive and arrogant. Kids need to understand that all people should be treated with respect and that everybody is worth listening to. Unless, of course, they’re a filthy scumbag con-artist who is knowingly ripping people off. In that case, go right ahead and tear them a new one.

3000 km for skepticism

Gold takes a long walk.

Some time back I noticed that I was getting the first signs of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). I’m a web developer and spend way too much time in front of a keyboard and mouse. It’s a common enough thing among people in my industry. From what I can tell one of the best ‘treatments’ for it is to just stop for a bit. So I am.

In order to do something productive, or at least worthwhile, during this time I’m going for a sponsored walk to raise funds for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust, Woman’s Refuge and our own NZ Skeptics Society. I’ve built a half-way decent website for it ( and it’s able to take pledges for distance covered. Providing I finish the full trail I have already raised over $2000 as I write this.

The trail I’m following is called Te Araroa (The Long Pathway) and it was only recently completed and opened. It runs for 3000 km from Cape Reinga to Bluff, although I’m starting in the south and fleeing the (potentially) foul weather instead of heading into it.

I’ll be maintaining a journal on the website where you can follow the journey and, should you choose, you can pledge money to the charities or sponsor me personally.

I’m also looking for supply drops, couches and interesting things along the walk. One way to check the track would be to install Google Earth and load the trail using the .kmz file available at the official site ( If you, as a resupply drop or couch, or the point of interest are close enough to the trail I’ll definitely make the stop.

The best way to contact me would be via the contact form on the Intentionally Homeless site or via [email protected]

‘’Darwin’’s Dilemma’’: ID in NZ

Alison Campbell looks at a new ‘resource’ for New Zealand schools, helpfully provided by the creationist movement.

A little while ago Ken Perrott, who writes the Open Parachute blog, alerted me to an Intelligent Design website that appeared to be set up to provide ID ‘resources’ to teachers and others who might be interested. Today I found time to wander over and have a look at what was on offer (not much, at the moment(. The site’s owner is [idfilms[, who tells us that:
idfilms was established with the express purpose of reinvigorating and expanding the ID discussion in New Zealand and Australia. The people behind idfilms are committed to the search for truth about the origin of life and the universe, just like you.

The only resource currently on offer on the Products Page is a DVD entitled Darwin’s Dilemma, for which the blurb reads:
Darwin’s Dilemma explores one of the great mysteries in the history of life: The geologically-sudden appearance of dozens of major complex animal types in the fossil record without any trace of the gradual transitional steps Charles Darwin had predicted. Frequently described as [the Cambrian Explosion,[ the development of these new animal types required a massive increase in genetic information. [The big question that the Cambrian Explosion poses is where does all that new information come from?[ says Dr. Stephen Meyer, a featured expert in the documentary.

Interesting, given the subject matter, that one of the DVD’s [featured experts[ is neither a geneticist nor an evolutionary biologist…

[Darwin’s Dilemma[ isn’t a particularly accurate characterisation, given that discovery of the extensive Cambrian biota happened well after Darwin’s death. Nor is the idea of an [explosion[ all that accurate, as the evidence from palaeontology and molecular biology points to a rather more ancient origin for the various phyla found in Cambrian rocks.

The statement that [the development of these new animal types required a massive increase in genetic information[ suggests a lack of understanding of a particular suite of genes, the Hox genes. Major changes in morphology can come about as a result of small changes in the Hox genes, because they influence the arrangement and timing of development of various body parts. No need for [massive increases in genetic information[ here. However, that phrase is simply setting the stage for the claim that this increase in [information[ can only have come about through the agency of a designer, again ignoring the observed ability of mutations – such as the duplication of genes due to transposon activity – to do this all by themselves.

However, if we must look at [complex specified information[ (the catchphrase of Meyer’s colleague William Dembski for the way to recognise the work of the designer(, let’s ask a few questions about it. What exactly is complex specified information? How is it produced? How do we tell it apart from the bits of the genome that aren’t due to an external agency?

Well, the short answer would appear to be that even the ‘experts’ don’t know. How else are we to interpret the discussion associated with On the calculation of CSI, a post at Uncommon Descent? A concept that cannot be adequately explained can hardly form the basis of a sound teaching resource, let alone provide the impetus to change our view of how evolution works.

Resistance to science

Alison Campbell reviews a study of why so many struggle with scientific concepts.

One of the topics that comes up for discussion with my Sciblogs colleagues is the issue of ‘resistance to science’ – the tendency to prefer alternative explanations for various phenomena over science-based explanations for the same observations. It’s a topic that has interested me for ages, as teaching any subject requires you to be aware of students’ existing concepts about it, and coming up with ways to work with their misconceptions. So I was interested to read a review paper by Paul Bloom and Deena Weisberg, looking at just this question.

Bloom and Weisberg conclude there are two key reasons why people can be resistant to particular ideas in science. One is that we all have “common-sense intuitions” about how the world works, and when scientific explanations conflict with these, often it’s the science that loses out. The other lies with the source(s) of the information you receive. They suggest that “some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal” – one that begins in childhood and which relates to both what students know and how they learn.

Before they ever encounter science as a subject, children have developed their own understandings about how the world works. This means they may be more resistant to an idea if it’s an abstract concept and not one that they have experienced – or can experience – on the personal level. Bloom and Weisberg cite research showing that the knowledge that objects are solid, don’t vanish just because they’re out of sight, fall if you drop them, and don’t move unless you push them, is developed when we are very young children. And we develop similar understandings about how people operate (eg, that we’re autonomous beings whose actions are influenced by our goals) equally early.

Unfortunately for science educators, these understandings can become so ingrained that if they clash with scientific understandings, those particular science facts can be very hard to learn. It’s not a lack of knowledge, but the fact that students have “alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding [these] phenomena” that can make it difficult to move them to a more scientific viewpoint. The authors give an example based on the common-sense understanding that an unsupported object will fall down – for many young children, this can result in difficulty seeing the world as a sphere, because people on the ‘downwards’ side should just fall right off. This idea can persist until the age of eight or nine.

And it seems that psychology also affects how receptive people are to scientific explanations. When you’re four, you tend to view things “in terms of design and purpose”, which means (among other things) that young children will provide and accept creationist explanations about life’s origins and diversity. Plus there’s dualism: “the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain”, which leads to claims that the brain is responsible for “deliberative mental work” but not for emotional, imaginative, or basic everyday actions. This in turn can mean that adults can be very resistant to the idea that the things that make us who and what we are can emerge from basic physical processes. And that shapes how we react to topics such as abortion and stem cell research.

In other words, those who resist the scientific view on given phenomena do so because the latter is counterintuitive, although this doesn’t really explain the fact that there are cultural differences in willingness to accept scientific explanations. For example, about 40 percent of US citizens accept the theory of evolution – below every country surveyed with the exception of Turkey (Miller et al. 2006). Part of the problem seems to lie with the nature of ‘common knowlege’: if everyone regularly and consistently uses such concepts, children will pick them up and internalise them (believing in the existence of electricity, for example, even though it’s something they’ve never seen). For other concepts, the source of information is important. Take evolution again: parents may say one thing about evolution, and teachers, another. Who do you believe? It seems, according to Bloom and Weisberg, that it all depends on how much you trust the source.

The authors conclude:

“These developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and it will be especially strong if there is a nonscientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy.”

Yet we live in a society where ‘ alternative’ explanations are routinely presented by media in a desire to present ‘ balance’ where there isn’ t any, or indeed, without any attempt at balance at all. And the internet makes it even easier to present non-scientific views of the world in an accessible, authoritative and reasonable way. As science communicators and educators, my colleagues and I really are up against it, and I would say there’s a need for Bloom and Weisberg’s findings to be much more widely read.

Bloom, P; Weisberg, DS (2007): Childhood origins of adult resistance to science. Science 316 (5827), 996-7.
Miller, JD; Scott, EC; Okamoto, S 2006: Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313: 765 – 766.

The natural origins of morality

The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values. Sam Harris. 2010. Free Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4391-7121-9 Reviewed by Martin Wallace.

If faith is belief without evidence, then it is not open to scientific enquiry by a weighing of evidence. This attitude was supported and promulgated by Stephen Jay Gould. He claimed that there are “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and religion (NOMA).

However, what if it could be shown that there are events in the world of human brain physiology which can account for such “religious” activity as a sense of moral values?

This question is discussed brilliantly in this new book by Sam Harris. He says: “Questions about values are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” A sense of well-being is dependant in sentient beings like us on cerebral events and is therefore open to scientific investigation.

Well-being is engendered for example, by happiness, kindness, and compassion. Harris is a neuroscientist and has studied brain function by magnetic resonance imaging while subjects consider propositions. He has shown that the same part of the brain is active when considering scientific suggestions as when considering moral or religious precepts. The process of belief is the same, irrespective of content.

The part of the brain involved is that where activity can be seen with the placebo effect.

Harris makes interesting comments about the damaging effects of religion and politics on our sense of well-being. Given his past writing, we can expect some acerbic comments:

” For nearly a century the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion-that great engine of ignorance and bigotry-a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom.”

He dismisses “cultural relativism” as a creation of academics. Well-being is shared by all members of all human cultures given the same conducive surroundings, as is our shared physiology.

He also is very firm about “scientific relativism” and the inhibitory effect it has had on human well-being. There can be no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra!

The text of this book is accompanied by an expansion of the arguments in extensive Notes which are listed in the Index. There is also an extensive list of references.

This book answers the question my mother put to me 60 years ago. “It is all very well to talk about your lack of belief in religion, but what will you put in its place?”

Dealing with wingnuts – which way to turn?

It’s not a hopeless cause to engage with proponents of the irrational – but some ways of doing this are more effective than others. This article is based on a presentation to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.

There has never been a time in history when the public understanding of science and rational thinking has been so important. Science has revealed new challenges for humankind, such as climate change and depletion of resources, while new technologies are often accompanied by ethical and social implications that need to be carefully considered. In response to these challenges science communicators spend more time trying to carefully explain science and related issues to the public. However, these efforts to make science more understandable are being confounded by ‘wingnuts’ who use misinformation to confuse public understanding of science.

The term wingnuts has been used by a number of people to describe those who propagate misinformation for a variety of reasons. In his book Wingnuts’ how the lunatic fringe is hijacking America, John Avlon describes a wingnut as “someone on the far-right wing or far-left wing of the political spectrum – the professional partisans and the unhinged activists, the hardcore haters and the paranoid conspiracy theorists.” This is probably a fair summation of the groups that skeptics often confront. Specific examples include Jenny McCarthy for her misinformed and vehement opposition to vaccines, Suzanne Somers for her advocacy of dodgy and dangerous “natural” therapies, Peter Duesberg with his HIV denialism, and Christopher Monckton for his use of misinformation in opposing global warming.

With wingnuts attacking many areas of science and undermining attempts to educate the public, the question has to be asked – How should we deal with these purveyors of irrationality? Some skeptics advocate an aggressive counterattack – personally attacking the wingnuts, in the same way that they have attacked science and science communicators. Others suggest a purely educational and rational approach, relying on the ideal that the truth will win out in the end. For myself, I see the first approach as dangerous in that it muddies the waters – one only has to look at the mess that has resulted in the climate change debate. Personal attacks from both sides of the debate – accusations of conspiracy, impropriety, etc – have confused the public and risk having climate change dismissed as ‘too hard’ to deal with. On the other hand, taking a purely rational approach overlooks the fact that human behaviour is not always rational and prone to being swayed by emotive arguments.

In trying to sort out the best way for me to respond to wingnuts I have developed a list of 10 rules as a guide.

1) Know what you are talking about

Many wingnuts are well versed in their area of ‘expertise’. Debating them without adequate knowledge of the subject as well as an understanding of the typical wingnut ploys is risky. It is worth noting, however, that when exchanging views with a wingnut via blog comments this does give one the opportunity to do research between exchanges.

2) Use precise, simple and neutral language

It is easy to be misunderstood, especially via written language. So, one should keep the language as precise and simple as possible. A choice of neutral language helps maintain a calm exchange of ideas. Emotive language can readily escalate an exchange of ideas into an irrational argument. We have over 600,000 words in the English language to choose from, so why not take some care in deciding how we explain things to others.

3) Respond to rudeness in a calm manner

Some people, including skeptics, see debating ideas as an opportunity to insult others. In my opinion, snide remarks, personal attacks and swearing detract from any rational exchange and serve to both escalate any exchange of thoughts into irrationality as well as hardening the views on both sides of the debate.

When confronted with rudeness, I try to focus on repeating factual information. There is also value in pointing out the rude behaviour. This can be done in an assertive, non-threatening way by making comments about the wingnut’s behaviour and not about them personally. For example by saying “I find it offensive, when you claim that scientists are shills for big pharma” followed by a list of supporting facts, instead of “you are a rude and obnoxious #[email protected]&”. Most people will accept criticism of their behaviour far more readily than what they feel is a personal attack, particularly when the person making the comment ‘owns’ the effect of the behaviour.

It is also worth remembering that it is difficult for someone to continue being rude if you do not reply in kind. If you can maintain being polite to someone who is being rude, in most cases the rudeness will dissipate and one can return to a calm exchange of ideas.

4) Remember – wingnuts are people too

No one is completely rational. We all have our own biases which may result in irrational behaviour. Whether it is a result of our environment or our biology, many of us engage in irrational behaviour without even recognising it. So while we may often assume that a wingnut is being purposely irrational, it is usually the case that they consider their actions to be completely rational. In his book Why we Believe, Michael Shermer describes such behaviour as “intellectual attribution bias” – where those with opposing views typically consider their own actions as being rationally motivated, whereas they see those of their opponents as more emotionally driven.

A simple rule to remember – challenge the ideas, not the person.

5) Ask questions … and listen to the answers

When someone appears to express a view counter to what we believe it is easy to respond by bombarding them with counter arguments. However, this will not only put them on the defensive, it also relies on the fact that you have understood their point of view correctly (see point 7, below). If one takes the time to explore their beliefs further by asking questions, it not only gives you time to assess the extent of their beliefs, if done in a friendly manner it helps establish rapport, allowing for a more rational exchange of ideas. If we leap into an argument with a limited understanding of the other person’s position we can find ourselves trying to convince them of something they already agree with.

6) Leave your ego at the door

In my experience once you start taking comments personally, rationality goes out the window. There are times when the comments of some wingnuts make me furious. At such times the best option is to take time to calm down before responding.

“Science is the search for truth – it is not a game in which one tries to beat his opponent, to do harm to others.” – Linus Pauling

7) Expect misunderstandings

No matter how carefully we think we have phrased something, those hearing or reading them will often misunderstand at least part of what we have said. So one always needs to be ready to rephrase. In order to clarify what we are saying a number of techniques can be used:

a) Counter anecdotes with anecdotes. Follow up by explaining this is why anecdotes are not particularly good as evidence.

b) Use analogies to explain difficult concepts.

c) Apologise when you make a mistake. While some may view apologising as a loss of face, it can actually establish a better rapport. It is far more honest and trust-inspiring than trying to cover up or justify a mistake you have made. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that we all make mistakes.

d) Acknowledge points of agreement. In any argument there are often points that both parties agree on. If we can identify these up front and acknowledge them, it not only makes it easier to explore the points of difference, it again establishes some rapport by saying “look, there are some points on which we can agree.”

8) Don’t make the same mistakes we criticise them for

There is nothing more frustrating than seeing other ‘skeptics’ debate a wingnut by erecting their own strawmen, using ad hominem attacks or other irrational arguments. An experienced wingnut will quickly turn these mistakes to his or her own advantage. It always pays to carefully think through all of your own arguments before using them.

9) Be persistent and don’t expect to change their views overnight

Most wingnuts have spent years developing and reinforcing their positions. Some probably have the psychological equivalent of Fort Knox built around their ideological positions.

So if we can’t easily change their minds, what is the point in debating with them?

Debates with wingnuts seldom take place in a vacuum. Whether they are arguing their point via a letter to the editor, on a blog or amongst a group of friends or workmates, there is always an audience. If their points go unchallenged some of the audience will be swayed by their arguments. So challenging the arguments of a wingnut is less about changing their point of view, and more about educating any audience they have about the flaws and fallacies of their argument. One should aim to win over any such audience with superior knowledge, civility and by pointing out how your position benefits them.

10) Learn more about persuasion

Many skeptics have a great respect for facts and rational debate. However, when it comes to making decisions human beings tend to be more readily swayed by their emotions. Psychologists have spent decades researching how people make decisions. Such research has been embraced and effectively used by marketers and salespeople to get us to buy things we don’t need or want. If the Journal of Marketing Research refer to books like Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion as “the most important book written in the last 10 years” then perhaps we should also be reading it, not only to help us work out appropriate ways to better present a skeptical viewpoint, but to also immunise us against some of the less scrupulous methods of persuasion.

Some persuasive techniques directly applicable to debating with wingnuts include”

a) Appealing to self interest. Everyone naturally looks at how anything benefits themselves. So when we advocate for vaccination use, rejection of dangerous or ineffective ‘alternative medicines’ and other wingnut ideas we need to focus on the benefits of our positions.

b) Creativity. In a world where we are bombarded with many demands for our attention, the creative ideas stand out. One only has to consider the incredible amounts of money companies spend on novel advertising campaigns to understand this.

c) Repetition. Many wingnuts rely on the idea that if you repeat a lie often enough it will be believed. If this is the case, then surely if you repeat the truth often enough it will also be believed.
d) Soundbites. Many science communicators are now recognising the value of sound bites – short memorable statements outlining key points. Most people are more likely to remember sound bites than the long and complex (albeit more accurate( explanations preferred by many scientists.
e) Be positive. It has been demonstrated that most people remember positive messages more accurately. Thus is it more effective to say that “vaccines save millions of lives each year” as opposed to “vaccines are not dangerous.” Over time, a negative message can become confused and may be remembered instead as “vaccines are dangerous.”

A good example of clever use of such techniques was the 10:23 campaign in January 2010 to educate the public about homeopathy. The public ‘overdose’ on homeopathic remedies by skeptics was a creative way to draw the attention of the media and the public to the irrationality of homeopathy. Clever sound bites such as :ten dollars for a teaspoon of water: were not only memorable but focused on financial self interest. The event also caused several homeopaths or homeopathic organisations to state outright that they don’t know how homeopathy works, a remarkable and useful soundbite (for skeptics( in itself.


This 10-point list outlines my own approach to wingnuts. Others may have different, possibly even contrary rules. I believe it is important that we, as skeptics, share and discuss these ideas rationally and with the view of what will best encourage better and more rational thinking by the general public.

Whether you agree with all of my rules or not, there is hopefully one thing we can agree on. We cannot afford to ignore the wingnuts.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

“We have to create the future or others will do it for us.” – Susan Ivanova, character, Babylon 5 TV series.

Opening a Dore?

A learning difficulties programme that claims to re-train the cerebellum makes some impressive claims which don’t stand close scrutiny.

DORE is an organisation that claims to treat learning difficulties without drugs. Their programmes supposedly

“… tackle the root cause of learning difficulties by improving the efficiency of the cerebellum – the brain’s ‘skill development centre’ – and the part of the brain now understood to play a significant role in learning, coordination, emotional control and motor skills.”

Recently the company held a series of information sessions to coincide with the opening of a new Dore centre in Lower Hutt, to go with their existing centres in Auckland and Christchurch. I attended a session to see what it was all about.

As we entered the room, video testimonials were playing, showing parents and their children claiming dramatic results for a range of learning disabilities and conditions, such as Asperger’s syndrome. An information pack was handed out, which included newspaper clippings and another testimonial. It claimed that Dore gets to the “core of learning difficulties”, “actively improves ability to learn”, is drug-free, based on scientific principles, is personally tailored and is not a “quick fix” or “soft option”. A FAQ stated that people who successfully complete the programme did the exercises accurately and consistently and if improvements don’t occur this is mainly because people are not sticking to the routine.

A video introduced Wynford Dore, who stated his daughter had learning problems, for which he searched for a solution. Then a mother and her son related how the son had dyslexia and behavioural problems at school which the mother was only made aware of after a few years when a teacher spoke to her. The child was already on a three-year programme with SPELD when the family discovered Dore; they followed this programme for a year concurrently with SPELD. They claimed significant improvement about three months after starting Dore.

The presentation went on to claim that approximately 16 percent of the New Zealand population had learning difficulties, with only four percent diagnosed; these were said to affect one in six New Zealanders. It was difficult to locate comparative figures, but SPELD estimates that seven percent of children have a specific learning disability, which would equate to about 50,000 school children.

The Dore programme claimed to assist with dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, dyspraxia (motor skills) and Asperger’s syndrome, and is targeted at people aged seven and over. The presenter briefly went over the typical feelings of those struggling with learning difficulties, and described how they thought these conditions manifest – as a multitude of literacy, numeracy, memory, attention, coordination, social and emotional problems. This was all claimed to be due to an inefficient cerebellum. Dore, they said, addresses underlying causes rather than symptoms (where have I heard that before I wonder?).

The conditions treated all allegedly have a physiological basis and nothing to do with other factors. Figures were presented, said to be from the Otago University longitudinal study and purporting to show that dyslexics were significantly disadvantaged compared with peers (with the consequent implication that treatment would help prevent this disadvantage).

Dyslexic students were more likely to leave school with no qualifications, much less likely to have a Bachelors degree, and none achieved Masters/Doctorate levels. Average income was more than $10,000 less than their peers. However, there was no word on whether this lack of achievement could be generalised to all people suffering dyslexia, given the long time period of the study and the considerable changes in educational services over that time.

In a further video presentation a Dr Sara Chamberlain claimed the cerebellum governs the automatic performance of simple tasks, and that this facility can be enhanced through exercise. We then heard about Dore’s assessment process. Following an initial phone consultation, prospective clients fill out a questionnaire, and there are a variety of tests and a medical assessment. Posture and ocular-motor skills are tested, and then dyslexia is screened for, apparently using a standard tool. Other conditions such as ADD/ADHD are assessed using the DSM-IV manual; the whole initial appointment takes three to four hours. The programme, it appears, is not suitable for everyone. Clients then have 1.5-hour interviews at three-monthly intervals and on completion of the course.

It was claimed that many scientific papers link the cerebellum with learning, attention, etc; these can be found on their website. They say they have done research themselves and written papers, and will provide details on request. They mentioned ongoing studies into ADHD at Ohio State University and by another US office; the Ohio State University testing appears to be a pilot study, but I couldn’t find any references to the other. A testimonial was introduced from a Dr Edward Hallowell, presented as an expert in ADD and ADHD. When I checked on this later, he appears to be involved with the Dore programme and would hardly be an unbiased commenter.

We were presented with figures from self-evaluation claiming to show 86.5 percent of children and 88.5 percent of adults showed progress in literacy and numeracy after taking the Dore programme. For coordination the respective figures were 81 percent and 75.4 percent, and for social skills 78.1 percent and 72.6 percent. The exercise programme was claimed to be individualised, unlike other programmes like ‘Brain Gym’ that aren’t (for more information on Brain Gym see Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog(.

The regime

The exercises take 10 minutes twice daily, with a mandatory four-hour break between; they have 400 exercises and 16 levels that could be completed. These involve such things as using a wobble board, or an exercise ball, or throwing and catching mini bean bags. Again, the cerebellum was claimed to be receiving, processing and automating sensory information from somatosensory, visual and vestibular inputs. The cerebral cortex (the thinking part of the brain) is apparently supposed to integrate all of this but with the conditions Dore say they treat, it is claimed the cerebellum isn’t working with the cerebral cortex.

The idea that defects in the cerebellum cause learning difficulties would seem to be a classic case of correlation not necessarily equating with causation. As noted by Oxford University psychologist Dorothy Bishop in her 2007 paper “Curing dyslexia and ADHD by training motor co-ordination: Miracle or myth?”, cause and effect would seem to be not so simple as presented at the session.

“The notion that the cerebellum might be implicated in some children’s learning difficulties is not unreasonable: both post-mortem and imaging studies have reported cerebellar abnormalities. Furthermore, some studies have reported behavioural deficits involving balance and automatisation of motor skills in a subset of people with dyslexia, consistent with a cerebellar deficit hypothesis. However, it is premature to conclude that abnormal cerebellar development is the cause of dyslexia, rather than an associated feature. Many people with dyslexia do not show any evidence of motor or balance problems. Furthermore, the cerebellum is a plastic structure which can be modified by training, raising the possibility that cerebellar abnormalities might be a consequence of limited experience in hand-writing in those with poor literacy.”

The programme used to use a book, but is now web-based. Exercises are carried out and then “marked” according to their criteria. They stressed that compliance was key, along with parental support. Times for completion vary, but are usually 12-14 months, with a weaning process at the end of the programme where the exercises are gradually wound down. The course is expensive, costing almost $5,400 or a little less for a one-off payment. They did say that they gave three “sponsored” places per month, but didn’t describe what exactly this entailed, outside of mentioning that it was for low income families and that children with a medical diagnosis could apply for a disability allowance through WINZ which could be used to access their programme.

A few questions

During question time, they were asked how they could be sure the child in the video testimonial had improved because of Dore and not the other programme he was on. The answer was fudged: they said they didn’t diagnose but looked for “sensory processing problems” and it was those they treated, which then enabled the person to learn. In other words, if there was improvement, it was Dore, not any other intervention specifically targeted at helping the person learn to overcome their disability and learn to read.

Another questioner asked why it was so costly given that the programme is mostly self-directed. They equivocated, talking about staffing costs, the website, and having support available. They said that braces cost much more and that that is basically cosmetic, when their programme “benefited a person for life” so was worth the investment. Yet another question was about the doctors – why wouldn’t they use paediatricians and other suitably qualified professionals? They stated that for their purposes, the level of medical expertise was sufficient.

Dore has obviously learned from experience following actions taken by overseas advertising standards authorities, and no longer make claims of “100 percent cure” and “miracle cure” for the conditions they claim to treat. In fact they seemed to be reasonably realistic in introducing caveats such as “it doesn’t work for everyone”. Despite this, they still claim to be proven to help overcome learning difficulties even though the evidence base is weak to non-existent. Although they make many claims to be “scientific” and have an extensive list of papers on their website, when the UK Advertising Standards Authority considered a complaint against Dynevor, Dore’s parent company, they assessed the studies submitted in support as poor, lacking control groups, and not supporting the treatment claims made:

“The ASA noted Dynevor’s interpretation of the ad. We considered, however, in the absence of any qualifying text to the contrary, that consumers were likely to understand the claim “Need help with Dyslexia, ADHD, Dyspraxia or Asperger’s?” to mean that the DORE programme could help treat the named conditions. We also considered that we would need to see robust, scientific evidence to support the claim. We noted that the two studies provided by Dynevor assessed the effect of the exercise-based DORE programme on children with reading difficulties and children and adults with ADHD respectively…

“… As neither the first nor second study referred to Asperger’s syndrome and only two participants in the first study had dyspraxia, we considered that the evidence was inadequate to support claims to treat those conditions. With regards to dyslexia and ADHD, we did not consider that the studies were sufficiently robust to support the treatment claims for those conditions, and we therefore concluded that the claim was misleading…”

The average person would have trouble verifying claims about the role of the cerebellum and the ability of an exercise programme to improve function. If it really was that easy everyone would be using Dore’s exercises. Their claim that dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD/ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome have one cause, one cure, is insufficient. The conditions they claim to treat are disparate and cause and effect is not established. There was little discussion of how cerebellar function or dysfunction is assessed, or of the relevance of their testing of such things as eye tracking, and no discussion at all of how the exercises impact on the cerebellum or how outcomes are measured. Bishop says:

“The gaping hole in the rationale for the Dore Programme is a lack of evidence that training on motor-coordination can have any influence on higher-level skills mediated by the cerebellum. If training eye-hand co-ordination, motor skill and balance caused generalized cerebellar development, then one should find a low rate of dyslexia and ADHD in children who are good at skateboarding, gymnastics or juggling. Yet several of the celebrity endorsements of the Dore programme come from professional sportspeople.”

There is little real involvement from the company once the programme has commenced, with only a few appointments to follow up after the initial assessment. Many who join the programme don’t apparently have a formal diagnosis of the conditions Dore claims to treat, and they won’t get that from the company, as they state they don’t diagnose anything other than the alleged cerebellar problems.

It’s not surprising that some would see benefits though – the commitment and parental support required to do the programme would alone benefit some children. Then there is regression to the mean, the Hawthorne effect (subjects modify an aspect of their behaviour being experimentally measured simply in response to being studied) and natural improvements with growing maturity. On retesting later, there may appear to be improvements due to the client having done the test before and being aware of what is required. Many would concurrently use other services such as reading recovery, and Dore themselves recommend that if the child has spare time, that it is spent practising reading and writing. That extra practice reading could be extremely beneficial.

The high cost of the programme is concerning, especially when they acknowledge that not everyone will benefit. Despite this, they had parents travelling from the Wellington region to undertake assessments in Auckland – hence the opening of an office in the region. There may also be a financial risk to participants; Dore UK and Australia have both failed, leaving clients out of pocket. In New Zealand Dore was placed in liquidation in 2009 and the Companies Office states: “This Company currently has Liquidators, Receivers or Voluntary Administrators appointed” with the liquidators due to report again in May 2011.

Yet more reasons why people believe weird things

Research at Victoria University of Wellington is shedding light on the often irrational processes by which people assess new information. This article is based on presentations to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.

Jacqui Dean was alarmed. The Otago MP had received an email reporting the deaths of thousands of people – deaths caused by the compound dihydrogen monoxide. Dihydrogen monoxide is commonly used as an industrial solvent and coolant, it is fatal if inhaled, and is a major component of acid rain (see for more facts about dihydrogen monoxide). Only after she declared her plans to ban dihydrogen monoxide did she learn of its more common name: water (NZ Herald, 2007).

Ms Dean’s honest mistake may be amusing, but when large groups of people fail to correctly assess the veracity of information that failure can have tragic consequences. For example, a recent US survey found 25 percent of parents believe that vaccines can cause autism, a belief that may have contributed to the 11.5 percent of parents refusing at least one recommended vaccine for their child (Freed et al, 2010).

Evidence from experimental research also demonstrates the mistakes people can make when evaluating information. Over a number of studies researchers have found that people believe:

  • that brand name medication is more effective than generic medication;
  • that products that cost more are of higher quality;
  • and that currency in a familiar form – eg, the US dollar bill, is more valuable than currency in a less familiar form – eg, a dollar coin (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2008; for a review, see Rao & Monroe, 1989).

Why is it that people believe these weird things and make mistakes evaluating information?

Usually people can evaluate the veracity of information by relying on general knowledge. But when people have little relevant knowledge they often turn to feelings to inform their decisions (eg Unkelbach, 2007). Consider the following question: Are there more words in the English language that start with the letter K or have K in the third position? When Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky (1973) asked this question most people said there are more words that start with the letter K. And they were wrong. People make this error because words that start with the letter K, like kite, come to mind more easily than words that have a K in the third position, like acknowledge, so they judge which case is true based on a feeling – the experience of ease when generating K examples.

Generally speaking, information that is easy to recall, comprehend, visualise, and perceive brings about a feeling of fluent processing – the information feels easy on the mind, just like remembering words such as kite (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009). We are sensitive to feelings of fluent processing (fluency), and we use it as a cue to evaluate information. For example, repeated information feels easy to bring to mind, and tends to be judged as more true than unrepeated information; trivia statements written in high colour contrast (Osorno is the capital of Chile) are easier to perceive and are judged as more true than statements written in low colour contrast (Osorno is the capital of Chile); and financial stocks with easy to pronounce ticker symbols (eg KAR) outperform those with difficult to pronounce ticker symbols such as RDO (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2006; Hasher et al, 1977; Reber & Schwarz, 1999).

Most of the time, fluently processed information is evaluated more positively – we say it is true, we think it is more valuable. And on the face of it, fluency can be a great mental shortcut: decisions based on fluency are quick and require little cognitive effort. But feelings of fluency can also lead people to make systematic errors. In our research, we examine how feelings of fluency affect beliefs, confidence, and evaluations of others. More specifically, we examine how photos affect people’s judgements about facts; how repeated statements affect mock- jurors’ confidence; and how the complexity of a name affects people’s evaluations of that person.

Can decorative photos influence your beliefs about information?

If we told you that the Barringer Crater is on the northern hemisphere of the moon, would that statement be more believable if we showed you a photo of the Barringer Crater? Because the photo is purely decorative – that is, it doesn’t actually tell you anything about the location of the Barringer Crater (which is in fact in Arizona) – you probably wouldn’t expect it to influence your beliefs about the statement.

Yet, evidence from fluency research suggests that in the absence of relevant knowledge, people rely on feelings to make decisions (eg Unkelbach, 2007). Thus, not knowing what the Barringer Crater is or what it looks like, you might turn to the photo when considering whether the statement is true. The photo might bring about feelings of fluency, and make the statement seem more credible by helping you easily picture the crater and bring to mind related information about craters – even though this would still give you no objective information about where the crater is located. In our research, we ask whether decorative photos can lead people to be more willing to believe information.

How did we answer our research question?

In one experiment, people responded true or false to trivia statements that varied in difficulty; some were easy to answer (eg, Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon), some were more difficult (eg, Turtles are deaf). Half of the time, statements were paired with a related photo (eg, a turtle). In a second study, people evaluated wine labels and guessed whether each of the wine labels had won a medal. We told people that the wine companies were all based in California. In fact, we created all of the wine names by pairing an adjective (eg, Clever) with a noun (eg, Clever Geese). Some of the wine labels contained familiar nouns (eg, Flower) and some contained unfamiliar nouns (eg, Quills). Half of the wine labels appeared with a photo of the noun.

What did we find?

Overall, when people saw trivia statements or wine names paired with photos, they were more likely to think that statements were true or that the wines had won a medal. However, photos only exerted these effects when information was difficult – that is, for those trivia statements that were difficult to answer and wine names that were relatively unfamiliar. Put more simply, decorative photos can lead you to believe claims about unfamiliar information.

Is one eyewitness repeating themselves as believable as three?

If you were a juror in a criminal case, you would probably be more willing to convict a man based on the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses, rather than the testimony of a single eyewitness. But why would you be more likely to believe multiple eyewitnesses? On the one hand, you might think that the converging evidence of multiple eyewitnesses is more accurate and more convincing than evidence from a single eyewitness, and indeed, multiple eyewitnesses are generally more accurate than a single eyewitness (Clark & Wells, 2008).

On the other hand, as some of the fluency research discussed earlier suggests, you may be more likely to believe multiple eyewitnesses simply because hearing from multiple eyewitnesses means hearing the testimony multiple times (Hasher et al, 1977). Put another way, it may be the repetition of the testimony, rather than the number of independent eyewitnesses, that makes you more likely to believe the testimony. In our research, we wanted to know whether it is the overlap of statements made by multiple eyewitnesses or the repetition of those statements that makes information more believable.

How did we answer our research question?

We asked subjects to read three eyewitness reports about a fictitious crime. We told half of the subjects that each report was written by a different eyewitness, and we told the other half that all three reports were written by the same eyewitness. In addition, half of these subjects read some specific claims about the crime (eg, The thief read a Newsweek magazine) in one of the eyewitness reports, while the other half read those same specific claims in all three reports. Later, we asked subjects to tell us how confident they were that certain claims made in the eyewitness reports really happened during the crime (eg, How confident are you that the thief read a Newsweek magazine?).

What did we find?

This study had two important findings. First, regardless of whether one or three different eyewitnesses ostensibly wrote the reports, subjects who read claims repeated across all three reports were more confident about the accuracy of the claims than subjects who read those claims in only one report. Second, when the claims were repeated, subjects were just as confident about the accuracy of a single eyewitness as the accuracy of multiple eyewitnesses. These findings tell us that repeated claims were relatively more fluent than unrepeated claims – making people more confident simply because the claims were repeated, not because multiple eyewitnesses made them.

Would a name influence your evaluations of a person?

Your immediate response might be that it shouldn’t – people’s names provide no objective information about their character. We hope that we make decisions about others by recalling information from memory and gathering evidence about a person’s attributes. Indeed, research shows that when we have knowledge about a topic, a person or a place, we do just that – use our knowledge to make a judgement- and we can be reasonably accurate in doing so (eg, Unkelbach, 2007).

But when we don’t know a person and we can’t draw on our knowledge, we might be influenced by their name. As we have described, when people cannot draw on memory to make a judgement, they unwittingly turn to tangential information to make their decisions. Therefore, when people evaluate an unfamiliar name, tangential information, like the complexity of that name, might influence their judgements. More specifically, we thought that unknown names that were phonologically simple – easier to pronounce – would be judged more positively on a variety of attributes than names that were difficult to pronounce.

How did we answer our research question?

We showed people 16 names gathered from international newspapers. Half of the names were easy to pronounce (eg, Lubov Ershova), and half were difficult to pronounce (eg, Czeslaw Ratynska). We matched the names on a number of factors to make sure any differences we found were not due to effects of culture or name length. So for example, people saw an easy and difficult name from each region of the world and names were matched on length. Across three experiments, we asked subjects to judge whether each name was familiar (Experiment 1), trustworthy (Experiment 2), or dangerous (Experiment 3).

What did we find?

Although the names were not objectively different from each other on levels of familiarity, trustworthiness, or danger, people systematically judged easy names more positively than difficult names. Put another way, people thought that easy-to-pronounce names were more familiar, more trustworthy, and less dangerous than difficult-to-pronounce names. So although we would like to think we would not evaluate a person based on their name, we may unwittingly use trivial information like the phonological complexity of a name in our judgements.


Why is it that people believe these weird things and make mistakes when evaluating information? Our research suggests that decorative photos, repetition of information, and a person’s name all influence the way people interpret information. More specifically, decorative photos lead people to think information is more credible; repetition leads mock-jurors to be more confident in eyewitness statements – regardless of how many eyewitnesses provided the statements; and an easy-to-pronounce name can lead people to evaluate a person more positively.

Relying on feelings of fluency can result in sensible, accurate decisions when we are evaluating credible facts, accurate eyewitness reports, and trustworthy people. But the same feelings can lead people into error when we are evaluating inaccurate facts, mistaken eyewitnesses, and unreliable people. More specifically, feelings of fluency might lead us to think false facts are true, be more confident in inaccurate eyewitness reports, and more positively evaluate an unreliable person.

A common finding across our studies is that the effect of fluency was specific to situations where people had limited general knowledge to draw on. In the real world, we might see these effects even when people have sufficient knowledge to draw on. That is because we juggle a lot of information at any one time and we do not have the cognitive resources to carefully evaluate every piece of information that reaches us – as a result we may turn to feelings to make some decisions. Therefore it is inevitable that we will make at least some mistakes. We can only hope that our mistakes are comical rather than tragic.

The authors thank Professor Maryanne Garry for her invaluable guidance and her inspiring mentorship on these and other projects.


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