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.T.E.A.C.H.

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).

References

Ashton, M.C., Lee, K., & Goldberg, L.R.(2004).Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(5), 707-721.

Axelrod, R., & Hamilton, W.D.(1981).Science, 211,1390-1396.

Baschetti, R.(2007).Medical Hypotheses, 68, 4-8.

Blackmore, S.(1999).The Meme Machine.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brinkmann, S.(2009).New Ideas in Psychology, 27, 1-17.

Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P.(2005).Review of General Psychology, 9(3), 203-213.

Dawkins, R.(2006).The Selfish Gene (30th Anniversary ed.).Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grayling, A.C.(2011).The Good Book: A secular bible.London: Bloomsbury.

Hamilton, W.D.(1964).Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7,1-52.

Harris, S.(2010).The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values.New York: Free Press.

Henriques, G.(2003).Review of General Psychology 7(2), 150-182.

Henriques, G.R.(2005).Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61,121-139.

Hrdy, S.B.(2009).Mothers and Others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding.Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard.

Kristjansson, K.(2010).Review of General Psychology, 14v4), 296-310.

Lee, K., & Ashton, M.C.(2008).Journal of Personality, 76(5), 1001-1054.

Paul, G.(2009).Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 398-441

Scott-Phillips, T.C., Dickins, T.E., & West, S.A.(2011).Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(1),38-47.

Seitz, J.A.(2005).New Ideas in Psychology, 23,74-95.

Seligman, M.E.P.(2011).Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing.New York: Free Press.

Trivers, R.l.(1971).Quarterly Review of Biology, 46,35-57.

Wilson, E.O.(1998).Consilience: The unity of knowledge.New York: Random House.

Winne, P.H., & Nesbit, J.C.(2010).Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 653-678.

Yamagata, S., Suzuki, A., Ando, J., Ono, Y., Kijima, N., Yoshimura, K., et al.(2006).Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 987-998.

New woo for you

Alison Campbell learns how to fine-tune the universe with a didgeridoo.

Recently a commenter on Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog ( scienceblogs.com/insolence) mentioned the therapeutic use of didgeridoos for various health issues. Surely this is a joke, I thought. But no: it seems that didgeridoo sound therapy (Http://www.didgetherapy.com) is indeed alive and well.

Apparently it works by:

(a) producing ultrasound frequencies that have a massaging effect (no, really!);

(b) clearing “emotional and energetic stagnation”; and

(c) allowing” meditation and mind-body healing”. And of course “[m]editation can also be used to quantum manifest healing and the co-creation of our universe.”

Wow! Who’d have thunk it? Every time someone meditates, they’re fine-tuning the universe (if not actually remaking it anew).

So, we have all the signs of classic ‘woo’ here. Quite apart from the (mis) use of words like ‘quantum’ (in the words of Inigo Montoya, “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”), we have information-poor statements like this (original grammar but I’ve emphasised a phrase):

“This low frequency producing characteristic of the didgeridoo creates a no touch “sound massage” and has been reported to provide similar results as conventional ultra sound treatments and relieve a wide range of joint, muscular and skeletal related pain.”

“reported”… By whom, to whom, and where? In other words, show us the data. Without that, we are simply dealing with anecdote and testimonial.

And there’s the energy cleansing: here the website blurb refers to both TCM and Ayurvedic ‘medicine’, and gushes that the effects of playing a didgeridoo are as follows;

“The most basic description one could give for the energetic clearing power of the didgeridoo is “it is like a reiki or qi gong power washer.” It has been reported that the energetic clearing effects are similar to traditional five-element acupuncture.”

This might be fine if reiki actually did anything… And there’s that “reported” again. Plus, how was the similarity to the results of acupuncture measured, and for which ailments? (There’s quite a list of health issues for which didgeridoo therapy is supposedly useful, on that website. At least they don’t claim that it actually cures cancer.(

One testimonial, featured on the website, describes didgeridoo music as an “Ancient Vibrational medicine” (it would be interesting to know how Australian aborigines view this), which fits with the statement that:

“Sound Therapy is based on the theory* that all life vibrates at various frequencies and specifically the human body has multiple vibrational frequencies that can slip ‘out of tune’ due to emotional or energetic stagnation. When these frequencies are ‘out of tune’ they can lead to physical and emotional health issues.”

This vibration thing has been around for a while – Orac has taken several looks at the various claims made about it (including the truly bizarre claim that DNA produces sound waves, that these can be recorded, and that those recordings can be transmitted to someone else and change their DNA in turn!( However, the idea’s longevity doesn’t actually mean that it’s in any way an accurate reflection of biological reality.

And finally, we have this:

“Didgeridoo Sound Therapy & Sound Healing is not an Aboriginal Australian tradition or practice, though love and respect is given to them for sharing this amazing instrument with the world.”

So – not an “Ancient Vibrational medicine” at all, then …

  • Not ‘theory’ in the sense of ‘strong, scientific explanation for a large number of observations/measurements’, but rather, in the sense of ‘some idea I’ve** come up with.’

** Not me personally!

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 #$@&”. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Even Psychics Can Only Be Medium

Englishwoman Doris Stokes was a medium – by which I don’t mean her dress size was between small and large. She claimed she spoke to people “on the other side,” to use the euphemistic jargon of the darkened drawing room. She was a sort of cosmic Telecom operator, only I suspect her charges were a good deal higher than 99c a minute plus GST.

I use the past tense because Doris herself has moved on into the spirit world with which she had so long claimed to communicate. Nothing has been heard from her since she died, which I think is pretty contemptuous of her fellow media (the plural of medium(.

Doris became world famous and made a lot of money travelling around linking people up with restless ghosts, using what often sounded like an old country-town party-line system. You could never be quite sure who would answer the call or whether some celestial storm had brought the line down.

Doris Stokes was a professional name. She was born Marilyn Dashing in London but her first manager pointed out that if she wanted to make money bringing messages back from the other side to suckers on Earth, most of the clients would be ordinary and wouldn’t trust anyone who looked and sounded smart or had intellectual pretensions. So Doris changed her name, burned her grammar school diploma, threw away her tight skirts and blouses and bought half a dozen cardies and several strings of paste pearls.
… I remember some years ago when Doris was in New Zealand promoting a book, a radio interviewer asked her if anyone on the other side had described in detail for her what heaven was really like. Doris shocked me to the very soul by verbally painting a setting and ambience almost exactly identical to an inner suburb of Christchurch on a fine Sunday morning. I was gripped by a deep spiritual crisis, wondering if trying to be a good bloke was worth it after all.
Originally published in NZ Skeptic 19, March 1991.

Irrationality waxes once again

There are times when the world seems to run along quietly from day to day, with very little happening. Then there are times like these. There are the ongoing aftershocks in Christchurch, many of them big enough in their own right to qualify as major quakes at any other time. There was the far larger earthquake in Japan, with its ensuing slow-motion nuclear disaster. There are wars and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa which seem set to transform the politics of those regions. Millennial anxieties are on the rise once more.

It’s only to be expected at such times that irrationality should flourish. When natural disasters strike at random, many have a desperate need to seek some kind of pattern, or cause. Hence the attention given to Ken Ring’s claim to have used phases of the moon and solar activity to predict the Christchurch quakes – if the experts can’t say when earthquakes will strike (though the general pattern of aftershocks has actually followed GNS’s forecasts quite well) then there is a niche for those who claim they can. Many skeptical bloggers (eg Peter Griffin, Matthew Dentith, Alison Campbell, Darcy Cowan and particularly the Silly Beliefs team) have dealt with Ring’s claims; we add our five cents’ worth later in this issue.

Meanwhile in the US, many commenters on internet forums are putting the Japan earthquake down to karma for Pearl Harbour. Also in that country self-proclaimed prophet Harold Camping is raising quite a stir with his calculation that the Rapture will occur on May 21 this year – 19 months before the 2012 buffs’ choice for the Big Day. Camping says of the current upheavals: “There are still people that God has to save, and he uses them to get them to cry out for his mercy.”

There’s not much sign of that happening yet in Christchurch, where the citizens are more intent on helping themselves and each other, rather than seeking divine assistance. Slowly the city is getting back on its feet, despite ongoing tremors; life is returning. A small sign of that is that the NZ Skeptics annual conference will once again be held there, from 26 to 28 August. Register with the form mailed out with this issue, or do it on-line at www.skeptics.org.nz

Christchurch always seems to have had more than its share of Skeptics, many of whom have been seriously affected by the quakes. It will be good for us to get together once again, to share the strength of our usually far-flung community.

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.

Travels in ceremony country

Some claim our society is too materialistic and lacks spiritual values. But what would it be like to live in a society that rejects materialism?

Arnhem Land in tropical Australia has a curious status. Although the government has overall responsibility, the indigenous inhabitants are considered to be in control over the area where they live. Outsiders must seek permission to enter a tribal area and a permit is issued on payment of a fee. Twenty years ago the tourist fee was relatively modest, but for a mining concession the fee is substantial as one might expect. We paid $65 for two of us per day on our first visit, although fees have risen greatly over time.

Very few tourists visit because the fee is for entry only and there are no hotels, restaurants, shops or similar facilities. There are very few roads, or even tracks for four-wheel drive vehicles. However it is possible to fly in and stay at the small mining town of Nhulunbuy within Arnhem Land where there is accommodation, shops and restaurants. No permit is needed provided one stays within the town perimeter.

A tiny number of operators in Nhulunbuy will offer tours with a vehicle and guide, and assistance in obtaining the necessary permits. The tribespeople are generally not unfriendly but shy, and few will attempt much of a conversation even if they have sufficient English. As Australian citizens they are eligible for benefits so individuals have some income though very few have jobs (and those who do are nearly all women). A good deal of their income is spent on alcohol. Getting drunk is not frowned upon within the tribal system. Religion puts a high value on a trance-like state and it is not clear how inebriation differs from this (even to me). Violence when drunk can be punished, especially if somebody is harmed.

On one of our visits, a chief’s drunken son had just beaten a woman to death. A meeting of elders had decided that the spearing would take place immediately and that the official trial (that would presumably result in a conviction for manslaughter) would occur when he got out of hospital. On some previous occasions, the spearing took place when the offender got out of prison and this was thought to be unfair.

Some but not all children go to school. On one tiny island in the Gulf of Carpentaria I met a group of young boys living on their own to prepare for the ‘circumcision’ ceremony that would admit them to full tribal membership. They had spears and knives (but no clothes), and were living on fish and other seafood that they could catch or collect. Water was in short supply and the gifts of cold cans of soft drink were more than welcome. These boys (around 12 years old at my guess) could speak some English. But they could not reach a consensus as to how long they had been on the island, how long since they had seen an adult, how long they expected to stay or even whether they had ever been to school. I got the impression that they were not supposed to have any contact with me, but soft drinks overwhelmed any moral inhibitions.

Anthropologists have described this island sequestration of pre-initiates, but I doubt they interviewed the boys on an island. The written descriptions simply add to my scepticism of anthropologists. What I observed differed from the anthropological accounts in a number of important ways.

I have become friendly with one (white) Australian who had been initiated into one tribe and could act as interpreter. However my friendship has not progressed to the stage where I felt able to ask him if he had undergone the severe penile mutilation that the young boys are supposed to endure. The ceremony involves more than simple circumcision as understood by us.

On one trip my friend had recently taken a guy on an eco-tour. They first visited the tribe for permission and found a man apparently completing a painting on bark. In some parts of Australia paintings are made to sell to tourists but these are of variable quality. The tourist was excited at finding an authentic work of art, which he thought beautiful. The artist showed little reluctance to sell, and little interest in a price. But his work was not complete and he insisted it had to be finished. It was agreed that the tourist would return at the end of his visit.

Some days later the guide and tourist returned and the artist produced his now-complete painting. It was nothing like the one that had been admired and the tourist did not like it. But, explained the artist, the one he had liked was still there, it was just underneath. In fact there were four layers of painting; none of these were intended to be viewed by human eyes. Painting is done to satisfy the artist and please the spirits who are not limited by human sense organs. The artist had some understanding that the tourist might wish to own something that pleased the spirits. He could not understand why the new owner might want to view the painting.

There are many rock paintings across the tropical North. However the access to some sites has been restricted or stopped altogether. This is not because the tribes think the paintings may be damaged by tourists, in fact they paint over some old examples. This does not ‘damage’ them as they are still there for the spirits. But viewing by non-initiates desecrates the site. Actually photography and video desecrates them even more but we were not aware of this on our earliest trips!

Most tribes are small; one we encountered consisted of about 40 individuals. All receive some assistance from the government and those whose lands contain valuable minerals get money from their leases. In fact the amounts from leases can be enormous when considered against the standard of the material possessions of the tribe, apart from its land.

A giant aluminium company built a village for one tiny tribe on the edge of a huge lagoon called Bradshaw Harbour. There were vast resources for fishing and gathering of food, but after a few years when the senior elder had died, the tribe abandoned their houses and moved to the edge of Nhulunbuy where they could camp within easy access to alcohol.

Of course there are outsiders with a mission to help the local people, medics, teachers, social workers and religious enthusiasts, but the curious status of the place allows the locals to determine what kind of help they will accept. These are tribal societies, so it is the elders, ie the older men, who decide.

Most outsiders would like to see the available money spent on material things like housing, hygiene, education, medicine, etc. That is, those things upon which our society puts great value. But the elders put the greatest value on their religion. This involves complex and lengthy ‘ceremonies’, when a tribe invites its neighbours to a session of feasting and ritual generally lasting many days. In earlier times this presumably had the practical result of reducing tension and the risk of intertribal war.

Initiated men are called ‘warriors’ in English translation, even though they may be young teenagers. I have been on a fishing/hunting trip with a ‘warrior’ whose grandmother told me was 13. He carried two spears and a ‘throwing stick’ (his term) sometimes called an atlatl or woomera by outsiders. However it was a sacred object, no uninitiated person could touch it or even learn its proper name and he did not know any other western names for the object.

We went fishing in one spot; part of our concession was to take along a tribal member. A woman agreed; she would spend her time gathering food on a sacred beach. But she wanted to also take her daughter who she thought had just become fertile. It was necessary also to take a warrior, because a girl not so accompanied would become pregnant by walking on this sacred beach. This had happened to her as a teenager so she was certain it was true. Our guide (in the woman’s hearing), explained that the tribespeople were perfectly aware of the connection between sex and pregnancy but they had sex all the time and pregnancy did not always result so some other factor must be involved. I decided this was similar to attitudes in rural Ireland where prayers to the Virgin are thought important in such matters.

Before money was introduced, the cost in resources of putting on a ceremony was considerable relative to the economic status of a tribe. However the number of people who could attend was limited to those tribes in the vicinity: within walking distance. Generally it is estimated most tribes held a ceremony only once a year, while they probably attended between two and four more, held by their neighbours.

Mining royalties mean that the tribes (though not the individual) have considerable discretionary income and a very large percentage of this is spent on travel costs, to allow the people to attend distant ceremonies and on catering for the greatly enlarged numbers who attend the local ceremony. If sufficient funds allow they may also increase the number of ceremonies held. These days food is purchased as well as gathered, in fact close to a supermarket in Nhulunbuy very little is gathered, while very large amounts of alcoholic drink will be needed.

At first the travel range was increased by four-wheel drive transport, but with unskilled drivers and a complete lack of mechanics for maintenance, these had only a brief useful life. Where mining roads have been installed, ground vehicles may still be of use, but road maintenance is costly and without upkeep no road is likely to survive even a single wet season.

Travel by air is more feasible and tribes now often hire air transport. This makes the whole of Arnhem Land within the range of any tribe living within one day’s walk of a bush airstrip.

Outside Arnhem Land, in Western Australia, taxpayers provide subsidy for tribal transport where there are no mining concessions. In 2007 we were at a small, isolated fishing camp (four anglers) in an uninhabited area when we had a visit from the ‘traditional owners’ plus social workers and government officials. They came supposedly to see that the region was being looked after properly. There is never any litter around at fishing camps in the Kimberley, so after this group had left one of the guides went round to pick up all the litter they had dropped – mainly cigarette butts.

There was no road access and no place for a landing strip. A helicopter was kept on the ground while the party was visiting. When it came time for them to leave it had developed a fault. Another chopper with a mechanic had to come to examine it, while a third very large machine came to pick up the party (they all had to travel at once instead of being ferried, as night was approaching). None of the visitors had been there before – it is actually Government land – ie public land and it could not support a permanent settlement now or in the recent past.

The main concern of the traditional owners was to ensure that tourist operators did not take people to visit ancient sites and in particular did not photograph, or even view, ancient rock art. Such visitors offended against the traditional spiritual values, but these people expressed no interest in charging fees to allow tourists to do these touristy things.

Further reading: Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. M Abley, 2003. The Elements of the Aborigine Tradition. James G Cowan, 1992.

mp3 blues

HAVING recently joined the happy hordes of mp3 player owners, our household has been getting an object lesson in the nature of random events. For those who have yet to succumb to the charms of these amazing little gadgets, they can hold thousands of songs in memory and play them back in many different ways. You can, for example, just play a single album, or make up a playlist of songs for a party, or to encapsulate a particular mood.

Continue reading

Hokum Locum

Bogus chiropractor?

I thought they were all bogus! A Motueka man, Michael Dawson, was fined $4000 for describing himself as a chiropractor. This upset Nelson chiropractor Dr John Dawson who was quoted as saying his “unrelated namesake tainted the industry.” Quite apart from Dr Dawson’s pretentious use of the title ‘Dr’, his description of chiropractic as an industry is particularly apt. It is a massage business based on aggressive marketing and creating a non-existent need for gullible people to have their backs rubbed and clicked.

‘Dr’ Dawson was further quoted: “I’m sure there are a few people out there who have written off chiropractors because of him.” One can only hope.

It’s ironic that Michael Dawson was prosecuted by the Ministry of Health, a body supposedly watching over the health system and now seen to be protecting quacks by picking on unregistered quacks. Michael Dawson claims to be able to cure Hepatitis C and wake people from comas. These are claims that can readily be checked and will prove to be false, like most chiropractic claims.

ACC is currently experiencing budget woes and a great deal of this relates to treatment costs. Chiropractors favour prolonged and expensive treatments which have contributed to this problem. A recent study of back pain found conclusively that chiropractic manipulation was of no benefit (www.medscape.com/viewarticle/580409). This is consistent with earlier findings of the Cochrane Database.

I discovered another reference to an article in the Nelson Evening Mail which confirmed Michael Dawson did in fact have a chiropractic qualification but had failed to gain registration in New Zealand. This registration process is a farce and merely gives spurious respectability to an absurd belief system.

Consider the following; a patient goes to a chiropractor and receives a diagnosis of cervical spine subluxations for which manipulation is administered. The patient suffers an injury to arteries in the neck and has a stroke. The Health and Disability Commissioner (HDC) investigates by asking his ‘expert’ chiropractor whether the treatment was properly administered according to chiropractic tenets. The answer is yes so does this mean the chiropractor is off the hook? The patient can file an ACC claim for treatment injury and loses the right to sue as a result. ACC picks up the tab for an unnecessary and dangerous quack treatment.

While working at the hospital the other night a young man came in with toothache. He knew he had an impacted wisdom tooth because he had been x-rayed by his chiropractor whose course of treatments had extended out to 15 weeks. That’s a lot of subluxations. In a fit of whimsy I recently labeled such extended treatments as ‘chiroprotracted’.

Marlborough Express 22 August 2008

Cosmetic Acupuncture

It appears that there is no end to the absurd claims made of acupuncture. Acupuncture face renewal is now available at Arch Hill Acupuncture. A credulous journalist visited the clinic and reported after only one treatment: “I felt – and looked – like I had spent a week in Fiji.” A complete treatment usually involves 12 visits and I would commend the journalist on the Fiji suggestion, a far better use of one’s money.

Have a browse around the website www.archhillacupuncture.co.nz It contains the usual testimonials seen on such web pages as well as some clues to the success of this particular option. The owner of the business comes across as attractive, pleasant and supportive, all of which are good qualities to elicit an excellent placebo response. As a lot of readers will know, I can teach anyone to be a competent and safe acupuncturist in the course of a one-hour lecture. There is no need for several years’ training when something has no scientific basis.

The owner is quoted as saying: “I liken cosmetic acupuncture treatment to a gardener tending the soil of a plant to produce a healthy flower.” Isn’t that what manure is for?

Sunday Star Times 26 October 2008

The loopy left?

The Labour-run Lambeth Council in South London is spending 90,000 to send reflexologists into schools to massage the feet of unruly pupils. Reflexology is based on the same nonsensical ideas behind acupuncture, that pressure applied to areas on the foot can influence health and behaviour. The article contains a very interesting and important statement linked to what I was saying earlier: “Refexology is not a regulated therapy and medical authorities have raised concerns that qualifications are not needed to perform the massages.” The medical authorities ought to be denouncing this nonsense, not wittering on about ‘regulation’. Regulation merely provides spurious recognition, similar to the ridiculous situation of having ‘unregistered chiropractors’ versus ‘registered chiropractors’.

I fear that political considerations are behind a lot of these dopey decisions. At one of our conferences somebody asked a senior ACC doctor why ACC continued to fund acupuncture when it is an expensive and useless treatment. The answer was given that whenever they tried to cut back on acupuncture spending patients complained to their MP and he would get a call from the Minister asking, “why aren’t you funding acupuncture?”

Given the financial woes of ACC, one can only hope that the new Minister instructs ACC to do something about treatment spending. There are too many snouts in the trough!

Christchurch readers interested in reflexology training will be pleased to know they can do a Diploma course (NZQA accredited level 6) at the Canterbury College of Natural Medicine.

www.dailymail.co.uk

Fluoridation

Bruce Spittle (Forum 89) invited me to review his book entitled Fluoride Fatigue. I can report that I have read parts of it but had to stop because I became depressed. I will leave readers to make their own assessment. It is available free at www.pauapress.com

I would certainly not pay to buy this book which is a collection of anecdotal case reports and quotes from other people who share the author’s views. It is written in the style of the sort of books found in the New Age section of a bookshop or library. Here is an example:

“Neither in the hospital nor after her discharge was she given any medication. Instead, she was instructed to avoid fluoridated water strictly, not only for drinking but also for cooking her food as well. She was also told to avoid both tea and seafood because of their high fluoride content. The headaches, eye disturbances, and muscular weakness disappeared in a most dramatic manner. After about two weeks her mind began to clear, and she underwent a complete change in personality. For the first time in two years she was able to undertake her household duties without having to stop and rest. Within a four-week period she had gained five pounds.”

This is a classic description of the sort of person who gets chronic fatigue syndrome, gulf war syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity – take your pick. A person with vague symptoms looking for some convenient attribution.

I was interested however in the link to the author’s website on moa sightings. At least the extinction of the moa can’t be blamed on fluoridation.

Apart from both words starting with ‘F’, there is no medical evidence to link fluoride with fatigue (or depression). Fatigue is common and is not a diagnosis. In a random survey of the US population in 1974-75, 14 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women said they suffered from fatigue.

The best place to read well- balanced accounts of fluoridation is a Ministry of Health web page. In contrast, a casual browse through the many anti-fluoridation web pages would make anybody justified in using the term ‘crackpot’.

Bionase

I was forwarded an email from Rod who was interested in some product that shines red light up the nose for treatment of hay fever. I googled “shine red light up nose” and immediately arrived at the web page of Bionase. The product has two nasal probes that shine a red light up the nose. It was claimed that this had been scientifically tested and there was a link to an impressive looking study published in the Annals of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. A search of Medline revealed that this was the only study, described as double-blind and placebo-controlled. The paper appeared plausible but continued reading revealed a fatal flaw. Use of the probes caused the nose to light up red. The placebo device did not do this. The experiment is therefore not double-blind. Whilst not given to predictions I will say that if this trial is repeated with a proper blinding this device will be shown to be useless. It is simply biologically implausible, just like homoeopathic trials claiming to treat hay fever. As somebody once said, if any homoeopathic trail showed a beneficial effect your first action is to question the conduct and design of the trial (google Benveniste).

Science as a human endeavour

If students are to pursue careers in science, they need to be able to see themselves in that role. One way to encourage this may be through the telling of stories. This article is based on a presentation to the 2008 NZ Skeptics Conference in Hamilton.

New Zealand’s new science curriculum asks us to develop students’ ability to think critically. As a science educator I think that’s about the most important skill we can give them: the ability to assess the huge amount of information that’s put in front of them from all sorts of sources. We also need to recognise that the ideas and processes students are hearing about have come to us through the activities of people – it’s people who develop science understanding. Science changes over time, as people’s ideas change. It’s fluid, it’s done by people, and it’s a human endeavour.

This puts science in an interesting position. It has its own norms, and its own culture, but it’s embedded in the wider culture as well. Those norms of science include its history. I find it sad that many of my students have no idea of where the big ideas in science came from. They don’t know what the people who were developing those ideas were like.

The new curriculum document recognises that the nature of science is an important strand in the curriculum, because it is what gives science its context, and lets students see science as a human endeavour. They’re going to learn what science is, and how scientists do science. They will become acquainted with the idea that scientists’ ideas change as they’re given new information; that science is valuable for society. And students are going to learn how it’s communicated.

Our future prosperity depends on students continuing to enter careers in the sciences. Richard Meylan, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, said to me recently that somewhere between the end of year 13 and that two-month break before they go to university, we seem to be losing them. The universities are tending to see a drop in the number of students who have picked science as something that they want to continue in. Students don’t seem to see it as a viable career option, and there are many reasons for that.

We need more scientists, we need scientifically-literate politicians, and we need a community that understands science: how science is done, how science is relevant; one that sees science and scientists as being an integral part of the community. But how are we going to get there? What sorts of things can we do that are going to make young people want to carry on in science? Students often don’t choose science – how are we going to change that?

One of the reasons, perhaps, is that they often don’t see themselves as scientists. We did a bit of research on this at Waikato University last year, asking what would encourage our first-year students to continue as scientists. And what they were saying was, “Well, a lot of the time I don’t see myself as a scientist.” We asked, what would make a difference? The response: “Seeing that my lecturers are people.” People first, scientists second.

When I googled ‘scientist’ I had to go through eight or nine pages of results before finding something that looks like my own idea of a scientist. (‘Woman scientist’ is a bit better!) Almost all the guys have moustaches, they’ve all got glasses, all the women are square-shaped. Students don’t see themselves in this. We need them (and the rest of the community!) to see science as something that ordinary people do.

Now, what sorts of things are those ordinary people doing? They’re thinking; they’re speculating, they’re saying ‘what if?’ They’re thinking creatively: science is a creative process and at its best involves imagination and creativity. Scientists make mistakes! Most of the time we’re wrong but that doesn’t make good journal articles; usually no-one publishes negative results. So you just hear about the ‘correct’ stuff. Scientists persist when challenged, when things aren’t always working well.

Science stories

One way of fostering students’ engagement with science, and seeing themselves in it, is to tell them stories, to give them a feeling of how science operates. Brian Greene, a science communicator and physicist in the US, says:

I view science as one of the most dramatic narratives our species can tell. The story of our search to understand the Universe and ourselves. When that search is conveyed using the power of story – the story of discovery – we can all feel part of the journey.

So I’m going to tell you stories. And I’m going to tell stories about old, largely dead, people because one of my passions at the moment is the history of science. A lot of science’s big ideas have a history that stretches back 3-400 years. But they’re just as important today, and I think that an understanding of the scientists who came up with those ideas is also important today.

I think it’s important that kids recognise that a lot of scientists are a bit quirky. But then, everyone’s a bit quirky – we’re all different. One example of someone ‘a bit different’ is Richard Feynman. Famous for his discoveries in the nanotech field, he was a polymath: a brilliant scientist with interests in a whole range of areas – biology, art, anthropology, lock-picking, bongo-drumming. He was into everything. He also had a very quirky sense of humour. He was a brilliant scientist and a gifted teacher, and he showed that from an early age. His sister Joan has a story about when she was three, and Feynman was nine or so. He’d been reading a bit of psychology and knew about conditioning, so he’d say to Joan: “Here’s a sum: 2 plus 1 more makes what?” And she’s bouncing up and down with excitement. If she got the answer right, he’d give her a treat. The Feynman children weren’t allowed lollies for treats, so he let her pull his hair till it hurt (or, at least, he behaved as if it did!), and that was her reward for getting her sums right.

Making mistakes

We get it wrong a lot of the time. Even the people we hold up as these amazing icons – they get it wrong. Galileo thought the tides were caused by the Earth’s movement. At the time, no-one had developed the concept of gravity. How could something as far away as the Moon possibly affect the Earth? We look back at people in the past and we think, how could they be so thick? But,in the context of their time, what they were doing was perfectly reasonable.

Louis Pasteur, the ‘father of microbiology’, held things up for years by insisting that fermentation was due to some ‘vital process’ it wasn’t chemical. He got it wrong.

And one of my personal heroes, Charles Darwin, got it completely wrong about how inheritance worked. He was convinced that inheritance worked by blending. When Darwin published The Origin of Species, in 1859, Mendel’ s work on inheritance hadn’ t been published. It was published in Darwin’s lifetime – Mendel’s ideas would have made a huge difference to Darwin’s understanding of how inheritance worked – part of the mechanism for evolution that he didn’t have. But he never read Mendel’s paper.

Scientists do come into conflict with various aspects of society. Galileo had huge issues with the Church. He laid out his understanding of what Copernicus had already said: the Universe was not geocentric, it didn’t go round the Earth. The Church model was that the Universe was very strongly geocentric: everything went round us. Galileo was accused of heresy, and shown the various instruments of torture; for pulling out his thumbnails and squashing his feet. He did recant, and he was kept under house arrest until his death. And the Church officially apologised to him in 1992. A long-running conflict indeed.

And there’s conflict with prevailing cultural expectations. Beatrice Tinsley was an absolutely amazing woman; a New Zealander who has been called a world leader in modern cosmology, and one of the most creative and significant theoreticians in modern astronomy. She went to the US to do her PhD in 1964, and finished it in 1966. Beatrice published extensively, and received international awards, but she found the deck stacked against her at the University of Texas, where she worked. She was asked if she’d design and set up a new astronomy department, which she did. The university duly opened applications for the new Head of Department. Beatrice applied. They didn’t even respond to her letter. So she left Texas. (Yale did appreciate her, and appointed her Professor of Astronomy.) A couple of years later she found she had a malignant melanoma, and was dead by the age of 42. The issue for Beatrice was a conflict between societal expectations and the area where she was working: women didn’t do physics.

Science versus societal ‘knowledge’

Raymond Dart was an English zoologist who worked at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. He was widely known among the locals for his fondness for fossils; you could trundle down to Prof Dart’s house, bring him a lovely bit of bone, and he’d pay you quite well. One day in 1924 the workers at Taung quarry found a beautiful little skull – a face, a lower jaw, and a cast of the brain – in real life it would sit in the palm of your hand. Dart was getting ready for a wedding when the quarry workers arrived, and he was so excited by this find that when his wife came in to drag him off to be best man, he still didn’t have his cuffs and his collar on and there was dust all over his good black clothes. He was absolutely rapt.

Dart looked at this fossil and saw in it something of ourselves. He saw it as an early human ancestor. The jaw is like ours, it has a parabolic shape, and the face is more vertical -relatively speaking – than in an ape. He described it, under the name Australopithecus africanus, as being in our own lineage and went off to a major scientific meeting, expecting a certain amount of interest in what he’d discovered. What he got was a fair bit of doubt, and some ridicule. How could he be so foolish? It was surely an ape.

By 1924 evolution was pretty much an accepted fact in the scientific community. But there was a particular model of what that meant. In some ways this built on the earlier, non-evolutionary concept of the Great Chain of Being. They also had a model that tended to view the epitome of evolutionary progress as white European males. It followed from this that humans had evolved in Europe, because that’s where all the ‘best’ people came from. Black Africans were sometimes placed as a separate species, and were regarded as being lower down the chain.

Yet here was Dart saying he’d found a human ancestor in Africa. This would mean the ancestor must have been black – which didn’t fit that world-view. It’s a racist view, but that reflected the general attitudes of society at the time, and the scientists proposing that view were embedded in that society just as much as we are embedded in ours today.

Another difficulty for Dart had to do with prevailing ideas about how humans had evolved. By the 1920s Neanderthal man was quite well known. Neanderthals have the biggest brains of all the human lineage – a much bigger brain than we have. And the perception was that one of the features that defined humans, apart from tool use, was a big brain. It followed from this that the big brain had evolved quite early. Dart was saying that Australopithecus was a hominin, but Australopithecus as an adult would have had a brain size of around 400cc. We have a brain size of around 1400cc. Australopithecus didn’t fit the prevailing paradigm. The big brain had to come first; everybody knew that.

And belief in that particular paradigm – accepted by scientists and non-scientists alike – helps to explain why something like Piltdown man lasted so long. Over the period 1911-1915 an English solicitor, Charles Dawson, ‘discovered’ the remains of what appeared to be a very early human indeed in a quarry at Piltdown. There were tools (including a bone ‘cricket bat’), a skull cap, and a lower jaw, which looked very old. The bones were quite thick, and heavily stained. This was seized upon with joy by at least some anatomists because the remains fitted in with that prevailing model: old bones of a big-brained human ancestor.

People began to express doubts about this fossil quite early on, and these doubts grew as more hominin remains were confirmed in Africa and Asia. But it wasn’t completely unmasked as a fake until the early 1950s. The skull looked modern because it was a modern (well, mediaeval) skull that had been stained to make it look really old. The jaw was that of an orangutan, with the teeth filed so that they looked more human and the jaw articulation and symphysis (the join between right and left halves) missing. When people saw these remains in the light of new knowledge, they probably thought, how could I have been so thick? But in 1914 Piltdown fitted with the prevailing model; no-one expected it to look otherwise. And I would point out that it was scientists who ultimately exposed the fraud. And scientists who re-wrote the books accordingly.

Thinking creatively

The next story is about Barry Marshall, Robin Warren, and the Nobel Prize they received in 2005. (These guys aren’t dead yet!) Here’s the citation:

[The 2005] Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who with tenacity and a prepared mind challenged prevailing dogmas. By using technologies generally available… they made an irrefutable case that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is causing disease.

The prevailing dogma had been that if you had a gastric or duodenal ulcer, you were a type A stress-ridden personality. The high degree of stress in your life was linked to the generation of excess gastric juices and these ate a hole in your gut. Marshall and Warren noticed that this bacterium was present in every preparation from patients’ guts that they looked at. They collected more data, and found that in every patient they looked at, H. pylori was present in the diseased tissue. One of them got a test-tube full of H. pylori broth and drank it. He got gastritis: inflammation of the stomach lining and a precursor to a gastric ulcer. He took antibiotics, and was cured. The pair treated their patients with antibiotics and their ulcers cleared up.

Because they were creative, and courageous, they changed the existing paradigm. And this is important – you can overturn prevailing paradigms, you can change things. But in order to do that you have to have evidence, and a mechanism. Enough evidence, a solid explanatory mechanism, and people will accept what you say.

Which was a problem for Ignaz Semmelweiss. He had evidence, alright, but he lacked a mechanism. Semmelweiss worked in the Vienna General Hospital, where he was in charge of two maternity wards. Women would reputedly beg on their knees not to be admitted to Ward 1, where the mortality rate from puerperal fever was about 20 percent. In Ward 2, mortality was three or four percent. What caused the difference? In Ward 2 the women were looked after exclusively by midwives. In Ward 1, it was the doctors. What else were they doctors doing? They were doing autopsies in the morgue. And they would come from the morgue to the maternity ward, with their blood-spattered ties, and I hate to think what they had on their hands. Then they would do internal examinations on the women. Small wonder so many women died. Semmelweiss felt that the doctors’ actions were causing this spread of disease and said he wanted them to wash their hands before touching any of the women on his ward. Despite their affronted reactions he persisted, and he kept data. When those doctors washed their hands before doing their examinations, mortality rates dropped to around three percent.

The trouble was that no-one knew how puerperal fever was being transmitted. They had this idea that disease was spread by miasmas – ‘bad airs’ – and although the germ theory of disease was gaining a bit of traction the idea that disease could be spread by the doctors’ clothes or on their hands still didn’t fit the prevailing dogma. Semmelweiss wasn’t particularly popular – he’d gone against the hospital hierarchy, and he’d done it in quite an abrasive way, so when he applied for a more senior position, he didn’t get it, and left the hospital soon after. He was in the unfortunate position of having data, but no mechanism, and the change in the prevailing mindset had to wait for the conclusive demonstration by Koch and Pasteur that it was single-celled organisms that actually caused disease.

Collaboration and connectedness

Scientists are part of society. They collaborate with each other, are connected to each other, and are connected to the wider world. Although there have been some really weird people that weren’t. Take Henry Cavendish – the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge is named after him. He was a true eccentric. He did an enormous amount of science but published very little, and was quite reclusive – Cavendish just didn’t like talking with people. If you wanted to find out what he thought, you’d sidle up next to him at a meeting and ask the air, I wonder what Cavendish would think about so-and-so. If you were lucky, a disembodied voice over your shoulder would tell you what Cavendish thought. If you were unlucky, he’d flee the room.

But most scientists collaborate with each other. Even Newton, who was notoriously bad-tempered and unpleasant to people whom he regarded as less than his equal, recognised the importance of that collaboration. He wrote: “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Mind you, he may well have been making a veiled insult to Robert Hooke, to whom he was writing: Hooke was rather short.

What about Darwin? Was he an isolated person, or a connected genius? We know that Darwin spent much of the later years of his life in his study at Downe. He had that amazing trip round the world on the Beagle, then after a couple of years in London he retreated to Downe with his wife and growing family, and spent hours in his study every day. He’d go out and pace the ‘sandwalk’ – a path out in the back garden – come back, and write a bit more. Darwin spent eight years of that time producing a definitive work on barnacles, and he didn’t do it alone. He wrote an enormous number of letters to barnacle specialists, and to other scientists asking to use work that they’d done, or to use their specimens to further the work he was doing.

He was also connected to a less high-flying world: he was into pigeons. This grew from his interest in artificial selection and its power to change, over a short period of time, various features in a species. So he wrote to pigeon fanciers. And the pigeon fanciers would write back. These were often in a lower social class and various family and friends may well have been a bit concerned that he spent so much time speaking to ‘those people’ about pigeons. And Darwin had a deep concern for society as well. He was strongly anti-slavery, and he put a lot of time (and money) into supporting the local working-class people in Downe. He was still going in to London to meet with his colleagues, men like Lyell and Hooker, who advised him when Alfred Wallace wrote to him concerning a new theory of natural selection. Now there’s an example of connectedness for you, and the impact of other people’s thought on your own! It was Wallace who kicked Darwin into action, and led to him publishing the Origin of Species.

That’s enough stories. I’m going to finish with another quote from Brian Greene:

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.
Science lets us see the wonder and the beauty of the stars, and inspires us to reach them.

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The leading medical journal The Lancet recently published yet another analysis of trials of homeopathy. After examining 110 such trials, the Swiss researchers concluded that there was no convincing evidence that homeopathy was any more effective than placebo. In the accompanying editorial, the editor, Dr Richard Horton, made a comment which has an uncanny, and no doubt intentional parallel with the views of the founder of homeopathy over two hundred years ago:-

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