Tag Archives: Australian Skeptics

That The Skeptics Should Not Tackle Religion

by Barry Williams

(Reblogged with permission from The Skeptic magazine,
Vol 38, No.1. March 2018, pages 44-47). 

At the Australian Skeptics National Convention in June 1990, a debate was conducted on the proposition “That Australian Skeptics Should Tackle Religion”. The proposition was put by Robert Macklin, and this is the text of Barry Williams’ reply.

There is very little of substance in Robert Macklin’s presentation with which I would personally disagree. My point of departure from his views lies in the methods we should apply to problems we both acknowledge.

The primary aim of Australian Skeptics is to “investigate claims of pseudo-scientific, paranormal and similarly anomalous phenomena, from a responsible, scientific point of view”. That is a worthwhile purpose, we do it well, and it is what I believe we should continue to do.

Among the things we do not do are the investigation of shonky car dealers, economic predictions, ordinary (non-paranormal) confidence tricksters, political promises, advertising hyperbole or any of the myriad other dubious claims, or claimants, at large in the community. While these areas are undoubtedly worthy of investigation, there are other organisations which deal with such matters, and no doubt they do it a great deal better than we could.

As a general statement of purpose, we have always eschewed the pleasure of investigating religion per se , considering that it lies outside the ambit of our published aims. I believe that we do this for very good reasons, both from a philosophical, and more especially, from a pragmatic standpoint, and notwithstanding Rob’s very persuasive case, as this paper shall seek to demonstrate

Let us first consider what is meant by the phrase “tackling religion”. At what level is it suggested that we tackle it?

  • Does it mean that we should investigate religion as a social phenomenon?
  • Does it mean that we should investigate the mundane practices of religious organisations?
  • Does it mean that we should investigate the fundamental beliefs and dogmas of religions?
  • Does it mean that we should investigate specific claim made by people, in the name of religion?

I believe that we can dispose of the first two options very quickly. Religion, as a social or psychological phenomenon is, and always has been, a fertile field of study for social scientists. There is no doubt that, throughout human history, people have involved themselves in religious practices and, I strongly suspect, people always will. In this context, the impulse to religion is a bit like masturbation; if it did not satisfy some real need within the human species, then it is unlikely that so many people would indulge in it. That aside, there is nothing pseudoscientific or paranormal about the phenomenon of religion. Much as some Skeptics might regret it, religion is an all-too-normal human activity.

The second option, the mundane practices of religions, are equally outside our terms of reference. Many Skeptics may consider practices such as compulsory celibacy, fasting, circumcision, ordination or non-ordination of women, ritual cannibalism, etc, as being curious, even outrageous, but they are not paranormal or pseudoscientific activities. To an objective observer the rituals of religious organisations are no more peculiar that are those of football clubs, political parties or of any of the multitude of other organisations in which people involve themselves. That religious organisations attract to themselves certain privileges, bestowed by the body politic, and which are not available to other organisations, is a matter of concern to many Skeptics. I agree with that concern, but religious organisations are not alone in attracting privileges, which also apply to sporting bodies, trades unions, service organisations and many others. They are likely to continue to do so while politicians perceive that there are votes in it. Therefore, to address these problems requires political activity, which also lies outside the ambit of the Skeptics’ aims.

Next, we must address an area that lies quite clearly in the realm of the paranormal; the fundamental beliefs of religions. To approach this subject, we must consider just what it is we are discussing.

There seems to be no doubt that we, the human species, have a great need for certainty in our lives and that we are the only species, so far as we know, which has the certain knowledge of its own mortality. That is no easy burden to bear, regardless of how rationally we may like to view the world.

Little wonder then that the majority of religions have, as a fundamental tenet of their beliefs, some form of survival of the death of the corporeal body. Whether this survival is in a spiritual form in some sort of “paradise”, as many religions hold, or whether it is accomplished through reincarnation, as others assert, very little in the way of testable evidence is ever offered in support of the proposition. More of which later.

The existence of deities is a further common factor in many, though not all, religions. The evolution of deities matches the evolution of human societies. Our tribal ancestors had a simple, animistic, religion, in which spirits controlled every animal, object and natural phenomenon. These spirits were used to explain almost everything that happened, and were very personal to the people. As civilisation developed, these natural spirits also became more formalised into the polytheistic pantheons of such cultures as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Norse (and, of course, many others). These gods did not inhabit individual items but tended to be associated with somewhat more abstract concepts, such as the state, or war, or love, or the family. They were more formalised than the nature spirits, but nonetheless retained personalised attributes.

Finally we reached the stage of having a “world” god, responsible for everything that happens, or has happened. Many people claim to have personalised relationships with such deities, but it is, to my mind at least, a claim that is impossible to sustain at any level of the intellect.

In this fleeting brush with the history of deism, one trend is obvious. Gods are invented to explain those things we do not understand. As we learn more about the natural world we inhabit, then our cultural gods are forced further into the realms of mysticism. “God of the gaps” is a term which I believe is applied to this phenomenon.

To the Norse, Thor with his hammer was perfectly reasonable explanation for thunder, but it is unlikely to be given much credence by a modern meteorologist. A great flood which covered the whole world, and from which an elite group was rescued by their deities, may have meant something to the Babylonian citizens of a riverine culture, but it is not sustainable in the light of our present knowledge.

Which gets me back to my point of departure into the thickets of theological speculation.

Most Australians (around 85% is the figure I have seen), when asked the question, “Do you believe in God?”, will answer “Yes”. When called upon to elucidate on that assertion, most of them, at least in my experience, retreat into mumblings and scratchings of the toes in the dirt.

Believers in gods, to a very large degree, will not (or can not) tell you the mass, temperature, volume, pressure, viscosity, reflectivity, colour, or indeed any other physical attribute of their god. If, as seems likely, gods are without physical attributes, then they are in fact abstract concepts, and, as such, are no more testable in a “responsible, scientific manner”, than are other such abstract concepts as love or beauty.

I suspect that there are as many perceptions of “god” as there are people doing the perceiving. Stephen Hawking, in a recent TV programme, is quoted as saying that if God represents all the underlying natural laws of the universe, then he believes in God. I find that proposition difficult to dispute. If God is used as a shorthand term for the underlying laws of nature, fair enough, but, if this pantheistic concept is accepted, it disposes of any sort of personal god, which is sure to antagonise the adherents of most religions. This sort of god does not punish you for breaking its laws because there is no way in which you can break them. You can of course be punished for attempting to break the laws, as anyone who steps off the top of a very tall structure will quickly discover.

The same applies to surviving death. Of course, we all do survive death, in the sense that our constituent atoms do not cease to exist, just because we cease to breathe, but this is not very satisfactory as a religious concept.

Which is all a rather long winded way of getting to my point that, while the fundamental beliefs of religions may well be paranormal, their very lack of specificity leaves us with no sensible way in which we can test them.

We could, of course, indulge ourselves in long, and ultimately fruitless theological debates, just as people have been doing for as long as they have been human, but we have to ask ourselves what does theological speculation achieve? To a large extent, theological debates resolve themselves into ever more esoteric rehashings of old arguments, without ever reaching any sort of conclusion. To my mind, the legendary debate about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin is one of the more serious examples of theological argument.

That may be a naive view of the topic, but I do believe that if we were to adopt Rob’s views we would reduce Australian Skeptics to the status of a theological debating society, a fate which I believe our organisation is far too valuable to deserve, and a regression that I, for one, would find most distressing.

This brings me to my final option. Should we investigate specific claims, made by people, in the name of religion?

To this question, there can be only one answer, “Yes”. That is precisely what we have always done.

In broad terms, every paranormal claim is made in some sort of religious context. The believers in astrology, numerology, et al clearly believe what they believe as an act of faith. Their beliefs are updated versions of primitive animist religious concepts. However, the adherents of these beliefs do make testable claims and those claims can be, and are, tested by Skeptics, and are frequently shown to be baseless.

The same can be said of many claims that are made in a more directly religious context. It has never been the case that those who make dubious, but testable, claims can cloak themselves in some sort of mystical shield called “religion” and thus avoid the scrutiny of the Skeptics.

Claims made for the Turin Shroud, faith healing, and the sad joke that is Creation science’ have always been investigated by Skeptics and should continue to be so investigated.

Finally, let us get away from the esoteric morass of theological speculation altogether and rejoin the real world of newspapers, politicians, football commentators, public relations consultants, economists and fashion designers. This is the area that someone has cleverly referred to as the “marketplace of ideas” and it is in this marketplace that we Skeptics have to sell our wares.

Our “product” is rational thinking and that is not necessarily an easy product to sell. Australian Skeptics is operating in this marketplace and has, through the efforts of our quite small membership, developed a reputation as a responsible organisation.

Where once we had to fight for recognition, now our views are sought, particularly by the media. One of the reasons for this state of affairs is that we have denied ourselves the pleasure of being dogmatically and raucously offensive to those whose ideas we dispute. We are perceived as being a tolerant, moderate and reasonable organisation, capable of giving a sound, rational response to dubious claims.

This is important in the ideas market, in which perceptions count for a great deal. We have to sell the concept of a rational, scientifically based, view of the world, to an audience to which that view does not necessarily come naturally. One way to make the job harder is to alienate 85% of your potential market before you utter a word.

As I mentioned earlier, around that number of Australians profess some sort of belief in some sort of deity. It is probably a reasonable speculation to say that more than half of these people are only nominally religious: functionally they are agnostic. However, one of the best ways to force a nominal member of some religion to defend his loosely held faith, is to make a frontal attack on it.

There are other organisations whose main purpose is to tackle religion and, to be frank, they are very seldom heard from in public forums, while the Skeptics’ views are much more often heard in those same forums.

I believe this is so because we do not arrogate to ourselves any concept of ideological purity, but, instead, maintain an attitude with which any reasonable individual can identify. I doubt very much if we will advance our cause by one millimetre by adopting a stance of being “Unholier than thou”.

Before you damn me as the ultimate unprincipled pragmatist, let me suggest that, by promoting a general idea of Skepticism in the areas we do encompass, we are automatically encouraging people to apply critical analysis to other areas of their lives as well, be the religious or any other. Critical thinking is a difficult concept to learn, but it does get easier with practice. That is the practice we have always adopted and that is the practice I believe we should continue to adopt. Rob used analogy brilliantly in equating the Christian gospels with cricketing reportage. Let me also conclude with an analogy derived from another favourite pastime of our species – war.

Consider two generals, neither of them particularly engaging personalities, each in control of huge armies, each trying to win a war for his side. The major difference between them was their approach to the unpleasant job they had. They also one other thing in common, the name Douglas.

Douglas Haig thought that victory on the Somme be achieved by sending countless men to their deaths, charging into massed machine guns.

Douglas MacArthur, for all his faults, was considerably less profligate with the lives of the men under his command. His island hopping strategy in the Pacific, leaving large garrisons of his enemy behind him, out of reach of logistical support, undoubtedly saved many lives.

I have no doubt that Australian Skeptics will suffer if we insist on making frontal assaults on well entrenched opponents who hugely outnumber us. Much better to encourage a climate of critical thought in which they will wither on the vine, while never forgetting that they have the right (and are likely to continue) to believe in anything they please, regardless of how foolish those beliefs may appear to us.

While I agree with many of Rob Macklin’s concerns, to do as he suggests will require that Australian Skeptics become a fundamentally different organisation from what it is now. We would become just another player on the stage of sectarian disputation, indulging in tendentious, and ultimately futile, theological speculation. We would waste our energies in chasing the will-o-the-wisp of seeking answers to the unanswerable. We would distract our attention from that which we do well – testing the testable.

I believe that Australian Skeptics is far too valuable an organisation for us to debase our currency in this way. I believe that what we do now makes far too valuable a contribution to the life of our community for it be diluted by indulging in esoteric arguments we are unlikely to win. I believe that we will continue to be regarded as a voice of reason while we continue to focus on that which we do best; calling into question dubious, testable claims and providing reasonable explanations. That is what we should continue to strive for, not to be seen as some niggling fringe group, with a pure philosophy and no audience.

I am sure that all you rational people will agree.

Barry Williams was, at various stages, president, editor and executive officer of Australian Skeptics. He died earlier this year – his obituary can be found in the latest issue of The Skeptic, a magazine he edited for close to two decades, and to which he contributed on a grand scale. 

 

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Skepticism – philosophical or scientific?

by Tim Harding B.Sc., B.A.

(This essay is based on a talk presented to the Victorian Skeptics in January 2017. An edited version was published in The Skeptic magazine Vol.37, No.1, March 2017, under the title ‘I Think I Am’).

Dictionaries often draw a distinction between the modern common meaning of skepticism, and its traditional philosophical meaning, which dates from antiquity.  The usual common dictionary definition is ‘a sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something’; whereas the philosophical definition is ‘the theory that some or all types of knowledge are impossible’.  These definitions are of course quite different, and reflect the fact that the meanings of philosophical terms have drifted over the millennia.  The contemporary meaning of ‘scientific skepticism’ is different again, which I shall talk about later.

I should say at the outset that whilst I have a foot in both the scientific and philosophical camps, and although I will be writing here mainly about the less familiar philosophical skepticism, I personally support scientific skepticism over philosophical skepticism, for reasons I shall later explain.

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But why are these definitions of skepticism important? And why do we spell it with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘c’.? As an admin of a large online skeptics group (Skeptics in Australia), I am often asked such questions, so I have done a bit of investigating.

As to the first question, one of the main definitional issues I have faced is the difference between skepticism and what I call denialism. Some skeptical newbies typically do a limited amount of googling, and what they often come up with is the common dictionary definition of skepticism, rather than the lesser known scientific skepticism definition that we Australian skeptics use.  They tend to think that ‘scepticism’ (with a ‘c’) entails doubting or being skeptical of everything, including science, medicine, vaccination, biotechnology, moon landings, 9/11 etc, etc.  When we scientific skeptics express a contrary view, we are sometimes then accused of ‘not being real sceptics’.  So I think that definitions are important.

In my view, denialism is a person’s choice to deny certain particular facts.  It is an essentially irrational belief where the person substitutes his or her personal opinion for established knowledge.  Science denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial opinions of an unscientific nature.  Most real skeptics accept the findings of peer-reviewed science published in reputable scientific journals, at least for the time being, unless and until it is corrected by the scientific community.

Denialism can then give rise to conspiracy theories, as a way of trying to explain the discrepancy between scientific facts and personal opinions.  Here is the typical form of what I call the Scientific Conspiracy Fallacy:

Premise 1: I hold a certain belief.

Premise 2: The scientific evidence is inconsistent with my belief.

Conclusion: Therefore, the scientists are conspiring with the Big Bad Government/CIA/NASA/Big Pharma (choose whichever is convenient) to fake the evidence and undermine my belief.

It is a tall order to argue that the whole of science is genuinely mistaken. That is a debate that even the conspiracy theorists know they probably can’t win. So the most convenient explanation for the inconsistency is that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to fake the evidence in specific cases.

Ancient Greek Skepticism

The word ‘skeptic’ originates from the early Greek skeptikos, meaning ‘inquiring, reflective’.

The Hellenistic period covers the period of Greek and Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the Roman victory over Greeks at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BCE.  The beginning of this period also coincides with the death of the great philosopher, logician and scientist Aristotle of Stagira (384–322 BCE).

As he had no adult heir, Alexander’s empire was divided between the families of three of his generals.  This resulted in political conflicts and civil wars, in which prominent philosophers and other intellectuals did not want to take sides, in the interests of self-preservation.  So they retreated from public life into various cloistered schools of philosophy, the main ones being the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics and the Skeptics.

As I mentioned earlier, the meanings of such philosophical terms have altered over 2000 years.  These philosophical schools had different theories as to how to attain eudaimonia, which roughly translates as the highest human good, or the fulfilment of human life.  They thought that the key to eudaimonia was to live in accordance with Nature, but they had different views as to how to achieve this.

In a nutshell, the Stoics advocated the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.  The Epicureans regarded absence of pain and suffering as the source of happiness (not just hedonistic pleasure).   The Cynics (which means ‘dog like’) rejected conventional desires for wealth, power, health, or fame, and lived a simple life free from possessions.  Lastly, there were the Skeptics, whom I will now discuss in more detail.

During this Hellenistic period, there were actually two philosophical varieties of skepticism – the Academic Skeptics and the Pyrrhonist Skeptics.

In 266BCE, Arcesilaus became head of Platonic Academy.  The Academic Skeptics did not doubt the existence of truth in itself, only our capacities for obtaining it.  They went as far as thinking that knowledge is impossible – nothing can be known at all.  A later head of the Academy, Carneades modified this rather extreme position into thinking that ideas or notions are never true, but only probable.   He thought there are degrees of probability, hence degrees of belief, leading to degrees of justification for action.  Academic Skepticism did not really catch on, and largely died out in the first century CE, with isolated attempts at revival from time to time.

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The founder of Pyrrhonist Skepticism, Pyrrho of Elis (c.365-c.275BCE) was born in Elis on west side of the Peloponnesian Peninsula (near Olympia).  Pyrrho travelled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the East.  He encountered the Magi in Persia and even went as far as the Gymnosophists in India, who were naked ascetic gurus –  not exactly a good image for modern skepticism.

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Pyrrho differed from the Academic Skeptics in thinking nothing can be known for certain.  He thought that their position ‘nothing can be known at all’ was dogmatic and self-contradictory, because it itself is a claim of certainty.  Pyrrho thought that the senses are easily fooled, and reason follows too easily our desires.  Therefore we should withhold assent from non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry about them.  This means that we are not necessarily skeptical of ‘evident propositions’, and that at least some knowledge is possible.  This position is closer to modern skepticism than Academic Skepticism.  Indeed, Pyrrhonism became a synonym for skepticism in the 17th century CE; but we are not quite there yet.

Sextus Empiricus (c. 160 – c. 210 CE) was a Greco-Roman philosopher who promoted Pyrrhonian skepticism.  It is thought that the word ‘empirical’ comes from his name; although the Greek word empeiria also means ‘experience’.  Sextus Empiricus first questioned the validity of inductive reasoning, positing that a universal rule could not be established from an incomplete set of particular instances, thus presaging David Hume’s ‘problem of induction’ about 1500 years later.

Skeptic with a ‘k’

The Romans were great inventors and engineers, but they are not renowned for science or skepticism.  On the contrary, they are better known for being superstitious; for instance, the Roman Senate sat only on ‘auspicious days’ thought to be favoured by the gods.  They had lots of pseudoscientific beliefs that we skeptics would now regard as quackery or woo.  For example, they thought that cabbage was a cure for many illnesses; and in around 78CE, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote: ‘I find that a bad cold in the head clears up if the sufferer kisses a mule on the nose’.

So I cannot see any valid historical reason for us to switch from the early Greek spelling of ‘skeptic’ to the Romanised ‘sceptic’.  Yes, I know that ‘skeptic’ is the American spelling and ‘sceptic’ is the British spelling, but I don’t think that alters anything.  The most likely explanation is that the Americans adopted the spelling of the early Greeks and the British adopted that of the Romans.

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Modern philosophical skepticism

Somewhat counter intuitively, the term ‘modern philosophy’ is used to distinguish more recent philosophy from the ancient philosophy of the early Greeks and the medieval philosophy of the Christian scholastics.  Thus ‘modern philosophy’ dates from the Renaissance of the 14th to the 17th centuries, although precisely when modern philosophy started within the Renaissance period is a matter of some scholarly dispute.

The defining feature of modern philosophical skepticism is the questioning the validity of some or all types of knowledge.  So before going any further, we need to define knowledge.

The branch of philosophy dealing with the study of knowledge is called ‘epistemology’.  The ancient philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as ‘justified true belief’, as illustrated by the Venn diagram below.  According to this definition, it is not sufficient that a belief is true to qualify as knowledge – a belief based on faith or even just a guess could happen to be true by mere coincidence.  So we need adequate justification of the truth of the belief for it to become knowledge.  Although there are a few exceptions, known as ‘Gettier problems’, this definition of knowledge is still largely accepted by modern philosophers, and will do for our purposes here.  (Epistemology is mainly about the justification of true beliefs rather than this basic definition of knowledge).

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There are also different types of knowledge that are relevant to this discussion.

A priori knowledge is knowledge that is known independently of experience.  For instance, we know that ‘all crows are birds’ without having to conduct an empirical survey of crows to investigate how many are birds and whether there are any crows that are not birds.  Crows are birds by definition – it is just impossible for there to be an animal that is a crow but is not a bird.

On the other hand, a posteriori knowledge is knowledge that is known by experience.  For instance, we only know that ‘all crows are black’ from empirical observations of crows.  It is not impossible that there is a crow that is not black, for example as a result of some genetic mutation.

The above distinction illustrates how not all knowledge needs to be empirical.  Indeed, one of the earliest modern philosophers and skeptics, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French mathematician, scientist and philosopher.  (His name is where the mathematical word ‘Cartesian’ comes from).  These three interests of his were interrelated, in the sense that he had a mathematical and scientific approach to his philosophy.  Mathematics ‘delighted him because of its certainty and clarity’.  His fundamental aim was to attain philosophical truth by the use of reason and logical methods alone.  For him, the only kind of knowledge was that of which he could be certain.  His ideal of philosophy was to discover hitherto uncertain truths implied by more fundamental certain truths, in a similar manner to mathematical proofs.

Using this approach, Descartes engaged in a series of meditations to find a foundational truth of which he could be certain, and then to build on that foundation a body of implied knowledge of which he could also be certain.  He did this in a methodical way by first withholding assent from opinions which are not completely certain, that is, where there is at least some reason for doubt, such as those acquired from the senses.  Descartes concludes that one proposition of which he can be certain is ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (which means ‘I think, therefore I exist’).

In contrast to Descartes, a different type of philosophical skeptic David Hume (1711-1776) held all human knowledge is ultimately founded solely in ‘experience’.  In what has become known as ‘Hume’s fork’, he held that statements are divided up into two types: statements about ideas are necessary statements that are knowable a priori; and statements about the world, which are contingent and knowable a posteriori.

In modern philosophical terminology, members of the first group are known as analytic propositions and members of the latter as synthetic propositions.  Into the first class fall statements such as ‘2 + 2 = 4’, ‘all bachelors are unmarried’, and truths of mathematics and logic. Into the second class fall statements like ‘the sun rises in the morning’, and ‘the Earth has precisely one moon’.

Hume tried to prove that certainty does not exist in science. First, Hume notes that statements of the second type can never be entirely certain, due to the fallibility of our senses, the possibility of deception (for example, the modern ‘brain in a vat’ hypothesis) and other arguments made by philosophical skeptics.  It is always logically possible that any given statement about the world is false – hence the need for doubt and skepticism.

Hume formulated the ‘problem of induction’, which is the skeptical question of whether inductive reasoning leads to knowledge understood in the classic philosophical sense.  This problem focuses on the alleged lack of justification for generalising about the properties of a class of objects based on some number of observations of particular instances of that class (for example, the inference that ‘all swans we have seen are white, and therefore, all swans are white’, before the discovery of black swans in Western Australia).

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was (and still is) a major philosophical figure who tried to show the way beyond the impasse which modern philosophy had led to between rationalists such as Descartes and empiricists such as Hume.  Kant is widely held to have synthesised these two early modern philosophical traditions.  And yet he was also a skeptic, albeit of a different variety.  Kant thought that only knowledge gained from empirical science is legitimate, which is a forerunner of modern scientific skepticism.  He thought that metaphysics was illegitimate and largely speculative; and in that sense he was a philosophical skeptic.

Scientific skepticism

In 1924, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno disputed the common dictionary definition of skepticism.  He argued that ‘skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found’.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Modern scientific skepticism is different from philosophical skepticism, and yet to some extent was influenced by the ideas of Pyrrho of Elis, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Miguel de Unamuno.

Most skeptics in the English-speaking world see the 1976 formation of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in the United States as the ‘birth of modern skepticism’.  (CSICOP is now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI).  However, CSICOP founder and philosophy professor Paul Kurtz has said that he actually modelled it after the Belgian Comité Para of 1949.  The Comité Para was partly formed as a response to a predatory industry of bogus psychics who were exploiting the grieving relatives of people who had gone missing during the Second World War.

paul-kurtz

Kurtz recommended that CSICOP focus on testable paranormal and pseudoscientific claims and to leave religious aspects to others.  CSICOP popularised the usage of the terms ‘skeptic’, ‘skeptical’ and ‘skepticism’ by its magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, and directly inspired the foundation of many other skeptical organizations throughout the world, including the Australian Skeptics in 1980.

Through the public activism of groups such as CSICOP and the Australian Skeptics, the term ‘scientific skepticism’ has come to symbolise an activist movement as well as a type of applied philosophy.

There are several definitions of scientific skepticism, but the two that I think are most apt are those by the Canadian skeptic Daniel Loxton and the American skeptic Steven Novella.

Daniel Loxton’s definition is ‘the practice or project of studying paranormal and pseudoscientific claims through the lens of science and critical scholarship, and then sharing the results with the public.’

Steven Novella’s definition is ‘scientific skepticism is the application of skeptical philosophy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).’  By this exception, I think he means religious beliefs that conflict with science, such as creationism or opposition to stem cell research.

In other words, scientific skeptics maintain that empirical investigation of reality leads to the truth, and that the scientific method is best suited to this purpose. Scientific skeptics attempt to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability and discourage accepting claims on faith or anecdotal evidence.  This is different to philosophical skepticism, although inspired by it.

References

Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, trans. and ed. John Cottingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hume, David.(1748) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding . Gutenberg Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1787) Critique of Pure Reason 2nd edition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Loxton, Daniel. (2013) Why Is There a Skeptical Movement? (PDF). Retrieved 12 January 2017.

Novella, Steven (15 February 2013). ‘Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism’. Neurologica (blog). Retrieved 12 February 2017.

Russell, Bertrand. (1961) History of Western Philosophy. 2nd edition London: George Allen & Unwin.

Unamuno, Miguel de., (1924) Essays and soliloquies London: Harrap.

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The Fallacy of Faulty Risk Assessment

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2016, Vol 36 No 3)

Australian Skeptics have tackled many false beliefs over the years, often in co-operation with other organisations.  We have had some successes – for instance, belief in homeopathy finally seems to be on the wane.  Nevertheless, false beliefs about vaccination and fluoridation just won’t lie down and die – despite concerted campaigns by medical practitioners, dentists, governments and more recently the media.  Why are these beliefs so immune to evidence and arguments?

There are several possible explanations for the persistence of these false beliefs.  One is denialism – the rejection of established facts in favour of personal opinions.  Closely related are conspiracy theories, which typically allege that facts have been suppressed or fabricated by ‘the powers that be’, in an attempt by denialists to explain the discrepancies between their opinions and the findings of science.  A third possibility is an error of reasoning or fallacy known as Faulty Risk Assessment, which is the topic of this article.

Before going on to discuss vaccination and fluoridation in terms of this fallacy, I would like to talk about risk and risk assessment in general.

What is risk assessment?

Hardly anything we do in life is risk-free. Whenever we travel in a car or even walk along a footpath, most people are aware that there is a small but finite risk of being injured or killed.  Yet this risk does not keep us away from roads.  We intuitively make an informal risk assessment that the level of this risk is acceptable in the circumstances.

In more formal terms, ‘risk’ may be defined as the probability or likelihood of something bad happening multiplied by the resulting cost/benefit ratio if it does happen.  Risk analysis is the process of discovering what risks are associated with a particular hazard, including the mechanisms that cause the hazard, then estimating the likelihood that the hazard will occur and the consequences if it does occur.

Risk assessment is the determination of the acceptability of risk using two dimensions of measurement – the likelihood of an adverse event occurring; and the severity of the consequences if it does occur, as illustrated in the diagram below.  (This two-dimensional risk assessment is a conceptually useful way of ranking risks, even if one or both of the dimensions cannot be measured quantitatively).

risk-diagram

By way of illustration, the likelihood of something bad happening could be very low, but the consequences could be unacceptably high – enough to justify preventative action.  Conversely, the likelihood of an event could be higher, but the consequences could low enough to justify ‘taking the risk’.

In assessing the consequences, consideration needs to be given to the size of the population likely to be affected, and the severity of the impact on those affected.  This will provide an indication of the aggregate effect of an adverse event.  For example, ‘high’ consequences might include significant harm to a small group of affected individuals, or moderate harm to a large number of individuals.

A fallacy is committed when a person either focuses on the risks of an activity and ignores its benefits; and/or takes account one dimension of risk assessment and overlooks the other dimension.

To give a practical example of a one-dimensional risk assessment, the desalination plant to augment Melbourne’s water supply has been called a ‘white elephant’ by some people, because it has not been needed since the last drought broke in March 2010.  But this criticism ignores the catastrophic consequences that could have occurred had the drought not broken.  In June 2009, Melbourne’s water storages fell to 25.5% of capacity, the lowest level since the huge Thomson Dam began filling in 1984.  This downward trend could have continued at that time, and could well be repeated during the inevitable next drought.

wonthaggi

Melbourne’s desalination plant at Wonthaggi

No responsible government could afford to ‘take the risk’ of a major city of more than four million people running out of water.  People in temperate climates can survive without electricity or gas, but are likely to die of thirst in less than a week without water, not to mention the hygiene crisis that would occur without washing or toilet flushing.  The failure to safeguard the water supply of a major city is one of the most serious derelictions of government responsibility imaginable.

Turning now to the anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation movements, they both commit the fallacy of Faulty Risk Assessment.  They focus on the very tiny likelihood of adverse side effects without considering the major benefits to public health from vaccination and the fluoridation of public water supplies, and the potentially severe consequences of not vaccinating or fluoridating.

Vaccination risks

The benefits of vaccination far outweigh its risks for all of the diseases where vaccines are available.  This includes influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), measles and tetanus – not to mention the terrible diseases that vaccination has eradicated from Australia such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria and tuberculosis.

As fellow skeptic Dr. Rachael Dunlop puts it:  ‘In many ways, vaccines are a victim of their own success, leading us to forget just how debilitating preventable diseases can be – not seeing kids in calipers or hospital wards full of iron lungs means we forget just how serious these diseases can be.’

No adult or teenager has ever died or become seriously ill in Australia from the side effects of vaccination; yet large numbers of people have died from the lack of vaccination.  The notorious Wakefield allegation in 1998 of a link between vaccination and autism has been discredited, retracted and found to be fraudulent.  Further evidence comes from a recently published exhaustive review examining 12,000 research articles covering eight different vaccines which also concluded there is no link between vaccines and autism.

According to Professor C Raina MacIntyre of UNSW, ‘Influenza virus is a serious infection, which causes 1,500 to 3,500 deaths in Australia each year.  Death occurs from direct viral effects (such as viral pneumonia) or from complications such as bacterial pneumonia and other secondary bacterial infections. In people with underlying coronary artery disease, influenza may also precipitate heart attacks, which flu vaccine may prevent.’

In 2010, increased rates of high fever and febrile convulsions were reported in children under 5 years of age after they were vaccinated with the Fluvax vaccine.  This vaccine has not been registered for use in this age group since late 2010 and therefore should not be given to children under 5 years of age. The available data indicate that there is a very low risk of fever, which is usually mild and transient, following vaccination with the other vaccine brands.  Any of these other vaccines can be used in children aged 6 months and older.

Australia was declared measles-free in 2005 by the World Health Organization (WHO) – before we stopped being so vigilant about vaccinating and outbreaks began to reappear.  The impact of vaccine complacency can be observed in the 2015 measles epidemic in Wales where there were over 800 cases and one death, and many people presenting were of the age who missed out on MMR vaccination following the Wakefield scare.

After the link to autism was disproven, many anti-vaxers shifted the blame to thiomersal, a mercury-containing component of relatively low toxicity to humans.  Small amounts of thiomersal were used as a preservative in some vaccines, but not the MMR vaccine.  Thiomersal was removed from all scheduled childhood vaccines in 2000.

In terms of risk assessment, Dr. Dunlop has pointed out that no vaccine is 100% effective and vaccines are not an absolute guarantee against infection. So while it’s still possible to get the disease you’ve been vaccinated against, disease severity and duration will be reduced.  Those who are vaccinated have fewer complications than people who aren’t.  With pertussis (whooping cough), for example, severe complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis (brain inflammation) occur almost exclusively in the unvaccinated.  So since the majority of the population is vaccinated, it follows that most people who get a particular disease will be vaccinated, but critically, they will suffer fewer complications and long-term effects than those who are completely unprotected.

Fluoridation risks

Public water fluoridation is the adjustment of the natural levels of fluoride in drinking water to a level that helps protect teeth against decay.  In many (but not all) parts of Australia, reticulated drinking water has been fluoridated since the early 1960s.

The benefits of fluoridation are well documented.  In November 2007, the NHMRC completed a review of the latest scientific evidence in relation to fluoride and health.  Based on this review, the NHMRC recommended community water fluoridation programs as the most effective and socially equitable community measure for protecting the population from tooth decay.  The scientific and medical support for the benefits of fluoridation certainly outweighs the claims of the vocal minority against it.

Fluoridation opponents over the years have claimed that putting fluoride in water causes health problems, is too expensive and is a form of mass medication.  Some conspiracy theorists go as far as to suggest that fluoridation is a communist plot to lower children’s IQ.  Yet, there is no evidence of any adverse health effects from the fluoridation of water at the recommended levels.  The only possible risk is from over-dosing water supplies as a result of automated equipment failure, but there is inline testing of fluoride levels with automated water shutoffs in the remote event of overdosing.  Any overdose would need to be massive to have any adverse effect on health.  The probability of such a massive overdose is extremely low.

Tooth decay remains a significant problem. In Victoria, for instance, more than 4,400 children under 10, including 197 two-year-olds and 828 four-year-olds, required general anaesthetic in hospital for the treatment of dental decay during 2009-10.  Indeed, 95% of all preventable dental admissions to hospital for children up to nine years old in Victoria are due to dental decay. Children under ten in non-optimally fluoridated areas are twice as likely to require a general anaesthetic for treatment of dental decay as children in optimally fluoridated areas.

As fellow skeptic and pain management specialist Dr. Michael Vagg has said, “The risks of general anaesthesia for multiple tooth extractions are not to be idly contemplated for children, and far outweigh the virtually non-existent risk from fluoridation.”  So in terms of risk assessment, the risks from not fluoridating water supplies are far greater than the risks of fluoridating.

Implications for skeptical activism

Anti-vaxers and anti-fluoridationists who are motivated by denialism and conspiracy theories tend to believe whatever they want to believe, and dogmatically so.  Thus evidence and arguments are unlikely to have much influence on them.

But not all anti-vaxxers and anti-fluoridationists fall into this category.  Some may have been misled by false information, and thus could possibly be open to persuasion if the correct information is provided.

Others might even be aware of the correct information, but are assessing the risks fallaciously in the ways I have described in this article.  Their errors are not ones of fact, but errors of reasoning.  They too might be open to persuasion if education about sound risk assessment is provided.

I hope that analysing the false beliefs about vaccination and fluoridation from the perspective of the Faulty Risk Assessment Fallacy has provided yet another weapon in the skeptical armoury against these false beliefs.

References

Rachael Dunlop (2015) Six myths about vaccination – and why they’re wrong. The Conversation, Parkville.

C Raina MacIntyre (2016) Thinking about getting the 2016 flu vaccine? Here’s what you need to know. The Conversation, Parkville.

Mike Morgan (2012) How fluoride in water helps prevent tooth decay.  The Conversation, Parkville.

Michael Vagg (2013) Fluoride conspiracies + activism = harm to children. The Conversation, Parkville.

 Government of Victoria (2014) Victorian Guide to Regulation. Department of Treasury and Finance, Melbourne.

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Australian Skeptics Convention 2016 – Melbourne

I’m looking forward to this!

Victorian Skeptics

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We are proud to announce that Melbourne will host the annual Convention in 2016.

November 25-27

The main venue will be the Carillo Gantner Theatre in the University of Melbourne’s Asia Centre.

http://lostoncampus.com.au/25270
http://lostoncampus.com.au/25270/map

Lawrence Krauss and Edzard Ernst have accepted our invitations to head up a great range of speakers.

We will be setting up a dedicated website for this event: More details soon!

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