Tag Archives: Evidence

Vice Chancellor Barney Glover says universities must stand up for facts and the truth – ‘if we don’t, who will?’

The Conversation

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Intellectual inquiry and expertise are under sustained attack, says Barney Glover.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Barney Glover, Western Sydney University

This is an edited extract from a speech made by Vice Chancellor Barney Glover at the National Press Club on 1 March, 2017. The Conversation


We live in challenging times. Ours is an era in which evidence, intellectual inquiry and expertise are under sustained attack.

The phrases “post truth” and “alternative facts” have slipped into common use. Agendas have displaced analysis in much of our public debate. And we are all the poorer for it.

I want to deliver a passionate defence of the value of expertise and evidence. I will mount a case for facts as they are grounded in evidence, not as fluid points of convenience employed to cover or distort a proposition.

My plea to you all is this: let’s not deride experts, nor the value of expertise. Because in an era where extremists and polemicists seek to claim more and more of the public square, our need for unbiased, well-researched information has seldom been greater.

We must remind ourselves of how human progress has ever been forged. In this, academics and journalists have common cause. For how are we to fulfill our respective roles in a democracy if we don’t defend the indispensible role of evidence in decision-making?

Hostility towards evidence and expertise

In Australia and around the world, we’ve seen the emergence of a creeping cynicism – even outright hostility – towards evidence and expertise.

We saw this sentiment in the post-Brexit declaration by British Conservative MP, Michael Gove that “the people of this country have had enough of experts.”

And yet – as we strive to cure cancer; save lives from preventable disease; navigate disruption; lift living standards; overcome prejudice, and prevent catastrophic climate change – expertise has never been more important.

The turn that public debate has taken is a challenge to universities. As institutions for the public good, we exist to push the frontiers of knowledge. We enhance human understanding through methodical, collaborative, sustained and robust inquiry.

That doesn’t discount the wisdom of the layperson. And it doesn’t mean universities have all the answers. Far from it. But we are unequivocally the best places to posit the questions.

We are places structurally, intellectually, ethically and intrinsically premised on confronting society’s most complex and confounding problems. We are at the vanguard of specialist knowledge. And we are relentless in its pursuit. We have to be. Because – like the challenges we as institutions immerse ourselves in – the pace of change is unrelenting.

In universities, questioning is continuous, and answers are always provisional. The intensive specialisation, in-depth inquiry and measured analysis universities undertake is not carried-out in service of some ulterior motive or finite agenda.

In the conduct of research the finish-line is very rarely, if ever reached. There’s always more to learn, more to discover. The core objectives universities pursue can never be about any other agenda than the truth. There is no other, nor greater reward. So let’s not disparage expertise, or the critically important role of evidence and intellectual inquiry.

Instead, let’s try to understand its value to our country and its people. And, indeed, to the world.

Universities perform an essential role in society. We must stand up for evidence. Stand up for facts. Stand up for the truth. Because if we don’t, who will?

Universities’ role in the economy

Disruption is drastically refashioning the economy. It is reshaping the way we work, and reimagining the way we engage with each other in our local communities and globally.

In this constantly transforming environment – where major structural shifts in the economy can profoundly dislocate large segments of society – our universities perform a pivotal role.

Universities help us make the very best of disruption, ensuring we are able to “ride the wave”. And they are the institutions best equipped to buffer us against the fallout. This is particularly important in regions that have relied for decades on large-scale blue-collar industries.

Think Geelong in regional Victoria and Mackay in central Queensland. Look to Elizabeth in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. Wollongong and Newcastle in New South Wales. And Launceston in Tasmania. Onetime manufacturing strongholds in carmaking, steel, timber and sugar.

These communities have been wrenched economically, socially and at the personal level by automation, offshoring and rationalisation. For places like these, universities can be a lifeline.

Internationally, the evidence is in. Former financier, Antoine van Agtmael and journalist, Fred Bakker look at this very scenario in their recent book, “The Smartest Places on Earth”.

They uncover a transformative pattern in more than 45 formerly struggling regional US and European economies; places they describe as “rustbelts” turned “brainbelts”.

Akron, Ohio is one of the most remarkable examples they cite. This midwestern city had four tyre companies disappear practically overnight. The then president of the University of Akron, Luis Proenza, reached out to those affected, rallying them to collaborate and encouraging them to transform.

Van Agtmael tells the story of what happened next. “What stayed in Akron”, he observes, “was the world class polymer research that has given us things like contact lenses that change colour if you have diabetes, tyres that can drive under all kinds of road conditions and hundreds more inventions.”

Akron, he continues, “now [has] 1,000 little polymer companies that have more people working for them than the four old tyre companies.”

This kind of transformation, at Akron and beyond, Van Agtmael remarks, is “university centric.”

“Each of these rustbelts becoming brain belts”, he concludes, “always have universities.” In places like those he describes, and many others around the world, universities and their graduates are leading vital processes of renewal within economies experiencing upheaval.

You may be surprised by the extent that this is happening in Australia, too.

Four-in-five startup founders are uni graduates

University graduates key to boosting startup economy. From http://www.shutterstock.com

Over the past decade, the startup economy has become part of Australia’s strategy for economic diversification and growth. Yet what has not been widely understood is the extent to which universities and their graduates are responsible for that growth.

Now, for the first time, Universities Australia and the survey group Startup Muster have taken a closer look at the data.

“Startup Smarts: universities and the startup economy”, confirms that universities and their graduates are the driving force in Australia’s startup economy.

It tells us that four-in-five startup founders in this country are university graduates. Many startups, too, have been nurtured into existence by a university incubator, accelerator, mentoring scheme or entrepreneurship course.

There are more than one-hundred of these programs dispersed widely across the country, with many on regional campuses.

They provide support, physical space and direct access to the latest research. They help to grow great Australian ideas into great Australian businesses.

This report confirms just how important the constant evolution, renewal and refining of course offerings at universities is.

We need to ensure that our programs equip our students and graduates for an uncertain future.

By the time today’s kindergarten students finish high school and are considering university study, startups will have created over half-a-million new jobs across the country. And this new sector of the economy – a sector indivisible from our universities – raised $568 million in 2016; 73% more than the previous year.

By the very nature of the reach of our universities, the benefits are not confined to our cities. We play a vital role to help regional Australians and farmers stake their claim in the startup economy too. The idea of the “silicon paddock”’ – using technology to take farm-based businesses to the markets of the world – is no longer a concept. It’s a reality.

Technology enables our regional entrepreneurs to stay in our regions; building and running businesses, investing locally without the need for long commutes or city relocations. And this, too, is very important; making sure nobody is left behind.

Extending knowledge beyond uni gates

Comprehending and overcoming the complex problems the world confronts, in my view, requires we defend the role of expertise and intellectual inquiry. That doesn’t mean universities are the last word on knowledge. To a large extent, it means rethinking the way knowledge is conveyed beyond university gates.

If universities don’t turn their minds to this issue, others will. And their motivations may not always be altruistic.

Take research, for instance. When the facts of a particular field of inquiry are under attack, the natural reaction among researchers might be to tighten-up their retort and hone the theoretical armory.

It is right to be rigorous and methodical in research. But in the broader communication of our research – in the public dialogue beyond “the lab” – I think universities have to guard against retreating to overly technical language that, perhaps inadvertently, sidelines all but a limited group of specialists

I don’t suggest that research can’t benefit or even be improved via a researcher’s consciousness of a particular, often very specific audience. Yet researchers who allow this consciousness to dominate the development of their work risk undermining their ability to tread new ground and challenge existing frontiers of knowledge.

Only by crossing borders can we come to something new. How many researchers’ discoveries have arisen from a subversion of discipline, practice or establishment? Virtually all, I would suggest.

Breaking down structural boundaries

Crossing borders also means we push other structural boundaries. Within universities, distinct discipline paradigms exist for good reason. They bring focus and in-depth intellectual lineage to a particular field.

But, increasingly, the complex problems we set out to solve don’t abide by the same boundaries. These questions demand expertise from many disciplines, working together and approaching the subject matter from different angles.

That is why universities are constantly refining their research and teaching programs and, increasingly, diffusing the borders that kept many of them separate. This is good for universities. It is good for the country. And it is good for our students, many of whom find their way into public service or politics.

These graduates bring a greater understanding of all facets of the complex questions they confront throughout their working lives.

Interdisciplinarity is, I think, a powerful antidote against ideological intransigence and prejudice. Australian universities – particularly in their research – have a growing track-record in this regard.

Many of our very best research institutes are characterised by a fusion of disciplines where, for example, sociologists, political scientists, spatial geographers, and economists collaborate on a common research objective.

The work that emerges from this research is almost always compelling because it is multi-faceted. It extends itself beyond its constituent research community.

Cross-disciplinarity has also expanded at the teaching level of our universities over the past few decades. But a constrained funding environment can provoke a reduction in options.

We must, however, keep our viewfinder broad, because reductionism doesn’t match the expansionist, multi-strand trends emerging in the broader economy. It’s a disconnect.

As universities, as a society, we must be mindful of how important it is to ask questions, to follow our curiosity, to challenge boundaries and to never rest with the answers.

• Read the full speech here.

Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The problem of false balance when reporting on science

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

How do you know the people billed as science experts that you see, hear and read about in the media are really all that credible? Or have they been included just to create a perception of balance in the coverage of an issue?

It’s a problem for any media and something the BBC’s Trust is trying to address in its latest report on science impartiality in programming.

As part of ongoing training, staff, particularly in non-news programs, were told that impartiality is not just about including a wide range of views on an issue, as this can lead to a “false balance”. This is the process of providing a platform for people whose views do not accord with established or dominant positions simply for the sake of seeming “balanced”.

The BBC has been criticised before for “false balance” and there are reports now that certain climate change sceptics are banned from BBC News, although this is denied by the BBC.

It’s understandable that such false balance could grow from a desire to seem impartial, and particularly so since public broadcasters such as the BBC and the ABC in Australia are sensitive to claims of imbalance or bias.

Couple this with the need to negotiate the difficult ground of expert opinion, authentic balance and audience expectation, not to mention the always delicate tension between the imperatives of news and entertainment, and it hardly seems surprising that mistakes are made. An investigation this year found the ABC breached its own impartiality standards in its Catalyst program last year on statins and heart disease.

Finding the right balance

How then can journalists decide the best way to present a scientific issue to ensure accurate representation of the views of the community of experts? Indeed, how can any of us determine if what we are seeing in the media is balanced or a misrepresentation of expert opinion?

Hard to find the right balance.
Flickr/Paxson Woelber , CC BY

As I have written elsewhere, it is important to not confuse the right to be heard with an imagined right to be taken seriously. If an idea fails to survive in the community of experts, its public profile should diminish in proportion to its failure to generate consensus within that community.

A common reply to this is that science isn’t about consensus, it’s about the truth. This is so, but to use a consensus as evidence of error is fallacious reasoning.

While it’s true that some presently accepted notions have in the past been peripheral, the idea that simply being against the majority view equates to holding your intellectual ground in the best tradition of the enlightenment is ludicrous.

If all views are equal, then all views are worthless.

Were I to propose an idea free of testing or argument, I could not reasonably expect my idea to be as credible as those subject to rigorous experimentation and collaborative review. If such equality did exist then progress would be impossible, since progress is marked by the testing and rejection of ideas.

Defining an expert

In the case of science, this testing is the process of experimentation, data analysis and peer review. So if someone – scientist or otherwise – has not worked and published in an area, then they are not an expert in that area.

The first imperative for a journalist covering any story is to determine exactly in what field the issue best sits and then to seek advice from people who work and publish in that field.

Knowing how the issue fits into the broader picture of scientific investigation is very useful in determining this. It is one of the reasons that good science journalism follows from having journalists with some training in science.

Such a selection process, performed transparently, is an excellent defence against charges of bias.

Avoiding false balance

False balance can also be created by assuming that a person from outside the field (a non-expert) will somehow have a perspective that will shed light on an issue, that the real expert is too “caught up in the details” to be objective.

But suggesting that an expert is naive usually indicates an attempt at discrediting rather than truth seeking. Credibility is more about process than authority, and to be a recognised expert is to work within the process of science.

Also, if a piece of science is being criticised, we should ask if the criticism itself has been published. It’s not enough that someone with apparent authority casts doubt as this is simply an appeal to authority – an appeal that critics of mainstream science themselves use as a warrant to reject consensus.

A second journalistic imperative would be to recognise that not all issues are binary.

Coins may have two sides but not so every science issue.
Flickr/monkeyc net, CC BY-NC-SA

The metaphor that a coin has two sides is a powerful one, and the temptation to look at both sides of an issue is naturally strong. But the metaphor also assumes an equal weighting, and that both sides present the same space for discussion.

Proof and evidence

When an issue is genuinely controversial, the burden of proof is shared between opposing views. When a view is not mainstream, say that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the public, the burden of proof sits with those promoting that view.

In such cases, as Christopher Hitchens succinctly put it:

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Attempting to dishonestly shift the burden of proof is a common device in the push to have young earth creationism taught in science classrooms.

The idea of “teaching both sides” or that students should be allowed to make up their own minds seems again like a recourse to the most basic ideas of a liberal education, but is in reality an attempt to bypass expert consensus, to offload the burden of proof rather than own it.

The fact is, that for issues such as creationism, vaccination and that climate change is occurring and is a function of human activity, it’s not about journalists suppressing views, it’s about quality control of information.

Stay with the issue

A classic means of muddying the waters is to employ straw man arguments, in which the point at issue is changed to one more easily defended or better suited to a particular interest. Politicians are adept at doing this, dodging hard questions with statements like “the real issue is” or “what’s important to people is”.

An expert versus who?

Deniers of climate science often change the issue from global warming to whether or not consensus is grounds for acceptance (it alone is not, of course), or focus on whether a particular person is credible rather than discuss the literature at large.

The anti-vaccine lobby talks about “choice” rather than efficacy of health care.
Young earth creationists talk about the right to express all views rather than engage with the science. Politicians talk about anything except the question they were asked.

The third imperative, therefore, is to be very clear as to what the article or interview is about and stick to that topic. Moving off topic negates the presence of the experts (the desired effect) and gives unsubstantiated claims prominence.

The impartiality checklist

The best method of dealing with cranks, conspiracy theorists, ideologues and those with a vested interest in a particular outcome is the best method for science reporting in general:

  • insist on expertise
  • recognise where the burden of proof sits
  • stay focused on the point at issue.

If the media sticks to these three simple rules when covering science issues, impartiality and balance can be justifiably asserted.

Correction: This article was amended on July 17, 2014 to include a report of the BBC’s denial that a climate change sceptic was banned from the public broadcaster.

The ConversationPeter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Listen and learn: the language of science and scepticism

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

As scientists, one of our responsibilities should be to promote clarity. A lot of problems are caused by an incorrect or incomplete understanding of terms we regularly, and even lovingly, use.

When I use the word “evidence”, what I think I mean is a function of many things, not least my education in science and philosophy.

It’s also the product of many discussions with people about science, superstition, psychology, pseudoscience and subjectivity.

These discussions have added nuance to my understanding of the nature of evidence. They’ve also alerted me to the fact this nature changes in certain circumstances and through certain worldviews. In other words, what I intend to say is sometimes heard as something else entirely.

This type of miscommunication can be bad enough when dealing with someone who isn’t using the terms in a scientific way, but it’s particularly frustrating when it happens when talking to teachers and communicators of science.

I’d like to take a shot, then, at defining some key terms in the name of clarity.

P Shanks

Scientific law

People might think scientific law is about the highest sort of truth you can get; they might think something “proven” scientifically has the status of certainty, which is to say it’s always true: nature will always behave so as to be in accord with this law.

While in some way accurate, that interpretation is fundamentally flawed. It conflates (or worse, ignores) important concepts and creates a brittleness in the public conception of science that erodes confidence and trust.

First and foremost, laws in science are seldom proven: they are demonstrated, and they are demonstrated because they are demonstrable, which is to say they are descriptive.

Newton’s inverse square law of gravity outlines how the force of gravity between two massive objects varies with distance. Basically, if you double the distance, the force is reduced by a factor of four. Triple it and the force reduces by a factor of nine, and so on.

The same relationship with distance holds for the intensity of omnidirectional radiation, as shown below. What’s significant about a law like this is that while it describes the effect it does not really explain it.

 

Newton himself was famously silent on the question of what gravity was and why it would behave this way. To get an explanation of what gravity is, we needed Einstein. And we needed a theory.

Modelling reality

General relativity explains the phenomena associated with gravity by postulating that the presence of mass warps, and hence affects movement through, space-time. This theory – or model – of how the universe works, when “run” through the process of mathematical calculation, produces outcomes that correspond to possible states of the world.

These states are checked against reality to test their veracity. The more times the model produces results that agree with observation, the more confidence we have in the model as an accurate representation of how the world works.

The example above shows nicely the difference between a model and a law: the former is a representation of reality, the latter a descriptive account.

It’s worth noting, of course, that “model” can be both a noun and a verb (and sometimes both at once). We can build a model of the solar system, or we can model weather on a computer. Either way, the terminology holds.

To put this another way, a law describes what happens and to what degree, but if we want to find out why it happens we need a theory – a model that represents reality.

A model can give us a more satisfying insight into the possible mechanisms of the universe – it’s an analogy (for rarely is it completely accurate) that betters our comprehension, as analogies are designed to do.

Both theories and laws have predictive power and are subject to being refining, falsified or confirmed; although in the case of laws refining is best done in the light of theoretical change (i.e. explaining the law by the theory/model).

Observing the law

We generalise to laws through observation, and support our generalisations with theoretical understanding. But it can be very tricky to determine that something is true in all cases (we can’t test the potential law in all possible places and at all possible times) or just happens to be true every time we check.

When stating something is universally true (even if parameters need to be defined), we must be very careful to determine whether we mean it’s true because it must be that way, or simply because it happens to be that way.

It may be a necessary condition of the universe that all like charges repel each other. But what about a generalisation such as “all posters are held up by drawing pins”?

The posters in my room and all those in my building are held up by drawing pins, but this hardly seems a necessary condition of posters: surely something else would do the job just as well. These are extreme examples, but many “laws” of nature may not be necessary laws – which seems to suggest they really shouldn’t be called laws in the first place.

Calling something a law certainly does not mean it is unchallengeable.

Laws do not develop from theories. To put it another way, theories do not become laws. I have thrown out science textbooks from several schools because they outline an unrealistic progression: from hypothesis to theory to law.

These three concepts are different creatures, and one does not morph into the other. One of the most significant misunderstandings in science exists because of this type of thinking.

Certainty

In as much as science can make us sure of anything, we are sure evolution occurred in the manner generally accepted by evolutionary biologists; it is a fact about the world.

Darwin, as is generally known, developed a theory – a model – to explain evolution. This model is natural selection. It’s unfortunate that the lovely phrase “the theory of evolution by natural selection” has been truncated into the misleading, inaccurate, confusing and very wrong phrase “the theory of evolution” – including on this very website.

The “theory of evolution” is wrong for two reasons (when scientists use it they know of what they speak, but this is not my point). First, evolution is not the model – natural selection is. So we immediately conflate two very different ideas – that of evolution and the model of natural selection.

When added to the mistaken belief that theories become laws, adherents of young earth creationism (for there are really no other serious evolution opposers) can claim evolution as a tentative conclusion, akin to vague, hand-waving notions, that culminated in Ronald Reagan’s famous dismissal of evolution as “only a theory”.

The consequences for both the teaching of evolution and the credibility of science are enormous. And yet I have never seen a defender of science articulate this misunderstanding.

Joshfassbind.com

Hypothesis

Just as a theory is a model, and law is a generalisation, a hypothesis is a statement about the world that could be true or false.

Moreover, the statement must be testable, which means it must be falsifiable, or inherently disprovable.

Phrased like this, hypotheses seem to have more in common with laws than they do with theories, considering that Newton could easily have hypothesised the inverse square law of gravity without going through any theoretical modelling of gravity.

But, of course, the creative act of devising a model of the universe, or a part of it, is to hypothesise that the world is really like that, and the hypothesis becomes that the model is an accurate representation.

Hypotheses, then, are ways of talking about building theories and laws, but not in the common way of theories being intermediate between hypotheses and laws.

While hypotheses can stand alone or inform both theories and laws, the interplay in practice between various hypotheses, theories and laws is web-like and complex and exists at nearly every level of operation from the experiment of the day to the paradigm of the century.

The idea of a hypothesis-to-theory-to-law progression is seriously flawed, and this needs to be articulated as the root cause of much misunderstanding.

Proof

“Prove” comes from the Latin probare, meaning “to test”. It’s also the origin of the word “probe”.

An older term – “proving ground” – for a testing area or trial shows we have not entirely lost that interpretation. But in the everyday use of the term, “proof” has come to indicate certitude.

AJC1

What remains poorly understood is that “proof”, as such, is a deductive creature that really does not sit comfortably in science (at least not in an affirming sense). In mathematics a proof conveys that, within the bounds of the axioms in use, there is a truth to be discovered or a certainty to be expressed.

For its theoretical claims, and indeed for its laws, inductive science can only boast confirming instances.

Headlines that (routinely) claim “Einstein proved right“ would, we know from his own words, make the great man turn in his grave.

He often spoke of the exquisite sensitivity of his theories to falsification, saying that it would not matter how many times experiment agreed with him, it had only to disagree once to prove him wrong (granted, of course, the validity of the experiment, as recent neutrino-based dramas have shown).

The simple fact that we can never test his theories under all conditions in all places at all times creates conclusions that are tentative, even though the level of confidence may be very high.

We may “prove” facts about the world, such as Earth being more or less spherical, but this does not extend to our laws and theories to the extent we might like to think.

So proof works best in science to falsify, not to affirm, though this is the opposite of common belief.

If we are clear on the above, we have a better appreciation of what makes an idea scientific, as opposed to pseudo-scientific.

We know that the best scientific hypotheses and theories are those with great explanatory power and high sensitivity to falsification, and that these are often the results of highly creative thinking, as are the experimental attempts to confirm or falsify them.

This is a very beautiful idea, but one that can’t be appreciated unless you know science does not spend its time stamping into place dry facts about the world, but grows as a vigorous and exhilarating human enterprise showcasing the best of collective human achievement.

Clarifying these ideas will, I hold, go a very long way indeed into increasing people’s understanding of science and their confidence in scientific findings.

The ConversationPeter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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‘Holistic’ dentistry: more poppycock than panacea?

The Conversation

Michael Foley, The University of Queensland

Many Australian dentists’ websites proudly advertise that they practise holistic dentistry, a philosophy that promotes health and wellness rather than simply treating disease, and considers the whole body and mind, not just teeth.

It sounds exciting. The implication is that this practice is very different – and superior – to the type of dentistry being practised by mainstream dental professionals. But different doesn’t actually mean superior.

Most holistic dental surgeries embrace and encourage alternative therapies. A quick internet search finds Australian dentists practising or endorsing homeopathy, naturopathy, Bach flower essences, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractic, ayurvedic medicine, osteopathy, kinesiology, crystals, aromatherapy, reiki, vibrational healing, Buteyko and esoteric chakra-puncture.

Since all dentists are registered by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, the public tends to assume they must be reputable and their treatments, even if out of the ordinary, must be effective. And, surely, we have to respect the centuries of ancient wisdom from whence many of these therapies came, right? Well, yes and no.

Not quite right

Many ancient remedies have given us modern medical treatments. Hippocrates recognised that powdered willow bark (containing aspirin) alleviated headaches. South Americans used cinchona bark (containing quinine) to treat malaria. Traditional Chinese medicine gave us ephedrine, a commonly used stimulant and decongestant, and the anti-malarial drug artemisinin. Both are now effective pharmaceuticals.

But doing something for centuries doesn’t automatically make it right. From the time of the ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians up to the late 19th century, misguided medicos bled patients, sometimes to death, in vain attempts to treat a multitude of ills. Bloodletting is still a core belief in some traditional health systems.


Doing something for centuries doesn’t automatically make it right.

Marcel Douwe Dekker/Flickr, CC BY-SA

And traditional Chinese medicine also uses rhino horns, tiger penises, shark fins and bear bile. Even ignoring the appallingly cruel way these “medicines” are obtained, none has any proven health benefits. Rhino horns are more expensive by weight than gold. As they consist largely of the protein keratin, purchasers could have saved a fortune by chewing their toenails.

Former Victorian dentist and self-styled “professor” Noel Campbell was practising (very) alternative dentistry in the late 1990s when charged with administering ozone to a patient’s rectum to relieve her facial pain. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work.

Campbell avoided disciplinary action by allowing his dental registration to lapse but continues to provide unproven alternative therapies to patients with cancer and other conditions through his website. And he’s not alone.

The recent cases of Wellness Warrior Jessica Ainscough and The Whole Pantry’s Belle Gibson show the importance of safe and effective health-care recommendations being based on more than a pretty smile and social media presence.

Importance of evidence

But aren’t some alternative therapies safe and effective? And how can we tell the difference? Thankfully, we have very good ways of determining if health treatments are effective.

The concept of evidence-based health care has arisen over the past few decades and is now almost universally accepted as the required standard for professional health practice.

Evidence-based dentistry accepts patients’ needs and preferences, while insisting treatments be based on the highest-quality scientific evidence and regular systematic reviews of published research.

Currently, most alternative therapies have a very limited evidence base to support their practice, and research methodologies are often poor. If a beneficial effect is shown, it’s often no greater than that achieved by placebo treatment, and less than that achieved by mainstream health care.

Most “natural” medications have never been placed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods simply because they’ve never shown effectiveness. And alternative therapies found to be safe and effective become part of the mainstream health-care arsenal.

Does that really matter though, as long as patients receive the treatment they want and feel better as a result? Yes, it does matter.


A patient-dentist relationship must be based on trust and professionalism.

The Guy With The Yellow Bike/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Most holistic dental practices will provide a wonderfully caring and nurturing environment for patients, but a patient-dentist relationship must also be based on trust and professionalism. A dentist who provides or endorses treatment options based on centuries of “eye of newt and toe of frog” without finding out if any beneficial effect is real or merely a placebo is not acting in the patient’s best interests, even if their belief is genuine.

Not only is any placebo effect unlikely to be maintained in the long term, patients may have wasted considerable amounts of money and been deprived of legitimate treatments that could have provided much greater benefits.

Still the same

More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates wrote:

There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.

The public expects all health professionals to practise competently, ethically and professionally. Would you prefer a dentist who provides treatment and advice based on evidence from the most recent and highest-quality research studies, or based on clouds of dubious and scientifically unsupported mysticism?

In 1948, the preamble to the constitution of the World Health Organisation defined health as “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This description still holds up today, and sits very well with the concept of holistic dentistry. So holistic dentistry is really nothing new.

All dentists should be practising holistic dentistry. And they should all be practising evidence-based dentistry, too.

The ConversationMichael Foley is Senior Lecturer, Public health dentistry at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Still no good evidence that most complementary medicine works

The Conversation

Ian Musgrave

The complementary medicine industry has been quick to respond to an opinion piece by Cassandra Wilkinson in The Australian newspaper on the lack of evidence for many complementary medicines, and particularly complementary medicines for children.

Alan Bensoussan of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine claimed in a follow-up letter to the Australian that complementary medicines included many well-established medicines (scroll down for the letter). He claimed that these well-established complementary medicines include medicines that prevent spina bifida in newborns, osteoporosis in the elderly, macular degeneration, cognitive decline, and childhood bronchitis.

Except, well, they don’t. You can search for clinical trials of complementary medicines for the above complaints that show them to be “well-established” and you will come up empty handed. You will find one or two studies suggesting that there might be a beneficial effect of some complementary medicine (see here for the inconsistent evidence for Ginkgo and macular degeneration), but nothing “well-established”.

Similarly, a search of systematic reviews, which look at the overall evidence from multiple studies, turns up nothing, although one treatment for osteoarthritis (not osteoporosis) glucosamine, might be beneficial in some patients. This is hardly “well-established” though.

If you go to the web site of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and look up “bronchitis” you get the following “There is not enough evidence to support the use of any complementary health practices for the relief of asthma”. If you look up cognitive decline, you get a page that shows all current complementary therapies either do not help (and this includes the favoured herb, Gingko) or have not enough evidence.

So where does Alan Benoussan’s claim come from? Some clarification comes from an article in Pharmacy News, where Steve Scarff, regulatory and scientific affairs director of the Australian Self Medication Industry, also claimed that there is a growing evidence base to support the use of complementary medicines. Mr Scarff used as examples of clinically-supported complementary medicines “calcium and vitamin D for osteoporosis, omega-3 fish oil for heart disease, folate for pregnant women in preventing spina bifida, iron supplementation for anaemia, and evidence to support St John’s Wort for depression”.

One problem here, all but one (St. John’s Wort) of these are conventional medicine, not complementary medicine. It was conventional medicine that researched the physiology, did the clinical trials and developed the therapies and approaches, not complementary medicine (calcium and vitamin D for osteoporosis (note that this is not “one size fits all” medication), omega-3 fish oil for heart disease, folate for pregnant women in preventing spina bifida). Just because you sell vitamin pills doesn’t mean you get to appropriate the hard work of medical researchers and clinicians.

“Complementary” use of vitamins is usually use of high dose vitamins, such as high dose vitamin C for colds and flu’s (which doesn’t really work) or high dose antioxidant vitamins (high dose fat soluble antioxidant vitamin are actually associated with slightly worse outcomes and in some cases a slight increase in death). And vitamin supplementation of healthy, non-vitamin deficient people also has no benefit.

St. John’s Wort does have a modest anti-depressant effect (although very variable due to wide differences in composition). It also has significant side effects and very serious interactions with conventional medicines, so is not recommended for therapy. People have died because of it. Information on the side effects of St. John’s Wort from points of sale are generally very poor and most consumers will be unaware of them (see also here)

The claims from the National Institute of Complementary Medicine and the Australian Self Medication Industry does nothing to address the issues brought up in the opinion piece, namely that there is no evidence that complementary medicine works for children and that between 70-90% of complementary medicines surveyed did not meet regulatory requirements (71% had manufacturing or quality problems). As well, complementary medicine sponsors drag their feet when asked to remove non-compliant medicines (see here and here).

This is what the National Institute of Complementary Medicine and the Australian Self Medication Industry should be dealing with, not claiming the work of conventional medicine as complementary medicine.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Why we need to listen to the real experts in science

The Conversation

By Michael Clarke, La Trobe University and Susan Lawler, La Trobe University

If we want to use scientific thinking to solve problems, we need people to appreciate evidence and heed expert advice.

But the Australian suspicion of authority extends to experts, and this public cynicism can be manipulated to shift the tone and direction of debates. We have seen this happen in arguments about climate change.

This goes beyond the tall poppy syndrome. Disregard for experts who have spent years studying critical issues is a dangerous default position. The ability of our society to make decisions in the public interest is handicapped when evidence and thoughtfully presented arguments are ignored.

Anyone can claim to be an expert these days. Flickr/Alan Cleaver , CC BY

Anyone can claim to be an expert these days. Flickr/Alan Cleaver , CC BY

So why is science not used more effectively to address critical questions? We think there are several contributing factors including the rise of Google experts and the limited skills set of scientists themselves. We think we need non-scientists to help us communicate with and serve the public better.

At a public meeting recently, when a well-informed and feisty elderly participant asked a question that referred to some research, a senior public servant replied: “Oh, everyone has a scientific study to justify their position, there is no end to the studies you could cite, I am sure, to support your point of view.”

This is a cynical statement, where there are no absolute truths and everyone’s opinion must be treated as equally valid. In this intellectual framework, the findings of science can be easily dismissed as one of many conflicting views of reality.

Such a viewpoint is dangerous from our point of view.

When scientists disagree with one another, as they must to ensure progress in their field, it is easy to argue that it is not possible to distinguish between conflicting hypotheses. But scientists always agree that critical thinking done well eventually leads to a better understanding and superior solutions. All opinions are not equal.

If you are flying in an airplane at 30,000 feet, you will not be content with just any scientific study about whether the wing will stay on the plane. Most people will want to put their trust in the calculations of an expert aeronautical engineer who understands the physics of stresses on the wing.

So why do we not want to trust experts in bushfire management, or climate change? Because most people are happier with experts whose conclusions fit their own ideas.

This encourages people to express their opinions, and the internet allows those opinions to get a wide viewing. This makes for interesting times, but not always effective solutions.

Google experts

The internet is filled with information and ideas. Everyone can quickly find “answers”, and this means that everyone is an “expert”.

But using Google to find the answer to Trivial Pursuit questions is not the same as researching a complex question. Experts do have skills and one of those is the ability to use high quality sources, up to date theoretical frameworks, and critical thinking based on their experience in a particular field. This is why an expert’s answers are going to be more accurate and more nuanced than a novice.

For example, people who use Dr Google to diagnose their symptoms before visiting an actual doctor, sometimes ask to be tested for diseases they do not have, or waste time seeking a second opinion because they are convinced that their “research” has led them to a correct diagnosis. If it were really that easy, would doctors have to spend all those years in medical school?

There is another problem called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that “people who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact”.

In other words, people who think all answers can be found on Google are likely to be unaware of the effort involved in solving complex problems, or why years of specialist training might help.

This is almost more dangerous than complete ignorance, because unlike Donald Rumsfeld, they don’t even know what they don’t know.

Easy access to huge volumes of confusing information sits very comfortably in a post-modern world. Unfortunately, the outcome is that most people are reluctant to do the intellectual hard work of sifting through competing hypotheses. So how are we to engage in robust scientific debates in such a public arena?

Science is not enough

It has been said many times that scientists need to communicate their research more broadly. The challenges are well known – peer reviewed scientific publications are necessary for our careers and time spent engaging with the public is time away from the field, our computers and laboratory benches.

Nevertheless, if we hope to influence government policy we cannot assume that the implications of our research will be understood by those who most need to know what we are doing.

Reaching out to busy bureaucrats and politicians is not something that comes naturally to scientists. To turn science into policy we need a diverse team of people with different but complementary skills who share a commitment to the task.

Skills that are not commonly found in scientists may be found in political scientists, lawyers, sociologists, public relations companies, the arts community and the media.

Forming relationships with people who can translate our findings into something that cannot be ignored may be critical to success.

Consider what we are up against, lobby groups with deep pockets have come up with brilliant assaults on the thoughtful management of our environment.

“Cutting Green Tape” or “No fuels, no fire” – these clever bits of spin threaten decades of rigorous research and policy development. This is not a failure of science, but a triumph of imagination. We have been dramatically out-manoeuvred, shown to be amateurs, in the world of presenting competing ideas.

At a recent fire forum we learned that current policy is: “Based on science, but driven by values.” This means that despite the best evidence, the values of our current society will decide when to act. This introduces another definition of truth seeking, based on who made the best argument in a political or legal process.

Science is meant to be done dispassionately and objectively, so scientists are not well equipped to participate in debates about values. This is the realm of ethicists, philosophers, artists and theologians.

But if we are passionate about applying the lessons learned from our research, we will need marketers, lobbyists, communication experts, accountants and economists. A multi-disciplinary team is required to convince society to change.

Perhaps the people with these complementary skills will be able to help break down the anti-intellectualism we face, for the benefit of all.


This is based on an address delivered by Professor Michael Clarke at the 2nd Biodiversity Forum held at the Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne in 2014.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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Isaac Asimov on evidence

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Hitchens on assertions

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The Dolphin Delusion

by Tim Harding B.Sc.

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, March 2014, Vol 34 No 1. The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics in February 2014).

Some people claim that swimming with dolphins is a mystical or spiritual experience. Irrational beliefs range from dolphins being super-intelligent, to having ESP, to possessing special healing powers and even being aliens from a planet in the Sirius solar system! On the other hand, getting up close and personal with dolphins can be risky for both species – especially for the dolphins.  These risks are greatest where dolphin populations are vulnerable to extinction, such as in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria.

Ancient dolphin mythology

The current mysticism associated with dolphins may well date from ancient mythology, where dolphins were often depicted as helpers of humans.  Ancient seals, coins and items of pottery often show a man or boy riding a dolphin. One of the earliest known images is at the ruined Palace of Knossos in Crete; where there is an attractive fresco of some blue dolphins swimming with fish (c.1600BCE).  Unfortunately, the Minoan script known as Linear A has not yet been deciphered; so the back story of these dolphin frescos remains as mysterious as the ones of acrobats leaping over bulls elsewhere in the palace.  One possibility is a connection with the god Dionysus, of which archaeological traces have been found amongst the Minoan ruins.

Akrotiri_dolphins

Fresco of blue dolphins at the ruined Palace of Knossos in Crete (c.1600BCE)

In classical Greek mythology, Dionysus (known as Bacchus by the Romans) was the god whose spiritual portfolio included the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, ritual madness and ecstasy.  He may have been worshipped as early as c. 1500–1100 BCE by the Mycenean Greeks. According to legend, Dionysus was once captured by Etruscan pirates who mistook him for a wealthy prince they could ransom.  After the ship set sail Dionysus invoked his divine powers, causing vines to overgrow the ship where the mast and sails had been.  He turned the oars into serpents, so terrifying the sailors that they jumped overboard, but Dionysus took pity on them and transformed them into dolphins so that they would spend their lives providing help for those in need.

Ancient Greek pottery showing Dionysus in ship with grapevine, surrounded by former sailors now dolphins (Source: Wikipedia)

Ancient Greek pottery showing Dionysus in ship with grapevine,
surrounded by former sailors now dolphins (Source: Wikipedia)

Dolphins were also the messengers of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, and sometimes did errands for him as well. Dolphins were sacred to the other gods Aphrodite and Apollo. In Hindu mythology, the Ganges River Dolphin is associated with Ganga, the deity of the Ganges river. The dolphin is said to be among the creatures which heralded the goddess’ descent from the heavens and her mount, the Makara, is sometimes depicted as a dolphin. The Boto dolphins in the Amazon River are believed to be shapeshifters, or encantados, who are capable of having children with human women.

Contemporary dolphin mysticism

Today, there exists a range of mystical beliefs about dolphins, some of which may be a legacy of the ancient mythology. These beliefs range from seemingly innocuous brand names (such as the Dolphin Health & Wellness Centre at Cessnock, 50km from the NSW coast), to various manifestations of New Age nonsense, to some quite bizarre mystical and spiritual claims about dolphins. I hesitate to use the term ‘pseudoscience’ because these claims rarely even pretend to be scientific. I have not found a single New Age or mystical web site that provides any empirical evidence in support of their often outlandish claims about dolphins.  And as the late Christopher Hitchens once said: “That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”.

A common theme seems to be a claim that dolphins have miraculous healing powers, and that swimming with dolphins or ‘channeling their energies’; through a fee-charging spiritual healer will heal the soul if not the body. A typical marketing blurb reads:

‘We bring the gifts of the dolphins … from sea to land! By spreading Dolphin Love, Joy, healing, and higher consciousness in the world, we are co-creating, with Dolphin, Whale, and other spiritual sources, Unity-Community on land among humanity. This is the New Earth’.

Other claimed services include ‘Dolphin Healing Touch’, ‘Chakra Clearing’, ‘Channelling Ancient Atlantean Energy’, ‘Creating Flow’ (whatever that means) and ‘Photon Light Therapy’ (is there any other type of light?). One specific healing claim that can be tested is the following:

‘During the healing process the dolphins’ wounds don’t show signs of infection. Researchers have discovered that their skin and blubber contain compounds with antibacterial properties, which may help stop infections in the open wounds’.

This claim is demonstrably false. For instance, dolphins are susceptible to the fungal skin infection Lobomycosis, as shown in the following photograph.

Infected dolphin fin

Infected dolphin fin

At least one dolphin therapist offers ‘healing at a distance’ not only at a distance from dolphins, but long distances away from the therapist! ‘Anne’ is an attuned channel to transmit dolphin energy to her clients. For a distance session you make a quick phone call to Anne and she will give you some simple instructions and help you set an intention for the session as well as help you to open to the frequency of the dolphins. Then you hang up and sit or lie down to receive. You can even fall asleep during the session! Sessions generally last about 40 minutes. After you feel complete, you phone Anne again and she will discuss how the session went for you and share with you her unique gift of receiving visions and messages from the dolphins and many other creatures from both the sea and land.

One of the most bizarre claims about dolphins is that they are aliens from a planet in from the Sirius solar system.

‘The Pleadians decided to bring some of the dolphins with them when they knew their home world was going to be extinct and they found Earth. When I work with Dolphins I find I have an emotional and uplifting experience, similar to the Unicorns, but in a different vibration. Dolphin healing uses sound as well as the usual light vibration we use in Reiki and other forms of healing’.

Had enough? I think you probably have the general drift of this nonsense by now.

Some dolphin science

At the risk of disappointing followers of the Pleiadians, dolphins evolved right here on planet Earth. They are marine mammals of the taxonomic order Cetacea, which includes whales and porpoises. Cetaceans evolved from land mammals and share a common ancestor with even-toed ungulates, such as the hippopotamus and deer. Unlike fish, cetacean skeletons contain scapulas or shoulder blades and the bone structure of their flippers is similar to mammalian forearms. They even have a small vestigial pelvis to which their hind legs were once attached millions of years ago.

Today, there are almost 40 species of dolphin in 17 genera. Marine dolphins are members of the family Delphinidae which evolved some 10 million years ago. Other families are river dolphins, of which there are only 4 species left on the planet. Marine dolphins eat mainly fish and squid; and a group of dolphins is called a ‘pod’. Worldwide, three species of Bottlenose dolphins are recognised: the Common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncates; the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops aduncus; and the Burrunan dolphin, Tursiops australis, a newly classified separate species that is found only in Port Phillip Bay in Victoria.

Port Phillip Bay is home to a resident population of Burrunan dolphins estimated to number between 80 and 120 individuals. The available evidence from records of cetacean strandings and previous anecdotal observations indicates that the current population is smaller than in the past, reflecting a loss of fisheries habitat in recent decades.

Picture1

A pod of Burrunan dolphins in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, with Melbourne in the background.

The dolphins in Port Phillip Bay use their home range for all aspects of their ecology, including their main activities, foraging and feeding, as well as socialising, resting, and the protection and rearing of young. The population of Burranan dolphins in Port Phillip Bay is vulnerable to extinction due to its small size, its restricted home range and the human activities that are likely to be having an adverse impact on the dolphins. These human activities (in order of decreasing threat) are jet skis, boating, swimming and low-flying aircraft (including sight-seeing helicopters).

Research findings from Port Phillip Bay confirm that apart from isolated harassment by jet-skis, the proximity of tour vessels is the key disturbance factor posed by interaction with dolphins. During the tour season, these vessels can spend up to six hours per day interacting with dolphins. Responding to interactions with tour vessels and swimmers may interfere with the dolphins’ daily routine and may impact on their time and energy if interactions constantly interrupt feeding, resting or maternal behaviour. Dolphins normally have only one calf per year, so if the annual birth rate is for any reason lower than the death rate, the future survival of this dolphin species will be perilous.

A dolphin watching tour boat in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria

A dolphin watching tour boat in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria

There is no evidence that the majority of people who swim with the dolphins are doing it for mystical or faith healing reasons. There are just as legitimate reasons for people wanting to closely observe or interact with dolphins, as there are for people to wanting look at animals in zoos. For this reason, dolphin watching and swimming with dolphins are activities that need to be carefully regulated rather than banned completely.

Here is a picture of President Putin of Russia swimming with some presumably heterosexual dolphins in Cuba.

Putin dolphins

Source: Wikimedia commons

The Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching have been adopted by the Federal Government and all state and territory governments. These guidelines are a clearly defined set of standards for all human activity around cetaceans, including maximum approach distances for boats and aircraft (except for authorised tour boats). They help people to understand that their actions may disturb these wild animals, and show them how to minimise any effect they may have while whale or dolphin watching. For instance, it is important for only one tour boat at a time to approach a dophin pod, and then side-on rather than from behind, so that the dolphins do not feel corralled (which is how sharks attack them).

State and territory governments are responsible for conservation and protection of whales and dolphins in coastal waters (out to the 3 nautical mile limit). These governments manage most of the human/dolphin interactions, and whale and dolphin watching. They each have their own regulations regarding whale and dolphin watching in coastal waters, based on the Australian National Guidelines. These regulations need not only a high level of compliance, but also strong public support.

Tim Harding has worked as a consultant to the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) assisting in the development of regulations to protect dolphins and other marine mammals. He is a former Director of Flora and Fauna in DEPI, with a background in biological sciences.

References

Constantine, R (October 2001) ‘Increased Avoidance of Swimmers by Wild Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) Due to Long-term Exposure to Swim-with-dolphin Tourism’, Marine Mammal Science, Vol.17(4), pp.689-702

Department of Sustainability and Environment (2004a) Sustainable Dolphin Tourism Program – Recommendations & Policy Proposals, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Melbourne.

Department of the Environment and Heritage (May 2006) Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005, Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.

Hale, P (September 2002) Interactions Between Vessels and Dolphins In Port Phillip Bay, Report to Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria.

Hawkins, E. R, Gartside, D.F, (2008) Dolphin tourism : impact of vessels on the behaviour and acoustics of inshore bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), CRC for Sustainable Tourism, Southport.

Harding, Tim and Rivers, George (2009) Regulatory Impact Statement – Wildlife (Marine Mammals) Regulations 2009 Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria.

Higginbottom, K (July 2002) Principles for sustainable wildlife tourism, with particular reference to dolphin-based boat tours in Port Phillip Bay, Report to Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria.

Scarpaci, C., Parsons, E.C.M. and Luck, M. (2009) Recent Advances in Whale Watching Research: 2007-2008, Tourism in Marine Environments, Vol 5, No. 4. 

Copyright notice: © All rights reserved. Except for personal use or as permitted under the Australian Copyright Act, no part of this website may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, communicated or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission. All inquiries should be made to the copyright owner, Tim Harding at tim.harding@yandoo.com, or as attributed on individual blog posts.

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What is rationality?

(Paper presented by Tim Harding at Mordi Skeptics meetup, 1 February 2011. An edited version was published in The Skeptic magazine, Vol. 36 No. 4, December 2016)

What do we skeptics mean when we say that a belief is irrational?  How do we define rationality and irrationality?  Are there any objective tests of an irrational belief?

First, some definitions.  Most dictionaries define rationality as the state or quality of being rational.  Not a lot of help.  So what does it mean to be rational? Once again, most dictionaries define rational as being consistent with or based on or using reason,[1] which is further defined as the mental ability to draw inferences or conclusions from assumptions or premises (the ‘if – then’ connection).  The application of reason is known as reasoning; the main categories of which are deductive and inductive reasoning.[2]

Reason is thought by rationalists to be more reliable in determining what is true; in contrast to reliance on other factors such as authority, tradition, instinct, intuition, emotion, mysticism, superstition, faith or arbitrary choice (e.g. flipping a coin).  For example, we rationally determine the balance in our cheque book (between bank statements) by adding up the credits and subtracting the debits and bank fees.  An irrational way of doing it would be to pick a number at random – not very reliable, and any correct answer would be a mere coincidence, rather than the product of reasoning.

The ancient Greeks thought that rationality distinguishes humans from other animals.  ‘Man is a rational animal’ as Aristotle said.[3]  However, this distinction is becoming blurred by recent research indicating that other primate species such as chimpanzees can show a limited use of reason and therefore a degree of rationality.

The word rational can be used in several different contexts; for example rational behaviour (psychology), rational or optimal decision (economics); a rational process (science), and rational belief (philosophy).  However, it is not the purpose of this paper to discuss all uses of rationality – only those relevant to our use, that is, skepticism.

I would suggest that the context most relevant to skepticism (which could be described as a form of applied philosophy) is that of rational belief, because we skeptics often criticise the beliefs of paranormals, quacks, cults and pseudo-sciences on the grounds that they are irrational (which, of course, is the antonym of rational).[4]  However, the scientific context of a ‘rational process’ is also relevant to skepticism; and I will say more about this later.

In my view, the relevance of rational belief to skepticism is that we use it as a filter to determine what we should be skeptical about.  We skeptics are not necessarily skeptical of everything.  We believe what it is rational to believe, and we are skeptical of beliefs that are known to be or appear to be irrational.  That is why I think it is important for skeptics to clarify and understand the nature of rational belief.

Harvard philosophy professor Robert Nozick has proposed two criteria for rational belief:

  1. support by reasons that make the belief credible; and
  2. generation by a process that reliably produces true beliefs.[5]

Two thought experiments

I would now like to try a couple of little thought experiments.

Firstly, imagine if you will a primitive tribe in the remote mountains of New Guinea.  The chief of this tribe needs to predict whether or not it is going to rain tomorrow[6] so he can decide whether the men will go hunting or not.  So he consults the local witch doctor, who according to long tradition slaughters a chicken and examines the configuration of the dead chicken’s entrails.  Using this information, the local witch doctor then predicts that will not rain tomorrow.  Is this a rational belief?

In terms of Nozick’s criteria, we would probably say that this belief is irrational because it is neither supported by reasons that make the belief credible, nor is it generated by a process that reliably produces true beliefs.

But what if this local witch doctor’s predictions, using the chicken entrail process, have always been right?  In that case, it could be argued that the process meets Nozick’s criterion No. 2.  It could also be argued that because the New Guinea tribe have no school education, and believe that rain and the configuration of a chicken’s entrails are caused by the same spirit, that the reasons for the witch doctor’s predictions are credible to them.  Does this alter our assessment of the rationality of this belief?  Perhaps it does.

What if exactly the same process is used by a hippie commune in Nimbin, where hippies have had the benefit of a school education and therefore should be aware that there is no credible causal connection between the incidence of rain and the configuration of a chicken’s entrails.  Do these different circumstances alter our assessment of whether the belief is rational?  Perhaps they do again.

Secondly, until early December 2010, it was believed by the scientific community (and published in reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals) that the element arsenic is toxic to all life on Earth in even very small concentrations.[7]  However, NASA-supported researchers have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using arsenic.  The microorganism, which lives in California’s Mono Lake, substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in some of its cellular components.[8]  Prior to this announcement by NASA, was it rational to believe that arsenic is toxic to all life on Earth in even very small concentrations?  In terms of Nozick’s criteria, the answer would be ‘yes’, even though we now know that belief was false.  Was it rational to hold this belief after the NASA announcement?  Given that the NASA scientific announcement is credible and was generated by reliable scientific processes, our answer would be ‘no’.

By these two thought experiments, I have tried to show how a rational process can lead to a belief which may be rational in certain contexts or circumstances and yet turn out to be false.  So truth is not necessarily an adequate test of a rational belief.  In other words, a rational belief is not necessarily true, and an irrational belief is not necessarily false.  On the other hand, a rational belief needs to be reasonable or credible in the circumstances; that is, a rational belief is one that is justified by reason.

Although an irrational belief is not necessarily false, we can say that because an irrational belief is unreliable and more likely to be false than a rational belief, we should therefore be more skeptical about beliefs that are known to be or appear to be irrational than about rational beliefs.

It is believed by some philosophers (notably A.C. Grayling) that a rational belief must be independent of emotions, personal feelings or any kind of instincts.  Any process of evaluation or analysis, that may be called rational, is expected to be objective, logical and ‘mechanical’.  If these minimum requirements are not satisfied i.e. if a person has been influenced by personal emotions, feelings, instincts or culturally specific, moral codes and norms, then the analysis may be termed irrational, due to the injection of subjective bias.

So let us now look at some other possible objective tests of irrational belief, including logical fallacies, emotional or faith-based rather than evidence-based beliefs, beliefs based on insufficient supporting evidence, beliefs derived from confirmation bias, beliefs incompatible with science and internally incoherent beliefs, and any others we would like to discuss at this meetup.

Logical fallacies

A logical fallacy is faulty reasoning in argumentation resulting in a misconception.  A fallacious argument can be deductively invalid or one that has insufficient inductive strength.  For example, the argument that smoking does not cause cancer based on the anecdotal evidence of only one healthy smoker.

By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener or interlocutor (e.g. appeal to emotion), or take advantage of social relationships between people (e.g. argument from authority).  By definition, a belief arising from a logical fallacy is contrary to reason and is therefore irrational.

Emotional, instinctive or faith-based rather than evidence-based beliefs

In western literature, reason is often opposed to emotions or instincts — desires, fears, hates, drives, or passions.  Even in everyday speech, westerners tend to say for example that their passions made them behave contrary to reason, or that their reason kept the passions under control, often expressed in colloquial terms as the dilemma between following ‘the head’ (reason) ‘or the heart’ (emotions).

Faith involves a stance toward some claim that is not, at least presently, demonstrable by reason.  Thus faith is a kind of attitude of trust or assent. As such, it is ordinarily understood to involve an act of will or a commitment on the part of the believer.  People do not usually have faith in something they do not want to believe in.  Religious faith involves a belief that makes some kind of either an implicit or explicit reference to a transcendent source.  The basis for a person’s faith usually is understood to come from the authority of revelation.[9]  Faith-based belief without evidence is considered to be a virtue by the religiously devout; but a ‘sin’ by rationalists.

Emotional, instinctive and faith-based beliefs are held on grounds other than evidence or reason, and according to the definitions given in the first part of this paper are irrational.  This is not to say that such beliefs are necessarily wrong, bad or undesirable – simply that they are not derived from reason.

Though theologies and typically do not claim to be irrational, there is often a perceived conflict or tension between faith and tradition on the one hand, and reason on the other, as potentially competing sources of wisdom and truth.  Defenders of traditions and faiths typically maintain that there is no real conflict with reason, because reason itself is not enough to explain such things as the origins of the universe, or right and wrong, and so reason can and should be complemented by other sources of knowledge.  The counter claim to this is that there are actual conflicts between faith and reason (for instances, the Trial of Galileo, creationism vs evolution, stem-cell research etc).

Some relatively recent philosophers, most notably the logical positivists, have denied that there is a domain of thought or human existence rightly governed by faith, asserting instead that all meaningful statements and ideas are accessible to thorough rational examination.[10]

Insufficient supporting evidence

Some beliefs are not necessarily based on emotion or faith, and are not entirely devoid of evidence, but there is insufficient evidence to justify the belief.  Beliefs in UFOs, alien abductions and conspiracy theories such as the so-called Moon Landings Hoax fall into this category.

Confirmation bias – cherry-picking the evidence

Confirmation bias is a tendency for people to favour information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.  As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way.  The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues, for established beliefs and for conspiracy theories.

For example, there is some evidence that in a very small number of cases there are adverse reactions to some vaccines in some patients.  But this argument against vaccination overlooks the overwhelming benefits of vaccination in preventing and in some cases eradicating infectious diseases.  In other words, the anti-vaccination campaigners do not take into account evidence contrary to their fixed beliefs.  Thus the beliefs of anti-vaccination campaigners and some conspiracy theorists are based on faulty reasoning; and are therefore irrational.

 Incompatibility with science

It has long been held that rationality requires rigorous rules for deciding whether a proposition should be believed.  Formal logic and mathematics provide the clearest examples of such rules.  Science has also been considered a model of rationality because it proceeds in accordance with scientific methods which provide the rules for gathering evidence and evaluating hypotheses on the basis of this evidence.[11]

One of the main purposes of scientific methods is to eliminate subjective biases and interfering factors in order to test hypotheses.  This is why scientists use techniques such as controls and double blind tests that we often hear about in sceptical discussions.

Where a belief is incompatible with science, either the belief must be false or the science must be wrong – they can’t both be right.  For example, homeopathy is incompatible with the science of chemistry; water-divining is incompatible with the science of physics and astrology is incompatible with the science of astronomy.  On this ground alone, pseudo-sciences like these are irrational.

Internally incoherent beliefs

Coherentism is a theory of epistemic justification.  It implies that for a belief to be justified it must belong to a coherent system of beliefs. For a system of beliefs to be coherent, the beliefs that make up that system must “cohere” with one another.  In other words, some of a person’s justified beliefs are justified because they derive their justification from other beliefs.  For example, take my belief that tomorrow is Wednesday.  That belief can be justified by two other beliefs: my belief that today is Tuesday and my belief that Tuesday is immediately followed by Wednesday.  But, if my belief that tomorrow is Wednesday derives its justification from these other beliefs, then my belief that tomorrow is Wednesday is justified only if these other beliefs are justified.[12]  If today is Monday, then my belief that tomorrow is Wednesday is incoherent and unjustified.

For example, the claim of homeopathy that ‘like cures like’ is incoherent with the practice of diluting substances to the point where there is nothing but water in a homeopathic dose.  Homeopathy makes no sense, or in other words is internally incoherent and therefore irrational.  We can all probably think of other paranormal and pseudo-science beliefs that are internally incoherent and therefore irrational.

Summary

In summary, rationality is the state or quality of being rational, which means as being consistent with or based on or using reason.

Reason is thought by rationalists to be more reliable in determining what is true; in contrast to reliance on factors such as authority, tradition, instinct, intuition, emotion, mysticism, superstition faith or arbitrary choice.

The word rational can be used in several different contexts; but the context most relevant to skepticism is that of rational belief, because we use it as a filter to determine what we should be sceptical about.  We skeptics are not skeptical of everything.  We believe what it is rational to believe, and we are skeptical of irrational beliefs.

Two criteria have been proposed by Nozick for a rational belief:

  1. support by reasons that make the belief credible; and
  2. generation by a process that reliably produces true beliefs.

A rational belief is not necessarily true, and an irrational belief is not necessarily false.  On the other hand, a rational belief needs to be reasonable or credible in the circumstances; that is, a rational belief is one that is justified by reason.  It needs to pass objective tests of irrationality.

Objective tests of irrational belief include logical fallacies, emotional or faith-based rather than evidence-based beliefs, beliefs based on insufficient supporting evidence, beliefs derived from confirmation bias, beliefs incompatible with science, internally incoherent beliefs and possibly other tests.

Although an irrational belief is not necessarily false, we can say that because an irrational belief is unreliable and more likely to be false than a rational belief, we should therefore be more skeptical about beliefs that are known to be or appear to be irrational than about rational beliefs.

References:

Fieser, J. and Dowden, B. eds (2011) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy <http://www.iep.utm.edu/>

Honderich, T. ed (2005) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Nozick, R. (1993) The Nature of Rationality, Princeton University Press, Princeton.


[1] Meaning reason in the philosophical sense as defined here, rather than in the colloquial sense of a reason meaning any explanation for an action or event, whether or not the explanation is based on reason in the philosophical sense.

[2] Deductive vs inductive reasoning is a possible topic for a future meetup?

[3] Nozick, 1993 p.xi

[4] The term ‘non-rational’ means neither rational nor irrational, and applies to matters unrelated to truth or falsity such as taste or aesthetics.

[5] Nozick, 1993 p.xiv

[6] For the purpose of this thought experiment, we assume that it does not rain every day and there is no predictable pattern of rainfall in the area in question.

[7] Most chemicals can be toxic in sufficiently large concentrations.

[9] Feiser and Dowden et al, 2011.

[10] Feiser and Dowden et al, 2011.

[11] Honderich et al, 2005 p. 786.

[12] Feiser and Dowden et al, 2011.

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