May 03 2012

CAM Logical Fallacies

There are times when an article packs in logical fallacies so densely that I just can’t help deconstructing it. Another feature that often lures me in is a blatant self-contradiction that the author seems to be oblivious to. HuffPo Canada has recently published an article by “investigative journalist” Isla Traquair that does both. The articles emerges from her health consumer series that she is filming. The result is a confused, conflicting, and profoundly naive article that makes me wonder how much investigation she could have done.

Let’s go through and count the logical fallacies and contradictions. She wonders:

What exactly makes a medical treatment accepted and trusted by mainstream society? Does it make a difference if a practitioner wears a white coat and gets employed through the health service? Do they need a certificate and letters after their name? Or do we trust someone who has learnt ancient teachings using the laws and patterns of nature?

She begins by begging the question about what creates medical authority, and in so doing creates a straw man (a nice double). She cites some of the superficial trappings of legitimacy (formal recognition, degrees, and the standard uniform of the trade), as if this is what people trust about mainstream medicine. She could have asked – is it the years of training and education, the culture of science and self-criticism, the mountain of hard-won evidence, or perhaps the layers of regulation?

She then follows with another double: a false assumption that again begs the question, leading to the naturalistic fallacy – do ancient teachings reflect legitimate laws and patterns of nature? Pre scientific cultures generally did not understand much about how nature works (the laws and patterns). Even ancient cultures had certainly accumulated a great deal of practical knowledge about their environment, but they had no clue about underlying laws. So they invented fanciful philosophies to explain the mysteries of nature. They invented mysterious energies, spirits, astrological connections and cycles, and bizarre notions about how our bodies work. To venerate these hopelessly superstitious ideas from the perspective of 21st century science is curious.

By the way – she managed to squeeze in an argument from antiquity as well. I hope you’re keeping count.

The logical fallacies keep coming:

In East Asia however, it is regarded as being commonplace with it accounting for an estimated 40 per cent of all health care delivered. When you take that percentage and consider the population of China (roughly 1.3 billion) compared to the world population (roughly 7 billion), that’s a lot of people who trust TCM.

This is a clear argument from popularity – people in China trust TCM, so maybe we should also. In addition to being a logical fallacy, this argument betrays a superficial understanding of the history of medicine in China. Large cities in China and those with resources seek and rely upon modern scientific medicine. TCM was mostly a traditional practice of rural and poor China. This practice was significantly increased by Mao’s “barefoot doctor” program. Unable to provide modern medicine to the masses, he instituted a program of giving some medical training to traditional practitioners as an inexpensive way to provide some care to the masses.

Acupuncture is widely used, but mainly as an adjunct for pain relief, not it’s own medical system. This reflects the fact that acupuncture is deeply culturally embedded, as is the underlying belief in chi – or life energy. Traquair is essentially arguing that we should take acupuncture seriously because it is a popular superstition in a densely populated country.

It gets worse:

So let’s take a step back and consider why we seem to trust “new” medicine more than Mother Nature and treatment of symptoms rather than an analysis of their cause. There was a time when our scientific medicine was viewed as a type of witchcraft.

Let’s see – argument from antiquity (framed as a distrust in things “new”, with scare quotes), then naturalistic fallacy, followed by a straw man and then capped off by a non sequitur. Wow. Let me address the new fallacy here, the claim that modern medicine treats symptoms and that “natural” medicine analyzes their cause. First let’s list all the underlying causes of disease and illness discovered by TCM or other ancient medical traditions: there’s the blockage of chi, imbalance of the four humors, miasmas, evil spirits… Oh wait, those things are all fake.

Meanwhile, one major premise of science-based medicine is to always look for underlying causes, as much as possible. Of course, when modern medicine does this it is often criticized by advocates of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) as being “reductionist.” Modern medicine has discovered germs, nutrition, genetic disorders, anatomical and physiological causes of disease, toxins, abnormal electrical signals in the brain, and much more. Modern medicine is built upon a large body of knowledge concerning biology, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, developmental biology, anatomy, and psychology. Understanding the pathophysiology of disease is nothing less than an obsession of modern medicine and the focus of thousands of research papers every year. It boggles the mind that someone (an investigative journalist, no less) can wave their hand dismissively and discount this all as “treating symptoms.”

Now here comes the major self-contradiction of the article. She writes:

For nearly 2000 years, bloodletting was the most common medical practice performed by doctors. It was used to treat almost every disease and involved bleeding a patient by puncturing an artery in the forearm or the neck. Barbers rather than physicians used to perform this procedure, which is why we still see red and white poles outside barber shops today. Thankfully it petered out in the late 19th century.

That’s right – and what can we learn from this? That 2000 years of use (the argument from antiquity) is no guarantee of being legitimate, or even not being rank pseudoscience. That being the popular belief of a major portion of the world (popularity) says nothing about legitimacy. Traquair fails to make the obvious analogy here – acupuncture is bloodletting. Bloodletting did not just “peter out” – it was replaced by scientific medicine, by the embrace of western physicians of the burgeoning scientific tradition. This was formalized in the Flexner report, which significantly transformed modern medicine and solidified its science-based culture. This did not happen in China. Instead they got Mao’s barefoot doctors, solidifying their equivalent of bloodletting as traditional medicine.

In fact, acupuncture has more in common with bloodletting than Traquair probably supposes. I have already written about this – the historical connections between the eastern ideas of chi and acupuncture and the western ideas of the humors and bloodletting.  Throughout most of its history, acupuncture was just a form of bloodletting. It was transformed in the early 20th century into something closer to its modern concept, of altering energy. In traditional Asian thinking, however, chi and blood were the same. The chi flowed through the blood, and you freed it by releasing the blood. Acupuncture is bloodletting.

It gets worse:

It’s easy for us in the 21st century to snigger at our ancestors’ attempts at curing illness. Are our ancestors sniggering in their graves as we tackle modern diseases caused by our convenient, man-made and chemically enhanced lives? Who is to say we won’t get sniggered at by future generations? Will they laugh at our attempts to cut out, burn and poison cancer?

This passage is so confused and nonsensical it barely even rises to being a logical fallacy (which requires at least some logic, even if fallacious). Essentially she is making an appeal to future authority. This is a common and non-falsifiable ploy – in the future, those wise and knowledgeable people will know that I am right and you are wrong.

Let us also try to imagine our ancestors from a time before modern medicine. Their life expectancy was about 40 years, at which time they probably did not have teeth, had lost many family members to now-treatable diseases, and likely suffered from many ailments from which there was little relief available. If they did live long enough to get cancer, they had no hope of any treatment. It would slowly ravage their bodies until they died a horrible death. Perhaps they were lucky enough to live in a time of surgery without modern anaesthesia – at least then the tumor might be removed and they would probably pass out from the pain before the procedure was done. Yes, I am sure they are sniggering at our 80 year life expectancy and our treatments for every minor ailment.

She does give us a flicker of understanding, but then quickly snatches it away:

I’m not for one second criticising the amazing advances we’ve made in medicine. It is, quite frankly, miraculous what modern medicine does and we must continue to fund research so more cures can be found and causes identified.

What I am doing is questioning why we discard ancient treatments as alternative. Note: I mean treatments that DON’T involve draining your body of blood.

Yes, yes – we have to give grudging acknowledgment of the amazing advances of modern medicine – even though she is contradicting what she just said about treating symptoms. So which is it? But then she gives us another naive straw man. Ancient treatments are not discarded because they are “alternative.” That term was invented by proponents, not science-based critics. Ancient treatment are discarded because they do not work and are based on ideas we now know to be wrong. It is ironic that she draws our attention to her fallacy by bringing up bloodletting again. It’s as if she is almost making the connection but is drowning in too much CAM propaganda to see straight. It is OK, apparently, to discard some ancient treatments, like bloodletting, if they come from your own culture and are not currently in vogue. But why dismiss treatments from other cultures that are just as superstitious and unscientific?

She finishes with an endorsement of cupping, because the irony of her self-contradiction was not thick enough:

It looks bizarre and feels even weirder as small glass cups heated by s flame get stuck to your body. It’s like a reverse massage because your skin and muscles get sucked away from the body. This treatment I found just plain old relaxing.

I have a news flash for our intrepid investigative journalist – cupping is bloodletting. The whole point of the cups is to draw blood to the surface so that it can be lanced. Notice the blood in this video. Like acupuncture, cupping has been rebranded by some to give it a more modern appeal, so now practitioners are not sucking out blood, they are sucking out “toxins.” Don’t worry about which toxins and how they are drawn out or any of those sciencey “reductionist” details – you know our modern society is swimming in toxins, and that superficial notion should be enough.

Conclusion

This article by Traquair is a product of decades of marketing propaganda by those selling and promoting quackery. She regurgitates the standard fallacious arguments that have been endlessly promoted by CAM advocates for years, without even realizing when she is contradicting herself. They are isolated memes and ideas, like commercial jingles and slogans, and not a substitute for actual analysis and thought. Ancient and natural is good, modern is bad. They treat symptoms, Mother Nature cures, etc.

The only investigation apparent in her article is a couple of anecdotes about her own experience. It is obvious she has not spoken to anyone who holds the position she is attempting to criticize. She has not looked into the background of the topics she discusses. This also is not an isolated example of pro-CAM logical fallacies. This is the standard within the CAM community. She may be a little more clumsy than some of the leading lights of the CAM movement, but her fallacies are their fallacies. CAM apologetics is an intellectually hollow endeavor, but apparently is effective with the naive and incurious.

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63 responses so far

63 Responses to “CAM Logical Fallacies”

  1. kongstadon 03 May 2012 at 8:47 am

    Here is a link for the original article: http://huff.to/JF2lsy

  2. Steven Novellaon 03 May 2012 at 9:13 am

    Oops, I thought I did add the link – it’s there now. Thanks.

  3. Paulieon 03 May 2012 at 10:33 am

    Oh steve, you make me giggle so. Mind if I link this to my critical thinking lectures?

  4. SARAon 03 May 2012 at 10:53 am

    Convenient Thinking. That’s what I call the frame work of logical fallacy that overwhelms people when they decide for whatever reason that something is true. Once they decide it’s true their brain has to support it,so they use the most convenient information available and consider it support to their belief.

    In reality, the belief is creating the support for their information, and they never notice that the information itself can’t stand on its own.

    And having done this sort of thinking, I distinctly recall how very clear and true it all seemed at the time, but looking back, I can’t find the logic that made that clarity resonate. All I can remember is the feeling of clarity.

    The brain is a weird and messed up place sometimes and should not be trusted too implicitly.

  5. ConspicuousCarlon 03 May 2012 at 11:58 am

    that’s a lot of people who trust TCM.

    “Thank you for choosing Time Warner, the only service provider in your area!”

  6. mufion 03 May 2012 at 12:03 pm

    This essay is aptly timed for me. I recently started to attend a free meditation class once a week (having meditated solo off & on for a few years now) at a local dharma center (in this case, a Korean Buddhist retreat). On subjective terms alone, I find the meditation sessions themselves to be quite satisfying (as in relaxing and mood-elevating, which are more or less what I’m after).

    What bothers me, however, is that one of the two teachers likes to work a little sermon into the class, in which TCM – or, in general, the vitalistic “chi” theory on which it is based – looms large. This poses a dilemma for me, since I reject these concepts/practices (which, btw, are not even particularly Buddhist) for much the same reasons given above, while I otherwise enjoy the class.

    Anyway, that’s enough about my problems. Thanks to Dr. Novella for articulating his critique of TCM so cogently.

  7. Bronze Dogon 03 May 2012 at 12:43 pm

    Let me address the new fallacy here, the claim that modern medicine treats symptoms and that “natural” medicine analyzes their cause. First let’s list all the underlying causes of disease and illness discovered by TCM or other ancient medical traditions: there’s the blockage of chi, imbalance of the four humors, miasmas, evil spirits… Oh wait, those things are all fake.

    Meanwhile, one major premise of science-based medicine is to always look for underlying causes, as much as possible. Of course, when modern medicine does this it is often criticized by advocates of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) as being “reductionist.” Modern medicine has discovered germs, nutrition, genetic disorders, anatomical and physiological causes of disease, toxins, abnormal electrical signals in the brain, and much more.

    That’s one “heads I win, tails you lose” thing about quackery I hadn’t really thought about. But yeah, it makes a lot of sense if you look at that aspect of an altie’s arguments. If you talk about efficacy, they’ll say real medicine only appears effective because it covers up the symptoms. If you actually talk about causation and how the treatment deals with it, they’ll whine about reductionism and say neglect of the whole person is why real medicine is visibly ineffective.

  8. Karl Withakayon 03 May 2012 at 2:10 pm

    “What I am doing is questioning why we discard ancient treatments as alternative. Note: I mean treatments that DON’T involve draining your body of blood.”

    What I am doing is questioning why she has discarded an ancient treatment such as bloodletting. What is her criteria for either discarding or embracing a modality?

    At least blood actually exists and has a biological function, unlike chi, qi, humors, miasmas, innate intelligence, vital force, etc.

    I suppose that the people who understand that most CAM has no specific effect beyond placebo and still advocate them for use as placebo medicine can make sense of throwing out bloodletting in favor of more inert modalities.

    If you set out to write a poe/parody article as a demonstration of the type of fallacious and inconsistent logic and credulous thinking persistent in the CAM world, I don’t know you could do a better job than Isla Traquair has done with her article.

  9. PharmD28on 03 May 2012 at 4:36 pm

    oh man, this had me rolling in the floor. I liked the “appeal to future authority” – did not yet know this logical fallacy…ill be on the lookout for that one :D

    The question I always have, and Karl mentioned it as well, is why exactly give up bloodletting…we do not want to piss off our all knowing and wise ancestors do we?? :D

    Acupuncture and other forms of TCM enjoy some good treatment in all sorts of mainstream publications……the NYT reporting on acupuncture is freaking pathetic….such a large readership of some very intelligent folks too, but even folks that are not trained in SBM much will give trust in something like the NY times without significant skepticism.

  10. Mlemaon 04 May 2012 at 12:07 am

    Dr. N,
    you have eviscerated Isla Traquair’s so-called “investigative journalism”. Brava.
    I only wish your evisceration could have appeared side-by-side with the article, in order to help the reading public appreciate that the author is promoting pure pseudo science.

    But I find a perplexing thought recurring to my mind, and I’m hoping you can help me.

    The past few days, and throughout your many posts, you struggle against the cranks, deniers, believers, creationists, conspiracy theorists, etc. You do this using science, empiricism, and critical, logical thinking. These are the tools of a rational mind. i don’t have any special training in logic or critical thinking, and yet i am able to follow your reasoning and see the fallacies you point out. I’m then able to change my own thinking when I see the arguments you make, or, at least realize that my own viewpoints or beliefs might be supported by erroneous information, so that if I choose to maintain my stance, I do so for reasons other than reason :) . And when I think your own reasoning is faulty, I’m able to point out why, and debate about it if anyone so chooses to engage me.

    But these cranks, deniers, believers, creationists, conspiracy theorists, etc. don’t seem to have the ability, in spite of all the information they have available to them, to “see reason”, and I can’t help but wonder: why? Their own minds are working differently than yours, and differently than mine. I’m not presumptuous enough to say that their minds should work like mine, but it seems like there is something actually wrong with their minds. Why can’t they see the faults in their own logic? Why can’t they change their minds when confronted with cold hard facts? Why do creationists insist that the world is only 6000 years old? A few hundred years ago, that was normal. But now, anyone who can’t see the mistake in that kind of thinking has got to have some kind of disorder, right?
    And the people who insist that the bible tells the story of earth’s history – sometimes they are educated people – how can they continue to insist that the universe was built by a god in six days? There is something wrong with their thinking, plain and simple. And using deductive logic, there is something wrong with their brains!

    This has really got me wondering. And I’m wondering if maybe a higher goal of medical skepticism (rather that arguing with people who can’t seem to change their brains) might be to try to find out what the physiological underpinnings of the thinking behind denialism, faith, etc. might be. Then we might be able to find a way to help them to be normal, rational people who accept scientific fact and let go of their misconceptions. Then the skeptical movement could breathe a big sigh of relief and go on to its various other interests, like helping to elucidate the nature of the universe for all of us.

    You have access to the best medical research tools in the world. Have you ever thought about trying to conduct research in this area?
    thanks,
    M

  11. BillyJoe7on 04 May 2012 at 12:34 am

    Mlema, you cannot reason someone out of a position they have not reasoned themselves into. The attachment to their ideas – religious, new age, alternative medicine – is basically emotional.
    Perhaps we need to promote SBM with appeals to emotion?

  12. Mlemaon 04 May 2012 at 1:38 am

    BillyJoe7,
    I see that these folks can’t be reasoned with, that’s why I’m thinking something neurological is going on to diminish the reasoning function within the frontal lobes of their brains. Do you suspect it’s a problem with the physiological mechanisms that regulate emotion? I don’t really know enough to make
    suppositions along these lines, in any direction (unfortunately)

    I guess you’re being facetious about appealing to emotion to promote SBM, since science, by definition, cannot be about emotion.

  13. cwfongon 04 May 2012 at 1:57 am

    “you cannot reason someone out of a position they have not reasoned themselves into.” Of course you can.

  14. ferrousbuelleron 04 May 2012 at 2:40 am

    @PharmD28

    “The question I always have, and Karl mentioned it as well, is why exactly give up bloodletting…we do not want to piss off our all knowing and wise ancestors do we??”

    As Dr. Novella pointed out, bloodletting is easy to dismiss because it came from her own culture. It’s not nearly exotic or expensive enough to appeal to CAM true believers. It makes me wonder if there are rows of shops in rural China promoting bloodletting, cocaine-based tooth drops and morphine-based infant remedies.

    I’m sad to report that, in my relatively small (pop. 250k) city, there exists an entire neighbourhood devoted to Shiatsu massage, Ayurveda, iridology, chiropractic, herbal medicine, acupuncture and… well… a 7/11, but that’s beside the point. Probably 20 shops in all (21 if you count the 7/11).

  15. Dirk Steeleon 04 May 2012 at 4:59 am

    @DrN

    ‘This article by Traquair is a product of decades of marketing propaganda by those selling and promoting quackery.’

    Nice article. Now you know how I feel about current biological psychiatry. But one day you will be able to identify that ‘virus’ infecting my thoughts, via fMRI or one of the latest boy’s toys, and snip it out. The metaphor of ‘mental hygiene’ so promoted by self proclaimed authority will eventually be able to ‘cure’ this dissident disease. (DSM-IV – Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ODD)

  16. BillyJoe7on 04 May 2012 at 6:01 am

    Mlema,

    Some people run mainly on emotion, others run mainly on reason. I used to be mainly the former, but now I am mainly the latter. But I have, even recently, been trapped into irrational emotional thinking with respect to a particluar person I accidently came into contact with. Try as I might to override this with rationality, I keep slipping back into irrational emotional reactions regarding her.

    I think emotions can just be overpowering sometimes. For the religious it is afterlife conquering death and oblivion, which they cannot accept. For the new age and alternative folk, it is back to feel-good nature and science is too cold, hard, and complicated.

    “I guess you’re being facetious about appealing to emotion to promote SBM”

    No, it has been suggested by many sceptics as a way of beating religion, the alternatives, and the new agers at their own game. The idea is to use emotion to sell the science and reason. As well as the hard, cold facts, provide an warm fuzzy anecdote to appeal emotionally as well.

  17. Dirk Steeleon 04 May 2012 at 7:17 am

    @BillyJoe7

    ‘Try as I might to override this with rationality, I keep slipping back into irrational emotional reactions regarding her.’

    You are suffering from a mental illness known as ‘love’? Keep taking the meds. ;-)

  18. SteveAon 04 May 2012 at 7:34 am

    “Unable to provide modern medicine to the masses, he [Mao] instituted a program of giving some medical training to traditional practitioners as an inexpensive way to provide some care to the masses.”

    Brian Dunning did a very good podcast on the Barefoot Doctors. In a neat piece of research he managed to get hold of an original copy of the barefoot doctors’ manual (I forget its proper name) and discovered that the first half of the book is devoted to Western clinical practice (antibiotics etc); only the second half of the book is devoted to traditional Chinese medicine. The manual tells practitioners to use modern medicine, but in cases where they don’t have access to the right drugs and equipment to fall back on traditional methods.

    Here’s the thing – the copies of the manual that were later translated and sold in the West had the section on western medicine edited out. Everything relating to modern drugs and techniques was expunged by the US publishers. Presumably they did not feel this information would appeal to their CAM readership.

  19. BillyJoe7on 04 May 2012 at 7:39 am

    Nail on the head in this case, Dirk. :(

  20. SteveAon 04 May 2012 at 7:47 am

    Mlema: “Why can’t they see the faults in their own logic? Why can’t they change their minds when confronted with cold hard facts?”

    In many cases people don’t have the facts. I consider myself to be well educated, but for years I equated homeopathy with things such as herbal medicine, and because I know that many (most) drugs are derived from ‘natural’ sources, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Then I found out it’s just magic water…I don’t remember how I found out, but I was astonished, and horrified that reputable stores such as Boots were allowed to sell the garbage.

    For many people (perhaps most) I think belief in CAM is based on simple ignorance, it’s only those supporters who have a vested interest (financial/emotional) that blind themselves.

    Religious belief is similar. In this case the vested interest is the reluctance of most people to confront the fact they’re going to die at some point.

  21. CKavaon 04 May 2012 at 11:41 am

    Dirk- “Nice article. Now you know how I feel about current biological psychiatry. But one day you will be able to identify that ‘virus’ infecting my thoughts, via fMRI or one of the latest boy’s toys, and snip it out. The metaphor of ‘mental hygiene’ so promoted by self proclaimed authority will eventually be able to ‘cure’ this dissident disease. (DSM-IV – Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ODD)”

    Nice that the message you took away from this article about logical fallacies and shoddy one sided research was that your own hobby horse of mental illness denialism was spot on. Great work!

  22. PharmD28on 04 May 2012 at 12:27 pm

    I doubt that there are physiological mechanisms that would cause an irreverance for logic, reason, and evidence that we are speaking of….if there is then we all more or less have the condition….we all have pride, arrogance, and a desire to be correct…but some of us balance that with comparing our assumptions readily with evidence and trying to make sure we use proper reason.

    But learning to use proper reason within our brains requires both learning many new things and in many instances unlearning or being cognizant our more “automatic” and “emotional” mental facilities that bias our point of view…

    This is not an easy task to do in a society that has social norms, culture, dogma, etc…

    Perhaps once you go down this road and committ a bit to it, it could begin alter your brain chemistry or structure in true ways that could become more of a physical/distinguishable neurological variance from “the norm”….

    It is very tempting to think of ray comfort as having a brain defect of some sort though….and while it saddens me to say it, I have skepticism that he does…

  23. Dirk Steeleon 04 May 2012 at 1:02 pm

    @CKava,

    ‘Nice that the message you took away from this article about logical fallacies and shoddy one sided research was that your own hobby horse of mental illness denialism was spot on. Great work!’

    Don’t feed the troll! As far as I can see everyone on here also have their own little hobbies. As for relevance, I find it strange than some can see the logical fallacies in one area of ‘medicine’ and not in another. But I do not want to hijack this thread any longer so I will thus disappear…..

  24. Mlemaon 04 May 2012 at 1:21 pm

    PharmD,
    “I doubt that there are physiological mechanisms that would cause an irreverance for logic, reason, and evidence that we are speaking of…”

    What do you think is responsible for irreverence for logic and reason? And the inability to accept factual evidence? Why do some of us “readily compare our assumptions with reality”? Whereas others, faced with overwhelming evidence, do not?

    If changing my mind will eventually affect my neurochemistry, why can’t we find out what that neurochemistry is and effect it externally? Like we do with depression?

  25. Mlemaon 04 May 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Is irrationality the same as emotionality? If people are irrational, and don’t see or accept facts because of their emotional reactions to those facts (like religious people constructing the idea of an afterlife because of their fear of death), then isn’t that still a function of the brain? Isn’t mood or emotion seated also in the brain? It’s starting to look like there is both thought and mood disorder happening. Perhaps people who can’t accept scientific fact because it makes them afraid or hopeless seem to have a problem with the part of their brain that regulates the fear response.

    Isn’t this worth investigating? We could help people be less anxious and more confident and rational if we could uncover the physical basis for the failure to accept scientific fact.

  26. mufion 04 May 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Mlema:

    Is irrationality the same as emotionality?

    If so, then who isn’t emotional/irrational?

    Of course, this topic re: the (in)ability to accept factual evidence has come up here before. I raised it here recently in reference to the thesis of Chris Mooney’s recent book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality (see here for a related article).

    Perhaps there are less politically charged ways of framing the issue, but then it seems to me that such behavior is easier to explain at the higher level of the social sciences, given the quick timescales at which these denialist trends form (i.e. cultural, as opposed to biological, evolutionary time). Sure, there’s an obvious a biological basis to all behavior, but if (as Mooney claims) Republicans are (on average) “more rigid, more closed-minded” today than they were in 1974, how likely is it that we explain the difference biologically?

    That theoretical objection aside, I suspect that the political charge is sufficient to dissuade many takers within (and benefactors of) the research community (thus, the comparison of Mooney’s book to phrenology).

  27. cwfongon 04 May 2012 at 4:59 pm

    “Is irrationality the same as emotionality?”
    No. Supposedly, irrationality is based on emotions rather than reason. But the rational (and more deductive) brain areas and the emotional (and more inductive) brain areas work together, and irrational thinking is as much due to fallacies in the ways one processes problems as the other. And in the end, both processes had to have agreed on the results.
    Does the emotional brain then have the last say on rationality? Some say that it does, but then others say that the rational side still has veto power.
    And if we’re talking about emotional feelings, those are the results of our thinking, not the causes. Read what Damasio has to say about the mistakes we make in confusing our emotional thinking with the feelings that result from the totality of our thinking processes.

  28. mufion 04 May 2012 at 5:01 pm

    PS: As you can probably tell, I view science denialism as an example of politically/ideologically/morally motivated behavior. On that note, George Lakoff’s book, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain, goes a long way towards explaining (from a 21st-Century cognitive scientist’s angle) how we tick in this regard.

  29. PharmD28on 04 May 2012 at 5:01 pm

    “If changing my mind will eventually affect my neurochemistry, why can’t we find out what that neurochemistry is and effect it externally? Like we do with depression?”

    Hmmmm….good question – not totally sure, but I presume that comparing the two is difficult? I would not deny the plausibility of your proposal, that exogenous chemicals could alter this “disorder” or way of thinking, in such a way to induce a new attitude, but even as I type this out, it somehow induces even more skepticism on my part.

    I mean depression is a fairly specific feeling…and those that seek treatment for it do not want it…..and if a chemical (like an SSRI) improves mood chemically somehow, then the patient feels better relatively, and well, that is good right….

    But changing your mood alone, would make it hard to change your entire perspecitve and pre-concieved ideas and induce a change in personality radically from creationist dick head pompous ass to even half of that, much less to a humble, open minded rationalist.

    I mean, for example….if you get me drunk enough or high enough, perhaps I will do things I normally would not do…but I would have to be drugged so bad that my executive functioning would be poor…but to make a creationist start to choose to hear and respond to better arguments, would seem very complicated and difficult…and hard to compare to treating depression?

    Also, I feel that many creationists for example, while following a psuedo logical pathway to reach their assumptions…most of these paths include pre-taught mechanisms to avoid various forms of logic and evidence….for the creationist, reason and evidence, and science are talked down as a part of the entire outlook when they are first learning…then when encountered by such, they react according to the straw man that was built so well…

    I guess what I am saying is that, it seems pretty clear that people are this way because our minds are fairly easily able in many cases to be scared or persuaded into irrational ways of thought…I do not think this requires necessarily some pre-disposing brain defect or chemical imbalance so much as it is heavily learned….

    And I imagine that even if there are some chemicals that could move people in tendency in another direction, they would be dwarfed by culture, tribalism, fear, etc…I mean, a drug can treat depression, but to make theses people “better”, we would need a whole assortment of drugs :)

  30. mufion 04 May 2012 at 5:23 pm

    PharmD28:

    I do not think this requires necessarily some pre-disposing brain defect or chemical imbalance so much as it is heavily learned….

    Agreed. If we really must reduce the explanation down to a biological level, then neuroplasticity would seem to be the most fruitful area of research, and there’s plenty of that going on already.

  31. Dirk Steeleon 04 May 2012 at 5:36 pm

    PharmD28,

    ‘I would not deny the plausibility of your proposal, that exogenous chemicals could alter this “disorder” or way of thinking, in such a way to induce a new attitude’

    Psychiatry as the ‘medical’ arm of the totalitarian state has been attempted many times. Not only in the US, homosexuality as a mental illness, but also in the USSR to deal with political dissidents. And the Russian revolution would never have happened if the population had had access to SSRIs. The fact that the dubious ethics of taking this position do not seem to enter your thoughts has just given me a Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Now where did I put my little pills…

  32. Dirk Steeleon 04 May 2012 at 8:13 pm

    @BillyJoe7

    ‘Nail on the head in this case, Dirk. :(

    :-(

    Oh I know that for 99.99…% of the time I will be proved wrong. The other times are when I have just made a lucky guess.

  33. Dirk Steeleon 04 May 2012 at 8:16 pm

    @cwfongon

    ‘ “you cannot reason someone out of a position they have not reasoned themselves into.” Of course you can.’

    I think this is far more difficult than you suggest. Which is why I now try fight madness with madness!

  34. cwfongon 04 May 2012 at 9:08 pm

    If you were taught religion as a child, you might be more easily reasoned out of it as an adult than if you had actually reasoned yourself into a religion as a new ager, for example. The difference in these cases perhaps being that the child was amenable to abstract reasoning where the new ager never had been.

  35. Dirk Steeleon 04 May 2012 at 9:17 pm

    @cwfong

    ‘The difference in these cases perhaps being that the child was amenable to abstract reasoning ‘

    Ha! So wrong… you are obviously totally ignorant of the research of Piaget. Catch ‘em young and you have slaves for life…. ;-)

  36. SARAon 04 May 2012 at 9:19 pm

    Everyone is irrational at times. We are defectively built for purely rational thought. We have to make too many unconscious assumptions just to make it from one side of the room to the other. Inevitably some of those assumptions will be at least partially wrong. We don’t even recognize how many of them are wrong because unless the assumption is catastrophically wrong, our brains will adjust the evidence by ignoring it or building logical fallacies to explain it.

    We couldn’t function any other way. Its how our core processors work.

    The curse is that too many people think that they are rational and have never been taught to question their own rationality. We don’t train children to recognize the flaws in our cognitive processes. We don’t train children to think critically.

    We train children to fear anything that isn’t uniform and explainable. We teach our children from a very young age to believe in invisible supernatural things like Santa, the tooth fairy and prince charming. Which is fine, so long as you carefully retrain them to avoid using supernatural ideas for things that are not immediately understood.

    The wonder is that there we came up with the scientific method and have as many people as we do who think with at least some measure of critical thinking.

  37. cwfongon 04 May 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Dirk, if you believe that was the extent of Piaget’s theories, be my guest.

  38. Dirk Steeleon 05 May 2012 at 4:17 am

    @sara

    ‘We train children to fear anything that isn’t uniform and explainable.’

    We provide adult education too!

    @cwfong

    ‘if you believe that was the extent of Piaget’s theories, be my guest.’

    Nope! Continuing the analogy…. I have actually bypassed your miserable security measures and am, as I speak, running down the road with your 52 inch flat screen TV in my arms whilst wearing my favourite black hoodie, and my treasured Nike trainers, listening to the Beastie boys on my stolen Iphone.

  39. Dirk Steeleon 05 May 2012 at 5:11 am

    @Sara

    ‘We teach our children from a very young age to believe in invisible supernatural things like Santa’

    What!!!! What???? What do you mean??? You are just joking with us aren’t you? No? :-( Oh no…. My Christ masses will never be the same again.

  40. BillyJoe7on 05 May 2012 at 5:19 am

    Robert Carroll of The Skeptic Dictionary fame, calls scepticism and critical thinking “Unnatural Acts”.

    http://www.amazon.com/Unnatural-Acts-Critical-Skepticism-ebook/dp/B006ONRGT0

    He explains it from the evolutionary perspective.
    Survivors are those who made quick instinctive decisions.
    Critical thinking came much later and is slow and non-instinctive and actually require education and effort to overcome the instinctive responses.

    (But I have committed a cfwrongism. I have not actually read the book. However, I have just kindled it ready to consume after my participation in the famous Puffing Billy race through the local hills tomorrow morning)

  41. BillyJoe7on 05 May 2012 at 5:23 am

    SARA: “‘We teach our children from a very young age to believe in invisible supernatural things like Santa’”

    We did not teach our children about Santa Claus or the The Easter Bunny or The Tooth Faerie, so they never saw any need to believe in gods either.

    (Of course they think their father is god, but that’s another story)

  42. Dirk Steeleon 05 May 2012 at 5:53 am

    @Billyjoe,

    “Unnatural Acts”.

    I hope your link does not lead me to yet another gay porn site. I have totally had my fill of mental viruses.

    ‘Critical thinking came much later and is slow and non-instinctive’

    It is why we (well most of us) have the large frontal lobes. It is not our will but our ‘free won’t’ that is key to survival in a rapidly changing environment.

    ‘But I have committed a cfwrongism.’

    Speaking as a true Szaszian…. I nearly choked on my whisky reading this. (and it is 10 in the morning here in the UK) Very funny mate! Keep up the good work!

  43. cwfongon 05 May 2012 at 12:32 pm

    BillyJawtistic, don’t bother to read the new book, you’ll only understand the parts that you already have wrong. If there was actually a part in Krauss’ book that showed how something actually came from a complete nothing, you would have quoted it, instead of falsifying an article from an interview with Krauss about what actually wasn’t in the book at all. Everybody now knows you’re a pathological liar.

    Your intellectual equal, Steele Dirk, on the other hand is a Szazian. Pathological all the way down.

  44. NewRonon 06 May 2012 at 5:06 am

    Is using a logical sledgehammer to crack a nut a behavioural fallacy?

  45. BillyJoe7on 06 May 2012 at 6:02 am

    I see your point….especially when that nut is already cracked.

  46. Mlemaon 07 May 2012 at 12:19 am

    I appreciate the comments people have made in response to my quesiton to Dr. Novella. You have expanded my thinking! But, also, confused me more.

    I understand that emotion and thinking are inter-related – that they effect one another. And I know that the brain has plasticity (thoughts can change). But I keep coming back to the same questions about why some brains change and others with apparent equivalency of intelligence and education (as much as realistically possible) don’t!
    I’m really hoping Dr. Novella, as a neurologist, can shed some light on this.

  47. Mlemaon 07 May 2012 at 12:31 am

    Dr. Novella,
    Please forget about my question about research. I realize now that my understanding in this arena is negatively affected by my lack of education. You shouldn’t be expected to answer an ignorant question. I will try to educate myself a little more about that.

    But back to the more pertinent question: why do educated, apparently rational people fail to see the fallacies in their thinking?
    For instance, with regards to CAM: I can understand that authors like Traquair may simply lack the education to hold a critical viewpoint, but why does someone like Mehmet Oz, who knows the “years of training and education, the culture of science and self-criticism, the mountain of hard-won evidence, (and) layers of regulation” of a medical doctor, support acupuncture? and even homeopathy?!
    He knows the “science” behind homeopathy is some claptrap about “vibrational energy” or the “essence” of a substance (a substance which doesn’t even exist in the sugar pills) And he must be intelligent: he’s a cardiothoracic surgeon! Why does his brain work that way? Why does it fail to recognize that his belief is simply wrong? The intelligence factor obviously doesn’t apply. And there are plenty of less-educated people who have readily formed the mind of a skeptic.

    And what about Michael Egnor? He’s a neurosurgeon like you, and yet is unable to see the failure of logic his material brain has wrought. He follows the philosophy of duality: old and particularly unscientific — and wrong! He contends that the mind is not the brain, and would probably say that therefore thoughts can be changed by free will.
    It doesn’t make sense! We are the product of our genes, our environments, and our experiences. Period. If he has the information and intelligence, why does he reject the only conclusion that makes sense?

    I know the relationship between the mind and the brain is better described as epiphenomenalism, or functionality. We can learn about the brain by studying the mind because the mind reflects the functioning of the brain. Our thinking, mood, and behavior reflect our brain state (as you pointed out in your skewering of Szaszians). They can reveal pathology or disorder, or abnormality. Failure to recognize or accept empirical reality seems to me to be a problem with thinking, and, therefore, a problem with the brain. Have we as a society failed to recognize this brain problem because right now skeptics are a minority? Do you think as skepticism grows that irrational thinking will be recognized as a brain disorder?

    Scientific advancement has changed who survives/reproduces. We now exist in an environment of vast, empirically-gained and scientifically-understood knowledge. Is skepticism an adaptation that needs to happen if our species is to survive in an environment where utilization of scientific knowledge is critical? (you can’t utilize what you don’t believe) Many in our culture seem to be turning against science. This seems like a dangerous and growing pathology. What do we currently know about how the apparently highly-evolved, rational, scientific brain is different from the brain which belongs to the past (i.e. the brain that can’t incorporate clear, reality-based thinking into their physiology?)

    I’m very grateful for any help you can give to this “newly-minted” skeptic.

  48. Mlemaon 07 May 2012 at 12:33 am

    cwfong, BillyJoe7,

    I appreciate your responses to my posts. Please try to stay on topic on this page. (and maybe not reply to each others responses, even in the third person) I respect that you guys have some long-standing disagreements/animosity. I’m just hoping that my questions don’t get lost.
    (thanks)
    :)

  49. Mlemaon 07 May 2012 at 12:37 am

    Dirk,
    You may want to look for the posts regarding Michael Egnor. They will help you through the mind/brain dilemma, which may be informing your misconceptions about mental illness. cheers

  50. cwfongon 07 May 2012 at 1:35 am

    Miema, a positive skepticism based on improving present theories, rather than requiring that they must first prove themselves, might work. The old system of Poppers falsification hasn’t.
    Also Michael Egnor is one of the smarter Creationists, but still and yet, essentially a believer in design by divine agency. As opposed to no design at all, that’s a reasonable improvement, but a logical impossibility as well.
    And if you want to read one of the best studies of the mind and brain yet published, try Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind.

  51. NewRonon 07 May 2012 at 2:05 am

    Jesus Christ – arguments from past authority, arguments from future authority, arguments from present authority: which to choose? Personal authority is easy to dismiss – just throw it in the basket labelled ‘folk mythology’. The experts know more about you than you Miema, so just lie back and think of the brave new world that Thomas Huxley’s grandson predicted 80 years ago. Try some soma, it really does work.

  52. cwfongon 07 May 2012 at 4:12 am

    “But I keep coming back to the same questions about why some brains change and others with apparent equivalency of intelligence and education (as much as realistically possible) don’t!”

    There is no exact equivalency of intelligence. And no equivalency of knowledge to apply it to. In addition we have unconscious fears and biases that can act as premises to all our logic all our lives. You, for example, are more intelligent by far that BillyJoe7, yet you have found a reason to be a Christian and he hasn’t.
    Worse, you can think abstractly at a high level and he can’t think at other than a concrete level. One of the reasons I dissect his comments is to demonstrate that such differences persistently exist.

    And yet you haven’t rid yourself of faith because you don’t really need to. You solve problems in spite of faith that he can’t solve in spite of following all the equivalent dogmas of the faithless.

    We also are commenting on a blog where skepticism itself has taken on a fervor similar to that of the religions it objects to. And where the study of evolution’s theoretical progress has stopped at the point where intelligent change was suggested as an adjunct to stochastic methods. Etc., etc., etc.

  53. Dirk Steeleon 07 May 2012 at 6:13 am

    Mlema,

    ‘Dirk,
    You may want to look for the posts regarding Michael Egnor. They will help you through the mind/brain dilemma, which may be informing your misconceptions about mental illness. cheers’

    I will read. I would be interested in what you think my misconceptions are, but I would prefer to hear this on the Szaszian thread so as not to hijack this one. Thanks.

  54. BillyJoe7on 07 May 2012 at 7:32 am

    cwfong: “You [Mlema], for example, are more intelligent by far that BillyJoe7, yet you have found a reason to be a Christian and he hasn’t. Worse, you can think abstractly at a high level and he can’t think at other than a concrete level. ”

    :D

    Mlema: “cwfong, BillyJoe7, I appreciate your responses to my posts. Please try to stay on topic on this page.”

    ;)

  55. emanresuon 07 May 2012 at 8:03 am

    NewRon,

    “Is using a logical sledgehammer to crack a nut a behavioural fallacy?”

    IT IS BEHAVIORAL AWESOMENESS. HAHAHA

  56. Mlemaon 09 May 2012 at 2:10 am

    Dr. Novella is not only intelligent, he is sensitive to a bit o’ facetiousness, and doesn’t play that game!

    I was being disingenuous dear friends, and I apologize for my deception. I didn’t mean to mislead anyone, only to illustrate that Dr. Novella’s philosophy of the mind can’t hold when followed to its natural conclusion. There are no differences in the brains of believers, deniers, etc. This truth is instinctive, or we wouldn’t argue so vehemently with them, knowing that their brains simply cannot make the change to understand our arguments. (I’m not saying there’s great wisdom in arguing with someone who simply thinks differently. It just depends on how plastic their thinking is) Likewise, there’s no scientific evidence that the brains of people with most of the diseases and disorders listed in the DSM have anything to do with the health of the brain.

    Psychology is a beautiful science. It’s helped us to understand why we think and behave the way we do. It’s helped us to see that most of the time it’s because of the experiences we’ve had and the situations we’re in – and that with those same experiences and in those same situations, normal people respond pretty similarly. It’s helped us to understand why nazi soldiers executed their orders in spite of personal conscience.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

    When we understand why we think and behave the way we do, we’re able to change for the better. But messing with the physical brain doesn’t change how we think – unless the brain is physically damaged and we fix it, or it’s not physically damaged and we damage it. The brain doesn’t determine thought. We may effect mood through chemistry. We may dull or animate the physical processes that are a required correlate to thought, but only experiences that instigate thought change thought. The brain may change in response to these thoughts, but we can’t externally bring about those changes (without providing interaction, education, brainwashing, desensitization, etc. that we know affect thought. But lobotomy, ECT, drugs, etc. – no – these don’t change the mind, except to damage the physical brain and thereby simply effect thinking ability.)

    Psychiatry was a noble attempt to find the physiological roots of thinking and behavior in order to ease the mental and emotional suffering of many. But how long do we look in vain for those physiological roots? It’s time to segregate psychology and medicine. If we want to use drugs, we need to be realistic about why they’re being used, and understand that they are not correcting some brain malfunction or imbalance. A lot of misinformation has arisen about the drugs used for psychiatric purposes. If you believe that there is a drug which is being used to treat an actual “mind problem” (disordered or paranoid thoughts, poor self-image, defeatism, etc.) that is actually accomplishing that task, please tell me what it is.

    Let’s respect the integrity of the individual mind. We have the ability to judge whether someone’s behavior is harmful to society. We can deal with that behavior, and we can try to understand why it happens so that we can help the person by addressing his thinking directly, and hopefully prevent others suffering a similar fate. This has proven to be effective for many genuine psychological “disorders”. We can make a person responsible for their behavior without “blaming” them – we are all guilty of acting based on our thinking and experience. If we do something wrong and meet the corrections of a just society, we can change. But not if we don’t meet corrections that change our thinking.

    I want to thank all of you who answered my questions in earnest. You have shown me that you have given careful thought to such issues, and aren’t afraid to share your opinions and beliefs on the matter. And I don’t think any of you would place an individual’s right to think any way he or she chooses to think, or, even simply finds that he or she does think (in the case of an uneducated person), below the belief that “the mind is the brain and the brain is the mind”.
    No matter what your beliefs are on the matter, let your actions be based in compassion, respect and justice. Use what you know about the science of psychology and sociology to understand that giving dangerous drugs to children who don’t seem to be able to behave the way their parents or schools would like them to behave is not the best solution for helping the kids or the parents. And that the decision as to whether their brains are abnormal should be based upon physical evidence, not on the determination that their behavior fits the description of a disorder coined by a group of psychiatrists heavily indebted to companies that manufacture drugs that are used to “treat” the “disorder”. The mental capacity of a child is not fully developed. Children develop at different rates, and not all children develop in the same direction. Any situation that requires similar behavior from all children will find some children that can’t comply. This does not abnormal children make.

    I’m going to just end here because this is obviously an endless topic and I’m getting away from the crux of it and harkening back to the Szasz/ADHD post.
    thanks to Dr. Novella for the open forum

  57. cwfongon 09 May 2012 at 4:12 am

    Miema, see this about Szasz: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-myth-of-thomas-szasz

  58. Dirk Steeleon 09 May 2012 at 5:28 am

    @cwfong

    ‘Miema, see this about Szasz: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-myth-of-thomas-szasz

    It is an excellent article that shows how relevant Szasz still is today. Thanks for posting.

  59. Mlemaon 09 May 2012 at 5:37 am

    thanks cwfong. that was interesting.

  60. Mlemaon 09 May 2012 at 5:39 am

    Dirk – I think I owe you an apology. I got a little carried away with my temporary persona earlier on this page. sorry!

  61. Dirk Steeleon 09 May 2012 at 10:07 am

    @Mlema

    No probs! I did enjoy following your little escapade! Are you following the DSM5 progress? 1boringoldman.com is giving some excellent commentary as is Scientific American here..

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/streams-of-consciousness/2012/05/08/science-remains-a-stranger-to-psychiatrys-new-bible/

    I don’t think Dr. Novella is aware or else he is keeping mum.

  62. Dirk Steeleon 09 May 2012 at 1:00 pm

    @Steven Novella

    Your belief that you can ‘read’ other people’s minds stems from a long line of quackery. Telepathy anyone? Even using the ‘magic’ of fMRIs, this is pseudoscience in the extreme. I would suggest that a little education in social anthropology would extend your mind a little, maybe even blow your brains!. May I be presumptuous and suggest time spent with Ron Rabin – Buffalo State College, would be very productive. It would also shed some light on the skeptic/denier dualism which so baffles you.

  63. Dirk Steeleon 10 May 2012 at 11:23 am

    @Steven Novella

    Re: Ron Rabin

    I forgot the link which is:

    http://faculty.buffalostate.edu/rabinrl/103/podcasts/index.html

    Jump to section 3 and listen to lectures 1 and 2.

    What are your thoughts?

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