Oct 16 2012

Analyzing Harmless Nonsense

My recent discussion of neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander’s near death experience sparked a discussion about whether such topics are fruitful targets of skeptical analysis. For example, commenter smillsishere wrote:

This blog post in itself (as with many analyses) raises questions about the extent to which skepticism can be of use in society. I completely understand the well constructed and logical opposition to the anti-vaccine movement. I understand in generic terms the critique and possible dismissal of poor research and unsubstantiated claims that can have a negative impact on our progression as a species (one topic comes to mind immediately, the use of ‘interpretors’ to help parents communicate with their autistic children, an abuse of common decency and trust). However, sometimes I wonder if skepticism often targets topics or elements of human culture that are neither harmful or unhealthy?

This criticism of scientific skepticism, that we spend too much time and effort on claims that don’t matter, or beliefs that are harmless, has been around as long as there has been skeptical activism. It is an almost ubiquitous question when being interviewed about skepticism by the media. Who cares if people believe in life after death, or if this neurosurgeon visited heaven while he was in a coma?

The major unstated premise of this criticism is that a claim or belief must have direct demonstrable harm in order to be harmful. A further unstated premise is that the belief itself is the only subject of concern.

In fact, for “harmless” beliefs I don’t care, necessarily, about the beliefs themselves. This is mostly why I do not find it fruitful to address matters of pure faith, and in a way I don’t care what people believe about unanswerable questions with no immediate consequences.

What I think does matter is the intellectual process – how do people reason and come to the beliefs that they hold? A harmless but flawed belief is likely to be the result of a flawed thought process, and it is that thought process that I think is important. The same intellectual flaws are likely to lead to other false conclusions that do have immediate consequences.

Scientific skepticism as an intellectual movement brings together several disciplines: understanding of scientific methodology, the distinction between science and pseudoscience, epistemology (philosophy of science), logic and critical thinking, awareness of the limitations of human brain processing, mechanisms of self-deception, and psychological factors that influence how we think and what we believe. These basic principles are combined with specific factual knowledge in areas that typically require but lack scientific critical analysis – pseudoscience, fraud, scams, and ideological belief systems. The experienced skeptic will also begin to see patterns in various belief systems and pseudosciences that illustrate the underlying principles of critical thinking.

Any claim or belief is useful fodder for skeptical analysis. The basic principles and skill-set of skepticism will apply, and can be derived and learned from any such analysis. Further, the lessons learned are likely to apply to broad categories of claims and errors in thinking.

Part of the reason that we target extreme beliefs, such as alien visitation, bigfoot, and psychic powers, is that they are extreme. They therefore display some features of poor logic and bad science in a blatant and obvious way, but may also have more subtle flaws. I liken this to a patient with the end-stage of a disease – such patients are often seen as great “teaching cases” and are presented to medical students and at teaching rounds for this reason. Seeing the obvious and severe manifestations of a disease may help to recognize the same disease in its earlier and more subtle form. In the same way, seeing the blatant logical fallacies and terrible scientific methods of creationism or homeopathy lays bare the methods of pseudoscience that exist in more subtle forms throughout legitimate and semi-legitimate science.

A harmless, but irrational, belief is therefore an excellent teaching moment for critical thinking. We can argue about whether or not believing in an afterlife is beneficial (comforting, providing motivation to be moral) or harmful (it distracts people from focusing on the life they have). There are also potential related beliefs about the nature of coma and brain function that are important. Regardless – the flawed process that arrives at the conclusion that near death experiences are proof of heaven and an afterlife carries a harm unto itself.

The story that Alexander tells, coming with the authority of a Harvard neurosurgeon, promotes misconceptions about the nature of brain function and coma. I have to frequently deal with families of loved-ones who are in a coma, and I can attest to the fact that having significant misconceptions about brain function can be a significant impediment to making rational health care decisions in those difficult situations.

Further, it is extremely helpful in understanding the world in general to know something about how our brains construct the model of reality that we have in our heads, and how that construction can be altered, even in significant ways. That is the real lesson of Alexander’s experience, one that is missed if we instead grab for a pleasing fiction.

This example also demonstrates that, despite the frequent cheap and easy criticism of skepticism as always being negative, there is a very positive angle to the skeptical world view. It is fascinating and informative that our brains are capable of generating such experiences. There is interesting knowledge to be gained from such experiences, knowledge that is empowering. The neuroscientific view of near death experiences gives us far more than the shallow fantasy that it takes away.

I will continue to focus a great deal of my skeptical efforts on topics that I feel have immediate consequences, such as my promotion of science-based medicine. But that effort is hugely informed by also addressing any claim that catches my interest, that reveals an aspect of poor logic or self-deception, or simply spreads misinformation or sloppy thinking.

26 responses so far

26 thoughts on “Analyzing Harmless Nonsense”

  1. mlegower says:

    Crowd sourced proofreading!
    para 9 “lays bare” not “lays bear”…

  2. Shelley says:

    Are you suggesting that when scientists make claims, however extraordinary, it is important that skeptics critically examine these claims through the use of critical thinking? Are you suggesting that we can’t simply ‘ecree’ them? If so, I would agree. To simply ignore these ‘harmless’ or ‘extraordinary’ claims or to dismiss them out of hand without analysis is, to say the least, most unscientific.

  3. Shelley says:

    As an aside, back in my teaching days, I loved extraordinary and ‘harmless’ claims, especially if they appeared in reputable journals. They were great fodder for analysis in research methods classes, and any ‘ecree’ criticism would have been considered woefully inadequate and intellectually lazy.

  4. Bronze Dog says:

    Well said, Steve. It’s not the conclusion that matters so much as the method of arriving at conclusions.

    @Shelley: I very much agree, and the ability to question authority is an important idea we need to get across in skepticism. I’ll add a bit of my own nuance to spread some understanding for people confused about a skeptic’s relationship to authority figures:

    Appealing to authority isn’t inherently fallacious. It depends on context and circumstance. One of the major factors I like to bring up is time. If I’m rushing a severely injured/sick friend to the emergency room and have reason to believe fast action is necessary, I’ll defer to the doctors’ expertise and let them get to work. In that context, it makes sense to simply trust the experts. If, however, I’m in an internet forum arguing about the pros and cons of emergency care methodologies, then it’s safe to question the consensus, present evidence in favor of alternatives, review the evidence for the methods currently used, and so on. In the latter case, it can be a fallacious to appeal to authority if we’re directly working from the evidence and if there’s no pressing need to save time. Having an expert in the conversation would facilitate the discussion, since he’d be more familiar with the subject matter and the disputes taking place around it, but there’s no reason to blindly accept what he says.

  5. tmac57 says:

    What I think does matter is the intellectual process – how do people reason and come to the beliefs that they hold? A harmless but flawed belief is likely to be the result of a flawed thought process, and it is that thought process that I think is important. The same intellectual flaws are likely to lead to other false conclusions that do have immediate consequences.

    Oh, I do so want Jay Novella to use this as the skeptical quote on SGU someday 🙂

  6. locutusbrg says:

    As I was one of the ones who brought up this point in Proof of Heaven I think it is reasonable to comment here. I argued, where do you stop nit picking every last bit of pseudoscience? Like all good skeptics I though I had a pretty well thought out objection. I still feel that the answer does not have a hard and fast rule. I have learned something from that post. I trust Steve’s judgement a hell of a lot more than mine.
    It was like watching the scenario Steve feared develop in front of me. As expected skeptics generally rallied with Steve few questioned the need to question the discussion. A few of us feared that chasing down every little bit of nonsense has sort of a wet blanket effect on the general public.

    At first I felt vindicated over all the effort that was being spent arguing with me about this minor points. I felt that that alone showed how skeptics can lose focus and be obsessed with minutiae.
    I felt that Steve was preaching to the choir, and I was hesitant to allow that addressing this bit of pseudoscience was significant to promoting critical thinking. Then a few interesting things happened. Comments were trying to use an objection about “is it worth the effort” to justify the pseudoscience. I quickly found how “taking the finger out of the hole in the dike” cause a flood or poor critical thinking and illogic. Secondly I found that people were expecting me to defend pseudoscience in general.

    Well lesson learned it opened my eyes to how quickly a little thing becomes a big thing in a population of primarily critical thinkers. Never mind what happens in the media at large.
    Thanks Steve I always love to learn something new.

  7. DOYLE says:

    Two potential problems with NDE anecdotes.First,the person believes in the delusion and becomes obsessed with revisionism and self loathing.Second, anyone can claim a NDE as a direct mandate from God and begin a respectable career as cult leader.

  8. Kaarlo says:


    “The same intellectual flaws are likely to lead to other false conclusions that do have immediate consequences.” Well said.
    All my life I have been marvelling there are extremely reliable, intelligent, scientifically oriented, well educated individuals that have a serious flaw like converting to a religion or believing in astrology. And they are not the “never do anything on Friday the 13th” type of person. The human mind is strange.

    Kaarlo von Freymann Helsinki Finland

  9. HHC says:

    What appears to be simple “harmless” beliefs are just the surface appearance. If you have a group of people who coerce you to listen to these false fantasies and insist on perpetuating these falsehoods, you have a political regimen which creates havoc. For example, take the ramblings of the politician and Barrington “thinker” drinker, Joe Walsh. Even though there is no electioneering allowed at village election sites in Cook County, I was forced to endure his beastly beatitudes as an election judge when he decided to have a meeting at my precinct voting site during the day of a election. The Joe Walsh thinkers make up their own rules of play for elections.

  10. ccbowers says:

    “A few of us feared that chasing down every little bit of nonsense has sort of a wet blanket effect on the general public.”

    You have use this phrase multiple times, and I find that it doesn’t fit in this case (unless I am mistaken about the term). To me, then phrase wet blanket implies a person is taking the fun out of everything. The example that comes to mind is the person who has to point out all of the problems with a movie and is unable to suspend disbelief for the purpose of the movie.

    Perhaps there is a different use of the “wet blanket” term that is slightly different, but in this case the surgeon wrote an essay in the mass media (originally in Newsweek then referenced in countless other media outlets), in which he provided his experiences as evidence of the an afterlife. I don’t see how pointing out the flaws in reasoning has a “wet blanket” effect on the public… if anything the general public is unaware of skepticism at all, and I don’t think this is a good example of a topic people find “fun” and/or light. If you had referenced a belief in bigfoot or Loch ness monster, then I think the term would apply

  11. ccbowers says:

    I assume that this is a typo, but epistemology is the philosophy concerning the nature and limits of knowledge. Philosophy of science is related and there is much overlap, but it is viewed as having a distinct emphasis, with a focus on the assumptions, process, and implications of science.

  12. locutusbrg says:


    I think we can both agree that the terminology is not what is at issue. In my opinion, it is the goal of skepticism to spread critical thinking beyond or own insular group. I think that there is a valid behavioral consideration to evaluate the perception of Skeptics by outsiders. There is nothing wrong with knowing the limits and perceptions of your audience when teaching.
    If you are a visible public person that fights every bit of nonsense it cuts both ways, you can be perceived as a “Debunk-er”, not a critical thinker. That does not make you wrong, just right in a vacuum. Pseudoscience is well received on some level because it is telling people what they want to hear. If you are telling them the truth, they have to believe it is the truth, and not just a contrary position. Operative word is “believe” here. I am not saying that the argument is invalid. There is no argument to support the pseudoscience in understanding perception. Understanding the problem doesn’t support the nonsense. The overall point is to maximize the number of people exposed to the science. To make people listen to the reasons why it is nonsense. To help people understand that it goes beyond opinion. To get them to listen not shut down. You can make the argument that the skeptic as “debunk-er” is a myth, or has minimal effect on education of non-critical thinkers. I would tend to disagree.

    As to the original poster who used “wet blanket”. I perfectly understood the point of his/her analogy. That an afterlife is only a good thing and why try to ruin the pleasant fantasy. Easily the position of a person who is neither a believer or a skeptic. That is the person that you want to listen to you.

  13. BillyJoe7 says:


    “an afterlife is only a good thing”

    At the risk of being seen as just a de-bunker, how is an afterlife only a good thing?
    I would like to live “longer”, but “eternity” frightens the $#!+ out of me.
    I mean really think about the implications of that word.

  14. ccbowers says:

    “The overall point is to maximize the number of people exposed to the science. To make people listen to the reasons why it is nonsense. To help people understand that it goes beyond opinion. To get them to listen not shut down.”

    This is a good discussion. I agree partially, but there are a few tradeoffs that I would like to emphasize. In general I think your points are valid, but just maximizing numbers is not sufficient: there are some principles involved here as well.

    It does little good to increase the number of skeptics if in doing so you also have to move to far away from what the term entails. Its a bit like the balance between the extremes of alienating and audience to pandering to an audience in politics. It is the appropriate balance that we are discussing here, but I think you objections to this story are based upon unjustified assumptions.

    Surely some people may be turned off in the pointing out the flaws in the surgeon’s statements, but that is because they are attached to an ideology that promotes such a view… and they are conflating the discussion of the surgeon’s statements with the possibility of an afterlife itself, and these are two entirely separate things! For this reason I thought that your concern was unncessary, in this case, but the point is correct in general.

    “That an afterlife is only a good thing and why try to ruin the pleasant fantasy.” Again, this discussion was not about whether there is an afterlife or not, and that is where the confusion comes from. Steve’s post was not about the conclusion, but the process.

    [As an aside, I’m not sure that it is correct to assume that the afterlife is “only” a good thing if a person thinks most will spend it in a place called hell]

  15. smillsishere says:

    Thanks for your responses guys in ‘Proof of Heaven’, and thanks Steve for giving me a satisfactory answer. This appears to be a rich environment for critical debate. I could certainly learn a thing or two in here.

  16. SimonW says:

    The thought processes and woolly thinking set a bad agenda.

    For example we have doctors in UK hospitals trying to establish if people can see things when having out of body experiences.

    As I’ve previously observed we have “opticians” in another branch of medicine who’ll explain to these doctors if they care to listen that you need functioning eyes to see things. Indeed the eyes have to have a lot of things right to see anything much at all. We have quite an established amount of evidence, and science to this effect. So looking for “seeing” in out of body experience makes as much sense as being a flat earther in the age of artificial satellites. But due to flaws in our brains and in our cultures we are strangely more tolerant of one than the other.

    It may seem minor, but there is serious medical research that needs doing on hormone changes (and other things) in people in near death situations, which could make a significant impact on the number of people who survive such conditions, and the more doctors who are off trying to research their own implausible faith based beliefs, the fewer who are focusing on what could keep people alive. Research on the critically ill is especially fraught with ethical issues, but it is also potentially the most effective if it is done by people who can actually think their way out of a paper bag.

  17. locutusbrg says:

    Again I can only say this one more time, I am not espousing an argument for nonsense, I am not trying to support an argument for an afterlife in any any any way. I am trying to express an example of how a person(Not ME, not a critical thinker), can view a skeptic that is chasing down every last little bit of nonsense. You can question assumptions about the belief. Heaven/hell as a christian example.
    People fear death and miss their loved ones. That is why it is a common myth. Seeing those loved ones after death is a pleasant fantasy. There are exceptions, but on balance life after death is seen as a reward. Please no more I don’t want to discuss unicorns, bigfoot, or reptoids either.
    Otherwise I enjoy the discussion.

  18. tmac57 says:

    Karrlo- I would like to point out that that line was Steve Novella’s,not mine,but I agree,it was well said.

    locutusbrg-I can think of several instances where the belief in an afterlife may not be a good thing:
    1. Crazy religious zealot who kills their self,spouse and children because they believe that this world is wicked/doomed/too flawed (whatever) so that they can be together in a perfect afterlife.

    2.Someone sleepwalks through this life because they see it as a mere stepping stone to the ‘really good stuff’ on the other side.

    3.Deeply religious person who values this life,does not take the necessary precautions,medical advice or planning for their eldercare,because God will provide,and if they miscalculate,all will be well in the afterlife (optimistic fatalism).

    Anything that provides that ‘It will all come out in the wash’ kind of contentment,can also have a darker side that can mean misery,heartbreak,and burden on the believer,their dependents,and whomever has the unfortunate task of caring for them,if it comes to that.

  19. ccbowers says:

    “I am not espousing an argument for nonsense”

    I never said, nor implied that you were. Why are you implying that I did?

  20. ccbowers says:

    “People fear death and miss their loved ones. That is why it is a common myth. Seeing those loved ones after death is a pleasant fantasy.”

    Again you miss the point. This was never about whether or not there is an afterlife. It was about how a specific person evaluated his own experiences, how trustworthy those perceptions are, and what reasonable conclusions he (and we) can draw from them. The afterlife was just the interpretation that the person put on those experiences in this case, but the topic could have been any number of experiences

    I agree that people can find comfort in the idea of an afterlife but that is a separate issue altogether, but you want to conflate them. There have been many posts on this blog in which Steve has pointed out the flaws in a person’s thinking, yet you object to this one in particular. Just because this one is peripherally related to (barely brushes up against) the concept of religion, does not give it special priviledge against analysis of claims made. A reasonable person would not find offense to such a discussion, and ultimately this one surgeon’s experience has no impact on whether there is an afterlife regardless of a person’s point of view.

  21. daedalus2u says:

    Some of the nonsense that people believe is not so harmless. What is most troubling are the things that are not correct and which people believe to such an extent that they never examine those premises or are unable to examine those premises. The concept of absolute space and time was fundamental to Newtonian physics, Relativity showed that it was wrong.

    Modern physics shows us that there can’t be an immaterial mind that interfaces with a material brain. Conservation of mass/energy, spin, momentum, and so on, simply don’t allow something immaterial to have effects on something material. Do we reject all of physics so as to allow for spooky ghosts? Or do we abandon the idea of an immaterial mind?

    The problem is that human intuition tells us things which are wrong. Our intuition tells us that there is an agent animating the brain and so we call that agent, the mind.

    The idea of people having an immaterial mind can be harmless nonsense, or it can motivate people to do great harm. SBM has adopted brain death as being the definition of death, irreversible destruction of the brain. This definition allows us to state with complete certainty that a mass of human tissue without a living and functioning brain is not and cannot be a living human being.

    However there are people who do want to change the definition of what a human being is, such that a single cell, a fertilized egg or zygote is a living human being with a full panoply of human rights. The number of living brain cells a brain must have to be considered to be not dead is not well established, however that number cannot be zero.

  22. sonic says:

    Dr. N-
    First I have to know- how do you define science and pseudoscience?

    I think it is OK for you to discuss any topic from your point of view. I don’t think that people are turned off to a discussion about how accurate or reliable certain types of evidence are.
    For example- if you want to make the point that a claimed sighting of bigfoot with a blurry photograph isn’t proof of bigfoot’s existence, then I think you will have no problem with that. Anecdotes aren’t proof.

    If you want to say that there is no bigfoot, then I think you’d have a problem because that is the same as claiming bigfoot will never be discovered.

    Think of it this way… We can agree that nobody has ever come up with a chemical formula that produces life de novo. Further, we can see that past claims to the contrary were not evidence.
    Now, can we agree that such a formula will never be found?
    Why would one conclusion be demanded in the one case (bigfoot hasn’t been found, therefore there isn’t one) and the opposite conclusion be demanded in the other case (formula for life hasn’t been found, therefore we know it exists)?

    Similarly with Dr. A’s NDE story– if you want to say his story isn’t proof of heaven- then that is clearly true and a point needing to be made.
    If you want to claim there is no heaven (as you seem to hint in the last part of the posting on this), then I have no idea why I would agree with that.
    Certainly Dr. A’s story doesn’t disprove the existence of heaven.

    It seems we go from, “This person isn’t thinking clearly on topic ‘A’,” to “Therefore what he is saying about topic ‘A’ is wrong.”
    But that is illogical.
    Example– “I had a vision from the other side. I know without doubt due to this vision that the sun is about 93 million miles away.”
    My reason for knowing might be crazy- but what I know isn’t.

    Does any of what I’m saying make sense?

  23. BillyJoe7 says:

    A scientific fact:
    A scientific fact is one for which there is such an extraordinary amount of evidence that it is unlikely that it will ever be overturned. A scientific fact can be overturned. Given sufficient contrary evidence, a scientific fact can be overturned, but it is extremely unlikely that such contrary evidence will ever be forthcoming.

    There is no Bigfoot.
    In this case the evidence that should be there if Bigfoot exists, is not there.
    Sixty years! There is no Bigfoot. Let’s move on.

    Evidence for life from non-life:
    Viruses and prions – life or non-life?
    Evolution – incremental change from simple to complex.
    Plausible mechanisms for generating life from non-life.
    Generation of the building blocks of life from non-life.
    Absolutely no evidence for supernatural agency in the four decade history of science.

    The afterlife:
    Quite simply, there is no scientific evidence for an afterlife.
    Therefore, it is irrational to believe in an afterlife.

  24. BillyJoe7 says:

    …that should be “four centuries of science”.

  25. milkybar251 says:

    ‘I will continue to focus a great deal of my skeptical efforts on topics that I feel have immediate consequences, such as my promotion of science-based medicine. But that effort is hugely informed by also addressing any claim that catches my interest, that reveals an aspect of poor logic or self-deception, or simply spreads misinformation or sloppy thinking.’

    And this is why I love your work

  26. Philgrimm says:

    My main criticism of skepticism is that by biassing everything on the assumption that rational normal consciousness is the sole source of dependable sensory input, you are denying the importance the other neuromodulatory systems; the fact that non-conscious neural activity is vital to the normal functioning of the Homo sapiens animal. It is well known that data derived from non-conscious mentation is used by the human animal. In fact, conscious recognition of all CNS activity is minuscule, and there is more non-rational thought occurring in each of use every day than can be patrolled by the hyper-intellectual rational part of us. All that non-rational neuronal activity is arbitrarily dismissed as non-important to the human condition because it isn’t rational and it isn’t remembered by “me” the one who is in control of this animal I call me.

    Skepticism is acting as a boarder patrol, policing the boarders of rational scientific thought, thus maintaining an established and dignified paradigm. But what is the life cycle of a human paradigm, and how often have paradigm shifts occurred and isn’t it time for another one?

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