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.

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