World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

How we know homeopathy doesn’t work

Cory Doctorow today posted the following on the always entertaining, always stimulating boingboing.net: “Homeopathy multinational sues blogger over statements that its mythological curative had no ‘active ingredient’.” The blogger is Samuele Riva; the multinational is the largest manufacturer of homeopathic products in the world, a company called Boiron, based in France.

On blogzero.it, Riva makes the claim that Boiron’s product Oscillococcinum has no active ingredient. Understandable, since the company claims the flu remedy is made with oscillococcinum, a substance that doesn’t exist; and understandable since the ingredient is supposedly diluted with a 1:100 dilution 200 times. As Steven Novella writes, that’s “the equivalent of diluting 1ml of original ingredient into a volume of water that is the size of the known universe.” No wonder it’s non-drowsy and has no side effects.

Oscillococcinum

Naturally, many readers’ comments on the story on boingboing.net debunk homeopathy, focusing on the placebo effect, the results of clinical trials, the weakness of anecdotal evidence, and other familiar arguments. Here’s my comment (revised for this posting):

According to the fundamentals of homeopathy, medicines are made “by diluting the remedy and succussing (shaking) it. All homeopathic medicines are ‘potentized’, i.e. diluted and succussed. This method of preparation imparts considerable energy to each substance.” The curative power of any substance is “imprinted” on water through contact and agitation, and its effectiveness is increased by dilution.

But if this is indeed how homeopathic remedies are made, you wouldn’t need to buy Boiron’s Oscillococcinum. In fact, you shouldn’t need to buy any homeopathic remedies at all because a glass of tap water would contain the curative powers of every element and substance on the planet. After billions of years, every element, molecule, compound and substance has been in contact with water at some point, and been subsequently agitated and diluted. Rocks release chemicals into the water of a rushing river; a leaf falls into a lake; rivers pour these dilute solutions into the oceans where they are agitated and diluted even more; and on and on for billions of years.

If homeopathic fundamentals were real, every mouthful of water we drank would provide us with the curative benefit of every substance that any amount of water came in contact with—ever. Every mouthful would contain all the medicinal power of every product in Boiron’s catalog. If homeopathy worked and Boiron truly cared about our welfare, they would simply stop selling their “remedies” and encourage us all—as our mothers did—to drink more water.

Filed under: pseudoscience, science literacy, skepticism

How Does Understanding Evolution Make Us Better Citizens?

On his Discover blog today, Carl Zimmer asks “…how understanding evolution allows American citizens to formulate more informed decisions about societally important matters. How does a good understanding of evolution better prepare us to make decisions as citizens?” He invited readers to submit their views. Here’s the answer I posted in reply:

It is not so much our understanding of the fact of evolution that is so important to being an informed, responsible citizen. What’s critical is our understanding of how we know that evolution is a fact. Evolution instructs us how to understand. Evolution challenges us to ask: how do we know? Do we “know” God created the millions of species on Earth because that’s what religious doctrine declares? Or do we know that species evolved from common ancestors because of the century and a half of empirical evidence that proves the idea true, and because it makes sense of and explains all we see around us.

Do we know what we know through fear, irrationality, ideology, a lack of education, or fundamentalist beliefs? Or through rationality, reason and empiricism? In this way, evolution touches issues and ideas that are important to any informed citizen. How do we know anthropogenic global warming is real? How do we determine what causes AIDS, cancer or autism? How do we know flying saucers, time-traveling cellphone-users, homeopathic cures, and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction don’t exist? We know by looking at these questions in the same way Darwin looked at the world around him.

Filed under: evolution, science literacy

Extreme Weather Calls for Extreme Care in How We Write about Climate Change

As the death tolls rise in step with temperatures in Russia and flood waters in Pakistan, and with each passing “hottest-on-record” month, it’s tempting to think this summer’s extraordinary weather is incontrovertible proof of global warming.

Russia fighting fires

The sentiment is a common thread of daily conversation; it’s reflected in science blogs and mainstream media. For example, in an article in the Telegraph this week, Environment Correspondent Louise Gray writes that, “Experts…said the recent ‘extreme weather events’ prove global warming is already happening.” (My emphasis.)

But do experts actually say that? And do these events really prove global warming?

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: climate change, science literacy, ,

Just how much science does our science minister understand?

To many in the research community, last week’s federal budget cut to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Sciences is a sign that the Harper government is “skeptical of climate-change science and hostile to those who provide evidence that aggressive action must be taken to avert catastrophic global warming.” As a result of the cut, scientists have begun to shut down the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, located on Ellsmere Island some 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole, which served as a base for the collection of data on climate change.

Skeptical of climate-change science? The report reminded me of the flap from a year ago, when Gary Goodyear, our science minister, refused to reveal if he believed in evolution. His initial refusal, followed by a confusing and disingenuous “yes, I believe in evolution”, bolstered the suspicions of many that our science minister was a creationist and wasn’t quite on the same page as Darwin when it came to the origin of species.

You have to wonder what other scientific concepts–along with climate change and evolution–Goodyear doesn’t quite have a handle on. Germ theory, plate tectonics, gravity, atomic theory? Should we worry about future cuts to Canada’s space program because he’s pretty sure the Earth is flat?

Filed under: climate change, evolution, politics, science literacy, , , ,

Twitter and the Convergence of Evidence in Iran

A friend recently wrote on his blog about his concern for the many tweeters he was following in Iran in the wake of that country’s contested election. A reply was posted in response that included this statement: “Who is to say that half the people you are following are even real people–and not a 30-year-old jackass getting kicks out of how many people are following him?” Here’s my reply to that post:

It’s true you can’t be sure that any individual tweet is authentic. And we should be sceptical; we should always exercise media literacy, whether we’re reading tweets, the Huffington Post, a hard-copy of the New York Times, or we’re listening to CBC radio, or watching BBC World News. In fact, it is entirely reasonable to believe that some percentage of tweets are fake.

But, if your conjecture is that a significant number are fake and that they are painting a misleading picture, then at a certain point, the onus is on you to offer both an explanation of why this is happening and proof that it is. Not only that, but we also have to consider this.

If our knowledge of what’s going on in Iran were limited to Twitter alone, we would be right to be very sceptical of every and all tweets and the overall picture they are painting. But Twitter isn’t our sole source of information. There are reports coming to us from other sources, such as traditional news agencies (albeit restricted), individuals in contact with their friends and families in Iran, etc. There is also our general knowledge of the political situation in that country.

The consistency of these news reports, personal accounts, historical knowledge, and tweets is what is referred to in science as a “convergence of evidence.” And when independent lines of evidence converge on a single conclusion, that is strong evidence for the conclusion.

For e.g. we know Darwin was right–not because of any single piece of data–but because of the overwhelming convergence of evidence from many different sources: geology, paleontology, genetics, zoology, etc.

And, despite attempts to deny the fact of the Holocaust by disproving discrete or isolated claims about it, we know it happened because of the overwhelming convergence of evidence from written documents, eyewitness accounts, photographs, the camps themselves and inferential evidence. (For more on this, read Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman’s excellent Denying History.)

Not only that, but the internal consistency of large numbers of tweets makes them all the more convincing.

So, while we may not be able to say that any single tweet is authentic, as a whole they contribute to our understanding of what is going on halfway around the world. It is a compelling, disturbing situation that we should all be following, with every means possible.

Filed under: media, politics, science literacy, , ,

January 2003: Thinking About Clones

Have the Raelians and Clonaid created the first human clone? Is baby “Eve” for real?

Who cares? The question of the truth of this claim is an uninteresting one that we shouldn’t waste time on. Clonaid is a “company” created by a cult called the Raelians, a group believing that humans were created by extraterrestrials 25,000 years ago. Clonaid has no scientific credibility and, thus, it is extremely unlikely that there is a clone. The claim is an extraordinary one which requires extraordinary proof, which they have not provided. End of story.

But, for most of the world media, the announcement by Raelian “bishop” Brigitte Boisselier was just the beginning of the story. Coverage was intense and expansive. The story commanded front page attention. After acknowledging that the Raelians didn’t exactly have impressive scientific credentials, much of the coverage went on to treat the claim at face value, as if Clonaid were a legitimate scientific organization. The question of the existence of the clone continues to stir debate.

However, there is another question that is much more fascinating and much more important to consider. It is this: Why do we think the way we do about weird things like cults and their clones, and aliens who supposedly created humanity in a genetic experiment 25,000 years ago? For that matter, why do we think the way we do about UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, psychokinesis, channeling, ESP, astrology, miracle cures, and all sorts of unproven paranormal and pseudo-scientific phenomena?

Why are we so mesmerized by these ideas and so quick to believe, often accepting these notions as true and real without any credible evidence? Why do we believe?

The television show that did as much as any other to cement popular beliefs about one of these weird ideas—extraterrestrial visitation—was “The X-Files”. The show featured a pair of FBI agents named Fox Mulder and Dana Scully who investigated cases with a paranormal bent to them. The answer to the question, “Why do we believe?” was printed on a poster that hung in agent Mulder’s office in the basement of FBI headquarters. The poster showed a blurry picture of a UFO and read: “I Want To Believe.”

For many different reasons, we all want to believe. For one thing, we all love a good story and aliens make for some of the best storytelling ever. In fact, some consider these tales to be the modern, technological equivalents of ancient myths, legends and superstitions. Also, it’s in our nature to speculate about the unknown and the things that we think lay just beyond the horizon of the known. And, some of us love the idea that aliens or spirits of the dead or something beyond the natural world will reveal itself and solve our earthly problems—or at least make sense of them—thus bringing some sort of salvation.

So, at times we want to believe so badly we let our guard down in order to believe. And sometimes, we just think in weird ways about weird things and end up believing that those weird things are real.

A few years ago, I visited junior and senior high school classes to present what was ostensibly a talk about UFOs and the alien abduction phenomenon. In truth, the talk was about media literacy, scientific literacy, critical thinking and logic.

When the students and I talked about the media, and the information and influences we are bombarded with every day, we talked about the importance of considering the source. Did we read something about time travel in Scientific American magazine or the newspaper or a supermarket tabloid? Was the cloning claim made by a respected research organization with legitimate credentials or by a Raelian priestess?

True, the Raelians did say they would offer proof of their claim, even going so far as to recruit someone to oversee DNA testing. But here, the cultists didn’t score high points in their scientific literacy.

As the Royal Society and Sir Alec Jeffreys—the inventor of DNA fingerprinting and professor of genetics at Leicester University—have stated, in order for the DNA testing of “Eve” to be valid it must be independent and conducted by more than one lab. Every single step along the way must be scrutinized, from the extraction of the mother and baby’s DNA to the final result.

Clonaid recruited Michael Guillen to act as overseer of the testing. Described in various reports as a “scientist”, Guillen does hold a doctorate in theoretical physics, mathematics and astronomy from Cornell University. But as far as I can find, he has never actually conducted any research. The only feature of his resume that appears to have qualified him in Clonaid’s eyes is his stint as a science editor for ABC News.

And not a very good science editor, at that. It has been reported that, over the years, Guillen gave credence to such fringe claims as psychokinesis, cold fusion (years after the claim was found to be flawed), and even astrology. Leon Jaroff of Time Magazine recently reported that long after the scientific community had established that HIV caused AIDS, Guillen did an uncritical piece about two scientists who believed that HIV wasn’t the culprit. In it, he stated, “Many AIDS patients have never been infected with HIV.”

In other words, Guillen could not be counted on to oversee a critical, independent, rigorous testing process, much less report the story accurately.

In the end, does it really matter that Clonaid’s claim is highly dubious and undeserving of such attention? Does it really matter that we are sometimes compelled to believe in weird things by our desire or tendency to believe? Or that we’re sometimes less critical than we should be? What harm is there?

The harm is this: The emotional and intellectual path that leads to accepting that “Eve” exists, without credible evidence, is a path paved not with logic, critical thinking, or scientific understanding. Rather, it is paved with a desire to believe, as well as speculation mistaken for reason and generally accepted facts. Follow this path and we end up believing that aliens are visiting the earth and abducting humans, that people such as television’s John Edward can communicate with our deceased loved ones, that astrology and ESP work.

Follow the path a little further and we come upon the belief that buying a certain product or adopting a certain lifestyle will bring us happiness and fulfillment in life. It leads you to accept—rather than making up your own mind based on credible, independently corroborated evidence—that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. The same thinking leads us to believe Holocaust deniers who say that the Nazis did not commit mass genocide during World War ll.

It is a long, treacherous path that leads us further and further away from knowledge, understanding, and the beauty of the natural world.

Filed under: media, pseudoscience, science literacy, skepticism, , , ,

About me

CHRIS SASAKI
I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at www.chrissasaki.com, and follow me at www.twitter.com/chrissasaki.

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