Skeptics Aren’t The Big Bad Negative People You Think They Are

It was back around 2005 I think. I was reading a book called The Field, by Lynne McTaggart, which was explaining how science is starting to show that there is a ‘field’ in the universe which connects everything in a conscious and health-related way. It was dabbling in quantum mechanics and refering to studies related to the memory of water, the ability for people to perform remote healing (with thoughts and/or prayer), and even went in to the potential for tapping this field to draw free energy from it.

It was an intriguing book, and I found myself, quite proudly I will admit, thinking of how all of ‘those skeptics’ out there wouldn’t read a book like this.

“They would probably dismiss it out of hand. Arrogant jerks. Not me. I’m open minded, and willing to give anything a go. Afterall, who is to say that we can’t draw power from quantum fluctuations? Seems reasonable enough to me! You know, that is what is wrong with those skeptics – they dismiss ideas too quickly without really giving them a chance. How do you know you won’t miss an amazing breakthrough because you dismissed it before you gave it a chance??!? Better to be open minded and give everything a chance…” I found myself thinking…

It is funny what a few more years of open minded thinking and genuine investigation will do to you. I have no become one of those arrogant jerks. At least, that is how I am perceived by people who haven’t yet completed the journey I have.

You see, at the time I was reading the book, I was studying Molecular Biology at university. Since completing my one year full time research in a lab, I have also gone on to teach first second and third year university student lab techniques and basic science. So I was able to really engage with one part of the book directly – the section which discussed the amazing research done by Jacques Benveniste, which claimed that water had a memory, and that when serially diluted to infintesimal amounts, the activity of the ingredients would increase. The book claimed that his research had demonstrated it. I could actually go and access his published papers. I could actually test the claims. More importantly, I understood exactly what was being claimed, and was able to consider it in an informed, detailed manner.

And unfortunately, it was pretty clear that the whole thing was a load of shit.

Basically, the claim was that one of the most basic, constantly run of the mill aspects of scientific daily life – that if decreasing activity with dilutions, suddenly reversed itself at some mystical magical dilution point. To help visualise this, here is a line graph of the basic principle:

As you dilute an active reagent, it has less activity!

As you dilute an active reagent, it has less activity!

So basically, if you have some molecule which reacts in some measurable way, then when you dilute the original sample to half concentration, you get half as much activity out of the same volume. der right? If you use half as much detergent on your dishes, it has half as much cleaning activity! Try using 1/10 the amount of detergent next time you wash up. Then try doing taking 10ml out of the sink, and using that to provide the detergent for the follow load of dishes. Obviously, the activity of the detergent is going to become useless. There simply isn’t enough to do anything.

So anyway, the claim was that if you keep doing this, suddenly, water would remember its active agent, and would act as if it had it in it. It would ‘remember’ the active agent, and be active itself. Basically, the claim was that it would do this:

memory of water

dilute something far enough, and it gets more active again!

This was the claim. Dilute an active agent far enough, and the water itself suddenly starts being active again, despite the fact that there is actually zero particles of the active agent in it.

The book very clearly made it sound like this research had been done, had been demonstrated, and was an amazing break through. not only did water have a memory, but apparently it could be activated over the phone. Hooray. Praise science!

Unfortunately, no one else has ever been able to replicate the findings. And this principle is so easy to test, that really, anyone can do it. It just doesn’t work. It is false. it is wrong, and it is a lie to act like there is something here. There isn’t. This is the fact. But when I read the book, I had no idea that this was the supposed principle behind Homeopathy. I had no preconceived notions. I wasn’t dismissing anything out of hand. I had no idea how homeopathy was claimed to work, and I read the entire thing in good faith. It sounded fantastic, and I wanted to believe it. It just failed to live up to its claims in the end.

I had an open mind. I approached it genuinely. And in the end, with investigation, and a reasonable approach, it was 100% clear that the whole concept was made up. Someone lied. Simple. So now, whenever someone talks to me about the memory of water, I feel very confident in my appraisal: it is nonsense. Complete rubbish, based on wishful thinking with zero science to back it up. And by extension, homeopathy falls apart without this most surreal claim. So that, combined with numerous other events and readings and discussions I have had over the past 6 or so years leave me in a position where I feel justified at concluding: homeopathy is nonsense.

So now I am a closed minded jerk skeptic.

And that was just the memory of water part of the book. Around the same time I spent an hour next to my uncle’s wife in a car talking to her about her psychic powers. She is a real psychic. She gets paid to do psychic readings, she has a slot on the radio – she even TEACHES people how to be psychic. She is the real deal. I wanted to believe. I wanted her to give me something, something real, something to show me that she really could …read minds? see the future? whatever it is that psychics are meant to be able to do. I really wanted it!

Instead I found out that she just lets her mind wander, and lets images come to them and tells people what she sees. It was all underwhelming at the time, and I left feeling pretty meh about the whole thing. Again, in the years since then I have come a long way in my education and understanding of the world. I have learned about psychology and the human mind, and all of its terrible terrible failings. The studies which have shown how susceptible people are to believing things, and assenting to perceived authority figures. About people filling in gaps, and detecting patterns where there are none. I have watched Derren Brown and other mentalists demonstrate the techniques which psychics use (whether they realise they use them or not), and do so far better than any psychics can. I have seen too many of the most famous psychics be shown up as frauds by investigators like James Randi. I have seen too much. I have learned too much. I didn’t start out closed minded. I didn’t decide psychics were bullshit. I started out hoping to be shown something real. I wanted to believe. The evidence, the facts, and the information just got in the way.

So now I am an arrogant jerk skeptic again. So closed minded….

And the person who lent this book to me way back then was actually reading it because of the implications about power generation. See he was an entrepreneur and home inventor. He had invented a power generation system in his garage and was attempting to make generators from it. You may have seen similar generators online – they use magnets and coils and generate more power than you put in them to get them started. I watched this thing working in his garage, and he showed me dials showing how the voltage coming out of it was higher than the input…. and I knew that you could change the voltage without there being more power, but fact is that I am not an electrical engineer, and I am quite ignorant about electricity in general, so I couldn’t really question it. He was sure they were generating power, so I trusted him. He wasn’t an electrical engineer either. Or a physicist. But those egg heads didn’t understand it. They were all too invested in their paradigm, and couldn’t see the truth when it was put in front of them.

I believed him. I wanted it to be true. I mean, seriously – a free energy generator. And I know the usual complaint is that you can’t get energy for free! Well yeah, but solar panels can harvest energy from UV radiation, so who is to say that this generator isn’t harvesting energy from ‘the Field’ like the book implied? Seriously – it is a valid point. Maybe one day we will invent a power generation system which takes power from the micro fluctuations in quantum particles. Well at least so my completely ignorant mind still wants to believe. Anyway, how awesome would it be to know the person who invented cheap free energy for the world? You know, like Nikola Tesla did before he was sabotaged….

But for the seven years that I was involved in this persons life – the whole time of which he was working on this project – one thing continually bothered me. If it really generated power – why wasn’t he using it to power things? I believe there were reasons, related to the dirty outputs or something (fluctuating waves or something – again, more shit I didn’t understand!) but seriously, we’re looking at going on to almost 10 years now, and I have still heard nothing about any progress on this project. I don’t believe they have any power units being produced, nor have they expanded in to large scale power stations.

I am disappointed. I still want to believe in it. I still want it to be true. But there is a point at which you have to stop living in the fairytale world where wishing things would be true makes a difference, and accept that the likeliest thing here, is that they simply don’t understand the facts of the situation. That they keep finding excuses to justify failure, when the experts simply understood the entire situation from the beginning.

This is really one of the biggest things I have learned over the years as I worked my way towards miserable old arrogant jerk skeptic, is that at the end of the day, someone who is genuinely knowledgable about a subject, can dismiss ideas out of hand sometimes. Or if not dismiss ideas, can at least call Bullshit on someone attempting to spin jargon, and getting it all outright wrong.

Being somewhat well trained in biology and philosophy and the history of science, I have studied evolution more than most people out there. I understand the biology of it, I understand the philosophy behind it, and its history. I have literally studied all of those elements, as well as engaged with every other aspect of it in a more casual discussion format. So I get evolution. Really well.

So when someone comes up and says that Humans were placed here by Aliens, I can VERY confidently dismiss that idea completely out of hand. Because I know how much evidence we have for the fact that humans evolved from apes. The idea that we were placed on this planet with so many nearly identically related species, with intermediate fossils scattering the area clearly found to be our local origin point, our historic migratory pattern our of africa, always found with epoch appropriate technology, all discovered with numerous lines of completely independant verification – when you actually understand this stuff, and know that there is well founded evidence behind it all, then dismissing some guys idea is the only reasonable thing to do. It is not reasonable to pay their ignorance of the evidence the same credibility as the weight of knowledge of evidence on the side of the expert. This is not arrogance, this is reality.

It is like taking your car to a mechanic because it broke down after you put sugar in the fuel tank and arguing that sugar is a carbon based material, like petrol, therefore it works, so therefore it must be something else which caused it to break down – and then getting indignant when the mechanic out of hand dismisses your claims. How dare that mechanic be so arrogant as to ignore your arguments? He should at least check to make sure other things aren’t broken! He clearly hasn’t seen the same information as you. Maybe you should take him to your sugar-as-fuel youtube videos, and he will see the light!

No. The professional understands more than you do. His knowledge isn’t brain washing. It is experience. It is accumulated knowledge of a reliable and trustworthy nature.

Yes it is true that sometimes people can be self-assured and be wrong – but as a whole, as we move forwards in scientific research, these areas are getting smaller and smaller and more and more detail orientated. Scientific paradigm shifts of the sort seen back in Galileo’s day and with Darwin happened in the past because the scientific bodies were establishing themselves then. Science, as a human endeavour, was being born. There were birthing pains as the old ways of dogma (typically religious) were being over thrown. Yes dogma still exists, and yes some people are still arrogant. but as a whole, NO, evolution is not just as realistic as creationism and not just as likely to be overthrown by some new theory. NO, atomic theory is not just as likely to be over thrown by a new theory as the theory of phlogiston was. Or as Isaac Assimov very clearly argued in this great paper, our understanding of the shape of the earth is not just as likely to be wrong as a belief in the earth being flat was.

We are not swapping one arbitrary belief for another – we are gradually ratcheting our understanding of the universe closer and closer to the truth with accumulating evidence.

Skepticism is, in my opinion, just a label for people who, like me, have been through a journey where we all end up realising this same simple fact. That evidence doesn’t change. And when you actually consider all of the evidence together, the scientific leaders of each niche field actually do know what they are talking about. Far better than anyone else. No one of them is right. But the peer-system of research, review and revision works really well over the long run. And things which have been around for a while, and independently verified and tested – they are pretty much here to stay, tried and tested, facts.

And when someone comes out of one field, and claims to know more about another field than the people in that field – if the people in that field dismiss their claims out of hand, it is usually because they are dismissable. They are nonsense. Being a doctor does not equip you with knowledge about quantum mechanics, no matter how smart you are. If you want to disrupt another science, then you still need to go through the process of studying it and genuinely understanding the history and research, and reptition which has got it to the situation it is in. Not just make wild statements and expect people to accept them because you have some authority in another field.

Sadly though, the general public have no idea of this, so when people like Deepak Chopra do exactly this, declare “I am a doctor! I must therefore be very smart” and then proceed to talk about things related to quantum mechanics despite having been told numerous times by professional physicists that what he says doesn’t make sense, and simply doesn’t work that way, the public have no way of understanding this conflict, and so trust him (he IS a doctor afterall!), and thus buy his books, attend his talks, and make him shit loads of money, while he flat out lies to them.

So here we are again, i am that arrogant jerk of a skeptic who outright dismisses someone who lots of people love and adore and surely isn’t doing any harm etc. But fuck Deepak. He is an arsehole who peddles bullshit for profit at the hands of ignorance and he knows it.

I have believe in, and slowly been educated out of so many false beliefs I feel like I should feel ashamed. I feel like a fraud skeptic whenever I go to conventions. It seems like everyone else has always been so smart and not fallen for this shit. But I kept trying things.  My current girlfriend has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). This is a disease that is so poorly understood, that there is no concensus even where to do the research on it! What do you do when trying to treat a disease which has no known cause, and no known treatment? You try everything. To this day, while I am steeped in my skeptical position, I still encourage her to try things which I am 99% sure won’t do shit, but fuck it right – maybe the placebo affect will help at least? So we have been trying variations of vitamin and dietary supplements. We even tried buying an oxygen machine to try pumping a higher concentration of oxygen in to her lungs. We went to a clinic where she was taught the Emotional Freedom Technique – which basically comes down to tapping on parts of your body whenever you feel stressed, in order to reduce your stress.

It sounds like complete BS from the outset. But you know what – I still give it the benefit of the doubt. I still wonder whether the simple act of distraction can play a significant role and reducing stress and anxiety – two experiences which are very much of the mind, and as such could be distracted from. And maybe if we could distract anxious and stressed minds from their anxieties and stress, maybe that would calm them, and in doing so, stop any cascade affects which come from the stressed state and cause harmful states in the body? Maybe this treatment will help?

But here is the real problem isn’t it? This is one of those areas where BS peddlers get in: We are talking about a subject which exists in an area of genuine ignorance. Not only do I really really not understand how the brain works, and how physical activities and chosen behavioural patterns affects the brain, let alone how the brain and activities in it can cascade down in to real physical chemical changes in the body – but sadly, neither does anyone much else. Doctors know a lot more than I do, but this brain-body-psychology cross over is still just too damn complicated. This is why disease like CFS and depression and many others are such a large problem. If we don’t understand the system in its natural state, how the fuck do we fix it when it is broken?

So I will keep hoping these people who claim to have a cure are right – but the reality is that they are just making shit up, and selling it without any real evidence. And they get away with it because hope is a powerful thing, and because the placebo affect exists, and people can’t differentiate correlation from causation. Oh, and they attribute causation to whatever they want to, rather than attempting to identify the actual cause. So when someone does come out of a bad CFS period, they attribute it to whatever new treatment they had started, despite the fact that it may well have been a spontaneous remission, or a result of a lot of contributing factors.

This is why science matters. Rigorous, independent investigation which identifies the real causes of things make a difference. They progress understanding, and create repeatable technolgies. Cures. Fuels which work. Microwaves which cook. Data transmission around the world.

Bonus points if you can identify the science in question

From XKCD

While people who sell lies for profit undermine the evidence based system which works. By tricking the public in to thinking that their ignorance is just as good as the knowledge of experts, it makes a public question the value of science, resulting in political weakness. Science gets less funding. Education gets less focus. Society stagnates and we all suffer. I wish we had a machine which could do one of those ‘Ghost of Chistmases yet to come’ deals and show what the world would be like if we really did just throw our hands up in the air and say that the Deepak chopras of the world had the same claim to knowledge and information as all of the actual experts.

So yeah, now I have become one of those people which I once fancied myself better than. In my ignorance I was sure I was better than the people who had ‘made up their minds’ and were ‘arrogant’ and missing opportunities. Now, in my state of less ignorance, I am much more clearly aware of the flaws of so many more claims that I can cut through the crap much faster. With less ignorance, I see that most skeptics are not close minded – they are just more informed. Because sometimes information really can exclude possibilities!

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Skeptics Aren’t The Big Bad Negative People You Think They Are

  1. Ghost of christmases yet to come:: Idiocracy…although I’m sure you’re well aware of it.

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  2. Indeed I am. Pretty sure I thought of it when writing that line too, but would love to really see what would happen. Wondering now whether there is a civilisation which has willingly shunned science and demonstrated the failure of doing so (or success! LOL) – I know Lysenkoism pretty much destroyed the russian ability to farm, so stands as one demonstration of it. I wonder if similar examples are coming out of Iran, or Northern Korea etc?

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