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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Why we can't win.

I normally label articles like this as being an opinion piece. This time I'm not, because it's not really just my opinion. It is unfortunately a fact of life for the critical thinking/scientific skepticism communities, and I believe most of us have known this for years.

I have recently began responding more often to various pseudoscientific and blatantly false claims, such as one I've seen a couple of times recently. (I've been doing this partly because bad information aggravates the hell out of me, and partly because I want people to be able to look at all the information without any sort of fear mongering and come to a conclusion based on the data.)  This one in particular reads: "The FDA has changed the name of aspartame to AminoSweet!" First of all, the FDA doesn't name products, they only give guidelines on the labeling. As well, it was one company that is based in Japan that is changing the name, not every manufacturer on the planet. I pointed these two facts out, simply trying to point out the post was false, and try and give anyone that actually reads the comments a starting point to find the real information. Shortly after, the original poster came back with a comment that stated the FDA still allows poisons to be put into our food, and aspertame is a neurotoxin according to FDA investigator Arthur Evangelista (who is a former FDA investigator) I have written about aspartame before, and I am passingly familiar with some of the claims that folks make about it. Especially the neurotoxin claim. I pointed out that water and oxygen, when applied directly to a neuron, will act like a neurotoxin, killing it. The someone else asked to see water and oxygen tumors and posted pictures of the rats used in the highly flawed Seralini GMO/RoundUp study. I asked him what genetic line the rats came from, and he said GM Corn. WHAT THE HONEST FUCK!?! I asked about the rats and he says GM Corn? I pointed out that the genetic line of rats used in research are going to affect the way the study turns out. If they had used rats designed for diabetic research, the study would have shown drinking RoundUp causes diabetes. "Sorry Mr. Brimley, your diabetes wasn't a genetic issue. You shouldn't have been drinking RoundUp and eating GMOs while filming Cocoon." I pointed out the study that he has decided to use to refute aspartame was highly flawed. I did make an error here and not point out it had nothing to do with the original statement. I was just so surprised by it, and I was in full "learning moment" mode that I tried to show how that was wrong as well. Luckily, there was another member of Oklahoma Skeptics Society reading the thread, and he had good info that he added to the discussion. It basically ended with several statements that I've heard way too often lately concerning a surprisingly wide variety of topics, and I'm going to address them. Unfortunately, these statements demonstrate why critical thought will never completely prevail over superstitious thinking and bad information.

Before I go any farther, I have to mention that this is only the most recent example of a common trend that I have been seeing for a long time. 

Scientific Consensus

The first was "Why is it when a "scientist" (I added the quotes because they are rarely dependable or reliable scientists) has a finding that isn't part of the consensus, he's labeled a fear monger?" The simple answer is....because they are. If you have 1 scientist that reports a finding saying a common food or medical treatment is dangerous, sends out press releases before peer review, and they promote their findings, (and alternative products on occasion) and they claim it has very extreme effects, and no other group can reproduce it in any meaningful way, then yes, they are trying to scare people away from something that, at the least isn't harmful and at best is highly beneficial. This is the definition of a fear mongerer. The reason that there is a scientific consensus is because the findings are relatively consistent and can more than likely be trusted as fact. Granted, I am not really a fan of Monsanto, mostly due to their legal practices, but I fully believe that GM products are going to be the major contributor to feeding the planets growing population, especially with climate change altering growing cycles. But once again, the Seralini study had nothing to do with the initial conversation, it was a weird combination of the Gish Gallop and Moving the Goalpost. This entire tactic (invoking bad studies, wild claims about the dangers, and the Gish Gallop Goalpost) are often used by climate change deniers, the anti-vaccine crowd, anti-GMO advocates, creationists, and many other proponents of pseudoscience. Especially the ones that either have some sort of religious or political spin to them. They also tied in a conspiracy theory saying Monsanto is covering up any negative studies. Once again, way the hell off the original topic, which was misinformation about a products name change. Plus I doubt Monsanto has bought off 99% of the agricultural and food scientists. But people that rely on the "rebel scientists" are generally very distrustful of any sort of large establishment, such as governments and international companies. They tend to feel that governments and governmental agencies, such as the FBI, the CIA, the NIH, the FDA, the CDC, and the NWO (I had to throw that one in because a lot of these people believe there is an evil global conspiracy), as well as large companies, will lie and mislead the public for some nefarious purpose. They will think that the one person that works outside of the system and finds something no one else ever has is the only one telling the truth, and if you dispute the claim of the person, you will often be called a shill, a sheeple (damn I really hate that word), or naive. They will also tell you you need to open your eyes and do research. Which happened during the course of the original thread. When I said I do research things, and that is why I wanted to know what genetic line the rats were, and what the protocols used for his study were (which I already knew), the other person quit replying. I have to wonder if he went and actually looked into it a little deeper from sources other than NaturalNews and Mercola, or if he rage quit. My money is on rage quit.

Why do you care what we do?
Another statement that was made during the discourse, and I am paraphrasing, was  "Why does it matter if we don't want to eat this stuff? Why do you care what we do? Everyone should be allowed to keep things out their bodies they don't want!" I agree wholeheartedly! If you want to avoid consuming something, by all means, do it. More for me. Especially you have a legitimate reason for avoiding them. Say you have PKU, then yes, you have to avoid aspartame, and for good reason. But just because you're scared of something after visiting some Woo Woo sites, you really shouldn't be posting misleading and false statements purposely designed to scare people into doing the same. The original post was created specifically to invoke a fear response from people that are already wary of big companies, chemicals, and the government. It was set up as a warning that the scary gubberment is letting Big Chemical try and sneak one past the unsuspecting and gullible people. These damn things are the meme equivalent of the guy on the corner with the sign that claims the world is ending soon. They are false, there is no evidence, they often smell a bit funny, they get creepy after a while and seem to follow you around the internet.

I won't believe your "Science"
You want to piss me off, say "You can show me all the studies and science, and I'm still going to believe what I want." This is basically the last thing that was said in the thread, outside of being accused of starting a fight, and me reiterating my initial position (and I actually received a sort of, almost apology) These anti-science sentiments have been getting more and more vocal in the past few years. When you say this, basically what I hear you saying is "I don't care how reality works, I'm going to make up my own thing so I can feel comfortable and justify my life choices to myself."  This sort of thinking is the cause of so many problems when it comes to the results from research. Some people won't believe any research unless it jives with their previously held beliefs. Then, anything that disproves that is part of some huge corporate/governmental/military cabal bent on global domination and the complete subjugation of the population. And yes, it does escalate that quickly. The most aggravating part of this type of thinking is that the more evidence you provide, the more that people will dig in and hang on to their beliefs. This is called The BackFire Effect and you can read more about it on The Skeptics Dictionary. These are the type of people that, as critical thinkers, skeptics, humanists, and scientifically literate people, we need to convince the most to look at all the information. Yet, and let's be honest with ourselves, we know that nothing we do will convince them to look at other evidence. You can try and convince them, but as soon as you push a little too hard, suddenly you're a bully, you're hassling them, you're blinded to the truth, etc. If someone presents me with evidence that is contrary to what I feel is a fact, admittedly my first response is to dismiss it. But then I realize that my personal bias' have kicked in, and I will look at their evidence and try to keep an open mind. And my opinion has been changed by doing this. I have rarely seen anyone from the pseudoscience side of things do the same. (And they call skeptics close-minded?)

The best way to deal with a fight you can't win is normally to just walk away before the damage is irreparable. However, we just can't do that here. As several other people have pointed out in the past, skepticism in the intersection of scientific literacy and consumer protection.

We can't just say "Screw you guys! I'm going home!" We have to continue the good fight and yes, it is a battle on multiple fronts with various opponents using different tactics. (And yes, I know that the phrasing I'm choosing makes skepticism sound fairly combative, but when peoples lives are at risk, then yes, it is a fight.) Instead of focusing our time and energy on the hardcore, full tilt woo woo bullshit believers that we know are never going to change, let's focus more on the fence sitters and the general public. Let's try and provide good information that people can look into and come to an informed decision themselves. It may not always be the right decision, but at least they will be using all the available information. As a whole, people are sensible, rational creatures that do respond well to facts, and when presented with all the available information, generally they will make an informed choice, politics not included. We also need to work harder to inform the general population on what makes a study good or bad, how to read a scientific paper, and how to properly interpret data for themselves instead of relying on others to do it for them. (Remember when only the clergy could read the bible and the congregations had to rely on the priest to tell them what it meant?)  We also need to show people how to distinguish blatant propaganda and scare tactics from factual information. This is why critical thinking and scientific literacy need to be core classes in elementary schools. Until then we will always be dealing with James Randi's "Unsinkable Rubber Duckies"
 I didn't reply to the initial Facebook post to be a self righteous dick. I simply intended to put accurate information out to help people make an informed decision. Of course, by the end, I seemed to be the bad guy for attacking their beliefs, though that was never my intention. I just have an issue when people seem to rely on Facebook memes to make decisions concerning their health and nutrition.

Recent Podcast appearance!
This isn't related to the topic but I really wanted to promote it. I am a contributor on a podcast called the Unseen Podcast. It is primarily devoted to astronomy, astrobiology, and space exploration (I have no idea why they let me on, but they did) We recently did our Halloween episode, and I was the host. We had: C-Webb from The Paranormal Skeptic Academy podcast, David Flora from the Blurry Photos podcast, Mike Bohler from The Skeptics Guide to Conspiracy (and he's also a regular contributor on Unseen), and Paul Carr, the main host, and Marsha Barnhart as panelists. We spoke about cryptids, conspiracy theories, evidence, UFOs, played the drinking came created by yours truly, and got really damn silly. If you've ever wondered what I sound like, are a fan of C-Webb, Blurry Photos, or Mike Bohler, you should really check it out. You can find The Unseen Podcast Episode 31 here! Thanks for reading, and hopefully listening to the episode. I am hoping to start my own skeptical podcast, with my wife and son as co-hosts, in the next couple of weeks, though I will still be a regular contributor to both the WOW! Signal podcast and the Unseen Podcast.

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