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Reality vs Fantasy

Entry 1925, on 2018-07-27 at 09:29:20 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

Most people who know me will be aware that I am quite a skeptical - some say cynical - person when it comes to subjects that might be classified as pseudoscience.

For example, a while back my wife was being treated for a back injury and it was suggested she should try acupuncture. I was with her and sat in the same room while she was being treated. I agree that acupuncture has a bit more credibility than other "alternative treatments", like homeopathy, but it still doesn't have that much.

And when various other forms of "woo" - such as cupping - were also used I was even more skeptical. But I just sat there and said nothing because I thought, why not be respectful give it a chance? Of course, it didn't work and all well designed studies of conventional acupuncture support that conclusion.

But many people - even a lot of doctors - are quite positive about it. Why? The same applies to all those other forms of pseudoscientific, alternative, and superstitious beliefs. Why do so many people believe them?

Maybe it's because the supporters of this stuff are often very good at presenting it in a positive way. Even I sometimes find myself wondering whether a new phenomenon being described might be the rare exception to the rule. That is, maybe it is something genuine instead of another example of fakery and delusion.

I found myself almost being lead down this path when listening to a podcast featuring an interview with "UFO researcher" Steven Greer. I have been interested in UFOs for may years now, and at one point I even took theories which claimed they were alien visitors quite seriously. But since being exposed to skepticism by a university lecturer who studied paranormal psychology - and more recently listening to a lot of skepticism podcasts - I have been fairly sure that there is now no good reason to accept this theory.

So why did I find myself questioning my previous disbelief, and why did I eventually back away from the precipice? Well, Steven Greer is a quite skillful speaker, and obviously an intelligent and knowledgable person. Anyone who knew very little about the subject would find it difficult to avoid the allure of his convincing style.

And, as I said, I almost felt that way too. Until he started discussing a few issues I knew something about. Then I knew that, while he surely had great knowledge in the area, it was very one-dimensional. He knew all the evidence about any phenomenon which supported the UFOs are aliens view, but he either didn't know, or just neglected to mention, the much greater amount of evidence which showed that more conventional interpretations were possible.

But if I hadn't known about the conventional explanations and the evidence supporting them, I would have had no reason to doubt him.

I see this happening in other areas too, and not just in controversial fields like UFOs. Even perfectly mundane news articles suddenly become questionable when something I know a lot about is under discussion. For example, I consider my knowledge of computers and astronomy well above average (maybe not quite expert level - I must retain a suitable level of humility here) and in almost every case when I read, view, or hear articles about these subjects I see numerous simplifications, biased reporting, misleading statements, and just plain errors.

Of course, this leads me to wonder whether, if I had advanced knowledge in all areas, would I notice errors in every mainstream news report? I suspect the answer is yes.

I do have to say here, that the extent of the problem is often not that severe. Sometimes I think an article might give a good overview and be basically correct, despite making a few questionable claims. But other times I see a bias or a series of errors which lead to a conclusion which is totally contrary to the one I have. Of course I could be wrong, but I usually look at these situations as more a cause for doubt rather than outright rejection.

It's actually not that difficult to check the accuracy of most material. We have the internet, and a search will usually provide plenty of material on any imaginable subject. Naturally, it is important to be selective about sources, and by that I mean to look at sources which disagree as much as agree with your interpretation, as well as treating sources with little credibility with less seriousness.

So back to the the case of the UFO expert I started talking about above: he claimed the most impressive evidence supporting his theory was presented in his documentary "Sirius" which included graphic footage of a supposedly humanoid entity of "unknown classification" gained through DNA sequencing. He claimed that the best explanation is that it is of alien origin.

But I knew that this skeleton, which was found a few years ago in Chile’s Atacama Desert, had a whole DNA genome analysis which determined that it was a female human fetus that had 64 unusual mutations in 7 genes linked to the skeletal system. So it was just a severely deformed human.

So what he, himself, said was his most convincing evidence was easily disproved. Does that mean that all the other evidence is also unconvincing? Not necessarily, but it should make the default position of skepticism more reasonable. Remember, that if I hadn't had this knowledge beforehand I might have found this quite convincing, especially in association with all the other material he had.

Another piece of "strong evidence" he presented was the famous Roswell Incident. This is often quoted as one of the best cases supporting alien visitation, but I have also heard conventional explanations which seem to fit the evidence far better and don't include the requirement for aliens behaving in bizarre and unfathomable ways. Occam's Razor clearly dictates that the conventional explanation is the best one to accept.

On a completely different topic, a friend recently recommended a diet video, which described a new diet which claimed to cure cancer, treat diabetes, lead to weight loss, etc. The diet was recommended to him by a health professional (in mainstream, not alternative, medicine) so why wouldn't I take it seriously?

I tried to start with a neutral view, because there is reasonable prior probability that diets can be helpful, as well as some good research showing they can work. But where diets work there tends to be several complicating factors: that they work in very limited ways, that they work for some people and not others, and that they rarely work as a complete cure.

So I went to Google and searched on reviews and studies of the diet, which gave lots of negative reviews. So it seems like the diet isn't well supported by evidence, but who would know without checking?

Also note that the support of a health professional should not be treated as strong validation of anything outside their immediate area of expertise. Doctors (and nurses, medical technicians, and other health professionals) usually aren't scientists, and they seem to have a very poor ability to appraise the merits of the various fads and fashions in the area of natural and traditional medicine.

Being skeptical about every new thing might seem like a negative way to view the world, but it really isn't. People who believe every new thing they see must be quite exhausted by the excitement by now! Or maybe the constant stream of new "discoveries" is just taken for granted by these people. I, on the other hand, find genuine new discoveries very exciting and I can afford to do that because real stuff only comes along a few times a year, unlike the fake stuff which seems to appear every day. Yet again reality is so much better than fantasy!

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