This week on Sciencism: Critical Eye, Ross Balch is joined by Dan Abrahmsen to discuss manslaughter for pseudoscience, logical fallacies in alternative medicine, Billy Ray Cirus spots a “UFO”, the weaknesses of prophecies and the Australian tv show “The One” including the vagueness of psychic “impressions”. We also discuss the skeptics toolkit by explaining some of the most common logical fallacies used in pseudoscience.
A couple are facing manslaughter after a four year old boy’s father, a homeopath, treated his son with fennel tea for three weeks to treat a “cold”.(1) On examination by doctors at an Italian emergency department the boy is found to have a fever and appear “pale thin and breathless” and unfortunately later died.
In defense of the acused Fausto Panni, head of Omeoimpresse, the association which overseas the supply of homeopathic remedies said:”The latest statistics show that during the last five years just 21 people have had side effects from homeopathic medicine with no fatalities. That compares to many who have died as a result of medical malpractice or adverse reactions to medicine.”
What this statement should say is that in the last five years 21 people by coincidence suffered from some sort of clinical symptom whilst taking a homepathic remedy which is incapable of creating side effects or fatalities as homeopatic substances contain only pure water, further it is impossible to estimate the number of fatalities or people who suffered serious illness due to the fact that they took homeopathic remedies instead of seeking the help of a fully trained evidene based physician however the current number most tragically now be considered to be at least one.
“You will recognize that when lots of men and women wind up getting sick they first reach for herbal remedies as a strategy to treat their sickness. Naturally if you talk to your doctor you will notice that he will tell you that herbal remedies are no substitution for prescription medicine. You ought to of course understand that their training is based solely on prescribing medications to contend with peoples illnesses. But before prescription drugs came along, men and women were using herbal remedies for a huge number of years as a way to treat themselves and other individuals and we are talking about them here.” This is a direct quote taken from; A Number Of Herbal Remedies Which Have Been Applied For Many Years Posted by Queen Hensley.(2) Acording to the blog entry; “the author is an internet marketing professional – who writes on numerous wellness related matters such as mesothelioma cancer and asbestos cancer mesothelioma.”
Let’s have a look at some of the logical fallacies contained in this passage. Firstly there is the argument from antiquity that means becasue something is old or has happened for a long time it must be good information. Next there is the non-sequitor that just because doctors are trained “only” to prescribe medication for illness they are not going to help you overcome your ailments. Evidence based medicine by definition is medicine that we know works. The author also commits the naturalistic fallacy that because something is natural it must be good for you, so is snake venom but I won’t be taking that any time soon.
The whole blog post to me smacks of a blatant attempt to discredit modern medicine in order to sell you “natural” alternative medical products, the profession of the authour is a big give away. I also wonder in what capacity this author is authoratative on the subject of medicine when they are an expert in marketing?
Billy Ray Cirus thinks that he can see 6 UFO’s in this picture he has taken.(3) All I can see is a pretty nice sunset over some hills with a few areas of cloud looking brighter than other. He has made the mistake of assuming that any of the object are flying, if they are not flying they cannot be UFO’s. Infact they fail on all aspect of the term, not unidentified, not flying and arguably not objects. Just a cloud.
You’ve just seen or heard or read about a prediction someone has made. How do you decide if you’re going to take any notice of it? In no particular order, some things to consider:
1. What is the prediction about? Is it something small like “Tomorrow it will rain” or “I’m going to have pizza tonight” or something big like “The world will end in 2012”?
2. What is the track record of the person making the prediction? Have they predicted this or similar things before? Were they correct?
3.How specific is the prediction? Are there precise locations, times and events named or is the prediction vague enough that it could apply to a range of circumstances?
4. Is someone working towards making the prediction come true?
5. Does the prediction only make sense in retrospect? That is, were people able to use the prediction to anticipate the predicted event before it happened or were we only able to attribute an event to a prophecy after the fact?
Now for some examples and we’ll start with Nostradamus who wrote this famous quatrain.
Beasts wild with hunger will cross the rivers,
The greater part of the battle will be against Hister.
He will cause great men to be dragged in a cage of iron,
When the son of Germany obeys no law.
What do you make of this quatrain? Do you have any idea what he is referring to? Keeping in mind the above 5 points is this a good prediction? What if I tell you that Hister is the latin name for the river danube?
‘dreamt i died in chicago next weekend (heart attack in my sleep). need to write my will today.’ ‘correction – the weekend after next.’
How does this one stack up? Now if I tell you that the man in question did in fact die two weeks later in Chicago? What if I tell you that he actually died from a drug overdose? This is Mikey Welsh, tweeting about his own death and the story was picked up by the media and spread as a spooky prediction.
Lastly what if I told you that someone had predicted the end of the world on September 6, 1994 but suggested that it may actually be May 21, 2011 but after that prediction failed had now revised their prediction to October 21st 2011?(5)
A weekly source of pseudoscience has started in Australia with the reality TV show “The One”, in this show they are looking for Australia’s most “gifted” psychic. One of the Australian magazines New Idea asked some of the psychics on the show about some unsolved crimes(6), here’s just one example.
The crime, in 1991 13 year old Karmein Chan is abducted from her home, her body is later found with three bullet wounds to the head. What is psychic Katrina’s impression? She tells us, “Karmein tells me she was taken in a car. The location… is at least two stories high, maybe three. She is placed in a room and she is connected to the bed by her wrist and neck…” This is a great way to explain how psychics appear to make accurate predictions or divine previously unknown information. All of the statements she makes here are examples of high probability hits, facts common to almost all abduction cases, psychic are also helped by what is called conformation bias, people’s tendency to remember the hits and forget about the misses.
1 – N. Pisa, Parents face inquiry for treating son with alternative medicine, The Telegraph, 23/10/2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/alternativemedicine/8844461/Parents-face-inquiry-for-treating-son-with-alternative-medicine.html
2 – Q. Hensley, A Number Of Herbal Remedies Which Have Been Applied For Many Years, SME News And Information, 25/10/2011, http://eva-news.com/sme/health-and-safety/a-number-of-herbal-remedies-which-have-been-applied-for-many-years/2377211/
3 – Miley Cyrus’s dad spots UFO, posts pic on Twitter CelebrityFIX, 26/10/2011, http://celebrities.ninemsn.com.au/blog.aspx?blogentryid=944367
4 – A. Proud, ‘I dreamt I died in Chicago’: Weezer rocker Mikey Welsh found dead at 40 after predicting the exact time and place of his death on Twitter, The Daily Mail Online, 10/10/2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2047145/Mikey-Welsh-Weezer-bassist-dies-40-Twitter-death-prediction.html
5 – E. Tenety, May 21, 2011: Harold Camping says the end is near, The Washington Post, 03/01/2011, http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/undergod/2011/01/may_21_2011_harold_camping_says_the_end_is_near.html
6 – Katrina, What the psychics say, New Idea, <56>, (2011)