Category Archives: Skepticism

Dr. Amy and Conspiracy Theories

tinfoil hatA friend pointed out this 2012 article by Amy Tuteur about skepticism versus denialism. It’s a worthy topic, and I’m right with her (or perhaps more accurately with her cited material from Andrew Dart) regarding vaccine and evolution “skepticism.” But I take issue with her broad brush getting paint on me when she states, “Though it isn’t as obvious, natural childbirth and homebirth advocates are denialists, too.”

I’m a natural childbirth and homebirth advocate in part because I’m a skeptic! (The other major impetus for me is gender equality and bodily autonomy.) Look, I realize there are loonies in the natural/home birth camps. There are people so out there that Koi-Assisted Birth was greeted not simply with “Great satire!” but with many readers taking it as real. But there are plenty of advocates interested in evidence-based medicine and freedom of choice. Take someone who questions the benefit of routine continuous electronic fetal monitoring. That’s a reasonable question to ask when the intervention was introduced on the guess that it would be helpful, then later research showed it may result in worse outcomes. When you equate a skeptic about that issue with a crank who believes against all evidence that the earth is 6,000 years old, you’re being both inaccurate and insulting.

Here’s a rundown of the most glaring logical problems in Dr. Tuteur’s article.

Universal statements – Note the lack of “some” or “many,” or “the most extreme,” preceding the terms natural childbirth advocate and homebirth advocate. The existence of a single skeptical, reasonable advocate of natural childbirth upsets her argument.

False Dilemma – she gives the impression that a person either supports typical hospital birth, or is a loony conspiracy theorist who ignores all evidence that homebirth is imperfect. There’s no intimation that some people might occupy a middle ground.

Equivocation - Tuteur quotes Dart’s discussion of conspiracy theories, then uses an unexplained, idiosyncratic definition of “conspiracy theory” to assert that natural childbirth advocates are conspiracy theorists. Under her implicit redefinition of “conspiracy theory,” anyone who acknowledges unconscious bias (such as the possibility that a doctor might intervene quicker if he wants to get to a golf game) is evoking a conspiracy theory.  She also redefines conspiracy theory to include the realization that medical schools often teach by tradition, rather than strictly keeping to the latest evidence-based practice. The normal definition of “conspiracy theory” hinges on deliberate plotting. Dr. Amy’s special definition includes totally unconscious, unplanned behavior. I guess if she used the real definition, she couldn’t include natural childbirth advocates under Dart’s definition of denialists.

Guilt by association: “And natural childbirth and homebirth advocates share key attitudes with vaccine rejectionists, creationists and other denialists.” First she lumps natural childbirth and homebirth advocates together, then further assumes that homebirth advocates universally support poorly trained CPMs, and don’t care about any evidence that they might be less safe. Through this chain of association, suddenly a mother who gave birth in a freestanding birth center because she was worried about unnecessary interventions is equated with believers in a global conspiracy to give kids autism with vaccines.

Personally I get the impression that “The Skeptical O.B.” is herself a bit of a denialist, that she believes typical hospital birth with lots of interventions is the best, safest practice, and that no evidence will ever be good enough to dissuade her. So rather than searching out the best evidence about these practices and questioning her own biases, she targets people who do question, and paints us all as crazed fringe ideologues who don’t care about dead babies.

I admit I am biased toward natural childbirth and questioning medical interventions. But, I at least try to remember that I have that bias and attempt to embrace the foundation of skepticism – watching out for my own perceptual foibles. If there is solid, evidence-based consensus that the benefits outweigh the risks for routine continuous electronic fetal monitoring, routine episiotomy, or nil by mouth during labor, I would be interested in seeing it, and if it’s convincing I would change my mind about the desirability of these procedures. Being willing to change your mind is what skepticism is all about, while protecting your current beliefs at all costs is denialism – even if your beliefs are culturally mainstream.

(For the record, I’m a natural childbirth advocate and homebirth advocate in that I believe in making these options available to women, I am skeptical of some of the typical hospital practices, and I was personally more comfortable birthing outside a hospital, where I felt my providers’ approach to birth dovetailed with mine. I’m 100% in favor of making CNM-attended homebirth a common option. I am not personally as comfortable with CPMs, and unattended childbirth scares the hell out of me. But I still think women have the right to do either, though they should have access to the risks and benefits information as best we have right now.)

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Recent science “journalism”

JournalistsBad science journalism has been buzzing all around me this week. This is a frequent topic on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and they have a doozy of an example this week. Here’s what actually happened: a Harvard researcher spoke to a German reporter about the exciting theoretical possibilities of genetic manipulation, which could perhaps become possible in the future. He mentioned that cloning could someday be used to bring back extinct species, perhaps even Neanderthals. Translation back and forth between English and German are partly to blame for what happened next, but so is reporters’ failure to give a crap if their science story is accurate. It seems many just want to generate clicks. Even the more reputable organizations seem interested in science coverage primarily so they can spin the content into an irresistible headline that brings in traffic. A headline such as,

Wanted: ‘Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man – Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby.

Slightly less dramatic, but more frequent is the Killer Disease of the Week. A friend posted a link to this dramatic story, commenting on how scare-tacticky it is: Doctors Warn of New Stomach ‘Superbug’ Hitting U.S. The story is ridiculous on several levels. First, the only person referring to this as a “superbug” is the reporter. That fact is awkwardly disguised by the use of the passive voice in the lead paragraph – “A new strain of norovirus that wreaks havoc on people’s stomachs is so vicious that it’s being called a “superbug” by doctors.” Passive voice allows reporters to weasel out of providing a source. If you see it, your eyebrow should immediately rise. The rest of the story attempts to sensationalize a perfectly run-of-the-mill CDC report about the most recent strain of norovirus, which tends to cycle new types every few years, much like the flu does each year. The story even represents the CDC as saying that 50% MORE people could get sick, when as far as I can tell, the CDC merely noted that the Sydney strain is responsible for 50% of the norovirus cases this season. Anything to get people terrified of the plague so they click all your links, I suppose.

Finally, there’s this idiocy from (not unexpectedly) Yahoo News. Want to have more sex? Men, stop helping with the chores. Did you guess that the headline confuses correlation with causation? Not only does the study sound fairly crappy, with outdated self-reporting as the source of the data, but the reporting overlooks the observational nature of the paper, and of course doesn’t engage in the slightest inquiry into an independent, unstudied variable being responsible for both observed features. (An explanation immediately leapt to my mind. Households that keep to traditional gender roles report more sexual encounters. In addition to assigning yard work to men and laundry to women, traditional gender roles also tend to encourage wives to capitulate to their husband’s wishes.)

It makes me angry and sad. I hate to hear Steven Novella of Skeptics’ Guide talk about giving interviews. He says often reporters have a set angle on the story, and will go so far as to feed him a quote that supports their spin. They aren’t interested in his actual opinion, never mind in investigating and vetting facts themselves. So beware science reporting. These days it’s most likely a come-on for mouse clicks akin to Dog sentenced to death in Tennessee today because he is ‘GAY’ or Stars without makeup: The real face of fame.

(By the way, I can see how many of you click on those links. But I won’t judge you, I promise. I personally think Rihanna is cuter without the lipstick.)

(Oh, and if you hate slideshows, use this to view that makeup link. Love Deslide!)

Do you have Forer’s Disease?

via Flickr, by SuperFantasticA hidden disorder may be making you ill. It’s quite common, but many people don’t know they have it and conventional doctors tend to ignore it. Medical tests fail often enough, turning up negative while patients continue to suffer a plethora of symptoms. Few people will have all of these symptoms, and most symptoms will be intermittent, and at least partially resolve when the patient is more active, so there will be great variability between patients. An estimated 80% of people experience Forer’s Disease at some point in their lives, yet it is frequently overlooked and misunderstood by the medical community. Forer’s Disease is becoming a popular topic in the medical community; as a result, it is important to recognize the symptoms of this particular condition. Sufferers typically experience a wide assortment of symptoms, and it’s important to learn how to recognize them.

Most sufferers of Forer’s Disease experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Backache
  • Mood swings
  • Digestive upset, such as nausea, indigestion, and gas pains
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Low energy/malaise
  • Joint pain
  • Decreased libido
  • Constipation
  • Skin irritation
  • Memory problems
  • Cravings, especially for sugar, salt, and fat

Sound familiar?  Of course it does, because the actual condition that leads to these symptoms is “being human.”  Pretty much every person (in an affluent nation at least) will experience many of these symptoms at some point in their lives.  And people are more likely to experience many of them during periods of high stress or, let’s face it, when we’re getting older.

I borrowed the name Forer from the Forer Effect, in which subjects assign a high level of accuracy to a list of vague and generally applicable descriptions, when the list is presented as a personalized profile of the subject.  It is most often used to discuss horoscopes and personality tests (“You are a caring person, but sometimes you fail to live up to your own ethical standards.  You enjoy being with other people, but sometimes feel shy and reticent”), but I think a similar effect occurs when someone suffering from obnoxious symptoms reads a list like the one above, paired with a proffered cure.  The list of symptoms seems to be so accurate, even tailored to the reader.  It’s easy to believe that the web site or book you’re reading is accurately diagnosing what’s wrong with you.

Deliberate quacks and misguided natural health gurus alike have a tendency to cobble together a similar list of “if you’re human you have them” symptoms and assign a disease to them.  If you have many of the above symptoms you qualify for Systemic Yeast, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Gluten Sensitivity (with negative Celiac test), Subluxations, Adrenal Fatigue, Electromagnetic Sensitivity, and Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome, and probably a dozen more fad diagnoses that have come and gone over the years. The problem is that aggregating a bunch of common symptoms and deducing a particular disease isn’t reliable.  As you can see, it casts far too wide a net.

It is true that there are established, scientifically supported disorders that create symptoms on the Forer’s list, and which don’t have a definitive test for diagnosis. But in such cases, emphasis is placed on ruling out other possible causes before diagnosing something like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Depression. On the other hand, quackish sources will actually recommend the opposite:

First, list every single symptom that nags you, whether sporadic or chronic. Don’t make assumptions, like my back problems are from sitting too much. Just list them without trying to explain them away.

(From the Gluten Sensitivity link, above.)

It can be particularly confusing because many of these suspect symptom-list descriptions promote disorders that play on the edges of well-established diseases, such as hypothyroidism or celiac disease.  And it is true that medical science doesn’t always get things right (to say the least!). So what do you do to try to feel better? Personally, I think there are two vital steps to take before you put yourself on a highly restricted diet or other regimen that may cost money or interfere with quality of life.

First, see a medical doctor who is trained in ferreting out actual, verified disorders.  And of course, if a doctor doesn’t take your symptoms seriously when you say they are causing you distress, find someone else.  A bad doctor may say, “Systemic Yeast isn’t real – it’s all in your head!”  A good doctor will say, “Systemic Yeast isn’t a recognized diagnosis, but we do need to get to the bottom of the recurrent vaginal infections, fatigue, and stomach pain that have been bothering you.” It’s also important to remember that more than one thing could be wrong.  Recurrent vaginal yeast infections might turn out to be a misdiagnosed bacterial infection, fatigue may be from low Vitamin D levels, and stomach pain could be from lactose intolerance.  If you assume at the outset that an entire list of disparate symptoms must spring from a single underlying disease, you could be missing some obvious answers.

Second, go ahead and follow the universal recommendations among healthcare professionals of every stripe: eat a plant-heavy diet full of fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods.  Get moderate exercise on a regular basis.  Drink water when you’re thirsty. Practice good sleep habits and give yourself enough rest time. Pretty much everyone agrees that these practices are the foundation of good health, and introduce little to no risk. Adopting these habits is likely to ameliorate most of the symptoms above, and it’s no coincidence that a lot of cures proposed for Forer’s-like diseases happen to introduce some or all of them. Unfortunately they also tend to be so restrictive that they detract from quality of life, and go hand in hand with alt-med supplements or treatments that likely do no good and at least cause the harm of extracting money from you needlessly.

(N.B.: I also borrowed all the scare-language in the first paragraph from the various malady web sites I linked to.)

Mom, do you believe in God?

These conversations always happen in the car. I think it helps because she knows I won’t be making eye contact and I can be easily distracted if she’s done talking about whatever dread subject she’s raised.

“Hey Mom, do you believe in God?”
“No, I don’t believe in any gods. I’ve never seen enough evidence to convince me there’s anything supernatural.”
“I think most of the kids at school are Christians or something, and they said if you’re an atheist you live a terrible life.”

At this point I was half rolling my eyes, half mad. I don’t remember the next bit very well, but I think Chloe opined that this didn’t make sense to her, using me as her sample. So that was flattering as well as reassuring. She also wanted to confirm, “We’re atheists, right?”

Dawkins would be proud of me – I told her Dad and I don’t believe in any gods, but that doesn’t dictate what she believes. She said, “Well, I want to be an atheist.” Just goes to show no matter how you try to inculcate skepticism and freethought, while letting your children have freedom of conscience, they have very strong labeling and tribalist inclinations!

Turns out she doesn’t believe in any particular god, but she really likes reading myths and legends about gods, so she wasn’t sure if that would put her in the theist category. I assured her that in fact, many atheists started as believers, but when they got into myths and legends, it eroded their faith. It’s perfectly consistent not to believe in gods but to like stories about them.

I asked, “When they said ‘lead a terrible life,’ did they mean you’ll be unhappy and miserable, or you’ll do terrible things?”

She replied she wasn’t sure, so I noted that our family was pretty happy and healthy, and that we also tend to do good things for each other, our friends, and our community, so it certainly didn’t seem to be true. I also mentioned that if they mean atheists do bad things, she could tell them that in prison populations, there are hardly any atheists, but there are lots of Christians.

At this she seemed very interested. In fact, a bit too close to gleeful. I think I’ll have to have a discussion about diplomacy on this subject matter post haste. But at least it gave her a concrete example, beyond the bounds of our little family, that atheism doesn’t make you evil.

And so it begins. It’s going to be interesting as the kids all get older. I’m hopeful they can be educated into more acceptance. I’m pretty sure these children were unaware that they actually know atheists. And if anyone can be a good ambassador for atheism, it’s my sweet, generous, funny, intelligent, friendly daughter.

My new vegan diet cure!

A few weeks ago I had a couple anxiety attacks.  We had discovered a pretty extensive infestation of carpet beetle larvae around the house, including in the pantry, and literally the next day we found the kids had lice.  I had a lot of trouble coping with all this.  Twice it got so bad I was hyperventilating, my heart was pounding, I was dizzy and feeling dissociated.  Luckily my husband is made of awesome, and he took over the cleanup, with help from his amazing mother.  And my epically wonderful friend Ginger came over and nit-combed my hair, then carefully vacuumed each individual molecule in the kids’ playroom.

Meanwhile, I went to the doctor for some freaking Xanax.  Or something.  My blood pressure was 155/90, noticeably higher than my usual less-than-120/80 zone, so I knew I was really having a serious physical reaction, not just overdramatizing.  I wanted a medicine to force my fight-or-flight reaction to calm down, as I felt like I was in a feedback loop of worry–>adrenaline–>panicked feeling validating worry–>more adrenaline.

My regular HCP wasn’t in, so I saw someone else.  She didn’t want to give me a benzo drug, because of all the potential problems with them, and I can understand that line of reasoning to an extent.

But then she told me what I really need to do for my anxiety and panic attacks is switch to a vegan diet.

And she didn’t just mention it in passing.  She got pretty damn vegangelical on me.  She seemed to think that being fat is a key part of my mental illness, and getting fit would make me better. And veganism is the way to get fit. Even though my response to the first attempt was to scowl disbelievingly and say, “No,” she didn’t let my unmistakeable body language and monosyllabic retorts stop her – she pushed it several more times, trying to cajole me into trying it. She was very sure that during this stressful period when I was having trouble coping with life, what I really needed was a complete diet overhaul to a new, highly restricted way of eating.

So you know what, I guess I’m convinced.  Here is my new vegan diet plan, which will make me thin and solve all my health problems!

Breakfast:

Cocoa Puffs with full-fat coconut milk
Apple Cinnamon Pop Tarts
Ghirardelli Hot Chocolate

Snack:
Little Debbie cake donut
Starbucks Venti Toffee Nut Soy Latte

Lunch:
“Chicken” nuggets
Biscuits (made with Crisco)
Corn chips with guacamole
Kool-Aid

Snack:
Barbecue Fritos
Hansen’s Cola

Dinner:
Veggie burger on potato roll
French fries with mayo dip
Canned creamed corn
Bulleit bourbon and water
Marie Callender cherry pie

I can NOT wait for the health returns to start rolling in with this!  Soon I’ll be slim and fit, as well as mentally healthy.  I bet I won’t even need to go to the gym or therapy anymore!  Who knew perfect health could be this easy and appealing?

Seriously, my normal PA prescribed a beta blocker to tamp down the adrenaline, and that allowed me to use my cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to much better advantage.  I feel normal again.  And I’m making braised beef shanks for dinner.
Oh, and more thanks to Ginger for being so funny about this whole topic and alerting me that Pop Tarts are vegan, thus giving me the idea for this post.

My defection from the Catholic Church

photo by robertelyov via Flickr

Pope mosaic made of condoms

I know lots of great people who are Catholic.  But the Church itself – I cannot call it good by any means.  So in addition to the silliness of me being counted among their adherents when I share none of their beliefs, I don’t like the idea that I’m counted in their numbers.  If everyone who disagreed with the Catholic Church in some significant way (like the 66-68% of American Catholics who regularly use birth control) took their name off the rolls, the Church’s political clout might be reined in quite a bit, and maybe that would force the Powers That Be to move their policies and procedures into more transparent, reasonable, and humane territory.

For what it’s worth, I’m sending this off today.  Weirdly I felt a little bad writing it, like I’m going to hurt the Bishop’s feelings or something.  I guess guilt is one of the things that is most easily indoctrinated and hardest to get rid of! (I’ve redacted personal information so Bill Donohue can’t track me down to yell at me.)

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge
c/o The Diocese of Raleigh
715 Nazareth St.
Raleigh, NC 27606

Dear Bishop Burbidge:

I am writing to inform you of my defection from the Roman Catholic Church.

Since the age of 16, I have rejected most of the teachings of the Church. I have not attended mass for over 20 years. I do not believe in any deity, and I do not believe that there is such a thing as sin. I have been living with my husband for 18 years without being married in a Catholic Church, and I have made a positive decision not to have my daughters baptized.

Therefore, I consciously and freely state that I am defecting from the Roman Catholic Church and wish that my name be removed from church records.

I was born on _____ and baptized on ______, as Christine _____, at:

[Church]

The last sacrament of record in which I participated was Confirmation, which would have been around 19__, at:

[Church]

I would appreciate it if you could send me written notification when my name has been removed from the records. I am fully aware of the consequences of my separation from the Church and accept them. I do not wish to participate in any Catholic sacraments.

Thanks for your assistance in this matter.

I will keep you all updated on any response.  Half of me wants them to simply comply, and the other half hopes some priest sends me a letter trying to convince me to stay (as some defectors have had happen) so I have something interesting to share!

(photo by robertelyov via Flickr)

I’m getting awfully tired of this

Them:  Doing X is wrong!  I have scientific evidence that X causes all these bad things!  Everyone should listen to me because SCIENCE!

Me: That citation is an opinion piece published on a personal web page, not science published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Also, it doesn’t support your contention.

Them: Who cares about evidence?  I know I’m right!

Me:

Is engaging worth it?

Lately I’ve been feeling really drained by all engagement with the wider world.  As far as skepticism, it just doesn’t seem worth it to argue with creduloids, because it never goes anywhere, and it just raises my blood pressure.  If someone is bound and determined to believe that vaccines are a government conspiracy to make people into face-eating zombies (I didn’t make that up, it’s from naturalnews), nothing I say is going to change their mind.  Meanwhile, the skeptical community is corroding from within, with a lot of anger and acrimony over sexism and sexual harassment, and I’ve gone from being very invested to just being too exhausted to get involved.

It’s not just all things skeptical – keeping up with the news is even feeling like an emotional burden lately.  I’m so tired of turning on the radio and hearing nothing but horrible stories of suffering, intermixed with political horse race coverage.  There really doesn’t seem to be a point to listening.  (Years ago I stopped watching TV “news” because of the inanity and “it bleeds it leads” philosophy.)

These days I would much rather just tune out all the noise of the world and attend more to my family and my community.  My kids behave better and we’re all happier when we focus on each other.  I’ve really been missing my involvement with breastfeeding counseling, since various craziness has interfered with me going to regular meetings, and I’m going to work on fitting that into my schedule again.

That’s not to say that I’m done being a skeptic and writing about it, just that I’m seeking a balance and wondering how best to expend my energy for maximum benefit.  Do you think that arguing about hot button topics ever does any good?  Or is it better to just talk amongst like-minded people and count any “eavesdroppers” who read and listen and eventually change their minds as wins?  Do you think there are a lot of undecided people out there who could benefit from skeptical ripostes to the woo the other side disseminates?  Or are people pretty much divided between believers and skeptics?  If there’s a middle camp, do they even care?

I’m interested to hear what people think.  In the meantime, I’ll be teaching my kids how to build a fire and then toasting marshmallows over it, answering breastfeeding questions, and continuing work on organizing and decluttering my house.  You know, stuff that matters.

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