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Skeptic, Doubt Thyself!

We tend to think of skepticism as doubt about other people’s propositions.  Someone tells you their sister’s best friend’s cousin knows twins named Lemonjello and Orangejello, and you raise one eyebrow and say you’ll believe it when you see their driver’s licenses.  A friend forwards you an adorable picture of baby pigs dressed as tigers, with a touching story about their adoptive tiger mom, and instead of saying “Awww,” and hitting Forward, you immediately go to Snopes and debunk it.  If you’re nice, you don’t use Reply to All.

But at its heart, I think skepticism is really about trying to acknowledge our own perceptual foibles, and doing what we can to filter them out.  And as I’ve mentioned before, we have to be particularly careful about believing information that agrees with our preconceptions.  It’s so easy to gloss over deficiencies that you would use to savage an opposing proposition.  But if we want to be honest and fair, we need to be as brutal with our own sources as we are with others’.

Case in point: one of my Facebook friends linked to this article, New Study Estimates Neonatal Circumcision Death Rate Higher Than Suffocation and Auto Accidents.  I’m against routine infant circumcision, so of course this caught my eye.  However, as I read the article, it seemed clearer and clearer that this “study” has little to do with science and everything to do with rhetoric. (For simplicity, I’m going to refer to it as a study in this post)

For instance, “How many children die each year as a result of circumcision in the US hasn’t been recorded or even considered important by any medical establishment.”  The first half of this statement could be true to some extent, but the second half is pure, inflammatory speculation.  This quote also highlights the fact that this study isn’t using hard data, but an estimate.  The later statement “The study also identified reasons why accurate data on these deaths are not available . . .” is really telling.

The study concluded: ‘These boys died because physicians have been either complicit or duplicitous, and because parents ignorantly said ‘Yes,’ or lacked the courage to say ‘No.'” And called the deaths “an unrecognized sacrifice of innocents.”

Whoa Nelly!  That is some heavy duty judgment!  The author clearly has a lot of anger and outrage on this subject.  And while there’s nothing wrong with being passionate, this rhetoric makes it pretty clear that the Thymos study isn’t so much a study as an opinion piece.    I can’t read the study itself, because I’m not willing to pony up $15 for it, but from the excerpts provided in the Examiner piece, I’m confident that I can’t rely on this as scientific evidence.

Now, I’m against RIC for philosophical reasons, and I don’t need evidence showing shocking rates of harm to support my position.  In my view, the burden of proof is on those proposing to perform surgery on someone who can’t consent.  But of course, if there is evidence of harm, I’d be all about alerting people to that.  However, if I’d just clicked “Share” without checking out the source, I would have disseminated information that’s obviously slanted and unscientific, not to mention as provocative and hostile as it gets.  That’s not going to help my cause.  At best, people will ignore it.  At worst, they’ll do some digging and conclude that anti-circ people are just as they thought: shrill, underhanded ideologues without evidence on their side.

If we want to be taken seriously, and not brushed off as closed-minded, we need to be very careful to examine our own claims as least as well as we examine those of others!

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