Afternoon Inquisition

AI: What are we missing?

In the skeptical community, we’re constantly inundated with new twists on some common themes. Lack of critical thinking can lead to a slew of dangerous misinformation. From Bigfoot to Anti-Vaccination campaigns, it sometimes seems like a never-ending battle to get good science and reality out into the public eye. One of the things that I sometimes worry about is that we’re missing some of the smaller issues in the long tail.  Often the ‘big-ticket’ items, like conspiracy theories and anti-vaxx overshadow other pseudoscience, which may be smaller but are often just as harmful.

What pseudoscience, misinformation or example of poor critical thinking doesn’t get enough attention? Are there areas that skeptics should be spending more time and effort on? Why?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I would’ve liked to see more discussion about Francis Collins’ appointment to the NIH.
    It’s obviously an important and relevant issue and one that I think there’d be a diverse array of opinions with the skeptics community.

  2. I recently had a conversation with friends who swore up and down that the stray cats in their neighborhoods could “sense the electric field of their invisible fence.” The felt this was true because the cat would taunt their dog (who was wearing the invisible fence collar) by staying just on the other side of it.

    So the special senses of animals, (earthquake detection, knowing about imminent danger, sensing electrical fields) would be my suggestion.

  3. That’s hard to say, living in Southern California I’m exposed to several examples. Just the other day someone I know posted the following on Facebook, “Spilled boiling water on my arms, used a homeopathic cream that’s making it heal faster.”

    Then from another person, “Feeling like it’s time to clense, what’s the best one to use?”

    They seem to fade in and out of favor so it’s difficult to determine which one needs attention.

  4. I want to know why it is that in these days when man can walk on the moon and work out the most complicated hire purchase agreements, I still get these terrible headaches.

    I am a Hedge

  5. @marilove: Exactly – I’m willing to accept that the cat might be able to hear a 60 cycle hum of a line buried 4 inches below the grass, and not like the sound, but not that it could detect it by any special electric field sensing apparatus.

    Why would something like that evolve anyway? Unless God really does kill a kitten when you masturbate, and cats need a lightning bolt dodging ability….

  6. I think we need to spend a bit more time teaching basic skeptical tools. How to detect bullshit and how to avoid being tricked by all the crap-based products.

    We can talk till we are blue in the face about psuedoscience (and we still should) but it might help in the long run if we helped people recognize logical fallacies and show how skepticism can sharpen up common sense.

  7. I would say skeptics should spend about 75% of our energy on teaching basic critical thinking skills.

    In other news, just found out my woo-meister brother-in-law is coming for a visit. He sells holistic crap and talks a lot about the immune system, as he believes it functions.

  8. While I understand we are designed to be a group apolitical, I do think we need to be skeptical about politicians and what they say. Nothing irks me more than a politician who bends, folds, spins, and otherwise mutilates the truth.

    Case in point-the “Death Panels”. It takes a moment to start a fire, and a week to put it out. I don’t like the healthcare options that were presented at that time, but that’s because I’m a non-interventionalist. That being said, I understand the need before the country. I need to decide which is more important to me. I can’t do that if people are out there flat out lying.

    On the flip side of that, I think these political argument need to be held to a higher standard. Are you saying your oponent is wrong BECAUSE they are ugly, or are you saying they are wrong AND they are ugly? That’s a big difference. One is an ad hominem logical fallacy, the other one is ridicule.

    All in all, these effect our lives on the same order of magnitude as vaxinations and other high-ranking problems we deal with.

  9. It would be great to see more skeptical treatments of consumer products (outside of the medical field and Sham Wow). We’ve touched on some health & beauty and food claims. I would like to see more of those and other areas that try to sell you something by using questionable claims.

    I mean, do I really need to put nitrogen in my tires?

  10. Two things:

    1) We need to pay more attention to magical thinking in finance and economics, because people have very little understanding of these things and IT REALLY MATTERS

    2) We skeptics need to spend more time dealing with rational ethics and morality. We tend to shy away from this subjective, feeling that it’s too subjective, somehow, or not in the domain of rationality. I say we should apply the tools of rationality to this stuff and see what we come up with.

  11. @jblumenfeld: Economics is 100% magical thinking…IMHO. Its all based upon belief which you have no evidence for. That being said, rationality would say Minimize your expose and Know when to cut your losses.

    Also, I think when you apply skepticism to ethics and morality, you cross over into humanism.

  12. Absolutely. Start with the really mundane stuff. Maybe if we could just get more people to think critically about the claims of skin care products and detergents, then maybe, just maybe, they might start to think a bit more about supplements, detox, homeopathy, acupuncture, vaccinations, conspiracy theories, religion, …

  13. @marilove: Also, that they haven’t subsumed their instincts as much might be a factor? People may well get some of the same signals and just ignore or not notice them because they’re distracted with human things.

  14. I’ll third Amy and faith on core skeptical tools. Teaching the basics of critical thinking is essential. Certainly anything that becomes prominent in the media is a good topic for further discussion, but the basics should always be the fallback rather than hunting down more fringe (it seems odd to phrase it that way, but whatevs) things to poke and prod at.

    As durnett notes, there is great value in applying skeptical thinking to consumer product claims for several reasons: 1) people already suspect they’re getting hosed and are open to being shown how 2) there is less emotional attachment in general to product claims than to things like belief in angels 3) as a corollary to 2 people normally hostile to skeptical thinking may suspend their hostility in this context making them more comfortable with it down the line.

  15. @jblumenfeld: You mean “The Long Tail” and “The Pareto Law” which are both woo extrodinaré.

    The Long Tail was dreamed up at the end of the ebay boom in the early 2000’s and has since been shown to be utter cods.

    Pareto’s Law while originally describing the unjust distribution of wealth has come to mean the justification of Gault wannabees of their specialness, that they are the 20% who produce 80% of the wealth of a society. Again, in the reality based community, known to be utter cods

  16. I agree with those who have said politics and economics should not be off limits. While there may be be ‘value judgement’ aspects, there are a lot of truth claims also. A hugh amount of progress can be made by just getting to what is really true in any given issue. The ‘Death Panels’, already cited, is a great example.

    I see politics and economics as having multiple aspects. There’s the “what’s the goal?” aspect. These can be very value-heavy, and harder to deal with objectively. Then there are the “how do we achieve the goal” aspects. These are factual matters. Something either will or will not get you closer to a certain goal. Once a particular goal is accepted as worth pursuing, we can focus on determining what the facts are and what the real cause-effect relationships are, so that we can try making progress towards the goal.

    I see a lot of discussions/arguments that appear at first to be about the “how do we get there?” stuff, but they are actually about the “what’s the goal?” stuff. People don’t agree on what to do, because they don’t agree on where to go. If we find areas of agreement regarding goals, then we can do a better job of figuring out what to do to achieve them.

    I hope that makes sense without examples, as I don’t want to derail into discussion of any particular example that I might toss in.

    I am a Hedge

  17. I wouldn’t mind seeing more bunk on animals dealt with, especially pets. You know: My dog KNOWS when I’m coming home. My cat senses when people are sick, etc. I’ve got what I consider a very intelligent dog, but nothing about her has ever given me the idea that she’s psychic or specially intuitive (beyond enhanced doggie senses).

    That’s not to say that nothing she’s done has ever creeped me out, but with a little thought, I always see an inescapable mundane explanation for everything she’s done. Too many people finish their ‘investigation’ at the ‘creeped out’ stage.

  18. @Im a Hedge: And “Black Swann Thinking” which is currently in vogue in the UK, but I don’t think has landed in the US yet.

    It’s a weird theory of Political Economy which states governments should plan for unexpected catastrophic events; alien invasion, plague, Zombies walking the earth etc, over regular government support for mundane things like policing, transport, hospitals and schools.

    I can see the appeal to politicians, announcing a huge sum of money to be set aside for defense against alien invasion is a lot sexier than announcing a new scheme regulating parking fines.

  19. I think we really need to work to change to public’s view of scientists and experts in various other fields. It seems to me that many people are more likely to take Jenny McCarthy’s medical advice over that of a doctor or listen to Ben Stein instead of a biologist simply because they are famous.

  20. @Zapski: I’d like to apply Occam’s Razor here, as there’s an unspoken implication that the cat is stupid and relies on a Twenty-Second Sense. It’s not stupid. It’s watched how far the dog can go. And it toes that line.

    The cats–and even squirrels–at my parent’s house do the exact same thing. But their dog when she’s outside is kept on a cable. The cats will all sit right outside its reach, and the squirrels don’t come too far into its reach.

    Given, my mom has been having fun with that by letting her dog out *without* the cable to chase the cats out of the yard.

  21. @James Fox: I think the reason alternative medicine is so popular in the US when compared to the UK is because medicine in the US exsists in a Marketplace.

    Why bother with real, expensive, medicine when you can go to a quack for a few dollars. In fact that might be all you could afford. And if you’ve not had a good education real medicine seems just as weird and magical as woo.

    The establishment of an american NHS will doubtless cause much wooery to evapourate overnight

  22. I’m getting on board with @Amy: @faith: @revmatty: These basic skills (Dr. Sagan’s fabled ‘baloney detection kit’)are what helped me to clean up my thinking process and to drop the small bit of ‘woo’ that I still had swirling about my mind.
    Reaching out and teaching these skills in a fun and engaging way, maybe in a workshop setting, would be an interesting experiment. Though I do live within the bubble of NYC where organizing things like this may be a bit easier than elsewhere.

  23. @marilove: @marilove: When the cost of real effective treatment is the same as uneffective woo, it wouldn’t take people long to work out the pointlessness of woo.

    Of course there’ll always be over-the-counter treatments and “Oma’s Chicken Soup” but no one will die from lack of treatment or from using woo over real medicine.

    Woo was just as strong in the UK pre 1948 as it is today in america. The british aren’t somehow more rational than americans when it comes to medicine, but rather after the establishment of the NHS people in the UK quickly realised that real medicine actually worked and stopped “using” alternatives.

    It was also the general welfare state that really broke the church in britain. Without the need for the church’s charity people stopped going and by the 70’s only 11% of the population admitted to going to church regulary, now it’s ~1% (probably less by now as that figure is more than 10 years old). There’s still a vague, non-specific belief in some “higher power” but it’s not thought out and certainly not a ideology or philosophy.

    I’d expect the same thing to happen in the US. Without the need for their charity, loyalty to churches would soon fall away.

  24. @infinitemonkey:
    Economics is 100% magical thinking…IMHO. Its all based upon belief which you have no evidence for.


    And you’ve come to this conclusion though an extensive study of economic thought I assume? I’ll grant that most popular thought on economic topics is little better than magical thinking, but that would be like saying that because of Intelligent Design, biology is magical thinking.

  25. @swordsbane: My cat used to know when I got home from school and always be waiting at the door. This is easily explainable by the fact that I got home at the same time every day and my cat isn’t stupid.

  26. @russellsugden: Sure there are marketplace issues. This is the topic that got me into skepticism and I do a fair amount of reading and research. The current numbers indicate there is a higher use of CAM in the US but the numbers of cancer patients in the US and Europe that use CAM is the same at about a third. Also CAM use in Europe is currently growing faster than in the US so I’m not sure about the preventative effect of having a national health system. Doesn’t the UK system pay for some CAM like chiro? And to throw out one anecdote it was an oncologist in the UK that recommended that my sister-in-law go to a Laetrile clinic in Mexico. That doctor would have been severely sanctioned or suffered a loss of license in this country. This seems a seperate issue from who and how the medical care is payed for.

  27. I’ve told various people the principle behind homeopathy, and most of them have been very surprised. They’ve heard the term and know that it’s “natural medicine” but just how ridiculous the concept is is unknown to a lot of people.

  28. @James Fox: While I’ve never heard of chiro on the NHS it’s true that it does support the Royal Homeopathic Hospital because the Hanover (i.e. Windsor) family back homeopathy, and pretty much every form of woo known to man, and have been able to pressurise governments over the years into supporting it also. In the UK they are the epicentre of irrational thinking.

    I don’t know about continental europe but in the UK, I would say the general view of alternative medicine is that it is seen as almost being on a par with having a manicure or face-pack, a sort of health spa treatment to make you feel nice rather than actual medicine.

    Of course there are woo-merchants who make their living from selling it and appear to take it seriously, but I can’t think of a case of someone dieing through their use of woo rather than real medicine in the UK.

    As for what individual doctors prescribe, I’m sure the UK is no better or worse than any other country in terms of the number of crazy doctors.

  29. I’ll…. er… 4th? 5th? Amy’s assertion on basic skeptical skills. My tactic is subtle, however. Whenever a friend points out a news story, topic, or “story they heard,” I’ll think about it for a moment then ask, “huh, I wonder why that is?” Or, “are you sure? because it could also be this..” And steer the conversation into critical thinking territory, instead of accepting a fishy story on faith.

    Okay, sometimes I get eye-rolling, but it’s fun most of the time!

  30. The overall mistinterpretation of science in the public is bothering me. If people keep thinking that way, how will our 21st century civilization survive? Especially when so many issues and the quality of life of the future generation depend on the understanding of science

  31. @infinitemonkey: “It takes a moment to start a fire, and a week to put it out.”

    Tell me about it. I’m sitting here in L.A.

    But yeah, to answer the question – Newage crap, (like I said…I’m in L.A.).

    I know plenty of people who appear to be rational and thoughtful who will just break your heart (asplode yer brain?) after a wonderful conversation about whatever by bringing up the
    newage woo-du-jour in a way that breaks your heart/asplodes yer brain.

    OK, that wasn’t specific enough…

    I guess it isn’t a *category* of woo as much as it being disappointed because you’re surprised by the woo being brought up by someone you never would have thought could be so woo-y.

  32. Oh. I think my smoke and heat addled brain might have already been broken and my above answer doesn’t really make sense in regards to the question…the sunset sure is purdy, though…

    Q.”What pseudoscience, misinformation or example of poor critical thinking doesn’t get enough attention? ”

    A. veganism (both ethical and nutrition-concerned)

  33. @James Fox: I agree and I’m not the least bit skeptical that belief and faith are essential for the modern world economy and national money systems to work.


    I am skeptical of that claim. And I think this is an area that skepticism needs to delve into–that is, money and politics.

    It’s been said–by Stephen Novella, to name one–that we need to take our political hats off before we put our skeptical hats on. If that’s true, then skepticism is a hobby, not a philosophy or a way of knowing or even a reasonable toolkit for analyzing the world. There is no reason we should not all be able to discuss a given health care proposal without going off the rails… if everyone is being skeptical.

    Similary, economics isn’t particularly well understood, but we should be able to discuss it without invoking faith in the invisible hand. Individuals belief that transactions will be honored based on their evidence. When people begin substituting articles of faith (Real Estate always goes up) over evidence (Real Estate values fluctuate over time) then the world economy actually gets screwed up.

    I’m going to go out on a limb: It seems to me that in politics and economics, people use faith based thinking to enrich themselves at the expense of others just as much as they do in any other area. If some agent can get people taking shifty economic proposals on faith, it just becomes that much easier to steal from them. The recent pump-and-dump of the entire world economy by Goldman-Sachs* should have made that abundantly clear. If it doesn’t, it is because people are sustituting magical thinking for evidence, and the economy is suffering as a consequence just as much as a health care system suffers when you start taking homeopathy seriously.

    * Okay, I’m not totally sure that that is what happened. But it sure as hell looks like a pump and dump scheme, and they sure as hell ended up with a lot of money over there.

  34. @marilove: There is a study I saw recently that said LSD (low doses, even) can rid people of migraine attacks.


    LSD is part of a big family of tryptans. There are over-the-counter relatives, like sumatriptan (imatrex) that use the same mechanism to abort migraine attacks.

  35. @sethmanapio:

    As a sceptic and an economist, I welcome sceptical attention into my discipline.

    When people begin substituting articles of faith (Real Estate always goes up) over evidence (Real Estate values fluctuate over time) then the world economy actually gets screwed up.

    The technical term is “speculative bubble” and they pop up now and then in different asset markets. Basically they’re a classic case of the madness of crowds. There have actually been some experiments conducted as to how to deal with them. The news is not encouraging, bubbles are effectively to impossible to identify until they’re well under way and effectively impossible to stop. The best preventative measure (apart from having a market dominated by highly experienced traders) is keeping monetary policy tight, which supports the hypothesis (one of many) that Greenspan contributed to the crisis by keeping interest rates too low for too long.

    I’m going to go out on a limb: It seems to me that in politics and economics, people use faith based thinking to enrich themselves at the expense of others just as much as they do in any other area.

    One could argue that this is the primary activity of lobbyists and politicians.

    The recent pump-and-dump of the entire world economy by Goldman-Sachs* should have made that abundantly clear.

    Its not really a pump and dump. For one thing the global economy is too robust to be so badly affected by one company, even one like Goldman-Sachs. Bubbles aren’t caused by deliberate deception, but rather by temporarily self-fulfilling excessive optimism on a grand scale. That’s not something you can engineer.

    Of course, the bubble came as no surprise to economists, we all knew there was a bubble. Was took us by surprise was the effect the bubble popping had on securitised mortgages. Which goes to show you how the lack of one detail can completely derail one’s understanding of how the whole system operates.

  36. I think there should be more discussion about topics that aren’t directly related to natural science, such as pseudohistory, postmodernism, and irrational methods of literary criticism.

  37. James K: “Of course, the bubble came as no surprise to economists, we all knew there was a bubble.”

    Yeah, you may have seen it, but a lot of other people who claim to know what they’re talking about didn’t. Those people called themselves ‘economists’ too. Hell, the bubble was no surprise to me either and I was (still am) just some schmuck working in a mailroom trying to make a buck. I bought a house just before the crash last year (on purpose because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to buy one a year later), and MADE $3K off the stock market using $7K of startup cash during a time when the market dropped by over 40% (which was a good thing because I lost my job last year too). If I saw it coming, what was wrong with all those other ‘economists’ out there who were apparently blindsided? Were they applying rational thought too or were they in the same camp with the “the market will continue up” crowd?

  38. My favorite pet peeve regarding the lack of critical thinking — one which DEFINITELY doesn’t get ANY attention, much less enough — has to do with the use of the word “supernatural”. People are always making excuses for god’s apparent non-existence by calling god “supernatural”. So, to counteract, I would just like to share a piece of philosophy of mine…

    I think there is one root, primal failure of thinking that all religions are guilty of, and hence they will never be correct, and never can be correct. This failure of thinking has caused innumerable problems throughout time, and will continue to do so, until people get it right in their heads…

    This is the concept I would like to share. Repeat after me, and repeat it every time you hear superstitious/religious nonsense:


    There CANNOT be such a thing as the supernatural, ever: it is a logical impossibility.

    The “natural” is, simply put, everything that exists. Calling something “supernatural” is in effect saying that it doesn’t exist.

    Or if you will, consider the “natural” here and the “supernatural” (maybe that which we haven’t discovered yet?) out there: Now, it is always possible to draw a new, bigger, more inclusive circle around both the “natural” and the “supernatural” (think Venn diagrams) — this then becomes the new “natural”!


    The “supernatural” has the same problem as that old argument about “things that exist” versus “things that don’t exist”. If it doesn’t exist, it’s not a THING. Existence is not a property that “things” either have or don’t have.

    Anything, and everything, that actually exists, must, by definition, be considered “natural”. Any other position is a fallacy of thinking.

    Even if there are multiple universes, in multiple dimensions, there is always a bigger conceptual circle that encompasses all the universes. That bigger circle is the “natural”.

    If there are ghosts, i.e. if ghosts “exist”: Hey, bingo, they must be natural. If you can see them, if they have any effect in our world whatsoever: Bingo again, they exist, they are part of the “natural”. You can call them “supernatural” if you like, because they’re see-through, or because they walk through walls, or because they’re pretty different than your average flesh-and-blood person, but that’s just a fallacy of thinking… They are either REAL and EXIST, in which case they must by definition be “natural”, or they don’t exist. Simple.

    Another way of thinking about it: The “natural” (i.e. all of existence) should be defined as the circle such that there is nothing outside the circle, by definition.

    I really wish people could get over this logical fallacy. It would instantly make the world such a much more rational place.

    If I had to pick a religion, I think the Deists (like the Founding Fathers) came closest to the truth. They recognized that the only way you were ever going to find or understand “god” (if he/she EXISTS) was by examining the universe (i.e. become scientists). If god EXISTS, then you just might find god him/herself during the course of your research. If he/she doesn’t EXIST, but maybe did at one time (created the Universe?) at least you could get to know god through examining his/her creation — like getting to know an author you’ve never met, and never could meet, just by reading their books…

    That’s all. I just had to share. It drives me up a wall so bad when I hear people mention the “supernatural”. It’s so stupid. Stuff either exists, in which case it’s “natural” — or it doesn’t exist, in which case it is NOT “supernatural”… it just doesn’t exist, period.

    I think every person on earth should be required to take a class in logic — and pass it. If they did, I’m sure there would be a lot less religion in the world.

    Thank you for your time.

  39. romeo_echo: I agree with you that ‘supernatural’ is a logical fallacy, but not for the same reason you do. “Natural” is not the same thing as “reality” The way the word is SUPPOSED to be used is something like: A tree in a forest is natural, a bicycle in a forest is unnatural. The closest synonym to natural is “normal” not “real” Something that is natural exists according to it’s nature. It is unnatural for a human being to grow three eyes. It is unnatural for a human to have psychic abilities. It is also impossible for a human to have psychic abilities, but impossible and unnatural are different things.

    Something can be UN-natural. It can’t be SUPER-natural. The reason people used supernatural to begin with was that these woo-woo things they thought were happening they thought had something to do with God or Satan, but since there is no God and no Satan, then Supernatural has no meaning. In modern speech, Supernatural grew to mean anything to do with ghosts, psychic ability, possession etc regardless of it’s connection to religion.

    According to the dictionary, the only definition that seems to apply here is: “departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature”

    That’s the part that makes no sense. If humans have psychic abilities, or if ghosts exist, then it is, by definition, part of the laws of nature. Saying something is supernatural is technically like calling something in the air you can’t identify a UFO. Of course it is, but you’re not really defining anything except what you don’t know about the object or phenomenon.

    If I can’t explain it, and it apparently defies what I know of how the universe works, then it IS supernatural, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an explanation for it that is perfectly normal. It just means that I can’t think of it at the moment.

  40. WOW

    after reading the comments about economics on here – economics DEFINITELY needs to be added to the list.

    Also, there are tons of areas skeptics don’t do:

    1.) How badly the new atheists get things wrong

    2.) How badly misinformed skeptics in general seem to be about Islam, especially Muslim women

    3.) What Christians actually believe v. what skeptics think they do/OUGHT to believe

    4.) Facts about investing and finance

    5.) Facts about health care (soooo many people get this wrong – and furthermore, a lot of people I talk to about health care use anecdotes, logical fallacy anyone?)

    6.) Wal-mart – and how it actually has made us all better off (this actually goes in the econ dept)

    7.) The fact that not only are there reasonable, well found, logically consistent positions for naturalism, atheism, and agnosticism – but also forms of theism, forms of Christianity, etc.

    8.) Fair Trade – at least when it comes to coffee, the good feeling ppl get when they envision a poor coffee farmer in S. America getting a few extra bucks is no different than wishful thinking after investigating this business

    There’s more, but a long comment #60 will never get read anyway

  41. @David Plumb:
    1.) Such as?
    2.) Such as?
    3.) What specific beliefs do we ignore that are “actually” believed in and which beliefs do we claim Christians believe that they don’t?
    4.) Such as?
    5.) Skeptics don’t do health care? Are you joking?
    6.) Penn & Teller aren’t skeptics?
    7.) Hahahahahahahahahahahaha! Er, I mean, such as?
    8.) Um, what?

    So, you might be able to argue something about how the liberal approach to globalism needs more skeptical scrutiny, but the rest of your post is an unsubstantiated whine.

  42. I’d have to say the biggest one for me is astrology. You run across people who toss off “But he’s a Leo, so I could never go out with him” or “For some reason, I tend to love Sagitari” or whatever.

  43. Astrologers are also the easiest to debunk (probably why no one spends enough effort to do it)

    I have discovered that nothing works as good as reading someones horoscope to them (but actually reading a different sign than theirs) The next day, ask them how it worked for them. When they tell you it worked good, tell them what you did.

    At the very least, they won’t bring it up to you again.

    I also notice that astrology is the type of woo-woo that usually gets the disclaimer: Only for entertainment purposes. Mostly because horoscopes are an “also ran” in newspapers and magazines and they don’t want to get sued. It strikes me as hilarious that the publications that carry these things KNOW it’s bunk, yet they do it anyway.

  44. David Plumb:
    points 1, 3 , 7: Religion fails the rationality test because its anti-Occamian, it postulates the existence of additional kind of stuff in the universe (gods, souls etc) that have no explanatory power. While its certainly possible to reconcile a belief in gods with a broadly sceptical outlook, this is more a testimony to the human capacity for compartmentalisation than anything else.

    Point 2: Most English-speaking sceptics live in countries where Christianity is the dominant religion. But there are people in the broader sceptic / rationalist community who do write about Islam. Christopher Hitchens and Ophelia Benson spring to mind.

    Points 4, 5, 6, 8: I think more attention in areas like this would be a good thing though as A Noyd pointed out Penn and Teller have covered Wal Mart before. Mind you points 4 and 5 are pretty vague, care to elaborate?

    As an aside, you seem to be operating under a misapprehension about the political beliefs of sceptics. While its true that the bulk of politically-affiliated sceptics tend toward US liberalism, there are a significant number of broadly-libertarian sceptics, most notably Michael Shermer and Penn & Teller.

  45. @David Plumb: Wal-mart – and how it actually has made us all better off (this actually goes in the econ dept)


    This is more of an article of faith than it is a description of reality. For one thing, it hinges on the definitions of “all of us” and “better off.” There are definitions of “all of us” that make that statement true (wal-mart stockholders) and other definitions that make that statement false (say, ace hardware stockholders). If you mean that the US GDP is higher with walmart than not, or that we have something with Walmart that we wouldn’t without it, that statement is practically unsupportable, given the vast complexity of the question and the enormous number of variables.

    What would be possible might be testing some market, say, Mount Airy NC, with a Walmart, versus some other community of similar composition and economy without a Walmart, and maybe debunk some specific claims that are made about Walmart. For example, there may be measurable differences in income or health care access or whatever that can be reasonably attributed to the existence of the Walmart. But saying that Walmart makes all of us better off is just too broad of a claim.

    One thing skepticism can do is to try to move the conversation away from those kinds of statements and towards realistic ones. When people say “Health care is a right” or that they don’t want “Government involved in healthcare” or whatever, what exactly do they mean? How can we reduce these broad statements to specific issues that can be discussed in meaningful ways?

  46. @James K: Bubbles aren’t caused by deliberate deception, but rather by temporarily self-fulfilling excessive optimism on a grand scale. That’s not something you can engineer.


    Why not? From where I sit, it doesn’t look that hard. You have one guy keeping interest rates down, one guy maintaining regulatory ignorance, a couple of guys in treasury… once you create the CDS market, the rest falls into place.

    Like I said, I’m not sure that it is that simple. But I do know that the people who made money (GS, for example) were hedged against this collapse in some way, which they couldn’t have been if they were blindsided by it.

    I’ve talked to at least one economist who is convinced that this was a case of massive, criminal fraud. Maybe it wasn’t precisely a pump-and-dump scheme… but the idea that GS was blindsided is not supported by their market positions, behavior, or profits.

  47. James K: “While its true that the bulk of politically-affiliated sceptics tend toward US liberalism, there are a significant number of broadly-libertarian sceptics, most notably Michael Shermer and Penn & Teller.”

    And I’m an Atheist and a skeptic and I don’t like Democrats, Republicans OR Libertarians.

  48. @sethmanapio:
    Its normal to hedge against unpredictable events, that’s what hedging is for. In any case, the best thing GS had going for them on the risk management front was having a bunch of GS alumni at the Fed (including Bernanke) who were convinced having GS go down would bring about the apocalypse. Nothing hedges you better than an implicit guarantee from the US government.

    The thing to remember about financial markets is that there are serious hard limits to predicting their behaviour. The people who make out big in times of crisis are usually just people who decided to hedge against a risk everyone else thought was to minor to be worth hedging against.

  49. @James K: The thing to remember about financial markets is that there are serious hard limits to predicting their behaviour.


    Well, yeah. That’s my area of research: simulation and modeling of complex systems. But GS had Bernanke, who was using laughably naive economic models to justify his absurd behavior. They had Paulson there to save AIG. The guy who distributed the TARP money was a GS alum.

    But to your point, you don’t have to predict market behavior to understand that the housing bubble was going to collapse eventually, especially if you are instrumental in creating the bubble. Given some ability to influence interest rates, public policy, and bank behavior (which GS had), an indept knowledge of the CDS market (which they had) and the ability to manipulate interest rates, it isn’t difficult to pump the real estate market and dump. It isn’t clear that you need to be able to predict market behavior to manufacture a crash in a given sector. You do need to predict market behavior to manufacture a solid recovery.

    But let’s assume that I’m wrong, and GS had no intentional role in creating the housing bubble. It’s sort of secondary anyway.

    The main point is that we should be looking at those hard limits of prediction when people start hand waving and predicting the effects of tax policy, health care policy, or stimulus packages. Skepticism should be applied when either supporters or detractors of any particular bill start talking about its inevitable results, because we may not be able–as you point out–to predict those results to the degree that they say we can.

  50. I find myself in agreement with Amy & co. about basic critical thinking skills.

    I also again find myself in agreement with both infinitemonkey, who first mentioned applying skepticism to politics and economics, and with all of Seth’s arguments. There are many logical and scientific claims made by many politicians and economists that do not stand up to scrutiny. If you say you simply ideologically disagree with somebody, that’s fine and outside the realm of skepticism. But, to take the example already given, if you say you ideologically disagree with constructing death panels and thus vote against a healthcare plan, you have been mislead by misinformation and skepticism is the perfect tool for the job.

  51. I think it’s imperative that we focus on helping with general knowledge about skepticism. There’s many people out there who don’t have any idea about what it even is. Too many people out there buy into bullshit and they get taken advantage of. I think it’s a real shame and we need to get people into the idea of doing more research before making a decision.

  52. @sethmanapio:

    The main point is that we should be looking at those hard limits of prediction when people start hand waving and predicting the effects of tax policy, health care policy, or stimulus packages. Skepticism should be applied when either supporters or detractors of any particular bill start talking about its inevitable results, because we may not be able–as you point out–to predict those results to the degree that they say we can.

    I strongly agree. Its easier to predict what will happen to a small part of an economy in response to a policy than it is to predict what will happen to the whole thing over time, but even so caution must be exercised.

  53. Sorry I’m joining this late. But I just wanted to put my two cents in as it doesn’t seem it has joined in the discussion yet. I think that drug prohibition is one topic that needs a lot more critical attention. We’re all taught early on how bad drugs are, and a lot of people never question that, and accept prohibition as the de facto reaction to something bad (regardless of how harmful that policy itself is). In reality, most of the people who “do” drugs, even on a regular basis, don’t let them interfere with their day-to-day lives. Breaking down those stereotypes is important, I think, at getting rid of prohibition. People still cringe at things like safe injection houses and pharmaceutical heroin and methadone… Yet harm reduction is what has the growing base of evidence behind it.

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