Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Correlation causes Annoyance

“Correlation does not equal causation.” “Anecdote is not evidence.” “The plural of anecdote is not ‘data’.”

They seem to be the skeptical response to almost every woo-claim. If I left the house and talked to real people in real life, I’d probably use those phrases in real conversations.

At the same time, those phrases are my skeptical pet peeve. Yes, they’re true. Yes, they are important rules for us to live by. But I feel like they are used to dismiss any correlation or anecdotal claim out of hand. It’s as if the phrases are “Correlation does not equal causation and any correlation always means nothing more than coincidence” and “Anecdote is your story of personal deception or confirmation bias”. In fact, I’ve seen some pedants even dismiss facts because they included anecdotal information around them (i.e., This happened to me and it was only then that I learned…”, or a personal account of how something factual affected someone, or dismissing this AI out of hand because it’s a personal anecdote.) The thing is, correlation means that there is something connecting two things… and those two things may or may not be related. And an anecdote may not be proof, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless, and anecdotes are an effective way of spreading information and helping people understand it.

I also hate when believers are described as “stupid”.

What is your skeptical pet peeve?  Is there anything skeptics do that gets under your skin at times?

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


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. It doesn’t sound like you find these potent skeptical tools peeving rather their application in tactless or boorish ways. Science reporters especially should have “correlation does not equal causation” tattooed across their knuckles.

    We as skeptics should not dismiss what other people say “out of hand” not only because there might be something sensible sandwiched in the woo, but also because you can’t take advantage of a teachable moment without listening to what others are saying. Last week I came across a person who claimed echinacea cured her cold. Instead of asking for the peer-reviewed double-blind study confirming her belief, I listened patiently and asked a bunch of questions. Does it matter what you take with it? What else was different? New foods? New clothes? New route to work? Then we started talking about how one could tell which if these had cured the cold. I think she came away with a tiny corner of understanding about the scientific method which maybe will eventually lead her to evidence-based medicine.

    I’ve thought about this more I and don’t have any skeptical peeves. I know a few skeptics who I find chafing, but that has more to do with personality than skepticism.

  2. @davew:

    Chafing? hmm… most people use the words “grating” or “obnoxious” or “the order says at least 50 ft, away” when talking about me… so maybe there’s another skeptic out there who is just as annoying as me?

  3. Many self-identified skeptics I know are too quick to dismiss things. There are certain subjects we do not know enough about to form firm opinions on, or on which reasonable people can form equally valid, educated opinions, but many skeptics I know refuse to accept that. One example of such a topic is organic food.

    I would define skepticism as rational open-mindedness; sometimes, “skeptics” I interact with are less open-minded and instead are determined to disprove, discount, and disbelieve everything – deliberately contrarian, in other words.

    But I agree with DaveW – this is often more to do with a given indivual’s personality and less with their skeptical worldview.

  4. @Elyse

    : -)

    My guess is if we ever met face-to-face I’d like you just fine. I was thinking about people more like the Sheldon character on Big Bang Theory, but with less charm. I’ve known a few very smart people who are usually right, but toxic in very small doses in conversation.

  5. My personal skeptical peeve is when a skeptic takes undue advantage of the fact that believers don’t understand critical argument and – frequently – don’t even understand the details of their own beliefs well enough to mount a defense in the first place.

    The most pertinent example I can consider for this is when a skeptic of theism challenges a Christian believer on the concept of the Holy Trinity.

    Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot of stuff in Christianity that’s gruesome and/or just plain wacky. But the Holy Trinity isn’t one of them.

    It’s a simple concept. For the sake of argument, let us grant the core claim of most Christians that God is too grand for the human mind to encompass. Christians still need a metaphor by which to talk about God, even as they admit that this metaphor is inadequate.

    Sometimes, the metaphor of a paternal figure is applicable. Sometimes, the metaphor of the person of Jesus Christ is applicable. And sometimes, the metaphor of a vaguely omnipresent force, labelled the ‘Holy Spirit’ is applicable. None of these are truly accurate approximations for what is regularly stated to be an inherently un-graspable concept. But throughout the history of Christian theology, these metaphors have been considered enough to cover most of the contexts in which priests and theologians wish to talk about God in the first place.

    Now the simple fact of the matter is that most Christian believers (or woo beleivers in general) aren’t good at thinking critically. They don’t bother to examine the context or background of their beliefs, they just believe them without logical justification – which is one of my major beefs with woo believers in the first place.

    However (and it’s a big however) it ticks me off no end when a skeptic – my otherwise ally – takes advantage of a believer with no critical reasoning skills by leveling accusations about the inconsistency of the Holy Trinity (or whatever) at them. There’s plenty of valid criticisms to be leveled against believers.

    We shouldn’t be relying on our superior grasp of the method of argument in order to get away with making bad arguments. That’s what William Lane Craig is for.

  6. i’m most irritated when skeptics dump on woo as being untrue because it is not possible for it to be true or because they don’t think it’s true, not because there is no reliable evidence which points to it being true or reliable evidence that it is untrue. E.g. I wouldn’t say ‘ghosts don’t exist because there is no evidence for them’, I would say ‘There is no convincing evidence that ghosts exist, therefore at this point i don’t believe in them’. As Perry on SGU (and many others) used to say, you follow the evidence wherever it leads you. I have the feeling that some skeptics are ‘true unbelievers’, in that they are as quick to pooh pooh remarkable claims as the credulous are to latch onto them, even when the evidence has not been gathered or scrutinized. When I tell people I’m a skeptic, some say ‘does that mean you don’t believe in anything?’ I usually respond by telling them that I believe in things which are demonstrably true and do not believe in things which are demonstrably untrue – and on things which do not or cannot fall into either group, i reserve judgement. Then they usually stare or go talk to someone else.

  7. I haven’t noticed this on this particular blog, but on some blogs, some skeptics are very quick to assume that being atheist is the only way to be a true skeptic, AND they are very quick to blame religion for nearly everything bad that happens, ever. I especially hate it when they say moderate religious people don’t count because they’re not following their own holy book, but extreme religious people are extra super bad because they don’t follow their own holy book. For example, one person will say that Christians who are accepting of homosexuality don’t really count because they’re not real Christians if they accept homosexuality. However, that same person will say that that the guy who murdered Dr. Tiller is bad because of his religion, even though the Bible doesn’t condemn or forbid abortion. It’s basically the argument that moderate people are good in spite of their religion, and extremists are bad because of their religion, and there’s really no way to refute that argument.

  8. @Elyse: “The thing is, correlation means that there is something connecting two things… and those two things may or may not be related.”

    Whoa there, my favourite and bestist skepchick. Correlation does not mean that there is something connecting two phenomena, it just means that “When this happened, this happened” it doesn’t mean there are in any way even slightly connected that’s why we talk about confidence intervals and probabilities.

    It’s a bit of a pet peve of mine that more skeptics don’t have a statistical grounding and even more of a pet peve that the skeptical community doesn’t do more to address this. How many of the skepchicks know how to formulate a null hypothesis and design and experiment to test it?

  9. @ Elyse, “correlation means that there is something connecting two things”.

    Actually it means nothing of the sort if I read your statement correctly. Often a connection is so tenuous as to be meaningless with regard to determining some form of causation. That correlations are frequently meaningless and often misleading might be a better statement to a woo cam/alt med believer.

    As for as my own pet peeve I’d have to say that many skeptic I know will dismiss those with religious beliefs out of hand and assume all kinds of things about them because of a few anecdotes concerning the most appalling fundamentalists, and with out any recognition for a religious persons generosity or progressive rational views in other areas.

  10. @catgirl: Perhaps more importantly (to my mind), there are better reasons to criticize moderate religion.

    Regardless of how fair the argument is, criticizing moderate believers for not following their religious texts to the letter is just a weak argument to be making in the first place. There are plenty of better arguments available.

  11. @russellsugden:

    I probably phrased that wrong… by connected I don’t mean an actual causal connection. For example there is a “connection” between MMR and autism, and the “connection” is the age of 18 months, but not that MMR causes autism.

    Does that make sense? If not, I blame Moose… there is an anecdotal correlation between every time I screw up and Moose being in the room!

  12. @granular_serene: Yes you follow the evidence but likelihood based on prior probability is a reasonable reason to make statements like ghosts don’t exist. Also given all the efforts to find and prove there are supernatural beings seems to present a more than compelling amount of evidence to make an emphatic statement. A lack of evidence despite enormous protracted and dilegent efforts to find evidence seems like a lot of evidence to me.

  13. @russellsugden: I don’t want to start a flamewar, but –

    “Correlation” does imply a connection – the strict definition of the term is as follows:

    1 : either of two things so related that one directly implies or is complementary to the other

    2 : a phenomenon that accompanies another phenomenon, is usually parallel to it, and is related in some way to it

    In addition, one does not have to have a technical background in statistics or hard science to be a skeptic…and if it bothers you so much that the authors here do not live up to your standards, why do you bother to read the blog?

  14. @lemsroberts: [sigh] Correlation does not imply causation. Honestly. I’m not being a prick but I’ll refer you to wikipedia

    @Elyse: I’m not saying everyone has to be a statistics bod (that’s only for my fantasy life) or that you can’t be a skeptic without being a statistics bod but a few educational elements wouldn’t go amiss, otherwise we’re just sat around arguing based on whose the most accomplished writer.

  15. My skeptical peeve is that when politics enters the equation, a lot of skeptics turn into “true believers”. Suddenly everyone becomes an expert on sociology, economics, criminal justice, education and a bunch of other fields as well. I think by and large, skeptics (and I count myself as a skeptic and probably do too much of my own peeve) do a good job at applying skepticism to issues like religion and science. It’d be nice if I saw some of that skepticism turned towards one’s own political beliefs.

  16. Skeptics who refuse to use anecdotes because the data should be enough. Yes, it should. But, no, it isn’t. Give a sexy, heart breaking, exciting anecdote and back it up with numbers. But numbers alone are only sexy, heart breaking and exciting to a small portion of the population.

  17. I think my biggest skeptical pet peeve is skeptics who can’t have fun unless it is scientifically rigorous. Folks who get annoyed at fantasy novels, or who refuse to take “Yeah, I know 2012 was inaccurate, but I like to see shit blow up” as a reason to see something perpetuating woo.

  18. @Mark Hall: I agree. People take themselves way too seriously. In certain situations it’s necessary, but honestly… If I think watching a ghost-hunting show every once in a while is funny and entertaining, don’t tell me I’m a bad skeptic for “supporting” the idea.

  19. @Chelsea:

    This is ironic, but I completely agree with you. Sometimes skeptics decide that they have to agree with everything that other skeptics do, or even that others who disagree with them aren’t Real Skeptics(TM). That drives me nuts!

    @Mark Hall:

    I completely agree with this too. The point of fiction is that it’s not real. There also tends to be a lot of hypocrisy, where geeky stuff like Star Trek gets a pass even though it’s incredibly implausible that intelligent life developing independently on different planets would be similar enough to interbreed. But if we can be entertained by that, why not other things that are clearly fake? Sometimes it just seems like plain old snobbery to me.

  20. My skeptical pet peeve is when skeptics gripe and grouse about a particular use of a term or word, when that use has no substantial value to the conversation at hand.

    Like on this thread, where there seem to be at least as many posts debating whether “correlation implies a connection” as there are actually answering the gorram question.

    Sorry to go all meta, but ARGH! that really is my biggest pet peeve.

  21. @russellsugden: “I’m not being a prick but…”

    You’re complaining that authors at Skepchick have no statistical background, disagree with the dictionary definition of a word, and yet you refer people to Wikipedia?

    Sigh, indeed.

  22. @Chelsea: [sigh] Two events happening with no connection.

    “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” is the fallacy of causation. One thing causes the other after the fact (e.g. getting older makes you taller)

    “Cum hoc ergo propter hoc” is the fallacy of correlation or if you like connection. One thing is linked to the other (famously e.g. When the crain turns left the market goes up when it turns right the market goes down)

    I actually teach statistics to medical/pharmacy students and this is one of the hardest things to get your head around. It’s really hard to explain without sounding like a cock.

    Any relationship between variables may just be an unconnected coinsidence.

  23. @Chelsea: I wonder if any ultra rational skeptical parents are like the fundy Christian parents who won’t let their kids read Harry Potter or similar stuff because it’s full of eeeevil woo.

  24. @lemsroberts: The first defination uses a different meaning of the term “implies” to what we mean in mathematics. The second definition is a non-mathmatical definition and may be just about passable in everyday idiom but, frankly wrong.

  25. @catgirl: Yes! It works both ways. There are the YesMen and the WhyAren’tYouAYesManAgreeWithMeDammit types. And everywhere that skeptics convene, they speckle the group. It’s obnoxious.

    @James Fox: I’m sure that there are! It’s sad. When they turn it into a dogmatic scheme, they’re just as bad as the people they claim to be so wrong.

  26. @Mark Hall: I think my biggest skeptical pet peeve is skeptics who can’t have fun unless it is scientifically rigorous. Folks who get annoyed at fantasy novels, or who refuse to take “Yeah, I know 2012 was inaccurate, but I like to see shit blow up” as a reason to see something perpetuating woo.

    But picking movies apart for scientific accuracy is how I have fun!

    I have no problem suspending disbelief enough to enjoy a good fantasy book or movie. I have more of a problem when it comes to science-based or near-future stuff. If the story teller is going to claim it makes sense logically and scientifically then it better make sense. In a Battlestar Galactica I watched recently they “carbon dated” a stone temple. If the character had just said “I know it’s X-hundred years old ” without trying to explain I would have been much happier.

  27. The disagreement seems to be over the meaning of the word connection. In the case of “X happened, then Y happened,” the connection is their juxtaposition in time. Or more specifically, someone’s perception of their juxtaposition in time. There may not be any causal relationship, and they may not have anything to do with each other. But they are connected in some way, or else we wouldn’t even be having a conversation about it.

    “I took Zicam and then my cold went away” is a connection between two events. A single person experienced both events sequentially. But it does not imply causation, which is the sense in which I think russellsugden is saying the events are unconnected.

  28. @Saganist: But it could be explained by a coincidence. The fact that someone sees or imagines a connection between any two events does not mean that there is a connection between those two events.

    The act of a human being linking in their mind two events together DOES NOT mean they are in any way linked together.

    I’m so confident of this I’m prepared to stake £10,000 that any two or more events or variables you care to connect could be explained away by a simple coincidence.

  29. One of my biggest peeves, if you can call it that, is that some skeptics seem unable to deal with myth, metaphor, or anything that is not literally true or supported by evidence. I try to rely on evidence as much as any other skeptic when it comes to figuring out what the universe is really like. But I also sometimes use words such as “soul”, “spirit”, etc. as if those things really existed. They are convenient metaphors for conveying a personal experience, and I usually don’t care to start a debate about whether they literally exist.

  30. @russellsugden: I understand what you’re saying, and I think you’re using the word “connection” in the causative sense. I (and I think Elyse and others) am using the word “connection” in a different way. I think the act of a human being linking the events in their mind is the way in which they are connected. You are correct that their actual relationship may be entirely coincidence.

  31. @Saganist & @russellsugden:

    What Saganist said… Russell, we agree. We’re saying the exact same thing… we’re grappling on how to use and not use the word “connection”.

    Coincidence may be the “connection”. If I throw a biscuit to the dog at 4:23pm and the lights go out, the connection may be nothing more than 4:23pm… that they happened at the same time.

    I understand what you’re saying, but I think you’re being a bit pedantic and arguing over something that no one is disagreeing on.

  32. I’m not crazy about the assumption some skeptics make that anyone who believes something crazy, stupid, or weird must be crazy, stupid, or weird themselves. It is possible for smart and otherwise critically thinking people to slip up on this area or that, and the extrapolation that this person must be dumb because of one belief is insulting. And I can’t imagine it helps the perceived “us vs. them” problem with teaching people to be better skeptics.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with my psychic.

  33. This may not be a strictly skeptical pet peeve, and I’m hypocritical because I do it myself, but I find that atheists tend to conflate religious faith with religious fundamentalism. As a result we create a lot of straw men (e.g. someone who believes in creation becomes a whacko young-earth biblical literalist when in fact they may profess no such belief). And we often seem to be smug and elitist about it, like we feel we belong to a special club because we’re smart enough to see through the nonsense that is theology.

    More generally related to skepticism: I can see the point russellsugden is trying to make. It seems there is a difference between being legitimately skeptical on a scientific basis and just being a cynical contrarian.

    I’ve had enough science and statistics to get me through engineering school 15 years ago, but I’m no scientist. If I’m too lazy to rigorously analyze a claim, but I still don’t believe it am I a skeptic or a contrarian? Is it somehow better if I take Phil Plaitt’s or PZ Meyers’ word for it?

    On a macro level, and I think this is where russell was going, can you really claim to be a skeptic if you don’t have the skills (and can’t be bothered to acquire them) to analyze woo claims properly?

    How’s that for a future AI question? :)

  34. There was a post by Sam a few weeks ago about the fund raiser he was involved in and some of the prizes being given out were products of woo, and a handful of people lost their minds over it. So what if he ended up being the middle man in some woo factory’s dealings? He is not guilty of being a conman in the same way that you are not guilty of murder because if you had been at a certain location a few seconds earlier or later and unknowingly prevented a murder.

    Lighten up people!

  35. @DeanFromBC:

    And we often seem to be smug and elitist about it, like we feel we belong to a special club because we’re smart enough to see through the nonsense that is theology.

    Well… In all fairness, atheist skeptics do belong to a special club pf people who have seen through the nonsense that is theology.

    The mistake is in the assumption that we’ve seen through it because we’re so gosh darned clever. I think that is a problem with contemporary atheism as well as skepticism in general. There’s a temptation to think that we see through nonsense because we’re clever.

    I think that’s not a pet peeve so much as a very huge and valid criticism of skeptic tactics. A person doesn’t have to be particularly clever to think skeptically.

    I think a good campaign for skepticism in general would be to frequently repeat the talking point that skepticism is an empowering set of tools that are open to anyone, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of braininess. Same for ethnicity, gender, political ideology and religious/spiritual belief system. Skepticism is open to all.

  36. @russellsugden:

    Epidemiological studies showed that women who were taking combined hormone replacement therapy also had a below-average rate of coronary heart disease. Further controlled trials showed that hormone replacement therapy caused a small increase in coronary heart disease — the exact opposite of what the correlation seemed to suggest. Correlation didn’t imply causation, but both events were connected because women who happened to be from high socioeconomic status had lower coronary heart risk and were more likely to take hormone replacement therapy, and that was the true cause of the lower heart risk.

    I think that is Elyse’s use of the word.

  37. @russellsugden: Even I can see I’m being a bit strident about this, but this really is skeptisim 101 stuff


    Actually, as sporefrog points out, it is not skepticism 101 stuff. Elyse is perfectly correct in her use of the term correlation.

    Skepticism 101 stuff is refraining from constructing strawman arguments. For example, here you wrote in response to lemsroberts “[sigh] Correlation does not imply causation.”

    Did the comment you were responding to contain the word “causation”, or imply that correlation must imply causation? No.

    She cites two definitions, one of which is

    2 : a phenomenon that accompanies another phenomenon, is usually parallel to it, and is related in some way to it

    (emphasis mine)

    Obviously, she makes no such comment. Nor does Elyse. Nor does anyone else. But you continued to berate the point as if people had claimed that correlation implies causation, and is if events cannot be connected by time, space, common cause, coincidence, or any number of other things that are not causation.

    In other words, you constructed a straw man of Elyse’s point, lems-roberts’ point, and Saganist’s point. Then you used that straw man to parade your superior knowledge of math around as if it were adding value to the conversation–much easier, I suppose, than actually using your knowledge to add value to a conversation.

    And that sort of behavior is my pet peeve.

  38. I have a variety of pet peeves. One is the assumption that many people who believe in ideas we consider to be silly are either stupid or ignorant. Similarly, promoters of ideas are automatically assumed to be con-artists. This may be true with some of them but many are themselves true believers. One shouldn’t underestimate human capacity for self-deception. And it often isn’t the individual’s fault.

    One example where this comes up often is quote mines used by creationists. People often act like creationists using the quotes are either stupid, ignorant or evil. However, it is important to understand that to many religious individuals, quotes can be taken from religious texts with minimal or no context and applied as evidence. The problem is epistemological. The solution thus is to explain that while proof-texts might be valid in their theological setting, science doesn’t work that way.

    Another pet peeve is failure to understand the background knowledge of the people you are talking to. Random creationist you are talking to probably doesn’t know what the difference is between a genotype and a phenotype. Michael Behe probably does. But the default assumption made is that creationists (or alt med people) have a lot of science background. We don’t need to assume that and then use big words that intimidate them. This just makes people shut down and not listen. Similarly, some people will actually change their position if you rip them into little tiny pieces. Most of them will respond better to a polite version of the Socratic method.
    However, if there’s an audience of bystanders then tearing the person into little tiny pieces will likely do a better job with the bystanders.

  39. My pet peeve is when somebody’s opinion on a scientific dispute is rejected because of their lack of relevant qualifications – eg I think “George Monbiot is just a journalist” is as invalid and lazy as “Ian Plimer is just a geologist”.

    Address the _arguments_ people!

  40. @granular_serene: I say “I don’t believe in ghosts because there is not evidence,” and I say that because I don’t like to split epistemological hairs. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t change my mind if good evidence showed up. My choice of phrase does not make me a closed-minded “true unbeliever;” I can only be that if I, in fact, refuse to change my beliefs in the face of new evidence.

    It is, in fact, one of my pet peeves when someone says “You’re just a closed-minded/dogmatic/etc. because you say you don’t believe in something.” No, I am not. I apportion my belief to the evidence. No belief? No evidence. New evidence? New belief.

  41. My pet peeve is related entirely to a recent incident when I commented on a post over at Pharyngula. I offered a dissenting opinion. You’d think I had smeared blood on my pants and jumped into the piranha tank. I was immediately told by the regulars that I was either (a) a troll or (b) a sockpuppet for someone who had been previously trolling.
    Don’t take me the wrong way. I later realized I had made a bad argument because I wasn’t familiar with the news story that was being discussed. (I made the suggestion that we could, you know, MAYBE be a little nicer to religious folk SOMETIMES to gain their ear and possibly make a more convincing argument, instead of attempting to be surly to anyone who claimed belief in a god and driving them to believe all atheists were assholes.) But I certainly didn’t appreciate being branded a troll, an idiot, a sockpuppet, and so forth.
    Basically I hate when a skeptic turns a teachable moment into name calling and derision. Telling me WHY I was wrong would have worked better than shouting me down and calling me an idiot.

  42. @Jparenti:

    There are a lot of things that I don’t like about the comment section of Pharyngula. It’s bad enough that I only read the posts now and I rarely venture into the comments at all. To be fair, they encounter a lot of trolls, so they are probably just annoyed and frustrated easily. However, I’ve really noticed the “us vs. them” mentality over there. I’m not actually an atheist (just agnostic, I guess), and I can’t even mention it over there without people getting really angry. Rather than try to convince me to join their atheist club, they just suggest that I’m not a True Skeptic if I don’t agree with everything they believe in. One of the reasons I don’t want to give myself the label of “atheist” is because of the connotation that has been given to the word by people just like them. Sure, the dictionary definition might just mean “a person who doesn’t believe in any gods”, but they refuse to hear it when I suggest that words also have connotations based on the group that uses that word, and their group is no different than any other. You could call me a non-believer who is tolerant of moderate religion. That might technically count as “atheist”, but there are plenty of people over at Pharyngula who will insist that a True Atheist must be hostile to all religion. They really do tend to be hostile to any opinion that doesn’t agree with theirs.

  43. My biggest pet peeve is when I come up with the perfect analogy or example to use in an argument fifteen minutes after the argument has petered out and the other person has walked away.

  44. My biggest pet peeve is that athiests – with their strict belief in non-religious belief – don’t concede that their “faith” is in many respects just the same (and frequently as extreme) as faith in organized religion. Belief is belief – whether you choose to believe in something or not to, it’s a system you’ve committed to. I’m a firm believer in believing what you want to believe, as long as you’re not using your faith as a cudgel for anything. That includes die-hard athiests.

    I’m not really a religious person (I like to say I’m actually non-practicing Shinto), but I grew up culturally Catholic. And despite all the crap that the RC can push out there as an institution (and I’m the first to call them on the overly dogmatic shit), I know plenty of individual priests and nuns who are the most amazing, giving, intelligent, educated, dedicated and reasonable people you’re ever going to meet. Their faith fills them with kindness and practical wisdom and graciousness, and the Church fuels and supports their dedication to public and community service. I have a hard time arguing, then, that organized religion is a purely bad thing, and that everyone who practices it is a slack-jawed, neo-con jackass.

    Besides – faith in religion sometimes provides more comfort than concrete knowledge in science can provide. My mother – who was recently diagnosed advanced metastatic colon cancer – now has her rosary discretely on her night stand. This works in concert with the kick-ass medical care she’s getting from her oncologists (who work with NIH and Sloan Ketterling doing research). While she’s doing what can be termed as “miraculously well” or “improbably well” on her chemo regimen, those numbers aren’t always enough for her emotionally. If saying a rosary helps her, who am I to tell her that it’s “stupid” when she wakes up in the depth of the night because her chemo pump beeped, and her hovering mortality hits her like a ton of bricks?

  45. Well MY real pet peeve are these so-called skeptics that decide to jump into the conversation a day late! Oh wait….

    Hello. *sheepish*

    I think @catgirl covers one of mine, the assumption that in order to be a skeptic, one muse be an atheist. Even those of us who are atheists just don’t want to talk about religion all the time!

    @Chasmosaur: Unfortunately, you highlight another pet-peeve of mine, which is the common misunderstanding that atheists have a “strict belief in non-religious belief.” That may be true in a few cases, and I agree that’s an indefensible position. However, many of us who identify as atheists define it quite literally as “no belief in gods.” It says very, very little about what that person does believe. It’s clear that atheism needs a bit of a PR campaign to clear up this misunderstanding!

    And finally, my 2cents on the correlation debate, though I think @Saganist already covered it quite nicely, is that scientists use correlations all the darn time. In astronomy, we measure a, b, c, d, e, f, etc, and then plot one against the other and look for correlations which could clue us in to the underlying physics of whatever we are observing. To automatically assume that a correlation between d and f means d causes f would be fallacious, but the correlation is still scientifically important.

    Distinguishing between a real correlation from events related in time, that is the problem we see time and time again with anti-vaxxers or alternative medicine.

  46. This has been on my mind a bit lately, so I thought I’d actually try commenting for once…

    I’ve been to my local Skeptics in the Pub a few times and what really irritates me is the people that seem to be under the impression that Question Time exists for them to prove they are more intelligent than everyone else in the room, or alternatively as an opportunity to try out their mini comedy routine before they actually ask a question.

  47. @catgirl
    “For example, one person will say that Christians who are accepting of homosexuality don’t really count because they’re not real Christians if they accept homosexuality. However, that same person will say that that the guy who murdered Dr. Tiller is bad because of his religion, even though the Bible doesn’t condemn or forbid abortion. It’s basically the argument that moderate people are good in spite of their religion, and extremists are bad because of their religion, and there’s really no way to refute that argument.”

    Actually, the first part of that statement, “…one person will say that Christians who are accepting of homosexuality don’t really count because they’re not real Christians if they accept homosexuality. is a nice restatement of the “True Scotsman” fallacy.

  48. @Nicole:

    I agree and understand. I’ll clarify…

    The athiests I dislike are the ones who misunderstand the word and use it like a blunt instrument. Kind of like the super-conservative Christian right who nitpick the Bible for their own purposes.

    I know plenty of athiests who are more moderate and true to the term. But I’ve known several of the other type, and they annoy the snot out of me.

    The moderate middle is just not easy to sound bite, so it’s not sexy for MSM production and consumption.

  49. What ZenMonkey said, except the bit about the psychic, cause that’s proof positive that he/she is “crazy, stupid, or weird”.

    Also people, of any sort, who don’t show the self restraint I’ve almost developed, and can’t stop themselves from either a) responding to trolls, or b) immediately responding someone they assume to be a troll with derision and lame in-jokes.

  50. @Chasmosaur:

    I completely agree with your position. “Atheist” no longer means simply “not believing in any gods”. Whether they like it or not, it has a different connotation. We need a new word that basically means “non-believer who is tolerant of moderate religions”.

  51. @catgirl: Hmm… My knee is jerking, but first:

    Can we define ‘tolerant’, exactly?

    The latest wave of atheism (I’m a member) IS tolerant in the sense that it feels believers have a right to hold an incorrect opinion. They’re allowed to be wrong. And so long as their belief is private and not infringing on the rights of others, then all power too them. I may not agree with what they believe, but I will defend to the death their right to believe.

    Yet when that faith comes into the public sphere, that’s different. The price of coming into the public sphere is that you become open to criticism – and religion, moderate or otherwise, shouldn’t get a free pass.

    So by what is – to my mind – a functionally sound definition of ‘tolerant’, the new wave of atheism is extremely tolerant – especially when contrasted against what the scriptures of various faiths have to say about nonbelievers.

    That said, if by ‘tolerant nonbeliever’ we mean someone who thinks that any given religions creed – including ‘moderate’ strains of religious creeds – should be immune from criticism simply because they are ‘religious’ or ‘moderate’… Well, there’s a word for that already in usage: Faitheist.

    Mind you, I prefer ‘spineless’, but that’s just me. ^_^

  52. @Nicole: Totally agree on the correlation issue. Correlation represents a real numerical association. That numerical association may or may not be an indicator of a real causal phenomenon. It is generally a first step to generating hypotheses for planning more rigorous studies. That is, correlation is not useless but the devil is in the interpretation.

    Never been to a SitP but in other scenarios, I HATE it when people do that, too. Although it is awesome when that backfires on people: they spend part of the time thinking up their showoff-y question and miss out on the part where the speaker was addressing exactly that topic. So they just end up sounding like a jerk who wasn’t paying attention.

  53. @catgirl: I don’t think this is fair to the modern atheist movement. No one is in favor of outlawing religion or even restricting it beyond that it shouldn’t be imposed on others (something many religious individuals would agree with). I’ve met exactly one person ever who thought that religion should be outlawed. The individual was a 15 year old. None of the major proponents of atheism today are anything less than tolerant. Tearing arguments into little tiny pieces isn’t intolerant.

    Moreover, no matter how polite the modern atheists are they are treated badly. Look for example at Daniel Dennett. Dennett is polite and indeed quite moderate. His main argument in Breaking the Spell his most well known book is simply that people should try to rationally examine religion and the nature of religion.

    The sort of statements that are labeled intolerant when made about religion are mild when used in other areas such as about politics or sports. Religion doesn’t deserve a free pass. Refusing to give religion a free pass doesn’t make one intolerant.

  54. @catgirl: I completely agree with your position. “Atheist” no longer means simply “not believing in any gods”. Whether they like it or not, it has a different connotation.


    “Atheist” is given a different definition by people who want something to point to and say “but you have faith in non-belief”. I have never personally met an atheist who has unquestioning belief or faith in the non-existence of gods, fairies, gnomes, or anything else. I have only met atheists who do not believe specific claims made without supporting evidence by believers in gods, gnomes, fairies, or whatever.

    In addition, I have repeatedly been told that I have”faith in the non-existence of god” by believers regardless of how many times I protested that I did not hold that position, and tried to explain that I simply did not accept their specific claims about the existence of god.

    So I hypothesize, based on my admittedly limited experience, that the sort of atheist that you and Chasmosaur are complaining about is a mythical atheist, a sort of rhetorical punching bag that believers use to argue with because it is easier than engaging any actual atheist and the positions that they actually hold.

    There’s a name for that… it’s right on the tip of my tongue…

  55. Just to get back on topic: Stephen Novella has a post up that talks about this very issue.

    If A correlates with B, then A may cause B, B may cause A, A and B may be caused by a common variable C, or the correlation may be a statistical fluke and not “real”. Further studies are then required to confirm the correlation and any specific causal hypothesis.

  56. @russellsugden: “I’m so confident of this I’m prepared to stake £10,000 that any two or more events or variables you care to connect could be explained away by a simple coincidence.”

    Ohhh… I had to stop reading the thread right here to try and get my money. I postulate that there is a causal connection between the fertilization of a woman’s egg by a males sperm in a human, and a child being born approximately 9 months later. The only limitations I place upon this connection are that the fertilized egg is allowed to attach to the womb and nothing interferes with it for the intervening 9 months.

    Oh.. by the way, I don’t accept personal checks.

  57. @MoltenHotMagma: postulate that there is a causal connection between the fertilization of a woman’s egg by a males sperm in a human, and a child being born approximately 9 months later.

    C’mon, MHM. We’re not buying that. Sex-theory relies on an obvious co-incidence. Everyone knows that the unifying theory of human reproduction is the Stork Theory. Get with the program, already! Sheesh.


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