Tuesday, July 24, 2012

But It's Not Hurting Anyone!

What we have here in the title is perhaps the most common objection skeptics receive when we criticize an scientifically unproven "alternative" treatment. Those who utter this treacherous phrase usually do so with the best of intentions. The only problem is, they're almost always wrong.

The harm caused by snake oil treatments isn't necessarily obvious in every case. Disasters happen now and again, but usually the effects are very subtle. Here are some reasons, in general, why buying treatments of unproven efficacy would be a bad thing.
  1. Ineffective treatments fail to prevent suffering. While patients may still benefit from the placebo effect, that effect is also present for treatments that really work. Snake oil wastes precious time that could have been spent actually treating the patient's ailments.
  2. The chance of harmful side effects on the user. Acupuncture, for example, can expose people to serious infections, while detoxing can cause severe malnutrition. Naturally, scientific treatments can have side effects as well, but those that are approved for public use are well documented, and their benefits have been conclusively shown to outweigh their risks.
  3. The chance of harmful side effects on the environment. For example, many remedies in Traditional Chinese Medicine are made from the body parts of rare animals like rhinoceros horns, tiger penises and bear bile. This can cause these animals to suffer unnecessarily, or to be hunted to endangerment and even extinction. This has far-reaching consequences not just for an individual species, but potentially for an entire ecosystem. 
  4. Money is being wasted on companies who contribute nothing to society. Not only does this discourage the researchers and manufacturers from pursuing other more productive careers, but they will also use that money to market new brands of snake oil, perpetuating a cycle of medical ignorance.
  5. Conversely, that money isn't going to more rigorous companies. This is money that could have been used for new and even more effective treatments, advancing medical science to new heights. And when science-based researchers and manufacturers are deprived of much-needed funding, they're that slight amount more likely to go out of business altogether.
Again, the damage caused by the purchase of a single alternative supplement is usually very small. But just as the seemingly insignificant votes of individuals can decide the fate of entire nations, those purchases add up to create entire industries of harmful "alternative" treatments. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a Power Balance bracelet contributes to a culture of scientific illiteracy that we should be trying our utmost to break away from.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Political Sites for Skeptics

I'm not going to delve too far into political issues with this blog. But since skepticism is a big part of what I write about here, I thought I'd take a few minutes to present some of the online resources I would recommend for skeptics to use when following politics.

If verifying political claims is your goal, both PolitiFact and FactCheck are invaluable resources. I especially like PolitiFact for its quick Truth-O-Meter ratings. Both parties tend to champion the sites when it supports them or attack them as biased when it doesn't—in other words, politics as usual. I won't claim that these sources are "true neutral," as that's difficult if not impossible to come by, but if they have a secret plot to further one side over the other, they've done a great job hiding it. Unfortunately, the sites are far from comprehensive. Apparently thorough, balanced reporting actually takes some time and effort—who knew?

As far as political discussion forums go... well, there's a subreddit for everything these days. I generally steer clear of the hard-left sensationalism of r/politics, in favor of smaller and more thought-provoking places like r/2012elections, r/PoliticalDiscussion, r/ModeratePolitics and r/NeutralPolitics. The first is highly topical, while the second is an open space for talking about every political idea under the sun. Even if you're not a moderate, chances are you'll still enjoy the latter two, as the focus is on civil discussion instead of creating an echo chamber. I like to view these four in unison as a single multireddit.

Want predictions and polling numbers? RealClearPolitics does a decent job of compiling the national figures, but FiveThirtyEight is the best source for polling data and data-driven political analysis I've found. It's run by Nate Silver, a professional statistician with an amazing track record of correct election predictions—49 of 50 states in the 2008 elections, for example. His model for predicting the 2012 outcome pulls in (among other things) virtually every state poll in the country and even corrects for systemic biases (e.g. registered versus likely voters). And his daily blog posts probe the nuances of political science in a completely detached, non-partisan tone. If you want to know who's going to without all the wishful thinking and daily gossip, this is your place.

Finally, I'll end with a decidedly partisan source: RightWingWatch. While there are unquestionably plenty of fringe wingnuts on the left (and let me know if you know of any reputable sites that compile madness on that side of the aisle), I'm including this one mainly due to its exemplary coverage of the extreme religious right. There are people in relatively influential positions who say things which are absolutely bonkers, but would fly under everyone's radar if RWW didn't cover it. They'll have a sensationalized headline now and then, but on the whole their reporting is an accurate portrayal of just how radical the fundamentalist faction of politics can be.

Being a skeptic with regard to the supernatural is relatively straightforward—it's just a matter of waiting until some phenomenon with sufficient evidence comes along. With politics it's a lot harder. To take a proactive stance on positions that have real impacts on millions of people is no small task—especially when the few objective facts available, are massaged and twisted beyond recognition. It's such a vicious and insular culture that keeping up can be exhausting, but with the help of these resources, I can at least be confident that I'm not completely in the dark.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Shifting Focus

I haven't written anything here in a while now—seven weeks, to be precise. There are a few reasons for that. One is a reduction in free time now that I have a full-time job on my plate. Another, frankly, is laziness. I still have a decent amount of free time, but I spend far too much of it on television and internet browsing. But perhaps most importantly, the original purpose of this blog has been accomplished: I've laid out in some detail why I'm no longer a Christian, and I'm (partially) out as an atheist.

So, what now?

Well, ever since I created this blog at the beginning of 2011, the subheading has been "My Reasons for Leaving Christianity." At the time I came up with it, I didn't yet consider myself an atheist yet—that happened a few months later.

But at this point I have more than enough reasons for leaving the religion I was born into. Despite my lingering bias towards Christianity, I feel I should be shifting focus a bit now that I really have migrated fully to the other side. And just what is the other side, anyway? Well, that's now answered explicitly in my new blog tagline:
Leaving Christianity and Embracing Skepticism
Although I call myself an atheist, it doesn't mean very much in itself to "embrace" atheism. It's only a stance on a single question, so I wanted a more positive and encompassing term to describe myself. I would also consider myself a freethinker and possibly a humanist, but "skeptic" really captures the basis of what I think atheism should be rooted in: applying proper standards of evidence equally to all claims, not just theistic ones.

I'll still have plenty of criticism for Christianity here—after all, it makes sense to stick with what I know. But the harm religion causes is just a small part of the harm caused by credulity in general. Fundamentally, it's the notion that belief can be justified without sufficient evidence that opens the door to belief in everything from vaccine denialism to faith healing to repressed memory therapySo sometimes I'll be delving into a skeptical topic that's unrelated to any religious theme. But it'll all be for the same basic purpose: to help, in my own small way, to build a more informed and rational world.

In the past I've also tried to funnel my efforts into very detailed and involved posts. But that high bar has been a big part of my drop in motivation, and I'd rather have shorter, simpler posts than none at all. That doesn't necessarily mean a drop in quality; it just means that the deep analyses will be interspersed with pithier observations.

With these two changes, I hope to start posting a bit more often. Welcome to the next chapter of Reflections from the Other Side!