Pseudoscience Kills

Is skepticism negative?  Wouldn’t it be nicer just to believe what people tell us.

No.  Skepticism is the practical application of critical thinking.  It’s a vital aspect of science and it can save lives.  Not being sufficiently skeptical can cost lives.

Here’s an example:

“An attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan earlier this month left 28 people dead. One suspected cause of the security breach involves a questionable bomb detection tool used by the Pakistan Airport Security Forces.”  (From the CBC Radio 1 program The Current, broadcast on Friday, June 20, 2014.)

The tool they were using to supposedly detect bombs is a type of dowsing rod with an antenna attached.  The antenna swings freely.  The device has no electronic components.  Like any other form of dowsing rod, the device itself does nothing.  Nothing at all.

Absurdly and horribly, the Egyptian government recently purchased a number of almost identical devices which are supposed to detect people who are infected with HIV.  Just imagine the harm that this is likely to cause due to false positives and false negatives!

Skeptics have been warning against relying on this sort of fraudulent device for many years.  For example, here’s one such blog entry from 2009.

People – yes, even intelligent people – believe in such things for a number of reasons.  They are taken in because these things are described with scientific-sounding terms, they are dazzled by a demonstration by a “skilled practicioner”, and so on.  They see what they think is a device that works as advertised and they buy it.  Some governments have spent millions on these completely useless devices.  The point I’m hoping you’ll understand here is that  an impressive demonstration accompanied by scientific-sounding jargon is not scientific validation.  When you see something that appears to work, even though it defies science and reason, don’t accept it easily.

Have you ever watched a magician at work?  Magicians are an honest liars.  They tell you that they’re going to fool you and then they fool you.  Peddlers of pseudoscience often do much the same sort of thing except that they tell you that they’re telling you the truth and then they do their best to fool you.  They’re dishonest liars.  Both magicians and peddlers of pseudoscience can be very convincing.  That’s how they make their living.  Enjoy the magicians, knowing that they’re fooling you, and learn to be critical of the promoters of pseudoscience.

A personal, subjective experience is not scientific validation, either.  I have a good friend who is well-educated and is quite obviously very intelligent.  Yet, she believes in homoeopathy and in dowsing for water because, in her personal experience, they appear to work.  Neither homoeopathy nor dowsing can pass when subjected to double-blind scientific examination but, for some people, that’s not the point.  They value their subjective experience more highly than they value scientific methods of investigation.

In my view, valuing subjective experience over scientific methods of investigation is a mistake.  In many cases, that sort of mistake might be harmless but, quite clearly, it many other cases it can cause considerable harm.  Bogus bomb detectors let bombs kill people.  Relying on homoeopathy and other pseudoscientific “remedies” can lead to more serious illness or death if they replace legitimate medical science.  Believing that vaccines don’t work or that they cause autism leads to outbreaks of preventable diseases that sometimes have serious consequences, including disfiguration and death.

If you’d like to listen to a few informative interviews on the subject of the dangers of pseudoscience and not applying critical thinking skills, The Current on CBC Radio 1 did a pretty good job on that this past Friday morning. For that, go here.

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