The dysfunctional relationship between skeptics and true believers

I question what I'm told, a great deal - so I could be called a skeptic.  I'm not a devotee of any pseudoscience and I agree with a great deal of what is said by skeptics. 

But the skeptical blogs and skeptical commentary online, and magazines like Skeptical Inquirer, are very far from the skeptical ideal of rational questioning.  There's a lot of ridicule.  For example, Orac on the Respectful Insolence blog likes to call the Huffington Post a "wretched hive of scum and quackery".  And what does it tell you when someone flaunts their insolence - when they say flat out that they are "presumptuous and insulting in manner or speech; arrogant; audaciously rude or disrespectful" (dictionary definition)?

Insults attract people who need a target, who want some Other to gang up on and put down.  If they are annoyed by their job, if they want to feel superior to someone, they can look up Respectful Insolence, and find an easy target, served up in a blog post.  The action is in the comments.  The commenters are generally in two sharply demarcated groups.  There are the people who post confirmation comments - anything agreeing with Orac, even if it's only an expression of prejudice, will be left unchallenged. 

Then, there are the the adherents of whatever alt-med protocol Orac is attacking, who comment to defend it.  Since Orac usually chooses easy targets to attack, the defenders are usually obviously deluded, and they don't make a rational defense.  They don't (because they can't) give solid references for their claims.  So, they are easy pickings for the confirmers of Orac, who - almost always in a kind of "gang", without disagreeing with each other - jump on the "altie" to tell them how wrong they are, by insult or in a judgemental way.  This is the pattern, post after post.  It's a Two-Minute Hate (a concept from Orwell's 1984). 

The "insolence" of the blog posts and the easy targets that Orac chooses, create this dynamic.

The Science-based Medicine blog has a similar dynamic.  If you take issue with things that are said there, you will very likely be "rebutted" with standard skeptical observations - even if what you say is not advocating alternative medicine.  It's quite insulting to be taken as expressing some simplistic prejudice that you don't believe in. For example, in answer to a comment I made, somebody posted rebutting the naturalistic fallacy - the idea that "natural is better".  My comment did not assume that natural is better. 

Orac's adherents are actually prejudiced themselves, in the opposite direction from the alt-med believers.  For example, Orac recently blogged about traditional Chinese medicine, and he started his blog with

Most, if not virtually all, of what is now referred to as “traditional Chinese medicine” is quackery.

I don't know how to evaluate "most" there, so I can't comment on his statement.  TCM is mostly herbal medicine and acupuncture, but I don't know what the most-used herbal remedies are, what acupuncture is most often used for, and how many of those uses have been shown to be ineffective. 

But Orac's adherents take that kind of statement and run with it, for example stating flatly that herbal remedies don't work. 

But an apparently even-handed evaluation of Chinese herbal medicine by NYU Langone Medical Center does give research evidence for some Chinese herbal remedies. 

Similarly with acupuncture:  the attitude on these skeptical blogs is that acupuncture doesn't work.  This particular post was by Steven Novella, but Orac says similar things. 

But the NIH Consensus Statement on acupuncture says

acupuncture may be a reasonable option for a number of clinical conditions. Examples are postoperative pain and myofascial and low back pain. Examples of disorders for which the research evidence is less convincing but for which there are some positive clinical trials include addiction, stroke rehabilitation, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, and headache.

The skeptical sites purport to be giving you the real scientific scoop, but it appears they actually take a hostile reactive position, biased against alt-med claims.  I say "appears" because it's possible the National Institute of Health and Langone Medical Center are being "inclusive" of alt-med rather than quite scientific.  The NIH consensus panel did include an acupuncturist, and that sounds like politically-motivated "inclusiveness".  And Langone does have an "integrative holistic urology" program - so perhaps they are motivated to make the research sound more positive than it actually is. 

But "Science-Based Medicine" did show a hostile reactive bias when they let a pharmacist blog about Food allergies - facts, myths and pseudoscience.  They allowed a pharmacist to present the purportedly "science-based" stance on food allergies.  Instead, they should have had a post by an immunologist familiar with the current research on non-IgE food allergies and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which the pharmacist was ignorant of.

It's a common error of skeptics to assume that "not knowing" implies "knowing not". 

For example, Brian Dunning said in one of his InFact videos that people who don't have a wheat allergy or celiac disease, don't need to be on a gluten-free diet.

I informed him that research has shown that some people do better on a gluten-free diet even though they don't have celiac disease or a wheat allergy - with links to research papers.  It's called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).  Brian Dunning did change his message. 

But, his original statement would have been wrong even if research hadn't shown the existence of NCGS - because science doesn't know everything!  If someone does better on a gluten-free diet, then they should be on a gluten-free diet, and a good doctor would tell them that. 

Brian Dunning assumed that science knows everything about the body's reaction to gluten, which is VERY far from the truth and caused him to give bad medical advice. 

A lot of skeptics probably think of skepticism as the noble goal of fighting delusions - bringing science to the ignorant.  But if they assume that "not knowing" equals "knowing not", they will only antagonize the people they are trying to reach. 

Many alternative-medicine protocols have SOME grain of truth in them.  It's easier to sell people on a protocol which does provide some actual benefit.  The protocol might also be exploitative and actually causing harm in other ways, as skeptics rightly point out.  But, if the skeptics' oppositional mentality prevents them from acknowledging why people might get some benefit from the protocol, it will discredit what they say about exploitation and harm. 

For example, there are a lot of special diets - "alternative" diets - that are gluten-free.  People who are gluten-sensitive might feel dramatically better on these diets.  That doesn't mean they need the entire special diet. 

Who are the skeptics - the people who take an interest in debunking popular credulities?  Many people disbelieve in alternative medicine etc. - but aren't interested in hearing about it.  It gets very boring to read over and over about the irrational things that some people believe.  The active skeptics are not the same as the disbelievers - why do active skeptics take such an interest in irrational beliefs? 

David Leiter, who was once a member of a skeptical group, claimed that many of its members had an "unfortunate experience with a faith-based philosophy" at an earlier period in their lives, and that they had sought an organized skeptical group as a reaction to this.  Probably many of them were wounded by religion as children - a religious upbringing has profound psychological effects in a way that having a parent who believes in homeopathy, for example, is unlikely to. 

The skeptical doctor-bloggers are motivated partly by professional defensiveness.  They wish to fend off "creeping woo" in medical practice.  Many mainstream MD's do enthuse about alternative medicine and dish out useless advice about "natural" remedies.  And perhaps it aggravates doctors to hear, over and over again, the same irrational claims from their patients. And some of the skeptic-doctors, just like their adherents, have a (perhaps unconscious) need to heap contempt on something.  Orac seems emotionally messed up. 

And why would I read these skeptical blogs, you might ask? 

It's certainly not to find out "what science says".  The skeptics are not reliable sources of information about science.  Actual medical researchers are much more informative and less likely to make unfounded assumptions.  If I want to find out about the current state of medical research, I go on Medline and read research papers and review articles.  If I want to find out about the current state of scientific knowledge, I look at science journals. 

No, my motivation is much more personal.  I go to those blogs because I came from an abusive family where people constantly denigrated each other.  My father showed "impenetrable condescension" - a brother's description - and when I was a child he dominated me into a kind of profound silence (abetted by my mother's violence).  If any of us children resisted or talked back he would erupt into terrifying rages, screaming insults and sometimes hitting us. So now, going to those sites is my way of doing the talking back, challenging and "speaking truth to power" that I didn't get to do as a child.  When I comment on those blogs, it is usually to correct some exaggeration, error or bias that I see. 

Perhaps as a safe way of resistance, I committed long ago to not being myself insulting and denigrating.  Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov shows a lot of psychological insight, and one thing his Abbott Zosima say is "Avoid contempt, both of others and of yourself".  I agree with that - contempt is a kind of emotional toxin. 

I'm often not aware of my motivation when I go to skeptical sites.  I'm coping with physical illness, debilitated by illness and I'm not much in touch with my feelings as a result.  Sickness becomes my "personal story" when I'm sick, rather than my personal development or exploring the wounds from my past. 

Spending time and energy on responding to other people's toxic emotional stuff, does waste a lot of time, and perhaps as I get over my sickness - I am slowly getting better - I will be more centered. 

Comments are moderated for thoughtfulness (including thoughtful disagreement).  I do not want to host comments that are empty or jeering on my blog.

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Comment by Čenek Sekavec on October 31, 2013 at 4:04am

I've noticed that I tend to think that other skeptics won't have bias or make analytic mistakes. This happens to everyone, but the more of an authority that a skeptic seems to be the more dismaying it is when they show their bias. 

One quick comment about natural remedies. When I was a teen I went to a doctor for a particularly bad sinus infection. When he told me he would be prescribing antibiotics I asked him a few questions. I learned that the medicine was ineffective at clearing the infection but that they would insulate the rest of me while my body cleaned itself out. I asked if there were any alternative and he said yes there was a procedure that nurses performed on bad cases where hospitalization was required. I got him to teach me the procedure (a simple saline solution irrigation technique), bought the supplies, and was better in 2 days. The antibiotic run would have been 2-4 weeks. 

Comment by Luara on October 30, 2013 at 8:03pm

ps What I do these days if people make unfounded claims - like the many anti-vaxxers around here - is to present them with evidence against their beliefs.  I might point anti-vaxxers to Paul Offit's vaccine education website.  Or tell them about the whooping cough cases around here. 

People have done research on how to persuade people and change their minds, and the way to do it is definitely not ridicule. 

Comment by Luara on October 30, 2013 at 7:49pm

I quite like some of Orac's articles

I agree with most of what the skeptics say, myself - as I said. But, ridicule won't persuade many "true believers" in nonsense, away from their beliefs.  It will just make you look prejudiced and mean, to them.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on October 30, 2013 at 7:20pm

Frankly Luara, I quite like some of Orac's articles, especially the on on "Well Look Who's Anti-Evolution as well as Anti-Vaccine and Anti-Medicine...

http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2013/10/23/well-look-whos-anti-ev...

Where he attacks Mike Adams, (Head of NaturalNews.com) and the attacks are indeed warranted, he probably doesn't scathe Adams enough.

I support Rational Critical Thinking, which is essentially Skepticism at it's best.

It appears that Orac is similar to myself, in that unless a procedure or ideology has been through verification by Replication, as most genuine scientific procedures and ideologies have, it cannot be considered as having any Factual basis.

I have always tried to follow similar rational to what you would learn in the James Randi Education Foundation's 10 part online Lecture series on "How to Think About Dubious Claims"

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8MfjLNsf_mg9p_Dl2jLbMPxiCVwh...

Here's a link to the PDF course guide:  http://jref.swmirror.com/20730

It's the same teachings by Ray Hyman in these lectures that I have practiced most of my life.

Everything is dubious, unless it can be replicated many times with consistent results.

This is why I follow science and genuine medicine knowledge so closely.

When people publish and push dubious claims that have actually failed to produce results as if they will, like Mike Adams has allowed to be published in his rag. ( derogatory name for a magazine) then they absolutely deserve being ridiculed and publicly humiliated.

Orac doesn't go far enough in ridiculing such abusers of public information.

Because their publishing nonsensical pseudo-science is contaminating the mindware of our fellow humans, rendering them into becoming deluded fools and incapable of discriminating between reality and delusion.

If I had a public domain Blog, I'd ridicule many of those in even more demeaning terms.

Look at that course and you may understand where I'm coming from.

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