Tag Archive | "skepticism"

Why Believing Without Demanding Proof is Close-Mindedness


One common joke among skeptics goes as follows: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.” Not only do I find this joke unfunny, I also find it pointless. If a person wants to take openness to new ideas to its logical conclusion, she will not end up being gullible or credulous. Rather, she will be a skeptic. True open-mindedness is not the same as accepting assertions without critical consideration. In fact, believing claims without being critical of them results in having a closed mind.

To see this, consider the following example. Suppose a friend of yours earnestly claims that he is being haunted by ghosts in his house. He tells you that he hears whispers inside his house even when he is alone and no television is turned on. During some nights, he hears cries or wails in the basement, even when nobody is there. He even catches glimpses of these ghosts walking around in the small hours of the morning. Worst of all, they sometimes appear behind him when he is looking at himself in the mirror, but the moment he turns around to face the ghost, it has already disappeared.

If you uncritically accept this friend’s allegations without demanding clearer evidence other than his vague anecdotes, you are closing your mind from all other possible hypotheses. You are rejecting many other possible explanations without giving them due consideration. You are being close-minded. By hastily jumping into the conclusion that he is being haunted without systematically investigating the causes of his experiences, your friend is being close-minded too. He has exhibited prejudice against the alternative hypotheses without giving them the deliberation they deserve. That is the definition of having a closed mind.

If you are open to all ideas, you should consider false perceptions such as pareidolia as a more plausible explanation for many supposed ghost sightings. [Photo credit: Pedro Luis Gomez Barrondo]

If you open your mind to competing ideas, you will fairly consider other explanations. One explanation for most ghost sightings is the phenomenon of pareidolia. [Photo credit: Pedro Luis Gomez Barrondo]

Consider the alternate explanations for your friend’s experiences. First off, he may be lying. History is replete with examples of people who claim special access to the spirit world, but who turned out to be charlatans. But suppose he is not lying. Suppose he has really experienced all the things described above. Well, he might be suffering from episodes of delusion. Perhaps some haughty neighbors are playing tricks on him. Or maybe an unusual but natural phenomenon is taking place in his house, one that is amazing and surreal but that does not require supernatural explanations. In fact, the phenomenon going on in his house, or possibly in his mind, might be yet unknown to scientists. His experiences might lead to new discoveries once close investigation has been done. True open-mindedness requires you to consider all these plausible scenarios and assess their likelihood in light of the evidence. In the absence of evidence, open-mindedness also requires you to withhold judgment.

But the cases where we truly lack evidence are very few. When it comes to people’s behavior, for example, we have plenty of evidence for errors in perception, credulity, or even fraud. The case of people claiming to be haunted is well-known and well-documented. There is plenty of evidence showing that people suffering from delusions sometimes claim to be tormented by spirits; treating the mental illness at the root of these delusions often make the “spirits” go away. There is plenty of evidence that elaborate pranks can be sometimes played by people on their neighbors and friends; I myself can relate to the pleasure of giving a friend a harmless fright. Furthermore, there are also a lot of natural phenomena that, when experienced, gives one a sense of the surreal and supernatural. Imagine seeing a Pepper’s Ghost illusion, or being victim to a case of pareidolia, or seeing a St. Elmo’s fire atop a mast near one’s backyard. Some buildings have acoustics that lead to the propagation of voices coming from far, far away. If you are in such a building, you can hear the murmurs of unseen speakers. If a person unfamiliar with scientific thinking experienced any of these or similar phenomena, it is easy to see why he would be tempted would jump to a supernatural explanation. A close inspection of these phenomena, however, does not reveal the supernatural, but only the super in what is natural.

It is a shame that so many people have the mindset that nature is dull and that any extraordinary experience can only be attributed to supernatural causes. This is lamentable because the lessons of our discoveries in science tell us otherwise. Science has shown that, contrary to our intuitions, nature is extraordinary and subtle, its workings no less than mind-blowing. Hastily supplying supernatural explanations for one’s extraordinary experiences is closing one’s mind to the beauty of the world. The lack of critical thinking leads to a close-mindedness that is blinding.

If you content yourself with a lazy explanation for an  astounding experience, you will lose a golden opportunity to learn something new about the world and the human mind.

If you content yourself with a lazy explanation for an astounding experience, you will miss a golden opportunity to learn something new about the world and the human mind. [Photo credit: chelanschool.org]

Does having an open mind mean treating all ideas as if they were all equally valid? Are skeptics being close-minded when they reject some explanations in favor of others? These and similar questions arise from the confusion between treating ideas equally and treating them fairly. Treating an idea fairly means giving it consideration by assessing its merit based on the evidence. If you treat ideas fairly, you will quickly discover that most of them are baloney and only a few are meritorious. Being open-minded requires you to treat ideas fairly, not equally. Believing in competing and often logically incompatible views of the world is close-mindedness; an open mind admits valid evidence and logic. Truly open-minded people know that not all ideas are created equal.

Worse than closing one’s mind to many possibilities, the lack of critical thinking leads to the practice of placing too much confidence on insufficient and flimsily evidence that have undergone very little examination. In short, not thinking critically leads to intellectual laziness and arrogance. Advocates of woo and the paranormal often accuse skeptics of being arrogant. What these fans of the supernatural fail to realize is that skepticism is not just a safeguard against being fooled by others. Skepticism is first of all a safeguard against being fooled by oneself. As the physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you shouldn’t fool yourself, and that you’re the easiest person to fool.” This realization is at the heart of skepticism. It is what make skeptics cautious and fastidious. It is what gives them intellectual humility. In the end, critical thinking is not just the direct implication of true open-mindedness, it is also the product of true intellectual humility.

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FF Podcast (Audio): Michael Shermer (Conversations for a Cause)


Conversations for a Cause: Michael Shermer

Conversations for a Cause is a series of interviews with celebrity freethinkers, part of an online donation drive to support ongoing Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) relief and rehabilitation efforts.

This week, we talk with author and founder of The Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer. We discuss whether God is dying, atheism vs skepticism, and why smart people believe in strange things.

You may also download the podcast file here.




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Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

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Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

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A Conversation with Michael Shermer


Conversations for a Cause is a series of interviews with celebrity freethinkers, part of an online donation drive to support ongoing Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) relief and rehabilitation efforts.

This week, we talk with author and founder of The Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer. We discuss whether God is dying, atheism vs skepticism, and why smart people believe in strange things.

You may also download the video file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

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A Conversation with James Randi


Conversations for a Cause returns with an interview with The Amazing Randi. We ask him about The Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge and his experiences in testing fantastic claims by people who call themselves psychic.

You may also download the video file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

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A Conversation with DJ Grothe of JREF


This week, we talk with DJ Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. We discuss freethought, scientific skepticism, and social justice activism.

You may also download the video file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

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FF Podcast (Audio): Rebecca Watson (Conversations for a Cause)


Rebecca Watson of Skepchick

This week, we talk with Rebecca Watson of Skepchick, about using skepticism to address sexism and social justice issues. We also talk about her show with The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe as well as some of her book picks.

You may also download the podcast file here.




Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

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A Conversation with Rebecca Watson of Skepchick


This week, we talk with Rebecca Watson of Skepchick, about using skepticism to address sexism and social justice issues. We also talk about her show with The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe as well as some of her book picks.

You may also download the episode file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

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Hiwaga and Humbug on Philippine TV


In recent posts on Facebook and Twitter, the social media accounts of the ABS-CBN show Hiwaga asked the following question: “Ayon sa teorya ni Charles Darwin, nagmula ang mga tao sa unggoy… kaya maari bang bumalik uli tayo dito? (According to the theory of Charles Darwin, humans came from monkeys… so is it possible that we will go back to being monkeys?)”

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 10.15.47 AM

 

This leading question, even if not representative of the entire content of the episode, is still reprehensible for its sensationalism of the theory of evolution, a sensationalism that can contribute to worsening the public’s misapprehension of Darwin’s theory. However, given the new show’s track record so far, it is likely that the people in charge of the show, including host Atom Araullo, will make monkeys out of themselves in their treatment of the monkeys-to-men question.

In this article, I will start by fleshing out my criticism of the post on Darwin’s theory, then I will go on to criticize the very spirit of shows like Hiwaga. I will extend this criticism to cover all forms of superstition, pseudoscience, and sloppy science in Philippine TV. Finally I will appeal to the show’s host Atom Araullo, who is an alumnus of Philippine Science High School and the University of the Philippines, an applied physics graduate, and an activist, to find it in his conscience to leave the program and criticize it publicly.

 

Of Monkeys and Men

So what about monkeys and men? According to the theory of evolution, apes, including humans, share a recent common ancestor with modern monkeys. Careful comparison of bones and body structure, as well as analyses of genes and biomolecules, helped establish the phylogenetic tree (a sort of family tree of species) of apes and monkeys. The tree below showing the relatedness of apes (like chimps, gorillas, and humans) and monkeys (like the Philippine macaque) explain why they have many similarities and important differences.

A tree showing the relatedness of monkeys and apes (including humans). [Image credit: www.swcs.us]

Does this say we come from monkeys? Sinasabi ba nito na nanggaling tayo sa unggoy? No and yes. What this says is that apes and monkeys share a fairly recent common ancestor. The last ancestor shared by the Old World monkeys and apes lived a bit more than 20 million years ago (mya). This ancestor probably looked more like modern monkeys than like apes, and if it were still alive today we would probably call it a monkey. In other words, we humans descended from monkey-like ancestors that lived more than 20 mya. But we did not come from modern monkeys or chimpanzees; the fellow shown in the picture below is a relative of ours, not an ancestor nor a “primitive” form of human.

The Philippine macaque, a local species of monkey. [Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org]

Why is this issue of the exact relationship between monkey and man so important as to lead me to criticize the post on Hiwaga’s social media accounts? Here’s why the theory of evolution is important.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, independently discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace, explains the origin of diversity in the living world. It tells us that all living organisms on Earth are related, but by different degrees. The modern version of the theory of evolution can also explain many aspects of living things, such as why many plants have colorful flowers, why certain bacteria produce very potent toxins, and why animals behave in certain ways.

The theory of evolution is important because we and the flora and fauna we depend on are products of evolution; to understand ourselves and the organisms around us, a correct understanding of evolution is necessary. To provide a concrete example, the rice we eat is a product of artificial selection, a process very similar to natural selection, and some genetic engineering. The recent attacks on ‘golden rice’ research in the Philippines is partly due to a serious lack of understanding about how artificial and natural selection work.

Then you should’ve listened closely in biology class. But don’t worry, it’s not too late. You can always demand more informative shows from our TV and radio stations.

Evolution also affects us not just in geological time but also in real time. The critters that plague our farms and the viruses and bacteria that make us sick undergo evolution within our lifetimes. Failure to grasp the effects of evolution on the scale of a few years can lead to unscientific and dangerous positions such as being against vaccines.

In addition to the direct importance of understanding evolution, sensational simplifications contribute greatly to the spread of misunderstandings such as that embodied by statements like “So why are there still monkeys around if we came from monkeys?”  Science sensationalism also gives fodder to anti-scientific movements like creationism.

These are but a few reasons why the theory of evolution is important, and why its sensationalism by Hiwaga and other media outlets deserves criticism. I understand that the journalistic intention behind the post is to catch people’s attentions using a language familiar to them, thereby increasing the probability that they will watch the show. That is no excuse for sensationalism. I just hope that the people behind the show, especially its host Atom Araullo, will redeem themselves during the episode itself. And this show needs a lot of redeeming, as we will soon see.

 

Superstition and Sloppy Science

Several studies have shown that the science and math aptitudes of most Filipino students are dismal. It does not help that the few science-related shows on TV exhibit sloppy thinking in their explanation of scientific concepts. Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin is a good example of this, but since using it as an example is too easy, let me use another. This clip from the GMA show iBilib demonstrates the fact that water and oil do not mix. Host Chris Tiu shows the viewers how the hydrophobic properties of oil can be use to make a “dagat in a bottle”. The show’s aim of making science accessible to Filipino kids is admirable. Unfortunately, the show, at least to me, lacks the philosophical dimension necessary to make students interested in science and not just in the tinkering of household stuff. Spectacular and cute phenomena are a great way to pique kids’ interest, but the focus should not be on the spectacle. The wow factor must simply be a means to get kids to be curious, skeptical, and scientific. If Bill Nye can make a science program just with these specifications, then I believe iBilib must do it too.

Bill Nye the Science Guy, proof that you don’t have to be sloppy to be interesting.

My beef with iBilib and similarly sloppy science programs like Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin, however, is with its frequent use of sloppy or even erroneous scientific explanations of the phenomena. The clip showing the sea-in-a-bottle demonstration is just one of the many instances where Tiu throws a sloppy or erroneous explanation at the curious people who watch his show. In the clip, the host is wrong in saying that oil and water do not mix because of their different densities. Water and alcohol mix even if their densities are different. Fresh water and saltwater also mix even though the latter is slightly denser than the former. If a science show claims things that can be contradicted by kids’ experiences, what will that tell the young viewers about science’s role in describing nature?

To Chris Tiu: Density is the reason why the oil layer is above the water layer, but it does not explain why water and oil do not mix. The actual explanation of non-mixing is more subtle and marvelous. Next time, double check and triple check your script before you say it in front of an entire nation of admiring young viewers. This is not the only instance in which you relayed wrong information to those kids. You owe them an apology and you need to make amends.

Chris Tiu, I bet your chem teacher is mad at you right now. You should’ve listened to her more. [Photo credit: teachengineering.org]

And now back to Atom Auraullo and Hiwaga. If Chris Tiu in iBilib frequently exhibits haphazard thinking, Atom in Hiwaga is mostly just peddling superstition and pseudoscience on Philippine TV. The woo starts from the very title of the program. I’m already worried about the title of iBilib, because it seems to imply that science is a matter of belief.  So you can imagine my reaction when I heard that there was another show entitled Hiwaga, a Filipino word that means “mystery”. When I saw promotional videos of the TV program, my worries about it were confirmed. In this episode of the show, for example, Atom interviews an “expert” on Feng Shui. In another episode, Araullo discusses so-called out of body experiences and “astral projections”. Still another episode entertains the possibility of premonitions.

Hiwaga is unfortunately just the latest incarnation in a long series of shows and segments on Philippine TV clearly capitalizing on Filipino supernatural and unscientific beliefs. Shows like Rated K hosted by Korina Sanchez and Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho are just a few of the other programs that ride the sensational wave of superstition and pseudoscience. The use of “umano” and “daw” in the reporting of supernatural claims rarely help, as these program hosts regularly fail to amply discuss the lack of scientific merits of the claims they report. In the end, these shows’ ‘di umanos just remind us of Pontius Pilate. What these umanos and daws effectively do is to allow the TV programs to throw mountains of claptrap into the viewing public while absolving the show runners of the guilt of misinformation. Well, I’m sorry Korina and Jessica, what you and many other journalists are doing is still misinformation. Why? Because the discussions on the value of skepticism in your shows are frequently inadequate, sometimes even watered down by closing messages that go along the along the lines of “let’s be open minded about these things” or “science does not know everything and life is full of mysteries woooo…” Your umanos and daws do not absolve you.

“There, I said ‘umano’. Now it’s time to report about ghosts hauntings, demonic possessions, and faith healing.”

To the writers, researchers, producers, and hosts of TV programs that promote superstition among Filipinos, I ask you to rethink your values. I believe I don’t need to preach the importance of science and the dangers of superstition and pseudoscience to the lot of you, you should know it by now. Hence, let me just remind you that your aim is to inform the Filipino people, not befuddle them. You should never sacrifice the truth in the name of higher ratings. I understand that most Filipinos are ignorant and superstitious, and that a show about superstition will appeal to them more than a show about skepticism. But you should give them programs that they need, not programs they want.

 

A Request to Atom Araullo

As promised in the start of this article, I will end my piece by making an appeal to Atom Araullo’s better judgment.

Dear Atom,

As a good-looking Pisay and UP alumnus working in media, you have great powers. Your responsibilities are therefore equally great, and chief among these is your responsibility of informing the public on correct ways of thinking about the world. As a science graduate, an activist, and a reporter, your duty to seek, fight for, and relay the truth demands that you rethink your role in the show. Try educating the writers and executives of the program on the proper ways of reporting supernatural claims. The local superstitions and ghost stories you tackle in the show are excellent entry points into critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific reasoning, and you should use them as such. Intriguing questions that the Filipino public can relate to are excellent in catching their attention, but since your subject matter is very sensitive, the writers should be very careful with the wording of your script. You should not forget to stress the value of skeptical inquiry and the importance of demanding extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

Finally, if those writers, researchers, and executives cannot be convinced, I appeal to your better judgment as a person to please leave that show and criticize it publicly.

Thank you.

Yours,

Pecier C. Decierdo

Science Advocacy Director

Filipino Freethinkers

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A Quick Guide to Detecting Quantum Quackery


The world of quantum mechanics is strange, that much is true. Quantum theory paints a world where tiny particles can get entangled over cosmic distances, where teleportation is possible, where uncertainty is not simply a product of experimental imperfections but is fundamental in nature, and where vacuum is a seething broth of virtual particles popping in and out of existence from nothingness. 

Unfortunately, the strangeness of the quantum world has been grossly abused either by those who do not understand quantum mechanics, or those who wish to benefit from this lack of understanding. Merchants who sell crystals claimed to have “healing quantum vibrations”, writers like Deepak Chopra who preach about the mind’s power in influencing events via “quantum consciousness”, and proponents of farming methods based on “quantum agriculture” are just a few examples in the long list of people who peddle quantum quackery. In fact, most of these charlatans altogether forgo trying to understand what quantum theory is about. For them, the word ‘quantum’ is a shroud of mystery, a veil of ignorance behind which lie phenomena forever beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny. These people not only spread bad science, they spread a value that is antithetical to learning. In other words, they promote a mindset that is anti-scientific. This is why we cannot cut these guys any slack.

Deepak Mechanics

How do we distinguish quantum quackery from genuine studies in quantum theory? In an interview with NBC News science editor Alan Boyle, physicist Lawrence Krauss gave a few tips in detecting quantum quackery. What follows are some additional quick guides to quantum baloney detection.

 

Rule of thumb #1: Quantum quacks rarely, if at all, refer to the basic principles of quantum physics.

Quantum theory involves a lot of laws, equations, and principles, although some of these are so basic and fundamental to the field that they are referred to in almost all discussions. A good example would be the concept of the wave function. The wave function is a mathematical entity that contains everything we know about the particle, like its energy or the probability of finding it somewhere in space. When something uses the word “quantum” but does not depend on the concept of a wave function or a similarly fundamental quantum concept, it probably has nothing to do with quantum theory.

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Rule of thumb #2: Quantum quacks misapply the weirdness of quantum phenomena at the wrong scale.

Soccer balls, unlike electrons, don’t diffract if you make them pass through slits. And unlike a small particle, you cannot walk through a solid wall by continuously bumping against it. There is no real-world Platform 9 ¾.

Quantum mechanics, being our best theory of matter and forces to date, governs the behaviors of electrons and soccer balls alike. However, even though the laws of physics don’t change across different scales, their manifestations do. This is true even in classical physics, and is the reason why you can’t have ants as big as elephants, or why the physics of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is all wrong (because, you know,  square-cube law). The predictions of quantum theory agree with classical mechanics in the scale of the everyday, a scale that includes soccer balls, fruits, and vegetables. You cannot treat a tomato as both particle and wave, and you cannot treat crops as if they are “entangled” with the the stars.

Um, that’s not what quantum entanglement means guys.

 

Rule of thumb #3: Quantum quacks love making vague statements that, upon close inspection, actually mean nothing.

The Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator drives this point humorously.

Random Deepak Wisdom

In infinite potentiality Deepak Chopra breeds the light for a new chaotic harmony.

Science, as opposed to pseudoscience, is distinguished by the precision of its language. We want scientific statements to be precise because we want to know how we can prove them wrong. In other words, we want to know if they can be falsified, and how, which brings us to the next rule of thumb.

 

Rule of thumb #4: Quantum quackery does not make falsifiable claims, which is an indication that it is in fact pseudoscience.

Quantum physics, being a science, makes claims that can be proven wrong by experimentation. That is something you cannot say about “quantum consciousness”. More importantly, the claims of quantum physics can be compared against measurements obtained through experimentation. This brings us to the next red flag of quantum quackery.

 

Rule of thumb #5:Quantum quacks don’t make quantitative predictions.

Quantum mechanics, like most of modern physics, is heavily mathematical. The point of all this math is to be able to make predictions that come in the form of measurable quantities. This is important because a quantitative prediction is the best form of falsifiable claim.

Shit happens. Bullshit, too. Magic doesn’t.

 

Rule of thumb #6: Like most peddlers of woo-woo, quantum quacks confuse criticism with persecution, and thus hate being criticized.

But science thrives because of skepticism and criticism. Like all scientific paradigms, quantum theory has passed the scrutiny and very high standards of the scientific community (and it has done so with flying colors). Also, like all scientific principles, you can convince yourself that it is true by performing your own experiments and calculations. And you can do this without fooling yourself or others. You cannot say the same about fields like, say, quantum agriculture.

QA

“Plants have feelings too!” Ooookay.

tl;dr: People who use quantum jargon to make their woo-woo sound legitimate fail to understand that the quantum world, though weird by the standards of classical physics, is lawful. Quantum phenomena may be baffling, but they’re not magical. So when anything involves magical thinking, it’s probably pseudoscience.

 

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Alternative (to) Medicine


The Silver Bullet. The Magic Pill. The Cure For What Ails Ya. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a miracle drug that could instantly cure us of whatever illness we might have? “Colds? Muscle pain? TB? Gonorrhea? Cancer? Pop this pill and call me in the morning.”

Sadly, no such thing exists (yet). The human body is an extremely complicated piece of machinery (Needlessly complicated in fact, that’s why it’s improbable that we’re intelligently designed, ok creationists?), and drugs that have a beneficial effect on one part of your body will likely have a detrimental effect on another part of your body. No single drug will have a beneficial effect on your ENTIRE body, unless you consider death to be beneficial.

However, there are many people who swear by such miracle cures. Pretty much all of them fall into the category known as “Alternative Medicine”.

Alternative medicine has always existed, in one form or another, throughout human history. The principles have roughly stayed the same: “All maladies are caused by some sort of imbalance in our *insert magical, unmeasureable, undetectable energy/life force here*, and the cure is *insert modality here*.”

The thing is, they only became “alternative” after the dawn of science-based medicine. Our ancestors used all sorts of “treatments” and “remedies” for every ailment, from the mundane (leaves, flowers, ground up animal parts, etc) to the outright bizarre (spells, incantations, faith healing, etc).

But we can’t really blame our ancestors because back then, our knowledge base was pretty limited. In fact, as recently as the 1860’s, bloodletting was a pretty common treatment for a lot of ailments. Even something as simple as handwashing was seen as “ungentlemanly” by doctors and surgeons, no less.

But in this day and age of advanced scientific knowledge, near instant communications, fast transport and travel,  fantastic technologies, and the incredible exchange of ideas afforded to us by the internet, there really isn’t much of an excuse to believe in Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (or SCAM, for short)…

…or is there?

Let’s try to analyze this question:

“If SCAM is bunk, then why is it so popular?”

I think it boils down to a few factors:

1. Confirmation bias:

Most people who use SCAM fall under one of two categories:

a. Those who already believe in them;

b. and those who are willing to try them either because of lack of finances, or because conventional medicine didn’t work for them.

Both these types almost always fall victim to confirmation bias. So what is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way.

The first type already expects the SCAM modality to work, so they feel better after using it. The second type is desperate for something to work, and is therefore primed to believe that it is actually working.

2. The body heals itself (most of the time):

If you’re like the vast majority of people in the civilized world, you won’t go see your doctor until your fever/cold/cough/ache is at it’s worst. Also, a significant portion of that population goes to a SCAM practitioner, instead of a real doctor.

The thing is, if we are reasonably healthy, our bodies are quite capable of fighting off most illnesses. And since we go see these SCAM practitioners at the peak of our illness, any treatment they perform (or don’t perform) is almost guaranteed to “cure” you. Thus, giving the illusion that the homeopath, naturopath, reiki master, acupuncturist, chiropractor, touch therapist, etc. is the real deal.

Now I’m sure some SCAM proponent is saying ” AHA! So you’re admitting that those who go to real doctors also have this phenomenon going for them!”

Well yes, to a certain degree. You see, the placebo effect applies even to real medicine. So you get an actual benefit, PLUS the placebo effect. This is also the reason why in science, we have this thing called the “randomized, double blinded, controlled clinical trials” to separate the placebo effect from true efficacy, something no SCAM practitioner does.

3. Personal anecdotes trump impersonal data every single time:

We love hearing stories, especially stories delivered with conviction by a satisfied SCAM victim customer. Let’s face it: Hearing a feelgood story about how some miracle product cured a person of his/her cancer is far more compelling than some boring study written on a piece of paper by anonymous scientists from thousand of miles away. This is one of the big reasons why practically every form of SCAM relies on testimonials from satisfied victims customers.

4. It feels good and is easy to understand:

Every successful SCAM modality is also very simple to understand. No technical knowledge is required. There’s no scary sounding drugs or hyper-complicated machinery to intimidate you. From vague and simple explanations of adjusting/restoring the balance of chi in your body to replenishing vibrational energy/bioenergy/life energy, just about anyone can understand it. Many SCAM modalities also incorporate soothing music, comfortable couches or beds, massages, and dim lighting to help a victim customer relax. As you might guess, a relaxed victim customer is more likely to report positive results.

And because of all of the above, many of us are quite eager to accept that these SCAM modalities work, despite the low quality of evidence that supports them. As I have mentioned before, most SCAM practitioners rely on testimonials and anecdotal evidence. They also love to cite poorly made studies, many of which are performed by themselves, and published in “pee-reviewed” (that’s not a typo) medical journals, which were made just to promote SCAMs.

5. Conspiracy theorists vs “Big Pharma”:

There is a general notion among the public that “Big Pharma” is out to get them and that Big Pharma is in bed with Big Bad Government to keep us sick in order to keep selling drugs. Many SCAM practitioners love to incite this particular fear and paranoia into potential victims customers. It’s easy to target “Big Pharma” as evil, because it’s seen as one single entity. Few people realize that in order for this “Big Pharma Conspiracy” to exist, everyone from the pharmaceutical companies’ top management to government officials, to doctors, to nurses, med techs, researchers, down to the clerks and support staff HAVE to be involved in the conspiracy. Few people stop to think that these people are human too, with their own friends and loved ones that they would like to keep free from illness.

Now, do I think pharmaceutical companies are benevolent and have only our wellbeing and best interests at heart? Of course not. As with any other business, the three main objectives of pharmaceutical companies are 1.) profit, 2.) Profit, and 3.) PROFIT. Given the choice of cutting costs and saving money vs spending a fortune on efficacy and safety trials, I’m pretty sure which path the pharmaceutical executives would rather take.

But this is why the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. The FDA keeps a close eye on them. These companies spend billions upon billions of dollars on R&D, efficacy trials, and safety trials. They have to, otherwise they won’t have a product to sell. This is also why most real medicine costs a lot.  In fact, the rules and regulations are so stringent that roughly 85% to 90% of the drugs being tested never get past the first and second phase of clinical trials. It is also interesting to note that Big Pharma actually PREFERS these super stringent rules and regulations that cost a lot of money, because it discourages startup competition, leaving only the big boys with fat wallets.

And no, the FDA is not perfect. Many defective products have still passed through it’s screening process. Some would say that this is unacceptable and the FDA sucks, but that would be like saying that Kobe Bryant is bad at free throw shooting because he only makes 84% of them. Also, once a defect is discovered (even relatively minor ones), it is immediately pulled out.

Compare and contrast with SCAM, which few people realize is ALSO a multi-billion dollar industry. The SCAM industry has a ridiculous reputation for being “all natural” (as if that means anything) and somehow “more caring and more personal”. We need to realize that these people also have profit as their primary motive. Otherwise, they wouldn’t charge for their treatments. The worst part is, this industry is NOT regulated at all. For an industry that frequently promises to “wash away the toxins”, many of their products have been found to contain hazardous materials.

We, as consumers, need to be more skeptical of fantastic claims. This is the only way we can weed out bad products from the good ones. As with almost every thing we encounter in life, it’s useful to always remember this adage:

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Posted in Science, SocietyComments (3)

Less Golez, More RH: Numerology and the Numbers that Count


Some superstitious people consider the number 4 unlucky because it sounds like the word “death”
(死 pinyin sǐ) in Chinese.

What does this have to do with the RH Bill? Nothing. Unless you’re a congressman who’s desperate to delay interpellations because you’re afraid of a deciding vote.

Trivial Numbers

During yesterday’s interpellations, Rep. Roilo Golez argued that the RH Bill (HB 4244) will lead to misfortune. Why? Because according to Rep. Roilo — I’ll refer to him this way to avoid confusion with the other Rep. Golez — its bill number contains three of those unlucky fours.

It seems that anti-RH legislators are not content to violate secularism. With legislators like Rep. Roilo, we might have to amend our constitution with a clause calling for separation of superstition and state.

Rep. Roilo’s fascination for numbers continued when he questioned why an earlier version of the bill changed to HB 96 from HB 3. At first, I didn’t know the reason he was so hung up on this trivial fact. Then I remembered that he threw reason out the door the moment he brought up numerology. I suspect that he simply prefers 3 because it’s considered a lucky number. (Regarding HB 96, although 9 is lucky, 6 isn’t.)

It would be interesting to know what Rep. Roilo thinks of Rep. Pablo Garcia’s bill: Hormonal Contraceptives Regulation Act of 2011. The bill aims to regulate the sale and advertising of birth control pills. This is a bill that Rep. Roilo would agree with, except for one detail: the bill is numbered 4482. Will he be against it because of those two unlucky fours? Or maybe the bad luck is mitigated by the lucky 8 and 2?

But hold on for a second, Rep. Roilo. It’s not OK to import foreign ideas from the US (family planning and population development), but it’s OK to import foreign ideas from Rome (Humanae Vitae) and China (numerology)? What’s the criteria for importing ideas?

Numbers that Count

I hope Rep. Roilo — or any of the other anti-RH legislators — doesn’t foray into numerology again. If they want to talk about numbers, there are many figures and statistics that truly deserve to be discussed. For Rep. Roilo’s sake, here are four:

ONE: 71% — the percentage of Catholic respondents who favor the RH Bill (8% are not, the rest are undecided) (SWS)

Even if these anti-RH representatives ignore people with different beliefs, who exactly are they representing? It seems they’re content to represent the 8% composed of the CBCP, Pro-Life Philippines, and their cohorts.

TWO: 11 — the number of women in the Philippines who die daily from maternal complications (Likhaan)

You’d think they’d have a sense of urgency with so many lives on the line — lives that are not merely potential but actual. While legislators are still busy debating about when life begins, it’s clear to the families left motherless when life as they know it ends.

THREE: 500,000 — the number of abortions that could be prevented if the RH Bill becomes law (Likhaan)

Countries that have an increased rate of effective contraceptive use have a decreased number of induced abortions. It’s been estimated that half a million abortions can be prevented by an RH policy. Are the anti-RH really pro-life?

FOUR: X Pesos — the cost in taxpayers’ money wasted whenever religion, superstition, and other tangents are discussed in Congress

Anti-RH legislators argue that the government lacks funds to implement the RH Bill. Yet they waste taxpayer money by discussing anything — Communism, Catholicism, conspiracies — other than what’s actually proposed by the RH Bill.

The Third Interpellator

After Rep. Roilo, there are as many as 36 interpellators left to go. That’s potentially 36 more hours of discussing religious interpretations, imperialist plots, and of course, Chinese numerology.

But let’s humor him and give numerology a chance. Out of the original list of 38 interpellators, Rep. Roilo was originally interpellator no. 3 — a lucky number. But when Pacquiao unexpectedly took Garcia’s slot, Rep. Roilo was bumped to no. 4 — the same unlucky number he argued against simply because of what it sounds like.

Some might think he got the number he deserves. But I disagree. Considering his tendency to inflate the importance of what words sound like, no. 3 suited him perfectly. For Roilo truly is a third.

Posted in Featured, PoliticsComments (17)

The Incredible Shrinking Mother Church


We’ve been told by our own elected state officials that “This [Reproductive Health] bill offends God…” and that we should “obey God.” I’m genuinely curious to find out how they could possibly know what this God thinks and how this God feels. What evidence do they have to justify such claims? And why is it that God’s opinions always consist of bland moralizing? What does God think the solution is for the nuclear disaster at Fukushima? What is his stand on M-theory?

It’s always interesting to watch the irony whoosh by a bishop’s head as he proudly tries to justify his views about sperms and eggs and pharmaceuticals using scientific arguments (tune in to this Sunday’s broadcast of The Grand Debate on the RH Bill on GMA to witness this exact phenomenon). If only he could subject his own faith claims to the same level of critical inquiry.

This double standard maintained by the Church is certainly worthy of reflection. A few hundred years ago, they were able to dictate what science was and what knowledge was available to the people. Now, their storied opposition to free information has been pared down to more modest aspirations and is driving the Church opposition against the RH Bill. They have an intense distrust for self-determination and a juvenile expectation that just by having a condom and knowing how to use it, any person would magically be able to find someone to have sex with.

When once it was an imperialist force to be reckoned with (now it is just an imperialist force), the Roman Catholic Church now has to play the evidence game it has so fervently sought to quash in the past. Religionists are figuring out that it is no longer sufficient for them to simply claim something on faith. Filipinos are now becoming less and less acquiescent to such fraud. The Church is out of step with the Filipino people who have realized that compassion for those neglected by society is more virtuous than infantile and dogmatic obsessing over purity and virginity.

Churches are losing influence and attendees by the day. After brutal defeats in the land of facts and sciences, the Church is making its last stand on the field of values and morality, and even here their own Catholic members are skeptics as represented by groups like Catholics4RH, which has been consistently and derisively considered as a “fake Catholic” organization.

As much as conservatives and sex-starved puritans would like to decry the RH Bill as “immoral,” people are finally understanding that the Church has no monopoly on morality. In fact, the Church’s medieval definition of morality often proves itself dangerously obsolete. In a world of nuclear weapons and global pandemics, the Church has chosen a crusade against sex as its priority and mission on Earth. The Church’s own prime concerns betray its parochial origins of pre-scientific Bronze Age Palestine and belie its pretensions of divine mandate.

The fear of the Catholic Church, which isn’t often publicized but was stated explicitly by the honorable congressman Rep. Pablo Garcia, is that the RH Bill will allow people the choice to enjoy their bodies. This (sex without the intent of having children), they believe, is a mortal sin. And sins, they believe, will result in the eternal torture of the souls of the poor who had the gall to decide for themselves what they think is right for their families. The Church believes that whatever good the RH Bill does on Earth, it does this on loan from the Devil himself. These are seriously the kinds of childish fables that are currently being entertained on the national stage and in the House of Representatives. And, really, are these claims any less ridiculous and unfounded than FamilyRadio.com’s May 21, 2011 apocalyptic prediction?

Advocates of the Church often point to their programs for the needy or to their opposition to corruption when trying to distract from the latest rape coverup hitting the headlines. But, notice that it is only when the Church manages to appeal to our common human solidarity without mystical gobbledygook that they begin to become agreeable. Let us not patronize the Church. When they occasionally happen to act like decent human beings, let’s not pretend that they deserve a pat on the back.

Because of the progress we’ve made as a species for these past centuries (independent of divine revelation), the Church is now compelled to engage in dialogue, or at least try to fake it. It often doesn’t seem fair now to even debate the clergy and their conservative defenders. But let us not underestimate the feeble and decrepit old Church. Let’s not forget how the Church was when it was strong. Let us not forget how the Church behaved when it ruled not just in practice but by law.

Tyrants flourish in places where ideas are immune to criticism. Until we stop taking faith claims at face value and start questioning what the priests assert on the pulpit (not just on the RH Bill), we will always be dragged behind and there will always be sectors in society that will be prejudiced against and some thinking and breathing human beings will never be treated like equal citizens. We will always be forced to sacrifice the health and well-being of real mothers for the sake of an imaginary supernatural mother Church.

As long as we allow the spiritual baggage of the Roman Catholic Church to steer our discourse, we will never be able to improve our society here on Earth because they expect us to believe that heaven awaits the servile and the gullible.

Posted in Politics, Religion, SocietyComments (4)

Forty-four Thoughts of a Founding Freethinker


While the world watches Egypt in revolution, many are unaware that almost three centuries today, one of the greatest revolutionaries was born.

January 29, 1736 is the birthday of Thomas Paine, a man Thomas Edison regarded “as one of the greatest of all Americans.” He influenced intellectuals for centuries with works such as Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. He inspired such great men as George Holyoake, the father of British secularism; Bertrand Russell, a champion of humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought; and Abraham Lincoln, who lead the fight to end slavery in the United States.

In the 1990s, Truthseeker magazine began celebrating Freethinkers Day on Paine’s birthday. If you doubt that these celebrations should coincide, you haven’t read any of his works, and I strongly suggest you start soon.

For now, here are some excerpts from the writings of Thomas Paine, a founding father who fought not only for freedom in the United States, but for freethought around the world. Happy Freethinkers Day!

  1. I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
  2. It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
  3. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
  4. The Bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed. [The Theological Works of Thomas Paine]
  5. Accustom a people to believe that priests, or any other class of men can forgive sins, and you will have sins in abundance.[The Theological Works of Thomas Paine, p.207]
  6. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication– after that it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it can not be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to ME, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
  7. Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is no more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifiying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory to itself than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid or produces only atheists or fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism, and as ameans of wealth, the avarice of priests, but so far as respects the good of man in general it leads to nothing here or hereafter. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
  8. It is far better that we admitted a thousand devils to roam at large than that we permitted one such imposter and monster as Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and the Bible prophets, to come with the pretended word of God and have credit among us.
  9. The continually progressive change to which the meaning of words is subject, the want of a universal language which renders translation necessary, the errors to which translations are again subject, the mistakes of copyists and printers, together with the possibility of willful alteration, are of themselves evidences that the human language, whether in speech or in print, cannot be the vehicle of the Word of God. The Word of God exists in something else. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
  10. It will be proper to take a review of the several sources from which governments have arisen, and on which they have been founded.
  11. They may be all comprehended under three heads — 1st, Superstition; 2d, Power; 3d, the common interests of society, and the common rights of man.
  12. The first was a government of priestcraft, the second of conquerors, and the third of reason. [Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man]
  13. Toleration is not the opposite of intoleration, but it is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it. The one is the pope, armed with fire and fagot, and the other is the pope selling or granting indulgences. [Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man]
  14. …Thomas did not believe the resurrection [John 20:25], and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I, and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
  15. What is it the Bible teaches us? – raping, cruelty, and murder. What is it the New Testament teaches us? – to believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married, and the belief of this debauchery is called faith.
  16. When I see throughout this book, called the Bible, a history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales and stories, I could not so dishonor my Creator by calling it by His name. [Thomas Paine, in Toward The Mystery]
  17. Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.
  18. Whence arose all the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants, with which the Bible is filled; and the bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death, and religious wars, that since that time have laid Europe in blood and ashes; whence arose they, but from this impious thing called religion, and this monstrous belief that God has spoken to man? [Thomas Paine, quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James Haught]
  19. The age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system. [Thomas Paine, quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James Haught]
  20. Prophesying is lying professionally. [Thomas Paine, quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James Haught]
  21. If thou trusteth to the book called the Scriptures, thou trusteth to the rotten staff of fables and of falsehood. [Thomas Paine, quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James Haught]
  22. One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests. [Thomas Paine, quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James Haught]
  23. Science is the true theology. [Thomas Paine, quoted in Emerson, The Mind on Fire pg 153]
  24. All this [Paul’s writing] is nothing better than the jargon of a conjurer who picks up phrases he does not understand to confound the credulous people who come to have their fortune told. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]
  25. …to argue with a man who has renouced his reason is like giving medicine to the dead. [Thomas Paine, The Crisis, quoted in Ingersoll’s Works, Vol. 1, p.127]
  26. Everything wonderful in appearance has been ascribed to angels, to devils, or to saints. Everything ancient has some legendary tale annexed to it. The common operations of nature have not escaped their practice of corrupting everything.
  27. No falsehood is so fatal as that which is made an article of faith.
  28. When an objection cannot be made formidable, there is some policy in trying to make it frightful; and to substitute the yell and the war- whoop, in the place of reason, argument and good order. Jesuitical cunning always endeavors to disgrace what it cannot disprove.
  29. The story of the redemption will not stand examination. That man should redeem himself from the sin of eating an apple by committing a murder on Jesus Christ, is the strangest system of religion ever set up.
  30. Yet this is trash that the Church imposes upon the world as the Word of God; this is the collection of lies and contradictions called the Holy Bible! This is the rubbish called Revealed Religion!
  31. The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense.
  32. The countries the most famous and the most respected of antiquity are those which distinguished themselves by promoting and patronizing science, and on the contrary those which neglected or discouraged it are universally denominated rude and barbarous. The patronage which Britain has shown to Arts, Science and Literature has given her a better established and lasting rank in the world than she ever acquired by her arms. And Russia is a modern instance of the effect which the encouragement of those things produces both as to the internal improvement of a country and the character it raises abroad. The reign of Louis the fourteenth is more distinguished by being the Era of Science and Literature in France than by any other circumstance of those days.
  33. The Church was resolved to have a New Testament, and as, after the lapse of more than three hundred years, no handwriting could be proved or disproved, the Church, which like former impostors had then gotten possession of the State, had everything its own way. It invented creeds, such as that called the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicean Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and out of the loads of rubbish that were presented it voted four to be Gospels, and others to be Epistles, as we now find them arranged.
  34. The Christian religion begins with a dream and ends with a murder.
  35. All the tales of miracles, with which the Old and New Testament are filled, are fit only for imposters to preach and fools to believe.
  36. Had the news of salvation by Jesus Christ been inscribed on the face of the sun and the moon, in characters that all nations would have understood, the whole earth had known it in twenty-four hours, and all nations would have believed it; whereas, though it is now almost two thousand years since, as they tell us, Christ came upon earth, not a twentieth part of the people of the earth know anything of it, and among those who do, the wiser part do not believe it.
  37. There is scarcely any part of science, or anything in nature, which those imposters and blasphemers of science, called priests, as well Christians as Jews, have not, at some time or other, perverted, or sought to pervert to the purpose of superstition and falsehood.
  38. Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave, and seeks to pursue us into eternity.
  39. I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinion upon religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.
  40. The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.
  41. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
  42. Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be true.
  43. Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.
  44. But though every created thing is, in this sense, a mystery, the word mystery cannot be applied to moral truth, any more than obscurity can be applied to light. … Mystery is the antagonist of truth. It is a fog of human invention, that obscures truth, and represents it in distortion. Truth never envelops itself in mystery, and the mystery in which it is at any time enveloped is the work of its antagonist, and never of itself.

Posted in Philosophy, ReligionComments (2)

Teleporting DNA


While it has been stunningly predictive and useful, quantum mechanics, because of its inherent peculiarity, has been a gold mine for new age hucksters such as Deepak Chopra. Albert Einstein himself couldn’t accept the theory which allowed for particles to take all possible paths from point A to point B and for cats to be both dead and alive at the same time. His aversion to this theory was immortalized in the quote, “God doesn’t play dice,” alluding to the strange universe ruled by random events that quantum mechanics was describing. To quote the physicist Richard Feynman, who made great strides in the field of quantum mechanics, “If you think you understand quantum theory, then you don’t understand quantum theory.”

Feynman’s fellow Nobel laureate, Luc Montagnier, who won the prize for establishing that AIDS was caused by HIV, recently published a paper, entitled “DNA waves and water,” which claims that through the use of electromagnetic fields, DNA molecules, the stuff of life, can “teleport” from one test tube to another. The mechanism this takes is, according to the paper, within the “framework of quantum field theory.”

Montagnier’s experimental setup included two test tubes, one containing pure water, and the other containing a highly diluted sample of a fragment of DNA from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). After applying a 7 Hz electromagnetic field for 18 hours to both the tube that contained pure water, and the other tube that contained DNA, the tubes were then subjected to a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This procedure takes DNA molecules present in a sample and copies them continuously, based on a particular defined DNA sequence. Their results showed that the pure water miraculously produced DNA, when there should have been none.

Here the two tubes (with DNA on the left, pure water on the right) are shown being exposed to a 7 Hz electromagnetic field inside a µmetal cylinder.

This is a stunning result—so stunning that it seems rather dubious. The claim posited here is that dilute quantities of DNA can somehow emit “DNA waves” via its natural electromagnetic field and that this signal mimics the exact DNA sequence of the source in water. This signal can supposedly imprint itself into water. Such an outlandish declaration just cannot avoid comparisons to homeopathy. The paper’s conclusion also favors a rather convoluted solution (DNA waves) over a much more simple explanation: contamination. The retention of an electromagnetic field in the absence of the signal source is, however, entirely possible within quantum mechanics, though only in the order of picoseconds (one trillionth of a second)—certainly not enough time for a PCR reaction to take place (which usually takes about an hour).

The nature of PCR is that it is so effective at making copies of DNA that even just one molecule of DNA can be amplified. Imagine thousands of photocopiers that randomly take any page in their vicinity and copy them. Even if you just had one page to be copied, such a sheet containing the letter “X”, you could create millions of copies of this letter in no time since the copies of that page will be used by the other photocopiers to make even more copies—a chain reaction. Now, let’s say that just one stray sheet with the letter “Y” accidentally flew into the copier room. By the end of your copying, you’d have yourself billions of sheets with either “X” or “Y”. That’s how even one tiny splatter of contaminating DNA (from instruments used or even one’s own hands) can ruin an experiment.

Messing up a PCR experiment is so easy that Montagnier’s observation has to be reproduced by other scientists before it can even be taken seriously. The only reason it seems to be grabbing headlines is that Montagnier is a Nobel laureate. But, Nobel laureates are vulnerable to the dreaded “Nobel disease,” when noted scientists who have won the prize later support pseudoscientific ideas.

The originator of PCR, Kary Mullis, also won the Nobel prize, only to go on to deny the link between HIV and AIDS. Another laureate, Linus Pauling, who won two Nobel prizes, promoted the quackery that vitamin C treated cancers and prevented colds, late in his career.

However, regardless of accusations of Nobel disease, Montagnier’s ideas shouldn’t be dismissed offhand. If his observations can be consistently replicated by other researchers (and contamination is ruled out), then a revolution will occur in biology and all of science. It’s a prospect one can’t help but be excited about, but wonder should always be coupled with skepticism.

Posted in ScienceComments (14)

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