Monday, October 8, 2012

The Kung Fu of Skepticism

In my last post I laid out my concerns about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  Basically, I suggested that they are being developed as a means of propping up an inherently unsustainable agricultural model, one that I think will eventually collapse and be replaced by something that I called "Daoist Agriculture".

But in doing so, I avoided the question that raised the issue in the first place.  That is, the book and movie titled "Genetic Roulette".   I'm going to do something that I try not to do and which I usually criticize others for doing, I am going to pass judgement on something that I have only skimmed over and not actually seen in it's entirety.  If someone thinks that I have been totally unfair, please mention it to me----but please cite an actual place in the book or movie so I can look them up.  I tried to watch the movie, but after 20 minutes I ceased being able to take it seriously.  Similarly, I glanced at the book and had the same response to it.

When I mentioned this response to my wife, who had suggested I watch the film in the first place, she complained that unless one is a scientist it is almost impossible to know whom to trust.   This is a significant problem, so I thought I'd explain why it was that I don't trust this movie and the book that goes with it.  In doing so, I'll illustrate some "rules of thumb" that I rely upon to try and navigate complex issues.

The first thing that I found disconcerting about the film was the way it shamelessly used the rhetoric of film-making to reinforce its message.  It used ominous sounding background music a lot.  The thing about emotional appeals like this is that it is very easy to "short-circuit" the part of our minds that is logical and reasonable.  Once you by-pass people's rationality, you can often stampede them into accepting all sorts of dubious claims.  That is why philosophers and scientists can often seem maddeningly unemotional when you talk to them.  They have consciously chosen to develop one particular style of being that they have found is more reliable than others.

This was the first red flag.

Secondly, the movie introduced the issues in question through the use of rhetorical questions that I found extremely suspicious.  As memory serves me (it is no longer possible to see the movie for free, and I refuse to pay for another viewing), the film starts out with a series of open-ended questions that suggest that things like obesity have been caused by eating GMOs.

When I saw this, I immediately thought about Occam's Razor.  That is the rule of thumb that states that if you see more than one explanation for a phenomenon, you should opt for the simplest one.  In the case of the growth of obesity in North America, it makes a lot more sense to suggest that it is a combination of the change in people's diets and the decline in physical activity that I have personally witnessed over the past 50 years, instead of GMOs.

That was the second red flag.

The third thing I noticed was the fact that a lot of medical doctors were being interviewed for this documentary, instead of research scientists.  MDs are not scientists.  In fact, the job of being an MD really should select for different types of people than that of scientists.  That's because the role of the MD is to deal with the individual and the specific---this patient who has that particular disease.  Instead, the job of a scientist is to look for the general trend and to try to remove as much as possible, the viewpoint given by one person.   MDs are almost inevitably going to be basing their understanding on anecdotal evidence.  And that can get you into a lot of trouble when you try to make broad generalizations.  That's because human beings are so darned complex that there can be a huge number of variables at work when any given symptom manifests itself.  For example, my joints are aching right now.  Is it because I'm getting a cold?  Because of the change in weather?  Because of food I ate for lunch?  To be totally honest, I don't have a clue, and truth be told, I don't think anyone else with the same sort of symptoms can tell either.  That is why scientists go to enormous lengths to create double-blind experiments with as large a sample of the population as possible.  The hope is that if you don't know who got what (ie "double blind") your personal bias ceases to be an issue.  And if you have a lot of subjects, you can hope that all the other variables (food, weather, etc) will cancel themselves out in the final number count.

This was the third red flag.

Another thing that I was concerned about was the publisher that printed the book that the movie was based upon.  I had never heard of "Yes! Books", and when I did a Google search I couldn't find it.  That makes me a little concerned that the book might be self-published.  If you look carefully on the back cover it says distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing.  I simply cannot find any evidence that "Yes! Books" exists as a corporate entity that publishes anything except books by Jeffrey M. Smith.

This is an issue because publishing houses need to exercise caution when they publish books.  First of all, because they are liable to lawsuits if the books make fraudulent or libelous claims. Secondly, because they can destroy their reputations if they put out a "stinker".  This is why it is generally useful to take more seriously a book from a prestigious publisher than something that is self-published or comes from something like a "New Age" publisher.

Bjorn Lomborg
I admit that exceptions can happen, but when they do people often raise a fuss in response.  A case in point comes from the notorious Skeptical Environmentalist which was published by one of the most prestigious English publishing houses:  Cambridge University Press.  This press was absolutely vilified by the scientific community by lending its name to one of the most notorious examples of "junk science" that has ever blighted public discourse.  The author of this book, Bjorn Lomborg, has been cited for academic misconduct in this book by the body that governs Danish academics and the prestigious journal Scientific American actually devoted an entire issue to debunking the book.

This was the fourth red flag.

Jeffrey M. Smith
After seeing these other items, I decided it would be a good idea to do a Google search for the author, Jeffrey M. Smith.  Low and behold, I came across this website.  It appears that Mr. Smith has a history as a supporter of transcendental meditation and there are actually pictures of him "demonstrating" "yogic flying".  Of course, it is possible that this was a "youthful folly" that he has left in the past.  It is also true that people can have all sorts of eccentricities that have no effect on the soundness of the arguments they put forward.  But as a general rule, people judge people by whether or not they appear to have a shown a sound grasp of reality in their previous life.

This sets out a fifth red flag.

The next stage of my investigation is to do another Google search, this one for "Criticism Genetic Roulette".  And if you do that, you come back to a different part of the same site that produced the above picture.  The site seems to refute every substantive claim made in the book and movie about GMOs being unsafe to eat.  I quickly glanced at the arguments in support of a couple of these assertions (there is a TON of evidence cited on this website), and they seemed to be referring to legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

At this point, I have my sixth red flag.

I admit that something might come along and change my opinion, but until that happens I'm of the opinion my time is better spent doing something else.  And any fears that I might have had that GMOs are poisoning our citizenry have been dissipated.

That is not to say that there is nothing of value in the book and movie.  After all, a stopped clock is still correct twice a day.  But IMHO, neither one has any credibility with me so I would never believe anything they say because they say it.  If I believe any of the issues raised in either has any value, it is because of authorities I have seen outside of it, not because it is raised in the documentary.

And, as I pointed out in the previous post, I do have issues with GMOs.  But the evidence I've seen has to do more with the social implications for farmers rather than anything else.

But I hope that the exercise of explaining why I don't trust Genetic Roulette will help readers walk the minefield of public policy.  To recapitulate, the six tests I put this book and movie through involved answering six questions:

  1. Is the book or movie trying to manipulate our emotions instead of talking to our reason?
  2. Is it trying to suggest a cause for a problem that is more easily explained by a mundane reason?
  3. Are they citing authorities who are outside of their field of expertise?
  4. Is the publisher reputable or is the publisher a company with either no track record or a bad one?
  5. Find out what you can about the author.  Is he someone you can trust?
  6. Look to see if anyone has raised any questions about the book.  Is that person more or less trustworthy than the author?

What I have gone through in the above is a type of "kung fu".  As I've mentioned before, kung fu is not martial arts, but martial arts can be kung fu, which is nothing more than proficiency gained through diligent practice.  Practicing the kung fu of skepticism means that you have made a decision to look at as much of the world through a specific lense that will give you a greater chance of separating truth from fiction.  As my wife's question about understanding things without being a scientist implies, science is a skeptical kung fu, one involves very careful evaluation of all statements in a given field.  But ordinary people can develop the sorts of rules of thumb that I've used above to separate truth from what Jon Stewart calls "Bullshit Mountain".  In fact, the internet makes it a lot easier to identify baloney because of Google searches and the ease with which someone can post evidence that undermines misleading information.  In addition, there are several really good sites devoted to helping people identify baloney.  Here're a few:  

Snopes:  An excellent site that debunks urban legends.  In fact, it's fun to just browse it.
Quackwatch:  This site is devoted to debunking fraudulent medical claims.  
Science Based Medicine:  Another site debunking fraudulent medical claims.
Skeptical Inquirer:  This is great magazine published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).
Skeptoid:  Oops.  Forgot to add this great and very entertaining resource.  Sign up for his weekly podcasts---you'll be glad you did!

Ancient Daoists were able to survive in the wilderness because they understood the way of nature.  But people are part of nature, and human civilization is yet another manifestation of the Dao.  If we live in a technological civilization we need to understand the Dao of science and technology if we are going "ride the dragon" and "fly with the phoenix".  The kung fu of skepticism is a key skill that all Daoists must learn.  


Anonymous said...

Did you know that wheat has changed greatly over the past century? It was modified through selective breeding to make it more weather resistant, but it also contains less nutrition and doesn't satisfy the human appatite. The changes in bread is a factor in the growing obesity epidemic.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

These are pretty extraordinary claims put forward without any evidence by an anonymous person. How much weight should I put on them?