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ForrestGump Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-20-06 05:18 AM
Original message
I don't believe in skeptics...
Not the way the term's used so much nowadays, and bandied about on the Internet and in skeptics' groups and so forth. To me, true skepticism is essentially openmindedness, whereas many who self-identify as skeptics today are about as closeminded as the 'noncritical' True Believers they purport to debunk. The noncritical, gullible people and the hypercritical, cynical people become pretty much the same just as militant atheists and fundamentalists can very often be mirror images of each other in the intransigence of their beliefs. People who are not skeptical enough are in danger, often, in this world of scam artists and frauds -- the danger can be very real, especially in matters of health -- but people who are overly skeptical, or skeptical for skepticism's sake, all too often throw the baby out with the bath-water in their zeal to dismiss any deviance from prevailing 'scientific' thought.

There is nothing much on this planet that can truly be depicted in black and white. The world is not only shaded in various grays but is painted in a multitude of colors. Simplistic explanations often do not suffice; further, dismissing something as a possibility simply because it is outside our current frame of reference -- outside the prevailing paradigm -- is shortsighted and irrational. Think of no more than Galileo's strife to see how the fixed views of the Establishment can not only smother advancement of knowledge but wage war on creative thought. We know far less than we think we do.

I am a scientist with advanced degrees, so I think I have a fair handle on rationality, critical thinking, and logical derivation of hypotheses and novel ideas from observation and synthesis of various sources of knowledge. But a big part of my process as a scientist -- not unique to me but not universal, either, and generally frowned upon by the statistical purists who insist solely on investigation based on fixed and narrowly-proscribed a priori hypotheses -- came from intuitive leaps. I'm not crediting such bursts of insight and imagination as divine, or anything, but likely distilled subconsciously from inputs of diverse observations. In sticking solely to the question they started out with, and wearing blinders that allowed them to ignore everything else, some of my peers inevitably missed a lot of interesting, and potentially enlightening, things that were going on around them. I think that's how a lot of so-called 'skeptics' are, these days.

At my university a few years ago I attended a talk by James Randi. "The Amazing" Randi, that would be. I always thought he was kind of a cool dude, and I first heard of him when I was pretty young and read his expos of Uri Geller. He's funny and irreverent and he's done some good things -- that smarmy slimeball, Peter Popoff, to name one high-profile expos -- and I appreciate his work, in general. In his talk, though, he came across as basically a smug a**hole, with all the answers. Sorry, The Amazing, but you don't know it all. Sure, nobody's taken your cool million for evidence of psychic ability, but that does not mean that their are not still stranger things out there, Horatio. He came across as extremely arrogant -- kind of disappointing to me, that was -- and especially so in his conviction that we had everything sorted out. That's so arrogant in itself...look at every field of science from physics to medical sciences and you'll quickly see that the sum of what we know after all these centuries of trying to figure it out is nothing compared to what we don't know. We don't even know how much we don't know. Just that it's a lot.

When I was a kid I was extremely well read on things such as UFOs, Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, and Sasquatch and other cryptozoological beasties. Now, I accept that the Bermuda Triangle was a cynical invention of Charles Berlitz, among others, to sell books, and that the story of Atlantis is plausible as a jazzed-up account of any one of several possible cases of cities slipping beneath the waves (something that's happened even in relatively modern times) even if the crystal rods and all of that stuff is pure fancy. And UFOs...shoot, of course they exist. As for what they are?...who knows? Spaceships are the traditional theory and why wouldn't that be possible...we are not alone, as the movie poster once said. I've seen one, and it sure as hell didn't move like any human craft revealed to the public in the 20 years since I saw it. Sasquatch and company? Hey, why not. Possible? Sure. The gorilla was for a long time a beast of myth to Westerners. Not saying any of these animals do exist, but they so easily could, and that's the whole point.

I've had some weird things happen to me, and around me. I can't explain them in terms of existing scientific knowledge. And I don't have a problem with that at all. It'd not only be arrogant of me to assume that I could explain everything but would take all the fun out of life and, by the way, put me and everyone like me out of a job if I managed to handily explain every natural phenomenon I run across.

My earliest personal example was when I was about three years old. I had really bad seizures. Grand mal kind of seizures. And terrible insomnia, too (lifelong, even now, but probably worse then than ever back then). The doctors couldn't help me and instead dosed me up on Valium. They were going to do some kind of operation to hopefully make the seizures stop. But my parents heard about this local dude, who was known as the local 'witch doctor.' They called him Doctor Chalmers, though he wasn't really a doctor. All I remember about him was that he wore hornrimmed glasses and black suits, had olive skin and black hair, and spoke with some kind of European accent -- he looked like nobody else in the tiny farming and dairy-industry community in which I then lived. I don't know what he did for a living, but he may have been a farmer, as little as he looked like the others.

Now, the local farmers swore by him as a dowser of water, apparently. The farmers thereabouts are not, in my experience, given to a lot of romanticism but were (and probably still are) very pragmatic and straightforward men. Pretty rough, hardly types who don't put up with much nonsense and hand-waving. They swore by him, all the same. And some of the locals reported that he had cured them of various maladies.

My mother, pretty much at the end of her rope and with me facing surgery, took me to him. He said he was glad she brought me when she did because once the surgeons cut into me there was nothing he could do. He took me into a room and a few minutes later I came out and, according to my mother, asked for a hamburger. I remember none of it (I also remember nothing of the seizures, of course) but I never had another seizure.

I have no idea what happened during those few minutes; when I got older, I kind of wanted to know (though part of me was afraid it'd revert the treatment), but my mother told me he she'd heard he died some years ago so the answer went with him. I do recall being nervous when I used a strobe light in a high-school physics experiment, knowing that strobing can trigger fits, but I had no cause for alarm, as it turned out. Besides, I seem to recall my mother saying that he said my grand mal seizures were not epileptic at all but that there was something in the middle of my spine that was triggering mother showed me where he pointed to. Years later, when I had a back X-ray in my late 20s, I saw --sure enough -- an irregularity right where he said there was a problem. The misalignment or whatever it is has produced no outward symptoms and I have never had any kind of back problem, and I hope my back always remains as strong as it is now. But I'll never forget seeing that X-ray and remembering Dr Chalmers and wondering how on Earth he knew it was there and how he cured me, forever, of what was a debilitating and very serious seizure disorder of some kind.

Yep, I was cured by a witch doctor. And the cure was real, and it stuck. Further, I think I was too young for it to have been some kind of placebo effect or even a super-duper posthypnotic suggestion of some kind...if it was either, it was pretty remarkable for totally and instantly curing such major symptoms and keeping it that way for almost 40 years now. I mean, if that's what it was...hell, who cares if it's a placebo or whatever, because if it works that well the whole of medical science would benefit from such a potent cure-all.

Ah, yes, the Placebo Effect. If a condition's cured or ameliorated, is it any less so because the agent was psychosomatic placebo rather than a biologically active compound (and, frankly, a lot of prescribed pharmaceuticals may as well be considered magical because we do not actually know how they work). I mean, as long as the placebo agent isn't some harmful substance or a manner through which quacks can rip off (and even harm the health of, through forcing them to neglect other modalities of healing) the afflicted. I'm not a person with a lot of confidence in homeopathy -- something about lactose pills with beyond-trace amounts of botanicals, etc, that just doesn't inspire confidence in me -- but if it works for you, go for it.

And what of Chinese medicine? Some of it's likely bogus, most notably the (relatively recent, and environmentally catastrophic) use of animal products, but the Chinese have been at this for thousands of years and I kinda think they've figured a few things out. So they use a different model of the body and energy flow than might Western allopathic doctors (what has been really interesting is when I've had Chinese doctors who were also MDs) what? Chinese herbology is very advanced and shouldn't be dismissed out-of-hand by anyone because, after all, the West's pharmaceuticals very often derive from herbal sources, too. In that respect, there's no difference except that the Chinese traditionally address the root causes of disease and disorders rather than carpet-bombing each symptom with preparations that more often than not create new symptoms.

And acupuncture works. It can, anyway. I challenge any self-styled skeptic who does not believe in the efficacy of acupuncture to spend a session getting their 'cavity' points toyed with by some of my kung fu teachers...those points on the various meridians are real, for sure. And I think it's more than the placebo effect that allows acupuncture not only to help certain conditions outright but to be used as a sort of anesthesia for surgical procedures. Any good Chinese doctor will admit that acupuncture is not a surefire cure for any problem or for every person, but the truth is that neither are allopathic drugs favored by Western physicians, the key difference being that a lot of doctors (certainly American ones) won't ever admit that (a) the treatments don't work a good deal of the time and (b) that we know what the hell we're doing half the time. The placebo effect has a better curative rate than a lot of other things.

There are of course, blatant ripoff schemes, perhaps none more serious than in aspects of medicine. This is where the naysaying 'skeptics' can actually do some good, if you ignore the fact that they tend to say nay to anything outside the narrow mainstream (a recent mainstream, too, in contrast to far older naturopathic or 'complementary' means of treatment) of allopathic medicine. There are the really blatant ones, like the Filipino psychic 'surgeons' who should probably be lined up against a wall and shot for their depredations with cancer victims, but there are others in our own neighborhoods. Some stripes of chiropractors, for instance, have no business going near a person's back (others are's not a cut-and-dried thing). And I never really did understand all this stuff about 'muscle testing' (grab the arm and whether it goes limp or stays flexed determines whether some substance or another is good for you...weird) that my wife and her mother were into but, then again, they're from Southern California and own a lot of crystals.

What was far more disturbing were the several times I accompanied my wife on fairly long drives to go see this woman who had an Avatar machine (supposedly people with them get busted by the FBI, or something) that consisted of probes that she placed on the skin and that supposedly determined everything that was wrong with the body and everything that had to be avoided along with everything that should be included as diet supplements and various tinctures and so on (all of them extremely expensive and all placed in the machine to verify that they were the appropriate treatment). Rarely have I witnessed such bullsh** in action. It was an education, I'll say that.

All this allegedly expensive Avatar machine was was a fancy multitester...use one on yourself and you'll get the same needle-dial-moving results from your skin's conductivity. They're voltmeters, the meter's readings varying with how hard you press the probes on to the victim's skin. Un-be-f***ing-lievable. But people buy into it, because they are let down by 'conventional' treatment and know there is something more...this leaves room for the predators and opportunists (not that, necessarily, this woman with the Avatar machine or people like her are either...they may very well honestly believe that what they do is real and legitimate).

Heres some info on these machines if you've never heard of them before:

That's where 'skeptics' come in handy, as do their resources like the "Quackwatch" site. But, like the boasts and claims of the hucksters they purport to debunk, their claims and blanket dismissals need to be taken with a grain or two of salt. Nothing is that clear-cut. Not often, anyway.

Skeptics, the kind I've been talking about, are too often not much more than just killjoys. They may do some good, in revealing real frauds, but they miss at least half of the point of it all and are more properly called 'close minded.' Yes, critical thought is beneficial, but don't lose sight of the wonder and magic out there. The universe is a lot bigger and more wondrous than can ever be appreciated by a narrow mind.
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Random_Australian Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-20-06 05:21 AM
Response to Original message
1. Presumably this is in the Lounge because it is some kind of joke,
and it is well clear that the description of skeptics is far from the truth - at least from those I have encountered.... but I don't get the funny bit. Did I miss something?
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ForrestGump Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-20-06 05:27 AM
Response to Reply #1
2. Don't be so skeptical
It's no joke. Perhaps you just encounter a different kind of skeptic than I do.

I'd call myself something of a skeptic, but only by redefining the word to what I think it should be: an open-minded, critical thinker.
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Random_Australian Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-20-06 05:28 AM
Response to Reply #2
3. Well, lets compare! I say the DU skeptics are nice... what about you?
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ForrestGump Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-20-06 05:31 AM
Response to Reply #3
4. I don't even know who the DU 'skeptics' are
Not least because I think that a great many DUers would qualify as skeptics under any definition but that which characterizes them as narrowminded martinets. There're a lot of critical thinkers here, and a lot open to learning and changing their views based on what they learn -- among that number, indeed, are some very nice people.
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Random_Australian Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-20-06 05:36 AM
Response to Reply #4
5. To make sure we were talking about the same people, I meant those
that frequent the skeptics group here on DU - that is what I meant by 'DU skeptics'.
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ForrestGump Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-20-06 05:40 AM
Response to Reply #5
6. I've never been there
And I don't feel a compelling need to participate, even if it's more enlightened in its collective attitude than are some such groups. I guess, to me, critical thinking (and, yes, I do use that as a synonym with what I see as the true nature of pure skepticism) isn't something I go someplace to do but is just a part of me, organically, every moment of every day.

In some ways, this entire site is a skeptic's paradise, loaded as it is with opportunities to figure out what is really going on in the world and what is mere smoke-and-mirrors distraction, misdirection, or camouflage.
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Random_Australian Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-20-06 05:42 AM
Response to Reply #6
7. This site? Depends on your mind... in terms of politcal stuff and whatnot,
Edited on Sun Aug-20-06 05:44 AM by Random_Australian
it is awesome, but for science I much prefer the my courses at university. :)

But this place is pretty good for many things, and most things that are about human interactions.

I suppose I don't need a place with left-wing stories as much - here in Aus the news is only somewhat RW biased. More out of politeness than anything else.
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