ramble skepticism

Three recent events. Each trying to push psuedo-science using different approaches. But with a common element of grayness in how they discuss topics related to science.

Warning: This post contains strong language at places. It's also long.

Weird things happen when you are at home. You get to talk to real people and get out of your utopic daydream. I have recently been unable to argue with people on a few topics. I wonder if I am getting too old for this shit. Most of these happen when I touch a gray portion of certain communicated opinions. It gets hard to convince people about a general sense of blackness or whiteness. In every argument, you can easily weasel out solid points for your favour. And if people have even a single point in favour, they are willing to stick it with their sense of identity and refuse to accept any change. (I need an ego deflation session, mail me)

Some cases are easy to argue against. You just roll your eyes. Some are not-so-easy. Let me give a general sense of what type of content I am talking about. Consider vegetarian and non-vegetarian eating habits. Simplest of the arguments will split opinions among factions. The neutrals are easy to get baptized to either side. Only when you give enough time, the fog begins to clear. Till then, the arguments go on like meteor showers. Never hitting anything. It's not necessary that one side is ultimately right and other is wrong. But there is something special about the ways bad arguments work here, which makes it easy to know who is putting real arguments and who is shuffling flip-flops. Meanwhile the flip-flop guy isn't aware of things and has trust on the points of virtue of his / her cause. This makes it hard. "Hey you are being good, but it's not the right way", ever heard this work?

Things boil down to poor journalism and communication. Information communication is how you learn about things and use them to make arguments. Poor examples of communication almost always mishandle evidence. I will mention 3 major cases here that I repeatedly face.

Before I begin, I want to specifically focus on the point that the topic of my interest in all these cases, for this post, is the presentation of information and not the information itself. This post might also look like doing undue exaggeration of the issue, I will try to convince you it's not the case. Also, I am no expert on many things and have been involved in stupidity pretty much regularly. So don't take things here as absolute truths, but opinions of sort.

1. Drought

Figure 1: xkcd 285

One of my relative forwarded the following message to me.

"The Fact of Melatonin* Plz make it a point to sleep early… 😴😊 Thats how God has made us… Sleep at night and work during the day…☺ Today I learnt something new… A natural cancer vaccine. God placed in each and everyone of us a gland in our head called the Pineal gland. It is considered to be the biological clock of the human body and it is also connected to the sight nerve. It is small like the size of a pea. Everyday after sundown this gland starts producing a substance called Melatonin which runs in the bloodstream and protects the body from cancer. 😋 This gland works only in the dark so if the eye is exposed to light the gland does not work because it thinks night has not come yet…🤔 So if you stay up at night in the light, you are depriving your body from this daily vaccine… Our parents and grandparents who used to sleep early in the night and wake up early in the morning did not suffer from cancer or any of the disease we hear about today. God has placed this daily vaccine in our body to protect us so let's put it to use by sleeping early.💪 The gland starts working from after dark until two hours before sunrise !!!🌞 Must read and share this miraculous physiology God designed inside man… 😊😊😊"

Is there anything wrong here? If you are careful, you might find a few mistakes. But someone sent you this with good intentions. Honestly, I am happy someone other than my parents (ok, the sender was not one of my parents) give a damn about when I put my head on pillow. And this message has no side effects and isn't really wrong, isn't it?

I know you have started hating me already. Anyways, what drives you to believe a thing like this? Scientific evidence, right? Right?

You might have heard of melatonin if you use some screen filter like flux, redshift, red-moon etc. for filtering out blueish lights in night. Melatonin gets released in darkness, has things with sleep wake cycle and certain results find blue side of the spectrum affecting its release. A well informed source for reading on the topic is this answer. Notice how the researches talk about statistical significance and uncertainties.

What about cancer? Wikipedia usually does a good job for communicating popular knowledge and opinions. By design it can be rigged by one side of a research. But, when it notes a contradiction among results, you can be assured to find multiple arguments floating around among researchers. Head over to the Wikipedia article on melatonin. First, there is not much consensus. A bit of web search will tell you that there are few researches supporting its assistance in certain forms of cancer (mostly breast cancer). But in any case, the results never state it as a 'vaccine for cancer'. Go on. Mail me papers. Convince me. At least an in-vivo trial that concludes it as a cure for cancer. Even, many of the quacks (I know a few) use 'maybe' when talking melatonin and cancer connection, because otherwise whats stopping them from solving the whole world's cancer with a cheap, over-the-counter medicine?

Oh, and you can also find pretty damn sure articles that say it's a miraculous thing against cancer. We will talk about those cases in section 2.

How do you communicate a research which is not strongly established? Obviously you factor in the risk and play it safe by saying that "thing X might lead to cancer". Might, because scientists are not sure. Might, because the explosive mutability of information can't be controlled. Might, because you really understand the uncertainties and are willing to go an extra mile to shackle the chains around us. But we say

Hey kiddo! We simplify things so people get it, get it?

1.1. Simplification.

Figure 2: xkcd 547

No one can know everything. So we use a few tricks. We learn how to utilize sources and do reasoning. In fact this is what we are taught in schools. Everything else, you learn on the go. We work on coarse models of the world when we can't understand or afford a finer one.

The model we use are made of bricks of a certain kind of framework that you choose to be true. Like science, religion, morality etc. The model itself tries to faithfully represent the observed behaviour of a certain system. For a particular system, many models work, irrespective of the backing framework or observational errors.

Consider climate change. Established observations say that the temperature is increasing globally over the years. Say we have to understand and communicate this observation to the masses. We start by creating a model that explains the observation. Now the analysts choose their weapon of choice and create models with various levels of abstractions. Some go with hard atmospheric sciences, some believe we are in a simulation and go with that, some work using human morality and some with religion.

Next, onto communication. Most of the frameworks have certain techniques to abstract away their finest models so as to reach a wider audience. A common method is used by religions in many practical cases which reduces their model abstractions to simple human morality. When a writer tries to tell people about a system, he / she uses a model which is approachable by the target audience.

  • An airplane flies using its 'certain kind' of wings. Want more?
  • The wings when 'pushed forward' create a 'situation' in air around it, that makes it go up. Want more?
  • The wings are shaped in 'such a way' that the air speed above and below it are different and 'an established theory' explains the observed lift. Want more?
  • Here is the actual documentation with mechanisms and 'assumptions'.

Notice the quoted words. You can't abstract away models without allowing uncertainties, it's a myth loved by most of the promoters of ancient-wisdom and preachers that I know of. If you are able to, you model was fat and bloated. A good communication lets you know at what level of abstraction you are reading and how to shift up gears if you can afford it. More importantly, it makes you able to ask the right sort of questions.

Another kind of uncertainty comes with the research itself. Digging deeper makes you see that there are many models, within a framework, competing to explain observations using certain sub-frameworks. The original model creator warns you about these. The assumptions are laid bare and the competing ideas are visible to naked eyes. The person responsible for popularizing the model passes these on faithfully to a higher abstraction level. The results are not statistically significant? No issue. "Mate, the scientists tried to compare this. The results are slightly negative but more inconclusive. Though it's nice to be safe".

Whenever you see an absolute truth walking down, descending from heaven itself to grace the internet with its aura, you got a task at hand. Fish out for uncertainties. You know they are there, they can't hide if not for assumptions (in which case, the assumptions can't hide). Simplification doesn't take away uncertainties, but tries to save them.

The content I mentioned in the beginning seems to have an idiosyncratic way of simplification. Similar contents can be seen in their natural habitat of quick witted media. IM forwards, social networking posts, micro blogs etc. I remember this line from Fahrenheit 451 talking about things that the characters were missing in the fiction

Number one, as I said, quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. […]

Faber - Fahrenheit 451

Leisure to digest comes with a responsibility of not using the leisure to start devouring another piece of information or throwing paper planes out of windows.

The message I mentioned has following non-factoid issues that hurt me (sorry sender), despite my respect for the concern of the sender:

  • Swapping of model back end: A model must be passed on as it was created. We can't mix and match things to suite the prejudices of audience or ourselves. Like in this case, some non-creationist atheist (like me) can get pissed off and avoid reading the content altogether.
  • Term abuse, Vaccine: I remember a guy in train preaching people (college juniors) that Newton's law of gravitation is wrong and you can't use that. Apparently, someone didn't use the right set of words while explaining him the idea that theories have certain limits, assumptions and validity over scale. And Newton's law is not really adequate for some specific needs.
  • Misinterpretation of data: Dying at 30 from T.B. saves us from common old age death causes. Cancer too, yes.
  • Absolute facts: I can believe this message lies on the side where researchers are certain about cancer effect, but then the reader should get hints for the general disagreement, which is pretty much known (specially for the original content creator).

1.2. Evidence

Figure 3: xkcd 925

Evidence keeps wild information mutations in check. It's not so much about actually putting up the citations before passing the message. Citations can also be successfully abstracted. More important is to ensure that there is no drought of evidence. Ensure that there are sufficient amount of them before passing on information, or creating a higher level abstraction. And ensure that the receiver bears the same comfort and responsibility with evidence.

Evidence, not to be confused with observations, ties the whole model building process together. Absence of evidence allows you to do mix and match, exaggerations, misinterpretations and misjudgments.

I mean, what would have been wrong if the message would be circulating without the issues we talked about. Heeding to evidence would have kept the facts in check (like whether Pineal gland or SCN is known as the 'clock'), would have included the required uncertainty of results, and even then could have made the point it originally intended (making me sleep earlier). How many people are now convinced that there is such a thing like 'vaccine' for cancer? How many people are assured enough to not look upon 'Melatonin' on even Wikipedia since the information provided is complete and absolute? How many irrational nostalgic sentiments about healthy life of yesterdays have been fueled again? How many people have been convinced that every move we make, is against the grand scheme of someone's God? In my personal experiences with people, I can safely say, a hell lot!

2. Deluge

Figure 4: xkcd 906

I was recently involved in a facebook discussion about effects of microwave on food items. The issues included bad effects of microwave on food and carcinogenic quality of plastic + microwave interaction. Without touching the topic, let me tell you the state of the final facebook post. There are around 20 citations floating around. Many of which are not going to affect the arguments. Sadly, the original link shared was enough to convince most of us that it's good science. Citations, references, geeky words, what else do you need? I am sure not more than 5 (not sure about the number) guys actually went through, or needed to look at the citations. Also, I can assure you, many adventurous people who opened the main link came out convinced that they were dealing with science. To put it straight, many of us believe that there is no such thing as poor science.

It's different from the first situation. You ask for evidence and the first guy will realize the lack and would go on the defensive. This case will throw so many of them, however shallow, you will get almost convinced of the argument because you can't gather enough time to accept / refute them. The evidence feels so solid on the surface, your mind will be confused whether they are actually refutable if I do a web search with my 'limited' knowledge. Finally you succumb to better be safe than sorry.

You can almost feel the shades of gray here. Promotion of science in the way science intends is great, right? Look at all the T.V. programs, all the news articles, everything is helping people to accept science in their daily lives. Look again, and you can see an almost exuberant insincerity for evidence spilling from the mouths of promoters. Of course not all of them.

2.1. Pseudo Science

Take that microwave oven case. Here is the link that was shared. If you actually read that link, you might have already reached this article. See how the content itself is similar to the melatonin message, but the presentation is different. Obviously, this link will also get to its level of WhatsApp forward, but it's all pro-science in the article. This one is trying hard to stand on the shoulders of giants. Evidence, references, articles, numbers, bio-photons? food value? bio-information from sun? Microwave ban in Russia? dioxins? Most of the times, these get convincing because of the jargons, our fear to look beyond them and cherry picked exaggerations from quacks.

Go to some skeptic forums, they have good sources of information to read from and they welcome heavy skepticism. Go to RationalWiki, search /r/skeptic and /r/DebunkThis (I have linked microwave specific results), follow whatever points you can find against any argument. This is important, not because I am convincing you to go against the original argument, but because in cases with a deluge of superficial evidence, you will most like fail to notice the 'taken out-of-context' information, which you can learn only when you hear the counter arguments. Hell! I don't even want to link so many articles debunking this. It would be sad. And ironic. You might say well, how do you know which links are right, which links are wrong? I don't. You can never accept any content just as it is. But, you can have a prior belief about certain kind of content which makes you focus your skepticism where it's most needed. Go on, read all the links you find. I am assured, after a while you can tell whether an article has a higher chance of pseudo-science just by looking at its CSS. It's like finding your perfect life partner. A beautiful breeze will touch you and put a smile on your face (No kidding!).

Pseudo science tries hard to look like real science. Uses all the tools used by science. It tries to convince people using something it doesn't understand. Just a pinch of skepticism and the house of cards is destroyed.

Figure 5: xkcd 765

Consider homeopathy. Something that's still pretty much established because people didn't try, or weren't able to go through the 'science' thrown at them. In case you are missing out, please read the basic principle of homeopathy. Same case. Many of us claim it's the real thing, without actually knowing how and why, just because we were somehow 'convinced' of its sciency-ness.

Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink

Samuel Taylor Coleridge - "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Citations are not badges of authenticity, they are tools of abstraction outsourcing. And when they are not helping in abstraction, there is no 'other' use you can conjure out of thin air for them.

A few people who are good at conjuring the 'other' uses are:

  • Quacks: Promoting their method of treatment, wellness etc. The doctors
  • Simple innocent beings: Afraid, distressed by the hammer of 'science'. The patients
  • Wannabe scientists: Don't care much about the real thing if it serves the public image and the inner scientist. Vectors of disease

The only people who are willing to listen are the innocent beings. And they need access to real consolidated evidence. A truckload of evidence is used most of the time when you are not sure about whether any of them is right (independent of whether the thing is actually right or wrong). A gross misinterpretation of scientific method and communication.

Consider the sources you are getting your information from. The sources which support one pseudo-science are, by design, going to support other pseudo-sciences if they feel like. See if you can find meaningless diversions and misinterpretation of the evidence. Real bold scientific claims don't come in a Buzzfeed list. They don't devoid you of your ability to reach the original research. They welcome it. Their basic hypothesis is clear and analyzable. And they don't mix inconsistent web sources to create a coherent model of their liking.

Of course, there are issues when you attack these sources. I already mentioned the grayness of these arguments. You will definitely be able to find patches of truth in the information provided and will wonder why I am being so diligent with my attacks. I don't need theories with doubtful validity claiming '17 life energies from sun that gives you food' to convince me of Sun's role. Just a simple reminder of photosynthesis will do.

3. Disregard

Colgate used to warn against Indian traditional ways of using salt & coal on teeth. But now they actively endorse it pic.twitter.com/eYywXQpK4P

Explore the tweet above (basically the linked image). Come back later. Look, what arguments can be put here to favour both sides. Colgate told not to rub abrasives on your teeth. Later they tried incorporating activated charcoal in their products in a form they found better. On the other side, baba tells us about this hypocrisy that companies regularly employ to sell stuff. Obviously, both arguments are good and bad in different ways.

Anyway, I see this message promoting two things

  • There is a reason higher than scientific method to decide against or in favor of a product. In this case, ethnocentrism, nationalism and other similar ideas on different scales.
  • You shouldn't feel a need to question anything if you are supportive of the first point.

You could argue that it's just an example of healthy rivalry. But, do you see this message driving people to go for the real knowledge about what should they use for cleaning teeth, and in which form (buy our toothpastes)? I don't see it. Maybe you could pry it out if someone is willing to reveal it. But do you think people care when they are attacked by foreign companies and are losing their tradition?

Now, Baba gave us cool exercises. Great. Cheaper products don't hurt me. Neither do I get a heart stroke when one company gives competition to other established players. But on what cost to the popular thinking? I have seen people actually getting conscious about health and that's cool. But no one can amputate my head as if I don't give a damn about who controls my thoughts and stories. I live in a country that has earned its independence and I know what emotions you can stir when you invoke nationalistic ideas. Talk about eternal cultural superiority, shout national slogans, appeal to ancient science and you get an army of martyrs without cause, ready to sabotage the people who ask "why".

The questions people need answers to are innocent. They aren't against anything, as presumed by the preachers. They are just questions. But the techniques of preachers don't have anything but disregard for them. You don't need to talk about evidence, because they are talking much above these petty issues.

Figure 6: xkcd 154

Advertisements do this all the time. They look for what sells and target advertisements that way. There are pockets of worshippers built around products and logo badges. By design and diversity, usually these pockets keep things chaotic (though I accept there is a certain drift over time). But I am yet to hear a person asking me to buy a certain biscuit by a certain company because of a reason other than what the ingredients label yell or certain offers indicate. Sure there is congenital imbecility to account for, but I have strong reasons to believe that I can at least reason around with them.

I mean, I would just say

Hey, you ain't gaining nothing by buying truckload of this biscuit that comes with x amount of mobile recharge, cause you are an amnesiac moron who doesn't remember when was the last time you enjoyed its taste.

This works in theory and, most of the time, in practice. Let me tell you why. Because you didn't sell your soul to a certain school of thought with weird set of priorities. Because your product decisions don't tie to and create your identity. Because a demagogue can't yell a battle cry, right or wrong, and take control of your life decisions.

3.1. Cults

I have absolutely no problem with product promotion based on actual quality. But, we know a few entities that tend to differ here. I saw a roadside banner for some mobile company InFocus that said something like "Why buy Chinese, when you can get American?" (I read this on billboards in Varanasi and Lucknow, can't seem to find it on internet. So, can't assure if it was put by the company or some local store. In case you have read it too, please send me a pic for inclusion). Is this a good reason? Since I am not touching anything sensitive, we can get neutral and reasonable answers for this particular advertisement. It's a no. You can have certain tendencies, but you don't make decisions using them.

The models we talked about, there can be many kinds that work. There are many lapses in almost all the backing frameworks. Some accept the lapses, make way for other models to move in action. Morality and Science complement each other real good this way. Some don't. And mainly the ones with most number of deficiencies in term of framework capabilities. These framework claim to be absolutely complete and purer than anything other. Complete. Right from their inception to the present time, despite the popular knowledge that they visibly mutate by piggybacking on badges of modern scientific developments (like quantum physics, mail me if you want to know the secrets of the universe; I wonder what would have happened if they had to popularize their ideas before 1920s).

Figure 7: xkcd 1102

Cults like these feed on your personal prejudices. You might be a properly functioning person, but when it comes to your cult, you share common, group beliefs and it gets hard to listen to a voice of reason. The leaders are charismatic. You might not see them doing anything bad, but it doesn't work out in practice. They patch your ignorance with some mumbo-jumbo and you feel devoid of vulnerabilities. Pure. Complete. All knowing sentient entity free from restraints. Floating in an eternal universe of bliss. Remember,

There are no self-proclaimed villains, only regiments of self-proclaimed saints

Glen Cook - "Chronicles of the Black Company"

No one's wisdom is gonna bring salvation to you but yours. Your information source should give you freedom to exercise your freedom. I remember a student talking in my undergraduate university mess to someone that our ancient wisdom tells to not sleep with your head pointing north pole (a myth promoted by some alternate med guys and traditionalists). Whats the issue? He is killing the spirit of evidence by choosing a framework that disregards them. Also he is hurting himself by choosing a B.Tech. in Electrical Engineering while apparently having spent the time sleeping when someone was teaching about magnetic dipoles in high school.

The point is, if something tends to make you disregard the evidence by putting on a faith-face or shoving your own moral fragility deep inside you, you say

Aye, I got this covered! I am the king of xenophobes, but balance my biases before making decisions.

Call me paranoid with SIWOTI syndrome. I am over touching everything. Maybe I live among jerks and am butthurt. Maybe I just have a dystopian fetish. This post shouldn't have been this long. In fact this could have been a much gentler tea-time conversation just like we regularly have on climate change, vaccination, GMO etc. Ah! the wonderful evenings. But I am fed up talking with people who just want to drink tea. Look around yourself, throw pebbles in water. See what floats, what sinks. Try to foresee the long term effects if circulations like these keep on going unrestrained by a few who give a damn. Sure, you can argue that there is nothing presently 'that' harmful done by these issues (though I disagree). But, boy! You will be sorry then because no one will be able to question the conspiracy of silence when it hits you.

First, look for evidence and the acceptance it receives in the content you got. Second, see if the 'science' overwhelms you to a point where you risk accepting it as granted. Third, check if somebody is sneaking a leash over how you are going to analyze contents.

More than abuses to evidence, these are abuses to our sanity and intellect as a population. Even if melatonin saves you from cancer, even if microwave oven gives you cancer or even if the cult fictions are the ultimate facts, the point stays. Final verdict can't be used to prove the righteousness of fickle arguments.

  • This leads to that.
  • Scientists[1] say, this leads[2] to[3] that[4]. References.
  • This, because [/insert your cult leader's wet dream/]

Ask yourself, if these contents pass through you unchecked, will you be able to shed the guilt of depriving kids of genuine 'curiosity'? Guilt of fooling people into believing they are 'scientists'? Guilt of closing your eyes to the truth just because you are too lazy and want to be spoon fed by some know-it-all? Or maybe it's all meaningless and you already are in a cult with mechanisms for redemption in place.

  • Changed 'evidences' to 'evidence'. Thanks Rushil Nagda.