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Why Skepticism?

Feature

Ronald A. Lindsay

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.2, March/April 2017

As a philosopher, I ask a lot of “why” questions, such as the notorious one often associated with philosophers: Why are we here? No, seriously. Why are we here? Why are we here? Why do self-described skeptics get together and exchange ideas, listen to speakers, plan skeptic-related activities, and so forth? In other words: Why skepticism?

That question may be a little broad to start, so for now, let me make it more concrete: Why skeptic organizations? It’s one thing for people with similar interests to get together on occasion—that’s inevitable—but why do we have formal skeptic organizations? What do they accomplish? There are a number of skeptic organizations throughout the world. In the United States, there are several regional and local organizations and a couple of national organizations such as the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). What purpose do they serve? Well, in the case of the CFI/CSI, one thing they do is publish Skeptical Inquirer magazine. It’s a very good, informative magazine, but of course a cynic might ask: Isn’t the magazine just another example of skeptics talking to other skeptics? Is Skeptical Inquirer anything more than a forum for conversation among skeptics and a useful way to raise money for the organization so the organization can pay people to publish the magazine, which raises money for the organization to pay people to publish the magazine . . . and so on?

That’s the cynic’s view, of course—and I’m no cynic. Skeptical Inquirer does not exist just to raise money to perpetuate itself; it serves an important educational function. But before I discuss some of the important purposes served by skeptic organizations and the skeptic movement, let me pause to explain why I am asking these questions. Originally when I planned this piece, I was going to focus almost exclusively on the public policy initiatives of CSI and CFI—especially in the area of alternative medicine. I’m still going to talk about those, because I think they are important and I think they illustrate one critical part of the mission of skeptic organizations. But I changed my focus somewhat because of something that happened a few months ago. At another skeptic conference, namely the NECSS conference (the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism), John Horgan, a science journalist, delivered a blistering attack on the skeptic movement (Horgan 2016). In particular, Horgan accused skeptics of spending their time attacking so-called soft targets such as homeopathy and Bigfoot, while ignoring harder targets, such as the use of drugs to treat mental illness—which he thinks are largely ineffective and possibly harmful—and war, which he argues we should not regard as inevitable, and is certainly not deep rooted in human nature.

What about this charge? Do skeptics spend too much time investigating and evaluating claims about homeopathy, Bigfoot, ghosts, UFOs, and so forth? And, if so, are such issues really soft targets? Is the effort spent on examining these topics essentially a waste of time?

To answer those questions, I think we first have to step back a bit and look at the evidence. Seems like a reasonable way for skeptics to proceed. Let’s have a look at what unifies people who describe themselves as science-based skeptics, what they see as important activities, and what they consider the appropriate way to carry out these activities.

The mission statement of CSI provides a good place for us to start, doesn’t it? Certainly, CSI’s mission statement indicates how some skeptics see themselves. CSI states that it “promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.”

Put another way, skeptics are interested in finding out the truth and are very much: 1) disinclined to accept the claim that X is true; 2) unless that claim has been properly evaluated; and 3) especially if the claim deals with something extraordinary or controversial.

The first two parts of that description are fairly self-explanatory. With respect to method, skeptics use scientific investigation where possible, testing claims under controlled conditions. Sometimes, of course, it is not possible to do that, so then we look at the alleged evidence for the claim and use reason, critical thinking, and our storehouse of accumulated scientifically validated knowledge to assess the claim.

But what about the third part of that description—the focus on controversial and extraordinary claims?

What’s that mean exactly? The mission statement itself doesn’t set forth any criteria for what constitutes an extraordinary or controversial claim.

So let me try to put some meat on the CSI mission statement by making a little clearer what constitutes a controversial or extraordinary claim and explaining why such claims should be the focus of work by skeptics. I’ll begin by stating what CSI does not do, as this contrast will help clarify the scope of and rationale for CSI’s work.

Let’s start with an obvious point. Although CSI sponsors limited investigations on some discrete topics, neither CSI nor any skeptic organization does much work in the nature of basic scientific research. Even if it wanted to, CSI could not do much in the way of basic scientific research. CSI doesn’t have the resources for that. Universities do basic research; some government agencies do basic research; to some extent commercial enterprises, such as drug manufacturers, do basic research; CSI does not do that. Skeptic organizations don’t try to duplicate the work of scientists.

Of course, we support scientific research and communicate the results of the latest scientific research to the public, and these are important activities. There’s a lamentable lack of understanding of science among the general public, and one task of skeptics, and skeptic organizations in particular, is to try to educate the public and, in doing so, to instill some recognition of the importance of scientific reasoning and critical thinking. In this regard, Skeptical Inquirer is very fortunate to have Ken Frazier, a justly renowned science journalist, as its editor. But other publications and organizations educate the public about science as well. Scientific American, for example, or NPR’s Science Friday program, and so forth. And these publications and programs are not usually considered to be skeptic publications or programs.

In other words, support for science and education about science is one aspect of what we skeptics do, but that doesn’t really make our work distinctive. What does make our work distinctive is attention to controversial and extraordinary claims—those aspects of science that may not receive that much attention from other organizations—from the universities, from the government, from commercial enterprises.

So what are these controversial claims? Perhaps the best way to describe them is just by listing some examples. Here’s a partial list of some controversial claims where skeptics have played both a constructive and a distinctive role: homeopathy, acupuncture, and a dozen other forms of alternative medicine; evolution; genetically modified organisms (GMOs); vaccination; climate change.

When I say these issues are controversial, that does not necessarily mean they are controversial among scientists. For most scientists, the ineffectiveness of homeopathy and acupuncture, the fact of evolution, the safety of GMOs, and the reality of climate change are not especially controversial. But they remain controversial among the general public. This is a crucial point because this highlights why what skeptics do is both important and unique.

The distinction between what most scientists think and what the general public thinks is one reason Horgan is mistaken when he says, for example, that homeopathy is a “soft target.” From a scientific viewpoint, it’s easy to show that homeopathic products are not effective, apart from a placebo effect. Moreover, the underlying theory that is supposed to support the usefulness of homeopathic products is nonsensical and is undercut by a basic knowledge of chemistry. In that sense, homeopathy is a soft target.

But that doesn’t prevent homeopathic products from having a very significant market in the United States and worldwide, especially in Europe. In the United States alone, the homeopathic marketplace brings in roughly $3 billion to $4 billion a year in sales, and about five million adults use homeopathic products more than once each year. Why do people rely on something that scientifically cannot have any effect on their conditions? Several reasons: First, many consumers think it does work, and in some cases, because of a placebo effect, it may provide some perceived relief; second, they do not understand or are not aware of the underlying chemical principles; third—and I believe this is both a critical and an often overlooked reason—homeopathic drugs are marketed just like any other remedy. The consumer sees them on the drugstore shelf alongside conventional products that have been tested and actually have active ingredients, and the consumer not unreasonably thinks a drugstore would not be allowed to sell these products unless they worked, right? Furthermore, for some people, homeopathic products actually have a marketing advantage over conventional drugs because in their ads and on their packaging they can boast of being “natural, safe, and gentle” with “no side effects” because, of course, they have no effects at all, neither direct effects nor side effects.

In addition, because companies can make a significant amount of money selling homeopathic junk, the homeopathic industry is fairly large and influential. No, Boiron and Hyland’s are not Pfizer or Merck, but they are not the mom-and-pop pharmacy down at the corner either. These companies make significant profits, and they vigorously resist any tighter regulation of the marketing of homeopathic products. The science behind homeopathy may be a soft target, but the industry certainly is not.

Speaking of regulation, this brings me to another reason why homeopathy is not a soft target, and this is a reason that also underscores the importance of skeptic organizations. The homeopathic industry has enjoyed the passive support of the government, in particular the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What do I mean by that? Well, homeopathic drugs are within the purview of the FDA. In fact, on many ads for homeopathic products, or on their packaging, you will see a proud reference to the fact that the drug is “regulated” by the FDA. The ordinary consumer thinks, of course, that this implies the FDA has required this drug to be tested for safety and efficacy. Wrong. Wrong. The FDA does not require homeopathic drug manufacturers to provide evidence of their products’ safety and efficacy. Essentially, in most cases, all the FDA does is require that homeopathic drugs be prepared consistent with the homeopathic pharmacopeia and that the labeling for the drug accurately reflects that fact.

The reasons for this hands-off approach are somewhat complicated but essentially it’s a blend of some of the messy history behind the passage of the original Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (one of the key sponsors was a homeopathic physician) and the FDA’s own decisions about how best to use its limited resources. The scientists at the FDA are under no illusions about the fact that homeopathic drugs cannot be effective. But they believe that these drugs, for the most part, pose no significant danger provided they are used for self-limiting conditions and do not contain nondiluted active ingredients, such as zinc. The FDA has issued warning letters when these conditions have not been met. Just recently, for example, the FDA issued a warning letter advising consumers to stop using homeopathic teething tablets because there were reports of adverse reactions, possibly due to the tablets containing trace amounts of belladonna. Similarly, a few years ago during the avian flu scare, the FDA issued a warning letter instructing homeopathic manufacturers to stop advertising their products as a cure for the flu.

But, for the most part, the FDA gives homeopathic manufacturers a pass—which means that there are millions of people spending money on worthless products. Moreover, in some cases they almost certainly are foregoing conventional medicine to rely on a drug that will do nothing to help them.

In addition, with some exceptions, most scientists are not interested in doing anything about the lack of proper regulatory oversight by the FDA. Why would they be? Why would you run a study trying to see, for example, whether certain homeopathic drugs are really effective? There have been some studies done, but the most comprehensive study was one sponsored by the Australian government. It concluded that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective. With respect to private researchers, there’s little incentive either to study homeopathy or to campaign against marketing homeopathic drugs. You’re not going to win a Nobel Prize conducting a study that shows that sugar tablets are not an effective treatment.

So this is where skeptics and skeptic organizations can step in: to advocate on issues of public significance where most of the scientific community either does not have much interest or, for other reasons, does not want to take on a prominent advocacy role.

I’m proud to say that during my tenure at CFI and CSI, we petitioned the FDA for tighter regulation of homeopathic products, and in 2015 both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has jurisdiction over product advertising, held hearings on the need for such regulation. We submitted comments to both agencies (you can find them on our website, “CFI and Dawkins Foundation Urge” 2015), and Michael DeDora, CFI’s director of government affairs, testified at the FDA hearing. Interestingly, other than a professor from Georgetown University, Michael was the only witness, as I recall, who argued for tighter regulation. Most of the witnesses at that hearing were representatives of the homeopathic industry.

We are no longer waiting to hear from these agencies. After I first delivered a version of these remarks at CSICon Las Vegas in October, the FTC on November 15 issued an enforcement policy statement that requires homeopathic products to use labeling indicating there is no scientific evidence that they work. Homeopathic products must now indicate in their advertising and labeling that there is no scientific evidence that the product works and the product’s claims are based on theories from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts. See News and Comment, this issue, and http://tinyurl.com/z8dmhgt.

I had predicted that we might not hear until after the 2016 election because there could be political fallout if the agencies impose tighter regulation. You can imagine how some politicians would spin it, right? “Obama’s federal government is trying to take away your medicine.” However, I’m cautiously optimistic, especially now that the FTC has made its ruling. Even if the FDA doesn’t require homeopathic drugs to be tested for safety and efficacy, which would effectively mean the end of the homeopathic industry, I am hopeful that it too will require that homeopathic products stop making healthcare claims that cannot be substantiated.

As the marketing of homeopathic drugs indicates, some issues do have a significant impact on the public even though, for one reason or another, the general scientific community may not have a strong interest or may not want to engage in vigorous advocacy. This is especially true in the disputes over various forms of alternative medicine, whether it’s acupuncture, Reiki, cupping, and so on. It’s also true to some extent in disputes over GMOs and evolution. Genetically modified organisms have been studied to death. There is still some basic research to be done perhaps (and obviously each new product has to be separately tested), but the overwhelming evidence is that genetically modified crops are as safe to consume as any other crops. Nonetheless, there is continuing controversy in the United States over GMOs at the federal, state, and local level (and don’t even talk to me about Europe). And, of course, even though the fact of evolution is well-established, there’s still controversy over the teaching of evolution in many areas of the United States. Skeptics and skeptic organizations have a significant role to play in these controversies by helping to ensure, through their advocacy, that public policy, whether it’s government regulation of food ingredients or school board policy on curricula, reflect science and not ideology.

I think I’ve shown that skeptic organizations have a role to play on controversial issues and that, contrary to what John Horgan asserted in his speech, we skeptics don’t just talk to ourselves while poking fun at the gullible.

Let me pivot now to talk about extraordinary claims, claims that may not have that much relevance to public policy but on which a number of skeptics focus their energy. These are claims about bizarre entities, such as Bigfoot, ghosts, and aliens, or extraordinary powers, such as remote viewing, mind reading, and so on. People are, of course, free to spend their time as they see fit, and neither CSI nor any skeptic organization has any authority over what skeptics investigate and evaluate. But why should skeptic organizations devote resources to support investigations of these extraordinary claims?

First, the extent to which skeptics actually devote time to these various issues has been exaggerated. Just look at the topics for speeches and panels at our CSICon conference. Relatively little time has been devoted to these extraordinary claims. You would reach the same conclusion if you looked at the contents of Skeptical Inquirer, especially contents over the last decade. That said, it’s undeniable that this is a set of topics addressed by skeptics and to which CSI and Skeptical Inquirer devote some of their resources. Why? Although you can never refute with absolute certainty any claim about the existence of some entity or power—because then you would be talking about metaphysics, not science—most every skeptic recognizes that it is highly improbable that there are ghosts, a creature such as Bigfoot, chupacabras, or that people have the power to do remote viewing or mind reading.

It is true, of course, that to take just one example, if it were shown that there were ghosts, that would have a very, very significant impact on our understanding of the world. It would imply, among other things, that some people live on in some form after their death. A pretty significant finding. So one could justify some investigation and evaluation of these types of claims on the ground that were they true, that would have an extraordinary impact on how we view the world and ourselves. But that’s a very thin justification. Let me try another one.

Some of you may have heard of the broken windows theory of policing. This is the view that police should not ignore low-level offenses such as loitering or minor vandalism—hence the term “broken windows”—because to do so fosters an atmosphere of lawlessness leading to more serious crimes. Although there is some empirical evidence to support this theory, it’s very controversial in part because of the claim that broken windows policing disproportionately affects minorities and the poor. Please note: I’m not here to defend broken windows policing; I just want to suggest that something analogous may provide justification for critically examining the types of extraordinary claims I’ve mentioned—claims about Bigfoot, ghosts, and so forth.

I don’t have to tell this audience that belief in these paranormal or extraordinary entities and powers is widespread. Depending on the survey one consults, somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent of the American population believes in ghosts; about 30 percent believes in astrology; and more than 30 percent believes in telepathy. Poor Bigfoot usually doesn’t attract quite as much support, typically around 15 percent—but that’s still more than most third-party candidates enjoy!

Still, if gullibility were restricted to believing in ghosts, Bigfoot, or astrology, you might just shrug your shoulders at these numbers and say, so what? Yes, these people are sadly mistaken, but does it really make a difference?

The thing is it does make a difference, not so much because of what they believe, but because of how they come to believe. There are studies showing that the type of intuitive, magical thinking associated with belief in the paranormal and extraordinary entities is also associated with belief in conspiracies and with a difficulty in processing and in understanding science-based reasoning (Lobato et al. 2014). Furthermore, and this is a critical point, there is also some research indicating that getting people to think more analytically can reduce the type of intuitive thinking that leads to belief in the paranormal and in conspiracies (Gervais 2015). In other words, if we want people to be more receptive to science on really important public policy matters, such as regulating alternative medicine, GMOs, and so forth, we can’t ignore the windows that Bigfoot is breaking. We need to inculcate critical thinking with respect to all claims, including claims that in the abstract may not seem that important, so people acquire the habit of using critical thinking on the really important issues.

To sum up, skeptics and skeptic organizations are doing valuable work when they investigate and evaluate both controversial and extraordinary claims. The issues we address are only “soft” targets in the sense that there may be little scientific support for some of these claims. But these claims actually can be very resilient because of ideological support or commercial interests or because the habits of thought of too many people lead them to indulge in intuitive, magical thinking, which makes them susceptible to accepting claims that don’t have scientific support. Although believing in Casper or Sasquatch in isolation may seem harmless, if we leave these claims unrebutted, and if we don’t teach people about the proper way to analyze some of these claims, we are going to have a lot more people believing that 9/11 was an inside job, that climate change is a hoax, that our government is controlled by aliens, and so forth—and those beliefs are far from harmless.

So keep active, keep up the good work, and support organizations such as CFI and CSI so we can continue to advocate for appropriate science-based public policies, and we can continue to educate the general public about the methods of science and evidence-based reasoning.



References

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay's photo

Ron Lindsay is senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry, having previously served as president and CEO from 2008 to 2016. Prior to joining CFI, he was in private legal practice in Washington, D.C. for twenty-six years. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Georgetown University and his J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. Among other works, he is the author of Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas (Prometheus 2008), the entry on “Euthanasia” for the International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Wiley Blackwell 2013), and The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What To Do (Pitchstone Publishing 2014).