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Naked Skeptic

The Naked Skeptic column

Argumentum ad whateverum

By Peter Bowditch

A guide to four fallacies that derail many debates about science.

It’s not really surprising that many of the arguments used by people who oppose science and support pseudoscience fall into the category of logical fallacies. Some fallacies, however, are used so often that they are almost impossible to avoid in any discussion with true believers. Here are just four of them.

“No True Scotsman”

Do It Again

By Peter Bowditch

Anomalous or unexpected results will always be a part of scientific research.

Two classic songs from my youth had the title Do It Again. One, by The Beach Boys, has become a staple on oldies’ adult rock radio stations, and the other, by Steely Dan, can be regularly heard on smooth jazz outlets. I don’t think that Brian Wilson, Walter Becker or Donald Fagen were thinking about science when they wrote these songs, but they always remind me of the importance of replication and reproducibility in the process of scientific research.

If It’s Too Good to Be True...

By Peter Bowditch

Despite the NHMRC’s findings on homeopathy and the death of a “wellness warrior”, there is little critical evaluation of health claims by the mainstream media.

The National Health and Medical Research Council has issued a statement about the effectiveness of homeopathy following a review of 225 studies selected after a rigorous assessment of more than 1800 papers. To quote the media release from NHMRC:

The review found no good quality, well-designed studies with enough participants to support the idea that homeopathy works better than a placebo, or causes health improvements equal to those of another treatment.

It Can’t Hurt You: It’s Natural

By Peter Bowditch

The company that marketed a raw milk product that killed a child should not be allowed to use product-labelling loopholes to escape justice.

Imagine that you sold a product that caused the death of a child. What would your reaction be? Would it be to apologise, withdraw the product from the shops and promise to try to do better in future, or would your response be that the product is perfectly safe and had a label on it that said “Not for human consumption” so it was obviously never intended to be drunk? Would you package it so that it appeared to be identical to a safe product and encourage retailers to place it on shelves next to the safe product?

Abuse of a Sound Principle

By Peter Bowditch

The Precautionary Principle has been abused in debates about climate change, vaccination and genetically modified food.

The Precautionary Principle is basically the tenet of “First do no harm” that doctors swear by in the Hippocratic Oath. It says that when faced with the decision between two causes of action, we should take the path with the least risk. While the Precautionary Principle protects us from doing silly things or pursuing courses of action that might have nasty unintended consequences, this doesn’t mean it should be applied to every decision we make about where research should go or how we implement public policy.

A Placebo Can Relieve a Skeptic’s Pain

By Peter Bowditch

Even when we are aware of it, a placebo can still produce a real effect.

I’ve been nagged recently by a homeopathy believer about the existence of the placebo effect. Apparently there is research to show that there is no such thing and it was something invented by Big Pharma to explain why things that don’t really work, like almost all of alternative “medicine”, sometimes look like they do something. The logic seems to be that if there is no placebo effect then homeopathy must work.

Stem Cell Promises Give Way to Abuses

By Peter Bowditch

Stem cell tourism employs the same tactics as the cancer quackery industry to exploit the hopes of people desperate for cures of serious medical conditions.

Occasionally something comes along in medicine that changes how things are done or thought about. Some examples are the discovery of the structure of DNA, vaccination and antibiotics. I can remember the first successful heart transplant.

A technique being researched today that could have enormous benefit in the treatment of seemingly intractable conditions is stem cell transplantation. Some conditions can already be treated in this way, but they generally rely on the transplant of specific types of stem cells.

Milks Ain’t Milk

By Peter Bowditch

Milk is sold as full fat, low fat, fat-free, permeate-free, organic, A2 or unpasteurised, but do the health benefits match the marketing hype?

I have a choice of several supermarkets for my grocery shopping. All sell full cream and “light” milk with 4% and 2% fat, respectively, for $1 per litre, and most also have racks of other milks at higher prices. For example, you can buy unhomogenised milk for a premium of 50% over the normal price.

Keeping Your Skepticism out of Court

By Peter Bowditch

While corporations can no longer sue for defamation, they can instead attack skeptics by arguing for intellectual property infringement or practices that damage their business.

In June I wrote about legal action taken to censor scientific findings. Using the courts to silence scientific or skeptical comment is a worrying trend.

A Denier or a Skeptic?

By Peter Bowditch

Deniers are rebadging themselves as “skeptics” by arguing that they are challenging scientific orthodoxy.