Archive for May, 2009

Let’s get one thing straight first of all. Animals are stupid.

Oh, don’t look at me like that. It’s not like it isn’t obviously true, and they’re too dumb to know they’re being insulted anyway. Even the ones I like are complete idiots. I’ve seen two-year-old kids who can talk better than any cat; I’ve watched dogs repeatedly fall for the same trick where I pretend to throw a ball, and every time they bounce away with moronic excitement chasing after nothing; we all know how terrible monkeys are at trying to move a piano; and don’t get me started on the legendary inability of voles to solve even the most rudimentary cryptic crosswords, no matter how simply and slowly you explain it to them.

I’ll admit that they’re not universally inept. Many of them can capture and tear apart a fast-moving hunk of raw meat more efficiently than I’m ever likely to; they’re often enviably cute; and those spiders which can leap out and grab something faster than you can blink are pretty cool. But in general, the point stands.

Our mighty human brains are the reason we’ve so easily and inevitably wrenched control of the world from Mother Nature’s puny green fingers, and the only time we ever deign to be impressed with the intelligence of one of her lesser creatures is when we’re patronisingly judging them by their usual standards of dumb-assery. We’re amazed whenever they show any slight proficiency for a skill at which every human is assumed to be naturally capable. This is why things like dolphins cleaning their tank, cats leaning not to crap in your shoe, or a horse being able to count to five by clopping his hoof cause such a stir.

Thing is, even then we’re giving them too much credit.

Clever Hans was a horse that wowed audiences in late 19th century Germany, by tapping out the answers to some really easy maths problems. Someone would ask the horse, say, “What’s three plus two?” and he would tap his hoof five times. I mean, I’ve seen four-year-old humans solving quadratic equations, but whatever.

Okay, so I am being overly disparaging. The maths is hardly impressive, but if a horse can really understand human words, and the syntax which holds them together in a sentence, that would be worth knowing. You’d start being more careful what you said around them, if you knew they might actually understand it, and be able to use their hooves to gossip about you later in Morse code or something. So, it caught people’s attention, because nobody had previously known of any animals that could do this, even if it does credit a simpleton quadruped way too highly naming it “Clever” for being able to add single-digit numbers.

But it caught a few scientists’ attention too, and those scientists started doing what scientists will tend to do when a new discovery is supposedly made – sticking their noses in further than anyone invited them and trying to see how true it is.

They wondered, not unreasonably, whether Hans mightn’t be getting his hoof-tapping cues from somewhere other than his unprecedented equine cognitive powers. No horse had ever shown any signs of this level of mental acuity before, or even anything close. I mean, look at how some of these questions were phrased: “If the eighth day of the month comes on a Tuesday, what is the date of the following Friday?” Now granted, as far as the mathematics goes, we’re still about on a par with modern GCSE papers. But that’s some fairly sophisticated sentence structure there, with the conditional clause and everything, not to mention the background knowledge about our modern calendar that you’d need for it to make any sense. Humans are good at all this, but it’s something we still haven’t had much luck teaching computers to learn, and it’s more than has ever been observed in even the smartest monkeys. And some of those monkeys can put particularly stupid humans to shame. This was seriously big news, if the horse really was that clever.

So although it was possible that nobody had looked closely enough to notice such language skills in horses before, or that Hans was some kind of prodigy, it might be something simpler. Maybe his handler was subtly signalling for the horse to tap the requisite number of times, and all the horse was doing was following simple instructions. It wouldn’t necessarily have been noticed if this was the case – people probably weren’t paying much attention to the guy just hanging around with the wonder-steed. Maybe it was all just a cruel and cynical hoax, to win the hearts and loose change of gullible audiences.

Well… not exactly. It doesn’t look like anyone ever knowingly cheated to simulate Clever Hans’ talents. Even when someone other than his handler was asking the questions, his success rate was still impressive. But it turns out they didn’t need to be cheating. Hans was picking up cues, but not intentional ones, and giving his answers solely based on the expectaions of his audience.

Remember that Hans wasn’t declaring his answer aloud, or writing down any unambiguous symbols. He would tap his foot, and again, and again, with a short pause between each time. One way to give an infallibly correct answer to any numerical question, without needing even a primitive understanding of mathematics, would be to start tapping, and somehow work out when you’re supposed to stop. If you have a captive audience eagerly watching your every move, and who do know exactly when you should stop to give the right answer to the problem, this might be possible. If you’ve asked Hans to calculate 3 + 2, your thoughts as you watch him might run along the lines of:

“Okay, let’s see if he can do this… One, two, good, you’re on the right track so far, three, still looking good, four, well done, almost there, this is a truly astonishing feat, don’t stop now… five! He’s done it! Is that it? He’s stopping there? Hurrah! This horse is a genius! Put him in charge of our country’s major financial institutions immediately!”

It seems likely that your body language and facial expression would have changed noticeably over the course of this internal dialogue, even if you didn’t do anything silly like leap to your feet applauding wildly the moment the fifth tap landed. And it seems that horses like Clever Hans can pick up on that kind of thing, and react accordingly.

What gave it away was when psychologist Oskar Pfungst, who was part of a genuine thing called the Hans Commission, checked what happened when Hans couldn’t see the person asking the questions. The success rate plummeted. When he couldn’t read the increasing tension on people’s faces as he neared the right point to stop, and the relief and relaxation that swept over them when he got there, he was just a horse tapping his foot and hoping it would be good enough to earn him another salt lick.

This is a good example of why, when establishing the validity of any claim, we need to do everything we can to be rigorously scientific about it. We’re going to end up wandering blindly down a completely fallacious route, if we don’t rule out any alternative explanation, from any source, in exactly the way that kooks and pseudoscientists and the delusioned always object to. It’s not a matter of “taking their word for it” that something’s really going on the way they describe, because even if they’re being completely honest (which a great deal of woo-merchants are), reality can always surprise you by being weird in a completely different way from how you expected. In this case, it seems that horses can infer a surprising amount of information from faces that peple don’t even know they’re making, which itself is actually pretty cool. (This curious phenomenon of subconscious non-verbal cues creeping in to provide misleading data has become known as the “Clever Hans effect”.) But there’s just no reason left to believe that the original story is true.

It’s not that Pfungst refused to be “open-minded”. He was open to the possibility of the claims about Hans being correct, but he didn’t completely and unthinkingly believe everything he was told straight away. He knew that a lot of the hype sounded unlikely, so he was also open to the idea that there might be a more mundane explanation. The bizarre and unprecedented claim was rejected, not because of “closed-mindedness”, but because of a complete lack of evidence. The evidence for the idea that horses can do sums has been stripped back to literally nothing. If we hadn’t been able to use science to do that, we’d still be stuck believing something ridiculous.

Of course, the science that blew his entire claim totally out of the water didn’t stop Wilhelm von Osten, the owner of the horse, from touring the country with him and continuing to make utterly baseless claims. This, in turn, is a good example of how retarded some people can get when they shut their basic critical faculties down in favour of not having to admit that they’ve ever been wrong.

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(See, because it sounds like it’s something to do with golf, but it’s actually about someone called Putt trying to win money… Yeah, so I suck at titles.)

Well, it’s disappointing, but shouldn’t be surprising. It’s taken less than three weeks for Patricia Putt, the psychic failure of a recent paranormal challenge organised by the JREF, to turn up in the comments thread on Richard Wiseman’s blog, and revert to every tired, illogical, self-justifying clichĂ© that we always hear from woo-mongers when their complete lack of magical ability is exposed. (Wiseman was one of the people who administered the test, and reported at the time that Ms Putt was perfectly pleasant, “a joy to work with”, and took the negative result in good stride.)

A few people have already responded to her comments in that thread, including Wiseman himself, and also Chris French, who was also involved in organising and carrying out the test, but I’ll summarise my only slightly belated thoughts here.

Ms Putt is quick to assure us once again that she’s not a con artist or a liar, has never even been accused of such, has been doing this for years, many satisfied customers, billions and billions served, yadda yadda. Yes, we know you’ve been at this for a while and have impressed lots of people with your amazing powers in entirely uncontrolled and non-scientific conditions. That’s why the JREF agreed to test you in the first place.

The first real taste of bullshit comes when she describes the protocols of the test as being “completely one sided in favour of JREF”. Perhaps what you mean by this, Ms Putt, is that for once things aren’t completely one-sided in favour of you. You’re not talking to someone who really wants to believe in you, will give you lots of chances to get things right, and will credit you with being close enough whenever you hazard a guess that’s not completely off the mark. You’re not getting the chance to assess your subject’s reaction to everything you say, so that you can judge by the confused or amazed look on their face whether you should change tack or press the point. You’re not getting to constantly ask questions and receive the kind of feedback that would make a convincing cold read easy to perform.

In other words, the protocols were designed to be completely fair, and to only test for the psychic powers you claim to possess, having ruled out any other plausible explanation for a positive result – and you agreed to all this beforehand. In the comments thread, Panka (one of Chris French’s team involved in orchestrating the test) reproduces the exact statement you signed to this effect, which includes the line: “I agree that the protocol outline describes a fair test of my claimed ability.” You were happy with everything before the test began; it was only after you failed, that the conditions displeased you. In my eyes, this rather undermines your protests that you are neither a “winger[sic] [n]or a whiner”.

She then makes a truly bizarre claim about the nature of the test results. (By the way, I know I’m switching from second to third person a tad erratically here. It’s entirely at the whim of what seems most rhetorically useful at the time). I don’t think I understand quite what she’s saying – her syntax, or lack thereof, doesn’t help her appearance of lucidity – but it doesn’t seem that she quite understood the point of the testing protocols. Amidst a rather confusing run-on sentence, she says:

every girl had accepted each and every message that I had written down not one had been discarded, not one thrown away each and every one of the ten girls had gone away with something


Let’s recap the way this test actually worked.

Patricia Putt gave individual, personalised psychic readings for each of ten people, under conditions which she’d agreed would not impede her ability to do so. Later, these ten people were each shown all ten readings – their own one in amongst all the others, which were done for people they had no connection to – and were asked to pick the one they most identified with, and which they thought was most likely to be the one that had been done for them.

That was it. The measure of success was the number of the ten subjects who picked the reading which really had been done for them – which, it turned out, was zero. What on earth do you mean that they “accepted each and every message”? They selected exactly one message, and even that wasn’t necessarily an endorsement of its high accuracy. In not one case was your personal reading for someone any more convincing than what you’d said for someone else, which shouldn’t have applied to that individual at all. They hadn’t “gone away with something”. They did discard your messages, when they consistently picked completely different ones. What, because they didn’t literally rip the piece of paper up which had their reading on it, throw it in the bin, shred it, incinerate it, or spit on it in disgust, you’re counting that as a win? I really don’t think you get what was being tested here.

Let’s see, what’s next… blah blah blah, something random about Gloria Hunniford… oh, now here’s a fun sentence:

I am very well aware that scientists and Mediums are diametrically opposed…

Well, you could say that, inasmuch as scientists are trying to evaluate claims based on evidence, while mediums only seem to be interested in evidence insofar as it supports their pre-existing claims.

…but perhaps one day scientists will open up their field of vision a bit more…

Wide enough to see things that aren’t there? We can only hope.

…and be prepared to work with people such as myself.

What? What do you think Richard Wiseman, Chris French, the JREF, and all the other people involved in setting up the logistics of this event were doing all that time, if not working with you, and taking great pains to be as accommodating as possible? You agreed that it was a fair test. Why is it still the scientists who need to be more open-minded and work with you, and not you who needs to actually do something?

Then another patronising and badly written metaphor about the way “intellectuals” view life, which just amounts to repeating the same misunderstandings about burden of proof as she’s already exhibited.

Then a Bible reference, which really doesn’t help, but is nicely rebutted further down the thread when Frank quotes a few choice verses right back at her.

Then she proclaims herself to be “throwing down a gauntlet” for the skeptics who continue to stubbornly refuse to believe that she’s magic, even in the face of the mountains of reliable evidence and irrefutable proof she hasn’t produced. You’re still not getting it. The JREF challenge was the gauntlet. You picked it up. You fumbled it. You fouled it at the 10-yard line. Or… some other, less confused sporting metaphor which implies that you were hopeless. You’re the one making claims which you want people to take seriously. It’s up to you to prove it. Professors Wiseman and French gave you an entirely sufficient opportunity to do this. You failed.

She then starts to vaguely outline some possible protocol for a future test:

Take me somewhere I have never been to before, bring with you and Historian wire me up if you must and let us see what the outcome is.

I have no experience in devising this sort of test, and I have no professional scientific background, but I would guess that it might be possible to arrange something like this, some kind of test of her psychic powers involving determining knowledge about a particular location which she couldn’t have acquired through any other means. I’m not sure how it would best be done, and maybe no practical way can be found which is amenable to all parties, though I’m sure someone at the JREF would be willing to discuss it.

But… but they’ve just done this, and you failed. (I’m having to repeat this point so often, and with so much emphasis, that these italics are starting to seem excessive even to me.) They performed a test which you’d agreed to, and they did “see what the outcome is”. You’ll probably be able to re-apply, but don’t act like you’re still waiting to be given a chance.

She even prefaces her vague, detail-free description of these protocols by exhorting the scientists to “try an experimental investigation”. What the hell do you think that thing was that you were just involved in? Rehearsals for a Broadway show?

The requirement for these scientists being surprised isn’t that “they allow themselves to be”, Pat. (Can I call you Pat? I feel like we’ve become friends.) The requirement is that you do something surprising. If five out of ten of your subjects had picked out their personal reading from all the others, that would have been surprising. It was agreed beforehand that this is what would constitute an impressive demonstration. If you’d done what you said you were going to do, the scientists would have been surprised. You didn’t, and no-one was surprised but you.

And that’s about it.

Cognitive dissonance: RESOLVED.

(More info from JREF President Phil Plait here.)

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The 37th Humanist Symposium is up, with some great links. And I’m in it! I made the cut! I admit, I’m usually more of a Carnival of the Godless kinda guy, and I don’t get to read all that much about actual humanism itself, away from all the anti-religious stuff. I think I’m going to need to keep up with this more closely in future, though.

And on a similar note, my hopes for making it to TAM London aren’t quite dashed yet. There are 50 tickets being made available by a random draw process, so it’s still not too late. I’ve been hoping The Amazing Meeting would make it over to my own landmass for some time, and I’d really love to be a part of it, so if anyone wants to send me some good vibes for getting a ticket… then don’t, because c’mon, what’s that going to achieve?

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Here’s something that’s annoyed me for a while. It came up again in a couple of places in quick succession lately – once in an episode of Bones, I forget the other – so I thought it was about time to try explaining what exactly it is that pisses me off so much.

It’s about the assertion that life, or fate, or God, or whatever, “never gives us more than we can handle”.

I think it’s a phrase that’s supposed to be comforting to someone going through hard times, to reassure them that life is still beautiful and magical and worth living despite the pain and suffering of, say, losing a loved one. It’s often argued further that pain and suffering is what gives life the capacity to be beautiful and magical in the first place. So there’s no need to be scared. There’s a purpose to it all.

And the finding of beauty and magic and purpose to life isn’t something I have a big problem with. When it comes to life, broadly speaking, I’m in favour; and there’s plenty of wonder in my own world to make it an amazing journey, even for someone as atheistic and materialistic as I am.

The problem is in how far some people insist on taking this idea. They sometimes want to apply this to everyone’s life, all the time. They start to assume that everything anyone ever goes through is a part of some beautiful and complex narrative structure, and all the suffering which ever occurs inevitably adds to the rich tapestry of human experience in a way that benefits us and helps us grow as people.

They might begin over-extending helpful, optimistic, empowering ideas – that there is beauty in life, that the pain of loss tends to ease over time, that people can show remarkable resilience, courage, and kindness, and that any average person can really make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people they meet – into inane, self-serving, unrealistic, unhelpful, demonstrably untrue banalities.

And perhaps the worst of these (or perhaps just the one that happens to be grinding my gears at present) is that life (or fate, or God, etc.) “never gives us more than we can handle”. However much it might suck that your whole family burned to death in your uninsured house, leaving you to cover their mafia debts amounting to $400,000 and three human kidneys due next Thursday, it’s never that bad. You can cope. Look inside yourself and find the strength to carry on. This too shall pass. The universe would never allow the hardships that befall you to be more than you can handle. Your life will be a lovely story with a happy ending, you special beautiful snowflake.

This is fucking idiotic.

I’m not just being cynical in calling this kind of “positive thinking” a naive and moronically over-simplified fantasy. I have nothing against feeling good about the future, or even finding comfort in the notion that our pain makes us more rounded human beings and should be accepted and embraced as an integral part of life. But if you take that too far, you end up a deluded denialist, totally detached from reality as you prance around happy-fairy-la-la-land where unicorns blow everyone chocolate kisses from atop beautiful rainbows and nothing really bad ever happens, ever.

Life never gives us more than we can handle? What an adorable thought. Aren’t you just precious. Best not go outside and actually see the world you live in, your head might explode.

Seriously, how does anyone actually think this? How do you blithely disregard all the many, many people who clearly do get a shittier deal than they’re equipped to deal with, have their lives completely fucked up, and never, ever get resolution or closure or justice or anything that would make a satisfying end to their story?

Thousands of people die tragically young. Thousands of people are permanently injured, debilitated, and disabled, and never get their lives back on track. Thousands of people suffer such loss and hardship that they’re compelled to end it all, taking their own lives because they simply don’t feel that they can “handle” the crap that life has lumped them with. Thousands of people starve to death in Africa every fucking day.

In short, a lot of people’s lives really fucking suck, and they don’t get helped through it by a series of conveniently placed life lessons arranged as if by a guardian angel, watching benevolently over their every move and making sure things never get too rough.

Life never gives us more than we can handle? That’s a very exclusive, discriminatory use of the word “us” there. That’s a very sizeable chunk of the population who apparently don’t really count, because they don’t fit with your ideas of how life ought to play out. Maybe what you mean is “Life’s never given me more than I can handle, so anyone else who can’t handle it just needs to suck it up and stop being a wuss.”

I know this is turning into a rather vitriolic screed now, and probably boils down to little more than “Life isn’t fair”. But you know what? Life isn’t fucking fair, and twee aphorisms like this only serve to patronisingly diminish quite how unfair it sometimes is to other people.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive against injustice wherever possible. Humans have a wonderful, unprecedented opportunity to shape our world to our liking, to organise ourselves and institute systems of behaviour to try and give everyone an equal chance to make the best use of their rights and freedoms. This is an important thing to work for, but don’t forget that it does take work. It’s something we have to try really hard to accomplish. We can’t just expect the world to provide justice and narrative convenience at our say-so.

And, if and when I come to grieve the death of my parents, or go through some other instance of profound mourning and sadness, don’t fucking tell me what life is giving me and how well I can handle it.

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Yesterday’s post on acupuncture got a few comments over at the Atheist Nexus, including one from a nurse who’s suffered from some severe back problems and found acupuncture to be beneficial. I thought I’d post my reply comment here as well.

Well, my point was really only that the results of this study can be (and have been) easily misinterpreted, and that the effects of acupuncture still seem to go no further than those of a placebo. If it’s worked for you, great. The ethics or practicality of using or withholding this kind of treatment – which seems to produce significant placebo results even if any pharmacological or physiological effect is only simulated – isn’t something I feel equipped to discuss in much detail. All I know is that the scientific data is pretty much unanimous in implying that the purported foundations of acupuncture – flows of qi, meridians, and all that – don’t really exist, and that any beneficial effects it has are entirely brought on by the subject’s own mind, as a result of the ritual of going through a medical procedure which feels like it should help.

I can’t see anything in what I wrote that ridicules anyone who’s been in horrible pain and sought anything that might be able to help them (though, nor do I accept the reasoning that I’m not qualified to comment on any of this until I’ve experienced such debilitating pain myself). I’m not being facetious or sarcastic when I say that’s great if it’s worked for you. I’m just addressing some acupuncturists’ claims that what they’re doing is adjusting people’s magical energies, and has a medical effect greater than what can be achieved simply by prodding people with toothpicks. The data suggests that they’re wrong.

Also, although there might be no reason it should matter to you, I think doctors and scientists probably should care how it works. It sounds like a helpful thing for them to know, if they’re going to be able to treat people with it as effectively as possible in future. That’s what this kind of study is for, and I think it’s a question worth asking, even if your own experiences have been enough to satisfy you personally.

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…just as well as not doing acupuncture! Now that’s what I call a medical procedure worth investing large sums of money in and foregoing other clinically proven treatments for. You don’t even need to actually do it for it to magically heal you! Hey, I wonder if we can make that work with chemotherapy.

This new study which has the skeptical (and not-so-skeptical) blogosphere abuzz randomly split 638 adults suffering from chronic back pain into four groups. All of these groups were given the usual care for back pain, but one of them also got a specific, personalised regimen of acupuncture, as prescribed by a practised acupuncturist; one group got a standard acupuncture treatment, in keeping with the traditions of Chinese medicine but not tailored to them individually; one group got prodded about with toothpicks as if there was some acupuncture going on, but nothing really happened; and the other avoided being jabbed by anything pointy at all.

The results showed that the first three groups – those who underwent either “real” or “simulated” acupuncture treatments – experienced significant and beneficial effects, compared with the fourth group. However, among those three groups, no one treatment regimen was shown to be any more effective than any other. They all seemed to work, but they all seemed to work equally well.

If you have at least a basic understanding of science, it should be clear that this is not a victory for the alternative medicine crowd. Actual science-based medicine has known for years that the placebo effect can be a powerful factor in treating symptoms, and in particular with pain relief. If someone takes a sugar pill which they think contains something that will make them feel better, then they will tend to feel better. It’s a bizarre aspect of human psychology and physiology, and not well understood, but there’s plenty of data suggesting that it does happen, in numerous unusual ways.

So modern medicine is left profoundly un-rocked by the idea that, if you bring someone to a shiny clinic and lie them down and have someone with a lab coat and a friendly professional demeanour explain how they’re going to unlock their flow of qi by poking them with some needles, something might actually happen to them. The thing is, modern medicine isn’t happy stopping there.

Fans of acupuncture might want to see results like this as proof that the ancient Chinese really knew their stuff when it came to mystical, invisible energy fields – because look, people are saying their backs hurt less after the treatment. But just because I’ve completely recovered from a bad cold that plagued me for most of last week, doesn’t mean I should start praising the curative effects of that bag of Gummi Bears I scoffed when I was at my worst. We have scientific tests so that we can find out whether our first guess about what’s going on is right, or whether it’s actually misleading. Maybe I really bought an undiscovered cure-all from the corner shop for 50p; or maybe something else (for example, my immune system + time) is actually what did the trick. And maybe we can find out which by doing some science.

Similarly, acupuncture purports to have an actual physiological effect on the human body by manipulating the flow of qi energy – and when patients were treated with it, their pain was indeed reduced. But as with my Gummi Bears, this isn’t enough to support an actual link. If it had turned out that you really do need to poke people in exactly the right way, as acupuncture experts suggest, for anything noticeable to happen, then their methods might start to seem useful and medically relevant. But if you can ignore all their principles of qi and whatnot, and just prod people with toothpicks a bit, and get virtually identical results, you really have to reconsider the unquestionable value of this Eastern wisdom. If I’d had Skittles instead of Gummi Bears, I’d probably have stopped dripping snot just as fast.

This trial demonstrates yet again that the only noticeable effect ever seen to result from any form of acupuncture is no greater than that of a placebo. It’s entirely consistent with the whole foundation of the practice being a myth.

Or, translated into mainstream media-speak: Acupuncture is the bestest thing ever!! Even if it’s fake!

…Dammit, you guys.

Though, interestingly, when I was trying to find the link to the Metro article my housemate first sent me about this story last week, the first result on Google for “metro news acupuncture” pointed to this brief story from January, which showed a much greater critical awareness, and explained the placebo effect very competently. Maybe there’s hope.

Big tip o’ the hat to Steve Novella over at Science-Based Medicine, and the other skeptical rogues who discussed this in depth on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe this week.

(This will do as a placeholder Skeptictionary entry on acupuncture for now, until I come up with something more general.)

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After the crappy outcome of last week’s preliminary hearing, Simon Singh has written an update about his current circumstances, the legal options he and his team are considering, and his own thoughts on the decision. I’m not going to go into this at any more length, partly because other bloggers like Jack of Kent have already done such an excellent job of analysing this, and partly because I really am a deeply lazy and poorly motivated individual. For this latter reason, I’m probably not going to make the trek to this pub meeting in High Holborn tomorrow where he’s going to be talking. The last time I let my lethargy keep me in bed and away from skeptical pub-based gatherings, I missed the chance to see Tim Minchin randomly turn up and chat with Rebecca Watson for several hours. Am I going to regret it that much again if I don’t go this time?

Eh. We’ll see.

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More colourfully named than most, the “No true Scotsman” logical fallacy is attributed to Anthony Flew, and is named for the example he gave of a potentially offensive racial stereotype named Hamish.

It’s a way of sticking to your guns beyond what’s reasonable, and avoiding having to admit to making a mistake, by changing the meanings of the words you’re using, to make it look like you’re still right about something. In Hamish’s case, he begins by claiming that “No Scotsman” could act in some way incongruous with his ideas of what his countrymen are like (Flew’s example is of a sex maniac). However, when he learns that one of his compatriots really has been letting the whole nation down, he redefines his terms, and labels that scoundrel as being “No true Scotsman”.

The fallacy is in moving the boundaries of the category in question, so that what you want to say about this category becomes true by definition, and no evidence can ever prove you wrong. All Scotsmen behave impeccably, because nobody who does anything that Hamish sees as distasteful is allowed to count as a Scotsman. This no longer has any meaningful implications about the virtues of people from Scotland, because that’s no longer what the term “Scotsman” is being used to mean. After all, what’s Hamish actually saying about this one Gaelic ne’er-do-well? Probably not that his birthplace must really have been somewhere other than Glasgow, or that the ethnic backgrounds of his parents must be different than had always been assumed. Hamish is just trying to preserve some unrealistic ideal of what a Scotsman is, which simply doesn’t stand up to the facts.

A similar example, claimed by some Christians (including my old boss), is that once you’re “saved” and accept Jesus into your life, you’ll never again be without his presence in your heart (essentially, once you let him in, you’re stuck with him forever). Anyone who ever loses their faith, then, and “stops” being a Christian, was never really a Christian in the first place.

Most people I know simply understand a Christian to be, more or less, someone who believes that Jesus was the son of God, and lived and died for us a couple of millennia ago, all that usual jazz. If you want to redefine the word, then that can be okay, so long as we’re all clear on what it means from the outset, and the implications of this are consistent. In this case, one side effect is that you can never really tell who’s a Christian and who isn’t.

Hamish might be convinced that his old friend Dougal is as true a Scotsman as the next kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing, haggis-munching highlander. But if he’s also certain that no true Scotsman could have been involved in that scandal with the sheep, then Dougal must really have been some kind of soft Southern fairy all along. Anyone is liable to have their Scottishness retroactively revoked at any moment, if they stray outside these new boundaries.

And Christians, if they choose the argument as described above, can be no more certain. A lot of people have made a pretty convincing show of faith for years, or decades, but turned away from it in the end, and showed that they were never actually Christians at all. You can rule out some people after the fact like this, but that’s about all you can do. It’s becoming a uselessly meaningless concept, significantly redefined for your own convenience, and very little to do with the realities of Christianity, or anybody’s idea but your own of what a Christian is.

Also, as was helpfully suggested by some of the fine, upstanding skeptical thinkers who were kind enough to comment on my post over at ThinkAtheist, Christians will sometimes distance themselves from those who might share their faith, but not their values (in exactly the way Hamish does). It’s not uncommon for the likes of Fred Phelps and Ted Haggard to be dismissed as not being true Christians, because of how badly they seem to reflect on the group as a whole. And to an extent, a case can probably be made for this some of the time. It might not be unreasonable to assume a general consensus by which any true Christian is expected to make at least a cursory attempt to follow Christ’s teachings about not casting the first stone or turning the other cheek.

But the Bible has a lot of distasteful, unpleasant stuff which most of its adherents gloss over and ignore. Who is or isn’t acting as a “true” Christian isn’t easily settled, when it comes to homosexuality, or murdering children, or the many other instances where contradictory advice is given. It’s easy, but not really justified, to accuse someone of doing Christianity wrong simply because their approach doesn’t line up with your own personal interpretation.

Of course, there are some facts which can genuinely and universally be asserted about all true Scotsmen. None of them have lived in Australia all their lives and been raised by German parents, for one thing. But there’s no fallacy in barring Bruce Schnitzelkopf from our “true Scotsmen” camp; it’s perfectly in keeping with the definition we started with of what constitutes a Scotsman. He’s not from Scotland. No goalposts have had to be moved, we haven’t had to bend the interpretation at all, and we’re not trying to wangle our way out of admitting we were wrong. We’re just following the use of the terms as we set them down in the first place.

But if you have to change the definition of a Scotsman, and bring in matters entirely unrelated to geography and nationality, then you’re assuming a priori the very fact that’s being argued: namely, that all Scotsmen are paragons of goodness who would never dream of treating a sheep in so ungentlemanly a fashion. And that spells logical fallacy.

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The preliminary hearings in the legal case brought against Simon Singh, by the British Chiropractic Association, took place today, and things did not go Simon’s way. I don’t know much about the details of what happened, or what any of it means legally – I imagine it’s being discussed in far more depth all across the blogosphere and twitterscape this very moment – but it looks like the next step is now the court of appeals.

The full article that landed him in hot water can be read here, and perhaps unsurprisingly I don’t support the court’s decision at all. Apparently Singh’s been told he must demonstrate that the BCA was “deliberately dishonest”, in order to support what he wrote. In particular, his use of the word “bogus” is said to indicate that he was implying this deliberate dishonesty on their part.

I don’t buy it, and arguably it comes down to a fiddly point of semantics. The part of the article in question reads:

This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments… I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst.

I picked up that book yesterday and I’m looking forward to it – but more to the point, it seems to me that Singh is only saying that these treatments themselves do not work in the ways claimed for them. In this, the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly on his side. I don’t at all agree that the honesty of the BCA is being defamed here. Singh, like just about every thorough skeptical critic of the alternative medicine movement that I’m aware of, has pointed out that many, if not most, practitioners of these therapies are well meaning people who believe in what they’re doing. He’s not saying they’re conning anyone, he’s just pointing out that the treatments are bogus. Extensive trials have been performed, and no effect beyond that of a placebo has ever been found. This should not be a controversial thing to declare.

Tsk. Too bad. And on the National Day of Reason, too.

(Hat-tip to The Skeptic: Blog.)

Edit 08/05/09: Thanks to The Skeptic: Blog again for the link. Also, ckavanagh has a much more detailed run-down of what actually happened in court, including descriptions of the arguments made by the lawyers on both sides, as well as the likely legal consequences of the decision reached. See, it’s well informed and neatly and eloquently explained. That’s what blogging’s supposed to be like. I’ll keep trying.

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The results are in for the latest preliminary test in the JREF’s million dollar challenge. A psychic gave ten personal readings for ten volunteers. The ten volunteers picked the reading they most identified with, from all of the ten readings given.

None of them picked the reading that was psychically tailored for them personally. The applicant, Mrs Patricia Putt, had accepted all the protocols ahead of time, and agreed that they were fair and would not be biased against her abilities. She attributed the result to the failure of her own powers.

I don’t suppose many people would seriously reconsider their position faced with a disconfirming result like this, if they’ve had years of unscientific, unreliable, informal, anecdotal results previously that seem to confirm what they want to think. And maybe somewhere there’s someone who shouldn’t abandon their belief in their psychic abilities, because they really possess such powers, and will continue to exhibit them under more careful observation. I really don’t think it’s ever going to happen, but the test results are more important than my own non-psychic prognostications.

So, magic brain-powers still appear to be entirely fictional. Hands up who’s surprised?

(I’ll try and post something next which isn’t just a link to a recent JREF post.)

Edit 09/05/09: Why am I not surprised?

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