Category Archives: Dawkins

Pseudoscience in your supermarket

pseudoscience1

Image credit: Blueollie

This article by Michael Schulson in the Daily Beast struck a chord with me – Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience. Possibly because I have spent far too much time debating  anti-fluoride activists. But the experience has certainly made me very aware the pseudoscience  extends a lot further than creationism and climate change denial. That’s the point Michael makes:

“you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.”

I have found that in very many cases if you scratch an anti-fluoridationist or anti-vaccinationists you will find a food faddist. Often a dogmatic food faddist.

Schulson makes the point that a lot of food faddism is pseudoscience – but it is a pseudoscience which seems far more acceptable, even to intelligent people, than what we usually think of as pseudoscience:

“there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracle and Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.”

We all know people who get sucked in by this talk – maybe many of us get sucked in a bit ourselves. Perhaps there is a bit of food faddism in all of us. And isn’t this sort of thing harmless – if it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why bother?

But I think Schulson has a point when he writes:

“The danger is when these ideas get tied up with other, more politically muscular ideologies. Creationism often does, of course—that’s when we should worry. But as vaccine skeptics start to prompt public health crises, and GMO opponents block projects that could save lives in the developing world, it’s fair to ask how much we can disentangle Whole Foods’ pseudoscientific wares from very real, very worrying antiscientific outbursts.”

For some people it is not far from a food fad to chemo-phobia. Start buying sea salt because it is advertised as “chemical free” and it is easy to get sucked into ideas that anything is bad because it contains “chemicals.” “Chemical” becomes a bad word – and “natural” a good one.

In my article Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action?  I described how the NZ Health Trust, the organisation behind the recent High Court action attempting to rule fluoridation illegal, is a lobby group for the natural supplement and health practitioner industry. I described their court action as that of a corporate lobby group attempting to stop a public health policy.

One of my critics actually made the point that I was wrong. An industry selling “natural” health products could not be described as corporate because of the word “natural!”

Words like “chemical” and “natural’ can be emotionally laden for many people and this can make them susceptible to other pseudoscientific ideas.

That is what I have found with many people I have debated. Their emotional or ideological committment to food fads like “organic” food and coconut oil treatments often goes together with opposition to fluoridation and vaccination. With many of them it seems to lead to conspiracy theories like depopulation and chemtrails.

To me, that is the message of the poster above.

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The good(?) old days of scientific writing

I recently read the first volume of Richard Dawkins’s memoirs An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. It brought back a few memories for me.

The political and trade union battles of the early 1970s in the UK, for example. I was working in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1973-1975. That period saw 3 general elections and massive power cuts. I remember the problems of trying to do research, and even writing, when we only had power for 3 days in a week!

Dawkins took advantage of that time to begin writing the book which established him as a popular science writer – The Selfish Gene.

His description of what writing was like in those days  also brought back strong memories. We wrote and rewrote, with copious use of Sellotape and paste. A few, often considered eccentric, scientists had their own portable typewriters but most of us relied on the “typing pool.” That was an interesting social phenomenon – all female, it reminds me now of the way women were employed to do the tedious calculations for astronomers. They were called “calculators.”

I remember one stroppy typist who just could not understand why I kept rewriting manuscripts. She would often complain – but one had to keep on the good side of people like that otherwise your typing would go to the bottom of the pile.

Here’s how Dawkins described the process:

“I now find it quite hard to comprehend how we all used to tolerate the burden of writing in the age before computer word processors. Pretty much every sentence I write is revised, fiddled with, re-ordered, crossed out and reworked. I reread my work obsessively, subjecting the text to a kind of Darwinian sieving which, I hope and believe, improves it with every pass. Even as I type a sentence for the first time, at least half the words are deleted and changed before the sentence ends. I have always worked like this. But while a computer is naturally congenial to this way of working, and the text itself remains clean with every revision, on a typewriter the result was a mess. Scissors and sticky tape were tools of the trade as important as the typewriter itself. The growing typescript of The Selfish Gene was covered with xxxxxxx deletions, handwritten insertions, words ringed and moved with arrows to other places, strips of paper inelegantly taped to the margin or the bottom of the page. One would think it a necessary part of composition that one should be able to read one’s text fluently. This would seem to be impossible when working on paper. Yet, mysteriously, writing style does not seem to have shown any general improvement since the introduction of computer word processors. Why not?”

By the way, his book is a good read if you enjoy scientific biographies.

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What’s really true?

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up.

Here’s an ideal Christmas present for the aspiring young scientist in your family – or someone you would like to encourage in that direction. 


Book Review: The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins. Illustrated by Dave McKean

Price: US$16.49; NZ$37.50;
iPad app US$13.99, NZ17.99.
Audio vers. US$ 19.79.

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Free Press (October 4, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1439192812
ISBN-13: 978-1439192818

I have posted on this book before (see A reminder of reality’s magic). It’s now available in New Zealand so a review is in order. Fortunately I have had an audio version of the book for a week, have listened to it all and am happy to recommend it. I can especially confirm my earlier recommendation as a sciency book for young people – perhaps a Christmas present.

Richard Dawkins himself says he aimed the book at young people from 12 years old to 100 years old. Younger children may also enjoy it, especially with parental help.

Each of the book’s twelve  chapters are built around a question – the sort of questions young and other inquisitive people ask. “Who was the first person?”, “What is a rainbow?”, “What is the sun?”, “What is reality? What is magic?”, “When and how did everything begin?”, “Why do bad things happen?” “What is a miracle?” and so on.

Most chapters start with the traditional or mythological answers. Some of those will not be new, coming from our own tradition or religion. New Zealanders will recognise a number of Maori or Christian myths. Others will be new, refreshing, intriguing, or even plain silly from our point of view. But, of course, there is no reason to suppose any mythological tradition is any more correct, or of any more value, than another. This helps develop a rational perspective.

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Dawkins’ new book

Richard Dawkins’ latest book is due out next September. The title – Childhood, Boyhood, Truth: From an African Youth to The Selfish Gene

It’s yet a new genre for Dawkins – autobiography. Mind you he has reached the age where people do tend to write memoirs and autobiographies.

Richard says  this book covers his life up to the  writing of The Selfish Gene.  There will be a second volume, published in 2015, covering the second half of his life.

I have enjoyed his other books and am looking forward to this one – especially as I have a special interest in scientific biography.

These two volumes will be a good read – he is an excellent writer and has had an interesting life, scientifically.

I wonder if it will get the same sort of emotional attacks his earlier books received?

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The “dynamic duo” of science?

Well, that’s how someone described them.

But I have generally found the discussions between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins stimulating. I first commented on these almost 5 years ago (see Lawrence Krauss – Richard Dawkins discussion).

They have had a number of discussions recently, in a range of countries. Someone has now put these together in a single movie. Here’s the movie trailer. Looks interesting

THE UNBELIEVERS (2013) – Official Movie Trailer

Thanks to: Dawkins & Krauss making kick-ass new atheism doc

By the way, the movie includes discussions with others too. here’s a description from the YouTube site:

‘The Unbelievers’ follows renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.

The film includes interviews with celebrities and other influential people who support the work of these controversial speakers, including:

Ricky Gervais
Woody Allen
Cameron Diaz
Stephen Hawking
Sarah Silverman
Bill Pullman
Werner Herzog
Tim Minchin
Eddie Izzard
Ian McEwan
Adam Savage
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali
Penn Jillette
Sam Harris
Dan Dennett
James Randi
Cormac McCarthy
Paul Provenza
James Morrison
Michael Shermer
David Silverman
…and more.

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Scientists and philosophers discuss morality and meaning

I am working my way through the videos of the discussions at the Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop (see At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos). I really appreciate these philosophical and scientific discussions because they aren’t weighed down, or diverted, by  theistic and supernaturalist philosophy.

As Daniel Dennett said in the introductions, what he really like about the workshop was not only the people participating, but also that certain philosophers were not participating.

Here’s the discussion on morality. I don’t think they covered everything they could have but what they did cover was interesting. It’s also a pity that Patricia Churchland had to withdraw from the Workshop – her contribution to this discussion would have been very helpful. I would have also like contribution from a good evolutionary psychologist.

Morality

The next discussion on meaning was also very wide-ranging and often insightful. I liked Owen Flanagan‘s description of Aristotle’s approach. When asked how he could prepare a suitably complete obituary for someone who had just died he said that one could gather all the information available but it would still not be enough. To really pass judgement on a person’s life you have to wait to see how the grandchildren turn out.

Meaning

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At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos

Participants in conferences and workshops all seem to use laptops these days. So I find myself trying to establish if Apple or Windows dominate when I watch videos of these meetings. It seems to vary according to the subject. I think Apple dominates at this meeting.

Moving Naturalism Forward workshop

Sean Carroll has announced that videos from the October Moving Naturalism Forward workshop are now on-line (see Moving Naturalism Forward: Videos and Recap). See my posts Moving Naturalism Forward and Reports from the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop for more information on the workshop.

There are ten videos of about an hour-and-a-half each. I haven’t watched any of them yet – but plan to get started this weekend.

You can find all the videos at the Workshop web-site.

Sean describes the workshop this way:

The format of the meeting was a relatively small group of people sitting around a table and discussing things. Each session had someone say something to kick things off, but in general the discussion was central, not formal presentations. Participants included Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, Massimo Pigliucci, David Poeppel, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, Steven Weinberg, and me. A good cross-section of philosophers, physicists, biologists, and assorted other specialties. From start to finish the conversation was lively, informative, and at a very high level.

and

Nicholas Pritzker, who helped support the workshop, attended the sessions as a participant. Jennifer Ouellette also attended some of the sessions. Richard Dawkins had to leave early on the second day, due to travel complications caused by Hurricane Sandy. Hilary Bok, Patricia Churchland, and Lisa Randall were scheduled to attend but each had to cancel for different reasons.

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Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life. Episode 3: Meaning

This is the third and last video in the series Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life. It’s about “meaning.”

Richard Dawkins sets out to answer the question he often gets asked - “How do you get up in the morning?”

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 3.

Another laid-back coverage by Dawkins. He gives plenty of space to the religious attempts to find meaning but is personally not convinced. I find his own description of meaning in understanding and observing reality, experiencing human art and culture, and appreciating the awe provided by our surroundings, far more attractive.

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Death – part 2 of a series

Here’s the second episode in the series Sex, Death and the Meaning of life – fronted by “everyone’s favourite Strident Atheist.” See Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin for Part 1

It’s another laid back, non-threatening presentation of an important issue. A chance to consider different religious/philosophical approaches and to also learn some science.

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 2.

For such an evil atheist Dawkins seems to spend a lot of time in cemeteries and churches. Seems quite at home there.

The 3rd and final episode on The Meaning of Life screens in the UK next week.

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Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin

Sex, Death and The Meaning of Life is a new series of TV documentaries fronted by Richard Dawkins. I welcome this – partly because Dawkins is an excellent communicator. But also because it’s about time some of the current ideas in the science of morality and ethics were more widely known.

The first programme in the series, SIN,  was screened last Monday, on Channel 4 in the UK. I have embedded it below. It’s very informative.

There’s even a bit of humour – look out for the David Attenborough moment where Dawkins gives a description of evolution social customs around animal mating while watching humans performing on a dance floor

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 1.

There are at least two other programmes in the series. LIFE AFTER DEATH and MEANING OF LIFE.

See Death – part 2 of a series for the second episode.

See also:
Clear Story – Sex, death and the Meaning of Life
Channel 4 – SIN
Channel 4 – LIFE AFTER DEATH
Channel 4 – THE MEANING OF LIFE
British Atheist Richard Dawkins Explores Sin and Morality in New TV Series

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