Remember a couple of weeks ago, when I pointed out that, in addition to its usual stable of antivaccine pseudoscience and the quantum woo of Deepak Chopra, that The Huffington Post had now delved even beyond what I thought it would by publishing the nonsensical, credulous blather about distant healing? In the post Srinivasan Pillay, self-billed certified master coach, psychiatrist, brain imaging researcher and speaker, demonstrating a profound inability to spot some very glaring shortcomings in a scientific study, actually cited Dean Radin’s research as “evidence” for distant healing. Truly, he appeared to be trying to outdo Deepak Chopra for how deeply he dug himself into the woo.
Well, he’s back, and this time he may well have succeeded in out-Chopra-ing Chopra. Well, maybe not. He doesn’t delve into “quantum consciousness,” but while arguing that rational thought is not so rational in a post entitled Why Rational Thinking Is Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be, Pillay hilariously shows just why science and critical thinking are so important.
Pillay begins with the “some of my best friends are rationalists, but…” gambit:
Let me start out by saying that I deeply value and respect rational thinking. I think that rational thought is a valuable foundation for decision-making and I value the sensibility that it embodies. However, I am not entirely enamored by claims of “rational thought” and here are a few reasons why.
You can tell right away that this is basically the “buttering up” phase, in which Pillay tries to convince his readers that he’s down with the whole rational thought and critical thinking scene, but that there he thinks he’s found a huge flaw, and he immediately goes on the attack:
Rational thinking is only half the story. I have found that if a person has a strong emotional stake in an outcome, he or she usually constructs arguments to support that outcome. In the scientific literature, this is called “motivated reasoning” and a brain imaging study has shown that it activates very different brain regions from “cold reasoning”. In many matters of life, motivated reasoning masquerades as cold reasoning and “rational” thought, when in fact, it is reason that is based on an emotional response. Even if people say something with a straight face and blinking eyes, this form of rational utterance often has an emotional basis. When people have an emotional stake in an outcome, I almost never consider their arguments to be “purely rational”.
Well, goody for you, Dr. Pillay! You’ve realized that human beings often aren’t rational, even those of us who try hard to apply science, reason, and critical thinking to various unusual claims! Stop the presses! Who’da thunk it?
From this mind-numbingly obvious observation, Pillay then goes on to construct an elaborate argument that those who argue for science and reason in the face of paranormal claims (and, let’s face it, claims like Dr. Pillay’s belief in distant healing are, more than anything else, paranormal in nature) aren’t actually arguing from reason, rather that they’re arguing from an emotional connection. In other words, because many beliefs we as humans hold aren’t based on reason, he assumes that the same is true of the conclusions of science. It never seems to enter his woo-ey little head that it’s possible to be passionate about abuses of science and reason such as his previous two columns, in which he defends the concept of distant healing (even calling it a science!) and the one before that, in which he actually presents “scientific evidence” in support of that woo of woos, the “law of attraction,” which is at the heart of The Secret. He’s clever in this, though. He’s basically trying to equate his level of science and reason to that of the skeptical critics of mystical idiocy like The Secret.
Gee, Dr. Pillay, project much?
To Dr. Pillay, science is, in essence, “just another allegiance”:
Often, past experiences strongly influence how we respond “rationally” and may also influence how we take information in, even if we develop a rational framework to explain our thought processes. Essentially, emotions and world-views powerfully affect the way in which we construct arguments. Ask a Democrat to come up with reasons for why taxes should not be cut for small business owners, or ask a homophobe to provide arguments for why gay marriage should be allowed, and you will see how difficult it is for people to think outside of their identified allegiances.
There’s another aspect of this fallacious argument, and it’s Pillay’s blatantly equating arguments over science (such as, for instance, whether distant healing is woo or not, which it is) to political disagreements. In essence, he’s using the hoary chestnut that advocates of pseudoscience love to bring out to throw at scientists, namely that scientists are merely being loyal to their tribe when they take pseudoscientists to task for their pseudoscience. To him, science or pseudoscience, or so it would seem, is no different a choice than Republican or Democrat. Even worse, he is implicitly likening scientists to homophobes, in essence implying that their devotion to science is on par with being bigoted like homophobes and, by extension, that their dismissal of pseudoscience is based on bigotry or emotion rather than science or reason. It’s about as intellectually dishonest an argument as I have heard in a long time.
Then, unwittingly, without even knowing that’s what he’s doing, Pillay provides an absolutely boffo argument for why the scientific method is so important when coming to conclusions:
Rational thinking also often rests on “believing” what the brain sees, but there are countless examples of how our brains can trick us into thinking things. We see mirages in deserts even when there is no water. If we bring two horizontal lines in the same plane close enough together, our brains will see them and report them to us as one. Amputees can feel pain in a limb that is not present. We cannot hear dog whistles. Our “convictions” rely heavily on our senses, but our senses do not always tell us the truth. Building a rational argument based on what can be seen or heard or touched has its limitations.
Actually, this is a straw man in addition to my aforementioned characterization of it as a “boffo argument” for the importance of critical thinking all in one. These sorts of quirks in our perception and memory are why so many people believe that various noises they hear or shadows they see out of the corner of their eyes are ghosts or spirits. They’re why simply people think that white spots on photographs due to moisture or dust on the lens are ghostly orbs. They’re why people can be so easily fooled into thinking the dead are speaking to them. Indeed, without even knowing it Pillay has pointed out an excellent reason why science and critical thinking are so important. It’s because our senses, coupled with how our brains are wired, can so easily fool us. The fallibility of human senses is one reason why we need tools to help prevent this fallibility from misleading us and thus one major reason why the scientific method was developed in the first place. Here’s another, although Pillay seems to think it’s an argument against science. After describing a patient of his who was making associations between various observations to draw all sorts of false inferences, such as that the Hell’s Angels were following him, Pillay writes:
While his delusions are extreme, our brains are making associations like this all the time. We remember things incorrectly or forget things often as well. Our brains may make up stories that join time points to create a sense of continuity, much like how they can make two horizontal lines look like one when they are close enough.
Again, that’s exactly why anecdotal evidence can be so misleading. It’s exactly why, for example, antivaccine activists confuse correlation with causation and conclude that vaccines cause autism. It’s exactly why people conclude that, for example, more craziness happens around the time of the full moon (it doesn’t). It’s why homeopaths and their patients confuse the placebo effect and regression to the mean with there being an actual effect to homeopathy when homeopathic remedies are nothing more than water. All of these false associations come about because our brains are wired to find patterns, which likely had an evolutionary advantage back when we didn’t have time to wait around and find out if that shadow moving about was just the wind rustling the leaves or if there really was a predator there preparing to grab its next meal but is now very ill-suited for making conclusions about science, medicine, and epidemiology.
In short, what Pillay points out is yet another reason why the scientific method, skepticism, and critical thinking are all so essential to drawing conclusions about how the world works. They are a check on all the fallibilities of our senses and how our mind draws inferences about cause and effect that help us to avoid being misled by anecdotal evidence and the tricks our senses play on us. Contrary, to Pillay’s examples, scientific conclusions are not political views, which, while they should be informed by science, in the end boil down to, in essence, value judgments about what is important in life. Scientific conclusions are not emotional responses, either, although there is nothing wrong with skeptics defending their conclusions passionately. Scientific conclusions are most certainly not prejudices like homophobia, although admittedly there have been all sorts of scientific “justifications” fallaciously proposed in the past to justify homophobia and bigotry. In actuality, though, science can help us overcome prejudices by informing us about how the world really is rather than what our emotions, biases, and prejudices lead us to believe it to be.
Can scientists be bigoted? Of course. Can they be irrational? Absolutely. Can they be emotional? They’re all human beings; so of course they can. Science doesn’t inoculate humans from emotion and irrationality, producing a bunch of purely logical Mr. Spocks running around drawing their conclusions about the world from pure logic. Rather, coupled with critical thinking, science is a tool by which scientists and those who learn how to use this tool overcome those aspects of our human character that get in the way of determining how the world works by either distorting our observations or leading us to relate things that are not related or to miss relations between things that are related, no more, no less.
Of course, the reason that woo-meisters like Dr. Pillay make this sort of attack on science and critical thinking, equating it to emotion and ingrained ways of thinking is that they need to strip science of its special status, to use and abuse postmodernism to argue that science is nothing more than another narrative and that its adherents defend it against attacks by pseudoscientists to protect their hegemony over knowledge. It is only by doing that, by tearing down science, that they can make their woo seem equal to science, because they can’t compete on a level scientific playing field.
They certainly can’t overcome science with evidence, data, and experimentation.
All of which is why I agree with blog bud PalMD that Pillay has executed an EPIC FAIL, and I just had to steal this image from him:
Because, when faced with “arguments” like the ones presented by Dr. Pillay, one FacePalm just isn’t enough. In fact, in the case of Dr. Pillay, I wonder if two FacePalms are even sufficient. I wonder if there’s a photo with thousands of FacePalms. That might–I repeat might–be enough.