You know, I really, really hate the way quacks abuse molecular biology. I know, I know. I’ve said it before, but certain quacks have a way of willfully misunderstanding the latest advances in genomics, molecular biology, and biology in general. Of course, this isn’t limited to just medicine, unfortunately. After all, we have Deepak Chopra and his quantum woo, which abuses physics and quantum theory in the name of “proving” mind-body dualism, a bastardized version of “intelligent design” creationism that is based on Eastern mysticism rather than Christianity, and, of course, a “conscious universe.”

If there’s one thing that the quack world is all about, it’s control. It’s not just control, though, in the sense of taking control of your health in a rational way. Rather, all too often it’s a fantasy world, an infantile wish-fulfillment, in which wishing, if we are to believe some quacks, literally makes it so. What is The Secret, after all, but the very embodiment of this concept, in which, if you think the right thoughts and want something bad enough, somehow the universe will magically grant you what you want? This mindset is embodied in the teachings of various quacks who either imply or state outright that if you just eat the right foods and take the right supplements you will be not just healthy but virtually impervious to disease. This is not a straw man argument. How many times have I shown examples of, for example, antivaccinationists like Bill Maher claiming that disease is not due so much to microbes but to the “terrain” of the body. The not-so-subtle implication is that the reason one gets sick is because of one’s habits. Of course, there are a lot of lifestyle diseases, but the implications goes beyond the sensible, science-based observation that obesity and lack of exercise increase the risk of certain diseases, into the realm of stating that if you just eat the right foods and do the right exercises you’ll never get sick.

Utter nonsense, of course.

There’s also a dark side to this sort of thinking, and that’s the flip side of the argument. If you can nearly completely control the state of your health by what you eat and do, the not-so-subtle implication is that if you get sick it must be your fault. After all, if we have complete control over our health through our lifestyle, then it follows that if you’re sick, you must be doing something wrong.

The latest way that quacks are trying to push the idea that you have near total control over your health is by abusing new findings in epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression or phenotype that are not caused by changes in the underlying gene sequence. Mechanisms by which epigenetics can influence gene expression include chemically modifying DNA in a reversible fashion, such as through methylation, which usually silences gene expression. Modifications of histones, which are the proteins around which DNA is wrapped, can also alter gene expression. It’s a fascinating area of research, because it suggests that gene expression can be altered longer than transiently by environmental influences. Of course, given that organisms and biology are affected by environmental influences, this is almost a trivial observation; the power of epigenetics is that it can explain how such changes in gene expression can come about.

You can probably see why quacks have seized on epigenetics so eagerly. If there’s one thing quacks hate, it’s genetics. The reason, of course, is that they view genes simplistically in a deterministic fashion, constructing an elaborate straw man of modern genetics in which genes are destiny. Epigenetics frees them from that, because they can now use it as a near-magical talisman to invoke as an alleged mechanism by which one’s activities can permanently alter one’s gene expression. I just saw a doozy of an example yesterday on–where else?–Joe Mercola’s website. It’s an article entitled Falling for This Myth Could Give You Cancer. In a sidebar, Mercola gleefully exclaims:

Science has shattered the Central Dogma of molecular biology, proving that determinism–the belief that your genes control your health–is false. You actually have a tremendous amount of control over how your genetic traits are expressed, by changing your thoughts and altering your diet and your environment.

Uh, no. The Central Dogma hasn’t been “shattered.” It’s simply been modified and clarified, just as Newtonian physics was expanded by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, such that, at speeds much less than the speed of light, relativistic calculations and Newtonian calculations produces answers that are so close as to be indistinguishable. In any case, the Central Dogma, as you might recall, is the concept that DNA encodes RNA, which encodes proteins, which then lead to biological activity and control of phenotype. In essence, it’s about the flow of information from DNA to RNA to protein, with part of the dogma being that information does not flow backwards in that progression. Not surprisingly, I’ve never liked that name (“Central Dogma”), as I don’t like the idea of calling anything in science a “dogma,” but that’s the name it got, and somehow it stuck. Never mind that there have been multiple modifications over the years. for instance, it turns out that it is possible to go back to DNA from RNA and that RNA can make copies of itself.

Then there came epigenetics. Of course, to hear quacks like Mercola talk, you’d think that DNA no longer encodes RNA, which no longer encodes protein. That’s nonsense, of course. that part of the central dogma never changed. Be that as it may, much of the abuse of epigenetics is very much Secret-like wish fulfillment. For example, take a look at this excerpt from Mercola’s article:

The ramification of buying into the central dogma is that it leads to belief in absolute determinism, which leaves you utterly powerless to do anything about the health of your body; it’s all driven by your genetic code, which you were born with.

However, scientists have completely shattered this dogma and proven it false. You actually have a tremendous amount of control over how your genetic traits are expressed–from how you think to what you eat and the environment you live in.

You may recall the Human Genome Project, which was launched in 1990 and completed in 2003. The mission was to map out all human genes and their interactions, which would than serve as the basis for curing virtually any disease. Alas, not only did they realize the human body consists of far fewer genes than previously believed, they also discovered that these genes do not operate as previously predicted.

Yes, this is pure Secret-like wish fulfillment. Mercola totally buys into the idea that emotions can change epigenetics to the point where your emotional makeup can alter your gene expression. In a way, this is a rather trivial observation. Of course, if you’ll probably change gene expression in parts of your brain because becoming angry or upset for example, raises blood pressure and produces a host of other physiological effects. Where Mercola and his fellow woo-meisters go off the rails on this crazy train is when they imply that you can control epigenetic processes with your thoughts and emotions. This is where Mercola’s attacking the Central Dogma as a “myth” that can “give you cancer.”

He begins by first completely misunderstanding the difference between quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics. A passage like this could have been penned by the master of quantum woo himself, Deepak Chopra:

Science has indeed taken us far beyond Newtonian physics, which says you live in a mechanical universe. According to this belief, your body is just a biological machine, so by modifying the parts of the machine, you can modify your health. Also, as a biological machine, your body is thought to respond to physical “things” like the active chemicals in drugs, and by adjusting the drugs that modify your machinery, doctors can modify and control health. However, with the advent of quantum physics, scientists have realized the flaws in Newtonian physics, as quantum physics shows us that the invisible, immaterial realm is actually far more important than the material realm. In fact, your thoughts may shape your environment far more than physical matter!

Uh, no. Not quite. No, not by a long shot. I’d like to see Mercola shape his environment with his thoughts. Of course, he could be talking about the trivial idea that how your thoughts are you and how you act, which of course will affect your environment. But the quantum woo that Mercola is talking about goes far beyond that:

The major problem with believing the myth that your genes control your life is that you become a victim of your heredity. Since you can’t change your genes, it essentially means that your life is predetermined, and therefore you have very little control over your health. With any luck, modern medicine will find the gene responsible and be able to alter it, or devise some other form of drug to modify your body’s chemistry, but aside from that, you’re out of luck… The new science, however, reveals that your perceptions control your biology, and this places you in the driver’s seat, because if you can change your perceptions, you can shape and direct your own genetic readout.

If this isn’t magical thinking, I don’t know what is. First of all, it’s a straw man to claim that genes are destiny. Genes affect probabilities, but it’s been known for many decades that other factors are important. Ever hear of the word “penetrance”? It’s a very old word in genetics. It’s simply a measure of what proportion of a population carrying a given allele of a gene will show the phenotype (trait) associated with that allele. It’s been known for a very long time that not all genes have 100% penetrance. In fact, most don’t. Epigenetics is nothing more than a new mechanism that can modulate a gene’s penetrance.

In any case, Mercola seems to think that we can somehow magically change our DNA through epigenetic mechanisms just by thinking about it:

So the good news is that you are in control of your genes … You can alter them on a regular basis, depending on the foods you eat, the air you breathe, and the thoughts you think. It’s your environment and lifestyle that dictates your tendency to express disease, and this new realization is set to make major waves in the future of disease prevention — including one day educating people on how to fight disease at the epigenetic level. When a disease occurs, the solution, according to epigenetic therapy, is simply to “remind” your affected cells (change its environmental instructions) of its healthy function, so they can go back to being normal cells instead of diseased cells.


You can also turn your genes off and on with your emotions too. Many, if not most people carry emotional scars; traumas that can adversely affect health. Using techniques like energy psychology, you can go in and correct the trauma and help regulate your genetic expression. My favorite technique for this is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), but there are many others. Choose whichever one appeals to you, and if you don’t sense any benefits, try another, until you find what works best for you.

Please, remember that ‘You CAN Take Control of Your Health.’

Of course you can take control of your health, but you don’t need to believe in The Secret (which, let’s face it, is all that this sort of stuff is) to do so. You also have to realize that there are limits. If you have, for instance, familial hypercholesterolemia, you are still highly likely to develop heart disease at a young age no matter what you do, but you can make it as late as possible by living a healthy lifestyle, eating a healthy diet, and exercising. If you’re a woman who carries a cancer-predisposing BRCA1 mutation, you’re still going to have an incredibly high chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer no matter what you do. In that case, taking control of your health would likely involve a combination prophylactic surgery to remove your breasts and ovaries, taking an antiestrogen drug like Tamoxifen to decrease your risk of breast cancer, or following a very close screening program so that you can intervene as soon as there is an abnormality worrisome for cancer. You cannot magically exercise, eat, or think your way out of the risk, no matter how hard you wish for it.

Mercola’s article is yet another supreme confirmation that magical thinking is at the heart of so much alternative medicine. No one argues that it’s not a good thing to improve one’s diet, to exercise, to avoid harmful substances. That’s a no-brainer, and science can give us the parameters for what is harmful and what is not. Even if it is true that emotions change gene expression through epigenetic mechanisms, it does not follow from that that we can actually control our gene expression in a way meaningful enough to make a difference in health. As someone once said about Deepak Chopra when he made similar claims, I’d like to see Mercola or Lipton alter their gene methylation just by thinking about it.


  1. #1 gaist
    May 1, 2012

    Anthony, stop.

    You’re sounding more and more like the drunk at the bar table who starts ranting and cursing staff and other patrons and even verbally abusing the bar manager when it’s closing time.

    At this stage, snide remarks, you-said-who-said-tirades or this “well I wouldn’t have dunnit if you’d just said so in the first place”-hand waving is definitely not helping.

    The image isn’t meant to be derogatory, but I’m afraid it seems apt.

    Read the posts again. Why this discussion has lasted so long isn’t because of you defending yourself against a horde of mindless zombie materialists. It’s because people objected to how you argued your position, not the position itself (at least until some became convinced your position was your argument). And kept on objecting. And objecting. And at some point it seemed like Denice Walter and a few others actually made some progress.

    Until someone said the B-word and you resorted back to the original stance, which many here found objectionable and misinformed/over-generalizing, and full of logical fallacies (which don’t necessarily mean the argument is wrong, only that it’s poorly worded). With repeated refusal to address the concerns of others, logical fallacies tend to be signs of, well, logical fallacies. Merry-go-round is only fun up to a point. After that, it just becomes going in circles.

    I apologize for my part in keeping this thread off topic. I’m also up for “let’s agree to disagree” like adults. Anthony doesn’t have to vote for anyone he doesn’t like, not abandon his religion because somebody has an objection to it. The rest of us can go our merry ways, some as meat-automatons and some as something else.

  2. #2 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    gaist, first, I don’t drink, for reasons that might be obvious to people who read the entire thread. If you think my tone is getting rather eccentric, it’s my attempt to reproduce, in a concentrated way, the thinking necessary to sustain some of the positions the “rational class” folks here are stating. It’s not my fault that they don’t think out the necessary conclusions that would have to come from those, not to mention the implications. Anyone who can seriously doubt that consciousness exists, testable or not, has to expect their idea to be applied to them and its most basic absurdity pointed out in those terms.

    As to being off topic, as I asked Denice, would you have rather I didn’t answer your long list of questions? If you will notice what I said to Orac at 732 above, in this long discussion I’ve brought it back to what he said in his post over and over again.

    For example, if you think part of it which was a the long denial by some unreasoning materialist that Richard Dawkins hadn’t done exactly what I said he did in my first comment, was about style instead of substance I think you should read it again. I produced evidence from three prominent biologists, all of them atheists, two declared materialists, one of them none other than Richard Dawkins, himself, to support the clear truth of what I said he’d said, and had to spoon feed the meaning of what he had said to a bunch of atheists in his fan club. And I don’t doubt that if I pointed it out again we’d have to go through the entire thing again.

    Materialists always insist on a transcendent status for their ideas by denying the quality and nature of those ideas, and as can be seen in comments 764 and765, some seem to want to claim a personal transcendence that isn’t granted to anyone else, a sort of perpetual “National Reason Day” for one. Sorting out whats wrong with that kind of thing can take a few words, especially when the tactics of the “skeptics”-new atheists have to be dealt with.

    Now I’m sure most of you need to go to the pat yourselves on the back daisy circle that is your wider perpetual “National Reason Day” among “Humanists” “skeptics” and atheists, I’ll go listen to John Lennox as an alternative celebration.

  3. #3 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    You might want to look up Raging Bee having to be warned by the owner of Evolution Blog for obscene tirades against yours truly in violation of his stated policies. Or her/his obscene tirades above.

    None of which even comes close to disproving the charge that you falsely blamed atheist bloggers for the religious hatred directed against a teenage girl. You know you’re a lying bigot, you know you’ve been exposed as such, and all you can do is fling non-sequiturs in all directions.

    If you think my tone is getting rather eccentric, it’s my attempt to reproduce, in a concentrated way, the thinking necessary to sustain some of the positions the “rational class” folks here are stating.

    Wow, you manage to be both pompous AND incoherent. So is this your way of trying to blame us for a) you falsely blaming atheist bloggers for the religious bigotry directed against Jessica Ahlquist, and b) you refusing to define the term “materialism” while falsely blaming it for just about all the evils of the modern age?

    Until someone said the B-word and you resorted back to the original stance…

    Actually, Anthony never relented on his “original stance;” and in fact, after I proposed banning him, he paused in his flooding campaign longer than he ever had before. Anthony is a relentless axe-grinding hater with a rigid authoritarian mindset, and the only thing that even slows him down is the threat of punishment by an authority figure. (And now that an actual ban doesn’t appear imminent, he’s cranking the repetitious hate back up again.)

  4. #4 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    “Perhaps you’d like to break this out into a flowchart.”
    Dear God no! We could be here for another 765 comments. Kelly M Bray

    Yours is comment 767.

    Did no one inform you people whining of the length of this thread that you aren’t required to even read it? Never mind add to its length?

    What a way to get to celebrate National Reason Day, to be able to point that out to the self-appointed Defenders of Reason. I’d suggest getting Dawkins to point it out but they don’t seem to read him. Maybe that paragon of the rational, James Randi, could tell them. He’s more their speed.

    And here I decided to forego making a very cutting point about Vachel Lindsay. You do know that’s who wrote that poem, don’t you Narad?

  5. #5 Ren
    May 1, 2012

    I don’t have the whole day to read this thread. Can someone give me the abbreviated version?

  6. #6 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    I didn’t make them address me.

    Not only is this a cowardly, victim-bashing, infantile attempt to dodge responsibility for your actions, Anthony — it’s not even true. When you spout obvious lies without provocation — the kind of lies that are known to cause harm when acted upon — then decent people are, in a very real sense, forced to challenge the lies, just as we are forced to respond to physical threats (and just as decent people are forced to respond to anti-vax lies and other health-destroying woo). And when you make wildly implausible assertions and wallow in obvious logical fallacies, then sane adults are, in a very real sense, forced to judge your character and credibility based on your past behavior.

    YOU, Anthony, are the one who chose to come here and spout bigoted lies. No one provoked you to do so — Hell, we weren’t even talking about any of your pet peeves when you showed up. No one forced you to hijack this thread or keep on repeating the same stupid BS over and over; and when we asked you to define the vague terms and concepts on which your entire worldview is based, no one ever forcibly prevented you from doing so.

    Anthony can’t even take responsibility for his own actions. That’s another good reason to ban him: a person who refuses to take responsibility for his actions cannot be trusted, and cannot be respected as a responsible adult. There’s no good reason to allow such a person to “participate” in a grownup conversation.

  7. #7 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    I don’t have the whole day to read this thread. Can someone give me the abbreviated version?
    Posted by: Ren

    See comment 16 above. Assuming you want to avoid stepping in the Bee scat.

  8. #8 dean
    May 1, 2012

    A.M. noted earlier, in an attempt to defend himself, that Jason had asked raging bee to stop posting and spamming his blog. If you’ve been following posts above it should not be a surprise that A.M. was less than honest in that comment, as he too was told to knock it off. Actually, Jason’s first comment to rb concerned a violation of his (Jason’s) no profanity policy, where he told rb to knock it off. Then he said:

    Come to think of it, both of you should knock it off. I’m tired of having to close threads because you two have little else going on beyond using other people’s blogs to yell at each other. You both need to learn how to let things drop.

  9. #9 Narad
    May 1, 2012

    And here I decided to forego making a very cutting point about Vachel Lindsay. You do know that’s who wrote that poem, don’t you Narad?

    No, Anthony, I just found it stuck to my shoe. Jesus Christ.

  10. #10 Bronze Dog
    May 1, 2012

    How Anthony responded:

    Bronze Dog, so it’s everyone else whose consciousness you doubt exists. How very radically solipsistic of you.

    What I actually said:

    For evaluating the consciousness of others, the test method is social interaction. Psychologists and neurologists most likely have a variety of more formal tests. Of course, induction suggests that it’s highly likely for other humans to be conscious, so I can afford to risk false positives since that’d be less time intensive than testing everyone.

    Emphasis added.

    Anthony, why did you choose to interpret my position as the opposite of what I said?

  11. #11 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    Well, dean, I don’t generally use obscene language online, it loses its usefulness if it’s overused. So I didn’t violate Jason’s written policy. What he meant by including me in that comment, you’d have to ask him.

    As I said, Raging Bee and the level of discourse s/he brings to the discussion is the property of the new atheists, not of me. You don’t reject it, you own it. Just like you self-appointed rationalists own the comment threads at the James Randi “Educational” Foundation.

  12. #12 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    Bronze Dog, and people think what I say is opaque not to mention inconsistent. I could quibble about “highly likely” as being insufficient for other new atheist purposes and your “test” as being something that would certainly not come up to the typical new atheist standards required for even some massively tested and confirmed ideas. Though I’d be the last one to accuse new atheists of having a single standard. It will take many more comments than the “lumbering robots” section of the entertainment, though, requiring many more citations that won’t be read.

    Orac, you want this to go well, well over a thousand comments? As I said way up around 587, all you have to do is say you want it ended. If you don’t do that, don’t complain.

  13. #13 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    dean: Another thing Anthony omitted is the fact that more than one commenter questioned Jason’s pretense that both Anthony and I were equally at fault for the dustup between us.

    That’s the problem with trying too hard to be “inclusive” and not ban anyone: you have to rationalize such spinelessness by pretending that the person who calls a liar a liar is just as bad as the liar. That’s pretty much what Jason did, in more than one thread: ignore Anthony’s bigoted lies and instead blame the person who most directly attacked the lies.

    And do you know what happened almost immediately after Jason took such a spineless stand? Two more bigoted liars showed up, one of whom was Salvador “Wormtongue” Cordova. That’s where misplaced equivocation gets you.

  14. #14 Denice Walter
    May 1, 2012

    I just travelled back through the mists of time to post # 16 wherein AM quotes Orac about those who ” view genes simplistically in a deterministic fashion” and opines that Dawkins fits that description extremely well.

    We have something that is related to the subject matter and might be a source of controversy amongst us- is Dawkins like that or not?

    For the record, although I am an atheist I do not particularly subscribe to Dawkin’s or anyone else’s views on the subject and have never actually read anything of his that was more than a few pages long.

    @ gaist: I try. I really do.

  15. #15 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    Orac, you want this to go well, well over a thousand comments? As I said way up around 587, all you have to do is say you want it ended.

    Because Anthony has no sense of personal responsibility, and doesn’t listen to reason, facts, or even the most basic principles of responsible adult interaction; he only listens to authority. Which is probably why he can’t understand any moral principles that doesn’t (allegedly) come from an all-powerful Sky-Daddy.

  16. #16 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    Narad, OK, against the expectations of post-prohibition group think, Vachel Lindsey was, actually, quite anti-alcohol, in theory, at least. You can read his “The Substitute for the Saloon”, chapt, 15 of his “The Art of the Moving Picture.”

    Unfortunately, things didn’t work out so well for Vachel Lindsay, not to mention Sara Teasdale. Perhaps if they’d had some invisible means of support they could have coped better.

    Booth was insufferably condescending to the poor and entrapped, though, given the choice between being an alcoholic on skid row and being a member of his sect I’d probably stand a better chance in the ranks. As I said, I’ve seen someone drink himself to death. It’s no daring assertion of freedom. I can’t imagine what Jesus would have made of the military organization, not to mention his uniformly pacifistic early followers.

    As can be seen in the ridicule of the poem, Vachel Lindsay was even more condescending to the great unwashed than Booth was.

    I wrote a paper on Teasdale in college. What can I say? I like to do research and have good reading retention.

  17. #17 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    Denice, as you can see, I’ve tried to stay on topic. It’s not my fault that materialists always freak out when anything could possible be considered to imply something non-material is brought up. Nor when they freak out over the necessary results of their ideology and deny that even as materialists confirm it. Materialism contains its own intolerable conclusions and impossible implications as well as its incompatibility with liberalism and democracy. After Coyne, I’m not ignoring them anymore, no matter how much materialists want to sweep them under the rug.

  18. #18 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    Well, dean, I don’t generally use obscene language online, it loses its usefulness if it’s overused. So I didn’t violate Jason’s written policy.

    Yeah, he lied through his teeth (if any) about “materialism,” “atheism,” etc., but he didn’t violate the “written policy,” so that makes his behavior perfectly okay. This is the standard excuse of the manipulative suck-up.

  19. #19 Denice Walter
    May 1, 2012

    @ Anthony:

    So perhaps we can go to back to that. That’s meaningful and controversial. Is Dawkins like those Orac criticises or not? I have absolutely no idea myself.

  20. #20 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    Denice, as you can see, I’ve tried to stay on topic.

    That would be funny if the joke wasn’t so old. Really, Anthony? Give us the comment numbers where you even mention epigenetics. That was the original topic, and you never had anything relevant to say about it.

  21. #21 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    I really don’t think Jason Rosenhouse would think of me as a “suck up”. How about you, Orac? Remeber our brawl over the German and Rwandan bans on hate speech?

    Raging Bee, I really think someone should tell you, you are unhinged. You are reaching Lochner levels of irrationality.

  22. #22 Bronze Dog
    May 1, 2012

    Bronze Dog, and people think what I say is opaque not to mention inconsistent. I could quibble about “highly likely” as being insufficient for other new atheist purposes and your “test” as being something that would certainly not come up to the typical new atheist standards required for even some massively tested and confirmed ideas.

    Then you’re unacquainted with (or you fail to understand) the atheist/skeptical community I’ve seen.

    First, certainty isn’t something we’re big on. When an atheist says something is certain, there’s an understanding that he probably means “highly likely” or something like that, rather than 100% absolute certainty. Science works in terms of probability, and the vast majority of the time, there’s a chance, even if it’s tiny, that we could be wrong. We’re used to living with uncertainties. For me, “highly likely” in a scientific context is strong language. Usually, the only people who don’t understand that are people who crave absolute certainty.

    Second, skeptics generally don’t evaluate mundane claims with extraordinary tests. If I tell one of my skeptic friends that I beat an easy videogame, they generally aren’t going to log onto the Playstation Network to see if my account displays the trophy, or demand that I replicate the feat in front of a camera. They’re more likely to give a very mild congratulation and recommend a harder game.

    It’s not an extraordinary claim to assert that an active, conversant human is conscious. The risks involved in making a false positive by assuming the average human I encounter is conscious are generally very low and the costs of a formal test are prohibitively high, and I don’t see how the improved accuracy would offset that cost. Human consciousness is a common phenomenon, not an extraordinary claim. I don’t conduct physics experiments with electromagnetism to prove that the lights will come on when I flip a switch, either. If we stopped to test every little claim, we’d waste a lot of resources. I don’t need that high level of confidence.

    Third, the extraordinary claims that involve consciousness typically are the details about how it works. Neurologists have been putting a lot of hard work into the relevant questions under tight ethical restrictions. They publish papers, and those get scrutinized by peer reviewers because the scientific community wants a higher degree of confidence in their hypotheses than I require about my hypothesis that “that guy over there is conscious.” I have no reason to doubt the scientific consensus at this point, since flaws would likely be challenged in peer review, and it’s consistent with my experience. If I encounter someone who can act intelligently despite lacking a brain, that would challenge my understanding because it’d be quite unexpected.

    If you want to posit that consciousness is caused by some never before observed entity made of reishi spiritual particles or whatever, instead of the brain, you’ll need high quality evidence to convince me.

    If you want to posit that you recently purchased groceries, I’m much more willing to believe you because I’ve observed grocery stores, I’ve purchased groceries, I’ve observed other people purchasing groceries, there’s a scientific consensus that human physiology requires a regular intake of food which provides a reason for grocery stores to offer food for sale, economists have researched the decision-making processes of grocery shoppers, and so on and so forth. The bulk of the claims that make grocery purchases possible, plausible, and desirable have been well-demonstrated, so it’s not a big risk to my understanding of the world if I simply believe that you went grocery shopping. It’s an ordinary claim, not something that would violate my worldview.

    This isn’t some new concept, it’s life. Carl Sagan just happened to provide a quote-friendly slogan about it.

  23. #23 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    denice, let’s go down the checklist with Dawkins.

    “they view genes simplistically in a deterministic fashion, constructing an elaborate straw man of modern genetics in which genes are destiny”

    they view genes simplistically (Yes)

    in a deterministic fashion (Yes)

    constructing an elaborate straw man of modern genetics (Yes)

    in which genes are destiny (Yes)

    Richard Dawkins is the embodiment of everything on Orac’s list.

    Dawkins’s vulgarizations of Darwinism speak of nothing in evolution but an inexorable ascendancy of genes that are selectively superior, while the entire body of technical advance in experimental and theoretical evolutionary genetics of the last fifty years has moved in the direction of emphasizing non-selective forces in evolution. Richard Lewontin “Billions and Billions of Demons”

    Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan? What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution. “Billions and Billions of Demons”

    Richard Dawkins would narrow the focus of explanation even one step further—to genes struggling for reproductive success within passive bodies (organisms) under the control of genes—a hyper-Darwinian idea that I regard as a logically flawed and basically foolish caricature of Darwin’s genuinely radical intent. Stephn Jay Gould: Darwinian Fundamentalism

    You can follow up any of a number of relevant links I gave above, especially the youtube of Lewontin’s excellent Hitchock Lecture at 141, in which he doesn’t mention Dawkins, as I recall, but just about everything he says is in refutation of Dawkins’ genetic ideology.

    I’ll provide more if it’s necessary, though I can’t see how anyone who is familiar with Dawkins could need it. Just that “lumbering robots” quote is enough to confirm the entire list.

  24. #24 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    I really don’t think Jason Rosenhouse would think of me as a “suck up”.

    Your behavior marks you as a suck-up, not your guess about what someone else may or may not think.

  25. #25 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    Okay, you’ve quoted all of TWO authors talking about what Dawkins said; but you’ve provided no actual quotes from Dawkins himself to back it up. At best, you have two people saying Dawkins oversimplified things a bit — which is neither uncommon nor a horrible atrocity justifying any of your mindless hatred of “materialism” or whatever. After all the blatant lies you’ve spewed here (none of which you even deny), do you really expect us to take that smattering seriously? You have no credibility, so you’ll need more than that to make your “case.”

  26. #26 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    If you want to posit that consciousness is caused by some never before observed entity made of reishi spiritual particles or whatever… Bronze Dog

    Well, isn’t it inconvenient for you that I haven’t posited any of those exotic ideas. Here is what I posited at 115 above

    Any idea anyone has about consciousness is only a matter of fashion and ideological preference, it’s not based in anything else. Nothing is known about consciousness except that it’s the most basic of human experiences, from which everything else is mere inference. That’s it.

  27. #27 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    Raging Bee, Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

  28. #28 Orac
    May 1, 2012


    Zzzzzzzzzz, indeed—to you.

    You didn’t really take the hint yesterday, did you? It’s not as if I were the least bit subtle or anything. When I said I was getting annoyed by having to sift through dozens of messages a day on a three week old thread, I wasn’t kidding.

  29. #29 Anthony McCarthy
    May 1, 2012

    Orac, that was a hint? I thought they were insults and snide asides to your fan boys. OK, Raging Bee is all yours. Enjoy. Happy National Day of “Reason”.

  30. #30 Bronze Dog
    May 1, 2012

    Any idea anyone has about consciousness is only a matter of fashion and ideological preference, it’s not based in anything else. Nothing is known about consciousness except that it’s the most basic of human experiences, from which everything else is mere inference. That’s it.

    That sounds like it’s skating on solipsism. Or defeatism.

    I can perform some self-analysis on my consciousness. I can keep approximate records on my thoughts to compare my short-term memory to my long term memory. I can discuss the way I make decisions and potentially change that decision-making process based on the discussion. I can read an article about a cognitive bias and realize that I’ve acted on it or I can have someone familiar with my history point out an instance.

    To honestly say that we know nothing of consciousness tells me either that you don’t think about your consciousness, or that you have a very poor imagination for devising even the most informal tests for yourself and others. One dishonest alternative I’ve often encountered is a baseless assertion that some things can’t be understood because they think key words like “untestable” will shield an idea from critical scrutiny.

    I can’t know everything with certainty about the world outside my consciousness, but that’s life. I have plenty of reason to believe I live in an uncertain world. Science is how I separate the plausible ideas from the implausible.

  31. #31 dean
    May 1, 2012

    “So I didn’t violate Jason’s written policy”

    No, he was on you for doing the same thing you’re doing here: repeating the same falsehoods and meaningless statements, as well as insulting those who disagree with you. I rather think you realize that and are, again, lying by omission.

  32. #32 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    Nothing is known about consciousness…

    You said exactly the same thing about the origin of life — on a blog thread where the author had already posted links to dozens of articles discussing what we know about the orgin of life. See the second URL @495 above.

    When was the last time you updated your copy-paste spiel?

  33. #33 Krebiozen
    May 1, 2012

    I have read quite a bit of Dawkins, and AM is wrong to characterize him as viewing “genes simplistically in a deterministic fashion, constructing an elaborate straw man of modern genetics in which genes are destiny”. Should anyone doubt this, I suggest they read this article by Dawkins entitled The Myth of Genetic Determinism. Here’s a quote from this article:

    People seem to have little difficulty in accepting the modifiability of “environmental” effects on human development. If a child has had bad teaching in mathematics it is accepted that the deficiency can be remedied by extra good teaching the following year. But any suggestion that the child’s mathematical ineptitude might have a genetic origin is likely to be greeted with something approaching despair: if it is in the genes “it is written” it is “determined” and nothing can be done about it; you might as well give up attempting to teach the child mathematics. This is pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale. Genetic causes and environmental causes are in principle no different from each other. Some influences of both types may be hard to reverse, others may be easy. Some may be usually hard to reverse but easy if the right agent is applied. The important point is that there is no general reason for expecting genetic influences to be any more irreversible than environmental ones.

    I’m tempted to steal the phrase “pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale”. In this article Dawkins also discusses the widespread misinterpretation of his “lumbering robots” quote. He clearly suggested that from the point of view of selfish genes animals could be seen as “lumbering robots”, that we could think of them as disposable tools of immortal genes. At the time he suggested this it was a different and useful way of looking at natural selection. Accusing Dawkins of saying that humans are lumbering robots is to profoundly misunderstand his insight. ‘The selfish gene’ is a useful metaphor, nothing more.

    By the way, I just enjoyed watching the BBC Beautiful Minds episode about Richard Dawkins, which I recommend to anyone who has access to BBC iPlayer. It covers much of the same ground as above.

  34. #34 Bronze Dog
    May 1, 2012

    To the farmer, a chicken is a product (meat) and a means of production (eggs).
    To a carnivore, a chicken is food source.
    To microorganisms, a chicken is a host.
    To the chicken, it exists to enjoy life.
    To the egg, a chicken is a way of making more eggs.
    To (insert gene), a chicken is a way of copying itself.

    Acknowledging that our genes have a self-serving “purpose” for producing us does not mean we’re controlled exclusively by genes. There are other entities with other purposes that exert influence. There’s also happenstance.

  35. #35 Raging Bee
    May 1, 2012

    @800: Well, I guess that totally debunks the entire basis of Anthony’s original thread-jack. Good on ya, mate! (So why didn’t ya say something before?! Geez…)

  36. #36 Krebiozen
    May 1, 2012

    (So why didn’t ya say something before?! Geez…)

    Well, it’s more than 20 years since I devoured everything I could get my hands on about evolutionary biology (I even attended a lecture by Gould on spandrels, which was very interesting) so I’m more than a little rusty. I had to refresh my memory over the past few days and only came across that article today. Still, better late than never!

  37. #37 LW
    May 1, 2012

    Nasty and boring as he is, AMC isn’t totally useless. I was inspired to sit down and reread The Selfish Gene and, not surprisingly, AMC is totally wrong and his interpretation is expressly denied in that very book. But I didn’t want to make this thread worse by arguing with him, since he wouldn’t argue in good faith and it would just be an added burden on Orac.

  38. #38 Rilke's Granddaughter
    May 2, 2012

    Before this thread gets closed and Andy gets banned, I thought I’d touch on this point.

    Rilke’s G. First and foremost, my nickname isn’t “Andy” it’s “Yougoddamnedlittlebastard” but only to my closest friends. You can call me “Anthony McCarthy”.

    When you begin to behave like a grown-up, I’ll call you by a grown-up name, Andy. Until then, my child, you will get treated like a child.

    Really, Andy. You’re not very good at this. Fafarman was far better. Heck, even Dave Hawkins could actually argue coherently about something. You can’t even do that.

    And you still haven’t addressed the fact that you’re a proven liar.

  39. #39 v-pills
    May 3, 2012

    Yes, In this article Dawkins also discusses the widespread misinterpretation of his “lumbering robots” quote. He clearly suggested that from the point of view of selfish genes animals could be seen as “lumbering robots”, that we could think of them as disposable tools of immortal genes. At the time he suggested this it was a different and useful way of looking at natural selection. Accusing Dawkins of saying that humans are lumbering robots is to profoundly misunderstand his insight!

  40. #40 Anthony McCarthy
    May 4, 2012

    I see that Orac isn’t upset about this thread continuing in the absence of a critic of materialism. I could have predicted that too.

    v-pills, I’ve read Dawkins’ claims that the lumbering robots statement was ‘misunderstood’ even as he confirmed that the ‘misunderstanding’ was exactly what he meant to say. I addressed that above, as did Stephen Jay Gould who pointed out that it only made things more extreme.

  41. #41 herr doktor bimler
    May 4, 2012

    AMC, if you compare comments #807 and #801, you will see that you are now reduced to arguing with a spam-bot.
    Carry on…

  42. #42 Narad
    May 4, 2012

    Now, that’s entertainment.

  43. #43 Stu
    May 4, 2012

    Hmm. “v-pills” did not give it away, Anthony?

    Great thinker, indeed.

  44. #44 herr doktor bimler
    May 4, 2012

    An argument with a v14gra spambot struck me as especially amusing in light of AMC’s earlier ridicule for the kind of poor observers who could be fooled by the Turing test.

  45. #45 Stu
    May 4, 2012

    doktor, I don’t think you understand how far ahead Anthony’s thinking really is:

    P. Z. Myers, I’m no creationist and intelligent design as science is as absurdly asserted as atheist ideology as science is, but I’ve got enough respect for coherent, logical argument, not to mention the duty of someone who agrees to give a quasi-academic lecture to ACTUALLY PREPARE A COHERENT, LOGICAL ARGUMENT instead of throwing a bunch of crap into a Power Point program, to not say you’ve presented something less of both than the failed arguments of creationists.

  46. #46 Krebiozen
    May 5, 2012

    Since it was my words that were quoted by the erectilely dysfunctional spambot, I will point out to Anthony that the full passage he refers to at #288 was provided by two commenters at #389 and #390.

    Note that Dawkins originally wrote, “”Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots… ” This makes it crystal clear that he was writing from the point of view of genes, that he was personifying genes. Dawkins was not suggesting that we *should* treat other humans as gigantic lumbering robots. If I point out that from the point of view of a predator a human body is a nourishing meal, hopefully no one will accuse me of promoting cannibalism.

    As Dawkins wrote in the preface to the 30th anniversary edition of ‘The Selfish Gene’:

    Personification of this kind is not just a quaint didactic device. It can also help a professional scientist to get the right answer, in the face of tricky temptations to error. Such is the case with Darwinian calculations of altruism and selfishness, cooperation and spite. It is very easy to get the wrong answer. Personifying genes, if done with due care and caution, often turns out to be the shortest route to rescuing a Darwinian theorist drowning in muddle.

    In the first chapter of the same book Dawkins also addresses some of Anthony’s other misconceptions in a passage that I think is also worth quoting.

    This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. This book is mainly intended to be interesting, but if you would extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.

    In the preface he even says of this passage “There is nothing wrong with teaching generosity and altruism, but ‘born selfish’ is misleading. In partial explanation, it was not until 1978 that I began to think clearly about the distinction between ‘vehicles’ (usually organisms) and the ‘replicators’ that ride inside them (in practice genes…)”

    I don’t think I need to comment further, as Dawkins’ words speak for themselves.

  47. #47 Anthony McCarthy
    May 5, 2012

    Stu, did you watch the YouTube of the great PZ Myers comparing the driftwood accumulating on a shore to the organization of a living cell? There are arguments to be made against creationism but they’ve got to be coherent and logical before they can refute anything. PZ’s has to count as the stupidest one I’ve ever heard, his celebrity doesn’t change that. It is less coherent than some of the stuff that the ID industry comes up with that gets debunked. I mean, the great PZ isn’t immune from doing his homework and making a coherent argument.

    I’ve yet to see a pile of driftwood metabolize or reproduce though I’ll bet you boys will tell me otherwise.

  48. #48 Anthony McCarthy
    May 6, 2012

    Kreibiozen, as Dawkins’ entire career has been centered around his faith in the genetic determination of behavior, both before and after the criticism of his “lumbering robots” statement. It continues to be now that he’s pretty much given up science to push the full agenda of materialist-atheism, which I think was the real motivation of his ideological school from the beginning.

    I’m encouraged by his attempts to pull the rug over such a basic idea of that ideology due to most people seeing it for the repulsive and contra-experiential idea that it is. In the post-WWII, post-Stalinist period the necessary conclusions of it couldn’t be more clearly and dangerously a contradiction of history, as well.

    The 20th century was largely an experiment with that kind of materialist belief, the results are that, as could be expected, it produces an amoral nightmare.

  49. #49 Stu
    May 6, 2012

    Awesome, Anthony. Your argument from ignorance and incredulity has me completely convinced.

    Besides, that’s not what the analogy meant. Are you too stupid to follow a simple analogy or are you bearing false witness out of your blind hatred again?

  50. #50 Anthony McCarthy
    May 6, 2012

    Stu, the simplicity of an analogy doesn’t keep it from also being a bad analogy and that one is one anyone with a brain would reject if they read it in the hastily scribbled essay of a eighth grade slacker. P.Z. didn’t do his homework, he failed his obligations as a scholar rather spectacularly for an assistant professor at an accredited university. It’s shocking that other biologists didn’t vigorously criticize him for it.

    The idea of an intelligent designer can’t be introduced into science because science isn’t designed to handle those kinds of ideas. Asserting that ID is science is a violation of the rules of science. Period. It’s not really any more complicated that that. If people want to believe that they see design, that’s not a scientific holding and that’s the big problem with it. People can and do hold that belief in other contexts, most of the people who accept that evolution is a fact do. You’re not going to convince them it isn’t there with science, face reality.

  51. #51 LW
    May 6, 2012

    “are you bearing false witness out of your blind hatred again?”

    That is of course a rhetorical question.

  52. #52 hoary puccoon
    May 6, 2012

    For viewers who just tuned in, PZ Myers actually compared a wall of driftwood piled up by storms to a wall of bricks laid by a bricklayer. The point was that something deliberately designed (that would be the brick wall) can be less complex than something that just got thrown together by chance. (That would be the driftwood.) Living cells did not enter into the comparison.

  53. #53 Raging Bee
    May 7, 2012

    AMC, if you compare comments #807 and #801, you will see that you are now reduced to arguing with a spam-bot.

    Did someone say “lumbering robots?”

  54. #54 Anthony McCarthy
    May 7, 2012

    hoary p. throwing in the brick wall as an example of simplicity that was clearly designed as opposed to the line of driftwood only made the analogy of one “complicated” “thing” to the complicated entity in question, a living cell, more silly.

    The “organization” of the driftwood on the shore is far less like the organization of a living cell than the driftwood was to the brick wall, not least in terms of complexity but also in terms of functionality. Any ID proponent could point out that the “functionality” of the driftwood was entirely accidental and limited while the intelligently designed brick wall was an obvious case of functionality by a living being. And I’ll bet if someone unwisely forced a choice a la “Miller’s Analogies” a large majority of people would see a lot more in common with the functionality of the brick wall and the cell wall. That an associate professor in a science department could have made such a stunningly bad analogy is kind of shocking, that the AP could have been a biologist is scandalous. As one arguing against the ID industry, it was just stupid and lazy. But new atheism is always doing that kind of thing. And blog atheists are always riding shotgun for them, with pop guns.

  55. #55 Stu
    May 7, 2012

    Ah, Anthony, I see you’re going with the “I don’t know what an analogy is” defense. Very interesting.

    Asserting that ID is science is a violation of the rules of science.

    Then why do ID proponents keep doing it? More importantly, why the hell are you whining about it here? Are you still going to pretend to be in any way objective about this?

  56. #56 Anthony McCarthy
    May 7, 2012

    Then why do ID proponents keep doing it?

    Because they are dishonestly trying to impose ideology on science. That’s not my fault. As my nearly completed c. 5000 word essay says in detail, I’m against that.

    Not that I care to monitor comments on my blog, I don’t, but if you want to discuss one of my posts maybe Orac would rather you did it there. You should read my comments policy on the left side of the screen if you do, though.

  57. #57 Saul Spragley
    May 25, 2012

    You are a very clever individual!

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