Respectful Insolence

Jamy Ian Swiss on science-based skepticism

As the last full weekday of my vacation passes, I thought about whether I’d bother to post anything or not, given that I happen to be traveling. After yesterday’s post, the subject of which was profoundly depressing to me because I hate it when quacks take cynical advantage of a grieving family to promote their antivaccine agenda, I thought I’d post something a bit more positive.

Nearly a month ago, I attended TAM, presenting there at one of the workshops and taking part in a panel discussion of “integrative medicine” (i.e., “integrating” quackery with real medicine). Leaving aside the controversies and focusing on content, one of the highlights of the meeting, if not the highlight of the meeting for me was Jamy Ian Swiss’ talk, in which he laid out his vision of scientific skepticism. At the time, I had yet to see someone whose vision of what it means to be a skeptic, particularly a scientific skeptic, aligns so closely with mine, such that I found myself at multiple points practically jumping up and yelling, “Hell, yes!” (Actually, I used a different word besides “hell,” a word I virtually never used on this blog before NatGeo took over and, now that NatGeo has taken over, probably never will.)

At one point, Jamy uses the example of Bill Maher and his embrace of antivaccine and alternative medicine quackery to illustrate what I’ve been trying to say all along. Just watch, and we’ll all get together again next week. It’s worth watching the whole thing, all 40+ minutes, although the vibe on video is a bit different. The buzz at the talk was electric, and unfortunately that doesn’t translate to video very well:

My “niche” in the skeptical movement might be science-based medicine and exposing quackery, and it’s true that I don’t blog that much about other skeptical subjects anymore, but it’s all valuable. Maybe I should go “back to my roots,” so to speak and broaden my reach a bit again, the way it was in the beginning of this blog.

Comments

  1. #1 JGC
    August 10, 2012

    Jamy’s the perfect mix of both brilliant and brilliantly entertaining.

  2. #2 Darwy
    Røde grøde med fløde
    August 10, 2012

    I’m still absolutely jealous about you going to TAM. I’m so hoping I can make the trip in the next couple of years.

    *sigh*

  3. #3 Denice Walter
    August 10, 2012

    OT ( but what the f@ck, it’s Friday):

    But speaking of other subjects for sceptics that range beyond SBM and quackery, old reliable Mike Adams echoes his own earlier echolalic rants and informs us the a “the Great Culling” is upon us. That is, a global effort at de-population by eliminating the weak.

    Nouveau Eugenicists ( *comme* Gates and Turner) are more subtle than the old: rather than using gas, they distribute GM foods, vaccines, fluoride, chemical additives and abortion.

    We are all taking part in a great intelligence test, he says, the less intelligent will take the vaccines, loaded up with stealth cancer viruses: these will be pushed on low income people especially. Pharmaceuticals, like Propecia, cause infertility. About 90% will perish… slowly..

    Mikey will instruct you how to be amongst the survivors: avoid GMOs, vaccines, chemtails, prescription meds, food additives, biological weapons and ‘food fascism’. He provides 10 strategies to ensure that you will be amongst the living when the Great Angel of Death spreads his genetically modified wings and spreads his chemically-contaminated seeds of destruction: make sure that your doorway is marked with the sign of ‘ALL NATURAL/ homegrown’ so he will pass you by. Thus saith Mikey.

  4. #4 Daniel J. Andrews
    August 10, 2012

    such that I found myself at multiple points practically jumping up and yelling, “Hell, yes!” (Actually, I used a different word besides “hell,” a word I virtually never used on this blog before NatGeo took over and, now that NatGeo has taken over, probably never will.)

    Was it “Amen”, as in “Amen, brother, preach it?”. Or perhaps, “Teach it”. That is quite a good talk (am at the 25 minute mark now), and those are the sentiments I’m tempted to say.

    I particularly like his explanation of why he’s a skeptical activist–I hadn’t articulated it that way to myself but when he said it, it was like a light went on revealing what had already been in my head but which I hadn’t really examined.

    Yes, good talk—just heard something I’d nitpick, but that’s neither here nor there.

    And his point that creationists ran rings around biologists not because biologist lacked specialized knowledge on science, but lacked specialize knowledge on nonsense (he’s quoted someone else for that) is good.

    I’ve heard that in another context—where a Mormon missionary in a debate can run rings around a Christian (lots of cherry-picking, taking things out of context, quote mining, etc) not because the Christian lacks knowledge of the Bible, but because he lacks the specialized knowledge to deal with nonsense. (note I’m not saying agree, disagree, irrelevant, just that it has been used in a different context—indeed, many ideas about critical thinking, analogies, using your brain, that you hear from skeptics I’ve also heard when i was growing up and in theological seminary. Same ideas, different contexts, each person thinking they’re being logical and using critical thinking skills to examine things (usually different things though….e.g. we use it to examine empirical claims, they use it to test philosophical, theological, logical contructs which may or may not have a practical basis).

    Anyway, back to the talk….thanks for posting it.

  5. #5 lilady
    August 10, 2012

    ” At the time, I had yet to see someone whose vision of what it means to be a skeptic, particularly a scientific skeptic, aligns so closely with mine, such that I found myself at multiple points practically jumping up and yelling, “Hell, yes!” (Actually, I used a different word besides “hell,” a word I virtually never used on this blog before NatGeo took over and, now that NatGeo has taken over, probably never will.)”

    Orac, NatGeo does not permit you to say “Heck, yes!”? :-)

    That’s a great video. IIRC, your “friend” posted the video of his presentation at TAM 2011 on the SBM website. Do you think you could persuade your “friend” to post his TAM 2012 presentation video, on SBM?

  6. #6 Denice Walter
    August 10, 2012

    @ Daniel J. Andrews:

    I truly believe that to understand pseudo-science and its allure to its audience, you need to directly observe them in their natural habitat, carefully noting how they behave, woo followers, transform themselves over time and interact with each other. I try to imagine how a person without a decent background in science and previously un-exposed to their MO would react to their mis-information.

    So, I put on my ( metaphorical) wading boots and head off to the dead marshes of festering ignorant rot. And what things i discover there! Sometimes I feel like Carter, who upon first peering into Tutankhamun’s tomb, was asked what he saw:; but I’d reply, “Terrible things!” instead.

    And from poking around these dens of iniquity, I venture that health mis-information is just the start: these people have grander designs than just teaching nutrition and fear of pharmaceuticals. Much grander. And more perverse.

    @ lilady:

    You can say “f@ck”, “h3ll”, “b!tch” et al, all you like.

  7. #7 JJ
    August 10, 2012

    Quite possibly the best talk at this year’s TAM.

  8. #8 Darwy
    Røde grøde med fløde
    August 10, 2012

    @Denice

    I don’t think I could stomach sitting in on say, Tenpenny or Humphries. My blood pressure would skyrocket and when they offered homeopathy for it, I’d probably snap.

  9. #9 lilady
    August 10, 2012

    @ Denice Walter: I *can* and I *do* say those naughty words…frequently.

    I proudly take credit for naming the *SFB troll.

    * SH*T FOR BRAINS

  10. #10 Denice Walter
    August 10, 2012

    @ Darwy:

    I meant *metaphorically*- not in person ( which, -btw- is truly horrendenous)- however, listening to audio/ viewing videos is worse than reading. Fortunately, most woo-meisters provide more than one way to reach potential followers: a few are beginning to re-imagine themselves as media – internet TV/ radio, blogs, social media and so-called documentary films. Any path to customers’ pocketbooks will do.

  11. #11 Darwy
    Røde grøde med fløde
    August 10, 2012

    @Denice

    I’ve seen a few of them promoting their own podcasts, and I shudder to think of the audience they could potentially reach and mislead.

  12. #12 Roadstergal
    Yay Area, CA
    August 10, 2012

    A most excellent video. I shared it on my FaceTube… I mean, my YouTwit… oh, never mind. I can’t keep up with social media, so get off of my lawn.

    I am particularly pleased that he took irrational athiests to task, as I know a decent number that value the ends more than the means.

  13. #13 Harbo
    August 11, 2012

    “Stay on Target”

  14. #14 Harbo
    August 11, 2012

    I mean Thank You ,for the link .
    We are all prone to distraction by particular hobby horses, and that lovely rant has refocused me(us).
    Respectful Insolence was my first exposure to the skeptosphere

    By pure fluke, as an ageing Blake 7 fan, researching a Quack.
    I thus subsequently bought my own computer and modem and dove in.
    thank ORAC

  15. #15 Matt B
    August 11, 2012

    Thanks for posting this, this talk was outstanding.

  16. #16 Elihphile
    August 11, 2012

    Partly, off topic, Luna Petagine, Burzynski’s patient, who had horrific side effects shown in a British documentary ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-qS5lR65ug 28, 39 and 53 mins), has died.

    From her family’s blog and twitter account, it has been apparent for the past month and a bit, that they were aware that it was coming and they were desperately trying to cram as much happy experiences into that time, something that they could have done much sooner without Burzynski.

  17. #17 lilady
    August 11, 2012

    One of our other posters notified us yesterday about Luna’s death and also provided the YouTube video…which I watched.

    It is so sad that Burzynski is still in business peddling false hope.

    I saw the part of the YouTube when the parents brought Luna back to Great Ormond Hospital…and noted the shock and disbelief on the doctor’s face, when told that Luna blood sodium level had shot up to 178 mEq/L; normal range for her should be 138-145 mEq/L. She could barely stand and looked as though she was in a stupor.

    Toward the end of the video, after she had been stabilized at Great Ormond, she was home with her family, enjoying the short time left to her.

  18. #18 Kurtis Rader
    Santa Clara, CA
    August 11, 2012

    TAM 2012 was my first TAM and I paid the $1000 for the “experience” package. Which allowed me a front row center seat during Jamy’s presentation. To say he struck a chord with the attendees is a gross understatement. There were many excellent presentations but his was far and away the one I think most likely to make people get off their lazy keisters and do something to advance skeptical, rational, thinking.

  19. #19 thenewme
    August 12, 2012

    Wow, once again I’m amazed at how large the skeptosphere is! I’m a relative newcomer to the skeptical movement, but this video is really causing me to rethink my involvement.

    Denice Walter said above

    I truly believe that to understand pseudo-science and its allure to its audience, you need to directly observe them in their natural habitat, carefully noting how they behave, woo followers, transform themselves over time and interact with each other. I try to imagine how a person without a decent background in science and previously un-exposed to their MO would react to their mis-information.

    When I was diagnosed with breast cancer 3-1/2 years ago and became involved with breastcancer.org, I had my first significant experience with pseudoscientific quackery. I’ve been directly observing quacks up close and personal there in their “natural habitat.” What I’ve seen has been so deeply disturbing and distressing to me, that I’ve left that forum and sought like-minded discussion here.

    Jamy’s talk has made me wonder how I might be able to more effectively combat pseudo-science and “get off my (non)lazy keister and do something to advance skeptical, rational thinking,” since my attempts until now have been spectacularly unsuccessful.

    Honestly, I’m at a loss as to how best to go about it, though. I don’t claim medical expertise, political power, or any other influential resources. I’m *just* a breast cancer patient who is horrified by the amount and depth of quackery and pseudoscience directly marketed to cancer patients. Do any of you have specific suggestions? How can I even begin to make a difference?

  20. #20 Narad
    August 12, 2012

    I’m *just* a breast cancer patient who is horrified by the amount and depth of quackery and pseudoscience directly marketed to cancer patients. Do any of you have specific suggestions? How can I even begin to make a difference?

    The first sentence here is perhaps apropos. Keep your cool. Don’t let obvious falsehoods slide. Don’t pretend to knowledge that you don’t have. Think.

  21. #21 Denice Walter
    August 12, 2012

    @ thenewme:

    First of all, you, black-cat and the other SB women from BC.org have made a great start by SPEAKING UP here.

    A few people @ RI have created blogs in reaction to woo-based blogs ( Todd W., Prometheus and Science Mom, IIRC). They could advise you.

    You might want to contact Dr Barrett who seeks out information about pseudo-science. HIs site is Quackwatch and invites contribution. I might also consider the ratbags site ( I’m not joking, that’s the real name)

  22. #22 Denice Walter
    August 12, 2012

    Addendum:

    Ratbags continues with new material as the Millenium Project

  23. #23 thenewme
    August 12, 2012

    @Narad, I tried that tactic at BCO and it got me lots of hate mail, deleted posts, multiple bannings, and in general, just seemed to cause the quacks to step up their efforts.

    @Denice Walter, thanks! I’m glad we can speak out here, but honestly, it’s preaching to the choir here. RI readers in general aren’t the ones who need the message. It’s so distressing to go back and see the same ole same ole being peddled there, directly to a very large target audience of desperate breast cancer patients. I’m not sure I have what it takes to fight against it. Maybe breast cancer quackery is just too personal for me, or maybe I just need to develop better skeptical skills and thicker skin so I can better insulate myself.

    I’ll definitely spend some more time reading up on those you mention. Fortunately, I’m familiar with most of them already.

    Thanks again for the suggestions!

  24. #24 THS
    Summer evening
    August 13, 2012

    Well, yes. Add me to the ranks of those who say: thanks. I’ve listened to it twice and will revisit, I’m sure. My response to the speech was to review some of my attitudes, assumptions, and rhetorical style. I expect I’m the better for it. JIS delivered some careful, thoughtful analyses. I’m not in perfect register all of it – not too eager to hit the bar, anyway.
    I do recall a recent post where I described some of the local woosters as harmless eccentrics. JIS might take issue with such a characterization but the people I had in mind seek normal medical treatment. I just don’t feel like picking a fight over every astrological reference. Must be on account of my moon in cancer with my rising sign whatever…
    (Great line re the atheist parent meet & “what’s your sign?”)

  25. #25 Candy
    August 13, 2012

    Just watched Jamy’s talk all the way through, and it was great even in video. I found myself clapping my hands and shouting “right on!” like an evangelist at a tent revival. (Yeah, I admit that’s an odd analogy!) But it was indeed a great talk, and I too couldn’t agree more with what he said! Thanks for posting.

  26. #26 Denice Walter
    August 13, 2012

    @ thenewme:

    Actually, especially in the case of Dr Barrett, I didn’t mean just *reading* but CONTACTING the site with a synopsis of what goes on@ BC.org: perhaps he’ll list it to warn patients about its woo-ful activities, lack of moderation that points out pseudo-science and snake-oil sales …

  27. #27 thenewme
    August 13, 2012

    @Denice,
    Thanks! Will do. I’d love to do anything I can to help. I
    appreciate your suggestions!

  28. #28 Krebiozen
    August 13, 2012

    thenewme,

    Wow, once again I’m amazed at how large the skeptosphere is!

    If you hang out in a woo-infested venue it’s easy to forget that they are really a small minority. There are a lot of people who use various kinds of CAM but are mostly amenable to rational argument. The true believers are, thankfully, fairly thin on the ground, they just make a lot of noise.

  29. #29 Denice Walter
    August 13, 2012

    Although there is mutual enablement within woo-topia, there are also internecine struggles based upon either ideological grounds ( e.g. natural health’s vegans vs WPF; within the anti-vax arena) as well as the greatly expected battles based upon egoism.

    The number of people who advocate eschewing SBM entirely is probably vanishingly small but they can do an awful lot of damage- including what they do to themselves.

    @ Krebiozen:

    And now, for diversion you’ll need to go see a film rather than observing what’s being disturbed because of the Games. BUT less horse manure around. That always helps.
    Oh well, at least the Games ‘created jobs”. World’s best excuse.

  30. #30 ken
    August 13, 2012

    @Denice-Provide links not rhetoric- you are getting tiresome

  31. #31 thenewme
    August 13, 2012

    @Krebiozen,
    Re: “The true believers are, thankfully, fairly thin on the ground”

    I do admit to hanging out at a woo-infested venue, but from what I see there, the number of believers is fairly significant. Of course sometimes it’s hard to tell how many are sockpuppets and how many real bodies. It’s also sometimes hard to distinguish the shills and poseurs from the legitimate posters.

  32. #32 Denice Walter
    August 13, 2012

    @ ken:

    Because I have a few minutes before I have to prepare for a meeting, I’ll briefly respond:

    1. being an avowed acolyte of SBM High Church** and an ardent supporter of its High Priests / Priestesses, I go along with Dogma: we already have the data, contrarians/ heretics, *comme vous*, are the ones who need to put up.

    2. I have chronicled the tortured trails of woo on a near daily basis for several years, usually showing specific examples as they occur: I provide an overview based on a condensation of the many trends I observe- because I’m GOOD at that- and refer people to read further THEMSELVES. To provide links would entail pages of reference: this is a comment, not a dissertation.

    a.Specifics above:
    Null is a vegan and he argues its merits at his commercial websites endlessly ( PRN; Gary Null/ search boxes available). Both Adams and Mercola are decidedly NOT vegan and discuss the merits of animal products ( *a la* WPF, Paleo) on their websites ( Natural News; Mercola/ search boxes)..

    b.Re Cross-pollination: the websites mentioned above refer to each others’ articles/ videos/ documentaries as well as to the anti-vax websites ( AoA, NVIC; TMR) to argue against SBM. Again, searchboxes.

    3.Re Horse sh!t:
    For the figurative type- see website cited @ 1 & 2. above.
    For the literal type, google article ” Where there’s gold, silver,,, there’s also muck….” the Register.
    In brief: horses at the Olympics crapa lot and people have to clean it up. In joke @ RI.

    ** Sarcasm

  33. #33 Krebiozen
    August 13, 2012

    Denice,

    for diversion you’ll need to go see a film rather than observing what’s being disturbed because of the Games

    I must admit that despite myself I have thoroughly enjoyed the entire spectacle, and have even experienced little twinges of patriotism, something previously almost entirely unfamiliar to me. Fear not, my cynicism is still intact as I now expect the nation to slide into a post-Olympics depression. Before that happens we still have the Paralympics to look forward to, something I usually enjoy more than the regular variety. There’s something about seeing people overcoming adversity in a spectacular manner that lifts my spirits immensely. I enjoyed the link. I came to live in this poor and rather crappy part of London after getting a locum job at the local hospital and finding that they were in the Stone Age compared to the hospital I trained at, in a wealthier part of the country. I got a permanent job, did my best to drag them into the 21st century and fell in love with the place, for reasons I still don’t entirely understand.

    thenewme,

    from what I see there, the number of believers is fairly significant.

    I think that’s an illusion produced by birds of a feather flocking together. When you look at the number of parents who vaccinate without a second thought, people with cancer who would not dream of ignoring the advice of an oncologist, standard public health practice all over the planet etc. etc., I really do think the fruitcake extremists are in a small minority.

  34. #34 thenewme
    August 13, 2012

    @Krebiozen, You’re right about them being a small minority, but the amount of harm they can cause is troubling.

    PS – Do I dare ask the significance of your user name? I mean, I know what krebiozen is, but I wonder why you chose it?

  35. #35 Krebiozen
    August 13, 2012

    I know what krebiozen is, but I wonder why you chose it?

    Three reasons really, firstly it’s a cautionary tale about a quack cancer cure, secondly it’s a persistent myth about the power of placebos based on a single incident in the 1950s that has never been replicated, and finally, it’s a cool name and unlikely to be purloined by anyone else, as my previous ‘nym was.

  36. #36 thenewme
    August 13, 2012

    @Krebiozen – makes good sense to me – thanks for explaining!

  37. #37 Denice Walter
    August 13, 2012

    @ Krebiozen:

    I like your tale!
    I catch your drift: something I’ve personally discovered about being in large.cosmopolitan cities ( NY, London, SF): it may be fashionable and sophisticated with toney hotels, posh residential districts, world-class restaurants BUT why is it I wind up in the East Village/ Brick Lane/ Grant Avenue eating ethnic cuisine, looking at outsider art and buying strange trickets in store fronts? And loving it? It never fails.

  38. #38 Krebiozen
    August 14, 2012

    Denice,
    I’m just the same. finding myself wandering the poorer areas of Cairo, ending up in the City of the Dead, and preferring Old Delhi to New Delhi, despite the beauty and elegance of the latter. Perhaps it’s the anthropologist in me. That’s how I ended up in London by the way, to take a break from biomedical sciences and study something completely different (social anthropology), ending up with a grounding in both natural and social sciences.

  39. #39 VikingWarriorPrincess
    August 16, 2012

    I love a good rant and this one was exceptionally good. Also made me wish more of my lectures had ended with “See you in the bar”.

    @Krebiozen:
    I had never heard about krebiozen, now I have been enlightened… bilateral pneumonectomy, indeed…

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