The Galileo Gambit

Posted in Skepticism on January 21, 2008 by moonflake

I’ve been thinking about a common argument made by the woo brigade and their supporters, usually referred to as the Galileo Gambit. It’s the one that goes something like ‘they laughed at Galileo/ Newton/Copernicus/Einstein too. You are just too short sighted to see how my/his/her genius will change the world’. There’s also the variant that goes ‘if people like Galileo/Edison/The Wright Brothers didn’t think outside of the box, we’d have no new technology or discoveries, so cut me/him/her some slack because they’re just thinking outside the box’ – this last paraphrased from a recent comment on this blog, which is what got me thinking.

These are of course all fallacious arguments, for a number of reasons that others have put forward very eloquently. Just because someone once upon a time was laughed at and was right all along, doesn’t mean you are. Just because someone went out on a limb once and discovered something amazing, doesn’t mean that by going out on a limb you are guaranteed to do the same. For every one person who is laughed at by the establishment and is right, there are thousands who are laughed at and are wrong. The logical failings of the gambit are obvious, but sometimes I find that the refutation does not give adequate weight to the sheer historical absurdity of the arguments put across. Somewhere in our collective mythology, we’ve created these stories about great inventors, pariahs of their day, spurned by their colleagues for challenging orthodox ideas, but eventually vindicated by the annals of history. Yet often the truth is far more prosaic: a lifetime of painstaking research, supported on the work of those who went before, constant communication with colleagues in the field, and finally a published result that is met with initial skepticism, followed by general acceptance, and potentially unending opposition by an unnecessarily vocal minority, who get all the attention in the history books.

For one thing, many of the great inventions and discoveries have been convergent – in other words, the scientific understanding was ripe for someone to make that critical leap, and in some cases more than one person did just that. Darwin and Wallace hit upon the idea of gradual evolution of species at the same time, but Darwin published first. The doubt over who invented calculus first, Newton or Leibniz, has lead to entire countries adopting either one notation or the other. By the time the Wright Brothers finally launched their first plane, they were only one team in a global race to be the first to solve the final puzzles of manned flight. By that point, people had been gliding, ballooning and propelling for years, with only a few technical issues to iron out before it was practical and safe – and most in the field were certain it was only a matter of time before those issues were solved. In fact there is plenty of argument over who exactly was first, the race was so close at the time. But history records that it was the Wright Brothers, and when we are introduced to them in school it is often in the form of a context-free factoid, devoid of the preceding history of flight, creating the impression that the aeroplane sprang fully formed from Orville’s forehead.

Another interesting misconception is that these people worked in isolation. For some reason, school left me with the idea that Thomas Edison worked tirelessly on his own, in a little room lit by candles, slaving away until he literally had a ‘lightbulb moment’. The truth couldn’t be further from that: Edison actually started the first major industrial research lab, including the now-standard proviso that any patents discovered as a result of work at that facility would be filed under his name. The discovery of the electric lightbulb was actually made by one of his engineers, working in a fully kitted-out lab with all the amenities an inventor could wish for, on a problem for which all the physics was already understood. Edison then improved on the design and made it more practical. While Edison was certainly a genius in his own right, the lightbulb is itself a product of the sort of commercial research that is all too common today, a process which should hardly be invoked as an argument for the garage inventor.

Another example is the opposition faced by Ignaz Semmelweis when he put forward clinical trials proving that washing your hands could decrease the chance of infection. To put the resistance of the medical orthodoxy in perspective, one has to take into account other ideas they were resisting at the time – among them, Samual Hahnemann’s theory of Homeopathy. Both hygeine and homeopathy were alternate explanations for disease that stood in contrast to the favoured ‘balance of the humours’ theory, and both met with opposition. Yet the one that had evidence on its side became the orthodoxy, while the other still languishes on the fringes after 200 years of trying. The orthodoxy is not always wrong when it resists an idea – it’s necessary to ensure that ideas like homeopathy don’t slither through the cracks, while still allowing ideas like hygeine to force their way through by sheer weight of evidence. It is even more telling to investigate the reason that Semmelweiss’s idea won out in the end. Initially, while Semmelweiss could demonstrate that there was a causal connection between hygeine and decreased infection, he couldn’t explain why – which is always a humdinger when you’re trying to flip accepted understanding on its head. It was only when germ theory was proven that Semmelweiss was finally vindicated. Yet while Louis Pasteur is given credit for discovering germs, he was actually one of many who were investigating the theory at the time. The difference was that Pasteur was able to put forward more convincing evidence than his peers, and thus he is regarded as the father of modern bacteriology – not because he had a revolutionary idea and was laughed at, but because he was able to take a puzzle that had been worked on for some time, and provide the final missing pieces that would allow everyone to see the big picture.

And finally to Galileo, who, while giving his name to the argument by sheer frequency of use, is actually the worst possible example in the batch. In Galileo’s case, it wasn’t other scientists who suppressed his discovery, it was the Catholic Church – hardly paragons of scientific accuracy over the years. If the best argument you can make against your detractors is that, once upon a time, a bunch of old bullies in dresses and funny hats told a scientist he was wrong because his theories offended their imaginary friend, and he was right, ergo you must also be right because educated people in lab coats are telling you you’re wrong… well, then you might want to take some time to come up with a better excuse. And while you are comparing yourselves to these great men, may I ask why you have not published clinical trials, like Semmelweis? Why you cannot put forward evidence that shuts up the detractors for good, like Pasteur? Why you do not patent your designs, like Edison? Why you cannot openly demonstrate a working prototype to the public, like the Wright Brothers?

Next time, maybe you should pick someone more appropriate to compare yourselves to. Like the Marx Brothers.


The Secret

Posted in South Africa, Stupidity on January 8, 2008 by moonflake

I’ve always grimaced every time I’ve see Rhonda Byrne’s tedious mockumentary The Secret on DVD shelves, but it hadn’t bothered me enough to actually post about. This has changed, with an email I recently received from an acquaintance calling for positive, inspirational stories about life in South Africa. Their motivation?

Living in South Africa has been very challenging. We are constantly faced with negativity about violent crime, poverty, politics, unemployment and the other negative things in our country. People seem to be living in constant fear and the only news spreading is bad news.

Everybody has the power within themselves to change this! Instead of focusing on the bad things, let’s focus on all the good things in our beautiful country. After reading and watching the movie “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, we are not surprised at the state of South Africa. If most people focus on negative things, then the law of attraction will give us what we focus on. We want to challenge everyone to start focusing on positive things instead!

For those of you who’ve never heard of it, The Secret is a documentary-style explanation by Rhonda Byrne, covering the book by Rhonda Byrne, on a concept she stole from the New Thought movement that sprang up around the turn of the last century. They in turn stole it from the Theosophists, who stole it from the Hindus, who probably stole it from someone else, making it possibly the worst kept ‘secret’ in history. The basis of this philosophy is the Law of Attraction – that people’s thoughts and feelings attract real events into their lives, and have real effects on the universe around them. It’s sympathetic magic for the new age.

In The Secret, we are told in a series of interviews and dramatic reenactments that there are three steps to achieving all your wishes and goals in life. These are:

  1. Ask
  2. Believe
  3. Receive

Of course, there are hints within the movie, and more explicit statements have been made in later interviews, that there is actually a step 2a: Get off your lazy arse and work for it. This system is what we lay people have been referring to for centuries as ‘Common Sense’.

Would you be surprised if I told you they try to explain this theory with a) quantum mechanics and b) E=MC2? No, I thought you wouldn’t be – the metaphysical movement have exactly two tools in their arsenal, and I’ll be damned if they don’t try to use them for every single task at hand. The fact that using QM to explain their theories is the argumentative equivalent of trying to drill a hole in a wall with a drill-bit made out of jello, is hardly going to stop them from trying.

You should also not be surprise at the cherry-picking, rah-rah denialism displayed by proponents of the theory – what we like to call ‘hypocrisy’, but which the experts insist on referring to as ‘faith’. They all applaud the ‘secret’ for its positive power, but do everything they can to play down the nastier side of the Law of Attraction. The inevitable consequence of a theory that claims positive thoughts attract positive effects is that negative thoughts attract negative effects . We are also all responsible for everything that happens to us in life. All. Everything. The logical extension of this sort of argument is that all victims were asking for it, and on some level deserve what they get, because it’s only a function of the negative vibes they were so obviously putting out into the universe. So if you Secreteers out there truly believe in the Law of Attraction, allow me to pose a challenge to you: find your closest local rape shelter, find the youngest victim there, and tell her that everything that happened to her is her fault, because of her toxic thinking, but if she only thinks positively from now on, it will never happen again.

So what do I think of the suggestion that we can improve the state of South Africa by holding the online equivalent of a campfire sing-a-long? Even those who follow the Law of Attraction must admit to the proviso that there has to be some sort of action involved on your part before the universe can give you what you’re looking for. If all you do is sit on a couch saying over and over “I will get a million dollars!” then you’ll still be sitting on that couch when the repo men come to take it away. Therefore sending in positive stories is no more than talking about helping, no better than sitting on that couch telling yourself “I will make the country a better place!” and then tuning in to your favourite soapie, satisfied that you have made a difference already.

So on that note, I would counter that there is a lot you can do to make South Africa a better place: get involved with an organization like Habitat for Humanity, Childline or the Treatment Action Campaign. Volunteer at a local shelter. Get on your local council, or if that’s too much, at least get on the PTA or school board at your kids’ school. Train as a volunteer fire fighter. Start a neighbourhood watch. Pick a worthy organization that does good work and donate some money to them. All of these things are far more likely to have a real effect than telling your positive stories to each other and then congratulating yourselves on a job well done.

But if it makes you feel better, you can donate your time or money while thinking positive thoughts.

For futher reading on The Secret and the Law of Attraction, Skeptic Magazine gave a fairly thorough review.

Yuletide reflection

Posted in Uncategorized on January 6, 2008 by moonflake

I’m a big fan of Yuletide/Decemberween/Wintermas/whatever you want to call it. It’s a great holiday: getting together with family, exchanging gifts and tucking in to a three-course meal that leaves everyone mildly incapacitated. My family has, as all families have, its own special traditions that I look forward to every year: that everyone has to help out with the meal in some way, that presents are only given after the main course and before dessert to allow some modicum of digestion to take place, the phoning of family living overseas to wish them personally, and the requirement that the youngest child who can read gives out all the gifts one at a time to the waiting family, sitting crowded around the tree. That some religious people celebrate the birth of their prophet on that day is a coincidence that is generally not taken into account, for which I am enormously grateful.

Yuletide for me starts weeks in advance, with the all-important tasks of discussing and planning the menu, and with the purchasing of gifts. The careful selection of a good gift is by far the most challenging and satisfying aspect of my Yuletide. They say that it is better to give than to receive, and never is that more true than when one receives a truly disappointing gift. There is always the distant relative or elderly aunt who invariably gives you either something inpersonal like socks, or something truly offensive, like a bible. Case in point this year was a 2008 astrology calendar from a female relative of my significant other, complete with daily predictions for the year ahead. This would be from the same person who presented me last year with a book on Feng Shui and another on Dream Interpretation. Gifts like these make you wonder if the person is shopping for you, or for themselves.

What do you do in these scenarios? Well, in the spirit of the season, you smile and thank them graciously, as if you had just received something wonderful, thoughtful and exciting, that you cannot wait to dig into. This can be difficult, and I was very thankful this year that the gift was actually not presented in person, nor did I have to thank the giver in person, so I was spared that trial of forced good nature. On the down side, it only means that next year I will receive something similar, probably a guide to homeopathic remedies or something by Deepak Chopra.

Oh well, another yuletide came and went in exactly the way I expected it – chaos, tradition, good cheer, great food, and mostly good presents. Here’s looking forward to next year.

In the spirit of the season

Posted in Religion, Stupidity on December 27, 2007 by moonflake

Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic clergy took it upon themselves to demonstrate the spirit of Christmas today, by putting on a display of cross-faction tolerance and love for their fellow man. Other reports may say that they beat one another bloody with brooms and stones in a no-holds-barred fracas that ensued when a Greek Orthodox member stepped into the Armenian part of the church during the post-Christmas cleaning, but this would surely be an exaggeration.

The Church of the Nativity is considered to be one of the oldest continuously operated churches in the world. It is built over a grotto said to be the birthplace of Christ (which is contradictory because Matthew 2:11 has him in a house) and is managed jointly by the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. They each have their separate sections of the building, and apparently woe betide he who should trespass on the ground of his fellow christian, for he will be smote about the earhole with cleaning equipment.

Makes you all warm and fuzzy inside, don’t it?

Smoke & Mirrors

Posted in Skepticism on December 25, 2007 by moonflake

With a new year comes a new look. I felt it was high time that my illiterate ramblings were given a title, rather than just a name. When I first started blogging, it was with the intention of continuing the personal journal I had maintained in my final years at university. But over time, this blog became less about me and more about the things that I thought worth writing about. As part of that gradual evolution (or, one may suggest, intelligent design) I have decided to nail down this blog’s theme.

Smoke and Mirrors: an expression alluding to the Victorian era conjurers, who used smoke and mirrors to fool the eye and perform strange and wonderous sleights of mind. The figurative use refers to the obscuring or embellishing of the truth that is employed by spin doctors and the like in order to deceive the general public. I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to describe the subjects that attract my attention, and in a way this is what defines the skeptic in me. In the illusionary realms of pseudoscience, religion, alternative medicine and the paranormal, you can be sure that where there’s smoke, there’s mirrors. Skeptics are the people who see the smoke, and ask where the mirror is. We’re the ones who appreciate a good trick, but can’t abide the trickster denying it was a trick at all.

As Neil Gaiman writes in the introduction to his short story collection of the same title:

Mirrors are wonderful things. They appear to tell the truth, to reflect life back out at us; but set a mirror correctly and it will lie so convincingly you’ll believe that something has vanished into thin air, that a box filled with doves and flags and spiders is actually empty, that people hidden in the wings or the pit are floating ghosts upon the stage. Angle it right and a mirror becomes a magic casement; it can show you anything you can imagine and maybe a few things you can’t.

(The smoke blurs the edges of things.)

Maybe that’s why magicians make some of the best skeptics.

Terry Pratchett diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s

Posted in Books on December 13, 2007 by moonflake

This is the saddest thing I’ve heard in a very long time. A man whose razor-sharp wit and keen insight have resulted in some of the smartest books every written, will in a short time no longer be able to write them. Even worse, he will likely not remember that he ever could.

Pratchett himself remains mildly optimistic and begs readers to remain cheerful. He says he expects to write a few more books yet. But for me, it’s not the loss of future books that is sad – it’s that in time he will not even know they were lost.

So, on that note, let’s honour the man while he still knows he’s being honoured.

Gareth Cliff faces BCC tribunal for blasphemy

Posted in Religion, South Africa on December 6, 2007 by moonflake

Gareth Cliff recently reported on the “Teddy Teacher” Gillian Gibbons, who was sentenced to 15 days in jail in Sudan, for the crime of allowing her class to name a teddy bear ‘Mohamed’. The case in itself raises a few questions, or at least eyebrows. Given that the children chose the name democratically, that the parents raised no issue with the name, that the entire school was aware of the name, and that the incident itself happened months ago, one may wonder what this single woman did to deserve this punishment when her entire class of six- and seven-year-olds, their parents, and the rest of the school staff, should have been in jail with her. Also, one may wonder why it is so terrible to name a bear Mohamed, but fine to name a child Mohamed? But I digress…

The point of this post is that 5fm DJ Gareth Cliff dared to say on his show that if a God is offended by the use of his name by a mere mortal, offended enough to make it a commandment, then that God is petty (can i get a gasp?). Personally, I find Cliff’s logic infallible. I would add that if a God is so injured by the taking in vain of his name that he has to ban people from doing so at peril of their eternal peace, then that God must truly be a weak, snivelling thing to boot. I would like to thank Gareth Cliff for his excellent insight.

But not so, 5fm listeners. No indeed, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and one listener wrote in to Cliff personally about his blasphemous ways, and then was shocked and apalled when he did her the courtesy of reminding her that there is no God, no Tooth Fairy, and no Santa Claus either. Given the number of exclamation marks in her original email, and her inability to spell the word ‘you’, I could have guessed that her reaction to that factual dissemination would not be good, and indeed it was not. Cliff is now facing a tribunal of the broadcasting complaints commission over the whole incident.

What amazes me is that people genuinely believe that the commission is meant to step in to shield them from insults against their imaginary friend, just because he’s popular. People honestly believe that religion, for some reason, deserves more respect than any other position a person may hold. You can insult people’s politics, their taste in movies and their choice of music, but woe betide anyone who dares to insult their made up stories about how the world works! No, indeed, as soon as someone starts going on about religion, we have to shut our mouths and nod respectfully. May I add that the next time someone expects this, you give them the respect they truly deserve: fix a smile on your face, hold your hands up to show they are empty, nod vigorously, and slowly start backing away until you are about 4 metres away from them, then break into a flat sprint in the opposite direction.

Because if the religious deserve any kind of respect, it’s the same respect you would give to the clinically insane.