David Attenborough presents “Migration of the Skeptic”

This is a rather short presentation on the somewhat rare migration of that strange creature, the skeptic.

This strange, pedantic being prone to seek out evidence is often accused of being at the heart of invented conspiracies. This accusation is particularly true of reality-adverse groups such as herbalists, antivaccinationists, chiropractors, homeopaths and many others who peddle fallacious claims devoid of evidence. It seems the innocent skeptic is motivated by an innate drive to challenge such obvious hanky panky.

This video focuses on a number of their distinguishing features and, when considered in full, highlights the ability of skeptics to take the piss out of themselves.

 

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Seven Ways to Identify Pseudoscience

Original seven ways – © Relatively Interesting

  • The use of psychobabble – words that sound scientific and professional but are used incorrectly, or in a misleading manner;

Self-help books, folk and pop psychology, and motivational seminars often use psychobabble.  Deepak Chopra is a name that comes to mind at present. Nothing more than a fraud according to Professor Jerry Coyne, one may delight in the Wisdom of Chopra which is a Twitter stream made up of seeming quotes that are randomly generated by words that can be found in his genuine Twitter stream. If anybody breathes prescient life into the words of the late Carl Sagan it is the scoundrel and intellectual mobster Deepak Chopra.

Sagan proffered;

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.

  • A substantial reliance on anecdotal evidence;

Without a doubt the alternatives to medicine behemoth would be lost without dramatic tales of self-limiting illnesses merely running their course, or completely false or hugely exaggerated stories of serious, disabling or terminal disease executing an about face due to the power of some wonderful concoction. The frustrating hurdle here for those who promote reason is that almost all work undertaken to convince the patient occurs in their own mind. Scam artists from peddlers of herbs to chiropractors, Baptist religions and indeed even the Catholic Church are swift to take credit if they have been involved.

  • Extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence;

From 9/11 being an inside job to images of the apparent exhumation of giant skeletons to alien autopsy videos and shaky vision of UFOs drifting across a grainy background it seems all these and other extraordinary claims have one thing in common. A powerful need to believe in their truth by those that ensure certain – in fact sometimes many – conspiracy theories indeed exist. Now thanks to Netflix we can wander through a range of delightful titles that offer everything from reasonable special effects to WW2 era reports and “experts” convinced our governments expect us to believe the laws of physics have been broken.

  • Claims which cannot be proven false;

Insisting oneself or perhaps a number of people in the world have communicated telepathically at infrequent and random intervals with aliens from a distant star is impossible to disprove on face value. The claimant can continue to insist he/she is unaware of who the other telepathic human recipients are, or when he/she will receive or has received a communication. The communication may be quite benign such as, “Happy Birthday Deepak”.

Ideally the burden of proof should be placed on the party making the claim.

  • Claims that counter established scientific fact;

Often going hand in hand with claims that rely on anecdotal evidence are those that defy scientific fact. Homeopathy stands atop the podium in this regard. Not only is it absolutely certain to not work but it’s adherents may insist on relaying impossible tales – often knowing they are outright lies – to besmear evidence based medicine and promote junk, bogus cures. For example pertussis (or Whooping Cough) is sometimes referred to as “the 100 day cough”. Prominent Australian antivaccinationist Meryl Dorey claimed on national TV both her vaccinated and unvaccinated children “got it”. She treated it homeopathically and “none of us were sick for more than two weeks and it was nothing worse than a bad cough”.

Countering established fact may be said of an enormous number of claims made about pseudoscientific “cures” for many ailments. Some treat energy meridians or “chakras” that don’t actually exist. These involve peddling herbs, acupuncture, acupressure, chiropractic, osteopathy, chanting, cupping, aligning activities with moon cycles, astrology and more.

Without a doubt denial of anthropogenic climate change should be mentioned here and we might again reflect upon to Carl Sagan’s worrying prediction.

  • Absence of adequate peer review;

In 2015 antivaccinationist and science fraud Judy Wilyman, under the auspicies of antivaccinationist and conspiracy sympathiser Dr. Brian Martin, finished her PhD at the University of Wollongong. The controversy surrounding inadequate peer review between 2012 to 2016 and indeed until today is a function of the copious inaccuracies in her thesis. Entitled “A critical analysis of the Australian Government’s rationale for its vaccination policy”, it was an immature an inaccurate antivaccination conspiracy rant. The fact that it was accepted, and indeed accepted with it’s discredited bibliography, indicates a clear absence of adequate peer review.

Tragically this eventuality has emboldened Wilyman to demand respect from academics and to level outrageous personal claims at her critics, rather than attempt to publish respectable material.

  • Claims that are repeated despite being refuted;

Whilst a great deal of the above intellectual repugnance deserves a slice of this pie, the authors at Relatively Interesting have populated it with the anti-vaccination obsession with the globally damaging claim that vaccines cause autism. Originally at a 1998 media conference designed to reassure parents, head author of the now rejected paper Andrew Wakefield proffered the baseless claim that rather than use the MMR trivalent vaccine, parents should consider choosing single shot vaccines. The “vaccines cause autism” claim has not only been shown to be false and cannot be replicated, but it is now well established that Wakefield acted with the sole aim of making tens and probably hundreds of millions of pounds via his plan to establish immuno-analysis laboratories for the new condition he was calling autistic enterocolitis. He also held patents for single shot measles, mumps and rubella vaccines.

A five member General Medical Council panel found Wakefield guilty of over 30 charges including 12 of causing children to endure “clinically unjustified” invasive testing procedures, buying blood at children’s birthday parties and managing four counts of dishonesty. Then, his “continued lack of insight” into his conduct, and consequences thereof, meant that only “total erasure” from the medical register was warranted. Today on the back of countless refutations of Wakefields claims he now pushes the fraudumentary Vaxxed full of false information and complete with the tampered audio of phone conversations.

 

Regrettably today more than in recent years we can benefit from keeping an eye out for these seven markers of pseudo-science.

Climate science infographic

Of 13,950 peer reviewed papers on climate published between 1991 and 2012, only 24 reject global warming.
Climate change infographic

Thus, it’s a safe bet that denial of global warming is not based on science.

Skepgoating: why antivaxxers need to devalue skepticism

Skepgoating: Skepgoating (adj) is derived from the notion of scapegoating. It refers to the practice of falsely accusing (scientific) skepticism, skeptics or other individuals of pursuing predetermined agendas derived from distortions of (scientific) skepticism. Used as both defence and attack it aims to cast the other party as inferior, negative and wrong. Particularly found within or in relation to discourse in which truth can demonstrably be derived from evidence. In this way the accuser seeks to drive onlooker or reader attention away from the lack (or presence) of evidence and evoke an irrational and emotional response toward the individual or organisation being skepgoated.

Claims made in skepgoating are false. Rather than address evidence, attempts are made to malign the other party to such an extent that a Faux Victory is claimed. Eg: “Skeptics worship science and are too close minded to understand”. Or, “Skeptics want to suppress your freedom of speech and your right to choose”. Or, “Skeptics want to do bad things to me, that is why they say words that make me appear stupid”.

Skepgoating is also used by certain cult-like groups to imply skepticism by association, by group members who exhibit independent thinking. In such cases skepgoating may have similar power to the belief in witchcraft leading to swift and disproportionate retribution directed at the skepgoat (n). Banishment of the skepgoat and expunging of their visible history follows in an attempt to convey unity to remaining cult members. Dominant or Alpha skepgoaters decide who will be deemed a skepgoat.


As pseudoscience, anti-science, sham disciplines and conspiracy theories have blossomed with high speed information flow, those with a critical eye have kept pace. Some go on to embrace skepticism (scientific skepticism) with an astute and passionate awareness of critical thought and evidence based decision making. Others take great delight – perhaps comfort – in reading skeptic material. Skeptic social events and presentations (often together) are well attended.

Here’s where an observation is needed. There isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between how active a person is skeptically speaking, and how they identify with organised skepticism. In certain areas of interest to skeptics, the most active are not remotely interested in organised skepticism. Alternatively, active skeptics may well spread their interests across many areas. This might prohibit ongoing activism in one area but produces valuable skill sets in skepticism itself.

Some skeptics are deeply involved in areas that demand all ones skeptical faculties, yet find it absent from skeptical topics. In my case drug law reform and a host of human rights issues spring to mind. Having been around these areas a very long time, my advice to skeptics would be to not involve the skeptic movement in major law reform. Being generally apolitical is a valuable feature of skepticism. Exactly when topics enter mainstream skeptical discourse, in part reflects social evolution.

Perhaps it’s best worth noting that some areas involving research, science, critical thought and ample evidence may at once yield unambiguous themes and needs, yet not suit skepticism. Said differently, some areas of scientific consensus receive the attention that reflects political climate more than scientific veracity. Beliefs change in the wake of evidence and the process cannot be rushed. The sacking of Professor David Nutt by the UK Home Office in 2009, is a powerful example of this.

Nutt was of course, absolutely correct. Yet the skeptic in me can spot the evidence he perhaps should have lingered to consider. No matter how you approach it, the facts about drug related harm appear to trivialise the matter. Politically and emotionally Australia, the UK and the USA still blame the inanimate drug and not the policy that denies us control. Unpalatable for many, yes. Slowly changing, indeed. But a fact no less and one that impacts on conclusions.

Rest assured, I’m not diverging onto that topic. Rather, hoping to point out how this fits with the observation above and offers insight into the intellectual paucity that sustains generalised attacks against skeptics in the form of skepgoating. Labelling skeptics as beholden to predetermined agendas is born of the same in-group type thinking that labels science a belief system.

When it comes to skepgoating, your relationship to skepticism may at times be defined for you, by someone with a need to pigeon hole interlocutors or label critics. Note this recent Facebook comment.

As most here know, the AVN is a strident anti-vaccine group, falsely professing to offer “informed choice”. However, as demonstrated by this comment there is a dominant theme emerging peculiar to taking sides rather than discussing vaccination choices. Both the person addressed, and the topic of that address, are very much fans of the AVN. Apparently if one is out of step it’s “outrageous” and one is a friend to a ‘skeptic’. Yes, those inverted commas are intentional and I’ll get to that.

I conclude this comment is quite representative of the AVN. One notes praise and support for the commenter from the AVN president and her own similar combative monochrome approach used to restrict independent expression. Particularly one notes the absence of tolerance for freedom of expression with the AVN.

Of course this is a very silly comment – albeit important to this post. So, what’s going on? Although the subject being attacked here merely thanked another member for posting something “from the pro side” she has been skepgoated. No praise for vaccination took place, and nothing “outrageous” occurred. No rationale is needed. Just point the finger and intone the magic word.

This comment brings up the need for another observation. Whilst passive deconstruction of pseudoscience, scams and paranormal topics of all manner is as old as skepticism itself the internet radically changed communication about these topics. There are no cigars for spotting that skeptics are known for one primary trait. Requesting and examining evidence to substantiate claims. In this light skeptics tend toward a strong appreciation of the scientific method and the role of science.

It follows quite predictably that scientists, those working in or with a background in science, those with an appreciation of science and scientific education to communities and others who understand science, may gravitate toward skepticism. This is by no means absolute but suffice it to say there is overlap. A cursory search would indicate skeptics feel motivated toward activism and use of modern media to publish critiques of pseudoscience and exposure of scam tactics. Ultimately skeptics value scientific inquiry, the scientific method and tend to seek out and conclusively judge scientific consensus.

This helps to grasp the genesis of the irrationalism in the above comment. In an age in which non evidence based claims are pitched toward the health consumer, skepticism is proving a bitter natural pill to swallow. Regarding vaccination the science and pseudoscience are easily identified. “Pro-vax” is quite meaningless, but has been promoted heavily to falsely qualify conclusive evidence and sustain the illusion of a debate.

There is no “pro-vax” and there is no “informed choice”. There’s fact and mistakes. Vaccine science makes vaccination a no brainer. Misinformation leads to fear, confusion and poor or delayed choices – aka mistakes.

For skeptics however, this topic presents examples of evidence denial, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, conspiracy theory, flawed reasoning, blind belief, belief in the absurd, exhaustive scams and schemes, in-group thinking, cult like features and so on.

A veritable banquet of non critical thought and destructive behaviour, the antivaccination movement is of enormous interest to skepticism. Of course, the notion that someone deemed to not be a “fan” of an antivax group, are therefore friends to skeptics is utterly ridiculous and paranoid. It helps underscore just why these groups attract so much interest from skeptics.

Forget vaccination for a moment. What if you’re interested in the psychology of quasi-religious bigotry, how leadership dogma drives members to attack, how the need to belong shapes perception of the Self and others, the primal need to identify “enemies” and thus elevate our own importance, and on and on. There’s practically an entire Skepticamp in that one comment.

In this case it goes beyond “If you’re not with us you’re against us”. It’s essentially asserting that if you deviate from arbitrary rules you can be labelled in a manner that defines a great deal about you as a person – including loyalty, belief and motivation. Whether on a micro or macro scale one need not be a skeptic to appreciate how destructive the dictatorial thought process is.

This actual skepgoating comment exists in a thread relating to a major skepgoating article by Mike Adams. In fact the person who published it on Facebook goes to extreme lengths to devalue skepticism almost daily. This is primarily to fill an evidence vacuum and to convince members or observers that skeptics have malignant intentions. Meryl Dorey is that person and first published this article two weeks after it was written – 2, 1/2 years ago.

Then again only days ago.

I’m not convinced Dorey believes very much of this at all. It’s rampant ad hominem generalisation that, presented with no reference to Adams, would appear to be Poe’s Law in action. As noted here before, the pseudo-neoconservative philosophy she peddles flips the argument away from evidence based discussion to a claim of being persecuted. “Thinking” with ones gut yields poor results and this is Dorey’s aim.

As AVN member and coach University of Wollongong lecturer Dr. Brian Martin argues, this allows one to provoke outrage in onlookers with the hope of causing backfire of critics’ evidence based techniques.

Martin reveals in his writings that his grasp of what separates pseudoscience and actual dissent is remarkably poor. Referring to scientific theories as “dominant paradigms” he seems incapable of grasping scientific consensus, the scientific method, the import of evidence, altruism and moral responsibility. A champion of both pseudo’ and anti-science we see that fierce devaluation of demonstrable facts and scientists themselves, pepper his writings.

Depending on the sophistication of your audience, almost any attack will do. Engender outrage. Force backfire. Justify censorship. Divert from evidence. Inhibit thinking. Which brings us back to Dorey’s second posting of Mike Adams at his most absurd. The fact that it’s bogus is kind of cute given that he did some “research”. It includes;

Skeptics believe that many six-month-old infants need antidepressant drugs. In fact, they believe that people of all ages can be safely given an unlimited number of drugs all at the same time… Skeptics believe that the human body has no ability to defend itself against invading microorganism and that the only things that can save people from viral infections are vaccines. Skeptics believe that pregnancy is a disease and childbirth is a medical crisis. (They are opponents of natural childbirth.) Skeptics believe that ALL vaccines are safe and effective (even if they’ve never been tested), that ALL people should be vaccinated, even against their will, and that there is NO LIMIT to the number of vaccines a person can be safely given. Skeptics believe that the SUN has no role in human health other than to cause skin cancer. Skeptics believe that human beings were born deficient in synthetic chemicals and that the role of pharmaceutical companies is to “restore” those deficiencies in humans by convincing them to swallow patented pills…..

Mike claims to have lifted all this from skeptic sites. However, “I’m not going to list those websites here because they don’t deserve the search engine rankings”. Given that not raising the rankings of sites one links to is quite basic, we may conclude Mike invented this silliness.

Okay, so that’s a patently nonsensical article. It’s false and clearly so. Indeed, round two imploded on Meryl Dorey and set the tone for the above comment. As usual most critical comments have been deleted and the members banned. Only “skeptic trolls” would disagree with Mike. The single remaining critical comment has the most “Likes”. I can’t be sure but it may have remained due to the reply below it. The respondent authored the original comment above.

It’s quite unambiguous. Despite attesting to not fancying polarisation it is clear this individual is only there to skepgoat. Now a certain Facebook page is deemed populated by skeptics. It isn’t. Yet evidence based critiques of health scams have become hate speech. Anyway, I think the point is made. This is a decided effort to divert attention from evidence and attack the results of scientific inquiry.

So what then is scientific skepticism? Why attack it so often and so ridiculously? Definitions of scientific skepticism including Wikipedia are worth reading. For our purposes in understanding skepgoating it’s not just skeptical appreciation of evidence and inquiry. Identification of belief and the ease of accepting doubt attracts criticism. Where there is doubt there is… doubt. Pseudoscience is frequently about replacing doubt with fiction or logical fallacies.

In terms of belief consider alternatives to medicine, superstitions, vaccine injury chic, paranormal scams, new age diagnostics and healing, vitamin therapy, wonder foods, etc. The list is practically endless. Appreciating evidence, scientific inquiry and understanding how easily humans are fooled is not what those profitting from cancer cures or removing “vaccine poisons” want widely known.

Mike Adams is a prime example. By attacking modern medicine and modern living he attracts a global demographic that may likely purchase from his multi-million dollar empire selling garbage that purports to repair the damage sustained from modern living. Damage he simply invents. Like Meryl Dorey it’s difficult to be sure where the crafty money making begins and the delusion leaves off.

Then there’s the plain whacky skepgoating characters like Martin Walker. Skeptics are “the global corporate science lobby group”. His Health Fascism in Australia is priceless:

To quote Orac. “‘Health Fascism’ in Australia? The anti-vaccine loons think so”. Walker is one bizarre piece of work. His rambling attack on sinister fascist skeptics includes:

The sinister Skeptics group, agents of what used to be CSICOP now the  Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) organised from the US and linked to the major corporate lobby groups, American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) and American Council Against Health Fraud (ACAHF), which is in turn linked to the Australian CAHF) are making ground in Australia.

Supported by authoritarian ideological influences in government and Big Pharma, the Skeptics are running constant attacks on homeopathy, natural cancer treatments, those who question vaccination and those who support any form of alternative medicine.

With the present world fiscal crisis, all those linked to Big Pharma and Science are fighting a bitter battle to preserve drug company competitiveness. But where fascist influences in government and health with most force come together is in attacking anyone who speaks out about freedom of choice and expression in relation to vaccination.

Over the last year the international corporate lobby Skeptics, have been behind a campaign against the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN). […]

Yes. The “campaign” one retired bloke sent off in a complaint. Nice work it was, but “campaign” by an international corporate lobby? NURSE!

Dorey tried this approach herself blaming skeptics for Friends of Science in Medicine:

There is an organisation in Australia which hates every natural therapy. They hate the healthcare practitioners and they hate the healthcare consumers who ‘turn their backs’ on Western medicine in favour of a range of other modalities which put no money in their pockets and take away their prestige. Worst of all, they hate anyone who chooses not to use vaccines! That is the ultimate heresy, as far as they are concerned.

But it’s OK – because they have a plan and they have the money and media backing, they think, to bring this plan to fruition.

This group, the Australian Skeptics, has been instrumental in setting up the organisation, Stop the AVN.

Now, they are working on a new initiative – and this one is more ambitious then just stopping a small, parent-run community support group. Now, their goal is to stop anyone in Australia (today Australia – tomorrow the world as far as this bunch of ratbags is concerned) from learning about or using natural therapies. Their mad campaign is getting plenty of publicity too!

They have just set up a new front group called Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM) which is behind the new effort to outlaw the teaching of any natural medicine course in University. […]

It’s widely known SAVN is a Facebook page set up by a non-skeptic. It’s a Facebook page, not an organisation. FSM was quite capable of launching themselves. Yet Dorey’s skepgoating is clear. Whilst Australian Skeptics employ a total of one person to ensure a decent magazine appears each quarter the above paints them almost as powerful as a small country.

My little definition of skepgoating up top includes “other individuals” because, well even skeptics can’t do everything. Just make it seem that way.

I explained how crucial it is for Dorey particularly to tar all critics with one brush. Not with the AVN? Then must be a skeptic actively working against the AVN. This next example speaks for itself.

An article today in The Telegraph notes vaccine conscientious objectors (perhaps having grown under her guidance) continue to secure government immunisation incentives. It also ran in other online publications.

They ran a poll asking “Should anti-vaccine parents get paid?”. The results are quite in line with national vaccine rates. In fact they err toward more fully vaccinated Aussies supporting the payment for vaccine objectors.

Nonetheless this is Meryl Dorey’s response:

[Note – see update at end]

Despite most skeptics in Australia not bothering with such unscientific nonsense as a dodgy self reporting poll, Dorey still plays that card. It gets sillier when one notes she has asked her own members to visit the poll and vote. Nonetheless it’s a great example of skepgoating and raises my promise to elaborate on those inverted commas within the initial comment.

You see scientific skeptics aren’t skeptics but pseudo-skeptics according to Meryl. No doubt this is intended to provoke the odd skeptic but it’s bizarre given the definition of pseudoskepticism. Marcello Truzini coined the term. He wrote in On Pseudo-Skepticism in 1987:

In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded. The true skeptic takes an agnostic position, one that says the claim is not proved rather than disproved. He asserts that the claimant has not borne the burden of proof and that science must continue to build its cognitive map of reality without incorporating the extraordinary claim as a new “fact.” Since the true skeptic does not assert a claim, he has no burden to prove anything. He just goes on using the established theories of “conventional science” as usual. But if a critic asserts that there is evidence for disproof, that he has a negative hypothesis—saying, for instance, that a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact—he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof.

I’ve dealt with Dorey’s obsession with laying claim to skepticism before, including that appallingly offensive blog abusing the name of Australian Skeptics. She seems to have muddled Hume’s true skepticism (philosophy) with evidence denial. This prompts her to argue that belief is actual skepticism. As in be so skeptical deny reality as well.

Where this fails utterly is that in promoting belief, she unwittingly concludes that is a final contention. You may know this position as “science can’t explain everything”. Dorey, and pseudoscience take it further. “If science is limited this way then anything is possible – especially what I allege”. It’s here where the agnostic (if you like) or acceptance of doubt in science that skeptics are at home with kicks in. Belief does not change. Scientific skepticism accepts that change is always likely but what may eventuate is a matter for inquiry. Certainly not conjecture or at worst, rank conjuring.

Of course science doesn’t “know” everything. But assuming it thus truthfully knows nothing, is a recipe for intellectual disaster. This gives us vaccine denial, AIDS denial, conspiracies, UFO assertion and other false contentions that lead to attacks on modern medicine and the growth of sham industries.

SCEPCOP do exactly the same. Claiming to be the Scientific Committee to Evaluate Pseudo Skeptical Criticism Of the Paranormal, they also lay claim to being actual skeptics. It’s pretty cringe-worthy. Dorey’s use and abuse of both “skepticism” and “pseudoskepticism” is identical to SCEPCOP. There’s also Skeptical Investigations and plenty of others like them. These groups spawn individuals who associate covertly with skeptic groups only to compile negative evaluations about skeptic interests.

Child Health Safety is another antivax site with a long record of attacking skeptics, and presupposing the intent of discourse based on identity. From Dorey’s blog.

Wow. Um is there a point you wanted to make? As you can see dear reader, skepgoating frequently involves attacks with no substance, no context and actually no relevance. All we see over and again is the need to devalue genuine agents of evidence.

Rational Wiki describe pseudoskepticism as if describing these groups and the AVN. By projecting their own pseudoskepticism they seek to devalue critics and label evidence based criticism unfounded. The important point is that it has two common usages at present. 1.) To further devalue scientific skepticism by laying claim to the title (but not process) of skepticism. This is abuse of the term and includes Meryl Dorey’s use.

2.) As a substitute for “denial” it may be used to describe those who pimp and preen as skeptics, make a few convincing noises but hold to a predetermined agenda. They will ignore any evidence that challenges them. Despite holding a PhD in physics and strutting as an academic, our radical sociologist antivaxxer Dr. Brian Martin is a genuine pseudoskeptic. A fraud. I can be no kinder.

I should stress that skeptics themselves must be aware of slipping into pseudoskepticism. Fortunately skeptics are rather good at keeping each other honest. This may sound strange but I’m yet to find a better defender of Dorey than skeptics. Not because they accept her piffle for a moment. But because tolerating generalisations or making assumptions about the AVN without evidence is intolerable.

As I mentioned earlier communication influences present day skepticism. In this way skeptics and those with good critical thinking abilities have made genuine long lasting inroads into debunking scams. People are getting ripped off, made ill and at times dying. Often, they are ripped off while dying and being made more ill by some shonky scam. Skeptic movements have a particular distaste for such “health freedom choices”. They are only too happy to inform governments how poorly existing legislation is. So, if skepticism has changed what can we identify?

Skepticism might be viewed as existing at the centre of four inroads. Evidence, human rights, consumer rights and moral or legal obligation. Each inroad is not exclusive. They may accommodate portions of each other or highlight qualities we value as a society. Such as education, free speech, rationalism, reason, truth, democratic freedom, progressive policy design, equality and so on.

I’ve left out specifying paranormal investigation, enduring themes (like perpetual energy and religious experience) exhaustively examined and respectfully considered by skeptics. I couldn’t possibly do justification to legendary visionaries like Nigerian skeptic Leo Igwe and his struggle to fight superstition and brutal irrationalism with reason and education. No doubt this article could be pages long and include almost every division of pseudoscience and superstition.

One thing I should stress is that skeptics do identify those who have been misled as opposed to those who mislead. The result is an even stronger conviction to prevent charlatans from scheming and scamming the vulnerable. From sabotaging education and indoctrinating with dogma. In turn those who measure profit by victim count, don’t cope terribly well with a skeptic critique.

Presently it’s practically standing room only for the enemies of reason. From creationism to cancer cures they are easy to find. So too is a critical response to these impossible claims. Depending upon ones background, education, experience and social circle individuals pick up fairly quickly on the patterns that resonate with them.

Skepticism is tearing down the walls of illusion and that is why pseudoscience is so keen to attack skeptics and skepticism. Arguments, much less legal or legislative challenges, cannot be won by scam artists on merit. To them it’s imperative that those who seek to hold them to account be devalued, falsely maligned, abused, accused and worse.

If there is one thing this article lacks it is a full representation of the outrageous, scurrilous, blame filled and nauseating attacks on skeptics. Skepgoating.

Ultimately the more skepgoating there is, the better the job skeptics seem to be doing.

July 16th – Update on newspaper poll. Another copy to run a similar piece was the Courier Mail. Providing a shorter piece, they worded their poll differently. “Are vaccinations worth the risk”? I know, I know. Given one is more likely to become a billionaire than experience anaphylactic shock it’s a stupid and loaded question. Still here’s the poll results as of early afternoon the following day.

So with a general vaccination rate of 95% plus, over 20% of us don’t reckon it’s worth the risk! Pseudo-skeptic vote bot, Pseudo-skeptic vote bot. Where for art thou Pseudo-skeptic vote bot? Pathetic effort.

However, gracious in defeat I doff me cap to the anti-vax flying monkeys.

The Age of Hilarious: Reflections on the growing anti-science movement

When I was a kid, my mum had a sure way of finding out what we meant when describing something as “funny”.

“Funny Ha Ha or funny strange?”, she’d ask, and when suitably availed of an answer could turn her attention to following whatever enormously important point kids tend to make. Looking around today however, “funny strange” is thoroughly outdone by the eerie normality with which faith and belief in demonstrable and dangerous fallacies pass us by.

Using “funny” as our proxy description of weirdness, one may consider the present day feverishness with which cognitive bias is clung to, literally hilarious. In what passes for our first generation and more to have lived in the Space Age, there is an abundance of not just unscientific, but viciously anti-scientific beliefs to choose from. So ubiquitous, so easily tolerated, so poorly regulated is this tsunami of irrationality that one cannot miss that we live now in a new age of hilarious ritual and superstition.

In this Age of Hilarious there are some undeniable and durable trends. From hip healers, to AIDS denial, to scheming chiropractors, to cancer cures, to creationist museums to vaccine denial merchants and even the screaming lunacy of the freedom and conspiracy lovers, one enemy glues them together. Science. Without rattling off the volumes of anti-science movements – many of whom claim to be immersed in science – the same thought justification applies. Science is bad, evil, unnatural, open to unwholesome thinking, an unwelcome intruder upon the family, upon motherhood and upon health.

It’s agents are intent on hiding the truth and in exploiting our species. It has destroyed the planet and wants to destroy us. It has permeated so much of our lives that to those worshipping in the Age of Hilarious it’s axiomatic as to how malignant Science is. To use Science – or something tainted with it’s touch – in thinking or in decision making draws mockery and derision is many circles. It is at once corrupt and the vehicle for the corrupt to continue their corruption. Nonsense has become normal to the point where presenting facts earns inane insults. From Pharma shill in citing undeniable facts on vaccination to Zionist or Jew Boy for querying the logic of 9/11 as an inside job.

Yet despite the pointy ends of these beliefs, the hub from which it all comes probably tells us much about human nature. Those who embark on evidence denial often challenge critics or defend their illogical meandering with the unwarranted observation that Science doesn’t know everything… it can be wrong… the universe is infinite… there’s more to discover… I say “unwarranted” criticism, because no-one knows this better than those who understand science. Nothing else adheres to these observations as strict rules but the Scientific method itself.

I tend to hear this challenge more as a plea. Those who deny evidence with little thought hold to an ideology wherein they want to live in a mysterious universe. Alienated by the ordinary and mundane everyday explanations and foregone conclusions in the Age of Hilarious, they have essentially no notion that so much of what we take for granted now, was once never so. Perhaps a total mystery, a brutal fact of nature, an expensive time wasting ritual of ignorance or a serendipitous discovery.

Today there are so many millions living with so much explanation that the human needs for mystery, discovery or the urge to conquer intellectual fulfillment must certainly go unrealised. Is it so unusual then that an instinctive response may be to create the “unknown” or perhaps do this by denying what is known? To use the term conveniently, if we accept that humans have spiritual needs, nothing defines the denial of evidence and advancement of belief via ignorance better than the Creationist/Intelligent Design movement.

Finally the dots linking Science to Satan were joined. The Discovery Institute’s “anti-evolution” Wedge Strategy for “renewal of science and culture” begins with the breath taking lie:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Apart from it’s beaming intellectual revulsion, what strikes me most about the Wedge Strategy is it’s timing. Ideas from The Enlightenment (1650-1790) helped shape the most famous democratic documents in history. The intellectual forces it released have sustained reason and humanity above many attempts to counter Enlightenment philosophies. Although intellectual resistance began as early as 1800 the Industrial Revolution had already seen science secure it’s place as indispensable. After the two World Wars of the 20th century, then the Cold War, and the control of polio, science and democratic rights eventually opened the way for the quality of life that provided the luxury to be… well, stupid.

The timing was perfect to have Creationism – later renamed Intelligent Design – introduced as a new scientific area. Or rather, as ancient myths brought to life under the authoritative and credulous banner of Science. Thanks to godless communism and Billy Graham, Pentecostal, Baptist and Evangelical movements were well established. Biblical literalism was (and is) quite absurd but it did not want for believers. At the same time, the space race and the Apollo 11 moon landing succeeded in opening our eyes to new scientific wonders and understanding.

Punctuating this clash, and now forever in history, is the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast of 1968. The first astronauts to orbit the moon took turns to read from the book of Genesis, sending lunar images back to Earth.

By the time the sexual revolution and self discovery of the 1960’s and 70’s had passed, traditional religion offered cold, boring irrelevance. Confidence in mystery, cosmic wonder and supernatural interference had been blasted with knowledge, understanding and explanation. Faith was no longer a noble virtue. It was the absence of evidence and reason. Rather than a scattering of giant intellects condemning the folly of belief, it was an established widespread fact. Even worse the damage and perversion linked to religions was becomming manifest.

Science continued to do amazing things, spitting out new disciplines and knowledge as computer power took it’s place. Medical science wiped out smallpox in developing nations and extended the human lifespan in developed nations. Alien abductees and spoon benders were being challenged by these chaps known as Skeptics, but it was soon clear a new irrationality had taken root. Suddenly Noah’s Ark was discovered. Then again and again. The Age of Hilarious was upon us.

The ever increasing “natural” alternatives to medicine demanded more respect. Unable to provide evidence to back claims, denial of evidence and attacks on science began. Faith and high risk belief once again offered noble qualities. The alienated could belong. The challenge of ones character that led to such horrors during the middle ages: “How strong is your faith?”, underscored the rising anti-vaccination movement and it’s many “healing” cousins that in truth, do nothing but delay healing.

On another level the lessons learned from Intelligent Design proponents were being employed deftly by both climate change denialists and those with a vested interest in discrediting climate science. Except in this broadband age the change around from acceptance to denial occurred at breath taking speed. They too have their own “science” – a Global Warming Curriculum designed to undermine genuine science. Rather than the Discovery Institute befouling evolution and biology it’s the Heartland Institute generously funding a violent attack on climate science.

These factors aside the sheer numbers of people that now reject climate change, their high priests and the well established conspiracy language used is compelling stuff. Certainly it resonates well with anti-Enlightenment identities like Miranda Devine, products of The Age of Hilarious, who proceed to damage the field of discourse irreparably. So rigid are her anti-climate devotees a great number sprang to her defence when she blamed the London riots on equal rights and same sex union. The woman writes predetermined right wing vengeance, yet “great piece”, “wonderful article”, “blah blah”, flow across Twitter regardless of topic, as she insults critics with her baton of misplaced importance.

There are the Creationists who speak of climate science in the same tone I speak of war crimes. To confuse the mix other enemies of reason accept climate science not because they have the skill to choose a valid source, but because they are beholden to their misconception of “natural”. Yet far from potential allies in managing the fallout from climate change they contribute to delayed action on their own field of play. Destruction of GM crops. Misguided animal rights. Spreading misinformation about vaccination as a means to population control. It’s not smaller healthier and wealthier families they see emerging to bring developing nations out of poverty. It’s “human culling” via vaccine.

A common factor in all beliefs held by enemies of reason in the Age of Hilarious is the misconception of “research” and “conclusion”. We hear this with so many pseudo-scientific endeavours and particularly with climate denial and vaccine denial. People claim to have spent time researching vaccines, for example, only to follow on with the “conclusion” it’s best not to vaccinate their children. Yet whatever they have read has all the accuracy of that which leads others to deny evolution announcing, “If we evolved from monkeys why are there still monkeys around today?”. Or to quote Kent Hovind, he hasn’t seen “a squirrel give birth to a pine cone… a dog give birth to a non dog”.

Vaccine denial relies on the towering ignorance of the over-confident or the thunderous immorality of the callous and cunning. One can accept that it is surely impossible to properly study immunology and that they must trust the scientific consensus. Or alternatively one can crave the nobility of faith, the piety of belief and insist on not being “a sheep”. In truth no amount of reading without evaluation and practice justifies the often heard claims of superior intelligence.

It’s here we need the Dunning-Kruger effect. Rational Wiki describe it briefly and in brutal accuracy:

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when incompetent people not only fail to realise their incompetence, but consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. Basically – they’re too stupid to know that they’re stupid

Complicating this further is the in-group thinking that accompanies the anti-science crowds. Consider the Chiropractic Association of Australia. The Australian Homeopathic Association. The Australian Vaccination Network and other organised conspiracy movements. All these groups and many more exhibit a lack of any skill to discern the value of information. Ideology and belief is what drives them. Today, claimed intelligence and the accumulation of knowledge do not make for good decision making.

The sheer volume of information means we are better served by developing the skill to choose what sources to trust. Though I imagine for some they are at an extreme disadvantage. The constant urge for intellectual risk in the supposed realm of the unknown, once served by genuine mysteries, is a cognitive detriment. Hearing someone like Meryl Dorey talk, sets off warning bells like reading a scam Nigerian email offering me untold wealth in the worst grammar possible. Yet for others she is the cult figure that completes the circle of irrational belief.

It seems we develop intellectual tools in the absence of any skill to use them. No doubt that goes for all of us and highlights the importance of critical thinking. Vaccine denial appears in many cases to be justified by stories of cognitive dissonance that are resolved to an eventual cognitive bias which is then fed to the point of a splendid Dunning-Kruger effect. Intellectually the inability to use certain tools most often results in failed comprehension. But combined with the inability to gauge risk the anti-vaccine movement is overseeing a resurgence of disease. Consider this comment approved by Meryl Dorey on The Australian Vaccination Network Facebook page.

Inability to understand risk-benefit is a feature of The Age of Hilarious

The developing world is for those of us in the Age of Hilarious much like where a time machine would take us if we went backward and forward to gather information of vaccine preventable disease (VPD). Today, one child dies every 20 seconds from a VPD. Pneumonia and diarrhea are the biggest killers in developing nations whilst these are prevented by Pneumococcal and Rotavirus vaccines. As the AVN’s Judy Wilyman rails against the HPV vaccine, dismissively citing developed nation levels of cervical cancer the reality is 270,000 women die of HPV related causes annually – 85% in developing nations.

The smallpox vaccine saves $1.3 billion annually – 10 times the cost of the original program. Typhoid kills 200-600,000 per year and in developing nations congenital rubella syndrome still claims 90,000 lives annually. The cost to a family of a disabled child or adult often combined with the loss of a mother is to us, incomprehensible. Vaccination allows for improved health and growth. Children go on to attend and finish school. They contribute to family life and when eventually employed raise the family income to levels usually not dreamed of.

The more children vaccinated the more that live and the more that live the less that must be “produced” by parents to compete with the present law of attrition. In countries with high VPD one doesn’t expect to see children grow. Rather one hopes against the odds enough will grow to sustain a bearable quality of life for the family. With vaccination quality of life improves dramatically. Families, villages, districts and even nations can be pulled from poverty.

The GAVI Alliance – previously Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation – fund 97% of pneumococcal vaccination in developing nations. In the last decade they have pushed hepatitis B vaccination in China above that in Australia and placed a virtual halt on liver cancer.

Yet comfortable in their scientifically endowed lives, fully vaccinated as children and content with two kids, vaccine denialists in developed nations insist the reduction in family numbers and misery is planned genocide. They ridicule charities and sabotage attempts to raise money for, or educate about, the success of vaccination in less fortunate nations, as yet free from the Age of Hilarious. Which raises the question: what are they free from?

A typical example is that recently Mia Freedman wrote an article about the self appointed experts of the anti-vaccine movement. Mia shreds the AVN ticking all the boxes about their false “choice”, the farcical name, the pretend expertise… in fact the truth. One quote I like which applies because the benefits of vaccines are irrefutable is, “In fact there aren’t two sides and there is no debate. On one hand there is science and there is no other hand.”

Dorey went berserk, summoned her flying monkeys and actually had them writing to Mia “from the other side”. The attacks were typical. “What a bl**dy parasitic moron journalist!” commented one. Her article was likened to eugenics, she was a moron, and idiot. She was an ignorant douchebag, rude, self-righteous, uneducated and hateful…. One can only imagine the emails out of the public eye.

Mia tweeted:

To which Dorey shot back “What threats? How about listening to parents of vaccine damaged kids to learn about the other side if (sic) vaccination? YES-2 sides!”. Which is terribly ironic as many have asked to see these crowds of vaccine damaged children that Dorey so liberally exploits. At the same time anyone presenting evidence was banned and their posts deleted – as usual. One member managed to remain leaving:

Mia writes engaging articles with compassion, empathy and humour. Many, many commenters on MM disagree with her position on many issues but as long as they’re not abusive, the comments stay. That’s why she has such a vast audience. You should try it, Meryl. You might find your audience grows instead of shrinking away and hiding on closed websites and Facebook pages.

And (to the author of the above Facebook comment – but not in response to that comment):

… why are you being so mean? You do realise that lots of people – genuinely curious people – will come to this page after reading Mia’s column? If I were you I’d be using the traffic to make a reasoned argument in a friendly forum. Mocking and insulting a well loved and popular writer (even if you disagree with her) is not doing your cause any good.

All in all it continued on for some time. I was riveted at how far the antivaccination movement – or is it just Dorey’s mob – had fallen. I could not find any arguments or attempts at discourse beyond vicious, wailing ad hominem abuse. Dorey wrote her usual scathing personal reply seeming to latch onto two sentences that distort Mia’s intent:

I’m certainly not suggesting we become a flock of sheep or suspend critical thought. But I don’t need to ‘do my research’ before I vaccinate.

Dorey used this to accuse her of being a sheep proffering, “Well duh! If you don’t do your research first Mia, may I suggest you open wide and say baaaaaaaaaa!”

But the full paragraph is clearer:

I’m certainly not suggesting we become a flock of sheep or suspend critical thought. But I don’t need to ‘do my research’ before I vaccinate. Or before I accept that the earth is round and that gravity exists. Scientists far smarter than me have already done that research and the verdict is unanimous, thanks.

Therein lies the impact of Mia’s article. Cries of “I’ve done my research” just don’t cut it with something as irrefutable as vaccination. From a safety viewpoint, it is open to abuse and argument less than regulation of the aviation industry. I would also argue, one needs the skill to discern a reputable source rather than embarking on piecemeal “research”. And in this Age of Hilarious it’s plain that Meryl Dorey is a source of dangerous nonsense.

To top it off Dorey made her seventh appearance on Friday at Conspiracy Central Airwaves aka Fairdinkum Radio. I’ve snipped 3 minutes of grabs below [or MP3 here]. It opens with Leon Pittard criticising science and the “technocracy” we’re moving into. It continues with Big Pharma terror then Dorey attacking Mia Freedman who “is a product of the governments health policy [which is] everyone must vaccinate and we need to fear and hate those who don’t do it”. That’s right dear reader – that’s government policy according to Dorey. Just like racism she contends.

Despite knowing the pertussis vaccine gives dubious immunity and no vaccine is infallible Dorey can’t seem to grasp Mia’s argument that an unvaccinated child is a risk to all Australians, vaccinated or not. Meryl should read this post from a mother whose vaccinated daughter caught pertussis from an unvaccinated child and three months later, “is prone to chest infections, pneumonia, and more susceptible to viruses and Influenza.”

In the same program Dorey again repeats the myth that no children died of pertussis in the ten years to 2009. Reasonable Hank deals with it splendidly. Why she keeps insulting her hosts and listeners like this I don’t really know, only to politely assume it’s linked to the pitfalls of cognitive bias above. Between 1993 – 2008, 16 children under 12 months died from pertussis. Dorey is well aware of this. And so her cult-like cycle of bald faced untruths continues.

French atheist, philosopher and author, Michel Onfray suggests the coming century will be the century of religion. He is probably right, but exactly what form the religions will take and what passes for belief and faith might be hard to recognise by it’s end. Consider Scientology for a salient example.

Whatever the case it seems that for a number of reasons from human psychology, to arrogance to simple power and profit the Age of Hilarious will persist for a while yet.