Questionable Motives

August 26, 2013

Why is accommodating respect for faith-based beliefs stupid and irresponsible?

medical treatmentOver at  Jerry Coyne’s site, Why Evolution is True, he posted about a measles outbreak in Texas traced back to a mega-church and non vaccinated children.  Coyne titled his post, “Measles back again, thanks to religion,” and gave us information about the outbreak, the response from church authorities and its ‘medical’ team, and data on the disease, all very useful stuff (as usual). But I disagreed in one sense that the measles outbreak was due to religion. It was just as much back because of those who accommodate faith-based beliefs of any kind and smugly attack New Atheists for daring to criticize any of it publicly. This is what I wrote in my ridiculously long comment:

I apologize for the length of my comment, but this post highlights that the ‘enemy’ of reason and knowledge isn’t just religion per se but those who support and tolerate a methodology that is clearly broken, namely, the empowerment and public acceptance of any faith-based belief (an acceptance demonstrated by offering unjustified respect rather than justified criticism of those who exercise any faith-based belief. I’m talking to you, accommodationists).

Into the category of faith-based beliefs can be everything from religion to anti-vaccination, conspiracies to astrology, alternative medicine to Winfrey/Chopra/Dr. Oz-ian woo. Belief in these is all of a kind, and the root is faith- rather than evidence-based belief… a method of thinking that elevates possibility to be equivalent to probability, meaning that it’s a way to elevate any belief in something to be the same weight in consideration as not having belief in it. In other words, it’s a way to make any faith-based belief seem as reasonable as not believing… one either believes in alien abductions, for example, (by entertaining the possibility) or one does not (by seeming to be closed-minded when there is no compelling evidence in its favour). See? Equivalent: six of one, a half dozen of the other. How very reasonable and open-minded we are and not followers of scientism like those intolerant, strident, and militant folk who are Doin’ it Rong!

What’s lost, of course, is any meaningful way, a methodology we can trust, to allow reality to arbitrate the faith-based belief because the weight of evidence (supporting or not supporting the belief) plays no important role; the equivalency is already clearly established by believers, which is why any possible evidence for the most ludicrous of beliefs is drafted into service and used as if equivalent to the array of evidence contrary to them combined with the absence of compelling evidence where it should be if the belief were true. In this sense, the use of evidence (aka, reality) by the faith-based believer is only used in service to the belief, whereas in every other area of life we know enough to allow our beliefs to be in the service of reality… if we wish to function successfully in it.

Any method of inquiry that refuses to allow reality to adjudicate claims made about it is a guaranteed way to fool one’s self. Believers in faith-based beliefs fool themselves (along with the tacit approval of accommodationists who decide the appearance of being tolerant of foolishness is a higher standard of intellectual integrity than respecting reality to inform our beliefs about it). But it doesn’t end here and this is the point accommodationsits fail to appreciate. A measles outbreak doesn’t just threaten those foolish enough not to vaccinate; it threatens both the non vaccinated AND the vaccinated with exposure to a preventable disease! This is unconscionable stupidity and social irresponsibility in the face of spreading a very real disease because of acting on a faith-based belief. As if believing in such faith-based foolishness weren’t bad enough, acting on this foolishness carries with it a demonstrable cost to all of us that causes real harm to real people in real life. Faced with this reality, I must ask: where did all these ‘reasonable’ accommodationists suddenly go? This is where the rubber meets the road of why respecting faith-based beliefs by anyone including accommodationists is a public threat to the health and welfare of us all.

August 21, 2011

What’s the difference between religious belief and quackery?

Umm… confusion?

First, a bit of background.

I was in discussions with a fellow who used this article as evidence that religious belief in god is driven by biology because it’s true, yet I had a difficult time explaining why the human tendency to attribute agency to supernatural causation was not evidence for god. (It’s a human attribute to get mad, say, at a series of red lights when one is trying to drive somewhere quickly, as if these lights were possessed by a malevolent spirit aimed at thwarting your desires. That experience doesn’t offer us evidence for a malignant spirit, however; it reveals we are all susceptible to giving in to these silly notions.). But the study he was using was from Oxford university, you see, so it had the pedigree of academic authenticity. Therefore, I had to be wrong. It didn’t seem to matter to the fellow that the Project – called the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project – was run by theologians funded by Templeton, nor that it’s funding depended on attributing this tendency to assign agency to be equivalent of ‘believing in god’. It simply didn’t matter that the project’s reason to be was that its “seeks to support scientific projects that promise to yield new evidence regarding how the structures of human minds inform and constrain religious expression including ideas about gods and spirits, the afterlife, spirit possession, prayer, ritual, religious expertise, and connections between religious thought and morality and pro-social behavior.”

Well, it matters a great deal to me because there is a flip side to respecting both supernatural claims and directives that transpose one’s beliefs into actions and, more  specifically, how we are to behave towards others. That flip side runs the gamut from exercising quaint beliefs – some of which motivate the killing of children (see here and here) to outright medical quackery and no human society – no matter how developed in economy or academia – is somehow immune… except and only by those who exercise honest scepticism through critical reasoning, who respect reality – and not our beliefs about it – as the final arbiter of what is true. And that approach can be learned, which I think is a very worthwhile endeavor to undertake. But how to convince more people to exercise it when we are bombarded by familiar and comforting beliefs in supernatural agencies as if they were true in reality?

We are surrounded here in the west by self-spawning quackery to the extent that taxpayers subsidize its teachings and accept its many guises as legitimate treatments. But how many people understand the link between supernaturalism in religion to supernaturalism is medical treatments? To me it seems self-evident that what we’re talking about is not a difference in kind of beliefs in the supernatural but in degree of belief in the supernatural. In other words, faith-based belief comes in many expressions but the root – belief in the supernatural – remains the same. This confuses whether reality or our beliefs about it arbitrates what’s true.

For example, Orac, while criticizing a new study in journal Cancer, tells us the difference between reiki and the ‘energy chelation’ therapy used in the study under ‘peer review’ is that “reiki is faith healing in which the person being healed is usually not touched but the practitioner believes that he’s channeling healing energy into the patient from a “universal source.”

Universal source? Doesn’t that sound a lot like… oh, I don’t know… maybe another way to say  god? Coincidence?

And the founder of energy chelation?  “Founder and director of the Healing Light Center Church, Reverend Bruyere has committed her life to the teaching of these sacred and ancient disciplines, thereby providing her students with practical tools for living the spiritual life, while introducing them to the venerable traditions from which those tools are derived.

That she’s a reverend must also be a coincidence, I guess.

So what are those sacred and ancient disciplines, these venerable traditions? Rev. Bruyere explains:

Human Energy Chelation Therapy (HECT), a process of transmitting or channelling energy, is based on the electromagnetic nature of the human body. The body’s electromagnetic or auric field is generated by the spinning of the chakras. As it spins, each chakra produces its own electromagnetic field. This field then combines with fields generated by other chakras in the body to produce the auric field. An individual’s auric field is manifested via a combination of energies from three chakras. Generally these are the first, third and fifth chakras, which empower the person’s physical, intellectual, and etheric bodies. It is a combination of these three chakras that produces the primary auric field (the inner shell of the aura), which can be physically felt by the therapist’s hand as it is passed over the client’s body in the process of scanning.

Of course. That we have no evidence of the human body as an ‘auric field’ generator matters little when we are talking about ancient and venerable practices, which in turn are based on… you guessed it… faith-based beliefs. The dictionary tells me that ‘auric’ actually means “of, or containing, gold in the trivalent state,” so I suspect what the reverend actually meant was ‘auratic’ – pertaining to the aura. But what’s in a term when the whole thing is pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo?

Well, a lot as it turns out.

Consider the pejorative sense of the word ‘quackery’ to describe medical practices that failed to establish efficacy. From this was born the terms complementary and alternative ‘medicine’ when people could earn degrees to become doctors of ‘naturopathy’, which is now morphing into “integrative medicine” and appearing, like the Oxford Project, on university campuses (see here for the latest) where they suck legitimacy not from the efficacy of their work results, which are non-existent, but parasitically from the university’s name alone . The terminology used in quackery, as ethereal and nebulous in meaning to those found in religious belief, is important to keep the founding faith-based beliefs of these ‘venerable practices’ hidden from those who purchase them today expecting efficacy (I can’t find a religious believer in christianity, for example, who accepts without qualification that prayer is not efficacious in spite of very strong evidence that it is not).

None of these terms are, as David Gorski writes in his excellent critical article,

serious, sober names for a serious, sober, science-based specialty. They are about the branding of quackery. They have always been about the branding of quackery. They are about double standards whereby treatments that can’t pass scientific muster are admitted to the “club” of science-based medicine under lowered standards.

Can this be true? Why, even insurance companies fund treatments like chiropracty presumably because they do work. Don’t they?

Well, you may be surprised at the words of David Palmer, the founder of what we now call chiropractics… a stellar example of what quackery in the medical world looks like today. In his book, The Chiropractor (published posthumously, 1914), Palmer described how he came to understand that 95% of all diseases came from subluxated vertabra  from a channeled spirit from ‘the other world’ (source):

“The knowledge and philosophy given me by Dr. Jim Atkinson, an intelligent spiritual being, together with explanations of phenomena, principles resolved from causes, effects, powers, laws and utility, appealed to my reason. The method by which I obtained an explanation of certain physical phenomena, from an intelligence in the spiritual world, is known in biblical language as inspiration. In a great measure The Chiropractor’s Adjuster was written under such spiritual promptings.” (p. 5)”

He regarded chiropractic as partly religious in nature. In a letter of May 4, 1911 he said:

“… we must have a religious head, one who is the founder, as did Christ, Mohamed, Jo. Smith, Mrs. Eddy, Martin Luther and other who have founded religions. I am the fountain head. I am the founder of chiropractic in its science, in its art, in its philosophy and in its religious phase.”

In his 1914 book, the first chapter expanded on his religious views of chiropractic: “The Moral and Religious Duty of a Chiropractor”.In it he dealt with religious liberty and stated:

“… nor interfere with the religious duty of chiropractors, a privilege already conferred upon them. It now becomes us as chiropractors to assert our religious rights.” (p. 1)

“The practice of chiropractic involves a moral obligation and a religious duty.”

Yes, the same engine that drives faith-based belief pops up in just about every avenue of human activity where we face uncertainties and lack of knowledge: calls from those who profit from the status quo appeal to us to take superstitious claims seriously because they are venerated, because they are ancient, because they are not familiar… not because they are true.

Perhaps that has something to do with why Leo Igwe tells us that:

In some cases Africans associate certain traits or behavior like stubbornness, talking in one’s dreams, sleep walking, aging, albinism, soliloquy, hallucination and uttering meaningless syllables even when it is as a result of some psychiatric problem or self deceit, with magical powers. The general belief is that the veracity or validity of witchcraft claims is beyond the scope of ‘western’ science but within the ambit of ‘African science’. This misconception is common among the so called African elite and is at the root of the problems associated with belief in witchcraft in the region.

Western science versus African science? Isn’t science simply science? So why does this false dichotomy sound so familiar? Oh, yes, that’s right: it’s common to hear people talk about ‘Eastern medicine’ versus ‘Western medicine’ conveniently forgetting that such a dichotomy is just as false. That’s why we need to substitute terms that only seem to be meaningful in reality, to cover up the fact that what the terms represent are not true in reality but exist only in the faith-based beliefs people hold in these superstitious claims… where ignorance and fear are plentiful.

Gorski writes in the same article,

There is no such thing as “alternative” medicine. There is medicine that has been proven safe and effective through science; there is medicine that has not; and there as medicine that has been proven unsafe and/or ineffective through science. Whatever you call it, “alternative,” “CAM,” or “integrative” medicine, when medicine, whatever its source, is demonstrated to be safe and effective through science, it ceases to be “alternative” or “complementary.” It becomes simply “medicine” and is automatically integrated into the current armamentarium of medicine, no special name needed, no special consideration needed to provide a lower standard of evidence.”

The common root of both medical quackery and religious belief is exactly the same: faith-based belief in the supernatural. And, in spite of repeated assertions by all stripes of apologists for faith-based beliefs with the old mantra of ‘What’s the harm?’,  both these expressions really do kill people unnecessarily. And in great quantities. In this sense of supporting the unsupportable, then, there is no difference between religious belief and quackery.

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