Questionable Motives

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.

January 28, 2010

Is atheism fundamentally a Straw Man argument?

There is a reprehensible opinion piece posted online at the New York Times by Ross Douthat that supposedly offers us an “illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.”

Specifically, Douthat criticizes Dawkins for using Pat Roberston and his diatribe of god-sanctioned blame for the devastation suffered by Haiti as an example of a ‘real’ christian (read my previous comment on Dawkins’ article and why he argues as much). This is a failure of critical thinking by Douthat. By asserting that atheism requires a Straw Man approach, Douthat fails to comprehend Dawkins’ central argument: that a willingness by today’s theological apologists to grant any credence to a religious interpretation of some holy text that focuses on what is meek and mild without accounting for the parts that are vicious and genocidal is intellectually dishonest.

Douthat’s counter argument that quotes New Testament passages to negate Robertson’s interpretation is exactly Dawkins’ point: one biblical reference is not any closer to being true or accurate than the other. The only difference is that Robertson’s interpretation takes into account the capriciousness and violence of the christian god, making such an opinion based on biblical interpretation more ‘real’ in a christian vein than one like Douthat’s which simply ignores the Old Testament’s accounts of a god that is unconscionably cruel and immoral in favour of specific passages that casts Jesus as benevolent and forgiving. Let us all remember, however, that it is from Jesus we first gain a biblical account for eternal damnation… hardly one that enhances the CV of hope and love people so often attribute to Jesus’ message.

I have read repeated criticisms of Dawkins and other New Atheists as creating a Straw Man religious argument, that is to say, that these atheists create a Robertson-ian god as the one that defines the christian god and then tear it down by revealing its obvious malevolence. But the god worshiped by most christians, this argument points out,  is not this god – the one believed in by some fringe and/or extreme fundamentalists as the one so vehemently opposed by ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ atheists – but one that is actually benevolent and wise and compassionate. The faulty conclusion then held by so many moderate religious apologists is that Dawkins and his cohorts aren’t criticizing their religious beliefs but merely the ones held by hard core fundamentalists.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

New Atheists care about what is true. They care about knowledge – about what’s probably accurate, probably correct, probably true. They care about coming to a better understanding of the natural world, of promoting honest intellectual and scientific inquiry. They also respect the rights and freedoms and dignity of individuals within a secular society. They are concerned about any influence that intentionally impedes any of these cares, and there is no greater single impediment than the false certainty of religious belief. But rather than criticize specific people’s beliefs, the New Atheists’ approach is to enter the public forum and expose unjustified beliefs – regardless whether the unjustified belief is religious, superstitious, supernatural, or just poor thinking. To do this, New Atheists point out why the unjustified foundational belief of a Robertson is no different in quality of belief than someone who insists on holding a Jesus is Love assumption. Nor is there any difference in the unjustified foundational beliefs upon which the complimentary and alternative medicine industry has been built. Belief in the supernatural, whether it be god or evil spirits or the memory of water, cannot be honest knowledge: because such ideas are beyond our ability to be examined in the natural world under natural conditions subject to natural forces and natural efficacy all which can be naturally measured, supernatural belief cannot be justified by any other measure other than more assumption and assertion. Assumption and assertion that cannot by definition undergo natural testing and rational criticism because it is supernatural is immune from honest critical inquiry. Asserted beliefs are assumed to be true because they are believed to be true. That is not a justification for the truth value of the belief but an excuse, an allowance, a willingness to suspend critical inquiry. So it doesn’t matter whether or not it is a Pat Robertson’s unjustified belief or an Ayatollah’s unjustified belief or a Pope Benedict XVI’s unjustified belief or a Sarah Palin’s unjustified belief – the common denominator pointed out by New Atheists like Dawkins is that supernatural beliefs in their entirety are equally unjustified.

When a Pat Robertson makes another disparaging public statement about suffering people deserving their suffering and backs it up with theology, it is an opportunity and not a requirement for atheists to once again point out that if not for the acceptance of the moderately religious, then the foundation of unjustified religious beliefs would be treated with the same scorn and disgust aimed at Robertson for his outrageous truth claims. Robertson and his ilk have an audience because there is widespread acceptance by religious apologists to excuse, allow, and suspend legitimate criticism in matters of religious belief. That’s a public problem and it requires a public solution.

Is unjustified belief in the supernatural and all its various promotions in the public domain in need of public criticism? My answer is an unequivocal Yes. The New Atheists like Dawkins don’t just say a meek and mild yes to this question in the privacy of their own minds; they DO something about it by bringing their arguments and expertise into the public domain to tackle the problem of a Robertson, an Ayatollah, a Pope, a Palin, head on.

So the answer to the title is No, atheism is not fundamentally a Straw Man argument but a call to action, a growing movement that will continue to challenge anyone who doesn’t care about what is true but what is unjustifiably believed to be true, and who would allow unjustified beliefs the right to take a place at any table in the public domain.

December 13, 2009

What does it take to get rid of superstition in medicine?

Filed under: Chiropractic,Medicine,Science,Superstition — tildeb @ 8:02 pm

From a paper Chiropractic & Osteopathy :

“There is a significant lack of evidence in the literature to fulfill Hill’s criteria of causation as regards chiropractic subluxation. No supportive evidence is found for the chiropractic subluxation being associated with any disease process or of creating suboptimal health conditions requiring intervention. Regardless of popular appeal this leaves the subluxation construct in the realm of unsupported speculation. This lack of supportive evidence suggests the subluxation construct has no valid clinical applicability.” (emphasis added)

When chiropractors use spinal manipulation therapy for symptomatic relief of mechanical low back pain, they are employing an evidence-based method also used by physical therapists, doctors of osteopathy, and others. When they do “chiropractic adjustments” to correct a “subluxation” for other conditions, especially for non-musculoskeletal conditions or “health maintenance,” they are employing a non-scientific belief system that is no longer viable.

The chiropractic emperor has no clothes, and now even some chiropractors have realized that. This study should mark the beginning of the end for chiropractic, but it won’t. Superstition never dies, particularly when it is essential to livelihood.

From Science-Based Medicine here.

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