Letters To The Editor

Spread the Word

Bill Nye’s “Promote Reason, Prevent Climate Catastrophes: Let’s Get ’Er Done” (September/October 2016) was a great article on critical thinking, but it misses the mark on two points.

First, you are, as they say, “preaching to the choir” (sorry about the theistic reference). Send this to The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, Fox News. Now you are talking to an audience that matters.

Second, his reference to his parents, World War II, and the Greatest Generation was faulty. They were responding to a catastrophe that had already happened. It affected us all in a direct and personal way. I worked in government and we, too, had a saying: “Nothing happens until you turn on the faucet and nothing comes out.” As a people we don’t respond to a problem until it affects us directly and personally, whether it be a dry faucet or climate change. Sad but true.

David H. Brands
Tehachapi, California

Special Anniversary Edition

Your special anniversary edition (September/October 2016) is great reference material touching outstanding issues. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Edzard Ernst nailed the coffin of blind belief and unscientific attitudes.

In India, we experienced a hostile atmosphere and physical attacks when homeopathy was exposed by scientist Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargav and me. Governments are supporting and justifying pseudo-medical practices in the name of religion. It is deplorable that institutions such as the National Institutes of Health support alternative medicines, wasting taxpayers’ money. Children should be taught the scientific method. Educated people have succumbed to beliefs due to lack of systematic exposure of science.

Innaiah Narisetti
Brookeville, Maryland

Greenpeace’s Anti-GMO Stance

Your report on 110 Nobel laureate scientists urging Greenpeace to drop its anti-GMO stance (News & Comment, September/October 2016) was very interesting. Another organization in need of correction on this issue is the Consumers Union. Recently it has been emailing its Consumer Reports subscribers urging them to contact their state representatives in support of legislation requiring GMO labeling. This organization, which has generally provided consumers with sound scientific and technical advice, has unfortunately followed the lead of popular opinion on this issue.

David W. Briggs
Marion, Massachusetts

Regarding “110 Nobel Laureate Scientists Urge Greenpeace to Drop Its Anti-GMO Stance,” perhaps the anti-GMO attitude is encouraged by a pro-GMO “Trust us; we’re scientists” stance. Laboratory GMOs could produce harmful foods if they tried—just as natural selection produces organisms that produce toxins to protect themselves. The pro-GMO position needs to present information (understandable to reasonably educated laymen) on how we know GMO foods are safe. Replace “trust us” with “here’s why.”

Also avoid saying “all GMOs are safe.” If there’s no distinction in the how and why of GM, one problem with one GMO will bring down all GMOs, in the public eye, like a house of cards.

Separate the reasons for GM and address them. Golden rice is a great example of GM food that should to be allowed; it’s simply inhumane not to. GM for pesticide resistance is more problematic—not because of the GMO itself but because it can encourage misuse of pesticides.

GMOs for increasing food supply may be a red herring. For one, we’re told that famine may be as much due to failed distribution (including politics and crime) as to lack of food. Second, “you can’t beat the exponential”; if world population keeps growing it will eventually outstrip any means of increasing food supply.

Dick Dunn
Longmont, Colorado

I would not give a blanket statement that all GM organisms are safe.

I oppose those foods that have been genetically modified to be more resistant to herbicides because that allows farmers to spray even more carcinogenic herbicide on it, poisoning our rivers and streams. We now also have “Roundup ready” weeds. I also oppose having food plants genetically modified to have an insect poison throughout their tissues so that any insect that eats or uses its pollen or nectar is poisoned.

Because we are related to all living things, our DNA speaks the same language as all other DNA. What poisons an insect can’t be good for us either.

There is also a huge problem with genetically modified fish. They have been modified so that they grow faster and bigger than wild fish. This means that when, not if, they escape into the wild, they will breed with our remaining wild salmon for example, causing them to need more food than normal to grow. This could result in skinny, sickly fish that will fail in the wild, resulting in even fewer wild salmon returning to our polluted dying rivers and causing the extinction of our remaining wild salmon. Because of farmed salmon, the Atlantic salmon is heading to extinction; the Pacific salmon species can be next. Farmed fish are also overcrowded, fed with antibiotics, and have high parasite loads. Wild fish are caught to feed those farmed fish depleting the food that other fish and our seals, birds, and whales need to eat.

I have no problem with GMOs that improve flavor, improve quality, or increase productivity, but that is not what most GMOs are being developed for; they are being developed to maximize profit!

Sheila Chambers
Brookings, Oregon

In response to Sheila Chambers, it may be worth simply repeating two key sentences from the 110 Nobel laureates’ statement:

Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than, those derived from any other method of production…. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.

The Editors 

Fate

Perhaps Stuart Vyse’s bafflement concerning the source of people’s persistent near-universal tendency to see purpose, destiny, or fate in especially unusual natural or coincidental events (“Fate: Inventing Reasons for the Things that Happen,” September/October 2016) is unnecessary. As may be his caution in attributing this tendency toward a particular cognitive error to “nature vs. nurture.”

Of course almost all traits and behaviors in any one individual are the result of a complex interaction between these two sets of factors. But this need not prevent us from confidently leaning one way or the other in our general attributions. And the findings and features pushing toward an explanation of this tendency in our “nature,” in our “hard-wiring,” or in our genes have grown exponentially in recent years.

Some of these findings were described in my article “Why Do People Believe in Gods?” (SI, January/February 2015), in which Kelemen’s program of research was cited to suggest that “promiscuous teleological intuition” is a powerful innate universal tendency because people born without it (as seems to occur in autism) do not recognize, engage with, and manipulate their critical early environment, i.e., their parents. Before our modern, affluent, safe, and doting world developed, such individuals would invariably fail to engage their carers, wander away to be eaten, or eat poison themselves. So this cognitive error confers an enormous survival and evolutionary advantage.

The surprise—given such a powerful and necessary, if deluded, tendency to attribute agency to all events in the world—is that some of us are able to see past the excruciating desire for a purpose and a creator behind those events and, as we cognitively mature, correct our cognitive error tendencies by deliberately adopting scientific methods of enquiry and objective explanation. This is very hard to do, but it confers its own survival advantages beyond the childhood years.

Gary Bakker
Legana, Tasmania, Australia

In “Fate: Inventing Reasons for the Things That Happen,” Stuart Vyse covers some interesting ground. I felt uncomfortable, however, with an aspect of the article. The word fate is presented as having an exclusively supernatural or religious context, and this seemed to me unreasonably restrictive. I am sure that determinists are capable of using words such as fate to signify merely that something happened, was always going to happen, and could not have been avoided. Such beliefs do not require belief in a god, merely that stable(-ish) mechanisms exist.

To add to the scope of the discussion, perhaps there is someone out there who could write a similar article but with a “no-free-will” orientation.

Peter J. Seymour
Redhill, U.K

Stuart Vyse replies:

Citing research by Deborah Kelemen, Gary Bakker subscribes to the view that “‘promiscuous teleological intuition’ is a powerful innate universal tendency,” giving people a natural propensity to see fate and purpose in objects and events. In his 2015 Skeptical Inquirer article “Why Do People Believe in God?” Bakker goes on to propose that this innate tendency provides a reasonable explanatory hypothesis for widespread popularity of religious belief. Both of these ideas are popular among developmental psychologists, but the latter, in particular, is far from settled. For example, in a 2013 article titled “Would Tarzan Believe in God? Conditions for the Emergence of Religious Belief,” Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom argue that without cultural influence, children would not naturally acquire religious belief. Tarzan would not believe in God (Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(1):  7–8).

Researchers are in greater agreement that children’s tendency to see fate and purpose is innate, and Kelemen and others have conducted studies that support this view. However, I am reluctant to make this attribution because the studies that would provide the strongest evidence of innateness are not ethical to conduct. The best test would be a deprivation study in which a group of healthy newborns were assigned to be Tarzans, raised without language or human culture. If these feral children went on to show teleological intuition, then the point would be made. Absent this kind of data, it is difficult to assess the relative contributions of nature vs. nurture in our tendency to see fate. As I mentioned in the article, I am further chastened by the recent revelation that a classic study suggesting that imitation is innate has been thrown into question. 

Peter J. Seymour is correct. The word fate is sometimes used simply to indicate a nonsupernatural deterministic outcome of events, but the first definition of fate in the Oxford dictionary is “The development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power.”  The most common usage seems to imply something more than mere physical determinism, and that is the meaning most researchers in this field have employed. Finally, I like Mr. Seymour’s suggestion of an article on free-will and determinism and may take up that topic in a future column.

NECSS 2016 Conference

Russ Dobler’s account of the NECSS 2016 conference (News & Comment, September/October 2016) was good as far as it went, but it didn’t go far enough. He inexplicably left out one-third of the whole. The conference had three cosponsors, not two. He mentioned the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society, but he neglected to mention the Society for Science-Based Medicine (SfSBM), which cosponsored this year’s and last year’s NECSS.

The SfSBM put on a third of the entire NECSS program, with a full day devoted to science-based medicine on Friday, the first day of the conference. I spoke on functional medicine; dentist Grant Ritchey spoke on science-based dentistry; pharmacist Scott Gavura and lawyer Jann Bellamy spoke on different aspects of the “natural disaster” of dietary supplements; three pediatricians spoke: John Snyder on pediatric CAM, Saul Hynes on the bogus diagnosis of Chronic Lyme, and Clay Jones on the inadvisability of chiropractic for children; Steven Novella spoke on Bayesian statistics; and there was a panel debate on whether pediatricians should “fire” anti-vaccination parents. Finally, there was an “ask us anything” Q&A panel session.

Harriet Hall, MD
Puyallup, Washington

Russ Dobler replies:

The space limitation was the main determining factor. Also, having put a strong focus on the day of Science-Based Medicine in the online version published on csicop.org, I wanted to highlight some things that didn’t make the previous cut, such as the day of workshops on Thursday and Richard Wiseman’s keynote. My apologies to Dr. Hall; no slight was intended.

Dog Behavior

I am not pleased with the article on animal behavior (Science Watch column, “Dog Behavior: Beneath the Veneer of Man’s Best Friend,” September/October 2016).

It is claimed that cougars cannot consume an animal that’s already dead, but offering meat is a standard means of trapping pumas. Predators are not stupid enough to pass up a free meal, and it’s a simple coded behavior. Even finicky cheetahs occasionally coordinate to drive a lone hyena off its kill.

The hypothesis that the classic canid “play bow” is merely an aborted stalking action is nowhere close to being convincing. The dropping of the shoulders while extending both forelimbs forward is not at all a sneaky stalking pose in which the entire body is dropped to nearly the ground to minimize visibility while the legs work alternately so the hunter can creep toward its target. Nor is such an awkward, head-low/butt-high pose going to intimidate potential prey into fleeing. Keeping the rump high is instead an obvious, prominent signal that hunting is not intended. And why do dogs frequently adopt the bow with humans and other dogs in play-friendly locations, such as dog runs, and then enthusiastically engage in playful behavior in which doing harm to the playmate is strictly avoided? To look at it another way, dogs do play, and they have to have a stereotypical posture signal to initiate nonviolent play, and since they do the play bow thing before playing, it’s pretty darn obvious that’s what the play bow is for.

The hypothesis that many animal activities, such as pack hunting, are guided by simple genetically programmed rules rather than sophisticated intelligence is viable. But although we’re currently lacking the ability to fully assess what is going on in the brains of nonhumans, it is reasonable for a skeptic to provisionally conclude that sometimes dogs have fun because they consciously enjoy having fun.

Gregory Paul
Baltimore, Maryland

I found it interesting to learn that my Golden Retriever’s “CONSUME” rule for food in her bowl and “NOT-CONSUME” rule for food in the cat’s bowl is due to the cat being lucky. It is impressive that the amazing dog that guides the disabled, fights in our wars, protects us from seizures, provides emotional therapy, rescues us from the rubble of our buildings, finds lost children, is a trusted companion, and so much more does all that with a few simple motor-pattern combinations.

There is nothing in nature like the thousands-of-years-old bond between humans and dogs. This relationship has benefited both. Dogs have a much longer life and far better reproduction success then their wolf ancestors. The relationship has expanded the range of dogs to every corner of the Earth. When humans begin to travel to the stars, dogs will be with us providing their superior olfactory ability, hearing, and companionship. It will be important to fully understand our friend when that day comes. Today it appears dogs understand our behavior and language more completely than we do theirs.

Matthew Carter
Portland, Oregon

Science and Religion

I see no irreconcilability between science and religion (“Why Science and Religion Are Irreconcilable,” review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact, September/October 2016).

Sure, antagonism can arise when a religion denies scientific truths, or science challenges its long-held beliefs.

However, the scientific method can be used to dissect the foundations of all religions, while they have no tool but assertion to explain their worlds. In my view, science always trumps religion.

Herman M. Heyn
Baltimore, Maryland

Ghost Hunting with Music

Thank you for a very enlightening and comprehensive answer to the important question of whether hunting ghosts with music is effective (Ben Radford’s Skeptical Inquiree column, “Ghost Hunting and ‘Singapore Theory,’” September/October 2016).

In a far future, they might call me back from the great unknown by playing Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” but for the moment I just listen to him on the rack.

But—unwittingly—you revealed an important aspect of musical ghost hunting: Playing the music backward (as in Notgnille Ogindi Doom). At least, that is what the illustration on page 31 demonstrates: Normally phonographs play the records clockwise. Here you see it the other way around. Apart from the needle plowing the record to chips, the music will come out very, very eerie…. 

Beware, ghosts—Benjamin Radford is on your trail…!

Frits Schjøtt
Svendborg, Denmark

Keep to the Ley Lines

Just a minor quibble with Joe Nickell’s article on ley lines (September/October 2016).

In the article, Dr. Nickell describes paranormalist and believer in ley lines John Michell as a “lifelong marijuana smoker.” I have to wonder why that was relevant. The fact this fellow may have smoked pot doesn’t come up anywhere else in the article. It seems like a soft ad hominem or a bit of poisoning the well, which is completely unnecessary. Let the man’s ideas float or sink on their own merits. What he smokes on his own time doesn’t seem, in Nickell’s article, to have any bearing on his beliefs.

Jim Fitzsimons
St. Paul, Minnesota

Joe Nickell replies:

While interjecting some negative irrelevancy would be an ad hominem, surely given Michell’s many fanciful ideas, his chronic use of a drug—that is known to promote a fantasy state—is potentially explanatory.


Spread the Word Bill Nye’s “Promote Reason, Prevent Climate Catastrophes: Let’s Get ’Er Done” (September/October 2016) was a great article on critical thinking, but it misses the mark on two points. First, you are, as they say, “preaching to the choir” (sorry about the theistic reference). Send this to The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, …

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