Letters To The Editor

Stem Cell Research

It is disappointing to learn how “sluggish” stem cell research has advanced as described in Drs. Barglow and Schaefer’s detailed chronology, “Stem Cell Research: Still Embattled After All These Years” (January/February 2017). Sadly, violation of the Jeffersonian principle of “separation between church and state” has reinforced obstruction of stem cell research in Congress.

That is, while in-vitro fertilization (IVF) surplus embryos “are routinely discarded as waste” (p. 36), stem cells from embryos increase the probability of successful advances. Contrasted with the rigid, negative position taken by some politicians and religious leaders that any remote link to “abortion” must be stifled, the majority of public opinion on stem cell research is positive and should influence policy in a democratic society. For example, a recent Gallup Poll (2016) regarding use of stem cells obtained from human embryos showed 60 percent of respondents found it “morally acceptable” while 32 percent found it “morally wrong.”

Those who obstruct stem cell research funding show little empathy for persons who suffer from intractable diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, paralysis, etc. Granted there are no assurances that stem cells will produce all of the solutions needed for cures. Yet we will never know that answer unless stem cell research continues with significantly greater support.

William F. Vitulli
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
University of South Alabama
Mobile, Alabama

Barglow and Schaefer, the authors of the leading stem cell article (a physicist and a philosopher), better learn some basic biology before they try to support the use of stem cells. As it stands, they may well achieve the opposite. Their example of hair cells only exposes their lack of basic biological knowledge. As most anybody knows, haircuts don’t harm hair cells, only their lifeless out-growths: the hairs. Thus, regarding a haircut as murder is even ludicrous as a thought experiment. The same is true of the cutting of finger- and toenails.

Theodor O. Diener
Beltsville, Maryland

Raymond Barglow responds:

We apologize for the error to which you’ve drawn our attention. You are absolutely correct: hair follicles but not hair cells are alive. Although we do not wish to excuse this mistake, we believe that it does not compromise the argument being made: a living cell from any human tissue, such as skin or blood, like a fertilized egg, counts as a “human life,” since it is both human (i.e., belongs to a member of the human species) and alive.

Skepticism Should Be Nonpartisan

I wish to thank you for publishing the Commentary by Craig Foster “Skepticism, at Heart, Is Not Partisan” (January/February 2017). Foster provides the best description of skeptics and skepticism I have ever read—in Skeptical Inquirer or anywhere else. He also makes excellent arguments for welcoming all political views into the community of skeptics. I hope to see more articles by Foster in the future.

Please continue publishing your excellent magazine. I have been reading Skeptical Inquirer since it began and have every issue—including when it was called The Zetetic. The articles are always good but your January/February 2017 issue was especially interesting and relevant to my interests—particularly Craig Foster’s article. Thank you for your attention.

Roy A. Billinghurst
Pikeville, Tennessee

I opened the January/February issue of SI, and there it was, the article I had always hoped would appear in your publication. Craig A. Foster had finally explored the issue of skepticism and partisan politics. As a skeptic, atheist, and Republican, I am certain that I do not fit the profile of your typical subscriber. Nor do I fit the stereotype of poorly educated, fundamentalist Christian climate change denier that is often linked to Republicans. Liberal skeptics should understand, however, that the use of condescension is not helpful in trying to persuade conservatives of the merits of various scientific realities. As we make our way through the next four years, we can all look for ways in which rational thinking can be a positive tool in solving the myriad problems facing us. Efforts to demean one another based on partisan labels will serve absolutely no purpose.

William A. Robinson
Jacksonville, Florida

I deeply enjoyed Craig A. Foster’s Commentary “Skepticism, at Heart, Is Not Partisan.” His point is valid and probably crucial to making useful headway through partisan political times. Also, while skepticism is not partisan, it is also not racial; we must use care to avoid the perception that simply because so many of the faces of famous skeptics are white, science-based reason is not available only to white people, nor are those of other races necessarily lacking in skepticism.

Foster made one semantic error I’d like to correct. In his final paragraph, he wrote that “truth changes as the evidence dictates.” In fact, that which is true is immutably so! It has always been true that the cosmos is based on orbiting bodies and that the Earth orbits the Sun; this was not “untrue” before it was proven by Galileo, et al. It was always true, and always will be true, whether or not we believe it, and indeed whether or not we are even conscious of it. What changed was not the physical relationship of celestial bodies; what changed was our grasp and understanding of the available evidence.

The truth is the constant we seek. Only our knowledge of the evidence is subject to change.

Compare this perspective to religion, superstition, and the paranormal, all of which hinge on the “sincerity of belief” given over to them. Psychics get a pass on their errors if there is an unbeliever present. Prophets base their credibility on followers’ beliefs. Some folks simply believe the loudest voice in the room. It is not the truth itself that such people seek to control, it is the minds of those who comprise the congregation. Partisan politics often relies on the same “in-group loyalty” to make its case. I propose that “partisanship” itself should be classified as one of the many fallacies against which skeptical thinking finds itself opposed.

Paul Schlueter III
Dallas, Pennsylvania

While I am generally sympathetic with the position presented in Craig A. Foster’s “Skepticism, at Heart, Is Not Partisan,” I have to take issue with his claim that “proponents of the anti-vaccination movement are more likely to come from the political left than the political right.”

Although such claims are frequently advanced, the evidence is equivocal. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015, for example, asked, “Thinking about vaccines for diseases such as measles, mumps, and rubella, do you think these vaccines are safe for healthy children or are they not safe for healthy children?”

While a commendable 89 percent of Republican respondents agreed that these vaccines were safe, 87 percent of Democratic respondents agreed; since the sampling error was plus-or-minus 3.6 percentage points, the difference is negligible. Indeed, a report on the survey was subtitled “No Partisan Differences in Views of Vaccine Safety.”

Matters are complicated, unsurprisingly, when researchers move beyond the simplistic binary categorization of Republican versus Democrat. Consider, for example, “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science,” a 2013 paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, Gilles E. Gignac, and Klaus Oberauer.

In their analysis, Lewandowsky and his colleagues found “free-market endorsement predicting rejection and conservativism predicting acceptance of vaccinations, respectively.” But the most significant predictor of rejection of vaccinations was conspiracist ideation—the very antithesis of skepticism!

Glenn Branch
National Center for Science Education
Oakland, California

I enjoyed a startling and pleasant coincidence recently. I just finished the interesting and entertaining book Why Liberals and Conservatives Clash by Bruce Fleming, professor of English at the United States Naval Academy. In this book, he analyzes the liberal perspective (his and that of his liberal-arts peers) and the conservative perspective (that of his students and bosses).

Fleming concludes that these perspectives differ so fundamentally as to be incommensurable. For example, liberals have facts while conservatives have beliefs, so that attempts by liberals to argue the facts are simply irrelevant to the conservative. Liberals have discussions but conservatives take action, so debates by liberals over what should be done just annoy the conservatives, because they delay and obstruct the action and interfere with the solidarity necessary to make the action forceful.

Now I open the January/February 2017 Skeptical Inquirer to find the Commentary “Skepticism, at Heart, Is Not Partisan” by Craig A. Foster, a professor of psychology at the United States Air Force Academy. He urges that more conservatives should be brought into the skeptical movement. His goal is that more evidence-based conclusions be agreed upon. He indicates that the way to do this is by skeptics being nicer to conservatives so as to win them over, while arguing only evidence, not personalities, so as to convince them.

One of Fleming’s bon mots is that conservatives criticize liberals for thinking that because they are nice everyone is. Another: Conservatives think liberals are stupid, while liberals think conservatives are evil. I will close with two quotations from Fleming’s book: “Those for whom belief is primary can let others talk until they are blue in the face; if the end result is not the [correct] belief, it’s wrong. This makes perfect sense to the conservative, and none at all to the liberal.” And: “As conservatives see it, liberals believe everyone can be convinced by reasoning. Presumably, instead of blowing them away, liberals want to talk with enemies, or invite them to tea. This, to conservatives, means that liberals are indecisive and weak, as well as stupid.”

I would love to see the Center for Inquiry bring these two interesting thinkers together for a discussion, and put it on a webcast. I could certainly use information about how best to argue for the ideals I believe in.

Bill Fishman
Los Angeles, California

Craig A. Foster replies:

Thanks to all of you who took the time to respond.

Mr. Schlueter, I agree that “truth” is immutable. I was trying to convey a humble approach to skeptics’ perceptions of “truth” by describing it as “a truth that changes as the evidence dictates.” Your description clarifies this issue better than I did.

The Pew Research Center (2013) study is interesting. Democrats and Republicans provided similar endorsement of vaccines being safe. However, the difference between Democrats and Republicans was greater in terms of believing that vaccines are not safe (9 percent of Democrats versus 5 percent of Republicans; “Don’t Know” was another possible response). Nevertheless, additional research indicates that anti-vaccination supporters are distributed widely across the U.S. political spectrum such that one cannot generally characterize this movement as being liberal or conservative at this time. I am glad, Mr. Branch, that you took to time to clarify this bit of misinformation. Thank you also for promoting the value of skepticism.

Finally, I hope I have provided some encouragement for conservative skeptics to stick with the program. Conservatives and liberals have plenty of reasons to disagree. It would surely be more constructive if this disagreement was based solely on sensible interpretations of the available evidence.

Consensus?

In “Consensus: Could Two Hundred Scientists Be Wrong?” Stuart Vyse (January/February 2017) refers to a television program with the physicist Brian Cox and mentions his interchange with the climate change denier Malcolm Roberts (an Australian politician). I suggest that exchange highlights a core element in his discussion and a confusion in the meaning of the term consensus. The Oxford dictionary has two main definitions: 1) a group of people agreeing on a majority verdict; 2) a unity of opinion.

It seems those on opposing sides of such debates disagree partly because of a semantic confusion. The situation with anthropogenic climate change is a remarkable unity of evidence, leading to unity of opinion, among scientists from a diverse range of countries and backgrounds. That is dramatically different from the consensus that might be arrived at following a panel discussion about something, the evidence for which is usually uncertain—which is the idea produced in the minds of most people, I suspect, when they hear the word consensus, which fuels the conspiracy mentality.

Consensus is an ambiguous term; saying “unity of evidence and conclusion” would be more accurate. Roberts’s response of “cite data not consensus” illustrates my point.

Dr. Ken Gillman
Queensland, Australia

Unfamiliar Terms

I would appreciate clarification of a point in “Science vs. Silliness for Parents…” (January/February 2017).

Looking at Table 2, my first thought was surprise that 90+ percent of respondents knew what “Cognitive-behavioral therapy” and “Applied Behavior Analysis” mean. I wondered if the approval rating was in part a tendency to approve of anything that sounds good. (As with the “North Dakota crash,” in “Survey Shows…” in the same issue.)

My second thought was that, at age seventy-five, I should not be surprised that almost everyone of college and child rearing age knows terms I don’t. I remember the difficulty explaining what “cyber space” means to people only one generation older than me.

Both my first and second thoughts are plausible to me. Which is it? And it would seem that polls like those in “Science vs. Silliness for Parents…” should include one or two “North Dakota crash” questions to address that point.

Richard Brandshaft
Vancouver, Washington

Stephen Hupp replies:

It admittedly seems likely that some respondents simply liked the sound of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis. For future research, we’ve considered including a brief description of each therapy when asking respondents about their beliefs. A website developed by the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (Division 53 of the American Psychological Association; www.effectivechildtherapy.com) includes descriptions of specific treatments and also identifies which treatments are currently considered to be evidence-based. Additionally, the idea of including “North Dakota crash” questions in our future survey development is fantastic. We’ll try to come up with something more unique than North Dakota Crash Therapy (NDCT), although it’s tempting to just go with that!

Ghost Hunting in Dark

I really enjoyed Benjamin Radford’s column “Ghost Hunters in the Dark” in the January/February 2017 Skeptical Inquirer. However, he neglected to mention the most glaring inconsistency on the part of ghost hunters who turn out the lights when they investigate paranormal activity.

According to the majority of paranormal investigators, and repeated ad nauseam on countless television programs, ghosts like to draw on convenient power sources in order to obtain the energy needed to materialize. On these shows, batteries and other electrical equipment often fail, and the failure is invariably attributed to power-draining by a spirit. The website of the Atlantic Paranormal Society features an article by cofounder Grant Wilson titled “Bring Batteries” (http://the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com/bring-batteries-by-grant-wilson/) that expounds on this theme, and even claims that ghosts and other entities will sometimes drain energy from the human investigators if they cannot find a sufficient power source. This energy, it is claimed, is used by the spirit to manifest itself in corporeal (or at least visible) form.

If electrical energy helps the spirits to manifest themselves, and the investigators actually want to find said spirits, why on Earth do they shut off the power when they investigate a haunted site? You’d think they’d have every lamp in the place blazing to help the poor departed souls gather the energy needed to materialize.

David M. Chandler
Rockland, Massachusetts

Ben Radford replies:

Excellent point! Perhaps the most “logical” situation would be for ghost hunters to place new car batteries in every room in a supposedly haunted house, thus presumably providing any spirits with the energy to materialize and show themselves in spooktacular fashion!

Skeptical about Skeptics?

I came across the following quote by Charles Tart recently that calls for reflection, lest we fall prey to the same bias and cognitive dissonance that we find in others. It doesn’t hurt to be skeptical about skeptics.

I wish there were a genuinely skeptical community. I’m afraid that just about every skeptic I’ve met is a pseudo skeptic. A real skeptic says, “I don’t know about parapsychology and PSI, and the explanations we have so far don’t satisfy me. I want to look at the data!” But the skeptics I’ve encountered claim to know already that there’s nothing to it, and then they break all the rules of scientific procedure to go about their debunking. Skepticism, as it is generally practiced, is neither legitimate science nor legitimate skepticism.

Ronald Rood
Tampa, Florida


Editor’s note: We asked our colleague Ray Hyman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon, to respond to Mr. Rood. Here is Hyman’s reply:

Ronald Rood quotes the parapsychologist Charles Tart to support the oft stated mantra that we should be “skeptical about skeptics.” Tart claims that “just about every skeptic I’ve met is a pseudo skeptic.” Real skeptics, according to Tart, will look at the relevant data before drawing conclusions about parapsychology.

Undoubtedly some “skeptics” fit Tart’s stereotype. However, his sampling of “skeptics” appears to be rather biased. His sample fails to include those skeptics who have drawn conclusions about parapsychological claims only after extensive examination of the evidence. In this brief reply, I will name just one of the skeptics who has devoted considerable time toward closely examining the best evidence put forth by parapsychologists.

My colleague Jim Alcock has carefully studied and evaluated the evidence for ESP and precognition. Jim’s 1981 book Parapsychology: Science or Magic? argues that parapsychology has not justified its claims. He reached this conclusion only after an exhaustive examination of the best parapsychological experiments.

In 1985, I was appointed to chair the subcommittee on parapsychology for the National Research Council’s Committee on Enhancing Human Performance. The Army Research Institute (ARI), which provided the financial support for the Committee’s work, asked us to include a subcommittee on parapsychology. Before the formation of our committee, ARI had hired the parapsychologist John Palmer to provide them with an evaluation of the experiments in the most promising areas of parapsychology. ARI provided our subcommittee a copy of Palmer’s book-length evaluation of the best experiments in these areas. Although Palmer was critical of many of the experiments, his overall assessment was in favor of the reality of psychic phenomena. I engaged Jim Alcock to provide an alternative assessment of this literature. Alcock decided to review the same experiments that Palmer had chosen for his report. In this way, we could not be accused of “cherry picking” our cases. Jim provided our subcommittee with a careful and masterful review.

I could easily cite many more such cases, including my own history of evaluating the parapsychological literature, but space is limited. I hope that this suffices to reassure Rood that “real skeptics” exist in the contemporary skeptical movement.

Ray Hyman
Eugene, Oregon


Stem Cell Research It is disappointing to learn how “sluggish” stem cell research has advanced as described in Drs. Barglow and Schaefer’s detailed chronology, “Stem Cell Research: Still Embattled After All These Years” (January/February 2017). Sadly, violation of the Jeffersonian principle of “separation between church and state” has reinforced obstruction of stem cell research in Congress. …

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