Letters – Vol. 43, No. 4

Respectful Skepticism?

Craig Foster (“Respectful Skepticism,” March/April 2019) makes the serious linguistic mistake of treating disrespect as the negative counterpart of respect—which it is not—and then builds on this mistake in arguing that we skeptics should respect crazy ideas and the misguided people who hold them. Of course we shouldn’t indulge in “disrespecting” other people, if by that one means behaving in a rude, arrogant, or condescending manner, but it doesn’t follow from the admonition to be polite that we should accord respect to noxious beliefs based on superstition, religion, and ignorance that do not deserve respect.

I don’t respect parents who deny their children medical care and let them die because they are devout Christian Scientists. I don’t respect suburbanites who put their communities at risk by not allowing their kids to be inoculated against measles because of stuff they read on social media. I don’t respect my Muslim friends when they celebrate the Prophet Abraham for intending to murder his son because he heard voices from God telling him to do so. I don’t respect New Age people who don’t know the difference between astronomy and astrology. And I certainly don’t respect flat-earthers or evangelicals who think that Darwinian evolution is some kind of leftist/atheist plot. 

Maybe Foster (and Kendrick Frazier, who endorses this viewpoint in his editor’s note) is right that we could communicate more effectively with people who hold such ideas if we put our critical faculties aside and meet these people on their own terms. However, I couldn’t do that and still preserve my self-respect as a rational, intelligent human being. And to me, that’s the essential respect we need to be true to.

Paul Newman
Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana

Craig Foster told the audience at CSICon that people with pseudoscientific beliefs were open to people of other viewpoints, feel that scientific institutions had not been fair to them, and wanted to hang out with like-minded people, implying that this was somehow just innocent.

The Nazis behaved in this fashion when they determined Jews were subhuman. Climate change deniers help the Koch brothers continue polluting for profit when they act in this manner. During my pediatric residency training, one of my preceptors called me “subhuman,” and my residency director did everything he could, legally and illegally, to throw me out. Should that entitle me to reject the legitimate science I learned and harm patients? A father I met once rejected vaccines for his children because, apparently, he was thrown out of veterinary school. Should I respect him for risking his children’s lives because he did not become a veterinarian?

Of course we should be empathetic to people who cling to irrational beliefs. But at the core we find “I’m ignorant, possibly emotionally immature, and intellectually lazy; I’m proud of it, and I’d much rather hang out with other ignorant and intellectually lazy people than to grow.” That’s hard to respect. 

We must change course when presented with corroborated facts. During my career, both medical students and nurses have had occasion to ask me to change course on a patient. Sometimes the hair on my neck would stand up. But after I took a breath and looked at the research they presented to me, I tried their suggestions with good results. I am grateful that they respected me enough to be assertive yet professional and logical in their disagreement with me. Both my patients and I have benefitted.  

Ron M. Aryel, MD
Reno Center for Child and Adolescent Health
Reno, Nevada

Craig Foster responds:

The critical idea—one tough for people to grasp (me included)—is to respect the person even if one dislikes the behavior. In that spirit, I have argued one should respect (and accordingly not disrespect) others, even when those others are promoting claims that are unreasonable and harmful. This should not be conflated with respecting or tolerating their behavior. I do not believe that one should respect crazy ideas, nor do I believe that the promotion of unreason is innocent.

Correspondingly, I am in absolutely no way arguing skeptics should reduce their fervor in fighting unreason. Rather, skeptics should consider this strange place where they try to separate their antagonism toward unreasonable claims from their antagonism toward the people making them. To this point, it is important to remember that (a) almost everybody promotes unreason once in a while, (b) people come to promote nonsense for reasons outside of their “free will,” and (c) respectful approaches are more likely to be effective.

I think this is generally true, although even I wonder if respectful skepticism should have boundary conditions. The frustration and anger that skeptics experience surely motivates them to fight back—to everybody’s benefit. Still, people are more willing to listen seriously to people they like and respect, so it behooves skeptics to be likable and respectable.

I agree that respect and disrespect are importantly distinguished, and I think this is worthy of deeper consideration. Psychologists sensibly separate avoiding negative behavior from engaging in positive behavior at times. I would agree further that if skeptics had to choose between the two, avoiding disrespect might be more effective than trying to engage in respect. I would absolutely love to see a skeptical world in which we spend more time considering this type of issue. I tip my hat for raising it. In the meantime, please understand that “Non-Disrespectful Skepticism” is an awkward mouthful. Thus, I am not sure skeptics would consider it as thoroughly, even if it might represent a better practical approach at present.

Fake Health News?

I was introduced to Skeptical Inquirer at a young age and have been a subscriber ever since. I am neither a scientist nor an intellectual, but I consider myself a thoughtful person when it comes to science and evidence-based information, particularly with respect to healthcare. I have worked clinically for more than ten years, and because I also teach the public as part of my profession, I have come to learn that how we say things matters. I have been a regular attendee at yearly health literacy and numeracy conferences and apply health literacy concepts to every part of my work.

This is why I am writing. I see those “fake news about health products” all the time and cringe (Harriet Hall, “Fake News about Health Products,” March/April 2019). But what I am asking is that these types of advertisements, reporters, organizations, etc., just be called what they are: advertisements disguised as news, “reporters” that don’t exist, and made-up organizations made to look like the real thing. 

I recognize you did go on to use these more apt descriptors, which do tend to be more of a mouthful than fake and maybe not as catchy. Unfortunately, fake as a descriptor of news, etc., has the capacity to produce connotation, connection, association, or charged sentiment with the currently wildly overused expression fake news, which I suspect was perhaps partly your intention. I found myself having to consciously fight thought-distractions through the repetitive use of the term fake throughout your article. I stayed vigilant! But I fear your message may be unintentionally diminished or even lost in this world of 140-character communication, memes, and throwing shade.

Rachel Martinez
West Linn, Oregon

I’m as dismayed as Harriet Hall is about ads for dubious health products pretending to be news stories. But I’m also dismayed by her reaction: to cancel her subscription to the local newspaper. We need local newspapers now more than ever. Perhaps a better response might have been to approach the paper as a paying subscriber and insist it make it clearer that such articles are paid ads. It could put disclaimers in larger print and set off the articles with borders to differentiate them from news stories. Perhaps she could send letters to the editor and the publisher. She could submit a column such as this one to point out the folly of blurring the line between ads and news content.  

Cancelling her subscription does nothing but save $82.34 a month. Okay, it also provides a more tranquil life for Hall. But it does nothing to end the problem: spreading misinformation to people who are less astute than she is. And what is she missing by refusing to support her local newspaper? There must be some stories she cares about that are not covered by national news outlets.

Nora Raum
Alexandria, Virginia

Harriet Hall responds:

I had hoped that the phrase “fake news” would get people’s attention and help them understand the difference between the usual fake news accusations and this kind of demonstrably fake news, where advertisements are being deliberately disguised as news. As for Nora Raum’s concerns, I had written the newspaper’s publisher and editor many, many times over the years about similar issues and had given up on them. I had offered guest columns, but they were never accepted for publication. I had written letters to the editor, but they told me it was their policy not to print letters to the editor that were critical of their advertisers’ products. I had even tried warning them that if a reader died or was harmed by false health information, they could be sued. And they couldn’t claim they hadn’t known it was false, because I had kept documentation proving that I had informed them it was false. They were unresponsive or offered lame excuses. (Not our fault! We aren’t responsible for approving ads!) It was obvious that they didn’t care about accuracy in ads, but I did try. I might be criticized for not trying hard enough, but my forte is writing, not activism. I hope my readers will take up the gauntlet. 

That ‘Fossil’ Spark Plug

The object shown formed around a spark plug in your News and Comment piece (“Coso Artifact Decisively Identified,” March/April 2019) is an iron-rich concretion just like one I collected decades ago on the beach at Atlantic City, New Jersey (see my photos).

I used this specimen for years both to surprise geology students and to show them that “fossils” don’t have to be millions of years old! Local precipitation of iron oxides/hydroxides can occur quickly given the right conditions. Metals at the ends of the spark plug buried in saltwater-saturated sand created electrochemical conditions that caused rusty cement to precipitate in the surrounding sediment. (A larger, elongate nodule collected nearby turned out, when X-rayed, to surround a piece of steel fencepost.)

Whether or not the Coso object includes shells, mine certainly does. And it’s hardly surprising that they’re modern clams native to the area. For a long time I wondered how a stray spark plug might find its way into the surf. Then one day a student approached me after class and mentioned, “I used to fish from jetties in New Jersey, and we used those things as sinkers.” Mystery solved!

If the Coso object was found high and dry in eastern California, as claimed, it must have been left there by a collector. Far more likely it came from the beach and the reported locality information is incorrect.

Bryce M. Hand
Emeritus Professor of Geology
Syracuse University

[CHRIS FIX: Insert two photos: “Hand letter fossil 1” and “Hand letter fossil 2” found in artwork folder on server.]

How Measure Progress?

Steven Pinker’s claim that people’s view of their well-being is falsely pessimistic (CSICon conference report, March/April 2019) appears to be more an embracement of contrarianism than of scientific skepticism. The claim that we are better or worse off is basically meaningless until there is a definition and agreement on how this is measured.

It is relatively easy to make a judgment about a single factor such as wealth. It is much harder to deal with a multidimensional problem. Counting the number of positive dimensions or adding values is the type of error that climate change deniers often make. Extra CO2 and a longer growing season are of no value for plants if they die of drought, pests, or heat stress. For plants, the overall measure has to have a multiplicative component, because in this case zero means dead, not just less good.

What time scale are we considering? Two thousand years ago we didn’t have the threat of nuclear weapons or climate change. Do we feel better off? A few decades ago the nuclear threat appeared to be waning—but now it is back. Civil rights now appear threatened. Climate change was practically unknown. Should we feel better off?

How do we assess inequity? Are we better off if we have sacrificial groups and everyone else benefits?

Scientific skepticism requires well defined measures, not just vague generalizations.

Robert Clear
Berkeley, California

Steven Pinker responds:

Robert Clear writes that “the claim that we are better off is basically meaningless until there is a definition and agreement on how this is measured.” Really? Would Clear be indifferent as to whether he died at thirty or eighty? Whether he lived in extreme poverty or was a member of the middle class? Whether his children had a 30 percent chance of dying before the age of five or a 0.3 percent chance? Whether his wife had a 1 percent chance of dying in childbirth or a .005 percent chance? Whether he had enough food to feed himself or was undernourished and stunted? Whether he had clean running water or had to walk miles with a bucket to fetch water from a muddy well? Whether his children were illiterate or educated? Whether his sons were conscripted into fighting in a bloody war or could work and study in peace? Whether he had to worry about imprisonment or death by torture for publicly criticizing the nation’s ruler?

  These characterizations of being well off are not controversial. People everywhere opt for them when they have the opportunity, and they have been agreed upon without dissent by the diverse UN member states who signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and then the Sustainable Development Goals. True, all these benefits have side effects and risks—progress is a human accomplishment, not a divine miracle—but the test of whether we have made progress overall was nicely stated by former President Obama: “If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be … you’d choose now.”


Steven Pinker is professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, on which his talk at CSICon was based.  

TM Alleviates Stress

I know your reviewer did not write the book Transcendental Deception, he just “reviewed it,” so I guess I can’t really blame Mr. Szimhart for the misinformation and inaccuracies in his book review (March/April 2019).

While Szimhart explains all the horrible things about TM, he never actually explains what TM, in its essence, actually is. Which is not much! Sitting quietly for twenty minutes twice a day is not a cult or a religion. It is literally just sitting quietly twice a day for twenty minutes. Full stop. 

I am sixty-six years old and have been an atheist all my life. I have meditated for forty-six years. I have never been to a “flying class” and have never heard of Vedic cities or pandits. I dismiss all that Hindu gods stuff, and I’ve never heard of nor do I want a “puja ceremony to Guru Dev.” 

Yes, I did have to pay to learn to meditate, and I think that is wrong and not necessary. I agree that putting out TM as a business is unfortunate and, as I said, I don’t pay the slightest attention to the Maharishi or Cosmic Consciousness. 

I’m sure you will agree with most doctors that stress is one of the biggest problems people face and contributes to most all other health problems. Do the author and reviewer really think sitting and relaxing for twenty minutes twice a day to help relieve the stress of our overly busy lives is comparable to “sorcery, magic, ESP, and communication with metaphysical beings”?!

If specific people who meditate want to believe that stuff, that is their problem and not mine or the fault of the practice of TM. 

Sandy McNay
via email

Joe Szimhart replies:

Sandy McNay’s last sentence contains the reason Aryeh Siegel wrote Transcendental Deception: “If specific people who meditate want to believe that stuff, that is their problem and not mine or the fault of the practice of TM.” That “stuff” at the core of the TM enterprise is fooling and harming people. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, have taken the Maharishi seriously about TM’s power to bring about world peace as if by magic, to make oneself invisible, to connect with deities, to learn to levitate, to cure any disease by a mere switch of mental power, and so on. The common practitioner advertises for TM when they claim that TM relieves stress, lowers blood pressure, and helps them focus. Siegel does not dismiss minor benefits that meditators claim. Nor do I. Siegel disputes the flawed studies that TM produces. So, what is TM? Basic TM, as Sandy McNay likes to practice TM, is merely another form of meditation despite its hype. Responses to meditation vary with the style and the practitioner. But there is a lot more to TM, and therein is the “problem.”    

Column on Yoga

I am puzzled by why “The Science of Why Yoga Quiets the Mind: Fitness Industry Hype Obscures Yoga’s True Benefits” by Matthew C. Nisbet was even published in the March/April 2019 Skeptical Inquirer. It reads like a standard puff piece concerning the latest health fad.

  Sure, it contains a critique of yoga done wrong and points out that some people are making a lot of money promoting yoga for less than honorable reasons. But a lot of articles promoting one fad or another establish their bona fides by criticizing the competition.

  And I do not want to disparage Mr. Nisbet. There may be something to what he is saying. What I am saying, however, is that he does not come anywhere near presenting a solid case for the purported benefits of slow yoga (or whatever his particular modality is called within the yoga community).

Patrick J. Russell
Seattle, Washington

The column starts out with a warm testimonial, hypothesizes numerous beneficial health effects caused possibly by yoga’s ability to “boost levels of gamma-amino butyric acid,” “regulate autonomic features of our nervous system” by “cycling through fast and slow parts of our nervous system” and other pseudoscience babble. It cites as sources for these amazing claims a New York Times article and The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Hmmm … Where have I heard this sort of thing before?

Please revert to proper skeptical material.

Don Martin
Toronto, Ontario

Bigfoot and Bears

Benjamin Radford’s recent Skeptical Inquiree column on a Class A sighting of Bigfoot (“‘Class A’ Bigfoot Report Reveals Little about the Beast—and Much about the Seekers,” January/February 2019) reminded me of an event. A few years ago, on one of my frequent trips to the Philly Zoo, I was walking from the bird house northward when I saw a very strange sight a hundred yards or so away. Two giant, hairy bipeds with long torsos and proportionately short limbs were swatting at each other with their front limbs. I knew that these were bears since I am familiar with the layout of the zoo (I visit frequently), but I had never seen two bears in this one enclosure interacting in such a manner. 

As I neared, I could see that they were actually swatting at a broken tree limb hanging by its bark from the tree. The two bears continued to stand and play, until one of them climbed up the tree and tried to rip off the branch from above. The bear fell off, stood upright again, re-climbed, tried to rip down the branch again, fell, and continued standing and swatting with its companion for quite a while.

Whenever I read about a Bigfoot sighting now, I think of those bears and how “human-like” they appeared from a distance and how comfortable they seemed to be on their hind legs.

Joe Dalessandro
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Editor’s note: Joe Nickell wrote about the uncanny similarities between bears walking upright and reported Bigfoot claims in his September/October 2013 SI Investigative Files column “Bigfoot Lookalikes … .”  It is on our website, skepticalinquirer.org

Respectful Skepticism? Craig Foster (“Respectful Skepticism,” March/April 2019) makes the serious linguistic mistake of treating disrespect as the negative counterpart of respect—which it is not—and then builds on this mistake in arguing that we skeptics should respect crazy ideas and the misguided people who hold them. Of course we shouldn’t indulge in “disrespecting” other people, …

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