Part 6 The Danger with Default Skepticism
“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.
If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.
On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones.”
I view myself as fortunate to have read, retained, ad been greatly impacted by a short essay by William Golding, most famously known for his novel, “The Lord of the Flies”, while still in High School. Golding clearly elucidated three levels in which we as humans think, and after reading his assessment, I determined to live my life in the pursuit of attaining “Grade-One Critical Thinking.”
To summarize, Grade-Three thinking isn’t truly thinking, but rooted in emotions. It is feeling and not thought, and full of unconscious prejudice, ignorance, and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, the vast majority of humanity exists within this third tier of thought.
Grade-Two critical thinking is the ability to detect contradictions and errors. Sometimes they eventually succumb to inherently wrong, but popular, opinion, and sometimes they do not. As Golding said “Grade Two thinking destroys without having the power to create”. In addition to being quite empty in regards to individual purpose and happiness, living our lives within grade-two thinking provides little value, or even harm, to society.
Grade-One critical thinking is the pursuit of finding the truth and finding solutions to the problems and contradictions we find. Where grade-two critical thinking stops at finding an issue, grade-one critical thinking pursues to fully understand, and solve the issue.
We desperately need more grade-One critical thinkers in the world. Unfortunately, so many of the skeptics amongst us are either grade-two critical thinkers which only burn ideas, thoughts and concepts to the ground without building anything back in their place, or charlatans that propose a new concept that serves their own purpose, without solving the issue at hand.
It may seem contradictory that I follow up an article on strategies to improve critical and analytical thought with one on the dangers of thinking critically by default. Skeptical thought is necessary; however, reactionary skepticism can be destructive when combined with emotional charge, due to the emotional charge often preventing further analysis, which may give needed context. It is common that when aspiring thinkers adopt the philosophy of skepticism, that they feel strongly about the pursuit of skepticism, often applying it too liberally without any constructive analysis. Further, this emotional undercurrent in a desire to be skeptical is often exacerbated by the weakness in their own developed critical and analytical thinking skills, many often simply creating a guide book of “what should trigger skepticism”, without bothering to equip themselves with the tools to analyze the context, intention, trajectory, and many other factors which play a role in the pursuit, thought, or position which they have criticized.
There are many “red flags” which should rightfully trigger skepticism; however, a red flag does not necessarily mean that the presumption of intellectual guilt is correct – it is simply a flag that warrants additional scrutiny. Often, one or many of popular proponents’ interpretation(s) of an idea, product, technology, philosophy, etc., is dramatically different than intended, or exists within reality, meaning the proponents interpretation was false, not the efficacy of the technology or general philosophy. Unfortunately, the most popular and outspoken adherents of a philosophy, technology, or area of research are often the least educated, least knowledgeable, and unfortunately the most biased and therefore least reasonable on the subject. Their lack of expertise fueling both their passion and confidence. This army of supporters can have tremendous power and lead to stunning successes in its popularity and acceptance within the general population:
“As long as a man knows very well the strength and weaknesses of his teaching, his art, his religion, its power is still slight. The pupil and apostle who, blinded by the authority of the master and by the piety he feels toward him, pays no attention to the weaknesses of a teaching, a religion, and soon usually has for that reason more power than the master. The influence of a man has never yet grown great without his blind pupils. To help a perception to achieve victory often means merely to unite it with stupidity so intimately that the weight of the latter also enforces the victory of the former.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All too Human
Many charlatans and con artists understand this all too well, purposefully recruiting legions of followers to spread their (mis)information. Unfortunately, those with good intentions are often drowned out by their very supporters, alienating them from their peers and ensuring added difficulty in pursuing their goal of truth. The polymath, teacher to three Nobel laureates and woefully underappreciated philosophical thinker Michael Polanyi has a great thought, which I believe also describes the behaviour of most vocal adherents:
“A desperate situation may arise if a new skill, the efficacy of which is open to doubt, is given a false interpretation by its discoverers.”
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Future (p. 51)
We need to remember that specific and legitimate reasons for criticism may lead to overall skepticism on the subject, but they do not necessarily refute the totality of the subject or the position. Regarding published science, there are two key components of publications to which skeptics latch onto, to which I contend the premise for dismissal is invalid.
Discussions and Conclusions
If the methods, controls and hard data are the science, the discussion and conclusion are the art which involves interpretation. Routinely, a piece of work is published in a journal below the perceived “status-based standards,” despite good quality of the methods and impact of the data, due to mistakes or lack of fluency in language of the authors writing the discussion and conclusion. These types of publications are denigrated and dismissed, even though the data may be entirely relevant and accurate.
There are many reasons why a paper may have a discussion or conclusion which leads critics to believe it is incompetent, and they can be easily explained with proper context. First, teams from around the world will often publish their work in English, even when they do not speak the language. Thoughts and positions can easily be lost in translation. Secondly, it is entirely possible, and is often the case, that a team of researchers lack an expert in a specific field, which could have otherwise corrected their interpretation. This leads into why generalists often disparage experts; it is easy to find fault in areas which experts in a specific area speak in, which happens to be outside their expertise. This is precisely why experts need generalists or to work with enough experts in various fields to avoid simple errors.
Regarding the truth and the interpretation of the truth, the errors are wholly irrelevant. The data and methods stand on their own, while the discussion and conclusions are nothing but an attempt to tell a story. A critical issue arises when teams, while replicating the work of others, find similar results, and then write similar discussions and conclusions. This repetitive error of interpretation can lead to the dismissal of the entire field by outsiders who observe critical errors in interpretation. The errors must be addressed, but the data should not be disregarded. Unfortunately, new interpretations will only arise from within a field, as experts peering in are neither motivated, nor rewarded for correctly interpreting results, and quite often lack the expertise to do so.
Whenever truth and error are amalgamated in a coherent system of conceptions, the destructive analysis of the system can lead to correct conclusions only when supplemented by new discoveries. But there exists no rule for making fresh discoveries or inventing truer concepts, and hence there can be no rule, either, for avoiding the uncertainty of destructive analysis.
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Future (p. 52)
“Green Research” isn’t “Pseudoscience”
One of the most troubling, persistent, and ridiculous statements I have seen from many researchers and skeptics alike is that early research has no merit. I see the same arguments made repeatedly, and interestingly, when they come from researchers, I most frequently observe this from those whose work the same criticism can be levelled on. I will try to break down the two common arguments I hear from researchers and mainstream skeptics, respectively.
Researchers tend to criticize pilot research as having no or limited merit because the research lacks proper size or controls. Typically, pilot research recruits fewer participants and includes fewer controls, with more limited testing being done from a cautionary standpoint due to uncertainty, use of funds, time and even safety of participants. Operating on limited funds and staffing resources, a research team will be rightfully hesitant to invest significant financial and staff resources to a new hypothesis. If the pilot research demonstrates positive findings, progression is to control the research more vigorously, with a larger group of participants. This is simply practical. My question, always, for the researchers I speak to that criticize this early work is: “Would you dedicate all of your funds and attention to a new hypothesis?” The answer, of course, is always “No.” Further, if a professor or department head DID attempt to conduct a “phase III” style trial before a pilot “phase I” was done, what skeptical researcher could possibly believe it would make it through the Institutional Review Board (IRB)? If, by some miracle, it did, and the results were not positive, what is the likelihood that the researcher at the helm would be applauded for a “well-controlled study” and not derided for squandering precious funds?
The question then becomes, “What is the benefit of the criticism?” Other than a percentage of researchers who are dedicated to churning out meaningless tripe to serve a predetermined agenda, researchers will rarely argue that more controls, or a larger study group, would be better. The reality is they are typically getting by with the resources they have. In my experience in speaking to many teams, the dozen that are currently researching hydrogen tablets in various capacities, research dollars are stretched thin. There is always “more” that the teams want to be doing; however, it is the resources that are lacking, whether it be time or funding. Constructive criticism is needed to address the shortcomings, and either actively become involved in shoring them up as research progresses, or relaying ideas for improvements to the team. The culture of viciousness and tearing down of others’ work with no solutions that has spread throughout academia like a cancer lacks honesty, integrity and value.
I’ve written about some of the most illogical positions mainstream skeptics take up; however, I believe this common sentiment takes the cake for its absurdity. Mainstream medical skeptics, who are often medical doctors who have only acted as practitioners and not researchers or scientists, often refer to green science as “pseudoscience.” To understand why this is an issue, we need to define pseudoscience, definition from Wikipedia:
“Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be both scientific and factual but are incompatible with the scientific method. Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; absence of systematic practices when developing hypotheses; and continued adherence long after the pseudoscientific hypotheses have been experimentally discredited.”
Further, pseudoscience attempts to gain the beneficial reputation of science, while purposefully avoiding all controls and scrutiny. Green science utilizes as many controls as possible, resources allowing, and submits itself for scrutiny. These concepts are not the same, either in application, intention, or results. I’ve heard these aforementioned medical skeptics proclaim that only phase III trials are relevant, as if the work done to reach these larger trials were completely irrelevant and inconsequential. I have even had this type of skeptic repeatedly state, “If pharmaceutical companies can conduct these trials, so can supplements.” This position has numerous flaws.
- Pharmaceutical companies start with preclinical work and make it through phase I, phase II, etc., before moving to phase III, all the while leveraging the results of their early successes to raise funds for the project. I have discussed this from friends and acquaintances in the pharmaceutical research sector, who astonishedly respond, “Where do they think the research begins?”
- Many uses of therapies or supplements are not protected by regulatory agencies as a medicinal application, with metabolic syndrome and sports supplements being prime examples. If a product, such as hydrogen tablets, did proceed down the drug pipeline, it would effectively render it unavailable to users in metabolic distress, or for athletic performance and recovery. I will add that these are not only the two largest markets for hydrogen water, but are also two areas receiving the most research attention.
- If supplements for sports performance, nutritional deficiencies, or metabolic health were mandated to go through the same process as drugs, what would this do their financial feasibility? Costs per unit would rise to become unaffordable, and if insurance began covering them (and would they?), insurance costs would skyrocket. This is not a solution and would simply add significant stress to a system in the USA, which is already on the verge of collapse.
I have heard a rebuttal, similar in phrasing, from many of these mainstream medical skeptics whenever I bring up the above points, and also point out the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars required for pushing a new molecule through the drug pipeline.
“If you don’t have the funds, and there is merit to it, you’d have sold it to a pharmaceutical company already.”
This rebuttal never fails to astound me, while simultaneously filling me with a mix of frustration and anger, in the realization I have wasted my time and have been speaking to a confrontational idiot determined to live as a grade-two critical thinker. By this time, I typically know the conversation is over, but will try to gather myself and explain my position. My detractor, without failure, will agree with me that corporate influence on privately funded science, health care costs, insurance integrity, and the entire field of healthcare, has major issues. That is always the common ground between us. They will contend that conventional medicine, and the established route to achieve it, is far better than the alternative of having no scientific framework or structure, with which I agree. As a seemingly great start, we agree on everything, which they believe makes me a hypocrite for my work with hydrogen water. Where I lose them is on the notion that I desire to find a better way, while trying to explain two important points:
- I am not OK with selling my idea, contributing to the ruling class oligarchy that grows in power every day, and resigning to take a “pay off” at the expense of my intellectual integrity. I have had numerous offers to buy my technology and company.
- If you identify problems, but make no effort to find solutions, you are part of the problem.
I then go on to explain my intentions and goals, as well as the systems I am putting in place to safeguard the honesty, truth and integrity behind what I am doing, and that I realize there are shortcomings to my strategy and that there will be challenges, which I am attempting to resolve and shore up as our clinical outreach program evolves and grows. I am met with incredulity, condescension, and mockery, without fail (when in debate with the previously mentioned medical skeptics that I have gone down this rabbit hole with. Many researchers and medical doctors applaud what I am attempting to do). I have found that more often than not research scientists become quite interested in my thoughts, goals, and ideas for improvement, whereas the mainstream medical skeptical types, as mentioned typically a certain percentage, by no means all, of medical doctors acting as practitioners with no history in research, instinctively think I am pulling a scam or am out of my mind.
It is quite apparent to me that the state of philosophy and beliefs around the area of healthcare and medical research does not differ much from politics. The vast majority resign themselves to the belief that there are only limited possibilities, while any talk or attempt at change is simply unbelievable. This is why skepticism and criticism, without action to improve, is a force of destruction and not growth.
New Ideas are Not Always Preposterous
The final note on the downsides of default and unwavering skepticism is the associated tendency to reject new ideas. Again, I find this to be an issue more with medical doctors with a background as practitioners and no training in research or science, than scientific researchers (many of which are medical doctors), and have run into it more times than I can count (although this is by NO MEANS an absolute statement. There are many medical doctors with whom I have had enjoyable discourse, even in disagreement, and several researchers with whom discussion had devolved to less than polite). Caveats aside, the issue I have found is that if a suggestion involves an idea or proposition which they did not learn in training, or worse, contradicts a belief they have from training, there seems to be no amount of evidence that can be shown to allay their doubts.
I have held long email debates and conversations with research scientists all over the world, none of whom have ever “pulled rank” and declared their credentials, or questioned mine to refute my arguments, even when there is complete disagreement. Contrarily, I cannot count the number of medical doctors who have leaned on their credentials as a form of “truth” in order to appeal to the “credential’s fallacy”, which supposed that when someone lacks proper credentials, their argument is automatically invalid. This is intellectually dishonest and does not further understanding or growth, nor does it refute incorrect information.
The novelty of a concept or the way it plays into one’s prior interpretation of the truth has no bearing on its inherent truth. New concepts should be leaned on skeptically, but accepted, or at least acknowledged, when presented with appropriate evidence. To deny them to avoid admitting defeat is, at best, hubris.
“This example should stand for many others which teach the same lesson; namely that to deny the feasibility of something that is alleged to have been done or the possibility of an event that is supposed to have been observed, merely because we cannot understand in terms of our hitherto framework how it could have been done or could have happened, may often result in explaining away quite genuine practices or experiences. Yet this method of criticism is indispensable, and without its constant exercise no scientist or technician could keep a steady course among the many spurious observations which he has to set aside unexplained every day.”
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Future (p. 51)
Skepticism is only half of the tool needed in order to find truth, and to work towards progress. It can be used to break down incomplete constructs, but then, careful analysis must be employed to build them back up better than before. It is important to remember that.