Philosophy of Science & Skepticism

February 27, 2020 5 min read 3 Comments

Philosophy of Science & Skepticism

Although not the treatise on science and skepticism I would one day like to write, I felt compelled to “put pen to paper,” so to speak, over the last two weeks. Keeping brevity in mind due to the nature of this newsletter, over the next couple of months I will touch on my thoughts regarding some of the failings of scientific institutions, also some of the illogical actions by pseudo-skeptics, or perhaps more appropriately described as “selective skeptics.” 

Navigating science is becoming increasingly more difficult. It’s becoming impossible to keep up with published work in any broad, and often even narrow, field due to the sheer volume of research being done. This has led to the rising prevalence of narrower and narrower specialization, summarized in this quote:

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”


― Nicholas Butler

Anyone endeavoring to be either a generalist or rather one who has a competent level of knowledge across many areas and also anyone simply wanting to try to understand one area must submit to the authority of an expert on the topic. Generalists can become divergent depending on the expert they take advice from. In most fields, there are experts toeing the line on consensus and then there are “mavericks” who have radically different points of view. Usually, the mavericks are wrong. Sometimes they are right, and often dramatically change their field of science. 

As I detailed in myhydrogen tablets origins series, it was reading Ray Kurzweil’s arguments in favour of the need for more generalists. That led me to develop my strategy on the tablets, namely, becoming competent in every area and hiring experts for each, acting as the sole center of communication. I had always been a bit of a generalist in knowledge, admiring polymaths and seeking to become one. As anyone following my blog can see, I still pursue this style of learning. There are far too many interesting concepts in the world to devote all of my time to any of them (at least from my perspective).

Generalists are both desperately needed, and incredibly dangerous. Without generalists, it is becoming increasingly harder to put the pieces of the puzzle together, as various fields drift deeper and deeper into their own jargon and specialization, losing touch with other fields and the larger picture. Generalists have the potential to add incredible insight into fields that may help with cross-focus collaboration or interesting new developments. They also have the potential to distort everything due to input from even a single maverick which alters their world view and “big theme” narrative. 

To draw character types from Isaiah Berlin’s,The Hedgehog and the Fox, generalists who tend to fall into the “hedgehog” category, or those with “one big idea” are always looking to fit information into their “all-encompassing philosophy.” When a key piece of input is dangerously wrong, it risks mutating their entire conceptualization of reality and the available evidence. As generalists pull a new, potentially dangerously incorrect philosophy into their overall world view and in turn reconciles their other views around it, it becomes incredibly difficult to extirpate that view, even if it is shown to be invalid. Since it already confirms and strengthens many other views they hold, tearing pieces down is to attack their very reality, one they have dedicated their lives to. It is tantamount to an atheist debating a religious leader.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

-Alvin Toffler


Science is also replete with flaws, bias, and corruption. Every single structure that is in place to protect its integrity, is open for error. There is good science and bad science; There is also “green” and “gold standard” science, but sometimes publications falling under “green science” can be “good science,” and sometimes publications falling under the “gold standard” of higher evidence can be “bad science” under scrutiny. This makes it exceedingly more difficult to develop frameworks to help non-scientists (and even scientists) assess the evidence, as even within the “good” and “bad science,” is a spectrum and not a black and white definition. Further, definitions of “good” and “bad” science are debated, and the severity of corruption, regarding funding sources, for example, are also debated. Ironically, both the proclaimed “skeptics” and the alternative practitioners that they target, fancy themselves the true skeptics. They both have good reason to be skeptical of what they attack, however, they are often clouded by their own emotional positions.

What makes this even more difficult, and further exacerbates the issue is the growing chasm between positions. This war between skeptics supporting established medical science and the alternative practitioners decrying it and supporting often questionable techniques and protocols has devolved into a “two-party” debate, mirroring the state of US politics. The alternative practitioners are sometimes right in their skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry, but seemingly turn a blind eye to the deeply flawed rationale and lack of evidence of their favoured approaches. This allows for quite easy and frequent mockery. The established medical science skeptics work to refute virtually everything the alternative medicine practitioners say, even when what is said is more reasonable than not; while staying relatively quiet about real issues concerning the pharmaceutical Industry or biotech industry (I largely support both, but they both have serious issues that deserve criticism.) This tactic further solidifies the perception of conspiracy and “paid shills” to the alternative medicine practitioners and their followers. However, the reality is much more easily attributed to emotional motivations and not wanting to give their adversaries an inch, as seen in the current political landscape.

Finding the truth is navigating through a minefield too difficult to pass through unscathed. We cannot trust any single person as an authority on general knowledge. It is our duty to understand the faults and strengths of our current evidence gathering techniques and work together by questioning each other. We must question and criticize each other’s logic whether it is friend or foe, as truth must prevail over partisanship. In the coming weeks, I will detail my views on the current state of science and skepticism, from the peer review process to the evidence hierarchy, to the strengths and faults of both skeptics and alternative medicine practitioners. I hope you all find it thought-provoking and hope many of you disagree on points and take the time to write thoughtful responses. It is the only way we will all grow.


3 Responses

Alex Tarnava
Alex Tarnava

February 28, 2020

Hi Erik, a few points:

First, it doesn’t sound a little bit elitist, it is elitist. Either someone’s position is defensible, and they understand the core concepts or are a master of the subject, or it isn’t and/or they do not and are not. Structured education can help a lot of people understand concepts which they can then utilize effectively, but is not needed for all individuals. Conversely, just because someone has taken, and passed, courses to show competency in a subject does not mean they retain the knowledge or are able to use it effectively. As an extreme example, I’ve had to explain to a PhD in nutritional sciences, who is a best selling author, that dextrose is glucose and thus the hydrogen tablets are not “sugar free”. The amount of MDs and PhDs I have to explain to that the claim of “GMO free”, while accurate, is incredibly misleading- due to the fact that none of the ingredients contain any genes, is also troubling. Or the amount of MDs and PhDs that we need to explain the term “organic” is an odd choice for the tablets, considering the magnesium, for example, is an element and thus inorganic, and the water you drop it into is inorganic. As for the more ubiquitously appearing definition of organic, all the excipients are isolated molecules and as such were not “grown” as is, they were extracted.

There is a lot more to evaluate than just numbers in the methods section, and often it requires an expert level knowledge on the subject matter. Passing a methods course, potentially years ago, does not qualify one to understand the premise of a study. E.g. for a drug was the dosing protocol acceptable? Duration of treatment? Particularly if it is compared directly against another molecule, was one drug dosed appropriately while the competitors was laughably under dosed? Was the placebo control truly a placebo that led to appropriate blinding, or was it a sham blinding/placebo that defeated the purpose. i.e. a trial on coffee using clear water as the placebo control.

Understanding methods and statistics can help, such as if there is a large standard deviation in a group, such as age etc, is the raw data available? Was the study largely recruited in a particular age range, with outliers inserted to allow for broader claims? How many end points were tested for, and how many were significant? Was the results simply statistically significant, or was it clinically significant as well? This is on top of knowing to look for proper randomization, blinding, placebo control, etc.

This is just scratching the surface,

Frank C Allen
Frank C Allen

February 28, 2020

I’m just glad I drink Hydrogen water. It even taste like a miracle. Thank you. Look up, vagal tone. As it is in the Bible, " silver cord ".
And all we have to do is hum / ahhh. It travels to our stomach the goes to our organs. King Solomon

Erik
Erik

February 28, 2020

Surely to be a science “generalist”, one must at very least understand the methods that the plethora of studies use to draw their conclusions. Otherwise one is powerless to interpret the validity of any one study. Although there can always be exceptions, for example an undergrad that specializes in statistics, people with Masters degrees are almost always required to take advanced level methods courses no matter what their discipline. I would be very skeptical of anyone giving their opinion about the validity of a research study, who does not at very least have a Master’s degree. I realize that this can sound elitist. Notwithstanding, this level of achievement at very least means they passed their methods courses which instruct on how to evaluate research. Anytime I hope to determine the validity (whether the researchers are saying what they think they are saying) of a study I go straight to the methods section. If there are holes there, the rest of the study is very much in question. Science literacy is perhaps the largest hurdle to overcome in all of this. Contemporary skeptics feel that there are corruptible scientists out there and I agree, but a skeptic simply can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. They must get at least a Master’s level training, the statistics level equivalent on their own, or be largely ignored by the scientific community. I would caution all readers to be careful of the same and to not trust those who would evaluate science without explaining why the methods are sound or not. You won’t know whether the methods are sound or not unless you know the methods, which are mathematical and often complex. I love philosophy of science, but at some point I realized that without the basic math, there isn’t really much point in considering yourself a lover of science, let alone a scientist.

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