Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thoughts on "Dogmatic" Skepticism (Part 4)

Continuing on ...

• Medicine

This one is a very touchy subject, as it hits so close to where we live. It's also the subject of a lot of current and lively debate, what with some people who would normally be considered Skeptics coming out against vaccination, even in the midst of a mild pandemic. Generally, vaccinations are a good idea. There's just way too much science in favor of the practice. But, again, this is a category where anyone who expresses doubt about the current scientific wisdom is summarily lumped in with the "crazies" without any real consideration. The case that springs immediately to my mind is that of Bill Maher. Now, I don't always find myself in agreement with Mr. Maher, but I very frequently do. A few weeks ago, his guest was Tennessee Ex-Senator Dr. Bill Frist, and they had a brief discussion on the topic of health care - and vaccinations. Bill Maher actually came out of the exchange looking like he was the nut. (As opposed to the guy who diagnosed a woman in a persistent vegetative state via video, and challenged her on-site doctor's diagnosis!)

The very next week, Bill Maher clarified his position. He's not completely anti-vaccination, and he's not one of these "germ-theory" deniers, either. His main arguments come down to this:

• We're a sick society due to how and what we eat, and our environment.
(Chemical polllutants in the water, air, food.)
• The Medical "Establishment" has made mistakes and is profit-driven.
• New treatments (such as vaccinations) should be studied very thoroughly
- this new H1N1 vaccine, specifically.
• He takes a skeptical view of, and believes we should question what he
calls "Western" medicine.

Now part of his problem is, I believe, his terminology. By using the term "Western" medicine, one immediately wonders, "Western as opposed to what?" Is he touting acupuncture? Chinese herbal remedies? Homeopathy? Meditation? Channeling "Chi" or something of that sort? Well, I don't know for sure, but I don't think that's what he means. I think he's referring to a belief that we in the West have a tendency to treat symptoms rather than deal with underlying issues. To some extent I agree with this. (Look at how we're dealing with global climate change, the current economic woes, or the heath care crisis in America.) I can't speak for Mr. Maher, but I suspect what he's worried about is our tendency in the U.S. to allow the perceived health of our economy - especially as relates to Big Business and Wall Street Banking/Insurance interests - to trump most (if not all) other societal considerations. (And now I'm wandering off topic again ...)

Without debating the merits of what he said and/or what he actually meant, I'd like to note the reaction among the Skeptical Community at large. The immediate reaction was a sort of head-shaking disappointment, and a declaration that despite what many of us thought before, Bill Maher isn't a real skeptic. "What a shame. He seems so on-the-ball otherwise."

This reaction, more than anything else, got me to thinking about this topic. Bil Maher is an atheist. He's pro-science. He doesn't believe in any kind of after-life or psychics or ESP, or (famously) conspiracy theories. But because he questioned the efficacy of a particular new vaccination (because he believed it may have been rushed, and believes that more testing should be done), he's suddenly not one of US.

If that reaction doesn't fit the very definition of dogma, I don't know what does. This struck me as a very knee-jerk reaction. Now, I'm not saying I agree whole-heartedly with Bill Maher on this issue, and I'm certainly not anti-vaccination, but is what he said SO bad? I think he went a little far in actually advising people not to get this vaccination, but should we just blindly accept whatever comes down to us from the scientific/medical community? If that's the case, aren't we making science a sort of church?

• Conspiracy Theories

This is another case where there's a mental tendency to lump a wide range of topics under a category, and then dismiss them all. There are conspiracy theorists that are way out there: Flat Earthers, Holocaust Deniers, Moon Landing Hoaxers, Alien/Illuminati/Zionist Overlord beliefs, and the like. And some theories contain a range within themselves - the 9/11 Truth Movement, for example, contains people who believe that George W. Bush actually arranged to have the WTC wired with explosives without anyone being alerted to the fact, or that the planes that crashed into the towers were actually remote-piloted missiles. Others in this group believe that the Bush administration just didn't try very hard to stop a vague threat of a terrorist attack because they felt they could use it to their political advantage. That's a pretty big range! The former theories just seem crazy on their face - but should still be investigated. The latter seems more plausible - but still require some kind of proof before they should be believed. The same goes for various theories behind the Kennedy Assassination, or Alien Cover-Ups or any number of other conspiracy theories.

And here's the thing: there have actually been real conspiracies planned, and some even executed throughout history. Do a little research on these (off the top of my head, and in no particular order):

Operation Northwoods
The Gunpowder Plot
The Ajax Plot (Overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran),
Operation Mongoose
The Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment
The Manhattan Project
Swiss Secret Files Scandal
The Watergate Scandal
Operation Valkyrie
The US Business Plot to Overthrow FDR,

The thing is - every one of the plots on that list is real. As in: well- established, admitted and complete with release of documentation. As in: there's no debate regarding these.

Now just because some conspiracies have been hatched, doesn't make them all true. Each of the other Conspiracy Theories needs to be judged on it own merits rather than lumped together and dismissed categorically. Not because most of them are plausible - personally, I think they're mostly borderline-insane - but because truth should be as well-established as possible.

Know what's funny? Blll Maher considers all the 9/11 people to be crazy, and dismisses them out-of-hand, but other skeptics see him as crazy, and dismiss his medical statements out-of-hand.

So the dogmatic thinking works both ways.

I can't speak for anyone else, but it was exactly that type of mindset that got me questioning the beliefs with which I was raised to begin with. It was in an effort to avoid simply accepting received wisdom that I began to study many opinions that differed from what I'd been taught, and then, most importantly, to think about things independently. Personally, I'm not going to subscribe to any dogma. I think there is value in pursuing truth in the most rigorously scientific way possible, and accepting the results wherever they lead us.

No comments:

Post a Comment