Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The appeal of the underdog

We skeptics like to think that our logic will always be convincing, that people who believe in counterfactual nonsense will come around to a more scientific way of thinking if only we point out how silly they're being.  Turn on the lights, we think, and people can't help but see more clearly.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the human brain doesn't work like that.

We have two strikes against us right from the start.  One of them is the backfire effect, the well-documented tendency of people to double-down on their beliefs when they're presented with hard evidence against them.  Shown data, facts, and a logical argument that people are wrong, and often they'll come away even more convinced that they're right... and threatened.

But a second one has to do with how people react when they see others attacked.  Many people end up espousing woo-woo beliefs because they were persuaded by some charismatic public figure, so the figure him/herself ends up being representative of the ideas.  And an attack on someone we revere often leaves us outraged on their behalf, and thinking that the ones mounting the attack are simply arrogant assholes.

Because as Robert Park tells us in his wonderful book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (which all of you should order right now and read), we love backing an underdog.  If the spokesperson for our favorite silly idea appears unfairly besieged by the establishment, we rally to the cause.

Describing the campaign of the amazingly persistent crank Joe Newman, who claimed for years that both the First and the Second Laws of Thermodynamics were false and that he'd created a perpetual motion machine that could create energy, Park writes:
An intense, handsome man in his forties, dressed in work clothes, his dark hair combed straight back, the plainspoken mechanic looked directly into the eyes of his viewers.  He declared that his Energy Machine could produce ten times the electrical energy it took to run it.  "Put one in your home," he said, "and you'll never have to pay another electric bill." 
It's the sort of story Americans love.  A backwoods wizard who never finished high school makes a revolutionary scientific discovery.  He is denied the fruits of his genius by a pompous scientific establishment and a patent examiner who rejects his application for a patent on "an unlimited source of energy" without even examining it, on the ground that all alleged inventions of perpetual motion machines are refused patents.  Not a man to be pushed around, Joseph Wesley Newman takes on the U. S. government, filing suit in federal court against the Patent and Trademark Office.  It's the little man battling a gigantic, impersonal system... 
Perhaps the most endearing characteristic of Americans is their sympathy for the underdog.  They resent arrogant scientists who talk down to them in unfamiliar language, and the government bureaucrats who hide behind rules.  Moreover, Joe Newman's claim invoked one of the most persistent myths of the industrialized world -- free energy.  Who has not heard stories of the automobile that runs on ordinary water?  Suppressed, of course, by the oil industry.  The public never tires of that story.
And just lately, we've had two examples of just this.  First, Vani Hari, the self-proclaimed "Food Babe" whose ideas basically boil down to "if you can't pronounce the name of a chemical, you shouldn't have it in your body," was systematically taken apart by analytical chemist Yvette d'Entremont in a Gawker article entitled, "The 'Food Babe' is Full of Shit."  The article is well-researched, well-written, and its logic seems incontrovertible.

And yet, Ms. Babe and her followers, the self-proclaimed "Food Babe Army," are still going strong.  Food herself has responded to her critics with a shrieking diatribe that amounts to nothing more than one long string of loose-cannon ad hominems.  Food is rather notorious for this approach; when last year she wrote a piece on her blog about how horrible it was that the air in airplane cabins wasn't pure oxygen, and within hours received 4,847,901 responses that (1) ordinary air is only 21% oxygen, and (2) if airplanes were filled with pure oxygen, they'd be explosive, she responded by taking down the post and claiming that her views were being misrepresented by a hostile cadre of shills for Big Nitrogen.

And her followers loved it.  "Go Food Babe!" one of them wrote.  "Keep fighting for the health of Americans!  We're behind you 100%."

Then we had Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose weird brand of holistic alternative medicine has raised the ire of everyone who thinks that medical modalities should be based on, you know, actual hard data.  Here are three of his claims (quoted from a wonderful article by Scott Gavura in Science-Based Medicine):
  • (On green coffee extract) — “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found the magic weight-loss for every body type.”
  • (On raspberry ketone) — “I’ve got the number one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat”
  • (On Garcinia cambogia) — “It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”
This is just scratching the surface.  Oz has become rich off of telling people not to listen to their doctors, that science is actually a religion, and that all they need to do is buy his books and come to his speaking appearances and they'll know how to improve their health. 

And just last week, there was a well-meant campaign against Oz that threatens to fail spectacularly.  A group of medical researchers banded together to try to get Oz fired from his position at Columbia University, saying he promoted "disdain for science" and "quack medicine," statements which are fairly unarguable to anyone who understands how scientific research works.  But Oz, like Food Babe, isn't quelled in the least by these accusations -- and now has said that he will use his television show (of course he has a television show) to take on his critics.

"We plan to show America who these authors are, because discussion of health topics should be free of intimidation," Oz said.

It should also, apparently, be free of logic, data, evidence, and peer review.

And the sad thing is how unlikely all this is to change anyone's opinion.  My guess is that neither Food Babe nor Dr. Oz will experience the least drop in their popularity or book sales from the criticisms they've received.  Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they increase, because as Brendan Behan famously said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity."

Sorry if all of this is depressing.  The human mind, unfortunately, is more often swayed by emotion than it is by logic.  But the news is not all bad.  If you'll send me $39.95, I'll send you a device that you can hook into your home wiring system that will provide for all of your electricity needs.

You'll never have to pay the electric company another cent.  I promise, cross my heart and hope to die.

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