Listener Feedback Reloaded

More fun from the inbox, responding to listener feedback.

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #123
October 14, 2008
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Once again I open my inbox to read your feedback. Most of it is positive, but nobody tunes in to Skeptoid to hear me read love letters to myself. You listen because you like to hear me make irreverent personal attacks on people I disagree with. Far be it from me to fail to provide the content my listeners really want to hear, so let's get started.

Mikel from Louisville, KY was typical of the many people who criticized my episode about genetically modified crops. I described one case where Greenpeace activists pulled a publicity stunt in a poverty-stricken region of the Philippines. They dressed up in biohazard suits (for the cameras, not for any plausible safety reasons) and destroyed a crop of corn designed to thrive in the local conditions and feed more people:

The biotech companies are not out there to feed people, they are their [sic] to make as much money as they can by monopolizing the food supply. I don't think you have really examined both sides of the issue — instead you focus on the media attention-grabbing tactics of GreenPeace [sic] so you can dismiss them as a bunch of idots. I'm very disappointed.

In the case we were talking about, Greenpeace deliberately spread misinformation that directly resulted in more starvation. Yet you're "very disappointed" that I didn't celebrate that and criticize the people who are feeding the world, simply because many of them are for-profit companies. You're welcome to celebrate either one of those that you prefer, or neither; but don't look to Skeptoid to make that kind of value judgement. You're perfectly free to feel that financial incentives are bad, regardless of the results. Other people might argue that financial incentives have always proven to be the most effective catalyst to develop new technologies. You say I didn't examine both sides. That's because I never give any time to either side in a value judgement issue; that's not what Skeptoid is about. Skeptoid is about the science, and there aren't two sides. You have the science, and you have the disinformation. Don't ever expect me to put the science aside in favor of an ideology. If the science I present happens to align with a technology company's financial goals, it's simply because they happen to be doing good science.

I did an episode exposing the thermodynamically impossible claims made by people who are cashing in on the fuel crisis by selling fraudulent devices to run your car on water. An anonymous listener (big surprise there) wrote the following:

Today we are going to show off our illiteracy and cheer death by petroleum. (He then proceeds to give a long list of web links to perpetual motion machines, free energy machines, and delusory water-powered engines.) Or are you not skeptical about the oil crisis?

This guy presents a clearly false dichotomy. If you're not a believer in perpetual motion machines, you must be an uncritical stooge for Big Oil. Like most believers in these devices, he's probably just ignorant of the science of why it's impossible to get more energy out of a system than you put into it, and so to him they appear to be rational alternatives. Why didn't he include links to Tesla Motors, or the Chevy Volt, or to any of the fuel cell and hydrogen vehicles being tested? He only linked to the fringe over-unity claims, that he probably thinks are being "suppressed" by the oil companies. The conspiracy mindset is very interesting. It would be fine if he was able to simply maintain a healthy skepticism about oil companies, but with this listener and with many others that I hear from, they're in way too deep to the point that it puts blinders on them and they're no longer able to see or appreciate the real next-generation work happening in alternative fuels. They see only the conspiracy: Their whole world is made up of the evil conspirators, and the suppressed victims with their free energy machines. They have no interest in the real science that's out there.

Speaking about having no interest in real science, the onslaught of MonaVie distributors continues at Skeptoid.com. Somewhere a MonaVie distributor forum must have posted a link to the episode, because they're still coming to the site by the hundreds and posting their outrageous health claims for their multi-level marketing fruit juice. Here's a typical comment from Chris in Memphis, TN:

Skeptics are more believable when they have first hand experience. Order one case of MonaVie. Then if you have no positive change to your health, everything you've said will have more relevance. You've knocked before you've tried it [sic]. How fair is that? Then try a case.

A case!!! I'm supposed to spend hundreds of dollars on a whole case of Chris' obscenely overpriced fruit punch, and if I don't, I'm not a good skeptic. Chris, you should eat my used Kleenex. It's only $500 and will cure cancer. Oh, you don't want to? You're not a good skeptic. How is that any different? Folks, you don't have to already be a victim before it's appropriate to have healthy skepticism. When someone promotes a product with fantastic claims with no plausible foundation, the best thing to do is not try it. Giving them your money is never the best response.

Saul from Ohio listened to my organic foods episode and asked a question that I get a lot:

I sent this link to someone I know who is is a believer in organic farming, and he immediately dismissed you as a "stooge for agribusiness". Do you have any connection to any agriculture business? Is there any cause to believe you are biased in any way on this subject?

Once and for all, and for the record, no; no entity has ever given me any sort of payment or perk for anything I've ever said on Skeptoid. I wish to hell they would. I certainly deserve it. I've done more to promote agribusiness, nuclear energy, Big Pharma, and the government than almost anyone else. Do they not have my payment address? Did they lose my tax ID? Anyone have the number for their accounts payable?

Chris from St. Paul made the following comment on a Student Questions episode where I pointed out that there's rarely any plausible reason to take fish oil supplements:

Your opinion on fish oil and the brain is questionable at best.

He then cited a link on WebMD. First of all, Chris, it's not "my opinion", it's what the research has shown. This is a fine example of why you shouldn't trust headlines in consumer publications. I've mentioned WebMD in the past as generally a good place to get decent, consumer level information on health issues. However they are not above using headlines to highlight the exciting fringe claims, leaving the mundane facts buried in the article. The article states:

A handful of small studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids can help smooth out the mood swings of bipolar disorder.

"A handful of small studies" is the same support claimed by homeopathy, reiki, and psychic healing. What doesn't make good headlines is that the vast majority of large, well-performed trials have shown NO benefit. This article doesn't identify these small studies so I can't address them specifically, but in my experience, the people who perform small studies after we already have a thorough understanding of a subject based on much larger, well-performed studies, often do so because they're trying to promote their predetermined result, generally tied to a product they're selling.

Stephen from North Texas inexplicably posted this to my episode on logical fallacies where I made the point that you should never trust authoritative imagery on that merit alone, often in the form of a white labcoat:

Sir, you are very ignorant. To say that "White Coats" guarantee authenticity for drugs is not accurate. "White Coats," lol, attempt to sell you expensive pharmaceuticals to give you the feeling of statisfaction [sic] as you leave the office.

Clearly, he was listening closely. Stephen then switches gears into default science-denial mode and continues:

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

In most cases, doctors do not know what the problem is and guess which drug is right for you. Many illnesses have the same symptoms and doctors can never be 100% accurate.

He probably thought he was shooting me down with this. Doctors can almost never know what the problem is, so they have to follow their training and diagnose based on the symptoms and test results. Stephen fails to convincingly argue that a different strategy would be better, although he clearly believes so. He was on a roll, so he then went to the episode where I debunked the claims that World Trade Center building 7 was a controlled demolition by our own government:

To indirectly say that 9/11 was not an inside job is total ignorance. You will have to be ignoring lots of credible evidence (research WTC building 7. I'm sure you have never even heard of it).

Ladies and gentleman, Stephen, from North Texas. (Applause.)

Finally, I'm going to close with probably my favorite listener feedback email I've ever received, and it speaks for itself. It's from Pat in New York:

When my 6 year old son wants to sweet talk me he brings me my iPod and says, "Don't you want to listen to your favorite Skeptoid??"

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Clark, J., Clark, T. Humbug! The skeptic's field guide to spotting fallacies in thinking. Brisbane: Nifty Books, 2005.

Dangour, A., Aikenhead, A., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., Uauy, R. "Comparison of Putative Health Effects of Oragnically and Conventionally Produced Foodstuffs: A Systematic Review." Food Standards Agency. Food Standards Agency, 29 Jul. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/organicreviewreport.pdf>

Dionio, A. "Genetic Engineering Victory in Mindoro." Greenpeace SEAsia. Greenpeace, 12 Oct. 2005. Web. 3 Apr. 2008. <http://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/en/press/reports/ge_victory_mindoro>

Editors. "Depression and Fish Oil/Omega 3 Treatment." WebMD. WebMD, LLC., 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 14 Oct. 2008. <http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/fish-oil-to-treat-depression>

Kondepudi, D. Introduction to Modern Thermodynamics. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2008.

Kris-Etherton, P., Harris, W., Appel, L. "Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease." Circulation. 28 May 2002, 106: 2747-2757.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback Reloaded." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 14 Oct 2008. Web. 24 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4123>

Discuss!

I don't listen to Skeptoid expecting to laugh out loud, so that sound effect (not spoiling it) caught me off-guard in the best way. Brilliant.

Gwilym, Christchurch, NZ
October 14, 2008 6:01pm

I, for one, do not listen to Skeptoid for Brian's personal attacks. I listen for skeptical essays. Brian manages to be actually skeptical about 75% of the time, although half of that tends to be about things that it's trivially easy to be skeptical about ("is the moon really made of cheese?").

When Brian misses the mark, it's because he falls into pseudo-skepticism. That's when (1) the pseudo-skeptic exaggerates his target's beliefs (be skeptical whenever a pseudo-skeptic tells you that people are "hysterical" or the like; another example is his claims that peak oil believers think that civilization will crumble) and then (2) accepts counter-arguments without any real skepticism (such as when Brian parroted claims that Tibet had no significant culture, a statement which is ridiculous when applied to *any* people).

"Don't ever expect me to put the science aside in favor of an ideology." You're missing the point on two levels. First, science, by its nature, evolves, as you've recognized in earlier podcasts. This means that interpretation is important. To be a good science commentator you should allow for different sides in the interpretation -- and you frequently do not. You choose a side and sneer at the other side. That's pseudo-skepticism. The second level: you frequently cover other topics than science anyway. It's cheating for you to do decide social or legal issues are off-topic in some cases but not others.

Paul, Walnut Creek, CA
October 14, 2008 7:25pm

Way to misinterpret comments, Brian. Obviously, Mikel wasn't siding with Greenpeace, but was "very disappointed" that you set up a strawman by focusing on Greenpeace clowns instead of serious critics.

The show "Bullshit" does that a lot: find a loudmouth activist to ridicule and pretend that she represents the whole movement. Makes for better entertainment than interviewing some boring analyst. I hope "The Skeptologists" will be above these tactics.

Max, Boston, MA
October 16, 2008 4:02am

Thanks Max. I was going to say about the same thing, but then you said it for me. Taking the most extreme examples and then saying that all those who critisise fall in the same catagory is nothing short of setting up a straw man only to knock it down. Brian has committed the fallacy of the excluded middle--focusing on the extreme ideological arguments against biotech, while ignoring that there are very reasoned and moderate critisisms out there.

Besides the biotech companies are out there to make money, just like any business. Nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as it does not conflict with the issues of the public health and safety, and environmental sustainability. If they can balance all of these concerns they can make all the money they want--they will have earned it in a truely ethical way. If no, they need to be examined and held responsible.

Anyway, if you can't properly addresses the issue in a 10 mintue broadcast, that is understandable. Just try not to cast all who disagree with you as irrational ideologues--that can only be counter-productive to a true skepical inquiry.

Mikel, Louisville, KY
October 22, 2008 7:57am

I think that Greenpeace is a terrorist organization anyway. It is funny that in the post 9/11 world, groups like Greenpeace can get away with their terror campaigns. There is a documentary series that shows the world their terror tactics. The way to fight Japan is in the courts, and not by doing terrorist acts like going after ships with bombs, fast patrol boats and the like. This will bite Greenpeace in the ass because Japan will retalliate by hiring mercs to protect their ships.

Joseph Furguson, Brawley, Ca
October 29, 2008 8:56pm

Well, Joe, I have to agree with you on this one..!

I've always been against the ways that many activists do things. Greenpeace are too heavy-handed for my taste too. Can anybody remember the attempted whale rescue off the Alsaka coast 15 or 20 years ago? Whales caught in freezing ice, yet the authorities spent several million dollars trying to save them, while people were starving to death in Africa et al... Me, I'd sooner see a whole species go extinct just to save one child... Bettya Greenpeace wouldn't, nor PETA nor SPCAs...

Joe Boudreault, Hanover, On, Canada
June 10, 2009 6:31pm

Guys, what Brian tries to do is apply the scientific method to popular beliefs and see if they pass scrutiny. Non-scientific topics? Thats what poking at popular culture beliefs is all about anyway.

Also, he looks at a certain belief, the arguments for, and then backs his arguments up with known research and facts. Is that "choosing a side"? I guess so, but its cetainly not arbitrary.

As for Greenpeace, I happen to think they act on misinformation and ignore the science of what they compain about and can actually threaten people with their behaviour. This makes them uncceptable in my eyes when their practices and theories are brought under the light.

Is this a flawless perfect podcast? Nope, but I'll advocate anybody who promotes rational thought and scepticism over people who blindly follow beliefs or religions to the detriment of others. For example such as those who destroy a corn field meant to feed starving people simply because they are acting on totally erroneous facts despite evidence to the contrary.

And quite frankly watching Brian make straw men out of those who do the same to him is sometimes hilarious.

Cam, Thunder Bay, ON.
February 24, 2010 9:54am

Cam, you know of a better way to verify claims than the scientific method?

Praying for results or polling doesn't really help. Sadly, folk do not approach claims, they believe in them.

Henk van der Gaast, Sydney
September 30, 2010 2:17am

Its pity Cam has left. I've really enjoyed his posts for so long..

Cam, I'd really appreciate you coming back and posting within your expertise from time to time!

Mud, Virtually Missing point, NSW, Oz
December 21, 2012 8:24pm

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