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Skepticism and me

by Josh DeWald

April 26, 2013

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Donate I was recently asked "Do you really need evidence for everything?" That's actually a difficult question to answer, but the short answer is "yes, I do". In practice, I don't need to look up absolutely everything because I have already spent a lot of time investigating various topics and have a good sense for the "high level" claims around health and the environment. Also... many things just don't matter that much.

But if you are making a claim that:

a) If true, would mean I should stop doing something I am doing (especially if it affects my children)

b) If true, I should really be telling everybody I know about it (e.g. major product or food safety)

c) If false, but is the type of information I would want to share, that I will look like an idiot for sharing (perhaps a scientific advance)

... then you better believe I am going to want to look a bit deeper than simply accepting the information as passed on. It's not that I don't believe you, but that I don't necessarily trust your source.

So in essence, much of my Skepticism has a certain self-centered aspect in that I would prefer to verify information that affects me before applying it. It amazes me how willing people are to tell me what I should or should not do based on information that they have never verified. I don't need to literally look up every piece of information ever told to me. There is a balancing act to determine whether the information matters in some way. But if I intend to share the information, it is my duty as a good citizen in the Internet age to at least look into things before passing them on. It is quite easy to link (and re-link) to misinformation on Facebook or Twitter (consider the normal case of having a couple of hundred Facebook friends... if only 5% of them re-share something that means more than a 1000 people see it after 1 level!). It is very difficult to counteract that information. I try hard not to be a source for information that later turns out to be misinformation. Does that mean that I perhaps spend too much time "fact checking"? I like to think it's worth it.

(Note:This isn't meant as an advertisement for my own articles, so I am not linking. But for most of these I wrote an entry either on this blog or my other one, Google will find them).

So what are some of the real-world effects of my skepticism?

Things I stopped doing/didn't do at all because I looked into them:

  • Cough syrup for my children - Seems to be no better than a placebo or a spoonful of honey.

  • Worrying too much about how many glasses of water I drink - The "64 oz" recommendation was actually somewhat arbitrary and, in any case, also includes food and other beverages (including coffee, soda, low-alcohol beers). When I feel thirsty, I'll make sure to drink water. But I don't sweat it much otherwise

  • Avoid "conventional" produce - I don't have any problem with organic, but there is no real evidence of it being better in any meaningful way, so is not worth the extra cost to me. I understand that many people believe that GMO foods are dangerous, or that organic food is significantly healthier and safer. These are effectively positions taken on faith, as the current consensus of scientific evidence do not support them. If it ever does come around, I will happily buy organic.

  • Thinking the Freemasons and Illuminati are running the world - It was a fun journey while it lasted (I used to have folder after folder about the pope, Denver International Airport, movie references, etc), but there just seems little reason to take these ideas seriously.

Things I continue to do because I have looked into them:

  • Drink diet sodas - There is really no evidence of harm from artificial sweeteners. You don't like "chemicals". That's great. I don't have a problem with them. I like the taste of soda, but I used to have a tendency to drink 2 or 3 a day (not uncommon for a programmer), I'd rather not have those calories.

  • Vaccinate my children (and myself) - In a way, this topic is what made me dive head-first into being an active "Skeptic". It scares me that people don't vaccinate because they have been misinformed.

  • Carry my infant in a BabyBjorn (front and back-facing!) - Rumors of hip dysplasia and other horrors appear to be unfounded

Things I do that I should probably look into more:

  • Argan oil - We rub a bit on our daughter's head to repair/prevent "cradle cap". Don't know if it actually works to be honest.

  • Shave with soap - On the rare occasions that I shave my face, I tend to just use warm water and soap, which I vaguely recall hearing that this could be bad for the skin.

  • Recycle cans (and other things) - There was that episode of Penn & Teller's BS where they said re-using cans was actually inefficient. Is that true? Is it more complicated than that?

I am not an expert on any of the topics I discuss. I have to defer to the actual experts, to the scientific consensus. Yes, the consensus might turn out to be wrong. But that's unlikely at the level that most of us interact with science. Please find an example more recent than Galileo (more than 300 years ago!). Please find an example that isn't just an actual scientist being rejected by the "accepted wisdom" of mostly non-scientists.

The world is too complex to rely on "common sense" and "folk wisdom" or my own sense of "well, I'm a pretty smart guy, I'm sure I can come to my own conclusions". Distrusting corporations and the government is not the same thing as having evidence of specific harm. There aren't too many lions hiding in the trees, but there are plenty of quacks and frauds hiding behind impressive-looking websites and authoritative-sounding credentials and "Institutes". There are plenty of well-meaning people who heard, or misheard, information and passed it on, even when it turns out to be untrue. I take comfort in that in today's world it is easy to find well-sourced and reliable information not provided by a person trying to sell you something

by Josh DeWald

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