Best of Listener Feedback
The best of listener feedback from the first 32 Skeptoid episodes.
by Brian Dunning
March 17, 2007
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I'd like to do something new today. I want to take a step back, look at all 32 episodes that we've done so far, and see what's generated interest and feedback and what hasn't. Feedback comes to me via four avenues. There's a comment form on the transcript of every episode on the Skeptoid.com web site where anyone can post a quick comment about that episode. There is the Skeptoid Forum, hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation, which you can access from the Skeptoid.com web site. There is the Skeptalk mailing list, which is devoted to skepticism in general and not just to this show, but where we often end up discussing these episodes. I'm on Skeptalk myself and post nearly every day. You can join Skeptalk with one click on the Skeptoid.com web site. And the fourth way I receive feedback is when people email me directly with their comments. Although I love this, I do wish the feedback was directed instead into one of the forums where everyone can benefit from it. Negative feedback is at least as important to the show as positive feedback.
You may not believe it when you hear me say it, but one of the things I try to stay away from on Skeptoid is politics. I recall an editorial in Scientific American in which they presented a list of candidates to vote for in the upcoming election, basically all Democrats, on the principle that many Republicans want to replace science textbooks with the Bible. A vote for an opposing Democratic candidate was essentially a vote against an anti-science politician. Scientific American argued that you can't separate science from politics. I disagree. I do agree that anti-science politicans should be put into giant slingshots and launched into whatever orbit will let them meet their particular deity face to face, but I don't agree that any one particular political party should be the beneficiary of all those votes — especially when it's one of the two major tax-and-spend parties. Instead, I argue that you should use your skeptical critical analysis skills to learn and support science, and so long as you do that, I really don't give a rip who you vote for. Two unrelated issues, I say.
Nevertheless, in almost every Skeptoid episode, I find myself riding the razor's edge of political commentary. The episodes about religion are the most obvious example. When I talk about Christianity, I'm supporting the left by trashing fundamental conservatism; and when I talk about paganism, I'm supporting the right by trashing alternative sects that contradict Christianity. When I talk about organic food or alternative medicines, I'm laying siege to mighty left-wing anti-establishment fortresses; when I talk about Iraq, I'm dissolving the very glue that binds the Republicans. And every time, I get emails accusing me of being a paid propagandist for one party or the other. I argue that you can find pseudoscience and irrationality in every walk of life. I don't think there's any one political party that's immune, I don't think there's any one social class that's immune, and I don't think that any one race or nationality is immune. I think every group is full of nuts. If you're a regular listener and you think I'm leaning too far in anyone's particular direction, by all means send me an email, or post a scathing exposé in the Skeptoid.com forum. I don't believe any political party's arbitrary list of "issues they support" can truly represent any actual living human with half or more of a brain. And the only real differences between the Republicans and the Democrats are their positions on "the issues", like religion and gays and drugs and abortion, things the federal government shouldn't be involved in anyway.
The truly critical mind, in my opinion, is not going to simply default to the de facto position of Democrat. The truly critical mind does not allow his science to determine his politics, any more than he should allow his politics to determine his science, like George Bush.
Speaking of George Bush, the most feedback comes from the episodes dealing with religion, specifically Christianity. On the Skeptoid.com comment pages are several hundred exchanges spread over the three or four episodes dealing with some facet of Christianity, and these exchanges are basically all a creationism debate: creationists claiming that Genesis is an exact literal historical account, including Noah's flood; and skeptics claiming that it's not. Personally I think it's completely hopeless to expect that either of these parties might ever be able to change the other's mind, so the entire debate is rendered pointless. And despite my subtle efforts to keep things on track, these debates always seem to devolve into personal attacks. Guys, limit your comments to the arguments you're presenting. Attacking the other guys personally is not an effective way to support your position. It makes you look desperate.
I caught some flak from a few practitioners over my episode on reflexology. A listener in Scotland said "You need to go for a treatment and see for yourself before slagging it off." Although I appreciate the term "slagging it off", I'm not going to go give it a try. There are an endless number of crazy, unsupported claims out there, and I'm not going to go try them all without hesitation (considering that it would bankrupt me; reflexology certainly isn't free). If there was a hypothesis behind reflexology, even some remote suggestion as to how or why it might have a medicinal effect, then it's something I'd be glad to take a look at. That's the problem with almost all of these quack quasi-medical schemes: None of them offer any hypothesis or explanation of exactly what they do or how they do it. Almost none: A lot of them say that it involves some form of "energy". Well, sorry; made-up definitions for scientific sounding words like "energy" do not constitute a hypothesis, and certainly not a theory. Present me with a claim behind reflexology that can be measured and tested, and I'll commit right now to trying it. By the way, this same reflexologist said "It's obvious you are not well informed about reflexology and the benefits it offers others." Well, I assure you that I did more research and informed myself a hell of a lot more than did any of the people whose money you're taking.
There has only been one negative comment on the episode about wheatgrass juice. A listener in Australia said "How foolish of you to jump to conclusions. Wheat grass is not grown in regular soil and it is grass therefore it is not wheat. Wheat grass is sprouted wheat which has all the nutrients released its composition is vastly different to the grain of wheat. I suggest that you do some real research before you slam a very valuable nutritional resource. Skepticism is healthy if you research with an open heart with an attitude of getting at the real truth not to disprove it." Let's ignore the fact that she opened by saying that it's not wheat, that it is wheat, and then that it's vastly different from wheat. Doesn't matter, grass vs. wheat was never a question that I brought up. She does suggest that I do research before slamming a valuable nutritional resource. The problem is that when you do research, as I did, you learn that it's not a significant nutritional resource. I guess I didn't do real research — like asking a hippie if it recharged his biofield. She said I should have had an open heart, which presumably means I should have been open to evidence that's not necessarily factual in nature. I've asked repeatedly for someone to present some testable claims about wheatgrass juice, and then have them tested in a clinical trial. Until someone does, my heart remains lonely.
There was a good amount of disagreement over my episode about cell phones aboard commercial aircraft. Some of the more rational disagreement was of the form "I don't have enough expertise to make my own informed decision, so I'm going to obey the airlines' instructions." Others pointed to random cases where certain cell phones can cause an effect on some instruments when they're turned on or off or a call is initiated or terminated, events which can cause transient broad spectrum bursts of noise. But making the leap of logic that this can cause a valid but wrong signal in aircraft avionics is exactly like OJ Simpson's claim that degradation in DNA samples caused it to magically mutate into his own exact, unique DNA. Now, I do happen to understand and agree with the decision to simply follow the rules in cases where you don't know the facts yourself. But if you're going to make statements that contradict the evidence I presented, then you're saying that you do know that facts. All right, bring it on. You can start by answering the following three points:
- Millions of cellular phone calls placed from aircraft, and never once a single accident or failure caused by cell phones.
- Not a single government agency or airline prohibits cell phones from being brought into the passenger cabin where they can be, and frequently are, easily used.
- The current system being tested puts a small cell tower on board commercial planes, encouraging all passengers to use their cell phones normally.
On a related note, the Mayo Clinic recently announced the results of a test, where cell phones were tested against 192 types of medical equipment at 300 hospitals over five months. The Mayo Clinic found zero problems, and concluded that the ban on cell phones in place at most hospitals is without merit. And here's another news flash about cell phones: they aren't radioactive and won't give you brain cancer.
There is one episode which I knew would generate a lot of controversy, and I wasn't disappointed. When I pointed out some of the fallacies surrounding the organic food fad, I was attacked from all sides, and most significantly from the left, which usually considers itself immune from critical analysis. A lot of the support for organic food is really more about mistrust of the alternative, which is conventional crops. This mistrust is not based on crop science, it's based on ideology, usually anticorporatism or anti-government. I said it in the episode and I say it again: organic and conventional crops are produced by the same companies, and regulated by the same government agencies. How can one's connection with corporatism and government endorsement be corrupt and evil, and the other not?
For example, one listener said "There are rational, ethical reasons for not wanting to contribute to factory farming." Factory farming. If we're making up cute, condescending nicknames for the opposition, we're no longer sticking to facts. Keep in mind that certified organic crops are grown on the same fields, using the same tractors burning the same fossil fuels, by the same companies, using the same low-paid immigrant labor, as conventional crops. It's more than a little tiresome to pretend that one qualifies as "factory farming" while the other does not. And there's that word ethical. Again, we're not talking about science or facts anymore. We're talking ideology and personal feeling. I didn't say conventional crops won't hurt your feelings; I said organic crops are no healthier. And the FDA agrees with me.
There's nothing wrong with preferring organic crops, but there is something wrong with making up or repeating lies about the majority of the world's food supply because doing so happens to coincide with some ideological agenda that you might have. There's nothing wrong with having ideologies or agendas, but if you have to lie to support them, you should probably re-examine those ideologies to see if they're worthy of your support.
The episode that has received the least interest, to my everlasting disappointment, has so far been the primer on scientific testing (one listener properly corrected my pronunciation of primer, but I'm too old school to change — or rather, I guess I'm too "ignorant new school"). In this episode I outlined the process of the randomized controlled trial, by which the efficacy of a medical treatment can be definitively determined. Variations of this same technique can be used to test virtually any pseudoscientific claim. I don't know if the subject simply didn't interest anyone, or if everyone agreed with me, or if nobody listened to it at all. My hope was that this piece could serve as a basis for discussion of some of the many weird, far-out claims that are discussed in the Skeptoid forums or on the Skeptalk mailing list.
Keep that feedback and those suggestions for future episodes coming in. I especially invite feedback from listeners who disagree with me. Difference of opinion is what makes the world go round, and the last time nobody disagreed with anybody we called it the Dark Ages. Also in the Dark Ages, if you attempted to apply science to the world around you, like Galileo did, you were imprisoned as a religious heretic. Well I won't imprison anyone, but I will ask you to do as Galileo did, and prove your claims.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Best of Listener Feedback." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
17 Mar 2007. Web.
29 May 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4033>
References & Further Reading
Ernst, E., Singh, S. Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine. New York: Bantam Press, 2008.
Hughes, C., Smyth, S., Lowe-Strong, A. "Reflexology for the treatment of pain in people with multiple sclerosis: A double-blind randomised sham-controlled clinical trial." Multiple Sclerosis. 1 Nov. 2009, Volume 15, Issue 11: 1329-1338.
Jüni, P., Altman, D.G., Egger, M. "Systematic reviews in health care: assessing the quality of controlled clinical trials." British Medical Journal. 7 Jul. 2001, Volume 323, Number 7303: 42-46.
Kava, Ruth. "Is Organic Produce Better?" American Council on Science and Health. American Council on Science and Health, 12 Mar. 2002. Web. 9 Nov. 2009. <http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.228/news_detail.asp>
Rennie, J. "Presidential Science." Scientific American. Nature America, Inc., 1 Feb. 2008. Web. 25 Mar. 2010. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=presidentail-science>
Tri, J., Hayens, D., Smith, T., Severson, R. "Cellular phone interference with external cardiopulmonary monitoring devices." Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 1 Jan. 2001, Volume 76, Number 1: 11-15.
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