Saturday, March 13, 2010

Psuedoscience In The Classroom: Physics 192

Finally, pseudoscience is now taught in a university that isn't run by a major religion or cult (cult/religions are the same thing, but we will talk about that another time).

If I might, I'd like say something directly to the students.

First, I am very happy to see you taking an interest in being a pseudoscience. I think that it has been a sad story that there are few places where you can get an overview of the field. Where else can you learn about placebos, noceboes, and the best of bad science?

But there is one thing that I think is really important that is often misunderstood by those critical of the beliefs in pseudoscience. Simply the critics say that the reason people believe in things like crystal healing, chiropractic, or faith healing is because they are stupid. This is a bad characterization and ignores a lot about how and why people actually come to such conclusions and why their beliefs are usually unassailable.

Pseudoscience is all brain related. Look closely and you will see that the reason we believe in so many crazy things is not because of a lack of intelligence, but rather just how the brain reacts as it has been trained by society and the many coping skills that have evolved over time to keep us safe and happy in general.

The simplest of these is that the brain does not like to expend too much energy. Think about how you pick a restaurant. Do you observe the kitchen staff for a couple of hours before you decide to eat at an establishment? No, you rely on the report by a friend or simply that the restaurant appears to be popular. In other words, the brain is pre-wired to follow the crowd.

The 2012 phenomenon is another of these. It is not popular because it is real, just that it is popular. People tend to believe what other people believe.

Why are these beliefs so hard to break? Back to the brain. The brain hates to be wrong. Being wrong is like telling the brain it needs to learn something new and it now needs to go through the trouble of rewiring its current beliefs which takes a lot of time and energy. Back on the savanna, taking time to rewire gets in the way of gathering food and keeping an eye out for man eating lions.

Being called out as wrong is also a very huge attack in the modern world. Getting an F on a test is an attack on your ability to survive. Nobody gets hired and puts food on the table or a roof over your head when life is a series of F grades.  Any questioning of decisions or skills at work is an attack on your ability to hold the job and thus provide for you and family. It is like a pack leader being challenged for his right to sire offspring. You loose in the battle of survival and the brain does not like loosing.

Question someones opinion and you are opening a can of worms that want to attack your counter belief. The arguments of course do not need to follow any rules of logic. Logic is not a survival mechanism. The only thing you need for survival is observation, memory and a little cause/effect. The scientific method is not necessary to know that a hot stove will burn you or a bright mushroom is probably poison.

Back literally to the chiropractor. Is it wacky? Are people stupid? No, they are both sheep because a lot of other people believe, so it is a good bet that it is real, plus it may work for you because of placebo and/or getting up and going to the chiropractor hand having your body twisted a bit does affect your body a bit.  Is it a cure? Is there any other real science?  Not really.

 Can a chiropractor help you? Sure, but not for most of the reason they give. Is it dangerous? Yes, but I think you are more likely to get hurt in a car accident on the way. All medical interventions have side affects and fiddling with someones spine is not exactly guaranteed to be safe and neither is driving to their offices.

Another fun one is perpetual motion. It seems possible. The brain usually stops there. The device looks cool and a smart guy in a lab coat that invented the devices says that it is real. You don't have a lab coat, so you are willing to accept the facts as said. What about the critics?

Critics are everywhere. Recently I wrote about how critics are getting wackier now because they represent an opposing view and that reporters must present opposing views to appear fair and balanced. It is important to remember that in most cases, opposing sides never converge on the truth. Once opinion/belief is formed, it is almost impossible to change.

What about pure belief? Paranormal, religion, UFO, etc. How can you counter a belief that is unprovable? Religion is the best at being unquestionable. Ask someone who is religious about when they became aware that they were true believers. Usually it is because of some horrific or challenging  time in their lives like death of a loved one, drugs, or other challenge. When we feel bad, we look for relief and, like a drowning man, anything that will make us feel better and give us something to do rather than wallow in grief or depression.

Destruction of belief is hard. Cognitive dissonance is a state of mind where we become aware that our belief does not fit the facts. Like an end of the world cult member feels something is up when the world fails to end at the appointed time. The thing is, we hate that feeling and can come up with all manner of excuses and unrelated evidence or suppositions that can prove we are right and blow away feelings that we made a mistake. This is why there are still members of cults even after the end does not come. They have convinced themselves

Disproving a belief is easy. Convincing someone to change a belief is hard. My advice is not to attack a Don Quixote, but to teach them about how messy the mind is and how to think critically.

Finally and more importantly, be entertaining. Have fun! When being  a skeptic is fun, we all win!