Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Why Stephen Bond’s Case Against Skepticism Is Profoundly Unconvincing

no longer skeptic

In the article Why I am no longer a skeptic, writer and former Stephen Bond tries to explain why he no longer finds the identity of scientific skepticism credible. He states that he does not believe in things like Christian theism or that 9/11 was an inside job and still accepts the general principles of scientific methodology and the power of reason. Could this be an interesting challenge to scientific skepticism? Unfortunately, no.

As we shall see, Mr. Bond makes makes many dubious hasty generalizations about people, such as skeptics, as a group (which is ironic as he himself objects to this practice later on) and even entire scientific fields. He also appears to subscribe to a long list of irrational and pseudoscientific beliefs including anti-psychiatry, anti-evolution, cancer quackery and alternative medicine. Far from being a convincing case against scientific skepticism, it resembles the debating tactic of denialists, together with many of the same rehashed assertions.

The benefits and perils of the skeptical identity

Mr. Bond starts off by describing his stance of the so called “skeptical identity”. Before, he seems to have made a cautions truce with it, but he can no longer uphold it. His argument is basically that he feels that it is no longer required. As we shall see, he cannot be more wrong. Here is how he starts out:

What has changed is that I have come to reject skepticism as an identity. Shared identities like skepticism are problematic at the best of times, for numerous reasons, but I can accept them as a means of giving power and a voice to the disenfranchised. And indeed, this is how skeptics like to portray themselves: an embattled minority standing up for science, the lone redoubt of reason in an irrational world, the vanguard against the old order of ignorance and superstition. As a skeptic, I was happy to accept this narrative and believe I was shoring up the barricades.

It is true that group identities can often be problematic. It can enforce stereotypes and promote an us-versus-them thinking. However, as Mr. Bond points out, it is a useful way of making opponents of pseudoscience feel empowered and increase the potential influence they have over society. So Mr. Bond use to think that skepticism was a spearhead against irrational superstition. What has changed?

However, it’s a narrative that corresponds poorly with reality. In the modern world, science, technology and reason are central and vital, and this is widely recognised, including at the highest level. […] Science has a high media profile and a powerful lobby group: in the midst of a global recession and sweeping government cuts, science funding has generally held up or even increased. Hi-tech corporations have massive wealth and influence, and their products are omnipresent and seen as ever more desirable. In fact, the world today would be unthinkable without the products of science and technology, which have infiltrated into almost every economic, political and social process. We live in a world created by and ever-more dependent on science, technology and reason, in which scientists and engineers are a valued and indispensable elite.

That’s right: the nerds won, decades ago, and they’re now as thoroughly established as any other part of the establishment.

Mr. Bond seems to think that the struggle has already been won, thereby abolishing the need for the skeptical identity and perhaps even the skeptical movement as a whole. Nothing could be further from the truth. The central flaw in Mr. Bond’s argument is the elementary confusion between technology and science: there is a profound difference between technical products and their manufacturing and the intellectually honest search for accurate descriptions of reality. This is why it is possible for societies to be sufficiently technologically advanced to create nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction, but still be trapped in ancient superstition or worshiping their deceased leaders.

Look no further than to the popularity of creationism and alternative medicine. During the past 30 years, over 40% of the U. S. population are creationists. Every year, almost 34 billion dollars are spent on alternative medicine.

Mr. Bond also underestimates the impact of selective skepticism. This is how people can know enough about technology to produce and use smartphones, yet be so clueless as to believe that vaccines cause autism or that acupuncture cures hemorrhoids (as Mr. Bond put it). Even if science sometimes wins, it is far from always.

Technology may have won the hearts and mind of the population, but science has often come up short. There is still a desperate need for organized opposition to pseudoscience.

Complaining about tone

Mr. Bond then suggests that skeptical discussions online often descend into people “laughing at idiots” which takes “a bullying and unhealthy tone”. This does sometimes occur, but it is completely irrelevant for the main question at hand, which was the usefulness of the skeptical identity and the skeptical movement. Complaining about tone is a common tactic by denialists to derail the conversation form how the facts show that they are wrong to being about themselves and how they are martyrs because mean skeptics are questioning their beliefs. While people should strive at contributing to a polite and open environment, some claims are just so intellectual vacuous and some trolls are so immune to reason that ridicule is the best one can strive for. Of course, reasoned arguments should also be provided, but there is no major moral problem with treating trolls like they deserve.

Hasty generalizations and blatant stereotyping

A curious contradiction arises when Mr. Bond scolds skeptics who ridicule denialist trolls, but then make the following argument:

It’s never pleasant to watch a group of university graduates ganging up to sneer at people denied their advantages in life, especially when for some of them it’s a full-time hobby. It’s an unfair fight between unequal resources, and far too few skeptics care about this inequality or want to do anything about it.

Here Mr. Bond makes several hasty generalizations and falls prey to a number of stereotypes. You do not need to have a university degree to be a skeptic and a denialist need not be without formal education. For instance, mothers who reject vaccines for their children generally have a higher education than those who do vaccinate (Samad et al., 2006). This does not mean that vaccine rejectionism is rational (quite the opposite), but it disproves the notion that denialists are uneducated idiots. With that, the entire convoluted argument provided by Mr. Bond collapses.

Mr. Bond also asserts:

If anything, I’m convinced that most of them would prefer to keep the resources unequal. The average skeptic has little time for spreading the word of reason to the educationally or intellectually lacking. His superior reason is what separates him from the chumps around him, and he has no interest in closing the gap. For him, the appeal of the skeptic clique is its exclusivity. It’s a refuge from the stupid masses, and a marker of his own special privileges. It’s Mensa rebranded.

Ironically, this is the same type of stereotyping and generalization that Mr. Bond later scolds some skeptics for doing when it comes to women and Muslims. So why is it alright to do the same with skeptics? Specifically, how does Mr. Bond know that most skeptics would prefer to “keep resources unequal”? That the average skeptics “has little time for spreading the word of reason to the educationally or intellectually lacking” (ignoring the fact that denialists are often educated)? How does Mr. Bond know that the appeal of skepticism is “exclusivity” and not the feeling of “an embattled minority standing up for science, the lone redoubt of reason in an irrational world, the vanguard against the old order of ignorance and superstition” like he claimed for himself?

This line of argument that Mr. Bond puts forward also shows that his problem is not just with the skeptical identity but with skeptics as a group.

Are skeptics “sexist bastards”?

Mr. Bond continues his broad generalizations when he accuses the skeptical community to be rife with sexism. Make no mistake: any level of sexism is intellectually and morally unacceptable. However, that is not what Mr. Bond argues. His argument (1) attacks skeptics as a group and (2) implies that sexism is particularly widespread in the skeptical community compared with any other group. No evidence or argument is presented to support any of these points.

Perhaps the weirdest accusation is the following:

Intelligence in a male skeptic is taken for granted; intelligence in a female skeptic is a turn-on. When a male scientist knows about science, it’s expected and goes unremarked; when a female scientist knows about science, she’s hot! And she’ll be barely visible beneath the throng of nerds trying to fap off over her lab coat.

I do not subscribe to the viewpoint that Mr. Bond is attacking in this quote, but it is important to understand that women have it more difficult than men. It is harder for them to become top scientists and to be featured in the media for their intelligence rather than their bodies. This is because they often face challenges that men often do not, such as sexism. So when a women becomes a top scientist or an interview with female top scientist focuses on her intellect or professional accomplishments, then that tells us that she has fought against injustices and beat them. That, I think, is admirable.

Mr. Bond then goes on to attack Randall Munroe, the producer of the popular webcomic xkcd:

Too often, the skeptic nerd who tries to display his women-friendly credentials ends up revealing himself only as a sexist creep. He’s all in favour of women, as long as they satisfy his own ideals of what a woman should be. This kind of attitude is typified by the skeptic-oriented webcomic xkcd. “I like nerdy girls”, says Randall Munroe — but can he tolerate any others? I looked through hundreds of his stick-figure strips, god help me, and where his females are characterised at all, they inevitably conform to the same constructed ideal — geeky, quirky, all-knowing, whimsical — an ideal largely constructed around Randall himself, or his own self-image. This female ideal says a lot more about his vanity than his feminism; and it’s an ideal shared by many guys in the skeptic community.

The comic he links to is Pix Plz, which about a man who behaves badly towards a woman who visited his IRC channel asking for Java help. A team of another man and woman breaks into his home, chastising the first guy for his highly inappropriate behavior and threatens to use an EMP weapon if he ever tries to get online again.

All in all, it is a clear stance against men being sexist against women. This is apparently not enough for Mr. Bond, who complains that female characters in the web comic are often one-dimensional and made into a specific mold. The obvious counterargument here is that the focus of the web comic is not the stick figures themselves (there is rarely any character development and many comics do not even contain any individuals), but the interesting and thoughtful messages each comic delivers.

As if it was not bizarre enough yet, Mr. Bond makes one of the most absurd analogies I have ever read:

Wrapping women up in your clammy fantasies is not much different from wrapping them up in a burkha [sic].

Having harmless fantasies about women inside your own head that does not hurt any one is “not much different” from forcing women to wear a Burka? That is like saying that love-making is “not much different” from rape, that giving to charity is “not much different” from theft, that being environmentally friendly is “not much different” from dumping toxic chemicals in the ocean. A behavior that harms no one is in on way “not much different” from a harmful behavior.

Are skeptics “islamophobes”?

In fact, in the skeptic community it’s much more common to find statements insinuating that all Muslims are women-hating, freedom-hating, clit-butchering, suicidal terrorists, and furthermore, find those statements accepted without comment. Under the guise of atheism, liberalism and rationality, ugly Islamophobia thrives.

Such statements about Muslims as a group are wrong. Those should never ever be accepted, but ripped to shreds and sternly corrected. However, Mr. Bond makes an empirical claim here: he asserts that it is much more common to find such statements within the skeptical community than in the population overall. He provides no scientific evidence for this claim.

The example of supposed islamophobia Mr. Bond brings up is the comment Dawkins made to Rebecca Watson on the Elevator incident. Mr. Bond calls it “hate speech”. In reality, Dawkins attempted to make a sarcastic comment indicating that he thought that Watson exaggerated the situation and that efforts should rather be focused on preventing severe misogyny that occurs in the world. Now, the way he made that point was unfortunately not a very good one. Let’s see how Mr. Bond interprets the situation:

As is also typical of hatemongers, he [Dawkins – Emil’s comment] builds us a generalised picture from a number of isolated and unrelated instances. Female genital mutilation, for example, is nothing to do with Islam, as Dawkins probably knows, though he’s quite happy to throw it in there and suggest it’s endemic. The effect of his screed is to portray Islam as a kind of institutionalised woman-torture in which all Muslim men are complicit, thus slandering about half a billion people, and furthering the agenda of Fox News and the “war on terror”. (Incidentally, the irony of the first paragraph doesn’t conceal Dawkins’ lack of compassion for the plight of “Muslima”. Looking for an example of skeptical crocodile tears? I can think of none better.)

Dawkins is not primarily interested in generalizing about Muslims. His goal was to put the Elevator incident in global perspective and suggest that focus should lie elsewhere.

Mr. Bond claims that occurrences of female genital mutilation are “isolated and unrelated instances” and “has nothing to do with Islam”. These are empirical claims that can be tested. According to WHO (2013):

About 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM. In Africa, about 101 million girls age 10 years and above are estimated to have undergone FGM.

The practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among migrants from these areas.

Cultural, religious and social causes

The causes of female genital mutilation include a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities.

  • Where FGM is a social convention, the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing is a strong motivation to perpetuate the practice.
  • FGM is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage.
  • FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed (type 3 above), the fear of the pain of opening it, and the fear that this will be found out, is expected to further discourage “illicit” sexual intercourse among women with this type of FGM.
  • FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are “clean” and “beautiful” after removal of body parts that are considered “male” or “unclean”.
  • Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support.
  • Religious leaders take varying positions with regard to FGM: some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion, and others contribute to its elimination.
  • Local structures of power and authority, such as community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can contribute to upholding the practice.
  • In most societies, FGM is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation.
  • In some societies, recent adoption of the practice is linked to copying the traditions of neighbouring groups. Sometimes it has started as part of a wider religious or traditional revival movement.
  • In some societies, FGM is practised by new groups when they move into areas where the local population practice FGM.

Around 140 million women have been the victim of FGM and religious traditions, beliefs and leaders play a role in the occurrence of FGM. There is no scriptural support in the Qur’an for FGM, many religious leaders do not promote FGM and many other cultural factors influence FGM.

Is skepticism a form of neoliberalism?

When you thought it could not get any more absurd, Mr. Bond levels the following accusation:

One thing all skeptics have in common, though, is that they support the freedoms they believe to exist in present-day western civilization, and think those freedoms should be spread worldwide. In other words, all skeptics are neoliberals. They might disagree, like Hitchens and Dawkins, over the correct strategy to win the latest neoliberal crusade, but they can usually be relied upon to support it, at least in principle.

All skeptics are neoliberals: if you do not consider yourself a neoliberal, you should not consider yourself a skeptic.

Mr. Bond seems to be under the impression that neoliberalism is the notion that freedoms that exist in western civilizations should spread world-wide. According to the Wikipedia definition, Neoliberalism means “a political philosophy whose advocates support economic liberalization, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and decreasing the size of the public sector while increasing the role of the private sector in modern society.” Clearly, Mr. Bond does not understand what neoliberalism means.

It is, yet again, contradictory of Mr. Bond to complain that skeptics generalize people and make stereotypes, while doing the exact same thing himself. Mr. Bond believes that all skeptics are neoliberals, yet he provides no scientific evidence that this is the case. However, Mr. Bond tries to defend his claim based on a long-winding and convoluted a priori argument. Let us see how it fares.

Skeptics, in insisting on the primacy of scientific knowledge, deny the value of non-scientific metaphors in future scientific advance. As far as they are concerned, western liberal democracies have made all the political, social, cultural and economic advances they need to. Western thought is already so free that anyone who tries can perceive reality direct and unmediated, with no obscuring metaphors in the way. To the trained western eye, the truth simply reveals itself, in as much detail as our scientific understanding allows. It’s difficult to imagine a more absolute statement of confidence in liberal democracy.

Similarly, when skeptics insist that scientific thinking should be spread worldwide, they necessarily mean that liberal democracy should be spread worldwide. Which is to say, they are neoliberals.

This line of thought can easily be refuted. The position that science is the best way to obtain knowledge about the natural world is not a denial of the influence of non-scientific processes on science. Science does not exist in a vacuum and is influenced by things like culture. Furthermore, it is very important to separate the context of discovery with the context of justification. Just because science is by far the best way to justify claims about the natural world, it does not mean that other factors cannot influence the discovery of scientific facts and the construction of scientific models. This means that the first inference, that from the primacy of scientific knowledge to the denial of non-scientific metaphors, is wrong.

Not only does Mr. Bond confuse neoliberalism with cultural imperialism, he also confuses liberal democracy with neoliberalism. Again, Wikipedia can provide us with a rough definition: “Liberal democracy is a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of liberalism. It is characterized by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all persons”.

This is not the place to describe the many problems and hypocrisies of neoliberalism. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that liberal democracy, which condemns the majority of the world’s population to varying degrees of slavery, is a perfect system.

Mr. Bond asserts that liberal democracy condemns the majority of the world to slavery, yet he provides no evidence for this. Furthermore, what aspects of liberal democracy does he not agree with more concretely? Does he reject free elections? Separation of powers? Equal protection?

At any rate, I think this section was more the ramblings of a political ideologue than an attempt at a reasonable argument.

Mr. Bond spews his anti-psychiatry nonsense

Now we get to the real meat of the excruciating attack on skepticism. Up first, anti-psychiatry:

I can’t help but be suspicious of a field in which research is dominated by a handful of particularly large and unscrupulous corporations. But even if Big Pharma doesn’t bother you, you should consider, for example, the political assumptions inherent in the sciences of pathology and psychopathology. Symptoms can be empirically there, but the decision to categorise a set of symptoms as an illness is frequently a political call. Over the years, medical science has tended to pathologise those sets of symptoms which interfere with an individual’s participation in the profit system (like physical disability), or which confirm existing social prejudices (homosexuality and female hysteria were once considered mental illnesses), or which can be profitably “treated”, regardless of whether the symptoms are actually debilitating (a process known as disease-mongering).

Even if we ignore the conspiracy-mongering and persistent genetic fallacy, Mr. Bond is mistaken in most of what he claims.

A condition that produces a certain cluster of symptoms is considered a mental illness if it fulfills the three Ds: dysfunction (to the patient or surroundings), distress (to the patient or surroundings) and deviance. It is therefore not based on “a political call”, but on whether the individual has substantial functional impairment.

Physical disabilities are not classed as a medical condition because the individual “has trouble participating in the profit system”, but because the individual has a functional impairment and cannot perform as well as he or she would like. This is regardless if the person is employed at a for-profit organization or a not-for-profit one.

The fact that homosexuality and female hysteria is no longer considered mental illnesses speaks to the strength of clinical psychiatry, not its weakness. This is because psychiatry is self-correcting. These diagnoses were not removed because of “a political call”, but because the scientific consensus showed that they were not mental illnesses.

Mr. Bond does not seem to grasp that a scientific consensus is not the same as a political vote. The Facebook page “I fucking hate pseudoscience” phrased this point crystal clear:

Science is not a democracy. A consensus in science does not mean that one side has more votes than the other. A consensus indicates simply that scientists have stopped arguing among themselves. It means ideas have been tested and retested, points have been raised and refuted, and faulty hypotheses have been abandoned. It means research has narrowed to avenues which continue to make sense. It’s not a matter of lobbying the loudest for your opinion, it’s a matter of breaking under the sheer weight of compelling evidence. A scientific consensus is not an agreement that an idea is right, it’s an agreement that an idea has survived the process of science.

In a comment I wrote a few weeks ago shows that there was scientific evidence against the notion that homosexuality was a mental illness: (1) psychoanalysts studies were methodologically flawed as they were not sufficiently blinded and carried out on a non-representative group and (2) scientific research showed that gay and straight people had similar levels of psychological adjustments.

Mr. Bond falls prey to liberal creationism

Next up is an attack on evolutionary psychology and sociobiology:

These fields are largely bogus, and almost everyone associated with them, however tangentially, is a purveyor of poisonous bullshit. The modus operandi of evolutionary psychology is to take some observation about human behaviour (which is typically a statistical artifact of dubious significance), shear it of all cultural, historical, social and political context (other than the scientist’s own), and explain it as a necessary consequence of our genetic coding or hunter-gatherer past — typically in a way that endorses the scientist’s political and cultural assumptions.

While there are extreme cases where evolutionary psychologists have done this, it is by no means representative of the field as a whole. The confusion lies in not clearly distinguishing between evolutionary psychology (the research field) and evolutionary psychology (the specific research program). The specific research program may contain claims of dubious validity, but the research field contains many more research programs such as human behavioral ecology. Generally speaking, human behavioral ecology is immune to most criticisms that Mr. Bond and other liberal creationists put forward. It does not overly focus on the Pleistocene, it does not ignore social aspects, it considered alternative hypotheses etc.

One thing is indisputable: if you accept that the human brain is a product of evolution, then you must accept that there are some broad and general genetic influences (although the specifics of the organization are mostly due to environment e. g. pruning of nerve cells etc.). There is no biological evolution without inheritance. Once you accept this starting point, evolutionary psychology is a legitimate area of research, and the brain and behavior are just another set of phenotypes, whose contributing factors from evolution are ready to be explored.

One such fascinating area is the relevance of immune system diversity for mate choice. It is evolutionary beneficial to mate with an individual that has a different set of MHC genes because the offspring will be better equipped against handling pathogens. Degradation product of MHC molecules are volatile and spread by air. Scientists have shown that mice and some human populations tend to prefer partners with different set of MHC alleles compared with their own (Jordan et al. 1998; Chaix et al. 2008). So subtle differences in genetics influences human mate choice. Naturally, it does not completely determine it, but it is an important influence.

What “political and cultural assumptions” underlie this research? In what way is this research “bogus”? Mr. Bond provides no evidence for his claims about evolutionary psychology.

What’s the harm?

As if this was not enough, Mr. Bond now starts defending pseudoscientific cranks who exploit people for money by using the “What’s the harm?” gambit. I kid you not. He even does it repeatedly, from psychics to alternative medicine.

In their fevered debunkings of astrologers, hypnotists, mystics, spirit mediums and the like, skeptics usually miss the fact that these are simply sources of entertainment for a lot of people, and taken no more seriously than the plot of any random Hollywood blockbuster.

It might certainly be true that many people take it as entertainment, but it helps to legitimize a corrupt system. If you pay money to a swindler because you think the show is entertaining, then you are funding the swindling of innocent people.

And if you truly believe in any of these frauds, so what? They’re mostly just a harmless diversion, a faint ray of amusement to guide us through the long and darkening days. Uri Geller fans, if indeed such people exist, are not hurting anyone. Evil hypnotists are not programming people’s minds. And astrologers, except in the paranoid fantasies of skeptics, have virtually no influence in the modern world, for good or ill.

First of all, around 25% of the populations of the U.S., the U.K. and Canada believe in astrology (Gallup, 2005a; 2005b). People and governments have been scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by astrologers. So it is very presumptuous of Mr. Bond to make such claims.

There’s a lot of phony outrage on skeptic sites about spirit mediums like John Edward, who purport to channel voices “from the other side”, and in so doing exploit the grief of the kind of people skeptics laugh at anyway. Edward is obviously slime, but I’m convinced that many of his customers are quite aware of that. They know he’s feeding them lies, but they’re comforting lies, lies they feel the need to hear at that moment in time. And the cash transaction and the audience setting and the hocus pocus and even Edward’s clumsy name-flailing all help legitimise them. Edward’s customers are looking for the kind of catharsis he provides; to claim he simply cheats them out of their money isn’t the whole truth.

Let us check What’s The Harm again, this time on psychics. Here are just a few of the examples: (1) needless suffering of parents with psychic Sylvia Brown claimed their son was dead when he was not, (2) seeking psychics instead of science-based medicine lead to the death of 13 month old in late 2002 from untreated epilepsy, (3) Jackie Haughn was scammed out of her life-savings (over 200k USD) by a psychic, (4) Leroy Hoffert, a cancer patient, was conned out of 300k and his life by a psychic promising to cure his cancer.

The list goes on and on and on. Don’t come here and tell me there is no harm with psychics and other forms of pseudoscience, because there is.

And even at their worst, the hucksters of mumbo-jumbo are only minor-league con artists. Their crimes pale next to those of our financial institutions, and all the others who convince the public to throw their life savings at the stock market, take out mortgages they can’t afford, buy junk they don’t need with money they don’t have, and pay for the fuck-ups of bankers and the greed of speculators. But which skeptic is going to debunk these swindlers?

Ironically, Mr. Bond uses the same “look-over-there” tactic that he complains that Dawkins used. The fact that a larger scam occurs somewhere else does not mean that we should ignore a scam that is happening right here.

It’s true that alternative medicine is not going to cure anyone of serious illness, but it’s also generally true that the terminally ill only turn to it when real medicine has given up hope on them. And the value of hope in one’s final days is not to be dismissed so easily.

Mr. Bond provides no evidence at all for his claim that people only turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) when real medicine has given up hope. In fact, this is wrong. According to Nahin et al. (2007) published in National Health Statistics Report, about 10% of the U.S. adult population spent over 30 billion dollars on CAM. This is hardly just terminal patients that real medicine has given up on.

Yet again, Mr. Bond has a slippery grasp of the facts.

The relaxed swagger of a charlatan can be far more comforting than the stress of an overworked hospital registrar, and the charlatan typically receives his patients in more comforting surroundings than a hospital. If I’m going to die anyway, I’ll take aromatherapy over chemotherapy every time.

We are all going to die. A key difference is how long we are going to live. Even if you have terminal cancer, chemotherapy could give you many months extra to live. These months might not seem like a lot, but being allowed to spend an additional couple of months with your family is often something one can appreciate.

The placebo value of alternative medicine should also not be so easily dismissed, and neither should its emphasis on “wellness” instead of illness. If a homeopath cures your imaginary itch by giving you diluted water, is it really much worse than a GP curing your imaginary itch by prescribing you paracetamol or antibiotics?

First of all, people with imaginary itches should not be treated. This should be avoided by competent doctors. Second of all, what if it is about a serious medical condition and not an imaginary itch?

Second, the placebo value of CAM should indeed be dismissed. In fact, placebo is often clinically powerless. In a meta-analysis carried out by Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche (2001), researchers compared placebo with no treatment for over 100 studies. They concluded that “In conclusion, we found little evidence that placebos in general have powerful clinical effects. Placebos had no significant pooled effect on subjective or objective binary or continuous objective outcomes. We found significant effects of placebo on continuous subjective outcomes and for the treatment of pain but also bias related to larger effects in small trials. The use of placebo outside the aegis of a controlled, properly designed clinical trial cannot be recommended.”

Wild ravings about “positivism”

“Positivism” is not a word you see often in skeptic circles, which is odd, because it’s basically the old name for skepticism. The positivist movement in philosophy, which began in the mid-19th century, involved a loose collection of thinkers who to some extent or other believed in the primacy of reason and the scientific method, and set about trying to establish the basis of human knowledge on those terms.

Here Mr. Bond makes the exact same error as he did before when he equated skepticism with neoliberalism. Positivism is not the same as scientific skepticism. Positivism was the belief that only statements that could be verified were meaningful. Scientific skepticism, on the other hand, is about asking for evidence when someone presents a dubious claim. It does not fall prey to naive verificationism.


Stephen Bond’s case against skepticism is seriously flawed. He makes the same hasty generalizations that he scolds skeptics for making. He mixes up several distinct concepts such as skepticism, neoliberalism and positivism.

Mr. Bond also does not understand scientific consensus and makes several pseudoscientific claims typical of proponents of pseudoscience, such as anti-psychiatry, liberal creationism, alternative medicine and cancer quackery. He even makes use of specific gambits, such as the erroneous “What’s the Harm?”


Chaix, Raphaëlle, Cao, Chen, & Donnelly, Peter. (2008). Is Mate Choice in Humans MHC-Dependent? PLoS Genet, 4(9), e1000184.

Gallup (2005a). Paranormal Beliefs Come (Super)Naturally to Some. Gallup. Accessed: 2013-04-21.

Gallup (2005b). Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal. Gallup. Accessed: 2013-04-21.

Hróbjartsson, Asbjørn, & Gøtzsche, Peter C. (2001). Is the Placebo Powerless? New England Journal of Medicine, 344(21), 1594-1602.

Jordan, W. C., & Bruford, M. W. (1998). New perspectives on mate choice and the MHC. Heredity, 81(3), 239-245.

Nahin, RL, Barnes PM, Stussman BJ, and Bloom B. (2009) Costs of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) and Frequency of Visits to CAM Practitioners: United States, 2007. National health statistics reports 18.

Samad, Lamiya, Tate, A Rosemary, Dezateux, Carol, Peckham, Catherine, Butler, Neville, & Bedford, Helen. (2006). Differences in risk factors for partial and no immunisation in the first year of life: prospective cohort study. BMJ, 332(7553), 1312-1313.

WHO. (2013). Female genital mutilation. Accessed: 2013-04-21.

2 responses to “Why Stephen Bond’s Case Against Skepticism Is Profoundly Unconvincing

  1. Olga April 24, 2013 at 08:28

    The longer I think of pseudoscience and people around it, the more I become convinced that it’s not just about but about people and their feelings. If simple ideas reduces anxiety (uncertanity is lower and the herson thinks he/she can control “the main thing” – not to eat meat, not to vaccinate, not to listen to tha doctors and scientist), if these simple ideas give social support – there are a lot of people who say “you are right, they are evil, you are not alone, you are better”, if a person used to this kind of social support, then it’s very difficult, I suppose, to turn to sceptics and loose all these advantages.

  2. Pingback: Abusing Heritability: “Libertarian Realist” Edition (Part II) | Debunking Denialism

%d bloggers like this: