Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Skeptic’s Dilemma

I’ve always had trouble being taken seriously. I have never really had the confidence that what I said was right. All through grade school and high school when I was studying subjects that I hated (history, english), I hated to be calle don. But when I was I always tried to squeak out the minimum answer possible.

But as I grew older and could focus my studies to be more in line with my interests, like in science and engineering, I was able to be more sure of what I was saying and doing because I could always look something up and check things.

More recently, as I have become interested in, and involved in “the rise of skepticism”, I have educated myself on many subjects that range from technology, to religion, to medicine, astronomy and other areas.

I was introduced into what I could call a formalized atheism when someone told me to read “the end of Faith”" by Sam Harris. It was not new to my thinking, I was never religious. The part that was new to me was the damage, danger and suppression involved with allowing a government to be anything other than secular. So I read more.

Somewhere on that trip, I my interests in atheism stalled and I became more interested in skepticism, and truly looking at how so much of the information we digest is based on logical fallacies. I read Sagan's, Demon Haunted World and I realized how sad a shape most of the population is with respect to science.

So, now I have researched a lot, and gathered my opinions and I almost always ask for support for what I end up thinking are baseless claims. I point out fallacies when they come up and help the people who I am talking with think about their position.

But I never think I am right, first.

When in discussion, my very first reaction is to distrust myself. I work out the possibilities of what the other person is saying. I often take in the possibility of the other persons point of view, over the probability of my own.

This happened recently at work. At lunch the subject of BPA leeching out of plastics came up. There is no bought that BPA is a bad actor. Its an endocrine disruptor and can mimic estrogens. The point was brought up that they detect it leeching out of the plastics that we drink out of. I pointed out that that is true, and there may very well be manufacturers that are producing bad products, but in general, we can measure concentrations of BPA that are far lower than are relevant to our health and it is not bioaccumulative. To not only would we need to be exposed to it, we need constant exposure for it to be bad.

So one of the people in the room, who had never heard of BPA before, said (not asked), “There is no safe level of BPA”. I said there are. He asked, “Well, what is it?”.

Off hand I didn’t know. Now I see that its 50 ug/kg/day. That is 50 parts per billion for every kilogram you weigh. But in my hesitation, “I said, I’m not sure”

The thing is, this number that is published by the EPA is not some magic number where concentration above this are a death blow and concentrations below this are fine. 100 PPB might be OK for me for days on end, while only 10 PPB may be all you can tolerate before seeing effects.

Further, in my hesitation, he presumed that since he had never heard of BPA before, that it was not studied, and that is why there is no toxicity level. In fact, there are over 5000 medical studies about BPA lasting over decades. Its been studied, and tested, and poked and prodded. We have a pretty good idea of the level seen in our environment, safe exposure level, symptoms, and so forth.

These are complex matters, and how do you delineate this information what someone is looking for the same sort of concreteness as creationists look for when defining when life starts?

So I let it drop. I shouldn’t have, which is why I am writing about it now.

This goes on ad nauseum. People say stupid stuff every day around me. The other day, this woman I met told me that she heard that cell phones can pop popcorn. My boss told me that a town in England had high concentrations of aluminum in their water and lots of the residents came down with Alzheimers symptoms. He then said that when they removed the aluminum by chelating, the symptoms went away. I made a joke that this was great, now they have a homeopathic cure for Alzheimer's! But to understand that comment, you have to understand that homeopathy is not herbal remedies, which of course no one in the room knew. And then they proceeded to tell me about ancient chinese medicine and how they have been using it for 2000 years.

Keep in mind, these are engineers and scientists I work with. Good ones! They just don’t know anything.

Why is it that someone can say, “There is no known toxicity level for BPA”, and people in the room will just go with it?

I think I understand why. They say it with confidence. A person who is doing a cold reading, will tell you stuff about you that you know is wrong or simply can’t know. They have many tricks they use to accommodate when they are dead wrong, like for example “Just remember that for later, you will see what I mean!”. But the big power there, is that they say it with confidence. That way it is said delivers more influence than the data

As a skeptic, I know that almost everything has a caveat. Newton's laws of motion have a caveat that they only apply at speeds that are no where ear the speed of light. Parallel lines do in fact cross if you coordinate system is hyperbolic. The second law of thermodynamics allows for local decreases in entropy. So when I say something about work, or about guaranteeing a time schedule, I tend to put in the caveats I can think of.

The act of caveating your statements looks like a lack of confidence.

The act of pointing out fallacies and irrationality makes you look like a dick.

So that is my dilemma. To me it feels like lying when I do not give out all the information (the caveats) when I am making a conclusive statement. On the other hand, I am pretty sick and tired of having to back up each and every thing I say with data, when all I have to do is say it differently.

Submit to Skeptical Blog Anthology 2009

File Under: