Comments from a philosophical skeptic

by Peter Ellerton

What a great convention Briskepticon was. I won’t go through all the bits and pieces, but suffice to say that a good time was had by all. We even went through a few emotional responses listening to the guest speakers; some of whom were funny, some intense, but all of whom had us interested and engaged. I’d like to comment on one presentation in particular and examine not so much the talk but the audience response.

David Gillespie speaks of fructose as a ‘poison’. He tells us the reason we’re fat is the introduction of fructose in ever increasing amounts to our food. Hmmm… As David readily admits, he is not a scientist; and as our president (Eran) pointed out, it showed. His presentation was not that of a scientist, even as one would speak to a lay audience. There was too much willingness to associate disparate factors together in a causal relationship, overly hasty generalisations and no shortage of slothful induction (to name a few of the fallacies we spoke of later in the convention – thanks, Theo). There were also assumptions regarding motivations and collusions that had a disturbing flavour of the conspiracy theory about them. Any presentation that says ‘they don’t want you to know this ‘ is effectively going about the process in the wrong way. We need to focus on positive evidence, not speculate on Machiavellian machinations. Now I have not read the book and perhaps these issues are addressed therein, but judging from the reactions of those who have, they are not. I certainly wasn’t convinced that reading the book will reward the time commitment, and so I am left with a lukewarm sense of indifference, which is unusual for me. I think this was substantially because there seemed no overtly dangerous aspect of his theory, but more of this later (yes, I know this type of thinking can spread into more potentially damaging areas, but bear with me).

Part of my uncharacteristically ambivalent response is because I zoned out a bit on the detail of the talk once I realised the nature of the argument. What really captured my attention was the body language of the audience members. While I was shaking my head and thinking how the misconceptions in the presentation could be addressed through educating David himself, it seemed a different theme was developing in the audience.

Initial responses after the presentation were antagonistic, focussing on perceived inaccuracies in both the book and in the presentation. This developed quickly into an argument about following due process in science. The lack of a peer review process was revealed, though of course David is not a scientist and does not publish scientific papers in appropriate formats; hence the issue is a problematic one in terms of answering that particular allegation. More pointedly in this context, the only opinions sought seemed to be from biased people, albeit with supposedly credible scientific backgrounds (his MD father-in-law being one and some far-flung professor of human nutrition in the U.S. who already supports this theory being the other). It is noted that there was also some significant support for David’s views from individuals on the day.

Considering that the purpose of the Australian Skeptics is to investigate “pseudo-science and the paranormal from a responsible scientific viewpoint”, the criticisms of David and his project would certainly seem to be core business, however I have reservations.

As it happens my presentation on the day was all about how we need a scientific approach to knowledge, so as to avoid exactly the type of thing David’s talk demonstrated. One might therefore imagine I have some harrumphing and righteous indignation about his presentation, but in fact I do not and here is why.

I believe we need to increase the public engagement with science and scientific issues, and that we suffer when science is portrayed as outside the scope of normal human business. We are on potentially damaging turf when we suggest that engagement in science should be left only to the scientists. By ‘engagement’ I don’t mean people just being groupies of scientists, but thinking scientifically and exploring issues for themselves in a scientific manner. Of course, it also means a respect for the process of formal science. This is at the core of scientific literacy. Now, I have a masters degree in science from the ANU, teach the stuff in a specialist science academy for high performers, and am about as protective of the subject as it’s possible to be. I brook no nonsense about questioning the efficacy of science as compared to any other human endeavour that attempts to improve our lives. I also want to see it done properly; but science belongs to us all and we all need to develop along that particular rational path. Of course, we are not all at the same place in that journey.

Here are some points in favour of David’s presence at the convention. He presents as a concerned person whose anecdotal evidence instigated a personal enquiry done in what he perceives to be a rational manner. He has offered to have his work looked at by any scientist that we might push his way and for the process to be a public one. He did not present this at some holistic medicine seminar but in the full and harsh glare of a reasoning audience as a speaker at the Skeptics convention (and this by invitation – we after all were his hosts, he didn’t crash the party).

And so IF he is serious about discussing this, IF he wishes to become a better scientific investigator, take the right advice and develop a reasoned and structured methodology, IF he is amenable to changing his view based on better evidence than he himself has been able to gather (it might be that his evidence falls apart at the first cognitive prodding), IF this is not linked to any other issue that could be potentially damaging to human health and well-being, and IF the admission that he is not trained in science is not a disingenuous one (i.e. we are not seeing false modesty covering a hubristic core), then I reckon he might just get a tick for trying. In my view these are big IFs, so the box remains unticked for the moment, and I’m not sure I even have a pencil handy….

Either way, we do not do our cause a service if someone comes to the skeptics with what they perceive to be a scientific idea (even if after the fact) and we chastise them for doing so. We need rather to help them understand how their methodology might be flawed, how they might go about getting better information, and assist them in devoting themselves to the process rather than a specific outcome. We need not polarise our community so quickly into effective devotees of the sceptical method and outright quacks, nor imagine that those dipping a toe into unconventional waters should not do so unchaperoned by scientists. This is not intended to suspend criticism, but to question the end point of that criticism. It is certainly not an endorsement of David’s ‘findings’, but it is an endorsement of this very public attempt to engage scientifically with an issue, albeit with the caveats of the previous paragraph.

The most powerful thing science provides is a common language for us to share our experiences and analyse our thinking. It should permeate all that we do. As skeptics, our role should be to educate as well as to guard against irrationality and to walk a fine line between inclusivity and exposure.