Notes on Rationality and the Loch Ness Monster

Recently, xkcd ran this comic:

The Flake Equation

Steven Novella followed it up with a post on his NeuroLogica Blog, and concludes that:

The take home message for skeptics is that even in a world without ghosts, aliens, and bigfeet we would expect there to be large numbers of anecdotes that sound very impressive, told by people who seem sincere. In a world with these things, we should also expect some objective and verifiable evidence – and that is what is lacking.

The notion of “where there is smoke there is fire” simply does not apply, because human brains and the cultures in which they are embedded are smoke machines. (Link)

Now, I like to consider myself a burgeoning skeptic and overall rational person. I am an atheist and accept that there is nothing about the universe that is supernatural, only operations and systems that we don’t understand yet. There is no Loch Ness monster. I know this. I accept this. But damn it, I really, really wish there was. Same for aliens visiting our world and Bigfoot and ghosts and time travel and any number of cultural fictions that, while powerful, do not have material evidence for their actuality. But most of all, I want to live in a world where the Loch Ness monster exists, even though she doesn’t. (Not sure why she’s a she in my head, but always has been.) I think, probably, because such a world would seem to me somehow richer, more magical, yet tinged with a sense of tragedy–one lonely serpent monster cut off from her kind through eons of time. Whenever I say (and I’ve said this on a number of occasions), “I don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster, but I really wish I did,” I am wishing for a particular story to be true, to be tangible.

The desire for a more magical world seems to me one of the principle reasons why some people cling so hard to stories of monsters and aliens and fairies and conspiracies. Such concepts and stories offer excitement and wonder. Perhaps, for some, they offer a glimpse of the sublime: that overwhelming feeling of joy and wonder and fear and smallness annealed into an emotion that takes you out of yourself and returns you a changed, even if only slightly, person. However, I wonder if using fictional beasts and aliens to create such an emotion is simply being lazy. When looking around at the material world that surrounds us, when really looking, we are always already surrounded by beauty and strangeness and seemingly-alien life forms. Is Loch Ness really more impressive than the giant squid or the Blue Whale? Are aliens really more interesting than the biodiversity contained within a single Redwood tree? Can there be anything more exciting and humbling than a crystalline desert sky at night and truly understanding just how small you are in the universe; than letting yourself know that you are not separate from that vastness but part of the warp and woof of a universe that contains secrets and splendors enough to occupy our species for all of our existence?

I may want to believe in the Loch Ness monster, but that is partly because I don’t seek out, nearly as much as I ought to, those secrets and splendors that do exist. Instead of reading about UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle when I was a kid, how much richer my life would be if I had read about archaeology and oceanography; biology and astronomy? I’m not saying that my interest in certain topics was wrong or that I shouldn’t have read Chariots of the Gods when I was twelve. I merely wonder what kind of path I might have taken if I’d spent more time reading about and learning about the strangeness of our actual world. That said, it becomes important for scientists and skeptics and rationalists to provide equally compelling stories about the world as those told by the flakes and the kooks and those who are merely desperate in their desire for a magic world that excites and astounds without all the tedious mucking about in reality. Thus the importance of people like Jacques Cousteau, Carl Sagan, and Neal deGrasse Tyson. Scientists and story-tellers need to work with and learn from each other so that our science and skepticism can be told about with compelling narrative and our compelling narratives can be told with the richness and wonder of the natural world.

I may never entirely leave behind my wish to live in the same world as the Loch Ness monster. I don’t think that’s a bad thing as long as I understand that it is the story of Loch Ness monster that intrigues me, and that her non-existence does not drain that story of meaning or importance.

Because the Loch Ness monster does not exist.

And I’m ok with that.

Why You Should be Skeptical of Science Headlines

Amy Tuteur has an important post over at Science-Based Medicine that you really should take the time to read. In a nutshell, she points out the problems with accepting the LATEST AND GREATEST SCIENCE DISCOVERY OF ALL TIME headlines that media organizations and (some) journalists love to put out there as a way to get attention.

Very much worth the read. And the next time someone tells you that red wine will make you live forever or that some breakthrough new drug is going to cure all of our metaphysical ills with a small pill, you owe yourself some followup to determine if there is actual science behind the claim or if it’s all just bread and circuses.

Most people are unaware that scientists issue press releases about their work and they are certainly unaware that medical journalists often copy them word for word. Instead of presenting an accurate representation of medical research, medical journalists have become complicit in transmitting inaccurate or deceptive “puff pieces” designed to hype the supposed discovery and hide any deficiencies in the research.


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Big Supplement

Why is it that the people who are concerned about “Big Pharma” seem to to accept that all those aisles and aisles of supplements that are marketed as panaceas for nearly every physical ailment (including age and death), and that cost significant amounts of money are put out there for the good of the consumer instead of to line somebody’s pocket with cold, hard, cash?

a recent GAO report estimated that the supplement industry has grown to a $23.7 billion industry in 2007. Moreover, so lax is the regulation of supplements that it took a very extreme and egregious act, namely the marketing of an industrial chelator as an “antioxidant” supplement for the treatment of autism, before the FDA finally acted. Link

While I’m not prepared to get into any kind of discussion about the utility or efficacy of any one particular supplement, the fact is that supplements are a huge business . . . and wherever there is a market there are people eager to make a buck without caring one iota if they are helping or hurting people. That goes for your big pharmaceutical companies as well as your suppliers of melatonin, st. johns wort, ginkgo biloba, etc.

Skepticism should always be used when examining the claims and the money trail of corporations, whether they are wrapped up in the logos of Big Pharma or Big Supplement. And since the supplement industry gets to operate with little to no regulation, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there needs to be some extra skepticism sauce poured on their claims of ever-lasting youth and vitality.

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