When a theologian tries to sound like a scientist

Generally speaking, I make it a rule of thumb to avoid topics of religion on my blog. Most know where I stand on the subject and I’d prefer to avoid the possible conflicts that such posts invite. However, there are times when I feel like I must tackle some of the idiocy that I see from the fundamentalist crowd (especially in light of the N.C. vote on same-sex marriage). Case in point: Our dear friend Mr. Pat Robertson.

I generally don’t give much heed to what this man says. I find him to be illogical, misinformed, and ignorant on every topic to which he flaps his gums. Take for example this little gem of a video. He blathers on about biologists speculating on a topic for which they are not trained: theology. He further contends that biologists weren’t around to witness the origin of life, so they should stay quiet on that subject, too.

Here is some admonition Mr. Robertson: follow your own advice. You are not a biologist nor trained in any scientific field. You’re a theologian trained in a field that can’t agree on the basic tenets of its belief system. So please stay quiet on the subject of biology and science in general. You’re right in saying that biologists weren’t present to see how life started, but neither were you. Biologists study life and, as such, have a much better and plausible explanation than what your “theory of religion” allows. So leave science to us and we’ll leave quackery and fleecing of the American public to you. It is what you do best after all.

And one final issue: please leave the geologists out of your incoherent diatribes. We do not want nor need your approval.

Why I’m a Skeptic

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I’m passionate about a lot of things. Aside from geology, meteorites, and space science, I can easily geek out over beer, coffee, Star Trek, Firefly, duck fat (best thing ever for roasted potatoes), and a certain online video game whose name I will not mention. Another topic that I love to discuss and argue about is skepticism.

I know, to some people the S-word is kind of dirty. It implies a contrarian, or someone who stands in opposition to an issue for which the majority agrees on. Or it can pertain to a cynic whose only role is to exude two parts pessimism to one part puppy dogs, unicorns and all that sparkles in this world. Ok, so the latter is an exaggerated example, but you get the point. Skeptics are a bunch of naysayers with nothing better to do than argue, bitch and moan, and just be difficult.

While we certainly can be all of the above, we are also a group that values rationality, critical thinking and science above all else. This doesn’t mean we are a bunch of austere, emotionless Vulcans. Just come to one of our meetings, bring up Star Trek vs. Star Wars, or even better yet, Kirk vs. Picard and you’ll see just how much emotion we bring to the table.

In fact, we are skeptics because we care passionately for more than just sci-fi universes and starship captains. We are a group of people that demand extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. You wanna claim that rocks and crystals are attuned to energy healing vortexes? Prove it. How about the efficacy of homeopathy? Prove it. The link between vaccinations and autism? Prove it. How about talking to the dead and mind reading? Prove it.

You see the overlying theme in there? If you make a claim that A leads to B, than you’d better have proof that leads to testable and repeatable results.

Some may ask what is the inherent harm in believing such things? Or, why do you care what people believe? The reason we care about these topics is that there are many quacks, charlatans and cranks that peddle and sell their nonsense to a very gullible and unsuspecting public. A long and extensive list of such examples can be found at What’s the Harm. 

Locally, we had a very unfortunate and sad example of the consequences of believing in the supernatural claims of faith healing. The Followers of Christ in Oregon City basically shun the use of medicine and instead rely exclusively on consecrated olive oil and prayer to deal with sickness. As a consequence of their misguided belief, children have either died or been left physically scarred. The only good thing to come out of this situation was Governor Kitzhaber’s signing of a law that did away with religious freedom as a legal shield for those that practice faith healing.

This example can easily be extended to those that choose to not vaccinate their children or rely on unconventional medicines to treat serious diseases. A very recent example of this is the sad death of Steve Jobs. Brian Dunning at Skeptoid writes that Jobs, while having a more treatable form of pancreatic cancer, relied on natural therapies to treat the beginning stages of his illness.  While Jobs did eventually turn to medical science, his time spent on natural therapies did nothing to help his condition.

These two examples perfectly illustrate that those taken in by woo or pseudoscience are as likely to be religious as to not be religious. The issues that we as skeptics hope to address respect no political boundaries and can be found on the left (i.e. anti-vaxxers) or on the right (climate change denial). It’s for this reason that I, and thousand of others in this country, are skeptics. Not to argue and debate, but to prevent people from being duped and harmed by those selling the proverbial snake oil.

To end this rather long rant/post, I’m going to post a TED video from the grandfather of the skeptic movement: James Randi. I highly recommend watching it because he illustrates the importance of critical thinking in a very entertaining, but informative way.

Aluminium, Alzheimer’s and Cranks

I work at a local kitchen store that sells damn near everything under the sun. It’s a fun job with generally amiable customers and I get to play with lots of neat kitchen stuff. However, living in Portland, Oregon also means that I get to deal with a lot of people who like to come in and interrogate me about whether or not there is aluminium in our cake pans or anything made of metal.

You see, according to homeopaths, chakra cleansers, spirit readers and other peddlers of nonsense and b.s., aluminium causes Alzheimer’s. Now, working in retail, my only real option when confronted with these claims is to smile, nod and silently scream. The customer is always right. Occasionally, I’ll play dumb and ask a few questions to provoke some critical thinking, but those occasions are few and far between. The sales floor isn’t the time nor the place for such lengthy discussions. But you know what? That’s the reason I have my blog.

Let’s get one thing clear: Researchers have not found a direct link between aluminium and Alzheimers. This isn’t to say that aluminium may not play a role in the development of the disease, but science has yet show a direct correlation. The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation writes-

One of the most publicized and controversial hypotheses about risk factors for Alzheimer’s concerns aluminum, which became a suspect when researchers found traces of this metal in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Many studies since then have either not been able to confirm this finding or have had questionable results. Aluminum does turn up in higher amounts than normal in some autopsy studies of Alzheimer’s patients, but not in all, and the aluminum found in some studies may have come from substances used in the laboratory to study brain tissue. Moreover, various studies have found that groups of people exposed to high levels of aluminum do not have an increased risk. On the whole, scientists can say only that it is still uncertain whether exposure to aluminum plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease (1).

This brings to mind a well-known phrase- correlation does not imply causation. Just because aluminium is present, doesn’t mean that it is the cause of the disease. In truth, aluminium doesn’t easily build-up in our systems. Almost all of it passes through our bodies without being absorbed; the one percent that does get absorbed is excreted through the urinary system (2).

This isn’t to say that aluminium is harmless. A build-up can occur when your kidneys can’t properly dispose of the metal. In some cases, long term dialysis treatment has been linked to a disease called dialysis dementia (3). This is due to a gradual increase in aluminium in patients with renal failure. The major culprit isn’t the aluminium itself, but the bodies inability to excrete it in a normal manner.

Does this mean you should avoid using aluminium? Of course not. The science has shown absolutely no reason to purge all things aluminium from our daily use. To my knowledge, no direct evidence contributing aluminium to Alzheimer’s has been found. If anything, one should avoid aluminium cookware because it’s cheaply made and doesn’t last long anyways.  But that’s just the salesman in me.

1. Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation: Non-Genetic Risk Factors

2. Alzheimer’s Society

3. Wills, Michael R., Savory, John. Environmental Health Perspectives. 1985. P. 141-142 Water Content of Aluminium, Dialysis Dementia, and Osteomalacia.