It’s the first post of the new year, and so time for the second annual Golden Woo Awards for outstanding work in the promotion of Woo in the previous year. These awards have been compared to the Golden Globes, and to Randi’s Pigasus Awards. Admittedly, I am the only one making this comparison but no matter – the comparison has been made and therefore my statement is true. So with no further ado, I give you The Golden Woos of 2010.
The scientist or academic who said or did the silliest thing related to Woo
For the second year running the award goes to Michael Egnor. His article last January, Materialism of the Gaps, would have been enough by itself to win this award outright. As I explained in my post Egnor's Dualism Of The Gaps, his silly arguments for dualism included:
- Misuse of the “god of the gaps” argument: for some reason he thinks it applies to people who see no reason to propose dualism. (As I wrote, it is a fallacy to insist that your explanation must include some unproven entity that you just made up; it is not a fallacy to exclude made up entities)
- Circular reasoning: the mind must be non-material, because materialism can’t explain the mind because the mind is non-material. Seriously.
- Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
As I said, enough to win the award by itself. But then he wrote Climategate: a Word of Advice to the Scientists – in summary, some scientists (may have) lied about global warming, therefore evolution is false. Just breathtaking in its stupidity.
If Egnor wins this award again next year I’ll have to rename it “The Egnor” in his honor.
The funding organization that supported the most useless Woo study
The award is given to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council for their $400,000 study on emergency room acupuncture. This study is useless because it is not randomized, it has no blinding, there is no sham acupuncture and standard medical procedures will be used in addition to acupuncture. Plus, we also know from numerous studies that have already been done, that acupuncture is nothing more than a placebo.
The media outlet that reported as fact the most outrageous Woo claim (aka the “Larry King” prize)
After some considerable thought, I’ve decided to award The Larry to the entire media for their reporting on Rom Houben, the Belgian man who allegedly was fully conscious during a 23-year long coma. I realize “the entire media” is a bit of a cop out, but honestly I haven’t been able to find any mainstream media outlet (maybe you can find one) that reported on this rationally.
The outrageous woo claim here was not that the man had been conscious throughout the 23 years (opinions differ about how conscious he actually was/is); the woo claim is the “facilitated communication” (FC) – where a “facilitator” moves Houben’s hands across a keyboard and types out messages supposedly from him. See these videos of this on CNN and on MSNBC – clearly the “facilitator” is doing the typing. Her eyes are constantly on the keyboard as she moves his hand from letter to letter; Houben's eyes are staring into the distance. The best reporting I saw on this story was by Campbell Brown of CNN, but even she just left it that there was “skepticism” or “a controversy” around the FC. (And she really has no excuse since we know her staff had contacted Hank Schlinger of the JREF, and had the whole FC nonsense explained to her in detail.) But there is no controversy over whether FC is genuine – it is not. Big epic FAIL from the entire media.
The Woo responsible for the most drivel containing the most logical fallacies (aka “The Chopra”)
Named for Deepak Chopra, for his achievements supporting woo with nothing but logical fallacies, above and beyond what can reasonably be expected of any human being. As I wrote last year, Chopra is excluded from winning this award, otherwise no one else would ever stand a chance. (Although that didn’t stop him from trying.)
The Chopra this year goes to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Dinesh D’Souza for their reliance on pure assertion coupled with arguments by analogy (but zero actual evidence) in the debate on the conflict between science and religion, “La Ciudad de las Ideas 2009 Re-Evolution” Festival debate.
Now, you can click that link and watch the actual debate if you want, but it is two hours long (and loads slowly) so probably most people won’t want to bother. It does have some good arguments put forward by Sam Harris and Chris Hitchens, so take a look if you have the time. But for those who don’t, I’ve highlighted just one of the poor arguments (from many made) from each of these clowns.
First, we have Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (1 hour 4min in) on why morality does too come from religion:
I know that Daniel Dennett is a very moral man, I know Sam Harris is a very moral man, and I know Christopher Hitchens is a very moral man, but their morality COMES FROM RELIGION. It comes from the ten commandments” “do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery”…
Stunning! Boteach’s entire argument to support his contention that morality comes from religion, is to state in a loud voice that morality COMES FROM RELIGION. And it must be so because Boteach says it is. Case closed then. Wow, I never knew that debate could be so simple – just assert what you say is true and it’s true and the other person is wrong. Period. If only I’d known that when I started this blog, I could have saved myself a lot of effort in constructing valid arguments, reading papers, citing studies, etc. I could have just asserted that I was right and be done. Wow – is my face red now.
Even better (and by that, I mean even more lame) is Dinesh D’Souza (28 min in), on why agnosticism is the “dumbest position of all” to take. Get a load of this:
[Agnosticism] is actually the dumbest position of all. And here’s why. Imagine if you are dating a woman and trying to consider the question of, should you ask her to marry you. Now the fact is you could use all the reasonable knowledge at your disposal but if you say “what is life with this woman going to be like for the next 50 years,” you can never know. So you say, “OK, since I cannot know I’ll be an agnostic – I’ll wait for the data to come in.” But the data will never be in. If you keep waiting, she will marry someone else or you’ll both be dead.
To start with, this is just argument by analogy (the weakest form of argument), with absolutely no evidence presented (as Sam Harris pointed out at least twice). But even by argument by analogy standards, it’s weak. In fact, it’s not even a valid analogy because D’Souza is making a category error – comparing two things that are actually not comparable because they are in different categories. The question “does God exist” is a truth claim – either God exists or he doesn’t. The question “should you ask a woman to marry you” is a plan of action – you’re trying to decide what to do in the future, what plan of action to take. D’Souza’s muddled mind is comparing a truth claim to a plan - two things that are not comparable and so obviously can’t be analogs. What D’Souza probably meant was to compare belief in God with whether I believe the woman will say yes if I ask her to marry me. (I could be wrong – but I’m trying my hardest to construct a coherent argument from what D’Souza actually said.) This is so obviously a false analogy, because if I want to know if the woman will marry me, I just have to ask her and presumably she’ll tell me and then I’ll know. But if I want to know if God exists, there is no one I can ask – well, plenty of people I can ask, but no one who actually knows the answer. (OK, D’Souza and Boteach think they know the answer, but they don’t, any more than I do.) So even by D’Souza’s usual standards, this is a really bad argument. And that’s saying something.
For these and the numerous other “arguments” put forward in that debate, Shmuley Boteach and Dinesh D’Souza are worthy recipients of this year’s Chopra.
Irony Award, for being completely oblivious to the hypocrisy of their own actions or words in defense of Woo
To Bill Maher for his piece in the woo journal of choice, The Huffingtom Post, entitled Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having. Some snippets:
…its just that mainstream media rarely interviews doctors and scientists who present an alternative point of view. There is a movement to stop people from asking any questions about vaccines…
He’s complaining that the “alternative point of view” is not considered.
I feel its unnecessary and counterproductive to try and silence people with condescension.
Silencing with condescension is bad.
It may be the case that the vaccine should have been used anyway to finish polio off, but there are some interesting facts on the other side.
Should report “the other side.” More in a similar vein, at the link.
So why is all this hypocritical? Well, read what Bill had to say about the teaching of intelligent design, in his New Rules segment in August 2005:
And finally New Rule: You don't have to teach both sides of a debate, if one side is a load of crap.
…There aren't necessarily two sides to every issue. If there were, the Republicans would have an opposition party.
And an opposition party would point out that even though there's a debate, in schools, and government, about this, there is no debate among scientists.
Hey Bill Maher from 2005, go and tell that to Bill Maher in 2009 because that dude doesn’t have a clue!
Note, the award isn’t given to Maher because he doubts the value of vaccines. It’s given because his argument is that we should consider the anti-vaccine point of view just because “the other side” should be heard. If he gave real arguments against vaccines, his position wouldn't necessarily be hypocritical (it’d still be wrong, but not hypocritical). But he doesn’t. He just argues that both sides should be heard because, well, because they should. Except when they shouldn’t.
Maher shares his award with the Atheist Alliance International for awarding Maher the 2009 Richard Dawkins Award which is for (inter alia) increasing scientific knowledge. Because what could be more ironic than presenting an award for increasing scientific knowledge to an anti-science kook like Maher?
Hitler Zombie Award (aka “The Godwin”) for appropriating Hitler to make the most outrageous Woo claim
The Godwin goes to The American “Tea Party” groups for their response to Obama’s (supposed) tax and health policies. Examples are numerous, but I’ll choose the one below from the Huffington Post’s (yeah I know – they’re not necessarily wrong on everything) 10 Most Offensive Tea Party Signs:
Personally I don’t find it offensive, just stupid.
I’m not, in giving this award, commenting on whether I think they are right or wrong on these issues, and perhaps opposition to higher taxes / health reform isn’t technically woo. But their repeated comparisons of Obama to Hitler in place of any valid arguments to support their case, means in my view that they are woos. They are getting the award for their ridiculous and repeated arguing their case by making comparisons of Obama to Hitler.
The most persistent refusal to face reality
The award goes to homeopath Thomas Sam, the who watched his daughter die of a curable disease while he repeatedly ignored what he was told by real doctors, to treat her only with magic water.
Of course, allowing his daughter to die that was was terrible, but understandable if you really believe in homeopathy, right? We all make mistakes, yes? Well maybe. But Sam’s persistent refusal to face reality can be seen in his words, spoken just after he had been found guilty of his daughter’s manslaughter:
Conventional medicine would have prolonged her life ... with more misery. It's not going to cure her and that's what I strongly believe.
Yeah, because conventional medicine (you know, stuff that works) would have been even worse. Sure. Moron.
The most ridiculous or bigoted act using religion as its justification
The award goes to Pope Ratzinger for arguing against condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS, as reported in Pope claims condoms could make African Aids crisis worse:
The pontiff said condoms were not the answer to the continent's fight against HIV and Aids and could make the problem worse.
The timing of his remarks outraged health agencies trying to halt the spread of HIV and Aids in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 22 million people are infected.
Rebecca Hodes, of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, sums up why Ratzinger deserves this award:
[Ratzinger’s] opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans."
… Or anything else.
Finally, a new category this year:
For the woo responsible for the most egregious violation of Occam’s Razor.
An argument that violates Occam’s Razor is not necessarily wrong, since Occam’s Razor can’t prove something right or wrong. But it is a principle that should not be violated without a very good reason. If you do, it means you have invented some unnecessary entity or assumption that does not add anything to the explanation. That is, your additional assumption does not explain anything any better, nor does it make any additional predictions, compared with the explanation that did not have the additional assumption. Consequently, your additional assumption is not useful in any way (so why make it?).
The inaugural Occam goes to (who else) Deepak Chopra, for his insistence that the brain does not create the mind. Discussed here, also speaking at an Indian Astrology Conference Western science is frozen in the superstition of materialism: Deepak Chopra (the last link via PZ). Chopra’s “everything that we call reality is in consciousness” (etc etc) does not add anything to our understanding of consciousness, and does not make one single additional testable prediction compared with the hypothesis that does not include a non-material mind. We may not (yet) fully understand consciousness, but Chopra’s made up drivel doesn’t help us understand anything.
That’s it for this year. Please link to any other woos you think deserve an honorable mention, in the comments.
January 2013 – Edited to add:
I just noticed that this post had been deleted somehow in 2012. I did have a copy saved that I was able to re-post, but unfortunately all the comments have been lost. My apologies – there is nothing I can do about that. If you want to read the comments, you can still see them via the Wayback Machine – click Golden Woos #2 with comments to see them.