A Tough Balancing Act

My interest in bias is indirect: what I really want is the truth, and bias gets in the way.  One subtle effect of bias is its effect on movements (political or otherwise).  Once a movement forms to the degree where it is an identifiable entity, it seems to almost inevitably become an echo chamber.  Even its original inspiration is true, it will be amplified into falsehood.

For example, as is natural in someone interested in bias, for awhile I self-labeled as a skeptic.  I even subscribed to The Skeptical Inquirer – but I did not renew.  The magazine seemed to spend most of its time on the easy cases, like UFOs and psychics, rather than the interesting ones on the fractal boundary between truth and falsehood, where diligent examination is necessary (but not always sufficient) to determine the truth.  If you’ve read anything about bias, this tendency to repeatedly confirm known truths should be a red flag.  A true skeptic should be honing his faculties on the hard cases which expand our knowledge, not the easy ones which play to the crowd.

For example, Michael Shermer recently linked approvingly to this post by David Cowan "debunking" Airborne, a multivitamin product sold to help prevent and fight colds.  The argument is:

  • The product uses sneaky marketing and exaggerated claims to get people to buy it.
  • The FDA has not evaluated the product’s claims.
  • There are no studies of Airborne supporting its effectiveness – there was one small study by a non-objective party whose results the company will not make available.

The heuristic that Cowan uses is to assume that these facts must indicate that the product is snake oil.  Since I happen to have researched many vitamins, I used a more effective one – looking at the ingredients.  Airborne contains a number of vitamins and minerals, including at least two (vitamin C and Zinc), for which there is significant evidence of (modest) cold-fighting ability.  In fact, the box of zinc lozenges in front of me says "Clinically proven to reduce the duration of the common cold", refers to a specific study on the back, and has no FDA disclaimer, which I believe means the FDA accepts that the claim has been demonstrated.  And Airborne contains this same ingredient.

To be fair, at the end of Shermer’s column, in what he describes as "one final lunge at product verisimilitude", he consults someone who looks up the ingredients, and notes that vitamin C is mildly efficacious (his consultant seems to have missed the zinc).  But he seems to be using this as a disproof of the product’s miraculous marketing claims, rather than a demonstration of its modest benefits.

Hence why I am skeptical about any movement – even the Skeptics.  After all, if your disbelief has a hair-trigger, it should probably have wide confidence intervals too.  For a similar case related to life extension skepticism, see Chris Mooney’s Doubt and About column.

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  • TGGP

    I think it was Skeptic magazine that published a story saying that the government was requiring its employees at the Grand Canyon to push creationist nonsense about how old it was, but then it turned out that was a cock and bull story cooked up by a political advocacy group. To their credit, the magazine corrected themselves and gave a mea culpa. It just seemed like such a good story.

  • Excellent post, Patri. A related issue is one of “relevance”. As you point out, people pick on easy targets in their skepticism and anti-bias crusades. And often the easy targets are not as relevant to me or you as the tough questions which are ignored or treated with kid gloves. There is only so much time, and if we spend it debunking the existence UFOs, we can’t spend it debunking myths like the existence of good and evil. There is, IMO, a bias on this forum for tackling irrelevant biases because it’s easy to show some sort of statistical effect. Like you, I’m more interested in truth than bias.

  • michael vassar

    I agree that a Skeptics Society that targeted non-easy targets and was relatively unbiased could provide a huge public service, and that it’s a shame that we have a “debunkers of non-sense society” instead.

  • Doug S.

    Well, there’s an awful lot of nonsense out there that ought to be debunked. What would you propose that debunkers of popular nonsense call themselves?

  • Patri Friedman

    Rafe – thanks for pointing out the reflective question of how my argument applies to this forum.

    Michael – yes, I’d be very interested in a good exploration of some of the topics I’ve had trouble figuring out on my own. Examples include: Are vaccines bad for newborns? Is aspartame bad for you? Is Bussard’s fusion theory total BS or a $200M panacea of cheap energy?

    Doug – The specific name is irrelevant. What matters is that a bunch of people have gotten together under some common name with a magazine and membership fees, thus creating a group identity which discourages risky, interesting work.

  • Dagon

    There are two parts to your post. 1) easy cases are boring, and not worth the energy they get. 2) Skepticism has it’s own orthodoxy, which can hide truth.

    For the first, I’m happy to have people pushing skepticism on people who, generally, I think are over-credible. Most of the proselytizers aren’t invited to my dinner parties, of course. Note that most “movements” aren’t about seeking truth, but about spreading truth. It’s a different purpose, and has validity if you value per-capita knowledge distinctly from your personal knowledge or maximum human knowledge.

    I’d love to hear your model of knowledge that includes a fractal boundary between truth and untruth. Mine is more of a gradient of certainty, varying by individual. More like an electron’s orbital than a Mandelbrot set. However, in both models, the same question applies: How do you allocate your truth-seeking resources?

    Robin started this blog with the apparent theory that identifying systematic error is one very good way to lower the barrier to both finding and spreading truth.

    For the second point, I completely agree. There are a whole lot of people who think they’re questioning authority, but are really just supporting a different authority.

  • Patri Friedman

    Note that most “movements” aren’t about seeking truth, but about spreading truth. It’s a different purpose, and has validity if you value per-capita knowledge distinctly from your personal knowledge or maximum human knowledge.

    I’m all in favor of that purpose, but I don’t see how The Skeptical Inquirer achieves it. It is a publication read by those not in need of convincing – most commonly known as “preaching to the choir”. Articles in mainstream magazines and newspapers about the easy cases would be a different matter.

  • Patri, it can be useful to preach to the choir when the choir goes out and preaches in turn and would like a handy database of arguments.

  • Patri, you nailed it on two of the three examples of relevance I think. (IMO, we’d know by now if there were going to be non-linear effects of aspartame at the levels it’s consumed). More to the point, I advocate info markets for relevance, independent of truth, although I think that prediction/truth trading volume is an okay proxy for relevance in the absence if such alternative mechanisms.

  • People who are attracted to the Skeptics Society and the like seem to be those who are trying hard to resist the pull of religious faith, and thus treat skepticism somewhat in the manner of an alternate belief system. That accounts for the very mild aura of cultishness that surrounds it, and the preaching to the choir — like a religion, they are trying to reinforce their own faith, even if it’s faith in reason.

    That sounds more critical than I mean to be. In fact, if you you have religious tendencies then the effort to channel them into a more fact-based rational group has to be applauded. But the resulting atmosphere might put off those whose skepticism runs deeper.

  • MTRaven,

    Actually CSICOP is very unsatisfyingly to the atheist because it has a policy of not going after your religious superstitions. I was a member during my high school years and into college and it was a useful tool for gaining information to debate meatheads who believed in UFOs, Astrology, Biorythms, and the like. I don’t see how getting a magazine once every couple months counts as a ‘cult’. I did go to one of the meetings and got to hear Richard Dawkins speak and actually met him out in the field by some dinosaur tracks.