Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Chasing Venus

If the title of today's post seems a little vague that's because I could be referring to a lot of things. To aid in your interpretation, I am not talking about the Greek Goddess, nor am I speaking of all womankind, or even my wife (although she is hot). No, specifically I mean the planet Venus, the second world from our sun and our nearest planetary neighbor.* You might wonder how I can chase a planet located at a considerable remove from my own but the answer is pretty simple: I jog a lot.

No, seriously, that really is the answer. See, I go running more mornings than not and always at the same time. Specifically, my running time is early enough that during a large portion of the year I am out before the sun rises. I actually love that time of day when things are still and the stars are visible overhead. One of the most prominent stars that I see each morning, however, is the planet Venus. As our closest planetary neighbor it is quite bright and is usuaully hanging low in the eastern sky.** The funny thing is, because I get up and run at the same time every morning, year round, I get to watch Venus dance through the heavens. Like a flip-book that I see one page a day, I witness Venus on its yearly cycle. As the weeks pass by I watch Venus drift around until, at the end of one year, it returns to the same place it started. It's an experience I think most people don't get anymore and I treasure it.

The funny thing, though, is that what I find neatest about all this is the way it is so regular. Venus reminds me that as chaotic as our world may seem it is, in fact, characterized by a deep and sublimely beautiful order.*** The same processes and mechanisms play out day after day, year after year, with the sort of precision that would be valued in a fine clock. Really Venus is the perfect analogy for the battle between the regular and the irregular- the same word denotes a planet that obeys consistent physical laws and a goddess known for her capricious behavior. Some of us chase it while others chase her. For my part, I chase it and find it incredibly reassuring to notice that my world really does behave itself. This is, most likely, why I feel such kinship to the skeptics that hang out over at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skepchick. Skeptics can be unbelievable assholes but they also tend to be big believers in regularity and predictability- things I see reflected in the universe at large.

So, given my preferences, I often find myself arguing for the value of skepticism and rational thought. I'm proud of that because, really, I don't think either are given enough credit anymore. Sadly, advocating skepticism isn't exactly an easy job- particularly when it comes to things like homeopathy- for the simple reason that people often wonder, "What's the harm?" After all, if someone wants to integrate herbal remedies into their health regimen, where's the harm? Well, nowhere when you put it like that. The problem is a lot of folks just don't know when to stop- and this reality is the inspiration behind the website What's the harm. What's the point of this site? Well, I'll let it speak for itself:

We are all confronted with new information daily. It comes to us via newspapers, radio, television, websites, conversation, advertising and so on. Sometimes it seems like a deluge.

Not all information is created equal. Some of it is correct. Some of it is incorrect. Some of it is carefully balanced. Some of it is heavily biased. Some of it is just plain crazy.

It is vital in the midst of this deluge that each of us be able to sort through all of this, keeping the useful information and discarding the rest. This requires the skill of critical thinking. Unfortunately, this is a skill that is often neglected in schools.

This site is designed to make a point about the danger of not thinking critically. That point is that you can easily be injured or killed by neglecting this important skill. We have collected the stories of over 20,000 people who have been injured or killed as a result of someone not thinking critically.

We do this not to make light of their plight. Quite the opposite. We want to honor their memory and learn from their stories.

We also wish to call attention to the types of misinformation which have caused this sort of harm.

Read on to encounter these stories about the danger of ignoring critical thinking.

In effect, then, it's a catalog purporting to show off exactly what kind of harm believing in nonsense can cause. Often it's pretty effective, too- the section on homeopathy provides quite a few instances where these "remedies" did, indeed, have an adverse effect on people's lives. On the other hand, some of the sections are a little... dumb- such as the entries for creationism. Nonetheless, it's an interesting attempt to really answer the question "What's the harm?"

Okay, some of you are probably sensing a "but" coming up here. If so, you're correct, I do have a reservation about all this. My concern is that, interesting as this website is, it relies on some of the same faulty logic that allows nonsense like homeopathy to survive. In fact, in some ways it reminds me of the "Headlines" section over at Conservapedia. Sure it lists some of the poor outcomes but it also fails to give us any context to put those outcomes in. So there are 72 serious injuries or fatalities listed in the homeopathy section- how does that compare to the size of the population actually using homeopathic "medicines"? Maybe homeopathic remedies can cause this kind of mayhem but how often do they really do so as opposed to operating as an otherwise harmless placebo?**** I feel like this website, howsoever laudable its goal, has the flavor of a chain letter. Why not just print in big letters: "Betty Wilson of Vancouver didn't use homeopathy and she won the lottery. Steve Killaren of Boston did use homeopathy and he was ripped apart by wild dogs"? I mean, to the best of my knowledge dog attack isn't one of the potential side effects from quack remedies, but you never know, right?

I don't want to be too hard on this site- I agree with its basic purpose- but I think that we have to be careful how we go about these sorts of things. In the service of our own points we should not employ the kinds of arguments that we decry in others.

And as we chase Venus we shouldn't get confused about just what it is that we're after.

* A lot of people assume that Mars is closer since it gets more attention. Not true! The gap between each planet and the next gets larger as you move away from the sun and Mars is more distant from the sun than the Earth while Venus is closer to the sun than we are.

** Because Venus is closer to the sun than the Earth we can only observe it shortly before dawn and shortly after dusk when we face away from the sun but still towards the inner solar system. This is also why people often mistake Venus for airplanes- it's so low and bright they fail to identify it for what it really is. In any case I say it is USUALLY hanging low in the eastern sky because, sometimes, it's much easier to observe after dusk in the western sky.

*** I should probably mention that "order" doesn't necessarily mean "harmony."

**** I don't want to get into the pernicious "Does homeopathy work?" argument because... you know... it doesn't.

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