Skeptics In The Pub

Skeptics In the Pub
Wednesday Aug. 25

Any time between 7:30 to 11:30

Hose Brew Pub
612 11th St E
Saskatoon, SK S7N0G3
(306) 477-3473


The Saskatchewan government plans to fund research into an uncertain MS treatment.

The Saskatchewan government plans to fund research into an uncertain MS treatment.

Should the government be diverting funds into such research?

What you missed at Camp Hoodoo.

What you missed at the Chris diCarlo, We Are All African lecture.


2 Responses to “Skeptics In The Pub”

  1. Koinosuke Says:

    Ooo good topic. I’ll be reading up on this.

  2. Although we didn’t really seem to have an end result, it seemed to me the consensus seemed to favour conducting the studies and that the studies would likely provide us with useful information, success or failure, but we couldn’t really say precisely how and didn’t put a calculation on the table for deciding whether it would be cost-worthy. Our guests did a truly exceptional job presenting the subject matter to us. Generally, there seemed to be some concern about Wall’s motivations in offering to fund the studies, but we have to evaluate the studies themselves; not how they fit into some politician’s schemes.

    The enlightening part for me was just how difficult MS is to get a grip on. I entered into the discussion, honestly, thinking the studies were non-controversial because none of the benchmarks for dismissal that I look for seemed present – at least not in the study. What I didn’t know is that MS is so difficult – next to practically impossible – to identify. I came away with the impression that there are some verifiable (beyond anecdote) features of MS, but that they were effectively impractical to test for.

    This means that it would be exceptionally difficult to assess the effectiveness of Zamboni’s procedure, success or failure. This I found to be a real kick in the head, because it comes close to touching on the first and primary benchmark I use for exclusion: *in principle* unverifiability.

    Allow me to explain that philosophical idea. When we say that some claim is *in principle* unverifiable, what we are saying is that some element(s) of the claim are stipulated such that they admit of no possible verification or refutation (hence the “in principle” part). In the case of scientology, the *in principle* unverifiable element (in the psychological theory of dianetics) is the engram – the moment of pain that prevents the brain from operating at peak efficiency. Now the scientologist claim to have devices that read engrams – the e-meter – but we cannot verify it does so because the engram itself is defined such that there is no objective verification or refutation possible. In chiropractice, unverifiable subluxations blocking a mystical force represent *in principle* unverifiability. The subluxations do not show up under any physical test and we have no means to measure the force that is presumably blocked by the sunbluxations. God, as well, is an *in principle* unverifiable idea precisely because it is defined such that it does not admit of verification and/or refutation.

    Now *in principle” unveriafiability is much stronger than mere unverifiability. Russel’s teapot is practically unverifiable, but it is conceivable that it could be verified, if we had a fine enough telescope – hence it is not *in principle* unverifiable. How we would go about verifying Russel’s teapot is perfectly conceivable – it’s just a matter of refining and advancing the tech.

    I hunt for such elements (god concepts) in theories as my first exclusion benchmark and it was the first thing I looked for in evaluating Zamboni’s idea. On first blush I didn’t see any such, although granted, my lack of medical expertise quickly brought me to an abrupt stop. As far as I could see, there is no reason to dismiss studies of Zamboni’s idea on grounds of *in principle* unverifiability.

    Then I was informed how difficult MS is to diagnose and evaluate and how almost all the data with regards to it is anecdotal. We are all aware of the many difficulties with anecdote. This represents a real problem because verification/refutation becomes exceptionally tenuous at best – effectively impossible at worst.

    It seems to me that we are lacking a coherent predictive theory about MS because the facts are so variable and are “evidenced” almost exclusively by means of anecdote. Without a coherent predictive theory, almost any study is a shot in the dark. At the same time, however, without those shots in the dark to gather facts, we may never develop a coherent predictive theory.

    I tried to broaden the discussion to talking about the issue from a skeptical perspective, especially with regards to *in principle* unverifiability – and I must say it is clear from Victoria’s coherent response that she has grappled with this: she knew exactly what I was talking about, as evidenced by her reference, not to anecdote, but to means of evaluation independent of anecdote. I brought this up in the context of a topic I bring up frequently at skeptic meet-ups – what we skeptics offer to help people evaluate claims on a personal level.

    The practical role of the skeptic is really that of the consumer advocate for ideas. Scientific skeptics point to, quite rightly, the most powerful, practical and reliable tool for evaluation we have ever developed – science. Unfortunately, most of us do not have access to laboratories and we are buffeted with ideas left, right and center which are, as yet, untested. This is relevant to the discussion of the night because trying to decide whether studies of Zamboni’s ideas are likely to provide information was precisely what we were trying to assess.

    Now when it comes to being a consumer advocate, it is helpful if the advocate can provide tests and means of evaluating the results that your non-specialist can use as benchmarks to determine if that car is a lemon or not (this because we don’t, on average, have access to specialized knowledge and laboratories). We simply don’t have the resources to study every new idea conceived by everyone everywhere, so we need something to go on in the face of lack of proper laboratory study. So, to say, “well look at the science” seems like an answer (and in a very important sense, ultimately it is), but it also isn’t on a practical level, precisely because there is no science yet for many ideas to look at. We are maggoty with ideas, but have a paucity of resources. We have to pick and choose what we are going to conduct studies for based on what we think is likely to provide results. We need a “tire-kicking” for ideas. That is a topic I will raise so long as I attend skeptic meet-ups; we must present skepticism as the practical exercise it is, not merely as nay-saying. That’s one of the most important tasks for skeptics now.

    And if skepticism is not a practical exercise, we need to determine that too. 😉

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