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The Kil Report
The Kil Report: Alternative Medicine,Scientific Method, Evil Skeptic, Scams, Fraud, Hoaxes, Critical Thinking, Enforma
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On BEING A SKEPTIC You don't have to be a rocket scientist

By David Glück
Posted on: 4/5/2002

Everybody needs some amount of skepticism, and it isn't tremendously difficult to learn.

I am a skeptic. I choose not to accept extraordinary claims, simply because they have been made. I want to know on what evidence the claims are based. I want to know who is making the claim. I want to plug the darned thing in and see if it works.

Extraordinary claims are everywhere. You can’t go into a pharmacy, a book store or the local grocery without encountering products that promise to cure everything that ails you and/or improve your life in ways you can only imagine. You can learn your future, shed pounds without dieting and read about people who have been repeatedly probed by aliens.

Skepticism, in the service of science, is a tool for evaluating an observation or a hypothesis. It is in the challenge of a hypothesis that a theory may rise or fall. Often, “the scientific method” is used for evaluating remarkable claims.

How can you tell if a claim is legitimate without consulting with a scientist? Well, the truth is, sometimes you can’t. In those cases there are good (and readily available) sources for a scientific low-down on many of the claims you might encounter. Some claims are simply outside of science. Paranormal claims sometimes have scientific explanations that are, to my way of thinking, more satisfying than the more fantastic explanations favored by friends, family, television news shows or the tabloids. Sometimes it takes a magician to see what our untrained eyes simply miss. Magicians have caught psychics using tricks that scientists have missed.

Consumer Products

Still, it’s pretty easy to spot suspect claims. The other day I was buying some soda at a liquor store. On the counter were bottles of a product called Calorad. There were free brochures next to the product. I took one. I read that Calorad taken at bedtime would reduce fat and help with the development of lean muscle. No need to exercise or diet. Just take the stuff and lose weight. The product was developed by a “Canadian Formulator” to solve a fat chicken problem (something to do with eggs) and was then reformulated (by a Canadian Reformulater?) for human consumption. “How does it work?” Just what I wanted to know. “It works naturally in the body!” Not a heck of a lot of information there. They failed to explain how Calorad works but at least we know that it’s natural. Natural is good…

The brochure has four testimonials from very satisfied customers. Then there are instructions for taking the stuff. Calorad must be taken on an empty stomach before going to sleep. In fact, you shouldn’t eat for at least three hours before bedtime.

So what we have here is:
  • An extraordinary claim: Lose weight without dieting or exercise.
  • A bit of technical or scientific stuff: Canadian Formulator and fat chickens.
  • Testimonials
  • Instructions: The thing is, many people would loose weight by not eating for three hours before going to bed with or without taking Calorad.
This is typical. I don’t need to have this stuff analyzed to recognize that this product is probably worthless. I just have to recognize the style. The hard part is to get past my own credulity. See, I want to believe that this stuff really works. Who wouldn’t? That’s what the manufacturer is counting on. Before I put my critical thinking cap on, I’m as mush-headed as anyone who ever bought a homeopathic remedy to cure a spastic colon.

A simple rule: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

If you want to hone your skills as a skeptic you might try going to a health food store. They are rich in products that make remarkable, and often false or untested claims. While escaping the hazards of mainstream foods and medicines, the proprietors and the people who shop in these stores are sometimes too open to incredible claims of natural healing and health. Natural is good…

The Supernatural

I evaluate these claims by asking for evidence. Not just any evidence though. I won’t consider anecdotal evidence, for example. The stories are often interesting but ultimately not verifiable. If not undeniable, I at least want the evidence to be in this realm. Evidence that can be poked and prodded and held up to the light. Based on that kind of evidence I want scientists to conclude that there is no other likely explanation than the mysterious forces — that have eluded all but the people who make these claims — do exist. I want that finding to stand up to peer review. I want to meet an alien. I want to see a bunch of clear pictures of Nessy. I want to see in the paper tomorrow everything that the psychic predicted would be there today and not just one hit out of twenty. I want to see a dowser actually find water and then do it again. I want someone, anyone, to claim James Randi’s prize of over a million dollars after proving their remarkable claim is legitimate. I really do.

In the meantime, however, I want every person who claims supernatural abilities and accepts money to demonstrate their amazing powers to either prove their claim or return the money. I want psychic quacks to stop killing people. I want creationists to admit they have no evidence to back their claims, that it’s really religion and has no place in the science classroom. I want a nine year old girl to debunk therapeutic touch therapy. I want you to be a skeptic too.

Whether they are offering you a once in a lifetime opportunity to get rich quick, or to help you contact a dead loved one, con artists cannot operate if you are not willing to suspend reason.

Companies like Tradenet that market “The Laundry Solution” say their product will do a better job of cleaning your clothes than detergent can do. And, it will do that better job for only pennies a day. Why should this product be viewed with skepticism? First, look at the claim. In this case it’s a ball that you throw into your washer instead of detergent. “You will never need detergent again,” they say. That is an extraordinary claim. Look for a scientific or technical, and often “expert” explanation that sounds awfully neat, even if you really don’t understand it.
The Laundry Ball contains MOLECULARLY STRUCTURED WATER WITH A NON-TOXIC, NON STAINING BLUE DYE which ionizes the water. These ions unlock the natural cleaning power of water. The globe sends out a negative charge which splits up the bonding forces between water molecules…

Testimonials are often included to round out the assault on whatever common sense you have left. Would these people lie?

Do some research. As a consumer your best protection is to question everything, but since doing that takes time, learn the style of these marketers. It might not hurt to resist impulse buying. Sometimes the silliness of a claim takes a while to sink in.

Eventually skepticism comes naturally. Natural is good.

Futher information can be found in our Skeptic Resources.

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