History of Science and Technology/Skeptics


QUESTION: Hello again!

I still didn't have time to go through ALL of the material which you have linked to me ( and won't have time for a while)

I am still curious  though of what do you think of skeptics that  challenge pseudo science sam harris/ Michael Shermer and others that challenge unscientific claims due to the issues we raised earlier  ( repeat ability, reliability,etc) Since as you have said science has developed far more than that. Should the skeptics change their standards from scientific to something else? Or should they adopt  a specific definition of science.

I mean you see them going in debates and writing in magazines that this and that does not meet the standards of science, but in light of out conversation what standards are they referring to. Is skepticism not possible anymore? At least science based skepticism

Also do you approve of skeptics crusades against unscientific claims? (this is a more of a personal opinion question I guess)

ANSWER: Hi Hamad!  Nice to see you again :)  Personally?  I think those sceptics are doing useful work, though they do often come off as jerks.   There are such things as scientific methods of gathering evidence, and standards for accepting such evidence as valid, and these are extremely useful tools—I wouldn't say people should ignore them, or not use scientific techniques to make arguments, it's just that these techniques are not as foolproof as a lot of us think, are subject to their own types of cognitive error (e.g. universalism), and don't always give us useful answers.  But on the other hand a lot of people (particularly in America it seems) are ignorant of a lot that we know, or are pretty sure of, about the world, and believe a lot of ridiculous things, so it's useful for someone to at least encourage them to think (just as you're doing)--not necessarily to change their minds but to understand why they believe these things (their parents or their church taught them?  It makes them happy or smug to believe them?) or to possibly consider what evidence (scientific or otherwise) they have for these beliefs, and what evidence might improve their understanding.   For example, a lot of people claim to have had direct experience of God—I personally believe these kinds of experiences have to do with how our brains work, based on evidence I deem valid, but I'd be hard pressed to convince anyone who honestly believes they've talked to God that they really haven't.

On the other hand, I think pretty much all the sceptics I'm familiar with either via media or personally have the same religiously-motivated delusion of universalism that we were talking about the other day; I see this particularly in conversations about medicine, which as I mentioned is particularly resistant to universalism.  It's one thing to say, for example, 'chiropractic has not demonstrated its value in controlled trials' (though in the back of my mind I think 'on the other hand GlaxoSmithKline isn't standing to make a fortune out of demonstrating effectiveness so they haven't got a lot riding on these trials') but it's another to say 'and therefore chiropractic cannot possibly work for YOU.'  Two fabulous chiropractors have enormously improved my quality of life.  I remember hearing an argument once when someone said 'arnica helps heal my bruises' and someone answered 'no that's not possible, arnica hasn't been proven to have that effect'--dude, it's her body, she's not stupid, she did do a little experimenting to find out whether it was arnica or some other effect, and she KNOWS that it works for HER, even if it can't pass the test of universalism.  In addition, with respect to medicine, the placebo effect is no laughing matter; I've heard people say it can account for something like 30% of the effectiveness of a treatment. Saying 'x treatment only works because of the placebo effect' should not be a criticism of the treatment, it should be 'isn't it amazing that this effect can produce genuine improvements!'.

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QUESTION: I agree about what you said, but one thing I do find unfortunate is that over time and history the placebo effect was used by fraudulent *witchdoctors* and faith healers to sell magic as possible treatment. I mean it's different when you cannot prove causation than when you think causation is almost impossible. Do you agree?

I mean I know that when it comes to herbs or nutrient the body react differently. but *chi* or psychic or spirits. Just no.

I do agree, and that's a great way to put it.  And it honestly doesn't hurt to challenge people's assumptions, even about things that are demonstrably true for them--'you say you always do well on a test if you wear this shirt--and maybe you do, because when you wear it you feel more confident and are thus less worried and better able to focus--but do you really think this shirt itself has anything to do with your ability?'

About your second point...well personally I think you're right...but I don't know everything.  And I'm not part of the cultures that use these kinds of practices, so I can't pretend to know things about and for them.  But speaking of fraudulent witchdoctors....one of the things I wrote in my forthcoming paper on this subject is it's sensible to 'follow the money'.  Is that guy talking about 'science' in line to make a lot of money if you believe him?  Not to say that automatically makes him wrong, but it might make him blinder to contrary evidence than he otherwise would be.  This is pretty obvious at the macro-level, where tobacco companies, oil companies and biotech companies have a lot at stake in convincing people of their 'scientific' arguments; it might also sometimes be true at the micro-level, where someone has a lot of personal or emotional investment in an outcome/idea/technique and thus isn't that interested in paying attention to anything that might distract from that.

History of Science and Technology

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Carolyn Dougherty


I can probably answer most general questions about the history of science, technology and engineering from ancient to current; if I don't know a specific answer I can probably refer a questioner to an appropriate source. I have done original research in the history of computing and in British science and engineering in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.


I am a PhD student at the University of York, writing about the carrying trade in the 18th century; my previous work at the university includes the early history of plate railways. I have taught courses in the history of science and engineering at York and other universities, and have presented several papers on various subjects in this field at academic conferences. I am also a practicing civil engineer.

BA--Berkeley, MSc--Berkeley, MA--York, currently working on a PhD at York.

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