The Course of Reason

…and I feel fine!

May 23, 2011

Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics Vice President Dave Muscato writes about confrontation and accomodation.

This post originally appeared on the MU SASHA blog. More information about Dave can be found on his website.

I have a few important things I want to write about today, with the overall theme of confrontation vs. accommodation. It is the position of many skeptics/atheists/agnostics, in my experience, that we ought to “live and let live” – that others ought to be allowed to believe demonstrably false ideas, so long as they’re not directly affecting us. I disagree with this wholeheartedly, and my purpose in writing to you today is to explain why.

I read an article yesterday about a woman who slit the throats of her two daughters, and then herself, in a premeditated effort to spare them from the horrors of the Tribulation (the link also includes a video with more info). Fortunately, no one died and the mother is in custody. I’m so sorry and upset to hear that these girls had to go through that, but I’m glad they will be okay.

The point I want to make about this story is that this woman was NOT crazy. We do ourselves a disservice by ending the investigation there. When someone does a horrible thing, and we want to know why, it is tempting to respond by saying “because s/he is evil.” That is not an explanation, any more than answering the question of “Where do species come from?” with “God did it” explains speciation. If we want to stop evil in the future, we can’t just call people who commit these atrocities “evil” or “insane” or “chemically imbalance[d],” as one person, who claims to know the family in the article firsthand, wrote in the comment section of the article linked above (see quotation below), if we really want to understand what happened and stop it from happening again.

jennifer clark at 4:47 PM March 22, 2011 I know this family. Let us not judge others and use the internet as an ADDITIONAL weapon on this family. Sometimes people have break downs, chemical imbalances and make the most horrific of decisions they would not make in their right frame of mind. Please remember that this ENTIRE family’s life has been left in shreds and people bravely commenting behind the computer only hurt the children and the family members that are left to read this garbage. Be responsible with your words.

Look, folks: Although it’s possible that this woman also has a mental disorder – I am certainly not trying to deny the existence of mental disorders – I think we are ignoring the elephant in the room, at our peril, by being politically-correct and not giving credit where credit is due: This woman’s religion, combined with her sense of mercy and her desire to be humane and loving to her children, caused her to make the rational choice to attempt to murder her daughters and then commit suicide. We do ourselves a disservice by writing this off as “mental disorder,” as though that is a sufficient explanation, especially when there is no good reason to believe, based on available evidence from the article, that a mental disorder was even present as a factor. It is fallacious to assume that this woman had a mental disorder simply because of what she did. Not all people with mental disorders are criminals, of course, and not all criminals have mental disorders. From the available evidence, it is provisionally reasonable to conclude that this woman did what she did because she acting RATIONALLY, given her belief of what was about to happen.

Reader, picture yourself as a mother of two girls living in a Nazi death camp. Assume that you know with an exceedingly high degree of confidence that you and your family will never get out of there alive, and that in 2 days’ time, you will be tortured beyond comprehension before being slaughtered. You might be raped, experimented upon, physically and psychologically tortured, and worked to the bone, before being gassed to death (or worse). Assume that you also have a knife, and a few minutes alone with your girls. I propose that probably the most humane thing you can do is spare them these horrors by ending their lives quickly and relatively painlessly. I don’t think anyone would call you evil or crazy if you did this. It seems rational and merciful. In fact, you could even call it caring, or – dare I say it – loving.

That was the feeling that was likely going through the mind of this woman when she slit the throats of her two daughters on Thursday. We should not blame her or punish her for being humane, merciful, caring, and yes, loving. She did the right thing given the circumstances – or should I say, given what she was deceived into believing the circumstances were at the time.

Who is really responsible for this woman’s actions? Assuming she does not also suffer from a legitimate major mood disorder (there is no good reason, given the information we have at this time, to believe that this is the case), I think that it is fair to say that the people who deceived her into believing that the “Tribulation” was real are responsible, too.

Consider the case of Orson Welles’ 1938 Halloween broadcast radio dramatization of “The War of the Worlds,” a realistic fiction story about a Martian army invasion attacking New Jersey. This was really a very elaborate prank. If you’re not familiar with the circumstances of the story, the first 40 minutes or so were broadcast in the form of a [fake] real-time news bulletin – except that nobody mentioned it was fake, and apparently the voice-acting was excellent. As a result, about a million people became hysterical. The New York Daily News reported the next day thousands of people fled their homes, their faces covered with towels to prevent them from inhaling the smoke reportedly used as a weapon by the invaders, and many police, fire, & other public resources were tied up all night trying to maintain order. One college student interviewed at the time, according to Joe Nickell, reported the following:

“One of the first things I did was to try to phone my girl in Poughkeepsie, but the lines were all busy, so that just confirmed my impression that the thing was true. We started driving back to Poughkeepsie. We had heard that Princeton was wiped out and gas and fire were spreading over New Jersey, so I figured there wasn’t anything to do — we figured our friends and families were all dead. I made the forty-five miles in thirty-five minutes and didn’t even realize it. I drove right through Newburgh and never even knew I went through it. I don’t know why we weren’t killed. . . . The gas was supposed to be spreading up north. I didn’t have any idea exactly what I was fleeing from, and that made me all the more afraid. . . . I thought the whole human race was going to be wiped out — that seemed more important than the fact that we were going to die.”

Why can’t we simply live and let live? Why does it matter what other people believe?

Because no man is an island, and if you want to live in a society with the rest of us, what you believe does affect the rest of us, especially if you have kids and poison them with misinformation, or if you vote, and poison society with your prejudices, especially with regard to important rights like the right to control our reproduction, the right for gay people to marry their loves, and the right for our children to be taught only the most up-to-date and most accurate information available about the origin of the universe and humankind in the science classroom, etc.

Why does truth matter?

Because someone can be completely rational and make sound logical decisions to guide their actions, but if their information is bad, they are much more likely to make bad decisions, and those decisions, again, affect the reason of us. We, as a society, as a government, have an obligation to protect our citizenry, our children, ourselves from people making bad decisions that harm us. It doesn’t matter if people “believe” their information is good. That is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is if their information actually IS good. In the case of all sorts of religious claims – that the Bible is inerrant, that the Bible gives us an accurate picture of who Jesus was, what he said, etc – their information is demonstrably bad. If people are intentionally living by what the rest of us recognize (and can demonstrate) as misinformation, this is a cause of concern for everyone.

Take the Food & Drug Administration, the US government agency responsible for ensuring that medicines sold to the public are safe and effective. The FDA has a sometimes frustratingly-complex process for approving drugs. The process is frustrating because many people continue to suffer or even die while waiting for new, potentially better treatments to be approved for public use, and it’s not especially timely. Thousands and thousands of pages of documentation are required for the approval process. According to a cancer-researcher friend of mine, it takes an average of half a billion dollars of research – yes, that’s billion with a “B” – and 5 to 8 years of red tape before the FDA will legally allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise that their medicines can really do what they claim. Under no circumstance may a pharmaceutical company even imply that their drugs are effective for a use that has not been clearly demonstrated under proper laboratory testing conditions. Under absolutely no circumstances may a pharmaceutical company exaggerate the effectiveness of their products beyond what has been clearly established via repeated, controlled, double-blind scientific experiment.

Now, imagine that a pharmaceutical company had a drug that repeated, controlled-condition clinical testing had confirmed did not work. If the pharmaceutical company were to say about this drug, “We know that scientific tests and clinical trials demonstrate that this drug is actually ineffective. But despite that, we believe that it works, and selling this product, including implying and telling people directly that it really does work if you just believe it, too, should not be considered fraud on that basis.”

There would be an uproar. The company would be sued so fast by the US government, its figurative head would spin. It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever what the company “believes” about the efficacy of its products: If the data show otherwise, it’s illegal – for excellent reasons – to defraud the public in this way. The justification for this sort of fraud being illegal is that our government has a duty to protect the public from hucksters. Our justice system recognizes that sick people become desperate and willing to try anything, at the cost of precious resources and time they may not have.

While we recognize in principle that people should be allowed to spend their money however they choose, this is assuming that consumers have what economists call “perfect information” – that is, that the consumers are fully aware of exactly what they’re buying, its safety record, and its demonstrated efficacy. In real life, there is pretty much always what’s called information asymmetry – in reality, one party knows more information about the transaction than the other, and therefore is in a better position to make a logical decision about whether or not to participate in the transaction.

Information asymmetry is a problem in all sorts of applications, for example when taking out a bank loan. Banks making loans attempt to find out as much information about potential borrowers as is reasonably possible, with the idea that the more information they have, the better a decision they will be able to make about whether or not to make the loan. They check your credit score, your employment, your income, etc, to find out if you really do have the ability to repay the loan. If you are buying a house, they require an inspection of the house and an independent appraisal, to make sure it’s a sound investment (considering they are “partnering” with you until the loan is paid off).

But overall, you, the borrower, actually have much more information about your ability to repay. You may present yourself as a safe bet – you may even wear a suit or a nice dress, get a haircut, etc to make yourself appear safer & more trustworthy than you are – but the bank is the one taking the risk, because they only know what they are able to find out, and what you choose to tell them. You might have a gambling addiction that won’t show up in their checks. You might be about to get divorced, which will cost you your savings, and so on and so on. As a result, they have to be more selective in their choice of borrowers, and charge a higher interest rate than they would have to otherwise, if they had more information, in order to make up for that extra risk (in economics, this is called adverse selection). This is why interest rates are so much higher on loans from lenders that don’t do credit checks, for example payday-loan lenders. It’s just a bigger risk to them, because they have even less information on which to base their decision.

Logically, the ideal way to deal with information asymmetry, if we’re talking about something like whether or not to take out a loan with 400% interest, is to educate people on the matter. Similarly, if you want to help people stop wasting their money on medicines that don’t work, you can simply show them formal scientific studies that demonstrate that the medicines are, in fact, ineffective. For most people, if they are thinking rationally, this works extremely well. Economists, when making economic models, assume that consumers are “rational agents” – that they will behave logically. Often, though, in real life, this isn’t the case at all, and instead, people deny the information, shoot the messenger, or become defensive, angry, or even violent when presented with information that conflicts with what they want to believe. Desperate people, for unfortunate but well-understood psychological reasons, tend to throw logic out the window and give their money and devotion to anyone with charisma and a shred of hope, no matter how demonstrably far-fetched and/or ridiculous it may seem to an objective observer.

When people spend money on medicines that don’t work, they are not simply wasting their own money. They are wasting precious time not treating the illness properly. There is opportunity cost here, and people regularly die because they delay effective treatment or altogether fail to treat illnesses with proven methods. Sometimes the alternative methods themselves make the problem much worse. A doctor-friend of mine has the following to say about, as one example, when people decide to take “antioxidant” supplements during cancer treatment:

“Chemo works by causing oxidative damage to the cancer cells, which tend to divide and grow much faster than normal cells, which is why it preferentially attacks them. If you take a lot of antioxidants when you’re getting chemo or radiation (which works by the same mechanism of oxidative damage), you’re undoing the effect of the chemotherapy or radiation. It’s like you’re not taking it, but at a cost of a few hundred to five- to ten-thousand dollars a month. For example, my own treatment [she is a breast-cancer survivor] was about $5,000/month. Many patients fail to inform their doctors about their “supplements” because they erroneously think it’s inconsequential, because they are unaware that the supplements that they’re taking contain antioxidants, or even worse but most often, because they’re embarrassed to tell us because they think we’ll disapprove and tell them to stop. Many patients lie about taking supplements; statistics say that 1/3 to 1/2 of patients take supplements, but I’d guess that only about 70% of patients really tell their doctors everything they’re taking. I’d estimate that 20-30% of chemo patients take antioxidants while they’re on chemo. This is somewhat understandable reasoning: Antioxidants do help prevent cancer, but many people misunderstand this to mean that they will help treat cancer once you already have it. Nothing could be further from the truth. If a patient is taking antioxidants while she’s on chemo, it’s very hard for us to tell right away. Even if we’re treating present, visible disease, like Hodgkin’s or lung cancer, or you have a mass that you can measure, it can take two-to-three months to tell if the chemo is working. If we find out after three months that the patient was taking antioxidants the whole time, not only have we wasted as much as $30,000 (plus the cost of the antioxidants!), but we are now three months futher along in the development of the disease. In the 30 years I’ve been practicing medicine, I would estimate that 30-40 of my patients have died as a direct result of taking antioxidants, against my explicit instructions.”

This sort of thing could be rectified in a couple of different ways: We could spread the word about the harm of taking antioxidants while on chemo, but desperate people tend to shut down their sense of logic, not believe things like that, and take them anyway. We could legislate antioxidant makers to force them to label their products, instructing people not to take them if they are on chemo. Or if we really wanted to ensure that people don’t harm themselves (and society – don’t forget that in almost 100% of cases, people do not pay for their cancer-treatment costs out-of-pocket – it is taxpayers and/or other people in the insurance pool who actually pay for it), we could even make it illegal to sell antioxidants to people who are on chemo, the same way that we outlaw the sale of narcotics to people who are not in severe pain.

With regard to religion, the same idea applies: We know from empirical studies that prayer is 100% ineffective above & beyond the normal expectations of coincidence, and it can even be harmful (if people try to use it in place of proven treatments). We could educate people about the inefficacy of prayer, but people tend to go into cognitive dissonance when they are desperate. We could force pastors/preachers/ministers/priests to include a verbal warning (“Prayer is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease,” like supplements are required to say [since they don't have FDA approval], or even better, we could require them to say “Prayer is for entertainment purposes only,” like psychics have to do). Or, we could make it illegal for pastors/preachers/ministers/priests to state or imply that prayer can do things it demonstrably cannot. You can guess which one I favor!

It’s my opinion that much of what church representatives say constitutes fraud. I would like to see them held responsible for the consequences of their actions. If psychics can be arrested for not providing a disclaimer that their services are for entertainment purposes only, since they are unable to demonstrate that their services actually work, I don’t see why churches should not be held to the same standard.

Should atheists live-and-let-live? I would be happy to follow this policy, but I can’t do that as long as religious thinking pervades society as it does. I don’t care one bit if people want to believe irrational things in the privacy of their own minds, so long as their outward actions are in accordance with what logic, evidence, and reason would lead them to do. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for not allowing gay people to marry. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for barring stem-cell research. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for teaching creation myths in science classes. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for denying women & transgendered men the right to safe and affordable abortions. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for lying to people and telling them that intercessory prayer works when we know through repeated controlled experiments that it does no such thing.

If religious people lived-and-let-live, I would be thrilled to do the same. But in the meantime, we should & must continue to fight for our right to be free from religious bigotry and manipulation in the public sphere. Today is just one example. Real people were hurt because of Harold Camping’s fraudulent publicity stunt. Real people spent or donated their entire life savings, sold their houses, prepared (what they believed to be) their last meals, etc in preparation for today. There was no logical or scientific basis for Harold Camping’s “prediction,” and while his organization took in millions of dollars of “donations,” he caused real people real harm, physical and psychological. He committed fraud, plain & simple, and he should be held financially and criminally accountable.

If you have any comments about my post today, please post them below!

Until next time,






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