The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 5, Issue 8 October, 1999

 
 
 

October Meeting

Economics: The ``Dismal'' Science and the Problems

of Social Science Research.

The social sciences have unique data problems not found in the physical sciences. For example, data is difficult to collect either because of expense or ethics, people have a tendency to alter their behavior in response to an experiment and the number of possible variables that might affect an experimental outcome is astronomical compared to chemistry, physics and biology.

This has not stopped many scientists trained in the physical sciences from trying their hand at social science, or, more commonly, social science criticism. The results, predictably, are at best mixed. Dr. Tim Koechlin of Skidmore will discuss why science in economics is not like science in physics or biology, and how it deals with its own unique problems.

This month's meeting is being held October 6 from 7:00 pm until 10:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. Meetings are free and open to the public. We schedule our meetings at the Guilderland Public Library on the first Wednesday of each month. Check our web site for information about future and past presentations.

ISUNY Mailing List

If you have an email address, you can receive announcements of ISUNY meetings, and other events by subscribing to the ISUNY Announce List. Postings average one a month, prior to meetings when The Why-Files appears online. However, other events of interest to skeptics may be announced via the list. To subscribe, send email with SUBSCRIBE ISUNY-ANNOUNCE in the body of the message to isuny-announce-request@rigel.sss.rpi.edu.

September Meeting

Our first meeting after our summer break was well-attended with many new attendees attracted by the topic and our guest speaker. Dr. David Hess, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute cultural anthropologist, was speaking about Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) and Cancer. Dr. Hess clarified his terms saying that he thought there was ``no alternative medicine, only medical alternatives.'' He preferred the term ``complementary'' meaning ``alongside,'' instead of ``alternative'' meaning ``instead of.'' He compared various treatments as coming from either a Western or a non-Western tradition and being either biomedical or non-biomedical. For example, Gershon dietary treatment using coffee enemas and fruit juice would be considered Western and biomedical; chiropractic would be Western and non-biomedical; alternative therapies such as acupuncture would be non-Western and non-biomedical. Additional comparisons were between the types of side effects and whether the treatment is reversible or non-reversible. Surgery is an example of a treatment which is non-toxic, but essentially non-reversible; chemotherapy is toxic, but non-reversible; immunotherapies have toxic effects but are reversible; nutritional and psycho-spiritual programs have low side effects and are reversible.

Dr. Hess gave the following list of reasons for the growth of CAM systems:

  1. Epidemiological transition---In the first half of this century and earlier, the greatest health problem was infectious diseases. With scientific advances such as antibiotics, there is less concern in this area. In America, chronic diseases are now a more frequent concern.

  2. Routinization of biomedical care---Standard treatments have been developed for most common problems. This may leave patients feeling they're not getting individual attention and therefore look elsewhere for that personal attention.

  3. Insurance coverage---As patients have put pressure on insurance companies and the legislature, CAM is increasingly being covered, leading to even more popularity.

  4. Natural food and supplements.

  5. Decentralized mass communication---The Internet has a vast number of sites promoting various treatments with anecdotal reports being the most likely support.

  6. Risk society---Americans are risk-takers and seem to willing to try things without scientific proof.

  7. Cultural identity---The Chinese are likely to follow their traditional medicine such as acupuncture. Hispanic-Americans have their own traditional folk medicines that they turn to.

Dr. Hess also discussed means by which to evaluate cancer therapies. The level of evaluation should be based on:

  1. The patient's needs at all levels: financial, social, spiritual and, of course, biomedical.

  2. Referral and patient support organizations.

  3. Clinician and clinical organizations (including the quality of service delivery).

  4. Evaluation of method and criteria.

  5. Therapies.

  6. Evolution of policies that guides cancer research.

He also discussed research designs and how effective they might be on CAM treatments. His basic premise seemed to be that he was not opposed to conventional medicine but believed that it should be open to CAM and CAM should be integrated into conventional medicine.

-Dorothy Sager

Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at carlsager@worldnet.att.net.

Newsletter Articles

If you attend local meetings, view programs of interest to ISUNY members, or have a skeptical topic you wish to discuss, consider writing an article for The Why-Files. Membership articles contribute greatly to the quality of The Why-Files. Articles and letters can be emailed to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or by U.S. mail to Michael Sofka, 8 Providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Disks and hardcopy will be returned at the next ISUNY meeting. The deadline for articles in the November, 1999 issue is October 15th, 1999.

Membership Renewals

The expiration date for your ISUNY membership is printed on your mailing label. Dues can be mailed to the treasurer at the address on the back page of this newsletter, or paid at our monthly meeting (make checks out to ISUNY). Your dues cover newsletter and speaker expenses. If the date on the mailing label is circled, it means our records show your membership has expired, and you may be dropped from the mailing list. If your renewal date is incorrect, please bring the error to our attention. Despite our best efforts to keep the mailing list up-to-date, we do make mistakes.

ISUNY ``Chat N' Chew''

The next Chat N' Chew will be held on Tuesday, October 19th at the Ocean Palace Restaurant, 855 Central Ave, Albany, across from the Hannaford Plaza. Chat n' Chews are purely social events, with no formal program. If you used to enjoy the after meeting get together, this is an attempt to hold the same type of informal gathering, but at an earlier hour and a different location. If you would like to attend, please contact Peter Huston at 393-3478 or e-mail phuston@capital.net, or sign the Chat N' Chew sign-up sheet at any regular ISUNY meeting. (The chat-n-chews are informal so, paradoxically, signing up or other notification is necessary in case, for some reason, a Chat N' Chew is cancelled or moved.)

ISUNY at Albacon

This year, for the second year in a row, ISUNY contributed to the quality of life in the Capital District by running the Hospitality Suite, or ``Con-Suite,'' Albacon, the Capital District's leading science fiction. convention.

This was the fourth year in a row for Albacon, an event that is designed to attract people who enjoy reading science fiction books. What was Albacon exactly? Although attendance was reduced due to Hurricane Floyd (roughly 60 pre-registered, pre-paid people did not arrive), the weekend long event drew more than 200 people, the bulk of whom were well read, open minded, and scientifically literate. Although people came from as far away as Ottawa and Baltimore, probably half to a third of those attending were Capital District residents.

The event was held at the Ramada Inn in Schenectady from September 17 to 19. Convention attendees had a variety of events and activities to choose from. These included a wide selection of well chosen movies, gaming, panels on various topics, a masquerade party, an ice cream social, and more. Panels were on a number of interesting topics. This year, I participated in one on conspiracy theories, in which I plugged our group several times. One of the best parts of the convention was the chance to just hang out with a large number of literate and interesting people, most of whom had a scientific and rational orientation.

To facilitate this interaction the convention had a ``Con-Suite'' room where guests might sit down and hang out, drink soda, and have a snack. ISUNY assumed the responsibility for managing the Con-Suite. Among those who participated in staffing the suite were John Tyo, Herb Jones, and Lewis Treadway. I also participated, as did my niece Kelsey. For those who'd like details the food in the Con-suite was provided by LASTFA (the Latham, Albany, Schenectady, Troy Science Fiction Association)---the organization that runs Albacon. Due to a special arrangement with the Ramada Inn, Albacon has traditionally provided guests with a mixture of catered food as well as chips and snacks, including vegetables. For liability reasons, no alcohol was served in the con-suite while open to the public. Therefore hosting the con-suite did not cost ISUNY any money, but it did provide us with good will and visibility.

ISUNY members wore special buttons that were designed as a group effort by Lewis Treadway, John Tyo, and Peter Huston. We also passed out fliers describing our group; 100 were printed up and 88 given away. Copies of the superb publication The Why Files were available for the taking as well, and we answered many questions about our group. It was hoped that the event will increase interest and awareness of ISUNY among the general public in the Capital District. As another unexpected benefit, through attending Albacon planning meetings, where it is not uncommon to have people giving away large numbers of books, we received more than 20 more volumes of various sorts for our group's library. But perhaps more importantly, all who participated from our group had a good time. Last year, three of us helped run the Albacon con-suite. All three returned to do so again. This year, we had four members participating, and next year four will return. For this reason, ISUNY plans to return to Albacon 2000!

We are also talking with the Albacon management about increasing our participation on panels. The last two or three years, there has been a very successful conspiracy theory panel, but I have made a suggestion that next year, the conference include one on UFOs. Generally speaking, as the conspiracy panel showed, these things can be a lot of fun.

For more details, see http://www.albacon.org/ or contact Peter Huston (phuston@capital.net or 393-3478). Those who are interested in assisting with the planning for the event may also sign up for the Albacon email list or attend planning meetings. Once again, contact Peter Huston for more details. Although an exact date and place still needs to be worked out, it is expected that the event will be held locally in September or October. Jan Finder, a former ISUNY speaker, has been named ``Fan Guest of Honor'' for Albacon 2000.

-Peter Huston

Peter Huston is the author of two books, most recently Scams from the Great Beyond by Paladin Press, Boulder, CO. Peter's current writing projects includes a sequel to Scams.

Science As A Culture of Explanation

Review of Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, Bauer, H.H., University of Illinois Press, 1992/94, 180pp.

Hardly a year goes by without a popular press article about the sad shape of American science education. Most recently the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) placed American high-school seniors near last. The implications are ominous---the U.S. could lose its technological edge, jobs requiring knowledge of mathematics will go unfilled, and our nation will not have the reserve of ideas needed to fuel the next round of economic growth. The proposed remedies are usually equally dramatic: more science and math courses, more computers in the classroom, smaller classes, bonuses for science teachers. Ironically, the scientific data showing that any of these methods produces more or better scientists is lacking. Further, there is debate over just how many math and science jobs are required.1

How accurately do international studies such as TIMMS reflect the state of knowledge and reasoning skills, or the ability of high school students to become scientists? When comparing students whose formal school background varies in terms of number of hours in school, or the type of tracking (college bound or technical school, for example) it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about what the data mean. Further, it is difficult or impossible to assess from such studies what kind of science we want to teach, and, more to the point of this review, what science is.

At 180 pages, Bauer's Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method is a very readable monograph about science, the scientific method, and the claims of rampant scientific illiteracy. Bauer's approach is balanced and sympathetic to skepticism (he quotes Paul Kurtz, Chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and other skeptics favorably, while criticizing CSICOP fundraising letters). In the process Bauer exposes some of the more common misperceptions of science held by both the lay public, and by scientists themselves.

The book starts with a debunking of studies claiming rampant scientific illiteracy. In many tests of scientific literacy, a little knowledge will allow the test taker to give the ``correct'' answer, but a more thorough knowledge of the field will lead to incorrect answers.2 Further, many of the questions require contradictory ``correct'' answers if the test taker has really thought about the subject. Bauer discusses just what would be expected for a truly scientifically literate population---courses on biology, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, nuclear physics, medical science, space science, and so on. This could easily triple the number of courses expected of college students---students whose primary areas of study are literature, business, engineering and other non-science fields.

Bauer further notes that there is a difference between education and indoctrination, suggesting many who support scientific literacy are more interested in the latter. It's not enough to be scientifically literate, you must accept a particular social or political position vis-a-vis the application of technology or the funding of big science. But, would a more scientifically literate population, for example, embrace nuclear energy or genetic engineering? With many scientists disagreeing about the wisdom of these technologies, Bauer suggests there is good evidence that political debate will not be settled by force-feeding more science to students.

Chapter 2, entitled ``The So-called Scientific Method'' starts with a description of the broad outline on which different scientific disciplines agree: observe, hypothesize, test, repeat. But the devil is in the details, and Bauer notes that the many fields of scientific inquiry differ on a number of dimensions, including: young--mature, data-drive--theory drive, data-rich--data poor, experimental--observational and quantitative--qualitative. The nature of a science shapes what is acceptable or unacceptable practice in publication and theorizing (Chemistry vs. Cosmology, for example), and also the social structure of the science (working in isolation or in large cooperative labs). Bauer shows how none of the disciplines really operate by what is called the scientific method, even while the ``method'' may be an ideal to which they subscribe.

How we define science has policy implications. Bauer (trained as a chemist) points out that by implicitly taking physics as the epitome of science we make assumptions about science and science funding that are right for physics, but wrong for most other sciences. The prime example of this is the Super-Conducting Super Collider (SCSC), which had almost no support outside of high-energy physics, and was proposed during a time of decreasing federal budgets. The result was a cancelled project, as scientists, squeezed for funds themselves, failed to back the SCSC before Congress.

How Science Really works is the topic of chapter 3. Science is an open, critical social structure which serves to filter ideas. Bauer outlines this filter in detail, and notes that science really took off when scientists started sharing data and developed a shared vision of how to build explanations of the world. The primacy of building theories in science cannot be understated. Even while some sciences emphasize experiment over theory (e.g., Chemistry) and others emphasize theory over experiment (physics), theory---a shared explanation---is what drives scientific progress. Without theory, according to Bauer, there is no science.

Chapter 4 is titled ``Other Fables about Science,'' and deals with the misconceptions of science that have arisen within science and among the general public. Myths such as: science deals with facts; successful prediction proves a theory right; science is, or should be, open minded; scientists should publish all their data; scientists should give credit to those whose work they build upon, and so on. I would like to emphasize, that Bauer says a myth ``embodies an ideal of a society,'' so none of these misconceptions are bad things, but they need to be taken in the context of how science operates. For example, science needs to be open to new ideas, but most new ideas will be wrong. There is a balance between allowing a theory time to prove itself, and eliminating incorrect theories quickly and inexpensively. Time is money, even when doing science.

Chapter 5 expands on chapter 3's ``filter'' model by exploring its imperfections. Ideas are filtered by critical review, surviving tests and predicting data. Theories that pass the filter work their way into the scientific body of knowledge. The imperfections have to do with the human nature of science---people are imperfect, we make mistakes, we let biases influence our decisions, we have limited comprehension and attention spans, and finite lives. This leads to mistakes---usually temporary, in the evaluation of scientific ideas.

One point emphasized repeatedly by Bauer is that science is a community and observations are theory laden. But, he explicitly does not take this line of reasoning to the relativist extreme and claim that we have no objective evidence. Quite the contrary, some data is more theory laden than others, and different sciences accept speculation more readily than others---it has to do with how complex the variables are and how readily the field has access to data. But, it is a community and Bauer suggests that what defines pseudoscience more than anything else is isolation from the scientific community. (As examples, consider all the pseudosciences that are based on outdated theories of science.)

Chapter 6 returns to the social consequences of our view of science. It deals with public policy, technology, funding basic vs. goal-oriented science, science in the news, public debate and expectations, and the image of science. ``When the nature of science is misconceived, inevitably the influence of science on practical affairs is also misconceived.'' Bauer suggests that the Frankenstein image of the scientist is a result of the belief that science is a formulaic application of the scientific method. In effect, by promoting that myth, scientists invite others to believe scientists are cold, uncaring and mechanical.

The one criticism I have is the way Bauer dismisses the social sciences in chapter 6. Bauer claims they are better thought of as philosophies, or maybe pre-scientific. Ironically he makes use of social science theories to build his model of science. I think this dismissal says more about Bauer's own lack of familiarity with the methods of social science, since his approach is readily applicable. That is, social sciences place primacy on data because few theories are sufficiently well established to cause one to question an observation.3 In addition, most data in social sciences are both expensive and difficult to collect, so a large data set may be used for far more than was originally intended. Finally, the complex sets of data with multiple causes leading to multiple effects is not amenable to the methods developed in physics.

The final chapter, titled ``In praise of science,'' ends the book on an up-note. Bauer is not anti-science, and he is also not (as some proponents of pseudoscience have claimed) pro-pseudoscience. He is a chemist who transitioned into Science and Technology Studies.4 Throughout the book he is positive about science, and separates the practice and progress of science from the body of results it archives. For this reason, if no other, "Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method" is a worthwhile book for skeptics.

-Michael Sofka

The Puzzler

Questions for the fun of it.

  1. Where in Canada is there a landing pad for UFOs?
  2. If you proceed due south from Detroit, Michigan what is the first foreign country you will enter?
  3. The three most populous countries in the world are China, India, and The United States: What is the fourth most populous country?
  4. If a photon (light particle) leaves a star that is 40 light years away, how much older is it when it arrives at Earth?

Answers

(1) St. Paul, Alberta (2) Canada. The Great Lakes set the boundary between Michigan and Ontario, Canada. (3) Indonesia (4) Both the star and the Earth are 40 years older BUT the photon is essentially the same age as when it left the star!!! Since it traveled at the speed of light, time stood still for the photon

-Carl Sager

Future ISUNY Meetings

Believed in Imaginings

November 3rd, 1999. Professor Joe DeRivera of Clark University, editor with Theodore Sarbin of Believing in Imaginings: The Narrative Construction of Reality (APA, 1998) will discuss the close association of tales of UFO abductions and recovered memory.

Reminder: There will be no meetings in December or January because of concerns about bad weather and potential conflicts. February's meeting (on Groundhog Day) will be a video. For next year the ISUNY board is organizing talks on: Chaos Theory, Dream interpretation and projective methods, How to lead and mislead with statistics, and Product liability laws. If you have an idea for a meeting topic, or a speaker suggestion, please share it with one of the ISUNY officers at any of our regular meetings.

All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. We usually meet 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. We always attempt to schedule our meetings the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will always be available. Please check our web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict, or other changes to the meeting schedule.

Local Meetings

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers meet the third Tuesday of each month at the Schenectady Museum. Meetings begin at 7:30 pm. For more information, contact Alan French at (518) 374-8460.

The Capital District Humanist Society meets the second Sunday of each month at the Sage Colleges Albany Campus on New Scotland Avenue. The meetings begin at 1:15 pm. For more information, contact Bill Batt at (518) 462-5068.

ISUNY Lending Library

The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York maintains a library of books, newsletters, magazines, video and audio tapes addressing various paranormal topics. ISUNY members may borrow material from this library on a month-by-month basis. If you would like to borrow a book, newsletter or tape, see our librarian, Lewis Treadway, before or after any ISUNY meeting. All material is lent free to members except for tapes for which we ask a $1.00 donation that will be used to purchase further library material.

Thank You

Thank you to Peter Huston, Dorothy Sager, Carl Sager, and Michael Sofka for their contributions to this newsletter. Thanks also go to Peter Huston, Robert Mulford, and Dorothy and Ralph Hoyt and especially Dot Sager for their help planning and publicizing ISUNY meetings, and to Herb Jones for publicity and room arrangements with the Guilderland Library. A additional special thank you to Dorothy Sager for copy-editing. Dot does an excellent job removing typos and errors from our newsletter. All remaining errors are due to the occasional lapse in the remarkably efficient social filters applied by the larger society of skeptics and newsletter publishers.

ISUNY thanks all of its members for their support. We would especially like to thank our Patron members: Tom Benton, Charles Davies, Larry Jones & Barbara Eisenstadt, Alan & Susan French, Dr. Richard H. Lange, Christopher Masto, Hugh A. McGlinchey, Bob & Dee Mulford, Dorothy and Carl Sager, Mike & Carla Sofka, William White, Guier Scott Wright.

About the Newsletter

The WHY-Files is the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York.

Articles, reviews and letters can be sent to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or to 8 Providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Hard copy and disks will be returned only if accompanied by a self-addressed and stamped envelope, or at regular club meetings.

The newsletter was typeset using the document preparation system written and placed in the public domain by Donald Knuth of Stanford University. Macros for this newsletter are available at http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/tex.html. The Why-Files are available at: http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/isuny/.

Unless otherwise stated, permission is granted to other skeptical organizations to reprint articles from The Why-Files as long as proper credit is given. The Why-Files also requests that you send copies of your newsletters that reprint our articles. All articles printed in The Why-Files remain the copyrighted property of their author.

Articles, reports, reviews, and letters published in The WHY-Files represent the views and work of individual authors. Their publication does not necessarily constitute an endorsement by Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York or its members unless so stated.


1 For a recent, critical, review of the TIMSS study see: ``The False Crisis in Science Education,'' by W. Wayt Gibbs and Douglas Fox, Scientific American, October, 1999.

2 This point was made by Ken Scheck when he presented his review of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World at the November 6th, 1996 ISUNY Meeting

3 There are, however, exceptions. Radical behaviorism, for example, failed because its models could not account for the complexity of human language.

4 The confusion comes from mis-applying Bauer's definition of science. An area is a useful field of research if scientists are investing time and energy in it and can make a living from that investment. But, this is in the larger context of a shared community. So, while pseudosciences do provide a living for some, the findings are largely ignored by science. Isolated from criticism, pseudoscience makes no progress.