FTC Removes Exception for Homeopathic Drugs

Well, here’s a bit of good news for a change: the Federal Trade Commission has just decided that the same standards apply to homeopathic drugs as to any other medical product. The National Law Review highlights the following passage:

No convincing reasons have been advanced either in the comments or the workshop as to why efficacy and safety claims for OTC homeopathic drugs should not be held to the same truth-in-advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits.

In other words, as I understand it, homeopathic products will be held to the same advertising standards as other medical products; basically, if you claim your product provides a medical benefit, you’re going to have to show some evidence.

As I understand it, way back when, the government carved out a big exemption for homeopathy in federal regulations, because of the influence of a senator(?) who was into homeopathy and managed to convince the government that the homeopathic community would police itself.

Bear in mind, the policy change above comes from the FTC, not the FDA. The FDA held hearings last year and is still debating what to do about regulating homeopathy. But it’s also been a thorn in the FTC’s side, because the exeption made advertising standards inconsistent: if a pharmaceutical company has a drug that helps with hay fever, it can’t put out an ad saying so unless they have evidence — that is, in practice, unless they’ve conducted experiments that show that their drug works the way they say. But if you slapped the word “homeopathic” on the label, all of a sudden, a much more lax set of criteria applied. So this is a step in the right direction.

Now, I don’t expect that this will seriously discourage homeopaths. Rather, I expect they’ll just follow the same path as makers of glucosamine and other dietary supplements: they’ll rewrite the labels to give the impression that it works, without actually coming out and saying so.

To see what I mean, take a look through GNC’s Vitamins & Supplements section. The strongest, most concrete claims, like “Improves joint comfort” all seem to have a footnote saying that the FDA hasn’t actually checked to see if that’s true. Unfootnoted statements say things like “Clinical-strength doses of <whatever>”, which doesn’t tell you whether it works or not.

Or just list various health benefits on their own: “Antioxidants • Heart Health • Prostate Health • Mental Sharpness”. Presumably these are intended in the same way as a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on the car: a statement that Bernie is good, not that he’s actually inside the car.

The Indian and the Ice: When to Believe Something

Imagine a woman living in India in the 18th or 19th century[1]. Her cousin, the sailor, has just returned from a trading voyage and, after being suitably plied with food and attention, tells his audience about distant lands where it is so cold that water becomes as hard as wood; you can break off a piece of water and hold it in two fingers.

The woman doesn’t believe him. His story seems utterly fantastical. In her experience, water is never hard. It’s always liquid or gas. As much as she wants to trust her beloved cousin, he’s also a sailor, just like the ones who have passed through town in the past, talking about mermaids and six-headed serpents.


[1] I got this analogy from The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten, by Julian Baggini. He, in turn credits it to David Hume’s On Miracles, though I gather that the analogy of the Indian and the ice didn’t actually appear in On Miracles, but rather arose out of criticism of that work.

Clearly, the Indian woman is wrong: there is such a thing as ice. But I’d argue that she’s wrong for the right reason: being too skeptical, rather than too gullible. And this is one of those cases where reality turns out to be weirder than she could imagine.

Forming an accurate understanding of the world is a balancing act: I don’t want to admit too many untrue ideas, but I don’t want to just disbelieve everything, because I also want to admit true ideas. And I also don’t want to spend my life on the fence about everything. So I use rules of thumb, which don’t always work. And so sometimes, I’m wrong.

Like other atheists and skeptics, I’ve been accused of being closed-minded. The analogy of the Indian woman and the ice is just the sort of thing a critic could point to. More things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy and all that.

But for every such nugget of implausible truth, there are several metric tons of bullshit. The Indian sailor’s story of hard water sounds, to the woman, just like other stories about six-headed monsters, centaurs, mermaids, and floating mountains. And so she’s right to reject it, at least until such time as good evidence comes along.

The cost of believing too much is measured in money and in human lives. Tim Farley keeps a running tally at What’s the Harm?. The cost of believing too little seems, to me, much lower. So it’s a chance I’m willing to take.

Josh McDowell: Atheism Wins in a Fair Match

This piece in the Christian Post caused me much amusement:

Atheists and skeptics now have equal access to our children as we have, which is why the number of Christian youth who believe in the fundamentals of Christianity is decreasing and sexual immorality is growing, apologist Josh McDowell said.
[…]

The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have… whether you like it or not,” said McDowell, who is author of two books on Christian apologetics, More than a Carpenter and New Evidence that Demands Verdict.
[…]

[…]I made the statement off and on for 10-11 years that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism. And, folks, that’s exactly what has happened. It’s like this. How do you really know, there is so much out there… This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics].”

Yes, folks, McDowell is saying that Christianity can’t compete on a level playing field. That if people are exposed to both Christians’ and atheists’ arguments, that the Christian ones fail. And if that’s not an admission that Christian apologists don’t have any good arguments, I don’t know what is.

But of course he’s right to worry about skeptics speaking out. Skepticism is all about how to figure out what’s true and what’s not; what sorts of methods of inquiry tend to yield valid results and which don’t.

Then, for some reason, the article turns to the topic of pornography.

The Campus Crusade staff also said around 90 percent of the 16-year-olds, according to the latest statistics, had viewed pornography. And 80 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds had had exposure to hardcore pornography. In a recent study, teenagers were asked if pornography was acceptable, and 67 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women said “yes,” he added.

Interest in porn is nothing new, and I don’t know any guy who hasn’t found a copy of Playboy or Hustler in his father’s nightstand (or something similar), so these are numbers without a context. There’s not enough information here to conclude that the Internet has turned us all into sex-crazed horndogs; it’s quite possible that we’ve been that all along. I also suspect that society has mellowed over the past few decades to the point where many more people are willing to admit watching porn.

At any rate, I’m not sure what this has to do with Christianity, except insofar as every major religion tries to control its members’ sex lives. (Hey, I said “member”, so it’s like a cock joke. Yeah, yeah, go ahead and tell me I suck.)

Bottom line, I think McDowell’s worried that his church isn’t the only game in town anymore. And with good cause. But unlike him, I don’t see that as a problem.

(Update: Oops! Forgot to give credit to Jesus & Mo for pointing me at this story.)

Craziness Loves Company

Recently Kent Hovind’s International House of Lunacy offered to send out free DVDs to anyone who asked. So naturally, I had to take them up. Yesterday, it was delivered to my… let’s say “imaginary roommate”, with the oh-so-subtle name “Sevil Natas” (thanks to Fez for suggesting that).

I haven’t watched the DVD yet. But it came with bunch of ads for God and related products, including a CSE Ministries catalog. And that’s what I want to talk about. But I need to preface that with a bit of non-snark:

The insidious thing about HIV is that it doesn’t kill you. At least, not directly, by dissolving your cell walls or anything like that. Rather, it weakens your immune system. This makes your body less able to fight off HIV itself, and also leaves you vulnerable to other diseases. So what kills you is not AIDS per se, but something unrelated, that you normally would have been able to fight off easily.

I suspect that something similar goes on with woo: if you’re prone to hold one kind of irrational belief, then you’re probably prone to believing other kinds of irrational beliefs. If you don’t have the mental toolkit to recognize why astrology is bogus, then you might not recognize that dowsing or feng shui are also bogus.

But the thing about religion — certainly Christianity as it is widely practiced in the US and Europe — is that, like HIV, it actively attacks people’s mental defenses against bullshit, by teaching people that believing things without evidence is a virtue, or that religious ideas should be immune from criticism.

And now, on to the woo! Continue reading “Craziness Loves Company”

I Just Had a Supernatural Experience

Spoiler: not really.

I was just in the kitchen fixing dinner for the cats, when I heard a woman cough. Just a single throat-clearing cough. It definitely sounded like a woman.

And this was odd, since there aren’t supposed to be any women in the house. Any company would be unexpected, seeing as how I’m snowed in by Snowmageddon. But it was convincing enough that I checked the living room and looked for fresh tracks in the snow outside. Perhaps someone got stranded and wandered in when she found an accidentally-unlocked door? Or could it be a ghost?

Obviously, there was no one there, as you know, since you’ve read the spoiler at the top. I tried replaying the sound on the tape recorder of my mind[1] and play it back, trying to figure out what I’d heard, rather than what I thought I’d heard. That is, I asked myself what sounds I might mistake for a woman’s cough.

The most likely candidate I came up with is a chair leg creaking across the wooden floor. This is consistent with one of the cats jumping off of the chair to get his dinner, especially since there’s a chair that he particularly likes to lie on. I don’t know that that’s what happened, of course, but it makes a heck of a lot more sense than ghosts. (Besides, $CAT sashayed into the kitchen with his tail held high, and not at all as if he’d seen a ghost.)

At any rate, this illustrates why one should be skeptical about reports of UFOs, the paranormal, etc. When someone says “I saw X”, usually what they mean is “I saw something that I interpreted as X”. Yes, they’re sincere, but it’s quite possible for people to be sincerely mistaken. And unfortunately, it’s not possible to reach into people’s heads and pull out what they actually saw or heard, as opposed to what they say they saw or heard. Which means that oral testimony, however sincere, isn’t sufficient to prove the existence of UFOs or paranormal phenoma. As the kids say, “Pics or it didn’t happen.”

(HT to Anne for the meteorologist video.)

(Cross-posted at UMD Society of Inquiry.)


[1] Note to young people: in ancient times, a tape recorder was a device that recorded sounds so you could play them back later. They were very good at playing back ambient sounds. So if you recorded an interview with someone and played it back, you’d hear the creaking of your chair with perfect such clarity that it would drown out the interviewee.

Is it Okay to Have A Beer With Bill Maher?

On Saturday’s episode of The Non-Prophets, PZ Myers and Matt Dillahunty (and any other hosts who managed to get a word in edgewise between those two) had a discussion about Bill Maher and his frankly kooky views on medicine.

They talked about the growing atheist community, the growing skeptical community, and how we’re likely to see more people like Maher: he’s an atheist (even though he’ll tell you otherwise), but he’s obviously no skeptic, at least not with regards to medicine.

Now, one notable trait of both the atheist and skeptic communities is that we love to argue. This a feature, not a bug. And both PZ and Matt agreed that there’s no reason, if someone on “our side” says something stupid, not to call them on it.

But it seems to me that there might be a problem here, one that will become more apparent as both constituencies grow: people join atheist and skeptic groups for different reasons.

Skeptics get together because they see a lot of woo and superstitous nonsense around them, and want to figure out how to fight it. They want to figure out objective truth, and teach others to do the same.

On the other hand, people join atheist groups to get away from religion, especially in highly-religious areas like the south. That is, it’s often primarily a matter of socializing with like-minded people.

And when you tell people that they’re wrong, they tend to react negatively, unless they’re that special breed who like having it pointed out to them when they’re wrong.

Currently this isn’t a big problem, because there’s a lot of overlap between the atheist and skeptical communities. Skeptical groups get together for beer, and atheist groups have lectures. But I suspect that this will change.

If all goes well then religion will fade with time. More people will be brought up atheist by default. That is, they’ll have no particular reason to consider the existence of any gods, either because their parents talk about them, or because they’re trying to get to the bottom of this thing that so many people seem to believe. At that point, the main impetus for atheist groups will be gone: people will get together to knock back a few beers, or read books, or watch the game, and not to get away from religion. But woo and superstition will remain, and so will skeptical groups.

But at some point between now and then, there will be a time when there’s still a niche for groups for getting away from religion, but also when a significant number of people in those groups believe in weird things like astrology or homeopathy or whichever flavor of idiocy is in fashion at the time. And then the atheist groups will have to decide whether they want to be a social organization that tolerates woo, or a skeptical organization where you risk having your deeply-held opinions ridiculed.