Examples

CSICOP (now CSI) is, on the face, a skeptical organization, originally dedicated to the “scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal,” but which rapidly became a “debunking” organization with a very clear political agenda, not neutral and scientific. This can clearly be seen on RationalWiki, which is generally very sympathetic to CSI positions and treats them as, more or less, gospel. So, examples, listed under fields.

Diet

Searching for CSICOP-related pronouncements on the Atkins Diet, I found this Skeptical Inquirer article, by Reynold Spector. It’s quite good, though I wouldn’t agree with everything in it, and it uses “pseudoscience” rather loosely.

However, the fanatic skeptics at RationalWiki may not be reading Skeptical Inquirer. So, from the RW article on me, under “Diet woo,”

Lomax is an advocate of the Atkins Diet, a low-carb fad diet that most of the medical community have rejected as quackery.[34]

Spector is pointing out that the opinions of the “medical community” are largely based on poor research, he actually calls it “pseudoscience,” which is further than my major source, Gary Taubes, would go. Bad Science, is his theme. That something is “fad” has nothing to do with its scientific or pseudoscientific character, though usually fads have some kind of evidentiary basis, at least in practical experience, or it wouldn’t become a fad. That is not the same as “proof,” and ideas that are fads are not therefore factually-based. I don’t interact with “most of the medical community,” I interact with doctors and medical professionals that my insurance will pay for, and most of them are quite aware, and have told me, that “Atkins works.” The RationalWiki article itself covers this to a degree. After a shallow coverage of the Atkins Diet, it has:

The reality of low carb, higher protein diets

First of all, this makes a common error: an assumption that LCHF (low-carb, high-fat) diets are “higher protein.” That depends on the choices a follower of the food plan makes.

There is a two fold reality to truly low carb diets: 1) They work[27] 2) They are dangerous[28][29]

So perhaps I have generally followed an Atkins Diet is because it works, and certainly because it worked in my experience. (What does “works” mean? It means, for me, loss of unwanted weight and improvement of cardiac risk factors. Not to mention being able to eat my favorite foods, which, since childhood, were high-fat. I moved away from them many years ago because of the “low fat fad” that was promoted by the “mainstream.” Then I woke up!

Is Atkins “dangerous”? What is shown is very weak and unscientific, not based on actual research, just imagination. Woo, if you like, only carried and promoted by “authorities,” as described by Spector. (And, in far more detail, Taubes.)

The reality with any “Very high protein”(VHP)[30] or “Very low carbohydrate”(VLC)[31] is that they are helpful for short periods of time, but pushing the body into ketosis for extended periods, or asking the body to process high levels of protein leads to a variety of mild to major conditions, including: increased risk of heart disease; kidney dysfunction, liver dysfunction, bone density loss, arthritis, water retention, kidney stones and bad breath (ketoacidosis causes a fruity smell on the breath due to increased acetone in the body) and body odor[32]. So while it does work, it is something best done under the guidance of a physician or dietician (not a nutritionist) and only for short periods of time.

I have seen no evidence that extended ketosis is harmful. “Ketosis” simply means “burning fat,” i.e., as ketone bodies, which the body mobilizes from stored fat. There are cultures that eat very little carbohydrate, without apparent harmful consequences. The problems with a high-protein diet are known (I think). If one only eats protein, the body goes into the third metabolic system, burning protein for fuel. It can do that to survive, for short periods. But fat may be the primary system, largely not active when there is plenty of carbohydrate in the diet, i.e., the modern standard diet. “Bad breath” is culturally determined. So RationalWiki is giving unscientific advice, thinking that this is “rational.”

The other problem with high protein diets is that according to several studies, the weight is more quickly regained than with dieters who followed a moderate reduction in calories over a longer time, presumably due to the fact that the weight was lost under the body’s “duress”, and not simply because more calories were spent than eaten.

The real problem with science and diet and nutrition is the paucity of high-quality studies. Losing weight with an HFLC diet is not stressful, they made that up. It is easy and comfortable. Again, many studies are poor and poorly interpreted.

Atkins is sustainable as a long-term food plan because it allows highly satisfying meals, thoroughly enjoyable. If one stops following the food plan, the result is largely predictable: gain of weight. That is true for almost any diet. They have not cited sources for the alleged studies.

Granted, low-carb diets can be astonishly [sic] effective. But given their side effects, they can be suggested only when the overweight itself presents graver dangers to the health of the patient than the risks of the diet. Morbidly obese patients (weight index 38+) may benefit from low carbohydrate diets in order to normalize their body weight. Such diet should always be considered only as the means, not the end.

This is unencyclopedic fluff. Back to the point, that I “advocate” Atkins (I suggest people look into it) was used as evidence that I am a “woo” promoter. The paragraph above relies on assumptions that Atkins is dangerous (it was common for low-fat promoters — and low fat can be very dangerous, since fat is an essential nutrient — to say that Atkins might work, but has not been proven safe, which, of course, neglects that LCHF diets are very old and some cultures have eaten that way for very long periods of time; the alleged dangers, if they exist at all, can be monitored. For example, I used Ketostix to monitor ketone levels, which would reveal any dangerous ketoacidosis, even though that is very rare and not expected in my general health condition. I also more carefully monitored blood lipids and even got a cardiac CAT scan, since I had hypercholesterolemia, which sounds bad but which can also be simply familial and harmless. Atkins appears to be reasonably safe, compared to the dangers of the standard American diet.

So, that’s RationalWiki. Anything else?

Okay, Skepticblog. Not bad, but uninformed, makes ignorant assumptions to make unscientific recommendations.

Found a nice article by the Skeptical Cardiologist about the death of Atkins (i.e., it had nothing to do with his diet). The guy has some other interesting posts, such as there being no problem with saturated fats from dairy. An actual skeptic! Does he remember to be skeptical of his own ideas? (That is the acid test!) I don’t know, but he is a good writer.

While I found some skeptics spouting unscientific “knowledge,” I did not find an organized anti-Atkins effort, and quite  a bit of positive material that accepted at least part of what Atkins recommended.

Cold fusion

Here is a link to a page presenting a Randi video on cold fusion. Randi claims not to have a priori bias; however, what is shown here is his name-dropping of Carl Sagan, with whom he witnessed (and walked out of) a Martin Fleischmann press conference in which Fleischmann was evasive. This is all well-known, at that point, Fleischmann was under instruction from lawyers, apparently, not to reveal too much. It’s meaningless, but apparently Randi thinks it’s important. Then he turns to the topic of Andrea Rossi. This was November, 2011. Rossi is introduced by the interviewer as an “Italian physicist,” which was quite incorrect, Rossi is an inventor and entrepreneur with a shady past. By this time most LENR researchers had dismissed Rossi as unverifiable and very possibly a fraud. Randi’s predictions were not accurate, Rossi did not go to a public stock offering, and he has never sold stock. He did attract private investment, sale of licenses, based at least in part on something Randi did not anticipate: some real scientists appearing to confirm Rossi’s claims.

They had great fun with “University of Baloney.” The University of Bologna, according to the Wikipedia article, “founded in 1088, is the oldest university in continuous operation[2], as well as one of the leading academic institutions in Italy and Europe[3]. It is one of the most prestigious Italian universities commonly ranking first in national rankings.”

A skilled con artist can fool many regular scientists, including “skeptics.” Such an artist will also carefully avoid close examination by anyone with true expertise, and Rossi did that (Randi did predict this). Knee-jerk dismissal, however, and expectation of fraud was useless. What it took to truly and definitively expose Rossi was actual investment, by people who knew what they were doing (consciously taking risks). The result is thoroughly documented on this blog, the gateway is Rossi v. Darden docket.

Even this is not proof that there is no Rossi Effect. However, at this point, it is clear that Rossi is deceptive and that any demonstration that he can manage in any way is untrustworthy.

Carl Sagan’s real opinion was far more nuanced.

It is clear from his last quoted statement on cold fusion, however, that he was not informed. Claims of neutron production had been largely abandoned by then: if neutrons were being produced (and there is some evidence for that), the levels were a million million times down from the actual measured (and correlated with heat) product, helium. Further, his original idea that science would prevail was incorrect, he did not sufficiently realize the power of the information cascade. (That combined with the difficulty and unreliability of replication, the drastic variability of the effect, which, among other things, made commercial application remote and not yet attainable.)

In a book on Carl Sagan’s Universe, 1997, James Randi wrote about cold fusion.

People are still fussing about cold fusion, which in my opinion and the opinion of many of my colleagues probably just does not work, but it does work in one respect. It gets a lot of funding, at least from Toyota, who just gave them $7 million to pursue cold fusion studies. Wonderful! I must also announce a diistressing bit of news that I am currently arguing with my very good friend, Arthur C. Clarke, in Sri Lanka. I’m glad that he is a considerable distance from me. We might be in a fistfight, because he is quite supportive of cold fusion. He has spoken to the founders of this wonderful notion and is pretty well convinced by them, so I may have to go over and clast that icon too!

This is all personal and is actually the kind of thing that Sagan wrote against. Why does Randi’s opinion matter? What does he know? He was a magician, and could indeed be an expert on the generation of illusion. He will also be senstitive, from his predelictions, to possible fraud and delusion. So … who are his “colleagues”? Magicians? CSICOP members? He isn’t a physicist, but so-called “cold fusion” was not actually a physics topic, it was an experimental result in electrochemistry. The “them” he refers to would be Pons and Fleischmann, funded to continue their research in France. Is that about “cold fusion.” Pons and Fleischmann did not claim that what they found was “fusion.” They claimed it was an “unknown nuclear reaction.” They actually had no real “nuclear evidence,” only more heat than they could explain by chemistry (and they had been mistaken about low-level neutron radiation, later work completely deprecated that claim).

It was not until 1991 that clear nuclear evidence was found; before that, there were mysterious reports of tritium, never correlated with heat, unlike the 1991 work which found a clear correlation between anomalous heat and helium. By that time, cold fusion was already heavily rejected by “consensus,” which, of course, excluded contrary opinion, and, here, Randi talks about a strong argument with Clarke. Over what? Clarke was aware of the evidence, Randi was not, was operating on his own reactivity.

Randi’s opinion is totally nonscientific. However, he writes something else there I find remarkable, see Parapsychology, below.

Parapsychology

This is remarkable, James Randi saying that parapsychology is a legitimate science. This is in a book published on Carl Sagan’s Universe, in 1997.

I speak to a great number of lay audiences and academic audiences, and we have to get some terminology straight. Pseudoscience and crackpot science are differentiated in certain ways. Examples of pseudoscience in my estimation are things like homeopathy, which is diluting a medicine down to the point where you’re beyond Avogadro’s Limit, and there’s none of the original medicine left, but the vibrations are still there. …

I agree with Randi here, that the “explanations” of homeopathy are legitimately called “pseudoscience.” His description of what homeopathy is, however, neglects clinical practice and studies that show that homeopathy is an effective modality. Because the “explanation” which he focuses on, as if it were the entire issue, is truly “woo,” and disconfirmed, as far as I know, by double-blind studies, there being no discernable difference when the placebo effect is ruled out, homeopathic theory is not “scientific.” However, there remains an issue, the effect of the mind and human presence and interaction, and the possibility that some mythical modality might still be effective, amplifying, as it were, the placebo effect, the effect of language and thought. The “vibrations,” he demeans sarcastically, could simply be thought, the idea of the substance, that then has an effect on the practitioner and patient. This is not so simple to test! Is it “pseudoscientific”?  Unfortunately, I don’t know how to test it. Are we pseudoscientists if we propose untestable explanations? Only, I’d say, if we pretend that they are scientific.

In general, pseudoskeptics dismiss evidence that is other than peer-reviewed and confirmed blind studies; yet human beings routinely order their lives based on anecdotal evidence, and I have seen no evidence that refusing to do this is at all conducive to survival. Pseudoskeptics often reject what is ordinary, common human practice, as if “wrong,” imagining that they have the enlightened view and everyone else is stuck in darkness and ignorance. Randi goes on, my emphasis:

Some parapsychology, in fact, I think most of parapsychology, is also pseudoscience because of the way it is approached, but parapsychology is a legitimate science, no question of that, and it must be pursued.

Randi is obviously aware of the definitional problem ignored by the RationalWikians. Parapsychology is the scientific investigation — using the methods of science — of the “paranormal,” which essentially means phenomena that are not yet explainable by “natural physics” or the like. The term has come to refer to “psychic phenomena,” but that is interpretive. The core meaning of “psychic” is “of the mind.” From my point of view, it’s not clear that the mind exists other than in a realm of ideas and impressions. I.e., does the smile of Mona Lisa exist? It’s just some oil paint on canvas, in some patterns. The “smile” exists in our interpretation of those patterns. The idea that the mind is an illusion is very old. But we routinely trust in the reality of the mind. It is entirely possible to move beyond that, to something far more “grounded,” but pseudoskeptics, in general, are utterly naive about all this.

When Randi refers to “most of parapsychology,” he is referring to theories and the possible concepts of some students or researchers in parapsychology, not to parapsychology itself. In the end, his definition of “pseudoscience” relies on his own opinions and judgments, not an objective standard, from what I’ve seen. Genuine parapsychologists, like real skeptics, postpone judgment, possibly forever. Randi then argues practicality.

It is in an unfortunate positions. It’s been around for something like a hundred and twenty years, no necessarily under the name, parapsychology, but scientific research directed in that way has been around for that amount of time. When I speak to parapsychologists, they usually say, “Well, I still have a feeling there is something there,” in spite of the fact that they have not had one positive experiment yet, in more than a century, that has been replicated. Strange! It is very much like, in my estimation, being a doctor for 120 years, and everyone of your patients has died.

All patients die eventually. Perhaps Randi has not realized this.

His essential claim here is that investigations of the paranormal have produced no results, which is nonsense. Some results have indicated, for example, that no effect of statistical significance was present in reports that earlier seemed to show some paranormal phenomenon. Those are parapsychological results, and they are of value. However, there are other results, claimed and published under peer review, that seem to show some paranormal effect, and some of these have been replicated. Randi simply denies that these exist. Parapsychology would continue to investigate these. As with cold fusion, above, it is not clear to me that Randi is aware of those claimed results.

I am not confirming or denying those claims. I simply don’t know enough, it’s quite a bit of work! I’m generally quite skeptical, and choose not to invest the time; however, what I actually did was stand for the right of those interested in parapsycholgy to create educational resources on the topic on Wikiersity, and that includes “beleivers” and “skeptics” and anyone else interested. In setting that up, I did write that parapsychology was, by definition, a science, and that was attacked by RationalWikians as being my “promotion” of pseudoscience, as if I believed in some parapsychological theory or hypothesis. I don’t. Some of the results I have seen are interesting, that’s all. I don’t draw conclusions from that, other than noticing knee-jerk rejection without actual consideration of evidence. I.e., the inverted kind of pseudoscience, practiced by those who imagine they are promoting “critical thinking” and “science.”

After the first thirty years, wouldn’t you get an idea that maybe you should seek a different line of work? …

That’s a choice for individuals to make. What is sometimes offensive from “believers” is a demand that others pay attention to what they believe. If a physicist thinks cold fusion is bogus and doesn’t want to pay attention to it, that’s his or her choice. What is offensive is when those who do actually pay attention, or actually invest time and resources in research, are attacked as “pseudoscientists” and “deluded believers.”