27 June 2010

If there's no God, what difference does anything make?

I recently watched a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson at the Westminster Theological Seminary, which I encourage you to view by clicking here. Wilson's opening salvo was one of the most common arguments for a belief in God — essentially the idea that if there is no God, then everything is just random chance, and nothing can mean anything. There can't be any means for saying that anything is true or untrue, right or wrong. We wouldn't have any reason to believe our representation of reality is worth anything. Without God, so we're told, nothing means anything. I thought the Hitch answered the issue quite well, but I wanted to respond with my own thoughts on the subject, as this is a frequent argument among theologians well-versed in apologetics.

"Random chance"

We know with quite a bit of certainty that a great many amazing things happen by sheer chance. Take for, example a snowflake seen under a microscope. Think about how absolutely stunning in detail each snowflake is, and how they are so exquisitely detailed and almost perfectly symmetrical. For a human being to create something like that would take a great deal hard work and deliberate design. But the breathtaking beauty of snowflakes is a random outcome (no two are alike, as the saying goes) of nonrandom natural processes. As it is described on Wikipedia:

Ice crystals formed in the appropriate conditions can often be thin and flat. These planar crystals may be simple hexagons, or if the supersaturation is high enough, develop branches and dendritic (fern-like) features and have six approximately identical arms, as per the iconic 'snowflake' popularised by Wilson Bentley. The 6-fold symmetry arises from the hexagonal crystal structure of ordinary ice, the branch formation is produced by unstable growth, with deposition occurring preferentially near the tips of branches.[1]

The shape of the snowflake is determined broadly by the temperature, and humidity at which it forms.[2] Rarely, at a temperature of around −2 °C (28 °F), snowflakes can form in threefold symmetry — triangular snowflakes.[3] The most common snow particles are visibly irregular, although near-perfect snowflakes may be more common in pictures because they are more visually appealing.

Planar crystals (thin and flat) grow in air between 0 °C (32 °F) and −3 °C (27 °F). Between −3 °C (27 °F) and −8 °C (18 °F), the crystals will form needles or hollow columns or prisms (long thin pencil-like shapes). From −8 °C (18 °F) to −22 °C (−8 °F) the habit goes back to plate like, often with branched or dendritic features. Note that the maximum difference in vapour pressure between liquid and ice is at approx. −15 °C (5 °F) where crystals grow most rapidly at the expense of the liquid droplets. At temperatures below −22 °C (−8 °F), the crystal habit again becomes column-like again, although many more complex habits also form such as side-planes, bullet-rosettes and also planar types depending on the conditions and ice nuclei.[4]

Interestingly, if a crystal has started forming in a column growth regime, say at around −5 °C (23 °F), and then falls into the warmer plate-like regime, plate or dendritic crystals sprout at the end of the column producing so called 'capped columns'.[2]

Chance, in itself, is a property of the ordered structure of the universe. In other words, if order itself were not an intrinsic property of the universe, there would be no such thing as "random chance". The term is somewhat illusory anyway — "randomness" exists in the sense that we cannot predict with 100% accuracy what, for example, a snowflake will look like. However, as the description above indicates, we can determine the probability of various patterns arising based on various environmental conditions. But while these outcomes are in a sense random, the processes that underlie them are very ordered. This means that, as another example, while biological evolution is random in the sense that it is not teleological and gene variations occur in ways that are determined to in probabilities rather than certainties, the physical laws of the universe that govern physics, chemistry, etc., are highly ordered and exact. Thus it's a fallacy to suggest that merely because "random chance" is a ubiquitous and fundamental property of our universe, everything is always random. A great many things are not random at all.

Where did order come from?

The most common follow-up I've been confronted with by theologians is this: if the universe is fundamentally ordered, how did it get that way? How can an ordered something arise out of nothing?

The question is best answered with another question: by what measure does one presume that the universe, or any property therein, came from something else? Carl Sagan once observed the logical conundrum of the infinite regress (if God created the universe, what created God?) by saying that if one attempts to arbitrarily escape the conundrum by arguing that God does not need to be created, why not save yourself a step and say the universe itself does not need to be created?

A study of modern cosmology will reveal, as I have discussed extensively in previous blogs, that there is no reason at all to presume that the universe came from something else; it is entirely possible, and indeed most modern cosmological models lean toward the idea, that the universe itself simply is. Thus, the underlying order that we see reflected in the randomness of the snowflake need not have come from God, or any or similarly unprovable ethereal cause; it may simply be a fundamental property of a universe that exists uncreated, uncaused, and absolute. I say "may" merely as a nod to the fact that there is so little that we know with certainty about the universe, and indeed it may have come from God or something else; but we have no rational basis for assuming such a thing.

Reality and objectivity

Because the universe itself is intrinsically ordered, we can observe order all around us, lending credence to the validity and reliability of our sensory perceptions. For example, I am sitting in a chair whilst typing this. I cannot be absolutely certain that the chair will remain where it is, or that it will not disappear into thin air, or even whether I am actually sitting here at — perhaps I am dreaming, or plugged into the Matrix. However, based upon my experience with chairs and with solid objects in general, I can be reasonably certain that it is not going anywhere.

In his book The Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins remarks, "Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when." In other words, our accounts of reality are reliable because we have the ability to see them borne out. If a chair were to suddenly disappear from underneath my backside, I might have to re-evaluate the reliability of my experience in what I know to be reality. But pragmatically, we know that such things do not happen. We know that when we let go of an apple, it will fall to the ground. This happens every time; not only that, but we can predict exactly the speed and trajectory of the apple based on numerous different factors calculated through our understanding of ordered physical laws.

Clearly, we can indeed know, with reasonable certainty, that our experience in reality is reliable and valid. But does this mean that things like beauty and morality are absolute, as Douglas Wilson wants to believe? Of course not. Something like "beauty" is measured not in objective terms in relation to some metaphysical absolute, but as an abstract human construct known only in relative terms; i.e., we call something "beautiful" because of how it appears to us relative to other things that we have seen. Morality, too, is neither wantonly relativistic nor monarchically absolute, but an innate and necessary part our being — without the ability to live cooperatively, our species would quickly perish.

Atheists reject any notion that there is some divinely imbued purpose to our existence. The universe existed long before we did, exists mostly without us, and will continue along just fine without us when we are long gone. As Carl Sagan said, "If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?" But we recognize that the time we have is still invaluable to us, that our experiences are real and meaningful to us, and that we have a profound ability to affect, for better or worse, the lives of those around us.

26 June 2010

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Sometimes, talking about philosophy is not quite enough to get through to some people. For me personally, reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time pushed me over the edge from "theistic agnostic" to "atheist" because it showed me that something I had though required a divine explanation — the origin of the universe — was within the realm of scientific inquiry. Only in retrospect have I understood my philosophical follies.

This is a phenomenal talk from the physicist Lawrence Krauss on how the universe really could have (and almost certainly did) come from nothing, answering the believers' question, "How could something come from nothing"? I've discussed this in previous blogs, but it's great to hear a pro do it justice. Most fascinating to me, though, is that it turns out that much of what Hawking thought was the case nearly 25 years ago when he wrote A Brief History of Time now has very strong empirical support. Choice quote from the video:

It turns out, that in a flat universe the total energy of the universe is precisely zero...Because gravity can have negative energy. So, the negative energy of gravity balances out the positive energy of matter.

What’s so beautiful about a universe with total energy of zero?  

Well, ONLY such a universe can begin from nothing… And that is remarkable… Because, the laws of physics allow a universe to begin from nothing. You don’t need a deity. You have nothing… zero total energy… and quantum fluctuations can produce a universe.

Right now, we know it to an accuracy of better than 1%. The universe IS flat. It has zero total energy, and it could have begun from nothing. … And, I’ve written this piece (and, of course, I got a lot of hate mail) saying that in my mind this answers that crazy question that religious people always keep throwing out… Which is:

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The answer is… There had to be. If you have “nothing” in quantum mechanics, you’ll always get something. It’s that simple. It doesn’t convince any of those people, but it’s true.

19 June 2010

Faith doesn't work

I've mentioned before that I'm a follower of PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula, as I'm sure many of you are. I like the polemical way he writes – clearly exasperated by theism and quick to mock its absurdities, but also articulate and incisively humorous. In a recent post bashing (again) the comedy show that is the Templeton Foundation, he said something I think bears emphasis:
These guys really don't get it: we're not objecting to the conclusions of religion (necessarily), we're saying that how they answer questions is invalid, and a guy using religion to justify liberal views is just as wrong as the guy using religion to argue that gays must be stoned to death.
This comment mirrors Stephen Hawking's recent statement in an interview with Diane Sawyer which I recently blogged about, in which he said:
"There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."
Religious moderates want to justify their adherence to faith by claiming that it produces a positive outcome; or, at the very least, that it doesn't produce a violent, science-degrading, bigoted, misogynistic outcome. Insert all your standard stuff about hope, meaning, purpose, and all the other stuff religious moderates claim religion provides.

There's an elephant in the room here though, which is that since there is no methodology to discern metaphysical truth from metaphysical fiction, faith can't actually produce reliable, valid answers. People can claim it answers questions of hope, meaning, purpose, and all that other stuff, but when you inquire as to how exactly it answers these questions, you're left with a blank stare. This absence of methodological inquiry is precisely why there is virtually no homogeneity among the world's faiths, and even within any given faith you have innumerable sects and denominations clinging vehemently to conflicting ideas. Science works the opposite way: because there is a methodology for answering questions, the wrong answers can be systematically identified and discarded. The right answers can be observed and independently verified by anyone, and this builds a consensus over time.

How then do we weed out the wrong answers from religion? Religious moderates simply base it on the conclusion: if it leads to violence, bigotry, misogyny, etc. etc., then it's the wrong answer. If it leads to dogs and cats living together and world peace, it's the right answer. They gloss over the fact that the way faith claims to answer questions is fundamentally flawed and unreliable. Homogeneity of faith is only gained by acknowledging the most fundamental shared elements of religion – a higher power of some sort, a search for meaning of some sort, etc. – but the deeper we dig and the more specific we get, the more splintered the faithful become. Instead of a growing consensus, you're left with a growing divide. Some will protest peacefully, some will live and let live, others will protest maliciously, but there will always be a profound discordance of ideas.

I've often encountered religious moderates who object to atheists like me criticizing their beliefs. They say that their faith gives them a sense of purpose, inner strength, hope, or some such abstract thing, and that the real problem isn't faith, but people who use faith to justify doing bad things. But they're wrong; religious moderates give a pass to radicals and fundamentalists by disputing their conclusions, but excusing their dubious methodology. The problem is faith, precisely because in order to rid the world of religiously motivated bigotry, misogyny, violence, and all the other lunacy that's practiced in the name of God, we have to address the fundamental issue of how people know what they claim to know. When a scientific conclusion is disputed, it's disputed by pointing out that the methodology of inquiry was flawed. There is a means for correction – the errors are discard, the hypothesis retooled, and inquiry begun anew. This is how we know that science works, and that faith does not.

18 June 2010

This post has been confirmed by Snopes!

Ah, email. What a necessary evil you are.

I got an email from my mom today. It was one of those chain letters with some ridiculous claim – in this case, it was the claim that car air conditioners emitted toxic levels of a carcinogen called Benzene. The way to get around this horrible exposure, the email suggested, was to always roll down your windows and air out the car for a few minutes before you turn on the A/C. If course, this email doesn't actually cite any sources, but it does say "confirmed by Snopes.com!". Funny thing is that when you actually go to Snopes.com, you find that Snopes does not actually confirm the story at all.

This reminds me of a similarly stupid one that said you should check gas pump handles for needles that could give you AIDS. Since when are chain emails a reliable source of information? Take the whole cars-and-benzene thing. You'd think that if this were a serious public health hazard, someone from some reputable journalistic outfit would have caught on. The NY Times. Newsweek. Dateline. CNN. Scientific American. Wired. Even... dare I say... Fox News. Someone. But all you have to go on are these emails that, of course, don't actually source anything. And the one reference they give to back up the story doesn't actually back up the story. I've yet to see a single chain email, many of which claim to be verified by Snopes, to actually be verified by Snopes. And while Snopes is a fun, fascinating and generally well-researched website, it's not gospel either. Most of the ridiculous crap in chain emails is the kind of stuff that ought to be verified by multiple reputable independent sources.

So no, I don't check gas pump handles for needles, and I'm not going to roll my windows down every time I get in the car.

15 June 2010

A world without God

Believers and non-believers certainly disagree on innumerable things, but perhaps one thing we can agree on is that a world without God would look very different than a world with God. I'm an atheist not because I'm certain there is no God, nor because I think religion can be destructive and divisive, nor because I merely disagree with any particular religious creed. I'm an atheist because, when I look out on the world, I see a world just as it would be without a God, and find no plausible reason to entertain the idea of such a being's existence. Throughout this blog I've attempted to address numerous specific issues salient to the clash between faith and reason — the nature of morality, the origins of life and the universe, the problem of suffering, and many others. In this post, I'll lay out what is, for me, the most clear and definitive argument for rejecting belief in a supernatural deity. So it's in that spirit that I ask: what would a world without God look like? What might we reasonably expect to see?

13 June 2010

Conservatives and Stepford wives

Another quote brought to my attention by Bruce Gerenscer, this time a real doozy from notorious evangelical nincompoop Pat Robertson. On the 700 Club, Pat fields a call from a woman who is distressed because her husband is flirty with other women. She says he's always been that way, but it's getting under her skin. How would a sensible person respond to this? Well, pretty much the opposite of how Pat responded:
CO-HOST: Pat, this is from Anne who says, “My husband has always been a flirt and loves to talk with other women he finds attractive. He says he would never cheat on me but his actions are starting to get to me. What should I do?”
ROBERTSON: Anne, first thing is you need to make yourself as attractive as possible and don’t hassle him about it. And why is he doing this? Well, he’s doing it because he wants affirmation that he is still a man, that he is attractive — and he gets an affirmation of himself. That means he’s got an inferiority complex that’s coming out. And he’s not gonna cheat on you. He’s just playing.
Goddammit! The misogyny is mind-boggling. How about suggesting she voice her feelings to her husband with the expectation that he will respect her and tame the behavior? Pat's response fits neatly into the all-too-common conservative ideology that a wife's sole duty is to please her husband. Instead of encouraging her to create a constructive dialogue to resolve the issue, instead of emphasizing the importance of her feeling that her husband respects and values her emotional needs, he essentially tells her to compete with these other women. But, what happens then? What happens if and when she's trying her damnedest to be attractive, and he's still flirting with those other women? Pat's response places the blame for the problem on the wife, when the problem is clearly that the husband needs to learn some boundaries.

Now look. I have no desire to lump all conservatives or religious folks in with Pat Robertson's idiocy. But this is not a unique situation. Consider for example the resolution passed at the Southern Baptist Convention back in the late 90's which stated that a woman was to submit to her husband as a final authority, in line with Ephesians 5:23, "For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is head of the Church". Consider how James Dobson's Focus on the Family organization views the role of women: "God's design for marriage is that husbands lead and wives submit to that leadership." [link, link]

I read a very interesting article on Alternet recently about the difference in values between conservatives and liberals which, though focused on politics, bears some relevance to this topic:
Different people prioritize different values over others, of course. And of course, different individuals and different cultures come to different conclusions about the right ethical choice in any particular situation: based on our cultural biases, as well as on our own personal observations and experiences. But according to this research, these basic values -- fairness, harm, loyalty, authority and purity -- exist in all of us, at least to some degree, in every non-sociopathic human being.
"Fascinating," I hear you cry. "But what does that have to do with politics?" Well, what researchers are finding is that liberals prioritize very different values from conservatives. When asked a series of questions about different ethical situations, self-described liberals strongly tend to prioritize fairness and harm as the most important of these core values -- while self-described conservatives are more likely to prioritize authority, loyalty and purity.
This seems to fit neatly with the conservative concept of marriage and relationships: it's based on the authority of the man, sexual "purity" prior to marriage and modesty during it, and loyalty to the covenant of marriage even in the face of emotional abuse, apathy and infidelity.

Well, screw that. Who the hell wants a Stepford wife? I actually value a woman's independence and intelligence, and recognize that no relationship can truly succeed unless both partners are committed to mutual respect of each others' physical and emotional needs. Conservatives seem to measure a successful relationship as one that endures, no matter what. Liberals, in my estimation, measure a successful relationship by mutual happiness, communication, and intimacy.

I think back to this poor woman, who will probably take Pat Roberston's advice and redouble her efforts to please her husband. Meanwhile, she'll be suffering in silence while he continues to ignore her needs and deny her the respect she deserves. It's a perfect Biblical marriage.

Science, faith, and deconversion

I'm sure most folks who read my blog (go you!) are familiar with PZ Myers and his blog Pharyngula, but just in case you've missed it he posted one earlier today in which, in his usual polemical style, talks about why science works and faith does not. I thought it was pertinent after the Stephen Hawking post I put up yesterday. These were the gems that caught my attention and made me cheer, though I encourage you to read the whole article:
The success of science has shown us what an effective knowledge generator accomplishes: it produces consensus and an increasing body of support for its conclusions, and it has observable effects, specifically improvements in our understanding and ability to manipulate the world. We can share evidence that other people can evaluate and replicate, and an idea can spread because it works and is independently verifiable.
Look at religion. It is a failure. There is no convergence of ideas, no means to test ideas, and no reliable outcomes from those ideas. It's noise and chaos and arbitrary eruptions of ridiculous rationalizations. Mormonism, Buddhism, Islam, and Catholicism can't all be true — and no, please don't play that game of reducing each religion to a mush that merely recognizes divinity. Religions have very specific dogmas, and practitioners do not blithely shuffle between them. Those differences are indefensible if they actually have a universal source of reliable knowledge about metaphysics.
That's really a great summary. The only way anyone's been able to produce consensus among the world's religions and all their innumerable variations is by noting that they all recognize some kind of supernatural consciousness. But as soon as you start dissecting what this consciousness is, what it wants us to do, the extent to which it interacts with the world, and how we're supposed to interact with it (and to what extent we can), the consensus evaporates. Since there is no theological methodology for independently testing ideas, consensus is gained through emotional appeals, cultural conditioning and/or threats of violence; and even then, consensus usually exists in only small, localized sub-culture pockets. The best way to make everyone think that they agree about God and religion is to make sure they don't think about it too deeply.

In a previous post on Pharyngula, PZ said something else I thought was interesting: that he never sees "road to Damascus" deconversions. This is because deconversion is usually a long, emotionally difficult process of critical thinking and self-reflection. I was raised Christian, but becoming "born-again" took all of a few minutes. I just had to surround myself with friendly people who were all doing the same thing, and who could give me some spiel about living a better life and going to heaven if I gave my heart to Jesus. I've yet to meet a Christian who converted only after a rigorous study of the world's religions and a dispassionate examination of the countless conflicting Christian theologies before settling on one particular one. This dichotomy between conversion and deconversion really illustrates the essence of what "faith" is, and isn't. It's not a reliable, valid methodology for attaining knowledge; it's a human force driven by cultural conditioning and groupthink. And because claims to knowledge are predicated on "revelation" and other subjective experiences rather than an independently verifiable methodology, there cannot and never will be a broad consensus on either its fundamental tenants nor its pragmatic application.

12 June 2010

What the hell do you say to these people?

Last night I watched an equally heartbreaking and appalling documentary from Vanguard about the infamous Ugandan anti-gay legislation. I'd heard about it before, and I knew that it called for harsh penalties – up to and including execution – for anyone caught as a homosexual, and that it was the center of a great deal of international attention on account of its egregious violation of human rights. What I didn't know was the story behind the legislation – the influence of Christianity in the country, and the influence of Western evangelicals.

Western Christians, including many evangelicals such as Rick Warren who have publicly denounced the legislation, would like to argue that these aren't representative of most Christians, or perhaps that they are not "true" Christians. The country is roughly 90% Christian, and the overwhelming majority support the radical anti-gay legislation. This is not a small problem. And while it certainly is not representative of most Christians – most of whom are tempered by secular modernism even when they are openly opposed to gay rights – this is a fine example of why religion is a bad thing: because without an objective methodology by which to discern truth from falsehood, religion can be molded to fit whatever biases we want. Once it's conformed to those biases, we assert them with absolute authority. As the anti-gay pastor in the documentary says, your problem is not with me; it is with God.

Doesn't that really strike at the heart of why religion is so ridiculous? We have all these people claiming to be privy to knowledge from a divine authority, often in conflict with one another and all too often preaching messages of hatred and violence. People who believe their world view is rooted in infallible truth are not amenable to debate, discussion or reason. We can only hope that there is a more sane majority to silence them.

Moderate believers give these dangerous people a pass by condemning their actions while condoning their method of inquiry. It's as if to say, "It's fine to believe things without evidence, or make claims of divine authority, as long as you don't preach the wrong message." Well, it's not fine to believe things without evidence, and it's precisely our celebration of "faith" as a virtue that allows these kinds of dangerous ideologies to thrive.

Stephen Hawking on religion: "Science will win"

Kudos to Bruce Gerencser over at the NW Ohio Skeptics blog for bringing this to my attention. (Btw, if you've never read Bruce's stuff, I highly recommend it.)

I'm a big fan of Stephen Hawking. His popular science classic A Brief History of Time is one of my favorite books, and was instrumental in shifting me from a self-professed "theistic agnostic" to full-blown atheist. See, for many years after I rejected Christianity for its litany of absurdities, I still believed in some sort of higher power; partly as an emotional crutch after having been a devout Christian for so long, and partly as a classic god of the gaps explanatory device, not the least of which is the mere existence of the universe. Hawking showed me that the question "how did the universe come to be" is perhaps not a valid question at all; that the origin and fate of the universe is within the realm of scientific inquiry. It was only after being educated on the science of it all that my philosophical folly became apparent.

Hawking's recent interview with Diane Sawyer doesn't offer much new for someone like myself who's read a few of his books and watched many of his lectures, but he raised a couple of points, quite concisely, that I think are worth talking about.
 "What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God," Hawking told Sawyer. "They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible."
Hawking often uses the word "God" in his writing and lectures, but he does so in an Einsteinian way – as a general term for the order of the universe. He clearly rejects the concept of a theistic god, and the reason here is simple: considering the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, the billions of years that have passed on Earth before humanity appeared, the knife's edge of survival upon which we thrive and nature's utter indifference to us, it's clear how insignificant we are. This seems at odds with the notion of a loving god who created this for us, and has a special purpose for us. It's worth noting too that the idea of a personal theistic god is not a ubiquitous one in the slightest, and there is little if any agreement among the world's religion on what this higher power is and how significant we are to it.

But the best quote is this:
When Sawyer asked if there was a way to reconcile religion and science, Hawking said, "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."
How many times have you heard those arguments that science requires "faith" just like religion does, or that science is predicated on a number of assumptions such as the natural order of the universe, that only make sense if you invoke a god of some sort as a celestial department manager?

They're bullshit, and Hawking's statement sums up why. The natural order of the universe, the consistency of physical laws, etc., are not assumptions – they are observations; observations that can repeatedly be independently verified by anybody. And the fundamental difference between claims of knowledge by theologians and claims of knowledge by scientists is that the latter can methodologically demonstrate that their knowledge is true. There is a systematic way in which errors in understanding are corrected, and further understanding is attained. Theology not only lacks such a methodology, but it is predicated on an immutable assumption – that God exists – and is thus incapable of the kind of progress that science can offer.

07 June 2010

A major blow for chiropractic

By night, I'm a fierce blogger, taking to the interwebs my swift keyboard of justice. Or something. But by day, I'm a mild-mannered personal trainer. In my field, I meet lots of people will all manner of random health problems. And a lot of them see chiropractors.

I'm of the position that chiropractic is a pseudoscience. Its risk is relatively low, but so is its efficacy. It's been around for a long time and enjoys a peculiar level of acceptance in our "alternative medicine" worshiping culture, but don't let its popularity fool you. It's woo. And now, a major chiropractic governing body has admitted that it's woo. The emphasis below is mine.

The General Chiropractic Council (GCC), a UK-wide statutory body with regulatory powers, has published a new position related to subluxation and the claims made by Doctors of Chiropractic.  The GCC was established by the British Parliament to “regulate and develop the chiropractic profession”.

The chiropractic vertebral subluxation complex is an historical concept but it remains a theoretical model. It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease or health concerns.

In case you're not aware, the vertebral subluxation – colloquially referred to as being "out of alignment" – is the basis for the entire field of chiropractic care. There no evidence that such a thing really even exists, much less that it's the cause for any health concerns, and now a major governing body is 'fessing up to the woo.

The problem with chiropractors, of course, is that they don't just stick with spinal manipulation – they manipulate hips, knees, shoulders, etc. And in some of these cases, there may be evidence that certain kind of joint manipulation may be able to alleviate certain conditions. I'll leave that debate to the science bloggers. However, a chiropractor, despite carrying the moniker "Dr", is not, in fact, an actual doctor. They cannot diagnose or prescribe treatment for any medical condition.

Usually when I bring this kind of article to someone's attention, the counter-argument I get is an anecdotal story about someone being helped by a chiropractor. A commenter on another blog, presumably a doctor of some sort, remarked that he had a patient who had significant back pain for years until falling down a step; she had no back since. However, this doctor remarked that he wasn't about to found a medical practice based on dropping people down steps. So yes, some practices done by some chiropractors may work for some people in some situations. But that doesn't mean it's good medicine.

In fact, the fact that chiropractic care varies so much from one practitioner to the next is a serious sign of its status as a pseudoscience. Chiropractors mix evidence-based practices with woo, often arbitrarily. A study of 200 chiropractic websites in the English-speaking world found that the majority of them made health claims not supported by evidence.

I've had a number of clients and friends visit chiropractors for years on end, spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and see no appreciable change in their condition. I've had clients take a chiropractor's recommendation with the same authority to which they'd ascribe a medical doctor. I hope that this statement from the GCC gets some serious publicity, and we can slowly start to put the subluxation – and chiropractic with it – in the place it belongs alongside woo like homeopathy, irridology, acupuncture, and reflexology.

06 June 2010

Tim Minchin

I've always admired the ability of comedians like George Carlin and Ricky Gervais to concisely critique the absurdities of religion through satire. Today I was introduced to Tim Minchin. He's clever, funny, and a hell of a musician to boot: