Hostility of organized "skeptics" toward cryonics

I write here of the organized self-styled “skeptics”, not normal, healthy skepticism. Most ordinary skeptics typically dismiss cryonics without even investigating the subject enough to know that it is called “cryonics” rather than “cryogenics”, or that cryonics organizations use vitrification rather than freezing.

Organized skeptics may make the same mistakes, but for many organized skeptics, “skepticism” can be a kind of faith, especially in connection with cryonics (although there are some reasonable skeptics within organized skepticism). The anti-cryonics skeptics about whom I write are those represented by the Rick Ross “Anti-Cult group:

http://forum.rickross.com/read.php?12,64749

and the “skeptics” behind the so-called RationalWiki:

http://rationalwiki.com/wiki/Cryonics

These people seem as little amenable to reason as any group you can find. Instead of dialog, there is only denigration, accusation and name-calling. Their conclusions are also their premises: no intervening deductive process is evident. Added to their imperviousness to reason is their intense emotional hostility.

Although there might seem to be little hope of progress in arguing with these people, that may be an overstatement. And even in arguing with the most bigoted of skeptics, there are spectators who may be influenced. Some of these may even be less vocal skeptics who are activists in the forums.

Although it can be difficult to be emotionally detached, there is something to be said for studying organized “skeptics” as an anthropologist or behaviorist would study them. What inputs result in what outputs? Why and how do they think as they do? If we are to survive, it will help to know our enemies so as to anticipate their actions.

One thing that I have noticed is the great reluctance organized skeptics have to believe that we are sincere. They ascribe evil motives (money, power) in order to make us comprehensible to them. They cannot understand our craving for more life as a motive. The fact that cryonics costs quite a bit of money excites considerable negative attention from the skeptics, who pay no attention to the fact that the cryonics organizations doing storage are non-profit, or that storing a person in liquid nitrogen indefinitely is not something that can be done cheaply as long as the economies of scale are limited by the small number of patients. No evidence for the money-motive accusations other than the cost is attempted.

It seems as if to believe we are sincere would undermine the desire of organized skeptics to hate us and feel morally superior. Portraying cryonics as a scam (run by cynics who are motivated only by money) makes cryonicists and cryonics organizations evil, rather than deluded. Why do they feel such a need to hate us, as well as believe we are wrong? I suspect some of this may result when we undermine their beliefs with argument. They seem as attached to their beliefs as any fanatic.

Although most cryonicists are atheists or agnostics, cryonics is compatible with religion. Many religionists, unfortunately, refuse to believe this, despite the fact that there is no scriptural support for their view. So cryonicists must suffer from the hostility of these fanatics. Unfortunately, many cryonicists seem to take the position that cryonics and religion are incompatible, which exacerbates the problem by reinforcing the views of religious fanatics. I am hoping not to be offensive to religious cryonicists by having said these things, or by what I am about to say.

I believe most atheists have at least some antipathy to religion, at least to regard it as an occasional nuisance. But I also believe that most atheists have little interest in religion, and would rather think about other things.

Organized atheists are another matter. Most organized atheists are obsessed with religion. In many cases they have suffered oppressive treatment and indoctrination by religionists, and these atheists are extremely hostile and bitter about that treatment. They may have had to struggle greatly to throw-off the beliefs into which they were indoctrinated, and they resent the fact that they had been deluded. They study religion intensely to purge themselves of their indoctrination, to reinforce their new beliefs, and to prepare themselves for combat against their religious enemies.

It has been said that the only cure for alcoholism is religious fanaticism. I sometimes get the impression that those who cure themselves of religious fanaticism do so by means of anti-religious fanaticism. Such people are among those who become organized atheists. Although their mentality is supposedly the opposite of it was when they were in a religion or church, they have formed a new “church” which operates by the same rules as the old ones.

I think that organized skeptics are similar to organized atheists and, indeed, there is a great deal of membership overlap between the two groups. How scientific are people who, instead of devoting themselves to science, devote themselves to studying what they call “science woo” into which they pigeon-hole cryonics? All of the attributes of the other “woo sciences” become attributes of cryonics. (“To those who only have a hammer, every problem is a nail.”)

By being in an organization (formal or an informal list/wiki) there is peer-pressure to conform to the atheistic or “skeptical” beliefs of the group. I believe that this is what lies behind the cultish mentality of these purported anti-cult activists. There is a black-and-white view of what is cult or scam and what is not. The group labels Branch Davidians, Scientologists and cryonicists as being cults, and the group conforms in heaping the same abuse on all of the labeled organizations.

Again, I hope that I have not been offensive to religious cryonicists by anything that I have said. I don’t think any religious cryonicist has the same mentality as religious fanatics. And I expect that religious cryonicists are offended by religious fanatics and by religionists who refuse to believe that cryonics and religion are compatible.

The singularity is not near

Singularity skeptic Mark Plus drew my attention to the following blog post. The author writes that:

Chalmers’ (and other advocates of the possibility of a Singularity) argument starts off with the simple observation that machines have gained computing power at an extraordinary rate over the past several years, a trend that one can extrapolate to a near future explosion of intelligence. Too bad that, as any student of statistics 101 ought to know, extrapolation is a really bad way of making predictions, unless one can be reasonably assured of understanding the underlying causal phenomena (which we don’t, in the case of intelligence).

He ends his post by the following observation:

It is nice to see philosophers taking a serious interest in science and bringing their discipline’s tools and perspectives to the high table of important social debates about the future of technology. But the attempt becomes a not particularly funny joke when a well known philosopher starts out by deploying a really bad argument and ends up sounding more cuckoo than trekkie fans at their annual convention.

There are several arguments that can be made against simple extrapolations of past trends and the way many transhumanists think about the progress of science.  Some of these arguments have been made in my own piece Scientific Optimism and Progress in Cryonics. It is striking that when futurists have to estimate a timescale for important breakthroughs these events almost invariably are projected to happen within their lifetime, and even if they do not, there is some way to be a part of them. This tendency itself is indicative of how rationalism, wishful thinking, and self-interest can shape our ideas about the future.

The healthy skeptic

Consumers are constantly bombarded with advice about health. Lower your cholesterol, avoid carbs, take dietary supplements, avoid Teflon, get a full body scan, etc. Such advice does not fall on deaf ears. Who does not want to remain healthy, look good, and extend life? Two other factors contribute to our eagerness to consume and follow health advice. First, the accelerating growth of knowledge in fields such as biology and biochemistry. Second, a reasonable assumption that if some chemicals and behaviors can harm us,  there must be chemicals and changes in behavior that can confer great benefits.

The role science plays in contemporary thinking about health is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it can be used to debunk grandiose claims about health by subjecting these claims to rigorous scientific investigation. On the other hand, the authority of  scientists can can be abused to support products or lifestyle changes for which there is little evidence. For many people and journalists, the phrase that “research proves” something is often enough to act on health recommendations, regardless of the nature and quality of the evidence. But it does make a lot of difference whether “research proves” means a small number of experiments in a test tube or a multi-country randomized human trial.

And that is where Robert J. Davis’ book The Healthy Skeptic: Cutting through the Hype about Your Health comes into play. What makes Davis’ book stand out over other books debunking contemporary health claims is that he gives the reader a set of solid guidelines to evaluate scientific statements about health in general. Another major strength is that the author does not single out one group of health hustlers but argues quite persuasively that misinformation about health is not confined to pharmaceutical companies or sellers of dietary supplements, but is rampant among government, non-profit organizations, and consumer activists as well. For example, as  the author writes about consumer activists:

Simply because they’re looking out for our welfare doesn’t necessarily mean that the public interest groups always tell us the truth. Rather than helping us, they can sometimes cause harm by frightening us unnecessarily and diverting our attention from risks that are far more important. As healthy skeptics, we need to apply the same scrutiny to their advice as we give to that from the industry-funded groups or anyone else.

The most “timeless” aspect of the book is the chapter where the author discusses the use and abuse of science in health. Before drawing our wallet or changing our diet, we can ask ourselves the following eight questions:

1. What kind of study is it (laboratory research, short-term human studies, randomized clinical trials etc.)
2. How big is the effect?
3. Could the findings be a fluke?
4. Who was studied?
5. Is there a good explanation?
6. Who paid for the research?
7. Was it peer reviewed?
8.  How does it square with other studies?

As should be clear from those questions, behind the phrase “research proves” are many shades of grey. As the author points out, the question of how a study squares with other studies is perhaps the most crucial question. There is so much (poor) research being published that almost any claim about health can be supported by scientific studies. Sellers of dietary supplements often exploit this by presenting only studies that “support” their recommendations. If health advice does not come with qualifications and/or opposing research conclusions are not mentioned at all, one should be very wary.

Perhaps the most important chapters for life extentionists are those on dietary supplements and “anti-aging doctors.” Davis gives a number of useful recommendations to evaluate claims about supplements:

– Verify “clinically proven” claims
– Don’t assume that “natural” means safe
– Be skeptical of claims that a souped-up or specifically targeted vitamin or mineral supplement is better than an ordinary one
– Don’t be swayed by weasel words (such as “maintains heart health” or “provides immune support”)
– Be wary of organizations or individuals who provide information about supplements and also sell them

When all is said and done, the book does not recommend any radical interventions to improve health or prolong life and sticks to the usual recommendations (don’t smoke, exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, etc.) This is not because of cynicism, but because the more radical claims are just not backed up by contemporary science.

Life extensionists and futurists may believe that they are mostly immune to wishful thinking and the marketing of snake oil but  they may be less immune to more subtle psychological (deadly) traps such as the belief that “this time, things are different,” or the naive assumption that all problems can be solved, given enough time and knowledge. Although progress in science can benefit from scientists that are committed to achieve  important goals like increasing the maximum life span or even defeating death altogether, in reality it is often hard to tell the difference between being motivated by such desires and simply assuming that they will be satisfied, and thus crossing the line into meliorist dogmatic belief.

An interview with the author can be found on the Amazon page for the book.

Richard Dawkins on fashionable nonsense

The Dutch psychologist Piet Vroon once opined that philosophy has lost much of its relevance because it  has lost touch with the (natural) sciences. Although philosophers associated with logical positivism and critical rationalism made great efforts to discipline the practice of philosophy by encouraging logical thinking and verification (or falsification), so far their efforts must be considered a failure, as evidenced by the fact that their scientific perspective is usually classified as just another school of thought within contemporary philosophy. A symptom of this development is that we often see the word “philosophy” substituted for “opinion.” It should not be surprising, then, that many life extensionists are greatly skeptical of disciplines like bioethics. As a general rule, when all is said and done, and the “learned” rhetoric has been dissected, there is not much left other than the philosopher’s personal opinion.

This 2007 review by Richard Dawkins’ of Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont  reminds us how much pretentious unscientific nonsense is circulating among “intellectuals.” Although the examples of continental philosophy that Dawkins discusses represent the extreme regions of academia, a lot of philosophy and “social science” that is dominating contemporary intellectual debate, and informing public policies, is still miles away from the disciplined approach to science that thinkers like Alfred Ayer and Karl Popper advocated in their writings.

Whereas the natural sciences have mostly remained sane because of the strong link between experimental science and practical applications, such mechanisms are often absent in the social sciences.  And to the extent social science is “applied,” the question of what constitutes success is (necessarily) arbitrary. This situation is further aggravated by the fact that many social scientists and philosophers are sheltered from market mechanisms and real accountability.

Scientific skeptics have sometimes been criticized for focusing too much time on phenomena such as parapsychology, astrology, tarot reading and UFOs at the expense of more widely shared superstition such as mainstream religion. Similarly, concerned scientists tend to focus on fashionable nonsense such as postmodernism and  post-structuralism at the expense of more widespread ideas such as the epistemological problems in most social science or the extreme “blank slate” view of human nature that informs most public policy. Most people may not believe that astrologists can predict the future, but we seem to have fewer problems when similar claims to knowledge are expressed by social scientists and economists.