Our Cross to Bear

I’m an atheist, but for social reasons I occasionally have to sit through a church service. This past Easter, I did it again, and found the sermon particularly interesting, though not in the way the pastor intended. Visiting a common theme, she talked about how preposterous Easter is: the idea of someone rising from the dead, the shortage of witnesses to the event, and the questionable credibility of the few who did supposedly see it. The lesson was supposed to be that only someone of great faith would believe such a story, thus proving that Christians are the most pious people.

Instead of a religious epiphany, though, I had an anthropological one. Believing in something absurd is a good way to be ridiculed – and that’s exactly the point. By professing their beliefs, the faithful are not really trying to convince outsiders of anything. The entire purpose is to incur derision, so that they can point to it as proof of their faith.

Crosses. Courtesy Flickr user istolethetv.

This is the whole point, apparently.

“Look at what I endured for our beliefs,” they want to say. It cements their position in the community of their faith, and also challenges others in that community to outdo them. Someone else then professes the absurd beliefs to an even larger crowd, incurring even more ridicule, and earning even more esteem among the faithful. If they make enough of a nuisance of themselves to get arrested, injured, or killed, they’ll be made into saints.

Arguing with these faith-based absurdities is not only unproductive, it’s actively counterproductive. Believers want to hear someone elaborate all the ways their beliefs are wrong. They thrive on the rational disproofs of their position. They crave the scorn.

As interesting as that insight was, I didn’t think it applied to anything beyond traditional organized religion. This week, I suddenly realized that an entirely new kind of religion has quietly sprouted over the past few years, and that its tendrils now extend into a wide range of scientific topics. I don’t have a name for these new religions yet – maybe Forum Faiths, or E-tribes, or Chatroom Counterfactuals would work. Regardless of the terminology, the pattern is always the same.

Start with a controversial but completely testable statement – a hypothesis. This frames the discussion as a scientific one, even though you have no intention of pursuing it scientifically. Say that vaccines cause autism, or that a newly discovered retrovirus causes chronic fatigue syndrome, or that people with delusional parasitosis are actually infected with real parasites. The specifics don’t matter, all that matters is that you pick a topic someone will care about, and make a surprising claim that some people will want to believe.

Now present a tiny shred of data supporting the hypothesis, but tell everyone that you’re sure it’s going to turn out to be true. This establishes the faith. True believers will immediately sort themselves out from the crowd, latching onto the hypothesis and proclaiming it as fact, even though (or perhaps especially because) the data are so scanty.

From that point forward, every new piece of evidence against the hypothesis will only reinforce the faith. Some of the early adopters, who were misled by thinking this was an actual scientific exercise, will abandon the group once the new data come along. The true believers, though, will become more adamant. They’ll meet in online forums every time a new refutation comes along, so they can agree on talking points to answer it. They will then spam every blog, forum, and news site with comments that appear to be arguments, but which are actually protestations of their faith.

As unbelievers respond to those comments, the believers will persist until their arguments are completely absurd. Then they’ll be ridiculed for their irrationality, at which point they’ve won. They can return to their groups and point to the suffering they’ve felt for the faith. Their esteem among the faithful will rise, even as the rest of the world considers them idiots.

Meanwhile, the charismatic leader of the faith – The One who originally presented the shred of data – will follow the same pattern but in the professional world. He or she will argue with the scientists whose data don’t support the hypothesis, until the arguments become absurd. The scientific community will then marginalize and ignore The One, because they don’t have time to deal with willful idiocy. Of course, to the faithful this only proves that The One is a true martyr, and that the unbelievers are conspiring against them.

I don’t have a solution to this. Ignoring these counterfactual religions won’t work, particularly when they make claims that can profoundly affect public health, and arguing with them obviously isn’t going to help either. Science is ultimately self-correcting, so poorly-controlled, fraudulent, or simply erroneous results will eventually be expunged and most of the world will move on. The true believers, isolated in their little cul-de-sacs of falsehood, may gradually dwindle over time. All that will be left will be the damage: kids maimed and killed by vaccine-preventable diseases, sick patients made sicker from drugs that never could have helped them, families destroyed by untreated psychoses.

As religious casualties go, I suppose it could be worse. But in the twenty-first century, I wish we could do better.

13 thoughts on “Our Cross to Bear

  1. Sean Michael Ragan

    Well, as you’ve pointed out, professionals dismiss them because they have better ways to spend their time. And even if it were possible to find people who had the time and inclination to patiently explain to them why they’re wrong, as you’ve also pointed out, argument is generally ineffective. People do these things for psychological reasons. Being right is much less comforting, to most people, than feeling like you really belong to something bigger than yourself–a movement or a church or whatnot. It’s a shame people can’t just recognize and/or admit that they get lonely and want to be part of something, and come together mostly for that reason, because that’s a common human condition. They have to dress it up in arguments and dogmas and agendas and rites.

  2. ERV

    I don’t have a solution to this.
    Well, I have a kinda-solution, and you do too– Education.

    The basics of evolution are not hard. The basics of vaccination are not hard (I actually just watched ‘Beakmans World’ episode (pre-Wakefield) on Netflix and he done good!). The basics of the XMRV fiasco are not hard. Normal people can totally get this stuff.

    Normal people can understand that a lab thought they found something cool, but other labs cant back up those findings, and actually other labs are pretty sure the first labs results were a mistake and have evidence to back that up.

    We, as scientists, can totally help normal people via education, and I (and you!) think its our responsibility as scientists to do so. Hopefully we catch them before they can be swayed by a messiah, but if we dont, maybe education can help them out.

    We totally have a way to help normal people.

    What we dont have a solution to is how to reach nutbars.

    We need a different degree to even begin to address that. So I dont really view that as my (your your) problem.

    1. Alan Post author

      I agree completely. When I said I don’t have a solution, I was referring to the folks we can’t reach with education. No, they’re not technically my problem, but to some extent they’re everyone’s problem.

    2. Claire

      I was thinking about science education and how it doesn’t include learning how to follow the scientific process and science in the news. They teach the scientific method at various points in school but this only looks at one experiment at a time. The science education I received was nearly all learning content rather than how science is done. So I wouldn’t be surprised if some regular people who shouldn’t actually be nutbars end up thinking like a nutbar from lack of education. Bloggers can help educate but I think our science curriculum from a much younger age needs to focus more on how to think and how science is done rather than learning facts.

  3. ERV

    Oh! Also along these lines, the question has come up as to what to do with Mikovits. Sure she was off her rocker when the first neg paper came out, maybe one could excuse that as ‘ill advised’ and reactionary to an initial neg, especially if she later apologized. But for a scientist to maintain her level of denial in the face of negative data from literally all over the world (except South America? huh.), how is another professional in the field supposed to deal with that?

    You run into the same problems people have when ‘debating’ Creationists or Anti-vax messiahs– The ‘debate’, the interaction itself is a zero-sum game for the scientist, where heads the nutbar wins, tail you lose.

    I would shamelessly advise my strategy– either simply do not engage, or do it for the lulz. But do *not* make the mistake of thinking logic and reason will hold sway. If someone of her supposed training doesnt understand the implications of the papers published to date, you aint gonna educate her.

  4. Willow

    I think you’re overreacting. Most of the ME/CFS community is saying they don’t know what to think about murine leukemia viruses, which is, incidentally, the same think Ian Lipkin says. Yes, I know, contamination. But that really can’t explain, for instance, negative controls when they were handled the same way as the samples (which I think is the case). No contamination has been demonstrated, which is something which directly applies to the Lombardi study. There could be some sort of as-yet-undetermined contamination which could explain things.

    But it’s normal for science to have false leads this early in the process. Maybe the MLV’s are a false lead, and maybe the thought that *all* results are explainable by contamination is a false lead. It’s too soon to tell. As Lipkin says, sometimes other (good!) scientists are unable to replicate a particular result and WPI deserves a chance to replicate their own methods in a blinded study. Any conclusion prior to that is premature.

    Maybe MLV’s will turn out to be unimportant. Maybe methods will turn out to be more important than virologists are accustomed to thinking. At this point, I agree with Lipkin’s public statment, that we have a state of confusion.

    The really important point here, the take-home message, is that ME/CFS patients have been basically thrown in a dungeon for the last few decades. Did you know that the federal research budget for ME/CFS is generally only $4-6 million? Compare to MS, $144 million, Asthma, $300 million, Alzheimer’s, $500 million. Whether or not any retrovirus is involved, the important thing is that ME/CFS patients deserve hard science, not insults. If you don’t want them believing in XMRV, then, by all means, get NIH to give some funding for something else. Despite the lack of funding, there is no lack of promising avenues. For instance:

    Jammes Y, Steinberg JG, Delliaux S, Brégeon F. “Chronic fatigue syndrome combines increased exercise-induced oxidative stress and reduced cytokine and Hsp responses.” J Intern Med. 2009 Aug;266(2):196-206. Epub 2009 May 19. PMID: 19457057

    Chia J, Chia A, Voeller M, Lee T, Chang R. “Acute enterovirus infection followed by myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and viral persistence.” J Clin Pathol. 2010 Feb;63(2):165-8. Epub 2009 Oct 14. PMID: 19828908

    Fletcher MA, Zeng XR, Maher K, Levis S, Hurwitz B, Antoni M, Broderick G, Klimas NG. “Biomarkers in chronic fatigue syndrome: evaluation of natural killer cell function and dipeptidyl peptidase IV/CD26.” PLoS One. 2010 May 25;5(5):e10817. PMID: 20520837

    Kerr JR, Gough J, Richards SC, Main J, Enlander D, McCreary M, Komaroff AL, Chia JK. “Antibody to parvovirus B19 nonstructural protein is associated with chronic arthralgia in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis.” J Gen Virol. 2010 Apr;91(Pt 4):893-7. Epub 2009 Dec 9. PMID: 20007355

    Zhang L, Gough J, Christmas D, Mattey DL, Richards SC, Main J, Enlander D, Honeybourne D, Ayres JG, Nutt DJ, Kerr JR. “Microbial infections in eight genomic subtypes of chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis.” J Clin Pathol. 2010 Feb;63(2):156-64. Epub 2009 Dec 2. PMID: 19955554

    Peckerman A, LaManca JJ, Dahl KA, Chemitiganti R, Qureishi B, Natelson BH. “Abnormal impedance cardiography predicts symptom severity in chronic fatigue syndrome.” Am J Med Sci. 2003 Aug;326(2):55-60. PMID: 12920435

    Konstantinov K, von Mikecz A, Buchwald D, Jones J, Gerace L, Tan EM. “Autoantibodies to nuclear envelope antigens in chronic fatigue syndrome.” J Clin Invest. 1996 Oct 15;98(8):1888-96. PMID: 8878441

    Whistler T, Jones JF, Unger ER, Vernon SD. “Exercise responsive genes measured in peripheral blood of women with chronic fatigue syndrome and matched control subjects.” BMC Physiol. 2005 Mar 24;5(1):5. PMID: 15790422

    1. Alan Post author

      Yes, it seems the majority of the CFS patients have already figured out what’s up with XMRV. I was talking about the hard-core disciples of the Church of St. Judy.

      As for Lipkin, he has to say it’s unsettled – the guy has six months left on a large, controversial grant to study XMRV in CFS. Nonetheless, the Singh, Coffin, and Levy papers have largely stolen his thunder. The one thing Lipkin’s study might do is provide the legal authority for the FDA to shut down the WPI’s testing program, which I think would be a good idea at this point.

      1. Rebecca

        First, I want to say that I don’t know whether XMRV causes ME, but I am leaning towards the “it doesn’t” side. However, I am bothered by the following comment:

        “As for Lipkin, he has to say it’s unsettled – the guy has six months left on a large, controversial grant to study”
        XMRV in CFS”

        We have been told so many times that money and grants don’t have any influence over the negative studies, yet here you say the Dr. Lipkin is influenced by his grant. How come this only goes one way? If Ian Lipkin can be influenced, why can’t the other side of the argument be influenced (by money of course)?

        1. Alan Post author

          That’s not what that sentence means. Ian Lipkin is influenced by his grant to finish the study, and in order to do that he has to say (and probably believe) that the issue remains unsettled. As with most government-funded research, the grant check clears no matter what result he gets. Singh, Levy, Coffin, and Pathak all had similarly neutral motives (though I suppose in Singh’s case she had a strong ego-based motive to find the virus, rather than admit that her lab was previously contaminated).

  5. Willow

    Let me correct myself slightly. The ME/CFS community has all types, including many who have largely abandoned, and some who never believed, the XMRV/MLV theory in the first place. Many others (and I think these mentioned groups comprise the great majority) are taking a cautious but wait-and-see attitude, but concerned that the scientific process may be cut short–regardless of what the outcome is on MLVs, we want to know for sure what it is. We care less what is wrong than that someone looks dilligently and finds appropriate treatment as soon as possible.

  6. Andrew

    Teaching specifics such as the basics of evolution is only a small part of the solution. It is easy to ridicule those who disagree with us and accuse them of being ‘abnormal’ or stupid or whatever. But of the many issues facing society today, you will often find a lack of consensus among well educated experts. Today, this is not so evident in the case of evolution or XMRV infection in humans, but there are plenty of other issues where there is no clear consensus.

    In terms of education, rather than specific topics (it takes too long to teach every topic under the sun!), ideally we would instead teach Bayesian epistemology, explain how science works (in practise) and the like.

    But even assuming that everyone has the capacity to understand and apply such concepts, the outcome will still be a distributed range of beliefs, rather than discrete clusters.

    There are likely to be sociological factors why beliefs occur in seemingly unexpected distributions in population groups and it would be a good idea to actually review and cite such research, lest we conclude that you too are committing to an absurdity.

  7. window

    The parents of autistic children used to be told that it was their loveless manner which caused their child’s problems. This approach feeding in to a dismissive approach long after researchers had abandoned such ideas.

    Several still prominent CFS researchers spent the early 90s saying patients were actually depressed, and just unable to accept it. Even thought they’ve now repudiated this view, it is still one CFS patients often have to deal with from their doctors.

    Morgellon’s seems like it’s a diagnosis which could include all manner of different causes. I was recently listening to a lecture from an eczema specialist who was talking about how poorly treated many severely affected eczema patients are , and mentioned that many can end up believing they have Morgellon’s after being dismissed by their doctors (and eczema should be easy to diagnose!!). Dr Oaklander, a neurologist specialising in itch mechanisms at Harvard Medical School, has said that she’s come across many ‘Morgellons’ patients with a chronic itch disorder, and said that they have been maltreated by the medical establishment.

    When people get badly treated by mainstream medicine, some of them are going to lose faith in mainstream medicine, and are more likely to fall prey to quackery – this can make it even easier to dismiss them and their suffering. An important part of the solution would be to ensure that those within mainstream medicine who treat their patients unfairly, or allow their prejudices to affect diagnosis or treatment, should be held properly accountable. Currently too much deference is given to the arbitrary clinical judgements of those who should be simply following the best available evidence, and this allows quackery to breed for poorly understood conditions.

    Maybe approaching medicine as a logarithmic process will be the solution here: http://singularityhub.com/2011/06/06/just-months-after-jeopardy-watson-wows-doctors-with-medical-knowledge/

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