Does Not Compute?

"Evidence or GTFO"

Evidence or GTFO

This will come as no great shock to anyone that has known me for any length of time, but: I’m a card-carrying skeptic. There. I’ve said it.

Now, by “skeptic,” I don’t mean “that guy who always says ‘nuh-uh!’ every time anyone makes a claim. Nor do I mean the habitual debunker, who feels compelled to—often gleefully—reply all to every credulous chain email with 5 links disproving whatever silly story is contained therein.1

I also don’t mean the kind of “skeptic” that simply doesn’t believe in something because it goes against my particular world-view or dogma or agenda.2

I’m the kind of skeptic that is epitomized by the image of James Randi above: give me evidence or don’t be shocked when I fail to believe your claim.

I don’t believe in ghosts, magic, bigfoot, psychic powers, angels, demons, gods, devils, alien abduction, mermaids, the Loch Ness monster, qi/chi, homeopathy, therapeutic touch, ear candling, or a very, very long list of other things too numerous to mention for which there is simply no well-tested scientific evidence that shows an effect that could not be accounted for by other things such as abnormal psychology, pareidolia, coincidence, or the placebo effect.

When people know or learn this about me and then see the kind of thing I write (science fiction, fantasy (epic, urban, and dark), and horror), I sometimes get the response where they tilt their head to one side and you can practically hear their neurons undergoing cognitive dissonance.

“But…if you don’t believe in any of that stuff, why is that all you write about?”

It’s a very good, valid question. And one for which I didn’t have a good answer. But something occurred to me during lunch, today, and I think I have a glimmer of understanding.

One of the most basic tools in the Skeptic’s Toolbox is this simple question: If X is true, how would that affect the world?

For instance, here’s an example. If homeopathy3 were true, how would that affect the world?

Well, first of all, every time you drank water, you’d get what amounts to a massive dose of medicine that should cure every known disease or ailment. And the irony of homeopathy is that the less of it you drink, the higher the dose.

If that were true, how would that affect the world?

Well, there’d be practically no sickness, because all anyone would have to do to cure themselves would be to drink a glass of water. Doctors and hospitals would only be needed for treating trauma. Drug companies would go out of business. Insurance companies would deal only in accidental death and dismemberment policies. (Alas, no amount of medicine cures stupid.)

There would be no more depression, no more malaria, no more common cold, no more cancer, no more epilepsy, no more ebola, AIDS, herpes…the world would be entirely different.

And if by diluting a substance that causes an effect, you can cause the opposite effect in the body, think of the amazing new illicit drugs! Dilute something that causes pain and taking a miniscule dose of it would cause euphoria. Meth and cocaine and LSD wouldn’t hold a candle to some of the designer drugs you could whip up in your own kitchen sink.

Of course, you’d have to have a way of removing the ‘remembered vibrations’ from water, so there’d be a market for that kind of thing. If for no other reason than to make sure that the human race didn’t go extinct or have a population boom. Think of all the substances out there that cause either fertility or infertility. Dilute those enough, and you have a potent birth control (by diluting the fertility-inducers) or fertility drugs (by super-dilution of fertility-reducing substances).

On the other hand, maybe “regular” tap water is nearly perfectly balanced, so all the things that would cause X and all the things that would cause -X cancel each other out. Maybe diseases are caused by water supplies being slightly tilted in one direction or another. People who could analyze the content of municipal water supplies (or wells) could make a mint by offering to re-balance the water supply.

Imagine a world where you might be hyper-allergic to water, because it contains a massively dilute form of anti-histamine compounds. How would you survive? You’d have to have a way of “detoxifying” the water so you could drink it (i.e., removing the ‘vibrations’; erasing the ‘memory.’)

Ooh, or how about all the estrogen or testosterone that winds up in the water supply? Even if there had never been a drug industry churning out metric tons of artificial examples of both hormones, people gotta pee, and that pee’s gotta go somewhere. If your municipal water supply became gender-imbalanced…if there were too much estrogen and it were diluted enough, it would have the same effect as a massive dose of anabolic steroids. <shudder>.

Do you see what I’ve done, here? This is exactly what a writer does when doing world development. It’s just world-building!

If elves existed, how would that affect the world?

If ships could travel faster than light, how would that affect civilization?

If lycanthropism existed, how would it work? How would it affect the world?4

What if the ancient Mayans were right, and all their gods do exist, and the world really is going to end in 2012?

So I think the answer to the question, “How do you write this stuff if you don’t believe in any of it?” is that by being a skeptic and really looking at the world through a skeptical lens, you’re improving your ability to ask really interesting world-building questions.

Note: I realize that I have said some things here that will not sit well with some people. I will not allow the comments here to turn into a debate. If I have said something here to offend you, I apologize, but there will be absolutely no name-calling, no diatribes, etc. I mention the definition of a skeptic and the negative examples in the footnote below for informational purposes to show readers what I mean—along with the majority of the skeptical community—when I use the word ‘skeptic.’ If you have a differing opinion, you are certainly entitled to it. But we are not going to debate it, here. All comments are moderated. Capisce? Buona.

  1. Well, okay, I actually do this, but it’s beside my point.
  2. In other words, climate-change skeptics, who claim there is insufficient evidence that either our climate is changing or that mankind’s activities have contributed to it significantly; 9/11 skeptics (“Truthers”), who claim to be skeptical that 9/11 was perpetrated by terrorists; “Moon Hoaxers,” who claim that the United States never landed on the moon and that the entirety of the Apollo program was faked on a soundstage; “Birthers,” who claim to be skeptical that President Obama is a US citizen; or Holocaust skeptics, who claim that either no one was killed by the Nazis or far fewer than is generally accepted. In each of those cases, the scientific consensus goes with the overwhelming evidence, but the ‘skeptics’ go against that evidence. The kind of skeptic I’m talking about is the kind that goes where the evidence leads, even if that is to a place his/her sentiments oppose.
  3. This link at Wikipedia does a much more thorough job of explaining homeopathy than I can.
  4. At least one author in the Urban Fantasy genre (Kat Richardson) had one of her characters—a skeptic, amusingly enough—point out that the energy required to literally reshape the tissues in a living being into another form would generate enough heat that any such creature would explode. She uses this to explain why there are no were-beasts in her novels. Vampires, yes. :)

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