Alternative Realities

Photo Credit: epSos.de via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: epSos.de via Compfight cc

Some people are strong advocates of alternative medicine. They believe that western medical practice is a big conspiracy designed to keep patients hooked on medication, keeping the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical and healthcare industry thriving. They are the ones who cry that vaccination causes autism, and promote treatments such as “cleansing,” “detoxification,” “strengthening the immune system,” and so forth. They argue that modern medicine and vitamins is laden with “chemicals” that harm your body.

On the last point, I would gently remind these people that every single thing in our universe is a chemical and just because someone uses the chemical name of an ingredient in a product label doesn’t make it more lethal than using the common name. “Ascorbic acid,” for example, sounds like it would burn through your intestines while “Natural Vitamin C” sounds a little friendlier (more so if you add the phrase “from organic sources”) although both really amount to the same thing.

A few years ago, an article came out in the Durand Express, a weekly newspaper in Durand, Michigan, stating that a harmful chemical called dihydrogen oxide or DHMO had been found in the city’s water pipes. Other articles (and an entire website – www.dhmo.org) came out citing the prevalence and dangers of DHMO, which was in almost every product on the market, but rarely cited in the ingredients. It was one big conspiracy.

A careful and mildly scientifically literate reader, would of course, have picked up the joke early on. Dihydrogen means two parts of hydrogen. Monoxide means one part of oxygen. Combine the two and you have a chemical formula you have probably seen before you were 10 years old — that of water. Oh, and the Durand Express article came out on April Fools day.

This story is reportedly used by science educators to encourage critical thinking. At least, I hope that our science educators are doing that. If they themselves fell for that trick, well, let’s just say my reaction to that is not fit for print.

Going back to alternative treatments, there are doctors, on the other hand, who refuse to consider them at all. They think all these “herbal nonsense” is bunk and unscientific, and all its practitioners are unscrupulous individuals out to deceive their patients and milk them dry. As a side note, the “natural remedies” business is also a multi-billion dollar industry with its own set of practitioners and subspecialties that can rival the status quo.

So what do I believe and where do I stand? I find that my stand on this is very similar to my stand on religion. I think there is some middle ground to be found — some might argue that it’s not so middle — but nonetheless, I think there is something genuine in alternative medicine, but I tend to err always on the side of scientific inquiry.

There is indeed a lot of bunk, hype and deception going on in the alternative healthcare industry. Magnet care, radio wave care, and such exotic sounding therapies have been scientifically refuted by cancer research groups such as the American Cancer Society. Many herbal products have also been found not to contain the herbs they are supposed to contain, but powdered substitutes such as rice and weeds.

On the other hand, I also find a lot of sincere individuals who really believe they are doing something good and that they are providing real care and service. I also personally know people who have benefitted from such care and not just in a very subjective, “I feel better” kind of way, but backed up by improved laboratory results and doctors’ evaluations.

A recent article by oncologist Dr. Ranjana Srivastava in The Guardian UK, laments the fact that there is virtually no communication or collaboration between medical doctors and alternative therapy providers. At first, she seems angered by the fact that a lot of alternative “doctors” are hijacking her patients. She states, “Research shows that nearly 70% of cancer patients and a staggering 90% of patients enrolled in an early phase clinical trial use alternative therapies. We now know that many of these therapies are not only unhelpful but are downright dangerous. Herbs and supplements can interact with chemotherapy and reduce its efficacy, a real drawback when therapy is given with curative intent.”

However, one discovers at the end that she is advocating the removal of alternative medicine, but only to implement better regulatory practices and to have a genuine dialogue. She concludes: “But the point of many alternative therapies seems to be in their secret powers of healing. I know it’s often said but I honestly don’t consider arrogance a good explanation for why oncologists and alternative practitioners don’t talk. I would, however, say that dismay and distrust feature heavily. As does the troubling realisation that a doctor can face reprimand for inadvertent error but an alternative practitioner can get away with intentional harm.

This is not a reason to excuse the former but to regulate the latter. Perhaps this would make it easier to follow the advice that doctors need to familiarise themselves with the various forms of complementary and alternative medicines. It is conceivable that some worthwhile measures are tainted by the same brush as a lot of fraudulent ones.”

It is quite easy to pick one side over another and defend it to death. It is much more difficult to open yourself to the possibility that there is something to be learned from the other side as well, and it is difficult because the process is messy, time-consuming and involves a lot of humility, listening, unlearning and critical thinking.

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

God On My Side

Photo Credit: Spatial Mongrel via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Spatial Mongrel via Compfight cc

I recently went through a string of fortunate events, which led me to joke with my wife. I told her that God is on my side and is giving me favors because I’m the prodigal son, that’s why I should keep going on in my prodigal ways.

But the thought that God is on your side can be a dangerous idea. It can be used to manipulate people, especially the religious, who would think you would not dare use God’s name in vain. In our country, for example, when politicians are accused of wrongdoing, they are very quick to appear pious. The rosaries come out and God is uttered in every other sentence. A senator who was arrested last year brazenly wore a shirt with the words of Psalm 118:6 emblazoned on the front, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: What can man do unto me?”

I am very wary around people who think God is on their side. I am especially wary when they show strong conviction and feeling when they declare it. Take a look at these statements I picked at random on the internet, then look at who said them. I am not saying they are being dishonest (though that is also a possibility). But based on their conviction, they probably believe every word they say, which makes it all the more frightening. When people honestly think God is on their side, they can be capable of doing anything.

“I totally sided with the spirit of the Father, so that Satan Lucifer the devil’s hold on the fallen Adamic race that the Father has created for himself was free, and he sets me free and through my own freedom of choice, I have decided to follow the Father’s will no matter what. So that, that was a spiritual success that cannot be had without the Father’s guidance and without the Father’s protection upon someone like me whom He has called.” - Apollo C. Quiboloy, the “Appointed Son of God” (excerpt from the online article, Giving: The Key to Blessings)

Never be discouraged. If I were sunk in the lowest pits of Nova Scotia, with the Rocky Mountains piled on me, I would hang on, exercise faith, and keep up good courage, and I would come out on top.” – Joseph Smith, Jr., founder, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons)

“When I stepped in, I felt compelled by a higher power. Honestly, have you ever been grabbed by the Lord in a way you never thought you would or you could? That’s exactly what I’m testifying to, and I’m not speaking in hyperbole. I’m speaking right from the heart.” - Thomas Hammer,  a teacher who said a  ‘Higher Power’ told him to attack a kid on a skateboard

“Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice… And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly, it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people. And when I look on my people I see them work and work and toil and labor, and at the end of the week they have only for their wages wretchedness and misery. When I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil, if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom today this poor people are plundered and exposed.” - Adolf Hitler, speech in Munich on April 12, 1922

The next time someone tells you God is on his side, be very, very careful.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Big Bang Blues

Photo Credit: Exyt via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Exyt via Compfight cc

Since yesterday was Chinese New Year, which is traditionally celebrated with firecrackers (except in Davao City), I thought of talking about the Big Bang Theory and the misconceptions surrounding it.

I got the impression that some people are just so miseducated about it when I got into a couple of arguments with biblical creationists regarding the matter. One person posted a recent science article on Facebook entitled, “Quantum Equation Suggests the Big Bang Never Occurred and the Universe Has No Beginning” and then challenged evolutionists to explain that. I found that so misguided because the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang Theory are two different things. He responded by saying that evolution started with the Big Bang, which while technically true, is still a non-argument. The Big Bang is an explanation of how the universe began while evolution is an explanation of how life forms change over time. So invalidating the Big Bang does not suddenly cancel evolution. I did not even point out then that instead of questioning evolution, he should probably question his own beliefs first.  After all, he’s the one with the holy book that starts with the phrase “In the beginning…”

Things got interesting when another creationist called the Big Bang theory an invention of atheist scientists who simply wanted to do away with God. She further claimed that it was an illogical theory because it could not explain how life came from non-life (something it was NOT set out to explain in the first place). What I found hilarious was when she asked if anyone had ever seen life come out of an explosion like that of dynamites or bombs. I found that such an uneducated premise to begin with that I simply told her to learn the science first because she had no idea what she was talking about.

So what is the Big Bang Theory and how did it come about?

Well, first of all, it was not an explosion like that of a firecracker. The expression was coined by British Astronomer Fred Hoyle in a 1950 radio broadcast, “to create a picture in the mind of the listener.” It is more accurate to say that there was a very rapid expansion of the universe at the beginning of time. In other words, it was as if there was nothing in one moment and in the next, the universe was there, and growing at a very fast rate. Although “moment” is probably still an inaccurate term because time and space (as we know it) began with that expansion.

Anyway, the theory had its beginnings in the 1920’s. Edwin Hubble observed that other galaxies were moving away from our own at a very rapid pace. This led to the thinking that at some point in the past, galaxies were much closer to each other and if you went further and further back in time, you could eventually trace everything back to single point called a singularity. It was when that singularity expanded that our universe came into being. That is the Big Bang Theory in a nutshell.

Another observation that backs up the theory is the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation. If the universe was much denser before, then it would certainly be hotter than it is now (since heat would dissipate as galaxies moved further apart). If so, we should be able to find some traces of this heat, and that is exactly what astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered in 1965, which earned them the Nobel Prize.

Now, the Big Bang Theory is certainly not the ONLY model of how the universe began, but it is the most popular as it is considered to best fit the evidence we have SO FAR. It is not simply the product of an atheist scientist’s propaganda against the Bible. To think that way would be to discredit decades of research and study by both theist and atheist scientists alike.

That being said, there ARE valid criticisms and objections to the theory, but one must first learn the science in order to fully understand what these are, and to frame them in the proper context. To do otherwise would be downright silly, irresponsible and childish.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Saving A Life

Photo by Martina Audrey Uyboco
Photo by Martina Audrey Uyboco

When I started this column two years ago, I didn’t know it would last two years. Ever since I was in my early twenties, I had a dream to be a columnist. I would pick up different newspapers, turn to the opinions section, and wonder how these writers could churn out essay after essay every week, and in some cases, even every day.

But this little dream got tossed in the corner for around 20 years. I never bothered applying as a columnist, because I didn’t know what I could write about that I could sustain for more than a month or two.

Then I got older, had more experiences and life stories under my belt, and thought that maybe I should give it a try now. So I looked for a friend who used to be a journalist, and who I tapped before to give seminars to my students who handled the school paper, and found out she was already editor-in-chief. I got in touch with her, showed her some of my stuff, and here we are.

Here I am at the keyboard on Wednesday midnight, trying to beat my Thursday deadline. I had originally entitled the column “Friday the 13th” hoping to write something about superstition and science but I couldn’t really think of anything interesting or original along that line.

So I tried a tactic that has worked for me in the past. When I can’t think of anything to write, I start writing about writing and see where that goes.

Oh look, I have 5 paragraphs already.

Some people don’t know why I bother writing. It’s certainly not for the money. Why do I torture myself so week after week, wracking my brain, squeezing words and ideas out of it? Perhaps it’s my way of organizing the many jumbled thoughts I have. Perhaps it’s my way of reaching out to others and helping along their journey as I too seek my way and fumble along my own path.

Once in a while, I get the occasional comment or the occasional email that encourages me to go on and continue what I’m doing. Here is one such letter I got that surprised me because it comes from someone in his eighties. It is a response to last week’s article, “Do You Believe In God?”:

Dear Andy,

You have saved my life. It is difficult to live in a world in which everyone considers you as an old idiot who must be humoured, or as a person who has no idea of “the truth” and must be enlightened. Unless one is very sure of oneself (and that itself is a trait which frightens me) one ends up wondering whether they are right and you yourself are wrong. Almost all of my former socialist and communist friends lost their belief either at the time of the Hungarian uprising or the collapse of the Soviet Union and now find it more comfortable to live in an “artistic” world of literature, music and painting.  I felt certain that if I was alone then I was likely to be wrong – “they are all out of step except me”.  In literature I felt that people like Tolstoy approached my ideas – but then justified them in a very strong belief in Christianity. You are the first person who has shown me that I am not alone.

Einstein’s answer was inspiring – am I foolish in considering it as part of the Jewish liberal tradition. Of course we are supposed to believe in that nasty God you describe, but somehow Einstein and others seem to have benefited from these ideas which they probably encountered in their early life.  I’ve got to give that more thought.

Once again – THANK YOU FOR – HOW CAN I PUT IT? showing me that I am not a freak with strange, confused ideas about all of (or most of ) the important issues in life.

John

Thanks also, John, for showing me that I am not alone and that I am not a freak. Or maybe both of us are freaks. But rest assured, there are many more out there.

One thing for sure, you have also saved my life as much as you say I have saved yours.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

 

Do You Believe In God?

Photo Credit: itspaulkelly via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: itspaulkelly via Compfight cc

Dear sir,

Your articles are interesting but I am confused. Sometimes you talk like an atheist and sometimes, you talk as if you’re not. So let me just ask you straight, do you believe in God or not?

Chris

=====

Dear Chris,

The question you ask seems like a simple one to answer. I can answer “Yes” or “No” and that would be the end of it. The problem begins when I start to think hard about the question — because there is that one word that we might not agree on — that word is “God.”

What “God” means for you and what it means for me may be totally different things. If by “God” you mean the “God” in the Bible who commanded that homosexuals be put to death (Leviticus 20:13) and that rebellious children must be stoned (Deuteronomy 21:22), then no, I no longer believe in that God.

If “God” for you means “Jesus” (forget that Old Testament dude — which you really can’t because they’re both supposed to be the same guy even though one is the son and the other is the father but they’re one anyway), then I’m still working on that. I am currently reading a book, On the Historicity of Jesus by Richard Carrier which advances the idea that Jesus was not a historical person but a myth. I’ll probably devote a future article or two on this topic when I have read more but so far (I’m around 25% into the book), Carrier is presenting a well-referenced and well-thought out case. This is definitely scholarly work and not some run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory.

If “God” for you means “Allah” or “Krishna” or “Vishnu” or “Cthulhu” or any of those, I probably don’t believe them either but I claim only a very shallow understanding of them given my background.

If “God” for you means the universe (or some creative, unexplainable life force) — like if you’re the type of person who says, “Thank you, universe,” or “The universe told me this or that,” then I feel some kinship with you. Another person recently asked what I thought about Albert Einstein’s views on God so I did a little research and found an interview where he was asked the very same question you ask me now. I think he gave a very intelligent reply (though that shouldn’t surprise anyone). He said:

“Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.”

An interesting reply, don’t you think?

Good morning, universe.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

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