Monthly Archives: September 2010

How Critical Should We Be of the Pope?

It is my observation that many people have cut way too much slack for the Pope and the Catholic Church. The crimes committed against children and the institutional cover up of these is one of the biggest moral scandals of our day. So, not one to keep my opinions of irrationality to myself, I wrote the following paragraph to the NZ Herald, in response to a well meaning lady who thinks recent criticism of the Pope is intolerant and disrespectful :

Correspondent Susan Jean Marlow believes we should not heap scorn on the Pope, which is an attitude that shows she agrees that free speech is fine until it treads on her cherished beliefs. Many people would like to give the Pope a free pass on the transgressions of the organisation he heads, purely because millions of people elevate him to status as “God’s appointee on Earth”. Many of us, on the other hand, judge the claims and actions of the Catholic Church and the Pope as we would anyone else. How many institutions, other than clerical, would be treated with equal respect if trusted members of said organisation engaged in wholesale child molestation? Would we maintain our respect for them when they try and “keep it in house” – essentially covering it up? The Pope should also be called out for the recklessness preaching of “sinfulness” of condom use in sub-Saharan Africa, where millions of people die of aids every year. It is not intolerant or inciting religious hatred to point out stupidity and to hold people like the Pope accountable for harmful consequences that result from their actions.

‘Nuff said. I do think many people in clerical authority positions get away with far more than they would if they weren’t operating under the banner of “God’s annointed”. As Christopher Hitchens points out after numerous scandals involving pastors and reverends: “In America, if you put reverend in your name you can get away with anything”.

Anyway so a few days later, someone, clearly ticked off with my assessment of the 21st century affairs of the Catholic Church (pun intended) had something to say (below). I thought it was worth analysing because it is a common retort by apologists trying to defend the by nature indefensible:

Your correspondent Fred Lunjevich says the Pope should be condemned because some priests abused the trust placed in them. He asks what other group would continue to be respected if their members engaged in child abuse. Statistics from the USA suggests teachers are more likely to abuse children than Catholic clergy. Do we trust teachers? Mr Lunjevich also implies the Pope should condonethe use of condoms because millions die of Aids in Africa. But those millions are not exactly obeying the Pope’s commands on sexual morality. What makes him think those people care what the Pope says anyway? – Jason Clark, Massey.

Okay, where to begin. First off, this rant is a strawman argument and does not fully address what my letter expressed. I was arguing that the Pope gets cut a little more slack than he deserves because of the reverence Catholics grant him. I did not talk about condemnation or trust I specifically talked about evening the playing field so that people and organisations, depsite rank, privilege and authority, be judged and held accountable by the same standards.

Second, the Jason Clark’s response is a false analogy. I specifically talked about organisations and institutions. Jason refers to “groups” specifically teachers. The Catholic Church is a monolithic organisation with one head authority representing all Catholics in the entire world. “Teachers” is not an organisation. In fact “teachers” refers to many different groups of people with varying values, hierarchies and organisations. There would therefore be as many different approaches, beliefs, values and cultures within the group “teachers”.

Other reasons why comparing “teachers” to the Catholic Church is in error:

  • Stats from abuse by teachers is probably due to the fact that teachers are not a law unto themselves and are held accountable by the communities and organisations in which they operate. They get found out, reported and likely removed from their positions. Hence why there are child abuse statistics.
  • Catholic child abuse statistics are incomplete and only just coming to light. Cover up these horrendous crimes against the innocent and the stats will be lower than they truly are.
  • Teachers do not claim to be the arbiters of morality. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, claims it has a direct line with the creator of the universe when it comes to moral truths. This means they ought behave in ways better than us mere mortals and should therefore be criticised more heavily for moral terpitude.

One other thing… SINCE WHEN DID HAGGLING ABOUT WHO COMMITS THE MOST SEX CRIMES AGAINST CHILDREN BECOME NORMAL? No morally sane person I know thinks sex abuse of any kind is okay. One statistic is bad enough, especially when priests, Bishops, the Pope and church doctrine claims that they are a moral authority, worthy of being listened to.

What makes me think people listen to the Pope?

As an argument, I don’t think people take this one very seriously. I mean, really?? The  Pope is revered by Catholics everywhere, including Western nations where criticism of religion and free speech is common and acceptable. African communities tend to exhibit more traditional, superstitious and religious. This is probably why in 2005, there were 135.6 million Roman and Eastern Catholic members in Africa. This is in a population of 809,105,000 residents in Africa. In 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI visited Africa, it was estimated at 158 million.

Are we expected to believe these people uniquely don’t listen to what the Pope has to say? The church claims that condom use is sinful and therefore against God’s will, how many Catholic’s in Africa would hear the Pope say this and go “nah, the old duffer is high on grass”?

People clearly listen to the Pope, or if not, they take the word their Priest or Bishop who is more often than not preaching the official doctrine (what the Pope says). Besides, if one person lsitened to the Pope, and went against sound contraceptive advice, had unprotected sex and contracted aids, would that be okay?

What makes me think people listen to the Pope? Simple. People believe authority. Period. We are primed to do so. In fact, lesser authorities command our respect and attention all the time. Authority is one of the attributes identified by Robert Cialdini as a major factor in influencing people. As authorities come, the President of the United States may be the only person who could rival the Pope in a “I am the greatest authority in the world” competition.

I won’t go into the fact that Christian missionaries of all stripes go to Africa to lend a hand, all the while denying sensible contraceptive advice, and in fact speak out against it. These beliefs and actions really do cause damage and should not be respected – especially when they come from the leading authority for hundreds of millions of Catholics around the globe.

High dose vitamin C does not cure influenza

60 Minutes here in New Zealand presented perhaps the worst science story I have seen all year. Their story on the claimed link between high dose vitamin C and miraculous influenza recovery was absolutely terrible – for reasons I will outline in the next few stanzas (if that is enough to do justice).

Before reading further: The 60 minutes journalist called this story a “controversy”. It is important to note that this is only a controversy among the public and is partly due to the irresponsible reporting in the first episode of this story last month. Rest assured, the role of vitamin C inside the body is well known and there is no scientific controversy around this.

First of all, where did this idea that vitamin C could cure anything other than scurvy come from? It is a pop culture myth that vitamin C (especially in the mega-doses people take it in) has anything to do with curing the common cold or influenza. Linus Pauling published several books in the 1970s about the purported therapeutic effects of vitamin C.

Despite having two Nobel prizes, Pauling’s claims were admonished by the scientific community – Paulings ideas did not stand up to tests. Despite this, he could not let his ideas go and he died in 1994 with the duel distinction of being both a genius and a crank.

When we’re sick, it seems natural to take everything we can to make ourselves feel good. The thing about vitamin C (and other supposed cures like ginseng) is that the “make ourselves feel better” is purely psychological as there is no evidence for the efficacy of these substances. In some cases, vitamin C can be detrimental to the natural healing process because it is a strong antioxidant. In combatting illness, the immune system produces antibodies, which are essentially potent oxidants.

The back story

In the 60 Minutes piece, Alan Smith – a man who, on the brink of death suffering from the infamous H1N1 strain, made a full recovery. At his family’s request, Alan was administered intravenous doses of vitamin C prior to experiencing said miracle

Because of what we know about vitamin C and its action within the human body, we can be certain the vitamin C had nothing to do with the recovery. But this case is a classic case of how beliefs (and alternative medicine generally) veer off the cliff of rationality into the valley of the ‘woo’.

To keep it real, keep it rational

A few points about drawing the inference that there is a causal relationship between the substance (in this case vitamin C) and the recovery. These points are textbook mistakes that lay people make when making health and medical decisions. The style of thinking that embraces the points in the list below account for why large numbers of people believe in unscientific medicine.

  • Confusing correlation with causation – As obvious as this sounds, the journalist asking the questions of the scientist in the story was adamant in her presupposition that vitamin C miraculously cured Mr Smith. The fallacy at work here is that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. This is why we use the scientific method to conduct randomised trials that isolate various factors to see their influence on the outcome. As humans, we make quick judgments about what causation is and then we act as if it is true. It often is impossible to know what causes and observed effect using our reasoning faculties alone and more often than not, we make snap judgments based on prior knowledge and biases. Related fallacy: Post Hoc reasoning – it happened after X therefore it is because of X.
  • Argument from authority – “But these professors in Melbourne use vitamin C to treat patients all the time”. Good for them. The fact they are professors means zero. Even if they worked in the field of expertise in question, the testimony of a professor or a scientist in a lab coat is insufficient to be reliable as an account of reality. Scientists, doctors and engineers are human beings with the same flaws a biases as you and me. Personally, the testimony of one scientist or even a handful, is uninteresting to me. You can find a scientist that will validate any crack pot theory you can dream up. The preponderance of evidence is what we’re interested in when making claims to reality and that can only come from repeated experiments and falsification.
  • Observational selection bias/statistics of small numbers – The nature of news stories is such that a non-event is not news. If 3 people in a 1000 made full recoveries from a particular condition after doses of vitamin C, would you be convinced the 3 were cured by the vitamin C? It would be odd logic if one did. Of course, a news story is only going to focus on the ones that made it while we don’t know how many didn’t make miraculous recoveries. Only a scientific trial can reliably establish whether a treatment is effective or not.
  • False balance – The journalist did not do adequate research. In fact, she gave an open platform to ‘brave crusading alternative practitioners’ who couldn’t care less what is supported by evidence or not. As John Fraser, Head of School of Medical Sciences at Auckland University so aptly put it:

“The consultants were quite right to resist the use of an unproven treatment, and to their credit they did acquiesce to accommodate the family’s wishes because they felt it would do no harm. In this remarkable case the patient did survive but there is no evidence that this was due to the vitamin C. This is a wonderful story of personal survival and it is sad that it has been used to discredit those professionals who were just trying to provide their best for a very sick patient. If the vitamin C had killed him, then the story would have been different. That is the risk of using an unproven treatment.”


In the end, the 60 Minutes story was an apology for cranks who take the ignoance of the lay public and exploit it for their own gain. There  was little attempt to challenge the vitamin C proponents, yet the scientist trying to express why it is improbable that vitamin C cures these illnesses was slated for his rational explanation.

It would be naive to expect anything different from a mainstream news broadcast – the story was always going to be framed around the “experts are strong arming people into their paradigm of medicine” nonsense.

The victims in this story are the people who watched the programme and went away believing the claims of the cranks. After all, taking vitamin C seems to be the common sense solution when we are ill. However, our intuitions and pop myths are poor platforms to determine what is actually effective or not.