Why “X Is Like Y Chemically” Is Meaningless (And Why It’s Not An Insult To Be Told You’re Wrong)

I was recently in a discussion that invoked the “X is dangerous for you because it’s only one atom/molecule away from Y” argument. In this specific case, the argument being made by Person A was that Drug X was dangerous because it was chemically similar to Drug Y. While the conclusion was accurate, the methods used to reach this conclusion were wrong. Yet, even though the conclusion was correct (in this case), I believe that pointing out why the methodology used is wrong is an important discussion to have.

BUT WHAT WAS WRONG ABOUT IT?

The idea that, simply because an item is chemically similar to something dangerous, it too is dangerous, is an argument built on a fallacy. There are plenty of harmless things (e.g. water) that are chemically similar to something dangerous (e.g. water and hydrogen peroxide) but are not harmful to us. In fact, similar pseudoscience methodologies have been used to prop up arguments of anti-vaxxers and other alt-right and alt-left beliefs.

BUT SCIENTISTS MAKE COMPARISONS ALL THE TIME!

In the case of this particular example, it is true that scientists will sometimes compare drugs to one another. However, drug studies tend to focus on how drugs interact with the body. Any associations between drugs are based on that. Generally, the only time studies on one drug will reference another is to say something like “potential for addiction is similar to Drug Y”. Scientists generally avoid statements like “Drug X is chemically similar to Drug Y and should therefore be avoided” because they know these types of statements are misleading and don’t inherently mean anything.

As stated earlier, Person A isn’t wrong when they say Drug X and Drug Y are chemically similar. They certainly are, but it’s besides the point. The point is: It is poor methodology to use chemical composition comparisons between two different substances to call one dangerous simply because the other is. The comparison is inherently meaningless in itself – lots of harmless things are one atom away from something dangerous. It’s only how the body interacts with each individual substance that provides actual merit to the idea that something is dangerous.

ARE YOU CALLING ME DUMB?

There is no malice or insult in having someone say “your methods for this are wrong and here is why.” There is not even malice or insult in saying “you’re using the same methodology as the alt-right and alt-left”. These are perfectly neutral factual statements and should be taken as such. It’s important to point out these logical fallacies, however, so that people can be educated on the issue and stop perpetuating bad science. Being (told you’re) wrong is the first step to being right – and there’s no shame in that.

SO WHAT SHOULD I HAVE DONE?

If we are trying to make the case, for instance, that Drug X is as bad for people as Drug Y, we should base our argument around the way Drug X affects the body. Because, while this person was 100% right that Drug X can be dangerous, it’s not necessarily because its chemical structure is similar to Drug Y’s (which, as previously stated doesn’t necessarily mean anything by itself). By drawing chemical composition comparisons (that are inherently meaningless) we are propping up pseudoscience methodology.

WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL ANYWAY?

This is something we should all be passionate about because these are the types of arguments the alt-right and alt-left use to bolster their anti-science claims. More and more, people on both the left and right are starting to fall prey to pseudoscience – so it’s more important than ever to have these conversations in public so people can get educated. We need to put an end to these methodologies so people don’t ultimately buy into misunderstood pseudoscience and so that those who do buy into this pseudoscience can’t point at us and say, “look they’re doing it too so it must be right!”

Because these conversations are so important, we need to do away with the idea that if someone tells us we are wrong or are using poor methods of gaining information employed by pseudoscience advocates, that it is a personal attack against us. It is not and we can’t take these things personally. These are merely factual statements to help someone better understand where they went wrong and how to do better in the future. Like I said: Being wrong is the first step to being right – and there’s no shame in that.

Live and let live: Religion, atheism, and being caught in-between

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Religion has been a part of human life in some form or another for at least 4,000 years. It has provided support for communities, given people a common cause to group around, and been a source of charity and service.

Yet, for those who do not belong to a religion or believe in a God, it has often been a source of pain and suffering. And certainly there have been a number of atrocities committed in the name of God.

The discord between these two groups, I think, doesn’t just stem from a fundamental communication problem, but a fundamental difference in the way both are wired.

A brain hardwired for God

Even 4,000 years later, it’s true that religion continues to be beneficial to humanity. Charity, social support during times of crisis, and a sense of purpose are just a few of the ways religion enriches the lives of many today. There are even indications that humans are hardwired for religion.

So it’s understandable when religious people get angry when Atheists attack their convictions with statements like “Your church isn’t true” or “God is a lie” and retreat into their trenches, often destroying all hope for fruitful and progressive discussion.

But make no mistake, there are certainly things that need to be discussed. While people should be able to believe what they want I firmly believe they must square those beliefs with facts. And the fact of the matter is that religion has also contributed to some truly gut-wrenching things in our modern day: rape culture, suicides and homelessness (especially among gay youth), mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and more.

The ways that religious denominations contribute to these and other pressing issues deserve criticism and discussion. And religious people need to understand that criticisms are not a personal attack, or even necessarily an attack on their church.

I’d be happy to see religion flourish more, but I want to see it happen while lessening the damage and hurt it unintentionally contributes to for both faithful and non-faithful people.

But while some of the problem is communication, the other problem is simply how differently we are wired — which never appears to be taken into account on either side.

While religious people may be hardwired for faith, non-believers are just as likely to be hardwired differently. Just as the idea that someone who attends church is an unintelligent sheep is grossly inaccurate, the idea that someone who doesn’t want to go to church is evil or amoral is flat-out wrong and can be incredibly damaging.

In religion, but not of religion

When I was young, church taught me about the golden rule, being thy brother’s keeper, turning the other cheek and judging not lest ye be judged. I feel that I learned some of my most cherished ideas about humanity and life from church.

But even when I was young, I felt oddly out of place in church settings. The older I got the more my anxiety in church settings grew. I felt constantly on guard — that I could not be myself. I was constantly wearing a mask and it was suffocating me. I began to drift away from the church. My family, many of my peers, and my church leaders were understandably upset by this development. After all, my very soul was at stake.

Church leaders handed me responsibility after responsibility, trying to give me a sense of purpose and place within the church. Unfortunately, these responsibilities only compounded the stress I already felt from church and, truthfully, pushed me farther away.

The more I stressed out, the more I found myself thinking, “Is this what God would really want from me? Isn’t church supposed to be a place of serenity and happiness rather than protocol, stress and anguish?”

My parents tried to prod me to attend services. When gentle pokes didn’t work, I was given ultimatums. When those just pushed me away further, they tried gifts and niceties.

The disapproval about my drifting from friends and family was palpable and created a vicious cycle. I could not be at peace in church — and it appeared I could not be at peace outside of church either. The stress of the paradox furthered the anxiety, depression, guilt and anger issues I had been experiencing in church for years. I had already been self-mutilating throughout the latter half of my high school years as a form of self-medication. Shortly after high school I turned to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Up until this point I had tried to maintain some sort of church presence, even if it was a limited one, partly to placate my family and partly because I felt it was what I was supposed to do. However, I soon realized I could not live a double-life. I finally made it clear that I didn’t want or plan to continue attending church.

Immediately, there was an incredible weight lifted from my shoulders. I didn’t feel like I had to hide myself anymore. It was like finally breathing after spending 19+ years suffocating.

Technically, it was a great first step toward sobriety and a healthy life.

However, I still felt a lot of guilt over who I was because of my upbringing. It would be several more years before I’d begin to heal the remaining emotional scars with therapy and finally stop using alcohol and drugs, becoming truly okay with the person I am.

Live and let live

I know my family and friends always wanted what was best for me. The things they did came from a place of love, but ultimately also of ignorance about who I was. They were so worried about my soul that they didn’t understand the way they were damaging me.

I often wonder how differently my life would have been if I had been nurtured to be myself, simply be a good person, and make the most of whatever it is I do believe in. Would I have ever turned to drugs or alcohol? Would I be further along in my career?

Religion can be an incredible force for good and, I believe, even necessary for some people. But just as it may be hardwired into some people, I think there are others who are simply not wired for religion. I hope someday people on both sides will understand to “live and let live” and embrace those who live differently and have found their own way to truth, happiness and health.

The Religion Test: Homosexuality vs. environmentalism and charity

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There is a lot of talk these days about how homosexuality, transsexuality, gender roles, and the like are leading us on a road to ruin. Apocalyptic predictions are full of omens of increasing disasters — earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and famine.

And I can absolutely see all of that happening. But not for the reasons you may think.

Wailing and gnashing of teeth

It’s no secret that our society is in turmoil — fighting about who can marry who, women’s roles, etc. And it’s seriously holding us back. We’re putting so much energy, money, and time into these fronts when it could be used to help solve world hunger, cure cancer, clean up our own planet and propel us toward other planets. We are destroying ourselves with our preoccupation for the way others choose to live — suffocating our ability to question, learn and innovate.

It’s the 21st century and we’re still dabbling in medieval dogma. We’ve put men on the moon, but we can’t deal with two men in the bedroom. So yes, I can see how, if we don’t move past this, these things could absolutely cause the collapse of our society. But I think it will be because of the people who spent their time and energy oppressing others rather than working with them to tackle truly important issues. Issues like taking care of our people and planet.

Fracking and brimstone

Interestingly enough, there are several biblical passages that address the environment. Among them:

I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.

Jeremiah 2

The consequences of such defiling and careless regard are truly terrible:

The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left.

Isaiah 24

It sounds dire, but it’s pretty much what scientists have been telling us will be the result if we don’t start getting serious about reducing pollution, cleaning up our environment, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and being wary of fracking and drilling.

Similarly, there are multiple passages about helping those in need.

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. … For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’

Deuteronomy 15

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Ezekiel 16

Sodom is often cited as being destroyed because of homosexuality. Yet, this verse seems to indicate that it was destroyed because its people were rich yet cold-hearted, neglecting those around them who needed the most help.

Even from a non-religious standpoint, it’s clear to see how neglecting parts of our society could lead to a decline. A healthy society requires a healthy and contributing populace — not a populace trying to just scrape by.

The religion test

“Question after question I’m stumped. The paradox: Is God racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic? Or is God testing to see if I am?”

I’ve often wondered, if God is out there and if this life is a test, is religion part of the instruction manual, or part of the test?

Perhaps once we have increased our love for each other, once we have returned Earth to a pristine condition, once we have mastered a deeper understanding of the universe through science … perhaps that is when God will return. Because that is when we will truly be ready.

Even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case, we’ll be in a much better place than we were before.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, America’s golden age, and science’s place in religion

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I recently got the chance to attend a lecture presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson — a rock star in the science world and well known even among those without an inclination toward science.

The lecture dug into some of the most depressing traits of humanity, but also some of the most empowering and uplifting.

Humanity’s highs and lows

Among the most depressing things Tyson discussed was our current state of affairs, especially here in America — a state many former civilizations found themselves in before disappearing off the map.

Failing infrastructure, a lack of dreaming and imagination, and an increasingly cold shoulder to the scientific pursuit that opens so many doors for us. We’ve lost our curiosity and creativity and no longer seem to foster an enthusiasm for questioning and wondering. As we create, question and wonder less, solutions to current problems remain just out of reach as our society and infrastructure collapses around us.

However, at the same time we’ve accomplished so much with so little. Tyson mentioned that we understand about 4% of the universe: Matter. The remaining 96% of the universe is made up of dark energy and dark matter, things we’re just barely beginning to wonder at and grasp for.

With that 4% knowledge we have cultivated our entire planet. We have tamed beasts and land and even the atom itself. We’ve reached into space and our work has reached beyond the solar system. Imagine what we could do if we keep questioning and wondering and learning!

Golden ages going and gone

Tyson mentioned the golden era of Islam in a clear parallel to America today. The golden age of Islam gave us some of the most important tools we use today. It gave us algebra, our numeral system, the concept of zero. It mapped the stars and gave us advancements in biology and medicine. In all, it lasted for about 300 hundred years before collapsing around 1260 A.D.

Tyson attributed the collapse of this golden age not so much to a Mongol invasion, but to a fundamental shift in the way people in the Middle East thought. Toward the end of the golden age, rules and credos took the place of questions and curiosity. The ability to openly discuss, criticize, refine, toss out, endorse, and applaud different ideas and ways of thinking fell to one way of thinking and one way to do things. The will to science was replaced by the expectation to obey.

Today, the Middle East is known more for extremism, terrorists, bloodshed, and strict Sharia law than for being a world superpower or hub of innovation and creation. What will the United States be known for in 750 years?

Religion and Science

Almost every religion believes that this life is a test to prepare us for something — whether it be our next life, Heaven, God or something else. If that’s true, I think a major component of our preparation is getting left out at the pulpit: science.

In the Bible there is a parable about a master and three servants. In the parable, a master gives one servant five bags of silver, another servant two bags of silver, and his final servant one bag of silver.

The man with five bags earns five more. When the master sees this he is pleased saying “You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!”

The man with two bags of silver earns two more. The master has similar praise for this servant.

The final servant takes his bag and buries it from fear of losing the money. The master scolds him saying “You wicked and lazy servant! … To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Indeed, as we have learned and gained more through science our responsibilities have exponentially grown. Look at the incredible responsibility needed for the atomic bomb, the true epitome of our scientific knowledge to date. As our technology has increased to give us the internal combustion engine and supercomputers, our responsibilities to not pollute the planet and help others have also increased.

As long as we have taken what we we have and continued to ask questions and learn more we have been provided with an abundance. This country has been a superpower because of our science and curiosity.

If we decide to neglect what we have and do nothing with it, another country will become the new world superpower. Infrastructure continues to crumble and people are fighting about marriage instead of working together to figure out what dark matter is, question the universe, or envision the next great discovery.

The weeping and gnashing of teeth has already started, but there’s still time to reverse it.