Skeptical Fails and Wins this Week

Howdie skeptifans. Here are the media Fails and Wins you sent me last week.

Manditory minumum sentences...how's that working out for you, Texas?

Don’t swallow everything: Alternative medicine
David sent in this win from the Vancouver Sun. The article covers an upcoming book “Dr. Joe’s Health Lab” by chemistry PhD Joe Schwarz. The book discusses the chemistry behind health, beauty, and food science while debunking many natural health remedies in the process. With all the alternative health books on the shelves, it’s great to see a book aimed at the average person which covers these topics in a more scientific way. Let’s hope this book turns out to be as evidence based as it sounds.

Parents face inquiry for treating son with alternative medicine
Paul sent in this link. You may have heard of this sad case. The parents of an Italian boy chose to treat his fever with homeopathy instead of medicine. The four year old endured this fever for several weeks before they finally took him to hospital. By this time, he was too weak and did not survive. Italian police are launching a manslaughter investigation into the case. While the parents need to be held responsible for neglect, why are we leaving homeopathy peddlers off the hook? I certainly won’t pretend pharmaceutical companies are run by saints, there would be hell to pay if they released a product with claims that it managed fever that failed to show any benefit in proper tests. Homeopathy has nothing in it, yet it still manages to kill. We need to treat it as harmful and go after the snake oil salesmen selling it.

The high cost of ignoring scientific facts
Erik sent in this Win. On this blog we tend to focus on issues of health and safety, since these seem to be the highest priority areas to apply skepticism. But of course there are many areas where skepticism should be applied that affect our well being. In this article Gwyn Morgan does a fantastic job at covering examples where our tax dollars are wasted on red herrings and bad policy because scientific evidence is ignored. This quote sums it up nicely,

Public-policy decisions that ignore scientific facts in favour of pressure from vocal minorities can kill job-creating commercial ventures, or cause unnecessary public expenditures. In both cases, society loses.

Texas conservatives reject Harper’s crime plan
While we’re on the topic of public policy, let’s talk about Harper’s crime plan. Marion sent in this link. The ethics of how to treat criminals can come down to personal and political philosophy, but that doesn’t mean this issue is outside of the realm of scientific thinking. At the end of the day we can look to evidence and experience to see what policies produced the outcomes we desire. I think we can all agree that we would like to improve public safety and reduce crime without running up our costs. So why are we looking at implementing harsh mandatory minimum sentences that even US conservatives admit was a plan that did not work? This article takes a look at some of the FBI data after Texas passed laws similar to what Harper is proposing. It’s worth your time to understand what we might be getting into if we don’t put some pressure on our elected representatives to change this plan.

That’s the Fails and Wins this week, folks. See you again soon. Send me your links at links@skepticnorth.com.

8 Responses to “Skeptical Fails and Wins this Week”

  1. I certainly agree that homoeopathy practitioners and the people in the supply chain should be held responsible as well.

  2. CC says:

    If Schwarz’s blog is anything to go by, the “health lab” book should be a good one.

    I wonder if he’s speaking in my neck of the woods anytime soon…

  3. Alex says:

    Regarding the “mandatory minimum sentences” bit … I don’t think it’s the principle that’s the issue, so much as the application. There’s a reason why so much of that article focuses on drug-related offenses; it makes no sense to implement harsher penalties for things which shouldn’t be illegal in the first place. Harsh sentences have their place, but they need to be used in concert with prevention and rehabilitation measures. Set up treatment and counseling programs to help addicts, vandals, abusive spouses, and petty thieves, then implement harsher sentences for repeat offenders and truly violent sociopaths. I have no problem at all with locking Mohammad Shafia up for the rest of his life – I do have a problem with someone spending years in jail for smoking the wrong plant.

    • Dianne Sousa says:

      Actually, the principle is the issue because mandatory minimums are meant to deter the crime that they’re being applied to. It so happens that here they’re being proposed for drug offences, but the problems with mandatory minimums extend to other crimes as well.

      Basically, the idea is that the harsher the penalty, the more the deterrent it is. Except that this has not borne itself out in the research. Generally, there is a tipping point beyond which any increase in the harshness of the penalty results in no more deterrent value. It might makes intuitive sense to impose a life sentence with no possibility of parole for a crime (it also might make everyone feel better), but to justify this on the basis of deterrence you have to show that it works.

      The research has also shown that the harshness of the penalty does not contribute as much to deterrence as our intuition would suggest. The deterrent value of a penalty is also affected by timing (how quickly the punishment is applied after the crime), and by certainty (if I do this, will I get caught and punished?). You also have to consider whether the imposition of a mandatory minimum will deter people generally in the community, the specific individual it’s being applied to, or both.

      Even if you could demonstrate that a mandatory minimum does indeed deter crime effectively you would still need to show that that you could not do so in another, more economical way. This is an expensive proposition, and I would think that if it weren’t so costly Texas wouldn’t be turning away from it. Often the appearance of dealing with crime effectively is more important than actually dealing with it effectively.

      • Alex says:

        “Actually, the principle is the issue because mandatory minimums are meant to deter the crime that they’re being applied to.”

        I guess it depends on what you think “the principle” is; as far as I’m concerned, mandatory minimums have nothing to do with prevention.

        Yeah, if people are arguing for this because of “prevention”, then I absolutely agree with you. If a 3 year prison term isn’t a deterrent, a 10 year won’t be either. There are exceptions course – I know that the new speeding laws in Ontario have been effective at stopping me from going too crazy on the highways – but by and large the deterrence argument is a silly one. The only role I see for mandatory minimum sentences is to rid society of individuals who can not be reformed. As such, they should be used sparingly, if at all.

      • Dianne Sousa says:

        Alex,

        I’m glad that we agree, but I’m not sure that we agree for the same reasons. The question isn’t whether the idea of mandatory minimums as a deterrent makes sense in a vague way. Rather, the question is whether the application of a specific mandatory minimum to a specific offence has a deterrent effect sufficient to justify the removal of discretion at the sentencing stage. Carefully thought out, carefully applied, carefully evaluated.

        In criminology, deterrence theory is well researched. Mandatory minimums are almost always argued for because of their alleged deterrent value. Fairness may be another reason, though I’m not swayed by these arguments either.

        The theory isn’t silly, it’s simply not well supported by the research when the ideas are applied in the real world. You might see a role there as a way to “rid society of individuals who cannot be reformed”. However, you would also have to be able to identify people who won’t change their behaviour before they are charged with an offence that carries a mandatory sentence. That’s the hard bit. Predicting future individual criminal behaviour is notoriously difficult, though there are plenty of people who believe this expertise exists.

      • Alex says:

        Dianne, I think we do agree for the same reasons. I’ve never seen any evidence that harsher sentencing – or “mandatory minimums” – have a greater deterrent effect, nor would I expect them to (although I’d qualify that, as you did earlier, by saying “past a certain point). I’m not sure what you think my reasons are, but allow me to reassure you that, as far as I can tell, they do not differ from yours.

        We might disagree somewhat on the next bit:

        “However, you would also have to be able to identify people who won’t change their behaviour before they are charged with an offence that carries a mandatory sentence.”

        The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. It’s not perfect, no, but in the case of repeat offenders and sociopaths I’d rather err on the side of caution. You’re absolutely right that predicting “future individual criminal behaviour is notoriously difficult”, which is precisely why I’d be hesitant to release a violent repeat offender based on the say-so of a judge, or a prison psychiatrist (or on the say-so of anyone, for that matter).

        That, by the way, is the same principle we follow in our day-to-day lives. If you get scammed by a charlatan, you probably won’t trust him with your money next time. If I tell you to come closer so I can tell you a secret, and then I punch you in the nose, you probably won’t lean in for a second try. Sure, maybe the third or fourth time we release a violent criminal back on to the streets, he’ll change his ways … but we’d be fools to believe it. When we find a way to accurately and reliably predict future behavior, that attitude will probably become obsolete – until then, it’s the only sensible approach.

        Or you can follow the Charlie Brown example, and keep trying to kick that ball.

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  • Melany Hamill

    Melany proudly uses the titles of both geek and nerd. As a science-enthusiast and fan of debate, Melany likes to get her facts straight. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Chemical Engineering. Since then her career path has meandered to its current spot as a project manager at a video game studio. Melany lives near beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. She is not seeking treatment for her caffeine addiction.