“Principles of Curiosity” is a documentary by Brian Dunning and Ryan Johnson. Brian Dunning is the “skeptic” who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for committing wire fraud. Fraud in this context involves stealing from others by way of misrepresentation. This is of course different from another use of the term where someone pretends to be something they clearly are not. Rest assured though, I’m positive that there is nothing to worry about and Dunning is now completely rehabilitated.
The film seems quite visually compelling. There is some very good camera work and great use of imagery. Where it fails horrifically is in its content.
The first problem I noticed in the film was in the opening segment where examples of pseudoscience are listed. One of them is “people believe weird things”. What? How is believing in weird things antithetical to science? Before any new idea gets accepted by the often pigheaded guardians of establishment science, that idea is by definition, weird.
The next odd thing we hear is Dunning explaining how to detect good studies. He draws a line which represents the history of science in a field. He draws big circles along it representing large well-designed studies. OK so far so good. He states “The better a study is, the more likely its results are to reflect the real science”. This is a very odd thing to say. Instead of “the real science” he should have said “reality”. Science is a method of inquiry not a reality. Dunning then draws several small circles off the line representing smaller poorly designed studies which have new and interesting results. What he’s presenting here is a false choice: either the study is well-designed and conforms with what is already known or it is poorly designed and doesn’t conform with what we know. He’s neglecting the possibility that a large well designed study shows that an existing line of research was wrong. One example are the studies disproving the established view that butter was worse for your heart than hydrogenated margarine. The idea he is shilling here is that we shouldn’t trust studies that tell us something new and exciting. Science progresses by studies showing us new things. Dunning seems to be promoting a pseudoscience status quo view that we should just expect things to largely remain just as they are.
On examining the claim that there are toxins in our bodies [16:54] Dunning simply proclaims “They’re not”. That’s it. No studies cited, no experiments illustrated just a dogmatic pronouncement of faith. In science-based reality, aluminum is a toxin that has been found in high concentrations in the brains of people with autism. The herbicide Roundup contains a toxin that can be found in almost anyone.
Dunning next makes the absurd claim that “There’s no such thing as boosting your immune system. Medically the words are meaningless”. These are ridiculous statements. If immune systems can be compromised, they can be boosted. Someone who is malnourished will have a compromised immune system. You boost their immune system by improving their diet. He continues “…we don’t want [our immune system] so active that it attacks our own healthy tissue.” What he’s doing here is equivocation. The term boosting your immune system relates to moving your immune system from compromised to a healthy state. He’s trying to conflate that with the idea of an immune system in overdrive like what you see in autoimmune diseases. It’s truly remarkable that you’d see such a ridiculously flawed argument used in a documentary that is supposed to be teaching critical thinking.
The next mistake made is falsely portraying the appeal to authority fallacy. The appeal to authority fallacy occurs when claiming something is true because an authority claims it is true. An appeal to an authority is always an invalid argument, a fallacy. (Note that a fallacious argument is an invalid argument as its premises do not support its conclusion but its conclusion may very well be correct.) You can use authorities to make decisions but authorities alone never establish truth. Dunning is conflating this fallacy with the appeal to irrelevant authority fallacy which involves attempting to support an argument by citing an person who is not an expert in the related field. In this way he can trot out the establishment dogma that you can always trust “legitimate” authorities. These are the same sort of authorities that told us that the ground zero air was safe to breathe on 9/11, that fat was bad for you and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
This misleading argument leads right into the next bizarre claim: “packaging experts use labels that suggest GMOs should be avoided”. An image is then shown with a bland label that says “NON GMO”. What? What does GMO labelling have to do with “packaging experts”? The purpose of GMO labels would be for those people that don’t want to eat GMO contaminated food. They can be there just as well for people like Dunning who want to eat GMO contaminated food.
The claim is also made that people don’t want to eat GMOs because of possible health problems. The important issue ignored in all GMO propaganda, like this film, is that many people are terrified of GMOs because the patented lifeforms are resulting in megacorporations controlling our food supply. Strangely, some people want to eat food that is good for them and not solely good for a mega corporation’s profit margin. Dunning claims that the anti GMO sentiment is driven by marketing. Don’t the companies making GMO also do marketing? Like say, helping fund films that make them look good?
The next dodgy claim made is the conflation of genetic engineering with cross pollination. So GMOs are safe because farmers have been doing the same thing for thousands of years. But they haven’t. Cross pollination involves a plant receiving pollen from another plant, and in this case another related variety. Genetic modification involves directly manipulating an organism’s genome, usually by injecting foreign DNA. These are wildly different techniques producing dramatically different results.
Next we have the obligatory misuse of Ockham’s Razor. Ockham’s Razor is used in science only as a heuristic when developing an explanation. It is not used as “a tool that can help us decide which of several possibilities is most likely true.” as claimed in the film. Instead, science uses the explainability criterion of the scientific method to decide which explanation is superior. The explanation which can account for or explain more of the available evidence is the better explanation.
The film also falsely claims that “Ockham’s Razor tell us that ideas which only work if some magical new thing is added to the world, are probably wrong.” Ockham’s Razor says nothing of the sort. It only says that explanations with the fewer assumptions should be used, not that competing explanations are wrong in any way. A good proper application of Occam’s Razor is deciding between the geocentric model of the solar system vs the heliocentric system to calculate positions of the sun. Both work but the heliocentric model uses far fewer calculations. The geocentric model is not wrong it’s just unnecessarily complicated.
Next the film butchers the scientific method with gross oversimplification. “We challenge and falsify until we have a reliable observation, for which we then form provisional explanations”. The scientific method instead involves starting with a problem, looking at the available evidence surrounding the problem and then creating a provisional explanation. The explanation is then continually tested to uncover further observations. These further observations either disprove the explanation if it doesn’t predict the new observations, or supports the explanation making it stronger.
Then we have the following banal platitude “Longer life, happiness, a cleaner planet, technology, and peace are driven by the engine of science and fired by the fuel of our curiosity.” It’s undeniable that science has given us longer life and advanced technology; but happiness, a cleaner planet and peace? Science has created the choking pollution we are now inundated with. Science is used to create advanced weapon systems that encourage ever more destructive war, not peace. Science can be driven by curiosity; it can also be driven by greed and malice. Science is not some magical source of rainbow clouds and unicorns. The cold hard reality is that science is not good or bad it’s simply a method that people use or misuse to do good or bad things.
In short, Principles of Curiosity is critical thinking candy for corporate pseudoscience advocating pseudoskeptics. It might be enjoyable and make them feel good but it’s really not good for you. It is corporate propaganda masquerading as a critical thinking guide. Brian Dunning was once convicted of wire fraud. Ironically, Principles of Curiosity is a fraud in another sense, since it misrepresents pseudoscience as science and sophistry as critical thinking.
2. “Laguna Niguel Man Receives 15-Month Prison Term for Defrauding eBay”. https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/sanfrancisco/news/press-releases/laguna-niguel-man-receives-15-month-prison-term-for-defrauding-ebay
3. Matthew Mold; Dorcas Umarb; Andrew Kingc; Christopher Exley, “Aluminium in brain tissue in autism”, Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology Volume 46, March 2018, Pages 76-82 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0946672X17308763
4. Paul J. Mills, PhD1; Izabela Kania-Korwel, PhD2; John Fagan, PhD2; et al, “Excretion of the Herbicide Glyphosate in Older Adults Between 1993 and 2016”, JAMA. 2017;318(16):1610–1611. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2658306
5. Hugh G. Gauch, Scientific Method in Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-01708-4, ISBN 978-0-521-01708-4.
Michael Fullerton is a software designer based in Vernon BC Canada. His writing explores and exposes pathological skepticism and the corporate pseudo-science it tends to serve. He also has an intense interest in organizational psychopathy, or how psychopaths rise up in organizational structures of all kinds. As a pantheist he strives to be part of the movement to unify spirituality and science.