New Mexicans for Science and Reasoning racks up enemies. The group’s infuriated creationists, ticked off psychics and has alien believers convinced it's part of a vast government conspiracy. NMSR makes no apologies, but angering people isn't the goal.
"Our group seeks to promote scientific reasoning and making decisions based on data instead of emotions," says NMSR President Dave Thomas. "We work on employing the scientific method to look at things like homeopathy and creationism."
So why all the hate? Thomas says it's because science makes folks uncomfortable. People cling to their ideologies, and when NMSR presents facts that conflict with those ideologies, people throw out the facts. Thomas says his group tries to convince people to keep the data and adjust their ideologies accordingly.
NMSR has close to 100 regular members who attend monthly meetings with guest speakers from New Mexico's scientific community. Each month, the group puts out a newsletter for its members, and every Saturday, NMSR hosts a radio show on Air America's 1350 KABQ AM.
Since 1990, New Mexicans for Science and Reasoning attracted folks from all walks of life. "We've got a pretty diverse group," Thomas says. "We have a lot of scientists, but we have other professionals, non-professionals and students as well. Our website gets hits from all over the world."
NMSR Vice-President John Geohegan says there's more to NMSR than examining claims of alien abduction. At its core, the group wants to impress upon members the value of scientific reasoning in everyday life. Rather than taking everything at face value, Geohegan says, it's better to make sure there's some science behind the medicines we take and the products we buy.
"When it comes to the existence of God, for example, science can't prove or disprove anything like that."
NMSR President Dave Thomas
In some cases, blind belief can be fatal. "Taking medicines that have no effect on you, such as homeopathic remedies, can be harmful," Geohegan says. "If people put off getting medicine that will do them some good because they're only taking homeopathic things, they could potentially put themselves in real danger."
Most times, skepticism isn't about life or death, Thomas says. It's used as a tool to help figure out the boundaries of science.
We asked Thomas for his take on some of the most popular phenomena that make NMSR cringe.
Creationism and its latest incarnation, intelligent design, attempt to combine science and religion—which cannot be done, Thomas says. "When it comes to the existence of God, for example, science can't prove or disprove anything like that."
"God is beyond science, and it's perfectly fine to be a scientist or anyone else and believe in religion, because they're separate,” Thomas says. “The trouble comes when people try to combine them."
Thomas says he believes creationism stems from people's insecurities about their religious beliefs. "They're not sure the Bible is true or that they're going to heaven. They look around to see how they can prove things, and they say, Aha! Science is how you prove things."
There are very little, if any, active ingredients in homeopathic medicines, Thomas says. That's why it's impossible to overdose on most of them, he adds. The reason people might get better using homeopathic treatments, he explains, is because of the placebo effect: When people believe they're getting powerful medicine, it affects their attitude, which can have an impact on how their body deals with disease. "That has nothing to do with what's actually in the medicine itself," Thomas says.
When people tout the success of homeopathy, Thomas says, they're relying on stories that have often been exaggerated. "People forget or disregard situations in which homeopathy hasn't worked and only remember the times when it seems to have helped."
As for acupuncture, once again the placebo effect comes into play, he says. "People might feel better, but it has nothing to do with where the needles are placed. You can put them anywhere, and they'll say they feel better."
Thomas relates the story of an astrologer who was invited by NMSR to prove the field's merits. The group gave him a person's birthday, and because the astrologer believed the person was a member of NMSR, he began describing the person as a scientist who was a good communicator and wanted to help people, according to Thomas. "We had given him the birthday of Ted Kaczynski the unabomber, and he flat-out misread the personality."
When examining astrology, Thomas says, evidence such as more doctors being born in October rather than June would help prove astrology's powers of prediction. "The fact is, doctors' birthdays are all spread out. People want to believe there's a preordained fate controlled by the planets, but there isn't any good evidence for that."
Psychics make intentionally vague predictions and, Thomas adds, even those tend to fall flat. "They miss the big events like 9/11—and most of the small ones, too. Again, it's a selective bias in which they look at the case they got right and ignore the 20 other cases they got wrong."
Thomas doesn't discount the idea that there could be aliens in our galaxy. He just doesn't think there's proof they've visited us. "People want to believe in a higher authority that can help us out of our jam or save us from our evil ways," Thomas says. "With any fringe belief, there's a handful of people who promote it by ignoring evidence that contradicts their belief and looking for evidence they think supports it."