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What’s Your Sacred Cow?

by Brian Dunning, Jan 29 2009

A common question posed to skeptical outreach professionals like myself (bloggers, podcasters, speakers, magazine guys) is “In all the topics you’ve researched, what’s one that you found you couldn’t debunk?”

And a common comment I get just about every week is “I nearly always agree with you, but you really got it wrong this time.”

It turns out everyone has their particular sacred cow. Everyone is skeptical to some degree, and probably most people, even the most obsessive believers, do indeed agree with skeptics’ conclusions on most topics. But when it comes to the one they believe in — alternative medicine, religion, 9/11 conspiracies, or psychic dogs — that’s when I “really got it wrong”.

This clinging to a sacred cow, and the inability to distinguish it from other phenomena about which they have healthy skepticism, is what drives the first question, have I ever found a topic I couldn’t “debunk” (FSM, I hate that term). People desperately want their sacred cow to be validated. People genuinely expect that when I finally do get around to investigating their particular passion that I will be unable to find anything wrong with it, and that I’ll be forced to throw in the towel and admit the reality of magic. Seriously, people honestly expect this of me. I hear it all the time.

And then, when I do reveal the facts behind their passion — usually that their perception has a perfectly rational explanation that’s well understood and completely reproducible — I “really got it wrong” and I need “to turn my skepticism toward myself” and “open my mind” and stop “taking the blue pill” and “wake up to the reality of the Matrix”.

What I want to hear from you is your sacred cow. Only ten percent of people claim no superstitious beliefs, and those ten percent are liars. What is it that you think I would be unable to “debunk” if only I was willing to open my mind?

114 Responses to “What’s Your Sacred Cow?”

  1. lee says:

    What I want to hear from you is your sacred cow.

    The scientific method.

    I don’t know what I would believe if this was shown false.


  2. Um, you say: “Only ten percent of people claim no superstitious beliefs, and those ten percent are liars”.

    Methinks you’ve kind of fallen into your own trap: you believe this unreservedly without evidence. If you truly believe this, no matter what I or anyone else claims, you’re mired in dogma, my friend.

    I categorically state I have no superstitious belief, and I am not lying. I don’t.

    — Jon

  3. Patrick says:

    That human beings are able to improve and become better.

  4. MadScientist says:

    My sacred cow is that the fight against ignorance will persist with the human race. There will be no utopia where everyone has a brain and knows how to use it properly. You’d better get that time machine working so you can make burgers from my cow, man.

    I vote for lee’s answer as the best one so far though; somewhat fitting that it’s #1.

  5. MadScientist says:

    Hmm … was Brian asking us for superstitions as opposed to beliefs? If he did mean superstitions, it looks like a few of us were confused by his choice of words.

  6. bj says:

    murphys law seems to be standing the test of time!

  7. Nate says:

    Yeah…but, but, but, if you investigated MY psychic dog, you wouldn’t be able to “debunk” it!

    Seriously, though, some of the things that are on the fringe of superstitious (I am thinking of things like various kinds of vitamin/fish oil/etc. supplementation, chiropractors who make stretched claims, etc., etc.) can be especially hard to dislodge. People tend to jump back across the line of what is rational for the scientific evidence, and then pile on some added claims that have no basis in reality. You then have to parse out to them what the “good” science is from the “bad” science, which can be more tricky than showing the lack of evidence for a haunted house, psychic dog, or a visit from super-intelligent extra terrestrials.

  8. Venom says:


    I don’t know. If I knew, it wouldn’t be my sacred cow anymore…


  9. Steve says:

    @Jon (#2 above):

    You state, “I categorically state I have no superstitious belief, and I am not lying. I don’t.”

    Do you believe in human-caused global warming? Whether you answer “yes” or “no” to that question, I know of skeptics (on either side) which would say that the belief you have is not founded in science. (just one example, there are many like this)

  10. Lirone says:

    I’m with Jon and Venom on this one… not aware of any superstitious beliefs that I hold.

    And I disagree with Steve. Surely what makes a belief superstitious is not whether people disagree with you but whether your belief resists changing if the evidence changes.

    I believe, on the basis of the arguments and evidence and modelsI have come across, that MMGW is the best explanation for the data. If the evidence changed, I’d change my views. That doesn’t seem to me to be a sacred cow.

    (PS, do sacred cows emit methane?)

  11. Anonymous Coward says:

    If I knew what my sacred cow was, I’d kill it. I think for a rational person it may be (but I’m open to evidence to the contrary) impossible to really truthfully say ‘X is my sacred cow’ because that statement alone aknowledges that belief in X is not properly tied to the existence of evidence, therefore conveys doubt about X and thus X is not a sacred cow proper.

  12. Frank says:

    I would really like to know the answer to “Is there something you have not been able to debunk?” I suppose finding relevant research would be one constraint on debunking a claim.

    I can’t think of a sacred cow I may have, other than what Lee said in comment #1. The only argument I have for why global warming is real is an argument from authority: it seems to be the scientific consensus.

  13. FishNChimps says:

    Eternal damnation.
    Not sure if this counts, but I can’t push those sceptical views I have about religion to my kids who are being brought up Catholic by my wife. The eldest is pretty much agnostic and heading towards atheism at his own pace. The middle one – 11 y/o is asking awkward questions but this is the rub: what if I’m wrong. Logic tells me there’s no God but I have this irrational fear of pushing the kids towards eternal damnation. And yet if they reach atheism on their own i.e. questioning the lack of evidence for religious belief, then that’s OK.

  14. Steve says:


    I personally thing MMGW is the best explanation as well; It was just one example, there are many. Perhaps the use of fish oil supplements like someone else mentioned would have been a better example. Brian Dunning did a Skeptoid episode on that once that I remember, but there are mounds of evidence on the other side I have seen as well.

    The point being; Do you determine what you believe only by what the majority of experts think? Have you never held a minority opinion? (be it political, scientific, or otherwise) I guarantee that there is some position that you hold (whether you know it or not) that there is a sizeable amount of evidence for in the other direction.

  15. patrik.e says:

    To FishNChimps.
    “The middle one – 11 y/o is asking awkward questions but this is the rub: what if I’m wrong.”

    Tell him what I told my friend. Believing just to increase your odds just incase it is true, is NOT a good reason to believe. And if there really is a omnipotent god, would he not see through this?

    The question then becomes what if HE is wrong? What if the true god is any of those he doesn’t believe in? Like Zeus, Thor or Shiva? Then he’d be doomed anyway, and would have wasted his time.

    Go to Youtube and search for Richard Dawkins and What if you’re wrong? My answer is based on his. :)

  16. patrik.e says:

    Oh yes, better stay on topic: My sacred cow is died. I slaughtered it and didn’t even pay attention to whether it faced Mecka att the time. =) Its name was suppliments. Buying expensive powders that would “maximize my results at the gym”. Some actually do help a bit, but no way near as much as I hoped (or wanted them to).

  17. MadScientist says:

    @Lirone: There would be a human contribution to ‘global warming’ from the simple fact that carbon dioxide absorbs (and re-emits) radioation in the range of radiation emitted by the earth’s surface due to its temperature. What is by no means clear is what the magnitude of the human contributions is, and the magnitude is not something which can be determined by consensus – that just wouldn’t be science. Don’t confuse the facts (the estimate of global mean temperature has increased) with the fiction (models say temperatures will go up by *this* much.) Now just to confuse things even more: is ‘global mean temperature’ a sensible measure, a reliable indicator of the state of a system (the earth’s climate), or a BS number which means nothing?

  18. Ido says:

    To be honest, I don’t know what is my sacred cow. I never really thought about it. If i’ll choose from the answers given here, I’ll also undoubtedly choose lee’s answer. It’s the best one IMHO.

  19. Cambias says:

    Mine is religion, even though I’m an atheist. I think that “debunking” issues of faith is both morally wrong and tactically foolish for skeptics. In short, my sacred cow is, well, sacred cattle.

  20. Max says:

    Many people believe in extraterrestrial intelligence despite a lack of evidence.

    I believe that common sense is often ahead of the evidence, that being cold does help bring on a cold, that huge doses of anything are generally bad, and that we should avoid “unnatural” things that drastically screw with a million years of evolution. I’m skeptical of our ability to foresee and mitigate the harm from things like pollution, GMOs, EMFs, and sugar substitutes. I was skeptical of hormone replacement therapy before all the risks were known. I think that Americans are overmedicated in general. I’m skeptical that the huge magnetic fields in MRI machines are harmless.

    When it comes to criminal justice, what’s the null hypothesis, the official version or the presumption of innocence? After Richard Jewell was falsely accused of the Olympic Park bombing, I’m not so sure that Eric Rudolph is the perpetrator either. After Dr. Steven Hatfill was falsely implicated in mailing anthrax, I’m not so sure that Bruce Ivins is the perpetrator either.

  21. Kesnit says:

    Although I don’t believe in any sort of deity, I like to believe that there is an afterlife for loved pets. I know it isn’t realistic, and if pressed, I guess I have to admit that I don’t REALLY believe it. But it is a comforting thought.

  22. Max says:

    I believe that free will is a useful illusion, but it’s a sacred cow even for many atheists.

  23. Steve Norley says:

    I, too, am unaware of having any superstitious beliefs. I may be fooling myself, but I’m not a liar.

    The only thing I can think of that I consider to be likely (not ‘believe’) despite a lack of evidence is the existence of extraterrestial life. I don’t mean UFOs etc, but I think that the fact that life got started so quickly on Earth indicates that it is probably a common event under the right conditions. Complex multicellular organisms and especially technologically proficient organisms are probably far less common, I expect.

    Also, as I know for a fact that the Flying Spaghetti Monster does exist, this does not count as a superstition.


  24. Cat Girl says:

    Well, this isn’t exactly what you’re asking, but I don’t agree with all the people who complain about bad science in fiction. I can watch Lord of the Rings without believing that hobbits and magic exist, and I can also watch shows like Fringe without believing that their ‘science’ is true. I can pretend it’s true during the show, just like I can pretend any other fiction is true while I’m enjoying. That’s the point of fiction. If some non-critical viewers end up thinking these things are real, it’s not the show’s fault. These are probably the same people who would believe that magic is real after reading Harry Potter. We should accept fiction for what it is, and instead focus on the people who actually try to promote bad science as being true.

  25. Max says:

    “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”

    “What have you changed your mind about? Why?”

  26. ejdalise says:

    I guess I’m in the liar’s group; no superstitions. I do believe the universe is trying to piss me off, but I have evidence for that. In traffic, malls, at work, on television, the Big U’s minions are working hard to make my life miserable.

    To wit, I do get annoyed when, regardless of the topic, someone will slip in global warming. Perhaps I have a different understanding of “superstition”, but I don’t see how a scientific hypothesis classifies as superstition. That one side or the other (or both) might be wrong is likely a given, but eventually there will be conclusive evidence on the issue. So, not superstition.

    But the main question, for Brian, is this: since you hold everyone has a superstition, which is yours? What superstitious belief do you hug so tightly that even you would not be able to dislodge from your grasp?

  27. Petrucio says:

    I’m a liar then. Sue me.

  28. Max says:

    Karma is a pretty common superstition, though without the reincarnation aspect I don’t see how it would explain why bad things happen to good people.

  29. SkepGeek says:

    Well, if I knew of a sacred cow I have, it would not be one. The point is that it would be a blind spot. Still, I think there are some areas of belief that are more likely to harbor the these blind spots, and mine would likely be political. I think in that area emotion is stronger and evidence is weaker, and I probably have blind spots in that area.

    For example, I have opinions about economics, but I really know nothing about the topic. And the more I think about it, the more I think almost nobody has anything but opinions about how to solve our economic problems like the current global recession. They just regurgitate the party line without thinking.

  30. Peter V says:

    I have two things and I am not sure if they are sacred cows or not but I will share them:
    1. There was a recent blog post on this very blog that talked about how scientists in new TV shows are actually hindering people’s outlook on being a scientist, and making it look like it is something that they can never achieve. I think that this notion is false because when I watch these “impossibly brilliant people” on TV, I want to be just like them!
    2. Second is this notion that society is going down hill in it’s morals and values and that the family unit is falling apart and that there is more violence and hatred in the world nowadays. Really when you look at the last few hundred years you see that there was way more violence and destruction back then than there is now. People being burned at the stake, people waging war like.. every day. This actually might be on the skeptic side of things but I don’t know if all skeptics agree or disagree with these notions that I think are immensely false. Just because nowadays we have bigger guns doesn’t mean that we are worse people.

  31. Darin says:

    The various Platonic ‘noble lies’ of contemporary American society survive in the pastures of my mind and moo antagonistically when fairly strong evidence disproves them. For example, we’re all ‘created’ (ie. born) equal; we all have equal opportunity; we all have the same intelligence and capacities and therefore should universally be allowed to vote, breed with each other and raise children, serve on a jury; religion should be tolerated because it’s a personal matter; moo; moo; moo.
    I also don’t know what I’d do if Jesus actually returned from the east to rapture the faithful someday. I’d be like, ‘Jesus Christ, I was wrong on that one! Honey, get the camera.’

  32. SeanJJordan says:

    Hmmm. Your point is well taken, Brian, but I have a feeling that most people aren’t in a position to be honest enough with themselves to realize that they, too, have a strongly-held belief in something that’s contrary to the evidence. I would suggest that a lot of people have an unfortunate amount of faith in President Obama because they’ve bought into his hype. He should be judged on his merits, not his promises, and I grow concerned when I hear my atheist friends making excuses for him because they like him and want to assume the best.

    Another example would be people who believe that their children are above-average in sports, or academics, or music, or whatnot, despite the fact that their children show no special ability.

    But I reject the idea that those who have no sacred cows are lying. There are people out there who can be THAT honest with themselves. I would suggest, however, that they are in the 1% or less range, statistically speaking. I would also suggest that they’re not necessarily intelligent, self-actualized people; they could simply be people who trust no one but themselves and who don’t believe anything they can’t prove in front of their own eyes.

  33. Helene says:

    I’ll give you a real answer. My sacred cow? Vaccinations.

    No, I don’t believe they cause autism. But in my quest to ensure as much long-term immunity as possible for my kids I’ve definitely strayed from accepted scientific thinking. First, although there’s no real evidence, it made sense to me that 1) a more mature immunine system could have a better chance of processing a vaccination to ensure longer immunity and 2) in exclusively breastfed children I think there’s a chance that mom’s immunity could limit the child’s own immune response to a vaccination at 2 months of age. So we delayed starting our kids’ vaccinations until 1 year. At that point, there are a couple that don’t even apply any more. We didn’t do Hep B – it makes more sense to me to give it to a teenager and not have to worry about whether he’s keeping up with his boosters while in college. Same with chicken pox. We skipped it and my kids got it the old fashioned way (we didn’t intentionally expose) but my plan had always been to give the vaccine at pre-adolescence if they didn’t get the disease.

    This is a thing where my usually rampant skepticism took a back seat to my feeling that it just made sense to wait until my kids’ immune systems were more mature (and my own transferred immunity less of a factor). Of course, we also took into account that I was staying home with them (and sharing my immunities with them) so their chances of encountering something scary at, say, day care were limited.

  34. CyberLizard says:

    If I don’t put my left shoe on first, bad things will happen. Wait, that’s not superstition, that’s OCD ;-)

  35. Ticktock says:

    My sacred cow is the Jesus Tomb that was discovered. It’s not that I’m certain of the fact that it was definitely the final resting spot of Jesus, but I do think that skeptics are too dismissive of the find due to the over-hyped publicity and the eagerness of the people involved in the discovery’s exploitation. It is possible that such a discovery could actually be the tomb of Jesus… and be exploited and manipulated by selfish individuals, right?

    On the plus side, this discovery would disprove the nonsense that Jesus physically rose to heaven. On the other hand, there isn’t enough evidence in the tomb or in the new testament to prove any claims one way or the other. I’ve heard all the arguments against, and all the arguments for, but none have convinced me either way.

  36. By framing the question as it was (either you have superstitious beliefs or you’re a liar) Brian has set it up against logic. I don’t think I hold to any superstitious beliefs, which, by the formula offered makes me a liar, which in turn indicates I do have superstitious beliefs that I am either denying or lying about. I consider this an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence.

    Brian’s question answers itself for us all, so why bother replying?

  37. Coleman Mulkerin says:

    My Sacred Cow is probably economics and philosophy….

    I am pretty much skeptical of everything that skeptics normally talk about, though I sometimes wish skeptics would turn their skeptical eye to economics. You guys really need to open your mind and stop taking the blue pill. A lot of skeptics just really have it wrong.

    Seriously though, I am an Objectivist ala Ayn Rand. I know we have a following in skepticism (ex. Michael Shermer), but I will continue to push for skeptics to embrace evidence based economics.

    Unless I can read evidence to the contrary. :)

  38. Steve Norley says:

    This is off-topic, but in answer to the post by Helene (#32) I would like to say that, as someone involved in the development of vaccines, I don’t think that you’re doing your kids any favours by delaying or omitting the recommended vaccinations. The timing of childhood vaccinations is based on evidence of efficacy and it would be best to stick to that shedule. For example, the immunity that newborn kids get through breast-feeding is entirely passive in nature and will not interfere with the primary immune response induced by a vaccine. The fact that your kids got chickenpox as children is a pity because it could have been so easily avoided and it was probably unpleasant for them. It could also cause them trouble later in life (i.e. shingles). Sorry if I’m killing your sacred cow, but giving your kids the available vaccines at the recommended times is the best thing you can do for them, in my opinion.



  39. Hoonser says:

    My sacred cow is I believe certain things will bring good luck. For example, I’m fairly convinced one of my friends is a good luck charm.

  40. andrew says:

    Brian, I am interested to hear what your sacred cow is. Or are you one of the 10% that is lying or deluded?

  41. Max says:

    We’ve seen Michael Shermer’s sacred cow: the invisible hand.

    In previous threads on superstition and jinxing, people admitted to knocking on wood and repeatedly pushing the elevator button, though I would consider it more as a compulsive habit like nail biting.

  42. tmac57 says:

    I believe that there is an objective reality. I also believe that we will never truly comprehend it totally, but we are making progress via the scientific method.

  43. Max says:

    A couple of Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid quotes.

    “I know all of this, but every time the cold and flu season comes around, I still catch myself eyeing that vitamin C bottle. I’m like the jungle native who’s been baptised by the missionaries, but whenever the volcano erupts, I still run to the stone pagan idol.”

    “I will go on the record right now with my personal opinion, whether you care what that is or not: I don’t want anything with mercury going into my mouth when there are alternatives, especially when those alternatives look better cosmetically.”

  44. Ihle says:

    My sacred cow is the historical Jesus.

  45. Leland Witter says:

    Mine is Luck.

    By most measures, I would be considered “lucky” – I win raffles, lower tier lottery prizes (long term ahead on spend vs winnings, but don’t play often), gambling – both skill (poker) and odds (craps) based, giveaways at seminars, etc.

    My struggle is that I don’t believe in luck, but am superstitious enough to try not to say I don’t believe or else I will jinx my “luck”.

    In fact I have a bit of remorse in writing this comment right now.

  46. BillDarryl says:

    I still hang onto claims of almost preternatural intuition from some humans. People who, although not psychic, seem to possess a sort of sixth sense in picking up people’s moods or physiological changes (I can’t count how many times I’ve watched women call another’s pregnancy – correctly – with no prior knowledge or hints).

    BUT I attribute these things not to the supernatural realm, but to natural means we haven’t yet discovered. We may, for example, unconciously emit and pick up the minutest changes in scents when such personal events occur, and some just recognize it better than others. That makes sense and explains the anecdotes without getting all woo.

    So that’s it – I believe in apparent “sixth sense” abilities, but I believe there are natural drivers.

    Oh, and unicorns. They still run wild out there somewhere. And one day I shall find them.

  47. Frank Paulson says:

    Even though I’ve been skeptical since the whole Santa conspiracy revelation followed by far too many “it’s a mystery” answers in Sunday school, I occasionally find a sacred cow that I must slaughter. The thing is, before they show at the abattoir door in my mind I don’t realize they exist.

    I can think of three things that stand out as often-stated off-hand “facts” that I have recently found to be bogus. One is the whole “blood for oil” thing that was blown to bits by Mr. Dunning in his Skeptoid podcast. The other two are things that people (usually liberal people) have heard so many times they just “believe” them to be true. The Bin Laden family was spirited out of the U.S. immediately after 9/11 despite the ban on air travel ( and that unemployment figures measure only those actively looking for work and therefore are higher than stated ( Thank you to SNOPES for those last two, and yes I followed those figures back to their sources.

    I hope to see more blue-ribbon winning sized heifers mooing to get in and I will continue to offer up mental cheeseburgers for the rest of my life, Shiva so help me. I mean it, Shiva grab that cleaver.

  48. Max says:

    IQ. It does measure some types of intelligence (abstract, spatial, pattern recognition), and some groups have higher IQ than others, and I don’t mean MENSA and NASA.

  49. bob says:

    I find much of the “humanist doctrine” to be something like a sacred cow. Are people actually inherently good? Is society getting objectively better? Can every person survive without religion? More generally, is science and reason for everybody? I would answer “yes” to each of those questions, but I don’t know that I have real evidence for my answer. I fear it’s more that I *want* them to be true, which would make them bovine beliefs.

  50. Mastriani says:

    By framing the question as it was (either you have superstitious beliefs or you’re a liar) Brian has set it up against logic. I don’t think I hold to any superstitious beliefs, which, by the formula offered makes me a liar, which in turn indicates I do have superstitious beliefs that I am either denying or lying about. I consider this an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence.

    Further, it invokes petitio principii in the form of: Superstition is metaphysics, aptly, that metaphysics is ubiquitous by manner of the fact that human’s exist, (self-referencing truth claim). It is obviously a fallacious claim; there is no evidence for the author’s position.

    I am irreligious. There is what has evidence and what is yet unknown.
    There is nothing else.

    The very first instance of this article, the title, is an error, to anyone irreligious; sacred invokes the First Cause/Prime Mover. No such thing exists.

    Is anyone certain that this individual is actually a skeptic? I find it highly dubious.

  51. oldebabe says:

    “Everyone…”, “…all…”, tsk, tsk, Brian, and based on anecdotes! When you use words like that to enumerate who thinks what, you most likely ARE wrong… :-)

  52. miller says:

    “What’s your sacred cow?” is practically impossible to answer. If I really did have a sacred cow, I probably wouldn’t recognize it as such. Technically it’s not a lie if I believe myself honest. The distinction between a lie and an honest belief is an important one to make, especially for a skeptic!

    I’m sure there are many points on which I disagree with the skeptical mainstream. Nothing too obvious, like acupuncture or astrology or anything. However, I’ve had the fleeting suspicion that homosexuality could in fact be a choice, and that religious fundamentalism is not really as common as atheists make it out to be. But of course, it is I who am right to be suspicious, and the rest of you all who have the sacred cows. :)

  53. jrpowell says:

    My sacred cow: I have free will, and that my perception of self-identity is real.

  54. AL says:

    I have to agree with the person above who said free will is a sacred cow for all too many atheists. Another one is objective morality. I’m one of the very few atheistic naturalists I know who is a moral relativist, which I believe is the only view of morality consistent with naturalism. Actually, I also believe moral relativism is the only sensible view of morality even if there were a supernatural God, what with the Euthyphro dilemma and all that. Of course from a psychological point of view, I fully understand why people would want to cling to some idea that morality may have some basis in fact (i.e., that the is-ought problem in ethical philosophy is tractable), but I’ve never seen a convincing argument.

  55. Mastriani says:

    My sacred cow: I have free will, and that my perception of self-identity is real.

    Easy enough. Free will cannot exist for a reactive biochemical automaton. Further, self-identity is a biochemical dialectic between the frontal hemispheres of the brain; which allows for environmental spatial perception and is highly advantageous for scenario abstraction implementation, with memory recall access.

    No First Cause required, sacredness disavowed.

  56. Positive thinking – I tend to believe this works and can get you through some tough spots even though I have never really seen any hard evidence on this.

    Also free market capitalism – there is lots of evidence out there for this, but lots of people disagree with it as well. I guess I feel sort of alone believing in it sometimes which gives me a sacred cow sort of experience.

    This is also how I felt about atheism though for much of my life.

  57. Mark says:

    One point I’m drawing from these comments is that magical thinking comes in a lot of forms, not all of them easy to wrap up in a nice tidy package of folklore that we call superstition. Magic can sneak into your thinking.

    I once heard the phrase “the perversity of inanimate objects” and I’ve never been able to shake it out of my thoughts entirely. The idea is that objects will behave in exactly the way you don’t want them to. The most common example is the claim that bread falls buttered side down.

    My favorite magical thought comes from comic Maria Bamford: “If I keep the kitchen floor clean, no one will die.”

  58. PDM says:

    Sport Magical Thinking.

    I think any skeptics who enjoy sports probably cannot give up the sacred cow of thinking “if I do __________ my favorite team will do better or worse”.

    I may “know” that Jesus and the healing touch are bogus but I also know for certain that I had better not wear the colors of the rival team on game day. That will certainly lead to my team’s down fall. I have statistics to back this up but I can’t find them right now.

  59. Billy says:

    The closest idea that I have to a sacred cow is vitamins. Not megadosing or all that other stuff, but just that taking a daily multivitamin is good. I’ve SEEN the studies that show how it isn’t any better for you (and in some people, like heavy smokers, it can actually be bad) and I don’t REALLY believe that I am getting a real benifit from taking my chalky pills daily. Still, I wake up every morning, brush my pearly-whites, and choke down a One-A-Day.

    My reasoning is this:
    A) I bought a gigantic bottle at a wholesale store a year ago before I read up on the topic (peer reviewed medical publications only).
    B) My diet is pretty poor as a medical student with little time to prepare balanced meals for every day
    C) I have no reason to believe it will harm me
    D) I actually DO feel better after I stop for about a week, then start back up again. I realize this is most likely placebo effect, but who cares? I feel better and I don’t really care why; I only care that I feel better.

    I’ll keep taking them until I either run out and decide not to buy any more or I read a scientific study showing a significant chance of harm to me.

  60. gr8googlymoogly says:

    I am afraid that I am a poor sacred rancher as I have slain most (if not all) of my herd. I am hard pressed to look around me and spot a single cow, though I am sure that there must be one or two about. After all, I am human, and it seems against human tendencies to even want to lose these cows. My struggle is to find the few that remain and dispatch them. An even bigger struggle is to coexist with the ranchers I really care about who believe it appropriate to care for and breed their sacred cows.

  61. Max says:

    Billy, just make sure those multivitamins don’t include vitamins A, E, and beta-carotene.
    “The review, by the Cochrane Collaboration which regularly pools data from trials to evaluate drugs and treatments, found supplements vitamin A, vitamin E and beta-carotene are detrimental to health. In 47 trials with 180,938 people and a low risk of bias, the “antioxidant supplements significantly increased mortality”, the authors wrote. When the antioxidants were assessed separately and low risk of bias trials were included and selenium excluded, vitamin A was linked to a 16% increased risk of dying, beta-carotene to a 7% increased risk and vitamin E to a 4% increased risk.”

  62. SS says:

    A prayer/mantra for skeptical scientists

    “Science is my guide and nothing can scare me or shake my skepticism. And even if I face the most unexplainable phenomena, I shall not be overwhelmed, for I acknowledge that my mind is too small to comprehend all happenings in the universe and my lack of capability to understand them doesn’t imply that there are no logical explanations at all.”

  63. Jim Shaver says:

    I agree with those who admitted free will is their sacred cow. It is mine as well.

    I believe I have free will, because I successfully test that hypothesis every time I make a carefully reasoned decision. If my thoughts, actions, and reactions are chemically predetermined, as some claim, then the free will I experience is an illusion. Regardless, whether it is real or imaginary, I continue my journey through life as though free will were real, as though I were real, and as though I have ultimate responsibility for what I accomplish or do not accomplish during the short time I am here.

  64. Mastriani says:

    I believe I have free will, because I successfully test that hypothesis every time I make a carefully reasoned decision.

    Except this is an example of sacred peptide exchange. What if, dare I say it, your brain has processed reasoned decisions seconds prior to your becoming consciously aware of them …. ?

    Did “I” pick up the coffee cup by unknown manner of free will … or did my brain decide “I” should and then let “me” know that is the most advantageous scenario implementation, at the current moment, with the known current environmental variables?

    But in due order, Golden Calf it is. “Thou art not August, unless I make thee so.”

  65. Gerry says:

    To me reasoned decisions are proof that free will does not exist. To me, a truly reasoned decision is determined by the evidence. Ideally shouldn’t a reasoned decision be deterministic as possible? Where would free will come into it exactly?

  66. doofus says:

    sports superstitions
    wearing the same shirt for volleyball games (it gets washed!)
    leaving softball glove on same spot on bench

  67. badrescher says:

    I hate to answer the question with a question, but the comments make me wonder: Is the “sacred cow” to which you are referring the thing we THINK we’ll hold tenaciously to in the face of counter-evidence? or is it the thing we believe that is likely to be debunked? Because I don’t think I could recognize either. If I believe it whole-heartedly, then I’m not worried that it’s wrong (the latter) and if I’m a REAL skeptic (as opposed to a pseudoskeptic), I’m open to anything (although it will take extraordinary evidence to get me to change some of my views.

    How does one recognize a sacred cow, unless we are already “biting the bullet”, knowing our faith is just faith or is irrational?

  68. ddr says:

    Eating food cooked in Aluminum cook ware and drinking soda out of Aluminum cans will cause Alzheimer’s. I try to cook everything on my cast iron cookware and mostly buy sodas in plastic.

    It’s silly. I once heard that people who have Alzheimer’s have a higher concentration of Aluminum in their brains. I am not aware of any research that links cans and cook ware to the condition. But I am so afraid of Alzheimer’s that I don’t want to take chances. It is my superstition and I’m sticking to it.

  69. Drew says:

    I firmly believe, and frankly I think the evidence supports, that the U.S. government planned and carried out the 1969 moon landing.

  70. Boudin says:

    My dad, an otherwise reasonable and rational person, is absolutely convinced that aliens are visiting the planet all the time and that accounts of such visitations are clearly found in the Dead Sea Manuscripts. No amount of rational argumentation could ever convince him, leading to endless discussions, arguments, family schisms, chaos and destruction. I’ve decided to give up and just talk about other things instead.

  71. Max says:

    Like Brian Dunning, I choose composite fillings over amalgam, unless it’s for the back teeth.

    I think that missile defense is better than nothing. I know that brilliant people have worked on it, they already thought of all the problems that the Union of Concerned Scientists can come up with, but you won’t find their solutions on Wikipedia.

  72. Aaron says:

    Three things I disagree with are:
    Some vaccinations (most I believe are good);
    – The effectiveness of homeopathy; and
    – The existence of God. Actually come to think about, it I don’t recall you ever saying your view on God so I don’t know if this is a disagreement or not.

    I pretty much agree with you when on all other things such as evolution, superstitions, UFOs, etc. I use to have a different POV on the first two but after reading a number of articles and books, my conclusions have directed me elsewhere.

    Vaccinations are a highly emotive topic that creates bullshit on both sides of the fence. I would never enforce my view on them to any parent except, to say, go out there and read up on it and draw your own conclustions.

    I’ve seen first hand the effectiveness of homeopathy. It might be a placebo affect but from the limit reading I’ve done I think there may be some rigour behind it. I don’t think its anti-science.

    I don’t consider the these two topics being a sacred cow. They are formed by my observations and experiances. The third one however, I would consider a sacred cow.

    Keep up the good work. I enjoy what you say.

  73. Max says:

    Aaron, you mean real homeopathy where the preparation doesn’t contain a single molecule of the active ingredient? That’s definitely up there with perpetual motion machines. Or do you mean something like Zicam which only calls itself “homeopathic” for marketing?

  74. Ashley says:

    I don’t think it’s a sacred cow, because I’d change my mind if presented with alternative evidence (or even a good argument), but one of the very unpopular ideas I believe in is dysgenics.

  75. Brendan says:

    It’s tough to think what it would be, but I guess it would be ‘the scientific method’. Like the first person to post, I can’t imagine it being ‘wrong’, but I it could well be revised and improved.

  76. Jamie G. says:

    My sacred cow? Buddhism.

  77. Fred says:

    I don’t have any superstitious beliefs after 140 odd episodes of Skeptoid.

  78. bo says:

    Time out! Aaron, please tell us precisely what “bullshit” you’ve seen from the pro-vaccination side. In addition, your belief in homeopathy IS a sacred cow, because you’re trusting your personal anecdotes and cognitive biases in lieu of science and objective evidence.

    You said you changed your mind about evolution and UFOs after reading books and articles. Sounds to me like you need to keep reading, particularly about vaccines and homeopathy.

  79. Fuller says:

    “I’ve seen first hand the effectiveness of homeopathy. It might be a placebo affect but from the limit reading I’ve done I think there may be some rigour behind it. I don’t think its anti-science.”

    Skepticism Fail!


    Does Evolutionary Psychology count? It could do with stronger evidence, but the evidence it does have is all complimentary and supporting. I consider it indispensible when contemplating human behaviour.

    Ok forget that, how about this. I consider the supernatural to be logically impossible. Yes, that would be my sacred cow. Supernatural = By definition impossible.

  80. MadScientist says:


    That thing about a higher aluminum content in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers was disproved years ago. The very authors of the initial papers couldn’t confirm their own results and other people were having trouble too. The problem was determined to be that the original authors used a dye which had aluminum in it – DUH – so they saw aluminum in the assay performed on that dyed tissue at a later stage.

    So, don’t worry about all those soda cans and aluminum pans. I prefer stainless steel though; I hate aluminum cookware. I have been known to sacrifice aluminum cookware to caustic soda when entertaining people.

  81. Skepacabra says:

    I know I probably still have sacred cows but I feel I can legitimately claim that if I knew what they were, they wouldn’t be a sacred cow anymore because I have a history of dropping lots of strongly held beliefs very quickly, almost overnight. Once I discovered the skeptical community, I very quickly stopped believing that space aliens have visited Earth, ghosts, psychics, acupuncture, chiropractic, among other things. While I already believed that most cases of these were hoaxes or delusions, I still believed that a small few were the genuine article.

    It’s possible that my anti-vegetarianism is just me denying the benefits of that lifestyle but I doubt it. While I think we will inevitably as a species switch to some artificially made supplements well down the road, I just think that at this point in time it’s a rather bourgeois, quixotic, and not remotely a morally superior position. And though there may be environment benefits to switching to a vegetarian lifestyle that is still highly speculative at this time.

  82. Justin CF says:

    I’m confused as to why 9/11 conspiracies were put alongside alternative medicine, religion, and psychic dogs. The former, while perhaps wrong, is still within the realm of natural explanation. The others are outright superstitious.

  83. Clint says:

    My sacred cow is Confirmation Bias.
    It always happens to me. I have even done a double-blind test and I definitely suffer from it.

    Debunk that, Dunning.

  84. Mike says:

    My Sacred Cow?

    That Darwin was right.

    BTW have you noticed that Brian Dunning’s posts seem to generate the most comments. Hope the other Skeptologists don’t get jealous

  85. WanderingInADaze says:

    I think, therefore I delude myself… it is part of what makes us human.

  86. 83 posts from nothing but the superstitious and liars.

  87. Mastriani says:

    83 posts from nothing but the superstitious and liars.

    This coming from a heretic and deceiver. Have you no shame? Say nothing, you and your superstitious factual dogma cannot be believed.

  88. William says:

    My sacred cow is the free market. I try to be as intellectually honest as possible, and I know I could be wrong, but so far no one has ever convinced me that the free market solution to a problem isn’t the right one.

  89. RoaldFalcon says:

    I have no woo. Everything I believe in is backed by hard science.

    And in many cases, my science is enhanced by alien technology from a planet in the Magellanic Clouds.

  90. Mastriani, do not vex me, SIR. A pox on thy house!

  91. Mastriani says:

    Fine then, and a blemish upon your arse. Good day to you sir.

  92. Max says:

    Justin CF (#81),
    First, alternative medicine isn’t all superstitious. For example, what happenens in folk medicine is that folks might find some herb that actually works, and then come up with superstitions to explain why it works.

    9/11 conspiracy theories fit alongside religion because they’re unfalsifiable. Any evidence that contradicts the conspiracy theory can be said to be part of the cover-up.

    Superstitions, by the way, can be falsifiable. You can actually test whether a lucky charm wins you more money at a slot machine.

  93. Max says:

    Brilliant quantum physicist David Bohm challened the sacred cow of physics, reductionism.

    In proposing this new notion of order, Bohm explicitly challenged a number of tenets that are fundamental to much scientific work. The tenets challenged by Bohm include:

    1. That phenomena are reducible to fundamental particles and laws describing the behaviour of particles, or more generally to any static (i.e. unchanging) entities, whether separate events in space-time, quantum states, or static entities of some other nature.

    2. Related to (1), that human knowledge is most fundamentally concerned with mathematical prediction of statistical aggregates of particles.

    3. That an analysis or description of any aspect of reality (e.g. quantum theory, the speed of light) can be unlimited in its domain of relevance.

    4. That the Cartesian coordinate system, or its extension to a curvilinear system, is the deepest conception of underlying order as a basis for analysis and description of the world.

    5. That there is ultimately a sustainable distinction between reality and thought, and that there is a corresponding distinction between the observer and observed in an experiment or any other situation (other than a distinction between relatively separate entities valid in the sense of explicate order).

    6. That it is, in principle, possible to formulate a final notion concerning the nature of reality; e.g. a Theory of Everything.

  94. Wendy says:

    Jon says: “Um, you say: “Only ten percent of people claim no superstitious beliefs, and those ten percent are liars”.
    Methinks you’ve kind of fallen into your own trap: you believe this unreservedly without evidence. If you truly believe this, no matter what I or anyone else claims, you’re mired in dogma, my friend.
    I categorically state I have no superstitious belief, and I am not lying. I don’t.”

    I wholeheartedly second this!! I also have no superstitious beliefs. None. There is NOTHING I will believe without evidence. Not a damn thing. If I were to believe something without, or even in spite of evidence, I would become the very thing I hate.

  95. Her name is Flossie, and I’m not going to talk about our relationship, because YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.

  96. Jeff says:

    Smaller Government. I keep getting told it is a flawed idea by big ‘bailout everyone’ people. But as of yet there is no empirical evidence it is flawed, since it has *never* ever, been tried. The opposite experiment, bigger government has been tried over and over again and we already know it’s results.

  97. Ashley says:

    Jeff, smaller governments have been tried – every time a state collapses. The shift from the totalitarian Soviet Union to the laissez-faire chaos that followed is smaller government. Under controlled conditions, smaller government takes the form of privatization, like the government giving up control of electric utilities, formerly municipal services like garbage collection, or selling public resources like forests or oilfields. Countries give up laws like the fairness doctrine. Those are all reductions in the size of government.

    Try looking up “Deregulation” on wikipedia. You will notice that the article is not empty.

  98. Skepdude says:

    My sacred cow? Skeptoid of course! Skeptoid is NEVER wrong!

  99. Kevin Browning says:

    I think that my car runs and drives better after I wash it, change the oil, or clean the windshield.

    Does that count as a sacred cow??

  100. Foos84 says:

    Determinism. It seems to me sometimes that it’s an unfalsifiable position. When it comes down to it, I’ve never seen good evidence against it, but then, it’s kind of a necessary assumption for all of science.

  101. Shahar Lubin says:

    ehm, doesn’t quantom mechanics at least seems to break the assumption of determinism?

  102. hypertrout says:

    kevin, at some level your car should run better after you do those things. (depending on how you qualify better).

    As for me I still have a hard time giving into the idea that I am not the one true GOD.

  103. peliaspastia says:

    Explain the curse of BRIAN DUNNING!!
    I am listening to a podcast, for example (The Secular Nation Podcast), if I turn my Ipod Touch on its side an apparition appears. An eyeball with the words SKEPTOID above it suddenly appears. This also works with other podcasts. Is my Ipod haunted? Could Brian Dunnings’ spirit be trapped in my Ipod? Or is the an example of the dreaded Brian Dunning Virus?

  104. Roland says:

    My sacred cow is the generalization that most people are good, but lazy.

  105. Shahar Lubin says:

    I’ll go with sports.

    I don’t care what the evidence might say, my rally towel is responsible for the phillies winning world series.

  106. So, over a hundred comments in, it’s already been said, but I think the correct term is “blind spot”, not sacred cow. If I have something I’m holding to dogmatically, it’s a sacred cow, but at this point, I’m watching out for my blind spots that other people notice. If I don’t allow something to be challenged, then it becomes a sacred cow.

  107. tmac57 says:

    My cow is a little nervous, but not scared!….Huh…it is? Ohhhh…never mind.

  108. fatherdaddy says:

    I don’t have any superstitions. I don’t have any sacred cows. I guess the one thing I can think of that I have provisionally accepted that would have you calling me a loon is plasma cosmology. I have not been able to find arguments that completely obliterates it, yet, although, I have found an explanation that counters an argument made against the big bang theory by plasma cosmology proponents. I heard Phil Plait say that his site had blown away the arguments for plasma cosmology, but, all I found was one argument that was a straw man. I am still looking, but, I haven’t found an argument to make me accept that electromagnetic forces have no effect on an astronomical scale.

    How’s that? That is as close as I can get to an unbsubstantiated “belief”.

  109. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Some “superstitions” are really just cultural rituals that make people feel part of a group. We do things for “good luck”, knowing deep down that it is ridiculous and we don’t really expect good things to happen just because we did the ritual.

    In college, we would touch the school statue while walking to a game “for luck”. I still feel the urge to do this, but I don’t think for a minute that it will really alter an outcome. I guess one could consider this my “sacred cow”.

    Sometimes, superstitious gestures are just ways of communicating. When someone tells me about how healthy their grandmother is, I might might knock on some wood. Again, I don’t think for a minute that this gesture will actually keep Granny healthy. I simply communitcated that I hope that she stays healthy.

  110. Bart says:

    Don’t have a sacred cow, man.

  111. Scott D. says:

    I believe people have free-will. I’ll probably continue to believe I have free will even if it’s shown to be an illusion.
    Though if that happens I’d have no choice in the matter.

  112. Dan Rodemsky says:

    Atheism. It would take a lot to convince me there is ANY intelligent force in the universe, much less the Christian god.

  113. Max says:

    Nobody explicitly mentioned political correctness. I don’t trust politically correct scientific conclusions, because there’s a bias against politically incorrect findings.

  114. Susan says:

    I totally agree with Max that free will is a useful illusion but i think it comforts us to believe in it.