Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Counter Example

I just finished reading the comment thread on an article in a Vancouver Weekly - The Georgia Straight. It's actually quite entertaining - if like me you get a kick out of the skeptical equivalent of a highway pile-up.

In it local skeptic, Jesse Brydle (with the assist of a few scattered others) takes on a tsunami of bad arguments - non-sequiturs, hysterical hand-waving and defiant declarations that their own single anecdotal observations and experiences constitute real evidence.

The Straight did a fucking awful article to start off with. It was written by a homeopath talking about how homeopathy helped her kids. The proponents of alternative medicine often pull out the canard that supporters of standard medicine are in the pocket of Big Pharma. Uh... so an entire article about how pretty homeopathy is - written by a homeopath? Yeah - THAT is unbiased and not 'in the pocket' of anyone.

Jesse took 'em on. And while I don't think he changed the mind of any of the commenters who were fighting him he managed to put forward a good solid well reasoned argument - and he did it without appearing to lose his temper... not sure I could have done so. Meanwhile many of the homeopathy supporters were not so calm, and in many cases down right ridiculous.

One of the more shocking things to me was the nurses who support homeopathy. Here are a few names- assuming that they were using their actual names (and are actually RNs): Jenny Lindstrom & Kathleen Taylor. (Note: Kathleen Taylor does come up in a google search for her name and "nurse" on a site (several, in fact) related to nursing; Jenny Lindstrom only comes up associated to the comment thread in question.) I am in favour of free speech - utterly. These women have every right to reveal themselves as believers in hokum - perhaps the powers that govern them will see fit to give them a proper education or get them the fuck out of our hospitals!

But back to Jesse. Props to him for laying out the details in a logically consistent manner and for actually linking to sources... something that almost everyone he was arguing against failed to do.

Jesse is a good skeptic. Not an asshole skeptic.

Friday, July 24, 2009

An Asshole's Manifesto

Okay, sitting on my ass between takes on-set. I have no excuse to not be doing something a bit more productive. One of the office PAs just called up a horoscope website on her computer... that seems to me to be a good cue... time to start fleshing out the ideas of Asshole Skepticism.

There is a lot of societal pressure from a large segment of the skeptical community to "play nice"; and in many situations - indeed most situations they are right. But there is a tendency to fall into the pattern of what I think of as soft sketpicism. I don't intend that term - 'soft' - to be belittling, so perhaps I should come up with another one. We shall see. There is a certain deliberately provocative intent behind Asshole Skepticism, (Indeed the selection of 'Asshole' as a term is an element of that intent.) so I may stick with 'soft' - it just may be the wrong place to apply a tactic of provocation.

I believe that the alleged virtue of playing well with others comes largely from the scientific community which makes up a significant demographic segment of the skeptical world. We - those of us who cannot fairly identify as scientists - have much to respect and thank science for, particularly in skepticism. Within the rational thoguht world there is a certain tendency to defer to the culture of science. By this I don't mean the practice of science itself, but the temper of science and it's ettiquette.

There is much to say for 'socially acceptable', emotionally divorced, rational ways of science. But I contend that it is merely a single tactic for having the voices of critical thought heard. Dealing with people with a measured response, explaining in detail the short-comings or complete lack of truth of their view-point is going to go a long way in trying to penetrate the message to them. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. But that only works in some venues and will only reach those who are willing to invest the time to respectfully listen and consider the points.

On both ends of the political spectrum there are firebrands who draw a lot of fire from the other side and behind whose voices the chorus of agreement is eager and willing to sing harmony. On the right we have examples the obnoxious harpy Anne Coulter and the disrespectful ass-wipe Bill O'Reilly; on the left examples include, the embarassingly manipulative Michael Moore and the out-right bat-shit crazy Alex Jones. I am personally convinced that not one of the people mentioned above actually believe all the bullshit coming out of their mouths. I don't beleive that anyone could be that nuts. (I may be naive, but that's a different subject.) Each of them says outrageous things for the primary purpose of getting attention so that they can them mistrepresent the facts to serve their own political agenda. And it works. Why? I posit that the main reason it works is becasue of the emotion attached.

It's true that the ideological lightning rods mentioned above do little more than preach to the converted. But it's not true that they do nothing but preach to the converted. People who are 'on the fence' who teeter to one side in conjunction with hearing the 'evidence' shouted from the respective bully pulpit of the right person are swayed. People react to emotion. There are a variety of ways people react. Some ways postive, some negative. I shall explore and break those possibilities down later as my thinking coalesces further. But for practical purposes: people 'on side' tend to be emboldened by such firey proclamations, or at least entertained - no loss there; people in outright opposition are only going to be reached by careful reasoned response (and probably not even then) - so no loss there; people on the fence, as mentioned above, may hear the emotion at the right time and think "wow, if some one is so fired up about that, there must be a reason - perhaps there's something to it" - win!

Now, to be clear, I am absolutely not advocating saying outrageous unsupportable things in the name of rational thought. How absurd would that be? That would fly directly in the face of the most elementary aspects of skepticism.

What I am saying is that there is a distinct dearth of emotional charge in a lot of skepticism, and that doesn't serve us very well. It is true that facts are not contingent upon emotion. Truth cannot be determined by the feeling you have one way or another about it. However, once facts are determined, it is important to treat the application of those facts with emotion wherever emotion can serve the truth. The culture of skepticism fails on this front more often than not.

We DO get upset when Jenny McCarthy uses emotional triggers like the phrase "her Mommy instinct", because we know that her fucking "Mommy insticnt" is killing other Mommy's children. But the tendency is to sit around and discuss the facts like scientists about it - which has a valuable purpose. But let's face it, the highlight of the Anti Anti-vax Panel at TAM 7 was not Steve Novella (Who I have the utmost respect for - he is one of my personal skeptical heroes and one of the few people at the conference I turned into a crippled fan-boy-mess in front of.) telling us "At that time I said, 'You know I'm not really sure at this point, there may be something going on here. We may have to delve deeper into this.' You know, you get exposed to one side of any argument it seems to help, but then when I actually systematically go through the published research, seeing what the evidence really shows - by the time I finished it really was self-evident by the time I wrote the article, I was convinced that there is no link to thimerisol and autisim." No, it was the father of an autistic child, Michael Goudeau's impassioned "I'm here to tell you that Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy are assholes." (or perhaps his "I'm willing to show my tits!" but in either case he was appealling to our visceral responses.) Which is not to under-sell the value of Derek Bartholomaus' Jenny McCarthy Body Count - which in it's own way an excellent example of Asshole Skepticism.

In a few short words; while we absolutely must adhere to intellectual rationality, we can afford to indulge in emotional irrationality under certain circumstances.

Asshole Skepticism is definitely not for all. The best debaters in the skeptical community should probably stick to their strengths, but for those who are deeply in touch with their passions and capable of triggering passionate responses in themselves and for those who have an affinity for effective satire - we should play to our talents and draw attention to the cause through humour and fury; and draw fire from our 'soft' comrades with emotion that will not be ignored.

But even we must not make a habit of practicing "Asshole Skepticism" as a blanket-strategy. That would be personally destructive. I would not treat a credulous friend with the scorn I would the predatory Sylvia Brown. Similarly I make every effort to explain the realities of why Mars is not actually going to look bigger than the moon on August 27th to family members who send out mass-emails. Approaching one's daily life as a deliberately assholish skeptic would be to live under a personal scorched-earth policy.


I think I've covered the basics of what is going on in my head on this notion. There is much detail I haven't plumbed and no doubt there will be much thinking yet to follow which will ammend and develop what I have already said. But all of that will wait for another day.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Connie Sonne follow-up the JREF video

Not much to say here. The JREF has released the video of the Connie Sonne MDC preliminary test.

I'm linking them here for ease of reference to my other post about it.





Riveting, huh?

And the press conference on Skeptic Zone #40

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Million Dollar Challenge Challenge

I really should just bite the bullet and write an entry as a starting point for a philosophy – a manifesto, if you must – for Asshole Skepticism... but more pressing matters continue to be a part of my life. And then in between things I feel the need to sound off about keep jumping the queue.

I am going to assume a certain level of knowledge on the reader's part about the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, and if I am wrong (and in some cases I no doubt will be) then you can follow the link.

You may also know that at TAM 7, ten days ago almost exactly as I write this, Connie Sonne took the MDC, putting her dousing abilities to the test. She Failed. Disappointing a room of skeptics who would have been thrilled to have been in the room for the first time anyone managed to pass the preliminary test (which would have meant either she beat the 1000 to 1 odds, or she actually DID present paranormal abilities). I was there. I've written about it elsewhere. It would have been SO cool to see her pass, just because it was so unexpected. Not my intended point, but contrary to many beliefs, most skeptics would be overwhelmed to witness circumstances where their evidenced positions were shattered. It's because we are open-minded, and that our philosophy centres on the process of evidence, not on the result.

Since then Ms. Sonne has made some contentious and insulting comments about the intentions of the JREF and the conductor of the test – mentalist, Banacheck. In brief she claims it was a set-up and a cheat. Plenty has said been said already about the validity of these statements, and I'm not wading in there beyond declaring it ridiculous. Significant hammering out of the legal and ethical implications of this have already been made.

But there is one question that I have yet to see taken seriously.

"What purpose would the JREF have for fixing the test?"

The immediate answer seems to be; "To save a million dollars." Well I have two words to say to that. BULL. SHIT.

That argument does not stand. And here is why:

The million dollars that has been set aside for the MDC has been set aside by a benefactor for one purpose – to legitimately fund the MDC. It has no other purpose. It is there to be lost. It is not being saved for a rainy day. It is the cash-in-the-bank foundation upon which the MDC is built.

Like a person who goes to gamble in Vegas who (wisely) counts their money before they even get on the plane and declare it sent and gone, there IS no loss as it has already been identified as written off. If the JREF wanted to ensure 'not losing a million dollars' the simplest way would be TO NOT OFFER THE MILLION DOLLAR CHALLENGE!

The suggestion that they'd cheat to save a million bucks is absurd.

Let's say – let's just say – that it turned out that paranormal powers DO exist and it was proven via the MDC. The financial boon that would follow for the association that sponsored the scientifically controlled experiment that proved it would dwarf a million dollars in a laughably short time. I just thought of that angle RIGHT NOW! That is how absurd the idea is that "to save a million dollars" would be their rational for cheating on the test.

Fuck! The simple suggestion otherwise just makes me hot under the collar.

On top of all that Рand related to what I said earlier about skeptics being delighted to witness the event disproving their evidence based assertion that paranormal powers are more than likely nothing more than magical thinking (I paraphrase) Рthe JREF, like practically all skeptics, find great joy in the wonders evident in the real world. There is a lot of amazing shit that really, truly, does occur in the world. If there were more self-identifying skeptics in the world it would be a well-worn clich̩ that there is way more than enough to marvel at in the world without having to convince yourself of all the garbage that people want to buy into to give themselves acknowledgement and simple answers. I guess it's hard to understand unless you've plumbed the realities that we do understand in the universe, and come to appreciate what we don't understand as just that Рthings we don't have answers for yet, and that the answers will be in their own right be marvellous without resorting to un-provable balderdash Рthat the fantastic realities in the world in themselves are virtually magic in their own right. Provable and proven magic of science. That is how amazing they are to our perception and logic impaired minds.

The JREF would be happy to throw that million dollars away (even without the promise of financial gain mentioned earlier for the association that sponsored such a discovery) just to know that dousing or whatever particular paranormal phenomenon under test was real and that it could be scientifically proven. And I agree vociferously. There is very little in the world that would blow my mind in such a positive way than something like Connie Sonne being able to determine where 3 – 6 – a dozen playing cards in a row were with her crystal. That would change everything – and THAT would be the most amazing thing to have ever been alive to witness – ever. Yeah, I'll pay a million dollars for that – personally.

So... I titled this post the "Million Dollar Challenge Challenge" - what do I mean by that?

I challenge the believers of the world to come up with a plausible counter argument to why the JREF would deliberately defraud the world with the MDC. I don't care if your basis is the Connie Sonne challenge and/or Banachek - it can be any challenge past, present, future. I just want someone to try to come up with a believable argument as to why the JREF would try to hide the 'real' results.

Brian Dunning Hits the Nail on the Head

Brian Dunning is a skeptic who I will no doubt mention later as I delve deeper. He is most definitely an asshole skeptic - and I mean that in the most flattering of ways - but I'll get into that later.

His latest episode of his podcast Skeptoid analyses one of the core issues in skepticism today. "How to Make Skepticism Commercial?" I'm thinking that he found a few pieces of the puzzle at TAM this year - there is some familiarity of concept. He ends by quoting my favourite presenter from TAM 7 - Jennifer Ouellette.

I'm going to argue that he isn't going far enough, but that would be getting way ahead of where I've explicated my ideas on Asshole Skepticism. But he is right on target.

I hope to start outlining my ideas soon. Lot's going on. Soon, I swear. But for now this will help colour in a bit of the space between the lines.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Great Flaming Chariot in the Sky

I figured I should start on an up beat.

Today as I write this it is the fortieth anniversary of the Moon Landing. A day I like to observe under the admittedly unwieldy name of "Greatest Achievement in the History of Human Endeavour Day."

I can't guess whether this blog is going to go in the direction of angry, philosophical, humorous or even petty. Probably some of each, but it struck me that busting out on a positive note was probably a good thing regardless.

Have a happy Greatest Achievement in the History of Human Endeavour Day everyone!

When Neil Armstrong stepped down on the lunar surface I was not yet born, in fact I was just starting to get the hang of that third trimester thing. I was born into a world that was still very excited by the wonder of out ability to excel. Science was seen as unstoppable. Mankind could do anything. That was a pervading tone of the world in my earliest days. I was encouraged to have faith in science and to dream big and think hard about everything.

I recall getting up early in the morning to watch the first space shuttle landing. I remember thinking how exciting that was and how at the same time there was no way it could match the awe inspiring feat of sending 12 men to walk on the moon.

I've never stopped being fascinated by it. I think my personal love for the Star Wars films (the orignal trilogy, not the childhood stealing ILM commercial that straddled the turn of the century) began with a love of the idea that man could stretch out well beyond the boundaries of out little blue marble. I read books, I saw Apollo 13 the day it was released. And watched From Earth to Moon in about as short a period as it would be possible to without overlapping the episodes. It's been far too long since I last watched The Right Stuff.
I've watched the entire NASA film collection and the entire CBS coverage of the moon-landing (which I just did this week, in fact I probably was watching Walter Cronkite commentate as he passed away). I revelled in watching a 72 year old Buzz Aldrin punch out Bart Sibrel.
And I am as appalled as anyone that 'we' have done so little to either go back or to push further. Though it looks as though a very real attempt is genuinely going to happen before I hit retirement age... how sad is that? It took less than a decade to pull it together last time, but now.... perhaps with the potential of commercial space-industry on the horizon that will pick up pace.
I managed to miss the Challenger disaster by almost a full day (long story, it was a weird day) and the Columbia disaster ominously occurred the day I moved in with my then fiancee... I wouldn't have referred to it as 'ominous' had we worked out as a couple. (Though I don't connect any real-world meaning to the coincidence.) I find it galling that the shuttle program is on the verge of ending with no replacement on the horizon. Again I look to the likes of the X-Prize and Virgin Galactic to become the new hope of extra-terrestrial endeavour. I believe Stephen Hawking was right when he said at the TED conference that space is our only hope of long-term survival as a speciecs and we are a LONG way away from being able to cash in on that potential.

I get chills thinking about how long it has been since Capt. Gene Cernan put an end to that chapter of human history.

If you'll forgive me a small dose of asshole skepticism...
When I listen to the arguments of Joe Rogan and the aforementioned Bart Sibrel, I want to do just what Buzz Aldrin did. Not because of the lies themselves, but because of the willful ignorance it takes to have each and every one of your arguments addressed with ration and demonstrable science (often science that can be replicated in a highschool classroom! - it's typically THAT basic.) and yet they keep arguing the same points as though they have never been debunked. The intellectual dishonesty and laziness that takes really makes me crazy. I may be an asshole skeptic, but these folks are ignorant asshole mother fuckers. Okay, rant over.

Skeptics are often accused of ruining people's sense of wonder, but this is one case where it is exactly the opposite. In my life there has been nothing real that has been more wonderous than putting a man on the moon.

Happy Greatest Achievement in the History of Human Endeavour Day everyone!