Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An Open Letter to Bono

So we've been having a one sided conversation for approaching 30 years now.
U2 is undoubtedly the most important band in my life, and you have been many things to me including idol and insufferable. At least you have an awareness and sense of humour about the latter. (Unlike that prat Sting who is second only to George Lucas in the degree he has ruined the piece of my youth that he also made so tremendous.)
I appreciate and even admire the work you do, but at times I do kind wish you'd just STFU - case in point, your TED Talk. Fuuuuuuuuck.
And specific to this season, I laugh overtime I hear the words "Tonight thank God its them instead of you." It always sounds just a bit meanspirited to me - which is not only out of character, but utterly opposed to the actual intent, I know.
I kind of suspect that if we were to discuss a range of skeptical subjects my opinion would descend, for at the very least your faith.
But... I just wanted to say...


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday Christmas Shopping - Scienterrific Books!!!

I mentioned previously that I was going to be a guest on Skeptically Speaking again.  The live show was Friday, and is now available for download with links to all the many books discussed.

As always the show was fun to be on.  I wish we could have got more discussion in than we did, but it was a very full show as it was.

I often come out the other end of these events feeling like I was at best a shotgun of information.  Perhaps I had some impact if I was aimed at the appropriate target, but even then I was all over the place.  So I figured I'd take a little bit of time to mention my books (as well as the books I had on my shortlist that other guests spoke about.

When I was asked to be on the show I polled some friends as to what books I should talk about.  Only one made the final list, but several appeared on my shortlist and I'll touch on them below.  I automatically nixed all Sagan books.  I figured he was a shoe in - and sure enough two Sagan books were mentioned by other guests.  Contact and Demon Haunted World.  I also considered the Cosmos companion, and Broca's Brain.

First up, my actual four picks for the show:

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

I mentioned on the show that when I was asked to do the show I polled a few friends to see what they came up with.  I actually didn't use a single one of their suggestions except this one - which I had already thought of.  But every single one of them included this in their list.  I was actually surprised that none of the other guests mentioned it.
This is totally gateway-drug territory.  I don't think I've ever read a science book that covers so much in such an enjoyable fashion.  It's very much 'sci-light' but that is it's charm.  Since it's publication it has gone slightly out of date - as I mentioned on the show the first two chapters alone have information that has changed since the book was written, but errata for that and other mistakes is easily available on-line.
While Bryson does get into a patina of explanation of science that ranges from the beginnong of the universe to the evolution of man, the heart of this book is really the stories behind the discoveries.  He delves deep into the quirks of the scientists and the history behind those who made parallel yet unheralded discoveries or those upon whose gigantic shoulders the heros of science stood upon.
It is at the same time funny and fascinating... something I'm informed that Bryson fans find to be his stock-in-trade, though I must admit that after trying several of his other books based on the promise of this one, I haven't found a single other one of his books that I've been able to finish.

The Transparent Society by Dr. David Brin

David Brin is serious man-crush territory for me.  I think he is the greatest living science fiction writer, he maintains an excellent blog, and YouTube channel, has a resume that includes CalTech and the JPL, had the jam to follow in Asimov's shoes and (ulp!) contribute to the Foundation series, and building upon the thinking in the Transparent Society has become one of the world's leading voices in the on-going discussion about privacy, transparency and freedom.

I hardly know where to begin with this book. It covers a lot of territory and it's hard for me to talk about it without drifting into my own feelings about the issues herein.  Some of it is scary - but that is exactly why it is important.  Being over 12 years old by now there are parts of this book that are self-evident - but that is part of it's strength.  You find yourself looking at the things he has got right and considering the portions that most rub you the wrong way with greater gravity.

I think this book is important to a world that is filled with citizens in denial and/or paranoia and not enough in a well reasoned middle.

Wikipedia sums it up with quotes from Brin, that the book is ultimately a proponent of a world where:
"most of the people, knowing most of what's going on, most of the time," would only be an extension of what already gave us the Enlightenment, freedom and privacy. By comparison, he asks what the alternative would be: "To pass privacy laws that will be enforced by elites, and trust them to refrain from looking at us?"
Brin is also the originator of the term "citokate" (I've lost track of whether it came from Trasparent Society or his blog first.) Which every skeptic should have in their vocabulary.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

The thing about Arcadia that I most failed to illuminate on the show is that it is a work of such rich complexity that subsequent readings (or viewings - it is a play, after all) never fail to open up new layers of understanding.
Tom Stoppard is one of the truly most amazing playwrights of our time.  While the average Jane may not be familiar with his name, they more than likely know of a film he won an Academy Award for - Shakespeare in Love.  The whimsical, multi-faceted treatment he gives the Bard is akin to the reverence he gives mathematics (and thermo-dynamics, and chaos, and fluid-dynamics, and determinism, and and and....) in Arcadia.
The play actually takes place in two times (but the same place) simultaneously at a country house in Derbyshire, as a set of modern academics attempt to untie the events of roughly a 180 years previously which the audience is also party to and see unfold in tandem.  All kinds of clever elements connect both times, but the favourite has got to be one of the simplest - a live pet turtle who roams freely on the desk that makes up the primary set-piece.  The turtle is the same one in each time-period, simply 180 years difference in it's age.
No real spoilers here - this is a play that needs to be discovered.  And should it coax you to explore the nature of re-iterative mathematics in the process, so much the better.

The Physics of the Buffyverse - by Jennifer Ouellette

Here's another excellent gateway-drug book.  I suppose it's rather self-evident that being a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan is a useful prerequisite (though I suppose not entirely necessary - but one would have to ask "why would you bother?") to reading this book.  In fact, a warning is certainly in order.  If you are a Buffy fan who is not complete on the two TV series (the comic books do not factor) then this book will spoil key plot details right through to the final season of each, and it won't waste much time getting around to doing so, so don't even tease yourself it you are serious about not getting spoiled.

I think I may have done this book a disservice on the show.  Like Brief History... it is pretty much sci-light.  But Ouellette does a better job of getting into the finer points of the science science she covers than Bryson does.  I know a fair bit of general science, and I learned from this book.  Sometimes the Buffy-based examples actually give a perspective that helps clarify some details of physics that isn't quite so intuitive, and in other cases I simply learned some basic trivia facts that had previously passed me by - for example, I had no idea that elements above Iron were heavier than their atomic number, while those below were lighter.

In Buffy-speak: This book is big on the easy-learny.

Which brings us to the other books of note...

I included Imagining Head-Smashed-In by Jack Brink in my end-of-show honourable mentions.  Very cool book.  Sort of forensic archeological historic storytelling about the buffalo hunters of the Northern Great Plains - specifically at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump.

My fellow live panellists (as opposed to the pre-recorded ones - the other possible parsing of that phrase is too much to bear) each chose a book I want to single out.

Nicole Gugliucci - the Noisy Astronomer - selected Dr. Phil Plait's Death from the Skies, which is a metric fuck-ton of awesome. It's the book that inspired Dr. Plait's TV show Bad Universe and is one of those rare laugh out loud science books.  He looks at a dozen aspects of astronomy through the lens of a Hollywood conceit - "the world is going to end because of 'X'" - and then looks at the real science behind it.  For a related  but entirely separate taste, check out his analysis of Armageddon. Indeed I had this book on my original four list, but figured the astronomer should get to talk about the astronomy book, so I put up no fight and replaced it with Arcadia.

Dana Blumrosen chose The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which I haven't read, but has been on a long list of "I must get around to reading that" titles since I heard about it and Henrietta Lacks on Radio Lab's (which everyone should listen to) Famous Tumors episode.

One of the pre-recorded bits featured books I had on my short list: Daniel Loxton's Evolution.  It was the first book I bought my daughter.  She's still too young for it at three... months.  But all in good time.  Last week I was in Washington DC and was at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  And there in the book store was Evolution.  I took a picture and posted it to Facebook.  It was the first that Daniel had heard of it being for sale there.  Good news for him.

Also relating to Daniel, I disqualified one of my orignal short-list picks - Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, in part because it was fiction (Though that didn't stop me from replacing Death from the Skies with Arcadia.) and in part because Daniel recently discussed it in pretty much the same context I felt qualified it.

Once we went off the air I thought of three more books that I wish I had thought of bringing up in my honourable mentions.

As a memorial to Benoit Mandlebrot I could have mentioned Chaos by James Gleick which was pretty much the first hard science book I ever tackled (and loved and was fascinated by) and arguably resulted in me being the science advocate I am today.  Most skeptics get Demon Haunted World.  I get Gleick.  I didn't choose it as I haven't read it in nearly twenty years and that makes me rusty enough that I didn't feel confident in my ability to talk about it for four minutes.
One book several of my polled friends came up with was Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.  This has been on my "I must get around to reading that" list forever and I actually bought a copy in hopes of being able to read it in time for the show... but I only got about a quarter of the way in.  It is fascinating thus far, but I didn't feel like I should champion something I hadn't really grokked.

Lastly, was another book I hadn't read, but was on the "I must get around to reading that" list.  I was reminded about it on my Smithsonian trip, in this case at the Air and Space Museum.  Gene Krantz's Failure is Not an Option.  Krantz is ther Ed Harris character from Apollo 13 - do I need to say more?  Tell me that isn't going to be an amazing auto biography.

So, there you have it.  I doubt that at this late date that'll help anyone make a good Christmas gift-pick for someone... unless you're grabbing me a copy of Failure is Not an Option... but I felt like a bit more effort, detail and illumination was in order.  Not just the scatter-gun effect.

Happy Jesuspalooza, everyone!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Real Vaccination Injury

This is a few weeks back now...
It was time for our baby daughter's first vaccination.
Jodie joked a lot about how she wouldn't let her child be given autism by injection. Her beliefs pretty much fall in the skeptical spectrum, though she doesn't wear the badge. Fair enough. Many of us are in relationships with people who are basically skeptics but don't self-identify as such.
Jodie & I got our flu shots.... which bruised her ARM for about a day, and in my case, the pain was gone about a second after the needle came back out. I admit, I'm not good with needles. Most of my pain was in the anticipation.
When it was December's (our daughter) turn, the doctor had Jodie hold her still. She is a squirmy little kid, so it was the best bet.
Three needles. Ten (if I recall correctly) vaccines.
The most trouble she had or has had since...?
Being held still for so long by Mom.  Just sayin'.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Change of Direction

Obviously, this fatherhood thing is cutting well into my ability to keep up with skeptical blogging.  While I do continue to consider myself an ardent skeptic, there are a host of things that I do put ahead of skepticism in my life and fatherhood has totally upset the cart in such a way that doing much more than attending SitP and reading a few scattered blog posts and listening to some podcasts when I've had time has really been all I could muster.

But when I am out and about it the world I keep seeing things that pique my skeptical instincts....

And not getting around to saying something about it has been kind of annoying me.

So it is time to do something about it!

I finally joined the smart-phone world about a week before I became a Dad... why I haven't (before now) set it up so I can blog directly from it when I have the opportunity... well I guess I just never thought of it until today.

Most of the skeptical thoughts I have I have while I am out and about in the world, so really it only makes sense!  The thoughts will be freshest and if I act immediately I don't have to rely on the clearly faulty combination of my memory and a free moment at home to get the blogging done.

So here's hoping this plan works... 'cause if it doesn't it could be months or even years before I get back around to it!

Oh... and on a totally side personal skeptical note...

I'm not disappearing ENTIRELY from the community - 'cause they keep pulling me back in!  Ah... but seriously... I'll be on a special episode of Skeptically Speaking on December 17th.  Would you believe... of the 3 (I think) appearances I've made on Skeptically Speaking precisely zero of them thus far have been live.  I'd make a joke about Desiree being scared of having me on without the ability to bleep me out, but not only is it not much of a joke, but to any degree that it is a joke, we've worn it out between the two of us already.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ethics for Skeptics

Okay. New plan.

I'm really not getting a lot of time for commentary - obviously. Fatherhood is not ridiculously taxing, but I already didn't have a lot of time.

But there is always stuff I think should be propogated, even if I haven't time for much added thought.

So I'm going to make an effort to send that stuff out - even if all I can add is a line or two of thinking.

For starters, here is a Statement of Ethical Principles for Skeptics from the Greenwood blog.

It is clearly declared to be a first draft (and even if it were we'd quickly find ourselves in the "you can't make me" territory that was part and parcel of the War Over Nice.

A few things leap out at me as being issue-worthy:

3a) Don’t overstate your case. Caveat your statements appropriately.

I'll agree with the first part for the most part - no time to get into the really nitty gritty of when entertainment value in order to maintain your audience may trump the absolute interpretation of that. But the second part... sigh... caveats are death when trying to reach the scientifically challenged. It is a sure fire way to bore the living shit out of them and thus lose them. Let the actual science speak to the precise truth - it is our job to propogate the message as far and wide as possible.

For the most part the satire, humour, use of force and personal attacks portions are all in line with my position. They may be (heh) overstated and too cautionary but as a starting point it's a good beginning.

11b) Be aware of, and in control of, your own emotions.

Again I agree completely on the surface. But I suspect that the author's intent is that we should always be calm and kind. Perhaps not, but I think that the easy interpretation of this in that manner leads us straight down the "passionless automatons" route that was at the centre of much of the early debate that followed Phil Plait's DBAD speech.

I'm just sayin'.

Friday, August 27, 2010

There's a Dick Joke in Somewhere in this Title

I can't do it.  I just can't.

I really wish I could be up to my armpits in what has become in my mind one of the most unlikely debates in the skeptisphere.  Or more to the point, I can't believe how much vehement toothgnashing has risen over this, and I feel like I ought to be participating much more than I am.

It was my intention to put out a token response - as I did in my last post - and catch up with the results in a few weeks or months after I am acclimatized to being a father.  But (due largely to being tweeted by none other than Dr. Phil and Daniel Loxton) that post single handedly became my most read post ever and the 150 minutes following it being posted was the best month for hits this blog has ever seen.  So now my appetite has be whetted... and it seems I have a some time to kill before daddy-hood descends upon me, and I've got a video that is taking some time rendering, so I can't really do "real" work right now anyway... so its time for some more thoughts.  (MESSAGE FROM MY FUTURE SELF - This really is just a bunch of half-assembled musings on thoughts from the last few days.)

If you check out the comments on the latest Skeptic Blog post by skepticism's civil-shepherd, Daniel Loxton it seems that the debate is shifting into the question of "what exactly is a 'dick?'" - though there are plenty of other side-battles going on.  (Is PZ a dick?  Did Phil mean PZ?  Did PZ mean PZ?  Was Phil being a dick, calling people dicks?)  And I'm beginning to think that the real root of the issue falls in the word.  Daniel encourages us not to get hung up on the word - and that is probably a good idea... but it's probably too late.

I get that Phil was referencing the DBAD meme as per Wil Wheaton.  As he was speaking to a geek-skewed crowd that was, on the surface, a sound choice... but it seems to have backfired.  Everyone seems to have their own interpretation of what "being a dick" is, and not many of them align - particularly on opposite sides of the debate.  (And hey, I live the consequences of a similar choice, having made liberal use of the term "asshole skeptic.")

It has been said - just scroll through the comments to Daniel's post for examples - that Phil phailed to be specific.  Not naming names is politically understandable, but has not helped.  But some narrower parameters than what he did say about what he means by being a dick would have helped... a lot.  He does point out in the second part of his follow up that he "talk[ed] specifically about people who are insulting and demeaning."  But that has been drowned out by the word... "DICK."

We all have our own interpretation of what that entails.  Some of us, as per Barb Drescher (I spoke to several people who admitted to fleeting thoughts that they had prompted this speech somehow and I could not help feeling this way myself. That is testimony to the timeliness of it.) felt, listening to it that we might be "part of the problem" (if you accept that it it a problem).  Others are presumed to being looking down from their place amoungst the angels, coming up with their own uncharitable definitions.  And probably most people fall into the sub-category of imagining that there is some ill-defined cadre of pooh-pooh-ers who are perched up on their higher-moral-ground casting judgement out of fingers that only point in one direction... and we are dispensing shame upon ourselves for what we imagine the consensus opinion of "being a dick" is.   ...or maybe I'm just projecting.  Is it any wonder people are frustrated?

But really, when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter what Phil meant, or tried to mean, 'cause clearly that message was eclipsed by what everyone else put upon it themselves and there's likely nothing he can do now, that will change that.  Your definition of being a dick may be as mild as "assuming a negative vocal temperment" or "displaying sub-textual disapproval"; or as extreme as "calling someone a baby-raper to their face and not allowing them an opportunity for rebuttal." (I am not quoting anyone specifically, BTW.) But your target may have a different opinion, and a third-party observer may have a third definition. Which doesn't make reacting appropriately impossible, but it complicates things, and having to perform for the lowest common denominator is usually a recipe for mediocrity.  So I guess I don't really know what we are expected to do.

For starters even the best of my better angels got their vocabulary from Guns 'n' Roses.  And there is an oft mis-understood (though not amoungst skeptics of course... right?) belief surrounding the ad hominem fallacy that just because a person calls someone a bad name (like a "dick", for example) that that invalidates their argument.  (Phil is NOT saying this, BTW.)   The ad hominem fallacy is only a fallacy if the argument follows that a person is wrong because they are a dick (or whatever.)  That's a bit of a tangent, but I think the edges of it are banging up around the perimeter of this debate.

Skepticism is frustrating territory.  (Indeed, right now I'm really only writing (and by now rambling) because I am deep in the black-waters of a high "why the fuck are we having this discussion?" sea.)

Okay, reeling my thought process back in now...

Despite Phil's efforts to define and promote his definition of being a dick, the simple fact that this argument will not settle down into a definition speaks to the fact that there is a continuum of potential dickishness to be debated.  Are Penn and Teller dicks?  What kind of dicks?  How about Crislip's not-as-scathing-as-he -thinks-but-the-intention-to-ridcule-is-there diatribes?  What about that Asshole Skeptic guy?  Or the second smugiest person on the planet next to Kevin Spacey, Brian Dunning?  Ya know, sometimes even Evan "too nice to be a skeptic" Bernstein is a dick in some people's eyes.

With so many flavours of dick to suck on (yeah, I went there) why are we even trying to limit this to the "don't call people bad-names" definition?  Like it or not, it is human nature to want to "kick the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight."  I maintain that eliminating dickishness amoungst skeptics is as syssiphian as any grander skeptical goal, and that trying to do anything more than ameliorate the most egregious examples is to waste a lot of better-used effort on fruitless wheel-spinning.

Now, I'm not a scientist of any stripe.  But one of the articles cited as evidence ('cause we all reached for our "wheres your evidence?" guns that ridicule is not an effective tool doesn't appear in my mind to be as damning towards "jeer pressure" (their term) as the olive branch corps would have you believe... at least not from the abstract.
Results of both experiments showed that participants who viewed ridicule of others were more conforming and more afraid of failing than were those who viewed self-ridicule or no ridicule.
That is not the same as thinking for yourself, but it does not exclude it.  The abstract actually states that "Creativity was not influenced by the humor manipulation."  In any case, I am a layman interpreting an abstract, and even if my incomplete, civilian interpretation of the summary is accurate, it's just one study.  Perhaps someone who is qualified can better levy an interpretation?

I'm not a psychologist.  But I am qualified to speak to another segment of communication.  Entertainment, narrative and the role of conflict within.  (For those who don't already know, I am a writer, film-maker and award-winning playwright.)  One of the sub-goals of skeptics is to maintain the attention of the people we are trying to reach.  Anyone who has written drama or comedy succesfully will tell you how rare it is to craft a scene that holds anyone's attention if it doesn't have conflict in it.  Just try and name a film - I don't even have to qualify that with "a box-office hit" or "a film that you enjoy."  There will be precious few if any.  Someone might try to invalidate my point by noting that skeptical out-reach is closer to documentary... but the notion persists.  The most pervasive documentaries all hold a the same commonality - conflict.  "Will the funny fat-man convince GM to keep jobs in Flint?"  "Can the cute penguin survive it's Odyssian journey?"  "Will eating only McDonald's food kill the film's director?"  "Will those brave wheel-chair athletes beat those nasty Canadians at the Para-lympics?"  Conflict is compelling. 

Anyhow... that is a discussion for a different day.

But I will point out that this particular increasingly ironic conflict in our ranks is definitely holding the attention of many skeptics.......or maybe I'm just projecting.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don't Be a Dork about Being a Dick

When I first heard from returning attendees about the over-arching theme that developed at TAM8 this year, largely focussed on Phil Plait's now infamous (in skeptical circles) "Don't Be a Dick" talk, my first thought was "damn it all!  This was clearly NOT the year for me to miss TAM."  (Though I have to admit I did miss it for the right reasons.)

Last week at Skeptic in the Pub here in Vancouver we watched the (then freshly posted) video of the talk.  I was actually in the other room when skepticism's ultimate fan-boy, Fred "Nowoo" Bremmer, came out and said "you're going to want to watch this."  He was right.  And predictably when we were finished the first comment was directed at the "Asshole Skeptic"... "So, Kennedy...."

Before I get too deep into this I want to make something clear (again): The name of this blog is misleading.  Though I began in a more strident place I have backed away from the extremities.  I DO NOT advocate being a jerk to individuals on a face to face basis.  Berating people is not an effective way of reaching the people you are hollering at.

From that you can probably extrapolate that my position is roughly that I agree with much of what Phil says.  But think he is missing some important points and angles. 

I won't get into a lot of details, as by now this part of the conversation has become well-worn.  But a few things that spring to mind: the passion of a furious argument can communicate the value of the argument (more so to by-standers than to the target of the anger); we will never reach everyone by winning over people one at a time, occassionally one (preferably unreachable) credulite must be thrown under the bus in order to stop the whole vehicle from going over the cliff... which is to say you can afford to lose one person permanently if it means demonstrating to others how wrong the target is and thus winning a net-positive amount of people's rationality (how we measure that, I admit I do not know, but that in itself doesn't invalidate the practice, it merely makes it harder to assess your results); someone needs to be able to stand toe to toe and be heard above (or at least beside) those who don't argue in good faith, and speak on a level that cuts to the bottom line on skeptical issues and speaks to values, 'cause most people don't give a shit about the double-blind, randomized, controlled, peer-reviewed data (even typing it out is boring); more on boring - cutting to the chase and eviscerating an opponent's argument in a public fashion is good entertainment, and people want to be entertained... if the message that their way of thinking needs re-assesment piggy-backs on that, so much the better; if some of us make the rest of you look less "out there" (pushing the Overton window) we are ultimately moving the cause forward. 
I could go on, but I'm already repeating things I have said in previous posts and things that have already come up in this specific debate.

This morning there was a bit of a snit on Twitter between Daniel Loxton and PZ Meyers.  It seems to have run out of steam in the time I've been writing this.  But the debate is far from over.

So, here is what I am seeing.  (But keep in mind there is a LOT out there that has been written on this subject in the past five weeks - and even more this past week - so I really can't claim to have seen it all.)

To simplify things, there are two sides.  The Olive Branchers are staunchly in the Don't Be a Dick camp, and the Asshole Skeptics are in the "Be a Dick When it Works" camp.  Generally speaking both are doing a lot of "show me the evidence that you are right!" shouting and neither is ponying up with research of their own.  Or when they do it is narrow and only marginally connected.

The Twitter-spat this morning typified a lot of what I've been seeing.  The Olive Branch skeptics seem to be arguing (still) that taking people on face to face is never going to win them over.  While the Asshole Skeptics are saying "nyah nyah, you can't stop us!"

Simpilfying the debate like that is a bit of a strawman, but it is a LOT of what is going on.  There is plenty of detail that falls outside of those boundaries, but much of that detail is irrelevant if we can address and solve the core argument, which frankly, is a bunch of B.S.

Yes, virtually all of us agree that being a dick to someone is never going to change their mind.

As Phil asks "what is your goal?"  If your goal is to win over said opponent, then yes Phil, vitriol and venom is not the right approach.  But in many cases when Asshole Skeptics employ vitriol and venom, their goal is not to win over that person, it is to affect the views of those watching the exchange.  Sylvia Browne is never going to give in and admit she's full of crap, but making her look abjectly foolish will help those who are curious about her see that she is a fraud.

Phil states quite clearly that his goal is to show people how to think rationally.  "Teach a man to fish..." he says.  And he would not be the world class educator he is if he did it by harangueing people.  Conversely, I would suggest Showtime would have pulled "Penn & Teller's Super-happy Coddle the Audience's Self-image Hour" after the first season.

Phil used the metaphor of a hammer and how to use it properly or you might destroy the wall.  But there are different types of hammers for different jobs.  Some hammers are even designed to destroy walls.  Different vocations require a different set of hammers.  A jeweller would never use a sledge-hammer to cut a diamond. A renovator would never use a jeweller's hammer to take down a wall.  A renovator would hopefully never take down a supporting wall, and there is some skill in determining which walls are holding up the structure.

I've said this a dozen or more times in this blog, that wielding the tools in the Asshole Skeptic toolbox is not an easy game.  Most people should not be doing it, or at least need to be doing it with extreme care.  I know of what I speak.  I have blown it myself.  I was in a yelling match with a truther at SitP once where my buttons got pushed.  I'm not proud of this.  I'll say that again: I AM NOT PROUD OF THIS.  That person has NEVER come back to SitP.  I personally lost that person.  But I did learn an object lesson in how easy it is to screw up.  And I'll bet that just about everyone has found themselves arguing in unproductive manners at one time or another.  Every skeptic has brought the house down upon themselves at one time or another by using the wrong tool on the wrong wall.

The issue is not that some skeptics act like dicks.  It is that too many people who haven't taken the time to consider how best to communicate thier message behave like dicks, because it seems like the easy path.  It seems to be simpler to mouth-off in defence of rational reality than to read up and get to the core of that reality.  But it isn't.  Anyone can come up with a nasty sounding expletive and call Jenny McCarthy a baby-killer.  It IS that easy.  But that is not skepticism.  It looks like skepticism, 'cause yes, you are on the same side that rational thought would bring you to.

Being an effective asshole skeptic is tough.  In order to do it well you not only need to know your way around the issues you discuss (as well or better than an Olive Branch skeptic would) but you also have to have a sense of when to best turn on the Dick and when to leave it alone.  I don't claim to be an effective asshole skeptic, I just claim to have been thinking about it a lot over the past fifteen months or more.

Seeing PZ and Daniel duke it out this morning kind of hurt.

PZ is going to appear near the top of anyone's list of Asshole Skeptics.  And for those of us who appreciate this brand of communication, we know that he does do a pretty good job of it.  His default leans towards all-asshole all-the-time, but he is so accustomed to working in that space that he is an expert of whether to use an 8lb, a 12lb or a 15lb sledge hammer.  He is not the sort of person who needs to be lectured by Phil Plait or any Olive Branch skeptic.  He is exactly the sort who is going to say "nyah nyah you can't stop me" back.  (And indeed practically did to Daniel.)  And I don't think that kind of in-fighting is necessary.

The "you can't stop me" argument is pretty much a given.  And I think the Olive Branch skeptics need to cede that ground where those who accompish theior goals well with it are concerned. 

Thus far in the debate there seems to me to be as much evidence that being a dick works (when wll targetted and wielded) as that it doesn't, so why are we wasting our time with this when we can be arguing people who really are responsible for (passively) killing babies, and showing them for who the really are?

When it comes to fighting the "dicks," what we need to be doing is counselling the loose-cannons who are habitually spitting vitriol for vitriol's sake.  Those who are feeding their bitterness at how stupid humanity is (and there is a lot of stupidity and consequent bitterness) into a feedback loop, rather than going out and learning more about how to debate, how to apply their wit, and how to do effective research on subjects they aren't experts at.  Those are the people who need to either stop being dicks, or learn how to do it much more effectively and quit getting in the way losing as many people as they win cheap "gotcha" points.

Let's use the tools we are already accustomed to wielding expertly and effectively.  'Cause seriously, if we are hell bent on first settling this internal fracas of fighting words we'll never get on to fighting the woo.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Shame on Pharmasave - Shame on Global TV

No new news here, I've been out of town a lot in the past month.  Indeed after this weekend (which is the forseeable end of the travelling) I will have been out of town more nights than not since the 20th of June.

So I've been playing a lot of catch up on podcasts and news so this is a few days old.

The other day Global BC News aired this 193 seconds of imaginary health science.

Where do you begin with something like that?

This is just a mess.  I don't really know what is what in this news item, but it sounds as though what is happening is that actual stem-cell treatments were used.  (I don't know a lot of about stem-cell treatement, but I believe that injections in ligaments and knees is in fact a genuine use - though probably one which has not been fully tested yet.)  But that, emphatically is NOT homeopathy.  Yet here it is being dressed up as though it is homeopathy.  To say nothing of the fact that the definition of homeopathy that is given leaves all the parts of the preparation and philosophy out that would make any sane, non-fantasy-prone, intelligent person shaking their head screaming "THAT'S NOT EVEN CLOSE TO BEING REAL MEDICINE!"

So, as you can imagine if you've followed my actions in the past this kind of got my goat.

So I went to write a letter to Global... and in the process reviewed the video and discovered that the Health Headlines (on the web page at least) are sponsored by PharmaSave!  So I made sure I CC'ed PharmaSave in my email.  ....One step further down the rabbit hole.

I also posted the links and the emails on Facebook so that other people could voice their disgust as well.  ( & - FYI)

Before too long my ever-curious (yet defiantly non-skeptical) girlfriend did some poking around and discovered that not only does PharmaSave deal sell homopathic remedies but they actively hawk them!  (And they get their medical advice from Oprah!  No, I'm not kidding.  Click on the link.)

So predictably when they wrote back, their response translated to "Thanks but we don't give a fuck."

Thank you for your e-mail correspondence. We are sorry to hear that the article on stem cell/Homeopathy caused you concern. Pharmasave indeed purchases advertising on the Global evening news, however please understand that we do not control content produced by Global. We will certainly forward your comments on to Global so that they are aware of the reaction of their viewers to this particular article.
Okay fine, don't give a fuck, Pharmasave.  I guess you won't give a fuck if I tell a bunch of people that you - an established purveyor of health products - is more interested in the bottom line than actually providing the service you ostensibly offer.  People will buy it, so they will sell it.

It's this kind of bullshit that sends people up clock towers.

So... rather than joining me in hte clock tower, can I suggest that you write a letter to PharmaSave and Global and let them know how you feel.  Feel free to explain to Global just exactly how homeopathy works and how poorly vetted and fact-checked that article was.  Feel free to tell PharmaSave that you are taking your dollars else where.  I sure as hell am.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Okay this is pretty light-weight...

I must have mentioned this already.  MUST HAVE.

So I made a movie.  It'a about the Ogopogo.
This past weekend it was at the Mississauga Independent Film Festival where it won Best Feature.
I KNOW!  Best Feature who would have guessed?
But it's pretty cool.
Before the screening I was the feature speaker at Cafe Skeptique in Toronto.  That was fun and rather skeptic-light.  In the end it was more "tell me about your movie" than "fill in some blanks about crypto-zoology for me."
Next week we have our World Premiere. Yeah yeah, how do you have a World Premiere that isn't your first public screening?  I'm not going to bother with the tale here, but it does make some sense in the end.
The Premiere appropriately is going to be in the Okanagan where the Ogopogo myth originates.
I'll be doing the Kelowna Skeptics in the Pub the night following that - I'll post about that separately.
I expect it will be kind of skeptic-light too.
Anyways, preparing and doing all of that has kind of sidelined my more active skepticism - heck the Mississauga screening was on the same week as TAM8, so there was no way I could be there.  Did you see the line-up of speakers?  No skeptic-light there!

Speaking of skeptic-light...

Have you seen this?

It's cool.  It's sweet.  It's a heart warming co-incidence.

A married couple discover that when they were kids they were at Disney World on the same day.  Not 30 feet from one another and they have a photo to prove it.

The husband is quoted as saying "“I got chills. It was just too much of a coincidence. It was fate.”

No.  It wasn't.

It was extremely unlikely for any given couple.  But when you start considering the sheer number of people in the world and all the places they might have been where a camera was taking pictures, it was bound to happen somewhere sometime.  Being in the same place is not that remarkable.

My ex-fiancee and I met when we were in our early 30s.  But check this string of coincidences.  For one year in grade one she lived in the same town as me.  My best friend from then (and now) sat beside her in school.  She and I were pretty confident (but there is no photographic evidence to prove it) that we were in swimming lessons together during that year.  When I went to university in a totally different city, one of the coffee shops I hung out at all the time... she worked at.  With another good friend of mine.  Neither of us actually remembered each other, but when I was introduced to her ex-boss (a roommate and friend of hers) he took one look at me and said "you used to hang our at Java all the time."  I even spent a fair bit of time (possibly not while she worked there - we never did nail that down) at another trendy restaurant she worked at.  Granted, we never lived in different countries.  But that seems to me to be a fairly unlikely set of coincidences - especially as we remained oblivious of one another.

Anyway - back to the Disneyland couple.  It is a great story.  But fate?  No.

How many couples, like myself and my ex have walked within feet of one another earlier in their lives but never had a photo to commemorate it?  Or have had it happen at a time that would have in anyway triggered either of their memories?  The answer is plenty.

Have you ever been on the other side of the country and just bumped into someone you knew who did not live there and had no reason connected to your reason (IE. You weren't attending the saem convention.) for being there?  It has happened to me three times - twice with the exact same person.  It can't be that unlikely if it happens that easily - or maybe I am the outlier here.

Heck, on this trip to Mississauga and Toronto I had an unlikely pair of coincidences happen.

1) On Friday night I was at the airport about to get on the red-eye, but first I had to do an interview about the film for a Calgary based radio show I did the interview and hopped on the plane.  When I got to Toronto I recieved a text from Scott Gavura of Science Based Pharmacy (and Skeptic North and Science Based Medicine) suggesting we meet up for lunch.  That fell through, but he did come to Cafe Skeptique.  His was the first familiar face I saw in Toronto.  But get this - the segment after mine on the radio show had been Scott.  Neither of us had known that the other was going to be on the show when we recorded our interviews.  Weird huh?

2) It had been 15 years since I had last been in Toronto.  Indeed I think it was 15 years minus a day - certainly very close - possibly even to the day.  Last time I had been there I had slept on the couch of my friend Shemina in a place near The Annex.  Pretty much the only neighbourhood I knew at all in Toronto, and since then I'd forgotten the specifics of street names - which was what, where.  Shortly after that Shemina and I lost complete touch with one another.  So when I get off the subway in downtown Toronto I was really just following google maps directions to find the place where Cafe Skeptique was going to be.  When I walked outside I immediately recognized that I was in The Annex.  I had walked past that same subway station dozens of times. but never gone in.  My first thought was "hey, Shemina used to live around the corner from here."  And that was that.  I went to Cafe Skeptique and then back out to Mississauga for the screening.  When I got to my hotel room I went on Facebook and there was a Freind Request from Shemina.  Seriously, what are the chances of that?  On my way back to the airport on Monday I stopped at her new place and had dinner with her and her husband.  It was not fate.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Food for thought...

I kind of assume that anyone reading this is familiar with the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.  It's pretty much the flagship podcast of skepticism, and it was an important turning point in my own formal realization of my intellectual standpoint.

I'm behind by a few weeks at this point - I am working on a contract,(an awesome contract which is giving me lots of great ideas, but I'll have to wait before I get too much into it) and it's severely cutting into my listening time.

This morning I decided to treat myself and listen to an episode of SGU before getting to the grindstone.

Episode 254 has discussion of a string of articles that I think all have interesting implications for asshole skepticism.  Specifically about getting scientific messages across... I.E. how we communicate to people who aren't already strong critical thinkers and/or ammenable to science.

I ultimately recommend listening to the entire episode, but if you must cut to the chase skip ahead to the 20:00 mark for a good run up to the discussion - or, if you really don't care about any kind of additional context or the natural conversational flow of the show you can start at 23:30.  The conversation covers several articles and continues to just after the 35:00 point.

I particularly find Steve's comments about how people absorb the message through social pressure, not rational argument interesting and important - especially as I generally classify Steve Novella as one of the primary skeptic's who is most adept at wielding the data-tool and explaining the detail - and in so doing severely hampers his ability to appeal to values and emotions.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Who falls in between...

I really should be preparing for Friday's talk.

I suppose in a sense I am, but I just had an idea as I was writing and just wanted to get it down on the blog quickly (which is what I should always be doing rather than waiting for fully formed avenues of thought.)

For quite a while when I started this blog I pretty much classified all skeptics into two categories: Asshole Skeptics, of course; and those who I eventually called "Olive Branch Skeptics."

But for nearly as long as the Olive Branch identifier has existed I've been aware that there is a continuum betwee the two, and that in fact most skeptics live there in the middle - whether it's over category or more.  For now I'll just stick to a single category.

I didn't have a name for them for the longest time.  Heidi Anderson noted that they tend to be those who for the most part play nice, but when it comes down to it they do not suffer fools lightly.  I've always like that phrase.  I even thought there was a good band name in it - "The Suffer Fools."  And so quietly in my head I adopted it as my name for those skeptics in the middle.  The S.F. Skeptics.  Not a bad name, but a bit awkward.


Today I came up with a great name for them as it has several levels of meaning (which I assume you are smart enough to figure out for yourselves)...

Drumroll please...

Ladies and gentlemen I present to you...

The Excluded Middle Skeptics!

Hmmmm... that could also be a band name.

Presentations of an Asshole Skeptic

So what are my excuses this week for not blogging as much as I'd like

Well they are two-fold.

1) I am up to my ears in a contract.  I'm assisting an author who is writing a book which though I haven't signed any kind of NDA for, I wouldn't feel comfortable saying much about it here except to say that I am learning a LOT about activism that I hope I can one day apply to skeptical issues and outreach.

2) I have been asked to present a talk for CFI Vancouver on... you guessed it - Asshole Skepticism.  The name of the talk is "A Primer on Asshols Skepticism" and it will be held this Friday at 7pm at the SFU Harbour Centre, Canfor Policy Room (rm. 1600).

Now if you'll excuse me, I must go prepare...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll #6 - A Bit Closer to Home

Time to add a sixth person to the Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll, and for the first time, the person in question is someone I knew before I added them to the list.

Vancouver Skeptic Jess Brydle - who I've mentioned in this blog directly and indirectly several times before, including this recent post about a childish attack against skeptics, which singled out Jesse.

Jesse was singled out in the Skeptic North Watch blog for his efforts to make a Google map of local Vancouver businesses that peddle un-proven garbage.   It's a work in progress, but as a rational thinker I think it's an excellent exercise in well-earned finger-pointing.

I have always been impressed by Jesse's calm methodology but for those of use who know him or who have watched his campaigning against all flavours of woo we know that he takes quiet pleasure in knowing that his efforts have had an effect.  Judging by both the attention of Skeptic North Watch (which, as an aside, it appears was little more than a one week hissy-fit) and the comments he has recieved on his own blog, Inflautas Veritas, specifically with regards to the "Bullshit Map" (and don't doubt for a second that the two are not related) Jesse has solidly hit his target and struck a nerve.

Jesse has good reason to be proud of himself and to give himself a sly pat on the back for identifying a clever way of leveraging new media in the ongoing campaign against snake-oil and psychics.

Welcome aboard Jesse.  It's an honour to march with you.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Atlantis Farewell

Usually if an emotional tone can be applied to my posts here, anger would be the appropriate term.  But not today.  Today I am sad.

I underestimated how sad I could be about this, but here we are and I feel an encroaching malaise.

The spaceshuttle Atlantis is orbiting above us today for the last time (barring a rescue mission for one of the following two final missions of the shuttle program).

I was born in the autumn of 1969, a few months after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, inspiring the space-program in ways that I, born into the era of space exploration took for granted.

I recall clearly sitting with rapt attention in the living room of a childhood friend watching as the first shuttle mission returned succesfully to earth, and we both sat down to pancakes declaring that we wanted to be astronauts.

Fast forward several years to the Challenger disaster.  Many of my longest friends know my story.  It is infamous about how I had what was at the time one of the most frustrating "could-anything-else-go-wrong" days a young person could have - and I managed to spend the entire day oblivious of what had happened that morning... sure enough, that evening when I saw the news, not only was my day worse, but I recieved a clear lesson that, as much as I seemed to think so at the time, the world did NOT revolve around me and indeed there were a great many people whose days had been MUCH worse.

Fast forward again to the second shuttle disaster which occurred on the day I was moving in with my then fiancee.  It was not a good omen.  She and I lasted about a year in our new home before our relationship fell apart at the seams - though I don't pretend it had anything to do with the shuttle disaster.

Today I am an expectant father, with a wonderful girlfriend who I know will make a fantastic mother.  Atlantis is making her final journey while my daughter (indications are) gestates.  She will be born into a world where the space program is in stasis.  A well-meaning and ambitious stasis, but stasis none-the-less.

The period between my birth and hers spans all but a half-dozen months of the most productive time in the history of space exploration and commerce, and in November it all comes to a screeching halt, courtesy of a lack of foresight.

I'm not really accusing NASA of failure (and indeed, who am I - a Canadian - to take such a feeling of ownership of the US Space Program?) they must have done the best they could with funding that dribbled thinner and thinner as the public appetite dwindled furthere and futher on a feast of complacency.  That itself is something I was oblivious of until I first saw Apollo 13, and then realized it had been going on since Armstong landed back on terra firma.

Weren't we suppose to be so much further by now? What happened? How can we have failed to such a degree where scaling back is the best way forward?

Anyhow... I'm not really sure what my point is here.  I'm sad.  I am mourning the fate of the space program.

I am sure that a commerce based space industry will quickly surpass what the public one could... but I can't help but thinking that it's all going to be just a bit dirty, fouled by the worst parts of consumerism.


Monday, May 3, 2010

An ironic message about evidence

This cowardly screed came to my attention tonight.

I'm not even going to bother breaking it down - at least not here and now.  Suffice to say that its typical in it's failure to effectively cite any of it's claims.  It Godwins.  It features a poorly choreographed chorus line of strawmen.  And of course is accuses skeptics of being in the pay of pharmaceutical companies... geez I wish that cheque would arrive.  That's just the short tour.  Really I just want to point out that its pretty typical in it's plastering of the standard clap-trap of ad hominems, bad logic and failure to understand evidence.

One of the key tasks of a fledgling skeptic is to wrap their head around the hierarchy of good evidence, weak evidence, bad evidence and no evidence.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you have a good grasp of these notions you are a skeptic whether you self-identify as one or not.

Does this mud slinging blog provide evidence?  No.  It merely falls into the tired trap of accusing it's skeptical targets (oh the irony of the Are You Being Targeted By a Skeptic or Skeptic Group? Here’s what to do. post.) of being the vilest version of their opposition.  As I've pointed out before, skeptics are lefty-hippies to right-wingers and fascists to left-wingers.  Indeed, skeptics land on both sides of the spectrum.  Yawn!

But the blog goes further.

For starters, it is anonymous.  Whoever is writing has not got the courage of their convictions.  They are cowards.  Now, I have some theories about who they might be, but I have no definitive evidence.  I understand that I don't and thus won't point fingers.  That would be legally dodgy.  If I were specifically targeted, as several people I know have been, then perhaps I would put some effort into uncovering better evidence - supportable evidence - as to who was defaming me.  Evidence that could stand in court as to the accusations I was making.... that is if someone were to decide to take me to court.

But it is clear enough to me that the authors of this post have very little notion of the hierarchy of evidence.  Let's face it, if they did, they wouldn't be supporting herbal remedies and homeopathy.  Nor would they be making specious connections as equating the denunciation of herbal remedies as being ineffective as being the same as being racist towards First Nations.  It's quite a leap.

Following from that, they go so far as to single out people as bigots - and (you guessed it) fail to provide any kind of proof, rational or otherwise.  This is legally unsound at best.  Calling someone a bigot is actionable.  And should the person so defamed decide to move legally against the accusation, one would have to have good evidence that what you were saying was unassailable fact if one was to hope to successfully defend ones self.

Before I finish, one last aside - how's this for intellectual dishonesty?  Check out the comments.  At least they are honest about their dishonesty:

You may have to click on the image and make it full size to read it clearly.

ADDENDUM (May 4th, 12:35pm PDT):

As if the integrity of the Skeptic North Watch blog wasn't bankrupt enough...

This comment from last night...

...has (rather predictably) been deleted in accordance with the defiant irrational righteousness touted elsewhere in the blog comments.

[Addendum ends.]

Oh... and just for fun... here's my favourite quote from the blog: "[The skeptical movement] was started by pharmeceutical companies recruiting people in pubs."  I had no idea Aenesidemus was under the employ of some ancient Greek equivalent of Pfizer.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Science is not Skepticism

Science is not Skepticism, and yet some people seem to be determined to treat skepticism as though it is nothing more than an aspect of science - and THAT is killing skepticism.

If skepticism was analagous to science then we'd call it science and quit the seemingly endless quest for a good elevator pitch as to what skepticism is.

Skepticism cannot be given the blanket definition of being 'science' anymore than it can be defined as being 'understanding the art of illusion.'  Likewise, it is not 'atheism', 'psychology' or (the simple definition I am most guilty of using) 'critical thinking.'  It encompasses all of these and more, but it is not any single one of them.

Recently I have been frustrated.  This has come out in my blogging.  "What blogging?" you ask, "you haven't blogged in weeks!"  That is pretty much true.  I have sat down and begun writing several times and the results haven't been anything I cared to publish.  In some cases they've run out of gas before I'm satisfied with the content - often because I've been feeling a bit of skeptical burnout lately.  (Case in point: Sonya MacLeod had an outrageous post a few weeks ago.  I started in on it, but just didn't have the juice to fight that fight again - just read the post.  Any half-armed skeptic can dissect it easily enough.)  In other cases the result was - ready for this? - TOO vitriolic for me to post.
In one specific case I had been to Skeptics in the Pub and someone asked me the wrong question.  The rant-engine was fired up and I continued until I realized I needed to get out of the public space I was in.  I came home and wrote.  I even hit 'publish' and the post appeared on my Facebook page long enough for networked blogs to pick it up... but I removed it almost as fast.  It was not something I was ready to talk about.

This past week we had the post-mortem on Vancouver SkeptiCamp III.  Late in the meeting it happened again.  I'm not quite sure what was said, but the can of worms was opened and Kennedy was off and running again.  Glad to say that there were a number of people in the room who whole heartedly agreed with me, and that in itself calmed me down.

Where is this going?  Well, for a few nights now I've pondered it as I lay in bed falling asleep and it has finally landed... or begun to, and somewhat reassuringly it relates back to the entire reason I began this blog.  Scientists are ruining skepticism.

Yeah, that's a big statement, and far from true on all counts, but there is something important at the core of it.  It is notable to me that in weeks of paralysing frustration that in the end I've come to see that what has me riled up to the point of uselessness has been one of my main premises from the start.

Science is important to skepticism.  It is one of the most important pillars upon which skepticism is built.  But it is not in and of itself all that skepticism is yet, that seems to be a default position - an unconscious one I suspect - that far too many skeptics fall into. 

If you were to ask me, skepticism's core role (not to be confused with what it is) is about advocating science. 

For simplicity I'll look at my main outlet - writing - in isolation.

If you look at the act of advocacy through writing alone, this is not the same as writing scientific papers.  The very specific technical and precise language used in scientific papers has a purpose - to communicate the idea in as complete and as unambiguous a fashion as possible.  Who reads scientific papers?  Scientists.  And not even all scientists - scientists in the related field(s) as the paper.  These papers are dense, difficult to understand (if you don't have the foundational knowledge), and dull as hell.  They are not for casual consumption.

A step up from this, you get science-specific magazines - the Scientific American ilk - which distill those papers and their ideas and mix them with some personal discussion to make the ideas as presentable as possible to the science-minded amateur and to scientists in un-related disciplines.  Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer (more the latter than the former) often have articles which would be right at home in this level of journalism.  Much more readable, but still not pitched for the average reader.

There seems to be a single pair of interrelated variables.  The more accurate and precise an article is, the less entertaining it will be to read for the common reader, and conversely the more easily consumed the article is, the less it is capable of elucidating the finer points of the scientific matter at hand.  The inverse correlation is not structly fixed.  It is not as though something that is readable by anyone is doomed to be complete bullshit, but the simplification process has inevitable benefit and costs associated with it.

We need to have a spectrum of communication.  We need both the journal articles and abstracts as well as the dumbed down pop-science, and everything in between.  We need it all. 

The simplistic articles are bait to draw people in both generally towards scientific understanding and curiosity, and specifically on whatever subject piques their fancy.  The in depth articles are the detail for those who need to know more - those whose fancy has been piqued.

Yet there are those who not only pitch all their communcation at the level of scientific paper (as is their perogative) but who also take issue with anyone else trying to communicate science on a more generally accessible level.  We CAN NOT afford to do that.  If we don't try to share knowledge in every voice we can muster then we are guilty of keeping it to ourselves.  Not consciously, but that IS what is happening.  And that is how we end up in a culture of anti-intellectualism where scientists are either looked at as modern wizards, keeping arcana to themselves.

Science is so very very important to skepticism, but it is not skepticism in itself.  We should not allow ourselves to look at skepticism as though it is science.  Science needs the ally of skepticism - a separate entity that can do an end-run around the foolishness in the world.  If skepticism is nothing but science, then it is incapable of helping science in any new way, because it has no unique tools of it's own.  But skepticism DOES have unique tools of it's own.  And amongst those tools are the spectrum of voices that speak out in favour of skeptical subjects and reach a wide range of demographics simply becasue they are speaking to people in ways that they are interested in listening to.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll #5 - The Rational Response Squad

Somehow I've got myself where I'm working on three massive posts - one of which will appear on Skeptic North early next week & I may cross-post here.  But whew!  Are these ever throwing me off my new current goal of posting once a week.  There has simply been too much research required.  So instead, I end up posting much smaller token posts...

But this entry is more than the average token post...

It's time to add another name to the Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll.

I'm not sure what exactly happened, but an old Skepticality Episode interview from 2007 appeared in my iTunes queue today - perhaps it was re-posted or... well who knows.  What appeared today was the un-cut interview (episode 53a) that Swoopy did with the Rational Response Squad.  I recall the original episode (Episode 53), but that was from back before my views began to gel regarding the spectrum of ways which skeptics need to present themselves.  In the interview, they discuss very similar notions to what I suggest (between the 10 & 20 minute marks approximately).

The Rational Response Squad has been on my radar from some time (probably since I first heard the edited version of the interview) but I guess I've got too much of my head up my ass to have really noticed that we are not only singing the same tune, but are carrying the same harmonic line.

Anyhow... hooray for the RRS and welcome to the 5th Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll inductee.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

NOT an April Fools' Joke... seriously.

If you are a new junkie of any of the following stripes; Western Canada, Vancouver, Anti or Pro-Vax, Infectious diseases that ought to be nearly eradicated.... You may have heard that there has been a measles outbreak in the greater Vancouver area.

It's all covered in this article.

All issues with the quality of reporting aside - which to be honest, I haven't effectively assessed - I take a certain level of solace from this article.  Not because an outbreak of measles amongst the un-vaccinated serves to further the proof of the efficacy of vaccines.  This is absolutely one of those cases where one hates to be right - like that hunch I had that there were no WMDs in Iraq.  What pleases me is the plus/minus ratio in the comments.

Take a peek at the comments.  The number of thumbs up to thumbs down on each comment can serve as a predictor of the comments.

Are the votes on the comments more than two to one thumbs up?  Then the chances are that the content is (gratifyingly) based on rational thought and real science.

Are the votes on the comments more than two to one thumbs down?  Then chances are the content of the comment is (written by poster 'loandtreys_mom' and) based on at least one logical fallacy and is rank and file anti-vax bullshit.

If the votes are pretty much even there is a pretty good chance that the content is incomprehensible.

I really want to take the comforting position that this means that the average joe has tuned in to the fact that vaccinations are generally good and that anti-vax propaganda tends towards unmitigated intellectual sewage.  But that is kind of what standard CAM (and other magical thinking) dreams are about, isn't it?  Taking the comforting explanation to an uncomfortable circumstance.

The commenters on both side of the argument are self-selected; it's hardly a scientific sampling of public opinion... but some days we critical thinkers need a sign that we're having a positive effect... even if it is a possibly spurious one.  No sign at all is just too soul-sucking to consider, and only leads to skeptical burn-out.

So here we have just a little extra nitrous for the tanks.

Happy April Fools' Day, fellow skeptics.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Grammar Girl... more evidence to support my hypothesis.

You may recall that some months ago I mused that Mignon Fogarty, AKA Grammar Girl, may be at least a teeny bit of a skeptic.

Well more evidence has appeared that is consistent with my hypothesis.

As it turns out, she used to be a science writer.  Ah.... that makes sense! 

Now it's no secret that there is a lot of un-skeptical science reporting out there - even from proper science writers, but not all.

I'm just thinking walks like a duck, talks grammatically correct, may well be a skeptic.

She actually talks about being a science writer in her latest episode - #214.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I want my damned word back, you bastards!

One of the more troubling things about being a skeptic is the word itself.


I don't really even use it that much apart from the blog title and colloquially when amongst my own kind (Sounds like a coven of vampires or something, doesn't it?) say at Skeptics in the Pub.  Under these circumstances it is both the accepted shorthand term, and on that turf it's not a loaded term.

But out in the real world it means something else, doesn't it?

For starters there are the general negative implications that gets associated with the word.  "You don't believe anything, do you?"  "Skepticism?  That's just gussied up cynicism."  "There's no real difference between skeptics and nay-sayers." and "Skeptics?  They just want an excuse for acting like assholes."  If you self-identify as a skeptic, you've probably heard variations on all of these.  While I am up to challenging any of them face to face, there are far more people who I will never have the chance to change the minds of about the implications of the word.
As a result I generally try to use the terms "rationalism", "critical thinking" and their various derivatives.

One could argue that that represents my own baggage as much as anything - so be it.  But there is another semantic clusterfuck that really gets my goat, and I don't think it's a measure of my insecurity.  Those who know the difference refer to the transgressors as "pseudo-skeptics" - those self-identified skeptics who don't really understand the distinction between the wanton questioning of anything and everything that rubs them wrong, and the questioning of everything based on logic and evidence.
To be as fair as I can be, in most cases pseudo-skeptics think they are following the rules of logic and reason, but their notion of evidence and fallacy is broken.

Among the most notorious pseudoskeptical sub-sets are: those who are "skeptical" of big-pharma and the established scientific health industry; 9/11 truthers who are "skeptical" of the standard explanation of the attacks; moon-landing "skeptics"; and of course the dreaded "Global Warming Skeptics."

There are some very common errors made by the folk who wear these stripes.  One of the most regular is a complete misunderstanding of the principle of Occam's Razor.  They never quite grasp the key notion of "simplest explanation."  In their minds "it was an inside job" is simpler than "a militant group of extremists exploited the weaknesses in airline security and through a combination of cunning and un-foreseen cirumstances on the part of their targets perpetrated the most viscerally stunning attack imaginable on key targets in the United States."  It may be simpler to say the former, but more unsubstantiated assumptions need to be made in order for it to be the correct answer.  Pseudo-skeptics also seem to have an infinite ability for not recognizing their own straw-men.  To be fair, there are circumstances where it can be a very confusing fallacy to wrap your head around - it can seductively draw many a discussion off the straight and narrow.  There is also often a strong reliance on proving negatives and it's bed-buddy the argument from ignorance.

Much of the motivation of pseudo-skeptics seems to stem from a brand of fear, and a desire for control - or the illusion thereof - of ones' circumstances.  Look at the three sub-demographics I mentioned above and you'll notice that all of them have an element of historical distrust of authority.  I don't claim that this is the only road in, but from where I stand it appears to be the predominant one.

In any case, these people call themselves "skeptics."  I can't imagine that they'd ever embrace the term "pseudo-skeptics" - as if "skeptic" itself didn't bear enough negative connotations.  And by taking the term "skeptic" they undermine the standing of those of us who bear it in a scientific, logic, reason and evidence based light.  And if you haven't guessed, it pisses the hell out of me.  But in this I am consigned to failure.  They aren't the only people out there besmirching our good name, they are simply the ones who give me the best argument for avoiding using the word "skeptic" when identifying my world-view in front of the un-washed.

The erroding of the foundation of our terminology a step further are those who mistakenly identify scientific skeptics as pseudo-skeptics.  I don't know if this is deliberate - as they, like me, think that adding "pseudo" to the beginning belittles the term further - or if it is out of abject ignorance.  A quick trip through the google-sphere seems to show that the majority of these sorts are advocates of religion, the afterlife, and NDEs.  Based on a propensity for ad hominem attacks (We are all sheeple, you do know that, right?), I'm going to go with a combination of ignorance and malice.

This is really just funny by right of accident and irony.

The link above to NDE's gives this definition of "skeptic": A true skeptic, as defined by the philosophers of ancient Greece, is a nonbeliever - a person who does not make conclusions based on evidence that is inconclusive. Errr... no.  A not very complex search for the definition will quickly lead you to the original source of the Greek philosophy of skepticism - originally called pyrrhonism - which "disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined, and thence inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things.  [NOTE: Seriously.  What is it with people's extreme laziness to do even a modicum of research?  I was lazy and it took me about 2 minutes to find and add those 2 links.  Admittedly I knew what I was looking for, so calling it "research" is a bit of a stretch.]

In actual fact the definition provided by the NDE website is actually closer to modern scientific skepticism than the original Greek definition.  But there is one key error - refering to us as "non-believers."  I think technically, we all have to believe in something, but that's really not my point.  We DO believe in something - that truth can best be determined by following logic and evidence.  Pseudo-skeptics, on the other hand, have a surface understanding of the tools of skepticism and inadequately leverage them to support their own pre-determined beliefs.  I'm not pretending that that isn't an easy trap to fall into on occassion, and that IS why one should be skeptical even of their own skepticism on occassion (I emphasize "on occassion" - to go back to the beginning repeatedly can only serve to paralyse one's self intellectually.)
I think that one can make the argumment that to practice skepticism properly, one is by definition passively being skeptical about the skepticism on an on-going basis.  By heading down new paths of skepticism and following new lines of inquiry you open up the doors to proving your past determinations to be false - or at least contradictory to new information.  And this requires one to systematically return to the beginning of both the old and the new and try to determine a point of reconciliation.  This is not the process of the pseudo-skeptic.  The starting point is always the conclusion.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Two Days 'til Skepticamp.... where will YOU be?

Mostly just a reminder, in case you have forgotten, or it has passed you by.

This Saturday (the 20th of March) is the third Vancouver Skepticamp.

It will be held at the Victoria Learning Centre at UBC - (Room 182) at Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, 1961 East Mall.  It starts at 10am and goes 'til 6pm.

I'm going to be the emcee.  I'm looking forward to it.  I believe Vancouver is the first city to host a third SkeptiCamp, and they are actually getting big enough (more people are registered than actually attneded the first two events put together!) that we're having to adjust some details of the formula.

But don't fret!  It'll still be the same basic idea - an informal conference on skepticism and science advocacy with an emphasis on participation.

There are a number of registered speakers that I'm really excited to hear.

If you can't be there, you can follow the tweetstream from the hashtag #vanskepticamp.  ...or mark October 23rd (yes, 10/23, if you are 'in') on your calendar... as it is the pencilled in date for SkeptiCamp IV.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wasting Effort on Utterly Stupid Argument Amongst Ourselves

I'll be brief about the set up here.

Daniel Loxton wrote a book about evolution.  It is a good book, it's aimed at kids.

In it he made a very brief (and in such fashion necessarily simplified) comment on the relationship between science and religion. “Science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.”

For the most part no one made a peep about it until it got Pharyngulated.

Now every Dawkins-styled militant atheist with a knee-jerk desire to burn a book has something to say about it.

This is bullshit.

Seriously guys?  You'd tear that page out of the book?  He's a liar?

Get a fucking grip.


Yes, that sentence is a huge simplification of an arguable point about a single perspective of an aspect in the relationship between reason and religion.  The book is for kids!  It's about evolution.  Whether you personally like it or not there is a direct and critical connection between evolution education and religious belief - one so obvious that Darwin himself figured out it was going to be an issue.
If Daniel had left out ANY comment on religion he would have been criticized for that.  He had to say something.  If someone wants to try to takle a book on theism for kids and try to wade through the task of translating Kierkegaard and Aquinas for nine year olds, then go for it.  But Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be is, emphatically, not that book.

Educating kids in evolutionary basics is far more important than any imagined damage that that, frankly totally inoccuous, sentence could manage.  Let. It. Go.

Let it go because it's not worth the fight.

Let it go because you didn't even notice until you read about it elsewhere.

Let it go because if you step back and look at the argument with a little perspective it amounts to: "Hey you atheist! When you were talking about atheism you said something that wasn't atheistic enough to satisfy my atheistic views."

Let it go because when taken from a limited perspective, Daniel is not wrong.  (See his comments on meta-physics.  Also note that in a recent post on what is out of bounds I say things that can easily be interpreted as disagreeing with Daniel's premise.  I still stand by him.  That's how asinine the core of this debate is.)

Let it go because we ALL have better things to do - more important issues to tackle.

Let it go because the point, as far as it matters, has been made.

Let it go because we are wasting tame and effort arguing amongst ourselves and that is just fucking stupid.

I mean seriously.  CAM advocates can band together and promote mutually exclusive bullshit therapies together with one another - even make up entirely new disciplines based upon two pieces of garbage that can't logically share the same intellectual space.  So why can't we agree to disagree on this?  It would have been nice if we could have agree to disagree quielty, but it's far too late for that.

I am in favour of militant atheism.  I haven't the energy to excercise it all the time, but I think we do need to exert our position as strongly as any believer of a religion might.  But when we bear that upon our allies and ourselves we are using precious resources of time and wit to divide our own ranks.  Yet we seem to think that we are the enightened ones.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Not Enough Hours in the Day

Okay, I'm back.

It's been a crazy few months.  Everything that was so disruptive in January carried me right into February and then all of a sudden the Olympics were on - right outside my window.  I've never watched the olympics games so thoroughly.  But seeing as they were actually here in Vancouver, immersing myself seemed like the right thing to do.  If you haven't heard, it was pretty cool and could not imaginably have had a better happy ending.

It's taken most of the week to decompress and start getting caught up on the main parts of my life.  Now I can start catching up on the secondary portions.  Yes, skepticism is secondary.  It's on the bubble, but when it came time to prioritizing what to catch up on this week, it was clear where in the hierarchy it fell.  In that spirit I'm starting slowly back in.  There are just not enough hours in the day...

You've probably heard about the Chilean earthquake last week.

Did you hear the news from NASA on Monday about what the quake has done to our planet?

One of the local free dailies had the following headline on the top of the front page: "CHILE EARTHQUAKE SHORTENS DAYS."

Going to the AP story inside, it becomes immediately clear that the headline implicitly exaggerates the truth.  The day is shorter by 1.26 microseconds according to the story.  You will never notice this difference (if you had any expectation that you would.)  In the course of an average life the cumulative difference in days would add up around 3.5 hundredths of a second. 

Take the exploration of the subject one step further and got to the actual Jet Propulsion Laboratory press release and it's clear that the 1.26 microseconds is a preliminary calculation and will be refined as more data is collected..  Furthermore, while the release leads with the information about the shortened day, it clearly notes that a more significant effect is the shift of the Earth's figure axis (the axis about which Earth's mass is balanced) - which is different from it's North South axis.

There is often a lot of talk about how the media mis-reports science, and I don't want to understate the impact of the mis-reporting of science, but I want to suggest that in the "if it bleeds it leads world of news reporting that there is a certain level at which, more than simply expecting misleading reporting, we should embrace it.  I think that this case is good example.

The degree to which the popularized headline misrepresents the story is pretty nominal.  On the surface it is accurate, and it is nothing if not intriguing.  In order to reach the typical person who isn't specifically interested in science you need to appeal to that visceral sense.  The effort it would take to make "Chile earthquake unusually effective in moving Earth's mass vertically" into an intriguing headline would necessitate an even greater divergence from the real-life implication; Eg. "Chilean earthquake spins earth off axis."  Bring on the 2012 nuts.

Running down the middle between the proper science and sensationalism strikes me as the proper choice in this case.  Even JPL seemed to think so and led with the viscerally intriguing part of the story - though with less embellishment and more qualifiers than the AP.

The media inherently goes for the part of the story that is most intriguing to the common man as a business decision - to get and keep your eyes on their paper.  Often this is destructive.  Often they get the story completely wrong, even inverting the actual findings in the process of presenting good copy.  But when they don't grotesquely misrepresent the facts and manage to get people to read deep enough into an article to widen their knowledge, it is overall a win.  The headline draws in readers.  They go to the story and learn how the earth is spinning faster because the overall mass is closer to the centre - like a figure skater spinning faster by drawing in her arms.

The AP was hardly the only news outlet that conflated the effect.  Take this report that cites 2012 in the first breath, does use the phrase "knocked the eart off it's axis" but at least it follows it up with an interview with Michio Kaku. 

I'm not sure if the next video will remain the next in the queue, but right now the next video is absolutely 2012 & Edgar Cayce credulity leading from the same news item....  Seems there is no stopping stupidity.  And even if there was, who has enough hours in the day to get it done in?


Saturday, February 20, 2010

What is out of bounds?

Occasionally the question arises in the skeptical community about what is and what is not a skeptical subject.

There are various opinions about what is fair game and what is not. Dividing lines that often come up include: matters of opinion; politics; and subjects where evidence is irrelevant (though there is the strong implication that the first two are the latter-most.)

There are those who simply won't touch religious topics. And not just those who happen to be theists and skeptics.  I understand why that sub-set of skeptics might avoid the subject, it's the others that make me curious.  I, for one, wax and wane over my interest in atheistic matters.  There are a few aspects of the great debate between atheism and religion that tend to fire me up (morality and evolution education being at the top of the list) but that's another post for some other day.  Point being that I don't shy from talk about religious matters when I have something to say.  Sure, if I'm feeling bored of the debate I won't bother, but that is patently distinct from considering the subject verboten.  Similarly, there are those amongst us who have tired of the entire discussion, but aren't philosophically opposed to commenting on it.

Atheism strikes me as possibly the biggest single vein of skeptical thought (quackery being a contender, as well) and one of the most ubiquitous aspects of our lives regardless of your position on it.  Why then would admitted atheists deflect any discussion on the matter?  I really have no idea on this one.  If anyone has any thoughts, please enlighten me in the comments.  As it stands all I can imagine is that they themselves have too many close connections to people who are themselves religious that they do not want to strain.  I can hardly argue the value of that choice - indeed it is just that, a choice.  I do tread lightly where my devout friends and family (not many of the fomer, even less of the latter) are concerned.  There is sort of a respectful detente at work.  I know they believe in the Uber-Darwin and they know I have an abiding understanding of the earthly one and all his buddies in the mythos of science.  We simply don't make it a topic of conversation.  I don't worry about the possibility that they might read this blog post (Hi, folks!) and take offence, and I don't get my nose out of joint over Facebook statii that thank Jesus for random and zero-sum events.

But then there are things like politics, economics, philosophy and even art. (All over-lap conveniently ignored for simplicity.)  Why should critical thinking not be applied to such things? 

There absolutely is a difference between the complex, occasionally unfalsifiable, and often opinion-based territory of such subjects and the quantifiable, evidence-based grounds of science - but that doesn't mean that logic and reason cannot be applied.  Politics cannot alter facts, but facts can and should guide political process - I don't think there is much to argue about there.  Further, a bad argument, regardless of whether it is applied to a matter of opinion or fact, is still a bad argument.  Basing a position on a logical fallacy does not make the position wrong, but it does invalidate the choice to base the opinon in question on the fallacious argument being applied.  Matters of aesthetic or social preference may not be reachable by logic alone, but the defence of those preferences can be girded by a liberal application of logic.

I'm not saying we all need to live our live devoid of emotional choices and responses. No, not me - ever.  But that doesn't mean that our opinions and even our feelings can't, once we've experienced the visceral knee-jerk reactions that are our Human (Not Vulcan.) nature, be re-considered.  Science and fact can't be determined by emotion, but that doesn't mean that we can't reconsider our reactions - particularly those that result in long ranging effects - and possibly see through the inherent errors of our position.  Perhaps the choices we make are "correct" (whatever that means n the circumstances) in the first place, but by determining the weak points in the foundation of our opinions and reconsidering on the basis that our position should not be formed around a false argument, we can only serve to improve our position.

So, what is out of bounds?  I would suggest that nothing should be.  Absolute truths will be harder (or impossible) to reach on many paths of inquiry, but determining what is patently false will always be a valuable guide for pencilling in your provisional viewpoint.