Monday, January 25, 2010

Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll #4 - The Revenge of the Alt-Med Ranger

Oh Mike Adams, how silly you are.
Really, truly silly.

The tale goes on and on since I last blogged about it.

Mike decided to reveal to the world what skeptics really think.  So he set up an army of straw men and took 'em on like Jackie Chan... except really he managed his attack rather more like the Star Wars kid... but without the underlying innocent charm. 

When we skeptics laughed outrageously at how childish, unsubstantiated, un-cited, misrepresentational and ultimately pathetic his ploy was, he posted again announcing victory - because he had "wildly infuriat[ed] skeptics across the 'net."  Clearly once again Adams is falling prey to his desire to believe what makes him happy, not what is actually true.

I'm really not going to bother getting into it further myself, largely because it has already been done by... well just about everybody it seems.

But this does give me the chance to add another name to the Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll - for excellence in snark, the blogger who goes by the moniker Bing McGhandi.

Of all responses to @HealthRanger's outing of skeptical beliefs, his is my favourite.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Sobering Reality - Living in a Surveillance Society

Perhaps you’ve heard that we’re throwing a bit of a party here in Vancouver next month.

For fear of the wrath of the IOC, here is an image of the host city...
and not 5 interlocked rings.

There has been a lot of discussion about which aspects of the Olympics are ethically wrong, economically broken, or socially corrupt and which aspects aren’t. It would require a blog, not just a post, to delve into it all in any real detail. Perhaps there is a non-partisan blog out there that does, but I am not aware of it and this post is barely hanging on to proper skeptical themes in the first place, I shant be straying further than this. But there are certain elements within these Olympics-issues that do fall into the domain of rational thought, such as surveillance.

Recently, I had to sit through most of a day listening to a hysterical co-worker rant about one of the many perceived issues about the Olympics, and it struck me as representative of a much larger issue: It isn’t very hard to find someone who believes on some level that increasing surveillance in our world (Whether it's RFID chips, full-body scanners, or CCTV cameras as examples.) is leading us inevitably towards an Orwellian future. Indeed the notion is so prevalent that I’m going to hazard a guess and say that the majority of people consider it a potential at the very least. It strikes me as a concern we should heed, but one that needs to be considered on a realistic level, not the shrill “they are turning us into a police state and none of you sheeple even raise your heads to care” fashion that I was subjected to by the fore-mentioned co-worker and others.

For the Vancouver Olympics, security measures are vague as a necessity. The main focus of security is two-fold. First, as a street crime deterrent – or at least the adding of an additional tool to combat crime in high-traffic areas. (There is a much larger discussion to be had about the displacement of crime due to surveillance and whether surveillance is indeed a deterrent, but that is not at the heart of this post.) Secondly, prevention of terrorist activity. (As with street crime, displacement and efficacy are in question.) If the specifics of security measures were well outlined, they could be much more easily circumvented by those who would seek to commit acts of crime and terrorism. In the long run, the apparent benefit of surveillance is as a record – to be used later in crime solving and prosecution – and even the degree of that is not free from criticism.

For the Olympics a wide spectrum of unusual (in the sense of – not typically used every day) surveillance efforts are being employed or are believed to be being employed. One of the most visible - to use a reductionist example - is the employment of CCTV cameras. CCTVs are already a significant part of our lives, and they serve as a symbol of the surveillance society that alarmists fear, watching us with their unblinking eye, feeding the data through face recognition software and traffic pattern analysis algorithms. Vancouver had new cameras installed recently, to be monitored by the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit. Possibly many of those cameras could be permanent, despite the warnings of privacy experts – the City of Vancouver has yet to commit to a decision about maintaining the cameras after the games.

The number of cameras added to Vancouver streets is a fraction of the number added at the Beijing games, according to a report last year from the University of Alberta. The report also notes the tendency to maintain a portion of the increased surveillance as an aspect of the legacy of the games, and anti-surveillance advocates are quick to point out that big events like the games are the thin edge of the wedge.

Okay… that is more than enough context.

I pose a somewhat rhetorical question: What is being defended?

The answer for most respondents would
be privacy or perhaps the right to privacy. I’ll accept the first answer, but you may be surprised to find out there is no “right to privacy” in our society. The word “privacy” appears precisely nowhere in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – and the same goes for our neighbours in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. There is no right to privacy in the American Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Surprised? I was too, when it was pointed out to me some years ago. Somewhat sobering too, I’ll admit. But dragging myself back on topic... What is being defended? – Privacy.

What privacy is is not such an easy thing to determine. It means different things to different people and it affects many different aspects of our lives. I fully agree that there is a certain expectation of privacy when it comes to sensitive information – information that draws in the borders of our lives: my Social Insurance Number, my credit card information, my bank PIN, the password to my Google account, and so on. I would prefer to not be under any kind of audio-visual surveillance in my home... but at the same time I try to live my life without any shame (either in action or in self-image) so if there was, would it really bother me that much? Hard to tell.

On the streets am I willing to give up being seen going about my business amongst the throngs of other people if it means that the streets are a little safer in the moment and that if something should happen, there is a better (if small) chance that it would be brought to justice and/or prevented in the future? You may have guessed my opinion on that – yes, I am willing. But all of these circumstances are ultimately, as I have just alluded, the domain of opinion and/or personal preference – and critical thinking loses clout in these situations.

So, you ask, why am I carrying on about this under the auspices of a skeptical blog?

Because it strikes me that if we accept the premise of the extreme argument that this is all leading towards an Orwellian dystopia if we don’t stop it now, then we really need to think about things rationally, because moving forward with the emotionally fueled “we can’t allow it to go the bad way, so we must prevent it entirely” approach may well be the most destructive way to proceed.

For starters, I propose as fact that we as a race has yet to find a way, where destructive technology (or any technology) can be undiscovered. That is, barring the destruction of the society that bears the knowledge – and even this self-defeating option is unreliable. The best we can ever hope for is newer technology that renders the older obsolete by antidote or counter-measure.

High-tech surveillance is here to stay, and indeed it is only going to get more discrete. It is only a matter of time before the average person can, for a price, fly a camera and/or microphone in through an open window of your home and, PRESTO! – you are someone’s own personal reality TV show.

Yes, that will probably be highly illegal. But as the price of such technology drops lower and lower, the ability to effectively police it will become more problematic. And the act of criminalizing it – when has that ever stopped people from doing things? As with anything that has been criminalized, all that imposing such legalities upon such technology will accomplish is that only criminals and various arms of government will have access to it – either legitimately or via black market resources. We could plug our ears and eyes and scream “la la la can’t hear you” (ironic as that would be) and pretend we aren’t being watched, or we could roll with the punches, and get used to the idea.

In his non-fiction book The Transparent Society, Dr. David Brin (I have mentioned elsewhere his notion of CITOKATE as a concept that all skeptics should be aware of) suggests that a possible option for avoiding a hellish slide towards an oppressive surveillance society is to pull some social ju-jitsu on the rapidly developing surveillance technology of the world, and accept a future of near total transparency. I don’t think he or I actually believe that this is a transition of thinking that can realistically happen outside of generational turns of worldview, but the technology is advancing rapidly enough that we can only do ourselves favours by embracing it rather than fighting it.

In a transparent society, abuse of surveillance by the powers that be can be mitigated by ensuring that all non-private spaces are under the watch of the ever present eye. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchers?) Under this model – everyone does, indeed everyone becomes the watchers. All cameras become available to everyone. Just go to the website and check in what is going on downtown, or at the Olympic site, at police headquarters or even inside the very room where the cameras themselves are routed through to the internet. Rather that being overseen by an anonymous few, all are watched by one another from below - sousveillance, if you will.

In a sense, there is even a surprising amount of privacy in this model. When everyone is watched and available to be watched most or even all the time, then in many senses we are desensitized to not only the eyes upon us, but more importantly, our ability to make undue use of such surveillance. Think about the private conversations that you’ve had in restaurants. Are you concerned about being overheard? Not really, though there is nothing stopping eavesdropping – and undoubtedly people do eavesdrop. But do you really care? No. Not unless you are talking about something seditious!

Which of course brings up the notion that really, unless you are doing something you wouldn’t want the world to know about – say, a crime – then what does being observed, or at least potentially observed in all public areas cost you? Indeed, if anyone’s eyes can see anything, then that in and of itself also keeps the watchers in line. Police – should you be of the opinion that they are prone to brutality – are becoming more and more aware all the time that they must perform their duties with utmost respect and adherence to protocol as even now, thanks to camera-phones, we are already potentially on camera at any time.

This is all very hypothetical – make no mistake. But the implied contention that surveillance must be curtailed or we are headed towards oppression is not only a false dichotomy, but it also ignores our inability to suppress technology once it has been discovered – you cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

Is the option so broadly sketched in above the only alternate option? Probably not. It’s also hardly a comprehensive look at the internal issues that would need to be hammered out if it was the only other option. But without giving in to Big Brother, it accepts the reality that for the foreseeable future we are all being watched far more than we are immediately comfortable with, and we had better get used to it, ‘cause those eyes aren’t going away – even if we were to try to suppress it.

My original opening line of this post was “Prepare for a reality that you aren’t going to like.” I’m going back to that now, as I close. Thinking and writing about this has made me feel like I’m peeing in even my own cornflakes. But it is part of the skeptic’s role to step back from emotion and consider circumstances dispassionately and not reflexively believe the most attractive idea. Wishing surveillance out of sight is only going to achieve just that – it is not going to make it go away. At worst its a Thelma and Louise strategy. At best, its a lot of wasted effort. No matter how reprehensible we find facts, they are still facts, and thus we must explore options for working with surveillance in a positive and open society.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Mike Adams: Cheater & Hypocrite

Are familiar with the Shorty Awards?

Well it seems that well known quack, Mike Adams AKA the Health Ranger, who I've blogged about before doesn't know how to read the rules!

Adams was in the forefront of the pack - for a vote that admittedly is little more than a Twitter popularity contest.  It really didn't seem right that this was happening.

But if you were to google "Health Ranger" "Shorty Awards" at the time I am writing this you would get a deluge of blog posts just like this one.  So I guess that explains some of it.

But then this morning these tweets came up from @Sc00ter:

"ww, there's a LOT of people voting for @HealthRanger that have next to no friends. Created to vote for @shortyaward.. I thhink so"

"got an email from the Shorty awards saying they're investigating @HealthRanger for ballot stuffing"
Well well well.

Is it possible that some one wasn't paying attention to this rule?
Voters must be active Twitter users prior to the start of the competition. Votes originating from new Twitter accounts or accounts used mainly for Shorty Awards voting will automatically be disqualified and will not count toward the rankings.
Meanwhile, Orac, PZ Meyers and others did some of their own promoting for votes for @DrRachie.  Which I'll point out is EXACTLY what @healthranger was doing...except without the voting bots.

So... now, hours later, Mike Adams has been removed from the ballot for significant evidence that at he or a least his over-zealous follwers weren't playing by the rules, and Dr. Rachel Dunlop has the most votes. Yay, all is right with the universe... except there could be one more thing that would make it just about perfect: If Mike Adams threw a hissy fit and made for the triple-crown of bad-sportsmanship by being a hypocrite at the same time.

Wait for it....

Wait for it....

Okay - here.


Okay you narcissistic jerk, let's do some of your own vanity-googling for you shall we?
At the time of this writing if I google each of '"Shorty Awards" "Health ranger"' and '"Shorty Awards" "Rachael Dunlop"' I get 506 results for the Health Ranger combo - and on the front page alone 7 of 10 hits begin with the headline "Please help the Health Ranger win the Shorty Awards for health content" - that is some seriously focussed SEO going on there!  Meanwhile the Rachael Dunlop iteration gets 206 hits and on the front page I have to really look to see that 3 of the 10 are pleas for votes.

So, really Mike who is it who is pushing their voters the hardest?  I mean, seriously?  Why are you such a cry baby?  Its not even like we beat you at your own game.  We simply played by the rules.  Rules - you know them, right?  They are kinda like laws.  Sort of like the laws of physics... oh - never mind.

So, what can skeptics do?

Well you can vote for @DrRachie from a legitimate account.  And you can go to the bottom of Adam's post to his action items - specifically #2 and #5 and pass on to the people behind the Shortys that you support their actions.

And it might be worth pointing out to them that Mike has so much respect for the awards that he ends his rant with: "The contest itself doesn't matter that much." (Which is obviously why he spent so much effort trying to win and complaining about it when he was caught cheating.)  He may as well have capped it off with:

"Oh yeah!?!?  Well I didn't want to win anyway! ....stupid contest."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Kudos to CBC Dragons

This came up in the comments section over at Skeptic North today and it's simply too good not to pass on further.  A garbage medicine hawker came on Dragons' Den with a ridiculous product and a ridiculous "deal" for the Dragons.

If you're familiar with the format, feel free to skip ahead to the 25 minute mark and sit back and watch some serious deserved tongue lashing.  If you aren't familiar, then watch the first part of the show just to get the feel first.

The product in question - Precious Metals Nano Water from Bruce McBurney of HIMAC Research Publishing from Niagra Falls Ontario.  He undermines his presentation from the get go by asking for WAY too much money (2.5 Million) for a laughable amount of the company (25%) that is heinously over priced (10 Million dollars - based on the sales of 40 thousand dollars over several years.)  Initially his presentation is amusing as it's so absurd and badly put together.  He thinks he has a panacea which will cure everything from indegestion (sic) to prostrate (sic) cancer.  And he offers no more than "video testimonials" and books of un-declared an questionable provenance as evidence.

He is completely full of shit.  The Dragons let him have it on all fronts, they stip him down and flog him verbally and as far as I am concerned he gets off easy.

Looking at his website - which is also littered with spelling errors, like his cheap-assed presentation - he is also trying to hawk "suppressed" (Oh the conspiracy!) carbeurator technology that could (you see it coming don't you?) revolutionize the world by taking cancer causing agents out of automotive pollution and improving mileage by over 400%.

As Dragon Jim Treliving tells Bruce to his face - "Bullshit."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Where is the FUN in science?

If I were to ask "where is the fun in science?" most people in the critical thinking crowd would look at me like I'm nuts and correct my implied premise; "science is fun!"

I do, in fact, agree with them.  But the problem is, the people who count most - those who aren't critical thinkers - don't.  Face it folks, to them we are ALL Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.  They look at my Facebook page and see status updates like "Thank Heaven for Galilieo... or is it the other way around?" (From August 25th of last year.)  I don't have to explain that to you guys, right?  And that of course is part of the point!  They see it and almost certainly don't get the significance of the date; probably don't get that it was a clever joke; and if they do see that it was a joke, they probably don't know why it is funny.  Anyone who does... is one of us.

You can't simply dress science up in "fun" colours, say that it's fun, and expect people to respond.  Hell if you even call it "science" anywhere before the moment your audience cries out loud in reaction, most of them are going to shut off.  They must realise they are having fun, before they realise they are having science (fed to them.)

For all I know that is how I was brought into the fold.  It's far too late in my life to determine whether the bug for science led me to science educational programming and reading as a kid, or if the likes of Dr. Zed and 3-2-1 Contact got me interested in science.

Science must be a stealth benefit of the entertainment - for both young and old, not the other way around.  Far too much science "for your own good" is given a patina of excitement that doesn't go past the surface, and is expected by those who have gussied it up to have some sort of legs on it.  I can only assume that people who actually think that efforts like these are valuable and aren't merely singing to those who already have a copy of the libretto, either socially speaking haven't got a living clue how the other half live (I invoke Sheldon again); or perhaps really do think that the knowledge is best kept by those who can handle it... and that is pathelogical (and I am sure, insanely rare, if existent at all.)

I don't really have an instant answer for this issue.  I'm pretty much just thinking out loud.  If I had a good formula for selling science to a big demographic without them necessarily realizing that that was what they were consuming, I can pretty much guarantee I'd be in production....  But if anyone has an idea that doesn't read like the periodic table... you know where to find me.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

From the Dust of the Skeptical Smackdown...

Okay, so the room was too small (as is becoming the case regularly at Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub); and we had some audio-visual issues; and we practically abandoned the Skype connection after the initial video-call to Edmonton; the Edmonton co-host got sick and didn't show up; the Edmonton host had to leave after the first round - leaving a newly appointed co-host to finish up; and we had enough people show up late in Vancouver to make up an entire new team... but I think that it was a wild success on our end.

I am talking about the Western Canadian Skeptical Smackdown which was held last night in Edmonton and Vancouver.

Desiree Schell of Skeptically Speaking was the Edmonton host, and I was the quiz-master in Vancouver.

There was definitely some learning on the organizers' part... for example, I discovered that the two or three trick questions were not a good idea... particularly when one of the rules is that the "Quiz Master is always right, even when they are wrong."  The rule is in place so that we don't lose a bunch of time quibbling about answers that are almost right; or having to go on the internet to double check answers.  A lot of time was put into getting the answers right, but I feel admit that there was one answer right at the end that was debatable... it came across as a trick question to those who really knew their stuff, resulting in 'wrong' answers that were still really good answers.  My bad... but, c'mon - there were 88 questions!  Having one debatable one seems pretty solid to me.  :-P

If anyone wants me to send them the questions so that they can run their own quiz - by all means!  I'll even tweak the language on the debatable question, so that there is no debate.  Fair warning... while there are some questions that should be easy for any skeptical/scientific crowd & every question was answered correctly by someone... there are some really tough questions.  Even the top scoring team only barely cracked 75% and roughly one third of the teams didn't get more than 50%.  (Indeed, one answer sheet - from a team that placed in the top 5! - came back at the end of the night with the message "WTF guys?!? This is Hard. SRSLY!"  And so it should have been - everyone had to work for every point.

There were three different cross-provincial challenges going on, as well as one in each city.

Boasting privledges go to:

- The top scoring team.
- The highest overall team score out of both cities.
- Each city's Skeptical Radio show (Skeptically Speaking and Radio Free Thinkers) challenged each other.
- Desiree and I each chose a "Champion" to represent us before we started.

As my Champion Team I chose the team that named itself "Big Wang Theory" - it was a pretty terrifying looking team from the outset, comprised of: Paul Ingraham - Skeptical (ex) Massage Therapist; Rob Tarzwell - An increasingly well known doctor and skeptic in Canada; Robert Light - whose research as a playwright into the life of Charles Darwin is truly staggering; and Fred Bremmer... who just might be skepticism's ultimate fanboy (and whose photos adorn this post).

Speaking of being represented by a champion...

Due to the quality of our video Skype connection I didn't clearly get what Des's Champion team was, but I shall update here as soon as I can confirm it with her.  She did point to the literal "Far Table"... so I am going to assume that the team she picked was the one named "The Far Table" in Edmonton's results.

At the end of the first round, Big Wang Theory was ahead of all teams. 

By the end of the second round (a misleading name as there was a paper-round between the two rounds) an Edmonton team had pulled into the lead by 1 and 1/2 points.
Going into round three, (by which point Edmonton had got well ahead of Vancouver as we were slowed by the added logistics of having 9 teams crowded into too small a space) Radio Free Thinkers had to get a minimum of 6 and 1/2 points to beat the Skeptically Speaking team.

When all was said and done, the final standings (out of 88 points) from both cities were as follows:

  • (VAN) Big Wang Theory - 67.5
  • (VAN) Goats on Fire (The CFI Team) - 60.5 
  • (EDM) Climate Cover Up - 53.5
  • (VAN) Radio Free Thinkers - 51.5
  • (EDM) Skeptically Speaking - 49.5
  • (EDM) The Shock Collars - 49
  • (VAN) Still Thinking - 45
  • (VAN) Pacific Spirits - 44.5
  • (VAN) Funky Debunkers - 43
  • (VAN) 3 Girls and a Dummy - 40.5
  • (VAN) Psychic Energy - 40.5
  • (VAN) Can We Have a Minute? - 37
  • (EDM) The Far Table - 35.5
I am looking forward to the Big Wang Theory coming back to defending it's title next year... when there will hopefully be more teams from Edmonton as well as teams East of the 100th meridian involved too.  Then we can drop the "Western" qualifier from the Quiz's title.

"Western Canadian Skeptical Smackdown" Champions:
"The Big Wang Theory"
Rob Tarzwell, Rob Light, Paul Ingraham, Fred Bremmer

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Western Canadian Skeptical Smack-Down

It’s a big week. I’ve been swamped with work leading up to it. Yesterday was the cast & crew screening of “Beast of Bottomless Lake.” Tuesday is the Western Canadian Skeptical Smack-Down. Thursday I move. And at an unspecified date following that (no more than a week later) – I begin working from home. Only two of those are of skeptical note (the film and the quiz) but it serves as a bit of an explanation for why my output has been below average lately. Once I’ve moved, things will pick up again.

I’ve mentioned the film before. I’m not going to go into great detail about the screening here as I’ve spoken about it in detail on the company blog.

The Pub-Quiz is next. Back in August – shortly after TAM7 – I suggested to Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub organizer Fred Bremmer that I would be interested in preparing a pub quiz for the first SitP of the new year. Well, here we are. The plans have grown since that initial discussion. I’ve actually forgotten how the original conversation unfolded, but back in October or November I was chatting with Desiree Schell (host of Skeptically Speaking) and she thought it would be fun to host the same quiz in Edmonton. From there it was a short step to co-ordinating the two quizzes and running them simultaneously – and skyping the quiz so that teams can be competing across provincial lines.

Indeed the technical support team of Skeptically Speaking and RadioFreeThinkers are each putting a team in competition, with a friendly challenge standing between the two.

Nearly all the details are in place – really all that is left are things that we can only deal with on the night.

If by any chance you are reading this before January 12th, and are in either Vancouver or Edmonton, come on out! Either for a team (of four) in advance, or show up and get teamed up on the night. The quiz begins at 8pm in Vancouver, 9pm in Edmonton; at The Railway Club in Vancouver and at Under Dog in Edmonton.

I’ll follow up with the results once the quiz is done. And if the quiz is a big success, I’m betting we’ll do it again next year... perhaps we won’t need the qualifier “Western” next year. And in any case, once the quiz has been done I’ll make the question set available to anyone else in the world who would like to host a quiz. (Indeed, there has already been interest expressed.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

"Science is an absolute failure!"

I'm not actually quoting anyone.  But that does seem to be the underlying attitude fuelling many of the past decade's advances in the forces against skepticism.

Looking back at my life, I see a promise in entertainment and popular media that life is going to be vastly better in the future.

I don't specifically target The Jetsons - the Jetsons took place in 2062, we still have half a decade before the future of robot housemaids and flying cars fails to manifest according to schedule.  But somehow the Jetsons seems to symbolize the failures of the world around us to live up to fiction.

Hey, it's the future folks!  It's 2010 - "The Year We Make Contact."  How much of the promise of technology in that film - let alone it's predecessor, now 9 years out of date - has failed to manifest?  Well, you might as well say "all of it."

This is to say nothing of the many widely mocked 50s era "World of Tomorrow" type films where for as many near hits, there are as many or more ridiculous misses, all made the more amusing by the dated aesthetics.

The institutions of science have over the decades exacerbated the feeling of disappointment by over-selling the potential of the future, making implied promises that could not be lived up to.

I am being unfair to "science" here.  As much as it was the towers of research that wrote cheques that reality could not honour, it was media that over-represented it, and the common man who all too eagerly believed what they were told.  Perhaps scientists and their organizations hubristically failed to correct the perceptions, and in that they are culpable in the failures.  But the point is that people - everyday people - got the wrong message, and they can't be held solely responsible.

I graduated from high-school in 1987.  I fully expected that by now we would have been back to the moon - indeed, maybe I'd have the opportunity to live on the moon myself.  As it is, the best I could possibly do is a six minute trip beyond the Karman Line, and that only if I can dig deep in the pockets to the tune of 200 grand.  I figured that by now all cars would be electric, and computer controlled.  We've only barely got to the point where electric cars are at all viable.  I suppose skype has provided me with a video-phone, but boy is it cranky.  But even when I move into my state of the art new apartment next week I'm not going to be able to tell the (literal) home computer to turn on the lights, start dinner, give me my messages and put on my favourite TV show.

I recall with great clarity the day in grade 9 physical education, when we were doing a sit down class on anatomy my teacher, Mr Foster, informed us with absolute authority that by the time we were forty (that's this past year) that "every organ in the body will be able to be replaced except maybe the brain."  Perhaps his assurance was bouyed by the news - that was the year of Barney Clark.  Obviously Mr. Foster was very wrong - and of course it was silly to expect a high-school gym-teacher to be any real sort of authority on such a subject - but there was no way I was going to grok that at age 13.

Similarly, I think it's safe to say that "we" expected that cancer would be cured by now; that a meal in a pill would be viable; and that we would have extended life expectancy by 20 years. 

Science has failed to live up to these expectations.  It doesn't matter if they were reasonable expectations or not.  It hardly matters that science minded people everywhere know how unreasonable those expectations were, or the prevailing theories as to why and realities that have prevented us from making these achievements.  What has happened instead is that the expectation - or more correctly the percieved failure to meet the expectation - creates in many people's minds another unrealistic perception: that science has failed us and that therefore it is full of shit.

Science medicine hasn't cured everything therefore how can it be trusted?  This serves to help the anti-vax movement, as there is a visceral instinct to buy into the faulty logic that supports the notion that science has failed us.  It plays into the hands of big pharma conspiracy - "why cure a disease when you can make more money selling the drugs that alleviate teh symptoms?"  It feeds the beliefs of creationists and global warming deniers alike.  It coddles the hostile attitude of anti-intellectuals and keeps them warm at night.

We as skeptics are the public advocates of science.  It is our duty to foster a love of science and it's accomplishments.  We are living in the future, and it is our job to take every opportunity to point our the victories of science - especially the mundane victories.  We have Star Trek communicators; we have the ability to shop from the comfort of our couch; virtually anyone has the ability to write a regular column on anything that they feel they have an opinion about; we can access nearly any episode of any TV show we desire on little or no notice; we have taken the teeth out of AIDS and other deadly diseases; we can get directions from anywhere to anywhere while enroute.  The list goes on and on.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Staking Ground

Uh, happy New Year!

I've been a bit remiss in my posting.  Usually I get at least one post out per week but, this season has not been kind to me.  At least not as a blogger.  It has been a great holiday season for the most part - if you don't count the fact that the airline my Dad worked for for forty years burned to the ground.

The holidays were excellent and relaxing for the most part, and my New Year is promising to be busy until at least the spring.  A week from now we do an invite only cast & crew screening of my Ogopogo movie; the next week I move into the latest building in Vancouver to be the 'hippest residence in the city' (a mantle it will bear until the athletes' village opens up for residency after the Olympics) and then... its the Olympics!  Hopefully shortly there after there will be other cool film news.  But let's face it, all of that is really only tangential to skepticism.  I don't tend to get too much into the personal life here, so there's a New Year's tip of the hat into my inner world.

I really do have something to say of skeptical import though...

As the holiday season was ramping up I went for a drink with a friend of mine - my roomate at TAM 7 in fact.  He mentioned something to me about asshole skepticism that had never even occurred to me.

An important aspect of asshole skepticism - the truly provocative sort of asshole skepticism - is that it contextualizes the domain of rationalism.
The olive branch skeptic has much more power in a world where there is a good sampling of asshole skeptics.  The asshole skeptics push the outer boundaries of skeptical presentation and come off as the extemists of the movement.  (And in a sense, we are.)  Which then allows the olive branch skeptics to come off as relatively reasonable.

In a sense it becomes an effort of making the fallacy of the Golden Mean work in our favour.

The asshole skeptics dress up our rationality in strident statements that appear to be on the bleeding edge of sanity to the credulites and fundies of the world, so that when the olive branch skeptics come along and appear all reasonable (yet promoting the exact saem agenda) they have a much better chance of coming across well as they are no longer the extremists.

It's an interesting idea.  And I think there is something to it, though no doubt some of the olive branchers will still curdle at the thought and toss forth the standard "attract more flies with honey than vinegar" pleas for diplomacy.  And it's not that they are wrong, it's simply that the appearance of the message is all relative, and by pushing the boundaries we are making the sweetness of their version the honey, 'cause otherwise it IS the vinegar in many people's eyes.