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?