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.