We’re at it again. Skeptics fighting each other over whether or not a particular issue falls within the jurisdiction of skeptical inquiry, and precisely what it means to be a Skeptic, and whether others’ definitions of skepticism and actions based on those definitions “hurt the movement”.
Rather than go into all of the various factions in this battle, and continue to rehash the argument, I’d like to challenge the fundamental assumption behind all this bickering: The idea that a single Skeptical Movement actually exists.
It seems to me that what we have here, currently, is a worldwide community of self-identified skeptics, out of which movements of different sorts can crystalize and spread. Certain factions within the community seem to think that the next logical step is to create a single, unified Skepticism, encapsulating everyone who identifies as a skeptic, and expecting to be able to limit the scope of skeptical inquiry to what they deem appropriate.
This is inherently problematic, for several reasons; the most daunting of which is the fact that, by definition, skeptics tend to eschew authority. We like to figure things out for ourselves. Because of this, we are never going to come to the same conclusions about everything, especially matters like religion that can be fraught with personal experience and cultural baggage. Also, because of those different personal experiences, we all come to the table with different priorities and ideas on how to create the change we’d like to see in the world.
Another problem lies in controlling how the word “skeptic” itself is used. I posit that such control is impossible, given the fact that it is currently used by science advocates and woo peddlers alike. Even if one assumes there is such a thing as a monolithic Skeptical Movement, we still don’t own the trademark on the word, and the general public isn’t ever going to necessarily identify the word “skeptic” with our particular brand of scientific advocacy and anti woo activism.
These problems solve themselves when we stop trying to be something we’re not. Skepticism means something different to all of us. I think we need to stop being so hung up on labels and definitions and focus on what we’d like to accomplish. Multiple tactics are capable of accomplishing each goal. We may not always agree on how to achieve these things, but I think it’s unhelpful to bandy about the “so and so is hurting the movement” card.
As usual, the original Skepchic is right!
Yesterday morning the big news was an interesting article with a ridiculous headline: “Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI“.
I thought my Tweet summed up my feeling on the matter:
Richard Dawkins is going to personally arrest the pope. I hope it’s like the video for Sabotage but with old dudes http://is.gd/bo707
I was wrong to assume that people would read that and think, “Yes, that is a completely ridiculous headline.” I’m kicking myself for not being clearer, because when Dawkins posted a clarification to say that no, he did not say he’d be personally arresting the pope, a lot of my Twitter and Facebook followers happily declared that it was all a big hoax. A few others declared that it was all a big publicity stunt on Dawkins’ part, and that it therefore hurt “the skeptical movement.”
Dawkins’ clarification explained that while he was not going to swing into action Beastie Boys-style, he does support the actual effort currently underway to hold the Pope accountable for the systematic protection of child abusers. And that, to me, was the entire point: not that Dawkins is involved (though that is a funny image), but that the Pope may in fact answer for his crimes. So no, it’s not all a big, overblown hoax. It is a real and important story.
On to the second point, that this effort will apparently hurt the “skeptical movement”: it won’t, and it’s completely absurd to suggest otherwise.
I like and admire Massimo Pigliucci, but he is 100% wrong when he posted this (among other things) on my Facebook profile:
naturally, always a good thing to keep one’s baloney detector set to orange alert. though the basic problem remains: two of the “horsemen” are behind a sensationalistic stunt that has no chance in hell (pun intended) of actually succeeding in the real world
Bullshit, Massimo, on several points. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins lent their support to an effort that was already well underway, and if it weren’t for that support, most people wouldn’t know that this is happening. To describe their support as a “sensationalistic stunt” is pointless cat-fighting. And to describe it as an effort that “has no chance in hell” of succeeding is simply ignorant.
Or, maybe not?
Vikki Thomas, intrepid journalist for The Sun, reports that “A CAT-BOY has stunned medics with his ability to SEE in pitch black with eyes that GLOW in the dark.” All the preceding CAPITAL LETTERS are THE SUN’S, possibly designed to FREAK YOU THE HELL OUT because OMG CAT-BOY WILL DESTROY US ALL!
Young Nong Youhui was supposedly brought to a hospital by his dad Ling, who claimed that the boy’s freaky blue eyes gave him the power of superior night vision and thus allowing him to read in pitch blackness. Amazingly, the article also claims that the boy can see perfectly well in the daylight.
I say BULLSHIT. Yeah, I can use capitals, too.
First of all, cats can see better in the dark due to eyes that operate in a very different way from humans’, thanks to a very long history of evolving along completely different tracks. For instance, cats have pupils that narrow to slits and grow much larger than yours to let more light in while hunting in the dark. They also have larger lenses to absorb even more light, and they even have an extra part called the tapetum lucidum that bounces light back and forth to give them another chance at seeing something in the dark (that’s what causes the gleam when you shine a light at a cat’s eyes). Cats also have more rods, the photoreceptors that benefit night vision.
Even if the boy somehow managed to procure similar eyeballs to a cat, all those attributes come at a cost. A cat cannot, as the article states, see “as clearly as most people do during the day.” In exchange for better night vision, the cat gives up the ability to focus on near objects and the handy tool of depth perception (edit: sorry, I meant “good depth of field” – kitties can’t focus on anything outside things at just the right distance). Their greater number of rods results in fewer cones, removing their ability to see sharp detail and rich color.
The point is: you can’t have your night-vision cake and eat it in broad daylight, too.
Here’s where else your bullshit detector should have rung. The Sun’s only offered explanation for this eerie happening is the following sentence:
Experts believe he was born with a rare condition called leukodermia which has left his eyes with less protective pigment and more sensitive to light.
Leukodermia, also known as vitiligo, isn’t associated with cat-like super-vision – it’s most often associated with Michael Jackson, since it happens to be that disorder in which you get blotchy patches on your skin and hair.
A study of 100 patients with the disorder did find a strong correlation with vision problems, so if anything, the kid would be worse off. The article suggests that the disorder makes one more sensitive to light, which is true, but not in the idiotic way that The Sun suggests. “More sensitive” means that it is painful for people with certain ocular disorders to see in daylight, which impairs their vision, not helping it.
So what’s the real explanation?
Well, it’s hard to say, since the article doesn’t give us the name of the hospital, the doctors involved in these “medical tests,” or even a god damned picture of the mysterious glowing eyeballs. Oh, and this is the very same newspaper that previously brought us a story on the Lost City of Atlantis with a photo of Patrick Duffy and a sidebar written by Plato, the deceased philosopher. (Turns out, it was just the path of the boats used to collect the data. Whoops!)
More likely? It’s a hoax propagated by a poor family looking to make a quick profit by selling a cheap parlor trick to a laughably gullible journalist.
In case you were wondering whether or not to buy the DVD of the movie Expelled, the anti-evolution lie-fest hosted by Ben Stein, the producers would really like you to know that a bigtime Hollywood star who was once in three minutes of Ferris Bueler’s Day Off gives this movie his absolute highest recommendation! Yes, that person is also the host of the documentary in question, but still! Here is the actual DVD cover advertised for sale at Barnes and Noble:
In other news, Stephen Baldwin gives Biodome 700 stars.
Thanks to Guy for sending us this classic.
Among science communicators, there’s an ongoing discussion on how best to reach people. There’s the Carl Sagan-route, full of awe and gentle wonder and turtlenecks, and there’s the Mythbusters-route, which relies upon explosions and goofy shenanigans to teach while entertaining. And now there is the Phil Plait-route, defined by educating the audience while scaring the pants off them.
Death from the Skies: These are the Ways the World Will End is a gripping, well-written follow-up to Dr. Phil Plait’s first book, Bad Astronomy. Those of you who have read Bad Astronomy — or who follow Phil’s fantastic blog of the same name — already know what to expect in DftS, and you won’t be disappointed. Phil excels at conveying complex scientific ideas in an easy-to-grasp manner. He’s the science teacher you wish you had in high school, who can relate to your frustration when the formulas get long and the Universe seems to ignore all those laws you learned in freshman Physics.
Of course, Phil’s knack for simplifying science is only half the battle, as a wise GI Joe once said. What really sets this book apart is the brilliant concept: death and destruction on a scale that makes Godzilla v. Mothra look just silly. I mean sillier. You get my point.
The Large Hadron Collider became the biggest science news story of 2008, purely because of a public misconception that it might bring about the end times. Other popular headline-grabbers this year: the Mayan calendar ending in 2012, at least two blockbusters involving the destruction of New York, and the lack of solar activity possibly signaling an incoming mini ice age. Obviously, this is the sort of topic that grabs attention.
The problem is, how do you capitalize off of society’s innate morbid curiosity without freaking people out about scenarios that are not very likely to occur? In DftS, Phil manages to present a believable scenario of destruction and explain the science behind it, without necessarily inspiring any new doomsday cults. Take, for instance, a gamma-ray burst (GRB). This is seriously freak-tastic stuff: a star a few trillion miles from Earth, like say Eta Carinae, dies. From our perspective, we see a pretty cool flash of light in the sky, and then a few hours later, 2/3 of the Earth is covered in a lethal dose of radiation. Phil uses this scenario to explain topics like black holes and the accretion disks surrounding them, neutron stars, the weird-but-true theory that as an object’s gravity increases as it gets smaller while retaining its mass, and the penetrative power of muons (hint: don’t bother hiding from them less than 2,000 feet underground). Throughout the chapter he throws in things like, “To make this more clear: we are in no danger from a GRB, Eta or otherwise, in the near or even mid-term future.” And then he continues to scare the pants off everyone by speculating further. At the very end of the book, he includes a helpful chart showing the chances of each scenario happening. Death by GRB appears to be about 1 in 14,000,000 and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it anyway, meaning that you’re quite literally better off worrying about shark attacks.
So, I love the scary parts of the book, I love the care taken to put those scary parts into perspective, and I especially love the science — speaking as someone with basically no formal science education, I learned an awful lot about astronomy, physics, chemistry, and even biology. The breadth of information in the book pretty much guarantees that everyone will learn something. Probably something really terrifying, but something.
To balance that glowing review, just in case you all think I’m only saying these nice things because Phil is my pal, I’ll also mention that the book is not perfect. Now, I did read an advance proof that may not be exactly like the final version, but I feel I should warn you just in case: Death from the Skies is absolutely infested with puns. Puns made up by Phil, and if you know Phil, you know what that means. Luckily, most of them are bolded and set apart from the rest of the text as subheads, so if you’re prepared then you will know to glance over them as you read. Here are a few:
Current Events (about magnetic fields)
Sirius Danger? (about the star, and yes, he went there)
The Hole Truth (about black holes)
I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up (no, seriously)
Pasta-ta (about black hole spaghettification)
Man Hole (about Phil’s trip to his favorite dance club)
I’ll stop there before your eyes melt.
Of course, I’m only (half-) kidding. Phil’s goofy sense of humor is why I love him, and it’s why scientists and laypeople alike enjoy reading about the Universe from his perspective. His love of science is infectious, and I’m optimistic that Death from the Skies will introduce a new audience to the wonders of astronomy. I’d like to give this book to all those people fretting about the various made-up ways the world might end (the LHC, the Mayan calendar, Godzilla, Armageddon), to open their eyes to what’s actually happening out there. Reading the book, what struck me above all is not just the specifics of what we know through science, but simply that we know at all. Death from the Skies will take you trillions of years into the future and beyond, using actual science to speculate about what will happen to our planet, our Sun, our galaxy, and our Universe. That is so very cool, and so much more satisfying than anything you’ll get from the vague predictions of your average Doomsday crowd.
- Insecure minds wired for pattern-finding. (Thanks to a couple of folks.)
- Saudi cleric thinks women showing two eyes is just too seductive, and has called for women to wear a full veil that reveals only one eye.
- A brief history of disbelief: a documentary on atheism, viewable online.
- From National Geographic, the best science images of 2008.
The Followers of Christ church is a fundamentalist Christian cult renowned for killing children, and sadly they’ve added another to the death toll: 16-year old Neil Beagley died in June of a urinary tract blockage that can be fixed with a simple procedure. Neil’s parents murdered him by knowingly withholding the life-saving medical treatment because they believed that prayer would convince a god to save him. Often in cases of faith healing not working, the death is attributed to the god teaching the family a lesson, or punishing the deceased for not having strong enough convictions.
To summarize: a boy died because of his parents’ uncritical acceptance of religious doctrine.
The parents have just pled not guilty and will face trial in January 2009. Read more about the FoC on Rick Ross’ comprehensive site.
In other news, gangs of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel are beating, kidnapping, and hospitalizing people who do not meet their standards of modesty. Though not all the fundamentalists say they approve of the violence, few have the temerity to speak up.
Also, last month fundamentalist Muslims fire-bombed the house of a publisherbecause he plans to print The Jewel of Medina, a book about the prophet Mohammud that no one has read yet.
Finally, somewhere, some time in the past week or so, a fundamentalist atheist was told that without religion we’d have no moral compunction to be good. The fundamentalist then shrugged and went back to his book.
Happy Sunday everyone!
Alexander Cornswalled is a Midwestern Conservative Christian who is not particularly fond of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Cornswalled says that he helpfully reviews podcasts that the kids in his church are listening to, and the other day he chose the SGU. I know, I was pleased, too! Let’s see what he has to say!
The hosts pretty much accept global warming as gospel truth . . .
If by “accept . . . as gospel truth” he means “engaged in serious inquiry followed by a healthy discussion of the facts and a careful examination of both sides of the issue before tentatively erring on the side of the scientific consensus,” then yes, yes we do.
. . . and they’re all unapologetic atheists.
That’s not true. Evan once apologized for not believing a god.
Just kidding . . . in fact, we rarely discuss our beliefs (or lack thereof), and depending upon your definition, the word “atheist” may not apply to all of us.
The podcast is as anti-Christian as they come.
Considering that we rarely if ever address purely religious matters, that’s certainly hyperbole. When a certain Christian belief can be tested scientifically, such as faith healing, we’ll address it. However, it’s not like we have an official SGU Jesus pinata, and every week we take a good whack at it hoping to finally release the delicious candy contained within.
The pinata is actually shaped like a festive donkey.*
Even if you set aside the wholesale endorsement of vaccination, their wholesale rejection of homeopathy . . .
Ah, now we’re reaching the meat of it. Not so fast there! Let’s not set aside those things, because they’re quite important.
Honestly, this bit surprised me — Corny certainly makes himself out to be the voice of everyday Christians. In my experience, though, every Christian I know (and I know a lot) separates belief in god from medical matters like vaccines and homeopathy. I’m glad they do, because otherwise they might fall for Corny’s brand of ignorance. See, Corny believes this:
If you don’t trust God to protect your family then don’t be surprised when God removes his protection and lets Satan strike your family down.
which is probably the greatest argument in favor of carefully examining religious faith. People who accept this uncritically are putting themselves at great risk, which is why we often hear of measles outbreaks among followers of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, who believe that very thing.
Luckily, I suspect most Christians believe that God blessed man with a very clever brain, and He expects that brain to be put to good use — like, by developing drugs and procedures that extend and enhance our quality of life. There’s the old joke of the man waiting in his home as his town floods, and when he is told to evacuate he says that God will save him. Eventually his ground floor floods, and when the lifeboats come to his window he turns them away, sure that God will save him. Eventually he must retreat to his roof, and a helicopter descends with rescuers reaching out to him. He waves them away, because surely God will help. When the flood finally washes him away and drowns him, he arrives at the Pearly Gates and finally meets God face to face. “God,” he cries, “why didn’t you save me?” God shakes his head and says, “You moron, I sent you a frigging helicopter.” The God kicks him in the nads and tells him to go to hell.
Corny calls vaccines “liquid blasphemy,” which I always thought was reserved for booze. He believes that children who die from treatable illnesses deserved it, and are the natural result of God’s wrath.
Corny backs up his hatred of vaccines by suggesting they are part of a dangerous plot to kill millions of people. This conspiracy theory is not well-fleshed out, but he does back it up with a random anti-vaccination web page’s interview with an anonymous person who claims he was once in the “inner circle” of vaccine developers. I don’t think I have to go in-depth to explain why that’s not a reliable source of information.
Sorry, back to his review of the SGU:
. . . their complete lack of regard for anything supernatural and their unthinking acceptance of all things humanist . . .
True that we have a lack of regard, and not true that we accept anything in an unthinking manner. Regard has to be earned, and to borrow a common phrase around these parts, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Once we see that evidence, we will regard a claim as highly as we regard any other newly supported scientific claim.
. . . there’s still their constant ridicule of Christ and his followers.
“Constant” is not the word. That would just get boring.
Though we’re only human and do occasionally kid around about a particular fraud or peddler of crap, we do our best to focus on the wacky beliefs, as opposed to the wacky believers. It’s a subtle distinction I imagine Corny (who I am, admittedly, ridiculing with the nickname) is unable to grasp or uninterested in grasping, because for him, exposing a belief as false is out of bounds. His faith is unshakable, because he won’t allow anything close enough to shake it. His mind is made up, and no amount of evidence for, say, the efficacy of vaccines will ever convince him.
There is nothing redeemable in this podcast. It’s a propaganda mouthpiece for Satan and his followers.
There’s nothing I can argue with here. That’s just pure hilarity and would go on our movie posters if we had such things.
The content is a lock step repetition of the same humanist lies that have plagued the United States since the invention of the “separation of Church and State” fiction.
This is the last thing I’ll really address in Corny’s “review.” He seems to be very interested in politics (and I get the feeling he’s a tad bit conservative), so I’m not sure why he would have such hatred for the founding fathers, who came up with the “invention” of separation of church and state. I’m also not sure why it’s deemed to be fictional — does that make everything else in the US Constitution fictional? You may have heard people like Corny claim that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution, which is correct. The exact wording is the following:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .
We could go on for days about all the misconceptions people have about the separation of church and state, as well as the idea that the country was founded by or for Christians, but I really can’t stand to spend much more time on Corny today.
He finishes his review by talking about how he feels sad for us, since as nonbelievers we struggle with the idea of death. He listened to our great but rather sad interview with George Hrab at TAM6, in which we have a deep conversation about the nature of death in a world without an afterlife. Corny would prefer the safe comfort of concrete knowledge attained with no inquiry and backed up with no evidence, rather than the more challenging real world, where we don’t know, and will probably never know, what happens to us once we stop living. Life is a grand adventure, and at some point we’re all going to have to close our eyes and step into the unknown. Man, that’s scary, and I don’t blame people for retreating to a safer fantasy, where they are guaranteed a place to live forever with all the pets they’ve ever lost. I may not blame them, but I don’t envy them, as Corny may think I should. John Stuart Mill suggested that it was better to be a “Socrates unsatisfied than a fool satisfied, and better a fool unsatisfied than a pig satisfied.” I’ll settle for being a fool, and while the metaphor is fresh and ready to be mixed, I’ll stop casting these pearls all over Corny’s front lawn.
As a bonus round, I dug into his site a bit to find out what he had to say about some other podcasts. Here are a few choice quotes for your amusement:
On This American Life:
From American Public Radio, it’s a blatantly liberal highly political “Stories about Liberals in distress” program. Think of it as the Lifetime Channel for Liberals.
Delete it if you see it.
Actually, it’s from American Public Media and Public Radio International, presented by Chicago Public Radio. And technically, it’s more like the Oxygen Network for Liberals.
On The Prairie Home Companion:
Delete it if you see it, but don’t panic. It just means your kid likes drivel or dislikes Lutherans.
I actually agree with that one.
On Polyamory Weekly:
This is easily the most dangerous and socially destructive podcast I’ve ever heard.
I thought the same, until I heard the podcast version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
On Open Source Sex with Violet Blue:
My computer started showing a slideshow of naked people with whips when I hit “play” and things went downhill from there.
He’s probably right — when you start with pictures of naked people holding whips, the only place to go is down. He also mentions that “if you find it on your child’s computer delete it and bring your child to your pastor or a Christian counselor immediately,” presumably for reprogramming or to get a refund.
Thanks to Gordon for sending us the link, and for all the listeners who left hilarious and thought-provoking responses on Corny’s site after I Twittered this yesterday!
*With a pregnant Mary on its back.
It’s almost 2am, and I am suffering from geek fatigue, but as your faithful servant, I will rein in my focus and write this post so you all will have something to ponder tomorrow afternoon (it is Saturday, right?).
At what point does advancing skeptical ideas become evangelization? Is this something we should be concerned about?
Or, alternatively, since I am in geek mode, Trek or Who?
When I was nine years old, my mother became a born-again Christian. This was a pretty common occurrence in the area in which I grew up, as most mothers didn’t work, and truthfully, boredom and depression would kick in. She met a member of a church whilst waiting for me at the school gates, got chatting, and was offered the secret to eternal happiness and fulfilment: Jesus.
The organisation turned out to be one of those Pentecostal happy clappy Church of Christ jobbies, an import from the USA and quite unlike the stiff upper lip Church of England services one usually had to endure at weddings and funerals. The minister and his wife were young, attractive and American, which to my young mind was the height of exotic. We were very poor, but the weekly tithe seemed a small price to pay for the revelation that Jesus loved us and would supply everything we need if we asked hard enough. Or, would move in mysterious ways, and that was also OK, cause who needed a new bike when you had eternal life?
I went to a couple of services and social events with my mom, found it fun and full of promise and soon made the very adult decision to also become a Christian. My sister and father followed suit, and we were all baptised in a heated swimming pool followed by a finger buffet and a round of ‘You Can’t Get To Heaven On Rollerskates’ accompanied by me on tambourine.
Fast-forward a year, and the gloss started to wear off as Jesus made his first claim on my possessions. I wasn’t materialistic, I was merely a kid, and I liked my stuff. As I mentioned, we were poor, so stuff was hard to come by and birthdays and Christmas were pretty much the only opportunities I had to add to my bounty of treasures. But, I did own the entire collection of
If you haven’t played these, starting with the masterpiece Warlock of Firetop Mountain, stop reading this and go and grab a copy from eBay. You must at least be familiar with the concept: a book in which you choose your own adventure. “You turn a corner and an Orc is standing in front of you! To hit him with your fist, turn to page eight. To throw a turd at him, turn to page 43″. Etc. Conceptually genius, and I had ‘em all. I even had the spinoff board game which cost me my entire birthday money. But, my mom started to express concerns that the books were ‘satanic’ in nature (well they did have demons and magic in them) and suggested that Jesus would not approve. After a sleepless night of asking Jesus (and some secret masturbation for which I prayed for forgiveness), I concurred, and the next day we built a bonfire and burned the whole lot, board game and all. I remember thinking that I was destroying something inherently evil. Then again, I was a small girl and not really in a position to tell evil from madness.
The second thing that Jesus took was
My great-grandmother’s mirror
Mirrors, as you know, are easily possessed by demons. At least, that was what we were told when I was 12 years old and my mirror, a bequest from my late great-grandmother, threw itself across the bedroom. Or rather, it fell off the wall. But our particular brand of Jesus-lovin’ was the hysterical paranoid sort and the mirror was deemed possessed and responsible for my recent spate of behavioural issues (nothing to do with being 12 years old and having just lost a parent, you understand. Demons did it). So, they exorcised the mirror, and yes, they exorcised me. I am sort of strangely proud of having been exorcised, as it was every bit as dramatic as you’re imagining. Unfortunately, even though it was then declared demon-free, the mirror was a source of fear for me and I threw it out immediately. Jesus claims another bit of my stuff.
The final thing that Jesus took was my copy of
This is a brilliant kid’s book, about a headmaster who uses his evil eyes to hypnotise an entire school into behaving well. I loved it, but once religion entered our household, my mom became very uncomfortable with the title and the subject matter. One day, I got home and the book was gone. My mom pleaded ignorance, citing a miracle. Jesus took it. I asked Jesus, via the power of prayer, and he told me that my mom probably threw it out. I still don’t know who to believe, frankly. The son of god, or the mother of me? One of them is a lying bastage. Either way, where’s my freaking book?
There were probably more things, but those are the three which have stuck in my mind, and which, as a rabid atheist, I resent more than 20 years later. Of course, this whole story is a fable about letting irrational beliefs and paranoia affect your judgement, but it’s also about how I have a score to settle with Jesus. He doesn’t know that the brownies I sent him are past their use-by-date…and that time I prayed for forgiveness for masturbating? HA! I DIDN’T MEAN IT!