Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

In which I disagree with Brian Dunning

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on July 14, 2009

I feel guilty! I am going to commit skeptical heresy by going on the record as disagreeing with Brian Dunning on some issue. But that, I find, is the beauty of being a freethinker, like most skeptics are, or aspire to be. There aren’t, make that there can’t be, any sacred cows, any holy persons. Anyone’s ideas are open to critique and today I am going to respond to Brian’s Skeptoid Episode #160 “Sarah Palin is not stupid”.

Now let me start by saying that I admire Brian Dunning as I do few others. In my eyes he’s right up there with Randi and the Rogues. I do not think there is anyone who can pick apart some issue and analyze its inards the way Brian can, and I don’t think I’d ever find myself arguing with him on an empirical issue; he’d probably run circles around me. Thank goodness this particular Skeptoid Episode is not about a purely empirical issue.

The topic at hand is stupidity. Brian makes many statements about it on this intellectually challenging episode. Some I agree with, some I don’t. Before I proceed with my analysis I also want to point out that to some degree the topic at hand is philosophical, actually I think it is more philosophical than it is skeptical in nature. That is why, I think, me and Brian are not on the same page on this one.

He starts of with a statement that is bound to surprise some people.

I’m going to disagree with the popular perception that Sarah Palin is nuts.

Actually, I do not find that shocking at all. I do not think that anyone can seriously support the claim that Sarah Palin is nuts. That is too extreme. I personally have referred to her as a bimbo, but nuts is taking it too far. So no disagreement there. I just wasn’t aware that the popular perception of Mrs. Palin was so extreme.

Stupid people don’t tend to attract contributors, managers, supporters, and electorates. If she’d exhibited stupidity on the Wasilla city council, they probably wouldn’t have elected her mayor. If she’d exhibited stupidity as mayor, they probably wouldn’t have elected her for a second term. Her appointment to the Oil and Gas Committee by the governor was probably not because she’d behaved stupidly. Finally, stupidity probably does not characterize most successful bids to run for governor of one of the United States.

This I have a problem with. I do think that stupid people do attract contributors, managers, supporters and electorates. Look at George W. Bush. Look at Lindsay Lohan. Success in an area, be that politics, or entertainment, or even business, does not exclude stupidity. I just don’t see how that first sentence can be supported. We cannot throw out the statement “Sarah Palin is stupid” by pointing at a successful political career. I think one does not necessarily follow from the other. In fact, many of us would agree that George W. Bush’s first term was a lesson in stupid presidential behavior, but he did get re-elected, fairly in my eyes, for a second term.

If you call yourself a critical thinker, ad hominem attacks should not be the extent of your criticisms of those in whom you find fault.

Absolutely right, and that is probably the most important piece of advice to take away from this episode. Just pointing at someone and dismissing an argument they have put forward as wrong “‘ because he/she’s stupid” is not a trait someone fancying himself as a critical thinker possesses. Just because they’ve exhibited stupid behavior in the past does not give us the right to dismiss everything they say in the future.

Look at Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and consequently the United States’ greatest mass murderer of children. To best prepare ourselves to prevent this kind of thing happening again, we have to be sure that we accurately understand the motivations behind it. McVeigh is a guy who lived in a world of conspiracies. The people he surrounded himself with all believed the same thing: That the government was out to get them. When you live and breathe that 24 hours a day, when it’s your entire sphere of influence, it’s not delusional.

Actually, I think it is. By this line of reasoning delusions do not exist; no one is delusional because every delusional person really, really, believes in his delusions. I do not argue the fact that McVeigh believed wholeheartedly in the conspiracy, but that makes it not less of a delusion in reality. People do not choose to delude themselves, but there is a reason why we use the word “delusion” to describe this state of mind; because it is so much out of touch with reality. I am sorry but in my book a person that thinks there is a government conspiracy against him and that the proper response is a strike against civilians is nuts, regardless of the fact that he surrounded himself or not with the wrong people. I just don’t think that is an excuse, nor does it make his actions rational or normal.

It was a vicious circle. The more input he received, the more he sought out such information. Well understood perceptual phenomena like confirmation bias made it normal and healthy for McVeigh’s brain to reject information that did not indicate the government was out to get him. Eventually he got to a point where the best move — in the context of what he believed was going on — was to strike back, as violently as possible. We are better prepared to deal with Timothy McVeighs if we don’t allow ourselves the intellectually lazy shortcut of “Oh, he was just some nut.”

I do not think that is an intellectually lazy shortcut. I think it is a pretty accurate statement of the guy’s state of mind. Sure in his mind he was right; he thought he was doing the right thing, but that’s because his brain did not work properly (at least I think it did not given his behavior). I am afraid we’re getting a little too relativistic at this point. Even Hitler thought he was doing the right thing; in his mind he was sure he was right, but that does not lessen the severity of his crimes nor should it refrain ourselves for labeling him as a crazy SOB! I just don’t seem to put much weight to the context of what they believed. I think that should not be the standard against which their actions are measured.

Now Brian is right that we shouldn’t stop at “Oh, he’s a nut” and leave it there. In cases like McVeigh we should look at how he was able to keep feeding and expanding on his fantasy, because clearly he needed help which he did not get. But just because that’s not all we should say, does not imply that it shouldn’t be said at all!

The same goes for Sarah Palin, Ben Stein, Ken Ham, Bill Maher, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, and Prince Charles, all people who actively promote bad science or misinformation, and who believe they’re doing the right thing. That’s an important point that’s too often overlooked. With few exceptions, most honest promoters of bad information have good intentions. They’re not crazy raving lunatics out to get us. If you want to have an informed, rational conversation with one of these folks, and you want them to be receptive to your statements, approach them as you would any public figure who works hard in the public good. At a fundamental level, they’re on our same team: They want what’s best for people.

Ok, I’m willing to grant you that they have good intentions, but still I fail to see how good intentions exclude stupidity or nuttiness! One can be stupid and have good intentions. I am willing to grant Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey the benefit of the doubt, that they have good intentions, but that does not change the fact that the arrogance of their ignorance is colossal; that anyone who has no training on any given issue and goes around dismissing the expert’s advice and rate her own “Google University Education” as at par, or better, than the expert has a few screws loose.

How many times should we remind Jenny that there is no antifreeze in vaccines? How many times should we point out to her that all studies fail to find a connection between vaccines, or thimerosal, and autism? How many times do we do that before her constant refusal to face reality deserves to be called stupid? Her intentions seem completely irrelevant to the stupidity charge in my eyes.

Now, before someone interprets this as an all out attack on Brian’s episode let me recap. I pretty much agree with most of what Brian said. And I agree with his sentiment, if I am interpreting it correctly, that calling people stupid may not be the best way to go about winning converts to your case, which it isn’t. It seems to me the major disagreement seems to be in what I perceive, perhaps erroneously, as a very relativistic take on Brian’s part on the words stupid and nut. What I get from a listening of the podcast, and a reading of the online transcript is this: These things are relative; if you look at it from the point of view of the “nut” his behavior is not nutty at all. So you can’t call them that!

And I agree that this idea of stupidity is relative to one’s background, culture, education etc etc. I find honor killings extremely stupid, and cannot think of a person that commits it as rational or even normal under any sense of these words, while at the same time someone from his culture finds this behavior completely acceptable and probably would find my behavior, that of “allowing” certain behaviors from the females in my family, stupid. I get that. But I don’t see how one can jump from that to “you should not call them stupid or nuts“, which I perceive is what, at least in part, Brian’s entry implies.

Stupidity is not an empirical thing; we cannot test for it like we can for a viral infection; there is no stupidity test. As such we are all bound to have different standards, different levels of tolerance, but is refusing to call any behavior stupid, or any person nuts, the right stance to take? I personally find this refusal to take a stance a bit uncomfortable. Ridicule is a valuable weapon in the fight against woo and there are many instances when pure logic and information just won’t cut it. Take all the autism studies you want, put them in front of an audience against a weeping mother who “knows” that her kid “got autism” right after he got his vaccines, and see who wins the popular opinion. Of course calling the mother stupid will be even worse, but the point I’m trying to make is that the impulse to ridicule, to call someone stupid, is an emotional response and there are times when this response is more powerful than any critical analysis. On the other hand that’s not all we should do, otherwise we end up making fools out of ourselves.

I guess the take away lesson from this rambling of mine is that there is no one right way of being a skeptic. Our audiences, the people we are trying to reach, is a mix of different customers. Some need the strong rational approach Brian takes; some need the humor, and sometimes ridicule, that the likes of Jay and Rebecca on the SGU dish out; some need to be humbled by James Randi making them feel like idiots for falling for simple tricks (yours truly included!). All methods work depending on the audience, all are valuable, and so is, I think, calling stupid people stupid. There is such a thing as stupid behavior and it needs to be called to task. And if  a person consistently exhibits stupid behavior they may even be qualified to be branded a stupid person or a nut.

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Best Skeptical Podcast episode ever?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 28, 2009

You can make up your own mind, but Brian Dunning has come pretty damn close to earning that title with Skeptoid 150 – Screwed! Simply brilliant and entertaining as hell.

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VIP Interview-Brian Dunning

Posted in Uncategorized, VIP Interview by Skepdude on October 13, 2008

Brian Dunning is the host and producer of the weekly podcast Skeptoid, author of two books “Skeptoid” and “Skeptoid 2“, producer of the free 40 min video on critical thinking called “Here be Dragons” and the skeptical show “The Skeptologists“. Brian was kind enough to spend some time with us and share his thoughts on various issues. Here is the complete interview. Remember, all fan mail should be sent directly to Brian. His contact info is here.

SD: Define the word “skeptic” in your own words.

BD: A skeptic is someone who requires a high standard of evidence. Conspiracy theorists call themselves skeptics, but that’s because their standard for evidence is different. To them, good evidence is any suggestion that differs from the establishment’s position. The mass media often assigns higher importance to poorly sourced evidence than to well sourced evidence, so they’ll use the word skeptic to describe the people who fear the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the Earth. Nearly everyone considers himself a skeptic, it’s just that there are many varying standards for what constitutes good evidence.

SD: In your opinion, is formal scientific education necessary to be a good skeptic, or is skepticism available to anyone willing to put the time and effort into it? Given that you have no formal scientific training, do you see yourself as the exception to the rule or do you represent the rule?

BD: Well, first of all I wouldn’t agree that I have no formal training. I spent years in school in computer science and have decades of practical experience working with top experts. But I wouldn’t agree that a science background is necessary to be a skeptic; in fact, I’d actually say the reverse: A good skeptical outlook is necessary to be a good scientist. Anyone can learn to be a skeptic, including many people who aren’t really aware that “being a skeptic” is something you can do; and that will improve their ability to apply the scientific method. Taking science classes will certainly not make a person a skeptic. Anyone can complete any course of study, it will not change who they are or how they view the world.

SD: Take us through your research process when you’re preparing for an episode of Skeptoid.

BD: Generally I try to gather three sources: The impartial straight facts or popular reporting of a phenomenon, the claims of the true believers, and previous skeptical research. When you can find all three, it’s usually pretty easy to sort what’s real from what’s bogus, but I often have to go out and find more sources for something like an event about which the accounts simply can’t be reconciled. Next I choose what to talk about. Since my podcasts are short, I can never cover all aspects of the story. I try to choose aspects that have not been thoroughly covered, and try not to simply duplicate skeptical articles that have already been published. I always try to find that fresh Skeptoid perspective to keep it interesting for seasoned skeptics as well as newcomers.

SD: How do you determine if a source of information is reliable or not? How much do you rely on Wikipedia and “Google University”?

BD: Quite a lot, actually. They are great starting points. The average Wikipedia article provides pretty much all the talking points that you need to go out and research. Skeptoid episodes are usually about controversial topics, and controversial topics are the one area where Wikipedia is truly unreliable (though it’s impeccable for non-controversial topics, like if I wanted to find out stuff about boron). Use it to start your list of people and events that you need to go out and research.

SD: Skeptoid has been on the air for about 2 years. When did it really take off and to what do you prescribe its success?

BD: There is no substitute for good content. There is no advertising you can do, no Google index tricks, no secrets and no special podcast listing sites that will give you strong listener bases. Skeptoid grew for one reason: Consistently good content that, fortunately for me, appeals to a lot of listeners. I didn’t have any special training or background in broadcasting or podcasting; it’s just that whatever I’m doing, it happens to be what a lot of people enjoy.

Back in January of 2008, Skeptoid made it onto the front page of the science podcast section of iTunes, where it has remained ever since. Getting there was huge. That took my subscribers from 13,000 to 40,000 almost overnight, and it’s continued growing ever since.

SD: Do you have any updates in regards to “The Skeptologists”

BD: Nothing I can discuss, unfortunately.

SD: What has been the reaction to “Here Be Dragons”?

BD: Extremely gratifying. I made it for zero budget in two weeks that I took off work, depending largely on donated talent: Most obviously the excellent original musical score by Lee Sanders; the computer graphics by Jeff Knapp, Mark Coleran, and Scott Carnegie; the street interview footage by Mark O’Leary; and numerous other contributions. Most significantly, I was floored by all the offers of help that I received. I received way more help than I was able to accommodate. That was humbling. I only wish I’d asked for a director too, instead of applying my own ignorance and inexperience to such a task like I did.

And now that it’s done and it’s out there, I’m blown away nearly every day. I hear from high school and college teachers who use Here Be Dragons as required viewing, which is what I’d hoped for but (secretly) did not expect to achieve. The sales of DVDs have continued to be strong, even though it’s available for free. The reviews on YouTube and Google Video and Amazon are fantastic, despite its modest production. People continue volunteering their time to help with its promotion and distribution and adding new language subtitles and torrent files and stuff, people like Yan Melikli and Josh Gray. If I had to choose a single measure of success for anything, it’s inspiring people to choose to volunteer their own time and resources because they believe in the message and want to help spread it. That’s way more than I had hoped for.

SD: Tell us something about the book “Skeptoid” and its upcoming sequel.

BD: Skeptoid and Skeptoid 2 are both available on Amazon or from They are adaptations of some of the best Skeptoid podcast episodes. I reasoned that since so few people listen to podcasts, or even know what they are, I had to make the material available in a more familiar medium. And so the books came to be. They began as self published print on demand books, but there has been enough exposure that I’ve been fortunate enough to get multiple requests from publishers to publish them for real. I haven’t signed a contract yet, but you can probably look for them in bookstores, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

SD: Why do you not accept donations for the podcast?

BD: Only because it wouldn’t generate enough revenue to make a real difference. We still haven’t found the business model that makes podcasts profitable. I’ve been offered advertising deals, a number of times, that would have required me to insert commercial content into the podcast itself. Nobody wants to listen to that, and again, the money was not enough to make it worthwhile. I’d rather help Skeptoid grow by leaving it pure and not annoying listeners by putting my hand out. I have great hopes for where the medium is headed in the broadcast world, and when it happens, I hope to be in as strong a position as possible with as many dedicated listeners as possible.

SD: Skepticism is just as much at risk of turning into a dogma as religion already is. How do we protect ourselves from becoming dogmatic with our skepticism?

BD: Understand that it does happen, and can just as easily happen to you. Don’t make the arrogant mistake of believing yourself to be immune to it. You’re not protected from a threat if you don’t believe it exists. Always be skeptical of your own skepticism.

SD: What is your stance on religion and God? Do you consider yourself an atheist?

BD: I hate the labels, but I don’t have any religious beliefs, and you can call that what you will. I also believe, somewhat controversially, that religion is not really a problem, and not where skeptics should be focusing their efforts. The people who do evil or crazy things under the banner of their religion are evil or crazy people, and would probably do what they’re doing anyway. Obviously we have this growing threat of anti-science from the Young Earth crowd, but in my view, that’s simply people groping for an explanation because of an inadequate science education. Before we start pointing fingers and looking for bad guys, we should clean our own closets and do a better job teaching science. It’s the fault of education that some people believe in a young Earth, not the fault of religion. When a kid answers a math question wrong, the math teacher corrects him. Science teachers need to have the same balls when a kid has a wrong idea about geology or biology, and not tap dance around the issue. School is for educating.

I’m also a big believer in religious freedom. A religious person does not need me telling him what to believe any more than I want him telling me what to do in my own bedroom. Thus, I choose not to shoot my own appeal in the foot by vocally opposing religion. I’d rather have that majority interested in hearing what else I have to say.

SD: Given your efforts with “The Skeptologists” you clearly understand the power of TV to get a message across to a vast number of people that otherwise would not be exposed to it. In light of that what are your thoughts on shows like “House” and “The Mentalist”

BD: Haven’t seen either, so can’t comment on those.

But I will tell you one thing: Nobody sells a TV show by telling the network that it’s about educating and not entertaining. Make no mistake, The Skeptologists and any other projects I might be working on are about great entertainment first. They have to be, otherwise they can’t exist. Our task is to fill that entertainment with as much skeptical education as possible, without sacrificing the entertainment.

SD: How do we apply skepticism consistently, so that we don’t act like Bill Maher who is skeptical of religion but wholeheartedly embraces all kinds of woo?

BD: Bill Maher is a perfect example of my favorite quote of the year: Conservatives cling to ancient superstitions, liberals invent new ones. While George W. Bush represents the worst of the conservatives, Bill Maher represents the worst of the liberals. I think Maher’s anti-religion stance is more the result of a liberal new agey background than any conscious effort at critical thinking. Clearly that’s true of Bush. Really they’re cut from the same cloth: They dismiss each others’ superstitions, but simply replace them with their own. I wouldn’t characterize either one as particularly skeptical.

So to answer your question, the best strategy is to be vigilant. Almost all of us colors his worldview somewhat based on our backgrounds, our social network, our environment, our comfort zones. Be aware that no matter how skeptical you think you are, chances are you tend to favor certain types of conclusions. Question all of your skeptical conclusions, and look for alternate explanations. Be aware of the real reasons you believe what you believe.

SD: Do you think a skeptical world view has any bearing upon one’s ethics and moral stance?

BD: No, I don’t. I believe there are all sorts of people in every group. People in different groups may have different excuses for why they do what they do, but you’ll find cheaters and thieves in every country, in every profession, in every subculture. Skeptics included.

SD: Do you agree with the following statement: “Fear is the number one reason why people believe in pseudoscience, the paranormal and supernatural”?

BD: Not at all. People believe in those things because they want a satisfying explanation for the world they perceive, and because of a lack of critical thinking and scientific thinking. People are generally good and they arrive at those beliefs through honest good faith intentions. Recognizing that is an essential first step in teaching skepticism.

SD: Recent studies have pointed out that when people perceive not having control, they tend to see patterns where none exists. Do you think this has any implication for skepticism?

BD: It’s a huge opportunity for skeptical outreach. Pointing out examples of our hardwired pattern matching abilities, that are responsible for so much belief in pseudoscience, constitutes some of the best and most entertaining lessons in critical thinking. I’m working more of these into the talks I give at universities. The human brain is a pattern finding engine of amazing power, and the better people understand this, the less susceptible they become to pseudoscience.

SD: Give me your estimate of how soon will either major political party nominate an atheist for the presidential position?

BD: Never. It won’t happen unless most of the country becomes atheist, and I don’t believe that will ever happen.

SD: Everything else being equal, do you think a skeptic makes a better candidate for positions of great responsibility, such as President of the United States?

BD: Absolutely. A true skeptic is the best equipped human being possible. That doesn’t just go for the President, but for every career in every walk of life.

SD: Besides the obvious reasons, what are some things skeptics need to consider when making up their minds who they’re voting for on November 4th?

BD: I think of skepticism as being mainly about science, not politics. I’m not even sure what it would mean to apply the scientific method to politics. I don’t think any living human can feel truly represented in every way by any given political party, so if I had to give a word of skeptical advice to voters, it would to ignore political parties completely and vote for individuals whose priorities align with your own.

SD: In your opinion, what is the worst thing a skeptic can do to hurt the skeptical movement?

BD: Being confrontational. Telling people they’re wrong. Failing to reach out in an effective manner. Many prominent skeptics have a reputation for being holier than thou, and that should be a red flag that they’re not doing good outreach. Effective communication starts with a welcoming embrace and respect. I don’t often do a great job of it myself, but at least I recognize the problem and understand the solution. Richard Saunders and Ben Goldacre are two skeptics who understand this and are good examples to follow.

SD: Do you think pseudo-skepticism exists? If yes, how do we spot it?

BD: It depends on your perspective. An acupuncturist believes that he is skeptically seeing through the folly of modern medicine and knows the real facts. A 9/11 Truther believes he is skeptically seeing through the Bush conspiracy. From where we’re sitting, those could both be called pseudo-skepticism, and they’d probably say the same about us. So if one could take a giant step back to observe all such positions, are they all equal? No, they’re not. The difference that separates what we call skepticism from what all the others think is the quality of evidence. Quality of evidence is like the speed of light; it’s a universal constant. Empirical, reproducible, testable evidence is always better than anecdotal or hypothetical evidence. So I don’t care who they are, what they believe, or how strongly they trust their own skepticism, they either have crappy evidence or the real McCoy.

Here be Dragons

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on September 10, 2008

Don’t forget this nice 40 min video from Brian Dunning. If you’re a teacher you should probably play this for your students.