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Posts Tagged ‘doubt’

TAM 8 Summary – Saturday (Part 2)

Bringing the first batch of Saturday’s humor (besides MC Hal Bidlack of course!), David Javerbaum held a Q&A session about being executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In response to accusations that The Daily Show is sexist, Javerbaum replied that the letter was the kind of reporting that the show debunked hundreds of times when it was used in Iraq War journalism and that “the thesis was there before the claim”. He stated that The Daily Show doesn’t feel they have a responsibility to do journalism before comedy. In closing, Javerbaum was asked about if any guests ever did an appearance without knowing what they were in for, to which he replied that people love to be on television, even at the expense of their shame, intelligence, and image. Javerbaum was very entertaining and as an avid Jon Stewart fan I loved hearing his “man behind the curtain” takes on various topics.

Aliens Among Us: Are They Already Here? was the title of the next talk, given by James McGaha. Focusing on technological and intelligent life, McGaha explained that believers in extraterrestrials assume that there “must” be many aliens and that they are most likely hostile. McGaha argued that postmodernism plays a large role in believing, since the stance that nothing is certain means any evidence isn’t really proof enough to stop believing. Citing a number of equations used in estimating the amount of complex life in the universe that could travel to Earth, McGaha concluded that it is highly unlikely and nearly impossible that extraterrestrials would ever make physical contact. McGaha’s presentation was very dense and many of the equations and theories went over my head, but I did enjoy his discussion about believers.

The Paranormal Investigations panel was next on the schedule and it featured moderator Juila Galef, Ben Radford, Karen Stollznow, Joe Nickell, and James Randi. Regarding the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, Randi explained that those that do take up the challenge honestly don’t know that they will fail and that while every participant is asked to perform a double-blind study, no one ever does. At the same time, however, Radford, Nickell, and Randi all emphasized that these people are just confused and should be treated with respect, not contempt. When asked how modern technology has altered the paranormal investigation field, Nickell explained that the body of work done is very helpful and was unavailable decades ago, while Randi explained that there are more tools for investigators, such as the transmitter he used in debunking Peter Popoff. Finally, Galef asked what are some hallmarks of bad investigation, to which Radford replied “looking for ghosts with the lights off” and Stollznow answered that using irrelevant equipment is always a giveaway. This panel was another enjoyable one, as it was great to hear Randi talk about the Million Dollar Challenge and Ben Radford’s contributions were highly entertaining.

Jennifer Michael Hecht discussed the history of doubt next, opening by stating that the history of doubt is longer than the history of faith and citing depictions of doubt from 600 BC. Hecht explained that Plato discussed atheistic concepts in identifying the youth and that it was Plotinus that turned Plato’s good into god. During the Cold War, questioning religion was made treasonable as a communist act and this disdain has remained ever since. A poet and philosopher, Hecht voiced the value of poetry as it relates to science and the natural world, arguing that poetry echoes the amazement in the natural. Hecht feels that the experience of humanity cannot be guided solely by science and that for very historical reasons we have shut out poetry to deny that humanity cannot be scientifically contained. I admired Hecht’s mastery of the subject and her fluid presentation style. As someone who appreciates artistic expression, it was also great to hear her support of poetry as a valid form of portraying humanness.

Paul Provenza was up next, and he gave a humorous-yet-thoughtful presentation focusing on his book ¡Satiristas! He explained that all the comedians he interviewed for the book (including the late George Carlin in his final interview) are free, critical thinkers. Much of the presentation consisted of Provenza reading selected passages from the book, many of which focused on discussions of religion and atheism. Along similar lines, Provenza expressed some confusion about the skeptics versus atheists issue, stating that he feels that all skeptics must be atheists but that “everyone has a process”. Provenza also explained that he feels God cheapens the wonder of the natural world. In conclusion, he reitorated that we can’t force people to doubt, but we can be there when questions arise and that making people laugh eases the tension of presenting a new paradigm. Provenza’s free-form talk was a funny and thought-provoking presentation that was a great demonstration of how humor can facilitate easier discussion about difficult topics.

Finally, Keynote Speaker Richard Dawkins was interviewed by D.J. Grothe about skepticism, atheism, extraterrestrials, and science fiction. Dawkins and Grothe discussed atheism first, with Dawkins expressing that it is hard to be skeptical without investigating your own theism and that insofar religion affects the real world, it must be scrutinized. Dawkins also argued that a universe with an intelligent creator at its base would clearly be very different than our universe, even if the differences were not testable. Grothe asked if there is a hierarchy of woo-woo claims, to which Dawkins replied that there is and you can organize them based on importance, such that the existence of God is much more important than the existence of Bigfoot. Similarly, he expressed that he finds graphology to be “extremely plausible” and homeopathy “extremely implausible”, so plausibility can also be a organizational component.

Moving on to extraterrestrial life, Dawkins stated that its existence is plausible given the number of stars in the universe, even intelligent life. He felt that anyone who commits that the origins of life are Earth-specific, then they are committing that the event is so stupefyingly rare that all those searching for the chemical theory should quit. Grothe asked what the chances are that there is alien life that humans could see as godlike, to which Dawkins explained that it would not take much time for evolution to form such beings. However, they would not be godlike since they came from natural and rational processes, so worshiping them as gods would be absurd.

As Dawkins is currently working on The Magic of Reality, a book for children, Grothe turned the attention to Dawkins’ views on fiction. Dawkins explained that he loves science fiction that takes science seriously and isn’t completely undisciplined. Contrastingly, he feels that fantasy fiction prepped him for religious belief and that “what might have been a natural skepticism [in his childhood] was dulled through fantastic fiction”. At the same time, Dawkins emphasized that science will not progress without imagination and going beyond what is currently accepted. Grothe asked if Dawkins could now not enjoy fantasy, to which he explained he definitely can enjoy all sorts of fiction, in that he finds suspending disbelief and getting in the head of another person or character very interesting.

Finally, Grothe requested some information about Dawkins’ new work. Regarding the title, he explained there are three types of magic: irrational magic, conjuring (tricks), and the Carl Sagan magic of the universe, to which Dawkins’ title refers to. Each chapter in the book focuses on a question, such as “what is the sun?” or “what is an earthquake?”, and first explains various myths about the phenomenon before providing the correct scientific explanation.

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On “Becoming” A Skeptic – Must I Lose My Empathy?

When I was asked to contribute to Woo Fighters, I accepted with enthusiasm but was also quite nervous about what such a position exactly entailed. As a budding clinical psychologist I have studied the importance of empathy and genuineness in establishing a growth-promoting, therapeutic relationship with others. I have honed these skills through my daily interactions and found that discussing perspectives openly (no matter how irrational they appear to be) is generally beneficial to my understanding of others and facilitative to communication and understanding. My layman, stereotyping understanding of skeptics – as those who staunchly refute all claims without a clear scientific grounding, closed-minded to ways of knowing outside their scientism – proved to be a source of anxiety in the days following my agreement to be a Woo Fighters contributor. I felt that becoming a skeptic could threaten my genuine self: the ability to participate as a promoter of critical thinking and reasoning appealed to me, but I didn’t want to become a pessimistic, oft-to-criticize, belief-bashing tyrant in order to take part.

In hopes to slow the descent of my slippery-slope reasoning, I sought information from skeptic community advocates about what being a skeptic meant. As anticipated, I found a number of different definitions (see Barbara Drescher’s recent post for more), two of which struck a chord with me:

The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion. (Brian Dunning, Skeptoid)

Skepticism is an honest search for knowledge. It is an approach to claims akin to the scientific method. It is a powerful and positive methodology (a collection of methods of inquiry) that is used to evaluate claims and make decisions. It is used to search for the (provisional) truth in matters and to make decisions that are based on sound reasoning, logic, and evidence. Skepticism is based on a simple method: doubt and inquiry. The idea is to neither initially accept claims nor dismiss them; it’s about questioning them and testing them for validity. Only after inquiry does a skeptic take a stance on an issue. (John Jackson, UK Skeptics)

To my relief, I found the contemporary definitions of skepticism are much in line with the empathetic, open perspectives I hold in high regard. More astoundingly, I found skepticism was very complimentary to my preexisting methodology of evaluating claims in academia, daily life, and other avenues. I realized that my genuineness is not threatened by being skeptical; on the contrary, the usage of critical thinking and reason that I have utilized most of my life is skepticism – I was just unaware of it by this name.

An integral aspect of skepticism is doubting or withholding judgment, which should not be done negatively (or positively for that matter) since such a stance would bias the pursuit of truth. The fact is that one can be skeptical while simultaneously being open to the views of others. In fact, in order to arrive at objective truth one must evaluate all angles of a concept without filtering arguments based on preexisting beliefs, underlying motives, and defensive self biases. I believe the most effective way to gain this position is through empathy, striving to understand the perspective of another to comprehend their supporting evidence for their beliefs. If one can accurately view an issue from the opposition’s side along with their own on a level field, then the grounding for evaluation of claims is better informed and the skeptic can more efficiently pursue truth.

It is unfortunate that skeptics are generalized as being harsh, cold dissenters in the way I categorized them before doing some research on the topic. As in other fields no single member is representative of the whole and this is obvious through a shallow search into the internet skeptic community. My experience of “becoming” a skeptic exemplifies why skepticism is a vital process for those who seek truth in actuality – only through gathering evidence about skepticism and its community did I realize how wrong my preconceptions were, which motivated me to change my perspective. Those who are apprehensive of adopting skepticism for fear of losing their empathy and openness are most likely misinformed about the foundations and focus of the process, which can easily be alleviated through a little research from an open and empathetic viewpoint.

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