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TAM 8 Summary – Friday (Part 2)

After Simon Singh, Joe Nickell took to the stage to discuss his experiences of going undercover to investigate paranormal claims. Nickell, called by Paul Kurtz “the modern Sherlock Holmes”, creates false personas and then takes part in alleged supernatural rituals. He discussed debunking mediums at Camp Chesterfield, infiltrating the religious camp of Johnny God, being “cured” of made up illnesses by Benny Hinn, and counter-investigating the psychic investigation work of Phil Jordan. In each and every instance, he found it quite telling that no one claiming paranormal abilities could see through his charade. Nickell’s accounts were extremely entertaining and I found it interesting that he claims to have never felt endangered throughout his years of paranormal investigation work.

Adam Savage spoke next, reading a speech that he gave upon receiving the Harvard Humanism Award. An atheist, Savage talked about how he feels God is not a prerequisite for knowing how to live the good life. He remarked that good without God is a fact and that “Prayer doesn’t work because someone out there is listening, but because someone inside is – me.” Savage also remarked that while we would like good and evil to be clear cut, it is not; such a desire is banal. After his speech, a live auction was held to support the JREF, with a piece of the duct tape bridge donated by Savage and co-Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman raising $650. I found Savage’s speech passionate and topical, and watching him run around the ballroom with his auction item held high was an added treat!

Astronomer Pamela Gay was up next, discussing Living Astronomy Out Loud, or how everyone can help contribute to the field of astronomy. Opening with data indicating that only 1 in 3750 people in the United States were scientists in 2007 (fewer than the number of clergy), Gay spoke out on the need to increase scientist numbers. She presented a number of astronomy-oriented websites that anyone can use to categorize universal phenomena, including Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Stormwatch. Gay explained that astronomers need this Web 2.0 assistance to expand their research, but also need people to support science in education. Gay voiced concern about the “offensively inadequate” state of science education and explained that some Illinois public high schools cannot offer the minimum number of classes to meet eligibility for the University of Illinois. She concluded by stating “your actions are needed to change this nation” and encouraging everyone in the audience to contribute by supporting science interest and education. Gay’s figures and concerns were troubling to me as a critical thinking in education advocate and something must definitely be done to put the sciences far down on the list of budget cut casualties.

Little did we know that the tone and focus of TAM was going to drastically change upon the next guest taking the podium. Phil Plait confronted a growing issue within the skeptic community – patronizing, close-minded skeptics. “Vitriol and venom are on the rise” in skepticism, Plait argued, polling the audience about how many people have ever changed their mind because they were yelled at about their beliefs (only a couple hands were raised of over a thousand audience members). He explained how attempts to debunk another’s beliefs only serve to reinforce the belief in question, emphasizing the need to be open and considerate in discussions of belief. Plait posited that the goal of the skepticism movement is to obtain a more rational, real world and that in this endeavor communication is key. While insults may feel good to throw at the opposing side, they do nothing to get the argument across. In closing, Plait said that we don’t need warriors in this pursuit, but diplomats. I could not agree more with Plait’s position and will be discussing this in greater detail in my review of TAM (to be posted after the event summaries).

After this rousing and inspirational talk by Plait, social psychologist Carol Tavris gave a talk on Science, Skepticism, and Self-Deception that was much in line with Plait’s message. Tavris discussed what she labels the Semmelweis Problem, which is the refusal to change beliefs and actions despite substantial evidence that existing beliefs and actions are flawed compared to a more beneficial and accurate approach. Three hardwired biases – the bias of being unbiased, the bias that we are smarter/better/kinder/more competent than others, and the confirmation bias – fuel the perpetuation of irrational beliefs. This is true of skeptics as well as believers, especially because skeptics tend to have a self-concept that they are not easily fooled and this can prevent consideration of alternative concepts. Tavris explained that the moment a stance is decided on regarding an issue, justification through the three hardwired biases immediately sets in and considering an alternate perspective becomes perpetually more difficult as biased evidence is accumulated. This is why assaulting another’s beliefs does not work and instead strengthens their beliefs. Tavris concluded by emphasizing that while cognitive dissonance may be hardwired, how we think about decision making is learned and this can overcome close-mindedness and lead to more effective communication. As a supporter of empathetic, open skepticism, what Tavris had to say was greatly appreciated and all the more poignant after Plait’s passionate speech.

Finally, a panel moderated by D.J. Grothe and featuring Ray Hyman, Paul Kurtz, Ken Frazier, and James Randi focused on The Origins of the Modern Skeptic Movement. Randi explained that the movement began humbly as SIR (Sanity In Research) and only really took off when their small group started making academic connections. CSICOP (now CSI) was created in the 1970s to combat the irrationalism of paranormal beliefs, explained Kurtz, and when asked if there are less paranormal believers now, Hyman noted that measuring success is difficult and Frazier explained that the instantaneous state of media has altered the situation. Grothe asked if the fact that over 1300 TAM attendees was evidence of success, to which Randi said yes but it is “a drop in the bucket”. Frazier doubted that irrational beliefs could ever be eradicated, but that it could be curbed much like law enforcement curbs crime. Kurtz interjected that skepticism is a method that must be conveyed as essential and that its emphasis in schooling is paramount. In response to Grothe asking if there has been a shift in the community’s approach, Frazier stated that he does not think there has been a significant change, citing that the focus is still on testable claims. Similarly, Randi reminded everyone that the JREF is not atheist, but will pursue any religious claims that are observable and testable. The panel concluded with a video of the late Martin Gardner and Randi giving a speech in remembrance to his close friend and colleague.

In closing, James Randi presented an award to Paul Kurtz for his decades of work promoting skepticism. This was a very moving and important recognition for Kurtz, who recently resigned from CFI, CSI, and the Council for Secular Humanism to establish the Institute for Science and Human Values. In receiving the award, Kurtz stated that contributions such as his must be ongoing and the skepticism community is obligated to continue the promotion of critical thinking. I am definitely ready and eager to take up this cause and hope that everyone in the audience agrees with Kurtz in this regard.

After Simon Singh, Joe Nickell took to the stage to discuss his experiences of going undercover to investigate paranormal claims. Nickell, called by Paul Kurtz “the modern Sherlock Holmes”, creates false personas and then takes part in alleged supernatural rituals. He discussed debunking mediums at Camp Chesterfield, infiltrating the religious camp of Johnny God, being “cured” of made up illnesses by Benny Hinn, and counter-investigating the psychic investigation work of Phil Jordan. In each and every instance, he found it quite telling that no one claiming paranormal abilities could see through his charade. Nickell’s accounts were extremely entertaining and I found it interesting that he claims to have never felt endangered throughout his years of paranormal investigation work.

Adam Savage spoke next, reading a speech that he gave upon receiving the Harvard Humanism Award. An atheist, Savage talked about how he feels God is not a prerequisite for knowing how to live the good life. He remarked that good without God is a fact and that “Prayer doesn’t work because someone out there is listening, but because someone inside is – me.” Savage also remarked that while we would like good and evil to be clear cut, it is not; such a desire is banal. After his speech, a live auction was held to support the JREF, with a piece of the duct tape bridge donated by Savage and co-Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman raising $650. I found Savage’s speech passionate and topical, and watching him run around the ballroom with his auction item held high was an added treat!

Astronomer Pamela Gay was up next, discussing Living Astronomy Out Loud, or how everyone can help contribute to the field of astronomy. Opening with data indicating that only 1 in 3750 people in the United States were scientists in 2007 (fewer than the number of clergy), Gay spoke out on the need to increase scientist numbers. She presented a number of astronomy-oriented websites that anyone can use to categorize universal phenomena, including Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Stormwatch. Gay explained that astronomers need this Web 2.0 assistance to expand their research, but also need people to support science in education. Gay voiced concern about the “offensively inadequate” state of science education and explained that some Illinois public high schools cannot offer the minimum number of classes to meet eligibility for the University of Illinois. She concluded by stating “your actions are needed to change this nation” and encouraging everyone in the audience to contribute by supporting science interest and education. Gay’s figures and concerns were troubling to me as a critical thinking in education advocate and something must definitely be done to put the sciences far down on the list of budget cut casualties.

Little did we know that the tone and focus of TAM was going to drastically change upon the next guest taking the podium. Phil Plait confronted a growing issue within the skeptic community – patronizing, close-minded skeptics. “Vitriol and venom are on the rise” in skepticism, Plait argued, polling the audience about how many people have ever changed their mind because they were yelled at about their beliefs (only a couple hands were raised of over a thousand audience members). He explained how attempts to debunk another’s beliefs only serve to reinforce the belief in question, emphasizing the need to be open and considerate in discussions of belief. Plait posited that the goal of the skepticism movement is to obtain a more rational, real world and that in this endeavor communication is key. While insults may feel good to throw at the opposing side, they do nothing to get the argument across. In closing, Plait said that we don’t need warriors in this pursuit, but diplomats. I could not agree more with Plait’s position and will be discussing this in greater detail in my review of TAM (to be posted after the event summaries).

After this rousing and inspirational talk by Plait, social psychologist Carol Tavris gave a talk on Science, Skepticism, and Self-Deception that was much in line with Plait’s message. Tavris discussed what she labels the Semmelweis Problem, which is the refusal to change beliefs and actions despite substantial evidence that existing beliefs and actions are flawed compared to a more beneficial and accurate approach. Three hardwired biases – the bias of being unbiased, the bias that we are smarter/better/kinder/more competent than others, and the confirmation bias – fuel the perpetuation of irrational beliefs. This is true of skeptics as well as believers, especially because skeptics tend to have a self-concept that they are not easily fooled and this can prevent consideration of alternative concepts. Tavris explained that the moment a stance is decided on regarding an issue, justification through the three hardwired biases immediately sets in and considering an alternate perspective becomes perpetually more difficult as biased evidence is accumulated. This is why assaulting another’s beliefs does not work and instead strengthens their beliefs. Tavris concluded by emphasizing that while cognitive dissonance may be hardwired, how we think about decision making is learned and this can overcome close-mindedness and lead to more effective communication. As a supporter of empathetic, open skepticism, what Tavris had to say was greatly appreciated and all the more poignant after Plait’s passionate speech.

Finally, a panel moderated by D.J. Grothe and featuring Ray Hyman, Paul Kurtz, Ken Frazier, and James Randi focused on The Origins of the Modern Skeptic Movement. Randi explained that the movement began humbly as SIR (Sanity In Research) and only really took off when their small group started making academic connections. CSICOP (now CSI) was created in the 1970s to combat the irrationalism of paranormal beliefs, explained Kurtz, and when asked if there are less paranormal believers now, Hyman noted that measuring success is difficult and Frazier explained that the instantaneous state of media has altered the situation. Grothe asked if the fact that over 1300 TAM attendees was evidence of success, to which Randi said yes but it is “a drop in the bucket”. Frazier doubted that irrational beliefs could ever be eradicated, but that it could be curbed much like law enforcement curbs crime. Kurtz interjected that skepticism is a method that must be conveyed as essential and that its emphasis in schooling is paramount. In response to Grothe asking if there has been a shift in the community’s approach, Frazier stated that he does not think there has been a significant change, citing that the focus is still on testable claims. Similarly, Randi reminded everyone that the JREF is not atheist, but will pursue any religious claims that are observable and testable. The panel concluded with a video of the late Martin Gardner and Randi giving a speech in remembrance to his close friend and colleague.

In closing, James Randi presented an award to Paul Kurtz for his decades of work promoting skepticism. This was a very moving and important recognition for Kurtz, who recently resigned from CFI, CSI, and the Council for Secular Humanism to establish the Institute for Science and Human Values. In receiving the award, Kurtz stated that contributions such as his must be ongoing and the skepticism community is obligated to continue the promotion of critical thinking. I am definitely ready and eager to take up this cause and hope that everyone in the audience agrees with Kurtz in this regard.

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TAM 8 Summary – Friday (Part 1)

The experiences that I obtained through Friday’s offerings can be categorized no more acutely than inspirational. The day’s talks covered a number of topics and were given by experts in a variety of fields, each tethered to the sturdy foundation of critical thinking. The diversity of subjects made each segment intriguing and that the topics are kept from attendees beforehand provided a welcome anticipation. The later programming brought a startling and substantial community issue into light and with controversy came the possibility of a renewed emphasis of openness in skepticism.

The day began with the cast of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe recording a live podcast. Topics included the Million Ghost March (which was eventually revealed by an audience member as a parody), black hole jets of ions that create massive spheres of gas, an obesity study, and Climategate. Of note is that the obesity study concluded that being obese leads to inactivity (not the other way around), so the best preventable method appears to be combining exercise with a reduction of caloric intake. Regarding Climategate, the SGU cast explained that a third review concluded that there was no tampering of data whatsoever. The cast was entertaining to me and I enjoyed observing the humorous dynamics of the group.

After an opening by D.J. Grothe, Phil Plait, and TAM’s master of ceremonies Hal Bidlack, Michael Shermer took to the stage. His presentation, entitled The Believing Brain, focused on the meaning of believing and that human beings form beliefs first and then seek out evidence to support these beliefs. As pattern perceiving organisms our default position is to assume all patterns/beliefs are real, which minimizes the number of potentially dangerous type II errors committed. Agenticity stems from natural beliefs in a body-spirit duality and along with paternicity results in beliefs of supernatural, superior agencies. Finally, the confirmation bias fuels the gathering of evidence that supports preexisting irrational beliefs. Shermer’s sequence is in line with what I have studied in psychology and his introduction of the concepts of paternicity and agenticity provide some more efficient means of explaining supernatural belief formation.

Next, the Secular Coalition for America‘s Executive Director, Sean Faircloth, discussed secularism in politics. Faircloth argued that while independent thinking once had a place in early United States politics, this is no longer the case. Whereas secularism was prominent in the 1700s and Abraham Lincoln always had secular values, anyone in support of this position today would not be elected because of the sway faith has in the current political climate. In response, SCA aims to lobby Congress on issues of the separation of church and state, along with advocating for regulation of faith-based organizations to protect United States citizens. Before this presentation I was unaware of the SCA and will be doing some further investigation to determine if their position is something I want to support, although it seems like a good cause.

Next up was a panel entitled Women in Skepticism, comprised of moderator Rebecca Watson, Carol Tavris, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Pamela Gay, Ginger Campbell, and Harriet Hall. Throughout the Q&A session there was a consensus that the skepticism, atheism, and science communities need more culturally diverse members and gender parity. Harriet Hall noted that she has never had discrimination experiences within the skeptic community. Pamela Gay argued that by working toward integrating gender parity and cultural diversity into the skeptic community, there would be more diverse role models and that would result in skepticism reaching more people in the United States. I agree and feel that the skepticism community (at least as represented by TAM) has much to gain in these respects.

Following the panel, TAM attendees got an informal and more intimate glance at James Randi through an interview focusing on his work and friendship with Johnny Carson. Jamy Ian Swiss conducted the interview, which touched on Randi’s debunking of Uri Gellar and Peter Popoff. Randi explained that the failure of Gellar on Carson’s show was his doing, since he knew Gellar’s trick and told Carson’s prop guy to put rubber cement on the film cans to prevent him from spinning them and figuring out which one contained a hidden item. Randi next divulged that when he went on Carson’s show to expose Peter Popoff, he did not tell Carson how Popoff’s scam worked so he was completely caught off guard and understandably angry at the reveal. This interview was charming and entertaining, exemplifying how exciting and fun skepticism can be – which is of great importance and assistance in promoting skeptical inquiry and combating the stereotyping of the skeptic community as serious, condescending scientists.

Up next was Simon Singh‘s talk Alternative Medicine, Chiropractic, Libel and the Battle for Free Speech. Covering the history of the two-year libel lawsuit brought up against him by the British Chiropractic Association, Singh spoke out against libel laws in science. Although there is some evidence that back pain can be alleviated through chiropractic, claims that it can remedy non-back issues such as asthma are unfounded. The Libel Reform Campaign is working to ensure that statements against alternative medicine that are grounded in scientific evidence can no longer be drug into expensive and lengthy legal battles, since they should be protected under free speech rights. That organizations peddling unfounded healing methods would file a lawsuit of the kind Singh had to defend against was discomforting to me, but that Singh fought the long battle and came out victorious was a courageous and very important precedent.

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“Because It Happened to Me”

The first post written for the Woo Fighters website was written by Barbara Drescher, and it was titled “My Inspiration for Woo Fighters“. What it was is just that, an explanation from start to finish of how she became interested in skepticism. What was described was a very deliberate path of events which led to the current day. Now, alongside with ICBS Everywhere and many panel appearances, she has brought together the Woo Fighters, a collection of approximately half a dozen students interested in skepticism.

A good exercise in life, not just for skepticism but for anything, is to take great interest in people’s motivations. Not just what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. What’s of particular interest to me is the “why” of why people become involved with skepticism. I’m assuming most of us are trying to spread the tenets of skepticism, and realizing why people get involved in the first place is to the advantage of all of us. I had a friend who began to participate in a lot of cancer research fundraising, and when I asked him why, he told me that his mother had recently gotten cancer. Most people involved in any type of activity have a strong connection to whatever they’re doing, in one way or another.

So I started looking at people who are “doing good” for skepticism. It was interesting to read in Why People Believe Weird Things that popular author Michael Shermer was a fundamentalist Christian long before he arrived at where he is today. A lot of people would see fundamental Christianity as incompatible with skepticism, and it would only seem as if Dr. Shermer did as well. Brian Dunning describes his earlier days on the internet attempting (unsuccessfully) to start intelligent discourse on various message boards. It’s a little harder to dig up the origin stories for people like Phil Plait or Steven Novella, but it seems clear that at some point everyone was pushed in the direction of skepticism, and for it has contributed very much.

So what makes them, and you, different from everyone else? When you see a video on something like The Sprinkler Rainbow Conspiracy, what makes some of us laugh, some of us sweat in terror of Barack Obama, and some of us “head to the blogs” to try to teach people that this isn’t right? Is skepticism a “get ‘em while they’re young” kind of deal, something inherent in our personalities, or what? The good people involved are here “because it happened to me”, now for people to reach this point I need to know exactly what “it” is.

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A Brief Introduction to Youth Perception of the Skeptic Community: Something’s not quite right.

What does science mean to skepticism? A large portion of the individuals involved in spreading information and awareness about skepticism come from academia and possess advanced degrees. Even our organization, The Woo Fighters, defines its members as “defenders of science”. The terms “scientist” and “skeptic” can be used almost interchangeably, with scientists seeking to make conclusions based on evidence as freely as possible from human biases, and skeptics seeking to emulate that same thought process.

The advent of the popularity of online blogging has given skeptic organizations a large amount of flexibility when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of skepticism. From these articles, some individuals from the growing audience of readers are recruited to the scientific school of thought. But what are they really being recruited to, what do they believe they’re a part of, and how does this affect the public’s overall perception of skepticism?

As affirmed by several reputable sources, skepticism is a methodology for gaining knowledge through critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. And that’s it. The definition of this word can never go beyond that point, and if you try to add any qualifiers you’ve already gone against what you hold most dear. Even if languages are living, breathing things, the process of skepticism is in the method, not the word. If this is supposed to be what skepticism means, what are new skeptics being exposed to?

One important thing to note is that online skeptic communities draw a younger crowd than they did before the popularity of the internet. The Woo Fighters are currently a group of twenty-something students, and I wasn’t even alive before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re talking young, young people who may not even be aware of Carl Sagan’s first use of the term “scientific skepticism”, or early groups such as the James Randi Educational Foundation. What we start with is what we believe science to be, and what we learn about skepticism is what we find available on the internet.

So what is the information we start with? Pop science! 3-2-1 Contact was a bit before my time, but Bill Nye the Science Guy was just perfect. It even has “science” in its title, so you know it must be legit. Stephen Hawking and his Brief History of Time is practically the face of what it means to be a brilliant thinker in the eyes of the public (although there are of course others who are idolized in rather amazing ways). As I alluded to before, promoters of skeptic thought tend to be people who highly value the pursuit of knowledge. And this is where we’re coming from as children. A new, younger generation, who may or may not try to define skepticism in the image of what they believe it to be.

And what are we finding? If you type “Science Blogs” into Google, your first hit is going to be P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula, and while it’s only a personal blog, it’s still one of most admired and linked to blogs by many skeptics. If you search for “Skeptic Blogs”, you’ll find yourself at Skepticblog, a collaboration of many different authors such as Brian Dunning, Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, and countless others. There are even skeptical blogs written almost entirely by women, such as SheThought and Skepchick. These blogs are all directly related to one another in the material and events they choose to cover. There are of course hundreds of more blogs relating to skepticism not mentioned here. I need only to focus on a small number involved in skeptical “current events” to illustrate my point:

The definition of skepticism is elegantly simple, yet there are so many organizations in conflict. Why are some skeptics angry about P.Z. Myers’ recent leaps of logic? Why does the previous blog even exist? Why did the Skepchick community recently fragment, aren’t they all fighting to promote the same skepticism? Not all, but many skeptic organizations have become exclusive communities, all fighting for their very own version of critical thought, their own version of the singular definition of skepticism.

The young, burgeoning skeptic grew up with an idea of what it meant to be a scientist, learns what it means to be a skeptic, and finds that something isn’t quite right. The skeptic community is in conflict with itself, completely obscuring even the most basic idea of why many came together in the first place. Separate skeptic organizations exist not as mutually beneficial groups (as they should), but as factions. And this is what we see, and this is what we’re taught skepticism to be, and this is what we become. Everyone can’t be right, so who is?

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