Video: Media Guide to Skepticism

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A while back, I produced with the help of many others, this guide to skepticism for beginners and for journalists and whomever else was interested.

In May of 2013, I was asked to come to L.A. to do a live presentation on the topic and a Q and A session as well for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The video is now online. It’s an hour and 20 minutes of me and Barbara Drescher talking and demonstrating.

It’s gotten some nice views and compliments already, so enjoy.

Reality Check: We all need it (Book review)

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There are some writers for which you know pretty much exactly what you are going to get. Donald R. Prothero is one of those writers. I expect a well-researched, comprehensive treatment of the topic with a flavor of emotion here and there. That’s what I got with Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, 2013, Indiana Univ Press.

The core of the book is summed up in the John Burroughs quote given on page 1:

To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.

RCOnce you observe the methods of creationists as the classic example of science denialists, you can recognize the same tactics in those that reject climate change. I have also noted the same tricks in environmentalists or those holding contrarian views about vaccines, the paranormal, and various consumer products.

The premise of Reality Check is that when “a well-entrenched belief system comes in conflict with scientific or historic reality” the believers in this system will actively discount, ignore or distort the facts that go against it. They may stop at nothing to defend their belief – they will lie, hide evidence, manufacture evidence, pay people off, bully, harass, discredit, and even threaten the scientists who are  supporting the “inconvenient” conclusion.

The book highlights denialism rampant in the fields of environmentalism, global warming, evolution education, vaccine information, AIDS treatment policy, medical claims, energy policy and population size and growth. Each chapter exposes the hidden agendas of those who reject the scientific consensus and provides the reader with the solid, established evidence.

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Count von Count’s arithromania

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Last Dragon*Con, I went to a talk about movie monsters. It was a small group with three artists up front chatting about their favorite creature features. It was so much fun, all that trivia. There was one tidbit from that presentation that I found so adorable and interesting, I was amazed I never thought of it before. I had to write about it. Yes, it’s taken me a year to do it.

I don’t know how they got around to the topic but we were discussing the Count from Sesame Street. You may remember that he counts everything. Nifty, eh? What a great kids character – just a touch scary (like other Muppets) but not threatening.
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When I was a kid, a bit after the Sesame Street days, I got into monster books and loved to learn “facts” about vampires. One way to stop or at least delay a vampire, I’d heard, was to throw a handful of rice or seeds behind you. He would (apparently) compulsively stop and have to count every grain before proceeding. Interesting…

Is that where the Count von Count got his counting habit from?

The person next to me in the monsters talk said “Yes”.

Really? How did I not make this connection!

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PA House Bill 612 on licensing naturopaths: Opposition fail

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It’s critical to speak out on legislative issues. Just a dozen or so well crafted letters or phone calls to your representative show that there is interest in the public constituency on an issue.

PA House Bill 612 is proposed to license naturopaths in PA. There is an excellent post on Science-based Medicine that explains why this is a bad idea.

I wrote to my local Representative and copied in the bill sponsor, Mustio.

 

But it’s too late. I IMMEDIATELY got this reply from Mustio:

Dear Sharon Hill,

Thank you for your email. The bill will be amended tomorrow and pass overwelmingly. 

Sincerely,

Mark

Why did physician groups not object to this? Was there not enough/no counterview?

Please do your part. NO ONE else will.

It appears we have to live with this piece of crap legislation and that is a shame for the health of citizens in PA.

Talking to kids about evolution is hard: State it clearly

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I’ve found it a bit difficult to explain the concept of evolution to a child below the age of 10. You run into a problem defining all those “things” involved – like DNA and reproduction and population and deep time. Those are tough for kids to grasp (especially “populations”, I’ve noticed). Check out this video with adorable graphics and rather easy to understand explanations. Continue reading

Weird Newsapalooza!

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New Sounds Sciencey post is about How to Think About Weird News

Every day, I scour the Internet for news. Not just any news. Weird news. What bizarre thing was seen, heard, or found today?

This interest in the unexplained, mysterious, and Fortean is a perpetual thing for me. The first books I ever recall picking out as favorites were about ghosts, monsters, and UFOs. But the qualification for my interest was that I cared about them only because I thought they might be real.

I began a website to highlight these paranormal and anomalous news stories. While there are a lot of strange news feeds and news aggregators that do this, mine is different. I didn’t just want to share these stories so you can pass them along your virtual circles. I wanted to discuss these stories. What about them was true? What was missing? Why did people latch onto certain ones and enthusiastically share them with everyone they knew, even if they were almost certainly hoaxes or exaggerations? One of my goals was for my website to show up in online searches for these topics so perhaps interested readers would stumble upon a more thoughtful analysis than what was found in comment sections after the news stories or on Internet forums.

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Going off-track: A visit to the paranormal side of Dragon Con

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I have finally experienced Dragon Con, the world’s largest sci-fi/fantasy convention, which was held August 31 to Sept 3 in Atlanta, Georgia. Encompassing 5 hotels and including 40,000 or so attendees, many of whom were in costume, it was a bit overwhelming at times. But, I was determined to squeeze the most out of my participation, hosting a great discussion panel on Monday about skeptics and believers, and attending as many talks as I possibly could.

Besides the uniqueness inherent in a convention fueled by artistic flare, this conference is different from all others I’ve been to in that the various “tracks” (themed schedules) are visited by others who may not attend a conference based solely on that particular theme. Certainly many people wandered into the Skeptic track room as they made their way to events in the nearby Science or Space tracks. This buffet of choices allowed me to see how other fields discuss their content. So, I wanted to share my observations on the Paranormal track, the sessions featuring the TV ghost hunters, and the fantastic talks about monsters.

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Skeptic outreach: Talking to kids about the end of the world

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This is a year of speaking “firsts” for me. I never did a panel. But my first workshop/panel went great (at TAM). I never talked to kids before but my trip to the local elementary school’s third grade with my bag of rock samples went splendidly.

Back in March, our local YMCA asked parents to volunteer to be guest speakers for their teen summer camp. I suppose most adults are called in to talk about their jobs or their hobbies, but I saw an opportunity to talk to kids about critical thinking. Specifically, about the 2012 Mayan apocalypse. My own daughter (13 at the time) had expressed curiosity about the Mayan calendar and the end of the world prediction. She revealed that lots of her friends believed in strange stuff she KNEW (from me) was nonsense, including the 2012 scenario. Kids get their information from media and their peers (who share even more media with them). They are influenced by what they see on TV. It shapes their idea of what is normal and accepted in our culture. I can hardly imagine other kids talking to their parents about paranormal and mystical topics and I shudder to think what information they might get in return. Not many families apply skepticism to their daily lives as openly as mine.

I could not pass up this outreach opportunity for a captive audience of just the right age (11-14).

What follows is some detail on how to do these kinds of talks just in case you ever get the opportunity to do one yourself. Even if it’s not about 2012, you can still talk to kids about how to think about psychics, ghosts, alternative medicine, whatever. THIS is the age you can make an impact. They are interested in knowing. What strikes them, they remember.

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Blogging roundup for October

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As I mentioned in the Ups and Downs post, I’m blogging at different locations these days.

First, make sure you head over to Doubtful News, updated every day (except the occasional day where I’m not able to be online). The purpose of that site is to provide a one stop location for all paranormal and skeptical news hot off the internet. I work pretty hard to be first so check in often to find stories before they hit the mainstream. Some are ridiculous (alien and Bigfoot reports) and some are very serious (children’s health). But all are hand-picked to be interesting. And, we try to be funny. That sometimes works out. T and I were happy to have the blog syndicated on Skeptic.com as well.

Follow @doubtfulnews on Twitter for some live tweeting, like I recently did from the premier of the movie The Bigfoot Hunter:  Still Searching and from the PA Bigfoot Convention. I’ll have more about those events coming up here. Hopefully. Kinda busy…but it was a great weekend.

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Bigfoot “facts” for kids?

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Bigfoot Evidence has posted a link to a website called “Is Bigfoot Real” [refrain from clicking unless absolutely necessary] which contains a page called “Bigfoot Facts for Kids”.

The so called “facts” given are as follows:

  • Where Has Bigfoot Been Seen? Bigfoot has been spotted all over the world. People often see Bigfoot in wooded areas or high in the mountains.
  • What Does Bigfoot Eat? Bigfoot is an omnivore. This means he eats both plants and animals. Researchers say Bigfoot eats nuts, berries, fish and deer.
  • How Does Bigfoot Act? Bigfoot is shy. He likes to live with others of his own kind but doesn’t like being around people. He doesn’t like to have his picture taken so it’s hard to get him on film. Bigfoot talks to each other by making loud calls across long distances.
  • Does Bigfoot Hurt People? No, Bigfoot doesn’t try to hurt people on purpose. Sometimes though, when people accidentally wander into his territory, he’s been known to throw rocks at them to frighten them away. Bigfoot isn’t trying to be mean. He’s just trying to protect his home and family. Continue reading