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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Ketchum’s Galileo Gambit

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One of my essential reading blogs, Respectful Insolence, has resurrected an older post on The Galileo Gambit. It was timely. It was in reference mainly to the day to day parade of quackery that passes by in the media. Orac coined the term “Galileo gambit” to describe a very common ploy used by quacks – they compare their persecution and non-acceptance to that of Galileo.

At least, I think I was the first to coin this term. I haven’t been able to find a reference to the “Galileo Gambit” dating before I wrote the original version of this post way back in 2005.”

Immediately, I thought of Dr. Melba Ketchum who recently pulled the Galileo Gambit when she announced the publication of her Sasquatch DNA paper.

We encountered the worst scientific bias in the peer review process in recent history.  I am calling it the “Galileo Effect”.  Several journals wouldn’t even read our manuscript when we sent them a pre-submission inquiry.  Another one leaked our peer reviews.  We were even mocked by one reviewer in his peer review.

Sorry, a lame excuse. It’s special pleading for why she had such trouble with her paper.

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Nasty pseudoscience and counterproductive behavior

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I have a new Sounds Sciencey piece up. This one took a good bit of work – it’s a book review as well as an analysis of an issue in scientific circles, the labeling of fields or works as “pseudoscience”.

Have a look: The Trouble with Pseudoscience—It Can Be a Catastrophe.

Pseudoscience is what one might call a two-dollar word. Skeptics often throw it around because of its weightiness and the values it transmits. We need to talk about this word, where it came from, and why we should be cautious about using it.

gordin_coverI describe how this plays out through the book, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel  Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.

Those new to the skeptical community may come in through a very different door than I did. Many are interested in specific topics they want to dig into right away. There is so much current info – websites, blogs, podcasts – to digest, it seems like they are unaware of some of these classic fringe ideas. This is a good one to learn and know. It can teach us many things. Having researched the concept of “pseudoscience” before, I found myself cringing a bit whenever the word was casually used. I hesitated to use it myself because it’s poorly defined and has no objective criteria on which to judge a field or piece of work as legitimately scientific or non-scientific. But it IS clear that the word and the concept is very useful in a social sense. We can disparage fields or works or people by labeling them in this way. It clues others in that this thing is nonsense and not worth pondering. That’s a hazard but for the most part, it works pretty well. There is little sense is taking astrology, phrenology, homeopathy, etc. seriously in terms of how nature works. But it is worth taking seriously if we are talking about the public perception of science.

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Dear doctor: “Tribal gathering” to achieve an “extraordinary lifestyle”

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I got this great email yesterday…

Transforming Chiropractic and Revolutionizing Your Practice!

Dear Doctor,

We invite you to come to our next Tribal Gathering on February 7-9 in Orlando, Florida with your staff to hear our special guest speaker who created a new and unique team-building methodology that will absolutely revolutionize your practice! He has never before been seen or heard on any Chiropractic stage in the world. This is an event not to be missed as it is the launching pad of a new team concept for Chiropractic practice management that is sure to transform our profession. We’ll show you how to create your Best Practice Ever and how to use this new concept to take you and your practice to a completely new level.

They tell me they have discovered this new methodology for my team. “Tribal” – that’s like a buzz word now. Sounds new agey. Team building stuff is generally quite silly. The better form of office management is having good workers who like each other in a nice environment. The “Tribal Gathering” is February at the rather fancy Caribe Royale in Orlando, Florida. Ooooh, there is a nice environment!

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Astrology sounds sciencey

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This month on Sounds Sciencey, I discuss astrology.

Astrology: More like Religion Than Science

I looked into this topic back in graduate school after I saw it discussed in a book about the changing worldviews that occurred throughout our history. At one time, alchemy and astrology were the forebears of science. Astrology lives with us in its twisted illogic and nonsense violation of physical laws.

[...]going back to pre-scientific times, astrology was as real as it got. A precursor to astronomy, astrologers worked with facts that seemed apparent at the time. We have to give it some credit when considering the context.

Astrology sought to explain the nature of people in a time when humans were only vaguely aware of how hereditary and environmental influences affected their lives. The first concepts of astrology were based in the “facts” of the time—the universe was small, earth was at its center, the stars were part of a fixed sphere, the planets were imbued with deistic qualities, and an unknown force from these bodies certainly influenced humans at the exact moment of birth. In the sky, ancient man saw formations of animals and human figures and assigned them qualities. He split the sky into zones of the zodiac. He made attempts to define himself in terms of these assigned qualities. He zoned the sky into “houses.” The rules of astrology were (and still are) completely arbitrary, based on symbolism instead of experimentation or statistics.

Check out the article to see why astrology sounds sciencey…

There is a distinct tone of “sciencey-ness” to astrology. Practitioners will call it “scientific” based on the methodological, careful and systematic use of calculations and real astronomical position data. (Never mind the various natural laws these calculations utterly disregard.) They consider “research” to mean consulting tables and the rules.

but acts more like religion.

As always, you can send comments to shill@centerforinquiry.net

The ‘You Decide’ gambit – new Sounds Sciencey piece

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This was always a pet peeve of mine – a show or commercial presented a very biased or incomplete case and told viewers, “You decide”. It sounded so democratic and fair. They were just providing information. But the SMART COMPETENT viewer would be able to use common sense to come to the right conclusion.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Nearly everyone telling you a story is trying to help you see things their way. It’s skewed. No matter how strongly they assert “I’m not trying to make you a believer” they will add “But THIS happened to me.” Left unsaid is, “and if you don’t buy it, you think I’m either a liar or you are an idiot.”

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Scientist states he has explanation(s) for sky noise but it only sounds sciencey

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I’ve been closely following the story of strange noises from the sky that flared up in January. I wrote about them on Doubtful News.

The noises are widespread, varied in type, sometimes able to be explained and sometimes known to be hoaxed. But, because this spate of anomalies (a Fortean Flap, if you will) is in the so-called apocalyptic year 2012, the phenomena has attracted the acute attention of conspiracy theorists, End Times believers, and people just concerned that something weird is happening with the planet.

“I don’t care if anybody gets it. I’m going as the Doppler Effect.”

Though the sky noises phenomena is fading away – the receiving frequency of these claims are lowering like the Doppler effect – reports are still trickling in.

Followers of sky sounds were excited by the news that an actual scientist who sounded like he knew what he was talking about described the causes of strange sounds.

Reposted all over the web as being from an “acclaimed”, “credentialed” and “renowned” professor, unfortunately, this article immediately raised a slew of red flags with me and others who are sensitive to what real science looks like and how not so established ideas try to dress themselves up in sciencey getups. A cursory look revealed that this piece has hallmarks of pseudoscience and creates far more confusion than clarity.

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New cryptozoology: less credulous, more scientific

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There is a stereotype about Bigfoot and Nessie devotees. Typically, they are middle-aged or older men, often with facial hair. They seem obsessed and the public might see them as a bit “off”.  It’s true that there is not that much diversity in the list of monster researchers. But, cryptozoology is changing.

Today’s researchers are examining questions from a new perspective. They can organize and communicate better thanks to the internet. There are new types of books and media. I feel positive about the future of the field of cryptozoology and excited for new things to come. At The Amazing Meeting 9 (TAM 9) in Las Vegas in July, gathered together was a group of people that had everything to do with my positive attitude.

All the people in this photo contribute to moving the subject of cryptozoology away from the stereotypes and the paranormal realm and into the circle of popular cultural and scientific understanding. This group is no less excited by the idea that cryptids are real, unknown animals. It’s just that we are realistic about it. We don’t assume the stories can be taken at face value because we know mistakes are made. We do not come in with a presupposed notion about what a person saw. Our scope is larger; our conclusions are based on what we know is likely true, not what we wish to be true.

From left: S. Hill, B. Smith, B. Radford, D. Prothero, J. Nickell, M. Crowley, K. Stollznow, D. Loxton

Photo by M. Crowley

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