Doubt and About – End of Summer 2014

Kenny and I cruising around Gettysburg.
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June and July were all about getting ready for and attending The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas. I stayed a few extra days to explore some interesting places around Nevada. While there I had some very interesting interactions and discussions I would never have even imagined years before. Never let anyone tell you that hard work and dedication don’t pay off.

Me with Australia's Dr. Karl

Me with Australia’s Dr. Karl

VIP seating at the Penn & Teller show.

VIP seating at the Penn & Teller show.

I’m happy to be an official part of the JREF now, working as their Creative Consultant and eventually as the Content Editor for the web site. I’m very excited about the new challenges for those who advocate for evidence-based skepticism and critical thinking about extraordinary claims. There is always something old returning, packaged in fresh wrapping and always new woo around the corner. This is my passion. The future of skeptical advocacy organizations means a lot to me. So, color me happy to be involved and willing to accept a challenging new project. Or two…

Not only did I start a new Facebook group to discuss weird stuff, called the Group of Fort (after Fortean topics). But I also started a new research society with Ken Biddle.

First, the Group of Fort. Come on over to talk about the paranormal, monsters and anomalous phenomena of all kinds.

Kenny and I decided that a casual investigation group, Anomalies Research Society, to look into local claims would be a good idea. If people don’t call us for the their second opinion about a haunting, maybe we could call them and offer to take a look. The aim is to be an ethical, evidence-based group of diverse experience and to respond to the nonsense propagated by the scientifical groups – the ones that play pretend science with their gadgets and blinky things. We’re after answers, not to bolster a belief system.

Kenny and I cruising around Gettysburg.

Kenny and I cruising around Gettysburg.

Meanwhile, due to my activities, there has been a slacking off at Doubtful News. DN content will eventually head to the JREF website when it is relaunched in a new format. While we continue to get excellent traffic, especially via search engines, on the site, I’ve become far more selective about stories I feature. It is discouraging to post the same nonsense stuff everyday like Bigfoot non-news and “Paranormal group finds haunting evidence”. It’s all the same garbage. I’ve started to look for the gems, stories that illustrate an important aspect of our culture or understanding. I also will accept guest posts on appropriate stories from regular readers.

It’s a case of picking battles, too. Every once in a while I’ll call out paranormal BS in public just to show that not everyone is so gullible and YOU shouldn’t be either. But my audience is the public, not other paranormal researchers or those who will believe no matter what the evidence suggests.

Because of the slowdown on DN, I’ve stopped donations to the site. I’ll still keep the server up. Some people generously agreed to continue to donate to those costs. That is really important because of the links and search results that still bring people in to read about topics that are back in the news. You still can contribute via the lithospherica@gmail.com PayPal account or through Patreon.

Finally, I’ve had a bit of a change in feeling about social media. I’m not about getting 5000 friends on Facebook or about promoting atheism or freedom from religion. Not interesting to me. I’m engaging in less discussion online. I value my personal space so I’ve been cutting back some FB friends. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that I don’t know a lot of you or why you asked to friend me in the first place. Well, I guess that is personal. But it’s not a reflection of you being a bad person, it’s more of me wanted to shore up my privacy and make sure I see things that I need to see, not outrage or drama. If you feel unfriended in error, send me a message. You still can find my public page here.

Your help needed: What do you want and need from a “skeptic community”?

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Skepticism: An approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence obtained by systematic observations and reason and applies tools of science most often to extraordinary claims (those that refute the current consensus view).

We are a small very loose association of like-minded people who are not always so like-minded. Priorities vary. Greatly. Some have left disillusioned because the community was not what they hoped or wanted. Some find the focus is misplaced or personalities get in the way. Is there a better way?

Out there are vast numbers of people who do not identify as “skeptical” but who apply the above approach focusing on evidence and reason. There are A LOT of people who value this approach and wish to see it used in health care (human and animal), the media of all kinds, and in policy and government.  What do they need? How do we reach them and start the conversation?

Consider this an open forum. I’d like to hear from everyone.

Tell me what you think is important in skeptical outreach, education and activism. What should be avoided? What audiences need to be reached? What are good approaches to try? What are bad habits to avoid? What turns you off of organized skepticism? What would you support? Please, let me know.

If you wish to comment privately and remain confidential, please send an email to me personally (if you know my email address) or to SAHill080@gmail.com. This is tough but really important. If you value reason, critical thinking and science-based approaches, please give this at least a few minutes of thought and communicate your opinion.

Thank you.

Sharon

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I used to be a skeptic, but then…

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Arm yourself against narrative devices that draw you to the dark side

Here is something to keep in mind when listening to EVERY PARANORMAL INVESTIGATOR EVER (it seems) who is telling you his favorite “It happened to me” story. They will insert the phrase “I used to be a skeptic” in order to elevate the believability of their story. It’s a ploy they use without even knowing, in order to make themselves appear more credible.

This may seem obvious but a new study has come out to demonstrate this in quantitative terms with experimental evidence.

First, definitions:

“Avowal of prior skepticism (APS)” – a narrative device designed to enhance the credibility of the narrator and meant to increase the likelihood that the listener will attribute the event to a paranormal cause. The technique “At first I was skeptical” is followed by a description of a potentially paranormal occurrence and then admission of conversion to belief.

People will use this technique in conversation in order to show he is a normally rational person, not prone to silly ideas. It bolsters the source credibility which is really important if you are trying to influence the listener. It also is a way to be more potentially dramatic in a story. It’s a clue that something rather unbelievable is coming up and you should pay attention.

“Stake inoculation” – a way that the narrator addresses in advance an expected counter argument.

APS is a form of state inoculation since one of the obvious arguments against a person providing a questionable claim regards their believability and credibility. They don’t want you to think they are a gullible fool.

Sheep-goat – the divide between “believers” (sheep, suggesting followers) and “skeptics”(goats, suggesting stubborn rejection). I prefer to use advocates versus counter-advocates. It’s less inflammatory. Also, I didn’t know that was a real thing people understood but I must have heard it a dozen times the past few months with regards to psychical research.

The study showed that if you admitted you were a sheep before telling your amazing story, it wasn’t very convincing. People possibly saw you as overly-credulous. But if you preface the claim by saying you are a goat, people are more impressed and more likely to buy your amazing claim. UNLESS… they know you are doing this on purpose. When people knew of the strategy, they were likely to notice and see it as an attempt at manipulation. Being aware of this APS ploy is at least a little guard against how the narrative attempts to sway you. You may be more likely to focus on the evidence, not the flowery details designed to pull you in. When someone says “I was skeptical,” YOU should be more skeptical.

Narratives are more persuasive than dry statistics or scientific messages because they carry value and emotion in the social act of communication. But narratives, we also call them anecdotes, are one person’s interpretation. They are unreliable for accuracy. Yet, it’s how we get most of our knowledge every day. We rely on what people tell us. HOW they tell affects what we believe.

You can find out more about the study here.

A few other tidbits were notable in this study.

- Anna Stone coauthored An Anomalistic Psychology with Professor Chris French. I love the concept of this branch of psychology – to examine people’s strange experiences without presuming a paranormal cause. It’s a (big) step above parapsychology and I think the way this field is going. It certainly has the promise of progress, there is no house of cards being supported.

- Women are still seen to be more gullible and less credible than men. Is this an old stereotype still hanging on? It’s worrisome to see that. I suggest skeptical woman provide more examples of why that’s not true.

- It may not be education level that is a predictor of belief in the paranormal but cognitive performance. The author notes that students who are more analytical in their thinking are more prone to skepticism and thus a lower level of belief. Are we born with skeptical minds? Or are they made? I argue they CAN be made if guided early.

- Finally, there was mention of peer pressure. You are less likely to express doubt if everyone else is on board. But, your expression of doubt can trigger the same in others! So stand up after that talk and express your doubts and ask the tough questions. The appearance of consensus can be influential to the person still sitting on the metaphorical fence. Once a belief is established, it’s REALLY hard to dislodge. So, it’s far better to prevent it from taking root.

 

Doubt and About for May 2014

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I go into these phases where I research a topic deeply for a while, a few months or so, to feel like I have a pretty good handle on it.

So far this year, I have been researching the state of psychical research or parapsychology. I used a classic book, Ray Hyman’s The Elusive Quarry to see what an objective, knowledgable person’s first hand take on it was. Then I followed up with Ray and others’ views of the current state of the field with the essay anthology: Debating Psychic Experience edited by Krippner and Friedman. This book had an array of opinions and arguments by psi advocates and counter advocates. I plan to write this up for my next Sounds Sciencey piece because it’s REALLY interesting. But what I can tell you is that it hasn’t gotten ANY BETTER for psi research. As much as advocates wave their arms and shout, make excuses and complain, there is NOT a stronger case for psi than a century ago. Something is wrong there. I have my notes all out to compare and examine. Why do this? Because if I’m going to weigh the evidence, I actually have to listen to the advocates and counter-advocates and see who makes the better case and not just parrot what others say off the cuff. I really want to know if there is something there. Seeing the two groups interact in print has been hugely informative and I’d like to bring this example to light for others to discover for themselves.

So, I finished my reading on psi research when a new topic dropped into my lap. A paranormal researcher that I met at RavenCon asked me what I thought about ley lines (as a geologist) relating to earth energies. I admitted I didn’t know enough to comment intelligently so off to the Google I go. Luckily, I also have access to a university library (and the nifty Kindle lending library) to track down some good references on the history of ley lines. Discovery of the concept is not that old and has everything to do with archaeology and anthropology, though I am checking out a possible connection with lineaments and fracture traces (real geologic features). Is there a connection? I don’t know yet. But again, it’s almost a guarantee that when you look into these things, you uncover some cool surprises. I plan to write-up what I find when I pull enough info together as well as share what I learned with the paranormal advocates. Maybe they might appreciate the opinion. And possibly ignore it, like has happened, disappointingly, with cryptozoologists…

I have made a rule for myself to no longer discuss topics on Facebook cryptozoology groups (with the sole exception of Monster Talk group). It’s pointless and I end up villified and misunderstood. No skepticism is allowed. Speculation is the game there. The level of intellectualism is low nearly across the board. There certainly are rare exceptions of cryptozoologists to want to apply critical thought to their beloved beliefs. But they don’t seem to speak up a whole lot.

For the same reason I could not stomach a tour of the L. Ron Hubbard house (run by those who think of him as the “prophet”), I can’t manage to tolerate the know-it-alls in these groups, who have read all the pop books on Bigfoot, telling me what’s wrong with me. I can think of far more productive things to do such as focus on the public.

If you appreciate the work I do for public outreach, you can be my patron! By pledging $1 or $2 a month as a patron, that money goes to support my work in skeptical-based outreach online and abroad. I hope you will consider helping me reach out with a friendly rational take on paranormal topics and questionable claims. See more at the Patreon page. Thanks.

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Getting noticed for not calling people stupid

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Two observations today: one positive, one negative. Want to make an impact with your skeptical commentary? You TOTALLY can.

First, an unexpected effect. I was contacted by researchers in Japan who saw one of my Doubtful News articles railing against media who published a baseless story about a woman who claimed MSG (monosodium glutamate) in many foods resulted in a glutamate imbalance that caused autism and other neurological disorders. The article that I cited was published on Fox News but they had pulled it from the San Francisco Chronicle. It was copied without much additional info to several other sources. It was worse than “false balance”. Even though the original article mentioned no scientific research supports this claim, that point was lost in the scary headline. The researcher who contacted me noted that my piece was the only one that was openly critical about the story. That was the gist of my piece – one person (supported by some ridiculous autism woo woo sites) has a zany idea and that is considered news? That is fear mongering for no reason and it’s a problem in our society.

The researchers, who were affliated with a big e-commerce company in Japan, were interested in the market image of MSG in the US and other countries. I was able to provide some informed opinion about food fads and fallacies that I learned through my work on Doubtful News and by through skeptic-based health media.

I consider the exchange with market researchers, as well as my various contacts with reporters and journalists, a direct effect from blogging a science-based point of view, building a web presence, and appearing high in search results. How about that!

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Top search results in Google for MSG+autism

I really don’t think I’d get so many requests for exchanges if I was one of those asshole skeptics. While talking to other science-minded people about my interest in the paranormal and why people believe, I too often hear dismissiveness. And worse, I hear paranormal beleivers being called “stupid”, “idiots”, “moron”, and the like – that they deserve to lose their money or waste their time because they’re dumb. No. That would be YOU who are dumb. It’s well-established that paranormal belief or buying into questionable claims is NOT a sole result of education and IQ. Smart people believe a lot of nonsense things.

I find great value in my discussions with pro-paranormal people. By treating them with respect and finding out about their opinions, I can better understand the subject completely and work to change misperceptions. If I went around yelling that “BIGFOOT DOESN’T EXIST, you idiot” or “How can you be so stupid to think that a place is haunted?” I would be exactly as obnoxious as the people who regularly scream at me on blog comments and email telling me to “Get educated” or “Shut up about stuff [I] know nothing about.” Yeah, I get that a lot. I’m not going to go down the name-calling road. It makes me hit delete so what do you think happens when we do the same?

I’m pissed that skeptics are still thought of as curmudgeonly, closed-minded, know-it-alls. No wonder people dislike them. Many do seem to be complete assholes. The answer to why people subscribe to paranormal or fringe beliefs is far more complicated than “they’re stupid”.

Deal with the claim, not the people. And I still follow the trope “don’t be a dick”. It actually works.

Skeptical damnation: What happened to withholding judgment?

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching Professor Ray Hyman’s writings about the field of parapsychology. I don’t have to tell some of you how awesome he is (but shame on you who don’t even know WHO he is if you call yourself “skeptical” Sorry, didn’t mean to pull an almost “no true Scotsman”).

In the 1980’s, Hyman and parapsychologist Charles Honorton went back and forth in a public debate regarding a database that Honorton (and others) put forward as the best evidence for psi (extrasensory information exchange). The details of this project are endlessly fascinating but, in a nutshell, two top representatives from opposing viewpoints had a productive, intellectual discussion which resulted in the issuance of a joint communique between them stating what they agreed upon. Hyman noted that this document influenced the quality of future experiments of this type. The interesting quote I found from Hyman caught my eye today since it had less to do with any particular subject than with peoples’ response to opposing positions in everyday life.

No one knew the ins and outs of the extensive database like Hyman and Honorton because of their in-depth discussion. This was a huge collection of specialized information and five years of thoughtful critique. Yet, many commentators in the peanut gallery felt it their place to put in their two cents worth of opinion. To this wave of opinionation, Hyman said:

“Neither sides’ supporters had the necessary grasp of the details to independently judge which one of us was right.”

[R. Hyman, "What’s wrong with materialism?" In Debating Psychic Experience,  Krippner and Friedman, Eds., 2010, 144-145.]

Yet, judge they did.

This statement hit me square in the face today. We hardly ever have a solid grasp of the evidence in order to make a fully informed conclusion about an issue, let alone to condemn another person. Thanks to the internet, we feel inclined to head to our respective team corners and respond publicly and emotionally as soon as possible, to shoot from the hip based on less-than-valid information. Then, we defend that position.

I’ve been APPALLED by self-styled “skeptical advocates” who have made a habit of jumping to convenient conclusions on a controversial issue instead of waiting for evidence to be verified or even to come out at all! Especially when it involves personalities that the individual dislikes, the drama-bloggers, facebook-swearers, and rage-tweeters are ever so quick to point fingers and call names. They feel obligated to state their opinion regarding even highly personal and subjective issues, even to the point of being libelous and defamatory.

Really poor skepticism abounds. There have been so many incidents of outrage theatre over the past few years where snap judgments (followed by a conviction and metaphorical execution) have been made – mostly about feminist, social justice or he-said/she-said disputes – based on poor or no evidence except someone’s story or second or third-hand claim. Or, let’s throw a fit simply because he/she really hates him/her. It’s been embarrassing to watch.

What are you, twelve? This behavior is juvenile. However here are professionals, organization employees, and role models who are doing this. Last I checked, we are supposed to be rational adults. Any outside observer to the skepto-atheist community would be hard pressed to come to THAT conclusion based on evidence all around.

There is nothing wrong with defending or supporting your friends. But that does not mean blindly accepting that they are faultless and ganging up on others who have a different view. I have admitted that I support my friends who are in trouble, but that does not excuse whatever bad behavior they exhibited. I’m learning to take no side regarding right or wrong because I can’t know what the truth is. I also won’t condemn people for eternity for a mistake that they have the ability to make right. I value positive contributions and will continue to do so.

Excuse my bluntness but, Jeez, what a bunch of self-absorbed know it alls are around! Maybe, try taking a break from the flame-fests on the internets for a while and do something that’s not destructive to yourself, your friends, your reputation, and your philosophical colleagues who agree with you about generally everything else except these few internal squabbles!

You do not have a grasp of enough detail to judge who is right in a personal dispute that is not your own. Neither do I. But at least I recognize it.

Exploring extraordinary topics and people: Back from a conference

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I have returned from this weekend’s Exploring the Extraordinary (ETE) conference in Gettysburg. It was a three day event, about 40 participants, many academics, and me, who sat through the whole thing as a self-identified materialist skeptical person.

I am going to write about this conference for my Sounds Sciencey column but I decided to hit a few high points that were more personal.

I can find nothing to criticize regarding the event. It was well done all around. I attended every talk. They were varied and unique – a blend of arts, science and speculation. Since lunch was served there was extra time to sit together and chat. While I did not attend the dinners in town (I had work to get done), that also gave people a chance to chat so there was a nice cooperative, networking, friendly vibe. Cheers to the organizers!

One of the speakers, a grad student, spoke about her anthropological research of a local ghost hunting group. Much of her findings overlapped with what I had also observed in my work. I asked her a question about the group being “scientific” and she said she purposefully left that angle out. Curious. But the next day, she came over to me and said she was happy to meet me because she was familiar with my thesis and articles, she knew that scientific aspect had been covered by my work already but didn’t even know that was me asking the question! We laughed and agreed to keep in touch.

I actively took a TON of notes and learned so much. I was furiously writing during George Hansen’s talk on liminality – the betwixt and between. George was the one who notified me of this event. He is not on a side. He is known in both the skeptic and believer communities. Now I am too. Maybe we are both in the liminal zone in that sense! I don’t agree with all the speakers said, but I don’t always agree with the conclusions and attitudes displayed by several skeptics either. However, I can listen and learn and gain a much greater understanding than I would closing myself off to one or another viewpoint. I am in the liminal zone between skeptic and believer.

The first day, when I was with Howard Lewis of The Skeptical Review, we self-identified as nonbelievers in life after death during a “straw poll”. I wasn’t going to lie or remain hidden. By the end of the second day I was CLEARLY the only person there who was a participant in skeptical activism. While in the lunch line, one attendee said, “So, you’re the skeptic? Why are you here?” Her tone was snide. My reply was that I am interested in various persepectives and this meeting had great content. I also heard grumbling about the “skeptics” editing Wikipedia. (After a quick check with Susan Gerbic via twitter, I found out they were complaining about an entry her team didn’t even touch!) In running into another person I’d so far just known via the web, who publishes a predominently non-skeptical paranormal web site, he assumed I’d be skewering the speakers and ideas or that I was some sort of spy who would take info back to CSI or JREF. I have no clue where people get that from. Is it just a skeptical stereotype? Do I look and act like a skeptical stereotype – I’m not old, not male, not curmudgeonly, not a debunker, not hostile, not argumentative, not confrontational. I have an opinion but it’s an informed one. Or if I don’t know, I will tell you so. I’m no stereotype!

This morning, one of the organizers, a Gettysburg professor, introduced himself and mentioned they were talking about me at dinner the night before.

“Oh? In what sense?” I asked, slightly uncomfortable.

“That you were nice,” he answered.

HA. Maybe I am doing my part to change the skeptical stereotype. I do hope so. This is the second paranormal-themed conference I’d attended where people were openly surprised and probably suspicious about a “skeptic” in their midst. But why? I’m just as fascinated and curious about these topics. I just make a slightly different conclusion sometimes. I think I only had a question/comment twice in the three days.

Perhaps I belong everywhere. Or nowhere. Sometimes it feels that way. I’m not PRESS, I’m not a spy. I’m just curious. But I have to say that I am utterly disgusted with the bad mouthing of “skeptics” at the pro-paranormal conferences (which I did hear a bit of). Yet, I am just as disgusted with the bad mouthing of “believers” at the skeptical events. I could find much common ground with these lovely folks who are mediums, or have had paranormal events happen to them, or who research spiritualism and psi. And they also noted much common ground with me.

All in all, it was a excellent forum for exchanging ideas. As I’d heard about the TAM experience, several people at ETE noted they felt energized by the conference. I had a enlightening time and I was quite comfortable there.

Doubt and About: Spring means conference season

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Time for another summary of skeptical “serious leisure” activities.

Conference season is here. I gave a keynote at the Central New Jersey Mensa gathering a few weeks ago. It was my first keynote, on “Sounds Sciencey”, and it went really well. As with skeptical gatherings, I found a range of opinions here from those who can think pretty deeply about stuff. They were also of the typical demographics of a skeptic con.  I was nervous about the Q&A thinking they would catch me on something philosphical. I was struck, however,  by two things the crowd responded to: They HATE religious shield laws that allow faith healing families to kill children and not get harsh penalties; and, they are disturbed by genetically modified organisms. It was a odd crowd to be in as you can hear people remarking to themselves while you are speaking – positive and negative. There were many good questions and much agreement. On the topic of religion, I stressed the importance of skepticism and speaking out in support of children’s rights over the parents’ religious freedom. With the case of GMOs, gene insertion was problematic. My rejoinder that there is not much natural about agricultural AT ALL and there never was, wasn’t satisfying in comparison to the ability to put a glow in the dark gene into fish or similar cross-species manipulation. I understand that it’s complicated. That’s about all I could point out. Public policy issues involving science and society are ALWAYS complicated. Anyway, I emerged unscathed.

Only one incident of note occurred: one man could NOT comprehend why I didn’t take at face value his story about his psychic experience. It was one of those “How do you explain THAT?” situations which I dislike. He had no concept of the poor quality of memory and witness testimony. I had to leave that since there was nothing I could say. It’s too much to talk about in one exchange and likely pointless.

Having one-on-one discussions like that or being put on the spot are a bit stressful for me since I want to say the right thing and not offend or get people angry. Writing is easier because you can pause and edit (I proof and edit five or more drafts before finalizing sometimes) or come back to it when the mood suits. This is one reason why Virtual Skeptics was a bit more taxing than writing. I was nervous about saying something controversial or that would be misconstrued. It’s happened before. I don’t know WHO is watching or listening. So, it’s very difficult to match the delivery of the message to the audience in such a casual show. At least, I found it difficult. I don’t like getting the facts wrong. Now that I’ve left VS, what will I do with Wednesday evenings? Hopefully read more. A kind soul has sent me some back issues of Fortean Times and I buy way too much off Amazon one-click so I never lack for an array of stuff to suit whatever subject I’m in the mood for. I’ve just finished Ray Hyman’s The Elusive Quarry – cover to cover and took tons of notes. I’ll be writing about that in the future. It’s FULL of gems of wisdom.

I also have many other project ideas and have the next few Sounds Sciencey pieces in outline.

This weekend is a trip to the “other” side. I’m heading to a paranormal conference. This is seemingly an academic-oriented one even though it appears many are amateurs. But it’s not a paranormal fan party like typical para-cons are. This one will have substance, not TV stars. I’m so curious! I’ll be writing that up too.

April is a visit to a sci-fi con I’ve not been to yet – RavenCon – another new experience that I’m looking forward to. I like to see  how people react to the skeptical POV. I’m not the normal-looking or -sounding skeptic so it can be interesting.

[I owe thanks for those last three items - the meetings and The Elusive Quarry - to Barry Karr.]

I’m planning for Balticon in May, and TAM in July, as well as a few days of sun and NO critical thinking. I have gotten no where on my book draft progress as I’ve been researching a few more aspects to round it out. It will come together in short order. I’ve stopped worrying about it. But I dream of a day when I can do this full time, to have long stretches to work things out instead of trying to squeeze in time on nights and weekends.

Finally, I’ve cut back some on social media. There used to be a time where I felt like I HAD to speak out about stuff that bugged me. I engaged others online and fired off replies or tweets. But after a while, I thought, “Who am I to spout my opinion?” Some people probably think that’s obnoxious. I think it’s obnoxous when many other people do it. So I set up some rules and restricted myself from areas of discussion that would cause strife. Within reason. That is, pick your battles.  I don’t need to put in my two-cents about everything. If I’m asked, I’ll answer. Again, within reason. With those self-imposed rules in place, I have felt a distinct lessening of the need to react (and possibly overreact). Instead of burn-out, I’m going to consider that a sign of maturity instead.

I depart Virtual Skeptics

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The show will go on in capable hands.

I have been jettisoning projects here and there – podcast contributions, my Huff Post blog, as well as being less active on my own blog – in lieu of attention to writing projects and Doubtful News.

Not gonna hide it, I need some down time so I don’t get burned out, not just with skeptical stuff (aired live and saved for posterity), but day-to-day, career/family/self stuff. I feel that feeling coming on far more often lately. Typically a good sleep whisks it away. It must be managed, so, I plan on taking a few extra hours a week to do that.

It is with regret that I bow out of Virtual Skeptics hangout/webcast. I feel certain Bob, Brian, Eve and Tim will carry on as before and will find someone wonderful to replace my face-space.

Meanwhile, I’ll be around, still writing, doing conferences and researching, just slightly less than usual, specifically not on Wednesdays, live at 8 eastern. Rock on.

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Engage outrage, sacrifice skepticism

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Drs. Carol Tavris and Elizabeth Loftus are two female role models of skepticism and critical thinking that tower above any others for me. They have established an influential body of work that has informed, influenced and inspired many people. This work has nothing to do with their personas, their creation of drama for attention (the drama came as a result of their scholarship that was sometimes shocking and controversial, but scientific), or their gender. They are also friendly, kind and lovely people and I consider it a privilege to have met both of them and chatted for a while.
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Feminism in skepticism is a messed-up, misguided issue right now. Any story about harassment or rape is loaded with emotion, not reason. Reason, if applied, is seen as a betrayal. That’s disgusting and I rarely talk about it. However, truth matters to me.

This brings me to two important stories that came out yesterday, one of which was written by Tavris and quotes Loftus. The second references the Tavris piece and has a foundation in the work of Dr. Loftus.

Memory. It is flawed.

This is one of the most important concepts that any human in modern society would do well to grasp. Imagine the problems it could alleviate if we could admit our memory might be wrong about something; if we could recheck facts instead of being so invested in a flawed system of memory.

Tavris wrote a feature for e-Skeptic called Believe the Survivors or the Science? What the science of memory can teach us about the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen case. If you are at all interested in the case, PLEASE READ IT. It captures exactly my concerns when I read the harrowing letter by Dylan Farrow and didn’t know what to think about it. Here’s a bit:

When an emotionally compelling story hits the news, it’s tempting for all of us to jump to conclusions. Many people are inclined to believe, as I first did in the McMartin [preschool Satanic abuse] case, that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Wrong: sometimes there’s just smoke—and mirrors. The problem, as studies of cognitive dissonance show, is that as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.

Of all things skeptics should be aware of is how we can so easily be fooled. Yet, I see tripe about victim blaming and shame heaped on some for questioning claims. HOW CAN YOU FORGET the Satanic Panic, the Salem Witch trials, the false eyewitness testimony that put countless people in jail and possibly some to death? This is not trivial.

Ben Radford wrote this piece: The Anatomy of False Accusations: A Skeptical Case Study | Center for Inquiry. It outlines an accusation of sexual assault where the evidence clearly points to the conclusion that it didn’t happen. And then cites many more. Many, many more certainly exist that we don’t know about.

We need to accept that not everyone is speaking truth, whether they consciously know it or not. But… that does not necessarily make them a liar, a bad person, or worthy of scorn. People are complicated. Our brains, our culture, our relationships are complicated. Accept that things are not black and white. There is no justification for “for me or against me” statements. I am not against an alleged victim or for an alleged perpetrator. I am for the best solution which means the relevant facts should come out before judgement. We are people and we make mistakes, all the time.

Please, spend some time thinking about the judgements you have made against people who have not been in a position to defend themselves. Is it really worth it to condemn them based on one or a few outrageous allegations and a swell of public outrage? I have been appalled at the feminist-skeptic-niche’s (which is a false label) reaction to some allegations (ALLEGATIONS!) of assault and/or rape. You aren’t helping anyone by being closed-minded and automatically defaulting to the female victim. She needs your sympathy but she also needs more than just that, because things are very complicated.

From Tavris:

What we should not do, as my coauthor Elliot Aronson has said, is “sacrifice our skepticism on the altar of outrage.” Outrage is good when it leads to constructive, mindful efforts to promote justice—for innocent children and for innocent adults. But outrage without skepticism and science is a recipe for hysteria and witch hunts.