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!

Google search results

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.

Doubt and About for last week in May

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Geez, it’s summer and my calendar is jam packed. I just got back from a FANTASTIC trip to L.A. to do a presentation for the JREF which will be on YouTube as outreach in a few weeks.

But my NECSS talk “Sounds Sciencey” has now appeared on YouTube. Check it out and see what you think. I have to rewatch it. I’ve gotten some feedback from the skeptic side. Not sure how it will play with the paranormal crowd. Please note that your talks are tailored to the audience you are speaking to. Therefore, each one will be somewhat different depending on that focus. When it goes out to the internet, it plays differently and the reaction will, subsequently be different. It’s important to keep this in mind if you don’t want to come off badly to one audience or another. But my job was to speak to the NECSS (science/skeptical) crowd.

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Paranormal politicking

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My interests are in paranormal topics, coalition building, policy, and problem solving. Having visited the paranormal side on several occasions, I’m one of those skeptics that is not hated or despised by those that disagree with the “skeptical” scene. Distilled rom those interests, one of my goals is to find a way to interact effectively with the paranormal community and maybe come up with new ways of doing things. In order to do that, you can’t just jump in and expect change. It’s complicated so I try to explore the issues.

That serves as an introduction to an introduction…

I started reading Jeremy Northcote’s The Paranormal and the Politics of Truth: A Sociological Account. It’s already marked up from when I referred to it for my thesis project but it was time I read it through. Odd that sometimes you pick up a book years later and it resonates with you in a completely different way from the first encounter with it, thanks to life experience and current events.

So, I digested the introduction and I found some zinger ideas that I wanted to write down and contemplate anyway so I might as well share them and see how everyone feels about it (in consideration of my propensity to be collaborative).

The following are notes and ideas taken from the Introduction, pages 1-11. Continue reading

Virtual skeptics in real life: NECSS in NYC

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NECSS, the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, was last weekend in NYC. I had gone twice before. I had skipped last year because I was not fond of some speakers. But this year, I was invited to BE a speaker. NECSS is a high-quality event. The speakers are often stellar and many are not whom you would hear at other skeptically-themed events.

Hosted by Jamy Ian Swiss, the first several speakers I found enlightening. I talked about the key note speaker, Leonard Mlodinow, on Virtual Skeptics this week – see embedded video below. I made a connection with what he was saying and what paranormal believers miss – that we humans perceive stuff and perceive it wrongly all the time. This wrongness is just good enough but, I thought, NOT good enough to say “I KNOW what I saw”. Because you know what your brain is telling you it saw. But that has been constructed. Fascinating stuff. I bought his book.

Then Massimo Pigliucci gave me two of my favorite new words: eudaimonia and trolleyology

Eudaimonia: Having a good demon – flourishing, happiness, well-being.
Trolleyology – the study of the trolley ethical thought experiments.

I didn’t get a chance to thank Massimo in person for his help with the Media Guide to Skepticism. But I finally got to chat with Jon Ronson, meet Simon Singh, hug Debbie Berebichez, have lunch with John Allan Paulos, converse skeptically with Jamy Ian Swiss, and just kvetch with Barb Drescher and Bob Blaskiewicz (also on VS below). It was lovely to meet up with some of my NY area friends and I made new friends who follow my writing or who like Doubtful News. Continue reading

Ask the Skeptic Mom: Drugs = bad

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This is the first of a few posts I’m trying on parenting in a rational way, informed by science. It’s free of old wives tales, what your Mom used to tell you, and all the nonsense you find in online Mommy forums and supermarket women’s magazines. Things are complicated. The answer is not always easy and there is not one answer for everyone. But if Jenny McCarthy, an actress, can dish out advice just because she has been endowed with the holy “mommy instinct”, I can tell you about some of the things that worked for me with my kids. Maybe they are right for you too.

So, for whatever it’s worth (and I’m no expert), here goes.

Don’t do drugs. They are bad.

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Building Bridges

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Last year at TAM2012, I did a workshop on Coalition Building for the Skeptical Activist. Yes, that sounds a touch boring. I lobbied for changing the title, to no avail. The focus was to bring members into a coalition that were NOT self-identified skeptics but can help your cause. It turned out not to be boring but really successful.

But, coalition building could be seen another way. It could be internal. In this case, it was a bit of that. The panel included three prominent leaders of the atheist community who differ entirely across the spectrum. From what I have perceived, Chris Stedman and Dave Silverman are on opposite ends and David Niose is in the middle. I’m happy to have cordial relationships with them all despite differences and, in one case, outright disagreement. But I don’t find the need to get nasty over disagreements. I just choose not to participate in that circle. No big deal.

As I wrote right after the event:

You may go away thinking so-and-so is a real jerk but the goal is not to have the most blog hits or twitter followers, it’s to Get r’ done. That means stop getting personal and start being respectable.

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Do you have a problem with me or my work? Tell ME.

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Ron Lindsay has a post up on CFI today about the shunning of certain atheists/skeptics at conferences. It’s appalling that this topic has to be discussed at all in a group of so called critical thinkers who value ideas and discussion. Or do they?

I was very surprised when I read my name on this list:

In any event, the list of individuals that CFI has been advised not to have any dealings with is long.  In no particular order it includes: Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Ophelia Benson, Harriet Hall, Russell Blackford, Edwina Rogers, Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, and Sharon Hill.  I am sure I am forgetting several more.

REALLY? I would like to know why my name is on this list.

I do research and skeptical outreach. I am NOT controversial.

A scant few have notified me saying they think I’m incompetent or annoying or mean but I don’t get hate mail. So, what could be the issue that would put me in this category? I’m left to guess…

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When you attract the not-so-welcome attention…

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Every time I get an email about something I’ve written or an inquiry from other researchers, I have a moment of surprise that someone is actually paying attention to something I did. Even those small things are rewarding because it demonstrates they have given thought to my words and, beyond that, have taken the time to tell me so. I love when it’s positive since it’s far more motivating to want to write when you’re mad. So, the happy notes do make me very happy. Even the constructive criticism, framed in a professional way, is also appreciated. That’s important and necessary feedback. Besides most of the blog comments from people telling me I’m an idiot and don’t know what I’m talking about, there have been other cases where the attention has not been welcome.

I have not had the best exchanges with the Bigfoot/cryptozoology community. On one particular Bigfoot blog that is unmoderated, I’ve experienced the typical base commentary from a small number of pathetic men behind their keyboards. It was clear they didn’t much care for the opinions of a skeptical woman. A few other Bigfoot types have made similar sexist comments. I’ve also been called a “scoftic” (scoffer+skeptic), of course, with the “unbeliever” label stressed to pre-color my work (or poison the well, if you will), and had my picture included in commentary for added effect. No big deal. I do my stuff. If they don’t like it, if they don’t like my opinion, or if they don’t like that it’s coming from a woman, I do not give a damn. If I whined and made a fuss about every time someone put me down or some dude made what MIGHT be construed as a sexist comment, I’d get nothing constructive done.

Along with the occasional crank emails (which are often VERY amusing) and the Mabus harassment (which was not), there are those out of the ordinary moments that make me pause and wonder about people.

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Curating and critical thinking – What’s your flavor of news?

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The Internet is so vast a source of news that it’s impossible to keep up. Some news sites are gold, some are worthless, depending upon your worldview and your interests.

I’m a news curator with Doubtful News. I’m constantly on the lookout for the right stories to post on the site that might pique the interest of people who enjoy following the goings on of the paranormal community, the occasional anomalous stories and oddities, the strange and Fortean, and the plethora of questionable claims that the media latches on to.

Every day, there are hundreds of stories on these themes. Most are utterly worthless. They are the same stuff over and over, they are unsourced, thoughtless opinion or speculation, poorly written, or just ho-hum boring. Whenever I find one that grabs me, I want to share. I want to see what you think. So, I post it to the site.

Curation of news is a valuable thing these days. For years I relied on The Anomalist to bring me the news of the weird. I still visit everyday but the curation filters there have changed. I don’t want to visit personal blogs or citizen journalism sites for stories. They aren’t high quality. So, I curate the curated. If I find a good link via that site, I will pass it on, but through my filter instead.

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Skeptical Women: What do you want in a leader?

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I’m just thinking…

Who are our female role models? What qualities do women who are freethinking, critically minded, scientific and thoughtful want in a leader of a skeptical community? What qualities AREN’T you looking for? Does it matter by age?

I have my opinions and my role models – they embody courage, dignity and professionalism.

What are your thoughts?