Doubt and About: I’m a proud Bigfoot skeptic and damn good at it

Standard

This is a post about a specific, maybe touchy, issue in a very general field – we could use some internal support and shared respect as advocates of science, critical thinking and evidence-focused skepticism, as well as a reminder that the world is a diverse place of knowledge, opinions and expertise. And, I’m going to tell you a bit more about getting into the thick of things at a conference outside my comfort zone.

I’m very much a generalist, I know a bit about a whole lot of stuff, a lot about a good bit of stuff, and considered an expert in a very narrow range of subjects. This is an advantage in getting people across a wide social and educational scale thinking about weird things. If I can hit on at least of few of their interests, whether that be the paranormal, natural disasters, animals, the environment or health concerns a decent discussion will happen. This past weekend, I was at RavenCon in Richmond, VA, a sci-fi con of the BaltiCon and Dragon*Con type, which I had attended before. I can always find something of interest there. I may skip the Star Trek stuff and not know about this novel franchise but I’m all in for spooky stuff, Star Wars or LOTR discussion. I appreciate that the RavenCon folks decided to invite me and Bob Blaskiewicz to add a rational spin on some fringe topics. They understand the audience is diverse.

It seems indisputable to me that critical thinking habits must be taught as early as possible in order to have the greatest impact. That is, in the course of regular discussion, activities, and daily doings, incorporating good habits of inquiry and encouraging curiosity ought to be a goal of parents and educators for even the youngest kids. Generally, (I’m going to play the odds) when it comes to kids under 12, they love animals, monsters, dinosaurs, etc. This is an excellent gateway topic into thinking about how we know what we know and what to think about these possibly true, probably false, but popular and interesting topics.  RavenCon had a kids programming track. I had developed a new presentation for kids about monsters and was eager to try it out. It was an interactive discussion about historic monsters (dragons and sea serpents), movie monsters (Frankenstein’s creature to vampires to Godzilla), legendary monsters (Jersey Devil and Chupacabra), and monsters some people think are real like Bigfoot and Nessie. What do we know? How do we know? What should we think about them in terms of fact or fiction?

KIDS KNOW ABOUT BIGFOOT AND NESSIE. Most of them think they are AWESOME. What better way to start a discussion about evidence than with a topic they have curiosity about! Other than realizing I don’t know my video game monsters so well, I think it worked. Even the parents were grateful, they had learned something. I know a good bit about a lot of monsters.

There are more crucial topics to discuss, many would say, but this was not the place. I’m not going to be able to talk to kids about alternative medical claims or cancer treatment. I can’t connect to them about psychic scams or consumer protection. The monster angle is ideal. You start somewhere and work on the methodology of applying effective skepticism using a fun example.

Also at RavenCon, I was on the panels for Bad Science, Ask a Scientist, and Paranormal: Fact or Faked. I sat in on two other presentations from a local paranormal group, who call themselves scientific, where I asked questions and engaged with them. By the end of the conference, I had made a positive impression on several people who DO NOT necessarily believe what I believe or approach inquiry the same way yet they listened to my comments. I had planted the seed. They did not think of me as the curmudgeonly dismissive, debunking skeptic. I even plan to work with the paranormal group in the future. That’s a WIN! Inserting techiniques of applying skepticism at a science-fiction con is a FANTASTIC way to get people thinking more deeply about this stuff.

I understand that some people engaged in skeptical advocacy and activism think that talking about Bigfoot and paranormal topics is boring and silly. That’s because you’ve already thought through it and decided it’s not your thing. A significant proportion of the American population (typically around 20%) believes in some aspect of the paranormal, whether that be Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, psychic abilities, and the like. A huge number (varies depending on your religious affilation from 20-90%) would rather accept a supernatural explanation of the earth and species of life via Creationism. This is not trivial stuff. It’s normal. And there must be a voice of the counter-advocate. No, it’s not life or death (well, maybe it is about life, in general), it’s everyday life-enriching skills. We all need that. Learning to apply evidence-focused skepticism is a skill useful throughout life. Most people have not thought much about it.  Most people also don’t have PhDs, read philosophy, know logical fallacies, or value reason over other criteria. They learn most everything from their communities of interest, family, and television often never getting a thoughtful science-based view. Engaging them in skeptical thinking about their interests and communicating at their level of science understanding means they are less likely to tune out and get them thinking about things in a new way.

A twitter discussion began between Orac, DJ Grothe and others regarding Harriet Hall’s review of Abominable Science and her mention of Bigfoot Skeptics. It was a fine piece about the value of talking about monsters. Since commenting was not available on the feature, a back-and-forth in 140 characters ensued. Twitter is probably the worst place to discuss a detailed, thoughtful article. It’s an exceptionally poor medium for hashing out goals and preferences regarding social causes. Confusion arose about the “importance” of various specialties of skepticism (i.e., Bigfoot vs medical quackery). There is NO DOUBT that medical topics are the more critical areas in which to apply sound skepticism. This is also one of the subject area that requires the most expertise in order to be qualified to give an opinion. I know enough about medical claims to be able to judge whether they appear off or not (because of the generalist thing), but I would not feel comfortable expounding about it in depth. So I won’t. But someone MUST. We count on the experts in this field like Orac and the team at Science-Based Medicine to do it. So, I point to their sites and cite their work. I can’t do it better so why attempt it.

Meanwhile, I run the ultimate generalist site over at DoubtfulNews.com. I talk to kids about monsters. I look into sham science. I write for Forteans and cryptozoologists. That’s my thing and I’m pretty good at it. I find when non-Bigfoot skeptics talk about this stuff, they miss the mark, mistakenly characterizing a sizable portion of the population as silly or stupid, conflating interest with gullibility and belief. That’s not only unhelpful, it’s wrong. Do people point to my work on these topics? Sometimes. It’s really great when they do and I notice and appreciate that.

I have received a ton of feedback from people who say they love Doubtful News site, they like my writing in other places, and say I am one of the “reasonable” skeptics. Therefore, preliminary results suggest my approach is working out pretty well. However, it is rare to be acknowledged publicly from high-profile skeptics. As I mentioned, I like to call out good work by others, so it does irk me when projects I invest a big effort in aren’t mentioned as worthwhile across the skeptical community. In a way this is not a big deal, since that is not the niche I am aiming to reach, yet, it is nice to be recognized by peers and get positive feedback once in a while instead of being publicly and harshly critiqued, looked down upon, or told my work or opinion means less than your own. This has occasionally happened to me and to many others and it’s obnoxious.

The point was also made during the Twitter discussion that individuals can’t do it all and it’s a good plan to play to our strengths – “I can’t address this certain speciality (not my interest or expertise) but I’m glad others can.” We need generalists and specialists of all types to make a strong network – doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians, geologists, historians, folklorists, artists, filmmakers, linguists, physicists, chemists, biologists, zoologists, philosophers, secularists, human rights advocates, mathematicians, computer and networking experts, and so on. I harken back to the concept of big tent of skepticism… because it makes the most sense. Anyone who has been paying any attention at all knows that forming ourselves into cliques with labels has been a terrible idea – causing huge rifts, increasing divisiveness and, consequently, limiting progress. I have been continually disappointed at the GENERAL lack of cooperation between skeptics but astounded by, and am grateful for, some SPECIFIC acts. There is a big tent and a place inside for enclaves of specialists, not cliques who believe this is better or more worthwhile than that. Tribalism, while it happens, should not be condoned. Respect should be maintained as well as understanding that there is a place for almost everyone, not ONE best way or one most important topic. (I don’t do to the Star Trek panels at sci-fi cons but I do like the Star Wars and LOTR ones.)

So, my trip abroad to the realm of sci-fi was a great experience. I’ll be writing it up for a future for Sounds Sciencey. I took seriously my role as a speaker and as a listener, to get the pulse of the opinions and attitudes around us and find out where we need to speak up and do more. What’s more important — teaching kids to think for themselves or saving some people from financial or health consequences? Well, that’s not a reasonable question, is it? The primary consideration for advocacy and activism must be the needs of the audience to which we are trying to communicate at that moment. Things change. Adjust accordingly.

I’m going to keep talking about monsters for a long time. If you can’t see the greater value in that, you are forgetting something fundamental about people – we are really diverse.

Video: Media Guide to Skepticism

Standard

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.

Doubt and About for last week in May

Standard

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.

Continue reading

Paranormal politicking

Standard

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

It’s hard to milk an angel and we’re all going to hell

Standard

I like to keep busy.

I did another paranormal-themed podcast this week. It went well – we discussed bridging the divide between the camps. That seems to come up a lot. It won’t be out for a week or two so I’ll keep mum about it. But I do like doing those. We should ALL be up for the challenge, both sides, to refine our own views.

I have a new piece out on Huffington Post. In this one, I take the Bigfoot mystery mongerers to task again. but it’s not just them, it was all media. Including the Huff Po! It was almost too good NOT to hype this story, but they failed in focusing on the interesting real story. I also touched on that in my podcast interview. I’m interested in the ANSWER more than the mystery. Which side are you on?

A new venue that I am pleased to be appearing at is Paranormal Pop Culture. My piece is a little different than what Aaron normally puts up. After a rocky start on Twitter, Aaron and I are now friends. We are going to disagree. A lot. But we are both very reasonable people. Again, challenge your views. It can only make them better. So, he was willing to put up my review of a skeptical convention, NECSS, in contrast to the other types of events he covers. I am very grateful.

In contrast, I have a somewhat controversial post up on Sounds Sciencey – a more detailed review of the paranormal conference I attended. I’ve gotten two thumbs down on the way I portrayed people. Sorry, but this is the way I interpreted it. And, I think I did not mischaracterize things. People really said this stuff. If I didn’t have all in the information or the speaker didn’t have enough time, then, as usually happens, not everyone is going to be approving of the talk. I did have some problems with a few things that were said, but I doubt other “skeptics” at a para-con would 1) even try to listen, and 2.) be as gentle as I was. I did not want to disparage anyone, not all talks can be stellar, but, in general, I pointed out the differences you would see between meetings of this nature from the opposite communities.

As far as I know, I’m not sure this has ever happened before – reviewing a skeptic convention on a paranormal site and a paranormal convention on a skeptic site both out within a day of each other. If anyone has done that before, you need to let me know. Because it’s DAMN hard. Either I made enemies on both sides today or I made some people soften up on either end of the spectrum. The latter outcome was my goal. Maybe I just confused everyone. When you strive to be in the middle, you have to turn and face one side at a time, it may appear you have turned your back on the other.

Don’t forget to visit Doubtful News everyday. Sometimes commenters have better ideas than me.

See everything else at my Flavors page.

This week’s Virtual Skeptics was a buffet of news goodness. Check it out. That’s where the crazy title comes from. I don’t know how these things happen… they just do.

If empathy is wrong, I don’t want to be right

Standard

It’s been a downer week. I feel, like many others, that I need to withdraw from the insanity going on in the news. If you notice this week’s Virtual Skeptics (linked below), we are all kind of frustrated and down. There are ups and there are downs. That’s life.

I care what people think of me. Personal criticism by people I admire does sting but I try to improve. But this post is different. This is me, it’s who I am and in this case I don’t particularly care what people think about it. I’m just sharing a piece of me. We’re all people first and people are complicated.

I don’t get people who are right now reveling in Schadenfreude – joy in the misfortune of others (Brian Dunning right now and Mr. Randi a little while back.) That’s sickening to me and I actually think less of you as a person because of it. Why is it that people feel they have to give an opinion and comment on everything and that it should be taken seriously? Why so quick to discard all the good someone has done for something not directly related? It makes me wonder how you get along in the world at all – we all screw up, we all make mistakes. Do you punish everyone on a permanent basis whom you feel has screwed up? How short-sighted and shallow of you.

For those of you who call me a “bad skeptic” I don’t care. My work stands for itself. Opinions are like… well, you know. Opinions from several that I used to admire have ceased to be important to me now. I don’t even read that stuff. My goals are not the same as yours. I don’t see the world the same. I won’t be in the audience of the latest performance of outrage theatre that is just designed to gain attention for the performer. It’s been unconstructive and divisive. It’s not necessary or desirable to spout your opinion about everything to everyone. You begin to sound like Rush Limbaugh – a big bag of hot air. Go do something worthwhile that appeals to the public. WHAT A CONCEPT! Try it for a change.

Continue reading

Virtual skeptics in real life: NECSS in NYC

Standard

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