Reinforcing bad info: The side effect of debunking

imageIt’s not the best job in the world to bust people’s clouds. How often have you been thanked for providing the Snopes link to debunk that urban legend? The typical reaction to Snopes-type debunking is to ignore it or reject it. In the former, people will continue to promote the falsehood when it’s advantageous to them. In the latter, they will double down on their original belief in the falsehood in what is called the Backfire Effect.

Snopes has a tendency to write headlines that reinforce the myth. Here are the top two stories from a screen cap today as examples.Read More »

Education gap: How much does this have to do with today’s messed up politics?

I read this article today in the Washington Post about a family man in Oregon who rather suddenly became so disillusioned with America that he formed a “patriot” militia group, just in case the government, their own government, moves against them.

There are so many questions I’d like to ask the guy featured in this article. He seems like a family man, passionate, and concerned. But he also seems extremely misguided in how government works or is supposed to work. While I can understand his worry, he’s been heavily influenced by propaganda from conspiratorial fear-mongers and people I consider criminals for stealing from the government.

I wish I could ask him dozens of questions about how he thinks things should work in order to be fair for everyone in the entire country. But, I suspect our differing assumptions (and maybe different values entirely) wouldn’t allow us to find much common ground.

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John Oliver f**king skewers media science

John Oliver skewered pop media “science” coverage on his recent show. It wasn’t all that funny but it was true. And depressing. What has our society become? So smart, we get stupid.

As an observer of the relationship between science and the public, he’s totally right for pointing out disturbing trends of morning news shows hyping one bad study, news orgs blowing a single study out of proportion, press releases jazzing up a study to get coverage, and headlines that don’t reflect at all what the study is even about. This sets us up for a whole lot more trouble than we already have when it comes to science literacy in the U.S. Take a look…Read More »

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If Trumpers take over, we’re doomed as doomed could be

The daily news is a parade of absurd and thoughtless things Trump said and did. It’s awful stuff. Today, as I was perusing the latest Trump-Hitler comparison, I saw this article on Huffington Post in news results labeled “in depth” and was surprised to find that it was hard-hitting and possibly, scarily, true. (Note, it was based on this piece by Amanda Taub on Vox.) The premise of the article is that it’s not the person that’s the problem, it’s that people accept the twisted rhetoric he delivers and will vote for him. How did we go so low?  There will always be big-mouthed, narcissistic, sexist, racist, very rich white guys, but it’s concerning that a large part of the population will support such a person for one of the most critical and demanding jobs on earth. President. And it may be just the beginning. Or the End.

The article by Jeff Schweitzer lists all the really disturbing things Trump promotes that causes 40 to 70% of the audience to cringe or swear while the remaining portion loudly cheers and agrees:Read More »

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Don’t skip the bats!

At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you can skip the bat display. There is a sign that directs you past the enclosure of Malayan flying foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) should you, for some incomprehensible reason, wish to not see them. These large fruit bats are impressive and utterly lovely; I could not wait to catch a glimpse.

The woman in front of me split from her husband and toddler and pushed a stroller past the exhibit with an audible intention of avoiding the bats. She was afraid.

I’m at a loss.

She was afraid of this:

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Sciencey: People get it

In the course of writing, there are times when you have to either create a new word because there isn’t just the right one coined yet or you adopt a word, use it three times, and make it your own.

My research and writing for the public has often been about how activities, advertisements, and ideas might sound a lot like science, using science-sounding terms, but are not in the mode of science at all. They are false science, dressed up as science, pretending to be or imitating science. I call it “sciencey” stuff because it appears to pertain to science. This word existed but I made it my own, applying it to this construction.

You can read articles on this theme from my column for Center of Inquiry online called “Sounds Sciencey” for many and various examples.

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Just because you are “sciencey” does not mean you are “scientific”. I use the word “scientifical” to describe the activities of those who deliberately pretend to act like scientists. This does a fine job of fooling the public from product advertisements to non-traditional cures and treatments and even on television where people hunt for ghosts, Bigfoot and UFOs. Keep using that word, I would love to see that get into the mainstream as well.

I hold that the reason the public is so easy to fool with sciencey and scientifical ploys is that, at least the American public, is not well-versed in what science is and how it works. We don’t have good science education in school and science as a career or even an interest is not encouraged. So, we will end up with what Carl Sagan said:

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
~Carl Sagan

That’s a very bad thing not just because we can’t fix our own gadgets these days, but because we risk being snookered by a sciencey put-on without scientific merit.

I contributed a small part to the marvelous book Abominable Science by Loxton and Prothero. Daniel Loxton was thoughtful to send along a copy of a recent review of the book done by Robert Bishop for Christianity Today magazine’s Books & Culture site. The review was titled “Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.”  Apparently, the “sciencey” aspect of cryptozoology is resonating. He writes:

One possibility for why belief in cryptids is so high in America is that few Americans—even the highly educated—actually understand much about the processes and principles of scientific inquiry. Cryptozoology superficially appears to be scientific, and a number of people mistake it for scientific activity. It sounds and looks “sciencey,” to use Sharon Hill’s lovely term, but that’s it. Cryptozoologists typically don’t begin with a theory to generate a viable hypothesis, deduce consequences from that hypothesis (predictions), test those consequences, analyze the data, check for errors, critically sift assumptions, and so forth. Rather, they begin with a bias (belief in the existence of a mystery creature such as Bigfoot) and then hunt for evidence to substantiate their belief. This leads cryptozoologists to force what they find to fit into their pre-established expectations. Moreover, they accept any evidence that remotely supports their belief no matter how weak or questionable, and discount any contrary evidence no matter how strong.

YES! He gets it.

It’s my hope that what I share publicly (outside my everyday job) makes some sort of impact. That’s a goal, but a difficult one to measure. It feels so good to have those few moments where you see something you do gets understood, appreciated and passed along to other audiences. A Christian magazine? Who would have thought? But it’s great. There have been other occasions, too, where people are clearly “getting it” – a topic is not science but sciencey. It really is important to distinguish between the two.

are you scienceyLater this month I’ll be giving a talk at the Albatwitch festival to a crowd that, probably even more so than the general public, is inclined to believe in the paranormal. My goal for this is to not be the grumpy debunker but to explain how science has previously looked at the paranormal and why it was rejected. Then, I intend to show how these lessons can be useful for today’s paranormal investigator. In other words, don’t pretend to be a scientist, don’t be sciencey or act scientifical. Do solid work instead.

If they get it, like Bishop got it in his review, that’s a huge win for me.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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References

Hill, 2010. “Being Scientifical: Popularity, Purpose and Promotion of Amateur Research and Investigation Groups in the U.S.”  https://idoubtit.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/hill_arigs_being_scientifical_thesis.pdf

Hill, 2012. “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things”, Skeptical Inquirer 36:2 March/April 2012.  http://www.csicop.org/si/show/amateur_paranormal_research_and_investigation_groups_doing_sciencey_things

“Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.” http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2015/sepoct/scientific-or- sciencey.html [Full text here, please do not distribute.]