Add science then stir

25251682A ubiquitous, overly-simplistic idea about science should be put to death. It is that of the public as an empty vessel that awaits filling with scientific facts. Then education will be achieved (level up!) and we can all make smart and informed decisions.

That’s utter tosh (as the British say). Nonsense.

As much as we would like to think learning is as direct as that, the public, which is made up of many people with all kinds of values, is not homogeneous and objective. We don’t just accept facts and then know stuff. Facts have to be applied. A corollary idea is that of linear science-based decision-making. That is, if we know the scientific facts about a problem, we will use that to determine what action should be taken about it. Agreed? Hardly. That’s hilariously naïve. This just does not happen for several reasons: disputed “facts”, different personal and social values, and the complexity of problems (many smaller problems inside an overarching problem) makes a linear approach about as unrealistic as a cartoon diagram of evolution showing arrows from monkeys to man.

Facts will fail

The article that provided the impetus to write this piece was by Sarewicz in 2004 [D. Sarewicz. 2004. How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse. Env Sci & Policy, 7: 385-403] In it, he uses an example of the history-changing Bush v Gore Presidential election of 2000. No matter what “facts” were – that is, the “official” number of votes declared – would that be the basis for general acceptance in such a close contest? I doubt it because there were disputes regarding votes for either candidate. (Remember the hanging chad?) Sarewicz can’t imagine that it would have been quickly solved (and we needed it to be) so a political/judicial decision was accepted instead.Read More »


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 »

Book Review: Dawkins’ Brief Candle

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in ScienceBrief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science by Richard Dawkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I feel this book helped me understand Dawkins considerably more than I did previously. It also deepened my appreciation for him and his life’s work – in zoology, evolutionary biology, religion, philosophy, and science in society.

There is no sign of him being mean-spirited, and I have not seen that from him in his daily life either. I may not always agree with him but he presses me with his arguments to examine why I do not. In that way, he is a great teacher.

His emotions are simple, direct, and natural, while his intellect is deep and thought is complex. I do not think he will be remembered by history as a bully or strident or insulting (none of which do I think he is); he will be memorialized and regarded for pushing us to think and for challenging society on some topics (and certain people and bad ideas) that REALLY needed to be challenged.

Other than some long quotes from other sources, and poems that I could do without, this was a good read for those who know Richard Dawkins’ work.

View all my reviews


I am thoroughly enjoying The Philosophy of Pseudoscience on Kindle, edited by M. Pigliucci and M. Boudry. In chapter 8 by Erich Good, there is a discussion on that character we call the “crank”.

I have a gmail folder labeled “cranks”. I don’t often get through their 2000 word screeds of rambling jargon and ALL CAPS. But I feel it’s important to save these for later reference. That is, I don’t think they will be vindicated in their “Truth of Genesis”, etc., proposals but I’d best keep evidence just in case they contact me by other means (like my home phone) or if they get arrested, or harass other people. The latter is a typical behavior.

A crank is described as a “social isolate, a single person with an unusual, implausible, scientifically unworkable vision of how nature works.”

Some other characteristics of cranks are as follows:

  • Do not engage in science-like activities or associate with other scientists
  • Goal is to overturn, not contribute to, modern knowledge
  • Advance theories that are contrary to our existing knowledge and implausible to scientists in the field.
  • Work apart from orthodox scientists, do not belong to scientific societies or academies (because they are ignorant know-nothings to the crank)
  • A tendency towards paranoia accompanied by delusions of grandeur – they are visionaries and must continue the valiant quest to bring the Truth to the world.
  • Feel unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. (They use the Galileo gambit – but Galileo was persecuted only by the church, not his colleagues. And, you, sir or madam, are NO Galileo.)

Sounds sort of religious, eh? Hmm. Like creationists.

Goode also noted that most cranks are men but I get a few from woman – the HIV-AIDS denialist lady, for example, and Melba Ketchum (also a creationist, I’d guess) is a prime example showing most of the features above. Her Bigfoot DNA results clashed with evolutionary theory and to this day she thinks she deserves a Nobel prize and that she was unfairly excluded from scientific publication. The premise that the work is not good is not even considered.

Cranks are deluded.

I don’t appreciate cranks who send me email every day. I don’t respond. They are marked as spam. The deluge of nonsense from cranks continues in an unbroken gradient to the crap that appears every day from paranormal or fringe bloggers. Some of these folks are the best friends of cranks and allow them a stage for their kooky ideas. I get that the cranky ideas are interesting and sometimes fun to entertain. But not to me. I realized that I am turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the daily “news” flashes announcing “UFO sighted!” or “Bigfoot video!!” IT’S ALL CRANKY CRAP (uh oh, I used all caps, I must be cranky.) Is there a chance I’ll miss something good by ignoring this stream? Perhaps. But 99.999% of it is worthless and a waste of everyone’s time. I’ll take my chances. If it’s worth anything, it will come around via a reality-based source.

It’s a sad state to waste time pursuing nonsense. There is nothing we can do about those so obsessed with aliens or shapeshifters or all-encompassing worldwide conspiracies. True believers are so mired in a fantasy world of their own making that they miss real life, fail to appreciate reliable knowledge and they can’t rejoice in progress. They seem to only want to go backwards. I couldn’t say why but it’s nothing my response will change.


Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem by Massimo Pigliucci, Maarten Boudry (2013). Kindle Edition.

Posted: My atheism talk on skepticism

I’m off to NECSS! The Northeast Conference of Science and Skepticism this weekend to talk about “Sounds Sciencey“. Should be an interesting time.

Just yesterday, PA Nonbelievers released a video of my talk from last September at their conference. Now, I was hesitant to speak at an atheist event because promotion of atheism is NOT what I do. I do skepticism. But Brian graciously allowed me to talk about whatever I wanted so I talked about skepticism in the crossover – the skepto-atheism conflation that was happening. It’s still happening. Just this past weekend, Matt Dillahunty gave a talk about skepticism and atheism. He is a great speaker, but the message, I felt, was flawed and weak. While it sounded fantastic, if it was written out, it would not stand up the same.

Skepticism is NOT atheism. He pooh-poohed the Media Guide to Skepticism. He even got the name of the website wrong. But I didn’t expect to see an uptick in downloads regardless because he told people what he thought about it so it was not an encouraging promotion of the document.

But THAT’S the thing. SKEPTICISM IS NOT ATHEISM. Atheists are going to possibly have an issue with it because it’s not written for them. This was a community document, an ideal, for skepticism. Read More »

Scientific or Scientifical?

About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. [1]

As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications.Read More »

It’s my blog, quit throwing spitballs

The Internet allows people like me to put my views and opinions out there. In return, I must accept criticism of them. Criticism is the primary means to locate and fix errors; to make progress.

Everyone gets commentators that simply don’t like what you said in your post. It’s a struggle to know when to be “fair” in accepting and addressing criticism and where to draw the line, rejecting there ever-lengthening, obfuscating remarks?

Call me traditional, but if I disagree with a blog post or article, I like to have backup for my opinion – a reference or a coherent argument, for example. Not so for many people who comment on a science-based post. I think the problem is that they are not on the same page. Literally. They do not read it with the same worldview in which I wrote it.
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