soft bigfoot

Anti-Skeptics are out of touch with the public

There is much ado, again, about soft targets in skepticism – the topics that are easily dismissed, should be ignored, are a waste of time and effort. So some say. Once again, we hear that we should be paying greater attention to things that really matter like cancer and war. Therefore, I’m getting the impression that people like me who write about these oh-so-silly things like cryptozoology, paranormal and misleading news stories are less important in the skeptical scheme of things. No one is listening to me, says John Horgan, who has a shallow and limited knowledge about the skeptical community and astoundingly is out of touch with public interest.

These beliefs and disbeliefs deserve criticism, but they are what I call “soft targets.” That’s because, for the most part, you’re bashing people outside your tribe, who ignore you. You end up preaching to the converted.

Gosh, this crap is SO OLD. “Bashing”? “Tribe”? “Ignore me”? “Preaching to the converted”? All very wrong.

Pushing this sloppy argument shows you are completely out of touch with the average Joe Q. Public (who really DOES believe in ghosts, Bigfoot, and thinks the government is spraying mind-control chemicals). Or, some wish to emphasize their own agenda and values like world peace, equality, animal rights or social justice for marginalized communities which makes them feel morally superior, I guess. Or, like I’ve experienced, it’s used by people who are annoyed that you keep ruining their great comment threads by inserting relevant questions and correcting their ridiculous inaccuracies – harshing their mellow. They want you out of the way so they can keep up their carefully constructed worldview. Those are all valid social reasons, if problematic in parts, and an indication that in the real world, dealing with “soft targets” requires tact, perseverance and a strong backbone.Read More »

Getting noticed for not calling people stupid

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

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

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.Read More »

Virtual skeptics in real life: NECSS in NYC

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.Read More »

Ask the Skeptic Mom: Drugs = bad

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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