Sunday, September 21, 2008

What Really Gets Us Skeptics in a Tizzy

Woos: There are a lot of you out there who don't understand what really annoys us skeptics. Please pay attention while reading this post, because it's also annoying when I have to deal with a woo who doesn't listen when I explain myself.

First off, what inspired this entry: Skeptico writes a post about an upcoming woo movie along the lines of "What the Bleep Do We Know" and "The Secret." Guy named Darrell stops by and "parodies" us by complaining about the unrealistic nature of Looney Toons. Looney Toons is comedic fiction. Those woo movies try to pass themselves off as serious discussions about the nature of reality.

Example: Classic Daffy Duck cartoon where he's Duck Twacy. He follows a cliche set of footprints with a magnifying glass (shown to lack the glass earlier), follows them up a wall, along a ceiling, and as he walks over a ceiling lamp, he bursts out with perfect comedic timing, "NOTHING'S impossible for Duck Twacy!" I can accept this because the cartoon isn't trying to tell me it's possible to walk up walls in the real world by simply being a badass detective. The impossibility of the act is integral to the humor. Not that I expect the typical woo to understand humor.

Another Example: Star Trek. This classic franchise has some really bad science in it, but I still love it. Like a lot of sci-fi I watch, Star Trek is pretty much a fantasy show that takes place in the future and in space instead of a medieval Europe-like place. The only time I really complain is when the rules within the series are violated. Star Trek is fiction and bad science, but I can enjoy it when it's internally consistent.

To contrast, woo movies are making claims about the world we live in. A world full of real people we care about who could be harmed by falsehood. It only makes sense that I would judge what is allegedly nonfiction by what I know about the real world. For fiction, realism is optional: Drama, humor, and so forth are the goals. Realism only serves as a means to those ends. For shows about reality, realism is supposed to be the goal.

Next: We are not frustrated by "unexplainable" woo events. If something weird happens, we're usually bustling with possible explanations. Our frustration is that woos will flatly reject those comparatively simple explanations in favor of unknown forces that fail whenever we try to isolate them from known explanations for the results. If a psychic's alleged abilities can be explained without invoking unknown forces, you should favor those explanations before you consider unknown forces. If you ever hear the phrase "science can't explain," chances are extremely high that the person saying it hasn't bothered to look for what science says about it. Often, it seems woos will just parrot the line from earlier generations of woos. Science doesn't know everything, but with it, we've found far more than woos give credit.

Worse, one more source of frustration is the sheer arrogance woos have about alleged limits of science. It manifests in many forms: First, some try to define their favorite thing as just being immune to science, and treat it as if it were obvious. Second, many seem to think science is like some Star Trek tricorder that can only scan so much. Sorry, but science is a method, not distinct tool. If something has observable effects, it's subject to science.

Another aspect that irritates us, most often on the medical front, is the reliance on anecdotes over randomized control trials and similarly rigorous procedures. RCTs are designed to reduce bias. Whenever a woo asks us to try it ourselves instead of going by what the large scientific studies say, they're asking us to keep all the biases in. "Try it yourself" may work for low stakes stuff like games or food, but not for your health or a worldview that attracts lots of scam artists. Skepticism and the scientific method require knowledge about how flawed our perceptions can be. For big questions, we have to take measures against those flaws.

Still another irritation are those who weave grand conspiracies to allegedly keep them down. For psychics, it's usually quite pathetic: Skeptical challenges to them usually involve simple, low-tech methods anyone could set up. For most everything else, it'd require a massive million-man conspiracy and even greater measures of cynicism and misanthropy. Do you woos really expect us to believe that these conspiracies of millions that require no one involved feeling regret, or no one seeing something odd going on?

That's pretty much why I see woos as sources of doom and gloom. They randomly label some things as inherently unknowable for no discernable reason. If we strive for accuracy to lead people away from false solutions for life's problems, they treat it as if we're nitpicking on a work of fiction. Science has given us so much understanding of the world and continues to progress. Woo moves only in circles and spews bile whenever we insist on applying the most minimal standards to it.


Flit said...

If something has observable effects, it's subject to science.

I couldn't agree more. When a woo says that their flavour of wooism can't be tested with science it is the same as admitting that their woo doesn't work.

Yet when you ask them how they know it works if it can't be measured or tested in any way, they respond with vapid answers like "I just know", or "it's obvious".

King of Ferrets said...

Woos also sometimes point you to testimonials. "So many people like it, it has to work!"

Don said...

I think most woos (and lots of people in general) have some strange idea of what Science (big "S") is. I don't know how they think of it, but I get the feeling it involves antisocial dweebs, pristine lab coats, ivory towers, and probably the building of inventions.

What they just don't understand (and some don't seem to want to) is that science is no more and no less than an attempt, using the most reliable methods possible, to describe and account for things that happen in the world. That's it. Observation and experimentation lead us to tentative conclusions about how the universe (and everything in it) works.

So if it is in the universe, it is subject to science. How we get this point across I'm not sure. People seem to think that "Science" is just poindexters and innovative engineering.

Tom Foss said...

Don't forget the steaming flasks and Jacob's ladders. Regardless of the field, every Scientist has those in their lab. And possibly one of those circular discs from Spencer's Gifts that has the light-up green electric crackle on it, like the one that was in Seven of Nine's regeneration thing.

Don said...

And a Van De Graaf generator. Gotta have one of those.