Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What "Skeptic" Really Means

I thought since tomorrow is Blasphemy Day, I'd post this before sharpening my tongue. This post is intended for the various types of believers new to the skeptical blogosphere. Please forgive my use of the term. I can't think of one that would cover the variety of people I want to address: Those who believe in things such as religion, alien visitations, alternative medicine, psychic powers, worldwide conspiracy theories, cryptozoology, ghosts, free energy devices, and so on. I know plenty of you don't like to be lumped with those others, but I do that because I tend to see similar methods used to reach those beliefs, and that they generally neglect the demands of logic and science. It's my hope to teach you about what skepticism really means and to counteract all the negative stereotypes spread in the mainstream and by other believers. It has a nasty habit of preventing communication and understanding. To this day, I still get trolls who cite stereotypes rather than answer questions.

The first point I really want to emphasize: Skepticism and science are not collections of beliefs. They are methods of using logic and evidence to reach tentative conclusions. We recognize these conclusions to be tentative, and can question and test them when new evidence arrives. This is what makes skepticism a self-correcting process, which is antithetical to dogma. Skeptics do not, as a matter of definition, disbelieve in, say psychic power. We are skeptics because we try to examine the evidence. To date, that process just happens to lead to our lack of belief in psychic powers. If a genuine psychic were to repeatedly demonstrate their powers under carefully controlled conditions designed to eliminate the possibility of trickery or self-deception, we would be convinced of that psychic's powers. Colloquially, you could say we're no longer skeptics, but I do not use that form of the word to describe myself. We're skeptics because we stick to the rigorous standards.

Science is full of new discoveries being made and tested. As skeptics, we know that the theories we use to explain the universe are always going to be wrong: We're just getting more accurate (less wrong) as we gather more evidence. We don't expect to achieve 100%. If Gödel is right, it's impossible. That won't stop us from trying our best, though. This leads into what I see as the inherent optimism and open-mindedness of skepticism: We can never allow ourselves the closed-mindedness of certainty. "Science knows it doesn't know everything otherwise it'd stop," as Dara O'Briain says in a comedy routine. We also know that people can make mistakes, and science is primarily a method of counteracting that.

As you probably gathered from the opening paragraph, I'm something of a firebrand skeptic. I have plenty to say for my own "deconversion," but I will try to summarize. These firebrand skeptics were harsh, but they were honest, determined, and passionate. I watched debates online between them and believers, looking beyond the simple insults to see the points being made. Ridicule, done right, can bring hidden logical fallacies to the surface. A consistent demand to a simple, honest question can be a powerful point if the adversary only evades, delays, and spits venom for an answer. The skeptics were the ones asking important questions, illustrating holes in their opponents' arguments, and so forth. They were worthy adversaries, and, when I displayed genuine curiosity and a willingness to learn, they gave me much to think about when they met my politeness with their own.

Most of all, they cared. People were being cheated out of their money, harmed by ill-evidenced quackery, and psychologically put down for innocent actions. Like them, I now blog out of a passion for helping people. Science gave us many great wonders we often take for granted. The hucksters and incurious wanted us to abandon the rigor that brought forth all that knowledge so that they could remain in an ivory tower where their ideas and only their ideas could be coddled. Such closed-mindedness was repulsive in the face of the hope science and skepticism presented.

Skeptics demand great rigor because everyone is capable of being biased or mistaken. Anecdotes cannot be taken at face value because the person who experienced it may have missed important details, be ignorant of alternative explanations, or connect events that might have just been a coincidence. These anecdotes aren't worthless. They can be used as a lead for something unusual to investigate, but they are never the end of the story. For a conclusion, we need objective evidence, some way to measure success or failure of the explanation, and a way to reduce or eliminate alternative explanations.

Skeptics such as myself tend to find the most frustration on these points. First, many believers dismiss alternative explanations for no rational reason. Many of us have a good grasp of science and how we can be deceived by others, and most importantly, ourselves. We're often brimming with ideas to explain various happenings, and we don't like getting slapped down when we speak up or ask questions to narrow down the possibilities.

Second, we've faced many believers who talk about events that actually aren't unusual at all. With enough people watching the world, "weird" coincidences happen all the time. One person's ghostly image is often a photographer's annoying dust reflection or passing insect. There are many people out there who know enough about certain fields to render various things mundane and readily explainable. Science is a team sport, and we try to apply the knowledge others have discovered to whatever the current discussion is. When we're presented with an interesting mystery, many of us will put in the effort to solve it. When someone new presents a nearly identical "mystery" that we've dealt with over and over, we can get frustrated and bored.

We're not Gloomy Gusses trying to rain on someone's parade. We're mystery solvers who want to find the truth, regardless of your sense of aesthetics. We don't dismiss all the magical things people believe in because we want the world to be dull and gray: We just want to know the truth, and when I look back at the history of science, the universe is always more interesting than what believers say. It's not without disappointment, but knowing the truth is the first step to solving problems. Self-deception and low standards are not the answer.

We need standards to evaluate the evidence for claims. Most people we argue with don't seem to realize that we can't lower our standards without opening up a quagmire of problems. Without controls against alternate explanations or verification to negate self-deception, the result can easily be eternal indecision: There are nearly an infinite number of possibilities. If we don't use our knowledge to favor the most probable answers, we can't know what to do or what to expect. Everyone practices critical thinking, but not everyone tries to be consistent. Usually, belief in the supernatural comes from making unwarranted exceptions for those beliefs.

Many of you are probably familiar with the phrase, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Though it is often a useful quote, many people don't appreciate that the mundane claims we live by already have extraordinary evidence behind them. It's not that we're raising the standard, it's that simpler claims tend to have more evidence already in their favor.

This post has gone on for a bit, but it will be subject to updates if I remember something to add or from suggestions.

Crack a Chemistry Book!

Watched this video, and unsurprisingly, some members of the Mercury Militia showed up in the comments.

If their propaganda tactics weren't causing so much harm to children, I could find them hilarious.

1) So many of them refer to thimerosal as mercury, it implies that they believe, against all of modern chemistry taught at grade school level and up, that an element and a compound containing that element are the same thing.

2) If they're claiming thimerosal breaks down, releasing the mercury, why can't I find one who's actually willing to crack open a high school chemistry book and use the tables in the back (or the same ones online) to calculate plausible breakdown reactions? Or even reference the work of someone who did that for them?

3) Even if it was mercury, isn't it kind of moot since mercury poisoning and autism produce very different symptoms?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Blasphemy Day Suggestion Box

Only recently have I been reminded of Blasphemy day on the 30th. Anyone got ideas for something I should post?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

False Piety

Found this post with a link to one of my Doggerel entries. The Raging Reverend pretty well covers some problems with prayer. You know, beyond being a catalog for the superstitious: It's a convenient way for the egotistical to show off their piety.

I left a rambly comment covering some of my thoughts. Some will get reiterated here: Early in my life, I developed a suspicion about anyone who put a lot of effort into displaying their Christianity after learning about corruption among televangelists. Discovering fundies who were just hunky-dory with Hell, Old Testament genocide, and so forth didn't inspire confidence.

The general principle that followed was that the more effort a person put into demonstrating their religiosity, the more immoral they were likely to be. From that point on, I was pretty much uncomfortable whenever I saw a religious t-shirt, whether or not it was being worn. Eventually, I got sick enough after meeting a fire and brimstone fundie serving as a Sunday School teacher that I pretty much rejected the "Christian" label and went squishy "spiritual, not religious" before eventually finding my way to atheism.

I may be an atheist blogger, but I'm sure I've got a fair share of Christians, 'squishy' theists, and so on and so forth who, for some reason or another, don't show off. You're welcome to speak up here. And it'd be heartwarming to hear some of you take on the fundies for their vicious nature.

Oh, and you don't have to worry too much about me taking you through the troll-wringing process, since you're more than likely kind-hearted people, if a little off.

"Noisy Chaff"

Today, PZ posted something that included a phrase that summarizes so many arguments I've had with woos: "Noisy Chaff."

Quite often, I ask what I think to be fundamental questions, and get brushed off so that a troll can throw more chaff into the air. Witness Gabriel suddenly spawning an interest in German history from some side remarks while we're still trying to get him to define what he's even talking about. "Straw man" accusations fall flat if you're unwilling to tell us anything.

When we ask Creationists for their evidence, they tend to continue throwing stones at evolution, geology, abiogenesis, and cosmology, rather than answer what should be an easy question.

When we ask for details about a newage (rhymes with sewage) "other way of knowing," we more often get diatribes against the scientific method.

When we ask for reasons to believe some random woo's anecdotes, we get rants about being cynics, over-analyzing, or not being "true skeptics" for failing to take what someone has seen "with his own eyes" at face value.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Doggerel #203: "Just Asking Questions"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Asking questions is how we learn from others. As a scientifically-minded skeptic, I certainly don't want to discourage someone's curiosity. Unfortunately, some questions come across as dishonest. This doggerel is a common response when we call them on it.

Quite popular among conspiracy theorists, this doggerel tends to follow a session of "whack-a-mole": The questions asked are essentially about trivial details, filled with innuendo. Answering them would require attention to detail, and once answered, the conspiracy theorist will typically move to another tenuous connection. Details can be important, but conspiracy theories tend to have failings on a fundamental level: We don't need to explain why "suspicious" coincidence #592 happened if the laws of physics or simple logistics make their conspiracy untenable.

In other fields, it can often be a response to skeptical frustration: You may not realize it, but a common skeptical frustration is having to answer the same questions over and over again. We don't mean to discourage curiosity, especially since many of us used to have sympathies for your position, but it can be tiring to deal with repetition. The best thing you can do is try to maintain a tone of polite curiosity: Repetition with an air of smugness doesn't inspire our patience.

A third use as doggerel is the result of misunderstanding the importance of the questions being asked. Skeptics such as myself strive to ask fundamental questions, often just to get to a basic understanding of what someone is claiming, or for essential details about a piece of evidence we need to accept it. Some of us are fond of going the Socratic route, asking questions so that the answers might raise awareness of a key point. Take a moment to think about what's being asked of everyone.

Curiosity is a wonderful thing, but it needs tempering. More often than not, skepticism and science are about asking the right kinds of questions.

Doggerel #202: "Google It!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words or phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Search engines can be wonderful tools. There's a lot of information out there, and these valuable programs can help us sift through the mess to find the most relevant bits.

But they aren't magical. A web page's tendency to show up in a search is based on whether it contains relevant words, combined with how popular it is. And, as you should know by now, popularity is not an indication of quality.

The main complaint skeptics have about woo is the low quality of evidence: A search engine can't tell if an experiment's methods really constitute "double-blinding," or if the author simply used it as a buzz phrase in hopes of placating critics. Search engines aren't mathematicians either, so they can't tell the difference between a genuine subtle effect and an artifact of statistical legerdemain. Search engines can be useful tools, but they're no substitute for critical thought.

In its more cynical use, an appeal to a search engine can be seen as a "shotgun response": Rather than provide one good example, we're expected to search the massive haystack for a needle that may not exist. It would be much simpler for everyone if our adversaries would move directly to their best shots. If you want to convince us, try to learn what we demand and why we demand it. That way, if you find a needle, you'll be able to lead us straight to it, instead of demanding that we sift through the haystack.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Doggerel #201: "Something to Think About"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

The real world, viewed through science, is full of strange and wonderful things. New knowledge tends to add to its depth and form novel interactions. Science gives us a lot to think about. This post is not about that sort of thing.

Most of the time, in the context of skeptic versus believer, "It's just something to think about" comes across as a last ditch attempt to sound deeper than thou. The problem is that skeptics like me know a lot about the claims and methods of our adversaries. In short, we probably have thought about it and came to or reinforced our disbelief as a result of that thought.

One of the most frustrating things for me in such debates is a lack of new, useful information. Science demands certain standards. We have those standards because we are aware of how perceptions can be biased, and what methods we need to minimize those biases. Anything less is typically an anecdote with biases and lack of detail left intact, ad hoc hypotheses that exist to explain away failures, doggerel, and other innumerable defense mechanisms.

To me, "woo" is often just an attempt to disguise the mundane and boring as magical. Those who know about the flaws in human perception, the laws of probability, and science in general know a great deal about what is possible, and how it can be misinterpreted. It takes something truly extraordinary, unexpected, or unlikely to grab our attention. Unfortunately, we often face off against people who don't understand what that really means.

Woo Enthymemes #6: "It's All About Brains!"

Welcome to another edition of Woo Enthymemes. My previous post covered much of this in relatively elaborate detail, but for this, I will strive to keep things simpler and more direct.

Contrary to popular belief, being smart, being right, and being a scientist is not about sheer brain power. You don't have to be a large-brained genius to make a breakthrough discovery, though it often helps. It can also hinder.

One cynical stereotype skeptics like me often face is the idea that we think we're right because we're smarter. Let's ignite that straw man before someone claims their 200+ IQ, MENSA membership, PhD, or whatever "proves" them to be smarter. It's never a matter of who's "smarter" or has the largest brain mass. Intelligence, wielded incorrectly, can be a great hindrance as well as it can be a great asset when used correctly: Intelligent people often have a great ability to rationalize bad decisions after the fact.

Parapsychology is a field with many intelligent people backing it. Early in my growing passion for skepticism, I read the Skeptic's Dictionary entry on "psi-missing" and similar rationalizations. I did have some sympathy for parapsychology, but it shrank greatly when I saw those "explanations" for failure. I already dismissed "big" performances of psychic power thanks to a particular Nova special. A magician could replicate the big tricks, and now I knew the "subtle" psychic powers were the result of some self-deception and statistical legerdemain.

My brain did not grow that day. I simply learned some new ways to look at things. People are often prone to forming layers of rationalization, and if you don't question yourself on all those layers, no enormous number of IQ points is going to help break you out of a bad idea.

Sometimes it takes a child to point out that the emperor has no clothes. As a skeptic, that's often what it feels like I'm doing: Stepping out of all the expectations I've grown up with and go over all the disconnects I see when I allow myself to be an outsider. I am not afraid to ask fundamental questions like "can you prove psi even exists?" Once I asked that question, I refused to allow myself to accept the word of others who just appeared smart.

When I did the same with science, the answers tended to be enamoring tales of elaborate experiments producing unexpected results. It didn't matter who did it so much as how they did it, and how mixing all those new pieces of knowledge produced something I took for granted. When I asked similar questions of psi-believers, I instead got venomous insults, evasions, and appeals to authorities.

Knowledge isn't just about your Intelligence score. You need the Wisdom to be cautious about your assumptions. And I just needed some Charisma-filled firebrand skeptics to excite my mind into realizing that.

What We Take For Granted

I'm sure the vast majority of my readers are pretty up-to-date with technology, since reading my blog typically requires some form of electronic device with a display screen and a connection to other, similar devices. Thankfully, many of my readers are skeptics, which should make writing this post a little bit easier: Skepticism is, after all, a way of thinking that requires an ability to raise your awareness about how you think. (As an aside, don't you think it's kind of funny that woos will make similar claims?)

There's a large bulk of our technology and cultural landscape that is so fundamental to us that it has become invisible. Many people in our society aren't even aware of it and, when it comes up, they often want the benefits that came from those technologies and philosophies without what they perceive to be downsides. The philosophy of science is one of these things that routinely comes up when we face off against Creationists and other woos: They base comforting beliefs and actions on many logical fallacies, and will often lash out against anyone who presents ideas that threaten those beliefs. But they still want easily accessible and nourishing food, convenient methods of transportation and communication, and other products and services we're used to. They also tend to want steady improvement of those things. Unfortunately for them, those improvements require the scientific method to test them for safety and utility. Unlike games like Civilization, you can't simply provide a collection of beakers for scientists to mix colored liquids or specify what you want to result from their research.

It's the historian's fallacy writ large: In science, we don't know all the possibilities for the outcome. If a doctor researches treatments for a new disease, he should know very well that his efforts may very well be in vain: It could be there is no effective treatment. It takes a bit of optimism to be a scientist and hope for answers that might not come. Because scientists don't know the answer in advance, science needs a willingness to put aside presupposition. In short, scientists need the freedom to say "I do not know." That is where many woos draw the line: They often aren't optimistic enough to hope for an answer, so they latch onto an invented answer and attempt to undermine inquiry. I can go on for longer, but I digress from this particular example.

There are many things other than the scientific method that have allowed us to grasp prosperity. Many of them were prerequisites to the development of the philosophy behind science. I'm sure I'll be missing plenty of subtle examples, but I will attempt to lay them out.

Biology: To "rise above" our non-sapient kin and form a civilization, we needed some key details: Fine manipulation so that we could make tools and shape our environment. Methods of detailed communication. A large brain with great plasticity: We need the wonderful ability to learn.

Resources for the first city: Contrary to what many Creationists seem to think, having hands, brains, and a versatile ability to make sounds and gestures isn't enough to invent the village. Humans are omnivores: We can eat an enormous variety of things, whether we hunt, scavenge, or gather from plants. If you think it's safer and easier to just follow the nearby herd of tasty prey animals, you aren't exactly inclined to settle down in one place for a year on the off chance your gatherer friend really is able to grow berry bushes like he theorizes.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and early nomadic humans didn't necessarily see the potential applications of settling down in one place. We are not genetically predisposed towards science fiction. Instead, the invention of villages was more likely a gradual process: They didn't settle down completely, but someone invented tents or similar structures that could be easily made and/or transported to provide protection while still being able to follow game migration. If someone did find that they could turn a local plant into an efficient and palatable crop, then they would be more inclined to a sedentary lifestyle. Of course, that would require the existence of such a plant. We've grown so used to our modern, eugenically modified crops that some Creationists aren't even aware of the wild cousins and ancestors of our "perfect" seedless banana clones.

Resources for thought: The very concept of leisure time is something else we've come to take for granted. Someone who is struggling to survive, who devotes all his time to tracking down food or a safe place to sleep for the night isn't at all likely to become a great thinker: He's too busy using his mental resources on what we now consider trifles. Many of us only have to think about getting some money for a trip to the grocery store or paying the rent. If I recall correctly, Maslow, when describing his well-known hierarchy of needs, essentially said that most people in developed nations never truly experience hunger, only appetite. A hungry man thinks and dreams only of food.

We have a society where a fraction of the population can make enough food for the rest of us. A fraction of our society can provide safe and comfortable shelters. A fraction of our society can keep certain dangers at bay. That leaves a lot of man-hours that can be devoted to loftier goals. If a primitive village achieves enough production of these fundamentals through division of labor, this leaves spare time for the star gazer to look up at the sky and find patterns. If it helps him predict the start of the growing season, that adds even more time and security for the village to use in other pursuits. Many early scientific pursuits formed positive feedback loops: More efficient food production lead to more time people could use to figure out more efficient ways to produce food.

Resources for new ideas: A small population of people by themselves can only achieve so much over time. Cooperation with other villages, and eventually other nations can open up new opportunities. If one village had people who knew how to make a better bow, they could share or trade that knowledge with another village if they could communicate with one another. Of course, they would also be able to pass on that knowledge to the next generation, rather than leaving them to work out all the steps from scratch. That is why communication is such a valuable ability: It can lead to cooperation. If all human knowledge is shared, that means there is less time spent researching redundant ideas: One person in one village doesn't have to figure out for himself how another village does something: He can just look it up.

Right now, you are also using another form of communication that is taken for granted, and I don't mean anything as recent as electronics or the internet: The invention of writing. With writing, knowledge can be recorded and shared without the need for a human brain. If someone writes an important new discovery of his, it can be preserved after his death. Lost knowledge can be rediscovered in a library. It could simply be a matter of learning the language it's written in. Writing gave language and, by extension, ideas a new permanence. The internet, to Barbara Streisand's dismay, has extended this ability even further.

Because of writing, many people have a concept taken for granted: The indestructibility of an idea. In ancient times, superstition could maintain a hold many of us can scarcely imagine: Destroying a useful, beneficial meme for scientific development was as easy as killing the person who dreamed it up. After the invention of writing, and especially the printing press, you often had to burn countless copies of a book and hope that you got them all. In a time and place where the internet is easy to access, this is all but impossible. I am quite glad to live in these interesting times. Without these meme-saving technologies, scientific progress could be stopped and even reversed by the word of a superstitious leader.

The simple stamp-collecting of useful ideas alone does not guarantee prosperity and progress: Many ideas themselves have a synergy with others: The ideals of free speech, curiosity for its own sake, that truth is more valuable than stubborn faith, epistemology, and the philosophy of science all work together to make discoveries easier for the people who possess those memes and allow them to be dominant in their minds. Any thought can be brought up, subjected to criticism, and if it meets the necessary standards for its usefulness, accepted until a better one goes through the process.

Without a stable source of food, a feeling of security, the time and freedom to wonder about the world, and open channels of communication with the outside world, a civilization will fall behind. A nation that achieves those basics and embraces all of those force-multiplying memes can go far. I do my best for the latter. The United States is a wonderful nation, but it has been held back by the superstitious, the incurious, and the cynical anti-intellectuals.

120th Skeptics' Cricle

It's up at Pro-Science.

Open thread as usual, but shamelessly plugging your new skepticism blog is FORBIDDEN!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What Makes Me Angry and Why

This is probably an obvious thing to say, but skeptics like me are well-known for having sharp tongues. I'm sure this is pretty off-putting for those new to any of the debates about the paranormal, fringe science, alternative medicine, etcetera. Debates like this, especially when they take place on the internet, require patience and understanding. I've had a multitude of experiences that tend to cut down on my capacity for the former. So often, it's caused by a troll who doesn't bother attempting the latter. This post is aimed at those who do not have much experience in the debate. I hope you'll be able to walk away understanding why it's best to avoid certain irritations.

Why we do what we do: Whether or not you think we're right, a great many of the topics we argue about end up hurting people. Phony psychics (whether they realize they're phony or not) charge for their nonexistent services, and even if they don't, they often end up manipulating people made vulnerable from their loss. Quacks peddle false hope and drain time and money from those who either could receive real help from medicine, or squander the resources they could use to help their families. Pseudoscientists waste resources on old and/or absurd ideas while disparaging the scientific method that allowed us to discover all the advances that we so easily take for granted.

Far too often, I've dealt with people who, rather than work to convince me that these people are engaged in worthwhile efforts, ask my why I should care. A particularly cynical example I've dealt with was a pro-psychic troll named Jambo. She asked why we should care about people we know nothing about getting scammed out of their money. My skeptical friends and I like to think that we're a principled lot: We care about other people's welfare. Every once in a while, someone comments that a particularly gullible person deserves to be scammed, but I don't allow myself to think that way: Everyone has periods of vulnerability and desperation that can be exploited. The issue isn't always just the physical and monetary harm: It often involves a manipulative bastard betraying someone's trust. It's hard to be indifferent towards something like that.

Yes, skeptics like me are curmudgeonly and cynical at a glance. But we're like that because we care. If something's too good to be true, we make the effort to see if it's true. Yeah, I fantasize about worlds that are all sunshine and lollipops, but, like it or not, we haven't gotten the real world yet. There are a lot of people made untrustworthy by greed, or, more often, a lack of scientific awareness.

While I'm quite aware there are many frauds out there, there are many people who ply the psychic/quackery/whatever trade without realizing they're wrong. Someone can, for example, write up a schematic that looks like a free energy machine without realizing they've made a mistake in their calculations. They can be sincere when they ask for investment capital and honestly believe that they can succeed. If the first device fails, they can still be sincere about Plan B working out. In such a case, this would-be inventor is only being dishonest with himself. There's no moral failing in this example, just an intellectual one. Despite our would-be inventor's best intentions, however, money is still lost trying to build a device that doesn't work.

We still want to prevent harm caused by unchecked good intentions. In such a case, our anger isn't born in response to malice or apathy: It's frustration usually brought on when we but heads against defense mechanisms. It's normal for many people to be overconfident in their abilities. It's normal to react badly to people saying you're wrong. It's normal to perform mental gymnastics to excuse bad behaviors. It's normal to be biased. Usually, when I engage in comment combat, that's the core of what I'm saying: I don't necessarily think the people I'm arguing with are stupid or lying (though there's no shortage of trolls out there who likely qualify). I'm only accusing them of being normal people.

What separates a scientist or a skeptic from most people isn't some elitist fantasy of superior brain power, years of education, or even success: We strive to be aware of our flaws. Everyone has cognitive biases. Anyone is capable of jumping to unjustified conclusions. Anyone can be ignorant of key pieces of evidence. Anyone can rationalize bad decisions and beliefs. You are no exception, and should watch yourself for bad tendencies. Our flawed nature is the necessity that birthed the invention of the scientific method: We have to double check ourselves. When someone disrespects the scientific method, it comes across as arrogant, like they believe they aren't subject to the failings of us mere mortals.

One of the most important features of the scientific method is falsification. Every explanation, whether it's an untested hypothesis or a long-established theory, must be falsifiable: There must be some way to prove it wrong. Predictions might come out wrong. A founding premise might not be as accurate as originally thought. For whatever reason, newly found evidence can contradict the explanation. If this happens, the theory needs to be modified to fit or be replaced by a more accurate explanation. In the worst case, it could be replaced with "I don't know." Scientists know about this process. Every theory is "wrong," but as time goes on and more good evidence is collected, they get less wrong, or in other words, more accurate.

Quite often, this isn't the case with paranormal, supernatural, and pseudoscientific ideas: Instead of allowing an escape hatch, they're fond of ad hoc hypotheses and similar defense mechanisms: When they fail, they make up an exception that only applies to that one failure but somehow doesn't interfere with successes under similar circumstances. So often, these pile up, preventing anyone from knowing when it'll "work" or not. When it gets to this level, can you blame us for thinking it's closed-minded and insular?

Another great annoyance of ours is the quoting of stereotypes. So often, we have to fight misconceptions about how we think. We ask questions, not to nitpick, but to learn more, or to teach by the Socratic method. We don't dismiss things you consider strange or wonderful because we think the world is boring: Quite the opposite, we think the real world is an amazing place. The problem is often that the field you are touting bores us with a lack of change or progress. Don't compare us to Hollywood characters lightly. We're people, just like you. Instead, ask why we doubt your idea. The answer may surprise you.

Do your best to avoid these sorts of unnecessary annoyances, ask honest questions, and do your best to be polite. If you can accomplish that, you may find unexpected civility. We may both learn something we didn't expect.

Science Fiction and Missing Bits

Watching The Empire Strikes Back on Spike, right now, thinking about other Sci-Fi shows. One thing I sometimes find interesting is what can happen when you take something out of the standard sci-fi setting. I'd like to hear some thoughts about the topic. Here are some of mine:

1. When I was young, and managed to catch a few episodes of Babylon 5, tension was often added when this Trek fan realized they couldn't simply beam people out in the nick of time.

2. Didn't watch the show, but in a note on TV Tropes, I heard that Andromeda didn't have FTL communications to go with their FTL travel. As a result, they had to use couriers in small ships to send messages over long distances. Might be interesting to have a show about such a courier.

3. It might be interesting to some effort at realistic space combat, since I've been exposed to everyone turning it into a metaphor for air and/or sea combat.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Avast, Ye! Thar Be Downloads to Plunder!

Telltale Games be givin' away the first chapter o' Tales o' Monkey Island. Be quick or be dead, mateys! They be closing their ports at the first stroke o' midnight!

(Haven't played the series myself, but I've been thinking of getting all the games. Imagine this sample will help me decide... Was there ever a updated release of all the games on the way, or did I just imagine that?)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Creationists and The Boy Who Cried 'Wolf!'

This is a post for Creationists who want to be honest. Of course, many of my readers will probably mentally snark along the lines of "there's no such thing!" as they read that first sentence. That right there is one big problem you will have to overcome: We've seen so many Creationists who seem prone to compulsive lying, that it's become a default assumption for many of us. Because of that, you'll often need to put some extra effort into your appearance of integrity. After seeing so many ways to not do that, I think I can make some suggestions on how you should approach a skeptic:

1. Know that many of those on your side are dishonest, and that you may have been fooled by one of them: There are a lot of dishonest questions, assertions, and so forth floating out there in the internet that have become detached from the liar who started them. Ask about things as honest questions in as soft a tone as you can manage. Many of us skeptics are veterans of these debates and will probably have an answer. If the skeptic points out the source of the lie, try to be gracious in response.

2. Ask honest, basic questions: By this, I mean ask about very simple concepts and definitions. Aside from the aforementioned "urban legend" deceptions, there are many misunderstandings of what the theory of evolution, abiogenesis, and the Big Bang actually are. Before a debate can really begin, you need to know what your opponents are actually arguing about. Otherwise, you're just ridiculing a straw man.

3. Don't use quotations: The dishonest Creationists absolutely love what has become known as "quote mining": The practice of taking a quote out of context to make something sound ridiculous or contrary to what a person actually believes. Darwin himself was particularly vulnerable to this because of his rhetorical style: He would raise an objection he expected opponents to make and then rebut it. Dishonest Creationists would then clip off the rebuttal and make the quote about the objection viral.

4. We don't really care about Darwin that much: This may come as a surprise, but as scientifically-minded people, we don't particularly care about Charles Darwin in terms of science. We only care about him from a historical perspective. Science is a self-correcting process, and the more we study a topic, the finer details we are able to examine and understand. We appreciate Darwin for getting the broad concept right, but no serious scientist would use the Origin of Species to research the answer to a modern question. It's essentially the same as with Newton: We can use Newtonian physics to answer some simple questions about the "medium world," but when dealing with super-massive objects, objects traveling near the speed of light, or tiny particles and quantum events, we need to refer to more modern theories about the things Newton did not yet know about.

5. Don't say "Darwinist": As said before, we appreciate Darwin's contribution to biology, but putting an "ist" on the name is a propaganda tactic popular with dishonest Creationists. They do this because they try to dismiss the science as a form of priesthood with Darwin as a saint or a prophet. He was not. We can look at the world and see the effects of evolution. Darwin was just one of the first people to figure it out and express the concept clearly. That's all Darwin is to people like me. He wasn't a saint or a prophet. He was just a guy who happened to have the smarts, luck, and data to put together a useful explanation for the diversity of life that modern scientists could build on and improve.

6. Credential don't matter: Though many of my fellow skeptics like to ridicule Creationists who tout their PhD's from diploma mills, I don't believe credentials matter: A valid point is a valid point, no matter how many letters its speaker has after his name. Credentials are merely a way of saving time in evaluating someone's opinion. When you're discussing the topic in detail, it's best to drop such distinctions and take your time to work out the quality of the evidence and the logical steps from there to conclusion.

7. Don't pretend to know us: Deception is rampant among Creationist circles, so do your best to remove any prejudices you may have developed as a result of viral arguments. Skeptics like me often have to face "woos" from many fields who treat us like stereotypes from Hollywood and network television without ever knowing how or why we've reached our conclusions, or what it takes to change our minds about them. Even if you think we're mad, there is a method to our madness.

8. Look back and remember: One way I've heard to spot a chat bot is to ask what it was talking about earlier. I sometimes feel like accusing dishonest "woos" and Creationists of being such when they can't remember an earlier rebuttal or present an argument that contradicts one of their earlier ones. Too many attempt to play "gotcha" instead of learning and adapting. Try to show that you're learning about our side of the argument. If you spot what looks like a contradiction, ask if there's an explanation, an exception, or whatever. We can make mistakes or oversimplify things. We might even learn something new if we have to look up an answer or correction if we didn't realize the mistake.

9. Don't cite faith: Many of us are vehemently opposed to the "accomodationists" who talk about reconciling faith and science. By "faith," I mean belief without or in spite of evidence. Belief without basis is essentially an act of hubris. There needs to be justification for a belief, and in science, that comes in the form of evidence and logic: The evidence must agree with your premises, and your conclusion must logically follow from those premises.

10: Do your homework: Read up on logical fallacies to avoid and existing rebuttals to common Creationist claims. Yes, I realize this may take up a lot of your time, but if you can learn more about us and our arguments, you'll be better equipped to discuss the issue. A great deal of frustration we experience is having to rebut commonly repeated arguments. If you find an answer confusing or even ridiculous, politely ask for elaboration or clarification while providing a link to it. People like me will appreciate your efforts.

Though my skeptical friends and I are known for having sharp tongues, if you practice these things while doing your best to maintain a polite tone, we're much more likely to be civil in response. A great many arguments fall into trolldom when someone violates these sorts of 'rules'. In many cases, they don't even realize why we react so negatively to the behavior in their first post. I'm not vicious by nature, just sensitive to perceived injustice, deception, and apathy. Honest curiosity is a beautiful thing that can tame this copper alloy canid into showing off the tricks he knows. I enjoy putting effort into explaining things if I believe someone is interested in hearing it.

Gabe's Contradictions

Thanks to a little bit of medication change, I had a good night sleep instead of a bout of insomnia. So I'm in a good mood again for continuing with Gabriel, our current troll. I thought I'd spell out some stuff that Gabe has a lot of explaining to do about, especially since he seems rather tight-lipped about explaining what exactly he's arguing.

The nature of "race":
1. He mocked for allegedly being scared to talk about race.
2. When we asked for genetic data, he tended to ignore it, and at least once said that genetics were irrelevant. (What is race, then, metaphysical?)
3. People start pointing out his use of "dilution" in reference to race, suggesting it is a continuous phenomenon, rather than a discrete one like genes. (So, is he arguing that the modern synthesis of evolution, the foundation of biology, is wrong?)
4. We ask for a definition of race and how it encourages or discourages stable societies and scientific progress. Gabe pretends it's obvious.

The nature of science:
1. Gabe praises the "white race" for various breakthroughs in science and technology.
2. We use the philosophy of science (used by those "white" scientists Gabe speaks highly of) to dismiss the validity of anecdotal experience, and logic to point out that correlation does not equal causation.
3. Gabe responds to these logical conundrums with the standard anti-science diatribe and an appeal to other ways of knowing. He also tosses in various insults, suggesting that we're nothing but basement-dwelling WoW players. As if that validates his use of logical fallacies.

1. I point out that humans, with their great brain plasticity, must learn to survive and thrive. That's why we build civilizations, instead of hunting and gathering like less intelligent omnivores tend to do. I point out that science is a "build on the work of others" enterprise: As a result, learning something new with science typically requires access to the best knowledge (memes) already present. I also point out that someone scrounging around for food doesn't have the time or energy to devote himself to education.
2. Gabe dismisses "non-whites" building on the work of "whites" as "stealing." He dismisses memes as "magic."

1. Gabe tries to claim that people are responsible for their culture.
2. I point out that each person has no control over the cultural memes in other people's heads at the time of birth, and that as an adult, a person can't necessarily choose memes he hasn't been exposed to.
3. Gabe argues ???.

Similarity to other woos:
1. I point out that Gabe's arguments are structured in a nearly identical manner to all sorts of quacks, fraudulent psychics, newage (rhymes with sewage) hippies, religious nuts, etcetera.
2. Gabe just seems to ignore the analogy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

GDL Reconfigured

I'm moving my Game Development Limbo to a forum, since I figure that's probably the most appropriate thing for what I'm doing. Right now, it's just a skeleton, but I'll be copying in some of the old GDL Master Documents over.

Be sure to sign up.

Qualia Soup or Salad?

Pick the soup!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Woos and Experience

I've got six of these so far. Guess that qualifies as a series.

Granted, this comes from personal experience, and that requires taking it with a grain of salt, but in my experience, many woos prize personal experience above all other forms of evidence. This is precisely backwards.

There's a reason anecdotes are considered the least credible form of evidence. People have biases. These biases can change what details a person focuses their attention on. Lack of knowledge can make a known, boring phenomenon into a supernatural experience. That same lack of knowledge can also render them vulnerable to trickery a more wary person could see through. Biases can color a person's memory. Biases can force connections and causes where none exist.

When we point these things out, it's common for the woo to indignantly say we're accusing them of stupidity or dishonesty. That's hardly the case: Everyone has these problems. Often, the only dishonesty involved is that which the woo performs on himself: They aren't being honestly acknowledging their flawed nature. This is known as arrogance, and is one of the most frustrating things I have to deal with.

Raw volume of experience is worth nothing if you don't know how to take measures against your biases. I've seen ufologists so excited about seeing alien spacecraft that they apparently watch the sky every night, but can't even identify an airplane. Most cases don't go nearly that extreme, but those biases do affect a person's perceptions.

Those flaws that affect all of us are part and parcel of why we need science. Scientists don't perform statistical analysis for the fun of it. They don't repeat experiments out of boredom. They don't replicate other people's work for the "me too!" glory. They don't point out other people's experimental flaws in peer review because they're jerks. They do it because they're diligently double-checking all the work. Small mistakes can really add up over time, and science is quite often a field where lives and livelihood are at stake. Catching mistakes when they're still small in scope is vital.

Too many woos, however, spend their time thinking they can't make mistakes when it comes to personal experience.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Help Me With a Little Mystery

I've been watching There Will Be Brawl. Think Smash Bros. meets Sin City. I've gotten more motivated to try to figure out who the butcher is before they reveal it since the creators are claiming it's a fair play mystery, and we should be able to guess based on the clues so far (and, I presume, knowledge of the characters from the games). Also said it won't be someone "out of left field." Some evidence and thoughts of mine (and possible spoilers for those who haven't watched, yet) are below the fold.

Butcher's MO:

Leaves behind the internal organs, minus bones and skin. Included some flair with Mewtwo's remains popping out of a pokeball.
Able to sneak into and out of DeDeDe's room and perform the total disembowelment without getting caught.
According to Link, some skull fragments in his remains indicate he was struck from behind with blunt force.

Victims so far:

Pichu (Pokemon, Meta-reason: Removed between Melee and Brawl)
Roy (Fire Emblem, Meta-reason: Removed character)
Mewtwo (Pokemon, Meta-reason: Removed character)
Princess Peach (Mario Franchise: Kidnapped, death not confirmed)
DeDeDe (Kirby Franchise: First killing where we were allowed to see the remains.)

Brawl Characters not seen yet: Ness, Lucas, Bowser.

Characters never going to be seen: Master/Crazy Hand, Tabuu, Fighting Polygon Team.

Characters with alibis during DeDeDe's murder:
Mario and Donkey Kong: Fighting one another.
Luigi, Little Mac, Pauline, Mr. Game & Watch, Diddy Kong: Watching the fight.
Samus: Present, but not accounted for. (My genre savvy tells me she's a red herring, since she didn't use any blunt weaponry, favoring her stun pistol/whip.)

Some things to think about:

What game characters steal skins/appearances/etcetera? Kirby is one, but he was allegedly being closely watched by Meta Knight.

What, if anything, do the victims have in common?

Is this really related to Zelda and Link's power grab?

Existing hypothesis I've read on Escapist's forum: It's Red, the pokemon trainer. Mostly it amounts to people using genre savvy to point out how much his impossible naivete clashes with the cynical world, how unsuspecting we should be of someone so innocent, and building ideas on that. I don't buy it.

Notes for fellow speculators: Please point out if you have ideas based on genre savvy instead of solid evidence. Citing episodes and timestamps is encouraged.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Woo Enthymemes #5: "My Experience is Reliable"

Welcome to another edition of Woo Enthymemes.

This entry is often at the core of just about any anti-science viewpoint. It's true that our perception of the universe is based on experience, whether it was personal or by someone else who documented it. One big thing that separates a skeptic from a woo is that the skeptic knows his senses and memory are not all that reliable. Skeptics know that we're subject to confirmation bias, selection effects, apophenia, and so forth. We are mere mortals.

Some woos might have an awareness of their flawed nature, but they seldom put serious effort or thought into counteracting those flaws. Skeptics, on the other hand, practice the scientific method: Control for alternate explanations. Record both successes and failures. Look for others who have or will replicate the event or experiment. Double check everything. It's still not perfect, but with all these sorts of checks working together, the odds of being wrong diminish.

The closest I can recall woos ever coming to this is the appeal to popularity, which is only the countermeasure of multiple people doing the same thing. Those others, however, seldom do anything to rule out alternative causes for the results or check against all our various cognitive biases. In short, without going through all the hoops of the scientific method, you're being sloppy and opening yourself up to simply confirm your biases.

That's why I want to hear about experimental protocols and statistical analysis of the results instead of just another ghost anecdote.

119th Skeptics' Circle

It's up at Cubik's Rube.

Open thread as usual, but summoning Hastur with children's puzzle toys is FORBIDDEN! I mean, think about it. You're Hastur, sitting in some remote part of the cosmos, and some guy thoughtlessly solves a plastic cube that says "Hastur" on each face, and all of the sudden *GAWCK!*


Note: This post was scheduled to appear at this time in the event that Bronze Dog was called away to handle other things.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Pointless Question #67

Whycome videogame and anime characters jump so high? [/Atrocious Grammar]

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Feedin' Pen for the Troll

Our most recent troll is back, and done a much bigger derail of an ID thread. Wrangling him here. Comments in that derail below the fold.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I certainly wouldn't agree that we have a purpose per say, but it does fit my views rather well, in a none related way.

The Evolution of the Human race until the White Race is rather interesting, something some of you deny as well as accept (unwillingly) using the advances we have done. America, the most technologically advanced nation on the planet, we created things people could only dream of (africans, asians etc), and they now use our technology and even modify it acting like they are the creators of it.

Will we be abolished? Maybe, with the hatred for the White Race and the Anti-white propaganda spread in school with "black month' and other silly ideas (you care to mention something as negroid made?), it seems we should be ashamed of being the best, No thankyou, I want to be proud over my White History and everything we have done and will do.

I wouldn't be suprised, on the other hand, if civilized human beings would end with us if negriods or asians would take over, lacking the ability to handle the awesome technologies we have created for them, as well as the lack of ability to comprehend Democracy and value of others such as the white race.

Lets hope we can stand against the tides of evil.

9/04/2009 12:55 PM

Anonymous Yakaru said...

you care to mention something as negroid made?

Ummm, how about Western civilisation?

9/04/2009 1:13 PM

Blogger MWchase said...

Let's see... I'm not quite sure what you think about the pyramids (did some white people cross the Mediterranean to conscript the Egyptians into building giant tombs?), but, more recently, the Tuskegee Institute, at least to start with, provides a bunch of fairly obvious examples.

Part of your argument relies (semi-implicitly) on the fact that science has, in previous centuries and until recently, been dominated by white people. Would you extend a similar argument regarding women?

On the other hand, as of late, there's been a shortage of American science students in higher education, and I see mainly Indian immigrants picking up the slack. Is the recent climate of anti-intellectualism the result of genetic drift?

9/04/2009 1:37 PM

Anonymous James K said...


First off, there have been inventions by African peoples in the past, as an example the Ethiopians were one of the first peoples to refine steel. And do I need to point out that civilisation began in Mesopotamia, not Western Europe? China and India also has sophisticated societies going long before our ancestors did.

Secondly, Western civilisation isn't a White thing, its a British thing. Both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (which added together are Western Civilisation) started in the United Kingdom. The thing is, there's not really any genetic difference between the British peoples and the peoples they are descended from such as the Scandinavians and the Germans. How does that work with your theory of genetic causality?

9/04/2009 3:56 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is that racist still around? It does appear at the very least he's finally admitting very clearly that he IS in fact racist, instead of denying up and down that he EVER said anything about one race being superior to another. Will he deny that he made this very post?

At any rate, Bill Watterson. Never really read those comics back in the day, but I present you with this!


This guy made a total of 10 of these cartoons and has vanished from the face of the internet. Artwork is rough but the guy is hilarious enough to deserve a full series of 15 minute shorts on Cartoon Network.

9/04/2009 4:10 PM

Blogger djfav said...

I see racist troll is back.

That last bit about the tides of evil made me laugh so hard I nearly wet myself. And I'm at work right now.

9/04/2009 4:24 PM

Blogger Laser Potato said...

That cartoon was pure win.

9/04/2009 4:39 PM

Anonymous Dark Jaguar said...

The racist doesn't appear to have ever answered my question of how he explains the existance of black or asian inventors or scientists or artists or anything that one would normally call intelligent. I think he tried to say that they are just stealing, but that really does very little to explain it all. It's a blanket explanation that totally ignores the totality of examples, one with no research at all.

We aren't so chained so very completely to our genes that they dictate every single thing about us. They can't, otherwise we'd be robots that, when presented with an elk, would immediatly start hunting it. The genes simply work from a simple basis, really simple rules that tends toward their own reproduction. One is building an intelligent brain that can figure out problems on it's own. There is no need to invoke a subconcious "true" motive. Installing that frame work has no pressure, the basic rule is all that was needed. Further, as environment changes misfirings can occur, such as


It's these misfirings brought about, especially in humans, by our own tendancy towards invention and discovery, that are the biggest way to break free of the dominance of genes. However, that's a side note. The main point is not to talk about "breaking free" so much as to point out that just because someone DOES behave some way does not mean a genetic explanation needs to be invoked to explain WHY they act that way. Two brains otherwise identical will have two different ways of behaving if they have two different environments.

(I must be absolutely clear here. This is NOT meant to give the impression that I think one "race" or another really does have superior intelligence and it's a matter of "overcoming" that weakness. There is no evidence that intelligence is in any way linked to the classic "racial" traits.)

I'll expand on my previous challenge. There ARE some genetic traits that are linked to intelligence, in terms of such conditions as down syndrome. However, notable is that these conditions are not tracable to any one "race". They are wide spread among ALL ethnicities, having the same basic effect, as though as a general rule the genetic code for how to build a human brain was similar enough that they could be changed in identical ways across that "barrier". What is your response to this? Do you believe that one race is more or less likely to have autistic kids than others, and further, what do you think of the fact that such genetic disorders seem to have the same effect, as though they have the SAME basic genes initially? Does this not completely defeat your entire premise?

9/04/2009 5:28 PM

Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Racist troll need to talk about genetics, not cherrypick history. Why are racists so terrified of discussing the Human Genome Project and such?

9/04/2009 8:02 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Racist racist, yes, use the word in a negative light, all it says is that I accept the true nature of our human heritage. Just like I am superior to a dog, I am superior to a negroid, facts are hard to fight.

Is it not funny that the 'viking blood', the Scandinavians, live the longest, have the safest and most advanced societies? Utopians in fact and yet, the 'white are evil' mantra still continues, 'poor negriods' and we should feel sorry for them.

Of course, you where not aware of this, and now when you are, you will deny it claiming its a conspiracy, by the 'white man' no doubt? Or maybe they written a deal with Satan himself to get does good statistics, its all fake and false, its not true. Egypt and Peru are the beams of civilizations and advancements.

Now, the asians have taken our technology, not even you seem so daft to deny this, and you have not explained that, weird isn't it? They did not actually make any of the technology, they took ours and modified it, fine, We gae them that ability, we helped them along, we tried the same with the negriod but they started wars and chaos in Africa, I remember a internew on television with a tp-notch negroid from one of these useless nations, HE HIMSELF stated that the west should STOP GIVING to them, because they cant deal with it, they need to learn to make food themselves, if we help them they cant handle it.

And when we dont give, we get blamed for being Evil.... Funny that. Oh, and did you know does Viking Scandinavians are also amongst the top aid givers in the world? Does blond blue eyed evil whites, juck.

Its sad you are ashamed of your race, its sad how the schools have made you think you got something to be ashamed of.

9/05/2009 6:14 PM

Blogger MWchase said...

The problem with aid to Africa is that lots of the MO gets laid out using preconceptions that don't apply. It's a mix of perverse incentives and memetic disconnect. In other words, lots of foreign aid was distributed by people and agencies who did not know the best way to do their job.

On a less argument note, that comparison you made... Are you suggesting that human-dog hybrids are viable?

9/05/2009 6:27 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Human/Dog hybrids?

Dude you need a quick lesson in biology.

9/05/2009 6:46 PM

Blogger MWchase said...

Somebody who attempts to argue genetics based on anecdotal evidence and unfounded assertions claims that my attempt to refute an analogy represents a lack of knowledge of biology.

Thank you, good sir. A thousand Alanis Morissettes could not make anyone on this earth uncertain of the definition of irony, so long as your comment remains.

9/05/2009 7:42 PM