Monthly Archives: July 2010

From Out of Ancient Athens…

This comes from a guy considered by many to be the most skilled of the ancient Greek orators, the statesman Demosthenes of Athens, and the following quote attributed to him is enormously relevant to modern skeptics, namely, the topic of self-deception.

Even though some pseudoscientists do turn out to be charlatans, it’s often extremely difficult to definitively identify someone as either an intentional fraud or just self-deluded believers without knowing them and their personal history inside and out.

There’s the risk of committing a False Dilemma fallacy on insufficient information.

It’s often not just one or the other, though, and frequently it turns out to be an odd mix of the two when the crank’s true motives can be identified at all…the well-known phenomenon of the pious fraud who truly believes their own claims, but isn’t above a little dishonesty and corner-cutting to promote them.

The reasons and psychological mechanisms for self-delusion are many…

Again, not an easy task for a n00b like me, which is why it’s a good idea for me at this point not to jump to conclusions until the evidence is in…and even then, there’s no way to be certain short of actually getting inside his head, and I ain’t psychic.

Anyhoo, here’s the quote:

A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.

– Demosthenes (Δημοσθένης) (384 BC – 322 BC)

A Question of Societal Delusions

Every age has its misunderstandings, its irrationalities, its delusions, which are often accorded by those harboring them as profound truths.

Maybe it’s the latest popular fad masquerading as science to an unsuspecting, and uninformed public. Maybe it’s some religious doctrine whose advocates wish it to be given ‘equal time’ in public school science classes.

Perhaps it’s a national government flirting with pseudoscience, spending millions on classified ‘human enhancement’ programs that turn out to be fruitless, or legislators with conservative religious leanings who feel offended or nervous about the implications and their own misconceptions of some new and promising medical technique.

It could even be some new permutation of an old occult or New Age doctrine, or perhaps something entirely new, entirely divorced from even a superficial connection with science, despite using its own obscurantist jargon.


These irrationalities ebb and flow throughout history, sometimes waxing with the ascension of extremist ideological movements and waning in proportion to the public understanding and acceptance of science when its pretenders stand exposed to their adherents…and sometimes victims…as the cranks, quacks and charlatans they are.

Note that it’s only possible for a belief to be a delusion – an objectively false belief – if it is also possible for things to be objectively true…and THAT requires an objective reality for that truth to exist.

My personal view is that the idea of an objective reality cannot be a delusion even if all ideas are considered to have equal truth value, which is itself an idea, for one cannot argue for the equal validity of all ideas and then consistently argue that the idea of a subjective conscious observer-created reality is any more valid than that of an objective observer-dependent reality, one in which in which the term ‘observer’ need have nothing to do with consciousness or even if the observer has a mind at all.

Unless, of course, the equal validity of all ideas means the validity of none of them. Arrrgh! The logical somersaults melt my brain…*ahem*

And so, my ever-perspicacious readers, do I ask:

What widespread societal delusion is a pet peeve of yours? Why? Is it something that you or someone you know personally dealt with at one point?

Asteroid Impact (HD)

To paraphrase Phil Plait, ‘This is the way the world ends.’ – mass extinction to the tune of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon

Apollo 11 restored footage: montage

NASA has released a brief montage of restored footage from the Apollo 11 footage. This is archival data that has been digitally cleaned up, and it looks MUCH better! – TheBadAstronomer

On Debating Cranks

Is it moving the goalposts when a skeptic demands evidence, not just necessary, but sufficient evidence as a reason to accept an extraordinary factual claim?

Is this heavy-handed, this demanding of evidence more sound than just that of alleged but nonetheless seemingly compelling personal experience, the anecdotal testimony of ‘reliable’ eyewitnesses whose accounts don’t sound ‘obviously false’ and who would ‘never lie,’ or ‘irrefutable’ physical evidence like blurry photos, low-resolution video or trace evidence that is either inconclusive or easily faked by even a child (and often has been)?

Is the requirement that a seemingly impressive statistical result of a paranormal study be replicated by others, no matter their beliefs or attitude, excessive or unfair?

I would say not.

Sure… one could argue that I’m arguing for the skeptical position on the need for solid evidence because I’m a skeptic myself, and that would be true, but not for the reasons the accusation would be and often has been given. I take the skeptical position in this because as a skeptic, I just might be in a real position to understand skeptical attitudes, thinking, and reasoning better than, say, someone whose mindset, belief system and values are opposed to those of skeptics.

In discussions I’ve attempted with those who subsequently show themselves to be dedicated advocates of fringe-claims, sort of ‘testing the waters’ so to speak, to see what they’re actually like, and to make reasonably sure that I haven’t misjudged them on the basis of their initial comment, most of the time such attempts at constructive discourse have been unproductive.

Generally, all I’ve learned from such exchanges is the extremes of intellectual strategies that people can and will resort to to protect their cherished personal opinions from questioning or criticism.

True believers tend to have rather peculiar ideas, often rather lax ones, as to what qualifies as reality, science, logic, or evidence, and have shown to me a tendency to dismiss them or the need for them when these do not conform to or otherwise validate their beliefs.

They do not play by the same rules as science, and by that token, their skeptical critics…

It is for this reason that once I establish that someone actually does argue like a crank, I decide that any further attempts at reasoned discussion are pointless, and that I could better spend my time and resources on other matters.

Is this being dismissive? Of course. But it’s dismissal for reasons of practicality.

My time is limited, and there’s no point in devoting attention to playing a game when the ‘other guy’ (both genders)isn’t playing by the same rules, and therefore isn’t really playing the same game.

It is for this reason that I will not debate cranks, quacks, pseudoscientists, antiscientists and other fringe-claimants on the venue of this blog once I figure what they really are from the initial exchange in the comment threads.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll completely ignore them, only that all attempts at rational discourse are now off, and that I’ll no longer cater to their need to defend whatever doctrine or belief-system they happen to hold dear that I had the temerity to criticize.

In my experience, it’s a lot easier to argue constructively with another skeptic than with a believer, because those skeptics I’ve read and met are open to the possibility of being shown wrong, of being convinced by the evidence. This is a key ingredient for intellectual honesty, and in strong contrast with those self-styled champions of What They Know to be A Proven Fact™, who have shown themselves to act as if it were simply unbecoming to change their minds in the light of mere facts and mere reality that could conceivably refute their views.

After all, changing one’s mind and being wrong are weaknesses of character…Aren’t they?..


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