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A Few Things I’ve Learned from 3 Years of Skeptical Blogging:


Skepticism

Image by aturkus via Flickr

It’s been a few days past three years since I began posting on this site, and in terms of blogging principles, writing style, the tone of my ‘voice’ and my skepticism, there are some valuable lessons I’ve learned, and I expect, with more to follow from both prior experience and in future experiences in posting on this site.

Here are a few:

  • Avoid perfectionism. Rather than attempting to seek perfection, which is conceptually questionable in the first place, as well as a road to inevitable failure, seek instead to asymptotically strive for perfectibility, always strive for improvement, as there is plenty of room for it in any enterprise.
  • Rational justification permitting, allow for the questioning of every source of information, even other skeptics and especially scientists, who are, after all, only human and have finite reliability even in their own field of expertise.
  • Do not dehumanize believers. Avoid gratuitous cruelty in critiquing individuals and unfair blanket generalizations of believers. There’s a surprising amount of variation in any demographic, including members of paradigmatic and ideological subgroups.
  • Restrict the most pointed attacks to ideas, actions, and claims, and strive to keep personal critiques fair and honest, though perhaps a bit blunt. I don’t need to give those critiqued a valid reason to accuse me of libel or slander, however often that sentiment is not shared by some of the more irate, easily enraged and unstable proponents and believers.
  • Avoid unnecessary snark when addressing individuals in personal comment responses, especially trolls, since being attention-whores, that’s what they want in the first place. Offer it only if the situation truly warrants it. If I’m going to be a d*ck, I should be the best possible at the time.
  • Avoid undue reverence for and unrealistic enthusiasm about skeptics and skepticism in general. It makes no sense to think of and de facto treat others as saints when one does not believe in saints. Other skeptics are simply both teachers and learners, sometimes both at once, not impossibly epic intellectual Brobdingnagians to be held in rapturous awe.
  • Strive for the most realistic, fair, accurate, and clear conceptions of science, atheism, and skepticism one may harbor. Avoid naivete in what they are and how they work, the better to avert cognitive dissonance in the here and now. The truth is more important than wishes or personal feelings of how these things ought to be, and recognizing this fact greatly reduces if not eliminates disappointment and possible disillusionment. The truth is also much more interesting.
  • As a skeptic, I do not have all the answers, I cannot have all the answers, and I know that I don’t have to. It is permissible for me to say, “I don’t know. I have no independent access to the events you’ve described in your anecdote, and so can’t explain it without enough data to go by. I remain skeptical of your claim until that changes.”
  • Saying the previous does not strengthen the case for anything paranormal or otherwise out-of-this-world. Such things are often unexplained because of a mere lack of sufficient data, not because they’re magic.

I’m fairly certain that this is not an exhaustive list, and likely I’ll be following it up with other posts in a similar vein in future.

To me, allegedly necessary rather than contingent statements about reality tend to be problematic anyway, so I try to avoid them:

No principle should be held dogmatically when keeping open one’s provisional understanding of matters of fact, for it causes one’s grasp on reality and intellectual honesty to fail disastrously, giving rise to the fallacy of thinking that what is true must be dependent on faith, or on a misconstrual of personal experience, the one being a core principle in many organized religions, and the other the seed of nascent pseudoscience.

Accepting “I Don’t Know” As An Answer [Repost]


There is something that all of us do if we aren’t careful, mostly stemming from a deep discomfort of not having an immediate explanation or answer to something we want to know, but don’t–the argument from ignorance–a fallacy of thought by which we draw a conclusion not from data, but from a lack of data, from what we don’t know, a conclusion which more often than not turns out to be false when properly investigated.

One of the first things I had to learn as a skeptic was a tolerance for ambiguity, habits of thought by which I could say to myself “It’s okay to not have an answer for such-and-such a question right now.” It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know…yet.”

There’s a great many people who are just terrified by the thought of not knowing everything with conclusive surety, even when that conclusiveness is wrong. So many people go to great lengths to convince themselves that they do, in fact, know what that strange light in the sky is, or what that creaking noise in the house late at night is, when they really don’t.

This is particularly true of those with a tendency to claim a event as being impossible to explain by natural or normal causes, and thus dismissing such causes prematurely, especially that dual bugaboo of paranormal and fringe-science advocates, coincidence and statistical noise.

A common argument is stated something like “X is so unlikely as to not possibly be due to the laws of chance(or nature)!”(read; the claimant’s understanding of those laws). In fact, it would be even more improbable that unusual coincidences don’t occur as often as they do, in accordance with the Law of Truly Large Numbers. For example, in a city of say, ten million people, one should by chance alone expect ten 1-in-1,000,000 coincidences to happen each day.

This and other seemingly counterintuitive results of statistics are well within the bounds of the laws of chance, with no need to invoke anything paranormal. Not yet.

Statistical correlation does not by necessity imply causation, nor scientific importance. For example, if I wanted to and was willing to juggle the numbers, I could draw a correlation between someone’s eye color and their IQ, but there would be no causative or scientific significance to it.

Yes, it’s tempting to think you have all the answers at your fingertips, but the I think that the best knowledge anybody can have is an awareness of their own ignorance and the admission that they, like anyone else, can be mistaken in their conclusions when shown evidence to that effect.

In my experience, I haven’t noticed any tendency to jump to conclusions in lieu of evidence in the more seasoned and better-known skeptics, though I have found it among some novice skeptics and many of the paranormalists I’ve met.

It’s the same whether we try to definitively explain a strange light in the moors as either a ghost or as swamp-gas without enough information–we are committing the same error either way.

Probabilistic, uncertain thinking and a tolerance for it can be difficult at first, but it gets easier with time and practice, becoming second nature. One can only learn when no longer convinced that one already knows without sound reason to think so. It’s how good science is done.

A wise man knows his own ignorance, while a fool knows everything.

Loaded Words Alert! — Pseudoscience


The Majestic 12 document Number 1

Image via Wikipedia

Pseudoscience is a term that I come across on the Web quite often. There is, I’ve noticed, a tendency to incorrectly apply the word by those unfamiliar with scientific literacy to whatever idea they happen to find disagreeable, and they understandably dislike it when it is used to refer to their own ideas.

Somehow it’s always the claims of others that this is applied to, and with little sound justification for doing so. Scientists use the term with a specific meaning in mind, and not just those claims that they are alleged by proponents to be uncomfortable with…

Particularly, conservative political writers and religious apologists, some fringe-proponents, a few on the far Left, and science-rejectionists in general will sometimes use the term to deride any idea of the scientific and/or medical mainstream that they oppose simply because it doesn’t jibe with their personal ideology, their system of core beliefs and values.

Pseudoscience, with the implications of the ‘pseudo-’ prefix, has obvious negative connotations. Not exactly what I would consider a neutral term. It is abused as a term of ridicule and an instant conversation stopper. I think it’s a good idea to use it sparingly in the context of specific ideas and claims unless derision is both appropriate and intended, when being respectful of an idea would lend it false and often dangerous credibility, and depending on the nature and tendencies of who I’m addressing in a post.

Let me propose a workable definition of pseudoscience, more in line with it’s actual scientific and skeptical usage, all straw-person arguments aside, as I’ve seen it employed on the skeptical websites I surf.

Any tenet, doctrine, claim, or belief-system that attempts to present itself as science, but which does not abide by its benchmarks or criteria and makes often demonstrably false claims or at least untestable ones, in rejecting scientific reasoning, method, or its process, and which because its claims are not in accord with compelling evidence must promote and perpetuate itself by way of a mix of fabricated propaganda, logical fallacies, conspiracy theory, and/or anecdotal reasoning.

Note that an idea is not pseudoscience if [A] it’s claims are testable and found to be in agreement with the data, or [B] it does not attempt to pose as science.

Sorry, but specific non-scientific claims and those scientific statements well-supported by continued testing are not pseudoscience just because you don’t like them.

This includes the Left, the Right, and everyone else along the political continuum, everyone’s brand of anti-science, anti-medicine, and yes, I’ll use the word here, so get over it, pseudoscience.

Yes, it’s offensive, but I’m an equal opportunity offender… I’m skeptical of anyone’s ideological leanings, especially my own. You’ve been warned.

The Tyranny of Evidence: Do Scientists Use Dogma?


C0nc0rdance | August 12, 2009

Is evolution a religion? Should we describe the positions of scientists as dogma?
Is science democratic? Isn’t there room for debate on the issues of science?
Why can’t we teach both sides? Isn’t that good science pedagogy?

Here’s some links to additional information
1. [Neutral] Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquatic_…
2. Critical of AAH
http://www.aquaticape.org/
3. Favorable of AAH
http://www.primitivism.com/aquatic-ap…

4. [Neutral] Endosymbiotic Theory (EST)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endosymb…
5. Critical of EST
http://www.origin-of-mitochondria.net/
6. Favorable of EST
http://www.bio-medicine.org/biology-d…

7. [Neutral] for Intelligent Design
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellig…
8. Critical of Intelligent Design
http:// Entire scientific community / (hah, joke!)
9. Favorable of EST
http://www.discovery.org/

Factionalism & The Art of Woo-Meistering


On this blog’s “about” page I’ve mentioned my tendency for arrogant and condescending diatribes…Well, this post is going to be one of those, and likely to offend some. But this is moi, speaking from the proverbial heart.

Still here? Oh goody…Let the tirade begin…

To be a successful proponent of woo, you don’t have to know a thing about science or concern yourself with such extraneous details as facts, evidence, sound reasoning, or those terrible inconveniences, reality or a concern for anything like truth.

In fact, you don’t need any qualifications, to know anything about anything, except the ability to make stuff up and enough skill and chutzpah to make it sound convincing to the uninformed.

Even the most scientifically incompetent among us can become an accomplished purveyor of nonsense, though it is also a big plus to have a massive ego, a persecution complex a mile wide, and a generous helping of a conspiratorial mindset.

Most pseudosciences are not even cosmetically tenable unless accompanied by a conspiracy theory involving suppression or willful ignorance of the doctrine’s claims by a dogmatic, entrenched scientific, corporate or governmental establishment, with the Evil Pseudo-Skeptics™ standing in as the New Inquisition, to substitute for any genuine explanation for the rather apparent lack of supporting evidence or valid argumentation in the doctrine’s favor.

After all, it’s trivially easy to argue that any evidence against a conspiracy is really evidence for a conspiracy if you’re good at pulling things out of your posterior. Why are there no files on record of the conspiracy’s existence? Of course! Because any incriminating data have been purged from the records! How can you possibly be proven wrong?

After all, if you’re willing to ignore the limits of what really is, you’re free to make up, believe and/or propound on whatever factually absurd or illogical claims you want, limited only by the blazing fires of your fertile imagination and your persuasiveness.

This lack of ability or concern for the requirement of scientific methods, epistemological soundness, consensus, thinking or competence has led to a pronounced tendency for factionalism and even mutual derision or demonization among competing groups of fringe-enthusiasts of the even same general sort of claim, like separate UFO or Bigfoot organizations, even different flavors of Creationist or pseudo-astronomical groups who vehemently disagree and denounce each other over even seemingly minor points of doctrine or belief.

Pseudosciences tend to blend into each other around the edges, with UFOlogy, as an example, having a spectrum of views ranging from the ostensibly scientific to those of New Age mysticism.

It’s been my experience that even within a given field of fringe-science, the various advocates of these ideas seem, due to an absence, even at times a willful disdain, for consensus and doctrinal coherence, to be as individuals unable to keep their claims consistent even within a faction.

One thing I’ve noticed though, is that many fringe proponents, the really good ones, tend to be highly proficient in polishing their arguments and their skill in delivering their baloney. They know their own bullpucky with masterful skill. My hat is off to them.

Why should pseudoscientists have to feel bound by rules of evidence, criteria of theoretical adequacy, or clear thought, when these merely serve to inconvenience their pet doctrine? Why dogmatically adhere to the way the world really works when they can just dream up whatever feels good without regard for what’s true?

Why use rigor of methodology and reasoning when fast-and-loose technique and fuzzy thinking are so much easier?

After all, if you don’t consider yourself bound by mere facts or logic that disagree with you, you can just ignore them whenever it’s convenient. This quality of pseudoscience coheres often with that of the world’s religions, where entire religions, sects, denominations and cults have often violently contended with each other and indeed, anyone else who disagrees with them, over what would be irrelevant differences of opinion to an outsider.

In my view, no ideology attempting to pass itself as revealed and eternal fact, whether political, religious or pseudoscientific, has been successful at self-correcting its errors, and sometimes, of washing off the metaphorical and sometimes literal blood on its hands from the misery, confusion, fear or death that has often accompanied it along the way.

Why?

Because none of these ideas has an adequate way of telling itself about its missteps, its mistakes, as with any sort of idea that relies on an uncritical acceptance of its assertions by way of its own authority.

Unlike science, none of these ways of believing, NOT ways of knowing, has a built-in set of methods for alerting itself to when it has been led astray by its own error by those working within it.

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