Thursday, July 13, 2017

What's the harm? Skeptics and scholars respond.

What's the harm? What does it hurt if I don't accept your principles of critical thinking and continue to accept weird thing x (some urban legend, piece of pseudoscience, New Age belief, or conspiracy theory) as true

This line is trotted whenever skeptics and lovers of science elucidate a culturally, though not scientifically, controversial fact like evolution, global warming, or the safety of vaccines. It is also used to thwart our bullish dismissal of dangerous nonsense, like holocaust denial, HIV denial, and the denial of the cancer-cigarette link, and silly fluff, like haunted houses, Bigfoot, astrology, and UFO abductions. I've been a skeptic for over eight years, but I have never had a rock solid response to "what's the harm." I usually just point to What's the Harm. This website chronicles examples of physical, psychological, and financial harm incurred by believers in weird things and is an invaluable resource if someone says something like "calling psychics doesn't harm anyone." The problem with over relying on this resource, however, is that it does not address what is the harm in having poor critical thinking skills and believing in weird things in general?"

While attempting to come up with a better rebuttal, I messaged the authors of many of my favorite books on science, critical thinking, and/or weird things. If anyone has a better answer to "what's the harm," I thought, it should be them. Despite not knowing me, they were very generous with their time and, upon my request, sent in thought provoking responses. I originally intended on placing their words throughout this article to fortify and strengthen my own points. Their points were so good, however, that I concluded I could add nothing of value to them. Instead, I am simply going to shut up and let these thinkers shed some light on this issue.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The death of science journalism (and science blogs)?

In an article released last year called On Detecting Gravitational Waves, Landmark Science and the Media, physicist Matthew Bailes discussed the incredible confirmation of gravitational waves by LIGO and how this story may, despite being a landmark confirmation of general relativity, seem underwhelming to the layperson. This apathy, Professor Bailes argues, is caused by the impotence of contemporary science journalism. Rather than hiring qualified science journalists, many newspapers now uncritically copy and paste press releases from science journals (even the for profit ones who hype their findings). This propaganda is then cycled through blogs and the press. I think that this point is so important that I decided to quote the relevant section of the article (The Death of Science Journalism) in its entirety.
Long ago, newspapers could afford to have science journalists on their staff but nowadays many just cut and paste press releases. The downside of this is that there is next to no scrutiny of science stories, and press officers in universities and research labs end up effectively writing their own propaganda. 
For the trusting public, this makes it appear as though every few days some amazing scientific discovery has just been made. This might give us all our 15 minutes of fame, but means the public get science breakthrough fatigue. 
Eventually, this leads to science agnostism, then cynicism. When landmark discoveries like this appear, they’re lost in the fluff. This destruction of journalism is not only happening in science, but all throughout the media. Everyone is now suspicious of the motives behind any story, and with good reason. This has a number of unfortunate consequences. When scientists tell us that the world is getting hotter they’re ignored. People can choose to believe in whatever they want, whether it is a 7,000-year old Earth, the world’s immunity to rising CO₂ levels, and even Donald Trump.
Let’s hope that the gravitational wave astronomers and engineer’s triumph is appropriately recognised. Many of them have dedicated their entire careers towards this discovery and for once we stand at the dawn of a new era in astronomy, that of gravitational wave astrophysics that has amazing potential for scientific discovery. 
For now I’m fortunate enough to have been invited to the press conference at Parliament house to celebrate with the sizeable Australian gravitational wave contingent that have worked towards this discovery and work out how astronomers can help them look through this new window to Einstein’s Universe.
The professor's point is erudite and extends far beyond newspapers. Many science and futurism blogs across the internet (who will go unnamed) do exactly what he is describing. These individuals simply regurgitate over-hyped press releases that are not first vetted by capable STEM journalists like Carl Zimmer (who is a personal favorite of mine). This causes the layperson to think that our best paradigms throughout the sciences are always about to undergo a revolution. Engineers and medical professionals, from this viewpoint, are always on the verge of creating miracle machines and curing all diseases. Reporting in this manner is dangerous because it creates cynicism towards epistemic progress. "If everything is about to be overturned due to this incredible discovery," the public thinks, "then what is the point in trying to learn something about the sciences and engineering?"

One of the reasons why I think Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980) and Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker (1986) are still, even after 30-40 years, the best works of popular science ever created is that they didn't degrade themselves by pandering to outrageous headlines and discussing how everything we know is about to be overturned. They instead dropped jaws by brilliantly elucidating, defending, and clarifying our most successful theories. This, along with more and better science journalism, is the way to go.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dear Bill Nye the Science Guy, You don't understand philosophy.

Bill is a great guy, but severely mistaken about philosophy.

Dear Bill,

On one of your Big Think posts, you answered a question by a person called Mike about your thoughts concerning philosophy. Before I get to that, however, I want to say I am a big fan of your work. In my opinion, your ceaseless effort to make the world more scientifically literate, your environmental outreach, and tenure as the CEO of the Planetary Society are very admirable. I also love the respect and patience you show children (there is a reason why Bill Nye the Science Guy is still shown in schools) and think its awesome that you are willing to change your mind about GMO's. In my opinion, it takes a lot of chutzpah to admit when you are wrong. Given that you have the courage to reconsider your views, I decided to write you this letter. It contains commentary of your video and explains why I, a fellow skeptic, am troubled by your positions.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


President Donald Trump possesses many characteristics that will make him a unique figure in American history. He, for example, is the first reality tv star and the only person without either political or military experience to get elected. He is also the first president in decades not to release his tax returns. My skeptical side, however, is far more interested in the next president's strange stances towards the sciences and critical thinking. This is because Mr. Trump, as others have put it, seems to bullshit on a level bordering confabulation (especially in regards to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories). 

To demonstrate why I think this, I decided to list five things that he has done that seem to put him in line with the David Ickes and the Jenny McCarthys of the world. Before I get started however, I want to note that I am only pointing out the five that I find to be the most concerning. There also many other examples of him seemingly embracing total bullshit. Some honorable mentions include his apparent rehashing of conspiracies about Hillary Clinton's health, Ted Cruz's citizenship, and Rafael Cruz (Sen. Cruz's father) assassinating JFK (which Trump later denied) and using Dr. Oz (lol) to calm concerns about his own health. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Satires of Intelligent Design

Teach the controversy. 

Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) seeks to (1) discover intelligently designed features of life and the cosmos and (2) attribute its features to an intelligent designer. This is done with the intent of overthrowing the "materialist" sciences like evolutionary biology and replacing them with a teleological view of the world. IDC advocates, however, have to face a dilemma when it comes to identifying this designer. If they say that it is a theistic God (like they would like to), then IDC appears to be nothing more than Old (or, in some rare instances, Young) Earth creationism. This would mean teaching it in public schools in the USA would be unconstitutional. If, however, they don't identify the designer, then their ideas have absolutely no explanatory content. 

One thing that many skeptics have done is to make satirical designers or other untestable entities to point out the absurdity and vapidity of both horns of this dilemma. Some of these predate modern IDC and others are a direct consequent of their cowardly unwillingness to disclose that the designer they have in mind is the god of the Bible. "If the designer could be many things," the skeptic argues, "then why not x?" Or, the skeptic argues, why should we prefer your intelligent designer to designer y?" 

To have some fun with this, I thought I would put together a list a few of the better satires of IDC's design hypothesis. If I missed one that you think is very good, then feel free to add it in the comment section and I will add it to the list. 

  • Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pastafarians argue that the FSM is the intelligent designer of the cosmos that IDC points to. They also argue that their ideas are on par with traditional religions that that they should be protected under the law in the same way.
  • Intelligent Falling is a design based alternative to gravity. Advocates of this new theory believe that the controversy about IF and gravity should be taught in the science classrooms and that the latter is a theory in crisis.  
  • Jibbers Crabst was proposed by The Oatmeal as the identity of the intelligent designer. Matt Igman, the creator of this comic, argues that it is a better account of nature than naturalistic theories like Darwinian evolution.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Ken Ham and low hanging fruit

Yesterday, the Ark Encounter theme park opened. This park, which consists of a 510 foot long "replica" of Noah's Ark, cost millions of dollars and took years construct. It was also (quite controversially) supported by the state government of Kentucky. Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis, the group which oversees the park, is notorious in scientific circles for promoting the teaching of the Bible in the science classroom and for operating the creationist "museum." Ken Ham and his organization teach that modern biology, astronomy, geology, and chemistry ought to be rejected in favor of the pseudoscience they display at their park and museum.

They also teach that the Bible is literally true, provides the foundation for all knowledge, and anything that disagrees with it can and ought to be rejected. As you can imagine, many skeptics and science advocates have been very critical of this theme park and the other activities of AiG. These people, which include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill NyeMichael Shermer, and Phil Plait, have pointed out how strange and potentially harmful Ken Ham and his organization has been. I couldn't agree more with their criticisms.

When skeptics like myself publicly voice our criticisms of AiG, however, we are often told that we are picking "low hanging fruit." If we had any intellectual depth, our critics argue, we would instead contend with the philosophy of sophisticated theologians rather than worrying about fools like Ken Ham. Criticisms like these make is seem as though AiG and similar groups like Creation Ministries International are inconsequential, representative of only a few people, and diminishing in power. This, however, is profoundly wrong.

Creationists groups like Ken Ham's are incredibly well-funded and have succeeded in making creationism a growing, global phenomenon. Historian of science, Ronald L Numbers has painstakingly chronicled how creationism is now rapidly expanding in Australia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. This is on top of the fact that, according to Gallup, somewhere between 40-50% of American are creationists. These organizations also have a lot of money to throw around. This is especially apparent when they are compared to skeptical and science groups like the Center for Skeptical Inquiry and the National Center for Science Education.

There is also the fact that what sophisticated clergy and theologians say is of little or no consequence to what the average American (or Earthling, for that matter) thinks about science or religion. Given that our goal is to promote science and critical thinking in the most effective way possible, it is a colossal waste of time discussing process theology and reformed epistemology. If a theologian like John Haught, however, wants to help defend science, then their help on this topic is appreciated and we can save the metaphysical conversations for when the wine is flowing.

The main reason, however, why skeptics should absolutely go after this strain of pseudoscience is that it is one of the most aggressive and expansionist kinds of baloney. The goal of the creationist movement is to remove modern science from the classroom and our culture and replace it with their own brand of nuttiness (or, when they cannot do that, to "teach the controversy"). The point about creationism being intellectually low hanging fruit (which it is) is irrelevant when they are actively trying to undermine the main goal of the skeptical and science communities and occasionally winning.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dear History Channel

"Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat history class"

Dear History Channel,

For a very long time, you have been detrimental to the historical literacy of the United States. At a time when many of my fellow citizens are shockingly ignorant of geography (link), religion (link), and our constitution and government (link), you use your network and the clout that comes with its name to show pawn shops and conspiracy theories.

With the exception of holocaust denial, I have seen you air programs on virtually every kind of pseudo-history. This includes everything from claims about aliens building the pyramids to shows that seemingly treat the Bible in a literal manner. While it may be good for your ratings, this drivel has contributed to a deep confusion about the methods of historians and archaeologists. If this wasn't bad enough, the shows that you put on your networks which are supposed to be "historically accurate" sometimes contain egregious errors of their own.

An unfortunate example of this is The World Wars. This program, which contains some very cool reenactments, an awesome motion score, and many good historical explanations, contained a very historically inaccurate segment about Lenin's takeover of Russia. Rather than taking the 10 minutes needed to explain the actual history of these events, this program totally omitted the February Revolution and stated that Stalin and Lenin directly overthrew the Tsarist government of Nicholas II. This is a mistake that an A student in a World History class in high school would have caught.

As a citizen of the USA, I believe that you owe the American public an apology. Rather than focusing on swamp people and Bigfoot, you could focus on many other topics that are both interesting and historically accurate. In just about 2 minutes, I came up with the following list:

  1. A history of aviation from the Wright Brothers to the Apollo missions
  2. the role languages have played in the development of man
  3. the dropping and making of the atomic bomb
  4. Galileo's role in the Scientific Revolution
  5. the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution
  6. a comparison and explanation of the major world religions
  7. a legitimate explanation of how the pyramids were actually built 
  8. an examination of the controversial Frontier Thesis
  9. a deep, long look at natural history 
  10. an explanation of the roots and interconnections of american music forms like Jazz and Rock and Roll.
While I understand that drivel may be a slightly easier sell, there are many historical topics like these that inform and entertain. Cosmos and Ken Burns' documentaries show that this can be done. If you were to focus instead on endeavors like these, you would be worthy of your name and would be providing a great service.

Thanks for your time,

a concerned historian