Communicating Skepticism With Your Friends

July 29, 2011

This is a category that can be difficult for all skeptics, especially those of us who are outspoken about our science-based ideals. Should we speak up and debate our friends or should we lay low and avoid being known as the know-it-all jerk. I often wonder if I have a reputation among my circle of friends of being arrogant or self-righteous. Even the most innocent comments or links posted on Facebook can be unwelcome to friends, especially if they strongly believe in that particular thing you are criticizing.

A good example of positive skeptical communication would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, who were friends for a time, despite their differences in belief. I wrongly stated in the parenting workshop that they remained friends until their death, but despite that justifiable correction, it’s generally true that Houdini was very diplomatic about communicating to Doyle his skepticism of the paranormal. Eventually, Houdini’s diplomacy was unsustainable due to his very public activism against the paranormal (and Doyle’s very public belief), and even in their falling out, we can learn that some friendships may be to challenging to save. It just depends whether both sides can communicate with each other respectfully and without too much judgement (or perception of judgement). I was interested to read this excerpt from a letter between Doyle and Houdini’s wife Bess after Houdini died…

“He was deeply hurt whenever any journalistic arguments arose between you and would have been the happiest man in the world had he been able to agree with your views on Spiritism. He admired and respected you –two remarkable men with different views.”

Ultimately, we must remember that there’s a difference between respecting the friend and respecting the friend’s ideas. A true friend can distinguish between the two.

To help bring this point home, I invited Mike Meraz to offer his advice on the best way to “be a skeptic and still have friends”. Mike produced the Actually Speaking podcast, a short-lived series on the theme of balancing skepticism with personal relationships. There were many good nuggets of advice in the Actually Speaking podcast, but Mike has moved on to producing the ever-more-popular Aaron’s World dinosaur podcast hosted by his seven year old son.

Anyway, Mike’s advice on communicating skepticism with your friends is below…

It’s important to remember that we can’t “make” people think, feel, believe, or behave in ways they haven’t freely chosen for themselves. Our friends need to be free to make their own decisions in order for those choices to have an impact in their lives. Assuming a person is happy, healthy and doing no harm to themselves or others, the promotion of skepticism is most effective when based on education, not confrontation. With that in mind, here are 5 tips for sharing skepticism with friends.

Share Without Judging – Don’t set out to change minds or win arguments. Instead seek to share information and inform decisions. Your friend’s choices are their own.

Be A Skeptical Example – Be an model of skepticism for friends. Demonstrate it by sharing your own decision making process as well as how you handle being wrong.

Notice and Praise – Identify and acknowledge areas where friends are already thinking skeptically and encourage them to apply that process in new areas.

Be Supportive – Remember, for growth to occur, people need a balanced amount of both challenge and support. Skepticism is challenging enough… so focus on support!

Accept Your Friends and Choose Your Battles – Allow friends to make mistakes and don’t fight every battle. A strained friendship stops the flow of communication and benefits no one.

-Mike Meraz (and family)


Communicating Skepticism with Your Kids

July 25, 2011

For this entry, I went to a favorite resource, Mr. Dale McGowan, co-author and editor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. In addition to the advice that he gives below, I’d recommend focusing on science and critical thinking (what we do believe) and less on the non-existence of Bigfoot, extra-terrestrials, and psychics (what we don’t believe).

1.  Build self-confidence. The best way to instill confidence is to encourage autonomy. We often intervene too much to spare our kids a moment’s frustration, uncertainty, or failure. An infant crawls under the legs of the dining room chair and becomes momentarily uncertain how to get out. She cries, and Mom leaps to her feet, ushering the baby into the open. A first grader struggles with his seat belt—Dad clicks it into place. A middle schooler gives up on a math problem after thirty seconds, asks for help, and gets it. These rescues add up, and eventually the child sees a moment’s frustration as a brick wall and looks to someone else for help. Who can blame him if he never had the opportunity to struggle and sweat and muscle through those walls on his own?

Skeptical inquiry is the act of a confident, autonomous mind.  It’s the act of someone who believes she can break through the walls between ignorance and knowledge.  If you want inquiring kids, work on confidence—and confidence starts with autonomy.

2. Instill a ravenous curiosity. No one asks questions if he isn’t curious about the answers. Indifference overtakes us soon enough.  Nurture curiosity while it’s natural and wild. The best way to do that is by showing your own ravenous curiosity with “I wonder how” statements — even if you know the answer.
3. Help create not a knower, but a questioner. It seems obvious that the best thing to do when asked a question is to answer it.  But when it comes to encouraging inquiry, it’s actually one of the least helpful things a parent can do: “Mom, how far away is the sun?” “Ninety-three million miles.” Clunk!  The inquiry is closed!  Elvis has left the building!
Many skeptical parents I’ve talked to seem to want to fill their kids’ heads with as many right answers as quickly as possible, as if that will keep incoming nonsense from squeezing into the elevator:  “Sorry, all full of true stuff. Take the next child.” But the idea is not to pack them with answers, but to make questioning itself a pleasurable habit. By focusing on making the process itself positive, you will virtually guarantee the next question. And the next.

4.  Use the language of “aspiring rationalism.” Don’t pretend that perfect rational skepticism is ever achievable. We all inherited a brain that is a layered mess of separately-evolved structures, as well as a high degree of ego-centric and socio-centric biases that make skepticism an uphill battle. It’s delusional to think we can entirely walk away from this mess that’s balancing atop our necks. Giving our kids the impression that we can sets them up for failure. Better to see ourselves as aspiring rationalists, doing our best to  think clearly and well despite the odds. It also gives some much-needed empathy for those who fall prey to their own biases.

5.  Encourage an unconditional love of reality.  The conditional love of reality is at play whenever a healthy, well-fed, well-educated person looks me in the eye and says, “Without God, life would be hopeless, pointless, devoid of meaning and beauty,” or “I am only happy because,” or “Life is only bearable if…”

I want my kids to see the universe as an astonishing, thrilling place to be no matter what, whether God exists or does not exist, whether we are permanent or temporary.  I want them to feel unconditional love and joy at being alive, conscious and wondering. Like the passionate love of anything, an unconditional love of reality breeds a voracious hunger to experience it directly, to embrace it, whatever form it may take.

Children with that exciting combination of love and hunger will not stand for anything that gets in the way of that clarity. Their minds become thirsty for genuine understanding, and the best we can do is stand back. If religious ideas seem to illuminate reality, kids with that combination will embrace those ideas. If instead such ideas seem to obscure reality, kids with that love and hunger will bat the damn things aside.


Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers

Communicating Skepticism To Your Spouse

July 24, 2011

This is the first of a five-part series on the most effective ways to communicate skepticism to people within your social spheres. This was originally part of the “Raising Skeptics” workshop at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas.

I felt compelled to bring this message to TAM because I felt the arguments over tone (such as DBAD) were not directly helpful to skeptics who want better relationships with their family and community. Most previous arguments have focused on the best ways to communicate to the public, but have avoided more personal levels of communication. Within that context, it would be detrimental to take an aggressive approach to communicating skepticism because losing your audience would mean losing a loved one.

With that in mind, please take a look and consider these suggestions. For each category, I’ve solicited the help of an expert within that category. My first expert is an anonymous friend from Atlanta, GA. She is a skeptical activist, but her husband does not share her love of science and critical thinking. Her advice…

When we married, I was agnostic and he claimed to be an atheist, though I don’t know how he arrived at that conclusion – I don’t think it was by extensive reading or deep consideration.

I did much reading, thinking, and research to figure out my position. I was raised Methodist, and though I paid lip service to it, I always had doubts. I did a lot of reading in the Bible, and found that it didn’t seem to say what people claimed. In my youth, I had attended a college prep boarding school and had been required to attend some religious services each week, though they permitted you to choose which. I had many friends who were wiccans, and I went to some of their circles, but the whole thing seemed rather silly and self-conscious.

My husband and I even joined a church and I liked the social aspect, but though I felt like we fit in from a social standpoint, my hackles raised when we got an email urging us not to go see “The Golden Compass” because it didn’t agree with church teachings. I thought, “I’ll decide what movies I will and won’t see, as well as what to think about them, thank you very much.” I tried to believe. I really did. My rational mind kept getting in the way.

I read Francis Collins’ book and still didn’t understand how he could be a theist, and his argument went something like, “I believe because I believe.” Once I read “The God Delusion”, I decided that being an atheist was the only way to reconcile my science training and critical thinking with what I understood about reality. I had never met anyone (to my knowledge) who was an atheist, or at least had never really talked to one, but Dawkins’ logic was compelling.

My husband did not have science training, and sometime during all of this, he began meditating. I don’t really know when he graduated from just meditating to believing in contrails, UFOs, chakras, and most conspiracy theories. Honestly, I don’t even know what he believes, because he won’t tell me. I question, but he shuts down quickly. When alt med or fundamental misunderstandings of medicine are involved, I don’t let these go. Everything else I just quit bothering. Mostly. Having a rational discussion with someone who is not using reason is nearly impossible.

1)Conditional Compromises: Pick your battles wisely (altmed BS is going to require some education).

2) Put the Relationship First: Decide if you would rather have harmony or if you would rather be right.

3) Be crafty: Sometimes I explain principles of critical thinking to the kids within earshot of my husband, hoping he will hear. If he gets mad, I can point out that I wasn’t actually talking to him.

4) Take a gradual approach: Start with less threatening topics then perhaps build parallels with more sensitive topics- you can hope that the believer will extrapolate.

5) Be understanding and respectful: Confront differences frankly, but respectfully. Senses of humor REALLY help.

Thank you, Anonymous! I must say that I completely understand and relate to her experience because my wife was once a student of acupuncture, a type of medicine that lacks plausibility and evidence. One thing that I would add to the above recommendations by my friend would be that we should take care to avoid making fanboy references to every SGU podcast or Mr. Deity episode, and we should refrain from using debate rhetoric (“straw man”) when arguing with a spouse. It can be easy to forget that the rest of the world is not as excited about skepticism as we are. Unfortunately, skeptics live in an insular world that feeds upon it’s own internal drama.

What would you add? Let me know in the comments section.


Parenting at The Amaz!ng Meeting

July 6, 2011

I’m really looking forward to The James Randi Educational Foundation’s annual convention for science and skepticism, The Amazing Meeting 9 (otherwise known as JREF’s TAM9). Yes, there will be the usual skeptical celebrities, such as Adam Savage, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and the recently vilified Richard Dawkins, but there will be other awesome people, such as the tireless parents who produce this blog and the Parenting Within Reason podcast. And on behalf of those of us who are attending, we’re excited to meet you too.

Look for me at the Foundation Beyond Belief table where I will be volunteering to recruit more freethinkers to the cause of active humanism. You can also see me as a guest on the parenting workshop alongside infamous magician Jamy Ian Swiss, sexpert and feminist Heidi Anderson, JREF Education Coordinator Michael Blanford, and Center For Inquiry board member Angie McAllister.

Is there a topic or resource that you want us to share in the workshop? Please let me know.

TAM9 will also mark the end of the Parenting Within Reason podcast. We loved doing every episode and will always have fond memories of our discussions and interviews, but the time and effort that goes into producing each episode has become more than we can handle in our personal lives. It seems that ending the podcast at 50 episodes will be a nice way to conclude the experience.

Hope to see you there! Would love to meet more parents and friends!

-Colin Thornton


Spreading the Gospel of Skepticism

November 21, 2010

I gave a “sermon” at my UU church today on skepticism, and it was such a thrill to share my passion with everyone. One thing I wanted to focus on was outreach – how to be a better ambassador for the idea of skepticism.

Lately, there has been a battle for tone in our little skeptical movement. On the one side, are certain atheists (PZ Myers and friends) who are fairly intolerant of people of faith. Their argument is that there is no room for superstition in the skeptical movement, and that religion should not be immune to our critical analysis. They make a strong point, but they don’t make it very nicely.

On the other side, are people, like me, who want to be more welcoming and accepting of people who choose a path of faith. We shouldn’t shove any belief down the throats of potential allies. Skepticism should be about the process, and not the destination. Skepticism is all about giving people the tools to think critically, and sharing our conclusions for claims that are testable (the existence of god is not one of these claims). Too often, skeptics ruin skepticism’s street cred and jeopardize our greater goals by alienating deists with dismissive rhetoric and an unwelcoming vitriolic tone. I think those of us on the “accommodationist” side need to remind ourselves that it’s not our job to change people’s motives or attitudes. If accommodationists want skepticism to be represented by positive core values, all we can do is our own brand of outreach and not villainize new atheists for having a different tactic ; anything further obsessing over the topic just comes across as sanctimonious to the other side, and it allows them to mock our efforts.

Which is why I spoke to my UU congregation about the positive sides of skepticism, and did my best to represent my accommodationist position. I wanted the congregation to know that skeptics are not some fringe cynical lunatics who disbelieve in everything, as some might think on their first impression. We follow the scientific consensus, which more often than not, puts us in the mainstream.

I also wanted to take the advice of Sean Faircloth of the Secular Coalition of America, whom I interviewed recently, to flavor my sermon with arguments that pack a punch emotionally. I reminded them that Christine Maggiore, an HIV denialist, could have lived a much longer life (and her daughter too) if she had listened to the scientific consensus that AIDS was caused by HIV. I also brought up the dowsing bomb detectors that are based on the long-debunked concept of divination. How many innocent people died because those devices were being used? My argument was that skepticism matters, and I hope that this message hit home with my audience.

I also tried to anticipate some objections, like “who cares whether people believe in bigfoot?”. My argument has always been that somebody cares, and that most people should care about the truth. Nobody likes to hear their beliefs belittled, and very few people are willing to walk away from a belief that they have invested in. But most skeptics aren’t interested in taking away the free-will of people to choose their own path. The skeptic movement is about a method of assessing claims, sharing that method with those who will listen, and supporting the scientists and investigators who use the method in their trade. As I put it to my congregation, does the existence of Consumer Reports magazine take away people’s free will to buy expensive poor quality items at the store? No, but it’s there if you need it, and we should be thankful for it.

I’ve been reading “Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me” by Carol Tavris, which is all about “cognitive dissonance”, the idea that people can’t hold two opposing ideas in their heads, so they tend to justify the idea in which they’re most invested. One paragraph really popped out at me, and it’s when Tavris said that skepticism is a form of “arrogance control”, which seems like a great rejoinder to the complaint that skeptics are arrogant. Who is more arrogant, the person who believes, without a doubt, that he has seen a flying saucer, or the person who recognizes that our minds are evolved to pick out patterns and that the UFO was likely a flare, a balloon, a planet, or any number of other natural explanations? I guess that answer depends on how the message is given, which goes to the points I’ve been making about tone.

I had a number of people come up to me afterward and discuss topics that I mentioned. I really enjoy being challenged. One couple had invested some of their credulity into the possible conspiracy of World Trade Center 7′s collapse and global warming denial. One thing that I admitted to them is that World Trade Center 7 is an unusual anomaly, and that it makes sense to question it’s collapse. But when I was hooked into the 9/11 conspiracy (for a day) I took some time to look at what the skeptics’ arguments were, and I found that the skeptics “had the goods”. As for global warming, I understood their argument that it’s fellow scientists who are pointing to errors in the way the data has been analyzed. I think that’s a great thing because science can be messy, and we should hope that scientists are keeping each other in check. However, as I understand it, the overall consensus among scientists is that AGW is a real man-made threat, and that it’s getting worse every year. Most of all, I tried to empathize with their position and let them know some resources where they could find reliable answers.

One thing I learned while investigating the information for this sermon is that Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were good friends, despite their differences in critical thinking skills. Harry never tried to push the overly-credulous Doyle into skepticism, but instead, he would be very careful about explaining how certain spiritualists could accomplish their supernatural abilities in explainable natural ways. Doyle went to his grave believing in fairies and clairvoyants because he was so heavily invested in his beliefs, but Houdini would never have had a chance to share his skepticism of the spiritualists had he been antagonistic toward Doyle.

I’ll finish with this quote by Carl Sagan, which I borrowed for the sermon from Daniel Loxton:

“And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.”

Amen, brother.


Some Skeptical Clarity to the Unrottable McDonald’s Burger Videos/Photos

October 18, 2010

I’m sure you’ve seen (or at least heard about) the photo project where a plain McDonald’s hamburger has been left out for a half-year now, and it hasn’t rotted away.  Well, I wanted to point you to an article Dr. Steven Novella wrote over at Skepticblog and Neurologica: The Burger “Experiments”.  His view is that the videos and photos are misleading and very bad science.

The infamous hamburger at 180 days

The takeaways:

I note that McDonald’s hamburgers are thin and thoroughly cooked, and will therefore dry out quickly (especially in a dry environment) – too quickly for mold to form. Thoroughly cooked meat should also be free of bacteria to cause rotting. So in the end you will have a dried hard patty, but it will not become moldy nor will it rot.

I do not think there is anything inherent to the ingredients of the hamburger that will significantly affect whether or not it molds or rots – which is the exact implication of these YouTube videos. In order to conclude that it is the hamburger ingredients that are to blame, experiments that control for thickness, degree of cooking, and environment need to be done so that the property of the burger itself is isolated as a variable.

He also spends some time discussing how taking ONE hamburger from ONE store and subjecting it to ONE test makes for ONE interesting observation, yes, but that it’s not nearly enough to use to make big sweeping conclusions like the McDonald’s alarmists are doing.

A similar article over at Salon interviewed some food experts who discussed how things like cooking temperature and fat content can have an effect on the spoilage of a food product.

“Anything that is high in fat will be low in moisture,” says Barry Swanson, a professor at the Washington State University department of food science. And low moisture means less room for mold to grow.

For better or for worse, McDonald’s is no more a chemical laboratory of secret compounds designed to embalm us from the inside than any other processed food maker. A Happy Meal manages to stay unspoiled because it is fatty, salty and practically empty of nutrients — which, really, are all good reasons to avoid it anyway.

So if you want to avoid McDonald’s, at least do it for the right reasons.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go get a Big Mac…

…Rob T. is lovin’ it.™

(Actually, I prefer the double cheeseburger – it has the right meat-to-bun ratio)


Cold Reading and The Wizard of Oz

March 31, 2010

I just pulled out Wizard of Oz from the vaults of the library and viewed it on my home projector. It really holds up after all this time, especially the switch from sepia tone to full color.

The movie, as many know, is based on the 1900 book by Frank L. Baum, but there are some significant differences. For instance, you may not know that the wizard in the book is meant to be her uncle, Henry Gale. This is far different than the movie version, which introduces the wizard’s  counterpart as a traveling con man named Professor Marvel.

http://images.huffingtonpost.com/2009-03-16-images-WizardofOz-untitled.bmp

Professor Marvel takes one look at Dorothy and performs a cold reading…

PROFESSOR

Well, well, well — house guests, huh? And who might you be? No, no — now don’t tell me. Let’s see — you’re — you’re travelling in disguise. No, that’s not right. I — you’re–  you’re going on a visit. No, I’m wrong.

That’s… You’re — running away.

DOROTHY
How did you guess?

PROFESSOR
Professor Marvel never guesses — he knows!

Now, why are you running away?

DOROTHY
Why –

PROFESSOR
No, no — now don’t tell me. They — they don’t understand you at home. They don’t
appreciate you. You want to see other lands — big cities — big mountains — big oceans –

DOROTHY
Why, it’s just like you could read what was inside of me.

Dorothy forgets the misses and remembers the hit, a classic sign that she’s being duped by a cold reader. Professor Marvel sees how vulnerable she is, an easy mark, and he brings her into his trailer to con her some more with a “psychic reading”.

Dorothy is so desperate that she asks this huckster if she can join him. Here we see that this guy really does have a heart; he, like the wizard, ultimately just wants to help Dorothy get home. So, Professor Marvel peers into his little crystal ball, and convinces Dorothy to go home, that her Aunt is in danger. Of course, he also roots around her basket, looking for something that will help him seem clairvoyant. He finds a picture of her aunt and uncle and takes his best shot…

PROFESSOR

Yes, there’s — there’s a woman — she’s… she’s wearing a polka-dot dress… her face is careworn.

DOROTHY
Yes…That’s Aunt Em.

PROFESSOR
Her — her name is Emily.

DOROTHY
That’s right. What’s she doing?

You see how she did that? She just provides Professor Marvel important information that he uses to make himself seem psychic. Watch how she does it again…

PROFESSOR
Well, she’s – she’s going into a little bedroom

DOROTHY
Has it poppies on the wall paper?

PROFESSOR
I said it had poppies on the wall paper! Eh — she’s — What’s this? Why, she’s –
she’s putting her hand on her heart — she’s — she’s dropping down on the….


When Dorothy goes to Oz, she finds a land of people who have faith in this mysterious wizard, but Dorothy only finds a simple ordinary man behind the curtain. People have tried to find meaning in everything from Toto to the Tinman, but the moral of the deceptive all-powerful wizard comes across as a hidden message of atheism and skepticism.

OZ’S VOICE
Do not arouse the wrath of the Great and Powerful Oz! I said — come back tomorrow!

It’s kind of hard to make my point when the movie is full of witches, flying monkeys, talking scarecrows, and cities made of emerald. But, we should remember that the entire premise of the movie is that her adventure was a fantastical dream. There’s no indication that her fantasy was real.

The lion, the scarecrow, and the tin man are given psychological placebos by the old wizard, and they happily gulp it up. Having a diploma doesn’t make you wise, having a medal doesn’t make you brave, having testimonials doesn’t mean you have a heart. These characters are learning that true virtue comes from within, even if the lesson is deceitful in nature. Dorothy herself learns that she never required divine intervention. Instead, she discovers that she’s had the power all along – she didn’t need a god or wizard to save her. And why didn’t Glinda just tell her in the first place? In the spirit of freethought…

GLINDA
Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.


Introducing: Podcast Beyond Belief

February 26, 2010

Sorry, we haven’t had the time to post lately. All of us have been busy with a new project that we’re finally ready to reveal.

We’re proud to announce that Science-Based Parenting, in affiliation with Foundation Beyond Belief, will be producing a weekly parenting podcast for skeptics and secular humanists. Podcast Beyond Belief features the contributing writers of this blog, Laurie Tarr from Rational Moms, Heidi Anderson from She-Thought, and Elyse Anders from Skepchick.

Each episode will feature a round-table discussion of the latest parenting science news, in addition to interviews with well-known science advocates and secular humanists. We’ll also have a regular feature called “THE FAQ”, where we’ll forward on your toughest parenting questions to qualified experts and report back their up-to-date science-based answers.

Our first episode includes a discussion with Dale McGowan, the founder of our “parent” organization, Foundation Beyond Belief. You might also remember him as the editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. Dale spoke about secular humanism, and how those principles fit with the foundation’s ideals. We expect to have some listeners who may not understand what it means to be a secular humanist. It’ll be nice to have Dale’s explanation (and example) of humanist philosophy on our first episode to provide context for people new to the concept of freethought.

Be sure to also check out our second episode next week when we sit down with John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants, the duo who created the new children’s album “Here Comes Science“. The interview went in unexpected directions, and before I knew it, Flans was talking about vaccines, Andrew Wakefield and 9/11 conspiracies.

If you have questions for the FAQ – please send them to podcastbeyondbelief@gmail.com. We’ll pick our favorites to send to the experts for their answers.

We hope you enjoy the first episode. Not to be too apologetic, but please keep in mind that most of us have never produced anything like this before. Please give us some time to get our feet on the ground.  We’ll continue to evolve as we become more confident with the process.


Is Science a Religion?

January 7, 2010

I spent some time explaining my science advocacy to my friends last night. In the course of the discussion, one of them described science as a religion, which I interpreted to mean that they see my enthusiasm for skepticism as being cult-like in nature. It makes me cringe to think that my closest friends see me as being similar to the Jehovah’s Witness knocking on their door on a Saturday morning.

My immediate response to the comparison of religion to science was to agree but to clarify that it’s self-correcting.

Why did I agree?

Well, I can see the intended point that I’m required to believe in scientists and the scientific process to make most of my factual claims. I wasn’t on the Alaskan expedition when the fossil of Tiktaalik, the intermediate species between fish and amphibian, was discovered. I haven’t seen the fossil, except when it was shown on a recent episode of PBS’s Nova. Yes, I must accept the existence of Tiktaalik without being able to analyze the specimen itself, but I must also do the same with most information, as does anyone. Somehow, we all manage to find ways to interpret what is real and what is not.

But, science, as I said to my friend, is a self-correcting belief system. That is to say, if a consensus of scientists were to refute the existence of Tiktaalik (for instance, to say that it was a clay model) then I would revise my belief in the specimen and acknowledge that I was wrong. Before today, I thought that Tiktaalik was the earliest example of a tetrapod, and yet, my evidence-based assumption must be revised based on new findings of footprints that predate Tiktaalik by several million years.

It must be noted that even denialists believe in science. A creationist who denies 99% of Earth’s existence would gladly fly on an airplane to visit Kentucky’s infamous Creation Museum. He, more than likely, accepts the laws of aerodynamics, but does not accept the variety of evidence proving the age of the Earth and natural selection. Why? Because his belief system is not self-correcting – he will never admit when he is proven wrong by a consensus of scientists.

But, the point my friends were trying to make is that perhaps I shouldn’t be so vocal and confident about facts that are tentative. This is a valid argument. Skeptics can come across as arrogant and presumptuous, and that happens when we speak out on issues that lack easy answers. I try my best to not over-state the facts in my posts that concern factually ambiguous matters, such as spanking or Bisphenol-A; instead I try to use language that makes it clear that the content is merely my informed opinion, to be accepted or ignored.

I will not budge on certain points of fact. Someone who tells me that they believe that the Earth is 6000 years old or that homeopathic remedies are powerful cures may as well be telling me that the Earth does not revolve around the sun. As far as I’m concerned, reality doesn’t have wiggle room for creationism or homeopathy. My friends might argue that those ideas never killed anybody, implying that it doesn’t matter whether some people believe in these ideas.

Whatever.

Somebody cares. There’s somebody out there who will throw her “Arnica 30x” in the trash when she hears the truth about homeopathy being nothing but inert sugar pills. There’s a creationist out there who will abandon his belief when he is forced to confront the discoveries in whale evolution. There’s no belief that’s too precious to be questioned. There’s no idea that is to sacred to challenge.  In the end, though, we must have mutually agreed upon ways to define reality. The reality of a young-Earth-creationist can’t exist in the same reality where Carbon-14 has a half life of 5,730 years. Somebody has to be correct, which means somebody has a better tool to assess reality.

I clearly don’t think science is like a religion. Science and skepticism are tools that we use to assess claims, test hypotheses, formulate theories, and create universal laws of nature. What better method could we use to interpret our world?

I don’t think that science is the only way we should filter information. First of all, not everything is tested or analyzed by the scientific method. There are ethical, philosophical, artistic and rational reasons that we make decisions too. Sometimes we make choices based on a hunch, and that’s mostly OK. Sometimes we make choices because of our individual preferences, and that’s mostly OK too. Obviously, I would never want anyone to harm another person, but other than that, I’m not going to judge an individual for the choices he makes, even if they are not based on scientific principles.

Our articles here are mostly filtered through the lens of skepticism. We analyze claims that are important to parents, and offer our point-of-view from the scientific perspective. Many of us have friends and family who disagree with us. That’s OK. We hope that, though they may fundamentally disagree, that our friends (and enemies) respect our perspective and consider our arguments, as we will try to do for them.


The Skeptic Exchange

December 12, 2009

Do you have a question that requires a science-based viewpoint?  Or are you knowledgeable about certain areas of interest to skeptics, and you’re looking for a place to dispense your wisdom?

Or both???

Well, The Skeptic Exchange might be just the place you’ve been looking for.

I first heard about it on Skeptically Speaking, the Canadian radio show hosted by Desiree Schell.  At the beginning of Episode 36 (which was, by the way, an excellent episode with Martin Bridgstock and Kylie Sturgess), Richard Stelling was on the Speaking Up segment to promote The Skeptic Exchange.

Richard and the Bristol Skeptics have created The Skeptic Exchange to be a place where anyone can ask questions, anyone can answer questions, and those who post the best answers get voted up by the community and subsequently earn a reputation on the site.  According to their FAQ, a user’s reputation is

a (very) rough measurement of how much the Skeptic Exchange community trusts you. Reputation is never given, it is earned by convincing other users that you know what you’re talking about.

In other words, it’s a self-correcting community: those who are knowledgeable and competent are displayed as such on the site; those who spout drivel are also displayed as such.  The users then know who to trust and who to ignore.

More from their FAQ on what they’ll cover:

The Skeptic Exchange is designed to help answer question on a wide range of topics, including but not limited to:

  • pseudoscience
  • the supernatural
  • faith healing
  • ghosts and orbs
  • alternative medicine
  • urban legends
  • critical thinking

No question is too trivial or too “newbie”.

The Exchange launched less than two months ago, so it’s still growing, but I recommend that anyone with questions and/or answers head over there and become a part of this growing community.

Even better, if you get in now, from now until Christmas, Skeptic Exchange will be giving away FREE copies of The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (compiled by Ariane Sherine) to the first 5 users over 1000 reputation.  Even Richard himself only has a reputation of 119 as of this writing, so there’s still time to get in, make a difference, and see if you can score a free book!

To me, this seems like the perfect way to get the free-flowing ideas of a forum, with the reputation system to promote the best contributors, all in a skeptical, science-based series of topics.  I encourage you to go check it out.  I’m going to go answer a question or two right now!

For more information, read Bristol Skeptics’ writeup of their Skeptic Exchange at their blog, or just head straight to the site itself: http://exchange.bristolskeptics.co.uk/

..Rob T. has a reputation that precedes him — unfortunately!