Follow by Email

Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Welcome to Skepticism. (what it means to be a skeptic)

Greetings folks, hope that everything has been going well.  Things are hectic at the Skeptical Okie Headquarters partly due to the horrendous damage due to the tornado.  We didn't suffer directly, but friends of ours did.  Our thoughts are with the people affected by the tornado.

A lot of interesting things in the news lately including small flying robots, a guy demonstrating a gun made with a 3-D printer, Eugenie Scott retiring from the N.C.S.E., a possible cure for H.I.V., and in the interest of having an Oklahoma topic, pet owners turning to alternative medicine for their animals.

And now for the main issue.  I am relatively new to the skeptical movement.  In this, I mean as an active participant.  Most of my life I have doubted aliens, ghosts, bush doctors (Homeopaths and Naturopaths), psychics, faith healers, conspiracies, and the list goes on.  Unfortunately, I live in Oklahoma and expressing doubt on these is tantamount to kicking a baby.  I just kept my mouth shut, and tried to ignore the Woo that was being bantered about.  Then about 3 or 4 years ago, my wife mentioned a podcast called "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe".  I thought it was an extension to "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"  I listened to a couple of episodes and thought "Damn, there are other people like me!"  This was also my introduction to podcasts in general, but that is merely an interesting side note.  To date, I probably listen to  2 dozen skeptic or science based podcasts, not including a couple of steampunk based and of course Scott Sigler (everything the man writes is golden.  Horror stories based on actual science,  and some excellent sports stuff also.  If you haven't heard him yet, go check him out on i-tunes or at and tell him I sent you.)  In that time, from skeptic fledgling to today, with a skeptic blog, working on starting a skeptics society, and trying to come up with a format for a podcast that hasn't been done to death, I have noticed a few things, especially in Oklahoma.  So I thought that I would try and write a short guide to help you on your path to becoming a full fledged, card carrying skeptic.

If you look in the Oxford English dictionary, "skeptic" is defined as
  • 1a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.
  •  a person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions; an atheist or agnostic.
  • 2 Philosophy an ancient or modern philosopher who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief, in some sphere.

This is pretty much what we are, and what we do.  Many people use cynic interchangeably, claiming that we don't trust anything that doesn't fit within our strictly defined, dogmatic views.  What a true skeptic actually does is keep an open mind, just not so open it falls out.  (I did paraphrase it, but I love that line, and if anyone can tell me who said it, 25 instant cool points)  We are actually more subject to changing our minds on a topic as more information becomes available.  We think in much the same manner that science works.  As more information comes to us, our ideas are modified, enhanced, or discarded.  Yes, we are human, so we are subject to the same biases that everyone else is, but a skeptic does try to account for their personal bias when making a decision.  Another term often lumped in with skeptics is "atheist".  For an example, look up any big time skeptic on Conservapedia and you will find atheist tied to their name.  An atheist is someone that doesn't believe in a god, and was a term I hadn't heard until I was in my late teens.  As Penn (of Penn and Teller fame) often says, and again, I'm paraphrasing, everyone is atheist to one god or another.  Christians don't believe in Vishnu, Muslims don't believe in Odin, and so on.  Granted, many skeptics are either atheist or agnostic, but there are some that are believers.  They feel that there is sufficient evidence, if not for "God", then some higher power.  Who is to say they're wrong?  You can't prove a negative, so it is impossible to prove God doesn't exist.  These people don't let their religious beliefs cloud their judgment when it comes to the facts, which I know sounds like a bit of a paradox.  In the end, a skeptic is someone that looks at all the evidence, and then uses the evidence to make a decision.  They are not a cynic, and atheist, or a "Star Wars, Star Trek, Science loving, God hating egotistical, elitist Know-it-all".

Something else that quickly becomes apparent if you listen to enough speakers or podcasts is the fact that the skeptical community loves to have a label for things.  Most of this I think stems from the fact that most of us are what used to be called "type A personalities".   This is also the reason that there aren't many very many rigidly structured groups.  You think herding cats is hard, try herding a room full of skeptics.  Some of the common labels you'll hear are : alt med, pseudoscience, logical fallacy, or just fallacy for short, fundie, skeptic, you kinda get the idea.  most of the labels are self explanatory, with the exception of the logical fallacies.  You may have heard the terms ad hominem, ad hoc,  and the like.  These are terms used to label logical fallacies in debates or arguments.  These also have an english translation, and these are used also.  There are so many permutations on these that without a solid background in philosophy or debate, it would take several posts just to go through the most common ones.  Wikipedia has a good list with definitions, as well as The Skeptics Dictionary.  The terms you will often hear in the skeptical movement are used to  group ideas or arguments into easily disseminated bites.  If you don't know what they mean, simply ask.  Skeptics promote education, and are more than happy, normally, to explain any term you don't understand.

Another thing you'll encounter as a newly minted skeptic is Woo.  This is a term that has been about for a few years to describe pseudoscience and myths.  There is a good rule of thumb when trying to determine if something is bullshit based or plausible.  If it's some form of Woo, at some point , you will probably see or here one of the following phrases or words:
Big _____ (insert any business group or government here), Conspiracy, Wellness, Holistic, They don't want you to know, sheeple, Cancer cure, Detox, Natural cure, Ancient techniques, Ancient knowledge, Metaphysical, Quantum, Deepak Chopra, Secret knowledge....yeah, you kinda see where this going.  Normally, if you see or hear any of these terms, you should take care with any of the information that's being presented.  When people are trying to sell a product or service that has no evidence to back their claims, they will normally resort to using claims like these that can not be proven.   When they are tested and fail, the proponents will either use the fallacy known as "moving the goal post" which means that they change their requirements for proof, or they will use the very popular "special pleading" which they basically say that some aspect of their issue can't be tested by any known science.

Coming into the skeptical movement today is sort of like jumping off of the high dive into 2 feet of water, before learning how to dive.  It can be overwhelming, confusing, and a little stressful.  Don't be discouraged, ask questions, and feel free to be yourself.  The skeptical movement is for everyone.  So look for a group near you, and see what they're up to.  If there isn't a group and you don't want to try and start one, contact Center for Inquiry, James Randi Educational Foundation, or The Skeptics Society.  there is a place for everyone, and they do provide a sense of community for many of us.

I know this post is a little more rambling than usual, and I will admit I was rushing it to try an get it out.  Please forgive me on the meandering writings of a mildly sleep deprived skeptic.  Until next time, Be good, Be Skeptical, and have fun.

The Skeptical Okie

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New Skeptical activism project. I need your help!

Hey folks, I hope you've been enjoying the blog so far.  When I started, I had intended it to be about skeptical issues concerning Oklahoma, but it quickly evolved into an entirely different beast.  I still cover the occasional Oklahoma topics, but they are normally just a thread in a much larger tapestry.

 And on that note, I recently had an idea for a new activism project.  A major part of the skeptical movement and being a good skeptic is consumer protection.  So with that thought, I want to find as many commercially available items that are based on a pseudoscience as I can.  Then I will either go to their website, or contact them directly and see how they claim it works (quantum mechanics, healing energy, chi, chakras, bio-mechanical, bio-electrical, natural cure, boost immune systems, etc..) and try and get their research, if there is any, and check it.  If it's feasible, I will either have it tested or perform the test myself and compare the manufacturers claim to either what actually happens or what the experts have determined, depending on my ability to test the claim, and preexisting research.  If there is a major discrepancy, then I am going to confront the manufacturers with the results and expert opinions and see what they say.  Then I'm going to post the results for everyone to see.

This is where your assistance comes in.  Basically, I'm giving you a homework assignment.  What I want you to do is contact me with any Woo or pseudoscience product you find.  This can be something you see in a Sunday paper advertisement, walking the aisles in your favorite (or least favorite) store or pharmacy, a product someone tells you about,  or even a late night infomercial.

There are a few ground rules:
1) No psychics or faith healers- The ones you see may not be local enough for me to test, and some of them are damn bloody expensive.  Remember the skeptical movement isn't actually backed by Big anything, so cost is an issue.  Unless someone wants to help fund the testing, this has to be done on my budget of minimal dollars and 0 cents.  If someone is willing to fund part or all of the evaluation of a psychic, faith healer, reiki healer, or anything along those lines, send me an e-mail, and we'll talk.
2) Nothing potentially deadly-  I am not going to use dowsing rods on live explosives to find out if they actually work or not.  2 explosions are enough for my lifetime.  And yes, people have asked me to test things like rattlesnake repellents and a "mystical chi shield" (I still have no idea what it was supposed to do, but the watermelon didn't suffer long.)
3) It must be an actual product- It can't be "I heard about a thing that does a thing from a guy in the hallway."  Imagined products are worse than imagined results.  I could waste a lot of time trying to chase down something that doesn't exist.  This leads to the final rule.
4) Send as much information as you can-  The name of the product is a good start for me to start looking, but the manufacturer, any associated websites, news articles, press releases, and other information makes the research process much easier, and it will allow me to get as much information on the item or service as I can before either testing it, or presenting it to someone that can explain what actually is happening versus the claim(s) the product makes.

So that's it.  Send me the dubious or crap products you encounter, I'll check them out, and possibly confront their makers with the facts and ask them to explain their claims.  The idea is similar to what the Australian Skeptics did with the "Power Balance Band" and they actually got them to issue refunds. This is just on a larger scale in terms of the number of products.  You can leave your suggestions in the comment box at the bottom and I'll get back to you.  Make sure to mention the Questionable Products Project so I know it's not a random troll on the page.

Everyone at The Skeptical Okie Headquarters thanks you for your help on this project.  I doubt we'll be able to do much to effect Big Alternative Medicine (B.A.M.?), or any other Woo mongering businesses out there, but if we can bring the facts and data to an even broader public awareness, maybe we can save some people a lot of trouble down the road.  Until next time, Be good, Be Well, and Be Skeptical.

The Skeptical Okie