Category Archives: Science and Skepticism

Old Posts About the Media

I’m currently working on a post about credulity in science reporting and the problem of “balance.” That may still be a few days off, but in the meantime, here are some of my previous thoughts on the media. These are mostly from older blogs on different platforms. There’s not a lot of substance to many of these, and I will probably mine them for future, more developed posts.

Steakcharmer: PR and Journalism
Though generally about one specific incident, this post briefly touches on a topic I find fascinating: public relations, the news industry and the fake news.

Steakcharmer: Local news hyper over substance.
A brief post on the local stations’ need to get news out before actually having a story. It’s the journalistic equivalent of the Youtube “First!” comment.

Steakcharmer: Science/Health reporting posts number 1 and number 2.
Science reporting is generally bad. The first post talks a bit about that, and the second talks about a study that shows that science reporting is bad.

Steakcharmer: Flaws of Broadcast Journalism (intro to a piece by someone else, linked at that article), News Beef Misinterpreted by Bloggers (just a brief facepalm).

Paperdubs on Vox: Woo in Local Broadcasts (brief post is from 2007 and criticizes the legitimization of psychics and “ancient Eastern practices”).

Paperdubs on Livejournal: The Uncertain Future of the Fake News (2007. Dated, but still interesting if you’re interested in the fake news.)

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What I’m Always Going On About

I’ve been asked a couple of times recently what I mean when I say that I am a skeptic or what skepticism is about, and while the concept is clear in my head, I’ve had difficulty articulating it in a satisfying way. So, here I will try to lay out what it means when I say that I am a skeptic.

First and foremost, I want to be clear that skepticism is not a set of beliefs, but is instead a behavior or attitude. Skepticism means taking a rational, scientific approach to claims to try to sift what’s most likely true or best-supported by the evidence from that which is not. Often, that means debunking myths and pseudoscience. If the ultimately credulous are at one end of a scale and the ultimately cynical are at the other end, skeptics are in the middle. We are open to any and all new ideas, but we also require that claims be testable. We understand that there are no absolute truths, only those things best-supported by the evidence, and we are willing to change our beliefs on a subject when the evidence is compelling enough.

Because we are unwilling to accept extraordinary claims at face value, many people accuse skeptics of being close-minded or cynical. This is, of course, untrue. The skeptic approaches (or should approach) every claim with the possibility that it might be true. However, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, the more outlandish a claim is, the stronger the evidence will need to be for it. If an herb is claimed to have a certain medicinal quality, it needs only to be subjected to the proper scientific tests for efficacy and safety that any other medicine is subjected to. If a claim breaks our current understanding of physics, the evidence for it will need to stronger than all of the evidence that lead to our understanding of physics. I am unwilling to accept a claim just because I hear it, but I am willing to believe that it can be true. This is neither closed-minded nor cynical, but it is pragmatic.

What about certainty? Well, therein squats the toad. Technically, nothing can be known with complete certainty. However, we can agree that when claims repeatedly pass increasingly rigorous empirical tests, they become provisional facts. Likewise, claims that repeatedly and consistently fail empirical tests can be considered to be provisionally invalid. These provisional “truths” are open to change, because science is self-correcting. As the research evolves, so to do the conclusions. This does not mean that the skeptic simply goes around assuming that we know nothing. That’s not practical. Instead, the skeptic is willing to apply reason to any claims, to accept the best-supported conclusion, and to accept the possibility that new findings may change the conclusions. It is precisely this open-mindedness to the possibility of error that separates the skeptic from the believer. The believer, on the other hand, will dogmatically defend their belief even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

So why be a skeptic? Why do I care what other people believe? In some ways I don’t care. If someone wants to believe in alien visitation and doesn’t use this superstitious belief to harm others or bilk them out of money, then that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to indulge in harmless fantasies if they want to. However, there are many cases where credulity and nonscientific thinking can cause much harm. When people are at their most vulnerable — whether they are ill, grieving a lost loved one, or experiencing some hardships — hucksters are ready to pounce. Spreading the value of skepticism and critical thinking will hopefully prepare more people to better separate fact from fanciful claims and avoid becoming victims of these scam artists and frauds.

But it’s not just money and pride that people can lose if they do not approach claims skeptically. There are many documented cases where people have been harmed or killed because of belief in some bogus medical claim or belief in some superstition. Recently, children have died because of antivaccination hysteria based on false claims that vaccines cause autism. It is unacceptable that people would die from preventable diseases simply because of false information.

Above my desire to see hucksters thwarted and to protect those members of society who cannot protect themselves from irrational thinking, though, is simply the fact that I want to live in as rational a society as possible. I do not want my tax dollars being spent by people who lack the basic tools to test claims for veracity. I do not want members of government making legal decisions based on faerie tales. I want to live in a world where I can trust that my fellow citizens are making decisions based on evidence and critical thinking, and not on superstition.

Skepticism is an approach that can apply to any topic that can empirically tested. There are many common themes in the modern skeptical movement. I, personally, am most interested in science-based medicine and confronting the claims of the snakeoil salesmen with their miracle cures. That’s not to say that I’m not interested in new treatments or new forms of medicine, but that any new forms must pass the same rigorous testing as the drugs we’re prescribed by the doctor. It also doesn’t mean that I’m a shill for the pharmaceutical companies; like any industry, the medical industry has its share of bad practices, fraud, and harmful negligence. However, unlike alternative medicine that answers to no authority, science-based medicine is self-correcting and has oversight. Ideally, one day we’ll remove the business aspect from health care altogether.

I’m not just interested in the medical topic, though. Being a former believer of conspiracy theories, I also like to address those when possible, as well as supernatural phenomenon, like ghosts. My friend, Bruce, seems to specialize in confronting claims of the paranormal, cryptozoological and extraterrestrial. The point is, there are many common topics that skeptics find themselves addressing, but the concept of skepticism can be applied to nearly any facet of our lives, as long as it’s something that can be empirically tested.

So, in a nutshell, that’s what I mean when I say skepticism and why it’s something I’m passionate about. To get a more in-depth discussion on the history and modern state of skepticism, I recommend Dr. Michael Shermer’s Skeptical Manifesto. The FAQ at Skepdic.com also answers some questions, though those are answered from the author’s standpoint and do not necessarily reflect universal skeptical thoughts. I would also recommend that anyone interested in skepticism or learning more about it and the pseudoscience it combats look into the work of Dr. Steven Novella and the New England Skeptical Society, which is affiliated with the James Randi Educational Foundation. Dr. Novella is pretty brilliant, and he and his team do a great job of explaining things on their podcast, the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. That podcast was sort of my formal introduction to the skeptical movement and continues to be a great source of entertainment and education.

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Skeptics in the Pub

The Louisville Area Skeptics, the organization that I should have started long ago but never did, had our first meeting this past Saturday at the New Albanian bar/pizza place. It was a fun event, and though there were a few small problems that most events like this are bound to have their first time out, it showed a lot of promise for the future. I’m very happy that someone has taken the initiative to start this group up, and I hope that I can help out as school and work allow in the future.

The first meeting was a Skeptics in the Pub-type event, where Dr. David Ludden of Lindsey Wilson College gave a presentation putting forth the idea that superstitious belief is a byproduct of the higher level of consciousness that humans have evolved. Unfortunately, the discussion got somewhat stuck on the definition of consciousness, though I will argue that Dr. Ludden’s ultimate point doesn’t hinge primarily on whether or not one accepted his definition consciousness. If fact, I think it was something of a mistake for him to even bring that up, though it did make the conversation more lively.

For the sake of his argument, Dr. Ludden put consciousness on a scale. He went on to make a case that at the lowest levels of consciousness, a simple programmable machine is indistinguishable from a simple life form, using a thermostat and a fruit fly as an example.

Colin (aka Ticktock) at Science-Based Parenting points out that this definition of consciousness diverges from the dictionary definition of the word, and I see his problems with it. But I think we can reconcile Ludden’s definition to some extent with the actual definition. If we take the definition “the quality or state of being aware, especially of something within oneself,” we can put Ludden’s minimal consciousness at “the state of being aware” and the higher levels of consciousness being defined as to what extent the object is aware. That is, a thermostat, like a fruit fly, is aware of external stimuli (temperature or hunger) and reacts according to hardwired instructions. The fruit fly has more variables to deal with, but a computer program could likely produce behavior indistinguishable from that of a fruit fly.

Taking that concept further, one can then place various “higher” forms of life on relative a scale. That is, objects further up the scale are aware of more than objects lower on the scale. Those at the minimal level are aware of stimuli. Those at a higher level might be aware of themselves and other beings as individuals. Dr. Ludden did a fair job of illustrating this point, using mental aspects like pattern recognition, memory, logic and extrapolation as sort of benchmarks by which we can measure an object’s consciousness to place it on the scale. It’s not exact, and the lines seem to blur a bit as to where something might fall. Ticktock argues that what Dr. Ludden put at the minimal level of consciousness is not conscious at all, and if one agrees with that sentiment, the rest of Dr. Ludden’s argument gets a lot messier. Despite some possible problems with the definition, however, I was willing to go along with it to see where the discussion was headed.

With this framework established, Dr. Ludden spent the bulk of his presentation climbing that hierarchy of consciousness until he reached humans. He focused first on pattern recognition, which had the unfortunate effect of derailing the conversation again, as he used an optical illusion to make his point. The crowd got hung up on the illusion itself, and I think many missed the point that our brains will change what we see to fit the patterns we already recognize. So if we’re used to seeing two parallel lines converge in the distance, when presented with lines that do not converge, our brain will say, “These must be diverging” and change the image to suit that. We fall victim to false pattern recognition all the time in the form of pareidolia, where we see Jesus in a piece of burnt toast or hear voices in a random series of sounds. So, pattern recognition, a tool we evolved over time, lends itself to being mistaken about reality at times. Fair enough.

Dr. Ludden then went on to discuss pattern recognition as it relates to causal relationships. For example, he mentioned a Skinner experiment where birds would push a button for food. Some of the birds found a pattern, such as holding up one foot while pushing the button, that they associated with the food. In a bird, this isn’t really superstitious thinking, because the bird just sees a pattern and repeats it. Higher-consciousness organisms, such as humans, will fall victim to superstitious thinking by ascribing a causal relationship between the pattern and the result. E.g., I won three straight chess matches because I was wearing my lucky socks. This is a fine distinction to be made, and it gets sticky when deciding what constitutes causal thinking and what is just repeated behavior.

That was pretty much the crux of the argument: we’re hardwired to find patterns whether or not they exist, and we apply causal thinking to events to connect them. This is, in essence, superstitious thinking. And because we seek to confirm our beliefs, rather than disconfirm them, we get set in our ways and continue believing falsehoods despite evidence to the contrary.

I do not, in the end, think that Dr. Ludden made his case in the best way possible. The biggest problem is that we didn’t even need to get into the theory of consciousness. There are many competing theories on and definitions of consciousness, but regardless of what theory of consciousness one follows, it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve evolved certain mental behaviors and capacities. To get into theories of consciousness just adds a layer of conjecture to a topic that doesn’t need it. It’s enough to show that superstitious thinking is a byproduct of our greater mental capacity for memory, extrapolation, pattern recognition and causal thinking.

Despite any problems I had with the presentation itself, it was engaging. The open-floor format made it easier for the conversation to be derailed a little bit, but it also lets more ideas be voiced. I’m interested to see how these meetings will develop in the future. I very much look forward to future meetings and hope to meet more of my fellow local skeptics.

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Addendum

I just realized that in my last post, I mentioned “a couple of clips” and then only gave one example. Below are the other clips that set me off that day. To avoid rehashing everything from the last post, I’ll just say that this is more evidence of completely credulous reporting (if morning shows can really be considered a form of reporting – they’re sort of newsertainment) on what amounts to low-level magic tricks.

First, there’s Connecticut Style‘s segment with relatively well-known Patti Sinclair, a so-called medium in the John Edward vein, preying on people’s grief and fragile emotions in connection to lost loved ones to make money. Note the rather hamfisted cold reading techniques. Dead childhood pet? Really?

Next, there’s clairvoyant Dougall Fraser on Good Morning Texas, giving us psychic advice about Chris Brown and Rihanna and telling us about soul mates. Oh, and he had accurately predicted Obama’s victory. I guess everyone in the effing world is also psychic. Oh, and he has a book to sell and a new one in the works. The new one is about wearing certain colors to change your life. I predict it will suck.

Finally, there’s the video below from WAAY’s 31 News Morning. Again, my apologies for the poor source quality, but my options were limited. This one is particularly hilarious. First, he says that people can come out to a convention to learn about crystal skulls and 2012 end of the world prophecies. This kind of thing blows my mind. It’s like people that still believe the Amityville Horror story, despite the people involved having admitted the hoax. I can’t believe people still buy into crystal skulls. It’s beyond me. Anyway, there’s also a brutal attempt at cold reading and prediction which fails miserably. The anchor doesn’t give him anything to work with, which is pretty funny, especially when he tries to hedge his bets with the elderly family members.

Just think about all of the relevant, important news that could have occupied these spots. Hell, think of the interesting human interest fluff pieces that could have aired instead of these segments. What a waste of resources.

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Dismayed, But Not Surprised

For the past seven years I’ve worked in the media intelligence field, tracking and analyzing news and entertainment media — mostly broadcast news, though the last year I’ve spent working with text and web content as well. In the past, in other outlets, I’ve criticized the manufactured nature of broadcast news and have complained about poor science reporting and credulous reporting on pseudoscience. My working experience has done nothing if not destroyed any faith I might have had in news media outlets.

After so many years, one might think that I had seen it all, that nothing remained to surprise me, and for the most part, I think that’s true. A common phrase among my friends at work is “dismayed, but not surprised,” and that’s generally how I feel when I come across news segments credulously reporting on nonsensical topics. I’ve learned to never underestimate the absurdity possible on the news, but it still perturbs me. Today, I came across a few segments that reinforced these feelings.

WTTE’s Good Day Columbus provides the first segment, in which reporter Johnny Diloretto has his toes read by a low-rent reflexologist. Yes, that’s right: he has his toes read, live on air. The video is below. My apologies in advance for the poor quality; it was all that was available.

If you don’t care to watch, it amounts to two minutes or so of the “reader” explaining that somehow — no explanation offered, of course — certain physical characteristics of our toes reflect aspects of our personalities and/or “blockages” in our lives. It is completely nonsensical and looks like nothing more than a new spin on cold reading, an update on palmistry, using the same techniques that play on the subject’s  inclination to believe, confirmation bias, and selective and subjective validation. Statements are made with no explanation or evidence; it would be no different to see someone doing simple card tricks and claiming with sincerity to be some kind of powerful warlock.

What’s more problematic for me than simply the fact that this made it to air is that the reporter never once questions anything about the process. He plays right along, making little jokes and generally behaving as if it’s all genuine and not at all abnormal. Whether or not he believes in it or is just acting — I suspect the latter — he gives the viewers the impression that this practice has some validity. That’s bad enough, but the whole segment is really, at the base, just an advertisement for the seventh annual Gift of Light Expo, a perfect storm of every type of woo and pseudoscience one can imagine.

This is time that could have been used to talk about real science issues or breakthroughs. Instead, it’s spent advertising a hucksterism convention. Science and health reporting have been suffering in recent years. Science reporting is disappearing, and health reporting is too often reduced to oversimplifications or new studies or outright advertisements for new treatments. It’s a sad comment on our society that we allow real, meaningful news to be supplanted by blatant advertising for what is at best entertainment and at worst a scam meant to serparate the gullible from their money.

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