I received an email today from Tokbox, announcing the following:
When given the choice of having the good or bad news first, we always opt for bad news. So here goes…As of April 5th, 2011 the TokBox video chat and video conferencing service will no longer be available. We promise it’s not you, it’s us.
You can continue to enjoy your premium services until April 5th, 2011 for free. At the time of your next monthly renewal, you will not be charged.
The good news is that the TokBox team will be focusing 110% of our energy on the TokBox Platform and our new API, OpenTok, to bring group video conversations to sites & applications you’re already using.
To learn more, please read our blog post. And as always, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
— The TokBox Team
So, what does this mean for VirtualDS? Well, obviously we’re going to have to find some other way to hold our video chats. It is possible their API will offer some sort of solution, or perhaps we’ll use one of the other services like tinychat (although in my experience these are even more troublesome). Anyway, We have until April to figure it out.
Don’t forget to add the upcoming chats to your calendar (Sharon Hill, Matt Lowry, and an encore appearance of Ben Radford!), and stay tuned for further developments.
Last night’s discussion topic was about 10:23, a now annual and global protest against homeopathic medicine. Originally started by the Merseyside Skeptics Society in the UK, last year, to directly protest Boots’ continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, it has now become an organized protest around the world, loosely organized by volunteers, where the events are run my local volunteer groups. Feb 5th is the designated day for these events, so depending upon which timezone you’re in, there may be one going on near you right now.
Luckily we had a few people on the chat that were going to participate in today’s event.
- Maria Walters, a very active organizer for the Atlanta Skeptics, and volunteer US coordinator for 10:23 protests, was on briefly to describe their brunch and protest, where members from their group will be meeting today to eat (everyone has to eat) and have a presentation about 10:23. They will be making their own homeopathic dilutions to take in large quantities in an attempt to illustrate their ineffectiveness.
- Michael Kruse is the organizer for the Canadian 10:23 events and will be participating in the Toronto protest. Like many of the Canadian protests (7+), this one is being organized by the Canadian Center for Inquiry, a rational educational organization. They will be consuming large quantities of off-the-shelf homeopathic remedies, talking to the press, and doing their best to get attention and to educate.
- Cory Albrecht will be participating in an event in Ontario, not directly organized by the CFI. They are also planning on taking an off-the-shelf overdose, while standing in from the the Parliament building.
In addition to learning about what everyone is doing today, we discussed protests in general and came up with some insights and guidelines:
- A protest can serve two purposes: To gain attention from the media in order to have an opportunity to educate some portion of the general public, but also as a social event, to strengthen relationships within the local group and gain new members.
- Good protests: Organize well and early, pick a relevant target, have designated and prepared spokesmen, alert the press, have materials to hand out, and BE SAFE.
Sometimes things happen on VDS that are not planned, but because the situation arises, opportunity does as well, and next thing you know we’re being treated to a unique experience in the safety of our own homes. Last night Hilary Nelson gave a brief demonstration of fire breathing, from his home in West Lafayette, Indiana. If you click the screen captures you’ll get full size views. He made me promise to add the following disclaimer and safety instructions below.
- Kids – don’t try this at home!
- Don’t think that because you saw how it was done, you know how it should be done. There are a lot of subtle tricks to it.
- If you don’t know those tricks, and do it wrong, you can easily set your hand, your face, and other parts on fire. Think Phantom of the Opera.
- I’ve seen it happen. (He lucked out, and only lost eyebrows and got a blister on his lip.)
- Hi-test ethanol is a really stupid and dangerous fuel, with a high risk for unintentional ignition. All the cool kids (i.e. people who do it for a living) use liquid paraffin: “The best fuel to use for fire breathing is ‘ultra pure clear unscented lamp oil,’ also known as liquid paraffin wax or mineral oil, which is difficult to find in most countries around the world. Improper technique using the proper fuel can still risk mist inhalation, which may cause symptoms such as headache, sinus infection, and lipid pneumonia.”
- To learn more about how to blow fire without ending up looking like Darkman, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_breathing
Links and Other Topics
- Power Balance Complaint Report Procedure
- Anatomy of an Activist Stunt – Daniel Loxton
- Token Skeptic – Little Sugar Pills: Why Fall For Homeopathy?
- Homeopathic Email
- Trochee Fixation
- Quackwatch – Growth Hormone Schemes and Scams
- “Homeopathic” sleeping pills take off the market due to measurable levels of belladonna. (Highland Park? – someone please post a link)
- Submerging Your Feet In Alcohol Will Not Get You Drunk
- Canned tuna exceeds guidelines on mercury: CBC investigation
- Finagle’s Law
- Copper Magnetic Therapy Jesus Bracelet
- The Thank Hitchens Project – Request for videos!
- Overheard: “Shermer is homeopathic Randi sweat”
- Health Canada Approves… for October 6th
- AmIRite? Twitter, Facebook, etc. and the differences.
- Chiropractic doesn’t pay his web provider
- Global Warming and cold weather
Brian Gregory (@briandgregory), Curt Meisenheimer, Chris B, Michael Hogan (@tekphreak), Chris Bourque, Rick Gibson (@ricklesgibson), Michael Kruse (@anxiousmedic), Jeff Randall, Stephen King (@jstephenking), Brianne Bilyeu (@abiodork), Liz Gaston (@liz730),Tana Owens (@DisraeliEars), Brian George (@brianggeorge), Elyse Anders (@dELYSEious), Maria Walters (@masalaskeptic), JD Mack, Hilary Mark Nelson (@hmnelson), Ryan Jean, Cory Albrecht (@Bytor), Michael Cornett (@Vagrarian), Adam Bourque (@a_damn_bourque), Sara Mayhew (@saramayhew)
Announcing “special guest”: Jeff Wagg. He will be joining us on Friday, Jan 28th at 9pm EST for a few hours to answer your questions in ‘virtual’ person.
Having grown up in the “Witch City” of Salem, Massachusetts, Jeff has always been fascinated by the fringes of reality. His question of “Why doesn’t anyone take the paranormal seriously?” was answered one day when he happened across a copy of James Randi’s Flim Flam! Jeff spent five years working for the JREF in many capacities, including running the $1,000,000 challenge, organizing trips, tours and TAM. Now Jeff calls Chicago home, where he’s heavily involved in Chicago Skeptics, as well as running IndieSkeptics.com, a website where any skeptic can have their say. He’s also working on the first annual “Survey of Sketpicism” and promoting his new SkepTours, guided, skeptical trips to destinations far and wide. Jeff is co-host of the weekly radio show and podcast, Rational Alchemy.
IMPORTANT: This will be an official “special guest” chat and will be run according to the these rules, so make sure to add it to your calendar, test your setup for tokbox video, and get ready for an interesting evening. Oh, and put this on your calendar NOW!
Due to many factors, including travel, career, and “life”, I have been unable to update the blog for about a month. I apologize, because I really care for this project and I value the many people that I spend time with on the video chat. In a related fashion, the Social Group chat, originally scheduled for this Friday, has been moved to Dec 17th, and will be the last video chat of the year. Don’t worry though, in January we’ll be coming back with a vengeance – Special Guests galore, topical chats, and more panel discussions.
Sometime between now and then I’ll be posting summaries from the follow chats that have already taken place:
- #44 – 11/5/2010 – Social Group
- #45 – 11/12/2010 – SkeptiCamp Post-Mortem
- #46 – 11/19/2010 – Special Guest: Ben Radford
- #47 – 12/17/2010 – Social Group
- #48 – 1/7/2011 – Social Group
- #49 – 1/28/2011 – Special Guest: Jeff Wagg
Announcing “special guest”: Ben Radford. He will be joining us on Friday, Nov 19th at 9pm EST for a few hours to answer your questions in ‘virtual’ person.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and a Research Fellow with the non-profit educational organization the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He has written hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics, including urban legends, the paranormal, critical thinking, and science literacy.
He is author of six books: Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking (with Bob Bartholomew); Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us; Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures (with Joe Nickell); Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries; Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore (out in 2011 from the University of New Mexico Press); and The Sky Is Falling! A Colorful History of Media Panics (with Bob Bartholomew, out in 2011).
Radford is a regular columnist for LiveScience.com, Discovery News, and Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Radford created Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination, the world’s first satirical board game of religious warfare. He is also a filmmaker, and released two short films: Clicker Clatter (2007), and Sirens (2009).
Radford is one of the world’s few science-based paranormal investigators, and has done first-hand research into mysterious phenomena including psychics, ghosts and haunted houses; exorcisms, miracles, Bigfoot, stigmata, lake monsters, UFO sightings, reincarnation, and crop circles, and many other topics. He is perhaps best known for solving the mysteries of the Santa Fe Courthouse Ghost in 2007, and the Hispanic vampire el chupacabra in 2010.
Radford has appeared on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, the National Geographic Channel, the Learning Channel, CBC, CBS, BBC, CNN, and other networks with three letters. He also served as a consultant for the MTV series The Big Urban Myth Show and an episode of the CBS crime drama CSI. Radford has appeared in publications including the Wall Street Journal, Wired, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Ladies’ Home Journal.
I have no idea how I’m going to do this interview. There is just so much that he has done that is interesting, plus I’m just this guy, with a silly little video chat thing that I do. I’ll try not to be the fanboi. Anyway, I’m sure this is going to be wonderfully interesting and candid discussion.
IMPORTANT: This will be an official “special guest” chat and will be run according to the these rules, so make sure to add it to your calendar, test your setup for tokbox video, and get ready for an interesting evening. Oh, and put this on your calendar NOW!
When I first heard about SketpiCamp on twitter, I wasn’t really sure what it was, but after some of the feedback and video showed up on the web from Colorado, NY, and other places, I suspected whatever it was it was pretty cool. Then in February, Reed Esau, the guy behind these “informal, community-organized conferences borne from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment”, did a “Speaking Up” segment on Skeptically Speaking, and I learned for the first time the details of what was definitely a cool idea. Somehow, between then and now, I managed to socialize the idea enough in the Washington D.C. area that a group of the best volunteers in the world organized and executed what was, in my opinion, the coolest SkeptiCamp in the country (perhaps in north american).
Reed has been on VirtualDS a number of times, including as a panelist on the First Anniversary Episode, and understands the benefit of using video chat for collaboration, even though the technology still isn’t that great. For example, he has encouraged others to use video chat to run their SkeptiCamp planning meetings in cases when getting everyone in the room together is difficult. Therefore it wasn’t too big a surprise when he approached me with the idea of having a “2010 Virtual Post Mortem”.
Here’s a description of the event from the wiki page:
On November 12th, a panel of SkeptiCamp organizers will meet in an online video conference to discuss lessons learned from the past year of events. This is an open event where anyone is welcome to attend.
SkeptiCamp focuses (in part) on producing substantive events within the reach of informal groups of skeptics anywhere around the world. These events most often are put together by inexperienced organizers who must build upon the experience of others who have successfully hosted events of their own. To develop those practices we must collaborate; we must share our experiences of organizing events so that others can benefit.
The video chat will moderated by Reed, and I’ll do the technical end. We’ll be starting at the customary 9pm EDT and although the chat is open to everyone, the number of video slots are limited, so if you want to be heard, get there early. Make sure to read the full wiki page for more information, plus if you are an organizer for a SkeptiCamp event, sign up to represent your group.
Last Friday evening, Daniel Loxton sat in his home office/library and talked to a video camera. A number of us talked into ours back at him. He was fascinating and provocative, and we all had a 3 hour good time. The format of this chat (at least the first half) turned out to be as close to an interview as we’ve ever done. Since I found Daniel’s answers fascinating, I thought I’d try a little something new.
The following is a large excerpt, transcribed from his “interview” (essentially the first half of the 3 hour long chat). I’ve paraphrased the questions to remove my senseless rambling and to clean up some of the awkwardness of trying to have a discussion on tokbox, but the responses are unedited except where noted. Enjoy.
Q: Can you give us a quick run down of where you came from, what your background is, how you became a skeptic, and how you came to work for Skeptic magazine?
Daniel: “I’m from Canada, I grew up in Victoria, BC in the wintertime. My parents were treeplanting contractors so we’d be off in the sticks in the summertime. It was quite a critical minded background, my parents were very suspicious of authority and things of that nature, but we also had a lot of paranormal belief. I grew up believing all kinds of things, I was religious, and got really into paranormal things. I was just rabid for cryptozoology, which if you know my work now hasn’t changed very much. I was just nuts for sea-monsters, Bigfoot, and stuff like that, and really believed pretty much everything: psychics, alien abductions, fire walking, predicting the future. I believed it all, but I think not in a terribly gullible way, if that makes any sense.
At that time the material that was available, was really lopsided, so it was very difficult to find anything that was critical on that stuff. You read ten books on a topic and they all tell you the same thing, you end up having what you feel is an informed view, and yet it was all gibberish. I learned that at a little science fiction convention here in Victoria, BC, called “Icon 2” (and by coincidence I just dug the program up out of the closet the other day – Daniel shows the camera) The speaker here, Barry Beyerstein, who was a CSICOP fellow based in Vancouver, came over as a guest for Icon 2 and spoke on some panels there. So I went to some of these panels and for the very first time learned that there was a whole parallel literature about this stuff that I love so much, and I really had no idea up until that time. We just pelted him with questions from the audience, “What about fire walking? What about aliens?” and I don’t know if any of you guys were ever exposed to Barry Beyerstein, he had this very genial way, this very sweet manner to him, he just wanted to share information and talk to people.
It was a very nonthreatening and eye opening kind of experience for me, I walked out really shaken and excited, and at this point I was just in 10th grade. I got a hold of some of their material; they had a little print newsletter at the time. I went away to university and discovered this big back issue collection of Skeptical Inquirer, and right about that time Skeptic Magazine was hitting the newstands so I discovered that. Before I knew it I was a committed skeptic.”
Q: Can you tell us a bit about shepherding?
Daniel: “So my parents where treeplanting contractors here in BC. Big corporations get a license from the government to cut down a forest and sell it, and then they’re obligated by law to grow a new forest. The problem is the little tiny seedlings they put in are only that tall, and only grow about that much a year, but all these meadow plants that immediately colonize the ex-forest all grow seven feet a year, then all fall down and get snow pressed, then next year they grow seven feet again. This competitive vegetation kills a lot of these fledgling plantations, so you have to do something about it in many cases. So traditionally you’d just nuke it with herbicide from a helicopter, or if there’s some reason why you can’t use herbicide then you’d get a shit load of guys with hockey sticks or brush-saws to physically go and knock down hundreds of acres of fire weed, which is really labor intensive, expensive, people get hurt, and stuff like that. Anyway, It turns out that sheep don’t like conifers and they really like fire weed.
So, my parents are treeplanting contractors, and when the money started falling out of that industry they just made this small lateral step into this new fledgling industry that they helped start of sheep vegetation management. So this Loxton Sheep Company was the company that I worked for, and we hired out grass killing professionally on a big industrial scale, and the tool we offered was sheep. So we’d rent 6000 sheep a year from Hutterite colonies in southern Alberta, and then ship them up to the Alaskan pan-handle and then chase them around these cut blocks all summer, just like a big lawn mower, and ship them home to the farmers in the winter. That’s what I did for 10 years.”
Q: How did this turn into a career writing for Skeptic Magazine?
Daniel: “There were never a lot of silvicultural shepherds in BC, even in the heyday of the industry, there was maybe 50,000 sheep, so about 100 shepherds working at a time, and it was a nice seasonal thing like working on a fishing boat or planting trees. I would herd sheep in the summer, go to school in the winter, read about skepticism, and learn to make pictures. And after I graduated I started doing pro bono work: I did a cover for Free Inquiry Magazine at one point and did some pro bono cartoons for Skeptic. One day they were looking for someone to do Junior Skeptic, take over, they gave me a one-issue shot on that, liked what I did, the rest is history.”
Q: What do you think qualifies you to be a voice of skepticism?
Daniel: “I’ll say at the outset that I think I’m a beginner. I get around these guys like Ray Hyman, who’ve really put in their time, and I think I’m just scratching the surface with this stuff. Which is one of the reasons I stay to narrow specialties when I speak, the stuff where I feel reasonably competent. I try not to speak beyond my expertise if I can help it. I have some academic background, a lot of philosophy, a little science, but mostly just a tremendous background in the skeptical literature. I’ve reading for quite a while and I read a lot of specific stuff. I’m scratching the surface, but I’ve been scratching it for 20 years, so I’m starting to get the hang of some of this specialized literature.”
Q: What is your approach to teaching science, skepticism, and critical thinking to children? Is there a methodology and what should you avoid?
Daniel: “The secret is just to be really really clear. The nice thing is that’s the secret to all outreach, to really focus like a laser on what your actual message is and try to stick to that. Writing Junior Skeptic, I take out a lot of jargon, but good science writing should do that anyway. I take out unnecessary names and dates, we do a lot of comparisons, tell a few jokes, things like that.” (Daniel clearly had more to say on this subject but didn’t get the opportunity)
Q: [Audience] Can you talk about the ethics of skepticism and what that entails?
Daniel: “This is a real central concern for me. As public skeptics, we get up on a soap box and tell people how things actually are. The problem is a lot of the time we don’t say how they actually are or we don’t know how things actually are, and having a soap box means having the power to help people or hurt people, and that puts us at the center of a web of obligation. In some ways it’s not a very welcome message when I say that. A lot of people want skepticism to be a kind of free for all, or an opportunity to take pot shots at people they don’t like, or groups they have no respect for. I don’t know what to say about that, that’s … crummy, that’s not good enough. It comes down to Spider-Man’s Maxim, “With great power comes great responsibility” – with ANY power comes some responsibility. If you’re putting yourself in a position of sharing advice or trying to present yourself like you have factual information, then you have obligations. For me it’s that simple.”
Q: [Audience] – In the past couple years you’ve stepped into a number of “bees nests”, on global warming, atheism, etc. What motivates you [to keep at it] when it must be so painful to deal with the blow-back from stating one’s opinions?
Daniel: “There are people who really like to get into a good fight, get into the thick of things, to debate people, and hash stuff out. I hate that shit, just hate it. I do not like controversy, I don’t like getting into arguments with people, and I’m thin skinned, I really have a hard time with hecklers and barbs. So I really don’t like getting into these controversies, I just feel obligated. It’s just what we were talking about before, I feel ethically barred from being silent on many of these topics. I see the good that skepticism can do if it’s living up to its potential, and I see it can do harm when it fails to. I just have to speak out sometimes.”
Q: [Audience] – As a follow up to that, Do you think your involvement has ultimately had a positive effect, or do you think it may have been more divisive?
Daniel: “I don’t really know.” (Unfortunately, Daniel didn’t have a chance to elaborate due to technical issues)
Q: [Audience] – We keep on saying there should be a separation of church and state. Should we also be looking into a separation of skepticism and atheism?
Daniel: “I definitely think there should be, but that’s not quite how I’d put it. I just think there is a fundamental difference between scientific questions and non-scientific questions. There’s a difference between questions that can be investigated and possibly answered, and questions that are just a matter of personal internal reflection. There isn’t a line of separation between skepticism and religion, there shouldn’t be. Skepticism tackles all testable claims, all claims that can actually be investigated. It’s better at some kinds of claims than others, but it’s really unable to address claims which are values claims or about metaphysics. We’re just powerless to answer those questions, it would be nice if we could, but we can’t, science can’t.”
Q: [Audience] – Would you give an example of a metaphysical claim?
Daniel: “How about the claim, “I have a soul”? Not only can we not test it, we don’t even really know what it means. When we try to probe the definition of soul, we just get gibberish. It never rises to the bar of being scientific, we have no window into that claim because we don’t know what’s entailed in it.”
Q: [Audience] – If a person claimed “I have a soul” couldn’t that claim be rejected out of hand because the notion of a soul is undefined?
Daniel: “Well, think about it like this, if I said “On my way to work today I saw a schmiznet.” The correct answer for a consistent skeptic in my mind is not, “That’s impossible” but “What is a schmiznet?” maybe that’s true, maybe you do have a soul, I have no access point, I can’t address it. I don’t know. It may be forever, by all definitions, outside the realm of science, maybe at some point it will be inside the realm of science, some versions may be on either side but, you’ve got to specify. This is the same headache that the JREF people go through every time they try and nail down a claim for the million dollar prize. What exactly are you talking about? If you just daydreaming or making words up, or that kind of thing, maybe it’s true, maybe isn’t not, but we have no way to address it, when you get back to us with a concrete claim we can figure out if it’s testable or not. They’re just utterances.”
Q: What do you think about the recent attempts to use science to inform morality or to make moral claims?
Daniel: “My instinct is that attempt is, depending upon how you mean it, either self-evidently true or permanently doomed. If you’re saying, “Can we find stuff out about the consequences of actions?”, then yeah, sure we can find out lots of stuff, we can find out what things have what consequences and to what degree. If you mean, “Can we design a litmus test for goodness?”, sorry we’re out of luck on that.”
Q: What do you think are the biggest problems for skeptics in general?
Daniel: “Well, the same things I’ve been on about for a while. The hybridization of skepticism with atheism, with libertarianism, sometimes with secular humanism, these kinds of diffusing forces I think are real problems. And sheltering science denial, for the last 20 years, we’ve had an emerging scientific issue, where there’s a body of peer reviewed literature, there is a much less equal and contrary pseudo-scientific critical body of literature, and the people who are supposed to step into that mass and sort things out for the public, traditionally those are skeptics. We’re the ones who step in and study creationism and sort out for the public what exactly is real about the history of life. We should be the ones who should step into a question like global warming and try to explain to the public where the pseudo-science is, and I think we’ve done a crappy job, just really dismal, to the point where even today you’ve got leading skeptics that take the public position that global warming simply doesn’t exist.
It makes me feel a little despairing actually, that particular topic. I see it as really skepticism’s biggest road test yet. Are we collectively, our institutions and media, up to these challenges? When big scientific questions come along and there’s an opportunity to help the public understand the science, are we up to the job or not? On global warming, the answer is clearly not.”
At this point, Jeff Wagg, who had been listening to the conversation, joined in the discussion. [edited by Jeff for clarity]
Jeff: “I have to be very careful when I say this, I’ve never been a denialist, basically I’ve just said that, “Hey, some of this looks like woo to me.” and the reason I said that is because the AGW issue is politicized on both ends of the spectrum. There are groups motivated to prove that it’s not real, and there are groups motivated to prove that it’s real, without either of these groups looking at the actual science. It’s also very complex. However, I had a talk at TAM 8 with Simon Singh about this topic and he pointed out something to me that should’ve been very obvious from the start. There are many external things about the AGW issue that look like crap.
AGW is unique in that there are a lot of flags that skeptics can pick up on and say, “hey this doesn’t look real”. It’s a very complex issue with a lot people making predictions that seem very dire, just like 2012 for example. Now, it happens that this is an actual scientific issue – it’s somewhat testable although it’s very complex and there are scientists looking at it. And I think, Daniel really came to the fore here and said, “look scientific consensus either has value or it doesn’t.” The scientists have a consensus that global warming is actually happening and that warming is being caused by man made activity. The issue which we still need to decide is, whether there is anything we can do about it.
One thing I have a big problem with, and I’ll have to fault Daniel for this, is that people compare AGW to evolution. It is a completely different issue. It has different shapes and different sizes and it doesn’t fit in the same box. Evolution is only political on one side. There are people denying evolution without looking at science, but there is no one promoting evolution without looking at science. With the global warming issue we have the radical environmentalists who are like, “Yeah, human activity is evil evil evil.” “
Daniel: “I take all of those points, I think it sums up a lot of the discussion. I think that I differ on the evolution point, I think that it’s a better analogy that Jeff does. One of the reason is that, if I understand Jeff correctly what he is saying is that people who defend evolution or talk about evolution, it’s easier for them to understand what is at stake, so people have a more informed opinion, is that along the right lines? But that informed opinion is a little bit of an illusion. I wrote an entire book about evolution. It’s been reviewed really well. I don’t know crap about evolution, honestly, in a professional sense. I am not a qualified scientist on that topic. I’m not remotely qualified.
My younger brother, Jason, is a paleontologist, he’s just finishing up his degree, his doctorate. When he goes to a professional meeting and talks to people who are just half a step outside his tiny little window into the ordovician. He is completely out of his depth, to the point where he doesn’t even know what they’re talking about, and he his somebody who brings that same passion that I have for these skeptical topics, to the wider topics of paleontology and evolution, and yet even he is really completely lost once he steps out of his sub-sub-sub-specialty.
He was the one who forced me to accept this question about what lay-skeptics can really say about straight science topics, and I didn’t like it when he brought it up. I saw the skeptics literature as having a kind of right to hash out these scientific questions. The more I think about it, the more that I deal with scientists, the less qualified I think we as lay-skeptics are talk about such things. I don’t think we have any choice but to defer to experts and I don’t think we have the ability to criticize experts very well. I think that the best we can do there, is to defer to other experts or to experts in related fields. If there’s something fishy about the paleontology you’re doing, you’ll have to turn to the geologist to find it, or something like that.
That’s why I’m always hammering about this traditional skeptics stuff, because it has public utility, there are no better experts available. So we’re it, if we don’t do it then nobody does it, and we can actually make contributions in that field because the literature is so crappy. It’s possible for me with my limited expertise to make headway on a topic like the Loch Ness Monster, but there’s really nothing I can contribute to these high level discussions in mainstream science topics.”
Q: [Audience] What is the definition of “modern skepticism”?
Daniel: “It’s a really good question and it comes up all the time. A lot of the kind of flame-wars that erupt online are really unnecessary, because we’re talking about two kinds of skepticism, or multiple kinds. There’s probably as many kinds of skepticism as there are skeptics. The kind of academic skepticism, that tradition, they have a legitimate use of the word, and have for couple thousand years. If that’s the kind of skeptic that you are, then I have no argument with that. It’s not my field, so I won’t try and tell you how to run yours.
The kind of skepticism that I work within is a much more modern tradition. It’s funny, I’ve been digging more and more into antecedents of modern scientific skepticism, a lot of these 19th century books like “Humbugs of New York” or “Extraordinary Popular Delusions“, and of course Houdini’s work, and Barnum’s work, all these things that feed into a moment in the 70’s where people said why don’t we give a common name to this kind of project, give it a mandate, and see what we can make of it. That very narrow kind of skepticism is where I work.”
Q: [Audience] What resources would teach us as laymen the basics of global warming?
Daniel: “You can actually read the IPCC report, there’s a shorter one that is like a primer for legislators. That’s not a bad place to start. There’s a great site in Australia, Skeptical Science, he does a really good of going over these things is great detail. It’s like a lot of kinds of skepticism, it’s one thing to be a contributing expert in the field, it’s very different thing to become an expert on the opposing pseudoscience. Going back to evolution, biologists used to just get the floor mopped with them when they’d go up against guys like Duane Gish, it was necessary to develop a community of experts, that were experts in bullshit. They were experts in the crap that people bring out in these debates, which is a whole different subject. You get into a debate about evolution, very little of it is about evolution, it’s about the arguments against evolution.”
Q: [Audience] Can one develop an expertise in countering bullshit arguments, as long as they defer to experts?
Daniel: “That is exactly right. That is exactly what I recommend: that we develop the expertise to address the pseudoscientific questions which often the scientific experts are not prepared to deal with. It’s off the radar, or it just seems too crazy. That’s where we can actually have our greatest positive impact, is by being relevant experts for those things. An example I’ve been using a lot recently is these bomb detector dowsing rods in Iraq. Dowsing has been understood for 150 years, scientifically. It’s not a live issue, in scientific terms. Prior to the Iraq thing, it was considered a really quaint, kind of passe thing in skepticism because it’s just so obviously harmless, “kinda dumb”, we’ve dealt with it many times, and “does anyone really believe dowsing?” but these things mutate sometimes and the become suddenly lethal. When that happens it’s really a social service to have experts available to step in and address those things. The JREF, Hal Bidlack, and James Randi, they have the expertise to address that question when the media suddenly needed them, and that saved lives.
One of the great lessons of skepticism is that nothing ever goes away. It goes down for a little bit, then it pops up somewhere else. Sometime when it pops up it’s a joke, and other times it’s dangerous.”
Q: It seems that there is a quite a bit of “newbie enthusiasm” in skepticism, especially online, while many individuals with 30 or so years of experience, but have little internet exposure, remain unknown. How do we take advantage of this new energy and enthusiasm without losing the “brain trust” of those who have been doing the work of skepticism for a long time?
Daniel: “I think you nailed something really really important, this is kind of like a practical issue. We often see cases where new skeptics are wading into things, even getting catapulted into reasonably prominent positions, knowing very little, particularly about the older literature. There’s been 30 years of stuff discovered about the paranormal, and new skeptics not only aren’t familiar with it, they might not realize that it exists. If you go from “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe”, to the JREF forum, to your favorite blogs, you may be able to do that and become a self-identified skeptical activist without even realizing that the print media or the regional organizations exist. I’ve seen that fairly often.
At the same time, what you’re talking about with these older groups, some of these are dwindling in membership or they’ve been going for a long time, and they might not realize that there is a Facebook, or “what’s a blog?” New skeptics will get involved in those groups and just be astonished that they’re in obscurity, they’re churning out a little regional newsletter with the photocopier, and they have no idea that there’s been this golden age of skepticism which has developed in the last 5 years. Tens of thousands of excited young people, people of all ages, WOMEN, image that? These little groups might’ve labored for 20 years and never seen anybody involved who didn’t have gray hair. Huge changes have happened, just since I wrote “Where Do We Go From Here?” the entire scene has changed, and traditional skeptics often don’t know. So bridging those two populations is really practical work that has to happen.”
At this point in the chat the interview format broke down as others on the chat became comfortable adding into the discussion. Unfortunately these discussions are very difficult to transcribe, so I won’t post them unless someone really wants them. (Ahem, donations are accepted)
Thanks everyone who spent the time on the chat, and thanks Daniel for sharing your time with us.