The Science Game

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting of the UMD Society of Inquiry, the local student skeptic group, I conducted a psychological experiment on those attendees who didn’t need to rush off for other appointments.

It was a variation on the game of Twenty Questions. But instead of a person or thing, I’d think of a rule or category, which the players had to guess. And instead of trying to guess directly what category I had in mind, the players would call out a specific example, and I’d tell them whether it was in the category I was thinking of. Actually, I asked them to name both the category they were thinking of, and a specific example; but I’d only tell them whether the specific example fit my category, not whether the category they were thinking of was correct.

For example, I might think of the category “types of cake”. A player might say, “the category is vegetables, and the example is carrot“. I would then say yes, because carrot cake is a type of cake. The next player knows that “carrot” matches the rule, and might say “orange things, and the example is red hair”. To which I’d say no, because there’s no such thing as red hair cake.
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Casual Superstition

This news item caught my eye because it’s a “news of the weird” type of story:

NEW YORK — A New York City man who plunged 40 stories from the rooftop of an apartment building has survived after crashing onto a parked car.

But then there was this bit:

The car’s owner, Guy McCormack, of Old Bridge, N.J., told the Daily News he’s convinced that rosary beads he kept inside the Dodge saved Magill’s life.

Can we please stop lending credibility to such obvious superstitious nonsense by repeating it uncritically?

If the car’s owner had attributed the man’s survival to a statuette of Ganesh on his dash, or a voodoo amulet, or a lucky Mickey Mantle rookie card, would it be taken as seriously? If not, then why are magic beads more plausible?

ObPunchline: You’re a mean drunk, Superman.

Respecting Everyone’s Beliefs

There’s a phrase that’s been annoying me lately. I don’t know whether it’s a new thing, or something that’s been floating around for years but only recently came to my attention, but it’s been bugging me.

“We should respect everyone’s ideas.”

This is exactly wrong. There are plenty of ideas out there that don’t deserve respect: the idea that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, that the ACLU hates America, that the Earth is flat, that good deeds are pointless unless you also believe in a Jewish zombie, that farts should be used as currency, and many more.

Respecting people, now that’s something else entirely. Everyone is entitled to certain rights, simply by virtue of being human. People can lose those rights, like a criminal who goes to prison and loses his rght to go where he likes, but every person starts out with a core set of rights. A more pedestrian example is that I tend to start out believing that you are a basically decent, honest person until you demonstrate otherwise.

But ideas are not people. They don’t suffer when they’re abandoned or overturned. They don’t feel shame when they’re shown to be idiotic, nor do they get lonely when held only by a handful of loons. Eliminating an idea is nothing like killing a person.

Of course, the problem is that many ideas, particularly religious or ideological ones, are tightly wrapped up in people’s sense of identity or self-worth; so saying that someone has a stupid idea or holds a stupid belief feels to them as if they’re being told that they themselves are stupid.

And so “all ideas should be respected” is really cover for “don’t criticize my religion”. The reasoning seems to be, “We both hold ideas that we’re not willing to abandon, even though we realize that they can’t stand up to critical examination. So I’ll agree not to shoot down your weak ideas if you’ll agree not to attack mine.” This seems to be the truce entered into in civilized countries where religions and other ideologies aren’t allowed to impose themselves through force of arms anymore.

But of course it all depends on all participants having weak beliefs that they want to protect. Along come skeptics who don’t want to hold weak beliefs, who want people to point out their false beliefs so they can get rid of them, and upset this unstable balance.

So fuck beliefs. They don’t automatically deserve my respect.

Now, I have friends (of the “I’d help them move a corpse, and vice-versa” variety) who hold wacky beliefs. (Mostly religious ones, as you might expect.) And yes, there are topics that, by mostly-unspoken agreement, we venture into only rarely. But that’s because I don’t want to upset my friends (see “sense of identity and self-worth”, above). In other words, it’s about respecting the person, not the belief.

Sheep and Cats

One expression I’ve heard a lot lately (most recently at TAM 8) is “herding cats”. As in, organizing skeptics/atheists is like herding cats. The implication in most cases was that this makes us nearly impossible to organize into groups.

I think this conclusion is unwarranted. The reason it’s easy to herd sheep (or cattle, or other herd animals) is that they tend to stick together and do things as a group. So all you need to do is get a leader or bellwether to go where you want, and all the others will follow, because everyone else is doing it. In other words, proverbial sheep feel strong peer pressure, while proverbial cats feel very little.

But it doesn’t follow from this that cats can’t be directed where you want them to go. Rather, you need a different approach. It’s not that proverbial cats are contrarians who refuse to do what every other cat is doing; rather, it’s that they don’t give a damn what the other cats are doing, and will go where they like, for their own reasons.

If you’ve ever had a cat, you know that all that’s necessary to summon it is to make the sound of a can opener, or shake the can of treats, or open the laundry dryer. In other words, you have to give the cat a reason to come, other than “I said so”. This approach scales well: shaking the can of treats can summon five cats as easily as one. Each one makes an individual decision to go where the treats are, regardless of what the other four are doing.

And that’s presumably what happened at TAM: 1300 people, who would respond to “Come on! Everyone else is going!” with a shrug and a “So what?”, looked at the program and individually made a decision that that’s where they wanted to be. The same thing happens at any number of smaller associations.

In other words, you can’t herd cats by pushing them. But you can gather them in groups by inviting them, by giving each one a reason to show up.

And by the way, I see a parallel between this and the following: why is it that “Everybody knows that this country was founded on Christian principles, so that’s what we should teach in schools” is an argumentum ad populum fallacy, while “99% of biologists accept evolution, so that’s what we should teach in schools” isn’t?

In the first case, people’s ideas are not independent, but rather influenced — and perhaps determined — by those of the people around them. In general, ideas can spread not because they’re true, but because they’re popular. In the second case, for the most part, every biologist has been exposed to the evidence for evolution, and ideally has come to an independent conclusion. That is, the first conclusion is popular because it’s popular. The second conclusion is popular because there are lots of ways to look at the evidence, and they all point to the same conclusion.

On the other hand, choreographing cats, now that’s a challenge.

Some More on Not Being a Dick

In an earlier post, I talked about Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk at TAM 8.

This time, I want to look at the other side of that. To the question “does this mean we have to be boring lecturers all the time?”, I hope to answer “No”.

After all, we talk and write for all sorts of different reasons. Not all of us can, or want to be, teachers. Nor is that all that our readers want to read. FSM knows I enjoy reading Phil Plait and Ed Yong, but I’d go spare if those were the only voices on my side on the Internet. I also want there to be George Hrabs, Roy Zimmermans, Christopher Hitchenses, Hunters, and so on. And let’s face it: a good rant is fun to read.

For one thing, there’s a vast difference between being frank, direct, or blunt; and being a dick. Dawkins’s The God Delusion was frank and direct, but by no means would I say he was being a dick. Carl Sagan talked unapologetically about the size and age of the universe, and the relative insignificance of humanity in all that. But, again, not a dick.

Yes, you may say, a lot of people took offense at Dawkins, particularly for his “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” comment. Of course, since what he wrote is true in all its particulars, one can only assume that the people who take offense haven’t read the Bible (teachable moment!), or know that Dawkins is right, but think it’s rude of him to point it out.

So by all means, say what you think.

Yes, people may be offended, but that’s because a) no one likes being told that they’re wrong, and b) a lot of people identify themselves by their religion or form of woo. If you say that astrology is stupid, what a lot of people will hear is that people who believe in astrology are stupid. This shouldn’t necessarily stop you, but of course it’s something to keep in mind.

One rule that I try to apply is: imagine that you’re in the future, after the woo that you’re railing against has gone the way of phlogiston and leeching, and that you’re rereading what you once wrote. Were you standing up for reality, or were you being an asshole? Was your reaction warranted, or did you go over the top? It might be instructive to revisit old arguments you’ve had some years ago — particularly religious or political ones — to see how they’ve stood the test of time, and what you now think of your former self. Now that the election’s over, do you still think it was right to call your opponent a retarded fascist, or whatever you said?

Another important thing to keep in mind is that most of the people who believe in woo simply don’t know any better. When Richard Dawkins said that “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)”, I’m pretty sure that in his mind, 90+% of creationists fell into the “ignorant” category, i.e., they’re not familiar with the mountains of evidence supporting evolution. At least, that’s been my experience. I suspect that the same is true of other forms of woo.

I’m always careful to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity. If I’m ignorant, that just means there’s something I don’t know. We’re all ignorant. I’m ignorant of economics, Japanese history, watercolor painting techniques, nuclear physics, and much more. There are a lot of interesting things I’d like to learn, but haven’t, because I’ve been busy learning even more interesting things.

With that in mind, remember that the next believer in woo that you talk to is almost certainly not someone cynically peddling bullshit to make a buck. They just don’t know any better. They may have been “cured” by homeopathy or crystal healing or seen their luck improve after installing feng shui carpeting, or their aunt swears by her echinacea suppositories, or whatever.

So at least at first, try to be a nice guy. Explain that they’re mistaken, or misinterpreted what they saw, or may not be remembering correctly, or were missing some crucial facts, or whatever.

At that point, one of several things might happen. The person might learn something from your comments, in which case you’ve passed by the chance for a good rant, but you’ve made the world a better place. Or they might disagree in an nontrivial and non-stupid way, which gives you the chance to have an interesting discussion. Or they might just go away, in which case they never would have seen your fantastic ass-searing rant anyway.

Or they might disregard everything you’ve said and refuse to understand your explanations or follow your links, calling your sources corporate shills or tools of Satan or whatever the fashionable epithet is these days. This constitutes moving toward willful ignorance. Or they might insult you, and call you a corporate shill of Satan or thimerosal douchenozzle. In other words, they might be a dick to you first.

At this point, you can tell yourself that “moral high ground” is a relative position, pour a gallon of cobra venom into the metaphor generator, and let loose. Just try to be less of a dick than the other person. There’s nothing wrong with defending yourself. But the longer you can be the soul of kindness and put off your righteous ire, the more opportunities you give the other person to shoot themselves in the foot, and the better you’ll look in the eyes of the other people following the thread (and you are playing to the audience, aren’t you?). Think of Tim Minchin’s Storm.

Alternately, you can jump to the defense of someone who’s being attacked unjustly. But again, be less of a dick than the person you’re responding to.

And then there are the times when you just need to vent at the stupidity and fuckedupedness of it all. In these cases, go after the people who really deserve it: the 2% or less who are either cynical manipulators, shameless profiteers, unobtainium-headed willful ignoramuses. Sylvia Browne; John Edward; the pope; Kent Hovind; Ray Comfort. They’ve been pushing their bullshit for years and made a pretty penny from it. They’re public figures. They’ve had every opportunity to learn better, but haven’t. Fuck ’em. They can take it.

But spare the children of hippies whose only crime was believing their parents when they said auras were real. There’s no shame in being fooled by a slick salesman, or by people who honestly believe a mistake, especially when those people are in a position of authority.

In short, I think there’s a lot of room for frank discourse — which I think is the usual euphemism for yelling at the other guy, or going on a tirade against frauds and charlatans — without being a dick. But yes, there are limits.

And as I said in the other post, don’t take my word for it. 80% of what I just said is probably wrong, and if you ever figure out which 80%, please let me know. And also, ask yourself whether what you’re about to say will do any good, or at least fail to do harm. Keep the end goal, whatever you envision it to be, in mind, and ask yourself whether you’re helping to move toward that goal.

The “Don’t Be A Dick” Heard Round the World

I feel chastised.

Undoubtedly the most controversial, most thought-provoking talk at TAM 8 was Phil Plait‘s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

He wrote it down ahead of time so as not to ad lib and accidentally say something he didn’t mean, and since I have a recording of it, I should really quote him (slightly cleaned up) and not paraphrase, so as not to distort his meaning. I apologize in advance for the length of both the quotations and my response. To quote Blaise Pascal, I lack the time to make it shorter.

Continue reading “The “Don’t Be A Dick” Heard Round the World”

Cracked on Psychics

Cracked has entitled “5 Cheap Magic Tricks Behind Every Psychic”. The introductory paragraph reads:

I got into magic at the age of five. I stopped thinking psychics were real at the age of five-and-a-half. Mainly because most of them were doing tricks I had just read in the colorful magic book I had bought for three dollars the week before.

Now go read .

I Just Had a Supernatural Experience

Spoiler: not really.

I was just in the kitchen fixing dinner for the cats, when I heard a woman cough. Just a single throat-clearing cough. It definitely sounded like a woman.

And this was odd, since there aren’t supposed to be any women in the house. Any company would be unexpected, seeing as how I’m snowed in by Snowmageddon. But it was convincing enough that I checked the living room and looked for fresh tracks in the snow outside. Perhaps someone got stranded and wandered in when she found an accidentally-unlocked door? Or could it be a ghost?

Obviously, there was no one there, as you know, since you’ve read the spoiler at the top. I tried replaying the sound on the tape recorder of my mind[1] and play it back, trying to figure out what I’d heard, rather than what I thought I’d heard. That is, I asked myself what sounds I might mistake for a woman’s cough.

The most likely candidate I came up with is a chair leg creaking across the wooden floor. This is consistent with one of the cats jumping off of the chair to get his dinner, especially since there’s a chair that he particularly likes to lie on. I don’t know that that’s what happened, of course, but it makes a heck of a lot more sense than ghosts. (Besides, $CAT sashayed into the kitchen with his tail held high, and not at all as if he’d seen a ghost.)

At any rate, this illustrates why one should be skeptical about reports of UFOs, the paranormal, etc. When someone says “I saw X”, usually what they mean is “I saw something that I interpreted as X”. Yes, they’re sincere, but it’s quite possible for people to be sincerely mistaken. And unfortunately, it’s not possible to reach into people’s heads and pull out what they actually saw or heard, as opposed to what they say they saw or heard. Which means that oral testimony, however sincere, isn’t sufficient to prove the existence of UFOs or paranormal phenoma. As the kids say, “Pics or it didn’t happen.”

(HT to Anne for the meteorologist video.)

(Cross-posted at UMD Society of Inquiry.)

[1] Note to young people: in ancient times, a tape recorder was a device that recorded sounds so you could play them back later. They were very good at playing back ambient sounds. So if you recorded an interview with someone and played it back, you’d hear the creaking of your chair with perfect such clarity that it would drown out the interviewee.