Archives For skepticism

not simba

You would think that with the advent of ubiquitous internet access across much of the world, we should have done away with many popular urban legends, misconceptions, and outright lies for fun and profit that appeared long ago and were summarily debunked. But sadly, since we gave everyone with internet access the ability to post something to it, many of these misconceptions, myths, and fabrications are still around and going strong, things like the myth that Einstein had once flunked math made up by Ripley’s (he was actually always a math whiz), or that spinach is full of iron made possible by someone not knowing how decimal places work (it’s actually about as good of a source of iron as watermelon), and many others I’m sure you can recall after this little prompt. In this spirit, David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful, who inspired a popular post on exactly how many nukes it will take to end civilization as we know it, created a brief and handy infographic of 52 of the world’s most popular misconceptions and why they’re wrong.

While it’s an interesting exercise in just how much common knowledge is so mistaken, it doesn’t answer the question of why these myths still persist. And there really isn’t one common answer, especially when it comes to religious beliefs and pop history. Sometimes people just won’t look for themselves because they place too much trust in someone’s retelling of a story. Sometimes they’re just too lazy to check the facts. But sometimes they just desperately want to believe the myth they do and will rationalize away any explanation for why it may be wrong. For any skeptic that last reason for the propagation of myths and legends is the hardest to fight because they’re dealing with people who are putting up an active resistance to the facts, so much so that they’ll believe the very opposite of what’s actually happening to avoid having to change their beliefs in the way the world must work. And as skeptics, we have an obligation to object when such willful obstinacy turns into harmful agendas affecting people’s health and legal rights…

[ ullustration by Tsao ]

sleeping cell phone

Correlation does not mean causation. While it can certainly hint at causation, without evidence showing it, correlation is either curious or outright irrelevant. We could plot the increase in the number of skyscrapers across the world next to the rise of global obesity cases and claim that skyscrapers cause obesity, but if we can’t explain how a really tall building would trigger weight gain, all we did was draw two upward sloping lines on an arbitrary chart. And the same thing is happening with the good, ol’ boogeyman of cell phone radiation, which is supposedly giving us all brain tumors. So, were you to take Mother Jones’ word for it, there are almost 200 scientists armed with over 2,000 studies showing cell phone usage causes gliomas, or cancerous tumors in the central nervous system. When you follow the links, you will find a small group of scientists and engineers signing vaguely worded letters accusing corporate fat cats, who care nothing for human lives, of killing us for profit with cell phones, wi-fi, and other microwave signals that have been saturating our atmosphere for the last half century.

Here’s the bottom line. While there have been ever so slight, tortured correlations between cell phone use and gliomas, no credible mechanism to explain how cell phones would cause them has ever been shown, and every study that purports to have observed a causative mechanism, sees it only in a sterile lab, watching exposed cells in petri dishes. If every such experiment was truly applicable to the entire human body, we’d have a cure for every known type of cancer, as well as drugs that would let us live well into our fifth century. Cells outside the protective bubble of skin, clothes, blood, and without the influence of countless other processes in our bodies and outside of them are the weakest, most speculative level of evidence one could try to muster in showing that electromagnetic fields could cause cancer. My hypochondriacal friends, the words in vitro and in vivo sound similar, but in practice, the two are very, very different. We find more cases of cancer every year not because we’re mindlessly poisoning ourselves with zero regard for the consequences, but because we’re getting really good at finding it.

Just like in the not too distant past people worried that traveling at the ungodly, indecent, not at all meant for humans speed of 25 miles per hour in a train would cause lifelong damage, we’re now dealing with those who believe that all these newfangled electronics can’t be good for us if they’re invisible and have the term “radiation” in their official description. They’re terribly afraid, but unable to offer a plausible mechanism for harm, they rebut skeptics with histrionics invoking tobacco industry denialism, anti-corporatism, and full blown conspiracy theories, calling those in doubt communication industry and electronics shills. Now, for full disclosure I should note that I work with telephony in a very limited capacity. My work centers around what to do with VoIP or other communications data, but that would be enough for those blowing up the Mother Jones’ comment section for that article to dismiss me as a paid shill. Should I protest and show my big doubts about their ideas, they will conveniently back away form calling me a shill sent to spread propaganda to declaring that I’m just a naive sap doomed to suffer in the near future.

It’s infuriating really. Yes, yes, I get it goddamn it, Big Tobacco lied after science ruled that their product was killing their customers and spent billions trying to improve their public image. But in that case, the scientists demonstrated irrefutable in vivo proof of the crippling effects of nicotine and cigarette tar on lab animals, identifying dozens of chemical culprits and how they damaged healthy tissues to trigger tumor growth. Sleazy lawyers were trying to stem a tsunami of quality studies and cold, hard numbers, not vague speculative ideas about how maybe cigarettes can cause cancer while lab studies on rats and mice failed to turn up anything at all. A preemptive comparison of the two does not suggest the rhetorical sophistication of the person doing such comparisons, but intellectual laziness and utter ignorance of how science actually works, and it serves only to clear the debate of any fact or opinion with which this conspiracy theorist doesn’t agree. It’s a great way to build an echo chamber, but a lousy way to make decisions about the quality and validity of what the media sells you. It is, after all, worried about hits, not facts.

But hold on, why would someone latch into the idea that cell phones and GMOs cause cancer, and there’s some shadowy cabal of evil corporations who want to kill us all either for the benefit of the New World Order or their bank accounts, and refuse to let this notion go like a drowning man who can’t swim clinging to a life raft in the open ocean, with sharks circling under his feet? Consider that you have a 33% chance of having cancer in your lifetime, and our modern, more sedentary lifestyles will hurt your health long before that. We can blame genetics, the fact that getting old sucks and we don’t have a cure for aging, and that there is no perfect way to cheat nature and avoid degenerative diseases completely, that we can only stave them off. Or we can find very human villains who we can overthrow, or at least plot against, responsible for all this as they contemplate killing us for fun and profit with deadly cell phones, toxic food, and poisonous drugs that kill us faster to aid their nefarious goals. We can’t fight nature, but we can fight them, and so we will. Even if they aren’t real, but projections of our fear or mortality and the inability to control our fate into equally fallible collections of humans who sometimes do bad things.

sad calvin

Since I’ve been quiet for a long time and a whole lot of things have happened, there’s a sense that before moving forward, we might want to take a quick look back and address a few major issues that have been brewing in atheist and skeptical blogospheres. Sadly, the muddled focus for the future of organized skepticism is still as much a problem as it was over a year ago. It’s unnervingly telling that columns about JREF have been drying up and there’s still no articulated vision for where we go from debunking homeopathy and UFOs, though it would be unfair not to highlight major positives, like Orac being regularly quoted in mainstream media’s takedowns of popular quackery, and Yvette d’Entremont, aka Science Babe, being asked by Gawker to weigh in as a professional chemist on the flood of Vani Hari’s trendy, brain-dead nonsense. As for the organized atheist movements, which often participate in skeptical groups, well, they’re still more interested in turning skepticism and popular science into a left wing political movement and how to change the subject from science education to battling the ills and inequities of society.

And that’s pretty much where we left off last time, with two broad competing groups battling for what each says is the soul of skeptical and atheistic blogging. One sees science and skeptics being a means to a political end, as weapons to fight the Culture Wars with social reactionaries who are desperately trying to return us to the 1950s they imagine in their nostalgic fantasies. In the other end of the spectrum is the group which sees education as its ultimate goal, betting the farm on the idea that when you give people hope for a better world, they’ll help build it with the educational tools you provide, and that while battling social inequities is a noble goal, there will always be some social injustice, so the best we can do is confront it when it happens. I’m firmly in the second camp, personally, and as it so happens, people like me have managed to end up on the wrong side of the We Are All Already Decided doctrine of political debate. We just aren’t what the social justice contingent wants us to be: dedicated ideologues in their service.

Now, surely, you’ve heard the acronym SJW brandished on the web as a pejorative and almost immediately being proudly accepted by someone as an acknowledgment that he or she is on a mission to right society’s wrongs. Quite a few even go so far as to say that SJW is an imaginary pejorative used solely by misogynists and bigots, and that there are no “social justice warriors,” just people who support equal rights and respect for all, and those who don’t. But there is a line that can be crossed, even if you have nothing but good intentions, with which the road to Hell is often paved, to paraphrase St. Bernard of Clairvaux. There are activists who work to make sure that those being discriminated against have a voice, go to city council meetings, write op-eds in their local newspapers and in the national press, and who need our help and support. And then there are overzealous keyboard warriors fighting for the unwashed masses from the comfort of their couches, going after those who commit transgressions big, small, and even micro.

Oh you haven’t heard of microaggressions? Based on academic studies of how racism begins and propagates, the theory is based on subconscious biases coming out in everyday life. While its debatable whether these aren’t just known manifestations of racism by another name, there was little time wasted by the aforementioned keyboard warriors to cast everything around them as some sort of microaggression. Consider the following. As a Ukrainian-Russian Jew, much of my adult life was accompanied by jokes about the sturdiness of my liver, my friend Vassiliy who just so happens to be an enforcer for the Russian mob, my probable side job of selling malware to carders and identity thieves, my spy work for the KGB, and in some circles, a number of very colorful stereotype-based zingers not fit to print. And that’s just the Russian stuff. Can you even imagine the number of jokes lobbed my way when I was moving to LA? “Hey Greg, so will your work be primarily is software, or ‘hardware?'” apparently never gets old.

All of that is just good-natured ribbing, playing off on various stereotypes, many of them either negative or in a moral gray zone, right? Well, as most self-proclaimed social justice activists will rush to explain you, these are all microaggressions, intended to demean and stigmatize me, so every time you make a joke like that towards me, I should get offended and blame you for how often Russians in movies are gangsters, weirdos, malicious hackers, nefarious spies, or former commandos for hire with a moral compass pointing to the biggest wad of cash. And should you ever make such jokes in a publicly accessible platform, I’m within my rights to bring it up to then dismiss everything you have to say, and you as a person, by default. Why do you think Watson, to this day, features only the most vicious trolling she receives to address any criticism of what she says or does, and categorizes any disagreement with her or PZ Myers as hate speech by misogynistic, racist bigots? It turns their identity into an argument-ending cudgel and allows for what amounts to a get-out-of-criticism-free card with a side of self-indulgent moralism.

And really, it would be fine if this sort of thing happened when we hit a sensitive topic in one of the talks in the skeptical and pop sci community, it’s unavoidable and everyone deserves their turn at the microphone. But like most fanatics, these keyboard warriors won’t change their mind and refuse to change the subject so every issue and every problem that comes up as a topic of discussion becomes a macro or microaggression to be dissected by internet scandal and mob justice on blogs. And even when their complaints are heard, acknowledged, and met, they just can’t be met fully enough. No “yes” is enthusiastic enough, no accommodation ever sufficiently accommodating, and no “safe space” ever adequately safe. There’s no goal but to keep up the perpetual outrage and the corresponding blog traffic, and if you don’t go along with it, or even worse, dare point it out, well, they don’t have to tolerate your bigoted hate speech, so why don’t you go to your favorite neo-Nazi MRA site instead of bothering decent people.

Just to bring this all back into focus, let’s return to the We Are All Already Decided doctrine and see how detrimental it is to getting new people excited about real science and technology, then drawing them into skeptical groups. Who will want to go to meetings that shift from astrobiology and physics applied to UFO reports into social activism lectures, and who will even want to talk to skeptical groups which are lambasted for being full or women-hating bigots for what could’ve never been an adequate response to some suffered microaggression? Bombastic social justice platforms are fine when you’re starting a political group, but when your goal is to teach, inspire, and help others, creating an insular, rigid ideological squad that tolerates no dissent is every bit as bad as the politics of discrimination and exclusion we’re told to be fighting against.

When we declare that we won’t tolerate intolerance, then classify everything with which we do not immediately agree as being intolerant, we’re building coffee klatches rather than the broad skeptical movements that attract the wide following and support we desperately need when any scientifically-illiterate crank and quack with a big smile can use the web to raise vast followings ready to be fleeced, and used to harass critics into silence by sheer numbers. We can fight for both good science and for the rights of others, yes. But we have to know when to tone it down and when someone is using a moral, ethical banner to shield his or her grab for popularity, and a place at the microphone not by virtue of having something significant to contribute, but solely by using our guilt and shortcomings as fallible humans against us. And right now, it just seems better to do this whole skepticism thing without getting involved with big groups…

calvin superhero

Apologies for the lengthy pauses between posts but with Project X in full swing and long days at the office, there’s only so much time to write, and the more gets written the more problems there are for the aforementioned project. But more on that in due time. For now, I decided to take the occasional detour into the realm of meta-debates and talk about news stories documenting the growing pains of the skeptical movement. Their common theme is that there are people under a banner called skepticism who want to confront pseudoscience while at the same time arguing a great deal about how to do it, and with certain influential skeptics trying impose their politics on the entire movement. Does a skeptic need only to worry about debunking Bigfoot, UFOs, quack remedies, and ghosts? Does a skeptic need to be atheist? Are skeptics allowed to shelter hope that a belief for which there’s little to no evidence might still somehow end up being true? And in the grand scheme of things, what do the skeptics really want to accomplish in the end and who gets to be invited to join them in their campaigns? In short, what exactly makes one a skeptic?

But hold on, you might object, why does arriving at a concrete definition matter? Aren’t skeptics just scientifically literate folks applying basic scientific methodology to bullshit claims made by all sorts of profit-minded shysters and by well-meaning but potentially dangerously ignorant people who pass them on or weave them into their personal brands of cargo cult science? Well, yes, in the broadest way that’s correct, and it’s what let me to start forging ties with organized skeptical organizations when their blog was in its prime skeptical phase. However just because you called yourself a skeptic for denouncing pseudoscience and were recognized for it by JREF or another skeptical group, doesn’t mean the topic you’re best equipped to address will ever get any major boost, even within the group. For example, I’m most often cited for Singularity skepticism, mostly because I’m a techie by profession and education, and have the experience and tools to put the wild claims of our impending immortality through technology under very tight scrutiny. Good for me, right? A new branch of skepticism can be added to the collective’s efforts, right?

Sorry but no dice. In fact, a certain very popular 2012 skeptic once told me that until he started reading my dissections of Kurzweil & Co., he thought that their ideas were a lot more plausible than they actually were, and the Skepchicks hosted a very sympathetic take on the claims and predictions being made by the attendees of a Singularity Summit. After talking to those involved on the subject, I was told that while my take was appreciated in the form of links, what I wrote on the subject was "sort of advanced skepticism" and they wanted to focus on something that was more common, the old school skeptics-as-common-sense-debunkers approach. Pretty much the only recognizable skeptics not only interested, but willing to give transhumanist and AI skeptics a real platform was the team at Skeptically Speaking, for which I ended up doing half an episode, and a two-hour debate with a prominent transhumanist. That’s right, we were so popular and the audience was so receptive, I had to come back twice. But to the old school skeptics, it’s really all about debunking common myths and popular quacks. It needs to be done but for those of us no longer interested in that, there doesn’t seem to be much room in organized skepticism.

And this is one of the biggest sources of friction that I’m seeing right now. Those of us who are technical experts in one subject or another interested in applying our specialized knowledge to a possibly arcane but still popular topic, are sick and tired of the umpteenth dissection of Dr. Oz and a UFO sighting now decades old, but we’re not really being included or asked to bring light to a new topic or two because that puts the old school skeptics out of their comfort zone. Now, I won’t be surprised if by now you’re tempted to dismiss this grievance by pointing out that it come from personal experience and makes for only one data point. But if you go back to the Atheism+ fight for just a bit, you’ll hear an undertone of the same exact issues from a completely different group of people with completely different goals. They wanted to turn organized skepticism into a left wing political movement rather than broaden its primary topics, but their reason for trying to create a new offshoot was due to a) feeling that the skeptical old school is not interested in new ideas for the future, and b) their avoidance of the skepticism vs. atheism question based mostly on marketing considerations, to make the religious feel more welcome at skeptic meetups.

Today’s big, organized skeptical groups don’t seem to be evolving or really expanding past the few topics that bound them together. More and more skeptical meetups seem to be preaching to the choir rather than exposing skeptics to new topics. The whole movement just seems stuck in place, retracing the same fake Bigfoot steps and analyzing the same flying saucer on a wire for the hundredth time. And as if that wasn’t enough, we get drama and gender wars on an endless loop for publicity and stats instead of guidance and fresh ideas. Wasn’t the point of well-funded, organized skepticism to spread education and combat the popularization of pseudoscience in all of its forms rather than spending a lot of time with people who agree with what you say? Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics? Is a skeptical equivalent of TED without the buzzwords out of the question? No wonder reporters on missions to write about organized skepticism all end up asking where would the movement go in the next few years and fail to prove an answer. They can’t. There’s no future game plan…

broken emo

Oh how I miss the good old days of skeptical blogging, when PZ Myers was unloading on inane creationists and New Agers with the delicate touch of a tactical nuke, the Skepchicks didn’t lock down the comments under heavy moderation and traded links and the occasional friendly e-mail with me, so many skeptical big shots returned my tweets and e-mails, and many of us knew that our focus should be on science, education, and fact checking popular media for the benefit of a reader who didn’t see what was wrong with creationism in science class, or why so many people claimed to see UFOs if there’s almost no chance they’re really out there. That’s what we did. We educated, entertained, and started debates. But post-Elevatorgate, all that went to shit. Popular skeptical blogs now overflow with gossip and infighting, and the results are sad to behold. Sides have to be taken, lines have to be drawn, and the actual science and education stuff they used to be all about has taken a backseat, showing up between angsty s/he-said-what? posts.

PZ and the Freethought Blogs contingent has decided to turn their atheism and skepticism into some sort of a political campaign based on the logic that if you’re an atheist and a skeptic and know that creationism isn’t science, you also know why Paul Ryan’s budgets are crap and then proceed to take proscribed positions on key social issues. And as for the Skepchicks, well, the Elevatorgate horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bleached bones have been desecrated many times over by now, but of course Watson won’t quit because it brings her hits and lets her offer herself as a martyr to the hordes of sexist pigs in the skeptical community — who are really mostly rabid internet trolls who spew nothing but hatred anyway — to fawning fans. Her dubious behavior as a moderator at JREF can now be safely buried under her martyr cloak and skeptics who don’t agree have to tip-toe around her lest they displease her, explaining their behavior in great detail only to get a dismissive, passive-aggressive reply over a year after the fact.

I’m not sure what was the moment I first facepalmed while reading what has become of some of the big profile skeptics nowadays. Was it PZ Myers’ brief manifesto filled with disgust that some libertarians have the gall to call themselves atheists? Was it Greta Christina’s breathless praise of a cafe that put a diaper change station in the men’s room because it didn’t have space for a second one in the women’s restroom as if it was some sort of revolutionary anti-sexist message to its patrons despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of men’s rooms do have changing stations anyway? The whole Atheism+ affair that ultimately went nowhere fast? Perhaps it’s true that nostalgia is a seductive liar, as George Ball once opined, and maybe I am glossing over a periodic rift or two, but the last year has been one of the skeptical movement taking three steps back to quibble over semantics, late night bar gossip, and internal politics instead of promoting the united message of science and education needing to triumph over ignorance and stubborn fundamentalism, rendering once flourishing blogs less and less relevant.

Perhaps the real bright spots have been Phil Plait, whose passion for space overruled his meta analysis of skeptical niceness and who keeps cranking out fantastic skeptical and pop sci work on a daily basis, and the former top dogs of the Discover Network who never changed their big picture focus on the science and the narrative of discovery and education. They’re on to a new home but they’re still going strong. And here’s the important thing. If they paid any attention to the drama at TAM and the gossipy blog fights, they moved on. Maybe that’s what FTB and the other squabbling self-proclaimed skeptical leaders need to do? Maybe they could find a hobby that doesn’t involve writing passionate treatises about their feelings and how those around them are failing to nurture their personal existential crises? Last year I found a hobby that has zilch to do with computers, blogging, or Singularity skepticism and find it amazing how much that clears your mind. Maybe a little less focus on their drama will get the back into being the strong voices for science, education, and skepticism they were before they let politics overtake them?

sleepy telecommuter

Long time Weird Things readers have met tech skeptic Evgeny Morozov several times over the last year, and while usually I welcome his contrarian and pragmatic take on tech evangelism, his recent article at Future Tense seems to have gone somewhat astray. While trying to list all the ways in which telecommuting made work/life balance worse for many, he ended up showing how telecommuting can fail when the bosses don’t know how to manage it and the workers don’t get the reasoning behind it. Now, this isn’t to say that working from home is for everyone and every job can be done via a computer. Some people need the discipline of the office and professional customs of certain industries demand face time. But a lot of tasks can be done in a home office and not having a daily commute saves money for both the employers and employees. With less on-site workers, companies can save on office space. With less driving, workers save on gas.

But according to Morozov, telecommuters are putting in more hours, are more likely to be single, implying they don’t have families, and their bosses end up either micromanaging or unsure what to do with remote subordinates. Therefore, he continues, rather than being the wave of a future letting us better manage work and play time, telecommuting is being abused to make us work a lot more and its results are mixed at best for employers. I would be inclined to agree with this at least in part if every example he provided for his conclusion didn’t show that those involved just lunged into telecommuting with little thought or preparation. For example, his anecdote of a big government office failing at telecommuting highlighted an interesting bit of managerial double-speak that’s quite revealing. Supervisors didn’t know how to evaluate finished work and quality was slipping. How would they know quality was slipping if they didn’t know how to evaluate the work and why were there no guidelines on how to judge the work being done remotely? Sounds like a glaring management oversight of a key issue. And it only gets worse from there.

The now telecommuting employees, used to strict workdays, punching in and out, and filling out time sheet after time sheet based on hours defined by their position didn’t know if they put in a sufficient amount of hours. But putting in the hours isn’t what telecommuting is about. It’s about getting a task done up to spec on time. If you’re done early, good job. Take five and vacuum, or watch a little TV as a reward, or go on a quick jog to get yourself amped up for the next thing on your to do list. Remote work is supposed to help get things done efficiently and keep morale up by getting workers out of that most wretched invention of the 20th century: the cubicle. It’s not a way to cram in more hours into the workday. Humans can only do so much quality work in a day so trying to make them do more is simply not going to work out. For example, programmers can typically write decent code for about six hours. After that code quality goes down because we’ve spent most of our workday staring at code, screenshots, hexadecimals, and test results. Making us write code for another four is just going to give you crappy code that needs to be fixed.

I’m sure you see where this is going. If you see telecommuting as a way to wring more hours out of the day, you are doing it wrong. If you see working from home as sitting behind a desk for X hours, you are doing it wrong. Working remotely is not having a cubicle away from the office, it’s a completely different mindset which prizes completion of projects over face time in a cube. Yes, it’s really easy for managers who started their careers when PCs were still new in the business world to use the ass-in-the-chair metric, but it’s a lousy metric for anything other than employee attendance. These managers are the ones who install spyware and micromanage telecommuters because they can’t accept that they hired grown adults who should be able to be responsible in how they use their time and get work done. It’s a very 1950s and 1960s way to run an office but it’s pervasive because frankly, it’s easy and familiar. It’s not that telecommuting’s promise failed, it’s that a whole lot of companies out there never got the hang of how to do it and end up with a lot of remote workers they don’t know how to manage and do telecommuting wrong.

barefoot

Skeptics and vocal atheists across the web fumed when Newsweek published a cover story that proclaimed the afterlife to be real based on a firsthand account of a neurosurgeon who nearly lost his bout with meningitis. His tale is hardly atypical from ones we’ve heard many times before across a wide variety of patients who had one foot in the grave and were revived; lush greenery and white fluffy clouds leading to a wonderful and peaceful place, a companion of some sort for what looked like a guided tour of Heaven, all the pieces are there. Such consistency is used by the faithful to say that there must be an afterlife. How else could the stories be so consistent and feature the same elements? If the patients were simply hallucinating as their brains were slowly but surely shutting down, wouldn’t their experiences be radically different? And aren’t a number of them extremely difficult to explain with what we know about how the brain functions?

It’s not as if people could sense when they’re about to die and are constantly bombarded with a description of how they should ascend to Heaven for eternal peace and rest. Wait a minute, wait a minute… They can and they are. So wouldn’t it make sense that so many near death accounts of an ascension to an afterlife follow the same pattern because the patients who remember their alleged journey to the great beyond are told day in, day out how this pattern should go? Most of the tales we get come from the Western world and have a very heavy Judeo-Christian influence coloring them. There’s also a rather odd prevalence of ascending to Heaven in these accounts and cases of people describing torment or something like Hell, while certainly not unheard of in the literature, are exceedingly rare. This either means that much of humanity is good and could look forward to a blissful afterlife, or that most people experience a natural high before death so they feel peaceful and at ease, dreaming of Heaven, while others still feel pain and see Hell.

And this is when Occam’s Razor has to come into play. The second assumption, while not very comforting or marketable to believers who still doubt the idea of an afterlife, makes the fewest, and the most probable assumptions, and if therefore more likely to be true in the absence of a stronger case for a genuine Heaven. We tend to choose the afterlife version of the story since we’re all fundamentally scared of death and no amount of arguing why death is natural or how it just has to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it makes this fear any less. The stories give us hope that we won’t simply cease to exist one day. But whereas believers are satisfied by anecdotal tales, the skeptics feel that we deserve more than just hope being spoon-fed to us. If an afterlife exists, we want to know for sure. We want empirical data. And that’s why trying to sell a story that tickles those who already believe or want to believe in the worst of ways is so rage-inducing to so many skeptics. We need truth and facts to deal with the real world, not truths that people want to hear and facts they can discard at will when they don’t match their fantasy.

fighting a troll

Please excuse the lack of posts ladies and germs, it wasn’t exactly planned that way. In fact, the new posts for the weekend were supposed to have been scheduled but with some recent travel and moving, the posts never got queued up for publication. Again, sorry about that, my bad. But before we get back into a more normal post schedule, I wanted to address an odd news bit that appeared on my radar today. It seems that one of the founding mothers of Atheism+ and one of the targets of my post on the Great Atheism Schism, decided to stop blogging altogether. Citing abuse from social media and depression, Jen McCreight says that she’ll be pulling the plug on her blog, effectively saying that internet misogynists ran her offline. Being one of the people who disagreed with her, I have mixed reactions about how her decision will play out. One could say that if you start something, finish it and that virtual abuse is the price all bloggers pay for stating their opinions. However, there is a point where enough is just enough.

You can block troll after troll after troll, sure. But with enough trolls, it’s like trying to stop a tidal wave with an umbrella. Blanket bans on social media platforms are in the hands of admins, not users, and when enough enraged critics mark you as a common target, your screen will quickly fill up with hate. We could use McCreight’s decisions as a point to stop, state that skeptics firmly believe that no matter how much we disagree with someone, no one should have to be shouted off his or her soapbox unless the person in question is doing something unquestionably harmful, like say, selling snake oil, and naturally filter out skeptics with strong opinions but respectful of others from those who surf skeptical blogs with nothing but venom to inject into a conversation. Unfortunately, we’re more than likely going to see a wave of posts saying that the feminism wars are now out of control as one of its generals has fallen, and that this only emphasizes the need for Atheism+ to spread, fanning the flames even further and making more and more skeptics on the web disengage from mass coordination and back into smaller groups.

All this is just starting to feel like too much damn drama for a movement. We could attribute a lot of it to growing pains as people with very different opinions collide and use their blogs as their primary weapons in any confrontation, dragging matters we probably would’ve never even tried to hear about into the public square. But at this point, reading FTB is starting to seem more and more like reading TMZ: Geek Edition; "Found out what he said about her and what she said in a big blog post about it, and you’re not going to believe the fight between one of our top bloggers and a commenter about what happened at the last skeptic meetup in a bar they attended!" Ugh, no thanks. A little drama here and there is fun and like any human, I do find a public track wreck in slow motion oddly fascinating and do a bit of rubbernecking. But when a network of blogs what were supposed to highlight the struggles of science and secularism against political religiosity and willful public ignorance is mostly busy unloading gossip, they’re primarily going to get their hits from those emotionally invested in the soap operas more than anything else. This is one of the big reasons I like doing my tech skepticism bit. Few gossipy dramas happen in tech.

So many skeptics that I know are taking another way. They’re still staying skeptics and they’re not shying away about outing their atheism or agnosticism, but they’re not joining any local and national skeptical and atheist groups. Instead, they’re doing science and communicating about what they do and big news in their area of expertise, applying all their skeptical news dissection skills when the news they’re covering calls for it. They research, they write, they educate, and their primary goal is to make people think and question. Maybe that’s what’s really important? In skepticism, you have to train yourself to perform a balancing act between trusting testimonials or anecdotes from people around you, and overcompensating for human nature by reflexively and viciously rejecting anything new or speculative. The name of the game is to question and make conclusions based on empirical data. But what I’m seeing from people who decided to take the skeptical movement by the reins is less and less questioning, and more and more big and really passionate declarations of How Things Should Be™, using anecdotes and backroom gossip to guide how they want to shape the skeptics coming into the fold.

But that’s all right. Skepticism is just an approach to claims on which no group has a monopoly, and having grown up without religion along with many other atheists, I can assure you that with or without FTB or any other atheist blogging network, atheism will survive and thrive. I’m not worried about what will happen to either whether the current dramas implode on all those involved or if it all just blows over when people get sick and tired of it. And I’m not going to fret that I’ve been on the receiving end of blocks and bans on Facebook because I dare mention that I’m not a big fan of Rebecca Watson and some of her antics, or something similar. Like I said, the current leaders of the skeptical movement have shown they can’t lead. But luckily for all of us, they don’t have to since they don’t have an exclusive right to the ideas they say they want to help us espouse. And just like I concluded last time I talked about this, I’m just going to stick to my area of competence while they fight it out amongst themselves. McCreight shouldn’t worry about what will happen to Atheism+ if she’s no longer blogging either. No one can live with the media klaxon turned to 11.5 all day, every day, and despite the duress under which she made her choice, maybe it will give her time to find a new way to reach out and teach skepticism and science on her own terms.

riot

After posting my review of how the current leaders of the skeptical movement are failing to lead and unite, I’ve been alerted to a new idea percolating around the Free Thought Blogs collective. It’s a brainchild of several bloggers notable in the feminist “civil war” being called Atheism+ and while it does pay some lip service to the need for scientific education and promoting skeptical inquiry, it’s primarily a social activism platform which isn’t too dissimilar from the agenda of many liberal political groups with the exception of equating atheism with good scientific education. Now, there’s much to be said for the positive aspects of non-belief, but in the agendas being outlined by Atheism+ the secular, non-theistic worldview is simply a vehicle to address social inequalities, particularly the kind we see in the typical post-modernist monologues; white male privilege.

Granted, the rants aren’t nearly as awful as the notion of complex physics equations expressing male nerds’ fear of women seen in the most egregious example of post-modernism tackled on this blog, but the concept seems to have some rather uncanny similarities. Basically, they posit, the atheist movement is now overburdened with holier-than-thou white men who condescend to women and minorities, pay too much attention to other white men whose books they read, and ignore the concerns of the women and minorities in their quest to lead the movement to the One True Atheism. Therefore, they continue, the only sensible course of action is to create the One Logical Atheism to counter it and demand equal rights for all women and minorities as part of the platform, call the whole thing Atheism+, and rhetorically marginalize critics by loudly wondering why they oppose equal rights and safe space for women and minorities when they question the wisdom of this splintering, regardless of whether the critics are women or minorities themselves. All right, I’m satirizing, true, but this is how the rhetoric has been shaped. Criticize them and you’re a monster and an apologist for rape, harassment, and white male privilege.

There is some truth in the fact that skeptical and atheist movements do have a disproportionate representation of white males between 18 and 50 and as all large homogenous groups tend to do, they don’t concern themselves with making others feel more welcome. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re just self-absorbed know-it-alls who only want to dictate the rules of atheism and skepticism to the unwashed masses with different skin color, genitalia, and sexual preferences. It just means they haven’t considered how to make sure they appear welcoming of others. The proper course of action is to highlight this issue and ask whether there’s something they’re doing that drives women and minorities away. And yes, that’s been tried. However, what followed all these attempts were litanies of complaints about all those white guys taking over the movement, harassing the womenfolk, and ignoring all the minorities around them by the virtue of being predominantly white and male.

How does this help? It only makes the problem worse! There were “privileged white males” like PZ Myers asking why the movement failed to attract a more diverse audience and the responses from self-promoted leaders of the atheist movement from the Skepchick/Atheist Feminist camp was to describe the whole group as a bunch of homogenous leering perverts. Gee, what woman, or ethnic or sexual minority would like to join what sounds like a country club for secularists? And what’s even worse is that when a legitimate, reasonable point was made, i.e. Rebecca Watson’s initial handling of Elevatorgate ending up as a simple suggestion that propositioning someone in an elevator is kind of creepy and probably shouldn’t be done, she and her friends would double down on the “ZOMG! Rape in potentia!” sensationalism put forth by PZ and Phil Plait. Who, by the way, were the while privileged men who supposedly care nothing about their plight. Suddenly, an aside about creepy behavior after last call at a skeptical conference turned into a cautionary story of a rape narrowly avoided and brought out all the worst insecurities in the movement.

Not only is this terrible leadership — if starting a huge fight over hook up protocol after 3 AM and triggering fights among your movement’s followers is not a leadership failure, I really don’t know what is — but it makes the very movement they’re trying to expand and diversify seem even less welcoming in the basest way possible. Instead a follow up such as “but despite this incident, the conference was great and we had a great crowd,” they allowed Elevatorgate to define skeptical conferences in general and the only criticism to which they chose to respond came from random vicious trolls spewing misogynistic obscenities. The impression was that the only people who had disagreements with their handling of the incident were women-hating throwbacks to the 1940s. Well shit, I can pull tricks like that too if I respond to creationists or fundamentalists commenting on this blog only when they declare that I’m an atheist solely because I’m a sexually compulsive drug addict neglected by his parents, rather than when they try to argue a point that raises some questions that have scientific answers.

And now, they not only want to control the discussion by removing what they say are threatening and abusive threads, and ridiculing their critics into submission, they’re hiding behind lofty social goals and declaring that you should either be with them or you’re an apologist for inequality and crass discrimination. It doesn’t matter if you agree that the atheist and skeptical movement does need to be more diverse, that women need be treated better in the STEM field, and that minority viewpoints should also have a platform, but see their handling of these issues as promoting a lot more division than unity. You become a persona non grata to be verbally drawn and quartered on the web, you will not be invited to conferences, and you will be marked with an e-scarlet letter that will make it difficult to become a professional activist in the very groups which seek to help women and minorities. You must become a yes-man or a yes-woman. You’re either on board or part of the problem. You’re with them or against them. It’s an attitude much better fit for a hyper-partisan PAC or a fundamentalist group than for scientific skeptics.

Of course the victim here is the scientific education. The goal now is not to teach good critical thinking skills. It’s to teach how to balance out the social inequalities, oh and with a little science on the side because as we’re being told, once you become an atheist, all other reasons to treat a person of a different gender or ethnicity would vanish with religion, as if bigotry and hate ever needed a concrete, metaphysical reason for existence. Certainly, the Deicide Doctrine played a large part in the persecution of Jews in Europe, but so did half-baked conspiracy theories about greedy Jewish bankers buying up Europe for their New World Order. True, the story of Eve was used to justify treating women like property but so many men also treated women as their sexual possessions because they could. And yes, the Bible was used to justify slavery and racism, but so was Galton’s pseudoscience which cast all non-well-to-do-WASPs as less evolved.

The point is that religion is the easiest justification for hatred to which a bigot can point and yes, it can be the sole reason for his or her hate. But to think that there’s no bigotry or discrimination in any mostly atheist society is folly. Just look at the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Denmark, a country where a majority of the population proudly declares itself as non-theists. Not all of it is driven by religious elements. Let’s face it, there are atheist bigots, sexists, and homophobes out there and they’re not going to be swayed by Atheism+ or its doctrine that religion lies at the root of discrimination. The root of discrimination is social isolation and constant encouragements to hold all those different as untrustworthy and malicious if given any rights or voices. The talking points are up to the bigots in question and they can range from conspiracies to divine invocation with a lot of other options in between. Let’s not pretend that atheism will show hate-mongers the way and the light by the power of rational skeptical inquiry.

With all that said, we circle back to the question of how teaching science will be the panacea for all these social concerns. In my little corner of the skeptical blogosphere, I’m writing mostly about futurism, technology, and bleeding edge physics that fascinate me. I write about this because it’s what I know, these are the areas where most of my education and professional experience lies, and my goal isn’t to advance a social agenda but to tell my readers something that makes them go “gee whiz, that’s cool” or “oh, so that’s how it would really work?” and come back for another dose of that. If Weird Things grew big enough to start and host its own meetups, I would expect the attendees to come wanting to talk about the science and skeptically parse futuristic bombast they recently heard. My goal is not to create a legion of atheists to go forth and shape the world to my liking, but to help teach the need for proper STEM education and to make more informed decisions and conclusions when it comes to this area of knowledge and exploration. Even more fundamentally, to make people think, especially if they disagree with me or start a debate.

Whatever happened to all that? Where has the skeptical blogosphere I wanted to join so much gone? The blogosphere in which we the skeptics doled out posts on topics we understood to get people interested and excited about science and appreciate the threats posed by ignorance and religious fanaticism to the key engines of our progress as a civilization, science and technology? Whatever happened to letting people get there themselves rather than blast them with invective or clog the newsfeeds with TMZ-worthy gossip of what goes on after hours in hotel bars between skeptics and who was mean to whom or who made whom cry?

I’m a skeptic because I had a lifetime fascination with science and built my toys out of Legos, hoping to grow up to work on something amazing. I’m an atheist because I never saw a need for religion in my life and my parents never dragged me to synagogues. I’m a blogger because I like writing and wanted to see what happened if I wrote for an audience. If you need me, I’ll be right here writing about quantum mechanics, AI, ANNs, and squaring off with the Less Wrongians and Singularitarians. I’m not going become an Atheist+ by being shamed into it by a small clique of people who take themselves way too seriously and who want to turn their dramas and personal agendas into my battles.

wired cyborg girl

Unlike most skeptical podcasts, Skeptically Speaking isn’t new to tech skepticism and I’m glad to say that I played my small part in that, doing a segment on Kurzweilian Singularitarianism, and participating in a two-part debate on transhumanism thanks to hostess Desiree Schell’s interest in all things high tech. Last week, the show returned to the teach arena with tech writer Michael Chorost, whose work advocates the slow but seemingly inevitable emergence of a collective human hivemind connected over the web thanks to various computer implants and mind-reading devices. Unlike many tech writers who very casually talk about how the future will see cybernetic enhancements as commonplace, Chorost actually has some firsthand experience with this field. He has cochlear implants, and for his project, he interviewed experts who know a thing or two about how to put a chip into a human. As a result, his predictions when it comes to devices that may go into our brains or be worn on our bodies are uncannily plausible, if not already workable. However, the idea that we can integrate into a seamless collective consciousness is simply way too utopian to seriously consider. Why? Well, here’s a list…

Facebook would now require surgery. Certainly a device to tell your friends when you’re having lunch or post holographic pictures of yourself having a good time with just a simple thought sounds nifty. And sure, we could run some electrodes to your speech motor cortex and wire a few more to another cortex that would control when a picture gets taken, then send the request to your smartphone with the update’s contents. But are you really willing to undergo very invasive elective surgery? Not only that, but it will also be expensive, risky (it is your brain after all), and you can bet your retirement fund that insurers will do whatever they can not to cover this sort of medical procedure. Yes, this idea is far from new. Intel has been interested in hooking users up to all sorts of home electronics for years and computer scientist Kevin Warwick used himself as an experimental subject to prove the idea to be workable with a few simple implants. But devices designed to truly read your mind are relegated to Brain Gate which is intended for patients with severe brain or spinal cord damage for whom the risk of surgery is more than worth it. For them it’s a criticial quality of life issue that makes their existence more bearable. For a healthy social media power user? Probably not so much.

Who do you want in your hivemind? Humans may have evolved as social mammals whose psyche can suffer if they’re cut off from social interaction for a long period of time, but they also have strong opinions and ideas, and tend to separate into groups, cultures, and cliques. And to be really blunt about it, some people are really stupid and really damn obnoxious, which is why YouTube and Yahoo comment sections are widely considered places where rational discourse online goes to die a horrible death by a thousand partisan insults and racial slurs. So let’s say that somehow, there’s a way to inject you with nanobots that connect your mind to the internet via wi-fi. And you now have a few million YouTubers and the lowest rated Yahoo commenters screaming into your skull. Sounds about as fun as implosive diharrea, you say? Well, welcome to the hivemind. As a blogger, I already get the periodic UFO-obsessed lunatics hollering at me and if you excuse me, I wouldn’t necessarily like them to verbally vomit directly into my brain. Sure, I suppose we could create a way to block out those with whom you don’t want to interact but we’ll still have to start with them being able to dive into our minds first, otherwise, we’re sort of negating the entire point of having an open hivemind.

Say goodbye to the little white lies. While there are countless studies showing that humans lie to each other all the time, you probably don’t need to see all of them to know that’s true. And it’s not just the big lies like “the mortgage market is just fine!” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” or “I am not a crook.” No, a lot of the lies we tell are really subtle and intended not to hurt each others’ feelings. Remember when you told her that she looked great in the tight-fitting dress? Or assured him that he could still party like he was in college despite the extra 20 years and 30 pounds? Or told you boss that you like his wacky golfing tie? Yeah, say goodbye to all that because people will now be able to know exactly what you’re thinking. She’ll know that she fills out her dress like a stuffed sausage, he’s way past his party prime, and that you think your boss’ ties are annoying and tacky. After all, they have access to your mind and if you share too much, maybe without realizing to filter your thoughts a little better, any private discussion or even emotional reaction can be sensed and registered. Even with great caution and really good self-censorship you’re still vulnerable to being found out because your mind is online and someone can simply hack his or her way into it to figure out what you really think for personal reasons or to collect blackmail material. Which brings us to…

Expect horrific security breaches. Some of the most depressing people in the IT industry are security consultants. Want to feel like a virtual nudist surrounded by peeping toms who aim their high powered telescopes at you every minute of every day? Just chat with them for a minute or two. Among all sorts of scary things, you’ll find that internet security is basically a joke, usually because it’s there as an afterthought, a quick, easily hackable hash of a password or a cheap SSL cert. Bad design, bugs, lack of foresight, and out of date software opens vulnerabilities and there are a lot of people who’d like to exploit them for fun and profit. People already share way, way too much on social media sites, so much so that the security paradigm of asking personal questions is virtually useless, and they have to use keyboards and click buttons. Imagine how much over-sharing there will be if you’re interfacing with the web via thought! Mind-hackers could get your PIN, the combination to your safes, your banking and work passwords, any useful things you may know, and juicy blackmail fuel mentioned in the previous section. Have you read about “sextortionists” blackmailing victims into sending them nude pics and sexual videos? Now imagine them hacking into your augmented brain, tapping into your optic nerves and watching you have sex or masturbate in the shower while you think you’re alone. Feel free to shudder. I’m doing that right now. The shuddering, the shuddering. Perverts…

Now, all in all, someone actually hijacking your brain isn’t very likely because the implants would probably be embedded in motor cortexes and trying to create some feedback would cause a twitch or a headache rather than allow for actual mind control. But is that sole protection you’ll have from the internet trolls messing with your mind, people reading into your thoughts to find out what you really think, opening gateways to let strangers steal your secrets, and opening yourself up for all sorts of embarrassing and mentally damaging security breaches, worth it? Despite the tech luminaries of the world preaching the Gospel of the Coming Homo Interneticus, we’re just not there as a society and it’s very likely that we may never be. Yes, more of us are now communicating with each other via the web than ever and more and more implants are coming in the near future. But we need our security, our alone time, and most implants will be medical in nature and intended to swap out bad joints, failing organs, or give mobility to those paralyzed by strokes or injury. Making sure that you can think your way to a Twitter update is a very, very low priority for the vast majority of computer scientists and doctors. And when you consider the downsides of sharing your mind with the entire world, that’s probably a good thing.