Archives For skepticism

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…

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A few years ago, when faced with a balancing act between blogging as a skeptic and trying to get into a new career, I wondered which one should be my top priority. I did what I could to show up at virtual meetups, commented on all the blogs, got in touch with big name skeptics, and overall, tried to get and stay as involved with the movement as possible. Ultimately, I made the choice to focus on my career as much as I could and looking back at it now, I’m happy I made that choice, especially in light of all the drama emanating from the top blogs. It’s like an angsty high school scene but with a lot more nerds and geeks present and the histrionics a lot more eloquent since it’s professional writers composing them, not emo teens still working on the basics of persuasive composition. Yes, several major meetups like TAM are flourishing, which is great, but too many of the smaller ones seem to have become epicenters for the next great debacle to be covered extensively across the skeptical blogging world. It started with Elevatorgate and it very quickly went downhill from there.

When the movement that’s supposed to help promote education, skeptical inquiry, and combat laziness and disinformation in pop sci media is wracked by battles between those who don’t seem to understand that “show us your tits!” is a monumentally dumb thing to say to women on the web and that maybe they should not be proving the point of women who decided to tackle the topic of sexism in typically male realms by harassing them to the point of warranting coverage in major news outlets, and those who respond to this by positing that “you are male, you have a penis, therefore you are likely to rape me” is a good basis for a sexual harassment policy at a meetup, I’m left wondering when we’re going to get to the actual promotion of skepticism and education part. It’s not that such problems should be swept under the rug, no, not at all. In fact it’s the exact opposite of that. If those who want to engage with the skeptical movement and those who want to lead it are fighting over how to treat each other like decent human beings, how the hell can we move on to anything abstract or lofty?

And what’s even worse is the way these issues are being handled in the skeptical blogosphere. Rather than being calmly discussed and debated, like many other topics, these basic issues are spun into maelstroms of rage and fury by posts pleading and demanding that they’re addressed exactly the way the poster wants them to be addressed and angry verbal fist-shaking about the dire state of all things skepticism or atheism when the mood either fails to change right away or another fit of drama ripples across the interwebs. Well, when those who took it on themselves to lead just further the divide and call their fans into their camps, how do they expect these issues to get resolved? Are they looking for a solution or tallying the votes in their favor, because it increasingly looks like they’re a lot more interested in the latter. Skepticism is not a magical cure to all the world’s ills and its pretty unreasonable to think that socio-economic and gender issues wouldn’t rear their ugly heads when a whole lot of people get together and have free reign to comment at will on skeptical blogs.

Somewhere along the line, the exchanges went from “what can we do to educate people about science and the validity of secularism?” to “how can this movement become a social panacea for my needs?” while those who emerged as the movement’s leaders decided to fight each other until the echoing message is “to hell with skepticism and atheism the way they are, I’m leaving the movement to turn it into [blank], who’s with me!” It’s really selfish, immature, and shows that the supposed leaders simply can’t lead. Is it bad that women say they feel harassed at a number of skeptical meetups? Yes it is. Can every single jerk who gets a little too cocky after his fifth beer be purged? No. Should there be some sort of an official policy for how to deal with unpleasant incidents at meetups? Absolutely. Should this policy be based on anticipating a standoff between those who are assumed to be rapists in waiting and those who believe they’re future victims? Not at all because Stranger Danger never leads to good decisions about safety, and makes no one feel welcome or at ease during the entire event. If you don’t like the way the TSA does things, you’re not going to like any other Stranger Danger-based security because they’re going to be fundamentally the same in their implementation.

But instead of coming together and saying that whatever harassers can be stopped will be, and that a few basic policies are in order just so everyone knows what should be done if things go wrong, we’re told that the movement is either failing or being plagued by extremists and must be purged of these offenders post haste. How exactly does this help to build and maintain a major movement? The points are valid but the management is atrocious. It simply takes the broad goal of promoting better science, education, and the need for secularism, and turns them into selfish pissing matches, fragmenting the visible top of the movement along personal loyalties so one of these “thought leaders” can crown him/herself as King or Queen of the Nerds. This is not what skeptics need. They need leaders who will give them a group on which they can count, a group that can make use of their activism and take it to the next level so we can fight the good fight for sound science and leave social issues to politicians and the public who we’ll strive to inform with facts. They don’t need infighting cliques with their own agenda trying to boldly and with great fanfare take charge of a movement they seem to think they own.

[ photo illustration by Arturas Kerdokas]

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My grandfather was quite fond of a typically optimistic Russian saying: "live for a century, learn a century, you’ll still die a twit." Along with a number of supporting anecdotes and proverbs, this witty little quip warns us that no one will ever be an expert in everything no matter how much time he devotes to it. Many people accept this fact of life, sometimes all too readily, but there are those who just refuse to believe that there are limits to the amount of things in which one can be an expert and that the quality of where you learn and how well you learn it matter a great deal, and they’re not shy of using their freshly minted University of Google expertise across a wide swath of the web. Be they victims of the infamous Dunning-Kruger effect, or just ambitious people who want to leave a mark on the world trying to inject themselves into the circle of experts in a particular topic, they loudly and proudly share their claims of expertise as well as some verbiage intended to resemble an expert’s opinion. But how do you tell convincing pseudo-expertise from a comment by an actual expert? Well, faking a good deal of knowledge about a topic requires certain common patterns of behavior and commentary…

1. Lots and lots of technical jargon. When we hear a stream of complex words and acronyms, we often tend to assume that they’re being used for a good reason because jargon is an expert’s way to give what is often a very complex concept a name by which it can be invoked. But while experts use jargon sparingly when talking to a broad audience and attempt to explain related concepts in friendlier terms or by practical example, those faking it will unleash torrents of technobabble. In their minds, they’re convincing you that they really know what they’re talking about because they’re using a lot of complex terms you don’t know. However, they’re not saying much when they do and often use the terms incorrectly. One of the most egregious examples of jargon abuse I’ve ever seen in my field involved a proposal for a software system which spent a third of a page laden with all sorts of nearly impenetrable technical terms saying "this app can run on a server farm." No, really, that was it, that’s all the proposal needed to say. But its writer decided to concoct a barrage of buzzwords which spanned several hundred of words to prove to the reader that he supposedly understood distributed applications. Very similar tactics are often used by post-modernists to hide their abject ignorance of scientific topics.

2. Very few citations or references. Experts get to be experts and stay that way if they keep up with literature related to their fields so they should have little trouble recommending books, papers, or blogs to read if you’re interested in a deeper understanding of something in particular. Pseudo-experts, on the other hand, aren’t all that familiar with the landscape and will seldom, if ever, produce links to a paper or quote a book, since they probably don’t know where to find them other than Wikipedia or random results on Google Scholar. And when they do produce citations, expect them to get obtuse about what the materials are saying because they either don’t have the subscription to read the papers, rarely know how to find them for free, and don’t understand the actual subject covered. So when pressed for detail, they’ll either shy from an explanation, or throw out another confusing serving of alphabet soup and jargon salad you may not even see in the reference. Even experts will sometimes want to avoid a protracted discussion of some particular topic, but they’ll at least refer to why that’s the case whereas the posers will try to act bored or annoyed with the layperson "bothering them about things they don’t really have time to explain" and directing their readers to Google to search random buzzwords.

3. Aggressive or condescending replies. No one is perfect and we all know our fair share of experts who are bona-fide professionals in their fields but tend to argue from authority and treat those who question them with thinly veiled contempt for just disagreeing or not understanding her. But when combined with one, or both, of the attitudes above, an aggressive reply to being pressed for depth or details can signal a poser who is trying to avoid having to provide depth because he doesn’t have any depth to provide. Rather than attempt to explain something several times, he’ll quickly reach for the old "you just don’t understand" and "you can’t see how this whole thing works" because there’s nothing else up his sleeve. An alternative is another angry portion of very formal sounding technobabble with no supporting citations or evidence that shows the legitimacy of the point being made. In this case, the poser is trying to simply flood you with jargon until you’re overwhelmed and give up, and he can maintain the public illusion of expertise. Attempt to focus on one particular term or what looks like the linchpin of the argument and you’ll see the same behavior repeat again, with more and more outward annoyance or outright anger, especially if you’ve now started searching expert sources and ask why a certain term was used in a way you haven’t seen it used by [ insert expert here ]. Then the the fury really erupts…

4. Evasive obtuseness to further questions. Not all pseudo-experts are all flash or try to capture eyeballs. So many skeptics are familiar with the brash and loud crank desperate for attention and recognition but few deal with those who just use pretense at expertise as a resume builder or an online credit. If they only want to slip under the radar with minimal detection, they’ll put up something very bland and difficult to dissect in detail. It’s not going to be anything you can’t find on Wikipedia or a few big blogs on the topic and it’s going to keep detail to a minimum. Then, in the comments, they’ll evade any further questions with polite deflections to a follow up that will never come or allude to some reason they can’t go into detail. You’re probably starting to see the M.O. of a pseudo-expert under fire. Evade, evade, evade whether it’s by trying to save face and dodge the question, or by vomiting forth a stream of useless word salad while making their escape, like squid ink launched into a predator’s face during an escape attempt. Ultimately your objections and questions will be met with silence if not a ban by the pseudo-expert or moderator for making too much of a racket because whatever reserves the impostor had are now dried up and the only way to exit from the discussion is to make sure that it ends.

5. Inability to admit a knowledge gap. People impersonate experts because they don’t want to acknowledge that they don’t know something whereas experts become experts by practice and experience that gives them not only knowledge but a very good idea where their knowledge ends. If you talk to an expert long enough, you are bound to ask a question that will be met with something like "that’s not really my area so I don’t know what to tell you about that," or a reference to someone who may know what you’re asking. By contrast, the impostor has infinite knowledge and nothing is beyond her area of study. She’s heard of everything, kind of like The Big Bang Theory’s arrogant, know-it-all theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper. She never seems to doubt what she says while pontificating on questions that even those with the most cursory familiarity with the topic know is a very complex and unresolved issue which puzzles world class researchers in the area to this day. But while a measly scholar who studied the topic his entire life doesn’t know the answer, she does and she’ll be happy to tell you how to properly walk your dog, do your taxes, reanimate the cadaver of your long-dead pet hamster so it can do your chores while you’re busy, and synthesize an immortality serum in your garage as well.

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Today, I found out that Christopher Hitchens, the iconic unapologetic atheist who often wrote with an acid pen and had a fearless dedication to questioning everything around him, indiscriminately skewering sacred cows in his search for truth, has passed on at the age of 62. He was a one of a kind of writer and debater, and it’s a very fortunate happenstance that those of us who read his work got the chance to enjoy his sharp wit while he was still around. Since humans are ultimately mortals and one day, somehow, somewhere, all of us will have to face death, the only immortal thing we can leave behind is a legacy and Hitchens’ consists of his countless columns, multiple books, and millions upon millions of arguments, critiques, witticisms, and opinions which try to challenge the reader’s beliefs at every turn, the work of a very rich lifetime which will doubtlessly be read, enjoyed, and debated for many generations to come. And for a writer, I can think of no better legacy…

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