Archives For skepticism

eye of providence scroll

For as long as there have been conspiracy theories, there have been explanations for why the vast community of people who hang on conspiracy theorists’ every word exist. Some might just be paranoid in general. Others may be exercising their hatred or suspicion of a particular group of people, be they an ethnic group or a political affiliation. Others might just want to sound as if they’re smarter and more incisive than everyone else. Others still seek money and attention in their pursuit of a stable career of preaching to the tinfoil choir. But that doesn’t answer the really big question about the constant popularity of conspiracy theories throughout the ages. Is there something specific about how the believers are wired that makes the more prone to believe? Is ascribing to 9/11 Trutherism, or fearing Agenda 21, or looking for alien ancestry in one’s blood actually a case of a brain generally seeing patterns in randomness and conspiracy theories are just an outlet waiting to tap into this condition? Swiss and French researchers recently decided to try and answer that question by experimenting on college students and the public.

First, they evaluated whether their test subjects would detect patterns in truly random coin flips and doctored ones, with and without priming them. Then, they would ask political questions to measure the degree of conspiratorial thinking and level of belief in popular theories such as the notion that the Moon landing was faked or 9/11 was an inside job of some sort. Obviously, they found that they more conspiratorial view of politics the subjects took, they more likely they were to be Moon hoaxers and 9/11 Truthers, but paradoxically, that had absolutely no reflection on if they claimed to see human interference in random patterns of coin flips or identify sequences a researcher manipulated, priming or no priming. In other words, in everyday, low level tasks, the mind of a conspiracy theorist doesn’t see more patterns in randomness. As the researchers put it themselves, for a group of people who like to say that nothing happens by accident, they sure don’t think twice if something apolitical and mundane has been randomly arranged.

What does this finding mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, for one it means that there’s really no one type of person just wired for conspiratorial thinking or whose brain wiring plays an important role in ascribing to conspiracy theories. Instead, it’s more likely that all these theories are extreme manifestations of certain political beliefs or personal fears and dislikes, so the best predictor of being part of the tinfoil crowd is political affiliation. It’s not too terribly surprising if we consider that most climate change denialists who fear some sort of implementation of a sinister version of Agenda 21 they imagined exists are on the far right, while those terrified of anything involving global vaccination or commercial agreements are on the far left. And while there are a few popular conspiracy theories that overlap because people are complex and can hold many, many views even if they are contradictory, you can separate most of the common theories into ones favored by conservatives and ones favored by liberals. And as for what biology is involved in that, well, that’s been a minefield of controversy and statistical maelstroms for a long time…

thieving ufo

Over the weekend, my post about Nick Redfern’s theory of alien genetic engineering was given an unflattering write-up by news editors for The Anomalist, an alt-media franchise which, not all that surprisingly, published five of Redfern’s books. Like most unflattering write-ups of this kind, he centered on two of the standard cliches of paranormal writers defending themselves from a scientific criticism. The first is that their critic, whoever it is, didn’t engage with the arguments so there’s really no need to counter-argue. The second, is that whatever criticism was gives was a mere “copypasta” from derisively mocked and official sources in scare quotes, because science is apparently only interesting, relevant, or reliable when it provides an exploitable mystery for a paranormal outlet to explore. What annoys me isn’t so much being disagreed with — in pop sci blogging — it’s par for the course, but the lazy, snide, protecting-our-investment derision.

Really, when someone tells you that you didn’t engage with unnamed points, accuses of giving out your own theories when you’ve introduced none, and being a mouthpiece of some sort of a disinformation campaign for merely using detailed scientific sources, the only conclusion you’re going to make is that you hit a nerve and someone wants to preemptively dismiss you. Writing any real counterpoints would’ve just given me more targets and treating me with any respect is going to give their readers the impression that my criticism may be legitimate. That’s a textbook strategy pseudoscientists and paranormalists employ in self-defense against all skeptics: deride and evade. Like some fish puff out their chests to make themselves look bigger, those affected by a skeptical missive act as if defending their ideas to doubters is somehow beneath them and hide behind a wall of sound bites from eager followers who want their worldviews affirmed…

death with rose

Starting a skeptical blog is exactly like starting any other blog. No committee requests to review your posts and approve the skeptical label, no regular audits of your content are held by JREF, or any other skeptical group, and the only third party classification of skepticism you’ll get would come from DMOZ, which would select a category to post a link to your blog so web crawlers for major search engines can quickly and easily index it. But at the same time, when you find blogs that use the s-word in their titles and tags, there’s a certain kind of content you expect from the posts and podcasts. You’ll be looking for references to scientific works, critical take on personal testimony and anecdotal evidence, and a distinct lack of conspiracy theories. Just imagine your surprise when a blog called Skeptico rushes to defend a doctor who claimed to have proof of a picturesque afterlife after a bout with meningitus from the “liberal atheist media” following a less than flattering expose of him and his troubled background in Esquire. Seems odd, right?

Yes, to be fair, the article seemed very clear about where it was going even before it started to officially challenge Dr. Eben Alexander’s story, which while very typical among those who went through near death experiences, was very much the kind of agenda-first journalism I decried a few weeks ago. But that said, while the Tinder story blatantly ignored science that sabotaged a point it wanted to make and its writer employed all manner of semantic games to wave it away, the tale about Alexander is unflattering, but factual. He had the training and skills to be a really great surgeon, but he made mistakes and tried to cover his tracks when caught by patients who were harmed by his inattention to detail. It’s very unlikely, at least to me, that he spun his tale of seeing the afterlife out of whole cloth, but it does seem likely he fine-tuned it to make sure it will fly off the shelves and get him maximum exposure. These are not tricks unknown to the market for books and public appearances by those claiming firsthand accounts of the afterlife.

And if we turn to Skeptico for a look under the name, we’ll find not so much a skeptical blog that looks into near death experiences as much as we will ardent supporters of these stories whose goal isn’t so much to find a scientific explanation for visions during NDEs, but to come up with a scientific word salad to support the idea of the afterlife. They are not skeptics but believers with an axe to grind against atheists and skeptical scientists and their entire proof of malfeasance in the story ran by Esquire is a conspiracy theory that the writer is carrying out orders from a dark cabal of atheists, liberals, and doctors threatened by Alexander’s story and desperate to take an accomplished neurosurgeon down a few notches. Throughout the transcript we never do learn exactly what was being lied about or evidence that quotes were being misappropriated, we are simply assured that it happened because, well, Mrs. Alexander says so. And if you keep looking around the site, you’ll find a dozen more hypercritical posts about Dr. Alexander’s skeptics.

Look, I get it. Airtight evidence of an afterlife, even a religiously ambiguous one, would make all the injustices, problems, and suffering of our existence much easier to bear. Knowing that your death would reunite you with lost loved ones and favorite pets would make a terminal diagnosis feel like a bit less of a burden. Humans, understanding their own mortality, have been picturing some sort of life after death since the first shamans and cave paintings, desperately hoping that this is not all there is to existence. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t have NDEs that are so thoroughly researched and inexplicable that we can cite them in peer reviewed literature and replicate them. If we did, religious snake oil salesmen wouldn’t be chasing people who suffered one to write stories about visiting the other side and speaking authoritatively about what we will encounter once we shed our mortal coil to an audience desperately eager for reassurance. The people who run and frequent Skeptico are part experiencers, part anxious believers, and in part victims of a lucrative market for the ultimate reassuring story. But they’re not skeptics.

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 this 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 came 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.


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.