Archives For skepticism

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…

As I’m sure you know by now, one of the primary symptoms of a crank is an acute inability to take criticism. As in the person in question starts foaming at the mouth with rage when confronted with the idea that he may not necessarily be 100% correct about his profound and revolutionary idea. Now of course not everyone who will shy from criticism is a crank by definition, there are a lot of people who simply take all criticism personally, primarily because they form such profound attachments to their ideas. However, if you hold on to your ideas a little too tightly and start justifying why everyone says you’re wrong as some sort of nefarious conspiracy, you’ll more than likely be in the final stages of your descent into crankhood. And when you’ve found a way to make some cash by selling your pseudoscience, you’re highly prone to lashing out at those who point it out with an infuriated threat of a lawsuit. That’s exactly what a PR flack for the Burzynski Clinic has been doing across the skeptical web after Quackometer’s Andy Lewis wrote about the clinic’s founder’s false promises and greed in the case of a young girl with a brain tumor being charged £200,000 for his supposed cancer treatment.

In response, a marketer, and, apparently, esteemed legal scholar, Marc Stephens, proceeded to carpet-bomb skeptics on his hit list with cease and desist e-mails, each more threatening than the last, and the verbage of which made it easy to imagine the author howling in rage as he quite literally pounded it out on his keyboard, keys flying in every direction. You see, apparently Stephens isn’t just threatening skeptics with lawsuits, but in his rampage, he’s actually exposing a grand conspiracy created by Michael Shermer and involving numerous skeptical bloggers to discredit the dashing researcher Stanislaw Burzynski and his revolutionary therapy for a whole host of cancers once thought incurable. His proof, the one he demanded the bloggers on his hit list to show their audiences, consists of screen caps of tweets and blog posts authored by skeptics. No, that’s it really. If you call yourself a skeptic and wrote something unflattering about the Burzynski Clinic, you’re a part of the conspiracy and therefore, must either shut down your blog or scrub it of anything that doesn’t praise Marc Stephens’ bosses. Don’t bother asking for a list of passages with which the Clinic disagrees. You know what you did you evil, nasty skeptic you, so either shut up or suffer the wrath of Burzynski’s squad.

Stephens could not have been serious about taking this Gordian Knot of accusations to court, could he? Does any judge actually allow a case naming hundreds of not thousands of people as defendants based on such flimsy conspiratorial nonsense? Though the discovery period would be rather fun and all those skeptics may get a chance to explain the flaws of Burzynski’s claims, pointing out that one can follow Stephens’ pretense at logic to draw a similar conclusion about skeptical coverage of alien abductions, psychics, and ghosts. Then, the very same skeptics could turn around and demand that the Burzynski Clinic pays them for their time, legal expenses, and damages for the harassment it inflicted. I mean come on, the Clinic let someone with serious deficiencies in civilized communication electronically bully a blogger still high school, attaching Google Maps snapshots of his home in his e-mails. This is beyond a cease and desist. This was outright harassment and intimidation, and Stephens, acting like a character from the Godfather movies told his targets that they got real nice homes and families and it would be a shame if anything were to happen to them. If I were Rhys Morgan, this e-mail would be forwarded to my neighborhood police department for safekeeping.

Now, after nearly a week of Stephens’ nastiness, the Clinic’s already shaky web reputation has plummeted in just about every way possible. Trust sites now rank them as a scam, search results are being filled with blog posts explaining why to steer clear of them and stories of their intimidation, and they know full well that a lot of medical bloggers are either working on, or are now posting detailed scientific explanations of why Burzynski’s version of chemotherapy fails to work, and how he can claim to keep doing trials while really using them as a smokescreen to either administer chemotherapy, or do his own personal research while charging patients a ridiculous amount of money for it. Keep in mind that not a dollar of his fees could be covered by the patients’ health insurance policy because the treatment is still considered to be experimental, making this a very, very profitable endeavor. Were he to simply sell chemo treatments and accept his clients’ insurance, he’d have to negotiate his outrageous prices with insurance companies which would quickly drive them back down to terra firma. So with the damage still ongoing, Burzynski’s staff did the only partially sensible thing they could in this situation and sent out e-mails and a press release saying that they’ve fired Stephens.

But of course, the bloggers who made his hit list are still on the hook, they said, especially bloggers in the UK where suing for libel is a breeze. In other words, Stephens was apparently following Burzynski’s policy when he tried to threaten bloggers who were critical of his boss into submission. It’s just that he went overboard in his campaign and had quickly become a liability. At the end of the day, Burzynski and his staff are still snake oil salespeople, their products still don’t show any real potential to fight cancer according to the FDA, the NIH, and just about every other major group of medical professionals, and his "clinical trials" have gone on so long and include so much sketchy data, they qualify as clinical trials only by the vocabulary definition. The end goal of a clinical trial should be to test the efficacy and safety of a new treatment, then get it to market quickly, not have eleven of them rotating for years on end while charging participants $7,000 to $15,000 for the first round, then bilk them for an additional $4,500 to $6,000 every month for up to a year. That, my friends, is not a clinical trial, but a very profitable racket, one to steer clear of if you or someone you know has the awful misfortune of being diagnosed with cancer. Any cancer has to be treated promptly and aggressively, and time lost to questionable and unethical experimentation could turn out to be life lost in the worst case scenario.

[ illustration by Andrew Steven Foltz ]

Over the years, I’m sure that many of you have met a very particular phenomenon that manifests itself in more volumes of theological platitudes than most of us would even care to count, the insistence that because what we know about the universe by the scientific process changes over time, we must turn to religion as the only constant and steady source of information. Humans tend to like constancy and we are very much creatures of habit, sometimes to a glaring fault. Just watch how people react when Facebook rolls out a minor tweak or a nearby bar they frequent closes shop or moves to another part of town. In fact, in IT, we brace for a user revolt every time we make a serious update requiring a change in their daily routine. But does that mean that since we’re creatures of habit we must not adjust our views on existential questions and that any change must be a bad thing? So what if people question and update what they know? Why must our supposedly divinely guided preachers, clerics, rabbis, and monks put up a fight and use their close-mindedness as a mental firewall so they can block new ideas coming from the world around them, and why should we praise them for this?

Let’s say that you and a friend go outside and he insists that if he stands in one exact spot, it will never rain in your city. He’s sure because he read it in a book which said that rain can be warded off by humans standing on some exact geographic coordinate and that book was completely accurate because it said that it was in a lengthy preface. You decided to take him on his challenge and wait if it will rain. Sure enough, a few hours into this exercise, rain comes and your friend gets soaked. Gee, that didn’t work, you say. Your friend says that he probably just got the instructions wrong, goes back to the book, stands in a new spot, and waits. Again, rains come as he keeps repositioning himself, rereading his book over and over again. Meanwhile, you start doing some experiments and talking to meteorologists, and find out that where someone stands in a city hasn’t the slightest effect on whether it rains or not. Newly educated, you return to your soaked friend and tell him that he doesn’t have to do what he’s doing anymore because you did a lot of research and discovered that his ideas won’t work, so he may as well come in, dry off, and you can do something else. But your friend growls that you must be too lazy to help him confirm his notions which is why you went off and found a way to say that it’s just impossible and that all he needs as proof of this assertion is that you changed your mind.

Now, normally, you’d call your friend obstinate and proceed to criticize his ideas as erroneous. Sure, you may have thought it was possible at first but you learned, you changed your mind based on evidence, and you can now move on to other things. He’ stuck and insists on being stuck, angry at those who decided that his ideas are very unlikely to work. And funny enough, few people will object and come to your hypothetical friend’s help by praising his devotion to his notions when the topic is influencing rain. Change it to religious beliefs and all sorts of justifications are invented for the friend in question. How dare you call him obstinate? How dare you call him stuck in the past? Can’t you see how devoted and passionate he is about his faith? Can’t you do the right thing and respect his beliefs by not telling him about what you found? Why do you insist on challenging his cherished ideas with something you recently found out? Who asked you to go and find things out anyway, can’t you see he’s happy the way he is? Despite how much we seem to prize learning new skills and trying a new concept every now and then, when it comes to religious matters, learning is suddenly the enemy and an engaged, curious mind looking to learn something new and update what it knows is viewed as a poison. We change what we think we know every day on almost every possible topic. And yet somehow, we decided that all this learning must now cease when religion is brought into the picture. Why? Because we said so.

Obviously, when you try to make believers doubt, you’re going to get a defensive reaction and many will be all too quick to raise the volume and repeat their beliefs in an endless loop, thinking that by quoting what they’ve memorized often enough is sufficient proof. But that happens with every type of believer, be they followers of a pseudoscientifc New Age strain of woo, 9/11 Turthers, bin Laden deathers, or self-appointed prophets of the end of the world. Why will we dismiss the first three but listen to the fourth one even when we know he’s dead wrong? And why do we feel no problem ridiculing a blathering post-modernist hack but decline to criticize the claims of a priest saying something very similar but using the worlds “God” instead of “quantum” and “prayer” instead of “subjective intent?” I can come up with hundreds of examples of claims we could all easily debunk and dismiss for a lack of evidence, theist and non-theist alike. What I can’t fathom is how theists will suspend the very same logic and critical thinking they use when approaching UFOs, naturopaths, yogis, and self-styled shamans for those in search of something to believe, and swallow whatever they’re told, ceasing to demand some shred of evidence for what they’re being fed. How does that happen? And why should we praise people on their ability to suspend critical thought when seeing or hearing certain words?

[ illustration by Koren Shadmi ]

So apparently, President Obama has given in and decided that the birther issue has leaked enough toxic goo in the media world that he had to release his long form birth certificate to prove for the millionth time that yes, he was born in Hawaii and yes, he’s eligible to occupy his office. You can thank the various airheads who had so much time invested in the issue, whether it was on the far right fringe which collapses into a maelstrom of rage and fury when its views aren’t accepted as the divine truth, or the political strategists and pundits on the left who wanted to exploit the issue to show how crazy the opposition must be. Funny enough, after all the years of indulging birtherism, Republicans now blame Obama for not being focused enough on the economy and wasting time on spurious nonsense rather than fixing the nation. Hypocrisy, thy name is the GOP. But all predictable partisan sliming aside, does this now mean that we’re done with this birther thing? Like finished, beyond it, done for good? Not a chance. Conspiracy theories are like zombies without heads; invulnerable.

You see, there’s a reason why even years of growing and ever more vocal skeptical movements haven’t yet brought down egregious alt med crankery, New Age woo abusing physics with unholy fervor, and pockets of terrified, paranoid anti-vaccinationism in society. We’re arguing with people for whom reality and facts are optional at best or a sign to change the goalposts and challenge us to meet the impossible goal of proving a lack of existence for something. And that’s if we’re lucky. Often, conspiracy theorists will use negative evidence to bolster their case, arguing that because we can’t find proof of alien saucers on Air Force bases or that alien cabals are culling the human population with toxic vaccines, we must either be part of that globe-spanning and nefarious New World Order merely repeating what our handlers told us to say, or showed just how great the Freemasons/Fourth Reich Nazis/Illuminati/Reptoids are at covering up their trail. Whatever you present, a conspiracy theorist will find a way to either rationalize it away or mangle it as supposed proof that she was on the mark all along. And how can you possibly participate in a debate with no rules and prove a point when you are essentially arguing against those who can simply change the topic on a random whim?

So was it really a surprise that the instant the birth certificate hit the web, hordes of birthers descended on it to find a reason to reject it? Was anyone actually shocked that they started complaining that “African” should not have been the recorded ethnicity for his father, that they were suspicious of “mysterious layers” in PDFs, that it must have been a hoax by the CIA or the NSA covering up for the president, and that it must have taken him so long to release it because he was covering his bases to release a fake. But the problem is that even if Obama released the long form birth certificate the minute he was asked for it, the conspiracy theories would not have abated, just like 9/11 Truthers and Moon hoaxers are still going strong. How many people asked for Clinton’s birth certificate? How many people are wondering if John McCain’s citizenship is not legit because he wasn’t born in the United States but to U.S. citizens overseas? Clearly there’s a very specific motivation to believe that Obama is not a legitimate president and when you have the predispositions to accept the notion that the FEC didn’t care to properly screen the paperwork of someone who could well be the commander-in-chief of one of the world’s biggest and best armed militaries, no amount of proof will be sufficient to dissuade you.

Just consider that anyone who applies to any post requiring security clearances has to fill out a huge form full of questions about almost every job he’s had and virtually every place he lived, provide a birth certificate, social security card, a passport, and depending on the clearance level, also account for his overseas travel. And that applies not only to scientists or researchers working in defense, but also to fresh out of high school would-be soldiers before they can depart to boot camp. And herein lies my biggest problem with any birther argument. If teenagers go through such scrutiny, how and why would the “Powers That Be” just slip up and forget to do the same thing for a senator and then a presidential candidate whose decisions would shape military policies? It would be in their interests to do everything they can to make sure he wouldn’t be a threat and I’m supposed to simply accept that the same people who will ask to sign your full, complete name with a middle initial so they can formally approve all of the twenty forms filled out that afternoon, will just throw a folder with a lawmaker’s or a presidential frontrunner’s file in an box and say “forget it?” But I suppose if you let partisan loathing take precedence over what should be Civics 101, you can buy pretty much anything that paints your object of hate in the most negative possible light. And that’s because birtherism is about ideology first and foremost, just like a whole lot of conspiracy theories which envision subterfuge and villainy on a national, if not global, scale…

If you read this blog as well as its siblings in the blogosphere, you know about Tim Minchin’s outstanding viral beat poem Storm, featured by many skeptics, myself included, for it’s down to earth scenario. So when it was announced that Strom was slated to become an animated short and the trailer appeared online, I have been impatiently waiting to see the results. And now, the wait is finally over and we can enjoy this cartoon in entirety, thanks to the hard work of the team that spent nearly a year bringing it to life and the power of YouTube…

Again, the reason why I love this poem so much is how realistic its setup really is and how it speaks to many skeptics’ desires to just let loose at some obnoxious proselytizer of woo in polite company, especially about that infuriating part in which they condescendingly dismiss what we actually know for a fact about the universe as mere, close-minded, insignificant opinion. We know how to eradicate diseases, calculate problems with a set of tools able to execute billions of instructions per second or run our entire cities, fly above the clouds and soar into space, and observe the dawn of the cosmos with precisely calibrated mirrors on Earth and out there in orbit, floating hundreds of miles above our heads. And what do so many disciples of woo love to blather on about most of all? How they’ve figured out some key to magic health and supernatural powers of the soul with some bastardization of quantum physics! How unbelievably, spirit-crushingly boring and self-absorbed.

Listen to the most popular woo out there. It’s all about me, me, me. What’s in it for me, how can I make myself happy, how can I have a pure body, how can I live forever, and how can I supernaturally make all the simple or inconsequential crap I want appear on my doorstep? Who do I pay to answer all these questions for me and get what I want while expending the bare minimum of effort? How about you work for it, my woo-addicted, self- indulgent friends? Humans who relied on knowledge, science, and cold, hard facts have built our world into a pretty damn good place, and helped some of us set foot on another world. Maybe you can put away the piles of vacuous, ignorant exercises in inanity from post-modernist hipsters who pretend to be deep thinkers while coughing up pseudoscientific garbage and semantic gibberish, and join the rest of us in building a better and more advanced Earth with your hands and brains rather than your promises to think really hard about it with a lucky charm in tow and some totally awesome meditation routine you read about at HuffPo?

It’s hard to believe, but months after Phil Plait’s oft cited speech at TAM urging skeptics not to be dicks to the woo faithful or religious fundamentalists is still being debated in skeptical and popular science circles. While my personal preference was to mention the topic and then move on to talk about the facts and issues which I tend to find far more interesting than vague debates about civility, some atheists, skeptics, and pundits trying to cash in on the accommodationism trend, are still at it. The topic of tone and politics in debates involving a whole slew of scientific or religious issues regularly reappears from Ophelia Benson and Jerry Coyne, along with the blogs with which they constantly start back and forths, blogs usually ran by people who seem to have more of an interest in political strategizing than in tackling any real issues on a case by case basis. And really, with all the navel-gazing I come across, a question comes to mind. Why is it that skeptics and atheists seem so involved with meta-discussions about tone and how to properly approach the forces of woo and religious indignation while fundamentalists or the woo-faithful don’t seem to spend a lot of time reciprocating? For just about every skeptic saying that maybe we should be quieter, there’s a woo-meister or crank eagerly jumping into the fray to say "oh yes, absolutely, in fact, why don’t you all just shut up and go to away?"

I mean, here we are, thinking about what we could do to come across as more friendly and excoriating each other for not being friendly enough, with some skeptical groups going as far as to purge atheists to better fit in with the local religious communities, and what do we get in response? Indignant fuming about how we still aren’t quiet and pliant enough? Yes, let’s spend another few months discussing when it is appropriate to call an idiot such, or in what context can we call out a raging crank on his or her nonsense. Are we going to go for our best public BDSM impression and buy some ball gags so a local creationist horde could threaten your local school board into turning science class into a Sunday School in peace? Doubtfully. Are we going to wear collars and give a fundamentalist bloviator the leash so he can yank on it when we say anything he feels to be offensive? Again, probably not, especially because we know that he will yank on that leash an awful lot. There are people who are offended by our very existence and unless we completely retreat into the shadows, we will always offend someone. So maybe we could spend a little less time arguing about how to debunk something and more on debunking it, since after all, we’re damned if we do and damned it if we don’t?

By all accounts, I fit what the media would refer to as a skeptic with room to spare. I’m close to the age group into which most skeptics fall, even a little on the younger side. I’m a grad student in a STEM discipline. I have an honest to goodness blog that’s actually read by a noticeable amount of people, and I rail against both bad science and crankery, quackery, and vacuous New Age tripe being passed off as scientific. And according to several major publications in the UK like the Telegraph and the Guardian, I’m part of a growing movement in society, one that seeks to institutionalize the scientific method and force homeopaths, naturopaths, psychics, and cosmic consciousness cranks to submit to the same level of scrutiny reserved for scientists. Now, I say that the publications which are trying to define the skeptic movement are in the UK because in the U.S. this is an issue that’s barely covered at all. And both the facts that skeptics are being united in the media as a brand new social movement, and that they’re getting all too little press in the American media is rather alarming…

On the one hand, there is a major skeptic movement and it does attract people who call themselves skeptics and are passionately interested in improving scientific education and literacy, as well as exposing frauds and charlatans who use tricks to separate people from their money, or get rich from spewing technobabble which they pass off as incredible insights gained from scientific investigations. They’re also very active in performing their due diligence when ridiculous rumors go viral, and try to inject some critical thinking and facts when an important conversation in a public forum is being dominated by emotion and dogmatism. This movement has been growing for a long time and in the past three years or so, it really took off, so much so, its starting to get some of the internal growing pains and debates experienced by other established social groups, including how skeptics should or shouldn’t address religious issues, with some skeptics growing scared of atheists in their midst, usually out of public relations concerns. But regardless of the internal politics of skeptics, they are a very much needed movement and I’m happy when blog portals and web directories list Weird Things as a skeptical inquiry blog because that’s what it has been from the start and what I want it to remain.

And yet, I have some mixed feelings about having a skeptical movement. At their core, skeptics are interested in only one thing: promoting good science and critical thinking. If something you read on a skeptical blog gave you the urge to go and buy a few good science books on a particular topic and question the next breathless or overly credulous report about, oh say, UFOs meddling in global politics, or random collections of quotes from conspiracy theorists who weave anything and everything into an elaborate New World Order plot, then we have done our jobs. Though notice how the notion of fact checking and examining claims from the standpoint of whats more plausible rather than what makes a good story, is pretty logical and straightforward. Needing a movement which teaches critical thinking skills to adults who really should have them at this point says some very disturbing things about the societies these movements inhabit. Even worse is how the media treats it. In the UK, the narrative is that of skeptics fighting believers over philosophical and scientific disagreements that started spilling over into the public eye, when its really more like concerned people who have some modicum of scientific literacy objecting to charlatans and quacks raiding government coffers and peoples wallets. And in the U.S., skeptics are used for culture wars segments which focus on the politics, not the facts.

So imagine, if you will, a not too distant future in which “skeptics” is an umbrella term to label those who have a genuine interest in scientific topics, and are familiar with basic math, physics, and biology enough to have a critical opinion on a popular out-of-left-field claim, from the average John and Jane Q. Public when a scientific education grounded in facts, figures, and critical thought should be the aim of basic schooling. Unfortunately, we seem to be doing all we can to degrade education down to route memorization and standardized tests for the benefit of keeping grossly overpaid administrators in their lucrative jobs, even if those administrators are being paid to basically dismantle an entire state’s educational system, making it seem eerily plausible that scientific education becomes pretty much optional. And if the politics aren’t poisoning education enough, way too many virulently anti-intellectual movements are trying to make things even worse by portraying scientific research as elitist quests undertaken by people who just like to use big words to confuse the public, making up things like evolution or global warming because they’re all just a bunch of evil communist spies who hate our deities. In the United States, as education is either being neglected or bludgeoned, we desperately need active skeptic movements, and not just fodder for political talk shows, but we seem to need these skeptics for all the wrong reasons, and using a special label to describe something all of us are able to do.

Since the media started covering skepticism as a movement and its successful shots at quacks, cranks, and popular pseudoscientists, there have been more and more woo faithful taking to their blogs and woo-friendly outlets to complain about all those nasty, mean skeptics who say all those negative things about their efforts to balance and rotate their chakras while polishing their qi with all-natural, organic quantum ointments to gain omniscience, transcending into the 86th dimension. Just check out some of the fiery condemnations of logic and critical thinking from professional woo-meisters like Deepak Chopra and Mike Adams who each build an elaborate caricature of their skeptics, but prefer different approaches to ridiculing their detractors. Just like not every disciple of woo follows the same pseudosciences or religious beliefs, the skeptics’ loudest critics take their own brands of crank logic which generally tend to fall into at least one of the six categories listed below.

The Pseudoscientist. Knowing that today, people do tend to take scientific endorsements quite seriously, the pseudoscientist meets any criticism of his favorite woo with a stream of buzzwords borrowed from a number of real scientific disciplines and liberally mixes them with fictional “resonances” and “nano-crystals” that tend to be described in ways that either obviously violate all known laws of physics, or make it very obvious that the pseudoscientist clearly knows nothing about the scientific fields he tries to invoke. He can generally be found in discussions about anything quantum, or homeopathy, flailing to explain how a single molecule of an herbal extract or an exotic salt in an otherwise normal glass of water is somehow capable of curing cancers, flu, and strep throat, or how quantum entanglement manages to explain souls and past lives. Best dealt with by being forced to explain what every one of the terms he uses means to show that he’s actually just shooting blanks and trying to sound like an authority in a field he clearly doesn’t understand.

The Anti-Scientist. In stark contract to our previous defender of woo, the call of the anti-scientist consists of a litany of things that scientists still don’t really understand and invoking the Galileo gambit, trying to portray his favorite woo-meister as one of history’s great visionaries rejected by the hardline scientific establishment for being just too smart for those stupid scientists today. Usually haunting any discussion on fluffy New Ageisms, alt med, and quasi-spirituality, he blasts any refusal to believe his favorite woo as the obstinacy of people who just aren’t open-minded enough to see the world as he sees it. The fact that good science does get accepted when it comes with enough evidence, no matter how contradictory to previous beliefs and ideas it is will never register with him. Perhaps best countered by the note that were his views of scientists accurate, theories like general and special relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution, would’ve never been adopted because they were so contradictory to the way the scientific community thought when they were first introduced, and that the scientific Nobel Prizes would’ve never been awarded to scientists who do or discover something new.

The Ancient Wisdom. Once upon a time, it was actually quite logical to believe in miasmas or imbalances in the four humors as the cause of disease while thinking that the universe ended just past Saturn. We just did not have the tools to make the right observations or measurements to know better. Today, we have medicine based on observable, quantifiable science, microscopes, telescopes, and interplanetary spacecraft. We have a much better grasp on the universe around us than the ancients by virtue of having the time to build on what discoveries and inventions they’ve made. But to the proponent of ancient wisdom, we apparently have all this backwards and it was in fact the ancients who knew better than us. To her, what matters is how long a belief or an idea was held, not whether we’ve been able to confirm it. In her world, astrology and herbal medicine is the wisdom of the ancients passed down to us through the generations and any attempt to actually confirm if people living thousands of years before us and lacking the tools, skills and knowledge civilization build over a long stretch of time and trial and error, can only be described as an act of “left-brained arrogance.”

The Perpetual Accommodationist. Often times, the real world isn’t black and white but in shades of gray. We will do things that are overly elaborate and aimed more at protecting others’ feelings than getting something right because we need to keep our jobs or get a favor in return. But in the scientific world, a whole lot of things are actually quite easily determined. Just like two and two will always equal four, many scientific concepts are either right or wrong with very little to no leeway in between. To the perpetual accommodationist however, the idea that there may be no ideal middle ground is totally alien. We’re always supposed to find a way to “give a different view consideration” even if that different view dictates that two and two actually equal five. A die-hard follower of the golden mean fallacy, the perpetual accommodationist tries to play mediator in debates with a chant that we can all get along. He never says how we’re actually supposed to do it, or what the proper steps to accommodate those “different views” should be, but he can get downright nasty and obnoxious about it if given the chance. He’s a busybody trying to please both sides and usually doing a very poor job of it.

The Conspiracy Theorist. Did you dare dismiss the latest potboiler describing how evil Illuminati/Repotoid/ Alien/Cyborg/Government/Corporate/Trilateralist cabals secretly rule the world? Then you must be working for the conspiracy! Clearly, you’re either a sheep brainwashed by the planet’s shadowy rulers, or an agent of a secret society which needs to cover the conspiracy’s tracks. To the conspiracy theorist, everything is a secret plot in action, from flu vaccinations to terrorist attacks, and because he uses negative evidence, every word you say will be instantly turned into evidence that the conspiracy is even deeper or more vast than thought. In the conspiracy theorist’s world, disagreement is just more proof that he’s right, and any scientific study, paper, or well documented and explained historical chain of events that doesn’t back up his assertions is simply an attempt to get him off track. His paranoid mind is constantly at work, trying to find Men in Black on his tail, and search engines offering those looking for his blogs built to preach to the tinfoil choir a skeptical alternative are just devious attempts by the globe-spanning conspiracy to silence and discredit him. Even though he tends to do an exceptional job of discrediting himself without any external help whatsoever…

The Fundamentalist. Plainly put, if it doesn’t say so in his chosen holy book, it doesn’t exist. Fundamentalists aren’t just immune to logic, fact, reason, and evidence, they’re proud of this immunity to them, advertising the willful ignorance in which they indulge as a sign of their undying devotion to their holy texts. Any question and any criticism of their interpretation of a religious dogma is immediately attacked as bloody oppression while a whole lot of fundamentalists around the world brutally and savagely oppress those who don’t obey them. In the fundamentalist’s mindset, everything either fits his holy book or it will be twisted to fit the holy book, then advertised as totally compatible with it. Even if the supposed compatibility is an out of left field interpretation of both real world facts and the religious text. And should someone fail to see their brilliance in clumsily trying to cram science into their religious dogmas, he will be dismissed as an ignorant heretic who needs to repent, and his criticism taken as a sign that the fundamentalist just needs to bash others over the head with a rabid chant even harder because in his mind, he’s always right and it’s only a matter of time until everyone sees it, and if they don’t, they’ll all burn in Hell while he gleefully looks down on the sinners from Heaven.

[ illustration by Jhonen Vasquez ]

Do you happen to remember Frank Swain’s lecture to skeptics which painted today’s skeptical movements as becoming more and more exclusive, hostile, cliquish, and focusing primarily on preaching to the choir? A recent article in the Guardian seems to have taken that lecture to heart and starts off by describing skeptical activists in the UK in the same unflattering ways as Swain. Only there’s a slight twist. The author admits to an exercise in skeptic-baiting to draw our attention to something on which I think every skeptic can agree. Instead of trying to reach people who are either so far gone into woo, nothing can bring them back, or make so much money from this woo, they can’t afford to ditch it, or preaching to the choir, argues Alom Shaha, we should be focused on reaching those who are just shaping their worldview and have truly open minds: children.

There is a genuine need to help young people improve their critical thinking skills. It seems to me that campaigning to make the teaching of critical thinking more important in schools, or creating resources to help schools teach it, might be useful things for skeptics to do. Tim Minchin’s Pope Song is a work of genius, but it’s hardly appropriate for use in schools. How about putting some of that imagination and creativity to work producing stuff that might get used in school…?

Perfectly valid point. If anything, the issue of education in schools goes to the very root of skepticism as we’re aware of it today. While this may sound odd, I never cease to be puzzled by the existence of skeptical groups and their necessity because the very things they seek to promote should already be taught to everyone in their science classes. So to me, the need for skeptical groups in the UK and the U.S. speaks of a problem with the educational systems of these nations more than anything. Really, past a certain age, we should know that no living human could possibly talk to the dead, that waiving your hands in the air and chanting will not cure your cold, flu, or worse, and that ghosts are often figments of people’s imagination after they’ve been scared in the middle of the night while alone and in a creepy place with the right backstory for a “haunting.” This is why you don’t see articles debunking ghosts and psychics on this blog, and the only dissections of New Age woo are taking issue with its butchery of perfectly good science for a profit or out of abject ignorance.

But as Shaha points out, kids don’t know any of that. They would be interested in a thorough demonstration of how to fake talking to the dead with cold reading and explanations of why people claim to see ghosts. Having a handle on why critical thinking is so important, equips kids to tackle science classes and life in general, so offering to teach them about skepticism is always a good idea. However, there’s an issue over which this very noble thought glosses over, an absolutely crucial issue for every skeptic who wants to teach kids about basic science: the woo fanatics who can’t be reached. When they’re the teachers, administrators, and school board members who set educational agendas, skeptics are not going to be welcome and neither is reason. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to find out that Weird Things would either be censored for students in Texas, or dismissed as the propaganda of a “godless communist preaching scientism” followed with a quick survey of my bio to point out that I was born in the former USSR and must thus be “a communist spy.” Just as skeptics want to encourage kids to question and demand evidence, the woo faithful want to submerge them into echo chambers and viciously fight to impose their will on school boards, often with great success.

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis probably have an idea about my schedule and why I’m not as active with local skeptical groups as I probably should be. But I’m still active enough to hear things coming from older skeptical organizations and their complaints about kids today. Primarily that too many of them stick to computers and social media, not enough go to meetings and events sponsored by these skeptical groups, and that there are just too many of those darn atheists showing up at meetings and wanting to talk about their atheism thanks to Hitchens and Dawkins and Myers. And for some, that last problem is so bad, they try their hardest to declare that their skeptical groups do not endorse atheists or atheism lest any would-be member have to bear the horrible, terrible social stigma of being thought an atheist. One wonders if they’ll start putting how few atheists there should be at their meetings right on the flyers advertising their next big meet-up…

Here’s the issue. We all know that there’s been a steep rise in atheists thanks to today’s trendy atheist books and campaigns urging them to come out and give theists a piece of their mind. And often times, new converts tend to be the most zealous and vocal while those who’ve lived with a certain worldview for a while are usually more relaxed. I’ve written about the pros and cons of uptick in new atheists before, and I’m aware that there are plenty of young, amped up atheists on the warpath and so focused on their newfound or newly reinvented atheism that it’s all they want to talk about. These are the people old guard skeptics would like to keep farther away from their meetings because they don’t want their groups turning into an atheist book club. And to some extent, that’s perfectly fair. Skeptical groups are supposed to teach critical thinking and apply it to topics where very little of it is being shown, from old and repugnant frauds like psychics who claim to talk to the dead, to the modern pseudoscientific, quasi-religious UFOlogists and alien conspiracy theorists. Skeptics are under no obligation to let atheists hijack the proceedings to talk about, say, Hitchens’ latest columns and we need to be aware of the fact. We’re not excused from having some basic social graces because we’re atheists.

Yet, that said, the way skeptical groups seem to be going about discouraging atheists from turing their events into their coming out parties and celebrations of all things godless isn’t going to win them any points with the anti-atheist crowd, and is actually counterproductive in their interactions with atheists themselves. Let’s keep in mind that a lot of the pseudoscience skeptics tend to tackle are concepts steeped in religious faith. Ghosts and psychics rely on the idea of an immortal soul, just like many mystical vibrations of dowsers tend to rely on notions borrowed from esoteric and mystical interpretations of sophisticated theology. Same thing goes for a serious bulk of alternative medicine and New Age pseudoscience, even though it tends to be wrapped in very repetitive invocations of scientific buzzwords stringed together into an impressive sounding, but meaningless word salad superficially resembling a coherent thought. And on top of that, let’s remember that whenever the fundamentalist squads armed with Bibles and screaming about heathens trying to corrupt innocent children with science classes that teach about evolution and basic cosmology show up at board meetings, just about every skeptical blog ignites with contempt for those who want to drag our society backwards in time.

But then, after spending so much time dismissing religiously inspired ideas as either pseudoscience or just dogmatic unreason, the very same skeptics will turn around and loudly complain about how they don’t want a perfectly respectable skeptical organization like theirs to be “tainted by atheism” in the eyes of the people they want to reach. You know, the very people whose beliefs they’ve just been refuting and who loathe them as just a band of elitist know-it-alls who want to tell them how to live and what to think. And when these skeptics lash out to tell atheists that they’re not welcome at their events because this will somehow damage the reputation of their group, all they do is take those already amped up and angry atheists, and make them even madder by further marginalizing them like all those parasitic talking heads who constantly whine about how evil, amoral, and probably criminally insane atheists are. You know, the same talking heads who admit that the only things keeping them from going on a cross-country mass murder, rape, hate crime, and pillage spree are assorted quotes from their holy books telling them not to do that if they ever want to get into Heaven, and the very same talking heads who whine about the lack of creationism classes in public schools? Yeah, the skeptics trying to exorcise atheists from their organizations are taking those talking heads’ position here.

Being a skeptic is not for everyone because some people are perfectly and blissfully happy going on a bigfoot hunting hike, or thinking that they can either pray away their cancer, or just eat some “super-mega-giga-uber- hyperfood” pitched by some random quack at HuffPo and dissolve their brain tumors while doctors give them only a few months to live. Others are so terrified of some priests’ amoral speeches about the need for faith, they will fight to mandate creationism instruction in schools until they’re on their deathbeds. They will never be impressed by some skeptics’ expulsion of atheists from their circles unless the skeptics give up their science and evidence and dive headfirst into woo. Meanwhile, rather than letting self-discovering atheists filled with a whole lot of zeal and a whole lot of energy cool down and expand themselves by learning and helping to teach others about skeptical inquiry and the need for the scientific method in our daily lives, something that arguably does much more good to highlighting the unreason behind religious fundamentalism on a macro scale than any fiery speech, the skeptics driving them away with the message that having atheists among them is just a social stigma they’d like to overcome, only make these atheists angrier by attacking their potential to be great skeptics and questioning their worth as fellow human beings. And that’s just plain wrong.

[ illustration by Jonathan Burton ]