Archives For skepticism

dog in headphones

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]

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.

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 ]