Archives For skepticism

fighting a troll

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wired cyborg girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?