weird things talks to the bad astronomer
Weird Things talks to Phil Plait about astronomy, skepticism, and correcting people who are wrong on the internet.
If you read popular science blogs, then you’ve probably heard of Phil Plait, aka the Bad Astronomer; scientist, author, blogger, lecturer, skeptic and the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation dedicated to exposing pseudoscience and famously offering a $1 million reward for demonstrable proof of the paranormal. By now, he’s covered everything from Moon landing hoaxes to the anti-vaccination campaigns in Australia and the U.S. as well as big news about space exploration and astronomy. Earlier today, I got the chance to talk to Dr. Plait about his thoughts on popular science and skepticism.
Q: What motivated you to start the Bad Astronomy blog?
A: Oh the fame and fortune… But seriously, I was ticked off by people saying silly things about astronomy, so I started writing posts back in 1993 and eventually got the [bad astronomy] domain. Basically, I started writing for the same reason any skeptic starts writing. We see something isn’t right and we feel compelled to try and correct it with something real.
Q: What do you think of the recent increase of scientists with blogs?
A: I’m really glad to see more scientists out there doing blogging. Many newspapers and magazines started losing readers and I’ve seen cases where lots of science writers have been let go. There used to be dozens of reporters covering astronomy conventions, now it’s a big deal if there are twelve of them there. Half the people covering [these events] are bloggers. I’m also glad to see medical doctors blogging, especially because of the whole anti-vaccination issue. The most devoted anti-vaxers are out there, telling people not to vaccinate their kids and we see a lot of preventable diseases coming back, and babies are dying because of it. So it’s good that doctors with that kind of expertise can weigh in on the vaccination debate. And of course, scientists trying to reach out and inform the public is definitely something I like seeing.
Q: How did you get involved with JREF? How did you become the organization’s president?
A: Through sheer bravado. I knew about Randi since I was a teenager and was always interested in what he did. When I wrote my first book, we were looking for people to provide blurbs for the cover and we thought that it would be good to get a review from a skeptic. So I got in touch with Randi, told him that I wrote a book and if he could read it and let me know what he thinks that would be great. He replied that yes, he would. Then, soon after that, he e-mailed me and asked if I wouldn’t mind giving a lecture at a conference he was having. I said I’d do it and spoke at what became the first Amazing Meeting. Randi kept inviting me back again and again and one day asked if I wanted to become the president of JREF. I told him I had nothing else to do and agreed.
Q: What do you think of the sentiment that skeptics are also very cynical?
A: That’s not true at all. A skeptic is just someone who wants evidence for a claim. It just means to doubt, not to outright reject. For example, if you were to come to me and tell me that UFOs are coming to Earth and aliens are kidnapping you in the middle of the night and sticking things up your butt, I would ask if you had any proof. Do you have videos, pictures, or alien devices with the right isotopes? And it would be the same exact story if a scientist came to me and said that Milky Way was eating another galaxy. I would ask if he had star maps or if he had the right data. If you’re a real scientist, you would of course have real evidence. So it works both ways, for science and for non-science.
A cynic just outright denies whatever evidence he has. I try to examine the evidence. I’ve examined hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence, it’s just that none of that evidence turned out to be any good. I do not accept eyewitness testimony because people are very unreliable when it comes to extraordinary events and the fuzzy videos and blurry pictures… they’re just really not convincing at all.
Q: What motivates you to keep doing what you do?
A: It’s a couple of things. One is to make sure that people appreciate reality for what it is. The universe is cool enough for us not to have to make things up about it. One practical reason [to keep writing] is because people who believe something that isn’t true could harm themselves or deny themselves medicine, or if they thought they could talk to the dead, went to a psychic and interrupted the normal grieving process. And it just ticks me off when I see people constantly spreading stuff that isn’t true.
Another reason comes once a week when people e-mail me to say “thank you for doing what you’re doing, I used to believe this or that and now I see what’s really going on” or tell me they want to go back to school and study astronomy because of a Hubble picture I put up. To know that I have an effect like that on some people is just awesome.
Q: What do you dislike about doing what you do?
A: It’s heartbreaking to read stories of people who believed something and messed up their lives. And when babies are dying because people are listening to anti-vaxers… That’s just really the worst thing in the world to read about. It’s also very hard to keep up with everything. There are only so many hours in a day and between blogging and being the president of JREF and being a father, a lot of things that deserve attention slip by or I can’t get to it fast enough and it has to wait. It can get kind of frustrating, especially when there are lots and lots of deadlines that I have to meet.