Sunday, November 15, 2009

Skepticism 102

I had long ago promised to write about what came out of Skeptrack at Dragon*Con. It's taken some time to process, and there have been many other distractions (life, work, etc) but here I finally begin...

I've written previously about what it means for me to be a "skeptic" so I guess you could call that "skepticism 101." So say you are already on board with the whole idea. As Daniel Loxton asked, what do you do next?

One of the simplest things that you can do it just talk to your friends and family about what you think. Don't be shy when you hear a friend claim that childhood vaccines cause autism. Be genuinely curious when someone wants to tell you their ghost story. It's easy to rag on homeopathy or make fun of Jenny McCarthy when you know you are among like-minded people at skeptical blogs, forums, and meetings. But eventually, the topics that you care about will come up in conversation with your buddies, and they don't all read skeptical blogs all day long... I mean.... I'm working!

I'm not confrontational by nature. Grumpy at times, yes, but I'm pretty shy when it comes down to it. (Despite the volume, honestly!) And sure, we all see the productive arguments and unproductive shouting matches that occur online, but real life conversation doesn't always go that way. The first thing that you can do when someone brings up a topic that you are skeptical about, even passionate about, is listen. I know, it's hard, sometimes the first thing to come to mind is "WTF, dude, Oprah is a ditz!" Listen to your friend, discuss it like you would anything else. Even on a topic that is as well scientifically validated as the safety of vaccines, just having the right answer doesn't end the conversation. The science is there, but so are the fears and emotions. The science is there, but it hasn't been properly communicated to everyone. Most people just want to make up their own minds, and you may be able to plant the seed that leads them to the answer.

Most of the time, you really won't know the answer. You didn't personally see their UFO or ghost, you weren't there when they "cured" themselves with homeopathy. You probably can't say for sure what they saw or felt or what really cured them. But you do know a few things about the field, so share that. Plant the seed of doubt, let them investigate for themselves. Or help out! I'd love to see a really crazy UFO and try and figure out what it is.

There are times for impassioned, even asshole skepticism. But some of us just can't pull it off well, and besides, having a beer with your colleagues is probably not that time. Chances are, they aren't swindling people out of their money with fake cures. They are probably just as curious as you are. And who knows, you may grow your own skeptic! That said, I still cherish the online arguments, even as a spectator. It's good training for your own critical thinking, and maybe it can help with some of those listening skills I mentioned above.

So, we use the word "skeptic" to describe ourselves, although technically the term is misleading. Skepticism is a process, there is no one way to be a "skeptic." But we use the word and it's there and sometimes your friends will ask, "Well what does that mean?" For a while I wasn't sure what to say. When I was at Dragon*Con at Skeptrack, I asked this question of a bunch of people there, but being scatterbrained as I am, I didn't write it down or record anything. But a general picture began to emerge... a skeptic is someone who asks questions... a skeptic is a science advocate... a skeptic values critical thinking... a skeptic likes to do their own research and see the evidence. We like to be seen as inquisitive, not curmudgeonly, though the latter is more likely where the stereotype lies. We're open-minded, not closed-minded, nor are we "conspiracy theorists", though some of those have tried to co-opt the term.

I tend to hang out with science-types and with grad students. It's just a function of where I am in my life. In my experience, they are more likely to respond to honest discussion and critical thought, not appeals to emotion. We live and breathe this stuff every day, poking holes in articles once a week in journal club, watching peer-reviewers poke holes in our own work. (Aside: there is nothing "peer" about it when you are a wee student. It's frakking terrifying!) So maybe I have yet to delve into the world of the believers, but I think there's plenty to do right here.

Cross-post from One Astronomer's Noise.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dragon*Con Post-Op by Nicole

Cross post from One Astronomer's Noise. See you at Monday's Drinking Skeptically!

Holy. Frakkin. Wow.

So, I attended, no, experienced my very first Dragon*Con. It was on a scale of something that I have never seen before. Tens of thousands of freaks and geeks, many in costume, descended upon downtown Atlanta to laugh, squee, drink, and just be themselves (or whoever they want to be) for a while.

Crowd partying at the Marriott bar

Some classic superheroes, at least one with a new spin! Lots more pictures, including some of Tim and me in costume, are on Picasa and Facebook.

I actually spent a lot of my time at Skeptrack. I finally got to meet many wonderful people that I had only know of through their writing or podcasts or through Twitter. We had SUCH a blast! These intelligent, creative people are each in their own right a force of nature, so the congregation of them in one place was simply spectacular. Conversations started early in the day with the first panels, and stretched well into the next AM. I don't think I can do justice to each and every person that I met there so I'll just say, thank you! And a special thanks to Derek and Swoopy of Skepticality for all of us even being there.

The closing Skeptrack panel

I've come away with a lot of great ideas and inspiration for various things I'd like to write and do. As usual, it will take time for any one to come to fruition in my "spare time" (hahaha). But as a number of the panelists stressed at various points, each one of us can do something, even something little, to advance skeptical thinking in the culture around us.

Some other highlights from the Con:

The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast won the "Best Infotainment" Parsec Award! Congrats to the whole team who work tirelessly to put this project together, and each and every one of the contributors to the cast.

George Hrab accepted this little gem on behalf of the cast.

The world record attempt at the most people dancing "Thriller" was attempted! I was not present, but the video is fantastic.

The pre-Dragon*Con Star Party was a success! The event was sold out, and then some, while guests mingled, chatted, and honored the late Jeff Medkeff. Kudos to Maria Walters and the Atlanta Skeptics for organizing (and driving us around, and just for everything!), Pamela Gay and Phil Plait for giving kick-ass talks to a tipsy, rowdy crowd, and the Bradley Observatory at Agnes Scott for hosting and for letting Pamela and I talk to their students during the day. Despite the clouds, we got some good views of the Moon and Jupiter. I have to say, the Galileoscope is a really neat tool for introducing astronomy. I would recommend a tripod, however, though sitting on the concrete in your new dress to balance it on the back of a chair is also perfectly acceptable. Except maybe to my dress.

Randomly walking past celebrities in the hallway and in the bathroom was so weird. I did a double take for both Michael Trucco and Felicia Day. I also got to enjoy Felicia Day's Guild Q&A and a really fun BSG panel with Michael Hogan and Mary McDonnell. So it wasn't all Skeptrack all the time, I got out and geeked out a bit, too.

I got pissed with the FDO. Really. A lot of us did... I'm surprised the bar ever let us back. That was one of at least four* (maybe five if Geologic gets posted!) live podcasts I got to attend, the others being Skeptic Zone, SGU, and a hilarious, hilarious Amateur Scientist. And we finally got to hear Christian Walters on that latter podcast! Special thanks to him for driving my ass around Atlanta and helping us find a hotel and for even getting me to come down there in the first place.

So, check out my pictures, and look forward to some new skeptical thoughts to come! If I met you and haven't friended you on Facebook or Twitter yet, go ahead and say hi!

The flight home. Oh no, how did they find me! Oh, that's how. Props to the BA for that recommendation.
*Ack, apologies. I can't remember what was recorded for podcast and what wasn't!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meet you at Dragon*Con?

So I decided yesterday to go to Dragon*Con this year. I can drive down there and stay in a hotel that has a shuttle bus to get me downtown. There's a good "Skeptitrak" of skeptical talks to take in, with talks by all our favorite podcasters & bloggers. There's a science track and a space track, so there's no shortage of things to do. I'll go early, on Thursday, so that I can attend the Cancer benefit star party in Decatur that Phil Plait & Pam Gay are hosting. I'll bring along my "Death From The Skies" and have Phil sign it!

Squee! I'm such a fanboy!
Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Congratulations, you may be psychic!

Weekly World News, that bastion of scientific credibility, has reported that 53% of people are psychic, based on a study done at the University of Virginia on the townspeople and students of Charlottesville.

Say what now?

This study was published by the "parapsychology division of the University of Virginia School of Medicine" in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. Although the article does not name specific researchers from the study, the division of which they speak is most likely the Division of Perceptual Studies, founded by Ian Stevenson in 1967. Dr. Stevenson was a psychiatrist and researcher who devoted decades of work to collecting past-life experiences and evidence of reincarnation. Unfortunately, though he carried out this work all over the globe until his retirement in 2002, he did not produce scientifically compelling evidence to back claims of such experiences. I encourage you to read his entry in Bob Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary, which is fascinating and quite thoroughly researched. He also co-founded the Society for Scientific Exploration, which is deserving of a separate post, already in the works and long overdue. (I've been busy... yadda yadda...)

Naturally, the UVa library has a subscription to the journal, so I look forward to finding it in the Alderman stacks later this week when I get a chance. Unfortunately, I can't find a version online, or even an abstract at the moment. According to the article, however, the study was a self-reported survey of 622 participants. Until I get a look at how the participants were selected, it's hard to say whether this is an accurate cross-section of the American population, as is claimed. (Maybe we are just special?) One researcher is quoted in the article as saying,
50% of America is psychic – the results of this survey confirm this fact.
I'm skeptical that any researcher into the paranormal would make such a sweeping and incorrect statement, especially if they expect to be taken seriously. The lack of a name attached to the quote only encourages my notion that this was made up whole cloth by a "reporter". At any rate, a self-reporting survey is no way to prove that a phenomenon exists. Serious scientific studies need to be double-blinded and carefully controlled before a claim can be shown to have validity. Participants in this survey report such paranormal experiences as déjà vu, out of body experiences, apparitions, hauntings, and more. Although these may be terrifying to a person in the moment, a more rational explanation is often to be found. A few years ago, a team of neuroscientists reported that they may have found a biological cause for that eerie feeling of déjà vu. Paranormal investigators such as Joe Nickell have found rational explanations for many hauntings and paranormal claims over the decades. Many psychics have stepped up to take James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, and none have passed preliminary testing. If half of us were psychic, someone would have noticed by now.

So, this article was published in a cheesy tabloid with a screaming, Vulcan-ish child on the logo. So what? Most people running across this article will snicker and move on. A small percentage, no doubt, will add it to the pile of "evidence" for their already-cherished beliefs in the paranormal. I'm more interested, personally, in what the survey-study itself has to say, and how much more widely it is reported, especially locally.

Muchas gracias to for the link! Also, kudos to them on the clever title.
Cross posted at One Astronomer's Noise

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Correlation, Causation, and Coincidence

I've been running around again. I'm back to CVille and to work, but before that I was out of town and away from my computer for almost a week, driving to New York, then flying to Georgia, with my "little" brother to get him set up for his new life in grad school. (I use the quotes because the 21-year-old is 6'2, more than a foot taller than me!) During my travel, I got a little reminder of one of my favorite logical fallacies:
Correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Detecting baloney with the best of 'em... Carl Sagan.

This one comes in handy when reading that "studies show that more people with x do y." Such articles are usually written to give the impression that x causes y, when no such thing can be concluded from the work. This fallacy can also be used in an argument about anything, and it has of course been parodied in a few places.

So here is my example from my travels. On June 25th, I had two flights, one from Newark to Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to Valdosta. This was also the day on which Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson passed away. The news of each one broke while I was in-flight, so I learned of each when I turned my iPhone back on after landing. And I thought, well that was weird, two flights and two highly publicized celebrity deaths! Surely, strange but a coincidence. The next Sunday, I had the same flights back, in reverse. After the first flight, I learned that the news of Billy Mays's death had broken while I was in flight. At this point, it's safe to say that there was a correlation between my flights and celebrity deaths. However, is this a good reason for me to miss my next flight, as to prevent another one?

Well, no, I took the last flight (bumped to first class, mind you) without guilt, knowing that I would not be the cause of loss of life in that way. Just because two things occur simultaneously, without a plausible method for their connection, or other supporting evidence, there is no reason to think that one has caused the other, or even that they have a similar cause. (Do pirates expel less carbon dioxide? I didn't think so.) Well surely, this situation is an amazing coincidence? Okay, but for all of the possible coincidences that *could* occur to all people, all over the world, is it any surprise that a small fraction of them do happen? As a pattern-seeking species, we look for significance in random events, but sometimes we just have to accept that they are random. Think about that the next time you want to associate one seemingly random occurrence with another, or try to find meaning in life's coincidences.

For the record, the US soccer team did get beaten by Brazil right before take-off of our last flight. A small death for some? Only if looking too hard for patterns.

Cross-posted at One Astronomer's Noise

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Happy Jesus

Saw this ad the other day and it cracked me up. Gettin crucified ... it's fun!