Nothing of Consequence

Rant mode activated. You’ve been warned.

So, I got into another Twitter kerfuffle, this time with a blogger from Skeptic North. This, of course, hot on the heels of some moderately heated exchanges in Jen’s comment thread. I don’t know what it is with me and these Canadian skeptics, man. I mean, I love Degrassi and hockey and bacon.

But I don’t love the current popular trend among some skeptics to blame atheism for diverting resources, energy, and attention away from other skeptical causes. I don’t love the current efforts by some skeptics to hide or silence atheists because they see them as some threat to recruiting theists. The circular firing squad is getting fucking old.

Some additional highlights of the evening:

As usual, my side of the argument can be seen here. Just scroll down and keep clicking. You know, I hate threaded comments on blogs, but I sure wish Twitter had a feature that let you slot comments in a conversation with each other, so you could actually follow what was being said. But then, that would also require a system that didn’t drop every third tweet on its way to my feed. Eventually, I will learn that Twitter is not the proper medium for this kind of asinine argument, but not yet, apparently. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: yes, I was most certainly being hostile, antagonistic, snarky, sarcastic, and borderline insulting right off the bat. Maybe it’s because I’m writing this rant directly after the argument, but I don’t even feel bad about my tone, the way I sometimes have in the past. “He started it” is a poor excuse for anything, but I think the condescending, ‘get out of my way’ post which kicked everything off, set that tone. Believe me, I’ve been bored with the religion fight too. There are times when I’ve felt exactly the same as Mr. Thoms, that anything worth saying about religion had already been said–most of the time, centuries ago. That’s one of the reasons that this blog has gone through such long dry spells in the past, and I know folks like Don and Bronze Dog and Skeptico have felt the same at various times. On the other hand, I suspect they’d all agree that we’ve all felt the same about most of the typical skeptical topics from time to time. For me, there are four loose categories of skeptical topics: those I don’t care about, those I care about enough to talk about, those I care about but am sick of talking about, and those I don’t know enough about to talk knowledgeably. I suspect that any skeptic would have a similar breakdown. We have our areas of interest, our areas of expertise, and hopefully we largely stick to talking about the places where those two overlap. And yet, I’ve never really felt the need to tweet about how the anti-dowsing crowd is getting in the way of my anti-antivax activism. It all goes back to that philosophy I keep espousing regarding skepticism: do what you want, just stop telling me what to do. Different people have different interests, different goals, different priorities, and so forth. Let ’em. So, let me lay down a few things that I haven’t expressed before, because I don’t generally care that much (but they make for a good example):

  • I think skeptics in the United States generally spend way too much time and effort on homeopathy. It’s not ubiquitous here the way it is in Europe, and I’ve found that in order to argue against homeopathic remedies with Americans, I first have to explain what they are. That doesn’t mean they’re not a problem; the Zicam scandal and Airborne lawsuit showed that they certainly are. But I think the attention they receive on this side of the pond is disproportionate to the danger they actually pose, largely because there’s such a large contingent of skeptics from Europe and Australia, where the stuff is endemic.
  • I think skeptics, and particularly James Randi, spend way too damn much time on dowsing, relative to the prominence and harm actually caused by dowsing. Those useless bomb detectors certainly were a big deal, and it’s good that skeptics worked against them. But before that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen dowsing in the news outside of the occasional local story about some hick who thinks he can find water or oil or gold with a stick. I know there’s some annoyance on the JREF side of things too, since ‘the dowser who is convinced of their ability’ was the particular example given of wasted effort when they changed the parameters of the Million Dollar Challenge a few years ago to focus it on more prominent figures.
  • I think we could be doing a lot more to promote vaccination, especially since we have the CDC and other major organizations on our side. The groups involved in promoting vaccines are dedicated and good at what they do, but I think we could focus more effort and time on that.
  • I think we’re way too resigned to the glut of woo-woo programming on television, and particularly on channels that should have higher standards, like Discovery and History. The Skepchicks recently spearheaded an (apparently somewhat) successful campaign to keep an antivax ad from running in movie theaters around the country; it seems like we ought to be able to exert similar pressures against garbage like Ghost Lab or any History Channel show that consults Fred Zugibe or John Hogue as credible sources. Some prominent television figures, like, say, Adam Savage, speaking out against some of the televised paranormal dreck in public would probably help raise a little consciousness and exert a little force in that regard.
  • I think we ought to be doing more against Chiropractic. Like, period. I have a hard time believing that the ubiquitous back-cracking which people generally think is real medicine is more powerful in Great Britain (where the whole Simon Singh flap has been going down) than here.

Those are all things I think about the priorities of (at least) the American skeptical community, as I see them. But here’s the rub: I don’t begrudge anyone for sorting their priorities differently. I don’t claim that the 10^23 movement is taking money and resources away from the fight against shit like “Ghost Lab.” I don’t say that because it’s fucking absurd. There is certainly a largely common pool of people with a largely common pool of money to be had for all of these groups and causes, but people are going to associate with and support the causes they prioritize most highly. You want to change people’s priorities? You want to get a bigger piece of the skeptical community pie? I’ll give you two hints: one, you’re not going to get there by alienating existing allies, and two, you’re not going to get it by complaining about how everyone else’s slice is bigger than yours. This is a marketplace of ideas. If you want more people to buy into your idea more strongly, then you need to be a better marketer. I offered Mr. Thoms some suggestions as to how he might go about doing that, but he didn’t seem receptive. Because, after all, I’m an angry atheist, and my presence alone, what with my desire to be out and open about my atheism, and my penchant for criticizing religious believers, is driving potential theist supporters away in droves.

Let me break down some of the problems with that notion, shall I?

  • I’d be less angry if I weren’t constantly dealing with patronizing skeptics who want me to stay in the goddamn closet.
  • Where are these droves of theist skeptics who would have joined up if not for those danged pesky atheists? Can we substantiate that they even exist in large enough numbers for us to really care?
  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. It seems like shortsightedness to alienate people who already mostly agree with you because you don’t like how in-your-face they are with their religious (non)beliefs, in hopes of catching more supporters who may or may not exist.
  • I think just the idea that–“if atheist skeptics would only keep quiet about their atheism we’d have more theist skeptics”–is profoundly condescending to the theists. It isn’t just that it looks from the outside like you’re trying to hide an uncomfortable truth (skepticism might gasp lead you to atheism!), it’s also that it sets theism apart from all other non-skeptical beliefs. We don’t caution liberal skeptics to keep their mouths shut about social security and medicare lest they scare away the libertarians (or vice versa). We don’t tell the skeptics who accept Anthropogenic Global Warming to stay quiet about hockey sticks and climate forcing, for fear of alienating potential skeptics from the anti-AGW camp. We don’t tell anti-GMO skeptics to lay off of potential pro-GMO allies. I’ve never seen skeptics who love the Cubs told to put their hats away to avoid offending Cardinals fans who happen to agree that vaccines are super. In all of these cases–and many others–skeptics disagree, often vehemently. Heated discussions often rage around these topics on message boards and in blog comment threads. Skeptics argue with each other, questioning their assumptions, pointing out flaws in their logic, and generally secure in the rightness of their own position (but, one would hope, open to changing their mind, given sufficient reason and/or evidence). I think it’s coddling to give theist skeptics a pass on their theism when we would not hesitate to skewer them mercilessly on their objectivism (for instance). If they can’t handle having their beliefs questioned and defending their claims against challenges and pointed questions, then they’ve joined the wrong community.

And here’s a bombshell: I think it’s possible for someone to be a skeptic and a theist. I don’t necessarily even think they’re being a bad skeptic, depending on what their theist-position is like. I fully admit that I could be wrong and other people could have evidence to which I am not privy. Of course, those are the theists I’d be most interested in, since I’d like to know what their evidence is, but that’s kind of beside the point. I don’t actually have a problem with the idea that applying skepticism can lead different people to different conclusions regarding the same question. I think they’re wrong, and if it came up, I’d ask them what led them to their conclusion. And if asked the same, I’d answer. Because that’s the kind of dialogue and discourse that I expect from a community of doubters, questioners, and scientists. If a theist agrees with me on vaccinations and Bigfoot and UFOs and 9/11 and every other skeptical topic, but can’t handle being associated with me because we disagree on the matter of the existence of God, or because they resent the fact that I think they’re as wrong about God as Bill Maher is about medicine, then fuck them. What good is such wishy-washy, fairweather support? Skepticism is a way of thinking; anyone can do it. Consequently, the skeptical community is a diverse damn group, and I should think it’s as disgusting, dishonest, and disrespectful to tell an atheist to remain closeted so they don’t offend potential theist allies as it would be to tell gay skeptics to stay in the closet in case there are homophobes who think acupuncture is nuts. Now, there’s one last point I need to address, and that’s the matter of atheists being aggressive, taking it to the streets, being in-your-face, and, as a side-effect, causing theists to not support skeptical causes or join skeptical organizations. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that anyone who makes that argument is missing the goddamn point, and is likely so self-absorbed with their own goals and priorities that they simply can’t conceive of the possibility that other people might be individuals. The movement toward atheist activism and visibility and openness is almost completely orthogonal to the movement to increase support for skeptical causes. The only real relations are that atheists tend to be scientific, and skepticism tends to lead toward atheism. But the goals are almost completely separate. The specific goals of things like the Atheist Bus Ad campaign or the Coalition of Reason’s billboards or the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s ads, are (as I understand them):

  • To destigmatize atheism
  • To debunk myths about atheism and atheists
  • To make people who are already atheists more comfortable about coming out
  • To make people who are atheists realize that they aren’t the only ones around
  • To raise consciousness about the privileged position which religion has in our society
  • To increase the acceptability of criticizing religious dogma and religious claims

If you think “embarrassing religions” is a primary or even secondary goal of the “There is probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” bus ads, then I think it’s safe to say you’re missing the goddamn point. You and the point are not even on the same brane. If you think that “increasing support for skeptical causes” is a major goal of such ads and campaigns, then again, you are missing the goddamn point. When atheists can generally feel comfortable about being out and open about who they are and what they believe, without fear of reprisal and repercussion from coworkers, employers, families, friends, and communities, then we can start talking about who gets hurt when atheists come out of the closet. Until then, suggesting that an ad which says “Yes Virginia, there is no God” is even in the same league as “guns,” and is “aggressive” is colossal asshattery. When atheists start doing shit like this? Then you can talk about “aggressive.”

So in the end, no, Mr. Thoms, I don’t give a flying fuck how aggressive or in-anyone’s-face you are as an atheist. What I give a fuck about is people telling me what a horrible person/skeptic I am for driving away allies who I’ve never seen. What I give a fuck about is being stereotyped by skeptics with the same asinine brushes used by fundamentalists. What I give a fuck about is hegemonic assholes who think that their way is the only way, and “take issue” with groups and organizations that see things differently, and criticize groups who are achieving their goals because they aren’t helping him achieve his. What I give a fuck about is people who are willing to complain about their lack of support, but not enough to see that if they want to compete, they need to change the fucking message. What I give a fuck about is treating people with openness and honesty, whether or not they believe in God. It seems to work all right for my theist friends and associates. Strange how I haven’t driven them away.

Narrating Life

I’m enjoying Discovery Channel’s “Life,” when I get the chance to see it. I figured it was another appropriation of a BBC show with redubbed narration, but I didn’t realize I’d seen any of the original show before. In fact, the time-lapse video of undersea scavengers is one of the coolest biology videos I’ve seen in a long time, and I watched that months ago.

Seeing the original in comparison with the Americanized version makes me realize just how much more I like David Attenborough as a narrator than Oprah Winfrey. Maybe it’s the soothing British accent, maybe it’s the fact that Attenborough doesn’t spend the rest of his time promoting all manner of dangerous pseudoscience, all I know is that I hope it’s Attenborough when the DVDs come out.

Woo Triage

I commented on the recent thing at the Universe blog, but I think the author’s comments in the section where my post never quite materialized warrant some additional commentary, spinning off into something a little more in-depth. I have two fairly distinct things to say with regard to the matter, so in the interest of actually finishing a post in a timely fashion, I’m writing this as a two-post series. Let’s begin!

First, the sour grapes:

I don’t want to seem like I’m backtracking (and I’m very sorry to have typecast Skeptics as fuddy-duddies), but it seems I’ve made too broad an argument about something specific. […] I hate to say that the authoritarian, joyless zeal with which you’ve taken to shredding my point of view is, in effect, exactly what I’m talking about.

Yeah, far be it from a group that you’ve painted negatively with a common, obnoxious, tiresome stereotype to respond to that stereotype with some degree of authority (i.e., being relatively sure of what we’re talking about) and without joy. I suppose we should append a little smiley emoticon every time we sigh, roll our eyes, and start drafting the usual response to inane comments like ‘you just want to tear things down’ and ‘what’s the harm of UFO belief’. What if I said that women make terrible scientists and science fiction authors because they’re too emotional and romantic and not analytical enough? Or that a woman can’t be President because she’ll make the White House pink and bomb someone every 28 days? I wonder if debunking those common, inane canards would make you particularly joyful.


Of course, I tried really hard to infuse my response with joy and humility and giving-the-benefit-of-the-doubt (it’s hard to noun that verb), but it never got out of moderation. Further, the first video in your post–the one which sparks your criticism of skeptics–is apparently presented to criticize Bill Nye the Science Guy. Because as everyone knows, no one is more joyless or authoritarian a mere “debunker” as Bill Nye the Science Guy. And maybe it’s just that my heart is shriveled to a third of its normal size due to years of cynical debunking, but I thought Treppenwitz and Skeptical Ginger also tried to inject some joy and humility into their posts. But I suppose it’s easier to broadly dismiss anything that doesn’t fit your preconceived bias than to concede any point. “I’m sorry for what I said, but this proves that what I said was right” is not an apology.


On to the more substantive points:

In any case, I’m not speaking to any political form of pseudoscience — excuse me, in my bubble, I forget this is a charged subject. Anti global warming “science,” the dinosaurs-and-humans-together stuff, health quackery: clearly a worthy cause for debunking of all kinds.

I guess this may be a place where the sort of hardcore skepticism we typically engage in can seem unwarranted and off-putting. If you divide the woo-world into “harmful woo” and “harmless woo,” then using the same approach for both sets might indeed seem over-the-top.

But skeptics on the whole, I think, don’t make that distinction–at least, not with regard to arguing against it. It’s the same question/criticism that atheists face: why go after the liberal religious people when they’re mostly on our side? In both situations, the answer is basically the same. A person’s beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. The beliefs we hold–and the way we arrived at those beliefs–affect the other things we’re willing to accept and the actions we take. If people could just hold compartmentalized beliefs that had no real effects, then we’d have no real impetus to argue against them.

But that’s not the case. You needn’t look any farther than, say, Mike Adams to see how irrational beliefs beget irrational beliefs. I don’t know enough about Mike to know what beliefs or system for accepting beliefs kicked the whole thing off, but if I had to guess I’d say that his belief in the healing power of alternative medicine led to his rejection of science-based medicine, which led to his distrust of the pharmeceutical industry, which led to his distrust of the government, which is why he thinks 9/11 was an inside job. On one hand, it’s hard to see how “these herbs made my cold go away” can lead to “WTC 7 must have been a controlled demolition,” but the intermediate steps are incremental.

Mike’s an extreme example, sure. And I freely admit that my impression here is based on anecdotes rather than data. But I imagine it’d be the experience of most skeptics that crank magnetism is a strong force indeed: religious fundamentalists seem more likely to believe in possession and witchcraft, newage crystal enthusiasts seem more likely to believe in alternative energy medicine and psychics, and so forth. I’d be interested in seeing a rigorous study done, but I’m not aware of any.

See, it’s not that people just have some irrational belief, it’s that the irrational belief is emblematic of larger potential problems. People have standards for what beliefs they’re willing to accept and what ideas they’re willing to entertain. For skeptics, these standards are set by science and evidence; for believers of various stripes, the standards are set by the tenets of their religious beliefs or the details of their conspiracy narratives, and so forth. The beliefs–and thus, the standards which inform those beliefs–inform how the people who hold them will act, think, worry, vote, and otherwise affect other people around them.

And the effects range from the trivial (Bigfoot enthusiasts buying books on Cryptozoology, Spiritualists buying Ouija Boards) to the wantonly destructive (parents killing their children through religious-based medical neglect, governments condemning people to death through HIV/AIDS denial). No one denies that, which is why you’re more likely to find outrage over Jenny McCarthy than Jeff Meldrum.

But how much does a belief or belief system have to impinge on other people’s rights and well-being before it warrants debunking? Does it need to be death, as in the case of antivaxxers and HIV/AIDS denialists? Does it need to be widespread impending catastrophe, in the case of climate change denialists and GMO fearmongerS? You see no problem, apparently, with the New-Agers and the cryptozoologists; is it similarly unproblematic when legislators waste time and resources on protecting Bigfoot or investigating remote viewing? How much of my tax money has to go to pseudoscience and quackery before I have legitimate cause to be upset?

One of my biggest problems with all kinds of woo-woo is that it has this tendency to completely invert people’s priorities by providing them with imaginary worries and concerns that supersede real worries and concerns. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists become more concerned with remaining pure and sinless than with treating their life-threatening diseases; religious fundamentalists become more concerned with the coming Apocalypse than with helping create peace in the Middle East or fight climate change; conspiracy nuts become so fearful and distrustful of the secret plots of their governments that they overlook real harm that the governments are doing under the light of day. One of the best examples I can provide personally comes from Debra, the conspiracy theorist whose belief in a vague Satanic Illuminati plot to kill most of humanity and enslave the rest, led her to stockpile canned goods, panic over being potentially followed by Men in Black, and seek out truth in comic books and satirical videos. Meanwhile, she had a fairly young son, and had altered her plans of travel and family vacations and entertainment so that she could instead spend the money on supplies for when things got bad.

On one hand, the only people she’s harming are herself and her family, so why should I care? It’s her money, and she can do with it as she pleases, and it’s really no skin off my nose. What purpose is served by arguing against her beliefs if they don’t harm me?

And on the more relevant hand, why wouldn’t I care? Here’s a relatively normal, relatively healthy woman whose irrational beliefs have caused her to make major alterations to her life in order to prepare for a coming catastrophe that will never actually come. In doing so, she misses out on time with her family and causes herself all manner of considerable, completely unnecessary fear and worry. What kept hitting me, over and over in the conversation with Debra, was how tragic her story was. I felt really sad for her, and angry at the Alex Joneses and Jim Marrses who had actively harmed her life by spreading these false beliefs. I argued with her not so I could prove that I was right, but so that I could convince her to seek professional help and maybe have more time to spend with her son than with the phantom enforcers of the Illuminati. I argued with her not because her beliefs harmed me, but because they harmed her.

This is why we argue against even harmless woo: because it so rarely is. Even if it isn’t influencing legislation or policy, even if it’s not killing people or speeding along environmental catastrophe, it’s still affecting people’s lives and doing so in a negative fashion. I “debunk” because I think people’s lives are generally better if they’re employing critical thinking and scientific reasoning. I “debunk” so that I can help people stop living and thinking according to the dictates of fictional narratives and start living in the real world. “Debunking,” as I said in my comment, is a first step–and a necessary one–in the general process of education. And education, as far as I’m concerned, rarely needs justification.



I have to imagine that everyone’s heard of the various studies and reports that claim that men tend to have longer ring fingers than index fingers, then go on to link any number of other traits and factors–athletic ability, sexuality, spatial reasoning, stock market success, autism–to digit length ratio. The Wikipedia page has some relatively plausible information about why the correlation might exist–at least between gender and digit ratio–but also notes that there’s a large overlap in the ratio distributions between genders.

Frankly, there’s not much in modern pop culture notions of science that sets my bullshit detector ringing quite like this stuff. It stinks of phrenology and palmistry, though I haven’t yet found anyone claiming a causal link between digit ratio and any of these other things (except that supposedly the ratio is evidence of prenatal exposure levels to masculinizing hormones). And despite this, I haven’t been able to find much of anything–support or skepticism–in the usual skeptical sources. There are a couple of threads on the JREF forums that bat it around a little, but no one seems to have anything solid one way or another on the subject. The one thing that seems to pop up every time I find this topic is a chorus of comments from people for whom the supposed correlation fails; anecdotal, uncontrolled, and self-selected though such a population is, it does suggest to me that the correlation might be less strong than the popular understanding suggests.

So I put the question to you, dear readers: Know of any solid research definitively supporting or debunking the digit ratio connection stuff? In addition, what do you think about it?

A relevant and somewhat political comic

Not to keep banging the same drum too much, but this recent Dinosaur Comic mentions something that Mike Adams somehow didn’t understand.

Yes, the water in our toilets–provided we’ve cleaned the bowl–is just the same as the water from the faucet. And you know, that is quite ridiculous. I mean, I suppose it saves on weird plumbing systems to have all water-using appliances drawing from one source as opposed to internally recycling, but the dinos really have a point here.

Minor things

First, this column at Slacktivist is amazing.

Second, tomorrow is Wednesday, January 27th. At 10:00/9:00 Central is the mid-season premiere of Psych on USA Network. I’ve been planning to write up a full post about Psych for some time, but every time I pop in one of the nifty DVDs I got for some recent winter gift-giving festival, I get a little distracted. I hesitate recommending the show only because it sometimes feels like it’s targeted directly at my weird ’80s-reference-based sense of humor, and I don’t know if that works for many people. It certainly doesn’t work for a lot of the people who hear my weird ’80s-reference-based attempts at humor. In any case, the relevance to this blog is that Psych is one of the best skeptical shows on TV. Now, it’s not hard science or skepticism like Mythbusters or anything; it’s more skeptical in the vein of the original Scooby-Doo. For those who don’t know, it’s a mystery series following a fake psychic detective who works with a somewhat credulous police department. The protagonist is hyper-observant, which serves him both in the over-the-top psychic pantomime and the whole mystery-solving routine. Despite having some potential rooting in woo-woo, the show has tackled “real” psychics, ghosts, mummies, and other “paranormal” topics without ever giving credence to the supernatural. In the end, it always turns out to be the dude who owned the abandoned amusement park.

To recap: tomorrow night. Catch it!

Finally, I never quite managed to write up my review of They Might Be Giants’ newest album, the absolutely incredible “Here Comes Science.” Had I done so, I would have mentioned that my only real problem with the entire album was that their video for the song “Put it to the Test” used the word “theory” when they really meant “hypothesis.” See for yourself:

Simply fantastic. If you like science and quirky music, the album comes highly recommended, and you should pick it up. If you don’t like quirky music, then the album comes highly recommended, and you should pick it up for your kids!

Gosh, this post comes across sounding like a commercial, doesn’t it? I hope my corporate paymasters are paying attention.

1. If you don’t know already, They Might Be Giants recorded a song in the ’80s called “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas).” It was a cover of an educational song from the ’50s, and they rerecorded it for “Here Comes Science.” The cool part is that, recognizing how much we’ve learned since 1951, the next track on the album is a follow-up called “Why Does the Sun Really Shine? (The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma).” Not only do they update and correct the earlier tune, but they manage to work the line “that thesis has been rendered invalid” into verse.

Truth in Advertising

So, one of Mike Adams’ wonderfully hysterical articles loaded up on my browser when I restarted Firefox. I’m not entirely sure what happened in the process, but the serendipity was delicious (the emphasis, but not the text, is mine):
Looks like the FDA is finally cracking down.
Now if only we can get “fractally wrong” and “intended for entertainment purposes only” disclaimers on there, we’ll be in business.