An unsupportable claim

I just got an e-mail from the James Randi Educational Foundation, promoting this year’s Amaz!ng Meeting. There was a time when I might have wanted to go to TAM, but that time is long past, especially since this year’s speaker lineup is a veritable who’s who of people I have no desire to hear from or be around.

The reason I wouldn’t have gone to TAM in the past is mostly because of the cost. I go to comic and geek conventions pretty frequently, and I realize that TAM is a different sort of beast–more like a professional conference–but the difference in cost has always been kind of staggering to me. Just to attend TAM for the four-day event is $475 this year, without any of the workshops, dinners, or extra bells and whistles. If I wanted to spend the same amount of time at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the “TAM” of the comic/geek culture world, I’d be spending $150. For a convention that’s closer to home (and likely closer to the attendance size of something like TAM) like the Chicago Comic-Con, I’d pay $90.

Comic conventions finance their tickets by having vendors pay to set up booths, and the goal is to have people come, see panels and presentations, and spend their money on the convention floor, and hopefully everyone makes a profit except the attendees, who leave with various goods that they didn’t have before. TAM, apparently, doesn’t work quite the same way. Certainly there’s a greater focus on panels and speeches, but one would think they could defray some of that $475 by having a few more vendor tables set up. Doesn’t everyone have a book to sell?

Again, I digress. It seems my perception of TAM’s cost as being excessive isn’t an uncommon one, hence at least one of the points in this e-mail, “Six Reasons Not to Miss TAM 2013.” To whit:

and…
6. TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in. Hotel rates for similar conferences range from $150-200 per night, while our TAM group rates go as low as $45 a night! But the group rates end tomorrow, so book your hotel room right now with JREF’s group code AMA0707!

The thing that stuck out to me there is this claim: “TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in.” I hope the JREF won’t mind when I say that I’m a bit skeptical about that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that such a claim is absolute, transparent, unsupportable bunk.

I immediately thought of Skepticon, a skeptic/atheist conference I actually do want to attend. Skepticon not only typically has speakers I want to hear and is within driving distance, but it’s also free to attend. The other costs to go would have to be pretty exorbitant to end up more than TAM’s $475+.

So I decided to do the skeptical thing: I crunched the numbers. All the information here is from quick searches of available websites, TAM’s information, and my situation. It’s going to be different for everyone, but they sent the claim to me, so it should be as true for me as for anyone else, right?

For TAM, I searched Hotwire.com for a round-trip flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. I figured I’d give TAM the benefit of not including the cost for me to drive into O’Hare (I’d prefer Midway, but the prices were considerably higher). The cheapest ticket I could find for the duration of TAM was $372. Changing the dates around a little–leaving a day later, arriving a day earlier, etc.–didn’t produce much difference. No telling if that’s before tax or after, or whatever.

I’ll take JREF’s word on hotels, that I could find one for $45 per night. Assuming I stay three nights (11th, 12th, 13th) and leave from the convention on the 14th, that’s $135.

We’ll ignore food and other incidentals. I’m sure both Vegas and Springfield have their share of cheap eateries. The price to beat is…$982.

For Skepticon, it’s within driving distance for me, though it’s a long drive. Going by a very low estimate of my admittedly fairly efficient car’s gas mileage (35 mpg–it’s usually more like 37), and assuming a fairly high average fuel price of $4.00 per gallon, it’d cost me $54.29 to make the trip there, so about $108.57 round trip.

There are lots of lodging options in Springfield. The hotel associated with Skepticon’s convention center would be $139/night, and I’m still assuming 3 nights. That would put me at $417 for lodging, but I could probably do better. If I didn’t mind going someplace a little less fancy, and I don’t, I could get a room within five miles of the Expo Center for $53/night at the Days Inn, according to Expedia. That would translate to $159 total. Let’s split the difference, and say I wanted to get a room at the DoubleTree right near the convention center. $109/night translates to $327 total.

TAM Total: $982
Skepticon Total: $436 (rounded up)

Unless food and transportation around Vegas is dirt cheap compared to Springfield, MO, the claim is refuted, and exposed for the ridiculous bit of hyperbole it is.

Of course, I know what the JREF supporters will say. “Skepticon isn’t a skeptical conference, it’s an atheist conference! There’s no comparison!” It’s a dumb distinction, and one not entirely based in fact, but one we’ve run into before. So I checked out the upcoming CSI conference, The Skeptical Toolbox, explicitly and obviously a skeptical conference put on by the organization that used to be CSICOP. Even the most wallbuildery of skeptical wall-builders can’t claim that’s some atheist-in-skeptical-clothing conference.

CSI Total: $492 round trip airplane ticket + $245 room and board + $199 registration = $936

Almost $50 less than TAM, and that includes meals! Look, I know it’s a small thing, but I kind of think that making unsupportable claims in the service of advertising for a skeptics’ conference is counterproductive. We wouldn’t accept this kind of blatant dishonesty from other services or organizations, we sure as hell shouldn’t accept it from the JREF. For shame.

A follow-up

You may recall almost two years ago I posted about the indictment of Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, on charges of wire fraud. I actually signed up for a PACER account to follow the case, since no one else in the skeptical community seemed all that interested, but (like so many things) I never followed through with it since life got in the way.

I especially meant to write a follow-up after Dunning posted a form reply on that original post four months later, linking to his official statement on the matter. The way it tried to redefine and justify cookie stuffing in ways that a glimpse at Wikipedia could refute, and elided the way that the practice actually harms people trying to do business online, rang false and stank of guilt, but I never got around to actually posting about it.

Well, now, Brian Dunning has pled guilty. And to read what some people (like the blogger at the Skeptical Abyss) its as though Skepticism has lost its first martyr.

In the end, though, it is about a public figure in the skeptical community, and not just any public figure. It is, in fact, about a luminary. A shining light. A beacon that has brought many of us out from the swamps of superstition into the light of rationality and reason. The man of whom I write is all of that (and I say this without so much of a whiff of irony), and much more.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Look, I enjoy Skeptoid as a podcast. I disagree with some of the stances Dunning’s taken over the years, but I respect that he can at least make a show of correcting his mistakes. I like the wide variety of topics, and at one point, I liked the podcast enough to donate to it.

But Dunning is no luminary, no shining light, and I hesitate to associate with any “skeptic” that would so try to elevate a human being. Especially a human being who, you know, pled guilty to fraud.

This is, without any doubt, a horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large. One of our leaders has shown that he is not the man that many of us hoped that he would be.

What makes Dunning a “leader”? He heads no organization, he holds no elected or appointed position so far as I know. He talks for fifteen minutes each week about a topic in skepticism. Maybe the problem here isn’t that “one of our leaders” fell short of being the “luminary” and “shining light” that some wanted him to be. Maybe it’s that we conflate “popular speaker” with “leader” and further expect either one to have as much expertise in moral and ethical realms as scientific and skeptical ones.

It’s an ad hominem (or pro hominem) mistake. Being a good skeptical podcaster doesn’t necessarily make one a good leader, or an ethical software designer. Each of those is a separate skill set. One would think that the Skeptical Abyss would be familiar with these basic cognitive biases.

Also, note here that it’s a “horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large.” I’m sure it is. You know who else it’s a tragedy for? The victims of fraud. Maybe, and I’m just throwing this out there, it wouldn’t have been such a tragic loss if, you know, no one had broken the law.

All leading invariably to where we are now, because once the United States Attorney indicts you, you are pretty much done. The US Attorney, unlike state prosecutors, gets to pick and choose their cases, and they only indict people that they are sure of convicting.

That’s a fascinating claim that I would love to see the evidence for.

When someone does a podcast like Skeptoid, and they speak into our earbuds once a week, we start to think of them as a friend, even though we do no know them.

This is true. And I would kind of hope that a skeptical site would recognize that this is also a mistake. Brian Dunning is not my friend, I do not know him, he does not know me, and I should not assume that because I have fifteen minutes of one-way contact with him each week, that I can thus draw any valid conclusions about his character, his ethics, or any of his activities outside of producing a podcast. The sense of familiarity we feel with celebrities is an illusion, and the gushing laudatory comments throughout this piece are the result of confusing that illusion for reality.

Many of us have looked up to him, and considered him a beacon of reason. And yet, here we are. A hero has fallen.

I said this on Twitter, but it’s worth repeating: how do you end up with such low standards of heroism that “guy who hosts a podcast I like” is worthy of the title? How, in the same week that saw marathon runners continuing past the finish line to donate blood at the hospital, do you arrive at “guy with a fun series of YouTube videos” as your standard for heroism? Do you consider “guy who can do that rubber pencil trick” the standard for a great magician? Is a Big Mac your go-to example of haute cuisine? Is “socks in the dryer” on your list of favorite movies?

This heroism nonsense ends up being a vicious cycle. The more we respond to talented people by placing them on pedestals, treating them like something higher and more-than normal people, the more shocked and disappointed we’re going to be when they fail to live up to the standards we unreasonably held them to. No one should have considered Brian Dunning anything more than a talented, bright guy with a good podcast in the first place, and responding to the revelation that, no, in fact, he’s really just a bright talented guy and also guilty of wire fraud with these fawning “hero” and “luminary” and “shining light” comments only perpetuates the problem. Because it’s likely to become “Brian Dunning is a hero who was persecuted by an unjust system” or “Brian Dunning wasn’t the shining beacon of pure reason that we thought he was, but all these other skeptical heroes surely are!”

Let’s learn from this mistake: having a good podcast does not make you a leader. It does not make you a good person. It does not make you a law-abiding citizen. It does not make you a hero or a shining beacon of reason or even correct.

It makes you a good podcaster.

Brian Dunning is a pretty good podcaster. He’s also someone who pled guilty to wire fraud. Anything else requires additional evidence.


Edit: There are lots of people in various comment sections saying we should be skeptical, that a guilty plea doesn’t necessarily mean that the person committed the crime, and so forth. I agree, but I also think it’s worthwhile to consider the evidence against that claim, too. Evidence like the statements he made to an FBI Special Agent. It’s damning, and further damning are the claims made in the suppression request that, were they the subject of one of the Skeptoid podcasts, would be among the things torn apart toward the middle.

You can be skeptical of Dunning’s guilt; you can believe his claims of feeling like he was under duress and disbelieve the counterclaims of the FBI agents, and that’s all well and good. But if you’re doing it out of loyalty or personal incredulity, you’re not really being skeptical.

That’s Strange

Huh. Looks like an old adversary is blogging again.

Slow Clap

I started a post recently building off a myth that Ben Radford perpetuated in a recent hilariously terrible screed about (straw-)feminists, but it’s in need of some editing and revising and thinking whether it’s even a good idea before I actually post it.

But then he wrote this bit of inanity, complete with bad photoshop, elevating his rhetorical style to the level of “bad college newspaper satire.” And I scarcely know where to begin.

I think my favorite part is the dig at the fact that PZ Myers hasn’t published a book yet. There’s a relevant criticism in the digital age. Or any age, really, since “publishing a book” doesn’t say anything about…well, anything. Except one’s ability to convince a publisher that they’re worth taking a risk on, and in the digital age, even that’s a diminishing factor.

Comparing peer-reviewed publication citations provides greater hilarity. Especially since BA-in-psychology-cryptid-expert Radford makes digs at PZ’s “writing outside of his field [of biology]”, and being “once known for his work as a biologist.”

If you’re not inclined to read through Radford’s attempt at humor (hint: it’s worse than his poetry), here’s the tl;dr: PZ strawmanned me!

No, seriously, that’s it. Radford made nearly 800 words out of an accusation that PZ strawmanned him. It’s a shame that, in the whole effort, he never actually said what PZ was supposedly strawmanning.

Look, here’s a bit of Arguing 102 for the would-be skeptics and internet debaters out there: it’s awesome that you found a list of fallacies on some website someplace, and you’re so happy that you’re learning all the Latin names and everything. And you totally understand what a straw man argument is and why it’s a fallacy and now you’re seeing just how common they are. In fact, maybe someone crafted a straw man argument in a conversation with you and you noticed it and furiously went a-typing away at your keyboard.

Here’s the thing: there’s a productive way to go about responding to someone’s straw man version of your argument, and a very unproductive way. First, the unproductive way:

“You strawmanned me! That’s a strawman!”

Also, the very unproductive way: “You strawmanned me!” x 258.

The productive way is to go beyond the accusation. The easiest way to do this is to quote your opponent’s straw man argument and either restate your original argument, quote it, or link back to it. Better still is to do that and then explain how your opponent distorted your argument, or why their response failed to address your actual points. That follow-through is actually important; it’s what separates the people who legitimately recognize fallacious reasoning and can explain what’s wrong with it (and thus help make their own arguments look even better) from the people who just learned the term online and don’t really understand the argumentation process, and the people who are using the term as a way to dodge legitimate criticism. Such people–both groups–are fairly common online.

As for Ben Radford, maybe someday he’ll get the hang of this skeptical argumentation and writing stuff.

Manly Must-Reads

I’m not sure where I found the link, probably on Twitter, but I ran across this list of must-read popular science books. It’s definitely not the list I would have compiled (though I admit that my pop-sci reading history is somewhat paltry). I count only two books on the list that I’ve read completely (John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy and The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, though his follow-up is on there, and I expect to devour that when it’s in paperback), four other books that I’ve started and not finished (Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics, Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality, which I’m going to go back to when I finish Richard III), and four more that I either own or wanted to read before seeing the list (The Selfish Gene, Mistakes Were Made, Supersense, and Nonsense on Stilts).

Many of the authors are recognizable, though the choices seem a little odd. Take Dawkins, for instance: I typically see Climbing Mount Improbable and Unweaving the Rainbow on lists like these before River Out of Eden. I would think The Panda’s Thumb or Full House would top Stephen Jay Gould’s list before Wonderful Life.

Then there are the glaring omissions. Not one Carl Sagan book? No Death from the Skies? No Neil deGrasse Tyson or Lawrence Krauss or Michio Kaku? No A Brief History of Time? No women?

Okay, that last one isn’t fair. There are indeed women on the list. Two of them: Carol Tavris and Mary Roach, out of 34 different authors, by my quick count (some books had multiple authors; some authors were on the list multiple times, including Marcus Chown, a name that was previously unknown to me). Somehow, when compiling “must-read” popular science books, three books by Marcus Chown and two “very short introduction” books merit inclusion when books like Silent Spring and Gorillas in the Mist don’t.

Off the top of my head and Amazon wish-list, I came up with this list based on books I’ve read, bought, seen elsewhere on “must-read” lists or in prominent bookstore shelves, or known because of their huge impact on science and society:

  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
  • My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics by Jennifer Ouellette
  • Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox
  • Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World by Lisa Randall
  • Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart
  • The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

That’s really not much, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that a world-altering book like Silent Spring doesn’t merit mention over, say, The Violinist’s Thumb, which has been out for less than a year. It isn’t a matter of intentional sexism, but it’s this sort of casual blindness to gender imbalances that helps to create and perpetuate the myth that science is “more of a guy thing.” Correcting that image is going to take a good long time and a lot of work, but little steps–like making sure that your “must-read” popular science book list isn’t a giant sausage fest–are not that difficult, and do add up just as the little omissions and microaggressions add up on the other side of things.

Turn it Around

One common refrain in the gun conversation (such as it is) is that if someone wants to kill people, they’ll find a way, guns or no guns. Now, I’ve talked already about part of why this is ridiculous–namely, that guns make it way easier to kill people than most things (see the recent knife attack in China for proof of that: 22 injured, none killed)–and there are plenty of other reasons as well. It’s a weird combination of a perfectionist fallacy and slippery slope, for instance.

But the weird thing is how they never apply it to their other arguments, namely the one that says more guns would prevent this kind of incident.

When people advocate gun control, shooters become these industrious madmen, bent on killing, and willing (and able) to do it by any means. Guns are illegal or hard to get? They’ll find a way, the crafty devils. Maybe they’ll get guns off the black market, or maybe they’ll make bombs using common equipment, or maybe they’ll resort to a knife or a fork or a pencil, but by gum, they’ll find a way!

Their one weakness, apparently, is the presence of armed civilians. See, when the premise becomes arming everyone, these gunmen suddenly become super-rational actors, who can and will always weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. “One of my targets may be armed,” they think. “If that’s the case, they may shoot back and I will get hurt. I’d better not go on a killing spree today, it wouldn’t be safe for me.”

But why not turn the argument around? Arm everyone, fine. These guys aren’t dumb, they’ll find a way to kill people anyway! Maybe they’ll dress up in body armor or use tear gas or smoke bombs to prevent other people from shooting back! Gosh, why does that sound so familiar?

See, here’s the thing: either the shooters are perfectly rational beings who will reasonably weigh the risks and consequences of going on a shooting spree (in which case they’ll prepare for those risks, like the Aurora shooter did) or they’re people who want to kill no matter what and will find a way (in which case armed targets won’t be a deterrent).

Or, as is more likely, some shooters belong to each camp, and others don’t belong to either.

But one thing we do see with these spree killers and mass murderers is that they’re not usually real concerned with their own safety or mortality. Many of these things end in suicide, or at least the death of the perpetrator. The ones that don’t? They take precautions to limit how much their targets can fight back, and how much damage they could do.

This idea that concealed carry or open carry is some kind of deterrent–especially to these would-be mass murderers–is as much a myth as that of the person who could’ve stopped it if only they’d been armed. And it’s perpetuation in our culture and the halls of power is only going to result in more dead kids and more dead adults until we recognize the correlation between stricter gun control laws and fewer gun-related deaths, the way that every other damn civilized country has.

Point and Click

I recently purchased an iPad Mini, and put some e-reading apps on it. With 1-click purchasing enabled on Amazon, I’ve found that it’s really easy to make an accidental, unintended purchase. Accidentally touch “Buy Now with 1-click” instead of “Add to Wish List” or “Send Sample Now,” and you’re either stuck with something you might not actually want, or you have to go through the cumbersome refund process.

It’s true that I could still make that purchase if there were more obstacles in my way, but it’d be considerably more difficult to make it without putting some serious thought into it, or doing it accidentally.

But whenever gun violence erupts like it did yesterday (and too many other times this year) and sensible people talk about gun control, about putting the “well-regulated” back into our conversation about the 2nd Amendment, we hear the same chorus of responses to the notion: “why not ban cars or forks or some other ridiculous thing? You could kill people with those too! If a person is determined to kill people, they’re going to find a way!”

So, apparently, we should make it as easy for them as possible?

Look, it’s true. If someone is determined to commit murder, they will find a way. But guns, especially assault rifles or automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines, are one-click killing. The ease with which they cause death make it ridiculously easy to kill accidentally, to kill in large quantities, to kill without putting a lot of thought into it.

You’re not going to kill someone with a fork or a pencil or something ridiculous like that without putting a good deal of thought and effort into it, and you’re certainly not going to be able to kill ten or twenty people that way in half an hour. You want to kill 20 people with a knife? You become a serial killer and do it over the span of years. You don’t get to saunter into a school or temple or movie theater and do it indiscriminately and quickly.

Even with a car, it’s hard to cause a lot of death as quickly and easily as it is with a gun. You can’t conceal a car. You can’t bring a car into a building. When a car is coming for you, there’s some warning.

The car is not the preferred weapon of people trying to commit mass murder. That’s not a coincidence, it’s by design.

It’s true that people who want to commit mass murder will find a way. But when you buy lots of fertilizer, you end up on watch lists. When you buy lots of cold medicine, your license is flagged. There’s a reinforced door between you and the pilot of an airplane. When people want to kill in those ways, we recognize the need to put obstacles in the way, to make people have to carefully plan their murderous activities over longer spans of time, to alert authorities to potentially dangerous activities.

Why on Earth does that reasonable impulse disappear when the topic is guns?