A few weeks ago I blogged about a new word, along with some other interesting words, that I coined, newsvertising. Well, interestingly, John Oliver has had some commentary on the concept, which he calls "native advertising." I still like my term better, but I have to admit that his take on the concept is pretty dang funny.
Rational Hero of the Week: James Balog, Film Maker of the "Chasing Ice" Documentary. #Jamesbalog #Chasingice #globalclimatechange
It is becoming more and more evident that global climate change is real. NASA now has a site that provides ample information for those who want to catch up on the latest. It is also apparent that climate is caused by human beings, not just natural vacillations in weather. But, here is the problem: I don't feel it yet. Most of us, in our comfortable westernized lives, go about our blissful existence living in denial of the the inexorable, seeming inevitable, planet-wide changes in climate patterns that are already having widespread consequence. But, the real questions are: Can we do anything about it? If it is inevitable, how can we deal with it? How consequential will it be? Part of the problem is that for my whole life I have been exposed to a string of doomsday predictions: ozone layer depletion, overpopulation, acid rain, assorted viral pandemics (AIDS, bird flu, swine flu.) nuclear armageddon...the list seems endless, none of the crises have proved as consequential as some of the more-extreme doomsayers predicted--at least, not yet. So, what of global climate change? Is the sky really falling? Well, I don't know, but except for a few heretics, the vast majority of climate scientists and scientific analyses lead to the inevitable conclusion that, yes, it is real. But as stated above, I still don't feel it. I feel an emotional disconnect between the reality and action.
Which leads me to my selection of James Balog as my rational hero this week. He embodies the true spirit of this bloggers philosophy, that human beings need to be persuaded, not only on the logical, scientific, level, but the emotional level also. Passion is not driven by logic, but by feelings. Logic and feelings intertwined and synergized can lead to amazing progress and meaningful change. James Balog uses his medium, nature photography and film making, to breathe life into the dull ramble of statistics and charts. His film "Chasing Ice" uses time lapse photography to document the rapid (unbelievably rapid, really) retreat of glaciers in northern climes. This film, now available on DVD, had a strong, almost visceral, effect on me. I highly recommend it. I watched a DVD, but recommend seeing it on the big-screen if possible. Glaciers, wow!
Below, are two videos that will introduce you to his work. The left, is the trailer for the film, the right is the TED talk by Balog that I highly recommend, especially, if you think it unlikely that you have time to watch the film. I love Balog's introduction to his TED talk, quoted below, which artfully expresses my own philosophy.
"Most of the time, art and science stare at each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension. There is great confusion when the two look at each other. Art, of course, looks at the world through the psyche, the emotions -- the unconscious at times -- and of course the aesthetic. Science tends to look at the world through the rational, the quantitative -- things that can be measured and described -- but it gives art a terrific context of understanding."
Congratulations to James Balog for his selection as the Do Ya Think? Blog's Rational Hero of the Week. In addition, I thank Balog for helping me to feel, as well as think.
Rational Hero of the Week: Susan Gerbic, Wikipedia, Guerrilla Skepticism, and Couple of Noisy Quacks
I love Wikipedia. I love the whole concept. A crowd-sourcing miracle. The "People's Encyclopedia!" Both the greatest strength and weakness of Wikipedia is that nearly everyone can be an editor. With over 30 million articles in 286 languages, to say it has caught on is definitely an understatement. All that with no advertising (Yay!)--only grants and donations. It is somewhat surprising that there aren't more errors, but it seems to compare favorably with the accuracy of such venerable giants as Encyclopedia Britannica, which continues to survive, at least online. Frankly, I think encyclopedias as a business are doomed. I wonder how much longer Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book can last.
Here's a fun entry, Wikipedia's List of Common Misconceptions. Have a beef with one of the supposed misconceptions? Well, get in there and edit. Straighten them out. Here's another fun site: a website showing real-time recent changes of Wiki entries from all over the world. Wikipedia has its critics, but here I want to discuss one group that is helping to keep the entries honest, accurate, and referenced. Susan Gerbic's idea: guerrilla skepticism started about 2 years ago and has already attracted over 120 editors in 17 different languages. So what is meant by "guerilla skepticism?" Here is the entry from their mission statement:
"The mission of the Guerrilla Skepticism editing team is to improve skeptical content of Wikipedia. We do this by improving pages of our skeptic spokespeople, providing noteworthy citations, and removing the unsourced claims from paranormal and pseudoscientific pages. Why? Because evidence is cool. We train – We mentor – Join us."
Let's hear it for "cool" evidence. Since there is no credible evidence for the paranormal, this sounds like the proverbial fish-in-a-barrel, right? Nope. Unfortunately, the opposition is mounting a counter-offense. Two well known investigators or paranormal research, Rupert Sheldrake and Robert McLuhan have both recently written and blogged about guerilla skepticism. Sheldrake believes in telepathic communication between owners and their pets. He has done research that supposedly indicates that dogs can detect when their owners decide to come home. Hmmm. According to Sheldrake, "guerrilla skeptics... devote a great deal of time and energy to modifying Wikipedia entries so that they reflect a skeptical point of view about psychic phenomena, and try to portray research on these subjects as pseudoscience." Robert McLuhan wrote a book called RANDI'S PRIZE: What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong and why it matters. I invite you to read this Amazon review of the book, which is a pretty good summary of my feelings. McLuhan writes: We can't really complain about hostile editing, as long it stays within the Wikipedia guidelines for editors, which Gerbic seems committed to doing. As she sees it, it's all about insisting on backing up claims with evidence, which is what sceptics are all about...it's a pity that this key source for learning and education is so compromised as far as serious parapsychology is concerned. There is of course plenty of information about parapsychology, but little that isn't gummed up with sceptic disdain."
"Skeptical point of view"? "Hostile editing"? "Serious parapsychology"? "Sceptic disdain"?
Skepticism, obviously, should be neither hostile, nor disdainful; it should be pursued in the spirit of the search for truth, not in defense of any point of view. Otherwise, one is engaged in What Richard Feynman described as cargo cult science.
Try this on for size: I think that truth can only fit into three categories: true, not true, and confusing. A skeptic believes in the scientific method: that evidence should precede belief, and that when contradictory evidence is generated you need to change your beliefs, not shoe-horn the evidence into a pre-existing framework of beliefs--the latter is the province of religion or pseudoscience.
All right. I've traveled too far away from my original intent in this blog entry, which was not to engage in quack-bashing, but to congratulate Susan Gerbic for her great idea and to thank all the contributors to Guerrilla Skepticism for their time and trouble. I hope to meet Susan when she comes to Tacoma for the CFI Summit in Tacoma this fall, so I can thank her in person.
Everyone loves comedy. Comedy is serious. The Fool is the one who speaks truth to power. In Tarot Cards the Fool, or the Joker, is designated with a zero. From the description of the Fool Tarot Card in Wikipedia, "The Fool is the spirit in search of experience. He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us, the childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world. The sun shining behind him represents the divine nature of the Fool's wisdom and exuberance, holy madness or 'crazy wisdom'." I'm not sure Fools are "bereft" of reason, but I certainly go along with "crazy wisdom." The use of the Fool by Shakespeare in King Lear has been examined by may scholars. In this paper "[The Fool] acts as Lear's conscience and trusted guide, yet he is also a critic of Lear, a truth teller. In effect this makes a true friend, however some believe it was the Fool's constant remarks that drove Lear to madness." But later "The Fool increasingly to be his voice of reason or his conscience, because he reminds Lear of all his mistakes and manipulates his feelings into realising them." Ah, yes, the "voice of reason."
I love Fools. We are lucky to have so many Rational Fools and this wonderful tool, the Internet, so that we can spread foolish wisdom all over the world. Below is a collection of some of my favorite Rational Fools.
Here is a link to the audio of the Dennett talk delivered at Seattle Town Hall if you want to hear it again, or if you missed it. It was a terrific interview.
Today I'm thinking about fear. Fear is absolutely necessary to our existence. It keeps us from doing stupid things, from taking unwarranted and unnecessary risks, like wandering down dark alleys and eating random mushrooms. We need fear to keep us alive. Survival is good.
But, natural and necessary fear can be corrupted too. There are very interesting data suggesting that rats and mice infected with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, are driven to take insane risks, exposing themselves to hungry cats, who eat the rodents, thus allowing completion of the parasite's life cycle. The parasite in the rodents inhabits the amygdyla, which is believed to be the region of the brain primarily responsible for the fight-or-flight response.
An interesting aspect of fear is that it can be conditioned to a nonspecific response. I cite the example of a study of dubious ethics called the "Little Albert Experiment" from the 1920s. In summary, an 11 month old infant was trained to fear a white rat and this paranoia was generalized to other white furry objects, such as dogs, rabbits and even balls of cotton. Thus demonstrating that irrational fear can be learned, and it can be generalized.
Fear can be paralyzing. It can be dangerous. It can cause people to hate. It can cause missed opportunities. Fear allows people in power to exploit us. Even the most superficial look at history shows how power can exploit fear. In the middle ages it was dangerous to contradict the king, or the church. Thinkers in medieval Europe who had the temerity to question the dictates of church and state were accused of witchcraft and heresy and were rewarded for their independent thought with persecution, torture and sometimes death.
And you don't have to look very far in modern times to see irrational fear operating. Look at the anti-vaccine movement, which, based on fraudulent data, has resulted in the death of many innocents and a weakening of herd immunity. Another example is the old fear of fluoridation of the water supply, which is one of the great victories of modern public health. This meme seems to have started as part of anti-communist paranoia, is still evident today. I love this quote from Wikipedia, "Specific antifluoridation arguments change to match the spirit of the time," which reminds me of Carl Sagan's comparison of demon possession (often in the form of succubi and incubi in the middle of the night) which has now morphed into a modern form of possession: alien abductions.
Fear is certainly not confined to the politics of ancient history, it is easily found in modern politics too. Look at how the Bush administration exploited the post-9/11 paranoia and the mysterious non-existent "Weapons of Mass Destruction" to hoodwink the press and public into a 5 trillion dollar war resulting in the deaths of over 4,000 Americans, hundreds of thousands of civilians, and a legacy of wounded that will cost untold psychological suffering and monetary costs that will last decades. All for the sake of fear, and all in the name of "freedom," whatever that means.
So, what is the antidote to infectious, paranoid fear?
They say that the best disinfectant is sunlight. And, although I suspect this is just a metaphor, I believe it is apt. Information. Data. Science. All of these things bring truth to power, and truth can be humbling. It is no surprise that the first victims of the fascists are the intellectuals. Intellectuals of all stripes; journalists, scientists, artists, linguists. In short, people who dare to think. So, although I'm publishing this a day late, in commemoration of Memorial Day I ask you to do the following: think. Think, not only about the fallen heroes, but think about how we can avoid the fallen heroes of the future. Ask questions. Question authority. Question everything. Are GMO foods really dangerous? Is the "War On Terror" really worth the casualties of our civil rights? Is "our" God really better than their God? Is "God on our side?" Is global climate change unavoidable? Thinking is, in my opinion, is an act of patriotism. Exercising your rationality is your right. It is your duty. It is your obligation. It is the skeptical, logical, right, thing to do. So, I ask you, from the Do Ya Think Blog headquarters: Do you?
Below, I have posted a couple of videos from the World War II era that I ask you to review while you think about thinking.
We have the good fortune in Seattle to have an institution called Town Hall Seattle, which attracts some wonderful celebrities, usually promoting books, to give talks for a very reasonable entry fee--generally five bucks. Tomorrow they are hosting famous philosopher and atheist Daniel Dennett along with George Dyson in a lecture entitled "Thinking About Thinking." Unfortunately, the event is sold out. Fortunately for me, I have an advance ticket.
Looking very much like Santa Claus, and just about as jolly, Dr. Dennett has the distinction, some would say infamy, of being one of the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism." The other three horsemen are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the now-deceased Christopher Hitchens--distinguished company, indeed. Dennett is the co-director of the Tufts University Center For Cognitive Studies. He is author of prominent and popular books "Breaking the Spell" and "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," neither of which I've read (They're on the list.). Some of his favorite topics are evolution, the evolution of religion and consciousness, and the nature of freewill. His homepage has an extensive collection of links to videos, a couple of which I have highlighted below. I'm looking forward to seeing his lecture at Town Hall and let's hope that they schedule his next appearance in the "Great Hall," as he so richly deserves, and not the smaller room downstairs, so that he can reach a larger Seattle audience. If Town Hall makes available a video of his talk, I promise to post a link for the benefit of the folks who couldn't get in.
So, congratulations to Dr. Dennett for your recognition as a Do Ya Think Blog Rational Hero--and a hearty welcome to Seattle.
About a month ago I recognized Dr. Stephen Barrett as the Do Ya Think Blog's "Rational Hero of the Week" for his fantastic work with the Quackwatch organization. Quackwatch is a wonderful website that describes itself as "Your guide to quackery, health fraud and intelligent decisions."
Someone who self-identifies as Lindsey T. Nugent posted the following response to my blog entry:
"Judging by your Quackwatch post, you don't have a clue about either allopathic or alternative medicine. Let's start with something simple: diet. Convince me that you don't currently have the same diet as you did in college: pizza and beer."
I am honored Lindsey, that you have taken time out of what I imagine is your very busy day to deliver this personal comment. A wonderful example of of an ad hominem argument, with a possible tinge of the straw man fallacy. For those who don't know, an ad hominem is an attack of an opponent's motives or character rather than the policy or position they maintain. This attack, probably motivated by pictures of me on my website that shows my considerable girth, is, of course, completely irrelevant to the fine work of Dr. Barrett. I say a "possible tinge" of straw man fallacy, which is a misrepresentation of an opponent's position--well, perhaps it's a bit of a stretch to call this a "straw man,"--but is it possible that Mr. (or Ms.?) Nugent is trying to cast aspersions on Dr. Barrett by implying that an admirer might not know what he's talking about?
I submit that even if I smoked cigarettes by the carton, guzzled fifths of cheap liquor, was completely sedentary, stuffed cocaine up my nose daily, and was a meth addict, that my personal health habits would be completely irrelevant. Furthermore, my supposed cluelessness about allopathic and (ahem) "alternative" medicine is also a red herring. Now, I suppose, I could wave around my credentials, but that would be another logical fallacy known as "argument from authority," so, I'll restrain myself.
But I'm not posting this for that reason. You Lindsey T. Nugent are the FIRST to attack this blogger. The Do Ya Think Blog, which is still in it's infancy, is only about three months old and receiving only about 50 to 150 daily hits (and growing! Thanks fans!). Alas, now I'm not a blog virgin anymore. I can't promise that other trolls will be so-recognized. But, you Lindsey are the first--and will always be so. Congratulations and I thank you.
There are few warriors for rational thought that I admire more than Stephen Barrett. Dr. Barrett, a psychiatrist by training, is the founder of Quackwatch, which is, as indicated on their website, "Your guide to quackery, health fraud and intelligent decisions." Quackwatch was founded in 1969 as the Lehigh Valley Committee Against Health Fraud and the website launched in 1996 followed by renaming the organization Quackwatch, Inc in 1997. In the vast ocean of health misinformation and downright fraud, Quackwatch is a shining example of the power of collaboration and dissemination of rational information on the internet. I strongly recommend that "Do Ya Thinkers," to utilize this resource for their health decisions. It is HARD, even for experts to separate truth from fiction when it comes to medical decisions. Let Quackwatch be your filter. The Quackwatch site is chock-full of valuable information about such dubious "alternative" health practices such as acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, faith healing, (such as Reiki), vitamin supplementation, homeopathy, chelation therapy, magnet therapy...the list goes on. In fact, Quackwatch has spawned 23 related websites, e.g. "Dental Watch," (your guide to intelligent dental care) and "Diet Scam Watch" (your guide to weight control schemes and rip-offs.) The Quackwatch website is now available now available in German, French and Portuguese.
Let me digress here for a moment and say that I don't believe in the concept of "alternative" medicine, sometimes disguised as "complementary" medicine, or the even more-insidious "integrative" medicine, which is some kind of chimeric monster employing so-called alternative therapies in conjunction with real, evidence-based, medicine. Let's clarify this. There is unproven medicine, there are untested medical treatments, and there is quack medicine. "Alternative" medical treatment that is proven to work should be called "medicine." If it fails scientific scrutiny, it should figuratively be stuck in a place where only the proctologist's light shines--and I really mean that figuratively--medically proven suppositories should be used as directed.
Ahem. Back To Dr. Barrett. Quackwatch is certainly not about only the efforts of one person. According to the Quackwatch Wikipedia entry Quackwatch has "150 scientific and technical advisors: 67 medical advisors, 12 dental advisors, 13 mental health advisors, 16 nutrition and food science advisors, 3 podiatry advisors, 8 veterinary advisors, and 33 other scientific and technical advisors." And this was in 2003 when they stopped listing specific names because, I would guess, of privacy concerns. It has since grown even larger.
Remarkably, since Quackwatch is composed entirely of volunteers, their operating costs are an astonishingly-low $7000 per year, funded mostly by small donations, proving that you can make quite an impact on the world with a very modest budget. You can donate here.
Here is a sampling of a couple of articles that I like; "Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science" by Robert L. Parks Ph.D. and "Distinguishing Science and Pseudoscience" by Rory Coker Ph.D. But I encourage you to poke around the Quackwatch site and make use of the useful search utility to research topics of your own interest.
Alas, not everyone is pleased with being criticized and Dr. Barret is being sued. This is an extract from his list-serve, the Consumer's Health Digest, which is freely available to anyone, "Continuing request for help from Dr. Barrett. In June 2010, Doctor's Data, Inc. sued Dr. Barrett because it didn't like what what he wrote about them on Quackwatch and in this newsletter. In November, 2011, about half of the allegations were dismissed, but discovery has been permitted for more than a year. The rest of the suit will probably be dismissed soon after discovery ends, but the proceedings have been time-consuming and very expensive." Contributions to the defense fund can be made by mail or through the web.
So, in summary, let's all give a toast to Dr Barrett and his collaborators at Quackwatch. Thank you and congratulations to you as our Rational Hero of the Week.
This week's Rational Hero, PZ Myers, is kinda special since he will be lecturing in Seattle next week. The event is sponsored by the Seattle Atheists. Visit the SA website for more details. Here is a direct link to the SA mission statement. If, like me, you're member of the "unchurched," you might find some kindred "spirits" there.
Dr. Myers is a Professor with a special interest in developmental biology and evolution at the University of Minnesota. He received his undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Washington in 1979 and his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon in 1985. He is the author of the extremely popular blog Pharyngula, which is a soapbox for his often inflammatory--some would say refreshingly direct and honest--views on religion, evolutionary biology and politics. He is a potent critic of religion in all its forms. He is, as he describes it, a "blunt scientist." He very much reminds me of an American version of Richard Dawkins. As Myers states in the video below, "Science and religion are incompatible, simply, completely irreconcilable with reality [...]in the same sense that a serious pursuit of knowledge about reality is incompatible with bullshit." PZ Myers has also been embroiled in the debate about to what extent that the views of the skeptical movement should be (or logically, can be) extended into the political arena. The Atheism Plus movement figures prominently in this debate, which although interesting, is way too complicated to tackle in this short blog post. I recommend this link from the A+ site and this link from the Neurologica Blog for more information.
I agree with PZ on most points, but I have major differences in his apparent belief, that since religion is "bullshit," it is totally devoid of merit. My principal arguments against this view are two-fold. First, I believe that otherwise commendable people are are emotionally and psychologically unable to deal with a reality without religion. For them, religion is a crutch, but, possibly a necessary support. Perhaps some day we will live in a world where there is adequate psychological support for the needy without religion, but I'm not so sure. My second argument is that Dr. Myers tends, in my opinion, to underestimate the valuable contributions that have been inspired by religion. Yes, religion has been the source of inspired hatred--take the Inquisition and the Crusades as prominent examples--but I think we would live in a much-poorer world without religion-inspired painting, sculpture, literature and music. I also admire the many religion-based charities that have built schools, hospitals and orphanages. Religion, like politics, is a two-edged sword. But, I think of the skeptical movement as a "big-tent." There is room for uncompromising stridency and kinder, gentler, persuasion, and PZ Myers tends to fall in the first category.
I recommend, if you live in the Seattle area, that you go and see PZ when he comes to town next week. I'll be there for sure. But for those not lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, below is one of PZ's better speeches. The actual speech is a little over a half an hour with twenty additional minutes of Q+A.
Scot Bastian Ph.D. is a scientist and artist who lives in Seattle WA.