Diet, Skeptics, and Getting It Wrong

This was the first essay I delivered to my patrons this past Friday. If you want to support more work like this, you can sign up here.

There’s a constant tension in skepticism between the desire to educate and the desire to tear down. This isn’t necessarily a tension between people. Both impulses exist in most of the skeptics I know. Nor does it seem to matter whether those people are connected to organized skepticism or simply proud members of the broader reality-based community.

The tension is to be expected. We need both impulses to be effective. We need to give people good information in accessible ways, and we need to limit the harm purveyors of bad information can do. Different behaviors for different goals. Simple, right? Well, no.

We frequently run into problems when we apply one of these impulses to the wrong target. This usually happens in the form of tearing down the people we want to educate for a host of reasons. The fundamental attribution error means we’re more likely to see people’s decisions as personal flaws, leading to both frustration with them as people and losing faith in our ability to educate them. The Curse of Knowledge means that we, as people educated on a topic, have a very hard time putting ourselves in the place of someone with less information. Tearing people down is approximately infinitely easier than educating them, particularly when we’re frustrated. And unfortunately, tearing people down all too often results in us feeling better about ourselves.

I’m hardly the first person to address this. Skeptics fairly regularly point to this problem. We tell each other it is both kinder and more effective to educate consumers first (though consumers who become evangelists are a tougher problem). It helps–for a while–but the behavior tends to revert after a time.

I want to take a different approach to the topic here. [Read more…]

Why I Am Not a Rationalist, Part 2: Questions and Answers

I hope everyone is comfortably recovered from both Skepticon and any holiday shenanigans. I’m not entirely, but it’s time to follow up on the reactions to my “Why I Am Not a Rationalist” post last week. There’s been a fair amount of heat in response to the post, as well as a good bit of confusion. Let’s see whether I can clear some of that up.

Here are the most common questions and objections I’ve come across. [Read more…]

Why I Am Not a Rationalist

I am not a rationalist.

I have friends who are rationalists. I do my best to think of it as a nice little hobby of theirs. I do cryptograms and other puzzles in my down time. They spend time hacking their thinking processes, or trying to. We’ve all got our thing.

Every once in a while, though, they’ll promote some argument or another from another rationalist, and I have to speak up. Why? Because the argument is a dreadful bundle of wrong wrapped up in a “logic” bow. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how well you regulate your thinking. You could overcome the limitations of the human brain and turn yourself into a computer. (You can’t, but bear with me here.) You’re still going to get garbage out if you put garbage in. [Read more…]

A Skeptical Statement from CFI on PTSD

Yesterday, the Center for Inquiry Management Committee put out an unprecedented statement.

We, the management committee of CFI, believe it is appropriate to confirm that Ms. Hensley is suffering from PTSD. Among other reasons, both Ms. Hensley and CFI receive comments on a regular basis that assert or imply that Ms. Hensley’s statements that she has PTSD must be false. For example, just the other day, CFI received a communication stating “Your organization is terrible for having people on its staff that claim to have PTSD from Twitter!” Some communications on this issue, especially those directed to Ms. Hensley, have themselves been abusive and harassing.

This reaction is disappointing on a number of levels. As explained below, these communications are based on mischaracterizations, false assumptions, faulty reasoning, unscientific attitudes, or misunderstandings. (And, of course, the subset of these communications that are abusive are intolerable.)

This is important for a couple of reasons. [Read more…]

No, That’s Eugenics

In case you missed it yesterday, Dawkins had his say on Twitter about the morality of aborting fetuses with Down syndrome. More accurately, he stated that it was immoral not to abort those fetuses.

Today, predictably, comes the apology, though as usual, it’s mostly a defense. I appreciate Dawkins’ concern that something he tweeted to one person is being shared widely. I’ve certainly had that happen to me, though if the response to my situation is anything to go by, he won’t find much sympathy among online atheists for that.

Still, Dawkins is who he is, and who he is requires that comments like this be addressed when they become widely known. [Read more…]

TBT: Reality-Based Politics

Jeff Johnson is running for governor of Minnesota this year, on a platform of making us more like Wisconsin. (I know people in Wisconsin, so, no.. Also I like my governor.) I didn’t remember that I’d written about Johnson before, in August 2009.

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson has no quarrel with publicly funded treatment for alcoholics. But he said he struggles with taxpayer money going to housing for chronic alcoholics that offer no treatment at all.

Not only that, he was surprised to learn, the so-called “wet houses” don’t even require their homeless residents to stay sober.

“I understand these people are very sick, but I don’t think that means you should expect absolutely nothing out of them,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to provide you housing, you should figure out how to stop being drunk all the time.”


Jeff is a nice guy, generally. I used to work with his wife, so I’ve met him and the kids, and a cuter family you’re not likely to meet. But this…. [Read more…]

My Predictable MO (Updated)

Nothing quite like noticing an interesting conversation in your Twitter feed and discovering that it is, in part, about you.

Screen capture of tweets. Text included in the post.

@GretchenKoch: I see. Rape culture doesn’t exist, but “outrage culture” does. Seriously, @DJGrothe? That makes my brain hurt.

@DJGrothe: @GretchenKoch “Outrage culture” isn’t exactly a sweeping and systematic critique of society. But I’m glad you got the rhetorical point.

‏@GretchenKoch: .@DJGrothe I wish I didn’t. I’m tired of crap like that. And this:

I’m no longer interested in what you have to say.

‏@DJGrothe: @GretchenKoch Well, that Zvan piece is typical rubbish, impressive falsehoods. Her predictable MO. #outrageculture

Naturally, having made that post true to the best of my ability and knowledge, I asked.

Screen capture of tweets. Text included in the post.

@szvan: .@DJGrothe What falsehoods would those be, D. J.? Be specific. @GretchenKoch

‏@DJGrothe: @szvan I’ve communicated with you zero times in years. Not about to start now. Obsess over someone else. @GretchenKoch

‏@szvan: .@DJGrothe You’ll claim I’m lying but you won’t back it up. Of course. @GretchenKoch

I guess I should be happy he didn’t tell me he was going to forward me the email that contained all the proof. That’s his MO when asked to back up his side of a tale, the promised email that never arrives.

He is right, to the extent that I do have an MO. That MO just happens to be that I don’t let damaging lies like Grothe’s stand when I have the power and the information to knock them down.

That’s what I did in the post he objected to here. That’s what I did in the post reacting to his threats against Pamela Gay. That’s what I did in some of the posts I linked to in order to demonstrate his pattern of lying.

Grothe’s MO is to lie to improve his own situation, then refuse to back up his claims. Mine is to dismantle his lies. I like my MO better.

Update: As Tom notes in the comments, someone is trying to make the laughable argument that Grothe wasn’t talking about Amy in his tweet. Not only does that make no sense in the context of his tweet, but as someone pointed out to me, this isn’t even the first time he’s used the accusation of personality disorders and alcoholism.


@DJGrothe: @gthnk There are a lot of mean girls in atheism etc. But go easy on them: don’t discount the role of alcoholism and personality disorders.

For anyone who might be unaware, “mean girls” is Sara Mayhew’s preferred term for women who don’t want to hang out with her after she’s put so much work into harassing them and their friends. Grothe has been openly sympathetic to her complaints.

So if you’d like to claim Grothe meant someone else, you’re going to need to come up with a better explanation.

Yes, Richard Dawkins, I’m Emotional

Am I emotional? Why, yes. Yes, I am.

I’m annoyed. I had plans for today that had nothing to do with addressing Richard Dawkins’ self-serving justifications for his Twitter trolling. But no, he chose today to brand consequence-based ethical arguments about how he should shape his public messaging as “taboos”, as though they were based in religion or tea-table politesse. That means I get to take time to address that today. You can’t let that sort of thing sit around. It starts to stink up the place. [Read more…]

Historical Note on Skeptic Magicians

Apropos of nothing in particular, it’s worth reminding ourselves why stage magicians were originally considered experts on the topics classically adopted by the modern skeptic movement. They really were experts in their topics once upon a time. Their expertise consisted of determining how people could hide their behavior from observers.

Harry Houdini really was an expert on spiritualism because he understood how people could manipulate their environments while appearing to have their motion restricted. Have a “medium” who is producing strange sounds and apparitions while holding hands with people in the dark? Bring Houdini in to determine the ways your subjects could be cheating, set up your situation so they can’t cheat, then test them again.

James Randi really was (and presumably still is) an expert on how people can communicate invisibly. Have someone who claims to be getting message from God or a “psychic” partner? Bring Randi in to determine the ways your subjects could be cheating, set up your situation so they can’t cheat, then test them again.

Magicians are not some sort of all-purpose skeptical experts. There’s no such thing. Skepticism requires subject-matter knowledge to be effective.

Magicians are very narrow experts in the ways that humanity can disguise their behavior from naive observers. Outside of that, they have no more expertise in skeptical matters than anyone else.

This is worth remembering. Trust them to some degree when you need their expertise. Treat them like any non-expert when you don’t.

But How Do You Know the MRAs Are Atheists?

Note: This is one of those posts you really want to read all the way through before commenting on or characterizing.

I think this question is mostly a thing of the past, but at one point, it was a favorite of those who didn’t like to see the atheist movement criticized were all over wanting to know how we could knew that the harassment and anti-feminism coming our way was coming from atheists. Typically, we pointed to the communities from which the bulk of the harassment came. Now, we can point to some numbers in yet another community that suggest we’re on the right track.

Or at least they make me laugh. [Read more…]