The Big News in skepticism this week is a story which, in a perfect world, would not be news at all. James Randi, at the age of 81, has chosen to come out of the closet. In what is the worst or best kept secret in history (judging from people’s reactions), Randi is gay. Some in the skeptical blogosphere have used this opportunity to make observations. Some of my favorites include Jeremy at Endcycle’s musings on what the atheist movement could learn from the GLBT movement, in terms of gaining public acceptance. Ed Brayton’s bit is also nice; he notes that this announcement tells us a great deal more about society than about Randi. The Bad Astronomer (former JREF President Phil Plait) has been asked “how will this affect the JREF?” (Answer: Not at all, but it may help society as a whole.) Rebecca, at Skepchick, writes a short piece, and maybe I am projecting a bit, but it seems almost as if she, like the others linked here, are having a really tough time saying much more than “congrats”, because the skeptical community is already full of accepting, diverse, and open-minded people. I will not link to the literally thousands of blogs which have posted on this topic (a google blog search returns over 9,000 sites when I limit the search to just this week!). I do include all the above links, though, for one particular reason: it is really a wonderful thing to read through the comments of each of these posts, and to see the overwhelming support and love for Randi. I recently read through a news site with online public reaction (not about Randi, but about a religious topic), and the contrast between the commentaries could not be greater. Anyway, congratulations, both J and C!
I did not know—I did suspect,
But knew it was none of my business—
I’m glad that he has someone there;
Who cares about her-ness or his-ness!?
And so, congrats, or mazel tov!
May your life evermore be just dandy—
Now back to work—I know you will;
It’s the modus, of course, opeRandi
On to the regular edition of Skeptics Circle!
Joshua Zelinsky’s entry was the very first submitted. In a concise and informative essay, we are shown where we, as skeptics, may overstate our claim to be “using the scientific method”. It’s not that we are necessarily doing a bad job of being skeptics; rather, the claim oversimplifies what science is, what falsifiability is, and what sorts of hypotheses are or are not falsifiable. Zelinsky does a really nice job illuminating a complex subject, so I will do a piss-poor job describing it in verse:
When skeptics claim reliance
On the ways and means of science
They are often overstating, and it pays to check the claim—
It’s a complex situation,
But through close examination
We can check our core assumptions, and can re-adjust our aim.
My dearest friend PodBlack Cat blogs her report from #AtheistCon (known to us non-Twitter-types as the Global Atheist Convention). It is a nice follow-up to the Zelinsky piece, since just as the connections between skepticism and science can be examined, so can the connections between skepticism and atheism. PodBlack writes of her adventure as The Token Skeptic (no, she was not the only skeptic in attendance, but that *is* the title of her show); as always, a PodBlack post contains more than meets the eye, and is worth more than one read-through, but the bit that grabbed my eye (this time through) was the advice (and firsthand report) about contributing through public speaking. I am impressed as all hell by people who are up on stage talking to thousands, lucidly, cogently, coherently, while I seem to stutter even in print, let alone in person, let alone in front of an audience (classrooms don’t count, clearly–for me, anyway). It’s why I am a cuttlefish–I prefer to hide in my ink.
A skeptical cat is a serious matter,
It isn’t just one of your everyday cats
Our PodBlack could never be one of the latter—
You see, she wears too many skeptical hats.
First of all, there’s the blog that I’ve linked (just above this)
With posts about science, religion and news,
About all sorts of stuff (likely why you all love this)
So any at all may find something to choose!
Next, she’ll be found on the Skeptic Zone podcast
Contributing interviews, doing reports,
(With more, I am sure, than we see being broadcast)
And all of it stuff of the skeptical sorts.
Third, as a host of the Melbourne convention
Fourth as a teacher, Fifth as my friend
Sixth through One Hundredth, I’ll choose not to mention
In order to bring this poor verse to an end.
The next submission in my inbox contained not one but four excellent posts from 360 Degree Skeptic, and permission to choose what I like! I liked all of them–the blog is, from what I can see, a nicely focused skeptical blog, with some very helpful methodological critiques of some over-reaching claims. I’ll comment on one of them, which links to another of them; the two are a nice one-two punch of methodological smackdown. “Controls and crap science” focuses on the value of proper control conditions in experiments (as opposed to a mere “no treatment” pseudocontrols); all too often, a therapeutic technique “works!!!” when compared to doing nothing at all… I have even seen reference to a study in which (I wish I could find it, to have a proper quote) they found that “both acupuncture and sham acupuncture were effective, though not different from one another”. Yup, that’s called a placebo effect, and that (with different examples, and with considerable style) is what Andrew takes down in this post.
There are times, I am told, when it pays to reflect,
To look at the data you’ve chanced to collect;
Methodology’s something to treat with respect
If you wish to avoid a placebo effect.
The treatment condition—the one you select—
When compared with “no treatment” (through plan or neglect)
May return the results you have come to expect
But they may be no more than placebo effect
No need to be angry; no need to object;
Some planning ahead keeps your study unwrecked,
A proper control, and you’ll surely detect
If your changes are just a placebo effect.
So be sure your procedure you’ll closely inspect
And include each condition—make sure that they’re checked.
If you take this advice, I sincerely suspect
You’ll no longer be plagued by placebo effect.
Next, Cubik’s Rube writes “I want to be poetic and lyrically brilliant…”, throws some excuse about being sleepy and sick, and then directs me to a piece he has written where the prose puts anything I have written to shame. In disarmingly simple language, in a conversationally smooth bit of writing, James ponders the night sky. The first two paragraphs hooked me, and reminded me of the childlike wonder with which I used to look at the sky… and then he subtly gives a lesson on UFOs, teaching us that the “U” does not stand for “undeniably from some other planet”. Despite the way the term gets thrown around.
I gazed up at the nighttime sky, with wonder and with awe
The diamond constellations spread before me
if I claim that aliens are part of what I saw
You might be better off if you ignore me.
An object, unidentified, was shining in the night—
A spacecraft, and I know that they have seen us!
I’ll sound as if I’m certain, when the truth is I’m not quite,
But it’s so much more romantic than “that’s Venus”.
If something’s unidentified, you don’t know what it is,
And there’s so, so much it possibly could be
The jump to “it’s a spaceship!”, when you could just say “gee whiz!”
Is a little much, I hope you will agree.
Next in the ol’ inbox, The Uncredible Hallq (Chris Hallquist’s wonderful moniker) discusses the teleological argument of Christian apologist Wiliam Lane Craig. This is a really nice and detailed post, which it needs to be, given the delicate dance Craig does in an approach-avoidance conflict with intelligent design. Hallquist has done yeoman’s work here, so that you don’t have to; this is a nice resource to point to if anyone decides to pull out WL Craig in a creationism throwdown.
Hallq (The Uncredible)
Puts an apologist
Under the knife
Not on your life!
Next in the mailbag… Martin Rundkvist, at Aardvarchaeology, one of my guilty favorite blogs. Guilty because I have no training at all in archaeology, but I just can’t get enough of it. Intellectual porn, this stuff is. And this one is no exception–a conspiracy theory involving, of all things… tree rings! Dendrochronology (damn, and I just did a double dactyl!) has its very own Watergate-Tapes-style 18.5-minute gap, of some 200 years. And wherever data are known only to a relative few experts, the non-experts are free to improvise.
Archaeologists up to no good
Hid some data–because, hey, they could
If we now ask a den-
We must really be asking “Got wood?”
Next up (and as of the current writing, lastly) in the mailbox is a post from One Brow, of Life, the Universe, and One Brow. (Actually, in fairness, One Brow had also submitted this post to the previous Skeptics Circle, so I link it now without comment for your perusal.) Now… I don’t know if you know me (odds are against), but I loves me some snark. And this post is full of snark, in response to a science denialist (var: global warming denialist) who thought he had done a good enough job of stepping on the rocks (old joke–ask if you don’t know it). Turns out One Brow was able to see that the denier was not walking on water at all, but just cherry-picking data (to mix metaphors). A nice, concise response, taking a denier down a notch. And some fun snark.
A chance remark once struck a spark
And lit a flame to fight the dark
And thus One Brow (please, go read how!)
In contrast stark, can take a bow.
It’s getting warm–one simple storm
Won’t do much now, we must inform.
I will close with one last entry–Joan tells me that she has no blog on which to post this, and throws herself at the mercy of the cuttlecourt. It comes with its own verse! So… I could not say no. Without further ado:
I have pretty much given up trying to convince believers who glom on to each urban legend, or scare tactic to read Snopes. The last e-mail I got back was condemning Snopes as a left wing political blog designed to promote Obama’s agenda. People will believe what they want to if they are not given the facts they want to hear. However, it looks as if deliberate obfuscation of the truth and the elimination of facts might soon be spreading from Texas to all of America’s school children. These publishers make most of their money on Texas and California. If their bottom line is profit and not truth they might well be jumping when the school board from Texas says ‘frog’
The Texas school board has redlined curricula that teachers themselves proposed and made more than 100 changes to ‘correct’ what they perceive as left-wing bias. Apparently they feel they are more educated than the Texas teachers . Following is my grim poetic take.
Good Old Golden Rule Days
They have demonized poor Darwin
With invectives mean and rotten
And if they cannot ignore him
They’ll make sure he is forgotten.
They have upped their right wing ante
And their method is no mystery
They’re altering their schoolbooks
To exclude our nation’s history.
Tom Jefferson, third president,
And creative founding father
Is excised from all the text books.
Do you wonder why they’d bother?
He’s been branded as a Deist,
Not the ‘Christian’ guy they’d thought.
And he’d early advocated that
The state should not be bought
By demanding separation
Of the church and nation state.
He chose not to leave this issue
To a less than stable fate.
Now that Texas lost their president
And Christian lobby guys,
They must eradicate these facts.
That’s not a big surprise.
But John Calvin, Tom’s replacement?
This I really do not get.
Now are scientists predestined
For the hopeless fiery pit?
Cal’s views do not fill well with
Current friendly Jesus menche
Plus he’s not an American
And we’re not fond of the French.
Next our less than stellar past
With Robber Barons in the game
Has been whitewashed. “Capitalism”
Gets “Free Enterpriser” name.
A rose by any other name
I’m told would smell as sweet.
Still I doubt that any name change
Quells the smell of tainted meat.
It’s the Texas brain saw massacre.
They’ve finally gone and done it.
They cannot distort all the past
So now they aim to shun it.
A late entry (ok, technically it was on time, but my laptop broke several weeks ago, so I did not read this one until hours after it had been sent), from The Skeptical Teacher: ( actually, there are four) <–each word is a different link, so don't miss one! So, in order not to waste any time getting these entries posted, my briefest verse yet:
Are wonderful creatures.