afterglow err… aftermath of the non-debate discussion had on my last post demolishing astrology’s foundation, there are several posts you would benefit from reading, for various reasons.
We skeptics are not contrarians, we try to make the world a safer place and to encourage advancements in technology and medicine. We strive for intellectual enlightenment not solely for ourselves but for everyone. We are one-part science communicators and one-part consumer protection advocates. But even with these idealistic good intentions we are often times the odd woman/man out at parties or around the water cooler. We are looked at as naysayers and argumentative, faithless, curmudgeons out to ruin fun and hope for everyone else. We are called know-it-alls or incorrectly considered close-minded. We are after all the ones that stand up and speak out when the majority wants to believe in homeopathy or angels or some sort of warm and fuzzy magical thinking. We burst bubbles, we dispel myths and sometimes we squash the fun of irrational fantasy. We explain how things really are. This outspoken bravery in the name of rationality often places us in the minority and that can be a very lonely and difficult place to be.
There’s also an anecdote about how a woman’ life, and the lives of her soon-to-be-birthed twins, were directly saved by medical science, and how if the couple had believed in natural childbirth, homeopathy, the power of prayer, or any of a number of other pseudosciences, all three of them might have died. Spreading skepticism is not JUST about bursting people’s bubbles. There’s a tangible utility factor.
Also, at Quiche Moraine, Mike Haubrich discusses the fundamental incompatibility between science and religion in Knowing the Problem of Induction, and a pullquote is relevant to the astrology discussion if you only replace “religion” with “astrology”:
In order to maintain confidence that a causal relationship between natural phenomena has been established, one scientific method that I learned was to disprove a null hypothesis using statistical tools to analyze my data. If the null hypothesis is not disproved, that means that the proposed hypothesis probably establishes a causal relationship and my investigation has yielded a good answer within a specified confidence interval. In other words, by following a scientific process, an investigator has come up with a good explanation for why something is so, or how something works.
This is only one of the methods that scientists use to discover how things work, one of the ways that people discover “how the world goes.”
Religion promises knowledge based on non-verifiable acceptance of authority, resignation to “mystery,” and the record of inscripturation. Apologists for religion promise to provide “other ways of knowing” that aren’t limited to verifiable, positivistic methods. Religion, in general, tells people that we can know for certain that the supernatural exists and interacts in measurable ways with the natural. Religion explains, in its “way,” the creation, miracles, interventions in personal lives and through catastrophic natural events. The explanations are authoritative but not testable nor replicable through any reliable means.
The post is an excellent primer on the problem of induction, as the post suggests, to boot. Do read it if you have any inclination to argue that science is compatible with religion.
And finally, given that much of the astrology argument devolved into netiquette (thanks in no small part to anonstargazer’s tender sensibilities), it’s good to know that Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds (aka Our Lady of Perpetual Win) wrote On the Utility of Dicks. Therein, she explains why it’s acceptable to be aggressive about defending rationality, regarding the recent fight the Twittersphere tried to spark between Phil Plait and PZ Myers over Plait’s talk at TAM8.
Then a friend gave me Flim Flam. James Randi told me how people had lied to me under the guise of nonfiction, under the guise of science. He was, in fact, kind of a dick about it. That’s not a very nice book by any definition of the word. It uses name-calling. It sneers.
But oh, it was exactly what I needed. I needed it both for the information it gave me and for the anger and vitriol. Without Randi’s vitriol, I wouldn’t have been able to make the clean break in thinking that I did. If he hadn’t been so clearly and visibly and sometimes nastily angry about the perversion of systems that were meant to uncover and convey the best knowledge we can have, I’d have been faced with the choice between a more classical skepticism, doubting everything that came my way, and clinging to the idea that what I believed had to be true.
The fight rages on many fronts. Sometimes being a dick WILL win you a convert. The fact that so many people seem to have such a vested interest in telling others that are ostensibly “on their side” to stop doing what they’re doing because they’re “not helping”, is rather galling. Especially since the assertion is made without proof, and there’s empirical evidence that some people respond better to an aggressive defense of rationality than to a milquetoast, wishy washy one.
Tomorrow we’ll do something a bit less heady, I promise. Keep fighting the good fight, in the meantime.