Dr Oz and just deserts »« New FeministFrequency video

The difference between skeptical thinking and scientific thinking

Skepticism has a serious problem, and there are a couple of reasons I’ve grown disenchanted with its current incarnation. Belief is a continuum, and I think that skepticism as it stands occupies an untenable part of that continuum.

On one side lie the extremely gullible; people who drift with the wind, and believe anything a sufficiently charismatic guru tells them, no matter how absurd. Far to the other side are the conspiracy theorists. These are people who believe fervently in something, who have a fixed ideology and will happily twist the evidence to support it, and are therefore completely refractory to reason and empiricism.

And then, somewhere in the middle lie science and skepticism. People readily conflate those two, unfortunately, and I think that’s wrong. Science is all about following the evidence. If a bit of evidence supports a hypothesis, you willingly accept it tentatively, and follow where it leads, strengthening or discarding your initial ideas appropriately with the quality of the evidence. You end up with theories that are held provisionally, as long as they provide fruitful guidance in digging deeper. It is ultimately a positive approach that winnows out bad ideas ruthlessly, but all in the cause of advancing our knowledge. I am far more comfortable with science then skepticism, because I’d rather be working towards a goal.

Skepticism is the flip side. It’s all about falsification and disproof and dismantling proposals. I think it is the wrong approach.

Consider one classic example: Bigfoot. Skepticism is all about taking apart case by case, demonstrating fakery or error, and demolishing the stories of the Bigfoot frauds. That’s useful — in fact, skepticism is most useful in dealing with malicious intent and human fakery — but it doesn’t advance our knowledge significantly. The scientific approach would involve actually studying forest ecology, understanding how the ecosystem works, and getting a handle on what lives in the forest…and at the end, you’re left with something informative about the nature of the habitat, as well as a recognition that a giant ape isn’t part of the puzzle.

Again, sure, there are good and necessary aspects of skepticism. When you’ve got a fraud like Burzynski peddling fake cancer cures, the skeptical toolbox is helpful. But in the end, when you’ve shown that injecting processed horse urine into people doesn’t help anything, what are you left with? Better to understand the nature of cancer and normal physiology, providing alternatives and useful explanations for why the cancer quacks are wrong. That’s why the best skeptics of quackery are doctors and scientists — they have positive insights to contribute in addition to simple falsification.

So far, I haven’t said anything that makes skepticism bad; it might be better regarded as a complement to the scientific approach, that clears away the garbage to unclutter the operating field. Unfortunately, the current doctrines of organized skepticism open the doors to pathology, because they so poorly define the proper domain of skepticism, and what they do say are inconsistent and incoherent. What we’re stuck with is a schema that tolerates motivated reasoning, as long as it looks like debunking.

So we get skeptics who argue against the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke, or anthropogenic climate change — it’s OK, because they’re being critical — and these same skeptical entertainers are lauded for berating an MD and throwing him out of a party, because he had criticized their pandering to a quack…and also their climate change denialism. Do I even need to get into their contemptible sexism or their Libertarian bullshit?

And then the movement as a whole has been wracked with this bizarre denial of sexual harassment, and refusal to deal with the issue. I think part of it has to be a culture of dealing with complications by rejecting them — that the movement is full of individuals whose favored approach to the deplorable messiness of human interactions and the existence of malefactors is by retreating into a Spock-like insistence that the problem does not compute, and therefore can be ignored. It’s a culture of explaining away, rather than explaining.

Also…hyperskepticism. Some people take their skepticism to such pathological extremes that they become conspiracy theorists or fanatical denialists of simple human behavior. I encountered an example of this yesterday that had me stunned with its contrarian stupidity. Not all skeptics (hah!) are this bad, but too many tolerate and approve of it.

A short while ago, I received a very nice letter from a young woman in Indiana who liked my book. I scanned it and posted it, with her name and town redacted — it was a lovely example of a phenomenon we’ve noticed for quite some time, of the way the internet and books about atheism have opened the door for many people who had previously felt isolated. It also said kind things about The Happy Atheist, so of course I was glad to share it.

Some nut named Cavanaugh, in the name of True Atheism and Skepticism, has posted a lengthy dissection of the letter. He doesn’t believe it’s real. He thinks I wrote it myself. To prove his point, all he has is the scan I posted…so he has taken it apart at excruciating and obsessive length. He has carefully snipped out all the letters “w” in the letter, lining them up so you can easily compare them. My god, they’re not identical! He has another figure in which he has sliced out a collection of ligatures — would you believe the spacing between letters, in a handwritten letter, is not consistent? She used the word “oblivious” a couple of times…a word that I also have used many times. She wrote exactly one page, not two. He mansplains the psychology of teenaged girls to assert that there’s no way a 15-year-old woman could have written the letter. You get the idea. He is being properly skeptical, accumulating a body of “facts” to disprove the possibility that someone in Indiana actually wrote a letter.

Furthermore, he lards his account with purely imaginative stories about what my correspondent was thinking — he injects his account with the most contemptible interpolations, like this one.

It’s okay, Mr. Myers, she reassures him, I think you’re cool. I’m just like you, and if I can make it through, so can you. Keep spreading the word. Oh, and come rescue me from Indiana — I’ll be legal in 2016.

That was not in the letter, of course: he made it all up. On the basis of his own foul-minded speculations, he transformed a pleasant fan letter into a come-on from a small town Lolita. It’s a disgusting spectacle of hyperskepticism gone wild. Oh, and skepticism and atheism: Jebus, but you do have a misogyny problem. Please stop pretending you don’t.

And boy, am I glad I cut out the name and hometown from that letter. Can you imagine if I’d left it in, and asshole Matt Cavanaugh thought it would be clever to do some investigative skepticism, tracked down her phone number, and called her up to slime her with innuendo directly? It would be a natural and expected step in the hyperskeptical toolbox to make such a thorough examination of all the data.

So stands movement skepticism, perfectly tuned to question the existence of chupacabras or UFOs. But also poised to doubt the existence of the US Postal Service, while simultaneously sneering at atheists who reject the biggest chupacabra of them all, god, flying in the grandest possible UFO, heaven. When your whole business model is simply about rejecting fringe claims, rather than following the evidence no matter how mainstream the target, you’ll inevitably end up with a pathologically skewed audience that uses motivated reasoning to abuse the weak. And you end up valuing flamboyance and showmanship over the contributions of science…unless, of course, the scientist has grope-worthy breasts.

So no thanks, skepticism. I’ll stick with science.

Also, if my Indiana correspondent should stumble across this faux “controversy,” I am very, very sorry. Apparently it isn’t quite safe yet for everyone to come out — the wider internet, as well as rural America, has its share of small-minded, pettily vicious shit-weasels.

Comments

  1. says

    I was thinking scientifically when I received an envelope with a postmark containing a signed note, and from the evidence hypothesized that I’d been sent a letter from Indiana. I guess I just wasn’t skeptical enough. I don’t deserve to be called a fucking skeptic, I guess.

  2. originalantigenicsin says

    Maybe someday some hyperskeptic will skeptically aproach her/his selective hyperskepticism, because there seems to be absolutely no skepticism from these people when it comes to all the creationist mails posted on this blog or elsewhere

  3. kevinkirkpatrick says

    What’s really hilarious about the comment thread there is how PZ has duped them all. Of course “Indiana girl” was PZ’s invention. Question is, when will he let them in on the BIG reveal: “Matt Cavanaugh” is also a PZ invention. Don’t believe me, skeptics? Pshh. Three words:
    Check.
    The.
    IPs.

    Want more evidence? Compare timelines – when does PZ post? When does this so-called “Cavanaugh” post?

    But why, you ask? Why the trickery? Why would PZ put so much effort into such a convoluted scheme?

    Simple. Internet drama. By writing a fake letter, and then “catching” himself in the act, PZ is going to generate gob-smacking levels of pageviews. The so-called skeptics, oblivious to the ploy, will be crawling through PZ’s blogs now, identifying more and more PZ sock-puppetry – is “Cryp Dyke” really a commenter… awfully suspicious the way she’s (or should I say, “she’s”) been able to run an entire workshop on PZ’s blog. Yes, they’ll be all over PZ’s blog now, clicking on link, after link, after link; little suspecting that as they do, PZ will be taking his page-hits to the bank, literally doing a happy dance as the bank tellers, confronted with PZ’s printouts of webpage stats, have no choice but to shell out yet one more pile of cash to this duplicitous mastermind.

    And who am I, you may wonder? Who am I… really??? Well… only a true skeptic would’ve spotted it. I slipped, you see, and used the word “oblivious.” Guess who uses the word “oblivious” a lot.

    I’ll stop now; I may have said too much.

  4. barbaz says

    Skepticism really is a two-sided sword. On the one hand, idiots are so efficient at spreading nonsense that a certain efficiency at debunking it is mandatory, on the other hand … the stupid, it burns.

    In Germany, we have this skeptic comedian, Vince Ebert. One day, he gets lauded by the German skeptics club GWUP for his stuff about homeopathy, next day he rambles about climate change.

  5. says

    Good grief! I’m not a scientist (nor really a skeptic), but… I looked (briefly) at his analysis, and it doesn’t make much sense. wouldn’t it be more suspicious if all the ‘g’s or ‘w’s were the same?

  6. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    This skeptic is a bit slow, isn’t he?
    We’re all PZ’s sockpuppets. Everyone knows that.

  7. says

    You speak for yourself Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought (if that’s who you really are): I’m more of a marionette.

  8. imthegenieicandoanything says

    The loud-mouthed percentage (a large one, judging from their effect, anyway) of organized skeptics seem to be most especially impressed by whichever of them portrays “alpha-male” characteristics, which means among many things “goils use service entrance – unless in cake” and a sweet-tooth for Libertarian horseshit.

    These CLEARLY couldn’t give a shit for “understanding” or “truth” of any kind, but rather are obsessed with being able to claim that THEY can see right through YOU. They measure their self-worth by just how little they “believe” – except that they believe whatever horseshit flatters them, hook, line and sinker.

    Months going on years of evidence shows they are simply not worth any humanist’s time or effort. This group – they’re all about power and pride, and a mere human like me has no use for increasing his (my) load of either burden.

    If the decent skeptics were looking to build a movement, catering to this segment is the worst way to do it. They do not care.

  9. Pen says

    I saw this fantastic program once about a scientist who was investigating Loch Ness Monster sightings. Conditions were genuinely not amenable, so he began to look at the food chain possibilities of Loch Ness,. These are grim, from the point of view of a large animal. It turns out, if Nessie exists, she (sic) is a genuine breatharian. It’s not like I believed in her in the first place, but it was the coolest debunking ever.

  10. says

    Interesting point, I’ve never really thought about that as I’ve always seen skepticism as a tool that must be used according to the scientific principles. Failing that it becomes hyperskepticism or plain contrarian thinking. Being skeptical must also include being skeptical to your own skepticism.

  11. barbaz says

    @kevinkirkpatrick
    You are just PZ trying to mock those hard-working skeptics through a sock-puppet account. I bet that “Ken Ham” is also his invention so that he has something to write about. I mean, who would actually be that stupid?

  12. What a Maroon, oblivious says

    Dang, Beatrice beat me to it.

    Or should I say I beat me to it?

  13. nonsense says

    I was skeptical that a teenage girl would write a physical letter rather than just send an email from her phone, and also that she would use pencil rather than ink, and that she would bother to date it, and that it wouldn’t be full of “lol” and “omg” because that is how all kids speak all the time these days.

    I kid.

  14. says

    I have a co-worker who is a hyper-skeptical conspiracy nut. It’s tiring to be around him; you end up watching what you say because you don’t want to get him started. He deconstructs conservatives and liberals and every party and science itself because he is the total man who sees round them all. And then he goes out ghost hunting. That, he believes in.

  15. nonsense says

    George, if I were a Jungian I’d say your friend is an extreme Introverted Intuitive.

  16. dannysichel says

    Got a broken link to the Burzynski post, there.

    Also, now I’m thinking of the scene in Spartacus where everyone claims to be a PZ sockpuppet Spartacus.

  17. says

    I sometimes call myself a true climate skeptic, simply because I have trouble believing that we can accurately model a system so complex as the earth. We’re still discovering new mechanisms and interactions that could have a real impact on the models used, so being a bit skeptical about the accuracy of the current models isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At the same time I must be even more skeptical about my own opinions as I’m no climate scientist. So without any real knowledge I have no choice but to accept the current scientific consensus.
    After all, even if the current models are wrong I still don’t know for sure if the reality is better or worse than the predictions.

  18. mojosam says

    It seems like the nut here is that skeptics already believe they know what is true — that Bigfoot doesn’t exist, that spiritualists don’t commune with the dead, that there aren’t aliens, for instance — and so they use the skeptical toolbox to take apart those claims. When done against quacks to support the scientific consensus, and to protect the gullible from charlatans, this can be useful. But it always, to some extent, runs counter to science, which understands that a single piece of reliable evidence could require revision to our models.

    There’s a fascinating parallel here in the world of Biblical archaeology. On one hand, archaeologists as scientists understand that each new discovery could extend or revise existing models. But in the case of unprovenanced artifacts–which include very important ones, like the Dead Sea Scrolls–they act like skeptics, judging authenticity of new observations on the basis of what they think they already know.

    And that same skeptical bent is, of course, used in all scientific disciplines to detect fraud; if the reported results of an experiment look odd in light of existing models, you may attempt to reproduce the experiment. That’s skepticism, but it’s not the armchair kvetching practiced by many skepticism.

  19. says

    True skepticism is recursive. You don’t just question the original claims, but the rebuttals of those claims, and the surrebuttals, and so on. And that’s where the “hyperskeptics” fail. They ask questions like a toddler who’s just learned the word “why”, but the process stops there. It never occurs to them to question their own claims and biases.

  20. says

    If PZ’s indulging in sockpuppetry, then it’s far more likely that “Cavanaugh” is an alias he uses as a woefully inept straw opponent.

  21. says

    An important post; I (timidly) suggest we need to apply these thoughts when we’re dealing with religious people too. Many religious people genuinely are questioning, and the learning/readjustment process takes time and effort, with occasional relapses, reversions and weird psychology thrown in. What precisely *doesn’t* always work is smart-ass “skepticism” whereby they are told in no uncertain terms that what they believe is a load of balls (even if it is) and that they’re a total tool for even giving it the time of day.

    If, as PZ says, we are to follow the evidence (and do so honestly), we can’t afford to have all our facts pre-packaged and delivered to us en bloc as IFLS-type nuggets or internet memes. We need to be allowed (encouraged!) to entertain alternative hypotheses; to look at the world in a different way, to be able to challenge ourselves as well as others. Like the Bigfoot analogy, we need to know how the *forest* works – not just the redneck. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that science itself is a sort of ecology, and some of the scientists I have the greatest respect for are the ones who have had to hack through their own personal jungles, to make their own paths and clearings despite their background, and don’t rely on being parachuted in with a bunch of captioned cat photos. We need to respect and encourage the explorers who are trying to make the journey, no matter how far from their comfort zone they currently find themselves.

  22. says

    The truth is, you’ve all fallen for the BIG con! THERE IS NO INTERNET! It’s all been PZ sending binary code to your computers ALL ALONG!

    WAKE UP SHEEPLE!!!

  23. marcus says

    My favorite teacher once said, “Doubt (skepticism) is like a dog, sometimes it needs to be free to run around and be true to it’s nature, but usually it should kept under guidance and control.” Not terribly profound, but apt.

  24. culuriel says

    I have noticed that a chunk of these “skeptical of all wisdom I didn’t find out for myself” types are libertarians. These people become libertarians specifically because they hate being told what to do by anyone with authority, but at the same time vote for a party that wants to use the authority of government to tell us what rules we’re NOT ALLOWED to have.

  25. Lofty says

    PZ is I am such a giant global network of sockpupperty, can’t you see all those chemtrails interwoven over your heads like a carpet of tentacles infecting the brainz of hyperskeptics everywhere.
    We hope that doesn’t make any sense.

  26. fergl100 says

    “On one side lie the extremely gullible; people who drift with the wind, and believe anything a sufficiently charismatic guru tells them, no matter how absurd. Far to the other side are the conspiracy theorists. These are people who believe fervently in something, who have a fixed ideology and will happily twist the evidence to support it, and are therefore completely refractory to reason and empiricism.”

    I think you are wrong in this PZ. In my experience the conspiracy theorists are also the gullible woo lovers.

  27. aelfric says

    This phenomenon fascinates me to no end. This is skepticism jumping the rails and becoming hyperskeptical conspiracy theory, in much the same way that I believe religion is the result of anthropomorphism and the perception of causation run amok (definitely not my original thought, see, e.g., Stewart Guthrie’s book “Faces in the Clouds”). They’re mirror images, in a way; one is a result of our species tendency to see causation where in fact there are just chaotic systems (like weather), the other is some sort of anti-Occam principle that the simplest cause is never right. In a sociological sense, I think they function in much the same way–conspiracy nuts and their followers are in a ‘privileged’ inner-circle in much the same way as religious devotees. Nothing really to say beyond that; just some (probably very tedious) thoughts wandering around my brain.

    Oh yeah, one more thing: the guys at that site (OP and commenters) are vile HBD/MRA morons.

  28. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Lofty,

    tentacles

    This is more obvious that the use of oblivious… which just makes me skeptical of you. Are you an infiltrator pretending to be one of PZ’s my our sockpuppets in order to expose and destroy him me us?
    hmmm

  29. says

    and these same skeptical entertainers are criticized their pandering to a quack…and also their climate change denialism.

    There’s something wrong with this sentence fragment (missing a word or two?), and the link embedded here goes to a “page not found”.

    Otherwise, yeah. Right on. Also very smooth of you to make an error in your OP so that you could have your sockpuppets point it out. Very convincing.

  30. ledasmom says

    richardelguru @ 6: He also states that the letter has been creased once across the middle; a good look at the scan suggests it’s been folded twice, into quarters, which is more or less what one does to fit a sheet of standard paper into a card-sized envelope. I don’t know if everyone tends to have stray card envelopes, but we certainly do. It is a remarkably silly analysis, if one can call it an analysis at all.

  31. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Nonsense, PZ. Skepticism isn’t problematic. On the other hand, Skeptics™ who abandon Occam’s razor have a big inferential problem and are indistinguishable from conspiracy theorists– preferring complicated explanations that have no more evidential support than simpler ones.

  32. karley jojohnston says

    He mansplains the psychology of teenaged girls to assert that there’s no way a 15-year-old woman could have written the letter.

    Dude should have met me when I was 15. I’ve been writing letters to authors and newspapers since I was 14. I wrote a letter to Safari Ltd praising their accurate dinosaur figures when I was even younger.

    In my childhood bedroom, I still have a framed certificate from then-president Clinton. I drew him some dinosaurs. I was seven? Eight?

  33. Alex says

    @Erlend Meyer #19

    I see PZs distinction between skepticism and science precisely mirrored in the climate debate.

    There is the crucial difference between climate skepticism, which is worthless and dangerous even in the mild form you practise, and the scientific viewpoint, because I think your prespective misses the most important aspect: the baseline effect of CO2 in earths atmosphere, the greenhouse effect, are basic physics and thus uncontroversial.

    The thing that is horribly complicated is the feedback which the ecosystem performs which is coupled to earths atmosphere, when you turn one of its knobs, e.g. CO2 input.

    If you have a complicated system in front of you, and you have a parameter that you can adjust, the important question is whether the magnitude which you can give this parameter is in principle large enough to have an effect on the system.

    In the case of CO2 on Earth we know that the answer is yes, because according to the baseline effect, the greenhouse effect, the amounts of CO2 we output are large enough to have strong consequences.
    If the actual effect should turn out to be smaller than this expectation, it is because of the feedback of the complicated ecosystem coupled to this atmosphere. This means we are indeed messing with a complicated system in a non-negligible way, and in absence of a full understanding of the whole system, the effect being smaller would be luck.

    If one is skeptical of climate simulations, the conclusion should have been that we need to stop the hell turning that knob, because we know that from a basic physics point of view it is a strong enough manipulation to cause severe effects, but the precise reaction is too hard to predict to be sure whether it is going to be smaller, or even worse or catastrophic, in reality.

    Instead, most climate sceptics, happily ignoring basic physics because skepticism is after all about debunking, not taking into consideration the finer points, go the wishful thinking way that just because the don’t trust our modeling of the complicated part, the jury is still out whether putting more CO2 in the atmosphere is advisable. Just like PZ says – the skeptic mindset, if not properly checked, likes to declary things that is messy as invalid.

  34. gussnarp says

    I mostly agree here, and particularly find the examples of certain well known skeptics and the repugnant ass clown who’s attacking the letter for some reason utterly contemptible. But I’m not sure I’m quite so ready to toss the whole notion of skepticism out. There are certainly self identified skeptics out there who are doing good work, who aren’t utter misogynists, and who understand when a preponderance of evidence suggests accepting a hypothesis, at least tentatively. None of that is enough to make me want to become part of the skeptical movement as it now seems to exist beyond what I already do – reading and commenting on a few blogs and occasionally being the voice of reason in far ranging lunchtime chats at work.

    I guess I make a distinction between Skepticism and skepticism. No, that’s not even it, it doesn’t cover this. Rejecting the evidence for climate change, or taking apart a simple fan letter as if there’s any reason to be suspicious of it is really no part of Skepticism as a movement. There is a problem that such people feel comfortable in the Skeptical movement though. They ought to feel about as comfortable in Skepticism as a young earth creationist who believes in bigfoot, alien abduction, and psychics.

    No, I think it’s just that skepticism the tool can be taken to extremes, like anything, and the extreme hyper-skeptics have been successful enough and popular enough that the simple word is now tarnished by their behavior. But skepticism, the tearing down and finding holes, is an essential part of the scientific process as I see it. We were trained to do it in grad school, asked to read a stack of papers and have a reaction to each written up before next week’s class meeting and you had better find something to be critical of in each one, some method improperly used or documented, the wrong statistical test applied, unjustified assumptions made – finding a truly bad paper made things so much easier. Our own work was subjected to this same test by our professors, and heaven forbid you had Dr. SoAndSo on your review committee or attending you presentation as he was so well versed in the fundamental methods and the general overview of the field that he would find any hole you had left…. All of this leads to better work being produced, and if you got published you would be thanking Dr. SoAndSo for making your work acceptable.

    But it’s only part of the process, not the whole process. Eventually you have to accept the evidence when it’s there. So the problem, I guess, is taking the skeptical approach from being a piece of a larger method and process and elevating it to the sine qua non of all thought.

  35. Acitta says

    I was told recently that skeptics are like members of the Flat Earth Society because they don’t accept that cell phones cause cancer or that homeopathy is a valid form of skepticism.

  36. gussnarp says

    Oh, look, a person I find contemptible received a fan letter. No one could possibly like this person, so the fan letter must be a fake. I will now compile every shred of possible “evidence” to prove my belief that the letter is fake, regardless of my utter incompetence in every field of science that could actually be used to analyze such a document. I must also assume that all the people who read PZ’s blog and comment favorably are fake, too. Most of PZ’s blog hits are probably people hate reading it, not real fans. I shall ignore the fact that everyone from Hitler to Manson to Dahmer to that guy who makes misogynist atheist YouTube videos has fans who write (wrote) to them.

    Yup, this guys’ a conspiracy nut, not a skeptic, whatever skepticism’s problems.

  37. gussnarp says

    I do wish the Skeptical movement would clean house a little. Yes, magicians are useful for spotting deceptions, but aren’t there magicians out there who aren’t misogynist corporate apologists who refuse to believe mountains of scientific evidence because it conflicts with their libertarian beliefs?

    Sure, we need physicists who are also good communicators, but I know for a fact there are several of those who aren’t also harassers or apologists for harassers.

    Sure, we need people who can write about religion, philosophy, science, and ethics in a way that is accessible and who can popularize clear critical thinking, but surely we don’t need the one’s who aren’t really all that popular outside the movement and whose work seems to be of declining quality and who habitually sexually assault women?

    Sure, we need people who are experts in evolutionary biology explaining it clearly and defending it against all assaults, but maybe if they’ve already written great books about that and haven’t really done much new in years and are beginning to be tainted by some surprisingly and viciously sexist comments about their fellow skeptics we don’t really need to invite them to gatherings to give speeches? I know for certain there are very many people also doing that work who aren’t problematic, and who are more up to date on the latest research.

    Surely it isn’t all about ticket sales as driven by misogynist celebrity atheists? Surely declining attendance might demonstrate that this approach isn’t working? Surely conference goers are interested in seeing something new anyway?

  38. says

    @ Alex #37:
    The origin of my skepticism is exactly the problems with feedback, not the basic premise of the greenhouse effect which is a proven fact and vital to life on earth. But it’s not like I support a wait-and-see attitude, far from it. I’m just as open to the possibility that global warming will be far worse than predicted, and if that’s the case we’re REALLY screwed if we don’t act.

    the skeptic mindset, if not properly checked, likes to declary things that is messy as invalid.
    Agreed. Skepticism should be considered a tool, not a way of life.

  39. What a Maroon, oblivious says

    My favorite teacher once said, “Doubt (skepticism) is like a dog, sometimes it needs to be free to run around and be true to it’s nature, but usually it should kept under guidance and control.”

    Also, the rest of us are forced to either pick up its shit or step in it.

  40. Sastra says

    Skepticism has a serious problem, and there are a couple of reasons I’ve grown disenchanted with its current incarnation… When your whole business model is simply about rejecting fringe claims, rather than following the evidence no matter how mainstream the target, you’ll inevitably end up with a pathologically skewed audience that uses motivated reasoning to abuse the weak.

    If internal inconsistencies within a “movement” justify leaving it, then it shouldn’t be long before PZ leaves atheism too. He’s certainly disenchanted with certain parts of its “current incarnation.”

    And along the same lines he will be leaving science as well. I mean, look at bad science. Look at pseudoscience. Clearly, there is a serious problem with not just skepticism, but atheism and science too. Also humanism. And the processes of critical thinking, self-doubt, and the search for consilience and truth. Every one of them, abused over and over again by people who don’t get it but think they do and claim to be one of us.

    Enchantment has left the world. To our surprise.

    No, I’m with Antiochus Epiphanes #35. Neither skepticism nor “Skepticism” is problematic. There isn’t really any distinction between the approach of skepticism and science. Skepticism is part of science and science is part of skepticism: it all depends on perspective and vocabulary. One of the best and most frequently used Tools of Skepticism — even within the skeptic community — is to show the disharmony between the current general model of reality and whatever piece of supernatural or pseudoscientific crap happens to be slapped over it. ESP doesn’t comport with evolution. Astrology doesn’t comport with astronomy. This whole-science approach is only underemphasized in “Skepticism” if you ignore all the books and articles and blog posts written in skeptic forums by self-identified skeptics which make this their main point.

    I belong to 3 skeptic organizations and as far as I can tell they are all having passionate internal debates on the importance of going beyond “fringe” claims. There is dissention within both the leadership and the ranks. Nothing has been settled. Nor will it be. Deep rifts, again and again. That’s a good thing.

    We should never allow the bad examples to define any movement we’re a crucial part of. Sure, we can criticize trends in groups or organizations. We can point out those individuals who seem to have lost or failed to comprehend the big picture of what we’re doing. But I think this is an internal criticism. I don’t think it should be framed as a choice we must make between skepticism or science.

    Or atheism vs reason, for that matter. Or atheism vs. human decency.

    I think those kind of dichotomies can come back to haunt us.

  41. gussnarp says

    @Erlend Meyer #43:

    Skepticism should be considered a tool, not a way of life.

    Man, that’s so much shorter than the screed I felt compelled to write and manages to say everything of value that I had to say.

  42. David Wilford says

    Skepticism as a philosophy asserts that the truth of all knowledge must always be in question and that all inquiry must be a process of doubting. Science on the other hand, while it maintains that all knowledge is provisional and open to revision, does not proceed solely from a process of doubting the validity of all the evidence. Rather, science is a systematic process that observes and relates observations to form hypotheses and theories about nature to explain natural phenomenon. Pure skepticism doesn’t do this, because it limits itself to falsification. That’s useful no doubt (or should we doubt it? Hmm…), but it’s not enough when it comes to the actual truth of all knowledge.

    I feel the same way about atheism. There’s no doubt it’s a useful stance to take when criticizing the claims of religion, but it’s not enough to do just that. One has to also provide alternatives to religious claims and assertions, and that’s why I call myself a naturalist instead.

  43. carlie says

    I usually scoff at the people who describe readers here as “PZ’s fanbois and fangirls”, but damn, the first half of this essay wherein the difference between science and skepticism is described makes me want to say yes, I am one indeed.

  44. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    And the last part of the note looks like it wasn’t even written by Kurt Cobain!

    /conflating conspiracy theories

  45. doublereed says

    I always believed the term “skeptic” was used more for aggrandizing and superiority. Like “yea well I’m more skeptical than yooooou are.” Kind of thing. It just seems like a bad, useless label.

    It just seems to me that people can’t really be “skeptics” except about particular things (in which case it’s the same thing as ‘denialist’ except with a positive connotation). Hitchens said that “Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence”, but, on the flipside, Minor Claims also require Minor evidence. It’s just a sensible way to do things.

  46. Alex says

    @Erlend Meyer

    @ Alex #37:
    The origin of my skepticism is exactly the problems with feedback, not the basic premise of the greenhouse effect which is a proven fact and vital to life on earth. But it’s not like I support a wait-and-see attitude, far from it. I’m just as open to the possibility that global warming will be far worse than predicted, and if that’s the case we’re REALLY screwed if we don’t act.

    You’re good then :)

    the skeptic mindset, if not properly checked, likes to declary things that is messy as invalid.

    Agreed. Skepticism should be considered a tool, not a way of life.

    Hah, perfectly put!

  47. says

    One thing that I always notice about Skeptics® is that they- without fail- never ask why. Why would PZ go through the trouble of faking a hand written fan letter? What payoff could possibly be so big that the effort is worth it?

  48. brucegee1962 says

    Just to defend skepticism for a bit — it’s a doorway.

    I was a nice, comfortable theist when I started visiting skeptical websites. It was fun to read CSICOP and Randi’s website and see the hapless applicants for the million-dollar prize get demolished — also, I had a few woo-ish views left over from my childhood, and it was good to get rid of them.

    Then I followed a link from The Bad Astronomer (watch astrology get ripped to pieces!) over to here. And all of a sudden, I was challenged to use the tools I’d learned from skepticism on God. God didn’t last very long.

  49. says

    I’m going to take PZ’s ‘science vs. skepticism’ analysis back and kick it around a while. Dunno. I do kind think the constructive/exploratory vs. destructive/debunking thing has some merit. Like most things, I figure there’s a continuum here, too… That anyone doing either might do a bit of both, but agreed, there does seem to be a whole culture of these ‘skeptics’ who seem to do the one a whole lot, not so much t’other…

    I’ve been putting it down mostly so far to motivated reasoning. The classic antifeminist/libertarian ‘skeptics’ get rewards out of debunking the relatively easily debunked. Bigfoot and Nessie being fringe beliefs, especially, it’s a bit of shooting fish in a barrel, and of course since the social power of those who follow this stuff is negligeable, there are few risks. Antivaccine woo, so on, is seen as something soccer moms do, so again, manly men internet skeptics get easy high fives saying how stupid all this is…

    Religion especially is a more mixed bag. There’s lots of places that’s costly, taking that on, so there’s those that do, those that don’t. Feminism has been vilified by a pretty steady campaign on the right for decades, and it’s a very foundational inequity it attempts to attend to (and one a lot of the manly men internet skeptics don’t particularly see themselves as much harmed by; indeed, in many ways, they actually benefit), so singing la la la la can’t hear you/can’t see shit whenever anyone starts talking about the very real problems still remaining to address is almost the default position, and for very similar reasons you get that mix in how ‘skeptics’ view religion. And skeptics actually attacking feminism as some kind of religion itself, again, it’s cheap points with a certain crowd.

    I see also this interesting gradient in respect for the social sciences versus ‘harder’, natural sciences. Cf. Dawkins’ loose talk on this, and I saw an MRA not long ago say something very similar: that he had very little respect for the social sciences, this, of course being because whichever social science it was at the time was telling him something he didn’t want to hear. And yeah, again, I do figure that’s most of it: motivated reasoning. Yes, the social sciences are ‘messy’, a lot of the time, its results a little easier to fudge around if you don’t like the implications, and, again, I figure a lot of them just don’t like the implications that cut too close to home, and are thus so motivated…

    … and again, I wonder hrm, a bit of sexism there, too? There’s a notion afoot I think those are more womanly fields; manly men do physics and biology, women do psychology, sociology, give a damn about human relationships. And oh those silly feminist sociologists, let us bring our manly men brains along to debunk your pitiful studies into not-so-subtle sexisms in how often people answer career guidance type emails from women vs. men and so on…

    The hell of it is: all these fields have a lot to tell, I think, anyone who wants really to do science or skepticism right. And a lot of what they can tell you is, yeah, chum, you are sexist, in all sorts of weird little ways you may never learn to appreciate if you insist upon putting your fingers in your ears every time the subject comes up. This is the huge value of a lot of this stuff, messy and complicated as it sometimes is: telling you how the one instrument you can’t simply replace with a better one to avoid all this–that being your brain–does indeed have these odd biases in how it measures and samples and triangulates…

    These people having none of it, I dunno that they’re really doing skepticism or science, or certainly not doing either nearly so well as they could. Or more specifically: they’re worse than useless in these classes of problems because, well, they’ve pretty much chosen to be. They know the answer they want, and the answer is: there is no such problem, you’re all right Jack, sexism was solved in the 70s, now let’s have some more fun laughing at people who follow horoscopes.

  50. Steve LaBonne says

    doublereed @52:

    Hitchens said that “Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence”

    Dept. of Credit where Credit is Due: actually, the idea was very clearly formulated by Hume in “Of Miracles”, and the exact phrase you quote was popularized by Carl Sagan.

  51. says

    Skepticism is of limited use on it’s own.

    It needs to be combined with reason so that one avoid the hyper-skepticism trap by determine if a thing is worth applying skepticism to, or elements of an analysis of a thing. For example a well known atheist blogger who writes a book is likely to get fan mail at some point. Or if a woman claims harassment the ubiquity of harassment makes such a claim worth taking seriously until evidence starts looking like it does not match reality.

    Skepticism and rationality work better with the scientific method. That saves you from the conspiracy theorist trap because then you can test your own claims and the claims of others.

    Those three tools of history are indispensable to our movement.

  52. Daniel Chadwick says

    Hello Professor Myers,

    I enjoyed your points here. I would ask that perhaps you are more correct that skepticism, as “observing clearly” and not just as a popular notion of “doubting,” can work with science?

    E.g., I would present David Hume as a good illustration of a skeptic rather than anyone who latches on to the latest superficial conspiracy theory.

    Also, perhaps there is an analogy to forms of pseudo-science; i.e., one would not condemn “Science” because of them.

    Anyway, thanks for the article.

    regards,
    drc

  53. Gerard O says

    What PZ Myers misses in this post is the lack of skeptical thinking in the scientific/rationalist community. So many people seem to have a rigid set of ideas that they cling to desperately, or believe something without any verification. How many people believe that you can see the Great Wall of China from space? (You can’t). Name somebody who claimed that Saddam was behind 9/11 and had nukes in his basement. Well I can: Christopher Hitchens. Why does Steven Pinker think Jews are smarter than everyone else? Because of a genetic study conducted by…evolutionary anthropologists at a community college somewhere in the Midwest. And everyone knows that Muslims are more violent than Westerners, right? (Not directed at FTB readers, but you know who I mean). The human capacity for fantasy has given us reams of great literature, but it still seems to inhibit our analytical thinking.

  54. Alexander says

    @40 Acitta:

    As a skeptic, I am quite willing to accept homeopathy as science… well, up until I ask them about why then the EPA’s measurement standards of parts per million of poison in drinking water is safe. After all, that’s only a 3C (or 6X) dilution… hope you’re enjoying your Dasani water-flavored arsenic! /sarcasm

  55. Joey Maloney says

    Bonus points for ending the post with “shit-weasels”. It’s like when they talk about how a fine, smooth, 25-year-old Scotch has a “surprising finish”.

  56. says

    Sastra:

    We should never allow the bad examples to define any movement we’re a crucial part of. Sure, we can criticize trends in groups or organizations.

    Going by behaviour and attitudes over the last two years, much of the atheoskeptisphere is primarily bad examples.

  57. says

    Excuse any typos — composed this in the airport terminal on my iPad. Now I’m in another terminal, waiting for connecting flight, so it might be a while before I can fix them.

  58. David Marjanović says

    to explain natural phenomenon

    Phenomena. One phenomenon, two phenomena.

    Works exactly like the Latin -um words whose plural is -a; in fact, they’re homologous.

  59. Gerard O says

    In between reading Prof. Myers’ post, I shuffled off to have some noodles, and began thinking about David Hume and Christopher Hitchens – so obviously they turn up in the refreshed comments! My Hitchens statement has no relation to the comments above it.

  60. Kevin Kehres says

    And again I must protest.

    Skepticism is a transitional state. It is not the end state. If you are a Bigfoot skeptic, that means you have not yet reached a conclusion about the existence of Bigfoot, but are actively investigating the matter.

    If you have reached the conclusion that Bigfoot does not exist, you are no longer skeptical about the claim. Not a skeptic. Non-skeptical. Skepticism and conclusions are incompatible states.

    Self-proclaimed movement “skeptics” — what I call the Bigfoot Skeptics (BSers) — are nothing of the sort. They’ve reached a conclusion that is fixed an unamenable to adjustment. Cryptozoologists who hunt Bigfoot because they are convinced it exists are the exact obverse of the BSers who debunk their claims. Both have reached a conclusion. Neither is “skeptical” about the exact same claim.

    No amount of evidence to the contrary would change their beliefs. Those beliefs are fixed. If a Bigfoot walked into the White House and shook hands with the President and then held a news conference to ask people to please stop tramping around his woods, the BSers would deny, deny, deny. Nothing would move them from their position. Of course, the cryptozoologists have it a bit easier, because they’re chasing a myth, like a minotaur — they’ll never be confronted with evidence that forces them to retreat because of the impossibility of disproving a negative. There is too a dragon in my garage.

    The BSers abuse skepticism.

    And there is nothing “skeptical” or “hyperskeptical” about Cavanaugh, and those like him. They’re just reality-denying assholes. He saw a letter, immediately decided it was fake, and manufactured “evidence” to support his already-fixed belief. Not skeptical at all.

  61. says

    I’ll also add that I think skeptically about things all the time. This is not about small “s” skepticism, but about the abomination that big “S” movement Skepticism has become — it is about using a pretense of critical thinking to browbeat anything that opposes the status quo defined by libertarian nerds.

  62. David Marjanović says

    How many people believe that you can see the Great Wall of China from space? (You can’t).

    I thought you can see it from a low orbit – just not from the moon, which is what the myth actually states?

  63. says

    I agree with Polly-O!

    I think skepticism has a place, and sometimes it is necessary to break down false beliefs. But even the research that various gatekeepers and accommodationists have been wielding as a cudgel says that debunking alone isn’t effective. There’s got to be education, along with or instead of the debunking.

    The hyperskepticism, though, is a symptom of a larger issue, namely people adopting the language and veneer of skepticism and skeptical activism* without understanding the actual methods. I’ve been documenting examples for years; skeptics who fling around Latinate fallacy terms without actually knowing what they mean (poor, abused ad hominem), people who cry ‘strawman’ without elaboration, the special pleading of motivated reasoning by religious or misogynist skeptics, skeptics quote-mining and cherry-picking from studies to support spurious points, applying Bigfoot-level claim examination to claims of rape or harassment or fanmail, every JAQoff with just a few more questions, every wannabe-Spock who worships logic but doesn’t know thing one about rhetoric, even a lot of the AGW denialists and conspiracy nuts.

    They’re all engaging in cargo cult skepticism, with no understanding of how to apply mechanisms like the null hypothesis, Occam’s razor, or the whole “extraordinary” part of “extraordinary claims.” They don’t recognize that uninformed ‘skepticism’ is ultimately worthless and solipsistic. Science has its share of cargo cultists too (lots of evo-psych, maybe some HBD folks, IDiots and “steel can’t melt!” nuts), so I don’t know that destructive vs. constructive really guards against it. As others have said, it’s a matter of misapplication of useful tools. The ratio of people using those tools correctly in science vs. organized skepticism, however, is an issue.

  64. tbtabby says

    Hyperskepticism, like all logical fallacies, stems from bias. They have a preferred belief, the evidence suggests that their belief isn’t true, so they contort the facts into increasingly absurd degrees to make it look like their preferred belief is still true in spite of the evidence. Anybody can debunk other peoples’ beliefs. If you want to be a true skeptic, you have to be prepared to debunk your own most of all.

  65. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    On the basis of his own foul-minded speculations, he transformed a pleasant fan letter into a come-on from a small town Lolita. It’s a disgusting spectacle of hyperskepticism gone wild

    Surely Mr Cavanaugh is remarkably gullible. He believes things for which there is no evidence at all except his own fantasies.

    I approve of scepticism (is this another thing where British and US spellings and usage reflect differences in attitudes?) more than you do, Dr. Myers, but one important aspect of scepticism is that we should be sceptical about scepticism too. Even if we cannot be completely certain of anything, we can be pretty sure of a lot of things, including the connexions and relationships between those things.

  66. =8)-DX says

    @The OP:
    I think the open-minded conspiracy-theory/dogmatic space is actually more of a triangle. There are definitely people who allow the most random shit in their heads while at the same time randomly adhering to or forgetting other random shit. On the science point there is adherance to, openness to, and rejection of ideas based on reason and evidence, not just random personal whim. I think I was lead to believe that a process called “growing up” tended to help change this in people.

    Secondly, that blog was horrible – slimepyterian/mra/racists inside, all gloating over their personal fantasy, which included making fun of a 15 year old girl (or young woman.. sounds a little patronising though I’m considering using that, the letter definitely showed signs of growing up).

    The handwriting “deconstruction” was total BS. Young men and women from 10 to 20 have a large variety of writing styles, depending on how hard they were trying, how much their school emphasizes writing skills, current mood, etc.

    I would also find it rather strange for a youngster that age to send an old male author such as PZ a message from their phone. Yes, they’re on them 24/7 messaging, mailing, skyping, etc. But that social network is, I think, quite often considered one’s personal space, definitely not where they want to invite middle-age authors, however well writing.

    A letter is what I would have gone for, and my 9-year-old daughter as well.

  67. says

    tbtabby:

    If you want to be a true skeptic, you have to be prepared to debunk your own [beliefs] most of all.

    Truth. There’s also a need to be willing to dig around in your own Bayesian priors, and take an honest look at the biases you’re carrying around. That is glaringly absent in Big ‘S’ skepticism. An absolute refusal to examine your own biases is damn near a commandment in hyperskepticism.

  68. moarscienceplz says

    I thought you can see it [The Great Wall] from a low orbit – just not from the moon, which is what the myth actually states?

    China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, did not see it, but…

    “In Earth’s orbit at a height of 160 to 320 kilometers [100-200 miles], the Great Wall of China is indeed visible to the naked eye,” says astronaut Eugene Cernan.

    A low angle of sunlight casting long shadows can help.

    “You can see the Great Wall,” confirms astronaut Ed Lu, who was the science officer of Expedition Seven on the International Space Station. The station circles Earth higher than Yang Liwei’s orbit.

    The misconception is wrapped up in broader myths about what is and what is not visible from space. For the record: No manmade structures on Earth can be seen with the unaided astronaut’s eye from the Moon. But many things — highways, dams and even large vehicles — are easily spotted from Earth-orbit with no optical aids.

  69. twas brillig (stevem) says

    I too, think skepticism is just a tool, not a complete philosophy. When presented with a new Theory (not a guess, but a theory), it is valid to USE skepticism to ask for Evidence (facts) that support the Theory and ask for the predictions the Theory makes, etc. Skepticism, (as mentioned previously) is a doorway to dialogue with the proposal. The problem is SKEPTICS, who open that doorway, but just stand in it, saying “I opened the door” but then block anyone from passing through it. And then, only speak or question, while never participating in dialogue, and just keeping spouting, “prove it, show me moar data!” And when the scientists show the data and show their predictions with a tiny statistical uncertainty, the Skeptic will just say, “can’t you reduce that uncertainty even more?”
    My bigotry tells me that Skepticism is just a smokescreen camouflage for a DENIALIST. Climate Change Denialists in particular. Like now, with overwhelming evidence and scientists supporting it, they will just clamp onto small errors (such as the models) and say, “The scientists are wrong!” And they will cloak their denialism as “skepticism”. And then agree&deny; latest being “yes, climate is changing, it always changes; it extincted the dinosaurs. but man wasn’t around in the time of the dinosaurs, so we aren’t changing the climate QED”
    .
    Skepticism is another one of those words, with so many interpretations, that is often misused by even those who are TRYING to use it properly. One of those words that should just be expelled as archaic, with only idiomatic meanings.

  70. HappyNat says

    Of course the fake letter was “from” Indiana, after all PZ starts with P, which rhymes T, which is next to S in the modern alphabet, which stands for sockpuppet. *dusts off hands*

    Wait are we sure Indiana actually exists? *runs off to debunk the existence of Indiana*

  71. gussnarp says

    Maybe we should just go with “critical thinking”. That really encompasses all that is good about the tool of skepticism, without becoming a label used to promote superiority or a “movement” that becomes hyperskeptical and self destructive.

  72. says

    @ Gerard O 60

    What PZ Myers misses in this post is the lack of skeptical thinking in the scientific/rationalist community. So many people seem to have a rigid set of ideas that they cling to desperately, or believe something without any verification.

    I’m a little confused. I saw PZ’s post as attacking irrational skepticism. What do you mean by skeptical thinking?
    Cavanaugh was applying skepticism. They are clearly being skeptical of PZ’s claim of having received fan mail, and since they are skeptical they set out to look for things that that looked like evidence that the letter was faked. What they are not being is rational with respect to applying their skepticism. Given PZ’s place in the atheist community it’s reasonable to think that they would receive fan mail. And to many here the “evidence” of fakery looks unreasonable as well.

  73. says

    “Skepti-schism network”? Is that a network for some of those hate blogs that arose after elevatorgate? I notice among their recent posts, they argue that Melody Hensley is a professional victim and Stephanie Zvan is hearing voices. Disgusting.

    My blog has “skeptic” in the title because it’s like seven years old, but the skeptical movement has pissed me off lately. Leaders and organizations spent too long trying to be inclusive of sexist people (arguing that it’s outside the scope), and now what do you know they have a worse sexism problem than ever.

  74. Nick Gotts says

    I sometimes call myself a true climate skeptic, simply because I have trouble believing that we can accurately model a system so complex as the earth. – Erlend Meyer@19

    In addition to the points made by Alex@37, it really doesn’t take much effort to find out that the estimates of climate sensitivity are derived primarily from empirial data, not climate models – so you’ve already swallowed one denialist myth. Start here.

  75. says

    @ twas brillig (stevem) 76

    I agree. They are overusing a single tool, instead of applying several appropriately. If this person has too much pride the next step is doubling down and they will keep standing in the door, but in this case they are standing in their own door. They are not letting in the pieces of reality that they need to in order to make an accurate assessment of it either consciously or unconsciously.

    In this case I think that the smokescreen is meant to cover some personal problem with PZ or the parts of the community that he likes to support. If Cavanaugh had the ability to rationally argue against the things that he did not like he would be focusing on why this girl is mistaken to be a fan of PZ and would be targeting areas of disagreement. Instead they seem to e taking on the task of trying to make it look like PZ does not have as many fans as he does, which is also irrational because that does not get to any disagreement on substance. It’s pure political behavior like global warming skeptics.

  76. says

    Letter writing is really not that unusual. I get a letter, typed or handwritten, on the order of about one every week or two.

  77. says

    PZ:

    Letter writing is really not that unusual.

    The fine art of letter writing was still being taught when I was in school. I know, ’bout a thousand years ago.

  78. Sastra says

    I think I’d replace the headline “The difference between skeptical thinking and scientific thinking” with “What happens when skeptical thinking and scientific thinking diverge.” The first phrase implies that they’re actually supposed to be separate things which sometimes come together. The second one suggests that separating them is an aberration.

    Inaji #63 wrote:

    Going by behaviour and attitudes over the last two years, much of the atheoskeptisphere is primarily bad examples.

    Pz calls out both good examples and bad. The bad examples are more egregious, absolutely — but I think the good examples more numerous if we take it all as a whole.

    I could be wrong, though. FtB is part of the atheoskeptisphere. My guess is that focusing attention here could possibly lead someone to exaggerate in either direction.

  79. says

    Except that what we would ideally call skeptical thinking is rapidly becoming a walled garden containing a lot of weird ideas, guarded by self-righteous gate-keepers.

  80. says

    $ /etc/init.d/puppetd restart
    Stopping puppetd … [DONE]
    Starting puppetd … [DONE]
    $ tail /var/log/puppetd.log
    Next sock “changerofbits” comment at 2014.06.18.14.25.39
    Comment generated, posting:

    Those kooky skeptics, obliviously not applying science to their oblivious skepticism. /snark

    Where do these jackasses get the time to write this? Aren’t there chipacabra or Bigfoot claims to dispell?

  81. says

    AJ Milne @56: I’m thinking in a lot of similar lines. I think the constructive/destructive balance is off in these sorts of cargo cult skepticism. They limit their toolbox to the negative when they don’t like someone, and they let in the conspiracy mindset and wishful thinking when constructing their own alternative hypotheses.

    The thing about skepticism they don’t seem to get is that not only do you ask necessary questions to test a claim, you often need to provide room for a superior explanation, even if you don’t stick to a particular one. When they see Bigfoot, they see a conclusion they want to reject, so they apply the same tools as a proper, scientifically minded skeptic, making it hard to tell the difference. Their lack of understanding shows up in cases like this, where they posit self-serving narratives instead of considering simple and commonplace.

    In a way, they’re trying to be genre savvy about real life and trying to pass that off as skepticism. The murderer is never the guy holding the bloody knife, wearing the bloody shirt, who recently took out a life insurance policy on the victim. That would be boring and obvious. Therefore, it’s a frame-up by the Femluminati because otherwise there’s no drama, Scooby-Doo villain to unmask, and nothing to pad out the next 45 minutes of air time.

    We reject Bigfoot because we know a lot of alternative explanations for the supposed evidence that tend to be far more mundane and parsimonious, depending on what we’re looking at. We just often take our ability to construct such explanations for granted: Guy in a costume, CGI, pareidolia, mistaken identity. We know human nature, so we know there are tricksters with strong motives as well as true believers who, using human cognitive biases, can misinterpret vague depressions in the ground for footprints or bears for live sightings. In any case, those explanations fit into the larger picture: If Bigfoot was real, there’d be indirect evidence in the form of effects they’d have on the ecology, and it’d be so much easier to get clear photos. If he’s an urban legend with a share of fakers, you only have to account for human impacts on the ecology and remain aware of how easily people can fool others and fool themselves.

    In most things, we don’t jump immediately to the conclusion of deliberate fraud because self-deception is much more prevalent and very easy. While the famous Bigfoot film was most likely a huckster in a costume, your average anecdotal sighting is probably sincere self-deception. In a way, these cargo cult skeptics are living down to a stereotype woos have of scientists and skeptics, devising unnecessarily elaborate methods organized by large sinister groups to trick people (as if it required such hard work) when we really think it’s much simpler, unorganized, and often unintentional.

    Which makes more sense? PZ went through the trouble of forging a fan letter for dubious net benefit, or that he has a sincere fan who chose to use snail mail?

    Funny thing: One common method I’ve heard of for detecting forgery is looking to see if someone’s signature is an exact copy of another instance. Humans don’t have machine precision when they write, but photocopiers and scanners do. Variation is what you expect in a genuine document.

  82. yazikus says

    Letter writing is really not that unusual.

    I’ll add that if I were writing to a famous person, or the president, or a well-known author or other public figure I would probably write a letter and send it snail mail too. Why? Because I imagine an email would just get caught in spam or something and never be read. A letter, mailed to a residence or place of work, seems much more likely to be picked up and noticed.
    -
    Also, the comments on this post win all of the internets.

  83. says

    OT

    . He has carefully snipped out all the letters “w” in the letter, lining them up so you can easily compare them. My god, they’re not identical!

    In my signature (which is essentially the same as my cursive handwriting) I write the “J” of my first name much different that then “J” of my last name – I notice this whenever writing my name. It could be that the second letter differs between my first and last names (Ja vs Je), but I note I start the letters different (the main difference is the upper loop of the J, in my first name, it’s always tight, last name, it ends up a big wide loop).

  84. yazikus says

    I love that after a commenter on the post mentioned that having been a teenaged girl, the letter totally reminded her of something she would have written this was Cavanaugh’s response

    Actually, I find the content of the note far more damning than the handwriting. But feel free to continue nit-picking.

    Yes, he accuses her of ‘nit-picking’. Rich.

  85. mnb0 says

    Someone who applies skepticism only to others and not to him/herself is not a skeptic afaIc. Hence Cavanaugh doesn’t qualify.
    Btw, PZ, those objections you put forward also apply to quite a few Jesusmythologists ….. they are “all about falsification and disproof and dismantling proposals. I think it is the wrong approach.”
    I smell a double standard here.

  86. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Wait are we sure Indiana actually exists? *runs off to debunk the existence of Indiana*

    No, Indiana does exist. You’re thinking of Delaware.

    /looks skeptically eastward.

  87. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I find skepticism as practiced by many of those claiming to be skeptics to be nothing other than pure doubt. I see skepticism as first evaluating the claim, does it fit into the way the world operates? God and ghosts, no; bigfoot maybe; and PZ getting a letter about a book he wrote a big likelihood. Then the evidence for the claim needs to be looked at. The bigfoot Patterson film, a fraud. No bigfoot. A properly redacted letter that looks like it was written by someone still in school, a real deal until shown otherwise (and Cavanaugh’s “refutation” is utterly pseudoscientific imagufactured bullshit). Is there good scientific evidence for the claim? Yes to AGW, evolution, and vaccines work while they don’t cause autism.

    To many alleged skeptics use pure doubt for anything they don’t like, be it male patriarchy, sacrifices that might be needed to ameliorate AGW, or that PZ might actually get a letter from someone who read his book. They don’t use the first tool of science or skepticism on themselves: you are the easiest person to fool, so what are you doing to make sure you aren’t fooling yourself? Also, what does the evidence and science say? If you reject the evidence because you don’t like it, you are being a proper skeptic.

  88. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Dang, messed up my last sentence in #98. Should read: “If you reject the evidence because you don’t like it, you aren’t being a proper skeptic.”

  89. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I’m clearly a sockpuppet.

    The clue is in the name.

    I’ve said too much.

  90. tonyinbatavia says

    I and the rest of me who have posted here are clearly PZ’s sockpuppets. But Matt Cavanaugh is clearly a tool. A small-minded, pettily vicious shit-weasel of a tool.

    (Note that I used the phrase “small-minded, pettily vicious shit-weasel” … only the most “oblivious” would think I wasn’t PZ’s sockpuppet after reading that string of words together.)

  91. says

    If this is about Skepticism and not skepticism then I am even more in agreement. They seem to have evolved their own dogma and shielded their own motives and reasoning from the same skepticism they use to bash others.

  92. jrfdeux, mode d'emploi says

    I had a look at the comments over on Cavanaugh’s site and Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick are they ever inane.

    The “I don’t like PZ or his threat to my values and identity therefore he’s a lying fuckhead about All Evarything” vibe over there is overwhelming.

  93. mikeyb says

    Skepticism and science aren’t necessarily the same thing and don’t explore the same set of issues in many cases. But they are both part of the same framework of critical reasoning and using evidence to test claims. I don’t think we should be creating divisions when they really are trivial compared to say skepticism and science vs religion, superstition and ignorance. They are natural allies. Sure there are bad skeptics, but there are bad scientists, and bad anything. I prefer the term pseudo-skeptic to hyper skeptic. Hyper skepticism implies that too much skepticism is a bad thing. Things get pretty hyper some times in science and it is a good thing. For example, Einstein general theory of relativity deviates from Newtonian gravity in a very miniscule manner. If we weren’t bothered by this tiny difference, be hypercritical if you will, we would never have made progress. Global warming deniers are more akin to pseudo skeptics than hyper skeptics. It’s not that they are insufficiently skeptical, it is that they add their own presuppositions without evidence – modeling is too complicated, sunspots, volcanoes account for the changes, in a very unskeptical way to explain away the data and support their presuppositions apart from the evidence. These type of ‘skeptics’ usually have some alternative idea that they aren’t skeptical about at all which gives it away. After all great scientists can also be great skeptics as well, Carl Sagan is a good example. And some who can be termed hyperskeptics are in reality conspiracy theorists. The Bengazi skeptics for example, by and large fall into this category. Not that there can’t be or aren’t hyperskeptics – technically you can doubt everything and be a solipsist. But I would argue that most forms of hyperskepticism is in the category of bad skepticism or conspiracy theorizing when you examine it.

  94. says

    After all, even if the current models are wrong I still don’t know for sure if the reality is better or worse than the predictions.

    Let me help with that. Its worse. The people doing the models are using the most conservative estimates, based on running tens of thousands of different projections, and averaging the results, with, again, a bias towards, “what is the slightly less disastrous prediction?”, and dang near every single thing they have predicted has actually turned out to be worse when observed in the real world, from what I understand of the situation. The ones arguing against it just insist that a) if its not as bad, in some vague instance, then the models are useless, because they failed to predict the outcome, and b) if the reality is worse than the model said it was likely to be, then its somehow impossible for us to do anything about it, not to mention, “Not us human’s fault in the first place.” Neither premise follows from the actual facts, which is that we are not trying to predict if it will rain next Tuesday, which, at as much as a 7 day gap, is just about at the absolute limit of how far we can predict “local” weather with any accuracy at all (its 5-6 days, more or less), with “detail level” models, we are trying to determine, with global climate models, something much less precise – how hot it will get, and what impact that will have **in general** to the overall patterns, and ocean temperatures, and thus to things like glacial melting, and stuff.

    Basically, we are plugging in numbers that are the equivalent of, “If I have a room that is 10×10, and X number of items are producing Y watts of heat, **in general** how much impact will having too small of an air conditioner have one how hot it gets in the room?”, and they are whining that, “But! That won’t tell you if the top 6 inch square of the SW corner, at 3 PM, on July 4th, during a heat wave, will be 90F, or 95F, or how much of it is the fault of the heat wave, instead of the substandard air conditioner!” IF the room is hotter than you wanted it, and even “part” of the problem is that the bloody air conditioner is not strong enough, who the frak cares what the top 6 inches of the SW corner is doing. Its only relevant in that the whole room is going to be hotter than you want, and maybe kill the pets in the room, or what ever it is you need to know this about it for.

    That is the whole bloody mess, in the nutshell. Its “close enough”, for what we are trying to work out, which is, “Are we f-ed?”, and, “Can we maybe slow it down, or, eventually, since we sat on our asses for decades while pretending it wouldn’t happen, eventually correct a bit of it.” The hyper-skeptics are whining that we can’t prove that its possible to save their goldfish, in the room, so QED we can’t be sure of anything, including, somehow, that we should have put in that insulation 20 years ago, or upgraded the air conditioner 10 years ago. Its like.. the suns fault, not “ours”, or something.

  95. says

    I’m not even a sock-puppet, just a Markoff chain generator, cutting up PZ’s old posts and gluing them back together to make something that only resembles rational refrigerator.

  96. mikeyb says

    My only problem with global warming, is not the issue itself or the fact that we need to deal with it, but the fact that it sucks the oxygen so to speak about discussing a whole host of other environmental disasters which are occurring which are never discussed which are partially but not entirely related to global warming. What is the long term effect of massive overfishing and dumping tons of waste in the oceans. What about excessive groundwater use. What about the general fact that we are massively destroying the habitat for most of the species on earth. What happens when a major pathogen or existing one breaks out due to large farms with dense animal populations which are perfect breeding grounds for these sorts of things, is the CDC going to always be able to contain this. And then there’s the old overpopulation problem which is ignored. What happens when the rest of the world right so, desires to and begins to consume resources and energy at the levels of the US or Europe. What happens to global warming as well as food production and a whole host of other problems then. Global warming may have had the unintended effect of making people fall asleep to a whole host of equal or arguably greater threats on the horizon.

  97. Dan says

    In a post regarding misogyny PZ includes a hyper link in the phrase “scientist has grope-worthy breasts”.
    Is this a trap? I still haven’t clicked.

  98. Anthony K says

    My only problem with global warming, is not the issue itself or the fact that we need to deal with it, but the fact that it sucks the oxygen so to speak about discussing a whole host of other environmental disasters which are occurring which are never discussed which are partially but not entirely related to global warming. What is the long term effect of massive overfishing and dumping tons of waste in the oceans. What about excessive groundwater use. What about the general fact that we are massively destroying the habitat for most of the species on earth. What happens when a major pathogen or existing one breaks out due to large farms with dense animal populations which are perfect breeding grounds for these sorts of things, is the CDC going to always be able to contain this. And then there’s the old overpopulation problem which is ignored. What happens when the rest of the world right so, desires to and begins to consume resources and energy at the levels of the US or Europe. What happens to global warming as well as food production and a whole host of other problems then. Global warming may have had the unintended effect of making people fall asleep to a whole host of equal or arguably greater threats on the horizon.

    Yes, what about all those other environmental problems we were totally gonna solve until global warming became the one issue the world took seriously?

    I mean, what the fuck?

    What happens when the rest of the world right so, desires to and begins to consume resources and energy at the levels of the US or Europe.

    It must be that you, in particular, fall asleep at the mention of climate change; that’s the only way I can see it possible for you to not know that this is in fact a component of many discussions on climate change. Likewise for issues of ecological destruction, infectious disease spread, and pretty much every issue you claim above is being ignored. Just what, exactly, do you think the ramifications of climate change consist of?

    Don’t put your narcolepsy on the rest of us.

  99. gussnarp says

    @Dan #112:

    It points to an article by a woman astronomer, which while I haven’t followed the link, likely describes her encounter with a celebrity Skeptic, which has been the subject of much argument.

  100. mikeyb says

    @115. Whatever. Of course. All I’m saying is the consequences of putting GHGs in the atmosphere from human activities (the focus of global warming) are not the only environmental effects which are due to human activities. Can’t you see that depleting fish stocks, habitat destruction, overpopulation, etc., etc., have their own effects independent of global warming? Read the last chapter of Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Global Warming is not the only environmental threat we are dealing with even its consequences enhance these other threats.

  101. Anthony K says

    Can’t you see that depleting fish stocks, habitat destruction, overpopulation, etc., etc., have their own effects independent of global warming?

    Is anyone claiming they don’t?

  102. Nick Gotts says

    And then there’s the old overpopulation problem which is ignored. – mikeyb

    You must keep your eyes firmly shut. Every fucking time any environmental problem is mentioned, the line that population is “ignored” or “a taboo subject” or some similar crap is trotted out – invariably by someone who turns out to know zilch about demography and how it relates to resource use and pollution. Every fucking time.

  103. Akira MacKenzie says

    Skeptic: “Did you hear that Angus Moonbeam, psychic to the stars, is going to try for the Million Dollar Challenge?”

    Me: “How many times are we going to do this? In all of the years of the challenge, none of these kooks have even gotten close to proving they have supernatural powers; powers that on their face would violate all established-as-undeniable-fact physical laws. Can’t we just finally write off psychics as 100% fake and be done with it? We could spend that $1 million to get D.J. Grothe’s male chauvinism removed.”

    Skeptic: “That’s not skepticism! That’s denialism! We can’t say with 100% certainty that are NO psychic powers. I mean, the dozens of others who have been tested may have failed, but maybe, someday…”

    Me: “Yeah, maybe someday the laws of physics, laws that have been established to govern everything in the cosmos, will suddenly stop at the behest of some New Age bubble-head from Sedona. God, this is stupid as it is pointless!”

    Skeptic: “Shhhhhhh… don’t mention religion! You’ll make Hal Bidlack cry!”

  104. tsig says

    “Alexandra (née Audley)

    18 June 2014 at 9:21 am (UTC -5)

    One thing that I always notice about Skeptics® is that they- without fail- never ask why. Why would PZ go through the trouble of faking a hand written fan letter? What payoff could possibly be so big that the effort is worth it”

    Payoffs? PZ don’t need no stinkin’ payoffs.

    He’s just ‘The Evil’. He pulls wings off flies and vivisects fishes how bad is that?

  105. Hj Hornbeck says

    Ah, Cavanaugh. I argued with him for a month (see the “Evidence-Free Feminism” and “Sex-Free Evolutionary Biology” links on his blog’s sidebar). He complained I never cited my sources; I pointed him to my citations; he claimed he didn’t see them due to technical errors, then whined I never provided him with any citations, then proclaimed that I had no citations. There’s a tonne more (I especially recommend the discussion about bees), but you get his basic MO.

    And this new post falls squarely into that. OK, cool, so you’ve spotted variation in how some letters are formed. Good job! Now is that variation outside of what a 15-year old can do? Because if you can’t demonstrate that, you can’t demonstrate that’s evidence of forgery. So they use some long words? Neat! Are these long words atypical for a 15-year old to use? So those words are also used by the blogger they’re writing to? Have you ruled out the possibility that they learned them from reading the blogger’s book?

    There’s no attempt to create a baseline or consider the null hypothesis, it’s pure anomoly hunting. Superficially it appears to look like the skeptical method in action, but when you dig deeper you realize it’s no different than the “skepticism” of a ghost-hunter who sees a spike in their EMF monitor, or a homeopath who hears their patient is doing better. This isn’t skepticism.

    This is a support group.

    Just look at the comments: other “skeptics” rush in to congratulate Cavanaugh on a job well done. They don’t notice the methodological flaws, because that’s not what “skepticism” means to them. “Skepticism” is cheering on as your peers take down easy targets with their bastardized scientific method, patting one another on the back and basking in a sense of superiority. “Skepticism” is deploying the same flawed methodology against a “big bad,” taking delight as their Satan is “revealed” to be inferior to themselves and congradulating one another on a job well done.

    This is why people like Cavanaugh are so desperate to critique their Satans: their “big bad” validates and defines them. This is why they’re immune to reason, because it’s not about critical analysis.

    Which means I partly disagree with you, Myers. To me, “skepticism” means “applying the scientific method to claims.” On that definition, you’re wrong; skepticism is no different than science, and is something to be promoted. I suspect you were actually referring to Skepticism, though, the bastard cousin I thumbnailed above. That, I agree, has no value and should not be endorsed or encouraged.

  106. says

    Skepticism is a tool. A tool can be used in an inappropriate or incorrect fashion. Just as you can not only use a hammer to pound nails buy to also bash someone’s head in.

  107. Granny Weatherwax says

    Coming back a long ways to letter-writing by young people, I did reference work in public libraries up until 7 years ago, and I ran into a lot of middle-grade kids who had been given the assignment of writing a letter to an author. Unsurprisingly, the ones who came to the desk usually didn’t like reading, and were scrambling to find something by a living writer that they could get through before the assignment was due. That aside, the point is that at least in a couple of school districts in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, the writing of letters is not a completely unknown process to children. Unless, of course, I am another PZ sockpuppet, making up support for his outlandish claims of traditional literacy among the youth of today.

  108. says

    Ugh. People are always doing that, claiming that skepticism is the application of the scientific method. OK, which scientific method? And has anybody noticed that scientists don’t sit around waiting for cranks to generate claims they can disprove, but are actually constantly generating new hypotheses?

  109. Anthony K says

    And has anybody noticed that scientists don’t sit around waiting for cranks to generate claims they can disprove, but are actually constantly generating new hypotheses?

    That seems too much like work for a vlogger looking to attract millions of subscribers.

  110. Jacob Schmidt says

    This is easily the best part of that post:

    The letter takes up precisely one side of one sheet of paper, leaving just enough room for a signature — a dash followed by a name that’s been whited-out. Sheer coincidence that 8 1/2″ x 11″ exactly sufficed to carry the entirety of Indiana Girl’s thoughts on THA. Or was it another conscience decision — the admiring young fan anticipating that her atheist champion might wish to scan her note and post it at Pharyngula? True, she seems unaware, not only of Myers’ blog and copious online material, but of the entire internet, but this has to be the explanation.

    We start off with some creationist level nonsense: “Oh, what a coincidence that a letter took up approximately 1 standard page!”

    We then move onto an alternative hypothesis, where she anticipates that PZ will want to post the letter, so she keeps it short, as if PZ would have trouble posting two (two! TWO!) or more pages.

  111. militantagnostic says

    Antony K

    But what about ocean acidification caused by C oh never mind.

  112. Holms says

    No one at all will be surprised to learn that some slymepit regulars appear in the comments, and readily accept this moronic claim as gospel.

  113. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Oops, forgot to note that the article itself was written by… a slymepitter.

    *snicker* That explains the air of imagufactured desperation about the claim. No worry about truth, honesty, or integrity. Total smear, which always soils them with a certain olfactory aura.

  114. says

    Wow. I looked at that Cavanaugh post (it’s on the hahahahaha “skepti-schism” network hahahahaha which consists entirely of full-time Tweeters and focuses exclusively on this one other blog network which shall remain nameless) – I looked at it, I say, and HOLY SHIT that’s a lot of obsession.

    We are all they ever think about. It’s truly amazing.

  115. says

    There’s no attempt to create a baseline or consider the null hypothesis, it’s pure anomoly hunting. Superficially it appears to look like the skeptical method in action, but when you dig deeper you realize it’s no different than the “skepticism” of a ghost-hunter who sees a spike in their EMF monitor, or a homeopath who hears their patient is doing better. This isn’t skepticism.

    This is what immediately stuck out at me about this sad attempt at being “sceptical”. During my tween and teenage years I was quite interested in science, but also UFOs, cryptology, ghosts and a host of other things. When I read about the “research” done by Uflologists, paranormal researchers etc. I thought it seemed like they were generating good evidence, but it was poor critical thinking and poor scepticism. When I saw the claims made by Cavanaugh I was amazed, this is the exact same way the paranormal scientists go about gathering evidence, which as a True Sceptic Cavanaugh likely derides, but they are willing to use those methods to defend their own ideas. What garbage, what terrible scepticism. These are arguments they would tear apart if made by someone they considered a crackpot, but they are completely unwilling to turn that critical eye on themselves. It is an amazing blindspot.

  116. Anthony K says

    Ophelia @131:

    I looked at it, I say, and HOLY SHIT that’s a lot of obsession.

    We are all they ever think about. It’s truly amazing.

    I could not help but think of all the times they’ve leveled that charge at you or Stephanie Svan for responding to something they’ve written about you.

    And yet this idiocy by Matt Cavanaugh, Boy Detective is something they’re applauding.

  117. says

    BTW Skepti-”Schism” was created when the sainted slayer of feminists at WISCFI2, otherwise known as The Vac, was kicked off SkepticInk. This created a stink as Loftus made it clear he didn’t want the network defined by an obsession with FTB, a rare bit of perspicacity from him. This obviously ENRAGED the slymetwits as an affront to their very BEING… Which of course it was, without FTB they wouldn’t exist. Without them FTB would be slightly less annoyed every now and then, and lacking in laughs, like in this post, from time to time…

  118. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Anthony – yup. Self-awareness isn’t one of their best skills.

    Nor is the concept that unless they back their words with outside evidence, their words will be dismissed. And all they have is words and attitude….

  119. A. Noyd says

    Ophelia Benson (#133)

    I see “Skep tickle” – an actual, practicing doctor, don’t forget – takes that stack of bullshit seriously.

    Just one more reason I’m glad I know her real name. I wouldn’t want to be referred to her. Now, if that ever happens, I’ll know to ask for someone who isn’t a credulous, misogynistic nitwit.

  120. says

    I’ve been saying for years that a fundamental flaw in our skeptic/atheist/secular communities is that we elevate to stardom those people who can “really stick it to those stupid idiot morons” who we disagree with. At the same time, there’s been a tendency to seek out and “destroy” people with the same old bad arguments by parroting the same old rebuttals, and the more brutal the takedown, the better. The end result is that these communities have become poisoned by people who are really good at being really horrible to people that they disagree with, whether or not they are any good at actually thinking rationally rather than parroting the popular takedowns of relatively unpopular ideas.

    Not to bash our host here, but Thunderf00t was invited to join FtB based on his OK series of creationist takedowns, but he got REALLY popular by attacking and insulting a mentally ill creationist teenager. Being cruel and snarky, rather than making good arguments, has been a mainstay of these overlapping communities for years… and wasn’t really noticed until those terrible and oh-so-popular people started turning their abusive behavior inward in response to fairly mild criticisms about sexism and racism and such.

  121. says

    I don’t agree that skepticism is merely “the application of the scientific method” (#121), nor do I agree with PZ Myers that the difference between skepticism and science is that science builds up while skepticism tears down.

    It’s kind of hard to define skepticism, but I’d say it’s about paying attention to people’s strange beliefs. Sometimes those beliefs need to be torn down (eg conspiracy theories, altmed, Creationism). Sometimes the scientific alternative to those beliefs needs to be built up (eg evolution, AGW, vaccines). Sometimes we’re doing neither tearing down nor building up, like when we talk about cognitive biases.

    Skepticism typically doesn’t generate brand new knowledge, because they don’t have the budget or expertise. Instead, they defer to the knowledge generated by science.

    Cavanaugh’s problem has nothing to do with tearing down vs building up. In fact, it appears that he is not tearing down, but rather generating a new hypothesis–that your letter writer is a sockpuppet. Cavanaugh’s problem is that he is incompetent, and twisted by confirmation bias from a supportive community.

  122. Sili says

    96.
    mnb0,

    Btw, PZ, those objections you put forward also apply to quite a few Jesusmythologists ….. they are “all about falsification and disproof and dismantling proposals. I think it is the wrong approach.”
    I smell a double standard here.

    Even ignoring for a moment the fact that you yourself admit that “not all mythicists” do that, where has PZed endorsed mythicism? Every recent mention of Jesus that I recall from this blog has operated within the mainstream historicist framework.

  123. Hj Hornbeck says

    Myers @124:

    People are always doing that, claiming that skepticism is the application of the scientific method. OK, which scientific method?

    I walked into a Philosophy of Science course thinking “how will these methods compare to iterated Bayesian Inference?”, and walked out thinking “they’re all poor attempts at approximating it.” To be fair, there’s no real alternative; you’ve gotta take shortcuts if you want to implement an algorithm that requires infinite computation on a finite meat machine, and there is no shortcut to finding the ideal shortcuts.

    So there’s only one scientific method, we just don’t agree on how to implement it.

    And has anybody noticed that scientists don’t sit around waiting for cranks to generate claims they can disprove, but are actually constantly generating new hypotheses?

    The reverse is true, too. I can point to a number of social scientists that critically test EvoPsych claims, with the goal of disproving them, and both Gamov and Hoyle were trying to disprove each other’s pet cosmological theories. I can also point to skeptics that propose new theories; there was a “new” 9/11 Truther video that claimed to show an aircraft’s wing passed behind a building while the fuselage passed in front. Steve Novella hypothesized it was video compression; someone from the “Skeptics with a K” podcast instead proposed the building was in the foreground, plus the tone of said building camouflaged the fuselage, plus the clip was artificially slowdown down. That’s a novel, non-trivial hypothesis.

    I’m happy to concede skeptics are more focused on falsification. The difference is entirely quantitative, though, and certainly not methodological.

  124. Nick Gotts says

    I walked into a Philosophy of Science course thinking “how will these methods compare to iterated Bayesian Inference?”, and walked out thinking “they’re all poor attempts at approximating it.” – Hj Hornbeck@142

    Before you can apply Bayesian inference, you need a hypothesis to apply it to. Is there nothing interesting to say about how hypotheses are generated? Moreover, much of science doesn’t fit neatly into the hypothesise-and-test framework (sure, it can be crammed into that framework if you insist, but you miss much of what’s important), but on activities such as demonstrating possibilities, devising classificatory schemas, inventing new mathematics or ways of applying existing mathematics, designing and improving instruments…

  125. Nick Gotts says

    Oh, and simply describing what has been observed correctly, clearly, and in illuminating ways.

  126. Ichthyic says

    And yet this idiocy by Matt Cavanaugh, Boy Detective is something they’re applauding.

    go Team Venture?

  127. Ichthyic says

    No one at all will be surprised to learn that some slymepit regulars appear in the comments, and readily accept this moronic claim as gospel.

    authoritarianism crosses all political and ideological boundaries.

    this is nothing more than ingroup behavior.

  128. barbaz says

    Nick Gotts

    Before you can apply Bayesian inference, you need a hypothesis to apply it to. Is there nothing interesting to say about how hypotheses are generated? Moreover, much of science doesn’t fit neatly into the hypothesise-and-test framework (sure, it can be crammed into that framework if you insist, but you miss much of what’s important), but on activities such as demonstrating possibilities, devising classificatory schemas, inventing new mathematics or ways of applying existing mathematics, designing and improving instruments

    You forgot “applying for grants” in your list.

    I think there is a distinction between The Scientific Method(tm) and Things a Scientist Does. The Method says that in every field (except math), the only way to generate knowledge is through hypothesis-and-test. The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter at all where you got the hypothesis from.
    Alas, with the complexity in modern science, good hypothesis rarely appear in one’s sleep, and thus we need all this demonstrating possibilities, devising classifications, and observing and describing things to find a hypothesis that is worth to throw The Method at.
    At the same time, performing the tests might require new equipment so that some engineering(!) work has to be done before the science, and the engineering might then raise new scientific questions that have to be solved first.

    So, Applying The Scientific Method(tm) ⊂ Scientific Work ⊂ Things a Scientist Does in Her Job

    I guess that’s how a skeptic would put it.

  129. Nick Gotts says

    The Method says that in every field (except math), the only way to generate knowledge is through hypothesis-and-test. – barbaz

    No, “The Method” doesn’t say anything at all. Some people have arbitrarily defined “the Method” in this way, excluding most of what real science consists of. Look at the papers in Nature describing a newly discovered fossil. Look at those describing a new method of creating stem cells. Look at those explaining a new climate model.

    The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter at all where you got the hypothesis from.

    If you really think that any hypothesis you pull out of your arse is worth investigating, you understand zilch about how science is actually done.

  130. says

    The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter at all where you got the hypothesis from.

    Huh, what? It certainly does. My first two years of grad school were entirely about doing scholarly research and preliminary experiments to justify my Ph.D. proposal…and to actually come up with an interesting proposal with a good probability of success. Write a grant; they don’t want some hypothesis you pulled out of your ass; they want something thoroughly documented to be relevant and significant, and that will generate useful information no matter which way the results go. Random hypotheses do not fly in science, ever.

  131. says

    You all missed another fact: not only is the author a slymepitter, he’s on a network founded by a slymepitter to provide an outlet for other slymepitters to make little-read blogs in competition with the hated FtB. It’s slyme all the way through.

  132. Hj Hornbeck says

    Nick Goths @143:

    Before you can apply Bayesian inference, you need a hypothesis to apply it to. Is there nothing interesting to say about how hypotheses are generated?

    There’s a lot! While I love trash-talking Kuhn, there was great value in pointing out the correlation between scientific consensus and social networks. Trying to search an infinite space in finite time is a hard problem, forcing us to come up with all sorts of interesting tricks. Myers’ comment at 151 is overflowing with examples.

    Moreover, much of science doesn’t fit neatly into the hypothesise-and-test framework (sure, it can be crammed into that framework if you insist, but you miss much of what’s important)

    I suspect we’re talking past one another. I’m coming at this from the big-picture, theoretical angle, where there is no competition for iterated Bayesian Inference (nor do I suspect there ever will be). You’re approaching from the ground-level, practical side, where nobody seems to agree on what the scientific method is. Sound about right?

  133. David Marjanović says

    Sound about right?

    To me, yes.

    Except… I’m not qualified to go into a Bayesian vs. frequentist debate, and I’m not happy about Bayesian priors; in phylogenetic analyses done by Bayesian inference, priors do funny things to the results.

  134. barbaz says

    @Nick

    Some people have arbitrarily defined “the Method” in this way

    That’s why I put a “(tm)” after the method ;-) As I said, there is more to being a scientist. I don’t think though that Skeptics choose that definition arbitrarily, it was probably more for PR reasons.
    However … describing a fossil in any detail will not give any knowledge that goes beyond that fossil, it is “only” an intermediate step that allows scientists to test existing hypothesis or to come up with new ones.

    If you really think that any hypothesis you pull out of your arse is worth investigating

    I wrote in my post that I do not believe that. However, if you take an ass-pulled hypotheses and investigate it anyway and it passes every test and peer-review (as unlikely as that may be), I think that eventually it doesn’t matter where you got it from.

    So, the take-away message is, depending on the field there are lots of different ways to come up with hypothesis, but at the end of the day there is only one way to find out if a hypothesis is true: you try to falsify it as much as you can. The reason why think that from all of science, this deserves to be The Method(tm), is that it is the part of science that is conceptually most different from what people do in their daily life.

  135. barbaz says

    @PZ:

    Huh, what? It certainly does. … Write a grant; they don’t want some hypothesis you pulled out of your ass

    That’s because nobody wants to fund research that is unlikely to come up with positive findings, and you didn’t want to take 30 years for your PhD. That doesn’t mean that the end result wouldn’t have been valid science. Also, saying that it eventually doesn’t matter where a hypotheses came from doesn’t imply that ass-pulling is a valid approach.

    Random hypotheses do not fly in science, ever.

    Counterexample: Let n be a large random integer. Hypotheses: 2^n-1 is prime. It can probably be falsified in milliseconds. If it doesn’t hold, chose n := n+1. There are scientists who do this.

    Ok, that example is a bit shaky. But even if a hypotheses isn’t entirely random, it may contain a certain hunch that may or may not work out. It don’t think it’s generally wrong to follow hunches in science (to a reasonable degree).

    You all missed another fact: not only is the author a slymepitter…

    I, at least, didn’t miss that. I think that dissection of your letter was so ridiculously stupid that it doesn’t deserve any discussion beyond the stupid jokes that were already made.

  136. Stacy says

    Sillies. You’ve all missed what’s really happening here.

    PZ didn’t invent “Indiana girl.” PZ invented Cavanaugh. In the interests of Science.

    It’s obvious, people. PZ wanted to plumb the depths of Slymepit credulity. He invented a character and gave him a hypothesis nobody with the reasoning ability nature gave pond scum would credit, to see who’d bite.

    It’s fiendishly clever, but I doubt it would pass UM Morris’ HSRB.

  137. says

    I am deeply offended that you would consider one of my creations to be as crude, stupid, & one-dimensional as Cavanaugh.

  138. TheBlackCat says

    I think believing professional denialists about anything, including what word they use to describe themselves, is unwise. Many creationists call themselves scientists. Just calling yourself something doesn’t make it true.

  139. skaduskitai says

    @37 Thank you Alex.

    This is what always bothers me about climate change “scepticism”. Sure the overall equation is indeed too complicated for even our best supercomputers to figure out as the weather is a nonlinear chaotic system. But that CO2 is a potent greenhouse gas and that the rise of it in the atmosphere is largely due to human activity – These two propositions are not up for debate, it’s well-established fact. The reasonable thing is to place greater confidence and weight in these well-established facts than arguing from ignorance about all the unknown or poorly understood factors in the equation.

    But also the second line of the argument of the climate change deniers always bothers me aswell. Yes climate changes have happened many times in the past, even in historic times. But are we then just to skip over that pesky little detail that it often was accompanied by extinction of species or societal collaps? The thing about climate change is not about maintaining status quo because it’s “natural”. It’s because the entire global economy for us humans depends on it. We have a vested economic interest in the climate not changing too much too fast. Luckily so far it hasn’t.

  140. says

    Thank you for putting the problems with Skeptics so clearly. I was attracted to the movement for a while, because I’m worried about religion obscuring science. The sexism, conspiracies & infighting put me off.

Leave a Reply