Embrace Your Inner Skeptic 1: Amazing News!


I gave a talk yesterday for the Secular Student Alliance Group at St. Charles Community College in Missouri. The group was wonderful to me, and the turnout was very impressive. With about 80 people in the audience, it is probably the largest live lecture I have done so far. There was an experienced audio/video guy on hand, and I am confident that I will be able to make a high quality video available fairly soon. In the meantime, I’m going to be transcribing the seven sections of my talk, aiming for one post a day for the next week. The title of the talk was “Embrace Your Inner Skeptic!”

The Secular Student Alliance of St. Charles Community College


 

Welcome, everyone! My name is Russell Glasser. I’ve been invited to talk about skepticism by the local chapter of the Secular Student Alliance here at St. Charles Community College.

Contrary to what you may have heard, I’m not actually a professional atheist. I’m a software engineer from Austin, Texas. I do have a local TV show called The Atheist Experience. Has anyone seen it? We’re a local public access TV show dedicated to promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state. We’ve been broadcasting to the local Austin audience for many years, but they are a much smaller portion of our audience now. These days most of our audience comes from live streaming on the internet, so we reach viewers all over the world — we get visitors to the studio from other states several times a month, and I believe we’ve been called and visited from just about every continent at some point.

Our show won the Austin Chronicle award for Best Public Access TV Show for three years running. I’m really proud of that, but then again, that market does not exactly have what you’d call stiff competition. Like for example, on channel Austin we used to share air time with a guy who calls himself Reverend Ricky.

Reverend Ricky

…with the toilet seat around his neck. There’s also this guy here, who calls himself Phartman for some reason.

Phartman

And… also this… whatever this is.

Poison Dogma

So we try to not let that award go to our heads, but we do appreciate the recognition.

Before I go on, here’s an outline of what I’ll be saying today.

  1. Amazing news!
  2. Nobody loves a critic
  3. Why skepticism is healthy
  4. What about religion?
  5. Evaluating information in the internet age
  6. Is Skepticism Right For YOU?
  7. Some advice on community building
  8. Q&A

I’m planning to talk to you for about 45 minutes to an hour, then we’ll have plenty of time for questions afterwards.


 

Amazing News!

I’m actually really excited to be here with you today, because I have some absolutely amazing news to share. I recently saw some new information that is so incredible that I’m certain that it’s going to change my life for the better, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

You see, I received this email recently. Here’s what it says:

REQUEST FOR URGENT BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP

DEAR MR. GLASSER,

FIRST, I MUST SOLICIT YOUR STRICTEST CONFIDENCE IN THIS TRANSACTION. THIS IS BY VIRTUE OF ITS NATURE AS BEING UTTERLY CONFIDENTIAL AND ‘TOP SECRET’.

You hear that? I’m so important that total strangers contact me about TOP SECRET business transactions!

WE ARE TOP OFFICIAL OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CONTRACT REVIEW PANEL WHO ARE INTERESTED IN IMPORATION [sic] OF GOODS INTO OUR COUNTRY WITH FUNDS WHICH ARE PRESENTLY TRAPPED IN NIGERIA.

I HAVE BEEN DELEGATED AS A MATTER OF TRUST BY MY COLLEAGUES OF THE PANEL TO LOOK FOR AN OVERSEAS PARTNER INTO WHOSE ACCOUNT WE WOULD TRANSFER THE SUM OF US$21,320,000.00. HENCE WE ARE WRITING YOU THIS LETTER.

Yeah so anyway, blah blah blah, it goes on for a while laying out the terms of the deal, but the short version is that I am probably going to get 70% of this money, and I’m going to retire to an island somewhere, while all of you are stuck going to college and getting educated to earn a living. Isn’t that great?!?!?

Okay, okay, some of you might be thinking that this isn’t actually true. As a matter of fact, the letter I just showed you is an example of a 419 scam, otherwise known as Advance Fee Fraud. In the early to mid 2000’s, I was receiving a lot of emails like this one on a regular basis. If it wasn’t a business opportunity, it was a lottery I didn’t remember I had entered, or it turned out I was the long lost relative of a foreign prince who was in political trouble. Either way, the messages all promised that I would soon find myself with a huge amount of wealth… as long as I could pay a small “advance fee,” maybe a few thousand dollars, but who could pass up the opportunity to make millions?

They’re called 419 scams because they were especially common in Nigeria, so much so that they had their own criminal code, where 419 indicated theft under false pretenses.

Now at this point you’re probably asking yourselves… what kind of idiot would fall for this? Well, the surprising answer is that a lot of people fell for it. In 2007, ABC News ran a report on Nigerian scams and came to the conclusion that  Americans were losing $100 million a year to this neat trick. In some cases, the victims actually kept exchanging emails with the scammers, going round after round trying to recover their money, and some even wound up flying to foreign countries. Some cases ended in tragedy. For instance, in 2004, a 29 year old Greek millionaire named George Makronalli was lured into the South African city of Durban, where he was murdered.


Continued

Comments

  1. xxxxxx says

    I am amazed how much money Americans will credulously throw-away on their selfish pipe-dream “possibilities” that they merely imagine , meanwhile resisting with every fiber of their being to spend a comparable sum of money for something as eminently practical as universal healthcare. This kind of thing goes a lot deeper than merely developing a skeptical mind. Rather, it seems to speak to people who deny, or have an utter inability, to accept the parameters that reality presents to them on a daily basis. It would be interesting to find out just what percentage of that $100 million that went to Nigeria came from highly religious people.

  2. Russell Glasser says

    I think you shouldn’t rush to make this an “Americans are stupid” story. The ABC news report ONLY estimated how much Americans lost, but that doesn’t mean that Americans are the only victims. Note the nationality of the murdered millionaire. Also, as I’m going to be discussing later in my talk, it’s really easy to be smug and satisfied about how immune you are to scams, but as soon as you start thinking you are too smart to be fooled, that’s exactly when you’re easiest to fool.

  3. says

    xxxxxx @1:

    I am amazed how much money Americans will credulously throw-away on their selfish pipe-dream “possibilities” that they merely imagine , meanwhile resisting with every fiber of their being to spend a comparable sum of money for something as eminently practical as universal healthcare. This kind of thing goes a lot deeper than merely developing a skeptical mind. Rather, it seems to speak to people who deny, or have an utter inability, to accept the parameters that reality presents to them on a daily basis. It would be interesting to find out just what percentage of that $100 million that went to Nigeria came from highly religious people.

    Don’t be so quick to assume this is a problem only Americans face. Or do you think gullibility is solely a western trait?

  4. xxxxxx says

    Sorry to any American I may have offended. I certainly did not indend to imply this to be an American-only problem. I was reacting out of shock to learning just how successful these scams have been, at least, in America — and in my shock, foolishly lashed out at the nation mentioned in the cited study, unaware that my response was coming off as anti-American.

    I fully agree that this scam likely victimizes the entire email-enabled world, and if one studied the scams globallly and properly controlled for the differences in local economic factors. I would not be surprised at all if this scam victimized people of all nationalities fairly equally.

    My only point was, that in this particular case — where this scam story is just so utterly absurd in every way — it seems to me very likely that something else may be going on other than a lack of critical thinking/skepticism in the victims…..but given that you/Russell have/has foreshadowed things to come, I will await the proper time to raise this discussion point.

    Sorry again for being sounding like a anti-American exPat dick. While I may often fit that stereotype (when discussing politics with certain conservative and Libertarian Americans who don’t know their asses from holes in the wall) this most certainly was not intended to be one of those times.

  5. Narf says

    I don’t think you’re going to actually offend many Americans by saying that sort of stuff, man. We know how fucked up this place is.

    I think the big thing that differentiates America from most western countries is that the fundamentalists have taken over one of the two major parties in our essentially two-party political system. For a country supposedly founded on the independent, creative, pioneering spirit, we have a hell of a lot of authoritarian sheep.

  6. Russell Glasser says

    Although it is difficult, I try to be sympathetic to victims of scams and blame the scammers, not the marks. Yes, it’s easy and fun to feel superior to fools who have lost a bunch of money, and tell themselves “They deserved it.” The truth, however, is that scams are successful — and in the case of 419 emails, VERY successful — because they are efficiently crafted to take advantage of people who are vulnerable. Often the victims have been old people who were new to email. In many cases the scammers are just very, very persistent.

    I had an email exchange with a Nigerian who was supposedly trying to raise money to build a church. I sneered at him in a message, telling him in no uncertain terms that I believed him to be a con man and wanted nothing to do with him, and he would be stupid to even ask such a thing of an atheist. He responded with a long cover story about his good intentions, and even argued with me about my atheism. He also continued to try to reach me, for YEARS, with pictures of the partially constructed church. It was enough to make even me second guess whether I might be accusing an innocent person of a crime, even though on balance I still think he was probably a scammer, because why the hell else would he cold contact a stranger about such a project?

    But my point is that scammers are criminals and thieves who are stealing money. It’s good to educate people about skepticism — and I hope to do a little of that through this talk — but mocking and blaming the ones who lose money does no good. What’s necessary is shutting down the criminals. I’ve lost good money myself believing in the promises of, for instance, a car dealer who I didn’t know was on the verge of bankruptcy. Until you’ve been on the receiving end of a persistent campaign to rip you off, I don’t think you should be so quick to judge the victims of the crime.

  7. corwyn says

    but mocking […] the ones who lose money does no good.

    While it isn’t nice, I suspect that it actually DOES do some good. Avoiding embarrassment is a prime motivating factor in human behavior. The life lessons I have learned that come complete with mockage from my peers are ones that are still clear in my mind many years later.

  8. Russell Glasser says

    Yeah, except that the people who lost the money… have already lost the money. That punishment is already much worse than any additional insult you can heap onto their injury. If you’re looking for a deterrent, then pointing out “Hey, if you do this then you will lose a lot of money, here’s how you can avoid it” is probably enough.

    I know people who have fallen for scams even when I warned them not to. It’s frustrating. But in general, ridiculing them before they get ripped off only makes them more determined to prove you wrong, while ridiculing them after is just rubbing salt in their wounds. It makes you kind of a shitty friend.

Trackbacks