Saturday, November 29, 2008

What is Skepticism?

Our world is awash with people making claims:
"My new homeopathic treatment will cure the flu!" "Dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago." "The world is flat." "God spoke the world into existence 6000 years ago." "The world is round." "I was visited by aliens last night." "Global Warming is a hoax." "Marduk created the earth from the corpse of Tiamat."
Not every claim can be true. But how does one know the difference? You might say common sense. This is true to an extent, but there are a lot of people whose "common sense" tell them a lot of unbelievable things.

To help determine the validity of a claim, you need to employ a process. In the sciences, that process is called the scientific method. Simplified, it goes like this: First, you form a hypothesis ("The world is round."). Then you make observations about your hypothesis (fly a plane around the world, send up a network of satellites). Your observations will either invalidate your hypothesis (your plane smashes into a wall at the edge of the earth), or they won't. If your hypothesis is invalidated, you modify it to fit the new data and repeat until you have a reasonably good model, or "theory," of the way things actually are.

In the strictest sense, no set of observations will ever "prove" a scientific hypothesis. But when there is a huge preponderance of evidence, we can basically accept the hypothesis as true. Very few people today (make no mistake, there are some!) believe that the world is flat because of a preponderance of evidence demonstrating that it is round.

Skepticism takes this same approach and applies it to everything. So, what is skepticism, exactly?

The word "skepticism" has a bit of a bad reputation. You often hear the word "skeptic" in the same sentence as "cynic." All skepticism means is that when people make claims, those claims should be open to testing and should be judged on the quality of the evidence. If the claim being made flies in the face of what we already know, then the burden of proof is on the one making the claim to demonstrate the truth of their claim.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence
When you hear a claim, what do you feel is the likelihood of this claim being true, based on what we already know? If someone claims "I lost my keys," you probably won't require a great deal of evidence. People lose their keys all the time. It's not an extraordinary claim.

If, instead, they claim "I can walk through walls," most people will be a lot more skeptical. No one has ever been known to walk through walls before. Furthermore, if someone were able to do so, it would literally require physicist to rewrite their model of the universe from the ground up. It is quite an extraordinary claim. For the most part, claims like this can be dismissed out of hand. That said, a true skeptic will gladly accept such claims as true if the claimant can demonstrate their ability in truly a controlled environment (i.e., not susceptible to trickery or other methods of deception). For instance, the James Randi Educational Foundation, one of the foremost skeptic organizations, has a standing $1,000,000 prize for anyone able to demonstrate a paranormal ability in a controlled environment. To date, no one has claimed the prize.

Many skeptics consider religion off the table, arguing that people's deeply-held beliefs should not be subjected to scrutiny, and that the claims made by religion are not falsifiable (that is there is no way to test their validity) and are therefore outside the realm of science or skepticism. Other skeptics gladly tackle religious topics, arguing that just because a given claim was written down thousands of years ago, it shouldn't be exempt from skeptical scrutiny. I personally tend to side with the latter group. No claim, particularly any claim upon which people chose to base their entire lives, should be exempt from examination.

If you'd like to know more about skepticism, I'd like to share a few excellent resources:
  • Skeptics' Guide to the Universe - If you only have time for one skeptical resource in your life, make it The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. This weekly podcast covers the whole gamut of skeptical topics, from alternative medicine to the evolution/creationism debate... And it's seriously entertaining, too.
  • The Demon-Haunted World - Carl Sagan's book is a superb primer to the world of skepticism and rationality in a world plagued with claims of the supernatural and paranormal. It's a quick read, very accessible and tremendously enlightening.
  • Skeptic Magazine - Run by Michael Shermer, who along with James Randi is one of the best known faces of skepticism in the public eye, Skeptic Magazine is a great addition to any Skeptical Tool Kit.
  • Skepchick - Run by Rebecca Watson, one of the host of the Skeptics' Guide, the Skepchick blog features a plethora of skeptical women (and one dude) who don't hold back any punches. Add Skepchick to your RSS reader! Now!
There are hundreds of other skeptical blogs, podcasts and other media available. But that should get you started. Have fun!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Salt Lake City Skeptics in the Pub - December 17

Join like-minded skeptics, rationalists and free-thinkers for a night of beer, fun, and live, hot skepticism.

Join like-minded rationalist and secular friends for the first Salt City Skeptics event, just in time for the holidays. Come have a beer and get to know some fellow free-thinkers!

(A donation of a few bucks to help with the planning of future events is appreciated, but not required.)

Be sure to RVSP on either Meetup or Facebook:

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Steven Pinker, Frans de Waal and more!

Though not specifically about skepticism, those of you interested in the sciences have a great opportunity to hear some leading voices in science right here in Salt Lake.

Steven Pinker, one of the world's foremost cognitive scientist, author of numerous books will be the keynote speaker at the third annual Tanner Center for Nonviolent Human Rights Advocacy Forum (or as I like to call it, the TCNVHRA).

Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of several books (including one of my favorites, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape) will also be presenting.

This three-day conference (entitled "The Evolution of Human Aggression") will be taking place at the University of Utah from February 25 to 27, 2009.

All lectures are free and open to the public, so feel to attend any that sound intersting. Other speakers include Sarah Hrdy, Margo Wilson, Martin Daly and Peter Turchin. (What's that? I'm giving undue weight to the anthropologists? Well tough. ;) )

Also, look forward to a Salt City Skeptics event during this same time. Details to follow.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Is Newsweek the Antichrist?

Newsweek has just published an article entitled "Is Obama the Antichrist?" The lack of integrity and skepticism in this article is alarming.

The author, Lisa Miller (I totally just had a News Radio flashback) profiles three or four people, whose opinions on the eponymous query run the wide gamut from "I can see why people think Obama is the whore of Babylon" to "Fasten your seatbelts! The End is nigh!"

This article is certainly not the first on the topic. And indeed, it's a legitimate topic worthy of journalistic investigation. There are plenty of interesting and insightful questions to ask about this phenomenon: How have religious fundamentalists fomented an atmosphere of fear and distrust, leading them to make such wild accusations? What does this say about the care with which the Obama administration must navigate in the coming years? Isn't is funny that the winning lottery numbers in Illinois were 666?

Unfortunately, none of these are addressed in Miller's article. I don't know what Ms. Miller's opinion on the matter is, but the tone of the article (seriously, go read it) borders on credulous. The implication is that that those who believe Obama to be the Antichrist are basing their conclusion on a rational analysis of the evidence. Not a single dissenting voice is anywhere to be found. Not one. There are no voices here to counter claims like "the spread of secular progressive ideas is a prelude to the enslavement of mankind."

The closest it comes to even acknowledging that some people might think this a controversial stance, to say the least, is the following sentence:
The people who believe Obama is the Antichrist are perhaps jumping to conclusions, but they're not nuts.
And it just goes downhill from there. Nice job, Newsweek.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Salt City Skeptics

Greetings, and welcome to the Salt City Skeptics blog.

I'll be posting the details for upcoming Skeptics in the Pub events here, so subscribe to the RSS feed to be notified when new posts go up here!

First off, let's make this a communal blog! If you have something you'd like to say related to skepticism, science, humanism, freethought, or anything else that comes to mind, let me know and I'll grant you contribution privileges.

Also, if you'd like your blog to be featured on the Blogroll list, let me know. I'll be cross-posting here from my own blog any posts related to skepticism.

Please feel free to join in the discussion! Add your comments, and be sure to join the growing Salt City Skeptics group on Facebook!