Saturday, October 10, 2009

Guest Speaker: Steve Cuno, "Rebranding Skepticism at the Grassroots Level"

Join Salt City Skeptics for a special guest speaker event with Steve Cuno, two-time speaker at The Amazing Meeting, presenting "Rebranding Skepticism at the Grassroots Level" (based on his talk from this year's TAM) on October 27th at 7:00.

Steve Cuno is chairman and founder of the RESPONSE Agency, a direct response advertising firm in Salt Lake City. His articles have been published internationally, and he is the author of the book Prove It Before You Promote It: How to Take the Guesswork Out of Marketing. In his spare time, Steve enjoys reading, writing, cycling, forcing people to look at photos of his grandson, and spending quality time with his grand piano.

We'll be at Mestizo Coffeehouse at 631 W. North Temple (if you've not been there, it's a GREAT venue, though a little difficult to find at first).

I'm looking forward to seeing everyone there!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

City Weekly alien abduction story

A month or so back, I was interviewed by Salt Lake City Weekly, the local alternative weekly. I was asked help provide a skeptical perspective on alien abduction.

Looks like the story was just published online (my quotes are all on page 2), and the dead tree version comes out next week.

This is my first experience at being a Token Skeptic, but hopefully not my last (token skepticism is at least better than NO skepticism, right?), so I thought I'd share my thoughts.

When interviewed I didn't have any information on the specific cases being discussed, so I tried to speak in generalities. I will say that I appreciate the author including every main point I tried to make, and including a second skeptical voice as well (Joel Layton, who made some similar points).

Is the story written from a rather credulous perspective, taking the statements of "abductees" at face value? Yeah, but I'm having trouble faulting the author for that. That's just kind of how stories like this go. I think I did a decent job of giving a reasonable counter-balance, though it would have been nice to tailor my thoughts more to the specifics of the stories mentioned.

And so... that's what I'll do here! I'll try not to recap the stories themselves too much here, so keep the article handy if you want to follow along. In each case, I'm more or less assuming that the people interviewed are being honest about their memories, and not deliberately lying (there's no reason to think they were lying).

The article starts with a few "abduction" accounts. First up is Don Anderson's story, where aliens come to take for his four-year-old son and he convinces them to bring him along.

To me, Anderson's story reads just like the recounting of a dream: many things happen that aren't particularly causally linked to each other, lots of odd details that stick out with unusual focus in the story, the "tall blond woman" who seems strangely familiar (I know when *I* dream, people I know are often composited into other people who I don't quite know... alternative explanation: it was Six). It even ends with him springing out of bed.

I once dreamed that I was eaten whole by a fifty-foot tall genie on a Godzilla-like rampage through downtown Salt Lake City, only to discover that it was a robot on the inside. I challenged the robot's controller to a game of Uno and, upon winning, defeated him with a withering one-liner.

No one would report such a dream as an actual experience, yet if they dreamed the same experiences as Anderson, I could easily see them interpreting it as an actual experience, as our society is primed to accept stories of alien abduction more readily than those of giant robot genies.

There is nothing in this story to make me think it was anything other than a vivid dream.

Ron Johnson's story (not to be confused with Jon Ronson) is the same. It sounds like it was a nightmare, period. He had a nightmare about a scary-looking creature staring at him when he was fourteen. Two hundred years ago, he'd have dreamed it was a demon or a succubus; but in our culture, aliens are a more plausible beastie, so he he dreamed about an alien. Moving on...

Glenys Moore also recounts a story that sounds much more plausible as a dream. I hate to sound like a broken record here, but to me, these all just sound like dreams. Moore's may have been a sleep paralysis dream. As I mention in the article, sleep paralysis is a well-understood neurological phenomenon that, when coupled with a nightmare, can lead to some horrific experiences of captivity at the hands of whatever is in the nightmare, be it an alien, a succubus, or Freddy Krueger. Terrifying, but still just a dream.

None of these people are crazy nutjobs, but neither are the stories compelling... But wait, there's more!

Enter, Marlee Spendlove. Spendlove is a hypnotherapist and (though the article fails to mention this fact) Assistant Director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) of Utah.

Now, if those two details together don't raise your skeptical alarm bells, perhaps you should have them readjusted.

According to Spendlove, aliens futz about with the memories of abductees to erase or mask what really happened. And Spendlove uses hypnotherapy to help her patients, including Anderson and Johnson, recover their memories of alien abduction.

Uh oh...

In the 1980s, there was a nationwide pandemic of people who, as adults, used hypnotherapy to "recover" "memories" of their parents sexually abusing them children in Satanic rituals. The only issue? It didn't happen. There was no such pandemic of Satanic abuse, and the recovered memories were actually false memories created by the therapist and the patient, sometime cause huge amounts of personal trauma, family estrangement, and prosecution over events that never took place. Furthermore, it minimized or distorted the trauma of people who really have been sexually abused by their relatives.

I should mention that I don't think such false memories are deliberately put in place through such therapy. I've no doubt that these therapists, including Spendlove, are providing these "therapies" honestly. It's just that they don't provide reliable memories, particularly when the therapist is predisposed to lead their patients to a particular conclusion, like Satanic sexual abuse or alien abduction.

Indeed, Spendlove is approaching her therapy with the assumption that her subjects have had an abduction experience, and from how I read it, helps direct her therapy to make her subjects come to that conclusion:
Spendlove says that extraterrestrials are able to block portions of memories, so that the human who interacts with them carries screened memories where the actual alien encounter is replaced with elements that are more typical of everyday human life. After his initial experience, Anderson says that memories of other experiences made more sense to him. “When I was a kid, the 9-foot man in the back yard was one of those beings coming to get me. On other times, they would send these little 3-foot black troll-looking guys to get me, and I called them my gorillas. Thinking back, it made sense, because I had a little black stuffed animal that was a gorilla.”
Umm... Or you, in a suggestible state, constructed a memory wherein two unrelated memories you already had (a scary nightmare and the gorilla stuffed animal) were combined into a narrative story that's much more interesting. Continuing...
Anderson hoped his young son would corroborate it. “I thought, ‘My son has got to prove to me that this really happened.’” When he arrived home from work the day after his first alien encounter, he met his son, who told Anderson he’d had a dream about being attacked by wild bears that were in the house. Anderson had recently read that “in screened memories, aliens mask themselves as animals, because people are comfortable with that.”
Really? A dream about bears = "I was abducted by aliens!" What would the interpretation have been if his son had dreamed of a trip to Willy Wonka's factory, or of a slimy reptilian monster under the bed, or us a giant robot genie, or if he could remember no dreams atr all? I'd bet money that any of these would be interpreted as evidence that the abduction story were true.

Anderson's original story was that they brought him along to make his son feel less afraid. Why was that necessary if they seem to have such mind-control powers? And why, then, did the aliens choose to disguise themselves as BLOODTHIRSTY FREAKING BEARS
Anderson’s son said, “It was really, really weird because it felt so real. And I reached down to scratch my leg, and it’s all bloody.” Anderson says he wiped some of his son’s blood away and “there was a little crescent mark on his leg, which is what extraterrestrials do to take DNA samples.”
So, let me get this straight: An alien species that has evolved to be so human-like in appearance and physiology that we can have sex with them (more on that later) develops faster-than-light space travel and journeys to our planet, but they don't know how to take a DNA sample without leaving a gaping, bloody gash on a young boy's leg? And this is supposed to be a plausible explanation? Ever heard of a cotton swab on the inner cheek? Or a syringe?

None of the stories recounted have any kind of physical evidence to support them. It's all based on people recounting their experiences years or decades after they actually happened. Ron Johnson claims to have actually obtained physical evidence at one point, though of course, it was never retained for analysis. Back to Ron Johnson...
In 2008, for the first time, Johnson was willing to discuss finding tangible physical evidence of alien encounters following several instances of sexual relations with extraterrestrials that occurred over many years. He describes lying on a table having intimate encounters with scrawny-looking, near-anorexic aliens with large eyes. For him, it felt like having sex with a mannequin. “They had no life to them.”

He says he always awoke with a green residue—the color of lime sherbet and texture of Karo syrup—in his underwear. He says he encountered a young man from England at a UFO conference in Laughlin, Nev., who had similar experiences. Recalling his many encounters, Johnson wishes that “whatever the aliens want to do with me, I wish they would let me know what it is.”
Great! So, he always awoke with a mysterious green substance in his underwear, and even found others that had the same experience! We should have some of this mysterious green goop, right?

No? We are supposed to accept that these who independently evolved to be almost human traveled across space to have sex with humans, and even left behind some sort of intergalactic lube for us to study, but the people they left it with threw it all away so we don't actually have any physical evidence?

Again, what is more plausible?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Salt City Skeptics on Irreligiosophy

So, I am on the latest episode of the Irreligiosophy podcast along with another Salt City Skeptics member to discuss the group, my religious background, and what it's like living here in Salt Lake City...

Additionally, it was finally determined which of the two hosts, Leighton or Charley, is the most grating -- and why. (This all goes back to my blog post mentioning that, although I liked the show, I could find the hosts grating).

I gotta say, it wasn't nearly as weird hearing my voice on this show as I had anticipated. :)

Friday, August 21, 2009

'Them' Book Brunch w/ Jon Ronson

(That's three events posted in less than 24 hours! if you're reading this before September 17th, be sure to check out this post with details on other events)

The disembodied voice of Jon Ronson will be joining us by Skype (for real this time!) for our book discussion of Them: Adventures with Extremists. If you haven't read it yet, go pick it up now. For more details, see my previous post about Jon Ronson.

If you've finished and liked Them, you should read Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats, which will be released as a film starring George Clooney and Ewan McGreggor later this year. In fact, here's Clooney now, showing that this movie will do what it says on the tin:
Okay, details. We're having this thing mid-day, as Jon lives in the UK, and I don't think he'd be to keen to speak to us in the middle of the night. And we'll be having a potluck brunch at my house. Come on over at 11:00 to chat and eat, and we'll have Jon on at noon.

Date: Sunday, September 27
Time: 11:00 AM
Location: My house (email me at for the address, or just RSVP on the Facebook or Meetup events once they're created.)
What to bring:
Yourself, a copy of Them if you have it, and something brunchy to nom.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Eugenie Scott Lecture + Drinking Skeptically

Two new events to announce... First the easy one:

Drinking Skeptically, August 9. Same bat-time (7:00). Same bat-channel (Piper Down, in the back).

Come have a drink or two with other skeptics, rationalists and freethinkers.

Now for the more exciting one:

Eugenie Scott Lecture: What Will the Creationists Do Next?
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Utah Valley University Library Auditorium
800 West University Parkway, Orem

Join Salt City Skeptics to see Eugenie Scott's lecture "What Will the Creationists Do Next?"

If you don't know who Eugenie Scott is, you should. Scott is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an awesome group helping to keep science in -- and dogma out of -- the classroom. During the Dover trial, Scott helped lead the charge in successfully keeping Intelligent Design Creationsim out of public schools. Scott's numerous media appearances have included PBS' Nova and Evolution series and Penn & Teller's Bullshit!. Additionally, Scott and was one of several evolution proponents featured in the pro-Intelligent Design film Expelled.

Scott is one of the staunchest defenders of quality science education today. It's a rare chance to get to see her speak and meet her. Don't miss it!

The event is mid-day on a weekday, so I understand that not everyone can attend. If you're interested in carpooling (as Scott will be speaking at Utah Valley University in Orem), write me or post in the comments for this event.

Afterwards, we'll meetup for an early dinner and drinks.. Anyone know of a good spot in Utah County?

Friday, August 14, 2009

What groups like Humanists of Utah can do to thrive

Note, though I'm talking about a particular group here, my thoughts apply to any similar organization...

Last week, I attended a picnic for the Humanists of Utah. HoU is a great organization. Their events and guest speakers are always insightful, and the people are warm, welcoming, positive and just generally awesome.

I've been to two or three HoU events over the years. Each time, one issue has been very apparent. And it's an issue they readily admit: they're aging out. Other than myself, a few members of SHIFT (which was invited to attend), and a few children of long-time members, I don't believe there was anyone under fifty in attendance. And most were older than that. Nearly everyone I spoke with was ecstatic that there were just a few younger people there.

I had a discussion with one member of the HoU who wondered why humanism didn't appeal to younger people, whether it even applied to our lives at all.

My answer: an unequivocal yes. The ideals of humanism are very much the ideals of vast, vast numbers of younger people openly embrace.

So, what's going on then? Why are there so few 20- and 30-somethings attending HoU events?

One piece of the puzzle is shifting labels. The ideals of humanism and the ideals of organized skepticism are very similar and entirely compatible. Yet organized skepticism has grown tremendously over the past few years. Events like The Amaz!ng Meeting have grown from a sort of boutique conference for a few people to become huge social events for skeptics of all stripes. And in the case of TAM, it's been getting younger and more diverse every year.

The "New Atheist" phenomenon has also had a huge impact in the last few years, particularly on younger people. Whether they consider themselves atheists or not, the nonreligious have been emboldened to more readily -- and proudly -- embrace their identity openly.

Not ervey last person who labels themselves a skeptic or an atheist is going to have ideals that line up perfectly with humanism, but for the vast majority of them (including myself), it's the Enlightenment ideals that these labels stand for that are important, not the labels themselves.

But what has changed to make it seem like groups like Humanists of Utah are no longer applicable?

Quite simply, the internet.

The internet has enabled people to form communities with like-minded individuals in ways that weren't possible twenty years ago, or even ten.

Each week, I download vast amount of content to my iPod. Podcasts like Little Atoms (<3), Point of Inquiry, SGU, Irreligiosophy (on which I will be a guest on an upcoming episode!), and Skeptically Speaking keep thoughtful insight into secularism, rationalism, non-theism and other Enlightenment ideals in my ears all week long.

I subscribe to countless blogs in my RSS reader. I've become friends -- both online and IRL -- with some of those bloggers, I keep up with people both locally and far-flung through social media. The people on these blogs and podcasts are real people, and I can get to know them, in some small way, through Twitter or Facebook. I mean, I know more about Rebecca Watson's stuffed animals than I do my neighbors two houses down. Never has it been easier to find a group of like-minded people, regardless of the topic.

This is awesome. I get to be a part of a community of like-minded people all around the world. Whether you love drinking beet root juice or want to find others who love to go bowling in full animal costumes, chances are there's a Facebook or Meetup group for you.

Does it come at a cost? Maybe. The fact is that I don't know much about my neighbor two houses down. My "neighborhood" is definitely more the place I live than a community of which I'm a part. But the internet allows me to find community locally as well. It's precisely because of the internet that I was able to form Salt City Skeptics, and indeed is how I know of Humanists of Utah.

But HoU has yet to jump in to these newer internet media. I've no idea whether this is by choice or just because it hasn't yet been done, but the fact of the matter is that younger people today just do not respond as readily to a static website or monthly physical newsletters. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying there is anything wrong with these things or that they should go away. Maintaining a blog or podcast takes a lot a time and effort. And to some people, a printed newsletter may be totally indispensable. But the fact of the matter is that most people under 35 and a huge number of those over are likely to use (and I hate this term, but it here goes...) Web 2.0 media like blogs, podcasts and social networking sites.

Let's look at this group, Salt City Skeptics. I started the group a little under a year ago, more or less on a whim, and between the presences on Facebook, Meetup and subscribers to the SCS blog, we have nearly 250 unique "members."

Now, very few of those members are as devoted to the group as members of HoU are to theirs.
SCS has a rotating group of ten to twenty people who actively attend our events, plus occasionally more people at special events. For most, Salt City Skeptics "membership" mostly consists of adding it to one's Facebook profile in a list right next to "Fans of Lady GaGa" and "People who don't enjoy being on fire." Most "members" have never come to an event.

HoU members, conversely, have thirty or forty devoted members who come to every event (and probably countless more who don't) and are likely much more invested in the group, viewing it more as a unique community.

The Humanists of Utah certainly have more to offer in terms of content than SCS. I'm just one person and have to balance my time with the group with all the other stuff that comes up in life. HoU is, you know, and actual incorporated nonprofit group with clout and a board and a chair and a budget in excess of $70 a year. The programing schedule put together by HoU is impressive and insightful. SCS mostly gets together to share a few drinks and gripe about pseudoscience and the excesses of religion. I always promise to have more guest speakers, etc., but it takes work getting the ball rolling on these things.

So, what's my point here.

I, for one, want to see HoU continue. But that means they need to invest now in social media and a next-gen web presence. I'd like to help the group survive. I'm going to start posting HoU events here, and I'm going to make my best effort to attend them. I'd hope that HoU can start getting a presence on these newer platforms. A Twitter feed or Facebook group takes just a few minutes to set up, and it instantly allows people to discover these groups and their events. Let's all help this phenomenal group with 20 years of history survive.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Drinking Skeptically, August 12

Join Salt City Skeptics at Piper Down for a drink or two over stimulating conversation. If you haven't been to a DS event since the renovation at Piper was completed, come along this time! The new space in the back is much more chatting-friendly.

Piper Down (1492 S. State Street), August 12, 7:00


We're still rescheduling the book talk with Jon Ronson, so if you haven't read Them, you still have time!

Also, I want to start mixing up the Drinking Skeptically events, with some of them at a cafe. Anyone know of a good place to host such an event?

I'm also working on a few other events that I think you'll like, so stay tuned! As always, keep any new ideas coming down the pike. In the meantime, see you at Piper!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Oh, right: Drinking Skeptically... Also: I need your input

It's another Drinking Skeptically event at Piper Down! This Wednesday, the 15th at 7:00!

I need some ideas from you guys on what we can do to make these events more... eventful. I love chilling out around the table and having a beer with you all, but what would YOU like to see happen? Discussion points? Games?

I've asked this question once before, but the thread was quickly derailed by a troll, so I'll ask it again:

What do you want out of this group?

And more than that, what can you do to contribute to the group?

I don't necessarily mean money (though there are expenses I have to cover to keep the group going from time to time). Are you a natural organizer? Do you have contacts that would make great guest speakers?

Let's take this discussion to the comments section, and I'll also bring it up at this week's Drinking Skeptically.

Just to get things started, here's some ideas on goals we might want to take on over the course fo the next year. Please give me your thoughts on these, or add your own ideas, in the comments below:
  • Build alliances and contacts with other rationalist/secular groups in the area, such as the Humanists of Utah and SHIFT (the U of U Secular Student Alliance)
  • Increase the number of guest speakers and special events (such as the author talks with Mary Roach and Jon Ronson)
  • Organize a trip to next year's Amazing Meeting (I know some of you went this year, and I'm jealous!)
  • Become more involved in actively confronting anti-rationality and pseudoscience in Utah
  • Affiliate with national organizatoins, such as the Center for Inquiry.
Now it's your turn. Hit the comments section and keep the discussion going!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Update on Jon Ronson book brunch

Hi everyone! If you were planning on attending the Jon Ronson book chat this Sunday, I'm afraid you'll have to wait a little longer. I've had to reschedule it. I'm currently working with Jon on determining a new date, which will likely be in August some time. My apologies.

This gives you a chance to pick up and read Them if you've not yet done so!

More details to follow...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Book Brunch with Jon Ronson and "Them"

PLEASE NOTE: This event is being rescheduled. A new date will be announced shortly!

The next Salt City Skeptics Book Club selection is Jon Ronson's Them: Adventures with Extremists and we again have the opportunity of having the author participate in the book discussion (by phone)!

This is your chance to speak directly to Jon Ronson, an imminently insightful and entertaining writer and journalist.

Jon Ronson is a journalist and author whose books incluce Them and The Men Who Stare at Goats (currently being made into a film with Ewan McGregor starring as Ronson). He's also a regular contributor to This American Life and a documentary filmmaker.

Them is a thought-provoking, occasionally scary and often hilarious look at the world of conspiracy theorists and extremists. Jon Ronson repeatedly plunges himself neck-deep in the upside-down world of these extremists. It's a quick, engaging and VERY entertaining read, so go pick it up now!

Our discussion will be a Sunday Brunch event on Sunday, July 12 at 11:00 AM [NOTE: this event has been put on hold, a rescheduled date will be announced shortly] (Ronson lives in the UK, so it'll be mid-evening for him). Location TBD. Anyone know of a decent breakfast place where we can have a private discussion area (or have a house with a good 'net connection you'd like to offer)? If you plan on attending, please RSVP at either the Meetup or Facebook page (links at top right).

Go pick up Them today!

If you want a taste of more Jon Ronson, you can hear stories by and interviews with him below:

This American Life episodes featuring Ronson:
Little Atoms episodes featuring Jon Ronson (EXCELLENT interviews):
The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Drinking Skeptically + Mary Roach recap

I've spoken before on the awesomeness of Mary Roach. Last week, she spent an hour on the phone with Salt City Skeptics.

We had fewer people than expected, but those who showed had a great treat. Mary (I figure once you've talked to someone about their views on religion, death orgasms, and how any of those three interact, you've earned first-name-basis status) was hilarious, insightful and very engaging. Though we were ostensibly there to talk about Spook, she fielded questions relating to all of her books, to her approach to writing and research, and all kinds of other topics. I wish I'd had the foresight to record it, because anyone who didn't attend seriously missed out.

(If I can set up similar Q&A sessions in the future, maybe I'll look at recording it for your podcasting pleasure.)

Thanks, Mary, for a great evening!


Next Wednesday, June 10, we're having another Drinking Skeptically night at Piper Down (1492 S. State St). I'll be there at 7:00, so I look forward to seeing you there!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Spook book discussion: location update

Just a heads-up that we now have a confirmed location for the Spook book discussion on Wednesday the 27th at 7:00 PM:

A Salt City Skeptics member has graciously arranged for us to use room 5100 at the University of Utah Health Science Education Building (HSEB), located at the U of U medical complex. Parking is free after 6 just to the south of the building, or it's a short walk east from the Medical Center Trax stop.

View Larger Map

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yep. It's a Swine Flu Post

So, we may have the big global pandemic we've been warned about on our hands here. It's too early to tell for sure, but it's certainly not a good situation.

Unfortunately, these kinds of situations are a good example of a time to put on your skeptic hat (pictured at left).

In my estimation, there are two main things that have come into play that are deserving of skeptical scrutiny, though I suppose the second really is a consequence of the first...

...Which is panic.

I first heard about the swine flu outbreak from Twitter of all places. First a single humorous mention, then an all-out storm of both derision and panic, both founded and unfounded. Now, I love me some Twitter (you can follow me!), but witnessing how tweeps reacted to Swine Flu made me realize that by its very nature as an outlet for short, stream-of-thought messages about for whatever is on one's mind leads not only to posts like "headed to the bathroom," but also to outbursts of raw panic that one might not be as inclined to do in a more paced, carefully-worded forum, such as Facebook status updates.

Whether or not it's a plague, swine flu has definitley become a twitterdemic (a word that someone else has probably already invented, though I haven't seen it elsewhere, so I'm taking credit). I loved this excellent XKCD comic about just the effect I described above. But I don't mean to harp on Twitter. I mean, have you seen the news? News organizations exist to inform the public make money, so it's no surprise that they're focusing as much time as possible to every tiny development. And all of this in and of itself is okay. I mean, I'm writing a blog post of about swine flu as we speak.

But all of this feeds into a general public sense of helplesness and panic.

Here's the deal: swine flu is dangerous. If you are immunosuppressed, elderly, or an infant, it's even more dangerous. If you're none of the above and you have access to modern healthcare, you're most likely going to be fine. We're not on the edge of 28 Days Later here. Everyone should take reasonable precautions against infection: wash your hands, skip that trip to Cabo, don't make out with people suffering from swine flu unless you really have to. When a vaccine becomes available, get vaccinated (seriously: get vaccinated).

None of this is to say that swine flu is not a huge world health concern. It is. In Mexico, it's believed to have claimed hundreds of lives already, and it's just getting geared up for its world tour. I'd be surprised (though, of course, pleased) if it were not responsible be thousands of deaths by the time it's run its course.

Which makes the second skeptic-hat-worthy item all the more egregious. That item, of course, is...

the exploitation of panic.

Panic and public concern over a medical crisis is excellent fodder for those who would take advantage of it to make a buck or further an agenda by distorting or making up "facts."

Homeopaths, for instance, were swift on the uptake on the whole "let's dupe sick people into giving us money" bandwagon. Rebecca at Skepchick exposes some ridiculous and awe-inducing (for their brazen disregard towards fellow humans) statements at a UK website selling homeopathic cures for swine flu. Check it out.

Remember, homeopathy isn't just any alternative treatment that hasn't established any efficacy. It's water. Just water. Period.

It irks me to no end to see this kind of nonsense being pushed in a time of true crisis. Someone taking an alternative "treatment" such as these homeopathic "remedies" is less likely to go see a real doctor if they become very ill, and this puts them at risk for death.

And now I'm struggling to stay awake. This post is probably filled with typos and sentence fragments, but I can't proofread now. I can barely keep typing. Time for sleep. Good night all!

Friday, April 24, 2009

'Spook' book discussion, with special guest Mary Roach

As mentioned before, our next Salt City Skeptics book club book is Spook by Mary Roach.

If you haven't yet picked it up, get thee to a bookstore and grab it now, because we have an awesome opportunity: The author will be joining us (by phone) for our book discussion on May 27th at 7:00.

Mary Roach is the author of three fantastic, entertaining and offbeat books about scientific inquiry into some unexpected topics: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, about... well, about human cadavers (it's far more entertaining that you'd think!); Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, which addresses the scientific evidence of an afterlife (or lack thereof) and supposed supernatural phenomena; and her most recent book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, in which Roach explores the world of sex research and researchers.

All of Roach's books are a quick and entertaining read, so if you finish with Spook, check out one of her others before the 27th. Though our focus will be on Spook, this is a rare chance to ask the author questions on any of her books.

We now have a location. A Salt City Skeptics member has graciously arranged for us to use room 5100 at the University of Utah Health Science Education Building (HSEB), located at the U of U medical complex. Parking is free after 6 just to the south of the building, or it's a short walk east from the Medical Center Trax stop.

View Larger Map

Thursday, April 16, 2009

FACT: Mary Roach is awesome

Yes, I do realize this is the 3rd post in a row about Mary Roach, but after seeing her tonight, I HAVE to mention it.

Mary Roach spoke today at the Salt lake City Library, filling the main auditorium near to capacity. I'm currently tearing through Spook (okay, I'm listening to it on audiobook), and after tonight, Mary Roach is rising quickly on my list of favorite people.

Roach spoke for an hour and a half, but it seemed like twenty minutes. I could have heard her go on all night, and I think the entire auditorium felt likewise.

I wish we had more science writers like her. I honestly feel that she is one of the greatest science communicators we have today. She makes science interesting to people who might not otherwise be interested, and shows how hugely varied scientific inquiry can be, tackling everything from rotting corpses to G-spot stimulation. Also, those two topics should NEVER EVER be mentioned in the same sentence again. (She mentioned her next book would have something to do with space exploration and astronauts. Can't wait!) And on top of all of that, Roach is hilarious. I mean RIDICULOUSLY hilarious.

Whether or not you are planning on reading Spook for the next SCS book club or not, I can't recommend Roach's books any more strongly.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mary Roach @ the Salt Lake City Library, this Thursday!

Talk about timing!

Just yesterday, I announced Mary Roach's book Spook as our next Salt City Skeptics book club selection... And what do I learn today?

I just found out that Roach will be speaking at 7:00 at the Salt Lake City Library on her latest book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex." If you get the chance, this is a rare opportunity to hear directly from Roach. I'll be there by 6:30, so if anyone wants to meet up before hand, come on by!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Salt City Skeptics Book Club: Spook

Last Wednesday, we had our first SCS book club at Coffee Connection where we discussed Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World. In my opinion, it was one of our best ever events. It certainly was, with the exception of the Darwin Day event, our most well-attended.

Lots of new faces, lots of great discussions. I did hear a few minor complaints that we didn't talk about the book more... It's true that we veered off-topic pretty quickly. I personally feel that's okay, that the book was more of a touchstone for starting conversation, but I'll try to keep that in mind going forward. I think our next book, on a more specific topic than the wide-raging Sagan book, will help with that issue...

In June, we'll meet and discuss Mary Roach's Spook. In Spook, Roach tackles claims of the afterlife, ghosts and the paranormal from a scientific perspective.

Roach is a science journalist with a very entertaining, engaging style who dives head-in and tackles an incredibly wide range of topics. Her other books, Bonk and Stiff (about the science of sex and... well, corpses, respectively) are a great read by all accounts. I've been meaning to read her books for some time, so I'm excited to jump in with Spook.

I heard this excellent interview with Roach on Little Atoms last year about Bonk, her latest book. (Friendly heads-up: contains very frank discussion of sex and sexuality, including pig masturbation, penis-stealing witches, and the "Thrillhammer.")

So, go buy Spook now! Also, for you Audiobook listeners, Spook is available on

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A few notes on my last post...

Yep, I'm up late tonight... So I thought I'd take a minute to post a quick note about yesterday's post...

I feel obligated to follow-up on my last post about Larry King's interview with Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey. In my post as originally written, I stated that CNN and Larry King Live did not allow for a rebuttal.

It seems I was quite mistaken on that. An anonymous commenter on my last post pointed out that indeed there was a rebuttal section. The video of the interview I saw initially did not include the follow-up, and none of the accounts I had read up to that point had made mention of it. I came away assuming a falsehood. I wrote the post in haste, and though I stand by it as it stands now, I no longer feel CNN was as much in the wrong on this.

I do still feel that the interview was more credulous than it should have been. Hearing King gush about the knowledgeably of Carey and McCarthy in lead-ups to this interview lent them a credibility which they do not deserve.

The fact remains that the there is no demonstrated link, no plausible causitive agent, and just plain no evidence for a link between autism and vaccination. (Check out David Gorski's account of the interview and the various links within it to see a thorough response to the various claims made by McCarthy.)

I just wanted to point out the importance both in general and to me personally in taking the time to verify facts, which is the essence of skepticism, the very purpose of this blog and its associated group. I will endeavor in the future to verify the factuality of my statements here, and I'm more than happy to be called on the carpet if something I say is incorrect.

Monday, April 6, 2009

An open letter to CNN and Larry King Live

This is an expanded version of a note I did actually send to CNN and the Larry King Live show:

I have to say that I'm disappointed at CNN and Larry King Live for last week's show featuring Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey discussing the supposed link between childhood vaccination and autism.

It is irresponsible for CNN, with its reputation as the "most trusted name in news," to allow McCarthy, et al, to propagate unsupported claims about a link between childhood vaccination and autism for which the scientific evidence is not just weak, it is nonexistent (a fact acknowledged by McCarthy when she claims that she first diagnosed her son herself using her "mommy instinct," and that anecdotal evidence should be sufficient to conclude that vaccines lead to autism).

In fact, study after study shows that there is no causal link whatsoever between autism and vaccination. This isn't some cute story about a mom and her son overcoming an unfortunate affliction, this is a growing threat to public health. And it's an issue on which McCarthy is having a notable impact. Lives are at stake on this issue. People have died and will continue to die due to declining rates of vaccination, due in large part to the success of antivaccinationist rhetoric pushed by McCarthy and her ilk (indeed, McCarthy freely acknowledges that vaccine-preventable deaths are on the rise... and that she doesn't care).

As for what the evidence is, just this year Andrew Wakefield's study which began in earnest the vaccine->autism myth was found to be not just incorrect, but fraudulent; and the autism omnibus findings have lain waste to antivaccinationist claims. (Check out this post at Science-Based Medicine for a thorough excoriation of such claims. Be warned, it's a long article, but very much worth your time).

As I do not have children of my own, I cannot understand the pain that parents, including McCarthy, must go through upon discovering a developmental disability, such as autism, in their children. I do understand the desire to want to find something to hold on to, some kind of explanation, something or someone to blame. I believe that McCarthy is going down this road earnestly because she truly wants to have a positive impact...

But, as unsatisfying as it may be, autism can't be blamed on childhood vaccination. The evidence contradicts the claim.

Letting McCarthy and Carey present their unsupported claims on CNN is very much akin to letting a climate change denialist promote his particualr brand of unsupported nonsense, or letting Kevin Trudeau hawk some "miracle cure" as news. CNN's name would lend these views credibility, credibility they do not deserve. Though LKL did allow for a rebuttal, it would be wonderful to see a more thorough explanation of the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and an objective analysis of the supposed link to autism.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Here's a great little video on open-mindedness, specifically how the charge that skeptics are "close-minded" is innacurate, and that in fact those who accept unsupported claims and reject claims supported by evidence are, in fact, close-minded.

Absolutely work checking out.

[hat-tip: John Loftus]

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What makes someone a skeptic? What makes someone a denialist?

I've previously tried to answer the question, "What is Skepticism?" I'll try not too cover too much of that same information here, but what makes someone a skeptic? What sets a skeptic apart from the general populace?

"What are you skeptical about?"
Probably the most common question asked at the Salt City Skeptics events by those not familiar with skeptical movement is, "So, what are you skeptical about?"

Now, I won't deny that many skeptics have pet issues, such as the evolution/creationism debate or psychics or alternative medicine. But every time I'm asked this question, it throws me off a little. I should be prepared for it by now, but I'm always caught off-guard. I've answered "well... everything!" before. But this is not a satisfactory answer, as it implies that skeptics are jerky curmudgeons who go around saying "I don't believe that" to everything they hear. To say one is skeptical of "everything" doesn't adequately communicate the process of skepticism. Skepticism is a filter; a toolkit: the pocket-version of the scientific method.

Due to a large overlap between the skeptical community and the atheist/agnostic/nonreligious community (to me, for instance, skepticism is a big part of, perhaps even synonymous with, "freethinking"), I've heard other people respond to this question with answers like "religion." While it's true that to most skeptics, religious beliefs are not immune to their skeptical eye, and indeed for many (such as myself) it's one of those pet areas that gets a lot of attention, But to me, setting oneself up as a "[insert topic here] skeptic" implies that some ideas, those that are not x, may be immune from skeptical inquiry.

Denialism is not skepticism
There's another issue at play here, though. My BIGGEST pet peeve is the self-application of the label "skeptic" by people who reject scientific inquiry or evidence that contradicts their viewpoint. This is the very antithesis of skepticism.

Be wary whenever you see someone call themself an "x-skeptic." This person is almost certainly an x-denialist instead. I've heard creationists call themselves "evolution skeptics." Another I've heard is "9-11 skeptics," which certainly sounds a lot friendlier than "paranoid antisemitic conspiracy theorist." It's pretty safe to just say you're "skeptical of the evidence," and using the term adds an air of reason to an unreasoned proposition. The problem is that the evidence is not on the side of these "skeptics." They deny the mountains of evidence in opposition to their claim. This makes them denialists.

Fun (and depressing) Experiment!
One group of denialists has been particularly successful at usurping the term "skeptic" for their antiscience agenda.

Let do an experiment: Open a new browser tab and perform a Google search on the term "skeptics." What do you find? For the lazy, the top ten results include Skeptic magazine, Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, the Skeptic's Annotated Bible (which is, by the way, rad... Yes, I just said "rad"), and other links very much in line with the skeptical movement; viz. science, rationalism and critical thinking.

Now, go to a daily newspaper's website and search for "skeptics." What do you find? You'll find that the term is used by the media in a very different way. I chose the New York Times. The top 10 results are nearly all about climate change.

"Climate Change Skeptics"
Far and away the most prevalent group of these "x-skeptic" denialsts are global warming or climate change "skeptics." Indeed so successful has this group of faux skeptics been at usurping the term that most of the headlines in the NYT search above do not even reference climate change, but simply use the term "skeptic" on its own. (For instance, the article "Lessons from the Skeptics' Conference" is not about The Amaz!ng Meeting, but rather a climate change denial conference).

Here are the first two paragraphs from an article entitled "Skeptics Dispute Climate Worries and Each Other":
More than 600 self-professed climate skeptics are meeting in a Times Square hotel this week to challenge what has become a broad scientific and political consensus: that without big changes in energy choices, humans will dangerously heat up the planet.

The three-day International Conference on Climate Change — organized by the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit group seeking deregulation and unfettered markets — brings together political figures, conservative campaigners, scientists, an Apollo astronaut and the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus.
Sigh... First, I'd like to point out that a group committed to deregulation and "unfettered markets" can hardly be said to be objective on a topic with severe market policy implications. One's associations don't automatically invalidate one's evidence, of course, but it's of note how often groups with a financial stake in climate policy come out swinging on the "global warming is a hoax" team.

The article is quite right when it says that there is a "broad scientific and political consensus" about anthropogenic climate change and the need to curb it. That broad consensus is why most skeptics accept global warming. Because it's about evidence. On this issue, the evidence is in. And it keeps getting stronger. Each successive report from the IPCC, (the Nobel Prize-winning international team of climate experts most comprehensive studying global warming) is more conclusive, leaving less and less uncertainty for the denialsts to hide.

And oh how denialists love to hide in uncertainty. But this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding, whether by choice or by ignorance, of the very way science works. Science is ALWAYS uncertain. ALWAYS tentative. ALWAYS open to new evidence that will tweak or revolutionize our understanding on a given topic. That is how science WORKS. Hiding in a sliver of uncertainty is precisely the opposite of skepticism.

This is unfortunate. I worry sometimes that when I call myself a skeptic people assume that I'm an anti-science global warming denialist. I mean, I run a group with "Skeptics" in the name, and even I nearly cringe whenever I mention the term to someone, in part because of the word's associate with climate change denial. Luckily, I try to use this as an opportunity to show that skepticism -- real, solid, honest skepticism -- is awesome.

UPDATED 3/26, 01:20: Run a damn spell check BEFORE you post next time, stupid.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Announcing Cafe Skeptique

For April's meeting we're trying something new. That's right! Instead of just filling our veins with a mild poison, we're actually doing something related to skepticism!

Join us at Coffee Connection (located a half-block south of our usual Piper Down) on April 8th at 7:00 for Cafe Skeptique (please tell me is that name is too cutesy!)

If you weren't already aware, we're reading Carl Sagan's book, The Demon Haunted World, a superb and easily accessible introduction to critical thinking and skepticism. Kaylynn will be driving a book discussion.

Haven't read it yet? COME ANYWAY! The book will be a springboard for conversation topics, but everyone can participate. (It's a fantastic read though, so I'd encourage you to pick it up!)

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Skepticism and Politics

Speaking to a couple of friends yesterday, the question of skepticism and politics came up. Specifically, should the Salt City Skeptics group take a neutral stance on political issues?

Some groups, such as the the New England Skeptical Society (the group who puts out the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe) try to stay politically neutral. They'll undertake politics when it overlaps with issues traditionally in the purvue of skeptical inquiry, such as when cdesign proponentsists attempt to get religious ideas inserted into public school science curricula. But for the most part, politics are off the table.

A short aside: I know there have been a number of people new to skepticism at our events. If you're one of them and haven't listened to the Skeptics' Guide podcast, go there. Now. Listen. Click the link above to hear individual episodes, or subscribe in iTunes. In my opinion, there is no better, or more entertaining, introduction.

Others skeptics are a lot more open about tackling political issues. There are a lot of skeptics who are politically quite liberal. Anyone who has read my personal blog will know that I'm among them. There are many well-known skeptics who would call themselves libertarian (Penn and Teller, for instance). I'm sure there are some politically conservative skeptics, too.

Bias certainly is a concern. I think that we all sometimes are a little quicker to jump on, say, a set of statistics cited by someone with whom we do not agree with politically. I know I am guilty of that. I think Penn & Teller, on their generally excellent TV show, Bullshit (along with Mythbusters, one of the only TV shows openly from a skeptical perspective), are occassionally guilty of letting their libertarian political perspectives flavor their content. On the other hand, they're pretty open about this, and if called on the carpet about an incorrect claim, they, like true skeptics, will gladly offer a correction.

Here's my take on the official stance of Salt City Skeptics and politics:

Whenever politicians or political bodies make a testable claim, that claim is open to skeptical inquiry. While this blog a political fact-checking site, political claims should not remain sacrosanct and outside the purvue of skepticism. We should demand the same standards of evidence from our representatives that we demand from anyone else.

As an example, let's examine gay marriage... See more in my next post.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Call for Contributors / Call for Speakers

I'm looking for a few people to help me out with this blog. I'd like to have a few real "article" posts a week covering various topics within skepticism, and particularly local issues in which there is a skeptical angle. But I need your help to do it!

It you're interested in becoming a contributor to this blog, just say so in the comments below and I'll work the magic.

Also, with the success of our Darwin Day event earlier this month, I'm working on putting together a slate of guest speakers for the coming year. I already have a few names attached, but if you know anybody who might be interested, give me their info, or send them my way! You can always send an email (about this or ANYTHING) to .

So, know anyone who is a knowledgeable speaker on science, religious fundamentalism, or an area of science often misunderstood by the public (evolution, climate change); or who has debunked conspiracy theory, pseudoscience, or the paranormal? Any magicians or mentalists out there who could tell (or better yet, SHOW) how the methods used by "psychics" are nothing more than cold reading? Any other topics that you think might be a good match for the group?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vaccines do not cause autism. Period.

It's in vogue right now to be afraid of vaccines. The UK has been dealing with this issue for a while now, and it has gotten to the point where measels, a horrible disease once essentially wiped from the face of the British Isles, is now considered endemic once again.

There have always been antivaccinationists here in the U.S., but it's only been in the last two years or so that the myth of vaccine-caused autism has really taken root and germinated here. This is in no small part due to Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey, who despite the utter lack of scientific or medical credentials have been given carte blanche to promulgate this falsehood everywhere from Oprah to the Today Show, with hardly any opposing voices heard, despite what the science tells us. This pseudoscientific nonsense goes unchallenged because we Americans like our celebrities. We like a good sob story. We like easily identifiable villians, whether they be Kim Jong Il or MMR. Unfortunately, sometimes the truth gets in the way of a good narrative.

The vaccines => autism story is just such a story, and the truth is that vaccines simply do not cause autism. Period.


David Gorski, one of the writers at the excellent Science-Based Medicine blog, just wrote an epic article debunking the autism/vaccine link. Debunking puts it lightly, actually. What Gorski does is evicerates this myth. Piece by piece, Gorski shows why every argument put forth by the antivax crowd is bankrupt.

If you have a coworker (as I do) or an uncle or a friend who insists that this link exists, or that there is controversy over the question, go read this post. It's a long article... LONG. But it is absolutely worth reading in its entirety. Remember that this antivax setiment is not like believing in fairies: demonstrably wrong, but essentially harmless. No, we vaccinate against diseases like measels because they are deadly. The percentage of unvaccinated children is falling below the levels needed for herd immunity in some communities. And not just in the UK. Here. This puts children at risk; young people unable to make an informed choice for themsleves, or babies too young to recieve the vaccine, but who would otherwise not be exposed to these deadly diseases until after they got the jab.

For the extremely lazy, here's the bullet point version:
- Andrew Wakefield's study that was the flashpoint of the autism/vaccine firestorm was discrected years ago as horribly sloppy. In the last few weeks, it was found that the study wasn't sloppy at all: it was fraudulent.
- Every single replicable trial or study has shown no relationship between vaccination and autism.
- There is no known way that vaccines or their ingredients could cause the symptoms described.
- Vaccine opponents are unable to produce any evidence of their claims.
- Vaccine opponents often admit that there is no evidence to support their clain, but go on perpetualting it anyway.
- Peeps be dying! Get yr kiddies vaccinated!

I know it's a long read, but go get to it!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Join Salt City Skeptics for another night out on the town, following the Tanner Center Forum.

Many SCS members are attending the Tanner Center Forum "Evolution of Human Aggression" lectures at the U of U (for more information, see ). This forum is a great opportunity to hear directly from some of the leading minds in science including Stephen Pinker, Frans de Waal, Sarah Hrdy, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson.

Check out the conference scehdule ( ), but whether or not you're able to attend, join us afterward at Piper Down for more good conversation.

We MAY (emphasis on the MAY) be joined by some of the speakers from the conference. Since it's Friday night at the bar, we'll be starting a little earlier, but show up whenever you can!

Friday, February 13, 2009


Following yesterday's festivities, here's a not-so-well-thought-out counter-point from Ray Comfort (who I mentioned in my last post as one of the founders of, ahem, "crocoduck theory"), who it seems has written an entire book on this bizarre strawman interpretation of evolutionary theory.

Let's play spot the logical fallacy. How many can you identify:

Darwin Day & the Fossil Evidence for Evolution


Last night's Darwin Day event was a resounding success! We easily had at least fifty people -- FIFTY -- in attendance.

Of course, the space I'd reserved really should only have accommodated no more than about 30. So space was tight, and due to the unusual floor-plan, some people were left crowded in the anteroom standing-room-only style. Sorry about that! I'll need to find a larger space for any future guest speakers if the turnout to this is any indication. But we're all friends now, so no worries about getting a little cozy, right?

Alan Rogers, our guest speaker, was originally going to present on the "Evolution of the Debate Over Evolution." But his presentation evolved (sorry), and he instead gave a talk entitled "Does Evolution Make Big Changes."

For those that are interested, a PDF of the presentation slides is available here.

It's interesting that Dr. Rogers chose the subject of fossil evolution, as I was working yesterday on a huge post on that very subject. Below is my post, edited to incorporate additional information from his presentation yesterday.

First, let's start with a bit of fun:

The thrust of Dr. Roger's presentation was a refutation of progressive creationism. I'd not heard that specific term before. It's a form of Old-Earth creationism that accepts the earth's geologic timeline and fossil record, but posits that though species may change into other similar species (e.g., coyotes, wolves and foxes may have a common ancestor), they cannot change from one major "kind" to another (e.g., amphibians could not have evolved from fish).

In progressive creationism, god originally created several "kinds" of organisms which have evolved into all of these species we see today, but are unable, for some unstated reason, to change beyond some unstated threshold.

Where the lines between one "kind" and another lies I suppose depends on the progressive creationist you ask. Are bears and foxes of the same "kind?" Bats and lemurs? What about turtles and alligators? Carrots and plums? Each of those pairs is FAR more alike than they are different, and yet there is no denying that they are also all quite distinct.

According to creationists, the fossil record fails to show an evolutionary relationship between species or "kinds." This argument reaches it's ridiculous extreme in Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron's silly "crocoduck." The misconception here is that creationists expect to see a "tweening" fossil: something that looks half like an ancestor, and half like a decedent. But it's important to remember that every animal, every "transitional" form is itself a fully-evolved species that is not, from it's own perspective, on its way to becoming anything. A duck's lineage may have encountered innumerable different environmental conditions, developed unique traits, lost them again, and developed new ones on its way to becoming a duck. We HAVE found numerous "crocoduck" transitional fossils between therapod dinosaurs and birds. Take for instance, this cute little guy:

He's a bird-like dinosaur, about the size of a turkey, and he'd gladly rip your face off. You may have heard of him before: velociraptor. Though thanks to Jurassic Park, that name is often mistakenly applied to his big sister, Utahraptor. At the time of the first Jurassic Park film, we didn't know that Utahraptor had any feathers. But since then, we've learned that they not only had feathers, but were likely covered in them and may have looked something like this. Mei long. Deinonychus. Archaeopteryx. Rahonavis. Dozens upon dozens of bird-like therapods and and therapod-like birds. That's a lot of crocoducks.

The evidence continues to mount showing not only that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but in many ways, birds are dinosaurs. (For a decent sumamry, check out the Wikipedia articles on Origin of Birds and Bird Evolution.)

In last night's presentation Dr. Rogers focused not on bird evolution but on whales. Since whales are mammals, they must have evolved from land mammals, right? Well, shouldn't we see transitional forms in the fossil record, becoming more and more adapted to aquatic environments?

Yes, we would expect to see transitional forms like this.

And guess what? We do! Indohyus. Pakicetus. Ambulocetus. Rodhocetus. Dorudon. Just this month, a new important fossil in the whale lineage was announced: Maiacetus (you can even read the original paper describing the discovery and its implications).

But what evidence would it take to convince a creationist that evolution had occurred (or in the case of progressive creationists, that is occurred between ill-defined "types")?

I'm willing to bet that for most creationists, the answer is no amount of evidence. The beauty of the "no transitional fossils" argument is that it can be applied infinitely: Any time a "gap" is filled with a newly-discovered fossil, the creationist, rather than seeing a closing gap, will now see TWO gaps that need filling. If he asserts that there is a gap between species A and species C, then you discover species B, now you have a gap between A & B and B & C. Isn't that handy?

In addition to the fossil evidence for evolution, Dr. Rogers talked about the molecular evidence. If fossils show a reasonable and convincing path for evolutionary change, then the molecular and genetic evidence is a blaring neon sign stating "evolution has occurred here!" But I'll save that for another post.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Darwin Day?

First: One last reminder about the Salt City Skeptics Darwin Day Spectacular, tonight at Fat's Grill... Okay, now that that is out of the way...

Today is the day that we gather together with our families to celebrate the birth of, you know, some dude... Not a savior or a God or a legend. A man. Is it totally arbitrary for us to have a holiday or festival based around this one guy on this day every year?

Pretty much, yeah. We could have just as easily declared June 22nd "Evolution Day" or October 7th "Heliocentrism Day." We don't celebrate Galileo Day or Jonas Salk day.

So, why Darwin Day?

Darwin was not, as is often mistakenly reported, the first to come up with the idea of what we now call "evolution." The idea that species have changed over time to become other species (including humans) dates back at least to Anaxamander in the 6th century BC.

Indeed, Darwin was not even the first to develop an evolutionary model based on natural selection. That credit goes to Al-Jahiz, an 8th century biologist from what is now Iraq. Al-Jahiz postulated that:
"Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."
That's about as concise a definition of natural selection as I can imagine. And this was 1300 years ago!

But Darwin's own realization about natural selection came at a time when people were eager for knowledge. During the 19th century, enlightenment ideals of free inquiry were coming to fruition, and the way science was practiced was shifting from "armchair philosophy" to a more methodical, procedural method of whittling away at null hypotheses.

Darwin's simple insight was at odds with a growing fire-and-brimstone brand of religion, particularly in the United States. No idea since the Kepler's heliocentric model of the Solar System had so inspired the wrath of religious fundamentalists, who insisted (and continue to insist) that the Genesis creation account was literally true. The rift between what science shows to be true and what Biblical literalists contend has grown and grown in the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Speices, a rift that has been exacerbated by developments in astronomy, cosmology, genetics and geology that, time and again, fly in the face of biblical claims.

Darwin himself has thus become a lightning rod of criticism from religious fundamentalists, who maintain that his ideas preclude the existence of a deity. Indeed, religious fundamentalists have attempted to discredit natural selection and evolutionary theory by branding it as a dogma: "Darwinism."

Which calls into focus even clearer the question posed above: Why Darwin Day? Isn't celebrating Darwin playing in to the hands of those who claim that "Darwinism" is akin to religious dogma?

Well, sure. I suppose it is to some extent... But so what? Anyone who "celebrates" Darwin Day surely looks at February 12th as a celebration of science in general, and not a day to worship a mere mortal.

Darwin Day is about what Darwin represents: The scientific enterprise; But Darwin represents the scientific enterprise; courageously pursuing knowledge no matter where the evidence leads; challeging notions of our world and universe based on tradition rather than evidence.

That's why Darwin Day.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

One week until Darwin Day

Just a reminder to put the Salt City Skeptics' Darwin Day Spectacular on your calendar!

Join as at 7:00 at Fat's Grill in the heart of Sugarhouse. Just so there is no excuse for not being there, here be a map:

View Larger Map

We'll have a guest speaker, Alan Rogers, presenting on the Evolution of the Debate over Evolution.

It's looking like we'll have a great turnout, with 38 people so far RSVPing 'Yes' on either the Facebook or Meetup event pages.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, January 26, 2009

University of Utah Student Secular Alliance

My good friend Elaine is (among many - other - things) the new president of the University of Utah Secular Student Alliance. This group has been languishing for the last few years, but if there's one thing Elaine knows how to do, it's how to start from near nothing and in seemingly no time have a thriving community.

If you're a student at the U of U, the SSA has two events coming up this week:

Tomorrow, the 27th, stop by the SSA table at Plazafest (in the Union Ballroom) between 10:30am and 1:30pm.

This Thursday, the 29th, the SSA is having it's first meeting, which is your chance to have a say in what the group does this semester, or just learn more about what the SSA is all about!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Salt City Skeptics Darwin Day Spectacular

Join Salt City Skeptics for a night celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, whose brilliant insight into the mechanism of natural selection paved the way for modern biology and heralded an unparalleled age of scientific discovery that continues to this day.

February 12, 2009 will be Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, and this year also marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin's book that introduced the world to natural selection and revolutionized biological science.

Speaker Information

Dr. Alan Rogers, professor of anthropology and biology at the University of Utah, will be presenting a talk entitled "The Evolution of the Debate Over Evolution," followed by a Q&A and discussion session.

Come enjoy food, drink, conversation, pool and a great guest speaker.

Event details:

Thursday, February 12, 2009
7:00pm - 10:00pm
Fat's Grill
2182 Highland Dr

Salt Lake City, UT

Fat's is a restaurant, so people under 21 are welcome to attend for once. :) Fat's has generously given us this space at a significant discount, so show your appreciation by coming hungry and buying some food! They've got great pizza and sandwiches and a vegetarian-friendly menu.

If you plan on attending, help me get a rough headcount by RSVPing at event listing on either Facebook or Meetup (or even in the blog comments here). Like all Salt City Skeptics events, this night is open to any and all who might be interested, so bring your friends!

And thanks Travis for the location recommendation!

Skepticism: The Pocket-Size Scientific Method

Sam, the lone skepdude blogger at Skepchick, co-runs the Houston area skeptics group (Space City Skeptics... I swear I didn't steal the alliterative name and the SCS acronym) just put up a post called "What Is Skepticsm?" and I loved what he had to say so much I wanted to touch on some of it here.

You may have seen my own "What is Skepticism?" post here, and Sam touches on a lot of the same ideas. But he said a couple things that expand on these ideas beautifully. Here's the butchered-to-hell version of some highlights for you lazy people, but you really should go read the whole post.

...The scientific method is the single most valuable tool ever conceived for understanding the universe around us ... The conclusions we draw from doing good science are as honest and as accurate as anything can be. Science is that powerful.

But the scientific method is problematic; at least where regular folks are concerned.

It’s just not practical to apply the scientific method fully to everyday claims and situations. I mean, there are phenomena we encounter on a daily basis that spark our curiosity, and our desire to discover. Perhaps strange things are happening at the old lake house, and we want to know if it’s haunted. Perhaps the claims of homeopathic medicines pique our interests, and we want to know if they really work. Perhaps our co-workers insist the bright lights in the sky last night were alien space craft, and we want to know if that’s true. Unfortunately, the majority of us simply don’t have the means to set up lab experiments, test hypotheses, repeat the tests, have peer groups study our data and scrutinize our tests and repeat them, and have independent lines of inquiry from all over the world repeat the process. The scientific method is just too bulky and cumbersome for us in this regard.

That’s where skepticism comes in.

We can view skepticism as an express version of the scientific method; sort of a travel or pocket version that we can apply to everyday claims, ideas, and situations. It is a tool that basically does the same thing as the scientific method — it relies on evidence and the analysis of that evidence to draw conclusions that are most probably true — but it’s more practical for regular folks to use at any time, because it can be applied without the attendant “ceremony” of a scientific experiment. We basically become a one-person research team.

If we observe phenomena, or encounter outrageous claims, or hear seemingly amazing ideas in our everyday lives, we can deploy our pocket scientific method. Without the formality of a full-on scientific review, we can examine any related evidence that may be present. We can leave any biases we may have behind and rely on a critical analysis of the evidence to discover what is most probably true about the phenomena; the lake house is just old and creaky, homeopathic medicines are basically just water, and the lights in the sky were probably just the Goodyear Blimp.

Nice work Sam! I love the idea of skepticism as the pocket version of the scientific method. :)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Event location recommendations, anyone?

Hello everyone! I'm looking for recommendations on where to hold some of our events... specifically the upcoming Darwin Day Spectacular on February 12th.

Here's the deal: Our first couple of events were at Piper Down. At the beginning of 2009, however, the new no-smoking-in-bars law went into effect, so the back room where we had our first event is now the "smoking room."

Piper Down remains a great spot for the Drinking Skeptically nights, however, they can no longer accommodate us for more organized events, such as anything with a guest speaker.

Does anyone know of a good spot where we can hold events such as this that have a back room or semi-secluded space? It might be nice if it were a restaurant instead of bar, as that would accommodate anyone under 21, though feel free to give me some feedback.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January Drinking Skepitcally Recap!

Januray's Drinking Skeptically event was a lot of fun. You lame people who decided they'd rather watch American Idol missed out!

Our group was at least as large (20 people, I'd guess) as the December's event, but almost everyone there was a new face! A number of people found the group from our Meetup page and said that they've been waiting for just such a group to come along.

Piper Down continues to be a great location for Drinking Skeptically, with lots of space, a central location and cheap drinks (my seven - SEVEN - gin and tonics for under $30 can attest to that). Last time, we had full use of the back room, but due to the change to smoke-free bars in Utah, that room is now a smoking room. Oh well, we still had a blast!

Like last time, we all just hung out and got to know each other, talked about how we got into skepticism (which, unsurprisingly because of its awesomeness, was usually the Skeptics Guide to the Universe). There was some discussion that we should turn the group into a cult.

Sadly, I neglected to bring a camera, so there is no tangible evidence that the meeting even took place, only my eyewitness testimony. If you attended post in the comments and give your thoughts on the evening.

Our next event is in a couple of weeks (see the events calendar or the Facebook / Meetup page for details. This will be a more organized event with less emphasis on the the drinky drink. We'll be watching a film and choosing a book for the Skeptics' Book Club (we'll do a book every two months, so you'll have plenty of time to let it sit and be ignored on your bedside table). All ages are welcome this time, since my house is not a bar.

Lastly, if anyone who attended last night's meetup would like to have their blog or website added to the blogroll at right, just email me at greenishblu (no e) at gmail .