Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Skeptics Guide from TAM7

Listened to episode 208.

I thought it was a tad annoying how the panel were making reference to something being shown to the audience, and not describing it in greater detail for the listener to get a feel for what they were viewing. It's one of those dying skills from radio days. The mini-robot really had me intrigued, but I guess it looked as if were a mini jumping-jack.

Overall, I thought it was a pretty good show. I thought most of the questions raised by the audience while nothing shocking or deeply insightful were good. The question I found most intriguing and to which I do not have an answer is whether it is better to debate believers in some woo topic in public. Dr. Novella brought up that on blogs comments there can contain an on running debate. I think this is the preferred manner of debating. It gives the responder to the woo a chance to investigate and hit point for point exactly what the other is questioning. It is also useful when the otherside has lost the point and moved the goal posts that this can be clearly pointed out. The advantage that the written debate has for skeptics is shown in the back and forth between Drs. Steven Novella and Michael Egnor regarding evolution vs the latest form of creation science. Dr. Novella has effectively parried and dismantled Dr. Egnor's arguments mostly on Dr. Novella's Neurological blog. The advantage to the skeptic with the built in time lag in a written back and forth clearly gives the skeptic the edge, and really do not question this type of debate.

My struggle is whether verbal live debates are worth the effort and perils. In front of a live audience the believer can pull the Gish gallop, and toss out many more questions (sensical or not) than the skeptical can break apart and tear down. There is no reflective breathing space as afforded by the written word. A disheartening example of such a debate was between Joe Rogan and Dr. Phil Plait on the Penn Jillette radio show regarding the alleged hoaxed manned lunar landing. Joe was tossing out such a volume of nonsense that it would have taken Dr. Plait four or five hours to debunk just ten minutes of Joe's assault. So there is a large part of me that thinks such venues should be avoided to avoid giving the victor to the wooers on points, and yet I waiver. For one to the masses in the middle or on the fence if skeptics do not take on the believer in open public forums, it could easily appear the skeptics are running from a fight. Then there is the principle of the matter. The skeptics have facts, evidence and the scientific method on their side and in the end that should prevail. I think the one thing the skeptics should try and ensure in such situations is a strong moderator to prevent the gallop, and to afford the skeptic the necessary time to explain his reasoning or the actual evidence. In the Penn radio show, I thought (I have not reheard the show in quite sometime.) that Penn let Joe just stream roll on and on. Also, a more focused debate on pre-determined topics could help prevent the gallop from going. Clearly, these ground rules may not always be present, but in such situation a more level playing field should help the skeptics not get rolled. I have day dreamed of taking down JFK conspiracy advocates, or Moon hoax types, or 9-11 truthers in the middle of my town's square. Then I think of what happened to poor Dr. Plait, and think I'd be crushed and an embarrassment for reason. In the end, if skeptics do not engage the other side, the believers will take up all the space and leave reason and rational thought in the cold but the risks are great.

I thought the question regarding how you tell a friend or colleague they are involved in some manner of woo was a good one since the answer always eludes me. I always come off as a jackass know it all.

Finally, I thought it was nice how they slipped in the wedding from the second scheduled live SGU into this show. Listening to it after seeing the wedding live, I still think it was odd how Rebecca was playing off how this was a surprise to her. My wife thinks I am a stick in the mud. I do hope Rebecca have a wonderful life together. However, being the possible first podcast wedding is a tough act to follow.

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