Saturday, September 12, 2009

the Skeptics Guide to the Universe #216

The Skeptics Guide Live! from DragonCon

"Skeptics. They only believe in science." -anonymous DragonCon loser

The Rogues all showed up at DragonCon and did a live podcast. SGU has done a number of live episodes and they are becoming rather expert at it. The discussion format of the underlying show lends itself to a live audience, and as always the live broadcasts have their share of audio problems. I believe at points references were being made to some pictures or photos in front of the audience which is always frustrating for a listener. Really those are just quibbles, as the banter between the obviously relaxed rogues and the audience was enjoyable. I also thought it smart to have a post DragonCon wrap up and science and fiction back at the 'home studio." It was a satisfying cap to the show.

One audience question that started me thinking was in regard to the marketing of skepticism to the general public. Yes, we have Mythbusters. We have Bullshit. We do not have Oprah, a zillion infomercials, or the front of book store kiosks to display the new hip self help regime, fad diet, or spiritualism book.

We have evidence based facts on the skepticism side, and on the woo side they can bend the facts and "evidence" to what is necessary to support their point. This was noted by the panel. On my drive to the warehouse club it started me thinking on why is this? Why do we have such a hard time getting through to the public at large. Here's some of my half baked thoughts:

I think when it comes to describing things in the past, skeptics have a rather compelling story to tell. The woo crowd has Atlantis, this perfect society where people wore togas and carried ray guns. However, in the end it is depressing since this grand civilization has disappeared, so now things just suck in comparison. The evidence based crowd has a past that contains high points with the Greeks nearly inventing the steam engine, and the Chinese with clocks and gunpowder. However, after the dark ages, we now have jeans and iPods. This is clearly better than a not quite a steam engine. The woo crowd has JFK murdered by every imaginable conspiracy, while the evidence shows it was a lone left wing pro-Castro nut who took the President's life. That may be terrible but its not as bad as the military industrial complex orchestrating an overthrow of the government. We have the achievement of man landing on the freaking moon. The woo crowd has some lame story about a studio based faked mooning landing shot on a desert sound stage. When looking in the past the woo crowd has a depressing tale, or at least a more glum tale than what history based on evidence reveals.

The view of the future with skeptics is a rather hopeful vision. Yes, global warming is bad, and fossil fuels will run out. On the other hand, we look toward the use of technology and science to slow down global warming, find alternative fuels, as well as possible new cures or at least life sparing treatments for disease on the horizon. Woo has a lot, and I mean a lot of doom and gloom when they look toward the future. How many different ways will the world end in 2012? When is Jesus showing up to judge everyone, and duke it out with satan? Not all woo practitioners have a negative future viewpoint, but I'd give the rational thought crowd the edge.

Where the skeptical crowd has problems is in the present. The facts in the realm of medicine, biology, science in general, etc. are truly amazing and a lot more interesting than woo's made up stuff. Unfortunately, woo can fill a void for instantaneous hope that skeptics can never win. A person is sick with terrible disease. The physician tells the patient we can extend your life a few years, and make your remaining days more comfortable. The Homeopath or Naturopath can make promises of a cure. Woo will win many a heart and mind with such promises.

There is no evidence that we can communicate with the dead. Woo folks can offer the promise to talk to Grandma, and take comfort in the existence of some form of afterlife. Ideas based on evidence can offer nothing close. It is cool to know that extraterrestrial craft are visiting the Earth, but just frustrating that S.E.T.I. is going to take decades to maybe find a signal from a civilization out there. Woo wins out. Science says eat less and move around more, and you will lose weight. Pitchman X on television says to take this herbal concoction and eat as many manager's special Dunk'n Donuts as you want and still shed those unwanted pounds -awesome. Woo wins out.

Woos ability to give the people what they really want right now is something that skeptical thought can never truly match. Sure people might be disappointed by the woo outcome, but there is always another miracle pill on the next channel to fix what's bothering you. Science has limits, and long winded double blind placebo controlled studies -where the instant pay off that woo makes day in and day out?

I'm not saying forget it all, and let's pack it in and watch the Steelers game instead. (Did you see them defeat the Titans? Oh yeah.) I think the skeptical movement has to factor in that at least when it comes to what we have to offer people emotionally may not be what people want to hear, and our side is never going to win the sales pitch for instant results, or comforting answers. The goal over the long haul should be to win over enough of the populous to make a difference, and keep the woo barbarians at the gates. Although I would love to see it, I doubt will are ever going to be rid of the barbarians.

One more thing - Bob during "Science and Fiction" used a term I just loved "the ultimate unit of cementness." I just love it. I don't know why.

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