Monday, February 22, 2010

Token Skeptic #10

Sometimes wishes do come true!  

This week Kylie Sturgess hosted/moderated a discussion between Michael McRae, the same McRae who was on TS #9, and Eran Segev (President of the Australian Skeptics and reporter on The Skeptic Zone) on her still new podcast Token Skeptic.  The discussion was a continuation of the previous episode on how do skeptics advance the ball and communicate skepticism to the public. (Sturgess also apologized for the lack of shows lately.  It seems technical gremlins are getting to everyone these days.)

I noted in my review of the previous episode that I enjoyed the twenty-five minute interview so much, I wished it had been fifty.  This interview was indeed about fifty minutes in length.  My powers are indeed mighty.

I shall refrain from giving a blow by blow recapitulation of the discussion but limit it to a few highlights.  The discussion of climate change opponents use of the word "skeptic" to self-describe their movement, I thought was interesting.  Segev pointed out the likely reason for their use of the word skeptic is the term's connotation of scientific reasoning.  To me, this shows progress since it at least is evidence that the public views skeptics as using science and not just being cynical for cynical sake.  We might even be viewed as cynically science-minded, but if we are using science to buttress an argument, it makes it more difficult for the woo proponent to argue from a traditional science perspective.  Now that I think about it, this might be why some like Alex Tsakiris, of the Skeptico podcast, are forced to argue that science, as it currently is defined, must be at a turning point, and changed, otherwise their various beliefs cannot be buttressed.  I digress.

McRae and Segev also discussed what is the goal of a skeptic or a skeptical organization.  Is it to reach a broad audience with a modest impact on how they should view the world, or focus on a smaller audience with a deeper impact.  They are not necessarily at odds, but I think an argument can be made that to most uninterested people pitching a rational thought process requires sneaking the medicine in with some sugar.  The best form of this entertaining while educating to me in the States is "MythBusters."  I think Penn & Teller's Bullshit, even with the bare bosoms, might be hitting people on the head a bit too much to be truly effective.  It is a tricky row to hoe.

A question I have pondered is not what is skepticism, I agreed with McRae and Segev that it is a philosophical world view, but what is the goal?  Is it to convince others to adopt the thought process of a skeptic, or is it to convince people of a particular fallacy of a particular belief?  I know it can be both, but I do believe any skeptical group needs to know what is the focus.  The excellent 10:23 Campaign to expose the nonsense that is homeopathy or the opposition to the antivacinnation position of Dr. Wakefield or Jenny McCarthy might educate the public in a particular area, but not change how a person views the world in geneal.  It is a whack-a-mole approach to woo.  Then, there is Michael Shermer who discusses how people need to view the world in a skeptical manner as discussed in his articles and books such as "Why People Believe Weird Things," or Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World." It is a blanket approach.

While it might be obvious that the blanket approach would bear more fruit in the long term, I suspect (this is a guess) that it might be more threatening to tell a person how to think, and what you've been doing and your parents etc., is wrong.  As I note, the above is just a guess.  On the episode, McRae and Segev discussed the need for proper studies to figure out what does work in getting skeptical view out into the public arena in an effective manner.  There is just a lack of information on what does and does not work in general and for targeted audiences.

I have really only scratched the surface with the above commentary on the various topics discussed. Oh hell, one final example.  McRae and Segev discussed that skepticism should not be limited to just Bigfoot, UFOs, and homeopathy, but critical thinking skills should be brought to bear on a wider range of topics.  I agree.  However, I do think skeptical arena has its limits.  I do not mean religion, but politics.  This might be fodder for a post for another day, but politics is a creature of its own which skeptics should tread lightly.  P.Z. Myers and Michael Goudeaou are all highly regarded in the skeptical community.  Yet, while on some topics they may agree on matters such as universal marriage rights (which I suspect most Skeptics agree upon to one degree or the other), Myers is well known for his progressive politcal views, while Goudeaou is an ardent libertarian.  I suspect they may have vastly different views on taxes or the government role in health care.  I am sure both have well thought out reasons for their political outlook, but I am not sure skeptical circles are the areas to hash out these differences.

This episode is an indispensable listen for any skeptic who cares what it means to be a skeptic and what the lately confederating skeptical community should try to do, and then how to do it effectively.  There are no magic answers, but the exercise is well worth it as the discourse is thought-provoking.

Sturgess indicates on the show that she'll return the focus of the show to making sense of superstition in regular programing.  I respect the desire to maintain the focus of the show, and I do enjoy the regular programing.  However, Sturgess may have stumbled into a less common but highly interesting formula with this show.  The discussion between two smart skeptics with a host/moderator is not a common skeptical podcast setup.  I may be biased to this panel discussion-type program as I have been known to watch BookTV on CSpan2 for the majority of a Saturday, and this is the general format of "Firing Line" hosted by William F. Buckley, Jr., possibly the most erudite person*, during the show's last decade of production. If it worked for Buckley and politics, I see no reason that Sturgess cannot make it work for skepticism.   I really believe this format should be used by Sturgess in the future, and while not a weekly occurrence, could be a continuing subversion of the show just as Brian Thompson has his interview only "Inside the Amateur Scientist Podcast" episodes. 

It goes without saying I recommend this episode to the readers, and if necessary, bump it up on your podcast queue so you do not miss it.  For the record, my review of this episode has nothing to do with this blog receiving a long quote at the start of this episode.  However, Sturgess' kindness is this regard is humbling and appreciated.  As Karl Mamer knows, it'll take more than a few nice words to buy me off.  

*I suspect if Prof. P.Z. Myers just read this, he might have shock spit his beverage on his monitor.  Sorry Professor.


  1. Wahhhhh!! :D I've been wondering what on EARTH to write in response besides a lot of 'thank you's' - what I can say is that I'm taking your suggestions about the format under serious consideration and talking with friends about the possibility of making a change. It does seem perhaps misguided to start an entirely new show when I can play with the format of the current. Will be working on that next week.

    Oh, and insert dozens of thank-yous here. :)

  2. You make me blush.

    It was a very good show, and I do think you are onto something with this format. Just don't hate me when I have a negative review.

    Thanks for reading.


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