Sunday, May 23, 2010

Righteous Indignation, the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe

Righteous Indignation came out a day early this week.  The Indignates were made up of Trystan, Hayley, and Marsh er-r-r Dr*T.  Surprisingly, there was no interview this week, and a request for listeners to continue to suggest future guests for the show.

While I often find the interviews, especially of proponents of some manner of pseudoscience or psi to be exceedingly engaging, it was not necessary to have an interesting episode.  As I have noted on Karl's Conspiracy Skeptic podcast, I do find this the most enjoyable of the "general" skeptical podcasts to listen.  In part it is because the Indignates do not always agree on each topic or issue they discuss, and I find some of the cultural differences between England and the United States fascinating.

One of the topics discussed on the show is the recent, and relatively well known, push by the Texas Board of Education to rewrite history textbooks to reflect a more conservative and god-oriented history.  One of the things discussed by the panel was how each State can have its own set of educational standards, and by extension, its own official version of history to teach the kids of Texas.  I can see how not having a nation standard in itself is a bit odd, but to many Americans the idea of even a State standard is repellent, and it should be even more localized.  The thing that I think many European listeners do not quite grasp is the idea that each state is its own sovereign mini-state.  Living in Pennsylvania, Texas in many ways is as foreign to me as traveling to Ireland or Wales.  I am a bit glad we do not share our educational standards with our friends way down South in dixie.  We get to put our own brand Pennsylvanian brand of wackiness in our educational standards such as Benjamin Franklin being a midnight crime fighter, and inventor of the superhero utility belt.*

The Indignates seemed taken aback at this idea that many Americans, and apparently a majority of Texans, want their kids to be taught as a land that is a beacon of god to the world.  Another more benign term used is "American Exceptionalism."  I suppose there is a secular definition that harkens back to the United States being on the forefront of written constitutional governments, and the idea of individual rights and liberty, etc.  This often comes out when American tourists are being punished for doing something stupid, and when caught by the local authorities shout out as the magic get out of jail words "I'm an American." I think the idea of the United States having a special relationship or status with god is what many people think is the root (and sole root at that) of our "Exceptionalism."  I must admit I am rather proud of my country, and I think for some of the things we have done wrong (spending far too long in Iraq and Afghanistan) we have done a lot of things correctly (keeping Soviet-backed communism hemmed in and fighting militaristic Japan like pissed off devils.)  We also have quite nice cars and delicious malted milkshakes.  For me, I do not mind our history being taught to instill some pride in our future generations, but I do dislike it being bent as a pseudo-religious exercise and bending over backwards to cut out quite terrible bits such as involuntary servitude and the KKK.  So yeah, a lot of Americans are just a bit arrogant.  This leads to some on education boards to take things more than a bit overboard in bending official history in the best light possible for consumption of the youth of America.

The other interesting topic was the occasional segment "The File Drawer Effect."  The topic was the alleged ban of shirts with British symbols in pubs during the upcoming world cup game between the United States and the United Kingdom.  Apparently on Facebook in Britain there is a popular backlash against "the ban" as it is being blamed as a sop to those of Muslim heritage.   Hayley did some investigating and "the ban" is actually suggestions from the police and pub owners in parts of London.  It does not seem to have much to do with swarthy-skinned immigrants.

On the one hand, it is oddly comforting to know that other countries have immigration issues much as the States are going through right now with mainly Mexican immigrants.  It is goes without saying that if the game in question is between the U.S. and U.K., I do not know what that has to do with Muslim populations.  On the other hand, I would hate to be told I could not wear my Yankee shirt if I went to watch a game against the Bluejays.  It's free speech and all that good stuff.  Yeah First amendment.  Maybe it's just me, but I am surprised the whole free speech angle was not of more import to the discussion.

Anyway, other topics were covered, but the above two were the ones I found most interesting.  The Indignates may not have a working scientist in their ranks such as Dr. Novella or Dr. Dunlop, but they do tend to tackle topics from a rational point of view that other podcasts do not tread for the most part.  This is not to take away from the SGU or The Skeptic Zone, but there is something empowering to a listener that anyone can be a good science and skeptically minded person even if you do not have science background or only have a Bachelor of Arts in history.

Moving to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, while I find the general tone and demeanor of the Indignates more engaging, this week's episode of the SGU did show why it is good to have a scientist on the panel.  In particular, the stories covered on cell phones and cancer and pesticides and ADHD were explained in a coherent and understandable manner by Dr. Novella.  I have read mass media news items on each story, and naturally they were over-simplified and biased toward scaring the reader that lots of phone usage can cause cancer and pesticides will give your kid ADHD.  It is time to stock up on the Ritalin, or wash your veggies to be safer.

Rebecca Watson covered a story on the possible source of alleged ball lightening.  What was most interesting about the story was not that ball lightening in part might be a illusion caused by electromagnetic interference with how the brain functions, but that ball lightening was a pet interest of Watson since childhood.  It was a nice humanizing moment for a person who, at least within skeptical circles, is a rockstar.

Then the show turned toward the topic of what is the definition of a "cult" due to a email question.  Dr. Novella told a war story of Randi being the featured speaker at a cult survivor's conference.  Interestingly, Randi at the conference equated religion in general with a cult, and many of the cult survivors were put off by Randi's charismatic personality and the religion mention.  Many cults are led by charismatic figures, and some of the conference members expressed mini-flashbacks due to Randi's persona.  Dr. Novella opined that what makes a cult is not the belief but the behavior and actions of the groups leaders to the members.  I am not entirely satisfied with the definition although I do find it useful.

For me, the problem with the using the word cult is that it is a loaded term that ought to be used sparingly, and is overused to describe something a person dislikes and paint with a negative brush.  I believe the actions of a group to be branded a cult have to be rather rough, and not just a group who holds ideas you disagree with.  I put the word cult in the same box as the word "fascist."  People pull out the fascist word to describe actions of a leader or party they do not agree with almost reflexively in some circles.  Three years ago President Bush was a fascist for his policies and was pictured with Hitler, now others are calling President Obama a fascist and picturing him with Hitler for his policies.  Neither is a fascist, but it's sure easy red meat to toss out to those inclined for an easy applause line.  Unfortunately, I put cult in the same box.  All that being noted, cults exists from the small Heaven's Gate crowd to the large followers of L. Ron Hubbard's 'religion.'  If you make the term too broad, one could argue that those who are quite the fan of Dr. Novella, Hayley Stevens, or Rebecca Watson are members of a cult or at least a cult of personality, which is bone headed.

Needless to say, I enjoyed both shows this week.  Righteous Indignation is short clocking in at well under an hour, so listen to SGU first, and then fit the Indignates in while you are tooling around the house.

(I'll shoot to cover The Skeptic Zone and Irrel, Irreligor...That Mormon podcast tomorrow.)

*made up bit


  1. You may be shareing the education standards with Texas. They are the prime user of text books and therefore they impact many other non-Texas schools. This has been commented on SGU in the past so I shouldn't have to go on writing about this.

  2. Yes. I agree this what makes Texas' lunacy so important to the national as a whole.

  3. Just a small point, the match is USA vs England. All of the constituent countries of Britain have their own international teams.

    On the wider point - I think the fear of football shirts causing offence to Muslims comes from the association of some football hooligan groups to far right groups such as the English Defence League. Both have effectively hijacked English national symbols such as the George Cross flag and the national football shirt.

    Cults...for my sociology A-Level exam (which I failed miserably) I was taught that cults are positive in their approach; they employ a can do approach. A sect was something that was far more restrictive and negative. Probably utter rubbish, but there you go!

  4. I know nothing of internation soccer/football. Sorry.

    The definitional battles between sect,cult, and just a group seems as frought we problems as is the atheist, agnostic, deist debate. My only point is that I think people can be too quick to label groups as a cult.

  5. You're doing the "read more"! Lovely!


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