Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Amateur Scientist, Righteous Indignation, Token Skeptic, Science Talk, Point of Inquiry

I had to drive to Philadelphia on business which presented me with a great opportunity to catch up on some podcast listening.  There were two Token Skeptics, one Amateur Scientist, a two part special on Science Talk to listen to on the drive, along with the Point of Inquiry from last night's Ike walk, and the Righteous Indignation on tonight's walk.  This is a lot to digest.  

Brian Thompson's Amateur Scientist Podcast was another foray into humor no child should hear until at least 13 in secret under the covers while the parents think they are listening to some lame form of educational MP3.  The two bits I will discuss are the beginning bit with Brian fretting over receiving a free bottle of Coke Zero with the purchase of some Regular Coke, and his curse word contest.  The curse world contest is a call in challenge to Thompson's listening to add to the list of words that are illegal to utter in pubic in Queensland Australia.  The Coke Zero bit was not really skeptical-slanted at all, but it was funny.  

I rarely mention the good work of Science Talk with host Steve Mirsky.  It is quite a good program, but rarely is fodder for my rumination or lively commentary on the program.  It is just a solid informative program which guilted me into getting my wife to buy me a subscription to the mothership "Scientific American Magazine."  Anyhow, this week featured a two part program split into two episodes of an interview of Graham Farmelo.  Farmelo has recently authored a biography of Paul Dirac in the book "The Strangest Man."  Who is Dirac?  Yeah, I did not know either.  He was a British born theoretical physicist who contributed to science on the same order as Einstein or Heisenberg, and was exceedingly eccentric.  The discussion was amazing not just because of the tale relayed by Farmelo, but because Farmelo is a gifted storyteller.  Farmelo was clearly engaged in a labor of love in writing and discussing Dirac, and it is clear he has a great appreciation of his topic.  It is about an hour of combined listening, but the listener will not regret it.  

Righteous Indignation featured the central three Indignates of Trystan, Hayley, and Marsh.  The show started with a discussion of the large amount of feedback on the Unlucky Dip episode discussion with Alexis Tsakiris.  Not surprisingly, the feedback on the R.I. website was positive and supportive of Trystan, Marsh, and Gavin, but negative toward them as closed minded on the Skeptico site.  I discussed this exchange in an earlier blog post, but the Indignates report that from this episode they have received a lot of offers of expertise in statistics and other fields to assist in their investigations or discussion of various topics.  The Indignates think this is a brilliant idea, and it is a good way to group source knowledge.  I would be only too willing to assist with my vast skills in  . . . hum-m-m Lady and I are attorneys but I am not sure how that would help.  I majored in history in undergrad that might be of help.  Ike can spot a squirrel or rabbit from tens of yards away.  

Marsh shared his tale of being accused of making physical threats to Joe Power via a telephone call from the police asking if Marsh had threatened Power.  (Marsh hadn't.)  Marsh used this as a jumping off point on a humor-filled tirade on Power's inability to actually use his powers to help the authorities to catch various criminals.  Marsh also shared that if this was an attempt to quiet him or the Merseyside Skeptics it backfired as the allegation actually drove a record numbers of hits to the website.  

The guest was Bruce Hood, author of "Supersense: Why we believe in the unbelievable," which Hood made the podcast rounds with about a year ago.  Hood is also the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre, and one of the key people who put the kibosh on ADE651 bogus bomb detector.  The topics discussed were mostly a rehash of the premise of "Supersense" and why we innately are drawn to or away from inanimate objects such as a wedding ring, or psycho killer's sweater.  They also discussed how his ideas conflict in part and also support in part Prof. Richard Dawkins' thoughts on supernatural ideas being handed down from generation to generation.  They also had Hood discuss how he came to be embroiled in the whole dowsing rod bomb detector, and the current state of the criminal proceedings.  

One topic that I do not remember Hood discussing on other shows is how things such as weddings, Yule logs, mistletoe, and many other ceremonial functions have their roots in old paranormal beliefs, and on their face do not make sense.  

Finally, on the Token Skeptic, Kylie Sturgess interviewed Prof. Pamela Gay on the recent brouhaha focused on the old tension between skepticism and religious belief.  This time it centers on off-hand comments made by Dr. Novella and Frasier Cain about bacteria not having souls when Cain and Gay were guests on the SGU.   I vaguely recalled the exchang, and thought nothing of it.  Gay is a Christian.  Therefore, some bloggers from P.Z. Myers, to a blog called Whiskey Before Breakfast, to Dr. Novella's Neurologica Blog, to Gay on her Starstryder blog.  Was the comment offensive to Gay?  Is Gay a skeptic?  Are skeptics lying to Gay that they accept her as a skeptic?  You get the picture.  

I must admit I have always enjoyed Gay's appearances on various podcasts I have listened to over the years.  She is a frequent guest of "Skepticality" and the "SGU."  I never even stopped to think about her religious beliefs.  From everything I have heard and have briefly delved into going through the above blogs, she appears to be a solid scientist and well regarded educator.  I wish I had time to listen to her podcast with Cain, but then my podcast cup would overflow worse than it does now.  

Gay explains her position on her beliefs and how she sees them against, next to, or next door to her scientific world.  Basically, she sees one as faith not based upon evidence and filling the hole of an ethical and moral world, and science as filling the evidence-based part of her world.  Basically, you can't test god, so she does not.  Myers basically notes that he considers Gay a skeptic, but she just is not a skeptic about religion.  To me, Gay sounds like a perfectly lovely, reasoned, intelligent human being.  Faith, belief, religion, god, spiritualism etc. is part of the human condition, and everyone handles it in a different manner.  To a certain extent, I sympathize with Gay's position in dividing up the world into two realms.  I do think there is some cognitive dissonance going on with Gay, but he who is not without purity of rational thought cast the first stone.  

Oh wait.  Speaking of being rationally pure and without skeptical sin, Point of Inquiry featured an interview of Tom Flynn, Executive Director of The Council for Secular Humanism and Editor of Free Inquiry magazine, by Robert Price.  (Or at least their ample beards had a discussion; they did not specify.)  Flynn discussed his religious upbringing, and how he slowly went from faithful Christian to kinda spiritual to atheist.  Price has been interviewed on numerous podcasts and I believe he was on POI a number of times when Grothe was the interviewer.  

On the one hand, I respect the heck out of Flynn for his work on skepticism and rationalism.  On the other hand, I wonder if his dogged determination to not be irrational has led him to sacrifice some of the enjoyable bits of (as Dr. Novella has noted) the human condition.  Price and Flynn discuss how Flynn rejects many of the ceremonies of life passages such as marriage and funerals.  Maybe it makes me a less pure rationalist but I really like being married and flying to Vegas and getting hitched.  Sure, weddings are based in a religious ceremonial context, but it is just part of being human.  Why, ever since the morning after I got hitched and remembered in the shower that I was now married gave me that feeling of being part of a team I don't know.  Some would say it was the spirit of the gods, and others say it is programmed in by evolution.  I would go with the latter, but whatever the reason it is a nice part of being alive.  I would hate to see Flynn miss out on all these sorts of things.  I respect Flynn.  I even admire his ability to be so exacting in living out what he thinks is rational.   

I hate making this personal but I would imagine a lunch with either Flynn or Gay would be fascinating, but I also suspect that I'd look forward to knowing Gay on a continuing social basis, and Flynn not so much.  After all, you could never expect a wedding present from him.  

Sturgess does it again with a compelling interview on a difficult topic, which deserved and received a proper treatment.  I recommend the Gay interview highly.  I cannot say that I agree with Gay a great deal, but I do understand her decision and do not doubt her skeptical chops.  Flynn is always an interesting interview, and Price a lively interviewer.  Although I do miss Grothe's ability with these types of interviews to play the devil's advocate.  

Righteous Indignation does not disappoint, and Marsh's tale of his run in with Power and Johnny law is wonderful.  

I know I missed a lot of meat of the various above podcasts, but all of the above are worth the listen.  

Also, as the loyal reader knows, I am a MacHead.  I just love all my Apple products from iPod Classic to my new iPhone.   I plan to start throwing in my thoughts about dubious iPod or iPad Applications as I run across them.  Today it is Aroma Therapy Version 1.9.  This application helps the person in need of Aroma Therapy pick out the best oils to use and apparently the mixture to achieve the desired outcome.  Even Apple has not figure out how to have an odor dispense from your iPod Touch, but it will tell you what you have to do to get that smell a work'n.  Unfortunately, the iTunes page contains a screen shot of a page with a recommendation for "Recently having frequent fights with boyfriend/girlfriend."    I do not know the answer, but you can find out for the sum of only $2.99 once you download it onto your iPhone or iPad.  As the website warns, do not use this app until you have consulted with an expert.    


  1. Hello,

    I'm as skeptical as you can be of parapsychology, but I was really disappointed by the R.I. team intervention on Skeptiko. I thought their argumentation was pretty lame, with a lot of really silly arguments. So I think you misrepresented reactions when you wrote: "Not surprisingly, the feedback on the R.I. website was positive and supportive of Trystan, Marsh, and Gavin, but negative toward them as closed minded on the Skeptico site.". I think that you can be a skeptic and see that it was a big fail on the R.I. team part. Don't need to be on the Skeptico site for that.

    I must say, I've been a listener of R.I. in the past. Don't know if I'll bother anymore...

    With skepticality,

  2. Jean, I completely disagree with you.

    You commented on Trystans facebook wall:

    "The 50/50 argument is just silly, because anybody who studied probability knows that you can combine the probability of several trials and then see how that serie is probable in itself. Of course 1 toss of a coin gives a 50/50 chance to get head or tails, but if you toss the coin 10 times and gets head every single time, you can calculate the odds ... See moreof that serie happening, and it's not 50/50. That's probability 101: Students in psychology study that the first year of college."

    It's a weak-ass control, it's open to flaws. It would be a lot better to have, as Marsh said, the real name and say, three false names. It rules out error through forced choice.

    It was not a big fail from the guys from RI as they were not the ones providing logical fallacy after logical fallacy.

  3. Jean is right about his probability comments and I was first to admit that I was off the ball when the recording was made. These things happen; nobody else should get worked up about it as the only person who looks silly out of it is me. Even then I just shrug my shoulders as I had an off night (it happens to us all and anyone who says otherwise is having a laugh) due to excessive tiredness. The research was done and I'm not normally so completely unintelligent with basic probability, especially as I've taught the simple stuff in the not too distant past! If that is fail enough for someone to stop listening then so be it. At the same time, we've never pretended to be academics or experts (even then, consider Phil Plait vs Joe Rogan...it can happen with the best for one reason or another). We're just three people who have an interest in skepticism and rational thought.

    Yes, I got things wrong. Lesson learned. I'm over it.

    Nigel, from the feedback we received on RI you haven't misrepresented those people who have voiced their views to date. The overwhelming opinion we had from RI listeners was supportive and peppered with constructive comments and advice. So much so that it has inspired us to start bringing together a team of unofficial consultants.


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