Monday, July 12, 2010

Righteous Indignation, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, and Point of Inquiry

Righteous Indignation featured the "classic" line up of Trystan, Hayley, and Marsh.  The most interesting discussion of the episode was started by the Indignates explaining why they have had a large number of skeptics on the show as guests and so few proponents of the paranormal as of late.  In part, they surmised it has to do with some of the more rude and ridiculing comments left on the website and facebook page that turns proponents off.  This lead into a discussion, which is a topic of interest on the twitter-sphere, of just how polite should skeptics/rationalists should be to believers.  As always, the Indignates takled the topic head on and basically concluded that being rude is not the best way to convince believers that they are  in error.  Hayley discussed how when she was a believer in ghosts and told people she was a ghost hunter and believer, she did not take warmly to ridicule.  The group discussed whether it was proper to use the term "woo."  Hayley is basically opposed to its use as it is demeaning.  Marsh is less opposed and thinks it is okay as long as the one saying woo is willing to defend his reason in open debate.  (I am way over simplifying the discusion and doing a large amount of paraphrasing.) I have some rather large amount of sympathy for this point of view of being civil to the "other side."  Yet, while I enjoy Prof. P.Z. Myers blog, but do not consider myself a devotee of all of his thoughts and style, I also find merit in Myers' idea why not ridicule the ridiculous? (I am paraphrasing a tweet from Myers which I cannot for the life of me track down at the moment.)  Perhaps I am rowing in the same boat as Dr. Novella who thinks there is room and use for both the polite and ridiculing forms of skepticism.  While Daniel Loxton takes a pure rationalist viewpoint and proposes finding out what works best in convincing people of their rational foibles and do what the science says.  Bring on the studies.

The above is not exhaustive, but representative of the many viewpoints on the appropriate tone of skepticism.  I think, and this is not based on any studies, that it is much easier to plow ahead being a ridiculing skeptic than it is to be a more polite skeptic.  I say this because after the Indignates discussed being civil skeptics on the next news segment of the million ghost march upon TAM, there was audible giggling by one of the Indignates as the story was being shared.  I will grant you a million ghost march whether a serious idea or a joke is giggle worthy.  This irreverent style is something that I truly enjoy about the show.  Yet, if I were a believer and I was asked to be on the show, and I heard a co-host giggling at something which I took seriously, I do not know how inviting I would consider the show.  This is not some terrible failing of the show or skeptics, we all are just human.  The Indignates are exceedingly civil and courteous to all of their guest skeptics or believers.  It does go to show just how difficult it can be to be consistently be respectful despite the best of intentions, and keep the show's vibrant spirit.

I do not know what the best tact is to win over believers.  I really do not.  We all cannot be Prof. Myers.  We cannot all be Hayley Stevens.  I suspect being nice to a believer won't win you the debate anymore than being quite frank with ridicule.  I suspect either way the idea is to plant the seed of doubt and hope it grows and wins out in the end.  Sometimes just ridiculing is a great way to let off steam and not worry about who might be offended in the moment.  I write a blog that preaches to the choir.  I am not a very convincing writer.  I'll let another have a go at it as they are likely to have a better shot than me.

(stepping off soapbox)

Ben Radford of the Skeptical Inquirer and truly science based paranormal researcher was the guest this week, and Hayley Stevens took charge of the interview.  Not surprisingly, some of the above noted material was discussed in the interview as well as the question as to whether doing paranormal research is a waste of time.  After all, it has been going on for quite a bit now and there has yet to be any reliable repeatable evidence for ghosts, bigfoot, crop circles, psi, etc.  Radford gave an interesting answer, which in part comes down to that we should continue the research/investigations as people continue to report odd phenomenon and if there is no "there" there, we should investigate why people think they are seeing/experiencing strange activities.  To me, this really is two separate things.  The first is whether something extraordinary is occurring.  If not, then why do people think ghosts or UFOs exist.  They are actually two separate fields to me.  I think Radford believes so too, but it was not entirely clear from the interview.

Radford, as always, is a seasoned interviewee, and Stevens asked cogent questions.  I do think Stevens sells herself a bit short as an investigator.  I mean, I never get off my duff to check stuff out in my area.

As is the norm, the Indignates offered an entertaining and thought-provoking hour of entertainment.  They named the new conspiracy theory winner, which was that England actually did not win the 1966 World Cup.  Now, as an American I had no idea England won the World Cup.  I thought the biggest thing to come out of England in 1966 was the Beatles landmark Revolver LP featuring George Harrison's excellent fiscal protest song "Taxman."  Nevertheless, the winner gave a pretty good yarn on how the 1966 win was faked in an effort for the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, to stay in office.  Despite my complete lack of understanding of soccer, I thought it was a worthy winner.  Congratulations to Declan, well done.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe was a prerecorded episode so really there were no news items. It was more topics of interest other than Quack Watch's Sydney Barret being sued by Doctor's Data.  Quack Watch has criticized the lab in the past for its work in supporting anti-vaccination groups with "data."  Luckily, Dr. Barret is being sued in the United States and not England so while being sued clearly is unfortunate, he will not have to go through what Simon Singh just endured.

All the Rogues were present sans Rebecca.  However, there was a guest Rogue this week in the form of Pennsylvania's own George Hrab - singer, skeptic, podcaster, and impeccably tailored bald guy.

All the Rogues gushed over Hrab, because let's face it, he has musical talent, a great trained speaking voice, and if he was of the bent to bed many ladies, he probably has.

Interestingly, Hrab was involved in two of the most thought provoking topics of the podcast.  The first was Hrab criticizing fellow musician, Pat Boone, for using the laws of physics as evidence to support the existence of god, and comparing god running creation as a casino runs its gaming tables.  Here's Boone's post, and I think Boone's logic is flimsy, but I am not quite sure why it had Hrab so indignate.  Hrab explained that it was Boone's use of scientists who were challenged by the Church as evidence for good that made him upset.  I take him at his word, but perhaps I am just dense or insensitive to the travails of past men of science.  Boone's argument other than comparing god to Bally's did not strike me as very original.

The Rogues also discussed an email that was sent to both the SGU and the Geologic Podcast asking why do people take the flag (The Star and Stripes) so seriously and should skeptics accept it.  Dr. Novella's take was basically people are tribal and as long as one does not get carried away with it, respecting a flag is a normal and acceptable part of the human condition.  Hrab, I believe, in a broad brushed manner agreed, but he did seem to think getting emotionally connected to any old flag was a bit odd.  Getting emotional about a particular flag, such as the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 makes much more sense.  It is still odd, but Hrab seems to find it more acceptable.  It was an interesting dichotomy.  I tend to disagree in that I see any flag as important not for the flag itself but what it represents.  In my case, it represents a set of values of law and freedom as well as where all my closest loved ones reside.  It is shorthand to me.  I get it.  Then again, when I have seen the Fort McHenry flag, I might get a bit more interested.

It was an interesting dialogue.

The show this week was a bit meandering, but the episode was more a solid placeholder than anything else.  It is worth the listen for the above two topics.  For the first time in a long time, I thought "Science or Fiction" was a bit disappointing.

Point of Inquiry was interesting since it featured an interview at freaking TAM8 with Adam Savage of the Mythbusters by Karen Stollznow.  They must have dashed back to the room after the interview, broken out Garage Band and mixed it in record time.  I thought it was pretty nice to get a TAM interview out so quickly.

Stollznow asked some of the more typical questions about what was Savage's favorite bits on the show, and what are the show's future plans.  The good news is that the show has been renewed for a number of new seasons.  Savage and Jamie Hyneman are in the process of working on other television projects some of which may come to a TV near you somewhat soonish, maybe.  My only fear when I hear such things is that I hope that Mythbusters does not suffer from lack of attention when key people start spreading themselves out.

Stollznow also asked an interesting series of question on what types of topics are off limits for the show to handle, and Savage explained why the show will likely never do an episode on psychic reading or other psi notions.  Savage went on to explain what it is like for him to be in the public eye and a skeptic as well as an atheist.

The interview clocks in at under 30 minutes, and Savage is clearly comfortable and seems to be quite himself in the non-hyper television persona way.

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