Saturday, July 31, 2010

Skeptoid, Conspiracy Skeptic, Scientific American Podcast

Once again, a popular topic of discussion in the land of skepticism was how to behave and best confront (for lack of a better term) those who are proponents of ideas that are lacking in evidence.  What I still like to refer to in shorthand as woo.  While I believe this is a topic that will never, and likely should never end, I do look forward to when the current wave of discussion dies down a bit.  There are other topics to discuss, and I am not referring to the skeptic/religion question.

This week's episode of Skeptoid featured the topic, the things we eat.  The show was a primer on what makes up the basic building blocks of food, and what we need and why we need to eat it.  Dunning shared that this episode grew out of an episode on the notion that people should not drink cow's milk, but then Dunning realized that all these food topics had a common thread of misunderstanding.  Therefore, instead of tackling a specific topic he chose a broad brush approach.  Basically, the take home from the episode is that all food breaks down into the same five or six items, and therefore, other than getting a proper balance of these building blocks, how you get it is far less important to overall health.  All the information was good, but I had two problems with this episode.  The first is that the brush in this approach is a bit too broad for what Dunning is attempting to do.   While Dunning put in an appropriate number of caveats how general this show was going to be on such a complex topic, a number of shows covering the topic may have been more successful.  The other problem is this episode was uncharacteristically boring.  Normally, Dunning hits the reader with a lot of information in a quite interesting burst, this episode felt like a science class lesson.  Overall, for me something just felt off on this one.

Now I am not sure, but after listening to the latest episode of the Conspiracy Skeptic with host Karl Mamer, I think Karl just might have attended The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  I am not sure, but Karl sure did seem to mention it a lot.  The reader should be the judge.

Karl interviewed co-host of the Righteous Indignation Podcast, Trystan Swale on the topic of crop circles.  While I do try and be objective in my commentaries, I do not blame the reader if one were to question my objectivity on this episode.  Karl has graciously posted numerous times to this blog.  Karl has been a past guest on Swale's podcast.  I have been a guest on Karl's podcast.  Swale has generously commented and added posts to this blog too.  We could be accused of being an old boy's club replete with red leather wing-backed chairs, cherry pipe tobacco aroma in the air, with brandy snifters for all.  With this being noted, I just happened to enjoy the episode.

As I noted, the whole "don't be a dick" topic is being beat down in the skeptical world at this time, but I did appreciate the discussion that Karl and Trystan shared on this episode.  Neither one seemed to be pushing for a pure (or near) black or white position on what is the best method of approaching believers. I do find it heartening that Trystan and his co-host Hayley were once believers in ghosts, but then came around to a more rational approach to the topic.  This does come across that Trystan (and Hayley) truly do not wish to be rude to those who still have a less than evidence -based world view or belief.

Trystan and Karl discussed the history of crop circles which date back to the Enlightenment period of English history up to the modern day.  I learned a new term, "Cropy", for those who think some paranormal activity creates a large number of circles.  They discussed the history of known crop circle hoaxers and why someone might wish to create a circle(s).  Trystan discussed how one day a crop circle proponent can suddenly find himself on the outs of the cropy community and be seen as heretic.

Trystan's easy and dry wit was in full force, and Karl's laid back interview style kept the interview moving and engaging.  Trystan will be attending the Weird 10 pro-paranormal conference with Hayley, and Karl is helping to plan a Toronto Skepticamp this autumn.  If you can attend the Weird conference to cover his back, you get to help a brother out and learn something from the other side.  If you go to Skepticamp, you get to learn from one of the most humble skeptics the world has ever known, and who might tell you a tale or two about TAM.  (Damn you Mamer, I am jealous.)

The Scientific American Podcast featured a two part panel discussion recorded at the last NECSS conference on arguing with non-skeptics.  The panel featured Steven Mirsky, D.J.  Grothe, James Randi, Pennsylvania's own George Hrab, and moderated by Julia Galef.  I know, I know gentle reader you are thinking "what? another discussion on talking rationalism and science with those woo folks.  Good grief."  Two things moderate this overkill on these two episodes.  The first is that the panel is just fantastic, and the second is that this was recorded well before Dr. Phil Plait's now infamous "Don't be a dick" talk at TAM 8.  I will not do a blow by blow of the episode, but bring up a few observations.

One thing that was brought up by the panel, which I have pondered lately, is just who are we (skeptics) trying to convince?  Should the target be to turn around those with woo thoughts, or should we go after those on fence and prevent new folks from falling into Oz?  While there are success stories of believers turned skeptic as pointed out by Randi on the panel, and as evidenced above with Trystan and Hayley, sadly I think these are exceptions to the rule.  While not giving up on anyone, a more fruitful area may be stopping the increase of believers.

I also appreciate the idea that while one should start off as respectful and kind at the start of a debate, if things gets a bit wooly then sometimes ridicule might be the best way to go.  Ridicule might cause some on the fence to think "hum-m-m maybe crop circles are not created by plasma beams controlled by alien intelligence."  The panel also wanders into the atheist/skeptic debate a bit, but never too much to get completely off track.

I enjoyed the discussion on not being a jerk on CS and on Scientific American, but now I hope this topic takes a back burner for a bit, and other topics can come to the forefront. In the end, I do not see Hayley Stevens or Neil De Grasse Tyson suddenly becoming giant P.Z. Myers ridicule machines, or Penn or Myers suddenly taking a kinder, gentler approach.  For me, it seems authenticity of the skeptic is key, since whoever you are trying to persuade or have a discussion with will likely pick up on how genuine you are at the time.  In a way, the skeptic is stuck with whoever they are.


  1. Log rolling is the way to describe it. I remember back during the boom, I would take money from you and post your banner ads. And then I would give money to you to post my banner ads.

    But ultimately, you get to hear a podcast host slightly out of his/her pond and comfort zone and the tables turned on them.

  2. > Should the target be to turn around those with woo thoughts, or should we ... prevent new folks from falling into Oz?


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