Sunday, September 23, 2012

Skeptics with a K, Skepticality


Two podcasts that I listened to recently struck me as quite thoughtful and introspective review of skepticism.

The first was Skepticality which featured a recording of a panel talk given at DragonCon, "Attracting a Mix -- Skeptics & Believers."  The panel consisted of Tim Farley of What's the Harm, Nicole Gugliucci the Noisy Astronomer, and hosted by Sharon Hill of Doubtful News.  While the panel was geared toward how to keep communications open between the cultural competition and skeptics, the discussion also touched upon who is the target for skeptical outreach.  The consensus appears that skeptics do not engage with 'believers' to convince them with a single blog post, at one debate, or with one YouTube video that their worldview or belief in some topic is wrong.  All a skeptic can do is plant a seed to get that audience thinking, and the real question skeptics ought to be pondering is what is the best way to deliver and plant that seed.

The other interesting issue that was discussed is the internal debate topic among skeptics (at least since Phil Plait's 'Don't be a Dick' talk at TAM) as to what the tone should be in debate, especially on websites.  The panel discussed the pros and cons of having a strict moderation on comments, and when it might be smart to leave angry and/or poorly thought out comments on line.  A member of the audience shared that he had a very open approach and did very little moderating and let everyone have at it.

It was an interesting discussion, and well worth the read.  This is especially the case for those who have a blog, podcast or some other media outlet.  I think it caused me to think just who is my audience.  Really, the Skeptical Review is unintentionally more infrastructure for skeptics to read my thoughts on other skeptical projects than outreach for non-skeptics to learn something that might bring them around from an irrational world view.  Clearly, nothing is so black and white.  I am sure that non-skeptics run across my blog, but really I am gearing this to those who are 'within the club' and want some guidance on what is some good media to consume or what I thought about a particular topic.

Then, Skeptics with a K was interesting episode with two segments that struck me as very worthwhile listening.  The first segment was Mike, Marsh, and Collin discussing their recent test of the Shuzi band.  The test which has received some notoriety was of a rugby player kicking 100 field goals (I don't know if it is called a field goal in rugby, but it looks like an America style field goal kick.) while being blinded as to whether the kicker was wearing the band or a sham band.

Rugby ball: bizarro world football
used in the scientific endeavor 
The gang has discussed the test in depth in a previous episode, but what I found interesting was how self critical they were on their test.  They could have used more kicks for greater statistical confidence, but what was most interesting is what the test did show.  The test did not show that the band did not work, but the test did show that the shuzi band did not make a difference in the outcome.  Now I had to listen to this section of the podcast to wrap my mind around it, but what I found interesting was the willingness and desire to be self critical to be accurate in the results.

Marsh had a segment where he discussed the Skeptiko podcast.  The Skeptiko podcast is an endeavor by Alex Tsakiris, which is a self described skeptical podcast with the slogan "Science at the tipping point."  The show has a history of scientific skeptics appearing on the show, and it rarely ends well.  Marsh shared his views on Skeptiko podcast, and his personal history as a guest on the show when he was on it along with Trystan Swale.  Marsh opined where Skeptiko gets it wrong, or at least should improve things.  What was more interesting is that Marsh used his observations of Skeptiko as a touch stone on how he listens to Skeptiko (and other cultural competitors) media to check to see if he makes the same mistakes.  Mistakes such as accepting someone's view on some matter not based upon the underlying facts and arguments but on past association or past work done by the person.  Mistakes such as referring to people one agrees with by their first name, but disagree with by their last name.  Mistakes such as building up the credentials of one that one agrees, but dismissing or downplaying the credential (even if they are legitimate) of those with which you disagree.

Marsh touched upon that sometimes our cultural competitors can come across as arrogant or rude, and that skeptics too can be guilty of such actions, but it ought to be guarded against to be more welcoming.  Skeptics can make the same mistakes as anyone.  For me the exercise of listening to not only the cultural competition, but also how just regular folks perceive skeptics is a vitally important effort.  One I do not do enough, nor do I think does the community of skeptics as a whole.  Skeptics have a lot on our plate, so it is understandable to an extent.  However, complacency is always something to be weary of of becoming.  

I would suggest both of the above episodes.  I always worry that with skeptical jargon and a common knowledge base that skeptics might appear to be some online clan or cult.  Instead of appearing welcoming, skeptics looks like some self righteous tools to the general public.  This would be a shame.

-The reason the font is helvetica is because I watched a documentary on the font helvetica called Helvetica. It was quite interesting.  

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