Sunday, April 28, 2013

SGU and SWaK on being skeptical of the skeptics.

I have not commented upon the Skeptics Guide to the Universe much in the recent past.  The SGU is a very solid production which is predictable in its execution, so there is typically not a lot of interesting things to comment upon.  However, the lastest episode of the SGU 406 contained a interesting discussion regarding a topic covered the previous week regarding Bitcoin.  The segment consisted of the Rogues and in particular Jay Novella admitting that they had under-researched the segment on Bitcoin.  Dr. Novella lead the discussion talking about how they ought to do research on a topic, and it is important to track back the research to original sources of articles as well as to try to determine if there is a general consensus view on a topic from scientists or experts in the particular field.  Jay described how he went about his research starting a Wikipedia and then following the cited sources.   The problem with Bitcoin is that it is a really complex, mysterious, and highly controversial topic. Is it money? Is it a scam? Who runs bitcoin? Is this a weird internet fad? There does not appear to be a consensus on it by experts on any of it. I am not even sure what experts one would look to with Bitcoin: economists, tech engineers, businessmen, currency traders?  I recall hearing the discussion on the SGU about bitcoin very near in time with a discussion on Bitcoin on This Week in Tech, and the two discussions did not jive very well.  Yet, I did not follow up on how different Bitcoin was presented between the two podcasts.

I applaud the SGU for admitting when a segment was not up to snuff.  On the other hand, it does show how much a listener (or at least I) take on face value when listening to a podcast.  Yes, I know.  I know.  Don't take a podcast show's presenter's facts and opinions on a topic on face value, and do your own research.  It is what skeptics are supposed to do, but in all likelihood don't really do.  Who has time to research the four or five topics presented on a Virtual Skeptics, the SGU, and similar topical discussion podcasts.  I lack the education and training to intelligently question many of the topics discussed by Dr. Stuart Robbins on his Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast.  Dr. Robbins is the expert on Astronomy and I tend to take what he says on face value.  

In the same vein Skeptics with a K released an entire episode where all the stories on the episode were made up.  I listened to the episode on a train ride home from Philadelphia, and as I recall it was a goofy episode, especially the last segment on the Mersey river monster.  If I was a good and diligent skeptic, I should have started researching the topics to discover they were bogus on my own.  Yet, as a crummy skeptic, I was more meh that's some weird stuff and moved on with planning dinner and walking the dog.

What is a skeptic to do other than accept our trusted podcasters as nobody has the luxury of time or the expertise to be skeptical at all times and double check what one is discussed.  My main thought is to be more on guard, and not trust what you hear just because it's Michael Marshall or Jay Novella discussing a topic.*  And be aware that there are times those that you take a face value could be incorrect, and be willing to admit your initial thoughts on a topic based upon the podcast discussion are wrong and move on. I suppose this is the way of a good realistic skeptic.

Mars.  A place to visit, but not stay
like Las Vegas or Orlando
As long as I am posting on the SGU, on the latest episode The Rogues spent a fair amount of time discussing Mars One a planned reality show where people train to be selected for a one way trip to Mars.  To me it's kind of a crazy notion that a television show will send people to Mars never to return.  In fairness the Rogues seemed to think the chances of this actually coming to pass were slim.  However, I kept hearing in my head the late Perry DeAngelis interjecting his gruff 'Are you guys crazy, sending people to Mars.'  Maybe, Perry would not have had such an opinion if he were alive.  There is no way to be certain.  However, it is times like these that the Perry jolt of reality likely would have come in handy.  Yes, I still miss Perry.

Of note, on the latest Just Skeptics podcast Trystan Swale is the guest panelist.  It was an overall entertaining episode, but Trystan's soapbox (spoiler alert) on the Boston bombings struck a chord with me.  I tend to agree with Trystan's take on the interaction of the media, social media, and the jump to conspiracies that took place immediately after the event.  Swale's take on an American accent have me concerned if I really do sound like that.

Dr. Stuart Robbins on his Exposing PseudoAstronomy blog has his list of favored podcasts.  What struck me was how his post on this topic was organized, which was different from mine.  Mine, as is my style, is meandering and wondering.  His set up was orderly and in alphabetical order.  It is a good list.  The post reveals how his analytical mind differs from my not so analytical mind.

*Yes.  I understand that Marsh and the rest on SWaK were trying to prove a point that was well taken.  

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