Monday, June 9, 2014

Sticking with Expertise (or least good working knowledge)

Mike Hall on the latest episode of Skeptics with a K does a bang up job of investigating and debunking a recent internet video currently making the web rounds which purports to reveal that the second jetliner crashing into the world trade center on 9/11 was a computer generated image and not real. Hall comes to this conclusion based upon a reasonable investigation of available evidence, and he explains how he did it. I won't go into all the details on Hall's excellent bit of sleuthing as Tim Farley of Skeptools, and a whole bunch of skeptical goodness, has already written a nice piece on Hall's work.

What struck me other than Hall's excellent work was that Hall indirectly criticized and at least partially refuted Dr. Steven Novella's take on the same footage.  This is fantastic.  Not because there is something wrong with Dr. Novella, but because it is Dr. Steve "Your host of the SGU" Novella.  Dr. Novella is one of the leading lights of skepticism today, and Hall by doing his own independent verification of what was the likely cause of the video anomaly is a perfect example why not falling into line with authority is often a good thing.  

What I found even more interesting than Hall making excellent use of online map tools in his investigation was that Hall's background in technology came in handy in figuring out that the by the Truthers slowing down the frame rate of the original video the Truthers actually added artifact to the video.  What I have learned after listening to countless hours of Dr. Stuart Robbins is that photography and imagery is a complex business and the more one manipulates an image (all images in digital form are manipulated to some extent) the more artifacts can express themselves.  

Hall had the both the patience to do the online research and the technical background to figure out why the image had the anomalies.  Dr. Novella is clearly a smart man.  He is a great skeptic.  However, I think in this case Dr. Novella jumped to a conclusion that it was an optical illusion biased by his own background in Neurology.  He's human. It's no big deal.  When what was more likely the case in this video was less illusion and more technical artifact and basic geography.  

The longer I am a skepitc the more I shy away from giving my opinion in which I have little to no background.  I've been spooked by my own errors.  I was lucky enough to be a guest on the Conspiracy Skeptic three times. The first time on the JFK assassination I thought I did ok.  Around my college years I read a lot of JFK assassination books and I had just finished "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy."  It is a tome of a work, Vincent Bugliosi goes into astounding detail in it.  While I was not a JFK expert by any means I felt comfortable jabbering about the conspiracy ideas surrounding the late President.  My second time on CS I discussed the theory that the HMS Invincible was actually sunk during the Falklands War.  This had been a topic of some interest of mine since I stumbled upon it in college, and I knew fair amount about this particular war.  I was a history major.  This was right up my alley.  I was very satisfied with this topic.  However, the third appearance during which Karl and I discussed the alleged murder of Pope John Paul was a big gaff.  Church history is not my thing.  Papal history even less.  I felt like a fraud.  For the love of god don't listen to it.  It's just wrong.  I still owe Karl a beer for that episode.  

My point is that I learned I had better stay in my comfort zone and not just talk off the cuff about stuff I knew just a little.  One can get yourself into deep trouble and inadvertently spread bad information.  Now, nobody is perfect.  I like many people enjoy nice gab fest about stuff I know dangerous little, but just because someone is on a podcast or writes a blog doesn't mean they know what they are talking about at times.  

When it comes to optics I'll put more stock in what Mike Hall or Dr. Robbins opine.  When it comes to history or literature I'll put more weight in what Drs. Bob Blaskiewicz and Eve Siebert write at Skeptical Humanities.  On the topic of alternative medicine or evolution Dr. Novella is the guy.  Everyone has their strengths and I think we all should be mindful of them. 



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