Monday, October 6, 2014

Rationally Speaking - it's not all sunshine and backslapping for skepticism

The latest episode of Rationally Speaking was a quite interesting and engaging episode.  The only downside to it was the sound quality was uneven.  It was annoying but did not take away nearly enough to stop listening.  

a few dark clouds over the happy castle of skepdom
Hosts Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef joined by guest Dr. Steven Novella engaged in about an hour long discussion on skepticism which was followed by a question and answer session.  There was a Q and A as this episode was recorded live at Baruch College.  The entire episode was a very blunt and thoughtful discussion on skepticism itself and some of the errors or mental traps skeptics can fall into while attempting to be critical thinkers.  The overriding message of the discussion was that skepticism is hard.  One is constantly having to make judgment calls, and continually call into question one's own prejudices. Just knowing all the logical fallacies and throwing them out in the midst of debate of a topic falls short.  Perhaps even far short of actually exercising the tools of scientific skepticism.  Also noted by Dr. Novella was that the cultural competition is learning to turn logical fallacy naming in their favor.  They are trying to at least sound like us even if they are doing it backwards.  (I suspect the unspoken underlying thought put forth is that perhaps some skeptics are doing it backwards too.)

Touched upon during this episode are the pitfalls of mixing skepticism with a political or ideological goal.  My take away is that Dr. Novella is less willing to skirt such a line, and avoids such mixing wherever possible. Pigliucci is more willing to risk it.  However, everyone seemed to agree it can get very murky very quickly.  Dr. Novella ably noted that the risk is that one will confuse their own value judgments for skeptical or critical thinking analysis.  This caused me to ponder that once one confuses a value for a fact things can get messy, and ugly ala my daily twitter feed.

Another highly interesting topic touched upon is "the framing issue." It sure seems that skepticism has had and continues to have problems getting its message to the public.  Just giving the facts based upon the best evidence available and sharing the scientific consensus on matters and then assuming reason will prevail on the public at large does not work.  How does one frame, and therefore to some extent manipulate, the audience so that people are more likely to go with reality, and not some more comforting or compelling untruth?  One can rattle off all of the evidence and sound science that the Earth's climate is changing, is changing rapidly, and human activity is the cause for this rapid climate change and get nowhere fast.  How does one tell people the truth without exaggeration or resorting to twisting the truth and yet get a broader swath of the audience to buy into the science.  It smacks of advertising.  How to sell reality with a twist smacks of deceit.  Yet, a better way to message to the public is vital to actually accomplish anything other than to meet at cons and read blogs within the skeptical community.  

In order to tackle some of the above issues, Dr. Novella and Dr. Pigliucci have joined forces and are in the beginning stages of authoring a book on scientific skeptical thinking.   They still are not sure if it will be more like a text book or something authored for a wider audience.  I agree that a new text on the basics, and sharing what they have observed and learned on how skepticism has fallen down would be useful.  It sounds like a large undertaking, and a big pain.  I hope they are able to follow this through to completion.  
The Who gets it

In part, I think I was so taken in by this episode because I have been noticing over the past couple years a shift in the skeptical landscape.  As I listened to the episode, it struck me that many of the topics noted above have been touched upon by the crew at Skeptics with a K.  Marsh, Colin, Mike, and Alice have noted a few times that skepticism is more than just tossing out logical fallacies in an online debate.  Someone's logic could be terrible but still correct in the assertion and vice versa.  Marsh as a guest on the Skeptic Zone talked about how skeptics should portray themselves to the public to not just piss people off.  This touches upon the framing issue.  

Skepticism, if not broke, is surely not firing smoothly on all cylinders as of late.  This was one of the few times that a discussion of the problems of skepticism was an actual introspective review and not a cover to bitch at what some other group or person was doing wrong within skepdom.  Being skeptical is hard.  It's not cut and dried, and takes a lot of energy which nobody can ever do 100% of the time.  This podcast I hope is a nice jumping off point. If not for a civil general discussion on failing within skepticism, then at least causing folks to take a moment to ponder the issue for one's self.  

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