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Dubito Ergo Sum



Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. --Carl Sagan



Updated: 2015-09-25T20:12:47.151-05:00

 



Moving Day!

2012-03-31T10:07:36.447-05:00

This blog has moved to http://www.dubitoergosum.net. Update your links and feed readers accordingly!



Shh!

2012-03-30T12:46:10.091-05:00

You might have noticed that the blog here disappeared for a little bit, and it may do so again, for reasons I'm not at liberty to divulge. The good news is that I'm finally migrating the whole shebang over to Wordpress, where it'll have its own domain name and everything (hopefully prompting me to post more frequently...we'll see). Anyway, the switch would be all over and done with already if Wordpress weren't so screwy with migrating comments. Hopefully in the next day or so, though, and then I'll tell all y'alls to change your links.



Internet Priorities

2012-02-09T19:13:11.224-06:00

The Internet readily accepts as polite the use of warnings to indicate when content might be inappropriate if your boss is walking by your computer screen.

The Internet readily accepts as polite the use of warnings to indicate when content might reveal the significant plot details of recent media.

But suggest that people preface content which might induce flashbacks in folks with PTSD or related stress disorders, and it's "hypocritical" and "arbitrary," and "control[ling] your sexuality."

Seriously?



Anointed with Oil

2012-01-14T17:30:50.106-06:00

I saw this on a church sign today (though I didn't have time to take a picture, hence the Church Sign Maker):
(image)

I think they might have misspelled "lube." On the other hand, I think I've found a new slogan for K-Y.



What is D.J. Grothe talking about?

2012-01-10T17:27:56.507-06:00

As long as I'm still on this basic subject, there's another claim that Grothe made which is being met with some serious skepticism, and rightly so. Here's the quote, emphasis mine: But I’d certainly hope that these “call-out” posts against various people in skepticism for real or supposed sins do in fact generate a lot of hits, because if they do not, I see little other real-world pay-off. I have been told by two people now who have been personally involved with one of the controversialist blogs that there has been explicit direction from that blog’s founder to this effect.The overwhelming chorus of responses to this claim has been to ask for names. Who are these "two people"? What "controversialist blog" are they involved with, and what was the nature of the involvement? Why does Grothe apparently accept their claims at face value, over the statements of other bloggers on these so-called "controversialist blogs" who have provided information that shows this is not the case?And those are all reasonable questions that Grothe needs to answer if this claim is meant to be taken seriously, and not as an intellectually (and otherwise) dishonest bit of mudslinging. But I had a different question when I saw this claim, one I haven't heard anyone address: what the hell is Grothe talking about?Because I don't know of many blogs at all that are run in the way that Grothe's claim suggests: a blog founder at the top, with writers (or other people involved) who are subordinate content-producers. In fact, of the blogs I follow (many of which, I suspect, Grothe would call "controversialist"), I can think of only two blogs that have anything like that structure: Friendly Atheist and Skepchick. Both of those sites have a (real or perceived) main blogger/"blog founder," and a host of other writers. Now, maybe these are the blogs that Grothe means to indict--in fact, I'd be surprised if Skepchick weren't on his list of "controversialist blogs." But how feasible is his claim if these are the blogs he's talking about? I've been scrolling back through the Friendly Atheist archive. So far, I've seen four posts on sexism/feminist issues; one written by Hemant, one written by a guest named Claudia, one written by regular contributor Megan Wells, and one (a comic) by regular contributor M J Shepherd. That's going back to December 22nd, and touches specifically on the Reddit incident and Penn Jillette's promotion of Mallorie Nasmallah's letter--only one post mentions any names and could reasonably be termed a "call out" post. Other microscandals from the intervening period--Ben Radford's bad science on dolls, the comments made to Greta Christina which have formed much of the discussion with Grothe--have gone unmentioned, so far as my quick survey found. In addition, I saw little if any evidence of other "controversialist" posts, going after prominent skeptical figures for "supposed sins." If the decree went down from Hemant on high, then it doesn't seem to have had much effect. There's far more commentary on religion and atheism in the news than on insider pool between skeptics at Friendly Atheist. So what of Skepchick? Well, they certainly comment on the sexism and misogyny issues, and were at the forefront of calling out Ben Radford, Mallorie Nasmallah, r/atheism, and last year, Stef McGraw and Richard Dawkins. Maybe this is the blog Grothe meant. Maybe MasalaSkeptic or Elyse Anders came to him and showed e-mails where Rebecca Watson sinisterly, tenting her fingers, ordered the Skepchick horde to attack the straight white men in the alls of skeptic power. It's the only way to explain all those posts, written by such diverse Skepchick writers as Rebecca Watson, Heina, Rebecca Watson, Rebecca Watson, Rebecca Watson, and Rebecca Watson. Oh. Well, clearly, if Rebecca's order from on high to attack the privileged leaders of the skeptical community actually went out, it didn't go very far. Grothe's claim is starting to look pretty dubi[...]



Is there an echo (echo, echo) in here?

2012-01-10T17:13:07.170-06:00

It seems like the accusation of various blogs and spaces being "echo chambers" is showing up more and more. In honesty, I've used it myself to describe various communities. In a particular recent example, D.J. Grothe of the JREF called the commenters of Greta Christina's Blog "ditto-heads." Others in related threads have referred to a collective of atheist and feminist blogs as "echo chambers" where dissenting opinions are stifled. Less charitable commenters, have referred to such environs with Godwin-loaded terms like 'lockstep' and 'brownshirts' and 're-education.' The most famous such "echo chamber" among atheist/skeptical blogs is at Pharyngula, where the horde simply parrots whatever PZ says, and violently assaults anyone who dares to disagree. Or so critics imply (or occasionally state outright). There are a couple of problems with this critique. The first is that it is not actually a critique. At least in many cases, it's used to dismiss the arguments of people in comment threads, or fans of bloggers. Used in this way, the "echo chamber" accusation becomes both an ad hominem and an argument from incredulity. The dismisser cannot imagine how a group of people could legitimately arrive at another position, and so they must be under the thrall of some charismatic leader. Thus, their opinions can be dismissed. Let's address the first part: that commenters in alleged "echo chambers" are necessarily swayed by the opinions of the charismatic leader at the top. I think, in most cases, this gets the causal relationship exactly backward. It's almost certainly true that there's a correlation between the opinions of a group of blog commenters or forum members and the opinions of the person(s) running the forum or blog, and it's almost certainly true that those opinions have been influenced by that writer. But these are not (at least in most cases) cult compounds. People are not isolated in locked rooms, forced to use Pharyngula as their only source of information and companionship. These are people who came to Pharyngula independently, and stayed of their own volition. In other words, I tend to read blogs (and magazines and books and watch TV shows and YouTube channels and so forth) written by people whose views generally agree with mine, who comment on issues that I care about, and who present information or opinions in an entertaining and/or informative manner. I suspect that this is almost universally true. I only have so much time to read and watch TV and listen to podcasts; why would I spend a majority or plurality of time on sources that don't interest me, enlighten me, or entertain me? This isn't to say that I wall myself off from alternative opinions (more on that in a moment); it means that I'm going to spend more time reading Skepchick and Pharyngula and Slacktivist than, say, Mike Adams' Health Ranger blog. And when I read the Health Ranger blog, I'm not expecting to actually learn anything new (except inasmuch as it might teach me new things about bad arguments, or lead me to do debunktional research), and I'm anticipating entertainment by way of hilariously irrational and terrible arguments, which may further entertain me by giving me something to write a blog post about. It doesn't mean I wouldn't consider Adams' arguments--I'll evaluate them based on logic and evidence, like any other claim--but I don't enter with high expectations. So, to the point of the "echo chamber," I think you'll find that blogs with established commenter communities tend to have commenters who agree with the bloggers because if they disagreed, they'd be reading other blogs. Which kind of reverses the whole cause-effect relationship tossed out by the "echo chamber" criticism. Commenters don't share the blogger's opinion because they're part of that community; they're part of that community because they share the blogger's opinions.And, of course, even with the infamous Pharyngula horde, there "lockstep"[...]



The "Now What?" Phase

2012-01-03T16:29:58.405-06:00

There seems to be a kind of life cycle of skeptical blogs. They start out all excited and frequent-posting, hitting all the usual Skepticism 101 topics, and trying to say something new or interesting about them. But eventually, I think every skeptical blog comes to the "Now What?" phase. You've hit alt-med and ghost hunting and cryptozoology and alien abductions and conspiracy theories and antivaxxers and maybe dabbled in a little religion. But once all that's done, where do you go? There are some choices:
  • Fade Away: There's only so many ways you can say that homeopathy is bullshit. Your posts are all there, archived for all time on the Internet, and there's nothing more to say. You walk away, and your blog slowly gathers dust.
  • Firefighting: Keep up with the woo-news. Jump on every new article or claim that pops into your feed or Google Alerts. It might be a little repetitive, but it'll at least be relevant.
  • Case Studies: Go after every specific story. Instead of talking about hauntings in general, look at each prominent haunting story on its own. Take every claim as new, examine it, and debunk as necessary.
  • Angling: Try to find new ways of talking about the usual skeptical topics. Maybe there's some larger themes you can draw conclusions about, maybe there are connections to other fields. Maybe it's just a matter of doing the usual topics as a webcomic or poetry.
  • Diversify: Change the blog focus. Maybe make it more personal, maybe talk about art or video games in addition to occasional skeptical topics.
  • Pioneer: Skepticism is a process, not a set of conclusions, so apply that process to new topics. Political claims? Social trends? Mores and traditions? They're rife for skepticism and doubt just like any other set of claims. You might end up doing a lot of your own legwork, but you'll have something new to say and show for it.
  • Quarterbacking: You may have noticed that there are a lot of other people who also agree that UFOs aren't aliens and Bigfoot is bullshit. You socialize with those people, online or off, and maybe there are some things that you see in this group that you want to praise, or decry. Maybe you think they should be doing things differently to attract more members, or make things more pleasant for people who are already in the group. So you voice some opinions, suggestions, descriptions, or decrees for the community at large.
In truth, I think most skeptical blogs and podcasts do some combination of most or all of the above. The problem comes when people visit a skeptical blog and are shocked--shocked, I say!--to see discussion that isn't strictly Skepticism 101 on a skeptical blog. "Why are you talking about X? X doesn't have anything to do with Chupacabras!"

And it might not. But if every skeptical blog spent all its time re-hashing Skepticism 101 topics, it'd get really boring really fast. If you can't handle skeptical pioneering or occasional quarterbacking, then maybe you should find blogs that engage in more of the firefighting and case studying and angling. But complaining that it's not strictly skepticism? Well, that just makes you look like an ass.



How the toothless eat gelato

2011-11-22T21:58:42.515-06:00

You've no doubt heard about the ludicrously-titled "Gelatogate" controversy, where Christian businessman Andy, owner of Gelato Mio in Springfield, MO, saw a bit of Brother Sam Singleton's atheist revival, got offended, and hung a sign that said Skepticon attendees weren't welcome in his store. He apparently came to his senses rather quickly (but not before irreparably damaging his Yelp and Google reviews and racking up a ton of bad publicity) and issued a pretty sincere apology (Blag Hag has the whole story). At this point, the story should be over--privileged Christian let his personal offense lead him to a bigoted action and learned a valuable lesson about how your actions have consequences, the end. But of course, it's not. Instead, it's become an excuse for the DBs to harp on Skepticon's atheist leanings and complain that atheists are harming the skepticism brand. In particular, Jim Lippard, who said that the "Root cause of Skepticon gelato incident was brand confusion over an atheist convention labeled as a skeptic convention." We can leave aside several points--that Andy saw only a little bit of one talk (a satirical revival, no less), and thus could have had the same reaction to any anti-religious talk (or comedy routine) at any skeptical conference, regardless of what proportion they actually made of the talks; that only 1/3 of the Skepticon events were explicitly about religion (assuming Dan Barker's was and Rebecca Watson's wasn't), with the rest being about genetics, math, critical thinking, and other topics; that this same thing could have happened if Andy were an anti-vax mom going to an anti-anti-vax talk at any other skeptical conference (or any of the "how dare you assault my beliefs" people who write in to skeptical blogs and the like), etc. We needn't consider those points because, after all, the DBs don't consider them (inconvenient for the narrative, don'cha know). No, let's focus instead on Andy's misconception that led to the whole process, because I agree with Jim Lippard that it's the source of the problem. Andy said "Once the store slowed down, I decided to walk down the street to learn more about the convention, fully thinking it was something involving UFOs (“skeptics”)." Jim Lippard might look at that and say Andy correctly understood what topics skeptics typically address, was at least open to the skeptical position on those topics, but was turned away by the bait-and-switch of running into a talk that ridiculed his religious beliefs. Another religious ally turned off to skepticism by atheists who continue to conflate the terms. We'll ignore, of course, that the same Andy has now had a consciousness-raising experience with respect to the rights of atheists to believe and speak as they wish, the wrongness of bigotry in any form, the consequences associated with acting rashly out of personal offense, and his own religious privilege, all of which appear not to have affected his openness to the points of UFO skeptics. I agree that this is a problem, the popular understanding that the set of topics that are addressed by skeptics completely overlap with the set of topics of History Channel shows that feel the need to consult a token skeptic. Someone like Jim Lippard might say that the solution is that skeptics need to focus more on those topics, and that atheists should be more forthright in the labeling of conventions that focus on atheist topics (ignoring, again, that 2/3 of the events at Skepticon had nothing explicitly to do with atheism, judging by the talk titles). The problem is one of mislabeling atheism as skepticism. Obviously I disagree, or I wouldn't be taking the time to post about it. The problem is not so much one of mislabeleing as one of blinders. The DBs have walled off atheism as a set of topics that deserve their own conferences and conventions, talks that don't have a place--at least i[...]



Am I Blue?

2011-09-13T18:40:59.593-05:00

I watch a fair amount of basic cable TV, and I don't have a DVR, which means I see a lot of commercials. Most of them are inoffensively awful and generally unmemorable. There are some standouts; Geico seems to get more annoying with every new commercial generation, the J.G. Wentworth jingle never fails to stick irritatingly in my head, and the FreeCreditScore.com band seems strangely sinister ever since I read Fred Clark's enlightening argument about credit scores. I will, however, admit to a general love for the goofy, transparent commercials of the obviously shady "Education Connection," especially this one.

But the reason I'm writing this post is because of Blue Tax. If you haven't had the pleasure, Blue Tax is one of the many organizations that have popped up in this economy to allegedly help out people who owe back taxes. Tell me, would you trust these people with your money, let alone your possibility of prison time and wage garnishment?
width="420" height="345" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/Lh67uyFK-R0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>

Seriously, that's a commercial from 2010 at the latest; the company put it on their YouTube account in February of 2011. That animation would have been embarrassing fifteen years ago. ReBoot looked better than that--"Money for Nothing" looked better than that! If a company is so incompetent that they can't put together a commercial with computer animation technology--cheap, plentiful computer animation technology--that looks like it was made in this century, then why would anyone trust them to be competent with anything else?

There's a lot that I often don't get about commercials right now. I don't get why Skittles seems to want their delicious candy associated with absolute weirdness or why Mountain Dew felt it necessary to show a technicolor history of transients and hobos, but I can chalk that up to differences in marketing research or attempts to target a hipster demographic. I do not understand how a commercial this amateurish and unprofessional ever passed any organization's marketing department. I do not understand how anyone looked at this and said "yes, these stock poser animations of people clapping, people who are stylistically nothing like our rubber-faced elfin spokesperson, are perfect. Send that to the networks."

Unless the goal was to generate conversation about your business by putting together a laughably awful commercial that made you look completely incompetent and utterly shady, out of a misguided notion that any publicity is good publicity. In that case, mission accomplished.




Oh right.

2011-09-11T20:33:10.864-05:00

Now I remember.

I remember how 19 terrorists conspired to knock down some buildings, killing nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Arlington, and Shanksville.

I remember the confusion of the day, as news reports scrambled to report every bit of information, much of which turned out to be rumor.

I remember how quickly Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda came up in assigning blame, and wondering if it was premature.

I remember al-Qaeda taking credit, which mostly sated that skepticism--though obviously not for everyone.

I remember the sense of patriotism and vulnerable togetherness that gripped the country.

I remember rushing to set up donations at my high school, talking about the Gadsden flag in a college application essay.

I remember the days with no airplanes flying overhead.

I remember politicians scrambling as quickly as they could to wield the tragedy like a cudgel, so they could rush to unrelated wars and trade liberty for fake security.

I remember other politicians allowing it to happen, or going along with it out of misguided nationalist fervor.

I remember finding out about the memo that warned of the attacks, ignored at our peril.

I remember "mission accomplished."

I remember the United States committing war crimes for no tangible benefit.

I remember a President campaigning on his stellar terror record, which paradoxically included the worst domestic attack in U.S. history.

I remember the millions of dollars that went to no-bid contracts, the millions more that were lost entirely.

I remember the sinking of the economy on the backs of cronyism and corporate greed.

I remember the wars that have killed more on both sides than thirty 9/11s.

I remember a President campaigning on change, who left the horrors of torture and indefinite detainment and unchecked surveillance unchanged.

I remember the day almost ten years later when the man behind the attacks was finally caught, in a nation that claimed to be our ally, nowhere near our wars.

I remember the men and women still fighting those insane, costly wars, who cannot come home.

I remember that, even if they were to come home, corporate greed and political spinelessness would mean that they'd have no jobs to come back to.

I remember that terrorism means the use of attacks to spread fear and force action.

I remember what America was like before, and wonder how we let the terrorists win.



What was that again?

2011-09-11T07:46:02.635-05:00

I have the strangest feeling that I was supposed to remember something.



Credulous Books by Skeptics

2011-08-12T21:18:08.892-05:00

I've been doing some reading here and there, first to prepare for our awesome GenCon presentations, and then to get ready for the upcoming academic year. And in each case, some of the reading I've been doing has forced my palm to meet my face. First, as part of the last surge of brainstorming-and-research phase for our presentation on conspiracy theories, I read chapters from The Skeptic's Guide to Conspiracy Theories. It's an entertaining book, written as a critical examination of conspiracy nuttery with "penned-in" annotations by a conspiracy theorist caricature, or possibly just Alex Jones. Where the book really lost me, though, was in the chapter on the JFK assassination. In it, the author claims that the "magic bullet" theory--that a single bullet hit Kennedy, zig-zagged through the air, then hit Connally in at least two places, emerging almost unscathed--is an aspect of the official story. He also notes a litany of "suspicious" deaths that occurred to people peripherally involved with the assassination, and based on these traits assigned the JFK assassination conspiracy theory a fairly high degree of plausibility. Now, I'll admit that as far as conspiracy theories go, the JFK assassination is firmly ensconced on the more plausible end of the spectrum. In fact, Don and I put together this graphic of conspiracy theories that we didn't get to use in the talk, and you can see that we were generally pretty favorable to the JFK assassination buffs. See, JFK is right there in the "pretty darn significant" and "only somewhat batshit insane" section of the graph. And even that's largely because the secret has somehow been kept for over fifty years, and the conspiracies get pretty crazy pretty quickly. But it's not hard to imagine, what with his Communist sympathies, that maybe Oswald was put up to it, or that Jack Ruby was working for the mob, or something along those lines. That being said, the whole "magic bullet" thing smacks of not doing the research. The "magic bullet" is not a feature of the official story, but an anomaly seized-upon by the conspiracy theorists, based entirely on a misunderstanding of how Kennedy and Connally were seated in the car. When you account for the actual seating arrangement, with Connally sitting somewhat inboard and Kennedy elevated, the path of the "magic bullet" suddenly becomes a fairly straight-line path expected by an average bullet. And, of course, the "unscathed" bit is based on one misleading photo of the bullet; other photos show that it was all smushed in on one side and kind of twisted. So that soured me on Cook's book; if he could miss that bit of research--something that's easily found in any number of sources, from TV specials to Vincent Bugliosi's encyclopedia of the JFK assassination, Reclaiming History, then what else might he have missed? I own the book, so I suspect that I'll come back to it eventually--everyone makes mistakes after all--but it was a little disheartening to see a book with "skeptic" right there in the title, and one of the few readily available skeptical guides on conspiracy theories, make such an appeal to credulity. Fast-forward a few days, and my wife was looking to round out an Amazon order to get the free shipping. A book called Amazing...But False! had been floating around my "saved items" section of the Amazon cart for a year or three, and had recently dropped below $7. It seemed like exactly what I'd need for examples to stimulate critical thinking skills--there's a foreword by James Randi!--and so forth, so I had her add it. The book arrived today, and I started flipping through, reading items here and there. Most of them have been pretty good, although a lot of them were already pretty familiar. I was intrigued by one teased on the back of the book--[...]



Gen Con 2010 and 2011

2011-08-01T10:32:34.548-05:00

First, Don has posted video from two of last year's Gen Con skepticism panels. I can't watch it myself yet--my voice sounds all weird when I'm not hearing it through my bones--but I encourage all of you to do so, if you're so inclined. Here's our General Skepticism one, and you can view "Cargo Cult Science" at A Place for My Stuff or YouTube.
width="560" height="349" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/fZYNvMye-js" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>


Second, as you may be aware, Gen Con 2011 is this week, and the Skeptical Gamers are back in force, with a whole bunch of panels and presentations to expose skepticism to the gaming masses. Somehow I got myself involved with four of these presentations, but don't let that keep you from attending. There are lots of other awesome people involved, and if you happen to find yourself in Indy, I recommend dropping by. Feel free to come up and say hi!



Do, or do not

2011-07-06T10:45:25.079-05:00

I'm watching "Selling God" on Netflix Instant, on a whim this morning. It's only half an hour in so far, and it's all right. It's no "God Who Wasn't There," which I go back to now and again, but it's definitely aiming for a similar tone and format, with a focus instead on how religion, and Christianity in particular, markets and spreads itself.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about Romans 7:15-20, which just got quoted in the film. Read through this:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
I get that the passage is talking about man's sinful nature causing him to make bad choices, and I suspect that it's a lot less tongue-twistery in Greek, but holy cow, look at that. I don't know if anyone else remembers the slapstick comedy New Testament I proposed way back when, but this passage put me in mind of it again. Can't you just hear that passage being read by Jackie Mason or John Moschitta or the late Rodney Dangerfield? It'd be hilarious.



Failing Massively at Language

2011-06-27T22:41:51.659-05:00

Every now and again, I see this group (or page or whatever the kids are calling them now) pop up in my Facebook feed: "Changing the meaning of FML to Feeling Much Love," and I rub at the bridge of my nose and shake my head a bit. I've talked before about the problems inherent in trying to exert conscious control over language, and this situation highlights a bunch of those problems. For the uninitiated, "FML" is Internet shorthand for "fuck my life," and the term was popularized by the website FMyLife.com, where users submit amusing stories about unfortunate events in their lives. It serves much the same purpose for the Internet as similar sections in "Reader's Digest" or "Seventeen" magazines (shut up, yes, I've read "Seventeen"). Know Your Meme tracks the origin of the initialism to 2009, when FMyLife started as the English-language version of French website Vie de Merde, and popularity peaked shortly thereafter. The F My Life book was published in mid-2009, representing what appears to be the last spike in popularity before a very long downward slope that has largely plateaued.So, there's your first problem: the time to attempt to change the meaning of this phrase was two years ago, when it was actually popular and not just part of the background noise of the Internet, the out-of-vogue memes that make up our online vernacular. Going after "FML" now is a little like starting a campaign to make "all your base are belong to us" into a campaign to promote community softball programs or "ate my balls" into a meatball advertisement. The ship has largely sailed, and any attempt to address the term has to clear the hurdle of making the term relevant again. The second is a matter of bottom-up vs. top-down engineering. The initialism "FML" developed from the "F My Life" phrase, which itself developed as a catch-all term for things that people actually say. Know Your Meme has a clip from "Superbad" where the phrase is uttered, but precursors like "fuck me" or "why me?" and the like are easy to find. Ultimately, "FML" developed naturally out of things people actually say, and moreover, a feeling people actually have. It's a very natural, bottom-up development of a new term. Trying to redefine the initialism is a top-down attempt at imposing control. It's trying to impose a new meaning over something that developed naturally, which puts it in several difficult positions. For one, it's awkward: "Fuck my life" is a full sentence, "feeling much love" is a verb phrase, and a weirdly-concocted one at that. Unlike "fuck my life," "feeling much love" is not something you're likely to hear someone say. "FML" developed as a general term for a lot of other phrases describing the same thing; even if people are "feeling much love," it's not something they routinely say. It's certainly not something that's likely to accompany pithy, amusing stories--more likely cloying, sappy ones. In any case, the number of people trying to impose this change, almost by definition, is much smaller than the number of people who defined and popularized the term in the first place. Even with the term's fall from memetic prominence, this campaign is farting against a strong wind. Then there's the matter of how one would accomplish this. If it's just "let's start a Facebook group and get everyone on-board," then it's a symbolic exercise at best, with almost no chance whatsoever of enacting actual change. But let's assume that the thirty-odd members of the group are a little more gung-ho about this change. One of them writes a blog post about their big family reunion, and how five generations were represented, and everyone had a wonderful time and took a big picture and a great meal, FML. [...]



Ch-ch-chain

2011-06-23T17:46:57.432-05:00

As far as I know, there's no video of the talk I gave last year at GenCon on the subject of Chain Letters and E-Mail Forwards. Thankfully, "Weird Al" Yankovic has kindly summarized it:
width="640" height="390" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/EPkSjtbL8Bw" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>



The Indictment of Brian Dunning

2011-06-20T02:01:21.401-05:00

I figured I'd write a quick post on this, since I haven't seen much of anyone talking about it around the skeptical blogosphere. In case you missed it, Brian Dunning, of the Skeptoid podcast and Skepticblog, has been indicted for wire fraud, and potentially faces some huge fines and jail time as a result of it. The full text of Dunning's indictment is here, and it sounds pretty damning. Innocent until proven guilty, of course, but I have a hard time believing that these kinds of charges could be filed without some pretty solid evidence to back them up. Then again, until this weekend I thought "cookie stuffing" was what I did with E.L. Fudges and my belly this past week, so take it with a grain of salt.So, why should I blog about this? Obviously I don't think that Dunning's alleged crimes invalidate his arguments against homeopathy or conspiracy theories. The claims stand on their own, and so forth. But I do think it's important to keep a clean house. If I call out fraudsters and charlatans like Kevin Trudeau and Andrew Wakefield, but give Brian Dunning a free pass because I subscribe to his podcast, then I'm treading quite close to hypocrisy. And I think it behooves the skeptical community to do the same. We're a fairly small group with only a few media-prominent members; when one of them is (allegedly) committing fraud or making sexist remarks or spreading disinformation, then it's our responsibility to call them out first. Again, it's largely a matter of hypocrisy--if we're going to criticize liberal Christians for giving a free pass to Rick Warren or Pat Robertson, then we shouldn't be giving out free passes either. There's also an element of outrage-tinged schadenfreude. I like Skeptoid as a podcast, but there's no denying that the same stripe of foot-in-mouth libertarian-themed stupidity runs through Dunning's works as runs through Penn and Teller's. His early "new bill of rights" episode was an unfunny screed, and more recently his episode on DDT--which earned him justified criticism from just about everyone--provided a serious hit to his credibility. Not to mention the way his run-ins with sexism and serious gadfly syndrome (an example) have made him look like a giant douchebag. The outrage, however, comes from knowing that I enjoyed Skeptoid enough to do the $4/month donation for several months, finally caving to Dunning's frequent postscript pleas for money. The donation requests were interesting, since Skeptoid once billed itself as "the only podcast that does not accept donations or sponsors," which led gradually to 'it's easy to donate at 99 cents an episode,' to the more recent "if 2% of Skeptoid listeners donated 99 cents per episode, I could do it full time." If I'd known that Dunning's company had made $5.3 million over the span of a year or so, possibly through wildly illegal and unethical practices, then I highly doubt I'd be sending him that donation. I don't feel too bad about it--I keep buying seasons of "Bullshit," even if each one has an episode or two that I have no desire to watch--but it's still kind of bullshit to beg for money when most podcasters do it for free, and when you're making even a fraction of that kind of bank at your real job. It makes me feel worse that I gave into his begging, but haven't donated to other (better) podcasts like the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe or the Non-Prophets. If I were to do some armchair psychoanalysis, I'd say that the problem with being a libertarian (or having some apparent libertarian leanings, since Dunning denies the label) skeptic is that, as a skeptic, you're aware of lots of ways to fool people and scam them out of [...]



George Lucas is a Genius

2011-06-18T13:55:39.040-05:00

Crossposted from Movies Schmovies

Ever since The Phantom Menace, people have been complaining about how George Lucas ruined the Star Wars series through a series of stupid plot points and plodding movies. After all, he took two of the most badass, fan-beloved characters in the series...
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...and turned them into annoying, whiny bitches:
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Not only that, but it introduced annoying characters like Jar-Jar Binks and then proceeded to make them central to the mythos (go ahead, try to forget about him. Try to explain the backstory of the Empire, the driving force behind the trilogy that you actually like, without noting that Jar-Jar Binks cast the deciding vote to making Palpatine Emperor). It's really almost surprising that we weren't treated to a shot of young Han and Lando whining at each other over a game of space-marbles or something.

But while watching bits of Attack of the Clones on Spike today, I think Jon and I stumbled onto the truth. This wasn't George Lucas being some dumbass hack who can't write dialogue or a coherent plot, who thinks that political discussion between two unlikable one-dimensional characters belongs in the middle of the second film of a trilogy.

No, this was George Lucas, the genius who has had to deal with legions of Star Wars fans for the last thirty years. George Lucas, the man who couldn't escape from under the shadow of this fucking trilogy if he tried--and if he did, he'd still end up under the shadow of the Indiana Jones films.

So this is George Lucas's letter to the fans: Hey, you know those badass characters? Those mysterious and awesome people that you've been pestering me about for decades? Well, it turns out that they're whiny fucking bitches...Just. Like. You.

And man, after falling right out of Star Wars fandom, I can totally sympathize with that. Lucas knows that his fans want to identify with the characters, and so he's thrown them the biggest bone ever: now you can identify directly with Boba Fett and Darth Vader--the fans' favorite characters!--who have become whiny, obnoxious little shits that ruin the whole goddamn experience. It's...it's kind of brilliant in its spitefulness.

So good on you, George.



Disappeared for a Reason

2011-06-12T11:47:19.897-05:00

When I was a kid, I watched an assload of Unsolved Mysteries, and one of my wife's preferred background-noise shows now is Disappeared (and a myriad of other Dateline-type true crime shows). While the late Robert Stack was just as likely to talk about alien abductions or ghost sightings, the series did often talk of unsolved murders, abductions, and disappearances, the latter of which is Disappeared's raison d'être.

So a question occurred to me this morning, while the latter show was on: what if some of these "disappeared" people are in the Witness Protection Program?

I imagine the chances of that are pretty slim, but with all the hundreds or thousands of people who get profiled on these shows, it seems like eventually that number is going to come up. Then, suddenly, you've got the original names and faces and circumstances of disappearance and other vital information of two people in hiding broadcast on national television, almost certainly with some number or organization to contact if you have information about their disappearance. Seems like that would be an absolute nightmare for anyone in Witness Protection.

And I don't see a way around it, either. It's not like the US Marshals can provide a list of names to Investigation Discovery and say "don't do episodes about these people," can they? Wouldn't that be like making a hit list, saying "these people are still alive and in hiding, contrary to what the people who want them dead believe"?

It'd be interesting to know if this has ever happened, or how they prevent it, but I suspect a lot of that information might be kept secret.



XKCD tells it truly

2011-03-29T21:01:14.052-05:00

I've recently been a bit under the weather. After having a cold I couldn't shake and getting a week or so worth of antibiotics, I was having a host of appetite and gastrointestinal problems, so I went back to the doctor. In the sixteen days that had passed between visits, I'd lost ten pounds.

Now, having repeatedly fallen off the wagon with respect to my calorie-counting and exercise regimen, I was surprised to learn that I'd lost any weight at all, let alone what I knew was an unhealthy amount. Needless to say, my doctor was concerned. He ran some tests, and among the things he said he'd be looking for was the bacteria H. pylori.

I recognized the name immediately, though I wasn't sure of the connection until he elaborated that H. pylori is associated with peptic ulcers. My initial thought on making that connection was "Cool! I might be infected with H. pylori!" I proceeded to tell my doctor about the Nobel Prize that resulted from the discovery of H. pylori and its association with peptic ulcers (previously thought to be caused by stress and spicy food). Taking a page from comic books, and apparently just to prove a point, researcher Barry Marshall experimented on himself with the bacterial culture, giving himself gastritis, then demonstrated that antibiotics could treat it. Certainly it was a small sample size, but confirmation earned Marshall and partner Robin Warren the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine, and I suspect the 2005 Nobel Prize in utter badassery as well.

So the thought of being connected, even tangentially, to such an overwhelmingly hardcore demonstration of science excited me, despite the stomach aches.

Or, as explained by the illustrious Randall Munroe:
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On Educational Reform

2011-03-05T11:06:24.865-06:00

I don't like to talk about work on this blog1. Despite everything, I like to maintain a modicum of anonymity, especially with respect to my career. But I've had some recent conversations that touch on it, and I feel like venting a little. So, without much detail, I'll say that I'm currently employed as an educator. Most of what I'm going to say in this post is off-the-cuff and anecdotal, so take it with a serious grain of salt and do the research for yourself--and feel free to let me know if I've gotten anything wrong (but also feel obligated to direct me to a primary source).So, I had a recent conversation with a good friend about education reform, largely based around the claims of the film "Waiting for Superman." I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm inclined to skepticism--not just because of who I am, but also because of the counterclaims and responses that paint it as a kind of anti-union propaganda piece, the "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" of public schools. This Washington Post piece isn't exactly the point-by-point rebuttal I'd like to see, but it echoes the sorts of responses I've heard from the unions and others.So let's start with the basics: there needs to be reform at nearly every level of the process. Let's start with one of my favorite topics in this conversation: teacher education. My own experience is still fairly recent, and while anecdotal, I feel like it's fairly representative. One of the biggest problems is just attracting people into the field; teaching is not exactly the most presitgious or well-paid of careers. Education programs often go beyond the average four-year college plan, including at least one semester of full-time student teaching. Student teachers still incur tuition costs, but do not get paid for their time in the classroom, rarely get reimbursed for any travel costs, and often are discouraged or outright prohibited from holding outside jobs. That means a full four to six months of mounting debt before they can even begin looking for a teaching job. Not the most attractive of propositions, I assure you. All of the significant incentives--tenure, insurance, stability--only happen well after the novice teacher has been hired and established. Consequently, it's hard to attract people to education if that wasn't their goal all along.Most teacher candidates go into education from the start. On one hand, this means that their entire college experience is supplemented with educational philosophy and psychology courses, and they're on-track to become educators as soon as they graduate. On the other hand, this means that they often don't get the same rigorous, in-depth examination of their subject area as a non-education major in the same field. Education courseloads are not major-plus-education, they are education-plus-subject-area. This presents a number of problems; some might be attracted to education as an option because they don't want to do the in-depth work required by the advanced courses in the subject major. On the other hand, the people who end up teaching lack some of that in-depth knowledge, and while they may never be expected to teach a class on those topics, a more thorough understanding of any topic is important to being able to teach it accurately and correct students' misconceptions and answer questions.This is especially problematic when we're talking about elementary school teachers. At least in some education programs (and I would suspect it's a majority), elementary school and even some middle school teachers get only a minimu[...]



Nothing of Consequence

2010-11-24T04:59:38.803-06:00

Rant mode activated. You've been warned. So, I got into another Twitter kerfuffle, this time with a blogger from Skeptic North. This, of course, hot on the heels of some moderately heated exchanges in Jen's comment thread. I don't know what it is with me and these Canadian skeptics, man. I mean, I love Degrassi and hockey and bacon. But I don't love the current popular trend among some skeptics to blame atheism for diverting resources, energy, and attention away from other skeptical causes. I don't love the current efforts by some skeptics to hide or silence atheists because they see them as some threat to recruiting theists. The circular firing squad is getting fucking old. Some additional highlights of the evening:You say this like it's a bad thing.I promise I will never make fun of theists as Steve Thoms. What?The conversation continued for an hour after this.This is what happens every time skepticism and atheism get mentioned. It accounts for the shocking number of atheist deaths due to immolation.Can I just say how much I hate dismissive strawmen? From skeptics especially.Aggressive atheists are so uncivil. Perfectly civil? Telling people you agree with to "say something new or get out of my way," kicking naturopaths. I guess it's the "please" that makes all the difference. And because no irrational argument would be complete without them, how about some stereotypes, armchair psychoanalysis, and really blatant projection.As usual, my side of the argument can be seen here. Just scroll down and keep clicking. You know, I hate threaded comments on blogs, but I sure wish Twitter had a feature that let you slot comments in a conversation with each other, so you could actually follow what was being said. But then, that would also require a system that didn't drop every third tweet on its way to my feed. Eventually, I will learn that Twitter is not the proper medium for this kind of asinine argument, but not yet, apparently. Let's get the obvious out of the way first: yes, I was most certainly being hostile, antagonistic, snarky, sarcastic, and borderline insulting right off the bat. Maybe it's because I'm writing this rant directly after the argument, but I don't even feel bad about my tone, the way I sometimes have in the past. "He started it" is a poor excuse for anything, but I think the condescending, 'get out of my way' post which kicked everything off, set that tone. Believe me, I've been bored with the religion fight too. There are times when I've felt exactly the same as Mr. Thoms, that anything worth saying about religion had already been said--most of the time, centuries ago. That's one of the reasons that this blog has gone through such long dry spells in the past, and I know folks like Don and Bronze Dog and Skeptico have felt the same at various times. On the other hand, I suspect they'd all agree that we've all felt the same about most of the typical skeptical topics from time to time. For me, there are four loose categories of skeptical topics: those I don't care about, those I care about enough to talk about, those I care about but am sick of talking about, and those I don't know enough about to talk knowledgeably. I suspect that any skeptic would have a similar breakdown. We have our areas of interest, our areas of expertise, and hopefully we largely stick to talking about the places where those two overlap. And yet, I've never really felt the need to tweet about how the anti-dowsing crowd is getting in the way of my anti-antivax acti[...]



The Future's So Bright

2010-10-09T12:28:47.830-05:00

I've been watching a lot of action movies lately, inspired in part by Don's Manly Monday series. It started with "Team America: World Police" and "Die Hard with a Vengeance," and so far I've worked my way through "Live Free and Die Hard," "Demolition Man," "Con Air," and most of "Lethal Weapon" recently. For some of those, it's not the first time I've seen them, but there are others that I missed for one reason or another. "Demolition Man" is one that I'd managed never to see before, despite the massive amounts of hype I remember surrounding its release, and while it's not the best of my recent marathon, it certainly gave me a lot to think about.

See, I love dystopian stories. I love the semi-reasonable ones and the fantastic ones and the blatantly ridiculous ones. I love the way they turn the slippery slope argument into a world-building exercise. I love the way that they can provide a handy reference for actual social issues. I've read and watched a lot of dystopian stories, and while there's a lot of quality variation, I can't think of any that I didn't enjoy to some degree.

So, because I don't have enough to do, I'm going to start a series of posts discussing some of the features and commonalities of my favorite dystopias. Unlike most of my posts, I'll probably go back and edit these periodically to add titles to each list. Like most of my posts, I'm not going to put any kind of schedule or restriction on this, because FSM knows I'll never be able to keep to it. But it'll give me an outlet for some percolating thoughts, and I think it could be interesting.



More on Movement Problems (or, Definitions Matter)

2010-09-22T23:45:22.978-05:00

I've noticed a disturbing trend lately, and while there may be a bit of "when you're a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail" going on, I can't help but see it as a symptom of the apparently growing notion that "skepticism" is something you join rather than something you do. But I keep seeing this twofold trend of people venerating logic and reason while failing to actually understand them (or at least to understand them as well as they think they do) and using terms like "rational" or "fallacy" in value-laden ways that strip them of their actual meaning. The first time I really took notice of this was when Don talked about his trip to a CFI meeting in Indianapolis. At the meeting, he encountered a number of CFI members who saw skepticism not as a set of cognitive tools, but as a set of dogmatic rules which should be taught to people. In addition, and perhaps most relevantly: [A]lmost every member I interacted with afterward was like an automaton repeating poorly understood buzzwords: "critical thinking," "skepticism," "freethought," etc. They said these words and seemed to believe that they understood them and that, through that understanding, were part of a greater whole.The same trend was the subject of the recent kerfuffle with Skepdude. The 'Dude clearly held logic in high esteem, and clearly understood that fallacies were bad things, but just as clearly didn't understand what made fallacies fallacious, and was quick to throw out the term "ad hominem" where it did not apply. More alarming, however, were the comments of the much more prominent skeptic Daniel Loxton, who claimed that most insults were fallacious poisoning the well, despite that clearly not being the case as per the fairly strict and clear definition of poisoning the well. You can see the same thing in spectacular action in the comment thread here, where commenter Ara throws around terms like "rational" and "anti-rational" as part of an argument that echoes Skepdude's attempts to say that a valid argument doesn't make insults valid, when in fact the opposite is the case. Despite what Mr. Spock would have you believe, saying that something is "rational" or "logical" is to say almost nothing about the thing you are trying to describe. Any position, any conclusion--true or false, virtuous or reprehensible, sensible or absurd--can be supported by a logically valid argument. For instance:All pigs are green.All ostriches are pigs.Therefore, all ostriches are green.That's a logically valid argument. The conclusion follows inexorably from the premises. That the conclusion is false and absurd is only because the premises are equally false and absurd. The argument is unsound, but it is perfectly logical. "Logical" is not a value judgment, it is an objective description, and can only be accurately applied to arguments1. "Rational" is similar. There's a lot of equivocation possible with "rational," because it can mean "sensible" as well as "based on reason" or "sane" or "having good sense." Some of those meanings are value-laden. However, if we are describing a conclusion, an argument, or a course of action, and if we are hoping to have any kind of meaningful discussion, then it's important to be clear on what we're trying to say when using the word "rational." If, for instance, I'm using the term "rational" to call an idea or action or something "sane" or "possessing good sense," I'm probably expressing an opinion. "Good sense" is a su[...]



My name is Matt Foley and I am a motivational speaker!

2010-09-13T14:00:04.596-05:00

I used to live in this county. I moved before I could vote.
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You know, maybe Howard Dean should have screamed more.

Now, I guess I just have to content myself with living in a state with one jailed governor and another awaiting a retrial who's trying to recoup his court fees by doing autographs at comic conventions.