The Amazing Adventure 5

The JREF’s Amazing Adventure 5: Skeptics of the Caribbean is fast approaching. The cruise leaves Fort Lauderdale March 6 and returns on the 14th. So far there are 85 skeptics set to sail. Provided his health allows, the Amazing One himself, James Randi, will be joining us on the cruise!

Here is a link to the itinerary and information about the cruise http://bit.ly/EZb4I During the lovely sun-filled, rum-sodden days, talks will be offered on a myriad of topics. I’m scheduled to give one on skepticism in daily life. As if going to the Caribbean, hanging out with like minded people and spending time with The Amazing One wasn’t enough of a thrill…you get ME!

What I would like to know is this: What would you like to hear about in a talk/discussion about skepticism in daily life? Leave a comment here or email me at fledgelingskeptic@atheist.com

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Pity Party

Today’s Logical Fallacy is called Appeal to Pity or Ad Misericordiam

There’s no Scary X in this formula so we don’t have puppies or duckies guest starring today. It’s a pretty straightforward fallacy whose structure looks like this:

1) P is presented with the intention of evoking pity

2) Therefore claim C is true

The use of pity as “evidence” is a fallacy because emotion cannot be substituted for real evidence. Evidence is testable while emotion is far to erratic to be used as evidence.

Please note that there are times when an claim that serves as evidence can also evoke pity. For instance:

Claimant P calls in to work: Boss I can’t come in today.

Boss: You know this is your second time this month calling in.

Claimant P: I know but I got hit on the way home last night. I’m in the hospital with a broken shoulder that needs to be repaired surgically and my car is wrecked

See? Instant pity. But there is also evidence to support the claim:A broken shoulder and a totalled car. So while this IS a logical fallacy, it is sometimes a fact.

An example of the actual logical fallacy would look something like this:

Claimant P:  I really need this job

Interviewer: You’re underqualified according to your resume

Claimant P: I’m a single Mom. I have three children and my ex won’t pay child support. Our electricity is going to get shut off if I don’t get this job and it’s the middle of winter.

Interviewer: I suppose we can make an exception in your case.

Again, instant pity. But the fallacy comes in at the point where she’ll get the job because the interviewer feels bad for her. She isn’t qualified and the evidence, her resume, shows that she isn’t. BUT because of her situation, the interviewer feels pity and capitulates on the company policy of not hiring the under qualified.

I’m Skeptical About That

Yesterday I talked about what skepticism is versus cynicism. Today I want to talk more in depth about why cynicism is damaging and why skepticism can be a difficult approach to maintain. Granted I am still new to skepticism. These are just my observations and I am always happy to have people kindly correct my mistaken presumptions.

Cynics tend to have a hardline approach to subjects that they are convinced qualify as Woo. (see woo def here: http://bit.ly/crSgm). Once a cynic is convinced, they seem to be just as hard core as True Believers. (see TB def here: http://bit.ly/39ygEg). Of course this is damaging to the use of scientific analysis and equates to bad science. A hardline approach to a topic doesn’t, quite obviously, allow flexibility in one’s viewpoint. It squelches the possibility of new observations because a hardline cynic will automatically, if not consciously at least unconsciously, filter out new observable data in favor of the perceived Woo.

I try to remain open-minded while still being analytical of what is presented to me. For instance, I was on a forum discussing quantum physics and  the topic of observable auras came up. Now a cynic would have the automatic knee jerk reaction that auras are Woo. I used to believe in auras and at one point had convinced myself that I could actually see them. I know that auras, as the New Age community presents them, are most likely not real. At some point science may find out otherwise but until then, I’m sticking with what science says.

HOWEVER, someone on the forum mentioned that there have actually been a few humans found that can actually see into the low IR (infrared) spectrum. This would explain at least a few people seeing “auras”. Here is what I found on a physics forum: http://bit.ly/6YiRfU

I would LOVE to get some knowledgeable opinions about this so PLEASE leave feedback.

My point here is that if I were a cynic I would simply dismiss this out of hand instead of investigating as much as I did. THAT, dear reader, is what a good skeptic does. Investigate. If you don’t know, keep looking until you find the answer. It may not be the answer YOU want but that’s the point here. Be open to results you don’t expect. Don’t dismiss it just because it doesn’t fit with your view of the topic. Investigate, seek, question. It’s how we differentiated from cynics and True Beleivers.

Skeptical Theists

There is, in the skeptical community, an overwhelming number of skeptics who think that it is not possible to be a skeptic and a theist at the same time. The fine folks at www.nonprophetsradio.com have voiced the opinion that while a theist can say they are skeptical about something such as homeopathy or astrology, they cannot call themselves skeptics. According to their statements, if someone still believes in a god, they can only refer to themselves as skeptical.

On the other hand there is Per Johan Rasmark at Skeptic Report (http://skepticreport.com/sr/?p=200) who thinks that it “should not be necessary to explain how it is possible to believe in a God and still be a skeptic, my point of view is that the two things do not overlap…”

My experience with the skeptical community is that a skeptic is a person who has examined their own beliefs and rejected those that have been found to lack a scientific consensus of truth. In other words, if you once believed that homeopathy worked and rejected it on the basis of the evidence then you call yourself a skeptic in regards to homeopathy. Many skeptics think that ALL beliefs should be thoroughly examined and those that do not stand up to scientific scrutiny should be rejected. Unfortunately those who do not reject their religious beliefs have “lost skeptical street cred” according to the Non-Prophets.

I have heard that sentiment echoed throughout the skeptical community. People who still hold a belief in a higher being or beings are scoffed at and not considered skeptics. It has been said that those who maintain a belief can call themselves skeptical but cannot own the title of Skeptic because of that belief.

This sort of bias is damaging. It is one of the reasons that skeptics have such a bad image. We come off as superior and snooty. It seems that if you have a belief in the intangible you can’t come in our clubhouse. This sort of exclusivity has GOT to stop. We ought to be working on growing our community. There are a good number of people out there looking for a skeptical home but because they still hold a belief in a divine being, they are either rejected out of hand or treated as less intelligent. At least until they “come to their senses”.

It is my opinion that someone can maintain a belief in a higher power and still be a skeptic. Analytical thinking is a skill that can be learned by anyone willing to use logic, deductive reasoning and the scientific method. The title of skeptic should not be withheld from those willing to learn and use these new skills.

Every skeptic has started somewhere. Not all of us were born knowing how to be skeptical. Most people have had to overcome their upbringing or self-imposed magical thinking. For those like me, it was an uphill battle and friends were lost along the way. It takes time to become a skeptic and as far as I’m concerned it’s not like earning a boy scout merit badge. If you are learning to be more skeptical, then by damn you ARE a skeptic. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

31 Flavors Of Skeptic

Just like Baskin-Robbins, there are many different flavors or types of skepticism. As a whole skepticism can be described as making a judgement about a claim based on the evidence presented. That evidence must be testable. Those results must also be repeatable within a specific margin of error ala statistics. In other words it is a logical fallacy to claim that just because one test yielded a specific result, that result proves the claim conclusively. (For new readers please see previous entries concerning the various types of logical fallacies.)

For instance I read on a science forum that some people are able to see into the near infra-red spectrum. This could explain the claim of being able to see auras. I have not had an opportunity to investigate this claim. There may be evidence to support this. There may not be. In the mean time I am keeping an open mind.

There is a fine line between skepticism and cynicism. A cynic dismisses claims out of hand because they may sound far-fetched like seeing “auras” in the above example. A skeptic, on the other hand, does the research and examines the data looking for credible sources to either verify or refute a claim. It can be really difficult not to be dismissive of a claim that you have already dismissed or accepted. That’s part of being a good skeptic though; learning how to put aside what you think you know and investigating the data even if it is personally uncomfortable or even painful.

I use to believe in all manner of things that do not have supporting testable scientific data. UFOs, magic, Reiki, crystal healing, psychics…name the woo and most of it I believed. Thanks to Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” on Showtime I was introduced to the reality of psychics, auras and many other things. I was also introduced to logical thinking and skepticism. Their shows are a great place to start out. So is George Hrab’s Geologic Podcast http://www.geologicpodcast.com/

As I mentioned in the title of this post, there are many different flavors or types of skepticism. James “The Amazing” Randi, a personal hero of mine, has spent his life debunking psychics and those who cause harm with that practice. Other skeptics “debunk” ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and Nessie.

Other skeptics work on educating the public. At http://www.whatstheharm.net there is information on the kind of harm caused by medical quackery like homeopathy. There are case studies and articles about people who have been permanently harmed or killed by colloidal silver, homeopathy and more.

There are those like the Skepchicks http://skepchick.org/blog that covers a wide array of feminine-related skepticism.

There are skeptics that deal solely with religion. They try to educate people about the fallacies in organized religion. As I said, sometimes being a skeptic can be painful. This is one of those sore points with many people, Here on Fledgeling Skeptic I generally try to avoid mentioning religion since it IS such a sore point.

Then there’s skeptics like me. I try to educate those who are new to the skeptic movement. I talk about what logical fallacies are, how to evaluate evidence, how to use skepticism in daily life and in between I talk about my own experiences and thoughts as a Fledgeling Skeptic.

Billboards

Driving through the rural areas in the South I find myself noticing billboards just out of boredom. Most of them are your standard advertisements. You know…hotels, restaurants, fruit stands. And then there are the religious billboards. These are the ones that say something vaguely snarky followed by the signature ” -God”.

“Don’t make me come down there.”. – God

From what I understand of the Christian religion, don’t they WANT the Second Coming? So why would they NOT want God to come down? As a former Christian I had looked forward to that. I also lived in terror of it. After all when you don’t know if you’re “good enough” and not being judged so means roasting and torture for all eternity the idea of being judged inadequate the idea of a Second Coming is a terrifying thing. It just doesn’t make sense to me to keep living in fear.

I have seen lots of those billboards. What I HAVEN’T seen are billboards for skeptical thinking. I’d love to see some that say simply “Think About It” and then some skeptic website. Maybe one like mine that introduces the basic premise of skepticism and the ideas behind logical thought.

Christians have billboards, TV and pint media. Atheists have busses. It’s about time skeptics have some kind of media exposure. I’m thinking about possibly starting a foundation for just such a purpose. Anyone interested in helping me organize this should email me.

Welcome to my new readers from NaNoBloMo! I hope you enjoy what you read here.

Obama: Part 2

I went back and read last night’s post. In parts of it, I was not being skeptical. I was being emotional. I’m still learning how to create skeptical arguments and that wasn’t what I did.

What I DID was to look for evidence to support my argument without looking around to see if Obama had actually accomplished something to warrant the award of a Nobel Peace Prize.

My only source that he did NOT deserve it was one article from a British newspaper where in the head of the committee talked about Obama’s potential to bring peace to the world.

That is hardly the skeptical thing to do. I SHOULD have investigated further instead of letting my emotions get the best of me. I will be returning to this topic and REALLY investigating it soon.

See? This is why I call myself a Fledgeling Skeptic. I’m still learning.

A Wealth of Topics

Since starting this blog I have discovered that if i just read my email, the world at large will send me new things to write about. For instance, this evening I received an email from Change.org. The topic of the email was “Protect Your Family From Toxic Chemicals”.

It talked about how the US is importing toxic waste from China and “of the 82,000 chemicals available in the US only 200 of them have been tested for safety”. Aldo included in the email was this quote: “the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found toxic chemicals in the bodies of virtually all Americans.”

This sounds a bit like scare tactics to me. I have to wonder how the CDC could have found toxic chemicals in approximately 305,529,237 people across the nation. So I did what a good skeptic SHOULD do. I emailed the CDC and asked them if this was true. I also asked them to supply evidence if the assertion was true.

Hopefully some time next week I’ll have an answer for you. In the mean time I remain, as ever, skeptical.

If Your Friends Jumped Off A Cliff….

The Logical Fallacy for today is called The Appeal To Common Practice. The format looks like this:

1) X is a common action.

2)Therefore X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

The basis of this fallacy is that since most people do/say X then X is the right or acceptable thing to do or say.

This fallacy is used to promote and justify bigotry, inequitable practices and general assholery. A more formal model looks like this:

1) It is common practice to treat people of type Y in manner X and to treat people of type Z in a different manner.

2)There is no relevant difference between people of type Y and type Z.

3) Therefore people of type Z should be treated in manner X, too.

An example would be: “Sure, some people buy into that equality crap. However, we know that everyone pays women (type Y) less (manner X) than men (type Z). It’s okay, too. Since everyone does it, it can’t really be wrong.”

This is a nested example and can be a bit confusing. In this argument it is acceptable for Women (Type Y) to be paid less (Manner X) than Men (Type Z) because “everyone does it”.

The logical part of the argument continues that because there is no relative difference between women (Type Y) and men (Type Z), therefor men should be paid less (Manner X) too.

Unfortunately because “everybody does it”, it is socially/morally.ethically acceptable. This, dear reader, is a logical fallacy. Just like your Momma used to say “If all your friends jumped off a cliff would you do the same thing?” Simply because everyone else is doing something doesn’t automatically presume the correctness of the action or attitude.

I know…I know.. Some of you out there are thinking “Well if I had a parachute or a hang glider…” If you had one of those items, then sure, jump off the cliff. Just don’t let yourself “fall” into using that fallacy to justify an argument. Always reference the data. Find out what the correct information is. Don’t take everyone else’s word for something until YOU know it to be true or false.

Because I Said So

This is the authoritarian or “Appeal to Authority” type of logical fallacy. When someone claims expertise on a subject and that someone makes a claim about a different subject, people automatically believe. The pattern looks like this:

1) Person A is (claims to be) an authority on subject S.

2) Person A makes claim C about subject S.

3) Therefore, C is true.

This is only a logical fallacy when the person in question is NOT an expert on subject S. I know…I know… It looks like a big algebra problem, doesn’t it?  Let me break it down into bite sized pieces.

Say that you know I’m a lab assistant at the CDC. I analyze tissue samples for a living so I know something about biology and infectious diseases. We’re at a party talking about the Large Hadron Collider. If I were to tell you that the Large Hadron Collider uses a form of lasers shot in a big circle to smash atoms, you might believe me because I am a scientist rather than investigate for yourself.

[[The Large Hadron Collider actually hurls protons at each other at 99.99999% the speed of light to create new particles. There is absolutely no danger of it creating a black hole. I’ll explain what it really does in more detail in another post]]

So here the logical fallacy comes in when we believe someone to be an authority figure on a subject based on the fact that they might be in a field that is generally related to the one they are claiming authority on just because they say they know.  And if THAT isn’t a run on sentence, I don’t know what is.

Let me try to make it even easier. In real life I’m a herbalist. I know quite a bit about the chemicals in herbs and how they work on the human body. If I were to say that penicillin molecules can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and you believed me without researching the truth for yourself (that is a false assertion by the way) then that is an example of this type of logical fallacy.

Even though I know a great deal about phytochemistry, ACTUAL chemistry involved in creating medicinal penicillin is still not something I know much about.

So, as usual I’ll suggest that you think critically. Ask yourself if this person is really an expert in that field. Do your own research. BadScience.com is a great place to start.

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