Tag Archives: skepticism

An Interview with Don Prothero

Ikonokast interviews Don Prothero.

Don Prothero is the author of just over 30 books and a gazillion scientific papers covering a wide range of topics in paleontology and skepticism. Mike Haubrich and I spoke with Don about most of these topics, including the recent history of the skeptics movement, the conflict and potentials between DNA and fossil research, extinctions and impacts, evolution in general, and the interesting projects Don is working on now.

The interview is here. Please click through and give this fascinating conversation a listen!

Truth or Truthiness: How does a thoughtful skeptic distinguish?

Truth or Truthiness: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction by Learning to Think Like a Data Scientist is a new book by Howard Wainer that can serve as a manual for how to be a good skeptic.

Wainer is a statistician, formerly with the famous Educational Testing Service, and a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is well known for his work in statistics and data presentation.

You know what “truthiness” is. It is a term coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005 to refer to assertions that are clearly true because of how they look, feel, smell, but that are in fact, not true. But they are truthy. You get the point.

Wainer’s book is an exploration of cases that demonstrate the difference between truth and truthiness, with an eye towards training oneself to tell the difference, and in some cases, develop arguments about the true and truthy. Does Fracking really cause earthquakes? Are school children in the US over tested? Is tenure what it is claimed to be? For these and other questions, one needs to have evidence, and to know how to evaluate that evidence.

This is a good book, and it is fun. You can read many of the various chapters independently to follow your own interests. To give you an idea of what is included, here is the table of contents:

Part I. Thinking Like a Data Scientist:

  • 1. How the rule of 72 can provide guidance to advance your wealth, your career and your gas mileage
  • 2. Piano virtuosos and the four-minute mile
  • 3. Happiness and causal inference
  • 4. Causal inference and death
  • 5. Using experiments to answer four vexing questions
  • 6. Causal inferences from observational studies: fracking, injection wells, earthquakes, and Oklahoma
  • 7. Life follows art: gaming the missing data algorithm
  • Part II. Communicating Like a Data Scientist:

  • 8. On the crucial role of empathy in the design of communications: genetic testing as an example
  • 9. Improving data displays: the media’s, and ours
  • 10. Inside-out plots
  • 11. A century and a half of moral statistics: plotting evidence to affect social policy
  • Part III. Applying the Tools of Data Science to Education:

  • 12. Waiting for Achilles
  • 13. How much is tenure worth?
  • 14. Detecting cheating badly: if it could have been, it must have been
  • 15. When nothing is not zero: a true saga of missing data, adequate yearly progress, and a Memphis charter school
  • 16. Musing about changes in the SAT: is the college board getting rid of the bulldog?
  • 17. For want of a nail: why worthless subscores may be seriously impeding the progress of western civilization.
  • The Recovery of Arctic Sea Ice

    Every northern summer Arctic Sea ice melts away and reforms for winter, but how much melts away seems to be increasing on average, at a rate that surprises climate scientists.

    But there are some who see variation from year to year, and there is variation, in a rather unrealistic way. Here is a graph comparing how climate science denialists view arctic sea ice over time, compare to how “climate realists” (i.e., smart people who can read graphs and such) see it:


    Go HERE to see the source and learn more about what is behind this graph.

    Global Warming Skepticism In Decline

    There is a new Gallup poll that together with earlier data from Gallup provides some interesting information about attitudes in the US about global warming.

    Earlier polls have shown increase and decrease in concern about global warming, and changes in what people think of news about climate change and the severity of the problem. Recently, there has been a shift towards greater concern which follows a low point, which, in turn, follows a period of global concern.

    One question involves reading off a list of specific concerns related to global warming and asking participants to rank their concern over that issue, and then averaging the responses. This produces a graph of percentage of “worry” at higher levels that looks like this:


    According to Gallup, the breakdown underlying this graph indicates that

    33% of Americans worry about global warming “a great deal,” 25% worry “a fair amount,” 20% “only a little,” and 23% “not at all.”

    The take home message here is that 58% of Americans see global warming as serous while a mere 23% see it as not an issue at all. Denialists together with those who just don’t know are in a small minority. Also, 54% of Americans acknowledge that the effects of global warming have already started.

    Even though a mere 23% of respondents don’t seem to think global warming is a problem, even fewer, 15%, think that it “will never happen” while 81% think that the effects of global warming have already begun or are to be expected in the future. Here’s the graph of those responses over time:


    Related to all this is the way Americans view news stories about global warming. A plurality, but a declining number, tend to see news stories as exaggerated, but the combined number who see stories as either correct or underestimated is over half. Notably, those who see stories of global warming in the news as underestimates of the severity of the problem have been increasing in number in recent years.


    Prior to a recent nadir in about 2010, over 60% of Americans recognized that there is a scientific consensus that Global warming is occurring. This number has recently risen from that recent dip to 52% nearly to it’s high point of 65% and is now as 62% and perhaps rising. Only a tiny percent responded that they think most scientists do not believe global warming is occurring.


    The number of people who understand that humans are the primary cause of global warming also underwent a dip aroun 2010, and that number is rising again to pre 2010 levels.


    And finally, a large percentage of Americans recognize that the effects of global warming will have a negative impact on their lives:


    Gallup is expected to release information on attitudes about global warming based on political orientation. The present study can be found here.

    Meanwhile, we should note that the scientific consensus is much stronger than the public consensus. It looks more like this (from here):


    What does sexism and harassment feel like to you?

    I’m a guy who “gets” nasty threats from haters. I receive anti-atheist threats and icky comments, I receive a LOT of nasty stuff from climate science denialists (and that often comes along with bogus threats of law suits), I receive nasty emails and tweets from the sexist and racist SlymePitters and those folks seem to spend more time than is healthy for them making Greg-hating memes and videos and comments on web sites I would not normally visit.

    So, I receive nasty horrid verbal attacks from people who hate me and what I stand for, but do I get these nasty horrid verbal attacks in the way that, for example, Rebecca Watson or Amy Roth or Jen McRight get them? Continue reading What does sexism and harassment feel like to you?

    The Secular Coalition of America's Big Goof

    The Secular Coalition of America is a lobbying group that represents several groups, including American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, Camp Quest, the Secular Student Alliance and so on. A few months ago the SCA made news, in a bad way, by appointing a former Bush White House Staffer, Edwina Rogers, as Executive Director. Many of us did not like that and we complained, and we were essentially told a) the decision is final and b) don’t worry, everything will be OK.

    But it is not. Much more recently, the SCA appointed as a co-director for one of its state groups a guy who has developed a very firm reputation as a Mens Rights Advocate and overall Sexist Misogynist Creep. Or at least, so it appears.

    The individual in question is Justin Vacula, and he’s been appointed as co-chair of the executive council of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the SCA. I’ve got some information below on why this is a bad move, but I want to say right away that the SCA Executive director has already stated on a blog her answer to people’s concerns:

    … the Secular Coalition for America has not “hired” anyone in any state. We have a staff of seven in DC. We are staffing state coalitions in 49 states, DC and PR. The state coalitions are made up of interested groups and individuals in the states and particupation is voluntary. We are willing to work with as many affiliated and allied groups and individuals as possible. We are seeking volunteers in the states and are thankful to those that are willing to assist. We have much work to do at the National and State level and request that all interested parties please consider joining the SCA in our mission as given to us by our member organizations. Please sign up at secular.org. Edwina Rogers

    When Rogers was first hired, she made a big deal out of the fact that she’d be overseeing the development of a state chapter in every state. We are now being told that the SCA of which she is Executive Direct really has nothing to do with the state chapters. The “hired” vs. “Volunteer” distinction means nothing in relation to the present question.

    Vacula published a piece on Men’s Rights Activist site “A Voice for Men” in which he attacks modern feminism and equates feminists with vampires and piles on with the attacks already underway designed to silence the Skepchicks (a group of women skeptics with whom I’ve worked for a few years) in particular Amy Roth Davis See this link for details on the attack on Amy. This act and related activities by Vacula clearly place him in the camp of anti-feminist anti-women pro-sexist activists who should not be leaders in a humanist movement which does, pretty much, have liberal and progressive political values. He has also been a regular member of the famous “slime pit” which, sadly, was a product of this very blog network (though it has been expunged).

    Apparently, Vacula has been criticized for being less than smart i the arguments he’s made about various legal positions, and for showing poor leadership. The details are summarized in the writeup for the following petition which I urge you to sign:

    I was almost abducted by aliens

    Every now and then a news story comes along that makes me want to repost this particular thing I wrote a long time ago. And it has happened again. First, the news story:

    National Geographic Channel has run a poll in which they found that 36% of Americans “believe UFO’s exist.” This is in line with previous results. There are other findings as well, but one item is new. The survey asked people who would do a better job of fighting off Aliens if they come to earth and, well, wanna fight. Obama killed Romney on that question.

    So just keep that in mind when you are in the voting booth, America.

    The last time something came up that wanted me to repost my story, it was this:

    Nineteen former pilots and government officials … told reporters their questions can no longer be dismissed …”We want the US government to stop perpetuating the myth that all UFOs can be explained away in down-to-earth, conventional terms,” said Fife Symington, former governor of Arizona… “Instead our country needs to reopen its official investigation that it shut down in 1969,” Symington told a news conference. [source]

    OK, so, now for the original story about how I was almost abducted by aliens. Continue reading I was almost abducted by aliens

    The Antiskeptics

    Skeptics fight an up hill battle. This battle consists of deploying critical thinking across a range of cultural landscapes, implementing scientific thinking to solve problems, and the thoughtful evaluation of knowledge, while 90 percent of the world is out to stop you, or at least make it hard. Or so it seems. To be honest, I can’t back up that 90 percent figure with any hard facts. Sorry.

    But the Skeptic faces more than just uncritical thinking, incorrect facts, or poor scientific judgment. The Skeptic must also wrestle with … The Anti Skeptic.

    Of which there are several kinds.

    Of late we’ve seen an epidemic of Antiskeptic activity occur within the skeptical movement itself, with people who call themselves skeptics because they find the movement interesting, who came to this party because they head there were girls here or because they thought it was a good way to look smart, or in some cases, because they encountered some annoying belief system (bigfoot or ancient aliens or something) and thought this was a good way to purge their experience of it. But they are not willing to be skeptical, or even thoughtful, about other things in their life. They want the thrills but don’t want to invest in too much of their own critical thinking. They don’t understand that skepticism does, really, have a political edge to it, not because skepticism in inherently political, but because so many political views don’t stand up to critical analysis, and because so many skeptical or scientific perspectives have been taken up by various parties and made political. When these Antiskeptics discover that their dearly held Libertarian or “Independent” (have you ever noticed that almost all “independents” have almost identical views on most issues?) perspectives are intellectually bankrupt they quickly erect the “skepticism is not political” smokescreen and try to hide there. Doesn’t work, but that’s what they do.

    But I don’t want to talk about those annoying people here. Nor do I want to talk about the professional Antisketpics … the denialists such as those in the Anti-Global Warming game, who often use the word “skeptic” to label themselves although they are almost all crazy people with a chip on their shoulder and easily led by a charlatan such as Lord Monkington or Andrew Watts.

    (Threats of law suits for saying something mean in 3 … 2 … 1 …)

    No, I don’t want to talk about those annoying people either.

    The Antiskeptics I want to talk about are the people who don’t even know that they are Antiskeptics, and they probably don’t even know what a “Skeptic” is. They lead their lives with a mixture of critical and uncritical understanding, a lot of received knowledge, often (but not always) woo-ish beliefs. Most importantly, though, they have a vague understanding that there is a “truth” out there that is more correct than the truths they live with, but that it is too much work, and often, against their own personal self interests, to embrace it. And, even though such folks may be unaware of a “Skeptics movement” they are at least vaguely aware that you are up to something…that you are a bit more prone to correct some belief they have, or to introduce critically evaluated knowledge into the conversation, or to mention some dumb-ass thing someone is doing with the particular disdain that comes from knowing how wrong it is. Even if done politely.

    This Antiskeptic is your brother or sister or mother or child or cousin or neighbor or teacher or student or coworker. Over time, they see you coming. Subconsciously or not, they are pretty good at deflecting knowledge. In some cases, that may be why they are an Antiskeptic (rather than the other way around). They may just be good at avoiding learning something new.

    And there are techniques. There’s a dance, a game, a modus operendus. I think you know what I’m talking about because you’ve seen it all before.

    Here is a formulaic (literally) example of one possible interaction with an Antiskeptic. Your intent is to say something quite straight forward, like “2 + 2 = 4”

    So, you say “Hey, 2 + 2 =…” and just then the Antiskeptic interrupts you and says, “I know! 2+ 2 = 3!” and then they move on to the next topic quickly. In order for you to get your “2 + 2 = 4” into the conversation you have to stop and reverse and change course and do all kinds of fixing up of stuff and that rarely goes well. This is known as the Interrupting Antiskeptic.

    Then, less interesting but more common, is the Evasive Antiskeptic. Simply put, this is the person who hears what you say but then dismisses it without much fanfare, obviously uninterested in engaging in an argument.

    “Hey, 2 + 2 = 4,” you say.

    “Yeah, whatever. How ’bout them Red Socks,” is the reply.

    Then there is the Watch the Monkey Antiskeptic. This is more of a technique than a type of Antiskeptic. You are making an argument and the counter argument consists of something totally unrelated but that seem really important.

    “Hey, 2 + 2 = 4,” you say

    “Numbers are the hobgoblin of the Patriarchy!” is the reply. Which, of course, is true, but not really the point.

    Then there is the Mine the Harbor Antisketpic. This is usually a friend you see only now and then, or a co-worker you only meet every few weeks, but they are totally on to you. With this person, almost all conversations start like this:

    “I know you are going to tell me that 2 + 2 equals something other than 4, but I just think it is important to know that everybody is entitled to their own opinion.”

    And thus, your critical thinking is bound to bump into that little socioculture land mine, fair or not, like it or not.

    There is one other kind of Antiskpetic I’d like to mention. This is rare, and it usually requires two people who have been doing this together for a long time. Often, a married. A few years back I encountered such a couple who were ani-Vaxers, but there are other couples where this routine applies to many other aspects of life. This is where the mention of, say, two and two equaling four and stuff leads immediately to an argument between the two members of the couple, which takes off so far into the stratosphere, and does so much damage to reality, that you realize that your humble efforts to assert arithmetic have created a black hole of numerical stupidity involving calculus, trigonometry and analytical geometry (to stretch the analogy to the limit).

    You say to Mary and Bob, “Hey, 2 + 2 = 4”

    Mary: “Bob is so bad at math we bought a couch last month and it was two feet too long”

    Bob: “I thought you told me that the couch was two feet to short! I re-ordered a shorter couch, two feet shorter than the first one”

    Mary: “If it is two feet shorter than the one that is too long, then it’s going to be twice as too short!”

    Bob: “No, that’s not how it works at all. Just trust me.”

    Mary: “Last time I trusted you we ended up with a window air conditioner that fell out of the window after you installed it”

    Bob: “That was not me, that was your brother. You’re thinking of the time I hitched up the trailer to the wrong car and we drove all the way to North Dakota without the trailer”

    Mary: “No, that was the time we drove all the way to North Dakota without the kids, not the trailer. The trailer was a totally different time you screwed up”

    And so on and so forth.

    What is your favorite kind of Antisketpic?

    Photo of bigfoot attacking biker by ( kurtz )

    Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon

    Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon. I know that many self-declared skeptics prefer to … ah … believe otherwise, or as they would perhaps say, they have deduced from pure principles using sound logic that Skepticism is rational behavior and there is nothing cultural about it. But they are wrong, and that is trivially easy to prove.


    Sarah Moglia is the event specialist for the Secular Student Alliance1 and has written an interesting piece on “Why [she doesn’t call her]self a Skeptic” in which she asserts that there are people who call themselves “Skeptic” who are not, at least sometimes, and there are those who are rather “skeptical” (as we like to define it) most of the time but don’t bother with the label. She does not name names; I’ve made the same observation and I’m not going to name names either either. But we both have had plenty of opportunity to observe, and even a practicing Skeptic would not toss aside our unattributed observations.

    Unless, of course, said practicing Skeptic simply does not want to accept our shared conclusion and wishes to use the lack of naming names in favor of their argument. It’s a matter of choice, really: Believe Sarah and Greg, and maybe make a few of your own observations, or insist on clearly enumerated cases as evidence within the same blog post that makes the assertion. You can call it either way. Demand the highest level of proof or assume that well meaning observers who prefer not to name names but may have made valid observations. It’s your choice, as a skeptic, to pick one way or another.

    And the fact that it is a choice is evidence that skepticism has a cultural aspect.
    Continue reading Skepticism is a cultural phenomenon

    Getting it wrong every single time

    Sometimes, that is what I think news reporters do. There are occasions when you know the story and have the opportunity to watch them spew out incorrect information. Sometimes you do not know the story but you can watch them getting it wrong and see that happening while they appear to remain oblivious to their own clumsy ineptitude.
    Continue reading Getting it wrong every single time