Entries in Skepticism (16)


Interpreting quantum physics correctly

There is so much misinterpretation of quantum physics in the popular press, that it's refreshing to hear an actual physicist clarify some of the basic issues. Here Prof. Phil Moriarty of the University of Nottingham confronts a particularly egregious case.

Sixty Symbols is a very good web series on science, which I would highly recommend.


All Your Biases ...

... are belong to us:

Hat tip to SMBC.


Paul Kurtz (1925-2012)

News is coming out tonight of the death of Paul Kurtz, founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) and the Center for Inquiry (CFI). He was a legend in the skeptic, secular and atheist communities. I recall the first time I met him, back in the early 90s after years of reading Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I have a background in philosophy and he came across to me as the very definition of an avuncular, professorial presence: relentlessly upbeat, always trying to be cheery and helpful.

He was, truth be told, not the clearest or most succinct writer, nor the deepest thinker. And the organizations he founded functioned like Rube Goldberg devices. But he was a master motivator, always willing to look past a problematic present to something greater to come. His aim was to inspire, and at this he was tremendously successful. In so doing he as much as, and perhaps more than, anyone is responsible for the contemporary skeptical movement. It is his pathbreaking work on secularism that made 'new atheism' possible, much as he claimed disillusionment from it upon his retirement.

So let's celebrate the passing of a great man, and hope for a better future.


Skepticism and Kindness

Scientific skepticism is brave and its aim is noble, but it tends to spoil in the doing. Perhaps it could be more effective with another component: what the Buddhists term "metta". It's usually translated "loving-kindness", but I prefer to call it "universal kindness" since the former has a saccharine taint, and anyhow there are many different sorts of love that are not appropriate to this approach.

To explain.

The aim of scientific skepticism is ethical: to provide benefit to humanity and the world. It's a position that says it is morally wrong to disseminate falsehoods, particularly those that are in some way harmful to our well-being. So for example, the scientific skeptic is firmly opposed to various forms of so-called 'alternative medicine' that have been shown to be ineffective when compared to placebo. People who sell such products profit by providing false promises and ineffective care to people who are sick or dying. This is not simply a matter of truth or falsity, as might be the case for example with an incorrect date in the newspaper. This is a matter of moral wrong.

Similarly, the scientific skeptic is firmly opposed to misinforming people about the state of scientific discovery: for example, claiming that global warming is a hoax or that creationism is a scientifically viable theory. These claims can and do have ill effects on the public's ability to tell right from wrong, which itself feeds into our inability to adequately confront global problems. In a world that is ever more ruled by democratic forms of government, such disinformation campaigns can only cause harm, on a massive scale. And when they are done to the benefit of small, wealthy elites they too are examples of clear moral wrong.

So the strategic aim of scientific skepticism is beneficial. It's tactics are another matter. Skepticism is often looked upon as a negative enterprise. It's aim is to criticize, knock down, poke holes, cross-examine and throw out. Many skeptics of all stripes come across as nasty, arrogant know-it-alls. I should know, since I'm one of them. But nastiness in itself, the critical attitude, is a psychological dead-end. Nobody can keep it up for long, except a handful of curmudgeons and a few special people with deep reservoirs of psychological well-being that ground them. For the rest of us, it's frankly difficult to bear the frown, and it causes us psychological harm to do so.

Worst of all, of course, negative tactics are some of the least likely to actually change minds.

Is there any solution? I don't know. However there is one practice that can be found in Theravada Buddhism that might be of some help, at least to re-ground the aim. Because so often when engaging in skeptical pursuits one misses the forest for the trees, or the strategy for the tactics: criticism and put-downs take precedence over actually intending to help others.

The practice of universal kindness is simple, though it's bound to feel alien at first. It involves intending kindness towards all people. This is done progressively, by making regular assertions of one's wish that oneself and others are happy, healthy, safe and free from suffering. For example, one may begin by thinking to oneself, "May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe from harm. May I be free from suffering." The point is to aim towards sincerity as much as one can, and to do the practice as often as one feels comfortable.

One begins with oneself because without kindness towards oneself, true kindness towards others is impossible. One then takes in mind people close to one, and does the practice towards them. (To make it easier to visualize, best to take one person at a time). Then one takes in mind neutral people; for example, people one passes regularly on the way to work, those in the gym or local store. Finally, one takes those to whom one has negative feelings -- perhaps intensely negative feelings. In this way, slowly and over time, one expands the circle of one's feelings of kindness towards the people around one. At the very least one clarifies and sharpens one's goals.

The results are not quick, they are not absolute and they are certainly not magical. If you like, this is an example of Aristotle's notion that in order to be a good person one has to practice being a good person, even if it seems odd to do so. The problem with Aristotle's suggestion is that doing something odd even once is difficult enough. Before we can do it, we must be able to think and to feel it. This sort of Buddhist practice can give us a route towards thinking and feeling, which may itself aid in our doing.

A skeptical program better grounded in open kindness towards others, even those with whom we disagree, may stand a better chance of providing psychological fulfillment for the practitioners and more credible help towards others.


Secular Buddhism

Thanks to Steven Batchelor's work most of all, space is opening up around the notion of a neo-Buddhist philosophy and practice that rejects the supernatural elements of the traditional religion: principally, reincarnation and karma.

Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is a good place to start with his work, as I think it's some of his most lucid writing. Note that it is a memoir, not a treatise on philosophy. Though it has philosophical aspects, basically it's the story of Batchelor's travels through various forms of Buddhist practice in India, Korea and Europe.

A number of Secular Buddhist organizations have sprung up around Batchelor's ideas, principally the Secular Buddhist Association, the website of which includes a number of interesting links.

After chatting with Ted Meissner from the SBA, it became clear that we were on the same wavelength about notions of science and skepticism informing -- and at times trumping -- notions of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. He suggested doing a podcast together with two denizens of our skeptical, secularist Forum who have similar interests.

The podcast is out now, and can be accessed and downloaded HERE.



Escépticos: a Chat with Gámez

Last Sunday I sat down at the bustling Astor Place Starbucks in Manhattan with my good friend Luis Alfonso Gámez, science journalist extraordinaire, founder of the Spanish Círculo Escéptico, consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and prolific blogger. He posts for CSI a series called ¡Paparruchas! (Stuff and nonsense!) as well as his own, world famous Magonia, the largest skeptic blog in the Spanish language.

Pérez and GámezWe chatted about his new project, which promises to be a blockbuster. It's series for ETB2, Basque public TV in Spain. Called “Escépticos” (Skeptics), it's directed by filmmaker Jose Pérez, and stars Gámez. It consists of thirteen episodes, the pilot of which aired last January. The other twelve were filmed over 34 days last spring, by a team of eleven with another nine in post-production. They will be televised between September 26th and the end of December, one episode per week. Each will be 38 minutes long, aired without commercial interruptions at around 9:45 pm on Monday nights. Gámez told me they were filmed in a high definition format and should be HDTV ready.

The January, 2011 pilot dealt with claims that the Moon-landings were a hoax, a theory that smolders at the edges of reasonable society. The other twelve paint a broader brush:

  • Alternative Medicine (Acupuncture, reiki, reflexology)
  • Astrology
  • Electromagnetism and Health (Cellphones and antennas)
  • UFOs
  • Genetically Modified Organisms
  • The Occult (Tarot, palmistry)
  • Homeopathy
  • Miracle Products (Cosmetics, tonics)
  • Anti-Aging Treatments
  • Superstitions
  • Religion and Science
  • Climate Change

Gámez said their intent is to investigate a range of topics, with some being ‘hard’, such as climate change, religion and GMOs, and others being ‘soft’, such as UFOs, the occult and miracle products. Viewers will easily grasp how science-based critical thinking deals with light topics, which should help clarify how it works with the more profound.

Gámez said he hoped Escépticos would be made available in schools for free. Meanwhile, each episode should be streamable soon after airtime. The internet was a great boon for the pilot: it had more viewers over the internet than on air, the most ever online for ETB, perhaps for all of Spanish TV, with over 80,000 downloads to date.

Making clear their interest, ETB2 won't be running ads during the show, but it is running ads to publicize each episode. It has contracted with an advertising firm which Gámez believes to be pre-eminent in Basque Country. They will run new ads as each comes out, highlighting the issue raised in that episode.

The first ad is already available, on alternative medicine. (In Spanish, but generally understandable since "Placebo" is a word in both English and Spanish):

Escépticos is a show designed for viewing by all ages from ten on up, with rapid pacing. The longest scene is perhaps a minute and a half. Gámez felt the show was livened up by Jose’s brilliant use of footage from old movies and background popular music.

Gámez viewing a homeopathic analysisIt’s a show first and foremost about science. For interview subjects, Gámez decided to focus on scientists local to the audience, within about a 150km radius of Bilbao, both to make it easier for the team, and to give viewers a sense of local ownership. But this created its own problems. Gámez told me that not all the locals were happy with the show's approach.

There is a significant anti-antenna lobby in Basque Country, one that believes that cellphone antennas cause illness, and that scientists and skeptics such as Gámez have been bought by multinational corporations. Members of the lobby sent messages threatening him and put threatening notes in the home mailboxes of several local university scientists. This made it nearly impossible for Gámez to find an expert willing to talk on camera about the issue: five leading researchers either refused to appear altogether, or refused to answer questions that dealt with cellphone antennas.

Representatives from the anti-antenna lobby themselves also refused to appear on camera. Gámez told me that he had agreement from their lawyer to do an interview, however it fell apart after the lawyer noticed one of Gámez’s skeptical blog posts on the topic.

At one point Gámez felt the program on electromagnetism might not be filmable, but fortunately deep contacts among local scientists eventually bore fruit.

With luck, this thirteen-part series won’t be the end of Gámez's skeptical forays on TV. In future, he said he hoped they could deal with issues such as nuclear energy and life beyond death, as well as investigate more deeply topics that could only be touched upon in the present series. The fountain of skeptical material is nearly bottomless.

“I’ve had the good fortune to participate in this project since its inception. It’s been a privilege because the team is extraordinary, and Basque television hasn’t vetoed a single thing we’ve done. To be able to speak about God, cellphone antennas and miracle products is difficult. Fortunately, Jose and I have complemented each other in the project; we have the same point of view. The program is intended for all the public to watch and learn from, not only skeptics.”  -- Luis Alfonso Gámez

The Trailer (in Spanish):


Another tidbit:

Escépticos is the first program on Basque public TV to have been unanimously approved by all members of the station’s review board. They felt that it was a program that had to be done. It will be the first skeptical program in the over fifty year history of Spanish TV.


Science Denial Comic

Here's a wonderful, short didactic comic on recent social and political science-denial movements, by Darryl Cunningham. It's short and pithy, one of the best examples of clear thinking I've seen. All the better that it's in a visual medium like comics; I hope it gets wide distribution. You should read the whole thing!

And while you're at it, don't miss his piece on homeopathy!

Tips of the hat to Tom Spurgeon and Gary Randolph.




Tim Minchin's wonderful performance piece Storm glitters with shards of brilliant skeptical invective. Now that it's been put to animation, it's even more fun to sit back and watch.


Suicide by Homeopathy in Bilbao, Spain

My friend Luis Alfonso Gámez got together with the spanish Círculo Escéptico and the 10:23 Challenge to undertake a "suicide by homeopathy", taking enough homeopathic sleeping pills to kill.

I'll spare you the conclusion. Since homeopathic treatments are completely ineffective, nobody died. But the wordless video is still powerful for all that.


Let's hope this sort of public demonstration helps get the word out. Homeopathy is quackery.


Escépticos: ¿Fuimos a la Luna?

Here's Luis Alfonso Gámez's show, complete and in Spanish.  It's the pilot episode, about the Moon landing hoaxes.  Highly recommended viewing for any who know the language.