Thursday, February 26, 2009

John Edwards Gets Skeptipwnd


Monday, February 16, 2009

Skepticism, missunderstood

One thing skeptics exert a lot of effort doing is explaining exactly what a skeptic is, why we're skeptical, what we're skeptical of, and what a skeptical organization is all about.

Another part of this is all of the baggage people bring to the word 'skeptic.'

This usually causes skeptics to start out by saying what a skeptic is not. For example, skepticism is not cynicism, we are not a bunch of nay saying curmudgeons. Many think that skeptics are bitter defenders of the status quo, and that we are closed minded to anything new or strange. These accusations crop up especially when we're in the midst in of investigating something. The moment you begin to pick apart something that someone believes in dearly, they become offended. Believers in belief join them in their anger and protest our inquiry as well - I suppose we should not ask answers and dig around simply because it will offend someone.

Some don’t want their beliefs overlooked, but also don’t want their beliefs looked over too much. So, skeptics prod a little and ask questions attempting to get to the heart of a matter and we hit nerves along the way. This gets us names like bullies, party-crashers, pompous, etc...

It seems to me that this all stems from a fundamental peice of beliefs - and that is the personal attachment. Psychics and paranormal beliefs will tear up with excitement when you doubt them, Christians will be offended by the questioning of Jesus Christ and the existence of their god, Muslims shun apostates, conspiracy theorists will scream and rant and rave about we're all fooled by [whatever], and apologists will join them all in their dissatisfaction with non-believers and skeptics.

So, whats the deal?

Why is this case? Why is it not more appealing to challenge beliefs, superstitions, and ideas? Why stiffle intellectual curiosity? In the history of skeptics coming into the public eye to challenge liars, con artists, and even just beliefs in gerenal - I've yet to really see a person who is a part of the skeptical community do anything purposively offensive. If you are called out on something, and that call is true, and you get offended, well - thats on you. It is bizare that the response to the truth is never admittance, but special pleading and name calling (you're a bully, this only doesn't work because you're so skeptical).

Why is it the case that skeptical and critical thinking is not the norm? And rather, it is is seen as a negative way of thinking about the world.... any thoughts?

Friday, February 13, 2009

The podcast is up!!!!

We have completed the first episode of the podcast. The link to it is on the sidebar, and it has an RSS feed for your convenience.



The podcast is up!!!!

We have completed the first episode of the podcast. The link to it is on the sidebar, and it has an RSS feed for your convenience.



Thursday, February 12, 2009

On Methodological Naturalism...

Methodological Naturalism- "Science can only appeal to natural laws and physical entities as explanations of observable phenomena."

As a skeptic, I usually find many anecdotes of all sorts of strange phenomena. From alien abductions, to ghost stories, to faith healers, etc., people love to make up all sorts of extraordinary claims for very simple every day things that happen to them. For example, a person may be feeling a bit sick one day, so he decides to go to church and be prayed for. He then returns home, goes to sleep, and finds that in the morning, he's feeling much better. Would it be reasonable to say that it was the fact that he was prayed that which made him feel better? Is it simply ok to jump to the conclusion that God miraculously healed him? Not really. Take him to a doctor and you will more than likely get a perfectly natural explanation. Most diseases/viruses, etc. are self-terminating. Your body's immune system naturally fights them off, if given enough time. No need to invoke any sort of supernatural entity in order to explain your sickness going away.
And this is the nature of science, it deals with the known, physical world. Appeals to the supernatural are simply unnaceptable, and for good reason. One simply does not invoke miracles in order to explain anything, because a miracle is not an explanation at all. It is what Dawkins calls "A non-answer". The problem of appealing to the supernatural, or to the extranatural is that you are simply answering a mistery with a mistery. For example, in my home island of Puerto Rico, there have been reports of animals found dead with two 'vampire-like' holes in their necks. Many people then have invented a creature to explain these mysterious deaths, they call it "El Chupacabras"
The problem with using this as an explanation is that no one has ever confirmed the existence of this Chupacabra creature. So when you ask "What is going on here with these animals", the reply is "We dont know, but we think it may be this creature called El Chupacabra.", which then begs you to ask the question "What is el Chupacabras?", to which they will reply "We dont know". So in essence, you're back to square one. Nothing has been explained at all.

For every day, common things, we should all be extremely weary of appeals to the supernatural or appeals to the extraordinary for explanations. When someone tells you the reason you got Pink Eye is because a Demon has entered your body, you're better off ending the conversation right there and going to a doctor. It doesn't mean that the supernatural does not exist, it just means that science does not deal with that area, science is confined to the observable and testable, something which clearly the Supernatural is not, and so in the scientific way of doing things, the natural explanation is always the best one.
However, what happens with much 'bigger picture' type questions about the nature of the universe?

"Given the limitations placed by methodological naturalism, science is sometimes pushed into odd corners. Consider the discovery of finely-tuned cosmological constants, including each of the coupling parameters for the four fundamental forces. If any of these twenty or so constants had been slightly different, life would impossible anywhere in the universe. Most agree that this discovery requires an explanation. Under methodological naturalism, when physicist Lee Smolin explains fine-tuning by positing a vast multiverse of possible universes each with different values for these constants, he’s doing science. When astronomer Owen Gingerich explains the very same observations by means of purposeful design, he’s doing religion. This is at best an artificial demarcation. As archeology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) project show, design is an explanatory concept already used in science. Nonetheless, the only scientifically acceptable explanation of fine-tuning at present is an undetectable multiverse. Cosmologists must therefore pursue this hypothesis to win grants, publish papers, and get tenure, even if supernatural design happens to be the right answer. As this example shows, methodological naturalism is actually in conflict with realism. In order to hold scientific realism, one must believe that theories are generally reliable indicators of truth. But if there is a choice between naturalism and truth, methodological naturalism forces science to choose the former. Once science is limited to certain kinds of entities, it can no longer follow the data wherever it leads. It is forced instead to beat the data until it offers a naturalistic confession."

"Another problem for methodological naturalism is that no one knows what sort of explanatory resources science will need in the future. One can bet that we will never need to use design, but that’s a prediction, not a discovery or an inference from established truths. Many of the expectations of late-19th century physicists were dashed by general relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory. Instead of limiting our explanatory resources, we should allow scientists the latitude to employ whatever entities best explain the phenomena. " (Kopersky)

My opinions on this are mixed. Firstly, it seems to me like holding a dogmatic naturalist position in the sciences would eventually mean that science would completely be of no help if it indeed does turn out that it was God who created the universe. By simply saying "Science deals with the natural, not the supernatural", science has confined itself to a box, and as Kopersky says, it would mean scientists would no longer be able to follow the evidence wherever it may lead.

However, I have an issue with his statement "we should allow scientists the latitude to employ whatever entities best explain the phenomena."
Whatever entities? This takes me back to the first part of this blog, in which I explained that appeals to the supernatural seem to not ever bee adequate explanations for anything. Up to this day, the very best explanations for everything we know about the universe have been perfectly natural explanations. We no longer need to appeal to the 'Chariots of the gods' in order to explain why the planets revolve around the sun. We no longer need to attribute 'the god's anger' whenever there's a thunderstorm or a tornado, but instead, we can adequately explain these things by our observation of weather patterns, etc.
My main argument against this is simply that we should use history as a guidepost in order to judge the adequacy of a type of ‘God of the Gaps’ argument. Every single known instance in which the supernatural has been invoked as an explanation for any sort of phenomena has been wrong, thus, why should we believe any appeal to the supernatural will ever be right in the future?

"What if the right explanation for some phenomenon is supernatural? It doesn’t matter. Under methodological naturalism, the best naturalistic explanation is the best scientific explanation, and via realism, we take that explanation as true. Given that there is little if anything that science does not purport to explain, methodological naturalism plus realism implies that nearly every phenomenon has a true, naturalistic explanation, at least in principle."

If we are going to be honest about finding truth, wherever it may lead, we should recognize when it is that we are letting our metaphysical assumptions about the universe get in the way of investigating. If we assume a priori that there is no God, is it possible that we will then develop a method of investigation (the Scientific Method) that because of its very nature, will exclude the very possibility of finding evidence for a deity? In essence, won't we be finding what we're already looking for in the data, rather than letting the data speak for itself?

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Psychics here and there


"The housing crisis will deepen, the country could fall into a depression and laid-off workers may need to start their own business"

---According to Roxanne Usleman, a self proclaimed psychic (sorry for the redundancy, they are all self proclaimed - or at least proclaimed by others that are self proclaimed in being able to tell if someone is psychic or not)

Apparently, Roxanna can see the financial future, and even give business advice!

According to this article, 'Business is good, she says. Usleman sees five or six clients a day and charges up to $135 a pop for sessions that usually last more than an hour.'

Thankfully she was able to foresee that the historically low interest rates that began a few years ago along with the quasi-public Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae that encouraged home ownership and sold toxic bonds all around the world would lead to a financial meltdown, and subsequently tough decisions concerning what to do about it.

...wait, no she didn't.

I guess the crystal ball has been a little cloudy over the past few years, and she could not quite see the perfect storm of a financial crisis that was creeping up on us.

Of course, psychics will usually give excuses to these sort of reactions, such as:

"psychic powers aren't an exact science, it takes years to build them up, so I'm still learning"


"simply because we are psychic doesn't mean that we can see EVERYTHING"


"I can only convey what the spirit realm gives me, I'm more of a medium of communication"

Whatever they say, they never provide proof that what they're doing is legitimate. Eventually, at least one or two predictions they make will come true because they are built from common sense and are numerous. Probability has it that it would be remarkable if none of them came true.


This brings me to the Athens psychics. There is a new 'psychic Saturday' event going on at the Athens Book Center all day on Saturdays for the next few months. In response, the OU Skeptics recreated the pamphlet skeptic magazine sent out recently (10 steps to becoming a psychic) that give an overview of the mentalism involved in psychic 'readings.' We stood outside of the Athens Book Center for a few hours handing them out to passers by and those coming in and out of the store. Although it was a little chilly out we had a good time.

The friends of the psychics who were hanging around were decent to us, and defended their beliefs to us. Everything was alright, and even though they were thrilled about what we were doing - they were atleast cordial.

However, at one point, a women who was there absolutely insisted that one of us get a reading. She was basically telling us 'don't knock it till you you've tried it'. We agreed (as it was at no cost to us), but only one could go inside. The man (who we never got to meet) who was giving the readings inside said he had nothing to prove, but would do it anyway. So, we sent Amanda (our beautfil Treasurer, and my special lady friend) in for the free reading.

Once inside, she went back to the psychic reading room with the guy and they proceeded. He asked her if she ever had any turmoil in a relationship. She was a little stumped (the answer is clearly yes - I mean - how could someone make it this far in life without it?). He realized this was too vague and rephrased it to 'recently.' She said, 'well, couldn't that apply to anyone?'

And he yelled at her and kicked her out!

"I don't want to waste my energy and my time on you!"


Apparently Amanda has negative energy just pouring off of her.

Classic excuse, guy - "your skepticism is messing with my 'energy'"

So, I feel like it was a semi-success and we had fun talking to everyone who came out.

Look for us next weekend as well, we will be back if the 'psychics' are