“Science-ing the heck out of everything” will not solve the world’s problems

In my recent piece about flat-earthers, and a previous piece about the Darwin Awards, I pointed out troubling behaviors of those who ostensibly show themselves to be “science appreciators”. Shaming, ridicule, and even glee over their demise are ugly practices and sentiments that give a bad impression of science advocates.

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Book Review: Dawkins’ Brief Candle

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in ScienceBrief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science by Richard Dawkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I feel this book helped me understand Dawkins considerably more than I did previously. It also deepened my appreciation for him and his life’s work – in zoology, evolutionary biology, religion, philosophy, and science in society.

There is no sign of him being mean-spirited, and I have not seen that from him in his daily life either. I may not always agree with him but he presses me with his arguments to examine why I do not. In that way, he is a great teacher.

His emotions are simple, direct, and natural, while his intellect is deep and thought is complex. I do not think he will be remembered by history as a bully or strident or insulting (none of which do I think he is); he will be memorialized and regarded for pushing us to think and for challenging society on some topics (and certain people and bad ideas) that REALLY needed to be challenged.

Other than some long quotes from other sources, and poems that I could do without, this was a good read for those who know Richard Dawkins’ work.

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Scientific or Scientifical?

About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. [1]

As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications. Continue reading

Deconstructing ‘scoftic’

To preface, I’m not against new words. I’ve shared my love of witty neologisms such as the portmanteau words “blobjects”, “blobsquatch”, “blurfos” and the like. In those cases, we can describe ‘something that is not accurately depicted’. And, something that can’t speak for itself.

The buzz on Cryptomundo has developed over using the word “scoftic”, a designation you give to a person with regards to a topic of questionable legitimacy, such as Bigfoot.

From Cryptomundo:
Is ‘Scoftic’ a Useful Term?
Posted by: Loren Coleman on April 28th, 2007

Do you think the term differs enough from “skeptic” to be useful? Do you think the term has demonstrated evolved development of the discussion? Is it demeaning? Dismissive? Definitely useful? Worthy of deployment throughout hominology and cryptozoology? Defensively debatable? Definitive?

A “scoftic” is described as follows: “the programmed skeptic who is defined more by a pre-determined mindset than the results of any thoughtful probing of the evidence”; “a cranky skeptic”; one who displays “unhealthy skepticism”; “someone who…gives witness testimony no weight whatsoever, on ideological grounds, and who asserts numerous other bits of unreasonable dogma, such as that the quantity of reports is insignificant”; one who exhibits “fanaticism behind a pose of reasonableness” and who uses “fine print” and/or “qualifiers” when considering evidence.

Reading the rest of the post and the myriad, varied, well-thought out and some narrow-minded responses, I have my own thoughts.

The term originated with regards to Bigfoot discussions. But, it can easily jump topics and apply to the paranormal biggies – UFOs, ghosts, psychic powers. Since it generated so much response, I have no doubt that, no matter if it’s a useful word or not, it WILL continue to be used. Culture is like that. It’s now a meme, ready to spread, who knows how far.

There are distinct problems with the description. First, when we are talking in these forums about subjects on the fringe of science, or even reality, we mean something specific when we use “skeptic” but not everyones version is the same. Some use the word as a negative connotation, as if to suggest that the skeptic doesn’t belong in this group that pursues more ‘positive’ thoughts. The skeptic is the “non-believer”. And, frequently we all like to be around those who think like us, not those who question or debate.

On the other hand, “skeptic” can be a proud label to hold. True skeptics are critical thinkers and quite often know a whole lot about the multiple facets of the subject they discuss. Doubt is necessary to progress and essential to science. Most non-scientists (and some scientists) have entirely failed to grasp that. Practicing skepticism is scientific.

I’ve been involved in the “skeptical community” for many years. They are the most intelligent, articulate, witty and FAIR people I have ever met. However, there are times when even a good person falls into the trap of ad hominem comments, quick and unfair dismissals and exhibitions of bad temper. We all do it. Since I have spent time in both camps, I have observed that proponent group members are far more sensitive to debates. Any hint of skepticism during discussion triggers a red flag. The skeptic will be immediately marked and potentially censored, even if the talk has been very civil. While we all want to listen to what we want to hear, you must open up to all sides in order to strengthen the foundation of your own. We must consider dissenting views. Scientists are used to criticism and are less easily offended.

False skeptics who love to deny things just because it’s fun aren’t all that pervasive in our discussion forums. They aren’t interested enough to put in the time and effort.

I strongly disagree with allegation that one who gives eyewitness testimony little weight is beyond skeptical. I have said before and no matter what proponents say, anecdotes are not good evidence. If you propose, as evidence, that “I know what I saw”, I will probably scoff because you only think you know what you saw and you can’t repeat it or allow me to reproduce it. It’s only your interpretation. You need more than that to convince me.

This early on, the debaters can’t even decide who is a “scofic”. For example, at first it was used to describe Ben Radford. Then, in later posts, Ben is called a reasoned skeptic, and a considerate one at that. He’s usually welcomed into the debate even if he says things proponents don’t agree with.

Here is my definition of ‘scoftic’ – a person who ridicules a hypothesis or idea while showing a lack of consideration for data, evidence or reasoned conclusions.

Now, there are certainly people who do this. Mostly, these people are ignorant of the topic at hand. But, I can go to a skeptical-themed conference or listen to a podcast and hear the occasional scoffing, especially if the guard is down when you feel like you are among your own kind. I cringe when I hear it and I wish it wouldn’t occur. One point to remember is that skeptics who examine paranormal claims have heard the so-called evidence and related arguments over and over. There is hardly ever much that is new so we tend to have come to a decision on the topic some time ago. We’re still waiting, hoping, to hear about some juicy new evidence.

So, to answer the questions posed in Loren’s blog post:

Do you think the term differs enough from “skeptic” to be useful?
Yes, the terms mean different things.

Do you think the term has demonstrated evolved development of the discussion?
Pardon me? I think it’s going to mean whatever a person wants it to mean. Therefore, it will certainly be used as a derogatory label when a person exhibits outright disagreement with one’s own position.

Is it demeaning?
Not necessarily but it will certainly be used that way.

Yes. One is in all likelihood stating that “I will no longer listen to you because you disagree with my personal stance on the issue”.

Definitely useful?
Not very.

Worthy of deployment throughout hominology and cryptozoology?
No, not if you want to have reasoned debate and discussion. You ought to debate evidence and issues, not label people or their positions.

Defensively debatable?
Sure, we can debate all day and night. We’ll just dance round and round.

No, because we won’t agree to whom it applies. And, we can hardly be definitive about anything regarding these topics. Too many questions are still unanswered. In pursuit of the answers, we’ll get nowhere and no respect if we chose to surround ourselves with a circle of our own making.