“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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Why the Darwin Awards Should Die

A recent tragic story in the news reminded me once again that people can be callous and unthinking in reaction to others’ misfortune. A 19-year old girl shot her boyfriend by his request with the goal of making a viral YouTube video showing how a book can stop a bullet. It didn’t stop it. He’s dead. With the basic information – the high-caliber gun, the close-range shot, the completely faulty assumption of protection, and the intent of the act – many people tut-tutted the stupidity of “kids today”. Some even outright laughed, called them “dumb as bricks” and either insinuating or outright saying that he deserved to be dead. Not only is this detestable sentiment, but it reflects how ignorant and thoughtless the commenters were. They didn’t know the circumstances at all. They’d just read the headlines and maybe a short news piece about it.

What if these kids were not well-educated, mislead by pop cultural myths about guns and books stopping guns?
What if they had no jobs and needed money to support their family?
It appears the girl was pressured into doing the shooting she didn’t wish to do. Why?
Did they have psychological problems?

Many factors unknown to us were certainly at play. A multitude of tiny, harmless steps can take a person very far away from reason and result in harm. Would we laugh at this if they were our neighbors, friends or families? I doubt it. Continue reading

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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Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?

Cryptid researchers say that modern reports of Bigfoot-Sasquatch, lake monster, sea serpents, giant flying animals, and elusive land creatures are supported by the stories of native people, legends or myths and sagas. Are these stories evidence? Can we reach back in time to use old tales to reinforce and help explain modern sightings of cryptids?

lmtI’m not well-versed in folkloric studies just with a few pop culture college electives to my credit and casual observation for many years. But I heard from respected others that a modern interpretation and application of ancient cultural tales to the cryptozoology field was problematic. I wondered exactly why. The frequently cited source for understanding this aspect of cryptozoology is Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis which I obtained.

There is much to digest in this book, translated from French. I do note that the translation does make it difficult sometimes to decode the meaning but it’s not incomprehensible.

I intend to write a series of posts exploring the author’s treatment of this material and his recommendations of how we should consider it for cryptozoological research.

The preface and introduction alone gave a jolt to my thinking. A review of what it contained was perhaps worth sharing for those who have not been introduced to these ideas. It’s obvious that the work still applies to today’s modern TV and internet-based cryptozoologists.

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Speculative paleozoology done by professionals (Book Review)

Last night, I simply could not read any technical stuff before bed so I browsed my Kindle looking for some entertaining reading. The thing is, I don’t really do much fiction, almost everything I have is nonfiction. Then I came across “All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals” by Darren Naish, C.M. Kosemen, John Conway, and Scott Hartman. This was it, the perfect hour’s entertainment before bed perusing fascinating artwork and professional commentary regarding speculative reconstruction of prehistoric (and modern) animals. It was a lovely blend of nonfiction with a good dollop of fiction and I very much enjoyed it.

This book shows what might possibly (very likely) is off (completely wrong) about artistic reconstructions of dinosaurs, plesiosaurs and pterosaurs. Fun stuff. You will learn that animals are reconstructed “shrink-wrapped” and naked. It’s sort of because that’s all the evidence we have and must guess at the soft tissue adornments and coloration. But what if we got a bit creative. That’s what this book does. Fun stuff. Sometimes silly, but thought provoking. What if these animals behaved in a completely different way than we expect? Well why not draw that?

The last section is enlightening as real animals are portrayed in a way that mimics how we would interpret prehistoric animals – shrink-wrapped, with no fat or characteristic soft parts (like pointy cartilage ears), no fur, and out of context.

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Science appreciation class

Several years ago, while learning about the problem of science illiteracy, I discovered something of critical importance: You can’t get people engaged and enthusiastic or even respectful about a subject if they don’t see any value or connection to themselves.

Kids aren’t going to do well in high school science classes (or even choose to take those classes) if they feel no love for science. It is too late to instill that into them, perhaps. Besides, only a VERY small percentage of the kids would actually go on to become scientists. They probably don’t need biology, chemistry and physics knowledge to succeed in their eventual careers.

Yet, there is tremendous VALUE in knowing how science works. There is also a critical value in appreciating WHY science is one of humanities’ greatest inventions. It’s the process that produces the most reliable knowledge. It’s the best way we know how to learn what’s true about nature.

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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

Young Earth Creationists’ sneaky strategy to be scientifical

Earth magazine has an intriguing and disturbing article by Steven Newton describing how geologists, who actually represent the Institute for Creation Research, the Discovery Institute and Christian universities, subtly promote the view that Noah’s flood was responsible for geological observations in the American West. Their new strategy is to give talks, posters and guide field trips at a premier geologic conference.

How can this be? Well, if you’ve ever been on one of these field trips, you know they can be a jargony nightmare. Even as a professional, when it comes to very specialized terms and labeling used in petrology and sedimentology, vocabulary is wicked tough to learn and remember. If this is your introduction to a particular feature or region, you look to the expert guiding the trip to provide you with information. You likely do not have enough background yet to form good questions or recognize some dubious interpretation.

The article’s author, a director for the National Center for Science Education, went on the trip run by five co-leaders. The Creationist content was not openly disclosed. Continue reading

Want to shed the pseudoscience label? Try harder.

When I was a kid, cryptozoology books advocated the existence of these creatures. The same dramatic stories were repeated in many books. I was swayed by the stories but eventually I got bored with them. There was something missing. Stories only get you so far. I wanted a structure, I wanted details. I really wanted a coherent argument. I did not find one at the time. Luckily, they are out there now.

Yet, the majority of popular crypto stuff harkens back to the same old, same old – stories. Last week on Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote about a new Popular Science feature that, for one, described a Yeti-seeking adventure. She remarked about it: “It’s easy to see the writer getting so caught up in the excitement of the hunt that he stopped questioning whether there was really anything to hunt for.” She highlights an article where you will find the quote “The Snowman definitely exists.” Quite the unjustified leap made in that article from decades ago. Where’s the Snowman?

Cryptomundo took major exception to Maggie’s use of the word “pseudoscience” in reference to cryptozoology.

Umm… ? Maggie was describing the Popular Science feature called “PopSci’s Brief Foray Into Pseudoscience”. She was just the messenger. PopSci was using the label. Since one Boing Boing writer often highlights pro-cryptozoology stories, this framing of the subject apparently rubbed the wrong way.

I’ve done some writing about the sciencey-ness of cryptozoology and paranormal topics. I’d like to talk a bit about the use of “pseudoscience” to describe cryptozoology. Continue reading

Chupacabra gets a necropsy: Ben Radford’s new book does the dirty work

We were given a teaser of the stunning new findings about the chupacabra in Ben Radford’s preceding book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, which I reviewed here. I was excited to dig into the entire story in Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore.

The book has high praise and positive reviews already. Of course, I loved it – not because I love every monster book. I don’t. Most popular ones are quite terrible since they rehash the same old stories without references or critical thought. I loved it because this was a unique and comprehensive look a very “pop culture” monster. There was a ton of new stuff in here. Continue reading

The big difference between earthquake prediction and forecasting

I previously posted about how it’s unethical to endorse dowsing if you are a geologist bound by a professional code that includes using the best scientific procedures and evidence. Condoning a process which is scientifically questionable or invalid is a breach of this code.

A similar argument can be made for earthquake prediction. There have been several instances where scientists (and many more non-scientists) have predicted through various means when and where an earthquake will occur. Currently, there is a storm of criticism leveled at author (not scientist), Simon Winchester after he wrote this article strongly suggesting without evidence that the Pacific coast area is next in line for a big quake due to the strain at “a barely tolerable level” (whatever that means).

These next two blog entries will explore natural disaster prediction. First, it’s important to distinguish between prophesizing, predicting and forecasting. Continue reading

The art of scaring you over nothing: aquifers cause cancer

There are some ideas that are so silly that one REALLY wishes they didn’t have to be addressed at all.

An article appearing here was my introduction to a new, very confused and counterintutive concept: aquifers cause cancer and health problems for humans. Mr. David Reecher, who runs the website Aquifers and Health Institute, has undertaken a public campaign to warn of the hazards of aquifers. When I read the news article, I laughed, thinking it was from The Onion. The statements displayed such ignorant of how nature works that it HAD to be satire. I underestimated human imagination; it was real. I was compelled to investigate this one further.

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The red herring

Conclusion to “Sham Inquiry
The coelacanth is a red herring

Mainstream science, which is respected and functions very well with its current methodology, excludes those fields who don’t pass muster. For a theory to be considered as an explanation for observations of the natural world, even the public realizes it ought to be scientific. Using supernatural qualities as necessary components in your theory will get you excluded from consideration outright by the scientific community. The public, on the other hand, finds the paranormal quite fascinating and is willing to give consideration to those that put on a good show. Continue reading

Ghost Hunting – Sham Inquiry

Thousands of eyewitnesses report ghostly encounters from ancient history to modern times. Contact with the dead is very much part of our modern culture. With the expansion of television content and the internet, stories about hauntings have surged in popularity.

Ghost hunting is a popular hobby for thrill seekers. It’s fun to be scared. The official community of ghost hunters, including those of popular reality TV programs, are non-scientists. However, they invariably tout the scientific nature of their activities. Continue reading

Cryptozoology – Sham Inquiry

Cryptozoology is “the study of hidden animals” (called ‘cryptids’). More precisely, it is the pursuit of animals that science does not recognize as existing and, in some situations, be considered ‘monster hunting’ in comparison to the ghost hunters in a forthcoming discussion.

Like the closely related field of UFOlogy, cryptozoology can accurately be described as “a simulacrum of systematic rationality…quite impressive to many…nonbelievers.” Continue reading

Pretend science

Playing Pretend Science

In order to be technical, like science, pseudoscientists engage in a method of data gathering that is not haphazard or lazy. Intricate collection and analysis is often a part of pseudoscientific activity. They may produce enormous bodies of work. Commitment to a cause can prompt “energetic intellectual effort” [1]. The motives and ‘sciencey’ feel of the whole endeavor wins over those nonscientists who can’t recognize that it simply fails to meet scientific standards. Yet, for all the diligent work, the accumulated evidence can still amount to nothing of substance.
The public is happy to admire science as long as they don’t have to understand it deeply. Sham inquiry plays to the admiration of science by the public. A lack of familiarity with how science is supposed to work is a major reason why the public has trouble recognizing counterfeit science. Add an ‘-ology’ to the end of whatever you study and it acts like a toupe of credibility – to hide the lack of substance. The public is vulnerable to pseudoscience that resembles real inquiry and genuine knowledge.
The following are three examples of current pseudosciences. They all don the accoutrements of science without delivering the substance [2]. The field of cryptozoology is the likeliest of the three to hold the interest of real scientists these days because it is associated with the genuine fields of zoology, anthropology and wildlife biology and chock-full of amateur scientists. Ghost hunting is predominantly nonscientists who enjoy using technology and the new view that it gives them on the world. Creationism is a entirely different beast grown completely from religious ideology and dressed in a cheap and transparent scientific costume. This sham does not even fool courts of law but it continues to exert tremendous ideological force on the public.

Cryptozoology
Ghost hunting
Creationism
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[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 58.
[2] Bunge, M. (1995).“In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 104.

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Weak evidence

Quality of evidence

A frequent complaint from the fringe is that the scientific community is dismissive of the actual evidence for their extraordinary claim. Proponents of psi or UFOs will cite reams of evidence. The scientific community’s standard response is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. That is, the evidence must be high quality, obtained through rigorous testing, with all other explanations accounted for. Overly precautionary experiments are required to support theories that seek to overturn established knowledge. Rampant fraud and gullibility exposed in some fields, especially psi research, require that extra safeguards be used in this research. This is not a double standard because, as Gardner notes for conventional studies, “gerbils don’t cheat” [1]. But humans do, sometimes inadvertently.

Many poorly tested pseudosciences have a characteristic over-reliance on anecdotal evidence. Similar to anecdotes, myths and legends will be used to support a claim. This type of evidence can not be confirmed and is subject to mistakes and misinterpretation. Science considers anecdotal evidence very weak because of the degree of subjectiveness.

In the public view, anecdotal evidence is very persuasive. It is a primary means by which we communicate ideas to each other. To deny an eyewitness account suggests that the researcher considers the eyewitness a lier, under the influence of some altering substance or mentally unstable.

Collected modern and historical anecdotes, bits of circumstantial and questionable evidence, and non-replicated results form an impressive body of evidence to the nonscientist. Even the scientist may feel that there “must be something to it”. The important attention to quality is lost. Lots of weak evidence does not collectively make strong evidence. In an analogy, skeptical investigator Ben Radford equates this to trying to make a cup of strong coffee out of a lot of weak brew [2]. The scientific community is unimpressed and, quite justifiably, turns away.

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[1] Gardner, M. (1981). Science Good Bad & Bogus, Prometheus Books.
[2] Radford, B. (2009). Personal communication, April 27, 2009.

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Using Subterfuge

Using subterfuge to build a case

Pseudoscience proponents may resort to desperate measures to support and preserve a beloved theory – another sure sign that the theory does not qualify on the same level as a scientific one. The public generally falls for various forms of slippery techniques and logical fallacies that are used to promote pseudoscientific claims, such as:

  • Falsifying scientific citations or quotes; using well-known scientist’s words out of context, changing them or entirely fabricating a reference;
  • Deliberately misleading to a conclusion;
  • Laying claim to authority based on special knowledge from inside sources (like the military, religious authorities or the dead themselves);
  • Making decisive statements that are unconfirmed, previously discredited, or even outright lies;
  • Speculation unsupported by evidence; outright leaps of faith and jumping to conclusions;
  • Claims that other knowledge systems are as valued as science.

In the eyes of the public who will trust a knowledgeable-sounding and sincere source, crafty methods can convey the feeling that a reasonable case is being built. The public is not expected to look deep enough to see that hard facts are actually assumptions, rendering the whole field a hollow show [1]. It takes a lot of work, previous knowledge and some special access to discern the truth from falsity and determine which conclusions are valid. It is not reasonable to have to verify everything one hears all day.
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[1] Levitt, N. (1999). Prometheus Bedeviled, Rutgers Univ Press. p. 92

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