How's it going, Skeptic?

Last updated 20144.10.20

Feeling just a bit skeptical about what passes for "common sense" these days? Driven to distraction by True Believers™ of all stripes telling you that they alone have the corner on the truth market? Starting to get the idea that it's all the same crap in different wrappers? Does the following sound woefully familiar?—"The problem with smart people is that they don't have any common sense." If the answer to all of the above is "yes" then you are not alone.

It would be nice to know where the shit stops and the truth, nay sanity starts. One of the functions of this blog is to help keep you on the path. But beware. You'll have to go crazy to stay sane. And I can't cover it all. Most of this has been said before and far better. Indulge me as I ramble...

It's not that complicated. To me it seems that there are Skeptics—people of the "show me the evidence and reasoning" type—and then there's everyone else. In this context "skeptic" sounds a lot like "scientist". It all comes down to how you look at the world and answer questions about it.

As a scientist and a Skeptic, I realize that the sum total of knowledge is not fixed but hazy, with lots of gaps and uncertainties. Occasionally, something resembling progress occurs (like Special Relativity) and one of the gaps is filled in a little more. This view of the world is progressive, it slowly corrects itself and improves. And it works. Science is not perfect but it's much better than the alternatives. Scientists are not perfect, either. More on that later.

The flipside of this is that absolute certainty doesn't exist. But that doesn't stop almost everyone else from believing that some version, their version, does. Most people today are so busy living the American Nightmare that they have less time to think than any previous post-war generation while simultaneously being bombarded by more sheer CRAP than could have been dreamed of before Reagan was president. Pop culture distractions like 500 channels of mind-numblingly bad TV and the ready abundance of false drugs creates a semi-comalike state of indecision bordering on utter helplessness. "But it's the 21st Century!" Times have never been more "interesting"!
'The SubGenius wants no part of the "New Age," it is already here and it obviously sucks' (SubGenius Pamphlet #1)
Even as we embrace the greatest flux of discovery, invention and genuine progress in the history of our so-called civilization, the purveyors of lies and "woo" are more prevalent than ever.

"Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose"
(The more things change, the more they stay the same)

Why is this? These turd mongers comprise the usual suspects: capitalists, ideologues, politicians, the "media" and an endless variety of old-fashioned crooks and frauds. Plain folks are constantly caljoled, threatened, warned, seduced and sodomized by the same old confabulators—religious nuts, conspiracy theorists, quack medicine aficionados, perpetual motion/free energy cranks, UFO watchers, cryptozooligists and rabid followers of faith-healers, pyschics, and television evangelists, accompanied by the cover stories emanating from the movers and shakers—soulless corporations, brainless governments, "think" tanks, Big Religion and, of course, their whores known as politicians, lobbyists and consultants. All running interference to shake off any close scrutiny into their machinations. Note that I am not advocating conspiracy theorization here. This is all classic business-as-usual another-day-in-human-history stuff so it's grandfathered.

Whenever any of the beliefs and/or activities of any member of these groups is challenged they resort to propaganda, astroturfing, bribery, misdirection, hypocrisy, LIES ...and when all that fails they fall back on their most insidious technique—Denialism. Denialism is a set of tactics guaranteed to fend off pesky facts and reasoning. For an essential overview see this treatise on Denialism.

Fascinating, isn't it? You already knew most of it but it's nice to see it all written up. The takeaway is don't argue with them. It's a proven waste of time and a blackhole for Slack.

Denialism runs deep. There are people who hate science/intellectuals and use false equivalency as a way to bypass reality. Some claim that science is actually just another "religion" and therefore a mere competitor in a marketplace of ideas with no greater claim to truth. Some claim that because science changes something is fundamentally wrong with it compared to religion proper—after all, faith never changes therefore the "faith" of "science" must be broken. Some claim that all scientists are guilty of scientism, a belief that science can/will solve every problem and answer every question—and therefore just another (false) system of belief.

And then there are so-called "skeptics"—pseudo-skeptics, actually. The most insidious denialists. They make anti-reality claims like:
  • A growing number of scientists are coming out against <something they don't want anyone to know is true while all the facts are against them >
  • Radio-carbon dating is flawed
  • Double-blind testing doesn't work
  • Oswald couldn't have been alone
  • The moon landing didn't happen
  • Buildings can't collapse like they did on 9/11
  • Tobacco is harmless
  • Sex education doesn't reduce the rate of teen pregnancy
  • Vaccines aren't safe
  • I'm a better than average driver
If you turn to the media for help you're shit outta luck. Skepticism is hard to find on TV. Bill Mahr is an atheist lefty who also happens to be a classic medical quack. Comedian Joe Rogan is a moon-landing denier. Z-list celebrity Jenny McCarthy scrubs every mention of "indigo child" from her web site now that her son has converted to autism. Cable channels spew endless god-awful imitations of classic BBC documentaries claiming that every patch of liquid larger than a puddle of dog piss has a monster lurking in it and showing shaky cell phone videos of out-of-focus blobs of light half a thousand times every 60 minutes during Ghost Sharks From Outer Space Week. I won't even get started on Oprah and her cadre of camera-freindly kooks extraordinaire. Even a great show like Mythbusters doesn't go as far as it should. Penn & Teller seem to be just about the only real thing on the air and they're behind a paywall.

It's official SubGenius doctrine that you should just sit back and laugh as it all falls apart on TV but for those who crave something more than watching the same Meredith Baxter movie for the fiftieth time on the Lifetime Movie Channel or endless repeats of paranormal gawkfests on the so-called "Learning" Channel or the perpetual train-wrecks ceaselessly unfolding on every network with no budget and an empty time slot, there are some resources available.

My main sources of catharsis for many years have been the magazines Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. If you're really hungry for a big dose of Skeptical, you can buy the first 29 volumes of Skeptical Inquirer as searchable PDF files. I look at it as a donation and they can really use the money right now.

Then there's the James Randi Educational Foundation, which hosts James "The Amazing" Randi's "An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural"

Astronomer Phil Plait is the former president of JREF and blogs at Bad Astronomy.

The Skeptics' Society Skepticblog

Skepdic—The Skeptic's Dictionary (actually an encyclopedia)

Science-based Medicine


Please note that even skeptical circles are a hotbed of typical human behavior. Do not fall into the trap of believing everything anyone says is correct or worse yet insidious cults of personality. There have been too many rumors of bad-boy behavior coming out of the cracks in recent years. Despite all this they are, for the most part, fighting the good fight.

Here are some good books...

Charles McKay
The grandaddy of them all...
"We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity."
(Memoirs of) Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds—revised edition, 1852

Amazon has many print editions. It's public domain and you can find it for free here.

Yep, it's from 1852 (the first edition was in 1841). McKay was the first to write an encyclopedic overview of the pathology of mass psychology and popular culture. Covering everything from the South Seas Bubble to alchemy to Mesmer to slang to the "The Adoration Of Great Thieves" and "The Influence Of Politics And Religion On The Hair And Beard". The style is somewhat antique but the content is just is relevant today as it was then.

Carl Sagan read it in college. Johnny Cash said of it in The Man Comes Around:
"The guards were scared to death... All the convicts were standing up on the dining tables. They were out of control. really. During the second rendition of ['San Quentin'] all I would have had to do was say 'Break!' and they were gone, man. They were ready! I've got a book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds that I've studied for years. I knew I had that prison audience where all I had to do was say, 'Take over! Break!' and they would have. Those guards knew it, too. I was tempted."
You too could be controlling entire prisons just by reading this book.

BTW, McKay didn't learn from his own book. An excellent reminder of the fact that leading lights are still flawed human beings.

Martin Gardner
Self-taught polymath Martin Gardner wrote the "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American for nigh on 25 years and the "Notes of a Fringe-Watcher" column in Skeptical Inquirer for 19. He published over 70 books. He is known for his somewhat acerbic style that doesn't suffer fools.  Here are the few I've read...

Science: Good, Bad and Bogus

A collection of previously-published book reviews and short articles. Somewhat repetitive but I need to hear a story several times over anyway. Gardner gets in a lot of shots at the psychic research of Putthof and Targ, biorhythms and other enjoyable topics.

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science

An overview of a variety of BS earlier in the 20th century. Despite its age it's not at all dated; it covers a lot of ground that's overlooked in newer work. And, of course, things never change.

Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery

Here's where Gardner really shines. He takes an obscure topic and runs with it. The Urantia Book (oo-RAN-shah) contains one of the damnedest belief systems I've ever heard of. Take a deep breath before you click the Wikipedia link—the entry is long so you might as well read Gardner's rather long book; it's much more satisfying in the end.

The Urantia cosmology alone blows away anything in any religious text (well, there's always Hinduism) or SF/fantasy novel you've ever read. Gardner deftly summarizes it (without ruining too much of its mind-numbingness) and takes us over the highlights, outlines the probable events that led to the creation of this bizarre quasi-cult, and spends a great deal of time showing how the author(s) plagiarized a great deal of the text—including their own earlier works. Former 7th Day Adventists—friends and relatives of Kellogg of flakes fame—are the main actors the story.

Difficult in places due to the complexity of the subject and the need for fairly long quotations to demonstrate plagiarism, this book is well worth the effort. Too bad about Stevie Ray Vaughan.

James "The Amazing" Randi
Along with the encyclopedia mentioned about and the titles listed in "Prophets or Profits?" Randi has written a few more books of note...

Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions

Randi systematically debunks psychic surgery, dowsing, PSI, biorhythms (remember that fad?), Conan-Doyle's beloved Cottingley fairies, and other dubious topics. One of the classics. Required reading.

The Truth About Uri Geller

His masterpiece. Randi has made something of a career of exposing Geller and Geller has made something of a career of suing Randi (among others). After reading this book you can see why Geller is upset. There's a lot more to the story than you've already heard and Randi goes into hilarious detail. An essential side-splitter.

A Magician in the Laboratory (not yet published—coming soon, I hope. He's not getting any younger and I could use the laughs.

Carl Sagan
I've only gotten around to a couple of Sagan's books; I have more sitting here waiting to be read...

The Demon-haunted World

Sagan's last book. He eloquently demolishes various forms of pseudoscience in his inimitable style. Sagan travels over ground previously trampled by others yet remains totally fresh and original. Another must-read.

There's a list of all my books reviews here.

Still more to come—check back later. This is a work in progress...

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