Author Topic: problems with skeptic podcasting!  (Read 12656 times)

Offline bn

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #15 on: July 20, 2012, 03:02:36 PM »
Oh yeah Daneel,
I don't disagree at all that scientists should be made better aware of all the ways they could fool themselves.
As thales reminds us, the first step to wisdom is self knowledge.

Also, I do not mean to oversimplify my characterization of skepticism.

the question I would like to know the answer to, upon reflection, is whether all skeptics are scientists, and whether all scientist are skeptics? are there philosophical distinctions between the two communities?

I contend that there are, but I would like to hear your opinions on the matter.
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Offline stephako

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #16 on: July 20, 2012, 03:09:25 PM »
Ben I think you try to argue with philosophical skepticism (that would be doubting anything) not the one that is usually practiced by skeptics.
I mean if you accept no argument from authority, you quickly end up in a place where you can believe nothing (how do I know there is such a place as Canada? I've never been there). I guess the point with science is that you are not really doing an argument from authority when you point to science. I mean you point to experiments, data and calculations that can be checked, who the heck cares what names are printed on top of the paper?. And if just one person/lab is getting the things done than it is usually not accepted, no matter how prestigious the lab.

The Rationally Speaking Podcast had a pretty good episode on this whole skepticism discussion a while back, where the host showed how problematic the skeptical view is, if you take it unconditionally (their podcast archive seems to be down at the moment so I can't get to the episode). Because if you do this you can say nothing about the world or yourself with any certainty. I would also recommend listening to it if you don't do it already. Massimo Pigliucci is a great host (so thanks again to Ryan and Patrick for bringing him on the show) and really understands, science skepticism and philosophy (It seems to me that it is also very important to know  some philosophy to intelligently talk about these things).
As far as I know he was one of the people heavily criticizing James Randi for doubting climate change.

I also think your view on the suitability of scientists for outreach is skewed. I mean you and the other Paleopals and Titanium Physicists do a great job and there are a lot of great science bloggers, but there are also many scientists who can't even be bothered to write somewhat understandable research papers (and by that I mean papers that can be understood by a trained scientist working in their field in under a week.) I have come across such papers where you get the impression that the author is trying to say "I have understood it without anybody explaining it to me, so if you can't that's not my problem.". Or the much more prevalent crappy talk or poster presentation, where you get the impression that the people are annoyed that they had to take time out of their research to prepare and give the talk. My point is just because you are a brilliant and passionate scientist doesn't mean you are a good communicator. So it could do more harm than good if the wrong people do the outreach.
The big advantage that non-specialists have is not knowing all the technical details and being more easily fooled by what people write in the motivation section of their paper. (The science news items of the SGU are  good example for that,... sure your new technology will be available in 5 years ::) ). While a scientist in the field might just see the same stuff that everybody writes packed up in a press release and take it with a grain of salt.
You are doing a great job with giving people an intuitive feeling about very demanding physical theories, but that is not usually what one wants from science outreach. People who don't understand why science is useful or interesting first need to get an idea about these points and how critical thinking and the scientific process works. And I think skeptics can accomplish that step as well as scientists. Once you have them hooked you need people with a better training though to help them further along on their path.

EDIT: To bens post that was written while I was typing:
I think the answer to you question depends on your definition of skepticism. As I said above, if you take the hardliner skeptic view you will find very few people who actually are skeptics. If you take the view more or less represented by Steve Novella and Massimo Pigliucci I would say every scientist should be a skeptic. But of course nobody tests that, before you get your scientist labcoat and the first big check from big [insert any industry here].
The other part of the question is easier: No not every skeptic is a scientist
« Last Edit: July 20, 2012, 03:16:10 PM by stephako »
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Offline bn

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #17 on: July 20, 2012, 04:14:15 PM »
First off, thank you for saying such lovely things about us. I want to try and motivate more of my colleagues to join me doing science outreach. as you said, it's not a priority for many scientists... and If we aren't proselytizing, then we're not reproducing, and if we're not reproducing, we're going to die out. so boo to those guys.

You are doing a great job with giving people an intuitive feeling about very demanding physical theories, but that is not usually what one wants from science outreach. People who don't understand why science is useful or interesting first need to get an idea about these points and how critical thinking and the scientific process works. And I think skeptics can accomplish that step as well as scientists. Once you have them hooked you need people with a better training though to help them further along on their path.

oh neat.
this is fun because this is where i start disagreeing with you.
it is my fundamental contention that science doesn't need a purpose. it's a romance. people are driven to understand how the world around them works. there's an aesthetic or emotional satisfaction you get from it, which extends beyond just the usefulness of it. it's that glorious "OOOOohhhhh" moment when you find out why whales look different from fish, or why bees have stripes or... (hey. why do bees have stripes? anyone?) how lightning makes thunder.

It's something akin to piety.

i think that this is what motivates people to science, and I think that this is how you hook people.
once a person is committed to learning more science... as it were... then you start to drill them in careful thinking and deductive logic.
« Last Edit: July 20, 2012, 04:16:59 PM by bn »
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Offline bn

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #18 on: July 20, 2012, 04:24:12 PM »
I think the answer to you question depends on your definition of skepticism. As I said above, if you take the hardliner skeptic view you will find very few people who actually are skeptics. If you take the view more or less represented by Steve Novella and Massimo Pigliucci I would say every scientist should be a skeptic. But of course nobody tests that, before you get your scientist labcoat and the first big check from big [insert any industry here].
The other part of the question is easier: No not every skeptic is a scientist

Can a person be a skeptic if they don't mind believing in something which is probably not true? (maybe this is a wedge which we could use to split scientist from skeptic)

For instance, would a steve novella skeptic ever go to a casino? It's rationally obvious that you will be leaving the casino with less money than you walked in with.

A scientist might not mind going to a casino. they might say "Well, i'm a biologist at my day job, but who cares about the fun I have when i take my labcoat off? and it's fun and exciting to gamble money and hope that I could win more. I am hoping to win, even though i am not expecting to win. and I am happy to act based on my hopes rather than rational expectations, outside of my profession."

alternatively, many scientists are experts in fields which they know must be wrong. for instance, I'm a general relativist. I study gravity. it's  a classical theory, and the contradictions of the theory are well known. General Relativity must be false. If someone asked me to put money down on Relativity being the correct theory of gravity 500 years from now, I would not take the bet. and yet, I study it and love it.
« Last Edit: July 20, 2012, 04:26:27 PM by bn »
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Offline Daneel

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #19 on: July 20, 2012, 05:24:05 PM »
I think that most good scientists are skeptics. Not all skeptics are scientists, on the other hand, but there's a lot of overlap. I do think that most (if not all) skeptics are science enthusiasts. I think we can both agree that you don't need a degree in science to love science and to love to learn about it. 

Can a person be a skeptic if they don't mind believing in something which is probably not true? (maybe this is a wedge which we could use to split scientist from skeptic)
I think the answer is yes. As long as you write a metaphorical asterisk next to that belief noting that it's not based on good evidence, and you are willing to change your mind when new data comes your way, then there's no problem in believing something not true.

I don't know about Steve, but if a skeptic liked gambling (while knowing the proper probabilities), then it would actually be irrational not to do it.
Martin Gardner was a great example. He was a believer in a deistic CROM but when asked about it he would recognize up front that he had no evidence or good reason to believe in it, he did it because it gave him comfort. And in spite this fact, he is revered in the skeptical community.
We are humans and we know we can't scape our human passions and desires. At least in my view, it would be foolish not to make the most of them. 

Quote
alternatively, many scientists are experts in fields which they know must be wrong. for instance, I'm a general relativist. I study gravity. it's  a classical theory, and the contradictions of the theory are well known. General Relativity must be false. If someone asked me to put money down on Relativity being the correct theory of gravity 500 years from now, I would not take the bet. and yet, I study it and love it.
True! But that takes us into a whole philosophical discussion about the nature of "truth". GR is "true" in the sense that is the best theory that fits the data so far. We know it's incomplete and that why we study it, right?
There's an analogue idea in skepticism. We hold a number of beliefs in our brains that we think as true, right? But then, on the other hand, we also have to admit that some of them must actually be false (unless you are an arrogant douche). So we are in a paradoxical state. One in which we believe some things to be true but we also believe that at least some of them are false. The problem is, we don't know which.

Offline bn

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #20 on: July 20, 2012, 05:51:29 PM »
I think the answer is yes. As long as you write a metaphorical asterisk next to that belief noting that it's not based on good evidence, and you are willing to change your mind when new data comes your way, then there's no problem in believing something not true.

that's an interesting characterization. in response, I'm wondering if you're allowed, as a skeptic, to not care if your *probably false* faith is true or not.

True! But that takes us into a whole philosophical discussion about the nature of "truth". GR is "true" in the sense that is the best theory that fits the data so far. We know it's incomplete and that why we study it, right?
ah but it's not true. it's not even self consistent. Stephen hawking and roger penrose showed that in the 60's or 70's.

if i cared about "truth" i probably should have gone into some quantum field theory or I would have done more work on quantum gravity. Instead I paddle around on the "definitely not true" classical general relativity side of the pond. because i think it's interesting.
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Offline Lynx Cat

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #21 on: July 20, 2012, 06:02:44 PM »
Eh, truth is overrated anyway. Some of the most interesting discussions are about things that are probably not real...

And I'm a big skeptic who loves calculating probabilities, and I'd love to go to a casino someday :P (they're illegal here)
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Offline bn

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #22 on: July 20, 2012, 06:20:17 PM »
casinos in canada are kind of an odd duck.
in my home province, they were legal... and i think they were run by the government.
so the profits they made went to social programs and stuff.

but then people started to notice that some of the people were losing a LOT of money regularly because of gambling addictions. and so the question was whether it was reasonable for the state to use the ruined lives and gambling addictions of a few people to pay for social services (instead of just raising taxes)?

it was interesting.
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Offline Bullypulpit

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #23 on: July 20, 2012, 08:43:16 PM »
I love the casino but the mathical truth is the odds are always in the favor of the house.
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Offline stephako

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #24 on: July 21, 2012, 02:58:25 AM »
Yeah we had the gambling discussion in Germany too. They have come to the conclusion that it is OK to do it, as long as you warn people that gambling can become an addiction. Kind of like the health warnings on cigaretts...
But from was said on the recent SGU episodes I would guess skeptics gamble. They seem to understand that they loose money, but that's just a payment for entertainment. Like paying obscene prices to see 3D movies, just because they are not shown in 2D...
Also I think your argument that a skeptic should always behave rationally, without considering their feelings is not correct (if I understood you correctly on that point). Let me look up a youtube video to proof my point :D

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ah but it's not true. it's not even self consistent. Stephen hawking and roger penrose showed that in the 60's or 70's.

if i cared about "truth" i probably should have gone into some quantum field theory or I would have done more work on quantum gravity. Instead I paddle around on the "definitely not true" classical general relativity side of the pond. because i think it's interesting.

So here I know to little about what you are actually doing when you are not writing forum posts  ;)
But I guess for what you are doing GR is still the best way to do things and no one has come up with a better working solution. I think it is totally reasonable to want to solve certain problems and for that you use the tools available. If no other tools are available than you have to use whats there, as far as I know quantum gravity is at the moment just proving mathematical theorems for which it is not clear if they ever will have some relevance to what we can probe with experiments.
That is also a part of science I think, to push the boundaries. Sure you know it is not correct, but how far can you take the theory/approximation before it fails? Because that might still tell you something about the system you are studying. I think I am actually worse than you when it comes to using "wrong" theories. I try to describe proteins using classical mechanics and we all know that I should at least be using Quantum mechanics... To be pedantic, actually I should go down to the standard model. But that is now feasible for larger systems, so I use classical mechanics and know that I will not be able to see some effects.
As far as quantum field theories go: Also there you use approximations all the time from which you know that they are mathematically not correct, but you have do it because in some cases they work and you have no other chance to compare the theory to experiments. [Sorry about that rant]
And here I think Daneel is right. You should be aware that what you are doing is not correct and adjust as evidence comes in.

Quote
it is my fundamental contention that science doesn't need a purpose. it's a romance. people are driven to understand how the world around them works. there's an aesthetic or emotional satisfaction you get from it, which extends beyond just the usefulness of it. it's that glorious "OOOOohhhhh" moment when you find out why whales look different from fish, or why bees have stripes or... (hey. why do bees have stripes? anyone?) how lightning makes thunder.

It's something akin to piety.

i think that this is what motivates people to science, and I think that this is how you hook people.

OK you have a point here. But I still think you need to learn them some critical thinking, even in the first steps, because otherwise it is easy to fall for some pseudo-science explanation, that makes for a good story, but is not science.
Plus: I also think that many people do not ask these questions for themselves, so you need people pointing out what wonders nature has to offer. And for that you not necessarily need a scientist.
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Offline bn

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #25 on: July 21, 2012, 04:59:53 AM »
I try to describe proteins using classical mechanics and we all know that I should at least be using Quantum mechanics... To be pedantic, actually I should go down to the standard model. But that is now feasible for larger systems, so I use classical mechanics and know that I will not be able to see some effects.

as an aside, isn't it a wonder that classical mechanics is so versatile?
okay, so you need general relativity to predict what will happen on REALLY LARGE SCALES or in really strong gravitational fields, and you need quantum mechanics to talk about how things smaller than a molecule interact...

but really, that's a pretty broad range. I mean, they still use newtonian mechanics to describe how galaxies evolve!

pretty good for a theory written by a dude in the 1600's, eh?
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Offline bn

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #26 on: July 21, 2012, 05:03:57 AM »
OK you have a point here. But I still think you need to learn them some critical thinking, even in the first steps, because otherwise it is easy to fall for some pseudo-science explanation, that makes for a good story, but is not science.
Plus: I also think that many people do not ask these questions for themselves, so you need people pointing out what wonders nature has to offer. And for that you not necessarily need a scientist.

I don't mean to be a contrarian, but I think things through best when fighting them out,
but isn't the issue we are discussing one which is similar to little kids learning a sport?
and we're like parents, going either:
"They should be learning how to do fundamentals. make them do drills over and over until they are really good at kicking the ball"
and "No, we should just let them play and develop a deep love of the game. that way, they will be motivated to practice hard and learn proper technique as they get older" ?
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Offline bn

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #27 on: July 21, 2012, 05:07:08 AM »
Also,
I would like to acknowledge that part of the overall science outreach problem is that there are not enough scientists pursuing it as a hobby. If there are more skeptics than biologists making podcasts, it's not really the fault of the skeptics that they are carrying the banner.

there are actually two scientific communities who I think do outreach really well. Bird biologists and astronomers. However it evolved, there are large organizations of amateurs who engage in and are enthralled by research in the fields. also, they are well represented in outreach on the internet.
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Offline stephako

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #28 on: July 21, 2012, 05:54:54 AM »
First of here is the video I mentioned earlier:

<a href="http://www.youtube.com/v/tLgNZ9aTEwc" target="_blank" class="new_win">http://www.youtube.com/v/tLgNZ9aTEwc</a>

but really, that's a pretty broad range. I mean, they still use newtonian mechanics to describe how galaxies evolve!

pretty good for a theory written by a dude in the 1600's, eh?

Yeah that is totally awesome! :D

Quote
but isn't the issue we are discussing one which is similar to little kids learning a sport?
and we're like parents, going either:
"They should be learning how to do fundamentals. make them do drills over and over until they are really good at kicking the ball"
and "No, we should just let them play and develop a deep love of the game. that way, they will be motivated to practice hard and learn proper technique as they get older" ?

 ;D Yes... yes thats what we are doing. I guess which one is better suited depends on what kid you have, doesn't it? I mean if the kid hasn't gone outside the house and weighs as much as a small car it might be more useful to give it a proper fitness training first before letting it play basketball in a team... so to speak.

Also I noticed that it probably depends on how you are interfacing with the populace. If it is rather one sided, like a podcast or a blog, and you don't really have live discussions (if you have discussion at all) than it is probably OK to not be a scientist, as you have enough time to research your answers. However if you are discussing science face to face with some, a scientific training is probably a big advantage, because otherwise you quickly get to a point where you can't answer the questions.

Quote
there are actually two scientific communities who I think do outreach really well. Bird biologists and astronomers. However it evolved, there are large organizations of amateurs who engage in and are enthralled by research in the fields. also, they are well represented in outreach on the internet.

On a lesser level maybe also the particle physicist? I think CERN is very good at putting their research in the news. It's however nothing that the amateur can do themselves.
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Offline bn

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Re: problems with skeptic podcasting!
« Reply #29 on: July 21, 2012, 06:16:33 AM »

 ;D Yes... yes thats what we are doing. I guess which one is better suited depends on what kid you have, doesn't it? I mean if the kid hasn't gone outside the house and weighs as much as a small car it might be more useful to give it a proper fitness training first before letting it play basketball in a team... so to speak.

Also I noticed that it probably depends on how you are interfacing with the populace. If it is rather one sided, like a podcast or a blog, and you don't really have live discussions (if you have discussion at all) than it is probably OK to not be a scientist, as you have enough time to research your answers. However if you are discussing science face to face with some, a scientific training is probably a big advantage, because otherwise you quickly get to a point where you can't answer the questions.
Hilariously, I am of the opposite opinion on both those cases. if the kid is too fat to get off the couch, maybe getting them interested in sports would motivate them becoming fit enough to play on the basketball team.
(although, i think the fundamental truth is that, as you say, it probably depends on the kid)

on other other hand, I think scientists are better suited to prepared broadcast, so that they can be certain of their words. scientists, i've noticed, are terrified of making obvious mistakes in public. It's hell trying to find someone for my show sometimes, since no one wants to talk about a field which they are not a research-level expert in.

whereas skeptics seem much better prepared for the cut and thrust of debate and lively questioning. I mean, the reason that fanatics keep wanting "public debates" with scientists on things like climate change, evolution and the existence of deities is that scientists keep losing the debate. To debate well, you need to know more than just technical knowledge or how to teach. you also need to know the fine art of convincing people, and also the difference between facts which persuade people and facts which don't persuade people. Also, you can't get a scientist to ever say that something is "impossible" or to say that anything is "definitely true". skeptics fare MUCH BETTER. 9 times out of 10 I would send a skeptic in place of a scientist to a debate.




On a lesser level maybe also the particle physicist? I think CERN is very good at putting their research in the news. It's however nothing that the amateur can do themselves.

cern is great at publicizing. it's true. I don't think that they make things as accessible as they could though. I mean, to hijack rutherford's words, particle physics is mostly stamp collecting (just like bird watching). yet how many more people out there are there who watch birds, than who are avid fans of particle physics? gosh, how many more stamp collectors are there than avid fans of particle physics?

I have a dream for physics outreach.
...you know that guy in the shaolin soccer movie, who is just SO SURE that everyone needs shaolin kungfu in their lives? that's how i feel about science.
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