Friday, January 21, 2005

The Skeptics' Circle

Wednesday night on his blog, while discussing bloggers who had recently pointed out suspected urban legends (one of whom was me questioning whether a story posted by one of my fellow medical bloggers about foiled hijackers was, in fact, an urban legend), St. Nate proposed an interesting idea. I think it's a really good idea as well. His proposal was to form a new Carnival, like Grand Rounds, Tangled Bank, The History Carnival, or the Carnival of the Vanities for bloggers intent on disproving hoaxes. Quoth he: "It could be a cool counterbalance to all the misinformation frequently repeated by scores of bloggers."

Indeed it could. I love blogging now that I've been at it a while. I hope to keep on doing it for a long time and some day to build an audience ten times what I have now. I also love finding new and interesting blogs and promoting them to my audience, limited though it might be. One of the great things about blogging is the ability of virtually anyone with a computer and Internet connection to post his or her thoughts to the world. (That's also one of its biggest drawbacks, too, because not everyone can express themselves very well or has thoughts worth expressing, but that's another issue. The upside, I think, far outweighs the downside.) Another downside is that misinformation gets picked up, linked to, and thereby spread exponentionally by bloggers all over the world. Rumors, hoaxes, urban legends, and stories that are demonstrably false spread rapidly and take on the patina of truth through sheer volume.

Oh, there are a few skeptics out there who try to combat this phenomenon and look at pseudoscientific, paranormal, and other questionable claims with a skeptical eye, like the Amazing Randi (and, on a much, much smaller scale, myself). But they are drowned out by the multitudes who either don't have the critical thinking skills, the knowledge, or the desire necessary to look critically and skeptically at the many claims that bombard us every day. It's far easier (and often far more entertaining) just to accept (or at least not to question too closely) these claims. One thing I've learned (and still sometimes forget about still) is that skepticism is not popular. You won't win many friends by debunking. It's far easier to accept than it is to question. (See The Fashionable Dictionary for more on this.) It's far more popular, too. "Debunker" can, in some circles, be a dirty word. For example, when I speculated that maybe the thwarted hijacking story was a urban legend, I was for the most part either ignored or criticized by others commenting on the same post. No one seemed to agree with me or even to have entertained the same suspicion. (In fact, the story was picked up by Michelle Malkin and then by several other conservative bloggers, and spread rapidly throughout the blogosphere.) Unfortunately, my doubting the story was perceived as casting doubt on the veracity of Doctor Bob or the air marshal who told him the story. It was even insinuated that I needed to "depreciate" the story, "so that the world conforms to [my] worldview." (I could also equally argue that the ready acceptance of these stories by the public occurs because they conform to so many people's world view.) As another example, on (on Usenet), reactions by alties to even very polite questioning of their claims by myself or others are often quite hostile. Such is often, if not usually, the fate of the skeptic.

Let me just take the opportunity to enthusiastically back this idea and make a couple of suggestions. St. Nate did not want political or ideological biases to come into it. I'm not sure how that will be possible, unless the topics are restricted to science and pseudoscience, and I'm not sure such a carnival should be so narrowly restricted. On the other hand, leaving things too wide open could potentially put each host of such a carnival in the uncomfortable position position of having to evaluate the arguments themselves, which might be too much work. Also, not all hosts would have the same capabilities in the same areas.

However, I don't think these problems are insurmountable. I want to be counted in.

As for St. Nate's request for more debunking websites or blogs, I'm in the process of revamping my blogroll to include every good skeptics or debunking site that I'm aware of. (Feel free to let me know about other skeptical websites or blogs that you might be aware of.) A couple of interesting blogs in this vein that I've just discovered include:
  1. Law, Evolution, Science, and Junk Science. Manifesto: Severe miscarriages of justice can occur if judges and juries make decisions based on misleading scientific information. Furthermore, public policy and spending decisions are made by the legislatures of states and the federal government that fundamentally affect all of us. These decisions also affect our children and future generations. Whether the decision relates to nuclear power generation, high power electric power transmission lines, AIDS prevention and treatment, mold exposure, or medical malpractice, a bad decision can be costly and even deadly to individuals and harmful to society itself. Science is most likely to be misused when there is an agenda other than the truth of science at stake. Often in a courtroom, the truth of science is not at stake--winning the lawsuit is the goal. For example, breast implant litigation developed into a multibillion dollar industry based on junk science. Similarly, concerns such as fear of technology, fear of scientific materialism, achievement of political objectives such as education of schoolchildren can all apparently justify efforts to distort science to achieve those goals even if the distortion is false. Amen.
  2. (mostly) Rationally Speaking. Description: Running commentary on life, the universe and everything, with particular attention to philosophy, science and pseudoscience. If you think rationality is overvalued, don't read it (then again, maybe you should!). C'mon, it's food for thought, you don't have to agree with it!
  3. Real Climate. Description: This is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary. The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science. (Generally, this site is dedicated to debunking anti-global warming activists.)
  4. Description: A skeptical site that looks at the facts about frauds, fakes, fools, and flim-flam. This site addresses the harm inflicted upon credophiles. That is, this site addresses the financial, emotional, and intellectual injury caused by the lucrative business of fraud and deceit. And that business is booming. There is no shortage of fools who pay dearly for the dubious privilege of being taken advantage of.
Check my blogroll for more, many more, which I will be adding as time goes on.

1 example(s) of insolence returned:

At 1/21/2005 9:34 AM, Blogger Saint Nate said...

Thanks for the leads. I'm going to get started on this project over the weekend.


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