The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Bull**** Detection Kit – Why Pseudoscience Doesn’t Deliver

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 4, 2010

The last talk/panel I attended at Convergence/Skepchicon on the second day was a nice general one on how to recognize & deal with pseudoscience in general.  It’s a long one, so here goes…

Bullshit Detection Kit: Why Pseudo-Science Doesn’t Deliver

Exploring pseudoscience and why it is highly improbable.  It’s called pseudo-science for a reason.

Ted Meissner (moderator), David Walbridge, Greg Laden, Steve Thoms, Bug Girl, Stephanie Zvan, Lois Schadewald

Ted: We’re going to talk about our favorite forms of pseudoscience.  Mine is Deepak Chopra talking about how meditation can cause an earthquake.

Stephanie: my favorite pseudoscience is parapsychology.

Lois: I’ve picked Flat Eartherism as my favorite pseudoscience.

David: My interest is psychics.

Greg: I’ll be talking about the pseudoscience of woo related to the brain (“you only use 10% of your brain”).

Bug: Surprisingly, there is a lot of pseudoscience related to emptomology – for example, electronic bug zappers (ultrasonic repellers) are total b.s.

Steve: For me it’s all about alternative medicine, and it really bugs me because this stuff kills a lot of people and hurts people I know.

Ted: I’m glad to see this panel so well attended – how many people are familiar with “What’s the Harm?” This kind of bullshit hurts & kills people, and we need to let others know about that.  What are some of the other harmful bits of pseudoscience that gets the goat of people on the panel?

Bug: I find that anti-vaccination really resonates with me, because I’ve had family members who have died from polio.  I lived with people who could have really benefited from vaccines, so to me vaccination is very important.  Nothing is perfect, but it’s sure a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

Audience member: How exactly does that relate to pseudoscience?  Is that the “vaccines cause autism” thing?

Bug: There is a major movement seen in the mainstream media that is anti-vaccination.  Some of it grew out of fear of mercury in vaccines, while other fears are that they cause autism, and still others because people distrust the government.  The idea is “nobody gets that anymore”, but 5 kids just died in California from whooping cough.

David: Just to back up the science, vaccines do not cause autism, and the amount of mercury in a vaccine is the same you’d get in a tuna fish sandwich.  The point here is to check the facts, do the research, and see what informed people say about it.

Stephanie: And it’s worth noting that scientists are not really getting rich on their work.

Greg: In the 1970s, because a few people started to die from swine flu, the government mandated vaccination and this was kind of contrary to what the scientists were saying.  This led to a lot of distrust of the government.  That’s part of the problem – the real live medical information is sometimes a bit ambiguous and doesn’t necessarily give simple answers.  And so when you see the simple, miracle answer given your bullshit meter should go off.

Q: Is it a kind of anti-government or anti-science movement?

Greg: Both, I’d say.

Steve: In Canada, we have a history of a healthy respect for government, whereas in the U.S. there is more of an inherent mistrust of government.  I think part of it is, therefore, a rejection of science & expertise and this embrace of post-modernism.

Q: Do you believe in global warming in Canada?

Steve: It hasn’t hit us yet, it’s still cold.

Bug: I’ve been concerned about global warming since the late 80s, and I can tell you that every piece of scientific evidence from the atmosphere shows it is a serious issue.  We’re really going to see this in terms of the effect of agriculture, and this is ultimately going to manifest as a political problem.

Lois: How many of you are familiar with the Climate-gate emails? This is where some people hacked into climate scientists’ emails and took quotes out-of-context and tried to make it look like the science was bad.  An example is when scientist Michael Mann used the word “trick” in terms of a kind of analysis, but the climate-science deniers took it out-of-context and tried to make it look like he was purposefully deceiving people.

Ted: How many of you know about the CG emails?  How many know that it was debunked?  How many of you think people outside of this room know it was debunked?

[All hands go down]

Q: A lot of pseudoscience seems to connect with certain kinds of political or religious ideology?

All: True.

Q: Do you find that pseudoscience claims seem to get more momentum during times of election?

Ted: Yes, because more people have microphones in front of them and more press.  I think we need to make a better connection with other people who don’t get it.

Q: Why do you think most meteorologists are GW-deniers?

David: part of the problem is that climate is not weather.

Bug: A lot of what we see is argument by authority.  We used to have the church do that, but now it’s more and more who is on TV, and if I’m up there I’m just another talking head who “must be just as correct” as the other talking head.  I also think the economic climate is a factor, because people want solutions and not realistic situations.

Ted: A lot of us think “compelling” means the weight of evidence, but that’s not how a lot of people are convinced.  Part of that is how you connect to the audience.

Stephanie: In our society there is also a lot of respect for people who are contrarians.  So if you want to continue to get asked back on TV is to say “everybody else is wrong”.

David: another good example is the BP oil spill, and the media keep on repeating what many sources are feeding them regardless of the fact that some sources have been wrong repeatedly.

Ted: How many of you are familiar with this? [Holds up the Skeptic’s Society “Baloney Detection Kit”]  Check that out.

Q: When the claims about Climate-gate came out, the media seemed to eat it up, but when the follow-up showed there was nothing to it, the media barely reported it.

Steve: What happens is that in our news cycle, “not news” is not news.  “Vaccines don’t cause autism” isn’t news and doesn’t get headlines, so Jenny McCarthy and Climate-gate get headlines but the info that there was just a bunch of b.s. doesn’t get headlines.

Bug: I’ve always felt like the reason why our news is biased towards story-telling is because we are story-telling animals.

Greg: The proposal has been that language evolved to pass along information that “where are the animals” and so on.  But when researchers actually went out and talked with hunter-gathering societies, they found that all the talk was basically gossip.

This is also part of the monkey analogy, it’s better to run away from a false predator than to not run away from a real one.  This leads to a lot of false positives.  Small monkeys also run away when the big monkeys run away, so we tend to pay attention to authority figures.

Ted: Part of that story is that some of the monkeys will fake everybody out so that they can steal their food.

Lois: Animals are also capable of deception.

Q: Whatever happened to shows like Mr. Wizard and stuff like that?

Bug: I blame Disney.  It doesn’t really sell.

Greg: There are entire science channels which are total bullshit.

Bug: The Discovery Channel is nature porn – it is beautifully lit, it has wakka-wakka music, and there is always some kind of consumptive climax.  There are many people who think that nature is like the nature shows.  The shows tell a story, but the reality of nature is dirty, graphic, and nasty.

We had a David Attenborough & a Carl Sagan, and there are others now but it’s not as sexy as people being shot and whatnot.

David: I think one of the related problems here is that scientists need to be paid, and their employers who are not comfortable with them putting it out.

Stephanie: Or the employers are not good about putting it out as a story.

Q: We watched “Conspiracy” with Jesse Ventura [about conspiracy theories] and it’s the worst journalism I’ve ever seen.  His attitude is that if they’re denying it, then they’re doing it.  People buy into it because he’s a celebrity.  I’ve read this book about pseudoscience, and there are some people who will believe it no matter what, regardless of the evidence.

Stephanie: What we could do is to accept more broadly the genre of science fiction, because people know it’s fiction.

Q: In some ways I have an advantage over half the people in this room, because I’m older.  How many people saw all the hoopla about Earth Day?  Nobody remembers the original Earth Day where people had signs saying “get ready for the coming Ice Age!”  I’ve also told my mother countless times that where she lives in California is not going to fall into the ocean.

Bug: Many students do actually reject the notion of plate tectonics.

Q: I think some of the problem is how scientists use “theory”.  People don’t understand the meaning of “theory” and how do we take that word back.

Bug: I like to use the “theory of gravity”.

Ted:  Patience is what’s going to help you most with that.  We’ve done this before, and we as skeptics need to keep doing it.  Rinse and repeat.

Lois: I think a lot of words have different meaning depending upon context, so putting “scientific” in front of “theory” helps.

Q: How do you deal with the pseudoscience and the people who grasp it so tightly?  For example, at this con there is a ghost hunter panel where I don’t know how to talk to them.

Bug: Go for the low-hanging fruit.  Go for the people who are a little open, in the middle and can be convinced.  You can never get them to be skeptical about everything, but you can get them to be skeptical about more things.  Start with little things which are smaller, neutral, and an easy win, and that will set the stage for future discussions.

Q: In addition to the ghost panel, there’s going to be an evil overlord panel, so I think some of this is in good fun.

Stephanie: yes, you can step back one step and talk about things that people know are bullshit and then get them to apply the same methods of thinking to other stuff.

David: A good example is with Big Foot – give people 10 million people 10 million cameras to look for Big Foot.  We did it and there are no pictures.

[discussion of cold reading]

Bug: How does it work?

David: Little boys at parties like trucks (it’s true).  I can also do this on high schoolers and others because I know, not that particular person, but people.

Q: I’m concerned that we as skeptics take an “I’m smarter than you” tone.

David: I used to believe that we should treat each other all equally.  The truth is we aren’t all equally smart – there are dumb people, uneducated people, people who won’t change their mind.  I like to talk to smart people, and part of the cool thing about this tribe is that here you can be smart & challenged.  Part of the thing about skepticism is that we agree we’re going to talk about our beliefs in terms of evidence.

Stephanie: There’s a panel on this later about smart vs. intelligent.  Intelligent is kind of an internal quality, whereas smart is a kind of process.

Ted: One thing we may not be smart about is that when we are talking with someone on a topic, we don’t necessarily give them an “out” where if they change their mind they don’t feel stupid.

Steve: With an anecdote, back in November when 2012 was coming out, one of my students asked me if I was worried about the world ending in 2012. I asked him “why do you think the world’s going to end?” and that question alone got him to thinking.  Even his own ideas, he had never considered questioning them.

Q: Do you have a list of characteristics of pseudoscience?

[people point out the “Baloney Detection Kit”… Lois holds up her book “Worlds of Their Own”]

Q: Minor point on the 2012 prediction, and there are all kinds of end-of-the-world predictions, and we’re still here.

Greg: American civilization has Puritan roots, and they were an apocalyptic cult who repeatedly predicted the end of the world.  This attests to the “I want to believe the weird thing” part of our culture.

Q: How much in America is pseudoscience attached to religiosity?

Stephanie: There are some which are tied to religion and others that are not.  For example, many pseudosciences are tied to explicitly non-religious things.

Greg: That would be a good study that I’m not sure has been done.

Q: There are a lot of studies which show that as religiosity increases there is a decrease in belief in the paranormal.

Q: I often hear friends of mine talk about how people treat science as a religion.  The best way that I’ve found to counter that is to point out that the scientific method has within it a way to change your mind.  What are your thoughts?

Bug: I think we’re back to the argument from authority.  But let’s talk about the values of science: it’s good to ask questions, it’s good to challenge ideas, etc.  Stay away from the other side’s sound bites.

Q: Isn’t argument from authority a logical fallacy, so if we invoke Carl Sagan isn’t that also an argument from authority?

Bug: Again, focus on the issue of asking questions and asking “why?”  We have to train kids that it is okay to ask those questions.

Greg: A good rabbi or minister and asks themselves and says “how do I guide the lost back into my flock?”, and a good scientists asks “how do I check & possibly disprove what I knew yesterday?”

Q: Mine is more a comment… don’t write off all religions as not asking questions.  So basically science & religion don’t have to conflict, but after watching “What the Bleep?” I can see that science & religion can mix in nasty ways.

6 Responses to “Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Bull**** Detection Kit – Why Pseudoscience Doesn’t Deliver”

  1. bug_girl said




  2. Ted said

    Text of the talk, you ROCK! I’ll be putting out a podcast with it, probably.

    • mattusmaximus said

      Cool – let me know if you need anything else for the podcast. I’m uploading much more on the blog later today.

  3. […] Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Bull**** Detection Kit – Why … […]

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