Episode 25: Curiosity and the Love of Science

Episode 25: Curiosity and the Love of Science

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, the LUEE hosts take the day off to enjoy a wonderful Canada Day, which allows hosts Robert Shindler, Richelle McCullough, and Gem Newman a chance to look back at the past year to share with you a couple of presentations from our vault.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Drinking Skeptically | Science and Media: A Love Story | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg | SkeptiCamp.org | Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat | TEDxManitoba | TEDx | TEDx Talks on YouTube

The recording of Gem Newman’s TEDxManitoba talk is owned by TED, and was released by TEDxTalks under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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Correction: July’s Drinking Skeptically will take place at Smitty’s Lounge, 1017 St. James Street, instead of the usual location at the Norwood Hotel.

Episode 22: Skepticism in Fiction

Episode 22: Skepticism in Fiction

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman is joined by panellists Richelle McCullough, Javier Hernandez-Melgar, and Ashlyn Noble to discuss the way scientists, skeptics, and atheists are portrayed in fiction.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: TEDxManitoba: Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat (Gem Newman) | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg: Science & Media: A Love Story (Richelle McCullough) | Pediatricians in Canada Discharging Unvaccinated Children | Quebec Woman Sues Osteopath After Arm Amputated | Osteopathy | Osteopathic Medicine | Osteology | Highly Religious People Are Less Motivated by Compassion | Dinosaurs Roar to Life at the Manitoba Museum | The Transit of Venus on June 5th at the University of Manitoba | The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (Oliver Sacks) | The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan) | The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinlein) | My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic “Feeling Pinkie Keen” | The Hollywood Atheist | The Flat-Earth Atheist | Agent Scully | Straw Vulcan | Skepticon 4: The Straw Vulcan (Julia Galef)

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Correction: Near the end of the episode, I mention that the main character in Cosmos is an atheist. While I suppose that may technically be true, I meant to refer to Contact.

Episode 18: WiFi, Mobile Phones, and Electrosensitivity

Episode 18: WiFi, Mobile Phones, and Electrosensitivity

Life, the Universe & Everything ElseIn this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman, Richelle McCullough, Javier Hernandez-Melgar, and Mark Forkheim discuss recent attempts to ban WiFi in several Canadian schools and the scientific merits of health claims made about WiFi, cellphones, and other sources of electromagnetic radiation.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

News: Imagine No Religion 2 Conference | Altona Parents Protest LGBTQ Pledge (Initial Coverage, Response from Rev. Dr. Lesley Fox, Follow-up) | Catholic Teachers Urge WiFi Ban (Globe & Mail, CBC/Canadian Press) | Homeless Hotspots

Links: Illustration of the EMF Spectrum | National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet: Cell Phones and Cancer Risk | WHO Warns Cellphone Use is ‘Possibly Carcinogenic’ | The Not-So-Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves | Elizabeth May on EFM (SkepticNorth, Winnipeg Skeptics) | Evaluating The Evidence for Cell Phones and WiFi | “Dirty Electricity” | Electrosensitivity in Sweden | Skeptics’ Guide 5×5 on WiFi | Skeptoid on Electrosensitivity | Lakehead University WiFi Ban (Ban, Repeal)

Also on this episode, the first instalment of our new segment …and That’s Why You’re Wrong. This week, we discuss the Cosmological Argument, and its increasingly popular cousin, the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

The Cosmological Argument
1. Everything has a cause.
2. A causal loop cannot exist, and a causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
3. Therefore, a First Cause must exist. (We call this cause “God”.)

The Kalam Cosmological Argument
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The Universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

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Correction: On this episode I made an offhand remark about gamma radiation turning a person into a member of the X-Men. I obviously should have said a member of the Avengers (more specifically, the Incredible Hulk). I apologise in advance to any of my fellow Marvel nerds who are offended by this gross misstatement of comic book fact.

Third Annual Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown

The Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown is back… and this year more cities are participating than ever before!

The Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown is a British-style pub quiz that occurs every year on or around Pi-Day (the fourteenth of March) in multiple locations across Canada, with local and national bragging rights at stake. Teams of four(-ish) will compete in a series of five rounds of questions to see whose knowledge of all things skeptical will reign supreme!

If you want to participate, form a team of up to four players and come down to the closest event near you. And if you don’t have a team, don’t worry about it! Single players will be placed into new or existing teams upon arrival. If you decide to come down, I will personally guarantee you’ll have a great time!

Our event in Winnipeg will be held at the Norwood Hotel (112 Marion Street) on 14 March 2012 at 7:00 pm. You can RSVP at our Meetup site, or you can just show up!

But if you’re not in Winnipeg, you can attend one of the four other events across Canada this year.

City Venue Date Time
Halifax TBA TBA TBA
Niagara Region Mahtay Café TBA TBA
Ottawa Foolish Chicken 14 March 2012 TBA
Vancouver Billy Bishop Legion 14 March 2012 7:30
Winnipeg Norwood Hotel 14 March 2012 7:00

Participation is free!

The champion team for the past two years running is missing a core member. Come on out and give it your best. Have fun, and maybe walk away as the new national skeptical champion!

For more information on the other locations across Canada, this post will be updated as information becomes available. You can also email XCANSKEPSMACK@gmail.com for more info.

TEDxManitoba Favourites

All of the talks from TEDxManitoba have been uploaded and are now available for your viewing pleasure!

First, the obligatory self-promotion. As the Sirius Cybernetics Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser might put it: Share and enjoy!

Remember: The “Like” button is your friend! The full text (along with references and annotations) can be found here!

Now that that’s done with, here are a few of my favourite TEDxManitoba talks, in no particular order. The event itself was amazing, the speakers were awesome, and I got useful ideas out of every single talk, whether I agreed with the core premise or not. So watch them all!

But if you don’t have time to watch them all, at least watch these ones!

Robert J. Sawyer: To Live Forever – or Die Trying

TJ Dawe: An Experiment in Collective Intelligence

Kale Bonham: Bridging Cultures Through Community Provoked Art

Matt Henderson: Teaching Ourselves to Last Forever

Hazel Borys: Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict

Brad Tyler-West: Opposites Distract

Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat

This is a talk that I gave at TEDxManitoba on 9 February 2012. Below the video you can find the full text of the talk, with annotations and sources provided. Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.


As a kid, I loved playing Monopoly. I was great at it, too! I was very nearly unbeatable.

I remember one game, looking down at the board and wondering how I was ever going to win. My mother had just pulled a $500 bill out from where she’d hid it between the couch cushions, my stepfather’s hotels were crowding two sides of the board, and my houses on Mediterranean and Baltic just weren’t paying off. How could this be? I thought to myself. I’m a smart kid. I’m great at Monopoly! But the odds were stacked against me, and the situation seemed impossible.

But that’s what made me such a great Monopoly player, I guess. Somehow, I’d always pull out a win in the end. Thinking back, I don’t remember losing a single game!

At some point, we all need to come to terms with the fact that maybe things didn’t happen quite the way we remember them. As humans, we’re just not that great at telling what’s true from what we want to be true. Let’s be frank: I was ten. I probably sucked at Monopoly. But I remember being awesome.

As Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella notes, “Our memories are not an accurate recording of the past. They are constructed from imperfect perception filtered through our beliefs and biases… Our memories serve more to support our beliefs rather than inform them.”[Reference 1]

We’re not great observers, we humans, and we tend to pay much more attention to data that confirm our preconceived notions than to details that don’t fit our theories. We have a marked tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses; presumably why people like Sylvia Browne and John Edward remain so popular.

It’s for this reason that independent confirmation is one of the cornerstones of science.

I’m not a scientist, but I do think of myself as a “science cheerleader”. And science needs cheerleaders, for a couple of reasons.

First, because it’s important for everyone to have a basic scientific understanding. Professor Art Hobson put it this way: “the most crucial decisions [in industrialized nations] concern science and technology, and in democracies, citizens decide.”[Reference 2]

The second reason that science needs cheerleaders is that it is so oft maligned. Scientific skepticism is often portrayed as cold, unfeeling; antithetical to compassion or human emotion. Those with a penchant for whimsical nostalgia stubbornly insist that life was better and that times were simpler before science got all muddled up in society.[Note 1]

Could it be that they’re right?

Science is the quest to understand ourselves, our universe, and our place in it. Science is curious by nature, for its goal is to figure out what’s really true—but for that reason, science must also be skeptical. It insists that we shouldn’t simply take claims at face value, but instead we should proportion our belief in a proposition to the evidence supporting it.

A series of studies conducted in the 1980s found that roughly 80% of people consider themselves above average drivers.[Reference 3][Reference 4] A 1987 study of Australian workers found that only 1% of them rated their workplace performance as below average.[Reference 5] Unless I badly misremember how numbers are meant to work, it seems to me that something very near to half of them are mistaken.

The way that we see the world is coloured by many things, our own egos foremost among them. Perhaps when it comes to Monopoly games we can be forgiven if we see ourselves through rose-coloured glasses. Concern may become warranted when our callous assumption that we outperform our contemporaries affects the quality of our work or the safety of our driving.

But what about when it really counts? What if your child is sick? There are clearly many cases where we simply cannot afford to let our petty biases influence the way we see the world. And that’s where science comes in.

While it’s true that public support for science has remained generally high over the last several decades, and scientific literacy has been increasing more-or-less steadily, there have been some troubling developments in the popular media and in culture at large.[Note 2]

The image of the “mad scientist” is deeply ingrained in our culture, and probably dates to Mary Shelley’s celebrated Frankenstein, in which the relentless pursuit of knowledge leads inexorably to unspeakable horrors. This idea is not a new one. Anti-science messages have been with us for hundreds of years.

Here’s the problem: science is seen by many as unnatural, inaccessible, or even sinister. Scientists are widely regarded as arrogant, superior, or closed-minded.





What’s the common thread here? Aside from being totally awesome, that is. Any guesses?

As unbelievable as it might seem, all of these stories are riddled with anti-science or anti-reason messages. Even in science fiction, the genre that inspired so many of the technologies and conveniences that we take for granted today, it is common to see science portrayed as sinister and destructive.

In Star Trek, a series that celebrates human ingenuity, Spock is set up as a straw man, his much lauded Vulcan logic inevitably knocked down by Kirk’s emotionally driven human pluck. When it comes time to choose between thinking with your head and thinking with your heart, the message is clear: human emotion wins every time.[Note 3]

In Jurassic Park, the audience is shown the consequence of scientists “playing God”. As in Frankenstein, disaster is the inevitable result of scientific excess.

In Lost, John Locke constantly admonishes the other characters to have faith, that they are all on the island for some mysterious purpose. And, because it’s a fictional story, it turns out that he’s right.

Oh, and then there was that episode of The X-Files that showed faith in the supernatural triumphing over the skeptic… Which one was that again…? Oh, right: all of them. Don’t get me wrong: I loved The X-Files, but seriously—it was always a monster? Every time?

And even Scooby-Doo, a longtime favourite among skeptics of the paranormal, isn’t blameless. Recent adaptations are much more likely to feature real monsters than grumpy old groundskeepers who would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids!

But perhaps the most egregious example of anti-science rhetoric in popular fiction is found in Ronald Moore’s 2003 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica.

While dramatically enjoyable, the emphasis of faith over reason was a thread that wound its way through the entire series. What’s worse, the final episodes first hinted then proclaimed that in a society that embraces science and technology, a technologically driven holocaust is inevitable. This has all happened before, we are told, and it will all happen again.

The series culminates (spoiler alert) with the entire human race abandoning all technology in favour of founding a nomadic hunter-gatherer society. Science fiction becomes luddite fantasy—famine, disease, and the concomitant contraction of the human lifespan be damned.

This message is getting through to the public, loud and clear. A 2001 NSF survey found that 50 percent of Americans believe “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith”.[Reference 6] I find this distressing.

From The Terminator to The Matrix to 28 Days Later, the idea that science will lead to some sort of technopocalypse is ubiquitous these days. And after all, why not? Isn’t there a grain of truth to the idea?

Perhaps you might rightly scoff at Ben Stein’s contention in the pseudo-documentary Expelled that the science of evolution led to the Nazi holocaust…[Note 4]

…but what say you when the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are laid at scientists’ feet? Who can help but shiver upon hearing Oppenheimer’s words? “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” How can we answer such a charge?

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were forbidden the knowledge of good and evil, but their curiosity got the better of them. According to this story, it was our thirst for knowledge that led to the fall.


Curiosity, we’re told, is what killed the cat.

Knowledge can, of course, be used for good or for ill. Scientists invented the bomb—but it was politicians who called for it, taxpayers who funded it, and the military who saw it deployed. If you want to lay death and destruction solely at the feet of scientists, I don’t think that you’re playing fair.[Note 5]


“Curiosity killed the cat.” How unjust!

That we should be incurious is perhaps the single most damaging message that our children receive from popular culture. Curiosity is one of the greatest assets that we as a species possess. It fuels free inquiry! It fuels innovation! Without nurturing our curiosity we risk retarding our progress as a civilisation.

Knowledge is not evil, nor is the pursuit of it. Knowledge of the way this wondrous world really works equips us to better our own situation and that of every other living being with whom we share this planet.

“Curiosity killed the cat.” You would be hard pressed to find an idiom that irritates me more.

You want to know what probably didn’t kill the cat? Diabetes, hyperthyroidism, intestinal parasites! For every cat killed by curiosity, I would wager that there are hundreds who have been saved by veterinary practices unknown a century ago.

Curiosity cured the cat!

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, is credited with saving one billion people from starvation. We have indoor plumbing and flush toilets, and hand-washing, and the germ theory of disease, all of which save countless lives every day. These victories aren’t just victories for science; they are victories for humanity. Science wins this fight.

As for the arrogance and closed-mindedness of scientists: I find this charge frankly startling, for in the process of skeptical inquiry I see the most amazing intellectual humility. The success of the scientific endeavour requires us to admit to our human foibles and failings, our petty biases and conceits. It is only in accounting for these human weaknesses that we make progress. Science is rooted in curiosity, and one cannot be curious without being humble. To wonder how something works, first you must admit that you don’t know.

So if science is so successful in improving our lives, why does science still have such an image problem? Why do people fail to understand that science isn’t the enemy of nature, but merely the study of it?

It probably isn’t news to you that the media has a huge effect on how we think and behave. That’s what advertising is all about, after all, and study after study shows that it works, even when we think that it doesn’t.

In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan laments that “Scepticism does not sell well. A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment.”[Reference 7]

In a culture so steeped in irrationality, a culture that prizes faith over evidence, it can be difficult to make progress in promoting science. Right now, the greatest obstacle to the public understanding of science is the way it’s presented in the media.

So what if our stories had skeptical, pro-science messages? What if they encouraged the audience to think critically, rather than just nodding along? What if the heroes of our stories weren’t those who simply fought for what they believed in, but those who had the courage to ask themselves why it was that they believed it?

We have the power to reignite the public passion for learning new things. We need to teach everyone (everyone) what science is, at its core. That may sound daunting, but it’s really a very simple idea: Beliefs should be supported by good evidence.

None of us are perfect, and so if we’re serious about figuring out what’s really true we need to understand our own biases and apply a basic skepticism to all claims to knowledge. We need to avoid the temptation to look only for the evidence that confirms what we already believe. Or, as Randall Munroe put it, “You don’t use science to show that you’re right, you use science to become right.”[Reference 8]

And we already have allies in the popular media.

On the front lines, I see novelists like the excellent Robert Sawyer (from whom you heard only a moment ago) and the unbelievably popular J.K. Rowling.

Sawyer is famous for stories that show rationalism triumphing over superstition. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling provides an excellent role-model in Hermione Granger, whose success is due not to some innate talent, but to hard work and a willingness to question popular wisdom.

There are musicians like George Hrab and the inimitable Tim Minchin who encourage us to be skeptical of extraordinary claims. Sara Mayhew infuses her manga with a love of science. Randall Munroe and Zach Weiner pen comics that make us laugh and make us think. We have Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson working to communicate science to people of all ages. Adam Savage, Jaimie Hyneman, and rest of the gang at MythBusters remind us how exciting it can be to figure out what’s really true.

At this point, you might be wondering what you can do to help.

Be curious. Question everything. Prize learning over simply knowing, because even things that we think we know can turn out to be wrong. As Carl Sagan said, “it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”[Reference 9]

With everything that science has done for us, it deserves our support. So when you hear someone complain that science is arrogant, closed-minded, or dangerous: speak up. Because you know better.

References

[1] Steven Novella, “More Evidence Our Memory Stinks”, http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/more-evidence-our-memory-stinks/

[2] Art Hobson, “Physics literacy, energy and the environment”, http://physics.uark.edu/hobson/pubs/03.03.PEd.pdf

[3] Ola Svenson, “Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers?”, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0001691881900056

[4] Iain A. McCormick, Frank H. Walkey, Dianne E. Green, “Comparative perceptions of driver ability – a confirmation and expansion”, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0001457586900047

[5] Bruce Headey, Alex Wearing, “The Sense of Relative Superiority – Central to Well-Being”, http://www.jstor.org/pss/25427006

[6] National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2002, “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding”, http://nsf.gov/statistics/seind02/c7/c7s2.htm

[7] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, page 9

[8] Randall Munroe, xkcd, “Science Valentine”, http://xkcd.com/701/ (image alt text)

[9] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, page 16

Notes

[1] They set science and rationalism here and they set mystery and compassion there and demand that you choose between them, even though such a choice makes no sense. Science is no more a cold, unfeeling monstrosity than is a screwdriver or a pair of spectacles. Science is a tool that helps us overcome some of our inherent limitations. And yet, the idea that life was somehow better, humbler, and more existentially satisfying in some misty, bygone age is pervasive in our society.

[2] In our culture, the scientifically illiterate can get on by saying that they’re just not “science people”. Basic scientific literacy is very important, but ScienceDaily reports that in North America it sits around 30%. It’s perfectly acceptable in our culture for a person to be scientifically illiterate, but just imagine what it would be like to have a similar attitude toward those who can’t read or write.

[3] To learn more about the Straw Vulcan, I refer you to the TVTropes page that coined the term. I also highly recommend Julia Galef’s talk from Skepticon 4, The Straw Vulcan.

[4] For more about the absurdity that is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, I refer you to Expelled Exposed, a site created and maintained by the National Center for Science Education. This site cheerfully exposes the anti-science propaganda behind this so-called documentary, while managing at the same time to be an enjoyable read! I doff my proverbial hat to Eugenie Scott and the rest of the folks at the NCSE for their tireless work in combating creationism masquerading as science.

[5] Neil deGrasse Tyson expressed this sentiment well. “Scientists don’t lead marching armies!” he said. “Scientists don’t invade other nations! Yes, we had scientists who invented the bomb, but somebody had to pay for the bomb, and that was taxpayers, that was war bonds. There was a political action that called for it. But everyone blames the scientists! … At the end of the day, a discovery itself is not ‘moral’, it’s the application of it that has to pass that test.” (This quotation is taken from an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson at Montclair Kimberley Academy. The interivew was conducted by a rare out-of-character Stephen Colbert, and is fantastic. You can watch it here.)

Episode 10: Hidden Meanings in Music, Part 1

Episode 10: Hidden Meanings in Music, Part 1

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Leslie Saunders takes Paul Brown, Robert Shindler and Greg Christensen on a musical journey to find hidden meanings.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: 12 Days of Christmas | Musicam Sacram: Instruction on Music in the Liturgy | Backmasking

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A Bit of Skepticism

Last month we received an email from the science editor at The Manitoban, the University of Manitoba’s student newspaper. (You may remember The Manitoban as the paper that printed the hilarious “Keep Christ in Christmas” article that we discussed in the War on Christmas episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else.) He asked us if we were interested in putting together a short article about the importance of science and critical thinking.

The editors at The Manitoban made minimal changes to the article that I submitted, which they titled “A bit of skepticism never hurt anyone”:

I graduated from the University of Manitoba Computer Science department in 2007. Despite what my degree says, I’m not a scientist. I think of myself more as a “science cheerleader.” Science needs cheerleaders, because science is so important.

We humans tend to pay much more attention to those things that confirm our preconceived notions than to those details that don’t fit our theories. We have a marked tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses—presumably why Sylvia Browne remains so popular.

You can read the full article online, or you can pick up a copy of the newspaper at your nearest University of Manitoba. A PDF of the issue is also available for download or online browsing.

Yes, being a skeptic is fulfilling. Really!

The following is a guest post from Jeffrey Olsson, former Anglican priest and current president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba. Jeff can be found at the Leave Faith Behind blog, and his book is available on Amazon.

Here, Jeff responds to some criticism that his last post received from David Driedger. Before you read on, I recommend reading Jeff’s previous post, Top Ten Reasons Why Being a Skeptic is Fulfilling, and Mr. Driedger’s response to it, A skeptical rant.


Why should it surprise anyone that a skeptic can be happy and fulfilled, let alone that there would be more than ten reasons why skeptics are happy? Hell, I only chose the top ten reasons because I didn’t want to bore anyone by blathering on with the zillions of others. It should also come as no surprise to anyone that people of any different belief set or culture can be fulfilled and happy, well adjusted and socially connected. After all, Skeptics are real people, not the simple caricature that others would demand we are. We have hopes and dreams, families and friends. All of which are totally common to most of mankind. Why would you find it a surprise that skeptics would talk about this? Why would you call it “unhealthy”?

The blog post was not meant to be prescriptive, and it is not. Skeptics do not operate by edict as you apparently do. We think things through and decide if we disagree or not. The post merely recognizes what modern skeptics all over the world are saying. The top ten blog post was written by a skeptic for skeptics. The only surprise to me was that a liberal Christian popped in for a chat. So let’s chat.

Anyone can criticize the modern skeptical movement, we make mistakes and are open to correction, but I highly suggest any critic attend a conference, seminar or venue where skeptics meet. Sit and listen to the rhetoric, logic, values (hopes and dreams) and you will quickly see that we are indeed a happy group of people. If you lack evidence that skeptics are fulfilled by their endeavor look to the size of the recent national and regional conferences in Europe, Canada, USA and Australia and ask yourself “Why do they return in increasing numbers year after year?” The answer is obvious, “Because it’s fun!” (Can I get a skeptical AMEN!)

Now, let me directly answer a few of your concerns.

You wrote: “Okay I will grant the how we got here but who we are and how to improve our lot, really?”

What we are: We are an evolved species. An overwhelming accumulation of evidence shows how we got here; right from the big bang through to evolution, (as you seem to agree) but it also shows who we are in the context of what we are. I’ll explain further.

There is no tangible evidence for dualism, so answering who we are must be possible by looking to the empirical evidence that comes from the sciences of neuropsychology, sociology, evolutionary psychology, biology and anthropology, to name a few. There is no need for supernatural claims to answer that question. For example, we already know that various human cultures differ greatly but further evidence shows us there are many common factors that make us who we are, including our all too human abilities/traits such as, moral reasoning, empathy, logic, extraversion/introversion, sociability, disposition and neuroticism, humour, and anger. I assert that “who we are” must be definable in the context of a material existence. To define who humans are using a supernatural framework is to exceed the evidence available at this time. J. Anderson Thomson defined this well when he said “We are risen apes, not fallen angels.” If you doubt science has already defined who we are you need only look to the reams of evidence available at any secular university in the western world.

To improve our lot: Skepticism, and in particular, applied and theoretical scientific skepticism, has done more to improve our lot in this world than any other undertaking known to man, including all religions combined. Next time you have an infectious disease I suggest you drop the pretense and admit that you already know to visit a doctor who practices western medicine. If you car won’t start you already know to have it towed to a shop that uses modern diagnostic tools and methods. (neither rolling the bones nor prayer will make it start). All of this scientific knowledge comes from those giants who stood before us and dared to dream about better ways of doing things and better ways of living.

Here are just a few of the greatest scientific advances that have made it possible to live as long and as well as we now do: The germ theory of disease transmission, disease vector epidemiology, nutrition, potable water, penicillin, x-rays, rocket science, evolution and much more. Studies show that when asked, parents display an overwhelming consensus, and will tell you that they hope their children have a safe healthy and long life. Science has shown it is uniquely qualified to achieve that goal. Therefore hope is a term that now has a secular meaning. For many people, skeptics included, we cannot imagine a better world without science and technology in it. Four centuries of the enlightenment through skeptical inquiry have paid off big time.

You also asked, “How does a willingness to change make anyone better? There is simply no relationship here.” I know many skeptics who have renounced their former dislike/hatred of homosexuals because they now find it possible to doubt the writings of Saint Paul and because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that shows homosexuals are just like the rest of us, and not like criminals and murderers as St. Paul says. I also know many non skeptics who change their diet when evidence is presented showing that they should be getting more of this or that in their diet. Willingness to change ones beliefs (and habits) when presented with contrary evidence is a virtue. Yes, I said it is a virtue. Nowhere in religion have I found an edict that states, “question everything” or “learn and adapt” or “plan, do, check, act”.

With regard to my “laughable” description of a skeptic cheering when the truth is discovered. I remember working with a team of colleagues performing tests on a synchronous governing system for many long nights while we were trying to restore it to service. We were confounded by its inability to control the speed of the machine it was connected to. When we went back to the office we looked at our drawings and each of us developed a hypothesis of why it would not work and then defined the tests we would use determine the fault. When one of my colleagues finally took her turn to run a test she removed and replaced a linkage that transmitted a signal from a compensating dashpot that we later discovered had been installed upside down. The unit immediately began to do its job. Everyone cheered. The only comments made by ALL of those whose hypotheses were proven wrong were, “Mark the lever so we will never have this problem again”, “Update the manuals”. No one else cared that their hypotheses were wrong, they only cared that they now knew the truth. (A one degree difference on the angle of the linkage would upset the whole machine.) We made sure we documented both the symptoms and the solution and moved on to solve other issues with that system.

And so it is with most skeptics who are applying the scientific method in a whole variety of ways. These are people who are trying to make a difference in some way. When someone comes along and finds a solution we all cheer, because we are often working towards a common solution with a group of others.

Please, laugh at that if it pleases you. Go ahead.

Regarding your reference to “strands of Pentecostalism” I consider such a silly statement ill tempered.

Perhaps you were having a bad day when you wrote your response.

Top Ten Reasons Why Being a Skeptic is Fulfilling

The following is a guest post from Jeffrey Olsson, former Anglican priest and current president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba. Jeff can be found at the Leave Faith Behind blog (from which this entry is cross-posted), and his book is available on Amazon.


Top Ten Reasons Why Being a Skeptic is Fulfilling

1. As a skeptic you love science and know that the scientific method is the best method mankind has ever invented to understand who we are, how we got here, and how we can improve our lot in this universe. You know that if we refrain from asking the hard questions we give up making a better life for mankind.

2. You know that reality is a puzzle and that it will take a lot of effort to understand it. At times truth goes against what seems to be common sense. You have discovered that the struggle to understand reality reveals truths that are, at times, deeply profound. That knowledge will keep you searching the for the truth for the rest of your life.

3. Your drive to discover the truth about who we are and what is real has revealed contradictions to your prized personal beliefs and your most deeply held prejudices. Your belief in a God (or Gods) is probably already gone. You have learned to adjust your beliefs to match reality rather than remain prejudiced. You possess a willingness to learn accompanied by a willingness to change, that’s why your skepticism makes you a better person.

4. I have only ever met one group of people who cheer when they have been proven wrong. Skeptics. Especially those who employ scientific skepticism. You may be bold when you ask those annoyingly tough questions, but underneath it all you are humble enough to know when you have discovered the truth. After all, evidence is evidence and that’s good enough for you.

5. You understand that being skeptical on it’s own just doesn’t cut it. You temper the need to be skeptical with an openness to new ideas and a willingness to let others prove themselves. This means that the road to understanding is long, complicated, potentially confusing, and sometimes frustrating. But that’s ok, real joy comes when you finally untangle the truth.

6. You understand the need to question authority. This may be the most uncomfortable part of being a skeptic, but you know that anyone who claims to know best for everyone else must themselves be subject to scrutiny. It is at this point that many skeptics realize who their real friends are. Go ahead and ask those tough questions when a politician puts forth a seemingly crazy idea using public money, or when a sunday school teacher tells your children they risk going to hell. Pull out the test equipment when someone claims there is a ghost. We’ll stand with you. We may even applaud.

7. You are willing to admit it when you don’t know and you are big enough person to handle ambiguous concepts. What came before the Big Bang? You don’t know. Is there life after death? You don’t know and you are ok with that. Which leads me to my next point…

8. Your willingness to admit you don’t know all of the answers to the many mysteries we face is your greatest asset. Why? Because it leads you to ask the questions that others miss. One day humankind may eventually tease out the answers to questions like the ones above, but you know that day will never come until some one willing to admit they do not know dares to speculate about how we can figure out the real answers. When you see others ask those questions it makes you feel like cheering.

9. You understand what it is to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and you enjoy the education it entails. Learning is fun and you are first to dig in to the books. By learning what those before you have discovered, you unfold the tapestry of knowledge that has brought so many of the advances that our society enjoys. You work to advance the knowledge of those giants who went before you.

10. Through your skeptical endeavors you have found your social conscience, a sense of camaraderie and have made friends for a lifetime. To spend your life working in the sciences is to live a life of privilege, discovery and enlightenment. Prior to the last century, only a select few of us could ever have dreamed of living such a life of discovery.

Congratulations, you have learned to think!


Thanks, Jeff!