In the pages of Junior Skeptic—the engagingly illustrated science and critical thinking publication for younger readers, bound within every issue of Skeptic magazine—we often look at “wild and wooly” mysteries. In Junior Skeptic #60 (2016), we mean that literally; we explore the hidden history of mammoths and mastodons! Enjoy this excerpt from the first couple pages of the Junior Skeptic #60, bound within Skeptic magazine 21.3 (2016), available now in print and digital editions.
The elephant family tree has had many oddly shaped branches. There once existed elephants with four tusks or even tusks shaped like shovels. But fossils of mammoths and mastodons weren’t just surprising—they changed science forever! Indeed, the discovery of these great shaggy prehistoric beasts overturned our understanding of the entire world. How did that happen?
First, before we consider the mammoths, I’d like you to pause for a moment and imagine some of the animals that lived even earlier, during the age of the dinosaurs. Picture these animals living and breathing in their natural environments. What do you see? Perhaps the terrible teeth of Tyrannosaurus rex slavering toward prey, or rows of plates proudly displayed over the arching back of Stegosaurus. You may imagine batwinged pterosaurs soaring overhead, titanic long-necked sauropod dinosaurs, graceful plesiosaurs darting after fish in the seas. CONTINUE READING THIS POST…TAGS: Junior Skeptic, mammoths
Today I’ll ask a related question: why are skeptics a mixed group of magicians, psychologists, doctors, historians, science popularizers, artists, and so on?alien abduction, scientific skepticism, skepticism
A recent Scientific American blog post raised a very tedious and very old complaint about scientific skepticism—in essence, “Paranormal and pseudoscientific claims are trivial. Why don’t you do something I consider important?” The answer I expressed in my previous post is that fringe beliefs are a significant part of the fabric of human existence, and yes, sometimes important in their own right. Seeking to understand those beliefs is a worthwhile research endeavor.
This brought to mind a more interesting question: why does modern skepticism seek to study such a broad and seemingly heterogeneous group of topics—everything from UFOs to climate denialism to mermaids to quack cancer cures?
Philosopher Austin Dacey posed this latter question in a 2011 article after attending a skeptics conference in Las Vegas (The Amazing Meeting). Adopting “the eye of an anthropologist,” Dacey observed that “the remarkable thing was just how non-obvious, even peculiar is the selection of subjects that characterize contemporary organized skepticism.”1 Skeptics collect dozens, indeed hundreds of fringe topics under our research umbrella while choosing not to focus on other topics we consider unrelated—embracing “a kind of canon,” Dacey noted, that “can appear quite odd and contingent. What is it…that binds together ginkgo biloba and El Chupacabra, cold reading and cosmic fine tuning? Why this canon?”scientific skepticism, scope, scope of skepticism, skepticism
For the entire history of scientific skepticism, folks in our weird and wonderful little field have heard two criticisms offered with metronomic regularity from people who are “skeptical of the skeptics.”1 One is the obvious: “Skeptics are closed-minded!” The other, no less predictable or routine, is my topic today: “Why do you bother with this trivial stuff about pseudoscience and the paranormal? Aren’t there more important things to worry about?”
Yesterday, science writer John Horgan offered the latest example of this second standard criticism in a Scientific American blog post titled “Dear ‘Skeptics,’ Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More” (presented first as a speech last weekend at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, NECSS, in New York City). Positioning his piece as a critique (“I have to bash skepticism”) from an outsider perspective ( “I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics”), Horgan “decided to treat the skeptics skeptically.” He offered a prescription: skeptics should stop patting “each other on the back” and stop wasting our time on the “soft targets” of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims:
scientific skepticism, scope of skepticism, skepticism
I’m asking you skeptics to spend less time bashing soft targets like homeopathy and Bigfoot and more time bashing hard targets like multiverses, cancer tests, psychiatric drugs and war, the hardest target of all.
The journal Judgment and Decision Making has stirred considerable interest with a recent paper titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit,” by Pennycook et al (read PDF). The authors conducted four surveys designed to explore differing individual reactions to “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” That is, the authors are “interested in the factors that predispose one to become or to resist becoming a bullshittee.”1
Skeptics naturally share this interest.
The studies presented survey participants with vague, conceptually meaningless, buzzword-laden statements and asked them to rate the “relative profundity of each statement on a scale from 1 (not at all profound) to 5 (very profound).” The included statements were generated by two online tools: “The New Age Bullshit Generator” and Wisdomofchopra.com, which “constructs meaningless statements with appropriate syntactic structure by randomly mashing together a list of words used in Deepak Chopra’s tweets (e.g., ‘Imagination is inside exponential space time events’).”2 Some of the studies also included motivational aphorisms, simple factual statements, and actual tweets selected from Chopra’s Twitter feed,3 such as this one:belief, Bullshit!, communication, Deepak Chopra, psychology, scientific skepticism
Outside of Junior Skeptic (my primary ongoing project) a surprising amount of my professional output—most of my blogging, stage appearances, op-eds (PDF), and interviews—is given over to the oddly controversial argument that my field should exist.
It’s my opinion that “scientific” skepticism should be acknowledged as a distinct field of study with a unique mandate: the critical, science-informed, scholarly examination of paranormal, pseudoscientific, and other fringe claims. Consequently, I’ve rejected (PDF) periodic suggestions that skepticism should shift its focus from fringe topics toward arguably “more important” matters, or that skepticism ought to be subsumed as a side-project within some other sphere (such as “science,” humanism, or atheism).
Colleagues such as Steve Novella, Sharon Hill, Barbara Drescher, and Jamy Ian Swiss (video) often find themselves drawn to such discussions. I tend to agree with these and other traditionalist skeptics about the most suitable scope for scientific skepticism: “testable” (that is, investigable) claims. In addition, I’ve argued that it’s desirable for skeptics to emphasize a specialized core subject matter within that “testable claims” scope: pseudoscience and the paranormal. Not an exclusive concern with fringe claims, mind—that’s more restrictive than I or anyone wants to see—just an ongoing (and historically well-established) emphasis upon claims of that type.ghostbusters, scope of skepticism, skepticism
I’m very pleased to learn that The Plane Truth, the unfinished final work of skeptical scholarship by the late Robert J. Schadewald (1943–2000), has now been prepared for publication and released online for free. You can read the book in its web version here, where you also find the EPUB ebook version available for download.
During his life, Bob Schadewald was the world’s leading skeptical expert on the history of flat-Earth advocacy. The pseudoscientific notion that the Earth is a flat disk may seem as quaint as it is preposterous, but so-called “Zetetic Astronomy” enjoyed a surprisingly strong period of public prominence in the UK and US during the 19th century—attracting attention from debunkers of the period such as Alfred Russel Wallace1 (see Skeptic Vol. 20, No. 3) and Richard Anthony Proctor, and prompting reflections from later thinkers including George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell. During the 20th century the relative sophistication of Zetetic Astronomy collapsed into muddled conspiracy theories, parody, and ultra-fundamentalist Biblical literalism; nevertheless, flat-Earth advocacy continues to this day.Bob Schadewald, creationism, flat earth, history of skepticism, Lois Schadewald, Robert J Shadewald, skepticism
This is an excerpt from Junior Skeptic 37 (published in 2010 inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 15, No. 4), which is a quick ten-page tour of the “Top Ten Busted Myths.” Junior Skeptic is written for (older) children, and does not include endnotes, though I often call out important sources in sidebars or the text of the story itself. However, I’ve included one or two citations here for your interest:
Have you heard that we only use 10 percent of our brains? Imagine what we could accomplish if we could discover how to use that other 90 percent! Could we discover an untapped potential for incredible psychic powers?
There’s only one problem: none of that is true. Humans use every part of our brains.brain, Junior Skeptic, mythology, neuroscience, Steven Novella
If my explorations of skeptical history have revealed an overall theme, it is that things don’t change that much. Always there are scoundrels, scams, and misapprehensions; always there are those who probe mysteries and push back against paranormal fraud. Throughout history, those skeptics have repeatedly reached for the same tactics, claimed the same (scant few) rewards, and faced the same challenges of burnout and cynicism.
English astronomer and science popularizer Richard Anthony Proctor (1837–1888) makes an interesting case study. He weighed in as a skeptic against (surprisingly popular) Flat Earth advocates (see Junior Skeptic 53), quackery, and a range of pseudoscientific ideas connected to astronomy. His debunking book Myths and Marvels of Astronomy was a 19th century version of Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy. Originally published in 1877 (my copy dates to 1880), Myths and Marvels of Astronomy is available to read for free in several editions online.astronomy, Great Moon Hoax, Richard Anthony Proctor, skeptical history
My research has often led me to consider how folkloric phenomena are brought under the umbrella of cryptozoology (the largely pseudoscientific “study” of legendary, allegedly “hidden” animals). In this active process, fuzzy abstractions—fluid supernatural conceptions, diverse “saw something weird” events, stories, metaphors, and shifting myths—are distilled down into more-or-less concrete hypothetical “species” of cryptids. For want of a better term, I’ve started to think of this cultural crystallization process as “cryptozoologification.”1 And it’s a bit of a problem. When the mists of folklore are reified as the discrete objects of cryptozoological pursuit, something is not only lost, but actively discarded.cryptids, cryptozoology, culture, legends/folklore, monsters