Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, June 12th, 2013 | ISSN 1556-5696

eSkeptic: the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society

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The Skeptics Society Presents: Skeptics at the Beach (Saturday, July 27, 2013 from 8 am to 6 pm) (San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, south of San Clemente, CA, and nearby cliffs, photo by Ed Pastor)

Skeptics at the Beach

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BEAT THE SUMMER HEAT and join the Skeptics Society for a field trip to the beach! We will take a whale-watching trip out of Dana Point at the height of blue whale season. Our journey to the sea will include Ocean Institute scientists who will introduce you to the local marine wildlife; including an astounding variety of fish, microscopic plankton, and the animals that live in sediment retrieved from the ocean floor. Encounter a pod of playful dolphins or witness the majesty of a traveling whale. Before our cruise, we will also visit the marine aquarium at the Ocean Institute. In the morning, we will visit San Onofre State Beach and see marine terraces, beach processes, landslides, and the fault near the San Onofre nuclear reactor. At Dana Point, we will also see evidence of giant submarine gravity flows, and geological traces of a lost continent that used to lie offshore millions of years ago. Come join us for an amazing day in the cool beach weather!

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Photo courtesy of the Ocean Institute
Photo courtesy of the Ocean Institute
Photo by Ed Pastor
Photo by Ed Pastor

Photos of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, south of San Clemente, CA, and nearby cliffs by Ed Pastor. Wildlife photos courtesy of the Ocean Institute, Dana Point, CA.

What’s Included?

Trip cost includes all transportation, lunch, all fees and admissions, guidebook and the guided tour lectures. Come join us for an amazing day!

Our Tour Leader, Dr. Donald R. Prothero,
Receives the 2013 James Shea Award

photo

Dr. Donald R. Prothero recently retired from his professorship at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA after 34 years of teaching in order to concentrate on his writing and consulting. Dr. Prothero is an indefatigable advocate for geology and paleontology, which he combines with a passion for communicating science to the public. Notably, he has served as a consultant for Discovery Channel, History Channel and National Geographic specials. He frequently gives public talks and presentations to groups interested in Earth science, including presentations to the NYC Skeptics, The Bone Room in Berkeley, CA, Bay Area Skeptics, and the Natural History Museum of L.A. County. Dr. Prothero is a prolific writer; he posts a weekly blog at Skepticblog.org and has published over 30 books. His talks and blogs focus on debunking pseudoscience and defending the science of evolution and climate change. He has made numerous contributions to advancing his fields of expertise by publishing in technical journals. He has authored and co-authored 259 papers, including papers in the following peer-reviewed journals: Nature, Paleobiology, Geology, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Journal of Paleontology, Journal of Geology, Science, Journal of Geological Education, Palaios, Paleoceanography, and Geotimes to name a few. Prothero has served as a reviewer and editor throughout his career. He served as adjunct editor for Paleobiology and he has also served on the editorial boards of Skeptic magazine and for Geology. In addition, he has served as technical editor for Journal of Paleontology and as a consulting editor for the McGraw-Hill Yearbook of Science and Technology. In recognition of Dr. Prothero’s exceptional contributions in the form of writing and editing of Earth science materials, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) is proud to award him with the 2013 James Shea Award.

Questions?

Email Teresa LeVelle at geotours@skeptic.com.
To register, call 1-626-794-3119 with a credit card to secure your spot.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

We are surrounded by information: on TV, the Internet, in magazines, books, and emails from friends, family, commercial advertisers, politicians and other advocates making extraordinary claims. In this week’s eSkeptic, Donna L. Halper discusses some examples of how society has been duped, and shares some media literacy rules (skepticism and critical thinking) that will help you evaluate and assess claims for accuracy. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 17.4 (2012).

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Illustration copyright 2012 by Nancy Norcross-White

Illustration copyright © 2012 by Nancy Norcross-White

How To Be a Skeptical
News Consumer

by Donna L. Halper

Even the most skeptical among us have had this happen: A friend or relative forwards an e-mail from an organization with a safe-sounding name (“The Clean Air Initiative,” “The Center for Consumer Freedom”), but the e-mail is filled with scary assertions, usually of a political nature. If the Obama-care health bill is passed, Grandma will face a “death panel” that will decide if she lives or dies; if Barack Obama is re-elected, America will soon become a Marxist or Muslim nation. Some of the chain-emails are obvious partisan propaganda (There is little if any chance of any president, whether Barack Obama or anyone else, imposing Marxism or Islam on America; and the Affordable Care Act [its official name] contains nothing about “death panels”). But some are more subtle, relying on truncated (or fake) quotes, or manipulated facts. And while we most often see these sorts of false (but credible-looking) assertions made during elections, they can also be generated by interest groups trying to peddle unproven cures for diseases, or anti-science advocacy groups who oppose fluoridation or vaccination.

I’m a professor of media, and I focus on critical thinking in every class I teach; but it’s not just college students who can benefit from a skeptical approach to what they see from both print and online sources. Every school—from elementary right on up—should encourage students to become media literate: the ability to evaluate and assess the claims made by commercial advertising as well as by politicians and advocates. We are supposed to live in an “information society,” but sadly, much of what we see and hear is not entirely accurate. As a researcher, I’ve noticed the tendency on the Internet for some “fact” to be posted on one site and then reposted hundreds of times, as if the amount will somehow prove it’s true. As any student of philosophy knows, this is an aspect of Argumentum ad Populum, or the Bandwagon effect—if millions of people believe X, it must be true. Or, as my students will often tell me, they saw it on Wikipedia (or some other frequently read site), so it must be true.1

In fairness to Wikipedia, although I much prefer encyclopedias where the articles are signed (so that I know who wrote the piece), some of their articles are quite thorough and informative. But others contain well-traveled myths and rely on volunteers to correct them. It’s often a losing battle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve refuted the myth that radio station KDKA was the first station in the United States (or in the world, depending on which source you read). This is a durable myth, promoted very effectively in the 1920s by their corporate owner—Westinghouse—which had an impressive publicity department. And that is rule number one of media literacy: Know who created the message, so you can factor in whether the creator was pushing a special agenda. Not all agendas are malevolent. Westinghouse may have indeed believed their station was unique and the company sought to promote that fact. But they were not alone: the Detroit News (which owned a station in Detroit), AMRAD (owners of a station in Medford Hillside MA), and several other American companies had stations on the air at that time, as did the Marconi company in Montreal, and these owners certainly wanted to spread the word about what their stations had done. Yet Westinghouse was so effective in asserting KDKA’s primacy that to this day, the claim is treated as historical fact by otherwise reputable textbooks.2 History can indeed be written not just by the winners, but by powerful publicists.

Many contemporary media critics treat the proliferation of fake news and erroneous information as something modern, but the truth is we can trace it back several hundred years. In some cases, the misinformation was even intentional, created in order to sell newspapers (a technique still used by today’s tabloids). A good example occurred back in late August 1835, when the New York Sun published an authoritative-looking piece about a famous British astronomer who had discovered life on the Moon, thanks to an amazing new telescope. It was a time when a college degree was only available to the privileged few, and the Sun used techniques that are still being used even now: they cited an “expert,” used scientific jargon, and claimed that his “discovery” had appeared in a prestigious overseas journal. In an era where fact-checking would have been difficult, few readers asked the questions a skeptic might ask today: Was the expert a real person? Did the expert really write what the article claimed he wrote? Did the journal exist, and was his work really published in it? The case came to be called the Great Moon Hoax and a good summary of it can be found on the website of the Museum of Hoaxes.

Junior Skeptic magazine cover from Skeptic vol 18, no 2

Read about Aliens Invasions in the current issue of Junior Skeptic magazine. In this issue, Daniel Loxton answers the questions: Where did we get our ideas about being attacked from “outside”—from other lands, or from outer space? How has this idea been expressed in stories? How do exotic species here on Earth “invade” new regions? Can life forms from one planet really invade another? NOTE: Junior Skeptic is physically bound within every issue of Skeptic magazine.

Order Junior Skeptic #47
(inside Skeptic 18.2)

Of course, even in 1835, there were skeptics (including some at rival newspapers), and eventually, the story was shown to be an elaborate fraud. But this would not be the only time a media outlet hoaxed the public: the Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast from late October 1938 is another frequently cited example. In this case, the broadcast was a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel about a Martian invasion of earth. But so realistic was the presentation, complete with scary sound effects (including the special tones used by radio stations when airing a news bulletin), that many listeners were certain they were hearing news, rather than a play. The effect was further enhanced by the deep-voiced and very serious narrator (Welles), who kept providing new and more frightening “details” about the “invasion.” Today, we know that reports of mass panic after the broadcast were exaggerated (the show didn’t even air in some large cities, Boston among them),3 but it sounded so authentic that millions of listeners were convinced the United States was under attack from Martians, and there is evidence that some people did in fact run from their homes in terror, convinced the end was near.4 The broadcast was a mixed blessing for Welles, whose Mercury Theater program previously suffered from very low ratings. After the “War of the Worlds” hoax, the show got lots of attention, but not all of it favorable—many people were furious that they had been fooled, and some critics demanded that such programs be banned. As for Welles, he claimed to be shocked, shocked that anyone would believe a science-fiction play, and yet many people did. And to this day, there are programs on television about “ghost-hunting” or about houses that are allegedly haunted; and because they are often well-produced and make good use of special effects, gullible viewers think they must be true.

Where Can You Go
to Fact-check?

One of my favorite reference volumes is the Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro. If your local library doesn’t have the newest edition, it should. Many (though not all) quotes found on Wikiquotes are wellsourced, but I would still cross-check with other encyclopedias, just to be sure; Google books has many original books on line, and scholarly databases such as JSTOR (the “Journal Storage,” available in many college libraries) are excellent for providing older quotes in their original context. As for online sources, I recommend www.snopes.com (this site checks chain e-mails as well as political myths and fake quotes); similar and also good for general myths is www.urbanlegends.about.com. For politics specifically, I use www.politifact.com and www.factcheck.org. And, of course, skeptical sites such as www.skeptic.com, www.randi.org, www.cfi.org, and www.skepdic.com are also useful resources, as is www.skepticblog.org. And I am pleased that several newspapers, notably the Washington Post, now have regular columns where stories and claims from political ads are factchecked: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/factchecker.

Unfortunately, there have been many times when the media themselves gave credence to pseudoscience, and not just to sell papers or get bigger radio and TV ratings. It has been noted by some critics that far too often, journalists who lack a background in science simply repeat what a press release claims to be true, or quote from someone else’s article without checking into its veracity. Also, in fairness to journalists, the job of any reporter is to tell a story, and when confronted with a very dense and jargon-filled academic essay, the tendency is to find a way to give it more excitement and mass appeal. The media’s misadventure with science is nothing new: in 1922–1923, many otherwise reputable newspapers were eagerly touting a new “miracle man”—a doctor from France named Emile Coué, who could cure people by teaching them positive thinking, and having them chant “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”5 Of course, Coué was not a doctor (at most, he was a pharmacist), and there was little objective evidence of any cures, but that didn’t stop reporters from going to his presentations and marveling at the people who were no longer (pick one) blind, lame, asthmatic, or terminally ill. By most accounts, Coué was quite charismatic, and a number of reporters who saw him seemed genuinely convinced that he was a miracle-worker.6 The many articles praising him led to the emergence of an entire cottage industry, with radio programs devoted to American “experts” in the Coué method, and schools that claimed to teach anyone how to derive amazing results.7 Radio also became home to a number of other frauds: fortune tellers, faith healers, and assorted other quacks, some of whom were criticized by the press, but most of whom became very popular anyway. One of the most famous examples was Dr. John R. Brinkley, another fake physician, whose “cure” for impotence involved goat gland implant surgery for men, many of whom underwent the painful procedure in hopes of improving their performance in the bedroom. The story of his successful radio career and his eventual downfall, is well told in R. Alton Lee’s 2002 book The Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley.

These days, it’s not just scary chain e-mails that should warrant skepticism and critical thinking. Politicians love to give non-threatening or positive names to laws that would otherwise inspire debate and controversy. Two good examples: After 9/11, Congress quickly passed the PATRIOT Act, which evoked emotions of standing up to terrorists and showing pride in being an American. But the act, which was an acronym for “Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism,” contained some provisions that are still being debated today, and a number which civil libertarians and privacy advocates have vehemently opposed.8 Another example was the 2002 “Healthy Forests Act,” which certainly sounded like something worth doing: who isn’t in favor of healthy forests? But when skeptics, many of whom were also passionate about the environment, delved further into this act, which was a priority for President Bush, they found it actually encouraged more logging in national forests. Whether logging is a good thing or not, the name did not reflect the provisions the act contained.9 Another media literacy rule: Find out who is actually behind the innocuous-sounding name, so you can decide whether the facts they are presenting can be trusted.

And then there are fake quotes. Did you know that the Founding Fathers said America is supposed to be a Christian nation? Did you know that they also insisted that a nation that did not rely on the Bible would never prosper? If you believe the chain e-mails sent by conservative Christian advocacy groups, often citing the work of David Barton (an evangelical Christian minister, former co-chair of the Republican Party of Texas, and the founder of WallBuilders, a Texas-based group that claims the separation of church and state is a myth) then you have probably been told that the American founders were opposed to the government helping the poor (especially the undeserving poor), and that they especially feared the rise of socialism.10 In journalism, it’s a truism that “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” In other words, just because you got the quote from Mom, that doesn’t mean she had accurate information. I always encourage my students to fact-check quotes, because even if the person actually said it, often the quote is taken out of context (this can frequently be seen in political ads, where both parties try to make their opponent look bad by using a particular quote to fit a narrative of what a horrible person he or she is). The Internet has been a great benefit in finding actual sources for quotes, but it has also been part of the problem: It is very easy to put up an authoritative-looking website with a very ideological agenda. When it comes to quotes, skepticism is especially needed, to make sure that: (a) the person really said it, and (b) the context supports the way the quote is being used. This is not just a good rule for political ads: it even applies to classic movie quotes: The words “Play it again, Sam” were nowhere to be found in the movie “Casablanca,” but millions of people think that’s what Ingrid Bergman said.11 Thus, in order to make sure your evidence is accurate, take the time to fact-check the quotes, even the ones that “everybody” believes to be accurate.

Skeptic magazine, vol 17, no 4 (cover)

This article appeared in issue 17.4 of Skeptic magazine (2012).

Order the back issue
in print or digitally

The bottom line is that it pays to be skeptical because so much of what we encounter in the media turns out to be entirely false, mythically inflated, politically charged, ideologically loaded, or a mixture of facts and fiction. And as we see with the “Birthers,” that percentage of the public who insist that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya, no matter how much credible evidence is presented that he was born in Hawaii, some people have trouble distinguishing between verifiable fact and unproven opinion.12 But this is not just a problem that affects Birthers, climate change deniers, or people who think we never walked on the Moon; as we see every day, it is surprisingly easy to misinform the average person. Back in 1938, after the furor over “War of the Worlds,” the Boston Globe’s pseudonymous “Uncle Dudley” gave readers some good advice, words that still resonate today. He said that we all have a duty to think for ourselves and not rush to judgment just because of something we heard in a broadcast. And whether the information is in print or broadcast, he concluded, “…a robust will to doubt, to examine statements, and to measure them alongside common sense and experience… is a hallmark of the civilized mind.”13 END

References
  1. Discussion of “bandwagon” and other propaganda techniques is derived from the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (1937–1942). While some of its assertions may seem dated, the basic ideas are still relevant, and have been updated for a new generation by Dr. Aaron Delwiche of Trinity University, San Antonio TX. The site, “Propaganda Critic,” contains useful information about recognizing and debunking all kinds of propaganda. http://www.propagandacritic.com
  2. For example, in The Broadcast Century and Beyond (5th edition, Focal Press, 2010), Rober t L. Hilliard and Michael C. Keith, writing about another claimant to being first, Charles “Doc” Herrold, an inventor and engineer from San Jose CA, state: “Although some historians say that Herrold’s station, ultimately called KQW, is the country’s oldest, it did not broadcast to the general public on a regular schedule; that designation is acknowledged to belong to KDKA in Pittsburgh, which began doing so more than a decade later” (p. 10). But there is documented evidence, including newspaper articles and reception reports from listeners, that both the Detroit News station (today WWJ) and the Medford Hillside station (first called 1XE, later WGI—long defunct, but widely repor ted about in the Boston newspapers of its day) were on the air before KDKA, had regular schedules, and were heard by the general public. For example, the Detroit News printed letters from the audience, which back then was largely comprised of ham radio operators and their families, after its station, then known as 8MK, broadcast election returns in late August 1920: “Wireless Stations Praise News Radiophone Service,” Detroit News, 2 September 1920, pp. 1, 2. It is also a myth that KDKA had the first “commercial” license; such a license did not exist until 1921, and another Westinghouse station, WBZ radio (then in Springfield MA, today in Boston) received the first one.
  3. Albert D. Hughes, radio critic for the Christian Science Monitor, noted that WEEI, the Boston station that normally carried the Mercury Theater, had decided to schedule a different program in that time period. “Radio Scare: Boston Misses ‘Martian Raid’,” Christian Science Monitor, 1 November 1938, p. 12.
  4. See, for example, the Associated Press repor t, picked up by many newspapers, “Radio Play Terrifies Nation: Mars Invasion Thought Real,” Boston Globe, 31 October 1938, p. 1; and “Hysteria Sweeps U.S. As Mar tian Soldiers Attack in Radio Play,” Springfield MA Republican, 31 October 1938, pp. 1–2. It is worth noting that despite claims of widespread panic, when George Gallup polled “men and women in all parts of the country” to ask their opinion of the year 1938’s top stories, the “War of the Worlds” incident did not even rank in the top ten. “Czech Crisis Big Event of 1938,” Boston Globe, 1 January 1939, p.4. And modern scholars have refuted many of the claims made by early newspaper reports. Two excellent books on the subject of what really happened are Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism by W. Joseph Campbell (University of California Press, 2010), and The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford (McFarland, 2012).
  5. “French Exponent of Auto-Suggestion Prepares for Coming Visit to America.” (Reno) Nevada State Journal, 24 December 1922, p. 6.
  6. Typical of these effusive and uncritical articles were one by Hayden Church, “From Obscure Druggist to Foremost Psychologist.” Atlanta Constitution, 4 June 1922, p. C9; and “Behind Closed Doors of Coué’s Famous Clinic—Showing Marvelous New Method.” Boston Post, 13 August 1922, p. 41.
  7. Among them was a radio actress named Mona Morgan who did several broadcasts about the Coué method over radio station WJZ in Newark; she told her audience how a listener had written to say these broadcasts had helped cure his rheumatism. “Girl Teaches Coué by Radio.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2 January 1923, p. 3. And in Portland, Oregon, Dr. Innes V. Brent, dean of the Brent School of Applied Psychology, made his claims of amazing cures over station KGW, answering questions from listeners about the results they would surely receive. “Broadcasting from KGW.” Portland Oregonian, 11 January 1923, p. 11.
  8. Vincent Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose organization vehemently opposed the PATRIOT Act, has written a good essay about the impact of the act’s most controversial provisions: “The 9/11 Decade and the Decline of U.S. Democracy.” https://ccrjustice.org/the911decade/declineofdemocracy
  9. The story of the Bush administration’s skill at giving innocuous names to policies environmentalists considered radical is well-told in the book George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests: Reframing the Environmental Debate, by Jacqueline Vaughn and Hanna Cortner (University of Colorado, 2005).
  10. Numerous reputable journalists have debunked David Barton or noted that he has no scholarly background in history; they have also noted with alarm his ability to persuade certain school districts and home-schooling parents to make use of his curriculum. Among several recent articles on Barton are: “American Scripture: How David Barton Won the Christian Right,” by Yoni Appelbaum, Atlantic Monthly (May 2011) http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/americanscripture-how-david-barton-won-the-christian-right/238603/ “Using History to Mold Ideas on the Right,” by Erik Eckholm, New York Times, 5 May 2011, p. A1, and online at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/us/politics/05barton.html And also worth reading is Chris Rodda’s book Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History (BookSurge, 2006).
  11. This and other mythic quotes can be found in They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes and Misleading Attributions by Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George (Oxford University Press, 1989).
  12. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a survey in June and July 2012 which found that 31% of respondents said they did not know President Obama’s religion and 17% said he is a Muslim: http://www.pewforum.org/Press-Room/Press-Releases/New-Poll-Finds-Little-Voter-Discomfort-with-Romney’s-Mormon-Religion.aspx. And a February 2011 poll of 400 Republican primary voters, conducted by Public Policy Polling, found that 51% doubted President Obama was born in the United States. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0211/49554.html. A CNN/Opinion Research Poll of more than 1000 Americans, conducted in March 2011, showed that a total of 25% thought the president was either definitely or probably born in another country: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/images/03/29/rel4k.pdf
  13. Uncle Dudley, “Radio and Skepticism.” Boston Globe, 1 November 1938, p. 14.
26 Comments »

26 Comments

  1. wdbuck says:

    Wikipedia is much better than people give it credit. A random fact check of facts within Wikipedia will give you a very high accuracy rate of the content. Authors of articles are known through alias once you are a contributing member. Many authors publish a user profile on Wikipedia although this is not required. Wikipedia is not as bad as you may think. References are always encouraged and expected for submissions and changes in Wikipedia. Editing Wikipedia is also a good way for Skeptics to actively fight some of the myths that persist in the general population.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      I agree – wikipedia is a _reasonable_ reference. The reliability of the content may be uneven but it provides references! I encourage my (Astronomy) students to use it as a *starting place* and suggest they follow the links. It has errors, but even textbooks contain errors – more importantly, most GE science textbooks contain simplifications that can be misleading… including, when it is a field of active research, presenting one particular view, model or explanation as THE one without noting that there are well regarded alternatives. [Now, to be fair, they almost always pitch the most popular one, because by time the book is in the hands of students the dust may settle and it's wise to bet with the odds. But it misrepresents science - and the excitement of debate.]

    • Benson says:

      I agree that Wiki is “not bad for what it is”- A good starting point, that is much more often than not, fairly accurate. Especially on the non-controversial matters. Some controversial items such as scientology do have editing wars. But again, not many would use Wiki as their sole research source, always best to confirm things form multiple sources.

  2. Steve Snyder says:

    Political news fact-check sites themselves sometimes engage in editorializing as part of their fact-checking.

  3. Tom Spellman says:

    No doubt about Ms. Halper’s political leanings. This makes me a bit skeptical about the motivation behind this article and Skeptic magazine’s decision to publish it.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      I agree – that is why I won’t take my car to a mechanic who is a creationist. If he thinks that about the Earth and the origin of life, how can I trust him with my _car_?

      ;)

      Or to be more academic about it: If you judge experts or professors on political/social/religious views rather than their expertise in the field, you will be _arbitrarily_ rejecting many experts. This is dangerous! It is a subtle way of creating a confirmation bias – you can unwittingly reject everyone who doesn’t agree with you and therefore reinforce your views. BTW: couching this in terms of “motivation” is clever camouflage for the fact that this is an attempt to discredit an expert in this way – but it is still a trick to allow one to only pay attention to experts who confirm their preconceptions.

      The worst part of this trick of rejecting the views of those most likely to get us to challenge our way of thinking is that we are trying to trick ourselves and may not even be aware of it!

      • Tom Spellman says:

        You make a lot of assumptions. One of which is attaching expert status to someone who has not even made the claim themselves. That can also be quite dangerous.

        • CMedansky says:

          yes, it’s wiki but I am not overly concerned about Ms. Halper’s credentials or her political leanings if you are, of course I encourage you to fact check it…
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donna_Halper

          • Tom Spellman says:

            I’m not overly concerned either, because I would hope to apply critical thinking nonetheless. But credentials, in this case, have no bearing on my original comment.

        • Bad Boy Scientist says:

          I am curious, Tom, to whom did I attach ‘expert status’? Maybe I was referring to Dr Halper as a ‘professor’. Talk about making assumptions…

          In any case, my comments were more general than simply responding to your politics-based skepticism. We should all be careful not to dismiss people’s ideas because we disagree on other matters. Nuff Said on that.

          I would also like to take this opportunity to address your “hope to apply critical thinking” – the skeptical community seems to have a reverence for critical thinking that obscures one plain truth: you also need knowledge. This is the old pitfall: critical thinking is necessary but not sufficient. Even the greatest critical thinker of all time cannot draw a single valid conclusion in ignorance.

          Consider, if critical thinking were enough to do science (instead of requiring plenty of background knowledge in a field) we wouldn’t need to waste time sending grad students to classes and to work with Astronomers, Biologists, Chemists, Geologists, etc for training in their field … we could just send them to philosophers to teach them how to look critically at problems and we’d have instant Scientists. Hollywood aside, if it really were a case of “Critical Thinking is all you need” (instead of love) then any Mathematician or Physicist who gets bored could become an instant top-notch Criminologist or Medical researcher!

          But they can’t.

          Sure, an expert in one field can use their specialized intellectual tools and knowledge to help an expert in another field – it happens all of the time. However, they cannot make any headway in a field unless there is someone who has deep knowledge of that field. Once again: good Critical Thinking Skills are no substitute for actually knowing stuff.

          This leads me to the response I always give(if only to myself) whenever anyone urges people to “apply critical thinking” – I ask “To what? To ignorance? Well, good luck with that!”

  4. orbro says:

    “…the truth is we can trace it back several hundred years…” Perhaps that should be “thousands of years.” I recently read Thomas Thompson’s “The Mythic Past” which suggests that the stories of the Bible, particularly those of the Old Testament, were an invention of the late 1st millennium to promote various philosophical, theological, and political agendas. What’s interesting is how quickly myths come into existence. The case of KDKA, the apocryphal stories about the effects of Welles’s radio play, and the penchant for conspiracy theories are excellent examples. Humans love stories, and the truth isn’t always that interesting and often doesn’t really matter.

  5. Derek Rogers says:

    I’ve just read the article on being a media skeptic, so I double-checked my source for the quote below. I ‘copy & pasted’ it directly from the party platform pdf file presented on the website of the Texas Republican Party.
    I’m stunned that they freely admit to being opposed to both Higher Order thinking, and critical thinking because they challenge a student’s fixed beliefs.
    I invite you to check it by searching for “texas republican party platform”.

    “Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

  6. Jay says:

    Things very often get a good deal more sinister than claims of quacks and ghostbusters. Not long ago, the Spanish government -heavily involved in a whole network of corruption and embezzlement schemes- named a commission of “experts” to elaborate recommendations as to how to assure the sustainability of the state-run pensions plan. The recommendations amount to large-scale privatization and exceedingly severe spending cuts to be applied asap. The whole system -the cheapest in the EU-15- was depicted as in principle unsustainable, at the border of collapse, and highly inefficient. Since the report was published, the vast majority of papers have been full of editorials, often packaged as frontpage news, applying the same line of reasoning to other public systems, especially healthcare and education -also among the least well-endowed representatives of their species in Europe.
    Only one thing has been mentioned by no more than one single paper: Nine out of the twelve “experts” hold important and well-paid positions in the insurance and/or banking sector, often in the companies members of the government, as well as co-owners of the major newspapers, hold shares in.

    The credibility of blogs, tweets, and facebook posts rests heavily on the fact that Big Media doesn’t have any anymore.

    (http://blogs.publico.es/vicenc-navarro/2013/06/12/es-espana-una-democracia-el-caso-de-las-pensiones/)

    • Ron LaDow says:

      “Only one thing has been mentioned by no more than one single paper: Nine out of the twelve “experts” hold important and well-paid positions in the insurance and/or banking sector, often in the companies members of the government, as well as co-owners of the major newspapers, hold shares in. ”

      Not sure what this means. Do you have any data suggesting the recommendations are incorrect?

  7. Ron LaDow says:

    This is presented as a false claim:
    “If the Obama-care health bill is passed, Grandma will face a “death panel” that will decide if she lives or dies;”
    In fact it is true. The claim that it is false is sophistry of which skeptics need to beware.

    It is true that there are no such things as “death panels” for the very good reason that no politician would ever condone something named as such. It is false that there aren’t (or won’t be) agencies charged with deciding who will live or die under Obamacare; there is no alternative.

    EVERY economic good is ‘scarce’, and it therefore rationed in one form or another. Under Obamacare (presuming it works at all) the rationing must come from “political” agencies; there is no alternative.

    Ms. Halper may be a professor of media, but she lacks understanding of how economics determines choices.
    Thanks,
    Ron LaDow

  8. Bob Pease says:

    This is an irresistible opportunity for a MAD Magazine cascade ( humor intended)

    The claim that it is false is sophistry of which skeptics need to beware.

    The claim that “the claim that it is false is sophistry of which skeptics need to beware.” is sophistry of which skeptics need to beware.

    The claim that “The claim that “the claim that it is false is sophistry of which skeptics need to beware.” is sophistry of which skeptics need to beware.” is sophistry of which skeptics need to beware.

    Next??

    • Ron LaDow says:

      What?
      Yes, I know well that identifying the false claim was difficult. Do you have a point?

    • Ron LaDow says:

      Bob Pease says:
      June 12, 2013 at 8:30 pm
      “This is an irresistible opportunity for a MAD Magazine cascade ( humor intended)”

      OK, got it on second reading.

      • Bob Pease says:

        Actually, the whole subject of self-referential statements is a serious topic in Math.
        “Godel, Escher and Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter is a classical example.

        The Original was something like
        “People who write letters to the editor should write the newspaper instead”

        Actually, isn’t false sophistry a very effective rhetorical technique??
        this is why
        “If man come from a monkey , then how come is they still monkeys?? (sic)

        is frequently regarded as a legitimate refutation of Evolution by many folks

        Have fun

        RJP

        • Bad Boy Scientist says:

          @Bob you gave a wonderful example of a rhetorical device that makes for a good jumping off point for class discussion. Witticisms like that are great because students “know in their gut” it’s a load of B.S. but they cannot put their finger on why. Discussing things in class helps them _organize_ their knowledge so the silliness of such statements is apparent. [There's a good one about Newton's 3rd law, too]

          BTW: in the spirit of “fight fire with fire”, if a creationist uses the one-liner “If man came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” – respond with another one liner. E.g. “If you came from your Mom & Dad how come _they’re_ still alive?” -

  9. Bob Pease says:

    Thanks
    It’s built on the stunning Straw Man version of evolution they think scientists really believe

    That’s why the “How come lotsa folks got cousins ” rebuttal won’t work

    Actually the “Monkey” argument is more complicated than that.
    Their Version of the TOE is some variation of

    “At one particular time in History ALL monkeys went “Sproing” and turned into men!!”

    there are other versions, but they’re just as strange .. the basic idea is that once Humans developed, monkeys did not survive

    One of Pease’s Laws is

    “Arguing with Fundies is like playing Bridge with monkeys…they think they’ve won if the eat the cards”

    As an interesting fact, a good answer to the argument is
    “Four”

    this means that it is on the Creationists Official List as #4 of arguments that are too stupid to use when defending the Creationist viewpoint .

    Bob Pease

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Right. You cannot reason a person out of a position they reasoned themselves into -
      so the best approach is to respond to silly quips with silly quips. It won’t convince anyone or do anything constructive but it is entertaining and wraps things up more quickly.

      At a Thanksgiving dinner a Born Again Cousin accused me of ‘believing that God cannot do anything if scientists cannot understand it’. To which I said “So. You believe that God cannot do anything if superstitious people living 4,000 years ago couldn’t understand it… who is being more insulting to God?”

      If all else fails the perfect way to stump them is to ask: If a pregnant woman accepts Jesus is her baby born born again or does it have to be born again again?

      • Bob Pease says:

        The “Straw Man” strikes again!!

        ” God cannot do anything if scientists cannot understand it”

        The statement ( by contrapositive ) is equivalent to

        “Scientists can understand anything that God can do”

        This position is not commonly held anymore even if “God can do” means “anything
        that CAN happen.”

        It has been my experience that the first time someone encounters a “Fact” is the one they will always believe even if they have been offered a rebuttal and admit to their error, they will revert to the original horsepuckey.

        In a related vein, “Catholic Bashing” is a popular sport among “liberal”
        folks who should recognize it as PC posturing and bandwagoning .

        An example is that Catholics supposedly must pay to have sins forgiven, and that Going to Confession allows for repeating the sin.

        The actual case is ( chapter and verse of Canon Law can be looked up)
        That an offer to pay for or accepting payment for forgiveness of sins is a sin itself called SIMONY.
        also sins cannot be forgiven without proper firm purpose of amendment .

        A similar situation is the doctrine of
        “Immaculate Conception” which has nothing to do with the circumstances of Jesus’ conception
        Almost everyone I know uses this as a Straw Man issue to ridicule Catholics
        for associating sex with dirt or stain

        The list goes on for folks of opposing viewpoints religious or secular

        Sic Transit

        RJP

  10. Bob Hunt says:

    Ms. Halper’s article, although true, seems a bit lopsided. Every example was a conservative one. Looks like it was just typical leftist journalism once again, the same junk with which we are daily inundated, some liberal advising people not to fall for conservative propaganda.

    It would have been truly wonderful if Ms. Halper had referenced just one liberal non-fact. How about “George Bush lied”? I would have stood up and cheered. An open minded liberal! But, alas, no such luck. Same old dribble.

    College students beware.

    • Ron LaDow says:

      Bob Hunt is a bit of a skeptic, for which Ms. Halper should be (bot won’t be) happy.

  11. Jim Hull says:

    She lost me at Obama. Here’s why:

    Every example of political exaggeration Dr Halper offered — and they were numerous –originated from the Right. Granted, conservatives suffer from a number of biases, some of them rather silly. Yet I searched in vain for her examples of such baloney emanating from the Left. Does this mean the Right is simply more prone to bias and intellectual error than the Left? Is the Left so good at critical thinking that there are no such examples to be found? Does Dr Halper believe that a good skeptic is a liberal?

    Maybe she simply forgot to list a few cases of liberal hogwash. (I must have missed at least a couple! Perhaps someone will point them out and set me straight.) Or maybe, lately out of power, the Right is bitter and prone to exaggeration, so all the good examples of critical error come from their side.

    I doubt it. In fact, I can think of a few from the Left: “If Romney is elected, the poor will be worse off!” … “If the GOP gets its way, Global Warming will spiral out of control!” … “Children belong to the community!” … “Cigarettes are bad but marijuana is good!” … “American manufacturers are enslaving workers in other countries!” … “McCain wasn’t born in America!”

    Citing mental failures of conservatives (and they are legion) at the top of the article, and then revisiting those failures later on, puts a definite liberal slant to the entire project. Since politics is a very emotional topic, Dr Halper risks losing half her audience at the outset, who are correct to be skeptical of her apparent political bias. But perhaps Dr Halper believed these folks were lost to begin with, and that the only reasonable people she could address were liberals. And perhaps she didn’t wish to alienate them by pointing out their own prejudices.

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