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The Skeptical Virtue of Seriously Just Being Quiet

Apr. 10, 2018 by | Comments (14)
This post is something of a personal reflection. If you’re looking for some straight up debunking, my latest is here.

Recently I attended a dinner party as the guest of a new friend among people who’ve known each other for decades. After dinner, the conversation turned to a story that had puzzled and intrigued the hosts. They were excited to share a YouTube video about a black leopard whose behavior was allegedly improved through the intervention of an “animal communicator” (pet psychic).

Junior Skeptic cover

Cover art for Junior Skeptic #66, bound inside Skeptic Vol. 23, No. 1. Illustration by Jacob Dewey.

Now, this is a literate, philosophical bunch. They like debating, speculating, and devil’s advocacy, so they didn’t much mind that my friend found the claims of the video preposterous. After some lively verbal fencing, she turned to me in exasperation and said, “We have a professional skeptic right here! Daniel, you write about this stuff for a living. What do you think?”

Well, I had thoughts. But I said the minimum: that I hadn’t yet looked professionally at the specific topic of pet psychics, and that the video was a constructed narrative whose claims we should neither accept nor reject without checking. (Then I went away and actually did spend weeks researching and writing a lengthy critique of pet psychics for the pages of Junior Skeptic.)

What I said was true. But it’s also true that I might have contributed more to that conversation in other periods of my life.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

 

SKEPTIC INVESTIGATES

Is the Earth Flat?

Mar. 20, 2018 by | Comments (70)

Recent news stories,1 celebrity endorsements, and Google search trends2 have highlighted an apparently growing conspiracy theory belief that the Earth is not a globe, but instead a flat disc. According to believers, government forces promote a completely fictitious model of the cosmos in order to conceal the true nature of the Earth. Are these claims true?

No. The Earth is Round

The evidence for a spherical Earth is overwhelming.3 Most obviously, there are many thousands of images and videos of the Earth from space, including a continually changing live stream view of the globe from the International Space Station—not to mention all the astronauts who have personally seen the Earth from orbit. Flat Earthers claim that all images of the globe are fraudulent inventions, and all testimony from astronauts is false. It is unreasonable to dismiss all of the evidence from the entire history of space exploration, especially when there is zero evidence for a decades-long “globularist” conspiracy. However, we do not need to rely on evidence from modern space agencies to confirm the roundness of the Earth for ourselves.

Junior Skeptic #53 (cover)

Portions of this article appeared previously in Daniel Loxton’s detailed history of the Flat Earth movement in Junior Skeptic #53, bound within Skeptic magazine 19.4 (2014).

The globe has been clearly understood for thousands of years. Indeed, this was one of the first cosmic facts to be worked out correctly by ancient people because evidence of a spherical Earth is visible to the naked eye.

By the time of the philosopher Socrates and his student Plato, many Greeks understood that the Earth could only be a sphere. Sailors would have noticed that the sails of approaching ships appeared before the hulls of the ships became visible because the surface of the sea is slightly curved, like the surface of an enormous ball.4 When you sail toward a ship, island, or lighthouse, their tallest points are the first thing to peek up over the curve of the horizon.

Plato’s student Aristotle offered further “evidence of the senses” to support his own conclusion that the Earth “must necessarily be spherical.” First, there was the evidence of lunar eclipses. When the Moon passes through the shadow of the Earth, that shadow is always the circular shadow of a sphere. Also, Aristotle argued, “our observations of the stars” make it clear “not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size.” He pointed out that “quite a small change of position to south or north” significantly changes “the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward.” Just as ships can be hidden from view by the curvature of the horizon, so too can the stars.5

The debate about the shape of the Earth has been settled for over two thousand years. An ancient scholar named Eratosthenes—the head of the famous library of Alexandria in Egypt—even correctly approximated the circumference of the Earth using experimental measurements of shadows in two cities and some geometry.6

Despite modern legends about Medieval backwardness, there never was a time when educated people went back to thinking the Earth was flat. Once discovered, the true shape of the globe was too simple and useful a fact to be forgotten. Sailors were reminded of the planet’s roundness every time they climbed a mast to see further over the horizon or looked to the stars to determine their position. By the time of Columbus, his crew and even his critics understood that our world is a globe.7 It had been an established fact for centuries. For example, here’s a passage from the popular astronomy textbook On the Sphere of the World, published over 250 years before Columbus sailed: CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts

Oct. 17, 2017 by | Comments (4)
Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (Photo © 2014 Joseph Oliphint Photography. Image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

A small percentage of the population self-identifies as “Skeptic.” This is somewhat different than being skeptical. Anyone can be skeptical, but what I usually call “capital-S” Skeptics are people who are so interested in the methodology and practice of scientific-skepticism that they label themselves to signal to others with a single word that they value these processes enough to say that what they most believe in (or strive to practice) is filtering information through the sieve of science.1

Within this group of Skeptics, there is a sub-set who enjoy researching fringe, paranormal and Fortean topics, which Sharon Hill and Jeb Card refer to as “spooky” topics. It’s a small group of people who value science and critical thinking and try to apply those tools to stories of mysterious monsters, strange phenomena, and magical events — all the while maintaining an enthusiasm for researching and thinking about (dare I say enjoying?) these stories.

I’m in that latter group. I frequently describe it as being in a ghetto within a ghetto. I don’t know if there is a useful and handy shorthand for this group of folks — perhaps Spooky Skeptics? Regardless, from this peculiar vantage we often find ourselves having to defend against stereotypes of skeptics as “armchair naysayers,” “scofftics,” “denialists,” “cynics,” “pseudoskeptics” and “the closed-minded.” This is from the printable pool of undesirable labels; there are many less savory ones. Because of my membership in this peculiar subculture, I find myself urged to defend science in communities whose familiarity with the long, deep history of science criticism is shallow, but whose passionate distrust of Skeptics is deep. CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Blake Smith

Blake Smith is the producer and host of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. He’s had a lifelong interest in science and the paranormal and enjoys researching the strange and unusual. By day he’s a computer consultant and by night he hunts monsters. He is married and has children. Puns are intentional; don’t bother alerting the management. Read Blake’s other posts on this blog.

GUEST POST

Confessions of a Skeptical Marketer

Dec. 13, 2016 by Steve Cuno | Comments (26)
illustration

Every job has its moral dilemmas. There’s the bus driver who must drop passengers in questionable neighborhoods. The theater cashier who isn’t allowed to say, “You really want to see that stinker?” The fast food server who must suppress an urge to chastise a customer who has no better taste than to order a hotdog with ketchup.

At the more serious end of the continuum are people like the former Born Again Christian minister I met a few TAMs ago. Former, because, upon his embracing skepticism, conscience compelled him to give up his ministerial career. With it he gave up his livelihood, prestige, an adoring congregation, and a good many friends. As for the years and money he’d invested in chasing down an advanced theological degree? “Oh well,” he said.

So I can hardly complain. As a self-employed advertising and marketing practitioner, I have the luxury of deciding what work I will and will not accept. And because I work with multiple clients, declining or resigning one here or there hurts but won’t put me out of business.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Steve Cuno

Steve Cuno is chagrined to realize he is old enough to have been in the advertising business for 38 years. He started the RESPONSE Agency 22 years ago. He is the author of numerous articles and two books on marketing, but his favorite role has been that of as-told-to author for Joanne Hanks in her memoir, "It’s Not About the Sex” My Ass: Confessions of an Ex-Mormon Ex-Polygamist Ex-Wife. You may have noticed that Steve likes putting the word “confessions” in titles.

GUEST POST

The Century-Long Fight Against American Quackery

Sep. 29, 2016 by Robert Blaskiewicz | Comments (8)
A typical fraudulent cancer "cure" highlighted in the American Medical Association's Nostrums and Quackery (1912)

A typical advertisement for a fraudulent mail order cancer “cure,” highlighted in the American Medical Association’s Nostrums and Quackery (1912).

This summer, I spent a week in Chicago examining the files of the American Medical Association’s Bureau of Investigation. The contents illustrate the full range of weird health-related beliefs found in the 20th century, and it is interesting to watch how these beliefs track with historical events in the development of medicine and to see the role the AMA played in defining what was medicine and what was not. Having sampled the contents of this archive, I can say that there are entire careers in skepticism and the history of pseudoscience to be made excavating those files.

In the 19th century, popularly available health remedies were regulated, as far as I can tell, principally by the consciences of the people who made and sold them. Remedies were sold by pharmacists to anyone who asked for them, and there was really no limit to what could be said to sell these nostrums, either on the label or in advertising. There was no requirement to disclose the contents of a treatment. So let’s say you had a “catarrh” treatment. Catarrh is a word that encompasses all sorts of sinus blockages. If you were to take a treatment for a stuffy head, you could almost expect the remedies to have an alcohol base and a variety of other medically active substances mixed in with it. A health remedy might be up to 25% or more alcohol, and it would not have to be disclosed on the bottle. That alcohol might be mixed with morphine, chloroform, opium, cocaine, and/or caffeine, in undisclosed concentrations and without quality control. Sure, you might forget about your stuffy nose, but you might well become a coke addict, an opium eater, or an alcoholic.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Robert Blaskiewicz

Robert Blaskiewicz is Assistant Professor of Critical Thinking and First Year Studies at Stockton University, where he specializes in and teaches about World War II veterans’ writings, science and pseudoscience, paranormal claims, and conspiracy theories.

The Complexity of Alien Abduction and the Multidisciplinary Nature of Fringe Claims

Jun. 07, 2016 by | Comments (10)

Image by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith and Jason Loxton

Image by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith and Jason Loxton

In my last post I explained that the teeming menagerie of seemingly dissimilar fringe claims studied by skeptics are unified by the neglect of other scholars, by structural similarities, and (in some cases) by direct interconnection. For this reason, a range of topics can be usefully gathered under the skeptics’ umbrella, and useful insights drawn between them.

Today I’ll ask a related question: why are skeptics a mixed group of magicians, psychologists, doctors, historians, science popularizers, artists, and so on?

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

Fringe Claims: Unified by Neglect, Structural Similarity, and Direct Interconnection

Jun. 06, 2016 by | Comments (8)

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?”

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

Bigfoot Versus the Quest for World Peace?

May. 17, 2016 by | Comments (23)

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:

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.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

The Discovery of Richard III’s Grave and the Fallibility of Memory

Mar. 30, 2016 by | Comments (6)
Richard III's tomb at Leicester Cathedral. Photo by Isananni

Richard III’s tomb at Leicester Cathedral. Photo by Isananni

One year ago, Richard III, one of England’s most notorious kings, was reburied at Leicester Cathedral after a series of celebrations and ceremonies suitable for a national hero. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch even read a poem written by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Fortunately for him, the poem did not include the word “penguin” (also here). To commemorate the anniversary, the University of Leicester has released a 3D model of Richard’s skeleton in its original, too-short, poorly-dug grave.

Richard III, child-killer and national treasure

Richard III, child-killer and national treasure

Amid all the hoopla, it’s easy to forget that Richard III was not the People’s Princess, but rather a man who almost certainly ordered the murder of two children, both of whom were his nephews and one of whom was probably the rightful king of England. I’ve been interested in the way Richard’s image has been rather successfully rehabilitated through the publicity surrounding the discovery of his remains and their reburial. For the moment, though, I’m going to focus on one element of the story: the way the search for and discovery of the body has itself become mythologized, possibly with the help of a faulty memory.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Eve Siebert

Eve Siebert contributes to the Skepticality podcast and is a panelist on the Virtual Skeptics webcast. She taught college writing and literature for many years. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from Saint Louis University. Her primary area of study is Old and Middle English literature, with secondary concentrations in Old Norse and Shakespeare. Read Eve’s full bio or her other posts on this blog.

Vikings Exhibition at Discovery Times Square: Setting History Straight-ish

Feb. 16, 2016 by | Comments (8)

Entrance to Vikings Exhibit, Field Museum.

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a Vikings exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I had been invited to Chicago to give a Skeptics in the Pub talk about the erroneous and distinctly odd belief that Leif Erickson discovered Bigfoot in Vinland. I gave the talk on Saturday and went to the exhibit on Sunday. It was a whole Viking-themed weekend—the best kind of weekend. Bigfoot was noticeably absent from the exhibit (and, indeed, the Field Museum in general).

In the last year, I have moved from Wisconsin to New Jersey, and the Viking exhibit has moved from Chicago to New York. I’m tempted to visit it again. I enjoyed it the first time, although it made me a little sad because it reminded me that I was not able to visit the British Museum’s 2014 exhibit, Vikings: Life and Legends. The two exhibits take very different approaches to the Vikings. The British Museum emphasized warfare, stating in one of its press releases:

New interpretations place warfare and warrior identity at the centre of what it meant to be a Viking; cultural contact was often violent, and the transportation of looted goods and slaves reflects the role of Vikings as both raiders and traders.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Eve Siebert

Eve Siebert contributes to the Skepticality podcast and is a panelist on the Virtual Skeptics webcast. She taught college writing and literature for many years. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from Saint Louis University. Her primary area of study is Old and Middle English literature, with secondary concentrations in Old Norse and Shakespeare. Read Eve’s full bio or her other posts on this blog.

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