Posts Tagged ‘phil plait’

It’s time for an Ultimate Showdown.

In July 2010, Phil Plait gave a speech espousing a hippie philosophy of universal love and harmony, in which he called for an end to any expressions of anger and aggression, and declared that the one true path allows only peace and tolerance for all our fellow men, no matter what they believe.

Since then, the skeptical community has been riven between two factions: Phil’s followers of the Light, and the dark and menacing hordes of PZ Myers, whose shrill screams of abuse and condemnation against the wacky and deluded echo around the blogosphere.

Allegiances have been made and broken, and now these two armies prepare to determine once and for all which single immutable philosophy shall dominate all skeptics’ interactions with believers and the public in the future.


…Okay, no.

There is a debate going on here, but it’s nothing like as silly and dramatic as it’s often made out to be. It’s not even especially divisive. Most infuriatingly, it’s not an argument with two clearly divided opposing sides. It’s not about Phil vs. PZ, arguing over some contentious philosophical point on which they utterly and irreconcilably disagree.

From what I’ve managed to untangle of the often garbled debate, almost everyone agrees on almost everything. And everyone’s been banging on about it far more than necessary.

I am now going to bang on about it far more than necessary.


Setting the scene

The title of Phil’s talk, and the theme which has carried the ongoing discussion since then, was “Don’t Be A Dick”. Phil has observed that “vitriol and venom are on the rise”, and this has prompted him to ask a certain question of his fellow skeptics. This question generally either resonates profoundly with people, or makes them grit their teeth with frustration at the implicit over-simplification.

A show of hands in the room reveals that many of the audience used to believe in something which they don’t any more – “flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that”. Then he asks this:

How many of you no longer believe in those things, and you became a skeptic, because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged, and a retard?

A few hands are raised again, but not many.

It was somewhat rhetorical, so let’s spell out the points that I think Phil wanted people to take away from that particular question:

  1. Most people aren’t persuaded to change their minds by being screamed at and called idiots.
  2. Therefore, if skeptics want to change anyone’s minds, they should not scream at people and call them idiots.

To the nearest approximation, I completely agree with both of these points, and I think most people would.

But these are not the only things being argued.


Only human

Let’s put the skeptical outreach issue aside for a moment here. Is screaming insults directly into somebody’s face ever actually acceptable? Is it ever recommended, a good idea, a productive and worthwhile means of achieving your goals, or even permitted by the rules of basic human decency?

I think there’s a strong case to be made for “No”. The kind of hostility Phil’s talking about is a clear sign of irrational, out-of-control anger. Insofar as he’s simply advising us not to be this unrestrainedly furious, he’s not said anything remotely controversial.

This doesn’t relate to skepticism as much as it does to the kinds of acceptable human interaction that most people should have learned by the age of five.

By extension, this kind of dickishness is not a problem with skepticism, it’s a problem with people. It’s characteristic of our entire species, so anyone who feels compelled to abandon the skeptical movement because some people in it haven’t got the hang of not being an obnoxious ass might as well recuse themselves from the entire human race while they’re at it.

But most humans, and most skeptics, are better than this. We don’t need to be reminded that yelling so much abuse that people are getting hosed down in spittle is bad form. So let’s look at the more subtle points that people have taken from Phil’s talk.


Who listens to dicks anyway

The point about screaming in people’s faces seems trivial. But there are other, less comically extreme ways to violate Wheaton’s Law.

The question becomes: When have you ever changed your mind because someone was rude and unkind to you?

The implied follow-up is: By comparison, when have you ever changed your mind because someone was polite and gentle to you?

And the implicit assertion behind it all is: People will be more likely to change their minds if you are polite and gentle than if you are rude and unkind. Therefore, we should be polite and gentle, and we should not be rude or unkind.

The first sentence may well be true. I know that I find myself far less inclined to listen and take on board somebody else’s points in a one-on-one debate if they’re being deliberately obnoxious and cruel. And I’m not alone in this; people do tend to be reinforced in their opinions, rather than receptive to counter-arguments, when coming up against someone who disagrees with them in a combative and hostile way.

Civil discourse seems like a much better way to bypass prejudices and biases and exchange some information, which is surely a necessary thing for any rational person to change their mind. There’s a great deal to be said, when talking about their beliefs to someone who you think is wrong, for not being outright abusive and unkind to them.

But there’s actually a much better reason than this to moderate your dickish abusiveness.


The bigger picture

Whoever you’re arguing with, whatever the circumstances, and however reasonable and approachable you’re being, they’re almost certainly not going to have a sudden complete turn-around right in the middle of this one conversation, as a direct and instantaneous result of what you’ve said.

This is actually quite sensible. If they’ve spent a long time believing what they do, and it’s seemed like a viable worldview all this time, then anything new they learn which might shift their position deserves some thinking time. You might have made a lot of sense, and maybe they had to admit to themselves that their arguments didn’t hold up. But at the very least, they should probably sleep on it before entirely reversing a long-held position, and see whether you still seem right in the morning.

It’s futile to engage in personal discussion if you’re going to count any result other than instant capitulation as a complete failure. The effect you have on your opponent might take a long time to materialise.

But, crucially, they’re not the only ones being affected.

If your debate is happening in a public auditorium, or in a series of blog posts and comment threads, or anywhere else that other people can observe it, then other people will observe it. And this is a vital part of the discourse. In many cases, the effect on the spectators will be greater than that on your opponent.

Look at Sylvia Browne. (Not for too long, or your will to live may start to dissolve, possibly along with your eyes.) Robert Lancaster’s site about her is brilliant, thorough, extremely critical, ruthlessly polite, and is in no way a form of direct argument with Sylvia Browne herself. I don’t know of anyone in the skeptical community who would consider such an argument remotely worthwhile. Nobody is trying to change Sylvia Browne’s mind about anything.

Instead, the site exists for the benefit of the people who might needlessly throw away huge sums of money or be severely traumatised as a direct result of what Sylvia Browne does. Trying to persuade her to abandon the industry that’s made her millions and formed the basis of her life’s work for decades is futile – but people who aren’t entrenched in any real delusions, and have just been a bit impressed by what they’ve seen her do, will often be open to reasonable explanations. And there are a lot more of them than there are of her.

Everyone who’s arguing with Sylvia Browne is (or should be) doing so for the benefit of the mass of onlookers.

And something that might benefit said mass is for you not to be a total dick.

Now, there are always going to be people who leap to accusations that you’re being rude and unfair, no matter how carefully you tread. Sylvia certainly has her zealous supporters who seem to take any kind of skepticism as a direct and unprovoked attack, however delicately and reasonably it’s phrased.

My advice on that score is: try to have a better sense of what constitutes needlessly dickish behaviour than Sylvia Browne’s most rabid fans. If you find this difficult, you may be beyond my help.

Some of her followers will be open to changing their minds, but it probably won’t happen overnight. Someone’s opinion of any particular fake psychic tomorrow will be largely dependent on what their opinion was today. But over time, with enough exposure, the message will get through to the world as a whole: this point of view also exists, and isn’t going away, and might just have something to it that’s worth listening to.


Mock mock

So we can agree that not coming across as vindictive, petty, abusive, and prone to temper tantrums when anyone disagrees with you is a good way to influence people outside the argument, as well as to make sure you seem more rational and approachable to your debate opponent zemself.

But civility isn’t the only thing that spectators appreciate. They’re a complex and diverse lot, that “third party” you keep hearing about. They’re often put off when you scream in other people’s faces, true, but sometimes they like things that push the boundaries of impeccable politeness. Sometimes they like satire, or mockery, or a good blunt smackdown of some bullshit.

Phil Plait might also have asked: When have you ever changed your mind because somebody screamed abuse at somebody else?

And if you extend this beyond the trivial bounds of cartoonish douchebaggery – replace “screamed abuse at” with “said something curt or abrasive to”, and “changed your mind” with “learned something about some issue which has clarified your position” – then I suspect this becomes a common occurrence.

Certain well-placed sniping, bitchery, sarcasm, and other forms of dialogue with a bit more substance to them than abject obsequiousness can be fun. Both to indulge in personally and to watch from the sidelines. And things that can be enjoyed and laughed at are an important part of any debate which you expect to hold anyone’s interest.

And sometimes, as well as being entertainingly engaging and provocative, potentially dick-like behaviour is simply necessary to make a point. Sometimes it’s not only possible but necessary to call people’s ideas ludicrous, and their decisions ignorant and ill-informed, if you want to retain your intellectual integrity.

The people being criticised in this way might claim that it makes you a dick. But if your criticism is honest and justified, then being this much of a dick is worth it for the ability to make an important point forcefully.


Common ground

Here’s what really bugs me about this debate so far, though: I don’t think I’ve actually said anything here which either Phil or PZ would seriously disagree with. Despite the way that some absolute dichotomy between two opposing worldviews is often depicted, I think their positions are virtually identical.

Phil’s message was primarily about being nicer and less aggressive, but with a clarification about the usefulness of well placed scorn and severity. In essence, his proposition amounts to:

Sure, we shouldn’t be totally spineless, but that doesn’t mean we should act like douchebags.

PZ, on the other hand, has defended taking a more assertive and unapologetic approach, but is careful not to be needlessly cruel to undeserving targets. His point, then, is basically:

Sure, we shouldn’t act like douchebags, but that doesn’t mean we should be totally spineless.

There’s more common ground there than the debate often seems to admit. Really, they’re just expressing concerns about different pitfalls to be avoided.

Phil’s “side” of the debate is often being painted as the caring and thoughtful side, which would never stoop to ridicule of anyone, at any time. It’s as if this particular bloc of skeptics are the only ones who understand that mockery will only ever turn outsiders away from your cause, and would never stoop to anything so self-evidently counter-productive.

But let’s be clear: Phil Plait has never claimed to be the goddamn Buddha.

The image of a man whose brain seems to have caught fire, with a caption reading “The Stupid, It Burns”, is a regular feature on Phil’s blog, often appearing when some kooky opinion is expressed by some person or organisation of note. He’s more than once declared the entire state of Texas (it’s usually Texas) to be “doomed” because of some backwards political decision being made somewhere.

He’s also not held back from loudly expressing his outrage over the dishonesty, credulity, and carelessness that some supposed medical authorities have exhibited over the issue of vaccines, and the number of children who die of preventable illnesses as a direct result of irrational non-medicine.

Does any of this really qualify as being unwaveringly delicate and sensitive toward those who disagree with him?

In fact, it seems perfectly in keeping with the advice given by P-Zed in the presentation he gave at 2010’s TAM London. One of the soundbite suggestions he offered as a counterpoint to “Don’t Be A Dick” was: “Be The Best Dick You Can Be”. The line that summed it up best was: “We shouldn’t be gratuitously obnoxious; we should be purposefully obnoxious.”

PZ and Phil are both, to my mind, pretty good at this.


In Conclusion

The end.

Further reading which I couldn’t integrate into the above blather itself:

Almost Diamonds
A comment from Dawkins
The War Over “Nice”

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In which I take the foolish and reprehensible step of holding a slightly different opinion from that of David Mitchell.

David Mitchell (the comedian, not the author, though he’s brilliant too (and there are apparently many others as well, many of whom I’m sure are also jolly good)) is brilliant. He’s been getting some play in the skeptical community lately because of some rather fun jabs that comedy duo Mitchell and Webb take at pseudoscience in their sketch shows, like the Homeopathic E.R. sequence. And he wrote an article this week, about this physics professor in the US who declared recently that Hollywood films should stick closer to science fact.

The first thing I’m prompted to wonder is why this is suddenly newsworthy now, when I’m sure there have been any number of scientists grumbling on very similar lines for years. And David’s main point has also been made a number of times before: the primary purpose of TV and film is to be entertaining, and it’s entirely correct that this should sometimes take priority over reflecting such petty details as the laws of physics with perfect accuracy.

Reality is unrealistic, after all. You don’t want everything in fiction to perfectly resemble the real world you already know and are bored with – that’s why you’re watching telly in the first place. I think I more or less agree with David’s assessment that:

Being realistic is a storytelling tool, like lighting, music and sexy actresses.

This doesn’t downplay its importance too much. If you’re telling a story, then storytelling tools are vital. If you don’t bother worrying about the lighting while filming, it’s likely to end up looking terrible; likewise, if realism is completely disregarded, your script will probably be a total mess. Realism is important, but to be used wisely as a tool of story-telling, wherever appropriate, not adhered to dogmatically.

Where I started to cringe a little was this paragraph:

How typical of a scientist to try to reduce film-making to a formula. He’s noticed that enjoyable science fiction sometimes needs to include the impossible, but streams of implausible events don’t make a compelling narrative. He’s right but he should have left it at that. The happy medium is found by using judgment not maths.

It’s the first sentence, really. I hang out with far too many science geeks, and read far too many scientists’ blogs and Twitter feeds, not to be acutely aware that reducing anything to a formula is not typically representative of what scientists always do. It’s usual poor tabloid reporting that produces that kind of nonsense. To some actual scientists, such formulae are anathema.

But despite that nagging quibble, he’s making basically a good point. The guy making these recommendations – Professor Sidney Perkowitz of the Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia – has reportedly suggested a limit of “one big scientific blunder in a given film”. Which is where it starts to get a bit silly.

David speculates that this is comparable to the “one coincidence to which good screenplays are supposed to be restricted”, but that doesn’t seem like a great analogy. Major coincidences happen sometimes in the real world, but rarely in big clumps, so multiple coincidences in your film will make it start to look unrealistic.

But scientifically impossible things don’t happen at all, so whether there’s one breach of the laws of nature in your movie or a dozen makes no difference as to its implausibility. Any such simple hard-and-fast rule is bound to be misleading and unhelpful.

One film I recently really enjoyed was called Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I’m about fifteen years older than its target audience, but it was warm and funny and energetic and had nifty pacing and great comic timing and for the most part it stopped short of being annoying in its zaniness. Two thumbs up. But it was full of completely impossible things going on that only make sense in a cartoon world – unsurprisingly, being an animated kids’ film – and if you were scientifically nit-picking your way through, you’d have no time left for anything else.

And I would dispute that there exists any precise definable line between stories where you can do stupid cartoon stuff, like drop anvils on your characters and have tweeting birds appear circling around their dazed heads, and sci-fi, where everything must make perfect sense. Just as much as I dispute that allowing “one big scientific blunder” per movie does anything useful to address scientific plausibility in cinema. What’s likely to be acceptable depends far more on the context and the internal logic of an individual film.

It’s also worth noting that sci-fi writer John Scalzi was way more put out by the bad science in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie than was astronomer Phil Plait. These are both guys who know a thing or two about a thing or two, but it’s clearly possible to forgive a lot that you know is technically unrealistic, in the right context.

And while it’s lamentable that it’s taken me this long to reach one of the most interesting points about all this, there’s one thing I’ve heard from scientists on this subject time and again: When big-budget sci-fi movies do get actual science advisors on board to try and make sure things stay somewhere within tentacle’s reach of reality, they almost never have to totally sacrifice huge swathes of cool stuff that they wanted to do. Very often, having someone who really knows their stuff just makes the science even more awesome.

The conversation will go something like:

“Okay, someone send the resident geek in here. And get me some more coffee. Ah, smarty-brain, there you are, how’s it going? Listen, what’s your nerdy take on this bit in scene twelve where James Bond goes solar-wind-surfing? That’s a thing, right, solar wind? So I figure we get him wind-surfing but, like, on the Sun. Pretty cool, right? Not really sure how we get him up there, though. Does the Space Shuttle go to the Sun? Could we get one of those sky elevator things I think I heard about that one time? China has those, right?”

“Yeah, look, I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you about this whole scene, none of it really makes any sense, and if you go ahead with it as it’s currently written then your audience are going to tear you a scientifically impossibly large new one for turning their favourite franchise into a joke.”

“Damn. Tina, cancel my breakfast with the Prime Minster of China, tell him he can keep his crazy moon escalators. Okay then, astro-boy, you’d better come up with some new idea that’ll give me an excuse to have Bond to take his shirt off and justify a special effects budget bigger than the GDP of several small countries.”

“Well actually, if you’d ever paid any attention in school, or indeed to any other human being in your entire life, you might be aware of this other thing you could do, which would still look awesome on screen and let you showcase the CGI expertise of your hordes of computer-literate underlings, with the added bonus that it’s not total bullshit.”

“You mean, giving a shit about scientific accuracy might not reduce the entertainment factor by crippling my ability to blindly throw in whatever cool stuff I can think of, and may even put me in a better position to make exciting and visually inspiring references to genuine scientific phenomena?”

“Yep. You want to do things that way then?”

“Make it so.”

Wow, that rather got away from me. Wasn’t expecting that to turn into quite such a flight of fancy. Probably a bit wordy and less funny than I think it is. Still, not in the mood to edit now.

A good example of the kind of thing you may have just skipped over is the occasional recognition in some sci-fi films that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, and so cool-looking explosions wouldn’t actually make any noise when observed from a distance. David likes hearing stuff explode, and is willing to forego some realism on that score, which is fine – there’s always got to be some suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment, and we all have our different limits – but as Phil Plait points out, a spaceship blowing up in perfect silence can, if done right, be eerie as hell. Knowing how the real world works can really add to a talented director’s repertoire.

Yikes. That was wordy. Have I covered everything? I feel I should sum up. Or at least redraft before I post this. Nah. Thoughts, anyone?

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So I meant to comment on this sooner but, y’know, lazy. I did want to draw a little attention to it, though, and highlight a couple of things.

DJ Grothe has taken over as President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, the daddy of skeptical activist organisations. A couple of weeks ago now, he posted about his recent visit to their headquarters at Ft. Lauderdale, and his ideas for how they’re going to move forward in coming months.

This provides the most detailed and best articulated explanation I’ve yet seen of just what the JREF does, beyond presenting the Million Dollar Challenge as a handy rhetorical tool, and it’s a pretty awesome set of goals. Things that were particularly happifying for me to see:

3. Resources for schools and such. Yes. We definitely need to see more of this. It will need to be done with a modicum of care, but these are smart people behind these ideas, and I trust the rest of the skeptical community to let them know if they’re ever in danger of pushing an unwelcome agenda too far. There will be god-freaks and woo-mongers who’ll overreact and oppose the idea anyway, of course, but don’t let’s worry about people who don’t understand the distinction between indoctrination of propaganda and education. Important difference, folks. Encouraging and enabling a deeper appreciation and understanding of the scientific method is a good thing.

4. More Amaz!ng Meetings all over the place. Yay! Australia could definitely do with more of this sort of thing, I think, given how bad they’ve had the anti-vax nonsense lately. A sequel to TAM London sounds like it’s definitely on the cards too.

8. Publicly exposing nonsense, and working with the media to help educate the public on scams and dangerous nonsense. Another yes, if this goes the way I’m hoping it will. I can really imagine the skeptical community’s take and blogosphere’s consensus becoming a significant part of regular news reporting. Ben Goldacre has already had some success at becoming a go-to guy many journalists turn to for a skeptical comment on medical stories. I love the idea of it becoming a widely understood thing by the public: there’s this bunch of people who are good at critical thinking and all that sciencey stuff, and who you should listen to what they have to say when you read some new science thing in the papers, because they know about all that stuff and can often tell you what’s really going on, about scams and paranormal stuff and all that kind of thing. And I love the idea of being a part of the blogging network that people think of like that.

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Oh no! She took too much homeopathy!

Wait, how does that infinitesimals thing work again? Oh, right.

Billy Joel’s daughter had a fight with her boyfriend, took some homeopathy, and was later hospitalised.

I’m sure those three things may have happened in that order, but I’m doubtful that there’s really a linear causal connection between them all. There’s no detail given in this article about her medical state beyond that she had “breathing problems”, and is now fine. So as far as I know she was as healthy as me after walking up the stairs to my front door.

Y’know, I think she might just pull through.

Or maybe she was properly ill with something, but even by the anti-logic of homeopathy, taking too much of the stuff isn’t supposed to increase its potency.

Eh. Gimpy twittered about it earlier, I thought it was funny enough to be worth a mention.

Oh, except now after all that I learn that it might actually have some medicine-like stuff in it, which isn’t what homeopathy’s about at all. Gah. Trust HolfordWatch to spoil a good story with awkward facts.

In other news, who’s this D.J. Grothe person, and what’s he done with Phil Plait? ‘Tis the end of an era. Best of luck to both you guys in your forthcoming projects.

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A little background first, for those unfamiliar with what exactly is going on here.

The James Randi Educational Foundation is an organisation based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with the intent of promoting critical thinking among the public, and trying to disseminate reliable information on subjects where credulity and irrationality abound. In January 2003, they held the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting, where 150 people gathered in Fort Lauderdale to hear a selection of prominent scientists and skeptics give lectures, and mingle with like-minded folk over several days.

The next year, it moved to Las Vegas, where it’s been an ever-growing annual event ever since. It’s expanded to include several Amaz!ng Adventures also, and this past weekend I was one of 600 attendees at the first international meeting, in London. Various awesome people spoke, lectured, mingled, answered questions, sang, danced, and fumbled comically with a number of technological hurdles.

So, the people I experienced over the weekend were as follows:

  1. Richard Wiseman compèred the whole thing, introducing each new speaker, keeping the crowd entertained with some jokes and semi-serious magic tricks while the next bit was being got ready, and covering whenever a technical hitch threatened to derail things. He did a fabulous job of being charming and (giving the illusion of) being in control throughout.
  2. Brian Cox, physicist and Supreme Allied Commander of CERN. Well, okay, he just works there. He spoke about the CERN lab, the Large Hadron Collider, and why he really believes that this kind of science is important and worth investing in. There were some great collider pics, including some of the damage caused when they broke it last year, and a more comprehensive explanation of just what went wrong than I’d heard at the time. There was also a lot of background info about particle physics, to explain exactly what it is they’re trying to do there. I’m a physics geek already, I’ve read books about string theory and quarks and extra dimensions of space-time, but I still felt like I learnt something new about the Standard Model. He’s a terrific speaker, with a real knack for making these potentially mind-mangling topics accessible and fascinating.
  3. Jon Ronson is hilarious and wonderful. In many ways, he might seem at first glance like a somewhat unlikely orator; he looks like a classic nerd, tends to hold his arms against himself a little awkwardly, and has an occasional head-nodding tic. But in actual fact, he has great stage presence and tells a hell of a story. He really knows how to make his encounters with crazy people sound touching, human, and very funny, both in print and in person, and provided some of the biggest laughs of the weekend.
  4. Simon Singh spoke about his ongoing libel case, giving some more background than we’d heard before and some interesting updates. He was also given an award by the JREF, for Outstanding Contribution To The Services Of Being A Fucking Hero. Or something like that. Seriously, I think the importance and bravery of what he’s doing, fighting for the right to speak openly and critically about scientific matters and standing as a figurehead for the campaign to change this country’s insane libel laws, is going to be looked back on with awe and amazement in years to come. He also broke the news that he and his wife are expecting their first child next year.
  5. James Randi, the man himself, who couldn’t attend the conference himself due to health issues, but appeared via a live video link-up, looking in good spirits and on fine form. He fielded some questions, and the computer equipment seemed to require mercifully little wrangling to make it happen.
  6. Ariane Sherine was an absolute delight to see in person. She seemed a little nervous at first, but not to a degree you could fault her for, given how much less often she’s done this than everyone else on the bill, and how effortlessly she was chatting with her audience within a few minutes. She told the story of the Atheist Bus Campaign, with some brilliant visual aids and musical montages. Hopeless geek crush #43729 blooms still.
  7. Mil Millington happened to be attending, and was recognisable by his hair. I love the guy’s writing, but he actually looked a little… Walter Kovacs-y. Yeah.
  8. Ben Goldacre was his usual awesome self. The bizarre details of the media’s approach to the MRSA thing in particular continues to blow my mind. I should write about that properly someday.
  9. Robin Ince hosted a comedy evening on Saturday. He chatted about Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman, as he ever does, but you could tell how thrilled he was at playing to a crowd who’ll respond with applause to names like that. The usual suspects were there: Josie Long, Christina Martin, Philip Jeays, and so forth. At times it felt pretty similar to the Night of 400 Billion Stars earlier in the year, but mostly they’re all such good company that this didn’t count against it at all.
  10. Adam Savage spoke about Mythbusters, which was fun. I’ve never really seen the show properly, but the clips I’ve been pointed to on the internet I’ve always enjoyed, and he was great to watch and listen to here. (I’ve skipped over the two acts before him on Sunday morning, because I gave myself a lie-in and didn’t get there until the start of Adam’s set. I’ve never been a huge George Hrab fan, and Glenn Hill’s name didn’t mean anything to me. He’s actually the son of one of the girls who took the Cottingley Fairies pictures, and in retrospect I would’ve quite liked to hear from him.)
  11. Tim Minchin. Holy fucking shit, Tim Minchin. Unbelievable. Highlight of the whole weekend. I mean, I knew the guy was good, but wow. He wasn’t there for long, but it was an incredible set. The awesomeness of Storm is barely diminished by the fact that I know it by heart, and the brief preview of the animated version being made looks like it’ll be fantastic when it’s finished. He did a couple of numbers I’d never heard before, which were musically brilliant and genuinely hilarious in equal measure. And his song about Christmas is perfect. Goddamn, that man is something special.
  12. Phil Plait, President of the JREF, spoke about skepticism in general, and his particular field of astronomy in particular. Much of it was a sort of preview of his latest book, Death From The Skies!, of which I picked up a copy in the foyer (along with a couple by Jon Ronson, and Bruce Hood’s Supersense).
  13. Heather and Colm, the only two people with whom I really managed any socialising. (If either of you happen to find this, say hi. I’m sorry we got separated before I could find out where to stalk you on Twitter.) I decided not to aim too high, in terms of personal expectations for social interaction. Everyone seemed nice and friendly and talkative, and I’m sure the random interruptions I would’ve loved to make to introduce myself would have been welcomed, but I’m not going to berate myself for not having the nerve to go up to any famous people off of the internet. I did fine, for me.

I guess that’s as good a link as any to some more general rumination. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting as regards the format of the evening, but from what I understand of the Vegas meetings, they’re generally in a pretty open-plan space, often with different things going on in different areas at the same time, and with various bars and other areas where it’s easy to gather and congregate when nothing big’s happening. TAM London was somewhat smaller in scale, and felt rather more regimented. Superb though all the presentations were, we did all just file in and out of the one auditorium together, and there wasn’t much going on in between except a general milling about. There were a few stalls downstairs, but nothing really conducive to natural socialisation.

In fact, Jon Ronson’s just twittered a link to this review, which makes a number of good points. I didn’t feel that everyone was being quite as isolated and monastic as it apparently seemed to Luke; I thought it was mostly just me. And I’m not sure to what extent it’s up to the organisers to get the socially awkward nerd demographic talking to people they’ve never met before, or how much it’s something we’ll just have to figure out by ourselves. But a bit more infrastructure in between the talks might be something to aim for next time. And I agree that somewhere to sit for the bangers and mash dinner would definitely have been nice, and possibly more conducive to conversation.

Anyway, that’s what I did with my weekend. I may not have been as socially interactive as some, but it got me out of the house, and I hope I’ll be able to attend an even bigger and better show next year.

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A lot of people think that aliens have come visiting us and have all sorts of dastardly and/or sexy plans for us. Often, people think this because they reckon they’ve seen these aliens, in the sky, whooshing around in ways that definitely looked like a spaceship and not like anything else. Some skeptics say that these sightings might actually be of birds, aircraft, planets, even the Moon, and that there’s no reason to leap to conclusions about alien spaceships.

But how hard can it be to tell a UFO from a bunch of other stuff? Do a quick Google image search for a duck, then a flying saucer. They look nothing alike. How stupid would you have to be to confuse the two?

Well, you might just be stupid enough to get a PhD in astronomy. Phil Plait, author of the book Bad Astronomy and creator of the website of the same name, talks in his book about a time when he was actually waiting to watch the Space Shuttle take off at Cape Canaveral, and saw a pattern of lights in the sky that briefly unsettled him. There were maybe a dozen of them, in a steady pattern, apparently a few miles away and moving slowly. Planes wouldn’t have been allowed so near the Shuttle, birds wouldn’t have been glowing so visibly, and nothing else man-made could plausibly have been moving in the weaving pattern they were making.

This isn’t just some random being freaked out by the Moon, this is Dr. Philip Plait, Ph.D., a qualified astronomer, watching the Space Shuttle carrying up a camera for the Hubble Space Telescope that he’s just spent two years designing. He knows his shit when it comes to lights in the sky, and although he didn’t leap to any unfounded conclusions, he was actually pretty spooked by what he saw that day, as if a part of him really believed that he might genuinely be witnessing an alien phenomenon.

Until it flew over his head, quacking.

Yeah, it was a bunch of ducks. They were too far away to make out at first, they were glowing because of light from the spotlights on the Shuttle pad being reflected every which way, and they were flying straight towards him in the kind of way that ducks fly, in a fairly constant pattern but wobbling around from time to time. If anybody ought to know a duck from a possible flying saucer, it’s Phil, but at that moment the perceptive ability of his squishy human brain showed its limitations.

My point is only that seeing something weird in the sky and being baffled as to its origins is really, really easy, particularly for uninformed ignoramuses like myself who don’t spend much time looking up there anyway, and really don’t have much of an idea what we should expect to see. The planet Venus is way brighter than any stars (other than the Sun) in the sky, and is sometimes even visible during daylight – but I have no idea where to look for it right now, or what it would look like, so it has the capacity to take me entirely by surprise, wherever it is. And I still wouldn’t recognise it, even if I saw it; if I peered at Venus with my myopic and uninformed eyes, perhaps through some trees or out of a moving car window, it would be a vague light in the sky that I couldn’t distinguish much about. It might look like something a thousand times closer and a thousand times smaller than the Sun’s second planet actually is – how am I supposed to make an accurate judgment on perspective about something that’s basically a distant static dot?

The sky also contains aircraft, balloons, man-made satellites, birds, and a whole lot of other artificial or natural stuff, which is flying, relatively close to the ground, emitting light, making noises, and generally doing the kinds of things people expect from passing UFOs (if they’re the type of people to expect passing UFOs at all). If all they’re seeing is some strange lights in the sky, can anyone really be expected to distinguish between all the possibilities, when they’re just staring up from a great distance and squinting a bit? If even the sight of planets or ducks or the Moon can give an unexpected and seemingly other-worldly experience, wouldn’t any sight in the sky have to be really spectacular before it should convince anyone that it’s definitely not coming from any of the sources already listed? Or even probably not?

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Bad Astronomer, awesome scientist, superior blogger and long-time skeptic of note Phil Plait has accepted the position of President of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

No really, it’s true! All the details are in Phil’s latest blog post, and the press release he links to from there. And it couldn’t have happened to a worthier guy. Phil Plait is always inspiringly enthusiastic whatever he’s talking about, and a really clear communicator – one of his main points of focus will be educating people, particularly children, about just how damn cool science can be. And he is going to rock.

Randi himself will stay on as the Chairman of the Board of Directors, and continue to be deeply involved in the JREF, but will have a little more time now to work on his next couple of books.

So, so awesome.

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