Posts Tagged ‘pseudoscience’

I’m really not interested in this story, but it’s starting to feel a little remiss of me not to at least mention it.

Recently, the media made a big hoo-hah over the fact that the constellations aren’t where they used to be in the sky, because of shifts in the way the Earth moves.

This was old news – it’s been going on for centuries, and has been trotted out in the media before – but someone wanted to sell some newspapers, so it’s back again as if something had only just happened. It hasn’t made any noticeable difference to anyone’s lives this time around, either.

Then, someone did some data analysis on popular horoscopes, and found that they all tend to say the same bland generic crap regardless of what sign they’re for. (For some reason the words “keep”, “feel”, and “sure” seem to leap out at you across the board.)

This is also not even slightly news to anyone who’s had much practice at thinking.

And, to the continued surprise of nobody, astrologers have responded by down-playing the importance of basing what they do on anything so drab as reality.

Phil Plait‘s write-up of this points to this article on astrology.com, which offers some revealing advice (just before happily admitting that astrology is pseudoscience) to readers who, while happy to base their life choices around some imaginary pictures in the sky, are worried that they’ve been using the wrong ones:

If it’s always been easy to link predictions to actual events using your sun sign, continue to follow that. If you’ve been reading your rising sign like me, and it works, continue that. If you feel your “new” zodiac sign coincides more. You just may even want to give that a whirl!

Doesn’t that sound inclusive and progressive and non-dogmatic and lovely? Astrology can be about whatever works for you.

These new signs are a load of nonsense because scientists don’t understand us, but if they suit you better, then go for it!

There are so many different kinds of astrology – which just means there are loads of different ways for it to be right! Just ignore all the ones that don’t work for you.

If you’re usually a Libra but you’ve read the horoscopes for all the signs and feel more like a Sagittarius today, just follow your heart!

In fact, why not start by deciding how you feel, then find a horoscope which sounds like that, and that’s what sign you are today! You can even go back and look through readings for the past few weeks, if you like! It’s probably ascendant or in retrograde or something so that’s totally allowed if it works for you.

Sorry, but sarcasm is the only thing I have that’s strong enough to overpower my stifling lack of interest. I’ve written about astrology already as much as I want to, and it’s still just as much bunk as it was then.

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This is very handy, and I look forward to trying it out.

No, not the piece of reflexology crap in the picture. Simon Perry’s outlined his process for making complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about bogus health benefits claimed by dodgy products. If I actually read newspapers, I’ve no doubt I’d be coming across this sort of thing all the time, and have regular cause to pick through them and fire off some emails in this suggested format. As it is, it’s just a useful idea to file away until I happen to need it.

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You’ve probably heard that quote about how, if you hear the sound of hoofbeats, you should be prepared to see zebras, but expect to see horses.

What it’s getting at is that either horses or zebras would offer a perfectly adequate explanation of what you’re hearing, but one of them is rather more likely than the other. It holds less true if you happen to be exchanging aphorisms in the African savanna, but the basic idea still works, assuming you’re not in some unlikely scenario specifically tailored to unbalance your usual expectations. You can apply it to other situations, too:

If you hear beeping, expect a reversing truck, not an alien spaceship.

If you taste almonds, expect marzipan, not cyanide.

If you see homeopathy, expect a sham, not medicine.

If you see some bent stalks of wheat, expect some slightly trodden-on wheat, not aliens who travelled billions of miles just to make an easily replicated pattern while no-one was looking and then vanish without a trace.

Crop circles are a phenomenon in which patterns appear in the field of a particular crop, where the corn/maize/wheat/whatever has been flattened, usually by bending over and breaking the stalk near the base, in such a way that some sort of recognisable pattern is visible when viewed from above. They first started to take off in southern England around 1978, with farmers finding virtually perfect circles appearing in the middle of their fields overnight. Since then, they have become far more elaborate and complex. “Circles” no longer does justice to the intricate patterns and corporate branding logos that can appear overnight nowadays.

There was much debate among empassioned enthusiasts, people whose interest was grabbed by the strangeness of the phenomenon, for many years. There primarily existed two distinct camps with their own interpretations: either it was the result of a curious weather phenomenon – some kind of mini-cyclone appearing suddenly, with a very localised effect – or it had to have been caused by a particular intelligence, presumably extra-terrestrial in nature.

There were books published and TV discussions held, with ideas and assertions being thrown back and forth by either side, with nobody ever really getting a solid hold of what was actually going on. No aliens were ever caught in the act, no conclusive proof was discovered of visitors from another world. No sudden shifts in air pressure were ever shown to be able to have such a peculiar effect on wheat, without being observed in any other context, and the meteorological explanation became increasingly implausible as the complexity of the circles grew. People spent hours and hours, night after night, camping out near what they considered likely candidate fields where they hoped to be able to see first-hand the magical, mystical, mysterious process by which these circles were created.

One explanation often mooted from the very beginning was that it was all the work of “pranksters”, but this didn’t get much play among the dedicated enthusiasts. It just seemed silly. These crops were quite difficult to bend, they reasoned, and it wasn’t immediately obvious how an individual, or even a team of hoaxsters, could flatten a complete area of so much tall grass in such a short time.

Therefore, the reasoning went, aliens were much more likely. That was the only explanation which really covered all the bases without leaving any awkward loose ends or unconvincing assumptions.


You remember the zebras I brought up right at the beginning? In this analogy, the zebras are the aliens. And the horses are roughly analogous to “a couple of guys with some string and a piece of wood, who thought of a way to push some wheat onto the ground that’s slightly more efficient than whatever you could think of off the top of your head, and so gets the job done a bit faster than you might at first imagine”.

Specifically, our metaphorical horses (metaphorses?) are a couple of guys called Doug and Dave, who came up with the idea in a pub in the south of England in the ’70s, and only eventually owned up to it and started showing various media outlets exactly how they did it when Doug’s wife began suspecting him of having an affair. All the late nights and unexplained mileage on the car’s odometer that resulted from their hobby hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Unlike a lot of alleged paranormal phenomena, nobody disputes that crop circles exist. And moreover, the exact nature of their origins is also, in many cases, perfectly and abundantly clear. There are numerous people and organisations out there who we know do this kind of thing themselves. We have indisputable documented proof of some of these huge, intricate patterns being created by humans through entirely mundane means.

Of course, we only have proof that some such patterns were created this way. Not every single such circle has been created while a professional camera crew was present. Maybe aliens did create some of them. But this is like claiming that what looks like some dogshit on the pavement might have in fact come from a leprechaun. Why would you take the leap of logic to believe that, without some compelling reason not to go with the more obvious cause?

This means that, if anyone still wants to claim that some circles must result from an alien intelligence, their job is now to draw an absolute distinction between these two types of pattern – the man-made ones, and those of unquestionably alien origin.

And this is apparently rather tricky to do. It seems that the two types look a lot alike to a casual observer – or even, a lot of the time, to a supposed expert. There is no method consistently agreed upon of grouping one whole bunch together as being totally different from all the rest, and assigning them as likely candidates for alien creations. Experts have often pronounced particular circles to be undoubtedly alien, and then met the guys who knocked it together in 90 minutes. And while being proved wrong is an important part of any science, you also need to be able to refine your model based on the evidence that proved you wrong, such that every time you become a little bit less wrong than you were before. Cerealogists have never managed to get their shit together in this manner.

It often seems that all they have to fall back on is “It couldn’t have all been done in one night by humans”. But are they really the best authorities to trust on what is and isn’t physically possible? Have they actually crunched the numbers, or are they just arguing from personal incredulity? This was made overnight, by just a bunch of guys. Which might sound pretty unbelievable, but there it is.

None of the other ways that alien theorists purport to determine the extra-terrestrial origins of some crop circles seems to hold up either. Toward the end of Jim Schnabel’s fascinating book Round in Circles, the author describes some of the circle-making expeditions he went on, with some of the friends he’d made researching the history of the phenomenon. At first, come the following morning, the enthusiasts would look at the amateurish way the stalks were bent and immediately declare the site to be a mere “hoax”. But as he became more practised at it, he began to see the experts in the subject declaring their confidence that this particular pattern was indeed of alien origin, as they peered at stalks that Jim himself had trodden down mere hours before.

There is simply no reliable predictor of what to expect from a supposedly alien-generated crop circle. The features of the circles of provably terrestrial origin are often mightily impressive, and may seem to stretch the powers of human ingenuity, for anyone unfamiliar with just how that ingenuity can be applied in this field. We’ve seen them being mistaken for alien or paranormal phenomena many times, but it’s never been confirmed the other way around.

The human creation of fantastically impressive crop circles is a known phenomenon. We see horses galloping around us all the time, but never even a hint of a black-and-white stripe.

Other sources worth reading on this include Skeptical Inquirer, SkepticWiki, RationalWiki, and Skeptoid.

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How easy is it to believe in nonsense, without being notably stupid?

Some years ago – I’d guess I was very approximately 13, so in the mid-to-late ’90s, but certainly long before I had any idea what scientific skepticism was, and even longer before I’d given up believing in God – I was watching some debate show on TV about the paranormal. There was a host/moderator at a desk, with a couple of people on either side of him, each arguing one side of the debate. And there was a fairly large studio audience.

The first person to speak was an alleged psychic, who was over from the US (this was an English show, I’m pretty sure) and had agreed to demonstrate his abilities. He started by doing some readings for people in the crowd, throwing out some fairly specific things straight off, and homing in on some individual people, seeming to know a good deal about each of them. I can’t remember what he said, or whether he claimed to be in direct contact with anybody’s dead relatives, but the audience members he spoke to were definitely very impressed, as were many of the onlookers.

Now, as I recall, I didn’t really have any opinion at the time on things like psychic powers. The subject was interesting enough to me that I was watching a debate that proposed to settle the matter, but I certainly don’t think I was convinced that there was anything to it, though nor was I especially against the idea. I just don’t think I’d given it much thought.

In fact, I’m sure I must have been open to it and yet unconvinced – because I distinctly remember being very impressed myself by the quality of the readings this guy was giving. I mean, we were assured that he hadn’t met any of these people before, there didn’t seem to be any obvious way he could be finding these things out about them, no way he’d have known who was going to be in the audience tonight so that he could research them beforehand. He was just standing up and somehow providing all this secret information, with startling accuracy.

So I figured maybe there was something to this psychic stuff after all. Maybe the guy was in touch with some sort of magic, or something. It seemed to make sense.

Of course, it didn’t last. It didn’t last more than about thirty seconds, in fact, because as soon as he was done making a very impressive case for the existence of psychic powers, and wowing the crowd, the host told us that this was not in fact Mr So-and-so, the practising psychic as whom he’d been introduced. It was in fact Mr James Randi, experienced skeptical investigator of paranormal claims. I remember a mild uproar from the crowd at this point, which if I had to pin it down to an emotion being expressed I would probably call dismay.

And suddenly my own view of things swung way back in the opposite direction. I hadn’t known it was possible for a psychic to come up with such amazing information – and, I now realised, I hadn’t known it was also possible for some regular guy who knows his shit to put on an equally impressive performance.

And it was really, really cool. It didn’t shake any particular worldviews of mine, and my role as an interested skeptic still didn’t really start for a number of years, but I really liked this. It sounded like some people in the audience objected to being tricked, but I thought it was great. Maybe it says something about the approach to learning that I’d come to adopt in the first few years of my life, or maybe I just hadn’t had time to grow attached to this particular paradigm before it was shattered. But I thought the way I’d been led down one path and then had the rug pulled from under me (if you’ll forgive another mixed metaphor involving carpeted pathways) was really cool.

And it made Randi’s point very well, of course. The fact that I could be tricked like that was quite revealing, and made the case very convincingly that the skeptics were right – or at least that the psychics were going to have to step up their game a great deal if they wanted to be taken seriously. But I didn’t feel upset that I’d been tricked, or like I’d been made to look stupid. And while there may be a lot that I know now, and which seems obvious to me now, which I wasn’t aware of at the time, I don’t think you have to start from a position of total idiocy to make a transition like that.

It’s not for my own ego that I keep reiterating that I wasn’t being stupid, by the way. I know it might seem like I’m just trying to disingenuously maintain my own integrity while continuing to mock anyone of a different opinion to me at present. (“Other people are stupid to believe this stuff. I was just having a momentary but understandable and perfectly human blip in my usually excellent rational and intelligent outlook.”) But I think there’s something important to remember here, and this story is one of my strongest personal reminders.

The most vocal, prominent, or infuriating proponents of woo out there are often infuriatingly stubborn, or committed to irrationality, or strongly mentally blocked to any disconfirming evidence, or otherwise not worth arguing with. But they’re by no means the majority. They’re not the one in three people who believe in telepathy or ghosts. Those people are me a little over a decade ago. They haven’t spent years reading skeptical blogs and listening to science podcasts, learning how to think critically about these things, and about the history and context of all these wacky beliefs, and how people can be fooled into getting things wrong. But they’re not fundamentalists or ideologues. They’ve probably just seen someone on stage, claiming to be a psychic, saying some pretty impressive things.

And if that someone turns out to be James Randi using cold reading (or hot reading, I forget exactly how it went on that particular show), they might find that as cool as I did.

Maybe this is how we should be approaching the skeptical battle, then. Don’t worry about the extremists; there’s no significant hope for some people to ever see any kind of light. But keep talking to the people who are just like you before you knew any of this stuff. Put the emphasis on how much fun it can be to learn you were wrong, to see how you were just fooled by something nifty. Keep some sarcasm in your arsenal, because it’s funny and the sort of thing that can be useful in rallying the troops, but don’t let it become your primary weapon against people who might be willing to learn a thing or two. Always keep it rational. Make sure we’re always the ones explaining why the facts are on our side.

I hope you’re listening to this, writerJames. Seriously, I sometimes think that guy could use this advice more than most.

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Another thought stemming from yesterday’s apple discussion.

There are three different claims which I think are being variously conflated in the argument surrounding this issue:

1. Writing “LOVE” or “HATE” on the side of a jar containing a slice of apple, and speaking to the jar in a loving or hateful manner, will affect the process of the degradation of the organic matter therein.
2. Positive or negative thoughts or emotions can affect the world around you in a positive or negative way.
3. Anything is possible if you shut your eyes and wish really hard.

Now, first of all, I’ve only just noticed the “stemming” pun in the first line of this piece, and I’d like to apologise for it. It was genuinely unintended, and I hope anyone I hurt can understand the remorse I’m currently feeling for this thoughtless act.

But isn’t this a fairly typical approach from the newagey crowd of vaguely spiritual nonsensualists? They’re holding up one very specific experiment – with very little control and a sample size of one – as useful and important proof of, well, something or other, and they respond to any criticism of this experiment as if someone were trying to destroy everything that’s beautiful in the world.

“Does writing ‘LOVE’ on an apple container really stop it going rotten so fast?” “It’s sad how you insist on seeing everything in black and white.”

“That pet’s psychic’s probably just making it up.” “Why do you hate kittens??”

“I’m not convinced that homeopathy has any medicinal effect beyond placebo.” “You’re part of the big pharma conspiracy that wants all babies to be vaccinated with poison IN THEIR EYES!!”

People. If the thing you’re so passionate about is real, then there’s no need to be angry with the people trying to disprove it. They won’t be able to. The reason skeptics sometimes like to see if things like this can be disproven is that we’ve seen bullshit before. And when people can’t tell the difference, it does serious harm. If you’re right, science is on your side. If you’re right, serious experimentation will bear your claims out.

Is that what you want? Or do you want to just keep shouting about how you know about all this real magic but the establishment refuses to understand you?

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Links! Mostly gathered from Twitter, I’ll be more careful to note down attributions in future.

Could talking to an apple help you become more beautiful? Sometimes the Daily Fail headlines really don’t need any elaboration. People are literally just making stuff up and getting it in the papers. My favourite leap of logic:

When you consider our bodies are approximately 60 per cent water, too, it begins to make sense that positive feelings are going to affect our mind and bodies.

Yes, I can totally see how it begins to make sense to go from the scientific fact to the wishy-washy newage half-idea in a way which somehow ties in to apples decaying faster if you say nasty things to them. It’s slightly worrying that many people really do think we live in a world that works like that.

Robin Ince writes about libel reform and why it’s still important, in the context of his friend Simon’s adventures with the spine-wizards, and the Big Libel Gig that I missed over the weekend. More and more examples of how the libel laws in this country are stifling free expression keep coming in; the Peter Wilmshurst situation is particularly dispiriting. You can and should still sign the petition to get things sorted.

– A Jobcentre have had to apologise to a Jedi for failing to respect his religious rights. Can I just call everyone idiots and move on, for this one?

– Oh yeah, and The Pope is coming. For an official four-day state visit to England and Scotland (suck it, Wales and Northern Ireland, you’re just not Catholic enough). They’re taking donations to fund the trip, even though A) it’s apparently being paid for by a large chunk of UK taxpayer money anyway, and 2) the Catholic Church is pretty fucking loaded.

And if that weren’t enough we’re now hearing that, once he’s here, he’s going to be offering our country moral guidance. Yes, my countryfolk and I are going to be given “guidance on the great moral issues of our day”, by the guy who’s spread disinformation about condoms and AIDS prevention, opposed gay rights and abortion, and covered up cases of child rape. Sorry to keep harping on about that last one but, well, some children got raped and some other people tried to hush it up, so excuse me for occasionally trying to bring it back to the fore.

The National Secular Society aren’t thrilled about this state of affairs, and nor are these guys.

– And on a lighter note, this has nothing to do with skepticism or science but is clearly the most awesome thing on the internet. Night night.

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In precisely 12 hours from the time this post should go up, several hundred people in groups around the UK will each pop a whole bottle of pills bought from a high street chemist.

The 10:23 event is nearly upon us.

Okay, fine, homeopaths are saying that you wouldn’t expect anything to happen in reaction to an overdose like this, because of some even weirder mechanism than the already bizarre way homeopathy is supposed to work.

Sure, whatever, they’re not doing a double-blinded placebo-controlled randomised clinical trial.

That’s not the point.

The campaigners have never claimed to be doing a scientific experiment here. What they’re doing is addressing the fact that many people don’t have sufficient information to make a reasonable, critical judgment of some of the remedies on offer on pharmacy shelves. Remedies with no proven benefits, and no active ingredients. A lot of people really don’t know what homeopathy is, and think it’s probably something herbal, or natural, or organic, or free of any of those nasty pharmaceutical chemicals. And, well, they’re kinda right on that last point. A standard homeopathic solution is free of all chemicals. At least, those that aren’t found naturally in any clean water.

So yes, it’s a stunt. It’s about grabbing attention, and making some noise through the media. And it’s working pretty well. There have been articles recently in the Telegraph, Independent, Guardian, Mail, and Times, and many more.

Now, this might sound like something that the skeptical movement has often criticised quacks and pseudo-scientists for in the past. And, well, it’s not far off. One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is doing “science by press conference”, where discoveries or products are announced through an attention-grabbing media event, rather than going through the usual scientific channels of hypothesis testing, peer review, and all the rest. When someone gets a big media circus going to hype their promised free energy device, say, but hasn’t yet got the scientifically published evidence to back up what they’re claiming about it, they’re often taken to task by the same sort of people engaging in the 10:23 campaign tomorrow.

The difference is that that criticism is generally levelled at corporations or pseudo-scientists with a particular (often financial) incentive, who use glitzy spectacle and encourage people to roll up to witness their amazing breakthrough thingumabob instead of testing the thing and proving that they have a point before they start taking people’s money. The 10:23 campaign, on the other hand, is being organised by a group of concerned amateurs, with no financial incentive to do what they’re doing (and holy FSM am I ever tired of the phrase “pharma shill” from idiotic overuse by now), who are organising a big media event to supplement the science that’s already been done, not to replace it entirely.

There is no plausible way that homeopathy could be more effective than placebo. The proposed mechanism is completely at odds with just about everything else we think we know about how chemistry works. Repeated tests of homeopathy do not confirm that the knowledge accumulated from centuries of research across many different disciplines needs to be thrown out the window.

There’s nothing in it.

And despite what some of its detractors (and some perhaps poorly worded news headlines) are saying, the 10:23 campaign isn’t trying to prove this; it’s only trying to bring to people’s attention what’s already proven to science’s satisfaction.

A couple of days ago someone started a fun hashtag game on Twitter, coming up with new #homeopathyslogans. I’ll leave you with a few I came up with.

Homeopathy: Because water’s complicated enough.
Homeopathy: Safer than mainstream medicine, back when they used leeches and hacksaws.
Homeopathy: Do you love anyone enough to give them your last placebo?
Homeopathy: Does exactly what it says on a blank, unlabelled tin.
Homeopathy: It’s probably quantum.
Homeopathy: The theory with the hole.

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We’ve been winning all over the place lately. A brief review:

The guy who sold those completely bullshit “bomb detectors” to security forces in Iraq has been arrested on suspicion of fraud. The guy took some bits of plastic, told people it was a jumped-up dowsing rod that could find explosives, and made millions. I really hope they get the twat hard for this. The things sold for $8000 each, and are worse than useless. Someone in Iraq who thinks they’ve got a reliable explosive detector to help them avoid danger has a serious chance of getting fucking killed. Randi’s not happy either.

Hat-tip to the @BadAstronomer for that one, who also reports on those rifle scopes with Bible quotes engraved which were being used by the American military. Short version: they’re going to stop doing that. I’m sure somebody somewhere is outraged by this decision, but I’m not going to go and find out about them just so that they can piss me off.

Two homeopathy websites have been ordered to stop making shit up. No surprises in descriptions like “misleading”, “unverified” and “abused the trust or exploited the lack of knowledge of consumers”.

And the alternative medicine nut who was winning the voting in something called a Shorty award for Twitter users, ahead of much more worthy candidates, has been removed from the ballot (after he’d already fallen behind the fab Dr Rachie). You can vote for people in these awards by tweeting about it, but it was noticed that many of the people voting for “HealthRanger” didn’t seem to have much else to say. They appeared to be very new to this Twitter business, too. Maybe they were enticed there by the chance to vote in this important election, but didn’t find much to hold their attention beyond that. Or maybe they were dummy accounts created to rig the voting. Yeah, that fits.

He’s thrown a pretty hilarious strop over it, as well as threatening to sue, and declared that the whole award system has been “wholly discredited”.

Incidentally, products being advertised on the same page in which he makes this complaint include:

– an “all-natural intestinal cleanser” called Oxy-Powder
colloidal silver
biomagnetic therapy
– something “100% guaranteed” to cure your diabetes in a month (seriously, how the fuck is this kind of thing legal?)
– and something which “Pres Reagan used successfully” which you should use to “Protect your loved ones now!” We’re not told what Reagan used it for, what constituted a “success”, or what we should be protecting our loved ones from, but hey, it’s on a 2-for-1 offer! (These mysteries don’t really become any more clear if you click through, but the layout and colouring of the site just scream CON, as well as making my eyes hurt.

Which may bring some context to his notion of what it takes to “wholly discredit” an idea.

I’m in a weird mood today. Tea then bed.

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Okay, this is bugging me.

Last night was the first of this year’s run of Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People, a science-themed comedy and variety show orchestrated by Robin Ince. The second show is presumably in full swing as I type this, and I’ll be going myself on Friday. Reviews of last night’s show were already plentiful when I checked this morning, because we live in the future now, where the internets know everything and information moves at the speed of lol.

And while people’s opinions of the comedy and music and overall presentation differ somewhat, everyone is agreeing on one thing, which made for the most remarkable section of the evening.

Johnny Ball has lost his shit.

I’d have to be a little older than I am to be among those who consider this man a childhood hero, but he’s definitely someone I remember seeing on TV maybe 15 years ago, and he was definitely awesome. There’s also no doubt that he seemed on fine form at Boffoonery a few weeks back. (Apparently I never got around to reviewing my evening there. Summary: it was great.)

But apparently last night he really went off on one, launching into an extended rant about how we’ve got it wrong about all this “global warming” nonsense. By all accounts it was an uncomfortable spectacle. Botogol wasn’t impressed even before he got onto global warming; misswiz reckoned that only a minority of the audience actively heckled, though the rest could muster no more than polite applause when he finally left; the New Humanist found it a surreal moment in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable evening; and comedy website Chortle talked a surprising amount about science, and seemed among the least concerned of the commentators that he wasn’t actually being funny.

I think this latter was actually the main complaint for most people. Nobody was shouting or booing at him until he was already well over his allotted time, and it sounds like he was droning on without being very entertaining. I think a crowd in a good mood, like this lot probably were, could tolerate someone with some kooky bad science for ten minutes if it was at least sort of funny. But it sounds like it wasn’t funny, and after it had gone on for ages people started using the lack of funny as motivation to start heckling him for being wrong.

Of course, there’s also the assumption here that he is wrong.

Before I go any further, I’ll clarify that I’m not seeking to cast significant doubt on this assumption. From the informed responses I’ve heard, it seems that all Johnny Ball had last night were over-simplified arguments that fail to make a significant scientific case, and have already been refuted by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

But I’m not one of those people. I still have to defer to the scientific consensus on this kind of thing. When looking at the facts of the climate change debate, I can’t distinguish at a glance the sound science from the ideology-driven nonsense. If Johnny Ball is deviating from the position generally held by most scientists, that probably means he’s done more research into this than I have. He’s probably also still wrong, but how many people in the audience would really have been able to explain why?

Having said that, I’m not in a position of complete ignorance. I do know some things relevant to the issue of climate change. I know that science is awesome, that rigorous application of the scientific method is our best hope for approaching any sort of truth, and that there is currently an overwhelming scientific consensus which tells us certain things: that there is something going on with our planet’s climate which we need to be aware of, which we need to start taking some kind of responsibility for, and which we need to start considering how to respond to if we want this ball of rock floating in space to remain in any way a comfortable place to live.

If Johnny Ball also knows those things, I’m very doubtful that he also knows enough other secret scientific information, which the majority of actual scientists don’t seem to have picked up on yet, to support his position.

But – and here we finally get to the part that’s really been bugging me – I don’t necessarily think Johnny Ball is a denialist. I think he’s wrong, but it doesn’t automatically follow that he’s an ideological nutjob who can’t be reasoned with.

The point is even stronger in the case of James Randi.

This whole thing really kicked off after Randi, the man for whom the term “arch-skeptic” may very well have been invented, published an article on this subject. Representative of the general reaction from the skeptical community is PZ Myers: James Randi joins the ranks of the climate change denialists. The Lay Scientist was even harsher.

Here’s an extract from a quick back-and-forth I followed on Twitter earlier, between Brian Thompson and PZ:

AmSci: Randi may be wrong, but anyone who says “I’m not sure” isn’t a denialist.
PZ: Wrong. That’s a standard pose by the denialists!
AmSci: That’s because they’re posing. Randi isn’t. There’s a difference between honest doubt and dishonest doubt.

I think that Brian’s (AmSci’s) initial statement is somewhat over-simplified in the other direction, but he’s only working with 140 characters. And his latter response is exactly right. It’s infuriating when 9/11 “truthers”, or Moon landing hoax conspiracy nuts, or Glenn Beck, take some insanely contrary position, make a stream of ludicrous arguments against a well established idea, and respond to all rational argument by insisting “Hey, I’m just asking questions“. But the reason it’s infuriating is that it’s being used as a ploy, and it’s transparently obvious that their feigned na├»ve innocence is a front for a position they’ve already committed themselves to.

I don’t see any reason to suppose that Randi is being so disingenuous, or that he deserves to be bundled into the “denialist” camp because of this article. I’m going to go through what he says paragraph by paragraph and see if I can find anything truly objectionable. Follow along here.

An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us…

This is literally true. Randi’s not denying that the scientific process of peer review is the best way to approach the truth, but pointing out that the human element is always going to be fallible and subject to natural human biases, however much we strive to overcome them.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)…

This paragraph just reports some facts about who’s saying what – the IPCC “has issued several comprehensive reports” on their position, while The Petition Project also exists with a certain number of dissenting voices. No conclusions are drawn from this data yet.

Happily, science does not depend on consensus…

This whole paragraph seems to be a perfectly sensible description of the scientific method, and the “humility in the face of facts” approach to understanding the Universe. Can’t see any problems here.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.

Still uncontroversial. He’s not trying to undermine the value of science, like many anti-science loons who like to point out that science has been wrong about stuff before, and claim that therefore it can’t be trusted. Science’s ability to respond to its mistakes is its greatest strength. Randi gets this.

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid. I base this on my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of the facts…

This, I suppose, is the bit that’s got everyone all a-fluster. And I’ve got to say, I was expecting worse. I mean, he’s a denialist, he’s joined the fringe cranks, he’s “barely coherent”? I’ve understood every word he’s said so far. I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but come on. Disagreeing with you does not equate to being incapable of effective communication.

“I strongly suspect” is a carefully measured phrase, and he’s well aware of the rudimentary nature of his knowledge. He’s looked at the situation, borne in mind that he’s not an expert, and formed his own summary, while seemingly retaining the capacity to learn more about it as his understanding develops. At least, that’s what I take from phrases like “this my amateur opinion, based on probably insufficient data”, anyway.

It appears that the Earth is warming…

The next few paragraphs are simply about the data we have, and not too much about what anyone thinks it means. The atmosphere is 0.04% carbon dioxide, and CO2 is a vital molecule for plant life. Nobody’s saying that this disproves anything. It’s just background info.

At the end he starts leaning toward an actual conclusion again:

And as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat. This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation…

Some people are reading this as if he’s trotting out the tedious old line so elegantly summarised at ifglobalwarmingisrealthenwhyisitcold.blogspot.com. I don’t think that’s his point at all, though. Okay, the thing about more people dying from cold than from heat doesn’t seem pertinent – I don’t think anybody’s saying that global warming’s bad because the sun’s going to boil people alive – but it’s a piece of data, not a philosophical opinion or practical conclusion. He clarifies it a little further down:

In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.

This is Randi’s value judgment on what seems most important, when all the problems facing the world are considered. That’s his personal judgment call. It’s not mine. (Mine is to mostly hold back and tentatively do what the clever people tell me.) But neither, as far as I can tell, is it one driven by an ideological opposition to climate change science, or by a political agenda, and neither is it held with any measure of arrogant certainty.

Randi’s a smart guy. He has an excellent track record of being honest, interested, and well versed in critical thinking. He knows about being wrong, and being fooled, and science, and questioning everything you think you know. Perhaps he’s been insufficiently diligent in following the good science through, on this occasion, and not performed a proper examination of how the scientific consensus came to be so strongly supported. But a lot of his biggest fans and fellow arch-skeptics seem fine with immediately deciding that he’s cast his lot in with the “deniers” and that there’s little more to be said about it, as if he were suddenly a tragically lost cause.

I don’t know much about Johnny Ball, but if there’s anyone I’d credit with the ability to change his mind based on the objective assessment of new information, it’s James Randi. But I’ve seen a lot less helpful and informative presentation of new information than I’ve seen shouting about denialism, and it’s starting to make me think that Jack of Kent was right all along.

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So yesterday a debate was sparked off on Twitter by the whole Climategate thing. I’m not sufficiently informed on the subject to blog about that in detail, but it seems it’s being dramatically overplayed by people on the side of the debate unconvinced by the science of anthropogenic climate change.

And the fact that I don’t know much about this is sort of what it’s all about. I can tell you almost nothing about the scientific evidence behind the claims that our planet is undergoing significant global climate change, that human activities are partially responsible for this change, and that it will be important for us to actively combat this in the immediate future if we want the world to continue being as nice a place for us to live as it is now. I don’t know the details of why people are firmly convinced of any of those things.

What I do know is that the scientific consensus currently strongly supports these claims. People smarter than me, and who seem to know how to deal well with this kind of complicated subject, seem generally united on this front based on the current evidence. Personally, that’s enough for me, because the extent to which I take an active interest in the subject is limited.

But that’s not enough for everyone. And nor should it be. If I were so inclined, I have a right to ask just what’s going on, to try and pin down what the evidence is, to ask that it be explained to me. I understand there are a number of pop-sci books out there that’ll do just that. (As I say, limited interest.) It seems that it’s been increasingly widely recognised lately that communicating their work to the public is often an important part of a scientist’s job.

Which brings me to the question of how scientists should treat people who don’t agree with their science.

Nobody here is denying that the scientific method is driven by internal debate and constant rigorous questioning, and that all findings need to be subjected to impartial scrutiny and criticism before being taken seriously by the scientific community. But sometimes a theory passes all these tests, continues over time to be increasingly well supported by the data and accurate in its predictions, reaches such a level of empirical support that it seems ridiculous to doubt its basic premise… but some people still do. Some people won’t accept what has become established as fact.

Creationism is a fine example of this, and it seems that some of those who doubt anthropogenic climate change fall into that category also. That’s a slightly awkward phrasing of their position, but the big question is what else to call them. They tend to refer to themselves as climate change “skeptics”, but they often get labelled as “denialists”.

Jack of Kent doesn’t think this term is useful. He points out that it can be used over-zealously to stifle any reasonable debate or dissent, which is antithetical to truly skeptical inquiry, and declares:

I care not if someone is a “denialist”. It is enough for me that they are incorrect.

And he’s right, up to a point. Some people on the side of science may well get exasperated by the more inane end of the spectrum of opposition they have to deal with, and start throwing around terms like “denialist” carelessly at people who are actually no more ignorant of the evidence than I am and might have just set off on the wrong foot. And whether or not somebody is wrong may well be more interesting than the methods by which they’re wrong.

But I’d argue that “denialist” is a meaningful term, when applied to a particular form of fallacious argument, and worth holding on to if we can learn to apply it sparingly. Richard Wilson linked to the denialism blog, which lays out a definition of denialism and explains the techniques of argument generally employed by denialists. This seems valid and useful to me. “Denialist” is not simply a word synonymous with “anyone on the other side” (or shouldn’t be). It means someone arguing in this particular way.

Even if the body of evidence is so strong that there’s really no room left for reasonable doubt, throwing any epithet instinctively at anyone daring to step out of line seems like bad form. To quote myself on Twitter yesterday:

“Denialist” is an appropriate label for some kooks, and a useful way of describing some forms of pseudoscience, but if it’s not clear why you’re right and they’re wrong, to an outside observer you look like a fundamentalist trying to stifle debate.

Meaning that the way to combat wrongness in any form, such as denialism, is with data and rational argument to support your point. Once you’ve provided that and made your case, and responded to everything your opponents have, then you can point out that they seem to be clinging dogmatically to their ideas and exhibiting these crank-like behaviour patterns.

In short, it’s a useful word to have, it often accurately describes people, but it should be used sparingly in public discourse. If you’re going to level a term like “denialist” at an antagonist, you need to really make sure you know where they’re coming from first, and support it with explanations of the logic that they’re failing to appreciate. Don’t start shouting it at people before you’ve exhausted the possibility of persuading them civilly. That just reminds me of the idiots who clamoured to call Carrie Prejean a cunt and helped ensure she was never going to come around to their side, and drove her deeper into crazyville.

Wow, that was long and rambling.

It’s late, so I’ve not proofread or redrafted this as much as usual. I might revisit it tomorrow to make some more sense of it. Thoughts?

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