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Musings

Just some thoughts I had

Musings > Wednesday, November-21-2012

What if...

Keywords: Ancient Aliens

Important question:


Musings > Wednesday, April-11-2012

Magazine Priority

I went out to do some grocery shopping yesterday, and I decided to have a look at the magazine rack.  I was hoping, but not expecting, that they had decided to start carrying one or both of the main skeptical magazines: Skeptic Magazine or The Skeptical Inquirer.  Unfortunately, I was once again disappointed.  They had a few interesting science magazines, but the skepticism magazines were completely absent.

Science Magazines

This grocery store is about a 20 minute walk away from my apartment, and there are 2 other stores in that area with magazine racks, none of which carry skeptical magazines.  Whenever I'm out and about in other areas of the city, I look at the magazine racks in other stores to see if they carry a skeptical magazine.  I found one Shoppers Drug Mart that carried Skeptic Magazine, but not Skeptical Inquirer.  Most other Shoppers Drug Marts I've been to, however, don't.

The only place I know of that carries both magazines is Chapters, a large book store here in Canada with an extensive magazine rack.  I guess skepticism is still pretty much a niche topic, widely misunderstood and not well represented in our society.  It's unfortunate, but there's just not the demand for this kind of content that we'd like to see, even though I'm personally of the opinion that our message can really catch on if more people are exposed to it.

It's disheartening to realize how far we have to go, even though the skeptical community has grown by leaps and bounds on the Internet.  But what was even more disheartening was moving my gaze over the magazine rack to the right, where I saw this:
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Musings > Tuesday, August-09-2011

Thoughts On Belief

Keywords: religion, epistemology

There's a recurring debate in the skeptical community about what the skeptical position should be about religion.  I've talked about this issue before, but as I've had more discussions on the topic and thought more about it, I've found that I have more to say on the topic.

The basic question, it seems to me, is one of how does skepticism relate to belief.  Should all our beliefs be based in evidence?  What should we think about beliefs that have no evidence to back them up?  Certainly if people claim evidence that doesn't hold up to scrutiny science and skepticism are prime tools for pointing that out.  But what about when there's no claim to evidence, when people just believe something while acknowledging that they have no evidence and they make no claims.

For example, what about deists?  What should we think about them?  What does skepticism say about these kinds of beliefs?  Many people have argued that people simply shouldn't hold beliefs that are not based in evidence.  But is that a skeptical position?
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Musings > Monday, July-11-2011

It's Official: The Skeptical Community Has The Lamest Scandals!

Apparently, the skeptical Internet has erupted over a story of an awkward encounter in an elevator.  That's right, it's Elevatorgate!

Apparently, Rebecca Watson told a story about a guy trying to pick her up in an elevator as an illustration of something men shouldn't do because it makes people feel uncomfortable.  Then some people accused her of blowing the incident out of proportion, which she denied, and Richard Dawkins criticized her, suggesting that she overreacted to the point of equating her experience with rape, but some people claim that Dawkins was misunderstood and that he wasn't referring to Rebecca's original story but to the clamour around it  but apsdifjwrhnfcaweurhnfva;ergup;hnuasdfoiajdrfawrjiofawehnrau

Sorry, fell asleep on my keyboard there for a second.

What's really crazy is watching all the really lame opinions people have on this.  Some people apparently are just really rubbed the wrong way by Rebecca, calling her an attention whore and an egomaniac who thinks that all the guys want her.  These are people who've really put a lot of thought into their dislike for this woman.  I'll never understand people who put that much energy into disliking somebody not for anything they've done but just because they don't like their personality.

We really need much more exciting scandals in order to break out of this spiral of mediocre controversy.  Steven Novella, I'm calling on you to take one for the team and start secretly dating Jenny McCarthy for a while before being publicly exposed and humiliated!

You've gotta do what's best for the community, man!  We need this, otherwise the next thing we know we could find ourselves having a major tiff over whether Skeptics should wear white after labour day!!

Musings > Saturday, July-02-2011

90's Paranormal Mystery Mongering!

Keywords: paranormal

Hey, guess what I just found at my local Dollarama?

Unexplained Mysteries DVD Set

Score!!  Paranormal programming from back before it was all taken over by the reality TV format!  There should be some great material for the blog in there!

Back then they didn't feel like they had to do some sort of BS investigation where they walk around in spooky settings and jump at every noise they hear.  Nope!  It was purely an exercise in making unsubstantiated claims and filming hokey re-enactments!

This is going to be fun!

Musings > Friday, January-14-2011

What Does It Mean To Be A Dick?

Keywords: video, uncertainty

I'm about half a year behind all the big discussion in the skeptical community on this.  I've talked about it a bit on other forums and the like, but have remained mostly silent on my blog.  There are a couple of reasons for this - first of all, I like to let ideas percolate in my mind before writing about them here.  Second, and probably more importantly, I prefer to avoid talking about things that every other skeptical blog is talking about.  So I feel like now that the talk over this issue has died down somewhat, that it's the perfect time for a dumbass like me to jump into the fray!

What I'm talking about is Phil Plait's infamous "Don't Be A Dick" speech.  I'll embed the videos at the end of this article so that you can have a look at it for yourself.  I personally thought that it was a pretty good speech, but I've found myself surprised at some of the reaction to it in the skeptical community.  It seems that people are just flagrantly misinterpreting what Phil Plait actually said, which seems extremely strange to me since Phil made a very big deal about writing out his arguments in very specific language in order to avoid misunderstandings.

The gist of the speech is that Phil is alarmed at how some people in the skeptical movement "do skepticism".  His message is that when you're practicing skepticism and critical thinking, that you should try and avoid being "a dick". 

So, what does Phil mean by being a dick?  Well, he was also pretty clear about that as well.  Phil said that he was concerned that:
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Musings > Tuesday, November-30-2010

What Is Evidence?

Keywords: epistemology, uncertainty

One thing that I notice all over the place is a lack of understanding about what makes for good evidence.  Often, with conspiracy theories and other forms of nonsense, people tend to present a number of facts, which may be perfectly true statements, that they call evidence but which aren't.

Much of the time, instead of evidence, these are just facts that happen to be in accordance with their theory.  These are facts which you would expect to be true if the theory was true.  The problem is that if the theory is false, that doesn't really much change the likelihood of those facts to be true.

Evidence should point in a very obvious direction.  For good evidence, you would expect it to be much less likely for that evidence to exist if the theory was false than if it were true.  If there are numerous different explanations for a fact, and your theory isn't even the most likely explanation in the first place, then what you have isn't evidence.  it's just a fact that's in accordance with your theory.

For example:
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Musings > Friday, November-26-2010

Did Einstein Really Say That?

Keywords: epistemology, uncertainty

When I designed this website, I included a quote underneath the title of the page which I've attributed to the great Albert Einstein: "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."

It's a great quote, right?  The only problem is that it seems too good.  It seems like exactly the kind of quote that somebody would attribute to a well known figure like Albert Einstein just to give it some extra weight.  Perhaps it won't surprise you to know that I had that exact same thought while putting this website together.

A while back, Doug Delong of the Planet Japan podcast plugged my blog, but mentioned that he had trouble believing that the quote was accurate.  This is what I wrote to him in response:
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Musings > Sunday, October-31-2010

Taking Stories In Their Own Context

Keywords: epistemology, uncertainty

Many pseudo scientists love to look up historical accounts and the like and interpret them by reading between the lines.  This is especially popular with believers in ancient aliens, who enjoy going through the Bible and writing in interpretations to make the stories say things that aren't evident in the original text.

I think it needs to be illustrated why you've got to take these stories as they're told, and not write in what you imagine the author might have meant.  You've got to take the stories in their own context, and not write in details that are not present in the stories themselves.

For example, imagine that you're a police chief, and a crime has occurred. The only eyewitness description of the perpetrator that you have is from a 6 year old boy. You've got the description in front of you, it reads:


He was a wizard because he carried a magic wand. And he had the face of a panther and he breathed fire! And he had a lion with him!


One of your officers approaches you and says, "Listen, chief. I think I've got an idea of what that kid was talking about. He said the perp had a magic wand and that there was a lion... well, the kid probably got a little confused. I'll bet the man's blind and he carries a stick for sensing objects on the ground. And he probably has a guide dog, maybe an especially big one that would seem to a little kid to be kind of like a lion."

"Interesting...", you say, "Please continue."

"Okay, " he continues, "The kid said that the man breathed fire... that probably means that he was smoking a cigarette. And he had the face of a panther... well, that probably means that this was an African American. I think what we need to do is advise our officers to be on the lookout for a blind, African American chain smoker whose guide dog is especially large."

A second officer overhears the conversation and decides to break in.

"Chief, " he says, "I think that's the wrong path to take. It's entirely possible that this is what the kid saw and that he elaborated the description in this way. But there's no way to know that. If you take this description to be what the child meant, you're kind of putting words in the kid's mouth that he never actually said. We need to take this description in it's own context as the story of a 6 year old boy. There are plenty of other possibilities in that context. The kid could have been playing make believe, or he could have just woken up from a nap and had a dream. Or he could have just made something up in order to please a questioning adult. There's no way we can use this description in order to determine a description of the perpetrator."


Which officer's explanation would you choose to act on?

As silly as it seems for an officer to make such a deduction, these are exactly the kinds of deductions that are made by ancient alien theorists, and conspiracy theorists of all stripes for that matter.  They say "Well, statement X could have actually meant Y" - but statement X only said X, not Y.  If you interpret X to mean Y you're going beyond the evidence available and writing in details that are not warranted.

It seems like this kind of point should be straightforward, but so many people fail to understand it and will make these kinds of tangentially related substitutions with complete disregard.  And they feel like by making these kinds of substitutions they've built up a solid case, when in reality they've based their arguments on completely unsupportable assumptions.

When you're looking into strange stories and claims, remember to never go beyond the evidence available.

Musings > Sunday, October-31-2010

Conversations With Alien Believers

Keywords: ancient alien theory, aliens, conspiracy, video

I make it a point to make sure not to wall myself off from people who believe differently than I do.  I don't want to only listen to fall into the trap of listening only within the bounds of an echo chamber of opinions.  I've gotten several invitations to participate in online discussions with believers in the Ancient Aliens theory, and I've taken some part in those, though I've gotten busy and haven't been able to devote as much time to the endeavour as I'd like to.

In any case, I thought it would be interesting to share some of my conversations here.  Most recently, I was emailed by an individual who was commenting about my article on mercury vortex engines.  Regarding the alleged TR-3B machine (which, as I've said, is really cool), he had this to say:

I Have recently been fascinated by articles about the Mercury plasma accelerator or Magnetic field disruptor in the Air Force's black ops air ship dubbed the TR-3B Astra. I definitely think there is a cover up in progress! "ALL" of the The video of the Air ship that WAS available has mysteriously been deleted from the web. Including one particular clip that showed the craft emit the tell-tale orb of light that emanates from a particle accelerator, completely engulf the craft and then suddenly disappears in  blinding flash. The distinct green mercury plasma spectrum color was present during the video as well.......HMMmmm!?!? 

Basically, he's alleging that there was such a video available, but it's mysteriously disappeared without a trace from the Internet.  This is certainly a remarkable claim indeed... but I can't make anything of it without even any evidence that such a video ever existed.  I wrote back to him:

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