WikiLeaks: Free Speech and Private Speech

I have a problem with nearly anything being connected to skepticism.  I admit readily that it’s kind of a knee-jerk thing, but from values to beliefs, I don’t want to be told that really anything is required to be a part of skepticism.  That said, I do feel that the one value skeptics do need to defend is the right to free speech.  When we are saying “no” to the status quo, we need to be able to do that without being imprisoned or sued by the nation.  All that said, I’ve been having some issues with the recent WikiLeaks exposure of hundreds (so far) of private documents written by diplomats and government officials within the US. … continue reading this entry.

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Flash Wednesday

  • 2011 is almost upon us, but there is still time to make a tax-free donation to NYC Skeptics by becoming a member! Help support us today!
  • Only a few slots remain for this week’s SkepticampNYC. T-shirts are no longer available online, but they will be sold at the event. Don’t forget to register today!
  • The latest episode of Rationally Speaking is now available featuring an in-depth interview with Dr. Steven Novella.
  • Our next monthly meetup will take place on December 14 at Dolcino. This month promises to be especially interesting as we ask: How should the skeptic movement deal with religion?
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Supplemental Nightmares

I am generally skeptical of any claim (made by EITHER the alternative or modern medical camps) that Americans are deficient in any particular vitamin or nutrient. “Americans are not eating enough X,” the headlines cry! It just does not seem logical to me that in this day in age, where obesity has become an epidemic, that Americans are not ingesting enough of anything! But the up and down claims about vitamins are enough to send any rational consumer into a tailspin of confusion. One day we need to double our consumption of a particular nutrient, the next day we are told that too much of said nutrient is harmful then we are told that we weren’t deficient in the first place! This is the roller-coaster story of vitamin D. … continue reading this entry.

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SafeMinds propaganda blocked by skeptics

This week the anti-vaccine propaganda organization SafeMinds is rolling out a commercial in some movie theaters that makes bogus claims designed to scare people away from getting their annual flu shot.

Initially, I heard about this from an article in Skepchick that reported which cineplexes would feature the commercial and urged skeptics to contact the management to voice their outrage. One of the theaters set to air the commercial was the AMC Empire 25 in New York City.

Fortunately, only a few hours after I added myself to the over a thousand who participated in the campaign by contacting AMC and writing a Letter to the Editor for my local newspaper, a representative from that company responded by saying they will not air this commercial or any other ads on the topic. … continue reading this entry.

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It’s All Semantics – That Doesn’t Mean We Shouldn’t Argue It

You can handle one more article on this before it blows up all over again at Skepticamp, right?

Once again that membrane which has been pierced so many times on this blog, has been broken, allowing us to once again wade hip-deep into the demarcation between skepticism and atheism.  Joy of joys.  On the bright side, I think I can safely say that this time it wasn’t my fault, but that the lance wielder du jour has been my dear Mr. Rosch.

There’s this funny thing that happens whenever we start talking about where skepticism ends and atheism begins.  Someone brings up the word “agnosticism” and all of a sudden people pounce on that person shouting that they don’t want to get embroiled in an argument of semantics.  I have unfortunate news for those people: the discussion on atheism and skepticism already IS an argument about semantics.  The confusion people have, however – and trust me, I’ve had this one wrong in the past – is that the discussion isn’t really about the definition of atheism.

The definition of atheism is one that atheists have fought for a good long time about.  That definition, that atheism is a lack of belief in god(s), has been whittled into this sort of perfect non-positive statement.  By definition, an atheist doesn’t have to prove anything and believers are, by default, on the defensive side of the argument.  Any believer foolish enough to say “well why don’t you believe in God?” has broken the rules of argument, that the one with the claim is the one with something to defend, and can be summarily told so.  Well done, atheists. … continue reading this entry.

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Skepticism = Skepticism, X = X

Michael Rosch posted an article on GS on Tuesday about another article by Jeff Wagg. The following was originally a comment I was posting to his piece, but it got so involved I decided to just submit it as it’s own piece. Please to enjoy.

I read the Wagg article, and I think you’re misunderstanding it (or perhaps I did, maybe), but I don’t think anyone is suggesting that atheists don’t belong involved in skeptical movements. A large proportion of skeptics seem to be atheists (I have data to support). But I think there’s an important distinction between atheism and skepticism.

I’m a lot of things: a feminist, an atheist, a liberal, a Joss Whedon fan, a grad student, a bisexual, a nerd, a gamer, a woman…a skeptic. And yes, I’d say there is significant overlap in the various things I am. For example, my experience as a woman might have made me more likely to self-identify as a feminist. My skepticism might led me to the sort of examination resulting in the conclusion that I’m an atheist. My general nerdom might have led me straight into the Whedonverse. However, if I found that a majority of feminists were Joss Whedon fans (he does favor strong, female characters), could I say that being a Joss Whedon fan and being a feminist are the same thing? I certainly couldn’t. Because even if the experiences and characteristics I had that led me to Buffy also inspired my strong feelings about the equality of men and women in society, they are still two different parts of who I am. … continue reading this entry.

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Extraordinary [religious] claims require extraordinary evidence

Beware of dragon

“George Bush says he speaks to god every day, and Christians love him for it. If George Bush said he spoke to god through his hair dryer, they would think he was mad. I fail to see how the addition of a hair dryer makes it any more absurd.”

- Sam Harris

If you replaced the phrase “Christians love him for it” with “skeptics must shut up” in the above quote, Sam Harris could be describing the current state of the skeptical movement.

Recently, one of my least favorite issues has resurfaced, what role, if any, atheism has within the skeptical movement. The controversy seems to have begun with Jeff Wagg writing a blog singling out a flyer and four scheduled talks at Skepticon3 focused on atheism or more accurately religious criticism, one of which with a heavy emphasis on physics. Though Wagg hadn’t seen the talks yet, he expressed more than mild disapproval of them based on their titles and his opinions of the speakers themselves. In fact, he suggested these topics have no right being discussed at a skeptical conference at all. According to Wagg, this doesn’t look like a skeptics conference at all, but rather something entirely different, “an atheist conference”…or worse “an anti-Christian conference.”

BUT DON’T PANIC!!! … continue reading this entry.

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What is the responsibility of a Local Skeptical Group?

Some douche meeting DJ Grothe after NECSS.

I think the goal of these [local skeptical] groups – we shouldn’t kid ourselves.  They are not professional science education organizations.  A local skeptics group does not and should not be expected to teach the public science or critical thinking.  We don’t offer courses in science, we’re not scientists and professors and people schooled in pedagogy – not all of us.  Steve [Novella] of course is and there are a number in our midst who have that background, but most local skeptics groups, yes they do a kind of outreach, but what they also are and we should be unapologetic about this for gosh sakes, they are clubs for people of like minds.  They are groups where skeptics can get together and love on one another and enjoy each others’ company and have fun over a pint or ten.  So I think we should leave it to public education organizations to do the heavy lifting when it comes to public education and these [local] groups should be supportive of those ends.  In other words, these organizations should be science boosters and as they grow and mature maybe some of them, you know, achieve non-profit status, have membership programs, can hire folks or have experts who will volunteer – they can do more heavy lifting.  Like the New England Skeptical Society does, like NCAS in DC, like Bay Area Skeptics in the San Francisco Bay area has done.  A number of other groups as well.

- DJ Grothe speaking on “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe,” episode 279 at 57:10

I like DJ Grothe on a lot of levels and for a bunch of reasons.  One of the big things I appreciate about DJ is that I think he’s willing to say things that people in the skeptical community may disagree with him on.  For a leader of a flagship organization in the movement, he seems ready to make statements that challenge the people in those organizations.  I am glad DJ Grothe has his position in the JREF and in the skeptical movement.  This particular statement from DJ has come out at time when I’m a bit sensitive on these issues and it strikes a chord for me. … continue reading this entry.

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A Happy Marriage Between Magic and Science

Occasionally, something interesting happens in an eastern city that is not NYC. Very occasionally. But I caught wind of a new scheme thought up by the curators at Harvard’s Natural History Museum to capitalize on Harry Potter mania and to teach kids about the natural world. The Harry Potter Scavenger Hunt is a clever way to organize a tour of the museum for kids and Harry Potter fans of all ages.

Armed with nothing more than a map, a set of questions, and a love of all things Potter, visitors set out to discover how the fantastical world of J.K. Rowling comes to life in the natural world. The questions start out pretty easy, for example: “What is Harry’s companion animal?” For anyone who has every seen, read, or glanced at a poster of Harry Potter, they probably know that the boy’s beloved Hedwig is a Snowy Owl. So, explains [volunteer coordinator Carol Carlson], “You would go look in the owl collection up in the balcony, the bird balcony, for something that looked like Hedwig.”

The trivia questions become increasingly more complex, but the links to the museum are tangible and informative.

“For example,” says Carol, “We’re looking at wands and the different woods that wands were made of. Voldomort’s wand is made of yew. Yew comes from plants that are traditionally planted in graveyards. Although it’s an evergreen, it’s associated with death, and it’s very toxic.” … Then there’s our hero’s wand. “Harry’s wand is made of holly, and when you think about holly, it’s also evergreen, but it’s associated with Christmas and everlasting life. I think it’s wonderful that this is Harry’s.”  Carol shows just how truly wonderful holly can be as her hunt leads into the Museum’s astounding Glass Flowers gallery.

I laud any attempts that museums make to stay up dated and fresh to a new audience. And describing the biological and natural basis of the fantastical and magical world of Harry Potter seems like an appropriate and successful way to lead kids in learning and appreciating science. I would love to see further attempts of science museums to explore and educate about the lines between science and science fiction. As the popularity of the physics manual The Physics of Superheros has shown, using fiction to illustrate both the depths and limitations of our scientific understanding is highly successful.

I almost wish I had a kid and still lived in Boston to partake of this Scavenger Hunt… just kidding.

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Daily Mail Proves Psychic Powers!

I predict John Edward and his buddies will capitalize on this study.

Hey!  It’s great news!  According to a study in the Daily Mail, psychic powers exist and we can see into the future.  Wow!  Although apparently the effects must be really small because no one seems to have been able to predict that 9-11 was going to happen.  Hmmm… And no one foresaw the disaster in Haiti.  Wow, that’s weird.  In fact, as far as I can tell, these psychics seem to regularly only foresee events in a really general way and then make them fit with reality.  That is so odd.  But the Daily Mail says psychic powers exist, so I don’t see any reason to doubt it.

And it’s great news.  I just foresaw that I was going to win the lottery.  I’m going to buy my ticket now.  I’m sure it’ll work out great.  My psychic abilities tell me so.

And it’s a good thing I can’t find much in the way of any sources in this story.  I think what happened is that the writer, being psychic, intuited that someone would actually look at those sources and then try and use them to say that the story was ridiculous.  Good thing that writer was psychic, saved us all some annoying skeptic stepping in and making psychic powers disappear by scowling.

Off to get my lottery ticket!

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