Saturday, 26 June 2010

Victims of the Frightwash

(frightwash, n - a communication formulated in such a way as to ignore all balance, positivity or solutions to a given problem, in order to induce the highest possible level of blind panic in its audience)

It's not often I'm compelled to whip out a notebook and pencil in my local chippy, but unfortunately for me and my blood-pressure, this one tends to have a stack of old Daily Mails piled up for the entertainment and irritation of their customers.

"VICTIMS OF THE NIGHTWATCH" was a story in the 'Good Health' section (pp.36-7) on Tues, June 15th. The story is on the website - roughly the same as the print edition, from what I can remember - but on page 37 there was an additional black banner with large white print declaring:

Just one junior doctor to look after 400 patients, nurses too harried to help... no wonder even the medical profession is worried about hospital care at night.

I beg your pardon? "Even" the medical profession? As if they're normally the last group of people to worry about the welfare of patients? As if they chose their careers based on a predilection for natty green uniforms and the smell of disinfectant? In Daily Mail Land hospitals are a battleground not between humans and diseases, but between Joe and Josephine Everyman and The Axis of Evil Medics, whose goal is to incapacitate the Everymans in order to sell their organs on the black-market to supplement their gold-plated pensions. Or something. Motivation isn't something the Fail usually bothers to explain; public servants are feckless, self-serving, interfering drones. Nuff said.

The Everyman's only hope is to arm themselves with first-rate medical information from their trusty daily newspaper. What's that they see on the very same page? "HOW SUPERFOODS CAN BE BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH!" Quickly, Josephine! Better cancel the Waitrose home delivery.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Speech? Criticism? Er... oh look, a butterfly!

I've just read this post over at Tabloid Watch and was nearly moved to tears. This week Jamie Reed, MP for Copeland, Cumbria, made a speech in Parliament slamming the national media for its coverage of the recent shootings, with particular anger reserved for the journalists who personally turned up to trample on the grieving process of the families and wider community. The extracts picked out by Tabloid Watch form a very moving picture of the pain caused by such intrusions in the name of profit, as the bereaved and their neighbours and friends are hounded for stories, photographs and gossip by people who frankly don't give two shits about them, beyond their potential use to generate money.

We can all agree that such strategies are despicable - they quite obviously cause a great deal of unnecessary distress to those targeted. I'm sure most readers, given the choice, would rather forgo such snippets of information if they knew just what was done to obtain them. Yes, the news from Cumbria was interesting, but most people's tea-breaks would have been just as diverting if the space had been filled by some amusing PR piece about a pig in wellies. No less revenue would have been generated if all papers had told their staff to back off.

And yet, nothing is going to change. Reed's point has been made time and time again whenever there is a major tragic event. Hands are wrung, vague promises of more comprehensive voluntary ethical codes are made, only for the exact same thing to happen next time. So what's to be done?

First of all, the issue needs to be made public. So far, no national news outlet seems to have bothered reporting on Reed's speech. This is an elected representative, calling for a genuine improvement, in the institution dedicated to making such changes (not at a press-conference, media schmooze event, wire-tapped conversation to a colleague or any other of the less appropriate times when the media bother to actually listen to MPs). He is genuinely speaking on behalf of his constituents and he and they deserve to be heard.

So then, fellow dwellers of the blogosphere: pass it on.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Personal Skeptical Mission Statement

Or a skeptical statement about a personal mission. Or the personal statement of a skeptical missionary. Or... er. That's it. Basically, before I make further attempts to go through some of the stickier issues arising from the last two posts - and from related chats I've had with people over the past couple of weeks - I thought I'd better set down some of my own goals, principles and doubts as a skeptic.

Admirable goals of 'skepticism' as a movement:
  • Promote critical thinking and freedom of speech and information, especially concerning access to reliable information on scientific (and other fields of) research.
  • Work with the media to improve the quality of reporting, and exposing mistakes, misinterpretations and downright fabrications where necessary.
  • Expose the techniques used to part the uninformed from their money.
  • Campaign against the introduction of policies which are based on bogus reasoning or misinformation.
  • Provide a welcoming environment and accessible platforms for the discussion of issues related to all of the above.
In this way, we can hopefully change the way in which science, the scientific method, the notion of 'evidence', and the importance of critical thinking are viewed by the general public, and by key decision-makers. The main aim as I see it is to put evidence at the heart of all areas of policy-making, and to help people to apply the same principle to decisions they make in their own lives.

What 'skepticism' should not do:
  • Form a closed community of like-minded people, in a way that appears intimidating to outsiders, either by automatically assuming that everyone present will agree with your position, or by assuming too much prior knowledge in your audience (not a problem I've noticed so far, but something we should always be on guard against).
  • Indulge in blanket attacks on a whole aspect of society simply because it is not based in rationality. Better to target individual instances of bad reasoning or potentially damaging policies. For example, there's no point decrying the fact that the Catholic Church's policies on contraception are based on rules whose origin cannot be conclusively traced back to a supreme being. Nobody needs to be told that. There are other, evidence-based ways of proving that such policies are damaging to society.
  • Give in to the temptation to insult or make fun of people and groups purely to ease our own frustration. Humour is useful if it helps an audience to see a situation in a different light, and to attract people to what could otherwise be a fairly dry and sombre field. On the other hand, it also serves to polarise the debate and to ostracise portions of the target audience.
Essentially, I worry sometimes that there's too strong a temptation within the movement to achieve a sense of release and self-gratification by shouting at stupid people. It's immensely satisfying to tell someone plainly that you're right and they're wrong, and it's also reassuring to surround yourself with people who agree. Viewed from the inside, skepticism is a friendly, welcoming, egalitarian movement in which everyone's contributions, however small, are passed around via blogs, podcasts, tweets etc and thus appreciated. Viewed from the outside, it can often look like a self-referential, self-important circle-jerk of... jerks.

As I said, this is a very personal mission statement, and I'm not going to hassle people into conforming to it. One of the best things about the movement is that there is no prescriptive set of rules, or a PR push to present a united front on all issues. Debate and diversity of opinion are what drive us on, and if you'll allow me to rip off Groucho Marx slightly: I don't care to belong to a club that only accepts people exactly like me as members.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

This message will not self-destruct: a couple of responses

A little clarification on the last post (or back-pedalling, squirming, whatever you want to call it): I still think there's space for skeptical podcasts, blogs etc. to discuss religious beliefs, but it has to be a proper discussion. The hosts have a lot more to offer their listeners than just "look at these superstitious idiots". And I'm definitely in favour of keeping the soap-box section completely open for whatever the guest host wants to sound off about. In hindsight, I possibly should have separated my criticisms of Andrew's argument from my niggles with the rest of the podcast.

Anyway, this is a response which an interested party left on Facebook. He's kindly agreed to have it reproduced here:

I take your point, but unfortunately there are things more consequential than hurt feelings involved in the the practice of taking your morality - I won't say ethics because there's no system involved - from an invisible friend who supposedly conveyed guidance/instructions for life based on the experience, interpretation and, perhaps, imagination ... See moreof desert tribesman with none of the tacit or explicit, not-subject-to-post-modernism scientific knowledge that I, you and practically everyone in the western world or urban environment now takes for granted.

Idealism is interesting in philosophy/ to philosophers counting angels on pinheads, but irrelevant to why you feel grief, how you come to be in the biological form you are, the reasons why and consequences of the fact that GPS systems work (Quantum effects and Relativity), how the systems of nature function, why disasters occur, the nature of disease, the bonds between beings and countless other elements of how my and your everyday life occur. The bounds of knowledge in many areas thought exclusive to arts, humanities and 'social sciences' are quickly falling to probabilistic description by empirical investigation. More so every day.

The idea that you can take the founding elements of your life and society from texts so openly against critical thinking; against and contrary to inter-subjective, falsifiable scientific knowledge; completely at odds with how we live our lives everyday is abhorrent to a rational mind. This is the reason that fundamentalists are shunned by almost all; this is the reason why the hand-wringing moderate person who cannot bear to give up the invisible friend who monitors, influences and dictates is wrong. The unthinking agnostic provides the excuse for the moderate, who provides the scaffold for the fundamentalist. They are all utterly bankrupt on any measure possible to hold up for scrutiny.

It's not bigotry, but a critical mind that dismisses religion, religious 'convictions' and their influence on society.

Andrew's soapbox - a deeply held, honest account of someone's thought on a subject - is well justified in my opinion.... and for every person who might immediately turn their face from GMS for its airing, there may well be many others who turn towards.

AFAIK - All soapboxes are welcome?

Saturday, 5 June 2010

This message will not self-destruct

Not to name-drop or anything but I happen to know first hand that the hosts of the Just Skeptics podcast, and this week's guest host Andrew Taylor, are all lovely people. I'm sure none of them would hesitate to replace a crying child's dropped ice cream or to help an old lady down from a tree. I'm also fairly sure I owe a couple of them drinks. But if I had no source of information other than this week's episode I'd assume they were a bunch of angry, confused and mean-spirited gits.

The first couple of items made for good listening, but then things morphed into a special flicking-chewing-gum-at-religion edition. Treatment of the two news items represented sadly missed opportunities: a few minutes of essentially just poking fun at something which warrants more serious treatment, followed by a diatribe from Alex Dennerly, which contributed little other than some inventive combinations of swear words. There was no real analysis of either case so that it seemed a waste to have four self-professed critical thinkers discussing this, rather than a group of bemused grumblers down the pub. I know damn well they can do better than this.

Then came the guest host's 'soap box' section. Andrew did a good job of wrestling the over-used soap-box back from Alex, putting forward his objections to the moderately religious. After years of practice, he can be relied on to produce a well thought out and amusing rant on most topics, usually leaving the reader with a clear idea of how the world could feasibly be made to work a little better. In this case the rant started with an admission that otherwise sensible people who aren't atheists just don't fit into his 'internal model' of a rational universe. The solution was that every religious person should accept that they're wrong and agree to have that 'fixed'. The analogy he used doesn't really help his case:

There was even some disagreement about whether stamping out common delusions constituted education or genocide. And it reminded me of deaf people who refuse a cure because they see it as implying that they're worse than hearing people. And it's absurd. It's like refusing a superpower. You're not Nathan Petrelli, no bad thing is going to happen. Being deaf is objectively worse than being able to hear and in exactly the same way, being wrong about something as important as whether or not an omnipotent being will save you is objectively worse than being right. And if someone helps you fix that, say "thank you".

I treat religion as a regrettable fact of human nature. Like phobias or weird celebrity crushes,* it seems irrational and silly to the outside observer, can cause a lot of problems we'd all do far better without, but still won't go away not matter how much or how amusingly you complain about it. It's also so bound up with people's self-image, identity and sense of where they belong (similar to when you've built your life around coping successfully with a disability) that the more moderate or wavering believers come under attack, the more likely they are to retreat into the sanctuary offered by a community of people who have shared their experiences. If a 'cure' is going to cause serious mental trauma, it is not acceptable to force people to go through with it.**

Admittedly, I've oversimplified Andrew's argument here. There are parts which I agree with and it's worth a listen. However, in terms of the skeptics movement as a whole, I find rants like this not only pointless but massively unhelpful. It's difficult enough to make any kind of progress against woo, superstition and willful ignorance even when we have hard proof. We need to pick our battles and not go marching off into the treacherous swamps of religious belief, firing shots of "How do you know, you cretins?" into the mist.

I've really enjoyed the skeptics events I've been to and I'm trying my best to encourage friends and acquaintances - some of them moderately religious or buyers of alternative remedies - to come along for a drink, attend the talks, read the blogs and listen to the podcasts. I'd rather not spend too much time having to reassure them that they won't get spit-roasted in some angry atheists' piss-take of ritual sacrifice. In this case, Just Skeptics sadly didn't do justice to the all-round wonderfulness and friendliness of the Greater Manchester Skeptics.

* Stuffed animals and Alan Davies respectively, in case you were wondering.
**Actually, this is my main phobia (just searching for that link was a struggle). I've heard about possible therapies and I'd rather just carry on dealing with the problem, much ta.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

If an infinite number of historians...

I've been trying to catch up with podcasts from the skeptical community, and something in the latest* Righteous Indignation niggled at me for slightly the wrong reasons. It was an item on the proposed revisions to social studies textbooks in Texas, and this was the end of host Trystan Swale's bit:

George Orwell, of 1984 fame, famously said that, “He who controls the present, controls the past. And he who controls the past, controls the future.” Of course there are rational people on the state education board fighting these changes, and any insidious changes will be slow and creeping, but this is one of the reasons why I think that the continual promotion of the ideas of the Enlightenment and scientific reasoning, and investigation into bullshitters and snake-oil salesmen needs to continue through vehicles such as this tremendous podcast. Rewriting history to agree with your rhetoric to me is morally bankrupt and intellectually bankrupt, and ironic coming from a religion that lays claim to moral superiority.

While I agree that the proposed changes to the curriculum are clearly an act of politically-motivated revisionism, and could have a very negative effect on the quality of education, I can sense an underlying assumption on the part of the podcasters here which needs to be examined. This is the assumption that there is a 'correct' version of history, which should be found in all textbooks. In other words, that there is a fixed benchmark against which the accuracy of the information in these books can be measured.

Sorry to go all postmodern on yo' asses, but there isn't. Or at least, it's not as fixed and clear as you might hope. Yes, if a book states that the American War of Independence was started in 1509 by a secret society of Welsh feminist trumpet players, it can be pretty conclusively disproven with reference to a vast body of archival evidence. On the other hand, when it comes to assessing which factions of revolutionaries deserve the most credit for victory, and the creation of the United States... there is no 'fact' to be uncovered, just a mass of different interpretations to be weighed up. If this sounds like I'm working up to the line “teach the controversy”, it's probably because I am. But I'd like it taught well.

When 'science' is taught, it is really the scientific method which is being learned. Ok, you get some facts like the structure of cells, or that some stuff floats, but wherever possible this is not taken out of a book, but demonstrated practically. Even better, the kids perform the experiment themselves and discuss their findings (before being told what it was they did wrong). 'Science' is not a static, monolithic thing you can memorise for an exam. It's a system, an engine, constantly adding new knowledge to the pool, or designating previously held 'truths' to be false.

History is the same. The idea of kids learning 'history' from a single textbook, or even a limited selection of textbooks, fills me with horror. History is not a 'story' to be learned by heart and recited. History does not, strictly speaking, exist to be learned. What can be learned is the discipline of history, the methodology of historians, and – as a basic starting point – some of the main things that the majority of historians would consider to be accurate: key events, dates, and actors; probable causes and consequences; aspects of everyday life at different times – whatever gives the lessons some substance, and interest. This should be done, at all levels, via proper engagement with sources (not just texts), examination of locations and artefacts where possible, and the development of critical thinking skills. Something like:

Right kids, based on this information about French and English weaponry and on the location of the armies, who do you think won the battle of Agincourt? Discuss it in groups for a bit; your homework is to find out the answer – and remember to double check with at least two different books! Next week, we'll discuss a little how historians define one side as 'the winner'.”

What should emerge from this is a sense that history isn't something which is remembered and preserved down the ages, but something which is constantly being pieced together, reshaped and reinterpreted by new information or different methods of analysis. The most useful thing which can emerge is the knowledge that everyone, however well-intentioned, 'rewrites' history, and that statements along the lines of “x was our past, therefore y should be our future” are always total hogswash.

*Second to last, i.e. episode 49. I'm a slow proof-reader.

Recommended 'reading'

I'm experimenting with some cartoon-y things. Only four so far, there's a lot wrong with them, and as with all my hobbies I'll almost certainly lose interest soon. But still, watch this space if you want to. (And if you think the last one makes no sense you're by no means the only one).

Even better, read the cartoons / web comics that give my week most of its structure:

Multiplex by Gordon McAlpin is subtly wonderful. The story-lines mature slowly and the jokes are understated and often pushed into second place by film-related news (no bad thing, in itself), but the characters and set-up are so believable and likeable that you can easily forget you're reading a web comic.

David Malki's Wondermark and Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant are what I wish studying history was like - stuffed full of suspiciously modern historical characters and weird and wonderful contraptions.

Dresden Codak definitely wins my vote for most beautiful artwork and most thought-provoking plots.

Regular, unmissable one-shots: xkcd, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and Doghouse Diaries.

Things that aren't primarily funny but are strange and sad in a way that makes you feel better: A Softer World, Pictures for Sad Children, and Cyanide & Happiness.

NSFW stuff where a few good jokes justify a lot of bodily fluids, tentacles and goodness knows what else: Curvy (for which you really have to start at the beginning) and OGLAF.

EDIT: This is the original illustration used for my thing above.

EDIT #2: I forgot Jump Leads! Forget my own head next...