Tag Archives | Skepticism

Connecticut Vampires in a Naive Skeptic’s Court

Can you trust skepticism that isn’t based on a firm grasp of our collective history? After just penning a piece for The Teeming Brain on the serious case of cultural amnesia that our media representatives seem to enjoy regarding Isaac Newton’s mystical proclivities, I run across Sharon Hill, a leading cultural critic and skeptic with a background in Geology, writing for Doubtful News, and her brief dismissal of historical depth in a post that links to a Smithsonian article on 19th century vampire beliefs. Hill’s commentary shows a similarly stunted viewpoint as the authors of the Newton articles, only she is not just a journalist, but someone who claims to be working to educate the public on scientific rationality:

“In 1854, in Jewett City, Connecticut, townspeople had exhumed several corpses suspected to be vampires that were rising from their graves to kill the living. Yes. 1854.”

Now, I admit I’m a bit biased because I’d rather have my Forteana reported in sober academic fashion, or by a breathless Keelian storytellers (the Smithsonian article that Doubtful News links to is a nice mix of both.)  However, stories filtered through naiveté, like the pontification surrounding this one on Doubtful News, show why a passive skeptical attitude can get in the way of deeper encounters with the churning waters of the cultural mythosphere.… Read the rest

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Are You an Internet Kook? Quite Possibly.

Via The Daily Dot.

You’re probably an “internet kook”. Heck, we all probably are, at least according to a list created by Dale Jensen. Jensen claims to have identified eight signs that may indicate that a writer is an “internet kook”. While I have the sneaking suspicion that the purpose of such lists is to make it easier to dismiss troubling ideas wholesale as the work of a “kook”, I’m sure that there will be others who disagree with me. And you know what? They’re kooks. I can tell by looking at this list…

1) “Don’t believe me? Do your own research.”

According to Jensen this is such a telltale phrase that it’s the first item on his list for identifying when someone is over-invested and using a sensible directive to justify irrational beliefs. It’s especially likely, Jensen says, if they repeat the phrase or apply it to a subject for which research is impossible, like the existence of God.

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Look! Up in the Sky! It’s Ball Lightning…It’s Swamp Gas…It’s SKY SHARK!

"You yell UFO, everybody says, "Huh? What?" You yell Sky Shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July." Via Forgetomori: Last month, video shot of a purported UFO by Brazilian teenagers caused a bit of a stir in skeptical and UFO-friendly circles alike. The footage of a shiny, spherical object cruising through a beautiful, blue sky certainly looked like the real thing, but as it turned out, the "UFO" had an Earthly origin - albeit a highly amusing one: It was a remote-controlled helium shark manufactured under the name "Air Swimmers". After receiving its due 15 minutes of fame via quick-on-the-trigger local media, the flying fish was revealed to be the property of a neighbor. Here's some footage of the shark over the skies of Brazil. Click through to view a commercial for the product:
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Flavors of Uncertainty: The Difference between Denial and Debate

Picture: Wikimedia Commons (CC)

It seems only fair for journalism to examine every side of an issue, but what if a controversy isn’t a legitimate debate, but specifically created for the purposes of confusion and bias? Industry, politicians and religions manufacture misinformation, which is caught in the echo chamber of our lazy, uncritical mainstream media, and filtered to a harried general populace, who are often more concerned with ethical considerations than scientific nuances anyway. Corporate advertisers engage in ‘organized doubt’ campaigns, essentially changing what science and skepticism are all about.

via Environmental Health Perspectives:

In one of the keynote talks at the Science Writing in the Age of Denial Conference, UW–Madison genetics and molecular biology professor Sean Carroll outlined what he calls “a general manual of denialism”—six tactics used time and again in denial campaigns since at least the nineteenth century. First, cast doubt on the science. Second, question the personal motives and integrity of the scientists.

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Let’s Get Bigfoot…By Ridiculing Anyone Who Believes in Him

Picture: Ashish S. Hareet (CC)

Salon.com has published an essay on cryptozoology, UFOs and other Fortean pursuits by Busy Monsters author William Geraldi. It’s as dismissive as you’d expect it to be (and undoubtedly rightfully so, as some readers might think), and downright smug at moments.

Take Geraldi’s swipe at cryptozoologists in this paragraph on the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film:

It didn’t occur to me as a kid that the name of the creek in which the footage was shot, Bluff Creek, was a clue to Roger Patterson’s shaky relationship with veracity. Still, educated experts with the best software ever devised haven’t been able to prove conclusively that the footage is a hoax, and so grown men with a child’s inextinguishable wonder — they call themselves cryptozoologists — continue to pursue a North American apeman. Half of me wants to help these unemployable man-boys study for the high school equivalency test, but the other half quietly applauds their dopey dedication and yearns to join their rowdy jaunt.

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Committee for Scientific Inquiry on Chinese Ape-Men

The Committee for Scientific Inquiry has a great article about the hunt for the Yeren, the Chinese ape-man, including a humorous anecdote in which a hirsute westerner is mistaken for the legendary beast:

Some have suggested that the wild man is some human throwback—neither Giganto­pithecus nor Peking Man surely but possibly some oddity like those sometimes exhibited in carnival sideshows (Nickell 2005, 150–58, 202–208). A “monkey baby,” for instance, that lived in Xhin Xhan County of Hubei Province, was simply an unfortunate individual with genetic deficiencies who “walked with a shuffling gait, had a slouched back, had a low misshapen forehead, could only make sounds with no articulate speech, and grinned constantly” (Poirier et al. 1983, 30). Yeren researcher Frank E. Poirier—only a normally hairy westerner who is about five feet eleven inches tall—frightened some local children who “ran away horrified at their encounter with what they screamed to others was the Wildman in their midst” (Poirier et al.

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No Evidence To Support Chen Guangcheng’s “Beating” Claims

At the outset, Chen seemed to be just another Chinese dissident brutally treated by the authorities; however, there is more to it.

In the opening statement at the Council on Foreign Relations (31 May, 2012), Professor Cohen of New York University made it clear that Chen “had never studied law” when “the State Department” asked him to meet Chen nine years ago (that is, in 2003).

Despite such an open piece of information linking Chen to the “State Department” in a forum that was packed with journalists, I only managed to find the full content of Cohen’s opening statement via YouTube, the Council on Foreign Relations and NYU websites.

Amazingly, as far as my research is concerned, none of the news media during and after the forum appear to show any interest in persuading or reporting the relationship between the State Department and Chen. Just a few examples (none of these media report a thing on the content of Cohen’s opening statement):

The NY Daily News, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Time, VOA, WNYC, NBC New York and Radio Free Asia.… Read the rest

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Intellectual Incest

Via Skeptical Analysis:

Natural selection tends to avoid incest. Incest — more properly, inbreeding — allows recessive genetic traits to accumulate, often to the detriment of affected individuals. If a child gets a bad gene (doesn’t make a needed protein) from one parent, it’s best if the other parent doesn’t also contribute the bad gene.

Popular literature suggests wild populations, such as wolves, seek mates from outside their own packs. Also, primitive peoples may raid neighboring clans for wives, and friendly exchanges of eligible women between ruling European families provided genetic diversity while maintaining royal status.

Cultural and intellectual incest is a problem of a slightly different nature. Lack of cultural diversity can deprive a nation of the benefits of innovation and can also result in the development and retention of perverse cultural traits. Open societies are the fix. Honor killings within some European societies have lost fashion as a result of the cultural dilution that resulted from advances in communications and exchange of populations in the twentieth century.

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Nonbelievers Who Aren’t Atheists?

Writes David Niose on Psychology Today:
If you don’t believe in any gods, you are an atheist, right? This definition seems pretty basic, not the kind of material that requires an advanced degree in theology to understand. But apparently it isn't accurate. In fact, as I circulate in the secular movement on a daily basis, I frequently meet nonbelievers who are unwilling to identify as atheists. Of course, there are other words that might describe those who don't believe in deities — agnostic, humanist, skeptic, etc. — and quite a few nonbelievers prefer one of those terms as their primary means of religious identification, but many reject outright the atheist identity even as a secondary or incidental label. "Don't call me an atheist!" one such nonbeliever recently told me. "I refuse to identify according to what I reject. I don't believe in astrology or unicorns, but I don't label myself according to that — so why should I identify according to my rejection of god-belief?"...
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Doubt and Denial in Pursuit of Reality

“Does God exist?” Of the near-limitless variety of questions that can be posed by human beings, few are as profound, as important (or to certain fanatical Nietzsche lovers, as inane and tiresome) as this one. Few other questions have such a powerful effect over daily life, politics, and human interactions as this one simple query, and any given individual’s reply to it speaks volumes about his or her worldview.

For billions of people on planet Earth, its answer is a resounding “Yes!” – a declaration of faith so central to their lives that even a moment’s hesitation or doubt can induce feelings of severe guilt and internal conflict.  For a large and growing multitude however, the answer to this question is instead a confident but qualified “No.” And yet, for many others still, the only sensible reply is “Maybe,” “I don’t know,” or even “It’s impossible to say.”

Although plenty of people simply don’t care one way or the other, rolling their eyes and far preferring not to talk about it or even think about it, that’s just dodging its repercussions.… Read the rest

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