MetaCognitions | A Response


A bit back, blogger Benjamin David Steele posted this comment at this URL: 

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2018/12/09/clearing-away-the-rubbish/comment-page-1/#comment-40872/, and linked it to this blog entry on the Call. What follows is my response to what appears to be his main point:

“The challenge is that no one has sole rights to skepticism. Those defending the status quo often claim to be the skeptics and they simultaneously often have the most influence over public perception of how views are perceived. The most skeptical voices sometimes get portrayed as the complete opposite for anyone who advocates an alternative view is easily painted as an ideologue, whereas those defending mainstream ideology are of course merely being reasonable or that is how they perceive themselves. To understand genuine skepticism requires taking the long view. Also, it’s important that we be skeptical, even of our own self-identified skepticism. Skepticism isn’t a single position but a contested battleground. And the fight isn’t always fair. Future generations will probably be better judges of this.”

First, no serious publicly known skeptic I’m aware of has made the claim that skepticism is an exclusive right (We call those “privileges,” btw). For one thing, it’s bad for outreach. For another, it’s false. My own thinking is that skepticism ought to be for everyone, I believe a position about as anti-elitist as one can get. None of us are immune to confirmation bias, disconfirmation bias, or the Dunning-Kruger effect, among many other biases and heuristics. No one. 

Further, skepticism is not a contested battleground, but the word “skeptic” is, as the label has often been hijacked by ideologues of all stripes and cranks of all sorts eager to cash in on its value as a rhetorical tool, muddying the intellectual waters of the Internet. Words can have power, especially when appropriated by those not bound by a desire or a respect for intellectual honesty. 

Nobody speaks for all skeptics, including me, and since skepticism is not a definable set of claims, it cannot be a single position on any matter. That’s because it’s not the sort of thing that can be a single position. We ought to avoid making such category mistakes in our thinking. Modern organized skepticism is a hellish amalgam of diverse views and perspectives on many different issues. 

A skeptic, as in scientific skeptic, regardless of identification, is a science-minded critical thinker. This may take many forms, with many different views. But the core idea is the same. Not all such thinkers identify as skeptics, with some avoiding or rejecting the label outright for their own reasons. And not all who claim to be skeptics are science-minded critical thinkers. Some are merely ideologues who defend a desired position through misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, and rhetorically loaded language.

Skepticism requires a lot of diligence and practice to do well, like any learned skill. But skepticism is not rocket science, nor does everyone who claims to be a skeptic really put in the hours of practice and dedication to be effective skeptics. Skepticism is hard, and skeptical thinking is very energy-intensive to put in the effort to do well for long periods of time.

We ought, I think, to be skeptical, not of our skepticism, self-identified or not, but to our own biases, memory fallacies, misperceptions, and failures of good reasoning. We are all prone to these, no matter how much we kid ourselves otherwise. The more we convince ourselves that we are smart, rational people immune to being fooled, the more we can be easily fooled, the more vulnerable we become, to fraud, lies, deception, and our own well-documented flawed thinking. Clever con artists can tweak our dials to fool anyone of us, even me, even you, by playing upon our psychological weaknesses, which they are quite good at figuring out. And we all have them. 

Having studied, learned, and practiced over the past thirteen years, I think I know a thing or two about how useful, and how difficult, skepticism is, as well as what it is, and what it is not, after an ongoing programme of intellectual growth. I’m neither a Pollyanna nor a naive skeptic. I’m well aware of the real problems within organized skepticism, and of the occasional drama and divisiveness that happens. Skeptics tend to herd about as well as cats.

The consistent skeptic is as common as lightning-breathing three-headed alien dragons and rainbow-farting pink unicorns, as nearly all of us have sacred cows, those ideas that we think are absolutely true, and which we guard close to our hearts as parts of our identity, ideas which are often lacking in good reasons for holding them.

The so-called failures of science, including the replication crisis, which I’ve been aware of for some time, do not impress me as somehow being a strike against it. Science builds on its failures in a bottom-up self-correction process built into its mechanisms. The replication crisis is a blow to our complacency, to our credulity, and to our naïveté, not to the trustworthiness of the scientific enterprise, or to  the value of critical thinking. Science can be tedious to do, can be used unwisely with unfortunate consequences like any domain of human activity, and requires the use of specialized language to communicate difficult concepts to other researchers without ambiguity, but neither science, nor mainstream medicine, nor organized skepticism are hiveminds or hotbeds of nefarious scheming debunkery. 

I think I should point out here that postulating ebil conspiraciez when criticised, assertions about vested interests or claims of who has power over whom, amount to ad hominem attacks and if not demonstrably true may even constitute genuine libel or defamation. It’s bad practice, and reflects poorly on those who do it. Conspiracy theories, as opposed to demonstrably real conspiracies for which there’s good evidence, are unscientific and impossible to definitively disprove: evidence against the conspiracy can always be twisted to serve as evidence for it. They are also pure poison to any discussion they are smuggled into, involving reasoning that is fallacious at best and not even wrong at worst. 

The mainstream of any field of expertise is not necessarily wrong for being the mainstream. Often, the accepted view is still accepted because it has the best grasp of the facts, the best track record of success, until demonstrated otherwise by those with the knowledge and competence to do so. Not always, but often enough. Alternative ideas are not always right. There exist, and will continue to exist, far more bad ideas than good ones. Most of those that can possibly be conceived are at least wrong if not untestable and so not even wrong. Often, they remain alternative because they fail when put into practice, not because of any diabolical plot to make them fail, but because they do not comport to the reality of the world outside of our heads no matter how appealing they seem to proponents. Many alternative ideas do indeed work, and these become incorporated into the mainstream. For example, much of alternative medicine remains alternative because it has either been shown not to work, or it has not been shown to work. Those alternative modalities that have been shown to work have historically become part of the mainstream of medical practice. 

A couple of brief anecdotes of my own: science saved my mind in one instance, and in another, my life: the former after my diagnosis in my early twenties and subsequent treatment plan to maintain my mental health and keep me functional enough to persevere in life. The latter was in 2007 after a pedestrian accident in which the admirable skill and competence of emergency medical technicians, doctors, and physical therapists saved my face and my right arm, allowing almost full functionality after months of recovery and permitting me to see myself in a mirror again without looking away in horror. I still have some of the scars, though those have faded with time. 

If there existed anything better than science in doing its job, in furthering our understanding of the natural world, for better or worse, anything more powerful, more reliable, and more inspiring in its contributions to applied knowledge, then I would happily support that instead. So far, there are no other spheres of human achievement that have come even close to that. 

So, for what it’s worth, I’m still waiting impatiently for my Mainstream Science & Skepticism™ shill cheque to arrive in the mail…. 

MetaCognitions | Cynicism: Just Another Bias


There, I said it. Cynics who view their cynicism as an asset, of course, will disagree, self-assured in believing themselves perfectly realistic and objective, completely missing the fact of their own self-deception. I will be accused of crippling naiveté. Of bias.

But that doesn’t even pass a basic prima facie, “On first face,” relevance test.

So I’m biased? So my views are skewed? So what? Who cares?

I’m biased. You’re biased. We’re all biased. Everyone is biased. To be human is to be biased. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. I’ll be up front with my biases: I’m pro-science, pro-rationality, pro-reality, pro-humanity, and anti-anything that dehumanizes or needlessly harms people.

We all view the world through a subjective lens, evaluating and passing judgment to everything and anything we come across without even knowing we’re doing it. Much of it is below the level of our conscious awareness. And there’s no way we know to step outside of our own individual brains save for the methods of science.

Complete certain knowledge about the world and perfect objectivity are impossible. Our brains and senses just don’t work that way. And to see the world and everyone and everything in it as fundamentally hopeless, ultimately futile, and irredeemably rotten is simply applying another set of value judgments, though destructively negative ones. 

I’m reasonably sure that if I had all of the same genetic contributions to my personality, all of the same upbringing, all of the same environment and life experiences of a staunch cynic, I would very likely be one now.

But I have not. Yet, I myself struggle daily with the temptation to cynicism to which our 24-7 news cycle culture subjects us. Clearly, that struggle is part of being human also. Some lose that struggle, and these deserve empathy and understanding, not the contempt they offer others, and not the loathing they often offer themselves.

If that sounds condescending or offensive, then consider this: Anything ever written or said will offend someone, and I don’t have the right to infringe on anyone’s freedom of thought to even try dictating for them what that might be. It’s out of my hands what any given person finds offensive. My point is, though, that I’m not condescending anyone. 

I’ll make the presumption here that most reading this are adults, or young and almost-adults, and should have thick skins in proportion to their own level of personal maturity. To treat others as functionally children by pandering to their feelings seems to me the epitome of condescension.

So, here’s why I’m throwing shade on cynicism as an alleged asset, virtue, or worldview: 

Cynicism means you’ve given up. Cynicism is surrender to bitterness, to an attitude of feigned superiority, and to contemptuousness. Cynicism is a cheap excuse for inaction, for fatalism, and for moral cowardice. In what universe are those anything but destructive?

All things pass, even the terrible things people sometimes do to each other. I do not have any use for a worldview that tells me that everyone by default is lying to or manipulating me and everyone else. Just because the world seems like an awful place doesn’t mean it ought to be, or that it’s useless to do something, anything, to make it less awful. Trying to make the world a better place is not a mere easily dismissed utopian faerie tale. Human effort applied unwisely causes our woes, human effort applied wisely can fix them.

I do not believe that human beings are fundamentally depraved. I view most of us as a mix of both good and evil, both right and wrong, both moral angels and devils at various times. We are all people, and people are complicated. 

I see people as having some worth, and the ability for some measure of good, skeptical thinking, a healthy blend of scientific literacy and critical thinking, though not as innately talented. It’s more of a capacity, a potentiality, and something we must learn as a skillset to do well in order to come to a more accurate, better, more useful view of the world and of ourselves. 

Good thinking ought in my view to be for everyone. It’s empowering. It’s illuminating. Good thinking is almost a kind of super-power. It’s even better than being able to throw silly comic book energy-bolts at people’s heads. It can be used for nearly everything in life. To me, it opens the gates to reality, the gates to wonder, and it’s also great fun.

Why say this? 

Because I can. Because I believe I should. To do something more useful than to merely shake my fist and simply rail and curse the night. Because I see people, even those I know and care for, fall prey some kind of pseudoscience, specious political claim, or fallacious health scare. And it’s not because they are somehow gullible, or stupid, or weak. 

Oh, no, it’s just not that simple!

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m gullible. There are times when I’m far too trusting, far too easily swayed by spurious argumentation, and I believe many things that I cannot possibly prove objectively. I have to watch myself daily, hourly, and despite this, I sometimes fail.

To blame the deceived for their own deception is to ignore the fact that we can all be fooled at a vulnerable moment by anyone who knows how to push our buttons. We are best of all at pushing our own buttons. To be human is to be vulnerable, no matter how smart we may think we are. To think ourselves immune to that is to ignore our own vulnerability, and we cannot be vigilant against a foe that we ignore. 

To blame the victim is cynical, and with the sense of false superiority that comes with it, that cynicism makes us lower our guard. Ironically, even con artists can be conned, especially by other con artists who know what hooks them. Cynicism easily leads to being used and manipulated, despite its frequently implied justification of defending the cynic from being used and manipulated.

I think that good thinking is a much better defense against the dark arts of scam artists, pandering politicians, and fraudsters than cynical thinking, which only makes you more vulnerable, not less.

And those, I think, are reasons enough.

(This post has been updated on 8/1/2019, 14:50)

MetaCognitions | American Skeptics: On Pandering to Bad Ideas


I’ve given up on a few American skeptics, especially certain so-called thought leaders. I wash my tentacles of them. I’m much keener on most UK, continental European, Canadian, and other skeptics abroad. For the most part, as well as American skeptics I follow and am friends with on social media, they totally rock.

It makes perfect sense to me to focus on bad science, hoaxes, urban legends, pseudoscience, and claims that do real harm to people’s lives, education, and health.

But I see absolutely no sense and no real point in being “skeptical” of feminism, of anthropogenic global climate change, in “skepticism” of whatever the f*** “cultural Marxism” in academia is supposed to be, and the denial of the existence or validity of transgender and non-binary people.

That is not the skepticism I have come to know and love through such podcasts as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Monster Talk, Skeptics with a K, and The Reality Check.

I don’t dislike those on the political right, not over something as petty as differences of opinion. I feel that how we relate to and treat each other as human beings is more important than politics.  But touting awful ideas, advocating already tested and failed policies as fair-minded and “controversial” is just giving the pseudo-skeptics, the far, far Right, the alt-Right, the armies of the night, and reactionaries who see skepticism as a threat, ready ammunition for their culture war.

I don’t even think it’s fair or necessarily true to many I know to use the phrase “right-wing” to label these ideas, as it’s more like “nut-wing” to me and at any extreme edge along a political compass.

Stop. Just stop. I don’t care about your political leanings. I don’t care how even-handed you’re trying to be. I’ve been down that road myself. The end result is that lending even token credence to terrible ideas feeds the illiberal enemies of a free state, and aiding those who would gleefully bring down organized skepticism and destroy the (((FREE SPEECH!!!))) you think you’re defending in trying to be edgy and calling yourselves (((THE INTELLECTUAL DARK WEB!!!)))

Not all ideas deserve equal time, and some ideas are terrible enough that once they have had their hearing and been found wanting, they should rightly be discarded in the wastebin of history, not to rear their ugly heads again.

But if there’s anything skeptics know, it’s that certain ideas are roundly debunked, only to rise zombie-like from the grave to walk the earth in later generations.

“Unsinkable rubber duckies.”

Guys, the culture warriors getting free press from you in magazines, blogs, vlogs, or podcasts, don’t really give a damn about free speech, except their own, and certainly not yours. And they’ll gladly bring you down along with every other hated enemy or useful idiot in their sights once they win the war.

After all, skepticism is not something one is. It’s a process to follow, a set of methods, of thinking tools, not an identity, not a set of claims or doctrines.

I think that those most vocally claiming to be skeptical of identity politics should be most wary, first and foremost, of their very own.

MetaCognitions | A Perfect Storm – Post-Florence


Vanakkam. I enjoy blogging, and have done so ever since adopting the current posting schedule for Tuesdays and Thursdays nearly every week.

I’d like to be able to maintain that consistently, but a perfect storm of events last week conspired to keep me away from WordPress’s editing window, namely my birthday celebration with family (I’m now 54 years of age and still kicking, thank you.), home renovations, reestablishing our family presence at home after mandatory evacuation from our street during Hurricane Florence, and the publishing of my new book, The Giant who Fell from the Dark beyond the Sky: And Other Collected Works which went live after pre-orders ended on the 19th. I’m glad I finally got that done, and on time!

Here’s the cover art and link to the book on Amazon for Kindle:

the-giant-who-fell-cover

https://www.amazon.com/Giant-who-Fell-Dark-beyond-ebook/dp/B07H64FSSK

So, it’s back to the paradigm, and I’ll be scheduling posts from here on, at least into the first few weeks of October. I’ve begun drafts for new non-fiction material, some of it in keeping with this blog’s skeptical bent, to be published when each is complete and ready. Study is mostly done for September, to be renewed on the first weekday of next month. So far so good, it’s been a mostly sustainable schedule that doesn’t put my health at risk. Not a perfect one, but a good one. I never expect perfection, a manifestly unreasonable standard in my view.

One more thing …

I’ve started a monthly newsletter, still in its first run, that I started in June of this year. It’s the Pikatron Monthly, published as a PDF file to those friends, family, and others on my mailing list on the first of each month. It covers topics of interest from fractals, to blogging, to my fiction, and general topic matter I tend to cover on this blog and elsewhere.

Interested subscribers should write me at troythulu@gmail.com to receive your free copy of the newsletter. I’ll be sure to put you on the mailing list. Also, I’m sending out back issues from June and afterward as requested, otherwise it’ll just be whichever is the current issue for that month.

Thanks!

Tf. Tk. Tts.

MetaCognitions | Fictional Plot Devices


I’ve noticed something worth avoiding in writing anything approaching good speculative fiction: never explain too much, be economic with any explanation you do, and only explain, by showing, not telling, what actually needs explaining.

I notice a failure to do that in some of my earlier fiction of even a few months ago, much less from years back, not consistently, but often enough to cause concern. Mostly it happens with a piece that I spend only a couple of hours on, in total writing, editing, and proofreading time; almost always a hastily written piece or two when a deadline looms. That’s bad form when it occurs.

But what sort of things ought not to be explained?

For example, there are the Heisenberg compensators of Star Trek used by transporter technology, that offer a nod to the quantum mechanical problems of teleportation without being explained as to how they work, which is good use of rubber science technobabble that adds to, not subtracts from, the feel of the story.

It’s good to acknowledge real science even when not strictly conforming to it. It’s one of the hallmarks of any good SF franchise.

Another would be the Holzmann effect of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, using variations of that phenomenon’s name in different books of the series. It’s cleverly never explained in any detail, but serves the background and feel of realism of the setting very well. Again, a nod to science without spoiling the fun with an explanation which would likely backfire as seeming contrived and even less consistent with real-world science. As a plot device permitting rapid space travel and personal force-screens, enabling the plot by fostering willing suspension of disbelief, it works well for that reason.

From my own writing, like my Gods of Terra setting, both old timeline and the current reboot, there’s the Kurtz-Dunar effect, named for scientists Raoul Kurtz of Terra and Ranan Dunar of Sirug, permitting cheap, safe, and efficient surface-to-orbit and interstellar travel, and personal teleportation via short-range warps in space-time, among other things.

It’s annoying when I see something over-explained elsewhere and annoying when I do it myself as well, especially the latter.

After all, if I really knew how the Kurtz-Dunar effect, or ancient relic technology like hypershards, actually worked, I wouldn’t be using them as plot devices in my fiction, but instead building and testing working prototypes under contract from DARPA! and I am quite obviously not doing that . . .

So, the more shone, not told, and the more economic that is, only what furthers the story, the better.

That’ll do for me, one story at a time, no matter what region of space-time, and which space-time continuum, is involved.

MetaCognitions | Farewell, Harlan Ellison


Just this last Thursday, we lost SF writer and critic Harlan Ellison, who died of natural causes at the age of 84. I have a confession to make: 

I have heroes.

But all of my heroes are human, not graven images on a pedestal, and all of them have the proverbial feet of clay. I prefer my heroes that way, human, flawed, with warts and all. That goes for skeptics and writers I’ve read and learned from over the years, from even the late Carl Sagan, to Michael Shermer and his current controversy, and yes, the irascible Harlan Ellison.

So…I’ll waste no time saying that Ellison was a ‘great’ writer, much less a ‘great guy.’

From his own words, I can rightly guess that he would laugh in my face at the very suggestion of him being ‘great.’ And he would be right to do so. So there will be no sycophantic bullshit or lionizing from yours truly. A word of advice: never try to flatter or piss off short people, especially when their name is Harlan Ellison. They will learn you, or burn you, with words, and that made Ellison not only a successful writer, but a fierce critic of publicly promulgated bullshit in a number of areas, from social criticism, to films, and even takedowns of pseudoscience in the public square. He was not known as a very nice guy, but in my view, he was fundamentally a good man, however unkind he may have been when annoyed.

Why?

It was in late 2006, I think at a place I used to do volunteer work as an administrative assistant, and I was reading one of Ellison’s collections outdoors in a quiet spot near the building. I think the collection was Edgeworks: An Edge In My Voice, volume 1, and I came across something I’d not read from other authors (I was just beginning to expand my reading horizons to something less sheltered), or at least not the way Ellison put it in a moment of self-critique: the notion of being scrupulously, ruthlessly honest with himself. His was self-honesty even to the point of accepting short-term self-loathing over longterm self-loathing by not telling himself pretty lies, or deceiving himself over personal motives.

This is, I know now, and I’m sure he knew then, a tall order indeed, and impossible to fully achieve. But that’s the whole point of an ideal: you don’t adopt one to actually reach it with finality, but to get as close as possible to it, asymptotically, not as any kind of ‘destination.’ An ideal is perfectably strived for, never perfectly arrived at. That’s why it’s an ideal, an abstraction, not reality. But it doesn’t have to be reality to be worth striving for.

But that idea burned itself in my brain as I stood there, reading on, and since that day, it has been something that I truly believe is worthwhile. For how can you be truly honest with others if you can’t be honest with yourself? Integrity matters. Even when it’s not coupled with a pleasant demeanor or a kind disposition. It was also that year when I was introduced to the world of podcasts with my aging Classic model iMac, and my first iPod. It was that year I began listening to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and had two particular books gifted to me that Christmas: Lynne Kelly’s _The Skeptics’ Guide to the Paranormal_, and Michael Shermer’s _Why Darwin Matters_.

A lot’s changed since then, but I’d like to end this post with a sendoff: Peace out, Harlan. Whatever happens to your memory from here on, you wrote a thing that has real meaning to me, and I think that counts for something. For what it’s worth, I’m a skeptic. And I’ll remain one for the foreseeable future. I know that doesn’t make me better or smarter than anyone else.

But with that in mind, I don’t need to be.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

MetaCognitions | Writing Technique


I’ve been thinking about the writing process, such as that can be as this blog’s resident entity from beyond space-time….

Is it some alien elder thing seeping from deep within the vowels of the earth, issuing forth with dire murmurations laden with hideous consonants and a doomed attempt to impose some order on the whole horrid outcome with punctuation?

It’s actually quite ordinary, with nothing from outside the curves and angles of space-time involved at all. Even a shoggoth could manage it — or my cats.

I use a variety of tools, from brainstorming, storyboarding, and at least half a dozen more as I experiment to initially generate ideas. I either put material down as electronic files or write it down old school, with pen and pad, as I often keep that handy in case something interesting pops up, and I have to capture it before it dissipates. Some ideas show up only once.

Once I have a basic draft, I let it sit for a time, simmer a bit, as I slowly add to it. The process is surprisingly controllable, though tends to work best during extended periods of strategically alternating mental focus and unfocus.

Once I have enough to work with, I open the draft, add any final material, and edit the crap out of it. I go through at least three full rounds of edits on the entire piece, and then proofread it twice, once from beginning to end, and then from end to beginning, reading it aloud to myself or under my breath, and rewriting the piece as I go each time.

When I’m doing that, I pretend I’m the narrator of an audiobook and read with as natural a vocal pace as I can manage. I tend to find the majority of errors during the proofreading process, catching mistakes my eyes alone often miss.

Once I’m done, I work on the layout and format of the piece, finish that, and ready it for publishing.

And that’s about it. The whole affair is nothing special, but it works, and works well enough that it makes the job of keeping up the lab in the Sooper Sekret Volcano Lair™ easy for the eldritch servitors, even when having the death rays and world destruction machine upgraded.

Life as a Lovecraftian horror sometimes has its perks. 😉

Tf. Tk. Tts.