MetaCognitions | Skeptic: A Problematic Label

I have something to tell you: I’ll no longer refer to myself as a skeptic, though I remain skeptical in outlook and practice. I will no longer use the label. I don’t need it.

2006 was a momentous time. I had come far during the twenty years prior, since the time between my late teens to my early twenties when my mind pretty much fell apart. It took the two decades in between then and 2006 to reassemble the pieces, remaking that mind and sense of identity with the help of a lot of good people, and on occasion, the unwitting “help” of some pretty awful people as well. Lots of life lessons from both, good and bad. In rebuilding a shattered self, there’s a certain amount of resilience that’s acquired, as you do. I don’t believe that’s at all exceptional or especially meritorious.

Yes, you can learn things from awful people too.

But 2006 was the first time I had enough understanding of modern scientific skepticism to adopt it as an adjunct to my treatment plan, to be followed in the 2010s by the addition of mindfulness and other meditative exercises.

And I still use these, with full intention to keep all for the foreseeable future. But the “me” that existed up until the 1980s and early 1990s is gone, replaced by the “me” from the late 1990s and early 2000s, to again be replaced by the current iteration, with a better sense of purpose and priorities, and enough of the mental toolkit needed to realize both.

Lately, some prominent leading skeptics have been behaving in less than reputable ways, associating with less than intellectually reputable company, and promoting a lot of alarmist sociopolitical nonsense as figures in the so-called Intellectual Dark Web.

Once good skeptics who’ve done valuable work in the past have gone to the Dark Side. “Why Darwin Matters: the case against intelligent design” informed my very first forays into scientific skepticism. I considered “The End of Faith” a masterwork of the writer’s craft. What the hell happened? But I’m much better informed now than then as to what happened along the way. It’s no longer any great mystery.

I no longer use the label “skeptic” for myself – it’s become tiresome to over and over explain what I mean by it, and that I’m not like those “other” guys who commit free speech hypocrisy and seem woefully unaware of their own biases while showing the same – forever whining about how persecuted and victimized they are, or how “naughty” or “forbidden” their “ideas.”

For those who are more headstrong than I am about using the label, those resolute enough to keep it despite its tainting by disrepute, then all the more power to you. I salute you and remain alongside you in the ongoing fight against woo, scams, hoaxes, and nonsense disguised as “alternative facts.” You have my support and my respect.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Mr. Eccles Presents | Evaluating Fringe and Pseudoscience Ideas in Paleontology — Dr. Thomas Holtz

“Ideas on the fringes of paleontology — from the “aquatic ape” hypothesis of human origins and the ideas that dinosaurs were all aquatic, to Triassic hyper-intelligent “krakens,” to the “discovery” of microscopic fully formed people in Paleozoic limestone — will be examined.”

“Presented at Balticon 53, Baltimore, Maryland, May 27, 2019 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. is Principal Lecturer in Vertebrate Paleontology at the Department of Geology, University of Maryland, College Park. His research focuses on the origin, evolution, adaptations, and behavior of carnivorous dinosaurs, and especially of tyrannosauroids (Tyrannosaurus rex and its kin).”

“He received his Bachelors at Johns Hopkins in 1987 and his Ph.D. from Yale in 1992. He is also a Research Associate of the Department of Paleobiology of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and serves on the Scientific Council of Maryland Academy of Science (which operates the Maryland Science Center (Baltimore, MD)).”

“In addition to his dinosaur research, Holtz has been active in scientific outreach. He has been a consultant on museum exhibits documentaries.”

“He is the author of the award-winning Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-To-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages (Random House)”

MetaCognitions | A Response

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

Ubi dubium… | The Conceptual Penis Hoax and Its Aftermath

A bit back, certain skeptical thought leaders like Shermer and Harris, who along with others not so affiliated with the so-called Intellectual Dark Web, such as Dawkins and Coyne, drew criticism for their endorsement of the infamous Conceptual Penis Hoax of Lindsay and Boghossian. The panel discussion on the video below, on the YouTube channel of the NECSS, discusses those involved and does a deep dive on what the hoax did and did not actually prove:

Pigliucci’s commentary starting at the 8:04 mark is pertinent. For myself, I’ve long found the idolization and celebrity culture of American movement skepticism increasingly problematic, especially in public figures embroiled in their own controversies and questionable public statements while also trafficking in the controversial claims of others. Yes, I know: Dawkins is from the UK, not the US, but the same celebrity status problem as the others exists at least in relation to his American fanbase.

The whole phenomenon reminds me a bit of megachurch pastors, who with fame and a large following become enmeshed in the same problems as any secular media star. Meh.

Beginning at 42:08 is I think a good assessment, that initial response to the hoax is a failure of leadership in the skeptical community, and a disappointment by those who are considered role models in that community, some of them world class thinkers, and who are all, presumably, smart enough to know better.

The problem, I think, is in essentializing skepticism, and so unconsciously imbuing prominent individuals with this quality, when I think it’s more accurate to say that skepticism isn’t an ontological property you have or any sort of thing that you necessarily are, or a thing that you own.

Skepticism is a set of ethical and intellectual values, a process of thinking, and a methodological (not a philosophical) approach to reality in the evaluation of testable factual claims. It’s a methodological approach because some skeptics are theists, as was the late Martin Gardner, or deists, like Dr. Hal Bidlack, and in any event not necessarily philosophical naturalists, non-theists, or atheists. Agnosticism is a separate matter as a position on how knowable any answer to the God-question is, and is compatible with any of these. There are agnostic theists as well as non-theists. One can believe or not, and still not be certain, or claim to know of the existence or nonexistence of the thing believed.

My understanding is that skepticism is something that you practice, something that you DO, and if you do it poorly or not at all, then whatever else you are doing, it isn’t skepticism, no matter your preferred label or identity, your organizational status or affiliation, what you ate for breakfast, the brand of suits you wear, or the name of the magazine you publish. Any crank or fool can call themselves a skeptic.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

I’m Baaack.

It’s time to end the most recent blogcation and resume regular posting. This piece originally dates from 2010.11.21 after my first blogcation had ended. My anger has largely abated, except when vulnerable people get hurt or defrauded, and my disillusionment regarding the failures of skeptical thought leaders in their endorsement of the infamous Conceptual Penis Hoax of Lindsay and Boghossian. Hopefully, I’ve migrated to a skepticism more robust and better informed than before. But I do think less of these individuals as serious skeptics than I once did. Things change, and so too my views. This post has been updated where needed.

We live in an angry society which in some quarters values blind faith over thinking, with political and ideological polarization between right and left, religious fundamentalists and everyone else, and a notable rise in public rejection of science and credulity toward pseudoscientific claims.

In times of uncertainty, especially with the current status of the economy, people tend to more easily entertain irrational ideas, and worse, accept them as fact. It’s become common for many to behave as though irrationalism is the new reason.

Skeptics are motivated by a number of reasons for their being what they are, whether a passion for science, the value of truth and reason, simple doubt, the need for the promotion of better education, and any number of other reasons. But skeptics can also be motivated by anger, and a few wear this openly while others are no less honest but more discrete in expressing it.

Even the late Carl Sagan, in his masterpiece The Demon Haunted World, at times showed a subtle frustration at the proliferation of nonsense in the last decade of the 20th century, which has only been aggravated in the past 19 years and shows no sign of abating any time soon. He wasn’t abrasive about it, but he expressed a frustration that I suspect all of us feel.

The causes of this anger come easily to mind; loved ones lost through the denial of adequate medical care caused by the pursuit of quack remedies, and the crushing despair that follows false hope; children or adults hacked to pieces or burned alive in the name of superstitious beliefs in witchcraft and magic; botched exorcisms that kill far more people than any imaginary demon ever could; intelligent but vulnerable people who lose thousands in return for the worthless services of psychics; political obstructionism in dealing with major environmental problems based on anti-scientific denialism; the short-term educational and long-term economic consequences of the encroachment of sectarian religious ideologies in public schools and science classes.

These things alone are enough to make anyone angry, and yes, especially me. The people who promote the claims we skeptics oppose sometimes get angry as well, but with much less real moral justification – they are angry because skeptics are costing them customers, cutting down on their book royalties, keeping more people than they’d like away from their seminars, retreats, and churches, and reducing their clientele for whatever untested or failed “alternative” medical modalities they promote – skeptics have bit by bit eroded their celebrity, their influence, and worst of all, their bottom-line, by showing people how to how not to be taken in by the nonsense.

The propagandists of unreason often have the upper hand, since they aren’t in any way constrained by the limits of intellectual honesty, logic, facts, evidence, or even reality. They have the liberty and the incentive to make sh*t up as they please, and they are very effective at persuading people to believe them, considering that their claims, often not even arguments, only assertions, make headlines and grab ratings for the credulous and journalistically sloppy media outlets that promote them.

But sometimes skeptics win, like with Kitzmiller vs Dover in 2005, or the successful deconstruction of the 9/11 conspiracy film, Loose Change, in an issue of Popular Mechanics.

But it’s far from over. In truth, it will never be over. Ever.

It sickens me to the core of my being to see people cynically lied to, used, robbed, defrauded, hurt, even killed, all for somebody’s stupid, blind, dogmatic sectarian doctrine or reactionary ideology. Nothing that we think, believe or do is without real consequences.

There’s work to be done.

Ts. Tk. Tts.

Mr Eccles Presents | Kavin Senapathy – A Science Mom’s Path from Reason, to Oz, and Back Again

If skeptics are diametrically opposed to one thing, it’s woo.

That’s why Kavin Senapathy took on her new Woo Watch column for Skeptical Inquirer, which explores the alternative health, clean food, and spurious parenting worlds, examines what drives these movements, and, of course, cites the evidence that condemns them. But even though she relishes wielding data and evidence, Senapathy fights woo not only because it’s wrong.

What took this mommy blogger from buying Dr. Oz-endorsed supplements just a handful of years ago to her third time on the CSIcon stage? From being raised staunchly atheist by former Hindu immigrants from India to today, this Science Mom will explain why Woo Watch and CFI are part of her fight.

The Center for Inquiry is a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit organization. CFI’s vision is a world in which evidence, science, and compassion—rather than superstition, pseudoscience, or prejudice—guide public policy.

You can join CFI and find out what we do to protect critical thinking and science by visiting:

Kavin is an author and public speaker covering science, health, medicine, agriculture, food, parenting and their intersection. Her work appears regularly at Forbes, SELF Magazine, Slate, and more.

Her chapter in the recent MIT Press book “Pseudoscience” is entitled “Swaying Pseudoscience – The Inoculation Effect.”

When she’s not writing and tweeting, she’s busy being a “Science Mom”—also the name of a recent documentary film in which she’s featured—to a 7-year-old and 5-year-old.

This talk took place at the CSICon 2018 in Las Vegas on October 20, 2018

Mr. Eccles Presents | Science Salon: Dr. Susan Blackmore

Dr. Susan Blackmore is no stranger to skeptics. Dr. Shermer has known Dr. Blackmore since the early 1990s. When the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine were founded in 1992 she was already a rock star in the skeptical movement, having moved from believing in the paranormal, ESP, telepathy, and all the rest, to being an arch skeptic of all such claims. After earning a Ph.D. in the paranormal she devoted a decade to testing various phenomena under rigorous laboratory conditions, and continually found null results. That is, the tighter the controls she implemented and the more rigorous the research protocols, the weaker the paranormal effects became until they disappeared entirely. She went on from there to develop a theory about the neural correlates of such altered states of consciousness as Out of Body Experiences and Near Death Experiences, and after that wrote her bestselling book The Meme Machine, in which she developed a theory of how memes can be replicated and selected in a manner first proposed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, when he coined the term.

Dr. Blackmore went on to publish one of the leading textbooks on consciousness and is now working on a theory of tremes, or technological memes and how they can be replicated and selected in machines without human input.

This interview was recorded on November 7, 2018 as part of the Science Salon series of dialogues hosted by Michael Shermer and presented by The Skeptics Society, in California.

Listen to Science Salon via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and Soundcloud…