Ubi dubium… | Skeptical Inquiry in a Fantasy Setting


There’s a thing that seems to me to result from sloppy storytelling and a deep failure of the imagination in many genres of fiction: the so-called “skeptic in a mystical world” trope I’ll call it. I’m side-eyeing here the first MCU Doctor Strange movie, many episodes of Supernatural, and Stargate Atlantis in particular.

Such poorly written, poorly imagined fare is an ill fit for the magical, superhero, and monster-ridden worlds it’s often portrayed in.

I’d like to discuss an alternative I’ll call Arcane Inquiry, a fantasy-based version of the thinking and methods of real world skeptical inquiry that offers a much better fit story-wise to a fantasy milieu. Why arcane? Because of the implied meaning the word carries of things not generally known, even secretive knowledge. Unless the world-builder involved has a good rationale for it, critical thinking and a firm literacy in the known workings of reality will likely not be widely known, much less universally taught, in a typical fantasy milieu.

In these worlds, often based on earlier fantasy literature or popular RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, magic and monsters are a demonstrable, repeatable, and actionable reality, and plausible Inquirers would be straying from their own methods and ethical values to deny these things, or even to deliberately hide or refuse to look at the evidence for them.

It’s my understanding that even when monsters and magic abound, modern skeptical inquiry, properly translated as the intersection of critical thinking, literacy in (the milieu’s) science, and consumer/buyer/customer protection would flourish among knowledge-experts like clergy or wizards.

Who hasn’t played a fantasy RPG and occasionally failed a perception check, fumbled a saving roll against mind-befuddling spells, or thought they were fighting one monster but really another masked by a disguise or spell of some sort? Clearly, skeptical thinking should and would convey some advantage when planning strategy or tactical choices.

Then, there are also those beings of various kinds who pose as gods and similar entities through their powers or guile; powerful wizards, witches, or sorcerers, undead like liches or vampires, and nether-worldly beings like demons, daemons, or devils.

Even in a world where everyone can conjure demons or djinn to do their bidding, opportunities for skullduggery and shenanigans abound. Sometimes the conjured djinn seek to subvert their master’s intent, or a summoned devil seeks to pervert the spirit of a bargain by brilliant lawyering of the contract; always look at the fine print before signing!

Every fantasy RPG I’ve ever played has rules, a system for its magic, to define the procedure, power limits, and the sometimes draining costs of casting magic. These rules translate well to the implied laws governing the setting, and at least in part amount to that setting’s science along with whatever real science the GM includes specifically or is otherwise implied in that game’s rule mechanics.

From my own previous experience in refereeing Call of Cthulhu in the late 1990s, magic is the physics of the true (CoC) universe, that true but thankfully hidden reality concealed from everyday scrutiny by a veil of sanity, obvious and comprehensible only to the mad and the horrors from beyond space-time with which they traffick.

Far more extraordinary to me than a world whose laws allow magic and monsters would be one in which there are no attempts by anyone to deceive anyone else, in which no one ever fools themselves, misperceive, misremember, nor misinterpret and misreport what they think they perceive and remember, and in which there are no attempts by anyone to cheat, con, or defraud another for spite, fun, or personal gain.

Such a world would be an incredibly unchallenging, boring, and implausible one. Most fantasy worlds in literature are rife with deception of some sort. In those worlds, there are scads of beings that make it their business to fool others. Outstanding examples include demons, devils, human and nonhuman thieves and assassins, fairies, tricky sellers of rare “magic items,” mischievous elementals, actual gods, and quite a few of the smarter dragon species…

…but most of all, those all-seeing Dungeon Masters, or GMs if GURPS is your thing. 

Even in a fantasy world, clear, clever thinking and thorough investigation can be your strongest weapon against the most powerful magicks or extra-planar beings, and any engaging, well designed setting will account for this.

Even in fantasy, superhero fiction, or the realms of horror where monsters bring vast and frightening powers to bear, using your brain instead of thinking with whatever supernormal powers the setting permits will often be your greatest asset. 

Mr. Eccles Presents | Skepticism and the Law (P. Andrew Torrez)


“Skepticism and the Law: Or, How to Earn Billions With Your Birth Certificate AND Make Bernie Sanders President Using this ONE WEIRD TRICK” 🙂

“Presented by P. Andrew Torrez, Law Offices of P. Andrew Torrez “

“Video contains strong language and adult content which may not be suitable for children. Skeptics are well-versed in applying the tools of critical thinking to a variety of claims we see in everyday life, from quack medicine to religion to agriculture.”

“But for some reason, skeptics tend to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to equally preposterous claims about the law. As the co-host of the popular Opening Arguments podcast, Andrew Torrez shares some of the most preposterous and unbelievable real-life questions that he’s gotten from skeptics just like you about the law. Is there really a shadowy cabal of international bankers to whom your entire life has been pledged as collateral from birth? Did a watchdog group really file a petition before the Supreme Court to undo the 2016 Presidential Election? Do criminals frequently escape justice due to technicalities? “

“This talk will equip you with the tools to help separate legal fact from legal fiction — without having to earn a law degree of your own.”

“After nearly 20 years in big firms, P. Andrew Torrez founded his own law firm in 2015 to serve start-up and small businesses in Maryland and the District of Columbia. In 2016, he started the podcast Opening Arguments to explain legal concepts in the news to non-lawyers; today, the show is one of the most popular news & politics podcasts with nearly 2.5 million downloads to date.”

“Andrew Torrez is a 1997 graduate of Harvard Law School with honors, is a member of the Board of Governors of the Maryland chapter of the Federal Bar Association, has been named a Fellow of the American Bar Association, and has been repeatedly honored as one of Maryland’s top lawyers by Benchmark since 2011.”

“Views expressed in this video are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Capital Area Skeptics.”

MetaCognitions | Skeptic: a Promise as Well as a Label


Vanakkam. Last week, I posted my decision to let go of the word “skeptic” as a personal descriptor. Not just because of bad skeptics who’ve tarnished the brand, there’s that, but also out of respect for the good skeptics, and I mean bad and good not necessarily in the ethical sense, that too, but in terms of the methods and thinking used by either.

It should be apparent by now that I have always had deep issues with labels. To me, labels should mean something. And there are those with definable criteria.

“Skeptic” is one of those. It has an implied rhetorical power even recognized by the enemies of science and skepticism. It has force. That’s why even science rejectionists try to cloak themselves in the mantle of “scientific skepticism” of well established scientific or historical findings using wholly dishonest means to deceive the rhetorically vulnerable.

But it’s not just because of a few bad apples, science deniers, and conspiracy cranks. It’s also why I left Twitter some months ago, likely for good, barring some unforeseen future need to use the platform. That, and some poor personal decisions that weigh heavily on me, even without lasting and serious consequences.

No TMI though. I’ll spare you that.

Here’s the thing: the word “skeptic” is more than just a label: it’s also a promise, implying the adoption, and the striving for, a definable set of intellectual values, intellectual strategies, and an approach to evaluating testable claims of fact, the “Three Faces of Skepticism.”

When you call yourself a skeptic, you are telling others something about yourself, intended or not, to different people, things positive and negative, and what general sort of intellectual strategies you might be expected to use. On the positive side, some level of intellectual honesty, open-mindedness, and intellectual humility is implied, individual thinking styles aside.

This ties into my leaving Twitter on December 4 of 2018.

Since starting on Twitter in March of 2010, up until the end, I had far too often experienced the loss of those no longer with us from various causes, ranging from those leaving organized skepticism for less community drama, harassment, and fractiousness, to the actual passing of good people from a number of causes, usually illness, but some few by their own hand. The last nine years have not been kind in that regard.

I make no secret of the fact that I don’t take that kind of personal loss well, even with a fair degree of resilience when problems are my own, when striving for equanimity in the face of losing those I care for, when knowing them mostly or solely online. Empathy and the loss of others has been brutal on me, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ll take my lumps as they come, thank you very much.

In the meantime, I won’t call myself a skeptic, not in the near future, but also won’t take it as an insult even if and when it’s intended as such. I’ve gotten much better at meeting things like that with humor, and again, there are those I greatly respect who do the skeptic-thingy well indeed, with and without the label.

So from now until then, still skeptical in outlook, just not a self-described skeptic,

Tf. Tk. Tts.

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: 

https://donotlink.it/A1vJ5

…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.