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.

Ubi dubium… | How Not To Defend Your Mentor

So, on June 6, a copy of eSkeptic popped into my inbox, with a defense of Jordan Peterson from a former student of his, Dr. Jonathan N. Stea. That’s to be expected. Peterson’s a smart guy, familiar with ways of influencing people, from his psychology training and study of authoritarian leaders, as his legion of followers well shows.

This entry is not an attack on Peterson. As controversial a figure as he is, that controversy is far from black and white, and would require more nuance to properly and fairly address than I’ve space for in a post of this length.

The defense opens with the following paragraphs:

“It is well known that clinical psychologist, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, has been portrayed in the media as a polarizing figure: bigoted alt-right charlatan on the one hand, superordinate fatherly free-speech protector on the other hand. The former portrayal reflects downright ignorance and the latter is optimistic. Commentary on his clinical psychological acumen is conspicuously absent. His detractors are keen to point out his politics, eccentricities, and volatility, as if political pigeon-holing and ad hominem attacks weaken the veracity of his claims. This is inaccurate.”

“I know because I am a former psychology student of Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto; he was my undergraduate thesis supervisor. I have a master’s of science degree and a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from the University of Calgary. I am a registered and practicing clinical psychologist in Calgary, AB, Canada. I provide evidence-based treatment to individuals with concurrent mental health and addictive disorders in a specialty outpatient hospital clinic. I have published many peer-reviewed scientific research papers on topics related to addiction and mental health.”

Wait. What? So Stea opens by noting that few are criticizing Peterson’s clinical practice, only his public persona, and then listing his own credentials. Do you know why Peterson’s clinical practice is unmentioned in most criticisms? It’s not relevant to the discussion, evidence-based or not. This opening of the defense starts off poorly with a heavy-handed dismissal of Peterson’s critics, and ends up worse. It fails the initial “So what?” test and fails on first face.

In the main body, Stea then goes on to assert numerous ways where that clinical practice is reflected in Peterson’s books, video lectures, and speaking engagements. The trouble with these assertions is none of them seem evidently true. The phrase “evidence-based” is used at least six times in the main body alone, almost as if Stea is trying really hard to tell us something — dost thou protest a bit much? Also, of what possible value is an evidence-based methodology to a man widely known for dismissing empirical evidence as any basis for what is true? Unless I’m wildly mistaken from hearing his first interview with Sam Harris, Peterson’s publicly stated view of truth is instrumental; what is useful to attain one’s ends, not what comports to observable reality. How could Stea not know that about his old teacher? What far away galaxy has he been living in since 2016?

Look. I get it, Stea.

I get that you really like your old teacher, and that he influences you still — otherwise you wouldn’t write this piece, but lay off on the Rhetoric 101 tactics; you’re trying too hard, and it shows. This is classic apologetics: conflate what’s being criticized with what obviously isn’t, defend what’s not as though it were what is, and prematurely declare victory having only pretended to address the real issue. There is a screamingly obvious misdirection here. Busted. If a mere learner could pick this out, how much more would a better skeptic yet? I could be wrong of course, but it would take better arguments and more solid evidence than the flimsy assertions found here to convince me.

Really, eSkeptic? You can do better than this. The arguments are biased and uncritical, even apologetic in tone, and read like an advert for Peterson’s book, not a fair and objective rebuttal to the critics, indeed, a rather clumsy one however unfair Peterson’s critics have often been.

Dr. Jonathan N. Stea, you do your profession a disservice with this piece and should be embarrassed. No one with a critical neuronal cluster in their brain cares about lengthy listings of personal credentials when they merely preface such shoddy argument: arguments from authority, bare assertions, red herrings, and blanket dismissals carry no weight with me, so color me unimpressed.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Ubi dubium… | Credulity, Skepticism, Cynicism, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

A while back, Steven Novella [Here] had posted some really good thoughts on the difference between effective, intellectually honest skepticism and cheap, lazy, cynical denialism, and on the importance of cultivating the former and avoiding the latter.

In the past, I’ve attempted to describe a belief spectrum from absolute credulity to definitive denial, but I currently think that’s an erroneous concept.

For as has often been pointed out by Stephanie Zvan, except for some rare cases of neurological dysfunction, nobody is totally credulous or completely cynical about everything, but somewhere between them in more of a rock-strewn landscape of belief with surer, safer footing nearer the center than at the edges, to paraphrase her analogy.

But in the comment thread of Steve’s post, one of the commenters [Starting Here] tries very hard to prove the very thesis of cynicism the post addresses in a classic and blatant display of the Dunning-Kruger effect, by conspiracy mongering, in dishonestly ignoring or dismissing all counterarguments, attempting to assert intellectual superiority by evading questions and repeating the same talking points using glaring errors in reasoning apparent to nearly everyone else in the thread, and especially obvious to Dr. Novella.

Despite suggestions from the others, and better arguments offered by same, at no point does the offending commenter get a clue as to his own incompetence in reasoning, and repeatedly sticks to 20-30 years out-of-date books and documentaries as proof positive of his claims of evil government conspiracies in a manner that seems a bit too uncritically cynical, arrogant, and condescending for one claiming to be the better skeptic.

Exactly what was described in Steve’s main post. To a tee.

The commenter is content to claim the moral and intellectual high-ground, and not once does he note the irony of his factual errors, illogical statements and attempts to shift the burden of proof onto the other commenters, thinking his own arguments absolutely steel-girded and views flawlessly correct.

I’m going to say something I rarely feel a need to: Incompetence leads to more of the same. Some people are too clueless to notice or too resentful to acknowledge their own lack of ability and project it onto others to protect their fragile egos and rice-paper thin skins.

I for one am skeptical of his claims, as I hear the same sort of absurd arguments from people whose only criticisms of science are based upon casting aspersions of motive and vested interest, thus showing quite nicely that they really don’t understand science.

As noted with the Dunning-Kruger effect, There’s an enormous difference between self-reporting how well-informed one is about something, and really being as well-informed as one claims: It’s an inverse relationship between how unduly confident one is about their understanding and how much they actually understand, ego and self-esteem aside.

People who really do know more probably tend to be more introspective and self-critical thinkers and are more aware of their own intellectual shortcomings and biases than incurious types who don’t think deeply enough to question the limits of their understanding and of their own subjective but real weaknesses.

Ubi Dubium… | The Three Faces of Skepticism

Rather than go into a single definition of what modern skepticism is, already done in great detail on this blog’s Media Guide to Skepticism page by Sharon Hill, I’d like to discuss those aspects, those three faces, that to my understanding make it up.
What are those faces of skepticism? They are:
  1. Skepticism is a set of values, both intellectual and ethical: Skepticism favors intellectual honesty, sincerity, integrity, and a high value on the truth of whatever matter we look into. It is to have little patience with those who deceive, save those ‘honest liars,’ professional conjurors who are forthright about the inherently deceptive nature of their trade. Those who knowingly defraud, harm, or manipulate others are fair game for skeptical scrutiny and critiquing. Skepticism acknowledges and respects the limits of human perception, understanding and reasoning. It tells us about and arms us against our biases. It tells us that “I don’t know,” is a better answer to a question than an answer that is not only demonstrably false, but isn’t even worthy of being wrong. If a skeptic is in error, or is knowingly dishonest, they can be and ought to be be corrected, or exposed, by others who are not. Whatever their personal inclinations, if they are not honest, other skeptics will be, and they will be found out.
  2. Skepticism is a set of methods, a way of evaluating arguments and evidence to determine the likely factual status of claims. These are the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry. Skepticism lets us know when someone’s trying to put us on, or putting others on, and that’s the first step to exposing them. Skepticism lets us distinguish sound claims from unsound and good argument from bad. It lets us know, when we are careful, when our prejudices are being pandered to, giving us the first line of defense against fraud and chicanery. These methods assume scientific literacy, scientific thinking, and an understanding of how we deceive ourselves and others through biases and motivated reasoning.
  3. The values and methods of skepticism assume a particular approach to reality. It assumes that there are such things as facts and truth. It assumes the world is knowable and that it is possible to tell truth from falsehood. It assumes that the world is real, regardless of the nature of that reality, it exists, and that it must for anything at all to be meaningfully true, false, or even possible. It assumes that the methods of science, empiricism, and rational inquiry are valid, useful, and powerful ways of knowing reality. It assumes in its methods that solid, reliable and effective ways of knowing are preferable to those that not only lead to error, but are neither self-correcting nor concerned with the actual truth of a matter. While it doesn’t necessarily assume philosophical naturalism, it does assume naturalistic methods, and so eschews resorting to unobservable or unfalsifiable ‘explanations’ for phenomena. But it has no trouble investigating anything that is knowably real and open to objective inquiry.
These are the three faces and together they form the core of my understanding of skepticism as an endeavor, whatever the state of organized skepticism at any time.

Astrology: Claudius Ptolemy’s Dubious Legacy

Astrology began as a form of divination, originally not so distinct from Astronomy as it is today, and is historically thought to have been invented by the Assyrians and Chaldeans about three millennia ago, culminating in the contributions of the “father of astrology,” Claudius Ptolemy in 150 C.E. in the reference work used by today’s Western astrologers, the Tetrabiblos.

Astrology’s central claim is that the relative positions of celestial bodies in the sky at the time of one’s birth have a real and measurable effect on one’s psychological makeup and destiny, a claim that has not stood up well to evidential scrutiny. Despite the fact that millions of people around the world believe in it, and have for thousands of years, there is no plausible, empirically testable mechanism by which it would work, and most of the evidence to date shows that it has no causative correlation to how we understand ourselves and our role or position in the universe at large.

Physics currently knows of only four fundamental forces: electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Of these four, the last two have zero effect outside of an atomic nucleus, and the first two fall off in strength with the square of the distance from the source.

Of these, electromagnetism can be blocked or interfered with by various sorts of matter, which leaves gravity the most often cited as the source of astrological influences.

Let’s look closer at this: the Moon’s gravity causes tides, and humans being about 70% water, astrologers try to argue that these tidal forces also affect the water bound up in human bodies. I’m sure this is true, but the real question is whether it significantly affects humans, and whether this involves any effect on one’s personality from the moment of birth.

First, lunar tidal forces only notably affect fairly large bodies of water, such as really big lakes and up, and taking the law of universal gravitation into account, the obstetrician delivering a newborn has a much greater gravitational effect on the infant than does the moon or any other body in the solar system save the Earth itself.

So if gravity is the force of astrological influence as some claim, why don’t black holes, quasars and neutron stars, among the most massive, gravitationally powerful objects in the universe exert their influence on our personalities and lives as well? Why do astrologers ignore them?

The planet Neptune was discovered by way of predictions made of its gravitational effect on Uranus’ orbit, and observations made using those predictions allowed us to find it.

If astrology is a science, why has it never discovered any previously unknown celestial objects by way of their astrological effects alone? What about a new force, unknown to science? It is certainly possible that some currently undiscovered force exists, but until it is actually detected, it’s existence is nothing more than an untested postulate, and is not acceptable as a viable mechanism for astrology.

There are a number of flaws in the original stellar observations and knowledge of those who wrote the manuals used by astrologers, errors which modern astrology has not seen fit to correct: Contrary to the beliefs of Ptolemy’s day, the Earth is not at the center of the Universe, nor are the motions of the planets overlapping circles, nor the sky a crystal dome and the Universe made of concentric, perfect crystal spheres in which the planets, moon or sun are embedded.

Further, Ptolemaic astronomers knew of far fewer celestial objects than we know of today. They did not know about the planets Uranus, Neptune and the minor planets Pluto and Eris as well as a grunchload of planetary moons, their influence disregarded by all but the most workaholic astrologers.

It has been claimed that a horoscope must be cast for the year, month, day and time of day, as well as an individual’s geographic location of birth, but the data used in astrological charts for casting horoscopes today are flawed, as accurate methods of telling time have only been developed in the last few centuries, and the data derive from when the original charts were made and such means of telling time did not exist.

Also, since the writing of the Tetrabiblos, the axis of our planet has deviated so that the zodiacal constellations have shifted to the West about thirty degrees from their original locations given in Ptolemy’s book, and modern astrologers have not attempted to compensate for this. The ancient constellations of the zodiac no longer match up to their original locations in the sky, and in the modern zodiac, not officially recognized by astrologers, Ophiuchus, the Serpent-bearer, is the thirteenth sign, from November 30 to December 17, taking up a good chunk of Scorpio’s time, now November 23-29.

Farnsworth (1937) was unable to find any correspondence between artistic talent and either the ascendant sign or the sun in the sign of Libra for the dates of birth of 2,000 famous musicians and painters.

In 1941, Bok and Mayall were unable to find any predominance of any single sign of the zodiac among scientists listed in the American Men of Science directory.

In 1973, Barth and Bennett attempted a statistical study as to whether more men who had chosen a military career had been born under the influence of the planet Mars than those who had chosen non-military careers. No such correlation was found.

McGervey (1977) used a huge number of birth dates of politicians and scientists (6,475 & 16,634 respectively…) born on each day of the year and could find no relationship between their careers and astrological signs.

Further, in 1978, Bastedo did a statistical analysis to find out if those with such characteristics as leadership ability, political leanings, intelligence and 30 other variables often attributed to astrological influence would cluster on certain birth dates under signs that are said to govern those traits, and in a 1,000 person, cross sectional, stratified sample taken from the San Francisco Bay area, the results were completely negative.

The late Carl Sagan once commented, “Nothing will ever put astrologers out of business,” and considering that former president Ronald Reagan consulted an astrologer during his two terms in office, often on matters of state, it appears to me that maybe, just maybe, it’s astrologers, not the stars, who wield the real influence.

(Last Updated: 2019/2/8: text updated)