Archive for skeptics

Skeptical Blogging and Preaching to the Choir

Posted in conspiracy thinking, pseudoscience, skepticism with tags , , , , , , on June 26, 2010 by cpolsonb

The first time I seriously considered starting a blog was at a local Perth Skeptics event. The guest speaker was Kristjan Wager who runs the ProScience blog. He was talking to us about skeptical blogging in general, what got him started, what it involves and how he has found it. One of the guests there asked a rather pointed question about whether skeptical blogging serves any practical purpose, and whether we are merely “preaching to the choir” as they say. I’ve heard this sort of sentiment repeated elsewhere; the view that the blogosphere is merely an “echo chamber” of like minded individuals patting each other on the back. These people argue that our efforts would be best served elsewhere, maybe handing out leaflets on a street corner or engaging in direct confrontation of forums. In my short time as a blogger I have found that the reality is actually very different.

Thanks to the in-depth traffic statistics that wordpress keeps for all it’s blogs, I have been able to observe where the majority of my traffic comes from. Contrary to the echo chamber hypothesis, my statistics indicate that a good deal of traffic comes from search terms not typically associated with the skeptically mindset. Right up front the big exception to this conclusion is from very top search term “richard dawkins” or “dawkins” which has accounted for a full 9.54% of my total views. Who’s to say however that all those people searching for dawkins are doing so from a skeptical mindset? After dawkins the most popular search terms of all time are “omega point theory criticism” which I will concede seems like a directly skeptical search. Then you get into “global temperatures” & “earth’s atmosphere” which while still scientific indicate that non-skeptics may be stumbling upon my skeptical rundown of climate change denial.

Continue reading

What TAM Australia Means to Me

Posted in News, personal views, skepticism, Trips and Visits with tags , , , on June 9, 2010 by cpolsonb

Just a few days ago it was announced that TAM Australia tickets would go on early-bird sale June 20th, with full public sale on July 4th. What is “TAM” and why do I care? First a little background.

TAM stands for ‘The Amazing Meeting’ and is a science and critical thinking conference hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). For the last seven years it’s been held in Las Vega and just last year they branched out across the pond and held a TAM in London. Now it’s our turn, time for a TAM meeting down under! If you’re not aware, the JREF is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering critical thinking in new generations and providing information and resources for the public and media about paranormal or psychic claims (amongst a host of other things). Most famously they are know for the $1,000,000US challenge, the prize pool of which is available to any claimant that can demonstrate the existence of anything paranormal under stringent and mutually agreed upon conditions. The Amazing Randi himself is far more than a name for the JREF, he is still, at the venerable age of 82 a fearless warrior on the front-line of battling harmful pseudoscience and paranormal nonsense.

When I was first introduced to the organized skeptical movement in 2006 through the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast it became immediately obvious just what a figure James Randi has been over the last half a century. The SGU team with their ‘Randi Speaks’ segment gave me a direct channel to hear from Randi and the podcast itself opened my eyes wide to movement as a whole. Now, four years on I am completely enthralled by the entire culture, constantly reading blogs, browsing the SGU forum, writing my own blog, following fellow skeptics on twitter, reading the books and of course, still listening to the podcasts! (with a host of others like Skepticality & Skeptoid added to the pile). Over the last four years the idea of attending a TAM event was like a far off dream, something that I may be able to do in a hefty number of years. I imagined by the time I finally attended a TAM (if they were still running), most of the names I’m familiar with would have passed out of the spotlight in the movement and made way for equally hard-working, yet less personally important folks.

But now the chance has come. Later in the year I will (hopefully) be flying off and coming face to face (or at least room to room) with many of my skeptical heroes, including the group that got me into it (the SGU). TAM offers a chance to connect face to face with international skeptics and reach far beyond the small pocket I’ve seen in Perth. I have no idea what the conference will be like or how comfortable I’ll feel at a conference of mostly older professionals but I have no doubt it will be a remarkable and gratifying experience.

Now I just have to grab an Australian Skeptic subscription so I can get an early bird ticket. Oh, and I need to start thinking about why I deserve a $150 student reimbursement :P

Broadening Skeptical Outreach Through Manga

Posted in skepticism with tags , , , , on May 10, 2010 by cpolsonb

No I don’t mean the psychic kind of medium, I’m talking about discovering a new means through which critical thinking can be taught. The notion of using Japanese manga comics to communicate a message about science or critical thinking would likely never have occurred to me, but thankfully it did to someone! That someone Canadian resident Sara Mayhew, graphic designer and mangaka (manga artist), author of Secrets of Sorcerers and Love Pet. Her current project is called Legend of the Ztarr and is available online here.

I first heard about Sara and her work on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Forum where she posted an announcement about her upcoming talk at the TED conference. If you haven’t heard of it before TED is an annual convention on Technology, Entertainment and Design where speakers are invited to talk about their specialty in such fields. Other noted skeptics who are TED fellows include James Randi, Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins so Sara is clearly in good company. The TED conference is just fantastic and I highly recommend you check out there catalog of lectures available in full online for free on their website.

Soon after I heard about Sara and her plans to take manga and critical thinking to TED I quickly had a couple of other encounters with her work. Sara was interviewed on episode #127 of the massively popular Skepticality podcast and was able to spread the word even further about her work and her plans. Sara also recorded a 2 minute video describing herself and her beliefs as part of a Nokia’s responsiveness program (embedded below). She also runs a very cool blog called “There Are Four Lights” the title of which is an awesomely nerdy Star Trek reference. It’s clear from her blog that her popularity has exploded and there are a number of posts detailing exciting events she’s participating in and work she’s done.

Continue reading

Chronicle of Belief: Part 3 – Nature’s Value

Posted in biology, personal views, Philosophy with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2010 by cpolsonb

This third installment of Chronicle of Belief is about a subject very personal to me as a budding Biologist; nature. It is very easy to say that the natural world is a thing worth protecting and few fellow skeptics or rationalists would disagree, but why? What is so important about nature and is there an objective rational justification for why nature has value? To begin with let’s look at what my particular field, Conservation Biology is really all about.

For many people I imagine conservation conjures images of protesters and hippies, marching in the streets or standing in front of bull dozers. That sort of na├»ve environmentalism is however often irrational, counter-productive and/or used as a means to push some other ideological agenda. Conservation Biology is a scientific discipline that looks at how biological communities react to change, how different species and the environment interact with one another and how we as humans can ensure the continued existence of these systems. At it’s core Conservation Biology has a number of guiding principles:

Principles of Conservation Biology

1. Evolution is the basic axiom that unites all biology. Conservation biologists do not aim to conserve the status quo, nor stop the evolutionary process but to ensure that populations can adapt naturally to environmental change.

2. The ecological world is dynamic and non-equilibrial. Conservation based on a static view of nature is fundamentally flawed and a mis-representation of the natural world. A dynamic view allows for a deeper understanding.

3. The presence of humans must be included in conservation planning. Conservation biologists aims to integrate humans into the equation and study their impact.

These principles are text-book simplifications of a complex scientific field and highlight the dynamic, integrated approach that conservation biologists must take when approaching questions. It is also valuable to note that conservation biology is a ‘crisis discipline’, having been born from the outrage at anthropogenic mass extinctions and environmental destruction of the last few centuries. In this way it is also a science of eternal vigilance, there can never be a complete theory conservation biology as it is reactionary and time dependent. It is also not an exact science, biological systems are far too complex to ever predict with the certainty of say for example, a chemical reaction.

Continue reading

Vaccines in the Local News and AVN Update

Posted in health, News, pseudoscience, skepticism with tags , , , , on February 28, 2010 by cpolsonb

This little article comes from the February 23rd edition of the “Eastern Reporter”, the local community newspaper in my slice of Perth. I’ll be keeping an eye out for anything science or pseudoscience related in future issues and reporting my thoughts.

Not really a whole lot to say on this one, just pleasing to see something pro-vaccination in the media. It’s not even all that surprising and it’s sometimes easy to forget that most people seem to be largely sensible, mature, intelligent and generally pro-science. Like most issues it’s the vocal minorities who tend to have the loudest voice, amplifying gradually as you diverge from the mean until a sudden decrease in amplitude once you enter timecube territory.

Perhaps this caught my eye in particular as it comes hot on the heels of the deceptively titled “Australian Vaccination Network” appearing the be on the verge of collapse. For those of you who weren’t aware the AVN (headed by Meryl Dorey) is the stronghold of the anti-vaccination movement in Australia since it was founded in 1994. Since that time they have launched a continual mis-information campaign spreading dangerous lies and paranoid conspiracy thinking under the guise of “public awareness”.

Click to read open letter to parents from the Australian Skeptics

Even the title of their organization is deceptive, why can’t they just call themselves what they are, the “Australian Anti-Vaccination Network”. Just last year in 2009 a complaint was filed by Ken McLeod in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics against the organization to the New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission. In addition to this the Australian Skeptics published an excellent advertisement in “The Australian” last year providing an evidence based retaliation to claims of the AVN and a plea to the parents of Australia.

Continue reading