(NEW) ATHEISM (PLUS)

 

I feel that I’ve missed the boat somewhat here, as this is a conversation I had way back in the days of my first steps in the skeptical movement.  But it came to mind because I had a question that I wanted to pose to the Atheism+ people, and I just discovered that their website no longer exists!  I am disappointed, because I feel that their movement has a lot to offer atheists, humanists and skeptics.  I hope that they still exist in some incarnation, because it would be a shame to lose a more compassionate atheist angle.  As well as that, they seemed to be the ones actually doing critical thinking about social and skeptical matters, unlike the self-proclaimed rationalists who would tear them down at every opportunity that they see someone tapping on their glass case of privilege.

But the conversation I had was about the dichotomy of New Atheism vs. Atheism Plus.  And, you guessed it, all dichotomies are false dichotomies.  Most of my social circle would err more toward the New Atheist end of the spectrum, and I do criticise their arguments and pose questions that their brand of atheism doesn’t always have a satisfactory answer for.  They’re free to do the same in turn for my atheism, but very often they would come at the argument from an extreme position “calling out” the other end of the scale – assuming that I was querying their viewpoints because I was some fringe lefty.

But this is not an either/or problem.  I find much of what the New Atheists say in terms of ideas to be useful, and I find the way it is presented to often be extreme and repugnant.  In terms of Atheism Plus, I find their philosophy far more welcoming and pragmatic, yet the practice is often exclusionary due to its adherents jumping to conclusions about atheists who don’t exactly fit their mould.

Very often, New Atheists make sole claim to all that is reasonable and rational, and then jump on whatever bandwagon is steamrollering itself over an oppressed minority (because down with social justice – booooooooo!).  But I’ve found Atheism Plus to be too defensive when genuine questions are asked.  I know that this stems from the phenomenon of “Just Asking Questions“, which New-Atheist trolls are very good at, but it unfortunately spills over into suspicion of people who are genuinely curious.

In my response to the question of whether one is “better” than the other, or whether they can even co-exist, I sort-of said that I thought it was the wrong question.  Because I do think that they can co-exist, but more than that, that they aren’t mutually exclusive philosophies.  There are going to be disagreements between these groups on certain, nay many, points.  But that’s half the fun of thinking skeptically – you ask two intellectuals a question and you get five different answers.  Atheism, skepticism & humanism aren’t any different, and it shouldn’t be seen as a problem if there are disagreements, or divergent viewpoints on some issues.  I suppose we come into difficulties when extreme views are involved; say a New Atheist with anti-feminist views wants to “debate” Atheism Plus, well that’s obviously going nowhere.  But then we get into absolutes again – many progressive people would say that to be anti-feminist is a right-wing and backward ideology, but the counter-argument is that to be feminist is an ideology (no, no, no, it isn’t – but that’s how the arguments go).

So I suppose the problem here is that there are people who decide that they are very much on one side or the other, and that they quite like there being two “sides”.  New Atheism and Atheism Plus can coexist in the same brain, so I don’t see why there’s so much unease at them existing in the same movement.  If we adhere to one school of thought too rigidly, or define it too narrowly, we’ll come up against conflicts both internally and externally.  It is one thing to be able to hold two contradicting ideas simultaneously (which we can all do), and another to simply hold an array of beliefs that have no contradictions, but come from different sources.  Um, isn’t the second one actually easier…?

 

THE GOD OF THE GAPS FALLACY FALLACY

 

“The God Of The Gaps” is something I hear mentioned a lot in skeptical circles. The concept is that because it has taken humans many thousands of years to develop the scientific knowledge we now collectively hold, that religion was used as a placeholder while we caught up with the facts. But I can see numerous problems with this idea – which, as I discovered while researching this article, never originally meant what skeptics take it to mean nowadays. It was actually a term used by Christian theologians to caution against the type of argument in which believers would say “well, science can’t explain this, therefore God”.  And that’s actually a pretty smart argument – if you’re a person of power within the Christian religion (or any religion), things are going to get awkward when your evidence for God’s existence is progressively overturned by advances in science.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_of_the_gaps

However, in popular modern usage, it means something rather different; a version of the argument-from-ignorance fallacy, that:

  • There is a gap in understanding of some aspect of the natural world.
  • Therefore the cause must be supernatural.

But this is a huge simplification, nay, thinking error, in terms of what’s actually happening in the minds of believers.

Categorising the argument this way is useful for understanding the history and philosophy of religion and science, as we can see the pattern of questioning and rejecting religion during the enlightenment years of scientific inquiry & discovery.  This is an important part of history that we must understand & record, but we mustn’t make the error of thinking it was a well-executed plan. We can look back and observe the changes, and learn from how the knowledge spread. But to conflate the evolution of human learning 200 years ago with the reasons that people choose faith over reason today, doesn’t make any sense.  It is effectively a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument on our part.

1. While there are some unknowns about many areas of science, we know enough about the scientific origins of just about everything now to only have gaps that would accommodate a vanishingly tiny god. There are many religious sects that keep their adherents ignorant, precisely because of the risk of them abandoning their faith if they were to hear of alternative explanations. There are no more significant gaps.

2. A common mistake skeptics make is to assume that other, ordinary, people make choices based on logic and reason. Trying to “debunk” faith with science is like arguing with the archetypal chess-playing pigeon. It is completely pointless. Both sides leave the discussion thinking that they’ve “won”, having achieved nothing. Faith in anything is just that: faith. And faith occurs independent of any knowledge to the contrary. It is powerful, illogical, and rooted in emotional needs. The devout are able to hold their strong beliefs in a world of information because of cognitive dissonance.  The gaps may get smaller, but the faith does not contract in turn.

3. Not only is it a mistake to think that one can argue on a rational basis with a fundamentalist, but it is to fall into a trap from which one cannot escape. To think that the deeply religious are less intelligent than the rest of us is naive and dangerous. Our religious debating opponent is not stupid – they are well-practised in arguing against attacks on their beliefs, and one useful tactic is to play it coy, to let us believe we have the upper hand, and then pull the rug from under our feet. Arguing against belief with science will never be successful. If someone is to leave their faith, they must arrive at that conclusion by themselves.

To summarise, The God Of The Gaps Fallacy Fallacy is one argument we really need to drop. We’ve been arguing this point for decades and have gained no ground. If anything, it’s made the faithful even more firm in their convictions. And it reinforces the stereotype of the hard-hearted, uncaring, dogmatic atheist. We need to stop picking fights that we’ll never win. It’s not a betrayal of principles; we spend much of our time firming them up and confirming our convictions anyway! If the faithful can hold such stock in their stories in the event of conflicting evidence, why can’t we trust in what we know to be fact?

 

TALKING ABOUT TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH

 

CN: Derogatory terms for mental health conditions and those affected by them.

On Thursday just gone, I took part in the annual Skeptical Soapbox held by the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society (GMSS).  The idea is that members of the society give a short talk on a subject with a skeptical connection. This was really cool in itself, but I also presented on a subject that’s very personal to me, and I did really well!

Part of the impetus behind this post is that not everyone who wanted to make it could, and so I’m sharing as much of it here as I can (you won’t get the warmth of my company or experience my unique style of humour, but just try and imagine, OK?).  I’m including every slide, with a bit of blurb.  I’m especially proud of the fact that I didn’t just read off of the slides á la Death By PowerPoint, because:

  1. I didn’t want to bore the audience to tears, and it seemed to work out OK;
  2. I don’t have nearly as much presentation experience as I’d like or need, and this was a big challenge that I totally managed to ace.

And now I present to you, the abridged version of “Are We Mental?”:

Before we begin

My presentation had an interactive element!  Prior to our guests arriving, I placed a questionnaire on each of the seats.  More on this later….

Slide 1

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Two things about this slide, the title and the image:

The Title: I called this presentation “Are We Mental?”; partly because I couldn’t think of a snappy one and so the GMSS Social Sec provided one for me in the event listing (well, I couldn’t change it then, could I?), and also because we can’t objectively say if we are “mental” or not because that term means different things depending on who says it, to whom, and in what context.

The Image: Is from the Wellcome Image Library, and I found it while browsing one of the many blogs by science peeps that I follow (the blog hasn’t been updated for over a year, but there’s some interesting stuff there – go check it out!).  I selected it because I wanted a image that symbolised the stereotypical “lunatic asylum”, without using any images of patients.  I find those sort of photos interesting and a useful and personal record of history, but I thought it would be inappropriate for this presentation because, well, I was looking for a stereotypical image, but I also wanted to smash stereotypes.

Slide 2

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My presentation began with a question: “Does anyone in the room have a medical degree?”, to which the response was silence.  “Good,” I responded, “because everyone is this room is equally qualified to make mental health diagnoses”.  But we were in luck!  There’s a simple way to gain your medical credentials, from the University of Google.  There are an awful lot of Keyboard Doctors out there, but only an actual doctor can diagnose health problems.  As skeptics, we often hold up the example of the patient who believes their 20 minutes on Google trumps their Doctor’s 20 years of training and experience.  PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE can we not engage in the very same behaviour we condemn?  Every time I see someone “diagnosing” someone by Internet (or even in person, more on this in a later slide), or describing antisocial behaviour as “mental health issues”, it annoys the crap out of me, not just because I have a mental illness, but because it’s factually incorrect and dangerous.

Slide 3

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And so, I have a couple of examples.  Recently, there was a video posted on Twitter & Facebook of a woman on the Metrolink racially abusing other passengers.  Whether or not you think it was right to post the video online is another question entirely, but what really pissed me off was the inevitable wheeling out of the Mental Health Issues Bandwagon.  I think we managed to get two comments in before the obligatory denigration of those with mental health concerns, and then it was a bit of a free-for-all.  These people do not have any medical training, and yet they are throwing around diagnoses like a drinking game at a party for medical students.  Look at the type of language they are using:

“learning difficulties”, “disturbed”, “needs help”, “not of sound mind”, “a bit mental”, “alcohol and drug abuse”, “obviously a very damaged woman”

So what’s the problem?  It’s just a metaphor, right?  Well, now that mental health care has improved, we are recognising conditions that might well have been dismissed previously as odd behaviour or a character trait, and those that have those conditions nowadays don’t really like to be classed in the same category as people who are just arseholes, frankly.  One of the comments above reads: “as a person with learning difficulties and mental heath issues, these are not excuses, she a nasty bigot”.  Right on two counts: when people with whichever condition is Lazy Metaphor Of The Month read stuff like this, it can add to the shame and stigma already attached to mental health (it’s the 21st Century, people!).  But there’s another point in their comment:

Using “mental health” as a catch-all for unacceptable behaviour, or strange beliefs, serves to let horrible people off the hook.  You don’t have to be mentally ill to be mean, oppressive, irrational or crude – you might just be a dickhead.  Mentally unwell people will not be delusional all the time, and delusional beliefs are not always the product of mental illness.

A wonderful example of this is when we criticise political and religious stances.  Painting one’s opponent as mentally unstable seems to be the debating tactic of choice in the US Presidential campaign.  While no reasonable person likes Donald Trump, we don’t have to stoop to his level in criticising him.  And just to demonstrate this is a non-partisan presentation, I noted that the other side are having a psychiatric dig at Hillary too.

Slide 4

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There was a Lone Rational Voice in the comments on that Facebook post: a human with an actual medical background!  Making unqualified medical diagnoses of strangers isn’t just hugely unethical, but it also perpetuates stereotypes, reinforces stigma, and spreads misinformation.  As our learned friend points out above, “Being Racist On A Tram” is not a diagnostic criteria for any mental illness.  And nor is “Being Donald Trump”.

Slide 5

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The Goldwater Rule is a damn good rule with an unfortunate origin.  It came about because a US Senator, Barry Goldwater, sued the editor of a magazine that sent out a survey (as the basis for an article) to over 12,000 psychiatrists asking them to provide a long-distance diagnosis of his mental state.  Snr. Goldwater was obviously peeved as this seemed to be used as a stain on his character (thereby buying into the stigma), but seriously, it was a crappy and unethical thing to do.  The survey generated over 2,400 responses (admittedly 571 of those said they didn’t have enough info to make a diagnosis), which is problematic enough; but those responses were also subject to the publication’s Artistic License, which painted a less-than-favourable picture.

And so, because some of its members evidently needed to revisit their training in patient confidentiality and ethics (and the statement the APA had itself put out prior to the publication of the article), the American Psychiatric Association decided, in 1970, to make The Goldwater Rule policy.

So if a psychiatrist is forbidden from diagnosing strangers from behind a keyboard, what makes the rest of us think we have any right or reason to do so?

Want to see how harmful one’s “well-meaning” questioning can be?  How about this:

Slide 6

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When I showed this slide, there was an audible intake of breath from the audience.  I, and they, were shocked that somebody could think it their place to say such a thing to someone they do not know.  It may have been well-intentioned, but the underlying message is that the person behind the till felt superior to the customer, and belittled and discriminated against them because of a perceived mental health condition.  If that customer had been suffering mental ill-health at that time, how do we think they would react to being body-shamed and told that they lack the capacity to make adult decisions?

I’ve had it happen to me.  I wonder if a part of the problem is that well-meaning strangers are looking for a physical sign of an invisible illness.  First example: I have alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition that causes my hair to fall out in patches, typically up to the size of an old 10p piece, but sometimes (much) larger.  There is a specific pattern to the baldness, and I have been diagnosed by someone with 7 years of medical training, and at least 15 years’ postgraduate practice.  Knowing that I was dealing with one mental illness, the graduates of Google Medical School think that once you’ve got one, you’ve got all of them (it’s definitely possible to have more than one mental health condition at a time, and some are more likely to occur with others, but it’s not universal.  It’s not like Pokémon – you ain’t gotta catch ’em all!).  And so a “helpful” friend suggested that I might suffer from trichotillomania, but I just didn’t realise it.  Presumably my sick brain was deluding me into believing I’d actually attended a GP’s surgery and received a diagnosis.  I guess that line in my medical record is a figment of my imagination, too.

The second one wasn’t just insulting, it was potentially dangerous.  I mentioned to a friend that I was on a diet, and I was proud of how much weight I’d lost (I used to be obese, and by this point I was at the higher end of “normal” – whatever that is).  They saw it as an opportunity to reveal their (lack of) medical expertise by suggesting that I might have anorexia.  They knew nothing of my eating or exercise habits, my body image, or any of the other factors that contribute to a healthy self.  But if I did have an eating disorder, is body-shaming the thing that would have helped me?  Or could it have made things worse?  Pro Tip: Telling someone with (perceived) anorexia to, just, like, not have anorexia; is not a recognised treatment option.

Slide 7

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And now we get on to the meaty stuff.  I suffer from OCD, one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions one can have.  Lucky me!  It’s also one of the most debilitating, with the World Health Organisation listing it in the top ten most handicapping illnesses in terms of lost productivity & quality of life (Veale, Willson, 2005).

Trouble is, the common perception is that it’s a bit of a joke, right?  It’s all about being a nitpicker and excessively tidy and precise, with no psychological reasoning behind it other than the person affected is just “fussy”.  Wow, it doesn’t even sound like a disorder – it must be great to be so tidy and organised!  WRONG – excessive cleanliness, and its associated obsessions of contamination, are symptoms of OCD, but not all OCD sufferers have them; in fact, obsessions about cleanliness only affect about a quarter of those with the condition.

And the popular view of OCD being just a preference for tidiness and order is completely wrong.  And that’s where the brain scans come in.  It’s not possible to diagnose someone’s OCD from a brain scan.  But we can use brain scans to see the resulting activity in the brain and use this to better understand the disease.  What we see in the above scans is increased activity in the frontal lobes, the parts of the brain responsible for reasoning and emotion, battling against the limbic system; which takes care of instinctive functions like hunger, fear, and the sense of danger.  A simplified way of looking at it is that the limbic system is the trigger for an obsession – and the frontal lobes frantically search for a compulsion to placate the limbic system’s overenthusiasm.  There is nothing wrong with the structure of the brains of those with OCD, the activity is a consequence of the disease, and not the other way round.  When people are successfully treated for OCD, their brain scans appear like that of a typical brain.

So to return to the neurobiological explanation for OCD: it doesn’t tell us about the content of the obsessions and compulsions, but it does help us to explain what OCD is.  The obsessions experienced are typically worst-case scenarios, of situations the patient could realistically encounter.  The obsessions play on the patient’s core beliefs and values.  The disease makes the obsessions seem plausible, like terrible harm could occur, and the brain needs a solution.  That “solution” comes in the form of a compulsion, a behaviour performed to reduce the anxiety generated by the obsession.  Unfortunately, the relief is only temporary, and performing compulsions actually fuels the obsession.  OCD is a particularly cruel disease for a skeptic, because it is essentially an extreme form of magical thinking and superstition.  But even knowing that the thoughts and actions are irrational; it’s not enough.  OCD is a pattern of thinking and behaviour that is ingrained and responds to emotional reactions.  It’s very difficult to treat, and I needed to attend a 12-week group CBT programme, and I see a psychiatrist regularly.  I take medication alongside the techniques I learnt in therapy: this combination is the most effective course of treatment for severe OCD.  But it is still tough – OCD latches on to the parts of the personality and experience that matter the most to the patient.

Does that sound like something to do with cleaning?  It’s mental torture – believing you have the power to change future events one moment, and the next suffering crippling doubt and fear that you’re not doing enough.  And on top of this, knowing that you are “mad” and being powerless to do anything about it.  Obsessions and compulsions can take up several hours of the day; precious time that could be used for so many worthwhile and enriching activities.  But it’s not all serious.  We can still poke fun at the condition, as long as we understand what we’re laughing about:

Slide 8

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I find these jokes rather more amusing than those about “nitpicking”, or being “anal-retentive”.  Because they actually describe what OCD is like!  It’s funny because it’s true.  They were compiled by an actual OCD sufferer – a beautiful demonstration of how talking about mental health with those affected can yield better understanding and smash taboos.

Slide 9

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“Ahh, Mr. Tourette, we need a brand new livery for our executive city flyer jet service; we’re looking for a solution that will work for the international market”

Slide 10

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I love Modern Toss, and in spite of my preachiness a mere two slides previously, I actually find Mr. Tourette extremely funny.  But his profane creativity is not a symptom of Tourette’s.

Slide 11

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And yet that’s what the commonly-held view of Tourette’s is!  Not quite that one is just naturally bawdy and lacking in self-awareness, but that the most common (or only) tic that people with Tourette’s have is random expletives.  And I can see why this idea has gained such popularity: because swearing is a bit naughty and hence inherently funny, yeah?

Slide 12

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There is a wonderful resource at http://www.touretteshero.com/ that describes what it is actually like to live with Tourette’s. It’s in an accessible blog format, and was created by possibly the most famous Tourette’s sufferer around today, Jessica Thom.  You may know her from her tic of saying “biscuits!” mid-sentence, but she is more than that one characteristic, she is a complex, talented and flawed human, just like any of us.

The above image is from the gallery on the site, which features artwork submitted by people with Tourette’s.  The images represent one of the artist’s tics (and the variety of things that can be tics is huge; take a look in the gallery to see!).  The above image represents a tic that was repetition of the phrase “green screen cheese” – which seems a lot more funny when viewed in a literal context.

Slide 13

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The power of words, eh?  I included this slide to demonstrate how once innocent language and intentions can become twisted over time, and eventually end up as ableist slurs.  Most of them were taken from this list at Autistic Hoya.  Many of the words above were once medical terms (I think it is still common in American medical literature to speak of “mental retardation”, and I was once diagnosed with a “spastic neck“), but when they came into common parlance, and what with human nature being what it is, things went rapidly downhill.

So do I want to ban words? Hell, no!  I struggled a lot with the idea that I should consider more carefully how I express myself once I was diagnosed with OCD (I didn’t realise that was what I had, because the reality of the disease is concealed by the amount of misinformation freely available to all.  And equipped with this new knowledge, I started seeing jokes and inaccuracies about OCD everywhere).  I still use ethically questionable language often; I’m only human.  But I consider my audience carefully.  I’d only deliberately misuse language with people that know me well enough to “get” me, and who will understand what I really mean.  Around people I know less well, or speaking to a general audience, well, it would be completely inappropriate, and I’d feel so cringey if something slipped out. It might sound hypocritical, but I’m not asking people to be two-faced in their attitudes and beliefs.  It would be great if all of us could just drop outdated prejudices about mental health – I’m not saying it’s ok to have these prejudices.  What I am saying is that one might want to use a “forbidden” word to describe something, with full knowledge of its history and other associated meanings.  So I’d like people to educate themselves – and talk constructively about mental health.

I know full well that these words are used as metaphors, or illuminating descriptions of a concept.  But I’d really like it if we used those words with complete knowledge of what they actually mean, and if we stopped using them as insults – it’s not individual words that are the problem, it’s that we think certain medical conditions are an inherent flaw in another person.

Slide 14

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I pre-empted this one (look at me, playing Devil’s Advocate!), because it’s a hot topic in the skeptical world at the moment.  The imagined schism between those standing up for social justice, and those who want to be able to say the worst thing possible at all times, and have it beamed into everyone’s brains (to do otherwise would be “no-platforming“, amirite?), removes all nuance from discussions and reduces everything to a dichotomy.  So I will just reiterate: I Do Not Want To Ban Words.  People will inevitably want to describe a tangible or conceptual idea with metaphors.  Sometimes the meaning becomes clearer if we don’t say exactly what we mean – that is the beauty of the English language, and why we have such a rich back-catalogue of literary masterpieces.

People will also make mistakes, and we need to allow this to happen.  There’s no point ostracising those who accidentally say the wrong thing, but we also have to accept that we were wrong if we do make a mistake, and listen and learn from it.  I want people to use the English language in its full breadth and glory; to have a better understanding of mental health terms, and of the history of our language.  I may not like what you have to say, but make a rational and eloquent argument with reliable sources, and I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Slide 15

Almost at the end now, and we finish by returning to the beginning.  I reproduced the “Mental Health Quiz” from Dean Burnett’s article on the proliferation of Facebook Quizzes that claim to offer some insight into the workings of your brain, or what some arbitrary preference really says about you.  By this time, everyone had had a chance to read through the quiz, which you can read in its original form here (Clicky!).  The answers are below:
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Slide 16

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This turned out to be the longest part of my presentation; people do have a lot of questions and it’s about time we answered them.  Ignorance leads to prejudice and fear, and there’s quite enough of that in the world.  I found it encouraging that all questions were respectful, and didn’t follow a predictable pattern.  Many of them were questions I’d not even thought of asking – so I really was talking about my subject on the fly.  I think I managed to wing it.

The conversations I had with attendees after the talk were illuminating: there were those with unbridled curiosity (it’s difficult to offend me, ask me whatever you like), but a surprising number of people thanking me for having brought these issues out into the open, and offering solidarity with a fellow sufferer (I had no idea that so many people had hidden conditions – the consequence of not feeling able to talk about them!).

So not only did I successfully impart my wisdom with relatively few mishaps, I also got the warm fuzzies at the end of it.  I made a difference, and we all can.  It’s time to talk.

 

 

SKEPTICAL SOAPBOX 11th AUGUST 2016

 

Once a year, the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society (GMSS) holds a Soapbox event, in which members of the society are invited to give a short (15-minutes-ish + Q&A) talk. On the night there are usually 3 or 4 speakers. Ordinarily, more prominent speakers are invited for GMSS”s monthly event; once a year the attendees are given their chance to shine! It’s great presentation experience (which I need way more of than I get in my professional life currently) and exposure (yes, yes, I know – your landlord doesn’t accept exposure as currency).

On the night there was an audience of about 30, not enough to pack out the venue, but a respectable amount. There were three speakers (including me!), and we were in the theatre above the Kings Arms (which has a professional A/V setup), so all the attention was squarely on the speaker.

Here’s the event listing; all of GMSS’s events are put on the Facebook page (click here to Like, Follow, etc)

First up was Claire Elliot, speaking on Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), a thing I sort-of knew about, but never knew the name of it.  And I’d not thought about it too much as it wasn’t something I believed in, and until joining GMSS, I’d not really wondered about why people believe some of the odd things that they do.

But Claire has done an MSc on this, so she has actually studied it in great depth.  I like it when skeptics study esoteric subjects, especially ones that are a bit controversial (another post coming soon on this one!).  And this topic is important, because it tells us things about ourselves, be we believers or not.

Here’s an excerpt from the event teaser:

“Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) are the anomalous speech-like sounds found on some electronic recordings. For believers, EVP represents communication with paranormal entities and evidence of the afterlife. For skeptics, it is a product of the recording methods and top-down processing of the listener. Whilst we all experience auditory illusions, research suggests some groups may be more susceptible than others.

My MSc research at MMU has explored this area and I will be discussing my results. The debate surrounding EVP tells us much about the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in random data (apophenia) and desire to believe (existentialism). However, without scientific evidence of their paranormal origin are we merely communicating with ourselves?”

I managed to film part of Claire’s talk, which you can view below, but due to technical issues, I missed some of it at the start.  My device’s memory was also full by the end of her talk, so this is the only one I managed to capture on film (I was really sad about this, as I wanted to get my own talk online).

Next up was me, giving a talk called “Are We Mental?” – read more about it in my next post.

“As skeptics, we are always on the lookout for weird beliefs and bizarre behaviours. But how do we categorise them? The phrase “mentally ill” gets bandied around a lot, with no evidence to back up this claim in most cases.

What behaviours might be attributable to genuine mental illness, and what is just a consequence of having an imperfect brain? Does a sick mind create baloney, or does bunkum make our minds sick?”

And finally, Iain Hilton talking about the Modern Flat Earth Movement.  His talk was a synopsis of the history of flat-earth beliefs and arguments, and what the resurgence is made up of.  It was an analysis of the community, rather than a debunking of their theories; because:

  1. It’s unnecessary;
  2. There’s about a lifetime’s worth of YouTube videos devoted to this, so you can go and look at them

“The modern flat earth movement – Who are they, where do they come from and why the sudden surge in believers?

As a debunker of the movement since the turn of the decade, i have taken a journey to find out what the movement can tell us, and about the diverse beliefs within it – as well as challenging some of the myths used to debunk it.”

Iain’s talk was especially cosy, with no slides and him sat in a comfy chair and encouraging us to gather round while he told his story. I love talks without notes; they seem to flow better, and seem better rehearsed. Just like a lecture.

The Q&As were as good as the talks (I’ve noticed this a lot at Skeptics generally; it’s a consequence of having many curious minds in the audience), and against everyone’s expectations (skeptics have a rep for enjoying the sound of their own voices) the event kept to time.  As with all our formal talks, we went down to the bar after to continue the conversation.

 

QUESTION YOURSELF – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 2

 

One of my friends wrote an eloquent and meaningful poem on Facebook, and it captures not only the beauty of words, but also the problem of being too sure about oneself in debate, and the need to examine one’s own biases. [Skeptic friends, take heed]

(Check our her Twitter & YouTube, she posts some interesting, controversial and original stuff)

Debates can get heated, doesn’t feel nice to be questioned,
Our own mind’s picture, of a situation, seems threatened,
The instinct is to scramble, for a support to our position,
We don’t always step back and consider thought-omission.

We like to be right, it feels good to have knowledge,
If a view seems absurd, they must have missed college!?
They can’t be right, it doesn’t fit my agenda,
Must be time for ridicule “Oi, go play with your double ender!”.

But wait, step back, question everything, remember?!
That means your own axioms, too, that’s no surrender.
Combine the positions and question each angle,
Hopefully your opponent will follow your example.

It’s unlikely you’ll agree within a short conversation
But the discourse is important for further investigation.
Without common ground, you won’t find a solution
To the issue you see as a societal pollution.

So, stay calm and controlled, keep your words ever relevant,
Your discussion may be fruitful, if you stay in your element.
And remember, end of discourse, is not the end of introspection,
Plant a seed of encouragement, for personal reflection.

 

She also wrote another one, here, on a somewhat different subject. The wit is still as strong, and the tone is a little more cutting – but sometimes you have to be bold to get your point across.

 

thINK – A BOOK OF INCENDIARY CARTOON SKEPTICISM

 

Some friends of mine have a project running on Kickstarter RIGHT NOW (it ends on 23rd Feb 2016), and I thought I’d publicise it here, as it’s so close to reaching its target, and more importantly, it’s bloody brilliant and needs to happen!

This is the total today, 14th Feb 2016 at 16.11:

kickstarter

Only £346 to go!!!!!!!!

It’s a book of sceptical and political cartoons, challenging irrational beliefs and conventions.  It’s almost guaranteed that there will be something in there to offend everyone, but don’t worry – you have the right to be offended as long as others have the right to offend!  And that’s kind of the point.  When people cling to dogmatic beliefs, there is no space for critical thought, and we end up moralising based on emotion rather than rationality.  thINK is designed to make you do just that – think about why people believe what they do, and expose dodgy ideas for what they are.  And what better weapon to do it with than humour?  They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but a sharp wit is the most incisive.

You can support the project here:

“thINK – a book of incendiary cartoon scepticism”

It’s a worthy project in its own right, but as with most kickstarter projects, there are some awesome goodies available for those who contribute!

 

9/11 CONSPIRACIST DEBATE

 

Recently I attended the type of event that I wouldn’t usually go to – but I heard about it from a friend of a friend, and it sounded interesting (more on this shortly), and it got me out of the house on a Sunday afternoon.  I’m not really sure how to best describe it, as it wasn’t a debate in the sense that I am used to, in which there is a statement that the house does or does not believe and then two sides to argue for or against it.  The format of this event was a short presentation followed by what began as a Q&A and then proceeded into a heavily-moderated discussion.  Apologies if this post is a bit rambling, but it follows the format of the debate, which was equally disjointed.

I went to this event because I am acutely aware that I do surround myself with people who think like me and have similar political leanings, and I wanted to leave the echo-chamber.  Going to this talk faced me with someone whose opinions are far removed from mine, and we would normally never choose to associate in ordinary life.  And while neither the presentation, nor the arguments brought forward, convinced me that any of the official evidence was wrong, I did learn a lot of things about opinions, beliefs, and other humans.  That’s what made it so interesting – understanding why people form opinions that seem to be so obviously wrong to many people, and to understand what sort of reactions these opinions generate.  Maybe it was a bit of a spectacle, but I have no qualms about that.

I also want to emphasise that I do have respect for the person who has worked on this project.  I do not respect the opinions put forward, for logical reasons, but they probably knew full well that they were going to be met with a strong opposition – and they handled it well.  Just because someone can be mistaken or misguided, it does not mean that the individual is not worthy of respect.  While 90% of people in the room did not agree with the host, 100% of them were respectful and questioned them appropriately.  It’s the first rule of debating for me, and one that can be applied to everyday life: once you resort to ad hominem attacks, you’ve lost the argument.

To discuss such a controversial subject, knowing that you’re on the side that the majority see as wrong, is a pretty brave thing to do.

It still doesn’t make you any less wrong, though.The person who was doing the presenting does believe that 9/11 was an inside job, and they discussed the reasons why they think this. Much of the information they presented was old arguments that have been debunked several times over, which was pretty tiresome (at this point I was wondering if it was actually a good idea to engage with the event and its host, as I don’t think that going over the same ground over and over gets us anywhere). There were a few times when I was watching the videos in the presentation and listening to descriptions of conditions within the buildings, and I thought “oh, that’s because of [this or that obvious thing]”, which was kinda cool and engaging, until I heard the presenter explain why they thought it was explosives, or why the building couldn’t possibly have deformed or collapsed in the way it did. Then it was madly infuriating, and I did bring up a number of these points in the Q&A.

I am wondering if the speaker twigged that I am an engineer – it’s not like I concealed the fact.  And beginning sentences with “When we design buildings…” may have been a giveaway.

There was a lot of focus on WTC7, which was an adjacent building that was not hit by a plane, but did collapse.  Why?  Excessive Fire Load (yeah, that link’s from the Daily Mail – they’re not wrong all the time).  The building’s structure came under a level of strain that caused it to fail.  I find this one especially ridiculous – the speaker claimed this fell due to a controlled demolition, yet those responsible just randomly set the building on fire 6 hours prior to detonation.  Because, like, 6 hours of continual burning wouldn’t maybe cause a bit of structural damage?  Yeah, seems totally legit. <headdesk>

But this is only part of the dispute.  A number of other (cherry-picked) issues were raised, namely:

The freefall thing, and why did it collapse in on itself, explained neatly in this video.

There was a man in a basement level, far from the initial impact, who got burnt in an explosion – probably caused by immense heat and pressure in the structure building up and firing out of confined spaces into circulation areas – maybe fire spreading through service voids and travelling from one part of the building to another, in seemingly unpredictable ways – which not only explains why WTC7 fell without any external impact, but also why fires and explosions were occurring in parts of the other buildings remote from the planes’ impact.  Or it could have been as simple as burning jet fuel descending through the building.  There’s no reason to not go for the most obvious explanation – but that seemed to be the way a lot of the conversations went.  I’ve heard a lot about disenfranchised people clinging onto conspiracy theories because they “know” the secret that the rest of the “sheeple” just can’t see.  It makes them feel superior & special.  And I did see that on this occasion.  It made me feel quite sad, as this person had deluded themselves and chose to remain ignorant; they seemed to have invested so much into their project that there was no backing down now.

The “explosions” further down the towers from the impact.  One of the truthers’ theories is that these were planned detonations, but a basic understanding of engineering will tell you that these are the result of heat and deformation generated by fire spreading to the levels below.

And there were plenty of seemingly obvious responses to these and other topics, like:

If it was actually a controlled demolition, why did no-one in, or around, these enormous, 24-hour buildings notice explosives and charges being brought in and installed in the structure?  This would actually be a massive undertaking,and you’d need to pay off all the security team, everyone who worked in the buildings or in the neighbourhood who might have seen it, anyone working for the government or air traffic control (who would have been “in on it”), huge sectors of the media, and anyone with any connections at all to any of these institutions.  If you take six degrees of separation into account, that’s roughly the whole world’s population.  If you had a secret as huge as this, the amount of expenditure and connections necessary to maintain it would be astronomical.  The concept is nicely illustrated by the Mitchell and Webb sketch about the reality of faking the Moon landings.

We were told that approximately 2200 architects and engineers dispute the accepted version of events, and based on an extremely conservative estimate, in 2005 there are about 1,086,498 architects globally.  The number of building engineers is more difficult to quantify (seriously, it’s really difficult to find data on this!), but lets just say that we are only considering structural engineers – that would be about 27,000 registered structural engineers with the IStructE.  So if we add these two numbers together (which are from different time periods and incomplete – so it’s likely the figure is an underestimate), and add on a margin to include practitioners who are registered through alternative professional bodies, or in a country not included in the stats, we could call it 1.2 million.  Compared to other estimates of up to 2.5 million+, this is still a very low figure.  But divide the little number by the big number, and you get 2200 / 1200000 = 0.18%.  That’s considerably lower than the number of scientists who disagree with the consensus on global warming, and most who do disagree are less well-respected and credible scientists (and we can even demonstrate that scientifically).

Consensus within the scientific community is an important tenet of how the scientific method works.  Data is produced, peer-reviewed, adjusted based on criticism, refined, republished, and all in the name of accuracy and better understanding.  When a large number of scientists agree, it’s not based on opinion, it’s based on an assessment of the facts.  So it’s not an appeal to popularity by any means, consensus is based on scientific findings, not individual preferences.  An important point about scientific consensus is that it can change.  Usually over time, and not in large leaps, seeing as the way that we develop our understanding these days is by people contributing one study at a time to the whole.  Most of the big ideas have already been discovered.  Maybe there are big ideas that we haven’t yet uncovered, and perhaps one person will make a mind-blowing discovery in their field, but this is the exception.

A common argument in favour of the “inside job theory” is that melted steel was found at the site, which was criticised from two angles: steel structures do not need to melt in order for them to collapse, they just need to weaken enough to become unsupportable – which happens at increased temperatures that still fall below the melting point. Secondly, many people believe that the molten material is actually aluminium, which would melt at the high temperatures of the fire (its melting point is 660.3C), especially if it came from, say, a burning aircraft…. (wonder where we could find one of those?)

An interesting point raised was that structural engineers over-design buildings so they never fall down. Well, that’s not quite true. When buildings are designed there is a margin of “error” built in, so that a building is unlikely to fall down unexpectedly. This is a safety margin to ensure that our buildings are fit for purpose and that engineers don’t get sued for producing under-specified buildings. But it doesn’t mean that we design all (or even any) buildings to withstand every possible condition. If that was true, demolition would be impossible. Which kinda conflicts with the idea that it was a controlled demolition. Oops.

Another one that I’d not heard before: Fire is unpredictable so a collapse by fire shouldn’t look similar to a controlled demolition – false. We know how fire is likely to behave (there’s a whole industry devoted to modelling the effects of fire within buildings, and I’m pretty sure they’re not just making shit up). Additionally, demolition by fire is a recognised method that was used in the UK until very recently – check out some of Fred Dibnah’s old stuff.

The people who know all this aren’t wasting their time on petty squabbles about the  minutiae of the truthers’ arguments because they know that their own evidence is so strong and there’s nothing more to be said.  That was an interesting thing to note about the presentation, and many of the truther arguments generally – that they concentrate on tiny details, rather than looking at the obvious – hellooooo – buildings do not perform very well when planes fly into the side of them.

I guess that was a kind of strange thing for me to hear – I am one of those who knows what they are talking about, and yet I decided to engage with the host’s odd viewpoint. It really reinforced a lot of what I already knew about arguing with idiots, and I guess I’ve learnt all I need to about this type of “debate” – it’s only going to go in one direction, and none of the participants will benefit from it.  If the authorities did get involved with this sort of thing they’d look foolish. And so they don’t. There’s nothing more to add. As I noted above, the 9/11 truthers have no new arguments, and they just reproduce all those that have already been debunked – as if repeating the same old tripe over and over will make it somehow more believable.

But aside from listening to the actual arguments, be they truth or “truth”, the best part of the afternoon was engaging in the discussion.  I would classify many of the people in attendance as skeptics (this kind, not this kind), but there were also some people who probably wouldn’t align with that definition, and they seemed to have a very diverse set of views.  Some of them might have been convinced by the speaker’s arguments, but they were also listening to reason and asking plenty of intelligent questions – although not all thinking entirely critically.  But it does show that the people who lie in the  middle of two polarised views are often an astute bunch, even if they don’t play by the rules of formal science or debate.

It was interesting to hear the speaker’s responses to the arguments put forward by even the toughest skeptic.  They maintained their composure at all times, even if they didn’t give satisfactory answers.  But they did have an answer for everything – this was surely a lesson in the internal machinations of a 9/11 truther.

There were a couple of things that bothered me, aside from the glaringly obvious fact that they were just plain wrong.  The speaker claimed to disagree with the scientific method, yet cherry-picked papers that supported their theory.  So the scientific method is ok if it backs up your own viewpoint but not when it supports the 99.8% of experts who disagree. Hmmmmm.

More worrying than this was that when asked what evidence would make them change their mind, they said that nothing would.  While I’m often analysing my thoughts, beliefs and actions, not everyone is as skeptically-minded as me.  And yet – that’s a pretty bold statement to make.  That literally nothing would make you change your mind – no amount of evidence, no wavering in your beliefs, no concept of doubt.  That’s about dogma, not the truth.

I also objected to the chair criticising a group member for saying the presenter’s ideas were “bullshit”.  They focused on the use of ‘bad language’ as a means to quell dissent – which totally did not work.  The person who said it kindly clarified by saying that they respected the speaker, and the were treating the idea with exactly the amount of respect it deserved.

Something that the speaker did have right is that the Internet is an incredibly effective communication tool.  They use it to spread what they see as the truth.  This is why it’s so important to engage at some level with this type of discussion to refute it for the benefit of those not really on one ‘side’ of the argument, but who are interested in curiosities like this, for whatever reason.  If a bad idea is presented, it will proliferate if left unchallenged.  Or the whole thing will backfire and their belief will become stronger.  But either way, I do feel there’s a moral obligation to publicly to rail against bad ideas, policies, and institutions – but that we need to make sure we do it properly and effectively.

On the whole, it’s got to be one of the oddest Sunday afternoons I have ever enjoyed.  It was a great day out, meeting a bunch of strangers who actually wanted to have a conversation, and to spend time in an engaging activity with my partner and friends.  And it’s all thanks to my marvellous friends who I can always trust to get me into the most bizarre and exciting scrapes.  Well done, chaps!  But if I was looking to change minds or educate, well, it was something of a pointless exercise.  The speaker themselves acknowledged that this was nothing to do with facts or evidence.  Their work on this theory is all to do with bolstering their pre-existing beliefs.  Their ideas are testable – but they’re not interested in the results.

ASIDE: I think it’s really important to talk about something that often gets forgotten in discussions of the World Trade Centre attacks.  Those buildings were designed to 1960s codes, which fall below more modern standards.  Someone else in the group noted that the buildings had failed a fire safety check in the 1990s.  And yet – despite this, those buildings remained standing for 90 minutes after a plane flew into the side of them.  The skill and ingenuity of those who designed and built those structures is recognised in the thousands of lives that WERE saved by the integrity of those structures.  Even built with technology from 50 years ago, those buildings were still tough enough to have prevented an even greater tragedy.  We should recognise their contribution and not tarnish it by asking ludicrous questions about whether it was an inside job, or if it was some conspiracy related to the Bush family or insurance fraud (no, really!) or any of the other peculiarities I’ve encountered.

 

SKEPTICISM & POLITICS

 

At QEDcon, I met some politically involved skeptics from Scotland. Individuals had their own political convictions but as a group they had no common political message or affiliation.

One thing we spoke of that I think should be applied in life generally, is scrutinising the beliefs of individual candidates and political parties generally.

Sure, we’ve recently seen extreme examples from UKIP and DUP candidates showing their true colours, but there are many subtle and unexpected shockers coming from politicians in more mainstream parties.

As well as this, people aren’t always clear on what they’re voting for party-wise.  How many of us can honestly say they’ve read a single political manifesto?  Or even spent a little time on more than one political website? I know many people who advocate voting Green, but I my conscience wouldn’t allow me to do that – they’re popular at the moment, and seem cuddly and approachable, but how many people have considered the implications of their policies on nuclear power and GMOs (they are anti- on both)?

So it’s encouraging that some skeptics want to apply critical thinking to politics.  While I wouldn’t say that skepticism should ever aim to be a political movement, I would advocate applying skeptical principles to one’s everyday life.  Choose whatever political affiliation you wish, but ensure your reasons for doing so are sound.

 

VOLUNTEERING AT QED 2015

 

There’s been loads of really informative and complimentary blogs about QED generally (there’s some links to them at the end of this post), but none so far (as of this moment!) about what it’s like to volunteer there.  So, let’s put that right:

I signed up months ago, and got my orders a few weeks before the event.  I’d been to QED before, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect, but I still had to attend a briefing session where they gave us the rota and our sexy uniforms (an orange T-shirt, which went with literally nothing.  Hey, at least we were easy to spot).  I wasn’t needed until the Saturday, but for me, the fun began on Friday at Skepticamp (clicky).  I also got to stay over in the hotel on the Friday night, because Mr. Science Gentleman is one of the organisers.  This was a mixed blessing – we got to be there to support each other, but I was basically ignored for most of the time as he was too busy making sure things were going smoothly, and I was running around all over the place herding, advising and being visible.  But it was kind of nice not being in each other’s pockets; I’m independent anyway, and otherwise we would have driven each other insane / got nothing done.

Being a volunteer, you have three main duties:

  • Get people in and out of the rooms where the talks are
  • Direct people to where they need to be, and help with queries and other needs
  • Look after the bookstall

As well as that, you have to be nice and approachable, but I’m sure you know what a great reputation we skeptics have so that’s definitely not a problem.

Each volunteer was given a specific set of times to be in certain places, and there seemed to be a slight surplus of people in orange shirts, so there was more than adequate cover – which was great.  The bookstall got a bit crowded at times, but you can’t flog too many books, right?

One of the super-fun things about the weekend was finding and remembering all the different routes between places in the hotel.  This is important because the “accessible route” took you through numerous winding corridors and ran between three floors (I’m pretty sure someone is having a laugh here).  The hotel is a beautiful, old, rambling building, and as such it has more mezzanines, galleries, half-levels, secret passages, and doors to Narnia than more modern structures.  I found at least seven different routes back to my room and I still can’t remember where it was.  Fortunately someone put together a handy map of the hotel:

Enter, Stranger!
Artwork courtesy of @PencilBloke.

Attendees were used to seeing crew and volunteers popping in and out of the halls, so it was fairly easy to catch most of a talk and then discreetly make it to my place of duty.  The only time I’d miss a whole talk is if I was assigned bookstore duty for an hour. This was great as I got to see pretty much everything I wanted to (barring clashes in the schedule – choices, choices) and still make myself useful.

Being a volunteer this time, I felt more a part of it than I did at my first QEDcon, and having to be disciplined (no oversleeping, no drinking so much that I’d get a crippling hangover), probably did me some good (yaaaaawn).

I also got to see a load of people I’d not seen in person for over a year, which was wonderful.  Sure, this would have happened whether I was volunteering or not, but it’s still worth mentioning how important this event is for bringing like-minded people together and creating a sense of companionship (I’m not a fan of the word community, I feel it gets overused.  Plus, I don’t need to belong to a “community” – but I acknowledge that some people do).  I do speak with many of them online throughout the year, but it’s always cool to meet up with them face-to-face, and feel like we’ve only been apart for a matter of days or weeks.

I spent much of my spare time at the bar or enjoying posh dinners in Manchester’s finest establishments (nothing to do with being a volunteer; it’s just what I did), and this year I spent a lot of time conversing with the speakers.  I’m going to be honest here, last year I was a bit of a shrinking violet and felt overwhelmed in the presence of greatness.  Well, none of that crap this time.  I was talking with anyone and everyone, and that is the coolest thing for me.  Between lectures, or at the end of the day, just chatting about intellectual matters (and a ton of totally non-smart stuff, let’s not big ourselves up too much here) with similar people is so rewarding, and the reason I started going to skeptics events in the first place.

Loads of other people have written about QED, and on the talks and other activities, so I won’t add much more.  But there are some really excellent accounts here, so you should check out these great blogs, and read some of their other posts too.  There are people who have far more time to devote to this than I do, and as a result they write some incredibly interesting and well-constructed stuff.  I recommend:

QEDcon 2015 | Purely a figment of your imagination

I Am A QEDcon Fan, Here’s Why | Hayley M. Stevens

QED Con, Trigger Warnings, Dillahunting and an Ockham Award) | Godless Spellchecker’s Blog

QED 2015 Roundup | Sunny Spells

QEDcon happens next in October 2016 – if this post and the above blogs haven’t convinced you, you still have 18 months to do your homework (may I suggest some regular SitP followed by a course of Be Reasonable).

 

BEING A SKEPTIC, AND NICE

 

One of the things you may have noticed about this blog is that it’s fairly disorganised and random. That I’ll post on anything and just about everything. Although I’m a skeptic and a scientist, this blog doesn’t fall neatly into either category, and why is that? I’m a real person and I write about real things that affect me. Things I see in the news, things that happen in my life, projects that I work on. And it’s worth noting that I am a genuine human being – just because I’m a skeptic and a scientist, it doesn’t mean that I can’t be nice.  This blog doesn’t have a theme because it’s just… a day in my life.

The skeptic movement has got a bit of a bad rep, of being cold, unfeeling, distant, rude, and lacking empathy. Sometimes I do think these opinions are understandable (but not justified) – there are instances when these accusations appear to be proven correct: infighting, personal attacks, inflexibility. Not all critical thinkers are like that, and you can find examples of bad behaviour in all spheres of belief. I’m just an ordinary person, doing well for myself but not anything remarkable, trying to make sense of the one life that we have. And I don’t think I’m any of those awful things. Outspoken yes, but civil also. And sometimes I do feel let down when I hear about some dumb thing that a prominent atheist has said. I guess none of us are immune to crassness.

It is really difficult to argue a point effectively with someone who is a less experienced debater, or who has based their opinion on strongly held beliefs not backed up by evidence.  Sometimes that person may think their beliefs are sacred and so when they’re challenged they react badly and accuse the person doing the questioning of insensitivity.  I guess that’s one reason why skeptics are sometimes portrayed as being a bit mean.

The problem here perhaps lies in the interpretation of the question, and the way the question is asked.  It’s really important to scrutinise the idea rather than attack the person (although some people do see the questioning of their beliefs as a personal attack).  And it’s also important to carefully consider the question and not over-react.   What is the question really asking and why is it being asked?  Don’t forget that the skeptic may be asked an uncomfortable question too, and the same rules apply – be considered in the response and don’t see it as an affront to one’s self.  And make sure your arguments are solid or you’re going to look like a right idiot (nice or not).