Professor Prothero’s Preening, Pungent Prattle

“You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he came to be so silly….you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.” C.S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” God in the Dock (emphasis in original)

In my last post I explained I’m generally no longer inclined to stand up and argue for the existence of Bigfoot, Chupacabra, or the Mongolian Death Worm. But if someone uses faulty argumentation against their existence, it’s still enough to make me cringe. Especially if they have a PhD and wrote an entire book that seems dedicated to this faulty reasoning, and published it under an academic press.

A very exhaustively cited book on cryptozoology, Abominable Science is coauthored by Daniel Loxton (who seems like a very nice, fair-minded guy, and a very talented artist as well) and Donald Prothero, PhD (a paleontologist and professor at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA).

It’s not so much the book I am commenting on here (though that may happen after I’ve read the whole thing…honestly, I’m a slow reader, so I don’t know when that’s going to happen). But given the Amazon description, its subtitle (Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids), and what I had read of Prothero beforehand, I got suspicious that he’d already decided his conclusion before gathering research. Hence the quote about bulverism above.

Long story short: I expressed my suspicions on Twitter a while back, and it seems Prothero was informed. And judging by a comment on one of his blog posts, he wasn’t very happy about the suspicion. Normally I wouldn’t respond to something like this, certainly not at length. But each sentence was either false or so poorly argued, I elected to craft a response anyway.

Even if a skeptic is right on a particular subject, broken logic will never give him or her a solid basis on which to stand. In this case, it’s about time someone called him out for it. As a scientist, Prothero has a responsibility to use solid argumentation and make his case like a professional.

Okay, so here’s the comment. In its entirety.

“Clearly, this person hasn’t read the book, nor does he understand what we said. The genetic fallacy is only a fallacy if the origins story in question has no relevance to the truth or falsity of the argument being made. But the long story lines that Daniel teased out about the history of each of these cryptids–especially how their descriptions are inconsistent, how they are strongly influenced by cultural factors such as current movies, how they are full of hoaxes and bad data that the cryptozoologists NEVER expunge, and how they compile “lists of sightings” which are houses of cards, with nearly every one of them useless or questionable–is VERY relevant to the credibility of each cryptid.

“Even if we had not compiled the historical record of each cryptid, the rest of the book demolishes the possibility of their existence by a whole range of biological, geological and paleontological constraints that this critic clearly never read about. As usual, he’s doing the usual creationist tactic to avoid the confrontation of hard data against his beliefs: dismiss it with an irrelevant or false argument and then ignore it.”

Oh dear, where to begin?

First of all, I already admitted to not reading the book at the time. Check Twitter to see for yourself. I expressed concern that it was going to be a book with weak argumentation. I have a copy from the library at the moment. While some of its arguments are stronger than I worried, elsewhere those fears are being realized in spades.

Things don’t get any better when he gives the definition of “genetic fallacy” as the necessary condition under which it happens. That’s what the genetic fallacy teaches us: an idea’s origin doesn’t have any bearing on that idea’s truth or falsehood. Prothero is basically saying “a frog is only a frog if it’s a tailless amphibian of the order Anura.”

Duh. That’s what it means.

The next sentence makes a fair point, but Prothero doesn’t justify his position. He’s right that the case for most mystery animals appears lacking. I’ve stated at length that I don’t expect Bigfoot or Nessie or Yeti to be real, even if I want them to be real. (Mokele-mbembe, on the other hand…might be a different story)

Given the absence of a foundation of hard evidence, I’m inclined to agree with his overall conclusion. However, he then overestimates what the evidence gathered thus far actually tells us; then he dives to the bottom of the barrel, trying to make the proposal of unknown large animal species look like ridiculous, even dangerous pseudoscience. To do this, he scoops out cryptozoology’s familiar and well-established legacy of hoaxes, some genuinely preposterous ideas (Bigfoot being able to move to other dimensions, for instance), and the fact that humans can be made vulnerable to deception. To which Prothero himself, of course, is blessedly immune. The starting assumption in the book and his worldview appears to be that these sightings are most emphatically not caused by unclassified species of animals (even though that sounds like a perfectly modest and reasonable possibility, at least for some cryptids), therefore the explanation must lie in psychology and old-fashioned gullibility, and this is sufficient to explain pretty much the entirety of cryptozoology.

In other words: “It’s never credible and none of these animals exist, because look at all the weirdos and liars who go looking for monsters. Ta-da! No unclassified animal species needed. All you need are hoaxers, the credulous, and fundamentalists on a crusade to destroy science, and there you have it.”

Welcome back to the genetic fallacy, Professor. You have provided a textbook example of it, in more ways than one.

Oh, but you see, it’s totally okay that he does this, because SCIENCE! tells us that these creatures can’t possibly exist anyway. “The rest of the book demolishes the possibility of their existence…”

Oh? Says who? Is it scientifically impossible that there is an ape of unknown classification in the Himalayas? Is it impossible that a large something-or-other is lurking in the cloudy waters of Loch Ness?

Of course not! It’s unlikely, but no possibility is demolished. Why take the position that it’s impossible?

  • “Says the fossil record,” which Prothero seems to believe is overall complete with no big surprises awaiting us. Never mind that they keep finding a new species of dinosaur every couple of months. Many of which are totally unexpected. Not to mention the numerous other newly identified animal and plant species routinely recovered from the field or dusted off in museum archives. Paleontology is a great scientific endeavor, but when they can’t even get the nonexistence of Brontosaurus right, you’d be wise to learn to never say never.
  • “Says biology,” because of course we’ve learned every single impact an organism can have on its environment. We can instantly detect the impact a species has when something is amiss. Oh, except for the 125,000 extra gorillas found in the Congo in 2007. And the new species we discover all the time on submarine dives to the darkest corners of our oceans. Hmm, maybe we don’t have all the evidence in yet?
  • “Says geology” because…well, I’m not sure what he means. It seems paleontology would have more to say about animals than would general geology. It was kind of a broad brush to start with.

Then he throws out a red herring that implies anyone who says he commits the genetic fallacy is on the wrong side of the origins fence. As if no one who accepts evolution could possibly see anything wrong with his logic, or as if this has anything to do with the veracity of his claims.

Basically, he got caught committing the genetic fallacy. But rather than owning up to it or beefing up his arguments or retracting them, he opted to flaunt his dubious line of reasoning in everyone’s face, and yell that he’s totally justified in doing so. This is such an insult to logic that Mister Spock would do a “Live Long and Prosper” facepalm.

Skeptics, you’ll do yourselves and others a huge favor if you can please get your act together.

UPDATE, APRIL 29, 2015: Regarding Prothero’s stance that the fossil record doesn’t hold animals that can be properly called “cryptids,” I’d like to point out yet another unexpected discovery reported today: a pigeon-sized dinosaur in China, with elongated arms and fingers, and membranes underneath that strongly resemble the wings of a bat.

That’s right. If this fossil is genuine, they basically discovered a small dragon. You’re welcome.

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A Plausible Monster? Part One

[Now that they are published, here’s part two and part three-A, and three-B will be released soon]

I could go back to staying “safe” on this blog, and not stick my neck out again. Nothing weird or controversial.

But that’s boring. And in some respects, it wouldn’t be right. For today, I thought a nice swim into deeper waters would do us some good. It’s invigorating.

Come on in! The water's quite pleasant.

Come on in! The water’s quite pleasant.

Today’s topic involves cryptozoology — the practice of investigating and searching for animals that have not been classified by science, but are reported by sightings and/or folklore. Think Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, sea serpents, etc.

Here and now, I mean to neither take down nor advocate cryptozoology as a practice. This is not being written to defend or demolish it, or classify it as science or pseudoscience. That last distinction is odiously bureaucratic. I care much less about whether a claim is classified as science than I care about whether it is true. My main concern is in whether the animal really exists or not.

If you want to know my position on cryptozoology, here it is: In short, I reluctantly take the position that most “cryptids” (the animals cryptozoologists seek to find) most likely do not exist. But I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong if someone can show proof of their existence.

I used to think the world full of monsters, waiting to be discovered and ushered into our textbooks, zoos, and museum displays. From Nessie to Yeti, I was fascinated by the possibility of weird and spectacular creatures, and treated their existence like it was a near certainty. Of course, they haven’t showed up thus far. Nowadays, I hold out little to no hope in a monster at Loch Ness. Tourists and live webcams can only miss a large creature for so long. Nor does Bigfoot seem at all likely, as far as I can tell. In the Pacific Northwest you can hardly throw a rock without hitting somebody’s log cabin or pickup truck. Not the environment I’d expect an undiscovered primate to call home.

I’d love to be wrong about Bigfoot and/or Nessie, but I’ll be deeply shocked if I am.

On the other hand, this should never be cause to discount all cryptids as equally ridiculous or unlikely. You are no doubt familiar with the phrase “even a broken watch can be right twice a day.” A species of large animal can still persist undiscovered and unclassified, even today. Most of the new animals we are finding consist of insects and deep sea-dwellers. But on occasion, something a bit more spectacular can be uncovered. Several factors can be conducive to a species escaping detection by the scientific community:

  1. It lives in an environment where it can easily hide. By now this would be limited mostly to dense tropical rain forests and deep oceans.
  2. It is critically endangered, either through human activity or environmental factors. Specimens will be rare, as will physical traces (carcasses, footprints, scat, etc.).
  3. The animal’s environment can quickly erase traces, making it difficult to detect or track. Again, rain forests and oceans are the biggest offenders. Such an environment also presents great difficulty in bringing proof of a new species to the outside world, either from remains not getting refrigerated before they rot away, or the hostility of its native species and/or human populations.
  4. The animal has reclusive habits, tending to avoid human habitation (as a lot of animals do, from okapis to panda bears to cougars).
  5. If natives in a remote region tell about an unknown animal living in their part of the world, a biologist can be biased against the creature’s existence and assume that the animal is mythical rather than biological. It is quite possible his suspicions are correct, of course. If there ever was such an animal, it may have become extinct or migrated to another area. Still, one has to wonder how many times the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater, and a legitimate species had been missed by the biologist because he’d assumed it could not be there.

There is at least one cryptid that matches all of these factors. Therefore I am prepared to argue that its existence is more likely than its nonexistence. I speak of Mokele-mbembe, from the Congo swamps and jungles of Central Africa. Its range purportedly extends across Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and Cameroon.

My painting,

One of my latest paintings, “Cameroon.” Acrylics on watercolor paper, approx. 7 by 9 inches.

The name means either “One who stops the flow of rivers” or “He who divides the waters.” Its described morphology bears a resemblance to that of a small sauropod dinosaur. These are the long-necked herbivores sometimes informally called “Brontosaurs.” Both sauropods and Mokele-mbembe possess long necks and tails, small heads, and elephantine bodies with four feet.

Please take care to note: I am not here to argue whether dinosaurs persist in Africa today. I am arguing for the likelihood of a rare and unrecognized species living in the Congo basin. So please don’t comment with a post like “Sauropods can’t live in swamps, because of x, y and z.” We can discuss that in a later post, an addendum to this one.

Regardless of what kind of animal it is, what does Mokele-mbembe have that most other “cryptids” don’t? What keeps its existence plausible, even (in my estimation) likely?

The answer in a nutshell: The right environment and obstacles, where we could expect its discovery to be delayed.

I suspect very few of those who roll their eyes and mock the mere possibility of this animal being real would maintain their contempt if they took time to consider the kind of environment the Congo basin really is:

  • A region shredded by guerilla warfare, poaching and disease outbreaks that have a habit of shutting down expeditions to the area
  • Stifling jungles that pose a serious challenge to even the most seasoned explorers
  • An almost total lack of internet and technological infrastructure (so long, smartphones) outside the cities of the region — electricity is “expensive and unreliable” in Cameroon, for instance
  • A dense canopy of trees a hundred and fifty feet high that does a great job at hiding the rain forest from satellite photography
  • This Florida-sized jungle is so dense that it’s mostly unexplored to this day, even to the point that it hid over 100,000 western lowland gorillas from scientific eyes until just eight years ago. Another discovery made at roughly the same time was the Bili Ape, a new type of chimpanzee that plausibly eats lions and other big cats. (makes you wonder what else could be hiding in that region, doesn’t it?)
  • Largely corrupt governments, held together by miles of red tape, which don’t exactly roll out the red carpet to Western explorers, unless they’re with bigger organizations like the BBC, National Geographic or the World Wildlife Fund

Neither the Pacific Northwest nor any Scottish Loch can boast of such an ideal hiding place for an unclassified, critically endangered species.

At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, a good hiding spot does not necessarily harbor an unknown species. But in the next installment of this series, I’ll provide the main reasons why I think the evidence thus far gathered is quite sufficient to warrant further, more thorough investigation.

And then I can add another post, to tackle what have been some embarrassingly bad arguments against the Mokele-mbembe’s existence. I do allow for the possibility that the skeptics are correct, but they are in desperate need of improved reasoning. As I have stated before, being right for the wrong reasons is almost as bad as being flat-out wrong.

Watching the Watchmen: Thoughts on Abiogenesis

I will be upfront and say I lack training in microbiology and biochemistry, and this post is intended to be a big-picture pondering on the subject, rather than a paper for peer review. So feel free to take what I write with a five pound bag of salt.

Abiogenesis is the notion that biological life can coalesce out of molecules. In this scenario, no more than the right circumstances and chemicals are required, and they can be acted upon by natural laws to bring about a complex self-replicating molecule that could eventually give rise to what we would normally call a cell.

It is also something that has never been replicated in the laboratory. The actual results behind the optimistic rhetoric of life’s “building blocks” (amino acids, etc.) being generated in the laboratory pales in comparison to our increased understanding of what would be required to be present in even the simplest conceivable cell, one much simpler than the ones we have yet detected under a microscope. And yet abiogenesis is taken for granted as having occurred at some point in the past, whether on Earth or elsewhere.

Some time ago on Facebook, I had a couple of debates with natural history illustrator and paleoartist Julius Csotonyi, who is also very well-trained in microbiology. My position was (and is) that decades of experimentation give us excellent reason to harshly criticize the assumption of abiogenesis, and even discard it. He pointed me to many, many papers on the subject and the basic argument put forward was, “We’re working on it, and are getting more answers. We just need more time to figure out how [not if] abiogenesis happened.” I would point out more problems after looking over the arguments given (and the papers I had time to peruse), and more papers would be thrown down to trip me up. All in the name of benevolently “educating” me, you understand.

Nonetheless, I know enough to recognize what we should be seeing if Csotonyi and other microbiologists are correct in saying abiogenesis must have happened. The issue was not what the papers contained, but what was missing from them. My basic requirement, that went all but ignored, was “Show me a cell or self-replicating complex molecule.”

We all know that either one of those showing up in a test tube would be the biggest biochemical breakthrough in this century and would instantly flood journals and social media both. In the meantime, the gap between laboratory results and the requirements to generate a cell should be shrinking. If that gap expands, it’s a good bet that abiogenesis is a faulty hypothesis, and to hold it as the clear explanation for life’s origin is to engage in pseudoscience.

As far as I can tell, a handful of possible but hotly debated answers have been uncovered, but that handful is dwarfed by the mountains of newly uncovered questions and obstacles. The gap between lab results and the requirements to generate even the simplest cell seems to grow every year.

Still, is there some chance that the stated results of abiogenesis experiments give any cause for excitement at someday creating a cell, or at least a self-replicating complex molecule?

Let us imagine a compulsive gambler who has racked up several million dollars in debt. Hoping to win it back, he returns to the tables, and manages to win a few hundred bucks. But he has not come close to paying it off. He’s even lost enough times, in his renewed efforts, to add another million to the bill.

Would any hope or optimism on the gambler’s part be warranted?

The obvious answer also applies to the ever-hopeful microbiologist who still seeks to find a way to generate a basic cell in a test tube. (I invoke gambling not to say life would generate “randomly.” This is a question of debt, or the criteria that an experiment’s results must satisfy before we can reach a cell.)

I admire the dogged persistence for a desired result. What disappoints and frustrates me is the double header of assuming the process must be possible, combined with a climate of hubris in academia, which perceives anyone who says abiogenesis cannot happen to be uneducated, or unwilling to consider it — perhaps out of some nefarious religious motivation.

It would be more accurate (and more gracious) to say that those more removed from the assumption that life can start by natural means may, ironically, be more observant and more willing to follow where the data points. Not only have the predictions of abiogenesis failed (or “been revised” to put it more politely), but the hurdles of statistics and chemistry have added to the problems with even the simplest conceivable cell assembling from a state without biological life.

This is much more than scientific inquiry whittling down explanations and refining the hypothesis. The debt does not merely still stand; it has been augmented.

The insistence of the True Believer combines with the momentum of grant money and an assumption that is less warranted than ever, that life “must have spontaneously generated” by natural process (the words of Stephen Hawking). Thus today’s model of Spontaneous Generation spins its wheels, all the while demanding exclusivity in laboratory and classroom alike.

My request remains. A cell or self-replicating complex molecule will do. Neither a computer simulation of a cell nor the laughably mislabeled “protocells” so far generated will satisfy the demand for abiogenesis to be scientifically tenable.

If the hypothesis fails, what should we replace it with? I am even less qualified to offer an answer to that, so I won’t dare speak on any replacement theory. All I can do is give speculation:

The changeable rules of “proper” science may cling to abiogenesis in the teeth of the evidence and hang a no-creators-allowed sign on its clubhouse door. But, if such a creator happens to exist, the necessity of such a being’s handiwork may insist on giving Him a hearing anyway.

Is it Okay to Keep Scaly Raptors in Jurassic World?

Raptor with feathers (1)

Speedy seems to have no problems with the idea.

It’s a Velociraptor. With feathers.

I regret nothing.

There’s a huge difference between caring about accuracy (that’s good), and whining about it with an overpowering sense of entitlement (that’s bad) to see feathered dinosaurs in a movie series where the already-cloned Velociraptors have a few differences in color, but lack any plumage. I tried treating the plumage-pushers like they had a sense of decency, flexibility, and/or maturity. Turns out I was naive.

The best way to deal with these bullies is to mock them, then ignore their tantrums. Consider this my farewell letter to the stark-raving madness and nitpicking. No point in arguing anymore with those who fume, fuss, and froth at the mouth over feathers. It’s Christmas time.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Kicking the Hornet’s Nest and Standing Up for Myself: PC and Worthwhile Stories

[This post has been saved for a while. For a “rainy day,” you might say. I didn’t exactly expect this topic to come back around again. I would rather keep my head down. I don’t want to pick a fight. But after Damien Walter falsely accused me of some vile things at the end of this talk on Twitter, it’s time to finally stand up for myself. I have taken a fair amount of hurtful and false accusation from unscrupulous people in the last few years, and it’s about time I start holding them accountable. I will only be a doormat for so long.]

If the thing I’m aiming to one day accomplish and make a living with — telling worthwhile stories — is threatened, then I will speak up. And when someone misconstrues my stance, then receive comments like, “Well, I won’t read that guy’s fiction, that’s for sure,” I consider that a threat to my future living.

I took a “creative” writing course at UCCS in 2008 (I put quotes around creative because the teacher stated that she wanted us to write literary fiction, as opposed to “low,” “crass” genre fiction; that’s another rant, though). One of the stories I wrote for that course got a compliment from a classmate which was roughly as follows: “I really appreciate [character’s name] being a strong female, and not a helpless milkmaid needing to be rescued by the hero. Us feminists really need characters like that.”

I appreciated the compliment, but my inner reaction to the last sentence would best be described as Uh, sure. I guess that’s all right. It was nice to hear, but I just wanted the character to be well-rounded and able to take care of herself.

I do love strong female characters…indeed, strong characters of either sex are good to have. They’re vital to a worthwhile story. I just wasn’t trying to serve The Cause, as it were. Just telling a story.

How does it help diversity if we demand that certain types of characters and themes must occupy your story? Telling worthwhile stories gets unnecessarily harder when the definition of “worthwhile” is changed to placate the ranks of the perpetually offended. If a sci-fi or fantasy book doesn’t have a perfect balance between male and female characters and all skin colors (except for white people; they’re “annoying,” “generic,” and more or less dispensable), the story is no longer considered “worthy” of time, honor, celebration, or being taken seriously.

I don’t think that stories are terrible if their characters are more diverse. Far from it. I’m just saying diversity is not the point. An important phrase to keep in mind for what makes a worthwhile story: Quality before message.

The perpetually offended and propagandists seem to be the only people on this Earth who value fiction for its message above everything else, and shame anyone who doesn’t look at stories from their viewpoint. They lack the versatility or the maturity to put aside a cherished cause; even when “escaping” into fiction that takes place in another world, their heart is still firmly planted in whatever they’ve decided is a Big Deal in our world.

They’re choosing to not escape. Fiction is treated like an essay or editorial or biography, which are entirely about the world we live in and primarily relate to issues we can face now.

Fiction by nature is supposed to be about going somewhere else. “Escaping,” if you like. Even if/when it can be used to deal with real-life issues, that’s not the point of writing a fictional story.

Last time I kicked this nest of fire ants, I got a comment whose author unintentionally illustrated my point:

No really. I used to say the same thing. “Who cares what color/gender if the story is good?”

Look, the reason people call it out, make noise about it, and generally say “hey, this isn’t ok.” is because the story should be good regardless of skin color. That the story is good should be a GIVEN. If the story isn’t good, you shouldn’t be writing it (exception:beginning writers). Period.

The rest of the comment is a rant on how the option of learning about other cultures/peoples is now suddenly an obligation for writers, because apparently a human being cannot connect to a character unless they share skin color, cultural background, sexual orientation, etc.

Did you notice that the quality of the story was a “given”? As if a story being “good” is akin to a gear in a pocket watch, a step to the really important work: spreading the Message. That’s the problem I have with modern Political Correctness tracts disguised as “fiction.” The quality of the storytelling is taken for granted. It’s treated like a support for the really important thing: the all-important Message.

As a lover of great stories, I’m calling this out for the destructive foolishness that it is. When the book becomes all about the issues going on in our society right now, what’s the point of writing science fiction or fantasy?

I’d like to keep my head down. I’d like to be popular, approved of, and respected. But if being those things means I have to soapbox about the social justice cause of the week, I’ll break apart the soapbox and use it as firewood, that I may comfortably write and read good books by the hearth.

And I’m not apologizing for it.

Fiction: Finals Week

[A quick bit of fiction I wrote in a workshop a few weeks back.]

————————–

For the normal astrophysics grad student, finals week is a special breed of hell, purgatory, medieval torture, and bad karma pressed into a few dozen sheets of paper. The multiple choice questions give new meaning to the phrase “pick your poison.” The essay questions give a sensation of one’s brain being dropped into a rusty food processor.

And then there’s me.

Forget the old cliche of sleeping through the wake up call. My alarm clock woke me up when it was supposed to. It’s me that’s the problem.

I wonder why my shaving cream smells like hazelnut, until it dawns on me that my coffee had a distinct odor of Barbasol. I drank it anyway, being too preoccupied with the umpteenth special relativity equation, after which I could only spare half an hour to review my notes on the properties of super-heated plasma jets accelerated by black holes. The fact that I stirred the cocktail of coffee and the wrong kind of cream with a mechanical pencil is a mere footnote in my mental process. But not the kind of footnote I need to memorize for The Exam.

My roommate, before prancing off to his art appreciation final (where, as I understand it, finger painting can be done for extra credit), tells me, “No pressure, dude.”

I’ve never wished so dearly that I could show him what “no pressure” looks like. In the vacuum of space.

No, no, I berate myself as he skulks out the door. Space isn’t a total vacuum! There are still a few particles drifting around out there. Wayward, serving no particular function, just like me if I don’t pass The Exam.

15 minutes later…

Terrific. Notes are piled into my satchel, I’m leaving with three minutes to spare. And now of course is the day my car gives me the silent treatment, until it’s placated with a new battery.

Okay. Okay. Fine. I’ll walk. Or awkwardly jog/hurry with a satchel slapping me in the flank. Whichever works.

I arrive at the imposing silhouette of the university building, and the exam’s beginning in less than five minutes.

Brilliant. How can this day get any —

NO! No. I didn’t finish it. You can’t be jinxed if you didn’t complete it, right?

It’s raining.

Deep breaths. Go to your happy place.

That’s okay. I forgot my shower anyway. Or maybe I did and just forgot to rinse. Why do I smell shampoo?

My eyes are stinging. Yep, definitely forgot to rinse.

A Note on Science and Skepticism

“Question everything.” If only Neil deGrasse Tyson would turn this elegant phrase on his own positions, especially regarding known historical fact.

I had the great honor of meeting Tyson at the 2006 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. He was incredibly witty, friendly, and accessible. We had a grand time discussing the possibility of life on Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa, while waiting in line for ice cream. For this reason and others, Cosmos was a series I looked forward to. So far I’ve watched the pilot, and more than half of another episode (there’s a lot of TV I have yet to catch up on; procrastinators unite…tomorrow). The visuals are incredible — they are the kinds of things I’ve longed for since Jurassic Park forever spoiled me to special effects. If only Tyson’s “polite” antagonism toward theism didn’t keep throwing itself in the way. Oh well. One day I’d love to meet up with him again over coffee and discuss science once more.

However, I bring up this matter to illuminate a larger point, about skepticism. What passes for “skepticism” today ain’t what it used to be. What it should be.

Anyone can make a claim about reality. But whether it meshes with what is already known is another matter entirely. Like Tyson’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno tarnishing an otherwise amazing introduction to the wonders of the universe, a faulty line of reasoning or a powerful and trendy agenda can throw a wrench into the gears of critical thinking.

Science is by its nature investigative. It is a fine scientist indeed who manages to put aside as much of his bias as possible, and draw conclusions based on what is observed rather than what he thinks “should” be there. It’s an ideal we may never fully realize, but knowledge is only gained when you keep reaching for it.

In other words, science as properly practiced has no sympathy for dogma or declarative statements that something is “impossible.” Nature itself seems to lack that sympathy, as well. Seashells have inspired possible modifications of military armor. Jupiter’s moons were thought to be boring, cold chunks of ice before the Voyager probes revealed otherwise. Soft tissue has been confirmed in dinosaur fossils, which surprised just about everyone. The universe keeps knocking our expectations off their fragile pedestals over and over again. I thought we would have learned our lesson by now.

Alas, the modern skeptic, rather than pay any attention to his creed and examine matters at hand with a careful eye, tends to arrogantly scoff at certain verboten claims even before he examines them. Clumsy ad hominem attacks and self-assured political grandstanding start to take the place of any actual care for accuracy. Oftentimes they can make a legitimate point (as in the case of vaccine safety), but follow a faulty line of reasoning. Being right for the wrong reasons is almost as bad as being flat-out wrong.

For that reason, I tend to distrust the conclusions of a self-described “skeptic.” If you call yourself a skeptic, I only ask you to please walk the talk. Send the hard questions in every direction, not only at your favorite punching bag. Remember to sharpen your own thinking skills, and remember: even those with a university degree and grant money can engage in pseudoscience.