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.

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Megalodon and the Decline of Science: From Enthusiasm to Contempt

After Animal Planet ran some specials regarding mermaids, Discovery Channel released another mockumentary which (a) I haven’t seen but my interest is piqued, and (b) has many scientists and science enthusiasts up in arms, blogging up a storm. Here’s the trailer:

Disclaimers were released with the special, but not ones that flat-out said its scenario is strictly fictional (which is problematic). The program, like the mermaid ones before, is a thought exercise. It asks “What if?” — that beloved question of writers, artists, and anyone with an imagination. What are the charges against this show? As I understand it, it’s a combination of “That’s not real,” “Discovery is abandoning science and reality,” and “People fell for it.”

Can I be honest with you? I can agree that Discovery should have done more to let people know the program was presenting a fictional scenario. However…this show isn’t a threat to science. Where are those “huge numbers” of people who still think mermaids are real after seeing the shows on Animal Planet? Are they hiding behind the conspiracy theorists who think the Moon landings were faked?

People are smarter than that, in general, and are probably tired of getting talked down to. I don’t know about any of you, but I am definitely weary of the fear and fretting, including the endless proclamations that science is somehow harmed by mockumentaries.

Sure, don’t lie to people. But if the show is presented in a “what-if” manner, then bring on the Megalodons!

This is part of a bigger issue that stretches across a much larger canvas, from the endless complaints of scientific inaccuracies in movies to the mindset that scientists have “all” the tools we need to discover truth (as a Christian, that’s something I’ll respectfully disagree with). Without asserting it firmly, I worry that the most vocal supporters of science are turning increasingly contemptuous toward anyone who sees nature in a different way than they do, or who asks different questions.

I speak as someone who loves science. I may not have a PhD, but I love nature. I love science. And I appreciate accuracy and realism, insofar as they go. I grew up with Bill Nye and Beakman’s World. David Attenborough nature specials are sources of beauty and amazement. Bob Bakker and George Blasing can talk about dinosaurs for the rest of eternity without boring me (admittedly that’s already hard to do when we’re talking about dinosaurs). Neil deGrasse Tyson is always a delight when he speaks about astronomy — I met him at the Space Symposium in 2006, and count myself blessed for that.

You know what all of these people have (or had, in some cases) in common? Enthusiasm. I caught the science bug from them because they recognized and shared the wonders and the fun it holds. Where is that today, at least on Facebook and the blogosphere? The internet seems to be where science goes to die, even when the cemetery is marked “National Geographic” or “Discover Magazine.”

Please tell me I’m not crazy. Is anyone else noticing scientists now make more headlines for shouting that creationists and global warming “deniers” are idiots than for encouraging us to finally put humans on Mars? Even Nye and Tyson are starting to get in on the rhetorical bloodshed. The contempt is getting old. Fast.

One incontrovertible fact goes all but ignored by the online community as it does its Chicken Little impressions: nature includes so much more than what we know about or can currently explain, even where it seems no surprises are left. Just because a stone is overturned doesn’t mean a door has been closed on this or that possibility. Giant prehistoric sharks living in the present aren’t “impossible.” I find it doubtful that we’ll discover Megalodons surviving in the ocean. But I’m not going to say something foolish, like “all evidence says it’s extinct.” We don’t have all the evidence.

Contempt finds its roots in hubris and paranoia, both of which are well-displayed in the blogosphere. Passion and humility are what drive curiosity forward and breed enthusiasm.

Reality holds a lot of beautiful surprises. Who could have guessed we’d find gigantic pink slugs living in a lost world? That’s reality. What of the tantalizing possibility that it’s raining diamonds on Uranus and Neptune? And those are just the little things, tiny parts of a huge, mysterious universe that we’re nowhere close to understanding in full. There’s still plenty of room in the world for things that we little humans have a hard time imagining to be real.

Why waste my time yelling at Discovery Channel, when I can go look for those surprises? You’ll find me striving alongside Johannes Kepler to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

A Brighter Day for Paleontology? Switek Steps Down

Edit: June 05, 2013

Evidently, reacting to a link I stumbled across on another paleontologist’s site and then having something critical to say about it is clear proof of “trolling” in Mr. Switek’s mind, just because I’ve criticized him in the past, and I must be someone who’s obsessed and out to “get” him.

Or maybe I saw him doing something I cannot stand (condescending to others if they don’t see the world like he does, and making mountains out of paleontological mole hills), and tried multiple times to call him out for it. Either way, I neither threaten him nor trawl his account for excuses to snipe at him, nor do I call him names. Nothing that I can remember, in any case. If I think he says something that insults my intelligence, I’ll say so. But his best excuse is “go away and shut up.” Which of course doesn’t go over well with me, since I see a problem in his treatment of other people that’s still not getting solved.

Is that “trolling,” or being an annoying busybody? Either way, it’s not laudable. I apologize for sometimes being frustrated. I confess I should have let it go long ago, something I already admitted. For honesty’s sake, I’d just love to see him treat others with more respect and more open-mindedness. But fine. I’ll gladly stop paying him attention. He already gets far too much as it is.

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After four years, Brian Switek is leaving his “Dinosaur Tracking” Blog for the Smithsonian and moving on to what I hope are bigger and better things. Though I wish him the best of luck (honest, I do), I confess that I’m glad about it. Sorry, fellow paleo-nerds.

Here’s the thing: I wanted to love Switek’s blog. I really did. There are many informative posts, I admire and envy his depth and breadth of knowledge, and his devotion to scientific accuracy is quite laudable.

Here’s the problem: His concern for scientific accuracy was rarely expressed in a constructive light. Most of the time it was excessive griping about how movies and TV shows don’t portray dinosaurs quite as accurately as museums and the peer-reviewed literature, or bemoaning all the “inexcusable” mistakes the public at large was making about dinosaurs. At one point he even asked the media to “leave dinosaurs alone” because he couldn’t stand the inaccuracies.

But that’s like asking science fiction movies to “leave space alone” because they rarely get their astrophysics right. I don’t recall Neil DeGrasse Tyson stating that we should stop making space operas. And for all their inaccuracies, Star Wars and Star Trek somehow inspired a whole generation of scientists, engineers, and astronauts.

Wait, inaccurate movies inspiring people toward science and education?! No. Freaking. Way. Imagine that! Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for Jurassic Park to keep inspiring kids to become paleontologists, even with its featherless Velociraptors and poisonous Dilophosaurs.

Not that science isn’t important — of course it is! And I am not saying entertainers have license to throw accuracy to the wind — they should make an effort, most of the time. But entertainment has purposes besides educating people about all the minutiae of scientific accuracy. Sometimes you just get a better story by fudging a couple of details. And if it is somehow a flaw or a mistake, it’s not the end of the world (today’s date notwithstanding). It’s best to shrug it off and let it go, rather than hop onto a Smithsonian blog and sniffle at all those uneducated masses, as they make errors so tremendous and damaging, they’d be better off just leaving dinosaurs to the professionals.

I’ll listen gladly to other paleontologists, thank you, namely those who allow people to imagine and exercise a little artistic license.

The Difference Between Geeks and Nerds

Artist Bob Eggleton has recently updated his Facebook status with an intriguing distinction between “Geeks” and “Nerds.” Yes, I know each term has a lot of possible meanings (often on an individual basis), and you can’t actually hammer them down to a specific definition. But let’s just accept these words for the moment as markers, convenient ways to distinguish between two modes of thinking.

Essentially, it’s a question of attitude. If people can tell you are obsessed with something because you love it, it endlessly fascinates you, and you don’t apologize for your passion, then that makes you a “Geek.” However, if your dedication to that subject is marked by disappointment, nitpicking at flaws, and approaching your interests with a cynical and dour attitude, then you are a “Nerd.”

I don’t mean to insult anyone who likes to think of themselves as a nerd (in which case you have a different meaning for that word anyway), nor am I saying we can never criticize or have negative feelings about our passions. Heck, for longer than I care to admit, I realize I have been a complete “Nerd” about my own writing, about movies I love, and any of a hundred other passions in my life. But it does help to be reminded that if something is a passion for you, it’s best shared with others in a positive light. Rather than spending all of your time pointing out mistakes or showing how not to do something, entice others into seeing things from your perspective.

Let’s pick a couple of examples in, say, the field of astronomy. I’ve always seen Phil Plait of “Bad Astronomy” fame as a Nerd. As the title of his blog implies, he makes a name for himself by going after the shall we say “astronomical” mistakes people make when it comes to the heavens, whether it’s a conspiracy theorist pushing the Apollo Moon Hoax idea, or picking apart the scientific inaccuracies in science fiction movies. Again, it’s fine to pick something apart, but when most of your effort goes to showing how other people make mistakes in your field, my enthusiasm considerably dampens. This doesn’t make Plait a bad person. He’s just not the kind of astronomer I’d be eager to share a taxi with. Plait is certainly knowledgeable about astronomy, and I’m sure he loves studying it and talking about it, but that pleasure is rarely communicated to his audience.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, would definitely qualify as a Geek in this respect. When you listen to him in interviews, you can hear him brimming with delight and optimism, and you know he was born to be an astronomer. A few years back, at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, I had the tremendous honor of meeting him and having a prolonged conversation with him. Not only does he have an extraordinary depth of knowledge about the universe, but his attitude makes you share that excitement. Tyson is accessible and friendly, and when he does get negative, as he does when NASA’s budget got cut for the umpteenth time, there is fire in his voice rather than a condescending sneer.

There are other examples of this, of course. In my cherished field of dinosaur paleontology, world-renowned paleontologist Robert Bakker is quite possibly the biggest Geek there is. He shares Tyson’s enthusiasm and constant sense of wonder at what he studies. The fact that he’s an Ecumenical Christian preacher likely lends some fervor to his academic pursuits, as well. Listening to him, you know that he thinks dinosaurs are awesome, and wants to share that attitude with everyone. By contrast, Brian Switek from Smithsonian Blogs can hardly write an article without taking potshots at writers, movies, TV shows, or the general public for all the mistakes they keep making about dinosaurs. Some of which aren’t even mistakes. Hearing it from him, either they’re deliberately irritating him by not putting enough feathers on Velociraptor, or they’re just stupid for thinking soft tissue was found in a T. rex femur.

[Note: Actually, we did find original remains from the animal — blood vessels and medullary tissue and the like — but Switek still seems to have a hard time thinking of it as anything but a “bacterial biofilm” that grew on the bone’s interior. Switek leaves little room in his thoughts for the extraordinary or the unexpected, never mind the impossible.]

In this cynical age where few things are good enough and we are constantly setting ourselves up to be torn down, I submit to you that the world needs fewer “Nerds,” and a lot more genuine “Geeks.” If you feel like you can’t help being a “Nerd,” please remember that most of us are at least trying to enjoy ourselves. And remember that even if facts can’t be changed, your attitude can be. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s high time I go from glowering to grinning and hop back on the Geek train.

NASA in Decline

After the firestorm of creativity, innovation, and boundless optimism that was the Space Age, we have fallen far indeed. If we had taken the suggestions of people like Robert Zubrin and Bill Nye a mere ten or twelve years ago, we could have astronauts treading the surface of Mars right now, expanding our presence in the Solar System while pushing the limits of our technological prowess, and all the while feeding the basic human need for exploration.

Instead we have been puttering around low Earth orbit for a few decades, overlaid with the cacophony of talk about going to Mars without actually committing to it. And here’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, telling it like it is:

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Interview

We have to remind ourselves that exploring other planets is the next logical step of feeding mankind’s collective need to go, to find, to learn. And if our government doesn’t remember NASA’s role and presence in space exploration, and forgets that America has the most experience and expertise, then stepping on another world is going to be so much more difficult than it needs to be.

If you lose the drive to explore and discover, life is barely worth living anymore. If you don’t feed it, your aspirations start feeding on themselves, like an Ouroboros serpent swallowing its own tail. Now is not the time to give up our lofty goals and designs for the conquest of space, just because politicians with stunted imaginations have such a hard time envisioning the need or value of what NASA has given us.