Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 26, 2012

What’s a Skeptic?


This short post is meant to be a bit interactive, at least through the comments. The subject is, what is a skeptic?

I use the term to describe myself: I’m a skeptic. Or, perhaps just like the PC term being that someone “has schizophrenia” versus “are schizophrenic,” I am skeptical. I would put forward that a good scientist is skeptical, and that anyone who is a critical thinker is skeptical.

But people like Alex Tsakiris, George Noory, Mike Bara, and others whom scientists would generally term “pseudoscientists” also say that they themselves are skeptical, and that people like me are “close-minded skeptics/debunkers.” Meanwhile, people like Michael Horn claim that “skepticism” is a religion.

I could go through lengthy etymology and modern usage that might make an English major or a language scholar swoon, but no one else, really. Instead, this is how I define the term, and why I think that people such as those whom I term “pseudoscientists” are anything but skeptical:

To be skeptical means to reserve judgement on the veracity of a new claim that is different from what has been previously established. The established idea is effectively the null hypothesis — the idea that will stand if the new one is shown to not have enough supporting evidence. The evidence for the new claim must be evaluated on its own merits, and if valid, it must be weighed against the evidence for the established idea. To be accepted, the new idea must have at least as much evidence for it as the old claim, and it should also explain why the evidence in support of the old claim is faulty and/or be evidence for the new claim just as well. Any idea that’s rejected is always subject to re-analysis upon submission of additional data.

So, for example, if someone makes a claim that — oh, I dunno — there’s a kilometer-sized ziggurat on the Moon, that’s the new claim. The null hypothesis is that there is no ziggurat on the Moon. There are many different lines of argument that support the null hypothesis (no one to build it, no astronaut talking about it, no other photographs showing it), while there is one photo circulating the internet that is the evidence for it. When examining that individual photograph, many anomalies come up that indicate it is more likely than not that the ziggurat in that one image is fake. With doubts as to the authenticity of the single image with the ziggurat, the evidence for it is very small, and it is completely overshadowed by the evidence for the null hypothesis.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that there is no ziggurat, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As another example, one could take astrology. The null hypothesis is that astrology does not work, and there is no known physical mechanism that would allow it to work. Evidence that people have put forward for astrology working is, in sum and substance, anecdotal (“I got a reading and it was accurate!”). In fact, I saw an astrologer recently argue that because more people believe in astrology than any one religion, and since Americans spend $hundreds of millions of dollars on astrology per year, that it’s real. Meanwhile, every large, controlled experiment that has tried to test the validity of astrological predictions has shown a negative result.

Ergo, as someone who is skeptical, I adopt the position that astrology does not make accurate, specific predictions, though that position is always subject to revision based on new data.

As a scientist, I operate the same way. When I write a paper, I have to provide evidence to support my conclusions. If my conclusions contradict previous work, I have to go through the evidence that others have used to support their conclusions and show that it was wrong, wrongly interpreted, and/or can support my conclusions just as well. If I can’t do this, then no one is going to believe me over the established results that do have evidence.

Anyway, these are my musings on the subject. The idea for this post came while listening to yet another pseudoscientist (who shall remain nameless …) claim to a large audience, “Hey, I’m a true skeptic – not like those debunkers – and that’s why I can openly look at the evidence for [paranormal claim] and accept it!”

What are your thoughts? Do you agree, disagree, and why?

September 16, 2012

Podcast Episode #51: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 4 (Nancy Lieder)


Episode 2 of 2 for September is now posted, another in the series on the Fake Story of Planet X, this time the the saga of Nancy Lieder from 2003.

Yes, it’s an older case by over a decade, and very, very few people still take Nancy and her ZetaTalk site seriously.

But, I think it’s important for the sake of “complete” coverage of the Planet X phenomenon, of which she has been a major part. I also think that it’s informative of what’s going on today with doomsday ideas related to Planet X and 2012: The same crap that she spouted back then for the pole shift she said would happen in 2003, people are still using today for 2012.

Other segments: Feedback, Puzzler, Announcements.

September 1, 2012

Podcast Episode 50: Lunatic Earthquakes


Do lunar tides actually cause or trigger earthquakes, and is there a vast conspiracy to cover it up? Or do the people who make this claim misunderstand the data and statistics?

Well, since this is the Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast, you can guess what the conclusion is. But, it’s a ~50-minute exploration of the claims and evidence dealing with this claim, and for those of you who like logical fallacies, you’ll really like this episode. I hope. I’ve also written up a document of the statistics I did for this.

Other segments: Q&A, Feedback, Announcements … and TWO puzzlers!!

The two announcements are: (1) I need to drop down to 2 episodes/month, at least for September. We’ll see what happens in October, but likely this will hold at least through November. (2) I’ll be in Flagstaff, AZ (USA) for a conference for September 18-23. If you’re interested in meeting up at all, send me an e-mail.

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