Here Be Dragons

You really want to take a look at this video. If you’re already a skeptic, then you will find that it nicely reinforces your thinking in an entertaining fashion.
If you’re of a superstitious bent or if you tend to favor “alternative” practices or subscribe to conspiracy theories, this video probably won’t shake your faith, but it may encourage you to take a closer look at both your beliefs and the source of your beliefs.

In our journey to the 21st century most progress has been wrought through intelligent people carefully examining the world around us. Be one of those people.

Personally, I find the source for the human need to subscribe to religion, “alternative therapies” and conspiracy theories to be neatly summed up at about 30:40 in the video – the desire for easy answers.

Near the end Brian recommends 4 books. I’ve read Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark” and absolutely love it (get the audio book if you can). I talk about it here. I’ve got a copy of James Randi’s “Flim Flam” by my bed and am looking forward to reading it in the next month or so. I’ve not yet read Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, but based on Twains other works I know I’ll enjoy it and will be picking it up. I’ve heard all of Brian’s “Skeptoid” podcasts and heartily recommend them. The book form is a good outreach for people who are not quite in the 21st century yet and for whom podcasting remains an elusive art. Get a copy for your folks…

For more info on this video head over to Here Be Dragons.

Atheist (non-theist?) Resources

Whether you’re of a religious bent or you favor a more naturalist view of the world, these resources are well worth the effort to review. For the religiously inclined, exploring supposed flaws and inconsistencies in your faith can either help you to better understand and concretize your world views or it can allow you to honestly evaluate those views against new criteria.
Those who are not religiously inclined will find that understanding some of the myriad religions, especially those prevalent where you live, gives you new perspectives. I have personally found it very enriching to actually read the bible and to be able to recognize its influences on other literature and media.

There are a few problems with using the word “atheist” to identify one’s religious affiliation. Strictly speaking everybody’s an atheist. It really just depends which god(s) you choose not to believe in. Most Christians could be considered atheists where Thor is concerned for example.

Another issue is that the word is so very charged. Every word has a degree of charge, ranging on a spectrum from Positive, through Neutral to Negative. Calling someone a “Freethinker” or a “Humanist” brings about subtle, yet important connotations versus labeling them as “atheist” even though we may understand rationally that they all imply the same things.

The other really big problem with the word “atheist” is that it defines someone, who has no stake or attaches no significance to religion, in religious terms. So the label is misleading.
Being a-theist or non-theist is very different from being anti-theist. This can be a subtle distinction, but it is one that most people get wrong.

Regardless of your religious leanings, developing your skeptical toolkit is paramount and so these skeptic resources are very useful. I believe that skepticism and religious faith can and do coexist well together. Whether traditional religions can withstand skeptical inquiry is perhaps another question, but if skepticism leaves your faith intact but not the institution representing it, well you can decide what to make of that…

Some of my favorite resources:

The Institute for Humanist Studies – Humanism, per their website, is “a philosophy of life inspired by humanity and guided by reason. It provides the basis for a fulfilling and ethical life without religion.” They have a pretty good monthly podcast if you want to keep abreast of developments or if you’re simply interested in hearing folks discuss Humanist topics. They have several links on their site that may also be of interest but I have not perused these.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation – A major objective of this group is to maintain the separation of Church and State. This is something that is in everybody’s interest as, with so MANY religions including sects within these religions, if any one were to gain authority as the state religion what do you suppose would happen to all the others? And what do you suppose are the odds that your religion would emerge victorious? No, the freedom to practice your religion, or to not practice any religion at all, rests with ensuring that no group, not even humanists / atheist / freethinkers, gets into a position to dictate how the citizens of this country may pursue their faith.
I enjoy listening to their weekly podcast – also on Air America – it can be a bit corny at times (I’m not a real fan of their brand of music) and sometimes one of the show’s co-hosts, Annie Laurie Gaylor, can seem a bit strident at times. But they do have a lot of relevant things to say.
An added bonus is that the other co-host, Dan Barker, is actually a former minister. His knowledge of the bible and Christian teachings is extensive and gives him a solid background for when he conducts interviews or offers editorials.

American Freethought – I have only recently started listening to their podcast and have not had a chance to thoroughly check out their website. The podcast seems to come out every 2-3 weeks. Right out of the gate it was professionally done and obviously carefully prepared. They seem to focus more or less on a single issue per episode and I find them to be quite appealing. The background of one of the hosts involves a fair amount of activity in this realm (non-theism) and he brings some good insights to the show. I don’t know about the other host’s background as I don’t see much about him on the site, but he is also very engaging and they make a solid duo.

There are a plethora of freethinker, humanist and other non-theist resources available. Probably you can find most of them through the links in the sites above. But, with a day job and other interests, these are the ones that I’ve had the chance to check out and would recommend.

Oh, and no list would be complete without including Mr. Deity. This video series (they are still producing new shows) pokes fun at some of the inconsistencies or perceptions of the Judeo-Christian faith and expand on them. Apparently a number of religious groups show these at their gatherings to use as talking points, so they can’t be all that offensive. But they are entertaining.

Skeptic resources

If you are new to being a skeptic or are interested in learning more about it, the links below will prove invaluable.

Most important to remember is that a skeptic is not (necessarily) a cynic. A cynic is essentially a nay-sayer. Someone who will take the most negative connotation or meaning from a situation or who always starts with a negative premise.

A skeptic is someone who requires evidence before they will accept assertions. The wilder the assertions – i.e. the more they contradict what is already known to the skeptic – the more evidence is required to justify that novel position.

Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the darkFor those interested in exercising their rational minds in the world we live in, I can think of no better book to start with than Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark”. This superbly written work is a must read for establishing, not only your skeptical toolkit, but why such a toolkit is needed in the first place. He discusses the actual harm that can come about by not challenging superstition and pseudo-science and does so in the engaging and grounded fashion that is such the hallmark of Dr. Sagan’s work.

Next stop is the podcast “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” (SGU). I already detail my impressions about it in the linked-to blog entry so I won’t go on about it here.

Then there are a series of good websites, one of my favorites is Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” blog. This started off as a website highlighting bad science (particularly astronomy, duh) in movies and other published venues. The moon hoax debunking is brilliant and well worth the rather extensive read. Phil has branched out somewhat and his daily blog covers topics ranging from interesting astronomical happenings through to foolish legislation based on poor understanding of science, to the invasion of “Intelligent Design” (aka creationism) into the science curricula of our nation’s classrooms.

Appealing to a somewhat less science-focused, but still rigorously skeptical community is Rebecca Watson’s “skepchick” blog. Rebecca’s sometimes sardonic wit is legendary in the skeptical community. She is extremely adept at getting to the heart of an issue, clarifying it and, if warranted, poking fun at it. She also participates in the SGU if you want to hear her in her element. The blog actually has several contributors which adds diversity but also means there is a fair amount of content.

Other resources:

PZ Myer’s “Pharyngula” blog
. I have just recently started reading PZ Myer’s work and am impressed so far but I don’t know enough to comment yet.

The “Amazing Randi’s” website “James Randi Educational Foundation” has some good information although I tend to find it a little hard to read. There is information there on TAM (The Amazing Meeting) that is supposed to be a mecca of all things skeptical. I hope to attend TAM6.

From any of the above resources you will find links to still further skeptical sites and information.

James Randi explains homeopathy

Wow! Pretty succinct… well as succinct as 14 1/2 minutes can be. But a very good description of Homeopathy nonetheless.

When I was younger I explored a lot of alternative practices and was very seriously considering entering the field as well. Fortunately, my grades in university in computer science were so much better than my grades in my pre-med subjects that they convinced me that my forte really lay in programming and analytical pursuits.

There is so much to know in this world that you often have to pick your authorities for the things you don’t have the time or inclination to pursue yourself. You end up trusting folks’ word and believe that they know what they are talking about. Of course, implicit in this is the assumption that they have either done the research themselves, reviewed the research first-hand or that their choice of a trusted authority has a good handle on the subject.
Homeopathy, was something that I was never able to reconcile with reality. The testing modality assumed “energies” that could not be measured and treatments that relied on “vibrations” or “energies” that could not be detected or explained.

The premise of “like cures like” was a wild stab in the dark from a pre-science era and was pretty cool reasoning for its time. But with the advent of the scientific method, understanding that perhaps 60% of anything you’d see a doctor about will fix itself ultimately anyway, and knowledge that the placebo effect is quite a powerful one, it seems clear that folks need to weigh the efficacy of such a questionable and unproven modality. Especially one that can be so expensive.

I *do* rather wish Mr. Randi had taken a few moments to explain Avagadro’s number a bit more carefully. Basically, Avagadro’s number expresses how many molecules would be contained in a quantity of a substance whose mass in grams is equal to it’s formula weight (thanks Wikipedia!). i.e. a mole of Carbon-12 atoms would be 12 grams. So his argument for the odds of finding even a single molecule in the quantity represented is modestly tainted

The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science

You know, for such an open and free society, our government sure does some questionable things. Thankfully we *are* free enough to watchdog this sort of behavior. Now if we can just be motivated enough about it come election time to express our opinion then maybe we can show these Luddites that we won’t tolerate them constantly monkeying with our perception of reality.

I’m not particularly politically inclined, I recognize that all politicians and political groups are package deals – you are stuck taking the bad with the good. I suppose we just need to decide for ourselves what we consider “good enough” to be willing to accept the accompanying downsides and take the time to know what each of these guys brings to the table when we step behind that little curtain to cast our votes.

I spotted this in the Bad Astronomy blog. From the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science“.

Mr. Deity

I heard about this while listening to the “Skepticality” podcast from TAM5 (“The Amazing Meeting 5”. See James Randi’s website for info on the next Amazing Meeting).

Mr. Deity is character in an interesting series of YouTube video shorts looking at god as if he were more of a Woody Allen-esque entity. So far there are 6 episodes and they highlight some of the glaring absurdities of conventional religion if examined out of context.

I thought they were pretty humorous and provide a little food for thought.

Time Magazine’s Article – “Why We Worry About The Things We Shouldn’t… …And Ignore The Things We Should”

Time magazine tends to cater to a pretty credulous mindset. If I want solid reporting and analysis of world events I favor “The Economist”, but I was pointed to “Time’s” December 4, 2006 cover story by a blog entry on Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” blog.

I fly airplanes, I shoot guns, I don’t smoke and I do exercise. Mostly, however, I manage risk. Understanding what is safe and what is really dangerous, not just emotionally appealing, is key to focusing on and dealing with the real issues that face us today.

We really need to get a grip on the things that we allow our public leaders use to divert us from the real issues. Check out this article for some perspective.

Carl Sagan remembered

This is the 10th anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death (Dec. 20, 1996) and if you’re in the blogosphere you’ll likely see many of the science-oriented sites post entries about this sad milestone.

There is not much that I can say that has not already been posted before about Dr. Sagan’s role in growing our knowledge about the planets and moons of our local solar system as well as in popularizing the Cosmos in general. Click here for his Wikipedia entry.

My own experience with Dr. Sagan’s work began way back in 1989 when I was on vacation in Morocco for a couple of weeks. That was one of the first vacations I’d ever been on where I was truly a “stranger in a strange land”. There were a couple of French TV stations available from France in the North, but most channels were in Arabic (Berber, I believe). There happened to be a copy of Carl Sagan’s book “Cosmos” available, and over the course of those two weeks I managed to read it cover to cover.

While I enjoyed that experience immensely, it is not for that work that I really respect Dr. Sagan. I disagreed with some of his stances on political issues (nuclear holocaust and environmental concerns chief among those),  but I greatly respected the skepticism and mental rigour that he expressed so clearly in my favorite of his works, “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the dark”. I have this book on audio tape and feel it is a must read / listen for anybody interested in understanding what skepticism is really about.

I truly regret that Dr. Sagan can no longer produce such wonderful and thought provoking works anymore and that he is not able to see the incredible discoveries we’ve made both within our own solar system and throughout the Cosmos over the past few years.