Must-Reads That I’m Reading – Separating Skepticism From Values, A Guide To Conspiracies (And Unicorns!)

Must-Reads That I’m Reading – Separating Skepticism From Values, A Guide To Conspiracies (And Unicorns!) October 12, 2011

New Podcast Out! On Forty Days Of Treats – Interview With Liz Lutgendorff

I’ll see about making this a fortnightly blog-post, although during the school holidays I have a little more time for reading than usual. So, here’s a magazine, a blog-post, a book for research and a book for the fun of it. I’ll make this a regular feature in the future and feel free to put in your own recommendations in the comments!

Magazine –  Skeptic Magazine, Vol. 16. Number 4. I just got this in the mail yesterday.

Great articles by Karen Stollznow (‘Healing and Harming Sounds‘ – did I ever mention finding a M.Ed proposal in a cupboard at UWA on testing the Mozart Effect? Appears that’s as far as the study went, however, otherwise I’d have turned testing it further into a thesis too…), the usual informative article by SkepDoc Harriet Hall and one by Frank Borzellieri on ‘Roswell, Aliens and Belief’, with an interesting study on Roswell believers and their level of education, level of religious belief and political attitudes.

The article that interested me the most, however, is the one on page 13 by Daniel Loxton – ‘What Is The Most Effective Way To Be A Skeptic? The Great Debate Between Confrontational Activism vs. Educational Outreach’. It is, as he says, by no means an exhaustive literature review, but does have some excellent food for thought:

Critics often frame civility debates as a dichotomy: exercise restraint, or be honest. But skeptics long ago learned that choice is just as often between honest restraint and making stuff up. That is, incivility sometimes goes hand in hand with exaggeration, factual inaccuracy, and legal liability (consider such common skeptical phrases as “He’s a fraud.” It’s always insulting, but it’s only occasionally true). 

To illustrate his point, he then links to Jim Lippard’s article “How Not To Argue With Creationists”, which you can read in full here, which discusses the serious allegations of Ian Plimer about creationist organisations’ financial dealings. Having recently been exposed to lies and attempts to silence women in skepticism by other skeptics – particularly in response to my article “On Codes Of Conduct: A Brief History of Civility, Inclusivity, Sexism and Skepticism, which does reference the ElevatorGate issue – I can certainly relate to this kind of advice about skeptics needing to being careful with the facts.

Blog-Article – Paved With Good Intentions – ICBSEverywhere.

…any practice of skepticism that does not strive to be value-neutral is contradictory, counterproductive, hypocritical, and generally just bad. – Paved With Good Intentions – ICBSEverywhere.

This is a must-read. If you don’t subscribe to Skeptic Magazine, this is free, online and the most riveting thing I’ve read this month so far. I saw parts of it as a Facebook conversation, so I’m glad it’s been elaborated on further.

As Barbara Drescher writes:

When we allow our good intentions to pave the road, it doesn’t lead to truth. Yes, we should be motivated by our values. We should consider our values when setting general goals. However, in order to reach the goals we claim to care about, in order to achieve the things we claim to value, we must separate those values from the work. We must not allow those values to enter into our decision-making processes.

 I guess this blogpost came to mind as I’ve just finished transcribing an interview with a fellow skeptic, who is leading a protest in the UK called ’40 Days of Treats’. During that interview we discussed whether it was being labelled as ‘skeptical outreach’, ‘feminism’ or just plain community awareness and caring for others during a time of need:

But I think in terms of, where we stand today it’s something for everyone to show their support and just let all these fringe religious groups, who don’t really even represent the majority of religious people, to just say,”No, this is enough. This is the law. We support the law. We support these organisations. We appreciate the work they do. It can’t be easy.”

Other blog-posts I’d recommend include The more feminine you look, the more children you want. It must be science and Framing and Definitions: Are You Maternal Enough to be a Woman?, but I know that both of those posts feature on Scientific American, are bound to get attention regardless… and Drescher’s post should be given as much regard.

BooksThe Skeptic’s Guide To Conspiracies by Monte Cook and The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers.

I’m really enjoying both of these, not only because of the topics (I mean, come on – unicorns?) but the way they communicate their respective topics. The Skeptic’s Guide to Conspiracy Theories is both funny and informative, with a rather cool feature: red ink scribbles throughout claiming everything is true. It’s entertainment rather than a ‘proper’ resource, but I had a lot of fun with this.

As for The Natural History of the Unicorn? I picked up this book in order to suggest to the Monster Talk podcast that they do a report on the unicorn and I think that Lavers would be well worth talking to on the subject.  2,400 years ago was the first report of a ‘unicorn’, which leads to an interweaving of both the natural history (such as a narwhal’s tusk) and local legends, with a healthy mixture of religious texts and sagas. Even what it LOOKS like is debatable:

It is said of the three-legged ass that it stands in the middle of the wild sea, and it has three feet, six eyes, nine mouths, two ears and one horn. Its body is white, it eats spiritual food and is virtuous. And two of its six eyes are in the eyes’ place, two on the top of its head and two on its rear; with these six sharp eyes it sees all who do evil and destroy. – page 240.

Overall, two enjoyable reads and they’ve helped pass the holiday break well.


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