Friday, December 28, 2012

Top o' the line true skeptics

Minor edits.
A couple nights ago I was privileged to join the Bay Area Skeptics for beverage and conversation.  It was a blast.  What was special about the group wasn't just their competence and ability to answer every question I threw at them, it was also the attitude; we've all known (and perhaps been) dogmatic "skeptics", but this was an atmosphere of curiosity, inquiry, openness and humility, and there's a whale of a difference.

Here's some of the stuff I remember (a little of it is from me, most not), expressed sloppily:
(fortunately beer was not the only beverage available; things could have been much worse.)

* On what makes someone a skeptic: willingness to ask "what evidence do you have, for the assertion you're making?"
* Skepticism doesn't just mean being skeptical of other people's claims, it also means being skeptical of your own, and aware of how biases likely affect your thinking.
* Daniel Loxton, who wrote the blogpost "what, if anything, can skeptics say about science?", also wrote a book (not this one?) along same lines.
* Sagan's "Demon Haunted World" includes a "skeptics toolkit"
* Skepticism is about looking at the evidence, and part of the evidence is what proportion of experts are adherents vs not;
* Who's a valid expert - doctors may not be, to the extent that they just practice what they were taught.  Medical researchers are (more so, at least); it's akin to the difference between a craft and a field. 
* The 64k question is who is & isn't truly expert (and Sagan didn't address this???); since expert opinion is the best guide for the layman.
* Consensus isn't unanimity; since scientists are human there will always be contrarians (or crackpots)
* Type I vs Type II errors - is a skeptic just slow to accept something that might be false, or also slow to reject something that might be true?
* What's a crackpot idea?  In science you can tell - it's the one that has no evidence, even though there could be evidence - but in politics we just don't know since much may be happening behind the scenes; with so much of the reality unknown, we can't know that a political claim is crackpot.
* "All humans hold crackpot ideas; I just don't know which ones of mine are."
* should ask, and allow the responses to be anonymous.
* How to introduce skepticism to an individual or community who might take offense: start off with a story or anecdote that reveals you yourself to have been an idiot, to make it clear that idiocy is the human condition, and that while improving it is desirable, revealing it isn't to be feared.
(And in some cases - when the view is so deeply held & cherished that it's essentially a religion - should you?  Answer: maybe yes even then, if the view can cause harm (including misdirected effort or anxiety?) if it's spread.  Mayan apocalyptic angst is an example.
* You might first check; ask if they'd want to know, if they were believing in something that wasn't true.
* It's rare that someone will take a challenge to provide the evidence, go & look for that evidence, & when failing to find it come back & say "you're right, I was mistaken, thank  you"; but mighty honorable when it happens.
* On how you should form your views when the only evidence addressing the question is anecdotal:   Anecdotal evidence is still evidence, so until you get better evidence, that's what you've got to work from.
* Skeptics now accept global warming but some were pretty darn slow to come around.
* The Center for Inquiry needs to promote and facilitate meetups among its members in far-flung locales, particularly those where the dominant culture is unaccustomed to skepticism; tooks are available these days that could make this feasible.
* If you're doing a science outreach talk on your field, like the Science Cafes, it engages the audience best if you can tie the "as taught in school" theory to real-life phenomena (as was addressed at the end of this.)

There was more; when/if it comes to me I'll add it.