Saturday, November 29, 2008

What is Skepticism?


Our world is awash with people making claims:
"My new homeopathic treatment will cure the flu!" "Dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago." "The world is flat." "God spoke the world into existence 6000 years ago." "The world is round." "I was visited by aliens last night." "Global Warming is a hoax." "Marduk created the earth from the corpse of Tiamat."
Not every claim can be true. But how does one know the difference? You might say common sense. This is true to an extent, but there are a lot of people whose "common sense" tell them a lot of unbelievable things.

To help determine the validity of a claim, you need to employ a process. In the sciences, that process is called the scientific method. Simplified, it goes like this: First, you form a hypothesis ("The world is round."). Then you make observations about your hypothesis (fly a plane around the world, send up a network of satellites). Your observations will either invalidate your hypothesis (your plane smashes into a wall at the edge of the earth), or they won't. If your hypothesis is invalidated, you modify it to fit the new data and repeat until you have a reasonably good model, or "theory," of the way things actually are.

In the strictest sense, no set of observations will ever "prove" a scientific hypothesis. But when there is a huge preponderance of evidence, we can basically accept the hypothesis as true. Very few people today (make no mistake, there are some!) believe that the world is flat because of a preponderance of evidence demonstrating that it is round.

Skepticism takes this same approach and applies it to everything. So, what is skepticism, exactly?

The word "skepticism" has a bit of a bad reputation. You often hear the word "skeptic" in the same sentence as "cynic." All skepticism means is that when people make claims, those claims should be open to testing and should be judged on the quality of the evidence. If the claim being made flies in the face of what we already know, then the burden of proof is on the one making the claim to demonstrate the truth of their claim.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence
When you hear a claim, what do you feel is the likelihood of this claim being true, based on what we already know? If someone claims "I lost my keys," you probably won't require a great deal of evidence. People lose their keys all the time. It's not an extraordinary claim.

If, instead, they claim "I can walk through walls," most people will be a lot more skeptical. No one has ever been known to walk through walls before. Furthermore, if someone were able to do so, it would literally require physicist to rewrite their model of the universe from the ground up. It is quite an extraordinary claim. For the most part, claims like this can be dismissed out of hand. That said, a true skeptic will gladly accept such claims as true if the claimant can demonstrate their ability in truly a controlled environment (i.e., not susceptible to trickery or other methods of deception). For instance, the James Randi Educational Foundation, one of the foremost skeptic organizations, has a standing $1,000,000 prize for anyone able to demonstrate a paranormal ability in a controlled environment. To date, no one has claimed the prize.

Many skeptics consider religion off the table, arguing that people's deeply-held beliefs should not be subjected to scrutiny, and that the claims made by religion are not falsifiable (that is there is no way to test their validity) and are therefore outside the realm of science or skepticism. Other skeptics gladly tackle religious topics, arguing that just because a given claim was written down thousands of years ago, it shouldn't be exempt from skeptical scrutiny. I personally tend to side with the latter group. No claim, particularly any claim upon which people chose to base their entire lives, should be exempt from examination.

If you'd like to know more about skepticism, I'd like to share a few excellent resources:
  • Skeptics' Guide to the Universe - If you only have time for one skeptical resource in your life, make it The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. This weekly podcast covers the whole gamut of skeptical topics, from alternative medicine to the evolution/creationism debate... And it's seriously entertaining, too.
  • The Demon-Haunted World - Carl Sagan's book is a superb primer to the world of skepticism and rationality in a world plagued with claims of the supernatural and paranormal. It's a quick read, very accessible and tremendously enlightening.
  • Skeptic Magazine - Run by Michael Shermer, who along with James Randi is one of the best known faces of skepticism in the public eye, Skeptic Magazine is a great addition to any Skeptical Tool Kit.
  • Skepchick - Run by Rebecca Watson, one of the host of the Skeptics' Guide, the Skepchick blog features a plethora of skeptical women (and one dude) who don't hold back any punches. Add Skepchick to your RSS reader! Now! For those of you wishing to mix your Skepticism with nudity, Skepchick outputs two pin-up calendars each year, featuring well-known and unknown "Skepchicks" and "Skepdudes" respectively. It's all in good taste and good fun. Skepchick also produces a sub-blog, Teen Skepchick, devoted to giving young skeptical women (including the bad-ass Splendid Elles) a platform to speak up and be heard.
There are hundreds of other skeptical blogs, podcasts and other media available. But that should get you started. Have fun!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Top 10, Baby!

Ah, the interesting things you learn from search statistics... Did you know that thanks to this post, and this post, my blog is among the top ten Google results for both "Spying on your Neighbors" and "Proof of Alien Visitation?" Which is even funnier if you look at the alien visitation post with spying on your neighbors in mind.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


GoGreen18 is my new hero.

She's a 19-year old YouTube vlogger who discusses her stances on atheism, religion, sexuality, environmentalism, culture and more. And she does so eloquently, stridently and inspiringly. She first came to my attention a few months ago after PZ linked to one of her videos from Pharyngula. It was brilliant:

After PZ sent his Pharynugloid horde her way (including me), some overzealous Christians succeeded in getting her videos pulled and her YouTube account suspended. I guess some people can't take any criticism. In the long run, everything got sorted out, but still...

Anyway, I learned today that Laci was raised as a Mormon. I just stumbled across the latest in her series on her deconversion from religion and Mormonism... Knowing the three people who read my blog, I thought you might be interested in hearing her story. I'm posting the first here.

If you want to hear more from her (and she has a lot to say!), check out her YouTube channel here or subscribe to her vids in your RSS reader. Now, on to the vids:

A Deconversion:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Salt Lake City Skeptics in the Pub - December 17

I just scheduled the first Salt Lake City Skeptics in the Pub event. The relevant details are at or

Steven Pinker, Frans de Waal and more!

Cross-posted from SALT CITY SKEPTICS

Though not specifically about skepticism, those of you interested in the sciences have a great opportunity to hear some leading voices in science right here in Salt Lake.

Steven Pinker, one of the world's foremost cognitive scientist, author of numerous books (and a noted skeptic) will be the keynote speaker at the third annual Tanner Center for Nonviolent Human Rights Advocacy Forum (or as I like to call it, the TCNVHRA).

Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of several books (including one of my favorites, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape) will also be presenting.

This three-day conference (entitled "The Evolution of Human Aggression") will be taking place at the University of Utah from February 25 to 27, 2009.

All lectures are free and open to the public, so feel to attend any that sound interesting. Other speakers include Sarah Hrdy, Margo Wilson, Martin Daly and Peter Turchin. (What's that? I'm giving undue weight to the anthropologists? Well tough. ;) )


For the last two days I have been listening to the Decemberists song "Oceanside" again and again and again. It's an early song, from their first disk, 5 Songs. I've heard it many times before and it never did much for me before. But for some reason, it struck me the other day. Now I just want to hear it again and again... and again.
Sweet Anabelle
As seen reclining on an ocean swell
As the waves do lather up to lay her down
'til she's fast.
And sleeping
Oh well
I guess I'm something of a ne'er-do-well
Who fell asleep at the pealing of the steeple bell
I'm on track and keeping

But oh
If I could only get you oceanside
To lay your muscles wide
It'd be heavenly
If I could only coax you overboard
To leave these lolling shores
To get you oceanside.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I wonder how much this will cost...

So, I am having a little get-together tonight at my house. Last night I went out and bought some supplies, but realized a few minutes ago that the sour cream I had might not be... appropriate for company.

Sure enough! I was right, so I dumped the contents in the sink and rinsed the carton out to prep for recycling. Then I ran the disposal.

The ungodly racket that burst forth from the dark realms of the sink drain was deafening. I switched it off, ran the water for a bit, then poked into the disposal with a knife. There was something down there.

I stuck my hand down into the sink, and the disposal turned on of its own accord, destroying my hand... Okay, that didn't happen. Instead, I pulled out a rather large lump of glass. My first thought was "Oh my god! Some jerk-ass at the sour cream factory put a lump of sharp glass in the bottom of this carton!"

But I reached down again and found several smaller glass shards, one of which read "Salt La-".

It was a shot glass. Specifically, a 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games shot glass... I have to say, the heavy base held up pretty well!

But now, the disposal no longer runs... Great!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Elaine on Radio West!

My good friend Elaine (proprietor of 'The Other') was featured on this week's Radio West! I loves me some Doug Fabrizio, so I was excited to learn that Elaine was on the show.

Elaine was the primary organizer of the huge rally last weekend in Salt Lake in favor of gay rights and in response to the passage of California Prop 8. Sadly, due to about four pounds of crap in my sinuses and a taiko drum recital going on in my skull, I was unable to attend. But I am so proud of Elaine for pulling this together!

And she was great on Radio West. Elaine: you sounded like you've done a million radio interviews. :)

I do with the program had focused a bit more on the wider issue and a bit less on the few unfortunate and rightly condemned acts of vandalism against LDS property. Still, an excellent show.

Listen now!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Is Newsweek the Antichrist?

[h/t Slacktivist]

Newsweek has just published an article entitled "Is Obama the Antichrist?" The lack of integrity and skepticism in this article is alarming.

The author, Lisa Miller (I totally just had a News Radio flashback) profiles three or four people, whose opinions on the eponymous query run the wide gamut from "I can see why people think Obama is the whore of Babylon" to "Fasten your seatbelts! The End is nigh!"

This article is certainly not the first on the topic. And indeed, it's a legitimate topic worthy of journalistic investigation. There are plenty of interesting and insightful questions to ask about this phenomenon: How have religious fundamentalists fomented an atmosphere of fear and distrust, leading them to make such wild accusations? What does this say about the care with which the Obama administration must navigate in the coming years? Isn't is funny that the winning lottery numbers in Illinois were 666?

Unfortunately, none of these are addressed in Miller's article. I don't know what Ms. Miller's opinion on the matter is, but the tone of the article (seriously, go read it) borders on credulous. The implication is that that those who believe Obama to be the Antichrist are basing their conclusion on a rational analysis of the evidence. Not a single dissenting voice is anywhere to be found. Not one. There are no voices here to counter claims like "the spread of secular progressive ideas is a prelude to the enslavement of mankind."

The closest it comes to even acknowledging that some people might think this a controversial stance, to say the least, is the following sentence:
The people who believe Obama is the Antichrist are perhaps jumping to conclusions, but they're not nuts.
And it just goes downhill from there. Nice job, Newsweek.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Salt City Skeptics

I've started a new blog, and a new group, called Salt City Skeptics. All the relevant details are over there. Enjoy!

Join the Salt City Skeptics group on Facebook as well.

Monday, November 17, 2008


If anybody has been wondering what to get me for Christmas, I know just the ticket. Feel free to chip in with your friends, because at $10 million, I'm not really expecting anything else this year. Watch the whole thing:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Sandman

[hat tip: io9]This week marks the 20th anniversary of the first issue of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman's comic book series that (along with anything Alan Moore got his hands on) forever changed comics, allowing them to explore existentialism, sexuality, humanity, horror, history, religion and mythology without aid of muscled men in shiny tights and women with huge breasts and nipples that show through plate mail.

The Sandman also changed me. I came to the series quite late. I was, what, 14? Trying to find myself and my place in the world like everyone that age. I came to the Sandman quite late in its initial run, and quite accidentally.

I was wasting time at the mall and wandered into the comic shop. I didn't read comics. Neither did any of my friends. I had not bought a single comic book in my life. I browsed around and stared/drooled at Dawn and Witchblade covers and posters (I was fourteen, after all), but would have been too embarrassed to buy any of them (and rightfully so: they're dreadful)... But then my eyes were caught by the bizarre and iconic imagery of Dave McKean on the cover of Sandman #64.

This didn't look like anything else in the comic shop. I was intensely curious, so I decided to pick it up. I remember reading it on the bus ride home from the mall, and was awestruck.

My first issue put me halfway though "The Kindly Ones," the series' penultimate storyline, resulting in the title character's death. Handily, this particular issue began with a summary of "The Kindly Ones," so I was slightly less lost than I would have been otherwise... but before the bus dropped me off, I was ready for more.

That weekend, my family was going up to stay at our Cabin for a few days. Knowing this, I stocked up on as many back issues of The Sandman as the comic shop had, which was maybe 5 issues.

I immediately was hooked. The Sandman featured a cast regular people sturggling with birth, death, homosexuality, drug addiction, growing old, AIDS, faith and everything else we humans have to contend with. But among the mere mortals were others: Loki, Death (with a capital D this time), Shakespeare's Puck, The Bibical Cain and Abel, Lucifer (now running a piano bar in downtown Los Angeles), and the eponymous Sandman: Morpheus, the King of Dreams.

I then began consuming, in mass quantities, all of the back issues of Sandman subsequently published in collected editions. The art in the early issues kind of threw me off a bit (very "comic-booky" and very dated), but the story -- the story was too good. The Sandman was, and is, literature. Sure, Batman and Superman appear in a frame or two of an early issue (before it became the backbone of the "mature audiences" DC Vertigo line), but this is the stuff of Shakespeare. I was then, and continue to be, quite the rationalist. Despite numerous attempts, I can't get into mainstream fantasy fiction, and even most sci-fi I find not too my liking (fanboy Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica content on this very blog notwithstanding), but the Sandman helped me to appreciate the fantastic.

After The Sandman ended, not terribly long after I discovered it, I continued to explore the Vertigo line of comics for a time. Many of these were quite good (Transmetropolitan, Hellblazer, House of Secrets) and many quite horrible (anything involving Garth Ennis), though none caught my interest like the Gaiman's magnus opus, with the possible exception of Mike Carey's Lucifer (a spin-off series about the piano bar entrepreneur/former Lord of Hell mentioned above).

I don't really read comics any longer. A friend may lend me something he finds quite good now and then, and there are a few graphic novels I have become quite fond of; but in general, I have been disappointed in most every comic I have read since then. Nothing captured my imagination or my sense of wonder -- in comics or otherwise -- quite like The Sandman.

Thank you Neil Gaiman.

If you're unfamiliar with The Sandman and would like to get your feet wet, you'd do well to dive in with the first collection (Preludes and Nocturnes), but I might recommend A Game of You for first timers instead.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Being Big Brother 101: Spying on your neighbors

Ah, the internet.

Have you ever wondered what your neighbors might be uploading to YouTube?

Neither have I, but thanks to Google Gears (required) and this page, I now know anyway.

It is with a mixed sense of reverence for technical ingenuity and crippling paranoia for the breaking walls of privacy that I present to you the following videos, all uploaded by YouTube users within a few blocks of my house. Kinda creepy, actually.

Howdy neighbors!

This is actually kind of a well done instructional video based on Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide.

John McCain and Hillary Clinton star in this noir thriller:

Ummm... Not sure what to make of this. It appears to be an alien criticizing Thomas S. Monson and the "LDS church," which it claims is a splinter group from the true "Mormon Church," to which this creature belongs. It seems to be equal parts humor and earnest conspiracy delusion, and clearly invokes Poe's Law:

This one makes me positively want to shoot myself. If you are above the first floor of your building at the moment, you may want to restrain yourself so you don't jump out the window before watching this:

Friday, November 7, 2008


Umm.... I think someone needs to up their medication just a bit. Also, someone needs to remove this child from this house...


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fox News, keepin' it classy as usual

I think the implication Fox News is trying to make is couldn't be clearer. Nice job on the fair and balanced thing guys!


Okay, okay. I know I just had a glowing post about the next president.. Time to get back down to earth:

As PZ points out Obama is still quite centrist; that the right-wing noise machine is already working to delegitimize him (that didn't take long); that we still have to repair the damage done by Bush, and that he still has to work with a self-interested Congress, many of whom, including the Democrats, collaborated with Bush on his worst policies. Plus, Proposition 8 in California passed, showing that although we might be okay with a black president, as a nation we are still fearful of teh buttsex (and it is about the sex for the people who voted yes on 8, not about love or equality).

I'm going to retain some of my exuberance for now. PZ is right, though I perhaps a tad more optimistic. At the very least, we have a president who won't continue the momentously inane leadership of the last one. The shiny has not worn off for me yet, but we all need to temper our expectations. No leader, even if he wanted to, could live up to the standard we've set up for Obama.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Did anyone else see Obama's acceptance speech?

Time will tell, of course, but by all appearances, this guy is the real deal. I'm truly looking forward to the next four years.

The Best of [ liberté, egalité, trivialité ]

Welcome to new readers from the Atheist Blogroll. I thought I'd put together a list of the best, most interesting posts from the long and sordid history of liberté, egalité, trivialité carefully selected over the course of minutes by a panel consisting of me, the following posts will help you find your way in the world.

First off, check out out my personal history posts in which I document my journey from childhood to now with an emphasis on my evolving atheist, skeptical, liberal and scientific worldview. I have three parts so far with a fourth on the way and at least one more planned.
  • Part 1 - I talk about who I am now. why I think the way I do, and why I think it's a good thing.
  • Part 2 - I grew up in a Mormon family and community, but my paretns always encouraged critical thinking.
  • Part 3 - As I became a teenager, I began having doubts about religion and the supernatural and began to reconcile that with a scientific viewpoint that increasingly edged out religion.
  • Part 4 - "Agnostic, leaning toward atheism"
After that, enjoy a few select posts where I got in-depth into a topic:
  • The Joseph Smith Papers - I discuss the LDS church's project to compile all known texts written by Jospeh Smith, and why I am skeptical of the church's intellectual honesty in the project, based on their tendency to cover up and deny parts of thhe church's past it finds embarrasing, particularly when it come to Jospeh Smith.
  • For the Bible Tells me So - What started as a review on a documentary about how Christianity is supposedly not at odds with homosexuality turns into a discussion of religious moderation in general. That is, if one believes the Bible is the infallible word of god, how can one choose to ignore some passages? But, if one accepts that the Bible is fallible, why believe it at all?
  • I Made God Cry - I relate the tale of how I forced the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to hear about dildo(e)s and other sex toys. One of my proudest acheievements.
  • Denialism - I get a chain e-mail from a friend about holocaust denial in the UK. Turns out the claims made in the e-mail aren't true. I make the case that these sort of things actually aid denialists rather than help solve the problem.
  • Raccoons! - Does what it says on the tin.
  • McCain and Religion - Though this post will (hopefully) be irrelevant by the end of today, I think it's a solid -- if brief -- exploration of why religion should not be part of making public policy decision.
So there you go! I am also confident that this post will help boost my rankings for people searching Google for "Jospeh Smith Dildo."

Presented without further comment

Monday, November 3, 2008

Review of Oliver Stone's "W."

I saw W last night, Oliver Stone's new movie about the president of the same name. My review follows below: