Monthly Archives: November 2007

ID – Nova is the best show ever

I enjoy Nova (a show on PBS, for those who don’t know) immensely and, unfortunately, am often too busy to check it out. Luckily last week I had my wits about me and taped it because I heard they were having a show about the Dover trial.

To give a bit of history: A school board in the bible belt in the States decided it would be fun to make teachers read a one-minute statement that basically explained to the fresh-minded 9th graders that Evolution “is only a theory” and that Intelligent Design (ID) is a viable alternative explanation – not only a complete misinterpretation of what constitutes a scientific theory that, by the way, has withstood 150 years of intense scrutiny, but also a false dichotomy…I digress.

The teachers refused to read the statement and also refused to replace the current text, Ken Miller’s aptly-named “Biology”, that was “laced with evolution” with the suggested alternate ID textbook “Of Pandas and People”. Several parents sued the school board for infringing on their First Amendment rights after the school higher-ups read the one-minute statement to the class, despite teachers’ protests, and several copies of “Pandas” mysteriously appeared on the school’s doorstep from an “anonymous donor” for use as a sister text to “Biology”.

Eventually the “star witness” of the defense Michael Behe had to admit, based on his own line of faulty reasoning, that astrology is a perfectly legitimate science based on the definition that he requires for ID to count as science too. This is arguably irrelevant to the case itself, but hilarious nonetheless. The prosecution eventually provided evidence, based on early drafts of “Pandas”, that the message of ID was rooted in religion and therefore was a violation of rights for the message to be taught in school. The depositions and later testimony of certain school board members and public figures also damned the case, so to speak, for the school board by demonstrating that there was a religious motivation for teaching ID in the school as opposed to am “open-minded” scientific one.

As of this posting, the episode can be viewed online on Nova’s website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/id/

I also encourage everyone to take a look at the rest of the site, as there’s many an interesting topic to discover.

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Oprah – Sneaky Misinformation

Often I’ll be speaking about obvious hucksters such as Kevin Trudeau, Sylvia Browne, John Edward, and the like. But today I’d like to speak about someone much more insidious, someone under the radar. You might not have seen this one coming.

You may have heard of a nice lady named Oprah Winfrey. She has a modestly popular -ahem, foooooor the last 20 years – show on the TV box and a self-titled magazine (well, self-initialed anyway). She is a generous philanthropist, often giving away gifts on her show, sometimes worth thousands of dollars. She opened a school for girls recently in Africa – which incidentally came under fire recently for abuse, but that was dealt with swiftly by Big O herself.

So, my issue is not with her character per se. She’s quite obviously a very caring, generous lady. Even though the tax breaks are almost certainly very good, I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. My issue (finally the rub) is with her perceived authority and what she does with this responsibility.

Let’s face it, this woman has been on the air for years. Because of her generosity and well-known visage, people trust her. This makes it really easy to believe anything she says, because why would she lie? And I’m not calling her a liar here, but I feel it’s important to point out one thing.

Oprah is not an expert on anything.

Oprah is a TV personality. She is the host of a long-running talk show. This does not, by any standard, make her the defining authority on any topic. This is why she is so dangerous. The show will have topics about autism conspiracies, “alternative” medicine (read: “not really” medicine), acupuncture, angels, “The Secret”*, etc. without a shred of skepticism or irony. Oh sure, sometimes they’ll have the obligatory “let’s hear from this scientician” moment, but that is often lacking and only appears if we’re lucky. Or sometimes they’ll invite the token skeptic on just to ambush them as happened to James Randi and, in a separate incident, Laura McMahon (full story on both of these events found at http://www.randi.org/jr/2007-03/030207harpo.html#i1).

These topics of course will be saddled in between less controversial fair such as various celebrity guests and how to make your hair look nice. Also between extremely controversial shows dealing with rape, assault, murderers, etc. Altogether these intellectually irresponsible shows tend to slip in unnoticed and seem like another day in the world of trusting Oprah informing the public of what matters or what’s fun. So, these topics run largely unopposed for the duration of the hour and who knows how many people walk away thinking “huh, you learn something new every day”.

These people aren’t stupid, by the way. They’re like the rest of us. A trusted authority figure has given out information for our benefit (or at least that’s how it’s promoted), who are we to judge the veracity of it? We’re not experts, after all. But what people have to realize is this: Oprah is not an expert on anything! Her show is for entertainment. It is not a substitution for watching the news (arguably useless as well these days, but at least a rung above) or looking something up for yourself.

Oprah, I implore you, please for the love of sanity stop promoting the book “The Secret”*, stop passively allowing the promotion of the idea that vaccines cause autism (to be completely fair it was Jenny McCarthy doing most of the talking here, but I still hold Oprah responsible as it is her show), stop passively allowing unopposed diatribes on the benefits of “alternative” medicine, stop promoting alleged psychics, stop insulting women’s intelligence by having shows about astrology and how it affects their love life and success. Just stop. Stick to what you know – celebrities, hair, victims of various atrocities.

And to everyone out there: OPRAH IS NOT AN EXPERT ON ANYTHING. Please, if you hear something on her show, take a quick sec on Google or look it up on Wikipedia – anything – to verify the info. Maybe she was right, and that’s great, but more importantly she might be wrong and that’s something that needs to be straightened out. Wouldn’t it feel much better to look something up, learn something, and then realize “I’m smarter than Oprah!” than to believe everything she says without question? I know I’m smarter than Oprah, and it feels awesome.

*This will be a topic in an upcoming post.

Welcome!

Welcome to my blog!

I hope I can be both entertaining and informative about things science and paranormal. I’ll be tackling some common issues (evolution vs. creationism vs. ID vs. alternatives), common alleged hucksters (Sylvia Browne, Kevin Trudeau, etc.), common alleged hoaxes (Bigfoot, UFOs, Nessie, ghosts, psychic surgery, etc.), common beliefs/misbeliefs (homeopathy, auras, astrology, paranormal events such as miracles, etc.), and much much more as things come up.

I think it’s important to tackle some of the “old standards”, because even though we skeptics sometimes get tired of saying the same thing over and over again, that’s what it takes to get the word out. So, you may have heard of these things before, but I’ll try to bring something fresh to the mix to make reading about these topics entertaining and fair. Notice the generous use of “alleged” above. I won’t be making wild assumptions or committing logical fallacies (I hope, and call me on it if I do) on this page. There will be no ad hominem attacks here. Every subject will be treated as if I am the first one to investigate it – so, *before* we became all jaded and settled on crying in the corner in the fetal position in utter frustration.

I’ll bring various perspectives to an argument to the mix, not because it’s “fair” to show “both sides” (a logical fallacy – false dichotomy – and also each side doesn’t have equal robustness in their arguments), but because it’s just as important to construct a good argument as it is to deconstruct a bad one.

I think I’ll make the occasional post regarding my experiences as a student [profession deleted] and my encounters in my profession with non-critical thinkers and how that situation was resolved etc. Hopefully you’ll find that enjoyable. I think that will bring in some “real world” perspectives on real issues – particularly on charlatans in medicine and how pervasive non-critical thinking can be in the field.

Anyway, I look forward to this process. It’s my first time tackling a blog. I hope it makes a difference.