RS episode #54: The “isms” episode

In RS #54 — dubbed “The isms episode” —  Massimo and I ask, “Is the fundamental nature of the world knowable by science alone?”, looking at the issue through the lenses of a series of related philosophical positions: determinism, reductionism, physicalism, and naturalism. All of those “isms” take a stance on the question of whether there are objectively “correct” ways to interpret scientific facts — like physical laws, or causality — and if so, how do we decide what the correct interpretation is? Along the way, we debate the nature of emergent properties, whether math is discovered or invented, and whether it’s even logically possible for “supernatural” things to exist.

http://www.rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs54-the-isms-episode.html

 

A rational view of tradition

In my latest video blog I answer a listener’s question about why rationalists are more likely to abandon social norms like marriage, monogamy, standard gender roles, having children, and so on. And then I weigh in on whether that’s a rational attitude to take:

My kind of protest sign

Via Occupy Sanity, on Facebook:

And how about a: “Two, four, six, eight! And if you could please register your studies ahead of time to combat publication bias, that would be great!”

 

RS episode #53: Parapsychology

In Episode 53 of the Rationally Speaking Podcast, Massimo and I take on parapsychology, the study of phenomena such as extrasensory perception, precognition, and remote viewing. We discuss the type of studies parapsychologists conduct, what evidence they’ve found, and how we should interpret that evidence. The field is mostly not  taken seriously by other scientists, which parapsychologists argue is unfair, given that their field shows some consistent and significant results. Do they have a point? Massimo and I discuss the evidence and talk about what the results from parapsychology tell us about the practice of science in general.

http://www.rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs53-parapsychology.html

You’re such an essentialist!

My latest video blog is about essentialism, and why it’s damaging to your rationality — and your happiness.

Thoughts on science podcasting: A dispatch from ScienceOnline 2012

I’m in Raleigh, NC this weekend for the sixth annual ScienceOnline un-conference, a gathering of 450 scientists, writers, bloggers, podcasters, educators, and others interested in the way the internet is changing the way we conduct, and communicate, science. My contribution was this morning — I moderated  a discussion on science podcasting with Desiree Schell, the eloquent host of Skeptically Speaking. We made a nicely complementary team. Her podcast is live, whereas mine is pre-recorded; hers is solo; whereas mine is a dialogue with a co-host; hers focuses on the practical applications of science to people’s lives and pocketbooks (e.g., the common cold, the claims of the cosmetics industry, etc.), whereas mine is more abstract and philosophical. So our combined perspectives overlaid together created a kind of podcasting guide in 3D.

A few highlights:

What’s your niche? There are a lot of science and skepticism podcasts out there already, and Desiree and I both agreed that you need a well-defined “niche” in mind if you’re going to start your own. Maybe it’s a topic  you think isn’t being covered enough, or it’s not being covered the way you think it should be, or maybe it’s a group you want to give a voice to. But there should be some reason your podcast exists other than the fact that you want to do a podcast.

For example, I consider Rationally Speaking’s niche to be in the philosophical implications of science. So instead of just covering topics like irrationality, or the science of love, we also try to hash out questions like, Why should we try to overcome irrationality? Does it actually make us happier, and what are the ethical implications of trying to make other people more rational? And if we understand the science of love, does that change our experience of love?

And then our other niche is the question of what constitutes good evidence for a claim: To what extent do fields like evolutionary psychology, string theory, and memetics make testable predictions, and if they don’t, can we have any confidence in their claims? Can we ever generalize from case studies? How do we know which experts to trust?  A lot of skeptic podcasts and blogs highlight claims that are unambiguously pseudoscience, but I think Rationally Speaking specializes in the murkier cases.

The outline versus the map: Desiree and I talked a lot about how to make podcast interviews and conversations go smoothly. When I first started doing Rationally Speaking, I would come into our tapings with a mental outline of the topics I wanted to cover, arranged in a nice order that flowed well… and as it turns out, that’s fine for when you’re giving a lecture, solo, but it just doesn’t work when you throw other people into the mix. You don’t know what topics your guest is going to bring up that call for follow-up, and I never know what direction Massimo’s going to take the conversation in. And the problem with  having an outline in your head is that once you diverge from that outline, you have no instructions for how to get back onto it.

So what I’ve settled on instead is more of a loose, web-like structure in my mind, where the topics aren’t in any set order, but for each topic, I’ve thought about how it connects to at least a couple of other topics. That way, wherever the conversation ends up, I have this map in my head of where I can go next.

Why a podcast at all? For that matter, you should really have a reason to do a podcast rather than write a blog. Podcasts have some significant downsides, compared to blogs. On the production end, they’re a hassle to record and edit, compared to writing a post, and they commit you to a specific length and schedule. On the consumption end, they’re inconvenient in that you can’t skim them at your own pace, you can’t skip down to another section, and you don’t get links or pictures to supplement the content.

But sometimes they really are better than a blog post. I think that’s especially true for treating controversial or multifaceted topics, the kind we look for in Rationally Speaking – hearing people debate a topic is far more engaging than reading one person’s point of view. Also, as Story Collider’s Ben Lillie pointed out during the conversation, listening to a science podcast creates an intimate connection to the scientist – when you’ve got headphones on and you’re hearing the scientist’s voice as if she’s right there with you, it takes barely any time to get a taste of her personality. And science could always use a little more humanizing.

My Little Pony: Reality is Magic!

(Cross-posted at 3 Quarks Daily)

You probably won’t be very surprised to hear that someone decided to reboot the classic 80’s My Little Pony cartoon based on a line of popular pony toys. After all, sequels and shout-outs to familiar brands have become the foundation of the entertainment industry. The new ‘n improved cartoon, called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, follows a nerdy intellectual pony named Twilight Sparkle, who learns about the magic of friendship through her adventures with the other ponies in Ponyville.

But you might be surprised to learn that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s biggest accolades have come not from its target audience of little girls and their families, but from a fervent adult fanbase. I first heard of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic from one of my favorite sources of intelligent pop culture criticism, The Onion’s AV Club, which gave the show an enthusiastic review last year. (I had my suspicions at first that the AV Club’s enthusiasm was meant to be ironic, but they insisted that the show wore down their defenses, and that it was “legitimately entertaining and lots of fun.” So either their appreciation of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is genuine, or irony has gotten way more poker-faced than I realized.)

And you might be even more taken aback to learn that many, if not most, of those adult My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans are men and that they’ve even coined a name for themselves: “Bronies.” At least, I was taken aback. In fact, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued that I contacted Purple Tinker, the person in charge of organizing the bronies’ seasonal convention in New York City. Purple Tinker was friendly and helpful, saying that he had read about my work in the skeptic/rationalist communities, and commended me as only a brony could: “Bravo – that’s very Twilight Sparkle of you!”

But when I finally sat down and watched the show, I realized that while Purple Tinker may be skeptic-friendly, the show he loves is not. The episode I watched, “Feeling Pinkie Keen,” centers on a pony named Pinkie Pie, who interprets the twitches in her tail and the itches on her flank as omens of some impending catastrophe, big or small. “Something’s going to fall!” Pinkie Pie shrieks, a few beats before Twilight Sparkle accidentally stumbles into a ditch. The other ponies accept her premonitions unquestioningly, but empirically-minded Twilight Sparkle is certain that Pinkie Pie’s successes are either a hoax or a coincidence. She’s detemined to get to the bottom of the matter, shadowing Pinkie Pie in secret to observe whether the premonitions disappear when there’s no appreciative audience around, and hooking Pinkie Pie up to what appears to be a makeshift MRI machine which Twilight Sparkle apparently has lying around her house, to see whether the premonitions are accompanied by any unusual brain activity.

Meanwhile, Twilight Sparkle is being more than a little snotty about how sure she is that she’s right, and how she just can’t wait to see the look on Pinkie Pie’s face when Pinkie Pie gets proven wrong. Which, of course, is intended to make it all the more enjoyable to the audience when — spoiler alert! — Twilight Sparkle’s investigations yield no answers, and Pinkie Pie’s premonitions just keep coming true. Finally, Twilight Sparkle admits defeat: “I’ve learned that there are some things you just can’t explain. But that doesn’t mean they’re not true. You just have to choose to believe.”

Nooo, Twilight Sparkle, no! You are a disgrace to empirical ponies everywhere. And I’m not saying that because Twilight Sparkle “gave in” and concluded that Pinkie Pie’s premonitions were real. After all, sometimes it is reasonable to conclude that an amazing new phenomenon is more likely to be real than a hoax, or a coincidence, or an exaggeration, etc. It depends on the strength of the evidence. Rather, I’m objecting to the fact that Twilight Sparkle seems to think that because she was unable to figure out how premonitions worked, that therefore science has failed.

Twilight Sparkle is an example of a Straw Vulcan, a character who supposedly represents the height of rationality and logic, but who ends up looking like a fool compared to other, less rational characters. That’s because the Straw Vulcan brand of rationality isn’t real rationality. It’s a gimpy caricature, crafted that way either because the writers want to make rationality look bad, or because they genuinely think that’s what rationality looks like. In a talk I gave at this year’s Skepticon IV conference, I described some characteristic traits of a Straw Vulcan, such as an inability to enjoy life or feel emotions, and an unwillingness to make any decisions without all the information. Now I can add another trait to my list, thanks to Twilight Sparkle: the attitude that if we can’t figure out the explanation, then there isn’t one.

Do you think it’s possible that anyone missed the anti-inquiry message?  Hard to imagine, given the fact that the skeptical pony seems mainly motivated by a desire to prove other people wrong and gloat in their faces, and given her newly-humbled admission that “sometimes you have to just choose to believe.” But just in case there was anyone in the audience who didn’t get it yet, the writers also included a scene in which Twilight Sparkle is only able to escape from a monster by jumping across a chasm – and she’s scared, but the other ponies urge her on by crying out, “Twilight Sparkle, take a leap of faith!”

And yes, of course, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is “just” a kids’ cartoon, and I can understand why people might be tempted to roll their eyes at me for taking its message seriously. I don’t know to what extent children internalize the messages of the movies, TV, books, and other media they consume. But I do know that there are plenty of messages that we, as a society, would rightfully object to if we found them in a kids’ cartoon – imagine if one of the ponies played dumb to win the favors of a boy-pony and then they both lived happily ever after. Or if an episode ended with Twilight Sparkle chirping, “I’ve learned you should always do whatever it takes to impress the cool ponies!” So why aren’t we just as intolerant of a show that tells kids: “You can either be an obnoxious skeptic, or you can stop asking questions and just have faith”?

%d bloggers like this: