Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 16, 2012

*ding* You've got mail!

I'm frequently the recipient of posted responses and emails, and I'm pleased to say that the majority of them are quite pleasant and supportive.  Some, unfortunately, are downright hostile.  Others fall somewhere in the middle -- questioning my views, requesting that I reconsider, providing me with additional source material that I didn't have before.  And while compliments are awesome, I really appreciate the people who take the time to provide me with constructive criticism -- because, as I recently commented, I'm always happy to revise my views when presented with facts, evidence, or even a logical argument I hadn't heard before.

Last week, I was the recipient of three responses to recent posts, that I thought were worthy of responding to in a subsequent post.  So, lo, here is the response.  In order not to leave my readers on a negative note, I present them in decreasing order of vitriol.

The first one was a reply to my last post, regarding the "Baltic Sea Anomaly," in which I described the beliefs of certain folks that the structure is a sunken Nazi superweapon.  The response I got said, in part, that the structure was "perfectly circular" with "vertical straight lines," and therefore couldn't be natural in origin; the writer then went on to say that "no one except me" claimed that the thing could interfere with planes, and asked why if I "obviously had no understanding of the facts" I "waste my time and my reader's time writing this drivel."

Well, okay, then.  First of all, I'm not the one claiming that the alleged "Nazi superweapon" was interfering with airplanes; the source did, which I both quoted and posted a link to.  I, you might recall if you'd read more carefully, was the one that doubted such claims were true.  Second, I don't know where the responder took geometry class, but the "Anomaly" is certainly not a perfect circle.  And as far as straight lines -- those abound in nature.  In fact, I just saw yesterday, in a park not ten miles from my house, fault lines in a cliffside so straight they look like they were cut with a saw.

However, allow me to clarify one thing, because perhaps I did overstate my case.  The point of the post was to rail against people who seem bound and determined, without any hard evidence, to turn this thing into something bizarre.  My statement, "It's just a pile of rocks," should have said, "As far as the evidence we now have, there is no reason to reject the conclusion that it's just a pile of rocks."  Could it be something else?  Of course.  It could be a drowned structure from a Stone Age settlement, constructed when the sea level was far lower.  It could be a something-or-another from the Nazis.  It could, although it is much less likely, be a crashed spaceship.  But thus far, all we have is a few images, and some anecdotal reports of electronic equipment malfunctioning -- and myself, I am hanging onto the conclusion that William of Ockham would have favored, which is that it is some sort of geological formation, such as a faulted pillow basalt.  If hard evidence proves me wrong, that's fine, and will undoubtedly be more interesting than my rather ho-hum explanation -- and I will happily eat crow and print a retraction here.  But until that time, the wild speculation is getting to be rather tiresome.

The second response came as an email, shortly after I posted "Thought vs. experiment," which was about how experimentation (and data, and hard evidence) should be the sine qua non of understanding -- that knowledge, in my opinion, is seldom ever arrived at by simply "thinking about stuff."  This generated a response, which I quote in part:
You have written more than once in your blog that you will only accept something if you have hard evidence, and that beliefs in the absence of hard evidence are what you call "woo-woo."  I think the flaw in your argument has to do with what you would consider "hard evidence."  Why couldn't there be a natural phenomenon that we haven't yet designed a machine to detect?  Maybe ghosts exist, and the only way to sense them is with our minds.  You would rule that out because you don't see a needle moving on a device, and yet it's real.  And my sense is that you're so closed-minded that even if you were to be presented with evidence for the supernatural, you'd rule it out because you'd already decided that none of that stuff is true.
First of all, I must point out that the latter is the hazard not only with perennial skeptics like myself, but with everyone.  We all come with our set of preconceived notions about how the world works.  If I hear a creaking noise in an old house at night, of course my first inclination will be to assume that it's some sort of natural phenomenon (a branch rubbing the roof, an animal in the attic, or the like).  But how is that different than the True Believer?  To him/her, a creaking of the floorboards is automatically assumed to be evidence of haunting.

The difference, I think, is that for a skeptic (and I would include here skeptics who are inclined to believe in ghosts -- and there are a few out there), you don't stop at that assumption.  You examine your evidence, and you keep your biases out front where you can see them -- and you look for more data.  Skeptics, I think, tend to have restless minds, and aren't content with just saying, "Oh, okay, I know what that is, I can stop thinking about it now."  We are, in our best moments, open to a revision of our explanations -- but only if the evidence supports it.

And as far as there not being a machine to detect ghosts, that one I've heard before -- the argument that goes along the lines of, "We didn't know x-rays existed until scientists built a sensor that could detect them.  Maybe there are energies we haven't learned to detect, yet."  That is possible, but I'd put it in the "doubtful" category -- physicists have become exceedingly good at measuring energy of varying types, even when those traces are faint (to give just one example, look at the Cosmic Microwave Background Anisotropy study, which detects extremely small fluctuations in the microwave background radiation in the sky as a way of elucidating the structure of the early universe).  I find it hard to believe that with all of the big effects that the woo-woos claim -- telekinesis, telepathy, spirit survival, and so on -- that none of our current devices can demonstrate unequivocal hard evidence of any of them.

The third response was to my post, "Grilled cheese sandwiches and sacred stones," which looked at the rather difficult question of how to respond to people who claim that you're not showing proper respect to an object that they venerate and you don't:
You shouldn't scoff at people for venerating, or finding spirituality, in objects.  All of our ancestors did that very thing.  I'll bet that there are objects you are attached to -- for sentimental reasons, perhaps, but still, it's not "just a thing" for you.  And maybe the people who find spirituality in objects are right, and you're missing a big part of the universe by considering everything around you to just be inanimate matter.
Well, first of all, I reread my post, and I didn't think I did much scoffing.  At least, not nearly as much as I usually do.  Maybe I did some covert, implied scoffing, I dunno.  But in any case, the responder is correct that I don't think there is "spirit" in matter, and that our ancestors did, in general, believe that there was.  Our ancestors, you might recall, believed a lot of other things, too, and a good many of them have since been proven to be false, so just because some great-great-grandmother of mine thought that a particular ring had magical powers doesn't impel me to believe it out of some sense of familial respect.

In any case, it all comes back to my favorite word, "evidence."  A random pattern burned into a piece of toast is just not sufficient for me to conclude that Jesus has sent me his Holy Image.  Some people in Venezuela declaring that a particular rock is their Wise Grandmother doesn't mean that out of respect for their cultural beliefs, I have to accept that it is literally true.  I will fall back on what I said in the post; I believe in treating all people with respect, dignity, and kindness, but that does not require me to accept that what they're saying is correct.

In any case, I really appreciate the feedback, and although I would prefer not to have what I write referred to as "drivel," it's better to have hostile responses than no responses.  As Brendan Behan famously said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity."  So keep those cards and letters comin'.


  1. It's possible that there are some phenomena that can only be detected by the human mind, by means of some woo emanations that we don't have an instrument to detect. Especially when you consider that not every detector that physicists have the ability to design, is necessarily available to the people looking into a phenomenon.

    However, that's not an excuse for failing to investigate scientifically. If an effect is real, then when it occurs, different people should experience it at the same time. So you have a way to test. Of course you have to set things up to prevent the people from influencing each other.

    If different people independently viewing the same area can't agree on what's happening or even when something interesting is happening, then I submit that the best explanation for the phenomenon is imagination.

    It also doesn't remove the obligation to check for those things we _can_ detect. We already know that low-frequency sound can make people think they're experiencing a haunting. If you investigate a supposed haunting, and you _don't_ check for the presence of subsonics, then you've failed to eliminate a likely explanation for the experience.

  2. Gordon, I am nominating you for the Sunshine Award! There is no need to do anything other than enjoy it but if you want to share the sunshine, details are up on my blog right now.