What is a Skeptic in the Room?

Since our world seems to get more scientifically-illiterate by the day, there’s a need for skeptics in every room to stand up for reason, critical thinking and science.

So how do you know if you are a Skeptic in the Room?

When a friend starts ranting about how Cubans and LBJ conspired to kill John Kennedy, about how the Moon Landing is “obviously” a government conspiracy, or how the Illuminati control “everything,” a Skeptic in the Room points out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

When athletes on TV tout the virtues of titanium necklaces, kinesio tape or plastic bracelets with tiny holograms, a Skeptic in the Room points out that there is no evidence that such things actually work (and lots of evidence that they are simply expensive placebos).

When a religious friend thanks God for some trivial “miracle,” a Skeptic in the Room asks why a Supreme Deity would trouble himself with such minor signs of power when children are dying of curable diseases and natural disasters all over the world.

When your trendy friends contend that “chemicals” are always evil, a Skeptic in the Room points out that everything you eat is made of chemicals, and that the dose makes the poison.

When someone cites Deepak Chopra’s quantum theories, a Skeptic in the Room points out that spouting buzzwords that sound sciency is not the same as, you know, knowledge.

When a friend recaps the latest episode of Ghost Hunters, a Skeptic in the Room points out that Occam’s Razor suggests that there are simpler explanations for things that go bump in the night (just ask  Scooby Doo!)

But when scientists successfully land an SUV-sized spacecraft on Mars, send a probe to take high definition photographs of Saturn or fling another probe all the way past Pluto, a Skeptic in the Room declares that the universe is truly awesome!

And when he or she thinks about all that has been accomplished, uncovered, clarified and made better through knowledge and the scientific method, a Skeptic in the room proudly states that you really gotta love science!

This particular Skeptic in the Room writes and records songs. And this page – and my songs – are dedicated to all of the skeptics who believe, as I do, that the universe we live in is understandable and explainable through science and reason.

The First and (I’m guessing) Only All-Haiku TAM Recap

Here is my recap of all of the speeches at The Amazing Meeting 2015, which was held this past weekend in Las Vegas, NV. And it is delivered entirely in Haiku.

Why Haiku? Let’s just say that, thanks to Southwest, I had a lot of time to kill in the Las Vegas airport last night. And time, boredom and several adult beverages brought on a spasm of “creativity.”

Day One, Friday July 17th

Natalia Reagan - Big Feat, Small Steps: Sasquatch, Science, and the Search for the Golden Turd

Hey Bigfoot hunters:
Learn to do some real science!
And stool is a tool

Taner Edis – What would it take for a woo-woo idea to succeed?

To stop woo’s success,
Philosophy and science
Are both needed now

Jim Baggott – Crossing the Line: The Challenge of ‘Post-empirical Science’

Here is a shocker:
Don’t believe in reality?
It will still exist

Edwina Rogers – Science Has Left The House (And The Senate)

On science issues
Both Dems and Reps can be weak
(Don’t tell Prothero)

Colm Mulcahy, Dana Richards, James Gardner, Massimo Pigliucci - Presentations on the LIfe and Skepticism of Martin Gardner.

Martin Gardner time
We learned so much about him -
Mount Rushmore Skeptic

Simon Singh – Martin & Me

I was unaware
There was such cool Simpsons math.
Futurama too

John Allen Paulos – Stories vs. Statistics, Numbers vs. Narratives in the News and Elsewhere

Numbers are cool, but
sometimes misleading as hell.
Tell the whole story

Zach Weinersmith – Keynote Presentation: Comics, Censorship, and Fear Itself

Censorship doesn’t
make people any better -
It just makes art bad!

Day Two, Saturday, July 18th

Jamy Ian Swiss – Who Speaks for Skepticism?

For activism,
Skeptics, get expert advice
Be not deceptive

Yvette d’Entremont - The Anatomy Of A Takedown: The Fall Of Food Babe

To sink the Food Babe
She mixed humor with science
Skeptical rock star!

Tim Caulfield - Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash

What we’re up against:
Celebrity culture, yikes!
But they influence

Harriet Hall - The Elusive Placebo

Placebo effects
Should be called “contextual”
Why? Because science!

Brian Deer – Vaccines: The Vanishing Victims

He brought down Wakefield -
and now calls for empathy
For all the victims!

Dean Edell – Confessions of a Skeptical TV Doctor

A heartfelt tale -
From hippy to TV star…
Speaks out for science

Skeptics Guide to the Universe – Live Show

The SGU crew
Introduced new rogue Cara
An excellent choice

Michael Shermer - The End of Religion & the Rise of Enlightenment Humanism

Does the moral arc
portend religion’s decline?
One can only hope

Jim Alcock - When Beliefs Collide

Do not be misled:
Content without conviction
Is just not belief

An Interview with james Randi

Jamy and Randi…
Just two conjurers talking:
Showing how it’s done

Eugenie Scott – What if “Intelligent Design” Had Won? Reflecting on 10 Years Since Kitzmiller v. Dover

Awesome recap of
the great Dover victory
Genie’s a treasure!

Gapminder – Keynote Presentation: The World Demystified

Three Swedes sharing stats:
Things are better than we think!
Fascinating facts

Day Three, Sunday, July 19th

Debbie Berebichez – Dangerous Acts of Thinking

Some ideas are good…
Others are just outrageous
Figure which is which

Bruce Hood – Why Does the General Public Believe the Unbelievable & Hate Skeptics?

Kids learn belief from
Evolution, environs…
Not just from parents.

Robin Cornwell – Growing Up a Skeptic (when I didn’t know what it meant)

Turns out most children
Start out as little skeptics
Some stay skeptical

Tim Farley – Evolving Roles for Skeptics Battling Misinformation Online

Use digital tools
to advance the skeptic cause…
Like annotation

Julia Galef – The Science of Wisdom

You should try using
trigger actions to improve
And don’t be sphexy!

And, in closing:

Fewer tech issues
meant a smoother conference -
But we missed Del Mar

On this Planet Earth
is George Hrab the best MC?
I really think so

All things considered,
TAMMERS agree on one thing:
Randi is the best!

Will twenty-sixteen
See another TAM? Or not?
Skeptics want to know!

All in all, it was another great conference (for me, my fifth TAM). Let’s hope the tradition continues in 2016!

In closing, check out my song, The Skeptic in the Room, always appropriate to consider when so many skeptics are gathered in any one room. SITR

What Would Scooby Do?

In Tim Minchin’s epic song-poem “Storm,” at one point the author is dishing out advice to the clueless dinner guest about how to think skeptically:

If you wanna watch telly, you should watch Scooby Doo.
That show was so cool because every time there was a church with a ghoul
or a ghost in a school…
They looked beneath the mask and what was inside?
The fucking janitor or the dude who ran the waterslide.
Because throughout history every mystery ever solved has turned out to be:
Not Magic.

That was the first time I remember hearing the very brilliant idea that Scooby Doo and co. were exemplars of thinking skeptically. Scooby and his friends were forever encountering weird, scary or seemingly supernatural things, only to find that there were mundane, everyday forces behind them. Talk about personifying Occam’s Razor!

So my latest musical opus is a tribute to those indomitable skeptics, Scooby Doo and his friends. Click here to hear and see “What Would Scooby Do?

I’m Going to TAM13, And Here’s Why


The Audience at TAM9

This week I registered for The Amazing meeting 13, which will take place at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas in July (the 16th through the 19th, to be exact). This will be my fifth TAM, and I had to think long and hard before signing up and spending the money again.

Why the hesitation? Well, there were a few factors, including dissatisfaction with the current state of the skeptical “community” and concerns about the present and future of the JREF.

My first TAM (TAM 9 From Outer Space in 2011) was pretty amazing, but the cracks in the community were already showing. Elevatorgate, that much-ado-about-next-to-nothing kerfluffle, had hit just prior to the event. And it proved to be just the first in a long series of over-argued scandals that have served only to push people who agree on 90% of what’s important to them to split into tribes at war over the remaining 10% (all numbers estimated).

And then, shortly after last year’s TAM, DJ Grothe, who had been president of the JREF for several years, was dismissed from his position, and the organization’s LA offices were shut down. It was announced that James Randi – bless his aged heart – would be stepping up to run the JREF.

My issue wasn’t with the firing of DJ Grothe, particularly. I know and like DJ, and I do think he’s taken some unfair abuse in recent years’ culture battles. But it is entirely possible for him to be largely innocent of the accusations that have been made about him and still have been an unsuccessful president of the JREF. Declining attendance at TAM was just one of the factors that might legitimately have lead to his dismissal.

But his dismissal was not followed by the kind of actions that might have eased a concerned public’s mind. No public search for a replacement was begun (that I’m aware of). No clear statements of the JREF’s future mission were made. Even Randi himself seemed largely invisible – emerging only recently to announce his retirement from active service (so where does that leave his leadership of JREF??).

So, given all of that, why am I going to TAM again?

Two reasons. First, damn it, I just enjoy the thing. I get a lot of out of TAM as an educational and cultural event. The speeches are usually outstanding, often inspiring. I’m not one of the world’s great socializers, so I don’t feel like I take as much advantage of the opportunity to get to know like-minded people as I should, but it’s still fun to hobnob with other skeptics for a few days each year.

The second and probably more important reason: James Randi – The Amazing Randi! The man is a legend and worthy subject of our veneration and support. Who knows how long he’ll be kicking and active, and who knows how many more chances we’ll have to not just enjoy his presence, but to honor him. I don’t know what the future of the organization or the event is likely to be, perhaps it will eventually wither and die. But for now, I stand with Randi and despite my concerns I will be there to stand up and applaud when he takes the stage.

And if he’s still there next year, I’ll probably go then too.

PS. Just in case I’ve left any doubt about my feelings for our intrepid leader, here’s a little song my son and I wrote and recorded in honor of The Amazing Randi.Randi

Skipping the Faith Crisis

A crisis of faith causes anguish and pain
It fucks up your heart and your head
But sometimes the answer’s surprisingly plain –
Lose faith altogether instead!

Lately, I’ve been listening to a couple of podcasts that feature doubting or ex-Mormons as they tell their personal tales. Some of these individuals have left the church due to their “faith crisis.” Others have doubted and questioned, anguished and tearful, but remained faithful in their way.

Listening to these good people struggle with their faith makes me appreciate that I was able to take a somewhat different path. In fact, I managed to chuck the whole faith paradigm altogether, skipping the interim steps of having a faith crisis. While I realize this won’t work for most people, it seems in many ways to be an easier path to happiness.

Let me explain.

I was raised in Seattle as a member in good standing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). With pioneer stock on both sides of the family (my great-great-grandfather was one of the young religion’s first converts in Denmark) being Mormon is a big part of the family ethos.

For the first twenty-something years of my life I did all the churchy things expected of young Mormons. I passed the sacrament and, later, blessed it. I gave talks in church. I played on Church basketball and softball teams. I acted in and even wrote some Roadshows. Later I attended BYU, went on a mission to Germany, returned to BYU and eventually graduated from that uniquely pious institution.

So, outwardly anyway, I was the prototypical Mormon youth.

But really, for me, all of this represented a path of least resistance. I always had more doubts than I felt I could freely express, and I worried that I had been born without the “faith gene.” Despite my efforts to talk myself into a strong belief system, it just never took. And I was mostly pretty miserable, blaming myself for not being able to achieve that faithful state that so many others lived by.

And then a series of steps made it possible for me to move past my upbringing. First, I got a job in California, where I didn’t know know anybody and they didn’t know me. I did, for a while, attend a “singles” ward, but my involvement was a bit haphazard – more about playing basketball than attending church. Eventually I met and married my wife, who is not a Mormon. And then a surprising thing happened: the church lost track of me. The singles ward assumed that I had moved to the appropriate normal ward. And that ward knew me only as a name that suddenly showed up on their rolls. Since I never showed up to introduce myself, they probably just assumed I was another inactive mormon on the member list.

For the first time in my life the church simply didn’t factor into my daily existence. I felt free!

In the normal course of things I might have followed the same path out of the church that many doubting Mormons do, questioning truth claims (the historicity of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s dubious background, the Book of Abraham), and gradually “losing my testimony.” That path, well trod, is accompanied by much anguish and heartbreak, with condemnation from friends and family, and with a real sense of crisis.

Instead, left pretty much to myself, I started to indulge my interests in science. I started reading Richard Dawkins on evolution; I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos; I started listening to podcasts like Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Skeptoid – podcasts that weren’t  anti-religious, but that promoted a reason-based view of the world we live in; I read Bart Ehrman’s books on the history of the New Testament and came to realize that it was very far from being the inspired text I was always taught that it was.

Eventually I came to the recognition that religion – all religion – is man-made. Accepting that I was an atheist took some time (and admitting it took even longer), but it was based on my growing understanding of the universe and of science, not because I wrestled with whether or not the mention of horses in the Book of Mormon undermined that tome’s credibility.

And that’s what I mean when I say I avoided the whole crisis of faith business. By the time I circled back and started looking at the questions that had been raised about Mormonism specifically, I was able to look at the religion of my youth as just another attempt by human beings to explain the world and control society. I was able to shrug at the problematic history of Mormonism just as I had long since learned to do with Noah’s flood or Muhammed flying off to heaven or any number of faith-building stories from the world’s religions.

Somehow, moving directly to atheism made it far easier for me (again, in retrospect; I didn’t think of it this way at the time) to walk away from my own religion. I  never had to decide if apologetic answers were sufficient or not; I never had to wrestle with whether research into Native American DNA undermined my faith in the Book of Mormon; I never had church leaders bearing their testimonies to me in an effort to stop me from asking questions.

So, what’s the point of all this? Maybe I’m just trying to articulate thoughts that have occurred to me as I listened to the stories of people whose exit from a faithful life has been accompanied by so much more soul-searching anguish – and I think that makes me feel a bit guilty.

Mostly, I think I am grateful that I found a way out that spared me a lot of heartache.

Bill Nye Corrects Course on GMOs

So, a while back I wrote a post expressing my dismay that Bill Nye, the Science Guy, appeared to be something of a science-denier when it came to GMOs. Well, I was pleased today to see that he has taken the oh-so-logical step of examining the science and appears to be correcting his views. According  to this article in the Washington Post, Nye began to change his views after getting some first-hand exposure to the research:

“I went to Monsanto,” Nye said, “and I spent a lot of time with the scientists there, and I have revised my outlook, and I’m very excited about telling the world.”

So, good for the Science Guy. Certainly nothing illustrates the scientific method better than our ability to adjust our views based on the evidence.


Pascal’s Ditty – a Song for Those Who Find the “Wager” Unconvincing

Many people seem to think that Pascal’s Wager makes some kind of sense. (Pascal’s Wager, if you don’t know, holds that it’s better to live as though God exists, since being right would mean eternal reward, more or less). Others, myself included, find it hard to believe that people would find it the least bit convincing.

So, as I do, I attempted to put my questions and thoughts into a little song, called “Pascal’s Ditty.”

The Amazing Randi to Retire

cropped-IMG_1370.jpgIt has been an eventful year for the skeptical community and its biggest national organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Back in July, following a spirited and (to me, at least) outstanding TAM conference, the organization unceremoniously jettisoned its president, DJ Grothe.

Now comes word that the Great One himself, James Randi, is retiring from the JREF Board. At the tender age of 86, Randi states that he is stepping down from his official role, although he maintains that he will continue to do battle “against the so-­called psychics, faith healers, paranormalists, and the assorted frauds I’ve encountered in my worldwide wanderings.”

And hurrah for that.

I have been to four TAMs (the most recent four, in fact), and have always been so very impressed with James Randi himself – the mere fact of him and what he has accomplished, his openness and friendless to everyone in the community, and his tireless efforts to promote rational thinking and scientific skepticism. He was, I felt, the most indispensable and irreplaceable cog in the skepticism machine.

After my first TAM – TAM 9 (from outer space!) in 2009, I wrote a top ten list that included, in position number one, the following:

1. First appearance of The Amazing Randi, to a loving and thunderous standing ovation. While I have issues with the ‘hero worship’ culture at TAM, those reservations do not apply to the venerable head of the movement himself. The man is an inspiration and a national treasure. And, given Randi’s recent health problems, his appearance that first morning was moving, I think, even for TAM veterans who have experienced it before. For a newbie like me, it was an amazing moment

We have all known that the day was coming when Randi would have to, at the very least, slow down. So his retirement comes as no surprise, and I applaud him for being as active and visible as he has been for so long.

But the recent developments, taken together, certainly raise questions about the future of the organization and the future of movement skepticism. I have some thoughts on both topics, and I’ll eventually get to writing about those.

For now, I want to show nothing but respect and admiration for the man who has inspired so many people to take an active role in promoting rational thinking.

PS. A few years ago my son James and I wrote and recorded a little song about our appreciation for The Amazing Randi. You can watch it hereRandi

The Psychic Song

When I was a kid, I remember going to the Big Puyallup Fair outside of Seattle. Like county fairs everywhere, it was an orgy of rides and junk food and farm animals…and attending was and is a summer rite of passage for families everywhere.

One year at the fair, we happened upon a young woman who, for a fee, would use her psychic powers to tell us things there was no way she could know. Her particular routine, as I recall, was to ask you to tell her your first initial, and then she would state your name. I bit – I handed over some portion of my meager allowance and told her my first name started with E. Well, she guess my name was Earl, which was wrong, and I think I got some sort of cheap prize for “stumping” the psychic.

But mostly I remember thinking how dumb the whole encounter was.

And, of course, as a skeptic, I have learned a lot about how so-called psychics really operate – the cold readings and hot readings and outright guesses that somehow convince people the psychics are communing with the the spirit world.

So, as I do, I wrote a little song about the topic. I used my childhood experience at the fair, and then wrote fictionalized versions of other psychic “fails” that are out there. The result is “The Psychic Song.”

You’ll find all of my skepticism-themed songs by clicking on the “Songs for Skeptical Folk” link at the top of the page.

Bill Nye the Science Denier?! Say it Ain’t So!

tumblr_me5xj2Dmlr1r3clqao1_1280Remember when Bill Nye took on Ken Hamm in the infamous “Hamm on Nye” creationism debate? And remember how so many in the science and skeptical communities thought this was a very very very bad idea?

Remember that?

Well, I was on the other side of that question (see this blogpost for one example). I thought that Nye, as one of the world’s most recognized and beloved science communicators was exactly the right person to take on such a high profile assignment. Sure, he wasn’t likely to sway any of the hand-picked audience members that packed Hamm’s auditorium that night. But his reach beyond that crowd was bound to be extensive and, as the download numbers showed, that debate was seen by millions of people.

Nye’s performance that night was outstanding. And what theme did he constantly come back to? Evidence, always evidence. When all else fails, science provides actually evidence that evolution is true, and one can and should always rely on the evidence.

This is why it is so disheartening to read about his comments last week on Genetically Modified Organisms, doubts which are apparently echoed in his new book (ironically, about the evidence for evolution). This is pretty disheartening stuff, because Nye’s opposition to GMOs appears to be belief-based, rather than evidence-based.

I have read a great deal about this business of genetics and genetic modification, and I am fully on board with the technology. I work in agriculture (yeah, Big Ag, I know) and have the privilege to know some of the people on the front lines of research in this emerging field.

I think it’s going to be difficult to deal with growing crops in a warming world and to feed the ten billion people that are supposed to inhabit this planet in fifty years without using all of the technological tools at our disposal. So the technology comes along when it is most needed. And beyond that, there appears to be more than ample scientific evidence (there’s that word again!) that advances in genetic agriculture are not only safe for humans, but really are no different than the types of crop modifications that have been taking place through other, less efficient means, for centuries.

When my friends on Facebook post nonsensically alarmist articles or fear-mongering screeds against Monstanto and/or GMOs, I tend to roll my eyes and move on. It’s sad that there’s so much misinformation and fear spreading in cyberspace, but whatcha gonna do? But when Bill Nye adds to the problem, my shoulders slump with despair. There’s an uphill battle under way between the supporters of science and evidence vs. the ludditism and misinformation, and this sets us back.

This open letter to Bill Nye from scientist Kevin Folta sums up my feelings exactly. I’m hopeful that Bill Nye’s colleagues and friends within the world of science can convince him to look at the evidence and publicly change his position. Because after all, if you understand how scientific evidence supports the concepts of evolution, the Big Bang, climate change and the effectiveness of vaccines, you shouldn’t be able to reject it when it comes to GMOs!

For when all is said and done, you really really really gotta love science!