Category Archives: podcasts

A series of small epiphanies

Nell

Nell

For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.


I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via contact@edskeptics.co.uk if you’d like to discuss dates.

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Not just normal… supernormal

Telegraph: Monster burger containing 4,800 calories unveiled in US

Telegraph: Monster burger containing 4,800 calories unveiled in US - click to read story

I’ve been catching up with podcasts recently, and was fascinated by For Good Reason‘s recent interview about supernormal stimuli with Dierdre Barrett.  She explains much about our problems as animals living in an artificial world: why we over-eat, why socialising online or by texting is more compelling than hanging out with our friends, why everything is louder and faster these days.

Essentially, Barrett researches the way that animals (including us) respond better to artificial over-stimulus than we do to natural levels of stimuli. We want saltier, sweeter, fattier food, bigger breasts, poutier lips, louder and more driving bass beats, faster cuts in our movies and more exciting roller coasters.  We want everything up to 11.  Hell, we want everything up to, 12, 13, 130 … faster, deeper, harder, MORE!

Two examples of animal responses to supernormal stimuli she cites are birds who ignore their own eggs in favour of bluer ones with bigger, blacker polkadots (how sweet, how stupid) and butterflies who boff card-board cut-outs and ignore the real lady butterfly flapping her wings enticingly nearby. How stupid. How ridiculous. How much does this explain about the porn industry?

Barrett’s soothing mantra is that we are people with brains and free-will, and are therefore able to overcome our response to the supernormal.  I was disappointed that Grothe didn’t challenge her on this. I like the way he inhabits the role of devil’s advocate to draw out his interviewees, but he ducked this one. There appears to be increasing evidence that free will is either an illusion or operates at trivial levels at best, which is something that Grothe is well aware of.  (A search for ‘free will’ in his previous podcasts at Point of Inquiry yields 117 hits). It is of course much easier for everyone if we act as if we have free will.  If we don’t, then all sorts of things about society will unravel. But that is another blog post for another day.

So while none of this was epiphanic, it deepened my awareness of the issues.  And if you don’t subscribe to Point of Inquiry or For Good Reason, and you like that kind of thing, then let me recommend them.

Logical advice about wrestling pigs

The maths text book I had when I was 14 had a cartoon and quotation at the beginning of every chapter. The one on the chapter about stats said

Politicians use statistics as a drunk uses a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination.

This is not just the fate of stats of course; many people misuse logic in the same way.  The confusing thing is that they don’t realise what they are doing is an abuse of logic.  Debates between thinkers and feelers or between sceptics and believers become tedious spirals of cross-purposes and often break down into insult and ad hominem attacks.  The only effective way to cut through this is to introduce cognitive dissonance and use the gap created to introduce some logic, which is what happens in the video below:

Logic is highly structured, it follows rules.  It is not metaphorical or allegorical and people whose minds work best with metaphor and allegory do not (can not?) follow a logical argument step by step to the inevitable conclusion. Instead they arrive at their conclusion intuitively and then seek out arguments that sound as if they justify and support it.  The arguments sound like logic, they use the same language and the same semantic structures as logic, but they are being used in fundamentally different ways.1

When these two approaches meet, you get an impasse.

Don’t wrestle with a pig, you get muddy and the pig enjoys it.

These arguments are un-winnable.  If someone validates their beliefs intuitively then they are  not going to accept the validity of a logical argument.  And vice versa.

What makes this situation even worse is the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Put very crudely, this is unconscious incompetence in action.  At the lower levels of incompetence, people do not even have the ability to recognise competence in others. Think of David Brent (anti-hero of ‘The Office’, played by Ricky Gervais).  He is so inept it is painful, but he doesn’t recognise his own ineptness and he doesn’t recognise the abilities of others who far outshine him.  Me too: for example I cannot play chess though I know the moves, and I wouldn’t recognise skillfull chess playing if I saw it, though at least I don’t think that I’m any sort of chess player.

Theramin Trees gives a neat summary of the Dunning-Kruger effect below, and I urge you to watch it:

The thing that I find really odd though, is not the persistent failure of the illogical to acknowledge a good argument when it’s presented.

No, what I find really odd is the persistent attempts to flog the dead horse by those who do understand logic.  If someone is not convinced the first time that you say “there’s no evidence base for homoeopathy” then they won’t be convinced the 30th time or the 300th time.  Simply doing the same thing again and again won’t work.

As I have said, what does work is introducing cognitive dissonance, which brings us back, as so often, to the power of finding the right question and asking it.


1:  I was going to link to the episode of Beyond Belief broadcast on 28th December about Angels, but for some reason it is not available.  It was even more barking than the rest of the series, which I rather like in an outside-the-comfort-zone sort of way.  The reason I like it is because I listen to so many Sceptical podcasts which lazily make a virtue of scorning believers, and this makes a refreshing change without proselytising on behalf of anyone’s specific imaginary friend.

Back to post.

For your listening pleasure

iCat

iCat

Weekly podcasts – listen while you cook, drive, clean or run. These are stayers – regularly broadcasting and regularly worth listening to.   These are all made as podcasts and not radio programmes, with just one exception.

Funnies

The Bugle – Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver riff irreverently off the week’s news and each other. Childish, intelligent, infectious. A weekly must.
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Answer me this – My but those Zaltzmen are clever.  And funny. Andy’s sister Helen (barely employed arts graduate), Olly Mann (hopeful weblebrity) and Helen’s partner Martin (long-haired physicist) chat about listeners’ questions, Ollie’s suspect personal hygiene, films, tv shows and books.
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Narratives

The Moth – ‘true stories told live on stage without notes’. There isn’t a dud among these; these are the wierd and funny s**t that happens to people, all superbly told. Breathtaking.
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Escape Pod – a good collection of short(ish) science fiction stories – some of them classics of the genre, all of them appropriately read.
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History

Norman Centuries – neat 20 minute episodes of enjoyable narrative history from Lars Brownworth who brought us the really excellent 12 Byzantine Rulers.
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The History of Rome – an exceptional podcast covering the 800 year sweep from the wolf to the barbarians; we are currently on episode 70 or so and we’ve recently seen off Nero and are just about to have fun with the Flavians. A joy for the sarcastic asides alone. The man deserves an award.
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Critical Thinking

Skeptoid – Brian Dunning is getting sharper and more impatient as the months go by, but these 10 minute deconstructions of popular myths are each of them well worth listening to.
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Point of Inquiry – intelligent but agenda-driven conversations on religion, scepticism and society.  Not to everyone’s taste, but heady stuff if you like it.
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Conversation

Stuff you should know and The Things you Missed in History Class – endearing conversations on various subject by How Stuff Works staffers. They are sweetly enthusiastic on the topic de semain, and the girls have a breathy intelligence which is rather hot, while the boys are more laid-back and dudey.
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Forum – a world of ideas – This is definitely one that gives the synapses a stretch, but it’s hard to find on the radio, tucked away on the World Service.  If In Our Time aims at graduates, then this aims at post-grads.  Bridget Kendall plays off three or four world-class experts superbly,  usually a scientist and a social scientist and an artist or writer.
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Business – since this is supposed to be a business-related blog

Lucy Kellaway – 5 minute doses of acerbic comment on working and corporate life from a regular columnist on the FT. I also enjoy Martin Wolf‘s economics podcast from the FT: his calm authoritative tone sounds soothing, but what he says frequently scares me witless.
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Business Week – Behind this Week’s Cover Story – 15 minutes of conversation with the writer of each week’s front page story; an easy way to keep an ear out for current topics in the American Business press.
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I’ll do this again soon and blog about new additions to my iPod: I’ve just discovered iTunes-U and a whole load of new podcasts from newbie podcasters including Richard Wiseman…


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