Archive for May, 2010

The Subtle Art of BS Detection, Part 3: Final Thoughts

So let’s sum up BS Detection. What follows are some basic guidelines for good BS Detection:

  1. Realize that you have biases, and admit them to yourself, especially when it comes to politics. I fall a little left of center on the political spectrum, and the challenge for me is to set aside my own biases in order to weed out the propaganda that fits into my own world view. There is propaganda and Conspiracy theories spewed out from all parts of the political spectrum. There are “crazies in every camp”, and anyone who hates a skeptic hates a hypocrite even more. I have an equal amount of disdain for MSNBC as I do for Fox News. I verify with equal amount of veracity the “facts” I’m told by Keith Olbermann as I am told by Bill O’Reilly. If you are the type that swallows whole everything you see on either channel, turn on your BS Detector. They both do it.
  2. When talking to people about their theories on life, BS detection thrives on asking probing questions in a non-threatening way: Where did you hear that? What are the details? Why would they do that? Unfortunately, questioning people’s statements is tantamount to pissing on their Cheerios. Nobody likes a skeptic. I have been at dinner conversations before and debunked people’s outright gullibility. The reaction I get is like in those ingenious SNL Rachel Dratch sketches, Debbie Downer. I’m the dick for crushing their hopes about some cockamamie medical cure. I’m the asshole for making the government far less conspiratorial than it is. I’m the douche bag for challenging their world view on their theory about when the world will end. Granted, I am not known as the most tactful person on the planet. But really, after their reaction, most people don’t even change their view anyway. We are a stubborn species.
  3. If you don’t have the knowledge to talk on the subject, keep your mouth shut. For some reason, no one ever wants to say they don’t know. It is better to say that then make an ass out of yourself by attempting to keep up with someone who thinks they know just a little more than you do.

People seem to be taking things at face value these days. They are controlled by the media. Unfortunately for us skeptics, a lot of this thinking has graduated from fringe thinking into more conventional “wisdom”. It’s hard to fact-check anymore. Most websites are biased.

Humans want to persist in believing the world is more interesting than it really is to continue their need for a spicier life. They may want to persist in believing the world is more harmful than it really is to continue their need for paranoia, or they may want to persist in believing the world is more safe than it really is to continue their need for solace. Here comes another Carl Sagan quote:

It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

HTH.

Tags: , , ,

The Subtle Art of BS Detection, Part 2: Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics, and the Media

Let’s take another type of BS I’ve heard of late. Statistics. For example, on someone’s Facebook status recently, they said:

“Dr. Oz says that 200+ orgasms a year leads to 15-20 added years to your life!”

Did you spot it? He really did mention the 200 orgasms, but 15-20 years? Really? If it sounds outlandish, it probably is. What he really said was:

“If you have more than 200 orgasms a year, you can reduce your physiologic age by six years.” (Source)

But, here’s the kicker, your BS detector should have gone off again. This one’s not so simple, however.

There is a new health fad out currently, called RealAge, whose website is created and maintained by the Hearst Corporation. And currently, the home page has an image of Dr. Oz and the “co-founder” of RealAge giving the thumbs up with a huge smile on their faces. Their claim is that scientific studies affirm this idea of Physiologic Age, and that there are ways of decreasing it.

This brings me to my next tips for good BS Detection:

  1. Anything that can be affirmed by common sense does not need expensive scientific studies to affirm. Common sense will tell you that living a healthy lifestyle is improved by eating a healthy diet and exercising. This “physiologic age,” most likely is an indicator of health. But it is nothing more than an indicator. How do I make my physiologic age lower? Eat right, exercise, and apparently have orgasms. Done. Move on people.
  2. One should be skeptical about any corporation that runs a website that claims to “help you”. They are in the  business of making money, and due to factor number one as above, take the advice they give out for free and move on with your life.

Dr. Oz’s quote was based on a Duke University study. For the life of me, I cannot find this study. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but I don’t believe any “scientific study” unless I can read it.

I should tell you about any “study” that claims to be “scientific”.

The world of true science is a public one. Mere mortals like you and me have access to these studies through scientific journals. I don’t give any credence to scientific studies that are (a) extremely difficult to find on the internet, and/or (b) have not been rigorously peer reviewed.

In fact, you should be skeptical of any media outlet that covers a “new scientific study”. The key word is “new”. “New” scientific studies have not been peer reviewed by the scientific community.

The problem is, there is no rule that any cockamamie “scientist” can’t release their “findings” to the public without it being peer reviewed. That’s when the media gets a hold of it, and by the time the study is debunked, does the media do the responsible thing and retract it? Nope. They’re off to the next new “scientific study”.

And we wonder why no one trusts scientists.

Why does the media do this? Well, because the media is no longer responsible for journalism, as it’s become diluted by corporations.

I recently read the book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. One of the topics mentioned in the book are VNR’s (Video News Releases). VNR’s are “news stories” developed by marketing firms that have subtle advertising (or sometimes, not so subtle). Go to YouTube and type in “Video News Release” and you’ll see countless examples. According to a 2005 Public Notice, the FCC requires a disclosing of the source of the VNR, but for whatever reason, this is not happening in many cases.

Have you ever been watching the News and thought to yourself “How the Hell does this qualify as news?” The most likely answer? VNR’s.

Someone somewhere wants you to buy something. Think for yourself.

And yes, the above sounds conspiratorial, and after reading my first post on BS Detection and Conspiracy Theories, I find that comparing Parts 1 and 2, this one’s dripping with irony.

You can decide for yourself if I am full of BS.

Tags: , , ,

The Subtle Art of BS Detection, Part 1: Conspiracy Theories

It is better to be too skeptical than too credulous.

– Carl Sagan

I was fortunate, in my formative years, to have developed what I call a BS Detector. Carl Sagan (quoted above), who is one of my all-time greatest heroes, calls it a “Baloney Detection Kit.” Mine was mostly developed in college I’d say, but started in high school while listening to, of all things, heavy metal music. I fashioned myself a bit of a rebel, as it were. “Question Authority” and all that. The beauty of the BS Detector is that we all have one, and it’s easy to use. The results of using it, however, can be hard for some people to deal with.

It should come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that you should never believe everything you read, see, or hear. Well, with the exception of what you’re reading now, of course. But of late, my BS Detector has been working overtime. The conspiracy theories, the misinformation, the outlandish statistics, and the outright lies are just getting really out of hand. So bad, in fact, I have to distract my mind with rainbows, kittens, and puppies just to stop myself from becoming a complete misanthrope.

It’s no mystery that the media has changed over the past 30 years. Gone are the Walter Cronkites, and the Edward R. Murrows. They’ve been replaced by pundits, blogs, and partisan-backed media channels. I really want to avoid politics in this post; so please don’t jump to any conclusions about my slant. There are lies spewing out from the entire political spectrum. I am an equal opportunity blogger: I’m criticizing everyone.

I want to talk specifically about Conspiracy Theories in this post. Part 2 will be about statistics in the media, and Part 3 will be some final thoughts and I’ll give some pointers abut freethinking and using your BS Detector without pissing people off.

So let’s start with a real-life example. Last week, I had a guy approach me and start a sentence with a very nonchalant, “So, when they shut down the internet . . .”

Shut down the internet?

When someone says something so mind-numbingly ridiculous, there is a point where my BS Detector pegs the needle so hard, my brain actually shuts down for a second, probably out of the need for self-preservation.

Anyway, once I recovered, I had this man explain. I’ll spare you the details, but apparently, he believes that, “the Obama administration is looking to install an internet control system like they have in North Korea and will shut down the internet on anyone who violates the controls.”

Dear reader, we share the planet with people like this. I see this guy every day.

Why are some people so willing to believe such nonsense? How do they live like that? My theory is that we humans have a need for things to be far more interesting than they really are. It would be so much more interesting if Elvis really did live. It would be so much more interesting if the government really did cover up an alien crash landing in Roswell in 1947. Additionally, we all have what’s called a confirmation bias that keeps us believing what we want to believe. This confirmation bias, by the way, is the antithesis to the BS Detector. You need to keep that tendency to a minimum.

Take a look now at conspiracy whack-job Alex Jones, who pretty much comes up with a new conspiracy theory every week. He has an “underground” radio show and two websites. I refuse to link them due to the whack-job factor, but if you want to check him out, use Google to your advantage. You’ll know his websites when you see them, and to be on the safe side, I wouldn’t visit them at work. You’ve been warned.

And before you go crying “foul” on me, yes, he’s been characterized as a “Right Wing” conspiracy theorist, but due to his history, I don’t think he cares who’s in Office. No one is safe from his theorizing. Thus, he’s just a straight whack-job in general to me. So, in my mind, he’s free game to use as an example here.

His list of conspiracy theories include:

  • 9/11 was an inside job.
  • Government-based Health Care death panels.
  • The aforementioned “Obama’s shutting down the internet” conspiracy.
  • FEMA’s secret building of concentration camps.
  • Man-made Global Warming is a hoax.
  • His take on the “New World Order” conspiracy.
  • And, get this, a conspiracy theory about the “World Government” suppression of conspiracy theories. (Youtube link)

. . . And the list goes on.

These types of people used to be written off as part of the “lunatic fringe”. But these people now get air time on “more conventional” (emphasis on the quotes) news media outlets and people like Jones’ faux “documentation” to “prove” their theories, dupe otherwise ordinary people into entertaining his complete bullshit.

Two facts about career conspiracy theorists (Alex Jones is not the first, nor the only), are as follows:

  1. The conspiracy theory is usually impossible to disprove (though keep in mind there is no real evidence for it either). Conspiracy theorists go by the “Since no one can disprove it, it must be true” fallacy.
  2. If the conspiracy theory is disproved, they are already off on another one for the masses to buy into.

People like this are well-aware of these facts, and they get a lot of notoriety and make a lot of money doing it.

Debunking conspiracy theories:

  1. Consider the source. If they have something to gain from it, such as a Political Agenda, money, ego-feeding followers, or all three, it’s a count against the theory.
  2. If it sounds outlandish, it probably is.
  3. All propaganda starts with a kernel of truth. There is a Bill in Congress that is looking to put in place the ability to shut down parts of the North American internet infrastructure in case of a Cyber Terrorist attack. Reading the language of the relevant part of the bill though, I hardly see it as a conspiracy since there is no language indicating a  “North Korea”-like control system.
  4. Be wary of phrases like “we know better.” For example, if they say something like, “Congress is debating over a bill now that would give The President power to shut down the internet in case of a cyber terrorist attack, but we know better. It’s really about the government taking away your freedom!” That becomes pure speculation.
  5. Be wary of phrases like, “don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise, they’re probably part of it,” which is proof positive that they don’t want you checking into the details.
  6. Beware of the slippery slope and/or “the piggy-back”. I will spare you the details, but if the “news story” starts with something innocuous and then graduates into something larger and unrelated, the presenter in question has an agenda. For example, the news story about the PA School board giving out laptops that could spy on students was graduated into Google spying on us in some circles, which is patently false.
  7. Check the facts. Most Conspiracy Theories don’t stand a chance against a good 5 minute search on the internet. But be aware that not all internet sources can be trusted either. All of the links I have used in this blog post have been as unbiased as possible. Stay away from sites that are too left or too right wing. They are just as untrustworthy. You will know them when you see them.
  8. If the information to debunk the theory is too hard to find, then there is no evidence for it and you should suspend judgment. As said before, conspiracy theorists go by the mantra, “Since it can’t be disproved, then it is true.” Don’t follow their logic.

On to Part 2: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.

Tags: , , ,

Born Standing Up – A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

Steve Martin - Born Standing UpI’ve been a fan of Steve Martin since I was a young boy and could enjoyed the silly animated kind of humor that accompanied daytime classic shows.  The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and the Little Rascals all were staples and seemed to be on one of the seven TV channels during the day.  I would catch a glimpse here and there of Steve Martin as my parents or their friends talked about seeing him on TV.  What I saw of his antics on TV were right up my alley, and I even bought the 45 record (remember those?) of “King Tut” back in 1978.  I’ve enjoyed all of his movies over the years and my favorites were definitely the more silly ones like “The Jerk”, “The Man With Two Brains” and “Three Amigos”.

Now his book, “Born Standing Up – A Comic’s Life” came out in 2008.  I was looking for a new audio book and was definitely interested when I saw his name on this one.  I was even more intrigued when I saw that it was read by Steve Martin himself.

I always associated him with Saturday Night Live and one of those folks that went from that show directly to movies.  I didn’t realize that he was a successful stand up comic that was a guest host on SNL a number of times.

As a fan of his, I do have to say it was great to learn about his career from his own mouth.  My expectations of it were along the lines of high comedy with a touch of tough times thrown in.  I was greeted with the revelations that his career was painful, his family life was dysfunctional (but who’s isn’t?), and his comedy was his life in every way.  He worked his ass off refining, changing and inventing stand up comedy approaches.  He wanted to entertain and he wanted to succeed at all costs.  Eventually, with fame as his companion, he walked away from the stand up life that he made for himself.

The story is filled with his relationships, his hardships, his drive and the personal decisions he repeatedly made to guide his path toward his goal.  It is definitely an inspirational story, one that falls through the cracks in this regard.  He tells it in a very lucid and endearing way from beginning to end, and the nostalgia he feels for certain points in his life is apparent.  He shares his regrets and frustrations and expresses his pride without allowing himself to feel proud.

Overall the book was very good, but I would definitely recommend the audio version over the printed word.  The banjo riffs between chapters were Steve’s, and a few of the song verses in the book he sings.  Plus when repeating a joke or two from his many routines, you get that comedic timing from the master himself as it was meant to be, something a book can never convey.  My only negative about it is the fact that Steve reads it… as a book.  I expected so much more inflection and emotion.  This could be on me, though, as I listen to a lot of audio books and have an Audible account.  So I listen to people reading books that are professionals in this particular field.  Also, I only know Steve Martin, the “wild and crazy guy” and this may very well have been the real Steve Martin, the mature and mellow man.

I brought away a few things from this:

  1. I wish I could have seen him perform stand up live, as it must have been an experience.
  2. I just want to walk up to him, shake his hand, look him in the eye and say, “Great job.”
  3. I will never, ever, want my children to try to be stand up comics.  I think it may be less stress and work to become an astronaut.

If you enjoy Steve Martin’s work, I recommend learning more about what it took for him to get to where he is today… rich, famous, and a person for when his name is mentioned, I cannot help but smile.

Tags: , , , , ,