These are the remarks I made as the leadoff speaker at SkeptiCamp St. Louis on Saturday, August 18, 2012…
It’s always a pleasure to be in a roomful of skeptics, to look around and see that there are other people who share your views, to realize that you’re not the only rational person in the world. We need more critical thinkers, more people who insist on proof of outrageous claims, more people who recognize that opinions are not the same as fact, more people who can enjoy supernatural fantasies in a movie theater but know they live in a world where the laws of physics apply, more people who rejoiced in the scientific achievement of landing Curiosity on Mars and wonder why there isn’t more curiosity on Earth.
I was brought up to be a skeptic. My parents, who were both teachers, taught my brother and me to think for ourselves, not take everything at face value, and question authority. That’s a bold strategy when you’re the authority figures, as parents are. I once gave a commencement address where I urged the high school graduates to go out into the world and question authority, and as I was speaking, I could see some mothers and fathers recoiling in horror at the idea. They were brought up to accept whatever they were told, to shut up and believe what adults said, to suppress the desire to ask why and how.
That’s not the way we’re born, though. When you’re a kid, you have a natural curiosity, mostly because you don’t know anything yet, and you’re trying to figure out what the heck is going on. That’s why kids ask so many questions: Why is the sky blue? Why does red mean stop and green mean go? Where does the sun go at night? What happened to that man’s hair? How does paper beat rock?
Or, for you Sheldon-philes, how does lizard beat Spock?
Those questions keep on coming, and you try to answer them as best you can, but eventually you have to tell your child to stop asking so much because it’s almost time to get on the bus, or go to bed, or do their homework, or whatever. That’s fine, as long as you don’t suppress that inquisitive nature forever – or worse, start feeding them answers that are nonsense instead of information.
Nonsense can be dangerous, so we need more skeptics to fight back against it. And don’t assume that just because people are educated, they are immune to nonsense.
In April, the scientist and author Phil Plait, who I’m proud to call a friend, told on his Discover magazine blog the sad story of how, in Boulder, Colorado, where he lives, there had been more than 3 dozen cases of pertussis (whooping cough) so far this year — 30 of those were under 18 years old — a remarkably high rate for a disease that’s supposed to have become very rare thanks to vaccines. The problem is the growing number of parents who don’t have their children vaccinated, which isn’t just a danger to them, but to everyone because it decreases herd immunity. Phil wrote:
This outbreak might shock you, especially considering Boulder is one of the most educated cities in the United States. But in fact, I’ve been wondering if and when something like this might happen here. Denial of the benefits of vaccination is strong in educated areas, like Boulder or Marin County, California — being educated doesn’t mean you get things right, and in fact can make people believe in their own knowledge even more strongly. They go online and find antivax literature which magnifies their own beliefs. Also, these tend to be more left-leaning areas, and the antivax movement does better there. The result? A little baby, not even two months old, is recovering from a nearly-fatal event that was totally preventable if enough people were vaccinated. Herd immunity would have prevented this whole thing.
And Boulder is not the only place with a pertussis problem. Steven Salzberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, reports that the U.S. is in the midst of the worst whooping cough epidemic in 70 years, with over 17,000 cases this year. States like Wisconsin, Washington, and Montana, have seen their pertussis infections increase more than 1,000% over last year – and we have the anti-vax movement to thank for it.
These parents choose to believe nonsense instead of the advice of the doctors who are charged with caring for their children. As you might expect, some doctors aren’t happy about this trend.
In a Wall Street Journal piece in February, Shirley Wang reported on pediatricians who are so annoyed by these deniers that they have “fired” them, asking them to leave the practice and take their children elsewhere for care. There’s an ethical question here regarding the role of a family doctor, but I can understand their frustration. In a busy practice where you’re trying to help as many kids as time allows, why put up with parents so hard-headed and sure they know better that no amount of explanation and convincing will change their minds? After all, if they won’t take the doctor’s advice on something as relatively simple as vaccines, what kind of fight will they put up when it comes to more complex issues regarding their children’s health?
Your right to believe nonsense ends when your child needs help. You can’t allow unfounded fears to drive your decision making. Unfortunately, FDR’s famous quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” is still true in America — and perhaps more so today than ever. We have become a nation of fear-mongers, trained by politicians, media, and authority figures to worry about bad things happening to us and particularly our children. Yet the things that we’re supposed to be afraid of are based on anecdotal evidence, not real data. And that hurts kids more than anything else.
In January, on KTRS radio, I spoke with Lenore Skenazy, who has been fighting back against the paranoiac beliefs that keep our children from playing outside, have turned parents into 24-hour watchdogs, and taught those fears to a new generation. Her website, FreeRangeKids.com, is a bastion of relief from a world that says your kids are in danger every moment they’re out of your sight (and often when you’re looking, too). Here’s what she’s written on the simple subject of Halloween candy:
Halloween is the day when America market-tests parental paranoia. If a new fear flies on Halloween, it’s probably going to catch on the rest of the year, too. Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties. That was a wacky idea, but we bought it.
We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)
Anyway, you’d think that word would get out: Poisoned candy? Not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won’t be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection. As if being full has ever stopped any kid from eating free candy! So stranger danger is still going strong, and it’s even spread beyond Halloween to the rest of the year. Now parents consider their neighbors potential killers all year round. That’s why they don’t let their kids play on the lawn, or wait alone for the school bus: “You never know!” The psycho-next-door fear went viral.
We need more skeptics like Lenore Skenazy. We also need more people to cast a skeptical eye on advertising claims.
Last October, I blogged about a car dealer in St. Louis advertised that, if you bought a Chevy Cruze from him, he’d give you a $300 gas card. In the commercial he said, “that’s a free tank of gas every month for a year!” Something about that claim seemed wrong to my skeptical brain, so I ran the numbers and it turned out that, while the Cruze is a fuel-efficient vehicle (its Eco model supposedly gets 42mpg), the math was wrong.
The Cruze comes in five models, four of which have a gas tank with 15.6 gallon capacity. The smallest (Eco) has a 12.6 gallon gas tank. At $300/year, that’s $25/month. At the then-current price of $3.15/gallon, that’s not even 8 gallons/month, let alone a full tank. The only way the gas card value works out is if you drive less than 300 miles/month every month all year. I’m not saying the Cruze isn’t worth buying, nor that $300 in gas isn’t worth something. But if that dealer couldn’t do the math on this correctly, you might want to double-check all the numbers on your sales contract when you buy a car from him.
Speaking of math, I want to share a casino story with you. Casinos are not exactly a hotspot of critical thinking, but I spend time in them because I play poker recreationally.
You can find me a couple of times a week in the poker room at Harrah’s. It’s an environment where players who understand and apply both math and psychology skills will do better in the long run, despite the element of luck. That’s what sets it apart from all the other gambling opportunities in the casino, where instead of playing against people, you’re playing against the house, which has a built-in edge that’s designed to take your money over the long haul.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with playing blackjack or craps or roulette or the slots for fun, as long as you understand that the percentages are not in your favor. But casinos know that most people have no idea how things work, but instead make their gambling decisions based on superstition, or the graphics on a screen, or because they won on a certain machine last time. Here’s an example:
I often see people sit down at a bank of five video poker machines. Each of them has a display on top that tells you what the average payout percentage is from that machine. One of them says 98.98%. Another says 99.11%. The others say 99.17%, 99.58%, and 99.8% respectively. I have watched people walk up to those machines and purposely choose to sit down at the one that promises the lowest payout percentage. Maybe they don’t see the display, maybe they don’t understand it. But a skeptical mind would ask, if it’s available, why don’t you sit down at the one that’s set for the highest payout percentage?
Of course, even at 99.8%, that’s still no bargain. I’m tempted to approach someone playing that machine and offer them a deal – if they’ll give me a $100 bill, I’ll give them $99.80, and I’ll do it for as many bills as they want to give me. No one would accept that deal from me, but they sit down and play that machine – or ones with much lower average payout percentages – every day.
Here’s another example.
Several years ago, someone had the brilliant idea to add a display at each roulette table that shows the numbers that have won on the previous ten spins. That simple invention increased roulette income significantly because customers would check the prior numbers before placing their bets. Sometimes, a number hadn’t come up in a while, so they’d place chips on that. Or they’d bet on a number that came up twice in the last 5 spins, figuring it was the “hot” number. Or they’d see that the last two spins were red and figure the next one will have to be black. What they were lacking was the skeptical knowledge that the roulette wheel and ball have no memory. Every spin is an independent action that’s not influenced by anything that happened before, just as there’s no such thing as a lucky number.
Many of you know James Randi, one of the leaders of the skeptical movement, and one of my personal heroes. I became an instant fan of his when I first saw him on Johnny Carson’s show debunking the faith healer con artist Peter Popoff. Then I read several of Randi’s books, became a supporter of the JREF – the James Randi Educational Foundation — and had him on my radio show several times.
In a January, 2010, interview, he told my audience about a military fraud that was costing human lives. It had to do with bogus bomb-detecting equipment sold to security forces in Iraq, to the tune of $85 million — despite the fact that the devices were useless. They were in essence nothing more than divining rods, the pseudo-science quackery that people have fallen for throughout history when a con man told them they could be used to find water, oil, missing persons, etc.
At the time, Randi wrote to several authorities in Iraq offering them the JREF million-dollar prize if they could produce evidence that the ADE651 dowsing-stick actually worked. Thirteen months later, in February, 2011, Randi wrote an update, in which he said:
None of these authorities ever responded, and I suspected it was because they were already making their own profit from fluffing up the price…
Well, Iraqi police have just arrested Major General Jihad al-Jabiri, the commander of the bomb squad and one of those who received my letter! He’s a high-ranking police official who handled the business involved in buying the ADE651 toy, which was widely used by police and soldiers at security checkpoints and was meant to be a key weapon in the defense against insurgents. Sure.
The police finally got around to wondering how a series of blasts had killed hundreds in recent years despite the use of the ADE651. Militants had gotten trucks, buses and cars packed with explosives through Baghdad’s numerous checkpoints, with no trouble – and those checkpoints had been “protected” by the fake device!
By the way, it cost the British company that made the ADE651 devices $100 apiece for a bunch of plastic and wiring – but they were sold Iraq for between $38,000 and $56,000 each. We need more skeptics to see through scams like that, which never saved a single life. In fact, relying on them may have cost lives.
We need more skeptics willing to challenge the purveyors of nonsense. That means we need to get more skeptics into Congress and state legislatures, where nonsense often runs amok.
There’s a new law in Tennessee that will hurt science education in that state by allowing creationism and global warming denial to be taught alongside the real science of evolution and climate change. It amazes me that these same ignorant arguments are being made nine decades after the Scopes monkey trial took place (in the same state!). Supporters of the law say students should hear “alternative theories,” so I suppose it’s okay to teach them that the Earth is flat and storks deliver babies, too. The fact is that there is no controversy about these subjects among scientists, but there’s a political and religious agenda at work, and it’s winning in the Volunteer State.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, that state’s legislature has gone even further into the land of the lost. Earlier this year, the Tennessee Senate approved an update to the state’s abstinence-only sex education law to make teachers warn students that holding hands and kissing are “gateway sexual activity.” Talk about an alternative theory.
No more holding hands. This is going to throw fire drills out of whack in elementary schools, where the kids used to buddy-up and hold hands to ensure that no one got lost. Who knew that being led to the nearest exit in an orderly manner could also lead them to intercourse?
That’s right, kids, holding hands is the new first base. When you play Red Rover, don’t lock your arms together, because that’s the new second base. And I don’t want to see any high-fiving, which is the new foreplay.
Meanwhile, how’s that abstinence-only curriculum working out? In Memphis, the largest city in Tennessee, 61% of high school students say they’ve had sex, as do 27% of middle-schoolers. I’ll grant you that “students say” is not the most scientific way to guarantee the results are true, because most teenagers are going to lie on the positive side for peer image reasons, but when compared to other teens in other areas, Memphis is way higher than the national average. Apparently, the students are questioning authority when it comes to abstinence-only.
I hope they didn’t do the survey by a show of hands.
I don’t think being a skeptic means being serious and humorless and demanding answers all the time. Far from it. A sense of humor and irony are essential to skepticality. It’s okay to read the little piece of paper in a fortune cookie with a smile, knowing its prediction about your future is about as valid as most of Donald Trump’s claims. And it’s okay to maintain a sense of wonder at well-crafted entertainment. I’m perfectly happy to sit in the audience and enjoy Penn & Teller pulling off the illusion of firing twin .357’s at each other and catching the bullets in their teeth. I know how some magic tricks work, but I never want to find out how they do that one. I know it’s an illusion, but I admire its execution, and I’m happy to be amazed.
But it wasn’t entertainment when Sylvia Browne told Shawn Hornbeck’s parents he was dead in 2003, four years before he was found alive in Michael Devlin’s apartment in Kirkwood. It’s not comforting when James Van Praagh lies to grief-stricken people about their dead relatives. It’s not good for us as a nation that millions of Americans thought their stamina and balance would improve just because they bought plastic bracelets. It’s not good for the public health when Walgreen’s and CVS put homeopathic ripoffs in the same aisles as real medicine, causing people to believe they’ll be cured of serious diseases by drinking what amounts to nothing more than water.
It may seem like being a skeptic is an uphill fight in a nation where harmful nonsense like that thrives, where this week on television there were 20 shows about psychic investigators and psychic kids, 40 shows about paranormal activity, more than 130 shows about ghosts. And they were all described as “reality” or “non-fiction” TV.
But every once in awhile, we get a victory story, like the one about Sanal Edamaruku, who heard an announcement by an Indian guru named Pandit Surender Sharma, who claimed he could kill another man with only his mind. Edamaruku stepped forward and said, “Really? Then kill me.” Edamaruku is not a suicidal nutjob, he’s a skeptic, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association. Remarkably, the guru accepted the challenge. A TV channel carried the whole thing live, even preempting other programming as the showdown went on, hour after hour.
According to the Sunday Times:
“When the guru’s initial efforts failed, he accused Mr. Edamaruku of praying to gods to protect him. “No, I’m an atheist,” came the response. The holy man then said he needed to conduct a ritual that could only be done at night, outdoors, and after he had slept with a woman, drunk alcohol and rubbed himself in ash.
Not wanting Sharma to have any excuses for his failure, Edamaruku accompanied him to an outdoor studio, where the farce continued until midnight, when the TV station’s host declared it over. In the end, of course, Edamaruku is still alive.
We don’t get many opportunities to show these mystics to be the fakes they really are, so Edamaruku really hit a home run for reason with this demonstration. It’s particularly important in a nation like India, where huge number of the poor and uneducated (and plenty of rich smart people) fall for this sort of nonsense every day. Considering how gullible Americans are in this realm, it’s even worse in a nation with nearly four times the population.
That’s why we need more skeptics like Sanal Edamaruku, James Randi, Phil Plait, Lenore Skenazy and every one of you. That’s why we need to keep asking questions and encourage our kids’ curiosity. That’s why we need to go beyond this room and convince people outside our self-selected group to abandon nonsense and ancient myths and teach them that reason and logic and reality and math and science are key elements in moving society forward.
That’s why we need more skeptics.