Sep 14, 2005

The Seventeenth Skeptics' Circle: Ask a Random Skeptic!

"It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers." --James Thurber

Dear Random Skeptic,

With property values higher than Dr. Phil's hairline, should I risk leasing my new restaurant in a haunted building to save some green?

Stingy in the Sunshine State

Dear Stingy,

Why not? Our courts explicitly protect you against demons, succubi, phantasms, and other etheric beings. If ghoulies and ghosties make a mess of your diner, simply refuse to pay rent on the basis of your religious proclivities. Happy Haunting!


Lord Runolfr (nominated by Ted Collins)

Dear Random Skeptic,

I'm embarrassed to death by my twin brother, who has fashioned his once lovely locks into a tawdry mullet. He swears that he did it "to please the ladies." I think he's lost it. Who's crazy? Me or him?

Baffled in Brooklyn

Dear Baffled,

"We like to think of ourselves as rational animals, but perhaps it would be more accurate to describe ourselves as rationalizing animals. However reasonable a view may be, it’s possible that we have acquired it for wholly irrational reasons and are now simply rationalizing it in order to maintain our self-image as consistent, rational, and moral." Not that your cousin pretends to be any of those. The short of it: chop it off, Mullet Man. No one, not even a split-brain patient, thinks mullets are sexy.


Austin Cline

Hey Random Skeptic,

I exist, really I do.

God in Heaven

Dear God,

"The Yankees are a pack of steroid-pumped, overpaid, cliché-ridden jocks wholly owned by an obscenely rich egotist; they have as much to do with sportsmanship and the Spirit of the Game as Minnesota Fats; you’ll find more heart, more human drama, and more entertainment value in a fast-paced game of stickball in a Brooklyn schoolyard than in a typical Yankees game." Which, analogously, is why I don't believe in you.


Richard Blumberg

Dear Random Skeptic,

Is there a chance that those selfless penguins that inexplicably make religious conservatives so happy will contract avian flu and wipe out humanity?

Nervous in New York

Dear Nervous,

No need to fear the penguins. "The facts are simple, as even the World Health Organization admitted in 2004: No evidence to date indicates that wild birds are the source of the present outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza. Wild birds should not be culled." Enjoy your time at the zoo.



Dear Random Skeptic,

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that I found the lost city of Atlantis in Chesapeake Bay, populated with Sea Monkeys and loaded to the gills with pirate booty. Who should I call first?

Curious in Cape Charles

Dear Curious,

First, it's "whom." Public schools. Anyhow, that's a great question, one deserving a lengthy, well-reasoned answer. Think to yourself: "If I go along to the nearest archaeology department and tell them I’ve found Atlantis I’ll be shown to the door. There are dozens of Atlantis theories announced each year. They’re all different, so logically at least dozens minus 1 of them must be wrong each year." Suffice it to say that your first step is to calm down. Second, read my entire essay. Third, don't forget to itemize. Plunder is taxable.


Alun Salt

Dear Random Skeptic,

Yesterday these nice looking young men dressed in dapper suits knocked on my door, with all sorts of pamphlets and fliers about a Flying Spaghetti Monster. We chatted for at least a half hour about what they called "Intelligent Design." They were pretty insistent that it was scientifically proven, and wouldn't leave until I promised to at least look into the possibilities and consider that His Noodly Appendage just might have created us all. Is there anything to that "Intelligent Design" stuff?

Questioning in Queens

Dear Questioning,

Boy, did you come to the right place. First off, it's tough to distinguish between design and "nature"--and so far, ID hasn't given us a reliable way to make that distinction. IDers aren't consistent about what "design" means. As humans, we're quick to see patterns where none exist. Furthermore, in general, our intuitions about the natural world are often entirely wrong. Evidence, not intuition, rules the world of science.

IDers sometimes try to dress up their arguments in scientific language, which might work for Larry King, but doesn't fool scientists. "It's not enough in science to wave your hands and make 'claims' that you've got some idea that challenges a known theory. You have to back it up with actual experimental data published in actual journals."

The whole is-it-religion-or-science question can confuse even the brightest of thinkers. We'll say it again: ID isn't science, at least not yet. But we're not holding our breath.


Pat Hayes, Canadian Cynic, Joseph O'Donnell, Ophelia Benson, No More Mr. Nice Guy, and Ryan Whitmore

Dear Random Skeptic,

What should stop us from genetically modifying asparagus so it makes urine glow in the dark? That would be so cool.

Nolan, Age 12

Dear Nolan,

Sounds like the ideal situation for late-night trips to the bathroom. In all seriousness, though, to the best of our knowledge, GM food is safe, and a lot of the objections to it aren't very well thought out. In fact, they're pretty similar to the fears people once had about aviation. In some cases, anti-GM organizations twist facts about patent laws to drum up unnecessary hysteria. Risk assessment is one thing; irrational fear is another.


Mark and Skeptico

Dear Random Skeptic,

My boyfriend insists that coffee kills brain cells, and that I should drop my latte-a-day habit. But I heard a report that coffee is a great source of antioxidants, and maybe can cure cancer. Please help!!!

Desperate in Des Moines

Dear Desperate,

Any time you hear "studies show..." you need to crank on your baloney detector. Reporters are fond of breathless science stories that leave facts in the dust. "Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn’t about something being true or not true: that’s a humanities graduate parody. It’s about the error bar, statistical significance, it’s about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it’s about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence." When the media tell you that coffee is the devil's drink, swill down another cup and laugh at death.


Ben Goldacre (nominated by Alun Salt)

Dear Random Skeptic,

I'm a computer programmer, and the long hours at the keyboard and routinely poor dietary choices have left things all backed up, and I'm not talking about data. A buddy of mine recommended that I detoxify. He said it'll clear up my acne, ward off the flu, and reduce my risk of heart disease. Is it time to cleanse my colon?

Verstopft in Friedrichshafen

Dear Verstopft,

I'll let EneMan do the talking: "I have only a couple of purposes: to clean out the rectum and lower colon, usually in preparation for some sort of endoscopy, and to help relieve moderate constipation or stool impaction. And I'm quite good at it. I don't have delusions of grandeur that I can do anything more than that. After all, I'm just a 6-foot Enema with a job to do, but I'm not going to "detoxify" you or cure any major diseases."



And so endeth the Seventeenth Skeptics' Circle. Thanks to Orac and PZ for helping spread the good word, and double thanks to Orac for the chance to host, and triple thanks to all those who sent in their entries or pushed other people into the spotlight. Any editing decisions and liberties taken are my responsibility, so if you have a problem, I'll force someone else to resign just to make you happy, okay?

The next edition will be hosted by Wolverine Tom on September 29th. No rest, wicked, etc.


Mike said...

Absolutely brilliant presentation!

Bora Zivkovic said...

This is fantastic!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Very nice job.

Anonymous said...

this is a beautiful work of rational logic. congrats!

Jim Anderson said...

Thanks, y'all. I had fun putting it together.

Dick Durata said...

Just asking, do any of you skeptics kind of get money from those GM outfits?

Jim Anderson said...

I don't know about anyone else on the forum, but I'm free of any advertising obligations.

katiesmily said...

thanks for your information i read about the Seventeenth Skeptics Circle got an idea about it.