The Skeptic's Dictionary
February 6, 2004 6:01 AM   Subscribe

The Skeptic's Dictionary is a wonderful resource for all sentient individuals: 'A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions (and how to think critically about them)'. It's where I send people when they start telling me nonsense. It is also a jolly good read: try the entry for natural, for example. And some entries, like the entry for IQ and race, verge on the profound. There is a print edition, but the extensive internal and external site linkage makes reading the collection online a particular joy. While The Skeptic's Dictionary has been referred to before on MeFi, the link made the site out to be a cornucopia of Urban legend-style oddities, like Snopes. Which I thought was a shame: not dissing Snopes, but the Skeptic's Dictionary delivers a firm grounding in critical thinking as well. This post is dedicated to all of my relatives who chipped in to buy shark cartilage tablets and several fifty-dollar pamphlets full of testimonials after my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and who probably still think the worse of me for not contributing to their folly.
posted by chrisgregory (28 comments total)

 
Fun and interesting site. I've bookmarked it for further research. Thanks for the link.
posted by ashbury at 6:29 AM on February 6, 2004


Great post.. I found this interesting in the IQ and race article:

"There's about a 15 percent genetic variation between any two individuals," according to science writer Deborah Blum. "Less than half of that, about 6 percent, is accounted for by known racial groupings....A randomly selected white person, therefore, can easily be genetically closer to an African than another white" (Blum).
posted by cmicali at 7:08 AM on February 6, 2004


ScepDic used to be on my regular reading list, it's nice to be reminded of this pearl of internet content.
Thanks.


May I suggest a few articles related to current events:
Face on Mars.
Creationism and creation science.

posted by spazzm at 7:08 AM on February 6, 2004


A great site; I have linked to individual pages in threads here before, but never thought of using the entire site for an FPP. Glad you did, chrisgregory
posted by TedW at 7:11 AM on February 6, 2004


I mean SkepDic. Sorry.
posted by spazzm at 7:12 AM on February 6, 2004


[this is good]
posted by y6y6y6 at 7:13 AM on February 6, 2004


Thanks! I just bookmarked the site. Good timing as I am just finishing reading Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things."
posted by toddst at 7:14 AM on February 6, 2004


Bob's site and book are great (I am the literary agent who represented the book, so I can't be impartial). It's amazing how many emails he gets from irrational types who try to argue with him. For a regular laugh-riot, subscribe to his newsletter, which features some of the best.
posted by twsf at 7:47 AM on February 6, 2004


Good site for people who are frightened by uncertainty.
posted by goethean at 7:55 AM on February 6, 2004


Very interesting site, I see my work productivity falling already! Just asking, but do most of his posts contain a great deal of editorial commentary based in the author's opinion rather than factual resources, or is that just the ones I read? I'm enjoying it and finding it informative, but I've also found some items that seem to draw from opinion.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:02 AM on February 6, 2004


For more of this stuff, I find The Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer to be a nice read because every now and then they have an article by an "expert" who was asked to give a professional opinion on something like the "Atlantis roadway" off the coast of Bimini. These articles end up showing how their findings that nothing out of the ordinary is going on are turned around to support the myth.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:55 AM on February 6, 2004


The "IQ and Race" article is wonderful.

In a recent Mefi thread ("African-American == Black?") I made a long pedantic comment about how useless the disproved notion of "race" is, and offered an illustrating formulation which was a garbled version of this - "A randomly selected white person, therefore, can easily be genetically closer to an African than another white" " - but I got it wrong, and a Mefi reader/lurker who is a genetics student emailed me to tell me that my version was wrong. We had a lively, long email back-and-forth about the subject which I then tacked on to the end of that thread.
posted by troutfishing at 9:06 AM on February 6, 2004


Good site for people who are frightened by uncertainty.

Heh, I was thinking the same thing. So easy to forget how much science is built on invisible forces and things invented by clever people to explain anomalies and discrepancies in their observations... as much as in religion if not more so.

Not that I'm dissing science here, nor supporting the Bigfoot/UFO/tinfoil hat crowd. But the universe is just one big Catch-22. You can't grasp it all in with your senses, and the minute you start making assumptions you're now probing the depths of your model instead of the universe itself.
posted by Foosnark at 9:18 AM on February 6, 2004


For those interested in the art of debunking let me recommend Michael Shermer's book, "Why People Believe Weird Things." He is also the creator of the Skeptics Society and was inspired to become a skeptic after hearing a speech by Carl Sagan, who also has an excellent skeptic's book, "The Demon Haunted World (Science As a Candle in the Darkness)."

The world could use a whole lot more skeptics!
posted by nofundy at 9:41 AM on February 6, 2004


Scientists and skeptics are less frightened of uncertainty than "believers", who cannot let anything remain simply unknown but must assign it some specious explanation.
posted by nicwolff at 10:13 AM on February 6, 2004


Amen, nicwolff.

Not that I'm dissing science here, nor supporting the Bigfoot/UFO/tinfoil hat crowd.

Sorry, but refusing to accept scientific method (skepticism, rigorous scrutiny of methods and results, close attention to apparent counterexamples) is supporting the Bigfoot/UFO/tinfoil hat crowd. You can't have it both ways. And in this anti-modern world we live in today, the Bigfoot crowd seems to be winning. Three cheers for the skeptics and their dictionaries!
posted by languagehat at 10:48 AM on February 6, 2004


The world could use a whole lot more skeptics!

Great, because I'm skeptical of Skeptics.
posted by soyjoy at 10:58 AM on February 6, 2004


Sorry, but refusing to accept scientific method (skepticism, rigorous scrutiny of methods and results, close attention to apparent counterexamples) is supporting the Bigfoot/UFO/tinfoil hat crowd.

Which is precisely what disturbs me about the site's use of opinion rather than factual instances in several of its articles. Failing to use SM in debunking is no more "proof" of debunking myths than the methods the myths use to "prove" their arguments.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:34 AM on February 6, 2004


Heh, I was thinking the same thing. So easy to forget how much science is built on invisible forces and things invented by clever people to explain anomalies and discrepancies in their observations... as much as in religion if not more so.

Science isn't anything like a religion at all; it doesn't have dogmas, but methods. Those methods are only used as attempts to inference the best explanation of a phenomenon, not to make any categorical statements in the way we associate with religion.

It's a very important understanding within science that a theory can never be absolutely proved or disproved, only shown to be consistent or inconsistent with other theories. In science, if a theory isn't falsifiable it's thrown aside for a better, testable explanation. Most psuedo-sciences, by contrast, make statements that are untestable.

Skepticism is important because no one would bother to create new theories and branches of science if they didn't doubt and question our current theories.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:51 AM on February 6, 2004


Damn, no entry yet for "evolutionary psychology".

Ah well, it's just a matter of time, I hope, before that whole wretched intellectually rotten construction is eventually viewed as another weird blip in scientific discourse...
posted by jokeefe at 1:56 PM on February 6, 2004


I hear you, elwoodwiles.
Pseudo-science not only makes statements that are not falsifiable, but also ignores evidence that their statements are clearly false.

Unfortunately, we live in a time when the scientific method is not en vogue - I fear that the time ahead of us will be known as the new dark ages.
posted by spazzm at 6:05 PM on February 6, 2004


Gimme A Big Foot And A Bottle Of Beer - X Files Bessie Smith.
posted by y2karl at 7:00 PM on February 6, 2004


This site is excellontay. Good work, chrisgregory!
posted by hot soup girl at 2:35 AM on February 7, 2004


It's quite a stretch to say that science doesn't have any dogmas. We're all still human, after all, and have human frailties. One of these frailties is the tendency to take ownership of our ideas and to become offended and defensive when someone challenges them.

But to science's credit, its dogmas are much more mutable than those of organized religion and are successfully replaced with dogmas which are a better reflection of reality at a much quicker pace.
posted by botono9 at 10:13 AM on February 7, 2004


Science doesn't have dogmas, scientists have dogmas. Other scientists ignore your dogmas and try to reproduce your work. If they can, it's good; if they can't, it goes on the Cold Fusion Memorial Scrap Heap. The dogmas are irrelevant. In religion, on the other hand, the dogmas are the basis of the whole thing.
posted by languagehat at 10:48 AM on February 7, 2004


I don't think science is as rosy as all that [insert Thomas Kuhn reference here]. But that is the ideal that scientists usually strive for, and they come reasonably close.

But there certainly are "skeptic" sites that are driven by dogma rather than by reason and research, as Pollomacho points out. It's easy to put up pages mocking those crazy Atlanteans and proudly consider yourself a skeptic when you really aren't producing anything more scientifically valid than they are.
posted by hattifattener at 1:53 PM on February 7, 2004


I think a lot of the criticism of science stems from a misconception of what science is.
Science is not what scientist do.
Rather, scientists are people who try to do science.

Scientists are, as pointed out above, humans and have human failings. That doesn't mean those failings are part of science.
posted by spazzm at 5:22 PM on February 7, 2004


I dunno. I disagree with some of the strongly atheistic comments made about faith. Myself, I have personal evidence that I followed to give me faith in God, and Jesus. The evidence probably doesn't mean much to you, but to this former atheist, it convinced me enough to go down that road, for better or worse. I think it is a little unfair to dismiss we (I think he called us the) rationally faithful by lumping us together with the Creationist idiots running around saying that science means nothing.
posted by paladin at 2:10 AM on February 9, 2004


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