Science, skepticism, and critical thinking are all about admitting when you’re wrong, and taking action to correct them.”
May 17, 2007 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Bad Astronomer and skeptic Phil Plait posted a rant last week about a supposed miracle – a woman, who survived a car accident against all odds. After being deluged by comments from irate readers, including the accident victim, he issued an apology, contacted her directly and is collecting donations to fund her medical bills. Phil writes, “Science, skepticism, and critical thinking are all about admitting when you’re wrong, and taking action to correct them.”
posted by grateful (44 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Plait wasn't actually wrong, though. He was just a jerk.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:44 AM on May 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Phil's a mensch, and I'll always love him for crediting me for a lyrics correction years and years ago and so giving me a taste of that whole internet feedback magic.
posted by cortex at 11:45 AM on May 17, 2007

posted by prostyle at 11:45 AM on May 17, 2007

Everybody's skull snaps at one point or another.
posted by phaedon at 11:52 AM on May 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

What Faint of Butt said.
posted by puke & cry at 11:58 AM on May 17, 2007

I personally don't think he should have apologized.

Yes, it sucks she was in an accident. I don't know her, I don't live near here, and frankly I would never have heard of her aside from the fact that the media felt the need to cover this supposed miracle.

Plait was just telling it like it is, and was obviously irritated that her story was made into something it wasn't. She's already getting her fifteen minutes while in the meantime a small city of people around the world have died in other car accidents which we will never hear about.

It's not like he was personally insulting her. And now his response to this situation is going against everything his initial critique was suggesting. Why not start a fund for every accident victim who made some "miraculous" recovery? No offense to the victim of course. I'm sure she has a long road ahead of her, but seriously...
posted by ageispolis at 11:59 AM on May 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

So it's a miracle Falwell didn't die any sooner?
posted by phaedon at 12:01 PM on May 17, 2007

"'Miracle?' This was no miracle! How dare the media use religiously loaded language to further indoctrinate the public into the mental illness that is faith!"

"Screw you, I was in that accident and it was so a miracle."

"Oh sorry, I didn't know you knew how to read the internet. Here, have some money."
posted by brownpau at 12:04 PM on May 17, 2007 [9 favorites]

I would have objected to the news report, too, but for different reasons: That's some mighty poor journalism.

Hey, what's SLOEWGAF? (I think I can guess the last three letters, thanks.)
posted by scratch at 12:09 PM on May 17, 2007

Plait wasn't actually wrong, though. He was just a jerk

Sort of. He does come off as not only a jerk but as someone who has adopted an extremist view mostly because they have been too exposed to the opposite views. Like the old man who sits out with a shotgun on his lawn, his tactics could be a bit more moderate.

For example:
"She wasn’t lucky to get the halo removed, it’s just the way things worked out. I have actually specially worked on not using the word "luck" anymore."

Not using the word luck anymore? Just because many people misuse and abuse the word "luck" does not mean its not a useful word. The future is uncertain - thats a scientific fact. Some people achieve great success not because of talent but because they were in the right place at the right time. We have a useful shorthand way of referring to this chaos and uncertainty and unpredictability.

If my friend happens to be walking down the street and gets hit by a swerving drunk driver, I could say "Man, that certainly was a complex juxtaposition of events which led to this tragedy. Completely unpredictable and thus chaotic even in a deterministic universe!" but I also could say "Wow, thats really bad luck!"
posted by vacapinta at 12:09 PM on May 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Hey, look, a self-righteous asshole got his hat handed to him! A++ WOULD BUY AGAIN
posted by solistrato at 12:13 PM on May 17, 2007

Actually, if you believe in a divine intelligence that has some degree of sway over human affairs, Platt's argument is pretty stupid. Why wouldn't God choose to save one car accident victim over another? The notion that God can't be there for one victim if he's not there for them all implies that God would play fair at all times. Again, why? I myself am not sure which is really more comforting -- Platt's notion of the universe is random happenstance, or its opposite, in which God may choose to save or destroy any of us at any moment, seemingly on a whim -- but I'm not about to declare Platt the worldview winner by default. Mostly because he sounds like a dick.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:14 PM on May 17, 2007

scratch : Hey, what's SLOEWGAF?

At a guess, I would go with Single Link Opt-Ed, Who Gives A Fuck?

Platt came off as being a bit prickly, and I feel bad for the woman in the accident, but I think his point is totally valid.

I guess then it was also a miracle that God made the terrible, horrifying accident to happen in the first place, too. You can’t pick and choose which random events to ascribe to God, folks. If He throws the dice for one, He throws the dice for all.
posted by quin at 12:19 PM on May 17, 2007

op-ed that is.
posted by quin at 12:21 PM on May 17, 2007

Really when you get right down to it, this is all about the bad journalism. I was skeptical of the news story, too, as it was full of oversimplifications and delved into miracles and luck rather than the medical aspects of what happened. I've read newspaper articles for 20 or 30 years now and it seems across the board there's been a downslide in objective reporting and attention to detail.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:23 PM on May 17, 2007

God is such an asshole.
posted by cmonkey at 12:25 PM on May 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

You know, I started to comment on this but realized that Voltaire already wrote this book.

I wish the woman better than life has been handing her lately, but as miracles go, I will take my miracle this morning, where I, through force of will, moved my foot from the gas to the break and came to a complete stop before wilding careening into the path of a tractor trailer. A triumph of the human spirit to be sure.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:30 PM on May 17, 2007

I saw the original article the other day and wondered if it would end up in the blue. I thought it was pretty bad; I have been in medicine roughly 20 years and have never heard the term "internal decapitation". I guess "atlanto-occipital dislocation" doesn't sell newspapers though. I am glad the victim survived and wish her well in her recovery, but agree with Plait that the reporting on this is nonsense.
posted by TedW at 12:44 PM on May 17, 2007

And here is the same discussion, different victim.
posted by TedW at 12:48 PM on May 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Why wouldn't God choose to save one car accident victim over another? The notion that God can't be there for one victim if he's not there for them all implies that God would play fair at all times.

But God HAS to play fair at all times if he's perfect. No exception, no discussion.

If he isn't playing fair, he's not perfect, and therefore he's not God.
posted by watsondog at 1:22 PM on May 17, 2007

Put simply, how much more do you hate the idea of religion than you care about other people?

Yeah, I think that gets at the crux of the matter. Sometimes language is just language. Original meanings have been watered down or lost over the course of time. 'Bless you' isn't about trying to scare your nose demons away, it's a cultural expression of politeness. I have problems with the way the word 'miracle' is used, too, but I'm not going to be an asshole about it.

i.e. what an asshole!
posted by malaprohibita at 1:36 PM on May 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Watsondog, you're thinking of Perfect Tommy.
posted by ursus_comiter at 1:44 PM on May 17, 2007

Depends on which version of God you're trying to hold to concrete rules of interaction, doesn't it?

I mean, there's at least one version with strong preference for curing the tendency of children to be insensitive by sending bears after them.
posted by batmonkey at 1:49 PM on May 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

But God HAS to play fair at all times if he's perfect. No exception, no discussion. If he isn't playing fair, he's not perfect, and therefore he's not God.

There are so many possible responses to this. I'll give two.

(1) How do you know that he isn't playing fair? I suppose God could set the world up so that no one ever gets hurt. Bullets magically disintegrate before impact, knives bounce harmlessly off of flesh, and I can't will my foot to press on the accelerator enough to drive at an unsafe speed. No one gets hurt. But no one gets to make real choices either. If we did live in a world like that, I'm sure everyone would be bitching about what an overbearing dictator God is, and why doesn't he loosen up a little and let us make our own calls and deal with the consequences. If, of course, such a God would allow bitching. The world is full of free agents, and the earth itself is unpredictable. Sometimes that's a pain in the neck, sometimes it's even tragic, but I think it's better than the alternative. Whatever God is doing, he does it within the parameters of the system as it is. How could I begin to assess whether he's making the best possible choices or not? In other words, maybe your idea of perfection is imperfect.

(2) I can't speak for other faith traditions, but the God portrayed in the Bible doesn't seem all that interested in some abstract notion of perfection. Maybe the God of the Greek philosophers is, but Yahweh laughs and cries and loves and hates and starts wars and brings peace. He's up to something, and the scriptures indicate in the long run it's something good, but he's not some dispassionate abstract computer making a series of calculated choices. Sometimes he can be deeply invested in one person's welfare, at other times whole nations undergo tragedies that he allows to happen, or even instigates. Sometimes he explains his reasons, sometimes he doesn't, and sometimes he regrets what he did and promises never to do it again. Maybe you don't want God to be like that, and maybe I don't either, but if there is a God, he is what he is, and my critiques of his style probably aren't going to ruin his day. As C.S. Lewis wrote of Aslan, "he's not a tame lion."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:53 PM on May 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

I read Plait's book recently, and while he had a lot of interesting things to say, I also distinctly got the impression that he is the proverbial guy with a hammer who starts thinking that everything is a nail. I liked his explanations of some basic everyday astronomy everyone should really know, and I didn't mind his bashing astrology, moon landing hoax theories, and the like, but he had equal rancor for expressions such as "meteoric rise" ... because meteors do not actually rise, but fall. I am sure I am not the only one who read that and though (a) Dude, "meteoric" in that context means "fast", and (b) Get over it.
posted by kyrademon at 2:00 PM on May 17, 2007

...sometimes he regrets what he did and promises never to do it again.

I... um...

posted by LordSludge at 2:02 PM on May 17, 2007

Being an atheist means you can say you're sorry without compromising the infallibility of the infallibile sky-fairy you pretend to channel.
posted by hexatron at 2:18 PM on May 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

In a way, scientists like Phil Plait have chosen to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their beloved discipline, as well as the progress of human understanding as a whole.

He spends the time and energy he could be devoting to trying to understand the mysteries of the endless and endlessly complex vastness modern astronomy has opened up before us in trying instead to prune back the weedy and corrosive superstitions that constantly spring up around any real science and which threaten to overwhelm and kill that science like so much intellectual Kudzu. He may be sacrificing his career, too-- tenure committees in the sciences are not necessarily terribly impressed by the calluses which are the chief wages of the perpetual struggle against malicious ignorance, as far as I know.

But I think he is also courting a more subtle and ultimately more damaging sacrifice; he is risking poisoning his own possibility of inspiration as a scientist by constant exercise of a relentless and undiscriminating skepticism. He could end up blind to the value of any truly original good thoughts he may be fortunate enough to have himself because of a (I think inevitable) family resemblance they might display to the craziness he has dedicated himself to extirpating.

Worst of all, efforts of the sort he is making could even tend to stunt astronomy itself, because creativity in science so often seems to require cross-pollination from the wildest and rankest of outcast ideas. As Bacon said, "there is no excellent thing without some strangeness in proportion."
posted by jamjam at 2:44 PM on May 17, 2007 [5 favorites]

Being an atheist means you can be a jerk, and then when people tell you to stop being a jerk you can tell them that their entire basis for believing that people shouldn't be jerks is stupid.
posted by The World Famous at 3:00 PM on May 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

jamjam, I think you have an excellent point ... organizations like CSICOP/The Skeptical Inquirer sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by dismissing anything that does not fit their preconceived notions. I worry about this in myself - I have a job essentially reporting on natural health rememdies, which puts me in contact with a lot of complete bullshit, and I sometimes wonder if I am building up so much resistance that I am starting to doubt legitimate science along with the snake oil. And it isn't always easy to tell - a lot of snake oil points to perfectly respectable-looking peer reviewed studies, and you're fooling yourself if you think that either that doesn't happen or that it necessarily means it isn't total bullshit.

But that having been said, more and more people are starting to notice that we are beginning to drown in crap, and that fake science is really affecting people's lives - education policy, funding policy, economic policy, and perhaps most especially environmental policies, which could result in the death of everyone if they are handled poorly. We need our Plaits and Sagans and Randis railing against the blatant misinformation and misunderstandings that pervade so much of public thought.
posted by kyrademon at 3:01 PM on May 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

It is a crappy article, but his criticism of it is clumsy and pedantic . And all that twaddle about luck is just nit-picking and completely ignores accepted common usage.
posted by rhymer at 3:15 PM on May 17, 2007

Yeah, he appears not to have picked up on the fact that people basically use the word "miracle" to mean "something really really unlikely".
posted by moss at 4:25 PM on May 17, 2007

So, a really improbable, really good thing happens. Isn't that what a miracle is?


Did I do that right?
posted by !Jim at 4:49 PM on May 17, 2007

Plait, in this case anyway, is no Sagan or Randi. He's just a (repentant) putz.
posted by everichon at 5:04 PM on May 17, 2007

say what now? oh yeah, what rhymer, moss, and !Jim just said.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:30 PM on May 17, 2007


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posted by grateful at 5:40 PM on May 17, 2007

I don't understand why some people need to characterize Phil as either an asshole, nor do I understand the ones who insist he did nothing wrong and shouldn't have apologized.

Why so black & white? He saw an article in which the language was really anti-rational, talked about it in the context of his blog, which is appropriate given that his blog is focussed on skepticism and exposing bad science. The person the original article was about was somewhat offended (more by the ensuing discussion than the blog entry itself, which is not hard to understand if you read the comments) and made some comments defending herself. Phil realized that in his desire to talk about the bad language used in the article he'd been insensitive to a person who was in the middle of a pretty extreme and difficult tragedy. Even though most of the insensitivity was in what other people had said in comments. So he apologized for being insensitive (in no way any sort of recantation of the points he'd been making), and decided to use his amount of influence to help the other person out.

He's just like an ordinary guy with a healthy amount of empathy, who when he's done something that hurts someone tend to feel an urge to want to make up for it when it comes to his attention.
posted by lastobelus at 10:55 PM on May 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

The real miracle is that God wrecked that nice lady's car, then guided her to that guy's website so we could all have this heartwarming moment.

Mysterious ways or not, God's a prick.
posted by hutta at 12:03 AM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, everyone's dumb except lastobelus.
posted by hutta at 12:04 AM on May 18, 2007

But God HAS to play fair at all times if he's perfect. No exception, no discussion.

If he isn't playing fair, he's not perfect, and therefore he's not God.

Has anybody written a story about a nigh-perfect creator of the universe, depressed because nobody considers him the true "God"?
posted by dreamsign at 3:44 AM on May 18, 2007

The guy seems pretty aggressively opinionated for someone who just sits there looking up and taking notes. You know, so an actual mathematical physicist can tell him what he’s looking at. But whatever, at least he kind of apologized. Plus I’m sure the accident victim can really use the tens of dollars he undoubted has stashed away for just such an emergency.
posted by BostonJake at 3:49 AM on May 18, 2007

*yawn* Atheist-filter, again.

Some humans have a deep-seated need to use religion to explain the things in life they find too painful or confusing. We evolved with this need to explain the universe to ourselves (that's the ironic bit).

I should say "Who am I to change their minds if they want to have imaginary friends? Some people NEED imaginary friends in order to survive." But, I wont say that... I'll say "Keep your fucking imaginary friends away from me and mine, especially if they're telling you to kill people. Thanks."
posted by chuckdarwin at 6:34 AM on May 18, 2007

chuckdarwin, I think you're missing the point of this thread. Try reading jamjam's excellent post above.
posted by vacapinta at 7:45 AM on May 18, 2007

You're probably right; it wouldn't be the first time I missed the point.
posted by chuckdarwin at 8:16 AM on May 18, 2007

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