Confessions of a Skeptic

 

 

I believe in the scientific method…

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The timing of this release might seem odd since it isn’t explicitly about the most important election in modern history, which is tomorrow. Americans have a chance to forcefully repudiate the most corrupt, dishonest and dangerous science-denier ever to hold their highest office, and the world is collectively holding its breath hoping for a blue tsunami course-correction. Is there any reason to hope for a single Republican to win a single seat, given their wholesale subservience to Trumpism? I can’t think of one. That said, my new video is about the longer battle between superstition and tribalism on one side, and reason and evidence-based thinking on the other.

The making of “Confessions of a Skeptic” was supported by Michael Shermer and the Skeptics Society, and also by the monthly contributions of my Patreon supporters, but conceptually you could say it was a project ten years in the making, since that’s roughly how long I’ve been a skeptic. I grew up in Vancouver, Canada as part of a “tribe” of my own, a left wing alternative subculture that rejects mainstream science on some topics (alternative medicine, GMOs, vaccines, spiritual energy, the mind as a “blank slate”) while embracing it on other topics (physiological evolution, climate change, wildlife conservation). As recently as 2008, when I was 29 years old, I was still turning to homeopathy and acupuncture for my ailments.

So what happened? That’s when I was commissioned to write my first science show: The Rap Guide to Evolution, and my research into precisely how and why we can say with confidence that “creationism is dead wrong” led me to also question the cherished beliefs of my own tribe. In short, I reviewed the evidence, considered the arguments with a renewed openness to opposing views, and became a skeptic, committed to changing my views whenever the facts contradict them.

For example, verse two of the new song is about one of the last barriers to fall: my tribalistic belief in spiritual energy or “chi energy”, the kind of energy that acupuncture supposedly stimulates, and Dr. Strange supposedly manipulates in the Marvel film. I had recently read the book Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Professor Edzard Ernst, and in late 2009 I was hanging out with Simon backstage at a comedy show and talking to him about why I grew up believing in chi. The argument he made in that conversation was simple and devastating: we can use scientific instruments to detect tiny atomic particles like neutrinos, which pass through us at the rate of hundreds of billions every second without affecting us at all, but no scientific instrument has ever detected chi. Hence, if you think chi really does something to our health or vitality, it has to be more powerful than neutrinos, in which case why can’t physicists directly detect it with an instrument? The logical conclusion is that chi doesn’t exist, but we believe in it because of cognitive errors like selective memory, confirmation bias, and mistaking correlation with causation (I did acupuncture, and then I got better!)

Charles Darwin famously said that telling people about his theory – ie telling them modern species change and evolve from earlier species – felt “like confessing a murder”. In a way, confessing to skepticism feels the same, because it inevitably means you are tipping over someone’s sacred cows, both to the political left and right. However, tipping acupuncture and homeopathy cows to the left merely annoys hippies who may be wasting their money on ineffective treatments. Tipping cows to the right, on the other hand, is urgently needed to save the world from the clutches of white nationalist demagogues. The President’s pseudoscientific rejection of climate change science, his smearing of fact-finding journalism, his disinterest in the public health benefits of guaranteed healthcare and stricter gun laws, and his reactionary tendency to side with sexual abusers, combine to make him a much more urgent target for cow-tipping and political action.

So to my US-citizen friends: push hard tomorrow. Cause earthquakes with the impact of Trumpism’s sacred cows falling to earth in the election results. And once tomorrow passes, I hope you’ll join the ranks of the scientific skeptics who tip cows in both directions, and sing along with us: “I confess it, I’m a skeptic. I believe in the scientific method. I believe in reason and evidence, and things bein’ tested.”

Whatever course you choose, I believe in you.

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