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Bay Area Skeptics and Religion

From time to time, Bay Area Skeptics board members are asked about BAS's position on religion. We have a brief mission statement that explains our policy of religious neutrality, but like all such statements, from time to time one must consider whether it is communicating fully the organization's perspective. You can read it at http://www.baskeptics.org/about/policies In recent correspondence with a friend about the topic of skepticism and atheism, I wrote the following, which, although not an official BAS statement, reflects what most (though not all) of the BAS officers have thought over the years. For what it's worth -- here are some additional thoughts on the matter: Dear _____, People on my side of the issue want skepticism to be about appreciation and enjoyment of science, and critical thinking, which of course is not philosophy-specific. After all, if your concern is showing people scientifically why homeopathy is quackery, religion isn't an issue. And skeptics are more concerned with things like homeopathy than with the meaning of life. This doesn't prohibit us from evaluating/criticizing fact claims made in the name of religion if such claims are shown to be wrong through science. We can show through science why the catastrophic cut

On July 24th, Wikipedia's "Did You Know" section (front page, lower left) included "... that Karen Stollznow writes for two skeptical magazines Karen Stollznow(Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer) and hosts two skeptical podcasts (Point of Inquiry and Monster Talk)?". Stollznow has been an active member of the Bay Area Skeptics board for several years, helping the organization use online media more effectively, among other things. Wikipedia's front-page notice helped her new article jump from 20-ish hits a day to 1,100! To read more about her, check out her Wikipedia page.

Sometimes we know in advance that someone of interest to skeptics will be coming to the Bay Area, and sometimes we have to take advantage of a last-minute opportunity. One such opportunity came up on Saturday, July 23, 2011, when YouTube video producer-extraordinaire Thunderf00t was our guest at Skeptics in the Pub. About 25 people were able to attend on short notice at Jupiter, in downtown Berkeley, for conversation, food, and drink. Thunderf00t has produced a series of YouTube videos which have been viewed by hundreds of thousands. His series, "Why people laugh at creationists", is widely considered a useful (and entertaining) compendium of refutations to creationist arguments. It alone has received millions of hits. We had a good time talking about the varieties of science topics Thunderf00t's site considers. BAS hopes to take advantage of other visitors; please let us know if you know of any person of skeptical interest coming to town. -- Genie Scott

The Textbook League fought pseudoscience and other idiocy in pre-college textbooks for the last few decades. The human part of the League is disbanding, but stalwart ichthyologist Bill Bennetta is personally keeping their website online: http://www.textbookleague.org . Their reference material remains available even though they no longer send experts galloping to assorted rescues.

Although we try at the BAS website to blog about Bay Area issues, sometimes national issues are so important they swamp our local focus. Dr. Robert ParkDr. Robert Park The issue of cell phone radiation and cancer is one of them. Of course, as members of society, Bay Area residents are tuned into this controversy as well, so perhaps it is not inappropriate to comment on it. Do cell phones cause brain cancer? There is no epidemiological evidence to suggest the link, only anecdote (and two anecdotes, despite the common practice in the press, do not constitute "data"). Is there a reason to suspect that cell phone radiation -- close to the brain, and in the case of many heavy cell phone users, as much as several hours/day -- might be dangerous? Well, no. Not according to basic physics. Few people have been as clear on this issue as beloved skeptic Bob Park (though the irascible Park would probably grump about being termed "beloved", but it's true!) Author of "Voodoo Science" and

by Norman Sperling, May 15, 2011 Some substances that are usually regarded as having no effect actually do have effects. * Water, as in homeopathic treatments. * Placebos, as in medical tests and treatments. I have seen homeopathic treatments strongly criticized as being useless and having no effect, because they’re "only" water. Yet water itself has many effects. * Peeing usually makes you feel better. * Drinking a lot of water is recommended for several medical and nutritional situations. It is suspected to dilute or flush precipitates that would otherwise form painful kidney stones, for example. * And drinking a lot is often recommended in treating colds and other illnesses. So plain old water, whether labeled homeopathic or not, CAN have effects. "Placebo" is Latin for "I make you feel good". That’s an effect, not the absence of one. (By that centuries-old definition, boyfriends and girlfriends are placebos.) In the last half century, "placebo"’s definition and applications have changed importantly several times, but discussions rarely specify which version is meant. Always check just what speakers and writers mean by the term. Placebos are rarely neutral and rarely have zero effects. Many different substances that have been used as placebos have known effects. * Sugar, as in "sugar pills", makes people feel better. Huge quantities of sugary

Skeptics in the Pub Egg Balancing on (almost) the EquinoxDid you know you can balance an egg on the Equinox?! Wow!! And this year, with the gravitational pull of the "super Moon", or something, the powers should be even stronger, or something, and eggs should be balanceable even more easily! Well, the Bay Area Skeptics in the Pub for March 19 -- OK, the day BEFORE the actual card-carrying equinox -- found egg balancing possible, but something of a chore. This picture shows three eggs balanced at the same time, which I think was a record. The dozen eggs we had to work with seemed almost symmetrical, with none of the "bottom heavy" morphology most eggs have. Balancing them was much more difficult than other eggs at previous BAS spring rituals. At the next SitP, we'll try again to balance eggs, and I'll report back. (Because indeed, one can balance eggs on the Equinox, and any other day, as well. Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog discusses Martin Gardner's history of how this Chinese folk ritual became an American urban legend: 
Friends, you will enjoy an excellent column by John Carroll on March 2, 2011. Link is here: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/02/28/DDTE1I0BVH.DTL We need lots more journalistic efforts like this to help the public understand that no, science does not know all the answers (it isn't a list of completed explanations), rather, it's a process that ends up (often) with our asking a lot more questions than we began with. Furthermore, it's really exciting that there are so many things yet to learn. And scientists aren't upset having to say, "I don't know yet." Check it out.

The demonstrators wore white t-shirts with ???1023 Homeopathy: There???s Nothing In It??? emblazoned in blue. One demonstrator, Athena, had blue hair to match. We assembled at the corner of Franklin & California Streets10:23 T-Shirt: 10:23 T-Shirt in San Francisco with a banner & leaflets to protest the marketing of homeopathic ???remedies??? by Whole Foods, CVS, Walgreens, and others. Similar and simultaneous demonstrations were taking place in 22 other cities on all seven continents around the planet. We passed out the small information leaflets, took pictures of each other, and chatted in uncharacteristically warm weather. Among the demonstrators were folk from The Exploratorium, the California Academy of Science, Atheist Nexus, Reason 4 Reason, East Bay Skeptics Society, two board members from the Bay Area Skeptics, miscellaneous skeptics, scientists, programmers, and students. At 10:23 AM, we all quaffed ???over-doses??? of homeopathic remedies ??? sort of. Since ???real??? homeopathic fake medicine costs ???r

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