Thursday, 10 September 2009

Am I Clever Enough?

I am fresh from a new month of podcast listening and reading and have ended up not so much downbeat, but more - a little deflated. I met a real journalist this month, one with a fantastically sharp mind and who's massively talented boyfriend I have been an admirer of for some time for his attitude and maturity and creative spirit. I hope they wont mind me putting their names, they are; Shanta Barley and Marmaduke Dando . It is fair to say that meeting Dan again and his girlfriend Shanta for the first time were not the reason for my deflation. They are two passionate, pro-science young people (compared to my 43 years at least) who actively think about and do things to raise awareness of causes they believe in - like global warming. Shanta through her reporting and blogging for the BBC and more recently New Scientist - and Dan through his commitment to and involvement with the popular Power Down acoustic gigs that take place in London quite frequently. Plus his well educated and well travelled outlook on life I find very refreshing - he cares about the envirnment and he cares about all of our futures and he has opened his eyes and seen the things he has been privelliged to see through older and wiser eyes than his age belies. Both of them are ACTIVE. Something that despite my reading and listening and occasional blogging about, I find I don't do very well at.

I feel that my contributions turn peoples perceptions of me into that of a soul-less nerd with nothing better to do than crap on anything "alternative" and as my arguments have become more coherent the more I read, the less people want to engage in conversations as their flimsy evidence for crystal healing falls by the wayside. They feel hurt and I don't like making people feel like that, but I also hate the notion that someone is taking money from them due to a belief in this bullshit.

I also fear posting on certain skeptical blogs because there is an extremist element to the sceptical movement that can be read as quite intimidating and sarcastic, although a certain lack of expressionism through the medium of typing on a computer keyboard could also play a part, its quite a turn off. I read the Bad Science forum and see the number of people who are real Doctors and -ists with masters in -isms and -ologys and as a musician don't feel I can stand shoulder to shoulder with these people, certainly not at an academic level, the same as any of them playing the piano in front of 1000 people would make them feel probably. Yet despite the mass of academically superior beings that populate the forum Ben Goldacre has done more to bring bad scientific practices to the general public at large than any one else I can think of through his fantastic book Bad Science and his blog in the Guardian newspaper. To me, its at the general-public-lay-person level that the most work needs to be done, because they are (we are) the people being taken in by the schemers and charlatans.

Its been said before that from a marketing point of view, the world of alternative therapies and treatments including religions and cults leave the skeptical movement for dead. Surely as we are the ones promoting the safe and sensible side of the case, its a travesty that this should be the case.

To promote critical thinking to the wider audience we have to try to keep academic jargon to a minimum and help the casual listener understand as much of what is being said without feeling patronised. If you think about it, TV ads for expensive cosmetics use the simplest forms available, full screen computer generated graphics showing the hair changing from a limp, weather beaten clump into the most shiney and managable set of locks in the world with just one application.  Stick in some actor in a lab coat and you have closed the deal.  People BUY it.    Experts arguing or agreeing amongst themselves (who can tell sometimes if you don't have 5 years medical training) on various forums is fine if you want people who have stumbled upon you to click away. It creates cliques and leaves the average person cold whilst perpetuating the nerd stereotype and is actually, in my opinion, a very negative thing for the community as a whole. Imagine if you will, attending a comic book convention for the first time and having no clue as to what all the in-jokes are about, who the characters are, which comic book they are from, and indeed, what everybody is going on about in the conversations around you.  I know as a relatively new attendee to the skeptical movement that a lot of these feelings passed through my mind when I first began reading through the skeptical forums. One of them told me, in reply to my introductory post, that I would learn nothing new from the jaded old opinons held there in  and to look elsewhere as most subjects had been discussed to death.

Brian Dunnings excellent Skeptoid podcast helped ease me into it eventually and it is there I recommend anybody begins.  The pod casts are bite sized enough to digest whole and are extremely well researched and put across so that anybody gets it, even if you don't at first agree with it. At least you can understand it well enough to maybe have an opposing opinion. The same I find true of the Skeptics Guide To The Universe, although, and I hope Brian Dunning takes this the right way (I would be surprised but also honoured if he did read my little blog, despite my earlier "skeptic about the skeptics" rant I still find his podcasts fulfiling and honest) - I find it a bit of a step up as the length of the podcast allows for more in depth discussion and having a posse of experts and skeptics on hand allows this to happen with multiple opinions over the subject, albeit with a common overall view. Dr Steve Novella always attempts to explain for example, a medical condition before getting too heavily into discussion about it or some quackery cure for it, therefore giving the casual listener a chance to understand whats going on and assuring them that he does indeed "know his onions" as we say in the UK.  I thank them for all for their laid back yet understanding-it-all style in this respect because it works.

So, now having read back what I have written, I feel better for getting some things off my chest that maybe I am a bit over sensitive to - but mostly I feel that I have actually been just a little bit active if only for pointing people to Mr Dunning and The SGU along with Marmaduke and his lovely girlfriend Shanta.

Viva science and reason.............

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