Skepticism: Science and Pseudoscience

Science provides tools for examining extraordinary or unexpected observations and scientists are well-known for refuting claims that cannot be supported with verifiable evidence and controlled experiments. Do they have special training in skepticsm and should we believe them?

This Meetup was inspired by a re-reading of Carl Sagan's last book, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness." It was published in 1996, shortly before Sagan's death. For this Meetup, we'll focus mostly on chapter 12: "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection." The book is still in print and widely available in libraries. There's also a good summary of the book in a televised interview with Charlie Rose.  You can see it at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8HEwO-2L4w (20 minutes). I recommend it whether you have time to read the book or not.

The baloney detection kit consists of tools for skeptical thinking, which we will examine in detail. We'll discuss how Sagan uses it to evaluate claims of spiritualists, religous fundamentalists, astrologers, sightings of ghosts and UFOs, reports of extraterrestial abductions, and other phenomena that seem to contradict what's known to science. But skepticsm, according to Sagan, should lead all of us, not just scientists, to look for other, more plausible, explanations of phenomena that are not easily explained. For example, he draws on psychology and neuroscience to understand how hallucinations work. He discusses the gullibility of consumers, business leaders, government regulators -- even professors, psychiatrists and research scientists. 

We'll also take a skeptical look at science itself. How can we have confidence in scientific findings when contradictory results are presented to the public year after year? Is this an indication of incompetance, unwitting bias, greed or fraud? Confidence in scientists in the U.S. is at an all-time low. Sagan says his skepticism tool kit, if used, could have prevented a lot of damage caused by biased forecasters, greedy marketers, unscrupulous scam artists, and power-obsessed politicians. He gave some examples; we'll look for some more-current ones.

Sagan's open-minded discussions of "paranormal" phenomena were unusual for a leading scientist. He was widely recognized as the world's top expert on inter-planetary exploration, having served as lead scientist on many NASA programs. His popular Cosmos television series presented not only what was then known about the universe, but also the importance of rational and critical thinking.

Join us whether or not you have time to read the book. If you RSVP and later find you must cancel, please do so as early as possible, but not later than 48 hours before the Meetup. Someone on the waiting can take your place if you don't cancel too late.

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  • Karl K.

    An excellent two hours that unmasked the incredible complexities inherent in our search for truth in science. Thank you Sandy Catz for giving us the privelege to participate, and your amazing knowledge attendant to the subject. Today I read an incredible article in MAIL Online, from England, wherein they describe the bombshell "discovery" of the identification of "Jack the Ripper" using DNA analysis. This is an 128 year old series of murders, and it seems incredible that this could be possible. Here's a link: www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article[masked]/

    September 8

  • Jay A.

    I won't be able to attend after all. Sorry.

    September 6

  • Martin C.

    One annoying type of pseudoscience is that expounded by postmodernist philosophers. They are not well known, but they exercise influence on many people who may never have heard of them. I have heard many otherwise intelligent individuals espouse their doctrine that science and mathematics are social constructs. Here is an article that briefly discusses postmodernism. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-h-bailey/postmodern-science_b_1572737.html Note the discussion of the Sokal hoax. The only effective way I know of arguing against someone who talks meaningless gibberish is to deliberately and knowingly generate more of the same and pass it off as genuine, which is what Sokal did.

    September 5

  • Martin C.

    Here is an article by Sean Carroll claiming that parapsychology is not only unsubstantiated but is in fact impossible, or at least extremely unlikely. http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2008/02/18/telekinesis-and-quantum-field-theory/

    September 1

  • Brian

    I think if it is Friday afternoon, and something has come up, one should still cancel the RSVP.

    August 30

    • Sandy C.

      Thanks for the clarification, Brian. if anyone needs to cancel later than 48 before the event, they should definitely change their RSVP. My point was that its better to cancel as early as possible. Otherwise, we'll have empty chairs because people on the waiting list won't know about the opening in time to come.

      August 30

  • Martin C.

    Sandy, I appreciate your comments, but I want to clarify what I was saying about morality. Galileo said, "The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go." If we use the Bible in a metaphorical sense, this is a remark that I can go along with. The nature of science cannot be deduced from the viewpoint of morality. I believe that the converse is also true. Science can shed light on the physical consequences of a decision but it cannot tell us what should be done from a moral point of view. There are some like Sam Harris who believe in an objective morality, and I think that Harris and those like him weaken the argument against pseudoscience by overextending the realm of science. I agree that this topic might be best left to another meetup, but it is important to consider the limits to what questions are decidable by science. The paper I cite by Carroll gives a good rebuttal of Harris.

    August 27

  • Sandy C.

    I recommend that you take a look at the Massimo Pigliucci video suggested by Martin Cohen.
    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xo5mJZEOGRo)
    It's based on the book "Nonsense on Stilts: How (and Why) to Tell Science from Bunk." I especially like the examples of harm caused by belief in pseudoscience and we'll include some of them in the discussion. We'll also talk about the 5 questions near the end of the video (attributed to Alvin Goldman). Thanks Martin.

    Martin's other suggestion that we consider the morality of pseudoscience and the scientific basis for morality might make a good subject for a future Meetup. One aspect of pseudoscience we will talk about is the immorality of alternative "cures" that keep people from seeking scientifically proven treatments.

    August 26

  • Martin C.

    Are there questions that lie outside the realm of science? This could be the subject of a different meetup, but I mention it because I believe that the case against pseudoscience is weakened by those who claim that science can make judgments with regard to such areas as aesthetics and especially morality. Here is a TED talk by Sam Harris making the case that morality should have a scientific basis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgnqkY6Fba4 And here is a response by physicist Sean Carroll saying that there cannot be a basis for an objective moraity: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2010/05/04/126504492/you-can-t-derive-ought-from-is

    August 25

  • Martin C.

    This is a topic I find particularly interesting. I recommend the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xo5mJZEOGRo by Massimo Pigliucci, who recently wrote a book with the wonderful title Nonsense on Stilts (I have not read it). The video includes a five step plan for checking a source for credibility. The Australian comic Tim Minchin has a wonderful satirization of New Age nonsense in this video, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science_of_longevity/2013/09/tim_minchin_s_storm_critique_of_alternative_medicine_and_defense_of_reason.html (warning: he makes occasional use of profanity)

    August 24

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