Jul 19 2007

Skeptics Circle #65 – A Tour Through the Museum of Skepticism

Welcome to the Museum of Skepticism

The room was filled with that odd combination of excitement, interest and restlessness that accompanies children forced to walk through a museum.

“Quiet down,” said Ms. Trueblood for the hundredth time. As experienced as she was a gaggle of nine-year-olds was always a challenge. “Raise your hand if you have a question, otherwise I want quiet, and pay attention to Mr. Lucious.”

“Thomas, please,” the museum guide said quickly with a smile. “Follow me, kids. We’re about to enter the largest wing of the museum – the Hall of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.” The young post-grad swept his arm with a flourish but was met with something less than the enthusiasm he anticipated.

“Well, you kids like animals, right? Take a look at this display.” The case dislaying animals being subjected to a wide variety of bizzarre treatments was labeled “Wandering Primate – Complementary and alternative veterinary medicine.”  “Skeptics, like Dr. G here, have to fight against pseudoscience even in the care of animals.” That garnered a few “oohs,” so Thomas pressed on, knowing the attention he just won was an ephemeral thing.

“And here we see Sandy Szwarc of Junkfood Science taking on pseudoscience in the nursing profession. So you see, CAM has penetrated every corner of medicine, like a spreading virus.

“Not only animals, but kids too are targeted. In this case we see Breath Spa for Kids exposing misinformation about autism in a British Medical Journal. And right next door Orac of Respectful Insolence takes on a notorious crank, Andrew Wakefield, who used shoddy science to spread fear about vaccines causing autism.”

A boy in the back of the group sniggered loudly, earning a harsh stare from Ms. Trueblood. “Is there something funny about that, Harald?”

“Orac,” the boy managed to squeak our between chuckles. “It’s a funny name.”

“It is kinda funny, isn’t it,” agreed Thomas. “It’s actually an obscure literary reference,” he began, then quickly thought better of it and changed tact. “Some skeptics,” he continued in a more ominous tone, “use fake names so that the evil pseudoscientists can’t hunt them down and destroy them. It’s like a superhero’s secret identity.”

“Wow,” was the collective response.

Thomas smiled to himself and continued. He just might survive his first 4th grade field trip.

“Here we have more bad science aimed at kids; Jonathan Semetko at Interverbal and his skeptical analyses of The Feingold Diet and ADHD. And over here is Mousetrapper – that’s another secret identity – at Med Journal Watch taking on the true believers of Bach flower power. I think you can see why this Hall is the largest in the museum. There is bad nutrition science over in this section where you can see the people at Holford Watch debunk a bit of bad science from Patrick Holford about diet and the brain. This guy is so busy cranking out the pseudoscience he gets his own display.  And finally we have Dean Moyer with his Rebuild Your Back blog debunking a Disc Decompression device.”

Thomas sensed his hold on the pre-teen attention span was tenuous so decided to next take a right into the Hall of Aliens and UFO’s. This was always a crowd-pleaser, especially with the kids.

“How many of you believe in aliens?” A couple of hands went up amid furtive glances as the students instinctively assessed their peers’ responses.

“You mean like my parent’s gardener?” said one girl tentatively.

“No,” Thomas laughed as Ms. Trueblood again quieted the kids’ chuckling with stares and pointing. “I mean space aliens and flying saucers. If you follow me over here you will see that there are those who use bad logic and faulty science to spread misinformation about aliens visiting the earth and conspiracies to cover it up. They make endless work for the skeptics.

“Let’s start over here with the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait. He shows us that sometimes pseudoscience is so bad you can only fight it with ridicule. You can see him here vanquishing his arch nemesis, Hoagland, who has constructed some nasty bad astronomy about Saturn’s moon, Iapetus.”

Thomas relaxed a bit, at least this Hall included pictures and displays the kids thought were cool – not the gross medical displays of the last Hall.

“One of the most popular claims of the alien true believers is that aliens are abducting people and then conducting medical experiments on them. Sounds scary, hugh? But don’t be frightened, Akusai, one of the Action Skeptics, tells us that such experiences can be easily explained as sleep paralysis and other perfectly normal experiences.

“Does everyone here like dinosaurs?” Every hand shot up, and Timmy shouted out enthusiastically, “No one’s ever seen a dinosaur because they all died out millions of years before people evolved.”

“That’s right,” said Thomas. He felt a bit guilty about the bait and switch, but he had to get them through the next section, which was a bit light on cool models of flying saucers. “Our last stop for today will be in the Hall of Evolution Denial, but before we get there we’re going to go through the most important part of the museum – the Hall of Skeptical Thinking. If you really pay attention in this part of the tour then maybe one day you can learn to be a skeptic and you’ll have your own display in the museum.” He wasn’t sure if the skeptical looks he was getting from the kids was a good thing or a bad thing. Well, best just to press on.

“Here Infophilia shows us that even skeptics need to be careful about how they debate and argue.  Then over here Bay of Fundie’s Ron Britton shows us how to make a skeptical documentary.

“Now pay close attention to this display, it’s chock full of good skepticism. Thursday at Polite Company explains the difference between fiction and reality, and why it’s a good idea to be able to tell them apart. Right over there Robert Todd Carroll from The Skeptic’s Dictionary explains how to interpret personal experience ; and next to him Skeptico explains the problems with the argument by analogy.

“Can anyone tell me what that is an example of?” Thomas pointed to the shy girl who was half raising her hand.

“It’s a logical fallacy?” she almost whispered.

“A logical fallacy, that’s right. You kids should come back next month when we finish the logical fallacy roller coaster ride. I here it’s going to be quite a thrill.

“On the other side we see two related displays on The Nature of Doggerel by The Bronze Blog.

“We just have to walk across the atrium to our final hall today, but on the way we’ll stop by the museum’s robot. This is Hal and he is a fully intelligent artificial person. He was built by Dr Martin Rundkvist from aardvarchaeology and when we’re done if you come back here he will tell you all about artificial intelligence and free will.

“And finally we arrive at the Hall of Evolution Denial.” Thomas took them first to the model of the T-Rex. It didn’t have to do anything specifically with skepticism, but every museum apparently needs one. After the kids had their fill it still took the combined efforts of Thomas and Ms. Trueblood to regain the group’s attention.

“Take a look over here, kids. Here you can see that anyone who criticizes those who use bad science to deny evolution get targeted by the creationists. The Conspiracy Factory and Mike’s Weekly Skeptic Rant both defend Dawkins and his critical review of Michael Behe’s “Edge of Evolution.” Next to that NeuroLogica explains why Intelligent Design is nothing more than an argument from ignorance – that’s another logical fallacy. And in this display we see Shalini from Scientia Natura explain that those who use the unscientific idea of Intelligent Design to deny evolution try to explain their inability to succeed scientifically as if it were a conspiracy against them. That’s a common trick true believers try to use, but skeptics are never fooled by such tricks.”

Thomas could see that the tour was over, in more ways than one. He had survived, and actually managed to keep their interest, but their attention span had clearly expired. As they filed through the exit door into the gift shop (the true purpose of any museum, Thomas thought cynically) he thought he detected a bit more wonder in their eyes, perhaps a touch more skepticism in their beaming faces. Hopefully it wasn’t just wishful thinking.

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