Sunday, March 11, 2007

I subscribe to this podcast, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, like my seventh or eighth-favorite podcast of the three that I listen to. It's produced by the New England Skeptical Society, which is devoted to the ultimately futile task of lifting the masses from their holes of ignorance by spreading the rationalist, empiricist philosophy of James Randi and debunking claims of the supernatural and paranormal. Progress report: stagnant, of course. It's a bit like your tenth-grade chemistry class, with that one student who, after fifty minutes of explanation, was able to comprehend that the energy of a wave-particle equals its frequency times Planck's constant, but then totally forgot E = hν by next class. Four freaking characters, and you could totally replace that Greek letter nu with an 'f' if that helped you remember "frequency," and you could program the whole thing into your calculator because your manic teacher completely teaches towards the test anyway, so it doesn't matter if you really understand the concept. But no, every day for a month, it's like, "How do I find the energy of a water molecule vibrating at 750 kilohertz?" and then for another month, it's like, "They're only telling me an excited sodium molecule emits light with a wavelength of 588 nanometers. How the hell do I find out the energy from that?" And it's the constant questions like those that keep us from taking first place in the New Jersey Science League competition.

Sorry. Right, skepticism. The podcasters from the New England Skeptical Society are getting more than a little frustrated with our culture of truthiness. It's not that I blame them; it's more as if I wish the timing weren't so much like a residual effect of our national stupidity. Things are, slowly, getting better: The Kansas School Board dropped intelligent design from its curriculum. Global warming is a Bush-certified fact. The idea of a nuclear Iran, the apocalyptic sequel to "Saddam has weapons of mass destruction," doesn't have same popular resonance as the first episode. It looks like the national skepticism index is directly proportional to the national "anger over government fuck-ups" index.

The New England Skeptical Society, and the whole skeptical movement really, was on the forefront of these issues. They're basically the people who kept asking Cheney and Condi and Rumsfeld for a little evidence, and the people who had a bunch of uninformed Toby Keith lovers (how's that "putting a boot up Osama's ass" thing going, by the way?) calling them unpatriotic for their troubles. Now the dividing line between the critical thinkers and those who call them narrow-minded because anecdotal evidence isn't evidence is sharp; although being on the side of the skeptics, I'll say that the other guys started it.

The problem is that the podcast is largely devoted to (duly) calling idiots the names they deserve to be called, and the guys on the podcast sort of come off sounding like jerks. You read this blog, so you probably have some idea of what I'm talking about. I want to sort-of apologize for that, on behalf of all of us who care about logic and reason and don't care about what you think... or more of what I want to apologize for is, in our zeal to keep more and more of the sheeple from falling into evangelical clutches, our pandering and condescension, our quick-and-dirty appeals to your base emotions and argumenta ad hominem. I can see the arguments in favor of dumbing down the scientific process so you no longer need a brain to comprehend it, and maybe there's some merit to saving one retard from the clutches of L. Ron Hubbard by calling Tom Cruise the looniest loony in all of Loonyland and insinuating that he keeps Katie locked up in their gigantic basement and impregnates her with alien sperm — but maybe there's also an argument that we'll eradicate more ignorance by explaining the process of critical thought and letting science do what it does best: question the existing beliefs.