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Skeptic's Toolbox: Enlightenment in Eugene PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jeff Wagg   

skepticstoolboxIn 2004, I attended my first Amaz!ng Meeting at the Tuscany Hotel in Las Vegas. It was an event that changed my life. Hungry for more, I subscribed to Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, and it was there that I found an advertisement for something called "The Skeptic's Toolbox."

This event has been held for the last twenty years at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Led by skeptic, scholar and magician Ray Hyman, The Skeptic's Toolbox is an intense weekend devoted to a single aspect of skepticism. This year's topic: "The Scientific Method." August 6-9 is going to be an interesting weekend in Eugene.

From the site:

Skeptics believe that unusual claims should be backed by evidence which is supported by sound scientific method. However the status of science and the existence of scientific method are currently highly controversial issues. Cynics argue that scientific method does not, and cannot, yield objective outcomes. Indeed, they argue that all scientific knowledge is relative to a given culture or social group. They assert that such knowledge is socially constructed and has nothing to do with an “objective reality.” This year’s Toolbox will consider these and other questions about the role of science and scientific method in helping skeptics to evaluate unusual claims.

Where TAM has hundreds of people in a convention hall, The Skeptic's Toolbox is more of an intensive workshop. Audience participation is mandatory, and an awful lot of fun. I'm pleased to see that Jim Alcock and Lauren Pankratz will be back again this year. They were at the Toolbox focusing on "The You You Don't Know" which I attended. Along with Ray, these two gave me more to think about in a single weekend than I'd had in entire years. We spent a couple hours going over the "Monty Hall Problem" in-depth, and it was very satisfying to delve into a subject in such detail. I know of no other skeptic event where you can spend so much time working side by side with some of the pillars of skepticism.

Speaking of "Halls," TAM speaker Harriett Hall will also be at the Skeptic's Toolbox this year. Harriett is exactly the kind of person you want to have join you for lunch. It takes about a minute to realize that she is not your average Air Force officer/MD/Author.

Lest I give the impression that the event is all academic, there is the Saturday night magic show that features a rotating quartet of top flight close-up magicians, including Ray himself. By close-up, I mean about a foot away. And no, being that close does not help you figure out how they do it.

I highly recommend this weekend to anyone with a passion for skepticism, learning, and enlightened fellowship.

 

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written by MadScientist, May 23, 2009
*groan*

It looks like "relativism" is plaguing us again. Relativism is a load of poop. Superstitious parents are prone to murder their own children by refusing to allow the science-based medical profession to help the child. That alone is sufficient evidence to disprove the filthy lie of relativism. For a recent example, let's take the case of Leilani Neumann and the death of her daughter Madeline at age 11. Madeline had Type 1 diabetes, a disease which is relatively straightforward to manage in this modern age thanks to portable blood glucose meters and portable insulin pumps (the pumps make it largely unnecessary to use syringes to deliver the insulin). According to relativism, Madeline was not sick because her mother chose to believe otherwise. Medical science on the other hand says that the child will die and suffer a lot in the process if she is not treated. Objective reality as understood by medical science obviously won over the position of rank ignorance which relativism claims to be every bit as valid as the objective scientific results. I find it extremely difficult to resist beating relativists to a bloody pulp on sight; they certainly deserve it for promoting ignorance as a peer to reality.
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written by Willy K, May 24, 2009
Indeed, they argue that all scientific knowledge is relative to a given culture or social group.

Yes, this is indeed true!

Those who inhabit the Land of Moronica know for certain that the Universe revolves around them! smilies/wink.gif
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written by bosshog, May 24, 2009
What fatuous rubbish!
The universe simply is - it does not contain "truth" or "fact". Science, knowledge, understanding - all are conceptual tools that serve humans and as such cannot be other than "culturally oriented". Pure, absolute objectivity would require the extermination of the entire human race.
The argument that "facts" so-called are really only biased interpretations was popular with the Marxist/Leninists who were themselves hell-bent on interpreting all natural and human history as leading inexorably toward the extinction of the state and the rise of Universal Communism. Any facts that contradicted their gospel were either dismissed as counterrevolutionary falsehoods or warped to serve their ends. The nay-sayers who pooh-pooh science are not scientists but political hacks who have an axe to grind.
The relative veracity of a body of scientific knowledge depends on the honesty of the society and culture which possesses and uses it.
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written by Kuroyume, May 24, 2009
Science is what humans impose on our ideal of reality in the best way possible. This is not 'culturally oriented' but it is a mediation between our understanding and reality. Reality cannot be observed or understood in a raw form. But it is not subjective either.

While the 'universe simply is' we cannot attain that understanding. Oh, some meditation guru types say that you can 'be one with the universe' and understand it but they blowing hot, stinky air out of the rectum region. We can only be analogous with the universe. A map cannot be the actual thing and be useful. We cannot simply accept the universe as it 'is' and know anything about it without imposing our ideals upon it.

This goes much deeper - especially concerning mathematics and its relationship to modeling the analog - but then the subject gets very philosophical.
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Limitations?
written by tmac57, May 24, 2009
I would just like to point out that throughout history there have been those that could not imagine what we later were to achieve as a species. Look around you, and you will see things that even as short a time as a century ago were inconceivable. So be careful predicting what human cannot attain. While limits are likely, there is no point setting them ahead of time.
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"Relativism" needs a modifier
written by Alencon, May 24, 2009
@Madscientist

Shouldn't you be a tad careful when using "relativism" without a modifier? What you are describing is "cognitive relativism" and I couldn't agree with you more. There is truth and there is falsehood and often these things can be objectively determined.

On the other hand "cultural relativism" and "moral relativism" have some validity. Cultural relativism is valid within the limited scope of understanding that one must consider actions in the cultural context within which they occur. This does not mean that all cultures are equal or that we should accept all culturally based actions. I think we can all agree that honor killings and female circumcision are wrong.

Moral relativism is more broadly valid. Killing is wrong but would any of us hesitate to kill a maniac threatening a child? Lying is wrong but don't we all admire those who hid Jews and lied about it to the Nazis during the Holocaust?

Now let's talk about Madeleine and others like her. While I agree with your evaluation we have to remember that neither of us believes that one's "immortal soul" (whatever that is) can be endangered by actions that we take. Unfortunately there are many that do believe this. How does one resolve a conflict between objective reality, such as medical science can cure diabetes, and the "reality" of believing that some action is endangering ones "immortal soul" or a child's "immortal soul?"

If push came to shove I think I would give the child the insulin and the parents superstition be damned. But then, I'm a moral relativist.
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written by MadScientist, May 24, 2009
@Alencon: I didn't specify which type(s) of relativism because moral and cultural relativism are irrelevant to science; indeed I do not believe that they stand up very well on their own either.

For argument's sake let's take a creation myth. One creation myth for example has some god playing around with mud and he makes a number of humanoid shaped objects which he puts out in the sun to let dry and harden. One was taken out of the sun too soon and had a pale color. Another was taken out a bit later and was a golden brown color. A third one was left out in the sun and forgotten until some time the next day and it was as black as coal. This explains the different colored people you meet as you travel through Turkey, Greece, and the Arabian lands. Now whether or not that story is accepted as true in some culture is entirely irrelevant because it simply is not true no matter how much a culture may believe it.

On the side of moral relativism the standard illustrations are the choices between greater evils - killing someone is often considered evil, but in some situations it is considered the right thing to do. However, when we compare different groups of people rather than an individual in different circumstances, we come up with problems yet again. In some African nations female circumcision is still a widespread practice and there have been stories in the news about African immigrants clinging to such practices even in the USA. Personally I've never bought into the excuse "It's OK, that's just part of their culture."

When it comes to science there is no place for any type of philosophical relativism; it's all about making observations, statements based on the observations, and demonstrating that the statements are supported by later observations. Claims which cannot be supported by evidence simply aren't accepted. Mathematics is a peculiar case since it is ultimately based on a few ideas which cannot be formally proven yet which are extremely useful and have provided a good foundation for far more complex ideas which in turn often provide us with very useful tools for understanding nature.

Although I am not an absolutist, I do not see the notion of relativism having any value in understanding or explaining anything.
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written by AICHinEdmonton, May 26, 2009
I do not remember hearing this point of view expressed before, but judging from the above article and some of the discussion, it must go something like this:

Now here in the United States we practice what we call "American Chemestry". And over in the United Kingdom they practice what they call "British Chemestry". Although not entirely compatable, we can get along with "British Chemestry" in a pinch. The Canadians somehow, are able to get along equally well with either "American Chemestry" or "British Chemestry". All of this we refer to as "Western Chemestry". Now in the Orient, they practice what they call "Eastern Chemestry". "Eastern Chemestry" and "Western Chemestry" are totally and completely incompatable.

I must have been absent the day this was discussed in my chemestry classes. All this time I have been labouring under the false impression that it did not matter where my ancestors lived, or what cultural norms that I subscribed to; I simply thought that chemestry was chemestry was chemestry.

Thank you for straightening me out on this point.
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@AICHinEdmonton
written by Steel Rat, June 02, 2009
Well, it's too bad you misspelled "chemistry" wrong in each and every case...
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