Science and Skepticism and Blogging – oh my!August 31, 2018
What this blog’s about…
I’m often asked how I got interested in skepticism and why I started this blog. So, finally, I’m going dedicate a post to answer these questions. This post will also be added to the About page.
Formally, the purpose of this blog is to promote science, skepticism, critical thought, and the beauty of the natural world. I created that mission with four “pillars” in mind. They are:
Science is a powerful tool that allows us to discover truths about the natural world. The scientific method seeks to explain what happens in nature and then makes useful predictions. It allows us to solve problems while minimizing the effects of subjective bias. Science is empirical and subject to falsification, which allows theories to “evolve” over time as scientists gather new information. Science does not claim certainty; it aims to come as close to truth as possible.
Skepticism can be somewhat controversial because it forces people to question beliefs that are often taken for granted by the general population. A skeptic is not someone who simply “questions everything”, but rather, someone who tests the probability and reliability of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation: the scientific method. “De-bunking” claims is a subset of skepticism, and although important (and fun), it is only a part of the definition.
When we are presented with information (especially from the media), we can choose to ignore it, believe it, disbelieve it, or think about it and then make a decision. We live in an extremely fast paced world, and often there simply isn’t enough time to sit back and digest information. And this is a problem: critical thought is not part of our daily lives, and it needs to be. We need to assess information and make educated decisions based on the assessment.
The Beauty of the Natural World:
It’s important to realize that our natural world is incredible, awe-inspiring, and downright unbelievable at times. For this reason, it’s not necessary to invoke the paranormal, cryptids, myths, legends, UFOs, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster (among many). You only have to look in your backyard to be amazed by nature’s complexities. Look at the composition of matter at or below the microscopic scale; or look at the enormous, incomprehensible size of our universe; or the dynamic array of species and life on Earth.
About This Blog, and How It Came To Be
The Early Years
I was very fortunate to have parents that encouraged me to read at an early age. My father would read me Tarzan stories before bed, and my mother would sit with me as I read my first book, “Big Machines”. Based on my Big Machine learnings, my mother frequently took me to a nearby construction site, where I quietly observed the steam shovels, loaders, and dump trucks do their thing. I was amazed by their power, and could not imagine how machines so large could operated by people so small, and that, eventually, a field turned into a hole, a hole turned into a foundation, and a foundation into a building. I was a curious and inquisitive little boy, and thankfully my parent’s encouraged me to forever ask “why?”.
Dinosaurs, Badlands, and Paleontology
At around 6 years old, I was introduced to my first book about dinosaurs. I decided shortly thereafter that I would move to Alberta to work the Badlands as a paleontologist. I of course didn’t, and instead stayed in my home town of Montreal and collected dozens of books about dinosaurs, and could rhyme off many of them, including whether or not they lived during the Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous periods. I couldn’t get enough of them. I loved the idea that these creatures roamed the Earth millions of years ago. Paleontology forced me to learn a bit about geology, which then led me to learn about weathering and erosion, climate, eco systems, biodiversity, extinction, evolution… and more.
I Then Looked to the Skies
In my high school chemistry class, I had to do a large project and decided it would be interesting to study the life cycle of stars. Dinosaurs and paleontology took a backseat while I soaked up astronomy – and this became my new fascination and obsession.
Astronomy, for me, tied the world of physics and chemistry. After the project’s completion, I got my first telescope – a 4.5 inch Newtonian Reflector. I hastily set it up and pointed it at the moon. I could not believe what I saw. Craters, shadows, ridges, valleys – the whole moon was magnified so much that it couldn’t even fit in my field of view. I remember calling my father over and showing him – he thought I had placed a card in front of the telescope. It was literally that unbelievable.
On clear nights, I would set the telescope up outside (we lived in the country, so I was fortunately not affected by light pollution), and point it to Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter – they were easy to find, and would blow people’s minds when they saw them. Especially Saturn – seeing the rings by yourself (not in a picture, or on TV) is, to me, a life changing experience. To sit and really think that you are looking at something so large and so far away is mind boggling.
Astronomy also introduced me to Carl Sagan, one of the “fathers” of skepticism. I watched Cosmos on TV and VHS, and read the book twice. He spoke with such passion and clarity, and in a way that non-scientists could understand. He helped bring science to the mainstream. When he died in 1996, I was extremely sad, and deeply touched. I had only known of his work for a short time, but was deeply affected by his passing because I felt it was a huge loss for both the scientific community and the general public.
High school passed, and I moved on to university to study computer engineering – hoping to leverage off the .com bubble (which, with my luck, burst just before I graduated). During that time, I read the works of Paul Davies, Stephen Hawking, more Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker and host of others. I got deeper and deeper into astronomy and cosmology. I started to question life; how it arose amongst the vast emptiness of space. I questioned religion, and the need for a god (non-specific to any religion). I questioned psychology, the mind, consciousness, and what that all meant.
A Brave New World (With Disposable Income)
After graduation, I got a job and became a full-blown consumer with a bit of a disposable income. It was really only at that point – when forced to make decisions about how to spend my money on things that were not school related – that I began to question “products” and the media. Did taking vitamins work for an average guy like me? Would ginko-biloba improve my memory? Should I take mega doses of Vitamin C and Echinacea when I have a cold? Are UFO’s even plausible? What about the Loch Ness monster (my childhood favorite)? Is it the end of the world as we know it? Is there any truth to Astrology? What about the stuff I hear on television, the Internet, magazines, and radio? Armed with Google’s search engine, I started researching
Browsing the magazines in Chapters – looking for the latest copy of Discover or Scientific American – I stumbled upon a magazine called “Skeptic”. I flipped through it, and realized, “There’s a whole group of people out there just like me!”. I devoured the magazine’s content, and then moved on to the Skeptical Enquirer. These magazines led me to more books – Demon Haunted World and Flim-Flam, among others. I discovered the podcast “Skepticality”, “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe”, Skeptoid, and devoured their content too. I read the works of Michael Shermer, Steven Novella, Phil Plait, James Randi. I learned about logical fallacies, how to argue and debate, and to be culturally sensitive when discussing controversial topics, and how to dissect information into understandable parts so that it can be used to make educated decisions. I’m still learning all those things today. I asked myself – am I a “skeptic”? Yes, I was. But what exactly was a skeptic?
“Skeptic” : My Favorite Definition
I like to use Steven Novella’s definition, which is as follows:
“A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.”
And Now, The Point (of the Story, and of This Blog)
What’s the point of this long winded story?
Had it not been for the exposure I was so luckily given – the books, the media, the telescope, the projects, the classes, the podcasts, the blogs, and the people – I would not have taken an interest in any of these fascinating areas of thought. I would not have dived so deep into science and discovered so many awe-inspiring things. For that reason, I created this blog – so that others may experience and enjoy what I have. To the best of my ability, I present information related to the four pillars in the mission: science, skepticism, critical thought, and the world’s natural beauty. I hope to encourage others to think rationally, critically, and enjoy what science and this incredible world has to offer.