ActivismAfternoon Inquisition

AI: Tracking the “Movement”

Today is the 175th anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto; the battle in which Sam Houston defeated Santa Ana’s army, and which eventually led to the independent nation of Texas. And to commemorate the event, they set the entire state of Texas on fire.

Kidding of course. The fires are just a horrible coincidence. But goddamn . . . Rain dance anyone?

Anyway, let me get this Inquisition underway before I have to flee for my life:

One quarter of Americans think President Obama was not born in the US. A lot of people think a guy came back to life after the Romans killed him. An opinion poll posted on a major news outlet online is asking “Is Judas in Heaven or Hell?”. A Google search on ‘ancient astronauts’ returns about 1.5 million entries. A Google search on ‘Bigfoot’ returns about 11.5 million entries. And some asshole blogger is asking readers if they know how to do a rain dance.

Clearly, spurious thinking may never be totally eradicated, but often it can seem like the good skeptical activist is spinning his or her wheels.

Is this a fair assessment? Are skeptics making progress? Are skeptics making progress in some areas only to fall behind in others? In what form does progress come, if at all? How does one measure the successes? Is it valid to try to track success, or is creating a fully scientifically literate society simply accepted as a Sisyphean endeavor?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. I think if you look at the history of humans, there is evidence that we are making progress over all, but being a properly skeptical human I can’t gauge that because I don’t have the proper numbers to back such a statement up :)

  2. I think the weekend of the commemoration of the first zombie uprising is poor timing to ask that question. Also, I’m counting on a swinging pendulum – hopefully in the direction of reason, sooner, rather than later.

  3. Tracking the progress of human endeavours is like tracking the global temperature or the stock market; day to day we may appear to be winning or losing but, pulled back, the over all trend is progressive even if it seems less so as we age.
    Human cognition sucks at the long game.

  4. A Google search on “quarter of Americans believe” yielded:
    …in astrology
    …in reincarnation
    …they are descendants of the 26 Englishmen who came over on the Mayflower
    …health care reform will create death panels
    …the Bible is the literal word of God
    …the lottery is their best chance at gaining wealth in their lifetime
    …that antibiotics will help cure a cold
    …coal is a renewable resource
    …they have encountered a ghost
    …the Sun revolves around the Earth
    …that extraterrestrials beings have visited Earth
    …that the 9/11 attacks were prophesied in Scripture
    …Jews killed Jesus

    Also, 25% of a given population has, by definition an IQ below 90 (i.e. sub-normal).

    Now, I’m not saying that the same 25% believe all these things. I’m not saying that there’s a population of 77 million low-IQ, lottery-playing, anti-semitic, bible-waving, inbred May Flower descendants wandering around seeing ghosts and complaining about death panels. I’m definitely not saying that. I’m just sayin’…

    1. 25% of the US population could be descended from the Mayflower 26.

      The Mayflower landed in 1620, that was 390 years ago, call it ~16 generations. If each descendant has 3 children, then in 16 generations there are 1.1 billion descendants.

      That is (3^16)*26

  5. I like the analogy comparing skeptical activism to firefighting. Like firefighters, we skeptics can make progress against individual threats and improve public safety and consumer protection, but we shouldn’t expect to put ourselves out of a job as long as we live in an imperfect world full of people with irrational biases who fall for fallacious arguments. We can protect ourselves, rescue some people, and put out some dangerous “fires”, but there will always be more work to be done.

  6. I am cranky today, but I don’t think we are making progress per se; we keep on swatting down one myth or conspiracy theory just to have another start buzzing around our heads. At least this is the case with history which is my field rather than science. Actually, at least in popular history: academic history is doing okay, or at least not losing much ground. Comparing recent writings on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War to what was written on the 100th shows a heartening maturity in historical research and interpretation– the 100th anniversary coincided with the beginning of the civil rights movement and inspired some nasty revisionism, including the fable that the Civil War was primarily a defense of states rights and not slavery. This time around eyes are clearer and fewer apologetics for defending slavery are floating around.

    Reminding me of the problems with popular history is that we are also , ahem, celebrating the 15th anniversary of Ken Starr’s investigation, and I use that word loosely, of Clinton’s involvement in Whitewater. I remember having to listen to every rehash and variation on vince foster/whitewater/hilary as tax cheat during, alas, most of my family gatherings. Remember those days? And how quickly all those theories lost ground? They disappered, and now we have Obama-as-socialist/muslim/illegal immigrant. Or, in fairness, Bush-as-evil-mastermind-of-the-falling-twin-towers (it isn’t easy for me to use the words “Bush” and “mastermind” in the same sentence.)

    Again, I am cranky. My apologies.

  7. I can’t remember off the top of my head whose quote it is, but I’d say we’re gaining ground simply because those who are wrong/misguided/fuckin’ insane are getting old and dying. And although the younger are still into some woo (often different types of woo), but nevertheless woo grounded in today’s scientific understanding, not the scientific understanding of the 1950’s.
    So in a sense, even the woo is getting smarter and less unrealistic as our understanding of the working of the universe increases …

  8. So Sam is suggesting metrics for rational thinking, I think. Metrics are good, and he suggests numbers of hits from Google searches, but Google changes their search algorithm from time to time. Perhaps there are scientific polls conducted at regular intervals with a consistent methodology. You could measure rational thinking in the public at large, but perhaps we could also measure the effect that the skeptical movement is having on rational thinking.

  9. What about the rate of people choosing scientific careers? Do you have numbers on what majors students are now choosing while in college?

  10. A handful of specific data points does not a trending analysis make. But I’m too lazy to undertake that, so I’ll just say I think it’s getting better.

    Human society tends to go through cycles. But overall I think we’re making progress.

    But, even so, I think it’s a worthwhile pursuit even if it wasn’t.

  11. Well, I can only respond by telling you to watch the show, River Monsters.

    Jeremy Wade, the angler who hosts the program, reels in some of the biggest fish you will ever see. But the process is long. He may reel in more than a yard of line and have to give all of it and more back to the fish before he finally catches the damned thing.

    I think this is an awesome-fine analogy for the work of skeptics. It’s hard work, sometimes, it can even get dangerous and sometimes, we’ll lose ground but we do make progress overall and I am betting that we’ll keep making progress no matter how slow or difficult the process may be.

    After all, Socrates gave his life to ask questions. He is proof that even in a time where people actively despise people for seeking and exposing the truth, there will be skeptics who will do what they do. Nowadays, we see the same thing in North Korea where you could easily by executed by the state for questioning any number of things but people still try to dig and people still try to escape. There are gadflies in even the most destitute and oppressed places. Skeptics are everywhere.

    Sometimes things seem bleak, but think about how much progress has been made and how far you are from alone as a skeptic and things get quite a lot brighter!

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