About a year ago, I had the good fortune to be a guest on Sci-Gasm Podcast. We talked about my journey to becoming a passionate science enthusiast. This is how it went. Enjoy!
Ever heard the expression, “Evolution is just a theory”?
It’s often used by creationists who deem the theory of evolution, an observation initially put forth by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, as an insult to their religion because it isn’t consistent with the accounts of the Bible, Quran, etc.
The notion that all life evolved from a single-celled organism, affectionately known as LUCA (Last Common Universal Ancestor) simply doesn’t jive with being taught that a God created man shortly after the start of time.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I will explain, albeit quite simplified, why that is a profoundly wrong and insulting statement to make to discredit evolution.
There are generally accepted levels that answers to questions can be given or assigned, from a scientific perspective. Since science is what brought you the theory of evolution, that’s what should be referenced when discussing it.
Because this is a simple blog post and not a thesis, think of this as just a Cliff’s notes version to explain the basic concept. So please no attacks if you think I left something important out. But by all means, feel free to chime in below if you want to add anything.
Anyway, enough babbling, here goes…
The lowest level assigned to the answer to a question would be a guess. A guess is when you have no evidence you are basing your guess on, you’re just picking something that seems to make the most sense to you and going with it. We all do it, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just not science.
With an educated guess, you still haven’t actually gathered evidence or done any work you could call science, but now you have some knowledge that leads you to your guess so it’s not just a garden variety random guess as above.
This might also be a situation where you might ask a physicist, for example, about a question that could be answered by physics. If they don’t know the answer, yet based on what they do know, they make a guess, that’s an educated guess.
For the first time, we’re talking about actually beginning to do some science.
Imagine you observe something, and you don’t know what it is or why it happened. You’ll gather evidence, try to repeat the observation if you’re able, and look for consistencies. Based on the evidence you have, you’ll form a hypothesis—a conclusion the evidence has taken you to. This is better than a guess because you’ve actually done some work to come to this conclusion, observed the thing you wish to answer first hand, and therefore your conclusion is evidence-based, not something conjured up in your imagination alone.
From there, scientists will test their hypothesis by attempting to falsify it. This means that they try to prove themselves wrong, not right. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but allow physicist Derek Muller of Veritasium to explain. I promise, you really want to watch this video. It only takes a few minutes, but it will make you rethink the way you approach problems.
Once you’ve made every attempt to falsify your hypothesis, many scientists will attempt to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, with full disclosure of their hypothesis, as well as all their testing methodologies and findings, in hopes that others will test the hypothesis and see if they come to the same conclusions. This is known as replication studies.
If replication occurs consistently, either a law or a theory typically forms.
Once something can be fully observed and tested to a consistent result, it becomes scientific law. A law requires full observation. For instance, if I drop something from ten feet up, and see how fast it accelerates to the floor, I’ve watched the process from start to finish, and can observe it every step of the way.
We understand them, we can observe them from start to finish, we know them to be consistently true, and we’re readily able to replicate the results every single time we either test them, or use them to test something else.
I’ll spend the most time on this one, since it’s the one in the title of this post.
A theory, in common parlance, is often stated as if it’s a guess, but in science, it is much more than that. Theories and laws are effectively the gold standard of science, since science would say there is no knowable absolute (I’ll explain later).
Whereas a law can be observed from start to finish, a theory is a much more complex hypothesis, or set of smaller hypothesis to form a larger one, which are all wholly supported by the evidence, but cannot be fully observed.
For instance, thousands of biologists doing work on the genome project, or studying different species of plants or animals, have made hundreds of thousands of small studies on thousands of smaller questions that fit into the overarching theory of evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin. If any one of them had found evidence to prove the theory of evolution wrong, and their results were replicated by reputable biologists, the theory of evolution would have ended shortly after.
Scientists have updated things Darwin guessed might be true, but was wrong about, but nothing so far has proven the basic theory of evolution by natural selection to be incorrect. But each time biologists understand more about how animals evolve, each time fossils or old animal remains are discovered, each time DNA is analyzed, the evidence that comes out of it, fits neatly into the theory of evolution.
But the reason it’s a theory and not a law, is that we cannot go back in time (at least, not with today’s technology) and observe how life started, how LUCA was formed, etc., and fully observe evolution from it’s start to today. So scientists have to piece the puzzle together with historical evidence, and observations they can make.
If I can use a simple analogy; I will compare scientific theory to a jigsaw puzzle depicting Albert Einstein.
A theory is what the puzzle appears to depict, composed of pieces that have all been determined to specifically fit in it. That puzzle still has a few pieces missing from it you haven’t found yet (items you can’t observe), so you don’t entirely understand what the complete puzzle looks like. If the pieces depicting Einstein’s hair are missing for instance, you can still reasonably assume it’s a picture of Einstein by the face, you’re just not sure what his hair looked like at the time the picture was taken.
In science, it’s only accepted theory if no single piece has ever been proven wrong or falsified. If one piece turns out to be false, scientists must effectively scrap the whole theory, and remove any assumptions they might have made to that point about it.
In the case of evolution, there are thousands of independent studies on different aspects of evolution, most of which have been peer-reviewed, never been proven wrong or falsified, and that all consistently support the theory of evolution—each one completing a larger and larger chunk of that particular puzzle.
Just because we don’t know exactly how Earth went from a lifeless state to a with-life state, doesn’t mean the theory of evolution is just a guess. Anyone who argues is much, is denying all the work by the thousands of biologists who put in millions of hours studying this, often because they once read something in a competing religious text that disagrees with it. But reading one piece of anecdotal evidence doesn’t make someone an expert over those thousands of people putting in millions of hours of observations, testing, and studies. It takes supreme arrogance to think it does.
An absolute is something that is indisputable fact. For the most part, science would say you can never know an absolute, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Quite the contrary. Technically, I’d argue everything is essentially an absolute—facts are all around us. Something either is or it isn’t.
But the problem for us unfortunately, is that you can’t know any of them absolutely, because you can never know what you don’t know.
On any subject, there may be something you’re unaware of that changes everything (like Einstein’s thoughts on gravitation waves which forced a rethink of Isaac Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation), so you always have to remain open to new information.
Now that we’ve covered those, the reason it’s both wrong and insulting to say the theory of evolution is “just a theory” is due to the fact that thousands of scientists have done hundreds of thousands hours of work over the centuries on thousands of different aspects of evolution.
Work which is really hard to do, requires vast knowledge, is reviewed by their peers, and consistent with what they’ve all observed in the natural world repeatedly. All of it supports the theory of evolution, and is fundamentally different from creation which hasn’t been observed at all.
It should also be pointed out that DNA has largely confirmed evolution via mapping out genealogies of all living things. It’s also interesting to note that DNA wasn’t discovered until long after evolution was theorized. Much like when people thought the Earth was round, but then we went out to space and proved it is round by observing it.
So back to our “Evolution is JUST a theory” folks, most people who make this argument are people who are religious.
They’ve done no tests to confirm what their religion says is true, they’ve merely read a book that may or may not be true. They may accept it as faith, but this why it is called faith, not science.
While their belief might be right, demeaning thousands of brilliant minds who have done a lot of hard and painstaking work when they’ve done none, is profoundly insulting and ignorant when we see all the things around us that science has answered, and answered correctly.
This could be the curing of a myriad of diseases, being able to put a man on the moon, splitting an atom, or simply making a working smart phone. Science has a pretty amazing track record of being right.
Even if you are religious, let me ask you this. If you were feeling chest pains, and afraid you might be about to have a heart attack, are you calling 9/11 to summon a doctor first (a scientist), or would you call your priest and ask them to say a prayer first?
You can do both, but if the answer you chose is option one, you’re already instinctively putting your faith in science over religion, as I’d argue you should. So let’s stop putting religion over science in other aspects of our lives, too.
The internet is full of numerous people making claims. Whether it be memes with pictures of famous people saying something they clearly didn’t say, or quotes from famous people who actually did say it.
Point #1 I’d like to make is that a famous person isn’t more credible than any other person, unless said famous person is actually educated in the field of the claim being made. (Think Professor of Physics Brian Cox speaking on the subject of physics or science in general for instance).
Before we start, for purposes of this post, it’s important to define opinions, beliefs, and facts, as I believe they are mutually exclusive.
- Opinion – A statement that has no right nor wrong answer.
- Belief – A statement that does have a right or wrong answer, but that isn’t substantiated by evidence to know said right and wrong answers.
- Fact – A statement that does have a right or wrong answer, and is supported wholly by evidence making it a demonstrable truth.
To give an example of these three, let’s look at someone who chooses a vegan diet.
If a person doesn’t want to be someone who exploits animals, or simply doesn’t like the taste; that is a matter of opinion and they should never be questioned on their choice, as there’s no evidence one can put forth to prove them wrong.
However, if they go vegan because they argue it’s healthier, that is a matter-of-fact statement. If they have no evidence supporting it, it’s merely a belief.
To make it fact, they would first have to define “healthy.” It could mean disease free, not obese, longevity of life, low cholesterol…the list is endless. From there, one would have to do or cite a controlled study comparing veganism to omnivorous or carnivorous diets, and prove it to be true. As such, such matter-of-fact statements, unlike matters of opinion, are indeed open to being questioned.
Now that we’ve covered those points, let’s kick this off with some simple thoughts to keep in mind when you read something on the internet, or see an advertisement on TV.
- A claim sans evidence should be deemed as nothing more than an opinion or belief.
- A claim sans evidence from an expert, is only an expert opinion or belief.
- While an unsubstantiated expert opinion should be trusted more than an unsubstantiated non-expert opinion, neither should be deemed as fact.
Exploring the above three points; they often come into play when viewing a celebrity or expert-endorsed advertisement. They often make claims that you feel potentially make sense. But if you practice some critical thinking, you’ll soon notice that they can’t, don’t, or won’t cite any tests, studies, or evidence-based facts to back up their claim.
When watching a science-looking TV program, it’s important to understand that a proper expert would say “I don’t know” until they have actually seen or performed a study and gathered real evidence; not speculate profusely, presenting it as fact. (Think Ancient Aliens, Ghost Hunters, etc.)
Why do some experts speculate like this? Because science is a LOT of work! It involves loads of money, and a myriad of education and testing that can take years or even decades to complete. Not to mention, it also requires something to actually test. How can someone be an expert on Bigfoot if they don’t have an actual Bigfoot to observe and test, right?
Speculation however is easy; you just start talking.
So what are a couple of tell-tale signs you should look for when you see someone making a claim that you suspect might be less than trustworthy?
- Is it an advertisement? If so, it’s biased, and should be ignored almost unilaterally. On a credibility scale, from zero being pure bullsh*t, and ten being “Take it to the bank;” advertisements are a zero. A celebrity endorsement likely ranks no more than a one, and an expert endorsement maybe a two. Why do endorsements add any value at all if they’re just being paid to say whatever their told to say? Because their credibility is on the line, so you’d like to think they care as much about their credibility as you do yours. But that being said, Dr. Oz proved this is still not that trustworthy.
- If the advertisement cites an independent study, look up the study. If it’s legitimately independent, that sends it way up the credibility scale, and such companies should be commended for doing so. Although to be fair, if the independent study hadn’t been favorable, it would not have been in the ad, so it’s still partially comfirmation-biased as you’ll likely not hear any negative portions the study might have reported.
- If it’s not an advertisement, does it actually give you evidence-based answers versus speculation? These pseudo-science shows, like the aforementioned alien, cryptozoology, or ghost shows are famous for presenting themselves as science, but being anything but. They bring dubious experts on who ask provocative questions, but then never follow it up with evidence-based answers. It makes them seem smart, but most of the time, it’s ridiculous nonsense with big words.
Why is this important? Ignorance is bliss, after all. Right?
If you were building a home, would you cut a framing board at what appears to be six feet to you (Not science)? Or would you measure the board (Science)?
People spouting unsubstantiated nonsense as if it is fact are some of the most dangerous people on the planet. They convince people who don’t know any better, to act on their claims as if they’re fact. Sometimes to grave consequences. Think Steve Jobs being duped to treat his cancer with “alternative,” instead of actual medicine. Such false medicinal advice may have cost him his life; a claim that cannot be proven since we don’t have two different Steve Jobs (one who took a doctors advice versus one who didn’t) to test, as the linked article points out.
At this point, I’m sure you are wondering who exactly you CAN trust. Assuming you don’t know how to, or have the means to carry out a proper controlled study, or do actual research yourself, I’ve prepared a makeshift credibility scale to help you suss out the chaff.
Scientific Journals, such as The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Science, The Journal Nature, etc., are the most credible science sources you will find. They report controlled and peer-reviewed studies only. They don’t take money to print studies. And they even print retractions if a new peer brings information to light that falsifies a previous claim.
Websites like Snopes, Skeptoid, or Science Based Medicine are largely devoted to debunking false claims, and do a great job of bringing just well-researched facts sans opinion. I would trust them nearly as much as scientific journals.
So what about non-scientific information like politics, human interest stories, etc.?
Unbiased news sources are a very credible venue. Reuters and the Associated Press are two of the most commonly cited news sources by other commercial news outlets, and this speaks to their credibility. They don’t do opinion, so when you read an article from them, it may be somewhat less interesting, but that’s because it’s just the facts.
News sites with opinion, like MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and more are still fairly credible, despite being laden with opinion—this is mostly due to their market share.
Carl Sagan once said, “If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.” If these mainstream outlets were consistently delivering false information, or didn’t make an effort to present both sides of an argument, this is exactly what the market would do to them.
While their ideological counterparts hate such news sources, independent minded people generally understand that while they’re biased, they at least validate sources and make an effort to be accurate and fair. It’s not perfect, but it’s at least reasonably credible.
Openly biased news sources like Drudge Report or The Daily Kos still have a market to answer to, and often break accurate information first due to their aggressive desire to defeat their ideological opponents. But I would avoid citing them as fact, because their information is suspect unless you can corroborate their findings with other news sources as mentioned above.
Blogs like mine are laden with bias. They are so small and rarely ever cited, that you should almost never consider blog claims as reputably truthful. If they cite credible sources along with their opinions (This is why I often do exactly that), it increases their credibility, but you should never treat them with full reverence.
Hopefully, you’ll start to notice that “opinion” is a consistent point to avoid when looking for the truth, but the bottom line is you should question everything. Question people who make claims without providing evidence. Question people who claim to be experts but can’t back up their opinion with fact. If you’re qualified, question proper scientific studies and do your own peer review.
Either way, enjoy the information you gather throughout life, just be skeptical every step of the way. Happy hunting!
There can be no doubt, many people suffer from iatrophobia —a fear of doctors. Being poked with needles, recommended for surgeries, or placed on never-ending drug regiments can make people want to curl up in a ball somewhere and hide forever.
As a result of this somewhat understandable fear, people often look to alternative medicine for the answers to their problems. Whether it be practices like chiropractic, homeopathic, holistic, acupuncture—the list is mind numbing.
So first, let’s look at the definition of the word medicine.
the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease (in technical use often taken to exclude surgery).
a compound or preparation used for the treatment or prevention of disease, especially a drug or drugs taken by mouth.
When discussing the idea of alternative medicine, it should first be understood that there is essentially no such thing as alternative medicine.
- There is medicine: practices or compounds that treat a medical condition or disease.
- There is non-medicine: practices or compounds that do not treat a disease or medical condition.
There is no middle ground here, the item in question either works, or it doesn’t work. The level of effectiveness may very, but there has to be a noted effect, above the margin of error or the placebo effect, or it cannot be considered medicine.
For hundreds of years, scientists have laid out the path to determine which is which. It’s called a clinical trial, an extension of the scientific method. While the concept goes back thousands of years, in the last century, the process is now pretty consistent and highly effective.
In a fictional example, I will create a drug called Libertol (I had to throw a little politics in this thing), and I will have invented it to treat a disease called oppressionitis.
Assuming I’m a drug company, I’m going to be biased to confirm that the millions of dollars I spent developing Libertol actually yielded a functional, and thus marketable product. Since that bias could either unintentionally skew my results, or raise concerns I might purposefully have skewed the results, I would find an independent party to test Libertol in order to rule out any actual or perceived biases I might have.
The independent testing facility would start by looking for a number of people with oppresionitis, and ask them if they’d be willing to submit to a study on a new drug to treat this horrible disease. For the sake of argument, let’s say we get 500 people to be our guinea pigs.
Why 500? Because “anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence.” (Great science maxim #1, there will be more) But what do scientists mean by that?
Imagine you flip a coin once, and it lands heads up. Would you then assume that every time you flip a coin, it will land heads up because of that one flip? Of course you wouldn’t. That is essentially anecdotal evidence. One, or barely more than one, instance is almost never to be treated as if its results are indicative of what should be expected on a consistent basis. This is also why you are wise to often get a 2nd or even 3rd opinion when seeing doctors.
So maybe you flip the coin ten times? It lands heads seven out of ten due to random chance, which is not implausible. If I’ve done my math right, is likely to happen about 1 out of 8 times (15:125 to be exact). So does that mean a coin is prone to land heads up 70% of the time? Again, of course not. The more times you flip it, the closer it will get to its actual probability of 50:50 as the odds start to balance out.
So when doing a clinical trial, the more people you can test, the more accurate your results will be, and this is why we want 500 people in our above fictional example.
These trials are actually done in phases, with only about 20-80 people at first, if the drug ends up having detrimental side effects, you don’t want it to affect a large number of people, after all. But by the time the study hits phase 3, there will likely be thousands of participants being evaluated. But I’m simplifying the three phases down to one, and the process in general, for the purposes of this article.
Once volunteers are gathered up, half of them will be given the actual drug, the other half will be given a placebo (a non-drug). This placebo is designed to control for the placebo effect, a condition whereby a person will convince themselves a drug works, even if it doesn’t.
The placebo effect will generally not alter things that are purely quantitative, like blood pressure, heart rate, or other measurable conditions, but it can have quite the profound effect on subjective data, such as pain level and other issues the user merely reports on versus being tested with equipment.
The results of the group who took Libertol would then be tested against the people who took the placebo they thought was Libertol, and Bob’s your uncle—you have a result.
If Libertol actually worked, it would show as such by being more effective than the placebo was at treating oppressionitis. Otherwise, the results will come back as “no more effective than a placebo,” and Libertol would be sent to the ineffective drug graveyard in the sky, barring any noted side effects that may be beneficial elsewhere.
So the moral here, is that you shouldn’t take medical advice from someone who tried something once and it worked. There are infinite other possibilities to explain why it seemed effective, rather than it actually being effective. Instead, ask your doctor and if you’re a true skeptic, research yourself for clinical trial results.
I was recommended acupuncture by my neurologist for headaches, only to do my research using sites like sciencebasedmedicine.org. Much as I expected, I found that clinical trials showed acupuncture is “no more effective than a placebo.”
People who had actual acupuncture reported similar results, within the margin of error, to people who were treated with fake acupuncture where the needles were purposely misplaced. It has never been shown to be more effective despite its hundreds of years of history. The only “ancient Chinese secret” here, is that it doesn’t work.
While we place a lot of trust in doctors, not all of them adhere to the scientific method exclusively, some are flat-out quacks. But if you want medicine versus non-medicine, you should demand as such. So lesson learned, I won’t be seeing that neurologist again.
There are two types of alternative medicine practitioners:
Fraudsters who know they’re taking advantage of you, or
ignorant people who simply don’t know better. But why give your money to either one?
If someone is purposefully deceiving you for a fee, that is a horribly immoral practice where you take someone’s hard-earned money that could be used for something that would help them, and instead sell them something that won’t. If I lived in an anarchistic country, I would want to destroy every one of these sociopaths. They are valueless human beings, in my opinion.
But even if they’re just ignorant and think these practices actually work, they’re still taking your hard-earned money for something that doesn’t. Assuming you don’t have money to burn, why do exactly that?
It is true, an argument can be made that if the placebo effect does work for things like pain, giving someone a placebo might make them feel better without introducing foreign chemicals into their body. But it’s still inherently dishonest, and I would hope none of you would willingly pay someone to lie to you.
All health claims are scientific in nature, meaning there are biological processes that are either going to get better, stay the same, or get worse in your body after treatment. So trust in things that have passed the test of the scientific method, and understand that “that which can be destroyed by the evidence, should be.” (Great science maxim #2)
“Extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence.” (Great science maxim #3) This is what clinical trials provide beyond any reasonable doubt.
People like Harry Houdini spent their lives trying to debunk such fraudsters. Penn & Teller had a show called Bullshit on Showtime which aired for eight seasons debunking them as well. See an excerpt demonstrating the placebo effect here.
James Randi is famous for purposefully overdosing on homeopathy, taking a “lethal” dose, to show that if such a dose had zero effect, the prescribed amount surely must do nothing.
So if I am a libertarian, why do I care? Shouldn’t people be free to put into their body whatever they want? Absolutely!
While I would never prosecute a non-medicine consumer (I refuse to call it alternative medicine), fraud is a violation of your right to property, specifically, your money, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
These people get away with fraud by making non-scientific claims such as saying these things increase your energy or boost your immune system. An actual boosting of your immune system would essentially be an autoimmune disease where you body attacks its own cells. Something you really, REALLY don’t want. But it is effectively immeasurable since there is no number by which your immune system can be rated with, in a manner such as blood pressure or cell count.
I’d like to quickly dispel a couple of these myths by showing you the purpose, methodology and power of skepticism, or critical though, hopefully encouraging you to do your own.
Things like acupuncture, for instance, are said to be practices that are hundreds of years old (as if that is somehow evidence), and that doctors won’t often recommend them because there’s no money to be made. Might I point out that acupuncturists do in fact work for money? Therefore there is actually money to be made—they’re making it. In order to believe this argument, you must do no critical thinking whatsoever. I just dispelled it in one sentence.
People argue we have a cure for cancer, but drug companies are suppressing it to make more money on drugs that only treat cancer, not cure it. This one requires a little more skepticism, but let’s bring up some valuable points to debunk this.
- Drug companies do make drugs that cure cancer. Chemotherapy and radioactive seeds are but a couple. We simply don’t have one drug that cures all cancer all the time, nor one drug that doesn’t have harmful and potentially fatal side effects as chemotherapy does.
- This assumption also means that a drug company would have to invest the typically millions of dollars required to develop a drug that works, then shelve it without recouping any of that money as a return on their investment. Why would they develop it in the first place if they don’t want such a return? These conspiracy theorists are arguing how greedy drug companies are, then asserting a claim that they are purposefully throwing money away—an overwhelming contradiction.
- Then we must also assume that the scientists who went to medical school, usually with the intent of saving lives, many of them specifically dreaming of being “the one” who cures cancer, spent years developing a drug that works. However, once realizing their dream of curing cancer, completely eschewed their ideals and agreed to suppress the drug for money. A theory that’s insulting to every moral medical student who ever slaved away for eight years in college to save your life.
- Lastly, the above two bullets would both involve more than one person. The drug company has a board of directors, and the labs often have tens or hundreds of people on staff, yet not one of them headed over to CNN or Fox News to blow the whistle?
I could go on and on pointing out the logical fallacies and ignorance of thinking these ways. But hopefully my two examples of how to be a proper skeptic will inspire you to do more critical thinking of your own, instead of buying into these radical conspiracies. The life and the pocketbook you save could be your own.
P.S. I linked to an article debunking acupuncture above. Here is another debunking homeopathy with what is effectively simple, yet astounding math. I promise, it is worth the read. (Click the picture)
Also, here’s a great video demo from Twitter’s @ScienceBabe
I have a confession to make. I cannot endure country, Top 40, or hip-hop music for any lengthy period of time. You might as well waterboard me before subjecting me to their overly repetitive and simple riffs.
When I was younger, I would rail against these genres mercilessly, ridiculing the artists and their fans alike for being musically ignorant amoebas who can hardly count to four, nevertheless keep a 4/4 beat.
But as I got older, became a skeptic, and embraced the idea of critical thought, it dawned on me that I was wrong for doing this.
Aside from the fact I was just being a jerk, one must first understand that claims are generally broken in to two groups: quantifiable or subjective, and I believe they are essentially, mutually exclusive.
Quantifiable claims are things that can be proven to be true—a scientific claim of fact. But subjective claims have no right or wrong answer, they are merely opinion.
The reason I was such a music snob, is largely due to the influence of my former high school band director. A charismatic man who taught us the value of striving to be greater tomorrow than you are today, no matter how good you may already be. Think of Dr. Lee played by Orlando Jones in Drumline, and you’re really close.
It’s not that he taught us to be music snobs, it’s that he taught us the incredibly complex challenges advanced music can offer, the science of music—or what’s known as music theory.
Along the way, I learned about great musicians like Steve Morse, a guitarist and jazz major from Texas A&M, so talented, that from 1988-1993, he was voted Guitar Player Magazine’s Best Overall Guitarist. After winning it five straight years, including 1993, a year he didn’t even release an album, he was removed from the competition.
Let’s be clear, that was not best rock, jazz, classical, or country guitarist, that was “overall” guitarist. The things he can do with six strings and a block of wood are scary. See just a smidgen of his prowess in this video.
The more I learned about great musicians like this, the more it upset me that people like Eddie Van Halen were hailed as the best guitarist ever. He’s good, but not “Steve Morse” good, and I believe Eddie himself would agree. But where Van Halen sold millions of albums, someone like Steve Morse was hardly known outside the music community. The idea that the most technically proficient musicians are rarely the most famous is a travesty of justice to me, so how could this be?
For instance, if we look at sports, Larry Bird was one of the greatest NBA shooters of all time. He was also one of the most popular. His raw talent, just like Michael Jordan after him, garnered him the recognition he deserved. So why is this often not true of musicians?
It boils down to understanding the difference between quantitative versus subjective claims.
For instance, here’s a claim I would happily make that would garner a lot of opposition. Dream Theater, a band who met and studied at the Berklee School of Music, who now employ a keyboardist (Jordan Rudess) who was accepted and studied at Julliard at the tender age of 9, and who have won several Guitar Player Magazine, Modern Drummer Magazine, etc., awards are a better band than the Beatles will ever be, and I can essentially prove it.
First things first though, if we’re making a quantitative claim, the word “better” has to be defined—the word is quite ambiguous. In my claim, it refers to more technically proficient.
We would quantify that Larry Bird was better than other NBA stars by using his career statistics. But how can we quantify one musician as more technically proficient than another?
It’s simple. I could choose any Beatles song (and I do mean any), and challenge Dream Theater to play it. Knowing both band’s works as I do, I can all but guarantee that Dream Theater could easily perform the chosen piece within an hour or two, playing it note for note at the same tempo or faster than the Beatles recorded it at, without breaking a sweat.
Now if we flip the tables and ask the Beatles to replicate a Dream Theater song, the Fab Four would be hard pressed to replicate more than 1-2% of them, even if they were given months or even years to achieve said goal. This song should illustrate my point.
I’m not being overly mean to the Beatles, nor overly generous to Dream Theater. Any knowledgeable musician, if familiar with both bands, knows I’m being very fair and accurate here. It’s not that Dream Theater are superhuman (although it seems like it at times), or that the Beatles are incompetent, it has everything to do with the amount of hours both bands put in to mastering their instruments.
The Beatles, like many other famous bands, made catchy songs, sold a lot of albums, and did all they needed to do to make a damn good living as musicians. They likely never felt the need to go further.
Aside from Dream Theater’s Julliard and Berklee educations, something the Beatles did not do, having met Dream Theater on a couple of occasions, I can tell you that they are driven to challenge themselves technically and musically; there is clearly less focus on just selling records.
So why was I wrong for calling Dream Theater “better,” and behaving like such a music snob? While I defined “better” as more talented, I could just as easily have defined it as most record sales—then the Beatles obviously win in a landslide. I began to understand that the whole concept of “better” in relation to art, is innately flawed. If you’re going to use that word, you cannot use it for subjective things.
This was the impetus for my understanding of the difference between art and science.
While sports statistics are quantitative, music is an art form, and therefore largely subjective. It can be quantified to some extent as I did above, but unlike sports, technical prowess is no guarantor of success in music because art as a whole is not about achieving a measurable goal, but merely satisfying the artistic thirst of the user. This is something the Beatles must assuredly be declared the winners of, much to my dismay.
This knowledge began the transition of my love for music into my love for science, as the latter began to seem infinitely more attractive and important.
Art is like science without the burden of having to be correct and accurate. So in my mind, unlike science, art can never truly be important.
When lives are at stake and problems need solved, we don’t call painters, musicians, poets, or philosophers, we call doctors, engineers, and physicists. A 911 call will never yield the work of an artist.
So then I asked myself if science is “better” than art. Are art and science at odds with one another?
Actually, many scientific endeavors started with arts like philosophy or movies. A person simply dreamed without limits, and those dreams posed challenges that science brought to reality. Many scientists were inspired by the arts as children, such as scientists inventing things they saw in sci-fi movies as a child.
So how does this all affect me? My love for complex music is still great, but I no longer insult those who love the simpler stuff. My preference for the conservative-biased Fox News doesn’t prompt me to insult MSNBC watchers. My passion for Ferraris and Corvettes no longer prompts me to insult people who drive Porsches and Lamborghinis.
While I still maintain my preferences, I understand the difference between what I can quantify, and what is truly subjective. Not only am I more accurate in my perception, I’m no longer compelled to insult people for their varied tastes, but instead, often ask them why they appreciate something I do not.
Their answer may not sway me, but many times, it opens my mind to new and interesting things, some of which, allow me to grow my own creative mind by pointing me in a direction I would have never discovered on my own. If there’s anything a scientifically oriented person likes most, it’s learning new things.
So if you find yourself being a snob, calling one artistic endeavor better than another—stop! More often than not, claiming something is “better” is an inherently flawed thing to do. It is an ambiguous word, that without being clearly defined, and applying only to a quantitative bit of data, should never be used to compare one thing to another.
Coke isn’t better than Pepsi, but Coke’s sales are. Know the difference.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an atheist. Since I wasn’t always one, how might I feel differently than someone who never had faith to begin with?
For instance, there are people who behave as though they hate their respective deity, then call themselves atheists. I’d argue those people are deists who hate themselves, yet blame their god for their own shortcomings instead of accepting personal responsibility for the way their lives are turning out.
In my mind, an atheist wouldn’t have any stronger feelings about God, Jesus, or Allah than they would about Zeus or Odin. To me, the only difference between mythology and religion is that the latter still has people who believe in it.
But one thing has curiously struck me lately; the concept of evil. Is this a passé term?
For those who are religious, evil is something put forth by the counterpart of their chosen deity. But I feel this term thwarts understanding of these acts by blaming a being like Satan instead of the perpetrator.
So let’s break down humans for a minute; or as we’re affectionately known in the biological community; Animalia (Kingdom); Chordate (Phylum); Mammalia (Class); Primates (Order); Hominidae (Family); Homini (Tribe); Homo (Genus); H. sapiens (Species).
Regarding the kingdom classification of Animalia, that means that despite our own desire to feel special, we are ultimately just an animal in the animal kingdom. We are certainly the most intelligent, but there are many animals that are stronger, faster, or otherwise better adapted to their environment, as natural selection dictates.
So while we are special for our intellect, all animals have their own unique specialties, making us all special in different ways, or none of us particularly special at all; depending on how you want to look at it.
Homo-sapiens have evolved as well or better than any other species to life on Earth in many unique ways. For instance, because of our intellect, we’re the best at customizing our environment to suit our needs, instead of having to adapt like all the others. We build houses with air conditioning and heaters, after all.
We’re also intelligent enough to not only be excellent hunters, yet also quite adept at growing our own food. When’s the last time you saw an elephant planting a row of corn?
One trait that many overlook however, is our unparalleled linguistic skills. Because we are social animals, our advanced ability to communicate with others, whether it be face-to-face, or using technology such as the phone or internet, strengthens our society in ways other animals cannot achieve. Every time you ask for help and receive it, you’ve exemplified this.
Oddly enough, we’re the only animal smart enough to have observed and understood natural selection and the benefits it brings to life as a whole, yet we’re compassionate enough to try to prevent it by helping the weak among us instead of allowing them to succumb to whatever their inferior traits might be. If that’s not an ultimate display of commonly accepted morally benevolent societal behavior, I don’t know what is.
This can be seen in the way we help the disadvantaged through charity, medical care, etc. Or simply the endangered species list, where we actively work to preserve an animal that seems incapable of adapting to its environment as natural selection dictates it should.
But back to the term “evil.” The term conjures up names like Adolf Hitler, Paul Pot, Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin, et al., who are often touted out as examples, and it seems quite fitting on the face of it.
The reality is that if we define murder as the killing of an innocent life, the animal kingdom is full of mass murderers. Cheetahs are mass murderers of gazelles, but maybe we will give that a pass since they eat them to survive.
Lions however, will often kill cheetahs, not for consumption, but just to eliminate the competition for food. Not very sporting at all, if you ask me. So are they evil too? Of course not.
So what makes them different from human mass murderers? The fact that we are smarter, or that we understand the value of empathy and therefore can associate with the victim? In reality, it’s just that we are societal in ways that many other meat eaters are not.
The concept of morality is generally thought to be a religious one, where you are either with or against a particular dogma. Some people would argue that morals are universal, but this is a false premise. Whether it be gay rights, abortion, the death penalty, drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc., what is immoral to some is moral to others.
If we throw out the religious component, morality would generally describe behavior someone does for the good of society, immoral behaviors are to the detriment of it. While many deists would argue that without religion, there would be no morality, Professor of Psychology, Dr. Michael Shermer explains the evolutionary benefit of commonly held moral behaviors here. Evidence suggests we would be just as moral without religion.
When people think of natural selection, they often use the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which can be misleading. It conjures images of some unyielding beast who kills anything that gets in its way. But societal beings are actually “fitter.”
If a strong violent psychopath were going through the neighborhood killing people, he might be successful if everyone in the neighborhood were also a sociopath and failed to band together to combat him. But if the others unite, the psychopath would likely end up dead due to simple strength in numbers.
They wouldn’t do it for the thrill of killing as the psychopath does, but simply for the betterment of their group. Via the death penalty, war, self-defense, and vigilantism, we tend to weed out the violent psychopaths among us for our own mutual benefit.
Many like to think it’s because we’re exterminating evil, but if there is no deity or anti-deity, all we’re really doing is preserving our societal construct.
As for those we consider evil, they’re just psychopaths, pure and simple. People lacking empathy and the innate desire to contribute to the advancement of the human race through societal behavior.
When we think of them as evil, we feed their ego by giving them the impression that they’re somehow closer to a deity or otherwise superhuman. But if evolution has worked in our favor because we are societal, they are actually inferior—arguably, mentally handicapped beings.
As psychological research continues to advance our understanding of the human brain, there is hope we’ll find solutions to mental disorders like sociopathy and/or psychopathy. But in the meantime, it would be nice if we stop sensationalizing these people by calling them evil; they’re just genetically and behaviorally defective. Elevating their status to something superhuman by calling them evil, will only encourage their behavior.
Although my writings are largely political, the other subject I’m passionate about is science and skepticism—the value of logical thought cannot be overstated. It seems that all too often people will believe what they’re told by a single media source, a politician, a political party, a professor, etc. But as the brilliant fictional “philosopher” Dr. Gregory House always said, “Everybody lies.”
Yet when I tell people I’m a skeptic, I get looks of confusion and apprehension. It’s as if I just told them I’m about to profess we never landed on the moon, that Bush was the impetus behind 9/11, that aliens are here among us, or that I’m part of some religious cult. So as a result, I wanted to put some of these myths to bed, but let me address the issues above before I go any further.
- I believe anyone who believes we didn’t put a man on the moon is ignorant. Click here to see the Mythbusters dismantle these issues on the faked moon landing.
- I believe anyone who thinks George W. Bush spearheaded 9/11 is disgusting, hateful, and ignorant. This has been thoroughly debunked by many members of the scientific community. National Geographic addressed the 9/11 conspiracy here involving several universities conducting independent studies—please watch. I’m not going to elaborate, they’ve covered it well enough. This nonsense is insulting to the military who would never follow such an unlawful order, even if it were given to them. Our military are far more thoughtful than these hateful idiots ever care to give them credit for.
- What I know about odds and probabilities leads me to believe there is life in our universe outside of Earth. What I know about physics tells me it would have almost no way of getting here in tact. So yes I believe there is alien life, no I do not believe it has ever inhabited Earth.
- I’m an agnostic/atheist. I do not believe in any supernatural or spiritual beings. The burden of proof is not on science, as such claims are not falsifiable. The burden lies with the people claiming such phenomena exist. I’m open to the possibility, provided there is any scientific evidence presented to support it—such evidence has yet to be presented.
So if it is not a cult and we don’t have meetings with strange customs like a secret handshake, wrapping our heads in tin foil, or creepy Gregorian chants, what is a skeptic?
Saying you are skeptic just means that you question everything (not doubt, just question), and apply the scientific method to answer any questions you might have. Here are a few statements I feel would accurately tell the tale of being a skeptic and some simple rules of thumb to bear in mind.
- Rule #1 – Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Skeptics will have an evidentiary based belief system. The greater the claim one makes, the greater the evidence required to support it.
- While we will often admit a creator is possible, skeptics are often non-religious. This is due to the overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence and the underwhelming lack of scientific evidence.
- A skeptic will start from a null hypothesis—the idea that nothing is true until reasonably confirmed with evidence. If you tell me that magnetic wrist band will cure my headaches and increase my sperm count, you’d better have more than a testimonial, which of course are discredited by the placebo effect. Nothing less than a proper peer-reviewed study will do.
- If we read some random meme on Facebook or Twitter which makes a provable claim, yet seems dubious in any way, we’ll usually assume it’s bunk and not even bother sharing it. If we’re curious, we might check it out on Snopes or other reputable sites, then share if we can confirm it to be true.
- We place our trust in the science. Almost everything we enjoy in life, from gadgets to health care, we have because this method works—it has for centuries.
- Skeptics are not conspiracy theorists. We don’t invent fantastic tales for shock value or ideology, we present logical arguments, we separate facts from opinions, and we let the chips fall where they may.
- A skeptic would rarely believe in alternative medicines. If they really do work, proper scientific studies will confirm as much. At which point they’ll cease being alternative medicine and just be actual medicine.
- A skeptic wants both sides of the argument. In politics, if a Democrat makes a claim, I want to hear a Republican’s or Libertarian’s rebuttal and vice-versa. If a scientist presents an idea, I want a similarly qualified scientist to challenge their findings. One side of a story is rarely accurate and you should be wary of anyone making a claim of absolutes in this manner.
- We largely will often point out that shows about cryptozoology, astrology, alien abductions, ghost hunting, etc. belong on the The Sci-Fi Channel, not The Science Channel. While presented as science, they’re all largely full of utter nonsense. One cannot make scientific claims about Bigfoot if one does not have a living or dead Bigfoot standard to test.
So why is it important to be a skeptic? If you like being duped, skepticism isn’t for you—ignorance is bliss, right? But as Steve Jobs proved in 2003 when he opted for a homeopathic solution to his cancer instead of what his doctors recommended, being a skeptic can save your life. Jobs’ had been advised that his cancer was treatable and survivable if he were to undergo proper science-based medical treatment. By the time he realized his homeopathic option was bunk however, it was too late.
For those not familiar with homeopathy and why it is junk science, here’s a phenomenal article from Donald Prothero from skepticblog.com. As are all articles on their site, it is worth a read.
But let me go back further into history and explain why I believe mankind owes its very existence to skepticism.
When the black plague was running rampant, many had believed that this was God punishing humanity as he did during the flooding in the tale of Noah’s ark. As such, they felt that there was no way to intervene and stop this deadly scourge, and potentially that it was blasphemy to even try. While they may not have understood the scientific method or the concept of modern skepticism as we do today, it was indeed skeptics who decided that the plague might simply be a biological process with a cure instead of the will of God, applied scientific-like methods to the problem, and proceeded to eventually quash this most devastating of diseases.
While faith gives people comfort, and I would never try to take that away from them, when you start feeling the onset of a heart attack, a stroke, or any other medical emergency arise, who will you call first? 911 or your priest? If you answered 911, you’re already a bit of a skeptic. The next time you hear a claim that seems too fantastic to be true, grab your computer and do some research. I think you’ll find the scientific method quite rewarding once you get the hang of it.
*Please look to the left. You will find a header with a list of sites dedicated to science and skepticism. I encourage you to read as much as you can. While I’m an amateur who is just priming your skeptical pump, these are professionals who do this for a living. Learning is addictive, I hope you’ll check them out.