Native Skeptic

Native Skeptic
Apache Crown Dancers 1887: http://www.firstpeople.us/photographs2/Apache-Spirit-Dancers-1887.html

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Case of 'Particle Fever'

One day, I was sitting in a production lab performing a video test as part of the quality control process for a monitor and came across the image of a giant structure being hauled by truck so big it closed down both directions of the highway. I needed to see what a 50 foot magnet was being used for, and was I surprised to see it was just a small piece of the bigger machine. Instead of quenching that thirst, my curiosity would only continue to grow just as much as my understanding did, the more I explored the fundamental aspects which govern the laws that lead humans to build such an impossibly complex machine. It really is a marvel of human ingenuity. A pinnacle of engineering and physics. It's only fitting that hundreds of hours and years of footage were used to make the upcoming movie focusing on a scientific journey that involves all of us. Particle Fever is being featured by Angela Watercutter in her recent article for Wired as, "A Movie About the Large Hadron Collider That You'll Actually Understand."    

Part of my own personal voyage was described in an interview with Ben Radford for the Center for Inquiry where I gave this example of how the Large Hadron Collider lead me to become involved with organized skepticism. Here is my response to that question,
"Philosophy, Socrates, and the socratic method, planted a seed with a question, "What is knowledge?" If you can't define that for yourself, then how can you maintain the claim that you truly "know" anything? I wanted to know how we as the collective human race compiled all of the scientific understandings of such things like Einstein's theory of relativity or how we know certain things about the nature of subatomic particles. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN really ignited my interest in getting to the bottom of how man could even postulate such a machine. The process of how science works became clear only after I became more familiar with the history of science, and finally I had the standard for knowledge that I was looking for: scientific knowledge.

After becoming engulfed in this newfound obsession for everything science related, it was only a matter of time before I came across the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. Simply listening to the SGU let me know that there was this community out there and that really helped sharpen my critical thinking skills while establishing a deep-seeded root to be more actively involved in skepticism. I wanted to help others follow along those lines and discover how enlightening and empowering science can be through its relevance to everything."

Like with most skeptic's origin stories, mine also began with a love for science. Once I became better acquainted with the scientific method I also became aware of my own scientific illiteracy. At that point, I already had a applied science degree and a bachelors in technical management. So, it was a bit of a shock for me and blow to the ego to admit that I did not really know what science was or how to clearly define it. I wondered how I went clear through the entire educational process and missed out on such a vital part to understanding the modern world. But, what I did attain through my educational experience through philosophy, ethics and other writing courses, was the ability to think with different perspectives. Which has also helped me as an artist. 

I am excited for this movie and the opportunity to make these concepts exciting for others as well. The LHC inspired me so much by the sheer ingenuity of the whole machine, forget the way it works. The look of it alone is straight out of a science fiction movie and could easily pass for a Star Trek set! But, in order to truly appreciate the inner workings of the biggest scientific experiment in the world and most complex machine ever built by human beings, there's a bit of physics to examine and explore. And about a couple hundred years worth of science.   

That has kept me busy ever since and I am just as curious about things, but as a result, my appreciation of those things is so much deeper.

Particle Fever will be smashing it's way to select theaters March through April.
 







Saturday, February 1, 2014

My Brian Dunning From Skeptoid on The Joe Rogan Experience


The episode #441 of The Joe Rogan Experience ended up being rather memorable for some quite unexpected reasons. At first, I was excited by the premise of Brian Dunning, the host of Skeptoid, being featured as a guest on one of the other podcasts I actually listen to regularly and personally feel could be used as a resource to spread the awareness of skepticism and science. For the most part, I have found that the people that I bring this idea to do not have a good reaction to the notion or do not know what a podcast is. In a grander scheme of things in terms of the greater good and what the skepticism movement is supposed to be about, or at least what it means to me, we really should utilize these avenues of popular culture trending right now like YouTube and podcasts. I would love to hear a prominent name being featured as a guest on the Nerdist podcast or have an episode recorded from The Amazing Meeting.
   
The first major thing that became fixated to my mind and lingered around throughout the entire episode was making it a point to clarify and define what it means to be “scientifically literate”, and the importance it serves us as everyday citizens. It's part our civic duty to learn these things. One definition that I pull off from the top of my head comes from one of the best science communicators doing his thing today, and that’s no other than Mr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Here is a clip of the YouTube video I am talking about:

There are general misconceptions about science and skepticism around anywhere people can be found. For some, sounding technical is enough for it to be considered science-y. For some others, being a nay-saying cynic gets misconstrued for being "skeptical." Another giant aspect to the definition of science, that doesn't get discussed enough, is pointing out that the word skeptic as in scientific skepticism also means open-minded. It’s not so centered on a constant state of disbelief as in the way Joe Rogan represents it to be in this discussion with Brian Dunning. The word skeptic (as I define it at least) is interchangeable with science, or the scientific perspective, which is always open to new evidence and constantly changing. My personal views on things are always changing as I receive more information through experience and as knowledge is gained. This is where something from another YouTube video this time featuring physicist Richard Feynman comes to mind:


Another glaring point that I didn’t really feel like got covered that is important to the putting together an accurate portrait of science is how we determine standards of evidence or validity. Making a claim is easy for anyone to do; the real interesting part is in backing it up, but that also takes the most effort. It’s easier to just go along with people than to argue against them too. If you disagree with someone, you may feel the burden to justify your position and that’s just too much work! So, I can see how sitting in silence can seem so much more appealing to your brain in certain circumstances. But, feeling that way doesn’t always mean that it’s the right thing to do either. Another fallacious argument that was repeatedly used resembled the following form: the government conspired in the past therefore the current instance in question is a conspiracy too. That is a bit like saying a specific event is a conspiracy because conspiracies exist. Not only is that bad logic, it's just plain ole lazy thinking.

Vitamins are an important subject to skeptics and consumer protection activists because it deals with something that concerns everyone, health. We all have our own definitions of what it means to be “healthy”. Not many people receive much education in nutrition, but that doesn’t stop anybody from formulating an opinion and thinking they know what’s best for them- health wise. In this instance, a recent relay of research covered by the media spouting that vitamins are a waste of money got Joe up in arms and arguing that vitamins are beneficial. However, the media headline was misleading and the research did not show vitamins to have "completely no benefits", but what it did indicate is that additional dietary supplementation is not necessary for most people eating a regular varied diet. And what they did say is that, "using supplements and multivitamins to prevent chronic conditions is a waste of money." In other words, vitamins don’t work in the specific manner that the nutrition industry is currently selling them to us. But, I understand how these personal views can become emotionally charged and this particular area is prone to Joe and I would expect a strong knee jerk reaction or some resistance at the least. It was hard for me to let go of some of the nutritional claims that I had bought into early on from getting immersed in bodybuilding. High school can drive some boys to do crazy things just to get a competitive edge or that feeds into an urge to get bigger and much of it is based on anecdote and placebo. Joe oversimplified the multi-vitamin research study being discussed and the misinterpretation seemed to me most likely due to the misleading media headlines. The vitamin c claims being made were vague. There is some validity to vitamin c shortening the lifespan of colds, but not so much preventing them. Ultra high doses of anything are generally not a good idea. Some claims do not hold up while others can have risks that are more harmful than they are beneficial.

The others things that bothered me were not the topics themselves, but the manner in which they were presented.

For instance, I found the debate over what Dr. Mark Gordon said in a prior episode # 438 about a chemical called glutathione and effects on the liver it had when drinking alcohol that caused Brian to shut off the episode and describes an experience closely resembling the uncomfortable feeling of distress that I had while listening to this part of his conversation with Joe. After they replayed and listened to the prior segment in question during the show, Joe clarified what the doctor had said and Brian stood by his original statement. I remember when the initially started the conversation that it prompted me to start thinking about the interview because I had just listened to that episode and found the doctors’ statement to be suggestive, but it wasn’t clear to me it was being recommended. After they brought the subject up, I remembered listening to this episode the day it became available for download and my memory of that show didn’t include the sort of menacing portrayal as described by Dunning’s experience. But, I also recall not being too convinced by the evidence Dr. Gordon did provide either, such as the one little anecdote that gets brought up. What did seem to stand out about this part of the conversation is that Brian appeared eager and bent on being confrontational based on something I believe he misheard. Perhaps, being hyper focused on activism can lead to fighting fights that are not effectively helpful in the spreading of the original intended message.

At the end of the day, skeptics are susceptible to their own psychology too. It’s just that as skeptics, we are often aware of these pitfalls in thinking and intently seek out contradictory evidence. However, as we are all flawed and biased we are all guilty on occasion of hearing what we want to hear, or perhaps in some cases, we don’t hear what we weren’t listening for, and being aware of our bias doesn’t make us immune to it.

I did happen to agree with Joe when he echoed a common mantra that gets thrown around often when discussing the topic of skeptical outreach and scientific debates; “sometimes being a dick can take all the attention away from the point you are trying to make.” It’s like you can literally hear a giant slurping sound during the middle of a conversation from everyone’s attention leaving the room all at once like a vacuum. Joe often justifies his positions by pointing out how smart people are or how educated they are, as he does a couple times in this episode, but we have many examples of smart people being demonstrably wrong. Take someone as seemingly intelligent as Dr. Oz promoting homeopathy and other questionable forms of alternative medicine and pseudoscience for instance. However, I would like to give credit and point out that I have recognized a change over the years listening to the show.

Guests like Sam Harris or Neil deGrasse Tyson seem to corral the conversation into staying within reason by breaking down ideas before tangents go too far down the rabbit hole. Even the silly conversations are so much more interesting when one or more people in a party are scientifically literate, then you can really nerd out properly. Like what often happens on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. I really enjoy these conversations the most and feel that I get more out of these types of episodes too. Joe also appears to be much more pliable in these scenarios than the common misconception that many people hold of him in the skeptical community. Much of this is due to the history surrounding Joe and his former beliefs that the Moon landings were a hoax, amongst a few other conspiracy theories thrown in there too. When Joe had a debate with astronomer Phil Plait on Penn Jillette’s show, it got the attention of the scientific and skeptical communities. So, I can see the need of some damage control on both sides. Joe has since relinquished many of these beliefs but has been written off long ago and said to be too far gone in his irrationality. After someone brought the whole Moon debacle to my attention, I initially felt that way too. It would be one thing if it was strictly an all hardcore comedy show, but the fact is that most of the time it treads into scientific topics of discussion lends itself to criticism. In the past I have proposed to other notable skeptics that there is some potential for outreach on Joe Rogan’s podcast, but for many there is still a bad taste left after the whole Moon incident. There are so many times in conversations that I wished Dr. Steve Novella from the SGU was there to discuss experiences of the brain that people have or when there is a weird news story in the media that Sharon Hill from Doubtful News could help put into perspective by providing further insight with a little back story.

I noticed things that have changed for the better especially with recent Joe Rogan Experience episode featuring from something you might have already sensed, psychics. It was pleasantly surprising and I feel is definitely the most skeptical thing he has done. At one point he slips and calls himself a skeptic, only to quickly retort. It features an engagement with another prominent skeptic and world class mentalist, Banachek. This podcast episode JRQE5 with Duncan Trussell was recorded during the production of Joe Rogan Questions Everything which originally aired on SyFy and it discusses how that meeting not only changed their perception of all psychics, but reality as well.

I was really hoping for this episode to be an opportunity to share the ideas of what skepticism, science, and critical thinking has to offer everyone and the importance they are to the way we acquire knowledge about the modern world we live in today. So, I guess what bothered me the most and got me down was the lost opportunity to point out what distinguishes something as being scientific and the notion that it's the same perspective that lies in the heart of skepticism wasn’t stressed at all. “Skepticism and science are not so much about what you think; it’s about how you think.” And it is possible to have an intellectual debate that is still lighthearted that others can learn and grown from. I would just like to hear or see them in more places other then skeptics podcasts. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Feeling Something Is True Is Not an Argument for Something Being True

Everyone has their own unique upbringing filled with distinctive experiences. These pivotal events lay the foundation to how we will relate to the world and the information we receive from it. I doubt many would argue with the notion that our personalities and behaviors are shaped by our experiences. It’s rather easy to overlook our past history’s influence on us and forget how deceptively powerful they can be. Perhaps it is due to our brain’s ability to mask its own limitations by bridging the gaps between any perceived inefficiencies. Or in other words, we can’t see the gaps found at the end of our cognitive limitations because part of what our brain does is hide these from our conscience mind so that we experience reality more smoothly.

There are so many things that the brain is doing that we are not aware of most of the time. For instance, our hearts beat and our body temperature stayed regulated without any conscience effort. Well, it appears that our ideas and beliefs might also arise in a similar fashion, starting deep from within an inaccessible place of our minds that we are not aware of until it reaches a certain level into our consciousness.

Our emotions are no exception to this notion either. Usually, we do not think of our feeling of certainty, or our feeling of being right, as an emotion. However, I have come across more recent discoveries made through research being done in this area of brain science that has shifted my view to consider the feeling of “knowing” to be classified more as an emotion. Even just philosophically, this is a fun conversation to have and ponder upon. But, when boiled down to the bones, it all comes back to describing a feeling. A feeling like an emotional state of being, or you know, like an emotion. So, like with the other examples of how things enter into our consciousness, the feeling of “rightness” begins with a process in the brain that we do not consciously initiate. I can even vividly recall experiencing this feeling in certain instances of my dreams where nothing makes sense but know what I’m supposed to do or where I’m supposed to be. This might also lend some insight into feelings of déjà vu. Our brains might just be interpreting a situation as being familiar and produce the feeling of familiarity without our conscience awareness, sort of like knowing without knowing. Some people who have damaged parts of the brain that are needed for functioning properly lose their ability to experience any sort of feeling of certainty. Think of that for a second. These people report to recognize that everything about a person, place or thing to be identical to something they used to know like a person they are married to or even their own children, but without the feeling of certainty they insist these things to be imposters. So, sometimes our feelings of being right can obviously throw us off from time to time.     

Now, it might seem obvious that our feelings of something being true are not arguments or good explanations to support something being true. Like saying something is right because it feels right. Just think of all the instances in which people can’t explain what they saw, but still protest they know what they saw. These are some reasons why we should be cautious of individuals that operate with no shadow of a doubt, making claims of absolute knowledge or absolute certainty about anything. In many circumstances, this feeling can act as an obstacle to the process of expanding our understanding and acquiring new knowledge.

The inspiration for this train of thought came from something I read in Carl Sagan’s, The Demon-Haunted World. This all comes back to why understanding the inquiry process of science is so important to EVERYONE in ANY field.
     
"Science is different from many another human enterprise — not, of course, in its practitioners being influenced by the culture they grew up in, nor in sometimes being right and sometimes wrong (which are common to every human activity), but in its passion for framing testable hypotheses, in its search for definitive experiments that confirm or deny ideas, in the vigor of its substantive debate, and in its willingness to abandon ideas that have been found wanting. If we were not aware of our own limitations, though, if we were not seeking further data, if we were unwilling to perform controlled experiments, if we did not respect the evidence, we would have very little leverage in our quest for the truth." (Sagan 1997)
     


Reference:
Sagan, Carl. 1997. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Antiscience. (pg 263). Ballantine Books.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Rain Dance: Myth and Truth

Culture has the remarkable ability of influencing our perspectives of things without us even being aware of it. Some things get engrained into our minds during our childhood that we simply do not ever think to question.  Sometimes we assume things that are a part of our popular culture are true, but rarely ever look into them for ourselves. Some things are so old that we assume they have always been there. Introduce the notion that some things are also to be considered as sacred, and therefore questioning them is considered to be an act of disrespect that is often discouraged by shaming, and you have the recipe for conjuring up a belief that can go on to take on a life of its' own because when the legend gets printed in our minds it becomes fact in our lives. In this special case, I decided to dive into the surrounding beliefs of a subject commonly associated with Native culture that is most often taken out of context and misrepresented, the Native American Rain Dance.


"As I began to look into the situation, it became apparent that it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Native American religion." (Nez 2013)




*The Myth of the Rain Dance
first appeared in the Skeptical Briefs, Volume 23.1 Spring of 2013 edition It can also be accessed online at:
http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/the_myth_of_the_rain_dance/.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Background Interview Featuring the Origin Story of How I Discovered Skepticism

I am so grateful for the opportunities that have arisen through my work with skeptical activism. Since the start of this blog, I have found and joined a local Skeptics in the Pub meetup group and took part in the establishment and founding of a non-profit educational organization, the Phoenix Area Skeptics Society (PASS). For the most part, it is quite rare to find people doing things they are passionate about with intentions of receiving praise or recognition for them. The work is the reward. However, sometimes positive attention and the constructive criticism from peers can have a profound impact on validating efforts. So, I was proud to take part in this interview with the deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the go to scientific paranormal investigator Benjamin Radford. He is author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. Topics that he covers include urban legends, the paranormal, and media literacy. The newest book from Mr. Radford is titled, The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Amongst all of this great work educating the public, he also finds the time to be a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.

Seeing my name and this blog under the Center for Inquiry banner displays to me a respect for Native American beliefs that rarely get acknowledged. The voices from the First Nations of people in America got just a bit louder.

You can follow the link to the entry on the CFI website by clicking in the text or by going here.    



This interview originally appeared in the Skeptical Briefs newsletter, Volume 21.3, Fall 2011, which featured a longer version. 


Friday, May 24, 2013

Guest Spot on Freethoughtify

It is not too often that I focus on writing articles which include my own personal perspective. I have made a great effort to look at the subjects that I post on here with the most objective eye as possible by utilizing all of the critical thinking, scientific, and skeptical skills that I have learned through both my formal and personal education. When it comes to Native American culture and beliefs I want to show ultimate respect by depicting them, not as I view them, but as closely to how they were depicted by those tribes practicing them. In most cases, my point of view is not relevant to those types of historical and cultural accounts, so it doesn't get included and is normally weeded out. However, there are those rare occasions in which I do get an opportunity to speak from a frame of reference that reflects my way of looking at and interpreting the world. Well, I present to you one of those special opportunities that I was more than grateful to have in this post titled Native Atheist that I did as a guest blogger for Freethoughtify, "an atypical secular" blog site.       

"While I still feel like an outsider amongst my family, friends, and ethnic group like a minority amongst minorities, I am still more than grateful to have found my way to reason and scientific thinking. Now, I feel that sense of awe and wonder that I was always looking for in acknowledging that I belong to something greater than me called the Universe. I found my humanism and a different spiritual view for my ever-present love for life in understanding the way the world really appears to be." (Nez 2013)



References:
Nez, Noah. 2013. Native Atheist. Freethoughtify. Can be accessed online at: http://freethoughtify.com/native-atheist/.

         

Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Artist Rises

As many of you might already kind of know, I am a bit of a social activist. But, not everyone is privy to the information that I am also an artist. Writing has allowed me to exercise some of the creative energy that I have been storing away since becoming involved in other efforts. There was a few things that I felt compelled, almost obligated, to tackle first. Such as, writing about things that are not being reflected in society or our American culture that I strongly felt should be. The biggest example being, the importance of utilizing science to help us to better determine our policies and decisions for the future. Not just for Native Americans, but for all people and all circles of life. However, there are some things, like emotions and experiences, that cannot quite be put into words to adequately encapsulate a situation in its' entirety. This is where art can be of great assistance.