Native Skeptic

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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.