Monday, August 17, 2009

An example thereof

In my last post I explained why it was a good thing to be skeptical before passing ideas on.

Now, I've just come across a great reference to "the world's oldest apocalypse prediction":

"Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."
- Assyrian clay tablet, circa 2800BC

This reference is sourced to Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts. The problem is, I can't substantiate it. I don't have a copy of the Book of Facts handy and, even if I did, I would need to know more about the clay tablet in question before I could trust Mr Asimov's word on this.

So if I were to use this quote in any sort of serious discussion, I would need to accompany it with a shot of skeptical "penicillin". I would have to make my friends aware that I could not stake my life on the it being accurate. This would be boring and long-winded.

The only alternative is to try to track down the tablet in question online. This is not proving easy: googling for the translated text just finds thousands of people who have quite clearly copied it straight out of the Book of Facts. This is not corroboration.

So I need to dig deeper. With a bit of effort, I'll be able to figure out how the Assyrian research community organises its information, which should give me some idea of where to find this particular tablet. So far I've come across the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (not so helpful as it doesn't give translations) and the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project (which appears to be defunct).

Beyond that, I may have to gatecrash the local university library. Watch this space.

It may take a while to learn the truth here. Heck, I might actually need to learn Assyrian to track down the tablet (or to demonstrate that it probably doesn't exist). I am unlikely to go that far. But the time I do spend on this exercise will be time well used - a tithe spent on improving the information available to the community as a whole.
Read the full post

Wash your hands before blogging

On this blog I often talk about skepticism. But what actually does this mean? Beyond the statistics, the science and the logic, what is it that defines us as skeptics? What is the driving force behind our community of pedants?

The answer is simple. When you get right down to it, modern skepticism is about hygiene.

Bear with me here...

Why do we wash our hands? Because there are tiny self-replicators called bacteria and viruses that can infest them. These bugs eat the nutrients on our hands, and given half a chance will take a bite out of the hand itself. They are harmful.

They also spread rapidly. When we perform the various acts of hygiene - using a tissue when sneezing, washing our hands after using the loo, cleaning up after our dog - we aren't just protecting ourselves. We're protecting those around us. Washing your hands makes you safer, sure, but it also helps slow the spread of disease through your community.

Why do we apply skeptical principles to our thoughts? Because there are tiny little self-replicators that can infest them. We call these replicators "memes", by analogy to biological genes. A meme is simply a bit of information that can "copy" itself from one human mind to another. It could be an email hoax, a news story, a technique for producing origami boats, a poem, or even a blog post.

Some of these memes are useful; some are harmful. Memes can encourage you to feed the homeless, or to give all your money to scammers. In general, memes that correspond well with reality are less likely to cause harm. Truth is usually better than falsehood.

When we pick up biological diseases, we have a responsibility to ourself and others to limit the damage those germs can cause. When we pick up memes from others, or when we pass our memes on, we have a similar responsibility to ensure that they are realistic. We must use the disinfectant of rationality, the soap of science and the hot water of critical evaluation to ensure that no-one will be injured or killed because we infected them with a dangerous untruth.

This explains some of the distaste that scientists and skeptics sometimes show towards people who believe in UFOs, homeopathy, psychics, creationism, conspiracy theories... and gods. It's not the beliefs that disturb us; rather, it is the lack of intellectual caution that these beliefs demonstrate.

In general, these believers have not bothered to "wash their hands". They have not attempted to protect themselves from bad memes, and they happily pass on their mental plagues to others. These people are walking around with unwashed minds, ready to transmit all sorts of potentially-harmful diseases.

It's unhelpful. It's dangerous. And it's certainly not hygienic.

Read the full post