GoyA skepticism

By Phil Plait | September 14, 2009 11:02 am

The combating woo panel at DragonCon

When I was at DragonCon, I was on a panel we called "How to Combat Woo", with four other skeptics (Jeff Wagg, D. J. Grothe, Maria Walters, and Naomi Baker), where we took one simple idea about skepticism and talked about how to implement it. Jeff did "Be Yourself", for example, while I took to heart the advice from the great philosopher Dalton who said, "Be nice… until it’s time to not be nice.".

The panel wound up being a nice, basic discussion on how to actually go out and be skeptical, and be an active skeptic. It’s not all that hard to do, certainly no harder than just getting our of bed every day (which I am not underestimating). Laurie T. from Rational Moms was in the audience for that panel, and she wrote up a nice blog post (by nice I mean sufficiently pandering to me) about a few simple things you can do to spread the wonder and joy of being a skeptic.

I’m just asking you to do two simple things: read it, and do it. You’ll be doing a good thing for yourself and, seriously, for the world.


Comments (21)

  1. Pieter Kok

    I don’t understand the title of this post.

  2. DustPuppyOI


    A nice little quote via the MTA (NYC subway system) Train of Thought:

    “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the need for thought.” – Henri Poincaré

  3. Keith (the first one)

    So is that really pink hair or some sort of skeptic test?

  4. Jeff

    neither the title of the post, nor the title of the panel.

  5. Chris A.

    @Pieter Kok: “GoyA” = “Get off your A**”, I think.
    @Jeff: See above, plus “Woo” is short for “woo-woo (i.e. nutty) thinking,” namely that which underlies belief in the paranormal.

  6. Yes that is really pink hair! I think it’s the author of the Fledgling Skeptic blog? Apologies if I have the wrong person in mind…

  7. Doc

    Heh, I had just clicked on the imdb link when I figured out who Dalton was. Nice reference.

  8. Trebuchet

    The “Dalton” link could have used an NSFW warning. And until I clicked it I was thinking of a character from Red Green.

  9. I missed that panel. My friend saw it in the guide, though, and asked me what “woo” was. It was hard to explain that diplomatically to someone who thinks there’s a population of plesiosaurs living in Loch Ness.

    I really need to design a “Things That Don’t Exist” t-shirt, just to speed up these conversations.

  10. It is indeed an awesome article, written by one very cool chick. Go, read now!!!!!

  11. Was Stephanie from Lazy Town there to do a presentation on the importance of physical activity as it relates to skepticism?

  12. ndt

    Trebuchet Says:
    September 14th, 2009 at 12:39 pm
    The “Dalton” link could have used an NSFW warning.


    There were no pictures, video, or, as far as I could tell, sound at that link.

  13. Mike

    It WAS a marvy panel–many thanks Phil, for making the time to visit Atlanta.

    Although I understand your reasons for omitting it in this blog post, I think rather prefer your reference to the philosopher Wheaton.

  14. @ndt: There were swear words, and some businesses actually scan downloaded web pages for those. I’m guessing the same businesses that run keyloggers and make sure employees are never off camera.

  15. Radwaste


    I’m really sorry to have missed this panel. I missed talking to Jeff entirely. Dang.

    Therefore, I don’t know what was said. If I had to sum things up, I would say that the best way to combat “woo” is simply to know what you are talking about, know how to do real research (and that can be actual fun!) — and know how people form beliefs in the first place. This last is fundamental!

    Not many people think about how they think. Fortunately, the scientific method both exposes the weaknesses common in individual thought and allows those weaknesses to be addressed. You can improve your capabilities by recognizing how you form beliefs.

    Ideas are acquired by observation. The individual can seek out data, or it can be thrust upon them. It is in the acquisition of this data that individuals fail, and frequently.

    A single opportunity is all some people get to evaluate something they observe.

    As an individual, you are essentially an underfunded research company. You have to constantly make decisions as to what information is important, and then you have to figure out which information you have is correct.

    Unconsciously, you define “success” every time you are satisfied with something you do. Clearly, it doesn’t bother you that pi has no end, when you can select a few decimal points and get the level of precision you need.

    When you research an idea, you are limited by time and ability as to the amount of consideration you can devote to the task. Family and other distractions take time; sometimes, investigation requires special tools unavailable to you; the mental acuity and agility you can bring to bear may be insufficient to the task. At some point, the perceived return on investment – effort expended vs. gain achieved – reaches a zero, and investigation stops. At this point, the belief is “filed” as a mental “base” upon which future decisions can be made.

    Our perceptions have two major limitations: prejudice, which includes everything a person thinks he or she knows, and acumen, the physical means with which we can investigate something brought to our attention.

    Because of physical limitations and the innate process of judgment, your investigation cannot be complete. This means that whatever the belief, it cannot be the “whole story”. It can only be good enough for you to continue on to other issues.

    I really hope the panel was working towards this concept if it did not, in fact, spell it out. The panels I have attended are rich on confrontation and with stories of people doing truly goofy and wonderfully good things…

    …but the process of forming beliefs is the key. When you can show someone how they formed the opinion that ice forms fastest from hot water, how they believe a motorcycle helmet is more harm than good, then you have a key to unlocking any larger issue.

  16. Naomi

    If anyone wants to see a shortened version of my introductory blurb on the panel, you can find it at http://www.spacecityskeptics.wordpress.com.

    Also, you can join the Houston Skeptic society at http://www.meetup.com/HoustonSkeptics/

  17. Slightly OT but about NSFW, I tried to go to the Landover Baptist site the other day and my employers web filter blocked it as “Tasteless”. :roll:

  18. Hey! I took that photo! I had put it on up on Facebook. It was a major “squeee” moment for me when I got to meet Phil at Dragon*Con, and now I’m squeeing again since my handiwork got used on this blog.

  19. Gary

    Mostly the advice in that link is to get together with other skeptics and learn group-think. How skeptical is that? Unless you add a healthy dose of motivation-questioning seasoned with some genuine curiosity, you’re going to end up calling yourself a skeptic while actually being a blinkered conformist.

  20. N Baker

    @Gary –

    That’s the outreach portion. You can’t do it alone, and sometimes you can feel like the Lone Ranger, not knowing there are other people in your neighborhood who think like you do.

    First you congregate and perhaps socialize, then you organize. Then you evangelize (to cop a term :) ). Once you can organize a group, then you can start putting together activities, programs, lectures, etc., to educate the public at large.

  21. @Nicole You were right! That pink head of hair belongs to me 😀 Thanks for remembering me and my blog FledgelingSkeptic.com

    @Keith (the first one) Nope. No skeptic test here. That really is my hair and it really is pink 😀


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