xkcd skepticizes the skeptics

By Phil Plait | November 22, 2009 10:51 pm

xkcd_666So, check out the latest xkcd web comic (or click the picture to see the rest). I have to admit, he’s got a good point. And it’s so crazy it just might work. Hardware stores near Michael Shermer’s house better start keeping track of who buys what.

And is the number of this particular comic coincidence? I have a hard time believing it is.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: Michael Shermer, xkcd

Comments (39)

  1. Hendi

    Well, its not exactly the 666th comic. Check out Comic Nr. 404. But black hat guy should definitely be one of us.

  2. I like how he divides his tools into “drills” and “non-drills.” Sounds like my organization scheme down in the basement.

  3. JMS

    This sounds like something Bruneleschi (the architect/engineer of the Duomo in Florence) pulled on someone he disliked. When the victim was passed out drunk, he was moved to another house. Then everyone treated the victim as if he was someone else (small town). The other person then was treated as if he were the victim. The next day everything was back to normal and the poor guy couldn’t be sure if had slept an entire day and dreamt it all or had been hexed by satanic body switching.

    Closer to the comic’s spirit, and perhaps the real source of inspiration, must be the movie “Dark City”. In it, some alien observing creatures have a whole city of people that they put to sleep every night (well, it’s always night there) as they change the entire environment, including growing skyscrapers and roads out of nowhere. The movie was inspired by a diary kept by a schizophrenic in Germany at the end of the 19th century.

  4. Of course, the way I read this: Even if you actually did experience all of those signs of ghostly activity, a lone nutjob trying to psyche you out is still more likely than actual ghosts.

  5. Steven

    *starts tracking down Infophile’s home address.*
    We’ll see if you remember that at 3 am in the morning when strange noises awake you. MAWAHAHA

  6. JMW

    See, that’s the thing that gets me. The introduction in every “Skeptic” magazine contains what might be considered the skeptic’s manifesto. And part of it reads, “I will be skeptical about everything, including my own skepticism.”

    And that last part is what, imho, militant skeptics forget. Orson Scott Card wrote in “Speaker for the Dead”: “This is how humans are: we question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.”

    A militant skeptic takes the opinion that unless there is proof of something, it doesn’t exist. While that’s a good rule 99% of the time, there are things which we can’t explain…but that doesn’t mean we won’t ever explain them. Yes, I’m verging on empiricism (it works because it works), but the pure empiricist (again, imho) makes the error of noting that something seems to work and accepts it without need of further explanation. I’m more willing to concede that something works, and allow the explanation for to arrive in due time. The militant skeptic would say that there is no explanation, so it’s obviously nothing more than a coincidental association.

  7. Narvi

    I would, respectfully, disagree. I find that sceptics are more concerned about whether something works, and once they’ve established that, make an effort to find out how.

    Take dowsing. The reason dowsing is considered nonsense isn’t that we can’t figure out how it would work. The reason is that we’ve tested it and discovered it DOESN’T work (yet). If we had found out it DID work, we would work on HOW.

  8. Steve

    “Skepicizes”?? Yuck.

  9. bad Jim

    137, the reciprocal of the fine structure constant, would have been a scary number. 666 (i.e., Nero) not so much.

  10. AndyMo

    Is their really an organization called the American Skeptical Society? Do they know that the acronym is ASS?

  11. Diego

    When I saw this comic this morning, I knew you would have blogged about it already. I was not disappointed.

  12. gypkap

    What Diego said. Now, how do we make a silent hammer??? Could be useful.

  13. ydant

    @Narvi There is a well accepted explanation of how dowsing “works”. The ideomotor effect combined with a healthy mix of confirmation bias and willingness to believe explains quite well cases both where dowsing appears to work and where it doesn’t. It also explains why, despite being one of the most common claims to challenge the JREF million dollar challenge, it consistently fails in well designed blinded tests.

    Regardless, if something doesn’t work (which is what the double-blinded testing is hoping to establish), then searching for the how/why is pointless. It makes a lot more sense to test if there is any validity before trying to figure out the mechanism of some unexplained process.

  14. rob

    the comic is number 666? what a coincedence. that is the same number that my birthmark is in the shape of!

  15. Steve

    I spy a corrected typo but it’s still a horrible word!

  16. Nigel Depledge

    JMW (6) said:

    And that last part is what, imho, militant skeptics forget. Orson Scott Card wrote in “Speaker for the Dead”: “This is how humans are: we question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.”

    Heh. How ironic. OSC publicly supported ID despite not knowing anything about evolutionary biology. I guess he forgot his own words.

  17. Revyloution

    JMW im having a hard time with the image of a ‘militant’ skeptic. What do they do, suicide bomb astrology conventions? Kidnap and murder journalists who give ‘equal’ time to both sides of evolution/creationism? Steal and break dowsers rods, then laugh in their faces?

    You said

    “A militant skeptic takes the opinion that unless there is proof of something, it doesn’t exist.”

    That kind of misses the point of the skeptic movement. Skeptics don’t deal with what might exist, we just shrug and say its not worth considering until there is evidence. We try live our lives based on the positive data, and pass on anything that requires belief.

  18. Levi in NY

    Would that be “scepticises” overseas?

  19. @Nigel (16)
    OSC has definitely lost his touch. You just have to have read Empire to see that (but if you haven’t, don’t).
    Speaker for the Dead, though was my favourite of his novels, not least because it is an SF novel about Biology.

  20. Narvi

    @ydant: And if you had read my comment, you would have realized that was exactly what I said.

  21. 3. JMS Says:

    Closer to the comic’s spirit, and perhaps the real source of inspiration, must be the movie “Dark City”. In it, some alien observing creatures have a whole city of people that they put to sleep every night (well, it’s always night there) as they change the entire environment, including growing skyscrapers and roads out of nowhere. The movie was inspired by a diary kept by a schizophrenic in Germany at the end of the 19th century.

    One of the top SF movies IMHO. If I could learn to ‘tune’…….

    J/P=?

  22. The Other Ian

    Nigel,

    Actually, Card is an evolutionist. He did defend ID, but I think that’s not so much because he doesn’t understand evolution as because he doesn’t really understand what ID is. He is mistaken in that he thinks that ID is different from creationism and that irreducible complexity is an actual problem for evolution. However, he takes the scientific approach of viewing it as a question for evolution to answer, rather than an answer in and of itself.

    http://www.ornery.org/essays/warwatch/2006-01-08-1.html

  23. Jesse

    Speaking of skeptical thinking wonder what Phil thinks about the old global warming crowd now that they’ve been exposed? Not letting skeptical groups verify data, and excluding others from the UN reports. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125883405294859215.html

    Yikes. Would hate to be a global warmer these days…

  24. Bzzzzttt! Thanks for playing the right-wing disinfo game, Jesse (#24). But you get no consolation prize.

  25. Revyloution

    Jesse. an ethics scandal doesnt change the data. Sure, there are unethical scientists. No big surprise there.

    Suggesting the morals of the researchers casts doubt upon their results is almost as bad as Ray Comfort claiming that Dawin was a racist, misogynist, and that Hitler loved his work, thus evolution is false.

    Look up Non Sequitur. The definition might help you see your fallacy. And if you find the daily cartoon instead, thats ok too. It rocks.

  26. amphiox

    OSC’s early novels had a definite liberal slant to them, while his later ones have increasingly cleaved conservative. Just compare the overall tone of “Ender’s Game”, “Speaker for the Dead”, “Xenocide”, and “Children of the Mind” with the tone of “Ender’s Shadow”, “Shadow of the Hegemeon”, “Shadow Puppets” and “Shadow of the Giant”.

    Whether this reflects a change in the author’s own viewpoints over time, or is just a deliberate literary device, I don’t know.

    JMV: If there is no evidence for something, that means that there is no known effect of that something on anything else, as any such effect would constitute evidence. Therefore the practical course of action is to assume, and act as if, that something doesn’t exist, until evidence to the contrary surfaces.

    This is very different from the situation where there is a phenomenon with known effects for which there is no explanation. In this case we know the phenomenon exists, because the effects constitute the proof. That we do not know why those effects occur is not grounds to be skeptical of the phenomenon (though it is grounds to be skeptical of any proposed explanations for that phenomenon), but a call to investigate it.

  27. Daniel J. Andrews

    [OT}Check realclimate.org for two posts on the hacking. First post has over a 1000 comments and is closed. Dr. Gavin Schmidt has spent the weekend answering many of the questions, and has opened a second post for continuing to answer these questions. Based on Jesse's comment it is obvious s/he hasn't actually read the emails him/herself, but is just repeating the usual antiscience suspects.

    Anyone with burning questions check out the comments first before asking a question (Gavin has been asked why he hasn't released his data for others to study about a dozen times now---the data has been in the public domain for years and Gavin patiently links again to the data and other information every time someone demands or asks for the data).

    Sorry for the short hijack, Phil, but if anyone really wants to discuss this, head on over to realclimate (instead of swamping Phil's blog)...loads of links posted in the comments that explain context and provide evidence you can check for yourself.

  28. Jar Jya Binks Killer

    DJA: Sorry for the short hijack, Phil, but if anyone really wants to discuss this, head on over to realclimate (instead of swamping Phil’s blog)…

    Because “Realclimate” is an uninterested reliable party & not an Alarmist lobby group yeah? :roll:

    I’m sure that rather than discuss things in public & everywhere the Climate Alarmists would rather everyone just ran over to their polemical site to be reassured that, yeah the sky really is falling inwarming up regardless of what the facts say.

    Fact is Global Warming is a hoax or at best an exxaggerated over-hyped scare. Our planet has been getting cooler since 1998 and Co2 is NOT that important in warming up our climate. The issue is political not scientific – and the scientific info that is reliable suggests our climate is like a thermostat in oscillating around a set point – in the 1970′s we were cooler than average & the Alarmists were wetting their pants over the fear of an ice age, in the 19980′s-90′s things were marginally hotter than average and they were soiling themselves about “Global warming” and now things are getting cooler it’ll soon be back to “Oh no! Ice age again!”

    In truth we’ve nothing to worry about except wasting time & money on all the talk fests and hurting our already struggling economy with severe damage from all the proposed taxes and carbon trading /reduction schemes.

    Public skepticism is growing about the AGHE & the Alarmists house of hype is finally starting to fall down.

    Perhaps Daniel J.Andrews you should visit a skeptic site and see the other side of the picture. You know the one that’s actually right.

    For starters check :

    http://blogs.news.com.au/couriermail/andrewbolt/index.php/couriermail/comments/the_global_warming_conspiracy_news_spreads/

  29. ND

    “militant skeptic” ? Did you make up that term?

    One might come to the belief that some X does not exist (but still not wholly rule out) if the ratio of evidence to claims is insanely low, or even “so far zero”. Such is the case of psychics, remote visualization etc.

    You’re also conflating showing that a phenomenon is real and the explanation behind it. One can show that a phenomenon is real and with additional research come up with a theory on the mechanism behind it. You don’t need to know how gravity works, but can show that it’s real.

    Just realized amphiox touched on this. But I’ll post anyway.

  30. Jar Jya Binks Killer

    On the topic of the “RealClimate” lobby site – from the leaked /hacked emails showing how the Alarmists spun, suppressed & faked their GW “data” in the great Global Warming hoax:

    ***
    UPDATE 8

    The warmist scientists at RealClimate show how carefully they’ve screened and manipulated their site to muffle any scepticism:

    From: “Michael E. Mann”
    To: Tim Osborn, Keith Briffa
    Subject: update
    Date: Thu, 09 Feb 2006 16:51:53 -0500
    Cc: Gavin Schmidt

    guys, I see that Science has already gone online w/ the new issue, so we put up the RC post. By now, you’ve probably read that nasty McIntyre thing. Apparently, he violated the embargo on his website (I don’t go there personally, but so I’m informed).

    Anyway, I wanted you guys to know that you’re free to use RC in any way you think would be helpful. Gavin and I are going to be careful about what comments we screen through, and we’ll be very careful to answer any questions that come up to any extent we can. On the other hand, you might want to visit the thread and post replies yourself. We can hold comments up in the queue and contact you about whether or not you think they should be screened through or not, and if so, any comments you’d like us to include.

    You’re also welcome to do a followup guest post, etc. think of RC as a resource that is at your disposal to combat any disinformation put forward by the McIntyres of the world. Just let us know. We’ll use our best discretion to make sure the skeptics dont’get to use the RC comments as a megaphone…

    I have mentioned “conspiracy”, right? RealClimate is so far silent.

    (Emphasis & italics added, last line there is by Andrew Bolt – ed.)
    From: http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/hadley_hacked

    Seems “RealClimate” just lost whatever shreds of credibility as far as being a fair and balanced site they had left.

    Exposed now like so many of the others in the Alarmist scare-mongers camp by the relevatory emails. There is plenty there confirming in Bolt’s words:

    “.. proof of a conspiracy which is one of the largest, most extraordinary and most disgraceful in modern science, …”

    BA are you going to post on this breaking news and discuss these science-&-skepticism related revelations shortly? I hope so!

  31. Brian Too

    To me the cartoon is reminiscent of themes and plot elements in The Prisoner. “Just because you’re not paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

    But that would be telling!

  32. toasterhead

    29. Jar Jya Binks Killer Says:
    November 23rd, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Fact is Global Warming is a hoax or at best an exxaggerated over-hyped scare. Our planet has been getting cooler since 1998 and Co2 is NOT that important in warming up our climate.

    Got any proof to back up this “fact?”

    Didn’t think so.

    Seems “RealClimate” just lost whatever shreds of credibility as far as being a fair and balanced site they had left.

    No it didn’t. You science deniers who trashed it for years as “alarmist” and “warmingist” never gave it any credibility, and those of us who respect science continue to respect RealClimate. Nothing’s changed – you people just found a new thing to whine about.

  33. Daniel J. Andrews

    Jar…thank you for demonstrating the point behind my first post. You have no idea of the context behind that quote, and you’re not interested in finding out either. Did you read the answers on RC website? If you’d been there you would have noticed a number of people were asking about it (or like you being accusatory about it), and Gavin is patiently answering the same type of question many times over.

    You have also demonstrated quite well that you know nothing about climate because you think warming stopped in 1998. Why do you think that? Where is your evidence? You also think it is a hoax??!!

    Tens of thousands of scientists around the world in different countries of all political persuasions have suddenly decided to all get together to tell the same lie and keep at it for over 30-40 years—or almost 200 years if you want to go back to the discovery of CO2 and warming? Or perhaps a few influential ones have fudged the data and pulled the wool over the eyes of tens of thousands of other scientists, all pursuing multiple independent lines of evidence which coincidentally all support the data the lying scientists have fudged?

    That 1998 claim has been debunked so many times yet “skeptic” sites keep repeating it. They are either outright stupid, or they are lying to you. Either way, why should you trust them? If they get this simple item wrong how can you trust them to get the complex issues right?

    For a summary of why this is a lie, see here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y15UGhhRd6M

    That’s Peter Sinclair’s Crock of the Week. It is straight-forward, easy to understand. Even the math isn’t any harder than grade school level. What he says is mostly common sense and accessible to pretty much everyone.

    If you want more evidence, then how about a blind study where you get some statisticians, give them the data but don’t tell them what the data is about? Ask them to look for trends. Would that be neutral enough for you? Bingo…here you go.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091026/ap_on_bi_ge/us_sci_global_cooling

    The data was given to independent statisticians. They weren’t told what the data was, but were told to look for trends. All of them independently concluded there was no downward trend.

    Or, you check the data for yourself. Find the GISTEMP data set. Or use the MET data set. You can even find this data at some “skeptic” sites. Now plot 1998 to 2008 in Excel or data program of your choice (e.g. SPSS). In Excel, right-click on the data points and chose “Trend Line”. Alternatively, do a linear regression by hand (a high school math textbook should have this information if you need a refresher).

    I had my first-year students do this one in September, and I didn’t tell any of them where the data was from. Far as they knew it was just an exercise. When the stat guys came up with the same answers a while later I gave my students a metaphorical pat on the back.

    Guess what though…even though the line goes up, it isn’t the strongest evidence for warming because 10 years is too short a period of time (refer back to Sinclair’s video—we call it variability…look up the difference between climate and weather).

    For more info on the 1998 lie, check here. http://tamino.wordpress.com/2007/08/31/garbage-is-forever/

    Also see Wiggles. http://tamino.wordpress.com/2007/12/16/wiggles/

    where he calls this 1998 drivel one of the easiest claims to disprove.

    Of all the bits of “evidence” you could have used, this is just about the silliest. Do you know why RC moderates?

    RC moderates because people who are abysmally ignorant of science and math in general, and climate science in particular, keep posting the same stupidity over and over again even though it has been disproved numerous times. It is just noise and offers nothing productive. They want to keep a signal to noise ratio fixed because the noise just drowns out the signal (i.e. the intelligent thoughtful real questions).

    “Skeptics” have the evidence right in front of them, evidence so straight forward my not-too-bright first year students grasp it yet they “skeptics” continue to claim warming stopped in 1998 as if we’ve never proven otherwise multiple ways. That isn’t skepticism…that’s denialism (which is willful ignorance which is hard to distinguish from stupidity).

    Why should we put up with stupidity like this? Spend time on RC and you’ll see many commenters disagree with the various things, but their points are good ones, or ones that should be addressed. Debunked myths and lies are not given a forum there…take it elsewhere (preferably not on this blog either where people without the necessary background might be misled by such lies).

    Right now, Jar, you are extremely ignorant of the basics. That’s ok. That can be fixed by some study. The question is, are you willing to take the time to learn the basics so you at least know enough not to embarrass yourself.

    I will respond if you have valid points, but if you’re just going to copy and paste debunked points (this means you have to find out which points are debunked) I won’t waste my time because you’ve demonstrated you’re not going to put in the hard work and actually learn the basics. If you won’t learn, I won’t help.

    Oh, here’s another reason why comments like yours are moderated. It took you all of what, 20 seconds, to type “global warming stopped in 1998″, yet to counter that I have to spend quite a bit more time debunking it, and then providing links to back up my claims. Making things up is easy, sticking to the facts and providing evidence is much harder, and every denialist site I’ve visited is just making things up, and it is pathetic. I have nothing but contempt for their dishonesty and their bankrupt science.

    Do not be part of that. Pull yourself out of that pit of ignorance and do some learning. Maybe start with the IPCC report, or with Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming http://www.aip.org/history/climate/ (you can download it—it is a highly recommended primer into how we know what we know…read that and you may move from a denialist to being a real skeptic. Good luck, Jar….and in the meantime don’t quote anything by Bolt or Watts or Monkton or Inhofe. You’ll be laughed out of the room and if you don’t know why, then spend time studying the science before you comment.

  34. Daniel J. Andrews

    Shorter version for Jar. Warming stopped in 1998 is a lie, easily debunked. My first comment has links that are holding it in moderation so here is the quick version.

    Google Tamino and Wiggles. He debunks it.
    Google Tamino and Garbage is Forever (ditto)
    Go to youtube, search Crock of the Week 1998 (Party like it is 1998). Easy to understand, very accessible, easy math, lots of common sense.
    Google the temp data (GISTEMP at NASA). Do the math yourself. Excel makes it easy to graph, and just two clicks gives you a trend line (hint: it doesn’t go down as the denial sites claim).

    If you want to be taken seriously, do not copy and paste nonsense. This means you have to spend time learning what is nonsense so you can make intelligent points, and not waste time promoting bankrupt science and lies.

    I’m not saying you’re lying, but I am saying wherever you got the 1998 myth from was lying to you….they know better by now and if they’re still repeating it, then they are lying. Why would you trust them?

  35. Kevin S.

    And it’s comic number 666… that’s amazing!

  36. Jessica

    I see some people have already suggested other movies where stuff like this happened, but what about Amelie? She basically gave her neighbor a nervous breakdown with this kind of stuff. Although I guess ghosts were not specifically mentioned.

  37. Steve in Dublin

    @Daniel J. Andrews #34

    Science FTW! An astoundingly informative post (though not from the viewpoint of an AGW denier, of course).

    I now count, excluding bat-guano-crazy CT’s like the moon landing hoax and 9/11 inside job… at least 4 areas where solid science is at odds with public opinion (or pseudoscience – same thing) to a substantial degree:

    1. Evolution vs. creationism
    2. Vaccines
    3. Junk medicine (most notably homeopathy and the chiropractic)
    4. Anthropogenic global warming

    Tell you what… makes for some interesting reading every evening. I wonder how popcorn sales are doing? OTOH, it’s also frustrating to a point where you wonder when people will finally wake up and smell the roses.

  38. JMW

    @17. Revyloution Says:
    JMW im having a hard time with the image of a ‘militant’ skeptic. What do they do, suicide bomb astrology conventions? Kidnap and murder journalists who give ‘equal’ time to both sides of evolution/creationism? Steal and break dowsers rods, then laugh in their faces?

    Good comment for a laugh…

    That kind of misses the point of the skeptic movement. Skeptics don’t deal with what might exist, we just shrug and say its not worth considering until there is evidence. We try live our lives based on the positive data, and pass on anything that requires belief.

    As do I – I consider myself a skeptic as well. But like anything else, skepticism is not monolithic. There are ranges of attitudes amongst people. And there are those who call themselves skeptics, who have what I call the militant skeptic attitude, i.e., if there’s no evidence of how it works, then it doesn’t exist. Take a hypothetical universe in which someone has performed classic double-blind, controlled experiments of dowsing and determined that some people actually were able to find water, but that no theory can be formulated to explain how this happens (and yes, I’m perfectly aware that no such result has been obtained, nor do I consider dowsing to be in any way real). In my view, the militant skeptic would look at these results, which while real and perhaps even reproducible, are unexplainable…and decide that dowsing is false precisely because there is no explanation as to how it works.

    @30. ND Says:
    “militant skeptic” ? Did you make up that term? Yep, as far as I know. But then as far as I know, I was also the first person I ever heard say, “Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and atom bombs.” That would have been in 1975. Did I invent that too? Who knows? :)

    One might come to the belief that some X does not exist (but still not wholly rule out) if the ratio of evidence to claims is insanely low, or even “so far zero”. Such is the case of psychics, remote visualization etc.

    You’re also conflating showing that a phenomenon is real and the explanation behind it. One can show that a phenomenon is real and with additional research come up with a theory on the mechanism behind it. You don’t need to know how gravity works, but can show that it’s real.

    Conflating a phenomenon with its explanation is wrong…that’s what I think “militant skeptics” do, and I think it is wrong. That’s why my original post said that if a phenomenon is noted (and verified), but an explanation is lacking, we should be able to accept the phenomenon as real in the absence of an explanation of its mechanism, and continue on in the expectation that someday there will be an explanation. So we agree, yes?

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