Being Wrong

As an engineer, and a wanna-be scientist, I’m a fan of both disciplines and I’m cognizant of the differences between them. I’m not talking about the educational levels or the organizational differences or the societal pecking order. Rather I think the real difference between them is a matter of perceived and actual risk.

What happens if we are wrong? That question is always in the back of an engineer’s mind. Or if it isn’t, it should be. And I’m not talking about saving your job for the sake of the mortgage bill or getting credit to help out you promotion prospects. No, I’m talking about what happens to people and property if we are wrong. What happens if the designer of that airplane wing was’t diligent in his calculations? What happens if that elevator engineer misses a decimal place? Even what happens if that structural engineer steps a bit too far into unexplored territory and uses new fasteners in that new building?

Some of our leaders here say that we engineers shouldn’t sleep well at night because of these kind of questions. And many of us don’t.

But I wonder what kind of questions keep scientists up at night. If an astronomer or theoretical physicist is wrong, what are the consequences? Is life or limb at risk? I doubt it. Reputation, maybe, and perhaps there is a risk of grant funding, but how many working scientists (outside of the health field) directly affect the general population in terms of risk to their lives?

I’m not trying to take sides here, but rather trying to ponder on how risk affects the thinking of engineers and scientists. I think the risk questions (including economic risk) constrain an engineer’s actions while the lack of the same allows the scientist to venture into the unknown knowing that the consequences of being wrong will not be severe or widespread.

I’m thinking that it must be nice to be in that position. What do you think?


Don’t be a Dick, 18th Century style

I talked a bit about the whole “Don’t be a Dick” issue that started (this time around) with Phil Plait’s welcome address at TAM 8 ( and I concluded that, for me, I preferred to think that it should really be something more like don’t be a dick unless you’re talking to a dick.  Phil’s talk spawned numerous responses on the web that were for and against his message, and every stance in between.  If there is anything that the talk showed, it was that the skeptical movement has a similar cross-section of personality types as does the general population.  In short, we have some people who don’t mind being argumentative and strident, and some who don’t like the confrontational style, and a whole lot of people in between.  Which, I guess, means that nobody is right and nobody is wrong.

What is wrong, in my opinion, is in picking the targets incorrectly.  Sure, send PZ or Richard Dawkins after the Ken Hams of the world.  But send the Phil Plaits and Chris Mooneys of the movement to talk to moderates.  Match the weapon to the target and thereby make all the different weapons valid.

This has been percolating in my brain since TAM 8 and I was delighted recently to see this topic addressed by a very wise man.  As I am not a great confrontationalist (I know, not a word), I am going to try to follow his example.  I don’t think it is the easiest way to counter non-critical thinking, but I do think it can be very effective.

From his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin’s words on not being a dick:

While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s), at the end of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method; and soon after I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury and Collins, become a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine, I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis’d it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.

I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or, I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.

Worked for him, didn’t it?

Report from TAM 8 (part 2)

Some more highlights from TAM 8:

Jennifer Michael Hecht.  I was looking forward to this speach and I wasn’t disappointed.  Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of several books, the notable ones being Doubt: A History, The Happiness Myth, and her latest book of poetry titled Funny.  Her background in humanities was a breath of fresh air in the room and her passion and interest in the subject of the history of science and faith was infectious.  Just a wonderful speaker and obviously bursting with interest in the world.  One notable turn of phrase: “A wave isn’t a wave, it’s the ocean waving.  An apple is the universe appling.  You are the universe youing”.  I have read Doubt but will be re-reading it soon, and I bought Funny and I look forward to reading it too.  Here’s a link to Jennifer’s site:

David Javerbaum.  This was one of the funniest and most entertaining talks which I guess would be expected considering that Javerbaum has been head writer and producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  He had a dry, sarcastic wit (big surprise) and spent most of the time deftly answering questions from the audience.  While he said the agenda of the Daily Show is only to be funny, he pulled no punches when he was talking about the general news media which he said, “sucks ass”, and it was clear that there was some pride in the way the show puts the spotlight on hypocrisy in the media and politics while still being funny.  He has resigned from the show, regretfully it seemed, and he is going on to other things (scripting a musical, I think he said).

Paul Provenza.  This comedian and director has written a book, Satiristas (, in which he has conversations with famous comics and satirisists.  I’ve heard interviews with him and I am really interested in reading the book – the comics are presented as brave spokesmen and women of the human condition with all its failings and controversies.  He read from his book and was refreshingly irreverant.  He does have interest in the skeptic movement and contends that most of the comics are skeptics – just funny ones.   This was apparent when he opened saying, “I don’t care, but I’m going to say that I opened for Richard Fucking Dawkins.”  This was a bit of a departure from the rest of the talks, but very welcome and very, very entertaining.

Richard Dawkins.  I would like to say that this was the highlight of TAM, but it certainly wasn’t for me.  I think one issue was the interview format (by DJ Grothe, president of JREF).  The questions harped on the influence of fantasy fiction on critical thinking later in life and Grothe couldn’t seem to let this go (mentioning his comic book habit several times too many).  I would venture to say that if you have the pre-eminent evolutionary biologist on stage, the audience wants to hear about evolution and his work in the field.  Dawkins was also asked about atheism and skepticism but as eloquent as his answers were, they were not greatly edifying.  The interview was okay, but I thought most of the time was wasted on trivial issues.

Jen McCreight.  Jennifer was the instigator of Boobquake which was a lighthearted response to the ridiculous charges of an Iranian cleric who blamed earthquakes on women who were immodest in their clothing choice.  Jen was startled by the response to her amusing experiment – over 100000 fans on facebook and interviews by all the major news organizations.  She even got mentioned on the Colbert Report.  Her presentation was well done and it was refreshing to see a young, smart person doing something fun while still making a point.  Here is a link to her blog:

Global Climate Panel.  This panel discussion was important for one thing: it showed that skeptics do, indeed, have topics for which they aren’t skeptical.  The one dissenter (McGaha) on the panel was tossing out logical falacies and demonstrated remarkably fuzzy thinking about the subject and about the process of science itself.  His opinions were handily countered by Dr. Donald Prothero who appears both knowledgeable and articulate.  I have heard good things about his book, Evolution, What the Fossils Say, and intend to put that on my pile of books to read (I bought it at TAM).  Michael Shermer was also pretty good up there considering that he used to be an AGW skeptic.  Daniel Loxton perhaps put it best at the end – if you have another theory, write it up and enter the scientific arena.

I’ve just given you some hightlights of the meeting (IMHO, of course), but the rest of the presentations were quite good, if a little uneven, and it was nice to see quite a bit of diversity in the subjects.  I do think, and it seems like a lot of twitterers agreed, that the paper presentations shouldn’t be relegated to Sunday morning but rather interspersed throughout the meeting.  Attendence tends to be less on Sunday due mostly to late Saturday night socializing.  Or at least that is my hypothesis.

I didn’t take very much opportunity to socialize, except with a classmate of mine who we ran into on the first day.  It was great to catch up with him and his lovely new bride, and to realize we have skepticism in common.  BTW, here’s a link to his iPhone app: I wonder if he caught the sexuality workshop Sunday afternoon?

The one thing that I thought was lacking at TAM was the report of progress of the movement from the previous year and stated goals for the next year.  I don’t mean the attendence figures from TAM, but rather some metrics from skeptic activisim from the past year and specific actions on which we should be focussing in the coming year.  The closest came from Dr. Novella’s panel discussion where he proposed a concentrated effort against homeopathy this year.  Though it is a bit outside my expertise, I intend to help in that as much as I can.  It is something I think we can beat if we focus on it.

All in all, a great time was had by us, and if you haven’t been before, I suggest you try next year (or TAM London or Australia this year).  As always, comments are welcome.