LHC Frustrations

I’ve been following the LHC project for quite some time now and I was really excited about it starting up yesterday. It’s been getting lots of press in the last few days regarding the crackpots who think it’s going to result in a black hole and destroy the world. Obviously, this hasn’t happened, but it seems it’s all the media care to focus on when talking about it. Never mind the possibility of actually finding the Higgs Boson and unifying fundamental physics. My frustration with the apocalyptic stylings of the media has just hit critical mass thanks to this:

Phil Plait over at BadAstronomy brings to our attention an Indian girl who killed herself out of fear of the LHC. Apparently the Indian media has really blown this one up and coupled with their heavily superstitious culture has created a bit of a panic over there. Plait doesn’t play the blame game though, placing responsibility squarely on us and really hammers home the need for critical thinking:

All over the world, in all different countries, people are raised to believe in superstitious nonsense, and raised to believe with all their hearts that it’s real.

And when we do that, we do far more than remove people from reality. We leave them vulnerable to all manners of nonsense, from believing in fairies to truly and honestly thinking the LHC will destroy the planet. People don’t learn how to think critically, and then they drink homeopathic water instead of taking real medicine, they chelate their children, or they deny their children vaccinations. And when that happens, people die. Children die.

I’m a parent. I sometimes think the most important thing I can do for my daughter is love her, keep her healthy, protect her. But in all of those, there is an overarching responsibility for me to teach her how to live in the real world. And that means showing her how to think. Not what to think, but how

Most people don’t see critical thinking as an important faculty in daily life, or they consider their “common sense” to be adequate. Stories like this make it very clear that that isn’t the case. “Common sense” just isn’t enough. All beliefs, superstitious or otherwise, must be continually examined and updated to reflect reality as best as possible. Critical thinking is critical in every sense, and relinquishing it would be to doom us in a way untouchable by any mere partical accelerator.

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Friendly Skepticism

If you’ve never heard of the podcast Skeptoid, you’re really missing out. Imagine Penn & Teller: Bullshit! minus profanity (and with some regret, nudity), about 10 minutes long, and produced weekly without breaks. Brian Dunning does a masterful job bringing everyday skepticism to your ears.

His most recent podcast is titled How to Be a Skeptic and Still Have Friends, a bit of a divergence from the usual debunkery, but very well worth listening to. My closest friends are almost all skeptics, though some might not use the word or aren’t familiar with the movement. However regarding day-to-day interaction with other people I found this podcast to be very insightful.

Focus on where you agree, never on where you disagree. Start by finding common ground. No matter who you’re talking to, they have some level of skepticism about something. Ask them, “Isn’t there some myth you’ve heard that you don’t necessarily believe?”

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The Tether Incident

My journey to skepticism has been long and troublesome. Like most people though, I had to realize this retroactively. I always considered myself an intelligent person and expressed earnest interest in what science had to offer. However much like the cab driver described by Carl Sagan in his tome of critical thinking Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, my sincerity had been hijacked by the misinformation of popular culture.

My world-view was filled with mysticisms regarding everything from lost technologies of Atlantis to the Loch Ness Monster to alien visitations and to unassisted human flight powered by the mind. Not that I held specific ideas about any of these things, just that a twisted sense of wonder had given me the ability to construct a universe of uncertainty and hidden worlds. I largely believed things based on whether or not I liked them. If something appealed to me, I would accept it uncritically.

This sort of fanciful thinking was no doubt facilitated by my religious upbringing. When you believe in a world of angels, demons, plagues, virgin conception, parting seas, prophecy, resurrection and talking snakes it’s pretty damn easy to throw in a chupacabra if you are so inclined. So when the lenses of faith finally melted away, spawning a wave of self-examination of my beliefs, just about everything else faded with it. But one thing still had a vesitigal tether still attached.

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A Brief History of Jon

I’ve got nothing better to do at the moment, so I’ll take the opportunity to write my first of many little blurbs.  Mostly, I’ll be recapping things I learned in a given week, but every now and then I may post a thought or even a question and I’d encourage anyone reading to respond with discussion if they agree or disagree.

Anyways, as this is my first post, I can’t think of a better way to start than to give a bit of a history of how how my beliefs formed and eventually changed into how I currently view the Universe.  Most of you who know me personally know me well enough that you are aware (and probably were a part) of my religious upbringing.  I was born into a Christian family that has, by many people’s standards, rather strict morals.  In many ways, you could say I am grateful for my Christian upbringing.  By direct result of being a member of this church, I met my girlfriend of nearly 5 years, whom I love very much, and I also formed a small, but very close group of outstanding friends.  It also probably helped to keep me out of trouble when I was in middle and high school.  That all being said, I no longer consider myself a part of the Church, or any religion for that matter; nor do I believe in a personal god.

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