Please check out the new INSIGHT skeptic blog!

There’s a new skeptic group blog I’d like to call to your attention. It’s called INSIGHT at skeptic.com, and is supported by the Skeptics Society and Skeptic Magazine. It just launched in September with a fantastic slate of skeptic writers on board. I’ll be writing there too – my first post (on ‘Psychic’ Sally Morgan) just appeared on Friday.

Insight LogoI’ve always tried to maintain the theme of this blog as technology and skepticism, and resisted the temptation to post on other topics. Sometimes that has meant that some posts here are kind of shoehorned into the format, like the ones about my fascination with skeptic history.  But it also means  that sometimes I’ve had things I wanted to write about that I simply didn’t, because the post wouldn’t fit in here.

INSIGHT solves that for me – now I have a place to post general skeptic commentary that does not explicitly relate to technology or the Internet.  Fear not, I will still be posting here on explicitly technical topics. In fact, I may do crossover posts where I explain the high level skeptical part over on INSIGHT and link back to a nitty-gritty technical post here.  Stay tuned!

I’m also very excited to now be writing alongside some great skeptics. The blog is edited by my good friend Daniel Loxton, who I’ve always felt a kinship with because of his dedication to pure scientific skepticism as well as skeptic history.  Other bloggers include my VirtualSkeptics co-hosts Eve Siebert and Barbara Drescher and the founder of Skepticality podcast Robynn “Swoopy” McCarthy. Plus many other great folks including Jim Lippard, Blake Smith, Mike McRae, Laurie Tarr and many more!

I recommend you go read Daniel’s introductory post to the blog as well as the wonderful Eugenie Scott’s guest post which kicked the blog off.  Please subscribe, link to it on social media and recommend it to your friends!

The value of answering your own questions at Stack Exchange

Stack Skeptic logoThere’s much to learn when you are interested in skepticism. There’s the human psychology, the history of various scams and hoaxes, the science (and pseudoscience) of alternative medicine, and much more. As a result there’s plenty of material to read – books, magazines, newsletters, blogs and so on.

In my reading, I inevitably come across lots of interesting little tidbits here and there. Finding stuff like this was the basis in part for both What’s the Harm and my Skeptic History daily fact.

But sometimes you find a neat fact that you’d love to call to everyone’s attention, but you don’t have the appropriate place to put it. Social media is often too ephemeral, and blogging is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Let’s assume you don’t have a popular website of your own (most people don’t) and don’t want to start one. Some topics just aren’t appropriate for their own Wikipedia (or even RationalWiki) article. Either there just isn’t enough meat there, or other editors might question the “notability”.

Wouldn’t be nice if there was another place to publicly bookmark little items like this, set up so the general public could easily find them? There is such a place and let me explain why it’s ideal for this.

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“Right to be Forgotten” may affect skeptic outreach

"Forget-me-not and Blue sky" by Heike Löchel licensed under Creative Commons

“Forget-me-not and Blue sky” by Heike Löchel licensed under Creative Commons

Because skeptics constantly criticize the claims of others, we often provoke angry reactions. Ideally this provokes some educational debate, but sometimes it goes sour. That can take the form of trolling, harassment or even escalate to legal action. In the United States the legal option tends not to be too successful, thanks to our First Amendment rights. But that doesn’t apply outside the US.

Some opponents of skeptics seek out more creative ways to shut down our commentary. A few years ago a German named Claus Fritsche was paid by homeopathy manufacturers to create spam websites that would poison the search engine results for Edzard Ernst’s name, in an effort to discredit his critiques of alternative medicine. Numerous skeptics have been targets of spurious DMCA claims on YouTube over the years.

Recently the European courts have created a brand new way for the people we criticize to tamper with (at least in Europe) our ability to reach an audience. It is called the “right to be forgotten” and skeptic webmasters need to stay on top of their tools in order not to get blindsided by this.

Read on and I’ll explain.

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Simple WHOIS check unravels Mike Adams’ latest threats

Partial screen shot from the ill-fated Monsanto Collaborators website

Partial screen shot from the ill-fated Monsanto Collaborators website touted by Mike Adams

I know I haven’t been keeping up with the blog here. As you can tell from the top menu bar and my social media feeds, I have a number of different projects and sometimes it’s hard to balance them all. Plus I have some cool new super-secret projects in the works that are taking up my time. And I do have a day job too!  But fear not, I have several posts that I’m working on for this blog and activity will pick up soon, especially as we ramp up into DragonCon at the end of this month.

But for today I just wanted to offer some kudos to another blog where an investigation appeared last week that would not have been out of place right here on Skeptools. Nick Price, posting at the newly-launched blog This Week in Pseudoscience looked into a controversial post by Mike Adams (the so-called “Health Ranger” who many skeptics call the “Health Danger”).

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Online science of interest to skeptics this week at #ICWSM

I know many tech-oriented skeptics are paying attention to the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco this week, wanting to find out what’s next in Macs, iPhones and iPads. But I’d like to call your attention to a different conference – a scientific conference – also going on this week. The conference is the 8th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, it runs through tomorrow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

ICWSM logoIt might surprise you to learn there is a great deal of peer-reviewed science going on around blogs, social media and other newer online technologies. Curiously, while I see skeptics blogging about studies in alt-med, psychology, biology or physics almost daily, I rarely see skeptic blog posts about studies on Internet technology. (There are exceptions, of course). I see much more interest in this among the computer scientists, data scientists and journalists I follow online.

I suspect one of the reasons is studies in older scientific fields have more application to pseudoscience, the paranormal and other things skeptics seek to critique. But this newer Internet research can address the methods and techniques of skepticism itself. Many skeptics these days do a great deal of our work online. We should take advantage of the available science in this area to make our online efforts more effective.

One nice thing about the AAAI conference going on this week is much of it is published online already – indeed, full copies of all the papers to be presented were available online before the conference started.  I find a number of them cover topics that will be of interest to skeptics. One of them is specifically about sending Snopes.com links to people on Twitter – a common pursuit. And another may confirm some things we know about trolls.

Let me give you a peek.

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Beware: tools for creating fake news (Virtual Skeptics)

Virtual Skeptics logoOn Virtual Skeptics this week I talked about the flip side of this website’s normal topic – tools to create misinformation instead of tools to debunk it. Of course any tool designed to work with real information can be used to distort as well.

We saw that this week when a news hoax was perpetrated via CNN’s “iReport” site – a place for citizens to submit journalism.  It was a poorly written prediction of apocalypse for the year 2041 which credible sources like Phil Plait quickly debunked. Many sites including Doubtful News chided CNN for taking 22 hours to notice and take down the bogus story.

But there are also online tools designed specifically for creating hoaxes like this. They are usually intended for playing pranks on friends and the like. A new one emerged this week, which was my topic on Virtual Skeptics. Since my segment is very short (just over 6 minutes) I thought I would go ahead and embed it here so you can see what was discussed.  Video and supporting links after the jump…

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Dennis Markuze (aka “David Mabus”) pleads guilty for the second time

Dennis MarkuzeEarlier today in Montreal, Dennis Markuze – better known to skeptics and atheists online by his online persona “David Mabus” – pled guilty to three counts including harassment, threatening a police officer, and breach of probation. The victim of harassment in this case was the author of this blog.

Paul Cherry in the Montreal Gazette was in court and has the full story:

Dennis Markuze, 43, a man who often uses the alias David Mabus when he makes threats, appeared before Quebec Court Judge Jean-Claude Boyer at the Montreal courthouse on Thursday where he entered a plea to three charges in all, including a breach of his probation.

The breach of probation charge was from his first guilty plea on May 22, 2012 and was what led us to campaign for his arrest the second time back in November 2012.  As my earlier blog post explained, the authorities were not supervising Markuze, and seemed unaware that he had resumed posting online in violation of his plea agreement.

The news article has more on Markuze’s mental state:

On Thursday, Markuze’s lawyer, Richard Bellefeuille, told Boyer that a psychiatrist who evaluated Markuze in February again attributed his actions to an abuse of cocaine and alcohol. The psychiatrist also noted that Markuze is being treated for a delusional disorder “which could explain his Internet activities.”

An expert at the Philippe Pinel Institute who examined Markuze earlier in the current case had determined that Markuze’s mental health problems could not be used as a defence if his case ever went to trial.

I had been told of the additional threats Markuze made at the time of his second arrest, but not their exact nature.  The article reveals that he told the police officer, “You bitch. The same thing will happen to you like what happened to the (World Trade Centre) twin towers in 9/11.”

As in previous stages of this long case (in which skeptic activists had to exhibit patience at every step) we will have to wait for a full resolution. Sentencing has been set for November 21 (six months from now) to give time for the Crown to verify that cocaine and alcohol abuse “are the only problems Markuze has.”

I sincerely hope that investigation will finally result in Markuze getting the treatment he clearly needs.

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