Skeptics’ Circle #105: The Shakespeare Edition

Welcome to the 105th edition of the Skeptics’ Circle. It’s a privilege to be hosting such a fine carnival here at It’s the Thought that Counts. I hope you enjoy your stay at our humble blog.

In honor of the 105th edition, we’re going to take a look at William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 105. Although of course it’s actually about the beauty, gentleness, and loyalty of one’s beloved, I think we can give it a skeptical reading if we try hard enough. And with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, a love poem seemed appropriate. So let’s get right to it!

Let not my love be call’d idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,

What better way to open a meeting of skeptics? Several submissions focused on questioning facts assumed to be unchallengeable. One blogger unwilling to engage in such idolatry of assumptions was Karl Haro von Mogel at Biofortified, who can’t find a kernel of truth to anti-GMO groups’ claims that President Obama promised to mandate labeling of genetically modified foods. In other biology idolatry news, Jeremy at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog discussed the claim that 98% of the world’s seeds come from six companies. Is that a real fact, or is it a great example of Bellman’s Theorem?

Since all alike my songs and praises be

No problem — skepticism doesn’t have to be applied only to rare or outlandish things. Sometimes the everyday provides perfect opportunities to exercise one’s critical thinking skills. Marty, of Marty’s Place, wrote about the natural explanations for his apparent telekinetic and psychic powers over his refrigerator and car stereo. Meanwhile Matt, the Skeptical Teacher, explained how fortune cookies don’t know your fortune, even if they appear to help someone win the lottery on occasion — and how the same is true for psychics.

While we’re on the subject of psychics: Seth Manapio, of Whiskey Before Breakfast…The Blog reminded us that psychics are con artists, using false advertising to trick people into believing them. He argued that we shouldn’t blame a psychic’s customer for getting scammed, just as we shouldn’t blame a rape victim for getting raped.

To one, of one, still such, and ever so.

Some people think that if you hold a particular viewpoint, you’re never allowed to do anything that might reveal slight complicity in anything perceived by anyone as contradictory. TechSkeptic, of Effort Sisyphus, found an article on Fox News criticizing environmentalists for ever using electricity, using manufactured items, or doing anything with any environmental cost. TechSkeptic explained why, if we encouraged that attitude, we’d all be living without the convenience of indoor plumbing.

Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;

Love may be constant, but the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is not. The Socratic Gadfly described how the definition revisions that took place between the DSM-III and DSM-IV may have contributed to the increase in autism diagnoses.

Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.

Yes, staying constant might be romantic, but it’s not always rational. Sometimes the difference is important, and shouldn’t be left out! It’s important to challenge our beliefs and see if a change is necessary. Barbara Drescher, at ICBS Everywhere, described her attempts to convince Frank Ferris to allow controlled tests to see if his dog Dave can really do math. Will she succeed? Stay tuned to her blog; there is some hope. TechSkeptic also gave us a great post on the challenge paradigm and its many manifestations. Check it out to see who’s doing it right, and who just doesn’t get it.

‘Fair, kind and true’ is all my argument,
‘Fair, kind, and true’ varying to other words;

Fairness, kindness, and truthfulness are certainly things we skeptics can get behind. (Heck, we’re even respectful while we’re insolent.) The emphasis is on that third one, though, so let’s take the time now to discuss evidence and how to examine it to find truth. Greta Christina, at her eponymous blog, asked if theists are really being intellectually honest when they say that the question of the existence of God(s) deserves “further exploration.” She argues that their version of exploration seems to involve a lot more omphaloskepsis than evidence-gathering. Over at Skeptimedia, Bob Carroll (of The Skeptic’s Dictionary fame) explained the importance of evaluating evidence. The class he used to teach on this topic sounds really interesting. Matt, the Skeptical Teacher, found some people who seem like they could use a lesson from Bob. He bravely delves into the strange and baseless claims made by conspiracy theorists worried about the Hudson River plane landing.

And in this change is my invention spent,

Okay, this is getting tricky, but I’m going to use the word “invention” to transition into publication of scientific research. Please imagine that that was graceful. Andrew of The Evolving Mind brought us the happy news of a paper published that gives a null result which may surprise you. Finding no relationship between variables is worth noting! I wrote about how papers posted on the freely available arXiv database do not necessarily contain reliable science, so they should be approached with caution. Blake Stacey, at Science after Sunclipse, shared a similar sentiment as well as a great example of some “alternative” genetic research he found there.

Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.

Skeptics know well that when you combine seemingly unrelated things into one new thing (think: quantum harpsichord bubble bath, sounds so curative!) you can make miracles… or at least a lot of money off the uninformed. Bing McGhandi, at Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes, used this philosophy to bring us chapter 1 of his Feng Shui Diet book, all about preventative feng shui. So convincing, it’ll make you wonder why no one’s tried to sell this before. Over at Ionian Enchantment, Michael Meadon showed us a story that was all too real: a Reuters piece on what feng shui masters have to say about finances in the coming year.

‘Fair, kind, and true,’ have often lived alone,
Which three till now never kept seat in one.

As Shakespeare closes, so will we, with Kylie’s review of the show “Lie to Me,” at Podblack Cat. She wrote, “They don’t seem to be short-changing the science” of lie detection, and she says it’s also pretty interesting and entertaining. Three for one; I may start watching the show myself!

That’s it for this time around. Join us for the next Skeptics’ Circle on February 26th, to be hosted by Disillusioned Words.