Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Conspiracy Song

People do like to believe in strange things. I tackled some of my favorite pseudoscientific examples in The Skeptic in the Room.  And now, I present The Conspiracy Song, my take on some of the popular conspiracy theories that occupy so many people's minds. 

In doing a little research for this song, I was struck by just how many conspiracy theories there are out there, and how absurdly dedicated their adherents are to them. And, just as with religions (where people are gleefully sure that all religions are false except their own) and pseudoscience, people seem to have no trouble embracing a pet theory while rejecting others as illogical. So I'm sure the birthers will chuckle at the mention of other conspiracies while shaking their heads sadly at my mention of their obsession. And those who are certain there's a shadowy New World Order will reject my making fun of it, while laughing at the Moon hoaxers. And, of course, the true believers in a Kennedy assassination conspiracy will reject the whole thing - because those people have no sense of humor at all.

Anyway, it's all in good fun, right?  Here is The Conspiracy Song:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Jack Mormon on "The Book of Mormon"

I am a lover of Broadway musicals.  I really mean this, I like musicals far more than any straight man should!  And, as a formerly active Mormon (and by active I mean BYU-graduating, mission-serving active), I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.  The show comes from some wickedly warped minds (and I mean that in the most complementary way possible) – the guys behind South Park and the musical “Avenue Q.”  And, as a fan of both of those shows, I was curious to see what they would do with (and to) the religion of my youth.

I have not seen the show yet, but I did immediately download the soundtrack when it became available on iTunes last week. I have since listened to it several times and read the synopsis in the accompanying booklet, so I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the content.

First it is, somewhat surprisingly, not an “anti-Mormon” musical at all.  In a very real sense, the story is just a story that happens to be about Mormon missionaries. 

Second, it’s amazing to me how well these guys nailed Mormons and the Mormon culture. Yes, it’s a parody of the Mormon culture, but it’s an affectionate parody, and it’s so right on it clearly shows that they have actually gotten to know Mormons in a way that very few non-Mormons ever do or can. Because Mormonism, for all its goofiness, has an internal coherence that makes it very convincing to its adherents. You can mock the church’s doctrine and history (it’s easy to do), but you can’t do it this effectively unless you really understand that internal coherence and why so many people find it so compelling.

A perfect example of this is the song “turn it off,” in which a group of missionaries sings about the way the church teaches you to set aside thoughts or ideas or feelings that don’t fit the prescribed model. That’s a “Mormon trick,” (as the song says) that is really accurate. I can’t remember how many times I was counseled to put aside those pesky doubts I had about the church by some Mormon elder or Bishop.  “Just put them aside,” they’d say, “and bring them back out some day when you’re more spiritual and you’ll find they no longer bother you.”  As the song says: “Turn it off, like a light bulb...”

While I’m sure mainstream Mormons are going to hate this thing, they really shouldn’t.  The musical’s treatment of Mormon missionaries and Mormons in general is very gentle.  And once you get past the very raunchy lyrics of many of the songs, there are several that could actually become popular among church members.  If the Church were smart, it would do a little tut-tutting about the language and about the fun the author’s have with Mormon doctrine and then embrace it as a means to engage others about what they really believe.

But they won’t.  Because the Mormon Church has an incredible chip on its shoulder and looks at anything that isn’t totally positive as totally negative. Like I say, that’s too bad. Because the thing is damned enjoyable!

Here's Turn it Off, from The Book of Mormon

A Message Map for Skeptics - Part Three

In two previous blog posts I expressed some thoughts on why I believe the skeptical community needs to develop some basic messaging for the movement, and how they might go about doing so.  Now, having presented those thoughts, I figured I might as well go ahead and take a stab at creating a message platform as an example of what I’m talking about.

But before going on, please read the following disclaimer:

I am not, absolutely not, suggesting that this is the actual set of messaging the skeptical community should adopt and use.

My intent is simply to create an example of what I’m talking about, based on my own particular point of view. An actual message platform that had any hope of widespread use would be created through the kind of process I outlined in part two, and would involve the collected wisdom and input from a wide range of individuals.

Now, just a few words about what a message map is and what it is not.

  • First, if done right, the map is deceptive in its simplicity. The idea is that you look at the words on the page and go “duh, of course that’s what we we’re all about.”
  • It is not an attempt to dictate opinions to anyone or to wallpaper over differences of opinion.  Rather, it’s an attempt to identify common ground for everyone in the movement, from which they can easily move to their particular position on any subject.
  • It is an attempt to help define the movement positively so that others understand what the skeptical movement is all about.

At the bottom of this post, you’ll see my attempt to develop a message map for skeptics.  There is a bubble in the middle of the map, surrounded by four specific issue areas.  The center bubble is where we put the consensus view of what the skeptical movement is about - not a pure definition, but rather a soundbite that helps us connect what each other and with people outside the community. Here’s what I came up with:  

Skeptics believe that the world we live in is explainable and understandable through science and reason...and that that is awesome!
That statement summarizes my philosophy as a skeptic - I’ve even added it to the boilerplate on my blog.  it’s not as poetic as I’d like it to be, but it’s a positive statement of my worldview.  I’m sure many skeptics would word this very differently, or would stress different salient points. But that’s why you bring a group together to talk it through - each word in a statement like this should be carefully weighed and selected or rejected because of its ability to communicate truth.  

The four areas I chose to focus on for further definition are science, education, woo and religion (not any definitive list, of course, but those seem to be the four areas I have most of my skeptical discussions about. In each, there’s a core statement that relates back to the center, as well as some support statements for that area.

So, how would I use this?  Here are some examples:

If a friend wanted to make a case for homeopathy, I could (as I often have) mockingly point to the glaring weaknesses of the concept, immediately putting him on the defensive. Or, using the map, I could say something like “you know, I’m a believer that science can pretty much explain anything.” He’d agree, presumably. “My problem with something like homeopathy is that, since it is not backed up by science, people are spending a lot of money on it that they could put to better use and, more importantly, they may be staying away from treatments that would actually do them some good (woo).”  Then I would go on to talk specifically about why homeopathy is nonsense...but hopefully I've established the basis of my opinion to begin with, which makes it more likely that he’ll accept my specific criticisms of his pseudo-scientific belief.

Or let’s say my local school board was considering the teaching of intelligent design in our high schools and I wanted to make a speech opposing it. I could just rip into intelligent design as warmed over creationism (which it obviously is), but I would risk immediately losing my audience since it’s likely to be largely made up of believers of one sort or another. Or I could fashion a speech that begins with my philosophy that the most awesome truths in our world are revealed by science (middle bubble), talk about why it’s important that we use the scientific method to improve life for people on the planet (science), and then move on to how we fail our children if we do not teach them the best and most up to date science (education).    Presumably most people in the room are going to agree with some or all of that, and I haven’t even touched on creationism yet. I can move on to that now, but in the context I’ve established, not as an attack on religion itself.

Or, finally, imagine that you're a prominent skeptic and a reporter calls you to ask about some New Atheist’s strident attacks on religion. Let’s say you have issues with this person’s tactics (we’ll call him ‘so-and-so’), but you also don’t want to publicly highlight any rifts between prominent skeptics. So you start by ignoring the specific question and going to the message map. “Let me first say that, like so-and-so, I believe that the world is explainable and understandable through science and reason.” You’ve just stated the basic belief that you share, and created solidarity without having to support a particular point of view with which you don't agree.  “And I’m sure we would also agree that religions, when they enter the world of science, have an obligation to use the scientific method” (religion).”  More common ground.  “So, while I may express things a little differently than so-and-so, we would both agree religious beliefs that masquerade as science have to be opposed.”

The problem with this last scenario is that the reporter, of course is looking for conflict. If you don’t give it to him or her, you’re probably not going to end up in the story at all. But that’s another issue entirely.

Anyway, that’s enough about that.  As I said several times, these are just my thoughts on the subject, and the message map I created is simply my work. I’d love to see a situation where the leaders of the skeptical movement could come together and develop something along these lines that would benefit the rest of us as we try to carry the skeptical message forward.

Comments are welcome.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Good Old Days

I'm still working on the final installment of my "message map for skeptics" series of posts, but we'll take a moment out for a musical interlude.

By almost any measure, life today is so much better than it was twenty, fifty, eighty or a hundred years ago. And yet most people seem to think its worse and getting worse by the moment. In my new song, "The Good Old Days," I take a look at this phenomenon and try to make a bit of a case for why I think things are better now than ever before (not perfect, mind you - we've got plenty of problems. But, man, the opportunities that my kids have today versus what their grandparents had are mind-boggling!).

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Message Map for Skeptics - Part Two

In my previous post I tried to articulate my thoughts about the need in the skeptical community for a coherent message platform.  My premise is that, as a community, skeptics are all over the map when it comes to talking about what we’re all about, while our “opponents” in pseudoscience, religion and politics are on target and disciplined in their messaging.  

So, what would I do about it?

Well, if  I were CEO of Skeptical Movement Inc., I would bring together a dozen or so of the brightest leaders in our movement, get them in a room for a day with a good media consultant, and hammer out a set of talking points designed to frame the movement moving forward. I’d have them focus on a few key messages that would provide a common starting point for talking about skepticism to the media, to politicians, to our friends and neighbors and family members.  

First, I’d focus on the core question of what is skepticism? Is there in fact something we can all agree on as the response to that question?  It needs to be a single statement, a powerful soundbite (to use another loaded term), a simple summation of what we’re about. Not a jargon-filled attempt to describe every aspect of skepticism, but a positive, forward-looking statement that says what we’re trying to accomplish and why it’s important (having positive statement is really important for us - all of the dictionary definitions of skepticism are negative by default. We have to figure out how to take that word and make it positive).

Then I’d have them focus on the most important areas where skeptics are active, come up with a similar core statement for each, and make sure they tie back to the core statement discussed above. There are certain primary concerns that seem to motivate the skeptical community, and having a common statement or two that we can all agree on about each would be incredibly helpful, as these become the support statements for the core statement. I’m not sure what the full list is, but I would suggest “science,” “woo”, “religion” and “education”. Maybe “politics” too.

Once developed, those key message points could be put onto a single message map, designed to be easily used by anyone in the movement.

And then I’d get that message map out to everyone in the community, talk them up among bloggers and podcasters and twitterers and media spokespeople and scientists...everyone who has an opportunity to communicate about what our movement is all about. I’d encourage people to make that core statement part of their home pages and mission statements, and encourage them to start every media interview with that point, even if it’s not the question they are  asked.

Over time, we could see more coherence in our messaging. We would see those points that we agree on showing up in news reports and on broadcasts. We might see an emerging consensus about what skeptics really are all about, that isn’t so negative. We might see more agreement among ourselves and less infighting.

At the very least we would provide a useful tool for the growing legion of skeptics who have come into the movement in a variety of ways but who often have a hard time articulating what it is we’re all about.

Tomorrow, in my third and final post on this subject, I will offer up some ideas of what this skeptical message map might look like. Editor's Note: And by "tomorrow," I meant sometime in the next few days, when I get time to finish my sample message map ;^)