Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Beardy News, Skeptic Struggles (Spoiler Alert!)

 Beardy News!

I have for you a few items in the beardy world. First and foremost, congratulations to Myk O'Connor (@mykoconnor on twitter) for your newly concieved, future hirsute spawn. Myk is one of those people cool enough to have been featured prominently on Whisker Wars (unlike me, who you can only find in reeeeally fast panning shots from the less popular categories), and Karolina is one of those girls you find yourself wondering "what if" about sometimes. I've had the good fortune of hanging out with them several times at contests and have found myself richer for it. Seriously, congrats to you two. Based on his folks, I expect the kid to have an Imperial Partial by the time (s)he is four, and a healthy, defiant curiosity by two.

Interestingly enough, I haven't followed much news in the competitive bearding world lately due to my involvement in my atheist/skeptical pursuits both public and private. Looking inward, I'm realizing more each day that science, discovery, learning, and teaching is the only thing as important to me as music, and that I may have more talent in sharing this love than I do music, but that I'm far more critical of this.

Skeptic Struggles!

For the few that may not know, I'm giving a talk for AOK (Oklahoma Athiests) in March on Science-Based Medicine. Long story short, they wanted someone for this specific talk. I can't possibly be the most qualified of our 700 active members, but I was asked (since people had seen me argue the subject in bars, at parties, and in places even less well suited) and jumped at the chance. The result is that it's taking up a large part of my remaining after-work cognitive resources between research and coming up with ways to keep it interesting for the layman. Also, to be honest this college dropout still has something to prove to himself. Until I find a way to finish my degree I'll probably always be far more critical of myself than necessary, which I'm currently fine with because that hopefully means I'll make for damned sure that I don't step up without knowing what I'm talking about.

Let's add to the complexity and stress. This is not just a subject I care about, it's a subject with which I have a serious history. When Science-Based Medicine is the explicit subject, the implicit subject is Alternative Medicine, or Alt-Med if you're too cool for school. This subject and I have a long and storied history. My own upbringing was a weird combination of setting the foundations for scientific thinking and skepticism (thanks dad for teaching me science and mom for backing me when questioning authority) and lending credence to all manner of spiritual & emotional lines of irrational thinking (dad sometimes bought into home remedies without deep research, mom inherently trusted anyone labeled an expert). This is certainly a mixed bag, and I didn't sort it all out until very recently. I have no regrets, as I firmly believe that it lends me an understanding of the emotional, irrational line of thought.

Let's add more complexity, shall we? My ex-family-in-law is a prominent family of chiropractors, members of a practice fairly universally reviled in the skeptic community. Anecdotally, I had a terrible history of lower back pain and after a few months of treatment my pain subsided and has not returned. Spoiler alert - this chiropractor didn't just adjust, but also suggested lifestyle changes large and small, suggested targeted stretching, and emphasized regular exercise and dietary improvements. I can't tell you what worked, but I can tell you that I continue the stretching to this day and my back feels like a hundred dollar bill. In any sense, I'm pretty sympathetic to the cause due to my anecdotal experience. However, as a good skeptic I'm pretty sure that it's probably due to the common sense lifestyle changes suggested (like don't put your giant wallet in your back pocket because it makes you sit funny, dumbass) as well as keeping limber and losing 60lbs as much or more than the treatment itself. Funny how those things can stick with you.

Back on topic, I'm currently reading Trick or Treatment for its wonderful citations (along with lots of great source material and other resources on traditional/alternative medicine), and as I go through it, I'm finding good questions to ask to go along with the citations I've already found. I fear I won't be a fun person to talk to when it comes to doing professional interviews for my local flavor segment, as I don't plan to ask easy questions. I do plan on putting a lot of professionals on the spot on each side of the coin, though. One of those things I learned from my dad, though, is that when conducting an interview of any kind, you should know what answer to expect and know how your subject came to that conclusion. I plan to know as much as possible about the subject before speaking to anyone. By the by, the lack of this is the primary objection I have to most modern science journalism.

The part I'm unsure of, though, is how far I want to take it. I don't want to be purposefully combative with anyone as such, regardless of what "side" I may suspect they're on, but I don't plan on giving anyone a pass to make baseless assertions without proper citation. I originally had an idea of making a short film out of a series of interviews to accompany my talk, but the enormity of the project struck me in the head. On that note, if anyone has ambition, camera/mic equipment, and a healthy skeptical curiosity, you're welcome to join me on this journey. I plan to interview a lot of local health professionals in the months of January and Feburary for my talk, and even if it's not used for the initial talk, a short film as a companion piece could be beyond compelling.

I have an idea of how I think my recommendations will land, but I'm open to learning and revising my outlook. Still, somehow I feel that my research will not end after this talk. Beyond that, I've finally come to the realization that I don't want to just put this talk together, but that I want to refine it. I want to make it better, I want to correct the flaws I know it will have. I want to present it to audiences both welcoming and hostile. And honestly, I've realized that I want to give this talk at a large venue like Skepticon.

This is how I learn more about myself. It may be selfish, but in this case I'm hoping ambition takes me to a better place and allows me to bring others with me. I welcome dissenters, I welcome the hate it will bring regardless of my findings. I hope that I'll be able to reach out to traditional and alternative practitioners and make all of them honestly evaluate their own methodologies as if answering to their own skeptical clients. I suppose we shall see as time moves forward.


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