My Favorite Skeptical Websites

I am a skeptic, and I have been since I was a child or teen.  I don’t remember exactly how old I was at the time, but I remember reading an article by Carl Sagan about a huge pop-culture pseudoscience phenomenon of the day, Immanuel Velikovsky.  Velikovsky had really wild ideas about the history of the solar system.  I actually was not thoroughly familiar with his ideas, but what struck me was how Sagan was able to use common logic, and a basic knowledge of physics to thoroughly debunk Velikovsky’s imaginings.  But it wasn’t just that he had debunked him, but that it sent me on a path of thought that maybe not everything that I would read about or would appear on TV, might be true as well.  It was the start of my path towards skepticism and critical thinking.  And within the two decades or so, I gradually discovered that I was not the only person who was questioning unusual claims.  So here’s a list of websites that I’ve been educated by, or have found useful in the past:

The Logical Place: Falacies : I’ve been a computer programmer for decades, and hence logic is part of my business — if I wasn’t good at logic, I could not possibly be good at my job..  Yet I find that I’ve been guilty of making many of the mistakes of fallacious reasoning that are listed on this page.  I strive for logic, but humans are more creatures of emotion and bias and so on.  It’s easier to sway someone’s opinion in a discussion using emotion than logic.  That said, I still strive for logic, and this list is a good start towards discovering whether your own opinions or those of others are based on solid reasoning, or not.  Note that bad reasoning CAN, on occasion, still lead to the right answer — just because you got the right answer doesn’t mean that your argument isn’t bad.  One of the most frustrating things I’ve found is when someone I actually agree with uses bad logic to support his claims.  It can be quite embarrassing.

Snopes.com : Do you have friends or relatives who occasionally forward you e-mails that make unusual claims, or that tell you about something terrible that a politician or celebrity has reportedly done, or that a great disaster is coming?  Well, I have, though less so now than I used to.  And that’s because people often forward those e-mails to the people who run this website.  They try to verify such rumors and determine their veracity. When I’d get such an e-mail myself, and I couldn’t personally prove the veracity or lack thereof of that rumor, I’d search for it on snopes.com.  Once in a blue moon, snopes has actually confirmed that rumor.  Sometimes the stories will remain unconfirmed for some time.  But more often than not, they’ve been able to get to the actual truth behind the rumor.  Unfortunately, there are also websites dedicated to nothing more than CREATING false rumors in order to get people to visit their site.  But the Snopes website is one of the good guys, fighting, so you don’t have to, to figure out what is and is not true.

Doubtful News  : This fantastic website collects a variety of stories of interest to skeptical readers.  It includes stories about questionable claims regarding hauntings, UFOs, psychics, cryptozoology (egs. Bigfoot and Nessie), and alternative medicines.  The same person who runs this website also runs Practical Skepticism, a site more focused on the use of skeptical thought in our daily lives.  Although the latter site is not updated quite as often, I recommend them both.  Reading Doubtful News is one of the highlights of my day, and I’ll frequently comment on the articles there that are of particular interest to me.

Science-Based Medicine : This is a website run by a Dr. Steven Novella, a medical doctor who writes frequently about medical and nutritional fads, and myths and so on.  I frequently see friends and relatives of mine posting stories about medicine and diet and dangers lying in wait in ones foods.  Snopes is great for the more non-technical claims, but this website is my go-to place to check out the veracity of all things health and medical-related.  And btw, while I’ve actually used WebMD myself, I’ve found that they can be far too credulous of unproven claims at times.

The Straight Dope : Technically, this may not be a truly skeptical website.  But it is one that I find most entertaining.  Since 1973, Cecil Adams and the rest of the Straight Dope editors do their best to answer questions sent to them.  Currently, a new question or two is answered every Friday, and Monday through Thursday, they publish an old article from their archives.  They do make the occasional mistake, and when they do, they will come out with a correction.  Occasionally, they may not be able to get a definitive answer to a question.  And far too often, the answers can come off a bit smart-alecky.  But I still enjoy reading The Straight Dope fairly regularly, and on rare occasions, will participate in their forums.

At some point in the future, I may add to this list.  But that’s enough for now.  This is enough to get any budding young skeptic started.

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been aware of Terry Pratchett for quite a long time. I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman, both his novels, and his now classic “Sandman” comic book series. He wrote Good Omens in collaboration with Pratchett, and it has been my go-to book to read whenever I’m feeling down. I love that book. Also, I’ve heard many people praise Terry Pratchett in the past, but until very recently, I kind of avoided him, since I’ve found that I mostly dislike fantasy (with the exception of a few occasional Urban Fantasy novels).

Anyway, I’m glad to say that I recently dove into Pratchett’s Discworld series, and so far I’m enjoying it quite a bit. Most recently, I finished reading Reaper Man, book #11 in that series. The premise is that Death has been asked to step down from his position, and that he will be replaced. So Death decides to see what it’s like to live. He rents a room with a farm widow, and helps her out with her ‘reaping’ and other chores. In the mean time, with no ‘Death’ to take care of all of the people dying, things start to go a bit askew on the Discworld.

Death is a character who’s appeared in most of the previous Discworld novels. One previous novel also featured him (Mort), but mostly he simply shows up and is always quite funny, sometimes darkly so. In this novel, we start to gain an understanding of his desires and dreams and so on. We see him as a person, instead of as his office. And I really enjoyed him in this novel.

I also really loved the character of Windle Poons, an old Wizard who dies, but because there is no Death at the moment to escort him to his next destination, he becomes a sort-of zombie. Poons also appeared in a previous novel, but in this one, he really stands out.

I really enjoyed this novel. But I recommend that you start at the beginning — the Discworld series as a whole is quite fun and if you haven’t discovered it yet, you don’t know what you are missing.

The Finest Hours

“The Finest Hours” is a film that tells the true story of a sea rescue off the coast of Cape Cod in 1952. Bernie Webber (played by Chris Pine), and 3 other men headed out in a small Coast Guard craft during a hurricane. There was already a rescue under way by several other ships, who had responded to an oil tanker that had split apart, so when it was discovered that yet another oil tanker had also split apart, without being able to radio their position, the Coast Guard was already short-handed.

I found the movie to be quite exciting. I especially liked Casey Affleck’s performance as Ray Sybert, an engineer aboard the tanker, who is disliked by all the men on board, but finds that he has to take charge of the situation, after the Captain dies. It’s not a perfect film, but compared with a lot of other movies that get released this time of year, it actually is surprisingly good.

Anyway, it’s probably the best thing playing in theaters right at this moment. It’s not a ‘must see’ movie, but I do recommend it.