Even though I’d argue that its impossible to find anyone that fits the mold perfectly when it comes to our society’s view of normality it doesn’t deter me from the pursuit of understanding it. There are a lot of norms out there that don’t make logical sense and as an engineer this becomes a curiosity, as I try to figure out these norms and map them out with easy input/output equations in my head. This sounds a bit abstract and I tend to normally describe this as “trying to understand the everyman” which has the subtle undertone of me being an outsider. I’ll put that down to my awkward teenage years still being a fresh memory 😉
Coincidentally this pursuit of understanding will usually clash quite heavily with the skeptical voice inside me. Things that don’t make sense or aren’t based in sound science and logic form a large part of our everyday norms. One of these is the perpetual myth of the Polygraph, which reared its head in a recent political scandal that hit the news this morning:
“As a first step to restoring my reputation I subjected myself to a lie detector test and the results are set out in the report dated 29 January enclosed with this letter,” the letter said.
“Despite your denials, you will see the result is conclusive. You cannot be surprised.
“I am providing you with the results of the lie detector test because I want you to publicly admit that I was telling the truth about our relationship.
Now I’m not going to comment on whether or not this story has any facts behind it (to be honest its your usual political scandal/beat up, they’re a dime a dozen) but the use of the polygraph is what got me listening. Taken on face value the results show that she wasn’t lying about the relationship in question and thus puts pressure on Rann to take the test to either prove or disprove the results. This however is one mistake that the everyman has been making for a long time, trusting the polygraph.
Most people in any modern society are familiar with the idea of a polygraph or “lie detector”. In essence its an information aggregator taking readings of bodily functions like breathing rate, respiration, pulse and other metrics like skin conductivity and blood pressure. The measures themselves are objective and quantifiable however the interpretation of them is far from it. In fact the scientific community’s consensus on the polygraph is that they are unreliable and not much better than random chance. So why are they still brought up so often in circumstances like in the article I linked above?
The most obvious reason I can see for this is the lack of education. Ask anyone on the street what the wider scientific community thinks on polygraphs and I’m sure the majority of answers will be along the lines of “I don’t know”. Scandals and their use in popular media don’t help this fact either as the majority of them fail to mention the failings of the polygraph, instead only demonstrating their use. It also doesn’t help that one of my favourite shows, Mythbusters, perpetuated the myth with their use of a discredited polygraphist and liberal interpretation of the scientific method. Don’t get me wrong though, they’ve done more for the world of critical thinking than many others have, but this is one point in time where they failed terribly. There are counter examples to them though, like those with Penn and Teller’s show Bullshit, where they aptly demonstrate the polygraph’s failings and show you how to beat it in under 10 minutes.
The good news is that in most courts around the world polygraphs are inadmissible and in our own backyard they’ve been aggressively thrown out, setting the precedent for all cases henceforth. Still they prevail in popular media mostly as an attempt to generate more controversy because their ambiguous nature makes for a good story. It’s a testament to the times that I only see a story like this once every year or so but it will still be a long time before the everyman knows that polygraphs are pure bull and should be discounted as such.
You know there are times when I’ve caved into a stereotype just because it was easier to work within those boundaries than trying to define my own. I remember some years ago being told that I took quite a keen interest in my appearance and had myself labelled as a metrosexual. Initially I fought back against this since I hadn’t really defined myself in such a way, still trying to grasp onto the last bit of teenage rebellion that I had in me. After a while though I realised that the label brought with it ideals that I found easy to align with, so I just went with it.
More recently though I’ve been fighting with the idea of caving into becoming a full blown ravenous skeptic. I’ve blogged numerous times in the past about the sceptical movement and how I support their ideas whilst criticizing their technique but it’s becoming more and more apparent that it might just be easier to join the cause and cave into the stereotype. Whilst the benefits of doing so are great (indeed joining their ranks would generate more blog traffic, possibly open up the opportunity to speak at their conventions and give me daily blog fodder) there’s still that little teenage voice of angst whispering at the back of my mind telling me not to conform to their standards. So where has all this cognitive dissonance come from?
Winding the clock back 3 weeks finds myself living the life of luxury on Turtle Island, lapping it up with my wife. I’d be lying if I said the people I was there with were exactly my kind of people, it was far from that. Indeed the majority of them were in their late 30s to 40s and many of them were highly successful people (in fact one of them was the CIO for Westfield Corporation) so the conversations often drifted far from areas I could talk about. One warm night having dinner on the beach the topic drifted to stories of how we all met, and one of them happened to involve a tale about homeopathic medicine. Fortunately the story teller was a cardiovascular surgeon and didn’t believe the stuff would work (and in truth was only trying it because he was at wits end and had resigned to just living with the mild shoulder pain it was trying to fix) but another couple perked up saying that they regularly saw a homeopathic doctor. Instantly two voices cried out in my head: the first telling me to shoot down homeopathy in a blaze of skeptical glory and the other warning me that that kind of conversation wasn’t going to win me any friends, something which on a private island designed for relaxation wouldn’t be looked on kindly from the other guests.
In the end I kept my mouth shut, but that didn’t make the skeptical voice inside my head go away. I quickly came to realise that whilst there’s a giant community of skeptics and endless support from the scientific community in the end being a skeptic isn’t going to win you any friends, save for those who are skeptics themselves. The fact that dulled the sceptical voice in my head was that whilst the couple said they visited such a doctor not once did they actually recommend anyone else go and see one over a regular GP and as such the only harm they were doing was to themselves. If they had started spruiking such nonsense to everyone else I don’t think the skeptical voice would’ve kept quiet and I’d probably be telling a completely different story.
There’s also the fact that the Global Atheist Convention is coming to Melbourne next year. Since I have many friends who would identify themselves as either Atheist or Skeptical I’ve already had a couple invitations to come down for the weekend and spend a day or two touring the event. I am tempted to, since many of the people lined up to speak are interesting in their own right and the Atheist convention may be my only chance to see them speak in Australia for a long time to come. Plus I’ve always wanted to try my hand as a blogging mogul running around a convention trying to break stories to the world like a real journalist 🙂
I think this internal debate will rage on for quite some time and I don’t see any side of it winning out. I’ll stick with my idea of the casual skeptic who makes it their job to point out bullshit when it has the chance to do harm to others whilst quietly letting people do their own thing. Of course you regular readers here will always be told that you should think for yourselves, but you’ve come to expect that of me over the past months that I’ve spent rambling at you 😉