THUNK Episodes Now Available as MP3’s!

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while: if you’d like to listen to an episode of THUNK on the go, I’ve converted all the YouTube videos into MP3 format. I’ll try to keep it updated as I release more episodes, although I’ll reiterate: I’ve been meaning to do this for a while.


THUNK – 117. SETI & Dyson Spheres

Why are so many smart people interested in finding alien intelligence…and where should we look for them?

*Links for the Curious*

“Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation,” by Freeman Dyson –

“How Japan Plans to Build an Orbital Solar Farm,” by Susumu Sasaki –

The SETI Institute YouTube Channel (Very Highly Recommended!) –

“Frontiers in Artifact SETI: Waste Heat, Alien Megastructures & Tabbys Star,” by Jason Wright –

THUNK – 116. The War on Science

The so-called “War on Science” isn’t about hostility, it’s a simple case of forgetting how science is different.

-Links for the Curious-

The March for Science Website –

“The War on Science,” by Shawn Otto, a very thorough analysis of the history & causes of the political & social efforts to deliberately undermine scientific authority –

Scientific American: “Is There Really a War on Science?” –

Slate: “The war on science is a trap. The science march should step carefully.” –

91. Spanking & Anecdotal Evidence –

88. Hume’s Guillotine & Rational Morality –

90. Science vs. Philosophy, an Ancient (Non-)Debate –

79. Science, Pseudoscience, & the Demarcation Problem –

Some great examples of how bias can cause us to wander away from the scientific method (thanks Your2ndPlanB!):

Gender bias in research: how does it affect evidence based medicine? by Anita Holdcroft –

A framework to analyse gender bias in epidemiological research –

THUNK – 115. The Motte & Bailey Fallacy

Motte & Bailey Arguments: because defending your actual position is *way* harder than defending a trivial one.

-Links for the Curious-

“The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology,” by Nicholas Shackel –

“Archaeology of Knowledge,” by Michel Foucault, Shackel’s ur-punching bag for Motte-and-Bailey-ing –

“The Social Construction of Reality,” by Berger & Luckmann –

“All in All, Another Brick in the Motte,” by Scott Alexander –

“Motte & Baileys Explained,” by Lagan History –

THUNK – 114. Shades of Skepticism

Skepticism is an essential tool for rational thought, but knowing when & how to use it is hard…I think???

(NOTE: the form of skepticism described here is sometimes known as “radical skepticism.”)

-Links for the Curious-

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Skepticism –

Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing, Kahan et al, 2017 –

Skepticism on RationalWiki (a resourse of the “skeptic” community, essentially advocates of scientific primacy) –

THUNK 18 – Skepticism & Empiricism (where I cover an alternate version of skepticism called Pyrrhonian skepticism) –

THUNK 86 – Cognitive Biases & the Socratic Method –

THUNK 58 – The Problem of Induction –

THUNK – 113. Memetics & Punching Nazis

In the constant struggle between memes, the punching of Nazis barely scratches the surface of the conflict.

CW: Physical assault

-Links for the Curious-

Spencer punched while explaining his Pepe the Frog pin –

Dawkins on Memes –

CGP Grey on Complementary Outrage –

PBS Idea Channel on Pepe the Frog –

Dan Dennett on Dangerous Memes –

“On Liberty,” by John Stuart Mill, an important building block of our current understanding of free speech & harm –

The SEP’s fantastic summary of the nuances of freedom of speech –

THUNK – 111. Populism

Donald Trump’s election is another victory for a worldwide trend of populism…what is it & why is it happening?

QUICK NOTE: I really gloss over the identity component of populist rhetoric here – the “purity” of the groups in question (be they red-blooded ‘Muricans or blonde blue-eyed “Aryans”) is a critical component of a lot of this rhetoric. I didn’t want to invoke tribal sensitivity to accusations of racism – race frequently serves this role, but it’s a broader effect than that.

*Links for the Curious*

Foreign Affairs, “The Power of Populism,” a collection of neat articles highlighting some of the potential causes of the global populist trend –

The Economist Explains: What is Populism? –

“Right-wing vs. progressive populism: How to win in these populist Trump times” by Jonathan Matthew Smucker –

THUNK – 110. Physicalism & Decoding Minds

Even if the mind *is* totally entailed by the physics of the brain, we’ve got a long way to go to understand it.

-Links for the Curious-

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Physicalism –

Could a Neuroscientist Understand a Microprocessor? –

Google’s image recognition neural network –

THUNK – 109. Psychology, Transparency, & Journalism

Some say that transparency is the ideological future of journalism, but our brains might not be up to the task.

-Links for the Curious-

Should Journalism Be Objective? Serial: Part 2 | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios:

Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. By Jonas T. Kaplan, Sarah I. Gimbel & Sam Harris, Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 39589 (2016):

Priming us and them: Automatic assimilation and contrast in group attitudes. By Ledgerwood, Alison; Chaiken, Shelly
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 93(6), Dec 2007, 940-956:

Transparency is the New Objectivity, by David Weinberger (via Joho):

The View from Nowhere Q&A, by Jay Rosen (via PressThink):

Nature’s peer-review policy:

The Blur Between Analysis and Opinion, by Clark Hoyt (via The New York Times):

Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View” Editing Standard:


Josh’s Gemsbok Interview!

I recently did an interview with Daniel Podgorski over on his philosophy-oriented blog The Gemsbok, which included some questions about my philosophical leanings & what I absolutely hate about my show.

For internet logicians, there are plenty of possible outlets, from article sites (like The Gemsbok) to online journals (academic and otherwise) to conventional blogging platforms (like free WordPress and Tumblr blogs). What is it about video as a medium, and in particular YouTube, that feels like the right fit for you and your style?

JP: My hair. I mean, look at it. You can’t convey this magnitude of hair in text. @:) See? It just doesn’t work.

Check it out here!

THUNK – 108. Statistical vs. Clinical Significance

Scientists excel at finding patterns, but statistical significance isn’t always enough to create policy.

-Links for the Curious-

A great summary from UWS about the difference between statistical & clinical significance –

Mental rotations, a group test of three-dimensional spatial visualization.
Vandenberg, Steven G.; Kuse, Allan R.
Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol 47(2), Oct 1978, 599-604.

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2009 Dec;97(6):1097-114. doi: 10.1037/a0016786.
The implications of Big Five standing for the distribution of trait manifestation in behavior: fifteen experience-sampling studies and a meta-analysis.
Fleeson W1, Gallagher P.

Some Unfortunate Objectivisms

1. “I am/am not an Objectivist.”

Objectivism contains an assertion that it is the only valid philosophy for a rational person to hold. This means that, for Objectivists, the world is divided into two groups: Objectivists & irrational people. Annoyingly, this distinction prompts everyone who wants to discuss Rand’s ideas to preface their thoughts by identifying themselves one way or the other – either you’re with her or you’re against her. (Apparently.)

2. “Show me exactly where Rand’s wrong.”

Arguments can be unconvincing in many ways. Sometimes, if an author has been very diligent in creating rigorous stepwise clarity in their work, it’s possible to find a singular step in their reasoning which can be refuted directly, but it’s far more common that the conclusion simply doesn’t seem plausible – the final leap the author makes from their premises to that conclusion doesn’t intuitively follow.

“The United States has a population of 318.9 million people. They don’t need to eat meat. Meat is costly. We should ban meat in the US.” There’s no factual or structural error in that argument, it just isn’t particularly convincing.

It’s not necessary to say “THIS BIT HERE, THIS is where Rand goes awry” to justify not accepting her work wholesale, it is sufficient to say, “I don’t find her arguments convincing.” Considering the sprawling & highly interconnected nature of her writing, it’s hard to believe that anyone would think a point-by-point refutation appropriate – she presents a unified ideology, & if it’s not compelling to some people after the first couple chapters, well that’s just fine.

3. “I was hoping for someone to engage with Rand’s ideas, instead it’s just these ad hominem attacks.”

The tone & style Rand’s writing is saturated with an implicit assertion of her philosophical & intellectual superiority – egoism is central to her ideology, & it shows. It’s also a critical premise for some of her arguments, as the polemic which she uses to dismiss contrary ideas is often justified only by her say-so:

As reporters, linguistic analysts were accurate: Wittgenstein’s theory that a concept refers to a conglomeration of things vaguely tied together by a ‘family resemblance’ is a perfect description of the state of a mind out of focus.

As such, Rand’s character (& the events of her life indicative of that character) are absolutely relevant to the evaluation of many of her ideas – if I’m supposed to discount Wittgenstein’s intensely rigorous analysis of language simply because it’s “a perfect description of the state of a mind out of focus,” I can certainly demand some qualifications from the mind that claims to be focused.

It’s curious that these same assertions appear, more or less verbatim, in so many discussions of Objectivism. I also notice that they’re all, in some fashion, setting a particular tone for the discussion:

1. You’re either with or against Rand.
2. If you’re against her, you have to prove she’s wrong.
3. Her ideas are to be questioned, not her qualifications or character.


1. People generally don’t believe in Rand’s absolutism.
2. It’s totally valid to simply find her arguments unconvincing.
3. Her qualifications & character are an essential part of her ideas.

If I were a little more paranoid, I’d call this a deliberate rhetorical tactic, but I think it’s really just part of the Objectivist culture to engage on these terms. I think those individuals would be be much more pleasant to talk to if we didn’t have to.

Taboo & Combating False Beliefs

tl;dr – Should we discuss incorrect ideologies publicly?


In the little private utopia I have set up in my head (which is mostly modeled on Star Trek: The Next Generation), critical thinking & skepticism are universal values. While they don’t always lead to the same conclusions, they do tend to attenuate extremist attitudes – you can believe whatever you want to, but you bear in mind how far that idea is from what can be readily proven.

Ex: I believe that the US should be more socialist in how it taxes & reallocates funds, but I recognize that people who know way more about economics than I do are heavily divided on the issue, so I temper that belief. I couch my opinions in language that makes it clear that other positions are also valid & maybe I’m wrong.

In this utopia, everyone’s mental “immune system” is healthy & active, so we can really talk about *anything.* Even if some meme is particularly dangerous or insidious, a culture of doubt would tend to cripple dogma before it can get up to cruising speed, so you don’t get anyone who’s immune to a good argument.


1. People aren’t like that.

2. Culture isn’t like that.

Seductive ideologies (& ideas in general) are subject to greater reinforcement over time – a person who gets it into their heads that something is the case will see evidence for it everywhere & believe it harder over time. The perceived distance of such an idea from provability will lessen over time: “Of COURSE the US should be more socialist! Look at all this compelling (for me) evidence! I’m more certain every day that everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot!” 

This leads to a feedback loop of the people farthest from that ideal of dispassionate skepticism being the most outspoken. This goes double for cultural biases, where consensus (which is often used as a heuristic for truth) colors everyone’s evaluation of the evidence from the outset.

Also, there’s “the backfire effect,” whereby incorrect beliefs are sometimes *strengthened* by conflicting data: 

So there are practical issues with my utopian ideal. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the wrong approach, but that we can’t simply take it at face value as being superior – if brains suck more than the error allowed by the system, it would be a mistake to use it.


There are people who think we ought not discuss racist ideologies publicly because this normalizes them, that we should use shame & taboo to shape what sorts of discourse occur in public, to stigmatize racism & the “alt-right” white supremacy movement.

On the one hand, disallowing topics is antithetical to my ideal, & in my perfect world it’d be counterproductive – racism isn’t supported by the evidence, & arguing publicly why it’s both factually inaccurate & undesirable would result in more people being convinced of the correct conclusion. Result: less racism & a better cultural sensitivity to incorrect racist arguments. Even in our imperfect world, there are people who believe racist things who can be convinced of their incorrectness with evidence, & shushing all public discourse just means they won’t be granted that evidence.

On the other hand, brains suck, & there’s a demonstrable cultural bias regarding race. People are prone to believe wrong things about racism, & people don’t buy into racist ideologies because they’re totally unconvincing. Their flaws are subtle & often require a fair amount of numeric analysis to understand fully, which many people simply won’t do.

(Also, people suffer & die because of widespread incorrect ideologies, and that’s bad.)


There’s an (unproven!) sentiment that this is exactly what went wrong with climate change & vaccines  – by allowing crazy people to speak publicly about their incorrect (but convincing) memes, even in the service of disproving those memes, we caused them to spread.

There’s an (unproven!) sentiment that one reason Donald Trump was elected president was because he demolished the PC culture the DNC had used as a weapon (in precisely the manner described above), that there were a group of Americans who no longer felt included in the national dialogue because many of their beliefs had been disallowed from public speech.

The backfire effect ( is a proven thing.

It’s possible that memes of anti-science/anti-evidence/anti-critical thinking can spread this way.


I want to get to a point where my ideal of a critical-thinking society is realized; is rendering certain ideologies “off-limits” for public discourse better or worse for such? 

Corollary: What is an acceptable moral cost for getting to a point where racism isn’t a thing anymore?

THUNK – 107. Graham’s Number & Number Sense

Graham’s number is…really really big. But our brains start throwing errors at much smaller quantities.

-Links for the Curious-

Numberphile’s fantastic video of Ron Graham explaining Graham’s number –

“Two Systems of Non-Symbolic Numerical Cognition” by D. Hyde, a review of research on the two psychological systems for cognitive representation of number –

A summary of some landmark studies regarding the cognitive representation of number –

A great Wikipedia summary of some of the creatures which have demonstrated some capacity for number sense –

A study showing the gradual “linearization” of the approximate number system’s logarithmic error allowance during childhood –

An analysis of possible evolutionary reasons the approximate number system is mapped logarithmically –

The 2014 paper which improved on Graham’s upper limit to his Ramsey theorem question –

THUNK – 106. The Toulmin Method of Argumentation

Think you may get into some arguments during the holidays? Steven Toulmin & Reddit can help.

-Links for the Curious-

“The Uses of Argument” by Steven Toulmin –

A summary of the Toulmin method as rendered by Colorado State University –

Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion
Strategies in Good-faith Online Discussions

THUNK – 105. Why Elections Suck

There are a lot of people unhappy with the most recent presidential election in the US, & they have good reason – it needs fixing.

-Links for the Curious-

FairVote, an organization advocating for more representative & fair electoral systems –

A simple online tool to determine who your elected representatives are. (Protip: phonecalls are harder to ignore.) –

A paper by the EAC detailing the historical basis of the electoral college & some of its flaws –

C.G.P. Grey’s fantastic series “Politics in the Animal Kingdom” –

THUNK Episode 95 – Duverger’s Law & Ingroup Bias –

THUNK Episode 104 – Ethics Overview & Moral Voting –

Podcast 1 – Simone Chavoor on the Argumentative Theory of Human Reason

In this podcast, I discuss THUNK episode 64 with Simone Chavoor, a writer, marketing guru, and trivia master from Oakland, California. We talk about cognitive biases, the recent election, serial killers, vacuum metastability events, & birthing.

Some links for flavor:

The THUNK episode in question –

An article about Charles Manson’s “How to Win Friends & Influence People” turning point –

Bloody Code (from Simone’s Wiki-Walk) –

The Ultimate Fate of the Universe (from Josh’s Wiki-Walk) –

Elephant birthing video –

Giraffe birthing video –