Early last year I reviewed Will Storr's book The Heretics, a wonderful exploration of how we reinforce our own belief system and fight off attacks upon it. I also noted a controversial story that emerged with the book's publication - James Randi's defence of Social Darwinist philosophy, not to mention his admission that he lies to win arguments. For those that haven't got around to buying the book yet, you'll be happy to learn that The Heretics is now out in a very affordable paperback edition, which you can grab from Amazon UK. Here's the blurb:
Why do obviously intelligent people believe things in spite of the evidence against them? Will Storr has travelled across the world to meet an extraordinary cast of modern heretics in order to answer this question. He goes on a tour of Holocaust sites with David Irving and a band of neo-Nazis, experiences his own murder during 'past-life regression' hypnosis, takes part in a mass homeopathic overdose, and investigates a new disease affecting tens of thousands of people - a disease that doesn't actually exist. Using a unique mix of personal memoir, investigative journalism and the latest research from neuroscience and experimental psychology, Storr reveals why the facts just won't convince some people, and how the neurological 'hero-maker' inside all of us can so easily lead to self-deception and science-denial. The Heretics will change the way you think about thinking.
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From Jerry Coyne, the blogger that originally whined to TED about Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, kicking off the whole later controversy, comes a new round of whiny whining: he's going to lodge a protest that Sheldrake will be giving a talk on science to one "the most prestigious “public schools” in the UK".
It’s outrageous that someone with such wacko ideas is not only being honored this way, but will be given the chance to corrupt young minds with ideas about morphic resonance, psychic phenomena, and How Dogs Know When Their Owners are Coming Home. And the lecture blurb actually boasts of this stuff, characterizing Sheldrake as “one of the world’s most innovative biologists and writers.” “Notorious” would be a better word than “innovative.” Sadly, a bunch of kids in this sold-out lecture will get to hear that materialism is a dying paradigm in science. What were they thinking?
I feel sorry for the lost opportunity to turn kids onto real, genuine, materialistic, hard science rather than fluffy woo. I don’t know about you, but I’m at least going to register a small protest.
Sheldrake is a 'woomeister' eh? I think we can comfortably label Coyne a douchemeister using the same intelligent system of categorisation...
(h/t Michelle Gibson)
On October 23rd, the London Fortean Society celebrated "The Late Great Robert Anton Wilson" at the Horse Hospital in London. featuring lectures by our good friend John Higgs as well as Daisy Eris Campbell. John's well-presented talk, in which he riffs on RAW's thoughts about belief and reality, has been uploaded to YouTube and I heartily recommend it - in fact, I wish everyone on Earth would hear what John is talking about, because it's such a key aspect of the ways in which we fool ourselves (often to the detriment of others). I've embedded the talk below (John's talk is just over half an hour, followed by about 15 minutes of questions and money burning...literally), and after it I've pulled out a short quote from John's talk that resonated strongly with me (also, to whomever produced the video, I enjoyed the easter egg!):
The reason why I think Bob is important, and Bob is different, I think it can be summed up in a principle he talks about called the 'cosmic shmuck' principle, and it goes like this. If you wake up in the morning and you do not realise that you are a cosmic shmuck, you will remain a cosmic shmuck. But if you wake up in the morning and you think 'oh god, I'm a cosmic shmuck', you'll be very embarrassed [and] you'll want to be less of a cosmic shmuck; you'll try to be less of a cosmic shmuck; and slowly, over time, you'll become less of a cosmic shmuck.
And the fact that the underlying principle of Robert Anton Wilson's philosophy is "I know I'm wrong, I want to be less wrong", is very different to now, our current internet culture, where the underlying philosophy is "I'm right, and I want you to know that". And if you go onto any internet discussion, or debate, or things like that, you find people declaring certainties loudly, people with very fixed positions that they can express in 140 characters, that they hunker down and defend, and don't listen to anything else, and attempt to drown out all the others. That's so different to Robert Anton Wilson: he believed – hang on, the word believe is difficult with Bob – he thought that what you believed imprisoned you, he thought convictions create convicts.
His philosophy can be called 'multiple-model agnosticism'. That's not just agnosticism about God, that's agnosticism about everything...
There's a key core point [to Bob's philosophy], this phrase 'reality tunnel', that's at the heart of all Bob's thinking, so I think it's worth defining for you. A reality tunnel is the model of reality that you build in your head. It's not reality, it's what you think reality is. Just as Korzybski said, "the map is not the territory"; as Alan Watts said, "the menu is not the meal"; in the same way, your reality tunnel is not reality. It's a model you personally built over your entire life, based on your experiences, your memories, your senses, your prejudices, your culture, and to a large and surprising degree, language. And that's fine, that's normal, we need models. We need models to understand what's going on around us, to predict what's going to happen next. But a model is, by definition, a simplified version of something. It may look roughly the same, and it gives you a good idea of things, but there are going to be places where it lacks the detail, or it's just wrong or it's different. And when your reality tunnel doesn't map reality, then you are wrong. And the fact that we use these things means that we will always be wrong.
You can read more of John's thoughts on these topics in his fantastic books, The Brandy of the Damned, and The First Church on the Moon (both fiction), as well as The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds (non-fiction, even though it might seem more fictional than the first two).
Update: Here's part two of the event, Daisy Eris Campbell's discussion of her own links to Robert Anton Wilson - not least her conception backstage at her father Ken Campbell's epic stage adaptation of RAW's Illuminatus! - as well as her own upcoming adaptation of Cosmic Trigger (NSFW language warning):
My sincere thanks to the organizers of the event, and those who took the time to upload the video to YouTube - fantastic for people like me who would have loved to have attended in person.
I've mentioned previously how unreliable Wikipedia can be when it comes to entries on fringe topics or personalities (such as the famous trance medium Leonora Piper), as a result of heavy-handed editing by self-proclaimed 'skeptics'. Now Rupert Sheldrake, who this year had his TED talk controversially removed from YouTube for allegedly being 'unscientific', has commented on how his own Wikipedia entry has been the subject of attention by a team of so-called 'guerilla skeptics', intent on portraying him in a certain (negative) way:
This summer, soon after the TED controversy, a commando squad of skeptics captured the Wikipedia page about me. They have occupied and controlled it ever since, rewriting my biography with as much negative bias as possible, to the point of defamation. At the beginning of the “Talk” page, on which editorial changes are discussed, they have posted a warning to editors who do not share their biases: “A common objection made by new arrivals is that the article presents Sheldrake’s work in an unsympathetic light and that criticism of it is too extensive or violates Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy.” Several new arrivals have indeed attempted to restore a more balanced picture, but have had a bewildering variety of rules thrown at them, and warned that they will be banned if they persist in opposing the skeptics.
...The Guerrilla Skeptics are well trained, highly motivated, have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules... They have already seized control of many Wikipedia pages, deleted entries on subjects they disapprove of, and boosted the biographies of atheists.
As the Guerrilla Skeptics have demonstrated, Wikipedia can easily be subverted by determined groups of activists, despite its well-intentioned policies and mediation procedures. Perhaps one solution would be for experienced editors to visit the talk pages of sites where editing wars are taking place, rather like UN Peacekeeping Forces, and try to re-establish a neutral point of view. But this would not help in cases where there are no editors to oppose the Guerrilla Skeptics, or where they have been silenced.
If nothing is done, Wikipedia will lose its credibility, and its financial backers will withdraw their support. I hope the noble aims of Wikipedia will prevail.
This Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia group (apparently they trace-back all links to their page to see what the crazy woos are saying about them...so hello there paranoid-guerilla-skeptic-type people!) is headed by Susan Gerbic, who in the JREF video below gives a lengthy talk on their goals and methods:
Gerbic describes how the GS group works as a pack to 'game the system' somewhat in order to get certain entries on to the front page of Wikipedia, as well as planning and execution of edits to certain pages. Slightly concerning is her tendency to talk in terms of "my skeptics", "my editors", etc. More concerning is her obvious desire to attack certain people (e.g. see discussion of the edits to the Bill Maher page), rather than simply present a fair and balanced entry.
The problem to me with Guerilla Skepticism is the feeling that we have a pack mentality driven by an ideology. It's easy to say "but we're just adding facts", but that is an entirely different thing to presenting an informative and fair Wikipedia entry. The Leonora Piper entry (as it stands as of this moment) is a case in point - any person conversant with her life and the research done on her will tell you that page is an absolute travesty - it has cherry-picked quotes and facts, almost all exclusively negative in tone, and ignores almost totally thousands of pages of positive, or at least extremely interesting evidence and commentary. It may be fact-filled, but the page is entirely a propaganda piece designed to misinform (for the record, I don't know whether the GS contributed to that page - I'm simply using it as an example of how leaning too far to the 'skeptical' POV is not necessarily the correct way to go about a Wikipedia entry). I want information, not ideology.
Craig Weiler has written further on this topic for those that are interested in reading more. Personally I'm not sure what the solution is - I have no particular ideology to push (rather than wanting the truth) so am not enthusiastic about tit-for-tat edits. Wikipedia has always been a handy resource that nevertheless required some care when it came to believing what you read on it. This Guerilla Skepticism project simply emphasizes Wikipedia's fallibility.
Link: Wikipedia under threat
Update: Some skeptics are disputing that the Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia have done any editing on Sheldrake's post. See the comment below.
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In a recent interview with the Times magazine, Richard Dawkins attempted to defend what he called “mild pedophilia,” which, he says, he personally experienced as a young child and does not believe causes “lasting harm.”
Dawkins went on to say that one of his former school masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts,” and that to condemn this “mild touching up” as sexual abuse today would somehow be unfair.
“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.
This is actually not a new stand, as Dawkins has previously said that sexual abuse "covers a wide spectrum of sins, and I suspect that research would show belief in hell to be more traumatic than the sort of mild feeling-up that I suffered”.
And in a hilarious sidenote, Dawkins retweeted the following message in support of his pedophilia comments:
— richard latham (@rickeaikea) September 10, 2013
Oh the irony, it burns!
Good old Dicky Dawkins, taking yet another step to being the archtypal embarrassing drunk uncle.
For many years on this site I've critiqued the demagogic tendencies of a number of the 'leaders' of the modern skeptical movement (see the bottom of this post for some links). I've often faced resistance (and sometimes hostility) from card-carrying skeptics for pointing out the foibles of these so-called champions of science, and the dangers of having such people as figureheads of a movement dedicated to truth and reason - but I had no inkling that in the space of just a few short years the reputations of a number of them would begin coming undone at their own hands.
The first tremors began, perhaps, two years ago with the 'Elevatorgate' scandal within skepticism, in which Richard Dawkins outed his 'drunk uncle' persona to those within skepticism by entering a controversial argument he didn't need to engage in, and making comments that were always going to set off a firestorm.
Just a few months later, the previously Teflon-coated James 'The Amazing' Randi was caught at the center of his own scandal when his partner of more than two decades, Jose Alvarez, was caught and pleaded guilty to identity theft, after overstaying his visa in the 1980s. Though many felt sympathy for both Randi and his partner's dilemma, there were also questions over how much Randi knew or was involved in the crime - a not-particularly-good look for the much celebrated champion of truth and honesty.
Randi's credibility devolved further earlier this year when Will Storr's book The Heretics brought Randi's Social Darwinist-like philosophies into the spotlight, as well as Randi's own confession that he sometimes lies to win his arguments.
A few months later, prominent skeptical voice Brian Dunning (of the popular Skeptoid podcast) pleaded guilty to one charge of wire fraud for his part in a scheme to 'hack' eBay's affiliate marketing porgram which netted millions of dollars for the group.
This week, Richard Dawkins once again put his foot it with a provocative tweet about the lack of Nobel Prizes in the Islamic world (if you want to understand why it was a stupid tweet, swap 'Islam' for 'women' in the tweet and his later 'reflections' on the matter). This time, it seems that Dawkins may have put the final straw on the camel's back: Owen Jones wrote that Dawkins could no longer "be left to represent atheists"; Martin Robbins wrote that atheism "will leave Dawkins behind"; Tom Chivers asked him "to please be quiet"; and Nesrine Malik said Dawkins himself was as irrational "as an Islamic extremist".
There's a fair feeling of chickens coming home to roost in these incidents, but this week flocks of previously hidden fowl seem to have emerged from every dark shadow in the world of skepticism. Some two years on from the 'Elevatorgate' incident, skeptical speaker and writer Karen Stollznow used her blog at Scientific American to note that she herself was a victim of sexual harassment by "a predator" within the skeptical movement. This individual, a well-known media commentator and editor of one of skepticism's flagship publications was subsequently named by P.Z. Myers on his blog (after what Myers said was a flood of corroborating emails).
A former JREF employee then spoke out about continuous unethical behaviour at Randi's foundation. Then another blogger named yet another high-end skeptic/atheist and well-credentialed scientist of acting improperly, before withdrawing his name (though again that hasn't stopped P.Z. Myers). And if all that wasn't enough, at the end of the week P.Z. Myers followed up with testimony from someone he knows regarding what the victim describes as her 'rape' by one of the most prominent of all skeptics during a skeptical conference (a blog post that has generated some
2000 3000 comments now).
Whether each of the accusations is valid or not, and whether the naming of certain individuals is proper, is not part of my argument here. But what has become clear is that the former figureheads of the skeptical movement finally now have a (long-awaited) skepticism being applied to their own actions and pronouncements, and a number of them are being revealed for the pretenders they are. I'd like to think that this is the end of skeptical demagoguery, and the beginning of a new, more intelligent, self-critiquing skeptical movement - though perhaps it's more just a fragmentation, as Myers and Randi and others now just seem to have their own righteous armies fighting somewhat of an internal civil war in skepticism. I'm still hoping for the former though, as intelligent skepticism is a much-needed element of modern discourse, but something that has been very rare indeed to this point.
Also worth reading:
- James Randi: Let Survival of the Fittest "Act Itself Out" On Those With Low IQ and "Mental Aberrations"
- The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge
- Richard Dawkins Comes to Call
- The Shermer Sham
- Skeptical of a Skeptic
- The Carlos Hoax...Hoax?
- Slippery Skepticism
- Hampton Haunting Debunked?
- Randi Goes Round the Bem
- Global Warming Burns Randi
- Randi's Wrong Again
- The Real Peril of Skepticism
An excellent post by Robert McLuhan over at his Paranormalia blog, on the 'guerilla skepticism' movement, in particular the concerted effort by upper-case Skeptics to keep Wikipedia a woo-free environment. Robert firstly points out the rhetorical technique of ending a paragraph about a certain claim with the skeptical counterclaim - doing so gives the impression of a neutral passage, though it gives the final word each time to the skeptical view.
Robert also notes the use of skeptical personalities as authorities worth citing, such as the god-awful commentaries of Robert Todd Carroll (of the Skeptic's Dictionary). I've written about this previously, on the referencing of Martin Gardner's opinion on Leonora Piper. Robert wonders...
...In what world could someone like Todd Carroll, a compiler of spectacularly biased and poorly informed encyclopedia entries, be considered a serious authority? If this sort of thing is allowed on Wikipedia then what's to stop me inserting remarks like, 'According to psi-advocate Robert McLuhan, this type of critical commentary is tendentious tosh by people who haven't a clue what they're talking about."
We can't really complain about hostile editing, as long it stays within the Wikipedia guidelines for editors, which Gerbic seems committed to doing. As she sees it, it's all about insisting on backing up claims with evidence, which is what sceptics are all about. In fact I've even seen it suggested that Wikipedia is by nature a sceptical endeavour, since it depends on evidence. Some seem to have taken heart when its founder Jimmy Wales came out against homeopathy, a subject that infuriates them more than almost anything else.
I'm not sure how worked up I can get about Wikipedia's view of homeopathy or about celebrity psychics, who can look after themselves. Still, it's a pity that this key source for learning and education is so compromised as far as serious parapsychology is concerned. There is of course plenty of information about parapsychology, but little that isn't gummed up with sceptic disdain. Even aside from that, it looks rather flat and lame. What's to stop editors giving quotes from credible people - scientists, psi-researchers, experients who are well-known in other fields - that give their own enthusiastic responses? Why are the dullards, ignoramuses and professional nay-sayers getting such a free run?
We need to make it clear that our evidence counts as evidence. At the very least, if sceptics insert a long section at the end of an entry that promotes their views exclusively, under the heading of 'Criticism' or some such, then it seems to me to be perfectly legitimate to add a following section headed 'Responses to criticism', in which the key points would be rebutted, at leisure and without constant heckling.
I did briefly consider making contributions of my own, but where does one start?
I'm not sure it's a battle worth getting into. Skeptics of this type are already well-ensconced in Wikipedia as editors, watching these topics vigilantly, and have a certain zealotry that will drive them to continue editing fringe entries longer than either you or I care. But certainly a topic worth discussing, and keeping in mind when reading and referencing Wikipedia as a source.
A few weeks back I posted about some controversial comments made by James 'The Amazing' Randi to author Will Storr which had Social Darwinist overtones. Over the weekend Randi has responded, initially by explicitly disputing the account as presented by Storr in his book The Heretics:
The statement “I’m a believer in social Darwinism,” did not come from me. In fact, I had to look up the expression to learn what was being referred to. This attack appears to be calling me a Nazi, nothing less. I demand that Mr. Storr refer me to the original sources to which we assume he has referred. Until then, I’ll only say that he has carefully selected phrases and statements out of context, not the sort of referencing that I would have expected from him.
However, not long after this statement from Randi, skeptic Hayley Stevens posted that she had heard the actual taped audio from the interview, and that Randi appeared to be wrong. She may also have put Randi or the JREF in direct communication with Will Storr, because earlier today Randi posted a reply in the comments thread to the story on Doubtful News:
Until just recently, I did not recall having spoken with Mr. Storr years ago about certain comments posted on randi.org, and I barely recall that event, even now This is an understandable lapse, since I’m constantly being interviewed, and often under circumstances that call for my attention to be otherwise directed, Also, some interviews occurred during a time of my life in recent years when my health – and thus my cognition – were not at their best. The unfair suggestion that Mr. Storr tried to provoke me, or that he’s a “bad guy,” is something I must dismiss, since I believe I would have remembered that sort of behavior. In any case, I now know much more about the described encounter, and I maintain that I would never have said I was a Social Darwinist, since I only recently learned in detail what that term really means, and in fact I was quite ignorant of the history of the movement organized around that false idea. I’ve been surprised that this was not obvious to people discussing the matter, but I accept that the conversation with Mr. Storr went just as described. No problem with that.
The entire post is a wee bit long to reproduce here in its entirety, so please head to Doubtful News read the entire thing. Personally, although I'm glad to see that Randi addressed the controversy, and came at it as a mea culpa (admittedly, belatedly), I have to say that I'm not overly impressed with it overall as a response: it seems to be a bit of a not-pology, contains some (to me) staggering hypocrisy, and has a number of the 'sleight-of-hand' tricks that I know Randi is skilful at weaving into his posts. But I'm also rather weary of this whole saga, and I imagine most others are too, so I'll just post my personal thoughts in the comments below for readers that are interested in the topic.
James Randi: Let Survival of the Fittest "Act Itself Out" On Those With Low IQ and "Mental Aberrations"Posted by Greg at 00:51, 14 Feb 2013
I've previously posted here about the Social Darwinist-leaning comments of James 'The Amazing' Randi, such as this entry on his website where he supported the legalization of drugs, apparently largely for the simple reason that it would kill off a lot of people he doesn't like:
[T]hose individuals who were stupid enough to rush into the arms of the mythical houris and/or Adonis's they would expect to greet them, would simply do so and die - by whatever chemical or biological fate would overcome them... [T]he principle of Survival of the Fittest would draconically prove itself for a couple of years, after which Natural Selection would weed out those for whom there is no hope except through our forbearance.
...Any weeping and wailing over the Poor Little Kids who would perish by immediately gobbling down pills and injecting poison, is summoning up crocodile tears, in my opinion. They would - and presently do - mature into grown-up idiots, and Darwin would be appalled that his lessons were ignored.
One of the biggest surprises to me has been the almost complete lack of comment on these controversal opinions by other skeptics, and scientists who support Randi. The star of this legendary skeptic seems to burn so bright in the scientific firmament that his acolytes are blinded to some of his darker traits, such as his 'creative' recounting of events and the Social Darwinist leanings illustrated above.
However, that may change with the publication today of The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr, which is a book-length exploration of this human tendency to blindness in people from all walks of life, including those who regard themselves as 'critical thinkers'. My full review of Storr's book will follow in the next day or so here on TDG, but for now I wanted to pull out a short section from the book where the author sat down with Randi and asked him directly about the controversial post I linked to above. It really should grab the attention of anybody who looks up to Randi, because when challenged on his comments, Randi did not recant, but instead apparently expanded on his thoughts, and explicitly confirmed their meaning:
I'm a believer in Social Darwinism. Not in every case. I would do anything to stop a twelve-year-old kid from doing it. Sincerely. But in general, I think that Darwinism, survival of the fittest, should be allowed to act itself out. As long as it doesn't interfere with me and other sensible, rational people who could be affected by it. Innocent people, in other words.
Apart from contradicting his previous comments about "crocodile tears" for the "the Poor Little Kids" who would "mature into grown-up idiots", Randi here comes straight out and nails his colours to the mast: "sensible, rational people" (like him, apparently) are "innocents" who don't deserve to be "affected" by his extreme views of survival of the fittest, but everyone else is fair game. Why do they deserve this fate? Because, says Randi...
These are stupid people. And if they can't survive, they don't have the IQ, don't have the thinking power to be able to survive, it's unfortunate; I would hate to see it happen, but at the same time, it would clear the air.
Please do read that paragraph again. If you didn't get at least a metaphorical shiver down your spine, I don't know where your head is at.
Oh, and people with inherited mental illness, Randi also apparently wants the contraception squad sent out for you:
I think that people with mental aberrations who have family histories of inherited diseases and such, that something should be done seriously to educate them to prevent them from procreating. I think they should be gathered together in a suitable place and have it demonstrated for them what their procreation would mean for the human race.
I know some other folk who were "gathered together in a suitable place" because another bunch of people didn't want them contaminating the human race (trying my hardest not to invoke Godwin here, but when you're traveling in the same territory...).
There's lots more of interest in the chapter on Randi - I've only touched on one excerpt here - and indeed in the whole book. It's a fascinating exploration of our how we all have belief systems, a tendency to self-deception and the in-built ability to ignore facts as necessary. If Will Storr's transcription of his entire interview with Randi is accurate (and I raise that question in the spirit of the book itself, not because I have particular doubts about the author's account), this really should bring about the serious criticism of Randi that has so far been lacking within the skeptical movement, and which I have been encouraging for some time.
Full disclosure: I helped Will Storr out with some facets of his research for The Heretics, and was sent a complimentary advance reading copy of the book.
Last year I mentioned a documentary-in-development about skeptic James 'The Amazing' Randi, titled "An Honest Liar". The film-makers have now turned to Kickstarter to raise $148,000 to finish the project.
An Honest Liar profiles the colorful life of famed magician turned professional skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi as he embarks on a series of public crusades to expose America’s psychics, faith healers and con artists with religious fervor. But you never know whether to trust a master deceiver - and there's more to Randi's life than meets the eye.
I think it's a worthwhile project - Randi is certainly a fascinating character to study, and has lived a very interesting life. I hope that the film-makers will be delving into the "colorful" aspect of Randi's personality, rather than simply making a hagiopic, though I'm not encouraged by the call to arms in the blurb: "You can help fund our film and spread a call for reason and critical thinking and save the world from falling back into the Dark Ages!" Ugh, the old Dark Ages trope. Anyhow, if you'd like to see the documentary come to fruition, or at least are interested in the pledge reward packs, then kick in some dollars to help them reach their goal (currently around $35,000 raised out of $148,000, with a month still to go, so looking promising).
On a related note, Randi's Million Dollar Challenge (MDC) is under heavy discussion in the blogosphere again after Steve Volk wrote a blog post taking Sam Harris to task for saying that there was “something fishy” about the refusal of scientists like Rupert Sheldrake to take part in the controversial test. This in turn inspired responses from skeptics Steven Novella ("Defending the Million Dollar Challenge") and Sharon Hill ("Looking for the best answer: Sorry it burst your paranormal balloon").
There's very little I want to add, as I've laid out most of my criticisms of the Million Dollar Challenge previously. To keep critiquing it, or James Randi, over and over again just seems like I've got a bug up the proverbial about it all, when I really don't. So I'll just quickly list a few things that came to mind while reading these responses to Steve Volk's blog, and which keep coming up repeatedly in critiques of my own article:
Firstly, Sharon mentions in her post websites that "enjoy bashing James “The Amazing” Randi", and Steve Novella takes issue with Steve Volk's blog post, saying "The attack amounts to one giant straw man, typical of such criticisms...this post, like all criticisms I have seen, focuses on Randi the man." I've looked at Volk's blog a few times, and I can't see how Novella would come to this conclusion - it focuses nearly entirely on the MDC, with just an early mention of Randi as a 'cranky elf'. I bring this point up because whenever I mention the MDC, I seem to face accusations of flagrantly attacking Randi. Indeed, in his own response to my original article, he described me as a "grubbie" who had written a "tirade" attacking him. One would think that skeptics would appreciate articles taking a skeptical stance on someone's claims, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
However I must give credit to Steve Novella for making a certain point clear. This has also been mentioned by Randi and D.J. Grothe previously, but let's put this one up in lights so it can be referenced from now on (for reasons to be discussed below):
The purpose of the challenge is not to design and run scientific experiments, and it is not to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal or any particular supernatural phenomenon....
The million dollar challenge is not designed to scientifically test subtle or tiny effects, but rather to test the dramatic claims of people who are publicly proclaiming they have genuine paranormal abilities.
Randi et al may well have "always been crystal clear about this" (I agree they have mentioned this, I'm not sure I would extend it to being "crystal clear"), but the fact remains that in debates over parapsychology, the MDC has become some sort of trump card that is often thrown on the table by skeptical debaters - "if he's so sure he's proven precognition, why doesn't he apply for Randi's prize?". Indeed, the ENTIRE REASON for Volk's article was Sam Harris invoking this argument - so Steven Novella would perhaps be better off aiming his corrective comments at him, rather than Volk. So too with New Scientist, who asked Daryl Bem if he would apply for Randi's million dollars.
We even find the appearance of this trump card in the scientific literature. For instance, in the Wagenmakers et al. response regarding Bem's famous experiments ("Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi") - an editorial that Novella himself described as "the best thing to come out of Bem’s research" - we find this mention about the chances of precognition being a real phenomenon:
[T]here is no real-life evidence that people can feel the future (e.g., nobody has ever collected the $1,000,000 available for anybody who can demonstrate paranormal performance under controlled conditions, etc.)
Hrmm - does that mean Wagenmaker et al need to readjust the prior probabilities for their Bayesian analysis...? (/musing aloud).
My final concern about the Million Dollar Challenge, which I have mentioned previously, but doesn't get mentioned by too many other people, is that I find the ethics of the whole thing rather questionable. It's not for testing subtle psi effects - Steve Novella makes that clear above (though if the comment referenced in this post is by him, maybe someone should tell Randi). It can be used as a tool for shaming high-profile frauds - though I would argue the insane odds (which are fine for risk management, not so much for finding things out) sadly gives any of those people a very rational excuse for not participating. Caught in the middle between those two ends though are the people who do apply - generally people that believe they have some power, and think that they can exhibit it to an amazing degree. There is little doubt that a portion of these claimants are either unbalanced, or desperate. To use them as cannon fodder for what is a publicity stunt, to me, is deplorable. And may just come back to bite the JREF at some point.
I consider the MDC an embarrassment. Skeptics may try to see that as a personal attack on Randi, but it's not. Skepticism is a prerequisite for exploring these areas...I just find it a shame so few skeptics practice it. If I want to attack Randi, I'll do so on the basis of his creative personality or his social Darwinism, or other often ignored facets of his personality and opinions. Seeing it as a defence of the paranormal would be more correct, but only in so much as I would like to see open, fair discussion of these topics without reference to an overhyped, unintelligent publicity mechanism designed to bring attention to Randi.