Recently retired (from his chair at Oxford) atheist crusader Richard Dawkins is reportedly writing a book, aimed at children, which will warn that fairy-tales and fantasy stories could have "an insidious effect on rationality":
The prominent atheist is stepping down from his post at Oxford University to write a book aimed at youngsters in which he will warn them against believing in "anti-scientific" fairytales. Prof Hawkins[sic] said: "The book I write next year will be a children's book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking.
"I haven't read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children's author that one might mention and I love his books. I don't know what to think about magic and fairy tales." Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of "bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards".
"I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know," he told More4 News. "I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research."
Now I do realise that the press likes to mine Richard Dawkins's quotes to make him sound as nasty as possible - note his comment at the end about it being "something for research", and the fact that he likes Pullman's books (e.g. His Dark Materials), as evidence that he doesn't sound as if he's on a crusade against children's fantasy. I really do hope that it is a media beat-up, because I regard children's fantasy reading as crucial to development. Every day our children are being forced to grow up quicker, restricting the chance for the development of imagination, not to mention the stunting of metaphorical thinking and moral contemplation.
I had previously reported here on TDG that Dawkins's next book would be a polemic against Intelligent Design, so I'm not sure what has become of that project. Or perhaps he includes that with the fairytales...
The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer (32:3) is now available, with the full list of articles available for reading at findarticles.com. You'll find NASA's David Morrison discussing the myth of Nibiru/Planet X, Benjamin Radford reviewing this year's Amazing Meeting, Charles Sullivan's warning of the dangers of animal extremists, Karen Stollznow discussing Sylvia Browne, and Ray Hyman covering the '8th Gathering for Gardner' (plus much more). Some good reading in there, plus some wonderfully ambiguous warnings such as "any belief in a "supernatural" being can potentially lead to extremely dangerous behavior". Make of that what you will...
Over recent months, it has become plain that an odd alliance has been created between the ultra-skeptical organisation CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) - since renamed CSI - and the leaders in SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The SETI Institute's weekly radio program "Are We Alone" is now heavily flavoured toward skeptical subjects and guests (even to the point of having a 'Skeptical Sunday' feature), and their website proclaims outright that the show is produced in partnership with CSICOP and other skeptical organisations such as CFI (the Center For Inquiry). This has even led to some of the subject matter discussed not even being related to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (such as investigation of psychics).
Conversely, regular CSICOP commentators such as James Randi (no longer affiliated with the organisation, for reasons too detailed to explain here) have long advocated SETI and participation in the distributed computing effort SETI@home. 'Bad Astronomy' critic Phil Plait has a regular spot with SETI radio. Skeptical Inquirer has recently featured a critical article by Peter Schenkel regarding the search, which allowed no less than three responses to the critique by individuals such as SETI luminary Jill Tarter and astrobiologist David Darling. While the balance of articles suggests that there is some tension within CSICOP as to the validity of SETI, it also is astounding in comparison to the one-sided attacks (with no responses) on other topics that are usually seen in the magazine.
Why does James Randi not offer a million dollar prize for SETI to prove that there is truly an alien intelligence out there, with criticism of the funding that has been provided to them? Simply because he thinks it likely that there is 'someone' out there. Parapsychology research has provided far more positive results than SETI (see the Dean Radin interview in this issue), with as huge implications for our paradigm, but he regularly savages anyone who dares to ask the question of whether psi effects exist, and finds the idea of funding such studies outrageous.
CSICOP's collaboration with SETI, and accompanying lack of criticism (apart from Schenkel's article), stands in contrast to other critical views gaining momentum. Historian George Basalla, in his book Civilized Life in the Universe, takes SETI to task for fifty years of failure. In his view, SETI is popular because of its quasi-religious features; perhaps there are benevolent 'beings' out there, more advanced than us, who have wondrous things to show us (it's interesting to note the lack of concern in SETI circles about the dangers posed by contacting an alien civilisation). He also notes the cultural assumptions we have made at various points throughout history about possible alien races, and uses this as a mirror to point out the ethnocentric blindness through which today's SETI scientists "believe that extraterrestrial civilizations construct radio telescopes."
Basalla's point has been well made previously by Terence McKenna, who noted that "to search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant." SETI's Seth Shostak has made the highly positive analogy that in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, we are like Columbus sailing into uncharted waters. Perhaps, considering current search strategies, we are more akin to Columbus standing on the coast of Europe throwing pebbles into the ocean, waiting for Native Americans to see the ripples and answer back via the same method.
In ABC's 2005 feature "Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs - Seeing is Believing", both Jill Tarter and Seth Shostak provided a skeptical counterpoint to ufology (Tarter is a CSICOP fellow). "If we claim something, there will be data to back it up," Tarter says in the program. Ironically, Tarter –- the current director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, and one of the pioneers of research in the area - was the 'model' for the character of astronomer Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact (and played in the movie version by Jodie Foster). Those familiar with the story will remember that it ends with a twist, in which the rationalist atheist character of Arroway is placed in the position of believing in something for which she has no empirical evidence – alien contact – based solely on her own totally convincing experience.
This is a worthwhile sidenote to keep in mind. Turning once again to Terence McKenna, we should remember to avoid anthropocentric thinking, and keep our minds open (while obviously thinking critically) to other methods of contact from ‘intelligences’. SETI, says McKenna, has been “chosen as the avenue by which it is assumed contact is likely to occur. Meanwhile, there are people all over the world - psychics, shamans, mystics, schizophrenics - whose heads are filled with information, but it has been ruled a priori irrelevant, incoherent, or mad. Only that which is validated through consensus via certain sanctioned instrumentalities will be accepted as a signal.”
So should we abolish SETI? I don’t think so; actually I’m actually a fan. It’s ideal is a worthwhile one, reaching out beyond our isolation to communicate with anyone else who might be out there. Remembering what the acronym actually stands for, my only suggestion would be that SETI stop lying down with close-minded inquisitors, and start broadening their horizons by entering into a dialogue with scientists out there who share SETI’s ethos, but are willing to look outside the paradigm for answers.
This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of Sub Rosa magazine (free PDF download).
News today that Uri Geller has settled a recent lawsuit related to his takedown of YouTube videos which offered a skeptical look at his 'powers':
The legal battle began when Brian Sapient, a longtime skeptic of Geller's, used footage from a NOVA documentary to create a 14-minute video on YouTube debunking Geller's powers. Geller's company, Explorogist, sent a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice to YouTube because some of the NOVA material--about 8 seconds--was under copyright owned by Explorogist. YouTube suspended Salient's account, making his videos unavailable for about two weeks.
Sapient and the Electronic Frontier Foundation subsequently filed suit against Geller, claiming that those 8 seconds were permissible under U.S. fair use laws. That would mean Explorogist breached the DCMA requirement that anyone filing a takedown notice must state, "under penalty of perjury, that the complaining party is authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed."
Explorogist, in turn, filed a lawsuit of its own, arguing that the copyrighted footage was used "within a sequence of cinematographic images" that "infringed the plaintiff's copyright."
The EFF website has plenty of information regarding the lawsuit, for those interested. However, it's not so clear exactly what the result is. Most sites around the intarweb, at this point, are saying the EFF prevailed over Geller - for example, at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow mentions the settlement as the "EFF's latest victory: forcing "psychic" Uri Geller to eat crow". However, the terms of the settlement are being kept confidential - all that has been said is:
As part of the legal settlement, Explorologist has agreed to license the disputed footage under a non-commercial Creative Commons license, preempting future legal battles over the fair use of the material. A monetary settlement was also reached.
It really depends who received the monetary settlement. Did Geller "agree" to licence the clip, as well as have to pay some money (superficially, odd - if you're going to pay out money as part of a settlement, why also agree to the Creative Commons licence...unless it was to reduce the monetary settlement). Or did he "agree" to licence the clip, in return for a monetary settlement? Without that information, it's really hard to know who really emerged as the "victor", if anybody.
In any case, hopefully this case provides some sort of benchmark for frivolous YouTube takedowns, and sensible copyright enforcement to allow for creative innovation, and critical comment.
When Seymour Hersh gets told by military and government insiders that Dick Cheney wanted to mount false flag operations in order to ramp up conflict with Iran, it's an exclusive, political exposé. When Ed Mitchell gets told by military and government insiders that aliens are here, he's labeled "deluded and spaced out". Interesting, n'est-ce pas? These are the things that keep me awake at night...
The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has announced that James 'The Amazing' Randi is stepping down (or up?) as President of the organisation, and that he will be succeeded by skeptic du jour, Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait. Randi will continue in an official capacity with the JREF though, as Chairman of the Board of Directors. I'd imagine this move is meant to resolve two issues - Randi's extremely high workload, given his advanced age, and also the question of 'succession' once Randi is no longer around (a question that has bandied around the JREF forums more than once).
With Dr. Plait at the helm, the JREF will be expanding its efforts, including educating children. “I want to teach kids about the wonders of the real Universe. We can do this by partnering with the educational community and developing fun, hands-on materials that schoolchildren can use in the classroom to teach them about critical thinking and the scientific method. Science is sometimes taught as being cold and dull, but nothing could be more wrong! It’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s cool. Kids are natural scientists, and we need to encourage that, foster it, and let it grow.”
This is an excellent move for the JREF I think - Phil Plait brings a lot of good fun and intelligence to the table. I'd still like him to take a more intelligent look at a few areas - he dismisses both psychic occurrences and UFO research out of hand, though he seems to have not researched the topic in any depth at all - and he does descend into fanboi mode a little too often. And I think, ironically, that his concern over the "cold and dull" opinion on science is precisely because of the outright dismissal of many fringe areas, with a lack of openness and humour about it all. But looking forward to seeing how he approaches the role.
On a related note, last week I had an offhand jab at the Bad Astronomer about the different standards he applied to an astrologer and a rocket launch. Interestingly, the third launch of the rocket also failed on the weekend - and
one of our longtime members an unrelated namesake to our own X_O, Xavier Onassis, stirred plenty of people up in the comments thread (including Phil Plait) by firstly predicting the failure, and then subsequently suggesting that SpaceX (the team behind the launches) were incompetent. It's quite interesting to look at the reaction that his (correct, so far) comments provoked. Here's what the Bad Astronomer replied with:
You come here, knowing that most of the people reading and commenting here — including me, the blogger — want Space X to succeed, yet you rain all over the place here. Tell you what: when you have hard evidence, come on back and show it. Until then, you can express your opinion politely, but drop the attitude.
Now, I'm sure X_O wanted the launch to succeed as well, but that wasn't his point. Phil Plait is happy to rain down skeptical sarcasm upon an astrologer caught in an earthquake, but multiple failures of a rocket launch doesn't seem to engender even a whiff of sarcasm about the skills of the people involved in that. Though I realise it's difficult to compare these topics, it does provide a decent little capsule example of how our biases affect our views.
(Note: I am *not* gloating that SpaceX failed - I'm a mega-fan of space science and exploration, so I'm hoping they succeed next time around. I just found the comparison between the two scenarios interesting.)
Nu-skeptic Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait has been provoking plenty of comment this week on his insanely popular blog with a couple of 'challenges' on two separate topics: astrology and UFOs. The fun started with the post "Shakin' Up Astrological Nonsense":
You know that astrology is equal to the solid waste matter that is extruded from a male bovine mammal, right? Want proof? Watch this video... Yes, you got it. An astrologer is startled — nay, shocked — by an earthquake while filming a YouTube video with her daily horoscope predictions.
Yet somehow, while doing that voodoo hooey she do so badly — she missed the fact that she was about to experience an earthquake! I love irony.
Now, I'm no expert on astrology (so have no valid opinion either way), but I'm pretty sure that most astrologists don't claim to predict earthquakes. I did find a quite delicious irony though in the fact that (a) the immediately preceding post was about the third attempt at launching a rocket, after a previous launch had exploded (I mean, come on - how can we trust these scientist guys and their voodoo hooey!) and (b) even 'orthodox' science can't predict earthquakes.
Mr Bad Astronomy twisted the knife later in the week with a follow-up post on his entry about the Edgar Mitchell 'revelations', in which he requested evidence for the existence of UFOs:
OK then, show it to me. This is up to you to show me this, to verify it, and to show me why you have eliminated every single possible terrestrial mundane explanation, including hardware glitches, mistaken conclusions by the people involved, and advanced military craft — things we know exist and are common. Then and only then can you begin to postulate something more exotic.
I don’t think I can be more clear than this. I want good, solid, examinable evidence. What I get are insults, bad logic, and vaporware. That’s not helping your case, folks.
I certainly don’t have the time to sift through every single case, of course, and I’m pretty busy in general. But I’m always interested in what some might consider to be more solidly based cases.
Plait is pretty much dead-on in asking for evidence of alien visitation before believing it - the reason some people find it provocative is because it challenges their belief system, and because the challenge is one they have difficulty in meeting (in providing evidence). On this count, skeptics are right - Edgar Mitchell's revelations, the Drones etc, all amount to nothing. They are not proof of anything. I would say that perhaps Phil Plait (and other 'skeptics') maybe need to just realise that there are a lot of 'nutters' and uninformed people out there, who tend to make the most noise - and just get over it.
On the other hand I do take issue with Phil Plait's approach to arguing against ufology in general (in previous posts). Genuine ufology is investigation of strange cases which point at some anomaly. Furthermore, it is easy to dismiss ufology when concentrating on the 'sightings from a distance' - it becomes more difficult once you start involving the higher degrees of 'Close Encounter' experiences. These (and some of the better 'standard' UFO cases) point at some anomaly worth investigating - which may involve anything from geomagnetism to actual extraterrestrial visitation. True ufology is science of the best kind, as it's trying to expand the boundaries of knowledge. So it would be good to see Bad Astronomy approaching the subject with a bit more intelligence, rather than provoking the uninformed.
The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer (32:2) has been released, and as usual there's a bunch of free sample articles from the new release available at their website. The major theme of the new issue is the advance of China, and promotion of rational thinking there.
The magazine details are below, but I'd just like to add a quick sidenote here, after reading the articles. CSI(COP) has close ties to the American Humanist Association (not least through Paul Kurtz), and the AHA's affinity for Marxist/socialist thinking is fairly well known. Both articles by Frazier and Kurtz (below) seem to feature an undercurrent of some 'promised land' that China may be moving towards, in their emphasis on science and technology:
The provision of the Communist Party’s Congress that I found most surprising is the supremacy it accords science and technology in its future plans. The Party Congress—it is perhaps the only major power in the world to do so—supports as its highest priority the “scientific outlook on development,” a goal adopted as an amendment to the CPC Constitution...
...Hu, trained as an engineer, was quoted as saying: “Uphold science; don’t be ignorant and unenlightened.” What a contrast with the current U.S. administration where “intelligent design” theorists oppose evolution and stem-cell research is effectively thwarted. Traditional Marxist theory emphasizes that the expansion of “the forces of production” is essential to economic growth—the Chinese have recognized that increased expenditures for science and technology are crucial to their effective development.
Now, I'm all for assigning high priorities to science and technology. But I think humanists, skeptics and atheists (they are not all one and the same) should be concerned about glowing reports by CSICOPians about China's emphasis on science and technology, without some critique of the human rights abuses taking place there. Even against qigong groups such as Falun Gong, no matter what their feelings on religious sects. There has been much made in the 'atheism debate' about how atheist regimes have been just as cruel and repressive as some religious groups - an idea that Richard Dawkins and others reject - and as such I think it's important that CSICOP and the AHA don't sweep this issue under the carpet.
Now, back to the contents (the above should get The Daily Grail banned in China fairly promptly...):
- Kendrick Frazier recounts some highlights of the recent World Congress on Scientific Inquiry and Human Well-Being, in "China Gone Modern".
- Paul Kurtz compares "The New China and the Old".
- Martin Gardner reviews Frank Tipler's The Physics of Christianity.
- Bjørn Lomborg urges everyone: "Let's Keep Our Cool about Global Warming".
- Joe Nickell shares stories about people being buried alive.
- Harriet Hall critiques Dr Gary Schwartz's 'Energy Healing Experiments'.
Full details of the new issue, and ordering details, are available at the website.
Normally, when you hear about crackers and hate crimes, you'd be thinking something else - but this one isn't quite as it seems...
There's been a number of discussions on TDG lately (in blogs and comments) about the fundamentalist dichotomy of religion vs materialism/atheism, and how the debate between the sides offers little in the way of progress. Right on schedule, here comes the case study:
Controversy (somehow) erupted last week when a university student from Florida stole the body of Christ - and by that, I mean the Eucharist, aka 'a cracker'. Megapopular atheist blogger P.Z. Myers took the opportunity to boggle at the craziness of the situation, in his usual unsubtle manner. (Although it's hard not to be on his side in this particular case):
Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart.
Myers' own little rant then got Bill Donohue and the Catholic League looking for *his* head as well:
Paul Zachary Myers, a professor at the University of Minnesota Morris, has pledged to desecrate the Eucharist...
...Catholic League president Bill Donohue responded as follows:
“The Myers blog can be accessed from the university’s website. The university has a policy statement on this issue which says that the ‘Contents of all electronic pages must be consistent with University of Minnesota policies, local, state and federal laws.’ One of the school’s policies, ‘Code of Conduct,’ says that ‘When dealing with others,’ faculty et al. must be ‘respectful, fair and civil.’ Accordingly, we are contacting the President and the Board of Regents to see what they are going to do about this matter. Because the university is a state institution, we are also contacting the Minnesota legislature.
“It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ. We look to those who have oversight responsibility to act quickly and decisively.”
Personally, I can think of a lot more vile things than doing nasty things to a cracker. On the other hand, when you purposefully act to anger someone by stepping on their beliefs, you've got to expect some trouble in return. Although in this case, I think Myers' post was a fair response to what is - quite simply - an over-the-top (some might say 'crazy') reaction to the original 'crime'.
Last week Larry King hosted his annual Roswell special (transcript here), with panelists including authors Don Schmitt and Thomas Carey, as well as Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell. The designated skeptic for the night was Bill Nye, who I understand is well-respected in the U.S. for his work in educating the masses about science.
Nye is a member of the Skeptics Society and a fellow with CSI(COP). Unfortunately, he had a bit of a bad night, making some howling errors (always a bad thing, when you're supposed to be the voice of reason and knowledge). Chief among them was his assertion that adventurer Steve Fossett died in a balloon crash (while making an analogy about Roswell being balloon wreckage):
NYE: Steve Fossett, he disappeared in a similar balloon last year, right? Haven't found the guy.
KING: Right. Still haven't found him.
NYE: Yes, because when things crash in this kind of area, it's rugged and they're hard to find.
Fossett actually disappeared while flying a plane - the apparent confusion being a result of Fossett's previous world record attempts at long-distance balloon flights.
Nye also repeatedly referred to the Roswell incident being caused by a Skyhook balloon, when the official explanation is that it was a Project Mogul balloon. Mogul balloons were actually arrays of smaller weather balloons and recording instruments, while the Skyhooks were large silver spheres. The Skyhook projects postdated Roswell. The only point of convergence is that a Skyhook balloon is often blamed for another infamous UFO incident, the Mantell crash.
Nye also claimed a photo showing a saucer-shaped object being taken from a box was faked. "That to me is not a very convincing photo...look at the words "Viking Project," Nye said. "They're not keystone, they're not - they don't have a vanishing point that's accurate." A subscriber to the UFO Updates mailing list pointed out that this was another terrible blunder on Nye's part:
It was downright embarrassing to hear him claim that a photo of a Viking aeroshell being removed from a box labeled "Viking" was instead a doctored photo of a flying saucer. The photo was from one of the Air Force's debunking reports, and had nothing to do with Roswell. The Air Force just included it to show that things that are saucer-shaped are not necessarily alien spacecraft, a fact that most people don't have much trouble grasping.
Nye apparently combined his lack of knowledge about the subject with a belligerent attitude. Larry King asked him to let others finish on a number of occasions, and Nye's interjections even inspired former astronaut Edgar Mitchell to fire up:
I am not interested in arguing with you. I'm telling my story. If you want to shut up and hear it, I'll be glad to talk. Otherwise, no.
All in all, not a great effort from Bill Nye. Note that I'm not saying he's incorrect about Roswell having a prosaic explanation, or that I agree with the Roswell cheerleaders (or find their arguments compelling). I don't - I'm not a fan of the prominence of the Roswell incident in ufology. But as always, I do like to point out that the supposed skeptics/rationalists are often less informed than those they seek to disparage, and as such their opinions should be considered as dubious as the next person's. Seek all the facts yourself, put your beliefs aside, and make informed and intelligent decisions (or best guesses, when the situation dictates).