Here you'll find the latest news from the nay-sayers, telling you what you don't understand, for the good of rationalism and the physical universe


Last Friday night magic duo Penn & Teller were the 'celebrity contestants' on game show "Don't Forget the Lyrics". Contestants on the show try to remember and sing the lyrics to various hit songs; each time they correctly do so, they win more money, with each step taking them closer to the 'million dollar song'. Celebrities play on behalf of their favourite charity. P&T's choice? The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)!

Though they teased skeptical fanbois by heading into six-figure heaven for a few moments, they crashed back to earth with an incorrect lyric to a Doors song (Jim's no doubt got a big smile on his face on the 'other side'), resigning the JREF to a 'paltry' $25,000 donation. Although that will surely come in handy, paying a good 14% of James Randi's wage for the coming year ($US175,000). Homeless children and starving babies be damned...there's a cranky old man who needs to misinform the public about the 'truth', at least according to his long-held prejudices. Unfortunately, P&T's winnings will only help feed and clothe one - there are thousands of them out there folks, in desperate need of funds to allow them too to stand up and annoy the crap out of us with patronising sermons. I say huzzah for Penn & Teller for bringing attention to this silent epidemic...

Derren Brown on Cold Reading

In his documentary series The Enemies of Reason (see the end of this post for video links), Richard Dawkins talked to hypnotist/magician Derren Brown about the skill of "cold reading" - techniques used by fraudulent mediums (and mentalists) to convince people that they know their personal details. A new DVD has been released of the 'uncut' interviews from the documentary, and has announced that the complete interview with Derren Brown is freely available on YouTube (almost an hour total length). I've posted part one underneath - you can watch the next five instalments by clicking on the links at the end of the video:

Unfortunately, it would seem that the uncut interview with Rupert Sheldrake is not part of the DVD - that might have made things a touch more interesting...

Previously on TDG:

Skeptical Inquirer 32:6

The final issue of Skeptical Inquirer for the year has been released (32:6), and as usual there's plenty of free sample articles from the latest mag available online to whet your appetite:

Full details of the new issue at the Skeptical Inquirer website.

Skeptologists Attack Ufologists

The skeptical superstar team pushing for their own (spectacularly ugly-named) reality TV series - 'The Skeptologists' - have gone out of their way this week to pick on ufology, in particular two researchers: Stanton Friedman and Chris Rutkowski (or maybe they just don't like Canadian residents?). 'Skeptoid' host Brian Dunning rushed into battle with his post "Stanton Friedman Doesn't Like Me". As Dunning points out in his own post though, Stan's probably got good reason not to like him, considering Dunning has previously labeled Stan (and continues to) “an obsessed UFO wacko."

Now, ufology has plenty of problems - there's no real 'group authority', and plenty of hucksters and deluded people. I'm not criticising them here, because basically they're hucksters and deluded people...whom most people can see right through. Skeptics on the other hand, take on a heavy burden in giving themselves that name - it means they're imposing themselves as guardians or gatekeepers to science and the collective body of human knowledge. As such, when they fail to uphold fairness, and fail to understand something when criticising it, they deserve every bit of blowback that they get. And let's be clear about this - Dunning's post is an ugly piece of personal vindictiveness. Beyond his name-calling, there's pettiness (in saying his podcast is 'kicking the ass' of the Paranormal Podcast) and innuendo (Stan is apparently more "concerned with his bank account than with reason"). I also find it amusing that Dunning tries to talk up how much Stan is earning from ufology (not much actually) in contrast to the fact that "reason doesn't pay" - while posting alongside Michael Shermer and Phil Plait!

Beyond that though, Dunning's main point was regarding his investigation of the Betty and Barney Hill case - in particular, Stanton Friedman's assertion that there were "40 flat-out false claims" made by Dunning in debunking the case. I'm not sure whether the number mentioned was hyperbole on Stan's part, but as we'll see below, there is no doubt that Dunning made some major errors (or got creative in his writing). I don't agree with Stan on a lot of things, including some parts of the Hill case, but he does know the material having dedicated much of his life to studying it. Challenging him on the evidence is no trivial matter - as Phil Klass once found out to his financial detriment. (I'll post Stan's response to Dunning's original investigation at the end of this update.) ... Read More »

Surveying Skepticism

I recently posted a story about "The Psychology of the Skeptic", which linked to reports from the Society for Psychical Research's recent study day 'Spotlight on the Skeptics'. Matt Colborn's excellent summary of the conference (which I posted as a multi-link to the Cosmic Citizen blog) is now available on the one page at the Skeptical Investigations website. Also now available is audio of Rupert Sheldrake's insightful lecture, which gave a full run-down on some of his own encounters with fundamentalist skeptics, as well as Rupert's own thoughts about the label.

Speaking of the skeptical label, at SkepticBlog Dr Steven Novella (well-known as a key member of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast) has posted an entry which contemplates that very thing - he notes the negative connotation of the word, and goes so far as to make explicit that modern skeptics are *nothing of the kind*:

OK - we all know that the name “skeptic” is sub-optimal. Probably, if someone paid a great deal of money to a top-notch marketing team they would come up with something better. But we don’t always get to choose such things. Names take root and have cultural inertia. Attempts at imposing a new name on the modern skeptical movement have failed (cough…”brights”…cough!)... Rather than fight history, inertia, and etymology most of us have just decided to embrace it and make the best out of it.

... The modern skeptical movement has used the self-label of “skeptic” for decades to refer to what Carl Sagan called “scientific skepticism,” to distinguish it from philosophical skepticism or mere cynicism.

So here is my attempt at a reasonably concise definition of skeptic and skepticism - the brand of scientific skepticism we advocate as activist skeptics.

A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.

An interesting moment of redefinition by one of the leading skeptics - although I've no doubt there are areas of Novella's definition which could use a little work. (Personally, I don't find the idea that aliens are abducting people and putting probes up their butts too "comforting or convenient", but hey...maybe I'm too much of a small town boy).

There is no doubt in my mind (heh, see what I did there...) that the skeptical movement is gaining serious traction online, despite their protestations that the world is being swallowed by the irrationality monster - witness the growing audiences of the Skeptics Guide podcast, Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula etc. Mind you, there's very good reasons to be a skeptic (in the true sense of the word) - there's no shortage of stupidity and fraud out there - but I think the reason why so many *pseudo-skeptics* are being embraced (e.g. Randi) is because they trade on intellectual superiority ("hey, if you're interested in that you must be a goofy anti-science guy") - and there's plenty of fragile egos out there wanting to join the 'smart club'. Me, I'll just continue to be unfashionable and look into strange and weird things, though with plenty of caution.

Psychology of the Skeptic

Robert McLuhan (of Paranormalia) recently gave a talk at a Society for Psychical Research study day devoted to 'the skeptics'. He has posted the text of his talk, "The Psychology of the Skeptic", to his blog - I highly recommend you take the time to read it through, it's an excellent piece. Robert points out that while there is usually much talk of the dysfunctional psychology of a 'believer' in the paranormal, not as much attention is given to the psychology of the skeptic:

[S]kepticism per se is absolutely rational. Indeed, for many people in our secular-leaning society, belief in such things as ESP is a deviation from the social norm. The believer is an odd breed who is willing to believe in things that aren't there, clearly prey to delusions and wishful thinking, unable to think critically, and so on. It's implicit in the titles of the debunking books: The Psychology of the Psychic, The Psychology of the Occult, The Psychology of Anomalous Experience, Why People Believe Weird Things.

But the intensity of dogmatism of many of the critics, their violent responses and seeming inability to connect with our reasoning, makes us suspect that there is such a thing as a skeptical psychology. It's not just the believer who is special - there's an awful lot going in skeptics' heads as well. Where skeptics see their automatic dismissal of paranormal claims, even when made by serious scientists, as a necessary and healthy reaction, we often see it as dogmatic, intolerant, and religious in its intensity, indicating a deep emotional commitment to the mechanist worldview. Some even see it as a rerun of the Reformation in a secular setting - with dissenters beating at the gates of the establishment, and embattled scientists defending orthodoxy against their heresies.

Strictly speaking, this isn't skepticism at all, at least in its original sense. Where skepsis, in the original Greek, means rational doubt and probing, the word skeptic has increasingly come to mean defensive and doctrinaire, and a skeptic as someone who identifies with a position and defends it to the bitter end, often striving to downplay, misrepresent or simply ignore the evidence. This is by not necessarily a fair or universal definition, but it's nevertheless one that is increasingly made.

Robert's talk covers some interesting ground, including how a number of skeptics seem to have had a Damascus-like conversion to skepticism after one of their beliefs was refuted - what he refers to as the "experience, of being abruptly disabused of a belief, and it has had a powerful impact". He goes on to quote David Leiter as to the effect this shock has:

Such scientifically inclined, but psychologically scarred people tend to join Skeptics' organizations much as one might join any other support group, say, Alcoholics Anonymous. There they find comfort, consolation, and support amongst their own kind. Anyone who has spent much time engaging members of Skeptics' organizations knows about their strong inclination toward ridicule and ad hominem criticism of those with differing viewpoints.

I often criticise the modern skeptical movement here on TDG. Some probably mistake this as a signal that I "believe" in the paranormal and odd claims, or that I support every claim made out there. I don't - there's *a lot* of absolute rubbish out there - but I do enjoy reading and researching them, even if to see how a certain belief is being propagated...and it's important to note the difference. There is *a lot* I could criticise about the paranormal genre (and readers will know that I do), but most of it comes back to "belief". As Robert Anton Wilson once wrote, "Belief is the death of intelligence."

The modern skeptical movement bugs me for the simple fact that they should know better. Their reason for being is supposed to be critical thinking, and yet it has become quite obvious that it is as much a belief system to many 'adherents', as those that they criticise regularly.

Other speakers included Rupert Sheldrake, Guy Lyon Playfair, and Professor Chris French was also invited to reply to the talks from a skeptical point of view. Coverage of the event by the Cosmic Citizen blog said that Chris French "pointed out that many of the criticisms of extreme skepticism (inflexibility, selective presentation of facts, lack of interest in alternative points of veiw, etc.) could also be levelled at extreme 'Believers' in the paranormal." I think this is a fair observation. However, I also think it's worth pointing out that the "extreme skepticism" seems to take the lead in the authoritative skeptical organisations (e.g. Randi, CSICOP), whereas leading parapsychologists do not engage in such extreme behaviour.

Full coverage of the event at Cosmic Citizen can be read below:

All excellent and thought-provoking reading.

Why We...'Believe'

Ugh. Three pages of ugh in fact, and it wasn't until the final paragraph that I thought it started being more balanced...but that only lasted a sentence, and then there was the "good fight" thing. I've tried writing a commentary about it, but it's going to end up book length - so I leave it to anybody else that wants to comment.

My comment, in a nutshell - "belief" isn't something restricted to the supernatural...

The Dawkins Fantasy?

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...

Skeptical Inquirer 32:3

The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer (32:3) is now available, with the full list of articles available for reading at 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...

SETI and CSICOP - Strange Bedfellows

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).