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".
In other developments, some two years on from the 'Elevatorgate' incident, skeptical speaker and writer Karen Stollznow used her blog at Scientific American to allege 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).
Update 11/8/2015: A joint statement signed by both parties has now been released stating that all issues between them have now been resolved, and that "it would be wrong for anyone to believe" that the accused "stalked, sexually harassed, or physically or sexually assaulted Karen Stollznow".)
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.
Legendary stage magician Joseph Dunninger demonstrates some of the tricks employed by fake mediums in the first five minutes of this rare 1937 Pathé News video recording. Like his contemporary Houdini, Dunninger pre-empted James Randi by offering a $10,000 prize to any psychic who could demonstrate powers that he could not explain by normal means. And like Houdini and Randi, he used this challenge to his advantage as a method of publicity.
Physicist Sean Carroll, speaking at James Randi's "The Amazing Meeting", tells how anomalous phenomenon simply can't happen because the laws of physics are completely understood:
There are actually three points I try to hit here. The first is that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment.
The third point — the important one, and the most subtle — is that the absence of meaning “out there in the universe” does not mean that people can’t live meaningful lives. Far from it. It simply means that whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us, not given to us by the natural or supernatural world. There is one world that exists, but many ways to talk about; many stories we can imagine telling about that world and our place within it, without succumbing to the temptation to ignore the laws of nature. That’s the hard part of living life in a natural world, and we need to summon the courage to face up to the challenge.
There's a lot of elements to like about the talk, and Sean Carroll is no doubt a smarter man than me, but the pre-emptive debunking of apparent anomalies in science (such as parapsychology and the evidence for the survival of consciousness) - in effect, saying that we need not even test these anomalies because the laws of physics are already understood and preclude them - left me thinking of another well-known scientist's thoughts on the apparent completeness of science. Considering the alternative scientific viewpoints from the likes of physicist Henry Stapp, on theoretical explorations of the possibility of an afterlife, and Dean Radin's recent work on conscious influence in the famous double-slit experiment, the famous (though possibly apocryphal) fin de siècle quote of Lord Kelvin immediately came to mind when contemplating Carroll's pronouncements:
There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.
Within a few years, science was turned on its head by relativity, and followed by quantum mechanics. One can only wonder if current-day anomalies, such as those explored by parapsychologiests, might one-day lead to some similar revolution, this time involving consciousness or information as primary elements of the cosmos.
In 1982, James Randi set out to test the claims of Dr. Arthur Lintgen, a physician from Pennsylvania:
He doesn’t read minds, tell the future, or talk to the dead, but can he can tell you what songs are on a vinyl record just by staring at it, and no, he doesn’t need the label. Lintgen claims he only became aware of his strange ability when challenged at a party in the 70′s, and found, to his surprise, that he could correctly identify records just by looking at the grooves.
“Friends of mine with more scientific and musical knowledge than I have tried it unsuccessfully,” he once told the New York Times. “I don’t know how I do it. I have terrible eyesight.”
In 1982, the ABC television series That’s Incredible decided to put Dr. Lintgen to the test in front of an audience, and to the astonishment of Stimson Carrow, then the professor of music theory at Temple University, Arthur was able to not only correctly identify 20 different unlabeled records, but was able to identify their pieces and composers.. all from about 15 feet away. The audience was astonished.
That kind of stunt might have been enough to impress viewers at home, but there were still many who remained skeptical of the man who could see records. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, not pre-taped television episodes. After all, it’s not like TV has the greatest track record of honesty.
So what happened when 'The Amazing' set out to test Dr Lintgen? Read the entire story at Who Forted?.
I'm in a bad mood, and I need a LULz fix before the weekend starts —hope you get a kick out of it too.
If you feel identified in any way with the video, like STOP it, k? Peppering your dialogue with Choprenglish is not going to get you any closer to your Pleiadian guides.
[OK, feeling better now...]
In the sentencing hearing for James Randi's long-time companion Deyvi Pena (aka 'Jose Alvarez') today after his conviction on a charge of identity theft, the judge declared his desire to imprison Pena for two years, saying his actions constituted "a serious crime that deserved punishment." However, by the end of the hearing, the magistrate was persuaded to hand down a sentence consisting of six months of house arrest, followed by three years of probation:
Hurley repeatedly said he was concerned about the message it would send to be lenient on Alvarez, whose real name is Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga. The judge told Pena he came to court ready to sentence him to two years in prison. But after hearing passionate pleas for mercy and testimonials to Pena's generous, loving nature, Hurley said, "I am prepared to change that sentence."
..."I want to express my deepest regrets," Pena said. "It was never my intention to cause trouble for anyone."
Randi, 83, a native of Canada, told the story of how he proudly became a naturalized U.S. citizen and cherishes this nation's freedoms. He said that opportunity was foreclosed to Pena by U.S. immigration policies at the time.
"He was tempest tossed. He was cruelly treated," Randi told the judge. "This was a crime of desperation in which no one was hurt."
...Outside the courtroom after the sentencing, a relieved Pena hugged his friends one by one.
As per usual, I think Randi's being a bit loose with the truth here in saying "no one was hurt" - for instance, the victim of the identity theft reportedly missed his sister's wedding due to passport problems arising directly from Pena's actions. However, from all reports Pena is quite a lovely person, and two years in prison may have been a bit of a harsh punishment in my eyes.
Hopefully, given Randi's somewhat advanced age, the couple can now continue with their life together, though the end of the criminal case now allows for deportation proceedings to possibly be initiated. Pena is hoping to obtain political asylum in the United States based on a fear of persecution for his homosexuality back in his native Venezuela.
And I guess the other question that many would like answered, once again, is "when did Randi know?"
Update: A couple of recent court documents have been posted online, notably the defense's Sentencing Memorandum and Request for Variance" and an appendix of personal testimonials from the likes of Randi, Penn & Teller, and Richard Dawkins vouching for Jose Alvarez. The latter document sheds some interesting light on things such as Randi's financial position ("a shambles" in 2010, largely due to being allegedly fleeced by a contractor renovating his house, damaged in a hurricane in 2005) and the generosity of Randi and Alvarez/Pena to others (paying for flights, funerals etc. for friends and family unable to afford them). On a sidenote, the testimonial of Richard 'Rick' Adams also leads me to believe that he is the likely owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, and benefactor of the JREF, that I (probably wrongly) guessed previously as being Jeff Bezos.