The January/February 2010 issue of Skeptical Inquirer is now available, and as per usual there are a number of articles from the latest release available online:
- 2012 Not a Complete Disaster
- Court Vindicates Prayer-Fertility Study Critic
- Company Sells Ghost Detectors
- Norm Levitt: An Obituary
Full details at the SI website, as well as articles from previous releases.
The last two instalments of the Skeptiko podcast are well worth checking out: they feature British skeptic Dr Chris French and well-known 'maverick scientist' Dr Rupert Sheldrake discussing various aspects of parapsychology and skeptical thinking. Both French and Sheldrake are excellent to listen to, offering calm and rational insights into what they do, and their thoughts on psi and skepticism.
In Sheldrake's podcast there's also an interesting point made about how psi and skeptical experimenters may never be able to reach a conclusion because of the differing takes on the approach required for 'success':
Now when Chris French and I discussed this experiment before they did it, you know, I said - we said to each other what we’d probably say, and I said, “Okay, Chris, well, if it gives non-significant results I’m probably going to say that you know, this extreme skeptical leaning on everybody involved in the way that treats them as if they’re under suspicion of cheating all the time is going to inhibit the effect.”
And I said, “What are you going to say if there’s a positive effect?” And he said, “I’m going to say that the controls weren’t rigorous enough, and we’ll have to do it with even more rigorous control.” Chris and I, both of us in advance realized that whatever the result, you know, neither of us was going to say okay, the phenomena or it doesn’t exist. His idea of more rigorous controls would you know, involve stepping up the degree of suspicion with which everyone else is - everyone involved is treated. And then you know, you could probably reach a level where the phenomenon would go away. This just isn’t a feasible way of doing research.
Both podcasts are excellent, I recommend a listen if you have time.
Randi has debunked more than 100 psychics and faith healers in a quest to rid the world of hucksters. It also makes him the subject of scorn among purveyors of the paranormal, true believers who say Randi has made himself rich, pulling in nearly $200,000 a year from his foundation, at the expense of others' careers.
Now, however, Randi's work may be in jeopardy. His foundation has been hemorrhaging money, and Randi, who has spent his career challenging the notion of an afterlife, now faces his own mortality. He has intestinal cancer and may not have long to live. He has been a commanding presence for four decades, but it's unclear who could fill his role as the face of the skeptic community.
The article says doctors are giving him a 50/50 prognosis for the next five years. Not that it means much, but my best wishes go out to the old geezer in his battle against the big C, regardless of my criticisms of some of his actions and the merits of the JREF.
The full article is worth a read, there are comments from Uri Geller about his long battle with Randi, and also plenty of material from the recent Amazing Meeting which gives you the feeling there's a bit of cult vibe with the skeptical minions and the white-bearded father figure who shepherds them.
Exhibit one in why affable, intelligent scientists shouldn't jump on the skeptic bandwagon, and start acting all obnoxious and unintelligent. I give you Neil DeGrasse Tyson at last year's Amazing Meeting:
Ugh, it's like your drunk uncle at your wedding, thinking he's a stand-up comedian all of a sudden...
A few interesting posts over the website of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) on the topic of how skepticism and atheism are not directly connected. The series started with a rant from Jeff Wagg about a discount promotion at Denny's aimed at Christians. Personally I don't see any problem with it - just like I wouldn't if the promotion were aimed at local junior baseball teams, or pensioners...it's all just marketing to me - but Wagg's post revived some contentious issues on the JREF's stance towards religion.
As such, Wagg reposted some older posts which are well worth checking out, which "demonstrate how skepticism - as the JREF sees it - can be a big tent". The first was James Randi's "Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I'm a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright". The second is titled "One Voice of the JREF", and is by Hal Bidlack, a committed skeptic who also holds Deist views:
At TAM5, no less than three well-intended individuals attempted to ‘save' me from my non-atheism, one even had pamphlets, with no less ardor than religious zealots bring to their cause. Some of my dear friends attempt to somehow make it "ok" for me to be a Deist by trying to convince me that it's really just the same as atheism, I just don't quite understand it correctly. They apologize on my behalf, and condone my naiveté, sure that I will come around some day.
My belief in a non-intervening god is, they tell me, just the same as not believing in God at all, and therefore we are on the same side. I sharply differ, in that the key issue for me is God/no-god, not the form therein. I believe I should be able to decide what I believe. I am tired of being told I am stupid, but I can get better.
Bidlack's post recounts his own life based in science and skepticism, but also speaks eloquently about the experiences and tragedies he's endured (including 9-11 and his wife's cancer), leading him to the "odd sense of something greater than myself, of being part of a remarkable universe."
Lots of discussion in the comments threads as well. A key question might be though - if organised skepticism has no trouble with Deism, how much more ground are they forced to 'relinquish' in terms of 'irrational beliefs' which people hold due to intuition or because of the positive influence on their lives?
Like much else, I always seem to end up at the maxim 'if it does no harm'...
Following up on the last post about the Million Dollar Challenge - in particular the idea of modern magicians as debunkers of the paranormal - I just noticed that George Hansen's Paranormal Trickster blog has been updated with two new additions. Both of them touch on the issue of (stage) magicians and their interaction with religion, supernatural ideas and the paranormal. Hansen's review of a conference on "The Theory and Art of Magic" throws the spotlight on the work of Eugene Burger, one of magic's most profound thinkers but also a graduate from Yale University’s Divinity School.
The second post offers a PDF file of Hansen's 1992 essay on "Magicians and the Paranormal" which was originally published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (JASPR). The article provides a fascinating look at how magicians have viewed the paranormal over the past four centuries. As Hansen says, it's important to understand this background, because...
...several magicians have had an impact on scientists’ and the general public’s perception of psychical research, and some have played a major role in the modern-day skeptical movement. Conjurors have been consulted regarding government funding of psi research, and the recent workshop on parapsychology by the Office of Technology Assessment (1989) of the U.S. Congress included nine outside panelists, three of whom were scientist-magicians. Also, conjurors have special expertise in evaluating certain types of psi research.
The JASPR article in particular is a wonderful read, I highly recommend it. I find George Hansen's writings on the paranormal a welcome tonic to the true believers on either side - he goes beyond evaluating the objective reality of these phenomena and considers sociological and psychological factors as well (although I also cringe when people take things too far in that direction).
Last year the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) announced that the famous 'Million Dollar Prize' challenge for claims of the paranormal would come to an end in 2010. If you had been honing your skills in preparation for a dash at the money, rest easy: the JREF has now announced that they have reversed their decision, and the Challenge will continue:
Last year, we announced that the MDC would end in March 2010 due to the strains on time and effort of the JREF staff. However, after much discussion, we have decided not to terminate the Challenge. Instead, we are in the process of examining how it can be improved, streamlined, and made more efficient so that we can continue to use it to test claims of the paranormal.
However, we haven't made any final decisions about it yet; we're taking our time and making sure we do this right. When next March comes around we will roll out the new and improved Million Dollar Challenge. So never fear! We will continue to test the claims and examine the evidence, and we will always strive to ensure that reality - as it usually tends to do - wins out.
Hopefully the "streamlining" of the MDC takes into consideration some of the criticisms I raised in my article "The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge". But if not, at least skeptics can now continue to look on in wonder, completely surprised at the fact that in a population of 5 billion and counting, there are actually some odd /delusional people in the world.
Organised atheism fascinates me. Mainly because of the parallels between the development of the modern atheist movement and that of early religions - the emergence of 'church leaders', creation of certain 'doctrines' and 'rites', the treatment of apostate members, the push to gain political influence, and so on. I'm not saying that it's wrong in any sense - certainly, any group that feels persecuted or threatened will often self-organise and push for power in order to assert their rights - just rather ironic.
This recent story has some interesting points:
During the first five months of 2009, 95 new atheist groups have formed through meetup.com, bringing the US total to 372. That's up from 59 in 2005, says Blair Scott, director of national affiliates for American Atheists, a networking and advocacy organization.
..."It used to be that these atheist groups ... met almost in hiding," says American Atheists spokesman David Silverman. "Now they're doing a lot more stands at town parties, a lot more trash pickups, a lot more blood donations - a lot more stuff that gets their group out and noticed."
It's easy to understand why atheism is pushing for more say in decision-making though, when you read stories such as this one about the inclusion of 'God' in the American Pledge of Allegiance. When a Senator justifies it by saying "The Founders based the Constitution and our laws on religious faith and principles that clear the way for individual freedom", I think he's only getting the latter part exactly correct. The part which is most important to allowing people freedom from religion...
Not to mention the ways in which Fundamentalist religions are affecting the wider population, from the teaching of evolution in American schools, through to the obvious influence in certain Middle East nations. There's certainly a need for a counter-balance of some sort. My only beef with the modern atheist movement is that a large portion of them (including their 'leaders') are pretty obnoxious and self-righteous. Which just makes them another special interest religious group that may one day impede my individual rights and silence my point of view.
Hell...er...heck, even our favourite Tool singer is an atheist apparently (and sexy to boot). Not to speak for MJK, but perusing that list I'm not sure about how they're defining the word "atheist". Antipathy towards organised religion does not always an atheist make. Unfortunately, that seems to be how both Fundamentalists and Atheists tend to think...
The Richard Dawkins Foundation has combined with high-profile skeptic Michael Shermer to do a video presentation of "The Baloney Detection Kit":
It's a handy little tutorial on some basic critical thinking, though being filled with the usual Shermerisms about UFOs and Bigfoot it gets to be a bit of a smiley smug-fest after a while. So you can make it fun by applying the Detection Kit to Shermer himself. Here, let me get you started:
a) Reliability of the Source: Are the errors all in one direction, "slanting towards a particular belief"?
- Shermer tells USA Today that Rupert Sheldrake's psi observations "don't require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means". When pushed on the details of his rebuttal, Shermer admits he hasn't even seen the book.
- Shermer later misrepresents Sheldrake's research in his 'Skeptic' column in Scientific American.
- Shermer cites Pim van Lommel's positive NDE study, published in The Lancet, to show that NDEs are obviously delusions.
- Shermer says those promoting 'quantum consciousness' theories suffer from "physics envy". Including such pseudoscientists as John Eccles and Roger Penrose...
- In his August 2004 Scientific American column, Shermer attacked respected physicist Freeman Dyson over his comments that paranormal phenomena may actually exist, wrongly saying that the scientific evidence is "unequivocal" in dismissing psi.
Kinda makes us suspicious, with all that "picking and choosing" of data. I leave the rest of the analysis to you...
Taking a knife of gentle humour and cutting deep into some of the craziness of religious literalism:
Because sometimes deities should just not get involved...