A long-simmering feud came to a public head yesterday, with skeptical heavyweight Paul Kurtz - founder of CSICOP (now CSI), the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and Prometheus Books - tendering his resignation from the Center for Inquiry. Kurtz's decision comes nearly a year after he was (in his words) "unceremoniously ousted as Chairman of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational on June 1, 2009". In the interim, Kurtz has been highly critical of the CFI for participating in the growing trend of hostility and intolerance towards religion:
...the problem of atheist fundamentalism is a very real one and needs to be faced. We are not going to solve the massive problems facing civilization on a global scale by merely attacking and ridiculing religion. Questions about human rights, abuse of power, and the creation of meaning and value for a secular age are as vital today as ever.
Coming from the guy who founded, and has been the driving force behind, the highly intolerant organization CSICOP, Kurtz can probably afford to step down off his high horse on the particular criticism of ridicule. I think the more central problem is that the 84-year-old Kurtz is, towards the end of his life, losing control of his vision for a secular world. Nevertheless, his shock resignation is another strong indicator that all is not well in Skepticland, with growing friction between 'militant atheist' skeptics, and 'accomodationist' (or religiously inclined) skeptics (see this blog by Daniel Loxton, and 230-odd-comments, for a taste).
A special report from New Scientist: "Living in Denial.
From climate change to vaccines, evolution to flu, denialists are on the march. Why are so many people refusing to accept what the evidence is telling them?
In this special feature we look at the phenomenon in depth. What is denial? What attracts people to it? How does it start, and how does it spread? And finally, how should we respond to it?
An interesting topic no doubt, and one sure to provide combustive material for flame wars across the intarwebs. But I did find it ironic that one of the writers for the special report is science writer and 'skeptic' Michael Shermer, who makes clear the difference between a 'skeptic' and a 'denialist':
Scepticism is integral to the scientific process, because most claims turn out to be false. Weeding out the few kernels of wheat from the large pile of chaff requires extensive observation, careful experimentation and cautious inference. Science is scepticism and good scientists are sceptical.
Denial is different. It is the automatic gainsaying of a claim regardless of the evidence for it - sometimes even in the teeth of evidence. Denialism is typically driven by ideology or religious belief, where the commitment to the belief takes precedence over the evidence. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to ensure that the belief survives intact.
Shermer here is no doubt referring to the sort of people that misrepresent scientific papers to suit their own belief, make authoritative statements without examining the evidence, tell far more qualified scientists how to do their job, and mislead the public about scientific evidence which contradicts their own point of view. Just so we can be clear when a self-labeled 'skeptic' is really a denialist...
Jokes aside, this topic is one that I wrestle with constantly, given the raison d'être of The Daily Grail is to provide an open forum for heretical, non-mainstream ideas. I personally find alternative theories fascinating (though not so much in wide-eyed 'OMG, this is the truth behind it all', as 'that's an interesting perspective which I'd like to see debated, and which may - or may not - advance our knowledge somewhat'). As such I have a *desire* to post about these topics and hear what people have to say. Balancing that though, there are certain areas where - if you are in complete agreeance with the orthodox view - my posting of such stories could be seen as not just in poor taste (e.g. 9/11 conspiracy theories), but dangerous on a large scale (e.g. HIV-AIDS link, skepticism of anthropogenic global warming). For a really interesting examination of the latter, see this recent story.
I am though, at my core, someone who believes in free discussion of every topic (and on this point it would seem for once my opinion converges with Michael Shermer's). So I would simply reiterate the warning given to all readers directly beneath our logo - explore these topics, educate yourself, but by no means accept our view (if we have one) or trust only the sources we provide. And question, question, question your beliefs at all times.
Here's The Amazing Randi talking at TED, sensationally titled "James Randi's fiery takedown of psychic fraud". Not so much a takedown, nor fiery, but still entertaining enough, if you don't mind a magician telling you how the world should be ("beware the tidal wave of irrationality about to engulf us folks!"):
Would it be facetious of me to point out that Randi starts his talk by illustrating his propensity for fooling his audience? If I had a million dollars for everytime I've heard that nonsense about his psychic challenge...
British mentalist-magician par excellence Derren Brown returns to the small screen this week with a new show, the rather unimaginatively titled Derren Brown Investigates. Over three weeks (starting tonight), Brown will work with and examine the claims of a medium, a ghost-hunter, and a paranormal 'healer'. Here's the trailer:
I'm a big Derren Brown fan on many levels - not only is he a great showman, but he seems to be a deep thinker as well - and so I enjoyed reading what appears to be quite an honest and thoughtful blog posting on his website about the series, his stance towards paranormal claims and trickery, and the development of belief systems. Despite being an outspoken skeptic, Brown claims that he has...
...approached these documentaries quite openly: as a magician, and someone steeped in the world of the paranormal, I would love to find something that I can’t explain.
That's some TV that I would like to see. However, my hopes are not high - on a previous series his promised testing of a remote-viewing 'expert' managed to avoid completely every expert I was familiar with (his producers even managed to find a guy named Wayne Carr...). And from the preview of the first show, it seems they once again haven't gone out of their way to test an expert.
Here's an interesting post on SkepticBlog.com. It's from Brian Dunning (of the 'Skeptoid' podcast) justifying some advertising that Bill Nye 'The Science Guy' - a fellow skeptic - had undertaken for an alleged 'junk science' product:
After some consideration, I think the way to react to this is probably not to criticize Bill personally. There are realities that we all have to live with in this world, and one of those is the need to earn a living. There is, unfortunately, little or no money in science journalism (or in critical thinking outreach), and if you check Bill’s IMDB page, you’ll see that not even he has been nearly as busy in recent years as we’d all hope. My guess is that Activeion made him a much-needed offer, and I think we’d be jumping to conclusions to say that he accepted it lightly or without reflection.
There’s an obvious benefit in being able to live to fight another day. The Activeion product is a bottle of water; it’s not going to hurt anyone except in their wallet. If you have to choose a snake-oil product to promote, this is as harmless as it gets. There is probably a number that Activeion could offer me and I’d have done the same thing Bill did. I’d reason that if I took that job, it could fund Skeptoid and my other projects for some time. It could pay my kids’ tuitions, and there’s value in that — there are certainly snake oil salespeople out there whose money I’d be glad to leverage to my own advantage under the right circumstances. I’m not saying I would, I’m not saying I wouldn’t; I’m saying I’d definitely weigh the pros and cons. Whether or not you agree with the choice Bill made, you at least owe him the benefit of the doubt and recognize that it’s neither a simple nor an easy decision.
So it seems that shilling snake oil is okay, as long as you're a skeptic, and you get offered the right "number". Dunning, by the way, is the 'Skeptologist' that said Stanton Friedman was "more concerned with his bank account than with reason"...
Recently, Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Josephson was invited to a physics workshop at the Towler Institute to discuss a particular approach to quantum mechanics. Then, all of a sudden, he was disinvited. The reason? Prof. Josephson is interested in the paranormal.
Dear Prof. Josephson,
I am very sorry to have to inform you that, at my initiative, Mike
Towler and I are withdrawing our invitation for you to attend our
workshop at The Towler Institute this summer.
It has come to my attention that one of your principal research
interests is the paranormal. I have told Dr Towler that, in my view,
it would not be appropriate for someone with such research interests
to attend a scientific conference. On this basis, I have urged him to
agree to withdrawing the invitation, much to his personal regret.
I do wish I had noticed this earlier, the oversight is entirely my fault.
Nothing personal, of course. It is a purely intellectual matter.
We are very sorry for any inconvenience caused, and wish you a pleasant summer.
Personally, I would have replied along the lines of "Dear Mr. Valentini. It has come to my attention that you are an ass. Please accept my regrets for not attending. Nothing personal, of course. It is a purely intellectual matter."
In the wake of recent controversies surrounding the Pope and priestly paedophilia, leading skeptics have been torn as to how they should respond to the allegations. Leading 'new atheists' like P.Z. Myers have (surprise!) said that the rest of the skeptical movement need to man (or woman) up, saying the Catholic Church should be "on every skeptic's hit list." Others, such as Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait, have suggested that the Pope's (alleged) complicity in paedophilia attacks are not the domain of skepticism:
I don’t know if this is specifically a skeptical issue. It’s more a human issue, and a criminal issue. If the Pope had said that the Bible says it’s OK to molest children, then yeah, critical thinking and skepticism come into play. But if he was trying to protect the Church and was breaking laws (moral or civil) to do it, then see my comment above re: resignation and indictment. That’s something anyone should understand, whether or not they are a skeptic.
Skepticism deals with issues of the paranormal, issues with faith, issues where scientific evidence can be used to test a claim. In this case, I don’t see skeptics needing to be involved more than any other interest group.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Skepticism is just about doubting things, and employing evidence to assist you in reaching conclusions. Not just "scientific evidence". Not just "issues of the paranormal". But Phil Plait here is just reiterating what most of us already know - that the modern "skeptical" movement is largely a grouping of people who fear that supernatural thinking will somehow blow out the candle of rationalism. They are as ideological as any other faith-based group.
Just as interesting was some of the rationalisation for skepticism not to get involved with the Catholic controversy:
A ham-fisted attack on religion and the Pope will probably not make you any friends, no matter how evil a deed they’ve done...charging in with guns blazing is not a good idea.
Really? Does Phil just reserve this protection for Catholicism, given they way he ham-fistedly attacks ufology based on little or no research of his own? Or Randi, who ham-fistedly attacks parapsychologists when it seems as if he hasn't even read their research? Guess what guys - you're *not* making any friends. You might like to heed your own words if you're truly trying to educate people...
Skepticism is simply about questioning everything, thinking critically about *any* topic. It's a wonderful tool in the quest for knowledge...I just wish more 'skeptics' would try it out.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article titled "The Myth of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge". It's one of the most read pages of all time here on the Grail, so it's obviously a topic that many people are interested in. Apart from the flaws in the MDC that I pointed out in my article, another element of this (and other) 'paranormal prizes' which disturbs me somewhat is the use of 'cannon fodder', in order to maintain the (somewhat dubious) validity of these challenges. And by 'cannon fodder', I mean those people that apply for these challenges, who truly believe they can win the money. To my mind, some may not understand the odds properly, some are misleading themselves about their 'talents', and some are just plain unbalanced. That's a worrying thing when combined with a high-profile test which is undertaken with the intention of publicity based on the challenger being unable to succeed.
A perfect illustration of this occurred last month, when the IIG (the 'Independent Investigations Group', a volunteer-run organization based with the Center for Inquiry) tested Regan Traynor, an individual trying to win the CFI's $50,000 paranormal challenge with his alleged telepathic powers. Unfortunately, this skeptical publicity event didn't go exactly to plan:
On February 20th, Regen Traynor and his receiver, Fernando arrived at the Center for Inquiry. Not only were they searched for electronic devices but for weapons as well. We had a retired police officer assist with the check. Both men were found to have no weapons and no electronic devices other that a cell phone which was removed for the duration of the test. Both men signed release forms agreeing to be photographed and agreeing to the proposed protocol. I should mention at this point that both men were visibly drunk.
These men weren’t just slightly inebriated. They were wasted, stumbling, swaying side-to-side smell-vodka-across-the-room drunk. They both freely admitted to being drunk and in no way regentried to hide the fact. At one point during the test Traynor referred to himself as not only being drunk but also being “a drunk” and asked for more alcohol a few times during the test. None was provided.
I should also mention that we found out both men were homeless. When asked to sign the release forms they said they had no address and that they were “homeless.” They had traveled from the state of Washington to Los Angeles via bus. I was told the bus trip was a 14-hour drive. They informed us that they planned to travel to Texas after this test to participate in another psychic challenge that offered a $12,000 prize.
This is just really sad. Are skeptical groups really so desperate for publicity that they feel comfortable exploiting disadvantaged and psychologically unstable people for their purposes? The Skepchick blog entry does voice concerns about how this all turned out, but still finishes by saying these sorts of challenges should continue, because they are "very important, especially in the sharing of factual information about these claims and the outcomes of the tests with the public". As I pointed out in my MDC article, this is nonsense. The odds required by paranormal challenges are insanely high - meant to guarantee the prizemoney, not to assess whether someone has a talent which might suggest some sort of anomalous power. For instance, the odds against chance required for success in Regan Traynor's IIG test were 13,000 to 1 - and this was just the "preliminary test" needing to be passed before applying for the CFI's actual $50,000 challenge!
These paranormal challenges are designed for one thing: publicity. They do not offer a scientific evaluation of claims of the paranormal, and as such there are very logical reasons why people should avoid taking part in them. The outcome of this is that the people that do end up applying for them are exactly the sort of people that should be protected from public ridicule.
Skepticism would be better served by helping out these people, and engaging in genuine scientific examination of claims of the paranormal. At the moment, such challenges make them not much better than the 'hucksters' they claim to be trying to out, profiting off the misfortunes of others.
For those that don't know: Penn & Teller are one of the world's most famous magic acts. They are also card-carrying Randi-acolytes and have a debunking show called Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!. Here's an early (2003) episode on near-death experiences (warning: NSFW language):
Glad that's all cleared up. Although perhaps psychology professor Barry Beyerstein (who, sadly, died suddenly in 2007 aged 60) could have used more precise wording. Sure, "neuroscientists are thoroughly convinced that near-death experiences are things that happen when normal brain function is disrupted and the brain is shutting down." There certainly are neuroscientists out there who believe that to be the case, so technically he's correct. But then, there's guys like Dr Peter Fenwick who don't believe that to be the case (and more recently, Dr Mario Beauregard), so we could also say just as clearly that "neuroscientists are unconvinced that near-death experiences are simply things that happen when normal brain function is disrupted and the brain is shutting down." Perhaps Beyerstein's wording could have something to do with him being a founding member of CSICOP...nah, surely not.
But Barry Beyerstein has nothing on Penn, who is so sure that he's figured out the "real life explanation" for NDEs that he's ready to "dance and shout taunting phrases at 'truthseekers' like Raymond [Moody]." It's simple really: "cut off the blood to the brain and nearly 18% of us have an NDE."
Except the blood flow to the brain theory was one of the earliest explanations put forward for NDEs, but it didn't hold water. For one, NDEs have been known to happen in situations where blood flow continued (e.g. in falls from heights and near-accident situations) - which does not prove in any way that NDEs are a glimpse of the afterlife...but it does make Penn look not only ignorant, but obnoxious to boot. In fact, in Irreducible Mind - which goes through all the current 'explanations' suggested to explain NDEs - we read that the one study frequently cited for the bloodflow theory is...
...that of Whinnery (1997), who compared NDEs to what he called the "dreamlets" occurring in brief periods of unconsciousness induced in fighter pilots by rapid acceleration in a centrifuge (this reduces blood flow, and therefore delivery of oxygen, to the brain). He claimed that some features common to NDEs are also found in these hypoxic episodes, including tunnel vision, bright lights, brief fragmented visual images, a sense of floating, pleasurable sensations, and, rarely, a sense of leaving the body. The primary features of acceleration-induced hypoxia, however, are myoclonic convulsions (rhythmic jerking of the limbs), impaired memory for events just prior to the onset of unconsciousness, tingling in extremities and around the mouth, confusion and disorientation upon awakening, and paralysis, symptoms that do not occur in association with NDEs. Moreover, contrary to NDEs, the visual images Whinnery reported frequently included living people, but never deceased people; and no life review or accurate out-of-body perceptions have been reported in acceleration-induced loss of consciousness.
The most refreshing part of the video is in fact the NDErs themselves - they make clear that they can understand people's skepticism, and encourage it, but that their experience convinced them personally. And yet Penn still knows more than they do, saying "why wouldn't our brains freak out a little when injured or dying... Why is that so hard to understand for these people?" In case Penn isn't aware of other NDE research apart from that of James Whinnery, that "why" would probably be answered by (a) the 'hyper-realness' of the experience reported by NDErs, (b) oft-reported cases of evidential OBEs, (d) the fact that people perceive the same set of archetypal elements, despite different inciting crises, and (d) other odd elements such as the life review, where people report reliving their complete lives over again, in 3D panoramas, and yet happening in the blink of an eye.
Personally, I'm still not convinced that NDEs offer proof of an afterlife. But likewise I am yet to see any orthodox theory that can explain it (as yet). As such, the experience (and experiencer) deserves a lot less ridicule, and a whole lot more honest study. . Now I know that Penn & Teller are entertainers, and Bullsh*t! has it's particular flavour of ridicule and humour which can be a fun ride (though not particularly my flavour of funny), so I'm not saying this to be stuffy or defensive. I'm just saying it to point out that Penn & Teller...errr....bullshit. They glossed over the more interesting facets of the phenomenon, they set up easy targets rather than talking to the hard-nosed scientists investigating NDEs, and they promoted a bogus explanation. Skepticism fail...I guess that's what happens when they go looking for "proof of whatever their particular myth believes."
Having said that, I whole-heartedly endorse Penn's final comments on not fixating on death and what may be beyond, but on living life. Ironically enough, his closing comments are almost word-for-word the 'message' that NDErs 'bring back' - that you should live your life well, honestly, thinking of others, and questing for knowledge. Sometimes the divide between 'skeptics' and 'believers' isn't as great as some might like to imagine...
Once upon a time, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was the big dog of the modern skeptical movement. But in recent years, the rebranded 'Committee for Skeptical Inquiry' (CSI) seems to have struggled to remain a vital force in skepticism, eclipsed by internet favourites such as The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, and the James Randi Educational Foundation (though the organization's magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, has remained its flagship).
Perhaps in a bid to put its name back on the skeptical marquee, this month CSI announced the election of 16 new 'Fellows'. The line-up features a who's who of modern Internet skepticism, including James 'The Amazing' Randi (welcoming him back into the fold after a long absence due to legal issues), Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait, Steven 'Skeptic's Guide' Novella, Chris 'UK Skeptic' French, and Seth 'SETI' Shostak (joining fellow SETI scientist Jill Tarter, finalising SETI's embrace of the Dark Side), as well as notable scientists including Robert T. Carroll and Kenneth Miller. It's a list that makes a lot of sense - plenty of personable people able to reach big audiences. The question for me is: will these people end up besmirching their (mostly) decent reputations by linking themselves to an organization noted for it's pseudo-skeptical, vitriolic approach to 'defending' established science? Or will they lead CSI(COP) to a kinder, gentler approach to skeptical activism that transforms the organization into something much better than it started as?
I suspect the former...it's tough to teach an old dog new tricks. And, unfortunately for the newly elected Fellows, there's an old saying about lying down with dogs...