To Celebrate the 100th Birthday of the Late Martin Gardner, Some Skepticism

Martin Gardner

Today would have been the 100th birthday of the late polymath and influential skeptic Martin Gardner. Gardner – who passed away aged 95 in May 2010 – published more than seventy books on such diverse topics as mathematics, science, philosophy, literature and skepticism. For a quarter of a century he was also the writer of the ‘Mathematical Games’ column in Scientific American, and as a consequence he has influenced many of the modern day’s top academics in the hard sciences. Douglas Hofstadter described Gardner as “one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century,” and Arthur C. Clarke once labeled him a “national treasure.”

Gardner was also one of the major voices in the skeptical movement; George Hansen describes him as “the single most powerful critic of the paranormal in the second half of the 20th century”. Gardner was writing ‘skeptical’ books long before the modern movement ‘began’ in earnest with the inception of CSICOP (now known as CSI) in the 1970s – his seminal deconstruction of pseudoscience, In the Name of Science (later renamed Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science), had been published two decades previous in 1952. Like Randi, he could be a rather nasty skeptic too, sometimes embracing debunking over debate (he once commented that in certain circumstances, "One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms").

The occasion of Gardner's 100th birthday has led to a number of tributes on major news sites this week, from the BBC to the New York Times. And rightly so, there is no doubting that he inspired a number of today's leading academics. But I also thought it worth pointing out his fallibility, by relinking to my article "How Martin Gardner Bamboozled the Skeptics", which I think (hope!) does a good job in deconstructing the truly awful 'skeptical' essay he wrote about the medium Leonora Piper. Rather than denigrating Gardner's memory, I would hope that a man who esteemed skeptical thinking as much as Gardner would appreciate my critique of this particular work of his. It's a long piece, so here's the summary:

Unscientific skepticism of the type exhibited by Gardner and Cattel is a corrosive one which, rather than defending science, instead shields it from possible new discoveries and viewpoints through irrational over-protectiveness. It also brings skepticism as a whole into disrepute when such cheap tactics are employed. In his article “How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James”, Martin Gardner ignores the original scientific work done, misrepresents the competency of the investigators, and misleads the reader both through incorrect statements and loaded language. This is hardly the type of writing we would expect from “one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century.”

Sadly for Martin Gardner, perhaps the most succinct summary of his essay can be found in James Hyslop’s caustic response to Hall and Tanner’s Studies in Spiritism, written nearly 100 years previous: "The calm critic can only say that the book either displays the grossest ignorance of the facts and the subject, or it is a colossal piece of constructive lying. The authors may take either horn of the dilemma they like."

Link: Skeptical of a Skeptic

Related: Vale Martin Gardner

Review: ‘Discovering Scarfolk’ by Richard Littler

Ebury Press 2014, ISBN 9780091958480

Britain in the 1970s was a very strange time and place. Caught in the brutal come-down after the Sixties yet still retaining more than a hint of pagan mysticism in the air, Britain had a distinctive otherworldliness underlying the economic woes, ever-present threat of nuclear war and public service films warning children that horrific death lurked in every field, every street. Both grubby and garish, represented equally by Abigail’s Party and Children of the Stones, Albion seemed caught in an awful liminality. There was nothing quite like living through that strange time, in that weird place.

Nothing, that is, except for Scarfolk.

The invention of Richard Littler, Scarfolk is a fictional town in the North-West of England which is perpetually trapped in the 70s. Littler’s pastiches of the advertising and cultural symbols of the time, filtered through the paranoid occult and technological fears then present, became an immensely popular blog series over the past couple of years, drawing praise from writers as diverse as Ian Rankin, Caitlin Moran and Warren Ellis. The clever perfection of the parody images, combined with the Pythonesque word play and riffs on the stranger aspects of British culture, are a masterpiece in absurdist horror.

Although there are some parallels to other fictional towns draped in the Weird, Scarfolk is very much its own thing. Comparisons to the Welcome To Night Vale podcast are commonly made, especially when trying to explain Scarfolk to Americans: but whereas Night Vale has a folksy cute-weird inclusive charm that might tempt the fan to consider living there if it existed, nobody in their right minds would want to visit Scarfolk, let alone live there... it makes Royston Vasey seem positively inviting by comparison.

Now, Scarfolk has made the transition from blog to book, and in the process has both gained and lost something in translation.

The book contains most of the classic images Littler created for the Scarfolk site - favourites such as the controversial fake Penguin Books cover “Children And Hallucinogens”, which went viral last year, convincing many that the book had once existed (including, so rumour has it, several concerned Penguin executives). They are surrounded by a two-layered, almost Lovecraftian-styled framing story: the book purports to be a professor’s reconstruction of a found text, telling the tale of one Daniel Bush. Bush, while moving home after the death of his wife in a bizarre Morris-dancing related accident, is trapped in Scarfolk following the disappearance of his twin sons. Recovering from the brainwashing inflicted on him for ‘his own good’ by the residents, he wanders the town, trying to understand his surroundings and find his children.

Though that storyline itself is interesting (and draws heavily on other great British cultural influences such as The Prisoner and The Wicker Man), it doesn’t flow well: mostly because it’s continually interrupted by both the pictures and a lot of footnotes - the readers attention is being continually split. Each element of the book - the art, the story and the footnotes - don’t quite gel together... but each is thoroughly enjoyable in their own form.

The footnotes contain some of the best, most horrific writing in the book, I think: such as,

The ice-cream van man came between 3 and 4 a.m. His van blared out the haunting Swedish Rhapsody numbers station. The ice-cream van man wore a clown mask to disguise the horrific burns on his face because he didn't want to frighten the children. It didn't work. He used clothes pegs to hold the mask on because he was missing an ear. He lived in a nondescript building in an electrical substation and no one knew his name.

As an artefact, the book feels like it has fallen out of some grubby wormhole: the pages are faintly faded, the whole thing almost seeming to glower at the reader. The cover looks like a pre-battered textbook from a barely-used library, its recollection of the publishing tropes of the time a pastiche so perfect that it verges on the hyperreal. Sadly, this finish actually obscures some of the finer details of the illustrations; in one of my favourite pictures, the relabelled diagrams of the male and female genital anatomy, several of the terms are too blurry to be read easily.

(EDIT: Richard Littler contacted me after this review aired to note that the blurring of the pictures was a printing mistake and not intentional. Though that accident adds to the grimy air of this version, I am glad later editions will allow readers to fully see a woman's malteser and a man's battlestar galactica in all their glory.)

Despite these drawbacks, Discovering Scarfolk is a pleasure, if a disturbing one: you’ll never read or hold anything else quite like it.

For more information, please re-read this review.

Link: Discovering Scarfolk on Amazon UK

News Briefs 21-10-2014

Someone make this movie happen, stat!

Quote of the Day:

Pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!

Monty Python, "The Galaxy Song"

The Grimerica Show @ PS2014


One of the things I love the most about the Paradigm Symposium, is that it inspires the audience not only to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions, but also to take a more active stance in the search for answers.

A good example of this are my buds Darren Grimes & Graham Dunlop, whom I met on the 1st Paradigm in 2012. They drove all the way from Calgary to join in this event organized by my Cosmic Compadre Micah Hanks, and the Intrepid Magazine editor & religious historian Scotty Roberts; and even though I'd only interacted with Darren through the comment section on Mysterious Universe a few times, we all became fast friends almost immediately.

It was because of Mysterious Universe and Micah's Gralien Report radio show, that the Canadian duo decided to start a podcast of their own. Now I'm going to be honest here: At the beginning I was uncertain on how they were going to pull it off, since they were both rather novice about the whole podcasting requirements, aside from the day jobs and other personal responsibilities they couldn't neglect because of this new 'hobby'; add to it the fact that nowadays there's not exactly a shortage of Fortean shows trying to get a hold of the celebrities in the field, and you can see how The Grimerica Show had quite an uphill road in front of them...

But, as a testament to both their passion and commitment, in a short span of time the Grimericans have already managed to attain a good number of listeners all across the globe, a group of good bloggers writing for their webpage, along with a VERY decent list of guests under their belt --Grant Cameron, Stanley Krippner, Dennis McKenna, Rupert Sheldrake & Dr. Rick Strassman just to name a few.

Not bad for a couple of guys transmitting from a little igloo in the middle of the Canadian tundra ;)

This year Scotty Roberts & his new associate Dr. John Ward --known among the veteran Paradigm attendees as 'the most interesting Egyptologist in the world'-- offered Grimerica to be the official podcast of the symposium; it was just too good an opportunity to pass, and I'm proud to say Darren & Graham once again rose to the challenge like pros. On their table at the back of the vendors' hall they had everything from T-shirts, flyers, business cards, and a banner (co-designed by yours truly) which was later signed by all the PS2014 speakers and now adorns their recording studio in Calgary. They also conducted on-site what they call 'the Money Bomb', which is a funding model they emulated from The Higherside Chats in which they ask for cash donations, and after reaching a certain sum they split half of the earnings with a lucky contributor. Someone left Minneapolis with a hundred bucks-worth of new books thanks to Grimerica!

Below is a list of all the interviews they recorded at the Woman's Club of Minneapolis, the beautiful building in which the conferences and the dinner banquet were hosted this year. If you've never listened to them, you'll quickly notice that, although Grimerica took inspiration from MU and the Gralien Report, their 'loose-cannon' tone of casual conversation is actually closer to Joe Rogan's, and is what probably distinguishes them from most of the podcasts out there --as such, the boys are not afraid of dropping a few 'F-bombs' here and there, something I hope won't prevent you from enjoying the entertaining dynamic between Graham's New Age-y enthusiasm on everything concerning Consciousness, in contrast with Darren's nonchalant 'groundedness' and more skeptic attitude on these topics.

I also got to participate in a few of those recordings, as you might have probably deduced from the top image, in which you can see me sitting right beside UFO historian/researcher Richard Dolan. Having the chance to engage people you've admired for a number of years is a priceless opportunity, and I'm very grateful the Grimericans are taking me along for the ride. Hope you decide to join us as well!

News Briefs 17-10-2014

"Eternity forbids thee to forget."

Quote of the Day:

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.”

Lord Byron

News Briefs 16-10-2014

I miss Minneapolis already :(

Thanks to Malala, for giving me hope.

Quote of the Day:

"Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world."

~Malala Yousafzai, Nobel laureate.

Disclosure is Dead


This is probably the best thing you'll read this week, or perhaps this entire year: A rather ballsy editorial by Robbie Graham, film researcher & author of the upcoming book Silver Screen Saucers, on why the UFO Disclosure movement is either defunct, or should be regarded as such by anyone interested in moving forward in our understanding of the phenomenon, instead of just maintaining a subordinate attitude toward government officialdom, in hope that if we yell long & loud enough, they might finally share with us the secrets about UFOs they may still hold.

But what if, as Robbie and several others in the research community have already asked, the only thing governments are keeping away from us, is their complete incapacity to make heads or tails about what UFOs really are, and their true interests and/or intentions toward humanity? What if they are only hiding their own ignorance and insecurity toward a phenomenon to which they have absolutely no control of?

The ultimate irony of the Disclosure movement is that it deeply distrusts officialdom, while simultaneously looking to officialdom for the truth. And by imagining all answers to the UFO mystery to be out of public reach, deep in the bowels of the national security state, the Disclosure movement actually places power into hands of officialdom, while disempowering the individual.

Robbie delivered this paper during the latest Exopolitics conference in Leeds, but instead of being tarred and feathered by an angry mob, he received a standing ovation! Perhaps it was because people are getting tired of the empty promises delivered by the leaders of the Disclosure movement, who for the past 15 years or so keep hammering on how 'the Truth' is just around the corner, and how soon we'll all be enjoying free energy in a peaceful planet which has finally been admitted in the Galactic Federation --Stephen Bassett was also a speaker in that event, and in contrast he received a lukewarm applause after his presentation.

But it's not that Robbie is poo-pooing *everything* that the Exopolitics movement has tried to accomplish. On the contrary, he acknowledges the efforts of "Bassett and others [who] undoubtedly have brought the UFO phenomenon (whatever it might represent) to the attention of many thousands of people around the world who previously were indifferent to the issue."

What does concern me, however, is that Disclosure has become the focus of the UFO community, its alluring offer of a fast track to UFO truth marginalising the more esoteric approaches to the phenomena. In short, in the age of Disclosure and Exopolitics, the pursuit of UFO truth is political, rather than mystical. If the day ever comes when humanity can claim an understanding of the UFO phenomenon, I’m very confident that politics will have played almost no role in this enlightenment.

It has to be said that, not too long ago, Robbie's attitude toward Disclosure was somewhat different, and he even tried to use his blog Silver Screen Saucers as a platform to support the Exopolitics activism. It was in fact Robbie the one who convinced me to join in the Disclosure Petition, that Stephen Bassett had launched on the We the People White House webpage in 2011 --and we all know how well THAT turned out, don't we?

When I asked Robbie via e-mail when he started to change his mind about Disclosure and why, this was his response:

I'm not really sure I 'changed my mind' about Disclosure so much as my mind inevitably moved on from it (as you predicted it would!). As individuals, our minds are all 'wired' a certain way -- we're each inclined to certain modes of thought. I'm a left-brainer. The nuts-and-bolts, political route to UFO 'truth' held natural appeal for me. But, as you know, a truly open-minded approach to UFO studies demands weighty input from the right brain. Indeed, for many in this field, the right-brained approach is the natural one.

Obviously, my latest piece is not objectively 'correct' or 'true' -- it's simply an opinion piece. It's where I 'am' right now, sort of. But I'm learning that where I am right now is probably very far from I'll be a year or even six months from now. So read it lightly. If it resonates with anyone else, cool. If it annoys people, that's cool, too, and I'd encourage those latter folk to ask themselves why they feel provoked and to listen carefully to their inner voice for an honest reply.

I certainly hope that Robbie's op-ed kickstarts a much-needed discussion in the community. Because IMO it's high time we recognize what the evidence we've already gathered in the last 67 years or so seems to point at: That the UFO phenomenon doesn't show a particular interest in our quaint forms of governmental structures, and instead of the iconical saucer landing on the White House lawn, what in fact seems to be happening is a 'Grassroots' type of Contact; as such, the Paradigm change ought to come from the bottom-up, instead of waiting to be sanctioned by the higher-ups, as the Disclosure movement is expecting.

It's time to cut the middleman out of the equation, and for each and everyone of us to do our own heavy-lifting; not just wait for the answers to be handed down to us by professional liars.

___________________________________________

Sacred Ink: The Magical Power of Tattoos

Tattooing at a temple in Thailand - © Lars Krutak

When the preserved 5000-year-old body of 'Ötzi the Iceman' was recovered from the ice of the Italian Alps in 1991, it was found be covered with over 50 tattoos. Earlier this year, a CAT scan of a 1300-year-old Sudanese mummy discovered what appears to be a tattoo of an angel on the inner thigh. The list of similar discoveries goes on: in fact, it has been estimated that around the time of Columbus, a thousand or more indigenous societies practiced tattooing.

Taken from the Polynesian tatau, the word 'tattoo' refers to (usually permanent) markings on human skin, sometimes created through scarification, but more often known as the process of inserting ink into the dermis layer of the skin. In recent decades, tattooing has become extremely popular (some 25% of Australians under 30 now have a tattoo). The reasons for getting a tattoo in the modern world are many - from simple decoration through to professions of eternal love - but a lesser known reason, still seen in many tribal societies, is for magical reasons.

Lars Krutak, an anthropologist with a fascination for tattoos, has spent 10 years traveling the world surveying "how people have used tattoos, scarification and body modification to channel supernatural power into their bodies". He documented this journey, along with sumptuous images, in his book Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification:

Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification is a photographic masterwork in two parts exploring the secret world of magical tattooing and scarification across the tribal world. Based on one decade of tattoo anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak's fieldwork among animistic and shamanic societies of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Melanesia, Spiritual Skin journeys into highly sacred territory to reveal how people utilize ritual body modification to enhance their access to the supernatural.

The first part delves into the ancient art of Thai tattooing or sak yant that is administered by holy monks who harness the energy and power of the Buddha himself. Emblazoned with numerous images of dramatically tattooed bodies, this chapter provides tattoo enthusiasts with a passport into the esoteric world of sak yank symbols and their meanings. Also included is an in-depth study into the tattooing worlds of the Amerindians. From Woodlands warriors to Amazonian shamans, tattoos were worn as enchanted symbols embodied with tutelary and protective spirit power. The discussion of talismanic tattooing is concluded with a detailed look at the individuals who created magical tattoos and the various techniques they used.

Here's Krutak discussing the project:

On his website you can also find a number of fascinating articles relating to his fieldwork. The essay "Shamanic Skin: The Art of Magical Tattoos" offers a fantastic introduction to the topic with its survey of the many tattooing practices found in shamanistic societies:

For millennia, nearly all indigenous people who tattooed practiced shamanism, the oldest human spiritual religion. Death was the first teacher, the boundary beyond which life ended and wonder began. Shamanistic religion was nurtured by mystery and magic, but it was also born of the hunt and of the harvest and from the need on the part of humans to rationalize the fact that they had to kill that which they most revered: plants, animals, and sometimes other men who competed for resources or whose souls provided magical benefits.

...Shamanism is animism: the belief that all life – whether animal, vegetable, or human – is endowed with a spiritual life force. Sacrificial offerings, especially those made in blood, were like financial transactions that satisfied spirits because they were essentially “paid off” for lending their services to humankind or to satisfy debts like infractions of a moral code which most indigenous peoples around the world observed.

For example, the heavily tattooed Iban of Borneo respect adat or the accepted code of conduct, manners, and conventions that governs all life. Adat safeguards the state of human and spiritual affairs in which all parts of the universe are healthy and tranquil and in balance. Breaches of adat disturb this state and are visited by “fines” or contributions to the ritual necessary to restore the balance and to allay the wrath of individuals, the community, or of the deities. Traditionally, such rituals included the sacrifice of a chicken, pig, or in special instances even another human – especially when a new longhouse was built.

…Apart from their role as the guardians of tribal religion, some shamans actively participated in tattooing traditions themselves. Among the Paiwan of Taiwan, the Chukchi of Siberia and the Yupiget of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, female tattoo artists – who were usually shamans – worked via supernatural channels to cure their patients of “soul-loss” which was attributable to disease-bearing spirits that could be either human or animal. Sometimes proper treatments included the application of medicinal tattoos at particular points on the body or “tattoo foils” to disguise the identity of the sufferer from such malevolent entities.

…The Kayan tattooists of Borneo, who were always female, tattooed a design called lukut or “antique bead” on the wrists of men to prevent the loss of their soul. When a man was ill, it was supposed that his soul had escaped from his body: his recovery showing that his soul had returned to him. To prevent the soul’s departure, the man would “tie it in” by fastening round his wrist a piece of string on which was threaded a lukut within which some magic was considered to reside. Of course, the string could get broken and the bead lost, so the Kayan replaced it with a tattooed bead motif that has come to be regarded as a charm to ward off all disease.

…The Mentawai of Siberut Island also wear intricate bead tattoos on the backs of their hands. One man told me that these permanent beads “tied-in” his soul to the body but that they also made him more skillful whenever he needed to use his hands to perform various tasks. It should be noted that the Mentawai people are one the most profusely tattooed people living today. The reason for this, they say, is that their beautifully adorned bodies keep their souls “close” because they are pleased by beautiful things like beads, flowers, sharpened teeth, facial paint, and above all tattoos (titi).

For those fascinated by tattoos, or shamanism (or both!), I highly recommend taking the time to sit down and browse Lars Krutak's website, and pick up a copy of his book on the topic, Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification.

Link: Lars Krutak - Tattoo Anthropologist

Link: Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification on Amazon.com

News Briefs 15-10-2014

Hey America, it's all very well to get into the spirit of things, but it's still not Hallowe'en yet.

Quote of the Day:

Where there is no imagination there is no horror.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr.