I'm linking to a political post in The Federalist, but my purpose is not to start a political discussion. What's interesting about this article, "Why Is Wikipedia Deleting All References to Neil Tyson's Fabrication?", is what it says about the mindset of hardcore science fans (as distinguished from actual scientists), many of whom undoubtedly fall into the militant debunker camp.
From the article:
Neil Tyson, a prominent popularizer of science (he even has his own television show) was recently found to have repeatedly fabricated multiple quotes over several years. The fabrications were not a one-off thing. They were deliberate and calculated, crafted with one goal in mind: to elevate Tyson, and by extension his audience, at the expense of know-nothing, knuckle-dragging nutjobs who hate science ...
There’s only one problem. None of the straw man quotes that Tyson uses to tear them down are real. The quote about the numerically illiterate newspaper headline? Fabricated. The quote about a member of Congress who said he had changed his views 360 degrees? It doesn’t exist. That time a U.S. president said “Our God is the God who named the stars” as a way of dividing Judeo-Christian beliefs from Islamic beliefs? It never happened ...
Judging by many of the responses to the three pieces I wrote detailing Neil Tyson’s history of fabricating quotes and embellishing stories (part 1, part 2, and part 3), you’d think I had defamed somebody’s god. It turns out that fanatical cultists do not appreciate being shown evidence that the object of their worship may not, in fact, be infallible.
Which brings us to Wikipedia. Oh, Wikipedia. After I published my piece about Neil Tyson’s fabrication of the George W. Bush quote, several users edited Neil Tyson’s wiki page to include details of the quote fabrication controversy. The fact-loving, evidence-weighing, ever-objective editors of the online encyclopedia did not appreciate the inclusion of the evidence of Tyson’s fabrication. Not at all ...
Literally every single mention of Tyson’s history of fabricating quotes has been removed from Tyson’s Wikipedia page ...
These lovers of science don’t actually love science, because science requires you to go where the evidence takes you, even if it goes against your original hypothesis ...
Tyson may be a great scientist, but what he’s selling at a price of $70 per ticket isn’t science. He’s selling the self satisfaction that comes from moral preening. Neil Tyson is adored by people who want the sweet feeling of smug, intellectual superiority without all the baggage of actually being intellectually superior in any way.
Harsh, but I think the same critique can be leveled against many (but not all) of the knee-jerk skeptics who confidently reject any evidence for psi, even when it's clear to more knowledgeable persons that they have only a superficial grasp of the issues involved.
For instance, I remember one online skeptic who dismissed crisis apparitions by declaring that the percipients were "in crisis" and so naturally they started hallucinating—blissfully unaware that a crisis apparition involves a crisis not for the percipient but for the person whose apparition is seen. (The percipient is typically quite relaxed.) Another skeptic announced that Leonora Piper could have easily guessed that the spirit communicator "George Pelham" was actually George Pellew, because the names were so similar—unaware that the Pelham name was never kept secret from Mrs. Piper, and was used only in published writings about the case, not in the seances. Yet another declared that the book and newspaper tests performed with Gladys Osborne Leonard were invalid because the investigator, Charles Drayton Thomas, stated that his father had designed the tests to prove survival. The skeptic complained that a proper experimenter doesn't set up an experiment to prove a preconceived opinion. This is wrong on two counts: a) experimenters do indeed try to prove particular hypotheses, and b) Drayton Thomas's father was deceased at the time and communicating through Mrs. Leonard, so it was not any living experimenter who was setting up the tests.
Now, a caveat: some highly knowledgeable skeptics are out there. They have done their homework, they know the facts, and they raise interesting and challenging points. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the posers, the wannabes—the ones who posture as experts without having any actual expertise.
Anyone who had studied the literature would know what a crisis apparition is, or that Pelham was an alias chosen to protect his family, or that Drayton Thomas frequently communicated with his father through Mrs. Leonard. The people raising these objections simply have not done the reading, and thus have no grasp of the empirical facts they are attempting to dispute. They merely want to look "smart," and the way to do this, they think, is to parrot other people in their circle. It becomes a form of groupthink, as people compete with each other to be as dismissive and bullying as possible.
And there's the irony—people who claim to be dedicated to rationality, independent thought, and critical thinking turn out, in these cases, to be indifferent to facts, oblivious to their own ignorance, and unable to see obvious holes in their own reasoning. Like insecure high school students, they're interested mainly in seeking the approval of those in their in-group.
Insecurity, in fact, lies at the root of this behavior. If Neil Tyson's fans were truly secure in their conviction that he is impeccably honest and rational, they would not need to police the Internet deleting his own quotes and attacking those who call attention to his mistakes. Nor would "guerrilla skeptics" need to scrub James Randi's Wiki page of any criticism, or scrub Rupert Sheldrake's Wiki page of any positive info. They would let the facts speak for themselves.
Ultimately, this strange and rather sad behavior is not about science, or reason, or saving civilization from mysticism and a new dark age, or any of the self-aggrandizing motives these folks subscribe to. It's simply the cheapest possible way to be be one of the cool kids, and to feel "smart."
This post consists of two unrelated topics. I don't have a lot to say about either of them, but together they add up to one barely adequate post.
First, I was interested in an article that a commenter named Ingrid pointed out in a previous thread. The article, "How Understanding Randomness Will Give You Mind-Reading Powers," talks about how people are better than expected at predicting some random patterns. People, it seems, have an innate sense of what a well-shuffled sequence would look like: OOXOX seems more likely than XXXXO, for instance. Since they are more likely to guess the first sequence than the second, their guesses can exceed expectations in many cases.
It's an interesting point, but I'm not sure how relevant it is to psi research. The article points to experiments done by J.B. Rhine in which test subjects guessed the sequence of Zener cards, and to tests performed on a radio show in which the national audience participated. As best I can tell, the radio tests involved only Xs and Os, and these sequences are, as mentioned, sometimes easy to guess. But the Zener card experiments involved five different cards, each imprinted with a different shape. It's not clear to me that people can guess better than chance when such a complex sequence is involved.
The article's implicit bias against psi also gives me pause. We're told that Rhine was gaining "notoriety" for his work, a loaded term; would we hear that Einstein gained "notoriety" for his theories? We're also told that the ability of humans to predict some random sequences is "far more interesting" than telepathy, which would be true only if telepathy is silly nonsense, as the writer evidently assumes. The article is also notable in what it neglects to say: that the Zener card experiments involved more than two options, and that more recent parapsychology experiments use random number generators to produce lengthy, complex, and presumably unguessable sequences.
Now on to the other topic. Last night I watched Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012). It's a well-made film dominated by Daniel Day-Lewis's spellbinding performance. I liked it, but I noticed a certain choice of emphasis that I found interesting—namely, that the religious and spiritual dimensions of the subject were almost totally ignored.
The casual viewer would never guess that abolitionism was largely a religious movement, born in Protestant churches and seen by its proselytes as a holy mission. Though abolitionists figure in the film, and though they occasionally make reference to moral concerns and to natural law, they seldom if ever ground their arguments in Christian beliefs, as the real abolitionists did. In fact, religion is mostly absent from the film, even though that era was much more religious than our own. I assume that the filmmakers, as secular humanists, were simply uncomfortable with religious sentiments and chose to exclude them from the story. (I've read that a similarly secularist approach was taken toward the abolitionists in Spielberg's Amistad, thoigh I haven't seen the film.)
Of more relevance to this blog is the treatment of Mr. Lincoln's personal spirituality. There is one scene where Lincoln asks if a man can choose the circumstances of his birth, which could be taken as a religious or spiritual question, and we do see Lincoln making reference to God's plan in his famous second inaugural address, but that's about it. Lincoln is shown as having a deep antipathy to slavery (even though, historically, he moved cautiously in the direction of abolitionism throughout his career, and may have been primarily concerned with saving the Union), but his antipathy is not based on any religious or spiritual doctrine.
Now, in real life, Lincoln seems to have been ill-disposed toward traditional religion; he did not attend church, is said to have written (but never published) an atheistic tract in his younger days, and probably had a somewhat pragmatic or even cynical attitude toward religious doctrines when he became president. However, all indications are that his attitude changed over the next four years, in part because of the strain of overseeing the war with its tremendous loss of life, and in part because of the death of his young son Willie. Lincoln's speeches became progressively more steeped in religious language and imagery as his presidency wore on.
After Willie's death, Mrs. Lincoln became attracted to spiritualism, even inviting mediums to the White House (then known as the Executive Mansion) to perform seances. It is known that Lincoln attended some of these seances. Mainstream historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book Team of Rivals inspired the movie, downplay the idea that Lincoln took such affairs seriously, stressing that he was only humoring his wife or amusing himself. And yet we do have the testimony of Nettie Colburn Maynard, a trance medium who wrote a memoir describing her encounter with Lincoln. The book's publisher tracked down several contemporaries who endorsed Maynard's claim that Lincoln was sincerely interested in spiritualism.
I can see why today's filmmakers would not want to associate the revered Abe Lincoln with something seemingly as tawdry and discredited as spiritualism. But to leave out almost any indication of Lincoln's personal quest for religious and spiritual meaning is unfortunate. I suppose it may make him more "relatable" to the modern audience, but it also makes him just a bit less interesting, I think.
It's still a good movie, though.