Here you'll find the latest news from the nay-sayers, telling you what you don't understand, for the good of rationalism and the physical universe

SETI and Singularity Pharyngula'd

In back-to-back postings on his blog Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has taken to both Ray Kurzweil's transhumanist dreams as well as the (non-)viability of SETI. Myers, being a developmental neuroscientist, is reasonably well-placed to comment in the first case about Kurzweil's quest to recreate the brain artificially. And ironically, he echoes some of the issues I've brought up about both 'the Singularity' and with the logic of SETI. Just he's more of a dick about it:

Ray Kurzweil must be able to spin out a good line of bafflegab, because he seems to have the tech media convinced that he's a genius, when he's actually just another Deepak Chopra for the computer science cognoscenti.

...He's not just speculating optimistically, though: he's building his case on such awfully bad logic that I'm surprised anyone still pays attention to that kook.

...I'll make one more prediction. The media will not end their infatuation with this pseudo-scientific dingbat, Kurzweil, no matter how uninformed and ridiculous his claims get.

...If you're an acolyte of Kurzweil, you've been bamboozled. He's a kook.

and...

I've never been a fan of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It's like playing the lottery obsessively, throwing down lots of money in hopes of a big payoff, and I don't play the lottery, either.

I'd really like to know if Seth Shostak is innumerate enough to play the lottery, though, because his recent claim that we stand a good chance of discovering extraterrrestrial intelligence within 25 years. All right, bring it: let's see your evidence for such a claim.

Now firstly, I have to say that I find his willingness to offer criticism refreshing. Skeptics generally conform to certain internal rules and rarely self-criticize, and at the moment SETI are well and truly considered part of the skeptical community, while Kurzweil sits in a seat with a good view within the tech-pantheon. On the other hand, it just seems more of "angry Paul" that we've come to know and laugh at...P.Z. seems to either have some sort of anger problem, or perhaps he just knows how to butter his bread and keep the page visits flowing. There's some good points in there, but in the end his attitude will just work against him. As George Dvorsky mentioned at Sentient Developments, "Let's lose the ad hominem".

Makes you wonder if there's a mathematical formula that will tell you how long it will take for Myers to marginalize himself into an audience of one.

In Memory of Skepticism

Who's a skeptic, and who's a believer? That's the first thing that crossed my mind when I came across the 'In Memoriam' slides presented at the recent skeptical gathering in Las Vegas, TAM8. For some absurd reason, it was deemed necessary to have two separate slide shows featuring the names and photos of those who left this mortal coil in the past year - one for "Skeptics", one for "paranormal and pseudoscience believers".

So in the latter category we have the likes of Mac Tonnies, an atheist with an interest in Fortean topics who enjoyed speculating about possibilities, alongside Christian 'end-times' zealot Charles Meade. Also thrown in are the likes of long-time UFO investigator Richard Hall, a man who had extremely intelligent things to say about the phenomenon, and UFO experiencer Lonnie Zamora, of whom Project Blue Book investigators remarked that there was "no question about [his] reliability. He is a serious police officer, a pillar of his church, and a man well versed in recognizing airborne vehicles in his area. He is puzzled by what he saw and frankly, so are we." These are the "paranormal believers".

In the skeptics section we have Martin Gardner, who was a theist, and whose beliefs and biases imposed themselves in many of his debunkings, to the detriment of scientific investigation. Happily, Michael Thalbourne is included in the skeptics section, though he was a long-time parapsychology researcher but is represented only as a 'psychologist' in the slideshow - I'm inclined to wonder whether one of his papers was to the liking of 'skeptical believers' and so he was given honorary membership. As for baby Dana McCaffery, the victim of a pertussis outbreak in Australia - while I think her tragic death serves as a harsh reminder of impact of anti-vaccination campaigns, her inclusion simply shows that these lists are not so much 'skeptics' vs 'believers', as "our side" vs "the other side".

The Periodic Table of Woo

Oh, I definitely need a poster of this up on my wall: "The Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense", by Crispian Jago (click on image for larger size, some NSFW words).

Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense

Jago has a Cafe Press store where you can pick up posters, coffee mugs and t-shirts emblazoned with the image.

Atheist Sam Harris on Death and the Afterlife

An interesting short commentary from vocal atheist Sam Harris on the topic of death:

Refreshing to see an honest response from Harris - a neuroscientist - when it comes to the fate of consciousness after death ("I don’t know what happens after the physical brain dies. I don’t know what the relationship between consciousness and the physical world is.")

Previously on TDG:

Amazing in London

The cult of Randi continues to grow, but it has to be admitted that they are doing it in style. Tickets have gone on sale for The Amaz!ng Meeting London in October this year, with the line-up including British actor/writer/comedian Stephen Fry, Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow, Graham Linehan (creator of The IT Crowd, Black Books, and Father Ted), science writer Marcus Chown, Richard Dawkins, and Alan Moore. Whoah, what?! Back up a second...Alan Moore, mingling with the foot soldiers of rationalism? Now that I'd pay to see. Joining the stellar list of guests are the usual skeptical suspects: Richard Wiseman, P.Z. Myers, Susan Blackmore, Simon Singh and D.J. Grothe, among others. Full details at the link above.

Speaking of Alan Moore, the legendary graphic novelist's most recent project has been Dodgem Logic, an old-style-underground-zine-cum-psychedelic-Beano-type-thing "colliding" an eclectic bunch of topics, from politics to magick, to "see what happens". Here he is discussing Issue 3 of his new project (warning, not for the easily offended...holy crap I laughed though):

I'd take an Alan Moore lecture above a P.Z. Myers one any day...although to be fair, Myers probably would too - it seems he's a bit of an Alan Moore fan-boi. Like I said, I think TAM London tickets this year are well worth their price...get along if you're able. Tickets will *not* last, so be quick.

Vale Martin Gardner 1914-2010

The Associated Press has reported that the godfather of the modern skeptical movement, Martin Gardner, has passed away. Gardner exerted a profound influence upon numerous academics via his 'Mathematical Games' column in Scientific American, was a skilled and knowledgable contributor to the (performance) magic community, and with his 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science is seen by many as the man who kick-started skeptical activism in the modern age. His long-time friend James Randi has written a short blog about his passing:

Martin Gardner has died. I have dreaded to type those words, and Martin would not have wanted to know that I’m so devastated at what I knew – day to day – had to happen very soon. I’m glad to report that his passing was painless and quick. That man was one of my giants, a very long-time friend of some 50 years or so. He was a delight, a very bright spot in my firmament, one to whom I could always turn to with a question or an idea, with any strange notion I could invent, and with any complaint or comment I could come up with.

...He was such a good man, a productive and useful member of our society, and I can anticipate the international reaction to his passing. His books – so many of them – remain to remind us of his contributions to us all. His last one was dedicated to me, and I am just so proud of that fact, so very proud…

It will take a while, but Martin would want me to get on with my life, so I will.

It’s tough…

Phil Plait has also written about Gardner's passing, and Scientific American has reposted their 2005 profile of him as a tribute. For a video profile of the man, see the following 1996 documentary hosted by David Suzuki:

About the only people that might not be as glowing in their summation of Gardner's life are those involved in off-beat science and the paranormal - subject areas against which Gardner wrote numerous polemics, befitting his role as a founder of CSICOP (now CSI). My own investigation of Gardner's 'skepticism' has revealed a man who was certainly not immune to writing biased, erroneous, and misleading tracts - coincidentally, I was only weeks away from publishing a critique of his 'debunking' of the mediumship of Leonora Piper (which I'll withhold for a while as a mark of respect). But all of us certainly have our moments of error; and on balance, one must say that Gardner inspired and helped a large number of people, and the growth of knowledge, in a good way over his long life.

Martin Gardner was 95 years old.

Tension in Skepticland

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).

Denial is a River in Egypt

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.

James Randi at TED

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...

Derren Brown Investigates

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.