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

Anti-Vax Attacks

Childhood vaccinations have been at the centre of a mega-controversy for more than a decade now due to claims that they sometimes cause the onset of autism in youngsters. The academic foundation stone of this controversy is a paper by former surgeon Andrew Wakefield published in the premier medical journal, the Lancet, in 1998. However, after an inquiry by the British General Medical Council, in early 2010 the journal retracted the paper, and Wakefield was struck-off the Medical Register in May 2010.

But a new investigation by journalist Brian Deer, published in the British medical journal BMJ, goes much further with its allegations:

An investigation published by the British medical journal BMJ concludes the study's author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study -- and that there was "no doubt" Wakefield was responsible.

"It's one thing to have a bad study, a study full of error, and for the authors then to admit that they made errors," Fiona Godlee, BMJ's editor-in-chief, told CNN. "But in this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the data."

Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license in May. "Meanwhile, the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession," BMJ states in an editorial accompanying the work.

It's not a subject I have taken much interest in personally, and so don't know a lot about it and have no comment myself. Although when my children were offered vaccination, and the possible risk was mentioned, from the reading I did on the subject I remember my thoughts were simply along the lines of "a possible risk versus very real risks known to be present and waiting in the environment". To me, there is little doubting the overall good that vaccinations have done for humanity at this stage in history - though I am more than happy to hear arguments against in any (respectable) form, having seen first hand the sometimes blinding power of consensus thinking.

You can read Deer's new investigative article at the BMJ website.

Chris Carter vs the Skeptics

This week the always fascinating Skeptiko podcast features Chris Carter (not the X-Files guy, nor the musician) discussing his new book Science and the Near Death Experience (audio and text transcription of the podcast are available). I've been meaning to talk to Chris about his new book for a while, but meatspace issues keep impinging on my time. But for those who can't wait, Alex has (as always) done a good job of exploring Carter's take on a topic we discuss pretty regularly here on TDG: anomalous science and the role 'skeptics' play in keeping it apostate.

In my first book I had a section on Susan Blackmore and it basically showed that her claims-she went around for years claiming that she failed to find any psychic abilities in her experiments. Science and the Near Death ExperienceSo one of my friends, Rick Berger, went back and re-examined her experiments and found that they were also sloppily conducted. Nothing-no conclusions could be drawn from them. If anything, her experiments showed the existence of telepathy.

He printed this up in a scientific journal and Blackmore was asked to respond. What she said was, “Hey, I agree. No conclusions can be drawn from the Blackmore experiments.” In other words, she was saying that her work was an absolute failure and for the past 20-30 years, however long her career had been on at the time, she had accomplished absolutely nothing. It was based upon absolutely nothing.

But then I examined her writings in a scientific journal before the Berger article and her confession, and then I examined her writings in the popular press right after. And I saw absolutely no change at all, both before and after. She was still saying, “Hey, I did years of careful research and I found nothing.” Even though she had admitted just a few years previously in a scientific journal, that her experiments on psychic abilities were absolutely useless. They were just too sloppy, too small, too poorly conducted to draw any conclusions.

So I don’t have a lot of respect for Susan Blackmore. I think she’s a shameless self-promoter.

As can be seen above, Chris has some pretty strong thoughts about 'skeptical' individuals and organisations, which he discussed at length in his previous book Parapsychology and the Skeptics. The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research has also recently published his critique of prominent 'skeptic' Richard Wiseman, titled “'Heads I Lose, Tails You Win', Or, How Richard Wiseman Nullifies Positive Results, and What to Do about It" (free PDF download). It's a great article, showing that all of Wiseman's criticisms of parapsychology can be turned against himself.

Wiseman, yet another magician-turned-skeptic, has some serious punch in the scientific community - he's listed as one of the most followed psychologists on Twitter, with over 50,000 followers. He's at least worth following for a laugh - he seems obsessed with self-publicity (to an almost pathological level), and my own conclusion is that this obsession with media coverage is what drives most of his experiments, rather than actual scientific curiosity (encapsulated in his response to media coverage of his Twitter remote viewing study: "#twitterexperiment getting lots of media attention. Well done us!"). It's also fascinating to watch his presentation of paranormal topics to the media, as he tends to get fairly 'creative' with his statements (see for example this previous TDG story, "Hampton Haunting Debunked?") - a trait he shares with other magicians-turned-skeptics (not least, Randi).

But who am I to criticise...it seems to be paying his bills, and some. Wiseman has an upcoming book on his experiences researching the paranormal, titled Supernormality (also sometimes listed as Paranormality), which reportedly sold to a publisher in the UK "in a 'big' six-figure deal". Maybe I should start getting 'creative' myself when I write about the paranormal, seems a sure fire way to bring attention to yourself...

Previously on TDG:

Randi's Prize

Paranormalia blogger Robert McLuhan has announced the publication of his long-awaited book Randi's Prize, which examines the arguments for and against the paranormal:

The 'prize' of the title is the Million Dollar Challenge offered by stage magician James Randi for anyone who passes his test for psychic powers. So far, Randi says, no one has even passed the preliminaries. Randi's PrizeThis confirms the belief held by sceptics and many scientists that so-called 'psychics' are delusional or dishonest.

Randi's Prize accepts that this may sometimes be the case, but strongly sympathises with scientists who have investigated paranormal claims in depth and consider some of what they have observed to be genuinely anomalous. It finds the arguments of well-known sceptics like Randi, Ray Hyman, Richard Wiseman and Susan Blackmore less convincing.

The book proposes that we need to develop a more mature and discerning approach to these hugely challenging issues (subtitle: what sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong and why it matters).

You can find out more about Randi's Prize at the official website, which has the table of contents, some excerpts, research resources, and an ongoing blog discussing the topics in the book. You can pick up a copy from Amazon UK page, and digital versions are on the way in Kindle and iPad (ePub) formats.

Robert's been writing some great things at Paranormalia for a while, so this book should be a wonderful read. I've also asked him to blog here occasionally, so I'm looking forward to some fascinating discussion of a number of these topics.

Oh, and if the title of the book interests you, then you should definitely check out this article here on TDG: "The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge".

Science Saved My Soul

Here's a wonderful monologue on the profound nature of life and the cosmos, purely through the lens of science: "Science Saved My Soul".

Only thing that bothered me was the unfortunate anti-religion riff that starts around the 6 minute mark - not so much because I'm defending religion, but it just brings the whole thing back to 'petty-Earth-people's philosophical squabbles' after soaring with some wonderful, transcendent prose.

CSICOPrisy

I guess when CSI(COP)/Skeptical Inquirer whine about the culpability of the media in spreading belief in the paranormal, they exclude themselves. Hey, the disclaimer makes it all okay...

CSICOPrisy

/snark.

Dawkins Charity Scandal

The Richard Dawkins Foundation has accused its former website creator and administrator of embezzling $US375,000 from the organization over the last 3 years:

Josh Timonen was one of a small coterie of young protégés around Richard Dawkins, sharing his boss's zealous atheism. But now he and the evolutionary theorist have fallen out spectacularly. Professor Dawkins's charity has accused Mr Timonen of embezzling hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The two atheists had become close in recent years, with Dawkins, the best-selling author and Emeritus Professor of Biology at Oxford University, even dedicating his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, to him. But Mr Timonen and the Dawkins foundation are now preparing for a legal wrangle.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, has filed four lawsuits in a Californian court alleging that Mr Timonen, who ran its online operation in America, stole $375,000 (£239,000) over three years. It is claiming $950,000 in damages, while Mr Dawkins is suing him for $14,000 owed to him personally. Mr Timonen strongly denies the allegations.

In the 18-page complaint filed in a Los Angeles court, the foundation claims that Mr Timonen said the website he was running was just "squeaking by," making only $30,000 in three years, when in fact it was grossing 10 times that sum. The charity alleges that Mr Timonen pocketed 92 per cent of the money generated by the store, with his girlfriend spending $100,000 of the charity's money on upgrading her home before putting it on the market.

For those interested in learning more, the full complaint is available as a PDF. Timonen - who had been involved in an earlier controversy about the closing of the RDF forums - responded by calling the lawsuit "the ultimate betrayal". Between the angst directed at him over the forum shutdown, and now these accusations that he stole their donated money, Timonen doesn't have a whole lot of friends in the atheist community at the moment.

Ah well, what's a religious group without the occasional scandal over donated money...

Is Randi Backed by Amazon's Jeff Bezos?

Prominent skeptic Michael Shermer has written up an account of James Randi's 82nd birthday party over at SkepticBlog. And what a night it was - Randi was joined by skeptical heavyweights Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman and others for dinner and an evening at the personal library of a "good friend of Randi and benefactor of the JREF"...

...who kindly allowed us to peruse his collection of some of the rarest books in the history of science, along with other spectacular items of considerable interest. It is, in short, the finest collection I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Any single volume on any of the shelves would be an item worthy of possession as one’s most cherished belonging, and here there were hundreds of such treasures.

Along with ancient papyrus pages from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, German Enigma machines, and not one but two first editions of Mein Kampf personally signed by Hitler (to Goebbels and Goering no less), was the jewel of the collection: the Archimedes Palimpsest. This medieval prayer book conceals an ancient scientific treasure - it was written over the top of a treatise published by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes.

The Archimedes Palimpsest sold at auction in 1998 for $2.2 million, reportedly to an anonymous billionaire in the IT industry, only ever referred to as 'the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest' or simply "Mr. B". The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported in 1997 that insiders "are now certain that it was Jeffrey Bezos, the founder and CEO of online book retailer Amazon."

Regardless of who this private individual is, I'm sure those skeptical luminaries, with their love of science and truth, will now spread the word about who the actual owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest is...

Update: Based on documents from the recent court case involving Randi's partner 'Jose Alvarez', and a little further digging, I now believe that the individual who hosted Randi's birthday gathering probably wasn't Jeff Bezos, but was actually longtime JREF supporter Richard 'Rick' Adams, who is known to be a collector of important historical documents and books.

Randi's Prize

Robert McLuhan of the Paranormalia blog has announced that his book Randi's Prize will be released on November 1. The book will discuss the evidence for psychic functioning, and the part that skeptics have played in shaping scientific opinion about such things as telepathy, psychics, ghosts and near-death experiences:

Scepticism is a natural and healthy response to paranormal claims. We can't take at face value the notion that some 'psychics', or people with so-called psychic ability, can read minds, tell the future, or converse with the spirits of the dead, or for that matter that there is such a thing as the spirit world. These claims are antithetical to the materialist paradigm, and at the very least need to be thoroughly investigated.

So sceptics like Randi - along with others whose views I discuss in the book: Richard Wiseman, Susan Blackmore, Ray Hyman, James Alcock, David Marks, C.E.M. Hansel, etc - have a role to play. But it's wrong for sceptical scientists to imagine that these are the experts. They aren't; they're the fleas on the back of the elephant. The real experts are the parapsychologists who carry out experiments and field research.

Actually some sceptics do carry out investigations and even offer some original thinking - Susan Blackmore on out-of-body and near-death experiences, for instance. But their main concern, Blackmore included, is to dissuade their audience from taking psychic claims seriously. Polemicists like Randi consider abuse to be an appropriate response. I happen to think that empirical investigation, patient and painstaking, is a better way to understand these things than laughing and pointing and calling it 'woo-woo'.

Looked at from a historical perspective there is something really interesting going on here. To me it's as though the sceptics are patrolling the frontiers of the materialist paradigm, beating back the superstitious hordes. There's only a handful of them, the so-called 'specialists' who understand enough about parapsychology to sound knowledgeable to their audience, and create a plausible case against it. But if scientific materialism is to survive, these people have to be right.

...I should mention, though, that it's not primarily about James Randi - I just thought the prize thing would make a cool title. I'm sure there is a book to be written about him, but it would be a different sort of book, and would probably only interest those people who already understand the issues. Mine, by contrast, is mainly concerned to try to explain the challenges posed by psychic research to those who know little about it, and its implications.

By the way, if you're looking for something a little more targeted towards Randi's actual prize, make sure you read my article "The Myth of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge".

Skepticism Will Eat Itself

Within atheist and skeptical ranks there's been a growing schism between 'accommodationists', and, for lack of a more appropriate term, 'dicks'. In recent times the 'accommodationist' side has started speaking more loudly (which it has to, in order to be heard over the din of the 'dicks'), with the likes of Daniel Loxton and Phil Plait promoting more civil debate rather than P.Z. Myers-ish schoolboy tirades. But the cognitive dissonance that the skeptical movement is currently experiencing may in turn just reinforce the childish behaviour: in a new entry on his blog titled "Are We Phalluses?", Jerry Coyne has taken Phil Plait to task for his 'Don't Be a Dick' speech':

What struck me most strongly about the DBAD talk, and reminded me of the Tom Johnson affair, was Plait’s complete failure to provide evidence for what he was saying. Not only did he not give a single instance of the rudeness and stridency that he finds so ubiquitous, but also gave no evidence that skeptics who behave that way have been less effective than others. This was curious because, after all, the prime requirement for good skepticism is that you give evidence for what you think, and demand it from others.

And the dickish comments come fast and furious after the blog post, including one from an actual Dick - Richard Dawkins. I had a good giggle at his curt response to the Bad Astronomer's talk:

As Jerry said, Plait quoted no examples of skeptics who scream insults in people’s face. I don’t think I have ever met, seen or heard one. But I could quote plenty of skeptics who employ ridicule, who skewer pretentiousness, stupidity and ignorance using wit. Listening to such ridicule, and reading it, is one of the great joys life has to offer. And I suspect that it is very effective.

I'm sorry...you "suspect" that it's very effective? What happened to this evidence-based reasoning that Jerry Coyne and yourself were just singing the praises of? You might like to do some studies on that before you start criticizing others.

Here's a data point for Jerry and Richard. I regularly encounter dickish behaviour from 'skeptics', and I find it offensive. I find it very difficult to read anything that the likes of Myers and Dawkins write, no matter how intelligent, without an inherent bias due to my previous experience of their dickishness. And I'm not a fan of organized religion, so I should be their target audience.

Being offensive is the easiest course of action - it just requires unstopping any filters of civility and letting the garbage pour out of your head. It takes no intelligence at all, and rarely achieves anything other than to falsely stoke the ego of the offender. I am disinclined to listen to the 'rational' arguments of a 'skeptic' that can't act rationally themselves.

On the other hand, the way things are going, organized skepticism will tear itself apart soon enough...

On Not Being a Dick

Regular readers will know that I criticize organized skepticism here fairly often, and with good reason. But that is not to say that I am anti-skepticism (or anti-science, as some would have it). Critical thinking skills are absolutely required if you're going to navigate Fortean pathways, as they dip off into some pretty dark and overgrown parts of the forest on occasion.

Similarly, I have on occasion criticized some things that The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, has said. And again, with good reason (along with some more casual ribbing). However, on the whole I think Phil is a great communicator with an infectious passion for science and the cosmos, even if he does think I'm a goofy, antiscience guy.

In July, Phil spoke at The Amazing Meeting (TAM8) in Las Vegas, the biggest skeptical group gathering of the year, and instead of rallying the troops for battle, he took a different approach: he implored them 'not to be dicks':

There's been some alarming developments in the way skepticism is being done... [I]n some specific places, the tone of what we're doing is decaying. Instead of relying on the merits of the arguments...it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise - I'm not happy about that.

...How many of you no longer believe in those things and you became a skeptic because somebody got in your face, screaming, and calling you brain-damaged and a retard?

Now it's clear that I welcome this development, and so I gladly and genuinely want to say 'well done!' to the Bad Astronomer. But I also wanted to respond to a few of the other points he made as well - which I'll do right after you watch this video of his whole talk:

Now, my first reaction to this talk was "finally, they're getting it!" After seeing the talk being hailed on skeptical blogs as a watershed moment, my second reaction was more cynical; basically being along the lines of "if the breakthrough moment in your community is the revelation that you should not act like dicks, then your community does not have a great history to it."

And I think that latter reaction is a fair one - it's why I criticize organized skepticism so regularly, because it has some serious problems that need to be dealt with. One of those is that - despite the BA's framing of his talk in terms of a recent decay in civility - the pioneering 'skeptics' of the movement such as Gardner, Randi, Klass etc *were* dicks. Huge, honking dicks. To me, there has been no 'recent decaying' - it's just been a continuum of dickish behaviour.

A second, major problem is the fact that organized skepticism has become a belief system in itself (I noted with a grin that Phil himself mentions that "studies have shown that people who lose their faith tend to replace it with something else, with a different type of belief"). It was therefore refreshing-as-all-hell to see Phil note that himself in his talk:

Right now in this movement of ours...there's entrenched belief masking itself, i think, as rational thought. People strongly believe in skepticism so much they're not willing to question it themselves, not willing to question their own stance. And i could give you specific examples of myself as well...hubris is running rampant, and egos are just out of check, and sometimes logic in those situations is left by the wayside.

Phil notes one of the difficult aspects of being a skeptic is that it is "in many ways, a self-annihilating message - how do you convince someone they're not thinking clearly, when *they're not thinking clearly*!" Ironically, this applies in reverse on occasions when I've talked to skeptics - how you convince someone they're not thinking clearly, when they define themselves as being a clear-thinker.

Here's an example, pulled from Phil's talk:

The message we're trying to convey is hard all by its lonesome, and it's even worse when we're trying peddle this idea, when you think about what we're actually saying, of no magic, no afterlife, no higher moral authoritative father figure, no security, no happy ever after…this is a tough sell.

Yes, skepticism is a tough sell - it's basically about doubting yourself, your beliefs and assumptions 24/7. However, skepticism should *not* be about conveying the message that there is "no afterlife, no higher moral authoritative father figure" etc. There may be doubt about these things - but in the end, they are unfalsifiable, and so no true skeptic should be arguing that they don't exist as part of their central message. One of the core failings of the modern skeptical movement - and it goes back to its origins in the likes of Martin Gardner and CSICOP - is the belief that skeptics' raison d'être is to fight off 'irrational', supernatural beliefs. It has become so entrenched in the skeptical system that I'd imagine only theistic skeptics would have noticed this statement during the talk.

This mistaken acceptance of atheism and materialist belief as 'skepticism' leads me to another point: the big elephant standing in the corner wondering why Phil didn't mention his name. Despite passionately calling for an end to dickish behaviour, the Bad Astronomer avoided calling anyone in particular out, even though I'm sure we all know who the biggest 'skeptical' front appendage out there is. And though he embraced Phil's non-naming to exonerate himself, P.Z. Myers is wrong. He is a dick. Pharyngula, via both its blogger and a sizeable portion of the commenters, have lowered the tone of skeptical debate to new lows, and - given that Pharyngula is (allegedly) the premiere science blog on the planet - dragged the good name of science down with them.

But P.Z. isn't the only one (as I said, most of the pioneering skeptics have/had the dickish attitude). The point to make from Phil's 'non-naming' is that there is a severe lack of self-criticism within skeptical organizations - not only on attitude, but in fact-checking (seriously, if skeptics fact-checked some of Randi's pronouncements they would be shocked). Very few skeptics are willing to take to Pharyngula with the same enthusiasm that they bring to fighting woo - and yet the former action may, in the end, be more important to the future of the skeptical movement. I think Phil's talk goes a long way towards taking a first step in that direction.

Phil also mentions at one point that "the odds are against us..there are more of them than there are of us." It's an insular thing to say, and I think comes from a false dichotomy of 'skeptics' vs 'irrational public'. It may be a necessary idea for skeptics to hold - in terms of consolidating a community - but in my opinion it is wrong. I would quite genuinely say that I am more skeptical than, at the very least, 50% of self-described skeptics. So are some of the top researchers in ufology, near-death experiences, and other areas - and they regularly get labeled as 'woo-woos' by 'skeptics' that are not deserving of the title. Skeptics would do well to realise that the title does not get bestowed simply because you don't believe in God/magic/religion - it comes from doubting things and using critical thinking (if applicable) to come to your conclusions. By insulating themselves, skeptical 'evangelists' make it more difficult to engage with people, as they have already built a wall between them.

In my opinion, skeptical organisations need to rethink their identity - their goal should be to spread critical thinking skills, not to spread a certain belief system. Phil said it best in his talk:

I'm also of the "teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime" sort of thought...my goal is not to get rid of antiscience per se, it's to help people walk away from it themselves, to teach them how to think and to give them the ability to use reason when thinking something through.

I don't think we need to remove irrationality from the world. In fact, I would argue that in some cases, irrationality may be a psychological requirement to deal with some of the uglier aspects of this world, and beyond that is a part of human experience which has contributed wonderful ideas and art. What we do need to do is minimise harm from irrational behaviour, and *act* reasonably, and this was the key point of Phil's talk. As such, it's a message worth discussing and sharing.