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

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.

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...