A couple of weeks ago, Deepak Chopra wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle titled "The Perils of Skepticism". It certainly touched a nerve with many self-identified skeptics, and with good reason: Chopra's article fails to point out that skepticism is a wonderful and necessary tool, used by all great scientists. And, apart from carelessly confusing skepticism with the debunkery practiced by modern skeptical personalities, he also wants to define that latter group as being boring, useless people. This is simply not the case: James Randi for all his flaws, has also done some good things (and is certainly entertaining), and Carl Sagan was one of the most important science-educators of the 20th century - to name just two self-identified 'skeptics' who have contributed good things.
No, the real peril of skepticism lies in people thinking that just invoking the word grants authority; believing that someone who is known as a 'skeptic' has an opinion which can be trusted. So, when Phil Plait says that the 1947 Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting "is now understood to have most likely been a fireball breaking up", we should perhaps ask him whether - as an astronomer - he really believes that any fireballs breaking up have ever traveled pretty much horizontally for almost three minutes. Or, when modern skeptics dismiss the mediumship of Leonora Piper by invoking the 'authoritative debunking' of the case by Martin Gardner, we might ask how authoritative it could be when Gardner gets numerous 'facts' completely and utterly wrong. And, when James Randi posts in a 2008 Swift newsletter that "[Dean] Radin’s latest distraction – parapsychologists are fond of abandoning lines of investigation when they prove fruitless – is 'presentiment'", we should definitely ponder what sort of authority Randi is on the matter, considering Radin has been researching (and publishing) on presentiment since the 1990s.
The danger in skepticism is simply when people think of it as a movement, with certain dogmas and authority figures. Skepticism is a tool. And we should apply it to anyone's claims, whether they are Deepak Chopra or James Randi.
A couple of weeks ago I noted a minor brouhaha developing between James Randi and Rupert Sheldrake: in a randi.org post titled "Bull**** Artist?", one of Randi's underlings described a "rawtha angry letter" written by Sheldrake to The Skeptic. At the time I asked Rupert Sheldrake if I could publish the letter (given that he's one of the least "angry" individuals you're likely to meet), but after conferring with Chris French (prominent UK skeptic, scientist, and editor of The Skeptic), Rupert suggested that we just wait for Chris to publish his letter (and Randi's reply) on the website of The Skeptic.
Chris French has now published the letters as promised. As I expected, Rupert Sheldrake's letter is not "angry" in tone ("disagreeing" does not equal "angry"). What he does do is question Chris French's "reverential" interview questions when talking to James Randi, with no challenging of his qualifications or approach to skepticism:
Randi is often rude and offensive. Unfortunately many of his fellow sceptics let him get away with it, and treat him with adulation. His presence on the cover of the new-look Skeptic together with Chris French’s uncritical interview helps to build up this iconic status. Randi may have done a useful job in exposing fraudulent showmen, but he has no scientific credentials, and has made fraudulent claims himself. (For one example, see http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversi....)
One of Sheldrake's more incisive points is that Randi "awarded" him a 'Pigasus Award' in 2007 for his research into telephone telepathy, saying "this man’s delusions increase as time goes by, and he comes up with sillier ideas every year." The point to note being that Chris French has worked with Sheldrake on that very same research.
Randi's response is odd. It goes on at length about Sheldrake misquoting him (referring to a brochure handed out during a workshop at The Amazing Meeting, when Sheldrake doesn't seem to attribute the quote to him apart from a minor link (which is probably justifiable given that Randi handed out the brochure at a workshop he was hosting). He then explains how Sheldrake misrepresented his lack of research into animal ESP, failing to mention that he has previously apologized for his lack of research ("it was rash and improper of me to do so") after being advised to present his evidence by the JREF Scientific Advisory Board. He follows that up by saying that Sheldrake's accusation that he (Randi) hadn't watched the tape of his canine telepathy research was "not true", going on to say that "A colleague of mine in Europe told me that he’d seen the tape record." WTF?
Sometimes I think Randi counts on his readers just taking his word for things, rather than actually reading background information (borne out by the comments to this story in which a number seem to think that Sheldrake didn't account for long-distance hearing in his experiments). Also see my comment below pointing out specific examples.
Phil 'Bad Astronomy' Plait announced today that he is stepping down from his role as president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) in order to pursue a television opportunity. As of January 1, 2010, the new head of the JREF will be former professional magician and (current) skeptic D. J. Grothe (perhaps best known for his Point of Inquiry podcast).
This was a very difficult decision for me. But I’m leaving the Presidency so I can concentrate on some future TV projects I’ve been developing. This has been a dream of mine for more than a decade, and something I’ve worked on very hard, so it’s an opportunity I simply could not pass up. With that in mind, I discussed this with Randi and the other members of the JREF Board of Directors, and we all agreed it was for the best. Not to rationalize this too much, but if this does work out it means I’ll be able to promote skepticism, science, and critical thinking to a much larger audience. This will ultimately benefit the JREF itself, too.
I’m really happy D. J. accepted the role of President in my stead. He is a beloved member of the skeptical community. His podcast, Point of Inquiry, is among the best in the business. He is a thoughtful, intellectual, interesting, and warm person, and will be an outstanding example of leadership when he takes the JREF reins. With D. J. involved, the future of the JREF is stronger than ever.
The Bad Astronomer will remain an advisor to the JREF in an "informal capacity". For more information, see this JREF press release.
The timeline as best I can guess at it: The summer issue of The Skeptic featured an interview with skeptical supremo James Randi. Rupert Sheldrake wrote a letter critiquing the interview (or perhaps more specifically, what Randi said), for inclusion in the next issue of The Skeptic. Chris French, editor of the magazine, sent Sheldrake's letter to Randi for a 'right of reply'. Randi shared the letter with his underlings, and in order to track down a reference document pertinent to his reply (or under that pretension), one of those underlings - Brandon Thorp - posted a message to the blog of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), titled "Bull**** Artist?:
A rawtha angry letter by Rupert Sheldrake will appear in the next issue of Skeptic, in response to Chris French's ("reverential") interview of James Randi in the summer issue.
The letter has its points -- for example, when it accuses Randi of occasional grumpiness (It's true! He can be grumpy!) -- but the bulk of the thing is an attack upon Randi's character and qualifications.
Mostly, Sheldrake seems discomfited by a document passed out by Randi, Andrew Mayne, and Michael Shermer at The Amaz!ng Meeting 3, entitled "Communicating Skepticism To The Public." We have no copies of this document. Perhaps you can help us.
Does the document say, as Sheldrake claims, that it's "easy" to become a media skeptic? And what about this: "Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you're an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you're not."
Did Randi really write that? If so, nobody at the JREF, and nobody we've been able contact, has any recollection of it. And if Randi did write these words, in what context did they appear? We'd really like to know. If you were at TAM3 and still have a copy of the document, please tell us.
Firstly, a minor point: I'm quite sure that it's not the US-based Skeptic magazine, but The Skeptic that Thorp is referring to. The interesting parts though are (a) the title of the post, (b) the "rawtha angry" description, of a letter no readers have read, and (c) the skepticism that such a document exists.
Firstly, the document does exist, as a number of skeptics have since pointed out. Strange that Sheldrake had to inform the JREF about one of their own documents. Interestingly, since then, the tone of commenters has changed from "Sheldrake should be able to pull this document from the Akashic Records", to "he's quoted it out of context." Certainly, the latter question is an important one - from the surrounding text it is clear there is some humour involved, but it does then seem to blend seamlessly into directions on how skeptics can bogusly claim to be experts. So I can see both sides to this one, at least on the page I've read.
As for the "rawtha angry" comment, this surprised me as Rupert Sheldrake is usually unflappable when it comes to debating points. I contacted Rupert about the content of the letter, and he confirmed to me that "it wasn't angry in tone" (keep in mind that my article about the Million Dollar Challenge was labeled by Randi as a tirade). I did ask if I could share the letter with TDG readers, but Chris French has asked that it remain unpublished until the next issue of The Skeptic is released in a few weeks, at which time he will make "the letter and Randi's response public as soon as possible given the interest that this has generated".
The final point worth mentioning is the inflammatory title of the piece. When called on this aspect by other skeptics, Thorp responded:
The title has several possible meanings. The phrase “bull**** expert” could mean “an expert in bull****” or it could mean “a false expert,” depending on whether the expletive is meant as a noun or an adjective. I thought it was clever: depending on whether the document existed or not, either Rupert Sheldrake was a “bull*** (n) expert” or we had published a document about “bull**** (a) experts.”
A fine explanation. Except the title of the blog post was "Bull**** Artist?", not "Bull**** Expert?". Try as I might, I can't shoehorn the former into Thorp's explanation. So I'm wondering exactly who the "Bull**** Artist" is in this case...
Update 9/12/09: The letters by Sheldrake and Randi are now available on the website of The Skeptic.
Previously on TDG:
The January/February 2010 issue of Skeptical Inquirer is now available, and as per usual there are a number of articles from the latest release available online:
- 2012 Not a Complete Disaster
- Court Vindicates Prayer-Fertility Study Critic
- Company Sells Ghost Detectors
- Norm Levitt: An Obituary
Full details at the SI website, as well as articles from previous releases.
The last two instalments of the Skeptiko podcast are well worth checking out: they feature British skeptic Dr Chris French and well-known 'maverick scientist' Dr Rupert Sheldrake discussing various aspects of parapsychology and skeptical thinking. Both French and Sheldrake are excellent to listen to, offering calm and rational insights into what they do, and their thoughts on psi and skepticism.
In Sheldrake's podcast there's also an interesting point made about how psi and skeptical experimenters may never be able to reach a conclusion because of the differing takes on the approach required for 'success':
Now when Chris French and I discussed this experiment before they did it, you know, I said - we said to each other what we’d probably say, and I said, “Okay, Chris, well, if it gives non-significant results I’m probably going to say that you know, this extreme skeptical leaning on everybody involved in the way that treats them as if they’re under suspicion of cheating all the time is going to inhibit the effect.”
And I said, “What are you going to say if there’s a positive effect?” And he said, “I’m going to say that the controls weren’t rigorous enough, and we’ll have to do it with even more rigorous control.” Chris and I, both of us in advance realized that whatever the result, you know, neither of us was going to say okay, the phenomena or it doesn’t exist. His idea of more rigorous controls would you know, involve stepping up the degree of suspicion with which everyone else is - everyone involved is treated. And then you know, you could probably reach a level where the phenomenon would go away. This just isn’t a feasible way of doing research.
Both podcasts are excellent, I recommend a listen if you have time.
Randi has debunked more than 100 psychics and faith healers in a quest to rid the world of hucksters. It also makes him the subject of scorn among purveyors of the paranormal, true believers who say Randi has made himself rich, pulling in nearly $200,000 a year from his foundation, at the expense of others' careers.
Now, however, Randi's work may be in jeopardy. His foundation has been hemorrhaging money, and Randi, who has spent his career challenging the notion of an afterlife, now faces his own mortality. He has intestinal cancer and may not have long to live. He has been a commanding presence for four decades, but it's unclear who could fill his role as the face of the skeptic community.
The article says doctors are giving him a 50/50 prognosis for the next five years. Not that it means much, but my best wishes go out to the old geezer in his battle against the big C, regardless of my criticisms of some of his actions and the merits of the JREF.
The full article is worth a read, there are comments from Uri Geller about his long battle with Randi, and also plenty of material from the recent Amazing Meeting which gives you the feeling there's a bit of cult vibe with the skeptical minions and the white-bearded father figure who shepherds them.
Exhibit one in why affable, intelligent scientists shouldn't jump on the skeptic bandwagon, and start acting all obnoxious and unintelligent. I give you Neil DeGrasse Tyson at last year's Amazing Meeting:
Ugh, it's like your drunk uncle at your wedding, thinking he's a stand-up comedian all of a sudden...
A few interesting posts over the website of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) on the topic of how skepticism and atheism are not directly connected. The series started with a rant from Jeff Wagg about a discount promotion at Denny's aimed at Christians. Personally I don't see any problem with it - just like I wouldn't if the promotion were aimed at local junior baseball teams, or pensioners...it's all just marketing to me - but Wagg's post revived some contentious issues on the JREF's stance towards religion.
As such, Wagg reposted some older posts which are well worth checking out, which "demonstrate how skepticism - as the JREF sees it - can be a big tent". The first was James Randi's "Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I'm a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright". The second is titled "One Voice of the JREF", and is by Hal Bidlack, a committed skeptic who also holds Deist views:
At TAM5, no less than three well-intended individuals attempted to ‘save' me from my non-atheism, one even had pamphlets, with no less ardor than religious zealots bring to their cause. Some of my dear friends attempt to somehow make it "ok" for me to be a Deist by trying to convince me that it's really just the same as atheism, I just don't quite understand it correctly. They apologize on my behalf, and condone my naiveté, sure that I will come around some day.
My belief in a non-intervening god is, they tell me, just the same as not believing in God at all, and therefore we are on the same side. I sharply differ, in that the key issue for me is God/no-god, not the form therein. I believe I should be able to decide what I believe. I am tired of being told I am stupid, but I can get better.
Bidlack's post recounts his own life based in science and skepticism, but also speaks eloquently about the experiences and tragedies he's endured (including 9-11 and his wife's cancer), leading him to the "odd sense of something greater than myself, of being part of a remarkable universe."
Lots of discussion in the comments threads as well. A key question might be though - if organised skepticism has no trouble with Deism, how much more ground are they forced to 'relinquish' in terms of 'irrational beliefs' which people hold due to intuition or because of the positive influence on their lives?
Like much else, I always seem to end up at the maxim 'if it does no harm'...
Following up on the last post about the Million Dollar Challenge - in particular the idea of modern magicians as debunkers of the paranormal - I just noticed that George Hansen's Paranormal Trickster blog has been updated with two new additions. Both of them touch on the issue of (stage) magicians and their interaction with religion, supernatural ideas and the paranormal. Hansen's review of a conference on "The Theory and Art of Magic" throws the spotlight on the work of Eugene Burger, one of magic's most profound thinkers but also a graduate from Yale University’s Divinity School.
The second post offers a PDF file of Hansen's 1992 essay on "Magicians and the Paranormal" which was originally published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (JASPR). The article provides a fascinating look at how magicians have viewed the paranormal over the past four centuries. As Hansen says, it's important to understand this background, because...
...several magicians have had an impact on scientists’ and the general public’s perception of psychical research, and some have played a major role in the modern-day skeptical movement. Conjurors have been consulted regarding government funding of psi research, and the recent workshop on parapsychology by the Office of Technology Assessment (1989) of the U.S. Congress included nine outside panelists, three of whom were scientist-magicians. Also, conjurors have special expertise in evaluating certain types of psi research.
The JASPR article in particular is a wonderful read, I highly recommend it. I find George Hansen's writings on the paranormal a welcome tonic to the true believers on either side - he goes beyond evaluating the objective reality of these phenomena and considers sociological and psychological factors as well (although I also cringe when people take things too far in that direction).