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Professional Standards Among Psychics

CA PsychicsLast night, as I was falling asleep, I heard on the radio an ad I had never heard before: Click here for a link to the ad audio

It was for California Psychics, apparently a huge organization that has its hands in everything ‘psychic’. I did a little Google search and found that they’ve been around for a while, and they’ve been discussed recently, such as on the JREF forums.

The part that I find extremely fascinating from the radio spot is this line: “At California Psychics, we thoroughly test our psychics to make sure they’re professional, have real gifts and communicate clearly.” I’m not sure whether to laugh or turn my head to the side and grunt, much like a dog does when it can’t figure out what the hell is going on. Ok, I understand the professional part; you don’t want some crazy person running their mouth off to a customer like they’re in a liquor store–that drives the customer to hang up the precious pay-by-minute phone call. This goes for communicating clearly too. Nothing weird about that. Gibberish doesn’t make the money either.

But “have real gifts”? How do they even do this? How is this even verified. Some sort of committee? Do they combine their powers, ask Captain Planet if the applicant is legit, and then have a psychic party? I like how the gifts part is shoved in between two normal and regular job applicant qualities. Perhaps they were thinking, “if we throw it in the middle, people won’t hear us talking crazy on the radio”. Let’s be honest, if someone had “real gifts” don’t you think they’d be cashing in on James Randi’s generous donation to their personal psychic fund? In the ad, the woman speaking describes the process, but it is very vague and non-committal. Also, it could be an actor/fictional person. Either way, I see no real gifts.

Furthermore, at the end of the ad is an invitation for a free reading. If the reading isn’t the best I’ve ever had, it’s apparently free. Speaking for myself, that would be the case every time.

So next time you here this radio ad, remember that it is the duped paying the advertising fees.

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TAM 8 Summary – Saturday (Part 2)

Bringing the first batch of Saturday’s humor (besides MC Hal Bidlack of course!), David Javerbaum held a Q&A session about being executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In response to accusations that The Daily Show is sexist, Javerbaum replied that the letter was the kind of reporting that the show debunked hundreds of times when it was used in Iraq War journalism and that “the thesis was there before the claim”. He stated that The Daily Show doesn’t feel they have a responsibility to do journalism before comedy. In closing, Javerbaum was asked about if any guests ever did an appearance without knowing what they were in for, to which he replied that people love to be on television, even at the expense of their shame, intelligence, and image. Javerbaum was very entertaining and as an avid Jon Stewart fan I loved hearing his “man behind the curtain” takes on various topics.

Aliens Among Us: Are They Already Here? was the title of the next talk, given by James McGaha. Focusing on technological and intelligent life, McGaha explained that believers in extraterrestrials assume that there “must” be many aliens and that they are most likely hostile. McGaha argued that postmodernism plays a large role in believing, since the stance that nothing is certain means any evidence isn’t really proof enough to stop believing. Citing a number of equations used in estimating the amount of complex life in the universe that could travel to Earth, McGaha concluded that it is highly unlikely and nearly impossible that extraterrestrials would ever make physical contact. McGaha’s presentation was very dense and many of the equations and theories went over my head, but I did enjoy his discussion about believers.

The Paranormal Investigations panel was next on the schedule and it featured moderator Juila Galef, Ben Radford, Karen Stollznow, Joe Nickell, and James Randi. Regarding the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, Randi explained that those that do take up the challenge honestly don’t know that they will fail and that while every participant is asked to perform a double-blind study, no one ever does. At the same time, however, Radford, Nickell, and Randi all emphasized that these people are just confused and should be treated with respect, not contempt. When asked how modern technology has altered the paranormal investigation field, Nickell explained that the body of work done is very helpful and was unavailable decades ago, while Randi explained that there are more tools for investigators, such as the transmitter he used in debunking Peter Popoff. Finally, Galef asked what are some hallmarks of bad investigation, to which Radford replied “looking for ghosts with the lights off” and Stollznow answered that using irrelevant equipment is always a giveaway. This panel was another enjoyable one, as it was great to hear Randi talk about the Million Dollar Challenge and Ben Radford’s contributions were highly entertaining.

Jennifer Michael Hecht discussed the history of doubt next, opening by stating that the history of doubt is longer than the history of faith and citing depictions of doubt from 600 BC. Hecht explained that Plato discussed atheistic concepts in identifying the youth and that it was Plotinus that turned Plato’s good into god. During the Cold War, questioning religion was made treasonable as a communist act and this disdain has remained ever since. A poet and philosopher, Hecht voiced the value of poetry as it relates to science and the natural world, arguing that poetry echoes the amazement in the natural. Hecht feels that the experience of humanity cannot be guided solely by science and that for very historical reasons we have shut out poetry to deny that humanity cannot be scientifically contained. I admired Hecht’s mastery of the subject and her fluid presentation style. As someone who appreciates artistic expression, it was also great to hear her support of poetry as a valid form of portraying humanness.

Paul Provenza was up next, and he gave a humorous-yet-thoughtful presentation focusing on his book ¡Satiristas! He explained that all the comedians he interviewed for the book (including the late George Carlin in his final interview) are free, critical thinkers. Much of the presentation consisted of Provenza reading selected passages from the book, many of which focused on discussions of religion and atheism. Along similar lines, Provenza expressed some confusion about the skeptics versus atheists issue, stating that he feels that all skeptics must be atheists but that “everyone has a process”. Provenza also explained that he feels God cheapens the wonder of the natural world. In conclusion, he reitorated that we can’t force people to doubt, but we can be there when questions arise and that making people laugh eases the tension of presenting a new paradigm. Provenza’s free-form talk was a funny and thought-provoking presentation that was a great demonstration of how humor can facilitate easier discussion about difficult topics.

Finally, Keynote Speaker Richard Dawkins was interviewed by D.J. Grothe about skepticism, atheism, extraterrestrials, and science fiction. Dawkins and Grothe discussed atheism first, with Dawkins expressing that it is hard to be skeptical without investigating your own theism and that insofar religion affects the real world, it must be scrutinized. Dawkins also argued that a universe with an intelligent creator at its base would clearly be very different than our universe, even if the differences were not testable. Grothe asked if there is a hierarchy of woo-woo claims, to which Dawkins replied that there is and you can organize them based on importance, such that the existence of God is much more important than the existence of Bigfoot. Similarly, he expressed that he finds graphology to be “extremely plausible” and homeopathy “extremely implausible”, so plausibility can also be a organizational component.

Moving on to extraterrestrial life, Dawkins stated that its existence is plausible given the number of stars in the universe, even intelligent life. He felt that anyone who commits that the origins of life are Earth-specific, then they are committing that the event is so stupefyingly rare that all those searching for the chemical theory should quit. Grothe asked what the chances are that there is alien life that humans could see as godlike, to which Dawkins explained that it would not take much time for evolution to form such beings. However, they would not be godlike since they came from natural and rational processes, so worshiping them as gods would be absurd.

As Dawkins is currently working on The Magic of Reality, a book for children, Grothe turned the attention to Dawkins’ views on fiction. Dawkins explained that he loves science fiction that takes science seriously and isn’t completely undisciplined. Contrastingly, he feels that fantasy fiction prepped him for religious belief and that “what might have been a natural skepticism [in his childhood] was dulled through fantastic fiction”. At the same time, Dawkins emphasized that science will not progress without imagination and going beyond what is currently accepted. Grothe asked if Dawkins could now not enjoy fantasy, to which he explained he definitely can enjoy all sorts of fiction, in that he finds suspending disbelief and getting in the head of another person or character very interesting.

Finally, Grothe requested some information about Dawkins’ new work. Regarding the title, he explained there are three types of magic: irrational magic, conjuring (tricks), and the Carl Sagan magic of the universe, to which Dawkins’ title refers to. Each chapter in the book focuses on a question, such as “what is the sun?” or “what is an earthquake?”, and first explains various myths about the phenomenon before providing the correct scientific explanation.

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TAM 8 Summary – Friday (Part 2)

After Simon Singh, Joe Nickell took to the stage to discuss his experiences of going undercover to investigate paranormal claims. Nickell, called by Paul Kurtz “the modern Sherlock Holmes”, creates false personas and then takes part in alleged supernatural rituals. He discussed debunking mediums at Camp Chesterfield, infiltrating the religious camp of Johnny God, being “cured” of made up illnesses by Benny Hinn, and counter-investigating the psychic investigation work of Phil Jordan. In each and every instance, he found it quite telling that no one claiming paranormal abilities could see through his charade. Nickell’s accounts were extremely entertaining and I found it interesting that he claims to have never felt endangered throughout his years of paranormal investigation work.

Adam Savage spoke next, reading a speech that he gave upon receiving the Harvard Humanism Award. An atheist, Savage talked about how he feels God is not a prerequisite for knowing how to live the good life. He remarked that good without God is a fact and that “Prayer doesn’t work because someone out there is listening, but because someone inside is – me.” Savage also remarked that while we would like good and evil to be clear cut, it is not; such a desire is banal. After his speech, a live auction was held to support the JREF, with a piece of the duct tape bridge donated by Savage and co-Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman raising $650. I found Savage’s speech passionate and topical, and watching him run around the ballroom with his auction item held high was an added treat!

Astronomer Pamela Gay was up next, discussing Living Astronomy Out Loud, or how everyone can help contribute to the field of astronomy. Opening with data indicating that only 1 in 3750 people in the United States were scientists in 2007 (fewer than the number of clergy), Gay spoke out on the need to increase scientist numbers. She presented a number of astronomy-oriented websites that anyone can use to categorize universal phenomena, including Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Stormwatch. Gay explained that astronomers need this Web 2.0 assistance to expand their research, but also need people to support science in education. Gay voiced concern about the “offensively inadequate” state of science education and explained that some Illinois public high schools cannot offer the minimum number of classes to meet eligibility for the University of Illinois. She concluded by stating “your actions are needed to change this nation” and encouraging everyone in the audience to contribute by supporting science interest and education. Gay’s figures and concerns were troubling to me as a critical thinking in education advocate and something must definitely be done to put the sciences far down on the list of budget cut casualties.

Little did we know that the tone and focus of TAM was going to drastically change upon the next guest taking the podium. Phil Plait confronted a growing issue within the skeptic community – patronizing, close-minded skeptics. “Vitriol and venom are on the rise” in skepticism, Plait argued, polling the audience about how many people have ever changed their mind because they were yelled at about their beliefs (only a couple hands were raised of over a thousand audience members). He explained how attempts to debunk another’s beliefs only serve to reinforce the belief in question, emphasizing the need to be open and considerate in discussions of belief. Plait posited that the goal of the skepticism movement is to obtain a more rational, real world and that in this endeavor communication is key. While insults may feel good to throw at the opposing side, they do nothing to get the argument across. In closing, Plait said that we don’t need warriors in this pursuit, but diplomats. I could not agree more with Plait’s position and will be discussing this in greater detail in my review of TAM (to be posted after the event summaries).

After this rousing and inspirational talk by Plait, social psychologist Carol Tavris gave a talk on Science, Skepticism, and Self-Deception that was much in line with Plait’s message. Tavris discussed what she labels the Semmelweis Problem, which is the refusal to change beliefs and actions despite substantial evidence that existing beliefs and actions are flawed compared to a more beneficial and accurate approach. Three hardwired biases – the bias of being unbiased, the bias that we are smarter/better/kinder/more competent than others, and the confirmation bias – fuel the perpetuation of irrational beliefs. This is true of skeptics as well as believers, especially because skeptics tend to have a self-concept that they are not easily fooled and this can prevent consideration of alternative concepts. Tavris explained that the moment a stance is decided on regarding an issue, justification through the three hardwired biases immediately sets in and considering an alternate perspective becomes perpetually more difficult as biased evidence is accumulated. This is why assaulting another’s beliefs does not work and instead strengthens their beliefs. Tavris concluded by emphasizing that while cognitive dissonance may be hardwired, how we think about decision making is learned and this can overcome close-mindedness and lead to more effective communication. As a supporter of empathetic, open skepticism, what Tavris had to say was greatly appreciated and all the more poignant after Plait’s passionate speech.

Finally, a panel moderated by D.J. Grothe and featuring Ray Hyman, Paul Kurtz, Ken Frazier, and James Randi focused on The Origins of the Modern Skeptic Movement. Randi explained that the movement began humbly as SIR (Sanity In Research) and only really took off when their small group started making academic connections. CSICOP (now CSI) was created in the 1970s to combat the irrationalism of paranormal beliefs, explained Kurtz, and when asked if there are less paranormal believers now, Hyman noted that measuring success is difficult and Frazier explained that the instantaneous state of media has altered the situation. Grothe asked if the fact that over 1300 TAM attendees was evidence of success, to which Randi said yes but it is “a drop in the bucket”. Frazier doubted that irrational beliefs could ever be eradicated, but that it could be curbed much like law enforcement curbs crime. Kurtz interjected that skepticism is a method that must be conveyed as essential and that its emphasis in schooling is paramount. In response to Grothe asking if there has been a shift in the community’s approach, Frazier stated that he does not think there has been a significant change, citing that the focus is still on testable claims. Similarly, Randi reminded everyone that the JREF is not atheist, but will pursue any religious claims that are observable and testable. The panel concluded with a video of the late Martin Gardner and Randi giving a speech in remembrance to his close friend and colleague.

In closing, James Randi presented an award to Paul Kurtz for his decades of work promoting skepticism. This was a very moving and important recognition for Kurtz, who recently resigned from CFI, CSI, and the Council for Secular Humanism to establish the Institute for Science and Human Values. In receiving the award, Kurtz stated that contributions such as his must be ongoing and the skepticism community is obligated to continue the promotion of critical thinking. I am definitely ready and eager to take up this cause and hope that everyone in the audience agrees with Kurtz in this regard.

After Simon Singh, Joe Nickell took to the stage to discuss his experiences of going undercover to investigate paranormal claims. Nickell, called by Paul Kurtz “the modern Sherlock Holmes”, creates false personas and then takes part in alleged supernatural rituals. He discussed debunking mediums at Camp Chesterfield, infiltrating the religious camp of Johnny God, being “cured” of made up illnesses by Benny Hinn, and counter-investigating the psychic investigation work of Phil Jordan. In each and every instance, he found it quite telling that no one claiming paranormal abilities could see through his charade. Nickell’s accounts were extremely entertaining and I found it interesting that he claims to have never felt endangered throughout his years of paranormal investigation work.

Adam Savage spoke next, reading a speech that he gave upon receiving the Harvard Humanism Award. An atheist, Savage talked about how he feels God is not a prerequisite for knowing how to live the good life. He remarked that good without God is a fact and that “Prayer doesn’t work because someone out there is listening, but because someone inside is – me.” Savage also remarked that while we would like good and evil to be clear cut, it is not; such a desire is banal. After his speech, a live auction was held to support the JREF, with a piece of the duct tape bridge donated by Savage and co-Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman raising $650. I found Savage’s speech passionate and topical, and watching him run around the ballroom with his auction item held high was an added treat!

Astronomer Pamela Gay was up next, discussing Living Astronomy Out Loud, or how everyone can help contribute to the field of astronomy. Opening with data indicating that only 1 in 3750 people in the United States were scientists in 2007 (fewer than the number of clergy), Gay spoke out on the need to increase scientist numbers. She presented a number of astronomy-oriented websites that anyone can use to categorize universal phenomena, including Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Stormwatch. Gay explained that astronomers need this Web 2.0 assistance to expand their research, but also need people to support science in education. Gay voiced concern about the “offensively inadequate” state of science education and explained that some Illinois public high schools cannot offer the minimum number of classes to meet eligibility for the University of Illinois. She concluded by stating “your actions are needed to change this nation” and encouraging everyone in the audience to contribute by supporting science interest and education. Gay’s figures and concerns were troubling to me as a critical thinking in education advocate and something must definitely be done to put the sciences far down on the list of budget cut casualties.

Little did we know that the tone and focus of TAM was going to drastically change upon the next guest taking the podium. Phil Plait confronted a growing issue within the skeptic community – patronizing, close-minded skeptics. “Vitriol and venom are on the rise” in skepticism, Plait argued, polling the audience about how many people have ever changed their mind because they were yelled at about their beliefs (only a couple hands were raised of over a thousand audience members). He explained how attempts to debunk another’s beliefs only serve to reinforce the belief in question, emphasizing the need to be open and considerate in discussions of belief. Plait posited that the goal of the skepticism movement is to obtain a more rational, real world and that in this endeavor communication is key. While insults may feel good to throw at the opposing side, they do nothing to get the argument across. In closing, Plait said that we don’t need warriors in this pursuit, but diplomats. I could not agree more with Plait’s position and will be discussing this in greater detail in my review of TAM (to be posted after the event summaries).

After this rousing and inspirational talk by Plait, social psychologist Carol Tavris gave a talk on Science, Skepticism, and Self-Deception that was much in line with Plait’s message. Tavris discussed what she labels the Semmelweis Problem, which is the refusal to change beliefs and actions despite substantial evidence that existing beliefs and actions are flawed compared to a more beneficial and accurate approach. Three hardwired biases – the bias of being unbiased, the bias that we are smarter/better/kinder/more competent than others, and the confirmation bias – fuel the perpetuation of irrational beliefs. This is true of skeptics as well as believers, especially because skeptics tend to have a self-concept that they are not easily fooled and this can prevent consideration of alternative concepts. Tavris explained that the moment a stance is decided on regarding an issue, justification through the three hardwired biases immediately sets in and considering an alternate perspective becomes perpetually more difficult as biased evidence is accumulated. This is why assaulting another’s beliefs does not work and instead strengthens their beliefs. Tavris concluded by emphasizing that while cognitive dissonance may be hardwired, how we think about decision making is learned and this can overcome close-mindedness and lead to more effective communication. As a supporter of empathetic, open skepticism, what Tavris had to say was greatly appreciated and all the more poignant after Plait’s passionate speech.

Finally, a panel moderated by D.J. Grothe and featuring Ray Hyman, Paul Kurtz, Ken Frazier, and James Randi focused on The Origins of the Modern Skeptic Movement. Randi explained that the movement began humbly as SIR (Sanity In Research) and only really took off when their small group started making academic connections. CSICOP (now CSI) was created in the 1970s to combat the irrationalism of paranormal beliefs, explained Kurtz, and when asked if there are less paranormal believers now, Hyman noted that measuring success is difficult and Frazier explained that the instantaneous state of media has altered the situation. Grothe asked if the fact that over 1300 TAM attendees was evidence of success, to which Randi said yes but it is “a drop in the bucket”. Frazier doubted that irrational beliefs could ever be eradicated, but that it could be curbed much like law enforcement curbs crime. Kurtz interjected that skepticism is a method that must be conveyed as essential and that its emphasis in schooling is paramount. In response to Grothe asking if there has been a shift in the community’s approach, Frazier stated that he does not think there has been a significant change, citing that the focus is still on testable claims. Similarly, Randi reminded everyone that the JREF is not atheist, but will pursue any religious claims that are observable and testable. The panel concluded with a video of the late Martin Gardner and Randi giving a speech in remembrance to his close friend and colleague.

In closing, James Randi presented an award to Paul Kurtz for his decades of work promoting skepticism. This was a very moving and important recognition for Kurtz, who recently resigned from CFI, CSI, and the Council for Secular Humanism to establish the Institute for Science and Human Values. In receiving the award, Kurtz stated that contributions such as his must be ongoing and the skepticism community is obligated to continue the promotion of critical thinking. I am definitely ready and eager to take up this cause and hope that everyone in the audience agrees with Kurtz in this regard.

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TAM 8 Summary – Friday (Part 1)

The experiences that I obtained through Friday’s offerings can be categorized no more acutely than inspirational. The day’s talks covered a number of topics and were given by experts in a variety of fields, each tethered to the sturdy foundation of critical thinking. The diversity of subjects made each segment intriguing and that the topics are kept from attendees beforehand provided a welcome anticipation. The later programming brought a startling and substantial community issue into light and with controversy came the possibility of a renewed emphasis of openness in skepticism.

The day began with the cast of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe recording a live podcast. Topics included the Million Ghost March (which was eventually revealed by an audience member as a parody), black hole jets of ions that create massive spheres of gas, an obesity study, and Climategate. Of note is that the obesity study concluded that being obese leads to inactivity (not the other way around), so the best preventable method appears to be combining exercise with a reduction of caloric intake. Regarding Climategate, the SGU cast explained that a third review concluded that there was no tampering of data whatsoever. The cast was entertaining to me and I enjoyed observing the humorous dynamics of the group.

After an opening by D.J. Grothe, Phil Plait, and TAM’s master of ceremonies Hal Bidlack, Michael Shermer took to the stage. His presentation, entitled The Believing Brain, focused on the meaning of believing and that human beings form beliefs first and then seek out evidence to support these beliefs. As pattern perceiving organisms our default position is to assume all patterns/beliefs are real, which minimizes the number of potentially dangerous type II errors committed. Agenticity stems from natural beliefs in a body-spirit duality and along with paternicity results in beliefs of supernatural, superior agencies. Finally, the confirmation bias fuels the gathering of evidence that supports preexisting irrational beliefs. Shermer’s sequence is in line with what I have studied in psychology and his introduction of the concepts of paternicity and agenticity provide some more efficient means of explaining supernatural belief formation.

Next, the Secular Coalition for America‘s Executive Director, Sean Faircloth, discussed secularism in politics. Faircloth argued that while independent thinking once had a place in early United States politics, this is no longer the case. Whereas secularism was prominent in the 1700s and Abraham Lincoln always had secular values, anyone in support of this position today would not be elected because of the sway faith has in the current political climate. In response, SCA aims to lobby Congress on issues of the separation of church and state, along with advocating for regulation of faith-based organizations to protect United States citizens. Before this presentation I was unaware of the SCA and will be doing some further investigation to determine if their position is something I want to support, although it seems like a good cause.

Next up was a panel entitled Women in Skepticism, comprised of moderator Rebecca Watson, Carol Tavris, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Pamela Gay, Ginger Campbell, and Harriet Hall. Throughout the Q&A session there was a consensus that the skepticism, atheism, and science communities need more culturally diverse members and gender parity. Harriet Hall noted that she has never had discrimination experiences within the skeptic community. Pamela Gay argued that by working toward integrating gender parity and cultural diversity into the skeptic community, there would be more diverse role models and that would result in skepticism reaching more people in the United States. I agree and feel that the skepticism community (at least as represented by TAM) has much to gain in these respects.

Following the panel, TAM attendees got an informal and more intimate glance at James Randi through an interview focusing on his work and friendship with Johnny Carson. Jamy Ian Swiss conducted the interview, which touched on Randi’s debunking of Uri Gellar and Peter Popoff. Randi explained that the failure of Gellar on Carson’s show was his doing, since he knew Gellar’s trick and told Carson’s prop guy to put rubber cement on the film cans to prevent him from spinning them and figuring out which one contained a hidden item. Randi next divulged that when he went on Carson’s show to expose Peter Popoff, he did not tell Carson how Popoff’s scam worked so he was completely caught off guard and understandably angry at the reveal. This interview was charming and entertaining, exemplifying how exciting and fun skepticism can be – which is of great importance and assistance in promoting skeptical inquiry and combating the stereotyping of the skeptic community as serious, condescending scientists.

Up next was Simon Singh‘s talk Alternative Medicine, Chiropractic, Libel and the Battle for Free Speech. Covering the history of the two-year libel lawsuit brought up against him by the British Chiropractic Association, Singh spoke out against libel laws in science. Although there is some evidence that back pain can be alleviated through chiropractic, claims that it can remedy non-back issues such as asthma are unfounded. The Libel Reform Campaign is working to ensure that statements against alternative medicine that are grounded in scientific evidence can no longer be drug into expensive and lengthy legal battles, since they should be protected under free speech rights. That organizations peddling unfounded healing methods would file a lawsuit of the kind Singh had to defend against was discomforting to me, but that Singh fought the long battle and came out victorious was a courageous and very important precedent.

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A Brief Introduction to Youth Perception of the Skeptic Community: Something’s not quite right.

What does science mean to skepticism? A large portion of the individuals involved in spreading information and awareness about skepticism come from academia and possess advanced degrees. Even our organization, The Woo Fighters, defines its members as “defenders of science”. The terms “scientist” and “skeptic” can be used almost interchangeably, with scientists seeking to make conclusions based on evidence as freely as possible from human biases, and skeptics seeking to emulate that same thought process.

The advent of the popularity of online blogging has given skeptic organizations a large amount of flexibility when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of skepticism. From these articles, some individuals from the growing audience of readers are recruited to the scientific school of thought. But what are they really being recruited to, what do they believe they’re a part of, and how does this affect the public’s overall perception of skepticism?

As affirmed by several reputable sources, skepticism is a methodology for gaining knowledge through critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. And that’s it. The definition of this word can never go beyond that point, and if you try to add any qualifiers you’ve already gone against what you hold most dear. Even if languages are living, breathing things, the process of skepticism is in the method, not the word. If this is supposed to be what skepticism means, what are new skeptics being exposed to?

One important thing to note is that online skeptic communities draw a younger crowd than they did before the popularity of the internet. The Woo Fighters are currently a group of twenty-something students, and I wasn’t even alive before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re talking young, young people who may not even be aware of Carl Sagan’s first use of the term “scientific skepticism”, or early groups such as the James Randi Educational Foundation. What we start with is what we believe science to be, and what we learn about skepticism is what we find available on the internet.

So what is the information we start with? Pop science! 3-2-1 Contact was a bit before my time, but Bill Nye the Science Guy was just perfect. It even has “science” in its title, so you know it must be legit. Stephen Hawking and his Brief History of Time is practically the face of what it means to be a brilliant thinker in the eyes of the public (although there are of course others who are idolized in rather amazing ways). As I alluded to before, promoters of skeptic thought tend to be people who highly value the pursuit of knowledge. And this is where we’re coming from as children. A new, younger generation, who may or may not try to define skepticism in the image of what they believe it to be.

And what are we finding? If you type “Science Blogs” into Google, your first hit is going to be P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula, and while it’s only a personal blog, it’s still one of most admired and linked to blogs by many skeptics. If you search for “Skeptic Blogs”, you’ll find yourself at Skepticblog, a collaboration of many different authors such as Brian Dunning, Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, and countless others. There are even skeptical blogs written almost entirely by women, such as SheThought and Skepchick. These blogs are all directly related to one another in the material and events they choose to cover. There are of course hundreds of more blogs relating to skepticism not mentioned here. I need only to focus on a small number involved in skeptical “current events” to illustrate my point:

The definition of skepticism is elegantly simple, yet there are so many organizations in conflict. Why are some skeptics angry about P.Z. Myers’ recent leaps of logic? Why does the previous blog even exist? Why did the Skepchick community recently fragment, aren’t they all fighting to promote the same skepticism? Not all, but many skeptic organizations have become exclusive communities, all fighting for their very own version of critical thought, their own version of the singular definition of skepticism.

The young, burgeoning skeptic grew up with an idea of what it meant to be a scientist, learns what it means to be a skeptic, and finds that something isn’t quite right. The skeptic community is in conflict with itself, completely obscuring even the most basic idea of why many came together in the first place. Separate skeptic organizations exist not as mutually beneficial groups (as they should), but as factions. And this is what we see, and this is what we’re taught skepticism to be, and this is what we become. Everyone can’t be right, so who is?

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My Inspiration for Woo Fighters

In what is now considered “the golden days” of skepticism, I experienced first-hand the power of grass roots activism. I will never know if or how my view of the world would differ if I had never taken that psychology class in my junior year of high school, but I am very, very glad that I did.

Some Background

When people ask “When did you become a skeptic?”, I have to answer that I have always been one. I never blindly accepted claims and I always looked for evidence. I held my beliefs tentatively. Where I went wrong was in the assumption that the “default” conclusion should be to consider a claim true unless the evidence refutes it. I thought that a lack of evidence meant that I could not draw a conclusion. I was naïve and ignorant.

From a very young age, I was fascinated with psychic phenomena. I thought that ghosts were silly; Houdini made that clear. I had seen The Amazing Randi on The Tonight Show, so I knew that Uri Geller was a fraud and I never really bought into the typical magic tricks, anyway. But I was obsessed with ESP (extrasensory perception) and numerology. I had many obsessions, but these were different because I was never satisfied. I read about “cosmic twins” and the predictions of Nostradamus. I studied palm lines. I tried to move things with my mind. I made a set of Zener cards and did my best to test myself and my friends. Nothing ever panned out. Yet it did not occur to me to seek alternative explanations.

A more appropriate question than “When did you become a skeptic?”, I think, is “When did you stop believing?” And my answer to that is in October of 1982.

My high school in the greater Sacramento area did not offer Latin, but it did have an introductory psychology course and Mr. Tamblyn (now Dr., I see) managed to cover more than I see in most college-level courses. We recreated Asch’s conformity trials with students from other classes. We learned about the Stroop Effect. But what he and a grass roots skeptic taught us about critical thinking was the most valuable of gifts.

In early October, we had a guest speaker. She was a psychic. She gave several cold readings, including one of me. She said that she saw me sitting at a piano. Now, I didn’t play piano at the time, but I had wanted to since I got my first organ (they were very popular in the 60s and 70s) at the age of four and my parents hinted that we might finally have space for piano (they gave me an electronic keyboard that year). I was convinced that she was tapping into some unseen energy. She read several other people and we were all suitably amazed.

About a week later, another psychic visited us. He surveyed the class, asking how many of us believed in psychic phenomena, and about 3/4th of the students raised their hands.

He did several cold readings, some amazing mind-reading card tricks, and a few other feats. He entertained us us for about an hour. Then he polled the class again. Only a few did not raise their hands this time.

At this point he stopped cold and said, “I am not psychic. I am a magician. Everything I have done today has been a trick.”

He showed us how he did a few of the tricks. He explained the method of cold readings. We discussed the way the psychic the week prior may have accomplished what she did. At one point, I looked down at the books sitting on my desk and noticed that I had doodled on one the paper covers – a piano keyboard. I also carried a key ring with a note-shaped fob. I don’t know if either was visible when she was there, but it was not inconceivable. Together, we produced an explanation just about everything that we’d been amazed by the week before.

What he had to say next had a much greater impact, though. In fact, it was the end for me. It was the information I needed to finally let go of the nagging question about whether supernatural abilities were real.

He told us that he and a few others had founded a group called Bay Area Skeptics.

He told us about the challenge.

Bay Area Skeptics was founded in June and operated, at that time, as a local chapter of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). Bay Area Skeptics offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could demonstrate supernatural powers. Although this group and challenge was new, James Randi had been offering a reward (which by that time was $10,000) since 1964. The fact that nobody had claimed this money after nearly two decades told me everything I needed to know. The money was there. All they had to do was show their powers.

This seemed utterly ridiculous to me and still does to this day. I concluded that the odds that psychic abilities existed were very, very low.

So I let go.

Some students were pretty angry about the ruse and the final poll revealed that a few (I think there were 2 or 3 out of about 45) remained believers, but many of us were amazed. Amazed at our own willingness to see what we wanted to see. Amazed at how skilled both the psychic and the skeptic were. Amazed at how little we knew about the evidence (or lack thereof).

It was not until well into college that I fully understood that the appropriate “default” conclusion was the null hypothesis, but what happened on that fall day in 1982 was a foundation for that concept. It also taught me that what we do not see can be just as important as what we see.

Although I remained an ardent skeptic, over the years my participation in skepticism as a movement varied. At times I diligently maintained memberships in various organizations. I tried Mensa for a while, but was very disappointed to discover that their special interest groups for nonsense like astrology and outnumbered the groups with a rational focus by about 5 to 1. Most other groups were either religious or game-focused. At times I paid little attention to issues of skeptical activism. Eventually, I kind of forgot about that day.

Then one day I kind of woke up and smelled the woo. I did not like it. Not one bit. I decided that I wanted to make a difference. That day came in April of 2000, when I attended the annual convention of the Western Psychological Association in Portland, Oregon. It was my first academic conference after returning to school in 1997. I found that it was not all that different from other types of conventions and conferences, but the talks were so much more interesting. I was thrilled to see Michael Shermer and Ray Hyman on the schedule and attended both of their talks. Shermer described the findings of his survey on religion (something I found particularly interesting since I had responded to that survey myself) and discussed his book How We Believe. Hyman’s talk was titled Science and Pseudoscience. As Dr. Hyman wowed the crowd with rope tricks and mind reading, all of the memories of that day came flooding back, but I could not recall the skeptic’s name. Dr. Shermer and Dr. Hyman speculated that it was Bob Steiner and James Randi offered the same guess later in an email. However, the internet eventually provided enough clues and I now know that it was Terence Sandbek, a clinical psychologist and professor at American River College.

The list of people who have helped to shape my philosophy is not short. I feel especially grateful to Dr. Donald Butler, who taught me the basics of statistics and epistemology (and always had copies of the Skeptical Inquirer to thumb through) and to Dr. Brennis Lucero-Wagoner, whose insights and inspirations on teaching are second only to her friendship.

I also have a few heroes – people whose successes I might mistake for miracles if I did not know better. It is not possible to measure the effects of Dr. Eugenie Scott’s work at the National Center for Science Education, but the thought of a world in which religion passes for science in public schools is disturbing. Dr. Rachael Dunlop has been instrumental in the fight against anti-vaccination propaganda in Australia, driving the ill-named Australian Vaccination Network to close its doors recently. These are huge wins and they clearly demonstrate that activism works.

But I do not know if I would have come to appreciate these people if it were not for the work of a skeptic and a high school teacher.

So, thank you Dr. Sandbek, for showing me that what appears to be an extraordinary feat is usually simply a practiced one and to Dr. Tamblyn, for showing me how easily we accept extraordinary claims without evidence. Oh, and for teaching me to drive! (Yes, he taught driver’s ed, too.)

I can think of no pursuit as rewarding and valuable as the study, promotion, and teaching of critical thinking, science, and skepticism.


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