A new essay by my best friend.
Pseudo-Skeptics vs. Charlatans = Smug Men vs. Straw Men
By Michael Goodspeed
October 13, 2008
As anyone who has read my essays is probably aware, I am not the world's greatest fan of institutionalized religion. Nevertheless, I was not overly thrilled when I heard of Bill Maher's new movie "Religulous," an acerbic, deliberately "offensive" documentary/exposÚ on the world's religious institutions, and their billions of devotees. I have not seen the movie, so I can't condemn it a priori (and this essay is not intended as a critique of the film). But based on Maher's own comments throughout his comedic career, I can't imagine that "Religulous" will do much good.
For one thing, I've seen no evidence that Maher is able or willing to engage in discussion beyond extremely limited and disingenuous parameters. It is easy to argue for institutionalized religion's irrationality, primitivism, frequent brutality, and hypocrisy. And Maher has always done so with glee, even describing religion as a "neurological disorder." As offensive as such a statement might be to countless millions of Americans, in this day and age it is not particularly radical. Religion has been the subject of satire and ridicule for many decades in the popular culture, and not without justification. Everyday in the news, we see demonstrated the overt insanity of the world's innumerable "holy warriors," all of whom are ready to commit murder in defense of their personal "God."
On this point, Maher has been especially vocal, but perhaps too one-dimensional. In a recent LA Times Op-Ed piece, David Wolpe writes:
Perhaps Maher's greatest misunderstanding of religion is his central indictment: that religion is responsible for the world's violence. It is not. Violence is a product of human nature. Before monotheism, the Assyrians were not kind; the Romans were bloodthirsty beyond the imagination of religious regimes. When religion became less potent in people's lives after the French Revolution, instead of making the world less violent, it became far more violent: World War I and WWII, communism, Nazism -- all shed blood on an unprecedented scale. None were religious regimes or religious wars.
If there's a problem with Maher's general mockery of institutionalized religion, it's not that his criticisms are unwarranted, or that he's too eager to offend. Rather, he's utilizing the tired tactic of tearing down a straw man and replacing it with nothing, even though more reasonable alternatives exist.
In fact, in popular media in the U.S., it is difficult if not impossible to find a single (pseudo)intellectual debate in which a straw man is not present. The unforgivably disingenuous "science vs. religion" dilemma is a perfect example. Media defines the parameters of said "debate" as limited to only two incredibly narrow (and almost equally preposterous) possibilities. On the one hand, we have institutionalized religious dogma, and all its absurd and frequently murderous averments. On the other hand, we have institutionalized science -- and here the disingenuousness of the "debate" is most glaring. It's not that we're asked to accept the tenability of the "scientific method" over religious faith (a position that ultimately no one could argue against.) Rather, we are demanded to accept (essentially on faith) that the current "consensus of leading scientists" is 100% correct about everything that matters. To think otherwise is to choose darkness over light, superstition over reason.
Why is neo-Darwinian evolution the best alternative to creationism? Answer: Because a vast majority of scientists say so! But should we really accept that these are our only two choices? If you believe that the first chapters of Genesis are an accurate record of natural history, then there's not a lot to discuss. But if you believe that Darwin's hypothesis can account for the appearance and evolution of life on earth, then you are exhibiting the same tendency that so irritates you when considering the "creationist" position.
An absurd ideology took over theories of evolution in the late nineteenth century, and missionaries for this ideology have held to it with the same devotion evident in the medieval religious view. The mantra became: natural selection (survival of the fittest), working with random mutations, will account for the origin of species.
The chain of reasoning involved has long been broken and can't be fixed. One example is quite sufficient to illustrate the point: Wings. Reptiles grew wings. Insects grew wings. (So too, the flying monkey.) Imagine the innumerable DIRECTED mutations necessary to produce this elaborate function BEFORE it had become useful. But only the usefulness of wings-in-development could account for the "directedness" of their appearance, according to the theory. Indeed under the theoretical assumption ("Natural Selection"), the species carrying such useless appendages would be the least likely to survive (the least fit). The entire concept of wings emerging through the ponderous and hopelessly erratic principle of random mutation is simply preposterous. How, then, did it happen that presumably intelligent crowds of teachers, scientists, and intellectuals became enamored with such an absurdity?
Only when one sees the joke perpetrated by the "debate" will one realize that the answer could only come from outside its contrived boundaries. No, humanity does not trace to the Garden of Eden (and the serpent in the garden is a myth). No, life could not have evolved in the absence of information, intent, intelligence, and communication well beyond the self-contained, molecular biology of organisms and species. Life is far more mysterious -- and connected -- than popular science has ever been willing to admit.
One scientist who has greatly elaborated the interconnectedness of life is Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, an internationally acclaimed biologist and author of more than 75 scientific papers and ten books. Dr. Sheldrake's research includes the investigation of morphic (or morphogenic) fields in nature. According to this theoretical alternative to the mechanistic/reductionist model, a field surrounds every living organism, which holds information relating to the form of the organism. In this model, every species has its own unique fields, and within these fields are more fields, surrounding not only every organ but every cell and molecule. The collective memory or imprint of the whole species is recorded within every field, and influences the evolutionary form of an organism (like follows like - the forms of our organs, limbs, etc., are shaped by the previous forms within our species). Through a process called "morphic resonance," similar fields influence one another -- the evolution of a species is caused not by accidental mutations in DNA, but rather through the organic exchange of information within the morphic fields.
Sheldrake has never claimed that the language he uses in discussing morphic fields describes a developed science. He is simply opening the door to new lines of investigation, that could be essential to the integrity of science. And these possibilities seem closer to what is actually observed in nature than either of the traditional arguments in the "evolution vs. creationism" debate. So why should we continue to confine ourselves to such absurd and limited parameters, when a more reasonable approach might be available?
Dr. Sheldrake has also extensively researched the possibility of psychic phenomena in both humans and animals. In controlled double-blind experiments, he has demonstrated compelling evidence of "interspecies telepathy," including the uncanny (yet familiar to many pet owners) ability of dogs to anticipate when their owners are returning home. Unsurprisingly, Sheldrake, like many other scientists who have presented "positive" evidence of ESP and other unusual abilities, has been severely targeted by self-proclaimed "skeptics," including such usual suspects as retired magician James "The Amazing" Randi. I've long considered it a special duty to draw attention to Randi's disingenuous attempts to discredit Dr. Sheldrake and his research. In a 2000 interview in Dog World magazine, Randi specifically claimed to have debunked Sheldrake's findings on canine ESP. But when pressed to provide evidence of the purported debunking, he could not do so.
Sheldrake elaborates in his own synopsis of the controversy:
Randi also claimed to have debunked one of my experiments with the dog Jaytee, a part of which was shown on television. Jaytee went to the window to wait for his owner when she set off to come home, but did not do so before she set off. In Dog World, Randi stated: 'Viewing the entire tape, we see that the dog responded to every car that drove by, and to every person who walked by.' This is simply not true, and Randi now admits that he has never seen the tape.
Self-proclaimed skeptics like James Randi could do more good than harm if they consistently behaved in a genuinely "skeptical" manner -- i.e. if they vigorously explored every possibility before forming conclusions. Instead, having formed all their conclusions a priori, they behave like ideologues, driven by the single-minded intent to help their "side" win at any cost. For many of this ilk, even the term "debunker" might be too kind, since debunkers occasionally succeed in factually refuting charlatans (an always useful service). Rather, most of these folks are best described as pseudo-skeptics, defined by CSICOP co-founder Marcello Truzzi as "those who shout their objections but don't take proper note of what is going on."
Indeed, the pseudo-skeptics of the world might not have a leg left to stand on if not for the overabundance of charlatans that continue to receive major media promotions. One of Randi's favorite targets is self-proclaimed psychic medium Sylvia Browne, a bestselling author and frequent guest on the Montel Williams talk show. In fact, it was Randi to whom many in the media turned after Browne severely embarrassed herself with some provably false information. In an appearance on the Williams show in 2003, Browne told the parents of missing child Shawn Hornbeck that Shawn had been murdered. She even gave details on the man who supposedly took the boy, and where his parents should look for his body. Fortunately, Browne was completely wrong. Less than four years later, Shawn Hornbeck was found alive and well, and his alleged abductor bore no resemblance to Browne's description of an "Hispanic man with dreadlocks."
In 2007, Randi was invited onto the Anderson Cooper show on CNN to comment on the case. Predictably, Randi condemned not only Browne but all psychics, saying: "...all of these people who say that they can speak with the dead, all of them, including Sylvia Browne, of course, are like vultures."
But this comment by Randi is just as disingenuous as his bogus claim of having debunked Sheldrake's thesis. Yes, Sylvia Browne deserves to be condemned, as does anyone who exploits the grief and anguish of vulnerable people for financial gain. But the condemnation is misleading if it does not include the vital addendum, that overwhelming evidence exists for the reality of psychic phenomena. It is simply not tenable to assert that ALL self-proclaimed mediums are "vultures" -- in fact, many have been credited by police detectives for having played vital roles in criminal investigations. In some instances, detectives have even credited psychics with having SOLVED MURDERS. (For just one example, see the description of psychic Laurie McQuary's involvement in the Alexis Burke case of 1986.)
It is unfortunate, however, that many enthusiasts of the "paranormal" seem abjectly opposed to any criticisms of self-proclaimed psychics and others claiming special talents. I've witnessed this tendency first hand in responses to my skeptical exposÚs on such figures as Gordon Michael Scallion, Sean David Morton, and Ed Dames -- all of whom have been predicting horrific cataclysms for 15-20 years. It seems that the more devout followers of these folks have an extreme immunity to the truth. In the case of Scallion, he predicted in the early 90's that the whole face of the planet would be ripped apart well before the turn of the millennium; Denver would become the new west coast; a second Sun would appear in the sky; the U.S would reform as thirteen colonies; and Atlantis would emerge off the east coast of the U.S (and these are just a few of countless dozens of failed predictions he's made over the years). But Scallion and his ilk have always resorted to the absurd excuse that their "timeline" was just a little off. In other words, since we can't prove that their prophecies will never happen, we should all be willing to send them money for their "future maps" and various other wares for our own safety.
I wonder if the few remaining advocates of Scallion, et al, have any concept of how badly they have impeded the quest for truth into psychic phenomena and other controversial issues (I would ask the same question of Art Bell, George Noory, Montel Williams, and any other media personality who has knowingly, willfully empowered charlatans). Scallion, Syvlia Browne, etc., provide the pseudo-skeptics of the "paranormal" with all of the straw men they could ever hope for. And since media in this country have always displayed minimal intellectual vigor, the "debate" continues to be framed in ludicrous parameters -- it's the reasonable, fair-minded "skeptics" like James Randi against the irrational, fantasy-prone "believers." It is truly a match made in hell, a sorry school-yard battle no longer worthy of the slightest attention.
As of this writing, we are less than 48 hours away from a verifiable test of another self-styled prophet of sorts -- an Australian woman called Blossom Goodchild. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Blossom Goodchild, and I still know little about her background. What is known is this: Ms. Goodchild claims to be a channeling medium who receives telepathic messages from an agency of "Cosmic Beings" called "The Federation of Light." She says this agency has informed her that on October 14th, 2008, "a craft of great size shall be visible within your skies. It shall be in the south of your hemisphere and it shall scan over many of your states." The "Federation" supposedly elaborated, "We give to you the name of Alabama." ( Click here to view Ms. Goodchild's latest YouTube video/monologue on the subject).
For reasons that aren't clear to me, this highly specific "prophecy" has become something of an Internet phenomenon. The above YouTube video has been seen well over 100,000 times, and countless blogs and forums that discuss the "paranormal" are heavily focused on the prediction. As justifiably jaundiced as I am toward these types of prophecies and "channeled" material, I see no need to opine on Ms. Goodchild's credibility at this time. However, I will make my own prediction: if no spacecraft is seen in the southern U.S. (or anywhere else) on October 14th, many if not most of Ms. Goodchild's followers will be barely perturbed. They will simply insist that her "timeline" was off, and her message is still vital for the human race.
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"It takes far less effort to find and move to the society that has what you want than it does to try to reconstruct an existing society to match your standards." - Harry Browne, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World
"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." - George Orwell