Category Archives: The Skeptics

James Randi

James Randi
Sgerbic [CC BY-SA]

James Randi was a conjurer and showman also known as “The Amazing Randi” who described himself as “the world’s most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudo-scientific claims.” He died in October 2020.

Once a leading figure in CSICOP, he had to resign because of litigation against him. Carl Sagan, in his sympathetic introduction to Randi’s book The Faith Healers (1987), described him as an “angry man.”

Randi’s work as a debunker attracted lavish funding and in 1986 he was the recipient of a $286,000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. In 1996 Randi established the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).

Randi’s stock in trade as a debunker was “The Randi Prize” which promised a million dollars for the demonstration of “any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability” (more discussion here under the “The Randi Prize” section).

As leading CSICOP Fellow Ray Hyman has pointed out, this “prize” cannot be taken seriously from a scientific point of view:

“Scientists don’t settle issues with a single test, so even if someone does win a big cash prize in a demonstration, this isn’t going to convince anyone. Proof in science happens through replication, not through single experiments.”

— Ray Hyman

Randi’s fellow showman Loyd Auerbach, President of the Psychic Entertainers Association, is likewise skeptical about the “prize” and sees it as a stunt of no scientific value. More discussion of Randi’s prize can be found at Michael Prestcott’s blog.

Randi had an ambiguous attitude to scientific authority, deferring to it when it supported his beliefs and rejecting it when it did not. On his website he asserted:

“Authority does not rest with scientists, when emotion, need and desperation are involved. Scientists are human beings, too, and can be deceived and self-deceived.”

— James Randi

Randi was not afraid to attack scientists who took an interest in subjects such as telepathy like Brian Josephson, a Professor of Physics at Cambridge University. In 2001, on a BBC Radio program about Josephson’s interest in possible connections between quantum physics and consciousness, Randi said, “I think it is the refuge of scoundrels in many aspects for them to turn to something like quantum physics.” Josephson has a Nobel Prize in quantum physics. Randi had no scientific credentials.

Of his later work, Randi wrote, “We at the JREF are skilled in two directions: we know how people are fooled by others and we know how people fool themselves. We deal with hard, basic facts.” Yet in a review of his book The Supernatural A-Z: The Truth and the Lies his fellow skeptic Susan Blackmore commented that the book “has too many errors to be recommended.”

Lastly, Randi was shown to invent facts and make up evidence, as Biologist Rupert Sheldrake describes in this video. Fraud of this kind is unacceptable within the scientific community — but then Randi was no scientist.




On This Website

James Randi’s Problem

  James Randi’s Problem   The problem with James Randi and his foundation on the paranormal, pseudoscientific and supernatural. by Skylaire Alfvegren   Dogmatists of any stripe are fundamentally wounded, whether they’re Islamic terrorists, Christian abortion-clinic bombers or magicians with an axe to grind.   Picture this: A little boy with an imagination and a...

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The Man Who Destroyed Skepticism

By Mitch Horowitz Originally published on Boing Boing, Oct 26, 2020 James Randi Sgerbic [CC BY-SA] Several years ago I was preparing a talk on the life of occult journeyer Madame H.P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) for the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Someone on Facebook asked sardonically: “Will James Randi be there?” My...

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James Randi’s Foundation

  “The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)”   From: Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet: The Story of a Wild and Vicious Science Controversy… that Anyone Can Join! by Craig Weiler     JREF is a skeptical organization supposedly devoted to promoting critical thinking regarding claims of the paranormal. In reality...

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“Randi’s Prize” by Robert McLuhan

  Randi’s Prize: What Sceptics Say about the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong and Why It Matters Robert McLuhan, Matador/Troubador, 2010. Journalist Robert McLuhan compares the views of James Randi and other leading sceptics against the investigative literature of parapsychology and psychical research.   “The ‘prize’ of the title is the Million Dollar Challenge offered...

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James Randi’s Skeptical “Challenge”

  James Randi’s Skeptical “Challenge”   Beware Pseudoskepticism by Sean (aka “Peebrain”)   Reproduced from PsiPog.net   On January 29th, 2005, we were talking about the James Randi $1 Million Paranormal Challenge in the chat room. If you don’t know what the Challenge is, the short version is that this ex-magician, James Randi, is willing...

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James Randi and The Ultimate Psychic Challenge

  James Randi and The Ultimate Psychic Challenge   Thoughts from a Respondent to the Discovery Channel’s Television Program “The Ultimate Psychic Challenge” by Montague Keen   Montague Keen was a psychic researcher, journalist, agricultural administrator, magazine editor and farmer. A member of the Council of the Society for Psychical Research for 55 years, chairman...

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James Randi is Taken for a Ride

  James Randi is Taken for a Ride   Skeptics Can Be Fooled by Guy Lyon Playfair   British author Guy Lyon Playfair (This House is Haunted, Twin Telepathy, and 10 other books) is a longtime skeptic watcher.   “If a trick is well done, it doesn’t look like a trick. It looks real,” conjuror...

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James Randi’s Dishonest Claims about Dogs

James Randi’s Dishonest Claims about Dogsby Rupert Sheldrake The January 2000 issue of Dog World magazine included an article on a possible sixth sense in dogs, which discussed some of my research. In this article Randi was quoted as saying that in relation to canine ESP, “We at the JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have...

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James Randi, A Skeptical Look

  A Skeptical Look at James Randi   by Michael Prescott   Michael Prescott is a New York Times bestselling novelist.   Years ago, when I was a full-fledged skeptic, atheist, and rationalist, I read James Randi’s 1980 book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions. Randi is an accomplished magician and a professional skeptic,...

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James “The Amazing” Randi and Dogs Who Know More Than He Does

  James “The Amazing” Randi And Dogs Who Know More Than He Does   by Rupert Sheldrake   Excerpted from Appendix 3 of: Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011.   James Randi is a showman, conjurer and a former Principal Investigator of CSICOP. For years, he...

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James Randi’s Challenge a Big So What!

  James Randi’s Challenge:   A Big “So What!” by Loyd Auerbach   Loyd Auerbach, M.S., is the Director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations. He is a Consulting Editor and columnist for Fate magazine, an adjunct Professor at JFK University and President of The Psychic Entertainers Association. He holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology...

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James Randi Reneges on the Randi Prize

  James Randi is a Charlatan by Dick Bierman   Dutch psychologist Professor Dick Bierman, University of Amsterdam, applied for the Randi Prize in 1998 for automated computerized tests of presentiment, following a procedure he had already used extensively with highly significant positive results. In these tests, subjects showed physiological responses to emotionally arousing pictures...

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Related Articles

James Randi: Debunking the King of the Debunkers
by Will Storr, The Telegraph, December 9, 2014

The Unstoppable Woo of The Fantasist James Randi
by Steve Volk, The Generalist, May 31, 2012

James Randi — Skepticism's Great Achilles
by Steve Volk, Daily Grail, March 11, 2012

The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi
by Adam Higginbotham, New York Times, November 7, 2014

James Randi's Disingenuous Legacy
by Shawn Alli, May 22, 2015

James Randi's Website

David Marks

David Marks

David Marks is a CSICOP Fellow and Professor of Psychology and Research Director, Centre for Health and Counselling, City University, London.

Marks is the author of The Psychology of the Psychic (2000), a revised edition of the book of the same title co-authored with the late Richard Kamman in 1980. Marks laments the fact that “over thirty publishers were approached before Prometheus Books agreed to publish this book”, no less than five chapters of which are devoted to Uri Geller and what is described as “Gelleritis”. He claims to have detected Geller using trickery of various kinds, which many other researchers (including at least 20 magicians) have failed to do. Geller has dismissed Marks’s claims as “fantasy”.

Marks has repeatedly stated that funding should not be wasted on “relatively trivial” subjects like ESP, but applied instead to USP – Urgent and Serious Problems (such as population growth and poverty). Thus he appears to be arguing that psi should not be studied merely because other matters are more important.

Although Marks claims that “I will never refuse to change if the evidence demands a change”, he has devised a formula for ensuring that such evidence is never forthcoming. If the evidence is positive, it is either “flawed” or in need of “replication and further analysis”. If it is negative it is accepted uncritically.

Marks appears impervious to positive evidence of any kind. For example, commenting on the several successful replications of the remote viewing experiments carried out by Harold Puthoff, Russell Targ, and Edwin May (funded for several years by various U.S. government agencies) he dismisses them all as “flawed in a variety of ways”.

In a chapter entitled “The Sloppiness Continues”, Marks mentions positive results of a remote viewing experiment reported by Marilyn Schlitz and Elmar Gruber. Admitting that this was a successful replication of the similar experiments of Targ and Puthoff, Marks gets off this particular hook by stating: “However, we do not know how many nonsignificant studies remain in the investigators’ file drawer. If it is a small handful, which seems likely, the… statistical significance simply melts away like snowflakes in the psring.” He has no evidence that any such “file-drawer” studies exist. Marks has shown once again that when negative evidence is required to disprove a positive claim, he simply makes it up. He also frequently resorts to ad hominem attacks. Scientists prepared to study Uri Geller are referred to as “Gellerites”, biologist Rupert Sheldrake is described as a “paranormalist” and a “latter-day Dr Who”.

The research of Targ and Puthoff, much of which appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals, is “nothing more than a massive artifact of poor methodology and wishful thinking” In addition, the best positive evidence is simply not mentioned. Robert Morris noted that Marks and Kamman (1980) “disregard altogether the studies considered by those familiar with the field as providing the best evidence for psi” and cite no evidence from parapsychology journals. Theirs, said Morris, was a “biased selection of material [which] cannot be regarded as an adequate review for assessment of psi research”.

Marks now frankly describes himself as a disbeliever and sets his subjective probability of various psi phenomena as between a millionth and a trillionth of a trillionth. He has, however, made a useful contribution to the study of the psychology not of the psychic, but of the skeptic. In the words of the Robert Browning, as cited by Marks himself: “As is your sort of mind, so is your sort of search, you’ll find what you desire.”

In “The Need for Open-minded Skepticism – A Reply to David Marks” (The Skeptic Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 8-13, 2004) Rupert Sheldrake refutes Marks’ criticism of research into human and animal telepathy.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz was the Chairman of CSICOP, the Founder and Chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, and of Prometheus Books, the leading publisher of skeptical literature. He was also the Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine and the President and Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. He died in 2012.

Kurtz was deeply committed to a secular humanist ideology and one of its leading public proponents. He was against parapsychology, holistic cures for animal illnesses, alternative medicine, and organized religion. “We are the heroic defenders of science and reason,” he told The New York Times (June 19, 2002).

The Headquarters of CSICOP, the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, is also Headquarters of the Council for Secular Humanism. Kurtz’s unflagging opposition to claims of the paranormal was part of a larger ideological agenda. He was not a scientist, but a philosopher, and saw the primary role of the Skeptical Movement as educative.

In his reflections on 25 years of CSICOP (Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 2001) he wrote, “The basic question that we need to ask is, Why do paranormal beliefs persist?” The one possibility that he did not consider is that some of the phenomena these beliefs concern, like telepathy, might actually exist.

Kurtz believed that skeptics and secular humanists have a duty to propagate a materialistic world-view. “It is incumbent on us to defend the naturalistic interpretation of reality, a materialistic not a spiritual-paranormal account. We need generalists of science to sum up what science tells us about the human condition in a Universe without purpose or design, yet who have the ability to awaken wonder and excitement about the scientific quest itself.”

Closer Look at Rift Between Humanists Reveals Deeper Divisions by Mark Oppenheimer, The New York Times (October 1, 2010), revealed a deep division in the ranks of skeptics.

Photo credit: Paul Kurtz

 
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Ray Hyman

Ray Hyman

Ray Hyman Ph.D,

Ray Hyman is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon. He serves on the Executive Council of CSICOP and chairs its subcommittee on parapsychology.

Hyman has been a professional magician, and has published in conjuring magazines. In the U.S.A., at least, Hyman is regarded as the leading critic of academic parapsychology. His critique of the Ganzfeld work is probably the best known, although Honorton (1985) was able to produce a detailed rebuttal. They subsequently collaborated on a joint communique which recommended reporting and procedural guidelines for future Ganzfeld research.

Hyman pursues two critical agendas: as a scientific, technical critic and as a prosecutor arguing the case against the legitimacy of parapsychology. Hyman’s own involvement in research seems to have been minimal, giving him a distinct advantage in the rhetorical arena. In responding to research findings for which no conventional explanation can be offered, Hyman’s tactic has been to suggest that whilst psychic claims have been unfairly attacked, there is no reason for orthodox science to pay attention to claims for the paranormal.

Hyman’s perceived position as a responsible critic of parapsychology has placed him in a position of some influence. He was appointed to the NRC committee on enhancing human performance for the U.S. Army. He served as chair of the parapsychology subcommittee, which concluded that there was no scientific justification for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.

Dr. Hyman’s books include Water Witching USA (with Evon Vogt) (1979), and The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research (1989).

 
For a detailed exposition of Dr Hyman’s work, see George P. Hansen’s article The Elusive Agenda from which this summary is taken with the kind permission of the author.

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Rouven Schäfer

 
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Mike Hutchinson

Mike Hutchinson

Mike Hutchinson

One of the more extreme skeptics, Michael Hutchinson is U.K. representative of CSICOP and co-author (with journalist Simon Hoggart) of Bizarre Beliefs (1996), in which something of a combine harvester approach is taken towards everything from astrology, ghosts and spoon-benders to crop circles, Nostradamus, the curse of Tutankhamun, dowsing and claims that Elvis still lives.

An example of their critical method is their statement that “there are no ghosts, no poltergeists and no hauntings. They are all mistaken, imaginary, or false”.

Even skeptic Richard Wiseman found parts of the book “somewhat superficial” and noted that specific sources were not given for much of the material. while “some of the chapters lack necessary detail”. Even so, he concluded in Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (April 1996) that the book “deserves a place on both our bookshelves and our coffee tables”.

At least one reader disagreed, describing the book as “fundamentalist revisionism, of which radical members of the Sceptical Tendency are as guilty as those who maintain that the Holocaust never took place” and suggesting the appropriate place for it was “the recycling bin”.

Hutchinson is also U.K. representative of Prometheus Books, whose list includes, in addition to some fifty debunking volumes, such ‘libertarian’ titles as Children’s Sexual Encounters with Adults, Cannibalism: from Sacrifice to Survival, and the memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz.

 
Photo credit: Archives for the Unexplained

 
 
 
 
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Nicholas Humphrey

Nicholas Humphrey

Nicholas Humphrey, Ph.D.

Nicholas Humphrey is an evolutionary psychologist and School Professor at the London School of Economics. From 1992-1995 he held the Perrott-Warrick Research Fellowship for Psychical Research at Cambridge University. He did no psychical research, but instead wrote a book, Soul Searching: Human Nature and Supernatural Belief (1995), in which he claimed to have proved on theoretical grounds that phenomena like telepathy were impossible.

Few were impressed with his proofs. Even his fellow skeptic, Susan Blackmore, regarded his dismissal of the experimental evidence for telepathy as misleading. In a review of his book in New Scientist, she wrote: “The best known research in parapsychology today uses the ganzfeld technique, a kind of partial sensory deprivation believed to enhance ESP. Humphrey summarises it in two pages and dismisses it with one recent unpublished reanalysis which suggests a serious flaw. This is unfair given the fact that the ganzfeld technique has been around for two decades, has received enormous publicity, and has been thoroughly criticised both from within and without parapsychology – without any consensus being reached. Humphrey may well be right that something other than extrasensory perception is responsible for the results, but many people far more knowledgeable than he have failed to find out what it is.”

In 2001, in reaction to a statement by Professor Brian Josephson, a Nobel laureate in quantum physics, that quantum physics may lead to an explanation for telepathy, Humphrey said: “I think the idea that quantum physics explains the paranormal is an unnecessary idea, because there’s nothing to explain. We haven’t got any evidence.” (BBC Radio 4, “TODAY”, October 2, 2001).

 
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LittleHow

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Bruce Hood

Bruce Hood

Bruce Hood, Ph.D.

Bruce Hood is on the editorial advisory board of The Skeptic and is a Professor of Psychology at Bristol University.

Best known for his idea that humans are hard-wired for religion and superstitious beliefs, Hood is the author of a book entitled The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs (2009).

In The Amazing Randi meeting in London in 2011, Hood claimed that “personal experience” with the paranormal can be explained through expectations stemming from belief, in that the brain’s neural firing fills in inferred information (such as “seeing a ghost”) for what is believed and “should” be. Hood concluded that it is not enough just to be skeptical, but that we need to know why people believe in the paranormal. He also posited that believing may be more natural than abnormal, since it seems to be how the brain works.

Like several other academic skeptics, he claims that his own beliefs are based on evidence. In an interview in Skeptical Inquirer (March 5, 2011) he said, “I think that dogma, whether you’re a believer or nonbeliever, is not appropriate, and you need to have the flexibility to change with the evidence. That’s what a true skeptic should be, not someone who dismisses it off-hand.”

However, he himself has shown very little interest in the evidence for psi phenomena, and seems to have been programmed with a strong belief in the materialist philosophy. In his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for children in December 2011, he stated categorically that “There is no such thing as psychic phenomena and anyone who says that there is is either a fraud or deluded.”

His most recent book is The Self Illusion (2013).

 
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Dave Fayram

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Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner was a founding member of CSICOP, and has been described as the “single most powerful antagonist of the paranormal in the second half of the 20th century”. He died in 2010 at the age of 95.

Gardner wrote a regular column in Skeptical Inquirer until retiring in 2002, and published dozens of books, including his classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952).

He also used to write the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. Conjuring was a life-long hobby and much of his criticism of psychical research focused on possibilities of cheating. The style of his attacks was frequently bitter, derisive and personal. Yet, surprisingly, unlike most self-proclaimed skeptics, he was not an atheist. Gardner’s motivation was religious. As he explained in his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983), he believed in God, the power of prayer and life after death.

In a penetrating study of Gardner’s work, George Hansen in his book The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001) argued that Gardner’s position can be traced back to his teenage Protestant fundamentalism and his belief that the realms of science and faith should be sharply separated. “[He] vehemently opposes using science to empirically address religious issues… He is comfortable with CSICOP because it doesn’t really do science. Instead it ridicules attempts to study the paranormal scientifically… Gardner serves as a border guard to keep the paranormal out of science and academe. He belittles parapsychological researchers in order to ensure their marginal status. By emotional attacks and biting sarcasm he warns others to stay clear of the realm. He portrays the paranormal as ‘unclean’ and unsuited to be part of elite culture. His writings, actions and life constitute an important case study of how taboo continues to be enforced.”

Although Gardner was more scholarly than most skeptics and was widely quoted as an authority, some of his work was poorly-informed, biassed and unreliable, as this critical essay by Greg Taylor shows.

 
How Martin Gardner Bamboozled the Skeptics
Greg Taylor, Daily Grail, 10 November 2010

 
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Konrad Jacobs

 
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Chris French

Chris French

Chris French, Ph.D.

Chris French is the editor of Skeptic magazine, a publication of British and Irish Skeptics, produced and distributed by CSICOP. He often appears on British radio and TV in the role of an “informed skeptic”.

French is head of the Psychology Department of Goldsmith’s College in the University of London, where he is also head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. The purpose of this unit is primarily to investigate “why people believe in the paranormal” and it has “only a secondary interest in whether psi may, on rare occasions, naturally operate.”

French is under no illusions as to the prejudices of many of his colleagues. “Most psychologists could reasonably be described as uninformed skeptics – a minority could reasonably be described as prejudiced bigots – where the paranormal is concerned” (Skeptic 14(1)). He is also more self-aware than most skeptics about his own prejudices. As he wrote in Skeptic (14(4)): “I am biased in my approach to evidence relating to the paranormal … I make no claim to be a neutral assessor of the evidence”.

He takes the view that the on-going debate about the existence of psi “is more consistent with the notion that psi is a powerful illusion rather than the idea that it is real and we are making progress in understanding it”. Nevertheless, he concedes that: “Many of the most sophisticated experimental designs within parapsychology are easily on a par with the best psychological studies. Furthermore, some parapsychologists appear to produce evidence in support of the existences of paranormal forces even from such apparently well-controlled experiments.” In the end, he concludes, “only time will tell”.

 
Chris French’s Website

 
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Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne, born December 30, 1949, is an American professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.

He is known for his teaching on evolutionary biology, speciation, and genetic analysis1, his book and blog Why Evolution is True2 and his attacks on organized religion3.

Considered a “New Atheist”, he is a member of the “Imagine No Religion”4 working group.

Coyne has been taken to task in The New York Times for his unyielding bias against religious belief. Ross Douthat wrote:

“One of the problems with belonging to a faction that’s convinced it’s on the winning side of intellectual history is that it becomes easy to persuade oneself that one’s own worldview has no weak points whatsoever, no internal contradictions or ragged edges, no cracks through which a critic’s wedge could end up driven. …right now its vices are often found in a certain type of atheistic polemicist, and in a style of anti-religious argument that’s characterized by a peculiar, almost-willed ignorance of why reasonable people might doubt the scientific-materialist worldview.

“… Coyne is a prominent evangelist, suggesting that its view of the cosmos — a purposeless, purely physical universe, in which human life is accidental, human history directionless, and human consciousness probably an illusion — is at odds with its general political and moral posture (liberal, egalitarian, right-based, progressive) in ways that make the entire world-picture ripe for reassessment or renovation.

“… For a man who believes in ‘a physical and purposeless universe’ with no room for teleology, Coyne seems remarkably confident about what direction human history is going in, and where it will end up. … I can’t imagine a permanent intellectual victory for a worldview as ill-served by its popularizers as atheism is by Jerry Coyne.”5

 
References:

1. Wikipedia

2. Jerry Coyne’s Website

3. Jerry Coyne’s Twisted History of Science and Religion
Alex Berezow, Forbes, October 21, 2013

4. “Meeting report: Imagine No Religion”
Jerry Coyne, May 17, 2014

5. The Confidence of Jerry Coyne
Ross Douthat, The New York Times, January 6, 2014

 
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