Category Archives: The Skeptics

PZ Myers

PZ Myers

Paul Zachary Myers, born March 9, 1957, is an American evolutionary developmental biologist.

Myers attended the University of Washington and University of Oregon. Currently he is an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota. 1

An active blogger and Tweeter, Myers has a large following of pseudoskeptics due to his vehement campaigns against the teaching of intelligent design versus the current paradigms in the evolutionary sciences in American schools. He has earned praise from fellow pseudoskeptics for his scientifically-uninformed, verbally-abusive disparagement of psychical research and individual psychics.

Myers bills himself a “Godless liberal biologist”.2 Sam Harris, a fellow atheist and materialist, has characterized him as a “shepherd

of internet trolls”.3

Myers uses linguistic manipulation, false logic, sensationalism, and other combative rhetoric to attack public figures with whom he disagrees on ideological principles:  Twitter followers, psychics, and scientists who do psi research or any research which does not conform to scientifically-outdated physicalist and rationalist ideals.

Myers’ science writing on evolution tends toward Freudian, highly interpreted and convoluted mentalistic opinionizing with no basis in empiricism.

Myers announced in 2013 that he was leaving the skeptical movement due to disagreement with the scientific views of other skeptics.4

PZ Myers Website: Pharyngula.

References

1. Wikipedia

2. PZ Myers’ self-written Twitter biography

3. Wrestling the Troll

Sam Harris, August 7, 2012

4. I officially divorce myself from the skeptic movement

PZ Myers, May 5, 2013

Photo credit: Larry Moran

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic is a co-founder of the skeptic action groups “Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia” and “Monterey County Skeptics” (California).1

Gerbic bills herself as a “professional portrait photographer who specializes in people who don’t want their
portraits taken”2 (a statement which is an insight into several forms of psychological pathology, including a lack of empathy; a common theme among pseudoskeptics).

According to scientist-author Rupert Sheldrake, whose Wikipedia biography has been a target of her group “Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia”:

“The Guerrilla Skeptics are well trained, highly motivated, have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules. The mastermind behind this organization is Susan Gerbi[c]. … She now has over 90 guerrillas operating in 17 different languages. The teams are coordinated through secret Facebook pages. They check the credentials of new recruits to avoid infiltration. Their aim is to ‘control information’, and Ms. Gerbi[c] glories in the power that she and her warriors wield. They have already seized control of many Wikipedia pages, deleted entries on subjects they disapprove of, and boosted the biographies of atheists.”3

British journalist Robert McLuhan adds:

“…it’s a pity that this key source for learning and education is so compromised as far as serious parapsychology is concerned. There is of course plenty of information about parapsychology, but little that isn’t gummed up with sceptic disdain. Even aside from that, it looks rather flat and lame. What’s to stop editors giving quotes from credible people – scientists, psi-researchers, experients who are well-known in other fields – that give their own enthusiastic responses? Why are the dullards, ignoramuses and professional nay-sayers getting such a free run?

“We need to make it clear that our evidence counts as evidence. At the very least, if sceptics insert a long section at the end of an entry that promotes their views exclusively, under the heading of ‘Criticism’ or some such, then it seems to me to be perfectly legitimate to add a following section headed ‘Responses to criticism’, in which the key points would be rebutted, at leisure and without constant heckling.”4

Wikipedia is headed by Jimmy Wales, who has indicated support for the skeptical bias and has not, despite complaints, implemented changes to Wikipedia’s editorial policies in order to prevent the pseudoskeptical defacement of entries.

 
References:

1. Wikapediatrician Susan Gerbic discusses her Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project
Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, March 8, 2013

2. What is Guerrilla Skepticism?
Edward Clint, February 13, 2013

3. Wikipedia Under Threat
Rupert Sheldrake, October 5, 2013

4. Guerrilla Skeptics
Robert McLuhan, March 26, 2013

Photo source: Wikipedia

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Lewis Wolpert versus Rupert Sheldrake – The Telepathy Debate

 

Lewis Wolpert versus Rupert Sheldrake:
The Telepathy Debate

 

Edward Nugee, QC in the Chair

Reproduced from:
Telepathy Debate Hits London:
Audience Charmed by the Paranormal

John Whitfield, Nature, January 22, 2004

 


Many people believe there is evidence of the power of the mind.


 
Scientists tend to steer clear of public debates with advocates of the paranormal. And judging from the response of a London audience to a rare example of such a head-to-head conflict last week, they are wise to do so.

Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist at University College London, made the case against the existence of telepathy at a debate at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in London on 15 January. Rupert Sheldrake, a former biochemist and plant physiologist at the University of Cambridge who has taken up parapsychology, argued in its favour. And most of the 200-strong audience seemed to agree with him.

Wolpert is one of Britain’s best-known public spokesmen for science. But few members of the audience seemed to be swayed by his arguments.

Sheldrake, who moved beyond the scientific pale in the early 1980s by claiming that ideas and forms can spread by a mysterious force he called morphic resonance, kicked off the debate.

He presented the results of tests of extrasensory perception, together with his own research on whether people know who is going to phone or e-mail them, on whether dogs know when their owners are coming home, and on the allegedly telepathic bond between a New York woman and her parrot. “Billions of perfectly rational people believe that they have had these experiences,” he said.

An open mind is a very bad thing – everything falls out – Lewis Wolpert, University College London.

Wolpert countered that telepathy was “pathological science”, based on tiny, unrepeatable effects backed up by fantastic theories and an ad hoc response to criticism. “The blunt fact is that there’s no persuasive evidence for it,” he said.

For Ann Blaber, who works in children’s music and was undecided on the subject, Sheldrake was the more convincing. “You can’t just dismiss all the evidence for telepathy out of hand,” she said. Her view was reflected by many in the audience, who variously accused Wolpert of “not knowing the evidence” and being “unscientific”.

In staging the debate, the RSA joins a growing list of London organizations taking a novel approach to science communication 1. “We want to provide a platform for controversial subjects,” says Liz Winder, head of lectures at the RSA.

 
Reference:

1. Giles, J. “Museum breaks mould in attempts to lure
reluctant visitors”, Nature, 426, 6, (2003).
doi:10.1038/426006a

 
Further material on the RSA Telepathy debate, including the full text from the meeting and an audio tape of the debate, at Dr. Sheldrake’s website.

 
 
 
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Edzard Ernst

Edzard Ernst - Institute for Science in Medicine

Edzard Ernst M.D., Ph.D.

Edzard Ernst was the UK’s first professor of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM); the chair was endowed by the Laing foundation at the University of Exeter in 1993.

Ernst was previously professor of physical and rehabilitation medicine at the University of Vienna, where he specialised in investigating venous and arterial blood flow modified by physical treatments such as spa, heat, or massage. At this time he also undertook a basic postgraduate training in homeopathy, but has hardly practiced.

The research facility at Exeter is not involved in any outpatient or inpatient treatment or postgraduate clinical training within the field of CAM or conventional medicine. He has not practiced medicine for some time and is currently not registered or insured to do so. This may explain the major thrust of his research: literature reviews of already extant research making approximately 90% of his voluminous output of several hundred papers and some twenty books.

The fact that he has collated the published literature in the field of CAM has earned him well justified praise. However the reviews and evaluations he publishes have often met with substantial methodological criticism. In situations where reviews were conducted simultaneously by other research groups, other scientists frequently came to entirely different, and usually more positive, conclusions.

Practitioners of CAM and conventional medicine have pointed out that Ernst has almost no first-hand experience of many of the modalities about which he publishes. Compared with the substantial number of literature reviews, meta-analyses and opinion pieces, Prof. Ernst has published little original primary research. His clinical trials have nearly all encountered severe methodological criticism and have often been published in low impact journals. However, some studies conducted by his research fellows, mainly in the field of acupuncture, are of high quality.

 
More Information:

To CAM or Not To CAM?
Beata Bishop, The Scientific and Medcal Network, 2014

Edzard Ernst’s Website

Photo credit: Institute for Science in Medicine

 
 
 
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David Deutsch

David Deutsch - Physics Ox

David Deutsch, Ph.D.

David Deutsch works at the Centre for Quantum Computation at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University.

In the autumn of 2001, he denounced a fellow quantum physicist, Brian Josephson, for suggesting that quantum physics might lead to an explanation of “processes still not understood within conventional science such as telepathy”. Deutsch asserted: “It is utter rubbish. Telepathy simply does not exist.” (The Observer, September 30, 2001)

Josephson, a Nobel laureate, made his comment about telepathy in a booklet issued by the Royal Mail about an issue of stamps to mark the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes. Deutsch said: “The Royal Mail has let itself be hoodwinked into supporting ideas that are complete nonsense”.

But Deutsch embodies a curious double standard about the need for scientific evidence. He is a proponent of a theory that there are billions of parallel universes to our own, expounded in his book The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes (1997). He also speculates freely on time travel. There is no evidence for either of these phenomena.

Deutsch highlights the remarkable way in which evidence-free speculation in some areas of science can coexist with dogma in others, while legitimate evidence is dismissed or denied.

 
Website

Photo:
Department of Physics, Oxford University

 
 
 
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Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, a CSICOP Fellow, was the winner of the CSICOP “In Praise Of Reason” Award in 1992. He is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, and a strong supporter of the skeptical conjurer James Randi.

Dawkins is a talented writer with a great gift for metaphor, and is best known for his books on evolutionary theory and in particular for his theory of the selfish gene. Some have compared him to T.H. Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his active defence of Darwinism; others call him “Darwin’s pitbull” for his aggressive and uncompromising propagation of materialistic view of evolution. He has also been described as a scientific fundamentalist and a born-again Darwinian.

Dawkins is one of the most zealous opponents of religion in Britain and strives for its eradication. In his acceptance speech for his 1996 “Humanist of the Year” award he said, “I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”

Dawkins is uncompromising in his attitude towards those with whom he disagrees. At a literary festival in Oxford, he was the only featured author not to sign the promotional poster because it also bore the name of Uri Geller. “I’m not joking”, said Dawkins sharply, “I will not sign on the same piece of paper.” (The Guardian, December 8, 1998).

He refuses to take part in debates with advocates of “intelligent design” in evolution. “The question of who would ‘win’ such a debate is not at issue. Winning is not what these people realistically aspire to. The coup they seek is simply the recognition of being able to share a platform with a real scientist in the first place. This will suggest to innocent bystanders that there is something that is genuinely worth debating, on something like equal terms.” (A Devil’s Chaplain, 2003, section 5.5)

More seriously, Dawkins sometimes succeeds in censoring publication of views with which he disagrees. In March 1995, The Times Higher Educational Supplement commissioned a critique of Neo-Darwinism by the writer Richard Milton.

Dawkins contacted the editor and lobbied against the publication of the article, which he had not seen. “She caved in to this unscientific bullying and suppressed the piece.” (Fortean Times, April 2002).

Dawkins habitually dismisses psychic phenomena as illusory, for example: “The paranormal is bunk. Those who try to sell it are fakes and charlatans” (Sunday Mirror, February 8, 1998). Nevertheless, Dawkins concedes that an interest in the subject could have a positive side: “The popularity of the paranormal, oddly enough, might even be grounds for encouragement. I think that the appetite for mystery, the enthusiasm for that which we don’t understand, are healthy and to be fostered. It’s the same appetite which drives the best of true science, and it’s an appetite which true science is best qualified to satisfy.” (1996 BBC Dimbleby Lecture.)

Dawkins’ bestselling book The God Delusion was published in 2006, and he has now become the world’s most prominent atheist. Together with the materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett, he is a leader of the “bright” movement, trying to rebrand atheists as brights. But this campaign has met with little success, perhaps because it seems arrogant to imply that people who are not atheists are dim.

In 2006 Dawkins presented a highly polemical series on Channel 4 television in Britain against religion, called “The Root of All Evil?”

In a sequel broadcast by the same TV channel in 2007, he launched an all-out attack on psychic phenomena and alternative medicine called “The Enemies of Reason”.

Dawkins is often criticized for his dogmatism by fellow scientists; Dr. Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, London, has said that he “brings science into disrepute”.

More Information

Is Richard Dawkins destroying his reputation?

Why Richard Dawkins ‘is not a scientist’, the survival of the least selfish, and what ants tell us about humans

An Ungodly Row: Richard Dawkins Sues His Disciple
Tom Rowley and Alistair Walker, The Independent, October 25, 2010

Richard Dawkins’ Website

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion

by David Sloan Wilson Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has become a bestseller through its violent attack on religion. Dawkins theory of the evolutionary origins and development of religion has attracted less attention. In this article, David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, offers an analysis of Dawkins’ theory which he finds less than satisfactory. Introduction...

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Richard Dawkins Comes to Call

  Richard Dawkins Comes to Call   by Rupert Sheldrake Originally published in Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network Network Review No. 95, Winter 2007   I said to Russell, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. “If telepathy occurs,...

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Richard Dawkins Cops Out

by Guy Lyon Playfair “The paranormal is bunk” according to an article that appeared under the name of Richard Dawkins in the Sunday Mirror (8 February 1998). “Those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans.” And worse: “And some of them have grown rich and fat by taking us for a...

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Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore
Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore is one of Britain’s best-known media skeptics. A CSICOP Fellow, she was awarded the CSICOP Distinguished Skeptic Award in 1991.

Blackmore started her career by doing research in parapsychology, but has announced on several occasions that she has left the field of parapsychology to devote herself to the study of memes, as proposed by the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.

Despite her repeated departures from the field, she keeps reappearing, and her recent research into belief in the paranormal has been funded by the Perrott-Warrick Fund, a Cambridge-based endowment for promoting psychical research.

She has written several books, including Beyond the Body: An Investigation of Out-of-the Body Experiences (1982) and Dying to Live (1993). She herself has had an out-of-the-body experience, but explains her own experience and those of others as an illusion caused by anoxia in the brain [a discussion of disproof of this and other theories based on materialistic models by scientific researchers].

Blackmore’s controversial bestseller The Meme Machine was published in 1999. Her most recent book is Consciousness – An Introduction, published in 2003.

Blackmore combines her skeptical beliefs with the practice of Zen Buddhism. She used to teach at the University of the West of England in Bristol, but left in October 2001 to pursue a freelance career in the media.


More Information

Review of Dying to Live
by Greg Stone, Near-Death.com

A Critical Examination of the Blackmore Psi Experiments
by Rick E. Berger, Science Unlimited Research Foundation, San Antonio, Texas. The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol 83, April 1989, 123-144.

Susan Blackmore Doesn’t Get It Right

by Rupert Sheldrake From:  Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011 Dr. Susan Blackmore is a CSICOP/CSI Fellow and was awarded the CSICOP Distinguished Skeptic Award in 1991, and used to be one of Britain’s best-known media skeptics. She started her career by doing research in parapsychology, but...

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Susan Blackmore’s Research

The Research of the Skeptics by Chris Carter ” …the psi controversy is largely characterized by disputes between a group of researchers, the parapsychologists, and a group of critics who do not do experimental research to test psi claims or the viability of their counterhypotheses.” – Charles Honorton, in “Rhetoric over Substance” Charles Honorton, in...

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Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness

A review of Susan Blackmore’s book Consciousness: An Introduction by Guy Saunders There has been a plethora of books on consciousness in the last ten to fifteen years; most of these are recognisably each author’s particular take on the subject. Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained (1991) was an early example of the genre. Rita Carter’s...

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Top Skeptics

James Alcock

James E Alcock, Ph.D.

Alcock is professor emeritus of psychology at York University in Toronto, and a fellow and member of the executive council of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

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Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore, Ph.D.

Susan Blackmore is one of Britain’s best-known media skeptics. A Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow, she was awarded the CSI Distinguished Skeptic Award in 1991.

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Sean M Carroll

Sean M Carroll

Sean M Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology.

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Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne, Ph.D.

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.

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Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, Ph.D.

Richard Dawkins, a CSI Fellow, was the winner of the CSI “In Praise Of Reason” Award in 1992. He is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford.

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David Deutsch - Physics Ox

David Deutsch, Ph.D.

David Deutsch works at the Centre for Quantum Computation at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University.

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Edzard Ernst - Institute for Science in Medicine

Edzard Ernst, M.D., Ph.D.

Edzard Ernstwas the UK’s first professor of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM); the chair was endowed by the Laing foundation at the University of Exeter in 1993.

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Chris French

Chris French, Ph.D.

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

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Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner was a founding member of CSI, and has been described as the “single most powerful antagonist of the paranormal in the second half of the 20th century”.

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Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic is a founder of the group “Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia” and a co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics (California).

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Bruce Hood

Bruce Hood, Ph.D.

Bruce Hood is on the editorial advisory board of Skeptic and is a Professor of Psychology at Bristol University. He is best known for his idea that humans are hard-wired for religion and superstitious beliefs.

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Nicholas Humphrey

Nicholas Humphrey, Ph.D.

Nicholas Humphrey is an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics. He held the Perrott-Warrick Research Fellowship for Psychical Research at Cambridge University.

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Mike Hutchinson

Mike Hutchinson

One of the more extreme skeptics, Michael Hutchinson is U.K. representative of CSI and co-author (with journalist Simon Hoggart) of Bizarre Beliefs (1996).

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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 CSI and chairs its subcommittee on parapsychology.

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Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz was the Chairman of CSI, the Founder and Chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, and of Prometheus Books, the leading publisher of skeptical literature.

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David Marks

David Marks, Ph.D.

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

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PZ Myers

P.Z. Myers, Ph.D.

P.Z. Myers is an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in evolutionary development.

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James Randi

James Randi

“The Amazing Randi” is a conjurer and showman who has describes himself as “the world’s most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudo-scientific claims.”

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Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is publisher of The Skeptic magazine, Director of The Skeptic Society, host of the Skeptics’ Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology, and author of “Skeptic”, a Scientific American column.

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Simon Singh

Simon Singh

Simon Singh left Cambridge University with a doctorate in particle physics to work for the BBC as a science producer in 1990. He wrote two books on popular science, Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Big Bang.

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Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman, Ph.D.

Richard Wiseman is a fellow of CSI, a consultant editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and an associate of Rationalist International.

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Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert, Ph.D.

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London. He served for five years as Chairman of COPUS, the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.

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Tony Youens

Tony Youens

Tony Youens has risen to prominence as a media skeptic on U.K. television making many appearances on day-time shows such as “Vanessa”, “Kilroy”, “The Heaven and Earth Show” and “Stigmata: The Marks of God”.

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JREF’s “Amazing Meeting” Not so Amazing

By Ted Dace

The theme of the Amazing Conference, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), was succinctly expressed by keynote speaker and Skeptic magazine editor, Michael Shermer: “We’re selling science.” From the get-go, the 500-plus participants at the conference, held at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, were repeatedly reminded that it’s all about science. At the media workshop that kicked it off, magician Andrew Mayne defined the goal of skepticism as the use of the scientific process to understand the world. He added that this is the opposite of dogmatism. In his “points to remember,” he noted that skepticism is not cynicism and that skeptics must be open-minded. “If you have evidence,” he said, “bring it on.”

So it’s ironic that actual science was hardly touched on. Instead it was one speaker after another reinforcing the conceit, almost universal among conference participants, that they are the enlightened ones, that they are charged with the burden of defending sense against nonsense, that they alone can be counted on to stand their ground against the tide of irrationalism that threatens to engulf our civilization and undo all the gains that have been wrought in the name of Science. Even scientists themselves, it turns out, are no match for the diabolical paranormalists. Only skeptics, educated by James “Amazing” Randi and other magicians, are capable of spotting the tricks of the trade. “Scientists are easily fooled,” explained Randi, “because they think they know.” But only skeptics really know.

Communicating Skepticism to the Public, the manual handed out at the media workshop, contains a brief passage that illustrates the gulf between science and the skeptics. In part three, “The Media Skeptic: Encouraging a skeptical media attitude,” we learn how to become a media authority: “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.”

As we know, it works a little differently in science. You can’t just say you’re an expert in, say, paleoanthropology unless you’ve actually done the work, either at an accredited university or on your own. By contrast, a skeptic need only form a club with like-minded people. “As head of your local skeptic club, you’re entitled to call yourself an authority. If your other two members agree to it, you can be the spokesperson too.”

On the whole, the media manual is a well-intentioned and useful guide to dealing with a mass media that doesn’t always care about truth and accuracy. And if the skeptics are willing to bend the rules here and there, at least it’s in the service of a worthy cause. It’s not easy getting across to non-US citizens just how profoundly and dangerously uncorked the citizens of this great country can be. Fully one-half of our population now favors creationism, while under 30% believe in evolution. As Randi pointed out, our government issues patents for “perpetual motion machines,” and TV producers promote whatever junk they think will sell, such as talk shows with the dead and “documentaries” claiming that the moon shots were a hoax or that the corpses of space aliens are under lock and key in government laboratories. At my workplace recently, a colleague “informed” me that Bin Laden is holed up at Area 51 where he denounces America on a soundstage made to look like a cave! Surely there’s a connection between popular irrationalism and the fact that the White House can pursue deranged policies at home and abroad with impunity. I agree with the skeptics that those of us trying to slap our fellow citizens back to their senses can be forgiven for cutting a few corners now and then.

Unfortunately, with its sense of being assaulted by legions of loonies on the one hand and a cynical media on the other, the skeptic movement tends to be both defensive and hostile. After noting that Sylvia Browne – a huckster psychic who appears often on CNN’s Larry King Live – is known as “claws” among JREF staff because of her long fingernails, Randi expressed the hope that while scratching herself, she would tear an artery and die, a prospect which evoked hearty laughter from the audience. Later, as I looked over the books for sale by notable skeptics, I overheard a JREF staff member explain to a potential customer that The Ancestor’s Tale, the weighty new hardback by Richard Dawkins, was “excellent for bludgeoning a creationist.” Needless to say, the siege mentality and the spirit of scientific inquiry have never exactly been bedfellows.

The tone of the conference was geared more toward ridiculing the enemy than engaging in thoughtful scientific discussion. Bad jokes about crackpot chiropractors got big laughs. In this environment a discussion of possible evidence in favor of chiropractic would have been inconceivable. Alternative medicine is a favored target of skeptics, despite the fact that no scientific discipline is ever perfect or complete and that we can expect at least some trends from the periphery of medical practice to be taken up eventually within the scientific mainstream. Granted, certain aspects of alternative medicine are obviously fraudulent, such as ear candling and magnetic bracelets, but to denounce anything at all that’s outside accepted, traditional medicine is to promote a view of science more akin to religion – with its unreflective, ossified dogmas – than science as it actually exists.

When the topic did turn to science, the discussion most likely focused on optimum tactics in the battle against irrationalism. For instance, when a husky, white-haired gentleman raised the topic of evolution during a small-group discussion with Dr. Shermer, his point was simply that skeptics should refer to it as the “law of evolution” rather than the “theory of evolution.” This way, creationists would have to stop saying, “it’s only a theory, not a fact.” Shermer, who was having none of it, allowed a JREF staff member to respond that no scientist would take this suggestion seriously. Another skeptic vociferously disagreed and stated that we must begin referring to evolution as a law. After this the discussion meandered along pointlessly, with no one stating the obvious: that evolution can’t be referred to as a law because it’s not a law. In contrast to atoms that have no choice but to obey the law of gravity, species don’t have to evolve. Often the species knocked out by natural selection are precisely those that have evolved too far and become overspecialized. So it’s not as if you become extinct if you disobey the “law of evolution.” Beyond that, the very idea reeks of vitalism, as if biology has its own laws separate from physics. To top it off, the whole point of evolution is that you don’t need transcendent laws of nature (or a creative deity, for that matter) to explain the emergence of novel life forms.

But all this seemed beyond the understanding of the assembled skeptics. The man who originally made the suggestion had no idea he was advocating a shift to a vitalistic conception of life. As Shermer looked on impassively, I got the feeling he wished some of his acolytes were a little more scientifically astute. Yet he himself may be partly to blame. In his bestselling handbook on logical and not-so-logical thinking, Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer describes a great many “weird” ideas harbored by ordinary people. What he fails to mention is that the chief source for weird ideas in the modern world is none other than science itself, starting with Copernicus’ assertion that the earth is in motion around the sun, an observation that flies in the face of common sense. After all, as anyone can plainly see, the sun rises in the east and crosses the sky to set in the west. But Copernicus’ weird idea prevailed, and it’s been like that for 400 years now, with gravitational and electromagnetic fields, the divisibility and vacuity of the atom, the convertibility of energy and mass, warped space-time, wave-particle duality, quantum complementarity and uncertainty, nonlocality, a ten dimensional universe, and on and on. The history of science can be summarized as the story of weird ideas displacing “common sense.” As long as skeptics view the world in terms of science versus weirdness, they are guaranteed to remain parochial in their outlook.

Telepathy is a pretty strange idea. According to Dean Radin, author of The Conscious Universe, scientific evidence for its existence has been accruing for decades. So do we follow the evidence and, at the very least, provisionally grant the possibility that telepathy is real, or do we simply banish it as being too weird? While the former is the scientific approach, the latter appears to be the favored response of skeptics.

As any ESP or “7th sense” researcher knows, the only way to scientifically demonstrate telepathy is through statistics. When I asked Randi if it’s true that he refuses to accept statistical evidence in his famous million dollar contest, not only did he deny this charge, but after a skeptic protested that statistics can be bent any old way to prove whatever you want, Randi informed him that statistics is a branch of mathematics. While he would insist on checking the findings with his own statistician, this would only be to ensure that the math was done correctly.

Two days later, Richard Dawkins said he was worried that Randi would eventually have to pay up. Dr. Dawkins had just delivered a truly fine lecture – the high point of the conference, in fact – and Randi had joined the famed author onstage for a public chat. “About the million dollar prize, I would be worried if I were you because of the fact that we have perinormal possibilities.” Dawkins had just introduced this neologism during his talk. An alleged phenomenon is perinormal (from the Greek “peri,” in the vicinity of) if it seems impossible but which, in contrast to the “paranormal,” turns out to be a 100% natural, skeptic-approved phenomenon. Electromagnetic fields, for instance, were once perinormal but eventually came to be recognized as real. The question, then, is which phenomena currently dismissed by skeptics as paranormal are actually perinormal. “I mean, what if somebody-what if there really is a perinormal phenomenon which is then embraced within science and will become normal, but at present is classified conventionally as paranormal?”

Randi agreed he might have to pay up someday. But Dawkins had a trick up his sleeve. If a “psychic” phenomenon turns out to be real, then by definition it is physical and therefore not really psychic after all, and thus Randi still shouldn’t have to pay.

Dawkins’ sleight-of-hand notwithstanding, according to the rules of Randi’s competition, if a psychic ability is proven, he must pay up. Randi stated to me that a preliminary test would have to yield a probability of one in a thousand that the results were due to chance. After passing the preliminary, the investigator could commence with the formal test, which would have to yield a probability against chance of one in a million. As Dr. Radin notes, a meta-analysis of all ganzfeld telepathy experiments up to 1997 revealed a probability of a million billion to one. So if Randi is true to his word, it ought to be possible to perform an experiment that would garner the prize. Of course, it would take a huge number of sessions to demonstrate such a high level of improbability. In the end, the million dollars might do nothing more than pay for the experiment. But it would be worth it for no other reason than to put an end to allegations that the unclaimed prize is itself evidence against psychic phenomena.

If Dawkins’ reductionistic school of biology is correct – and organisms are DNA-programmed and operated machines – then psychic talents are not the only phenomena to be dismissed as paranormal. The property of being “alive” would itself be paranormal, a mere construct of the mind-brain. You’re not likely to encounter discussion on this or any other topic that challenges the beliefs of skeptics at an Amazing conference. Though Dawkins proclaimed that skepticism, in contrast to religion, welcomes dissent and debate, alas, there was little evidence of this during the conference. Indeed, the star-struck crowd showed a religious-like enthusiasm for having their preconceived beliefs reinforced by one celebrity speaker after another.

Oddly enough, of all the luminaries who showed up at this tacky Vegas hotel, the most truly amazing of them all was a nondescript JREF staff member who goes by the name of Kramer. 15 years ago, Kramer was among the most brilliant guitarists and songwriters in American rock. If you’ve ever seen Wayne’s World, in particular the scene where Wayne and Garth are prostrating before Aerosmith wailing, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” then you have an idea of how Kramer is perceived by fans the world over. So it was a bit stunning to see him humbly carrying out his duties in the background while the celebrities got all the attention. Why is an ex-rock star working as a JREF staffer? Because he felt there are more important things in life than rock ‘n roll and that JREF offers some hope of restoring sanity to a deranged world.

Despite its flaws, the skeptic movement is attracting dedicated idealists, like Kramer, who believe in the potential of science and rational thought to cast out our many demons. Given what they’re up against-from resurgent creationism to widespread new age nuttery-the people manning this movement deserve praise. But if they’re to be true to their ideals, they must open the floor to scientifically-minded people who are skeptical of the skeptics.

How about Randi vs. Radin at next year’s conference? Now, that would be amazing.