Saturday 18 August 2012

Skeptics- Evolution and Revolution

A great transformation has come over the Skeptic Movement in the last couple of years. Several prominent Skeptic leaders have started calling for a change of strategy; and I myself detect that most Skeptics have answered this call. This is an interesting lecture by the communications director of the JREF, the James Randi Education Foundation, a young woman called Sadie Crabtree, see: . She is advising Skeptics that to gain converts to the Skeptic world it's necessary to treat opponents in debates gently and empathize with their position. She suggests a method of softer and more subtle persuasion than simply saying: "Ghosts/UFO's/poltergeists etc aren't real and this is why you're wrong to think that they are!" She quite rightly understands that this makes people feel violated and put up defences that make them less willing to accept "reason". She's incorrect to use the word "reason" in this context because many non-Skeptics are perfectly amenable to reason; it's just that they've reached a different reasonable conclusion than the Skeptics have. I've said many times before that to be a Skeptic is to believe in an ideology; not to be, as they themselves claim to be, just "more scientifically empirical" or "more logical". These descriptions are actually just slogans! See here for details: and: But the point here is that this is a very clever move by Crabtree; it shows that she has a lot of the introspective abilities that Skeptics usually lack, and she comprehends the notion that Skeptics have become a bit isolated and "ivory tower"-ish. Skeptic events have contained an element of clannish back-slapping rather than attempting to promote the Skeptic ideal and educate the public (I make the same criticism towards conspiratorially-aware people who get together and use words like "sheeple"). But today this is different, and I've found this myself when I've attended Skeptic events. (See: ) Another example is this article on the Committee for Skeptical Enquiry website (formerly CSICOP) by Hayley Stevens, a presenter of the now defunct Righteous Indignation podcast: She very wisely says: "I speak from experience when I say that calling people who hold such beliefs 'stupid' because of their lack of rationale does nothing to make them reconsider the conclusions they have reached about those subjects." Phil Plait puts it even more bluntly here: "How many of you used to be 'believers' in ghosts/UFO's/religion etc?" (calling for a show of hands) "And how many of you changed your minds because somebody called you an 'idiot", brain-damaged' and a 'retard'?" (If I may digress on this vital point again: what goes for Skeptics goes for we non-Skeptics too. We must not call people "sheeple" and put them down in any other way if we want them to take our ideas seriously!)

In recent weeks there has been a new development that could result in another revolution in the Skeptic milieu. Somebody has accused James Randi of fraud over his Million Dollar Challenge (Details: This all first emerged a few years ago, but it has been revived by "Steve from Sydney" on YouTube, aka "Kimbo99", see the video below. Naturally Randi is always being bombarded with constant criticism from many people, including me, see: , but this time the accuser has a specific gripe that could mean real trouble for Randi. The homeopathy proponent John Benneth claims to have found that this phenomenon is real in accordance with the criteria for Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. (Here's a useful documentary that clearly explains the issues involved. I don't agree with its sentiments, but it's still important to understand the argument it tables: )  According to Benneth, at first Randi himself agreed to receive Benneth's application, but when Benneth returned it Randi refused to proceed. In this video Benneth explains the details; he also gives a brief lecture about the experiment he wished to apply with: . Naturally there has been a response from the Skepper community: , but this seems to consist of calling him names, accusing him of making "mouth noise" and being a "lunatic". Obviously I've walked into this discussion very late in the day, but if the issue is about to flare up again I'll be watching it. Steve has made his own commentary on the issue:

Steve seems to see the entire Skeptic Movement itself as something in radical and terminal decline, see: I doubt this myself and I'm not sure I'd necessarily welcome that development if it were true. I don't think Steve is being completely fair in the above video. Although his descriptions are accurate in some cases, there are plenty of Skeptics who are not "denigrating", "despoiling", "derogatory" or "dehumanizing" at all. I've met many of them and a couple have even been members of the HPANWO Forum. He's right though that the Skeptic Movement has fuelled interest in the paranormal, which shows you can't beat a good antithesis! The Canadian author Chris Carter (not to be confused with the creator of The X-Files) has written a book with a similar themed title: The Fall of the House of Skeptic, see: This should be an interesting read. But I don't think the Skeptic Movement is collapsing or declining at all; it is evolving, it is undergoing a revolution. What is going to emerge from this remains to be seen, but it will probably be a more open and accepting community who treat non-Skeptics more carefully and respectfully, in line with what Crabtree, Stevens and Plait propose. I myself am a member of the JREF Forum and I've felt much more comfortable with the Skeptic majority there in recent times. There will always be Skeptics in this world no matter what happens, even if a UFO lands on the proverbial White House Lawn somebody will be ready with a swamp gas explanation; and, unlike Steve, I don't have a problem with that.

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