Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 | ISSN 1556-5696

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer remembers Paul Kurtz, who died October 20, 2012 at the age of 86. Kurtz was one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement, and he embodied the principle of skepticism as thoughtful inquiry.

Paul Kurtz (Illustration Copyright 1989 by Pat Linse)

Paul Kurtz & the Virtue of Skepticism
How a Thoughtful, Inquiring, Watchman
Provided a Mark to Aim at

by Michael Shermer

Skepticism dates back to the ancient Greeks, well captured in Socrates’ famous quip that all he knows is that he knows nothing. Skepticism as nihilism, however, gets us nowhere and, thankfully, almost no one embraces it. The word “skeptic,” in fact, comes from the Greek skeptikos, for “thoughtful”—far from modern misconceptions of the word as meaning “cynical” or “nihilistic.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “skeptical” has also been used to mean “inquiring,” “reflective,” and, with variations in the ancient Greek, “watchman” or “mark to aim at.” What a glorious meaning for what we do! We are thoughtful, inquiring, and reflective, and in a way we are the watchmen who guard against bad ideas, consumer advocates of good thinking who, through the guidelines of science, establish a mark at which to aim. Paul Kurtz, who died this week at the age of 86, was one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement, and he embodied the principle of skepticism as thoughtful inquiry. He truly was a watchman that provided a mark at which we skeptics may all aim.

Since the time of the Greeks, skepticism (in its various carnations) has evolved along with other epistemologies and their accompanying social activists. The Enlightenment, on one level, was a century-long skeptical movement, for there were no beliefs or institutions that did not come under the critical scrutiny of such thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Locke, Jefferson, and many others. Immanuel Kant in Germany and David Hume in Scotland were skeptics’ skeptics in an age of skepticism, and their influence continues unabated to this day (at least in academic philosophy and skepticism). Closer to our time, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley were skeptics par excellence, not only for the revolution they launched and carried on (respectively) against the dogma of creationism, but also for their stand against the burgeoning spiritualism movement that was sweeping across America, England, and the continent. Although Darwin was quiet about his spiritual skepticism and worked behind the scenes, Huxley railed publicly against the movement, bemoaning in one of the great one-liners in the history of skepticism: “Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a séance.” In the twentieth century Bertrand Russell and Harry Houdini stand out as representatives of skeptical thinkers and doers (respectively) of the first half, and skepticism in the second half of the century was marked by Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, launching what we think of today as “the skeptics movement,” which Kurtz so courageously organized and led.

There has been some debate (and much quibbling) about who gets what amount of credit for the founding of the modern skeptical movement through the organization Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and its journal Skeptical Inquirer (much of this history has been outlined in the pages of my own magazine, Skeptic, in interviews with the leading lights of the skeptical movement). This is not the place to present a definitive history of the movement, but from what I have gleaned from first- and second-hand sources is that science writer Martin Gardner, magician James Randi, psychologist Ray Hyman, and philosopher Paul Kurtz played primary roles in the foundation and planning of the organization and the subsequent movement.

There is little to no chance that we can convince True Believers of the errors of their thinking. Our purpose is to reach that vast middle ground between hard-core skeptics and dogmatic believers—people like me who thought that there might be something to these claims but had simply never heard a good counter explanation.

Regardless of who might be considered the “father” of the modern skeptical movement, everyone I have spoken to (including the other founders) agrees that it was Paul Kurtz more than anyone else who actually made it happen. All successful social movements have someone who has the organizational skills and social intelligence to get things done. Paul Kurtz is that man. When he founded the organization that launched the modern skeptical movement, I was a graduate student in experimental psychology. About this time (the mid 1970s) Uri Geller entered my radar screen. I recall Psychology Today and other popular magazines published glowing stories about him, and reports were afloat that experimental psychologists had tested the Israeli psychic and determined that he was genuine. My advisor—a strictly reductionistic Skinnerian behavioral psychologist named Doug Navarick—didn’t believe a word of it, but I figured there might be something to it, especially in light of all the other interesting research being conducted on altered states of consciousness, hypnosis, dreams, sensory deprivation, dolphin communication, and the like. I took a course in anthropology from Marlene Dobkin de Rios, whose research was on shamans of South America and their use of mind-altering plants. It all seemed entirely plausible to me and, being personally interested in the subject (the Ouija board consistently blew my mind), I figured that this was rapidly becoming a legitimate subfield of psychological research. After all, Thelma Moss had a research laboratory devoted to studying the paranormal, and it was at UCLA no less, one of the most highly regarded psychology programs in the country.

With the support and encouragement of Kurtz, Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, and especially James “the Amazing” Randi entered the public sphere through popular and technical publications debunking such nonsense, and Randi went on television to reveal how the psychics actually do their tricks. It was, in fact, on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show that Randi demonstrated how to levitate tables, bend spoons, and perform psychic surgeries. Randi didn’t convince me to become a full-fledged skeptic overnight, but it got me thinking that if some of these psychics were fakes, perhaps they all were (and if not fakes, at least self-deceived). Herein lies an important lesson.

There is little to no chance that we can convince True Believers of the errors of their thinking. Our purpose is to reach that vast middle ground between hard-core skeptics and dogmatic believers—people like me who thought that there might be something to these claims but had simply never heard a good counter explanation. There are many reasons why people believe weird things, but certainly one of the most pervasive is simply that most people have never heard a good explanation for the weird things they hear and read about. Short of a good explanation, they accept the bad explanation that is typically proffered. This alone justifies all the hard work performed by skeptics toward the cause of science and critical thinking. It does make a difference.

For 20 years now I have been at the head of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, and as such as much as I admire Randi, Gardner, and the other public faces of skepticism, I have come to respect more than ever before what Paul Kurtz has done for our movement. He may not be as prolific and famous a writer as Martin Gardner, or as public and visible an activist as James Randi, but in terms of the day-to-day grind of keeping a movement afloat through the constant battering and assaults that come from variegated sources, there are few that can be compared with Paul Kurtz. So I close this brief remembrance with several excerpts from what I still consider to be his finest work, The Transcendental Temptation, that should be mandatory reading for all graduates of a Skepticism 101 course.

The temptation, says Kurtz, “lurks deep within the human breast. It is ever-present, tempting humans by the lure of transcendental realities, subverting the power of their critical intelligence, enabling them to accept unproven and unfounded myth systems.” Specifically, Kurtz argues that myths, religions, and claims of the paranormal are lures tempting us beyond rational, critical, and scientific thinking, for the very reason that they touch something in us that is sacred and important—life and immortality: “This impulse is so strong that it has inspired the great religions and paranormal movements of the past and the present and goaded otherwise sensible men and women to swallow patently false myths and to repeat them constantly as articles of faith.” What drives this temptation? The answer Kurtz provides is both insightful and elegant:

Let us reflect on the human situation: all of our plans will fail in the long run, if not in the short. The homes we have built and lovingly furnished, the loves we have enjoyed, the careers we have dedicated ourselves to will all disappear in time. The monuments we have erected to memorialize our aspirations and achievements, if we are fortunate, may last a few hundred years, perhaps a millennium or two or three—like the stark and splendid ruins of Rome and Greece, Egypt and Judea, which have been recovered and treasured by later civilizations. But all the works of human beings disappear and are forgotten in short order. In the immediate future the beautiful clothing that we adorn ourselves with, eventually even our cherished children and grandchildren, and all of our possessions will be dissipated. Many of our poems and books, our paintings and statues will be forgotten, buried on some library shelf or in a museum, read or seen by some future scholars curious about the past, and eventually eaten by worms and molds, or perhaps consumed by fire. Even the things that we prize the most, human intelligence and love, democratic values, the quest for truth, will in time be replaced by unknown values and institutions—if the human species survives, and even that is uncertain. Were we to compile a pessimist’s handbook, we could easily fill it to overflowing with notations of false hopes and lost dreams, a catalogue of human suffering and pain, of ignominious conflict, betrayal, and defeat throughout the ages.

Although Kurtz sounds like a pessimist, he’s actually a realist, occasionally even an optimist:

Were I to take an inventory of the sum of goods in human life, they would far outweigh the banalities of evil. I would outdo the pessimist by cataloguing laughter and joy, devotion and sympathy, discovery and creativity, excellence and grandeur. The mark made upon the world by every person and by the race in general would be impressive. How wonderful it has all been. The pessimist points to Caligula, Attila, Cesare Borgia, Beria, or Himmler with horror and disgust; but I would counter with Aristotle, Pericles, da Vinci, Einstein, Beethoven, Mark Twain, Margaret Sanger, and Madame Curie. The pessimist points to duplicity and cruelty in the world; I am impressed by the sympathy, honesty, and kindness that are manifested. The pessimist reminds us of ignorance and stupidity; I, of the continue growth of human knowledge and understanding. The pessimist emphasizes the failures and defeats; I, the successes and victories in all their glory.

The most important point Kurtz makes in The Transcendental Temptation comes toward the end in his discussion of the meaning and goals of skepticism. It is an admonition we should all bear in mind, a passage to be read once a year:

The skeptic is not passionately intent on converting mankind to his or her point of view and surely is not interested in imposing it on others, though he may be deeply concerned with raising the level of education and critical inquiry in society. Still, if there are any lessons to be learned from history, it is that we should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics. No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue. It would be contradictory for skepticism to seek to translate itself into a new faith. One must view with caution the promises of any new secular priest who might emerge promising a brave new world—if only his path to clarity and truth is followed. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to temper the intemperate and to tame the perverse temptation that lurks within.

R.I.P. Paul Kurtz. We all owe you a great debt of gratitude for making the world a better place. You will be missed. END


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3 Comments »

3 Comments

  1. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    Paul Kurtz once gave a colloquium talk at my dept when I was in grad school and I recall his approach to skepticism being a very sensible one. He said the things I needed to hear at the right time — can still recall how ‘human’ he was in his skepticism. Back in those days there was a bit of a “Spock Factor” in skeptics — rationally minded people shunning their emotional (and hence human) side.

    I am sad to see him go but I know that the ripples he made will be with us a long time.

  2. Roo.Bookaroo says:

    To: Michael Shermer

    Wish you had explicitly shown the “variations in the ancient Greek” from skeptikos leading to the meaning of “watchman”.

    Wish also that you had mentioned among the iconic skeptics of the Enlightenment Baron d’Holbach, the German-French philosopher who financed the production of the famous Encyclopedia, and was also with his book “Ecce Homo”, (1769) the first author ever to write a full critical life of Jesus envisioned as an ordinary man. Dawkins has a video devoted to d’Holbach, mentioning that he has been unfairly forgotten by modern historians. D’Holbach wrote the books quickly adapted by Thomas Paine for the English-language public.

    There’s a definite misconception in Kurtz’s explanation of this enigmatic temptation of “transcendental” realities, as described in your article. Kurtz alleges that this is the result of a “temptation” “subverting the power of their critical intelligence, enabling [humans] to accept unproven and unfounded myth systems.”

    You add that those supernatural claims “are lures tempting us beyond rational, critical, and scientific thinking…”
    The reason being, according to the long passage quoted, the consciousness of the transience and evanescence of our physical world.

    However, this is nothing more than an echo of the long book of Ecclesiastes, who had already said all this with much more pathos and power. Qoheleth was certainly a representative of humanism in antiquity.

    The Ancient Greeks had their equivalent sages, who preached the same vision with the same recommendation of enjoying the good things and beauties of our transient life. Carpe diem.

    The concluding wisdom is the most valuable part of this essay on the remarkable Kurtz:
    
“No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue. It would be contradictory for skepticism to seek to translate itself into a new faith. One must view with caution the promises of any new secular priest who might emerge promising a brave new world—if only his path to clarity and truth is followed.”
    This is an excellent warning against all the charlatans who try to impress us with their passionate ideas.

    However, I cannot subscribe to this theory of a “temptation” being the engine leading us “beyond rational, critical thinking”.

    This assumes that the brain has this built-in capability of rational thinking, which is the default mode of brain work, but for some reason, this mode is shortcircuited, or overwhelmed by the “temptation”.

    One can argue that this is not how the brain works, that “critical thinking” is not a natural habit for the ordinary human mind.
    Belief is more primordial than reasoned conclusions. Belief is immediate, spontaneous, instinctive. No special effort of elucidation, or analysis is required. Belief is easy and lazy. All infants start by preferring to be comfortable with beliefs imposed by family, and the immediate social environment.

    That critical thinking emerged in Ancient Greece (Socrates being one of its well-known proponents) is one of the remarkable events of Western history, only to be stifled and eradicated by the sweep of Christian dogmatism in the Roman Empire. And its resurgence was the product of the immense intellectual battle waged by the Enlightenment to put all dogmas into question.

    We now take critical thinking as granted, as an obvious feature of our mental analytical powers. But it was not always so, and it was the Ancient Greeks, and Socrates, who put it on the map.

    Still, critical thinking, even today, is not immediate. It does require defeating lazy habits of thinking, education and intense training. It’s not automatically ingrained by schools.

    Critical thinking is hard, time-consuming and expensive. It requires research, access to sources and experiments, and reflection.
    Plato and Aristotle both thought that only the elite of the social aristocracy were able to reach reasoned thinking. They had the education, the training, and the time to indulge their search for “truths”.
    Sirach in the “Wisdom of Sirach” (around 200 BC) says the same thing about reaching “wisdom”.

    Most people in our modern US society don’t have this luxury and simply go with the flow, with the majority.
    George Albert Wells, the biblical critic who is following Bruno Bauer and Arthur Drews in arguing that Jesus Christ never existed, while reflecting on why people believe in their religious ideas, came to the same conclusion: People believe primarily in agreement with their social environment. It is just easier to absorb the dogmas of the social groups surrounding us.
    Only in very limited, well defined areas where we have been able to conduct direct personal in-depth investigation of facts and ideas, where in fact we have developed some kind of expertise based on experience, do we come to conclusions based on the evidence of our own observations and rational analysis.

    No wonder then there are so many purveyors of weird beliefs in our modern society. Which justifies the work of Kurtz and all other active skeptics.
    Propagators of biased ideas have no difficulty preaching in our society any fashionable outlandish cultural topic in this kind of poorly-educated social environment.
    When Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), the noble Russian lady, who came to New York to found the Theosophical Society of New York in 1875 as a center for “spiritualism”, this modern adaptation of Gnosticism, then raging in Europe and the US, she found the US “a most prolific hot-bed for mediums and sensitives of all kinds, both genuine and artificial.”
    The great numbers of followers of crazes are with the public, and publishers are enthusiastic about any far-out belief that catches the public’s attention, as good controversies mean good book sales.

    This dependence of beliefs in “going with the flow”, with our society, had already been well underlined by Bertrand Russell (in “Why I am not a Christian”), Thomas Edison, and Robert Green Ingersoll.
    Baron d’Holbach described it thus:
    ““The source of man’s unhappiness is his ignorance of Nature. The pertinacity with which he clings to blind opinions imbibed in his infancy, which interweave themselves with his existence, the consequent prejudice that warps his mind, that prevents its expansion, that renders him the slave of fiction, appears to doom him to continual error” (The System of Nature, 1770).”

    It is a kind of received wisdom to oppose supernatural thinking (the temptation) versus rational thinking, claiming that we have a supernatural propensity due to our emotional nature.” This is the same duality that seems to be at work between “childish” and “mature” thinking.

    
But it is more appropriate to show that we do not have two thinking modes in our brain, only styles of thinking in the same brain.
    One style is “fast thinking” (faith, beliefs, biases, prejudices, habits, reflex reactions, etc..) and the other “slow thinking” (analysis, evaluation of evidence, construction of theories, etc…), in short critical thinking.

    This has been the subject of “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, the book by Daniel Kahneman, a modern psychologist in the field of judgment and decision-making and a 2002 Nobel Prize in economics .
    
His work resulted in getting rid of the thesis that there are different systems or structures of thinking in the brain: childish vs mature, emotional vs analytical, spiritual (supernatural) vs practical (empirical, “scientific”). Those are only different levels of activity of the same system in the brain.

    “Fast” thinking uses immediate, well-known knowledge, habits, routine skills, immediate beliefs from childhood or personal experience, etc…what we tend to call “childish”.
    “Slow” thinking involves the hard work of reflection, comparison, analysis, inference, what we call “mature”, “scientific”.
    One is immediate and a prompt reaction to the environment. The other requires making a pause and process the information more slowly. The two modes are always at work together in the brain, with various levels of intensity.

    
It does look as if “supernatural thinking”, religious belief, belong to the “fast thinking” process of the brain, while analysis and examination of evidence are indubitably (excruciatingly) ” slow thinking”.

    
An adult can use his brain analytically on some issues and still use a huge quantity of responses based on “fast” thinking, including his religious beliefs from childhood and his/her social environment.


    In any event we could start thinking about supernatural thinking (“faith”) vs “rational thinking”, “childish” and “mature” thinking in a modern scientific way, as belonging to the same brain system, and no longer in terms of antiquated notions of a temptation always ready to overcome a basic “reason”, as if the brain was divided between “two natures”, or two “systems”, a temptation for the supernatural constantly hovering over the “rational” brain. Rational thinking is NOT the default mode of brain’s activity. Critical thinking is not a spontaneous inclination of the human mind. Education, training, experience play a major role in bringing out the reasoning power of the brain.

    The critical thinking mode discovered and taught by Socrates and the ancient Greeks was hard and tiring mental work that most ordinary uneducated people were then (and still today) entirely incapable of.

    The wonderful thing about the old gods is that they let you live in a comfortable routine without asking for or making trouble. The “old gods” for the average Christian are the comfortable dogmas inculcated in childhood and never seriously questioned.


    No wonder that once the Greek schools of philosophy were shut down by Emperor Justinian, the spontaneous belief in the supernatural, the normal expression of fast belief, sprang untrammeled, and has persisted to this day.

    Christian Churches have benefited from this inherent tendency of the human mind for quick and hassle-free “thinking”.

    It is pretty sure that the belief in relics was an adaptation of this supernatural propensity to the fantastic tales promoted by the Catholic Church in medieval times.


    This is also why Dawkins is in a sense justified to go on the charge on his white rationalist stallion, because he is facing a multitude of vegetative minds that are half-asleep in their church pews.
    By opposition to the thousands of easy-going, lethargic, affable Christians, it is good to have a passionate Dawkins or a strident Steven Pinker, or an irritating Chomsky.

    Come to think of it, Steve Jobs was of the same mould, and without it Apple would have never been created and revived.

  3. naga says:

    Fast or slow, thinking as a process is linked to content in memory. Under threat for instance, thinking is fast and very rational too. Otherwise the process is controlled by ones propensities cultivated/inherited/acquired somehow, and this can explain the ‘source of happiness’ quoted by Baron d’Holbach above. Scientific thinking calls for more related or cohesive memory content or information not easily available, for collating or making out patterns. Religious or supernatural thinking is based on information traditionally, read easily, available. Skepticism is in between, needs generation of information and therefore training.

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