For the first two years that Skeptics spoke at Dragon*Con, there was a panel known as the "Skeptics vs. Believers Smackdown," which featured prominent skeptics and non-skeptics in a debate about the paranormal. I noticed that in both years, the believers were quick to apply the label "skeptic" to themselves, while calling the skeptics "cynics" instead.
And then an interesting thing happened. In year three of the debate, it was canceled due to the lack of people willing to sit on the believers' side. There were no lack of skeptics, in fact as many as ten volunteered, but there was only one person who would sit on the believers side. Why is this?
Last weekend, Alison Smith and I sat on a debate panel for the radio show The Paranormal View. This show discusses the paranormal like many shows of its kind, but they also have the occasional show where skeptics are invited to debate believers. This time... they showed up.
I have received notice from Narisetti Innaiah, chairman of CFI India, that our friend Basva Premanand has died. Mr. Innaiah's tribute reads:
B. Premanand, the doyen of Indian rationalist movement, is no more. He breathed his last on 04.10.2009 at 2.20 pm at Podannur, Tamil Nadu. He was 79. According to his wishes, his body has been donated to the local medical college.
Born on 17 February 1930 in Kozhikode (Kerala), Premanand was a keen observer of paranormal phenomena even in his childhood. In his teenage, he approached assorted swamis and gurus to gain spiritual insights but soon fell out with each one of them when he realized that they were all fakes. In 1969 he met the ace Sri Lankan skeptic Dr. Abraham Kovoor who was in India for his "Miracle Exposure" lecture tour. That was a watershed in the life of Premanand, who immediately plunged headlong into the business of debunking spiritual tricksters. After Dr. Abraham Kovoor's death in 1978, Premanand continued Kovoor's famous challenge of offering One Lakh Rupees [US$2,000] to anyone who could demonstrate psychic abilities under fraud-proof conditions. Admittedly, there have been few takers.
To my view, blind faith is the opposite of critical thought. It is believing in something without evidence—or worse, believing in something despite evidence to the contrary. This is not an endeavor to which I aspire in any circumstances, but it seems a great deal of effort has been expended trying to convince people to do just that.
On Twitter, I have the account "SkeptiQuote" which I use solely to tweet a single skeptical quote each day. While I'm searching for appropriate quotes, I come across quotes that just appall me. I'll share some with you here:
"Reason is the enemy of faith" Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation
That about sums it up right there, and while skeptics agree with this sentiment, they've chosen the opposite side of the battle.
"Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof." Kahlil Gibran an early 20th century Lebanese-American philosopher
I guess the heart has immutable gray matter that I'm unaware of.
"Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch." E.M. Forster, English Author
I believe Forster intended this to be a criticism, but I found it on a site of "inspirational quotes."
I've been flying a lot this month. In total, I took something like 20 flights, mostly to speak for skeptic groups around the country. (Hello Boston, Syracuse, Houston, Atlanta, New Hampshire and Phoenix!) I stare at things during that uncomfortable time when I'm separated from life-giving electronics (such as this Mac), and a thought occurred to me... this plane is woo-free.
There are any number of strange (to me) objects on a plane, and over time I've learned to identify a few of them. There's a tiny vertical strip of metal on the wing that's used for safety lines so maintenance workers don't fall off. The fins at the tips of the wings are there to reduce drag and thus increase fuel efficiency. And yes, the arm rests on the aisle-side of the seats go up if you can find the latch-a handy trick for getting out of your seat without putting the tray up.
But I don't see anything that I could find in a New Age shop. No crystals, amulets, sigils, or red string. Heck, we didn't even start with a prayer service.
One of the things that's always puzzled me about the anti-vax movement is why people are motivated to rail against something with so much supportive evidence. Sure, there are legions of misinformed parents who think they're helping society by decrying the vaccination conspiracy, and there are certainly those that have experienced personal loss due to the very very rare negative side effects of vaccination. But Chiropractor Dr. Chad Rohlfsen illustrates in abundance what I think might be the primary motive for anti-vaccine rhetoric, and that is pure, simple, banal greed.
At the top of his vaccine911.com web site, Dr. Rohlfsen has the phrase "Because the right choice is the well informed choice." And I realize I'm Godwinning this article, but that phrase found on that site calls to mind the words Arbeit macht frei, which ironically graced the Nazi concentration camps. The fact that that statement is correct does not imply that reading Dr. Koren's material will lead to being well informed.