Speaking Skeptically

As a teenager, I was a member of the Australian Skeptics. I always used to love reading their newsletters, replete with scientific take-downs of psychics and other charlatans (since 1980, they have offered a cash prize to anyone who proves they have psychic powers). So I’m delighted to be speaking to the Canberra branch of the Australian Skeptics tonight – Friday 13th.

By coincidence (or was it?), I cycled to work today listening to James Randi talking to Scientific American about his $1 million prize for “anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power”. Well worth a listen.

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12 Responses to Speaking Skeptically

  1. podblack says:

    Oh! You have a blog! Great to see, I mentioned the Canberra Skeptics to you on Facebook. 🙂

  2. Sinclair Davidson says:

    As a teenager

    Isn’t that the operative phrase? Then you grew up and became a man. Hopefully you realised that most psychics and charalatens are actually quite harmless. And adults know that they are (a) entertainers and are (b) harmless. Yet the so-called Skeptics Society thrives on persecuting people who are quite harmless. My own attitute to the skeptics changed from indifference to complete hostility when Barry Williams posted this in his weekly Australian column.

  3. reason says:

    Sinclair Davidson…
    I followed that link – what is you problem with what he wrote? It seems pretty harmless to me.

  4. Sinclair Davidson says:

    I was annoyed about him belittling Galileo’s experience and also by him belittling anyone and everyone who may ever have been inspired by Galileo. Sure many people, too many, compare themselves to Galileo (and other inspiring individuals such as Mandela etc.) when they really are nowhere in that class. I suspect that is what Williams was trying to get at. But his whole article and attitude left me cold. Ultimately, Williams and the Skeptics Society are censors – self-appointed arbiters of “the truth”.

    I was struck by the fact that the Skeptics go around and basically persecute people who claim to have psychic powers and the like. Indeed many of them are charlatans, while others are mentally ill. The Skeptics expose them and mock them (“you’re not really Galileo. We can laugh at you, but we’d never laugh at Galilieo – he might bop on the nose”). For what purpose? This type of activity only serves to crush peoples’ self-esteem. Where is the value in this, except to demonstrate your own intellectual superiority? I formed the opinion that they are intellectual bullies.

  5. derrida derider says:

    No, Sinclair. Have a look in the Yellow Pages, or in the ads of any downmarket magazine. The number of ripoff “clairvoyants” etc is huge. Like pokies, they take a lot of money from those who can least afford it. And they cripple peoples’ willingness to try and control their own destiny.

    Far more seriously, giving credence to the supernatural leads to all sorts of political and social consequences. It’s not charlatans we need to worry so much about as fundamentalists of all religions (I’ll concede the non-fundamentalist religious are relatively harmless, even if I think they lack courage to see the world as it is and listen far too much to undeserving authorities). But belief in supernatural shortcuts to truth is what drives all fundies.

  6. Sinclair Davidson says:

    No, DD. I don’t accept that at all.

  7. DD claims that religion at best is harmless and at worst leads to all sorts of political and social consequences. This seems a rather harsh view of the world and not matched by the evidence. It might be worthwhile if DD could do a comparative study of the impact of leading skeptics and leading Christians on positive social reforms (e.g. Wilberforce and countless others verses ??) and then look at the number of skeptic organisations that are at the forefront of the provision of relief in times of world crisis (e.g the Asian Tsunami, Burma etc) or that have led key social reforms. It seems clear to me that people of faith as well as people of no faith mak positive contributions to the world. It’s also fair to say the religion as well as fundamental atheism has had negative consequences at times in world history. And as for ‘truth’ it seems that DD and others of like persuasion believe that there is no such thing as truth except for the fact that anyone with faith is clearly wrong.

  8. derrida derider says:

    No – I hold that there is such a thing as truth, but it is best attained by reason rather than faith.

    The trouble with the line “but lots of religious people do good” is twofold. Firstly, there is no counterfactual available – we don’t know what the world would look like without religion. Secondly, who can believe a priori that the world is better served by falsehood? After all the only difference between believers and non-believers here is that non-believers think all religions are false while believers think all religions except their own are false.

  9. christine says:

    The problem with the line that the “charlatans don’t do much harm” is that they don’t do much harm as long as people can apply reason to see through them. Those who can’t can be hurt a whole lot.

    The extreme case is the religious crazies (NB: religion neither necessary nor sufficient here, just that it tends to reach a wider audience) who argue that use of modern medicine is wrong, because that implies a lack of faith in God, and if your child is sick you therefore must simply pray, causing in not a few cases agonising deaths of sick children.

    Sometimes I think the natural childbirth crowd comes close to this level of silliness … actually, Sinclair, I think you took this position in a long ago discussion, didn’t you? And the Skeptics do appear to try to take on various health-related charlatans and hoaxes, for which I think we should be thankful.

  10. Sinclair Davidson says:

    The position I took was against the “modern medicine is a conspiracy against women” approach taken by the natural childbirth person I encountered. I’m pleased to say that I could see through that argument without the help of the Australian Skeptics.

  11. christine says:

    Yes, Sinclair, of course you can see through it. I don’t think anyone here doubts your intelligence. But my point was that a lot of people do get taken in (including some of my friends and family members, and to some quite bad results), and because of that having people oppose the charlatans of whatever sort is a good thing.

  12. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Maybe. I’m not convinced that people taken in by some charlatans (including my own relatives) are going to be avid readers or supporters of the Skeptics.

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