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2010: A Time for Reflection

The beginning of a new decade, or the beginning of the end of an old decade, is a good time to reflect on the past and try to get some idea of what the future might hold.  An article by D. J. Grothe in a recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer (Skepticism 2.0) reminded me of two independent movements that began about 35 years ago and have gradually converged. Grothe starts his article with a question about the intentions of the founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). The time was the mid-1970s and the place was upstate New York. The question was: did they plan on starting a worldwide grassroots critical-thinking movement?

While Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, James Randi, Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman, Martin Gardner, Marcello Truzzi, and Philip Klass were creating an organization to fight irrationality and gullibility, as represented by belief in such things as astrology and the paranormal, I was in northern California engaging in my own fight against irrationalism. I had no thoughts, however, of dealing with astrology or the paranormal. I was teaching logic and introductory philosophy courses.

The CSICOP folks labeled their endeavors as 'skeptical.' When I began teaching in 1974, critical thinking texts were called logic, practical logic, or informal logic texts. In my second semester of teaching, I used a book in my logic course by Howard Kahane called Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric-The Use of Reason in Everyday Life.1 In 2001, the New York Times eulogized Kahane as popularizing what became known as the critical thinking movement. In addition to covering numerous informal fallacies, the text covered media and textbook bias, and how language is used in politics and advertising to manipulate thinking. In other words, the text didn't limit itself to the formal requirements of cogent or sound reasoning. It also attempted to get the student to become aware of the cultural, social, psychological, and political forces that are constantly influencing us to believe what isn't true and to behave irrationally. I used the text through several editions, until I felt it didn't go deep enough into what psychologists refer to as cognitive, perceptual, and affective biases. It has been gratifying to see the publication of many fine popular texts focusing on these biases. I'll name just a few:

How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Thomas Gilovich (1993);

Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking by Thomas Kida (2006);

Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland (1992);

The Power of Persuasion: How We're Bought and Sold by Robert Levine (2003);

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely  (2008).

[Since the posting of this essay, I have published two books relating to skepticism and critical thinking. Both books include much material on cognitive biases. The Critical Thinker's Dictionary: Biases, Fallacies, and Illusions and what you can do about them (2013) and Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed! (2011). Also a book destined to become a standard in this field was published by Daniel Kahnemann in 2011: Thinking, Fast and Slow.]

Two excellent books that address the many complex issues that drive us to believe according to the natural irrational forces that drive much of human behavior should be mentioned here, even though they've never reached as vast an audience as they should have: The Psychology of Transcendence by Andrew Neher (1980) and The Psychology of Anomalous Experience: A Cognitive Approach by Graham Reed (1988).

Thirty-five years ago, skeptics didn't call what they were doing 'critical thinking' and I didn't call what I was doing in my philosophy classes 'skepticism.' I had done my doctoral dissertation under the direction of Richard H. Popkin, the foremost historian of philosophical skepticism. You can search the history of philosophical skepticism, which goes back more than 2,500 years, and you won't find much concern with the paranormal, astrology, UFOs, psychics, ghosts, faith healing, or alien visitations in ancient times...the stuff that CSICOP would focus on. If I discussed skepticism in my classes, it would have been in the context of introducing my students to epistemology, an area of philosophy that is concerned with the origin, nature, and limits of knowledge. For many years, as a teacher of courses in Logic and Critical Thinking, I never discussed psychics, the paranormal, UFOs, ghosts, or the like. I gradually brought some of these topics into my critical thinking course. Late in my career, I introduced a course called Critical Thinking about the Paranormal, which required students to apply critical thinking to the work of parapsychologist and historian of parapsychology Dean Radin, medium investigator Gary Schwartz, and several authors of healing prayer studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals.

By the time I had begun discussing skepticism in my critical thinking classes, I had replaced Kahane's text with my own. I treated skepticism as an attitude essential to critical thinking and the opposite of dogmatism. Along with being open-minded and tentative, I consider being skeptical essential to critical thinking. Being skeptical involves being distrustful of one's sense perception, one's memory, one's motives, and the testimony of others, no matter who they are or what their reputation is. Being distrustful doesn't mean rejecting or doubting; it means not taking things at face value. Things aren't always what they appear to be. Memory is often inaccurate. We often deceive ourselves about our motives, especially when it comes to beliefs where the real motive is often a desire for comfort rather than a desire for the truth. Even honorable, well-meaning people make mistakes, or lie and deceive at times. Experts and authorities aren't always right.

Too much skepticism is unhealthy, of course. It can lead to inaction, doubting everything and committing to nothing. It can become an abusive tool, used to deny the truth rather than to pursue it. Too little skepticism leads to gullibility. Being open-minded goes hand-in-hand with a healthy skepticism. It is very difficult to take seriously views that one instinctively "knows" are wrong, but if one can't seriously consider viewpoints that oppose one's beliefs, one can't claim to be open-minded. A healthy skepticism means one can't assume one's own beliefs are beyond criticism or error. Therefore, a healthy skepticism requires an ability to seriously consider arguments that oppose one's most cherished beliefs. All beliefs, in other words, must be held tentatively.

From what I've seen over the years I've been reading the Skeptical Inquirer and following the work of the folks at CSI, I think that is how they also view skepticism. It is an essential part of the critical thinker's toolkit. The critical thinking movement that I became a part of long before I'd even heard of CSICOP rarely mentioned skepticism and, before 1980, rarely used the expression 'critical thinking.' That expression became a popular buzz word in California after November 1, 1980, when Glen Dumke, the Chancellor of the California State University and Colleges (as they were then called), issued an executive order regarding General Education-Breadth graduation requirements for the CSU system. The community college system, of which I was a part, soon followed suit. It ordered that graduates “will have achieved the ability to think clearly and logically [and] to critically examine information….” Dumke made it clear that he meant a lot more by the expression “critical thinking” than just “being critical” or identifying common fallacies in reasoning. Dumke wrote:

Instruction in critical thinking is to be designed to achieve an understanding of the relationship of language to logic, which should lead to the ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and deductively, and to reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief. The minimal competence to be expected at the successful conclusion of instruction in critical thinking should be the ability to distinguish fact from judgment, belief from knowledge, and skills in elementary inductive and deductive processes, including an understanding of the formal and informal fallacies of language and thought.

This description of critical thinking could have been taken from the table of contents of one of the standard logic texts of the day, e.g., Irving Copi's Introduction to Logic. In the beginning, philosophy departments were the main providers of courses in critical thinking. About the time CSU initiated its critical thinking requirement, Richard Paul and others at Sonoma State University began an international critical thinking movement that continues to flourish. I was fortunate to be teaching nearby and was able to attend several of the group's annual conferences in its early years.

By the time I left teaching in 2007, there was hardly a department on campus that didn't have a course that satisfied the critical thinking requirement. Many colleges and universities were offering courses aimed at introducing students to science and critical thinking by teaching them about pseudoscience.

Today, there are critical thinking texts that focus on the paranormal and the pseudoscientific, e.g., Schick and Vaughn's How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age and Jonathan Smith's Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit.

Did CSICOP have anything to do with the movement in college and university courses away from purely formal studies in logical reasoning to the practical application of critical thinking skills to paranormal and pseudoscientific claims? Without a doubt. The same can be said for The Skeptics Society, founded in 1992, whose motto is "promoting science and critical thinking," and the James Randi Educational Foundation, founded in 1996, which describes itself as "an educational resource on the paranormal, pseudoscientific, and the supernatural." Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time and James Randi's Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions continue to influence and expand the movement, as have their other books.

One thing that clearly changed in the skeptical movement over the past 35 years is the attention paid to religious and supernatural claims.2 For years, religion got a free pass, while other promoters of irrationality were treated to a no-holds-barred attack. On the other hand, in philosophy classrooms, tackling issues like belief in gods, atheism and morality, spirits, miracles, etc. is standard. Furthermore, scientists rarely ventured into the area of religion except to express how science enhanced their faith. Today, books denouncing religion and proclaiming the reasonableness of atheism are commonplace. Scientists who would have used their expertise to denounce pseudoscience a few decades ago might now use their expertise to denounce belief in gods. I expect this trend to continue.

Over the past 35 years, we've seen a continual flow of pseudoscientific claptrap, but we've also seen a rise in the number of anti-scientific movements. It is no longer enough to criticize junk science for being junk. Too often the advocates' response is to reject science altogether. Those who have followed the shenanigans of the Discovery Institute (DI) have seen how this group of Christian Bible dogmatists have been promoting the view that when a tough problem emerges you stop doing science and praise God. When scientists point out that what the dogmatists claim is a tough problem has been solved, the DI dogmatists just turn to another tough problem and declare it can't be solved, praise God. This anti-scientific movement has been seen at times in parapsychology where it is claimed that psi is whimsical beyond probability and can't be studied like other natural phenomena. Similar claims have been made for homeopathy: it works individually, so control group studies are impossible. And many of us remember Ray Hyman's encounter with the chiropractors who saw their beloved applied kinesiology fail a double-blind control test. "That's why we don't use such tests," they said. "They don't work." This trend is disheartening because it indicates that despite the efforts of many people over many years, irrationalism shows evidence of being as strong as ever. Irrationalism is like a virus that mutates whenever it is exposed.

One thing that has emerged over the past quarter century is that both the skeptical movement and the critical thinking movement have converged on the absolute necessity of promoting science and educating people and the media about the paranormal, the pseudoscientific, and the supernatural. Some trends, therefore are pretty obvious. There will be more promotion of science and more criticism of religions and religious beliefs. There will be more promotion of the idea that alternative medicines are effective because of a number of factors that have nothing to do with such things as energy, chi, memory of water, etc. There will be more attention paid to how our wonderful brains and bodies contrive to lead us to many of our irrational beliefs and actions. How this material will be delivered is anybody's guess, but it probably won't be restricted to paper and ink, DVDs, podcasts, websites, and hand-held electronic devices.

Bloggers will undoubtedly expand their influence, as traditional media such as newspapers and magazines continue to flounder. Most bloggers are not beholden to advertisers, bosses, or tenure committees and their numbers are likely to continue to expand. We can expect the competition for readers to create a demand for more specific advocacy and for superior quality in what information and arguments they provide. On the other hand, we can expect that there will probably be an increase in the number of lawsuits by those whose aim is to stifle criticism and that this will have a chilling effect on bloggers, most of whom will not be backed by anyone with deep pockets.

Some may remember that Uri Geller filed suit against James Randi and CSICOP in 1991. It doesn't take much to inspire Geller to sue. In this case, he got his panties in a tuck because Randi was quoted in the International Herald Tribune as saying that Geller "tricked even reputable scientists" with tricks that "are the kind that used to be on the back of cereal boxes when I was a kid. Apparently scientists don't eat cornflakes anymore."* I don't think I became aware of Geller or his lawsuit until after I'd seen the Nova program Secrets of the Psychics (1993). I started The Skeptic's Dictionary website in 1994, but even then my main focus was on cognitive, perceptual, and affective biases; logical fallacies; and pseudoscience. My aim was to provide online supplementary materials for my logic and critical thinking students. Within a few years, I had over 300 entries, many of them dealing with the paranormal and the supernatural. (There are about 600 entries as we begin 2010, plus numerous essays, book reviews, a blog [Skeptimedia], and a monthly newsletter.) Geller's lawyers have contacted me, as have the lawyers for Transcendental Meditation, the Rolf Institute, and a few others, but I've never been sued. The most ludicrous threat I ever received was from someone who said I stole his website's proprietary name by posting a file named santa.html. Geller's lawyers didn't like the fact that I listed a link to my article on him on my Hoaxes and Frauds page. I clarified the issue (or muddied it, depending on your point of view) and haven't heard from them since. Others have not been so lucky. Ben Goldacre and the Guardian had to endure the slings and arrows of vitamin pusher Matthias Rath in a lawsuit. Simon Singh is enduring a legal attack from UK chiropractors for claiming that their bogus treatments are bogus. And now anti-vaxxer Barbara Loe Fisher is suing Paul Offit and others, ostensibly because Offit called her a liar. I don't know if Fisher is a liar, but I know Offit has saved the lives of many children, yet Fisher has all but called him a child killer.

Some things are not likely to change. There will still be plenty of quackery, pseudoscientific junk, desperate claims of scientific proof of the paranormal, and hopeful whimpers that atheism is dying. There will be more UFO sightings and conspiracy theories. There will be more Oprahs, Jennys, Suzannes, and celebrity misleaders. Our job will never end. There will be new challenges, but many will be variations on old themes. Science has always had to contend with superstitious beliefs that hinder progress. While superstitions exist in every part of the world and in every level of society, the problems we may have to face due to climate change may be exacerbated by resistance to change from nations where fatalistic, superstitious traditional beliefs throw up roadblocks. We'll have enough trouble with political ideologues in the advanced industrial nations who will fight climate change proposals on principle. Add to that those who think God's will accounts for everything, that anything we do is doomed unless God wills it, and you have a recipe for inaction and perhaps disaster.

On the other hand, there will probably be more efforts at bringing critical thinking tools to young people, as the JREF is doing with its Season of Reason campaign. I expect Skeptic will continue to enhance and expand Junior Skeptic. CSI will undoubtedly continue Camp Inquiry and the American Humanist Association will continue Camp Quest. I assume Camp Quest Great Britain, which got a boost from supporter Richard Dawkins when it ran its first summer camp in 2009, will continue to flourish. I hope CSI will revive and revitalize its Inquiring Minds program. Young people are by definition the only hope we have for the future. Our efforts to reach teachers and, through them, their students will have to remain a high priority. Having a few celebrities on our side doesn't hurt, but it won't have as much impact as creating another generation of people motivated to find the truth even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Speaking of celebrities, I expect the future will bring us more like Tim Minchin and Dara O'Briain. I also expect more scientists to do shows, to perform experiments, and to promote science with both old and new technology as Richard Wiseman does. A handful of scientists, like Phil Plait, Richard Dawkins, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, will continue to find creative ways to promote science and inculcate a desire in billions and billions of people to understand the mysteries of sub-atomic particles, the formation and development of our planet, the evolution of species, and the quest to understand such things as dark matter and other strange things that occupy this wonderful, complex thing we call the universe.

This may be a time to reflect, but it's sure not a time to rest.


1 Kahane's text is now co-authored and in its 11th edition. I've looked at the new table of contents, read the material on the paranormal and pseudoscience, and looked at one review. I also noticed that one of the best chapters in the text that used to be the second or third chapter, on the ways language is used to mislead and deceive, has been relegated to one of the later chapters, which, in my opinion, would make it much less effective. I would not recommend the latest edition.

2 When Skeptic magazine published "The God Question" (Vol. 5 No. 2), Dr. Laura Schlessinger quit the board of advisors because "Science can only describe what; guess at why; but cannot offer ultimate meaning. When man's limited intellect has the arrogance to pretend an ability to analyze God, it’s time for me to get off that train."*

December 9, 2010

with editorial and research assistance from John Renish

This page was designed by Cristian Popa.