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Heavens on Earth—the New Book by Michael Shermer, Available Now!

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 01/10/2018 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

AVAILABLE NOW Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia

In his most ambitious work yet New York Times bestselling author Michael Shermer sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality along with utopian attempts to create heaven on earth.

A scientific exploration into humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality from the bestselling author and skeptic Michael Shermer

For millennia, religions have concocted numerous manifestations of heaven and the afterlife, and though no one has ever returned from such a place to report what it is really like—or that it even exists—today science and technology are being used to try to make it happen in our lifetime. From radical life extension to cryonic suspension to mind uploading, Shermer considers how realistic these attempts are from a proper skeptical perspective.

Heavens on Earth concludes with an uplifting paean to purpose and progress and how we can live well in the here-and-now, whether or not there is a hereafter.

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Order Heavens on Earth from Shop Skeptic, and we will send you an autographed copy, signed by Michael Shermer himself! The autographed version is only available from Shop Skeptic.

Advance Praise for the Book

“This book’s theme is the one of greatest practical importance to all of us: does some heaven or afterlife await us after we die? Most Americans, and even many atheists, believe that the answer is ‘yes.’ If there is no heaven, how can we find purpose in life? Michael Shermer explores these big questions with the delightful, powerful style that made his previous books so successful—but this is his best book.”

JARED DIAMOND, professor of geography at UCLA and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and other books

“Thank goodness for Michael Shermer’s sound and inspired mindfulness and for this importantly useful volume. Truly a delicious read. Ten Goldblums out of a possible ten Goldblums!”

JEFF GOLDBLUM, actor

Heavens on Earth is absolutely brilliant, filled with profundity, startling facts, and mind-expanding ideas. Michael Shermer somehow manages to be entertaining and scientifically erudite at the same time. He also brings some of history’s greatest thinkers to life and makes their ideas accessible. This is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time.”

AMY CHUA, Yale Law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and coauthor of The Triple Package

“I appreciate every evolutionary step skepticism takes toward openness. Heavens on Earth is an affirmation that other worldviews deserve respect and understanding. In this book science may actually be catching up with the world’s wisdom traditions.”

DEEPAK CHOPRA, M.D., coauthor of War of the Worldviews and You Are the Universe

“Michael Shermer is a beacon of reason in an ocean of irrationality.”

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, director of the Hayden Planetarium, host of Cosmos and StarTalk, and author of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

The following is an excerpt from chapter 6 of Heavens on Earth. Reviews of the book will be posted on Michael Shermer’s website. Be sure to read Maria Konnikova’s New York Times book review: “The Quest for Immortality, Rebooted.” We hope you enjoy the book!

What is the Soul, Anyway?
The Problem of Identity and the
Impossibility of Immortality

by Michael Shermer

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “Second Chances,” Commander William Riker of the starship Enterprise beams down to a planet to retrieve data from a research station he visited eight years before when he was a lieutenant on board the starship Potemkin. There he discovers an exact duplicate of himself, the product of the Potemkin’s transporter beam accidentally being split into two and materializing a second Riker after the original beamed back to the ship. Lieutenant Riker remained stranded on the planet while the other continued his life trajectory in Starfleet where he moved up the ranks to Commander Riker, now on the Enterprise. DNA and brain scans of the two Rikers reveal that they are genetically identical and neurologically indistinguishable. They are true duplicates. Lieutenant Riker’s lover before the transporter mishap, Counselor Deanna Troi, is no longer romantically involved with Commander Riker on the Enterprise, and much of the episode plays out the awkwardness of experiencing and re-experiencing the break-up for the two Rikers and Troi. In the end Lieutenant Riker is assigned a post on a different ship and adopts his middle name as his first in order to distinguish himself from his new-found twin.1

Were the two Rikers two different people or duplicates of one person? If they were true duplicates, did they subsequently become two different persons the moment they started leading separate lives and forming new memories and identities? This is the essence of the identity problem and it is vital to solve for all resurrection scenarios, both religious and scientific.

The identity problem was first articulated by the ancient Greek scholar Plutarch in his thought experiment known as the “ship of Theseus.” According to the myth, Poseidon’s son Theseus sailed to Crete where he slayed the half-man/half-bull Minotaur monster. After his triumphant return to Athens, Theseus’ ship was preserved in memoriam. As the vessel aged, however, the decaying wood was gradually replaced with new timber until eventually the entire ship was made of different material. Was it still Theseus’s ship?

The answer depends on how you define the true identity of a thing—as the pattern or the material.2 If Theseus’s ship is represented by the pattern, then replacing all its lumber does not alter its identity. If the ship’s distinctiveness is held in the material of which it is made, however, or in some combination of pattern and material, then altering the physical structure changes the identity in some manner. But how much would need to exchanged before it was no longer the same “thing,” no longer Theseus’s ship?

Take our bodies. In addition to the replacement of atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, and organs every few years, there are a huge number of “foreign” cells inside us that contain no human DNA or RNA—bacteria that produce chemicals that enable our bodies to process the energy and nutrients in the food we eat, others that boost immunity, and still others whose function remains mysterious.3 More identity-shattering still, it appears that the complex eukaryotic cells of which we are made evolved billions of years ago from much simpler prokaryotic cells in a process the evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis calls symbiogenesis—the cooperative union of primitive simple prokaryotic cells into modern complex eukaryotic cells.4 The membrane-bound mitochondria organelles inside our cells that are so vital to the processing of energy, for example, have their own DNA different from that found in the nucleus of the cell (the famous mitochondrial DNA from which our genetic heritage can be traced over millions of years). It is now commonly believed that around 1.5 billion years ago some of these free-living bacteria (prokaryotes) symbiotically cooperated to form the more complex eukaryotic cells that make up modern organisms like us. So if you go back far enough in evolutionary time even our cells are foreign. And yet we don’t feel like a collection of other organisms. We feel like a whole self. The pattern of biological information coded in our genome, and the neural synaptic arrays recorded in our brain’s connectome, assures this continuity of essence. You are still you across space and time, even though the material making you up changes. Our sense of identity remains intact despite the exchange of body stuff, so our uniqueness appears to be ingrained in the pattern more than the material.

By this analysis, would a duplicate of you also be you, even if it meant that there is more than one of you? In principle, yes, as long as each of the duplicates feels like an autonomous person. This is why, in addition to the pattern and the material of identity, there is an additional component: personal perspective. Every self-contained sentient being—by which I mean the capacity to be emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, and conscious—has a personal perspective, and that is what makes each person an autonomous identity. By this definition, in the Star Trek scenario each Riker has his own personal perspective so each is his own person, in the same way that identical twins are two persons, both psychologically and legally. The moment you and your duplicate (or identical twin) begin to lead separate lives you are separate persons, not just because of the different perspectives but also because of the different experiences you have, forming distinct memories, personalities, and all the rest that goes into the make-up of your pattern of information.

The Soul. William Blake’s portrayal of the soul departing the body upon death captures what most people believe to take place. An illustration from a series designed by Blake for an edition of the poem “The Grave” by Robert Blair, engraved by Louis Schiavonetti in 1813, titled The Soul Hovering over the Body, Reluctantly Parting with Life. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The neurobiologist and philosopher Owen Flanagan summarizes the three primary characteristics of the soul:5 the Unity of Experience (a sense of self or “I”), Personal Identity (the feeling of being the same person over the course of a lifetime), and Personal Immortality (the survival of death). Polls consistently show that between 70 and 96 percent of Americans believe in a soul as so characterized.6 The vast majority of people base such belief on religious faith, but science tells us that all three of these characteristics are illusions.

Unity of Experience. There is no unified “self” that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. Instead, we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules—or neural networks—that are often at odds with one another. According to the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban the brain evolved as a modular multitasking problem-solving organ—a Swiss Army Knife of practical tools in the old metaphor, or an app-loaded iPhone in Kurzban’s upgrade.7 The module that leads us to crave sweet and fatty foods in the short-term, for example, is in conflict with the module that monitors our body image and health in the long-term. The module for cooperation is in conflict with the module for competition, as is the module for truth-telling and the module for lying. Of course, the brain does not sense itself operating so we are blissfully unaware of all these networks running largely independently of one another, so it feels like there is a unity of self.8

Personal Identity. Scientists estimate that in the course of your lifetime most of the atoms in your body will be replaced by comparable atoms—hydrogen atoms most rapidly (given that our bodies consist of 72 percent water, which is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen), then heavier elements such as carbon, sodium, and potassium.9 As atoms are replaced so too are molecules, cells, tissues, and organs, by some estimates on average every 7 to 10 years. There is a wide variation of the replacement process time, from a few days for the epithelial cells that line the gut, to a few weeks for the epidermis skin layer, to two months for red blood cells, to a year or two for liver cells, and 10 to 15 years for bone and muscle (exceptions appear to be neurons in the cerebral cortex, the inner lens cells of the eye, and heart muscle cells).10 So the belief that you are the same material person you were years ago—or will be years from now—is an illusion. At most what stays the same is the pattern of information, and even this changes over time.

Personal Immortality. We have already seen that there is no evidence for an afterlife as proposed by religionists, but what about a scientific immortality? The thought experiments above demonstrate that duplication is not an option for immortality unless there is a continuity of self from one duplicate to the next. When you fall asleep or go under general anesthesia for surgery, despite the disruption in consciousness of several hours you still feel like yourself when you wake up. How, exactly, would that happen if you were duplicated, replicated, resurrected, or uploaded? If a brain could be cryopreserved and reawakened after, say, a thousand years, would it be the same as waking up from a long sleep? Maybe. What about a brain whose connectome of information is precisely recorded and uploaded into a computer? When it is turned on would the personal perspective of the person be in there? Maybe not.

The Empyrean of God. Dante Alighieri’s 1320 poem “The Divine Comedy” is an imaginative vision of the afterlife inspired by medieval Christian theologians. The artist Gustave Doré illustrated God’s empyrean for an 1892 edition of the work.

The identity problem confronts both religious and nonreligious seekers of immortality. If you are religious and believe in the resurrection of the body or the soul in heaven, for example, how does God go about the duplication or transformation process to insure conscious continuity and personal perspective? Is it your atoms and patterns that are resurrected, or just the patterns? If both, and you are physically resurrected, does God reconstitute your body so it is no longer subject to disease and aging? If it is just the patterns of you that are resurrected, what is the platform that holds the information? Is there something in heaven that is the equivalent to a computer hard drive or the cloud? Is there some sort of heavenly quantum field that retains your thoughts and memories? If you are not religious (or even if you are) and hold out hope that one day scientists will be able to clone your body and duplicate your brain, or upload your mind into a computer, or create a virtual reality in which you come alive again, we face the same technological problems as God would of how this is to be done.

So our self is defined by our pattern of information as much as it is by the stuff of which we are made, and it is our personal perspective and our unique experiences that makes us autonomous selves regardless of how similar or dissimilar we are from others. This is the real you. This is your soul.

The sums involved in achieving immortality through the duplication or resurrection scenarios are not to be underestimated. There are around 85 billion neurons in a human brain, each with about a thousand synaptic links, for a total of 100 trillion connections to be accurately preserved and replicated. This is a staggering level of complexity made all the more so by the additional glial cells in the brain, which provide support and insulation for neurons and can change the actions of firing neurons, so these cells better be preserved as well in any duplication or resurrection scenario, just in case.11 Estimates of the ratio of glial cells to neurons in a brain vary from 1:1 to 10:1. If you’re not a lightning calculator, that computes to a total brain cell count of somewhere between 170 billion and 850 billion. Then factor in the hundreds or thousands of synaptic connections between each of the 85 billion neurons, adding approximately 100 trillion synaptic connections total for each brain. That’s not all. There are around ten billion proteins per neuron, which effect how memories are stored, plus the countless extracellular molecules in between those tens of billions of brain cells.

These estimates are just for the brain and do not even include the rest of the nervous system outside of the skull—what neuroscientists call the “embodied brain” or the “extended mind” and which many philosophers of mind believe is necessary for normal cognition. So you might want to have this extended mind resurrected or uploaded along with your mind. After all, you are not just your internal thoughts and emotions disconnected from your body. Many of your thoughts and emotions are intimately entwined with how your body interacts with its environment, so any preserved connectome, to be fully operational as recreating the experience of what it is like to be a sentient being, would also need to be housed in a body. So we would need a warehouse of brainless clones or very sophisticated robots prepared to have these uploaded mind neural units installed. How many? Well, to avoid the charge of elitism, it’s only fair that everyone who ever lived be resurrected, so that means multiplying the staggering data package for one person by 108 billion.

Then there’s the relationship between memory and life history. Our memory is not like a videotape that can be played back on the viewing screen of our minds. When an event happens to us, a selective impression of it is made on the brain through the senses. As that sense impression wends its way through different neural networks, where it ends up depends on what type of memory it is. As a memory is processed and prepared for long-term storage we rehearse it and in the process it is changed. This editing process depends on previous memories, subsequent events and memories, and emotions. This process recurs trillions of times in the course of a lifetime, to the point where we have to wonder if we have memories of actual events, or memories of the memories of those events, or even memories of memories of memories…. What’s the “true” memory? There is no such thing. Our memories are the product of trillions of synaptic neuronal connections that are constantly being edited, redacted, reinforced, and extinguished, such that a resurrection of a human with memories intact will depend on when in the individual’s life history the replication or resurrection is implemented.

Most of our memories are lost over time, so when God, Omega, the Singularity, or far future Humans (GOSH) reconstructs the pattern of your memories, which ones actually represent you? The answer is none, some, and all. There is no coherently fixed individual in some absolute sense. Our self—our soul—consists of a constantly changing matrix of traits and memory patterns that are coherent enough for us to feel like we have a self/soul, and for others to treat us like we do, so a replicating entity must determine which set of patterns best represents our self/soul such that it would be recognizable to yourself and others. If GOSH resurrects you, for example, which of your memories will be included and from which point in your life? If it is a select set of memories at some point, say age 29, that’s not all of you. If it is all of the memories you formed throughout your entire life, that might be interesting (and revealing!) but this would not be what it is like to be you at any point in your life.

Finally, there is the problem of history and the lost past. I have defined history as “a conjuncture of events compelling a certain course of action by constraining prior events.”12 Most of those constraining prior events—contingencies and necessities, or chance and law—are not only lost to historians, they aren’t even apparent to those alive at the time. The problem of the irrecoverable past of both people and society is a serious one that any theory of immortality must solve. Even if GOSH could create a perfect replica of my genome and connectome, a human life is so much more than that. It is a product of all our relations with other people and their life histories, plus our interactions with all the elements in our environment, which is itself a product of countless systems and histories all wrapped up in a complex matrix with so many variables that it is inconceivable how any supercomputer or omnipotent deity could duplicate it all even if the information were available, which it isn’t.

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In his book The Physics of Immortality the physicist Frank Tipler calculates that an Omega Point computer in the far future will contain 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 123 bits (a 1 followed by 10123 zeros), powerful enough, he says, to resurrect everyone who ever lived.13 That may be—it is a staggeringly large number—but is even an Omega Point computer powerful enough to reconstruct all of the historical contingencies and necessities in which a person lived, such as the weather, climate, geography, economic cycles, recessions and depressions, social trends, religious movements, wars, political revolutions, paradigm shifts, ideological revolutions, and the like, on top of duplicating our genome and connectome? It seems unlikely, but if so GOSH would also need to duplicate all of the individual conjunctures and interactions between that person and all other persons as they intersect with and influence each other in each of those lifetimes. Then multiply all that by the 108 billion people who ever lived or are currently living. Whatever the number, it would have to be even larger than the famed Googolplex (10 to the power of a googol, with a googol being 10100, or 10^10100) from which Google and its Googleplex headquarters derived its name.14 Even a googol of googolplexes would not suffice. In essence, it would require the resurrection of the entire universe and its many billions of years of history. Inconceivable.

Get an Autographed 1st Edition from Shop Skeptic References
  1. “Second Chances.” 1993. Star Trek, The Next Generation. Episode 150. Aired May 24. Summary: http://bit.ly/1SdFwvv. Script: http://bit.ly/1RvhleL
  2. Chisholm, Roderick M. 2004. Person and Object: A Metaphysical Study. Routledge, 89.
  3. Wenner, Melinda. 2007. “Humans Carry More Bacterial Cells than Human Ones.” Scientific American, November 30. http://bit.ly/1uhlM0s
  4. Margulis, Lynn. 1998. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York: Basic Books; Margulis, Lynn. 2011. ‘Symbiogenesis. A new principle of evolution rediscovery of Boris Mikhaylovich Kozo-Polyansky (1890–1957).” Paleontological Journal 44 (12): 1525–1539.
  5. Flanagan, Owen. 2002. The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them by Owen Flanagan. New York: Basic Books.
  6. Ibid., 164.
  7. Kurzban, Robert. 2012. Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite. Princeton University Press.
  8. Research in cognitive psychology also supports this proposition, elegantly summarized by the cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood in The Self Illusion, employing an analogy with a science fiction film: “We process the outside world through our nervous system in order to create a model of reality in our brains. And, just like the matrix in the science fiction movie, not everything is what it seems. We all know the power of visual illusions to trick the mind into perceiving things incorrectly, but the most powerful illusion is the sense that we exist inside our heads as an integrated, coherent individual or self.” Hood, Bruce. 2012. The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3.
  9. Kestenbaum, David. 2007. “Atomic Tune-Up: How the Body Rejuvenates Itself. NPR, July 14, http://n.pr/1qbBP3a
  10. Wade, Nicholas. 2005. “Your Body is Younger Than you Think.” New York Times, August 2, http://nyti.ms/1pLXzC4
  11. Jabr, Ferris. 2012. “Know Your Neurons: What is the Ratio of Glia to Neurons in the Brain?” Scientific American, June 13, http://bit.ly/1W3nJeF
  12. Shermer, Michael. 1995. Exorcising Laplace’s Demon: Chaos and Antichaos, History and Metahistory. History and Theory 34, no. 1:59–83.
  13. Tipler, Frank J. 1994. The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead. New York: Doubleday.
  14. The difference in the spelling—googolplex and googleplex—is because, says Google co-founder Larry Page, they didn’t yet have spell check when they named the company.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #605: The Civil War Pterosaur

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 01/08/2018 - 4:00pm
This famous Internet photo of Civil War soldiers posing with a pterosaur has a surprising source.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Trial by Therapy: The Jerry Sandusky Case Revisited

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 01/03/2018 - 12:00am

“It was incredibly difficult for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.” —Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Linda Kelly after the Sandusky guilty verdict

In June 2012, the 68-year-old Jerry Sandusky, for three decades a successful and admired assistant to Pennsylvania State University’s legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, was found guilty on 45 counts of child molestation and was remanded to prison for, effectively, the rest of his life. Sandusky was exposed as a serial pedophile on a scarcely imaginable scale, and 10 of his victims—presumably a small sample—were featured in his trial. Penn State would eventually pay $109 million (and counting) in compensation to at least 35 men who had been schoolboys at the time of their reported abuse. And presumably there were hundreds more victims. Since 1977 Sandusky had led a substantial program of his own devising for disadvantaged youth, The Second Mile, that was thought to have served him as a “candy store,” affording opportunities to “groom” neglected boys and then to have his way with them.

Jerry Sandusky around 1999 with Second Mile kids, most of whom later claimed that he abused them and received millions of dollars in settlements. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The Sandusky case was so mortifying that it triggered the firing of Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, a vice president, Gary Schultz, its athletic director, Tim Curley, and the idolized Joe Paterno himself, at age 84 and after 61 years of service, for having abetted Sandusky’s crimes. Specifically, they had failed to take action after one horrific incident had been called to their notice. Paterno died of lung cancer two months after his shaming. Schultz and Curley, later indicted on felony charges, pleaded guilty to a compromise charge of child endangerment, for which they each received a two-year jail sentence (not entirely served). President Spanier protested his innocence but was convicted of the same offense and sentenced to four to 12 months of combined jail time and house arrest. (His appeal is still in process.) And in the wake of Sandusky’s own conviction, Penn State was fined $860 million and otherwise condemned and sanctioned for having placed sports mania ahead of helpless children’s welfare.

All that furor was commensurate with the depravity of Sandusky’s alleged crimes, divulged in sensational news reports after a grand jury “presentment” (summary) was released and dramatically recapitulated at the trial seven months later. A university janitor, Ronald Petrosky, testified that a fellow janitor, Jim Calhoun, had happened upon Sandusky, around the year 2000, giving oral sex to a boy in a university shower. And more directly, emotional Second Mile veterans told of having been subjected to multiple assaults. Under prosecution questioning, for example, Aaron Fisher agreed that between 2006 and 2008 he had been forced into oral copulation more than 25 times. Ryan Rittmeyer said that after initially fending off Sandusky’s advances, he gave in and repeatedly exchanged oral sex with his abuser. According to Brett Swisher Houtz, Sandusky had molested him in showers, in a sauna, and in hotel rooms, forcing him to assume “69” positions. There had been over 40 such events, Houtz reported, occurring two or three times a week. And Sabastian Paden told the grand jury of even more savage treatment.

None of those stories is as well remembered, though, as that of Mike McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback and coach who, as a graduate student at the turn of the century, had been serving as an apprentice to the coaching staff. Two factors set McQueary apart. First, by 2012 he was the only mentally competent person who claimed to have seen Sandusky in the act of molesting a boy. And second, he was the informant who had alerted Coach Paterno and thence Athletic Director Curley, Vice President Schultz, and President Spanier. “Remember that little boy in the shower,” Governor Tom Corbett admonished the governing board that was about to sack all four men. And that boy in the shower is what the American public remembers, too.

To judge from the grand jury presentment of November 2011, there was no doubt about what McQueary had observed a decade earlier. At about 9:30 on the evening of March 1, 2002, it was stated, McQueary, upon entering the locker room of Penn State’s Lasch Football Building, had heard “rhythmic slapping sounds” indicative of sexual intercourse. Sure enough, when he had peered into the communal shower area he had seen a boy, roughly 10 years old, with his hands against the wall, being sodomized by Jerry Sandusky. McQueary had been too flustered to intervene, but on the next morning he notified Paterno, assuming, mistakenly, that Paterno and higher officials would turn Sandusky in to the police.

Once the McQueary story became public knowledge, Sandusky’s conviction in the following spring was a foregone conclusion. In the aftermath, the university’s new administration rushed to make amends. In addition to paying handsome settlements to claimants, it welcomed punishments and sanctions, tightened its rules on sexual abuse, and humbly acceded to a stinging report by the former FBI director Louis Freeh, deploring the disgraced leaders’ “total and consistent disregard…for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” From the issuance of the $8.3 million Freeh report in July 2012 until now, that has been the received wisdom. Its truth will be memorialized in the format that modern Americans find most convincing: an HBO docudrama, in this instance featuring Al Pacino as the devious Joe Paterno.

Not quite everyone, however, has been on board. A separate four-month investigation by John Snedden, a federal agent tasked with judging whether the fired president Graham Spanier ought to be stripped of his national security clearance, found no evidence whatsoever of administrative wrongdoing. There hadn’t been a cover-up, wrote Snedden, because there had been nothing to cover up. (Snedden offered his evidence to the Freeh investigators, but they disregarded it.) And John Ziegler, a conservative talk show host and documentary filmmaker, independently reached the same conclusion as Snedden—though no one paid attention to his argument. Ziegler had been troubled by an incongruity: how could the famously ethical Paterno have brushed aside the news of pedophilic rape by his own former defensive coordinator? Ziegler began his inquiry with only Paterno’s vindication in mind, but he ended, to his surprise, by believing that Sandusky himself was blameless.

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Can a sustained, comprehensive case be made for that inference? It already exists, in a book that was rejected by every major publisher and finally issued in November 2017 by the modest Sunbury Press of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Until now the work has been almost entirely ignored by reviewers. Yet it comes with the strong endorsement of a world-renowned psychologist and memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus, and a leading expert on coercive interrogation methods and false confessions, Richard A. Leo. If they are right, Mark Pendergrast’s 391-page The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment can erase the shame of both Penn State and Sandusky, who languishes in solitary confinement, for 22 hours a day, in a maximum-security state prison.

Pendergrast is an independent scholar and science writer who has long been concerned with the psychology and disastrous consequences of falsely “recovered memory.” Like nearly all consumers of mainstream news, Pendergrast at first took the reports of Sandusky’s misdeeds at face value. But when, in 2013, he received a tip that there appeared to be a recovered memory aspect to the case, he was intrigued. After studying all pertinent documents, corresponding with Sandusky and twice visiting him, and interviewing family members, alumni of Sandusky’s Second Mile program, and other figures involved in the case, Pendergrast assembled an imposing argument against the consensus. What follows is based on detailed evidence and reasoning in The Most Hated Man in America.

From the public’s standpoint, Sandusky’s criminality was epitomized in Mike McQueary’s revolting image of the shower room copulation. But McQueary’s testimony—which, he admitted, had been reframed in his mind “many, many, many times”—had evolved in stages between his first statement to the police in November 2010 and his appearance at Sandusky’s trial in the spring of 2012. In the final version, for example, he had peered into the shower three times, not twice, and he had halted Sandusky’s assault by loudly slamming his locker door—a strangely timid means for a 26-year-old, 6’5”, 220-pound athlete to have “done something about” the ongoing rape of a child. More important, McQueary’s belief that he had witnessed anal penetration wasn’t settled until quite late. At one point, in fact, he complained to Deputy District Attorney Jonelle Eshbach that she had twisted his words to make them sound more definite—but he was instructed, remarkably, to keep his mouth shut about it.

McQueary’s wavering could cause one to doubt the accuracy of his final testimony. And, as it happens, all of his late accounts departed radically from his first narration to listeners at the time. Which story, then, ought to be believed? The answer is obvious. In 2010 through 2012 McQueary was revisiting a decade-old incident that he now regarded in the light of other alarming charges against Sandusky that police and prosecutors had disclosed to him; but in the first instance he was telling people about a fresh experience. Significantly, Sandusky’s jury, which got everything else wrong, acquitted him of rape in that instance.

Here, then, is the most trustworthy variant of the story. From outside the locker room before he entered it, McQueary had heard slapping noises that sounded sexual to him. “Visualizations come to your head,” as he would later say. In the few seconds it took him to get to his locker, the noise had stopped. Curious, he looked into the shower room through a mirror and caught a glimpse of a boy. Then an arm reached out and pulled the boy back. Horrified, McQueary assumed he had narrowly missed watching a rape. But had he?

After closing his locker, McQueary had seen Jerry Sandusky walking out of the shower area, but he had made no attempt to confront him. Instead, he phoned his father, an office manager, and told him what he had heard and noticed. John McQueary asked him to come right over, and he also summoned his friend and employer, the nephrologist Jonathan Dranov. Dranov then grilled Mike, repeatedly asking him whether he had witnessed a sex act. No, he hadn’t. Considering the unlikelihood that the respected Jerry Sandusky had been living a Jekyll-Hyde existence, John McQueary and Dr. Dranov decided that no abuse had probably occurred.

So, evidently, did Mike McQueary. Several months after the shower incident, he signed up to participate in a celebrity golf tournament that bore Sandusky’s name, and he continued to associate cordially with Sandusky in later years. Could he have done so knowing that the pedophile’s depredations were going unpunished and unreported to the police?

Coach Paterno, too, when Mike consulted him, hadn’t been greatly concerned. Although the gregarious, practical joking Sandusky grated on Paterno, a lone taskmaster who never befriended his players, Paterno was sure that “Saint Sandusky,” as Sports Illustrated had called him in 1998 when honoring his charitable work, was no pervert. The venerable coach was already familiar with Sandusky’s “horsing around,” in plain sight, with boys who lacked a father’s companionship. Paterno didn’t care for it, but he didn’t regard it in a sexual light.

Given the ambiguous circumstances, Paterno did the right thing. He presented the matter to his immediate superior, Athletic Director Curley, who then conferred with Vice President Schultz and President Spanier. The three parties agreed that while Sandusky must be forbidden to bring any more Second Mile boys to campus, the shower episode had consisted of innocuous play.

The accuracy of that interpretation was confirmed by the grown-up shower boy himself, Allan Myers, who was almost 14 at the time of the incident. In May 2011, before the McQueary story went public, Myers wrote a letter defending Sandusky’s character in general terms. Then, after the grand jury presentment was made available on November 4, Myers, having recognized himself as the allegedly sodomized boy, gave a statement to an investigator for Sandusky’s defense in which he denied that anything sexual had occurred. And he added, indignantly, that the police had already been trying to bully him into alleging molestation by Sandusky. Myers’s recollection of the shower incident matched Sandusky’s own: the goings-on had consisted of friendly slap boxing and/or towel snapping, period.

McQueary’s later memory of the shower incident was so poor that he misdated it by more than a year, placing it on March 1, 2002. Later inquiry put it at February 9, 2001—but that date, too, was almost certainly wrong. It was chosen because the time of McQueary’s conversation with Joe Paterno was well established as February 10, and McQueary had testified that he met with Paterno on the day after the incident. But John Ziegler has shown, and Sandusky himself concurs, that the incident almost certainly took place on December 29, 2000.

If so, McQueary had waited more than five weeks to bring the matter up with Paterno. That would be further evidence that after conferring with his father and Dr. Dranov, McQueary was uncertain that any offense had been committed in the Lasch building. The absence of a police investigation at the time attests not to criminal negligence by Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier but to their reasonable judgment, shared by a calmed-down McQueary, that the matter was already resolved.

For a while the McQueary/Myers episode had looked like a smoking gun, until it turned out to be merely a water pistol. But the police and other authorities, though well aware of the considerations that had led Paterno and the others to deem Sandusky innocent, were undeterred. For them, McQueary’s latest memory was the most authentic. They derived their confidence from the fact that they had already been working with another accuser, Aaron Fisher, whose charges, though replete with dubious oddities, they were determined to believe.

The whole initiative against Sandusky had begun in November 2008 when Fisher, a former Second Miler whose delinquent tendencies had included a frequently rebuked penchant for lying, began at age 14 to feel that Sandusky’s attentions to him might have betrayed an aspect of perversion. Fisher had confided his worry to his mother, Dawn Daniels, who had taken advantage of Sandusky’s mentorship of her son to party hard in local bars. Until then, she had regarded Sandusky as “a real dumb jock with a heart of gold.” Now, however, she wanted to know whether he had ever molested her son.

Dawn Fisher Daniels Hennessy, the mother of Aaron Fisher (“Victim 1”), posted this picture on MySpace in 2008, boasting of her inebriation in a bar. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The answer she received from her son was an unequivocal no. Aaron did hold a grudge against Sandusky, but on further questioning it transpired that the source of resentment was Sandusky’s insistence on staying in supportive contact with him after the boy had become exasperated with Second Mile moralism and positive thinking. It was his mother, now, who pursued the seduction theme. According to her next-door neighbor, Joshua Fravel, she once boasted, “I’m going to get a lawyer and make a million dollars off Jerry Sandusky.” She is also said to have told him, “I’m gonna own the motherfucker’s house.” Likewise, in Pendergrast’s words, “Aaron Fisher later allegedly told Fravel that he planned to buy a big house in the country for his mother and family….”

A 2015 photo of Aaron Fisher, “Victim 1,” posted on Facebook. Covered with money (presumably from his Sandusky settlement), he is giving the finger to his critics. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The problem, however, was that Aaron couldn’t initially bring himself to declare that Sandusky had ever molested him. Yes, Sandusky had hugged him to “crack his back” after wrestling around, but they had both been fully clothed. That was all. Social workers in Clinton County’s Children and Youth Services urged Aaron to say more, but when he still showed reluctance, they deduced that his memory needed enhancing. And so they sent him upstairs to the psychotherapist Mike Gillum, who was, in all respects except the name, a recovered memory psychologist.

Gillum believed, as did the tutors of the mass “recovered memory” delusion in the 1980s and 1990s, that the usual response to a trauma is to “dissociate,” blocking awareness of the event in progress while nevertheless storing a repressed recollection of it in the unconscious. The therapist’s imagined task was to bring that repressed memory into consciousness and thus, in theory, to restore psychological health. Typically, a sexual abuse specialist would build trust in him- or herself while subtracting it from the alleged abuser, most often a father, stepfather, or other caretaker. As this disorienting process rendered patients more agitated and depressed, their unraveling would be offered as proof that the repressed memories were approaching the surface at last. The unraveling, anyway, was genuine. Aaron Fisher, for example, suffered panic attacks, became suicidal, and nearly killed himself in a car wreck.

As many researchers have shown, and as Mark Pendergrast himself expounds in another recent book on the subject, Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die (Upper Access, 2017), people actually tend to remember traumatic experiences quite vividly. (Has any survivor of the Holocaust, excepting those with brain damage or dementia, ever lost awareness of it?) Yet memory is also reconstructive, or framed anew with each effort of recall, and therefore it is subject to distortion in the light of subsequently acquired beliefs. To fall under the sway of a recovered memory practitioner is to acquire just such a belief, ensuring that artifactual details or a wholly invented incident will acquire the force of a real memory.

This was to be Aaron Fisher’s development under the watchful eye of Mike Gillum. The latter, noting Aaron’s nervousness in his company, classified him at once as a survivor of molestation. Gillum began spending many hours each day with the boy and making himself available by phone around the clock. He told Aaron that he would help and protect him until the memory of abuse could be safely expressed. As Fisher would later avow, “It wasn’t until I was 15 and started seeing Mike that I realized the horror.” Nor was it necessary for Aaron to tell Gillum what he thought had happened. The psychologist prided himself on guessing the truth and stating it to the boy, who would simply nod his head or say “Yes” or “No”—and “No” was clearly not an acceptable answer.

In Gillum’s view, as in that of other memory therapists, a severe trauma can be recalled only piecemeal, in anguished stages, with the result that the very latest iteration is sure to be the most accurate one. Gillum likened the process to peeling an onion. Such a model discounts the therapist’s all-important influence over the process of recall under treatment. Indeed, in the opinion of psychologists who study memory, when a “memory” keeps accreting ever more grotesque and improbable details, that is a sign that the originating event probably hadn’t occurred at all.

Having seen Aaron Fisher every day for weeks, Gillum felt frustrated when he was excluded from Aaron’s first police interrogation, which yielded meager results. After that setback, though, Gillum became in effect a tool of the prosecution, sitting in on every interview and, by his very presence, reminding Aaron of what he was expected to say.

Even so, Aaron’s compliance was always hesitant and partial. Gillum would later tell Pendergrast that it had taken him six months (actually seven) to get his patient to state in so many words that Sandusky had forced oral sex upon him—a charge that Aaron retracted when quizzed about it in the first of three grand jury appearances. The jurors, possessing no solid evidence against Sandusky, refused to hand down an indictment. In Aaron’s second appearance, he was so distraught and confused that, once again, no action was taken. And he tried to back out altogether from making the third appearance. A newly constituted grand jury had to settle for his reading a text that may have been crafted by others. Even at the trial in 2012, he could do no better than sob through rehearsed assent to statements by a prosecuting attorney.

Those statements included an assertion that Fisher had been an overnight guest in Sandusky’s house about a hundred times during the period of abuse, 2003–8. Mutual but by no means consensual fellatio had supposedly been practiced in the basement. But why had the boy returned, again and again, for more of what was traumatizing him? Had he sleepwalked through all five years? Like most false memories, Fisher’s couldn’t be reconciled with norms of plausibility. Nonetheless, his sobs on the witness stand, possibly expressing entrapment and remorse for his part in railroading Sandusky into prison, made a stronger impression on the jury than his illogic did.

Long before Sandusky’s trial, state officials had been shown that Fisher by himself, a mentally fragile teenager who kept changing his story, wasn’t going to bring Sandusky down. Before they had heard of the McQueary/Myers incident, only one other possible victim besides Fisher was known to them. In 1998 Debra McCord, the mother of a Second Mile child, 14-year-old Zachary Konstas, had been alarmed to learn that Sandusky had play-wrestled with him during another post-workout shower. She had notified the police, who investigated her claim of abuse and even performed two sting operations designed to entrap the perpetrator. But Zach Konstas himself insisted that Sandusky had merely been engaging in his usual mock-aggressive foolery.

Finding no incriminating evidence, the police had declared Debra McCord’s suspicions to be unfounded. And McCord herself must have agreed with their judgment. For the next dozen years she allowed Zach to continue attending football games with Sandusky and visiting his home. Indeed, Zach and Allan Myers, the more important if still anonymous shower boy who was now a young man, shared a dinner with Jerry and Dottie Sandusky as late as July 2011.

Dottie Sandusky at Christmas 2010. After she defended her husband in a 2014 appearance on the Today show, viewers wrote that she was a “hag,” a “sicko,” a “rapist,” and that she deserved the death penalty. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

To an objective observer, the terminated Konstas episode would have held no forensic interest. But Deputy District Attorney Eshbach and memory therapist Gillum were not objective observers. Because Eshbach never doubted that Sandusky was a serial molester, she hoped to lure Konstas into joining Aaron Fisher as a self-announced victim. And she decided to cast a wide dragnet for further victims, ordering troopers to interrogate every Second Mile veteran they could find who had had personal dealings with the founder.

Ironically, the sleuths were aided in that task by Sandusky’s upbeat autobiography of 2000, unselfconsciously titled Touched (!). It contained photographs of the beaming suspect with his arms draped around easily identifiable prepubescent boys. In that book, by the way, Sandusky had written about “reaching out” to boys and “having fun” in “wrestling” with them. As Pendergrast asks, would a child molester be likely to have allowed such a work to see print?

Eshbach’s agents told each respondent, falsely, that quite a few other young men had already volunteered narratives of molestation by Sandusky—so shouldn’t they, too, reveal what had been done to them? The overwhelming majority of some 600 ex-Second Milers, however, gave versions of the same disappointing answer. Yes, Sandusky had tickled them, squeezed their knees, cracked their backs, or even kissed them on the forehead at age 10 or 11; but this hadn’t been grooming for later assaults. It had simply expressed affectionate comradeship from a father figure. For many of these 20-somethings Sandusky had remained a hero, a man of spotless character who had once spared them from wretchedness and then, in their troubled adolescence, steered them toward responsible adulthood by providing advice and incentives for good schoolwork and clean living.

The interviewees’ recurrent mention of Sandusky’s moral counsel ought to have signaled caution to the district attorney. Some recalcitrant Second Milers had spurned their former mentor and plunged into early experimentation with alcohol, drugs, and sex. For them, Sandusky’s redoubled exhortations to virtue had rendered him an annoyance. If he had ever molested them, they would surely have fired back against such gross inconsistency. (“Who are you, a rapist of children, to be lecturing me?”) Yet no one, not even Sandusky’s most florid accusers, ever seems to have called him a hypocrite.

Among so many young men drawn in by the dragnet, however, there were bound to be a few who, in bad financial straits that were sometimes worsened by criminal records, caught the scent of money. Aaron Fisher’s mother, we recall, may have glimpsed that benefit from the start. Without explicitly saying so, Eshbach and police investigators implied that testimony against the abuser could lead to riches. Nor would the young men necessarily have to perjure themselves on the witness stand. If they would merely entertain the hypothesis that they had been violated by Sandusky many years before, when their sexual ignorance had prevented them from registering the offense, then Mike Gillum or other therapists, such as State College’s Cynthia MacNab, could assist them in bringing their “compartmentalized” memories to the surface.

By the time of the trial, Aaron Fisher and Zach Konstas were ready to denounce Sandusky—for Konstas, too, must have “flipped” under therapeutic pressure, now maintaining that the pedophile had been grooming him for future abuse. As a result of their recruiting, the authorities also had four new “victims” in tow, plus two more who belatedly responded to a hotline number that was established after the media had pounced on the Sandusky scandal. Thanks to the hotline, previously unknown parties could simply phone in to stake a claim. Then, too, there was Mike McQueary, who had finally convinced himself, on the basis of others’ charges, that he had actually witnessed a homosexual rape. And with the janitor Ronald Petrosky ready to report about another one, the prosecutors’ case was finally looking strong.

The appearance of strength, however, isn’t the same thing as proof, and dozens of false memories are no better than one. Let us review the claims of each accuser, as Pendergrast does more fully in The Most Hated Man in America.

1. Mike McQueary/Allan Myers. As we have seen, McQueary witnessed no sexual activity in the shower, and Myers confirmed that nothing untoward had been going on. Myers’s later intention to testify in Sandusky’s behalf should have put the question to rest.

2. Zachary Konstas told both his mother and the police that he and Sandusky had indulged in harmless horseplay in 1998. There is no reason to believe otherwise. In 2009, as a 23-year-old, Konstas messaged, “Hey Jerry just want 2 wish u a Happy Fathers Day! Greater things are yet 2 come!” And later that year he wrote, “Happy Thanksgiving bro! I’m glad God has placed U in my life. Ur an awesome friend!” Konstas’s “flipping,” just before the trial, may have resulted from some combination of opportunism, psychotherapy (which he did undergo), and surrender to a general moral panic.

3. Aaron Fisher. The “victim” who set the Penn State tragedy in motion was egged on by his mother and then by the memory diver Mike Gillum. We have seen that in a number of ways, straight through the trial, Fisher manifested a reluctance to accuse Sandusky of misdeeds that he could never clearly bring to mind. And his friendly association with Sandusky throughout the five years of alleged abuse argues strongly against the likelihood that any abuse occurred.

4. Dustin Struble (b. 1984) recalled the Second Mile program with unmixed gratitude in 2004. That was when he wrote on a scholarship application, “Jerry Sandusky, he has helped me understand so much about myself. He is such a kind and caring gentleman, and I will never forget him.” More recently, when Pendergrast asked Struble what he would have said about Sandusky in 2010, he replied, “I would have said I went to games with him and that we were friends.” Indeed, tailgate parties with the Sanduskys had been a regular feature of his life for 14 years, until he was 25.

Nevertheless, when the McQueary scandal broke in 2011, Struble wondered whether Sandusky’s typically hands-on encounters with him could have included a sexual component. In February 2011 he told investigators that he was entering psychotherapy, presumably in order to dredge up repressed memories. Still, on April 11 of the same year, he assured the grand jury that, so far as he could recall, Sandusky had never once touched him inappropriately.

But around that time, Struble began comparing notes with his fellow memory patient Zach Konstas. Before long he signed a contingency fee agreement with a local attorney, Andrew Shubin. Obviously, then, the lawyer and his client were looking forward to splitting a possible settlement for psychological harm. Struble met with Shubin 10 to 15 times before the trial, and he entered therapy with Cindy MacNab to find hidden memories of abuse.

Soon thereafter, Struble’s story drastically changed. Sandusky, he claimed, had touched his penis in a car and had nestled against him erotically in a shower. Asked in cross examination why he hadn’t disclosed those events in earlier testimony, he replied in recovered memory psychobabble: “That doorway that I had closed has since been reopening more.” And in a 2014 email to Pendergrast, Struble wrote: “Actually both of my therapists have suggested that I have repressed memories, and that’s why we have been working on looking back on my life for triggers. My therapist has suggested that I still may have more repressed memories that have yet to be revealed, and this could be a big cause of the depression that I still carry today.”

5. Michal Kajak (b. 1988), a friend of both Struble’s and Zach Konstas’s, said nothing to investigators until well after the Sandusky uproar had become headline news. Then, on June 7, 2011, he alleged that Sandusky had once seized his hand and placed it on his (Sandusky’s) erect penis. When had this happened? At first Kajak located the offense in the fall of 1998, before he and Sandusky had even met. Later he changed the date to August 2001. No, he corrected himself again, it had been sometime in 2002, in Penn State’s Lasch Football building. But by then Sandusky was complying with former Athletic Director Curley’s ban on bringing any Second Mile boys onto the campus; so this date, like the first one, is unbelievable.

By moving the incident’s occurrence to 2001 or 2002, Kajak and his attorney were placing it “post-McQueary”—that is, at a time when the Penn State administration would be vulnerable to the highest damages for having neglected to turn Sandusky in to the police. And indeed, Kajak’s final version would be worth millions to him and his lawyer. But had any misbehavior ever taken place? Like all of the other supposed victims, Kajak had never mentioned it to anyone and had gone right on cordially fraternizing with his presumptive abuser.

6. In July 2011 Jason Simcisko (b. 1987) was questioned by two policemen whom he told, in the words they quoted,

I lost touch with [Sandusky] around the time I went into tenth grade. I was in trouble a lot then: in and out of foster homes and stuff. He made me feel special, giving me stuff and spending time with me. I just always took it that he was trying to make sure I kept out of trouble. I don’t believe any of this stuff is true and hope that he’s found not guilty.

But a month later Simcisko had taken on Dustin Struble’s contingency fee lawyer, Andrew Shubin, and had changed his tune. Now, it seems, he had spent some 20 overnights in the Sandusky home and had been subjected to numerous genital rubbings. By the time of the trial, 20 visits had grown to 50, and Sandusky’s touching of his penis had occurred nearly every time. Once again, recovered memory was invoked. When challenged about inconsistency with earlier statements, Simcisko responded, “I tried to block this out of my brain for years.”

7. Brett Houtz (b. 1983) was a rebellious adolescent—by all accounts a habitual liar and manipulator who neglected school, dropped out of sports, used drugs, stole a car, and got sexually involved with a young girl. Sandusky had taken him on as an especially challenging project, but by 16 Houtz was fed up with Sandusky’s preachy messages, some of which would be introduced in the trial as grooming “love letters.”

Abuse became an issue for Brett Houtz only after the press sensation that began on March 31, 2011. Reading of the charges against Sandusky, Houtz’s biological father got in touch with him and proposed that he retain a lawyer and get in on the action. Houtz’s immediate retort was that he wanted nothing to do with the case. On reconsideration, though, he retained Benjamin Andreozzi, the lawyer his father had contacted, who would end by serving lucratively as the attorney for 10 claimants against Penn State.

Even then, Houtz refused at first to enter charges against Sandusky. Afterwards, two police officers drew him out, with attorney Andreozzi present, in the only interview with a Second Miler that was ever tape recorded. The tape could serve as a classic lesson in biased interrogation. From the beginning, the idea was to get Houtz’s recollections into alignment with those of other accusers; and the questioners, with the attorney’s collusion, didn’t relent until they had done so.

Houtz’s eventual testimony, which was so graphic that it served as the opener in the prosecution’s horror show, may not have been entirely disingenuous. He had entered psychological counseling soon after retaining Andreozzi, and at some point he, too, had come under the care of recovered memory guru Mike Gillum. As he told the jury, “I have spent, you know, so many years burying this in the back of my mind forever.” Pendergrast thinks Houtz may also have been the Second Miler who underwent 30 trauma sessions with a recovered memory advocacy group called Let Go Let Peace Come In.

Like other putative Sandusky victims, Houtz ramped up his charges between the grand jury and the trial. At first his questioners had had to coax him before he would say that he had ever experienced oral sex with Sandusky. In the trial, though, he was ready to declare that he had been molested at least 50 times, with Sandusky often forcibly jamming his penis into his mouth.

The events that Houtz narrated bore the usual marks of recovered memory craziness. In his recollection, he had been playing basketball or racquetball with Sandusky nearly every evening during the 1997 football season and preseason, when the coach’s all-consuming duties barely allowed him enough time to come home for dinner. No less bizarre was his assertion that the puritanical Sandusky, who had never been known to smoke, consume alcohol, or utter a swear word, used to buy cigarettes for the teenager and once drove him to a drug dealer and gave him $50 to buy marijuana, which he smoked in Sandusky’s car.

Above all, Houtz was stumped by the same paradoxes that no accuser would be able to resolve. Why, once having been assaulted by a monstrous villain, had he kept returning to be raped again? Why had he informed no one at all about his ongoing torture? And why hadn’t his opinion of Sandusky, already mixed because of the latter’s moralizing, drastically worsened? At age 26, in the year before turning on his benefactor, Houtz had brought his girlfriend and three-year-old son for a happy visit with the Sanduskys, as if there had never been a cause for complaint. That fact speaks louder than anything he would say in court.

8. Sabastian Paden (b. 1993) was a senior in high school when, on November 5, 2011, his mother saw the televised news of Sandusky’s arrest and learned that Pennsylvania’s new attorney general, Linda Kelly, had established a hotline soliciting more victims to declare themselves. At once the mother asked someone at her son’s school to call the hotline. But she hadn’t consulted Sabastian himself, and so, when the police soon knocked on his door, his answers to their queries were unrehearsed. He informed them without hesitation that Sandusky had done nothing to him in a sexual way.

Very soon thereafter, though, with or without therapeutic prodding, Paden began telling the grand jury dreamlike tales about Sandusky’s outrages. During the period of his abuse, he testified, he had crossed the Sandusky threshold about 150 times, seemingly powerless to stay away. Although we know that Second Mile kids often came around to play games in the basement, they were all conveniently absent on the many days of Paden’s abuse, leaving the rapist free to work his mischief unobserved.

In one instance Sandusky had allegedly lured Sabastian home after school, locked him in the basement (whose lock was on the inside), and kept him there for three days while depriving him of food and repeatedly assaulting him orally and anally. At the time, Paden testified, Dottie Sandusky was on the first floor of the small, unsoundproofed house, but Sabastian’s loud screams of pain and terror were ignored. Dottie, then, must have been a fiendish accomplice to rape. But for anyone who knew her—a loving mother, a churchgoing Methodist, and a stern enforcer of household rules who was nicknamed “Sarge”—this was the most preposterous fantasy of all.

9. Ryan Rittmeyer (b. 1988) had attended a Second Mile camp, but neither Jerry nor Dottie Sandusky could recall ever having met him. He hadn’t turned out well, having been incarcerated for burglary in 2004 and again in 2007 for having robbed, beaten, and permanently injured an elderly man. He was probably hard up for money when the Sandusky hotline posed an opportunity for sudden improvement in his fortunes.

Unlike the accusers who had felt Sandusky’s kindness and may have suffered pangs of conscience about betraying him, Rittmeyer wholeheartedly embraced the role of prosecution witness. He had seen Sandusky once or twice a month, he stated, through 1997, 1998, and part of 1999, and on nearly every occasion the man had made sexual contact with him. At last, supposedly, they had begun to take turns committing fellatio.

Rittmeyer’s story, fitting the general pattern, was a tissue of physical, temporal, and motivational absurdities. But the jury, without having been shown that Sandusky and Rittmeyer were even acquainted, found it compelling. Indeed, the jurors believed all eight of the Second Mile veterans who testified—forming, collectively, a portrait of a man with little time to do anything but scurry from one unreported molestation to the next. Even Aaron Fisher and Sabastian Paden would have had to take turns getting ravaged in Sandusky’s basement, as their supposed ordeals there overlapped between 2005 and 2008.

10. Ronald Petrosky was the Penn State janitor who told the Sandusky jury what he thought Jim Calhoun, another janitor, had revealed to him one night in 2000, 12 years before. Calhoun himself couldn’t testify; in June 2012 he was suffering from dementia. But Petrosky testified on his behalf, even reproducing what he imagined to be Calhoun’s thought process from long before. His recollection, though it wavered and contained some odd features, impressed the jury as the crowning proof of Sandusky’s guilt. That it was hearsay at a 12-year remove didn’t matter to the judge, who admitted it into testimony on the novel ground that it was consistent with the other unproven charges in the case.

Apparently, something awful had indeed occurred one night in 2000. Calhoun had seen a man licking an older boy’s genitals in the Lasch building’s shower area. Unnerved, he had communicated his alarm to Ronald Petrosky. More than a decade later, when the mounting charges against Sandusky were dominating the news, Petrosky evoked that incident, which neither he nor Calhoun had reported at the time. Nor, curiously, had Petrosky ever mentioned it to anyone else. Now he seemed to remember that Calhoun had identified the perpetrator as Sandusky and that he, Petrosky, had caught sight of Sandusky and the boy exiting the locker room together. Further, he thought he recalled having noticed Sandusky driving slowly around the building’s parking lot later that night and again around 2 a.m.

Months before the trial, Petrosky’s story had figured, albeit erroneously, in an influential televised exchange between Sandusky and the sportscaster Bob Costas:

Costas: A janitor said that he saw you performing oral sex on a boy in the showers in the Penn State locker facility. Did that happen?

Sandusky: No.

Costas: How could somebody think they saw you do something as extreme and shocking as that, when it hadn’t occurred, and what would possibly be their motivation to fabricate it?

Sandusky: You would have to ask them.

Sandusky’s terse, bland responses damned him in the eyes of future jurors and the public. No one pointed out that the janitor in question, Petrosky, had not in fact observed any activity in the Lasch building’s shower room.

The man who did witness a crime, Jim Calhoun, had been interviewed by state trooper Robrt Yakikic on May 15, 2011, when his Alzheimer’s was still at an early stage. Asked what he thought of Sandusky, Calhoun had brightened and said he was “a pretty good guy.” Did Calhoun recall the shower incident? Absolutely, and he felt that even now he would recognize the dastardly abuser if he encountered him. Was it Sandusky? Calhoun answered at once, “No, I don’t believe it was.” An incredulous Yakikic asked, “You don’t?” Calhoun became more emphatic: “I don’t believe it was. I don’t think Sandusky was the person. It wasn’t him. There’s no way. Sandusky never did anything at all that I can see.” The exculpating tape was in the possession of Sandusky’s lead attorney, Joe Amendola—who, however, lacking time for adequate preparation, made no use of it.

The Sandusky trial, described in detail by Pendergrast, proved to be a perfect storm of juror prejudice, prosecutorial malfeasance, incompetent and perfunctory defense, judicial bias, and unlucky circumstances. Among the latter was the fact that Mike McQueary’s “little boy in the shower,” Allan Myers, who had been planning to attest to Sandusky’s innocence, saw dollar signs and, joining forces with the claims lawyer Andrew Shubin, apparently maintained (out of court) that Sandusky had molested him after all. That decision may have cost him his conscience but it gained him financial security, thanks to the munificence of the new, ask-no-questions administration of Penn State.

Again, Sandusky had been counting on the last of his six adopted children, Matt (né Heichel), to vouch for him at the trial, as he had already done in the face of nagging interrogation. The Christian activists Jerry and Dottie Sandusky had welcomed Matt into their home because he was continually getting into trouble, which eventually included theft, arson, and exposing himself on multiple occasions to the family’s only daughter. Jerry had kept bailing Matt out and lecturing him about the good life. He even got him to sign a contract whereby improved behavior would be repaid with funds—Jerry’s own money—for a college education.

Matt Sandusky with children and Jerry Sandusky from the Sandusky family 2010 Christmas booklet. The following year, Matt testified that his father has never abused him before the grand jury, but he “flipped” in 2012 to accuse his father on the basis of recovered memories. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

Jerry’s refusal to be discouraged by Matt’s lapses seemed to be vindicated by a turnaround in the young man’s deportment, and Matt was grateful for such steadfastness. In 1998 he told Sports Illustrated,

My life changed when I came here to live [in the Sandusky household]. There were rules, there was discipline, there was caring. Dad put me on a workout program. He gave me someone to talk to, a father figure I never had. I have no idea where I’d be without him and Mom. I don’t even want to think about it. And they’ve helped so many kids besides me.

But the negative pattern resumed. Matt dropped out of Penn State, got in further trouble, married and divorced after fathering three children, and then moved back in for a year with his adoptive parents—an unthinkable decision if he had ever been molested by Jerry. It isn’t surprising, but it is telling, that he swore under oath to the grand jury that no such molestation had happened.

Right up until the middle of the trial, Matt was looking forward to delivering a strong tribute to Jerry. But psychologically he was in a bad way, obsessed with a nonexistent odor in the family basement and hearing voices calling his name. When he attended to Brett Houtz’s colorful testimony, something snapped. Now he wondered whether abuse by Jerry, though unremembered, had been the source of his many problems in life.

Evidently, Matt had already been in the care of a psychotherapist. Now, under the guidance of lawyer Shubin, he went to the police and reported that a recollection of Jerry’s assaults was beginning to take shape in his mind. The weird sex acts that he subsequently “recovered” sounded like characteristic products of therapeutic prodding. As he later explained, “My child self was holding onto what had happened to me,” so that at first “I didn’t have these memories of the sexual abuse.”

The “flipping” of both Allan Myers and Matt Sandusky was a disaster for the already hapless defense team. Not only could the two young men not be called upon to testify; Jerry himself was dissuaded from taking the stand, lest Matt then be summoned by the prosecution to add an exclamation point to its ghoulish case. And so the jurors never got to compare the real Jerry Sandusky with the bogeyman conjured by his adversaries.

Long before Sandusky faced the justice system, he had been thoroughly demonized in the press. The journalist Sara Ganim, profiting from grand jury leaks by the district attorney’s office, would win a Pulitzer prize for articles bearing such unequivocal titles as “Former Coach Jerry Sandusky Used Charity to Molest Kids.” And once Sandusky’s wickedness had been engraved on the public mind, everything about him was twisted to fit a predator profile.

In reality, the extraverted but high-principled Sandusky didn’t fit any model of deviance. No doubts about his sexual orientation or conduct were raised before he was 54 years old. No pornography was found on his computer. Disapproving of sex out of wedlock, he had been happily married to his only spouse since 1966. His domestic lovemaking, he and Dottie separately attested, was conventional in frequency and nature. He was disgusted by the idea of anal or oral copulation. His testosterone level was abnormally low. And if Jerry had been an unscrupulous homosexual pedophile, his adopted boys would have been prime targets; but until Matt became afflicted with pseudomemories, all five of them considered the charge to be outlandish.

Had Sandusky testified, he could have explained the aspects of his behavior that some parents and even some children found “creepy.” He had spent much of his youth living on the second floor of a recreation center managed by his father, himself a charitable man who cared about helping underprivileged children. Jerry had wanted to emulate him in every way. In Art Sandusky’s facility, communal showers and prankish romping after exercise had been routine. The roughhousing had been play, but it had also offered a heartening, asexual token of solidarity between athletically inclined men and boys. Even Jerry’s most unsettling practice, squeezing the knees of a boy passenger in a car, was inherited from his father. It meant something like “Don’t forget that you can rely on my support.” As Jerry’s son Jon, now Director of Player Personnel for the Cleveland Browns, has commented,

[My father’s] whole picture of the world was stuck in the 1950s and 1960s, with no concept of what was politically correct or what is taboo nowadays…. To him, horsing around in the shower, snapping towels or throwing soap wasn’t out of the realm of normality…. But people’s view of the world is different now…. I don’t think he really understood that.

And Jon added, “My parents gave me morals. They taught me how to live my life, with a work ethic but mixing in pleasure too…. They were well-rounded parents. They modeled things I’m striving to be as a parent myself.”

Many factors contributed to the Sandusky debacle: a prurient misconstruction of well-meant deeds; excessive zeal by officials, police, social workers, and therapists; scandal mongering by the media that preempted the judicial process; the greed of abuse claimants and their lawyers; and a political vendetta against Penn State’s President Spanier by then Governor Tom Corbett. But the main ingredient in the witches’ brew, the one that rendered it most toxic, was something else: bogus psychological theory.

The indefinite and unsupported concepts of dissociation and repression, wielded without allowance for the distorting effects of suggestion and autosuggestion, lent forensic weight to nightmarish scenes that were “retrieved” in a climate of fright. Without that bad science, imparted first by therapy (Fisher) and then by social contagion (McQueary), there would have been no case at all against Sandusky. Attorney General Linda Kelly acknowledged as much in her triumphant press conference following the conviction. She praised the accusers for their courage and persistence in struggling toward a negation of their original statements to authorities. “It was incredibly difficult,” she proclaimed, “for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.”

Bo, the loyal St. Bernard, from the Sandusky family 2010 Christmas booklet. Bo died while Jerry Sandusky was in prison. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

With The Most Hated Man in America and its companion volume, Memory Warp, Mark Pendergrast has demonstrated that the obituaries of our lamentable recovered memory movement were premature. Its virulent misconceptions, originally propagated by ideologues and ignorant psychotherapists, will surely continue to wreak havoc. Forewarned is forearmed. But who, meanwhile, will restore Jerry Sandusky’s liberty and good name? And when will the stain of criminality be erased from Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, Graham Spanier, and the late Joe Paterno? As Charles Mackay wrote in his 1852 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, men “go mad in herds, while they only recover their sense slowly, and one by one.”

About the Author

Frederick Crews is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is Freud: The Making of an Illusion. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Other Resources we have on Topic of Recovered Memories
  1. False Memory Syndrome and the Recovered Memory Movement
    (lecture on DVD), by Dr. John Hochman
  2. “Recovered Memory Therapy & False Memory Syndrome”
    (in Skeptic magazine 2.3)
  3. The Memory Wars: Recovered v. False Memories
    (lecture on DVD), by Dr. Pamela Freyd & Eleanor Goldstein
  4. “First of All, Do No Harm: A Recovered Memory Therapist Recants —
    An Interview with Robin Newsome,” by Mark Pendergrast
    (in Skeptic magazine 3.4)
  5. Junior Skeptic # 25: “Alien Abductions (Part 2),” by Daniel Loxton
    (bound within Skeptic magazine 12.4)
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for January 3, 2018

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 01/03/2018 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

In this week’s eSkeptic, Frederick Crews reviews Mark Pendergrast’s book The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment: a sustained, comprehensive case—based on detailed evidence and reasoning—that Jerry Sandusky (found guilty on 45 counts of child molestation) was, in fact, blameless.

Editor’s Note

We are aware of the sensitive nature of the subject of this review and the book itself, given the fact that the sexual molestation of children is a real and troubling problem. And we cannot comment on whether or not Jerry Sandusky is innocent, inasmuch as the legal system is designed not to prove innocence but to find someone either guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty. However, it now appears that much of the testimony upon which Sandusky’s conviction was based relied on the “recovery” of “repressed memories,” a concept considered by the vast majority of psychological scientists to be unfounded. Given what we know about how memory works—it is not like a video recording that can be played back on the theater of the mind—the memories of those who testified are now so modified by their recovered memory therapists, police investigators, lawyers, and the media that the original memory of whatever happened may now be lost to history. The relevance of the subject to Skeptic magazine is that we published many articles on the Recovered Memory Movement in the 1990s and early 2000s (see links at end of review), and for a time it appeared that this scientifically discredited view of memory had faded from the scene. Alas, it is still with us. Efforts to identify and help the real victims of sexual abuse can only be set back by this baseless theory. If Sandusky’s conviction rests almost entirely on the tainted, “recovered” memories of those who claimed to be his victims, and the evidence persuasively suggests that it is, it would appear that the guilty verdict rendered against him may be unwarranted.
Michael Shermer, Editor-in-Chief, Skeptic and eSkeptic

Trial by Therapy:
The Jerry Sandusky Case Revisited

by Frederick Crews

“It was incredibly difficult for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.” —Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Linda Kelly after the Sandusky guilty verdict

In June 2012, the 68-year-old Jerry Sandusky, for three decades a successful and admired assistant to Pennsylvania State University’s legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, was found guilty on 45 counts of child molestation and was remanded to prison for, effectively, the rest of his life. Sandusky was exposed as a serial pedophile on a scarcely imaginable scale, and 10 of his victims—presumably a small sample—were featured in his trial. Penn State would eventually pay $109 million (and counting) in compensation to at least 35 men who had been schoolboys at the time of their reported abuse. And presumably there were hundreds more victims. Since 1977 Sandusky had led a substantial program of his own devising for disadvantaged youth, The Second Mile, that was thought to have served him as a “candy store,” affording opportunities to “groom” neglected boys and then to have his way with them.

Jerry Sandusky around 1999 with Second Mile kids, most of whom later claimed that he abused them and received millions of dollars in settlements. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The Sandusky case was so mortifying that it triggered the firing of Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, a vice president, Gary Schultz, its athletic director, Tim Curley, and the idolized Joe Paterno himself, at age 84 and after 61 years of service, for having abetted Sandusky’s crimes. Specifically, they had failed to take action after one horrific incident had been called to their notice. Paterno died of lung cancer two months after his shaming. Schultz and Curley, later indicted on felony charges, pleaded guilty to a compromise charge of child endangerment, for which they each received a two-year jail sentence (not entirely served). President Spanier protested his innocence but was convicted of the same offense and sentenced to four to 12 months of combined jail time and house arrest. (His appeal is still in process.) And in the wake of Sandusky’s own conviction, Penn State was fined $860 million and otherwise condemned and sanctioned for having placed sports mania ahead of helpless children’s welfare.

All that furor was commensurate with the depravity of Sandusky’s alleged crimes, divulged in sensational news reports after a grand jury “presentment” (summary) was released and dramatically recapitulated at the trial seven months later. A university janitor, Ronald Petrosky, testified that a fellow janitor, Jim Calhoun, had happened upon Sandusky, around the year 2000, giving oral sex to a boy in a university shower. And more directly, emotional Second Mile veterans told of having been subjected to multiple assaults. Under prosecution questioning, for example, Aaron Fisher agreed that between 2006 and 2008 he had been forced into oral copulation more than 25 times. Ryan Rittmeyer said that after initially fending off Sandusky’s advances, he gave in and repeatedly exchanged oral sex with his abuser. According to Brett Swisher Houtz, Sandusky had molested him in showers, in a sauna, and in hotel rooms, forcing him to assume “69” positions. There had been over 40 such events, Houtz reported, occurring two or three times a week. And Sabastian Paden told the grand jury of even more savage treatment.

None of those stories is as well remembered, though, as that of Mike McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback and coach who, as a graduate student at the turn of the century, had been serving as an apprentice to the coaching staff. Two factors set McQueary apart. First, by 2012 he was the only mentally competent person who claimed to have seen Sandusky in the act of molesting a boy. And second, he was the informant who had alerted Coach Paterno and thence Athletic Director Curley, Vice President Schultz, and President Spanier. “Remember that little boy in the shower,” Governor Tom Corbett admonished the governing board that was about to sack all four men. And that boy in the shower is what the American public remembers, too.

To judge from the grand jury presentment of November 2011, there was no doubt about what McQueary had observed a decade earlier. At about 9:30 on the evening of March 1, 2002, it was stated, McQueary, upon entering the locker room of Penn State’s Lasch Football Building, had heard “rhythmic slapping sounds” indicative of sexual intercourse. Sure enough, when he had peered into the communal shower area he had seen a boy, roughly 10 years old, with his hands against the wall, being sodomized by Jerry Sandusky. McQueary had been too flustered to intervene, but on the next morning he notified Paterno, assuming, mistakenly, that Paterno and higher officials would turn Sandusky in to the police. […]

Continue reading

The Tail of the Lizard Man
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 146

In this episode of MonsterTalk, we creep narratively into the swamps of South Carolina as we talk of the strange lizard man who is alleged to live in the swamps outside Bishopville. Lyle Blackburn leads our expedition as he recounts the story as told in his book Lizard Man: The True Story of the Bishopville Monster. Lyle previously joined us for episode 106: What The Fouke? The Beast of Boggy Creek.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #604: Net Neutrality Reexamined

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 01/01/2018 - 4:00pm
A skeptic's guide for organizing the issues raised by Net Neutrality.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Science Friction

Skeptoid Feed - Thu, 12/28/2017 - 4:00pm
Finally, a documentary film about scientists who get misrepresented by the media.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 12/27/2017 - 12:00am

Sarah Silverman recently made a video in which she described the painful conflict she was feeling about her good friend of 25 years, Louis CK. Watch it and you will see cognitive dissonance in action: on the one hand, she loves and admires the man, and values their long friendship. On the other hand, she detests and condemns the exhibitionist sexual behavior that he acknowledged. Many of the people watching this video wanted her to reduce that dissonance by jumping one way or the other: disavow their friendship, or trivialize his behavior. In this brave embrace of her emotional conflict and their friendship, she did neither.

Our whole country is living in a constant state of hyper-dissonance: “my political candidate/my most admired actor/a brilliant artist/my dear friend has been accused of sexual abuses and misconduct; how do I cope with this information? Do I support him/see his movies/enjoy his art/keep the friendship or must I repudiate him entirely?” Living with dissonance and complexity is not easy, but surely skeptics, of all people, must try. We hear a story that outrages us and, just like true believers and justice warriors of any kind, we’re off and running, and once we are off and running we don’t want to hear quibbles, caveats, doubts, complexities. Thus, when the Guardian (Dec. 17, 2017) reported Matt Damon’s remarks that there was “a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated,” Minnie Driver blasted him: it’s not for men to make distinctions; “there is no hierarchy of abuse”; men should just shut up for once. “If good men like Matt Damon are thinking like that then we’re in a lot of fucking trouble,” she said. “We need good intelligent men to say this is all bad across the board, condemn it all and start again.”

No hierarchy of abuse? Really? That is one of the universal symptoms of revolutionary zealotry: go for broke, ignore gradations of villainy, who cares if some innocents are thrown over the side, we are furious and we want everything at once. No wonder those of us in the boring older generation, who have lived through cycles of anger and protest, are so annoying. “Wait!” we keep saying. “Be careful! Remember the stupidity of ‘zero tolerance’ programs in schools, where a kid who brings a pocket knife for show-and- tell, or a 6-year-old boy who kisses a 6-year-old girl, got expelled?” We have also learned that while there is a time and place for revolutionary zealotry, the hardest challenge comes next, because change will not be accomplished without allies.

While many celebrate the courage of the accusers who are coming forth to tell their stories, let’s keep in mind that in today’s climate it also requires courage to raise dissonance-producing dissent. In case you missed this essay—and you might have, considering how hard it was for the author to get it accepted anywhere—here is some of what Claire Berlinski wrote in “The Warlock Hunt” for The American Interest (December 6, 2017):

This article circulated from publication to publication, like old-fashioned samizdat, and was rejected repeatedly with a sotto voce, “Don’t tell anyone. I agree with you. But no.” Friends have urged me not to publish it under my own name, vividly describing the mob that will tear me from limb to limb and leave the dingoes to pick over my flesh. It says something, doesn’t it, that I’ve been more hesitant to speak about this than I’ve been of getting on the wrong side of the mafia, al-Qaeda, or the Kremlin?

But speak I must. It now takes only one accusation to destroy a man’s life. Just one for him to be tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion, over-night costing him his livelihood and social respectability. We are on a frenzied extrajudicial warlock hunt that does not pause to parse the difference between rape and stupidity. The punishment for sexual harassment is so grave that clearly this crime—like any other serious crime—requires an unambiguous definition. We have nothing of the sort.

Of course she has been “more hesitant to speak about this” than about Al-Qaeda, not only because of the predictable tsunami of attack, but also because we are always more hesitant to criticize people on our side, or those whose goals we share. It feels…disloyal. And disloyalty feels dissonant.

In a previous column on the belief in the “cycle of abuse,” I noted that if you created a fourfold table (“abused as a child? yes/no”; and “abusive as a parent? yes/no”), most people pay attention to only two cells: the abused children (yes) who become abusive parents (yes). They don’t attend to the many people in the invisible cells: abused children who do not become cruel parents (yes/no), and the nonabused children who do (no/yes). Thus, in the current intoxicating rush to accuse and bring down sexually coercive, abusive men, what cells are we overlooking?

The men and women who do not conform to the stereotype; the women who are not victims and the men who are. In the legitimate exhilaration of hearing women’s stories being believed and accepted at last, what voices are missing?

  • The voices of women who thoroughly enjoyed their years of sexual freedom and experimentation; who slept with professors and bosses and coworkers for pleasure and excitement, and whose careers were not ruined thereby.
  • The voices of women who had some awful encounters, or boring ones, or regrettably stupid ones, but would never blame, let alone sue, their partners on the grounds that they were at least 50% of the people in the bed.
  • The voices of women who enjoy being groupies, who seek celebrities and other powerful men for trophy sex and bragging rights, just as men have done with glamorous women.
  • The voices of shy men and boys who have felt pressured or even coerced by women, whether the women were their employers or dates.
  • The voices of men who would not dream of having sex with a woman who is blotto drunk, unconscious, or unwilling. The negativity bias dominates: we hear and remember so much about the bad guys that the good ones become invisible. Further, the good ones who would and should be allies are demonized and dismissed because they are not 100 percent ideologically pure.

I asked my friend Leonore Tiefer, a sexologist and feminist, for her concerns on the “Me, Too” movement and she responded: “There’s a rush to judgment. A conflation of all offenses. An underlying truth about the lasting effects of shame. Little room for complexity. Some bastards getting their long overdue due. Lots of lawyers looking for cases and money. Lots of institutions needing to cover their asses for money/legal reasons. Opportunists galore with axes to grind.”

That about sums it up.

Whenever a movement is fueled by rage and revenge, it is more important than ever to tolerate complexity and ask questions that evoke dissonance. We can all imagine the ways in which “Me, too” might benefit women, but how might it backfire? Because it will. Moralistic crusades to censor “sexist” pornography, for example, led to suppression of lesbian books, sex-ed books, and plain old sexypleasure books that someone thought of fensive. What might be the consequences of a moralistic crusade to root out any behavior that might be misconstrued—now, next week, in 10 years—including affectionate touches, supportive hugs, jokes? Do professional women really want a Mike Pence world where they cannot have a business dinner or go to a party without a chaperone? When feminists find themselves in bed with right-wing puritans, they are going to get screwed.

What, exactly, are the goals here? The answer is clear in the case of hotel housekeepers, fast-food workers, and immigrant women who are routinely subjected to disgusting sexual harassment and who rarely have recourse to protect themselves from the powerful men who feel entitled to abuse them; in the case of women who enter formerly male-only occupations (tech, science, the military), where hostile harassment and rape are weapons to convey “you don’t belong here; get out.” The answer is always clear when the goal is to bring down some bad guys and protect the powerless.

But the goals of “me, too” seem eerily non-political, other than “bring down the patriarchy and by the way let me tell you about me.” For the vast majority of women in their personal and professional lives, where the complexities of sexuality abound, surely another goal is to become more assertive and clear about their wishes. If women seek true sexual equality, they have to do some hard thinking about their own behavior. As Laura Kipnis observes in Unwanted Advances, when did “empowerment” for women come to mean filing an assault claim months after a drunken night rather than developing the ability to say to the guy, “take your fucking hand off my knee”? She writes:

Why would she go to the apartment of a guy she already didn’t trust? This isn’t victim blaming. It’s grown-up feminism, one that recognizes how much feminine deference and traditionalism persist amid all the “pro-sex” affirmations and slogans… And that’s what has to be talked about, along with changing male behavior. (p. 219)

Finally: What do we learn when we follow the money? When schools and companies feel they must expel or fire someone without due process, solely on hearsay and unfounded allegation because they are terrified of lawsuits, how is justice aided, how is it impeded?

Epidemics are always clearer in hindsight. In the 1980s and 1990s, I watched as the recovered memory hysteria, aided by beliefs that Satanic ritual abuse cults were proliferating across America and that daycare centers were run by pedophiles, tore hundreds of families apart. In 1981, Ms. magazine had a cover story on Satanic cults, with the overline: “Believe it!” Without evidence? No, thank you. But the mere fact that there was no evidence for recovered memories of trauma, Satanic sacrifices, and other preposterous claims did not slow the steamroller—and steamrollers always leave the wreckage of human lives in their wake.

And so, in 1993, I wrote a review of the many best-selling books promoting this dangerous nonsense—most notably The Courage to Heal and Secret Survivors—showing that their psychological claims would be obliterated in any Psych 101 course. I was deluged with hate mail, and this was before the echo chamber of the Internet. A sociologist colleague wrote to express her dismay and fury that I, a feminist, could possibly disbelieve any of the women coming out of therapy having newly “remembered” that their once-beloved fathers had sexually molested them for 15 years, somehow doing so without leaving any corroborative evidence from family members or others. A few months later, she wrote to me again, to apologize—and to ask if I knew a lawyer who could help her brother. Who was being falsely accused.

I hadn’t thought about that essay in many years, until journalist JoAnn Wypijewski sent me an email:

I reread that NYTBR piece of yours last night, amazed to see that you had written this: “To raise these questions does not mean that all ‘reawakened’ memories are fraudulent or misguided. It does mean that we should be wary of believing every case of ‘me too’.” The very phrase…down the decades … and what have we learned?

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for December 27, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 12/27/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

4 ISSUES $10.99 (that’s over 25% off!)

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Stephen Jay Gould called Skeptic magazine “The best journal in the field.” Now through January 21, 2018, it’s even better! Save BIG on new digital subscriptions via PocketMags.com. Subscribe online, and instantly download the current issue (22.4: Campus Craziness: The New War on Science), and be among the first to receive the next three issues as they’re released throughout the year. Read it anytime, anywhere on: Apple iPads and iPhones, Android Tablets and phones, Amazon Kindle, Windows Surface and phones, or on your PC or Mac computer. And remember, your subscription helps us continue our mission to promote science and reason, ensuring sound scientific viewpoints are heard worldwide.

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In this week’s eSkeptic, social psychologist Carol Tavris reminds us that it is more important than ever to tolerate complexity and ask questions that evoke cognitive dissonance whenever a movement is fueled by rage and revenge. Tavris is the coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts .

I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too

by Carol Tavris

Sarah Silverman recently made a video in which she described the painful conflict she was feeling about her good friend of 25 years, Louis CK. Watch it and you will see cognitive dissonance in action: on the one hand, she loves and admires the man, and values their long friendship. On the other hand, she detests and condemns the exhibitionist sexual behavior that he acknowledged. Many of the people watching this video wanted her to reduce that dissonance by jumping one way or the other: disavow their friendship, or trivialize his behavior. In this brave embrace of her emotional conflict and their friendship, she did neither.

Our whole country is living in a constant state of hyper-dissonance: “my political candidate/my most admired actor/a brilliant artist/my dear friend has been accused of sexual abuses and misconduct; how do I cope with this information? Do I support him/see his movies/enjoy his art/keep the friendship or must I repudiate him entirely?” Living with dissonance and complexity is not easy, but surely skeptics, of all people, must try. We hear a story that outrages us and, just like true believers and justice warriors of any kind, we’re off and running, and once we are off and running we don’t want to hear quibbles, caveats, doubts, complexities. Thus, when the Guardian (Dec. 17, 2017) reported Matt Damon’s remarks that there was “a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated,” Minnie Driver blasted him: it’s not for men to make distinctions; “there is no hierarchy of abuse”; men should just shut up for once. “If good men like Matt Damon are thinking like that then we’re in a lot of fucking trouble,” she said. “We need good intelligent men to say this is all bad across the board, condemn it all and start again.”

No hierarchy of abuse? Really? That is one of the universal symptoms of revolutionary zealotry: go for broke, ignore gradations of villainy, who cares if some innocents are thrown over the side, we are furious and we want everything at once. No wonder those of us in the boring older generation, who have lived through cycles of anger and protest, are so annoying. “Wait!” we keep saying. “Be careful! Remember the stupidity of ‘zero tolerance’ programs in schools, where a kid who brings a pocket knife for show-and- tell, or a 6-year-old boy who kisses a 6-year-old girl, got expelled?” We have also learned that while there is a time and place for revolutionary zealotry, the hardest challenge comes next, because change will not be accomplished without allies.

Continue reading

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #603: Sonic Weapons in Cuba

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 12/25/2017 - 4:00pm
There is a much better explanation than sonic weapons for reported attacks against US diplomats in Cuba.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for December 20, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 12/20/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

MARCH 5, 2018 | AUSTIN, TX An Evening with Sam Harris & Michael Shermer

Join authors Sam Harris & Michael Shermer for a night of skepticism, science & reason. Sam Harris is the author of five New York Times bestsellers. His books include The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, Lying, Waking Up, and Islam and the Future of Tolerance (with Maajid Nawaz). Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His next book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.

This event will include a lengthy audience Q&A and book singing. Premium ticket holders will have guaranteed access to the book signing. If there is enough time, others will have an opportunity to have their book signed as well.

Questions? Call the 3M Box Office at (512) 474-LONG (5664), TTY (800) 735-2989.

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A NEW STORY! How Seth Andrews, the Thinking Atheist, Became a Card-Carrying Skeptic

As we announced a few weeks ago in eSkeptic, we asked several friends to tell us about those “aha!” moments that led to their becoming skeptical thinkers. As promised, here is another one of their incredible stories on YouTube. Enjoy!

Seth Andrews is the host of The Thinking Atheist podcast which “reminds atheist and believer alike to engage the brain, to challenge even the most sacred of traditions/beliefs, to be passionately curious about our world and universe, and to never be satisfied with the charge, ‘You just have to take it on faith.’”

TELL US YOUR STORY!

Tell us your story and become a card-carrying skeptic! Thank you for being a part of our first 25 years. We look forward to seeing you over the next 25. —SKEPTIC

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SCIENCE SALON # 15 NOW ONLINE Donald Prothero & Timothy Callahan — UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

UFOs. Aliens. Crop circles. Giant figures scratched in the desert surface along the coast of Peru. The amazing alignment of the pyramids. Strange lines of clouds in the sky. The paranormal is alive and well in the American cultural landscape. In Science Salon # 15, Michael Shermer interviews Dr. Donald R. Prothero and Timothy Callahan about their new book, UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, exploring why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking. Also, listed to Blake Smith interview Prothero and Callahan in episode 144 of MonsterTalk: The Science Show About Monsters.

Watch Science Salon # 15 now

SCIENCE SALON # 16 NOW ONLINE Dr. Robert Trivers — Evolutionary Theory & Human Nature

Dr. Robert Trivers and Dr. Michael Shermer have a lively conversation on everything from evolutionary theory and human nature to how to win a knife fight and Trivers’ membership in the Black Panthers. Don’t miss this engaging exchange with one of the most interesting scientists of the past half century.

This Science Salon followed Dr. Robert Trivers’ lecture on ‘The Evolutionary Genetics of Honor Killings,’ which he gave in Dr. Michael Shermer’s Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University on Thursday November 16, 2017. Watch the lecture.

Watch Science Salon # 16 now

Learn more about Science Salon and stay informed about upcoming salons by subscribing to eSkeptic: our free, weekly email.

Here’s what’s in the latest issue of Skeptic magazine (22.4): When Science Becomes the Enemy • No Barriers to Inquiry • When Secularism Becomes a Religion: The Alt-Left, the Alt-Right, and Moral Righteousness • Radically Wrong in Berkeley • I Am Not a Racist, and So Are You: An Unauthorized Peek at the Great Shaming Taking Place at an Institution of Higher Learning Near You • From Camelot to Conspiracy: Memory, Myth, and the Death of JFK • The SkepDoc: Diet Sodas • Junior Skeptic on Ghost Ships, and more…

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #602: Should Moms Eat Placentas?

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 12/18/2017 - 4:00pm
The modern practice of Western mothers eating their placentas is a new and strange attention-seeking behavior.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for December 13, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 12/13/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN “SKEPTIC” COLUMN FOR DECEMBER 2017 Outlawing War: Why “outcasting” works better than violence

After binge-watching the 18-hour PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I was left emotionally emptied and ethically exhausted from seeing politicians in the throes of deception, self-deception and the sunk-cost bias that resulted in a body count totaling more than three million dead North and South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, along with more than 58,000 American troops. With historical perspective, it is now evident to all but delusional ideologues that the war was an utter waste of human lives, economic resources, political capital and moral reserves. By the end, I concluded that war should be outlawed.

In point of fact, war was outlawed … in 1928. Say what?

In their history of how this happened, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (Simon & Schuster, 2017), Yale University legal scholars Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro begin with the contorted legal machinations of lawyers, legislators and politicians in the 17th century that made war, in the words of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “the continuation of politics by other means.” Those means included a license to kill other people, take their stuff and occupy their land. Legally. How? […]

Read the complete column

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Sigmund Freud and his daugher Anna Freud on holiday in the Italian Dolomites. [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

In this week’s eSkeptic, Raymond Barglow discusses how the psychoanalytic tradition inaugurated by Sigmund Freud casts light on the mainsprings of human motivation and helps to explain human irrationality and encourage recovery.

Why Freud Matters
Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition

by Raymond Barglow

“A great part of my life’s work has been spent to destroy my own illusions and those of humankind.”
—Sigmund Freud

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.”
—Anna Freud

Over the past half century, some of Sigmund Freud’s ideas have been debunked, and he personally has been exposed as a doctor who misunderstood and harmed a good number of his patients.1 I do not take exception to this evaluation. Especially during the years when he was building his career as a doctor, the founder of psychoanalysis deceived the public, if not himself, about the evidence for his views and his ability to cure. There is, however, another side to Freud’s character and to his achievements that the critics overlook. Indeed I believe that Freud belongs up there in the pantheon of great skeptical humanists alongside Socrates, Voltaire, and Hume. Like them, Freud believed that reason could help people undo the hypocrisies and deceptions in their lives, permitting a recovery of sanity and a measure of happiness.2

As well, Freud’s critics fail to recognize the contributions made over the past century by the psychoanalytic movement that he inaugurated. To make this second point, I’ll review the accomplishments of Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, whose role was pivotal in developing psychoanalysis in an open-minded, evidence-based way. Her work is a telling counterexample to the broad claim that psychoanalysis is an irrational theory and ineffective practice.3 Anna Freud and her colleagues not only observed assiduously, but also subjected the very concept of “observation” to scrutiny. When adults are observing and interacting with children, Anna Freud recognized, their perceptions may be clouded by their prior expectations: observers see what they wish to see and overlook or push aside everything else.

Mistaking Our Own Motives

Although Sigmund Freud’s own professional conduct was marred by the prejudices of his time, some of his concepts do cast light on the sources and nature of human irrationality. Freud believed that the mind is influenced by unacknowledged motives and unspoken memories. And that belief informed not only his “talking cure” therapy but also his social activism on behalf of issues that ranged from free mental health care to the humane treatment of shell-shocked soldiers who had survived the First World War.

Since the early 17th century when Rene Descartes penned his Meditations, rationalist philosophy had held that the human mind is unified and transparent to itself. Freud affirmed instead—and this is the premise that still informs psychoanalysis today—that humans are inclined, by nature and by nurture, to mistake their reasons for believing and acting. That we are fallible in this manner, mentally conflicted and influenced in ways that we only partly understand, is a condition that Freud found illustrated ubiquitously in dreams, slips of the tongue, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, and the foibles of our relationships with others. And he made this “diagnosis” of the human condition the basis for doing psychotherapy in a new way. […]

Continue reading

A NEW STORY! How C0nc0rdance Became a Card-Carrying Skeptic

As we announced a few weeks ago in eSkeptic, we asked several friends to tell us about those “aha!” moments that led to their becoming skeptical thinkers. As promised, here is another one of their incredible stories on YouTube. Enjoy!

The creator of this video writes: “Skepticism, to me, is the process by which I evaluate claims. It’s not cynical, rejecting every idea that makes me uncomfortable. It’s not credulous, accepting new ideas because they’re edgy, counter-culture or popular. I try to apply the same process of empirical evidence-gathering, careful study, and rational argument to every aspect of my life, from the laboratory, to the Internet, to conversations with friends.”

Watch the video

TELL US YOUR STORY!

Tell us your story and become a card-carrying skeptic! Thank you for being a part of our first 25 years. We look forward to seeing you over the next 25. —SKEPTIC

Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic

Here’s what’s in the latest issue of Skeptic magazine (22.4): When Science Becomes the Enemy • No Barriers to Inquiry • When Secularism Becomes a Religion: The Alt-Left, the Alt-Right, and Moral Righteousness • Radically Wrong in Berkeley • I Am Not a Racist, and So Are You: An Unauthorized Peek at the Great Shaming Taking Place at an Institution of Higher Learning Near You • From Camelot to Conspiracy: Memory, Myth, and the Death of JFK • The SkepDoc: Diet Sodas • Junior Skeptic on Ghost Ships, and more…

GET ISSUE 22.4
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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Why Freud Matters Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 12/13/2017 - 12:00am

“A great part of my life’s work has been spent to destroy my own illusions and those of humankind.” —Sigmund Freud

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” —Anna Freud

Over the past half century, some of Sigmund Freud’s ideas have been debunked, and he personally has been exposed as a doctor who misunderstood and harmed a good number of his patients.1 I do not take exception to this evaluation. Especially during the years when he was building his career as a doctor, the founder of psychoanalysis deceived the public, if not himself, about the evidence for his views and his ability to cure. There is, however, another side to Freud’s character and to his achievements that the critics overlook. Indeed I believe that Freud belongs up there in the pantheon of great skeptical humanists alongside Socrates, Voltaire, and Hume. Like them, Freud believed that reason could help people undo the hypocrisies and deceptions in their lives, permitting a recovery of sanity and a measure of happiness.2

As well, Freud’s critics fail to recognize the contributions made over the past century by the psychoanalytic movement that he inaugurated. To make this second point, I’ll review the accomplishments of Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, whose role was pivotal in developing psychoanalysis in an open-minded, evidence-based way. Her work is a telling counterexample to the broad claim that psychoanalysis is an irrational theory and ineffective practice.3 Anna Freud and her colleagues not only observed assiduously, but also subjected the very concept of “observation” to scrutiny. When adults are observing and interacting with children, Anna Freud recognized, their perceptions may be clouded by their prior expectations: observers see what they wish to see and overlook or push aside everything else.

Mistaking Our Own Motives

Although Sigmund Freud’s own professional conduct was marred by the prejudices of his time, some of his concepts do cast light on the sources and nature of human irrationality. Freud believed that the mind is influenced by unacknowledged motives and unspoken memories. And that belief informed not only his “talking cure” therapy but also his social activism on behalf of issues that ranged from free mental health care to the humane treatment of shell-shocked soldiers who had survived the First World War.

Since the early 17th century when Rene Descartes penned his Meditations, rationalist philosophy had held that the human mind is unified and transparent to itself. Freud affirmed instead—and this is the premise that still informs psychoanalysis today—that humans are inclined, by nature and by nurture, to mistake their reasons for believing and acting. That we are fallible in this manner, mentally conflicted and influenced in ways that we only partly understand, is a condition that Freud found illustrated ubiquitously in dreams, slips of the tongue, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, and the foibles of our relationships with others. And he made this “diagnosis” of the human condition the basis for doing psychotherapy in a new way.

Freud perceived himself as following in the footsteps of those who had in the past challenged the pretense that human beings stand exalted as masters of their own fate and the pinnacle of creation:

Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first [ascribed to Copernicus] was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable…. The second [ascribed to Charles Darwin] was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him.

Human pride now has to suffer, Freud wrote, a third, “most bitter blow” from empirical inquiry, which discloses “to the ‘ego’ of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house.” This view of the mind’s internal division launched what might be called a “research program” that since the turn of the 20th century has encompassed a great deal of qualitative and quantitative study of human psychology. And much of that study has been skeptical in character, calling into question not only conventional understandings of individual pathology but also wider cultural values and practices.

Psychoanalysis as a Research Program

It’s true that not many studies conducted within a psychoanalytic framework satisfy the gold standard in medical science: the randomized controlled trial based on quantification and statistical analysis. Certainly the activity of observing a child in a clinic is quite different from that of observing a planet through a telescope or a bacterium on a petri dish. But these forms of inquiry have much in common as well. The qualitative research carried out in Anna Freud’s “laboratories”—nurseries, clinics, residential and day care centers—was guided by the same criteria of systematic observation, conceptual parsimony, and explanatory power that guide rational empirical inquiry of any kind.

At the core of the psychoanalytic research program stand not only theoretical propositions but also an ethical principle—a commitment to humane care for people suffering intense psychological distress. Against the centuries-old stigmatization of mentally disturbed people as “mad,” Freud and his followers advocated tolerance and compassion. To be sure, the psychoanalytic profession has not always lived up to these values. In some parts of the world, including the United States, during the 20th century psychoanalysis became an enterprise governed by a medical elite that was self-serving and dogmatic. And psychoanalysts, beginning with Freud himself, indulged in a great deal of unwarranted and harmful speculation: pathologizing homosexuality4, attributing women’s wishes for independence and equality to “penis envy,” positing metaphysical entities like “the death drive,” etc. When Freudianism became an entire “climate of opinion,” as Auden described it at mid-century, that climate was not universally a liberating one. On the other hand, psychoanalysis did give support to progressive movements during the 20th century that ranged from the Harlem Renaissance and civil rights struggles in the South to gay liberation and the women’s movement.5 Feminists such as Juliet Mitchell, Nancy Chodorow, and Jessica Benjamin rejected the assumptions made by mainstream psychoanalysis about women’s and men’s “normal” roles and behaviors; yet they found psychoanalytic concepts useful for understanding the childhood origins of gender differences and the devaluation of women’s lives. Perhaps psychoanalysis’ most consequential contribution, though, has turned out to be its reconsideration of the norms for raising children. The science of this subject was advanced by researchers such as Anna Freud, Margaret Mahler, D.W. Winnicott, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Selma Fraiberg, and Daniel Stern. These studies influenced Spock, Leach, Brazelton, and other authors of widely read books that give families advice about relating to children.

Another domain impacted by psychoanalysis was jurisprudence: conventional legal assumptions about human free will, responsibility, and punishment were challenged, often successfully, by considerations that pointed to the sometimes exonerating psychological and social origins of criminality. Eminent judges including Holmes, Frankfurter, Cardozo, and Frank even reflected on the possibility of unconscious prejudices entering into their own deliberations.6

In brief, as a research program interacting with medical, educational, legal, and other cultural institutions, psychoanalysis has made many important contributions.

Sigmund Freud’s Critique of Religion: “The Future of an Illusion”

Sigmund Freud began psychoanalysis by inquiring into individual pathology but later in his life sought to understand civilization’s “discontents” as well. Freud believed that religion is one of the domains in which human reason runs aground. In his 1927 essay, “The Future of an Illusion,” Freud not only exposes the irrationality of belief in God (others before him had done that) but he goes a step further and aims to explain that irrationality. Responding to their experiences of helplessness, Freud suggests, humans seek a benevolent, all-powerful protector who will shelter them from suffering and uncertainty and assure an orderly world. God, as conceived in most biblical traditions, is modeled after an adult authority who towers over a child, promising guidance and reward, but also severe punishment for misbehavior.7

In keeping with Daniel Dennett’s discussion later in the 20th century of the “intentional stance,”8 Freud points out that people imbue nature with subjective agency:

Impersonal forces and destinies cannot be approached; they remain eternally remote. But if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil Will, if everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we…are still defenceless, perhaps, but we are no longer helplessly paralyzed; we can at least react…. we can try to entreat them [supernatural beings], to appease them, to bribe them, and, by so influencing them, we may rob them of a part of their power.

In the course of the evolution of the human species as well as in the personal history of each individual, Freud argued, there occurs a kind of thinking that creates imaginary beings and narratives, dispensing with the empirical constraints that govern our everyday practical interactions with our surroundings. Religion in its traditional patriarchal forms exemplifies such thinking when it authors a story such as the one told in the Bible, Koran, or other canonical text, a story that serves the purpose of representing a well-ordered and protective world. Beginning with Freud, psychoanalysis finds a similarity between such religious stories and children’s “make-believe”—that wonderful expression in English that conflates imagining with believing. Notoriously, the inconsistencies of these narratives with everyday facts does not make them less real. A child whose imagined companion is a blue creature with five legs needn’t be fazed by an adult who points out that all animals encountered in the past have, at most, four legs. “My friend has five, I can count them!” Everything is possible for a creative imagination free of constraints imposed by reality. And for that reason, religion, which Freud believes is developmentally as well as conceptually continuous with children’s magical thinking, does not respond to evidence-based objections. “Primary process,” the name that Freud gives to thinking of this kind, is associative and metaphorical: “There are in this system no negation, no doubt, no [mere] degrees of certainty.” “Secondary process,” on the other hand, is cognition that weighs evidence and recognizes a difference between appearance and reality, and that is willing to sacrifice fantasy’s immediate gratification in favor of long-term real gains.

This distinction between two ways of thinking about the world is widely recognized today. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, for instance, posits a neurological difference between two kinds of cognition—“System 1” is fast, instinctive, and emotional, while “System 2” is slower, more patient and logical—that is remarkably similar to Freud’s distinction elaborated a century ago. Freud’s critique of religion anticipates as well the reasoning that would be advanced later in the century by skeptics like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer. For instance, in response to the tu-quoque argument—“Sure, religion rests upon ultimately unjustified basic premises and arrives sometimes at mistaken conclusions, but doesn’t science too?”—Freud writes:

You will not find me inaccessible to your criticism. I know how difficult it is to avoid illusions; perhaps the hopes I have confessed to are of an illusory nature, too. But I hold fast to one distinction. Apart from the fact that no penalty is imposed for not sharing them, my illusions are not, like religious ones, incapable of correction…. If experience should show…that we have been mistaken, we will give up our expectations.

Freud points out that unlike religion, science evolves in relation to its empirical encounter with reality:

People complain of the unreliability of science how she announces as a law today what the next generation recognizes as an error and replaces by a new law whose accepted validity lasts no longer. But this is unjust and in part untrue…. A law which was held at first to be universally valid proves to be a special case of a more comprehensive uniformity…. a rough approximation to the truth is replaced by a more carefully adapted one, which in turn awaits further perfecting. There are various fields where we…test hypotheses that soon have to be rejected as inadequate; but in other fields we already possess an assured and almost unalterable core of knowledge.

Freud eloquently articulates here a robust empiricism. Of course science is, as Freud recognizes, imaginative too, but, in the words of another Austrian, Karl Popper, scientific “conjecture” is subject to “refutation.” (Freud often failed to “practice what he preached,” however; he notoriously dismissed objections to his own views as psychological “resistance.”)

Freud was aware that rational considerations are unlikely to successfully challenge the grip of religion on believers: “motives based purely on reason have little effect against passionate impulses.” Those impulses, Freud submits, receive cultural encouragement that typically begins with the religious instruction of children:

Think of the depressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of a healthy child and the feeble intellectual powers of the average adult. Can we be quite certain that it is not precisely religious education which bears a large share of the blame for this relative atrophy?

The connection made here between religion and childhood “atrophy” was, not surprisingly, poorly received by civil and political authority in the country Freud was living in. Invested in the preservation of traditional “family values” and staunchly opposed to liberal reforms in education and mental health services stood the Roman Catholic Church, a bastion of reaction in Austria, Italy and elsewhere in Europe. In the 1920s, Austria’s Social Democratic Party competed for political power against the Christian Social Party, which received strong clerical support. And in Austrian schools, religious instruction and practices, including priest-administered mass, confession, and processions, were mandatory. Quite aware of this reactionary context, Freud recognized that undoing the hold of religion would require, ultimately, transforming religion’s institutional foundations.

Sigmund Freud the Social Activist

Although Freud believed that the fundamental cause of irrational belief is the individual’s wish to believe, he was acutely aware that cultural norms and practices also predispose us to view the world irrationally—not only in the domain of religion but elsewhere in our lives as well. Hence Freud came to accept the view advanced by his social democratic colleagues and friends that private life is linked to social circumstance. In 1927, the year in which Freud’s “Future of an Illusion” was published, he signed on to a public manifesto announcing support for social democratic ideals and aims. But his progressive political affiliations began long before that. Freud’s close friend and collaborator Sandor Ferenczi was a social democratic activist, as was Margarete Hilferding, the first woman member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, and many other early psychoanalysts. Victor Adler, widely regarded as the “father of Austrian social democracy,” was Freud’s lifelong friend. Under Adler’s leadership, reformist and revolutionary tendencies in Austria united following the world war to create a democratic path forward that was independent of both Russian Communism and unfettered Western capitalism. In keeping with this hopeful vision, a passion was kindled in Freud for social justice. In 1918 he gave a speech in Budapest that was radically egalitarian in its aims and advocated for a militant social welfare program:

It is possible to foresee that at some time or other the conscience of society will awake and remind it that the poor men should have just as much right to assistance for his mind as he now has to the life-saving help offered by surgery…. When this happens, institutions or outpatient clinics will be started … such treatment will be free.

Europe’s psychoanalytic community welcomed this initiative. In cities such as Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, and London, clinics were set up that provided mental health services on a sliding scale and that, in Vienna for example, reached out to counsel the poor whose neighborhoods were distant from the wealthy and glamorous Ringstrasse at the center of the city.

Therese Benedek’s membership card for the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society, including a 5 Kronen fee for support of the Society’s free Polyclinic. (Danto, Elizabeth Ann Danto. 2005. Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918–1938. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 148)9

Among those whom the free clinics served in Austria and Germany were veterans returning from the First World War, many suffering from what we call today Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): terrifying flashbacks, chronic insomnia, tremors, loss of speech, inability to work, loss of affection for family and friends. These soldiers became scapegoats, accused by politicians and physicians alike of faking their symptoms and shirking their duties off as well as on the battlefield. Right-wing leaders and the popular press believed that Germany and Austria had lost the war because of a “Dolchstoss” (stab-in-the back) by domestic “enemies” who included not only social democrats but also these psychologically injured soldiers, whose symptoms were attributed to weakness of will and poor moral character. The standard treatments for these traumatized soldiers included solitary confinement, straight jackets, electrotherapy, and even brain surgery, aiming allegedly to restore them to sanity.

Freud and the first generation of psychoanalysts in Vienna took strong and public exception to these treatments. Freud wrote the introduction for the 1918 book Psychoanalysis and the War Neuroses, authored by four of his colleagues, which disputed the conventional victim-blaming account of war trauma. Then in 1920 Freud provided written and oral testimony in a court case involving mistreatment of war veterans. His judgment was unequivocal: Military doctors, not the foot soldiers, were the “immediate cause of all war neurosis.” During the war, Freud said, psychiatrists had “allowed their sense of power to make an appearance in a brutal fashion.” They had “acted like machine guns behind the front lines, forcing back the fleeing soldiers.” Freud did not shy away from the wider political implications of his public testimony: he vigorously supported Vienna’s progressive public health agenda and allied psychoanalysis with the wider social democratic movement that moved the city leftward in the post-war years.

Anna Freud’s Critique of Child-Raising Practices

Education as well as psychotherapy fell within the purview of the psychoanalytic movement Freud founded. His psychoanalytically-minded colleagues in the 1920s set out to reform all of the institutions in Vienna that were involved in raising and educating children. Among these activists was Freud’s own daughter Anna. From 1922 to 1927 she taught in an elementary school, and then followed in the footsteps of her father and became a psychoanalyst. With a declared commitment to serving Viennese families of all ethnic origins and class backgrounds, Anna Freud and the psychoanalytically minded community to which she belonged participated in the cultural revolution that became known as “Red Vienna.”

In the 1920s, Vienna’s municipal government became the largest landowner in the city and funded a massive project to provide public housing for the poor. Among the 370 so-called “people’s palaces” that were built, this one, Bebelhof, contained 301 apartments. Its interior courtyard, shown above, encouraged cooperative activities. Some of those served by the Psychoanalytic Association’s free clinic lived here. (Photo by Buchhändler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1925 Anna Freud co-founded an institute for the preparation of teachers in Vienna whose mission was to replace authoritarian methods of education with psychoanalytically-informed, more permissive ones. While Anna Freud was an admirer of educational reformers such as Maria Montessori, her psychological perspective went a step further: she took into account that, as her colleague D.W. Winnicott famously put it, “there is no such thing as a baby, there is always a baby and someone.” Anna Freud recognized the distorting influence of “countertransference” in adult-child relationships: parents, counselors, and teachers bring into their interactions with children their own unmet needs and anxieties.

In 1927 Anna Freud started a nursery for impoverished or neglected children under the age of three. Its mission was to learn directly from the children themselves and to develop humane, effective methods of treatment. Such treatment required, she believed, careful observation to confirm and disconfirm assumptions, staying alert to preconceptions about “what children need,” empathizing with children to understand their experience, and defending them when necessary against state, religious, and even parental authority. For over a decade Anna Freud was a leader in a “Children Seminar” in Vienna that discussed clinical cases and tested psychoanalytic theory against them. Although she remained largely loyal to her father’s language—language that did sometimes narrow her vision—she used that language more empirically, disregarding metaphysical implications of the orthodox terminology.

In “Lectures for Teachers,” Anna Freud referred to “Struwwelpeter” (Slovenly Peter), a children’s storybook immensely popular in Austria and Germany, to illustrate conventional ideas about raising children. (Heinrich Hoffmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons: 1, 2, 3)

First in Vienna and then in London where she relocated in 1938, Anna Freud moved psychoanalytic theory and therapy in new directions. She took into account the wide diversity of circumstances that shape human lives and disagreed with the view that all psychopathology originates in early sexual experience. Her approach to working with children was, of course, not unique. During the first half of the 20th-century, progressive education became in Europe and America a social movement embraced not only by teachers but also by psychologists, psychoanalysts, social workers, and parents. Although psychoanalytic principles, including an emphasis on family circumstances that influence children’s capacities to relate and learn, were not universally accepted within that movement, they contributed a great deal to the revolution.

Anna Freud became involved in legal reform as well: her writings on child custody issues, for example, which distinguish between a biological parent and what Anna Freud calls a “psychological parent” (an adult who is raising a child in a loving, thoughtful way and whom the child regards as a parent) were influential in revising family law in England and the United States.

An atheist like her father, Anna Freud confirmed his view in “Future of an Illusion” that humans can live fulfilling, altruistic lives without needing guidance from religion. She provided moral as well as intellectual guidance to her colleagues and students, and was considered by those who worked with her the warmest heart a child could ever hope to meet.

Anna Freud the Scientist

In Vienna’s Jackson Nursery, which opened in 1937 and was directed by Anna Freud, new staff members received not only a uniform but also pencil and paper which they were to use to record observations of the children they encountered: how they reacted to separations from their parents or other caretakers, how they related to other children, how they dealt with staff, how they coped with disappointment and anger, etc. These observations were then pooled and discussed by workers in the clinic—during breaks when the children were napping, for example. Gathered into case histories, these observations formed a basis for reflecting on explanatory constructs and for revising nursery policy.

When Anna Freud moved to London and administered the Hampstead War Nurseries and Clinic, she continued to emphasize direct and systematic observation. (Methodical child observation was pioneered as well by psychoanalyst Esther Bick, working at the Tavistock Clinic in London. Like Anna Freud, she was a Jewish refugee who came to England from Vienna.) The result was what we would today call a “database” consisting of thousands of individual case histories, broken down into distinct data fields and indexed by subject matter. Anna Freud explained:

What we hope to construct by this laborious method is something of a “collective analytic memory,” i.e., a storehouse of analytic material which places at the disposal of the single thinker and author an abundance of facts gathered by many, thereby transcending the narrow confines of individual experience and extending the possibilities for insightful study, for constructive comparisons between cases, for deductions and generalizations, and finally for extrapolations of theory from clinical therapeutic work.

Although Anna Freud recognized that observation is always theory-laden, she worked under the assumption that it is possible to suspend belief in one’s own views sufficiently to describe human situations in experience-near terms that are neutral between competing hypotheses. And in the Hampstead War Nurseries and Clinic, the detail in such observational description was sometimes quite fine-grained. For children impacted by “Blitzkrieg” air-raids during the London war years, for example, the observational protocol distinguished five kinds of anxiety, ranging from fear of a “real danger” to feelings that derived from other causes, including the emotional responses (calm/panicked, caring/self-centered) of parents to their children’s and to their own vulnerability. Beginning in the 1940s, many researchers made use of evidence provided by Hampstead clinical data. Anna Freud joined with Dorothy Burlingham in writing, for instance, War and Children (1943) and Infants Without Families (1944)—books that draw on Hampstead research and that refute common misconceptions about children’s responses to violence and loss.

Anna Freud on Human Irrationality

Like her father, but not captured as he was by metaphysical ideas about the nature of the mind, Anna Freud sought to understand the psychological mainsprings of reasoning gone awry. In 1936 she published The Ego and The Mechanisms of Defense, which elaborated ways in which people deny and disavow evidence they do not wish to see. Such machinery of the mind helps to explain collective as well as individual behavior. The concept of denial, for example, is exemplified today in the refusal to recognize the dangers of global warming and climate change. Projection and displacement are common in the scapegoating of immigrants. Anna Freud’s discussion of another defense, “identification with the aggressor,” is relevant to the popular appeal of fascist ideology. “By impersonating the aggressor,” she writes, “assuming his attributes or imitating his aggression, the child transforms himself from the person threatened into the person making the threat.” For example, a child who gets a shot in a doctor’s office goes home and, pretending to be the doctor, gives a shot to a doll or stuffed animal. By becoming the powerful agent who inflicts pain, the child masters feelings of smallness, fear, and anger.10

Such a dynamic, reproduced politically, can lead adults who feel victimized and powerless to identify with a charismatic, reassuring leader. Anna Freud’s book was published just as the forces of the extreme right were taking over in Austria. Her analysis of aggression would later be incorporated into psychoanalytic studies of “the authoritarian personality,” and it enters as well into the work of George Lakoff on the psychological origins of liberalism and conservatism. In such contemporary efforts to understand how deep fears and longings motivate political allegiances, the influence of the psychoanalytic tradition is unmistakable.

The Moral Arc

The voice of reason is a soft one,” wrote Sigmund Freud, “but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.” The European skeptical tradition has for centuries exemplified that voice and stood against false hope and illusion, recommending instead a clear-minded encounter with reality that is capable of grasping and changing the circumstances of our lives. Since its invention at the turn of the 20th century in Vienna, psychoanalysis at its best has advanced this humanist project. And if certain cities in the past have been stars in a historical “moral arc” that “bends toward truth, justice, and freedom,”11 then Vienna in the years 1918–1934 must be counted as one of the most brilliant.

That star was extinguished when the Nazis came to power in Austria. But at the end of the Second World War, social democracy rose from the ashes and once again became influential in Europe. Psychoanalysis evolved too. Ironically, the dispersal during the 1930s of Vienna’s psychoanalytic community, which included many Jewish refugees, helped to distribute the theory and practice of “the talking cure” worldwide. In the many countries where these exiles settled, psychoanalysis developed in new directions. A fair evaluation will recognize the failings, but also the insights and accomplishments, of the research program that Sigmund Freud launched over a hundred years ago.

References & Notes
  1. Schaefer, Margret. 2017. “The Wizardry of Sigmund Freud.” Skeptic, Vol. 22, No. 3. http://bit.ly/2BrO9Cb
  2. There is indeed something of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde character to Freud, who eloquently espoused ideals of human reason and scientific method, but then often failed to apply them. His life illustrates a basic psychoanalytic principle: human beings are apt to misperceive their own motives, powers, and prejudices.
  3. Although this article focuses on the contributions made by Anna Freud, the broad case against psychoanalysis is contradicted also by the achievements of other “pioneers” of psychoanalysis: Karen Horney, D.W. Winnicott, and Margaret Mahler, for example.
  4. The psychoanalytic tradition is shot through with contradictions on the subject of homosexuality. Anna and Sigmund Freud viewed homosexuality as deviant. Yet she, with the at least tacit approval of her father, lived with her partner Dorothy Burlingham for over five decades.
  5. Zaretsky, Eli. 2004. Secrets of the Soul. Alfred A. Knopf.
  6. Dailey, Anne C. 2017. Law and the Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Perspective. Yale University.
  7. Freud considers religion only in its mainstream forms. He has little to say about theology—Spinoza’s pantheism, for example—that dispenses with a “God-the-Father” conception of the divine.
  8. Dennett, D. C. 1987. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  9. Benedek exemplified the unorthodox paths that, from the very beginning, women psychoanalysts would take. When Benedek was criticized for being too informal with those she saw in therapy (she said hello and goodbye and shook hands with them), she replied, “If I did not do that I would not be myself and that would not be good for my patient.” She wrote books on personality, depression, parenthood, and women’s sexuality.
  10. In the television series Breaking Bad, Walter White explains to his wife: “A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that’s me. No, I am the one who knocks!”
  11. Shermer, Michael. 2015. The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People. New York: Henry Holt.
About the Author

Raymond Barglow has a doctorate in philosophy from UC Berkeley and doctorate in psychology from the Wright Institute in Berkeley. He has taught at UC Berkeley and Trinity College and writes on science, ethics, and political issues.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #601: Hide the Decline: Climategate Demystified

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 12/11/2017 - 4:00pm
This infamous scandal was said to have proven global warming was all just a hoax. Umm, no.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for December 6, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 12/06/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SKEPTIC MAGAZINE 22.4 Campus Craziness: The New War on Science

Skeptic 22.4: Campus Craziness
on sale now in print & digital editions

Here’s what’s in the latest issue of Skeptic magazine (22.4): When Science Becomes the Enemy; No Barriers to Inquiry; When Secularism Becomes a Religion: The Alt-Left, the Alt-Right, and Moral Righteousness; Radically Wrong in Berkeley; I Am Not a Racist, and So Are You: An Unauthorized Peek at the Great Shaming Taking Place at an Institution of Higher Learning Near You; From Camelot to Conspiracy: Memory, Myth, and the Death of JFK; The SkepDoc: Diet Sodas; Junior Skeptic on Ghost Ships, and more…

Read Skeptic magazine on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Kindle Fire HD, Mac, and PC. Get the digital edition instantly from PocketMags.com, or via the Skeptic Magazine App. Or, pre-order the print edition from Shop Skeptic. The print edition won’t likely hit newsstands for another week or two.

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JUNIOR SKEPTIC # 65 Ghost Ships

Get this issue of Junior Skeptic bound within issue 22.4 of Skeptic

Physically bound inside each and every issue of Skeptic magazine is Junior Skeptic: an engagingly illustrated science and critical thinking publication for younger readers (and the young at heart).

Today we’re leaving safe shores far behind, and sailing out over the waves in search of the sea’s eeriest mysteries. Imagine the ocean at night, a thousand miles from the nearest city light. Imagine cold salt wind on your face, sails overhead, a creaking deck beneath your feet. Suddenly a shadow looms out of the darkness, masts and tattered sails silhouetted against the sky. Your crew shouts in alarm, spinning the wheel to avoid a collision. A strange ship slides by. It is silent and empty, without a living soul on board. Passing like a phantom, it vanishes into the night. What just happened? Can tales of ghost ships be explained?ke fictional movie zombies actually exist in the real world? Let’s find out!

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Junior Skeptic # 65

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ROBERT TRIVERS’ LECTURE The Evolutionary Genetics of Honor Killings

This lecture, based on a ground-breaking study by one of the greatest evolutionary theorists since Charles Darwin, Robert Trivers, examines the curious case of honor killings, which seem to make no evolutionary sense—why would a father kill his own daughter and thereby eliminate half of his own genes from propagating into the next generation? The answer is to be found in who, exactly, is committing these murders and why.

In short, the vast majority of honor killings are conducted by fathers and uncles who murder young women who have been arranged to marry a first cousin but who have fallen in love with someone outside of the family.

When Dr. Trivers did the genetic analysis he found his answer.

This riveting talk by Dr. Trivers took place in Dr. Michael Shermer’s Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University, filmed on Thursday November 16, 2017.

The lecture was followed by a conversation between Dr. Trivers and Dr. Shermer, which will be released in a separate video at a later date.

Also of Interest, by Robert Trivers
  1. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception (lecture on DVD)
  2. Skeptic 20.4 — our special issue on Robert Trivers

UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 144

In this episode of MonsterTalk, we welcome back alum Don Prothero (Episode 22, Episode 43, Episode 68) and first time guest Timothy Callahan to discuss their new book: UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says. From an introduction to the scientific method, to the often overlooked explanations behind many undying legends of the UFO field, the two authors dive deep into the conspiracies, misconceptions, hoaxes and religions that have emerged from the field of UFOlogy.

Listen to episode 144

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Order the hardcover book via Shop Skeptic and support the Skeptics Society

Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #600: A Musical Retrospective

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 12/04/2017 - 4:00pm
Everything you didn't know about ten years of Skeptoid musical episodes, including the reason.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Science Friction

Skeptoid Feed - Thu, 11/30/2017 - 4:00pm
Finally, a documentary film about scientists who get misrepresented by the media.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for November 29, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 11/29/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

Pro-Truth Pledge: I pledge to share, honor, and encourage the truth. (Image from the Post-Truth Pledge Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ProTruthPledge/ Please also visit https://www.protruthpledge.org/ )

In a time when the Oxford English Dictionary has named “post-truth” as its word of the year (2016), Dr. Gleb Tsipursky avers that we can create a mechanism for differentiating the liars from the truth-tellers, ensuring the veracity of public information.

The Pro-Truth Pledge
An Effective Strategy for Skeptics to Fight Fake News and Post-Truth Politics

by Gleb Tsipursky

How do we get politicians to stop lying? How do we get private citizens to stop sharing fake news on social media? Deception proved such a successful strategy for political causes and individual candidates in the UK and US elections in 2016 that the Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” as its word of the year, with the definition of “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The extensive sharing of fake news by private citizens led Collins Dictionary to choose “fake news” as its word of the year for 2017, meaning “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”

We are facing a nightmare scenario. For many years now, traditional gatekeepers for ensuring the veracity of public information—news media, civic leaders, authorities on various topics—have been trusted less and less. Social and digital media have only accelerated this trend, exemplifying the potential of technological disruption to undermine our democracy.

Fortunately, if we can create a mechanism that differentiates the liars from the truth-tellers, we have a hope of protecting our democracy. At the same time, tilting the scale toward truth requires addressing the psychological factors that cause people to tolerate untruths. Using research from behavioral science research about what causes people to lie and what motivates them to tell the truth, a number of behavioral scientists (including myself) and concerned citizens have launched the Pro-Truth Pledge at ProTruthPledge.org, which combines our knowledge of behavioral science with crowdsourcing to promote truth-oriented behavior.

The pledge is meant for both public figures and private citizens to sign. So far, thousands of private citizens across the globe and several hundred public figures and organizations signed it, including globally-known public intellectuals such as Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Michael Shermer. You might be especially surprised that many dozens of politicians have signed it as well. […]

Continue reading

Grimoires—Part I
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 142

Episode 142 of MonsterTalk continues its special series on Magic as it examines the history of Grimoires in Western culture. State Department Archivist Jerry Drake, PhD, discusses the history of magic books, magic writing and how it fits into the history of science. This is the first of a two-part interview.

Listen to episode 142

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Grimoires—Part II
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 143

Episode 143 of MonsterTalk

MonsterTalk continues its series on Magic with Part II of its coverage of Grimoires. We continue our interview with researcher Jerry Drake, and focus on the view of magic books in various magical traditions of Western Europe.

Listen to episode 143

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Pro-Truth Pledge An Effective Strategy for Skeptics to Fight Fake News and Post-Truth Politics

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 11/29/2017 - 12:00am

How do we get politicians to stop lying? How do we get private citizens to stop sharing fake news on social media? Deception proved such a successful strategy for political causes and individual candidates in the UK and US elections in 2016 that the Oxford English Dictionary named post-truth as its word of the year, with the definition of “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The extensive sharing of fake news by private citizens led Collins Dictionary to choose “fake news” as its word of the year for 2017, meaning “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”

We are facing a nightmare scenario. For many years now, traditional gatekeepers for ensuring the veracity of public information—news media, civic leaders, authorities on various topics—have been trusted less and less. Social and digital media have only accelerated this trend, exemplifying the potential of technological disruption to undermine our democracy.

Fortunately, if we can create a mechanism that differentiates the liars from the truth-tellers, we have a hope of protecting our democracy. At the same time, tilting the scale toward truth requires addressing the psychological factors that cause people to tolerate untruths. Using research from behavioral science research about what causes people to lie and what motivates them to tell the truth, a number of behavioral scientists (including myself) and concerned citizens have launched the Pro-Truth Pledge at ProTruthPledge.org, which combines our knowledge of behavioral science with crowdsourcing to promote truth-oriented behavior.

The pledge is meant for both public figures and private citizens to sign. So far, thousands of private citizens across the globe and several hundred public figures and organizations signed it, including globally-known public intellectuals such as Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Michael Shermer. You might be especially surprised that many dozens of politicians have signed it as well.

The Pro-Truth Pledge incorporates 12 countermeasures to the psychological factors that foster misinformation. Signers pledge their earnest efforts to make it a practice to:

  • Verify: Fact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it.
  • Balance: Share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support your opinion.
  • Cite: Share your sources so that others can verify the information.
  • Clarify: Distinguish between your opinion and the facts.
  • Acknowledge when others share true information, even when you disagree with their point of view.
  • Reevaluate if your information is challenged, and retract it if you cannot verify it.
  • Defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when you disagree with their point of view.
  • Align your opinions and your actions with true information.
  • Fix: Ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved, even if they are your friends or allies.
  • Educate: Compassionately inform those around you to stop using unreliable sources, even if these sources support your point of view.
  • Defer: Recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed.
  • Celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs based on the truth.

As a skeptic, you may already be doing everything described here, and if so, the Pro-Truth Pledge allows you to make a clear public statement while also calling on public figures to take the pledge. If you are not, now is your chance to commit to the kind of behaviors you would want our public figures to follow, and then challenge them to make this commitment along with you.

Because the pledge is to “earnest efforts,” it doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect in following all of these; just make a good-faith effort to adhere to these behaviors. The pledge does not address private speech, spiritual speech, or personal experience—only public discourse.

The pledge has teeth: it’s an opt-in, libertarian-style mechanism for holding each other accountable. Private citizens who signed the pledge have an opportunity to be advocates for the pledge if they sign up to help. One role of advocates is to hold other pledge-takers accountable for avoiding sharing misinformation, especially public figures. We have a clear evaluation and accountability mechanism, in which anyone can participate. Thus, for public figures, signing the pledge provides a marker of credibility, since they are being held accountable, in the same way that the Better Business Bureau provides a marker of credibility for ethical businesses.

The accountability mechanism works. For example, Michael Smith, a candidate for Congress, took the pledge. Some time later, he posted on his Facebook wall a screenshot of a tweet by Donald Trump criticizing minority and disabled children. After being called out on it, he went and searched Trump’s feed. He could not find the original tweet, and while Trump may have deleted it, the candidate edited his post to say, “Due to a Truth Pledge I have taken, I have to say I have not been able to verify this post.” He indicated that he would be more careful with future postings.

This is not a partisan project: there are plenty of honest public figures on all sides of the political divide, and both conservative and liberal politicians, media figures, and public intellectuals have taken the pledge. Something bigger is at stake: preventing the inevitable consequence of growing corruption and authoritarianism that follows from post-truth politics. The more people take the pledge—ordinary citizens like you, as well as politicians and journalists and civic leaders—the more impact the pledge will have. We talked to a number of politicians and other public figures who indicated the pledge is too burdensome for them to take now, and to come back when we have more people who went to ProTruthPledge.org and signed it. So when you sign the Pro-Truth Pledge, you know you are making a real difference in fighting against the lies and protecting our democracy from the scourge of lies.

Research on network effects shows that you powerfully impact the people in your social network, and as skeptics committed to reason, it is our responsibility to show skeptics in the best light possible. Taking the pledge, and sharing publicly about our commitment to the truth, will be a crucial signal to our social network about the positive role in our society that skeptics—that you and I—can play. The fake news and post-truth politics are a systemic problem, and without an intervention by everyone who cares about the truth, they will continue. So be part of the solution: go to ProTruthPledge.org and sign the pledge to fight against the lies and protect our democracy.

Take the Pro-Truth Pledge!

About the Author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is Assistant Professor in the History Department along with the Decision Sciences Collaborative at Ohio State University. He is President and Co-Founder of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit advocating truth-seeking, rational thinking, and wise decision-making, and the co-founder of the Pro-Truth Pledge, an initiative to fight misinformation and advocate for truth.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Giving Tuesday: Support Science & Reason

Skeptic.com feed - Tue, 11/28/2017 - 10:50am
  • 25 Years Strong: Ensuring Sound Scientific Viewpoints Are Heard Worldwide.

November 28th is #GivingTuesday. Please download and read the letter from Executive Director, Michael Shermer, and support our mission by donating to the Skeptics Society, your 501(c)(3) non-profit science education organization. 25 YEARS STRONG Your ongoing patronage will help ensure that sound scientific viewpoints are heard worldwide.

2017 was another banner year for science, skepticism, and critical thinking. We celebrated our 25th anniversary with a spectacular event in New York City that featured our Executive Director Dr. Michael Shermer and a number of skeptical and scientific Internet celebrities including the ASAP Science guys, the science rapper Baba Brinkman, neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin, pop star Michael Posner, magician Prakash Puru, The Thinking Atheist podcast host Seth Andrews, and others. Thanks to your continuing support we are looking forward to 2018 and are pleased to tell you about some of the great success we have had with new projects launched in 2017. Click the button below to read the 4-page update from Michael Shermer, the Skeptics Society’s Executive Director.

Read the letter from Michael

Ways to Make Your Tax-Deductible Donations

You can make a donation online using your credit card, or by downloading a printable donation card to make your donation by cheque in the mail. You may also make a donation by calling 1-626-794-3119. The Skeptics Society is US 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization. Donations are tax deductible.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

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