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Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science
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eSkeptic for December 13, 2017

16 hours 17 min ago

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. […]

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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.”

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

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

16 hours 17 min ago

“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

eSkeptic for December 6, 2017

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!

Read more about
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

Read the episode notes

Subscribe on iTunes

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

eSkeptic for November 29, 2017

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

Read notes for episode 142

Subscribe on iTunes

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

Read notes for episode 143

Subscribe on iTunes

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

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

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

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.

Make a tax-deductible donation
to The Skeptics Society

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptic Six-Day Sale (25% Off, Now Thru Cyber Monday)

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

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.

Make a tax-deductible donation
to The Skeptics Society

NOW THROUGH CYBER MONDAY 25% off almost everything in store

It’s our best sale of the year, on now through Cyber Monday. SAVE 25% on almost everything at Shop Skeptic, including: books, t-shirts, stickers, lapel pins, print subscriptions, and gift certificates. The only products that aren’t 25% off are back issues of Skeptic magazine (print edition), which are over 80% off! See details further down the page. Shop now.

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INVENTORY BLOWOUT Buy more. Save more (while quantities last!)

We need to make room in our warehouse. So, we are practically giving away printed back issues of Skeptic magazine for as low as 50¢ per issue (i.e. when you buy 50 issues at a savings of a whopping $275)! The more you buy, the bigger the discount:

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Stephen Jay Gould called Skeptic magazine “The best journal in the field.” For 25 years, our definitive skeptical journal has promoted science and reason. Our in-depth articles explore and inform. Buy it. Read it. Share it. Help us make the world a more rational place.

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MAY WE SUGGEST these informative and in-depth issues…

Issue 6.1 (1998)

Science & Society

E.O. Wilson: Can We Unify All Knowledge?; Deconstructing James Van Praagh Talking to the Dead; Emily Rosa Tests Therapeutic Touch; The Ancient Evil Eye; James Randi on New Age Tech; Legalizing Fraud in the Name of Religion; Holocaust Revisionism; Stephen Hawking v. Frank Tipler; Skeptic’s Guide to the Drug Policy Debate; Objectivity in Journalism; Graduate Record Exam Fringe Science…

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Issue 6.4 (1998)

John F. Kennedy

JFK Facts and Fictions; JFK Case Still Open: Skepticism and the Assassination of JFK; JFK Assassination Science; James Randi on Dowsing; Steven T. Asma on Critical Thinking; The Case For and Against God: A Forum Exchange; The Lost World: of Jack Horner An Interview with the World’s Most Famous Dinosaur Digger; Anastasia: Miraculous Survival Myth; Aliens Among Us?; Psychic Math!; How to Fake UFO Photo…

Buy this back issue

Issue 3.1 (1995)

Pseudomedicine

Life After False Memory Syndrome; The Mattoon Phantom Gasser Mass Hysteria; Why Should Skeptics Understand Religion?; Skeptical Perspectives: A Heretic-Scientist Among the Spiritualists; Homeopathy; Spiritual Belief Systems Try to Compete as Alternatives to Scientific Health Care; Therapeutic Touch; Leftist Science; Star Trek’s Meaning; Liquefying “Blood” …

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Issue 7.3 (1999)

Millennium Madness

A Critical Analysis of James Redfield and The Celestine Prophesy; Search for Immortality; The Alpha and the Omega The Creation and the End in Biblical Eschatology ; Celestine Prophesy; The Fire That Will Cleanse: Millennial Meanings and the End of the World ; That’s All Folks! It’s the End of the World … Again; Apocalypse Never The Search for Immortality as Millennial Phenomena; Myth and Science; Political Extremism; Autopsy Aliens…

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Issue 4.1 (1996)

Evolutionary Psychology

Quadro Tracker Dowsing Stick, Tested; Jehovah’s Witnesses/End of World; Physics; McIver Guide to Evolutionary Psychology/Nature of Human Nature; Salter Evolutionary Psychology as Protoscience; Critical Analysis of Evolutionary Psychology; Interview: Stephen Jay Gould; Gould’s Dangerous Idea: Contingency/Necessity/Nature of History; Reviews: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea; The Origin of Satan; The Final Superstition…

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Issue 1.4 (1992)

Witches, Heretics & Scientists

Special Section: The Price of Intolerance; Spirits, Witches & Science: Why the Rise of Science Encouraged Belief in the Supernatural in 17th-Century England; Ideological Immune System: Resistance to New Ideas in Science; Psychology of Resistance to the Heretical-Science of Copernicus; Edgar Cayce Foundation Responds to a Skeptical Critique and we reply; It’s Baaack: The Nature-Nurture Debate…

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Issue 5.1 (1997)

Environmental Science

Ecologists vs. Economists: A Quick & Dirty Guide to the Environmental Debate: Is Environmental Science polluted by Politics?; The Beautiful People Myth; Population Risk Assesment; The Not-So-Wise-Use Movement; Julian Simon Slams Eco-Crybabies; Top Scientists’ Eco-warning; Fred Crews on Modern American Witch Hunters; Ancient Astro-NOTS; Murky Origins of Hale-Bopp UFO Fiasco; Human Magnets; Dowsing; Futurists…

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Issue 7.2 (1999)

Cloning & Genetic Engineering

Cloning Science & Ethics; Science’s Moral Limits; How Evolution Increases Information in the Genome; Group Selection & Origins of Evil; Historical Perspective on Theology & Evolutionary Psychology; Urban Legends; Hawking Expanding Universe Trick; Deconstructing JFK: Assassination Debate Continues; De-Population Myths; Is Anybody Out There?; Freethinkers, Fundamentalists, Fake Quotes …

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Issue 3.2 (1995)

AIDS

Does HIV Really Cause AIDS? A Case Study in Skepticism Taken Too Far; AIDS Part I: The Skeptics and Their Claims; Part II: How Skepticism Went Astray; Part III Lessons on How Science Works; An interview with the author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray; Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin, and the Resolution of a Scientific Priority Dispute; The Question All Skeptics are Asking: Why Did God Make Rice Cakes?…

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Issue 18.2 (2013)

Gender Differences

What Science Says and Why it’s Mostly Wrong; Gender and the Paranormal; What Science Says About the Soul; Interview with Controversial Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon; Is Earth’s Magnetic Field Reversal Dangerous?; Scientology Self Help Handbook; Can We Trust Science Media Reports?; Why The Universe Exists; Skeptics in Film; Witchcraft Ceremony; Junior Skeptic: Alien Invaders!…

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Issue 7.1 (1999)

The Game of Influence

The Game of Influence: Understanding the Hidden Dynamics of Communication; Selection for Credulity A Biologist’s View of Belief; Legitimatizing Psychology’s Prodigal Son: Re-considering Hypnosis for the 21st Century; How the Public Relations Industry Compromises Democracy; The Knowledge Filter Reality Must Take Precedence in the Search for Truth…

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Issue 1.2 (1992)

Cryonics: Can Science Cheat Death?

Can Science Cheat Death?; Technical Aspects; The Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Dead: History of Resuscitation; Basic Q&A on Cryonics from Alcor Life Extension Foundation; Physicist in the White House?; Black Holes; Acupuncturists and Chiropractors Fined; Secular Alcohol Treatment; Laws of Robotics; Establishing a Miracle; Use & Abuse of Statistics in the “Real World”…

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Issue 21.4 (2016)

Deception in Cancer Treatment

Deceptive Cancer-care Industry Marketing; Amityville Hoax at 40; Alien Skulls?; Meaning Behind the Nazca Geoglyphs; Clown Sightings Rattle Nerves; Case for a Galactic Defense System; Is “Spirituality” Meaningless?; Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?; One of the Most Fundamental Sources of Error in Human Judgment; Thinking Critically about Public Discourse; Anti-Aging Claims…

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Issue 21.4 (2016)

Boston Bombing Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy in Boston: Disentangling Boston Marathon Bombing Conspiracy Theories; Miracle of Large Numbers Explains Seemingly Miraculous Events; Reasons for Hope in the Science of Artificial Intelligence; Faith Healing Tragedies; The Science of Memory and the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen Case; Photographing Phantoms; Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States; Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey…

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Remember, the more you buy, the bigger the discount:

  • 1 for $1
  • 5 for $4   (80¢ ea.)
  • 10 for $7   (70¢ ea.)
  • 25 for $15   (60¢ ea. — That’s a $135 savings!)
  • 50 for $25   (50¢ ea. — That’s a $275 savings!)

Browse all Back Issues
on sale for $1 or less!

Below, you’ll find a few books we recommend for your library. These also make great gifts!

AUTOGRAPHED HARDCOVER, 1st EDITION How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

Reg. $32. NOW $7.13

Get a 1st edition, autographed, hardcover copy of Dr. Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom for only $9.50, plus shipping (while quantities last). In this book about moral progress, Shermer demonstrates, through extensive data and heroic stories, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward truth, justice, and freedom, and that we are living in the most moral period of our species’ history.

Praise for the book

A thrilling and fascinating book, which could change your view of human history and human destiny.

—Steven Pinker

In these cynical times, where right and left foresee disaster and despair (albeit for different reasons), Shermer’s monumental opus, spanning centuries, nations, and cultures, is bound to provoke debate and open minds.

—Carol Tavris

Shermer’s thought-provoking, multidisciplinary book will engage anyone who wishes to understand rationalism as a force for morality.

—Library Journal

Buy the autographed hardcover

AUTOGRAPHED HARDCOVER 75 Collected essays from bestselling author Michael Shermer’s celebrated columns in Scientific American

Reg. $28. NOW $21

For fifteen years, bestselling author Michael Shermer has written a column in Scientific American magazine that synthesizes scientific concepts and theory for a general audience. His trademark combination of deep scientific understanding and entertaining writing style has thrilled his huge and devoted audience for years. Now, in SKE?TIC, seventy-five of these columns are available together for the first time; a welcome addition for his fans and a stimulating introduction for new readers.

Praise for the book

Dense with facts, convincing arguments, and curious statistics, this is an ingenious collection of light entertainment for readers who believe that explaining stuff is a good idea.

Kirkus Reviews

Shermer makes a strong case for the value of the scientific endeavor and the power of rational thinking in 75 brief essays…. Each entry is insightful, informative, and entertaining.

Publishers Weekly

Michael Shermer is a beacon of reason in an ocean of irrationailty.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Buy the autographed hardcover

Hardcover Reg. $28
NOW $21

UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

UFOs. Aliens. Strange 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. Paranormal belief is alive and well in American. Donald Prothero and Tim Callahan explore why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking. Employing the standards of scientific evidence, the authors discuss the reliability of eyewitness testimony, and the psychology of belief and conspiratorial thinking.

Buy the hardcover

Paperback Reg. $26
NOW $19.50

The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher

The New Yorker calls it, “Fair, witty appraisal of cranks, quacks, and quackeries of science and pseudoscience … A very able and even-tempered presentation.” This book is a classic of skeptical literature filled with thirty-three diverse chapters: a bountiful offering of the delightful drollery and horse sense that has made Martin Gardner the undisputed dean of the critics of pseudoscience. It is also a quick way to get up to speed on many topics. Gardner is not afraid to examine the process of critical examination itself.

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Paperback Reg. $16
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A Universe from Nothing

Where did the universe come from? What was there before it? What will the future bring? And finally, why is there something rather than nothing? At long last scientists are closing in on answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing, and why the universe bothers to exist at all. Dr. Krauss’ answer is based purely on the known laws of nature, showing that a universe can arise out of nothing without the aid or direction of a deity.

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In this New York Times Bestseller (and a definitive work on religion), Daniel Dennett (one of the “Four Horsemen” and a world-famous philosopher) asks: Is religion a product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Is it truly the best way to live a moral life? Ranging through biology, history, and psychology, Dennett charts religion’s evolution from “wild” folk belief to “domesticated” dogma.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for November 15, 2017

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SHERMER SHREDS Mass Public Shootings & Gun Violence: Part I

At 59 dead and over 540 wounded, the Las Vegas massacre that took place on October 1, 2017 is now the worse mass public shooting in U.S. history.

As is usually the case with such gun-related tragedies, within hours social media and political punditry was abuzz with talk of gun control and Second Amendment rights, with both the left and the right marshaling their data and arguments. The two most common arguments made in defense of gun ownership are (1) self protection and (2) as a bulwark against tyranny.

In this video, Michael Shermer “shreds” these ideas with skeptical scrutiny.

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BABA BRINKMAN’S SKEPTIC RAP Rap Artist Performs Science-Based Hip-Hop

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rap artist based in New York. He is best known for his “Rap Guide” series of science-based hip-hop albums and theatres shows, including Rap Guides to Evolution, Climate Change, and Religion.

The world premiere of this rap was performed at a live variety science show hosted by Dr. Michael Shermer, in partnership with YouTube Space NY in late September 2017, celebrating 25 years of Skeptic magazine and the Skeptics Society combating ‘fake news.’ The event explored the question: ‘How Can We Know What’s True?’.

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A NEW STORY! How Brian Brushwood 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!

American magician, podcaster, author, lecturer, and comedian, Brian Brushwood is the host of Scam School for Discovery, Hacking the System for National Geographic, and co-host of The Modern Rogue. He is the author of several books including: Scam School: Your Guide to Scoring Free Drinks, Doing Magic & Becoming the Life of the Party, and The Professional’s Guide to Fire Eating.

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The Crypto-Kid
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 141

In this episode of MonsterTalk, we interview cryptozoology enthusiast Colin Schneider, a young and enthusiastic researcher of Fortean and paranormal topics about his research into animal exsanguination. It’s a fun discussion of the field of cryptozoology, the disturbing topic of animal mutilation and the work done by the British organization, the Center for Fortean Zoology.

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Sigmund Freud (1926). Photo by Ferdinand Schmutzer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In this week’s eSkeptic, Margret Schaefer reviews Freud: The Making of an Illusion, in which its author, Frederick Crews, convincingly argues that Freud constructed psychoanalysis on a fraudulent foundation. How did Freud convince so many people of the correctness and the profundity of his theory?

The Wizardry of Freud

by Margret Schaefer

“Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging claim.”

The above is from a 2011 British Medical Journal article about Andrew Wakefield, the British physician whose “discovery” of a link between vaccination and autism fueled a world wide anti-vaccination movement. Since its publication in 1998, the paper’s results were contradicted by many reputable scientific studies, and in 2011 Wakefield’s work was proved to be not only bad science but a fraud as well: a British court found him guilty of dishonestly misrepresenting his data, removed him from the roster of the British Medical Society, and disbarred him from practice.

In his new book, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, Frederick Crews presents a Freud who was just such a fraud and who deserves the same fate. This is not the first time that Crews, a bona fide skeptic whose last book, Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays (2007), was reviewed in the pages of this journal, has written critically about Freud. Crews had been drawn to psychoanalysis himself (disclosure: this reviewer was, too) in the 1960s and early 1970s when, along with the late Norman Holland, he pretty much created the field of psychoanalytic literary criticism. But a prestigious fellowship to the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (he was a professor of English at UC Berkeley at the time) gave him time to delve deeper into Freud, and convinced him instead that psychoanalysis was unscientific and untenable. Since then he has contributed to the growing skeptical scholarly and historical scholarship on Freud.

Psychoanalysis is not only pseudoscience (as most philosophers of science agree, though for different reasons), but “the queen of pseudosciences”.

Philosophers of science have indicted key concepts of Freud’s psychoanalysis such as “free association,” “repression,” and “resistance” as circular and fatally flawed by confirmation bias. Historians have tracked down the actual patients whose treatment served Freud as evidence for his theories and have sought to place Freud and his theories in the historical and cultural context of his time. Crews—to his own surprise—became well known as a major, if not the major, critic of Freud in the public eye because of a series of articles he published in the New York Review of Books in the 1990s. For Crews is that now all too rare and rapidly disappearing creature—the public intellectual—who is able to explain and make accessible an otherwise unwieldy amount of erudite scholarship in clear, elegant, and jargon-free prose. Defenders of Freud have sought to discredit him as a “Freud basher,” thereby continuing the (not so honorable) tradition that Freud began of questioning the motives of a skeptic and attributing it to “resistance” instead of answering his objections. […]

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Wizardry of Freud

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 10:30am

“Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging claim.”

The above is from a 2011 British Medical Journal article about Andrew Wakefield, the British physician whose “discovery” of a link between vaccination and autism fueled a world wide anti-vaccination movement. Since its publication in 1998, the paper’s results were contradicted by many reputable scientific studies, and in 2011 Wakefield’s work was proved to be not only bad science but a fraud as well: a British court found him guilty of dishonestly misrepresenting his data, removed him from the roster of the British Medical Society, and disbarred him from practice.

In his new book, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, Frederick Crews presents a Freud who was just such a fraud and who deserves the same fate. This is not the first time that Crews, a bona fide skeptic whose last book, Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays (2007), was reviewed in the pages of this journal, has written critically about Freud. Crews had been drawn to psychoanalysis himself (disclosure: this reviewer was, too) in the 1960s and early 1970s when, along with the late Norman Holland, he pretty much created the field of psychoanalytic literary criticism. But a prestigious fellowship to the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (he was a professor of English at UC Berkeley at the time) gave him time to delve deeper into Freud, and convinced him instead that psychoanalysis was unscientific and untenable. Since then he has contributed to the growing skeptical scholarly and historical scholarship on Freud.

Philosophers of science have indicted key concepts of Freud’s psychoanalysis such as “free association,” “repression,” and “resistance” as circular and fatally flawed by confirmation bias. Historians have tracked down the actual patients whose treatment served Freud as evidence for his theories and have sought to place Freud and his theories in the historical and cultural context of his time. Crews—to his own surprise—became well known as a major, if not the major, critic of Freud in the public eye because of a series of articles he published in the New York Review of Books in the 1990s. For Crews is that now all too rare and rapidly disappearing creature—the public intellectual—who is able to explain and make accessible an otherwise unwieldy amount of erudite scholarship in clear, elegant, and jargon-free prose. Defenders of Freud have sought to discredit him as a “Freud basher,” thereby continuing the (not so honorable) tradition that Freud began of questioning the motives of a skeptic and attributing it to “resistance” instead of answering his objections.

This is precisely one of the reasons that in previous books Crews has said that psychoanalysis is not only pseudoscience (as most philosophers of science agree, though for different reasons), but “the queen of pseudosciences,” because it is the only one that incorporates within its theory an explanation of why some people refuse to believe it, i.e. “unconscious resistance” which needs to be explained by Freud’s own ideas and methods—a most brilliant and masterful way of disarming criticism.

His new book, a biography of the first half of Freud’s life, with intensive focus on the period 1882–1900, examines the crucial years in which Freud was creating his “science of psychoanalysis,” which culminated in his Studies on Hysteria, 1895 and The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900. This time in Freud’s life has been somewhat neglected by Freud’s biographers for many reasons, including lack of sufficient available biographical information, but also because in these years Freud developed a theory of neurosis that he later said he abandoned. But Crews argues that all the principal concepts on which psychoanalysis rests were constructed at this early time. His logic is that if the roots of a tree are not sound, then the crown, no matter how beautiful and different from the roots, cannot be healthy. And recently a treasure trove of new data about Freud during this period has been released from censorship: the complete correspondence between the young Sigmund Freud and his fiancée Martha Bernays during the long four and a half years of their engagement, 1882–1886.

This correspondence, which consists of an astounding 1539 letters in all, had been concealed from public view for some 60 years. Only a very small portion—97 letters, or 6.3% of them—had been previously published, and those in expurgated form. Their importance is attested to by the fact that Anna Freud, his daughter, kept them private at her house in London instead of depositing them in the Freud Archive along with the rest of Freud’s papers after her father’s death in 1939. It was not until her own death in 1982 that her heirs finally did deposit them in the Freud Archive—but even then it was with the stipulation that access to them be restricted until the year 2000. Why was this correspondence hidden for so long? Their content makes it clear why: they don’t paint a flattering portrait of Freud. A reading of these letters after they became available on the Library of Congress website spurred Crews to write this book, as it confirmed to him all the suspicions about Freud’s motives and manner of working that he and others had raised before but had had to remain somewhat speculative: the fraudulent and pseudo-scientific evidential base on which psychoanalysis rests.

Despite its nearly 700-page length and 22 pages of footnotes, Crews’ book is divided into sections with witty titles such as “Sigmund the Unready,” “Tending to Goldfish,” and “Girl Trouble” and is thoroughly absorbing and highly readable. He begins with an examination of Freud’s family history and early education, detailing the reasons why Freud was “unready” to undertake the study of medicine, and then focuses on Freud’s “First Temptation”: cocaine. Freud’s enthusiastic endorsement—and use of—cocaine, Crews contends, had a much greater consequence for the theory of psychoanalysis than is officially recognized. It was not a soon-to-be-discarded “youthful indiscretion,” as Ernest Jones called it in his official 1957 biography of Freud, for Freud continued to use cocaine regularly, almost daily, not just occasionally, for some 15 years. Crews details Freud’s early experiments with the substance, and documents his disastrous attempt to help ease his best friend Fleischl’s withdrawal from morphine addiction by means of injections of cocaine. Meant as a kindness, it became the opposite, as Freud ignored every sign that it was not working and was blatantly harming his friend instead. Later, Freud dishonestly claimed to have cured Fleischl, when in fact his friend tragically deteriorated while undergoing Freud’s treatment, and finally died in great pain with two addictions instead of one: morphine and cocaine. The details of what happened to Fleischl are gruesome to read, and Crews sees Freud’s tenacious clinging to a pet theory and ignoring any evidence to the contrary, no matter how devastating, as characteristic of him throughout his life from then on.

As Freud wrote Martha while recommending it to her, he used cocaine to alleviate his many physical and emotional symptoms, which ranged from headaches, stomach aches, and sciatica to recurring depressions and intermittent “bad moods” punctuated by periods of elation. It consoled him for his loneliness in Paris while studying with Charcot, and gave him the self-confidence that he mostly lacked at this time. Most importantly for the creation of his psychoanalysis, he used it to overcome his writer’s block. Hence he was “under the influence” while he was thinking, writing, and creating the theories of psychoanalysis. Crews develops the intriguing notion that Freud had a “cocaine self” that permitted him to misrepresent and exaggerate the flimsy evidence he did have for his theories—and to manufacture evidence when none existed. Freud as a student had been a “studious, ambitious, and philosophically reflective young man, trained in rigorous intuitivism by distinguished researchers,” as Crews acknowledges. But in the early 1880s he changed into someone so arrogant and overweeningly ambitious and grandiose, so absolutely and unaccountably convinced of his theory of the sexual etiology of hysteria that he didn’t hesitate to stoop to dishonesty and fraud to try to prove it.

Psychoanalysis is not only pseudoscience (as most philosophers of science agree, though for different reasons), but “the queen of pseudosciences”.

Cocaine is notoriously known to induce feelings of supreme self-confidence, elation, and grandiosity in the user, to the point that facts and reality no longer matter. It also heightens sexual feelings and fantasies and is often used as an aphrodisiac for that reason, as Freud was well aware, using it for that purpose himself. (More than once in his letters we find Freud telling Martha that he feels like a “sexual giant.”) And Crews argues that Freud’s cocaine use also explains his exaggerated focus on sexuality as the ultimate cause of all neuroses.

Freud’s theory at the time, in brief, was that sexual seduction (molestation) in childhood, usually by fathers, which was “repressed,” i.e. not consciously remembered, was the “invariable,” “only,” and “exclusive” cause of all hysteria—in fact, of “all the neuroses”—as he announced in a paper he gave to a group of his peers in 1896. In that paper he presented as evidence 13 cases that he said he had successfully cured. No matter that the group’s chairman, Richard von Krafft-Ebbing, called Freud’s theory “a scientific fairly tale”—Freud rejected this judgment as due to his being an “ass” and a conventional prude—surely hard to believe of someone like Krafft-Ebbing, the foremost expert in pedophilia in the world at that time, and a man from whom Freud actually took a number of ideas (without giving him credit). Even more shockingly, Freud later admitted to his friend, confidant, and collaborator Wilhelm Fliess, a Berlin physician, that these 13 cases didn’t exist at all—he had just made them all up.

Freud believed in what has come to be called his “seduction theory of hysteria” for many years until he famously “changed his mind” about what it was that his patients had “repressed.” Although it is unclear exactly when he officially made this change (it was not until 1909 that he called the Oedipus complex the central complex of the neuroses), he privately confessed to Fliess in 1897 (a few months after presenting his fraudulent paper) that he had not actually been able to “conclude a single case” of analysis so far, i.e. that his treatments had not produced a single cure. In fact, he had not even been able to induce any patient to agree with him and “remember” such abuse consciously, even though he had exercised extreme pressure to get them to do so, including massage, “head pressure,” and drugs to put them in a more suggestible mood when verbal suggestion didn’t work (of course he had attributed this to their “resistance” and “repression”) This change of mind has long been celebrated as the beginning of “true psychoanalysis,” as it placed the cause of hysteria away from the external world and into the internal psychological world of his patients: they were not repressing memories of actual sexual molestation, but rather their own childhood sexual fantasies and desires that they had unconsciously attributed to their fathers. However, Crews shows that Freud had no more evidence for his second theory (in fact, less, as it was empirically not even potentially verifiable) than he did for his first one, and continued to use all the (circular and self-invented) concepts with which he had tried to “prove” the first theory, e.g. “repression,” “free association,” and “resistance,” all of which have meaning only in Freud’s own system.

If his new theory was no more empirically based than his first, how did Freud actually come up with his ideas of the etiology of hysteria? Crews takes his clue from the fact that Freud saw himself (and other family members, especially one of his sisters) as suffering from an hysteria exactly like those of his patients, and that what he represented as his empirically based “science of psychoanalysis” were actually his own—real or imagined—childhood sexual experiences. Crews’ exposition of what in Freud’s biography led him to his theories makes for interesting reading indeed. In the end, Crews demonstrates that Wilhelm Fliess, who at their last actual meeting in 1900 accused Freud of merely reading the contents of his own mind into that of his patients, was right. What this means is psychoanalysis is based on a case of one—Freud himself. That is, Freud took himself as representative of all people in all times and in all cultures—surely a supremely grandiose, narcissistic—and preposterous—idea.

This is just a thin slice of what else there is in this riveting and rewarding book. One chapter is devoted to Freud’s rather unsuccessful stay in Paris in the winter of 1885-86 observing Charcot’s treatment of hysterics at Paris’ famous Salpêtrière. Freud idealized Charcot, and never questioned the obvious artificiality of Charcot’s sexualized “theater of hysteria” that entertained the aristocratic audiences he invited to watch it, although others there at the same time as Freud saw through the charade, correctly seeing Charcot’s use of hypnosis as an extreme form of suggestion. Instead, he took over Charcot’s theory of the origin of hysteria wholesale. Charcot’s theory of hysteria died with Charcot in 1893, since by then it had become obvious that the great doctor had gone astray in his enthusiastic use of hypnotism. But Freud took no notice and elaborated Charcot’s method of using hypnosis on his patients after he returned to Vienna—with no success, as Crews details in sometimes hair-raising detail. The case of Bertha Pappenheim, considered to be the foundational case of psychoanalysis, is paradigmatic of the gulf between the reality of her treatment and its later reporting. Although she was Breuer’s patient from 1880–1882, Freud collaborated with him throughout the case, and referred to this particular case, “Anno O,” later more than to any of his own cases. This supposedly “successful cure” showing how hysterical symptoms could be cured by cathartic “talking” was a complete failure instead. After two years and a thousand hours of therapy (!) by Breuer, Pappenheim was worse, not better. And all the while she was supposedly cured of her symptoms by talking freely until she found their point of origin (the famous “chimney sweeping” that Freud took from her and later called “free association”) Bertha was being given large quantities of mind-altering drugs such as chloral hydrate (a “hypnotic” chemical that today is often used as a “date rape” drug) and morphine—drugs whose side effects and withdrawal symptoms in turn were often misinterpreted by the two as the very “hysterical symptoms” she needed to have cured (thus giving new meaning to Karl Kraus’ assessment of psychoanalysis as “the disease it purports to cure”). The quantities used on her were such that five weeks after her discharge as “cured” she had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, still symptomatic, and needing be detoxed—a truth that Freud and Breuer failed to mention when they wrote the case up 13 years later. And so it went with many other patients, e.g. Anna von Lieben, whom Freud in 1897 called his “principal client” and “instructress,” Ida Bauer (“Dora”), and Emma Eckstein, whose treatment, which almost killed her and resulted in her severe facial disfigurement, qualifies as out and out medical malpractice.

Crews’s book takes us up through Freud’s life and ideas until his Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. The idea that dreams have meaning is an old folk belief which is true on the face of it, as people do dream about matters of concern to them, but Freud’s elaborate dream theory gives that belief a pseudoscientific gloss, as he invented a complicated theory of dreams that attributed extraordinary intellectual and linguistic abilities to a supposed “dream censor” in our minds. It is pseudoscientific because—to give just one obvious reason—Freud’s interpretive scheme allowed for a symbol to mean either itself, its opposite (“You say it’s not your mother? Aha! It is your mother”) or anything else at all (displacement), with no way to determine which interpretation is correct, or even likely.

In the later part of his book, Crews also takes up the matter of Freud’s relationship with his sister-in-law Minna, the younger sister of Martha, who came to live with the Freuds in Vienna after the death of her fiancée in the mid-1890s. Crews finds the admittedly circumstantial evidence that she and Freud had a long-term affair too strong to ignore. (And what evidence can there be in something of this sort but circumstantial?) But he does not find this matter merely titillating. Crews argues that Freud’s closeness to Minna had an influence on his elaboration of psychoanalysis. As early as the mid-nineties, she supplanted Wilhelm Fliess as his confidant after that relationship ended in bitterness, as unlike Martha, she took a lively interest in his work, and helped him write his books and papers. Crews argues that she may have helped turn Freud away from whatever scientific and empirical values he still ostensibly held towards extremes of speculation such as spiritualism and telepathy. (At one point Freud actually claimed that what passed between the analyst’s and his patient’s “unconscious” happened by means of telepathy.)

Freud took himself as representative of all people in all times and in all cultures—surely a supremely grandiose, narcissistic—and preposterous—idea.

If, as Crews convincingly argues, Freud constructed psychoanalysis on a fraudulent foundation, how did he convince so many people of the correctness and the profundity of his theory? And not just his enthralled followers over whom he presided like the guru of a cult, excommunicating all apostates, but also many of us over many subsequent decades? One reason for Freud’s wizardry in doing this, Crews suggests, is Freud’s rhetorical mastery and guile, including his heart-warming protestations of modesty and scientific rigor. Crews, after all originally a literary critic, notes that the narrative structure of Freud’s case histories and his Interpretation of Dreams was that of a suspenseful detective story in the manner of Arthur Conan Doyle, one of Freud’s favorite authors (Freud himself admitted—in supposed surprise—that his case histories read more like short stories). In The Interpretation of Dreams, for example, Freud induces his reader to identify with him and join him in a quest he structured as a difficult and unsparingly honest introspective journey leading to that heart of darkness, the source of all dreams—“the Unconscious.” (Not for nothing was Freud awarded the Goethe prize for literature in Germany in 1936.) So he was creating “literature,” as some who still idealize the founder today argue and actually see as a virtue, claiming that psychoanalysis is therefore a “hermeneutic” rather than an empirical “science,” one conveniently not subject to empirical rules of evidence. True, “literature” does not have to be attuned to empirical reality—it’s “truth” lies in a different realm—but a theory of mind and a “science,” especially one applied to the (costly) treatment of suffering patients in the actual world, does.

I can’t help but add that one reason that Crews’ book succeeds as a readable and compelling book is the same one to which he attributed a good deal of Freud’s success: he, too, is an eloquent and passionate writer who has here constructed as enthralling a detective story as any of Freud’s. He, too, becomes Sherlock Holmes, the objective, erudite, and supremely rational sleuth who relentlessly tracks down hidden clue after clue—which leads him inexorably to only one possible verdict: Freud is guilty of fraud as charged. Except—and this is the big difference—Crews provides ample documentation and evidence for what he says, whereas Freud only pretended to do so.

Is any of this still important today, when psychoanalysis has effectively been banished from the mainstream professions of psychiatry and psychology for its lack of efficacy? Today even basic Freudian terms such as “hysteria” and “neurosis” have been excised from the DSM, the bible of psychiatric practice. But Crews argues that psychoanalysis still remains culturally pervasive and that Freud’s ideas, though proven pseudoscientific many times, persist and are still capable of exerting harmful influence in the real world. A recent example was the widespread “recovered memory” movement of 1980s and 1990s that Crews detailed in his eye-opening book of 1995, The Memory Wars. This movement, which still has hangers-on today, destroyed the lives of many families, including that of the daughters who accused their fathers of sexually molesting them in childhood on the basis of a therapist’s unearthing their “repressed memories” of sexual abuse, and jailed a number of falsely accused men. It was obviously a revival of Freud’s original theory of neurosis, in which a therapist convinced of this theory subtly or not so subtly—as was clearly demonstrated in later lawsuits—suggested this to their patients, just as Freud himself did.

Crews hopes that by proving that Freud’s creation of psychoanalysis was a fraud he will finally help “close the door” on this “damaging claim.” Will it? Alas, exposure as a fraud does not seem to deter belief: in the U.S. a large fraction of the population still believes in Wakefield’s vaccination-autism theory, and in 2015, anti-vaccination groups in California actually recruited the discredited Wakefield himself to come to their state and head their campaign against the state legislature’s effort to pass a pro-vaccination law protecting school children.

But “the still small voice of reason”—to quote Freud himself in another context—will, hopefully, prevail in the end. Anyone who reads Crews’ new book with an open mind will come away thinking that while Freud was indeed a highly imaginative thinker and an accomplished, eloquent writer—he was also a fraud and a huckster, a narcissistic con-man of overwhelming ambition, hungry equally for fame and fortune, who succeeded by means of deceptive propaganda and rhetoric in being the “conquistador” that he longed to be. But at end of the royal road to Freud’s Unconscious there is finally only the Wizard of Oz.

About the Author

Dr. Margret Schaefer received a Ph.D. in English at UC Berkeley, and has taught at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a cultural and literary critic, journalist, and translator, and has written on issues in psychology and medical history as well as on Oscar Wilde, Kleist, Kafka, and Arthur Schnitzler. Recently she translated and published three volumes of Schnitzler’s fiction and two of his plays, which were produced in New York and in Berkeley.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Why We Should Be Concerned About Artificial Superintelligence

Wed, 11/08/2017 - 12:00am

The human brain isn’t magic; nor are the problem-solving abilities our brains possess. They are, however, still poorly understood. If there’s nothing magical about our brains or essential about the carbon atoms that make them up, then we can imagine eventually building machines that possess all the same cognitive abilities we do. Despite the recent advances in the field of artificial intelligence, it is still unclear how we might achieve this feat, how many pieces of the puzzle are still missing, and what the consequences might be when we do. There are, I will argue, good reasons to be concerned about AI.

The Capabilities Challenge

While we lack a robust and general theory of intelligence of the kind that would tell us how to build intelligence from scratch, we aren’t completely in the dark. We can still make some predictions, especially if we focus on the consequences of capabilities instead of their construction. If we define intelligence as the general ability to figure out solutions to a variety of problems or identify good policies for achieving a variety of goals, then we can reason about the impacts that more intelligent systems could have, without relying too much on the implementation details of those systems.

Our intelligence is ultimately a mechanistic process that happens in the brain, but there is no reason to assume that human intelligence is the only possible form of intelligence. And while the brain is complex, this is partly an artifact of the blind, incremental progress that shaped it—natural selection. This suggests that developing machine intelligence may turn out to be a simpler task than reverse- engineering the entire brain. The brain sets an upper bound on the difficulty of building machine intelligence; work to date in the field of artificial intelligence sets a lower bound; and within that range, it’s highly uncertain exactly how difficult the problem is. We could be 15 years away from the conceptual breakthroughs required, or 50 years away, or more.

The fact that artificial intelligence may be very different from human intelligence also suggests that we should be very careful about anthropomorphizing AI. Depending on the design choices AI scientists make, future AI systems may not share our goals or motivations; they may have very different concepts and intuitions; or terms like “goal” and “intuition” may not even be particularly applicable to the way AI systems think and act. AI systems may also have blind spots regarding questions that strike us as obvious. AI systems might also end up far more intelligent than any human.

The last possibility deserves special attention, since superintelligent AI has far more practical significance than other kinds of AI.

AI researchers generally agree that superintelligent AI is possible, though they have different views on how and when it’s likely to be developed. In a 2013 survey, top-cited experts in artificial intelligence assigned a median 50% probability to AI being able to “carry out most human professions at least as well as a typical human” by the year 2050, and also assigned a 50% probability to AI greatly surpassing the performance of every human in most professions within 30 years of reaching that threshold.

Many different lines of evidence and argument all point in this direction; I’ll briefly mention just one here, dealing with the brain’s status as an evolved artifact. Human intelligence has been optimized to deal with specific constraints, like passing the head through the birth canal and calorie conservation, whereas artificial intelligence will operate under different constraints that are likely to allow for much larger and faster minds. A digital brain can be many orders of magnitude larger than a human brain, and can be run many orders of magnitude faster.

All else being equal, we should expect these differences to enable (much) greater problem-solving ability by machines. Simply improving on human working memory all on its own could enable some amazing feats. Examples like arithmetic and the game Go confirm that machines can reach superhuman levels of competency in narrower domains, and that this competence level often follows swiftly after human-par performance is achieved.

The Alignment Challenge

If and when we do develop general-purpose AI, or artificial general intelligence (AGI), what are the likely implications for society? Human intelligence is ultimately responsible for human innovation in all walks of life. The prospect of developing machines that can dramatically accelerate our rate of scientific and technological progress is a prospect of incredible growth from this engine of prosperity.

Our ability to reap these gains, however, depends on our ability to design AGI systems that are not only good at solving problems, but oriented toward the right set of problems. A highly capable, highly general problem-solving machine would function like an agent in its own right, autonomously pursuing whatever goals (or answering whatever questions, proposing whatever plans, etc.) are represented in its design. If we build our machines with subtly incorrect goals (or questions, or problem statements), then the same general problem-solving ability that makes AGI a uniquely valuable ally may make it a uniquely risky adversary.

Why an adversary? I’m not assuming that AI systems will resemble humans in their motivations or thought processes. They won’t necessarily be sentient (unless this turns out to be required for high intelligence), and they probably won’t share human motivations like aggression or a lust for power.

There do, however, seem to be a number of economic incentives pushing toward the development of ever-more-capable AI systems granted ever-greater autonomy to pursue their assigned objectives. The better the system is at decisionmaking, the more one gains from removing humans from the loop, and the larger the push towards autonomy. (See, for example, this article on why tool AIs want to be agent AIs.) There are also many systems in which having no human in the loop leads to better standardization and lower risk of corruption, such as assigning a limited supply of organs to patients. As our systems become smarter, human oversight is likely to become more difficult and costly; past a certain level, it may not even be possible, as the complexity of the policies or inventions an AGI system devises surpasses our ability to analyze their likely consequences.

AI systems are likely to lack human motivations such as aggression, but they are also likely to lack the human motivations of empathy, fairness, and respect. Their decision criteria will simply be whatever goals we design them to have; and if we misspecify these goals even in small ways, then it is likely that the resultant goals will not only diverge from our own, but actively conflict with them.

The basic reason to expect conflict (assuming we fail to perfectly specify our goals) is that it appears to be a technically difficult problem to specify goals that aren’t open-ended and ambitious; and sufficiently capable pursuit of sufficiently open-ended goals implies that strategies such as “acquire as many resources as possible” will be highly ranked by whatever criteria the machine uses to make decisions.

Why do ambitious goals imply “greedy” resource acquisition? Because physical and computational resources are broadly helpful for getting things done, and are limited in supply. This tension naturally puts different agents with ambitious goals in conflict, as human history attests—except in cases where the agents in question value each other’s welfare enough to wish to help one another, or are at similar enough capability levels to benefit more from trade than from resorting to force. AI raises the prospect that we may build systems with “alien” motivations that don’t overlap with any human goal, while superintelligence raises the prospect of unprecedentedly large capability differences.

Even a simple question-answering system poses more or less the same risks on those fronts as an autonomous agent in the world, if the question-answering system is “ambitious” in the relevant way. It’s one thing to say (in English) “we want you to answer this question about a proposed power plant design in a reasonable, common-sense way, and not build in any covert subsystems that would make the power plant dangerous;” it’s quite another thing to actually specify this goal in code, or to hand-code patches for the thousand other loopholes a sufficiently capable AI system might find in the task we’ve specified for it.

If we build a system to “just answer questions,” we need to find some way to specify a very non-ambitious version of that goal. If not we risk building a system with incentives to seize control and maximize the number of questions it receives, maximize the approval ratings it receives from users, or otherwise to maximize some quantity that correlates with good performance in training data and is likely to come uncorrelated in the real world.

Why, then, does it look difficult to specify non-ambitious goals? Because our standard mathematical framework of decision-making—expected utility maximization—is built around ambitious, open-ended goals. When we try to model a limited goal (for example, “just put a single strawberry on a plate and then stop there, without having a big impact on the world,”) expected utility maximization is a poor fit. It’s always possible to keep driving up the expected utility higher and higher by devising evermore- ingenious ways to increment the probability of your success; and if your machine is smarter than you are, and all it cares about is this success criterion you’ve given it, then “crazy”-sounding ideas like “seize the world’s computing resources and run millions of simulations of possible ways I might be wrong about whether the strawberry is on the plate, just in case,” will be highly ranked by this supposedly “unambitious” goal.

Researchers are considering a number of different ideas for addressing this problem, and we’ve seen some progress over the last couple of years, but it’s still largely an unsolved and under-studied problem. We could consider adding a penalty term to any policies the system comes up with that have a big impact on the world—but defining “impact” in a useful way turns out to be a very difficult problem.

One could try to design systems to only “mildly” pursue their goals, such as stopping the search for ever-better policies once a policy that hits a certain expected utility threshold is found. But systems of this kind, called “satisficers,” turn out to run into some difficult obstacles of their own. Most obviously, naïve attempts at building a satisficer may give the system incentives to write and run the code for a highly capable non-satisficing sub-agent, since a maximizing sub-agent can be a highly effective way to satisfice for a goal.

For a summary of these and other technical obstacles to building superintelligent but “unambitious” machines, see Taylor et al.’s article “Alignment for Advanced Machine Learning Systems”.

Alignment Through Value Learning

Why can’t we just build ambitious machines that share our values?

Ambition in itself is no vice. If we can successfully instill everything we want into the system, then there’s no need to fear open-ended maximization behavior, because the scary edge-case scenarios we’re worried about will be things the AI system itself knows to worry about too. Similarly, we won’t need to worry about an aligned AI with sufficient foresight modifying itself to be unaligned, or creating unaligned descendents because it will realize that doing so would go against its values.

The difficulty is that human goals are complex, varied, and situation-dependent. Coding them all by hand is a non-starter. (And no, Asimov’s three laws of robotics are not a plausible design proposal for real-world AI systems. Many of the books explored how they didn’t work, and in any case they were there mainly as plot devices!)

What we need, then, would seem to be some formal specification of a process for learning human values over time. This task has itself raised a number of surprisingly deep technical challenges for AI researchers.

Many modern AI systems, for example, are trained using reinforcement learning. A reinforcement learning system builds a model of how the world works through exploration and feedback rewards, trying to collect as much reward as it can. One might think that we could just keep using these systems as capabilities ratchet past the human level, rewarding AGI systems for behaviors we like and punishing them for behaviors we dislike, much like raising a human child.

This plan runs into several crippling problems, however. I’ll discuss two: defining the right reward channel, and ambiguous training data.

The end goal that we actually want to encourage through value learning is that the trainee wants the trainer to be satisfied, and we hope to teach this by linking the trainer’s satisfaction with some reward signal. For dog training, this is giving a treat; for a reinforcement learning system, it might be pressing a reward button. The reinforcement learner, however, has not actually been designed to satisfy the trainer, or to promote what the trainer really wants. Instead, it has simply been built to optimize how often it receives a reward. At low capability levels, this is best done by cooperating with the trainer; but at higher capability levels, if it could use force to seize control of the button and give itself rewards, then solutions of this form would be rated much more highly than cooperative solutions. To have traditional methods in AI safely scale up with capabilities, we need to somehow formally specify the difference between the trainer’s satisfaction and the button being pressed, so that the system will see stealing the button and pressing it directly as irrelevant to its real goal. This is another example of an open research question; we don’t know how to do this yet, even in principle.

We want the system to have general rules that hold across many contexts. In practice, however, we can only give and receive specific examples in narrow contexts. Imagine training a system that learns how to classify photos of everyday objects and animals; when presented with a photo of a cat, it confidently asserts that the photo is of a cat. But what happens when you show it a cartoon drawing of a cat? Whether or not the cartoon is a “cat” depends on the definition that we’re using—it is a cat in some senses, but not in others. Since both concepts of “cat” agree that a photo of a cat qualifies, just looking at photos of cats won’t help the system learn what rule we really have in mind. In order for us to predict all the ways that training data might under-specify the rules we have in mind, however, it would seem that we’d need to have superhuman foresight about all the complex edge cases that might ever arise in the future during a real-world system’s deployment.

While it seems likely that some sort of childhood or apprenticeship process will be necessary, our experience with humans, who were honed by evolution to cooperate in human tribes, is liable to make us underestimate the practical difficulty of rearing a non-human intelligence. And trying to build a “human-like” AI system, without first fully understanding what makes humans tick could make the problem worse. The system may still be quite inhuman under the hood, while its superficial resemblance to human behavior further encourages our tendency to anthropomorphize the system and assume it will always behave in human-like ways.

For more details on these research directions within AI, curious readers can check out Amodei, et al.’s “Concrete Problems in AI Safety”, along with the Taylor et al. paper above.

The Big Picture

At this point, I’ve laid out my case for why I think superintelligent AGI is likely to be developed in the coming decades, and I’ve discussed some early technical research directions that seem important for using it well. The prospect of researchers today being able to do work that improves the long-term reliability of AI systems is a key practical reason why AI risk is an important topic of discussion today. The goal is not to wring our hands about hypothetical hazards, but to calmly assess their probability (if only heuristically) and actually work to resolve the hazards that seem sufficiently likely.

A reasonable question at this point is whether the heuristics and argument styles I’ve used above to try and predict a notional technology, general-purpose AI, are likely to be effective. One might worry, for example—as Michael Shermer does in this issue of Skeptic—that the scenario I’ve described above, however superficially plausible, is ultimately a conjunction of a number of independent claims.

A basic tenet of probability theory is that conjunctions are necessarily no more likely than their individual parts; the claim “Linda is a feminist bank teller” cannot be more likely than the claim “Linda is a feminist” or the claim “Linda is a bank teller,” in this now famous cognitive bias experiment by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. This is true here as well; if any of the links above are wrong, the entire chain fails.

A quirk of human psychology is that corroborative details can often make a story feel as though it is likelier, by making it more vivid and easier to visualize. If I suppose that the U.S. and Russia might break off diplomatic relations in the next five years, this might seem low probability; if I suppose that over the next five years the U.S. might shoot down a Russian plane over Syria and then that will lead to the countries breaking off diplomatic relations, this story might seem more likely than the previous one, because it has an explicit causal link. And indeed, studies show that people will generally assign a higher probability to the latter claim if two groups are randomly assigned one or the other claim in isolation. Yet the latter story is necessarily less likely—or at least no more likely—because it now contains an additional (potentially wrong) fact.

I’ve been careful in my argument so far to make claims not about pathways, which paint a misleadingly detailed picture, but about destinations. Destinations are disjunctive, in that many independent paths can all lead there, and so are as likely as the union of all the constituent probabilities. Artificial general intelligence might be reached because we come up with better algorithms on blackboards, or because we have continuing hardware growth, or because neuroimaging advances allow us to better copy and modify various complicated operations in human brains, or by a number of other paths. If one of those pathways turns out to be impossible or impractical, this doesn’t mean we can’t reach the destination, though it may affect our timelines and the exact capabilities and alignment prospects of the system. Where I’ve mentioned pathways, it’s been to help articulate why I think the relevant destinations are reachable, but the outlined paths aren’t essential.

This also applies to alignment. Regardless of the particular purposes we put AI systems to, if they strongly surpass human intelligence, we’re likely to run into many of the same difficulties with ensuring that they’re learning the right goals, as opposed to learning a close approximation of our goal that will eventually diverge from what we want. And for any number of misspecified goals highly capable AI systems might end up with, resource constraints are likely to create an adversarial relationship between the system and its operators.

To avoid inadvertently building a powerful adversary, and to leverage the many potential benefits of AI for the common good, we will need to find some way to constrain AGI to pursue limited goals or to employ limited resources; or we will need to find extremely reliable ways to instill AGI systems with our goals. In practice, we will surely need both, along with a number of other techniques and hacks for driving down risk to acceptable levels.

Why Work On This Now?

Suppose that I’ve convinced you that AGI alignment is a difficult and important problem. Why work on it now?

One reason is uncertainty. We don’t know whether it will take a short or long time to invent AGI, so we should prepare for short horizons as well as long ones. And just as we don’t know what work is left to do in order to make AGI, we don’t know what work is left to do in order to align AGI. This alignment problem, as it is called, may turn out to be more difficult than expected, and the sooner we start, the more slack we have. And if it proves unexpectedly easy, that means we can race ahead faster on capability development once we’re confident we can use them well.

On the other hand, starting work early means that we know less about what AGI will look like, and our safety work is correspondingly less informed. The research problems outlined above, however, seem fairly general: they’re likely to be applicable to a wide variety of possible designs. Once we have exhausted the low-hanging fruit and run out of obvious problems to tackle, the cost-benefit comparison here may shift.

Another reason to prioritize early alignment work is that AI safety may help shape capabilities research in critical respects.

One way to think about this is technical debt, a programming term used to refer to the development work that becomes necessary later because a cheap and easy approach was used instead of the right approach. One might imagine a trajectory where we increase AI capabilities as rapidly as possible, reach some threshold capability level where there is a discontinuous increase in the dangers (e.g., strong self-improvement capabilities), and then halt all AI development, focusing entirely on ensuring that the system in question is aligned before continuing development. This approach, however, runs into the same challenges as designing a system first for functionality, and then later going back and trying to “add in” security. Systems that aren’t built for high security at the outset generally can’t be made highly secure (at reasonable cost and effort) by “tacking on” security features much later on.

As an example, we can consider how strings were implemented in the C language, a general-purpose, imperative computer programming language. Developers chose the easier, cheaper way instead of the more secure way, leading to countless buffer overflow vulnerabilities that were painful to patch in systems that used C. Figuring out the sort of architecture a system needs to have and then building using that architecture seems to be much more reliable than building an architecture and hoping that it can be easily modified to also serve another purpose. We might find that the only way to build an alignable AI is to start over with a radically different architecture.

Consider three fields that can be thought of as normal fields under conditions of unusual stress:

  • Computer security is like computer programming and mathematics, except that it also has to deal with the stresses imposed by intelligent adversaries. Adversaries can zero in on weaknesses that would only come up occasionally by chance, making ordinary “default” levels of exploitability highly costly in security-critical contexts. This is a major reason why computer security is famously difficult: you don’t just have to be clear enough for the compiler to understand; you have to be airtight.
  • Rocket science is like materials science, chemistry, and mechanical engineering, except that it requires correct operation under immense pressures and temperatures on short timescales. Again, this means that small defects can cause catastrophic problems, as tremendous amounts of energy that are supposed to be carefully channeled end up misdirected.
  • Space probes that we send on exploratory missions are like regular satellites, except that their distance from Earth and velocity put them permanently out of reach. In the case of satellites, we can sometimes physically access the system and make repairs. This is more difficult for distant space probes, and is often impossible in practice. If we discover a software bug, we can send a patch to a probe—but only if the antenna is still receiving signals, and the software that accepts and applies patches is still working. If not, your system is now an inert brick hurtling away from the Earth.

Loosely speaking, the reason AGI alignment looks difficult is that it shares core features with the above three disciplines.

  • Because AGI will be applying intelligence to solve problems, it will also be applying intelligence to find shortcuts to the solution. Sometimes the shortcut helps the system find unexpectedly good solutions; sometimes it helps the system find unexpectedly bad ones, as when our intended goal was imperfectly specified. As with computer security, the difficulty we run into is that our goals and safety measures need to be robust to adversarial behavior. We can in principle build non-adversarial systems (e.g., through value learning or by formalizing limited-scope goals), and this should be the goal of AI researchers; but there’s no such thing as perfect code, and any flaw in our code opens up the risk of creating an adversary.
  • More generally speaking, because AGI has the potential to be much smarter than people and systems that we’re used to and to discover technological solutions that are far beyond our current capabilities, safety measures we create for subhuman or human-par AI systems are likely to break down as these capabilities dramatically increase the “pressure” and “temperature” the system has to endure. For practical purposes, there are important qualitative differences between a system that’s smart enough to write decent code, and one that isn’t; between one that’s smart enough to model its operators’ intentions, and one that isn’t; between one that isn’t a competent biochemist, and one that is. This means that the nature of progress in AI makes it very difficult to get safety guarantees that scale up from weaker systems to smarter ones. Just as safety measures for aircraft may not scale to spacecraft, safety measures for low-capability AI systems operating in narrow domains are unlikely to scale to general AI.
  • Finally, because we’re developing machines that are much smarter than we are, we can’t rely on after-the-fact patches or shutdown buttons to ensure good outcomes. Loss-of-control scenarios can be catastrophic and unrecoverable. Minimally, to effectively suspend a superintelligent system and make repairs, the research community first has to solve a succession of open problems. We need a stronger technical understanding of how to design systems that are docile enough to accept patches and shutdown operations, or that have carefully restricted ambitions or capabilities. Work needs to begin early exactly because so much of the work operates as a prerequisite for safely making further safety improvements to highly capable AI systems.

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.2 (2017)
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This looks like a hard problem. The problem of building AGI in the first place, of course, also looks hard. We don’t know nearly enough about either problem to say which is more difficult, or exactly how work on one might help inform work on the other. There is currently far more work going into advancing capabilities than advancing safety and alignment, however; and the costs of underestimating the alignment challenge far exceed the costs of underestimating the capabilities challenge. For that reason, this should probably be a more mainstream priority, particularly for AI researchers who think that the field has a very real chance of succeeding in its goal of developing general and adaptive machine intelligence.

About the Author

Matthew Graves is a staff writer at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in Berkeley, CA. Previously, he worked as a data scientist, using machine learning techniques to solve industrial problems. He holds a master’s degree in Operations Research from the University of Texas at Austin.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for November 8, 2017

Wed, 11/08/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SKEPTIC EXCLUSIVE FILM CLIP Bill Nye: Science Guy (a new documentary)

Bill Nye is a man on a mission: to stop the spread of anti-scientific thinking across the world. The former star of the popular kids show Bill Nye The Science Guy is now the CEO of The Planetary Society, an organization founded by Bill’s mentor Carl Sagan, where he’s launching a solar propelled spacecraft into the cosmos and advocating for the importance of science, research, and discovery in public life. With intimate and exclusive access — as well as plenty of wonder and whimsy — this behind-the-scenes portrait of Nye follows him as he takes off his Science Guy lab coat and takes on those who deny climate change, evolution, and a science-based world view. The film features Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, and many others.

Below, you can watch an Exclusive Clip from the film in which Bill Nye has a few words with Ken Ham — founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which promotes a pseudoscientific, young Earth creationist explanation of the origin of the Universe based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative in the Bible.

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A NEW STORY! How Phil Zuckerman 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!

Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and he is a card-carrying (and corn cob pipe gnawing) skeptic. He is the author of several books, including: Living the Secular Life (2015), and Society Without God (2008).

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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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It’s possible that artificially intelligent systems might end up far more intelligent than any human. In this week’s eSkeptic, Matthew Graves warns that the same general problem-solving ability that makes artificial superintelligence a uniquely valuable ally may make it a uniquely risky adversary. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.2 (2017).

Why We Should Be Concerned About Artificial Superintelligence

by Matthew Graves

The human brain isn’t magic; nor are the problem-solving abilities our brains possess. They are, however, still poorly understood. If there’s nothing magical about our brains or essential about the carbon atoms that make them up, then we can imagine eventually building machines that possess all the same cognitive abilities we do. Despite the recent advances in the field of artificial intelligence, it is still unclear how we might achieve this feat, how many pieces of the puzzle are still missing, and what the consequences might be when we do. There are, I will argue, good reasons to be concerned about AI.

The Capabilities Challenge

While we lack a robust and general theory of intelligence of the kind that would tell us how to build intelligence from scratch, we aren’t completely in the dark. We can still make some predictions, especially if we focus on the consequences of capabilities instead of their construction. If we define intelligence as the general ability to figure out solutions to a variety of problems or identify good policies for achieving a variety of goals, then we can reason about the impacts that more intelligent systems could have, without relying too much on the implementation details of those systems.

Our intelligence is ultimately a mechanistic process that happens in the brain, but there is no reason to assume that human intelligence is the only possible form of intelligence. And while the brain is complex, this is partly an artifact of the blind, incremental progress that shaped it—natural selection. This suggests that developing machine intelligence may turn out to be a simpler task than reverse- engineering the entire brain. The brain sets an upper bound on the difficulty of building machine intelligence; work to date in the field of artificial intelligence sets a lower bound; and within that range, it’s highly uncertain exactly how difficult the problem is. We could be 15 years away from the conceptual breakthroughs required, or 50 years away, or more.

The fact that artificial intelligence may be very different from human intelligence also suggests that we should be very careful about anthropomorphizing AI. Depending on the design choices AI scientists make, future AI systems may not share our goals or motivations; they may have very different concepts and intuitions; or terms like “goal” and “intuition” may not even be particularly applicable to the way AI systems think and act. AI systems may also have blind spots regarding questions that strike us as obvious. AI systems might also end up far more intelligent than any human.

The last possibility deserves special attention, since superintelligent AI has far more practical significance than other kinds of AI. […]

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2018 | IRELAND | JULY 15–AUGUST 2 One of the best geology tours we’ve ever offered: an epic 19-day tour of the Emerald Isle!

Ireland’s famed scenic landscape owes its breathtaking terrain to a dramatic 1.75 billion year history of continental collisions, volcanoes, and glacial assault. Join the Skeptics Society for a 19-day immersive tour of the deep history of the Emerald Isle, while experiencing the music, hospitality, and verdant beauty that make Ireland one of the world’s top travel destinations.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Are You An Unconscious Racist?

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 12:00am

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a racist?

  • A person who thinks their “race” or ethnic group is better than everyone else’s by virtue of genetic superiority, religion, customs, food, way of life, or beliefs.
  • A person who fails to hire an applicant with the best qualifications if that person is from a different ethnic or religious group from the employer’s.
  • A person who is part of an institution that requires him or her to systematically target and discriminate against African Americans or other minorities.
  • A person of any race, ethnicity, or religion who feels more comfortable with others who are like themselves.

or:

  • A person whose score on the Implicit Association Test (IAT) reveals that he or she is unconsciously biased against black people.

Some of the above? All of the above?

Throughout the first decade of this century, surveys repeatedly found that prejudiced attitudes—notably the once-common beliefs that blacks were inferior to whites, women inferior to men, gay men and lesbians inferior to straights—had declined sharply, especially among young people. Surveys, of course, supposedly assess what you think. But what if they assess what you think others think you should think? What if they simply reflect your awareness that it isn’t cool to reveal your actual negative feelings about another group? Self-report data is inherently plagued with this problem. Thus, most social psychologists who study prejudice and discrimination focus on what people do, not what they say they might do. For example, when researchers have sent identical résumés to potential employers, varying only a name that indicates gender, or implies race (a black-sounding name or membership in an African American organization), or mentions religious affiliation, many employers have revealed a bias in whom they choose to call for an interview.1

Of course, whether or not you choose to tell an interviewer that you would never willingly hire a [fill in the target person], you know what you feel about “those people.” But some researchers have set their sights on capturing the prejudices that they believe lurk below awareness, hoping to identify implicit, unconscious negative feelings— not only in people who know they are prejudiced but don’t want to admit it, but also among people who believe they are unprejudiced.

Michael Shermer Examines the Implicit Association Test

Nearly twenty years ago, a team of eminent psychological scientists, including Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, developed the Implicit Association Test, which measures the speed of people’s positive and negative associations to a target group.2 You sit at a console or your computer and are shown a series of faces you must sort as quickly as you can—pressing a left key for a black face, say, and a right key for a white face. Now you have to do the same for a series of positive or negative words—press the left key for positive words (such as triumph, joy, honest) and the right key for negative words (such as devil, maggot, failure). Once you’ve mastered these sorting tasks, the faces and words are combined: Now, as quickly as possible, you must press the left key when you see a black face or a positive word and the right key when you see a white face or a negative word. You are given a rapid set of combinations: black + triumph, black + poison, white + peace, white + hatred. The pairings get harder as you go along. Many people respond more quickly when white faces are paired with positive words and when black faces are paired with negative words. That speed difference is said to be a measure of their implicitly racist attitudes toward African Americans because it’s harder for their unconscious minds to link African Americans with positive words.

When the research first appeared all those years ago, my colleague Carole Wade and I were disinclined to report it in our introductory psychology textbook. It was unclear what those microsecond “associations” meant; it seemed a leap to call it a measure of prejudice; at best it seemed simply to be capturing a familiar cultural association or stereotype, in the same way that people would be quicker to pair bread + butter than bread + avocado. A person of any age might be aware of negative associations between old people and mental decline without being prejudiced against old people in general. One team got an IAT effect by matching target faces with nonsense words and neutral words that had no evaluative connotations at all. They concluded that the IAT does not measure emotional evaluations of the target but rather the salience of the word associated with it—how much it stands out—and negative words attract more attention. When they corrected for these factors, the presumed unconscious prejudice faded away.3

So Carole and I figured that the IAT would travel the route of other hot ideas that cooled off in the face of failed replications or more plausible interpretations. Indeed, had the measure’s originators simply said they had found a modest but interesting association between various groups and words culturally linked with them, that might have been that. Instead, over the years, the success of the IAT grew so rapidly, spilling into the public arena with such an enormous splash, that textbook authors (let alone the public, college administrators, and politicians) could no longer avoid it. To date, more than 17 million people have taken the test online (at “Project Implicit”), and it has also been given to students, business managers, employees, and countless others to identify their alleged prejudices toward blacks, Asians, women, old people, people with disabilities, and other groups. I asked a young friend, one of the least prejudiced and most open-minded humans on the planet, if he knew about the IAT, and he said yes, he’d taken it online. “What in the world for?” I asked. “To see if I have an unconscious bias,” he said.

Carole and I were awakened from our somnambulance by Malcolm Gladwell, who set off our skeptical buzzers on high alert. Gladwell, who is biracial, took the IAT and learned that he was prejudiced against black people. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, he said: “The person in my life [his mother] who I love more than almost anyone else, is black, and here I was taking a test, which said, frankly, I wasn’t too crazy about black people, you know?” A gay activist said she was stunned to learn that “her own mind contained stronger gay = bad associations than gay = good associations.” But the pièce de résistance was that one of the developers of the IAT, Mahzarin Banaji, a woman of color who was born and raised in India, reported that she herself “failed” the racial IAT, revealing antiblack associations that she consciously repudiates.4

Now this is curious. Why jump to indict oneself instead of saying, “Uh oh, maybe something’s wrong with the test?” Banaji and Greenwald might have considered the possibility that they got too enthusiastic too soon, claiming more for their test than it warranted. However, by the time their 2013 book for the public appeared, Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, they had much invested in the IAT; and, in their admirable zeal to educate people about the persistence of prejudice, they began claiming more and more about the test’s significance and relevance. For their part, many laypeople accepted the IAT’s findings because of the great power attributed to methods that purport to uncover what our brains are doing without our knowledge. How do I know what my unconscious is thinking? By definition, it’s unconscious! Clearly, the test knows more than I do, even if I do love my mother!

If the IAT were being used solely as an instrument to generate discussions of what prejudice is and is not, few would object. Having a “hidden bias” is not, in and of itself, a sign of prejudice; it’s a sign of having a human brain. What social psychologists call the “in-group bias”—a feeling of comfort with, and preference for, people who are like us—is a universal phenomenon, undoubtedly one that evolved to aid human survival by binding us to our groups. But it does not inevitably produce “out-group hostility” or discrimination against those who are unlike us.

Unfortunately, as the IAT’s reputation grew, claims about what this test was revealing began to outstrip the data. The IAT was no longer said to be capturing an “association”; not even merely a “bias”; but a prejudice —especially racism. And not just racism, but discrimination—the willingness to act on that prejudice. The Project Implicit website warns: “When we relax our active efforts to be egalitarian, our implicit biases can lead to discriminatory behavior, so it is critical to be mindful of this possibility if we want to avoid prejudice and discrimination.”

The IAT directs people’s attention to their supposed unconscious feelings, leaving many puzzled and worried that they might be awful racists without knowing it.

And so we come to the crux of the matter: does the IAT really capture unconscious prejudices? Can the test predict whether people will actually behave in a biased or discriminatory way? The evidence is now pretty clear that the answers to both are “no.”5 When people are asked to predict their responses toward different groups on the IAT, they are highly accurate— regardless of whether they were told that implicit attitudes are true prejudices or culturally learned associations. People’s scores aren’t reliable, either; they might score “highly biased” one week and get a different result two weeks later. And as for the IAT’s ability to predict behavior— the ultimate measure of any test’s scientific validity—meta-analyses of hundreds of studies on many thousands of people find that the evidence linking IAT scores with behavior is weak to nonexistent. “The IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom,” wrote Frederick Oswald and his colleagues in a 2013 meta-analysis, and it provides no more information than just asking people if they are biased.6 They concluded that the correlation between people’s IAT scores and their behavior is so small as to be trivial. Greenwald and Banaji countered that statistically small effects can have “societally large effects.”7

In the final analysis, I think what is most problematic about the IAT is that it directs people’s attention to their supposed unconscious feelings, leaving many puzzled and worried that they might be awful racists without knowing it, and without knowing what they are supposed to do about it. It confuses normal cognitive biases with bigotry. And it locates the problem of discrimination in people’s unconscious minds, not in the systemic patterns of racism that deserve our far greater attention and search for remedies.

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.2 (2017).
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In his meticulous investigation of the IAT, Jesse Singal concluded that “after almost 20 years and millions of dollars’ worth of IAT research, the test has a markedly unimpressive track record relative to the attention and acclaim it has garnered. Leading IAT researchers haven’t produced interventions that can reduce racism or blunt its impact. They haven’t told a clear, credible story of how implicit bias, as measured by the IAT, affects the real world. They have flip-flopped on important, baseline questions about what their test is or isn’t measuring. And because the IAT and the study of implicit bias have become so tightly coupled, the test’s weaknesses have caused collateral damage to public and academic understanding of the broader concept itself…[S]crutinizing the IAT and holding it to the same standards as any other psychological instrument isn’t a sign that someone doesn’t take racism seriously: It’s exactly the opposite.”

How ironic that this well-intended effort to illuminate a dark side of our natures now obfuscates the very thing we’re trying to understand. And it’s a story with an all-too-familiar lesson for scientists and other skeptics: we can’t let our wish for a method or a finding to be right block our ability to evaluate it critically, and to change our minds when the evidence dictates.

About the Author

Dr. Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes were made (but not by ME). Watch the recording of Science Salon # 10 in which Tavris, in a dialogue with Michael Shermer, explores cognitive dissonance and what happens when we make mistakes, cling to outdated attitudes, or mistreat other people.

References
  1. For example, see: Acquisti, Alessandro, and Fong, Christina M. 2014, October 26. “An Experiment in Hiring Discrimination Via Online Social Networks.” http://bit.ly/2iLIJgc
  2. One of the first published papers was Greenwald, Anthony G.; McGhee, Debbie E.; and Schwartz, Jordan L. K. 1998. “Measuring Individual Differences in Implicit Cognition: The Implicit Association Test.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, 1464–1480. Mahzarin Banaji and Greenwald went on to write a book for general audiences: Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, 2013, New York: Delacorte.
  3. Rothermund, Klaus, & Wentura, Dirk. 2004. “Underlying Processes in the Implicit Association Test: Dissociating Salience from Associations.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 133, 139–165.
  4. In Banaji and Greenwald, 2013, 57. Gladwell also tells this story in his book Blink.
  5. For three superb reviews of the research, with inter views with the IAT’s proponents and its critics, see: Singal, Jesse. 2017. “Psychology’s Favorite Tool For Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job,” New York magazine, Januar y 11; Bar tlett, Tom. 2017. “Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 5; and a power ful scholarly and theoretical criticism, Mitchell, Gregor y, and Tetlock, Philip E. 2017. “Popularity as a Poor Proxy for Utility: The Case of Implicit Prejudice,” in Scott Lilienfeld and Irwin D. Waldman, Psychological Science Under Scrutiny, New York: Wiley, pp. 164–195. Tetlock has been a persistent critic of the IAT. See Tetlock and Arkes, Hal, 2004. “Attributions of Implicit Prejudice, or ‘Would Jesse Jackson ‘Fail’ the Implicit Association Test?’” Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 15, 257–278.
  6. Oswald, Frederick L., Gregor y Mitchell, Har t Blanton, James Jaccard, and Philip E. Tetlock. 2013. “Predicting Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: A Meta-Analysis of IAT Criterion Studies,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, 171–192.
  7. Greenwald, Anthony G., Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Nosek, Brian A. 2015. “Statistically Small Effects of the Implicit Association Test Can Have Societally Large Effects.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, 553–561.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for November 1, 2017

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

A NEW STORY! How Richard Dawkins Became a Card-Carrying Skeptic

As we announced a couple weeks ago in eSkeptic, we asked several friends to tell us about those “aha!” moments that led to their becoming skeptical thinkers. As promised, we have begun releasing their incredible stories on YouTube. Enjoy!

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins shared with us an early memory of playing hide-and-seek with an African man who claimed to have “magicked himself invisible.” Dawkins is the author of many books, including: The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, The Ancestor’s Tale, An Appetite for Wonder, The Magic of Reality, The Greatest Show on Earth, and A Devil’s Chaplain.

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

In this week’s eSkeptic, Carol Tavris examines whether the Implicit Association Test (IAT) can really capture unconscious prejudices and predict if people will actually behave in a biased or discriminatory way. This column appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 22.2 (2017).

Are You An Unconscious Racist?

by Carol Tavris

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a racist?

  • A person who thinks their “race” or ethnic group is better than everyone else’s by virtue of genetic superiority, religion, customs, food, way of life, or beliefs.
  • A person who fails to hire an applicant with the best qualifications if that person is from a different ethnic or religious group from the employer’s.
  • A person who is part of an institution that requires him or her to systematically target and discriminate against African Americans or other minorities.
  • A person of any race, ethnicity, or religion who feels more comfortable with others who are like themselves.

or:

  • A person whose score on the Implicit Association Test (IAT) reveals that he or she is unconsciously biased against black people.

Some of the above? All of the above?

Michael Shermer Examines the Implicit Association Test

Throughout the first decade of this century, surveys repeatedly found that prejudiced attitudes—notably the once-common beliefs that blacks were inferior to whites, women inferior to men, gay men and lesbians inferior to straights—had declined sharply, especially among young people. Surveys, of course, supposedly assess what you think. But what if they assess what you think others think you should think? What if they simply reflect your awareness that it isn’t cool to reveal your actual negative feelings about another group? Self-report data is inherently plagued with this problem. Thus, most social psychologists who study prejudice and discrimination focus on what people do, not what they say they might do. For example, when researchers have sent identical résumés to potential employers, varying only a name that indicates gender, or implies race (a black-sounding name or membership in an African American organization), or mentions religious affiliation, many employers have revealed a bias in whom they choose to call for an interview[…]

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2018 | IRELAND | JULY 15–AUGUST 2 One of the best geology tours we’ve ever offered: an epic 19-day tour of the Emerald Isle!

Ireland’s famed scenic landscape owes its breathtaking terrain to a dramatic 1.75 billion year history of continental collisions, volcanoes, and glacial assault. Join the Skeptics Society for a 19-day immersive tour of the deep history of the Emerald Isle, while experiencing the music, hospitality, and verdant beauty that make Ireland one of the world’s top travel destinations.

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Witches, Pleas
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 139

In episode 139 of MonsterTalk, we begin our multi-episode coverage of “magic” by taking a look at the witch in Western European culture with the editor of The Skeptic, Deborah Hyde (@Jourdemayne). In a wide-ranging conversation we talk about the alleged powers of witches, the difference between the more benign figure of the Cunning Woman and the culturally monstrous figure of the witch as viewed during Witch Crazes and Witch Hunts.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for October 25, 2017

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

Could a sonic weapon have focused a wave of energy with pinpoint accuracy on American diplomats in Cuba? In this week’s eSkeptic, Robert E. Bartholomew presents a plausible explanation for the illness cluster reported by State Department officials: mass psychogenic illness.

The “Sonic Attack” on
U.S. Diplomats in Cuba:
Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up

by Robert E. Bartholomew

…an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.
—Marcello Truzzi1

Even though sound is measurable, we tend to experience it as spectral, as something beyond our rational understanding. It is thus the perfect stand-in for a Cold War-style cunning enemy, who is surely out there, doing something, even though we can never seem to pin him down.
—Lisa Dierch & Ben Tausig2

It’s the stuff of spy novels and science fiction films. On October 13, 2017 the Associated Press released an eerie recording of a mysterious sound that was said to have been part of a “sonic attack” on American diplomats in Cuba.3 In August, State Department officials reported that several personnel at the Havana Embassy had been sickened by an unidentified acoustical weapon. The number of those affected in the sporadic, ongoing attacks is now at least two dozen. Several Canadian diplomats have reported similar health complaints. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and remembering, insomnia, tinnitus, confusion, vertigo, hearing loss and “mild brain trauma.” Conspiracy theories abound with talk of secret military weapons from a foreign power or rogue agents, possibly Russian. But delve deeper, and the government’s claims begin to unravel.

For starters, there is no concrete evidence of an attack. Experts agree that what is being reported is not consistent with how sonic weaponry works. A leading figure in the field of psychoacoustics, former MIT researcher Joseph Pompei, is adamant that the State Department’s claims violate the laws of physics. “Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” he said, noting that to produce such an effect “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”4 German physicist and acoustics specialist Jürgen Altmann of Technology University Dortmund, concurs: “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”5 Former Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz also views the claims as fanciful: “There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms.”6 He notes that while infrasonic sound waves can cause nausea, they would have no effect on human hearing as “there are no acoustic devices that can cause sudden onset hearing loss that the people involved could not hear.”7 Former CIA officer Fulton Armstrong agrees: “No one has a device that could do this” as “no such device exists.”8

The range of human hearing is between 20 and 20,000 hertz. Sounds below this level—infrasound, have proved a challenge to weaponize due to the difficulty in focusing the wavelengths. The central effect appears to be irritation. Sounds above this range—ultrasound, are an equally poor candidate for the symptoms because the waves dissipate rapidly as they travel. Even if they reached a building in an effort to target people inside, most of the wave would bounce off walls before harmlessly reaching their target. […]

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NEW EPISODE The Way of the Mister (Quickie): If There Is No God, Murder Isn’t Wrong.

Earlier this year, PragerU posted a video titled “If There Is No God, Murder Isn’t Wrong” in which Dennis Prager claims that without God, there are no moral facts and therefore one cannot know that murder is wrong. Brian Dalton explains why the entire argument hinges on the question of knowledge.

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SOLVING MORAL DILEMMAS How Do We Know What’s Right?

For those of you who missed the discussion we announced in last week’s eSkeptic, we present it here in video and audio-only versions. Jesse Dollemore and Brittany Page (hosts of the https://dollemore.com/) moderate a discussion involving Drs. Michael Shermer, Douglas Navarick, and Ryan Nichols on the question of whether science can be used to determine our moral values of right and wrong. The discussion is divided into opening statements, a period of exchanges among discussants, questions from the live audience, and closing statements. Watch the video below, or listen to the audio-only version.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The “Sonic Attack” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 10:00am

…an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.
—Marcello Truzzi1

Even though sound is measurable, we tend to experience it as spectral, as something beyond our rational understanding. It is thus the perfect stand-in for a Cold War-style cunning enemy, who is surely out there, doing something, even though we can never seem to pin him down.
—Lisa Dierch & Ben Tausig2

It’s the stuff of spy novels and science fiction films. On October 13, 2017 the Associated Press released an eerie recording of a mysterious sound that was said to have been part of a “sonic attack” on American diplomats in Cuba.3 In August, State Department officials reported that several personnel at the Havana Embassy had been sickened by an unidentified acoustical weapon. The number of those affected in the sporadic, ongoing attacks is now at least two dozen. Several Canadian diplomats have reported similar health complaints. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and remembering, insomnia, tinnitus, confusion, vertigo, hearing loss and “mild brain trauma.” Conspiracy theories abound with talk of secret military weapons from a foreign power or rogue agents, possibly Russian. But delve deeper, and the government’s claims begin to unravel.

For starters, there is no concrete evidence of an attack. Experts agree that what is being reported is not consistent with how sonic weaponry works. A leading figure in the field of psychoacoustics, former MIT researcher Joseph Pompei, is adamant that the State Department’s claims violate the laws of physics. “Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” he said, noting that to produce such an effect “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”4 German physicist and acoustics specialist Jürgen Altmann of Technology University Dortmund, concurs: “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”5 Former Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz also views the claims as fanciful: “There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms.”6 He notes that while infrasonic sound waves can cause nausea, they would have no effect on human hearing as “there are no acoustic devices that can cause sudden onset hearing loss that the people involved could not hear.”7 Former CIA officer Fulton Armstrong agrees: “No one has a device that could do this” as “no such device exists.”8

The range of human hearing is between 20 and 20,000 hertz. Sounds below this level—infrasound, have proved a challenge to weaponize due to the difficulty in focusing the wavelengths. The central effect appears to be irritation. Sounds above this range—ultrasound, are an equally poor candidate for the symptoms because the waves dissipate rapidly as they travel. Even if they reached a building in an effort to target people inside, most of the wave would bounce off walls before harmlessly reaching their target.

Since Weapons?

The use of sound as a weapon can be traced back to biblical times. The Book of Joshua 6:1–27, describes the Battle of Jericho, during which the walls of Jericho reportedly collapsed after an army of Israelites marched around the structure blowing trumpets. While this story has never been verified and is almost certainly mythical, it speaks to the age-old human fascination with the potential destructive power of sound. The research on the military use of acoustical weapons, is clear. Despite an abundance of conspiracy theories about secret sonic devices capable of “frying” human organs or triggering insanity, the scientific literature is clear. The most comprehensive study of sonic weapons to date, was conducted by Drs. James Jauchem and Michael Cook of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas. They state that based on the laws of physics, “it seems unlikely that high-intensity acoustic energy in the audible, infrasonic, or low-frequency range can provide a device suitable for use as a nonlethal weapon.”21 Furthermore, even if such a weapon were developed, it could not possibly cause the symptoms that are being reported in Cuba.

Sonic weapons may work for James Bond, but they are impractical in the real world, with one major exception: blasting loud noises. On October 12, 2000, a small boat laden with explosives approached the USS Cole and exploded, blowing a hole in the vessel and killing 17 American sailors. Since this incident, the Navy has developed an “acoustical canon” that works by generating extreme noise capable of causing deafness and headaches. Such weapons are not exactly covert. Research on the use of sonic weapons has tailed off in recent years as it is widely viewed as a waste of research funds and a dead end. Despite this, there is no lack of grandiose claims and conspiracy theories about the use of secret acoustic devices.

Could someone have developed a hand-held weapon that could focus a wave of energy on a victim with pinpoint accuracy? This is Buck Rogers-style science fiction according to Timothy Leighton, professor of Ultrasonics and Acoustics at Southampton University in the United Kingdom: “If you’re talking about a ray-gun rifle knocking out someone with ultrasound…that’s not going to happen.”9 New York City Police have used Long Range Acoustic Devices or LRADs to break up crowds of protestors, but there is nothing subtle or mysterious about these devices. These bulky machines are nicknamed “sound canons” due to their capacity to blast ear-piercing noises. The U.S. Navy has used similar devices to protect their ships by warding off small vessels suspected of carrying terrorists or pirates, while the Army has used them to clear houses of combatants.10 In 2015, riot police in the Philippines even blasted Katy Perry music to disperse anti-government protestors.11

Another oddity surrounds how diplomats have been targeted. Many claim to have been “attacked” in their homes, and even a hotel. Why were some people affected while others who were standing next to them, were not? While the U.S. cannot prove that the Cubans are responsible, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has suggested that the Cuban government knows more than they are letting on. “We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats,” he said.12 Cuban President Raúl Castro vehemently denies any involvement in the “attacks” and has taken the extraordinary step of inviting the Federal Bureau of Investigation to travel to Cuba and conduct their own investigation.13 Since June, FBI agents have been on the Caribbean island conducting forensic analyses of the possible crime scenes, but remain stumped.14 This leaves one plausible explanation for the illness cluster in Cuba: mass psychogenic illness.

To those who are unfamiliar with the capabilities of sonic weaponry, the claims may sound ominous—and very real. After all, how can conditions like hearing loss and brain trauma be psychological in origin? State Department officials have even released a recording of the “weapon” in action. Yet the recording proves little. The high-pitched whine sounds like a swarm of cicadas. It could be anything. It is the equivalent of a blurry UFO photograph or grainy Bigfoot video. Furthermore, most of the symptoms are vague. Terms like “brain trauma” and “hearing loss” sound alarming but tell us little, and none of the medical records have been released. This could be done without violating privacy laws by redacting the names and identifying information about the “victims.” How many diplomats are suffering from hearing loss, and is it partial or total? Why haven’t they given us more specific figures? Is it one case or 17—and if it is the latter, why haven’t they said so in order to convince a skeptical media? There may very well be a small number of personnel who are experiencing health issues that are unrelated to either psychogenic illness or a sonic weapon.

Sick Building Syndrome

The literature on mass hysteria is filled with reports of so-called “sick buildings” where some harmful agent is blamed for a mysterious illness outbreak, most commonly in schools and factories. However, once the premises are tested, the results are negative. The symptoms often continue to recur, so long as the perceived agent is believed to remain. The failure to identify a potential culprit may generate more anxiety, leading to further outbreaks. Common suspects include pesticides from nearby farm fields, gas leaks, mold, and contaminated water. In these cases, the outbreak is triggered by the spread of an idea, aided by rumors, folklore, and erroneous media reports about the “toxic” building. Often speculation centers around nearby waste dumps. This could explain the illness reports at the Embassy, but what about their homes? Embassy staff would have been aware of the history of American diplomats in Cuba, and the Cold War folklore that included harassment of personnel in their homes.

Cold War Context

The historical backdrop of the “attack” may have contributed to the outbreak. The Embassy closed for 54 years, from 1961 when then President Dwight Eisenhower severed ties with Castro’s rise to power, to its reopening in 2015. While the Embassy was closed, the U.S. has maintained a diplomatic presence in Cuba such as the mission at the United States Interests Section in Havana. Due to the antagonistic relationship between the two countries, during the Cold War Cuban agents engaged in a series of antics that have become part of American Intelligence folklore. These actions were more harassing and prankish than sinister. They would do things like sneak into the homes of diplomats and rearrange their bookshelf or furniture. On the high end of the scale, some diplomats reported returning home to find fecal matter lying on their floor. The context of the illness cluster fits neatly with the psychogenic hypothesis as you have a group of people working in an anxious environment amid reports and rumors of a mysterious attack.15

Earlier Hum Scares

Since the early 1940s there have been similar outbreaks involving claims of mysterious humming sounds reportedly making people sick, especially in the United States. The most famous of these is the “Kokomo Hum” in the city of Kokomo, Indiana. Some have even suggested that the American military was conducting secret tests on its own citizens. Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with these cases. In 1999, Kokomo city officials were besieged by complaints from at least 90 residents, many of whom claimed that the hum was not only irritating, but ruining their health.16

A study of one Kokomo neighborhood by an acoustics engineer seemed to confirm the reality of the hum after he reported detecting a low frequency sound at about 55 decibels and 15 hertz—too low to be heard by the human ear. At the time, an expert from the Acoustical Society of America observed that the origin of the sound was unclear. “Those levels of sound could be coming from road traffic on even distant highways, air or rail activity or possibly just some industrial plants or even commercial buildings in the area. And, in fact, those levels could be caused just by the wind in the trees,” said Bennett Brooks. He cautioned that the range of ill-effects attributed to the low frequency hum could be entirely imaginary. “The levels that will rattle dishes on a wall…haven’t been shown to cause health problems, other than perhaps people waking up at night worrying,” Brooks said at the time.17 Some Kokomo residents were so concerned by the “hum” that they moved away.

Similar claims of ill-health associated with the presence of low-frequency sound have been recorded in Taos, New Mexico, since 1991, but the source has neither been determined nor any conclusive link to ill-health including sleep problems, earaches, irritability, and general discomfort.18 Investigative journalist Oliver Libaw notes that various investigations of the Taos Hum “failed to measure any low-frequency vibration that experts believed could cause either the noise or the infirmities reported by those who heard it.”19

London and South Hampton in the United Kingdom have had their own Hum Scares. Scores of residents have complained of an irritating low frequency sound dating back to the 1940s. They too have claims that it has caused health problems. In 1989, an organization was formed to investigate reports: The Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association, nicknamed “the Hummers.”20

The “sonic attack” on embassy staff in Cuba appears to be a case of old wine in new skins. It is the Hum Scare and Sick Building Syndrome dressed up in a different social and cultural garb. These scares may resonate because they reflect prevailing fears such as the distrust of foreign and domestic governments. It may be no coincidence then that the outbreak reportedly began just days after the election of Donald Trump, an administration known for promoting conspiracy theories.

About the Author

Dr. Robert Bartholomew is a medical sociologist who holds a Ph.D. from James Cook University in Australia. He is an authority on culture-specific mental disorders, outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness, moral panics and the history of tabloid journalism. He has conducted anthropological fieldwork among the Malays in Malaysia and Aborigines in Central Australia. His most recently books are A Colorful History of Popular Delusions with Peter Hassall and American Hauntings: The True Stories Behind Hollywood’s Scariest Movies—From Exorcist to The Conjuring with Joe Nickell. Read his previous article, https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/mass-hallucinations-shoddy-journalism-why-we-need-skepticism-more-than-ever/An Outbreak of Mass Hallucinations and Shoddy Journalism: Why We Need Skepticism More Than Ever.

References
  1. Truzzi, Marcello. 1978. “On the Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification.” Zetetic Scholar 1(1):11.
  2. Diedrich, Lisa, and Tausig, Benjamin. 2017. “Mysterious Sounds and Scary Illnesses as Political Tools.” New York Times (Online), New York: New York Times Company. Oct 10.
  3. Lederman, Josh, Weissenstein, Michael. 2017. “Dangerous Sound? What Americans Heard in Cuba.” Associated Press News, October 13, http://bit.ly/2g4DzrX
  4. Lederman, Josh, Weissenstein, Michael, and Lee, Matthew. 2017. “Cuba Mystery Grows: New Details on what Befell U.S. Diplomats,” Chicago Tribune, September 26.
  5. Zimmer, Carl. 2017. “A ‘Sonic Attack’ on Diplomats in Cuba? These Scientists Doubt It.” New York Times, October 5.
  6. Loria, Kevin. 2017. September 16. “U.S. Diplomats Returned from Cuba with Brain Injuries and Hearing Loss, and Mysterious ‘Sonic Weapons’ could be to Blame.” Business Insider Australia, September 16.
  7. Gearan, Anne. 2017. “U.S. investigating whether American diplomats were victims of sonic attack in Cuba.” Washington Post, August 10.
  8. Kornbluh, Peter. 2017. “Trump’s Non-Sonic Attack on Cuba.” The Nation, October 5.
  9. Zimmer, 2017, op cit.
  10. Evers, Marco. 2015. “The Weapon of Sound: Sonic Canon Gives Pirates an Earful.” Der Spiegel, November 15.
  11. Felipe, Cecille. 2015. “Katy Perry Roar at Anti-APEC Rallyists.” The Philippine Star, November 20.
  12. Lederman and Weissenstein, 2017, op. cit.
  13. Buncombe, Andrew. 2017. “Donald Trump expels 15 Cuban Diplomats Following Mysterious ‘Sonic Attacks’ on 23 U.S. embassy staff,” The Independent (London), October 3.
  14. Kornbluh, 2017, op cit.
  15. 15. Rosenberg, Carol. 2003. “U.S. Details Harassment of Diplomats by Cuba.” Miami Herald, February 6; Bruno, James. 2014. The Foreign Circus: Why Foreign Policy Should not be left in the Hand of Diplomats, Spies and Political Hacks. Canastota, NY: Bittersweet House Press.
  16. Huppke, Rex W. 2002. “Strange Doings Abuzz in Kokomo–Many Claim Illness from Mystery Noise.” Bergen County Record (Bergen County, New Jersey), June 13, 2002; Martinez, Matt. 2002. “Profile: City Council in Kokomo, Indiana, Authorizes a Study to Investigate the Source of a Sound that has Caused many Residents to Become ill.” All Things Considered, NPR, May 22.
  17. Martinez, Matt. 2002. “Profile: City Council in Kokomo, Indiana, Authorizes a Study to Investigate the Source of a Sound that has Caused many Residents to Become ill.” All Things Considered, NPR, May 22.
  18. Lambert, Pam. 1992. “Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…? (Ground Noise in Taos, New Mexico).” People Weekly 38 (12):61-62 (September 21); Begley, Sharon. 1993. “Do You Hear What I Hear? A Hum in Taos is Driving Dozens of People Crazy.” Newsweek 121 (18):54–55 (May 3); Huppke, op cit.
  19. Libaw, Oliver. 2003. “The Kokomo Hum. Reports of Mysterious Noise and Illness in Indiana.” ABC News report filed February 14, http://abcn.ws/2ioAyHy
  20. “The Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association.” Journal of Low Frequency Noise and Vibration 9(4):149–155; Donnelly, John. 1993. “Mysterious, Annoying ‘Taos Hum’ a Baffling Detective Story.” Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 9.
  21. Jauchem, James R., and Cook, Michael C. (2007). “High-Intensity Acoustics for Military Nonlethal Applications: A Lack of Useful Systems.” Military Medicine 172 (2):182–189. See. p. 182.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Tell Us Your Story. Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic!

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

Click the play button above to watch our short video introduction.

TELL US YOUR STORY! Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic

WE SKEPTICS CAN ALL REMEMBER that one moment when we began to think like skeptics. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, we asked a few of our favorite friends to tell us about that moment. (Click the play button above to watch our short video introduction.)

SKEPTIC FRIENDS FROM TOP LEFT TO BOTTOM RIGHT: Lawrence Krauss (Theoretical Physicist); Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend TV show); Randy Olson (Scientist turned Filmmaker); Tracy Drain (NASA Flight Systems Engineer); Aron Ra (Atheist Activist); George Hrab (Musician, Skeptic, Geek); Brian Brushwood (Magician, System Hacker); Richard Dawkins (Evolutionary Biologist); Shelley Segal (Singer Songwriter)

We’ll be releasing their incredible stories on YouTube over the next few months. Now, we would like for you to join us in celebrating our 25th anniversary by telling us your story of when you knew that you were a Card-Carrying Skeptic.

How Can I Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic?
  1. Film your story.
  2. Make it public on YouTube.
  3. EMAIL A LINK to your video.

In return, we’ll send to you your very own, genuine Skeptic Card in the mail. Be sure to tell us your mailing address when you email your video link to us. We promise we won’t share your mailing address with anyone (except the post office).

Proudly, let the world know that you are a Card-Carrying Skeptic!

We may even feature your video in a future eSkeptic, embed it on our website, and/or share it on our social media platforms!

To inspire you to film and submit your own story, check out this story that we recorded of our friend Rachel Bloom (creator and star of the American romantic-comedy-drama Crazy Ex-Girlfriend:

Thank you for being a part of our first 25 years. We look forward to seeing you over the next 25.

—SKEPTIC

American Goblins—Part 3
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 138

Our final part of our three-part look at the Kentucky Goblins case of 1955 concludes with an interview with the hosts of Astonishing Legends, Scott Philbrook and Forrest Burgess. We discuss the facts of the case, possible explanations, and the problems with the Wikipedia entry and the scholarly journal article cited within it. This episode’s topic is also discussed in a blog post by Blake Smith: Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts.

If you missed them, be sure to listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of American Goblins.

Listen to episode 138

Read the episode notes

Subscribe on iTunes

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.

Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts

In conjunction with episode 138 of MonsterTalk mentioned above, MonsterTalk host, Blake Smith, explores whether a family in Kentucky got drunk and mistook owls for ‘space-goblins,’ or did something much more complex happen on that hot August night in 1955?

Read the Insight

DEBATE: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19 How Do We Know What’s Right?

Full details

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 10:00am

Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (Photo © 2014 Joseph Oliphint Photography. Image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

A small percentage of the population self-identifies as “Skeptic.” This is somewhat different than being skeptical. Anyone can be skeptical, but what I usually call “capital-S” Skeptics are people who are so interested in the methodology and practice of scientific-skepticism that they label themselves to signal to others with a single word that they value these processes enough to say that what they most believe in (or strive to practice) is filtering information through the sieve of science.1

Within this group of Skeptics, there is a sub-set who enjoy researching fringe, paranormal and Fortean topics, which Sharon Hill and Jeb Card refer to as “spooky” topics. It’s a small group of people who value science and critical thinking and try to apply those tools to stories of mysterious monsters, strange phenomena, and magical events — all the while maintaining an enthusiasm for researching and thinking about (dare I say enjoying?) these stories.

I’m in that latter group. I frequently describe it as being in a ghetto within a ghetto. I don’t know if there is a useful and handy shorthand for this group of folks — perhaps Spooky Skeptics? Regardless, from this peculiar vantage we often find ourselves having to defend against stereotypes of skeptics as “armchair naysayers,” “scofftics,” “denialists,” “cynics,” “pseudoskeptics” and “the closed-minded.” This is from the printable pool of undesirable labels; there are many less savory ones. Because of my membership in this peculiar subculture, I find myself urged to defend science in communities whose familiarity with the long, deep history of science criticism is shallow, but whose passionate distrust of Skeptics is deep.

I am the host and producer of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. With my co-host, Dr. Karen Stollznow, we try to use these spooky topics to talk about science and critical thinking. (Ah, another subculture — podcasters.) To prepare for the show, and because I enjoy the topics, I listen to a lot of paranormal podcasts and view a lot of thematically similar shows to my own. One I regularly listen to is the podcast Astonishing Legends, hosted by Scott Philbrook and Forrest Burgess. In a recent episode they conclude a three-part look at The Kelly-Hopkinsville Incident. What transpires in that discussion is noteworthy to Skeptics and paranormal enthusiasts.

In a typical episode arc of Astonishing Legends, the hosts discuss a mysterious legend, talk about the topic and possible explanations, and then give their own thoughts about possible solutions. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes I don’t — but usually I feel like they’re entertaining and well informed, even when we don’t agree on the conclusions. But in episode 81, the content proved much more poignant to me given my interests and my affinity for scientific skepticism as a methodology.

BACKGROUND ON THE KELLY-HOPKINSVILLE INCIDENT

Briefly, the Kelly-Hopkinsville incident refers to an encounter with mysterious entities in rural Christian County, Kentucky in 1955. It was closely associated with an aerial phenomena that most skeptical researchers agree was a meteor. But what about the entities? They were big-eyed, pointy-eared and sometimes said to be glowing and to float. Because of their association with the aerial phenomenon, the case was investigated by UFO researchers very soon after it took place. I won’t go into great detail about the case or its associated phenomena within this article. Here, I’m concerned about the meta-issue of how the research of this case is perceived by paranormal enthusiasts, and the proper role of scientific skepticism in that context.

In the Wikipedia article about this case, a peer-reviewed article from the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Rodney Schmaltz and Scott Lilienfeld is cited. The hosts of Astonishing Legends discuss this article and its use within the Wikipedia entry in excruciating detail, and the crux of that discussion concerns a paragraph which contains a mistake. The paper, Hauntings, Homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: Using Pseudoscience to Teach Scientific Thinking, is written in a style which is quite accessible by non-academics (such as myself) and has been cited by at least fourteen other journal articles and numerous websites. As the title suggests, the paper is about using pseudoscientific topics as a tool for teaching critical thinking. Its content is closely aligned with my own thinking on the use of these topics for similar purposes. The authors were looking for examples to show how to apply the critical-thinking methods they were describing, and chose the case of the Kelly-Hopkinsville creatures to demonstrate the point. But there was a problem. Let’s look at the paragraph at the source of the contention. I’ve highlighted the sentence that caught the attention of the Astonishing Legends hosts.

The Hopkinsville entities have a decidedly earthly explanation. The “aliens” were in fact, Great Horned Owls, and the eyewitnesses were probably intoxicated during the “alien attack” (Davis and Bloecher, 1978). Students usually find the true story of the events amusing; and this example can lead naturally into a discussion on Area 51, the Greys, or other otherworldly interests (Nickell, 2012; Leman and Cinnirella, 2013). —Schmaltz and Lilienfeld, 2014

In that sentence there is a problem — the statements about the owls and the alcohol do not come from Davis and Bloecher. As I listened to the episode, my very first thought was, “Did the authors put in the wrong citation?” I felt bad as I listened to Scott and Forrest pretty much crush this entire paper because of this problem. They did briefly consider the possibility that the error might have been a clerical mistake, but the majority of the episode excoriated the Schmaltz and Lilienfeld’s certitude and focused on how there was nothing in the cited source to support that certainty about the root cause of this incident.

(AL 28:08) Forrest Burgess: “Now I don’t know why, it could be — the citation could just be a huge typo, which is bad enough in itself, really, because you’re publishing a peer-reviewed scientific journal. I thought that these things were better checked out… Again I’m not trying to be condescending here but it’s like people go off this thing as being totally accurate and measuring up to scientific rigour.”

I did agree with them that the citation was in error, but what followed in their discussion pained me. They were effectively taking what I guessed was someone’s innocent error and making much ado about it in a very public venue.

Part of their argument seemed to stem from their interpretation of Science as Orthodoxy. Those are my words, not Astonishing Legends’. It is an idea promoted by an author I know both they and I have read, John Keel. When Keel complains of science orthodoxy he seems to be implying that science is arrogant and implacable and bends evidence to meet its ends. I don’t know if Scott and Forrest actually explicitly believe that, but it’s what I felt was being complained about in the episode. In fact, in a sense, I felt like this episode would have been quite different if they viewed science as a tool rather than an institution. Perhaps we’ll get a chance to talk about that later.2 It’s certainly an issue with the public perception of science that is on my mind frequently.

What does one do when one encounters an error in a scientific journal? It is certainly within the purview of the public to read a journal and make public comment, but the writer in me empathizes with authors. Also, while I don’t know either author personally, I’ve read and corresponded with Scott Lilienfeld before. So I reached out to him, and also to the primary author of the paper, Rodney Schmaltz. Rodney confirmed my initial suspicions. He had meant for that to reference a different citation.

“Thank you for the email. The reference should have been Nickell, 2006, not Davis and Bloecher, 1978. I have contacted Frontiers and informed them of the correction.” —Schmaltz, 2017

I can’t really complain too much about Astonishing Legends’ take on the whole thing because I think they did a good service in at least one respect. They not only showed the error in the paper, which will hopefully be corrected by the journal in the near future, but they also highlighted some criticism of science common to paranormal enthusiasts as well as topics of criticism within the scientific community itself.

I’d like to briefly talk about some of those issues.

THE PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE
The general public does not understand science.

The general public doesn’t know what science is, possibly because there is no single universal definition and no ruling body or authority that really controls its meaning.3 In general, science is a methodology for trying to find explanations of phenomena4 through testing and rejection of demonstrably wrong solutions. It is always being refined as better tests and experiments are discovered, and it must always yield to evidence. If the evidence disproves the hypothesis, then it is the hypothesis that must change, not the evidence. There are longer definitions and more nuanced, but over the past couple of hundred years the methods of science have been refined to help drive out biases and preconceptions such that we might trust the results of these processes more than the anecdotes and untried ideas which served us before science was developed. (This is necessarily an understated explanation for something quite complex and diverse.) But the average person5 probably cannot define science, and probably conflates science with technology — one need look no farther than the popularity of sites like IFLScience to see this mistaken approach in full display.

The important parts — to me — that distinguish science from other methods of discerning what is real (to use laymen terms) is that science tests its ideas, and science is self-correcting. Science is not dogmatic. You can overturn scientific theories — anyone can — but you have to do it through the mechanisms of science. You can’t do it from outside that framework — your new ideas must be testable, and must stand up to testing and must validate your hypothesis.

Science journalism fails to relate science. Or journalism.

As a science enthusiast, I really enjoy stories about how science has uncovered some exciting new principle or unlocked a deeper understanding of nature. Unfortunately the vast majority of science stories don’t accurately convey the nuanced information that is revealed in what are often highly technical journal articles full of specialized terms and complex statistical mathematics. Math itself and the science ideas it helps test are often outside of the expertise and skill set of the majority of readers.6 This is not surprising since most of us are not working scientists, and the nature of science is that as it accrues more and more details about its domain, it requires more and more expert knowledge to fully grasp. The job of a science journalist is difficult from that starting point, and challenged more each year by the very vastness of the fields of expertise — but also challenged by the tumultuous nature of the media within which it is published.

Journalism was already a rocky field as more than two decades of “new media” have devastated stability for venerable old media companies. As the field has evolved, the need to drive quantifiable revenue through clicks and page views on web-based media outlets has pressured editorial boards to push for virality over quality. This has led to a disturbingly widespread tendency of science news stories to be rushed, inaccurate, and to always seek out some angle for how this latest paper will directly affect the reader. The cherry on top of that sundae of errors is the editor who wants a “click-bait” headline. The nuanced paper which describes an interesting discovery based on some molecule acting on a group of rats gets turned into the super-viral, but highly distributed, article about how some food will make you young or give you a better sex life.

In short, the pressure for accuracy in science is the inverted counterpart of the pressure for virality in science journalism. While the authors in both cases may have the best of intentions, both fields (for understandable reasons) are failing to make the scientific method well understood by the general public. I could go on, but this is a topic for vast contemplative introspection within both science and journalism. In a media culture where revenue is more important than accuracy or public service, there is no fix in sight for this problem. There is good science journalism being done, but there are more tears than wheat in the field.7

Science’s process of self-correction is messy.

I constantly encounter people talking about how scientists think they know everything, are arrogant, live in ivory towers of academic certainty, etc… But the reality is that if science were about certitude, nobody would need to become a scientist. As I mentioned before, science is a process. It is a slow process filled with many pitfalls, not the least of which is our own well documented litany of biases and logical fallacies. While, in principle, the methods of science can be described as self-correcting, the steps of that correction are conducted by human beings. Errors can range from typos, to misinterpretation of data, to hypotheses that account for some but not all of a phenomenon, to fraud and I’m sure there are many others. The uncovering of these mistakes can lead to a correction in a journal, or — for more egregious errors (like Andrew Wakefield’s notorious paper falsely linking vaccines with autism) the paper can be retracted by the journal that published it. Scientific theories can be politely but passionately disagreed upon in back-and-forth editorials, articles, or even books. A good example is Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould’s arguments about Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolution, which included Dawkins critiquing it in his book The Blind Watchmaker. That’s the friendly stuff, not even considering the shouting matches and acid emails that often occur behind the scenes of any passionate disagreement. In time the passions of scientists must give way to the erosive effects of time and what is left, when all the is said and done, is still a provisional understanding of the question being examined, and any conclusion reached are always subject to being overturned.

Scientists often do not respect fields of expertise which are not their own.

There is a very human tendency to be dismissive of things which one does not understand. Even more so, there is a tendency to believe that one understands very well that which one has never examined with more than cursory interest.8 This misplaced confidence leads to both a sense that one doesn’t need to look into it, and a dismissive attitude at those who say they have more expertise. You will see this in play within scientific fields with a lot of cross-discipline criticisms such as physicists dismissive of philosophers, “hard science” experts dismissive of “social science” experts, and so on. What is usually at play here is a lack of deep understanding of the expertise in the other discipline.

This disdain or false confidence adds to that public image problem that scientists often struggle against, science as arrogance. Science really does have a PR problem, and unfortunately — as with many stereotypes — being able to point at specific, real-life anecdotes which support the stereotype tends to make it very hard to overcome. (See availability heuristic research.)

AND WE’RE BACK

I want to return now to this specific case because it works as a nice proxy for some of the nuanced issues that I face when putting together my own show, MonsterTalk. It bears repeating, in the field of Cryptozoology, we see all the spectrum of human belief writ small. I have come to realize that monster legends are an excellent way to talk about cherished beliefs without some of the interpersonal risks associated with other topics. Yes, there are many people who would come to blows over disagreement about Bigfoot’s existence, but I suspect we’re talking about thousands of people not the millions who feel a similar cognitive passion for valued ideas like their religious or political views.

However, just because there are fewer people with that level of passion does not mean that the topics should be treated lazily. If we’re going to use these unscientific ideas to demonstrate critical thinking and the scientific method, then it requires the same rigour and exactitude one would use when engaging more volatile topics. It can be done. Many well trained critical thinkers have sharpened their minds on the whetstone of Bigfoot.

So in this section, I want to talk about Astonishing Legend’s criticisms of the paper by Schmaltz and Lilienfeld. I’ll include references to the show audio where applicable.9

Mistakes were made.

The show begins by going through the Wikipedia article on the Kelly-Hopkinsville incident. (AL 6:53) In that entry, the Schmaltz and Lilienfeld paper is cited in a section titled “Explanations.” The hosts go through the paper and despite agreeing with the premise of the paper’s content, use the paper’s own points about identifying pseudoscience to skewer mistakes in the paper. A key issue, as mentioned above, is that a sentence in the paper makes an assertion that is not backed up by the cited source. A brief transcript about this issue follows:

[Note: This excerpt begins at 22:33 into the episode.]
Scott Philbrook: “That preceding statement right there is cited to Davis and Bloecher, 1978. The very report that we have drawn most of our research from for this entire series.”

Forrest Burgess: “Yeah. That was all of Part One.”

Scott Philbrook: ”Yes. So what they’re saying is that the Davis and Bloecher reports states that there’s an earthly explanation, the aliens were great-horned owls and eyewitnesses were probably intoxicated during the attack. The next sentence [quoting Schmaltz & Lilienfeld] ‘Students usually find the true story of the events amusing; and this example can lead naturally into a discussion on Area 51, the Greys, or other otherworldly interests.’ again citing Nickell, for 2012 and then P. J. Leman and M. Cinnirella, from Belief in Conspiracy Theories and the Need for Cognitive Closure, that’s from Frontiers in Psychology as well, and I want to keep that phrase in mind, ‘the need for cognitive closure.’ That’s what they’re saying people need when they use pseudoscience to evaluate these stories.”

Forrest Burgess: “Yeah, and it sounds like what these guys need too.”

Scott Philbrook: “Yeah. So this article that many point to as identifying the Kelly-Hopkinsville case as a hoax at worst or a misidentification of marauding owls at best is pretty weak.

Forrest Burgess: “It’s a little crappy in my opinion.”[laughter]

Scott Philbrook: “I think you’re (laughter) I think you’re right.”

[talking over]

Forrest Burgess: “We’re going talk this out-”

Scott Philbrook: “Let’s break it down, Forrest.”

Forrest Burgess: ”We’re gonna break it down! But I don’t want to sound like we’re bagging on these guys, their knowledge, their academic standing, any of that, their research into this… because I think these are valid points. We’re going to make a case here why I don’t think it fits with this case. And that it’s kinda… that maybe they didn’t do due diligence”

This error in the paper is mostly due to a mistaken citation, the attribution intended should have been to Joe Nickell’s research from 2006. In an article titled Siege of the ‘Little Green Men’: The 1955 Kelly-Kentucky Incident, (unlike Davis & Bloecher) Nickell does talk about both owls and intoxication.

From the outset, people offered their proposed solutions to the mystery. In addition to those who thought it was a hoax, some attributed the affair to alcohol intoxication. I talked with one of the original investigators, former Kentucky state trooper R.N. Ferguson (2005), who thought people there had been drinking, although he conceded he saw no evidence of that at the site. He told me he believed the monsters “came in a container” (i.e., a can or bottle of alcohol). A visitor to the farm the next day did notice “a few beer cans in a rubbish basket” (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 35). Whether or not drinking was involved, it was not responsible for the “saucer” sighting; other UFOs were witnessed in the area that evening (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 33). —Nickell, 2006

While this attribution error would dissolve much of the complaint directed at Schmaltz and Lilienfeld by the hosts of Astonishing Legends, it is unlikely to satisfy the entirety of their complaint. There is still the wording in the actual sentence from the psychology paper which is unlikely to sit well with people who have devoted hours, days or months (or even years) to investigating the case:

The “aliens” were in fact, Great Horned Owls, and the eyewitnesses were probably intoxicated during the “alien attack” (Davis and Bloecher, 1978). [emphasis added]

I’ll explain why this wording is problematic.

Certitude is no virtue

Part of the concern I had with the objections of Astonishing Legends to this paper by Schmaltz and Lilienfeld was that aside from their concern that even when one corrects the reference from Davis and Bloecher to Joe Nickell’s article, it is still questionable whether the wording about the explanation for the creature is accurate. Without digging into the depths of the case here, I’d like to talk about the use of “in fact” and “probably intoxicated” within that sentence.

Were the “goblins” really owls?

Joe Nickell has done much research into these “spooky” cases. I have many of his books, have read many of his research articles, have interviewed him several times for my podcast, and consider him a mentor and a friend. Our investigative methods are similar and I look to him as an excellent source for how to investigate mysteries with a scientific approach. Nickell often exudes confidence in his investigations. It is easy to conclude that his proposed solutions are the definitive scientific solutions. But outside the context of his meticulous methodology and write-ups, a summary of his findings will sound necessarily reductionist and repetitive to people who want to believe in these matters. A proposed solution of owls for cases with similar sounding monsters (Kelly-Hopkinsville’s goblins, the Flatwood monster, and Mothman all have elements that sound very owl-like) might lead one to conclude that Nickell thinks all monsters of this type are really owls. Similarly, otters and tree-trunks have been likely candidates for lake and sea monsters. In each case write-up, Nickell explains why he reached particular conclusions but it is very easy to jump to the ending and disagree with his assessment. And even concluding owls as an explanation is not the solution — it is part of an overall assessment that includes voluminous research which discusses the limits of human perception.

Schmaltz and Lilienfeld are very familiar with the complexity and limits of human perception and so would the reviewers of the article — the “peer” part of peer-review. What might sound like an absurdly unlikely explanation, that someone could confuse an owl with a large goblin-like creature, is less absurd given all of that research into the workings of the human mind and how it makes errors. Even so, while such an understanding could give one confidence in reaching the conclusion that owls are involved, I think that the wording here was imprecise and implied a level of certitude that was not warranted.

What is certain is that there is rich body of evidence that eyewitness testimony, despite being the most compelling kind of evidence in our daily lives, is notoriously unreliable. There are cultural factors that can be at play, as well as concepts such as “priming” and many other interesting elements that may better explain this case without needing to add aliens or goblins and without the overly simple explanation of owls. Any thorough treatment of this topic needs to include those factors in their possible explanations.

How probable is probably? Does drinking cause hallucinations?

The use of “probably intoxicated” is equally troubling. If one only read Nickell’s account (and the reference was supposed to be to Nickell 2006) there is still insufficient primary evidence to support the idea that the witnesses in the Kelly-Hopkinsville case were drinking or drunk. The implication, to non-psychologists, seems to be that drinking somehow causes people to see goblins. As the Astonishing Legends hosts rightly pointed out, outside of cartoons with “little pink elephants” hallucinations are not a normal byproduct of drinking alcohol. I believe what the authors were trying to allude to is that people who are intoxicated are more likely to be affected by a group delusion. Maybe. But the questionability of that explanation led the hosts to this exchange:

[32:10] Forrest Burgess: “The second one is kind of a social one for me in that the eyewitnesses ‘were probably intoxicated during the alien attack.’ Where does the word probably fit in with a scientific report?

Scott Philbrook: “It doesn’t make— yeah.”

Forrest Burgess: “‘Probably gravity has something to do with the unified, the grand unified theory, probably—’ How is that even allowed in a scientific thinking journal? Again, not to bash but—”

Scott Philbrook: “Also, it’s an offensive supposition. It’s all ‘Well look at these country folks all out on the farm, they got drunk and saw aliens.’”

Forrest Burgess: “Exactly and you’re getting my populist in a ruffle here, it’s a little bit of academic and social-standing marginalization and elitism. Those are big political charged terms now, but what I want to say is that I think that’s what’s going on. ‘These people are simple drunk hicks and they don’t know what they saw—’”

Scott Philbrook: “And by the way, they ‘we know for a fact they were owls, even though we were not there, we didn’t go there, and we didn’t even read the report on it.’”

Forrest Burgess: “Well no,—”

Scott Philbrook: “Here’s the other, you know, speaking of red flags, we only drilled down on this one source of the twenty or so that are cited with this paper, and the one we looked at, there is zero connection between the statement made in the report that we looked at and what they said the report said.”

This is just my opinion as an amateur, non-academic fan of science and monsters, but if you’re going to pick a monster-case as an example of how to spot pseudoscience, it would be ideal to be very careful about how you make that example. In this case, I fear that the authors of the journal article oversimplified their solution and picked one where the solution is far from certain. Picking any example that would satisfy everyone would also prove challenging because you will never find a fringe topic where everyone agrees that the mystery has been solved.

Everything is complicated.

It is worth remembering that everything is complicated, and the more you dig into a topic the more you may come to realize that it is impossible to fully understand anything. At some point one must draw a line and say, “Okay, this explanation is good enough,” or you risk falling down a rabbit hole with no end. I feel like science does have plausible explanations for the events that took place that night, but that they were not adequately explained in the cited paper — nor was that the point of the paper.

WIKIPEDIA NEEDS TO BE FIXED. YOU CAN HELP.

The final concern I want to mention about this case is that, outside the control of anyone involved in this discussion, Schmaltz and Lilienfeld’s paper has been used by Wikipedia in what seems to be an assertion that the Kelly-Hopkinsville case is solved definitively. Rather than use a primary source which makes such an assertion and has definitive evidence for such a solution, they pointed to this article which only references the case in a small paragraph and contains an error within that paragraph. As is often the case with Wikipedia, it gives very good coverage of popular topics but the more expertise one has on a matter, the more likely one is to see mistakes.

The good news10 is that anyone can edit Wikipedia and improve it. At the time of this writing, the Kelly-Hopkinsville case has the problem reference as described here. Even if Frontiers in Psychology posts a correction to fix the problematic text, I believe it would be helpful to edit the Wikipedia entry to go directly to Joe Nickell’s article if the point is to inform readers of possible solutions to the case.

I can’t fix the errors in the Wikipedia article myself because I believe my work in trying to tie together all the issues concerning this incident would constitute original research, which disallows me from editing the relevant entry. But there are many Wikipedia contributors working to improve coverage of topics like this, and hopefully this article will draw their attention to this particular entry.

SCIENCE IS SELF-CORRECTING

When I started working on this article, I also began correspondence with both Philbrook and Burgess as well as Schmaltz and Lilienfeld. I hope that this will be an ongoing discussion because all I find that I’m interested in many of the same things as both pairs. One outcome of the discussion is that Schmaltz and Lilienfeld have elected to request a change to their published paper. They’re submitting a corrigendum to Frontiers in Psychology requesting the sentence be changed to:

“It is plausible, if not likely, that the ‘aliens’ were Great Horned Owls, and there is some evidence that the eyewitnesses may have been intoxicated during the ‘alien attack’ (Nickell, 2006).” —Schmaltz, 2017

This softer version will likely not satisfy everyone who researches this case, but I’m proud of the authors for taking the time to make a more accurate statement in a paper whose overall content I not only agree with, but which parallels the very model we use on MonsterTalk to talk about science and critical thinking using fringe, spooky, and weird topics as a launching point for conversation.

CONCLUSION

After all this conversation I’m left in the same predicament as at the beginning, but with renewed hope that we can find common ground with people who are too often framed as enemies. I enjoy fringe topics, I believe in the scientific method, and I have faith that in time the processes of science will help drive us to a more accurate understanding of the world including the parts that now seem so mysterious. I hope that Skeptics will always strive to seek answers, admit the limits of science, adhere to the rules of the scientific method, and maintain a good bit of empathy for the people who experience the kind of astonishing events from which legends are forged.

SUGGESTED READING/LISTENING

Sometimes the reason a Skeptic is so unwilling to believe has to do with an extensive amount of expertise in the limits of human perception. Such research is deeply troubling when first encountered, and while I admit I am comfortable now knowing more about how little I can trust of my own sense, it is a disturbing thing to look into. If you want to take that plunge, I’d recommend checking out some shows like You Are Not So Smart, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid, The ArchyFantasies Podcast, 15 Credibility Street or even my own MonsterTalk. I’d also recommend some books such as Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World and Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So as primers.

REFERENCES
  • Phillbrook, Scott, and Forrest Burgess. “Ep 81: The Kelly–Hopkinsville Encounter (Part 3).” Astonishing Legends, 18 Aug. 2017, Ep 81: The Kelly–Hopkinsville Encounter (Part 3) [Audio blog interview]. (2017, August 18). Retrieved September 4, 2017, from http://www.astonishinglegends.com/al-podcasts/2017/8/18/ep-79-the-kelly-hopkinsville-encounter-part-3.
  • Nickell, Joe (2006). Siege of the “little green men”: the 1955 Kelly, Kentucky, incident. Skeptical Inquirer 30.6. Available at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/siege_of_little_green_men
  • Schmaltz, Rodney “Personal Correspondence Received by William Blake Smith”, 23 Aug. 2017.
  • Schmaltz, Rodney “Personal Correspondence Received by William Blake Smith”, 04 Sep. 2017.
  • Schmaltz, Rodney, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. “Hauntings, homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: using pseudoscience to teach scientific thinking.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 5, 2014, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00336.
  • Wikipedia.org (2017), Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. [online] Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly%E2%80%93Hopkinsville_encounter [Accessed 4 Sep. 2017]
  1. Of course grabbing any cultural label opens one up to inevitable hypocrisy as it is impossible to be a paragon; one can only aspire to one’s values, not embody them.
  2. We did get to talk Friday October 13th, 2017 and that conversation should comprise MonsterTalk Ep #138.
  3. This is hardly surprising. Words change meaning and everyone carries around their own definitions, often incorrect ones.
  4. do-do-dee-do-do.
  5. I don’t want to keep harping on how “the average person” doesn’t know this or that. The simple fact is that science is a methodology which requires expertise, and much of human history was achieved without it. Expertise is by its very nature going to exclude people who either have not had the opportunity to receive training in it, or who don’t find it interesting enough to study it. This built-in exclusionary property just exacerbates the common criticism that scientists are “arrogant,” a criticism that is sometimes true but always hard to dismiss even when misapplied.
  6. Including me!
  7. John Oliver did an amusing piece that covers this, but of course you can do a web search for problems in science journalism to find out more about this problem.
  8. There has been some very interesting research into a related topic called “The Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which, for fear of committing the very kind of error of misguided confidence in something I have not studied deeply, I shall merely link to rather than attempt to summarize.
  9. I do not have an easy way to take you directly to the audio content in question without either cutting out audio excerpts or transcribing the episode audio, so in lieu of those time-consuming options, I will link to the audio and include time-stamps so that you can skip to the relevant point in the show.
  10. Some might say this is also a fault, but I am an optimist.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Donald Prothero & Timothy Callahan—UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

Sun, 10/15/2017 - 2:00pm

UFOs. Aliens. Strange 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 UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, Don Prothero and Tim Callahan explore why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking.

Employing the ground rules of science and the standards of scientific evidence, Prothero and Callahan discuss a wide range of topics including the reliability of eyewitness testimony, psychological research into why people want to believe in aliens and UFOs, and the role conspiratorial thinking plays in UFO culture. They examine a variety of UFO sightings and describe the standards of evidence used to determine whether UFOs are actual alien spacecraft.

Finally, they consider our views of aliens and the strong cultural signals that provide the shapes and behaviors of these beings. While their approach is firmly based in science, Prothero and Callahan also share their personal experiences of Area 51, Roswell, and other legendary sites, creating a narrative that is sure to engross both skeptics and believers.

Order UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens from Amazon.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for October 11, 2017

Wed, 10/11/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

CONSCIOUSNESS & REALITY Michael Shermer, Baba Brinkman, Deepak Chopra, Seth Andrews, and Aspen Matis

In late September 2017, in celebration of 25 years of Skeptic magazine and the Skeptics Society combating ‘fake news,’ Dr. Michael Shermer hosted a live variety science show, in partnership with YouTube Space NY, to explore the question: ‘How Can We Know What’s True?’.

Canadian hip-hop rapper, Baba Brinkman, opened the show with a rap about perception, hallucination, optical illusions, and the predictive model of consciousness.

Following that, in the name of open dialogue between those with differing or polarized worldviews, Michael Shermer (Director of the Skeptics Society, and creator of Skeptic magazine) discusses consciousness and the nature of reality with Deepak Chopra (philosopher and self-proclaimed “radical skeptic”).

In the following video, Michael Shermer discusses spirituality and science with Deepak Chopra (philosopher), Aspen Matis (author of Girl in the Woods), and Seth Andrews (creator and host of The Thinking Atheist).

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NEW EPISODE BY MR. DEITY Misterpiece Theater: I’m Listening

Tara helps Matt understand the importance of “listening to the universe.”

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Dr. David Speed examines why the definitional ambiguity of the word “spirituality” is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between it and other constructs.

What is Spirituality, Anyway?
Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?

by David Speed

There has been an explosion of research addressing spirituality over the past two decades. The use of the term “spirituality” is a staple of our everyday vernacular, whereby many have friends who will identify as spiritual, but not religious. The ubiquity of the “spiritual” label is curious given that a definition of spirituality is rarely discussed. Granted, people are often not required to precisely define concepts that they are discussing, so the fact that spirituality means different things to different people is largely irrelevant in everyday conversation. However, this definitional ambiguity is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between spirituality and other constructs. In other words, while the average citizen can communicate in imprecise ways and get away with it, scientists and researchers do not have that luxury.

The idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

The current paradigm within the spirituality literature is that higher spirituality has a tendency to be associated with better health. Higher spirituality is allegedly linked to numerous health benefits (e.g., satisfaction with life, better general health 1, less depression2, etc.), and there has been an effort within the literature to promote spiritual diversity in the healthcare system.3 There is also academic interest in how spirituality components relate to quality of life assessments4, as well as movements to incorporate spirituality into clinical practice.5 In short, spirituality is experiencing a prolonged interest from both the academy and the public at large. However, these positive findings are somewhat marred by a fundamental issue within the associated literature, namely what spirituality actually is.

Within the academic literature there does not appear to be an agreed-upon definition of spirituality, while there also appear to be radically different conceptualizations of what “being spiritual” means. One review paper with the express intent of clarifying the definition of spirituality summarized its findings by stating, “Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”6 This statement means that all humans are spiritual although they experience this spirituality differently. However, such a statement is not helpful because it could be used to justify any range of definitions. Offering carte blanche to the spirituality definition does nothing to advance the field of research. If everything can be spiritual then logically, any measure purporting to measure spirituality is justified. […]

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Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (Photo © 2014 Joseph Oliphint Photography. Image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

American Goblins—Part 2
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 137

In this episode of MonsterTalk — The Science Show About Monsters, we continue our examination of the case of the Kentucky Goblins. Blake is joined by CSI investigator Joe Nickell to discuss the details of the Kelly-Hopkinsville case and what real world creature Joe thinks best accounts for the mysterious events on that Kentucky farm back in 1955.

If you missed it, read the episode notes and listen to Part 1.

Listen to episode 137

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SCIENCE SALON # 15: OCTOBER 15, 2017 UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

What is Spirituality, Anyway? Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?

Wed, 10/11/2017 - 12:00am

There has been an explosion of research addressing spirituality over the past two decades. The use of the term “spirituality” is a staple of our everyday vernacular, whereby many have friends who will identify as spiritual, but not religious. The ubiquity of the “spiritual” label is curious given that a definition of spirituality is rarely discussed. Granted, people are often not required to precisely define concepts that they are discussing, so the fact that spirituality means different things to different people is largely irrelevant in everyday conversation. However, this definitional ambiguity is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between spirituality and other constructs. In other words, while the average citizen can communicate in imprecise ways and get away with it, scientists and researchers do not have that luxury.

The idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

The current paradigm within the spirituality literature is that higher spirituality has a tendency to be associated with better health. Higher spirituality is allegedly linked to numerous health benefits (e.g., satisfaction with life, better general health 1, less depression2, etc.), and there has been an effort within the literature to promote spiritual diversity in the healthcare system.3 There is also academic interest in how spirituality components relate to quality of life assessments4, as well as movements to incorporate spirituality into clinical practice.5 In short, spirituality is experiencing a prolonged interest from both the academy and the public at large. However, these positive findings are somewhat marred by a fundamental issue within the associated literature, namely what spirituality actually is.

Within the academic literature there does not appear to be an agreed-upon definition of spirituality, while there also appear to be radically different conceptualizations of what “being spiritual” means. One review paper with the express intent of clarifying the definition of spirituality summarized its findings by stating, “Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”6 This statement means that all humans are spiritual although they experience this spirituality differently. However, such a statement is not helpful because it could be used to justify any range of definitions. Offering carte blanche to the spirituality definition does nothing to advance the field of research. If everything can be spiritual then logically, any measure purporting to measure spirituality is justified.

Surprisingly, while definitions of spirituality are difficult to come by, measures of spirituality are not. In a recent review of various spirituality measures7, a journal article listed close to three dozen measures of spirituality. These measures were classed according to their purpose (e.g., general spirituality, spiritual well-being, spiritual needs, etc.) and were rated on their quality. The purpose of the review article was to organize existing measures of spirituality into a typology that would allow for a better understanding of the measures’ purposes. Within the article, the authors devoted reasonable space to providing evidence that these measures were reliable (i.e., if a participant takes the survey again their score is close to the first time); but there was very little discussion on whether the measures were valid (i.e., whether the measures were actually measuring spirituality). For the purposes of the review article, the working definition of spirituality was, “a sense of transcendence beyond one’s immediate circumstances… purpose and meaning in life, reliance on inner resources, and a sense of withinperson integration or connectedness.” As with the previously quoted definition of spirituality, this definition is less than helpful as it could mean a host of different things.

“In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores.

How would one go about defining spirituality in a way that is valid; that is, ensuring that a definition is uniquely and exclusively spiritual? Defining terms scientifically is often difficult even with concepts that everyone agrees exist (e.g., intelligence, happiness, hunger). The spirituality literature appears to sidestep this problem by defining a person’s level of spirituality by what he/she may score on spirituality indices. This approach is common within social science research as it provides a meaningful basis of comparison between studies. For example, intelligence can be discussed in a general way that people can understand, and researchers will use a person’s score on “IQ Test X” for comparing people between studies. However, the working definitions of spirituality are extremely varied, occasionally contradictory, and often include abstractions without obvious meaning. A consequence of this variety of definitions is that spirituality can only be meaningfully discussed by scores on specific measures, rather than in a broad conceptual way. While this approach may allow the literature to move forward (in terms of volume of studies), it does nothing to clarify what spirituality actually is.

This problem is exacerbated by the high variability of the items contained within spirituality measures. Spirituality measures will often inquire about concepts that may not be immediately associated with one’s perception of spirituality. Questions for spirituality address topics such as social interaction, meaning in life, environmental consciousness, etc. Contrasted with these are questions about interconnectedness, oneness with the universe, higher powers, benefits of prayer, etc. Some spirituality measures even have items that ostensibly inquire about the limitations of science: “In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores. Because spirituality is often being defined by the measure used to assess a person’s spirituality score, it is informative to investigate the specific items that are assessing spirituality.

Often, spirituality measures will have items related to social functioning. For example, the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale contains the items, “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong” or “I feel a selfless caring for others.”9 In a similar vein the Spirituality Assessment Scale10 presents items such as “I have a general sense of belonging” or “I feel a kinship to other people.” In addition, the Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale includes items such as “When I wrong someone, I make an effort to apologize” and “I examine my actions to see if they reflect my values.” These questions appear to be addressing how persons interact with other people, and presumably, the better social skills a person has, the healthier he/she is likely to be. However, the answers to these items are counted towards a global spirituality score. Global spirituality scores, which are in part the product of questions about social functioning, are in turn linked to better health outcomes.11 Yet, it is confusing as to why the word spirituality encompasses these characteristics, especially given that other measures (e.g., social support assessments) explicitly investigate these topics.

A different issue plaguing the spirituality literature is whether spirituality is intrinsically linked to a belief in god(s). Nearly all spirituality measures have at least one item that references god(s), higher powers, Creators, etc. (e.g., Spiritual Perspective Scale12, Spiritual Assessment Scale), and numerous spirituality measures have multiple items associated with a god construct (e.g., the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality13, Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale, Spiritual Health Inventory14). To be fair, these measures will often provide caveats that god(s) is whatever you define him/her/it to be, but this does not change the fact that this question does not apply to everyone. One may argue that deities represent a “power greater than oneself,” but this is a semantic argument. Using a placeholder that is functionally undifferentiated from god(s), but refusing to label it “god(s)” seems to be without benefit to understanding spirituality. Persons who object to “god-related questions” probably do not object to the specific word selection (i.e., “god”), but probably do object to the overarching concept (i.e., “a metaphysical unproven construct”).

The fact that god(s) is a recurring topic within many spirituality measures raises a number of important questions for researchers. Having items on surveys that are only answerable if one assumes the existence of deities seems to be a step away from the idea that spirituality is “an inherent component of being human.” With all other things being equal, persons who do not believe in god(s) (i.e., atheists) will be “penalized” on their spirituality score because of their non-belief. Given the prevalence of questions regarding belief, one could reasonably conclude that spirituality necessarily includes a belief in some form of higher powers. If this is the case, then spirituality is not an inherently human construct, as not all humans can or do believe in deities.

To address this criticism, measures may allow items to be omitted if non-applicable to persons; however, this fix does not address the underlying objection. Either conceptualizations of deities are necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would exclude atheists), or conceptualizations of deities are not necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would raise questions about why so many items address deities). In either case, it is clear that spirituality has either substantive definitional issues or substantive measurement issues, or both. Of course, researchers could argue that deities are often a part of many persons’ spirituality, but are not necessary. However, all this demonstrates is that the idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 21.4 (2016).
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It is important to note that these aforementioned spirituality measures have been published in peer-reviewed journals. They are reliable, have convergent validity, and they can be used to predict a variety of health outcomes. These facts are not disputed. However, it must also be made clear that if the items assessing spirituality are about social functioning, life purpose, or emotional maturity, then it is curious as to what makes these items “spiritual”. That these items are related to health outcomes is not surprising given that a bounty of literature has already established this in other fields. If the items assessing spirituality are suspect, then the reliability of the measures is ultimately immaterial to proving the benefits of spirituality. It would be as though “not smoking” was included as an indicator of spirituality, and if researchers then marvelled over the benefits of being spiritual. If spirituality measures do not uniquely predict health outcomes (beyond what is established by other constructs), then researchers should either modify how spirituality is being assessed or critically consider whether items within these surveys unambiguously measure spirituality. Ultimately, much of the investigation into spirituality seems less like research and more like recycling.

About the Author

Dr. David Speed completed his master’s and doctorate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His primary field of interest is religion and health, but will research anything that “catches his eye”. He is a member of the Atheist Research Collaborative, which is a non-partisan group that researches atheism and irreligion. When David is not researching, teaching, or working, he is at home with his wife Betsy and his daughters Aliya and Charley.

References
  1. Dunn, K. S. 2008. “Development and Psychometric Testing of a New Geriatric Spiritual Well-Being Scale.” International Journal of Older People Nursing, 3, pp. 161–169.
  2. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  3. Pesut, B., Fowler, M., Taylor, E., Reimer-Kirkham, S., & Sawatzky, R. 2008. “Conceptualising Spirituality and Religion for Healthcare.” Journal of Clinical Nursing, 17, pp. 2803–2810.
  4. O’Connell, K. A., & Skevington, S. M. 2010. “Spiritual, Religious, and Personal Beliefs are Important and Distinctive to Assessing Quality of Life in Health: A Comparison of Theoretical Models.” British Journal of Health Psychology, 15, pp. 729–748.
  5. Carlson, T., McGeorge, C., & Toomey, R. 2014. “Establishing the Validity of the Spirituality in Clinical Training Scale: Measuring the Level of Integration of Spirituality and Religion in Family Therapy Training.” Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 36, pp. 310–325.
  6. Tanyi, R. A. 2002. “Towards Clarification of the Meaning of Spirituality.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, 39, pp. 500–509.
  7. Monod, S., Brennan, M., Rochat, E., Martin, E., Rochat, S., & Büla, C. 2011. “Instruments Measuring Spirituality in Clinical Research: A Systematic Review.” Journal of General Internal Medicine, 26, pp. 1345–1357. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1769-7
  8. Hatch, R. L., Burg, M., Naberhaus, D. S., & Hellmich, L. K. 1998. “The Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale: Development and Testing of a New Instrument.” Journal of Family Practice, 46, pp. 476–486.
  9. Underwood, L. G., & Teresi, J. A. 2002. “The Daily Spiritual Experience and Scale: Development, Theoretical Description, Reliability, Exploratory Factor Analysis, and Preliminary Construct Validity Using Health-Related Data.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 22–33.
  10. Howden, J. 1992. Development and Psychometric Characteristics of the Spirituality Assessment Scale. Texas Women’s University.
  11. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  12. Garner, L. F. 2002. “Spirituality among Baccalaureate Nursing Students at a Private Christian University and a Public State University.” Christian Higher Education, 1, pp. 371–384.
  13. Johnstone, B., McCormack, G., Yoon, D., & Smith, M. 2012. “Convergent/Divergent Validity of the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/ Spirituality: Empirical Support for Emotional Connectedness as a ‘Spiritual’ Construct.” Journal of Religion & Health, 51, pp. 529–541.
  14. Korinek, A. W., & Arredondo Jr., R. 2004. “The Spiritual Health Inventory (SHI): Assessment of an Instrument for Measuring Spiritual Health in a Substance Abusing Population.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 22, pp. 55–66.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

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