April 2006 --This past January, hundreds of skeptics and humanists gathered at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas for a three-day conference on “Science in Politics and the Politics of Science.” As gamblers in the hotel casino dropped coins into slot machines and chips onto dice tables, conference participants in the huge ballroom explored and debated a host of controversial issues that—it is no gamble to say—will affect most people much more than whether a roulette wheel’s ball lands on their lucky number.
The skeptical troops were mustered by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Over 800 individuals attended this, the foundation’s fourth event, up from 135 in 2000. It was called The Amazing Meeting (TAM-4, for short) because organization founder Randi, one of the country’s top magicians, performed under the stage name of “The Amazing Randi.”
Many on the American political Right see skeptics and their close cousins, secular humanists, as arrogant atheists whose ideas threaten to destroy the traditions and religion that they believe are the foundations of a free, civil society. For their part, skeptics and humanists see many on the Right as anti-science, superstitious, and hostile to free thought and social freedom.
In the past, rational, responsible individualists have shared with conservatives some common political goals—for example, free markets and limited government. But recent efforts by “compassionate” conservatives to foist government into private morality, to promote their own kinds of “social engineering,” and to support massive federal spending programs, have widened the rift between these ideological camps.
Meanwhile, the postmodernist value relativism found among some in the libertarian movement gives many rational individualists pause as well.
So perhaps individualists can find better allies among skeptics and humanists. Are there areas of opportunity here? Were the conferees in Sin City friends or foes of freedom and basic individualist values?
The skeptics gathered in the Nevada oasis saw their efforts as part of a struggle that has gone on throughout human history. It was fought in 1600 when Giordano Bruno, who had speculated about life on other worlds, was burned at the stake by a Catholic Church that would also imprison Galileo for studying other worlds. It was fought 80 years ago in the Scopes trial when a teacher challenged a law banning the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the classroom, a battle that continues to this day. It is the conflict between two views regarding the true source of human knowledge and the proper guide for human life: reason versus dogma.
The ideas that dominated the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment explain the unimaginable progress in science, medicine, industry, and so many other fields that made our modern world. And it is to these principles that most skeptics are committed. The Skeptics Society describes its members’ outlook thus:
Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.
The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.
Today, the communication and information revolutions make critical thinking skills more important than ever, not only for scientists and scholars in ivory towers, but for each individual here and now, on the ground, in real life.
"When we say we are ‘skeptical,’ we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe."
For example, when you face a serious medical problem today, your possible responses are not limited to visiting a single physician offering limited treatment options. You now have available an Internet that connects you to almost limitless medical information, patient blogs, and discussion boards. But how can you separate the promising, cutting-edge treatments from the quack stuff in order to make life-or-death judgments? These mountains of information are often unfiltered by editors and experts. To make evaluations about the environment, stem cell research, bird flu, mad cow disease, or mandatory vaccinations, we all need to learn how to think more and more like scientists or, more broadly, like skeptics. This approach must be applied to politics, too: more information gives us greater freedom and benefits, but only if we think straight.
All good scientists are, by their nature, skeptics, but today’s skeptics include more than those who pull a paycheck from a physics lab. Those gathered in the glitter of the Vegas Strip were individuals interested in a constellation of issues and activities. They love learning about the latest research and advances in various fields. For example, Professor Richard Wiseman discussed psychology, belief, magic, and illusions, with demonstrations that had the audience rubbing their eyes in amazement. Dr. Carolyn Porco, one of the country’s leading planetary scientists, showed photos from the recent Cassini mission to Saturn that were a treat for the eyes and minds of the audience.
But these skeptics are most interested in rationally analyzing beliefs prevalent in the popular culture, from UFOs to mind-reading, bleeding statues, fortune-telling, and fad diets.
After his career as an entertainer, James Randi established a distinguished second career debunking, in entertaining ways, frauds and con artists who were exploiting the gullible and the ignorant. To this end, his James Randi Educational Foundation puts its money where its mind is. It maintains $1 million in escrow for its standing “paranormal challenge.” Anyone who can show, under controlled conditions, any kind of paranormal powers or phenomena—mind-reading, faith-healing, telekinesis—will win the million. So far, no one has collected.
As a magician skilled in confronting false claimants, Randi knows all the tricks. For example, a woman claimed to be able to read cards while blindfolded. Randi spotted a pinhole-sized opening between the blindfold and her nose that allowed her to read the cards. In the 1970s, Uri Geller claimed he could bend a spoon with his mind. Randi can show you the trick to that trick over dinner.
Peter Popoff dominated TV screens in the 1980s as a faith-healer. Randi and his team infiltrated one of his mass meetings with recording equipment. They discovered that Popoff’s wife, reading from “prayer cards” filled out by audience members before the show, was broadcasting their personal information from backstage into a small receiver in Pastor P’s ear as he trawled the aisles. “Ruby Lee Harris! She’s against the back wall. She’s got lumps in her breast,” Popoff would shout, to the crowd’s amazement. Popoff claimed that God was feeding him the information, and would then claim to heal these poor, desperate people. Of course, this sort of fraud dissuades individuals from seeking necessary medical attention, prolonging their pain or even shortening their lives. Randi drove Popoff off of TV screens when, as a guest on “The Tonight Show,” he played the tapes he recorded of Popoff’s wife’s secret broadcasts.
TAM-4 also featured the stars of the popular Discovery Channel cable show “MythBusters.” These guys do just what the show’s title suggests: they take on urban myths and subject them to actual tests.
Can dropping a penny off a skyscraper kill someone? Can you really murder someone by dropping an electrical appliance into a bathtub? Can firing a single bullet into an airliner cause explosive decompression, as in two scenes from the movie Goldfinger? Can quicksand really kill you, or is that a Hollywood myth? Is yawning really contagious? If you push hard enough, can you get a swing to go all the way up over the swing-set bar? Can a singer really break a glass with just his voice?
The secular humanist tradition from which many skeptics come has its roots in the political left.
The MythBusters aren’t dry researchers reciting sheaves of brain-numbing data. They’re regular guys in tee-shirts and leather jackets working out of warehouses, garages, and back lots. Most important, they are teaching thousands of viewers critical thinking and testing skills, not with classroom lectures, but with machines and test dummies. They first define their question. They then figure out how to create and conduct a fruitful experiment without harming anyone. They usually have to secure or construct their own special equipment. And they also must determine exactly what outcome will constitute a busted myth.
Some seemingly simple myths require more effort to test than you might imagine. Does dropped toast usually land butter side down? Dropping toast by hand introduced too many variations in each drop. So they had to construct a device that would hold the toast exactly perpendicular to the floor and release it the same manner on every drop. By the way, the results were just about 50-50, so—contrary to Murphy’s Law—butter does not affect the trajectory of your plummeting breakfast treat!
Not serious science, you say? Only in the subject matter. More often than not each episode shows failed tests, attempts to refine or re-engineer equipment, and to rethink testing strategies. Viewers see that critical thinking not only helps to reveal the secrets of the universe, but that it can also reveal that what passes for truth might be as mythical as ancient gods and monsters.
A highlight of TAM-4 was Penn Jillette of the magician-comedy team Penn and Teller. Both are libertarians and H.L. Mencken fellows at the Cato Institute. The pair host a Showtime cable series provocatively entitled “Bullshit.” The show might be described as John Stossel on steroids or, as TV Guide put it, “what ‘60 Minutes’ might be like if it were run by the creators of ‘South Park.’”
The team has gone after some typical targets of many skeptics: creationism, séances, animal psychics, Ouija boards, ESP, ghosts, and alien abductions. In the process, they employ amusing versions of the experimental approach. For example, to debunk Feng Shui—the New Age claim that there is a science to arranging your furniture in order to channel the energy and vibes of your house—Penn and Teller invited three Feng Shui practitioners, separately and without knowledge of each other, to perform their “science.” Each arranged the same room in a totally different way, rather than exactly the same way, as would have been the case if it were a real science. But the “experts” did charge hefty prices for their faux services.
Penn and Teller are irreverent and outrageous, and they understand the importance of asking questions about all things. Among the sacred icons they have taken on: Mother Teresa, who kept friends from the bedsides of their dying loved ones and who took lots of money from brutal dictators; Mahatma Gandhi, who during his South African days shared white racists’ beliefs about blacks; and the Dalai Lama, who was a repressive autocrat and who would return Tibet to such a system if he could.
Penn and Teller also have gone after environmental hysteria, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and other traditional targets of the Right. A hilarious film showed one of their operatives at an environmental rally successfully collecting petition signatures from unthinking eco-types to ban “dihydrogen monoxide” as a dangerous substance in food and children’s bodies, one that results in thousands of deaths a year. Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water.
In their show on recycling, they wore empty plastic bottles destined for the bin around their necks like holy relics to emphasize that separating your paper from glass is more a religious sacrament than a rational action. They tracked the recycling craze back to a late-1980s EPA report that declared “we’re running out of places to dispose of trash,” that “if we wait the problem will just get worse,” and that “recycling is absolutely vital.” They showed that we’re not running out of landfills, and that, for the most part, recycling creates more waste than it prevents. Then, to top it off, they interviewed J. Winston Porter, the former EPA bureaucrat who set up and oversaw the country’s federally determined recycling goals. Porter, who also did the original EPA recycling study, now denies that he said there was a crisis, only “a concern”—a useless concern, as Penn observed, that now costs us $8 billion a year.
Penn and Teller were somewhat at odds with many members audience in their skepticism about the claims of environmentalists. The secular humanist tradition from which many skeptics come has its roots in the political Left, and so it was not surprising that many attendees seemed to accept leftist environmental orthodoxy.
For example, in his talk about his decades as a government science advisor, Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann clearly thought that the political administrations that favored environmental regulations were the good ones. He complained that the right wing in America wants to wish away global warming. Gell-Mann certainly seemed an Al Gore fan.
Still, at TAM-4, such beliefs were treated only parenthetically. And along with Penn and Teller, a growing number of skeptics and secular humanists are coming to accept individualist and free-market political premises.
Skeptics and humanists still need to apply reason more consistently, especially to questions of ethics and politics.
A notable example is Skeptic magazine editor and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, a principal participant in TAM-4, who has planned his own conference on “The Environmental Wars.” One scheduled speaker at his conference is Ron Bailey, a Reason magazine writer and author of many articles and books that oppose environmentalism and favor scientific advances. In Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution, Bailey argues strongly for using biotechnology to enhance humans physically and mentally, a pro-science, pro-free market view that rejects the stance of conservatives like Leon Kass and others on the religious Right, who see these efforts as “tampering in God’s domain.” But Bailey also challenges the Luddite Left, which fears that biotechnology will create a biological elite.
Another scheduled speaker is Jonathan Adler, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University who formerly worked at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. One of the books he edited, The Costs of Kyoto: Climate Change Policy and its Implications, shows that the adverse effects of policies meant to reduce global warming are worse than the alleged adverse effects created by climate change.
ABC News “20-20” co-anchor John Stossel, another enviro-skeptic, also will speak at Shermer’s event. So will popular novelist Michael Crichton, whose State of Fear was a straight-out attack on the pseudo-science and dishonesty of those who maintain that we are on the brink of eco-collapse.
With his upcoming conference, Shermer is helping to subject environmentalism to skeptical inquiry—a welcome step toward acquainting secular humanists with principles that challenge leftist dogmas.
The TAM-4 conference demonstrated that most but not all skeptics and humanists are agnostics or atheists. Perhaps 15 percent of the audience raised their hands when a speaker asked them to indicate if they had some religious beliefs. But an issue of overriding importance for nearly all participants was the need to keep church and state separated—especially where state-imposed religious views could suffocate scientific thinking and research.
The kickoff speaker at TAM-4 was journalist Christopher Hitchens, who discussed the ideas and achievements of Thomas Jefferson, the subject of his recent book. He observed that the third president and author of the Declaration of Independence was particularly proud of his authorship of the statutes for religious toleration in Virginia. As a scientist himself and a true product of the Enlightenment, Jefferson, Hitchens pointed out, wanted to keep church and state separate.
Unlike most attendees at TAM-4, Hitchens is a strong proponent of today’s war against Islamist terror. He recalled Jefferson’s use of American forces against the Barbary pirates, who had made a practice of kidnapping and enslaving Europeans. When asked how the rulers of Libya could justify such barbaric practices, one of its ambassadors said that the right came from the laws of the Prophet Muhammad: it is acceptable, he said, to make slaves of non-Muslims. (Islamists were a foreign policy problem even two centuries ago!)
Hitchens had an interesting take on the Bush administration’s “faith-based initiative.” Since the president thinks creationism should be discussed in schools as an alternative to evolution, why not require tax-exempt churches receiving government money to teach the scientific and natural alternatives to religion? Perhaps they could be required to offer copies of Darwin. And since creationists want to put stickers in science books saying that evolution is just a theory, perhaps in exchange for receiving tax dollars, they should be required to put stickers on Bibles saying, “This is not science.” Hitchens summed up the need for keeping church and state separate with a variation of one of Ronald Reagan's famous lines: “Mr. Jefferson: Build up this wall!”
Nadine Strossen of the American Civil Liberties Union gave a solidly libertarian talk on the dangers of mixing religion and politics. She denounced policies that would force the teaching of disinformation about sex or so-called alternatives to evolution like “Intelligent Design.” Her critique was bipartisan; she pointed out that many Democrats as well as Republicans were guilty of such assaults. For example, both Bush and Gore have suggested teaching ID in schools.
Murray Gell-Mann, who hypothesized and named the subatomic particle called the quark, as well as several of its varieties, was certainly the most eminent speaker at TAM-4. An active skeptic, Gell-Mann organized scientists to demonstrate to the Supreme Court that what evolution deniers do is fundamentally different from science and should not be passed off in classrooms as “creation science.”
Gell-Mann recounted his decades as an advisor on presidential science commissions. As I indicated earlier, he seemed to represent the Old Left view of many scientists. Since the mind gives us the power to understand the principles of nature and to engineer life-serving technologies, the Old Leftists assume that the mind can also understand social relationships and that experts can then use government power to engineer societies.
Gell-Mann and many skeptics do not appreciate the need to separate science from politics.
Gell-Mann and many skeptics do not appreciate the need to separate science from politics, not just by preventing politicians from meddling in science but also by keeping them from funding and politicizing science in the first place. To the extent that governments are involved in science, the marketplace for ideas will become distorted by vested interests, including the vested interests of scientists themselves. A number of speakers at TAM-4 rightly criticized NASA’s decisions to fund projects of little scientific value while neglecting research they judged to be much more important. But that is the nature of politics, and a point that more skeptics should appreciate.
One questioner pointed out to Gell-Mann that the philosopher-king view of scientists and government conflicts with freedom. He observed that one reason many individuals do not want scientists to rule is that they want, and have a right, to make their own decisions for good or bad. For instance, proposals on how to deal with environmental threats, many of which are hypothetical or questionable, fail to take into account the very real and direct loss of individual autonomy.
To the extent that skeptics and humanists respect the individual, they must come to grips with this crucial matter. To date, their political contradictions reflect a wider moral-philosophical confusion.
As one might surmise, the collectivist political pedigree of the older secular humanist movement reflects altruistic moral bloodlines. While humanists and skeptics respect individual liberty in many arenas, they tend to see the goal and standard of morality as the good of society, or of others, rather than the individualistic standard of rational, responsible self-interest.
The rise of the modern libertarian movement, though, is changing the complexion of skeptic and humanist organizations and institutions. Libertarians, especially those influenced by Ayn Rand , see common ground with skeptics and humanists who favor reason and science against religion and faith, free thinking and open inquiry against dogma and tradition, civil liberties and personal choice against social repression and bigotry. These camps celebrate the quest for knowledge as a noble activity. In the early 1990s, Free Inquiry magazine, published by Paul Kurtz’s Council for Secular Humanism, invited libertarian writers, including this author, to debate libertarian, humanist, and skeptic differences in its pages.
Still, the ethical divide among these groups remains.
The most interesting speaker on the ethical front at TAM-4 was Michael Shermer. Under his editorship, Skeptic magazine has covered most of the topics discussed at the conference—and many more. It has examined the bizarre beliefs of Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, Afro-Centrics, alternative medicines, cloning, AIDS, race and IQ, Holocaust deniers, Roswell flying saucers, and the notion of the “noble savage.” It has highlighted heroes of the rational approach to knowledge, such as Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Stephen J. Gould. While its political contents still place the publication left-of-center, it is always open to debate and inquiry.
In philosophical terms, Shermer symbolizes both the promise and the problems of today’s skeptical and secular humanist movements.
Shermer has read Rand’s books and agrees with much of her thinking. That puts him firmly in the rational individualist camp. His book Why People Believe Weird Things, which debunks many of the topics covered in his magazine, has a particularly interesting chapter on “The Most Unlikely Cult of All,” by which Shermer means Objectivism . In it, he looks at the strange phenomenon of individuals committed to reason and freedom who become almost a cult of true believers. (Note: Shermer does not put The Objectivist Center in that category and has commented favorably on David Kelley’s approach to the philosophy.)
While Shermer’s observations about the dogmatic behavior of some who call themselves Objectivists are on the mark, his ultimate criticism is problematic. He says that the great flaw in Rand’s philosophy is “the belief that morals can be held to some absolute standard or criteria.” Shermer maintains that morals are not facts that can be discovered in nature. “Humans act to increase their happiness, however they personally define it. Their actions become moral or immoral only when someone else [why not the actor?] judges them as such.”
Now, it is true that the specific actions that further the life and happiness of any given individual will be particular to himself. I love studying the planets; someone else loves designing buildings. So my flourishing and happiness will be found in being an astronomer, and the other’s in being an architect.
Shermer has read Rand’s books and agrees with much of her thinking.
But while skeptics and humanists focus on our evolutionary path and its implications, they must focus more on the biological and psychological attributes uniquely shared by humans as part of our distinctive natures. Our common nature poses objective requirements on us all. We need to exercise the virtues of rationality and productivity if we are to survive and flourish as individual human beings. These are underlying moral principles to which we must adhere, if we wish to survive and flourish. So our actions are not “right” or “wrong” merely because somebody subjectively says so, but because of our natural requirements as living human beings.
Shermer’s own rejection of a natural source of ethics as found in Rand and similar thinkers leads him to a number of confusions and problems but also to an interesting approach to ethics, which was reflected in his TAM 4 talk on “The Soul of Science.”
He maintains that our own lives, families, friends, communities, and our treatment of others are “values essential to the here-and-now where provisional purpose is created by us.” To the question “What powers this purpose?” he answers, “Life itself.” He observes that “Life began with the most basic purpose of all: survival and reproduction.” So far, not bad: implictly, he posits free will and a grounding of values and purpose in life itself.
But then Shermer argues that arising from our biology and evolution is a hierarchy of needs that extends from the individual (food, drink, safety), to family (bonding, socialization concerns), to the extended family, the community, the society, the species, even the biosphere. He maintains that as we move up this “purpose pyramid,” we move away from purposeful sentiments bred into us by evolution—e.g., the desire to eat when hungry—and toward purposes that extend beyond ourselves.
This natural pyramid of purpose raises questions. For one thing, exactly what are the implications of this hierarchy for the choices of any given individual? After all, as Shermer would acknowledge, we can choose to resist even the most basic drives if we wish and substitute any other purpose from any point in the pyramid.
Shermer maintains that “Purpose is personal, and there are countless activities people engage in to satisfy deep-seated needs. There are, however, a handful of powerful means by which we can bootstrap towards higher goals that have proven to be especially beneficial to both individuals and society.”
Here Shermer seems to assume that value choices must take account of “higher” values that concern the good of society. There is nothing wrong with individuals working to create a rational, responsible culture that makes others better off as well as themselves. But why are these extended social values considered “higher” rather than simply aspects of one’s personal and private values?
Shermer also sets forth a “happiness principle,” which is: “it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else’s happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else’s unhappiness.” He sets forth similar principles for seeking liberty and purpose. But are these true? By what standard are social considerations “higher”? While Shermer struggles to square self-interest with a social ethic, he seems to fall into all the confusing contradictions of altruism.
Certainly, if one can share values, activities, and achievements with others, one will be better off than if one lives alone. But it is difficult enough for most individuals to figure out what is in their own interest without looking over their shoulder to determine what is in the interest of others. And why is the happiness of another more important than one’s own, anyway?
Furthermore, part of our flourishing is the sense of efficacy and self-esteem we get from doing things for ourselves. While we appreciate help from others in certain matters, meeting the challenges that our capacities offer and exercising our autonomous will is what allows us to live—and to experience life—as fully as possible.
Not deliberately trying to harm others might seem a clear enough moral principle. But consider an example: You love astronomy; you’re studying it in college; you have an aptitude for physics and math; and you want to make it your career. You tell your mother—who has always treated you well, and whom you love—about your proposed major, and she disapproves. She wants you to be a lawyer. That profession completely bores you, but your mother sheds tears over your “wasting your life looking at numbers and lights in the sky.”
So how do you act so that your mother would not be unhappy? Shermer might argue that your mother should be happy that you are happy in your work. But what if your mother does not take joy in your choice of a perfectly rational goal. What, then, does it mean to act with her happiness in mind?
If it all comes down to “We each should be happy when others are pursuing valid goals,” then we don’t need to act with the happiness of others in mind. Of course, in cases of friends, spouses, and children, where our own individual happiness is tied by choice to the lives of other specific individuals, we may take their own happiness and well-being into account, because our happiness will be part of theirs, and theirs will be part of ours. But that is not the same as saying their happiness should supercede our own.
Shermer struggles to combine the good of individuals and society and biological facts with human choices. And he speaks eloquently about a spirituality rooted in this world and in our human capacities. But like other skeptics and secular humanists, he still needs to do a lot of sorting out. Ethics has always been the secular humanists’ weakness. They have usually relied on a social standard of “the good,” mixed inconsistently with a respect for the individual’s life and rights. But this haphazard and confused ethical mixture leads them to such contradictions as favoring freedom in many aspects of one’s personal life, but favoring government control over one’s economic life.
Skeptics and secular humanists share with rational individualists a general commitment to reason as the source of knowledge and as the guide to our choices and actions. At its best, TAM-4 highlighted efforts by some entertainers—Randi, Penn and Teller, the Mythbusters—to become popular teachers of basic epistemology. We can only take heart from these efforts.
But skeptics and humanists still need to apply reason more consistently, especially to questions of ethics and politics. If, for example, they are to appreciate the threat to the individual caused by state regulation of economic affairs, they must understand more fully and consistently that the foundation of political liberty lies in the ethics of rational self-interest.
It might not yet be time for skeptics, humanists, and rational individualists to work closely together as allies on all fronts. But judging from what I saw at this conference, there is a growing community of understanding and values among these groups that should be fostered and encouraged, and which, in the end, could benefit all thinking, skeptical individuals.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.
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