Skepticism and Conspiracy

In a post about valid skepticism, Troy David Loy (Troythulu) takes up the issue of conspiracy theories. He was responding to a 2011 post by Steven Novella or rather the comment section. Novella seeks to differentiate between skepticism and cynicism, and he does so by way of the problems of conspiracy theory, what he refers to as conspiracy mongering.

The specific conspiracy theory he uses is of no interest to me, but there are many reasons this topic resonates. Skepticism is all the more important and all the more difficult in a paranoid society, which is inevitable under conditions of fear and anxiety as is found with high inequality and segregation. Even the conspiracy denialists easily end up being paranoid in seeing conspiracy theories everywhere, as if the conspiracy theorists are out to get them, out to destroy their rational world of truth. And no doubt there are destructive along with self-destructive elements in the United States, the paranoia often being justified. It is paranoia all around, paranoia reacting to paranoia (such as the two main parties bickering back and forth about the conspiracy theories involving the FBI, Russia, etc that each prefers in attacking the other side). It’s amusing. Frustrating at times, but amusing.

Let me dig in. Loy writes that, “one of the commenters [Starting Here] tries very hard to prove the very thesis of cynicism the post addresses in a classic and blatant display of the Dunning-Kruger effect, by conspiracy mongering, in dishonestly ignoring or dismissing all counterarguments, attempting to assert intellectual superiority by evading questions and repeating the same talking points using glaring errors in reasoning apparent to nearly everyone else in the thread, and especially obvious to Dr. Novella.”

Maybe so or maybe not. I have little motivation to get involved in that particular debate. It doesn’t seem all that meaningful what happened to Osama bin Laden’s body or the reasons behind it. I just don’t care. Even if there was a conspiracy involved, there are so many more important conspiracies to consider, specifically proven conspiracies. Besides, I would point out that this problem goes both ways. And the two sides feed into each other. No one can doubt that there is conspiracy mongering. But as or more common is conspiracy denialism. Besides, it appears that, in the comment section, there never was an agreement on what was the fundamental issue being debated and so no clear way of determining who ‘won’ the debate.

Anyway, not all conspiracies are mere theories, something I assume both sides would agree upon, the point of disagreement being how common and how well hidden. “I believe in facts about conspiracies,” Julian Assange explained and with insightful common sense added that, “Any time people with power plan in secret, they are conducting a conspiracy. So there are conspiracies everywhere. There are also crazed conspiracy theories. It’s important not to confuse these two. Generally, when there’s enough facts about a conspiracy we simply call this news. . . I’m constantly annoyed that people are distracted by false conspiracies such as 9/11, when all around we provide evidence of real conspiracies, for war or mass financial fraud.” The problem is the conspiracy mongers and conspiracy denialists are fond of obsessing over the extreme possibilities while ignoring what is right in front of their faces, although that could simply the nature of any ideological debate that polarizes people.

The thousands of known and surely thousands more unknown covert operations the US has committed were, by definition, conspiracies and many of them, before being proven as conspiracy facts, were dismissed as conspiracy theories. Every time a corporation from big tobacco to big oil hid information (including their own scientific research, as happened over a period of decades) from the government and the public, it was a conspiracy. The three biggest recent sex scandals (Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and now Sean Hutchison) involved numerous people covering up the abuse also over a period of decades, often involving institutions and large numbers of complicit actors, even to the point of involving direct efforts to shut down investigations (reminiscent of the Catholic sex abuse cases that might have involved thousands of victims, victimizers, co-conspirators, and colluding authority figures across numerous churches, communities, and countries over a period of generations, probably centuries, and yet the Vatican was able to successfully conspire in keeping it hushed up).

This form of conspiracy, favored by the Vatican and corporations alike, can even take advantage of the legal system to enforce secrecy — as explained by Eviatar Zerubavel:

“Needless to say, although victims certainly benefit from them financially and sometimes also reputationally, it is almost always the perpetrators of those wrongdoings who “insist on inserting confidentiality clauses in [secret] settlements— never the victims.” 27 Furthermore, the fact that the very existence of those settlements is often kept secret actually allows such wrongdoing to continue! Such secrecy implicitly empowers repeat offenders by sanctioning the isolation of their victims from one another, victims who are often unaware that those perpetrators have previously been accused of similar offenses: “The main loser in secret settlements is the public. Consumers are deprived of information they need to protect themselves from unsafe products. Workers are kept in the dark about unsafe working conditions … In 1933 the Johns Manville company settled a lawsuit by 11 employees who had been made sick by asbestos. If that settlement had not been kept secret for 45 years, thousands of other workers might not have contracted respiratory diseases.” 28 Similarly, when such settlements are used, for example, to protect a pedophile priest, his victims are unlikely to know that they are part of a larger general pattern of abuse. Instead, believing that they are alone, they view their own victimization as highly idiosyncratic and may even blame themselves in part for what happened.” (The Elephant in the Room, pp. 42-43)

He followed that up with two quotes from articles on the topic:

“One of the most troubling … aspects of the child sexual abuse scandal now roiling the Roman Catholic Church is the enabling role played by the court system. In case after case, judges have signed off on secret settlements of child-molestation suits, freeing the offending priests to molest again … One Boston judge who sealed court records in a priest molestation case [said] that she might not have done so “if I had been aware of how widespread this issue was.” It was, of course, rulings like hers … that helped hide just how big a problem sex abuse was in the church.”
~Ending Legal Secrecy

“[T]here is palpable unease … about the cumulative effect of so many secret agreements. “I’m ashamed I took their money now,” said Raymond P. Sinibaldi, who won a settlement from the church in 1995 after allegedly being abused by a priest … “I should have … filed a lawsuit and called a press conference to announce it. If we had done that, this problem would have been exposed long ago.””
~Walter V. Robinson, Scores of priests involved in sex abuse cases

It is through entirely legal maneuvers that conspiracies can be covered up or rather the conspiring to cover up itself is the conspiracy. But this doesn’t exclude the use of extralegal, whether or not explicitly illegal, means as well (e.g., Harvey Weinstein hiring former intelligence agents to shut down news stories about his sex abuse). A combination of tactics can allow multiple generations to be victimized while keeping the victims silenced and isolated. It’s a good example of how money is power and how far that power can extend.

Sadly, these kinds of cases happen all the time. We are constantly surrounded by conspiracies. And the ignorance among the public, both in terms of mongering and denialism, is itself pervasive. The ignorance of the other side is no proof of one’s own truth claims. In any given debate, it very well might be that both sides are wrong or else that each side only has part of the truth. Conspiracy theories, in particular, need to be taken on a case by case basis.

I could list dozens of horrendous US covert operations that most Americans still don’t know about and, assuming they would even acknowledge it, would shock them. The human experimentation tests by the US government alone are numerous, including cases where radioactive or poisonous material was spread over US populations. More well known are MKUltra and Tuskegee syphilis experiment, but other example could be included. This is the kind of thing that most Americans at the time and many Americans still today have a hard time believing their own government would do… and yet, in many cases, the government has admitted to them and released documents proving it, albeit sometimes so long after the fact that the key actors are dead.

A great example of a known conspiracy is the CIA orchestration of the 1953 Iranaian coup that was finally proven last year from a declassified document, after more than a half century of conspiracy theories about it. Another example was the assassination of Fred Hampton by local police in cahoots with the FBI, Hampton having been intentionally drugged by an informer right before the raid so that Hampton could be shot in his sleep, a blatant assassination that has yet to be officially acknowledged. One of the darker examples is the CIA involvement in drug trafficking which, when one tenacious journalist tried to reveal it, led to his career being destroyed and contributed to his suicide (discussed further down).

Maybe more disturbing would be such things as FBI’s COINTELPRO (part of a long history of Red Squads; the letter to MLK being a standard tactic similarly used against Black Panthers), CIA’s Operation Mockingbird (only declassified in 2007), CIA’s Operation CHAOS (related to other projects from the Office of Security: Project MERRIMAC, Project 2, Project RESISTANCE, etc; similar to work done by COINTELPRO in targeting domestic individuals and groups), and CIA-related Congress for Cultural Freedom (maybe the largest propaganda program in US history). To push a right-winger into full paranoia, just mention the fact that some Ivy League professors from the past have since been outed as spy masters who worked to promote propagandistic American studies and recruit students as new agents while creating lists of activists and dissenters, not to mention various US citizens in the arts and media (including journalists) who were on the payroll of the CIA.

Certainly, during the Cold War, few were aware what was going on and the corporate media rarely investigated it because that would have been upatriotic and unAmerican. My parents were in college during the height of this activity and they were completely oblivious because, as conspiracies go, they were highly successful operations. They didn’t become public knowledge until recent history. Most Americans alive during that time are still ignorant of those conspiracies and most of the conspirators have taken their secrets to the grave. Similarly, few people know what covert operations the FBI and CIA are involved in these days, although COINTELPRO-style practices have reemerged with the War on Terror such as entrapment being used to incite mentally unstable people toward planning terrorist acts.

Many argue that conspiracies can’t happen because someone will always speak or somehow find out, such as the heroic investigative journalists portrayed in Hollywood movies. That occasionally happens, but not very often. It’s a romantic vision of a fully functioning democratic society, which is to say it is a fantasy, a popular genre in America.

As an interesting twist, conspiracy theories themselves have been used as political weapons. During the Cold War, it wasn’t only common for major governments like the US to be involved in conspiracies. They also would sometimes invent and promote conspiracy theories for various agendas, as part of disinformation campaigns. This could be useful to create doubt, mistrust, paranoia, and outrage in targeted populations. Or else it was used to muddy the water, maybe even to help hide or distract from actual conspiracies. So, sometimes there are real conspiracies behind the conspiring to spread fake conspiracy theories, a tangle of conspiracy actions and theories.

Russia recently conspired to push conspiracy theories along with fake news on social media in order to agitate and divide the American public, along with at times simultaneously promoting rallies and counter-rallies in the same cities. The US has a long history of doing similar things in other countries and maybe in the US as well (it’s not always clear what many known domestic programs and projects were intended to accomplish and to what degree they were successful). Corporations also get involved in this kind of thing such as using front groups and astroturf, as has been well documented typically by way of investigative journalism done in alternative media (a recent example is that of drug companies bribing patient groups with millions of dollars to push opioids).

We are all being manipulated in various ways. It doesn’t take a paranoiac to realize this. Kathryn S. Olmstead, a history professor at UC Davis, concluded that (Real Enemies, pp. 239-240, 2011):

“Citizens of a democracy must be wary of official and alternative conspiracists alike, demanding proof for the theories. Yet Americans should be most skeptical of official theorists, because the most dangerous conspiracies and conspiracy theories flow from the center of American government, not from the margins of society.

“Since the First World War, officials of the U.S. government have encouraged conspiracy theories, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. They have engaged in conspiracies and used the cloak of national security to hide their actions from the American people. With cool calculation, they have promoted official conspiracy theories, sometimes demonstrably false ones, for their own purposes. They have assaulted civil liberties by spying on their domestic enemies. If antigovernment conspiracy theorists get the details wrong—and they often do—they get the basic issue right: it is the secret actions of the government that are the real enemies of democracy.”

A lot of weird stuff happened over the past century and, as conspiracies are rarely discovered in real time, surely is still going on. No doubt about that. Sometimes, there is good reason behind paranoia. That is the problem. When there is a long history of lies and disinfo, obfuscation and propaganda, it becomes difficult to know the truth and trust claims of truth. And once paranoia has taken hold of a society, it can make public debate almost impossible. That can be seen with recent leaks that showed how closely some in the media were working with political party leaders, going so far as not only to give them debate questions but also to allow them to edit articles before publishing. And without these leaks, we probably never would have learned about any of this

This leaves many of us in a paranoid state of not knowing what hasn’t yet been leaked and may never be leaked, just an occasional peek behind the grand wizard’s curtain. But if such leaked info doesn’t make you paranoid, then maybe you’re not paying attention or you’ve grown cynical, apathetic, and indifferent . The question is what to do with that info once we have it. It would be one thing if this was limited to the fantasies of conspiracy theorists. That isn’t the case, though. Various documents, released and leaked, and various investigations have shown how common are conspiracies in diverse institutions within our society. It is almost a full time job trying to keep up with it all.

There is some press that has helped to uncover this info, but we would know a lot less if not for the rare brave souls who succeed, with everything against them, to force the truth into the light. It’s probably safe to assume that even these leaks barely scratch the surface of what goes on… or at least there is no rational reason to assume the opposite. Of course, that doesn’t justify conspiracy mongering, especially as taken advantage of by right-wing pundits and demagogues. Yet neither does it warrant uninformed and thoughtless dismissals.

If you wait long enough, a few of the worst conspiracies might eventually be exposed — partly because the top secret documents, unless destroyed, sometimes come out one way or another, not always and maybe not usually but sometimes. The problem isn’t that there is a total lack of a free press, but corporate media has as a main motivation to make profit. Having a press that is theoretically free to report the truth is not the same thing as their possessing a moral and legal responsibility, much less a self-interested incentive, to report the truth since the freedom to seek profit is overarching. In the end, there is little profit in exposing dark secrets and ugly truths that will anger powerful actors who can derail your career and do you much wore harm, that is unprofitable other than as superficial infotainment portrayed in a way to not be taken seriously.

In passive complicity, most news reporters simply quote the official statements of governments and corporations. Hard-hitting investigative journalism is rare because it is difficult and expensive, not to mention it might repel certain advertisers who don’t want to be associated with it for various reasons, along with strings being pulled behind the scenes. This leads most news reporting to be safe and bland, the profitable middle ground between competing forces.

No far-fetched speculation is required to explain this. Still, one should keep in mind that most of corporate media has become consolidated into a handful of transnational mega-corporations. These have direct corporate links to other areas, such as their parent companies also owning highly profitable energy and defense corporations, not to mention how these corporation fund various think tanks, lobbyist groups, etc that have have direct ties to politicians and political parties (involving revolving doors where politicians are bribed with lucrative lobbyist positions and corporate hack engineer regulatory capture). Talk about an extreme and blatant conflict of interest, similar to the police investigating the police which unsurprisingly leads to few police ever being prosecuted. By the way, it should be noted that the defense industry is both heavily government-funded often by no-bid contracts and represents the single largest sector of the economy. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to acknowledge that humans are easily influenced by the incentives, connections, relationships, and life experiences that shape their personal and professional worldviews.

There are many vested interests involved that slant attitudes and actions without need of overt and intentional conspiracy, much of the influence would happen unconsciously and by way of social pressure (especially among peers and close associates), as the desire to fit in is powerful. Also, people in positions of power and authority, both in the public and private sector, tend to live in the same world and to share the same social circles, even living in the same neighborhoods, going to the same churches, sending their kids to the same schools. This biases their thinking, no different than it does for any other group of people. People conspire all the time, often without thinking about it that way, simply because they share the same biases and have an incentive to promote a shared worldview toward shared interests, agendas, and goals.

Most people are simply trying to accomplish what is important to them and don’t always stop to consider how it could be perceived by outsiders. Richard Nixon, for all his own tendencies toward conspiracies and conspiracy theorizing, showed little evidence of being self-aware enough to see clearly his own behavior and actions. Those in positions of power and authority are fallible humans like the rest of us — some might argue even more infallible in how, as studies have shown, those in the upper class have less ability to correctly read the emotions of others and how the highly educated have higher rates of smart idiot effect.

Uncomfortable knowledge doesn’t always get acknowledged easily, even when there are a few journalists investigating it. Consider Gary Webb who, in trying to expose the CIA conspiracy of drug trafficking, was attacked by other journalists working in the mainstream media and his life was made into a living hell. He dared to speak truth to power and that doesn’t always lead to someone being celebrated as heroic. Some of those who attacked him apologized later on after it was proven he was right, but such vindication was too late since he was already dead. It requires immense naivete to believe investigative journalism is easy and that it doesn’t take much effort to prove a conspiracy within mainstream debate.

Ryan Devereaux wrote:

“Looking back on the weeks immediately following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” the document offers a unique window into the CIA’s internal reaction to what it called “a genuine public relations crisis” while revealing just how little the agency ultimately had to do to swiftly extinguish the public outcry. Thanks in part to what author Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer at the time of publication, describes as “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists,” the CIA’s Public Affairs officers watched with relief as the largest newspapers in the country rescued the agency from disaster, and, in the process, destroyed the reputation of an aggressive, award-winning reporter.”

And Ryan Grim wrote:

“It did not end well for Webb, however. Major media, led by The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, worked to discredit his story. Under intense pressure, Webb’s top editor abandoned him. Webb was drummed out of journalism. One LA Times reporter recently apologized for his leading role in the assault on Webb, but it came too late. Webb died in 2004 from an apparent suicide. Obituaries referred to his investigation as “discredited.””

Or consider the more recent situation of the Iraq War. Studies have since shown that the Bush administration told 935 proven lies in the run-up to the war. Many in the intelligence agencies, as later was shown, knew these were lies and remained silent. Even when some documents got released to news organizations, the reporting was minimal and superficial. Some reporting was even delayed without explanation or in particular cases, as has since been revealed, at the behest of the government. Whether or not you think of this as conspiracy, it clearly indicates various levels of complicity. There was a push for war and high pressure to justify it.

Jon Schwarz brought up that, “This lie should have been easily caught by the U.S. media, given Kamel’s 1995 CNN interview. Moreover, there were public documents sitting on the IAEA website stating the Kamel had told the agency “all nuclear weapons related activities had effectively ceased” in 1991″ (Trump is Right, Bush Lied). And Robin Andersen writes “one of the most curious media failures regarding coverage of the war in Iraq, about a secret meeting finally brought to the light of day, but not by US media” (Bush, Blair and the Lies That Justified the Illegal Iraq War). Andersen notes that even some media figures admitted that it was extremely odd that this was being ommitted from reporting with one of them, CNN’s Jackie Schechner, observing that it wasn’t for lack of interest as was well covered in the blogosphere. At around the same time, “Washington Post ombud Michael Getler noted that readers had complained about the lack of coverage, though no explanation for the omission was offered.”

The typical American doesn’t look to the blogosphere for breaking news about info involving world-shattering invents such as a war that has led to millions of dead innocents and trillions of dollars of costs. The mainstream (corporate) media remains the primary source of media consumption, but even when readers complained about this the media silence continued. It was far from being a single failure of media. Andersen goes on to write that, “At this point, another opportunity presented itself for thorough coverage of the British documents, yet the American media again missed a chance to expose the falsities that led to war and correct the historical record. The delayed coverage of the memo that finally “burst into the White House” reveals the current complexities of media failures. With the Iraq invasion, we see the reinvention of a war’s history even before it has ended.” But not all of the media was like this. In When Media Goes to War, Anthony DiMaggio makes a useful comparison (p. 41):

“[B]oth the New York Times and Independent closely quote politicians commensurate with their percentage of seats in government. In the United States, the New York Times made significant efforts to split coverage evenly between Democratic and Republican sources, while devoting little attention to antiwar protestors. Similarly, the Independent molds it reporting to reflect the power distribution among the United Kingdom’s three major parties. However, the Independent is twice as likely to quote antiwar protestors than the New York Times, suggesting that the British coverage is less reliant on official sources in dissenting against the war.”

This slanted reporting happened in complete opposition to the largest protest movement in world history and in opposition to the majority of Americans that initially opposed the war (the majority only shifting after near unanimous promotion by the corporate media). The New York Times is as mainstream as it gets in US media. And whatever one may think of it, one is forced to admit that there has never been an opportunity lost by the New York Times to beat the war drum, no matter which party controls Congress and the presidency. The reason even the supposed liberal corporate media has so often been war hungry is a question one must ask, even if one denies all possibility of political conspiracy and corporate conflict of interests. The silence among many in not asking about this speaks volumes.

About influence from above, David Dadge explored how corporate media can be made to fall in line with official doctrine or at least to not speak out against it too loudly (The War in Iraq and why the Media Failed Us, p. 146):

“On the internet, Yellowtimes.org was briefly closed down by its Internet Service Provider (ISP) for showing pictures of American fatalities and there were pressures on Hollywood stars such as Martin Sheen who vigorously protested against the war. Perhaps the worst decision made by a broadcaster was CBS’s decision to hold back on the publication of pictures showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers. The decision came after the Pentagon warned the broadcaster that such pictures might inflame tensions in Iraq. Given the importance of the story, CBS’s decision was a blatant disregard for objective and independent news reporting.

“While many of these censorious acts were at arm’s length from the government, it is hard not to see them as part of the environment created by the Bush administration. These acts point to a subtle manipulation of the media environment by calling on the public’s patriotism and making commercial enterprises extremely nervous about the impact of unpopular dissent on share prices. The comments by the Bush administration also encouraged a strong conservative media that channeled the public’s displeasure at dissent and unleashed it on the media. As a result, in late 2002 and early 2003, journalists began to feel extremely uncomfortable about taking on the Bush administration.

“The manipulation of the media environment, therefore, contained three vital elements: comments by senior administration officials showing that dissent is unpatriotic; mobilization of the public”s support for those comments; and pressure on journalists from other elements of the media and private commerce to support the administration’s actions. However, adding to these pressures, and perhaps for the first time in the history of the United States, the Bush administration also sharply questioned the media’s role within American society: a tactical decision that further damaged the media’s ability to challenge the government.

“President Bush’s admission to a journalist that he disputes the idea that the media reflects what the public is thinking is prejudicial to the media’s role. Although it is not necessarily wrong to confront the media’s own assumptions about itself, when this comment is seen in conjunction with the comments of other senior Bush administration officials, such as Andrew Card, who is on record as saying he does not believe the media have a check and balance function, it is disturbing. Accepting these comments at face value, it would appear that before and during the Iraq war the Bush administration either sought to use the mainstream media as an information delivery system or simply bypassed them altogether.”

Much of the corporate media has since then offered better reporting as the Iraq War winds down, some journalists even having admitted failure in not challenging the Bush administration, but it’s always easy to see more clearly years later when the fear of dissent has lessened. It reminds me of the corporate media’s failure to fully and honestly report on the stolen 2000 election and the peculiarities of the 2004 election (a conspiracy of silence about the conspiracy itself, based on equal parts open secret and willful ignorance), except the difference being that I’ve yet to hear anyone apologize for this failure. Am I a ‘conspiracy monger’ because my views don’t fall in line with the mainstream narrative fed to the American public by the bipartisan system of power and the plutocratic-owned corporate media?

(See also: News Incorporated ed. by Elliot D. Cohen, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda by Anthony R. Dimaggio, Constructing America’s War Culture ed. by Thomas J. Conroy & Jarice Hanson,  Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy by Douglas Kellner, Whitewashing War  by Christopher R. Leahey, Anatomy of Deceit by Marcy Wheeler, When the Press Fails by W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence & Steven Livingston; the kind of books including serious scholarship typically ignored by the conspiracy denialists.)

That is how oppressive groupthink operates, under conditions of national duress exploited by psychopathic and authoritarian power mongers. Social science studies have shown how people become increasingly conservative-minded during times of fear, anxiety, and stress. One study showed that liberals who early on saw repeated footage of the 9/11 attacks were more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror than those who heard about it over the radio (and one might consider that almost anyone working in media would be included in that group of repeated video watchers on 9/11). Many Americans, including within the media, suddenly became uber-patriotic and dissent wasn’t tolerated.

Does anyone remember how oppressive the public atmosphere became during that time? Major media figures were fired for having politically incorrect views in opposing war. Matt Taibbi pointed out that presently “people like Chris Matthews are giving people a hard time about their positions on Iraq. Where was MSNBC on Iraq back in the day? I mean, they were letting go of people like Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura for having, you know, unpatriotic positions on the Iraq War. Everybody was in on this thing, except for maybe this program and a few other scattered journalists.”

Plus, there has been endless studies showing a wide variety of biases in media, which is part and parcel of the whole manufacturing of consent (with or without any intended conspiracy, as manufacturing consent simply requires a systemic shutting down of debate by how the forum of debate is structured). Even without these biases being proof of conspiracy, it is because of these biases that conspiracies so often can fly under the radar, sometimes for decades, as official narratives too often go unchallenged (e.g., the myths surrounding the Vietnam War). How many journalists are there who are actually brave enough to go through the potentially the career-destroying despair that Gary Webb experienced? Probably not many.

I’m in no way of supporting conspiracy mongers. But I’m well enough informed about proven conspiracies to not fall into the equally ignorant trap of denialism. I’m an agnostic about such things. I don’t affirm or deny what I don’t know, even as I do base my opinions on the evidence and patterns seen in past known cases. If there isn’t always a conspiracy of politics and power, there is most definitely a conspiracy of ignorance in American society (e.g., the propaganda wars over school textbooks). I’m all for skepticism, but skepticism is only as good as the knowledge it is based on and the public debate within which it operates. How many self-identified skeptics of conspiracy theories could honestly claim to be widely read and well informed about the US history of proven conspiracies? What do we do if the Dunning-Kruger effect applies equally to many on both sides of the debate?

In Novella’s comment section, someone going by the username rezistnzisfutl says that, “We all know that there’s funny business that goes on with the government. The same can be said really about any organization out there. I think the point of this article is that skeptics hold out for evidence for whatever is being claimed, while cynics will often assume a lot whether there’s evidence or not. It’s not to say that cynics are necessarily wrong, but typically for skeptics, disbelief or withholding of judgment is the default position until actual legitimate evidence is presented for a claim.” Demonstrating confused thought, he goes on to say that, “It’s more likely that news outlets are more interested in ratings and advertising dollars, than being the lapdogs of the government or corporations.” He is talking as if news outlets were not also corporations, which indicates a bizarre if maybe common psychological disconnect.

He then throws out what he considers to be a clincher: “There are many competing news organization and independent news sources that would jump at the opportunity to blow conspiracies wide open given the chance, if actual evidence of these things surfaced. Those kinds of things would make fortunes and put small orgs on the map.” In that case, show me the immense wealth that Gary Webb accrued. Show me the high life of luxury exhibited by Julia Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, etc. Or show me the fortune made by Raymond Lemme who mysteriously died in investigating the 2000 election in Florida.

In discussing that last one among much else, I offered this thought: “I don’t know what to do with this kind of thing. To most people, this is the territory of conspiracy theorists, ya know crazy paranoiacs. It should, therefore, be dismissed from thought and banished from public debate. The problem is that I’m psychologically incapable of ignoring inconvenient and uncomfortable facts. Call it depressive realism. I just can’t turn away, as if it doesn’t matter.”

Amusingly, the two sides in that comment section debate mostly seem to be talking past one another. On the otherhand, I saw good points made on both sides. In the end, the most reasonable conclusion was made by someone with the username Kobra — he simply stated that, “This conversation is moot because you cannot translate the scientific skeptical model into other domains, like business, or politics.” What does skepticism mean toward systems of power that seek to manipulate our beliefs and doubts about what is true, not to mention ideological and cultural worldviews that bias our thoughts and experiences at fundamental levels of our being?

Both sides assume they are the rational skeptics and those on the other side are the irrational fools. But in being intellectually humble, how do you prove you aren’t the one being an irrational fool or simply misinformed and misguided? How can you know what you don’t know, know that what you think you know isn’t false or partial, and know that there isn’t something else you really should know? We should be skeptical toward skepticism itself.

* * *

3/1/18 – Further thought:

There is one thought that kept bugging me. People assume that conspiracy means total secrecy. In a simplistic sense it does, as conspiracies begin in secrecy. But they don’t always remain in secrecy, not entirely. Conspiracies can continue and be successful even when they are open secrets.

An example of this is the dark money that runs American society. There has been some good investigative reporting on it, published in scholarly books and in the alternative media. Dark Money by Jane Mayer is one example. Another one is Buzzfeed’s in-depth report on how the Koch brothers and Mercer family funneled money to Steve Bannon, Breitbart News, Project Veritas, etc. Both of these probably only scratched the surface of what goes on behind the scenes, as they are just two examples among many.

Typically, such revelations are only briefly reported on in the mainstream news and once again are lost in silence or lost amidst the most recent spectacle in the news cycle. The majority of Americans probably never read about any of it or, if they did, they have forgotten about it. This is how open secrets operate. Most people don’t know and don’t want to know. The number of Americans that follow the news closely is small. Among those who do pay attention, fewer still want to consider any of it in terms of conspiracy. It’s easier to assume that these are exceptions to the norm, just a few bad apples and not an indicator of a larger pattern of wrongdoing.

So, after some partial and momentary exposure, the powerful plutocrats go back to their scheming and nothing changes. The Kochs and Mercers of the world surely have numerous conspiracies going on with money being funneled into all sorts of shell companies, front groups, astroturf, media operations, etc. If you pay attention much to right-wing ‘alternative’ media, you’ll notice how when certain articles come out they will simultaneously appear on dozens of websites and most of those websites, likely all backed with the same funding sources, seem to serve no other purpose than to promote such pieces into newsfeeds, social media, and web search results. Certainly, there is an agenda behind it all.

The conspiratorial attempts to manipulate and influence us are common and mostly it happens in the background. This isn’t some grand insight and doesn’t require much in the way of paranoia, just ordinary awareness of the larger world and a willingness to pay attention. But that is the key issue. Most ignorance on this matter is willful. It’s simply depressing to think about. That is how even government conspiracies that are proven through leaks and admissions rarely break into public awareness and become a permanent part of public knowledge. I mentioned some of them in this post. Those who lived during the period of those major conspiracies didn’t know about them while they were happening and most still don’t know.

The fact of the matter is that most people don’t want to know, which makes it easy for those with devious intentions. As a society, we never seem to learn because the process of becoming better informed can be quite demoralizing. We’d prefer to not think that we live in a society where bad things regularly happen. That is understandable, but that attitude is why bad people are so often able to get away without consequences. Of all the proven conspiracies I’ve mentioned, very few people involved were ever held accountable in legal terms or on a personal level. Without consequences, there is no deterrence.

Instead, most people go on denying that conspiracies happen. Only crazy people think that way.

* * *

From an earlier post:
Conspiracy Theory And Fact

We have voluminous official documentation and other evidence about conspiracies that weren’t known while they were happening, often only becoming verified decades later. Even when evidence shows the official story doesn’t make sense, any alternative explanation is a conspiracy theory by default, until some damning evidence finally comes forth. But even deathbed confessions by insiders (spymasters, covert operation agents, etc) are regularly dismissed for the type of people who get involved in conspiracies are those with reputations of secrecy and deceit.

Probably most of what militaries, alphabet soup agencies, organized crime, corporations, etc does in secret never comes to light. Conspiracies, if successful, are designed to be hard to prove with few paper trails and a surfeit of plausible deniability.

I’m not sure why anyone should find this surprising. It’s not hard to keep a secret, when all involved have a vested interest to keep it secret or who, like soldiers, are trained to be subservient by maintaining silence. Conspirators, in particular, are legally complicit and so have little motive to admit anything. If all else fails, there are endless means to keep people silent, from blackmail to assassinating them (when one pays attention, one finds an amazingly improbable number of alleged conspirators, subpoenaed witnesses, and investigators who end up dying by mysterious accidents and unforeseen suicides).

Take something like the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident—if not a proven false flag operation, then at least a conspiracy to hide the truth. Far from being a minor incident, it justified the US entering into the Vietnam War. It just so happens that those in power had been in the process of looking for an excuse to officially declare war, although illegal covert military operations had been going on for a while. Anyway, it turns out that parts of the official account never happened or not the way it was officially stated, but evidence didn’t finally come out in mainstream reporting until after the war was already over an government documents were only declassified in 2005.

That was decades later! And that was a situation with multiple naval ships and naval crews from multiple countries, and so involved numerous potential eye witnesses. Declassified records show that even US Senators at the time knew the official story was false. Certainly, officials in the other involved governments also had information about what actually happened and didn’t happen. Few conspiracies have ever involved so many.

The Gulf of Tonkin is not much different than the WMDs that got us into the Iraq War. Even the CIA didn’t believe Iraq had WMDs (not unlike when the CIA knew that the Soviet Union posed no threat when politicians were pushing to start the Cold War and not unlike when the CIA knew John F. Kennedy was lying during his presidential campaign about the weaponry the Soviet Union possessed, both incidents of CIA collusion by inaction not known until long after the historical era had passed). Besides, those in the Bush administration knew they were misleading the public in connecting Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 terrorists. It was a conspiracy and one that operated right out in the open, for those who had eyes to see. All it took was a servile mainstream media and a submissive public. Too many people don’t want to know the truth, even when the truth is obvious. That is what can make conspiracies so easy to commit. Most people want to believe whatever they’re told, especially when the person telling it to them is an authority figure.

It’s the same reason the Vatican was able to hush up the sex abuse for decades, as most people simply don’t want to talk about it, what is called a conspiracy of silence. Netflix’s documentary “The Keepers” focuses on a Catholic school where this happened. It goes into great detail about how an offender could sexually abuse so many children while so many people around him remained oblivious or else refused to see. Even most of the victims never talked about it and the few that did were ignored. The one person, a nun, who seriously challenged the conspiracy of silence apparently was murdered. And more damning, there is strong evidence the police were involved in shutting down investigations, because the priest who was molesting children had family ties.

The documentary finally managed to put the pieces together almost a half century later. That is praise for this one tenacious investigator, but it is hardly evidence of a fully functioning free press that it took so long for the depravity of it to be revealed. So, don’t feed me any bullshit about there being no way conspiracies can be kept secret.

Consider another example from the private sector. Recent investigative reporting from an alternative media organization (Inside Climate News) found that Exxon and other major oil/gas corporations knew about man-made climate change since the 1970s.

Numerous people in these corporations, from scientists to upper management, were aware of this knowledge. There were even internal documents showing this knowledge. This was and is a problem that not only has threatened the earth’s biosphere and global population but has also been a national threat to powerful countries like the US. Yet a successful campaign of lies, obfuscation, and disinformation (involving not just PR but also powerful political lobbyist organizations, think tanks, and front groups) lasted for decades apparently without any of the conspirators coming forward to speak out about the conspiracy or, if they did, it never received much MSM news coverage.

According to some, conspiracies like this are highly implausible. Yet these particular implausible conspiracies have been proven true. Conspiracy theorists jumped on the Tonkin story early on as they noticed the unexplained discrepancies. And for a long time many have written about the tactics of oil/gas corporations. But until documents are released or discovered conspiracy theories can be almost impossible to prove as conspiracy facts. The problem is that documents usually only come out after massive private investigation has already indicated conspiracy and long after any involved could be held accountable. Overwhelming proof can take a generation or generations to accumulate. Even so, most of what governments and corporations do in secret is never disclosed by those responsible, as the wealthy and powerful have little incentive do so. The government alone has mountains of top secret documents, only a fraction of which have ever been made public by way of leaks or freedom of information requests.

* * *

Let me finish this post by taking it into a different direction. What makes a conspiracy possible? It’s not just secrecy and corruption but what these represent. It is a culture of distrust dependent on a culture of silence and hence a conspiracy of silence. In this mix, individual and collective shame, fear, and outrage drive a cycle of victimization.

In discussing the Tulsa race war, James S. Hirsch says that speaking of “a “culture of silence” would have been more appropriate than a “conspiracy of silence”” (Riot and Remembrance, p.326). Conspiracies would never happen without silence. As Tim Madigan put it, a “culture of silence” breeds “cultural amnesia” (The Burning). And if you don’t understand the power of silence, it is understandable that conspiracies will seem absurd or else highly improbable.

I would add that this is far from being ancient history nor limited to a single place. There has been a collective amnesia about racial issues all across our society. My grandmother grew up near Tulsa when the race war happened, she spent her young adulthood in a Klan center, and then she eventually moved her own family including my father into a sundown town — yet my father doesn’t recall any discussions in his family about race and racism, a refusal to speak in one generation creating ignorance in the next, a complete silencing such that my father would also move his family to a sundown community with total unawareness, probably because on an unconscious level it felt comfortable to him.

This relates to what some, myself included, refer to as “the perplexing issue of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The study of ignorance, agnotology, would also be the study of what is hidden, both to public and private awareness. All of this connects to ideas I first came across in the writings of Derrick Jensen, ideas about the victimization cycle, silencing, dissociation, splitting, doubling, etc.”

This is where social science and historical scholarship would aid skeptics in better understanding the world around them — linked to why Kobra was correct in saying that, “This conversation is moot because you cannot translate the scientific skeptical model into other domains, like business, or politics.” The skeptical attitude we need has to go much deeper into what it means to be human, specifically in the kind of society we find ourselves in.

It could be argued that the heart of the issue is shame. Whether or not a conspiracy originates in shame, it creates the conditions for shame which further entrenches the conspiratorial mindset of distrust, fear, and anxiety. And shame has immense power in silencing victmizers and victims alike. That is what happens where trauma ripples outward, leaving silence in its wake. In communities that have experienced some collective trauma, there is a resistance to speaking that will be enforced by social pressure, if not by law. This has been seen in cities that have experienced racial violence, sometimes with the victims expelled from the community as in sundown towns and sometimes with public records expunged of evidence. This can leave a mere residue of the event(s) that occurred, often a mere absence rather than a presence such as all or nearly all of the black population disappearing from one census to the next, but when asked about it few if anyone remembers or will talk. Tulsa was a rare case in eventually having been formally investigated, although not until 1997 which was more than three quarters of a century later.

For whatever reason, the 1990s was the time when the multi-generational shadow of a conspiracy of silence began to lift, the time period in which James W. Loewen wrote his groundbreaking book on sundown towns. Having attended high school in the 1990s, it wasn’t until recent years that I learned that one of the places I grew up in was a sundown suburb, but of course no one talked about it at the time.

The conspiracy of silence can operate in an odd way. It’s a sense of collective guilt, whether or not anyone was actually guilty. Loewen spoke of how, “Recent events in Martinsville, Indiana, provide an eerie example of cognitive dissonance at work” (Sundown Towns, p. 327). It was a known sundown town when a black woman, having transgressed the sundown code of getting out of town before the sun sets, was murdered in 1968: “So most people (correctly) assumed the motive to be rage at Jenkins as a black person for being in the city after dark,” wrote Loewen, continuing that:

“In the aftermath of the murder, NAACP leaders and reporters from outside the town levied criticism at the city’s police department, alleging lack of interest in solving the crime. Martinsville residents responded by appearing to define the situation as “us” against “them,” “them” being outsiders and nonwhites. The community seemed to close ranks behind the murderer and refused to turn him in, whoever he was. “The town became a clam,” said an Indianapolis newspaper reporter.65 Now Martinsville came to see itself not just as a sundown town—it already defined itself as that—but as a community that united in silence to protect the murderer of a black woman who had innocently violated its sundown taboo. To justify this behavior required still more extreme racism, which in turn prompted additional racist behaviors and thus festered further. […]

“Ironically, it turned out that no one from Martinsville murdered Carol Jenkins. On May 8, 2002, police arrested Kenneth Richmond, a 70-year-old who had never lived in Martinsville, based on the eyewitness account of his daughter, who sat in his car and watched while he did it when she was seven years old. Although many people inside as well as outside Martinsville believed its residents had been sheltering the murderer these 34 years, in fact no one in the town had known who did it. No matter: cognitive dissonance kicked in anyway. Again, if situations are defined as real, they are real in their consequences. Because everyone thought the community had closed ranks in defense of the murderer, additional acts of racism in the aftermath seemed all the more appropriate. Today, having intensified its racism for more than three decades in defense of its imagined refusal to turn over the murderer, Martinsville is finding it hard to reverse course.” (p. 328-329)

It was a conspiracy of silence based on nothing other than an imagined shared past that became an imagined shared identity. No one would tell the secret of this horrific crime, going to the grave with it if necessary, but it turns out there was no secret other than a sense of collective guilt. Successful conspiracies always draw people in psychologically, the oppressive sense of secrecy sometimes keeping people from even questioning its validity. Keeping secrets is normal human behavior and humans are quite talented at it. This is why it is so easy for conspiracies to happen, in particular when the stakes are so much higher.

Also, there is usually no one who has any advantage to bring attention to a conspiracy. In towns with history of racial violence or exclusion, it’s rare for anyone to talk and, as they are so common across the country, such places rarely gain much public attention. When a conspiracy of silence becomes a norm within a country, breaking that norm is difficult and can be costly. At the local level, there is more often than not no mention of the history of racism by local historians, historical societies, historical markers, and history books; by local newspapers, chambers of commerce, authority figures, and residents; even professors working in local colleges.

In the sundown town my father grew up in, there was a sundown sign on a road seen coming into town and the sign was there when my father was growing up, but as I said no one talked about it. My grandfather was a respected local minister and was racist, and it seems he played a role like so many others in suppressing this dark reality. This was standard behavior, as Loewen notes: “One might imagine that priests and preachers might chide their congregations about their un-Christian attitude toward people of color, but clergy, like local historians, avoid controversy by not saying anything bad about their town” (p. 199).

People in a town can successfully conspire not to talk about what everyone knows and even the living memory can be quickly suppressed, such as my father’s convenient inability to remember anything out of the ordinary. Well, it wasn’t out of the ordinary, as many communities in Indiana and across the country were sundown towns: “Outside the traditional South—states historically dominated by slavery, where sundown towns are rare—probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African Americans” (p. 4). It was the social reality that was so pervasive that it didn’t need to be acknowledged — racism was the air everyone breathed.

This ability to suppress dark secrets, even when they are open secrets, is not some magical ability limited to racists in racist towns. This is basic human nature. Any group of people can act this way: churches, sports organizations, corporations, etc — this would be even more true for intelligence agencies that carefully select their employees, highly train them, and enforce protocols of secrecy with severe punishments to those who leak (e.g., almost any other CIA, NSA, etc employee that was as careless with classified documents as was Hillary Clinton would already be in prison).

If intelligence agencies weren’t highly talented at implementing successful conspiracies that rarely were exposed, they would be complete failures at their job. That isn’t to suggest most conspiracies represent hidden evil for most conspiracies are of no grand consequence, simply ordinary covert operations (heck, something as simple as a surprise birthday party is a conspiracy), and even those that are of greater importance probably are by and large well-intentioned according to the purposes and public mandate that officials involved believe themselves to be serving. The entire design of intelligence organizations is conspiracy, to conspire (i.e., covertly plan and enact activities, theoretically in service of national security and law enforcement). If the US government was as incompetent as conspiracy denialists believe, we would have lost World War II the Cold War. It seems too many people like to imagine absurd caricatures of conspiracies and conspiracy theorists.

That isn’t to deny there aren’t conspiracy mongers, even some that fit the caricatures, although I would re-emphasize the point that at least ome conspiracy mongers are likely disinformation agents, agent provocateurs, and controlled opposition. Consider the Breitbart News Network, the single largest and most influential conspiracy mongering operations in the country; it just so happens to have been heavily funded by and serving the interest of the Mercer family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful plutocratic families in the United States and the world. Certainly, the Mercer family pushing conspiracy theories is serving a self-interested political purpose. That is to say the conspiracy mongering obscures the real conspiracy of corporatism, the tight grip big biz has over big gov.

None of this is exactly a shocking revelation to anyone who has paid attention to what American society has become since the Gilded Age. We shouldn’t ignore the actual psychopaths, social dominators, and authoritarians involved. But more importantly, we shouldn’t forget that the potential for secrecy and silence is within us all. Even when people commit wrongdoing in collaboration with others (i.e., conspiracy), they rarely think of themselves as bad people, much less evil conspirators. What is disturbing about some conspiracies is how normal they are, most people simply going through the motions, going along to get along, giving into pressure and doing what is expected, and then of course rationalizing it all in their own mind. Conspiracy is one of the easiest things in the world. Breaking silence and revealing secrets is immensely more difficult. It feels bad to confront what is bad and it is even more challenging to simply acknowledge that there is something that needs to be confronted, especially when the response you will get is to be treated as a troublemaker or even a threat, possibly with harsh consequences following such as ostracism, career destruction, and/or imprisonment.

Conspiracies, once set into motion, can be maintained with little effort for all that is required is to do nothing or to do what one has always done, just keep your head down. And once you have been made into a collaborator or made to perceive yourself that way, immense guilt, shame, and fear will powerfully keep most people in line. Besides, most conspiracies operate by few people knowing all that is involved or to what end, making it all the easier to rationalize one’s actions.

* * *

Riot and Remembrance:
The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy
by James S. Hirsch
pp. 168-171

THE RIOT disappeared from sight. There were no memorials to honor the dead, no public ceremonies to observe an anniversary or express regret. Tulsans, black and white, made no public acknowledgment of the riot. Greenwood’s damaged buildings were evidence of the assault, but in time they too were toppled or rebuilt The riot was not mentioned in Oklahoma’s history books from the 1920s and 1930s, including Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People, The Story of Oklahoma, Readings in Oklahoma History, Oklahoma: Its Origins and Development, Our Oklahoma, and Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State. Angie Debo was a fearless Oklahoma historian— she was known as a “warrior scholar”— who chronicled how federal government agencies and business interests swindled land from the Indians. In 1943 she published Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital, but even this popular history made only brief and superficial reference to the riot. The Chronicles of Oklahoma, a quarterly journal on state history published by the Oklahoma Historical Society, has never rim a story on the riot It began publication in 1921.

Efforts to cover up the riot were rare but unmistakable. The most egregious example was the Tribune’s decision to excise from its bound volumes the front-page story of May 31, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” Equally irresponsible was the shredding of that day’s editorial page. Years later, scholars discovered that police and state militia documents associated with the riot were also missing.

These efforts to suppress information, however, do not account for the lack of serious scrutiny given the riot. Any scholar, journalist, or interested citizen could piece together the incident through court records, newspaper articles, photographs, and interviews. But such an investigation rarely happened. For most white Tulsans, the disaster was as isolated as Greenwood itself. One of America’s most distinguished historians, Daniel J. Boorstin, grew up in Tulsa and was six years old at the time of the riot. He graduated from Central High School and devoted his professional life to studying history, writing some twenty books and winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Discoverers, about man’s quest to know the world. But Boorstin never wrote about what may have been the greatest race riot in American history, even though his own father might have been a rich source of information. In 1921 Sam Boorstin was the lawyer for the Tulsa Tribune. In an essay about the optimistic ethos of Tulsa in Cleopatra’s Nose (1994), Daniel Boorstin mentioned the city’s “dark shadows— such as the relentless segregation, the brutal race riots of the 1920s, and the Ku Klux Klan. But these were not visible or prominent in my life.” *

The white Tulsans’ response to the riot has been called “a conspiracy of silence” or “a culture of silence.” The subject was certainly ignored in schools, newspapers, and churches. During the middle 1930s, the Tribune ran a daily feature on its editorial page describing what had happened in Tulsa on that date fifteen years earlier; but on the fifteenth anniversary of the riot, the paper ran a series of frivolous items. “Central high school’s crowning social event of the term just closed was the senior prom in the gymnasium with about 200 guests in attendance,” the Tribune dutifully reported. “The grand march was led by Miss Sara Little and Seth Hughes.”

Many whites viewed the riot as one of those inexplicable events, an act of nature. A brief article in the Tulsa World on November 7, 1949, proclaimed the incident as the “top horror of city history . .  . Mass murder of whites and Negroes began on June 1. No one knew then or remembers now how the shooting began.”

But the incident survived as a kind of underground phenomenon, a memory quietly passed along and enhanced by the city’s pioneers at picnics, church suppers, and other gatherings. In time, the riot acquired new shades of meaning: it was viewed as a healing event in the city’s history, a catalyst for progress between the races, and an opportunity for magnanimous outreach.

This revisionism was captured in Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State, written for the Federal Writers’ Project around 1940. (Its reports became the American Guide travel series.) The report said that vigilantes invaded Greenwood and laid it waste by fire, but after two days of martial law, “The whites organized a systematic rehabilitation program for the devastated Negro section and gave generous aid to the Negroes left homeless by the fires. Nationwide publicity of the most lurid sort naturally followed the tragedy, and Tulsa’s whites and Negroes joined in an effort to live down the incident by working diligently— and on the whole successfully— for a better mutual understanding.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Whites not only avoided rehabilitation but were also engaged in systematic discrimination in the 1930s (when the Guide was researched). Most southern and southwestern cities routinely assigned public service jobs to African Americans, but not Tulsa. Eight black policemen patrolled Greenwood, but the city otherwise did not have a single black employee. Tulsa and its private utility companies hired only whites as meter readers in black neighborhoods. Tulsa was also one of the few cities to have only white carriers deliver mail in the black community. The city not only segregated its schools but used different-colored checks to pay white and black teachers. In the federal building, the U.S. government had 425 employees, only 8 of whom were black: 4 men swept the floors during the day, and 4 women scrubbed them at night The Mid-Continent Petroleum Corporation operated the world’s largest inland refinery in Tulsa, employing more than 3,000 people. It had no Negro employees. There were also no Negro Girl Scouts. A director for the organization explained, “If the Negro girls wore Scout uniforms, the white girls would take theirs off.”

Sundown Towns:
A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism

by James W. Loewen
pp. 210-213

Academic historians have long put down what they call “local history,” deploring its shallow boosterism. But silence about sundown towns is hardly confined to local historians; professional historians and social scientists have also failed to notice them. Most Americans—historians and social scientists included—like to dwell on good things. Speaking to a conference of social studies teachers in Indiana, Tim Long, an Indiana teacher, noted how this characteristic can mislead: Today if you ask Hoosiers, “How many of you know of an Underground Railroad site in Indiana?” everyone raises their hands. “How many of you know of a Ku Klux Klan member in Indiana?” Few raise their hands. Yet Indiana had a million KKK members and few abolitionists. The same holds for sundown towns: Indiana had many more sundown towns after 1890 than it had towns that helped escaping slaves before 1860. Furthermore, Indiana’s sundown towns kept out African Americans throughout most of the twentieth century, some of them to this day, while its towns that aided slaves did so for about ten years a century and a half ago. Nevertheless, historians, popular writers, and local historical societies in Indiana have spent far more time researching and writing about Underground Railroad sites than sundown towns. The Underground Railroad shows us at our best. Sundown towns show us at our worst.37 Authors have written entire books on sundown towns without ever mentioning their racial policies.38 I am reminded of the Hindi scene of the elephant in the living room: everyone in the room is too polite to mention the elephant, but nevertheless, it dominates the living room. Some city planners seem particularly oblivious to race. […]

Two anthropologists, Carl Withers and Art Gallaher, each wrote an entire book on Wheatland, Missouri, a sundown town in a sundown county. Gallaher never mentioned race, and Withers’s entire treatment is one sentence in a footnote, “However, no Negroes live now in the county.” Penologist James Jacobs wrote “The Politics of Corrections” about the correctional center in Vienna, Illinois, but even though its subitle focused upon “Town/Prison Relations,” he never mentioned that Vienna was a sundown town, while most of the prisoners were black and Latino. This pattern of evasion continues: most entries on sundown suburbs in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, for instance, published in 2004, do not mention their striking racial composition, let alone explain how it was achieved. […]

Journalists, too, have dropped the ball. We have seen how business interests sometimes stop local newspapers from saying anything bad about a town. Propensities within journalism also minimize coverage of racial exclusion. Occasionally a race riot or a heinous crime relates to sundown towns and has caused the topic to become newsworthy. […]

Reporters for the New Yorker and People covered the 2002 arrest of the man who killed African American Carol Jenkins for being in Martinsville, Indiana, after dark, but the result was to demonize Martinsville as distinctive. As a result, I could not get an official of the Indiana Historical Bureau to address how general sundown towns might be in Indiana; instead, she repeated, “Martinsville is an entity unto itself—a real redneck town.” But Martinsville is not unusual. For the most part, precisely what is so alarming about sundown towns—their astonishing prevalence across the country—is what has made them not newsworthy, except on special occasions. Murders sell newspapers. Chronic social pathology does not.42

Journalism has been called the “first draft of history,” and the lack of coverage of sundown towns in the press, along with the reluctance of local historians to write anything revealing about their towns, has made it easy for professional historians and social scientists to overlook racial exclusion when they write about sundown communities. Most white writers of fiction similarly leave out race. In White Diaspora, Catherine Jurca notes that suburban novelists find the racial composition of their communities “so unremarkable” that they never think about it.43

So far as I can tell, only a handful of books on individual sundown towns has ever seen print, and this is the first general treatment of the topic.44 That is an astounding statement, given the number of sundown towns across the United States and across the decades. Social scientists and historians may also have failed to write about sundown towns because they have trouble thinking to include those who aren’t there. “People find it very difficult to learn that the absence of a feature is informative,” note psychologists Frank Kardes and David Sanbonmatsu. Writers who don’t notice the absence of people of color see nothing to explain and pay the topic no attention at all. Where does the subject even fit? Is this book African American history? Assuredly not—most of the towns it describes have not had even one African American resident for decades. It is white history . . . but “white history” is not a subject heading in college course lists, the Library of Congress catalog, or most people’s minds. Perhaps the new but growing field of “whiteness studies” will provide a home for sundown town research.45

I don’t mean to excuse these omissions. The absence of prior work on sundown towns is troubling. Omitted events usually signify hidden fault lines in our culture. If a given community has not admitted on its landscape to having been a sundown town in the past, that may be partly because it has not yet developed good race relations in the present. It follows that America may not have admitted to having sundown towns in its history books because it has not yet developed good race relations as a society. Optimistically, ending this cover-up now may be both symptom and cause of better race relations.

p. 424

Once we know what happened, we can start to reconcile. Publicizing a town’s racist actions can bring shame upon the community, but recalling and admitting them is the first step in redressing them. In every sundown town live potential allies—people who care about justice and welcome the truth. As a white man said in Corbin, Kentucky, on camera in 1990, “Forgetting just continues the wrong.” “Recovering sundown towns” (or wider metropolitan areas or states) might set up truth and reconciliation commissions modeled after South Africa’s to reveal the important historical facts that underlie their continuing whiteness, reconcile with African Americans in nearby communities, and thus set in motion a new more welcoming atmosphere. 8

The next step after learning and publicizing the truth is an apology, preferably by an official of the sundown town itself. In 2003, Bob Reynolds, mayor of Harrison, Arkansas, which has been all-white ever since it drove out its African Americans in race riots in 1905 and 1909, met with other community leaders to draw up a collective statement addressing the problem. It says in part, “The perception that hangs over our city is the result of two factors: one, unique evils resulting from past events, and two, the silence of the general population toward those events of 1905 and 1909.” The group, “United Christian Leaders,” is trying to change Harrison, and it knows that truth is the starting place. “98 years is long enough to be silent,” said Wayne Kelly, one of the group’s members. George Holcomb, a retiree who is also a reporter for the Harrison Daily Times, supports a grand jury investigation into the race riots: “Get the records, study them, give the people an account of what happened. Who lost property, what they owned, who had it stolen from them and who ended up with it.”

A Language Older Than Words
by Derrick Jensen
p. 4

We don’t stop these atrocities, because we don’t talk about them. We don’t talk about them, because we don’t think about them. We don’t think about them, because they’re too horrific to comprehend. As trauma expert Judith Herman writes, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”

pp. 262-263

I’m not saying that Dave’s condition as a wage slave is the same as the condition of a woman about to be shot by a Nazi police officer. Nor am I saying that to grow up in a violent household is the same as to be murdered and mutilated by a United States Cavalry trooper. Nor am I saying that the Holocaust is the same as the destruction of indigenous peoples, nor am I saying that clearcuts are the same as rape. To make any of these claims would be absurd. Underlying the different forms of coercion is a unifying factor: Silence. The necessity of silencing victims before, during, and after exploitation or annihilation, and the necessity at these same times of silencing one’s own conscience and ones conscious awareness of relationship is undeniable. These radically different atrocities share mechanisms of silencing;

pp. 346-348

If we have become so inured to the coercion that engulfs, forms, and deforms us that we no longer perceive it for the aberration it is, how much more is this true for our ignorance of the trauma that characterizes our way of life? Salmon are going extinct? Pass the toast, man, I’m hungry. A quarter of a million dead in Iraq? Damnit, I’m gonna be late for work. If coercion is our habitat, then trauma is the food we daily take into our bodies.

I spoke with Dr. Judith Herman, one of the world’s experts on the effects of psychological trauma. I asked her about the relationship between atrocity and silence.

She said, “Atrocities are actions so horrifying they go beyond words. For people who witness or experience atrocities, there is a kind of silencing that comes from not knowing how to put these experiences into speech. At the same time, atrocities are the crimes perpetrators most want to hide. This creates a powerful convergence of interest: no one wants to speak about them. No one wants to remember them. Everyone wants to pretend they didn’t happen.”

I asked her about a line she once wrote: “In order to escape accountability the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting.”

“This is something with which we are all familiar. It seems that the more extreme the crimes, the more determined the efforts to deny the crimes happened. So we have, for example, almost a hundred years after the fact, an active and apparently state-sponsored effort on the part of the Turkish government to deny there was ever an Armenian genocide. We still have a whole industry of Holocaust denial. I just came back from Bosnia where, because there hasn’t been an effective medium for truth-telling and for establishing a record of what happened, you have the nationalist governmental entities continuing to insist that ethnic cleansing didn’t happen, that the various war crimes and atrocities committed in that war simply didn’t occur.”

“How does this happen?”

“On the most blatant level, it’s a matter of denying the crimes took place. Whether it’s genocide, military aggression, rape, wife beating, or child abuse, the same dynamic plays itself out, beginning with an indignant, almost rageful denial, and the suggestion that the person bringing forward the information— whether it’s the victim or another informant— is lying, crazy, malicious, or has been put up to it by someone else. Then of course there are a number of fallback positions to which perpetrators can retreat if the evidence is so overwhelming and irrefutable it cannot be ignored, or rather, suppressed. This, too, is something we re familiar with: the whole raft of predictable rationalizations used to excuse everything from rape to genocide: the victim exaggerates; the victim enjoyed it; the victim provoked or otherwise brought it on herself; the victim wasn’t really harmed; and even if some slight damage has been done, it’s now time to forget the past and get on with our lives: in the interests of preserving peace— or in the case of domestic violence, preserving family harmony— we need to draw a veil over these matters. The incidents should never be discussed, and preferably should be forgotten altogether.”

The Elephant in the Room:
Silence and Denial in Everyday Life

by Eviatar Zerubavel
pp. 13-16

As one might expect, what we ignore or avoid socially is often also ignored or avoided academically, 40 and conspiracies of silence are therefore still a somewhat undertheorized as well as understudied phenomenon. Furthermore, they typically consist of nonoccurrences, which, by definition, are rather difficult to observe. After all, it is much easier to study what people do discuss than what they do not (not to mention the difficulty of telling the difference between simply not talking about something and specifically avoiding it). 41

Yet despite all these difficulties, there have been a number of attempts to study conspiracies of silence. To date, those studies have, without exception, been focally confined to the way we collectively avoid specific topics such as race, homosexuality, the threat of nuclear annihilation, or the Holocaust. But no attempt has yet been made to transcend their specificity in an effort to examine such conspiracies as a general phenomenon. 42 Unfortunately, there is a lack of dialogue between those who study family secrets and those who study state secrets, and feminist writings on silence are virtually oblivious to its nongendered aspects. That naturally prevents us from noticing the strikingly similar manner in which couples, organizations, and even entire nations collectively deny the presence of “elephants” in their midst. Identifying these similarities, however, requires that we ignore the specific contents of conspiracies of silence and focus instead on their formal properties.

The formal features of such conspiracies are revealed when we examine the dynamics of denial at the level of families that ignore a member’s drinking problem as well as of nations that refuse to acknowledge the glaring incompetence of their leaders. […]

“The best way to disrupt moral behavior,” notes political theorist C. Fred Alford, “is not to discuss it and not to discuss not discussing it.” “Don’t talk about ethical issues,” he facetiously proposes, “and don’t talk about our not talking about ethical issues.” 45 As moral beings we cannot keep on non-discussing “undiscussables.” Breaking this insidious cycle of denial calls for an open discussion of the very phenomenon of undiscussability.

pp. 26-27

Furthermore, there are certain things that are never supposed to be discussed, or sometimes even mentioned, at all.

Consider here also the strong taboo, so memorably depicted in films like Prince of the City, Mississippi Burning, In the Heat of the Night, A Few Good Men, Bad Day at Black Rock, or Serpico, against washing one’s community’s “dirty laundry” in public. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are informal codes of silence such as the omerta, the traditional Sicilian code of honor that prohibits Mafia members from “ratting” on fellow members, or the infamous “blue wall of silence” that, ironically enough, similarly prevents police officers from reporting corrupt fellow officers, not to mention the actual secrecy oaths people must take in order to become members of secret societies or underground movements. Equally prohibitive are the “cultures of silence” that prevent oil workers from reporting oil spills and fraternity members from testifying against fellow brothers facing rape charges, and that have led senior tobacco company executives to suppress the findings of studies showing the incontrovertible health risks involved in smoking, and prevented the typically sensationalist, gossipy British and American press from publicizing the imminent abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, or the sexual indiscretions of President John F. Kennedy. 29

A most effective way to make sure that people would actually stay away from conversational “no-go zones” 30 is to keep the tabooed object nameless, as when Catholic preachers, for example, carefully avoid mentioning sodomy (the “nameless sin”) by name. 31 It is as if refraining from talking about something will ultimately make it virtually unthinkable, as in the famous dystopian world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where it was practically impossible “to follow a heretical thought further than the perception that it was heretical; beyond that point the necessary words were nonexistent.”

pp. 47-50

It only takes one person to produce speech, but it requires the cooperation of all to produce silence. —Robert E. Pittenger et al.,

The First Five Minutes

The Double Wall of Silence As we approach denial from a sociological rather than a more traditional psychological perspective, we soon realize that it usually involves more than just one person and that we are actually dealing with “co-denial,” a social phenomenon involving more than just individuals. 1 In order to study conspiracies of silence we must first recognize, therefore, that, whether it is only a couple of friends or a large organization, they always involve an entire social system.

Co-denial presupposes mutual avoidance. Only when the proverbial elephant in the room is jointly avoided by everyone around it, indeed, are we actually dealing with a “conspiracy” of silence.

As the foremost expression of co-denial, silence is a collective endeavor, and it involves a collaborative effort on the parts of both the potential generator and recipient of a given piece of information to stay away from it. “Unlike the activity of speech, which does not require more than a single actor, silence demands collaboration.” 2 A conspiracy of silence presupposes discretion on the part of the non-producer of the information as well as inattention on the part of its non-consumers. It is precisely the collaborative efforts of those who avoid mentioning the elephant in the room and those who correspondingly refrain from asking about it that make it a conspiracy. […]

The “equal protection” provided to those who show no evil as well as to those who see no evil is the result of the symmetrical nature of the relations between the opposing social forces underlying conspiracies of silence. Such symmetry is evident even in highly asymmetrical relations, as so perfectly exemplified by the reluctance of both children and parents to discuss sexual matters with one another, the former feeling uncomfortable asking (and later telling) and the latter feeling equally uncomfortable telling (and later asking). Consider also the remarkable symmetry between someone’s wish to keep some atrocity secret and another’s urge to deny its reality even to oneself, as exemplified by the symbiotic relations between the politically incurious Alicia and her ever-evasive husband Roberto in the film The Official Story. Or note the chillingly symmetrical dynamics of silence between the fearsome perpetrators and the fearful witnesses of these atrocities, as exemplified by the Nazis’ efforts to hide the horrors of their concentration camps from nearby residents who in turn willingly turned a blind eye to their existence. 7

By collaboratively seeing and showing, or hearing and speaking, no evil we thus construct a “double wall” of silence, originally theorized by psychologist Dan Bar-On in the context of the relations between former Nazi perpetrators and their children yet, ironically, equally central to the dynamics between their victims and their children. After all, the heavy silence hanging over many Holocaust survivors’ homes is a product of “the interweaving of two kinds of conflicted energy: on the part of the survivor, [the] suppression of telling; on the part of the descendant, [the] fear of finding out.” (As one child of survivors recalls, talking about the Holocaust “was never overtly forbidden. By no means was I or my brother ever shushed when we attempted to steer the conversation [there]. We simply never made such attempts.”) That explains how someone may indeed remain forever unclear as to who actually prevented her mother from telling her how her grandmother was killed: “I don’t know whether the stopping of the conversation was my own doing or hers.” It was most likely both.

pp. 54-57

As we might expect, the likelihood of participating in a conspiracy of silence is greatly affected by one’s proximity to the proverbial elephant. The closer one gets to it, the more pressure one feels to deny its presence. Indeed, it is the people standing in the street and watching the royal procession rather than those who are actually part of it who are the first ones to break through the wall of denial and publicly acknowledge that the emperor has in fact no clothes. 18

Just as significant is the effect of social proximity among those standing around the elephant. After all, the socially “closer” we are, the more we tend to trust, and therefore the less likely we are to refrain from talking more openly with, one another. Formal relations and the social environments that foster them (such as bureaucracy), on the other hand, are more likely to discourage openness and thereby promote silence.

Equally significant is the political “distance” between us. We generally tend to trust our equals more than our superiors. Social systems with particularly hierarchical structures and thus more pronounced power differences therefore produce greater reluctance toward openness and candor.

Yet the one structural factor that most dramatically affects the likelihood of participating in conspiracies of silence is the actual number of conspirators involved. In marked contrast to ordinary secrets, the value of which is a direct function of their exclusivity (that is, of the paucity of people who share them), 19 open secrets actually become more tightly guarded as more, rather than fewer, people are “in the know.” Indeed, the larger the number of participants in the conspiracy, the “heavier” and more “resounding” the silence. Prohibiting strictly one-on-one encounters such as Winston and Julia’s illicit rendezvous in Nineteen Eighty-Four may thus be the most effective way for a dystopian police state to ensure that certain things are never openly discussed.

As famously demonstrated by one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, Georg Simmel, one only needs to compare social interactions among three as opposed to two persons to appreciate the extent to which the dynamics of social interactions are affected by the number of participants involved in them. And indeed, unlike two-person conspiracies of silence, even ones involving only three conspirators already presuppose the potential presence of a new key player in the social organization of denial, namely the silent bystander. […]

Silent bystanders act as enablers because watching others ignore something encourages one to deny its presence. As evident from studies that show how social pressure affects our perception, it is psychologically much more difficult to trust one’s senses and remain convinced that what one sees or hears is actually there when no one else around one seems to notice it. The discrepancy between others’ apparent inability to notice it and one’s own sensory experience creates a sense of ambiguity that further increases the likelihood that one would ultimately succumb to the social pressure and opt for denial. 22

Such pressure is further compounded as the number of silent bystanders increases. […] Moreover, the actual experience of watching several other people ignore the elephant together is significantly different from watching each of them ignore it by himself, because it involves the added impact of observing each of them watch the others ignore it as well! Instead of several isolated individuals in denial, one is thus surrounded by a group of people who are obviously all participating in one and the same conspiracy. Furthermore, moving from two- to three-person, let alone wider, conspiracies of silence involves a significant shift from a strictly interpersonal kind of social pressure to the collective kind we call group pressure, whereby breaking the silence actually violates not only some individuals’ personal sense of comfort, but a collectively sacred social taboo, thereby evoking a heightened sense of fear.

pp. 80-82

Inherently delusional, denial inevitably distorts one’s sense of reality, a problem further exacerbated when others collude in it through their silence. After all, it is hard to remain convinced that one is actually seeing and not just imagining the elephant in the room when no one else seems to acknowledge its presence. […] Lacking a firm basis for authenticating one’s perceptual experience, one may thus come to distrust one’s own senses and, as so chillingly portrayed in the film Gaslight, slowly lose one’s grip on reality.

The fact that no one else around us acknowledges the presence of “elephants” also tends to make them seem more frightening. Indeed, silence is not just a product, but also a major source, of fear (which also explains why it impedes the recovery of persons who have been traumatized). 7 To overcome fear we therefore often need to discuss the undiscussables that help produce it in the first place. 8

As so poignantly portrayed in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” conspiracies of silence always involve some dissonance between what one inwardly experiences and what one outwardly expresses: “‘ What!’ thought the emperor. ‘I can’t see a thing!’ [But] aloud he said, ‘It is very lovely’ … All the councilors, ministers, and men of great importance … saw no more than the emperor had seen [but] they said the same thing that he had said … ‘It is magnificent! Beautiful! Excellent!’ All of their mouths agreed, though none of their eyes had seen anything.” 9 As one can tell from these bitingly satirical descriptions, such dissonance involves the kind of duplicity associated by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four with “doublethink”: “His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions … knowing them to be contradictory.” 10 Such duplicity presupposes a certain amount of cynicism. As a former Nazi doctor explains the inherently perverse logic of doublethink, “I couldn’t ask [Dr.] Klein ‘Don’t send this man to the gas chamber,’ because I didn’t know that he went to the gas chamber. You see, that was a secret. Everybody [knew] the secret, but it was a secret.” It also requires, however, a certain denial of one’s feelings. Although those Nazi doctors certainly knew that Jews “were not being resettled but killed, and that the ‘Final Solution’ meant killing all of them,” the fact that they could use such inherently anesthetic euphemistic expressions nevertheless meant that “killing … need[ ed] not be experienced … as killing,” and the more they used such language, the deeper they entered the “realm [of] nonfeeling,” increasingly becoming emotionally numb. 11

Needless to say, such denial of one’s feelings is psychologically exhausting. “Don’t think about it,” Harrison tells herself as she tries to ignore her feelings about her incestuous relationship with her father; yet denying those feelings, she slowly comes to realize, “seems to require an enormous effort.” 12

Conspiracies of silence may also trigger feelings of loneliness. The discrepancy between what one actually notices and what others around one acknowledge noticing undermines the quest for intersubjectivity, the very essence of sociality, 13 and often generates a deep sense of isolation. Whereas open communication brings us closer, silence makes us feel more distant from one another. “The word, even the most contradictious word,” notes Thomas Mann, “preserves contact —it is silence which isolates.”

Skeptics & Debunkers

C. P. Snow

The Two Cultures

Science Wars

Sociology of Scientific Knowledge


2/15 3/15 4/15 5/15 6/15 7/15 8/15 9/15 10/15 11/15 12/15 13/15 14/15 15/15 

Charles Fort

The Book of the Damned



2/12 3/12 4/12 5/12 6/12 7/12 8/12 9/12 10/12 11/12 12/12

Jacques Vallée


2/4 3/4 4/4

Robert Anton Wilson

The New Inquisition


Rupert Sheldrake

Richard Dawkins comes to call

He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand. […] “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”

He produced no evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He assumed that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.

We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this was why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level.

The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I’m don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

George P. Hansen

Magicians Who Endorsed Psychic Phenomena

CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview

CSICOP to CSI: the Stigma of the Paranormal

Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?
Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6

Marcello Truzzi

Skeptics

Pseudoskepticism

Pyrrhonism

SCEPCOP

Closeminded Science

Scientism

Parapsychology, Anomalies, Science, Skepticism, and CSICOP

Parapsychology, [Marcello] Truzzi contends as a sociologist, is more tough-minded than many other academic fields, yet paradoxically, it remains a fringe subject.  “Parapsychologists really want to play the game by the proper statistical rules,” he expounds. “They’re very staid. They thought they could convince these sceptics but the sceptics keep raising the goalposts. It’s ironic, because real psychic researchers are very committed to doing real science, more than a lot of people in science are. Yet they get rejected, while we can be slipshod in psychology and sociology and economics and get away with it. We’re not painted as the witchdoctors, but they are.”  Jonathon Margolis in Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic?
 
“. . . members of the scientific community often judge the parapsychological claims without firsthand knowledge of the experimental evidence. Very few of the scientific critics have examined even one of the many experimental reports on psychic phenomena. Even fewer, if any, have examined the bulk of the parapsychological literature…. Consequently, parapsychologists have justification for their complaint that the scientific community is dismissing their claims without a fair hearing. . . .” Ray Hyman

 “I call them scoffers, not skeptics,” says Marcello Truzzi, director of the Center of Scientific Anomalies Research at Eastern Michigan University.

Truzzi, who studies what he calls protoscience, was a founding member of the world’s oldest and most respected skeptic society, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). But Truzzi says he withdrew after growing disillusioned with the group’s research methods.

“They tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion,” he asserts. “Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them.”

Truzzi says that some of the CSICOP researchers set the bar of proof outrageously high when it comes to the study of the paranormal. “When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts,” he says. “Then, if the experiment is reputable, they say it’s a mere anomaly.”  Tanya Barrientos in  The Paranormal? Pshaw!

“The most ardent skeptics enjoy their skepticism as long as it does not encroach upon their most cherished beliefs. Then incredulity flies out the window. . . . It is easy, even fun to challenge others’ beliefs, when we are smug in our certainty about our own. But when ours are challenged, it takes great patience and ego strength to listen with an unjaundiced ear.” Michael Shermer in A Skeptical Manifesto
 
“. . . the same scientific mind-set that thrives on high precision and critical thinking is also extremely adept at forming clever rationalizations that get in the way of progress. In extreme cases, these rationalizations have prevented psi research from taking place at all. Ironically, the very same skeptics who have attempted to block psi research through the use of rhetoric and ridicule have also been responsible for perpetuating the many popular myths associated with psychic phenomena. If serious scientists are prevented from investigating claims of psi out of fear for their reputations, then who is left to conduct these investigations? Extreme skeptics? No, because the fact is that most extremists do not conduct research, they specialize in criticism. Extreme believers? No, because they are usually not interested in conducting rigorous scientific studies. Dean Radin in The Conscious Universe, p. 206-207
 
“There are three broad approaches to anomaly studies. . . . The second common approach is what critics usually call the debunkers’ approach. This is the main attitude of the orthodox scientific community towards anomaly claims. It is characterized by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). “Whatever is claimed is nothing but … something else.” Seemingly anomalous phenomena are denied first and sometimes investigated only second. Like the Fortean the debunker is not concerned with the full explanation. Whereas the Fortean types don’t want explanations, the debunkers don’t need them as they believe they have already them.”  Marcello Truzzi in Reflections on the Reception of Unconventional Claims in Science
“Despite years of attempts to study paranormal phenomena, there’s been a scientific iron curtain raised against serious research on these experiences.” Andrew Greeley in The “Impossible”:  It’s Happening
 
“In 1819, Ernst Chladni reflected back on his struggles for the recognition of meteorites. While the Enlightenment, the 18th century intellectual movement that examined accepted doctrines of the time, had brought certain benefits, he felt it also brought with it certain intellectual problems. Now scientists ‘thought it necessary to throw away or reject as error anything that did not conform to a self-constructed model.’ The very success of scientific experiment and theory had led to a misplaced confidence that what was real was already within the circle of science. What was outside, therefore, what did not conform to scientists’ theories, could be dismissed by invoking scientific authority and by ignoring or ridiculing observations not supported by it.”  Ron Westrum in The Blind Eye of Science
 
“New data and discordant, anomalous, or bizarre experiences or facts can destroy the best explanations. Thus we cannot say with absolute confidence that the data and theories of parapsychology must be false because they contradict the existing body of physical [scientific] theory.” Paul Kurtz in The Transcendental Temptation

Just Wondering

Just Wondering

Posted on May 6th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade

“The Committee for Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal (CSICON) is featured in the writings of Robert Anton Wilson, who claims American directorship of the committee.

According to Wilson, it was founded by Irishman Timothy F.X. Finnegan, who wrote, “The normal consists of a null set which nobody and nothing really fits.” The committee claims that there is no such thing as “normal”, and there are no existing “normal” people (i.e., people existing in the average). For example, no one has 2.3 children.

The Board of the College of Patapsychology, Wilson writes, offered one million Irish pounds to anyone who can produce “a normal sunset, an average Beethoven sonata, an ordinary Playmate of the Month, or any thing or event in space-time that qualifies as normal, average or ordinary.”

The committee’s name is a parody of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and the million-pound challenge a parody of the prize offered by James Randi for evidence of paranormal abilities.”
“In Wilson’s account, CSICON began with a conversation Finnegan heard in a pub between two men named O’Brian and Nolan. They were discussing the strange weather. Another man named Sean Murphy interjected, “Ah, Jaysus. I’ve never seen a boogerin’ normal day. And I never met a fookin’ average man neither.”

This inspired Finnegan, and the next day he wrote a two-page outline on a new science he dubbed patapsychology. The paper began with the sentence, “The average Canadian has one testicle, just like Adolf Hitler-or, more precisely, the average Canadian has 0.96 testicles, an even sadder plight than Hitler’s, if the average Anything actually existed.””
———

“‘Pataphysics, a term coined by French writer Alfred Jarry (1873 – 1907), is a philosophy dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics. It is a parody of the theory and methods of modern science and is often expressed in nonsensical language. A practitioner of ‘pataphysics is a ‘pataphysician or a ‘pataphysicist.”

Patapsychology is the philosophy that there is no such thing as ‘normal’. Its name is derived from parapsychology as a catch-all for paranormal studies, but it is not limited to purely psychological phenomena.

The term first appeared in the writings of Robert Anton Wilson, who credited it to Timothy F.X. Finnegan, founder of CSICON.”
———

Critical Paranoia may be considered one of Surrealism’s contributions to modern artistic thinking and interpretation. I would argue that Surrealism is more of a method and means of thought than it is en entity to be understood. Critical Paranoia should then be considered a primary exercise in attaining the, ‘pinnacled depths of that which is Surreal.’ ”


 

“The term pseudoskepticism (or pseudo-skepticism) denotes thinking that appears to be skeptical but is not. The term is most commonly encountered in the form popularised by Marcello Truzzi, through his Journal of Scientific Exploration, where he defined pseudoskeptics as those who take “the negative rather than an agnostic position but still call themselves ‘skeptics'”[1] [2].”

  • The tendency to deny, rather than doubt [4]
  • Double standards in the application of criticism [5]
  • The making of judgments without full inquiry [6]
  • Tendency to discredit, rather than investigate [7]
  • Use of ridicule or ad hominem attacks in lieu of arguments[8]
  • Pejorative labeling of proponents as ‘promoters’, ‘pseudoscientists’ or practitioners of ‘pathological science.’[9]
  • Presenting insufficient evidence or proof [10]
  • Assuming criticism requires no burden of proof [11]
  • Making unsubstantiated counter-claims [12]
  • Counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence [13]
  • Suggesting that unconvincing evidence is grounds for dismissing it [14]

———

skepticism vs. zeteticism

“This is why I prefer to call myself a zetetic (as did the late sociologist Marcello Truzzi) rather than a skeptic, perhaps especially because the term skeptical is being abused by organizations such as SI.

Here is how I see the difference: given paranormal claim A, there are three categories of people with regard to the claim.

True believers will accept A regardless of any evidence against it.
“Skeptics” like Shermer believe their job is to debunk or disprove it a priori because it cannot “possibly” be true.

The Zetetic, as Truzzi noted, neither accepts A uncritically nor assumes a priori that A cannot be, but simply keeps gathering the evidence which leans toward one possibility or the other.

Furthermore, the true zetetic is as SKEPTICAL of establishment science and claims as he is alternative views. It does not mean the establishment can’t be right, but it doesn’t mean that it must be, either.

As I view it, Forteans are Zetetics – not Skeptics or True Believers. And that is why I call myself both. And hate being labeled a True Believer, since, as John Keel declared, Belief is the Enemy. Or, as Robert Anton Wilson put it, Convictions Create Convicts.”

———-

Pyrrhonism, or Pyrrhonian skepticism, was a school of skepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the first century BC and recorded by Sextus Empiricus in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century AD. It was named after Pyrrho, a philosopher who lived from c. 360 to c. 270 BC, although the relationship between the philosophy of the school and of the historical figure is murky. Pyrrhonism has become influential during the past few centuries when the modern scientific worldview was born.

Whereas ‘academic’ skepticism, with as its most famous adherent Carneades, claims that “Nothing can be known, not even this”, Pyrrhonian skeptics withhold any assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry. According to them, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic.

For example, Pyrrhonians might assert that a lack of proof cannot constitute disproof, and that a lack of belief is vastly different from a state of active disbelief. Rather than disbelieving in God, psychic powers, etc. for instance, based on the lack of evidence of such things, Pyrrhonians recognize that we cannot be certain that new evidence won’t turn up in the future, and so they intentionally remain tentative and continue their inquiry. Pyrrhonians also question accepted knowledge, and view dogmatism as a disease of the mind.

A brief period in western history is referred to by philosophers as the Pyrrhonic Crisis, during the birth of modernity. In Feudal society absolute truth was provided by divine authority. However, as this fell from legitimacy, there was a brief lag before the enlightenment produced the nation-state and science as the new sources of absolute truth. Relativist views similar to those held in Pyrrhonism were popular among thinkers of the time.

Pyrrhonian skepticism is similar to the form of skepticism called Zeteticism promoted by Marcello Truzzi.”

150Truzzi founded the skeptical journal Explorations and was invited to be a founding member of the skeptic organization CSICOP. Truzzi’s journal became the official journal of CSICOP and was renamed The Zetetic, still under his editorship. About a year later, he left CSICOP after receiving a vote of no confidence from the group’s Executive Council. Truzzi wanted to include pro-paranormal people in the organization and pro-paranormal research in the journal, but CSICOP felt that there were already enough organizations and journals dedicated to the paranormal. Kendrick Frazier became the editor of CSICOP’s journal and the name was changed to Skeptical Inquirer.

After leaving CSICOP, Truzzi started another journal, the Zetetic Scholar.[2] He promoted the term zeteticism as an alternative to skepticism, because the term skepticism, he thought, was being usurped by what he termed “pseudoskeptics“. A zetetic is a “skeptical seeker.” The term’s origins lie in the word for the followers of the skeptic Pyrrho in ancient Greece and was used by flat-earthers in the 19th century. Truzzi’s form of skepticism was pyrrhonism, as opposed to the Academic tradition founded by Plato, which is followed by most scientific skeptics.[3]

———
Charles Fort in 1920. Charles Fort in 1920.
Some skeptics and critics have frequently called Fort credulous and naïve, a charge his supporters deny strongly. Over and over again in his writing, Fort rams home a few basic points that were decades ahead of mainstream scientific acceptance, and that are frequently forgotten in discussions of the history and philosophy of science:

  • Fort often notes that the boundaries between science and pseudoscience are ‘fuzzy’: the boundary lines are not very well defined, and they might change over time.
  • Fort also points out that whereas facts are objective, how facts are interpreted depends on who is doing the interpreting and in what context.
  • Fort insisted that there is a strong sociological influence on what is considered ‘acceptable’ or ‘damned’ (see strong program in the sociology of scientific knowledge).
  • Though he never used the term “magical thinking“, Fort offered many arguments and observations that are similar to the concept: he argued that most (if not all) people (including scientists) are at least occasionally guilty of irrational and “non scientific” thinking.
  • Fort points out the problem of underdetermination: that the same data can sometimes be explained by more than one theory.
  • Similarly, writer John Michell notes that “Fort gave several humorous instances of the same experiment yielding two different results, each one gratifying the experimenter.”[6] Fort noted that if controlled experiments – a pillar of the scientific method – could produce such widely varying results depending on who conducted them, then the scientific method itself might be open to doubt, or at least to a degree of scrutiny rarely brought to bear. Since Fort’s death, scientists have recognized the “experimenter effect“, the tendency for experiments to tend to validate given preconceptions. Robert Rosenthal has conducted pioneering research on this and related subjects

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about 9 hours later

Domi333 said

Surrealism is great…
Pataphysics borders on absurdity but we realise that nothing is ‘normal’ surrealists found the abnormal to be closer to reality than reality…

Would people actually bother with James Randi? I guess by parodying him we realise that ‘normality’ becomes the stuff of fools…whether we find the supernatural or not.

Do you know about Dada? about artaud’s theory of cruelty?
Dom

Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 18 hours later

Marmalade said

I’m only vaguely familiar with Dada and Artaud.  What do you think of them?

3 days later

Domi333 said

Artaud was big in Absurdist theatre…but he considered it more realistic…
dada was this huge reactionary movement after and during WW1…i guess surrealism was a softer version of dada, many of the dadaists moved onto surrealism…
through these two styles, we see the ideal of ‘dreams as a gateway to the subconscious'(freud)…the other thing i learnt was that WW1 was a culmination of the supposedly rational thinking which led upto the first war…so by being irrational, they were moving away from war…

Denialism: Skepticism isn’t a river in Egypt

I’ve had some discussions about science online. I even managed to find some intelligent people to debate with. However, these discussions have caused me to lose faith in human reason. I’ve come to realize that even intelligent people aren’t necessarily well-informed, aren’t necessarily open-minded about other people’s views, aren’t necessarily critical-minded about their own assumptions… nor necessarily desire to be so.

I find myself in an odd position. I’m not a fan of scientific materialism. I don’t claim science is perfect or that it has everything figured out, but the skepticism of many people I’ve met online verges on Nihilism or Pyrrhonism… but, despite this attitude of radical doubt, what makes it particularly irrational is that it’s selective. This selective mistrust falls apart under scrutiny. Part of the reason it falls apart is because of the narrowness of this skepticism. These people are skeptical of everything they disagree with, but oddly completely trusting in everything they agree with. That isn’t true skepticism. I don’t trust anything even when or especially when I agree with it. I think skepticism should even be turned towards our own biases, and skepticism should particularly be turned towards our use of skepticism. 

Some of these people are rightly called Denialists because any evidence I bring up they find a way to dismiss. They don’t need any evidence themselves because from their view all scientific evidence is suspect. They just have a vague intuition. They’ve heard one critical scientist or some other supposed expert and they assume that somehow disproves all of the science. Don’t they realize all science is skeptical. The skepticism of a few scientists doesn’t disprove the consensus of the majority. It’s important to consider the 3% of climatologists who don’t support Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), but it’s even more important to consider the 97% of active climatology researchers who do support it. A recent IPCC report was shown to have a couple of mistakes. The critics argue that these few minor mistakes (one being a typo) disprove a report that is thousands of pages long and which was contributed to by hundreds of scientists.

One recent discussion, I was able to get the skeptic to agree that maybe just maybe 97% of active climatology researchers support AGW. But he still thought the scientists were biased. I pointed out that these scientists work in different organizations in different countries with funding from many sources. But he still thought the scientists were biased. This is basically a conspiracy theory mindset. No matter what evidence is provided, there is always a reason it can’t be trusted. It’s not that they can’t sometimes bring up a few facts here and there (some connection involving financing or whatever), but the facts they use is very selective.

To counter my conspiracy theory allegation, one person denied this by saying it was more like something that got started and then all the climatologists jumped on. This person couldn’t explain how something just gets started and why climatologists would risk their entire careers to join in on this non-conspiracy conspiracy. For example, climatologists get no payment for submitting research to the IPCC. Climatologists don’t get wealthy off of their research and so what would they get out of deceiving the public? Many of these skeptics argue that the government is intentionally biasing research by which research they fund, but scientists get their funding from non-government organizations as well. One skeptic argued that climatology researchers who propose disaster scenarios will get more funding because the government will want to fund research that might help avoid disasters. That might be true to an extent, but scientists are doing research about all kinds of things. If something doesn’t prove true or potentially true, then it loses funding. Why would the government fund and why would 97% of researchers support a theory that had absolutely no evidence in support of it? It’s simply absurd to make such a claim.

I’m fine with being skeptical in terms of using good critical thinking skills, but Denialism goes way beyond that. The skeptic who I managed to get to grudgingly agree that the 97% might be true wouldn’t even admit to slight doubt about his own position. I admitted to him that there were skeptical scientists and that these skeptics played a valid role in the scientific method, but he wouldn’t return the favor by admitting that scientific consensus also plays a valid role. The only reason he held to his position is because he had his mind made up before the debate started. He didn’t care what scientists think or what scientific research concludes. He only mentioned scientists when they agreed with him. He was merely using the minority of scientific skeptics to outright deny the majority of scientific supporters, but he didn’t really care what any of these scientists said. It was just convenient that some scientists happened to agree with him on this issue.

What he refused to understand is that skepticism goes both ways (or rather goes many directions). Yes, the 3% are skeptical of the 97% consensus, but the 97% are also skeptical of the 3%. Furthermore, even within the 97% there are those who are skeptical because they think the mainstream doesn’t go far enough in support of AGW. Scientific institutions such as the IPCC are very conservative. These institutions represent the consensus, represent the slow and conservative process of the scientific method, represents decades of  peer-reviewed research. There are scientists with all kinds of opinions outside of the consensus, but it would be utterly stupid to base public policies on the minority of scientists rather than on the consensus. In the past, there wasn’t a consensus about AGW, but then the data changed and so through painstaking discussion a consensus developed. That is quite significant.

Michael Specter makes a very good point at the beginning of that video. He says there are two topics he doesn’t discuss: Creationism and Global Warming. If someone believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then there is absolutely no basis for a rational discussion. If someone dismisses the mountain of data on climate change, then one more intelligent presentation of the data will be pointless. I probably should follow his example. I’m sure I’d be happier if I didn’t waste my time with these extreme representatives of denialism.

I’ve written about all of this before. There is a long history to my irritation towards rampant irrationality, anti-intellectualism, ideological rhetoric, apologetics, and general ignorance.

Climategate, Science Funding, Public Ignorance
Online Debates: Ideology, Education & Psychology
Denialism & Anti-intellectualism (AGW)
Uncommon Talents: Research & Critical Thinking
Liberal Facts vs Conservative Ideology
Head in the Sand Syndrome
Climate Change, Scandalous E-mails, and Wendell Berry
Denialism: Science and Public Debate
Righteousness: Ignorance and Inauthenticity
What is Intellectuality?
Intelligence & Curiosity
Lies and Truth: why care?
Reality and Rationality: a discussion
Debate b/t Religion and Science: Theists, Atheists, Agnostics, Integralists
Love of Truth: Discussing vs Arguing
Re: All Evidence to the Contrary
NT Scholarship and Discussions: limits, failings
The Love of Truth vs. the Sophistry of Apologetics

Considering I’ve already written so many posts along these lines, what does this post add? I don’t know. I’m just continually frustrated and just need to vent. But there is one thing that was new on my mind.

I was recently reading Charles Fort… now, he is a real skeptic. He is an important example because he was very critical of science, but why I respect him is because he was critical of everything. Fort wasn’t an anti-intellectual. My respect for him, though, goes beyond just his equal opportunity skepticism. Fort didn’t just doubt for his doubt was motivated by wonder. He wasn’t denying for the sake of playing Devil’s Advocate and he certainly wasn’t denying other view points in defense of a Sacred Cow. He was truly curious and he followed the facts. His skepticism was more about interpretations than the facts themselves.

Fort is my kind of thinker. I put him in the same category as John Keel, Jacques Vallee, Robert Anton Wilson, John C. Lilly, Terrence McKenna, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick. These people thought outside of the box which sometimes means questioning mainstream science but more than anything it means using critical thinking skills and being independent-minded.

I’m not sure what any of them would think about Global Warming. They’re all dead now. Fort died before the really amazing advances of modern science. I too probably would’ve been more skeptical of science if I lived when he did. It’s possible that Fort or any of these others might’ve had doubts about Global Warming. I too have doubts. Any intelligent person has doubts. But I imagine that, even if these thinkers were skeptical of climate change, I still wouldn’t be irritated whether or not I agreed with their assessment. The reason I say this is because all of these people seemed to have been true skeptics rather than denialists.

From my perspective, denialism seems like a defensive attitude motivated by fear and uncertainty. Scientists are saying the world is changing. Science is about true skepticism. So, what are the denialists trying to defend? I see a number of possibilities. Some might be defending the status quo. People like the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to and they don’t want to consider the possibility that their lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Similarly, some are just afraid of the unknown. The paranoia of the conspiracy mindset is motivated by this kind of fear. There is this sense of an invisible or elusive enemy whether scientists, liberal elite, one world order, the anti-Christ, or whatever. Another possibility is that some people might be defending against complexity. In a global world, life is no longer simple. The easy answers of the past no longer seem to work. Society seems to be breaking down. The environment may be more precarious than we previously thought. It’s a scary world.

From a psychological perspective, denialism is understandable… but that is all the more reason we shouldn’t ignore the denialists and dismiss them as merely ignorant. Denialists aren’t necessarily stupid, but many of them do seem to at least lack critical thinking skills. I think our education system has failed… as have many things in our society (politics, corporations, communities, etc). I think we need to try to understand this from a larger perspective that can include all of the diverse pieces. I don’t know what the answer is, but I wish curiosity (especially intellectual curiosity) were promoted more in our society. It depresses me that people seem more motivated by ideology than by a love of knowledge.

That is the issue I’m personally dealing with. I’ve met many intelligent people online, but I’ve come to realize that a deep sense of open-minded curiosity is a rare thing. Maybe I shouldn’t be so critical of the failings of others… no doubt I have failings of my own. If even intelligent people can fall into the trap of denialism, then maybe a more compassionate and understanding response is required.

If people are this afraid of the world (of the government, of the elites, of modern life in general), then throwing facts at them isn’t likely to lessen their fears. They sense something is wrong with the world and they’re trying to understand the cause. I agree that there is a lot wrong. How can I blame them for looking for an easy answer? By creating an enemy that can be fought, the world can feel safer. Someone like Glenn Beck may be more of a symptom than a cause of this collective sense of fear. Of course, he wants to blame Obama, the socialists, and the liberal elite. Of course, people want some single thing to be the problem (statism, socialism, fascism, etc) or some combination of problems held together by that singular sense of fear.

Even some environmental alarmists get pulled into this overwhelming sense of fear. It can be found in all sectors of society. I guess that is why I think science is so important. The purpose of the scientific method is to filter out the biases, the assumptions, the emotions. The scientific method isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best things we’ve got going for us. If we can’t trust science, then we can’t trust anything and we are just fucked. If we can’t trust human reason, if fear is greater than hope, if denialism is greater than the wonder we’re born with, then we might as well just give up right now. We have to be willing to face our fears, both personal and collective… and that is the hardest thing to do. The world is a scary place. There are no easy answers. But what is clear is that knowledge is better than ignorance… even imperfect, partial knowledge is better than ignorance.

Denialism: Science and Public Debate

I’ve just come across the name of Michael Specter.  He has received some attention lately because of his book Denialism.  In the following video, Specter explains why he didn’t include the Global Warming issue in his book.  He said that it’s too complex of an issue and so requires more than just a chapter in a book.  I’d argue back that complex issues are precisely where his argument is weakest.  The allegation of “denialism” implies that it is always or usually clear who is doing the denying and that some people are intellectually above such cognitive weaknesses and failings.  Basically, what Sepcter leaves out is the psychological insight about how and why people think the way they do.

I noticed this review of Michael Specter’s book Denialism.

– – –

Battling the Skeptics by Darshak Sanghavi

Science utopians can be touching in their naïveté, much like high school chemistry whizzes who try to figure out why the popular kids never pay them any attention. But they fail to appreciate a salient point: scientists may get how the atoms of the universe combine, but they’re often dweebs in the real world. In any event, there are two ways to deal with scientific illiteracy: take a long, hard look at the forces that repel so many from science, or throw up your hands and write people off as fools.

Michael Specter, a science and public health writer for The New Yorker, shows little interest in the first approach in his pugnacious new book, “Denialism,” which carries the ominous subtitle “How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” He devotes chapters to anti-­vaccine zealots, purveyors of organic foods, promoters of alternative medicines and opponents of race-based medicine, accusing each group of turning “away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”

[…] But Specter isn’t much interested in the roots of denialism, much less in engaging productively with it. While his book brims with passion and many interesting facts, he repeatedly pulls rabble-rousing tricks — this in a book that accuses others of forgoing rational debate — and his annoyance is rarely focused.

[…] Specter used to be a denialist himself. […] Here, Specter could have explored how even a prestigious science writer like himself was seduced by the highly unlikely possibility that coffee enemas might cure pancreatic cancer. (After all, the flip side of denialism is faith, which isn’t always bad.) But rather than attempting to ­understand his former fellow denialists, he pushes them out of reasoned conversation, declaring, “Denialism is a virus, and viruses are contagious.”

[…] In his haste to sort people into two bins — either scientifically enlightened or in denial — Specter overlooks an important trend: for better or worse, people are more skeptical of authority than they used to be and want to think for themselves, which includes grappling with the minutiae of science. Not so long ago, for example, patients rarely questioned doctors before undergoing surgery or taking their pills (for example, estrogen replacement therapy to prevent heart attacks), a blind obedience to authority that arguably cost many more lives than, say, vaccine refusal does now. What we are seeing is the democratization of science, not the rise of denialism. […] The list goes on. Specter has written a frustrated book about “denialism” but could just as well have described the hopeful signs of a new era.

– – –

Specter sounds like he might be in the same camp as the new atheists.  My problem with this type of writing isn’t that some intelligent points aren’t made but rather the author’s attitude.  Calling someone (or a group of people) a “denialist” seems more polemical than helpful.  If used carefully and sparingly, it could be a useful term.  However, using it to dismiss those who disagree with you just contributes to the conflict.  The fact of the matter is that science is never black and white.

For example, I’m fine with labelling as a denialist someone who entirely denies Darwinism because they believe the Bible has greater authority than peer-reviewed science.  But I’m not fine with labelling as a denialist someone who argues against Darwinism by pointing out a scientifically plausible alternative theory.  Questioning Darwinism doesn’t a denialist make.  Intelligent public debate demands that people point out the weaknesses and unanswered questions of the prevailing paradigm.

Also, I’m not in favor of science being used to dismiss the everyday experience of people.  Scientific consensus shouldn’t be used to bludgeon people for disagreeing and to keep the public in line.  There are many things science can’t answer and scientists and new atheists should be more humble in the limits of present knowledge.  Most people have weird experiences such as UFOs and ghosts.  Even though science isn’t able to research such phenomena, doesn’t mean science can deny such experiences because then scientists would themselves fall into the trap of denialism.  Many things exist in the world that can’t be controlled in a lab that don’t happen on a regular enough basis to be predictably studied.  However, respectable people including scientists have observed many things that they can’t explain.  Anecdotal experience doesn’t prove anything, but many scientific discoveries begin with anecdotal experience.

Unsatisfying as it may be, there are always more questions than answers.  Some questions may seem stupid.  But if it weren’t for seemingly stupid questions, there would be a lot slower pace to the gaining of new scientific knowledge.

Anyways, scientists are as easily swayed by ideological beliefs and paradigmatic assumptions as the rest of us.  The power of science is in the overall scientific view that evolves over generations.  The underlying complaint that I sense from the new atheist types is that scientific progress is too slow, but I’m doubtbul that it can be speeded up to any great degree.  Scientific progress is dependent on even larger trends of social development.  And for scientific knowledge to develop science itself along with scientists will have to develop as well.

Some other related pieces:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denialism

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/05/books/excerpt-michael-specter.html?ref=review

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120139776

http://www.slate.com/id/2234719/entry/2234720/

http://www.grist.org/article/2009-10-31-michael-specter-denialism-organic-GMO/

http://www.postbourgie.com/2009/11/09/denialism/

http://2020science.org/2009/08/11/reflections-of-a-scientific-illiterate/

http://www.forteantimes.com/strangedays/science/2158/abominable_no_men.html

http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2792

http://www.newsweek.com/id/32482

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2009/07/09/1991160.aspx

http://getenergysmartnow.com/2009/07/10/republicans-reject-science-scientists-reject-republicans/

http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1399/religion-and-science

Debate b/t Religion and Science: Theists, Atheists, Agnostics, Integralists

 – – –

FIRST COMMENT

This response profoundly misunderstands Karen Armstrong’s arguments.  This isn’t a fair portrayal.  As far as I understand her arguments, the criticisms presented here don’t seem to touch upon what she actually writes about.

Armstrong’s books are very scholarly.  She isn’t against rationality and science.  What she supports is making subtle intellectual distinctions in order to create a rational context to discuss otherwise non-rational issues.  She backs her arguments with historical evidence which is the best one can do when trying to analyze the development of religion and society.  And nothing she states contradicts any known scientific facts or theories.

Armstrong offers great insight into the religious mind.  Her explanation of the origins of literalist fundamentalism make more sense to me than any argument I’ve come across.

Her argument is that a new way of thinking about religion arose with the Axial Age.  In particular, this involved the ability to think metaphorically.  But I don’t think she disagrees that it was initially (and for many centuries to come) a style of thinking limited mostly to elite theologians.  It was only with the Enlightenment that the the Axial Age ideals started to take hold more clearly and science provided a new paradigm by which metaphorical thinking could be contrasted.

In response to science, the idea of religious literalism arose as entirely distinct from allegorical interpretation.  It’s not that literalist thinking didn’t exist to an extent earlier, but it only became an ideology unto itself in modern times.

Armstrong isn’t an enemy of atheism.  The only thing she is an enemy of is closed-mindedeness and simplistic thinking.  Her criticism of the New Atheists isn’t a criticism of atheism in general.  She is simply pointing out that certain arguments made by some popular atheists aren’t the best arguments to be made.  Her main issue is that, by talking about religion in literalist terms, the atheist just plays into the hands of literalist fundamentalists.  She wants to undermine religious literalism at it’s base.  She wants to show fundamentalism for what it is by showing how it developed.

 – – –

SECOND COMMENT

We seem to be talking past each other or something.

And you apparently have me mistaken for someone else.  I’m far from being a religious apologist.  I can’t stand apologetics and I harshly criticize anyone who uses it.  I do have some interest in religion and I study religious scholarship, but I’m not an overly religious person as I usually think of myself as an agnostic.  I look for insight where ever I can find it whether from religion, science, psychology or whatever.  But I especially appreciate quality scholarship.
 
Straw-men arguments? I have no clue what you’re talking about.  My basic argument was that you didn’t understand Armstrong’s ideas, and I then explained my own understanding of her work.  Have you read her books?  If you haven’t, then I don’t know why you have such strong opinions based on such limited info.  Or if you have, you need to reinforce your argument with more specifically quoted examples.
 
“Of course, Armstrong doesn’t say she is against science. I never claimed this. She is completely misrepresenting it’s place in history, that’s all.”
 
Well, so far, you’ve mentioned science 25 times and mostly in reference to Armstrong.  Going by your own words: Your argument is that she undermines and blames and ignores science, that she doesn’t care about scientfic facts, and that she is dangerously usurping science for a liberal anti-scientific agenda.  If this isn’t your true opinion, then you need to edit your previous statements or else better explain what you actually meant by these words.
 
“I am amused at how you built your assumptions into the statement while cloaking Armstrong’s revisionism in the language of tolerance.”
 
All statements have assumptions built into them.  My argument was fairly simple and straightforward.  I wasn’t cloaking anything.
 
“Firstly, she is not so much making ‘intellectual distinctions’ as she is making stuff up.”
 
Generalized judgments and dismissals aren’t helpful.  Give me precise quoted examples of her making stuff.   Show in detail that your allegation is correct.  Explain how her supposed “making stuff up” disproves her entire argument and undermines all of her scholarly respectability.
 
“Secondly, your implicit assumption that there is no other rational context to discuss such issues is wrong.”
 
No such assumption was implied.  I’m fond of many other rational contexts.  I wasn’t arguing that Armstrong has the market cornered on rational contexts.  She isn’t even an author I obsessively read or even think about that much.
 
“There is one very powerful rational context that is always relevant- objective reality.”
 
I like objective reality.  Are you implying that my arguments or Armstrong’s arguments deny or contradict objective reality?
 
“No preferential treatment of facts is necessary, thanks a lot (read up on sociobiology- really read- to get a rational context for understanding religious fundamentalism).”
 
I don’t understand your complaint.  Preferential treatment of facts isn’t necessary, but emphasizing the importance of facts is always a nice thing.  And, yes, I do read up on many fields of study.  In particular, the relationship between biology and behavior is a topic I often read about.
 
“Literalist fundamentalism was always there.”
 
It seems we’re defining literalism differently.  I can’t assess your definition as I don’t know what facts and theories you’re basing it on.  As far as I can tell, you seem to be using a very general and vague sense of literalism.  In terms of cognitive ability, however, literalistic thinking is more narrowly defined.
 
“Religion is the political remnant of a system of belief that told a narrative of factual events. For modern religious moderates, when it comes to everyday issues they can understand that there is such a thing as the real world and there is the emotional world, but when it comes to religion they forgo this distinction.”
 
It’s not that all fundamentalists dismiss this distinction.  Many of them simply don’t understand it.
 
The definition of literalism I’m using is from a developmental perspective.  On the personal level, people have the potential to learn how to make clear rational distinctions at a particular stage of development, but this depends on the person’s intelligence and their social environment.  As such, development can be stalled or even permanently stunted.  Plus, integrating this ability into all aspects of one’s life involves even further stages of cognitive development that are even less common.  There are also theories that discern stages of development in societies.  A person is only likely to develop to the extent that most others have developed in their society.  Our modern understanding of literal facts didn’t exist thousands of years ago.  Even when this understanding began to develop, it was a minority of the population that grasped it.
 
I openly admit that it’s hard to figure out the cognitive processes of ancient people.  But plausible theories can be formed using historical data, anthropology, psychology and neurology.  Anyways, my main point isn’t that all ancient people didn’t have some basic sense of an external reality that they perceived as being separate from their own subjectivity.  I’m simply pointing out that religious literalism as we know it today has become influenced by a scientific worldview which wasn’t the case in the past.
 
“Please spare me the Axial age BS. It is a half-baked hypothesis that relies on amateurish post hoc reasoning. Such ideas are designed to appeal to those who have already made up their minds. In this case, it is the mind of the religious moderate who desires above all to find a way to make all the religions work together in harmony.”
 
You have many biased assumptions about many things.  Half-baked?  Amateurish post hoc reasoning?  Please do explain!
 
Armstrong didn’t simply invent the idea of the Axial Age as it (along with similar ideas) has been discussed by many scholars.  It’s common for scholars to analyze history according to ages of socio-cultural development such as tool-making, agriculture, city-states, etc.  In terms of the Axial Age, there was a specific time period when many cultures were developing written language and when certain new ideas arose such as monotheism/monism and variations of the golden rule. 
 
The term Axial Age is merely a way of labelling and describing a broad period of cultural transformation.  That such a transformation happened is a matter of historical record, but the cause of it is a complex issue.  Even though cultural transmission is one possibility, it’s implausible as being the sole cause as there were many separate cultures experiencing similar changes at around the same time.  It is true that correlation doesn’t prove causation, but obviously something was causing massive change.
 
“To understand cultural patterns on such large scales one needs to take into account a lot more real variables that Armstrong can grasp.”
 
Why do you presume what Armstrong can grasp?  Do you personally know her and have you scientifically tested her cognitive abilities? 
 
She is a religious scholar.  That is what she is an expert in and so that is what she focuses on.  Why would you expect a scholar of a specific field to take into account all possible variables including those outside their field?  Yes, there are other areas of scholarship that are relevant.  So what?  That doesn’t disprove Armstrong’s contribution to her area of scholarship. 
 
Her ideas are just another possible piece of the puzzle, but I’m all for trying to understand the whole puzzle.  For that reason, I turn to such things as Integral theory in order to get a conceptual framework to put the pieces together.  Even so, you can never know that you’ve completely figured it out because theories about human cultural development are impossible to scientifically prove beyond all doubt.
 
“For example, briefly, the ‘ability’ to think metaphorically evolved at least 70,000 years ago, but possibly up to 300,000 years ago. However, the ability to perceive our world around us evolved with the first intelligent ancestors we ever had. For intelligent biological organisms to survive, they needed to be convinced that certain things were true. Metaphor as a semantic tool is pointless when faced with a hungry lion. Literalism is the default setting.”
 
I’m not using literalism as referring to the perception of external reality, though there are theories that propose that early humans didn’t clearly distinguish between internal and external experience (such as Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism or Lloyd deMause’s theory of schizotypal personality).  Instead, what I am focusing on here is the cognitive ability to think in terms of black and white absolutes.  This is how a person cognitively processes perceptual experience rather than the process of perception itself.  So, metaphor as you are using it seems to be equated with mythological thinking which according to some theories of development represents an earlier stage of development.
 
“It is an insult to say that these people did not believe that stuff literally.”
 
I’m not saying that and I don’t think that Armstrong comes to that conclusion.  For example, consider Christianity.  Some of the earliest theologians relied heavily on allegorical interpretations.  Yes, they believed they were true but not necessarily true in a physical sense.  Christianity arose at the end of the Axial Age when the distinction between allegorical truth and objective facts was becoming more common.
 
In a sense, even these early Christians believed their allegorical interpretations were literally true for they conceived the spiritual realm as being the highest truth.  Still, they were making a distinction which is different than the earliest religions where the spiritual and physical were inseparable (and so mind and world were connected through magical thinking).  Nonetheless, even this conflation doesn’t deny that they may have had some understanding of reality as external to them.  If a hungry lion attacked, they would defend themselves against it.  But afterwards they probably would interpret it as an animistic encounter with a spiritual being.
 
I don’t know if I’m communicating this in a way that you understand.  I’ve been studying these kinds of ideas for years and I can’t claim to have it all figured out.  It’s a very complex topic involving many different theories by many different scholars in many different fields.  However, I often return to Ken Wilber’s Integral theory as it connects more of the puzzle pieces together than any other theory I’ve come across, though I don’t agree with everything he claims.  It’s first and foremost a descriptive model, but to the degree it accurately explains objective facts it can be considered potentially predictive in that all individuals and all societies tend to follow certain patterns of development.  According to Wilber’s use of Spiral Dynamics (which represents only one line of development), there are distinct stages.
 
 – The earliest stages see the world in terms of animism and magical thinking, and so mythology is “literally” a part of the world.
 – After the earliest stages, humans began to develop a more individual sense of consciousness meaning that that the mind was showing some independence from the environment (i.e., people could think about rather than merely react to the world).  Likewise, spiritual beings also were perceived as being more clearly distinct from the world and from human individuality.  The sense of something being “literally” true meant that it existed outside of mere human experience.
 – The stage where “literal” thinking shows itself most clearly is when humans start emphasizing binary opposites that are polarized into absolute right and wrong, absolute true and false.  Self and other become absolutely distinct.
 – After this stage, experiential data and evidence take on greater value.  Standards and methods are developed to ascertain what is objectively true.  What is “literally” true is what is verifiable.  
 – This is where postmodernism and cultural relativism come in.  “Literal” truth becomes just one perspective and what is considered true is whatever allows for and includes the most perspectives.  As such, science and religion are perspectives and there is neither is inherently superior to the other in that there simply separate paradigms of reality.  However, within multiple perspectives there is a sense that some things are universally true and I suppose that this might be taken as “literally” true in some way.  This is primarily where Armstrong is arguing from, but I don’t know if this is where her thinking ends.
 – Beyond all of this, further stages of development are proposed where inclusion of different perspectives is allowed while maintaining a meta-perspective to discern the value of different perspectives.  These higher stages supposedly emphasize the ability to understand the different stages and different perspectives toward practical ends.  Something is “literally” true to the extent that it effectively works towards some clearly defined goal.  So, there would be no singular truth per se as there are many goals.  These goals aren’t seen as necessarily in conflict for it would be considered most optimal to find where lesser goals can be directed towards more encompassing goals.
 
By the way, this isn’t mere theory.  Spiral Dynamics was formulated according to research Clare Graves did, and Ken Wilber correlated it with other research and other models.  My point being that Armstrong’s arguments can be placed in this larger context of diverse scholarship.  Whether it’s absolutely true or not, time will tell.  But for certain this does offer a plausible explanation of cultural development that clarifies the relationship between religion and science.
 
– – –
 
THIRD COMMENT

 “After the publishing of this response,the commenter responded by ignoring my entire rational argument in favor of more confirmation bias.”

Confirmation bias simply means that people tend to seek confirmation to their own view which is something everyone does to an extent, but it’s generally used to describe extreme examples of someone biased thinking.  However, making this allegation against an opponent can just as well be used polemically to dismiss another person’s view and evidence.  In this case, Kamal’s allegation of confirmation bias appears to be an example of confirmation bias.

“My statements were twisted in typical religious fashion, using the all-too-common religious dance between objective and subjective concepts in order to obscure naturalistic truth.”

Twisted?  I merely pointed out Kamal’s exact words.  I didn’t even take them out of context.  Anyone can look at his comments and see for themselves what he wrote (assuming he hasn’t since edited out these statements).

Typical religious fashion?  I presented carefully explained rational arguments supported by diverse theories and evidence.  All of the references I made can be found within the mainstream intellectual tradition.  Many of the ideas I was using for context are taught in universities and in some cases are based on social sciences research.  If Kamal considers this “typical religious fashion”, he must interact with some very intelligent and well-read religious people.  I wish he would give me their contact details because I’d love to meet such intellectually respectable believers.

“I am not interested in arguing with religious people since there are plenty of more useful things that I can occupy myself with.”

I explained to him that I’m not religious.  Some atheists can’t differentiate being interested in religion and believing in religion.  Anyone who has studied religious scholarship in any depth would quickly realize that many religious scholars aren’t religious believers.

“The writing of this article, contrary to what religious folk may think, has nothing to do with actually arguing against religious folk and everything to do with ridiculing Armstrong’s incoherent religious apologetics.”

He states his true intentions.  He isn’t interested in actual debate no matter how intelligent.  His main (and maybe only) purpose is to ridicule Armstrong because he has categorized her as a mere believer.  As his perception of her opposes his atheistic ideology, she must be attacked at all costs even if it means sacrificing intellectual honesty.  Polemically winning the debate by silencing one’s opponent is more important than the open puruit of truth.

“Such ridicule is well within my right, and I believe it is essential to the process of developing a strong freethought response to institutionalized superstition.”

Free speech is definitely everyone’s right, and it’s his right to choose whose comments he wants to post.  However, if his purpose is genuinely to promote freethought, then he should support the free speech of others rather than attempting to silence disagreement.  New understanding comes from the meeting of different perspectives.  Freethought isn’t about any particular ideology or theory.  Freethought is dependent on respect for open discussion and respect for all rational viewpoints.  His opinion that my viewpoint is wrong simply doesn’t matter from the perspective of freethought.  An intellectual argument deserves an intellectual response… which is what Kamal refused to do and so he loses any rational justification for calling himself a defender of freethought.

“In view of this, I have decided to not publish any further comments form religious folk. If you think you have won the debate, good for you. Please continue to feel good about yourself.”

Thank you.  I do feel good about offering you opportunity to have a rational discussion, but it saddens me that you apparently have embraced pseudo-intellectualism.

“We rationalists have our hands full trying to build real moral alternatives to religion and I would rather not waste my time arguing with those who cannot let go of primitive superstitions.”

Primitive superstitions?  Is that the best you can do?

Oh well… 

 – – –

NOTE ON COMMENTS

I posted the first two comments to Ajita Kamal’s blog.

However, the second comment apparently wasn’t allowed to be posted.  I can only assume that Ajita Kamal had no rational response to my dismantling of his argument.  I don’t know if Ajita Kamal is an example of a pseudo-intellectual, but his actions seem to show a lack of intellectual humility and maybe honesty.  After my comment was posted there and not approved, an earlier commenter returned to praise his writing.  He accepted this praise, but didn’t mention my having refuted his criticisms of Karen Armstrong.  Ajita Kamal is the type of ideologue of the New Atheist variety who gives atheism a bad name.

For obvious reasons, I made no attempt to post the third comment to Ajita Kamal’s blog.  Kamal did finally acknowledge in his blog the existence of my comment, but he still didn’t offer any rational response.

 – – –

ABOUT KAREN ARMSTRONG

I’m no expert on Armstrong’s scholarschip, but she is someone I refer to on occasion.  She is highly influential and probably can be considered to have taken up the position of authority that Joseph Campbell once held.  If you don’t like or understand Campbell, then you’ll probably have the same attitude about Armstrong.  Both began as Catholics and both sought a non-literal understanding of religion.

As for Armstrong, she was a nun who became an angry atheist and then later came to accept the label of “freelance monotheist“. 

I usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham.  I can’t see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of them as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles heels. But recently, I’ve just written a short life [story] of the Buddha and I’ve been enthralled by what he has to say about spirituality, about the ultimate, about compassion and about the necessary loss of ego before you can encounter the divine. And all the great traditions are, in my view, saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences.

My sense is that she just means that she has the sense of something profoundly true, but she is unwilling to making any ideological claims about it.  She separates her scholarship from her experience, but at the same time sees scholarship as a way of exploring possible universal aspects of human experience.  From what I can tell, she isn’t trying to apologetically convince anyone of a particular position.  Her own position is an attitude of openness and acceptance (which I would deem intellectual humility).  She takes her role as scholar very seriously and so her attitude of openness is also an attitude of intellectual curiosity.  She doesn’t seem to start with the position of having anything figured out (either theistically or atheistically), but neither is she resigned to relativism.

What is interesting about Armstrong is how differently people react to her ideas.  Some religious believers agree with ideological atheists in their belief that she is the ultimate enemy (whether of “faith” or of “reason”).  On the other hand, many religious believers, agnostics, atheists, and generally open-minded curious people consider her to be a proponent of freethought and religious insight.  What is clear is that those who disagree with her are forced to come to terms with her very popular scholarship.

FURTHER INFORMATION

If you’re interested in further criticisms of the New Atheists, see these other posts of mine:

Here is a thoughtful criticism of the atheist response to religion:

A Mission to Convert
By H. Allen Orr
The New York Review of Books

And some other interesting blogs, articles, and videos:

http://fora.tv/2008/02/27/Karen_Armstrong_in_Conversation_with_Alan_Jones

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya64kx1U2r8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsZF8I6lrdQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtpF94Fjue4&feature=related

http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/05/30/armstrong/

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html

http://www.newsweek.com/id/215180

http://300dollarwonder.blogspot.com/2007/01/karen-armstrong-why-atheism-is-in-vouge.html

http://www.religiondispatches.org/blog/religionandtheology/2026/is_karen_armstrong_right_was_religion_always_about_belief_or_not

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relationship_between_science_and_religion

http://www.examiner.com/x-8637-Sacramento-Spirituality-Examiner~y2009m6d9-Theism-and-Skepticism

http://hokai.info/2006/11/where-atheist-revolution-went-wrong.html

http://rationalmorality.info/?p=132

http://karmabuster.gaia.com/blog/2009/5/dennett-dawkins-metaphor-and-much-more

http://julianwalkeryoga.gaia.com/blog/2008/2/interesting_conversation

http://coolmel.gaia.com/blog/2007/12/the_new_atheists_are_people_too

http://sunwalked.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/dawkins-the-fundamentalist-takes-a-left-and-a-right-to-the-chin/

http://www.northernway.org/weblog/?p=301

http://anamchara.com/2009/07/15/the-epistemology-of-post-fundamentalism/

http://anamchara.com/2008/01/04/holy-agnosis/

http://godisnot3guyscom-jeanette.blogspot.com/2009/11/trinity-by-ken-wilber.html

http://integral-options.blogspot.com/2007/09/more-on-why-new-atheists-will-fail.html

http://integral-options.blogspot.com/search?q=new+atheists

Re: Proof for God’s Existence?

Someone pointed out the blog post entitled Proof for God’s Existence? by Mark Tetzlaff.  Here is the beginning of the post:

It is interesting to note that the Bible does not begin with a proof for the existence of God. Instead it simply begins with the premise that God exists and presents God’s testimony to Himself. Why is this?

A model argument consists of a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion. If even one premise is wrong, the argument is useless. An argument based upon premises that are uncertain or unknown is of no value. Therefore, the objective of a rational argument is to use something that is certain to confirm something that is uncertain.

The Bible does not provide us with an argument or proof for God’s existence because in order to do so, there would have to be something more certain than God’s existence with which we could begin our argument. Instead, It presents God’s testimony to Himself recognizing that His testimony is the most reliable testimony possible.

Here are my comments:

No, it doesn’t begin with a premise. It begins with a belief stated as a fact. If you share that belief and all of the implicit beliefs that go along with it, then you will more likely agree with all of the rest of the beliefs that are found in the text. It has nothing to do with premises. No logical argument is being made and so there is nothing to refute.

Anyways, logic isn’t a good model to try to understand the possibility of God. Humans aren’t inherently rational creatures, and especially the relationship of humans too any hypothetical divine being (no matter of what faith) isn’t rational. But even if you’re logical argument was correct, it would apply equally as well to any number of other Gods written about in other holy scriptures.

From another perspective, just look at Judeo-Christian history. There has been endless numbers of interpretation of God. Even limiting the debate to ideas in early Christianity, there was much disagreement. For example, the first Christians to collect and organize the New Testament scriptures were Gnostics (and this earliest Christian Bible excluded the Jewish scriptures). And the first Christians to write commentaries on the New Testament were Gnostics. Guess who were some of the leading figures in the earliest Christian church? Yep, Gnostics.

In the first few centuries, there was a wide variety of opinions. There were Jewish Christians and Christians trying to separate themselves entirely from Judaism. There were the Gnostics and related groups such as the Marcionites and the Coptic Christians. These various groups overlapped and shared many common members at times. The Christian group that grew the fastest and spread the widest early on were the Manichaeans.

It’s not enough to look at a modern translation of an ancient text. You have to understand the social and historical context. I’m all for seeking inspiration when reading holy texts, but the problem is different people will be “inspired” to interpret it differently. Christian history is filled with disagreements about whose inspired interpretation is correct.

Personally, I prefer to study the scholarship and intuit the most probable meaning, but you never can be sure. For sure, I don’t use logic and I don’t assume I’ll be able to prove my personal understanding to anyone else.

All this blog post does is preach to the choir. Anyone who already agrees with your interpretation of the Bible will agree with the conclusions you’ve come to.

 – – –

There is nothing specifically wrong with preaching to the choir. Most writings are only read by people who are inclined to agree with the author and this is particularly true in the realm of religious writings.

The problem is that a blog like this is portraying the author’s views as something more than personal understanding… and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way. Sure, be a witness to your own understanding. There is nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand, I do enjoy a well explained theological argument, but I don’t think the author succeeded here. It ends up being more of a description of what the author believes rather than a logical explication.

As for absolute reference points, every major world religion claims something different. If only an absolute reference point can be used to evaluate truth, then what do use to evaluate which version of an absolute reference point is correct? You could answer that you know in your own experience and because it’s been revealed to many Christians.

There are two problems.

First, various Christians have claimed to have had many diverse revelations and they don’t all agree. Revelation can’t even be used to ascertain truth within Christianity. If any particular Christian is correct, then all of the other Christians are wrong. How do you know you’re right?

Second, various non-Christians have claimed to have had many diverse revelations and they don’t all agree. Why doesn’t God reveal himself the same to all? Or if these are all false revelations, why doesn’t God reveal their falsity to those people?

I don’t mean any of this as mere criticism. These are important issues. I believe in a balance of faith and rationality, but it’s a tricky balance.

 – – –

Rome is a city-state that is gaining power in the Hellenistic world. A group of devout believers arises. They live an ascetic lifestyle. They travel from town to town depending on the kindness of strangers. They preach the ideal of truth and they believe in divine law that applies to all people no matter what nation or culture. They confront authority, and often are met with torture and death. They refuse to fight back violently and peacefully accept their fates. They are the first martyrs recorded in Western history.

Who am I describing? If you answer Christians, you are incorrect. These first martyrs were the Stoics.

The willingness to sacrifice oneself in the name of a higher spiritual truth is the most extreme example of religious certainty. And the Christians didn’t invent it. You can find martyrs in many different religions.

Also, did you notice what the Stoics were willing to die for? It is what is called natural law.

Natural law doesn’t come out of the Jewish tradition. Before the Jews were influenced by Hellenistic culture, they had no concept of natural law. To the early Jews, law was a covenant that applied to a specific group and not to everyone.

Some later Jews (in the centuries before and after the beginning of Christianity) were influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy and theology. Most of these Jews lived in Alexandria (the center of ancient knowledge) where they formed the largest portion of the population at one time. These Alexandrian Jews particularly studied Plato, but also some were initiated in to the Mystery schools. The most famous example was Philo who interpreted the Jewish scriptures Platonically (i.e., allegorically) and many of the earliest Christians also interpeted the Old Testament Platonically (especially the Church Doctors such as Augustine). Genesis was one of the stories that was interpreted Platonically (yes, Plato believed in a supreme first cause).

The Stoics were also a part of this influence that was particularly important to early Christians. Some observers at the time couldn’t tell Stoics apart from the early Christians because both groups looked very similar and both groups acted similarly. Some Stoics even converted to Christianity, and also some early Christians were converted to pagan religions. There was many religious options in the Roman world and much mixing of ideas.

 – – –

Not all arguments are circular.  There is different between a theological belief and a logical premise or a scientific hypothesis.  Presuppositional apologetics begins with an assumption, but it’s an assumption that can’t be objectively tested (can’t be objectively proved or disproved), can’t be peer reviewed, can’t be verified by further methodological research, can’t be meta-analyzed.

Science doesn’t depend on any particular belief.  Scientists tend towards particular theories, but scientific history shows that any theory will be dismissed when it no longer fits the facts.

There is an absolute distinction between religion and science.  Most well educated people not using presuppositional apologetics understands this distinction.  To say everything is presuppositional is to project your own thinking on to the whole world.  If you doubt me, take some logic and philosophy classes at a non-Christian college or major in a hard science such as physics.  Great thinkers have written centuries of detailed books explaining these kinds of distinctions.

Anyways, conflating religion and science in no way strengthens religion.  To say all belief is circular is nihilistic.  That isn’t a genuine answer.  That is an apologetic non-answer given to non-believers, a debating tactic rather than a logical argument.  Christians who use presuppositional apologetics don’t actually believe their beliefs are circular.  You can’t win the argument by declaring the argument moot.  If all belief is really circular, then Christianity is a meaningless waste of time.

State your convictions and stand by them.  Don’t try to play these word games.  If you feel God’s presence in your life, then just say so.  But don’t tell other people what they know in their experience.  And don’t define other systems of thought according to Christian ideology.  God is simply a non-issue to science because there is no way to objectively test the hypothesis.  Attacking science doesn’t prove the Christian God nor does it do much of anything else besides.

As for the Stoics, they’re simply a relevant example.  Both natural law and martyrdom originated with Stoics before becoming synthesized in Christianity.  Also, they’re an example of zealous conviction.  The ability of and propensity towards certitude is a universal human trait, but it can’t be objectively observed outside of human nature.

As for Augustine, I merely picked him as a famous example.  But many early Christians interpreted the Jewish scriptures Platonically.  This is very important because there is more than one kind of certainty.  Platonic interpretations doesn’t require intellectual knowledge.  Spiritual or subjective sense of absolute certainty doesn’t contradict nor disprove scientific sense of relative certainty.  Platonic interpretations of Genesis aren’t dependent on presuppositional apologetics nor on the assumption that all belief is circular.  Platonism allows for a wide range of interpretations rather than a singular literalistic interpretation.

 – – –

I’m no longer commenting in that discussion thread now, but I wanted to add some further responses here.  Matthew Ervin responded to me with these two comments:

First, I actually have a Bachelor’s Degree in philosophy from Ohio University where I was also a logic tutor. My advanced work was done in and continues to be done in a seminary. What Benjamin has done here is resort to ad hominem (google that Ben). His arguments are non sensical because he doesn’t deal with the heart of the post, rather on generally attacking religious thought. He comes across like he has an axe to grind.

p.s. education is irrelevant when it comes to arguing. Arguments should stand on their own. However, that’s all that Ben seems to prize.

I must admit that is truly sad.  He has some higher education in philosophy and he resorts to sophistry.  I guess it makes sense.  Someone well educated in logic knows how to manipulate it to their own conclusions.  At least, he earned his verbal gymnastic skills honestly, but it’s too bad he doesn’t put them to a moral use.  I think he would’ve been better off having done his advanced work in a non-
Christian school where the kind of bullshit he is trying to sell wouldn’t have been accepted.

Education irrelevant to arguing?  Utter nonsense.  This is just his rephrasing his argument that science is based on faith rather than evidence.  This is misinformed garbage.  Arguments can stand on their own in that an argument can be logically consistent, but if it isn’t based on evidence (which is where education comes in) then it’s just empty words.

I don’t care about formal education per se although it can be helpful, but even formal education can be used for intellectually unrespectable purposes (such as how logic is taught for the purposes of apologetics at a Christian school).  What I prize is the desire to be educated rather than the desire to embrace sophistry and misinformation.  I prize intelligence and insightfulness.  I prize critical thinking skills and intellectual humility.  None of these are to be found in over-abundance in his comments.

RE: I am a Pseudoskeptic

Here is a post by a person who thinks of themselves as a skeptic and is humorously accepting the label of pseudoskeptic.

I am a Pseudoskeptic by Troythulu

I disagree with him to an extent in that I’m quite critical of what I deem as pseudoskepticism.  I don’t, however, disagree with his skeptical attitude to the degree it’s genuine.  My only issue might be that it seems he may have more faith than I do in the objectivity and effectiveness of science.  I do love science and the potential of science… with emphasis on the potential.  As I see it, science in general is still in its infancy.  I suspect it will be a long time before humans begin to have a clear appraisal of reality… if ever.  Assuming the human species will survive, the science of the future would be unrecognizable to contemporary humans.  As a wise man once said, a highly developed technology would look like magic to us.

My view presented below is what I wrote in the comments section of the above linked post.

 – – –

I’m neither a pseudo-skeptic nor a Neo-Velikovskian.  I’m not sure if I’m in between those ideological extremes or simply outside of this categorical division.  The labels I prefer are Fortean, Zetetic, and Pyrrhonian skeptic.

Similarly, I don’t consider myself either atheist or theist.  I sometimes think of myself as an agnostic gnostic which is a position that allows for both the rational and non-rational sides of human experience.  At other times, I think of myself as a militant agnostic: I don’t know and neither do you.  My problem is that too many people, whatever their ideological persuasion, are too sure of their opinions.

As for logic and science, I’m for applying such things when and where they’re applicable.  But they aren’t always applicable.  For instance, if you remember a dream, neither logic nor science will likely be able to offer you much understanding.  You can choose to dismiss the dream as nonsense which is your choice, but this would be an avoidance of the complexity and strangeness of human experience.  Even in waking life, odd things happen all of the time that can’t be easily explained.  Even when there are possible explanations, there is a difference between proposing a hypothesis and explaining something away.  Pseudo-skeptics would rather apply logic and science selectively… and so would the Neo-Velikovskians.

I’m from the school of thought that thinks everything should be questioned and doubted.  Nothing is sacred, not religion and not even science.  Look at all sides, consider all possibilities, verify all evidence.  Everything should be brought to the table: hard science research, social science surveys, demographics, anecdotal evidence, Einsteinian thought experiments, unusual personal experiences, intuitive insight, critical thinking skills, philosophical ideas, theoretical frameworks, socio-historical context.  Et Cetera.  But, more important than anything, what is required is infinite curiosity and wonder, an unfailing desire for truth and a willingness to follow the evidence where ever it leads.  All assumptions and ideology must be left at the door.

Also, never bow down to any authority.  Don’t accept what someone says simply because they claim to be an expert.  The moment anyone claims anything, no matter how respectable they may seem, immediately consider all possible criticisms.  Always look for the spin, for the vested interests, for the beliefs taken as facts.  Continuously search for the alternative perspectives and try to find the outline of truth amidst the fog of opinions.

In the end, be intellectually humble.  Realize how little you know and further realize how infinite the universe is compared to your tiny primate brain.  Realize that human knowledge is constantly changing and that much of what is conventionally believed to be fact at present (including mainstream scientific theories) will be proven wrong or severely inadequate in the decades and centuries to come.

And be practical rather than idealistic.  Don’t make religion or science into a belief system that answers all doubts.  To the extent any theory is worthy, it is because it works.  The ultimate purpose of a theory, including scientific theories, isn’t it being absolutely true.  Rather, what matters is if it works.

As for science, Newtonian physics have been proven wrong in some ways and yet it still works as a model of prediction.  It’s an imperfect model, but it’s usually good enough for the purposes of taking action in the world.  As for religion, it too has practical effects.  There is truth in religion for those with discerning minds.  Some things are real and yet can’t presently be explained by science.  For example, UFO experiences, religious experiences, and traditional folklore all follow similar patterns.  These patterns exist within the human psyche across cultures.  In some sense, they’re real.  Any particular explanation of them may be wrong, but what is clear is that science hasn’t figured it out as of yet.  Yes, there are scientific hypotheses, but a scientific hypothesis is far from being a scientific theory.  I look forward to a time when some of these hypotheses can be tested.

Debunkers vs True Skeptics

When sceptics fight back by Arran Frood (BBC)

Conspiracy theorists have used the internet to co-ordinate increasingly slick attacks on the accepted versions of events, but now a group of scientists and sceptics has decided it’s time to organise and fight back.

There are three issues.

First, just because someone’s view is outside of the mainstream it doesn’t mean that therefore it’s false.  There are many alternative views even within science, and many accepted theories were dismissed when initially presented.  Besides, not all scientific theories have been absolutely proven, and many things that were once thought to be true are later disproven.

As for the government, politicians and other officials are known to lie all of the time.  The military can keep largescale activities secret for years and even decades.  You have to be absolutely naive to believe everything the government tells you.

The ability to question and doubt conventional opinion is a part of critical thinking skills.  Instead of telling people what to think, teach them how to think.

Second, it’s true that there is a loony fringe of alternative thinkers.  On the other hand, there is a loony fringe of debunkers.  As far as skeptics go, Randi isn’t the most respectable.  Many people have been highly skeptical of Randi’s million dollar challenge.  True skepticism cuts both ways.  Skepticism as ideology is dangerous to freedom of thought.

If you want to understand the complexity of skepticism and alternative views in science, then you’d have to do some reading.  I’d suggest two books: George P. Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal, and Chris Carter’s Parapsychology and the Skeptics.  Or if you’d rather read something shorter, there are many articles to be found online such as those on Hansen’s website.

Third, I think it’s unhelpful to try to force the world into polarized categories.  Reality isn’t either/or.  Any group that takes an ideology to an extreme will feel alone and isolated.  This is as true for sceptical extremists as it is for religious extremists.  Generally speaking, extremism isn’t an admirable trait when it comes to critical thinking skills.  Polls show that the numbers of people identifying as atheist or agnostic are growing.  When asked what religion people identify with, there is an increasing number of people who choose ‘none’.  At the same time, the majority of people have had some kind of spiritual or paranormal experience (or some experience they don’t think can be fully explained by conventional scientific theories).

In conclusion, skepticism is helpful and a worthy attitude.  But it needs to be kept in balance with other factors.  Obviously, skepticism without open-minded curiosity is rather bland and I would add blind as well.  The ability to imagine new possibilities and to temporarily suspend disbelief are extremely important.  Anyways, if you’re going to be a skeptic, then go all the way.  A skeptic who doesn’t turn their skeptical gaze back upon themselves is a narrowminded fool.  Always question your self first (Mathew 7:5 – “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”).

I’m not worried about this simplistic polarized thinking.  It’s no different than the theist vs atheist debate.  The agnostic sits on the sidelines and laughs at both of them.  As for the defenders of science, I could care less about those who feel haughty in their self-righteousness.  The Forteans, Zetetics, and Pyrrhonian skeptics will keep the pseudo-skepticism in check.

 – – –

I’ve written about this subject a number of times.  The following are two posts from my Gaia.com blog.

More About the Paranormal

Hansen speaks to these issues.  Objectivity, verifiability, and repeatability aren’t easily applied to the paranormal, but researchers have attempted to do so.  Some are satisfied with the evidence and some aren’t.  […]  How are lived experiences proven?  Well, very little of even our “normal” subjective experience is provable.  As for the paranormal, it all depends on what kind of evidence you consider acceptable. 

People have seen lights and when they investigated discovered crop circles.  Crop circles are just more complex forms of fairly circles that have been observed for centuries in corollation with fairy lights.  My brother visited with friends a place where orbs (ie fairy lights) were known to be common.  They saw the orbs and the orbs approached the car and hovered around it.  Even scientists have observed orbs, but no one agrees on what explains them. 

Pilots have seen ufos and they were observed simultaneously on radar.  There are a fair number of radar cases.  Why is there not more evidence?  For one, I’ve heard that pilots are discouraged from reporting ufos.  Also, some evidence gets destroyed because people fear ridicule.  Vallee started out as an astronomer but later became a ufo researcher because he personally observed astronomers he worked with destroying video evidence (here is an interview with him where he speaks about this).

Rupert Sheldrake was describing a dialogue he had with Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Sheldrake: “This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”

(Sheldrake describes how he tried to bring up his own rearch about telepathy, but Dawkins refused to discuss it.)

And something I wrote in a comment to that post:

I like the idea of piling up the anomalies.  That is my basic viewpoint.  Parapsychology hasn’t “proven” anything, but it has provided some anomalies.  Eventually, if enough anomalies pile up, it will create a critical mass forcing a paradigm shift.  As I see it, parapsychology research is still in its infancy despite it being more than a century old.

About the Newtonian paradigm of mainstream science, I think that is very true.  The Newtonian paradigm has practical usefulness for research in most fields.  Since there isn’t much connection between most fields and post-Newtonian paradigms, my guess is that most research scientists don’t consider theoretical complexities of quantum physics.  Even paranormal research have mostly ignored theoretical issues and I doubt that many paranormal researchers are educated in quantum physics.  All of science has a whole lot of catching up to do.

I suspect that if convincing evidence of the paranormal is ever found, it will probably be in the field of physics.  Basically, mainstream scientists will only be convinced by evidence by mainstream science, and yet parapsychology isn’t considered mainstream and so its evidence isn’t acceptable.

I was thinking about Dawkins telling Radin that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  Radin pointed out that it depends on what one considers extraordinary, but there is a further problem with Dawkin’s statement.  Parapsychology gets very little funding and so is unable to do the largescale research that is necessary to produce “extraordinary” evidence, but its mainstream scientists such as Dawkins who argue that parapsychology doesn’t deserve funding because it doesn’t produce “extraordinary” evidence.  So, Dawkins’ statement is disingenuous because he really doesn’t want parapsychology to produce extraordinary evidence. 

It reminds me of CSICOP, the skeptical organization by various mainstream scientists (incuding Dawkins).  The problem with CSICOP is that it isn’t headed by scientists and the scientists who support it have no professional experience with parapsychology research.  CSICOP has no peer-reviewed journal and doesn’t support research even in disproving the paranormal.  Hansen says that CSICOP did do some research early on, but it ended up proving what they were trying to disprove and so they never did research again.  Worse still, they use their influence (via mainstream scientists) to keep parapsychologists from getting funding.

I am curious about the possible connection between parapsychology and quantum physics.  Lynne McTaggart speaks about the connection in her books, but as she isn’t a scientist I don’t know how biased her presentation might be. 

I’ve heard that there is nothing paranormal because its a false label.  If the paranormal exists, then its normal.  I agree with that as far as that goes… I really don’t care what one calls it.  Anyways, normality is kind of a relative concept.  I’m sure quantum physics seemed a bit paranormal to Newtonian scientists.

ENACTIVISM, INTEGRAL THEORY, AND 21st CENTURY SPIRITUALITY

Enactivism questions the traditional assumptions of science and so blurs the boundaries somewhat.  Varela was influenced by phenomenology, and Hansen says that ethnomethodology was similarly influenced.  Ethnomethodology (along with sociology of scientific knowledge and studies of experiment expectancy effects) puts the scientific endeavor into a very different context.

p. 280: “Ethnomethodologists took as their subject matter the interactions of everyday social life and how people make sense of them. That sounds innocuous enough, but ethnomethodologists probed foundations.  They recognized that for orderly common activity, people must share a large body of assumptions, meanings, and expectations, though these are not consciously recognized.  In order to make them explicit (i.e., bring them to conscious awareness), breaching experiments were invented, and those involved violating, in some way, typical patterns of behavior.” … “These breaching experiments have commonalities with anti-structure and the trickster; they all violate boundaries that frame experience.”

p. 281: “Ethnomethodologists pointed out that one is part of that which one observes, i.e., one participates in processes of observation.  The issue of participation has some intriguing connections.  At least since Levy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think (1910) it has been associated with the non-rational.”

p.282: “Mehan and Wood say that their theoretical perspective “within ethnomethodology commits me to the study of concrete scenes and to the recognition that I am always a part of those scenes.  Social science is committed to avoiding both of those involvements.”  They are correct, but few social scientists wish to acknowledge the consequences.  The abstraction and distancing found in all science endow a certain status and privilege from which to judge and comment on others.  In order to maintain that position, scientists must not get too “dirty,” too closely associated with their objects of study.  Ethnomethodologists understand they necessarily participate in the phenomena they observe.  Mehan and Wood comment that “Ethnomethodology can be seen as an activity of destratification.”  This destratification is a leveling of status, and that is also associated with limimal conditions (a.k.a., anti-structure).  Thus social leveling via participation and reflexivity has been recognized by theorists from entirely separate disciplines, demonstrating its validity.”

The last part about the leveling of status directly relates to the Trickster archetype, and status relates to hierarchy.  Scientists often are seen as final arbiters in many matters, and traditionally science saw itself opposed to nature, above the object it studied.

Also check out this other blog post of mine as an example of a topic that exists at the edge of mainstream science:

Astrological Evidence?

For more information, see these Wikpidea articles about various issues involving science, knowledge, biases, and critical thinking skills: