Unlike most of my fellow believers in the Paranormal and researchers into, and rebels against, Government cover-ups and Conspiracies; I take a keen interest in all things Skeptical. I regularly attend Skeptic meetings and conferences; I have a few Skeptic friends and acquaintances. See: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2010/10/tam-london-2010.html and: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2010/05/dr-brian-deer-at-westminster-skeptics.html . I was chatting on the HPANWO Forum the other day (See links column) when I came across a post by one of the members, username “Reflex”, see: http://hpanwoforum.freeforums.org/good-article-on-the-web-about-belief-systems-t1789.html The post has developed into a very fertile thread and it gave me the idea to write this article; thanks, Reflex! The article he links to seems to combine two very disparate notions into one, two seemingly contradictory views; however both views are views common to people within what I shall call without apology The Skeptisphere. Here’s the article: http://www.alternet.org/story/151426/why_do_people_believe_stupid_stuff%2C_even_when_they%27re_confronted_with_the_truth . Can you spot the contradictory element?... Let’s come back to that later; I want to examine the details of it when I discuss another event that happened soon after I read it. For now I’m going to explore the theme of the article and how much of a revelation it has been to me. The article challenges the idea that if a person is confronted with evidence that calls into question one of their strongly-held beliefs that the person will alter those beliefs to take into account the new evidence. The article claims that in this situation the believer will come down with what it calls “the backfire effect”. This is a process through which the believer will actually use the evidence to make their belief stronger! As you can see the article gives some examples in the world of politics and media as well as science. The moral of the story is that it’s impossible to argue with a believer no matter how strong your evidence is that proves them wrong; you will only reinforce their opinions.
With that amazing synchronicity that Skeppers themselves deny and call “delusion” but I’m convinced is real (And as you’ve seen, you’ll never persuade me otherwise!), soon after reading the article Reflex posted I attended an Oxford Skeptics in the Pub event; see: http://oxford.skepticsinthepub.org/ . The speaker was the philosopher Stephen Law doing a speech about his new book with the very eye-catching title Believing Bullshit , see: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/ (Incidentally I think it’s a crime against the English Language that Skeppies like Law, and Penn and Teller etc, have stripped the wonderful expletive “bullshit” of all its vulgar power!) He gave a speech, that was also an outline of his book, which complimented what I had just read in Reflex’ link perfectly. He claimed that some people get trapped in what he called an “IBH-Intellectual Black Hole”. IBH’s are very like black holes in outer space because they have interiors behind their event horizons which are entirely isolated from the rest of the intellectual universe. Behind that “Intellectual Schwartzschild Radius” a person can think in a way that seems very sensible to themselves and to others inside the IBS, but to those observing from outside the IBH they appear very obviously to be thinking nonsense. But, as with Reflex’ article, a person inside the IBH cannot be easily persuaded into changing their way of thinking into a form that allows them to escape from their IBH, in fact in most cases it’s impossible. He gave a list of how IBH’s are formed and the pitfalls to look out for to avoid falling into one.
It was a member of the Oxford SiTP audience gave me the greatest insight into what I was observing and help me put the pieces of the jigsaw together. He asked Law: “I’m worried that I might be trapped in an IBH.” he said and gave details. “Don’t worry” responded Law confidently. “If you’re able so much as to formulate that question in your mind then the answer is invariably ‘No!’.” So presumably Stephen Law himself, along with the author of Reflex’ article, don’t think that they are in an IBH. But I wonder if they are. The clue lies in the title of both the article and Law’s book: Why do People Believe Stupid Stuff even when they’re Confronted with the Truth? This sounds very similar to Michael Shermer’s crypto-masturbatory rant: Why do People Believe Weird Things? Law’s book is called Believing Bullshit. This means that there is an unspoken premise, a foundational assumption to the entire piece. This is why, as I explained to Reflex on the forum thread, they have internal contradictions in intellectual depth. What I mean by that is that their content involves some sophisticated philosophy, of the type I wrote about here: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2010/11/meaning-of-life.html . But when Law gave some examples of what he thought were IBH’s he replied in the tone of a Skepticistic bar-room blusterer: “Well obviously these include belief in ghost, fairies, UFO’s, unicorns. Religions and Conspiracy Theories like 9/11, aliens building the pyramids and faces on Mars!” So the unspoken basis of his viewpoint is: “Well, the Skeptics are always right of course!” In the same way the article assumes, from the very title, that what constitutes “Stupid Stuff” and what constitutes “Truth” has already been settled and is not open to further negotiation. As I explain in my review of his book, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/04/god-delusion-by-richard-dawkins.html , Richard Dawkins does exactly the same thing. The way Law uses the word “bullshit”, even in the very title of his book, (I wonder if he had a battle with the publishers over that!) shows the same self-decided premise. Socrates said: “He who seeks the truth must question everything.” Many modern heroes of the Skeptic Movement say: “He who seeks the truth must question everything... except things that other Skeptics say are true.” This leads me back to the thoughts I had when I went to TAM London, that the definitions Skeptics use to describe themselves are mere slogans, not descriptions, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2010/10/tam-london-2010.html . So does this mean that Stephen Law has fallen head-over-heels into one of his own Intellectual Black Holes? Maybe. I’ll have to read his book to be sure; I’ll review it on HPANWO probably. At the moment I’m reading a book called Randi’s Prize by Robert McLuhan, It has a fascinating and very heart-warming subtitle: What Skeptics say about the Paranormal, Why they’re Wrong and Why it Matters. See: http://www.skeptiko.com/randi-prize-exposed-in-new-book/ Books like this are important to read too because they remind you that there is another side to the story, the simplified story that Skeptics like to tell you about the world, the one which they claim has no other side. I’ll probably write an article on that as a companion to my review of Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2011/04/paranormality-by-prof-richard-wiseman.html .
On the great HPANWO Forum thread about this subject I wrote a semi-satirical counterpoint to Reflex’ post, as a way to illustrate exactly what I meant by the foundational premise fallacy I identified in the article, and I expect to find in Stephen Law’s book; I hoped it would neutralize the fallacy on the thread and maybe it will here. I quote it in its entirety, slightly revised and edited:
Reading this makes a lot of pieces of the jigsaw fall into place. I've often wondered about the cause of the emergence of the Skeptic Movemnent that has taken place over the last few years. Skeptics in The Pub only began in 1999. The original one was in London and now there must be hundreds! There are five or six in Britain alone, including my local one in Oxford. There are Skeptic conferences galore, Skeptic celebrities making a blooming career etc. This has all emerged within the last decade or so. This parallels the New Atheist Movement which has made people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett household names. Perhaps, using the clues in the article, we can trace the rise of the Atheo-Skeptic milieu to events in the area that these people criticize, namely the world of Paranormal research and Conspiracy Theory. 9/11 caused a revolution in Conspiratorial Awareness that has never been seen since the Kennedy Assassination! I actually suspect that the perpetrators now regret doing it and would not have done so if they'd known what would happen as a result. Also there have been breakthroughs in Paranormal Research with a series of explosive revelations in the area of UFO's especially, but also other fields. There has been an increase in more Gnostic religious beliefs that are harder to discredit than the conventional churches'. To adapt the opening lines of the article:
The misconception: The Skeptic Community would, having its beliefs challenged with facts, alter its opinions and incorporate the new information into its thinking.
The Truth: It's deepest convictions have been challenged by contradictory evidence so its beliefs get stronger. The "backfire effect" begins! The Skeptics become more and more certain that there are no Conspiracy Theories and that the Paranormal does not exist! They close ranks to concentrate their firepower, form organizations and support groups, they write books and the rest is history.
James Randi is actually the perfect product of the Skeptic "backfire effect" which is why he's today enjoying unprecedented fame and success. For people who don't know any better, you'd think Randi was the first and only Paranormal investigator on Earth! Oh, he very occasionally refers to other investigators, but he always portrays them as kind of wide-eyed flower-children, gliding around haunted houses like Tolkienian elves. It's Randi and Randi alone, who has ever done any real Paranormal research I can hardly express to you what a load of bullshit that is! But it fits in perfectly with the "backfire effect". Randi creates such a convincing delusion that it allows his disciples to live in a completely false world: "Come in." he invites you. "Come into my parlour and you need never be troubled by these worrisome thoughts again."
Could it be that the rise... nay Renaissance of the Skeptic Movement in virtually just the last decade could be “the backfire effect” against the successes and increasing profile people like me on the Woo-Woo side have had?
I know now that you’ll want me to answer a question that you’ve all got on your lips right now: “Ben, have you ever wondered if you are trapped in one of Stephen Law’s Intellectual Black Holes?” (Yes! Yes! yell the Skeppies) My answer is: No, absolutely not!... But then if I were trapped in an IBH I would say that, wouldn’t I?...
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