Tuesday 19 July 2011

The Skeptic Renaissance

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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Sunday 3 July 2011

Hospital Porters who Changed the World!

It’s not a commonly known fact, but Hospital Porters have help shape the world! In fact I reckon that the world would be an incredibly different place without us. I often think about the famous Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life (See: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038650/). In this film James Stewart’s character is deeply depressed and about to commit suicide when an angel visits him and shows him what the world would be like if he had never existed; it is such an awful place that Stewart’s character realizes that his life is wonderful, hence the title, and regains the will to carry on with it. I've often felt I’d like to do the same with Hospital Porters. What would the world be like without us? Well firstly there’d be no hospitals or medical care of any kind. Doctors and nurses would be completely impotent and ineffectual. Hundreds of millions of people would die of preventable illnesses and as a result of injuries. But there are other differences too. The world would have had to get by without one of its most famous philosophers from one of the world’s foremost universities. A charismatic singer and songwriter would never have graced the stages of the world, inspiring and delighting millions. And the most famous science fiction film of all time would have flopped because it was absent its most loveable character. So let’s examine the contribution that our Noble Portering Profession has given to all our lives in more detail:

Jimmy Savile
Service: Broadmoor Hospital and the Leeds General Infirmary 1950-1960

Jimmy Savile has enjoyed a long and a healthy retirement from when he decided to step down from the Hospital Portering Service. He became a full-time disc-jockey and TV presenter, best known for hosting Top of the Pops which he did on-and-off from 1964 until 2006. His other main TV appearance was in the famous title role of Jim’ll Fix It. Between 1975 and 1994 this programme made viewers’ dreams come true, mostly children. He also enjoyed a long radio career with Radio Luxembourg and the BBC. He’s a great philanthropist and charity fund-raiser, regularly taking part in sponsored events. He’s very fit and athletic and many of these events involved him running in marathons of up mountains, even into his old age.
(Important addendum 10/11/13: http://hpanwo-voice.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/jimmy-savile-correction.html.)

Peter Mayhew
Service: Kings College Hospital London- 1963-1976

Peter Mayhew must have entered civilian life with some trepidation. As he hung up his gas-spanner and walked out of the gates of Kings for the last time I can only guess what was going through his head! He wanted to be an actor, but the show business profession is incredibly competitive and with a height of 7 feet 3 inches he knew that there were only a limited number of parts he could play. It’s a wonder Kings had a uniform his size! But as luck would have it he got a job playing a Minotaur in one of the Sinbad movies and then his definitive role: Chewbacca in Star Wars. George Lucas was looking for two very tall actors to play both Chewie and Darth Vader. He picked David Prowse, “The Green Cross Code Man” to play the Sith lord and Mayhew to play the gentle giant Wookie pilot of Han Solo’s spaceship. Mayhew won an MTV Movie Award for this, even though nobody saw his real face until the ceremony. Today he is a welcome celebrity at Star Wars fan conventions and spends most of time touring all over the world to visit these events.

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Service: First period: Austrian Army field hospital- 1914-1918. Second period: Guys Hospital London- 1939-1945
This particular Porter is different from the others in that he came into Portering comparatively late in life after a successful civilian career. He was born in 1889 in Vienna, Austria which makes him by far the oldest in our Portering Hall of Fame. He was from one of the city’s richest families, one of the last of the ill-fated Austrian aristocracy. After the traumatic death of all three of his brothers to a suicide pact, Wittgenstein studied philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge and ended up as professor of philosophy where he made great friends with other famous philosophers like Bertrand Russell and GE Moore. Like myself, he was interested in language and how it applied meaning to the world. He spent his career studying it, changing his mind quite starkly several times; but he never lost the admiration of his readers and students. For a subject in which most participants are renowned for the quantity of their literary output, Wittgenstein wrote very little. Unlike his fellow philosophers who tend to pour out an epic doorstep of a book every 6 months or so, he only published two books, one posthumously; and a bare handful of papers. Nevertheless his ideas circulated widely and were extremely influential on later philosophical schools. I’m interested in philosophy, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2010/11/meaning-of-life.html and I have a book about Wittgenstein: Culture and Value, see: http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=3SOjrAgrlx0C&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=culture+and+value+wittgenstein&ots=wBxxAdsSJF&sig=8Nf7jgLtxKFp_DS6aXw7j4uGyVc#v=onepage&q&f=false How can I not read it and find out what my Extremely Proud and Dignified Brother Porter Ludwig thought about the world!?

Mick Jagger
Service: Unknown (Source:
I was pretty disappointed to find that Mick Jagger’s Wikipedia bio doesn’t mention his time in the Hospital Portering Service and portrays him as a life-long civilian. I hope he hasn’t had thoughts of the most misplaced shame possible! See: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2007/12/dont-tell-em-were-porters.html Mick Jagger is one of the most famous rock stars and music celebrities of all time. His turbulent lifestyle was almost a self-caricature, filled with drugs, wild parties and sexual hedonism. He was born in Kent in 1943 and at school first met his lifelong friend Keith Richards. Along with Ronnie Wood, Bill Wyman and Brian Jones they set up the Rolling Stones, one of the most famous and definitive bands of the entire rock-‘n-roll era. Despite his reputation as the ultimate bon viveur Jagger is first and foremost a lyrical and musical genius and never lets his personal life get in the way of that. He has a rebel philosophy and was a hero of the 60’s counter-culture. His contribution to all human culture is a credit to the Hospital Portering Service; he truly is one of our favourite sons.

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