I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Humboldt Skeptics for many years (actually we have no cards or even a formal organization). I even attended a national skeptics conference in Las Vegas back in 2013. So, I pride myself in questioning things that smack of “woo”, nonsense, accepted wisdom with no evidence. But years earlier, before I converted, I dabbled in enough spiritual pursuits to earn my bonafides as a hippie-dippie Northern California boomer. Most of my non-Western dabbling was grounded in the body: Yoga, Tai Chi, Aikido. I loved them all, but finally, abandoned them at some point.
And now, in spite of my hard-earned skepticism, I’m back at it. But this time, with a decidedly non-physical approach: Sitting. I am giving mindfulness meditation a try, and I am looking for evidence of its efficacy, not necessarily in scientific evidence (there’s not much), but in personal experience. Is meditation changing me for the better? Am I less anxious? Can I concentrate on one thing for longer? Can I notice and separate myself from moments of anger? Am I as Dan Harris says “…less of an asshole?” These are the kind of changes I would hope to see from regular practice over time. These are some of the promises it holds.
After several months of practice and study, I can say that small changes are beginning to happen. Am I imagining them? Perhaps. Is it a placebo affect? That’s a distinct possibility. However, placebos are used in medicine because they work.
I’m not really looking for enlightenment. Yet. I’m not following a particular spiritual path. As an atheist that holds no interest. But mind and consciousness are certainly mysteries to be explored, and my own mind is just as good a lab as another. Still, I remain skeptical. I don’t want to delude myself. One of my skeptical heroes, Steven Novella wrote a good blog post about the lack of solid scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation has any special qualities that support some of the outlandish claims made by some proponents:
But I am not convinced by the existing research that there is any other phenomenon at work here, that there is something specific to mindfulness, or that it has benefits beyond other similar behaviors. There may be – perhaps there is something specific about certain mindfulness practices that we can isolate and study. We are simply not there yet.
Further, public hype supporting a billion dollar industry has gone way passed the existing evidence.
On the other hand, one of my other skeptic/atheist heroes, Sam Harris, wrote a whole book about the topic (Waking Up) which convinced me to give it a try. If you’re curious and you’re a skeptic, this might be a place to start. I’m about to read Dan Harris’ new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. That pretty much describes me.
What do you think? Is it all a bunch of new age baloney? Is there something there? Is it just the latest trend that will pass when a new one comes along?
When I was living in the Sierras in the early 70s, one of my housemates was entranced reading “Be Here Now”, the new age classic by Baba Ram Das. He was so entranced he didn’t notice that the lighted coal from his cigarette had fallen onto the sofa and was quietly burning a hole into the interior. Only when the entire living area was engulfed in smoke, did he call out in panic for help dragging the thing out on the deck and soaking it with with a hose.
I wanted to share a small victory. A relative had proclaimed herself an anti-GMO person to my consternation. She started sending me links, all of which I refuted. Then she told me she’d watched these 2 movies: Genetic Roulette and Genetic Chili, which, so help me, I watched on a Sunday afternoon.
After I watched Genetic Roulette, I sent her to this page which refutes point by point the assertions from the first film (actually from the self-published book that the film was based on).
Then, I watched the second one, Genetic Chili and saw it was directed by the same guy. So, I looked him up on Wikipedia. From his entry:
A variety of American organic food companies see Smith “as a champion for their interests”, and Smith’s supporters describe him as “arguably the world’s foremost expert on the topic of genetically modified foods”. In contrast, Michael Specter, writing in The New Yorker, reported that Smith was presented as a “scientist” on The Dr. Oz Show despite his lack of any scientific experience or relevant qualifications. Bruce Chassy, a molecular biologist and food scientist, wrote to the show arguing that Smith’s “only professional experience prior to taking up his crusade against biotechnology is as a ballroom-dance teacher, yogic flying instructor, and political candidate for the Maharishi cult’s natural-law party.”.
I also noted that much of the assertions in the second movie were based on the findings of debunked studies by French microbiologist Gilles-Eric Séralini
After that, she wrote these magic words: “You are starting to persuade me. The de-bunking of Genetic Roulette is pretty thorough.”
Yes! OK, it’s not definitive. It’s just a start. But hey, any movement toward the light I will take. The rest, now that she has the skeptical spark, is up to her.
The conference, which took place in Las Vegas in July, was fun, exciting and stimulating. Meeting James Randi and other skeptic heroes, attending a live recording of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast and just talking to so many nice folks was a thrill.
I also came away inspired to become more active in the skeptical community and, more important, to engage the larger world with new found strength, knowledge and resources. I am not a scientist, physician, philosopher or magician. I am not formally trained in critical thinking. But I don’t think that will restrain me from finding ways to do my small part to help improve the quality of thinking about the world.
Among the many surprises at TAM was learning of an existing group of Humboldt Skeptics on Facebook. I was at TAM with the Eye’s Keven Hoover and we had been thinking of forming some kind of local skeptics group but thought we might have trouble finding more than a half-dozen compatriots. Turns out there’s a whole bunch of us! But connecting with them will certainly encourage us to create this organization on some level and start bringing evidence based thinking out into the world through meetings, presentations and networking.
As a web developer and blogger, I also plan to become more active on the Internet (not just on the walled garden of Facebook) by writing more on skeptical topics, helping to create web spaces for regional skeptical activity and using some of the new tools that other skeptic activists have been creating.
Here are some of the more interesting resources for skeptical activity that I plan to take advantage of and potentially participate in.
SkepTools: A blog dedicated to sharing skeptical tools and resources for skeptical activism.
Rbutr: Prounced ‘rebutter’ this web app “..aims to facilitate inter-website debate, guide users to rebuttals of dubious information, and indirectly influence our users so that they approach all online information with an increased level of skepticism and critical appraisal.” Essentially it links websites/pages with other websites/pages that offer contrary evidenced. You can find and post websites and their rebuttals.
So, I am making a commitment to do what I can. “Small Tasks. Big Consequences.”
Small Tasks, Big Consequences
Last week I posted my initial impressions and an overall context for The Amazing Meeting that took place in July in Las Vegas.
It’s important for me to try and record some of the most important lessons from the 4 days of workshops, presentations and hallway conversation so that those ideas do not slip away completely. As a “First TAMer” (I have the button to prove it), I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, dazzled by seeing people whose words I’d read and podcasts I’d listened to for so many years, and the simple pleasure of being enveloped in a “family” of over 1,000 like-minded individuals from around the world.
While all the speakers had unique perspectives on the concepts of skepticism and critical thinking, a few overriding themes seem to appear throughout the conference and I will start there:
Belief is Powerful
Most advocates of belief systems that have little or no objective evidence to support them are sincere. They are convinced the “woo works.” The self-deception of believers was demonstrated multiple times at TAM where people who professed to having some unique power failed a carefully crafted test of that power and yet, remained convinced they still had the power. They always came up with rationalizations as to why they failed this time, as if the test was an easily ignorable anomaly.
The Sealed Room With 3 Objects
What Was Revealed?
We saw this demonstrated live on the last night of the conference during the “1 Million Dollar Challenge.” The James Randi Educational Foundation offers to pay anyone 1 million dollars if they can pass a mutually agreed upon test. Each year the Foundation goes through a rigorous screening process to find a worthy candidate and then work out with that candidate a test of his or her power. They make every effort to be sure the candidate understands the nature of the test, agrees to the criteria, and is convinced they can pass.
This year was unusual in that the candidate, who professed to have the power of remote vision (being able to see objects in another space at any distance) was in Algeria. The challenge was demonstrated live, over the phone, the candidate speaking through a chosen helper on stage, acting as his interpreter. He was supposed to be able to see which three objects out of 20 or so that everyone had agreed upon earlier, were placed in a room 3 days earlier and the room sealed. Needless to say, when the room was opened and the objects revealed he had gotten zero correct. But when asked if he still believed he had the power of remote vision, he said yes. He had proven it many times to himself and to his friends, family and others in his community and that this one test was flawed, in spite of having many times agreed to everything and assuring everyone he would not fail.
Do Not Blame the Victim
Skeptics tend to judge, even sometimes laugh at people they see as being fooled by false or unproven ideas. However, everyone is susceptible to being fooled, especially people who think they are invulnerable (scientists, magicians, journalists, for example). The desire to believe is powerful and innate. Charismatic and forceful leaders are able to convince people to become adherents to their systems no matter how absurd those systems may seem to outsiders and critical thinkers. And self-deception can prove the most pernicious mind trick. Just read the sad story of Linus Pauling and the vitamin phenomenon, or Steve Jobs delaying medical treatment for pancreatic cancer in favor of CAM.
So to the fakers, those who consciously and cynically try to defraud people, show no mercy in exposing and ridiculing their practices. But tread more lightly on the true believers as they are us.
There is Plenty of Harm
Skeptics of skepticism may feel that things like Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), religious beliefs, and other areas of thought are harmless, sometimes helpful and people should be left alone to believe what they want. That’s fine until belief in concepts start inflicting harm, even death on the believers and others. Examples of the cost in both dollars and human suffering may be found atsWhat’s the Harm. Or listen to this bit of commentary from On the Media about Jenny McCarthy’s new gig on The View.
“Holy Man” blessing a child
in a village in India.
An investigation and intervention
by skeptic Sanal Edamaruku.
The harm to humanity in lost billions and lost or damaged lives means that learning to help fight against dubious claims and fraud is a worthwhile pursuit. Of the many things I learned at TAM, resources and tactics I was unaware of should prove valuable as I try to become more active in the skeptical community.
Stay tuned for Part 3.
I had the good fortune, OK, the good foresight to send myself to The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas this year. For the uninitiated TAM is the largest gathering of skeptics anywhere, put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). What’s a skeptic? Who is James Randi? Some context may be necessary. That’s why this is Part 1.
A skeptic in this context is someone who tries to make decisions about reality based on evidence and reason. So, for example, if someone makes a claim about the efficacy of an herb for curing colds, a skeptic would look for scientific evidence to support this claim and not accept it on “faith”. Typically, skeptics cast a cold eye on what they call “woo”: Ghosts, cold readings, tarot, telekinesis, etc. This is not to say they wouldn’t “believe” in these things. A skeptic would gladly accept these as real if some hard scientific facts were to be presented. A skeptic keeps an open mind and is willing to change that mind given convincing new evidence. For a more comprehensive description in this context see the Media Guide to Skepticism.
James Randi and Me Schmoozing.
Photo by Kevin Hoover.
James “the Amazing” Randi, as he was known in his performing days, is a magician and skeptical investigator who has spent decades promoting the cause of critical thinking and, as this year’s TAM slogan says: “Fighting the Fakers”. He has famously shed light on the “faith healer” Peter Popoff and the spoon bending of Uri Geller among many other adventures.
I got introduced to the concept of skepticism as a movement as so many others have, by listening to the podcast The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. I’ve been listening to this podcast for several years, usually while I worked out at the gym on Sunday mornings, but how I came across it originally is lost in the foggy mists of my memory.
So with all that out of the way, how was TAM? Well, for one, I did not leave the hotel once I checked in until I checked out 5 days later. It was too hot outside (I checked the weather on my phone) and there was way too much to do indoors from 8 AM to 11 PM or later each day.
You can get an idea of the scope of the program by perusing the schedule. I attended half of the workshops on Thursday and would have attended them all, but there were always 2 running simultaneously (unfortunately I did not have a spirit-self that would allow me to be in two places at once). And I managed to attend almost every session over the following 3 days, which meant sitting in a large conference hall for sometimes 4 hours at a time. I also, had tickets to nearly every extra event held in the evening, one of which had bacon, donuts, loud music and strippers! No need to see the rest of Las Vegas after all.
Clearly I had a great time. I felt immersed in a really long, stimulating intellectual conversation with a large list of very impressive people with diverse disciplines from magicians to philosophers and journalists. And that was just the official program. Meeting others from all over the world over lunch, dinner, extra events and in the hallway was as much fun as listening to speakers. I came away truly inspired, energized and full of ideas of ways to improve my own critical thinking skills and ways to help promote the concepts and programs of the skeptical community. I am still assimilating all I experienced, and will be for quite a long while. But the best way to do that, I think will be to take action where I can.
In my last post I mentioned a conversation I got in to with the cab driver who helped me Escape from Hell!, also known as the South Point Hotel. The cabbie was genial and talkative. So I asked him how long he’d been driving cab. His story juxtaposed against the Las Vegas world of gamblers, glitz and high priced entertainment put a poignant spin on my visit.
He’d been driving cab for about six months. He’d been laid off from the hotel he’d been working at for several years. He had 15 years experience in hotel service but had only moved to Las Vegas a few years ago so others, also laid off, had seniority over him as far as getting called back to work.
So, rather than sit idle at home, he learned to drive a cab. It took months of training. He had to pass a rigorous test. And now, he has to compete with 7,000 other cabbies to earn enough each day to take home some profit. He showed me his ride sheet. He’d only had 9 fares so far and he’d been working 6 hours already. He works 12 hours/day 6 days/week. He’d been in the cab line waiting his turn to pick up a fare for over 2 hours. He said the competition for fares was brutal, especially along the strip where cabs circled like vultures looking for riders. He preferred
the orderly wait outside the hotels.
Now maybe he was giving me a line in order to get earn a sympathy tip. After all, I was in the land of hucksters and hustlers. But his story had the ring of truth from the evidence I saw. And as I flew out over the vast tracts that surround the city, filled with identical houses all with the same brown roofs sprawling across the desert, I imagined them filled with workers struggling to pay the rent or mortgage, in the service of the people throwing money at rigged games of chance, hookers, booze and all you can eat buffets.
I gave him a 20% tip. After all, I’m also part of the 99%.