Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Value of reasonable "Skepticism"

(Some parts of the following blog might be disturbing for some people, but I hope it will not be misconstrued. This isn’t an attempt to rationalize certain behaviors, but is a call for objective assessment on a case-by-case basis.)

I was working on another blog post, when this recently came to my attention, and I felt compelled to address it. I found within a circle of peers a certain Schadenfreude over the bizarre developments with the "Amazing" James Randi. As well as some bile over Penn Jillette’s skeptical atheist screeds. I’m not a fan of Penn Jillette’s more scathing attacks on various subjects that deal with esoteric topics, the paranormal, conspiracy theories, and the like. I have thumbed through his recent book, and the fact that Glenn Beck is a major advocate, leaves one more example as to why Jillette’s credibility is suspect. But, while I find Jillette’s brand of "Skepticism" to be obnoxious, I can’t discount the possibility that informed skepticism can have real value. After all, Dana Scully was willing to meet Fox Mulder half-way in many cases.

Some of the following points might be uncomfortable for some readers, but I want to address them to illustrate how proponents of certain fields, in countering attacks on their detractors, can end up sinking to the level of the detractors they condemn. The "Amazing" James Randi is a former magician / illusionist, who is a professional skeptic known for being scathing, condescending, elite, and cruel to the people he targets. The latest real scandal about James Randi can be summarized in the following:

James Randi’s partner, Jose Luis Alvarez, is under investigation by South Florida Federal authorities for identity fraud. Jose Alvarez has been celebrated as a plantation artist who has been showcased in Florida galleries, but to Federal authorities, Alvarez is a cipher, a man who might have stolen the identity of a New York artist, and has been using it over the last twenty years. Authorities have been referring to him under the acronym "FNU LNU." Alvarez first began "channeling" the spirit of an ancient "seer" named "Carlos," in the late eighties, for the purpose of being exposed by James Randi. It was an elaborate hoax you could argue, that played out as performance art.

It’s been surmised that Randi and Alvarez have been long-time lovers; Alvarez was a teen when they first met, and thus, it has been inferred by Skeptic debunker Tim Bolen that James Randi is a serial pedophile. There’s a problem here; in studying the evidence that Tim Bolan offers to tag Randi as a pedophile, Bolan cites other encounters with male teens, as well as includes an audio clip of a conversation with someone that sounds about sixteen or seventeen. What is supported by the evidence is that James Randi is by definition a ephebophile: Someone attracted to young teens. Do I condone his behavior? No. Do I suspect Randi has been guilty of statutory rape? Certainly. To counter the accusation that I am rationalizing such behavior, would I ever defend an organization like NAMBLA? Absolutely not.

But I’m a little uncomfortable with Tim Bolan’s angle in so much as that it has a distinct undercurrent of homophobia, and whether intended or unintended is unclear. Many anti-gay organizations have attempted to conflate or shoehorn the idea that all homosexuals are pedophiles, and the psychological data just doesn’t support it as demonstrated from here*. Homosexuality and pedophilia are very different behaviors. Often, people will hide under the guise of ‘protecting the children,’ while operating with a completely different agenda. The entire subject of pedophilia triggers such a visceral reaction, and rightly so, that I have personally observed people’s IQs drop by twenty points, when they accept an accusation based on something inferred at face value. Such accusations should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, the guilty parties who practice such behavior should be ostracized. But the term 'pedophile' has become so loaded and overused to the point of abuse, and the subject has become the witch hunt de jour of the past two decades, that the term itself has become the perfect tool for character assassinations, and there is little critical assessment by the public when the accusation is made. Interestingly enough, the Millennium episode, "Monster," illustrated the witch-hunt mentality I cited.

I realize that what I am arguing here is nit-picking semantics, but accurate definitions, for those who seek truth, should always matter. To those who believe in the paranormal or esoteric fields, it can devalue your cause if you sink to the level of your opposition. While this might be bordering on sacrilege to suggest, is Tim Bolan really all that different from James Randi?

One of the reasons why Bolan’s closing insinuations weaken his earlier arguments in the aforementioned piece, is that James Randi’s past history as a debunker should have been given enough ammunition to discredit him without delving into his personal life. I doubt that James Randi’s work as a professional skeptic has been sincere. There are other professional skeptics who are well-intended, sincere, and are driven by a concern to see that people don’t get exploited by frauds.

A colleague of Randi James, Joe Nickell, has managed to offer an approach to professional skepticism that isn’t condescending to the innocent bystanders of paranormal, unexplained events. While I don’t agree with him on many points, he seems willing to met people half-way on a subject-by-subject basis. Joe Nickell has espoused 'Humanistic Skepticism,' and has managed to define his brand of paranormal investigating as neither "mystery mongering" nor "debunking"” Unlike some armchair skeptics, Joe Nickell has traveled the world and has done field research in various areas, such as cryptozoology. He has been known to chide fellow skeptics who seem to not care to honor claimants with on-the-ground investigations, but as he has personally explained:

"I decry both a credulous and a close-minded approach, holding that mysteries should neither be fostered nor dismissed but rather carefully investigated with a view towards solving them."

While not a scientist, he has taken a forensic approach to his investigations, and interestingly he doesn’t make the mistake of dismissing the experiences of witnesses, and manages to respect their perception, and that their perception has validity:

"I've spoken with many witnesses, and they are sane, intelligent, sober, honest people who have seen something that, yes maybe they've mistaken for something else, but even skeptics have been mistaken."

Joe Nickell’s approach seems to work to his credit, as I haven't found much bile directed toward him. In other words, his approach differs from skeptics who adopt skepticism as an ideological faction as opposed to a method of inquiry.

Of peripheral, albeit fascinating note, many skeptics are former illusionists / magicians. Now it is hard to ascertain if this point is driven by the influence of the iconic illusionist Harry Houdini, or if these skeptics all share a similar mindset that would compel them into these areas.

Perhaps proponents of paranormal investigations should not be as reactive to well-intended skeptics, as they both seek the same objectives–to find the truth behind such mysteries.

For paranormal investigators, there needs to be a filter and a willingness to not just accept things at face value. While I personally might not agree with someone like Joe Nickell, his approach can challenge people to examine every possibility of a subject, even if the answers turn out to be mundane.

Special thank you for editorial assistance from XScribe... and for keeping me honest.

* The following cited represents one group of data that clarifies the debate over why homosexuals are not pedophiles, even legitimate Catholic psychologists cannot make a simplistic distinction on the subject. In the case of exceptions, the statistical evidence of homosexuals being pedophiles is below one percent.


Raj said...

X-Files Lexicon Blog,

This is an excellent piece of writing that prefaces its suppositions and outlines its argument very clearly, and with a sober intent. I'm no fan of Randi, from the little I know about him, but I respect the lucidity of the argument in this post.

Of course, reasonable skepticism is incredibly useful - especially for anyone interested in paranormal or esoteric experiences. I myself have experienced so many bizarre and 'paranormal' events that without the kind of reasonable skepticism you highlight I would've definitely lost the plot.

Skepticism keeps a seeker grounded and connected to the everyday details and context of his personal reality. I think it's important to accept that we are fallible creatures with gaps and fractures in our reasoning and our knowledge. How could we not be? I think skepticism is important in this sense.

But I think it's also important to remember that when we accept that a supposedly paranormal experience might have a 'mundane' explanation we shouldn't always assume that 'rational materialism' is the natural default position.

The Newtonian clockwork view of reality is a paradigm like any other - just as the Quantum interconnected view is a paradigm. It's a way of conceptually structuring experience so that we can claim to know the world. If something is empirically testable, we claim to know the 'actuality' of the thing, and empiricism is extremely useful.

But we should always remember that 'actuality' is multi-faceted. A tree isn't just a tree, for example; it's an organic structure, a gestalt of numerous smaller organic structures, a respiratory system for the earth, an object of beauty and contemplation, a constellation of energetic vibrating frequencies, and so on.

The point I'm trying to make is that any and all of these aspects can be viewed as mundane or spectacular. A ghost might really be a hallucination or a trick of the light, for example. Healthy skepticism has to accept this as a possibility, but it doesn't mean that these 'non-paranormal' explanations aren't full of wonder or mystery. They're just 'mundane' in relation to the more exotic explanation for a ghost.

I'm a big fan of trying to perceive the magical in the mundane. I think you understand what I'm trying to say here. Even if there are no aliens, no ghosts, no Bigfoot or Loch Ness monster - the world is still profoundly magical, simply because there are so many ways of experiencing, perceiving and communicating it.

So in this sense I think that reasonable skepticism doesn't have to look with eyes that are absent of awe - they just have to look with a fluidity of perspective and to accept the fallibility of our perceptions, and to be willing to reassess things on a case by case basis when evidence suggests one thing or the other.

That's real maturity and real wisdom, in my humble opinion. Thanks again for the excellent post!


Raj said...


I just wanted to add that in my opinion paedophilia has nothing to do with genuine sexuality, whether we're talking about homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality.

I think paedophilia, like rape in general, is about domination and control. It's an incredibly fetishized and desolate stimulus-response that has nothing to do with genuine eroticism, affection or love. It's an incredibly dark pathology and is deeply, deeply sick.

The passion shared between consenting adults of the same or opposite sex has NOTHING to do with that. Maybe I'm stating the obvious - but I think it's important to point out.

Thanks again for the maturity and lucidity in this post!

The X-Files Lexicon Blog said...

Thank you Raj for making so many astute points. I feel the objective should always been about seeking the truth, and how ever they are perceived, things aren't always as they seem, and that doesn't have to take away from that sense of wonder.

I have no coals in the fire, as far as Randi James is concerned, I have no investment. I would just like people to stay on target with the subject, what ever it may be, and steer clear of inferred personal attacks. What ever will happen will happen.