Robert Todd Carroll
January 5, 2004
In this issue: crop circles in my backyard; some disingenuous genuine skeptics; alternative science in our National Parks; a new page on the harm done by Bad Thinking; The Amazing Meeting; and Darwin Day 2004.
The date on the newspaper says December 4, 2003. I meant to tell you about this story in the last newsletter but it was buried under a couple of books and I completely forgot about it. Anyway, to the point. Last summer, in Fairfield, California, about 20 miles west of where I live, there was a crop circle report. I meant to mention it in my July or August newsletter but forgot about it. I'm sure in some people's minds this was the biggest story of the year and I should be criticized for being so skeptical that I didn't investigate it further. I'm as good at rationalization as the next person. I didn't investigate this exciting event, even though it is only a 30 minute drive from my house, because (a) all I would see from the ground would be some bent wheat in roughly circular shapes; and (b) either the pranksters would come forth or they wouldn't: If they did, they'd say they did it but some cerealogist would say they were lying. If they didn't, the cerealogist would say these are authentic, meaning they are of non-human origin. Anyway, the pranksters did come forth: four local teenage boys. The night before they messed up farmer Balestra's field they had watched a Discovery Channel show on how pranksters make crop circles in England.
It so happens that Fairfield is the home of Psi Applications, which consists of a man named Steve Moreno and a few friends who have the motto: Exploring the Unknown in a Universe of Unlimited Possibilities. According to Jeff Mitchell of The Davis Enterprise ("Crop circle debate goes on," December 4, 2003), Moreno and his friends investigated the site and concluded that the circles were most likely not the work of human beings. They drew this conclusion for two main reasons: the intricacy of the design and their belief that the wheat had been exposed to electromagnetic radiation that caused the stalks' structural nodules to lengthen or burst. The design was so intricate, said the Psi Applications folks, that only someone with an advanced knowledge of Euclidean geometry could have made them. How advanced? Well, an aerial photo of the circles reveals that you would have to know that a circle has a radius. This kind of knowledge, as we all know, is very rare among human beings. To believe that some 18-year old humans have such arcane knowledge defies credibility.
The Psi App folks are right, however, about it not being natural for wheat nodules to lengthen or burst. However, using ropes to pull a plank of plywood with the weight of a teenage boy riding on top might just do the trick.
No matter what the pranksters or the Psi App folks had to say, some visitors to the site would think independently--out of the box, if you will--and draw their own conclusions. For example,
Yes, very similar. Perhaps that is because that is what the boys saw on the Discovery Channel.
I am sorry to report that I have not followed up on the woman who brought her paralyzed dog to the circles, hoping for a cure. I guess I am not cut out to be an investigator. However, Casey Brossard, the spokesman for the pranksters, said he is willing to duplicate the feat for the Psi App folks. If that happens it won't be for several months. The fields in this area are not ripe for circling at this time of year. If the replication does occur and the local media report it, I will certainly let you know all the exciting developments. In the meantime, I can report that Mr. Moreno says he is very excited about the possibility of meeting the teenage pranksters. He doubts they did it but he says that "our minds remain open." What more could we ask for?
I suppose we could ask for a proper investigation. Joe Nickell of CSICOP says that
Case closed? I doubt it. The Psi App folks will certainly claim that Nickell has built his case on circumstantial evidence. None of it proves the boys did what they say they did. Maybe they're just trying to get attention.
These kinds of stories keep the news media busy on slow days and they offer folks like Mr. Moreno an opportunity to fuel the hopes of people desperate for a miracle or something mysterious to spice up their lives.
What is skepticism?
I ran across a site called Skeptical Investigations as I was searching for some skeptical evaluations of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe - The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. Skeptical Investigations is the brainchild of the Association for Skeptical Investigation and describes itself as "Genuine Skepticism, Enquiry and Doubt, Within Science." At last, I've found the genuine skeptics. So what do they have to say about Radin's book? According these genuine skeptics,
That didn't sound too skeptical to me, so I investigated further and found that Dean Radin is listed as one of the Associates and Advisors for these genuine skeptics, along with Larry Dossey (who has scientific proof that prayer heals), Gary Schwartz (who has scientific proof that John Edward gets messages from the dead), and Rupert Sheldrake (who has scientific proof that people know when they're being stared at and that some pets are psychic). (The site is registered to Dr. Sheldrake who seems to have discovered an interesting way to deal with critics.) These and other like-minded genuine skeptics say that in addition to promoting genuine skepticism their purpose "includes an open-minded investigation of unexplained phenomena, a questioning of dogmatic assumptions, and a skeptical examination of the claims of self-proclaimed skeptics." They even list a dead man as one of their advisers (Marcello Truzzi). No one can say they aren't an open-minded sort of group.
They even have a Field Guide to Skepticism, which consists of a defense of Radin and an attack on his skeptical critics. There is also a page called A Who's Who of Media Skeptics - Skeptics or Dogmatists? The first on the list is Susan Blackmore. I was tempted to write Dr. Sheldrake and inform him that her latest book isn't the one on memes but is on consciousness. I'd like to ask him about Radin's claim that “the nature of human consciousness” has been a “taboo topic.” I'll bet that's news to Dr. Blackmore. I know it was to me.
I have read large chunks of Dossey, Schwartz, and Radin, and the only thing they are skeptical of is skepticism. They all think that science made a wrong turn in the 17th century (by accepting a mechanistic philosophy based on materialism and determinism) and that we should redefine science so that it includes the paranormal and the supernatural. (Sound familiar? This is the same lament of the Intelligent Design folks at the Discovery Institute.) In their view, this would require adopting some sort of eastern mysticism or ancient philosophy that holds the world to be an organism with a mind. I suppose a Mind directing the organism would work just as well. Perhaps Ken Wilber is one of their advisors and has convinced them that returning to these ancient views would be progress. When one compares what science has accomplished over the past 400 years, it boggles the mind to think where we would be if the scientists of the 17th century had adopted Wilber’s or Radin’s vitalistic worldview. Do they really think we would have made progress? That we would have learned much about the world by chasing after volitional chimeras? That's something these folks should meditate on. Would science really be better off if it turned to mysticism?
Radin claims there are thousands of experiments that prove psi exists. But the truth is that there are many psi experiments that have found interesting statistical data. He calls these anomalies. They aren't anomalies. The discovery that the statistical data for a random number generator is not likely due to chance is not the discovery of an anomaly in the same sense that the discovery of X-rays was an anomaly. Finding a statistic that is not likely due to chance is not an anomaly. It is an indication that some kind of causal event is most likely occurring. There is no justification for assuming a law of nature or a basic scientific theory has been violated when an odd statistic is discovered. Yet, Radin and some of his fellow psi researchers treat any statistically significant result in a psi experiment as proof not only that psi exists but as proof that the fundamental assumptions of natural science (materialism and determinism) must be abandoned.
I haven't added anything to my Internet Bunk pages for quite some time but the Skeptical Investigations pages deserve a place there.
For now my only further comment will be that the only skepticism you will find on the Skeptical Investigations pages is skepticism about skeptics who don't agree with them. (I should note that so far I have stayed beneath their radar.)
In Mass Media Funk, I added a brief comment about an article by Bill Berkowitz about our National Park Service and its efforts to give young earth creationists their say in Park bookstores. Christopher Long, a senior systems analyst, responded to my comments with derision. It seems that Chris thinks this concern smacks of PC Patrol work. He writes:
I think Chris missed the point. The problem isn't that the Park Service is promoting religion. The problem is that it is promoting fantasy science over real science. Here's an excerpt from Berkowitz's article.
I thought that was pretty bad but it gets worse. I received the following e-mail from long-time reader Kerrie Dougherty of Australia.
I've written to the National Park Service asking for an explanation. If I get a reply, I'll let you know. My theory is that this is Ranger Bob's Law. (Maybe this ranger met the Lord with Tom Vail and got the law direct from the source.) Has anyone ever heard of such a law?
I added a new web page called What's the Harm?
I posted a letter from a former nurse who describes his first and last encounter with a colleague's attempt to use reiki to subdue a mental patient.
I hope to see some of you in Las Vegas January 15-18 at the Amazing Meeting II.
I also hope to see some you February 7 from 2:30-5:30 PM at Curtis Hall, Sierra 2 Community Center, 2791 24th Street, Sacramento CA, for Sacramento's 7th annual Darwin Day celebration. The featured speaker is Taner Edis, author of The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science. The title of his talk is “Intelligent Design: Creationism Evolves Again.” Tickets are $7 in advance and $9 at the door. Students with ID get in for half price. For more information or to purchase tickets in advance, contact Anna Andrews at 916-448-9373 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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