Skeptical About Skepticism

Yesterday's NY Times had a interesting profile on the 76 year old professional skeptic Paul Kurtz. It leads off:

"These are some of the things that Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and publisher of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, does not believe in: parapsychology, holistic cures for animal illnesses, the universal effectiveness of chiropractic, extraterrestrial beings, alternative medicine, Bigfoot and organized religion."

(http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/19/arts/television/19SKEP.html)

We learn that Kurtz's operations have an annual budget of $11 million and that the center has small branches in Los Angeles and Montclair, N.J., with about 40 employees overall. There are affiliated groups in Russia, France, Peru, Germany, Africa and other locations. He also maintains a small empire of skeptical publications, including The Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice and others. His publishing house, the aptly named Prometheus Books, puts out about 100 books a year. In addition there is a sponsored student organization called the Campus Freethought Alliance, plus a secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous called S.O.S. (for Save Ourselves).

While Kurtz was left-wing in his youth during the depression, he became an anti-Communist while on duty with the US army in Europe. It seems that Russian slave laborers had refused to return to the Soviet Union at the end of the war, thus proving that Communism was a hateful system. Perhaps these Russians had heard through the grape-vine that a jail term awaited them in the USSR. In keeping with the draconian defense policy of WWII, Stalin had decided that anybody who had even been taken prisoner was insufficiently devoted to the defense of the motherland. One might also suspect that Kurtz's indoctrination under Sidney Hook at NYU in the early 1940s might have had as much to do with his subsequent evolution.

We also learn that Paul Kurtz has joined people like Bernard Lewis and Thomas Friedman in the ideological war against Islam:

"Islam desperately needs a Protestant-like Reformation," he continued. The Islamic system is the product of "a nomadic, agrarian society, pre-modern and pre-urban, which they are trying to apply to the contemporary world."

When you go to Kurtz's website (http://www.csicop.org/), you discover that the enemies of science are not just people looking for the Yeti (an interesting aside--one of the lead anthropologists on the Kennewick Skeleton investigation has been on expeditions to find the Yeti, or abominable snowman). They include those of us who have an irrational fear of Genetically Modified food.

Matt Nisbet is a regular columnist for Kurtz publications, a self-described X-generation person, and a student at Cornell University. In an article titled "Caught in the Ag Biotech Crossfire: How U.S. Universities Can Engage the Public About Scientific Controversy", (http://www.csicop.org/genx/agbiotech/), he gives the kind of advice that would fit right in at the Monsanto public relations department:

"Universities are therefore confronted with a public communication dilemma. When dealing with an issue like GM agriculture that is heavy with political controversy and scientific uncertainty, and a technology that is closely tied to institutional research and resources, what strategies of successful public engagement and communication can the universities pursue?  Several courses of action based on past research in the social sciences can be recommended. They include: 1) sponsoring participatory public forums; 2) acknowledging uncertainty and strategically framing messages; 3) targeting specific publics through specific media; and 4) carefully monitoring public reaction and media coverage."

Oddly enough, for an outfit so devoted to science and reason, there is little engagement with the science of genetic modification itself. This is not surprising since this intellectual current seems either totally innocent of ecological science, or determined to sweep it under the rug. The moniker Prometheus that Kurtz has given to his publishing outlet suggests an unreconstructed vision of 19th century Progress. Needless to say, this dovetails neatly with the kind of philosophical pragmatism he embraces, which appears totally at home with the agenda of US imperialism.

The other big mover and shaker in the world of skepticism is Michael Shermer, who is much younger than Paul Kurtz and is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine. (http://www.skeptic.com/) While targeting all the usual suspects (UFO's, Bigfoot, ESP, etc.), Shermer has also investigated bogus history. He is the author of a book focusing on the libel case against David Irving, a holocaust denier.

Just as with Kurtz, Shermer casts a wide net in his crusade against the forces of anti-scientific darkness. Such forces include those who believe that there is a Gulf War Syndrome and that silicone breast implants might be harmful.

In a somewhat critical review of Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's "Leftist Science & Skeptical Rhetoric: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science", Shermer does find himself nodding in agreement with their hostility to Marxism:

Where the academic left (driven by outdated Marxist theories of class oppression) presents science as nothing more than a social construction designed to support the group in power (usually white males), Gross and Levitt rightly point out that "science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise" where, for example, "the set of plain truths that science (in the guise of, say, penicillin) works just as well for Australian aborigines (male and female) as it does on Englishmen (and women)." And, I would add, it works for all classes.

This view of science is consistent with the one found in Paul Kurtz. It is a throwback to 19th century positivism and positively innocent of how capitalism shapes the scientific agenda.

In a review of Shermer's "The Borderlands Of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense", that appeared in the Aug. 14, 2001 Independent, Ziauddin Sardar is underwhelmed with Shermer's call to reject bogus beliefs:

It's good, sensible advice. It will be of immense use to people who accidentally missed primary education or left their brains in their mothers' wombs. I suspect that most of these will be Americans, as the kind of non-science that Shermer exposes originates largely from North America.

But are people who believe in alien abduction, aura reading and past- regression therapy open to any kind of scepticism? And who is the bigger nut: the person who believes in "remote viewing" (the ability to travel in mind and give detailed descriptions of a person, place, process or object) or the person who devotes endless time to exposing it as fake?

There are more fundamental problems with Shermer's scepticism. It is firmly of the Eurocentric kind that believes science was invented in Europe 300 years ago. He lumps acupuncture and yoga with dowsing and channelling, unable to distinguish between bodies of knowledge thousands of years old, with their own system of rationality and evidence, and a recent new-age fad. Moreover, his knowledge filter and boundary-detection kit cannot really tell the difference between an ancient and sophisticated medical system such as ayurveda and the schemes of Deepak Chopra, designed for California buffoons who will believe in anything.

Worse, Shermer's scepticism is directed towards soft targets. When it comes to science, it turns into dogmatic belief. His understanding of history is less than rudimentary. When discussing the problems of ethics and morality in science, or the issue of cloning, his language becomes irrational and paranoid. Every argument is dismissed as a "historical common rejection of new technologies".

To top it all, Shermer's view of science is totally obscurantist. An old-fashioned believer in facts, he is quite unaware that ignorance has now become an integral part of science. We now appreciate not just that science seldom solves problems in neat packages, but also that there are always extra bits that cannot be solved. As in the case of nuclear waste, these messy bits of science are typically neglected -- by many scientists as well as professional sceptics. Only someone ideologically sold on the Victorian notion of science as absolute truth would insist that it should be the yardstick for measuring all reality.