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October 1995, Volume 3 Nr 2, Issue 26

Skepticism and Cynicism

Recently, I attended a men's support group meeting. I went with an open mind. The meeting might be good for me. I might reestablish connections, with men with whom I had either lost touch or see seldom, or make new acquaintances. What I took away from the meeting was the topic for this month's Metaphoria. I believe that skepticism, contrary to being a closed-mind state of being, is instead the vehicle to openness and further personal growth and knowledge.

As is common in support meetings, the men were relating recent experiences and feelings. One mentioned viewing a videotape of a recent, controversial Fox TV program entitled Alien Autopsy. He spoke about how the program made him "more convinced than ever." As I looked around the room, I saw many men nodding in agreement. Compelled to ask questions, I felt trapped, as if to do so would somehow be seen as either being unsupportive or having a closed mind.

In our attempts at being supportive to one another, we need not check our brains at the door. The danger is a common one. I see it everyday in my teaching. In order to become accepted, students agree with the dominant statement or philosophy of the moment. In order to be accepted, they listen and do not respond to what is being said. The give and take of learning, sharing and seeking are replaced by the passivity of agreeing.

It is difficult for me to remain silent when what I hear is far afield from my logical perception and rationality. A statement devoid of common sense is subject to interrogation and further scrutiny. There is the natural skeptic in me in that wishes to ask questions. Skepticism is not closing the mind. It is quite the contrary. It is opening the mind to possible alternative paradigms or explanations in a quest for the truth. The quest's journey takes one into unfamiliar territory where new knowledge is presented. Imagine what the world would be like if few skeptics challenged the established authority figures. Imagine, and I am afraid this is happening more and more often, if intelligent people lacking critical reasoning skills accept ideas and explanations without question as a consequence of their lack of understanding of scientific thought and inquiry. They may then fall for the advertisements that sell everything from male sexual potency pills to chi energy balancing devices (two brass tubes and a wire) that sell for outrageous sums of money.

Investigative Paradigms

We live in a society where science promises much at the same time that fewer and fewer people understand what science is. We not only do not understand scientific solutions and principles, we have little knowledge of the scientific process. We have difficulty comprehending the problem and the solution.

It is easy to see where the scientifically uninitiated would want an easy answer. It is much more convenient to accept my idea as solution and retrogressively develop the means to support it than to use the foreign and difficult to understand scientific process of analysis to come to a conclusion. We often place upon our explanations of events in the universe those solutions to which our ideology and personal philosophy adheres.

The discussion is really about investigative paradigms. The scientific method of inquiry is the best method we have to separate our willingness to make our explanation the truth, from actively and impartially seeking the truth. Skepticism is a positive off-shoot of that seeking.

The 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote:

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.

This is also the statement that is the guiding principle behind The Skeptics Society. The Internet homepage of The Skeptics Society states:

The Skeptics Society is a member-supported organization of scholars, scientists, historians, magicians, and the intellectually curious, that sponsors a lecture series at Caltech and publishes the quarterly magazine Skeptic, for the purpose of promoting science and critical thinking, and disseminating information on pseudoscience, pseudohistory, the paranormal, magic, superstition, fringe claims and groups, revolutionary science, protoscience, and the history of science and pseudoscience, in articles, essays, reviews, and letters."

Science and Pseudoscience

I searched the Internet and found to my amazement and great relief that there are dozens of skeptic organizations and publications. Here is a definition of skeptic that I found:

A skeptic is one who is willing to question any claim to truth, asking for clarity in definition, consistency in logic, and adequacy of evidence.

In my circle of friends and acquaintances, there are very, very few with pure science (physics, biology, chemistry) backgrounds. Those that come close have academic backgrounds in psychology (and in nursing). One can argue whether psychology is a science. We can however, call it a soft-science. The soft sciences are not as dedicated to empiricism. Empiricism is the practice of relying upon observation and experiment. A tenet is arrived at empirically, that is, through experience. Similar conclusions are arrived at through similar experience. Replication of results is the cornerstone of experimental science. In contrast, the experience of the individual is the cornerstone of pseudoscience, regardless of whether anyone else experiences the same phenomenon or whether the experience is able to be duplicated.

While all science attempts to achieve results, pseudo- science has much difficulty with maintaining one variable consistently in the course of experimentation, if experimentation is used at all. The control variables may be too numerous and double-blind experimentation either absent or inadequately understood. Many followers, readers and students of the soft sciences are really followers of pseudoscience.

The difference between a scientist and a pseudoscientist is that the scientist easily or more easily accepts that his theory is wrong when data says so. One characteristic of pseudoscience is that they won't leave a theory even if it is falsified a thousand times. And that is also the situation in the public. People want to be fooled.

The Ego's at it Again

If, as Gerald Jampolsky says, the ego is the writer of the script, the cast of characters, the producer and the projectionist of what we experience as real in the world, then pseudoscience is right at home with the ego. Everything that we express as a belief has at its core the reputation of the ego. To prove our reality as incorrect is to prove our internal god, the ego, as wrong.

While science itself, like everything else, is a projectionist system of thinking and inquiry, it is a system of thought that most closely approaches objectivism. While scientists may argue about a theory, presenting opposite and contradictory evidence, the overall objective is to arrive at the truth, not as seen through the lenses of the observer but, rather as it is. Pseudoscience on the other hand, latches onto an explanation, and then, in reverse, goes about proving that it is so.

Without a doubt, science at its best falls short of being the ideal system of inquiry and investigation. Yet, science and its methods have as a goal the identification of the ideal, be it the ideal gas law, ideal cold (absolute zero) or the search for ideal empiricism. It is the best we have.

No amount of alternative medicine, nor any amount of good vibrations, holistic medicine or chanting, for example, was going to bring back our son Dylan's rapidly faltering kidney. No amount of focusing energy or listening to a "channel", no psychokinesis was going to replace that bad kidney with a healthy one. We can grow new skin and blood and veins and many other organs, but not all are regenerative. Not even the body's own poorly understood but often quite remarkable self-healing has ever been shown to regenerate kidney nephrons, (or grossly reduced tooth enamel, or brain cells...).

The Baby and the Bath Water

A lot of good science went a long way to saving Dylan's life by harvesting my healthy kidney, transplanting it and bringing us back from the operating room alive and ready to heal.

None of this however, prevented Dylan and I from going into the operating room with a small pouch of personal items tied around our necks. The pouches contained twigs and small rocks from Vermont, a note from JeanneE, etc. It did not stop us from firmly stating that both Dylan and I wanted to listen to music that JeanneE put together for us during the surgery. We did not wish to throw out the baby with the bath water. While not succumbing to the lure of pseudoscience, we recognized that entertaining projects of positive thinking created a mental state that might increase the odds of a good surgical outcome.

Our skepticism for alternate paradigms need not hinder our choosing a course of action based upon conjecture so long as we do not abrogate our intelligence in the process.

Cynicism

I have been accused of being a cynic. I have been told that I remain closed-minded to possibility. The argument against the skeptic claims that the skeptic is cynical because he refuses to believe outside that which he experiences, thus cutting himself off from a myriad of potential explanations.

George Bernard Shaw said, "The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it." The pseudoscientists reject or do not understand empiricism. Thus, skeptical rejection of claims of paranormal phenomena are scorned as the results of cynical closed-mindednes.

After viewing the videotape, Alien Autopsy, I mentioned to a few colleagues that I had done so and that I could not believe how many intelligent people had fallen for this hoax. His response was, "Oh. You don't believe in UFO's?" How did we get into such a sorry state of affairs.? Aside from our wanting to believe in UFO's and, aside from our (new age) commitment to pseudoscience, we have been hypnotized and duped by television. America has become dumber. We have substituted our need for nurture and nurturing, our desire to be supported and supporting, for our common sense and intelligence. We feel good rather than think right.

Consider the TV program called, "The X-Files". This program is immensely popular, with a large following. There are Usenet Newsgroups in cyberspace that discuss the events portrayed on the show. People in these newsgroups discuss the characters in the program as if they are real and as if the events actually happened. In a recent discussion of a program about the coriolis effect, the program had the effect backwards! Viewers lack of knowledge of science and their inability to distinguish between a documentary and a docudrama created a lively discussion of the program The creator of the show, Chris Carter, on occasion, has had a good laugh as he steps into the discussions and point blank states that he made the whole thing up.

I suggest that the cynics are those who believe that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest. So, the pseud-oscientists, the believers in the alien autopsy, the supporters of spoon bending have it all backward. It is often they who are the cynics as they have invested in their theories such deep self-motivation to prove themselves right, that they suspend logic and close their minds to possibility. The universe is a far more awe-inspiring place, a vast reservoir of wonder and superincredibility than to be dismissed by the ridiculous and narrow explanations of the pseudoscientist.

It is much easier to design a new paradigm or system of belief than to learn something new. It takes time, effort and study to learn about science, to experience empiricism through painstaking detailed observation, recording, reobersvation, duplication and replication. It takes no time to accept a belief without question just because we wish it to be so. Besides, it is much more fun and entertaining to consider alien abduction as real than to read the investigative reports of scientists, especially if one does not understand what they are talking about.

Rather than take the road less traveled, we choose the road of easiest travel. If we don't understand something, we give up. We decide that we are either not smart enough or, that the thing which we do not understand has no merit for us. We forgo learning something new or difficult. In our unwillingness to understand, the untenable takes hold and establishes credence in our dillusionary thinking. Talk about cynicism!

Why is it hard for people to learn something new? One explanation, as Steve Allen puts it, is that America is getting dumber. Another explanation is that learning something new, studying science, may expose us as frauds to ourselves. We would then have to toss what might be years wasted in our disbelief. The idea is frightening. Losing faith in one's religion, judicial system, heroes, country, beliefs, etc. is a crisis. Better not to think about it.

Correlation and Causation

My friends who believe in the incident at Rosswell or in UFO's, or in the lost continent of Atlantis are confusing correlation with causation. Correlation does not prove causation. The fact that hundreds or even thousands of people claim to have been abducted by aliens in no way proves that they have been. Just because one cannot prove that they were not abducted does not mean that they were. The burden of proof is on the claim maker.

There is a difference between what appeared on cigarette packs in the late sixties and what appears now. The correlation between cigarette smoking and cancer (and other illness) prompted the government to place this warning on cigarette packs: "Warning: cigarette smoking may be harmful to your health." After determining through empirical evidence that there was a causal relationship between the two the warning was altered to say: "Warning: Cigarette smoking is harmful to your health."

Snake Oil

While we might miss an opportunity for acquiring knowledge by consistently taking the causal approach, it does lessen the probability that we will fall for and adhere to the claims of the world's crackpots and exploiters. One need only examine recent history in the likes of Jim Jones (Jonestown Guyana), David Koresch, etc.

The purveyors and believers of snake oil have always offered the quick fix. It is as much a quick fix as it is a quick belief. A case in point is the amazing increase in the number of people that say they have personally been abducted by aliens.

While we can discuss the metaphor versus the reality and even the definitions of reality itself, the more important issue is the phenomenon of the increase itself. I suggest that people's cynicism in general and cynicism of science in particular come from their unwillingness or inability to understand or grasp the basic tenets of science. Much easier to believe that they have been examined by visitors from another world than to investigate the correlation between the claims of an individual and the individual's possible seizure activity.

From Iowa State University, I found a review of many UFO books and documents: In UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game, Philip J. Klass argues "that typical UFO abduction accounts arose from popular mythology, circulated in accounts like The Interrupted Journey and stories about the Travis Walton case. With the 'abduction explosion' of the 1980s -- through bestsellers by Budd Hopkins and by Whitley Streiber -- a pre- The Skeptics Society Logo fabricated 'storyline' was already in place. To explain how disparate people provide similar accounts and believe in them, Klass provides two mechanisms. Firstly, many abduction accounts were 'uncovered' through hypnosis, so it is likely that they arose through the hypnotist's asking questions which 'led' the patient to create a UFO abduction memory. The second is that several abductees (Streiber especially) exhibit symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), which encourages confabulation of memory and fantasy." Accepting conjecture is easy. Proving causation is difficult and time consuming.

Jack Rickard defines cynicism as an actual manifestation of disappointment or unrequited love. If we are emotionally attached to having events happen our way or rely on our limited but firmly believed and vested view of the universe, our pain is our cynicism and, our cynicism is our pain.

In a recent discussion on the Internet in the Usenet Newsgroup: alt.consciousness.mysticism, the following was posted:

We can hypothesize anything we like, but what evidence can we present to support it? I don't LEAP to conclusions, I make judgments based upon available evidence and will gladly revise them when evidence is presented that makes another explanation more likely. Rather, it is a huge leap to conclude that some invisible, undetectable entity lives inside us in some completely unexplainable way which somehow animates the flesh to produce awareness. What evidence is there for this?

The whole point of conducting scientific experiments is to reduce the number of variables you are testing to the one you think may be the most important. You cannot practically test everything at once. It is called the scientific method because it is methodical. If the hypothesis does not hold up under the experimental trials, you reject it and find a new one, and test that.

Miracles

What of miracles? None of what I have been writing about negates miracles. Recall if you will, that A Course in Miracles defines a miracle to be a shift in perception that alleviates or eliminates pain. The miracle occurs whenever we want it to through forgiveness and altering our perception of the world. Our projections make our perceptions and as we change our projections so do we change our perceptions. This does not however mean, that we can believe anything we want and that the universe will then bow in agreement to that belief. Such ultimatism is another voice of the ego.

While we hold cynicism at bay we can stay open minded to possibility. Our skepticism leads us to inquiry which leads to learning which leads to knowledge which leads to truth. Our intelligence, combined with our desire to know the truth creates a supportive community of people traveling the journey of life together where miracles are always ready to happen and the likelihood of debauchery minimized.

Quotations

It is a profitable thing, if one is wise, to seem foolish.

Aeschylus

The only reason I would take up jogging is so I could hear heavy breathing again.

Erma Bombeck

If you live to be one hundred, you've got it made. Very few people die past that age.

George Burns

The fellow who thinks he knows it all is especially annoying to those of us who do.

Harold Coffin

None of us can boast about the morality of our ancestors. The records do not show that Adam and Eve were married.

Ed Howe

Research is an organized method for keeping you reasonably dissatisfied with what you have.

Charles Kettering

Of course there's a lot of knowledge in universities: the freshmen bring a little in; the seniors don't take much away, so knowledge sort of accumulates....

Dr. A. Lawrence Lowell

Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.

Theodore Roosevelt

A bore is someone who persists in holding his own views after we have enlightened him with ours.

Anonymous

If the odds are a million to one against something occuring, chances are 50-50 it will.

Anonymous

1995 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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