Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oprah's enduring legacy? SHAM's enduring shame?

Linked here is a really good, all-in-one-place statement of the problem with "The Oprah Effect," brought to the fore by the tragic plight of one of her fave "experts," Dr. Melvin Levine. Levine committed suicide last Fridaythe same day 40 of his patients accused him of malpractice and sexual abuse. The key takeaway here? This isn't just the familiar "few bad apples" syndrome that could affect any given realm or enterprise. Rather, in Oprah's case, the problem is endemic/systemic. When you're an Oprah Winfrey, and you're dabbling constantly in the New Age and "alternative healing" and the so-called psychic arts, and you're putting your unrivaled credibility behind self-styled gurus who may have trouble enough running their own lives, let alone the lives of your show's millions of impressionable viewers, you're asking if not begging for trouble. This applies even to some of Oprah's most popular and heavily vetted proteges, like Dr. Phil and especially Dr. Oz, whom I discussed in a controversial essay for the New York Daily News a while back. One must also hold Oprah at least somewhat responsible for enabling the likes of James Ray through her avid sponsorship of The Secret and its resident stars.

I repeat: This isn't just harmless buffoonery. Reckless, high-profile self-help hurts, and can even kill.

**********************************

Every once in a while something directs my attention back to SHAM's Amazon listing, where I'm struck anew by the fact that my book, which carried a solid 3.5-star rating until a sudden flurry of negative reviews eroded the half-star about a year ago, is represented in the "spotlight review" section by three pans. Well, technically, one of the reviews is a 4-star, but it's hard to count it that way when the review says in its very title that my book falls short of what the reviewer expected. (I guess Amazon couldn't bring itself to give me a 4- or 5-star review that actually meant it. Certainly there was no shortage to choose from, at the time.) The other two are irredeemable 1-stars.

As it seems unlikely that Amazon will make any meaningful changes at this late date, what with so few new reviews being written and voted on, I must face the fact that my labor of love will be forever memorialized in that ignoble way. I'm not sure why that makes me feel so glum, since we all know that online reviews are highly suspect, often rigged. Still, it does. I'm reminded of a conversation I had with Michael Shermer back when I first began writing for Skeptic. "There's no money in the reality business," we agreed. "Not much glory, either." But maybe Nicholson said it best: You can't handle the truth.

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should offer the electronic version of your book for free/reduced cost for a few days and encourage people to leave better reviews?

Cosmic Connie said...

LOL, Anon; encouraging or even bribing* people to write better reviews is the way the New-Wage hustledorks play the game.

Wait... you weren't serious, were you?

I feel bad, Steve, for not having written a review yet myself. I read SHAM years ago and I liked it very much -- had a few minor disagreements with some of your points but overall I think the book is excellent. I've been participating on your blog for going on five years (in fact I found SHAMblog before I found SHAM). So there's really no excuse for my negligence. Mea culpa. I will rectify this.

As for the "Oprah Effect," I've tried for years to take a more moderate view about Oprah, but evidence of the dark side of her influence is really piling up.

* To my knowledge these "bribes" are usually free or discounted products, not money, but I am only speaking of cases I personally know something about.

Tyro said...

I don't know if it'll help but I submitted my own review. Since I read it last year, I've raved about it and passed it along to friends so I think you deserve a lot better than you're getting.

I've also had the experience of discussing issues with people and getting the "you can prove anything with evidence" response. (Yeah, that's an actual quote.) Message #1 that I'm talking to people outside of my normal social circle! Still, I know not to expect a big change immediately so maybe some seeds get planted.

As an aside, I don't know how the copyright & licensing works with your publisher but if SHAM sales drop below a certain point have you considered offering it as a free ebook download? It would cost you little, would serve as a reference for others, may raise your profile helping with future writing/speaking gigs and could spur renewd interested (and renewed purchases) of your paper book. I'd love to be able to direct people to specific chapters or sections and I think if they read some they would be likely to read a lot more.

Anyway, keep us up to date with any new projects.

Anonymous said...

(I submitted the first comment)

Well that's why I suggested letting your viewers read the book before submitting a review- obviously there is no guarantee of good reviews but more readers could translate into more reviews.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, thanks for the suggestions. I know they're well-intentioned.

I'm very odd when it comes to self-promotion. I hate it when it's done by others, and I (generally) hate it when it's done by me. Look, there's no question that I launched this blog as an adjunct to the book--but the handful of readers who go way back will tell you that I always tried to make the blog stand on its own merits, with fresh, thought-provoking content. I never just used it in the way that some authors do, i.e., "Hey, look at me, I've got a book out and it's wonderful! I'll be doing a signing at Shitfaced Tomes this Saturday!" (Confession: I did hype the one or two readings I agreed to in NYC, but that's because I was horrified about the prospect of no one showing up.)

Even in this wondrous age of internet marketing, I remain a sort of dinosaur/purist; I'm very uncomfortable about "urging" people to do anything that will directly benefit me, as silly and maybe, well, asinine as that sounds. Even during the height of Random House's PR campaign for my book, when I was doing talk shows daily, I seldom talked about (or even referred to) the book, per se; I used my media time to talk about the issues that were (and remain) central to my book, and the reasons why I wrote it. And though I do feel bad about SHAM's lowly Amazon page--I don't believe that it fairly portrays the book, which got GLOWING reviews in many of the most respected, "honest" media that I really care about--I don't think I would've wanted to do anything underhanded to change that.

That's a long way of saying that with rare moments of exception, I'm not the kind of guy who's going to try to orchestrate an organized "write-in campaign" for SHAM--even though I know damn well that the folks on the dark side not only tout their books to the skies, but on several occasions have encouraged their supports to attack mine.

Like I say, I guess I'm just a weirdo.

Frances said...

I remember reading Dr. Levine's books and feeling... shamed. He's one of those who redefined, like Daniel Goleman and Emotional Intelligence, what it meant to be emotionally healthy in the eyes of the American public. And this new definition made me feel I could never measure up. I mean... expecting elementary-school-age children to have empathy greater than that of adults, without being taught? If that's the criteria for social health in children, then I call Unnecessary Inflation and Unrealistic Rules on those skyrocketing autism diagnoses.

Making ability to inspire others a necessary component of social deftness? How does a person know they're sucessfully inspired someone, for instance, unless they get that other person to do as they want? How can this not a prescription for emotional aggression? "Give me my social strokes NOW, dammit! I need to prove my emotional health!"

One of the questions I had after reading Goleman was, "How many people each day do I have to successfully persuade to my point of view, before I can rightfully call myself a persuasive person?" No one could give me a satisfactory answer. They all seemed to answer me with some variation of, "You just know it when you see it and feel it... and by the way, stop overanalyzing this matter!"

And in the case of Levine... I was frantically checking myself to see if any of my personality traits could be construed as a neurological disorder, and worrying that someone with authority could use my love for certain hobbies as evidence of psychological imbalance. It was very anxiety-inducing. I didn't buy for one second Levine's conviction that there are no such things as character flaws, there's only miswired neurology... that is to say, it didn't feel "nicer" or more reassuring to me in the least. Having to spend your life being thought of as an emotional cripple, and experiencing therapy as a substitute for a genuinely loving and caring community, strikes me as no less a social prison than a reputation as a bad, immoral person does. And in some ways, it's worse: because the former people make such a case of caring about you; so how can you begrudge their empathy and generosity-- or attempts at such-- without feeling like an ingrate? How can you challenge what they assess in you, when they sound so confident and authoritative, and they have a better veneer of emotional health than you do?

I'm sad to hear of his suicide, and chilled by the knowledge that getting convicted of child abuse, physical or sexual, pretty much permanently ruins your life in this country. However, I must say when the accusations first came out, I was glad to see him discredited. For making me feel ashamed of the character traits I had formerly most liked about myself, and encouraging me to self-monitor in a very unhealthy way, the way that makes me despair at life; instead of in any way that would actually spur me to do constructive work on myself.

Now, if only we can break Goleman's vise grip on the psyche of our nation. Then I can really say, "Good riddance."

Debbie said...

Apologies if this somehow shows up twice...

Here in Canada-land, your book received four out five maple leafs (heehee) on the chapters online store. And two positive reviews are still on the book's page after a couple of years.

Steve Salerno said...

Debbie, thanks. I heard that I also received a fair amount of adulation in the UK and Australia. I guess it is my fate to be unloved in my own country (sniffle, sniffle), but it's nice of you to mention this.

Ron, Kathryn: I guess I'll take that as a no...? (wink)

Let me walk you through my own angst, if you would. We know that I believe in God. (Lord knows, and I suppose He does, I've said that enough times during this thread.) But also speaking just for me, I find it hard to make a meaningful rational distinction between professing faith in God and professing faith in the Easter Bunny--or ghosts, goblins, and other paranormal phenomena, for that matter. Maybe I'm just obtuse, but I don't see how any such rational distinction can be made.

As I see it, my core belief in God and a joyful Afterlife--which I want to hold apart from all that other silliness--is "special" and "deep" and "meaningful" to me at a gut level, so naturally I don't want to categorize myself as an adult who clings to childlike idylls (e.g. the Easter Bunny). But when I shift into rational mode, I don't see how I can logically regard God as any more plausible than, well, the Easter Bunny...and I feel foolish. (Could God be merely an adult fairy tale, if you will?) Keep in mind here, this is ME talking about ME. I am not arguing that this is the way anyone else should feel, nor would I presume to. I simply asked an honest question and hoped for an honest answer.

And FYI, if you toggle back to the discussions we had on quantum phenomena last Christmas, you'll see that I gave the cosmological explanations for the origins of life a hard time, and on a number of instances I state for the record my intuition that "this can't all be by accident." So I'm not just bringing this up now as a convenient straw man. I can feel the religious feeling. It's just that to me, feelings have very little standing in this discussion.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, it 's Melvin, not Milton Levine (Milton, who recently died as well, was of the ant farm fame). (BTW, your link also appears to lead to Christine O'Donnell story.)

I have been positively influenced by Levine's work on individual learning differences and appreciated his role as an (overdue) pioneer in the field. He has changed, for the better, our understanding of the issue, providing, among other things, a deeper, more humane view of the learning differences and disabilities, and changing kids' lives in the process.

I went to several of his workshops and participated in his days-long conference for professionals on clinical assessment and management of learning differences in NC -- an invaluable experience. But I must say that my personal observations of and interactions (very limited) with the man left me with a very uneasy feeling about him. Yes, that feeling, which raised my internal red flags to the possibility that the man may not be totally pure in his dealings with children.

I know what you think about those (and any) feelings and similar impressions, Steve, and let me assure you that I don't disagree in principle with your reasonable objections.

But as a victim of childhood sexual abuse (and then some), I think that I have an intuitive sense of danger that's more acutely sensitized to possible warning signs in this respect. And that sense of danger was distinctly activated in my contacts with Levine, although I had no logical reason to suspect him of anything or any information that would confirm such suspicions.

Sadly now, I see that my intuitions were correct.

Frances, you say:

I'm sad to hear of his suicide, and chilled by the knowledge that getting convicted of child abuse, physical or sexual, pretty much permanently ruins your life in this country.

So does sexual abuse. And not only in this country.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz, thank you for keeping me on my toes. A "Milton" for a "Melvin" is probably the least of my errors.

RE the link, however, on my computer it still points where it should. How odd.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, this is what I get when I click on the link:

http://jezebel.com/#%215766506/oprahs-long-history-of-sketchy-experts-and-endorsements

Is that the page you've chosen? Maybe I'm missing a "follow-up" link or something such?

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz, and when I click on the link you just sent me, it takes me right to the desired page...

?

Anybody else having a problem here?

Elizabeth said...

OK, I've figured it out (kinda, for my own benefit).

The story you (want to) link to is here:
http://jezebel.com/#!5766506/oprahs-long-history-of-sketchy-experts-and-endorsements

But when I click on your link, I get this (for some reason):
http://jezebel.com/#%215766506/oprahs-long-history-of-sketchy-experts-and-endorsements

which takes me to Jezebel's main page.

The difference is in the URL numbers (after jezebel.com/), but I'm not sure why it is showing this way, or whether it's only on my computer.

Anyway, I've found the story, thanks.

Kathryn Price said...

"But when I shift into rational mode, I don't see how I can logically regard God as any more plausible than, well, the Easter Bunny...and I feel foolish. (Could God be merely an adult fairy tale, if you will?) Keep in mind here, this is ME talking about ME."

Steve, (your question here refers to a different post, but maybe the move was deliberate). Yes, I can understand your ambivalence and feelings of foolishness. I think part of this comes from making a strict dualism of what we consider rational/irrational, and the judgments you have made around those concepts. One of those judgments is that the ability to find measurable results can be the basis for a serious intellectual inquiry, but something that arises from a very reasonable thought such as your sense that the existence of the universe might not be an accident cannot be taken seriously, because we aren't able to determine it scientifically. It tips over into “foolishness” for you if you start to think it points to something like a Source or God, which you have already decided is akin to an adult fairy tale. You are prejudging a conclusion you have not yet arrived at, and if you arrive at it you won’t be able to prove it through any of the methods you approve. Therefore, it must be silly. Why can’t the sense or intuition that “it’s not an accident” be the basis of serious intellectual inquiry? That inquiry would be more along the lines of philosophy which isn’t going to be measurable, but can surely be rational. You are concerned about taking something seriously that you have already determined would be silly. Yes, I do think I see why this is difficult.

Frances said...

@Elizabeth-- it hit me right after clicking "send" that the way I wrote this might not go over as well as I'd thought. Indeed, maybe there is no good way to say what I did, when someone who's actually experienced child sexual abuse is listening. I apologize for having less sensitivity than was called for.

This quote from this link really jumped out at me:

I worked with a company that once sponsored a Levine event before charges were made public. None of us had any idea that he might be a pedophile. In person, he was a charismatic and engaged speaker, and this likely enabled him to keep his criminal activity under wraps.

Kind of amazing what charisma and likeability can enable you to get away with, isn't it?
That's what happens when your entire society promotes social skills willy-nilly, without taking the time to ask if we're learning the right kind of social skills. We set up a system that can only inevitably reward sociopaths and manipulators, as long as they have the smiling face and nonthreatening demeanor. Bernie Madoff. Dubya Bush. Even many school bullies... it's an unfortunate fact that in many cases, people like bullies more than their victims.

Humans are social creatures... and we, unfortunately, have been too often making sociability into a straitjacket instead of what it's supposed to be, at least according to the medical media: the healing balm of love that makes us happier and healthier.

People who use friendship, love, compassion and caring as weapons to hurt people-- as Levine did-- are truly loathsome people. They take the best of humanity and pervert it, turning something good into an instrument to do bad, and confusing us about whether there is good in humanity, all in one. Particularly if we're a vulnerable child.

Dimension Skipper said...

Could have sworn I submitted a comment 5 or 6 hours ago, but others have come through the approval process in the meantime, so I don't know what happened. Let's try again...

Elizabeth is right about the link issue and she has since found the correct link URL (as I did too and thought I'd submitted). The only thing I can add is that '%21' is the ASCII hex conversion code for '!', so the two link versions are essentially the same, but I guess, Steve, your machine must be auto-converting the '%21' to '!' for some reason???? Don't know, but my machine is same as Elizabeth's apparently in that it doesn't find the correct link. For what it's worth I'd recommend changing it to the explicit '!' version...

Oprah’s Long History Of Sketchy "Experts" And Endorsements
By Tracie Egan Morrissey (Feb 21, 2011)

(I'm still a little confused though by the fact that the comments underneath the article seem to have nothing to do with Oprah, but instead are all referencing Jenny McCarthy. Very strange.)


I also pointed out earlier, Steve, that the bulk of your comment at 'February 23, 2011 2:53 PM' directed toward Ron & Kathryn seemed pretty obviously intended for the Divine Mother post. At any rate, it appears that Kathryn has found it in the meantime.

That's it. Now let's see if this one sticks... (I'm curious.)

Dimension Skipper said...

Trivial P.S....

I had to click 'ALL' on the "DISCUSSION THREADS" bar to see the Oprah-related comments rather than the default 'FEATURED' comments which apparently have to do with Jenny McCarthy somehow. Why the Oprah ones don't automatically show up when you're looking at the article right above the comments area, I don't have a clue.

Steve Salerno said...

DimSkip, unless I overlooked a comment--and there's nothing unaccounted for in either my inbox or my Blogger "pending approval" folder--I think I did publish everything you put through. In fact I remember your "duplicate" comment specifically. Sorry for the confusion and inconvenience.

I don't know what the deal with the link is, since it has worked on my machine from hour one. Sorry for the confusion and inconvenience there too.

Aside from--of course--finding sexual abuse tragic, I also find it interesting that the sexual experiences we have as young people stay with us the way they do, even when there's no specific abuse involved. As most of you know by now, I had an idyllic childhood at home, and suffered nothing but the usual teenage slings and arrows (the heartbreak of that first lost love, etc.) outside the home.

However, I did have an extremely powerful and atypical (bordering on bizarre) first sexual relationship, lasting from age 13-15. The older I get, the more I perceive the myriad ways in which that relationship--which ended quite badly--has shaped me as a person and, especially, a man. Increasingly I have come to agree with the experts who keep trying to impress on kids that "sex is never just sex." You have to be emotionally ready.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I think part of this comes from making a strict dualism of what we consider rational/irrational, and the judgments you have made around those concepts."

And here is where I think we get ourselves backed into intellectual corners. Where some, like Steve, see the rational and the spiritual as an either/or decision, I see it as more analog, a continuum, if you will.

Steve, do you believe in ultrasound? We use it every day, and have instruments that are capable of measuring ultrasonic waves with a remarkable degree of accuracy. I even earned a Krautkramer/Branson Level II Ultrasonic Technician rating years ago, which proclaimed that with the right equipment, I could find a grain of sand embedded 6" below the surface in a chunk of steel by measuring how long it took a 35MHz signal to bounce back from the grain. Yet when I was born, such an idea would have been laughed at, despite the fact that the ultra-high-frequency waves were merely vibrating at a faster rate than those we could hear (or measure at the time).

Until such time as the waves could be measured, it would have been foolhardy to claim that they even existed. By the same token, by following the Scientific Method, it would have been equally foolhardy to flatly state that they did not. IMO, the "rational" argument that God doesn't exist because there's no empirical data to support God's existence is itself an abandonment of the very principles of critical thought. While it is impossible to prove a negative, it is possible to drastically reduce or establish as highly unlikely the possibility that something (or some spirit) exists. To date, the only evidence of this nature that has been provided has been anecdotal and/or borne of conjecture, neither of which is deemed acceptable to skeptics/scientists as "proof." As you are oft wont to say, you can't have it both ways. If you demand concrete proof that something exists, it is only fitting that your own arguments be supported with something beyond your own perspective, despite the fact that others might share that perspective. Remember; the same can be said of belief in things spiritual.

RevRon's Rants said...

BTW, Steve... You stated that your belief makes you feel foolish. GOOD! We are, every one of us, foolish. It's not until we recognize that fact that we can hope to learn anything new. And the more we learn, the more we recognize our own foolishness, and the more we're OK with it.

Tyro said...

the "rational" argument that God doesn't exist because there's no empirical data to support God's existence is itself an abandonment of the very principles of critical thought.

Some irrational buffoons might claims that phlogiston and the luminiferous ether don't exist but they're abandoning the very principles of critical thought. Just because we don't have any supporting evidence and other theories explain behaviour better than these ideas, doesn't mean they don't exist!

They might say that one of the principles of critical thought is to withhold acceptance of claims until there's evidence, rather than believing in things until they're disproved but since that undermines belief we cherish I think it's okay to disregard it! I mean, there are principles and then there are principles - you got to know when to apply them.


While it is impossible to prove a negative

Wow, totally wrong. Completely backwards in fact. Science works via induction which is why it's impossible to prove a theory is true but fortunately it's easy to prove that theories are false. We progress by accepting that all theories are only provisionally accepted but at least we can know for certain that some things are false.

As for gods, even Epicurus back in 300 BCE grasped that the claims made by theologians conflicted with observations, proving that some conceptions of god were incompatible with observation, that is they did not exist.

You can modify your ideas (like Sagan's Invisible Dragon) to remove them from reality or you can just reject evidence (who are you going to believe, the bible or your lying eyes?) but if you value evidence and critical thought then you must be open to the idea that some things do get proven false.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I gotta say I'm sort of with Tyro here (even though I'm not entirely sure I follow his first few graphs). To seriously entertain the proposition that simply because something MIGHT exist, we should act as if it DOES exist (until its existence is confirmed), is a philosophy that, if embraced, would undermine thousands of years of scientific principle--while at the same time playing right into the hands of those who stump for the law of attraction, CAM's more outlandish "healing arts," and related snake oil. I really didn't want to dive back into this discussion, but as someone who values critical thinking, I just can't accept the idea that we should honor--in some official way--concepts that exist (if they exist at all) entirely outside the realm of science and/or logic. If we want to believe in God--and I include myself in that--so be it. But I just can't get to the point where I tell myself that there's no contradiction between faith and science, because to me there has to be, by definition.

RevRon's Rants said...

"They might say that one of the principles of critical thought is to withhold acceptance of claims until there's evidence..."

Perhaps it would also be appropriate to withhold issuing an outright denial of another's belief until there's evidence, as well. Like I said, you can't have it both ways.

"Wow, totally wrong. Completely backwards in fact."

OK, I'll bite. Please provide the evidence that proves the nonexistence of something, and upon which a"rationalists" can base such certain knowledge. I'll wait...

"if you value evidence and critical thought then you must be open to the idea that some things do get proven false."

Well, if the existence of spirit is ever proven false, I'll accept it. To date, however, the only "evidence" is pure conjecture, carrying no more weight than does belief. Each person chooses what they will, and in my experience, I've found that if they're sufficiently comfortable with their choice, they'll feel no need to belittle ideas that differ from their own, or the people who hold to those ideas.

RevRon's Rants said...

"To seriously entertain the proposition that simply because something MIGHT exist, we should act as if it DOES exist (until its existence is confirmed), is a philosophy that, if embraced, would undermine thousands of years of scientific principle..."

Jesus Christ on a bicycle!! How many times do I have to repeat this before it sinks in? I am not - and have not been - trying to force anyone to say that spirit/God DOES exist; merely to lay off the arrogant and unfounded certainty that he/she/it DOESN'T, when there is no more proof of nonexistence than of existence. Believe whatever they want, and more power to them. But keep in mind that their beliefs - like my own - are just that - beliefs - like my own, and not TRUTH.

Another line from "Contact" comes to mind, where the priest asks Ellie if she actually believes that the vast majority of humans (who do believe in something beyond science) are under the influence of some shared delusion. She doesn't answer, but it's unclear whether she actually thinks that of her fellow man, or is just unwilling to admit to such supreme arrogance.

Kathryn Price said...

"To seriously entertain the proposition that simply because something MIGHT exist, we should act as if it DOES exist (until its existence is confirmed), is a philosophy that, if embraced, would undermine thousands of years of scientific principle--while at the same time playing right into the hands of those who stump for the law of attraction, CAM's more outlandish "healing arts," and related snake oil."

It seems to me that you're saying snake oil exists, therefore spirituality must be snake oil. Or, because there are snake oil sellers in the world, we can't allow spirituality to stand as a logical proposition. The presumption all along in this discussion has been that a sense of spirituality arises from something irrational in the human--what would you call it--spirit? (I'll use the term human makeup, although if I used the term "spirit" we would all have a relatively common understanding of what I meant.)

The assumption here has been that conceptions of a Source or God arose from wishful thinking, or as a catchall to explain everything we didn't understand. I think it was completely logical for humans to posit something outside themselves from the beginning. They would have realized that without any effort of their own they existed, and that their existence depended on other things already in existence, such as food and water. It was logical to posit a source. They may have had strange (by our standards) conceptions of what that source was, but the idea that there was a source wasn't necessarily rooted in ignorance, but was a logical conclusion, IMO. The notion still isn't at odds with logic. If you argue that it is at odds with logical observation, please explain why. You argue that we can't prove there is a source, but as Ron has written, we can't disprove it--and it's not illogical to consider that this could be one explanation for the existence of the universe. Why is it illogical? Because snake oil exists? I would think that wouldn't fly with a rational line of reasoning.

Tyro said...

Perhaps it would also be appropriate to withhold issuing an outright denial of another's belief until there's evidence, as well. Like I said, you can't have it both ways.

You're sort of right, I'll grant you. If a claim is sufficiently hard to support then it's not justified to outright deny it. Some ideas like Loop Quantum Gravity are in this boat right now, they are the start of a good theory but don't have supporting evidence so are stuck as a mere hypothesis. Even ardent supporters do not say they are real and believe, at best, that these ideas have potential.

There's another class of ideas like Sagan's Dragon which have been constructed to avoid even the possibility of falsification. No observation could ever prove them wrong, not even in theory. These are classed as "not even wrong" and are universally reviled by scientists, sceptics and critical thinkers worldwide because they are empty and devoid of content. This is unfortunately the space in which many religious claims reside - deism, apophatic theology, pantheism, etc.

Please provide the evidence that proves the nonexistence of something, and upon which a"rationalists" can base such certain knowledge. I'll wait...

I've given a couple - phlogiston and the luminiferous ether - but the history of science has more failed ideas than confirmed ones. Rutherford's planetary atom, the muffin-model of the atom, black bile, Galen's thinking heart, a flat earth, a crystal shell holding the stars, Kelvin's coal-fuelled sun, and on an on. If you have any speciality you could spend a few hours reviewing the literature of the past 50 years and find dozens of ideas which were proven wrong.

You asked me to give evidence that these didn't exist but if you've got some general familiarity with them, I'm sure you know the evidence already. Most of these are so classic that the experiments which demonstrated their falsehood are famous in their own right.

As to proving the spirit doesn't exist, I didn't say that it definitely didn't, only that some concepts of god were disproved. As before, since there is no supporting evidence for a spirit and no coherent theory for what it is, what predictions arise and there are better theories which account for all known facts, the basic principles of critical thought are to withhold belief at best or, for various problems, to reject it.

Could some modified spirit theory appear which does get supported? Possibly but then we'd be in the same boat as the Rutherford atom - the initial idea is still just as wrong or useless.

If you like, compare the notions of spirit to that of Chi, pneuma, homeopathic provings, or the Law of Attraction. These lack any good supporting evidence, other better theories explain all their so-called evidence, and in many cases we can't distinguish their existence from non-existence (unfalsifiable). What do you think our reaction to these ideas should be?

She doesn't answer, but it's unclear whether she actually thinks that of her fellow man, or is just unwilling to admit to such supreme arrogance.

To be fair, that wasn't in Sagan's book :)

But what do we think about the people who believe in homeopathy and accupuncture? We know that human brains naturally make many mistakes which take effort and rigour to account for which is why we say that popularity is not evidence. Because yeah, it's possible even likely that a majority of humans do believe in things which are false.

Kathryn Price said...

BTW, on the matter of Oprah, I've been trying not to denounce Oprah across the board (I must confess that I even once read O magazine at times, but rarely saw the show) and when I do lampoon her constant "celebrate you" message, a friend asks me to consider that Oprah might, in fact, be speaking to an audience who are shot down in their lives on a daily basis. I don't think "celebrate yourself" is going to change the factors that shoot people down in life, but I have tried to maintain a reasonable charitable stance towards Oprah. It has failed. It failed for me when she hosted the "Eat, Pray, Love" cabal of herself, Julia Roberts, and Elizabeth Gilbert last summer. A friend had told me a couple of years before that the book was a great spiritual memoir. I started reading it and ended up almost throwing it against the wall. It opened with, "I wish Giovanni would kiss me." I'd take Augustine's Confessions ("I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust") over that any day. It seemed to me that there was something contrived in Gilbert's writing, that it was not genuine. I recognized that as a subjective assessment, yet I couldn't shake that sense of it. The rapture with which female friends took to the book has forever severed me, in some way, from a sense of fellowship with them. I guess it's not Oprah's fault. But then again, it's not not her fault, either.

Steve Salerno said...

I realize that somewhere along the line this thread got hijacked back to "the god thing," and I also realize that I'm probably responsible for that. So before this discussions spreads like a virus, infecting every post, I'd like to say that my final position on this is as follows: I am not trying to impose my will on others by insisting that they give up their belief in God. (I don't even spend much time trying to disabuse myself of that belief.) All along, I have been trying to make one point and one point only: that to believe in God while simultaneously trying to justify that belief according to some contrived system of "personal logic" is highly suspect (as well as dangerous, in the broader social context). I don't see how anyone could describe the science-vs.-God paradigm as a "continuum." There is no legitimate scientific system that makes room for the supernatural, and a "private" scientific system that does so is not a scientific system. It's not a continuum. It's a dichotomy.

I'm not saying that this makes a person who believes in God a moron or defective in any meaningful way. I'm just reiterating what I said at the outset: that in this one special case, we wall off an entire area of life from logical scrutiny. And we get angry when others want to apply that logical scrutiny.

I'm reminded a little bit of overweight people who have a craving for a particular type of food that they know they should not be eating, but rather than just admit that they want to eat the food regardless of its impact on their weight, they try to somehow rationalize the food as an acceptable part of their diet. My point is not to tell them, "Don't eat the fatty barbecued ribs and the greasy fries slathered in cheese sauce." It's not my place to tell them that. I'm simply saying, "Eat the ribs if you want--it's your life--but please don't try to tell me it's health food."

RevRon's Rants said...

IMO, the best way to avoid the virus in this case is to quit injecting it. Everybody has expressed their OPINIONS, and some have even allowed that opinions they don't share could be the products of intelligent and reasonable minds. If one is unable or unwilling to make such allowances, I suggest that there might be more behind this discussion than the scientific method.

"I don't see how anyone could describe the science-vs.-God paradigm as a "continuum."

And I don't see how someone who seems so otherwise candid about the limitations of his perspectives in other areas can so flatly dismiss something that he admittedly doesn't understand.

"There is no legitimate scientific system that makes room for the supernatural, and a "private" scientific system that does so is not a scientific system. It's not a continuum."

Would you advise the suspension of all research efforts that delve into areas that seem, to you, illogical? Should we have stopped looking once we understood the characteristics of visible light and audible sound, denying the very existence of x-rays, ultraviolet light, and ultrasound and microwaves, since it was obvious that they didn't exist? If you don't accept the notion that these exist on a continuum, I can certainly see why you'd have difficulty getting your head around the proposition that what you dismiss as "supernatural" might simply possess qualities at what would seem to be at the extreme reaches of a continuum.

As to the notion of proving the nonexistence of something, proving that something's qualities differ from an earlier theory isn't synonymous with disproving its existence. The earth certainly did exist when people thought it to be flat; it just didn't exist in the form they believed.

The analogy suggesting that the embrace of spirituality is akin to obese people's choice to devour slabs of greasy ribs isn't doing anything to make you sound less prejudiced, and I doubt it does much to reinforce your "critical thinking" cred, either. It still smacks of arrogant dismissal. And claiming a desire to avert further discussion on a topic, yet tossing in a restatement of that previously repeated dismissal? There's your dichotomy.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Let's leave religion out of it and pursue your question about x-rays, etc. Would I wipe away all early research into those phenomena? No. But what would you have said about a group of people who assumed the existence of x-rays, and set up elaborate rituals to honor x-rays, and designated a special day each week to celebrate x-rays, say, in 1690? It doesn't matter that their faith in x-rays would've been vindicated two centuries later. Because in 1690, no one knew that their faith would be vindicated. It could've turned out to be a huge wild-goose chase. As God might ultimately be.

Kathryn Price said...

"I'm just reiterating what I said at the outset: that in this one special case, we wall off an entire area of life from logical scrutiny."

That is not the way it happened for me or continues to happen for me; I apply logical scrutiny to this area of my life as well. I simply arrive somewhere else than you do.

I hope I have made the case that the things we can't measure are profoundly important in how we will construct the world--not just imaginatively but in concrete ways--love, for instance. A sense or intuition that the sum of the components of our matter is not going to be adequate to explain who we are, that an ineffable something within or without calls us to venture deeper, not only outwards into space, but inward towards aspirations of love and a fidelity to it beyond what we should "rationally" consider, is not something I'm going to consider comparable to an overweight person eating something they know they shouldn't. That is way too low to set or close the bar on the search for "truth."

I respect the work you're doing here, otherwise I wouldn't read your blog (and I bought your book, too). I embrace science, and it also brings to me a sense of "the good, the true and the beautiful."
(One of my personal and amateur scientific interests focuses on the nature of symmetry in the universe.) However, the notion that the scientific method is the arbiter of "truth" and that it, alone, has a corner on "reality" sounds to me like the kind of exclusive claim and right to authority that it has excoriated others for taking. Skepticism, then, becomes the one branch of inquiry to which skepticism is not applied.

At my seminary, the word "context" is huge. We are asked to consider that whatever faith or path we embrace (for it is an ecumenical seminary, thus an extremely interesting place) comes out of a context comprised of our own history, culture, class, race, gender, experience, etc. We are asked to consider that context in everything we write and in every class discussion. The name of the cafe on site is "The Context Cafe"--a humorous nod to the seminary's under girding principle of what we need to remember in our own searches for what we seek to aspire to in the world. We start from a sense of humility. I think it's a good place to remain.

RevRon's Rants said...

"But what would you have said about a group of people who assumed the existence of x-rays, and set up elaborate rituals to honor x-rays, and designated a special day each week to celebrate x-rays, say, in 1690?"

I probably wouldn't have felt compelled to say much of anything, unless their beliefs and practices somehow threatened my own perspective. I certainly wouldn't have felt the need to belittle or dismiss them because of their beliefs. Even if I thought that the cheese had slid off their collective cracker, I'd have kept that thought to myself, if only out of respect for other human beings' right to believe what they choose. I've also learned that when I was dismissive of others, it said more about me than about them. Nothing wrong with disagreeing, but when it deteriorates into personal put-downs, rational discussion ends.

RevRon's Rants said...

To put it more simply, and in less emotional terms, there has never been a search for knowledge, a "chase," if you will, that didn't have its share of wild geese in the mix. Had humankind abandoned any search that might - or even probably would - prove fruitless, we wouldn't be having this discussion right now. We'd likely be sitting around shivering, wishing we could find some fire, and laughing at those idiots rubbing sticks together.

Steve Salerno said...

Kathryn: I want to be sure I understand you, then. Are you saying that--much like the disciples of intelligent design--your logical approach to the question of existence, and "how we got here," has led you irrevocably to the conclusion that "there must be a God"? To me, that's a little bit like when homicide detectives conclude, "Well, Joe must've done it, because we don't have another suspect." But I'm wondering if that's how you got where you are.

Steve Salerno said...

In other words, if there IS indeed a logical, fact-based process that would lead a person to the conclusion that God exists--if this isn't just about blind faith--I want to know what the steps are.

Kathryn Price said...

"Let's leave religion out of it and pursue your question about x-rays, etc. Would I wipe away all early research into those phenomena? No. But what would you have said about a group of people who assumed the existence of x-rays, and set up elaborate rituals to honor x-rays, and designated a special day each week to celebrate x-rays, say, in 1690?"

Steve, you asked to leave religion out of it and yet you just re-inserted it here. Since this is not the first time you've mentioned the Sabbath in this discussion, may I please address this concept? An idea like the Sabbath does seem silly until you realize that the Sabbath was an ethical upgrade for a culture just emerging out of pre-history, making sure that laborers and even the animals had a day off from work. Jesus pointed this out when he ran afoul of some scribes for picking grain on the Sabbath. He asked, “Was the Sabbath made for man, or man for the Sabbath?” (The first answer is correct.)

I'm just pointing out that it is important to understand contexts in considering the reasons for cultural practices that might seem silly to us looking backwards.

RevRon's Rants said...

IMO, the first step is in embracing an attitude of humility; recognizing and realizing that there may be more than you currently perceive, understand, or even comprehend, and that absolute assurance is quite frequently a mask we don to hide - even from ourselves - the uncertainty we actually feel.

With the setting aside of what Sagan described as our "carbon bias," we might well discover life where we had previously denied its existence. Adopting a similar openness to (but not rushing headlong into blind acceptance of) the possibility that something greater than ourselves, currently unmeasurable by our technology, might leave us capable of perceiving and rationally understanding something that is presently incomprehensible to us.

So long as we claim to know all the answers, or even to know with certainty which questions bear asking, we commit ourselves to the kind of ignorance that the "scientific method" once held the promise of eliminating.

Kathryn Price said...

"Kathryn: I want to be sure I understand you, then. Are you saying that--much like the disciples of intelligent design--your logical approach to the question of existence, and "how we got here," has led you irrevocably to the conclusion that "there must be a God"?"

I didn't come to an "irrevocable" conclusion that there must be a God. I'm saying that after considering the matter from different perspectives on both sides, and from observation, I have considered that it was not (and even now is not) "illogical" to consider that there may be a source or first cause for the universe. I know that leads to the chicken and egg argument. I'm simply saying it's not an illogical notion, any more than is yours when you consider that maybe the universe is not an accident. I'm also saying that my many years of considering the matter did not proceed along the lines of rationalizing a decision to eat barbecued ribs (especially since I'm a vegetarian ;-)) simply because they taste good. You'll have to condemn all philosophy, too, if you consider that logical consideration begins and ends only with our ability to measure things.

I am not a disciple of intelligent design, and usually never get into matters of this kind. My concern is with this world and the question of "what then must we do?" since human greed appears to be bent on destroying the earth, the animals, and ourselves, and we condemn millions of animals to the unjustifiable cruelty of factory farms and millions of humans to the unjustifiable cruelty of lives in the sweatshops of the world, and we send soldiers to die to protect our interests, and we abandon principles of even moderate decency in the service of human greed. Those are usually the matters you'll find me arguing for, or against, on a daily basis.

I asked at the outset if a person can be both rational and spiritual. You have said no. I disagree. At one point you said thought this was turning out to be one of the best discussions here about these matters. I think it's a great discussion, but I simply do not agree that what we call the spiritual side of life can be reduced to no more than Easter bunnies or a craving for barbecued ribs, or the like. I understand that is where you must consign it for your own reasons. And I'm saying I do not consign it to those places for my own reasons. And I guess that is where we stand.

Tyro said...

@RevRon

To put it more simply, and in less emotional terms, there has never been a search for knowledge, a "chase," if you will, that didn't have its share of wild geese in the mix.

What can I add to that? Nothing, it's perfect. I just liked this so much I had to quote it again.



@Kathryn,

However, the notion that the scientific method is the arbiter of "truth" and that it, alone, has a corner on "reality" sounds to me like the kind of exclusive claim and right to authority that it has excoriated others for taking.

I think of skepticism as a methodology or a system of checks to prevent the most egregious fallacies so I'm at a loss to imagine any other system which can discriminate between truth and falsehoods and which lacks these checks. If this isn't just a clever rhetorical flourish, what other options exist and how do they work to lead us to truth and away from Rev Ron's wild geese?

Lena Phoenix said...

"I am not - and have not been - trying to force anyone to say that spirit/God DOES exist; merely to lay off the arrogant and unfounded certainty that he/she/it DOESN'T, when there is no more proof of nonexistence than of existence."

I don't think anyone in this discussion has insisted that God doesn't exist. My own position has already been more eloquently expressed by Tyro:

"As before, since there is no supporting evidence for a spirit and no coherent theory for what it is, what predictions arise and there are better theories which account for all known facts, the basic principles of critical thought are to withhold belief at best or, for various problems, to reject it."

The idea that there isn't sufficient evidence to support a belief in God is, IMO, very different from holding a definitive belief that there is no God, yet this distinction is often lost on those who do believe in God.

Personally, I'm more than willing to reconsider my position in the face of good evidence. I simply haven't seen any. But that doesn't mean I think the case is closed, and I have no objection to people doing whatever sorts of experiments they want to try to prove whatever theories they may have. But as a taxpayer, I'm not interested in having government funds go towards those kinds of studies because, as with CAM, the underlying plausibility seems too weak. Since resources are limited, I'd rather my tax dollars go to exploring those theories that have more solid plausibility behind them.

I don't agree that holding such a position makes a person arrogant and dismissive. If that's the case, than any position that disagrees with another is arrogant and dismissive. In discussions like this, we provide the best information we have to support our positions. If the arguments aren't compelling enough to the other side, then nothing is likely to change. But I still think its a useful exercise for clarifying what we do and don't believe and why we do or don't believe it. To claim that someone who doesn't accept another's position is arrogant or dismissive strikes me as a tangent that, even if it is true (which I don't agree in this case it is) distracts from the general point of the discussion.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: OK, since we're supposed to debate with "humility," then how can you start from the premise that you "know" there's a God, even though just about all the verifiable evidence is on the other side?

RevRon's Rants said...

Well, Steve, show me the "verifiable evidence" - ANY "verifiable evidence" - that there ISN'T a god, and which leaves you rationally "knowing" that God doesn't exist. You can't any more than I can provide "verifiable evidence" that there is one. Each of our perspectives are based upon our own experiences, intellectual inclinations, and interpretation, rather than upon verifiable evidence. The difference, as I see it, is that I have no problem allowing those who do not believe to hold to their perspectives. My "knowing" is an internal affair, just as is my "knowing" when I feel love or hatred. I cannot produce a shred of concrete evidence to support the existence of either the emotions or the awareness of spirit, but neither can you or anyone else provide a shred of evidence to refute it. I question anyone's inability (or unwillingness) to simply accept that there is a difference in opinion without adding the blatant value judgments.

"If that's the case, than any position that disagrees with another is arrogant and dismissive."

Heck of a leap in logic there, Lena. Respectful disagreement involves allowing another to hold to a different belief without obsessively attempting to discount the viability of their opinion. That has not been the case through the course of these discussions. The notion of belief has been described as irrational, borne of human flaw and fear, and even ridiculed. I was taught as a child to be more respectful than that, and as a student, I was taught that it was an unacceptable debate tactic, adopted when one was unable to support their own argument.

The biggest "wild goose chase" in this discussion, IMO, is the attempt to maintain an attitude of simple respect and tolerance for things falling outside one's preferred frame of reference. And on that note, I'll leave the "yes, but..." regurgitation of the same arguments to others. As Kathryn said, "I simply do not agree that what we call the spiritual side of life can be reduced to no more than Easter bunnies or a craving for barbecued ribs, or the like. I understand that is where you must consign it for your own reasons. And I'm saying I do not consign it to those places for my own reasons. And I guess that is where we stand."

Hear, hear!

Steve Salerno said...

Dear Folks, after five years of running SHAMblog in a manner that fought the good fight on behalf of reason--and during which there was no higher calling than separating fact from fiction in a way that honored the scientific method by putting the burden of proof on the shoulders of the people making the affirmative claim--I cannot believe that we have ended up in a place where someone seriously proposes that the only way for an opposing viewpoint to prevail is by proving a negative. OK, so I guess then it's also our mandate to prove that the law of attraction DOESN'T put the cosmos at our beck and call, and that Joe Vitale's $39 Russian sticker DOESN'T do magic tricks on behalf of its owner, and that therapeutic touch DOESN'T cure heart disease. (And only by agreeing to that fundamentally dadaist pursuit can one hope to be praised for having "humility"!)

This thread is over. I will not publish anything else that comes through.

Christoph Dollis said...

I appreciate your (and Shermer's) work in the "reality business", Steve. Thank you for it.

I just bought your book today. I looked at the average star-rating and unlike the "ra ra" books, it wasn't particularly high, as you noted. Then I read the preview, and it was fantastic.

I hope to finish reading it over the next week or so.

Just subscribed to your blog too. I am certain that your work helps some people, in a big way. I hope you keep it up.

Christoph Dollis said...

Ah. I see you're not publishing any more comments. (I just got to the end of the thread).

Well, so be it. Between you and me then. I appreciate your work.