Newsweek Features James Randi and The Amazing Meeting in Latest Issue

Michael Moynihan went to The Amazing Meeting and wrote a long feature in Newsweek on James Randi, skepticism, and the movement’s overlap (or not) with atheism:

The activists of TAM see themselves as waging a broad, multifront battle to drag American culture, inch by inch, away from the nonscientific and the nonlogical. This turns out to be a surprisingly uphill struggle. Probably the majority of Americans believe in some degree of what JREF’s founder, James Randi, calls “woo-woo.” (“Please use woo-woo,” he instructs me. “I’m trying to get it into extensive use.”) In 2005, for instance, Gallup found that 73 percent of Americans subscribed to at least one paranormal belief. Television personalities like John Edward earn huge audiences by purporting to commune with the dead. Numerous Americans swear by homeopathy, ingest supplements with no proven medical benefit, or believe, against all available evidence, that genetically modified organisms might transform humans into tumor-covered golems.

As an outsider, Moynihan did a nice job of picking up on the unstated themes of the conference as well as a lot of the on-topic chatter that occurs outside official conference hours. (Feminism is notably absent from his piece. As are women, period. Of all the skeptics mentioned, discussed, or quoted in the piece, I didn’t spot a single female voice… which just seems weird.)

The hardest thing to digest, even though it’s admittedly accurate, is the idea that we’re “sort of insufferable” for questioning things that people really want to believe. There’s an art to getting people to hear you out when you point out that their beliefs are silly and many of us lack that skill. Yet, we do a really good job of making people aware of the issue and helping them recognize bullshit when it’s right in front of them. Moynihan, after spending time at TAM, even writes about how he picked up on one fraudster’s tricks and counteracted them.

It’s a surprisingly balanced piece. Not bad, coming from the same magazine that had this as its cover story last October:



About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • C Peterson

    I think it reflects some of the sickness in our society that “arrogance” is used to describe an intelligent, educated person informing an uneducated person that they are wrong. It’s part of that meme that argues all viewpoints, opinions, and even “facts” are equally valid. It’s part of that striking anti-intellectualism that Susan Jacoby has written so eloquently about.

    It isn’t arrogant to be right, and it isn’t arrogant to try and convince people who are wrong just why they are wrong. And that’s mostly what skepticism education is all about.

    • Jeff See

      You said a mouthful there. In all aspects of social life, whenever one seems to try to share information, or show where someone else’s information is inaccurate, the person doing the sharing of information is seen as pious and arrogant. The socially ‘correct’ thing has always been to stay quiet. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said “that didn’t seem right, but I just kept my mouth shut”,,

    • ZenDruid

      Arrogance, condescension, obsequiousness and the like are merely tones of discourse. It doesn’t reflect well that one’s misunderstanding or disagreement with legitimate information can be deflected by simple tone trolling. But it’s difficult to maintain a friendly supportive tone with a determined ignoramus.

      • C Peterson

        Condescension and obsequiousness are certainly tones of discourse. And without doubt, a person can present himself in a way that comes across as arrogant. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the strong tendency these days to treat as “arrogant” anybody who tells somebody else that they have their facts wrong, or have come to a factually incorrect conclusion, even when the person doing the instruction is an expert, and the person receiving it is not.

        Being intelligent and well informed, and assertive in addressing bullshit thinking is not inherently arrogant, but is often treated as such.

        • Machintelligence

          I attribute it, at least in part, to the prevalence of postmodernist thinking. If all views are equally valid, then my ignorance carries equal weight to your knowledge.

    • iamfantastikate

      I think it’s a little more complicated than this. Some people might consider it arrogant to talk about provable rights and wrongs—and they’d be wrong about that, haha—but I honestly think they’re the minority. Instead, what most people find “insufferable” and “arrogant,” I think, are the tactics used by some in the skeptic community. It’s Human Relationships 101 that you don’t belittle people or their thoughts if you want them to see your side of things; that’s why Carl Sagan works better on religious people than Richard Dawkins.

      On the internet, tactics matter less sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with “believers” of one sort or another coming into “atheist territory”—in which case, I think it’s kind of a no holds barred situation—but in person technique matters a lot. Though I have a laugh when I see it occur, it continues to amaze me when skeptics are somehow surprised that religious (or other) people don’t want to hear them out when they use terms like “sky fairy” and “unicorns” and throw around words like “idiot.” No matter how accurate and hilarious the comparisons, or how appropriate the insult, it’s obvious the receiver is likely to shut down, if only out of embarrassment.

      And no one should be saying, “That’s part of the problem,” as then human psychology itself is part of the problem. Turns out humans don’t like being made to feel stupid or humiliated. How well could we have learned in our childhood classrooms if the teachers were constantly making us feel stupid?

      Not all skeptics do this, thankfully, but I feel the ones who do really make it an uphill battle for the ones who don’t. You can tell someone they’re misinformed without being a dick about it.

      • Ewan

        It’s usually not just about them though, it’s about the audience too, whether it’s shoring up in-group relationships with people who are already onside, or convincing waverers which side to come down on. There are a lot of ‘soft’ religious believers who ‘believe’ mostly as a matter of cultural identity and habit, not because they’ve fully considered and are deeply convinced of the truth of religious claims.

        There will always be a hard core of believers, but the more they can be made to look ridiculous, the less other people will be content to be associated with them.

        • Tobias2772

          C peterson reminds me of the Issac Asimov quote: ““Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
          On the other hand Ewan is right. If we really want to help move the battle for reason forward, we need to take human psychology into account. Sometimes our approach is more geared to us feeling right and superior than it is to opening up a door for the other guy to see his or her way clear to a better understanding. Tha’s human nature too, but we need to rise above it to be more successful for the cause.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        The “Human Relationships 101″ sounds like “Folk psychology” — common knowledge that may not be exactly correct, empirically. I would indeed expect there is a point of diminishing returns, where overly-frequent belittling results in tuning out the source. However, an occasional “Dan, only a reactionary ass such as yourself could…” may an effective means of signalling a need for reconsideration.

        There are relatively few empirical studies which test this — partly because IRB ethics approval for such experiments is difficult to obtain. However, there’s at least a few to indicate that there exist some situations where the embarrassment from insult can trigger reconsideration of one’s position.

        The difficulty seems to be in that to trigger such reconsideration, it needs to trigger cognitive dissonance. When abuse occurs too frequently, it becomes normatively expected, and thus unsurprising and triggering minimal dissonance.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      The OED’s definition for arrogance is (in part) making unwarranted claims to authority or knowledge; the term seems to presuppose some (agreed?) measure of epistemological warrant, and perhaps the nature of knowledge and/or authority.

      The description of the movement as “skeptical” only focuses on the glass-half-empty side, where doubt is the response to a claim exceeding of the degree of warrant; however, there also seems a half-full side, where acceptance is the response to warrant exceeding the degree of claim. (This part appears to lack a precise philosophical label, so far as I can tell.)

      When two different people are using two different measures of warrant, the modest claim of one can be arrogant by the measure of the other — particularly in so far as the claimant is unaware of (or ignoring) the implicit difference between the means of measuring warrant. Or in arrogant brevity, skeptics are indeed often arrogant in their presumption of others’ placing a comparably large valuation on truth.

      • C Peterson

        I see the use of “arrogant” (really, the misuse) as a tactic to avoid actual intellectual engagement. Dismiss your opponent as arrogant and walk away, feeling justified in doing so. Paint your opponent as socially offensive in some way, and claim that diminishes the quality of his ideas.

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          Oh, I’d agree that it’s usually a form of Source Derogation, intended to avoid engagement with the substance of the argument. However, that doesn’t mean the allegation of arrogance is not itself true; merely that its truth is often an irrelevant means of attempting to impeach the epistemic warrant of the “arrogant” claim.

          AKA: “Just because I’m arrogant in my assertion doesn’t mean the assertion isn’t true.”

  • Anna

    In 2005, for instance, Gallup found that 73 percent of Americans subscribed to at least one paranormal belief.

    And I would assume that number doesn’t even include all the people who believe in spirits, souls, angels, gods, etc.

  • Eshto

    Dale Roy is a woman, FYI.

  • William Brinkman

    I’m surprised that the “deep rifts” weren’t mentioned in this article. Since 2011, that’s been the biggest issue dividing the skeptical movement.

    • Eshto

      They probably weren’t mentioned because they weren’t an issue at this year’s TAM. Nobody was talking about blog drama, we had better things to do. There was a great sense of unity and camaraderie.

      • http://flavors.me/idoubtit idoubtit

        Agreed. It was refreshing for a change. The arguments were about substantive skeptical issues. I was also commenting that they spoke to Dale Roy, co-founder of Granite State Skeptics and female. The ratio of women to men was commendable as well. It was an important meeting, as usual. This year, it was very productive without the manufactured drama.


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