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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  June 2002

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE June 2002

Subject:

Skeptical about skepticism

From:

Louis Proyect <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 20 Jun 2002 09:34:35 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (152 lines)

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, a 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.<<

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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