Battles With Everyday Bigots: On Tolerance and Tolerance

trump

Tolerance is created when people from different social groups celebrate their commonalities and their differences as positive things. Establishing connections with the diverse range of people around you makes it difficult to hold onto deep-rooted prejudices and yet being connected to the world online isn’t a cure-all for intolerance, hatred, and bigotry.

Some argue that, if anything, the internet fuels bigotry and makes it easier for fascists to target their intended victims. There has recently been a lot of pushback from some of the most prominent online platforms such as Twitter to curtail hate speech and harassment but maybe this is too little too late? [Marcotte, 2016]

Thomas Mair, the fascist extremist who murdered MP Jo Cox was able to connect to Nazi organisations in the US and South Africa online, and for many who have such far-right ideologies it’s probably really easy to create a “white power” echo-chamber while sitting at their PC. [Cobain, Parveen and Taylor, 2016]

Recent events such as the election of Donald Trump in the USA and the popularity of far-right politicians and groups across Europe such as UKIP. Britain First and Marian Le Pen make the world seem like a bleak, desperate place. Justifiably, many who are part of minority communities are looking at the societies they live in and wondering what this means for their very existence.

I’ve had enough of being tolerant’ a friend of a friend wrote on Facebook recently, ‘why should I tolerate racists and nazis?‘, it’s a fair question and one that I have seen asked by many people who ask why they should tiptoe around people who are “blatantly racist.” When Donald Trump was elected as the next president of the USA this was a charge levelled at people who voted for him but, in all reality, the cause for his popularity is not binary – racist people or not racist people. There are a number of causes for people choosing to vote for someone so controversial. Trump was the most popular candidate among white supremacists, but to charge everyone who voted for him as racist is disingenuous and it breaks down bridges before they can even be built.

Stating that you’re through with being tolerant is, well… intolerant. Sorry, but it is. And that’s fine. Sit this one out and don’t engage with people who think differently than you.

Tolerance in its most common form involves maintaining an objective attitude towards those who opinions and practices are different than our own. When people speak of being tolerant they usually mean this in the context of us championing the behaviour we would see others do too by being tolerant, open-minded and friendly. You can do this by engaging with people from different cultures, educating yourself about civil rights movements (and history) in your area, or visit local museums, galleries and exhibits that celebrate art forms of different cultures, for example.

Tolerance isn’t about having to let people who are fascists or bigots have their say without being challenged just because they have a right to voice their opinions (which they do, as do you.) You can’t co-exist with people who carry harmful prejudices in their heads and hearts and nobody should expect anybody to do so.

The most effective way to combat hate speech, intolerance, and ignorance is by speaking up and countering mistruths with facts. It isn’t surprising though that so many people are too overwhelmed to even consider engaging with the fascists we see in the news right now and that’s fair enough.

Tolerance in that context, however, is recognising that prejudices are learned and can be unlearned. When people quite rightly call for tolerance in times of political and social turmoil like these they’re not asking people to not protest, challenge bad ideas, claims and speech, but are asking that we think about the way in which we engage with the people being challenged to make our words and actions the most effective they can be.

It’s important to remember that a lot of intolerant opinions don’t come from attention-seeking white people who throw nazi salutes when the news cameras are pointed at them. The media focus on the most outlandish examples of what is often labelled as “the alt right” – goosestepping, nazi saluting, “nigger“-screaming fascists whose minds will very rarely be changed. Instead, the day-to-day intolerance comes from the old lady in the corner shop, the teenager on the bus who parrots what his parents say, the woman who doesn’t know her stereotyping is offensive.

These are the people with prejudice opinions that we can contribute to changing if we try. The least we can do is stay silent or abuse people back (even if it does feel good), the most we can do is lead by example and show those minorities that are currently being persecuted the most that not everyone hates them. We can show the people guilty of casual prejudice that their words are not acceptable and their opinions are wrong.

Hey, you could even campaign politically and make your voice heard on these issues which get voted on, and bills and motions that get passed by your elected officials.

Nobody has an obligation to counter bigoted opinions when they see or hear them but promoting tolerance doesn’t have to be about engaging people who have bigoted opinions and beliefs. It’s just about being better than that and considering how terrible these folks can be, that’s easy.

References

Cobain, I, Parveen, N, and Taylor, M, (2016), The Slow Burning Hatred Which Led Thomas Mair To Murder Jo Cox [online]The Guardian, Available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/23/thomas-mair-slow-burning-hatred-led-to-jo-cox-murder?CMP=share_btn_tw (accessed 24/11/2016)

Marcotte, A (2016), The Internet’s bigot crisis: There’s a new push to curtail online bigotry, but the toxic sludge of hate is too enormous to erase  [online], Salon, Available at http://www.salon.com/2016/06/01/the_internets_bigot_crisis_theres_a_new_push_to_curtail_online_bigotry_but_the_toxic_sludge_of_hate_is_too_enormous_to_erase/ (accessed 24/11/2016)

Photo credit: ‘Donald Trump’, Gage Skidmore, Flickr.

Will Another Paranormal Challenge Prove Psychic Ability?

psychic-challenge

“If you’re really psychic there’s $1million with your name on it!” 

It’s a challenge issued up by skeptics on a regular basis. I still see it to this day and recently, while being interviewed by a US-based skeptic podcast, I was surprised to discover that the hosts didn’t know the $1million challenge had ceased to exist following the retirement of James Randi in 2015.

Marcello Truzzi was right when he said ‘An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof’ (1978), but I’ve often felt that some would use the $1million challenge as a way to not engage with people who were making paranormal claims. As a dismissal of sorts.

The JREF challenge required people to pass a preliminary test that demonstrated their paranormal claims were legit before going onto another test that, if successful, could lead to them winning the legendary $1million prize. Yet, many critics point out that the statistics involved to pass these tests were unrealistic and unachievable. (Taylor, 2008)

Indeed, Truzzi himself once wrote it was his opinion that ‘ … scientists should carefully make such assessments before judging the likelihood of some phenomenon’s actual occurence. I think that this will quickly reveal that some paranormal claims are far less unlikely than others, and this has very important implications for the amount and quality of proof a scientific skeptic should demand before accepting such claims.‘ (Truzzi, 1978)

When the JREF challenge ceased in 2015 you’d be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t anything as mainstream to replace it but there are currently at least twenty such challenges in existence around the globe which can be seen listed here.

Here in the UK, other than the Merseyside Skeptic Society’s Halloween Psychic Challenge, there hasn’t been much else actively offering an incentive for people to put their claims to the test other than their sense of curiosity and openness.

Then, in September, members of the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) were informed that the organisation has relaunched The ASKE Paranormal Challenge which offers a £10,000 reward to applicants who can demonstrate a paranormal ability under controlled conditions.

The document outlining the test on the ASKE website explains that ‘Successful claimants who are resident in the UK will then be eligible, if they wish, to apply for the €25,000 Sisyphus Prize offered by SKEPP, the Belgian Skeptical society.’ (ASKE, 2016)

I asked one of the founders of ASKE, Michael Heap (MH) a few questions about the challenge. My questions are labelled as HS and our exchange follows.


HS: Did the cessation of the JREF $1million challenge have any influence upon the relaunch of the ASKE challenge?

MH: The original idea of having this kind of challenge came from Tony Youens and others when ASKE was established in the 1990s.  No doubt they were influenced by James Randi’s $1million challenge.  Several ASKE members pledged contributions to the prize, which at one time came to £14,000.  We had few applicants and the claims of those that did apply were too ill-defined or difficult test.  We were however involved in a preliminary test of a dowser (with negative results)

For this reason, and the fact that several of the people who made pledges allowed their ASKE membership to lapse, we withdrew the offer.  However, around that time the Belgian skeptical organisation SKEPP announced a temporary challenge (the Sisyphus Prize) with an award of €1 million.  Applicants had first to pass a preliminary test in their own country, overseen by their national skeptical organisation, which would give them a small prize if they passed the test. ASKE offered £400. 

ASKE’s latest venture was announced at my initiative and, in effect, continues the present arrangement but with, I hope, a higher profile and more publicity.

HS: What is the long-term aim of the challenge?

MH: It is important to express the aim of this kind of venture as being no more than to put to the test claims of paranormal abilities made by individuals from any walk of life.  The aim (expressed or unspoken) should not be to debunk the paranormal.  

If someone were to demonstrate unequivocally that they have a paranormal ability that would be a wonderful bonus, despite the loss of £10,000.  Past experience has suggested that this is extremely unlikely.  Nevertheless, as a psychologist what I find most interesting about people who believe they have a paranormal ability is why they have come to believe this and what purpose, if any, the belief serves in their lives.  This does not mean disparaging the people concerned in any way.  I hope we can build up a caseload of tests (either preliminary or formal) that have been conducted and I think this would be of interest.  

HS: What are the challenges that running such a test faces?

MH: As you will have gathered I have only limited experience of running tests, and I have spoken to those with more experience.  The main challenge seems to be devising a watertight protocol.  Science will not accept the authenticity of any unusual claim or explanation if there is a way of accounting for what is observed that is more consistent with existing knowledge.  (This does not, incidentally, mean that the unusual explanation is thus incorrect).  

It follows that if you conduct an experiment or test on an unusual claim you must eliminate every possibility that a positive outcome could be explained by normal means such as inadequate randomisation of conditions, inadvertent cueing, or the use of trickery by the claimant.  It is deceptively difficult to ensure that this condition is met and some claims do not lend themselves to this kind of investigations.

Many people see the problem of paranormal challenges such as this as the almost universal reluctance of the person tested to relinquish their claim when the test has failed.  (In answer to my question at a lecture by James Randi, he stated that very occasionally claimants have done this; at a Skeptics in the Pub meeting some years ago, Richard Wiseman’s answer was that he lived for the day when this would happen.)  However, I personally would not expect this to occur.  

I believe that it is important to inform applicants that if they do not pass the test it does not disprove their claimed ability; it simply means that they were unable to demonstrate it on this occasion.  This is also something we all need to accept.  

HS: Do you think such challenges contribute to the field of Parapsychology or is it a stand-alone thing?

MH: I believe they have a place in Parapsychology if only for the purpose given above, namely that they provide an accumulation of detailed case records.

Obviously, if a claimant passed their test that would be important for Parapsychology (but see one problem below).  More generally, a paranormal ability such as ‘a sixth sense’ would have an immense evolutionary advantage and, as with the other ‘five senses’, there is no reason why an individual should not be able to demonstrate it under controlled conditions.  (Why would it only be revealed by a group of people?)  So it only needs one person to demonstrate this ability unequivocally for its existence to be accepted.  

Unfortunately, the history of single case studies in Parapsychology (cf. Uri Geller) is not an inspiring one; nevertheless, it is a valid approach and less costly and time-consuming than group studies.  There is, however, one problem with challenges; in science, as well as a watertight experiment, the findings must be replicable.  A successful challenge claimant is quite free to go away and rest on their laurels without submitting themselves for further tests.  And – heaven forfend – what about the possibility that the prize-winner fails subsequent tests that they agree to undertake!

HS:  What sort of people do you hope will apply to take the test?

MH: So far as the personal qualities of the applicant are concerned, the words ‘sensible’ and ‘sincere’ spring to mind.  From my not-too-extensive experience, an understanding of the scientific experimental process is important.  That is, the applicant should be able to grasp the idea that, within the limited resources that can be provided, the claimed ability should be one that will produce a clear, specific and unequivocal outcome if it succeeds, and no effect if it does not and there should be tight controls on normal extraneous influences.  

Finally, there is the possibility that the claimed ability is part of a delusional system in a person with mental health problems.  If such appears to be the case it would be unwise to proceed.  With this and other considerations in mind, ASKE stipulates that it reserves the right to reject any application it wishes.


Personally, I have never been 100% sure that a financial prize is a way to approach testing paranormal abilities. I believe that if evidence of such abilities or powers is ever to be produced it will be through parapsychology or anomalistic psychology research and not through tests at conferences or conducted in front of news cameras. However, I respect that challenges of this nature are a good way to engage with the public about how important controlled tests of paranormal claims are. Just look at the damage caused by the ADE651 bomb detectors which were actually just dowsing devices. Had the right people asked the right questions, and had these devices been tested using the double-blind conditions promoted by paranormal challenges the outcome could have been so different.

Will another test of this nature find evidence of paranormal abilities? I doubt it, but time will tell.


People who support this blog on Patreon saw this post before anyone else! Why not become a supporter today from as little as $3? 

References

ASKE Paranormal Challenge (2016) [Online], The Association for Skeptical Enquiry. Available at http://www.aske-skeptics.org.uk/page13/ASKE%20Paranormal%20Challenge.pdf (Accessed Nov 10th 2016).

Taylor, Greg (2008), The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge [Online], Daily Grail. Available at http://www.dailygrail.com/features/the-myth-of-james-randis-million-dollar-challenge (Accessed Nov 10th 2016).

Truzzi, Marcello (1978), On The Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification, Zetetic Scholar. Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 11. Available to view at http://www.tricksterbook.com/truzzi/ZS-Issues-PDFs/ZeteticScholarNo1.pdf (Accessed Nov 10th 2016)

Featured image: Business man consults glowing crystal ball, Infowire, Flickr

Thoughts from QEDcon 2016

QEDcon main hall

In the past, I have questioned whether I belong to the skeptic movement or skeptic community. To be honest, I’ve never really been sure what they actually are, but after spending four days in Manchester at the 6th QEDcon I am certain that I am part of the skeptic movement and a member of the community, too.

There seemed to be a theme in the discussions on and off stage throughout the weekend: the governments of the world are making decisions that see irrationality thrive, and education and taking an evidence-based approach to life is dismissed as elitist. This answered a question that many talks and discussions touched upon: are we wasting our time with skeptic outreach and activism?

Well, there are many examples of why we are not and they were highlighted throughout the weekend, but a number of talks in particular really hit a nerve for me and I’m going to focus on those in this examination.

ADE651
Meirion Jones with the ADE651    Photo: Sean Slater

Sunday at QEDcon closed with Meirion Jones (pictured) who took us through the timeline of the investigation into the ADE651 – a bomb detector that it was revealed didn’t detect bombs. It was essentially a dowsing device built to look as though it had functions that it simply didn’t have.

Jones had two of these devices with him – one priced at $10,000 and the other at $40,000. We audience members got to each hold one of these as they were passed back through the room and, frankly, the ADE651 that I held wasn’t that much more sophisticated than my £3 dowsing rods.

Holding the device filled me with a sense of horror. Hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of people died as these devices were used to secure checkpoints into and out of conflict zones. Bombs were allowed through as a result and people died so that others could profit from the purchase contracts.

That’s why we bother with skepticism. Not because we personally stop hoax bomb detectors, but because unchallenged nonsense kills people. The idea that asking for evidence is elitist kills people. It is dangerous and deadly and it rips people off. It gives people false hope and it lies.

There were two talks in particular that were rather moving – those delivered by Petra Boynton and Paul Zenon. I think this is because in this past year I’ve left behind a career in arts marketing so that I can study for a degree which will allow me to (hopefully) then train to become a grief counsellor. You see, over a decade of paranormal research has taught me two important lessons (among others):

  1. humans are strange creatures
  2. grief can make you vulnerable to harm

I’ve made the switch to part-time work and living at home for the foreseeable future to make this happen and I’ve had doubts that I’ve done the right thing. Massive doubts.

Then Dr Petra Boynton took to the stage at QEDcon and introduced us to the complexities of the world of advice columns and the role they continue to play. She told us that more people turn to advice columns because of an 18-month wait for counselling on the NHS and because they have nowhere else to go, and what this can mean for those in need.

Paul Zenon spoke to us about psychics and the techniques often employed by stage performers. I know this information already (I’ve even played stooge for a skeptic educational psychic show) but I feel it’s important to remind ourselves that this knowledge is still ignored by the hoards of people who pay upwards of £25 to see touring artists claiming to have paranormal abilities. There was no mistaking the passion with which Paul spoke as he shared his observations from countless performances by such people which brought home the relevance of skeptic outreach in this area.

I also enjoyed interesting lectures by personal heroes of mine, Dr Susan Blackmore and Professor Caroline Watt (but then I am a paranormal nerd…)

The opening presentation by Alan Melikdjanian on behalf of Captain Disillusion was spectacular and gave many tips on how to produce good quality outreach media. He also explained how our first impressions of how a video was created can be wrong and that gut instinct isn’t always correct. A little later in the weekend Cara Santa Maria gave an absolutely kick-ass talk on her experiences working as a science communicator through various forms of media and the successes and challenges she has faced doing so.

I came away from QEDcon with all of this (and more) in my head feeling re-energised, motivated, and inspired. On the train home, I filled a notebook with ideas and thoughts and I hope to put these into practice in the future. If you’re particularly interested in activism related to psychic fraud and you have a couple of hours spare over the next few months please get in touch.

Prior to QEDcon 2016, there were some suggesting the event was an exercise in back-patting. Although there is an element of celebration of successes and achievements during the weekend QEDcon is a vital event in the skeptic community. It’s educational, self-reflective, fun, and important. The team from the Greater Manchester and Merseyside Skeptics should be very proud.

Team Spirit Panel Photo: Tammy Webster
Team Spirit Panel. L-R: Me, Deborah Hyde, Prof. Caroline Watt, Prof. Susan Blackmore
Photo: Tammy Webster

I’m thankful to meet with like-minded people from across the globe each year and cannot put into words what it means to have the opportunity to participate in panels with people I’ve long admired such as Prof. Chris French, Joe Nickell, Deborah Hyde, Prof. Caroline Watt, Prof. Richard Wiseman, and Prof. Sue Blackmore to name just a few. I know that I have developed personally as a direct result of attending these yearly conferences and that’s invaluable.

I haven’t even touched upon half of what happened and neither shall I, but I’ll end with a warning:

Skeptics from across the world were in Manchester this weekend organising, communicating, networking and encouraging one another. If you profit from selling snake oil or nonsense to people you can be sure they’re coming for you.

Featured image: Rob McDermott

Talks in October 2016

In a couple of weeks, I will be appearing on a panel at QEDcon in Manchester. I will be part of the Team Spirit panel which is chaired by Deborah Hyde and also features Susan Blackmore and Caroline Watt. As explained over on the website, ‘Our panel will entertain and educate with their tales of their investigations, and in the spirit of rationalism we may learn from the practical realities of parapsychology.’ Tickets to QEDcon are almost all gone!

Following this, you can catch me delivering A Skeptic’s Guide to Ghost Hunting for the London Fortean Society on October 27th. I’m currently in the midst of updating my talk so even if you’ve heard me speak before there should be something different. I’ve been told that half the tickets are gone already and it’s going to be a busy night so pre-booking is advised. Ticketing details can be found on the London Fortean Society website here.

The problem With People Like Chip Coffey

asshole

News broke recently that a paranormal TV celebrity had been arrested in the US. I don’t know who they are and I’ve never watched any of their shows but I noticed that a guy called Chip Coffey (who claims to be a psychic) was quick to take to his social media and give his 2 cents on the subject, having worked on the same shows as this individual in the past.

I made a throwaway comment on Twitter that it’s a shame that Coffey couldn’t have warned people of what was going to happen. If only he had been psychic or something, right?

It’s a joke that skeptics make all of the time in reference to stories that involve psychics not predicting something. Haha. Ha.

Colour me surprised then when a few days later Chip Coffey started to send me tweets about how ignorant I am. He must have searched his name on Twitter and come across my random tweet. I have Storified the convo as best I can here. It got tricky once some of his adoring fans started to get involved so I’ve only included the initial conversation.

Long story short, I am an ignorant asshole for suggesting that Coffey isn’t psychic and for pointing out that there are reasons to believe this. For example, did you know that a group of US-based skeptics led by Susan Gerbic once planted false information about made up characters at a Chip Coffey stage show and he picked up messages from these fictional characters and delivered messages to the skeptics in the audience?

‘[H]e claimed to have seen the two nonexistent people we pretended to have: a sister for Jan and my son Matthew. He “spoke” to Wade’s dead mother who was really alive and is nothing like the personality that he described.’

As his Wikipedia page points out, there are a number of reasons to doubt his claims of psychic ability and I believe this gives strong justification for being hesitant to believe Chip Coffey when he says he is psychic. Yet, instead of addressing these concerns Coffey and his fans would rather dismiss people as ignorant. It’s extremely arrogant and egotistical to suggest that people should accept your claims with blind faith regardless of whether there is justification to doubt them or not.

I wasn’t exactly polite in my twitter exchange with Coffey but frankly, I don’t see why I should’ve been. He and his fans are a good reminder of what the “love and light” brigade are really like if you don’t toe their line.