No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Logic rears its ugly head

Robert Anton Wilson died yesterday morning. RAW is probably best known for having written the Illuminatus! trilogy with Robert Shea. Illuminatus! betrays its 60's drug-fueled origins, but it's still some amusing food for your brain. And nerd-dom is the richer for all the neologisms and ideas that came from the books (and Steve Jackson's award-winning card game).

RAW was instrumental in getting me involved in the skepticism movement. His book, The New Inquisition, painted the scientific establishment in general, and CSICOP (now CSI) and James Randi in particular, as close-minded Torquemadas dogmatically protecting scientific orthodoxy at any cost. As a young physics student, I was so enraged by how awful these scientists were that I had to learn more about their infamy. Did you realize that Carl Sagan literally boiled Immanuel Velikovsky alive in a vat of sulfuric acid? Neither did I. That's because it didn't happen. Neither, I discovered, did most of the things that Wilson rails against in this book. In most cases, important details have been distorted to make the story come out right. RAW often said that one should believe things that make one happy. I prefer to believe things because they are true. So, not to spit on the poor man's grave too much -- though if I recall correctly, he intended to have his body frozen -- I toast him in honor of his zany fiction and for his role in helping me discover the real world and not the world as I would like it to be.

Speaking of James Randi, he and his foundation are going to get proactive with the million dollar challenge, with certain changes to take effect on April 1st. There are two main changes:

#1: They are not letting just anybody apply anymore. Applicants need to have some sort of 'media presence' and be validated in some small way by someone with academic standing. I think this will be a PR disaster for the foundation, but it's a pragmatic step. You can read through some of the Challenge correspondence in the JREF Forum, and maddening correspondence it is, for the most part. Many of the applicants can't state clearly what it is they say they can do. Some have a faint grasp on the entire idea of communication. And the JREF staff patiently handle and reply to all of these applicants. So this may save them a lot of busy work, but homegrown sources of enjoyable energy will bitterly complain about the new restrictions. And, just you wait, all the big names of the paranormal will jeer about the great unfairness, even though this rule will not apply to them.

#2: Why they will jeer is because the second change is that the JREF will be more proactive in offering the challenge to high profile paranormalists, rather than waiting for them to apply (which, as a rule, they never do). On April 1st, Uri Geller, James Van Praagh, Sylvia Browne, and John Edward will be formally challenged to do what they say they can do. If the media take interest (and that's a very big if) this could be a good move. But I have my doubts about the media being interested. Sylvia Browne accepting the challenge on the Larry King show was a good story. Doing a follow-up to say that nothing has happened in the years since does not make such an interesting story.

Last but not least, another book review

Crimes of Logic by Jamie Whyte

It's a pretty quick read, just 157 fairly light pages, so don't be askeared of logic. Whyte takes a look at logical fallacies and how they crop up in newspaper articles, political debate and everyday life in general. It's amusing to see how many fallacies seem to be almost unavoidable in common discussion. I'll quote a bit so you can get the flavor:

Morality fever

As a boy, I occasionally told my parents how awful I found some classmate or neighbor. I would list his most appalling characteristics and wait for the parental groans of agreement. But they were never forthcoming. Instead, they always offered some hypothesis as to why the little creep had turned out so (not me, the other kid). His parents had divorced ... his father beat him mercilessly, or something of the sort.
'Maybe,' I would protest, 'but explaining why he is awful doesn't show that he isn't awful. On the contrary, it assumes he is.'
Had I told my parents that there is a mountain range in Switzerland, they would not have corrected me by explaining how that mountain range came to be formed. Only in a haze of moral anxiety are people capable of mistaking an explanation for a refutation.

It's a fun read, with many amusing and infuriating examples. It makes an excellent complement to A Mathematician Reads the News.
Tags: blog, book, news, science, skepticism

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