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Journal of No. 118


January 12th, 2007

Logic rears its ugly head @ 01:33 pm


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.
 
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From:rsheslin
Date:January 13th, 2007 12:18 am (UTC)

Moral fever

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Of course, the very words "awful" and "appalling" are opinions, not facts. Therefore, understanding the reason why someone acts a certain way could very well refute the assertion of awfulness, perhaps changing the acts to "sad" or "pitiable." Comparing subjective opinions of how much someone annoys you to the existence of a mountain range is, of itself, a logical fallacy.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:January 13th, 2007 04:40 pm (UTC)

Re: Moral fever

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I seem to have chosen the wrong stretch of text to dispose people favorably toward the writer. Nevertheless, although the parents were no doubt trying to make a case for "pitiable," that description is not mutually exclusive with "appalling." hagdirt's reply offers a similar perspective.
Nor did the parents address his list of evidence that bolsters his opinion; they chose to change the subject. As I said, some of his examples are infuriating -- one can see that if Spock and Data were truly logical, they'd be more like this guy... and consequently unlikable and insufferable at times.

Certainly in that chapter he goes on to discuss more widely relevant issues, if no less muddied by morality, than schoolyard antagonism.
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From:manda_x
Date:January 13th, 2007 03:18 am (UTC)

Not everything is a debate, jackass.

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'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.'

Wow, way to miss the point entirely, Mr. Best-and-Brightest. News flash--your parents were not trying to refute the individual's awfulness; they were trying to instill in you a modicum of human sympathy so that instead of plotting your merciless and bloody revenge you might turn your attention to something more productive. Sheesh.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:January 13th, 2007 04:49 pm (UTC)

Re: Not everything is a debate, jackass.

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I seem to have chosen the wrong stretch of text to dispose people favorably toward the writer. He may or may not have missed the point, but he's right that their point is unrelated to his point, or the evidence he used to support it. When he points out the same dodge in other contexts, it's mostly less insufferable, but it's precisely this moral outrage (that one feels against *him* in this case) that he's pointing out as a non-argument. People who are morally outraged at the idea of gay marriage have not contributed an argument. People who are morally outraged by the lack of gay marriage have not contributed an argument.
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From:hagdirt
Date:January 13th, 2007 03:47 am (UTC)
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You know, I would have taken the empathy tack with a lot more grace if the adults in my life had just, for once, admitted that the weenie down the street was actually a weenie, and then told me how to handle it. Cause a lot of those broken-home, traumatized youth took all that shit out on me.

Just sayin'.
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From:ladyeuthanasia
Date:January 13th, 2007 09:35 am (UTC)
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Honestly, the people who could really overturn The Challenge will never apply, nor will they seek that level of media attention. Think about it: their talents would make them circus freaks and they'd be under constant scrutiny. Also, if it were me, I'd not want to be famous for that. I'd be hounded for the rest of my life by people who were looking for lost loved ones or suffering whatever tragedy. It would be the end of life as I knew it.

And you've heard my Sylvia Browne story, right? (I'm pretty sure you have.) Offering the challenge to people like her is an assurance that he'll never get proof.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:January 13th, 2007 05:06 pm (UTC)
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Honestly, the people who could really overturn The Challenge will never apply, nor will they seek that level of media attention.

I didn't realize that paranormal powers are invariably paired with a lack of interest in media attention. It does offer an interesting way to find them - once you eliminate everyone who's ever been on a reality TV show or tried out for American Idol, there can't be that many people left to test.

Randi is not particularly interested in proof one way or another. He simply wants people to demonstrate that they can do what they say they can do, and he's willing to give you a million dollars for your time. Loud-mouthed media whores say a lot, and the public hears it all, and that makes them useful to challenge, although I agree with you that the result is incredibly unlikely to further mankind's knowledge in any way.

I don't remember hearing your Sylvia story. Do tell.
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From:ladyeuthanasia
Date:January 13th, 2007 05:57 pm (UTC)
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I talk about it in more depth in my blog, the problems with getting that level of attention and why people with the real deal don't want it. I think there's an assumption in skepticism that if you've got it, you want to flaunt it. It just ain't so. I *do* think he's right to go after the media whores in general, though. They really ought to prove how they're making millions of dollars because, at the end of the day, just about all of them are crooks and deserve to be defrocked as much as those fundamentalist ministers who go on secret meth-fueled gay romps.

Okay, here's my Sylvia story, although you'll probably give me the look that aaronjv and his friend Ken gave me when I told it to them. (And that's okay.)

The first time my ex-husband and I ever went to the Winchester Mystery House, there was a part of the tour where we were lingering by a small alcove that was just beyond the velvet rope that kept people from wandering off the guided path. While the guide was waiting for everyone to catch up, I caught some kind of movement in that alcove. Did you see that dopey movie Predator? It looked something like that. I saw the shimmery form of a man with what looked like a wide-brimmed straw hat and coveralls. (The "coveralls" was my guess from the way the shimmer changed in stripes running down what would have been his shoulders.)

My poor ex-husband blanched when he saw me staring into space. He'd already experienced a number of weird things with me over the years. He leaned towards me and said, "Uh oh. What do you see?"

I quietly described the form. We hadn't seen Predator yet, so I described the well-defined shimmery form. I whispered, "I dunno, but I think it's one of the workmen."

The very second I said that, the guide, who was standing well out of earshot of our murmuring, announced, "And just last week, the famous psychic Sylvia Brown was here and she dispelled the spirit of one of the workmen."

I'll never forget the look on my ex's face. I then more loudly said, "Well, she didn't do a very good job!"

We left the figure standing there, doing whatever it was doing, and moved on.

I think people like Sylvia might have a smidgen of talent, but their real talent is knowing what people want to hear. They're showmen primarily. Then again, the idea of "one of the workmen" haunting the Winchester House in particular is painfully cliche. Anyone could have thought of it. Even I was reluctant to identify it as such. I'd just never seen anything quite like that before, and never since then, either.

I have no idea how I would supposedly "reproduce" this in controlled circumstances. I don't mind people being skeptical, either. I want people to be more skeptical in general. Besides, I'm the one who has to make some sense of it. But if it were the type of thing that I could reproduce, I'd sure as hell rather not. That would bring me more misery than I'd care to have, methinks.

Et voila! Questions?
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:January 13th, 2007 06:46 pm (UTC)
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"Well, she didn't do a very good job!"

Classic!

*stares at you in a manner similar to aaronjv*

Journal of No. 118