The following articles, "Some Failures of Organized Skepticism"and "Postscript to 'Some Failures of Organized Skepticism,'" appearedin _The Arizona Skeptic_ (vol. 3, no. 1, January 1990, pp. 2-5 andvol. 5, no. 3, November/December 1991, pp. 1-3 respectively) and arecopyright 1990 and 1991, respectively, by the Phoenix Skeptics, P.O.Box 62792, Phoenix, AZ 85082-2792.
Some Failures of Organized Skepticism
By Jim Lippard
Skeptics, like believers, are human. As such, they are subject tohuman failings. Psychological factors which contribute to one's beinga believer (see Lippard 1988c) can also contribute to one's being askeptic. Skeptical arguments, like those of believers, are sometimesemotional, illogical, or otherwise fraught with error. The sort oferror most commonly made by skeptics is going beyond the bounds ofrational argument or beyond the available evidence in order tomaintain a particular skeptical viewpoint. This includes failing todraw obvious conclusions from evidence and failure to obtainavailable evidence.
When conducting a skeptical investigation, it is not uncommon tofind what appears to be a solution with only a modicum of effort.With the application of a little more effort, however, such solutionsmay quickly fall apart. I discovered this first hand in myinvestigation of the psychic detective claims of Scottsdaleastrologer/psychic Jonathan Chris (Lippard 1988b). Chris claimed tohave worked for the Tempe Police Department on the Christy Fornoffmurder case in 1985. To check this claim, I did the obvious thing andcontacted Lieutenant Steve Graheling, head of investigations for theTPD. Graheling told me that no psychics were used in the case. Imight have stopped the investigation right there and simply concludedthat Jonathan Chris was lying in his literature. But I would havebeen wrong. Further queries enabled me to discover that in fact,Tempe Police Sergeant Mike Palmer, the chief investigator on theFornoff case, had consulted with Chris after all.
Something similar occurred in James Randi's investigation ofpsychic detective Dorothy Allison. Allison claimed to have given thename "Williams" to the Atlanta Police Department regarding theAtlanta child murders, for which Wayne Williams was eventuallyconvicted. Randi (1982- 83) reports that, according to the APD'sSergeant Gundlach, Allison "had given them some 42 possible names forthe murderer(s) but not the correct one." But when Marcello Truzzi(Hoebens with Truzzi 1985) checked with two Atlanta police officerswhose names were given to him by Allison as witnesses, one of themdid recall her having mentioned the name "Williams" (among others).Apparently the moral here is not to accept the word of policespokesmen regarding psychic detectives without independentcorroborating evidence.
Another, more serious, example of not going far enough in askeptical investigation may be found in the "News and Comment"section of the Spring 1980 Skeptical Inquirer in a brief article byElie Shneour. Shneour's article was regarding a report in the October23, 1979 issue of the tabloid Star regarding an experiment by"Professor Elizabeth Rauscher, a physicist of the Nuclear Division"at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now the Lawrence BerkeleyLaboratory) at the University of California at Berkeley. Thisexperiment involved faith healer Olga Worrall successfullycontrolling the growth of bacteria. According to Shneour, not onlydid no such experiments ever take place at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab(LBL), but there was no such person on the research staff or facultyor with any connection to the lab by the name of ElizabethRauscher.
He stated that he obtained this information by contacting formercolleagues at Berkeley. However, as I discovered while researchingMesa hypnotist Frank Baranowski's claim that a physicist namedElizabeth Rauscher was doing ghost research (Lippard 1988a),Shneour's second claim is false. Rauscher was indeed on the staff atLBL at the time she conducted the experiment with Olga Worrall andbacteria (results published as Rauscher & Rubik 1979). Further,as she told me in a telephone conversation, she had written a letterof correction to the Skeptical Inquirer at the time, but it was neverprinted (Rauscher 1988). On the other hand, the work was notconducted at LBL, so Shneour was right about that part. But hisfailure to find Rauscher's existence and connection with the Lab isevidence of extremely poor research. All he needed to do to verifythese facts was to examine a copy of what was then the most recentedition (14th, 1979) of _American Men and Women of Science: Physicaland Biological Sciences_--Rauscher is listed there along with heraffiliations. (For the record, Rauscher, who is active inparapsychology, indicates that she hasn't done "ghost research.")
Another case is CSICOP's handling of the "Mars effect" affair. Inthis case, a challenge to French "cosmobiologist" Michel Gauquelinresulted in the verification of his claim that correlations he foundbetween the position of Mars and sports ability were not the resultof factors such as births tending to occur at particular times ofday. (For all the gory details of this mess, see Curry 1982 andKammann 1982. Cherfas 1981 gives a brief summary.)
But what is by far the worst example of skeptical failure I havecome across is a description of a March 18, 1988 debate betweencreationist Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR)and Ian Plimer, associate [sic] professor of geology atNewcastle University. The description of this debate which appearedin an article in the Australian Skeptics' publication The Skeptic, bySteve Roberts of the Canberra Skeptics and Skeptic editor Tim Mendham(Roberts & Mendham 1988) was filled with seriousmisrepresentations. I discovered this by viewing a videotape of thedebate, which took place at the Clancy Theatre of the University ofNew South Wales in Sydney, Australia. In the debate, Gish trotted outhis standard anti- evolutionary arguments, and Plimer responded inextremely poor form with an unrelenting series of ad hominem attacksand a criticism of the worldwide flood theory. Plimer's behavior wasso rude that the audience began shouting at him. The firstmisrepresentation in the Roberts and Mendham (henceforth R&M)article involved Plimer's claim that Michael Denton, author of thebook _Evolution: A Theory in Crisis_, had recanted his attack onevolution. Gish responded to this claim in his rebuttal, stating (asI have transcribed it from the videotape): "Dr. Denton did not denyor go back on anything he put in his book.
This is what he did say: that if he were going to write a book onthis subject that he'd take a different approach. The evidence thathe discussed in here he said is subjective. ...But from theperspective now in genetic research he believes that possibly it'spossible to objectively establish that [sic] if evolution ispossible or not. And certainly from his present state of knowledge hebelieves it can be objectively proven that it's impossible." InR&M's description of this exchange, they state that Gish saidDenton's remarks were that "if he were to rewrite [his book]he would take a different approach altogether, and that evolution waspossibly now a provable reality given recent advances in technology."(p. 12) This misrepresentation was repeated in the July/August 1988issue of the Creation/Evolution Newsletter (Anonymous 1988b). Furthermisrepresentations are found in R&M's summary of Gish'spresentation. They write that "Dr. Gish did make some trulyremarkable admissions with respect to the body of beliefs held bycreationists including himself, such as  that the universeis not necessarily very young,  that belief in theBiblical story of Noah and the Flood was suddenly optional anduncommon,  that the fossil record really is genuine anddoes not contain monkeys or human remains at an early era, that data written and published by him was false andknown by him to be false but had not been corrected,  thatcreation research institutes can do whatever they like with moneyacquired by them,  that there was a choice of varioustheories of creation including non-Christian ones. None of theserevised policies were volunteered: they all came out underquestioning." (p. 13, numbers added)
The quoted summary is full of errors. Gish's comments regardingpoints 1 and 6 were in response to questions from the audience. Hiscomments regarding 2, 4, and 5 were in response to remarks made byPlimer in the debate. I am unable to ascertain what Gish said thatR&M interpreted as point 3. Points 1, 4, and 6y are more-or-lesstrue but slightly misleading, and points 2 and 5 are grossdistortions.
1. In response to a question regarding the age of the universe andlight from stars more than 10,000 light years away, Gish stated thathe thought God created the light on its way to us but that this wasnot deception (because Gish interprets the book of Genesis to meanthat God is telling us this "fact"). When the questioner asked aboutthe recently- observed supernova which took place over 100,000 yearsago, Gish stated that *if* that were established he would accept anold age for the universe.
2. Earlier in R&M's article Gish is quoted as admitting that"nobody really believed all that stuff about Noah and the Flood," (p.12) which they describe so as to make it appear that Gish is denyingbelief in the biblical flood story. However, they have quoted Gishincorrectly and out- of-context. What Gish actually said (from thevideotape) was: "Now, all of this funny stuff about Noah and the Arkand the Flood and all that, that's just a caricature. I don't know ofany creation scientist who believes what [Plimer] says." Hewas responding to Plimer's claims about the number of animals thatwould have had to be on the Ark, the rate of continental drift, andso on, which he considered to be a caricature of creationist viewsabout the flood.
3. As indicated above, I was unable to find any such admissions byGish in the debate.
4. Plimer pointed out a number of errors (he called them "lies")in Gish's _Have You Been Brainwashed?_ pamphlet, including theassertion that there are no Pre-Cambrian fossils. Gish responded thatthe pamphlet was 17 years old and that his statement was inaccordance with the scientific views of the time. Plimer replied thathe had just purchased a copy of the pamphlet outside the lecturehall.
5. Plimer noted the disappearance of a large quantity of moneyfrom the Australian Creation Science Foundation (CSF), implying thatsomeone in the organization had absconded with the funds. Gishreplied that the money had been invested and a dishonest person inthe investment firm, not one of the creationists, had absconded withthe funds.
6. In response to a question from an audience member regardingwhich version of creationism should be taught in schools, Gish saidthat none should. Instead, the creationist evidence against evolutionshould be presented. Which particular creationist story you believeis a matter of faith, not science.
Surprisingly, the ICR's account of this debate (Anonymous 1988a)is far more accurate than the Australian Skeptics' version, as wellas being more charitable to the opposing side (e.g., the ICR accountdoes not mention Plimer's invitation that Gish electrocute himself onbare wires to demonstrate that electricity is "mere" theory).
These examples clearly show that the fact that a skeptic makes anargument does not make it a good one. Skeptics need to be careful intheir investigations and in their public comments (Hyman 1987). It ismy hope that this article will be taken as a cautionary note and helpprevent future occurrences of such errors as I have described.
Anonymous (1988a) Evolutionist debater descends to all-time low.Acts & Facts 17(June):3,5.
Anonymous (1988b) Is Michael Denton anti-evolution?Creation/Evolution Newsletter 8(July/August):17.
Cherfas, J. (1981) Paranormal-watchers fall out over the Marseffect. New Scientist 92(29 October):294.
Curry, P. (1982) Research on the Mars effect. Zetetic Scholar #9(March):34-53.
Hoebens, P.H. with Truzzi, M. (1985) Reflections on psychicsleuths. In Kurtz (1985), pp. 631-643.
Hyman, R. (1987) Proper criticism. Phoenix Skeptics News1(September/October):5-7.
Kammann, R. (1982) The true disbelievers: Mars effect drivesskeptics to irrationality. Zetetic Scholar #10 (December):50-65.
Kurtz, P. (1985) A skeptic's handbook of parapsychology. Buffalo,N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Lippard, J. (1988a) Frank Baranowski: Promoter of the paranormal.Phoenix Skeptics News 1(March/April):1-3.
--- (1988b) Psychic detectives. Phoenix Skeptics News1(May/June):4-7.
--- (1988c) Psychological factors conducive to paranormal belief.The Arizona Skeptic 2(November/December):2-5.
Randi, J. (1982-83) Allison and the Atlanta murders: A follow-up.Skeptical Inquirer 7(2, Winter):7.
Rauscher, E. (1988) Personal communication, 16 April.
Rauscher, E. and Rubik, B. (1979) Effects on motility behavior andgrowth rate of Salmonella typhimurium in the presence of apsychic subject. In Roll (1980), pp. 140-142.
Roberts, S. and Mendham, T. (1988) News report: Gish/Plimerdebate. The Skeptic (Australian) 7(Winter):10-13.
Roll, W.G., editor (1980) Research in parapsychology 1979.Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
Shneour, E.A. (1980) The faith healer and the bacterium. SkepticalInquirer 4(3, Spring):7-8.
Postscript to "Some Failures of Organized Skepticism"
By Jim Lippard
The following is a chronology of events relating to my dealingswith the Australian Skeptics regarding the criticisms I made in myarticle, "Some Failures of Organized Skepticism" (_AS_, January 1990,pp. 2-5).
March 18, 1988: Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research(ICR) debates Australian skeptic Ian Plimer, professor of geology atthe University of Newcastle. Plimer takes a very aggressive (_adhominem_) stance, at one point offering Gish a chance to electrocutehimself on bare wires since electricity, like evolution, is "only atheory." The ICR headlines their summary of the debate "EvolutionistDebater Descends to All-Time Low."
Winter (Australian) 1988: Steve Roberts and Tim Mendham publish anarticle (apparently primarily the writing of Roberts) in _TheSkeptic_, the publication of the Australian Skeptics, describing theMarch 18 debate. The summary seriously misrepresents a number ofGish's statements, attributing to him such comments as "nobody reallybelieved all that stuff about Noah and the Flood" and the claim thatanti-evolution author Michael Denton now thinks evolution is"provable reality" (when Gish said quite the opposite). This latterpiece of misinformation finds its way into the _Creation/EvolutionNewsletter_ (July/August 1988), under the headline "Is Michael DentonAnti-Evolution?"
Sometime in early 1989: I obtain a videotape of the debate and acopy of the Roberts and Mendham article, compare them and finddiscrepancies. I incorporate it into an article about errors byskeptics.
January 1990: My article, "Some Failures of Organized Skepticism,"is published in _The Arizona Skeptic_. Copies are sent to theAustralian Skeptics and the ICR (which also receives a copy ofanother article, "Dissension in the Ranks of the Institute forCreation Research"). The ICR responds with a thanks for the"objective analysis" in the former article and takes some issue withthe latter. The Australian Skeptics do not respond.
June 1990: The (Australian) Creation Science Foundation (CSF)_Prayer News_ publishes an article titled "American Skeptic SlamsAustralian Skeptics for 'Gross Distortions'."
July 1990: The CSF publication _Creation Ex Nihilo_ (vol. 12, no.3, p. 15) prints an article titled "US Skeptic claims Aussie Skepticsmisrepresented Gish" which quotes liberally from "Some Failures ofOrganized Skepticism." Copies of both CSF articles are distributed atthe annual convention of the Australian Skeptics.
July 17, 1990: Mark Plummer, president of the Victoria Branch ofthe Australian Skeptics and former CSICOP executive director, sendsme copies of the two CSF publications along with a letter asking fora copy of my article and asking me "why [I] felt it wasnecessary for [my] article to be written." Copies of theletter are sent to James McGaha of the Tucson Skeptical Society(TUSKS) and Mike Stackpole of the Phoenix Skeptics. I do not receivemy copy for several weeks because it is sent to an old address.
August 22, 1990: I reply to Plummer, stating that I sawmisrepresentations and reported on them. I say that I probably erredin not sending a copy of my article to the Australian Skeptics inadvance of publication.
September 28, 1990: Mark Plummer sends me a list of 12 questionsas part of his "investigation" of my criticism of the Roberts &Mendham article. He asks such things as "From where did you obtainthe videotape?", "What steps did you take to ensure that thevideotape you viewed was an unedited version of the debate?", "Didyou consult any appropriate experts prior to writing the article?","Did you consult any experts on the traditions of debating Americanreligious spokesmen in Australia?", and "What is your personalposition on the creation/evolution issue?" I reply on October 7 toall of his questions. (The videotape was obtained from a Canadianskeptic who obtained it from Ian Plimer. I consulted no "experts" onthe matter, since it was a simply case of a summary of a debatereporting something quite different from what actually occurred.)
Spring (Australian) 1990: Barry Williams, executive director ofthe Australian Skeptics, addresses my "Skeptical Failures" article in_The Skeptic_ in response to a letter from CSF director Carl Wieland.He writes, "I am finally able to comment on the opinion expressed inthe _Arizona Skeptic_, having at last seen a copy. The author of thatopinion did indeed claim that our report of the Plimer/Gish debatewas the 'worst example of skeptical failure' he had come across. Inthis, he appeared to be unable to distinguish between his owninterpretation of a tape made of the debate and an on-the-spot newsreport which summarised the debate. Our report did contain some minorerrors, which have been acknowledged in previous issues. As one ofthose who actually attended the debate, I disagree with the Arizonacorrespondent claims but perhaps one had to be sitting in theaudience to savour the full flavour of what was said."
October 31, 1990: Thinking that Plummer may not be the rightperson to be communicating with and being very unclear on just whatBarry Williams was trying to say about my article, I write a letterto the editor of _The Skeptic_. In my letter, I note that the CSFseemed to misrepresent my article as an attack on the AustralianSkeptics when in fact it was a criticism of "a single article in apublication which generally produces excellent material." I reiteratesome of my major criticisms and ask just where corrections to theerrors in the summary had been published. The letter is neitherpublished nor replied to (but see April 10, 1991, below).
October 1990: The CSF publishes _A Response to Deception_, abooklet responding to Barry Price's book, _The Creation ScienceControversy_. The booklet includes serious allegations made againstPrice and Ian Plimer, and also includes a few sentences about my"Some Failures" article. November 26, 1990: Plummer replies with anadmission that there were some errors in the article (specificallymentioning only that the "Noah's Ark" comments were erroneous), butattacks me for "rushing into print" without "undertak[ing]the full research necessary to understand _why_ there werediscrepancies." It seems that Roberts was working from longhand notesand the debate was "very lively and rowdy" and "at times hard tohear." So, Plummer concludes, I am guilty of wrongdoing but Robertsis not (Plummer calls my original article "sensationalist" and "akinto the _National Enquirer_"). Plummer also encloses severalnewsclippings designed to show me that in Australia, it is acceptableto bash religious people with _ad hominem_, insults, and ridicule.One clipping is a letter to the editor of a newspaper, one is anarticle from a trashy _People_-type magazine called _The Picture_,and the last is an article about a debate between Mark Plummer and aminister. Plummer's argument is undercut by comments in the Roberts& Mendham debate summary, which admits that "The adjudicatorsummed up by saying that, rather than a debate, the evening was morelike a presentation by Dr. Gish and a series of derogatory replies byDr. Plimer. He would award poor marks to both speakers, neither ofwhom had properly expounded his point of view as a science." (p. 13)The same page of the summary states that "Dr. Plimer's style ofspeaking excited comments and polarised the passions of quite a fewpeople. Many Skeptics have said they were disappointed in his mannerof presentation and his handling of the topic, preferring that he hadpresented purely the scientific evidence supporting evolution in asombre and more scientifically respectable manner." (It goes on torebut this via Plimer, who says that scientists have been doing thatfor years with little to show for it.)
November 30, 1990: Unconvinced by Plummer's arguments, I respondwith an angry but reasoned reply, stating that _The Skeptic_ stillhas an obligation to print a correction. December 1990: MikeStackpole's editorial piece, "Note of Importance," is published in_The Arizona Skeptic_. The article soundly rejects Mark Plummer'sapparent opinion that skeptical groups, out of loyalty to "thecause," should not criticize each other.
December 17, 1990: Plummer responds to my letter with twosentences: "I acknowledge receipt of your letter of Nov 30th 1990.The information and rationalizations contained therein are sufficientfor me to now report on your behavior." He then ceases furthercorrespondence with me. I never receive any copy of Plummer's reportor any comment on the conclusions of his "investigation."
December 31, 1990: I write to Barry Price, Ian Plimer, and theAustralian Skeptics asking questions about the CSF's _Response toDeception_ booklet. I receive replies from Price and Plimer, but notfrom the Australian Skeptics. For the next several months, I spendtime corresponding with the CSF, Price, and Plimer about the variouscharges made by the CSF.
March 20, 1991: I complete a first draft of an article titled "HowNot To Argue With Creationists" which criticizes Price and Plimer forvarious misrepresentations, and send copies to them for comment.Barry Price responds with an angry letter saying that I may end upbeing sued if I publish, that complaint will be made to my departmenthead, and that a copy of my article has been forwarded to theAustralian Skeptics. Meanwhile, Price himself was already being suedfor defamation over remarks made in his book, _The Creation ScienceControversy_.
April 10, 1991: I receive a letter, at long last, from BarryWilliams (after Price sends him a copy of "How Not To Argue"). Hesays he sees no point in publishing my letter to _The Skeptic_because "I see no useful purpose being served by reopening a debatethat took place more than three years ago" (despite the fact that hereopened the subject in the Spring 1990 issue of _The Skeptic_). Headmits that there were factual errors in the article "which onlybecame apparent to Steve Roberts the author, after he studied thetape some considerable time after the article had been published." Asfor _The Skeptic_'s alleged publication of corrections, Williamsnotes that "We published three letters from people who had somecomment to make on the debate, including one correcting an admittederror. This was from Ian Plimer's brother, taking issue with thedescription of Ian as a 'mild mannered Christian'." In other words,the only "error" corrected had nothing to do with my criticisms,contrary to the impression given by Williams' only published remarksabout my article ("Spring (Australian) 1990," above). Williams wenton to emphasize the cultural differences between the U.S. andAustralia regarding creationism in an apparent attempt to dissuade mefrom publication of "How Not To Argue With Creationists."
April 22, 1991: I reply to Williams, reiterating _The Skeptic_'sresponsibility to correct its errors and noting my dismay at hismisleading published comments about my article. I never receive areply.
Summer 1991: _NCSE Reports_ (formerly the _Creation/EvolutionNewsletter_) prints my correction to "Is Michael DentonAnti-Evolution?" (under the headline "Michael Denton's Views Have NotEvolved After All"). In the editing process, my letter is altered torefer to Denton as a creationist (he isn't one). (The editorapologized for the mistake and a correction is forthcoming.)
July/August 1991: Wendy Grossman of the UK Skeptics writes in _TheSkeptic_ (British and Irish, not Australian) about the "fooferaw (USterm for kerfuffle)" between the Australian Skeptics and the PhoenixSkeptics. Although she admits that "I wasn't there, and I haven'tread all the letters, and I haven't seen the videotape" she doesn't"let that disqualify me from making a point of my own." She agreesthat skepticism involves inquiry, a passion for truth, and nostifling of dissent, but criticizes me for sending my article to theICR. She states that had she been in my place, she "would have mailedmy criticisms to the _Australian Skeptic_ for inclusion in the nextissue or to give them a chance to publish a correction." While Idon't agree that the article should not have been sent to the ICR, Ido agree that the Australian Skeptics should have been given a chanceto correct the error before I did so (but as the timeline aboveshows, the Australian Skeptics did nothing in the five months beforethe creationists published anything regarding my article). I submit abrief letter of response noting my opinions.
November 1991: "How Not To Argue With Creationists" is acceptedand slated for publication in the next issue of_Creation/Evolution_.