Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
There is a newer post on this subject: TED Chased by “Army of Passionate Supporters” Escapes Into TARDIS This is a follow up from this post: The Psi Wars Come to TED
In an act of breathtaking stupidity, TED chose to quarantine both Rupert Sheldrake’s video and another one by Graham Hancock using some trumped up charges of scientific inaccuracies for both of them. (Link here.) No one was fooled and the resulting outrage has now topped 700 comments as I’m writing this. They are destroying their brand with this nonsense. The Daily Grail has done a fine job of examining the skeptical hatchet job, so I won’t be addressing that. (link here.) Instead, I am going to look at what led them to this nuclear sized public relations disaster and how this is a litmus test of the psi wars in general. I believe that this issue gets to the heart of differences in how skeptics and the pro psi crowd think. We’ll start by looking at how the pro psi crowd thinks:
When TED put this up for discussion first, the reaction from the pro Sheldrake crowd was almost universally, “Please leave this alone. We can think for ourselves and make up our own minds.”
The subtext of this kind of statement is pretty straightforward: “We don’t trust you to make this decision for us.” This is a typical way of thinking from the pro psi crowd and it’s easy to understand why they think that way. The people who are on this side of the debate got there by disregarding skeptical assurances that there was no evidence and there was nothing of scientific interest to be found; They had to wade through a lot of skeptical crapola to learn the truth about psi and are therefore highly resistant to the “Science_ Has_Spoken” approach to dealing with this controversy. The pro psi crowd has a collective set of values, attitudes, ideas and beliefs that is independent minded, inquisitive and strongly dislikes having their choices made for them. They do not grant authority the power to make up their minds for them and they will predictably be extremely unhappy when confronted with heavy handed dictates from that authority. Especially when said authority is shown to have a strong bias. (Jerry Coyne, who led the charge to remove these videos, wrote this insulting piece on his blog.) And that’s exactly what happened.
By contrast, skeptics value authority a great deal, which is one reason that so many of them are found in that position. They’re good soldiers, willing to be the rank and file and fill positions in larger organizations. They like to be moderators on forums, sit on decision making committees and be editors, professors and such where they have the ability to impose their views without having to deal with their own intellectual shortcomings. Because they value authority, they defend it vigilantly, which I discovered when I tried to write an article for Cracked and when these two talks were removed from ordinary viewing and flagged. In both cases, the skeptics were trying to protect the integrity and reputation of the organization by “keeping out the woo.” In their eyes, trading off freedom of ideas (which pro-psi people value greatly) for integrity and reputation (which skeptics value greatly) is a reasonable exchange. It’s not all about skeptics being evil; there are cultural differences between the two camps.
The result of this is that they did not anticipate and likely do not understand the outrage. They, like most people, assume that their value system is the right one and that the other camp is just plain wrong. For that reason, unless someone else at TED intervenes, they will do it again and again, prompting less and less outrage as more and more people who value openness abandon TED altogether.
In the grand scheme of things, this was tactical win for the skeptics that resulted in a strategic loss. It was victory, but a Pyrrhic one. Radicals, such as Jerry Coyne, are almost always divisive and create more harm than good for the organizations they’re working with. This happened to Komen, a non profit that also helps fund other charities. On January 31, 2012, Komen stopped funding Planned Parenthood, citing a congressional investigation by Rep. Cliff Stearns and a newly created internal rule about not funding organizations under any federal, state or local investigation. Suffice it to say that the proverbial manure hit the fan when it was discovered that that behind the scenes, Karen Handel, a radical conservative and a board member who opposed legal abortion, had engineered it all. She resigned in the wake of the firestorm that ensued and Komen has never fully recovered from the debacle. Are Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers really so different from this? They have, after all, inserted themselves into the vetting process of TED for the purpose of pushing a somewhat extreme view of science that is intolerant of ideas that they don’t agree with. TED, as an organization, relies in part on being perceived as hip, cool and having a certain caché. Being exposed as being overly conservative and reactionary is bad for the brand. Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers need to resign to remove the taint of radical skepticism from TED. Nothing less than that is going to help TED.
This was a strategic win for the pro psi crowd, even if it was a tactical loss. It is a very clear demonstration in a public forum that psi skepticism is quickly becoming an albatross around the necks of organizations that subscribe to it. It isn’t so much the fact that the skeptical position is scientifically untenable, -telepathy has been proven after all-, it’s that a lot more people know this. And because people have this knowledge, skeptics cannot rely on general ignorance to impose their narrow views. What we have now is a situation where we are struggling against an ingrained and unfair culture that denies status to those who are psychic, people who believe in psychic ability and scientists who research it. Before you can create the change, you have to change the minds not of those in power, but in the beliefs of those who are struggling. And here is where we find the win for the pro psi crowd. There is strength in numbers. I am no longer almost alone, dealing with a crowd of obnoxious skeptics on various comment threads and forums like I was a few years ago, I am now joined by many people who know a great deal about consciousness research. And boy are they pissed off at all the skeptical misinformation.
These people are the vanguard of the movement. For every one of them there are many, many more lurkers who share their sentiments, but don’t speak up. It’s only a matter of time before this group gains enough momentum to start steamrolling the skeptics. Until this movement hits that critical mass though, the skeptics in authority will maintain their delusion that they are in complete control. That authority, by the way, will never, ever give a single inch that isn’t fought over. They have to be fought and overcome every single step of the way. They never give up and they never give in.
That’s how it is going to be. Any change that occurs will be the result of having demanded it and struggled for it and finally having forced it to happen. And it matters . . . a lot. This isn’t just some intellectual argument over the merits of materialism, it’s a social change as well that grants a measure of status to people who deserve it as much as anyone else. (see Psychic People: The Last Quiet Minority) This is about allowing a large amount of scientists to do consciousness research with full funding; this is about modeling our society on something a little warmer and fuzzier than cold, dead materialism. Finally, this is about the truth. Is there really anything else to add?