perform quite different functions from the ones that now regulate our collective lives? In any case, we are capable both of the most unspeakable horrors and the most heartrending acts of courage and nobility—both done in the name of some ideal like religion, the absolute, national pride, and the like. No one has ever exposed this human dilemma, caught between the two poles of our nature, better than Alexander Pope in the mid-eighteenth century:
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, A being darkly wise and rudely great... He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest; In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast; In doubt his mind or body to prefer; Born but to die, and reasoning but to err.
Only two possible escapes can save us from the organized mayhem of our dark potentialities—the side that has given us crusades, witch hunts, enslavements, and holocausts. Moral decency provides one necessary ingredient, but not nearly enough. The second foundation must come from the rational side of our mentality. For, unless we rigorously use human reason both to discover and acknowledge nature's factuality, and to follow the logical implications for efficacious human action that such knowledge entails, we will lose out to the frightening forces of irrationality, romanticism, uncompromising "true" belief, and the apparent resulting inevitability of mob action. Reason is not only a large part of our essence; reason is also our potential salvation from the vicious and precipitous mass action that rule by emotionalism always seems to entail. Skepticism is the agent of reason against organized irrationalism—and is therefore one of the keys to human social and civic decency.
Michael Shermer, as head of one of America's leading skeptic organizations, and as a powerful activist and essayist in the service of this operational form of reason, is an important figure in American public life. This book on his methods and experiences and his analysis of the attractions of irrational belief provides an important perspective on the needs and successes of skepticism.
The old cliché that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty must be the watchword of this movement, for if the apparently benign cult maintains the same structure of potentially potent irrationality as the overtly militant witch hunt, then we must be watchful and critical of all movement based on suppression of thought. I was most impressed, on this theme, by Shermer's analysis of the least likely candidate for potent harm—Ayn Rand's "Objectivist" movement, which would seem, at first glance, to be part of the solution rather than the problem. But Shermer shows that this sect, despite its brave words about logic and rational belief, acts as a true cult on two key criteria—first, the social phenomenon of demanding unquestioned loyalty to a leader (the cult of personalities), and second, the intellectual failure of a central irrationalism used as a criterion of potential membership (the false belief that morality can have a unique and objective state—to be determined and dictated, of course, by the cult leaders).
Shermer's book moves from this powerful case in minimalism, through the more "conceptual" (however empty of logic and empirical content) irra-tionalisms of creationism and Holocaust denial, to the scarier forms of activity represented in ages past by crusades and witch hunts and, today, by hysteria about Satanic cults and the sexual abuse of children (a real and tragic problem, of course) on a scale simply inconceivable and therefore resting on an unwitting conspiracy of false accusations, however deeply felt.
We really hold only one major weapon against such irrationality—reason itself. But the cards are stacked against us in contemporary America, where even a well-intentioned appearance on Oprah or Donahue (both of which Shermer has attempted with troubling results, as described herein) only permits a hyped-up sound bite rather than a proper analysis. So we have to try harder. We can, we have, we will. We have also won great victories, big and small—from Supreme Court decisions against creationism to local debunkings of phony psychics and faith healers.
Our best weapons come from the arsenals of basic scientific procedures—for nothing can beat the basic experimental technique of the double-blind procedure and the fundamental observational methods of statistical analysis. Almost every modern irrationalism can be defeated by these most elementary of scientific tools, when well applied. For example, in a case close to my heart (for I am the father of an autistic young man), the poignant but truly unreasonable hope for communication by non-speaking autists via the use of "facilitators" (people who claim that they can guide the fingers of non-speaking autists over a computer keyboard to type out messages) met with insufficient skepticism (it always looked like the old Ouija board trick to me!) when most facilitators were typing out messages that parents wanted to hear ("Dad I love you; I'm sorry I've never been able to say so"). But when several facilitators, swept up in the witch hunting craze of childhood sexual abuse as the source of all problems, decided (probably unconsciously) that autism must have a similar cause, and then started to type out messages of accusation with their phony "facilitation," then a "harmless" sop to hope turned into a nightmare, as several loving parents were falsely and judicially charged. The issue was resolved by classic double-blind experiments—information known only to the autist and not to the facilitator never showed up in messages, while information known only to the facilitator and not to the autist usually did appear in the supposed messages—but not before the lives of loving parents (who had suffered enough already from the basic circumstance) had been tragically twisted, perhaps permanently (for one never quite overcomes such a heinous charge, even when it has been absolutely proven untrue—a fact well appreciated by all cynical witch hunters).
Skepticism's bad rap arises from the impression that, however necessary the activity, it can only be regarded as a negative removal of false claims. Not so—as this book shows so well. Proper debunking is done in the interest of an alternate model of explanation, not as a nihilistic exercise. The alternate model is rationality itself, tied to moral decency—the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known.
Introduction to the Paperback Edition
Magical Mystery Tour
The bane of hypocrisy is not its visibility to others, it is its invisibility to the practitioner. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed out both the problem and the solution:
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (Matthew 7:5)
While winding down a national publicity tour in the summer of 1997 for the hardcover edition of this book, I witnessed just such an example. I was scheduled to appear on a radio program hosted by Ayn Rand's hand-picked intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff, the Objectivist philosopher who, like a medieval monk, has carried on Rand's flame of Truth through books, articles, and now his own radio show. We were told that Peikoff was interested in having me on because I had written a book praising the value of reason, the highest virtue in Objectivist philosophy. I assumed I was actually booked because I had written a chapter (8) critical of Ayn Rand, and
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