In The_Skeptic 6.6 (November/December 1992) Tad Clements tried to look at the non-effectiveness of scoffing as an antidote to credulousness, and he tried to account for why it does not work. His consideration was unsatisfactory and contained some of the errors that he thought James Randi had overcome. In addition, his article, "Skeptics and Scoffers", was slightly under-researched, and if he had referred to some of that other writing he might have supplied some of the answers to the questions he posed.
His central flaw lies in this passage: (a woman who was unconvinced by James Randi's Flim_Flam) "said 'Randi is merely a scoffer. He pokes fun at people and doesn't have an open mind.' All the logical considerations I was able to suggest were fruitless; her mind was made up and Randi had no place in it."
Clements accepted that Randi scoffs, and what he did not explicitly say is that Randi logically disproves supernatural claims without scoffing. If he does not make that explicit statement we may assume that Randi does not logically disprove arguments. (I have a copy of Flim_Flam here, but I will not refer to it, as I want to look at the arguments, not the detail).
Surely this is the obvious flaw in any argument - that you don't argue but ridicule your opponent. In its simplest form, this is the logical error which philosophers call arguing ad hominem, which has a more specific version known as poisoning the well (according to Madsen Pirie who lists nearly eighty different logical errors in his Book_Of_The_Fallacy). Yet, when skeptical reasoning is meant to be scientific and highly logical it does the skeptic's ground no good to be caught out using the incompetant tools of the opposition. It is a position little better than the medium who uses butter muslin to generate ectoplasm, perhaps even worse. It is unattractive to be the victim of such an attack, and - as Tad Clements found with his reading friend - does not guarantee that the reader will identify with the scoffer and not with the scoffed-at subject.
Ten years ago I experienced something like this. In 1982 I published an essay "Homeopathy For The Cranks: Three Studies Of Pseudo-Science", in Foundation: The_Review_Of_Science_Fiction 28 in which my central premise was that Martin Gardner, Christopher Evans and John Sladek in their three well-known books on pseudo-sciencce had lapsed from consistent standards of logical analysis and by that lapse laid themselves open to the adverse criticism that their methods became that of their subjects. In the same issue Foundation published a rebuttal by John Sladek who had not left the country at that time. Although we had never met or corresponded his article was essentially a personal attack. None of his criticisms were justified but Foundation would not publish my reply.
Now I was not arguing for the cultists and pseudo-scientists who get dealt with in In_The_Name_Of
Science, Cults_Of_Unreason, or The_New_Apocrypha, I was arguing from the rationalist position. With friends like these!
In my unpublished reply I dealt with an example of this problem of scoffing and the undesirable effects in which it results. It is a problem that is known, it has been described and some of our leading skeptics have failed to deal with it, avoided it in a way that is almost unattractive. Martin Gardner's later book Science_Good_Bad_And_Bogus (O.U.P. 1983) includes a very specific example of it. In there Martin Gardner writes:-
"A silly book has just crossed my desk: The_Quest For_Wilhelm_Reich by Colin Wilson (Doubleday, 1981). Poor Colin. He had great promise as a young writer in Britain before he went crackers over the paranormal. Wilson sees Reich as crazy, but nevertheless a genius whose discovery puts him in the company of Semmelweis, Mendel, and all those other great scientists who were unappreciated in their day. No book is less worth reading" (page 14).
Apart from the patronising contempt, Martin Gardner is being falsely ignorant about Wilson's other work. Wilson's books have always included large chunks of mysticism, and his sequel to his first success The_Outsider was Religion_And_The_Rebel about Boehme, Pascal, Swedenbourg and Kierkegaard, while his fourth was Rasputin_And_The_Fall_Of_The_Romanovs about an alleged thaumaturge: it is not true to say that Wilson went crackers, from his output it would seem that he has always been crackers about the supernatural. And the title of his Reich biography is further proof of that tradition - it is an echo, of course, of A.J.A. Symons's The_Quest_For_Corvo, a biography of the dubious failed Roman Catholic priest who wrote Hadrian_VII; a reference one would have expected Martin Gardner the literary editor to pick up.
There is, though, one much dirtier test-tube behind Martin Gardner's criticism: in his Reich biography Wilson specifically criticises Gardner's Fads_And_Fallacies and Gardner does not reply.
Wilson's objects to the scoffing attitude. He writes:-
"I have always found something peculiarly obnoxious about people who need to fall back on this kind of argument: a blanket dismissal of anyone who refuses to accept them at their own valuation. It is basically an insult to the whole concept of intelligence. "At the same time, I caught a whiff of the same kind of thing in Martin Gardner's book. He writes about various kinds of cranks with the conscious superiority of the scientist, and in most casess one can share his sense of the victory of reason. But after half a dozen chapters, this non-stop superiority begins to irritate; you begin to wonder about the standards that make him so certain he is always right" (Granada Panther edition page 4).
Wilson goes on to say "Gardner's chapter on Reich is really a piece of slick, high-handed deflationary journalism", and in his concluding chapter refers to Gardner again: "the genuine injustice (to Reich) increased the paranoia, and the paranoia had the effect of provoking further unjustice. The result is that writers like Martin Gardner and Christopher Evans have no difficulty in 'proving' Reich a crank by describing his personality and quoting some of his typical utterances" (page 270).
The strong supposition is that Gardner was badly hurt by these criticisms of Wilson's, but he did not reply to or address them. Instead he wrote the name-calling I have quoted above. Tad Clements' reader probably felt something similar in the Randi book and rejected it for the reasons Wilson gives.
It is no benefit to the would-be proponents of rationalism to use the methods of the irrationalists; what we should be arguing for is consistency, and should not be inconsistent in that. After all, does not being caught out once render skeptics liable to the claim that their lapse has proved the falsifiability of their rationalism? Perhaps there is a place for telling people that they are stupid, but it would be better to know one's audience before calling them idiots, and it would be more certain to break the rationalist position through logic and gentle reasoning. As Wilson pointed out, scoffing seems a much less secure way.
Or is he wrong?
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