Richard Dawkins and Richard Wiseman: “Jesus Wept!”

Richard Dawkins is rather unflappable, but I do suspect he wasn’t quite ready, at least at first, for questioning by Richard Wiseman, who, let’s face it, gets rather silly. Impish? Yes, I’d say so. Now, the conversation the two had on stage at CSICon 2017 was fun and fluid, with lots of great insights and big laughs. But I also think the one Richard didn’t quite see the other Richard coming.

And I mean that in the best sense. It’s kind of cool to see Dawkins light up with delight at the playfulness of Wiseman, even if he didn’t always know exactly how to respond to it. For example, Wiseman displayed a picture of a truly odd sculpture of, supposedly, Dawkins, to which Dawkins exclaimed, “Jesus wept!” Also, Wiseman insisted that his Aunt Jean was not at all selfish, so how would Dawkins explain that? There was nothing to say to that. But usually, he very much did know how to respond.

Wiseman, in one of the non-silly lines of questioning, was interested in Dawkins’ expectations and reactions concerning his biggest books, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Dawkins revealed that he had hoped to begin work on The God Delusion as far back as the late nineties, but there was a belief that such a book would fare poorly. Fast forward through five or six years of the George W. Bush administration, and it was suddenly clear that it was time to make it happen.

Now, it’s estimated not only that the book has sold about three million copies, but that the unauthorized Arabic language version, only existing as a digital file, has been downloaded about 30 million times. Why? Dawkins hopes there is “a hidden groundswell of irreligion in the Muslim world, a mismatch between what we’re told they believe and what they do.”

What can still impress someone like Richard Dawkins, the great evolutionary biologist? What makes him say “wow”? Well, actually, it’s more evolutionary biology. Dawkins said he’d read about incredibly elaborate termite mounds, which Daniel Dennett had pointed out look remarkably like large, magnificent churches. But it wasn’t just the similarity that blew him away. He was amazed that “one was built by design,” the church had an architect who devised every detail, but the other had no designer whatsoever. In fact, not one of the termites has any idea what they’re making. That’s astounding.

Dawkins always gets asked about aliens. You can always bet on an aliens question. (Listen to my Point of Inquiry episode with Lee Billings to learn more about what we know, or rather don’t know, about aliens.) He says, yes, he does believe there are likely other creatures elsewhere in the universe, and that they could very well so advanced as to be god-like to us. But if they are god-like, “they didn’t create the universe. They would have evolved in it.”

There was much more of course, but I’ll leave you with this. He is, in fact, working on an atheism-for-kids book, and he has an idea of what his final quote should be:

“There is such a thing as the truth. The truth is to be discovered by science. And the truth is utterly wonderful.”

Yeah, that’s pretty good.

P.S.: Here’s the Peter Medawar review of Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man that Dawkins said he loved so. Enjoy.

Photo by Brian Engler

Jill Tarter: E.T. Whisperer, Possible Martian Descendant

It used to be that we meager humans had no idea how many plants might be out there beyond our own adorable little solar system. Today, we know there are more planets than stars in our galaxy. That’s hundreds and hundreds of billions of planets.

Jill Tarter of SETI is really excited about this. I am too.

There are two big discoveries of modern science that have raised her hopes for the existence and discovery of life beyond Earth: the existence of extremophiles on our planet, organisms that can survive and thrive in the most hostile conditions our planet can muster; and of course the discovery of all these exoplanets.

These two factors combined suggest that “the universe might be bio-friendly.” Might! If we do find life on another planet or moon, either in our own solar system (with one big exception) or from an exoplanet, “that will mean life is ubiquitous everywhere.”

Why? Because a “genesis moment” somewhere more or less quarantined from Earth would mean that life has the potential to emerge throughout the universe. The exception I mentioned is Mars, which shares too much of a history of “exchanging rocks” with Earth and Venus to make it definitive as to which planet life began on.

That’s also a big deal! It’s entirely plausible that Mars is where our own life began, with Mars seeding Earth with the beginnings of our life. “So, indeed, we could be Martians.”

Intelligent life is an entirely different level of difficulty, of course. But while it may be too hard to detect a biosignature from an exoplanet (which Tarter admits we don’t even have for Earth life), we could detect evidence of a civilization’s technology: “That could be more distinct and distinguishable.”

Okay, so why does this matter, beyond being “cool”?

“One of the best things about SETI is the fact that you have to adopt a much more cosmic perspective,” said Tarter. “It’s like holding up a mirror to the entire planet and saying, See? See you guys? You’re all the same, when comparing yourself to something else that co-evolved on a different planet.”

SETI, she says, “trivializes the differences between us” so we can “grow up” and develop some kind of global scheme for cooperating. But for that, we have to work together. And not just within our own species. All life forms on Earth have to be included in our thinking and in our coming interstellar moral circle.

Joe Nickell, the Skeptic’s Conscience

We use the word “debunking” all the time in skepticism, right? All the time. It can seem like debunking is our raison d’être. Why we exist.

This attitude is one of the reasons Joe Nickell is so valuable to this movement. You already know that he’s probably the world’s most renowned investigator of the paranormal and extraordinary claims. But he also serves, when necessary, as the skeptic’s conscience.

Joe’s mission at CSICon this year was to put an end to the inclination of many skeptics to dismiss believers in paranormal claims before investigating the claim itself. Joe has done the hands-on and in-person investigation and interviews, and concludes, “We have to stop this attitude, stop this business [of treating witnesses] like there’s something wrong with them…these are intelligent, sincere sober people.”

He used as an example the Flatwoods UFO case from 1952, where locals saw something fall from the sky, and then encountered what they thought was an alien or monster with shining eyes, that glided toward them, made a horrible hissing sound, and bore “terrible claws.”

Joe pointed out that this was not a hoax by any means. It was not the result of stupidity. This was a real thing seen by real people. And they were absolutely terrified. They deserved to be taken seriously.

nickell-flatwoodsJoe of course figured out what really happened. Not a hoax, not an attempt at gaining attention, but a real encounter. It just wasn’t an encounter with an alien. It was a barn owl. The noise, the shining eyes (flashlights reflecting in the bird’s eyes), the ability to “glide,” and as reported by the witness, a head shaped like the ace of spades.

These weren’t crazy people. These were people who didn’t understand what they saw under very scary, tense conditions in the darkness.

There’s no benefit to just feeling superior to people who witness things they can’t explain. To the person who waves away the idea of investigating paranormal claims and says, “I already know there’s no ghosts (or what have you),” Joe responds, “Well, good for you. A skeptic and a damn genius as well.”

Joe knows there’s so much to be learned from these investigations. About psychology, mental states, how illusions work on our sense, and much more. “It’s not just about us,” says Joe.

So next time you wonder why Skeptical Inquirer continues to investigate hauntings, UFO sightings, and Bigfoot appearances, and you think, “Ugh, this again,” remember that each new investigation reveals something new. Not about whether these things exist, but the myriad factors that go into each event.

“In real investigative efforts,” said Joe, “the debunking will take care of itself.”

Ron Lindsay on Skeptics’ Reason for Being

Why are we here?

This is not a question about the nature of existence. Nor is it the beginning of a joke about James Stockdale. It’s a serious question about the reasons skeptics do what they do. Who better to try to answer it than the man who ran the Center for Inquiry from 2008 to the beginning of this year, former CEO Ron Lindsay?

Ron began framing his presentation as a kind of response to a talk by John Horgan earlier this year at NECSS that complained that skeptics had been wasting their time talking about things like ghosts and homeopathy, which Horgan said were “soft targets.” Are they?

Ron says no, and very clearly explained why. Pointing to the mission statement of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Ron highlighted the bit that focuses on “controversial or extraordinary claims.” Ron said, “These are the type of claims that many scientists aren’t interested in.” Scientists don’t think ghosts, homeopathy, vaccines, GMOs, and the like are controversial. They’re settled science.

But as Ron pointed out, these things are absolutely controversial among the general public, for myriad reasons. Our job, as a skeptic movement, is to make sure the public is aware of the facts behind the controversies, that these things actually have been settled.

Homeopathy is a rather simple example: Scientists all know it’s bunk, but it’s supported by a lot of marketing, by loose regulation, and billions of dollars in sales. That’s not a soft target, that’s a granite-hard target. So CFI tackles it to try and improve regulations and educate the public as to why it’s a waste of their money, that it won’t cure anything, and could in fact do harm.

But even with things like belief in ghosts or alien visitation, it’s not so much the beliefs themselves, but the thought process that leads people to those beliefs, rejecting science and evidence in many other areas, and falling for conspiracies and other scams. By pointing out the alternative, a critical thinking framework and an emphasis on science and evidence, we can have a safer, healthier, and wiser public. It helps all of us.

“Out work is important, our work is necessary,” said Ron, and he’s of course right. “And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”