Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Skeptical Flim-Flam (updated)

I have an uneasy relationship with what is described as "the modern skeptic movement," as I've discussed from time to time on this blog. The greatest source of my uneasiness lies in the fact that it casts itself as a movement, with its (self-)identified leaders and a kind of guiding ideology. I've bristled at suggestions that skeptics ought to get in line and march in step.

Once in a while, a self-described skeptic will get so carried away in attacking ideological enemies that she or he will abandon the kind of careful inquiry and critical thinking that I take to be the very core of skepticism.

Case in point, a recent post to Skepticblog by Mark Edward, whose bio on the site starts thus:
Mark Edward is a professional mentalist specializing in magic of the mind. His amazing mind reading techniques make a statement about our limited powers of observation and our refusal to believe manipulation can easily happen to the best of us.
He's certainly a savvy guy, well placed to see through the pretensions of self-proclaimed psychics, mediums (media?), remote viewers, and other purveyors of hooey.

But this just makes it all the more dismaying that he would post under the title:
(The URL for the post reveals the original title, wisely retracted: "Network Exploiting The Dead for Cash".)

The claim is based up on a single website, to which I'll return in a moment. The post itself is an account of Edward's own "investigation" of this case, though it's an investigation so sloppy and so confrontational as to make even Michael Moore feel queasy.

Now, the source of his outrage is clear enough: he sees self-proclaimed mediums (media?) exploiting people's grief and loss, promising them answers about the fate of their loved ones that are beyond the reach of ordinary perception . . . for a price. I agree, this is pretty reprehensible.

I also agree that any decision on the part of a television news desk to devote serious air time to this kind of nonsense casts doubt on the credibility of that news desk. For a news organization to have a medium on staff would be even worse, if only because it would mean scarce resources were being diverted from news that might actually be important or useful to people.

The claim in the title of the post, and the strong implication throughout the post, is that the culprit in this case is none other than ABC, whose news division is generally well respected among the national networks, and that ABC is guilty of actually hiring a medium and paying for her services.

The thing is, even a cursory investigation reveals that the central claim is groundless. Edward himself provides a link to the offending webpage, which lists Kelli Faulkner (the offending medium) among "experts" who might appear as "guests" from time to time on the noon news . . . in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

A couple of clicks leads me to the website of the news organization in question, Indiana's NewsCenter, which seems to be associated with the ABC, NBC, CW, and My Network TV affiliates in the Fort Wayne market.

A further click leads to the parent company of Indiana's NewsCenter, Granite Broadcasting Corp., which describes itself as "a market leading owner of local media properties."

This is the base on which Edward grounds his claims against ABC. He seems to have convinced at least some of his readers, those unable to see through the fragile tissue of innuendo and guilt by association by which he attempts to cover over the gaping holes in his understanding of the case and his reasoning about it.

Even granting, as I do, that it's bad to have news organizations give air time to hooey, a genuinely skeptical investigation of this instance should be careful enough at least to acknowledge the most basic and readily accessed facts of the matter.

Okay, maybe Edward was just having a bad day, getting a little sloppy. It happens to all of us.

When I commented on the post, however, pointing out the mismatch between the claim about ABC and the evidence on offer, Edward and a few other commenters turned on me, offering snide dismissal and even a few nasty jabs at my character. One commenter suggested I should consider taking up a PR position with BP, and Edward himself suggested that I must be an employee of ABC, seeking to defend the network's reputation at all costs.

The thing is, I was really just asking for clarification of the relationship between the medium and the national network, clarification I eventually had to go out and find for myself, since none was forthcoming from Edward.

I asked him:
Are you exaggerating the scope of the issue to pump up skeptical hysteria?
He replied that he was indeed trying to stir up some hysteria. In the next paragraph of his reply he actually used the word, 'duh', as a rejoinder.

I replied:
Isn’t it odd to try to use hysteria in the service of skepticism? Think of what this means: manipulating people’s understanding of a situation in order to elicit an irrationally zealous response. This seems to be in tension with the aim of promoting clear, critical thinking.
Another commenter offered the following reflection on my quibble about the relationship of responsibility between network affiliate and the network itself - working as I was, at the time, on the assumption that the news organization in question was simply and unproblematically a network affiliate:
Personally I think the title is just fine. ABC Indiana is still ABC in the eyes of most of its viewers.
To which I replied:
I would also point out that your final claim suggests an argument ad populam: “ABC Indiana is still ABC in the eyes of most of its viewers.”

Funny, how you’ll pass over legitimate and complex legal and moral questions about responsibility (and accountability) in hiring a medium by appealing to the perceptions of the public . . . when you might be the first to ridicule and condemn that same public if some of them were to perceive UFOs in the night sky or pictures of Jesus in slices of deli meat.
That same commenter also attempted to dismiss my objections as being a matter of personal preference on my part, asking:
So, your real problem is just with the title of the blog? If Mark had used affiliate in the title you would be okay with that? (not that its all about what you want)
See, if it's just me being peevish, demanding to get what I want, they don't have to take my questions all that seriously. To which I replied:
No . . . it isn’t all about what I want. It’s about what readers of a blog by and for skeptics can reasonably expect: careful and thorough inquiry combined with clear and critical thinking.
But maybe this is too much to expect from a blog that sometimes seems to be more the organ of an ideological movement than an open forum for critical inquiry.

UPDATE - 12:45am, May 27, 2010

Despite myself, I continued the exchange in the comment thread of Mark Edward's post on Skeptic Blog. In the end, I was able to state my concerns precisely enough that Edward saw the point . . . though he was still a bit testy about it: "Okay, fine."

He returned to his main point, which is that the situation still involves a supposed "spirit medium" getting TV air time, with the implication that something should be done about it.  I had already acknowledged and conceded that point.

At that, I'll let the matter rest.


Doc Nagel said...

The blog comment thread is a curious form of communication. It seems not to matter much what the topic of a post is; the commentary most often focuses on character, with insinuations and outright accusations thrown around as the temperature rises. Positions become more and more distorted as ad hominem attacks and straw man fallacies overtake reasoned discussion. I'm tempted to say there's something about the medium and about our media environment that nurtures this kind of discourse.

So I say, to hell with those scumbags!

Robert Kirkman said...

What're you, some kinda radical socialist-fascist????