The compulsion to tell tales of faith

This semester, I am teaching a course designed to educate students about critical thinking and the scientific method. There is an inherent risk in teaching this course. It deals with some difficult scientific questions about matters of spirituality or faith. For instance, what can be said of the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin? Are all psychics actually possessive of supernatural power, or are there more natural explanations for their abilities (such as cold reading or other forms of deceit)? Are faith healers, a kind of psychic or medium, actually performing miracles?

These are difficult issues. Why cover them? You have to cover them because there are many well-documented frauds unmasked ONLY by applying critical thinking. Seeing how the fraud is committed allows you to design experiments to test the claim without being deceived. Without critical thinking, a harmful fraud may never be unmasked. Peter Popoff Ministries thrived in the 1980s based on Popoff’s claimed “miraculous healings” at revival-style events. However, the magician and skeptic James Randi unmasked some of his frauds and tricks. As the Wikipedia article on Popoff states,

During his appearances at church conventions in the 1970s, Popoff routinely and accurately stated the home addresses and specific illnesses of his audience members, a feat he allowed them to believe was due to divine revelation and “God given ability” . . . Popoff’s earlier claims were debunked in 1986 when noted skeptic James Randi and his assistant Steve Shaw researched Popoff by attending revival meetings across the country for months. Randi asked investigator and crime scene analyst Alexander Jason for technical assistance and he was able to use a high-tech (at the time) computerized scanner . . .  Jason identified and intercepted the radio transmissionsthat were being sent by Peter’s wife Elizabeth Popoff who was backstage reading information which she and her aides  . . . had gathered from earlier conversations with members of the audience. Popoff would listen to these promptings with an in-ear receiver and repeat what he heard to the crowd.

Randi then went on to plant stooges in the audience, including a man dressed as a woman pretending to have uterine cancer, of which “she” was “cured” . . . After these were shown on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Popoff’s popularity and viewing audiences declined sharply. In September 1987, sixteen months after the Carson airing, Popoff declared bankruptcy, with more than 790 creditors having claims against him. [1]

Revealing the fraud shutdown the person committing the fraud. Is it better to persist in delusion, risking your health, or watch a man who claims to be “of God” torn from his pedestal? Nothing weakens faith more than charlatans committing scam works in the name of the faith, so in my opinion it’s the highest calling when skeptics and scientists challenge testable claims. Claims of healing, claims of messages received from God, are testable when those acts are fraud or simple technical tricks. Faith doesn’t mean “ignorance,” nor should it.

Why do I mentioned all of this? When you confront students with the fraud – essentially, when you pull back the curtain and reveal the man who is behind the Great and Powerful Oz – they have many kinds of reactions. Some feel that their skepticism in the supernatural is confirmed by seeing how the fraud is committed. Others find this to be a challenge to their faith, a walk into uncomfortable territory that we as professors should not be allowed to take.

What happens next is unfortunate, for me and for the students. Some students will approach you after class, after you discuss cold reading and other kinds of fraud perpetrated to feign supernatural powers. They will tell you stories of family members who have reported miraculous events, faith healings, and other allegedly supernatural occurrences. This puts you in a tough position. After all, as the instructor of a course on the scientific method and a scientist, you are naturally skeptical. They find this offensive.

Why, then, approach a person teaching critical thinking and then be offended when that critical thinking is applied to your own example? Why even cite the example, when the whole point of the course is to teach you critical thinking with the understanding that there are difficult questions to which this skill set can be applied? Yes, it’s uncomfortable; but what is the alternative? As I said above, without skepticism we risk being easily conned into believing truths which are not, in fact, truths.

If life is a quest for truth, then critical thinking is the double-edged sword of that quest. When wielded, it cuts both ways: deep into the heart of reality, revealing its glory, and deep into the bowels of common sense and comfortable beliefs, leaving a wretched stink that risks poisoning the quest itself. It’s hard – even painful – to let go of common sense and comfortable beliefs and face the world as it actually might be. We don’t want our miracles to be statistically common occurrences with natural causes; we don’t want our faith healings to be spontaneous remissions or the workings of the human immune system; we don’t want to be left in a world where mind cannot overcome matter.

On the other hand, I don’t like to be conned, duped, or fooled. And so, all I can do is choose critical thinking. I can’t make anyone else choose this. All I can do is teach critical thinking, live critical thinking, and be true to myself.  I like my truths to be as closely wedded to reality as I can get them, and I’ve never been fooled less than when I put my faith in the rational intelligibility of the cosmos and my skepticism in the claims of all my fellow humans. We are all flawed creatures, searching for truth; critical thinking is the one candle we have against the dark, against the  lightless chaos of wishful thinking that risks enveloping us, an intellectual void less rich in truth than the luminous future we seek to create with science and reason.


The demons begin to stir

The forces of Sauron gather (from "The Lord of the Rings")
The forces of Sauron gather (from "The Lord of the Rings")

Peter Gleick’s unethical subterfuge to obtain internal documents from the Heartland Institute has begun to give some interesting insights into this anti-science institution. While not all of the documents have been confirmed, enough has been confirmed from independent sources (including those named in the documents) to begin shedding light on the dancing shadows of anti-science. “The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.” [1]

The Washington Post provided some useful insights into the alleged strategy that Heartland intends to take [2]. Rather than fight science in the science literature, they are doing exactly what the forces of anti-science are trying to do with Biological Evolution: end-run around the scientific method and try to inject ideology directly into American classrooms.

The documents claim that Heartland has hired a coal-industry consultant to construct teaching modules to be directly distributed to schools. The Washington Post confirms that the consultant has independently confirmed that this is true, and that he has received $100,000 to develop these modules (incidentally, $100,000 is about enough money to support a full-time post-doctoral researcher, a full-time graduate student, and pay grant overhead to the managing institution, all for the purpose of accomplishing actual scientific research).  As The Post reports:

These modules would include material for grades 10-12 on climate change (“whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy”) and carbon pollution (“whether CO2 is a pollutant is controversial”). In fact, none of these issues are scientific controversies — the vast majority of climatologists believe, with a high degree of confidence, that man-made carbon-dioxide emissions are heating the planet.

Here I have a bone to pick with The Post. It’s not that “climatologists believe” – it’s that “climatologists have been convinced by the evidence.” Those are two different things; a belief can be based on things other than evidence, while a conviction based on evidence is the hallmark of true scientific and critical thinking.

Of course, the two issue modules mentioned above are also based on logical fallacies; the first, “whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy,” is based on a lie – there is no scientific controversy about this; the second, “whether CO2 is a pollutant is controversial,” is based on a “red herring” fallacy – CO2 is a greenhouse gas, not a pollutant, and it’s only been classes as a pollutant  by the EPA in order to get some kind of regulation under the existing EPA framework. That’s a semantic, not a scientific, issue.

Heartland’s strategy is a copy of that pursued by The Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank that is a cookpot for anti-science ideas. Their aim was to eradicate science and replace it with a theistic framework [3] by weakening public perception of Biological Evolution. As The Post reports:

[NCSE member] Rosenau says that Heartland could do what creationist groups like the Discovery Institute have been doing for years and simply mail out supplemental materials to educators far and wide.

While the Heartland documents were obtained under questionable circumstances, they are beginning to shed light on the forces of anti-science.


[1] Sagan, Carl (2011-07-06). Demon-Haunted World (Kindle Locations 603-604). Ballantine Books. Kindle Edition.




Let me begin this post by saying the following. The Earth is warming, and has been doing so exponentially faster for more than a century. This warming was initiated by  exponentially rising levels of  carbon dioxide. That carbon dioxide, rich in long-sequestered  C14-poor carbon, was put there by humans. None of these findings of climate science are any different today than they were a week ago.

What has happened in the past week, however, is the revelation that Peter Gleick, a champion for ethical science, has himself engaged in deception in order to get internal documents out of the Heartland Institute, a denialist institution founded to counter cancer research linking smoking to lung cancer.

The apparent facts of the case are as follows. Gleick self-reports [1] receiving a document from an anonymous individual who claimed the document came from within the Heartland Institute. Gleick then pretended to be a board member of the Institute and requested additional documents, which were sent to him. The Heartland Institute claims a policy document is a forgery; other documents are authentic, forcing them to apologize to donors mentioned in the other documents.

We are now at a delicate time. Over a year ago, emails from East Anglia University climate scientists were stolen and disseminated on the web, resulting in a fake controversy known as “ClimateGate.” The press focused more on cherry-picked statements in those emails than on the crime committed in obtaining the mails. Now, we have a science ethicist obtaining by subterfuge internal documents from a  denialist institution. Those documents reveal that the Heartland Institute’s current crusade to sell doubt about climate research is fueled by energy industry insiders. Will the press focus on the revelations, as they seemed to with the stolen East Anglia emails? Or, will they focus on the scientist who obtained the Heartland Institute documents without critically evaluating what those documents reveal?

Worse, will the press conflate the bad behavior of a single person with the quality of evidence for human-induced climate change? We must all be vigilant, and in the coming days resist the power of the Ad Hominem and Red Herring logical fallacies that will attempt to distract us from the truth: the planet’s climate is changing, we are responsible, and all that remains is to establish policy for how to deal with the problem.


[1] and