April 23, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
A Look at the New Skepticism: A new breed of skeptics is boldly challenging pseudoscience, blind faith, and all manner of “woo-woo”
April 23, 2012
It’s been a hot day even for Las Vegas, and outside the South Point Hotel and Casino the morning traffic crawls in sluggish resignation. Few people linger in the gathering heat, preferring the shade of covered walkways to the merciless sun.
Inside the casino, however, is a different scene. A convention is filing out, and the crowd moves with quick, eager strides. Most are young—in the twenty-to-forty range. A stroll through the lobby reveals a mix of race, gender, and accents. This is a crowd that has assembled itself from across the world, and while faces are friendly and conversations playful, there is a steely sense of unity. Of purpose.
The Las Vegas convention is the latest installment of The Amaz!ng Meeting. First held in 2003 and colloquially referred to as TAM, it’s the annual mecca for skeptics around the world. In a culture-at-large that reveres faith above facts, skeptics are the vanguard of rationalism. Think James “the Amazing” Randi exposing psychics as charlatans. Think Mythbusters hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman using the scientific method with explosive aplomb. Think merry pranksters Penn & Teller debunking all manner of pseudoscience or conspiracy theory on their former show,Bullshit! These are the people who dare to demand evidence of those making extraordinary claims.They are people who make believers uncomfortable and often make enemies because of it.
In an earlier age, skepticism was not so much a movement as a pastime for older, male, upper-crust academics. It was spirited discussion over cigars and brandy. Today, the new skepticism is a grassroots revolution. Its adherents are media-savvy, and they use memes, humor, Photoshop, YouTube, and social networking to wage a bold offensive against the prevailing belief culture. They are ardently pro-science, descending like a phalanx of logic on creationists, homeopathic practitioners, faith healers, psychics, truthers, birthers, anti-vaccination crowds, and generally anyone else whose position isn’t supported by logic. Skeptics champion reasoned methodology, not blind belief. They respect critical thinking, not emotional reactionism. They are factual heavyweights, and now, after decades of polite disagreements with true believers, young skeptics are ready to take off the gloves.
Skeptical groups operate around the world and across the Internet via popular blogs, podcasts, rallies, meetings, and forums. Skeptical bestsellers flood the marketplace by luminaries like Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, and Sam Harris. Skeptics count celebrities like comedians Tim Minchin and Eddie Izzard among their ranks. They petition the United Nations to end real witch-hunts in third-world countries. They coordinate, collaborate, and rally their growing numbers.
Beyond TAM, the dedicated skeptic can make pilgrimages to myriad events like the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, QED (“Question. Explore. Discover.”), Skepticon, Skepticamp, and regional pow-wows sponsored by groups like the Center for Inquiry or the New England Skeptical Society. The website Skepchick.org focuses on critical thought with a feminist bent. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe brings rational examination of the news in the form of a weekly, down-to-earth podcast. And Drinking Skeptically organizes gatherings for likeminded critical thinkers accompanied by some social drinking, and even offers a video chat version.
The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is the veritable base camp for skeptical legions. Founded in 1996, the JREF’s mission is “to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.”
And to that end, the JREF is remarkably energized. They offer grants and scholarships, they publish works on critical inquiry across all media, they host TAM every year, and they provide a support structure for other skeptical groups. Most popularly, the JREF taunts true believers with the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, promising to award the purse to anyone who can demonstrate, under controlled laboratory settings, evidence of the paranormal. First established in 1996, the challenge is open to all. No one has ever collected the prize money, and numerous “celebrity psychics” have kept their distance.
Randi himself, now eighty-three, continues to make the rounds of the lecture circuit. He’s the field’s leading rock star, speaking to crowds of likeminded rationalists on everything from spoon-bending to UFOs to bleeding statues to religion.
Starting out as a professional magician in 1946, Randi had switched hats by 1972 and has since aggressively “outed” psychics like Uri Geller and John Edwards, demonstrating how mentalist skills—sleight-of-hand and cold reading techniques—can be passed off as magical abilities. He holds particular disdain for so-called faith healers, who charge sick patients thousands of dollars to be “cured.” The patients leave, with lighter wallets and untreated diseases.
Unsurprisingly, skeptics take issue with the opinion that belief doesn’t hurt anybody. Even leaving out religiously motivated murder like the attacks on 9/11, skeptics have plenty of ire on this front. Take, for instance, the anti-vaccine movement, driven largely by the fraudulent claims of British doctor Andrew Wakefield that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism. As a result, vaccine rates saw a decline in the late 1990s and throughout the following decade, and they continue to stay below optimal levels; according to a 2011 study, one in ten parents in the United States are no longer following the recommended schedule of vaccinations. What’s troubling to skeptics is the reason: 81 percent of parents who skipped or delayed vaccines “disagreed” that unvaccinated children are at risk for epidemics. Subsequently, new outbreaks of diseases like measles are on the rise throughout the United States.
In light of such disturbing trends, skeptics see themselves as warriors in a noble tradition, casting off medievalism and marching towards a second Enlightenment. Indeed, they view history as a struggle between superstition and science; after all, it was Carl Sagan, perhaps the most idolized luminary in the cause, who called science “a candle in the dark.” Since Sagan’s death, it is skeptics who have taken that candle, and lit an army of torches to light the way into the future.
The Skeptics Speak
While skepticism has roots in ancient Greece, the modern movement is only about forty years old. It arose from a new pro-science mentality that was promoted, independently, through the writings of James Randi, Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner, and even Isaac Asimov. However, it was humanist and philosopher Paul Kurtz who got things organized.
Kurtz began publishing against pseudoscience in the 1950s, and has since authored several hundred articles promoting the skeptical viewpoint. He is the founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, formerly the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry. He was also editor of the Humanist from 1967-1978. Arguing from a rationalist angle, Kurtz tackled everything from religion to psychics to exorcisms. The organizations he founded quickly filled with like-minded thinkers.
And just who are these like-minded thinkers?
Being so ardently pro-science, many skeptics naturally align with the political left. (A social conservative promoting creationism is in for a fight if a skeptic happens to be nearby.) Yet the movement is hardly the political arm of any one party. Young skeptics do tend to be highly educated, liberal, and agnostic or atheist, but skepticism is also rife with political libertarians, nonpartisans, and Goldwater conservatives. In fact, when their acumen takes aim at politics, a common sentiment among skeptics is that America’s two-party system is little more than theater for the masses.
One thing is common to skeptics everywhere: facts matter. The scientific method and critical inquiry trump blind faith and mindless rabble…
April 23, 2012
In 1990, the FBI began picking up on rumors about an effort to reconstitute a notorious terrorist-criminal gang known as The Order.
During the 1980s, extremists inspired by the book began robbing banks and armored cars, stealing and counterfeiting millions of dollars and distributing some of the money to racist extremist causes. Members of The Order assassinated Jewish talk radio host Alan Berg in 1984, before most of its members were arrested and its leader killed in a standoff. Less than 10 percent of the money stolen by The Order was ever recovered, and investigators feared members of the group who were still at large would use it to further a campaign of terrorism.
To prevent the rise of a “Second Order,” FBI undercover agents would become it.
Starting in April 1991, three FBI agents posed as members of an invented racist militia group called the Veterans Aryan Movement. According to their cover story, VAM members robbed armored cars, using the proceeds to buy weapons and support racist extremism. The lead agent was a Vietnam veteran with a background in narcotics, using the alias Dave Rossi.
Code-named PATCON, for “Patriot-conspiracy,” the investigation would last more than two years, crossing state and organizational lines in search of intelligence on the so-called Patriot movement, the label applied to a wildly diverse collection of racist, ultra-libertarian, right-wing and/or pro-gun activists and extremists who, over the years, have found common cause in their suspicion and fear of the federal government.
The undercover agents met some of the most infamous names in the movement, but their work never led to a single arrest. When McVeigh walked through the middle of the investigation in 1993, he went unnoticed.
PATCON is history, but it holds lessons for today. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a series of arrests for homegrown terrorism has put a spotlight on the secretive world of government infiltration, especially in the Muslim community. Some critics have charged that these investigations, in which suspected jihadists are provided with the means and encouragement to carry out terrorist attacks before being arrested, constitute entrapment and set plots in motion that would never have emerged on their own. But these controversial tactics were around long before the FBI was restructured to prioritize terrorism. And Muslims aren’t the only targets.
Most undercover operations remain secret, especially if they do not result in prosecutions. PATCON stayed under wraps for nearly 15 years, until it was discovered in Freedom of Information Act requests by the author. The account that follows is based on thousands of pages of FBI records on PATCON and the groups it targeted, as well as interviews with FBI agents who worked on the case, former FBI informants, and members of the targeted groups. The documents and interviews reveal important lessons for the modern use of undercover agents and informants.
PATCON had its origins in the investigation of Louis Beam, an infamous racial ideologue with connections to the original Order. In 1987, the government prosecuted him for sedition in connection with the group’s activities, but he was acquitted and subsequently moved to the Austin, Texas, area.
The FBI was keenly interested in Beam’s activities and his associates. In 1990, agents in Texas opened an investigation into his activities within the “Texas Light Infantry” (TLI). With branches throughout the Lone Star state, the TLI was a paramilitary militia that styled itself as an emergency backup for the Texas State Guard. Although the case file expansively included the whole organization — most of which was not racist in nature — investigators were primarily interested in a handful of Austin-area members and associates tied to Beam.
Initially, the FBI targeted the TLI using an informant named Vince Reed, a Vietnam veteran who had successfully infiltrated the Hell’s Angels on an earlier assignment. An undercover agent worked with Reed, posing as his gun dealer to strengthen his cover.
Reed reported hearing Beam’s TLI friends talk about “The Second Order,” a newly revamped group that would stockpile money and weapons to fight a revolution against the federal government.
The FBI wanted to know more. To enhance Reed’s status and open a new channel of intelligence, an undercover operation was proposed.
There are two kinds of FBI undercover operations, known as Group I and Group II UCOs. Group II UCOs are used in relatively informal ways and require less oversight, but they also receive less funding and administrative support. Reed’s “gun dealer” worked under the Group II heading, since he did not require substantial backup or extraordinary means to pull off his cover story.
FBI agents in Austin wanted to enhance the mix with a Group I operation, a more ambitious undertaking that would be eligible for considerably more funding and support but had to be predicated on a specific criminal act or threat and was subject to additional supervision.
FBI records on the TLI offered a plethora of suspected crimes, including the stockpiling of explosives for an anticipated war against the government. But in the end, none of the leads on the group resulted in prosecution.
To justify the PATCON operation, the strongest provocation was selected. An informant, likely Reed, had reported that TLI associates had discussed the possibility of killing two Austin-based FBI agents. They had done surveillance and collected information about where the agents lived and their daily routines.
That threat became the primary criminal predicate for PATCON. But it soon became clear that the suspects weren’t planning to act any time soon, according to one of the targeted agents. When pressed by FBI sources, the suspects said the killings would take place only after the U.S. government had been overthrown…
April 23, 2012
In his latest book, Why America Needs a Left, Eli Zaretsky explores the historical relationship between the left and liberalism in the United States. While some historians dismiss the very notion of an American left, Zaretsky argues that it has made a profound impact on American political life. He examines three historical “lefts”: the abolitionists, the left that coalesced around the New Deal, and the New Left of the ’60s and ’70s. In each case, the left addressed an issue already being debated—slavery, economic depression, civil rights—but transformed equality into the core goal of each movement. In this sense, each left resulted in a “refounding” of America, “a transformation of its identity and of its conception of legitimate order, one that placed equality at its center.”
Editorial assistant Sean Fabery spoke with Zaretsky about why the left never achieves its goals, how Obama ignores the left at his peril, and why Occupy Wall Street signals the dawn of a fourth left.
Sean Fabery: What was the impetus for writing this book?
Eli Zaretsky: There’s a long-term impetus and an immediate impetus. The long-term impetus is that I’m very much a product of the 1960s. I was active in the civil rights movement and in the New Left. I was very influenced at that time by an older generation of people who had gone through the ’30s and ’40s, and by the idea of the left as a kind of continuing presence in American life.
The more immediate impetus was the election of Obama in 2008. I did think that 2008 was a turning-point type of election because of the failure of the Bush policies—the disastrous impact of the war in Iraq followed by the economic crisis, which had such deep roots in long-standing policies. I thought it really opened the way for Obama to raise the question of a new direction for the country. The fact that Obama ran on that platform in his campaign for president but then didn’t govern that way was an immediate impetus behind the book.
SF: In the introduction, you mention that various historians have doubted whether an American left has ever existed. You argue that the left has very much been a part of American politics and has influenced the way we discuss equality. What is being missed when people dismiss the left as a genuine force in American politics?
EZ: Many conceptions of America say the left is irrelevant: “We don’t need a left,” or “We don’t have a left.” There are different versions of this idea. Some people say we don’t need a left because we all agree on the basic fundamentals—that the core of America is liberty and freedom. There’s a lot of truth to that. We have a consensus on human rights and individual rights in this country that’s very strong and historically grounded.
What the left brings to this, which I think is not just an impact but absolutely at the core of what the country is, is the importance of equality. You can’t really think about individual freedom without also thinking about equality. People in the New Left said that “I can’t be free as long as there are people being oppressed in Mississippi.” Individual freedom is not just something that individuals have. It requires equality as an ideal that pervades the country. It’s something that the left passionately believes and really has emphasized more than other parts of the political system in American history, but it’s really at the core of who we are as Americans.
The left always fails because it’s a long-term project; you have to look at it over a long sweep of history.
I think that the core of American history goes back to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. A lot of white Americans before the abolitionists rose said, “We are free. It’s just too bad that the black people among us are slaves.” But the abolitionists said, “We can’t be free as long as other people are slaves.” So America is a country that is not just founded on individual freedom but is also founded on the principle of equality. It runs through our history. The left has made a huge contribution because it’s the most passionate advocate of that idea.
SF: You label the abolitionist movement as the first left. As you mention in the book, they never termed themselves a “left,” and this term first arose in America in the early twentieth century. Did you have any concerns about labeling the abolitionist movement as a left?
EZ: The term “left” is a European term. It’s about parliamentary systems. In a parliamentary system, you literally and physically have people sitting on the left, sitting on the right, and sitting in the center. Every time there’s an election, we can talk about the left and the right and the center. The United States has a two-party system, so we don’t start with the idea of a left and a right because both parties claim to be in the center. But the idea of the left, which is the idea of equality, is a global idea. There’s no nation that doesn’t have that idea.
What I try to show is that the abolitionists saw themselves—and were seen—as the American counterpart of what was called the left in Europe at that time: the advocates of national liberation, the socialists, the Jacobins, and so forth. The people who criticized the abolitionists called them Jacobins and communists and that sort of thing. And then I show how the term left came into American history only with the Bolshevik Revolution, because at that moment you did have communists who had influence in the United States. Just because we start using the term left in that period doesn’t mean we don’t have a left in the nineteenth century. In fact, the United States was on the left of world politics. It was known as the poor man’s country, as the advocate of democracy and liberty in a world still dominated by kings. These principles of self-government and liberty and equality are all what I mean by the left…