PoW: A sceptical Sceptic in Las Vegas
Vegas, baby, Vegas. My first time in the city of Lost Wages, where I'm attending ‘The Amazing Meeting’, the biggest gathering of Sceptics in the world. Why Vegas? James ‘The Amazing’ Randi, the elderly magician and Sceptic who organizes the event, tells me: ‘It’s a good place for conferences. And Sceptics are far too rational to be attracted by gambling.’ This the ninth TAM, and the biggest - there are 1,600 attendees from all over the world. Compare that to, say, the 15 people who came to our first Stoic event in 2010. Clearly, Scepticism is thriving.
Why is it doing so well? Firstly, Sceptics know how to put on a show. That’s partly because there are quite a few magicians and illusionists among them: James Randi, Derren Brown, Penn and Teller etc. There are a lot of guys with goatees here, who probably prefix their name with superlatives, as in ‘The Incredible Alan’ or ‘The Mysterious Geoff.’ Sceptical magicians, as one young magician told me, ‘know how the tricks are done, so they know how charlatans are trying to con you.’ He’d seen a guy turn water into wine once. ‘It’s not actually that complicated, once you know the technique.’
Secondly, many Sceptics are also paranormal investigators, which - let’s face it - is a fun way to spend the weekend. Randi’s own foundation, for example, has a $1 million prize which it offers to anyone who can prove they have paranormal powers. The prize is being offered this Sunday evening, if there are any psychics kicking around Vegas this weekend.
I met a guy from the Independent Investigations Group who told me: ‘We’re all geeks. We love investigating stuff like ghosts and psychics, and a part of us hopes it turns out to be true.’ They’re like the gang in Scooby Doo...or like Agent Scully, wishing they could be Agent Mulder. He said: ‘We had a guy come into the office last month who claimed he could create an energy vortex, right there in the office. We thought ‘wow, cool!’ But it turned out he couldn’t.’
So the Sceptic movement has magicians, it has ghost hunters - all of this is fun stuff. And a third reason for the movement’s vibrancy is its close relationship with atheism. I think just about everyone at TAM is an atheist, and any comments along the lines of ‘God doesn’t exist!’ or ‘Screw God!’ get rewarded with hearty applause from the audience.
According to Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, there are around 30 million atheists in the US. And its an increasingly confident movement, buoyed by the success of New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins - who is here, walking around the Casino in sun-glasses with a minder. I don’t know if he’s wary of angry fundamentalists or angry feminists.
One Sceptic told me: ‘Many of the Sceptics here are from small towns in the US. They might be the only atheist in their community. Then the internet allowed them to find other Sceptics and atheists, and to come across figures like Randi or Richard Dawkins. They realize they’re not alone. Then they come to TAM, and suddenly, for the first time, they’re in a room full of people like them.’
The Sceptic movement’s success, then, is also tied to the internet - just like the more modest success of other philosophical movements like Stoicism. The movement boasts two magazines, but also a whole host of Sceptic podcasts: The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid, the Geologic Podcast, the Pod Delusion, Skepticality, and so on, as well as lots of internet groups, list servers and so on.
And the movement also has local chapters off-line: there are local Sceptic groups in most big US cities, which let people meet up, eat, drink, watch films, deride religion, and organize Sceptic campaigns in support of rational things like vaccination. Sceptics are big on vaccinations - there was even a vaccination room at TAM, which everyone was encouraged to visit to get their shots.
I wonder to what extent the movement is purely negative, defined by the irrationality and ignorance of other people. I find that side of it a little annoying - partly because I don’t think religious fundamentalism is such a great threat to my society (perhaps I’d feel differently if I lived in small town America). In the UK, Sceptics seem to be fighting a war that was won long ago, like a weird historical enactment society dressing up as Civil War soldiers at the weekend.
There's a risk of a nasty intellectual sneering at the folly of others. 'There's no God, I know that, because I'm a historian and I know where and when He was invented' says the historian of scepticism Jennifer Michael Hecht, to wild applause (she also claimed the first Sceptic was 'Zeno of Pyrrho'. Duh!)
It’s easy to feel smarter than some fundamentalist wack-job. It gets more interesting when Sceptics start also to examine the limits of rational science, for example by examining the psychology and psychiatry professions and their myths and blind-spots, as some Sceptics like Elizabeth Loftus or Jon Ronson have; or at the financial community and its blind faith in economic science, as Nicholas Nassim Taleb has done so well. That is the more interesting side of Scepticism, for me (to be fair to Hecht, she's also interesting on this more examined idea of Scepticism).
I think a more interesting Scepticism doesn’t merely say ‘science is good’ and leave it at that. It takes its Scepticism further, to examine how our faith in scientific rationalism can itself take on the irrational form of a religious cult, as John Gray has explored. Adam Smith’s idea of the Invisible Hand, for example, is really a mystical concept more than a scientific one - it comes from Stoicism’s mystical idea of the Logos. And the belief that the market will always magically find harmony and balance can be really destructive if held too dogmatically - look at the Indian famine of the 19th century, for example, which was caused by English laissez-faire economists refusing to intervene in the grain and rice market.
The Sceptic movement itself has trappings of a religious movement - sometimes self-consciously. Many people arrived at Scepticism, after all, after having abandoned Christianity and gone looking for a substitute. It offers atheists a community of fellow believers in science. That community aspect is a key part of TAM. I met one lady, an ex-Mormon called Sariah, who told me: ‘I left one family, but I think I found another here.’ I was a bit incredulous: ‘Do you think anyone here would take care of your kids if you were sick?’ She thought for a bit. ‘Yeah, I think so. I’ve met some really nice people.’
James Randi is the warm centre of this community - ever-present, ever-amiable and approachable, ever-available for a chat and a hug. ‘I’m an inveterate hugger’, he tells the audience. There’s something of a personality cult around him - people wear t-shirts saying ‘Team Randi’, or fake Randi beards. They tell me things like ‘I was looking for answers...and then I found Randi.’ They talk of ‘conversions’, of ‘epiphanies’. They also mob other leading Sceptics, like Richard Dawkins, and pose for photos with him as if he was Goofy at Disneyland.
And, like a religious cult, they feel they are engaged in a cosmic battle with the forces of darkness. One leading Sceptic podcaster, Steven Novella, spoke of his battles with fundamentalist anti-vaccine campaigners. ‘You have to understand their mindset’, he says. ‘They think that we’re part of a global conspiracy of evil.’
Yet I see aspects of this Manichean 'Them versus Us' attitude in the Sceptics too. One speaker, Carol Tavris, told the audience: 'There's so few of us and so many of Them. So we need to tolerate the differences within the movement and focus on the real enemies to scientific thought.' It can seem as if the Sceptics are heroic saints battling the demons of irrationalism in their culture. One t-shirt shows Randi battling a demonic-looking woman, and the slogan says ‘Round One: Debunk!’ Randi tells the conference: ‘I can guarantee you’ll return home from these few days in the desert even better prepared to face down the nonsense you encounter every day’, as if TAM is some sort of desert shamanic training. In here is ‘a clear-thinking oasis’ as Richard Dawkins puts it. Out there, just a few metres away, is a world full of flim flam, bunkum, woo woo, bullshit, and it has to be denounced as bullshit, over and over, like Luther spitting obscenities at the Catholic Church.
The bullshit must be hunted out, and extirpated from the land, like St Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland. It’s not enough to quietly suspend belief while tolerating others’ irrationalities, as the ancient Sceptics did. If Scepticism is to be a genuine social movement, then it needs a mission, it needs campaigns, it needs battles (this is one paradox of modern Scepticism - it champions tolerance, yet seeks to battle religions). So there are Sceptical outreach programmes, Sceptical lobby groups, even Sceptical summer camps.
‘The kids come here for friendship, fun and free thinking’, says Ray, who organizes Sceptic summer camps across the US. ‘We tell the children that the camp is home to an invisible dragon called Percy, and offer a prize for anyone who can prove Percy exists. The younger children really want to find him. The older ones start to realize he doesn’t exist.’ How fun is that.
Is there no room in Scepticism for belief in some higher intelligence out there who can save our ass? Well, many Sceptics are also scientists, and are fascinated by the possibility of extra-terrestrials (while also deeply scornful of over-credulous UFO stories). So Carl Sagan, perhaps the most famous modern Sceptic, denounced the mystics of the past and the present, while still allowing himself to dream, in his novel (and film) Contact, of a higher alien intelligence who appears to us as our father, and who tells us everything is going to be OK.
So is Scepticism a genuine community? On this showing, yes, although I suspect it’s a community without deep ties, like any internet-based community. Is it a way of life? To some extent - though I think it is more outer than inner focused, on others' follies rather than your own. Could it be a system of belief for our whole society, a genuine substitute for religion? Well...it sort of relies on religion still existing, doesn’t it? That’s why Scepticism is a bigger movement in the US than the UK, where no one really gives a shit either way anymore. I’m not sure if Scepticism is a coherent moral code, as opposed to simply a fun way to criticize others’ crazy beliefs. What do Sceptics actually believe?
Michael Shermer tells me: ‘It believes in the scientific method’. But can that tell us how we ought to live? Some atheists like Sam Harris would say yes. Others, like Steven Novella, would say no. I would suggest that embracing science as a form of morality ends up in the veneration of scientists like Richard Dawkins who aren’t really that morally advanced (in the sense of being compassionate beings).
And why, rationally, should I care about humanity? To protect my genes? My tribe? My species? What if I choose, quite rationally, not to give a shit about anyone else? I don’t know what second order moral arguments scientific rationalism can provide as to why I should help humanity - except perhaps for an Aristotelian or utilitarian argument about well-being, but that gets into questions about calculating total happiness, and deeper questions about the definition of happiness which science can't necessarily answer.
There’s also the question whether scientific rationalism can offer us the communal myths and narratives we need to sustain ourselves and give us strength through crises. Perhaps it can: as Carl Sagan pointed out so well, thanks to modern science we now have a better sense of the real size and wonder of the universe. If we listened to the Aristotelians or the Platonists, we’d have never left Earth, never landed on the Moon, never sent the Hubble telescope into space to see the incredible beauty all around us.
But what moral lessons can we draw from the universe? I really don’t know.
And I think, if you’re making the argument that the world would be a lot better without religion, Las Vegas is not necessarily the best place to make that argument. It’s my first time here, and it’s an incredible city, really incredible. But amid all the glitz, flesh and neon, you find yourself longing for something higher than the body and its appetites. This is a city without God, where everything is permitted if you have the money to pay for it. And it's a fun place to visit, but as a vision of the future, it's pretty dark. In fact, rather like in Dubai, spending time here makes me feel like our civilization has passed its tipping point, that we're in some 'last days of the Roman empire' scenario (I particularly get this sense while wondering around the vast Mussolini-meets-Fellini fantasy that is Caesar's Palace).
Our optimistic faith in secular liberal capitalism - in the leisure and consumption that Vegas so successfully offers - works as long as there’s plenty of oil and the economy is growing, so we can pamper our appetites and expand them. But what happens when oil rises to $200 a barrel? When we start running out of water? When we no longer have enough food to fill these endless all-you-can-eat buffets? This week sees the end of thirty years of regular Florida space shuttle launches. What if our civilization has peaked? Will this rather vague optimism in science, leisure and consumption be enough to see us through the morning after?
A Sceptic, of course, would say that if we turn from science and embrace some crazy irrationalist cult, we’re just going to hasten our civilization’s demise. I quite agree. I still have some optimism - call it blind faith - that science and spirituality can work together. That means Scepticism has to widen its sense of the possible ('Bullshit!' I hear them cry as one). At the same time, the other side, the 'New Age' side, really needs to give up some of its more ridiculous beliefs, like the Law of Attraction.