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Interview with a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic

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Friendly Skeptic David Glück with a Quantum Wave Laser.

I consider myself to be a wide-eyed pilgrim on a journey of New Age discovery that has so far mainly led into swamps of disappointment and peaks of high dubiousness, due to my failure to be persuaded by over-priced pseudoscientific practices and – as one friend put it – middle-aged women on disability benefits. But I remain eager to experience that awesome, earth-spasming epiphany that can only come to the esoterically inclined.

David Glück, on the other hand, founder of the cuddly sounding Skeptic Friends Network, is unlikely to be converted to the cause. But is he just infected with “paradigm paralysis”? And should he really admit to enjoying his New Age ceramic garlic mincer? What if it starts emitting healing violet light?

What was your motivation to set up a website for skeptics, rather than quietly holding your beliefs? Is it a public service? For the satisfaction of pouring cold water on other people’s stupidity? Something else?

GlückOur first incarnation was as a website back in 1997 to serve a “members area” AOL chat room dedicated to agnosticism and atheism. We set up a page that would serve as an extension of our chat room with the regulars providing content. I think that was something new. A website for a chat room.

Because our chat room was called “Atheists and Agnostics” that would also be the theme of the website, which we called “The Truth and Other Lies.” The site also included a rather primitive forum. Dawn, a founding member of SFN, came up with the idea of having a “skeptics’ corner”. Our skeptic page became my favourite part of the site. How much can you say about not believing in God after all? (Quite a lot actually.) We were growing bored having religion as our main focus.

Larry, Dawn and I had a meeting and decided to kill off the “truth” site and dedicate the whole site to skepticism. The Skeptic Friends Network was born. And yeah, we think of SFN as a public service to promote critical thinking, science and logic. We wanted to create an online community to do just that. And of course, as a forum, we do pour cold water on those visitors who present us with claims supported by faulty logic and bad science. One way to support the strengths of critical thinking is to contrast it with sloppy thinking. Sometimes we do that by way of direct debate with those who bring claims of a dubious nature to us. I hesitate to call those people stupid. More often we get people who are pretty smart, but too open to believing things that lack the kind of evidence that skepticism demands. We do tell them why we doubt their claims. And we debate.

For the short answer to your question, it’s a way for me to remain active in a grassroots movement that has become the skeptical community. It must be for the love of promoting critical thinking, because aside from a very few professional skeptics, there sure isn’t any money in it.

Do you get communication from crackpots of both sides?

GlückOy! You should see the kind of mail I get! But most of the crackpots are promoting the kinds of things that we want to expose. Occasionally we get an overzealous “skeptic” who wouldn’t know critical thinking if it hit ’em in the head. They are usually in a constant state of attack. I don’t think they get that skepticism is a method and not a conclusion, even though the methods that we promote often lead us to conclusions, even if they are tentative.

There’s a new breed of “cuddly atheist” emerging to counterbalance the more cynical voices. Are you a cuddly or hard-bitten skeptic?

GlückI’m not comfortable with conflating skepticism with atheism. Some atheists are not skeptics, and some skeptics are people of faith. As for what you are calling “more cynical voices” I going to assume that you’re referring to the “New Atheists”. I don’t think they are cynical so much as they believe that atheism needs to be both defended and promoted. Here in the US, polling says that atheists are the least trusted group. So the “Gnu’s” are pushing back. And I get that. I do wish there was much less bickering between the “Gnu’s” and those who feel that if the message is too harsh, it will turn off the people we would like to reach.

The “framing debate” has also spelled over into the skeptical community, which is a shame, though it was bound to happen, being that most of us are atheists. I’m not an anti-theist. But as someone who promotes “scientific skepticism” as well as being a humanist, I reserve the right to question theism. That said, I see the skeptical and the humanist community as a big tent, duelling epistemologies not withstanding. If what is brought to the table is mostly reasonable, I’m cool with whoever is at the table with the understanding that no idea gets a free pass, just because. If we threw out every skeptic who harbours some weird idea about religion or politics, economics or even science, there wouldn’t be many of us left. (Just for the record, I’m perfect and have no weird ideas.)

Do you do a lot of skeptic networking? There are a lot of sites out there, particularly in the States where – in my opinion – there’s probably more to be skeptical about.

GlückYes. I attend meetings, including The Amazing Meeting and I’m a member of a couple of skeptical organisations. I sometimes attend local events and I network on Facebook and skeptical websites. I also promote skeptic sites and blogs, by way of SFN’s weekly Skeptic Summary. I’m networking with you! And yeah, we have more than our share of whack-a-loons here in the States.

Has ANY New Age activity, from healing to yoga, meditation of some kind of device, ever elicited a “Mmm… maybe” response from you? Do you write off the entire New Age movement?

GlückThere are things that are promoted by the New Age that are probably of some value. Yoga is a good example of that. For relaxation, there is probably some value in meditation. Healing? That’s the sort of thing that worries me. Anything other than evidence-based medicine can be a very dangerous choice. (Steve Jobs is dead now, probably because he put off his doctor’s recommendations in favour of a “natural” cure. His cancer was treatable, and the success rate is good for what he had. But by the time he turned to evidence-based medicine it was too late to save him.)

Cures for cancer at the Conscious Life Expo.

Cures for cancer at the Conscious Life Expo.

The problem with the New Age isn’t that some of what it promotes might be of value. The problem is that there’s no gatekeeper. There is no way to determine, from a consumers point of view, what’s crap and what isn’t. Anything goes no matter how whacky it is. It’s also aggressively anti-science. Even as the New Age tout’s studies (that may or may not exist or have nothing to do with what’s being sold) they bash science as a giant conspiracy to keep you sick, make you ill, or keep you from product that claim will cure everything you have. The gold standard for evidence in support of what is being sold by the New Age is almost always anecdotal. And anecdotal evidence doesn’t really fly.

For example, because I know the “balance tricks” (applied kinesiology, which is a pseudoscience of its own), I had my roommate believing that the Power-Balance Bracelet works. Had I not told him the truth about it and how I tricked him into believing that it works, he would have been a perfect candidate for supplying a testimonial on the efficacy of something that really does nothing at all. Would it have hurt him or others to buy a useless product? Probably not. Aside from setting them back a few dollars, no harm done. But who wants to pay good money for a useless piece of plastic?

So yeah. I think the culture of the New Age and its promotion of credulous thinking is not a good thing on many levels ranging the somewhat innocuous to the downright dangerous.

Glück enjoying applied kinesiology.

Is your view that practitioners of pseudoscience are generally: a) deluded, b) professional grifters, or c) manipulating accepted wisdom a step too far?

GlückYes to a, b and c.

Who or what do you reserve the most venom for?

GlückMedical quackery. Those, who without any scientific evidence to support their claims, promise miraculous cures to people. I also have a serious disregard for those who are promoting against childhood vaccination. It’s the quacks who are actually killing people.

Admit it. You enjoyed the Conscious Life Expo.

GlückOkay. But I always leave with mixed feelings. I believe most of the people selling stuff at those expos really do believe in their products. Most of them are very friendly, well-intentioned people. Unfortunately, most of the products range from useless to dangerous. I do go to learn and I ask lots of questions. I try to be open to the answers. But I also go in with a skeptical bias. At this last one, there was a woman selling bus trips to Mexican clinics for alternative cancer treatments and books claiming natural cures for every disease known to man. I had a few words with her. Not that it did any good.

I have also bought things at the expos. Now and then I’ll come across a product that is really neat and does what it’s claimed to do. One of those things was a kind of chair that you wear, for sitting on the floor while still providing back support. Good for camping I suppose. But I’ve never used it. Another was a ceramic garlic mincer. My ex-girlfriend, who is still a partner-in-crime, can usually find some trinket, earrings or some piece of clothing she likes. I have yet to buy a pyramid hat, a tachyonic energy belt or a dowsing rod. Then again, I already own a Uri Geller crystal dowsing kit along with a lot of other very silly things I have collected over the years. Yeah. My little museum of useless stuff makes me happy.

Glück in a New Age... life preserver? Shoulder warmer? DNA re-strander?

Have you been accused of being close-minded? And to what extent will you try/investigate something before dismissing it?

GlückI doubt that any skeptic hasn’t been accused of being closed-minded. It’s routine. I explain that critical thinking and skepticism are methods used to evaluate the truth-value of a claim, and that even our conclusions are not set in stone. Sometimes I get through. I had a very long email exchange with a fellow who accused me of being infected with paradigm paralysis. I kept explaining to him that a skeptic must be open-minded. I gave him specific examples of skeptics changing their minds. I finally pointed out to him that no matter how I responded, he was still going to accuse me and all skeptics of having this horrible affliction. When I suggested that maybe he too had come down with a bad case of paradigm paralysis, he stopped writing to me.

As for investigations, I look into things to see how experts come down on whatever is being discussed. I try to not slam the door on anything without doing some research on the subject. I’m not qualified to make the call on most things. I’m not a scientist or an expert in any particular area of concern to skeptics. I’ve learned a lot because of my interested in science. I’ve learned a lot being a skeptic. So I don’t have to keep considering homeopathy or creationism every time they come up. I don’t have to start over every time someone makes a familiar claim. When something new comes along, I look to the experts for guidance. And I do what you do sometimes. I try stuff out. That’s one of the reasons I keep going back to the expos. I’m also aware that even if a psychic fails at reading me (only with psychics do I refuse to ask or answer questions) that the failed reading isn’t proof that psi doesn’t exist.

My advice to skeptics is to learn the style of those who make certain kinds of claims. It becomes not too difficult to spot an idea or a product that should be approached with doubt. When the alarms go off and it’s something new, find out what you can about it. Check with the experts. You can’t lose because you will learn something, no matter what the outcome is.

I know your thoughts on NLP. (Quackery.) But an NLP cornerstone is “the map is not the territory” – meaning our personal perception of the world is not the world. Would you agree with that? And if so, could it stand to follow that your perception on New Age activities may be incorrect?

GlückHa! I agree that my personal perception of the world is not the world. At least, it might not be. But also, I don’t live in a vacuum of me. I’m not the only person who has noticed that much of what is being pushed by the New Age is junk. I’m far from the only person who has noticed the New Age post-modernistic view that all ideas (as long as they’re warm and fuzzy) are equally valid. If we were to all think that way, it would be a disaster. It would be the end of science. We know that gravity happens and we know that those fellows bouncing up and down on mats in full lotus position are not levitating, even if they claim that they are. Might I be wrong? Sure. It could also be that I’m dreaming all of this. But if we were placing bets, which we are, where would you put the good money?

Getting biofeedback.

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