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Skeptical Inquirer Content Problems


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There have been a number of articles and other content appearing in SI that have not met the standards and guidelines the Skeptical communities expects

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Skeptical Inquirer Content Problems

  1. 1. 1 | P a g e Title: The Need to Strive to Be Better: A Call to Action for the CFI Author: Michael J Geiser Copyright 2016; all rights reserved I thinkI discovered SkepticalInquirer(SI) magazinewhile doingresearchforanIntroductionto Philosophyclasspaperon waysmoralscoulddevelopwithoutreligion incollege in1987. The honesty and insightof contributorslike Carl Sagan intriguedme andprofoundlyinfluencedme boththenand now. As a longterm readerof SI,I have encountered whatIconsidertobe an increasinglynumberof articlesin SIthat have quite franklydisappointedme;Ifinditincreasinglydifficultinmany casesto differentiatebetweenthe tacticsand lack of scientificrigorof some of the authors in SI and the subjects of the articles. While amassmarketpublication likeSIisnota scientificjournal like Natureand shouldn’ttryto be;it doesneedto maintain ahigherlevel of integrity andprofessionalism thanthe nonsense the magazine exposes. I alsofirmlybelieve thatSIreaders’expectationisthat SIcontent, whenviewedthroughthe same lens appliedtothe pseudoscience skeweredinthe magazine, doesnotsufferfromthe same faultssuchas Straw Man constructs,convenientself-servingfaux science, group-thinktraps,logical fallacies,ad hominemattacks andotherreasoningorethical failures thatmislead ordeceive people. I’dlike toreviewsome recentSIcontentwiththe same skeptical eyeand toolkitsforbaloneyand pseudoscience detection SIauthorsapplytothe subjectsof the articles andsuggestsome important changesthat will serve the goalsandmake the argumentsevenstronger. The itemsIselectedare a small sample of the generallywelldone contentbutthese are significantinthattheyshow problems that make the work producedtobe lessthancompellingorjustoutrightridiculous. Iwill alsosuggest waysI thinkas a community CFIand SIcan improve andaskthat these suggestionsbe seriously considered. While Iagree some of the examplesIuse are from olderissues,Isee the same problemsincurrent issues;Ijustfindthese specificexamplestobe especiallyegregiousandstandoutamong the too many examplesthatcouldbe usedformypoint. Straw Man Arguments The “BigfootLookalikes:TrackingHairyMan-Beasts"article inthe Sept.-Oct.2013 issue (online at isaprime exampleof Straw Man argumentsandthe problems thatoccur without adequate peerreview. Mr. Nickell hasa reasonable premise,butstructuresthe proofs largely uponabase of hisanatomicallyinaccurate hand drawncomparative sketches thatare so outrageouslyinaccurate thathiswhole argumentcollapses. To start, Mr. Nickell uses informalandhighly anatomically inaccuratesketcheshe createdasthe basis for comparisonof the featuresof a bearand a Bigfoot. While creatingananatomically accurate sketch of a mythical creature like a“Bigfoot”isbydefinition impossible,the “bear”Mr. Nickell usesinthe comparisonlacks almostany anatomical accuracyand is unsuitableassupport;hisdrawingresembles Yogi Bear more than an actual bear. The anatomy of Mr. Nickell’s“bear”iscompletely wrong;the stance, skeletal structure,facialfeatures,ears,front-paws,frontlegs(whichlooklike humanarmsmore than frontbearlimbs),rearlegs…nothingaboutthisdrawingresemblesa real bearbut isa cartoonish artisticinterpretationof abear (ora man ina bear suit) thatcouldeasilybe assumedtobe an intentionalmisrepresentation tosupporthisargumentand to show similarities tothe "classic"
  2. 2. 2 | P a g e descriptionof aBigfoot. If youcompare an actual photoof a bear foranatomical correctnesstoeither Nickell’sbearorto what ispurportedtobe Bigfoot, the comparisondoes notmake the compelling argumentMr. Nickell suggests. Comparinganimage of a real bear (oriented andscaledtoMr. Nickell’sdrawing) showsthe problems withMr. Nickell’s sketch. Ihave includedacomparisonof Mr. Nickell’s“bear” tobotha Bigfootandto an actual bear. In thiscontext,Mr. Nickell’sargumentis,tobe generous,notcompelling. WhileIagree that thisimage is not the core of the argumentinthe article,itisclearlya centerpiece andMr. Nickell invitesthe readertodrawconclusionsonthe validityof claimsbasedonhisbear/bigfoot sketchandin part for “provingthe similarity”betweenthe two. Bear/Bigfoot Split drawling: Photo of bear standing: Such a significantfailure of acore tenetof the article (itisthe onlyillustrationinthe article andclearly meantto be persuasive) wrecksthe credibilityof the entire article andlegitimatelymakesone doubtthe qualityof the otherarticlesinthe magazine andthe magazine'sstandardsingeneral. Italsohighlightsa more systemicissue:howdidthispseudoscience bunk(andIthinkitisfairlycharacterizedasbunk) make it pastprepublicationreviewsand intoprintina magazine that meantto expose thistype of misleadingandfalse argument? Pseudoscience:Inventinganuntestable junk“science” toconvenientlysupportpet theories “ForensicCaricaturing”,fromShameon ShamusSham (August2006,isanexample of patentlysilly pseudoscience thatisexactlythe type of nonsensethatJoe Nickellwouldnormally andexpertly ripto shreds. I honestlythought thiswasanApril Fool’sDay joke article until Irealizedthe article wasfrom the Augustissue. Mr. Nickell actuallywrote, “Ifinallydecidedtocreate anew field,‘forensiccaricaturing’“…“Withthis methodthe differencesare enhancedsothattheymay be more readilyperceived.” Ina shocking abandonmentof scientificrigorandreasonthatis supposedtobe the cornerstone of SI,Mr. Nickell
  3. 3. 3 | P a g e decidedtomake upan entire “newfield”of science,replete with avery “science-y”andauthoritative and legalesesoundingname, “forensiccaricaturing”,togive thisnew fieldanundeserved airof authenticity andcredibility. Mr.Nickell issubjectivelyandwithoutreproducibility“enhancing” differencessotheyare “more readilyperceived”(hisown words;notmine). Since wheninscience,or evenina persuasive article, are we allowedto arbitrarily change datasothat it fitsa desiredoutcome that we predetermine ordesire? I thinkI lastsaw this tactic usedbyKirkCameronwithhis “Crockoduck”;and we knowwhata crock-o-crapthe “Crockoduck”is. Mr. Nickell laterinthe article ironicallywarnsus“…againstthe temptationtoacceptuncriticallythe imaginingsof afailedclairvoyant” (Nickell,2006); the warningshouldbe heededforbotha failedclairvoyantanda well-meaningbut overzealous respected andexperienced authorwhoshould know better. How didan article thatwithoutanyattemptto disguise thatit inventinganew “scientific”disciplinethat withoutreproducibilityoranybasisinfact can magically supportthe author’spettheorymake itto publicationin SkepticalInquirer? Thisloudlyandemphaticallypoints toa needforclearlypublication standards and improved peerreview forall submissionsregardlessof the author. BusinessTransparency and Governance I am alsoconcernedthatCSI committee membersare recipientsof CFI’sown“BallesPrize inCritical Thinking”. The committee membersmaywell deserve recognition,butit isa bad ideaforpeople tobe able to vote or nominate themselves, theirco-workers, community leadersorbosses fora meritaward that comes witha cash prize fundedbydonations. Asaparallel, The NorwegianNobelCommittee responsible forthe selectionof eligible candidates forNobel Peace PrizeLaureates maynotnominate or choose themselves asrecipients;thisseemsaprudentconstraint toadopt. CFI as a nonprofitsolicitsdonationsbutmustavoidthe appearance of impropriety. Ipersonallydecided to not donate to CFI until Icouldbetterunderstandhow these fundswouldbe used. RecognizingCSI committee membersisacceptable,but givingoracceptinga monetaryaward froman organizationof whichtheyare on the governingboardor have extremelyclose ties should notbe allowed. False Cause Fallacies Anothercommonfallacyhighlightedinmainarticlesthatthe subjectssufferfromis“False Cause” fallacies;unfortunately SIalsohas allowed some of thesefaultsfromtheireditorsand authorstoslip intoprint. In the “From the Editor”columnin the Sept/Oct2013, EditorKendrickFrazierdiscussesanarticle thatin part includeswhere the motherof AmanaBerrywhowas toldthat herdaughterwas deadwheninfact she was alive andbeingheldcaptive. The columnstates,“The motherneverrecoveredfromhergrief and diedof heartfailure in2006.” How didthisline,evenin aneditorial, getintoprintwithoutafact checkor flaggedas unacceptable forSIstandards? There isno evidence thatthe mother,Louwana Miller,“neverrecoveredfromhergrief”andshe infact diedof complicationsof pancreatitis,notheart failure, in2006 (Newcomb,2013). Well,Isuppose youcouldargue that everyone ultimately diesof heartfailure butthat wasnot the intentof the editor. The grief and the deathfromheartfailure mentionedinthe same sentence clearlyare meanttoimplya causal connectionthatdoesn’texist and vilifySilviaBrowne. Thisisa peculiarstatementif the intentwasNOTmeantto implycausationandan editorshould insistonaphrasingwithoutanintentionallymisleading interpretation andnot contradictedbyeasilyverifiable facts.
  4. 4. 4 | P a g e A magazine editor,especiallyone fora magazine withthe focusof SI, shouldnotmake thistype of statementandfurthermore howdidthis obviouserrorpassprepublication reviewsand validations? Opinionarticlesmake magazines exciting,butincorrectfactsare not opinions;theyare justincorrect facts. Howdoesa readerdifferentiate betweenpooreditorial controlsandmultiple mistakesfromlack of professional rigorfromintentionaldeception? Ithinkitisfair to saythat neither is acceptable fora magazine like SI. Vilifyingarticle subjectsand Ad Hominemattacks The picture of SilviaBrowne onthe coverof The September/October2013 issue (Vol.37No. 4) andthe relatedarticle are more of a characterassassinationviaadhominemattackspepperedwithafew supportingfactsthana compellingdeconstructionof the conartistMs. Browne wasdemonstratedto be. Thisillustration onthe coverseemstobe a compositionandthenexaggerationof three stockimages froma wide spanof time and you can easilyfindthe sources asthey are returnedinthe firstfew results of a Google Imagessearch. We can clearlysee the pose andexacthandpositioning andringfromone photo,the blouse andjewelry fromanotherphotoandfacial featuresfromathird more recentphoto. The drawingintentionallyexaggeratesanddistortsfeatureslike givingherskinahaggard leathery appearance withdeeplinesitdid nothave and distortingherhandsintoemaciatedclaw-like appendageswithtalon-like blacknails thatshe didnothave. The artistwantedusto imagine herasa witchor crone. I getit; she wasa horribleperson and few SIreaderswoulddisagree.
  5. 5. 5 | P a g e Clockwise from upper left: Much betterphototo use to lambast her (no PhotoShopping required-I really wish I could"unsee"this one...It burns!It burns!) Parody,sarcasm andhumor ingeneral are effectiveandpersuasive literary toolsandmake for interestingreading,butthere isaprofessionallineandthat line iscrossedif the rhetoricor image used inthe expose orparody ismean-spirited,misogynisticorracist. Thisexample issuchan exaggeration that itarguable crossesthat line andgoesbeyond“artisticlicenseandfreedom”. There isnoplace in SI for ad hominemattacks;andthere isno doubtthis characterization wasa petty cheapshot. Most people thatare subjectof uncomplimentary SI articles,andespeciallySilviaBrowne, presentenoughof a legitimate targetthatthischeapand obvious ploymustbe avoidedasitisunnecessary anddistasteful; there isno needto“preach to choir”.In anycase, these tacticsshould be rootedoutbefore publication and effective peerreviewwoulddothiswell. Groupthinkand PeerReview Doesthe Committee forSkeptical Inquiryhave anobjective view of itself? Mostof the columnsand articlescome froma Committee member(whichis fine) butisanyof the publishedcontentpeer reviewedusinganykindof acceptance criteria? If itis,there issome seriousproblemsbecause the material Iidentified asunsuitable forSI(andIbelieve otherswillagree astounsuitability) regularly appearsinprint. CSIcommittee membersshouldbe considerablybetterthanme at self-regulatingand identifyingandfilteringcontentthatisnoton the level appropriate forthe magazine. Call to Action So,why didI write?WhatwouldIsuggest SI do? I wouldlike topropose thatSI beginsamandatory “scholarly”(i.e. blindorotherapproach) peerreview forall articlesandevenshorterpieces,eventhose (maybe especially those) submittedbynotedauthorsor SIstaff. The “BigfootLookalikes”,“Shamus Sham” andother editorial failures showthatevenauthorswithdecadesof experience whoare greatly respected needpeerreviewed feedbackandthese examplesshow anindisputable needforan additional level of review andmoderationof content atSI. The skepticcommunityisbroadenough and SI’sreputationisrespectedenough thatIsuspectyouwouldhave little problemfindingenoughqualified people whowouldbe willingto freely givetimelyandappropriate feedback inpeerreviews.
  6. 6. 6 | P a g e Joe Nickell isadistinguished professional author,leaderand skeptical pioneerandIreallyenjoyreading (almost) all of hiscontributions,butthe “BigfootLookalikes”and“ShamusSham”articleshave serious fundamental issues andshouldneverhave made ittoprintin the formsthat theydid. NeitherMr. Nickell,noranyone else,shouldgetafree passfromreview andrejectionof unsuitablesubmissions. I realize there maybe some internal political issueswithrejecting orprovidingcritical feedbackona paperfrom Mr. Nickell consideringhisnotorietyandposition inthe organization,buthisauthorityand status(or anyone else’slackthereof) cannotinfluence if anarticle ispublished. GrantedthatI do not personally knowMr.Nickell,butIwouldbe surprisedandfranklydisappointedif he wasunable to accept legitimate criticismof hiswork. Anonymouspeerreview of articlesbefore publicationwould clearly benefitbothSIandcontributors. Institutingadouble-blindoropenpeerreview model of all publishedcontentwouldbe agoodideaandthe twoitemsIcitedshow that there isan undeniableneed to do so;self-regulationhasnotworked. Isuggestthat mainarticlesmustpassa blindpeerreviewand opinionpiecesorcolumnsshouldgetatleast anindependentreadingandfeedback; especially if the editoror otherCFI authority isthe author. The sum of these problemsmade me thinkof aquote by KevinCostner’scharacterof Elliot NessinThe Untouchables(1987): “I have foreswornmyself.Ihave brokeneverylaw Ihave sworntouphold,Ihave become whatI beheldandIam contentthat I have done right.” I think thisa fair(albeitmelodramatic) assessmentof whatisgoingonhere. There indisputably have beencompletely inaccurate statements that are presentedunchallengedasfacts. The “laws” of Baloney Detection androotingoutlogical fallaciesandbunk usedtoassessthe validityof otherclaimsare ignoredandthere isa clearsense that the SI contributorshave the moral highground. CSI andSI shouldacknowledge the currentproblems and take corrective actions; SIreaders andthe skepticcommunity deservenoless.
  7. 7. 7 | P a g e Works Cited Frazier,Kendrick."FromThe Editor."Skeptical InquirerSept.-Oct.2013: 4. Print. Newcomb,Alyssa."AmandaBerry'sMotherDiedWithoutGettingAnswers."ABCNews.ABCNews Network.Web. 7 May, 2013. < answers/story?id=19126773>. Nickell,Joe."BigfootLookalikes:TrackingHairyMan-Beasts."Skeptical InquirerSept.-Oct.2013: 12-15. Print. Nickell,Joe."Shame onShamusSham."Skeptical Inquirer.Committee forSkeptical Inquiry(CSI),24Aug 2006. Web.21 Dec. 2013. <>. Shaffer,Ryan."The PsychicDefectiveRevisited:YearsLater,SylviaBrowne’sAccuracyRemainsDismal." Skeptical InquirerSept.-Oct.2013: 30-35. Print. “SkepticAuthorsStevenSalzbergandJoe Nickell toReceive BallesPrize inCritical Thinking”,14June 2014. Web. < es_prize>.