Dr. Laura vs. the Skeptic

Michael Shermer's excellent magazine has a fairly diverse group on its Editorial Board. Educators, scientists (Jared Diamond, John Gribbin, Stephen Jay Gould among others), psychology professors, historians, the late Steve Allen, longtime debunker of the paranormal (and former magician) James Randi—even Penn Jillette and his "silent" partner Teller, who has contributed an essay or two in the past (each are listed as "Magician, Author, Comedian," though they prefer the term ripoff artiste). One person who was on the board that people are usually surprised to find out about was Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

She was invited to be on the board back in 1994 (the magazine debuted in 1992) due to her "skeptical stance about the recovered-memory movement and other 'victimization' groups." She was even asked to lecture for the Skeptics Society and did so for three hours—without notes—managing to both educate and entertain. The reason she was appreciated was that she promotes "critical thinking, independence of thought, self-reliance, and other attributes certainly admired by most free thinkers, humanists, and skeptics."

Later on, she began to discuss and promote her growing religious beliefs through her media outlets, eventually converting to Orthodox Judaism. While this brought some letters and responses critical of her and her place on the board, the magazine defended her on the basis of its policy not to discriminate against a person or organization because of religious beliefs.

The magazine has no trouble with religious belief, per se, since it deals with unprovable things based on faith. It is when there are claims that these beliefs can be "proven" with "evidence" that the inquiry and investigation begin. As stated in each magazine, "The Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine investigate claims by scientists, historians, and controversial figures in a wide variety of theories and conjectures" (followed by examples). Any claim open to scientific investigation is fair play.

In fact, there are believers involved with the magazine. A supporter, Martin Gardner (known for his involvement with CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer) is a fideist—he believes that "God" cannot be known through science, logic, or reason, only through faith and emotive reasoning. Other boards member are, as well. Steve Allen was a believer. Richard Abanes, the magazine's cult specialist and director of the Religious Information Center, is a former minister, has written for Christian magazines, and even recorded Christian music (apparently he went to the Catholic high school in my hometown). There may be others, but as Shermer puts it: "I don't know. I have never asked." And, of course, there was Dr. Laura.

In 1997, the magazine published a theme issue on "The God Question." In it, there were a number of articles from both sides (both being familiar for Shermer, who spent some time as an evangelical in college). It was this that caused the split. After reading the issue (how much she actually read is unknown), Schlessinger faxed the offices:

Please remove my name from your Editorial Board list published in your Skeptic magazine issues immediately. Science can only describe what; guess at why; but cannot offer ultimate meaning. When man's limited intellect has the arrogance to pretend to analyze God, it's time for me to get off that train.
It was followed by a voicemail that reiterated her request and reinforced her statement.

Shermer phoned her at home and had a long conversation on the request and the subject of religion. He writes:

She made it clear and in no uncertain terms...that she was "offended" by our issue and that God was off limits to human reason and inquiry. There is a God. Period. End of discussion. I pointed out that we had gone out of our way not to offend, and that, in fact, the arguments and critiques that we presented come from some of the greatest theologians and philosophers over the past two thousand years. Arrogant all, she responded. God is not open for analysis. But which God, I inquired? There is only one God, she explained—the God of Abraham (she clarified this to mean monotheismChristianity and Islam included—not just Judaism).
She explained how she had been an atheist in her twenties, and though it didn't cause unhappiness, it was unfulfilling. She said that with her current faith and beliefs, she had found both.

Shermer courteously carried out her request, though as a skeptic and person interested in the pursuit of knowledge, it left him puzzled. Why someone would not only dislike discussion on the topic but state absolutely that this part of the human experience is completely unacceptable as a path of inquiry seems against everything the magazine stands for—its motto is Sum Ergo CogitoI Am Therefore I Think. He later went on to examine such ideas and the subject of belief in his book How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science.

As for the issue, it was well done so as not to offend the average person. And, as I noted, contained arguments from both sides (though there was a slight lean toward the agnostic/atheist end of the scale—Shermer prefers the term "nontheist" for himself). The magazine also makes it quite clear about its aims and method as can be found in part of its statement included in each issue:

With regards to statements, hypotheses, theories, and ideologies examined by the Skeptics Society, the organization adopts the view of the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza:

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them."

With regard to its procedure of examination of all claims, the Skeptics Society uses the scientific method first developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. While it recognizes the limitations and socio-cultural influences on science, it adopts the philosophy of Albert Einstein:

"All of our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have."

It's been there in every single issue. If it was a problem, it could have been taken care of much sooner, as all Schlessinger had to do was glance at the page opposite the one her name was listed on.

(Sources: Michael Shermer How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, 2000, quotes pertaining to Dr. Laura are from there; numerous issues of the Skeptic)

Ideally, a skeptic should be a person who demands solid proof before he will believe something--a person who sees the scientific method as his own personal holy creed. Of course, this is far from an ideal world, and we are far from an ideal species, so a true skeptic is a very rare (and often fairly insane) creature.

So we have to make do with different levels of skepticism. At the low end of the spectrum are the hard-core believers. If you say UFOs abducted you for hair transplant experiments, if you say Jesus appeared in your pizza toppings, if you say a crop circle has appeared in your field advertising Hoover vacuum cleaners, if you say your pool boy is Elvis reincarnated, the hard-core believers will believe you, no matter what. In many cases, the hard-core believer will dislike and distrust anyone who is more skeptical than they are and will consider those people to be sworn enemies and servants of darkness; they are essentially fundamentalists, whether they are Christian fundamentalists, UFO fanatics, crop circle fanatics, or hollow earth nutcases.

At the far end of the spectrum are the hard-core disbelievers. No matter how convincing evidence of the paranormal may be, the disbelievers will insist that it cannot be possible. Got incontrovertible proof of life on other planets? Leprechauns? Spontaneous Human Combustion? The existence of God? The disbelievers will insist that you made it all up. In many cases, they will dislike and distrust anyone who is less skeptical than they are and will consider those people to be sworn enemies and servants of darkness. Some of the more rabid disbelievers have been known to grumble about the evils of fantasy novels and "The X-Files", since they clearly encourage belief in things that cannot possibly exist! They are essentially fundamentalists, worshipping at the altar of established and accepted science, and yes, they're actually very similar to the hard-core believers. Read through some of CSICOP's stuff sometime--if ever an organization needed to adopt the "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" monkeys as mascots, it's them.

Most people fall into a middle ground. They believe in some things, and they don't believe in other things. They have faith in some areas of their lives and demand evidence in others. They probably believe in a higher power, they probably don't believe that Elvis and Jim Morrison are still alive, and they probably don't know what to believe about ghosts, UFOs, and who shot JFK. Their lives are mostly healthy blends of faith and skepticism, with little to no need for either blind faith or blind skepticism. On the whole, I'd consider this a good thing.

A little bit either above or below that level are the Forteans, who consider themselves followers, disciples, or simply fans of phenomenon researcher Charles Fort. On the one hand, they tend to be willing to consider the possibility of some of the more outlandish things, but on the other, they expect to be shown credible evidence before they'll go to the trouble of believing in something. If you bring them a story about how the Reptoids are tampering with your television, the Forteans will say, "Really? Tell me more!" If you can show some sort of believable evidence, they may decide you're telling the truth. However, if it turns out that you're full of it, they'll make fun of you. Cuttingly. In public. While snickering and pointing. The hard-core believers and the hard-core disbelievers both tend to hate the hell out of the Forteans because they often refuse to take things as seriously as the belief/nonbelief fundamentalists want them to.

Yeah, I've considered myself a Fortean for the last several years, so I'm way biased. So sue me.

Skep"tic (?), n. [Gr. skeptiko`s thoughtful, reflective, fr. ske`ptesqai to look carefully or about, to view, consider: cf. L. scepticus, F. sceptique. See Scope.] [Written also sceptic.]


One who is yet undecided as to what is true; one who is looking or inquiring for what is true; an inquirer after facts or reasons.

2. Metaph.

A doubter as to whether any fact or truth can be certainly known; a universal doubter; a Pyrrhonist; hence, in modern usage, occasionally, a person who questions whether any truth or fact can be established on philosophical grounds; sometimes, a critical inquirer, in opposition to a dogmatist.

All this criticism [of Hume] proceeds upon the erroneous hypothesis that he was a dogmatist. He was a skeptic; that is, he accepted the principles asserted by the prevailing dogmatism: and only showed that such and such conclusions were, on these principles, inevitable. Sir W. Hamilton.

3. Theol.

A person who doubts the existence and perfections of God, or the truth of revelation; one who disbelieves the divine origin of the Christian religion.

Suffer not your faith to be shaken by the sophistries of skeptics. S. Clarke.

⇒ This word and its derivatives are often written with c instead of k in the first syllable, -- sceptic, sceptical, scepticism, etc. Dr. Johnson, struck with the extraordinary irregularity of giving c its hard sound before e, altered the spelling, and his example has been followed by most of the lexicographers who have succeeded him; yet the prevalent practice among English writers and printers is in favor of the other mode. In the United States this practice is reversed, a large and increasing majority of educated persons preferring the orthography which is most in accordance with etymology and analogy.

Syn. -- Infidel; unbeliever; doubter. -- See Infidel.


© Webster 1913.

Skep"tic (?), Skep"tic*al (?),a. [Written also sceptic, sceptical.]


Of or pertaining to a sceptic or skepticism; characterized by skepticism; hesitating to admit the certainly of doctrines or principles; doubting of everything.

2. Theol.

Doubting or denying the truth of revelation, or the sacred Scriptures.

The skeptical system subverts the whole foundation of morals. R. Hall.

-- Skep"tac*al*ly, adv. -- Skep"tic*al*ness, n.


© Webster 1913.

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