About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

An evening with paranormalists

A few days ago a local skeptic group here in Brooklyn organized a roundtable discussion on the concept of the paranormal. We thought this was going to be a chat about what people mean by that term, how one goes about investigating alleged cases of paranormal happenings, and so on. We were in for a surprise. Turns out that a couple of real believers in the ghosts and the afterlife showed up, a somewhat rare opportunity to sit down with “the other side” and have a probing conversation to find out about what brings people to believe weird things.

“The psychic told me things nobody could have known” was one of the first refrains of the evening. To which of course I immediately asked for examples of these allegedly unknowable things that the psychic somehow managed to know. The person in question explained that the psychic had described her grandfather’s character in fairly precise ways, though she couldn’t recall an example of any specific character attribute that was so unusual about her grandfather. Moreover, it turns out that she had never actually known her grandfather, and that her conviction that the psychic got it right was based on her comparing notes taken at the time with a conversation she had a year later with her sister, who had known their grandfather (presumably, as a child). Hmm, not exactly the sort of thing that would clinch a court case.

It got worse. The husband of this nice woman (himself a very nice man), said he absolutely knew that a dear friend of theirs who had died was still around, making his presence felt. Naturally, I asked for an example of such an extraordinary happening. “Well, one day I felt like a flick behind my ear, and I just knew it was him.” That’s it? No, there was more. His wife one day had been given a penny and had felt a strange sensation in receiving it. Upon turning it over, she discovered that the penny was made in the same year of their friend’s birth. How else would you explain such an extraordinary coincidence?

At that point I trotted out the standard skeptical arguments. I don’t know exactly what happened in those cases, because I was not there and it is not possible to investigate the matter thoroughly enough after all this time. Still, I suggested, you are making an extraordinary claim based on very scant evidence, and I can easily think of very ordinary explanations for what you just told me (e.g., I told them about the technique of “cold reading” by psychics, and another attendee talked about the confirmation bias of remembering hits and forgetting misses — to no avail).

“But you can’t prove it isn’t so.” Right, I cannot, I replied, but you cannot prove that there are no unicorns in the universe either, and yet you probably don’t believe in unicorns, or even seriously entertain the possibility of their existence. In other words, one has to provide positive evidence when making a claim for the existence of a phenomenon; relying on the fact that it can’t be disproved is setting the bar so low that pretty much anything would be able to jump over it.

At this point our paranormalist friends tried yet another common tactic: “But Benjamin Franklin spent the last years of his life trying to get in touch with the dead, and he was a really smart man, so...” I don’t know enough about Benjamin’s biography to actually comment on how he spent his last few years, though there certainly is evidence that he believed in an afterlife (then again, so do most people). But of course the broader point can be defused by simple counterexamples: the astronomer Johannes Kepler was a really smart guy, and yet he believed in astrology. Isaac Newton is considered one of the greatest scientists of all time, and yet he spent more time on alchemic experiments than on physics. And so on and so forth.

We could turn this discussion into a serious debate about epistemology and standards of evidence, but this isn’t what it is all about. We live in a country where a large number of people still don’t believe President Obama is a citizen, despite his birth certificate having been broadcasted all over the airwaves and the internet. On the other side of the political spectrum, plenty of liberals still believe that Bush and Cheney purposely caused 9/11 so that they could start their war on Iraq (as if they actually needed an excuse).

No, the problem is that people want to feel special. Being among the few who “get” that the government is conspiring against the nation, or that the 2008 election was a scam, makes some people feel better about the fact that they really have little or no control over such large events as wars and elections (and indeed, even, largely, over their own lives). At a more personal level, it was clear to me that our paranormalist friends really missed their dead friend, and naturally wanted to believe that he was still around, no matter how flimsy the evidence. I understand, I feel that way about my grandparents too, and it is painful every time I dream of them (which is often) and am reminded that I will never see them again.

But what is the problem with people lowering their critical threshold that much in order to accept comfortable beliefs? I think there is a problem, which is why I started a second blog self-explanatorily entitled “Gullibility is Bad for You.” At a societal level, we see the damage to our political discourse and social fabric that has been done by both the “birthers” and the 9/11 “truthers.” At a personal level, people waste money, time and emotional energy in pursuit of a chimera, and are easily taken advantage of by unscrupulous (or even well meaning but self-deluded) “medium” and “psychics.”

Still, it is really hard to tell someone that his beloved friend, or mother, or wife is gone, forever. That the only thing that remains is the memories, and even those will only last as long as the people who’ve met the person in question. It’s the perennial red pill vs. blue pill philosophical conundrum that Morpheus puts to Neo in “The Matrix.” For my part, I have decided a long time ago to take the red pill. But it is bitter.


  1. Massimo,

    Interesting post. Tangentially, the comparison of right-wing 'birthers' and left-wing 'truthers' is an intriguing one. Intellectually, they are very much on par with one another in completely disregarding evidence and reason. Politically/sociologically though, I'm wondering if there are important differences. For example, are there data comparing the percentage of liberals/conservatives that deny or answer "don't know" about 9-11/Obama's birth? From what I've read, the number of conservatives, especially Southern whites, who buy into the birther conspiracy is much greater than the number of liberals who are 9-11 deniers, but maybe I'm letting my political bias creep in. In general, doesn't it also seem that conservative more so than liberal politicians more readily promote, or at least refuse to unequivocally deny, demonstrable nonsense when it is politically convenient for them to do so? Case in point, while conservative politicians and media are reticent to put the birther nonsense to rest, no prominent democrat that I know of would deny for a second that Al Queda committed 9-11.

    As I said, I'm biased, but I get the distinct impression that, while the liberal and conservative fringe are equally wrong, the conservative fringe is much more prominent numerically as well more influential because they have politicians and media outlets willing to indulge their nonsense for expedience.

    -- Chris

  2. Chris,

    you are certainly right about progressive politicians being much less prone to exploit the irrationality of their base. As for how broad that base itself it compared to its right-wing equivalent, my hunch is that you are right there too, but I'd like to see some numbers. We may be surprised...

    (And of course, let's not forget all the progressives who buy into New Age-type nonsense, if we are talking about gullibility.)

  3. Depressing news. I did a little bit more research, and it appears from opinion polls that 9-11 skepticism is actually quite prolific in the US and throughout the world:


    The results are a little hard to interpret in some cases because many of the questions are along the lines of "Did Bush/Cheney/CIA/government know something prior to attacks", which could be interpreted as either 1) They had some intelligence which they improperly ignored (a reasonable claim) or 2) They knew because they wanted the attacks to happen or even planned the attacks themselves (an empirically indefensible claim). So it's hard to know what percentage of respondents fall into which group. I also couldn't really find much about how political affiliation affects opinion, but what information there is confirms that 9-11 skepticism is more common among left-wingers and libertarians.

    The popularity of the movement makes it all the more surprising, and somewhat reassuring, that you don't hear prominent democratic politicians endorsing it.

  4. Visit a campus like Oberlin and you'll hear all sorts of whacky liberal claims, some of which shouldn't even be termed "liberal" but, through accident of history or culture, happen to be. AIDS denialism, for example. To many ideologies it is conveniently liberal, simply because it implies that the government (white men) tried to exploit black men and women again. And because the whole notion of zoonosis is SO implausible. I mean, MONKEYS giving HUMANS a disease...get...real?

  5. I also took the red pill a long time ago, but in general have not found it bitter.

  6. Chris Muir said:
    "...but what information there is confirms that 9-11 skepticism is more common among left-wingers and libertarians."

    Which is an important point in that 9-11 conspiracy is not exclusive to the left. In addition to libertarian leaning people on the right, there are also patriot movement, anti-semite ZOG and New World Order theorists, and other varieties of political positions on the right that are advocates of 9-11 conspiracy theories.

    BTW, some of the best critiques of the political aspects of 9-11 conspiracy come from the left. (As opposed to the technical aspects from Popular Mechanics)

    For good reasons, 9-11 consp. is not prevalent among Republican party members and sympathizers. However, the left-right political spectrum is much broader than what is contained within the mainstream U.S. political parties.

    We also shouldn't be overly dismissive of everything labeled a conspiracy theory. Obviously, much of the 9-11 conspiracy theory is simply absurd.

    But people have legitimate suspicions and distrust of the motives and actions of political and governmental elites. There is historical precedent that some events are distorted, lied about and seized upon to justify military action, such as the gulf of Tonkin incident.

    For 9-11, people take kernels of truth, such as that there was intelligence warning of an impending attack, and from there jump to wild conclusions.

    Or make observations on the way the Towers fell, and then make uninformed inferences as to how they fell. Then to make matters worse, mavericks of the scientific community come forward to seemingly confirm the validity of these inferences.

    As for the Birther conspiracy, I am hard pressed to come up with any rational or truthful kernel that motivates this conspiracy. It seems clearly motivated by sub-surface racist ideas of Obama being a foreign interloper, and fear and distrust of somebody who doesn't fit white America's idea of a "real American".

  7. Professor,

    I appreciate your comparisons of the political fringe with those who believe in the paranormal. However, my problem with your post is not the comparison, rather it is your dismissive attitude concerning the paranormal.

    Let me say first that I cook for a living and that my intellect pales in the presence of someone like you and most of your readers, yet I still feel compelled to answer your recent post. Your argument dismissing the possibility that paranormal activity may be a real phenomenon, although not surprising, is somewhat amusing. I find it interesting that a man of "science" can be so certain of his position based upon his analysis of evidence that could not even measure up to "pitiful". I'm particularly amazed considering your have a doctorate in Philosophy, a discipline that requires powerful argument and sound reasoning to arrive at logical, defensible conclusions.

    There is a plethora of evidence that strongly supports the claim by some that they have had paranormal experiences. Evidence such as photographs, videos, sound recording, thermal recordings, etc. This evidence is often coupled with eyewitness testimony that supports said evidence. Instead of seriously investigating the subject, you chose to base your opinions solely upon personal experiences, which is considered to be the weakest form of evidence for this sort of investigation. I personally have never experience anything that could be called paranormal, but I have looked at quite a bit of the evidence. While I am not completely convinced there is life after death and that the experience of the paranormal is a result of that other state, the evidence I have seen is compelling enough to believe that the subject deserves much more rigorous investigation. Investigation which will not likely happen soon because most "mainstream" scientists, like you, dismiss the subject without a second thought.

    To think that we can possibly know that nothing of the sort (paranormal things) exists is simply arrogant. 100 years ago men blessed with intellects approaching your level scoffed at the idea that men would travel to the moon. Recent strides in physics have shown us that the existence of many other dimensions may not only be possible, but necessary. Who is to say what denizens populate those dimensions that we cannot sense in any way. Discoveries in quantum physics like particle entanglement have baffled the best minds in the world. Some characteristics of this particular phenomenon
    seem to fly in the face of certain tenets of Einstein's proofs. We don't know a scintilla of what is to be known about our world and those worlds unseen that surround us.

    I believe it was a fellow philosopher, Herbert Spencer who said, "... principle which is a bar against all information and which will keep a man in everlasting ignorance ; that principle is contempt prior to investigation." I couldn't have summed up your post any better.

  8. James said:
    "Evidence such as photographs, videos, sound recording, thermal recordings, etc. This evidence is often coupled with eyewitness testimony that supports said evidence. Instead of seriously investigating the subject, you chose to base your opinions solely upon personal experiences, which is considered to be the weakest form of evidence for this sort of investigation."


    I recommend you start reading some of the skeptic literature about paranormal phenomena, starting with magazines such as Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. These publications have years worth of articles of serious investigations into all kinds paranormal phenomena. There are many articles in these publ. that examine the serious flaws in all the types of evidence you cite above. And "eye witness testimony" by the way is some of the most dubious.

    Psychologists have done many studies on the ways that people have perceptions and memories that trick them into interpreting events and believing things that do not correspond to actual reality.

    James said:
    "I'm particularly amazed considering your have a doctorate in Philosophy, a discipline that requires powerful argument and sound reasoning to arrive at logical, defensible conclusions."

    Yeah, and those are the skills that Massimo is using to critically evaluate these paranormalist claims. But FYI it doesn't take Ph.D. in phil. or science to do it. Intro. classes in logic or critical thinking would help, or even just developing your critical faculties and a good book.

    And give Massimo some credit. He met with paranormal advocates to hear what they had to say. And what they had to say to defend their beliefs in the paranormal was extremely weak. I mean come on, a guy feels a "flick" behind his ear and its evidence of the ghost of his dead friend? This deserves nothing but dismissal. Holes so big you could run an oil tanker through them.

  9. sheldon "As for the Birther conspiracy, I am hard pressed to come up with any rational or truthful kernel that motivates this conspiracy."

    Its not just documents on the origin of birth that seem to be missing, there certainly is a lot of standard documentation that ought to be around somewhere on a sitting president (even college papers) that do not exist for this Barry guy. But to the people who have voted him in, it really makes no difference one way or another. Documentation and validation only matter if one presumes to adhere to truth claims. Sotero does not.

    "It seems clearly motivated by sub-surface racist ideas of Obama being a foreign interloper, and fear and distrust of somebody who doesn't fit white America's idea of a "real American".

    Its a putting forward a conspiracy theory as well that you think that a minority of people even think this way. There may be a handful, but I sure have not heard it come from a single person's mouth that I know of!

    Its completely about ideological issues but you know that. If it were Clarence Thomas running for president, of course I'd vote for him in a second. He's pro-life AND we have known for a 100 years that I'm SOLD OUT AND UNAPOLOGETICALLY PROlife.

    Black Americans would likely be freaked out if they REALLY sat down and understood how many more black people there would be in the USA RIGHT NOW if 3 out of 4 children aborted were NOT in fact African American. But they are.

    Doesn't that bother anyone? If I were a promoter of abortion AT ANY LEVEL it sure would bother me.

    Which pill do you take to ignore this fact and make it go away?

  10. Cal,
    Umm, are you referring to Barak Obama? Oh, ok then.

    "Its a putting forward a conspiracy theory as well that you think that a minority of people even think this way. There may be a handful, but I sure have not heard it come from a single person's mouth that I know of!"

    ??? No, it is not a conspiracy theory, it is an inference into the social psychology of people who have been fixated on rumors that Obama is a secret Muslim, educated in a madrassa, and not born in the United States. And thats why I said "sub-surface racist ideas" because nobody can get away with saying "I don't want a N@#*^* in the White House" any more, thanks to political correctness which I say hooray for.

    If its about ideological issues, fine, then why be fixated on the alleged legal illegitimacy of the nations 1st black president? Even if you removed him due to this alleged illegitimacy, we would still have abortion rights. (which I again say hooray for!)

    So it is quite clear that the motivation of people who attempt to deny the legal legitimacy of our current president are people who lost the last election and are grasping at whatever they can. So get over it!

    Maybe you will win next time.

    As for the number of black people in the U.S. and abortion. It is a good thing that a black woman, or any other woman, has the freedom of choice to end an unwanted pregnancy, and to delay parenthood until they may be in a better position to raise a family.

    This is a right and freedom that benefits black women both as individuals and collectively.

    And BTW Cal, don't assume I am an Obama supporter. I voted for Nader (McCain was a shoe in AZ). I saw him for the compromising no back bone centrist politician that he is a long time ago. And from the progressive-left perspective, Obama is clearly on the road to dissapointing many of us.

    But he is a natural born citizen born in the 50th (or 49th?) state of Hawaii.

  11. I don't care for McCain either. I don't care much for any of the candidates spare maybe Bachman. ;) Palin was okay but the media has effectively complained about anything you can imagine and to the point that even things that she wears, which really should not be considered issues, become such. Whereas details about BHO are insignificant and not hardly even worth looking into?
    Yeah, sure, anyone ought to be skeptical of that kind of of treatment of "facts".

    Was Obama a natural born citizen of the USA? Maybe maybe not. But its highly doubtful that I'd take on a Muslim name if I was not one. People who do that are always thought to be Islamic coverts at least.

    I did the opposite of BHO. I was raised with a sort of a fictional name (I won't go into why-well maybe I should. in part, because my father was a murderous lunatic?).

    My first four months are sort of obscure too, but I've gone back to using my real name the one on the birth cert. When parents do strange things when you're a baby its anyone's guess what really happened. Barak probably doesn't even know except for whats been told to him. So I'm not completely insensitive to what could have occurred. Its just that there should be more documentation on anyone who is presuming to become the president. It would have been unacceptable I think if it had been just about anyone else.

    We're at a point in time where it is practically to anyone's advantage to show up with almost no history whatsoever. People are having serious political fatigue apparently and don't care about facts any longer.

  12. "Was Obama a natural born citizen of the USA? Maybe maybe not. But its highly doubtful that I'd take on a Muslim name if I was not one. People who do that are always thought to be Islamic coverts at least."

    See Cal, your statements demonstrate my points exactly.
    You sound exactly like Lou Dobbs, with this "maybe, maybe not" b.s.

    The evidence that establishes natural born citzenship for anybody in this country is a birth certificate indicating birth in one of the fifty states., Obama's has been presented for public review, and coincides with an announcement of his birth in a Hawaiian newspaper. The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected all challenges to his status as a citizen. Only a fool pursues this nonsense.

    And then you go on to talk from the "I" perspective that you wouldn't choose Muslim name unless you were really a convert. As this says anything? Well you didn't have Kenyan father who was Muslim, did you? Its a very diverse country Cal, people have all kinds of names from all kinds of different heritages.

  13. No, I had a crazy father who was French. I m sure that I can sympathize with Barr-ak entirely.

    "See Cal, your statements demonstrate my points exactly.
    You sound exactly like Lou Dobbs, with this "maybe, maybe not" b.s."

    Provisional statements are absolutely fair if one is not convinced one way or another. And I am not.

    Are you 100% certain that barry sotero/barak obamba was born in the USA? And the BIGGER ISSUE: If you find out that he was not, would it matter to you one way or another? Would it change your opinion on anything policy-wise?

  14. Cal,
    I am not 100% certain of anything.

    I am already critical of a variety of Obama's policies anyway. I prefer to focus on those issues than to chase some wild conspiracy theory that I can't directly investigate myself.

    Lets indulge your silly fantasy. Imagine that suddenly new evidence comes to light that indeed verifies the "birthers" suspicion, and Obama is removed from office because he not a natural born citizen of the U.S..

    V.P. Joe Biden is sworn in as president, and the nearly the same exact same policies continue. See what a waste of time it is worrying about these things?

  15. Wow. You allow Sheldon to talk down to me, but delete my post? ROFL! You liberals are the most intolerant bunch around. When I was in college my philosophy instructors taught us that diversity of thought was a founding principle of the discipline. I posted what I thought was a reasonable reply to your blog about the paranormal. When Sheldon replied to my post, both his tone and content were condescending and arrogant. My reply was nothing more that giving someone a "taste of their own medicine". Anyway, its your blog and you can do as you like. I wish both you AND Sheldon the best.

  16. James,

    I don't think I talked down to you. I thought it was pretty straight forward argumentation. Sorry you took it that way.

    I may be wrong, but I doubt Massimo deleted your post. Usually there is some evidence on these things like "comment deleted". Maybe it didn't take?

    I have been following Massimo's blog from the beginning, and he rarely ever deletes a comment. It must have been some pretty sharp vitriol if he did.

    And really, I was just recommending, with friendly intent, that you look into the some of the Skeptic magazines to see how this kind of thinking works. And to see some more substantive skeptical examinations of the paranormal.

    And its got nothing to do with being "liberal". There are a lot of conservative skeptics.

  17. "Lets indulge your silly fantasy."

    That may be somebody's elses its just not mine. I merely like for things to be done the right way. Have anything against that?

    There might those people who want to see something happen to bho, that's not me either. I think God allows people into their positions even if it is not what some of us would have wished for.

    Biden? Double "yikes!" Hes not as socialist but hes extremely arrogant (I'm not just mistaking confidence, i don't think) he really shows signs of the thinking that he can sort of say whatever he likes and everyone ought to just live with it. There are the "BLUE DOG" dems of course that I can appreciate but anyone who seeks to create room for their lib policy's I just can't abide by their way of thinking. I can't as well because most of the time those sorts of policy's take aim at the integrity of the family structure.

    And the bottom line is of course that it is against Gods order. Like I said, I appreciate when things are done the right way. Its good for everyone whether they realize it or not.

  18. James,

    as Sheldon says, I very rarely delete posts, and only if they contain spam advertisements or unbearably and gratuitously high levels of vitriol. I mean, I let stand even most of Caliana's nonsense, for Hume's sake!

    I don't actually recall deleting your post, so please try again, if you are so inclined.

  19. James,
    He probably didn't delete. I don't believe in paranormalism, especially the kind discussed here, but you do? Maybe some aspect of the paranorm took your post out. ;) If it did, your point is validated.

    I've had a few odd things happen over the course of my life. But they are the kind of things that you almost hate to bring up. More or less, I kind of know what people will say.

    When I was a kid I had a dream one night that I walked into an area in our home that I had never seen before. My mom and dad's house was built in 1865. But when I was 10 or 12 I really didn't know that.

    On the 'otherside' of the house the people were dressed very old fashioned, high collars, 1800s clothes. I can still remember what it looked like today. The house was also very dim and gloomy. A condition I had never seen OUR home in. This dream left such a strange impression on me (I was almost sure that I had met people we should know) I brought it up with my dad the next day. He told me that the original owners were both communists and atheist. My dad, tho a really practical kind of guy, seemed to understand that I had at least dreamed what that house use to be like. He also let me know that the house had a lot of trees around it when they had bought it and he had most of them removed. The house, otoh, was always bright and happy when I lived in it. And up to that point, I knew nothing about the history of it I had no particular reason to have that dream.

    Sometimes I think God can give people impressions about things for a good reason. I know now what the reason for that dream was.

    The other kind of a paranormalism I'd be real wary of.

  20. Sheldon and Dr. Pigliucci,
    I probably hit the wrong tab and I appreciate the fact that you do not delete posts based on content. My main point is this Sheldon, I have and continue to read those magazines. I have followed the career of Ben Radford for years. They and he dismiss any claim of the paranormal out of hand because they say there could be a reasonable, scientific or natural explanation for some event. They cite cases like the Amityville horror and say, "Ah ha"! when it is proved to be fallacious insinuating then that "all" evidence of the paranormal is invalid. There is evidence of the paranormal whether you are talking UFOs or hauntings that has not been explained and thoroughly debunked. Much of it can never be explained. That the fact that some of it "could" be explained by natural phenomena does not make it so. Occam's razor remember, is only a principle of thought, it is not a scientific law.
    The only reason I even brought this whole paranormal thing up was Dr. Pigliucchi's dismissive attitude towards the people he mentioned in his article and Sheldon's defense of him to a fault. I smelled intellectual elitism something I abhor since I have to put up with it at the family holiday dinner table from 2 MDs and a PhD every Christmas. My advice to you two is to remember this; if Science has shown us anything, it has shown us that the impossible is indeed possible.

    Having said all that, I would rather debate you on say, the merit's of national health care or whether or not Dick Cheney should be indicted as a war criminal. I'm sure future posts will provide such an opportunity. You can always check out my blog at http://averageamerican-james.blogspot.com/. I'm sure you would find PLENTY to disagree with! Cal, you go girl!

  21. James,

    you managed to get my name spelled the wrong way again (in the middle of your comment). Oh well, I guess it's not important.

    More substantially, you say that science has shown that the impossible is possible. Not really, science has discovered new things about the world, but I doubt it has ever shown a logical impossibility to be real.

    You are correct that Occam's razor is not the ultimate authority here, but it seems only reasonable for a scientist or skeptic to ask *you* what sort of positive evidence you have for such extraordinary claims as those made by paranormalists. I haven't seen any, and in the absence of positive evidence it seems to me more than logical to favor the simplest (i.e., non paranormal) explanation.

    Finally, I did go and check your blog. I'm sorry, but I have a hard time taking seriously a blog whose top entry is entitled "Ted Kennedy-Simply, an alcoholic." Yours is an ad hominem attack, which is a logical fallacy and says nothing about the substance of what Kennedy has done has a politician. You may have good reasons to disagree with his goals and ideals, but the amount of alcohol he imbibed in his life is simply irrelevant to the issues.

  22. "You may have good reasons to disagree with his goals and ideals, but the amount of alcohol he imbibed in his life is simply irrelevant to the issues."

    Absolutely not true! If you don't think that drinking a lot doesn't affect your judgment, I seriously wonder about yours. You have enough experience in the world to know that it does.

    The problem with being compromised (mentally, emotionally spiritually) is that MOST people just simply don't know if they are. The Kennedy's began their fortune in alcohol distribution. My mothers fam as well owned a chain of bars. (You know, Germans) My fathers fam is a mess I think because of alcohol. As boring as it may sound, I won't touch the stuff. If your fam is a big enough mess as the Kennedys, one can certainly conclude that its just simply NOT WORTH IT.

    You're not serving rational causes well to cut Ted slack for DRINKING TOO MUCH.

  23. Massimo,
    Please pardon me, again, for misspelling your name. I promise this time, there was no disrespect intended on the urgency of my digits on the keyboard. I am not a "paranormalist", but rather a regular guy who is interested in science and is fascinated by the possibility that there may be more to our world than the best scientific minds of today have been able to prove. As for the question about evidence of extraordinary claims, I suggest you read the article below.


    An article which I think raises serious questions about some skeptical scientists and their dogmatic demands for physical proof that is well beyond that which is required for any other scientific investigation. I would suggest the article to anyone who is interested in seeing a side of supposed "scientific skeptics" that they really don't want you to see. I maintain it is healthy to be skeptical of the skeptics.

    As to your supercilious disdain for my blog, let me say first that there is no reason to apologize to me for not taking a post seriously that uses Ted Kennedy and alcoholic together in the title. I understand. You see, I have a hard time taking a college professor of philosophy seriously, particularly one from New York, but I suppose for the purpose of this comment, I will have to.
    Your dismissive attitude towards alcoholism in general and its effect on Ted Kennedy specifically ("the amount of alcohol he imbibed in his life is simply irrelevant to the issues") reveals a serious lack of understanding of the disease of addiction. I would counter that the amount of alcohol he imbibed is EXACTLY the point. Those who study the disease will tell you that the addict or alcoholic, if you will, in many ways is a slave to his or her disease. Dysfunctional relationships, a grandiose and often unrealistic view of self, and a disdain for others who see things differently from the abuser are all very common attributes of the alcoholic. I can say from personal experience that every alcoholic I have met, and I have met thousands, have been self centered to the extreme. Their wants and desires were always paramount even if sometimes they were disguised as "helping others". Recent scientific studies have also suggested that alcohol abusers show signs of dysfunctional ventromedial prefrontal cortex which can affect one's decision making abilities. It saddens me to think that even though great strides have been made in the study of the disease addiction, some still maintain that heavy drinking is a "lifestyle" choice.
    In short, the effects of alcohol abuse are so widely known and accepted that it would be pointless to rehash them here. I continue to defend my assertion that by "looking the other way" at Sen. Kennedy's drinking, he and our nation was harmed. If one believes Senator Kennedy was a great man and did great things, then just imagine what he COULD HAVE DONE were he not under the yoke of such an all consuming and life altering disease.

  24. James,

    I think the following phrase from you says it all:

    "You see, I have a hard time taking a college professor of philosophy seriously, particularly one from New York."

    Oh well. (Incidentally, I live in New York, but I'm from Rome, Italy.)

  25. And this phrase says it all too:

    "I can say from personal experience that every alcoholic I have met, and I have met thousands, have been self centered to the extreme."

    He's right. There is no virtue or salvageable good whatsoever in being alcoholic. None whatsoever.

    My hub use to rage on about things (I would not advise marrying someone who even HAD been alcoholic - alcoholic brains don't go back to normal the day someone stops drinking either)
    but as a spouse you find ways to compensate and stay determined to be on task even if your SO is off his rocker sometimes. But that's not the best thing in the world. It's really hard for everyone.

    Why are you defending this lifestyle, M? Its very much the epitome of non-rational thinking. Maybe someone you knew well did this and seemed to survive somehow. But that's certainly no way to live, is it.

  26. Massimo said, "I'm sorry, but I have a hard time taking seriously a blog whose top entry is entitled "Ted Kennedy-Simply, an alcoholic."

    Massimo, my friend. Lighten up! Just sending back a little of the love that you sent me with your pithy comment (above) which, I believe, you posted first! Of course you completely dodged the issue. Not surprising because the position you have taken is indefensible. If you can't attack the message, attack the messenger!
    Thank you Cal for the support. What really ticks me off is that when a black man, Michael Jackson, dies and drugs are involved, he is vilified and called a drug addict, but when a white, rich, powerful US Senator dies of brain cancer (one of the bi-products of heavy drinking), his substance abuse is not even discussed. Talk about a double standard!

    The only reason I wrote the blog is to try and see his legacy from a different perspective, one that the media, conservative and liberal, were ignoring. As stated before, my issue was not with Senator Kennedy, but rather with the national media, his colleagues, and we, the American people who allowed him (and many others) to continue in his post without insisting he get help. We owed it to him and his family and we did nothing. They deserved better from us. That's why I wrote the blog. Is that really so wrong to expect our public officials to get help when they have an alcohol or substance abuse problem? Is there anyone here that thinks this issue is not "serious"? Does anyone believe the issue is so trivial that it doesn't deserve even a simple little blog from some hillbilly, unknown chef? I think not.

    By the way Massimo, not that it matters to you in the least, I DO take you seriously and I have a lot of respect for anyone that has a PhD. I know what kind of effort that requires. As well, I minored in philosophy in college and although I don't read much about the subject today, I did and still do find it fascinating. I'm afraid I wouldn't be here raising your rankles were it not for my favorite Philosophy professor who encouraged everyone in our class to engage in strong debate when necessary and to be prepared to defend your opinions. That's all I am doing, defending my opinions.

  27. The way I see it is that you can choose to judge people or see the good in them. All in all, it really just reflects what kind person you are.

  28. James,

    you are still making an ad hominem attack against Kennedy, which I'm sure you know is a logical fallacy. If your point is that the man had a problem and needed help, sure. I don't think that's the public's concern, though, it is up to him and his family.

    If, on the other hand, the point is that we should discount his policies and the projects he supported because he had a problem with alcohol, that is a complete non sequitur.

    Kudos to your professor of philosophy, you have all the right to raise all the rankles you like, and this forum is for precisely that sort of things. Notice, however, that getting help from Cal won't buy you many points here, given the sort of non sequitur she often engages in...

  29. Massimo,
    I do see your point about the ad hominem nature of my post. Perhaps my intent was more clear to me in my head, than what was written on the page, something I struggle with daily! I do not mean to undermine the contributions to society of Senator Kennedy which were many. I really wanted to write something about the nature of the disease of substance abuse in our society and how we (the people and the media) often give politicians a free pass. I don't agree that this is a family issue. If he were a private citizen, maybe, but even then, his employers have a right and a responsibility to ensure that an alcoholic employee either gets help or is terminated. Anyway, I think we have both presented our sides.

    I do enjoy your blog even if I don't always agree. Thanks for letting me chime in. You need to have at least a couple of midwestern conservatives hanging around here just to keep the liberals honest! Ha! All the best.

  30. James,

    you midwestern conservatives are always welcome on this blog. Seriously, though, if I may, a suggestion about the Kennedy post: if the intention was what you stated, then next time pick a drunk on each side, so that you can make your point fairly and people will not be able to accuse you of partisanship.

  31. Who would the other drunk (s) on the right be?

    I guess whoever the drunks are the right are we don't know them quite so well because they don't have the rep for dumping the girl friend and her baby in the river, driving off and not reporting the incident for 10 hours.

    I'll bet you a mil, if EK had not been drinking, he would have tried at least to rescue this woman and then secondly, took off to get someone to help him at least try once again to reach her.

    That's what rational sober people would do. But being drunk doesn't even excuse him. And it is not in any way partisan for saying so!

  32. Guilt more or less created much of the social programs that EK got behind.

    And I am not convinced that the US is in fact better off for having government taking care of things fathers ought to. His programs excuse fathers from having to cover and protect their families.
    Given his history, not real surprising.

    I guess if ones own father was a mess tho, gov taking control of everything might make perfect sense to you.

  33. Massimo and James,

    You know, there is a big difference between a Conservative and a Republican!

    Caliana appears to be a Republican.

  34. Massimo,
    I agree 100% with your advice about choosing drunks on both sides. Kind of scares me! I know there are as many in the GOP.

  35. Who would the other drunk (s) on the right be?

    How about some presidents who "choke on pretzels", would that do?

  36. I had a recent brush with the fake paranormal (is there any other kind? haven't seen it yet...).

    I had often heard of the ghosts in photographs. Have you heard of orbs? I had been told they were one of the best proofs of ghosts existing.

    A few months ago I finally saw what people meant by orbs. And it was immediately obvious that, for now, there is no evidence for ghosts. The photos show either of two things: dust illuminated by flash or, more commonly, lens flare. The dust is harder to figure out when you first see it, but very easy to replicate (go to the basement, kick up some dust, take a bunch of photos with flash, you'll see these). The lens flare, which was the one I first saw people claiming to be ghosts, was very clear to me, since I'm a semi-pro photographer who actually cares about physics and the like. The lens flare pictures appear when you have a strong light shining into the lens, specially at an angle. It can be seen in movies too, specially when the sun is in the frame or just out of it. It usually has a polygonal shape, but it depends on the aperture used when taking the picture. Look into a camera when taking a picture with small to medium aperture, and you'll see that shape. But with all that light bouncing around the several glass elements of a lens, you also can get light streaks (usually oriented in the same direction that the strong light is coming from) and other blobs in the image, depending on the incident angle of the light. Always, the picture loses contrast, since you have this unfocused light hitting the film/sensor indiscriminately.

    So, the best these people can come up with is stray light bouncing inside lenses? Bad photography? (unless of course you're doing it on purpose, with some artistic intent) Extraordinary claims demand quite convincing evidence at the least, to paraphrase.


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