Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Are Michael Shermer and Philip Zimbardo trying to be secular cult leaders?

I remember when Michael Shermer was once discussing something and added a brief comment about how some people on the internet even claimed that Skepticism was part of a new cult and he sighed and rolled his eyes and said it was ridiculous, without providing further details about the claim or why he claimed it was false.

This is a typical tactic that Michael Shermer uses about a lot of different subjects. More often than not he is probably right but when he's confronted with claims he can't explain or conspiracies that seem to have raise legitimate concerns, he often uses ridicule or other appeals to emotions which he criticizes his opponents for using.

I wasn't inclined to think of Skepticism is a cult and still don't; however a large number of high profile skeptics, including Michael Shermer, often make almost as many colossal blunders as the bizarre claims they attempt to debunk and often use the same manipulation tactics that cult members or religious people might. In many cases, for some of the strangest claims, the strongest evidence for both sides often seems to be the incompetence of the other side and the assumption that one of them might be right, without considering third possibilities or admitting that they simply don't have enough evidence to explain it. Therefore I'm no longer convinced that the possibility of a secular cult leader, or more likely something similar, should be dismissed out of hand, and ironically, even Michael Shermer has come to the conclusion that reason can contribute to a secular cult.

Recently Michael Shermer did a review of Philip Zimbardo's new movie about the so-called Stanford Prison Experiment, Are We All Potentially Evil? A new dramatic film based on the Stanford Prison Experiment reveals why good people turn bad by Michael Shermer. 07/29/2015 He refers to this experiment as being famous and claims that when he went to school "Philip Zimbardo was already a legend." It certainly is famous within the academic world, especially those that study sociology or psychology, however it isn't nearly so well known among the majority of the population.

He didn't even mention the scandal about the American Psychological Association being involved in providing help to advise on interrogation tactics; as I explained in a recent post, American Psychological Association exposed again, even though Philip Zimbardo isn't mentioned in the highest profile articles about the subject, he is much closer to the scandal than most people realize and his research almost certainly contributed to the training of cadets and interrogation of prisoners. He was also president of the American Psychological Association when some of the changes to ethical rules took place to weaken them.

When Michael Shermer refers to Philip Zimbardo as a legend he is using a subtle form of flattery or appeal to emotion, which is a common manipulation tactic. Many people from the academic world might prefer the term infamous for Zimbardo. This conveniently avoids the belief among a large number of scholars that his research is seriously flawed and highly unethical, including Peter Singer who once made a brief positive comment about his associate Milgram's work along with more serious criticism about his ethics and this was taken out of context in a review with a forward written by Zimbardo.

Both Michael Shermer and Philip Zimbardo have a history of selectively warning people about some manipulation tactics while simultaneously using others. One of the most important aspects of rational skepticism is warning people about how to recognize these tactics so that they can recognize false beliefs on their own. Sometimes when skeptics or perhaps I should say pseudo-skeptics warn people about these tactics they often do so in a manner that supports their beliefs which is a variation of the way many religious people or believers of other strange things often try to convince people of their beliefs.

I have compiled my own list of Indoctrination Tactics and Educational Alternatives and followed this up with a blog post Manipulation Tactics that includes lists from other people, and it is reasonable to consider turnabout is fair play, especially since there have been so many people accusing others of using manipulation tactics while simultaneously doing the same. One common tactic is to use ridicule which Michael Shermer often does, effectively shaming people that believe in fringe beliefs. He often claims that something is ridiculous, absurd or ludicrous, clearly implying that they're also false. In many cases this may actually be true but when it is there is a way to refute them without relying on ridicule.

Anyone watching the political campaign might conclude that it is ridiculous, absurd or ludicrous, yet this doesn't mean that these things aren't happening.

Now that the traditional political establishment is becoming increasingly absurd and ridiculous it should be more difficult to dismiss the absurd and ridiculous as automatically being false since the truth is often now as absurd and ridiculous as fringe conspiracy theories or beliefs.

Michael Shermer often uses ridicule and charisma to convince people to adopt his beliefs almost as much as the believers of things he considers absurd do. Michael Shermer and many other so called skeptics have often relied on stereotypes about fringe beliefs, including conspiracy theories or UFOs among other things. From a scientific point of view this shouldn't be enough, although it often takes more time to go into the details and large portions of the public aren't willing to take that time.

Michael Shermer and other so-called skeptics have been promoting stereotypes about conspiracy theories for a long time and some of them can be easily recognized in his free download, Conspiracy Theories: Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true? PDF in this report he cites someone who defines a conspiracy theory as “a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal” that is “notoriously resistant to falsification,” and since he doesn't provide any corrections implies he agrees with it. No doubt this definition does fit some conspiracy theories; however there are a lot that it doesn't fit and many of them are much more rational.

A more accurate and simple definition for a conspiracy theory might be when two or more people communicate or act in secrecy to impact the lives of others; both Wikipedia and RationalWiki provide slightly more complicated definitions along with histories of how they've been used or misused.

The government and many news outlets routinely apply this definition to many people, often being charged in a court of law for charges that include conspiracies in court document, including the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack. However in this case they usually avoid using the word conspiracy. Yet these theories aren't ridiculed with the stereotype of alleged conspiracy theories perpetrated by the government. This download is also accompanied by a picture that is clearly designed to ridicule conspiracy theories and they cover some of the least competent conspiracy theories that often do have factual flaws which can be easily discredited. This tactic is designed to group the least competent conspiracies with more rational ones dismissing the good with the bad.

Using graphics or ridicule is often a typical method of making a point but when attempting to review things in a scientific manner it should be kept to a minimum, and people should be cautioned not to believe or dismiss claims simply out of fear of being ridiculed by the crowd, especially as I pointed out, a growing portion of the activity by our government and media is becoming increasingly absurd, yet this is still true.

In his article about Jesse “The Body” Ventura versus Michael “The Mind” Shermer who claims that "what the reader actually finds between the covers are documents obtained through standard Freedom of Information Act requests that can also be easily downloaded from the Internet," as part of his attempt to dismiss Ventura's claims. I haven't looked as close at Ventura's claims as many others but I have noticed that a large number of declassified documents are often confessions of past government conspiracies, so dismissing them as being invalid to support conspiracy theories is highly unscientific. This includes admissions in the Iran Contra investigation, the Kerry Committee Report, relatively recent admissions that the CIA conducted a coup in Iran and installed the Shah who terrorized his own people, and many more disclosures.

Michael Shermer is right that people shouldn't believe Ventura because of "his unmistakable booming voice;" however they should ridicule him and dismiss his claims because of that either; nor should they believe Michael Shermer because of his charismatic appeals to emotion or ridicule.

The research that Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram, among other researchers have done could be used to help develop these manipulation and propaganda tactics used by Michael Shermer. I reviewed these in more detail in several past posts including Philip Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect, Stanford Prison Experiment; Corruption or Bias in the American Psychological Association; Eli Roth’s Milgram/Obedience experiment much more extensive than most people realize and the most recent one cited previously American Psychological Association exposed again.

One of the more common tactics that can be used is in one of the variations of the Obedience to authority experiments they found that people were more likely to go along with the program if they were encouraged by another person pretending to be following orders and more likely to disobey if that same person pretending to follow orders raises questions and refuses to participate. This can be easily found on both TV and on the internet. On TV the media has control of who can and can't express their views, and they give Michael Shermer plenty of air time when covering these subjects and the people that present the other side are often among the least competent researchers making him seem rational by comparison. However even then he seems to make his share of mistakes.

On the internet it isn't hard to find some of the highest profile debate forums get flooded with people pretending to be scientific skeptics but using a large number of Manipulation Tactics and turning the debate into an insult match that doesn't address the issues well if at all. Some of the people on these debates have, at times, claimed that the CIA has been funding people that go on the internet and conduct this type of activity, and even though there is no corroboration to confirm this when the facts fit, it is hard to completely rule out this possibility especially when some of it seems to be organized.

Ironically, as I said above even Michael Shermer claims that reason can lead to a cult as indicated in the following article where he explains why he thinks Ayn Rand has developed a cult following.

The Unlikeliest Cult in History by Michael Shermer 2011

FREUDIAN PROJECTION IS THE PROCESS of attributing one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or objects—the guilt-laden adulterer accuses his spouse of adultery, the homophobe actually harbors latent homosexual tendencies. A subtle form of projection can be seen in the accusation by Christians that secular humanism and evolution are “religions”; or by cultists and paranormalists that skeptics are themselves a cult and that reason and science have cultic properties. For skeptics, the idea that reason can lead to a cult is absurd. The characteristics of a cult are 180 degrees out of phase with reason. But as I will demonstrate, not only can it happen, it has happened, and to a group that would have to be considered the unlikeliest cult in history. It is a lesson in what happens when the truth becomes more important than the search for truth, when final results of inquiry become more important than the process of inquiry, and especially when reason leads to an absolute certainty about one’s beliefs such that those who are not for the group are against it. Complete article

This article goes on to present Ayn Rand as a cult leader who ostracizes those that disagree with her and, at least to some degree attempts to control her followers. According to the Skeptics dictionary a Cult is essentially lead by a charismatic leader who excerpts control over their followers and ostracizes those that don't conform. They cite a common saying, "A delusion held by one person is a mental illness, held by a few is a cult, held by many is a religion," but allow for non religious versions of cults.

Michael Shermer and Philip Zimbardo don't fit this extreme version of a cult; however they're both involved in using manipulation tactics to deceive the public and they have done work that enables the government to preserve their state of perpetual war based on lies. Ziombardo has done research to help indoctrinate military recruits and Shermer has provided an enormous amount of propaganda ridiculing those that challenge government claims as fringe conspiracy theorists. While the Stanford Prison Experiment was going on it had many characteristics of a cult, which could also be used to study cult control of followers and if it wasn't ended it could have become a cult.

However even if they don't fit the strictest definition of a cult, their participation in this research propaganda and manipulation raises doubts about their credibility and they should not be considered reliable scientific sources. This doesn't mean they're always wrong, but scrutiny would always be advised.

Assuming guilt, or participating in a conspiracy, solely based on association, especially since the association, that I know of, between Michael Shermer and Philip Zimbardo, is limited to this article by Michael Shermer about Zimbardo and the interviews he mentioned that took place in 2007 when Zimbardo's book came out, would be inappropriate; however this speculation isn't solely on association. When I indicated that Philip Zimbardo was definitely working with the military, it was based on his own admission that his research was funded by the Office of Naval Research and that he was probably consulting with the CIA as well based on research done by Alfred McCoy that indicated that both Irving Janis and Stanley Milgram were working with the CIA and the fact that Philip Zimbardo was involved in similar research that was even more likely to be of interest to the CIA than the work done by Janis and Milgram, which was often overlapping work.

In Michael Shermer's case speculation about possible consulting with the CIA doesn't have any solid evidence that I know of but there is an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence. He is constantly using manipulation tactics to present the traditional view about fringe conspiracy theories that benefit the government position, even when using highly unscientific methods. He's constantly recommending people be skeptical of critics of the government but rarely if ever recommending the be skeptical of the government.

In other words he is often essentially recommending people believe what they're told by the government or face possible ridicule.

When I began this post he posted two tweets about A few of my favorite adjectives: bafflegab, blather, bunkum, claptrap, codswallop, flapdoodle, flimflam, flummery, flummox, piffle, twaddle And: babble, balderdash, baloney, drivel, flabbergast, gibberish, gobbledygoop, hogwash, hokum, hooey, humbug, prattle, rubbish, tripe, tosh that atracted a large number of retweets and favorites from his followers but until I added my comment none of them questioned whether relying on ridicule to make a scientific case was appropriate for a scientific skeptic; although a few expressed concern about whether they were nouns or adjectives, which seems trivial considered the subject matter.

This is the herd mentality at work even if it isn't a cult.

His willingness to present Zimbardo's research without any scrutiny or considering the possibility that Zimbardo might be involved in the recent disclosures about the APA being involved in advising about interrogation tactics would make perfect sense if he was providing propaganda for the CIA.

The following are a few related articles:

The Cult of Skepticism By Steven Novella 06/29/2008

The Cult of Reason 10/28/2010

Is the atheist Michael Shermer as much of a cult leader as the fictional Elmer Gantry? 08/12/2014

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