Tag Archives: Free speech

Free Speech And Speaking Your Mind

I’ve been tied up with a lot of things recently – work and home commitments, and other things that have taken up a lot of my time. I must try to get back into some kind of regular blogging, but before I do, I thought I would have a look at one of the recurring themes that have cropped up here and elsewhere – the principle of free speech. What is it, and when can it be justifiably said that one’s free speech is being suppressed?

The idea of free speech seems straightforward enough: someone wants to speak out about any subject at all, and that person just says it. Simple, yes?

Actually, whether someone has free speech depends, ultimately, on the law in any particular country. In western democracies, we tend to take it as a right – even what can be called a basic human right. We can promote ideas of our own, or criticise the ideas of others. We can criticise political leaders and their policies; we are under no obligation to join a particular religion, and we can criticise those religions; we can support any way-out idea, or criticise, parody or ridicule it without mercy; in fact, we can speak out about anything with only a fairly basic and reasonable condition, namely that what we speak out about does not cause, or incite others to cause, harm to anyone else.

Independent Thought Alarm - The SimpsonsCompare that with the situation in other countries. There are at least thirteen countries where atheism, for instance is a capital offence. No religious freedom there, then, and you might not be surprised that those countries are all Islamic states. And similarly, criticism of the governments there (and elsewhere) can bring down the wrath of the state, together with the institutionalised brutality that goes with it. It can’t be a happy life for anyone in any of those places who would like to create change by being able to openly question the status quo.

It’s a huge and complex issue, and occupies a whole area of philosophical investigation, with endless books written on the subject, and it also extends into everyday discussion as well as politics in general. It can be argued that even in our modern day and age our free speech is actually under gradual attack from our own governments. I’m thinking here of recent UK legislation that bans any organisation that receives state funding from having any representative speaking to or lobbying any government department about the subject they deal with. Paradoxically, it means, for example, that government funding given to climate research excludes climate scientists from trying to persuade the government to implement policies that are urgently needed to save the planet we live on. That law is pragmatic from the perspective of big polluters businesses who have caused the problem in the first place, and the governments they have paid to install for their own benefit. I find it all a bit annoying, to be honest. More alarmingly, a journalist is being prosecuted right now by the German government for criticising another country’s leader, President Erdogan of Turkey. That is very frightening for all of us.

Anyway, on a more local level, I have in mind not global or even national issues about free speech and what it is, but what people in general think about it, and what they want to do about it. In particular, I’m thinking about what is going on with the promoters of various woo ideas, especially those who promote those ideas whilst trying to stifle any criticism.

I am heartily sick of the woomeisters, quacks and assorted paranormal promoters who take exception to any criticism of their claims; when they are criticised, their first accusation is almost always that criticism of their nonsense equates to censorship, or that if they don’t have their ill-informed comments published on someone else’s blog or website then that is the same as having their right to free speech suppressed. To which I say, cobblers.

The Bad Thinking blog came into being for one simple reason: I found my own right to free speech being censored and suppressed – not by the state, but by a self-professed expert in all matters paranormal that I criticised. My own feeling is that a claim made by such a person should be able to stand on its own merits. If it is correct, then it should be able to withstand any criticism, in pretty much the same way that an actual scientific hypothesis should be able to survive in the face of intense scrutiny by scientific peer review. And let’s face it – in science, a hypothesis that is criticised has to survive that criticism from other scientists. Its validity is decided on the basis of whether it gets past all the tests thrown at it.

The same person I mentioned above has never proven any paranormal or supernatural claim he has ever made, but he has certainly removed criticism of his claims from the internet with threats of legal action against his critics (and bragged about it, too – perhaps as a subtle warning to others to keep their thoughts to themselves). That’s not the same as the state itself stopping free speech, but it is an example of an individual trying to use the civil laws of the state to stop someone else’s right to speak freely. Significantly, of course, the same person has only gone as far as threatening the use of the law rather than successfully suing anyone. Because of the potential costs involved, the threat of legal action is usually enough to shut someone up. The point, of course, is that using legal thuggery to close down criticism is a tacit admission that paranormal and supernatural claims cannot stand on their own merits. That is what censorship is, not the mere criticism of bad ideas.

If fact, we are fortunate in the UK (as in many other western democracies so far) to be able to speak out about all kinds of things. But the fact that people have that right does not mean that people have the right to impose their personal beliefs on others. What I mean is that religious people, for example, have the right to teach their beliefs in their churches, but I don’t have the right to insist that I should be able to intrude on a church service and start to give a lecture about science, and I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. I don’t see that as a restriction on my right to free speech.

In a similar way, religious people do not have the right to insist that science classes should include non-scientific concepts like creationism. That’s an old, worn-out idea about “teaching the controversy.” Except that there is no controversy at all – science agrees that the universe is about 13.82 billion years old, and evolution is a fact. Religion has no right to intrude into science classes any more than science has to intrude into church services. Unless maybe the creationists would like to invite science to teach in their churches, like they themselves want to proselytise in schools, colleges and universities.

No, not really; the last thing creationists want is to allow any kind of dissent with respect to their own faith. And they think that not allowing religion into science classes is somehow a violation of their right to free speech?

On the Bad Thinking blog, I don’t have a problem. I say what I think, and if anyone wants to reply, then I will publish their comments in full; I will, however, reply to those comments. The only comments I am probably not going to publish are those that are clearly libellous towards any third party, or those that are, in my opinion, likely to incite hatred or violence, and comments that are completely off-topic. Then again, I might publish some outrageous comments if they just demonstrate the ignorance and stupidity of the commenter. I have done that several times.

If someone wants to criticise anything I write on this blog, I am not going to accuse them of trying to suppress my freedom of speech. They can’t stop me from speaking out, after all. The fact that my comments elsewhere were deleted was an annoyance, and the fact that my comments on another blog were removed under the bogus threat of legal action against another person was doubly annoying; that did not, however, stop me from saying what I wanted to say. I simply started my own blog. Anyone can do it.

If someone writes a stupid article about alleged aliens, other paranormal claims or wants to assert that exorcism is a viable treatment for what is actually a mental illness, then I will criticise it. If I am denied the right to comment on their website, blog, newspaper site or whatever, then I will use my own blog to do that criticism. The fact that I am not allowed to comment on that website or blog does not mean that my right to freedom of expression is being suppressed, even if someone is trying to shut me up because he or she can’t take legitimate criticism. What constitutes suppression of free speech is a law that prevents it, or when someone uses the threat of a civil legal action to stop me or others from speaking out.

Personally, I can’t imagine myself instituting legal action against someone who has defeated me in a logical argument – you know, the type of argument where your premise has to be supported with testable evidence and the conclusion has to follow from the premises. Aliens are here? If you want to tell me that, then you have to supply the evidence for your assertion; it’s not good enough to say you have the evidence but just aren’t going to supply it. Let’s face it, in a court of law you can’t convict anyone of a crime by saying you have the evidence but it doesn’t get to be examined. The burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim. If you claim aliens are here, but you want to sue me because I want to see the evidence, then go ahead and try it. I will laugh at you. Then try to sue me for laughing at you. And then try to sue me for publicising the fact that you are making claims without credible evidence.

The truth is no libel.

Furthermore, if I criticise your nonsensical claims on someone else’s blog or website, don’t bother to get my comments removed from there under the threat of legal action against someone else; I will criticise what you have to say on this blog. I don’t libel anyone; I just offer honest criticism. If you can’t take that, then don’t waste your time.

Evidence presented for alleged paranormal phenomena always fails the tests of science, and often enough also the test of the basic common sense of an intelligent and rational person. I have the right to point that out.

Even if I am wrong about the paranormal, I think I have the right to question the various claims made. I think I have the right to ask for evidence for the claims that the paranormalists make. I think I have the right to demand that those claims withstand objective scrutiny and analysis. I think I have the right to have those claims substantiated by the people who make those claims.

And I think I have the right to question those claims without being under the threat of legal action for just asking the claimants to prove what they say.

I also don’t want to live in a society where the state could prosecute me or execute me for questioning the status quo. Even worse, somewhere where a mob of ignorant fanatics might hack me to death just for asking for some basic human rights to be extended to minorities that would like to see themselves allowed to follow their own beliefs without fear of irrational and violent retribution.

There is a lot of ignorance in the world, and a lot of ignorant people who seem to be hell bent on keeping it that way. The paradox, of course, is that the more ignorant a person is, the less able he or she is to understand that they don’t know things, and the more confident they are that they are right. And when those people have influence or power, then we are all in trouble. That doesn’t just apply to a political system where vested interests will allow the human race to go extinct through climate change because there are short term profits to be made, but also where religious beliefs are challenged and so the heretics and blasphemers (that’s actually everyone on Earth from every other religion’s point of view) must be suppressed and oppressed, not to mention killed whenever possible. Unfortunately, we have those who would simply like to have science stopped in favour of the irrational.

Sorry, folks, although I can’t personally do anything about the big picture, i.e., politicians misleading and manipulating people for their own personal gain, or the pious murdering innocent people because they believe their particular god wants them to do it, I can, at least, add my own voice to the battle for rational thinking. And I don’t intend to be gagged by those who think they can get their own way through legal threats in lieu of testable hypotheses. We are in what can be called the marketplace of ideas. If you want to say, for instance, that disease is a result of sin, then prove it; that was the medieval answer to why pandemics occurred in the days when no one had any idea about germs, viruses, toxins, etc. In the meantime, I will point out that an antibiotic will cure that disease, but no amount of prayer will do anything at all. And that can be tested and proved, by the way. In those days, there might have been a few lucky people who had a natural immunity to an ailment, so for them prayer “worked.” Hallelujah!

We’ve moved on since then, even if the devout will not accept that fact. It’s incredible that nowadays – in the twenty first century, for crying out loud – there are still people who believe that mental illness is not caused by a malfunction in the brain or just a fault in someone’s personal psychological outlook, but possession by an external supernatural source (a demon or whatever their particular religion deems it to be). A physical brain problem can often be treated with a drug intervention; a psychological problem can often be resolved with a psychological therapy. Sometimes there might be a combined treatment. What doesn’t solve such a problem, though, is prayer, exorcism, or any other form of what is, in fact, nothing more than superstition in the form of wishful thinking.

There is a lot of bad thinking in the world, and it has to be challenged. People have the right to promote their beliefs, but others have the right to challenge them, especially if those beliefs are without substance or are harmful in some way. Free speech is fine – an essential component of a civilised society – but free speech cuts both ways: say what you want, but don’t whine or make threats (legal or otherwise) when someone challenges you.

Free speech is important and has to be defended; I’m not frightened when someone disagrees with me, and I’m not going to use violence or the threat of legal action to stop anyone from telling me they think I’ve got it wrong. I’m not even going to refuse to publish here a logical argument that proves I have made an incorrect statement. I don’t see the need to get upset if I happen to be wrong about something. I don’t mind learning something new: I’m a sceptic, after all, so if I doubt a claim you make, then just offer your supporting evidence. If it holds water, I will probably go along with it. What’s the big deal?

On the Bad Thinking blog, say what you want. You can have your say without being censored just so long as you are not demanding that anyone else has to be censored in your favour.

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Former Bishop of Durham calls for Christian Theocracy, As Islamists Call For Sharia, While Atheists Just Want A Peaceful Life

bish of durham exSo, it turns out that a former Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, reckons that it’s about time democracy was done away with and replaced with theocracy.

As this article from the National Secular Society puts it, the Bish says:

“The whole meaning of God’s kingdom is about the one true God calling time on the world’s wicked empires and setting up a radically different empire instead.”

But we had all that in Britain a few hundred years ago when Catholics and Protestants were in some kind of race with each other to see who could torture, maim and burn the most heretics (i.e., each other, mostly) . And don’t forget – it was Christian “morality” that caused all that suffering for so many people. Maybe the Bishop would like to see a return to that good old fashioned fire and brimstone control that the church could exert over the ordinary people. Even kings came under the control of the church.

Yeah, let’s start burning philosophers and astronomers again. But the Bishop has, whether he likes it or not, been overtaken by the Enlightenment – which he also detests, apparently. Possibly referring to the present refugee and migrant situation, he says:

“The problem is that the West has bought so deeply into the narrative of the Enlightenment and then can’t understand what has gone wrong when the tragedies of this world literally wash up on our shores.”

Bought into the Enlightenment?  As if that is a bad thing? Yes, of course: no theology ever invented by man (they’re all patriarchal, after all) has ever had any use for anyone who could think for themselves; that sort of thing is the biggest danger to any religion, of course.

The only way nowadays that a religion could replace democracy in this country (apart from the constant threats of violent revolution by some Islamic extremists) would be the the paradox of democracy – if enough religiots voted together, then democracy itself could be voted out of existence.

Shariah-4-UK

The (mostly masked) Muslim people (men, not women, of course) in the above picture are using their democratic right to freedom of expression to demand that their right to freedom of expression should be revoked so that they should not be allowed to do what they are now doing – demanding that they should not be allowed to demand the law be changed to stop them demanding what they are demanding. If you can work that out, put your answer in the comments. (It actually comes within the logical fallacy of circular reasoning or, more formally, begging the question. In other words, Bad Thinking.)

Maybe the Bishop would like to see a referendum on the subject. He can’t invoke the power of the church to enforce his version of theocracy, but I wonder if he would be prepared to put his idea to a democratic vote? The population of the UK could have a vote to decide whether we have our present system of government (which is itself far from perfect by any objective measure); a Christian theocracy; an Islamic theocracy; a Hindu theocracy; a [insert a long list of religions here] theocracy; a plutocracy; an oligarchy; even pure anarchy or a new version of the Wild West, where individuals make their own laws which, almost by definition, is pure chaos and lawlessness anyway. In such a scenario, you would be given the right to have all your rights taken away from you! (After that, though, you won’t be able to change your mind again.)

Personally, I’m not taken with the idea that I might (actually would) be tortured and killed in the Bishop’s ideal society just for not believing in his particular god. I find the whole idea unsatisfactory. As an atheist and secularist I think that all religious people should have the right to follow their own religion without interference and that right should be protected by secular law. Similarly, people who have no religious beliefs should have the same rights and protections to not be forced to follow any religion. The only proviso I insist on is that so long as people follow their religion or lack of the same, they cause no harm to any other person.

If you are religious, then by all means bow to and worship whichever god or gods you believe in. I am not going to interfere with your right to do that, but I expect the same courtesy from you: I do not believe in your god or gods; so don’t interfere with my own lack of belief.

For as long as I can stand on my feet, I will defend your right to grovel on your hands and knees.

In the meantime, Bishop Wright can sod off back to the middle ages – where all religions belong. I’ll stick with the Enlightenment, thank you very much.

The Poison Of Religion

Raif Badawi pic from the BBC

In January this year (2015) Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi received the first fifty of one thousand lashes he was sentenced to by the Saudi Arabian “justice” system for being disrespectful to Islam. He had also been sentenced to ten years in prison and a fine, although it goes without saying that he is unlikely to survive such a flogging – even if it is to be carried out in stages, supposedly giving him time to recover sufficiently enough for the full sentence to be administered.

And while this is going on, Saudi Arabia is – unbelievably – actually on the UN’s Human Rights Council!

There has, of course, been an international outcry over the barbarism that is being inflicted on a man who had the courage to speak out in favour of the freedoms we enjoy in civilised western countries, where we can think freely and even criticise the status quo. But in an Islamic state like Saudi, independent thought and expression of dissenting beliefs can invite horrendous punishment and even death. And this is the 21st century!

The sentence of another fifty lashes has been postponed numerous times since January, giving some hope that the Saudi authorities might have been giving the case further consideration, and possibly even been willing to give in to the worldwide pressure to revise the sentence imposed on Raif. Unfortunately, as the BBC reports, the Saudi regime has confirmed that the original sentence of 1,000 lashes and ten years jail will be carried out.

To their shame, western governments aren’t really making as much of a fuss as they could, or should, nor will they as long as they are so eager to buy Saudi oil, and equally eager to sell them arms. Not only that, but the newly-elected Conservative Party government in Britain has promised to repeal the Human Rights Act that protects every citizen in the UK from the same medieval barbarism that leaves every person in Islamic countries in fear of the ominous rap on the door in the middle of the night. Or just the wrath of an ignorant lynch mob at any time of the day.

There is little I can do as an individual to help this man whose “crime” is nothing more than speaking reasonably. All I can do is add my own voice to the many others who are speaking out and hope that eventually it might make a difference. Add your voice too, if you cherish – and want to keep – the freedom to think for yourself.

In the UK and other western countries, everyone has freedom of conscience, and that includes the freedom to follow any religion without hindrance, as well as the freedom to follow no religion at all. That’s the way it should be, but it doesn’t happen in any country where politics and theocracy are so intertwined that they become, in fact, the same thing.

Religion, as the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out, poisons everything.

A Welcome To My New Readers

the_data_so_farI’ve had a sudden spike in page views on the Bad Thinking blog since last Thursday (26th March 2015). That was the day I was featured in the Shields Gazette in Mike Hallowell’s Wraithscape column.

(Picture credit: xkcd)

It’s the second time Mike has featured me in the Gazette, moaning that I have criticised his writings. At least he quoted the address for the blog, and it looks like some people have taken the trouble to manually type it into their web browsers to have a look. Unfortunately, his article has not been published online, so I can’t reply to him there. And readers therefore can’t visit here with a simple click, so my thanks to those who have been intrigued enough to come along.

It’s a pity I wasn’t allowed a right to reply; after all, Mike turns up here regularly to reply to anything I have to say about what he writes. Not to worry, though. There is plenty of blog fodder in his article, which I will deal with here in due course.

In the meantime, new readers who want an antidote to woo in general are welcome to peruse the articles I publish if they want to sharpen up their critical thinking skills. If you want to criticise anything I write, that’s fine: I don’t get upset or paranoid about it.

This Is Getting Tedious

untitledThis post is fairly important to me, because I am allowing Mike Hallowell, who has, in the past, had comments I have made elsewhere about his paranormal and supernatural claims on the internet removed under the threat of legal action, the space to speak his own mind, uncensored, on my own blog. I believe in free speech, and I think that the way to counter a bad argument is with a better argument, not legal thuggery or any kind of threat or intimidation.

My last post detailed an actual weird experience I had that many other people would have assumed to be an actual encounter with a UFO (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy, for the dyslexic). But it turned out to be something more mundane; not the sort of thing a UFO “expert” wants to hear, of course, because rational explanations for extraordinary events are taboo for the woo fraternity. For them, the comforting belief in their fantasy is preferable to the objective reality that is actually out there, and if some of them can make some money from writing cobblers they truly and honestly believe, then that is the way it just happens to be.

I admit I included an “in-joke,” not intended for the casual reader of this blog, but with meaning to only a very small audience of sceptics who are “in on it,” although Mike Hallowell, self-proclaimed expert in matters paranormal (who has never proven any of his paranormal claims to the standards required by science or ordinary rationality), noticed it. And it seems to have hit a nerve.

Mike is rather sensitive when his various claims are exposed to scrutiny. It’s not just me who criticises him, of course, it must be almost a full time occupation for him chasing his critics around the internet, but in the process failing to recall the old maxim, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” (This is a good place to start if you want a flavour of what I mean.)

And so it is here. Mike submitted a comment to that last post, but I did  not publish his comment on that particular thread because it was, first of all, completely off-topic and did not address the subject of the post at all. It’s standard practice on blogs for the host to reject comments that do not contribute anything to the subject at hand. I think that’s fair enough, but I think it’s also fair to let him have his say while I demonstrate to him where he is going wrong with his petty outburst. Hence this new post.

Also, the comment he submitted included some of the false allegations that he has made numerous times in the past and seems to be prepared to continue indefinitely into the future. I think the best thing to do here is to nail those allegations once and for all, and maybe, if necessary, create a new section on the Bad Thinking blog to do that. For me, it will be much easier to have a specific area where my refutations of Mike’s comments can be dealt with for readers by clicking on a ready-made link, rather than me composing a new reply to old tropes every time Mike decides to go ballistic.

Here is Mike’s comment in full, with my responses, with my answers in red Times New Roman.

Mike Hallowell commented on My Very Own UFO

One thing that frustrates me when the woo folks have a tale to tell, i.e., some claim of the paranormal that sounds rather …

“Should I send it off for “expert analysis” and see if there are any “startling results” to follow?”

It doesn’t really matter, for in my experience you’ll have fibbers claiming you did this anyway even if you didn’t. I had an experience like this once, where a local” sceptic” made a similar claim about me. In fact, the accusation was drawn from an article written by another journalist entirely! You couldn’t make it up. The chap concerned claimed that I’d made such claims “many times” in one of my own columns. I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction. I still read through our lengthy correspondence on the matter with fondness every now and then when my faith in the ability of our species to think creatively starts to wane.

Obviously, I am the “local sceptic” Mike is referring to. But he is being disingenuous here, and did not include a link to the article he means, nor did he quote me accurately. I have said elsewhere that Mike claims to send evidence away for analysis, and which returns startling results. That was sarcasm with a bit of hyperbole that went over his head. I have not claimed that he has made that claim “in one of his columns,” but he certainly has claimed to have sent evidence “away for analysis” and he has claimed to have received “startling results.” But his claims are empty anyway because he consistently refuses to release any of these alleged results for public scrutiny.

The article by “another journalist entirely” can be found here: Is This The Face Of The Salon Ghost?. That article appeared on 6th March, 2009 – more than five years ago. It is clear that the reporter interviewed Mike, whom she describes as a “Gazette columnist and ghost buster,” and there are several quotes by him. She also says, “Mr Hallowell has sent the pictures off to be analysed, and an overnight vigil is to be organised to gather more evidence from the salon.” [Emphasis added] It appears to be a follow up article to this one about the same “haunted” salon published on 17th February 2009 (two prominent pieces of free publicity for a local business – not bad).

It is obvious that Mike must have said that to the reporter, even though it is not presented as a verbatim quote, and in any case it is standard journalistic practice to sometimes describe what someone has said without the need to put every single utterance into quotation marks. If Mike said to the reporter something like, “Oh, by the way, I’ve sent those snaps away to be analysed,” then reporting that he has said so is acceptable. At the end of the article, though, there is a direct quote from Mike: “Until they have been analysed further we can’t make any definite pronouncements…” Any reasonable interpretation of this article suggests that Mike Hallowell did indeed claim to have sent his snapshots away for analysis by some unnamed third party. (He did not say, “Until I have analysed…”)

Now here’s the problem: 1) Is Mike denying that he told the reporter that he has sent those pictures off for analysis? I have suggested to him in the past that if the reporter has misquoted him, or (even worse) just made it up (a serious ethical breach), then he should make a formal complaint to the Shields Gazette and demand a retraction and an apology. He could even threaten to sue them if they refuse to do so (he regularly threatens legal action against his critics, so this should be no different). If he is willing to let the article stand, then he is, by implication, accepting that it is a fair account of what he actually said. Assuming that The Shields Gazette and Mike Hallowell (freelance Gazette columnist paid money by that newspaper) are honest and dispassionate seekers and reporters of the truth, then there is no danger that The Gazette will refuse his request to retract or amend that article, nor will they drop his column if he wants to threaten them with such legal action to ensure that his personal integrity is maintained.

Then again, I’m a sceptic; I shouldn’t make assumptions, but you can if you want to.

Another problem: 2) I’m not aware of anyone – myself included – accusing Mike of writing that article. Where did that come from? There is no dispute that it was written by someone else. And so what? It is completely irrelevant. Also, I have not been able to find a follow-up article by the same reporter to tell us the results of the analysis of those photos that Mike told her he was sending away for that purpose, and I am also unable to find anything about them published by Mike himself. As I have also said in the past, when Mike says he has sent stuff away for analysis, no one, in my opinion, should be expecting to hear anything about them again. But you never know; after all this time the results of that analysis might be in now, so perhaps Mike will publicise it. (It is five years later, though, so personally I don’t really expect to hear anything about it again.)

And has Mike ever claimed to have had “startling results” returned from evidence that he has actually claimed to have sent away for analysis? Yes, indeed, although it’s not at all clear to me why this is such an important point to him – and it clearly is, because every time I refute it, he comes back with the same old trope as if it were the first time it had ever been brought up.

But here’s something sneaky: Mike challenged me some time ago on someone else’s blog to prove that he had ever made such a claim. I was happy to oblige, and I provided a link to his own website where it was stated that some audio recordings from one of his poltergeist investigations had been subject to analysis, and had returned, he claimed, startling results He says (above), “I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction.” That is a false claim.by Mike. He challenged me to prove claims I made, even offering to pay £30.00 to charity if I did so. I did, but he decided that I did not and he therefore did not pay up. (The blog I am referring to is owned by my sceptical friend Brian, who has allowed me to identify him as the blogger who removed my comments under legal threat against him, rather than Mike Hallowell defeating me through logical argument. Although Brian focuses mostly on local political issues that might not be of much interest to people outside of South Shields, he is also a sceptic with an often  (Occam’s) razor-sharp insight into the world of woo. He and I discussed Mike Hallowell’s legal threat before he removed my comments, which he did with my agreement. But those comments of mine have been merely “unmodified.” They are still there in cyberspace and might be reinstated in light of the new Defamation Act introduced on 1st January this year. (The link I have given, if anyone is hardy enough to try to wade through it all, will not make an awful lot of sense in some places. With some of my comments removed at this time it seems a bit disjointed. When I contributed my comments, it was before I started my own blog, and I used to comment in various places under my old handle, “the skeptic.” After comments I made on the Shields Gazette website about the same article in the above link were removed, comments on Brian’s blog were removed under legal threat. That was the reason I started my own blog – my comments were taken down from Mike Hallowell’s newspaper column comments section for no good reason, and then other comments of mine were removed from someone else’s private domain through bogus legal threats. I decided to start my own blog where Mike Hallowell himself will not be censored (although he does that to others with threats of legal action in lieu of evidence to support his anti-scientific claims), and I will not be bullied into removing fair criticism of the unsubstantiated claims of uneducated people who claim expertise in subjects for which they have neither accredited training nor qualifications.) And before Mike Hallowell starts whining (again) that he had nothing to do with the removal of my comments from the Gazette website, I never did accuse him of doing so; it is just as likely that the Gazette removed them because they realised that my comments showed up their columnist as an ignoramus. Perhaps one might even consider the possibility that the technologically-savvy South Shields Poltergeist did it. Can anyone disprove a claim like that? No? It must be true, then, by Mike Hallowell’s own “logic” – the argument to ignorance – see below)

But did any of that resolve the issue? No, it didn’t, because after I posted the link, the words he complained about were changed on his website from “startling results” to “extremely interesting results.” Some people might think that that change is relatively minor and doesn’t make a great difference to the overall meaning, but it was obviously important to Mike, who has never let it drop. But the point is, when I rose to his challenge to show where he had ever said that evidence he had had analysed returned startling results, he changed the very words that would confirm what I had said.

Here are the before and after screenshots from his own website:

1_Before

1_After

Even in his magnum opus (The widely panned The South Shields Poltergeist) he says clearly (and get this if you want a laugh) that he sent  a copy of the alleged poltergeist’s handwriting away to a graphologist for, yes, analysis. (There is no copy of the graphologist’s analysis published, either. Startling results? Extremely interesting results? Mike has said before that he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, so don’t expect too much.) And it’s pretty much the same with two “well qualified nurses” in the book who supposedly confirmed that the alleged injuries caused to one of the central characters in the same book must have been paranormal in origin. You might not be surprised to learn that these unnamed nurses, who did not give written testimony in the book as other witnesses did, have now transformed into the more vague, but still anonymous, “medical personnel.”

Hallowell snip 02

“The footage was reviewed by medical personnel experienced in treating such wounds and they stated categorically that it would have been absolutely impossible for such wounds to disappear in such a short space of time.”

Anyone who has seen this footage will know that it is poorly lit and of very poor quality; whatever is happening is indistinct at best, but “experienced nurses” or “medical personnel” had no problem with it. The footage that was on the internet shows, maybe, with a bit of imagination, some slight marks on the person’s back, but the “medical personnel”  presumably must have been able to discern the victim’s back being “slashed to ribbons,” as Mike puts it in the book. There’s not much chance of ever viewing it again, though, if you want to form an opinion of your own. After much criticism and laughter, Mike had it removed from the internet to save his blushes to protect his copyright.

Mike will probably want to come back on these points about his alleged book, but I hope he gives his underling colleague and co-author, Darren Ritson, permission to join in.

On a different note, I’d like to raise a couple of points about the following comment you made:

“The evidence for UFOs – Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy (ASFAGs as I think they should be called) – is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.”

You claim (in opposition to many astronauts, pilots, police officers, astronomers, military personnel, scientists and others) that, “The evidence for UFOs…is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.” All those people who claim to have seen the hard evidence must be lying, I suppose. [Mike can suppose that if he wants to, but that is not my position on the matter. In any case, calling upon the status of those alleged witnesses is a fallacy called the appeal to authority.]

People like Dr. Edgar Mitchell, Major Gordon Cooper and others have reached their conclusion that UFOs exist because they have seen the hard evidence. [No, those astronauts have claimed to have seen the hard evidence. They have not produced it.] You have reached your conclusion that they do not exist based on a perceived absence of evidence when you are in no position to know. [I know that hard evidence of UFOs is not in the public domain. It would be pretty big news if it was.] I’m pretty sure I’m on safe ground when I say that their position is far more logical than yours. [No, it is illogical for people to believe extraordinary claims on nothing more than hearsay – whoever it might be who makes those extraordinary claims.]

Are all the expert witnesses lying, deluded or insane? [Perhaps some of them are; others are enjoying a lucrative income from the lecture circuit, writing Aliensabsurd books and articles and taking part in stupid TV programmes about UFOs, “ancient aliens,” and other assorted nonsense, also without producing a shred of testable evidence. They have motivation to be less than critical about the claims they make, even if they are sincere about it. Mike could have offered another possibility – are they, like many other people, merely susceptible to misinterpreting what they have experienced?] Many have said that they are prepared to testify before Congress regarding what they know at great risk to their careers. [I’d like to see it happen. They would be required to produce evidence to support their claims, but I think it’s unlikely that the American Congress wants to appear to the world to be giving a platform to a bunch of cranks.] The world awaits your judgement on the matter, although I think we already have a good idea what it might be. You once argued that witnesses like Dr. Mitchell could have been fed some rather dodgy info supporting the existence of UFOs to cover up a secret government project. [No, I didn’t “argue” that the US government was feeding “dodgy info” to anyone, I suggested that the US government might just not discourage people from thinking they have seen UFOs if they have actually witnessed top secret testing of new military projects. The military might even encourage people to maintain their false beliefs, although I think it is going a bit too far to assume they are actively “feeding” anyone “dodgy” information.] Not impossible in essence, but certainly impossible when one takes the evidence provided by Dr. Mitchell in its entirety; something you signally failed to do, if you recall, when you last tried to pour cold water on his testimony. [Mitchell’s testimony “in its entirety” is anecdotal, and not proof of anything: all talk, no substance.]

When Major Cooper testified before the UN to the existence of UFOs and their extraterrestrial occupants, was he fibbing too? [I don’t know. Did they believe him and then issue any kind of document, judgement or directive to confirm what he was claiming? Are his claims now official UN policy adopted and implemented by member countries? I didn’t see it if they did, and it is certainly the kind of thing the UFO people would publicise. I haven’t seen that, either.] Just what do you say to a veteran astronaut who states, “For many years I have lived with a secret…a secrecy imposed on all specialists in astronautics. I can now reveal that every day, in the USA, our radar instruments capture objects of form and composition unknown to us. And there are thousands of witness reports and a quantity of documents to prove this, but nobody wants to make them public. Why? Because authority is afraid that people may think of God knows what kind of horrible invaders. So the password still is: We have to avoid panic by all means”? [I think I would say something like, “Wow! That’s incredible! Show me all that evidence! (that you haven’t shown to anyone else).” And I might also say something like, “You, like all other military personnel of your rank, are entrusted with state secrets that you now want to blab about? Where I come from, that would be called treason. You are prepared to betray your military and your country? OK, then, give me all the documentation and I will pass it on to The Guardian newspaper while you make your escape to Russia and join your fellow countryman Edward Snowden, who also gave the game away (with incontrovertible evidence of his claims about the American government’s surveillance of not only its own citizens, but the citizens of countries all over the world.). Become a fugitive in the name of openness and truth and I will support you on my own blog. Oh, and pick up a million dollars from James Randi before you leave – it might come in handy.”]

Was Major Cooper lying when he said that a condition of secrecy had been imposed upon specialists in the field of astronautics? [Hardly; the Americans (and every other government) usually don’t want foreign powers to know what they are up to, so secrets “in the field of” just about anything is pretty normal. Non-governmental organisations (businesses for example) also require secrecy from some of their staff.] And why would such secrecy be imposed if these thousands of sightings were simply misattributions? [It might be because if the US government exposed the stuff that is nonsense, then what is left is (dare I say it) the truth – the very thing they don’t want people to know about, things like new military technology that has nothing to do with alleged aliens.] Why would US Navy witnesses with extremely high security clearance levels claim that huge a UFO had emerged from the sea in front of USN vessels before flying off at incredible speed? [It depends what is in it for them. Decades in jail, maybe, for giving away state secrets, or making money on the UFO circuit talking nonsense to a gullible audience, knowing that they are not in danger of prosecution because they are not giving anything away at all.]  Are they lying too? [I didn’t suggest that anyone was lying; they might be shrewd. Mike Hallowell has, in the past, said that he thinks it is the interpretation of evidence that makes a difference. Those shrewd navy witnesses might have an interpretation that just happens to have a superficial plausibility, acceptable to the believers even if their interpretation of the alleged evidence contradicts common sense, science, logic and reality in general.]

The only argument you have to fall back on is the old canard that we can’t rely solely on eyewitness testimony without “hard evidence”. [Eye witness testimony is often wrong; that is why it needs to be backed up with “hard evidence.” Mike once used a courtroom analogy with regard to personal testimony, but if he were falsely accused of, say, committing a murder, would he think it fair if he were convicted on the say-so of a couple of high-ranking, but mistaken, military personnel? He wouldn’t be able to prove them wrong; in that case I think he might suddenly want to rethink his strongly held belief in capital punishment.] The problem is that hundreds of professional people are now openly claiming to have seen just such evidence, which forces you into the uncomfortable position of having to argue that although you may not have seen the evidence yourself, they are either all making it up or are mistaken. [Here are two logical fallacies in one sentence: the first is the fallacy called the appeal to popularity, and the other is called a false dichotomy.  The truth value of a claim is not determined by how many people believe it, and Mike offers only two possible alternatives regarding why the claims have been made, but there are other possibilities.] How can you “mistakenly” see a UFO in a USAF hangar? [If it is Unidentified, how can you know what it is? Could it actually be a new and very secret military project? What does an actual alien space ship look like? (Hint: it probably doesn’t look like a blurred smudge (BS) – the typical “evidence” produced on photographs and film/video that the UFO buffs seem to have orgasms over.) But go ahead and show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” be associated with secret governmental projects, as was Dr. Mitchell, in which the hard evidence is examined and evaluated? [He says he was; show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” film a UFO hovering over a military base and then have it confiscated by the security services the next day? [It’s easy to make a claim. Show the evidence.] Were they all dreaming? You can deny the eyewitness testimony all you want, but to pit yourself against such a large array of respected experts in so many different fields is bordering on the bizarre. [No, believing big claims with no evidence is what is bizarre (and in this case is still the fallacious appeal to popularity and the appeal to authority). In fact, it is irrational.] Your very own Dr. Carl Sagan once said, quite rightly, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Your stance flies in the face of this maxim, but with you it’s worse; you don’t even have any evidence that the evidence is absent! [Carl Sagan, one of the most influential scientists and sceptics of the 20th century, is described in this article by Mike Hallowell as being “not very rational.” So it’s interesting that Mike quotes him here to try to support his case. But the fact is the burden of proof is on the person making a claim. Absence of evidence is still absence of evidence. The only people who can provide the evidence are those who claim to have it. To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, “Assert something without evidence, and I can dismiss it without evidence.”] Here are two hours of testimony from those who have indeed seen the evidence. Perhaps you’d like to tell us whether these are all lying or deluded too: [Yes, testimony. I’m not going to waste two hours watching talking heads unless they are presenting testable evidence. I’ve done that many times in the past; if this is just “personal testimony,” it is not of much value.]

http://www.youtube.com/watchfeature=player_detailpage&v=7vyVe-6YdUk#t=549

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that you don’t have to believe in the ET hypothesis. But what you really need to do is at least take a stance of detachment and withhold judgement considering the quality of the witness testimony arraigned against you. [There is no “quality” witness testimony arraigned against me. Just witness testimony for which there is no testable or confirmable evidence to support it. Testimony is not the same as proof. The woo brigade would like nothing better than for sceptics to “withhold judgement,” in other words, “shut up.”]

I really do find your stance quite intriguing, and would like to ask you on what evidence you make this assumption. I mean, unless you personally visit every building on the face of the planet large enough to house such an object you really wouldn’t know, would you? [The same argument applies to Mike, unless he has personally visited every possible location where an ASFAG (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy) might be hidden. I don’t, however, claim to “know,” I claim to doubt.] It doesn’t seem very scientific to me to deny the existence of something just because you haven’t personally seen the proof. [Mike Hallowell is a science denier anyway, but has Mike personally seen the proof? If so, then like his heroes, he has not presented it. To be fair, Mike does not claim to have had the same access to secret information as he thinks some astronauts have had, he just believes what they say, and that’s good enough for him. His readers should just believe him, in the same way he just believes what some astronauts say, and what other writers on the subject say they say. I do not believe that this planet is being visited by space aliens. However, I hold that opinion tentatively and if anyone can prove their claims then I will accept it. In the meantime, the probability that aliens are here is vanishingly small, given the fact that we still have only claims but no tangible evidence.] Wouldn’t a truly objective person withhold judgement on the matter rather than take a sceptical standpoint based on nothing more than a personal opinion? [What – as opposed to someone believing extraordinary claims based on nothing more than their own personal opinion formed from hearsay with no confirmable evidence to support it?]

Please explain to the world just how you KNOW that there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs other than anecdotal accounts. [I don’t claim to KNOW there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs (if that means extraterrestrial vehicles) but I know that the only evidence I have ever come across is anecdotal, not testable or confirmable. The burden of proof is still on the person making the claim.] It’s no good arguing that no one has seen such evidence, for that would just be yet another wild assumption on your part too, wouldn’t it? [I’m not arguing that no one has seen it, but if they’ve seen it, they should show it. Making claims about evidence for UFOs is rather like making claims about evidence for poltergeists: those who make the claims but refuse to prove their claims come in for justifiable criticism. Refusal to show the evidence or just making excuses for not doing so makes the claimant look rather foolish – except to the believers, who keep them in business.] Again, how could you possibly know? You are essentially arguing that because you haven’t seen something then it can’t possibly exist. [This is a straw man fallacy. (I’ll do a new post on the subject.) I am not “essentially” arguing that something I have not seen cannot possibly exist. I’ve explained the straw man fallacy to Mike some time ago.] Is this how true sceptics condition themselves to think? [Sceptics try to think logically, not Mike’s distorted version of what he thinks they think.] I’d be delighted to see a step-by-step explanation in your blog as to how you reach a position of disbelief when you could not possibly have determined whether such evidence exists or not. [This logical fallacy is called the argument to ignorance. Mike’s implication is that if one can’t disprove a claim, then it should be accepted. In fact, if a claim cannot be disproved, that is no basis for assuming its veracity.] You chide bad thinking, so please enlighten us as to how you reached your conclusion by utilising good thinking. [What conclusion is Mike referring to? He posted his comment on a post where my “conclusion” was that an apparent UFO I saw turned out, after investigation, to be nothing more than an optical illusion. I explained it in detail in that post.]

Mike is a regular critic of sceptics, science and the scientific method, so he will no doubt be able to tell me where I went wrong when I perceived what initially seemed to be an alien spaceship taking off from out at sea but then investigated it further to find out what it actually was.

Maybe I should have sent my account to him for possible publication in his Wraithcrap column, and seen it published with this kind of analysis:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/wraithscape/a-close-encounter-of-the-ufo-kind-1-6338120

Long story short: a fellow wakes up at 3.30 am and looks out of the window to see a saucer-shaped object; he gets his friend, who comes into the room and also sees it; it then shoots away at high speed. The fellow contacts Mike Hallowell thirty-odd years later, while it is still fresh in his memory, to tell him about it. Mike’s conclusion is:

“It was a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.”

An “expert” like Mike doesn’t, apparently, need to wonder how accurate a person’s memory of an event is more than thirty years later, nor how reliable that memory is from a person woken up in the middle of the night and still partially asleep. As Mike says:

“The question I would pose to skeptics is: On what basis should we disbelieve him – or for that matter, any of the other thousands of experients who have had similar encounters?”

It turns out you don’t even have to be a former astronaut to come out with a story that Mike will swallow believe, support and verify – at least to his own satisfaction. I could pose a question to Mike: how does he know that some of the tales he gets from his readers aren’t just made-up stories sent in to see if he would fall for it? (I’m sure it wouldn’t make any difference to him anyway; he writes up the drivel his fans send him and then trousers the cash for regurgitating it in the Shields Gazette and presumably other publications. You can probably read a version of that bilge in the next issue of UFO Wankfest Quarterly, or whatever).

For me, however, when I had a “UFO experience,” I decided to investigate it and found an answer that was consistently repeatable. What I found was an optical illusion, and in the light of that, there is no rational reason to believe that what I experienced was a UFO taking off from its secret underwater base.

I spent several weeks replicating what I found, also spending many hours doing so. But that’s a bit too sciencey for some people. I guess I could have saved my time and sent my initial observation off to Mike, just to see if he would publish it in the Shields Gazette. At first glance it certainly did look like “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control,” but in reality it was nothing of the sort. I don’t think Mike, in this instance at least, is going to contradict me, even if he can quite willingly publish outlandish claims from anyone else who sends him an uncorroborated claim that he, himself, did not witness, but which he can confidently validate as “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.

At the end of the day, I still think it’s better to try to confirm or disprove things rather than take someone’s word for it. You look silly otherwise.

I’m bored now.

 

Free Speech Now A Reality

At last Parliament has given the boot to the bully boy tactics commonly used by  those who have regularly resorted to the threat of legal action to stop fair criticism. The new defamation bill now just requires Royal Assent, after which the words, “Remove your blog post or I’ll sue the pants off you” won’t work.

There’s some information here, but there will no doubt be a lot more to come in the next few days as the media reports on it.

As a sceptical blogger, I am particularly pleased with this new law. It allows legitimate criticism of outlandish claims made by various members of the woo fraternity, but without the fear of being sued for trivial grievances. And what, exactly, is a trivial grievance? It could be a blogger saying to a paranormal advocate something like, “Where’s your evidence? You’ve been making these claims for years and there’s nothing to show for it.”

A statement like that infuriates the self-proclaimed experts who make a living from writing unsubstantiated cobblers aimed at  a credulous readership. When they are called out on it and challenged to provide the evidence that they say proves their claims, they respond with legal threats, not the evidence they say they have. Quite honestly (in my honestly held opinion, as it were) I think they have evidence, alright, but it’s probably the sort of evidence that would be laughed out of a junior school science class.

Then again, maybe their evidence for their paranormal claims is such that when they finally release it they will have the world at their feet: a Nobel Prize for starters, not to mention the worldwide adulation, invitations to lecture at the Royal Institution, etc., etc., …

Yeah, right.

I’ve been a victim of this kind of intimidation myself, although indirectly, in the sense that comments I made on another blog were taken down because the blogger was threatened with legal action if they stayed up. The comments I made on that blog were not libellous in any way, but the costs of defending a trivial claim can be ruinous even before any case gets anywhere near a court. So I don’t blame that particular blogger in any way; he was a victim of the kind of bullying that is now going to end.

Obviously, there does need to be protection for people against malice; publicly accusing an innocent person of some kind of wrongdoing is itself wrong and there has to be a system in place for suitable redress. The new law still protects people from libel, but the difference now is that libel laws cannot be used as a personal weapon to censor honest criticism.

So far it has been common for some people to proclaim all kinds of codswallop under the banner of freedom of speech, but at the same time stifling the freedom of speech of others by threatening legal action against anyone who criticises them. I suspect there will be a lot of bloggers right now busy dusting off old blog posts for republication – posts that were removed because of legal threats but which can now be waved in the faces of bullies who have had things their own way for too long

Bloggers can now publish on the basis of “Is it true?” rather than “Will they sue?” It’s nice to know that the people who have threatened critics with financial ruin could now be the ones facing hefty legal bills for bringing meritless claims that are going to be thrown back at them.

About time, too.