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Past Debates: Wendy Kaminer

Chat with Wendy Kaminer, author of Sleeping with Extraterrestrials
13 January 2001

Massimo: OK Wendy. This audience probably agrees with many of your points in the book, but you will excuse us if we will focus on whatever disagreements we might have. We are all committed to rational discourse and scientific evidence, but even within these parameters there may be ample room for disagreement, Which of course makes discussions like this one interesting to begin with.

WendyK: That's okay. I usually find disagreement much more interesting than agreement.

Massimo: OK, I'll start to warm things up a bit. You seem to downplay the biological evidence about differences between male and female humans, especially when it comes down to behavior. While I agree with you that any such difference doesn't imply anything about "better" or "worse," I thought your dismissal of neurobiological research on sex differences was a bit too fast. Since you accused Stossel of pseudo-science (perhaps rightly, I didn't see the show), I should point out that one of your arguments is not very well informed by biology either. In paraphrasing feminist Helen Hamilton Gardner you say that "no man's brain outweighed the brain of a whale. If intelligence were determined by brain weight, almost any elephant is perhaps an entire medical faculty." Except that it is well known that brain weight is correlated to body weight, and that any meaningful comparison can only be made only once this correlation is statistically accounted for. Any comment?

WendyK: I don't pretend to be an authority on the brain, but neither were 19th and early 20th scientists. My point was that the scientists who associated brain weight with intelligence were acting on the basis of assumptions, preconceptions about male and female intelligence - not scientific inquiry.

Massimo: That may be true (we don't really know that much about their personal ideologies). But why does that discredit modern research on gender differences in the brain?

WendyK: As I recall (and I haven't reread the chapter on junk science recently, I was attacking the media presentations of research on gender and the brain and pointing out the ways in which prevailing social prejudice affects the framing of scientific research. My understanding of research into the human brain (which, i admit is pretty elementary, is that relatively little is known about gender differences in humans and even less can be said about their actual cognitive effects.

Massimo: And I agree that scientific research can be biased by social trends, and it certainly has been in the past. But shouldn't a skeptic concentrate on the evidence rather than why it is being proposed? Isn't an attack on motives fall into the "genetic fallacy" (attack the group of individuals rather than their arguments)? But I agree with you that the current state of research is still too open to speculation one way or the other.

WendyK: In any case, I didn't mean to discredit research into gender and the brain, I did want to show how our own assumptions about it shape the way its viewed. But, I thought I was adopting a skeptical approach to reports about brain research, by pointing out their biases. The problem with research on sex differences generally is that people don’t view it objectively.

<PhillandSharron> Wendy, in general I agree with the theme of your book ... the world has become much too irrational. But one bothersome point - use a placebo if it helps?!

WendyK: Why not use a placebo if it helps?

Melissa: So, Phil, why not put the placebo effect to good use? It *IS* an effect, after all.

<PhillandSharron> Let me pick back up on placebos. Would religion fall into this same category? Is it therefore a good thing?

WendyK: As for placebos - Yes, I think that for many people, religion is a placebo, and I hope I made clear in the book that I believe religion to be a "good thing" for many people as well. I don’t consider myself particularly hostile to religion (or religions) per se; I am highly critical of the assumption that religious belief is an unmitigated good.

<PhillandSharron> Wouldn't it be nice if people could be healed by rationally-based cures - that is, mentally feel JUST as good about those type treatments.

Carl: I think that it is falling onto a trap to consider the religious trappings attached to basic humanistic values as a necessary part of the placebo? I meant the supernatural trappings.

WendyK: But many people are healed by "rational" cure, or medical science - and to the extent that state of mind affects health (consider stress and high blood pressure), placebos aren't necessarily irrational.

Melissa: Well, a couple of weeks ago I found myself praying. I said, "Lord, just get me through this week---and maybe I'll believe in you!" If there's a god, it'd better have a good sense of humor.

<PhillandSharron> But wouldn't it be good if people didn't NEED such placebos to be "healed?"

Massimo: Perhaps I'm going a bit far afield, but I think this is related to the religion/placebo discussion. In the movie "The Matrix" the protagonist is given a choice between a blue and a red pill. The first one will allow him to continue living in an imaginary but relatively painless world. The second one will plunge him into a harsh reality. He chooses the second one, and so would most people if the question is put that way. Yet, we are talking about religion or some other forms of fuzzy thinking as good. Are we patronizing?

Melissa: Believe it or not, my little "prayer" did help, by making me laugh at myself.

WendyK: Actually, I think it would be bad if people who can now be helped by placebos (and were not helped by conventional approaches) came to find placebos useless as well.

<PhillandSharron> But if "cures" are not based upon rational underpinnings, these people WILL come to find they are not helped.

WendyK: Of course religious people would find our discussion of religion extremely patronizing and offensive, and i sympathize with their perspective. What's interesting about belief in god is that it has nothing to do with intelligence or the capacity for rational thought; to people who believe, the presence of God is as real as the chair that I'm sitting on.

<PhillandSharron> Does that make God real?

Melissa: Carl, it's probably the "trappings" that provide the placebo effect more than the humanistic values. Smelling the smoky air, listening to the organ and the choir, looking at the soft light coming through the stained glass--that's what lowers the blood pressure and makes you ready to go back to work on Monday.

WendyK: Is God real? That depends on who you ask. God isn't real to me, but He/She/Whomever is quite real to millions of others.

Carl: I wasn't referring to the ritual but the notion of divine intervention and associated effects as trappings.

WendyK: I always avoid, when I can, getting embroiled in discussion about the existence of God - it's not a question that's amenable to argument.

Carl: God is real to many, just a love is or hate is, but is also just like them in that it is constructed by a mind/body interaction. Which does not guarantee actual physical existence.

Andy: Self destructive behavior is not cured by things like religion that involve the placebo effect. It may not even be postponed long.

Massimo: Hope you folks don't mind if I try to change subject a bit. I'd like to discuss your chapter on cyberspacy (after all, we are in cyberspace right now... ;-) We have read earlier for this book club Neil Postman and are familiar with his generally pessimistic attitude toward new technologies. I even agree with him to a larger extent than other members of this group. However, I cannot avoid the feeling that perhaps people were lamenting the end of civilization immediately after the invention of the printing press too. In fact, Plato has been known to say that writing is a curse because it leads people to stop thinking and rely on memorization instead. Apart from the obvious question of why then did he write so much (or why are you participating in an internet chat ;-), quite obviously civilization survived and indeed prospered as a result of both the invention of writing and of the printing press. Might not the same be true, with proper and perhaps even painful adjustments, of the internet?

WendyK: Massimo, I agree with you about the Internet, and in writing about what will be lost in cyberculture, I didn't mean to imply that nothing would be gained. But it's much easier to view the past and predict what will be lost than to look into the future. I imagine that cyberspace will help create new ways of being intelligent and creative that will be quite foreign to me.

Massimo: Yes, for example you correctly point out that perhaps the major problem with the internet is that one has little ideas about the reliability of different sources. Believe me, I experience this regularly with students presenting an article in Nature and a web link as if they were comparable sources. Yet, I already see plenty of signs that things will evolve pretty much like they did for the printing press and other media: some outlet will emerge as more reliable than others, and eventually the difference between the New York Times and the Washington Times will be as clear in cyberspace as it is in print. Or not?

<PhillandSharron> Both newspapers are probably liberal, right? The internet will wrest control from the bastions of the liberal left :-)

Melissa: Washington Times is the moonie paper.

Andy: Perhaps the excesses of some internet sites will even promote skepticism. It doesn't take long for bullshit to be called on usenet, where there interactivity.

WendyK: Maybe, I wonder if the cyberculture (and the legacy of post-modernism, in general) will lead to the devaluing of reliability. In cyberspace, with so many voices, will everything be a matter of perspective?

Massimo: Don't get me started on postmodernism; every time I hear the word I reach for my gun... (Unfortunately, I am a non violent person, so I don't have a gun).

Andy: The internet does allow for specialization and depth. TV doesn't, usually.

Melissa: There were many shining moments for me in reading your book. One of those was in your criticism of TV and music being played in all public spaces. It is so difficult to find a quiet place to read and think in public, for all the noise. I am beginning to complain in restaurants and I'm letting them know that I choose to eat lunch where no music is played.

WendyK: Re the increasing cacophony of public life - I do have an old-fashioned view that good, original thinking requires focus, which I think most people are incapable of attaining when in the midst of so much noise. I'm suspicious of multi-tasking.

Massimo: In the chapter "The therapeutic assault" you draw an intriguing parallel, on which however I harbor some doubts. You compare conspiracy theories about aliens allegedly in the hands of the government with the recovery movement. You say: "denials of deeply felt beliefs - about spaceship crashes or child abuse - are apt to be considered confirmations of their truth." Perhaps there is something in common among all cases of human denial (and in fact recent neurobiological research seems to confirm this), but then stories about aliens don't have any more of a special relationship with the recovery movement than with anybody holding tightly onto any opinion in the face of facts. Is your parallel therefore too broad or too narrow?

WendyK: Actually, stories about aliens have a very important relationship with the recovery movement: The alien abduction stories invariable involve allegedly recovered memories of being raped or otherwise abused by aliens. Alien abduction narratives, which reflected the cultural preoccupation with child abuse, were shaped by the recovery movement.

Massimo: Good point about aliens and sex.

Massimo: Hmm, but I thought alien abduction stories pre-date the recovery movement by decades. No?

WendyK: Re tales of aliens - there are reports of extra-terrestrial sighting dating back to the 19th century, but I don't think tales of sexual abuse by aliens were common until the post-recovery years.

Massimo: Wendy, you may be right on the sex-alien vs. recovery correlation. It would be interesting to conduct an in-depth sociological study on the matter. Skeptic magazine or Skeptical Inquirer should be interested.

Melissa: I'd bet it's already been done. Let's do a literature search!

<PhillandSharron> I think we need to be worried less about what is "real" to miscellaneous groups of people and more about what is "real" as supported by evidence.

Melissa: But the study of how something unreal as to evidence becomes real as to belief is an important thing about human nature to know about.

WendyK: Re the question about what is real - I agree that we need to focus on what we can know empirically, when we're talking about assertions that are amenable to empirical proof. I don't think it's productive, or even appropriate to put matters of faith (like a belief in the divinity of Jesus), to the test of empirical reasoning.

Massimo: I agree with Melissa. I think skeptics often pay too much attention to the truth out there and not enough to how humans perceive it or distort it.

<PhillandSharron> Why not treat the "divinity of Jesus" as we would the "story of the tooth fairy?" - is it because one is for an adult and one is for a child?

WendyK: There's nothing to be gained by comparing Jesus to the tooth fairy. You will never dissuade believers that God is a figment of their imagination. Why not allow people their faith (you can't deprive them of it anyway) but try to encourage people to distinguish between matter of faith and science?

Melissa: Sounds like the Martin Gardner approach.

Massimo: I have no problem with people believing in Jesus or the tooth fairy. It's when they want me to behave according to the precepts of their imaginary friends that I get nervous...

WendyK: I think that a majority of Americans would agree that religious people shouldn't be able to impose their views on others, but they disagree about the dangers of introducing religion into the public square, with public support.

<PhillandSharron> Someone convinced ME that Jesus was a figment of my imagination. I was once a very strong believer.

WendyK: People do lose their faith, but I don't think they lose it because of a rational argument, anymore than they gain it rationally. I suspect that people are temperamentally inclined to believe or disbelieve.

Melissa: We have that very sort of disagreement going on within our group.

Carl: You may never change a true believer's position but I don't think that most people are really true believers, they just haven't been questioning the generally accepted.

Melissa: The Sectarian Public Square chapter was a very strong argument against religious people dictating behavior to the rest of us.

Massimo: Yes, about that chapter ("The sectarian in the public square"): you make an interesting argument that a pluralistic society in which secularism is more or less accepted depends on the continuous strife among religious sects. Ergo, a potential big enemy of freethought would be true ecumenism, which could lead all religions to gang up against atheists and agnostics. I find this scenario intriguing, albeit unlikely to actually occur in practice because of irreconcilable differences among religious peoples of different creeds. Do you see this as a real threat to modern American society?

WendyK: No, I don't see ecumenism taking hold to a great degree. I think people are naturally tribal and sectarian and that part of religion's appeal is its exclusivity.

<PhillandSharron> I think that other of religion's appeals are authority and certainty.

WendyK: Don't overestimate the certainty of believers. They have their doubts and anxieties.

Massimo: It is ironic that religious "certainty" is actually the least certain of all truths, isn't it?

<PhillandSharron> Ironic - but as Wendy points out, certainty is quite possible is something is not susceptible to inquiry or rational thinking.

WendyK: I think that for many people, religion provides hope as much as belief, or rather hope as much as certainty.

Massimo: I was telling Melissa today that I found a quote from Arafat (of all people) about religious wars: he said that it is a matter of deciding whose imaginary friend is


WendyK: What a wonderful quote, especially considering the source. Where did you find it?

Massimo: I'll have to check the source, since it was on an Internet site... ;-)

Melissa: I agree with that (about religion offering hope). The world can sometimes seem short on hope.

Carl: Hope can come from other sources than supernaturalism.

<PhillandSharron> That's one of the first things we discussed. Wouldn't it be nice if people could find "hope" in just "being"

WendyK: Religion is at its most dangerous when it offers certainty and most helpful when it offers hope.

Massimo: I have one final question. When you ask "what fueled hysteria about recovered memories, child abuse, and conspiracies of satanic ritual abusers?" I find your explanation (in terms of resistance to women's liberation and a paradoxical help from the feminist movement) to be a "just-so" story, albeit an interesting one. Similarly, you say "like spiritualism, multiple personality disorder may have been a powerful if self-destructive metaphor for women struggling to forge alternative identities." Sounds good, but how are we going to test this kind of explanations, or - which is the same - why should we think that they are better than any number of other scenarios that one might come up with upon a moment's reflection?

WendyK: I don't think we can always test explanations of social trends, and I was offering opinion, speculation; I didn't pretend to be offering facts. Speculation is interesting, and people can take it for what its worth. Social criticism, after all, is not a science and doens't, or shouldn't, pretend to be.

Massimo: True. That is, however, what bothers me most about social sciences. There are exceptions, for example the research by historian Frank Sulloway on family dynamics and the effect of being a first vs. a later born.

WendyK: Massimo, your discomfort with social science (which is more grounded in empiricism than social criticism) reflects the yearning for certainty, I think.

Massimo: Not certainty, just a very likely maybe...

Massimo: Well, gang, I think it is time to thank our guest for a great hour of free-ranging discussion, and for having written a book that stimulated several of us (more

than participated to today's discussion) to think.

<PhillandSharron> People are complex systems and capable of believing *anything*. That's why your book, Wendy, is good - for asking us to reflect on what we are believing.

Carl: I find your comments and writings very helpful, enjoyable and encouraging, thanks.

WendyK: My pleasure. Sorry if I couldn't always quite keep up.

Melissa: Reading it was great fun. Thanks for writing!

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