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My Days with Baton Rouge Skeptics

When I was younger (say, 8 to 15), I was fascinated by the paranormal books and magazines, like Omni, pyramid power, UFOs, etc. Later on (say, 12 to 15 or so) I became, and remain, more skeptical. In law school I helped co-found a local skeptics’ group, at first named Mid-South Skeptics Association, and later BR-PRISM (Baton Rouge Proponents of Rational Inquiry and the Scientific Method). A reporter covered us in 1988 in the State-Times/Morning Advocate (here’s the story). We were loosely affiliated with CSICOP, if I recall correctly. The founder was a very smart man in his 70s or 80s, Henry Murry, that I became good friends with. He passed on some time ago. I handled our newsletter in the primitive computer days. I went to psychic demonstrations and handed out skeptic literature. I appeared on a local TV talk show, hosted by Pat Shingleton, debating a “psychic”–I brought with me a sealed envelope with a piece of paper with the word “trumpet” written on it, to test him on air, which I did, and which he failed (I had the video but it’s been lost, I think).

I eventually resigned from BR-PRISM, even before I left Baton Rouge, for several reasons.  One was that the group, just like CSICOP, refused to class religion as just another superstition like ESP and witchcraft and UFOs.  I didn’t understand this reluctance. If it was prudential, it seemed to me intellectually dishonest.  If it was because they viewed religion as somehow not as pseudoscientific or harmful as tabloid-type paranormal things, then I thought that was just inconsistent.  Some of our members were religious, and I just didn’t see how they could possibly support reason and still be religious (I’ve become less Randroid and stridently anti-religion since those years).

Another thing that bugged me was when we changed the name of our group to BR-PRISM, I and several others proposed “Baton Rouge Proponents of Rational Inquiry and the Scientific Method.”  But a few others insisted that we say “Rational Inquiry and Scientific Methods,” to keep from sounding too exclusivist or to keep our minds open to new scientific methods, I suppose.  This bugged me.

Finally, there was such a diversity of political opinion in the group, from free market to conservative to very liberal. I did not understand how you could be a proponent of science and reason, and still support the welfare-warfare state. It seemed to me that belief in the state was something akin to faith or a result of economic illiteracy. So, I resigned.

I received a letter on Jan. 5, 1989, from Michael Cavanaugh, a semi-retired lawyer in the group, who was also a churchgoer, who was working on the time on a book, Biotheology: A New Synthesis of Science and Religion (which apparently was published in 1995). One comment in the letter struck me. I had just finished my first semester in law school, and had done very well on the final grades. In his letter, he said:

I am finally ready to send you some of my writing for comment; I spared you during your first semester [in law school], but now you have to re-enter the stream of life, and not allow law school to consume you. That is, unless you aced out all the tests and have to keep up the pace. For your sake, I hope you didn’t. Let me know if you are ready to get the first chapter.

I have no doubt he was sincere but I found these sentiments to be very cynical.

Anyway, I wrote him my resignation, excerpted below:

Friday, January 6, 1989

Michael Cavanaugh

Dear Michael,

As you know, I haven’t been too active with BR-PRISM lately.  One reason is because of law school.  But also, I have been getting increasingly more interested and involved in Objectivism (Ayn Rand’s philosophy of reason, reality, rational selfishness, and laissez-faire capitalism).  In fact I have made a few weekend trips to Jackson, Mississippi, to discuss philosophy with a friend named Jack Criss, who is also an Objectivist.  Jack is 23 years old, as I am, and he hosts a talk show on WJNT AM radio there, 11:00 am to 1:00 pm each weekday.  He has even offered to interview me about BR-PRISM, but we haven’t really decided yet.

Jack and I and a few others are forming a loose Objectivist group, and that is one reason why I cannot continue to be a very active member of BR-PRISM, and I will thus not be able to handle the newsletter anymore.  I can send your article to Leo, if you want.  I probably could spare the time if I tried hard enough, but I really can’t bring myself to try very hard for something unless I passionately feel that it’s worthwhile.  I do feel that way about Objectivism.  But I am not sure enough anymore about BR-PRISM’s efficacy and general philosophy to devote a lot of time to it.

I became interested in anti-pseudoscience in the first place only because I was, and am, primarily an advocate of reason.  Pseudoscience seems really only a symptom of a disease—the real disease is irrationality, or anti-rationality.  I believe this takes many forms—such as subjectivism, religion, and collectivism.  Since there are many in our group who are subjectivists (why did our new name have to include “scientific methods” rather than “the scientific method”?), theists, and collectivists (liberals), I am not sure anymore that the group really does stand for reason.

Many people would ignore differences such as these, and band together to form a “united front” kind of approach.  I still have not solved the problem in my head of whether or not the “united front” approach is valid or not.  But even if it is, the united front for BR-PRISM can be, as I see it, one of two things:  anti-paranormal, or pro-reason.  When we adopted the new name, it is as if we recognized that it is better to have a positive outlook than negative—and this is good.  For I cannot agree with an anti-paranormal position; it is attacking the effect of irrationality, rather than the cause.  And I am not sure that we are promoting reason.  The way to do it is not by debunking; it is through philosophy.  Since most of BR-PRISM disagree on basic questions of philosophy, I do not see how they can consistently champion science and reason.  Also, if you will think about it, there is no justification for our steering clear of religion.  It is certainly as irrational as any other paranormal belief.  An aversion to all forms of irrationality—including religion—should be an integral part of any pro-reason group; yet BR-PRISM tries to remain “agnostic” towards religion.

Philosophy is the bedrock upon which science is based.  And that is what people must be educated in first.  You can show the public a thousand debunkings, but unless they understand what truth is, and how knowledge is validated, and what the true nature of reality is, they can still shrug it all off and say, “maybe you’re wrong,” or “so what?  I want to believe it.”  While an allegedly rational group like MENSA has a high percentage of members who believe in ESP, it is an integral part of Objectivism to reject such paranormal nonsense.  Thus, by promoting and studying Objectivism I will still be promoting reason, and thus rejecting all forms of pseudoscience.

Also, I have been wanting to contact you, because there are some audio tapes I have that I thought would interest you.  They are by a brilliant Objectivist philosopher named David Kelley.  He is the author of The Evidence of the Sense:  A Realist Theory of Perception, which I mentioned to you before.  Anyway, I have two taped lectures by him on the subject of free-will, one on (philosophical) skepticism, and one on the primacy of existence.  All four of these have subjects and ideas that I am sure would interest you, but especially the free-will tapes.  On these, Dr. Kelley discusses how he thinks volition and consciousness arose naturally through evolution.  I thought that this discussion, which is very interesting, might tie in with some of the ideas in your book which concern man’s evolution.  You can order a catalog of the tapes from Uncommon Sense Services, 59 Poplar Crescent, Aurora, Ontario, Canada, L4G 3M4.  Or, you can borrow them from me.  I would also be interested in reading and commenting on your first chapter.  If you wish to discuss any of my comments, feel free to write or call.

That was the apex of my Objectivist phase; I soon cooled it a lot.

I then wrote a letter to the group’s founder, Henry Murry, about this; here is my letter and his reply. Murry was in his 70s or 80s, still sharp but health declining (he died a couple years later), so I was gentle, but Randianly firm in letting him know I did not agree with his conspiracy or racist views.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Jeremy Stratos December 10, 2010, 12:51 am

    G’day SK,

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on this new UFO documentary:
    (Streams live in HD from the site)

    Some pretty interesting content, and very professionally put together. It definitely made me re-consider some of my pre-held convinctions: I’m a PhD-educated physicist and a staunch skeptic.

    Anyway, hope you have time to check it all out.
    (I think there is a torrent available too, and it makes for much better watching on a tv than a computer monitor.)


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