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Skeptic Summary #349

By The Staff
Posted on: 11/27/2011

Billboard wars, spiritualism, atheist politics, OWS, millionaires, taxes, complacency, prison and more!

Week ending November 27, 2011 (Vol 8, #37)

Welcome to the Skeptic Summary, a quick week-in-review guide to the Skeptic Friends Network and the rest of the skeptical world.

Forum Highlights:
Atheist billboard goes up for the holidays - Yep, it’s another chapter in the “War on Chistmas.”

Is spiritualism an aspect of reality? - Be sure to bring your dictionary, -ism and -ity aren’t the same.

Jillette: an atheist’s guide to the 2012 elections - A nice rant that hits both Dems and Reps.

Occupy Wall Street doing rather well - Apart from some expected skirmishes by the police.

Patriotic millionaires speak up - Millionaire activism in favor of higher taxes. Facebook clone - More discussion about taxes.

Editor’s Choice: Eleven years of skeptic complacency - At least eleven years of not ignoring the evidence.

Kil’s Evil Pick:
Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment, a documentary film — One of SFN’s contributing writers, Michelle Shires, suggested that I use Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as an Evil Pick. At first I wondered what that controversial experiment has to do with skepticism? Weren’t the results of this demonstration of our possible willingness to set our humanity aside in favor of following people in authority, even cruel people, or worse, becoming cruel when given the authority to be cruel, more suited to those whose main focus is in the area of psychology? But it hit me. What does it really mean to be an authority figure? And how susceptible are we to set reason, rationality and even what we thought were our own morals aside, even while acknowledging them to ourselves, if we are told to do so by someone in a lab coat or a uniform? How fragile is our rationality in stressful situations? What are otherwise rational and decent people willing to do when placed in an environment that is neither rational nor decent?

Was what we saw at Abu Ghraib what we should have expected to see? Or how about the pepper spraying of Occupy Wall Street protesters only a couple of days ago at University of California, Davis? Sure, those incidents are shocking. But given what we know from the Stanford Prison Experiment, should those kinds of incidences really be so unexpected?

And look. Just to make things clear, I am not bringing up that kind of abuse of authority as a political point. At least some of the students who took part in Philip Zimbardo’ experiment were likely left-leaning Viet Nam war protesters, or student protesters of other causes, because that’s how many of us in the Sixties rolled. And especially in the bay area.

Skeptics pride themselves on their ability to use critical thinking, logic and science as a way to sort out what is real and what isn’t. And to a large extent, hopefully, that rationality guides us in our dealings with others. So I guess my question, after having watched the documentary and having read through all of the links in this introduction to my pick, is this. Are skeptics less susceptible to abandoning reason and good behavior in the kind of circumstances that we see in the Standford Prison Experiment than those who have not nurtured the skills that we value so highly? That’s an open question, I think. And if my question leads to a discussion on our forum, all the better.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that other studies have been done leading to varying results and that criticism of the study should also be looked at.

Here’s the intro to the film:
It’s important not to think of this as prisoner and guard in a real prison. The important issue is the metaphor prisoner and guard. What does it mean to be a prisoner? What does it mean to be a guard? And the guard is somebody who limits the freedom of someone else, uses the power in their role to control and dominate someone else, and that’s what this study is about.

In the summer of 1971, Philip Zimbardo, Craig Haney, and Curtis Banks carried out a psychological experiment to test a simple question. What happens when you put good people in an evil place — does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?

To explore this question, college student volunteers were pretested and randomly assigned to play the role of prisoner or guard in a simulated prison at Stanford University. Although the students were mentally healthy and knew they were taking part in an experiment, some guards soon [became] sadistic and the prisoners showed signs of acute stress and depression.

After only six days, the planned two-week study spun out of control and had to be ended to prevent further abuse of the prisoners. This dramatic demonstration of the power of social situations is relevant to many institutional settings, such as the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.

On to the film: Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment.

For more information, please see The Stanford Prison Experiment Web Page.

Education would be much more effective if its purpose was to ensure that by the time they leave school every boy and girl should know how much they do not know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it.
— William Haley

Chat Highlights:
Wednesday the 16th: Dr. Mabuse started to talk about a magic show he went to, but got interrupted by reports on shootings at the White House. From there, it was a short step into the legal system and if it recognizes “multiple personality disorder.” We also spent some time discussing a supposedly new bill that would restrict free speech on the Internet. How media do business on the ’Net, and online-pirating. Occupy Wall Street was labelled a populist movement and predictions were made that it would be unstoppable until it runs its course. Taking a hard line against it with police injuring innocent protesters would only backfire. The chat finished with talking about the GOP candidates for the presidential elections.

Wednesday the 23rd: We started out talking about SUN systems’ Java client and how it affects chat, and how to make safe investments in the market. Then there was the difference in regulations between Canada (and Europe) on one side, and the USA on the other. There were reports from Skepticon, which apparently was great this year, with speakers like Hemehnt Mehta and Dave Silverman. Brother Sam Singleton also stirred people up with his “over the top” atheist parody of a Christian revival meeting (watch the video!). And once again the con had a rehash of the atheist vs skeptic debate. We also discussed editing Wikipedia for skeptic content: we should do more of this, and some members have done some. Maintaining high quality skeptics’ pages and keeping the woo down on all the others. SFN should have a page, too. The chat ended with discussion of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Come chat with us.

New Members This Week:
the taxman

(Not a member? Become one today!)

Elsewhere in the World:
Antioxidants and Exercise: More Harm Than Good?

CO2 climate sensitivity ‘overestimated’

Dowsing competition pits diehard believers against skeptics

Doubtful Newsblog

Fluff Won’t Make The World A Better Place

Found: The First Atoms In The Universe!!!

Good Science Always Has Political Ramifications

The Great Derangement

Huffington Post’s Chris Stedman Enlightens on Atheism

James Webb Space Telescope Safe — For Now

Modus Tollens, Modus Shmollens! When people commit a fallacy so absurd that it’s only recently been given a name.

Parents get jabbed on vaccination

A Response to Jonathan M on Bacterial Chemotaxis

Thanksgiving: Busting the tryptophan myth wide open

Timeline of a mass extinction: New evidence points to rapid collapse of Earth’s species 252 million years ago

Tim Minchin uses comedy to open a door to rationalism

Skepticality #170 — The Tipping Point

Transkeptuality: Gatekeeping and the Value of Critical Thought

What’s New by Bob Park

Got some skeptic news items? Send them to us, and we’ll think about adding them.

Book of the Week:
The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo.

“What makes good people do bad things? How can moral people be seduced to act immorally? Where is the line separating good from evil, and who is in danger of crossing it?

Renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has the answers, and in The Lucifer Effect he explains how—and the myriad reasons why—we are all susceptible to the lure of ‘the dark side.’ Drawing on examples from history as well as his own trailblazing research, Zimbardo details how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women.

Zimbardo is perhaps best known as the creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Here, for the first time and in detail, he tells the full story of this landmark study, in which a group of college-student volunteers was randomly divided into ‘guards’ and ‘inmates’ and then placed in a mock prison environment. Within a week the study was abandoned, as ordinary college students were transformed into either brutal, sadistic guards or emotionally broken prisoners.

By illuminating the psychological causes behind such disturbing metamorphoses, Zimbardo enables us to better understand a variety of harrowing phenomena, from corporate malfeasance to organized genocide to how once upstanding American soldiers came to abuse and torture Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib. He replaces the long-held notion of the ‘bad apple’ with that of the ‘bad barrel’ — the idea that the social setting and the system contaminate the individual, rather than the other way around.

This is a book that dares to hold a mirror up to mankind, showing us that we might not be who we think we are. While forcing us to reexamine what we are capable of doing when caught up in the crucible of behavioral dynamics, though, Zimbardo also offers hope. We are capable of resisting evil, he argues, and can even teach ourselves to act heroically. Like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, The Lucifer Effect is a shocking, engrossing study that will change the way we view human behavior.”

— Book Description

This Week’s Most-Viewed Pages:
Forum Topics:
  1. Dr. Jeffery Life and Cenegenics
  2. Funny FAILS
  3. Is spiritualism an aspect of reality?
  4. Eleven years of skeptic complacency
  5. Nitrofill your car tires
  6. TAM4
  7. Skepticism about the Big Bang
  8. The Battle of Tehran
  9. Of Serpents and Men
  10. Scientist: No knuckle-walkers in human ancestry
  1. Evolving a Venom or Two
  2. Miracle Thaw — The Bogus Miracle
  3. Fundamentalists Hate Noah’s Ark
  4. Scientific Truth
  5. TAM4
  6. Is the Speed of Light Slowing Down?
  7. The Bible’s Bad Fruits
  8. TAM5
  9. Cold Reading
  10. Kent Hovind is a Big Phony!
There were 6,860 daily visitors this week.

More issues of the Skeptic Summary can be found in our archive.

The Skeptic Summary is produced by the staff of the Skeptic Friends Network, copyright 2011, all rights reserved.

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