May 9, 2003

The Skeptical Deist? a.k.a. Bidlack to the Rescue!

Bidlack to the rescue! A couple of minor emergencies led to this week's intended column being trashed... but more of that another time.

Hal stepped in immediately and offered to do a "guest column". I thought about that for about twenty seconds, and accepted.

So here's our good friend's contribution, gratefully received. The column will be retrieved and in this space next week.

The Skeptical Deist?
By Hal Bidlack, Ph.D.

I have long admired Mr. Randi. I remember his remarkable skills as a magician from my youth, his many performances on the Tonight Show with Mr. Carson. I reveled in his exposures of Geller and especially Popoff. In recent years, I have had the privilege to spend time with him, and he now does me the high honor of allowing me to call him friend. I greatly enjoy my work with the JREF, and had a hoot as the master of ceremonies for the Amaz!ng Meeting, and look forward to seeing everyone again in Las Vegas. I have never had a cross word with Mr. Randi. (oh, and as an aside, I never, ever call him just plain "Randi" in spite of his request that I do so. I just wasn't raised that way, he is of my father's generation, and it would be far too forward of me to do so).

And yet, there is one area in which we are in profound disagreement, the issue of faith. Mr. Randi is an atheist, and I am not. I am not a Christian, but I pray, I believe in God, and would generally fall in the category "deist." I see God as like a Jeffersonian clock maker, winding up the Big Bang, and watching the universe slowly tic down, governed by the remarkable laws of physics, of thermodynamics, of biology, and of time. Yet I pray, though I think it unlikely God will spend too much time adjusting the life of one person. So I am not completely consistent in my thinking, perhaps.

But I count myself as a strong skeptic. I glory in the debunking of nonsense, and make a monthly pledge to the JREF to help in some small way to continue the work. Is this a problem? Can a person be both a skeptic and a person of faith?

The answer is, Mr. Randi and I agree, a resounding YES. Nothing the JREF does has anything to do with religion, either formally or informally. True, many of the claimants bring religion into it, but in terms of the tests and the evaluations, the trials are faith-free. And you will note that while Mr. Randi is a gentle atheist, he never preaches that (if you will pardon the word choice). Rather, Mr. Randi willingly states that a scientific mind, an inquiring mind, a logical mind can also be a religious mind.

This distinction is, I think, all too often ignored within the skeptical atheist community. At the Amaz!ng Meeting I happened to remark from the podium that I was not an atheist, and that "atheism" is not a synonym for "skeptic" in my book. I did not intend to be terribly profound with that comment, but given the number of folks who came up to talk to me about it later, I can only assume that I did strike a nerve. Most remarked how glad they were I had said that, as they had felt, at least to some degree, unwelcome, before that comment.

Thus, simply put, I believe strongly that you can believe strongly in both God and skepticism. I do mean that, of course, in a very broad way. I think if you believe Oral Roberts raised folks from the dead, and that Peter Popoff's earpiece is just a hearing aid, well, then, maybe we do have some differences. But in general, I think we do ourselves a disservice as skeptics if we try to maintain that the only "pure" skeptic is an atheist skeptic.


Given that Mr. Randi's columns often include a range of topics and comments, I will seek to emulate that style. The JREF Forum, that online computer bulletin board/chat/argument/community, continues to grow and evolve. And, as will always be the case where people of good will and keen minds come together, it is a place of strong disagreement, and occasional harsh opinions. In the beginning, the forum was wide open, with no real moderation of word or tone. As the forum evolved, and as the membership grew, it became necessary for some moderation to take place. With over 4000 members, and over 300,000 messages posted, this virtual community now needs a bit more governance. I am the administrator of the Forum, ably assisted by a group of moderators that watch for bad language, copyright violations, and other problems. I remain very indebted to them.


From the "can people really be like that file," I offer the following. On September 11th, 2001, I was in the Pentagon when the plane hit. Suffice it to say, it was a bad day (if you are really interested in reading a bit more about my experiences, you can find them in a hidden directory at Ironically, I was not even assigned to the Pentagon at that time, but rather was just there for a doctor's appointment. The next day, back at work at the State Department, our fax machine spit out a spam fax. A company (or more rightly, just a person) was trying to take advantage of the tragedy less than 24 hours after it had occurred. The fax was an offer to sell us masks to protect ourselves. These masks, the fax claimed, would protect the user from all toxic chemicals, all biotoxins, and (remarkably!) from radiation. All we had to do in order to get these wonder masks was to call this guy's home phone and give him our credit card number!. The fax included a photo of the product. You may have seen them. It was a simple white painter's mask, the kind with an elastic strap that you can buy at any home center. And there you can get them for less than the $49 he wanted. As you might imagine, we did not place an order. But I wonder how many other people might have, "just in case?" Would you want to be the small town mayor who refused to buy a simple product to protect your, say, firemen? Such decisions can be tough some times. I will admit that after anthrax was discovered a few doors down from my office at State, I found myself wondering about those masks. :)


Finally, I'll offer a brief story about the first thing Mr. Randi and I really worked on together. I told this story in my talk at the AM, so those of you that heard it and stayed awake can move on to other more interesting parts of the JREF homepage.

As I noted above, in May of 2001, I was transferred to the US State Department as a military advisor to the ambassador charged with overseeing all US assistance to the former Soviet states, and later most of Europe and Asia. In this role, I was a security programs specialist. One of my regular tasks was to review a number of research proposals from former Soviet weapons scientists. You see, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a significant worry that former Soviet weapons scientists and engineers would be tempted to go to work in the weapons programs of other nations. The goal of the United States was to find a way in which we could keep these weapon designers working on peaceful projects. Among the ideas implemented were two science centers, one in Ukraine, and one in Russia. These science centers would be research locations for these former weapons scientists, with a big chunk of the funding coming from the US funds managed by my boss, the Ambassador. The thinking was and is, if we can keep these men and women working (and importantly, getting paid regularly for that work) on designing machines for industry, computer systems for agriculture, research on pesticides, environmental concerns, and such, they would be less tempted to head for an axis of evil country.

Naturally, it was important to have a proper review process for such research, and as a result, the scientists would draft up a research proposal, in Russian or Ukraine, and it would be sent to several offices for evaluation and possible funding. So each week I was one of the people to get a stack of proposals to review. Now let me tell you, when technical proposals are translated verbatim into English, you get some unusual sentence structures. One of my favorites was the proposal entitled "Recovering Noble Gases from Crap." It was a good proposal that would study efficient ways to extract valuable minerals from old discarded computer circuit boards. However, the title did get that one some special attention and a place on several office walls.

Now most of these proposals were excellent, even with the language challenges. However, some seemed rather odd. The challenge was determining whether the oddness was a function of the proposal itself being goofy, or whether the translation was the problem. Thus it was that one particular proposal landed on my desk.

A Russian scientist proposed spending a quarter million dollars to study P-Waves. Now, while my academic degrees are in political science, I started out as an astronomy major, and have a reasonably adequate understanding of science and engineering. But I had never heard of P-Waves. I started to read this proposal and was increasingly struck by the remarkable characteristics of these waves. The scientist claimed P Waves were not part of the regular electro-magnetic spectrum, and would therefore be especially useful in communications with spacecraft. It seems P-Waves have some very special properties, you see. The author claimed that while regular radio waves would take tens of minutes to make a round trip to a craft in route to Mars, if we used P-Waves, we could talk with them with a delay of perhaps a minute or two. Indeed, P-Waves, he explained, travel faster than light. So had this fellow out-Einsteined Einstein? He noted in the next paragraph that on Earth, P-Wave research would be especially useful in facilitating telepathy.

Still, while it was starting to look nutty, there was still the chance that there was some good science buried in there.

So I called Mr. Randi. You may recall that remarkable NOVA program that featured Mr. Randi in Russia investigating a variety of odd claims. Who better to know of Russian P-waves than he? He's a very bright fellow, and knows a great deal about every subject I've ever brought up.

So I called him and explained the situation. There was a brief silence at the other end of the phone, followed by a bit of a snort. In a very few minutes, he brought me up to date on the Russian "wave" phenomenon. This type of claim was well-known to him. The Russian scientific world is infested with nutty beliefs about energy, magnetism, spectral properties and such. After this consultation, I wrote a scathing analysis of the proposal, forwarded it up the chain in the State Department, and happily the project was killed. So Mr. Randi, originally from that frozen wasteland north of the US, had now with a brief conversation, helped save his new country's taxpayers a cool quarter million.


And so I close my first JREF Commentary. It turns out anyone can write these things, all you have to do is hack into Mr. Randi's computer, delete his column, and then call Linda. Pretend to be sorry to hear that the column was lost, and offer your own in its stead. And best of all, they pay you in donuts! And please know that I would have made fun of Andrew, but I ran out of time. Should I ever have the offer to again pen a column, I will insult him properly.

Hal Bidlack