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"Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense."
-- Carl Sagan, American astronomer and author (1934-1996)
During a phone interview last week, Sylvia Browne told the Free Press that on top of her lecture, she'll be able to deliver psychic messages to as many as 300 audience members whe she appears at Pantages Playhouse Theatre on Thursday night.
Gem Newman has his doubts -- which is why he plans to be at the theatre well before the crowds start pouring in.
No, Newman is not a super fan hoping to intercept his idol and score a private reading.
The 26-year-old computer scientist is founder of the Winnipeg Skeptics, a group for people interested in the "investigation and critical examination of extraordinary claims."
And if anyone provides grist for that mill, he says, it's Browne and her infamously inaccurate predictions about missing and murdered children.
Newman says he and his cohorts plan to show up outside Pantages before the show simply to offer some food for critical thought to ticket holders who paid up to $96 to hear the self-proclaimed psychic and medium lecture about the afterlife and relay messages from dead relatives and spirit guides.
"A few of us are just going to hand out pamphlets to passersby, explaining how they, too, can appear to be psychic by using some common methods like cold reading," the animated redhead says over morning coffee at a downtown eatery.
Newman, who is wearing a T-shirt that reads (once you solve the mathematical equation) "Nerds Forever," stresses that the Sylvia Browne Awareness Campaign is not a protest and skeptics will not be getting in people's faces.
"Our intention is not to be intrusive or offensive, it's to educate. A lot of people see these shows and think they're pretty impressive -- and they are if you don't know what to look for."
The software developer, who has a background in theatre, started the Winnipeg Skeptics last February to provide a social and intellectual outlet for like-minded individuals who are passionate about science and the promotion of critical thinking.
Put another way, it's a club for rational thinkers who believe -- to mangle a quote from the late Carl Sagan -- you should never swallow an extraordinary claim unless it comes with an equal serving of extraordinary evidence.
"There's a startling amount of balderdash, hogwash and nonsense out there. If you've been yearning for someplace to talk to other rational, thinking beings about the pseudoscience that drives you bonkers, look no further," Newman writes by way of greeting at www.winnipegskeptics.wordpress.com
The Winnipeg Skeptics currently has about 60 active members, late teens to mid-60s.
In addition to online discussions, monthly Drinking Skeptically nights at the King's Head Pub and an annual SkeptiCamp (a free, day-long "conference for the sharing of ideas"), members also go on field trips. To date, they've visited a psychic fair and Winnipeg's own creation museum. (Christian Evidences Museum is located in the basement of Oxford Bible Church, at 621 Oxford St.)
Scott Carnegie, a 37-year-old television producer, says joining the Winnipeg Skeptics gave him back the sense of community and support he lost when he stopped going to church a few years ago.
"Anybody is who is interested in how the world really works would probably get something out of it," Carnegie says.
"It can be a real challenge to look at your beliefs and positions and ask yourself if they're true. That's a skill I don't think many people have."
The Winnipeg Skeptics' slogan, which is printed on the official T-shirt (beneath a slightly altered Confusion Corner traffic-sign logo), is Question Everything.
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That doesn't mean skepticism is about rejecting every new idea or claim that challenges the status quo, as some people assume, Newman says. Nor are skeptics -- not to be confused with cynics -- the scornful, stubborn and habitually negative grumps they're often made out to be.
Modern skepticism, embodied in the scientific method, is the application of reason to any and all ideas -- no sacred cows allowed.
"It's a process, not a position. We're not dedicated to any conclusion, we're dedicated to the process of skepticism," says Newman, who credits Carl Sagan's writings for helping an "annoying, know-it-all kid" who just parroted facts evolve into an open-minded skeptic whose greatest pleasure is figuring things out.
"To me, everything is provisional; it's always open for re-examination."
To learn more about the Winnipeg Skeptics, check out their Meetup group at www.meetup.com/WinnipegSkeptics or find them on Facebook. Newman also writes a blog at startleddisbelief.blogspot.com.
Sagan's guide to skepticism
In his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan aims to explain the scientific method to laypersons, and to help them distinguish between valid science and pseudoscience.
To that end, Sagan provides a "baloney detection kit" a person can haul out whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. "If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance," he writes.
Here are some of Sagan's tools for skeptical thinking:
Wherever possible, there must be independent confirmation of the "facts."
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
Arguments from authority carry little weight -- "authorities" have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained.
Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. It's only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge.
If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) -- not just most of them.
Occam's Razor. When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler -- the conclusion that relies on the least number of unsupported propositions.
Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable, are not worth much.