About another skeptical award

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Daryl Bem being awarded a Pigasus by James Randi.

Today, I am going to tell you about another such negative award. This one is called ‘Das goldene Brett’ and is awarded by the Austrian Society for critical thinking (Gesellschaft für kritisches Denken). This society is the Vienna chapter of the GWUP which is the German language equivalent of the CSI.

“Das goldene Brett” means “the golden board. In German saying that someone has ‘a board before his head’ (ein Brett vor’m Kopf) means that he or she is an idiot. Someone who obviously can’t see and is unable to work out why.

Perhaps this recalls the bible Matthew 7:3
And why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, and not notice the beam which is in your own eye?
But enough about that quaint and unwieldy language.


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s a food buffet!

But why, my dear reader, would I bother you with the local affairs of an obscure mountain province?
The reason is that one the three prize winners 2011 has managed to make the international news. Just the skeptical news but still.

That winner was a P.A. Straubinger who directed the movie In the Beginning There Was Light. That movie promoted Breatharianism which is the belief that eating (or drinking) is not necessary for survival. People can survive on (sun-)light alone. It boggles the mind that people could possibly belief such a thing. Yet, not only do people belief that, a select few of them died trying to do it.

When news of the movie was heard among the local skeptics they immediately saw the danger. The publicity would inspire further copy-cats and among them, deaths.
Precisely that has happened now. A Swiss woman was found dead by starvation. (English report) Her journey into death started with Straubinger’s movie.

This leaves us with many open questions.
How much blame should we assign the propagandists? Or was it just the dead woman’s free choice?
Was she open-minded or gullible? Was she gullible or mentally ill?

What should skeptics learn from such a case? What should be done to protect the vulnerable from dangerous nonsense?

How about counter-arguments? There is some extensive debunking of the supposed “evidence” in the film available on German skeptic blogs. But it seems unlikely that one can reach the vulnerable with information, otherwise they were not vulnerable. Everyone already knows that one can’t survive without nourishment. If someone is willing to dismiss such an everyday fact as merely a ‘materialistic belief’ then any further details must fall on deaf ears.
Even worse, a nuanced reply might even be seen as confirmatory. A scientific person will not ever rule out anything as impossible. Nothing can be known with such certainty. Distinguishing between the practically impossible and the literally impossible is a fine point that is rarely made in daily life. A scientist acknowledging the fundamental, philosophical limits of our knowledge may be heard as endorsing a practical possibility where none exists.

What about ridicule and a clear word? Some warn that that will just push away believers but I wonder if it might not still be the best method. I don’t know what truly motivates people to believe in the clearly untrue but if it is largely driven by emotion then emotional appeals must be made to reach them.
even if many skeptics will disagree with such methods on principle. In truth, it seems dishonest to me to seek to convince others with emotional, rationally invalid, rhetorics. But if there are lives at stake maybe I should swallow my distaste?
It seems plausible that ridicule will not reach the entrenched and only push them away but maybe it is a good method to reach the broad mass of people. A more open approach is surely needed to reach the truly vulnerable, the ‘spiritual’.

Should such nonsense be banned? In Germany Holocaust denial is illegal. And yet science denial is not, even when the danger is clear and present. It seems impossible to get a legislature to ban certain kinds of speech based on objective danger rather than offense taken.
However, I do not see a clear conflict with the principle of free speech. Hardly anyone would seriously say that an add offering money for the death of someone, that is an adds seeking a contract killer should be legal. Such speech is aimed solely at getting someone killed, that is denying someone a right even more important than the right to free speech, the right to live. There is no ethical duty to tolerate speech that will get people killed.

Shut up and ignore? Straubinger has actually thanked skeptic for the attention they paid to the movie and the extra publicity that gave. That raises a worrying specter. May skeptics share part of the responsibility for the breatharian deaths? Many people have a reflexive sort of sympathy for the underdog especially when that underdog is an enemy of an enemy. When skeptics denounce a dangerous fringe idea, does that maybe drive some people into accepting it?