Walk Off Home Run October 27, 2009

Walk Off Home Run

This post is by Jesse Galef

Two days ago, Hemant posted the interview in which Scientologist spokesman Tommy Davis walked off set instead of answering a question about his belief. We can criticize him for being unwilling to admit his own beliefs, but it’s not as if he’ll suffer much. His stunt has gotten him and his church more attention.  Most of the publicity is negative, and yet some people are still convinced.

Publicly revealing someone to be a fake/idiot doesn’t hurt them as much as we think.  It’s something James Randi has discovered countless times, from his battles with Uri Geller to his exposé of Peter Popoff (who, by the way, is back to his old tricks scamming people in need).  But Randi has made unique use of the dramatic insult and walk off technique, and his “Carlos Hoax” came to my mind.

In 1988, James Randi and 60 minutes hatched a plan to show how easy it is for con men to exploit the media.  Randi created a fake spirit-channeler named Carlos and pitted him against the Australian media – a group known for their harsh interviews and skepticism.  In one week they had gained a following and booked a packed show at the Opera House.  During an interview in which Carlos’ methods were being challenged, his manager threw water on the host and stormed off.  That in turn sparked more media attention.  This is a long video and I’m starting it at the most relevant part, but if this sounds interesting to you (I was fascinated) I recommend the whole thing:

[Around 8 minutes, before I started this clip] One of the roles the Australian media prides itself on is to protect the public from frauds and charlatans. But it does give rise to a problem: in pursuing a questionable character like Carlos, do you end up playing into his hand by giving him too much free publicity? After all, even if you do the best job you can in exposing him, there will still be people vulnerable enough to be taken in.

[end of clip] Why should such a phony care if he had to go through such grillings on TV?  He was able to gain access to vulnerable minds who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of him.

I worry that Tommy Davis won some people over by storming off with an outraged air.  Creating a “controversy” can give people the impression that there must be something to the argument. That’s why so many scientists refuse to debate creationism – the very debate will lend undeserved credibility to nonsense. Of course, if a topic isn’t publicly debunked, it can fester in the dark.

I tend to come down on the side of public skepticism and scrutiny of ideas, but I’m young and idealistic. I believe that honesty is the best policy and open conversation will tend to expose the truth.  I do, however, see the argument for the other side.  What do you think?

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  • Siamang

    I think ridicule and skeptical questioning can be the scylla and charybdis.

    I think more damage was done to Scientology by Tom Cruise in that strangely edited video than anyone asking any particularly pointed question.

    To the extent that that guy storming off set feeds into the narrative of scientologists being on-camera drama queens, this can be mocked. Don’t want to be mocked, then learn to answer questions calmly and rationally and stop having a hissy-fit if you don’t want to answer.

  • Revyloution

    History is the best teacher.

    Sure, the controversy stirs up alot of dust, but eventually the dust settles. When people were talking about a heliocentric solar system, there were people who were very vocally against it. After (far too) many years, the a very comfortable majority of all humans understand the sun being at the middle of our system. Its a painful model for those of us who rely on empiricism, but it has been shown to be effective.

    Time is on the side of skepticism. We as skeptics have the painful job of being ever vigilant against the frauds. Despite momentary uptics in attendance, I think that active debunking is still the best approach. Sunlight is the best antiseptic.

  • I think the end result of this will be a wash. As many people will see this aborted interview and think Davis was being persecuted as will see it and realize that the whole religion of Scientology is based on the drunken lunatic ravings of a failed science fiction writer.

  • In Tommy Davis’s case, it’s a moot point. The Church of Scientology is in its death throes, and recent events such as the French court ruling and the defection of Paul Haggis are proving the point. Tommy Davis has made himself a laughingstock since taking over for Mike Rinder as their spokes-sphincter. Rinder had a kind of authoritarian bluster about him. Davis is just a sneering prick. He’d better have a nice little next egg squirreled away, because all of those YouTube clips of him being belligerent to reporters will live forever and make his next job awfully hard to come by.

    It’s been a bad year for CoS, and the death spiral might be accelerating. From reading about the church’s actions, it sounds like U.S. law enforcement agencies are investigating some very serious criminal accusations, above and beyond the usual fraud and graft. David “Slap-Happy” Miscavidge must be chewing carpets, which puts a smile on my cynical old face.

  • Bethor

    I guess this is the perfect opportunity to link this little youtube gem I ran into the other day, regarding mediums and debunking.

    Apologies for it being in french; hopefully the humor will not be completely lost in my attempt at a translation below.

    For context : this is from the show “Groland”, a parody of TV news (think ‘The Daily Show’, except much more vulgar :p).


    -Journalist: “So, Jean-Fabien, you are a medium, correct ?”
    -Medium: “Exactly; I predict the future.”
    The journalist slaps the medium in the face.
    -J: “How about that one ? Did you predict that ?”
    -J: “You see, Jules-Edouard [the studio host of the show], no need for long debates to debunk charlatans !”

  • Siamang

    Referencing the video about the medium trance-channelling “Carlos”, there’s a reason why this “sting” worked so well.

    It’s because it was juicy video that they went with, once that guy threw water on the interviewer.

    The news media LOVE stuff like that. It’s crack to them. Put your baby in a balloon, and you’ll get twice the airtime.

    The problem isn’t that “thoughtful skeptical criticism gets them too much publicity.” The problem is that the tv news media are vapid as all hell. Would that they WERE providing thoughtful skeptical criticism.

    In other words, I don’t see how the Randi incident above, in any way should lead us to conclude that thoughtful criticism should be avoided as a media trap.

  • Miko

    Honesty is the best policy and open conversation will tend to expose the truth. But, as Churchill said,

    Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth but most of us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along as if nothing had happened.

    So, I can see how some people could argue that it isn’t worth their time to debate an issue, but I still wouldn’t agree that that means that no one else should debate it either.

  • muggle

    I have to concur. Better to talk about it and than to sit back and let it fester and grow.

    It’s kind of like the Atheist signs we’ve been talking about so much lately. For all too long, we’ve let the negative stereotypes fester and now the signs are drawing attention.

    There’s a certain segment that are going to say there go those Atheists again, no matter how nice a spin we put on them, despite the fact that the signs were very nonconfrontational and peaceable. A certain segment is gonna cry they’re picking on Christians again despite they only say we’re not as we’ve been painted and say nothing about Christians at all.

    Likewise, (and I had to watch the whole piece, very fascinating), with media hype for this kind of thing. You’ve got to take the bad with the good. We should still debunk despite, yes, they’re getting good publicity. James Randi is doing good work at outing the charletons.

    Bottom line is at least it gets the debate out there rather than it not even being up for discussion. Knowledge is power. This at least gets the skeptical view out to the people — whether they’re willing to listen or not.

    Frankly, that’s the beauty of the information age we’re living in. Knowledge at the fingertips via the computer screen. But it is only a tool. It’s up to the user of that tool to use it well or foolishly. Doesn’t mean the tool shouldn’t be used. John Henry was wrong.

    And I never heard of that pulse stopping trick. I have got to try this out! Knowledge is also fun!

  • UrbanWildCat

    Wow, 60 Minutes has really gone downhill in 20 years.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    Oddly, in the UK this exact discussion is occuring in relation to the British National Party, a hard right, racist political party who have been elected to a pair of European parliament seats.

    The UKs flagship political program, Question Time, recently aired an episode with the leader of the BNP (an odious creep named Nick Griffin) debating the issues with the current UK justice minister, a tory member of the house of lords, an american artist and the Liberal democrat spokesman. It turned into pretty much everyone attacking Nick Griffin and really bringing out some of his more unpopular views.

    The debate since has been, did the bad publicity work in the BNPs favour, or did it expose them as the bigots they are?

    No real conclusion but it seems that many have been horrified by the BNPs posititions, even as they have had a sudden 3000 new membership applications. From which one has to see that they were indeed exposed as bigots, and some people liked what they saw.

  • PrimeNumbers

    Question Time was indeed interesting. I think the show did expose the BNP as bigots, and rather illogical ones at that. I did think though that the question about poor Labour policies being part of the reason that the BNP got voted for was a good one.

    However, there was an interesting double dose of a negative version of the “no True Scotsman” fallacy, in that the BNP were basically saying we’re not fascists, we’re nice fascists – don’t confuse us with those nasty fascists. And the muslim lady saying the very same thing – don’t confuse me with the nasty extremist muslims, we’re the nice muslims. But the BNP were rightly criticized for this, but nobody criticized the muslim lady for making exactly the same argument….

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