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Herbert Spencer

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on December 12, 2009 | Comments (0)

Herbert who?

There have been many magazines about the paranormal, UFOs, ESP, mysterious animals, ghosts, magick, the occult, etc. To the best of my knowledge, the magazine of this type that has lasted the longest is FATE magazine. It has now been in print for over 60 years and now, as a bimonthly, it continues better than ever.

What does that have to do with this Herbert Spencer guy?

I had the priveledge of being the Editor-in-Chief for FATE magazine for three years. During that time we increased the circulation four-fold and ran numerous articles from a wide variety of authors. The publisher of the magazine at that time, Carl Llewellyn Weschcke and Llewellyn Worldwide, gave me instructions to continue the policies of the previous owners and expand upon them.

But what about Herbert Spencer?

It had been the policy of FATE to report on strange and unusual occurrences and provide possible explanations. FATE was traditionally a truly “skeptical” magazine. Today, due to the actions of some people, the word “skeptic” seems to mean a person who doubts anything other than a materialistic view of the world. It even seems that some so-called skeptics act as strongly as some fundamentalist religionists to defend their belief system. A real skeptic, however, isn’t a debunker. Rather he or she is a person who has not made up his or her mind until all the evidence is in. A skeptic says “I won’t make up my mind until someone proves it.” A pseudo-skeptic or debunker says, “I’ve made up my mind and I’m going to defend my beliefs until there is so much evidence that I have no choice but to change my mind.” Unfortunately, some of the articles in FATE had become more debunking than truly skeptical. So one of my instructions was to move FATE back toward skepticism and away from pseudo-skepticism and debunking. In fact, I was told that one of the things we should do was “debunk the debunkers.” We did that many times.

Hebert Spencer?

OK. On to Mr. Spencer. I am not a fan of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). I have to admit that Spencer was an amazing person, known for contributions to economics and psychology, religion and biology, sociology and philosophy and other areas of learning, although he is primarily considered a British Philosopher. So why don’t I like him?

Spencer read Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of the Species, and misunderstood the concept of natural selection as being only a brutal version of survival of the fittest. Only the strong survive. To Darwin, “fittest” had several meanings, including those who could best join together for the survival of the group. Cooperation, rather than mere brute strength of the individual, was often the key to evolution.

Spencer, however, not only took the idea of natural selection to mean “only the strong survive,” but he also applied this to genetic causes rather than individuality: strength came from your DNA, not exercise. Besides this misunderstanding (which supported some racist thought common in Europe at the time), he went further to apply it to sociology and ethics.  Thus, it supported the concept of a de facto caste system where wealth stayed in certain families and all your labor and creativity could not get you out of your current situation. Working with others for the betterment of everyone was out of the question or at least meaningless. It was an angry, dog-eat-dog world, and to be at the top of your caste level you had to be the biggest, meanest dog. Even though many people still believe this philosophy, I do not think it’s accurate or that it describes the real world.

But that’s not why I writing this.

As the saying goes, even a broken watch is right twice a day, and even a person whose philosophy has harmed millions can be right in some concepts. Specifically, he wrote:

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.

Indeed, that is so often exactly what debunkers AKA pseudo-skeptics do. Recently I observed a debate on another forum. Some self-described “skeptics” were denouncing astrology. One person asked if they had ever studied astrology. Only one of the pseudo-skeptics had ever read a book about astrology, and that was his girlfriend’s 98¢ booklet from a checkout line at a grocery store!

Unfortunately, this is nothing unusual. Pseudo-skeptics often talk as if they were defending science and reason when, in fact, they are as far from either as the person who believes in little green men living on Mars.

Actually, I don’t know if there are little green men living on Mars. Evidence currently seems to be against it, but perhaps there is something out there I don’t know about. I’ll keep an open mind until there is absolute evidence one way or the other.

But then, I believe I’m a true skeptic and not one of the people who call themselves skeptics but are actually suffering from something that will keep them in ignorance: contempt prior to investigation.

Are you a real skeptic?

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