German sceptic Amardeo Sarma discusses critically analysing entrenched belief systems, including religion and a shockingly fervent homeopathic movement.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there a family background in humanism or rationalism for you?
Amardeo Sarma: No, because both my parents were moderately religious. In fact, to give you an example, when I grew up, my father was a Hindu, I am half Indian, my mother is Christian, German. When I was growing up, my dad was liberal in that sense.
He said you can become whatever you like. If you want to be a Hindu or a Christian, fine. Even if you want to be a Muslim, that’s fine because we lived in India where there were a lot of Muslims. But then I do not think he reckoned with me deciding to be nothing.
In a way, I became a sceptic before I became an atheist or humanist. That’s because of my reading. I used to read a lot of books when I was a kid. When I was 16, 17, I came across a number of books such as Charles Berlitz: The Bermuda Triangle or other of his books.
I found them quite fascinating. One of the books that got me thinking was a book by Larry Kusche, who wrote Bermuda Triangle Solved, and I found it fantastic for somebody to take pains to go into everything and find out that a lot of the claims are wrong.
That got me into scepticism and at some stage I stopped buying into the diffused beliefs that I had before. So, the quick answer to your question is no, there is no family background of it.
Jacobsen: Your parents did not reconcile with you having non-belief?
Sarma: Well, they did in the sense that they accepted it. I do not think they were particularly happy, but they did not make a fuss about it.
Jacobsen: For other friends growing up around where you lived, was it different?
Sarma: Yeah, it was different because most of them stayed religious. My brother had a similar path even though he’s not so engaged in the sceptical movement as I am. He was one of the founders along with me, but he hasn’t been active. He’s been a sceptic even before me and he’s also a non-believer, or whatever you would call that.
Jacobsen: There is plenty of names, irreligious, nones, non-believers, etc.
Sarma: I am not an atheist in the sense that I do not go around preaching non-belief. I am an atheist in the sense that I do not believe in God or any superior being, which is not the same as positively stating that there is no God. It is up to the believers to prove their case that there is a God, not mine to prove that there isn’t. Also, atheism is not my motivation. Being a sceptic is, and that means promoting science and critical thinking, which is what I have been doing for over 30 years.
Jacobsen: And as the leader of the German Sceptics Group, what are some of your tasks and responsibilities that you take on board?
Sarma: I have been responsible for the overall strategy and direction we are going and what topics we choose, as well as making sure that the organization grows. There is a lot of administration as well.
We are quite happy that the last 30 years the organization has had steady growth. We now have more than 1600 members. Additionally, about two and a half thousand people subscribe to the magazine Skeptiker. It is growing steadily. So I try to make sure that the sceptics’ organization is on the right path and keeps growing.
Specifically, I have been involved in some topics as well. In the past, it is been homeopathy and the methods of science: how to do investigations, how to do tests. In the earlier stages of the organization, in the 90s, I organized and designed tests together with James Randi, so that was quite an experience at the time.
So at the moment, I have been looking more into things like climate change and global warming as well, so that’s been one of the new topics. We hope to be taking up broader science issues that are part of the public discussion.
Jacobsen: How is German culture in regards to scepticism? What is its attitude towards it? What is the level of critical thinking too?
Sarma: On face value, everybody says, “Yes, science is good and critical thinking is good,” but when it comes to topics like homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine, people are not into critical thinking in that sense.
Compared to the US and Canada, there is not as much of a pro-science sentiment in general in the public. It is more difficult to get across that point of view, even though people on face value are in favor of science and critical thinking. Of course, everybody thinks critical thinking is a good thing.
But they seem to look at critical thinking not as scientifically investigating these claims, but being critical about things. Being critical means denying whether something is true or not. It is difficult to get across that we need more than that: Both claims and criticism need evidence and we should not forget that we cannot ignore the rest of the body of scientific knowledge.
But we’ve been making some progress especially as far as homeopathy is concerned. We’ve been able to turn the tide here in Germany. If you look at the reports in the newspapers and some of the magazines, the tone has changed.
Whereas 10 or 20 years ago, many of the reports on homeopathy would be positive, pro-homeopathy, now not just us but many journalists or bloggers have been writing much more critically about homeopathy. Also, sales of homeopathic medicines are down for the first time and medical doctors are getting more reluctant to promote homeopathy.
This is a hard task, but shows you can change things if you bring convincing arguments forward. We are also grateful to the rest of the global scientific and sceptical community that has been effective of late and that has been a huge asset.
And also it is important to be sympathetic in the way your scepticism comes across. Be nice and do not attack people, attack ideas. Make sure you’re firm in your position or scientific standpoint but not trying to insult others, which there is always a tendency for some sceptics to do.
Jacobsen: Also, do you think, because of the nature of these beliefs, that there is a hypersensitivity on the part of – not necessarily practitioners – but believers in the practitioners when discussing these issues?
Sarma: Yes, much so. In particular, in the case of alternative medicine and homeopathy for example, it seems to be almost easier to discuss with a believer in God or a Christian and be critical about the Bible and things like that than to discuss with somebody who is a believer in homeopathy [Laughing].
Apparently people, I do not know about them in the US and in the Americas, but in Europe, theologians and believers have gotten used to being criticized and they still get along with you. Even atheists get invited to church or events organized by the Church to get the other point of view.
They are much more open to critical thinking, even from the point of view of atheists than many believers in homeopathy are. At least they mostly do not yell at you. On the other hand, I have had cases where even friends get up and leave when you start discussing homeopathy critically.
Again the short answer is yes; people are sensitive. Belief in things like homeopathy can be as strong or even much stronger than belief in God. They are held much more strongly, with much more resistance to criticism.
Jacobsen: You mentioned Skeptiker.
Sarma: Skeptiker, yes.
Jacobsen: The name answers itself.
Sarma: That’s a magazine. We started publishing that in 1987, so it has been 30 years now since we started. In the beginning, it was a small magazine but that’s grown now. It is now comparable to any other published magazine. We publish it 4 times a year and the contents are good.
Jacobsen: Not biased on the matter at all?
Sarma: [Laughing] No, not at all. But we get good feedback from other sceptic groups in other countries when they compare it to their own magazines. They say the way it is done up and the topics we address, that it is quite good.
Jacobsen: What are some of your ongoing activities outside of the magazine and work in combatting things like homeopathy and dowsing in Germany through the sceptics group?
Sarma: To give you an example, at the end of every year, we evaluate the predictions of astrologers and soothsayers. We collect, at the beginning of the year, whatever has been forecast to happen. At the end of the year, we show what happened and that’s quite sobering.
At the end you see that the predictions turn out to be wrong most of the time of course. The results are as you would expect by chance. If you would do random predictions, you’d probably end up with a better score than the astrologers because some of the predictions they make are basically impossible.
For example, one of the predictions they made was there is going to be a landing on Mars next year. To make this happen, the spacecraft should have already started. So, some of the predictions they made are completely impossible and they couldn’t ever turn out to be correct unless somebody had sent out a Mars mission in secret or something like that.
But apparently this does not affect the astrologers much. They continue to make their predictions even if they are also faced with our criticism at the end of it. Apparently it is advertising for them. They get attention and they do not care if it turns out or wrong at the end of the year.