What is going on with the Sioux Falls Free Thinkers?


I haven’t gone to any of their meetings, but their web site weirds me out. There’s the name: that space makes a difference. Freethought is “a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma”, and as I’ve said repeatedly, it is not a pointless label for thinking whatever you want (everyone gets to do that, whether you’re a hidebound Catholic or Islamist, or an atheist scientist). So I’m a little skeptical when someone confuses freethought with freedom to think any damn thing.

Then there’s the motto on every one of their web pages: Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent!. Whoa, what? A Calvin Coolidge quote that reeks of Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking? Look again at that freethought definition — does it mention that truth is determined by thinking really hard and stubbornly about it, or does it say something about “logic, reason, and empiricism”?

And this page: Do People Have Psychic Abilities? Open-Minded Free Thinking at its Finest. It completely misrepresents the status of the science.

Let’s get real. There is no supernatural anything. Nothing is outside of reality. There is no single God, and no Gods, no Ghosts, no Goblins and no Ghouls. They are all fabrications of the human mind in an effort to make sense of what we experience but don’t understand. Our minds create an imagined reality or experience and we accept our imagining as something real. We seek a reason for existence and we just can’t seem to accept that IT JUST IS.

Nonetheless there is strong evidence for anomalous psychic experiences such as extrasensory perception. That doesn’t mean these experiences are outside of reality, that they are somehow supernatural. It just means we don’t understand these experiences and cannot explain them YET. That’s why we use science to study them. First to explicitly identify what it is that people are experiencing, and second to perform further experiments to understand how these experiences physically work.

No, there is no strong evidence for ESP. None at all. It’s been pursued for years by dogged people who think persistence and determination alone are omnipotent, and that if they just keep chasing marginal statistical anomalies with sufficiently sloppy experimental procedures, they will be able to prove that it exists. But the author of this piece has their own interpretation: the scientific establishment has been conspiring against paranormal phenomena.

Unfortunately many skeptical scientists see the study of extrasensory perception as a threat to science. They have already decided these experiences cannot be real. To protect science from the “charlatan” scientists performing these experiments they created a committee to set up rules and tests that the parapsychology research results must pass before they can be accepted as valid science. So the parapsychologists went back, designed tests that met the very strict rules required, and performed the tests again. Many of the tests still came out positive for extrasensory perception. OOPS.

So the skeptical scientists went back to the their drawing board and made the tests virtually impossible to pass for just about any research. One of the skeptical scientists actually quit the committee having realized this was not about making objective tests for parapsychology research to pass. It was about making tests that did not allow parapsychology research to pass PERIOD.

Demanding greater rigor in the face of anomalous results is exactly what scientists are supposed to do; if the phenomena can not survive tests that exclude error and prosaic explanations, than the phenomenon is not what the psychic proponents think it is. This exactly what happened when some physicists found that neutrinos traveled faster than light: a surprising claim like that requires that other, alternative explanations be excluded, and careful repetition and analysis found experimental error that explained the result.

I suppose you could argue that “It was about making tests that did not allow physicists with faster-than-light research to pass PERIOD”. But this is how I see it:

So the chorus has sung and the final curtain has fallen on the faster-than-light neutrino saga. “The story captured the public imagination, and has given people the opportunity to see the scientific method in action—an unexpected result was put up for scrutiny, thoroughly investigated and resolved in part thanks to collaboration between normally competing experiments,” Bertolucci says in a CERN press release. “That’s how science moves forward.” Fair enough. But can we move on now?

The final curtain has also fallen on the psychic powers myth. Can we move on?


  1. Sastra says

    The emphasis on “DECIDE FOR YOURSELF” is another red flag. Not that we don’t at some level all decide for ourselves, but the phrase usually tends to be accompanied by a whiff of anti-scientific ‘expertise.’

    The writer linked ESP to drones and other things controlled by the electrical activity in the brain. But the big factor here is the connecting device. If I say I can move an object without touching it and then prove my point by shoving it with a stick, that’s not psychokenesis. Same principle.

    Thoughts, intentions, and desires which ARE forces in themselves, irreducible to matter and energy, would be supernatural, regardless of whether we understand them through science or not. Proving magic, like proving God, wouldn’t require re-labeling them: doing so would be dishonest, I think.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    So the parapsychologists went back, designed tests that met the very strict rules required, and performed the tests again. Many of the tests still came out positive for extrasensory perception. OOPS.

    Citations needed.

    Also, I note the speaker being promoted is from Duke University. Perhaps he is a loldover from the days of J.B. Rhine?

  3. marcoli says

    And here we see the common thinking of a woo-meister who wants to claim the mantle of science, provided that it supports the paranormal. But when science is done with controlled, double blind experiments? Well, the results do not support the paranormal. So the woo-meister response is, predictably, that scientists demanded a stringency that set them up to fail. Why? Obviously b/c scientists are threatened of losing their precious world view and domination, so they suppress the evidence. Never mind that positive results would open up whole new areas of research and guarantee Nobel prizes.

  4. MHiggo says

    I’m detecting a faint whiff of shenanigans. A quick bout of googling showed the Sioux Falls Free Thinkers Meetup page, on which they claim “We have five associated websites that are the work of people with Open Minds and that support people with Open Minds. All are Trademarked with the State of South Dakota.” — Sioux Falls Free Thinkers, Atheists, Feminists, Scientists, and Zoologists. Looking at those websites, they all lead off with the same Coolidge quote and have similar design.


    However, a group called Siouxland Freethinkers, also based in Sioux Falls, seems to be legit. They list different leadership than the SFFT, and their interests are more in line with what you’d expect from a skeptics group.


    Perhaps a rival, more woo-friendly group trying to lure people away from the actual skeptics? Clearly the two have differing opinions on what it means to be “open-minded”.

  5. Sastra says

    The meaning of the term “freethinker” (or “free thinker”) isn’t as clearly anchored in rational skepticism as we rational skeptics like to think — at least not when it comes to the general public. The quality of being “open-minded” can be a double-edged sword. From what I’ve seen an awful lot of New-Agey woo types like to claim the label because gosh, they hate authority and love to be rebels. Free = good. But this group would be eliminated from a definition which included a refusal to be swayed by the passions of the mind. Their rebellious stance is usually a romantic one.

    Words aren’t magic. I’ve had friends assure me I’d just love some writer or speaker because they’re “a skeptic” or “freethinker” … and yet the writer or speaker turns out to be peddling the paranormal, alternative medicine, or ancient astronauts. The content and methods matter, not the damn term. And I’m equally unimpressed when someone tells me gosh no, they don’t believe in “God” … they believe the cosmos is constructed out of consciousness.

  6. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    ugh, to be “that guy”, I seem to remember a common explanation for lack of positive results was the presence of skeptics who would project some kind of negative energy to invalidate all the positive results they would have gotten if everyone just kept an “open mind”. That being “close minded” didn’t just stop the evidence from entering the closed mind, but from emanating from the generators.
    Sounds like they’ve finally dropped the proposed explanation and settled on the “just keep an open mind” (and anything you see has gotta be psychic phenoms) Coincidences don’t just happen you know, somebody’s psychic energy can make any seeming random event happen when fully activated.
    Surprised they haven’t latched onto “Dark Energy” (referring to Cosmological Physics) as The explanation for psychic phenomena. If they haven’t then I’ll be right back from trademarking that idea. (*twirling mustache*)

  7. says

    On a message board full of atheists I once got into a heated argument with a guy who believed in astral projection. No matter how ridiculously easy it would be to prove to me that such a thing is real and he is capable of it (I’ll put an object into a closed room, you tell me what it is (again, this is just proving it to me, not meeting any sort of publishable scientific standard)), he refused to do it, all the time insisting that he can do this amazing thing.

  8. says

    It’s a problem with labels and branding: once your label becomes seen as attractive and positive, you pick up people who want to hide under the label to do their ${whatever} creepy stuff. That’s why ‘dictionary skeptics’ and ‘dictionary atheists’ worry me — the dictionary approach enables a narrow focus in attitude. e.g.: an interest in equality is irrelevant to a disbelief in gods.

    So the parapsychologists went back, designed tests that met the very strict rules required, and performed the tests again. Many of the tests still came out positive for extrasensory perception. OOPS.


  9. says

    a common explanation for lack of positive results was the presence of skeptics who would project some kind of negative energy to invalidate all the positive results they would have gotten if everyone just kept an “open mind”

    Scientists have confirmed that it’s skeptical radiation that is causing the weird light-patterns at KIC 8462852. This is a known fact. Um, from the known facts collection.

  10. John Morales says

    As I’ve noted before, parapsychology as a purported scientific discipline has not advanced one whit since its formation in the late 1800s, in marked contrast to every other actual scientific discipline.

    (Pure wishful thinking)

  11. John Morales says

    Michael Franklin, sure, sometimes guessing pans out, though mostly, it doesn’t.

    (It’s still just guessing)

  12. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Michael Franklin, where in your protocols are the stage magicians, like the Amazing Randi, to check for fraud and trickery?
    Notice his million dollar challenge stood without ANYBODY being able to show any psi powers, when a stage magician knew the likely fraud/cheating methods. He would allow them to cheat, like viewing where water barrels were. Then he would move the water barrels after they cheated. Results, nothing but random chance.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    I suppose you could argue that “It was about making tests that did not allow physicists with faster-than-light research to pass PERIOD”.

    I suppose you could argue that, if you were unaware that physicists are actually looking for violations of Lorentz invariance.

  14. Tommy Paine says

    I’m local to Sioux Falls & know this individual well.

    There is ONE member of Sioux Falls Free Thinkers, the founder. He was removed from the other group in town because of his behavior: namely, sexually harassing multiple women. Since his removal he has spent several hundred thousand dollars on billboards advertising Sioux Falls Free Thinkers, which as I said before, he’s the only real member of.

    This is just a small sample of the billboards that he has put up around town:


    Having met him I can confidently say he is a rape fetishist.

  15. drowner says

    I don’t even understand the original Coolidge quote. How can either “persistence” or “determination” be omnipotent? These are all concepts used to describe the quality or nature of a person. Did he mean to say, “omnipotence,” or “confer omnipotence?”

    It’s just crappy writing, on top of being vapid and pseudo-profound.

    I remember belonging to a skeptic meet-up group in a small city full of naturopaths and woo peddlers. We’d have the occasional new visitor sit dumbfounded as to how we refused to be open-minded on topics such as chemtrails. They’d inevitably give up and leave. Then we could resume the meeting. It was a convenient moment for bathroom breaks.

  16. John Morales says

    drowner, it’s oblique, but not vapid: I think the expressed sentiment is equivalent to “You may not succeed even if you persevere, but you will not succeed unless you persevere”.

    (Gotta be in it to win it)

  17. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    Didn’t freethinker use to simply mean somebody who didn’t accept the dogma of the church before it became a short-hand for skeptical, empirically-minded people? A freethinker could believe pretty much anything not endorsed by the church, including new agey woo, right?

  18. applehead says

    The sad fact is that the meaning of “free thought” is about as distorted and spin-doctored as that of “FREEZE PEACH!1” in the English-speaking world. (And beyond, if public discourse of my native Germanland – country of dichter and denker long dead and gone – is anything to go by…)

    For the bottom half of the Internet “freethinker” means “guys of bravery and stalwartness who don’t let Muslim-fellating gulag-socialist femifascists thought-police and brainwash their minds.”

  19. abb3w says

    What for brevity I’ll term “kookery” has been a strain in the Freethought movement since at least the days of Ingersoll. Though not all her notions were kooky, Ida Craddock is the example of that era I most vividly recall from my sporadic poking through Google Books. She wasn’t the only such.

    Looking to other eras, the major Freethought journal of Ingersoll’s day seems to have been “The Truth Seeker”. In the 1930s, it fell under the editorship of a racist; More to the point here, his successor in the 1960s was not only a racist but a kook (obsessed with milk baths, among other things); and after his death circa 1990s, it fell under a non-racist kook. (And onto serious publication difficulties… which seem to remain under the most recent editor, although it superficially looks to have gotten past the racism and kookery.)

    The kooks and the sociopaths seem to be two perennial weeds in the garden of Freethought. I have a loose notion that they may be different shaped leaves of a common branch, but not enough data to support the thesis.

  20. says

    slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) #7

    Surprised they haven’t latched onto “Dark Energy”

    If you want to lock up the IP here, this just begs for the related and perfectly competitive concept of the Expanding Mind™. Enjoy your foray into the world OP law and woo. Fire up that mustache wax.