Norm Allen – Skepticism and Black History

February 20, 2009

Norm Allen is executive director of African Americans for Humanism, an educational organization primarily concerned with fostering critical thinking, ethical conduct, church-state separation, and skepticism toward untested claims to knowledge among African Americans. He is the editor of the ground-breaking book African-American Humanism: An Anthology, AAH Examiner, and Deputy Editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He has traveled and lectured widely throughout North America, Europe, and Africa and his writings have been published in scores of newspapers throughout the U.S. He has spoken on numerous radio and television programs and his writings have appeared in such books as Culture Wars and the National Center for Science Education’s Voices for Evolution.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Norm Allen discusses black history in the context of science and secularism. He talks about the Senegalese physicist Cheikh Anta Diop, and his humanistic views which were coupled with his science advocacy. He talks about Charles Drew, and his influence on setting up the first blood banks, as well as urban legends that have developed around him. He talks about the pseudoscience of supposed alternative medicine cures for AIDS, and their prominence in the black community. He talks about other black scientists and freethought figures, and defends the argument for the need for a “Black History Month.” He describes the need for skepticism in the black community, focusing on how the black media covers psychics and belief in prophecy, citing examples of Tony Brown and Montel Williams. He also details some of the current black leaders in the skeptical movement, recounting the first African skeptical conference that he attended last year in Senegal.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 20th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. And at the grass roots. My guest this week is Norm Allen. He’s executive director of African-Americans for Humanism, which is an educational organization mostly concerned with fostering critical thinking, ethical conduct. Church state separation and skepticism among the African-American community. He’s the editor of the groundbreaking book African-American Humanism, an anthology, and also the publication A.H. Examiner. He’s deputy editor of Free Inquiry magazine. And he’s traveled and lectured really throughout the world, talking on skepticism and humanism, especially to African-American audiences. He’s spoken on numerous radio and television programs in his writings, have appeared in such books as Culture Wars and the National Center for Science Educations, Voices for Evolution. Welcome back to the show, Norm Allen. 

Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here, Norm. 

It is February and that’s Black History Month. So I’ve invited you on point of inquiry so we can discuss black history in the context of science and secularism. To start off in the history of science, which I know you’re a student of. Tell me, who are some of those significant black figures we all know of George Washington Carver, who invented peanut butter, all that. But I’m interested in learning about others as well. 

OK, well, I might be a good idea to start talking about some of the great black scientists who came from a humanistic, skeptical perspective. And as you said, George Washington Carver is one of the more well-known scientists. He was religious yet, right? Right. However, you do have others, such as Sheikhan, to dig up a shake up that the OP was a Senegalese physicist and he was very well known. And he was most famous for coming out with books on the topic of blacks in ancient Egypt. And his books were very well read back in the 1960s. There were people in the United States who were trying to figure out who were the most influential black intellectuals of the 20th century. And there was generally agreed that one was WBB, the boy who was also a secular humanist, but also she got to be up. And the OP was widely credited for having come up with a very strong defense of the idea that civilization in ancient Egypt was started by blacks in sub-Saharan Africa. 

And the OP. He he spoke. And while Hlophe as well as French Senechal being a former French colony but picked up, not only was he a physicist, but he was regarded as a multitalented chief, is what he did was pretty impressive and that he translated parts of Einstein theory of relativity into one. And one reason he did that was because there was the notion that African languages weren’t good for poetry or they weren’t good for science or they weren’t good for various other disciplines. But he rejected that notion. And he not only translated parts of Artspace theory of relativity into his native language, but he also translated various poems, came up with his own poetry in order to fight against this notion that African languages were inferior and that they couldn’t be used to bring forth or explain powerful out there. So I think was one of the most well known a black scientist. 

So you’ve called him well known? I. I’ve never heard of him until our conversations on the subject. But Diop wasn’t just this great scientist, but he was kind of fueled by his science to have a more secular or a humanistic bent. Right. 

Right. In fact, originally he came up in a Muslim family and his his parents were Muslims. But he he really became a humanistic as he became involved in science. 

In in your opinion, do you think one fueled the other? 

I don’t know. He belonged to a well-known well well known as Senechal, anyway, Muslim sect. 

And it was a privilege fact. And although he was born into a peasant family. This particular sect was very widely respected. I do know that as he became increasingly curious and increasingly scholarly, he did come to not only we checked his original beliefs and his original religion, but he also became more scientific to the point where he became skeptical of paranormal claims, for example. He was. Opinion that psychic phenomena just don’t stand at the critical examination. But he better believe that if there ever came time where there was just one instance, a psychic phenomena that could be replicated or in some way explained. That would shift the entire paradigm of science and science when no longer exist before we know. 

So he was an open minded skeptic, like real human right. 

But he wasn’t dogmatic. He didn’t just dismiss these ideas out of hand. But he was he was consistently scientific and he was always looking for alternative explanations. But from what he could tell, science was the best decision we had for understanding the natural world and our role in it. 

Norm, the Senegalese scientists, Schaik, aren’t too deep up. How did his humanism play out in kind of a contribution to the movement? It was there were a humanist movement that he contributed to in Senegal. Or was it really kind of as a public intellectual speaking out about these things? 

It was a public intellectual, but it was also as a Jim Underdown, someone who put forth a strong belief in evolutionary theory. He was also someone who influenced people because he was an athlete, a court activist. In fact, he had been jailed because of his political activism. So he was known as a political activist. And one of the things that’s very interesting about his life is that there come a time after he died. He died in 1986, I believe. And after he died, they named the university after Harlem shake up at the university. And although the university is named after him and that is well attended by people throughout West Africa, one of the problems is that his work is not well known, even at his own university. 

A lot of people had rejected it because of his political opposition to the government at the time. 

So not necessarily because of his controversial views on religion or the paranormal, but because of his political ideals. Right. So we’ve been talking about this figure in black history, but in the history of the African American experience. Are there any other figures that stand out for you really right now just focusing on their contributions in the history of science? 

Well, you know, there were quite few. And what another president comes to mind is Charles Drew, who helped to set up the first blood bank. And he was very influential. And one thing that’s really interesting about him is that a. This is a story that although he was instrumental in helping set the first blood banks. This is what I believe to be an urban legend about him after he died. He supposedly got into a car accident and he was losing blood and he was taken to a hospital. And because of his color, he was supposedly denied admission and he was allowed to die without getting a blood transfusion that would have supposedly saved his life. 

So the urban legend is that he wasn’t given a blood transfusion, even though he was this figure who helped set up the blood banks in the first place. 

Right. And that’s a story that has been believed widely throughout the African-American community. 

Do you think there’s evidence to support it? 

I don’t. Well, I used to believe it myself. But after doing a little bit of research into that topic, I don’t believe that that was the case. In fact, from what I could be paramount, he wasn’t actually denied the service. I think that he had died before they even had the opportunity to perform the action. So from what I can tell, it felt to be an urban legend. 

And as it is, it would just be one of many that have permeated throughout the African-American community. In fact, not many years ago, I read an excellent book on that whole topic of urban legends in the black community. And a lot of them are centered around conspiracy theories and so centered around alleged racist actions that have been performed against African-Americans. And on a topic of skepticism. I think that it’s important to foster a methodology of skeptical inquiry so that we are better able to combat so many of these lectures that have permeated our community for so many years. 

Without that skepticism, the black community tends to buy in to belief systems that make them less likely to participate in making the changes in society that need to be changed in. In other words, it fuels a sense of kind of hopelessness. If you’re filled with the belief in all these accounts of conspiracy against the black community. 

Right. In fact, I was reading a few years ago an article from The Washington Times, and that article pointed out that African-Americans tend to be among those most likely to buy in to conspiracy theories. And that pretty much goes along with my own personal experience. 

So that painting to be surprising, I think it’s something that we need to discuss a lot more because some of our most influential leaders consistently promote conspiracy theory. 

Right. I’ve seen some leaders in the black community well, especially hosts of certain TV shows who have time and time again have guests on who promote a theory that AIDS, for instance, was a government conspiracy against the African-American community. 

Right. And on a similar note, you have had people such as Louis Farrakhan not only promote that particular conspiracy theory, but back in the 1990s, Farrakhan was involved in a program fair was geared toward coming up with the supposed cure for AIDS. And it was really disappointing because 20/20, the news program from ABC, they had and that’s say a Farrakhan and they have show so many of these desperate people coming to his positions asking for cures. And they were given all of this false hope. And, of course, nothing could be done about it. Where, you know, they could have gone on to some more reputable physicians and and perhaps live better lives and not been able to treat the illness in a much more effective way. But that’s one of the problems with the conspiracy theory. Sometimes they put us in a position where we are not able to draw upon the best medical science or the best that there is available to combat the problems that we’re trying to solve. 

Norm, getting back to the history of kind of figures in the black community who contributed the signs and of free thought and skepticism. There were a couple others in American history that you wanted to touch on. 

Yes, I wanted to touch on J. Ernest Wilkins and Lloyd Quartermain. They were two black scientists among sects that were involved in the Manhattan Project. This is an excellent book part Blacks in Science by Art, Vast Serfdom of Records University, which he does a very lengthy interview with Lloyd Quartermain about his experiences not only working on the Manhattan Project, but also as a as a physicist in general, resourceful. Ernest Wilkins. And he was written. About by the black humanist J.A. Rogers, who was a great African American anthropologist. And he had discussed some with Ernest Wilkins work as a black physicist. But these are some of the things that we don’t really get a chance to learn about in general, which is one reason I think Black History Month is a good idea. 

I know there are some people, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson who are against Black History Month and think it’s a bad idea or who think that by having such a month. We are compartmentalizing black history. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson and others have argued in a sense, that Black History Month ghettoizes the notion of black people being involved in the sciences or in other fields. Right. 

Right. But if someone who was very much an arrested and promoting history and who was very much interested in setting the historical record straight. I’m one who likes to take any opportunity I can to teach about history and to help give people a better idea to broaden their scope and to give them a better understanding of who we are. So, you know, I believe that if one month but I don’t think it’s the only month that we have to discuss it. I believe it’s just an opportunity and it’s one that I like to seize upon whenever it’s there, I believe. And, you know, taking every opportunity available to help promote black history and give people a chance to understand that, you know, black people have contributed more to history than they might believe. Jim Underdown. 

Norm, you just mentioned Neil deGrasse Tyson. His science show on PBS, his work at the Hayden Planetarium. He touches on skepticism in his work. So I would consider him a leading black skeptic. But can you think of any others on the scene today who speak skepticism to the black community? You’ve suggested a number of times in our conversations that skepticism is sorely needed there. 

Right. I can’t think of any well known people. However, there are some that aren’t very well known, but there are still doing excellent work. For example, you might know this person, Patrick M.F.. 

He used to be president of the Rationalist Society in St. Louis. Right now, he’s living in Seattle. But back in the 1990s, he wrote an excellent article on psychics and psychic hotlines and how they have been so influential in the black community after he had written this article. I was able to send it out to various black newspapers, which there are about 200 in the United States, and quite a few of them ran his article. And it was good because it was one of the very few times we’ll see that paper skepticism in the black media Jim Underdown. 

When you see the psychic industry appraised so much on the black community, this was a counter to that. 

Right. In fact, I wrote a similar article for Free Inquiry magazine back in the summer of 1998. And the title of my piece was How Fake Hartline Exploit African-Americans. And I felt not only with the phenomenon and the phenomenon back in the 1990s, it brought up two billion dollars by the end of 1999. Much of that coming from African-Americans, but also dealt with the way the black media treat psychics and a belief in prophecy. If you look at a lot of black newspapers, you will see that they are running not only stories about people who have made supposed post protheses, they tend to be are promoting prophecy and psychic phenomena without any skepticism whatsoever. For example, back in 1988, there’s a newspaper in Buffalo called The Challenger. It’s a black newspaper, black newspaper. And they discussed a Reverend Heysel Castle who was described as a metaphysician based in Dale City, Virginia. This psychic had made numerous predictions, including the prediction that Saddam Hussein would set off toxic weapons that would lead to a great deal of damage to the world and various other ones that were clearly felt. Prophecy, for example, was predicted way back then that basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal would retire. But he’s still playing today. So there are all of these prophecies, me. And if you’re going to report that these prophecies are being made. You should also report that they fail if they have indeed failed. But you don’t get that much at the black media. 

But other media in general Jim Underdown not to get too far afield. But do you think the problem is more serious in black media or is it? Kind of the same. Just all all mass media. 

I think it’s even more pronounced in the black media. For example, I mentioned earlier, Louis Farrakhan and Farrakhan has made numerous protheses, for example. He he said that back before the first Gulf War began, he had predicted that it would be a war that led to the end of America, that there was no way America could win because in his opinion, Iraq was on the side of God. However, we know how that turned out. But this was pretty much front page news in some black newspapers. But after the war, after the first war have ended, there was no one who came forth and asked what happened? The prophecy failed. And so, you know, sometimes you’re having these major stories being promoted. But after the prophecy failed. There’s not any kind of follow up whatsoever. But I don’t see that type of a prophecy getting front page news in mainstream newspapers, for example. And that many years ago, you had Pat Robertson, who had come out to say that he was going to pray away a hurricane that was headed for Northern Virginia. However, that hurricane had eventually hit Virginia and caused a lot of damage. However, you this wasn’t front page news. This is something that you would read about maybe on on page seven or somewhere else in the news. 

Right. The mainstream media treats a lot of that stuff as fringe. But in the black community, there’s a more legitimacy to those sorts of claims. 

Right. And that’s especially problematic because so many of these claims are being made by influential African-Americans. For example, this program, I’m not sure if it still comes on, but it was fairly popular for quite a while. Tony Brown’s journal. 

Right. I was alluding to that earlier when I was talking about AIDS conspiracy theories. I’ve seen him have guests on there that would never see the light of day in traditional media. 

Right. And he buys not only into the conspiracy theories, but he believes in the power of Nostradamus. He had been on his television program numerous times promoting Nostradamus and his alleged prophecy. And he also he has a column and his column seems to come out in numerous black newspapers throughout the United States. And he would routinely talk about prophecy. He may may protheses regarded presidential elections that, you know, obviously failed. And he gets a great deal of leeway with this. And, you know, he’s he’s not alone. You have Montel Williams, who always has a fake Sylvia. 

Right. Sylvia Browne, who has the same benefits as you were talking about Farrakhan having earlier failed prophecies, don’t really ever bite her in the end because there’s really never any follow up. 

Right. And so this problem just seems to be a much more pronounced in the African-American community. And we do need more people out there providing the skeptical viewpoint. Anyway, my article, How Fake It Hotlines Exploit African-Americans. I was able to mail that out as well to numerous black newspapers and many don’t pick it up. So to a lesser degree, we do have some black skeptics out there promoting, you know, skepticism of these untested claims for knowledge. But we still need many more to come out. 

One encouraging sign in recent years is that while there’s not a burgeoning black skepticism movement in the United States, in the continent of Africa, there’s a lot of skeptical activism going on. 

Right. And if very impressive, I’ve had the opportunity to go to Africa about seven times now. 

And I was there last summer and I was able to attend the first skeptic’s conference held in sub-Saharan Africa. And it was very exciting. And the group, the Center for Inquiry Senegal, is headed by a man named for Dale Neon, who is a physicist, and he is probably the only scientist or educator in Africa who teaches skepticism on a regular basis. He teaches it from his science lab. And so as a result of his conference, there was a great deal of excitement among many people in academia and the nation of Senegal. It was one of the best conferences ever. 

You were telling me before that Leo IEG Wei, who is one of the son of for inquiry’s leaders in Africa, said that this is one of the best conferences he’s ever been to. 

Right. And equally, he was very good there. He gave a presentation. And equally, he’s he’s a highly intelligent individual. He speaks French. English, Yoruba and party, other languages. And he was there, he attended it and he was, you know, very much impressed by the organization, by the topic, by the level of presentation. And it was just an absolutely fantastic conference. 

Norm, skepticism in the United States. It deals with things like ghosts, sands, you know, psychic down the road. And did someone see UFOs last night? But in Africa, it deals with sometimes life and death issues, which burning, for instance. Right. 

Rape is which burning. There’s also the belief that albinos have some magical powers. 

And so in places such as Burundi, Tanzania and other nations, albinos are actually being kill and their organs are being harvested. And it’s believed that by harvesting these, Oregon’s people can get great wealth, they can have marital bliss, they can improve their sex lives and and things of this nature. And the skeptics in Africa are dealing with these very real life and death issues. And they’re doing a good job as far as getting in the media, because prior to the work of these African skeptics, they had been no skepticism whatsoever. In fact, a lot of times you read in the African media articles and wish the existence of God is regarded as an established fact. Mm hmm. Or the belief in magic is something that is, you know, just just not challenged. But the skeptics in Africa have been doing an excellent job of dealing with these issues. But the problem is that you have a lot of Africans who are involved in science who still buy into these paranormal claims. And I found that this was especially pronounced among students who are involved in science clubs, in nations such as Gambia, after Senegal or equally. And I went to Gambia and we were promoting a skeptical view and skepticism for things such as alternative medicine, a belief in juju, and that these types of beliefs for being how it died to very strongly by science students. And so, you know, you have difficulty that Aldy among the uneducated people. But even among educated people who have had these beliefs, has childhood and found it very hard to break away from them. 

So it’s an uphill battle. Norm, you mentioned Patrick Innes earlier from the rationalist society in St. Louis. It should be said the oldest Freethought group in the United States continually existing. I think it was founded in the mid 40s. My first Freethought group. So holds a special place in my heart. In any case, here’s Patrick Enis. Years ago, he was president of that outfit. And I really don’t know many other black leaders in the organized skeptic or humanist movement. Why do you think that is? Is it just a numbers game that African-Americans are a minority within a minority? You know, only a fraction Americans are black and only a fraction are secular and pro science. 

I think that has a lot to do with it. But I also believe that a lot of us don’t really know much about organ mass skepticism. I never knew anything about it until I came to work at the Center for Inquiry, which at the time wasn’t called the Center for Inquiry. But I came to work with the Council for Democratic Effective Humanism, and at the time I simply didn’t know anything about organized skepticism. The first time that I even heard a skeptical Inquirer was when I came to work with the organization that helped to put it out. So I think a lot of us really don’t know too much about it, but I think that if we have the opportunity to learn about it, more of us would be willing to come out. And if we had the opportunity to apply skeptical thinking to a lot of the belief that have helped hold us back, that would benefit all of us. 

So to finish up, then, tell me how people who are interested in increasing the number of African-Americans involved in skepticism and humanism, well, what’s the first step? What do we do? 

Well, I think the first step is trying to get the information out. Now, there was a time when I first came to work with Jim Underdown, with these organizations at the centers. 

That’s probably in his area. So there are so many different organizations. 

I guess when I first came to work with these organizations, I was playing a great deal of getting the information out, speaking on black radio stations, having articles published in the black press. And I think we need to do more of that. But we also need to have more presentation or more representation at black colleges and universities because there are people there who are clamoring for it. There is a member of our organization, African-Americans for Humanism, who’s also a skeptic named. Faulkner. And he has gone around for some of the black colleges. And he says there’s so many of the people he passed. Who really are skeptical, really are humanistic. But they really don’t know too much about organizations out there doing our kind of work. So if we could get out there and get the message out and that way, that’s a good way to start. And that’s how things are going about in Africa. You know, people are going to the young people want to universities and even at the elementary school. 

Right. The campus outreach that the Center for Inquiry does, we send boxes of educational and organizing materials to groups throughout the continent there. And it’s paying real dividends. 

Right. And so we need to continue to do those things because I think that as far as the need for skepticism, it’s growing, especially in light of the election of Barack Obama, who many black people believe was foretold in prophecy. And, you know, he’s supposed to have been sent to West by God. And I think that once you have that out there, it becomes increasingly difficult for you to look at politics in a very critical way. So I think that now is the time to try to grow skepticism and humanism in the African community. And I think that was probably the best part because people will be open to it. They just need to be exposed to it. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of African American Humanism, an anthology through our website Point of Inquiry dot org. Additionally, you’ll find information about African-Americans for Humanism, the organization that Norm Allen directs, and a ways that if you’re out there at the grassroots, you can get involved with African American skepticism and humanism at the grassroots level. Norm, thank you for this discussion. I enjoyed it a great deal. 

Thank you for having me. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.