The 100th Meeting of the Skeptics’ Circle: The trouble with Orac

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PROLOGUE

LOCATION: The Liberator, cruising through space.

GAN: Are you sure it’s fully switched on?

ORAC: Of course I’m properly switched on. Having depressed the activator button what else would you expect?

CALLY: It’s his voice.

BLAKE: It’s exactly as though Ensor were speaking.

ORAC: Surely it is obvious even to the meanest intelligence that during my development I would naturally become endowed with aspects of my creator’s personality.

AVON: The more endearing aspects by the sound of it.

ORAC: Possibly. However similarities between myself and Ensor are entirely superficial. My mental capacity is infinitely greater.

JENNA: Modest, isn’t he?

ORAC: Modesty would be dishonesty.

VILA: What’s wrong with being dishonest?

ORAC: Is that a question?

VILA: Yes.

ORAC: The question is futile. Were I to say that I am incapable of dishonesty how would you know if I was being dishonest or not?

BLAKE: A question for a question. Well, you’re capable of evasion, anyway.

VILA: I think I’ve heard enough. I don’t like him. Orac, be a good junk heap — shut up.

CALLY: I agree with Vila.

ORAC: Define the words ‘Shut up.’

BLAKE: Stop talking. Do not speak. Be silent.

ORAC: That is better. Our relationship will be best served if your statements are free of ambiguity.

GAN: Let’s switch him off and go back to work.

BLAKE: No, wait a minute, let’s find out what he is capable of. Orac, what are your limits?

ORAC: They have not yet been defined. My knowledge is virtually infinite. My secondary ability is to logically process that knowledge and make accurate predictions.

CALLY: Are you saying you can see into the future?

ORAC: The words future, present, past are meaningless.

AVON: Define ‘meaningless’.

ORAC: I have the capacity to predict events that have not yet taken place.

AVON: That is not what I asked.

ORAC: In the circumstances the question is meaningless.

[Avon laughs.]

AVON: Apparently Orac now thinks he’s a psychic.

VILA:: We’re screwed.

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A SKEPTICAL INTERLUDE?

LOCATION: A large, paneled room, with numerous model ships on shelves lining the walls. It appears to be a bar. The room is filled with people, who are huddled around a Plexiglass box full of blinking lights. It becomes clear that the box is Orac. A youthful-appearing but gray-haired man is speaking.

STEVE NOVELLA: I agree that something appears to be wrong with Orac. he really seems to think he can read the future. I wonder if the three years he has been running the Skeptics’ Circle, plus all the woo he deals with on his own blog has finally fried one (or more) of his logic circuits.

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ORAC: I will make a prediction. I will project an image on your scanner screen.

SKEPTICO: Go on then, show us.

SKEPCHICK: Hey that’s us.

PALMD: It’s the Circle!

BRONZE DOG: It’s not much of a prediction, just sitting there.

ORAC: It is not a prediction; it is an immutable certainty. The Skeptics’s Circle will be destroyed.

THE PERKY SKEPTIC: What!

THE FERRET KING: You’re not given to practical jokes are you, because that’s not funny.

ORAC: The word “funny” means nothing to me. Suffice it to say that the magnitude of woo is such that the Circle will be destroyed and the blogosphere will be overrun with woo.

SKEPTICO: Is there any way to stop it?

ORAC: Unlikely. The onslaught of unreason, anti-science, and woo has become too much. Jenny McCarthy herself, in fact, has placed the entire space-time continuum in danger. Her stupid burns brighter than a supernova and is powerful enough to threatend to rend the very fabric of space. The Secret reigns supreme, as does irrational fundamentalist religion, which, when you come right down to it, The Secret resembles.

BOB CARROLL: Nonesense. The Secret is nothing more than a manifestation of the New Thought movement, which existed long before Oprah Winfrey discovered it. There’s no evidence that it is any more powerful than in the past.

BRONZE DOG: Besides, theology is not to be taken seriously, and What the Bleep Do We Know? is about as dumb as it gets.

AKUSAI: And, our doubt gives us power.

SID SCHWAB: We all know that blind, unthinking religion is a serious threat to reason.

CALL ME PAUL: And secularists won’t take the disses the religious deal out to us any more.

ORAC: Nonetheless, your battles against irrationality will not stave off the inevitable, the results of the recent election notwithstanding.

MIKE O’RISAL: Geez, what’s happened to Orac? You’d think that someone had convinced him that Barack Obama is the Antichrist or something.

ORAC: But he is apparently considering the antivaccine loon Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for a cabinet post and has been kissing up to chiropractors. Bad medicine is meeting bad politics, and the quacks are winning, and the quacks even have an Expelled! to call their very own. People who believe that woo makes them feel better are in ascendance. It’s all health the woo-woo way.

HEATHEN MIKE: Maybe we need a tuning fork of woo to fix Orac.

NOVELLA: All is not lost, anyway. I think we’re making headway in convincing people that homeopathy still sucks.

STAVROS ISAIADIS: Yeah, homeopaths are always misrepresenting the evidence and getting caught at it!

SKEPCHICK: It’s not just homeopaths. Woos are always testing this healing modality or that psychic power and making fools of themselves.

MARK CRISLIP: Indeed, and let’s not forget that, no matter how much the woos try to convince people otherwise, germ theory is more than “just a theory.”

NOVELLA: And that acupuncture research still sucks.

DR. AUST: And randomized, double-blind trials are over 100 years old; so you’d think that acupuncturists and other believers in “energy healing” could have gotten their studies right by now.

SKEPTICO: But what about Orac? Something’s still not right about him. It’s like he thinks he’s a psychic or something.

ORAC: The Skeptics’ Circle will be destroyed; all your struggles can’t prevent it. It is inevitable. My analysis of available data is clear on that.

SKEPTICO: Yeah, more like your analysis of woo.

PALMD: When’s this supposed to happen?

ORAC: The event is not far distant.

PALMD: How far distant?

FERRET KING: Be more precise.

ORAC: The event is now even less distant.

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SKEPTICO: Smart ass.

NOVELLA: Maybe he’s playing with words. Orac likes to do that. Maybe it’s something to do with the definition of “skeptic.”

FERRET KING: Or perhaps the connotation of the word.

SKEPBITCH: Or that candles in the dark don’t always light the way.

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MIKE HAUBRICH: We could always use forensic astrology to figure out what’s wrong.

BRONZE DOG: Or we could always try this.

[He removes the activator and throws it across the flight deck. Orac turns off.]

NOVELLA: That’s all right, that’s fixed Orac.

SKEPTICO: No, it hasn’t.

BRONZE DOG: What do you mean?

SKEPTICO: We’ve forgotten something. The prediction has still been made.

PALMD: Who cares? It’s obviously a load of crap! Let’s drink!

[Orac, previously dark, lights up again! Everyone is startled and backs off. They had always assumed that removing his activator turned off his circuits and that the activator is required to turn him back on.]

ORAC: Psych!

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BRONZE DOG: Orac, your activator…how can you be functioning?

ORAC: Oh, that. It’s nothing more than a useful plot device that Blakes 7 writers came up with to keep me from being so powerful that no one could ever stop me if I got out of line and from always saving the day. It also had the seemingly salutary effect of setting up plotlines in which the activator switch was missing, so that the crew could not consult me, which would, of course, result in my instantly giving them the answers to whatever problem it was they were facing. It’s a lot like the transporter beam in the original Star Trek series, which kept the special effects crew from being overtaxed showing shuttle crafts landing and taking off every time the crew wanted to visit another planet. Rather dumb, if you ask me. Why on earth would a supercomputer as powerful as I be saddled with what is in essence a “kill” switch? Don’t you think I would long ago have figured out a way to inactivate it (which I have)?

SKEPTICO: But what about your predictions?

ORAC: Oh, those. I was merely showing you, contributors to and members of the Skeptics’ Circle, that you did not need me for the Circle to continue. The Circle is greater than any single one being. Indeed, there may someday come a time when I may decide that the Circle needs new blood and that it is time to pass it on to another skeptic for caretaking. By pretending to make deranged psychic predictions of doom, I spurred you all on to greater feats of skepticism. Feats such as these:

ABEL PHARMBOY: [Quietly, as aside to the camera] You realize, of course, that Orac just couldn’t figure out a way to work links to all those posts into the story without making it sound even more ridiculous than it does already; so he lazily tacked them on as a list.

ORAC: I heard that! My sense of hearing is much more sensitive than a human’s. Ensor spent a lot of money on my circuits.

SKEPCHICK: Screw this! Let’s drink!

FERRET KING I can’t. They they won’t serve me here!

SKEPCHICK: Why is that?

FERRET KING: Because I’m only 15.

SKEPCHICK: Oh I forgot.

ORAC: Fear not, young Ferret King. Your time will come. Unreason and woo are, unfortunately, eternal, or at least apparently so among you humans. At the very least, we are many generations from eliminating them. That is why skepticism, reason, science, and critical thinking must be also be eternal. Skeptics grow old and die because they are human, like the late lamented Carl Sagan. Skeptical bloggers come and go like mayflies, given how brief the usual lifespan of the typical blog is. The skeptical movement cannot and must not depend on a single person–or Tarial cell-powered computer designed by Ensor. The Skeptics’ Circle must endure, yes, even if Orac ever disappears, lest the blogosphere be awash in unreason forever.

PALMD: [As a whispered aside.] Orac always did have a rather inflated opinion of his own importance and intelligence. He’s also incredibly long-winded and likes to hear himself talk.

ORAC: I heard that!

SKEPCHICK: Enough! Let’s drink, already!

ORAC: If you must. [Orac’s lights blink more brightly.]

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EPILOGUE:

ORAC: [To the audience] It was an honor when the creator of the Skeptics’ Circle, St. Nate, who–alas–is no longer blogging, entrusted me with the Skeptics’ Circle. It is difficult to comprehend that this is really the 100th installment, and that I’ve been organizing this blog carnival for three years.

Starting up the second 100 Meetings of the Skeptics’ Circle will be Michael Meadon at Ionian Enchantment on Thursday, December 4. Let’s work together to push the Circle to even greater heights than it has reached since its very first Meeting in February 2005.

NOTE: The “inspiration” for this tale can be found in the last scene of this episode of Blakes 7.