Biologist and author best known for his hypothesis of morphic resonance. At Cambridge University he worked in developmental biology as a Fellow of Clare College. He was Principal Plant Physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad, India. From 2005 to 2010 he was Director of the Perrott-Warrick project for research on unexplained human and animal abilities, funded by Trinity College, Cambridge.
Articles on the Activities of Dogmatic Skeptics
Bertrand Russell and Mnemic Causation
The Anti-Sheldrake Phenomenon
JREF’s “Amazing Meeting” Not so Amazing
The Evolution of Barbara Ehrenreich
National Geographic TV’s ‘Is It Real?’
Lazzaro Spallanzani’s Scientific “Heresy”
by Guy Lyon Playfair
In 1794 the eminent Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-99), one of the founders of experimental biology, published a modest but heretical proposal.
Long intrigued by the ability of bats to fly in total darkness without bumping into things, he set out to discover how they did it. He reasoned that they must be using one of their five senses, and in a series of extremely cruel experiments he maimed bats by destroying their senses one by one, blinding them, blocking their ears or even cutting them off, eliminating their sense of smell and removing their tongues.
It soon became clear to him that it was the sense of hearing that bats needed in order to avoid obstacles. But hearing what? Bats made no audible sounds as they flew, and little if anything was known in the 18th century about ultrasound, the secret of bats’ success as nocturnal navigators. As they fly, they emit beams of up to 50,000 cycles per second – more than twice the upper limit of human hearing – and ‘read’ the returning echoes. It was a striking example, of which there are many, of a man-made invention, in this case echo location or sonar, having existed in nature long before we reinvented it.
Spallanzani was in effect making a claim for the paranormal, much as the pioneers of psychical research were to do in the following century in the case of telepathy. There was no sign in 1794 of a normal explanation for the bat’s navigating skills, so the scientific establishment did what it tends to do on these occasions – it made one up. Its chief spokesman was the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a pioneer in both anatomy and palaeontology. He decreed, in a paper published in 1795, that “to us, the organs of touch seem sufficient to explain all the phenomena which bats exhibit”.
He had it all worked out. Bats’ wings were “richly supplied with nerves of every type”, which could somehow or other receive impressions of heat, cold and resistance. Yet whereas Spallanzani, and several colleagues whom he persuaded to repeat his experiments, reached their unanimous conclusion only after numerous experiments, Cuvier solved the problem without having performed a single one. It was, as the 20th century bat expert Robert Galambos noted, “a triumph of logic over experimentation”.
It was also a triumph of ignorance over knowledge. One of Spallanzani’s colleagues had actually thought of the sensitive-wing theory and tested it, by putting bats in an all-white room and coating their wingtips with some kind of black stuff that would come off on the walls and various white objects if the bats’ wings touched them. They didn’t.
Cuvier’s explanation soon found its way into the textbooks, and stayed there until the start of the 20th century, when independent researchers in France and the USA published yet more experimental evidence in support of Spallanzani’s theory. Then, in 1920, a British researcher named Hartridge who had helped to develop the first naval sonar systems during World War 1, published the first clearly stated theory of bat navigation by ultrasound. This was duly confirmed, using newly developed recording devices, by Galambos and his colleague Donald Griffin, who published their results in 1941 – nearly a century and a half after Spallanzani.
In retrospect, it is hard to see how those original findings took so long to gain acceptance. Spallanzani was no maverick amateur, but a versatile and experienced researcher regarded as one of the leading physiologists of his day who did pioneering work in such areas as fertilisation, artificial insemination and limb regeneration. In his bat research he followed what is now the normal practice of inviting colleagues to replicate one’s findings or claims. His work was widely disseminated – an English translation of the final and fairly conclusive report of his Swiss collaborator Louis Jurine appeared in the first volume (1798) of the Philosophical Magazine. Above all. the acoustic theory was solidly based on the experimental evidence of several independent researchers. Yet it was to remain neglected for more than a century largely thanks to the immense prestige of Cuvier, whom Napoleon put in charge of French educational reform. Lone voices of dissent, such as that of British physician Sir Anthony Carlisle, who concluded, after carrying out his own experiments, that bats avoided obstacles “owing to extreme acuteness of hearing” went largely unheard. A more typical attitude was expressed in 1809 by one George Montagu, who asked sarcastically “Since bats see with their ears, do they hear with their eyes?”
“Had he [Spallanzani] been taken seriously, how much sooner might we have discovered radar?” asked the late Eric Laithwaite, an engineer with a keen interest in natural technology. It would only have to have been invented five or ten years earlier to have possibly saved the more than 1,500 lives lost when the Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912. Bats do not fly into icebergs or anything else, and it should have been possible to work out how long before it finally was. Laithwaite added: “Trying to discover how a biological mechanism works has an advantage over solving problems in non-biological areas since one is sure the problem can be solved.” Since Nature has already solved her problems, the researcher has the sure knowledge that a solution exists.
However, as long as the spirit of the Cuviers of this world lives on, as it still does in such organisations as CSICOP [now CSI], many of them may remain unsolved for another century or so.
Thought for the Day
“In moderate doses, skepticism stimulates the search for truth; in immoderate doses, it inhibits such a search.”
– Mario Bunge, The Skeptical Inquirer, July/Aug. 2000, p. 6
Galambos, R. (1942) The avoidance of obstacles by flying bats. Isis 34, 132-40.
Hartridge, N. (1920) The avoidance of objects by bats in their flight. Journal of Physiology 54, 54-7.
Laithwaite, E. R. (1977) Biological analogues in engineering practice. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 2(2), 100-8.
Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), Associated Distinguished Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), and chairman of the biotech company, Cognigenics.
Clever Rationalizations that Get in the Way of Progress
Abstracted from Chapter 13 of: “The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena” by Dean I. Radin (HarperEdge, 1997)
Skepticism, meaning doubt, is one of the hallmarks of the scientific approach.
Skepticism sharpens the critical thought required to sift the wheat from the chaff, and it forces experimental methods, measurements, and ideas to pass through an extremely fine sieve before they are accepted into the “scientific worldview.” A little critical thinking applied to many of the claims of New Age devotees reveals why many scientists are dubious of psi phenomena. Science requires substantial amounts of repeatable, trustworthy evidence before taking claims of unexpected effects seriously. Depending on the claim, providing sufficient evidence can take years, decades, or half-centuries of painstaking, detailed work. Learning how to create this evidence requires long training and experience in conventional disciplines like experimental design, analysis and statistics.
Zen … and the Art of Debunkery
Or, How to Debunk Just About Anything
“While informed skepticism is an integral part of the scientific method, professional debunkers — often called ‘kneejerk skeptics’ — tend to be skeptics in name only, and to speak with little or no authority on the subject matter of which they are so passionately skeptical.”
– Dan Drasin
So you’ve had a close encounter with a UFO or its occupants. Or maybe you’ve experienced an “impossible” healing, a perfectly cogent conversation with your dead uncle or an irrefutable demonstration of “free energy,” and you’ve begun to suspect that the official view of reality isn’t the whole picture. Mention any of these things to most working scientists and be prepared for anything from patronizing cynicism to merciless ridicule. After all, science is a purely hard-nosed enterprise that should have little patience for “expanded” notions of reality. Right?
Like all systems of truth-seeking, the scientific method, applied with integrity, has a profoundly expansive, liberating impulse at its core. This “Zen” in the heart of science is revealed when the practitioner sets aside arbitrary beliefs, cultural preconceptions and groupthink, and approaches the nature of things with “beginner’s mind.” Given the freedom to express itself, reality can speak freshly and freely, and can be heard more clearly. Appropriate testing and objective validation can then follow in due course.
Seeing with humility, curiosity and fresh eyes was once the main point of science. But today it is often a different story. As the scientific enterprise has been bent toward exploitation, commercialization, institutionalization, hyperspecialization and new orthodoxy, it has increasingly preoccupied itself with disconnected facts in a psychological, social and ecological vacuum. So divorced has official science become from the greater scheme of things, that it tends to deny or disregard entire domains of reality and to satisfy itself with reducing all of life and consciousness to a dead physics.
In forgetting that all knowledge is provisional and subject to new discovery, mainstream science seems to be treading the weary path of the ossified religions it presumed to replace. Where free, dispassionate inquiry once reigned, emotions now run high in the defense of a fundamentalized “Scientific Truth.” As anomalies mount up beneath a sea of denial, defenders of the Faith and the Kingdom cling with increasing self-righteousness to the hull of a leaking paradigm. Faced with provocative evidence of things undreamt of in their philosophy, many otherwise mature scientists revert to a kind of reactive infantilism characterized by blind faith in the absoluteness of the familiar.
Small wonder, then, that so many promising fields of inquiry remain shrouded in superstition, ignorance, denial, disinformation, taboo . . . and debunkery.
What is “debunkery?” Essentially it is the attempt to debunk (invalidate) new fields of discovery by substituting scientistic rhetoric for scientific inquiry.
While informed skepticism is an integral part of the scientific method, professional debunkers — often called “kneejerk skeptics” — tend to be skeptics in name only, and to speak with little or no authority on the subject matter of which they are so passionately skeptical. At best, debunkers will occasionally expose other people’s errors; but for the most part they purvey their own brand of pseudoscience, fall prey to their own superstition and gullibility, and contribute little to the actual advancement of knowledge. As such, they well and truly represent the Right Wing of science.
To throw this reprobate behavior into bold — if somewhat comic — relief, I have composed a useful “how-to” guide for aspiring debunkers. This manual includes special sections devoted to debunking extraterrestrial intelligence, alternative healing methods, astrology and “free energy.” I spotlight these fields not because I necessarily support all related claims, but because they are among the most aggressively and thoughtlessly debunked subjects in the whole of modern history.
Many of the debunking strategies laid bare here have been adapted nearly verbatim from the classic works of history’s most remarkable debunkers. Though they often cross the threshold of absurdity under their own steam, I confess I have nudged a few across it myself for the sake of making a point.
As for the rest, their fallacious reasoning, fanatical bigotry, twisted logic and sheer goofiness will sound frustratingly familiar to those who have dared explore beneath oceans of denial and disingenuousness, and have attempted in good faith to report their observations.
So without further ado . . .
HOW TO DEBUNK JUST ABOUT ANYTHING
I. SETTING THE STAGE
• Before commencing to debunk, prepare your equipment. Equipment needed: one armchair.
• Put on the right face. Cultivate a condescending air certifying that your personal opinions are backed by the full faith and credit of God. Adopting a disdainful, upper-class manner is optional but highly recommended.
• Employ vague, subjective, dismissive terms such as “ridiculous,” “trivial,” “crackpot,” or “bunk,” in a manner that purports to carry the full force of scientific authority.
• Keep your arguments as abstract and theoretical as possible. This will send the message that accepted theory overrides any actual evidence that might challenge it — and that therefore no such evidence is worth examining.
• By every indirect means at your disposal imply that science is powerless to police itself against fraud and misperception, and that only self-appointed vigilantism can save it from itself.
• Project your subjective opinions from beneath a cloak of ostensible objectivity. Always characterize unorthodox statements as “claims,” which are “touted,” and your own assertions as “facts,” which are “stated.”
II. REDEFINING SCIENCE
• Portray science not as an open-ended process of discovery but as a pre-emptive holy war against invading hordes of quackery-spouting infidels. Since in war the ends justify the means, you may fudge, stretch or violate the scientific method, or even omit it entirely, in the name of defending it.
• Equate the narrow, stringent, rigorous and critical elements of science with all of science, while summarily dismissing the value of inquiry, exploration and discovery.
• Though stubborn negativity can no more be equated with science than a braking system can be equated with an automobile, insist that science consists wholly of the ruthless application of doubt. If anyone objects, accuse them of viewing science in exclusively fuzzy, subjective, or mystical terms.
• Likewise, while it would be ridiculous to equate a vehicle with a particular destination, declare that “science equals the existing body of scientific conclusions!”
• Reinforce the popular misconception that certain areas of inquiry are inherently unscientific. In other words, deliberately confuse the process of science with the content of science. If someone should point out that science must be neutral to subject matter, and only the investigative process can be valid or flawed, dismiss such objections using a method employed successfully by generations of politicians: simply reassure everyone that “there is no contradiction here!”
• While insisting with one side of your mouth that the scientific method is universal in its application and should be free to inquire into anything whatsoever, use the other side to deem it ineffectual when applied to unpopular subject matter. Be sure to assert, in time-honored conservative fashion, that “freedom isn’t license,” . . . and that “some questions are best left to the theologians!”
• Declare that the progress of science depends on explaining the unknown in terms of the known. In other words, science equals reductionism. You can apply the reductionist approach in any situation by discarding more and more and more evidence until what little is left can be explained entirely in terms of established knowledge.
• Downplay the fact that free inquiry and legitimate disagreement are a normal part of science.
• Insist that mainstream Western science is completely objective, and is uninfluenced by covert beliefs, untestable assumptions, ideological biases, political pressures or commercial interests. If an unfamiliar or inexplicable phenomenon happens to be considered true or useful by a nonwestern or other traditional society, you may dismiss it out of hand as “anecdotal nonsense,” “ignorant misconception,” “medieval superstition” or “fairy lore.”
• Declare that individual temperament, personality type and human emotions exert no influence whatsoever on the objectivity of “real” scientists. Ignore the fact that the denial of emotions, prejudices, idiosyncrasies and plain old human insecurity can exert powerful subconscious influences on the scientific enterprise, often with hilariously unscientific results.
• Avoid addressing the many historical parallels between the emergence of science and that of democracy, both of which originally rested on the revolutionary foundations of independent thought, honest inquiry, the free flow of information and the questioning of established authority.
• Reinforce the popular fiction that our scientific knowledge is complete and finished. Do this by asserting that “if such-and-such discovery were legitimate, then surely we would already know about it!”
• Assert that nothing can possibly occur that circumvents Newton’s 17th-century formulations of physical law. If someone should remind you that the 17th century did not have the last word on physics, change the subject as deftly as you can.
• Characterize any inquiry into a genuine mystery as “indiscriminate,” while equating the summary dismissal of unorthodox ideas with “intelligent discrimination.”
• If someone reminds you that “in science, one point of view requires as much proof or disproof as another,” invoke the irrelevant truism that “orthodox beliefs have already been proven!”
• State categorically that the unconventional may be dismissed as, at best, an honest misinterpretation of the conventional.
• If pressed about your novel interpretations of the scientific method, declare that “intellectual integrity is a subtle issue!”
• At every opportunity extoll the virtues of “critical thinking,” while behaving as if the phrase means nothing more than ruthless negativity. Avoid explaining that critical thinking presupposes a willingness to examine all sides of an issue with equal rigor.
III. LIBERATING THE RULES OF EVIDENCE
• When an anomaly rears its head, avoid examining the actual evidence, and at all costs do not accompany claimants to their laboratories or to the sites of their observations. This will allow you to say with impunity, “I have seen absolutely no evidence to support such ridiculous claims!” (Note that this technique has withstood the test of time and dates back at least to the age of Galileo. By simply refusing to look through his telescope, the ecclesiastical authorities bought the Church over three centuries’ worth of denial free and clear!)
• Having avoided examining the evidence, cover your tracks by reassuring your critics that, after all, you would certainly “have loved to be honored as a champion of such fantastic phenomena, so why in the world wouldn’t I examine the evidence?”
• If examining the evidence becomes unavoidable, report back that “there is nothing new here!” If confronted by a watertight body of evidence that has survived the most rigorous tests, simply dismiss it as being “too pat.”
• Deny the possibility of phenomena for which no plausible explanations have been advanced. Ignore such contrary examples as the existence of disease prior to the discovery of microbes, the sun’s copious production of energy long before the discovery of nuclear fusion, and the stubborn persistence of gravity despite our stubborn ignorance of its inner workings.
• With an air of disdain, assert that “most scientists regard such claims as nonsense!” — implying that you have surveyed the opinions of 51% of the world’s scientists and found them to be in absolute agreement with your views.
• Convince the world of your divine omniscience by declaring that “there is no evidence for X!” After all, only someone who knows everything can claim that no evidence for X exists anywhere in the universe.
• Argue that “some things are possible but not probable!” … although to know all that is or is not probable would demand complete knowledge of every dimension of reality in the universe and beyond.
• If a card-carrying debunker expresses a willingness to actually examine an anomalous claim in depth, excoriate him at once for “abandoning his objectivity.”
• Equate expertise in an unorthodox subject with a-priori bias in its favor. Then, using yourself as an example, assert that only a complete ignoramus can possibly be trusted to examine it without prejudice.
• Since the public tends to be unclear about the distinction between evidence and proof, do your best to help maintain this murkiness. If absolute proof is lacking, state categorically that “there is no evidence!”
• When presented with mountains of data supporting the existence of an anomaly, declare that “since the probability of its being true is zero, it would take an infinite amount of data to prove it!”
• If sufficient evidence has been presented to warrant further investigation of an unusual phenomenon, argue that “evidence alone proves nothing!” Ignore the fact that preliminary evidence is not supposed to prove ANYthing.
• Publicly praise the debunkers who invented the “absolute proof” criterion — i.e., that ironclad proof must be attained before an unorthodox claim can gain sufficient respectability to be discussed seriously. (And a brilliant move it was, because, in practice, “proof” is a matter of mainstream scientific consensus. So a marginalized phenomenon can never actually be “proven!”)
• If presented with copious documentary evidence supporting an unorthodox claim, wave it off and declare “It’s only words on paper; no reason to take any of it seriously!”
• Imply that proof precedes evidence. This will eliminate the possibility of initiating any meaningful process of investigation — particularly if no criteria of proof have yet been established for the phenomenon in question.
• Insist that criteria of proof cannot possibly be established for phenomena that do not exist!
• Although science is not supposed to tolerate vague or double standards, always insist that unconventional phenomena must be judged by a separate, yet ill-defined, set of scientific rules. Do this by declaring that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence!” — but take care never to specify where the “ordinary” ends and the “extraordinary” begins, or who gets to draw the line. This will allow you to manufacture an infinitely receding horizon that keeps “extraordinary” evidence just out of reach at any point in time.
• In the same manner, insist on classes of evidence that are impossible to obtain. For example, declare that unidentified aerial phenomena may be considered real only if we can bring them into laboratories to strike them with hammers and analyze their physical properties. Disregard the accomplishments of the inferential sciences — astronomy, for example — which gets on just fine without bringing actual planets, stars, galaxies and black holes into its labs and striking them with hammers.
• At every opportunity reinforce the notion that familiarity equals rationality. The unfamiliar is therefore irrational, and consequently inadmissible as evidence.
• “Occam’s Razor,” or the “principle of parsimony,” says the correct explanation of a mystery will usually involve the simplest fundamental principles. Insist, therefore, that the most familiar explanation is by definition the simplest! While you’re at it, imply strongly that Occam’s Razor is not merely a philosophical tool that cuts whichever way you point it, but an immutable law that always supports your particular views.
• Equate a lack of familiar, obvious, hard evidence with proof of non-existence. Skirt the fact that many common transient phenomena (the passing of a bird, a breeze, radio waves, light…) demonstrably exist without leaving behind gross, collectable evidence as a souvenir, and that many things may exist for which evidence has not yet been found, has been ignored, or is subject to interpretation.
• Decree that what lies outside the current scientific framework “cannot exist.” Since evidence for the existence of what “cannot exist” cannot itself exist, declare that the application of due scientific process to its investigation would be an exercise in futility.
• As needed, repeat the absurd, bromidic flatulence: “believe no evidence that hasn’t been confirmed by theory!”
IV. MASSAGING THE CONTEXT
• Make every effort to marginalize any groundbreaking field of inquiry. This will ensure its attracting a coterie of disgruntled eccentrics who will then self-discredit the field in perpetuity without your having to lift a finger. If this fails to occur spontaneously, quietly engage some unemployed disgruntled eccentrics to jumpstart the chain reaction.
• Bear in mind that once a field has been successfully marginalized, papers in that field tend to be excluded from the normal processes of scientific assessment and barred from publication in mainstream scientific journals. So seize every opportunity to excoriate investigators in such fields for their “failure to publish in mainstream scientific journals!”
• Maintain that in investigations of unconventional phenomena, a single flaw invalidates the whole. Regarding possibly-flawed conventional studies, however you may sagely opine that, “after all, situations are complex and human beings are imperfect.”
• Despite copious evidence to the contrary, assert that conventional science is immune to fraud, and that any evidence of data-fudging in the mainstream is “purely anecdotal.”
• Trivialize the case by trivializing the entire field in question. Characterize the study of orthodox phenomena as deep and time-consuming, while deeming unorthodox studies so insubstantial as to demand nothing more than a scan of the tabloids. If pressed on this, shrug your shoulders, raise your eyebrows, shake your head, turn up your palms and simply say, with mock puzzlement, “but there’s nothing there to study!”
• Discourage any study of history that may reveal today’s dogma as yesterday’s heresy.
V. HANDY TIPS AND TRICKS
• Use debunkery itself as a-priori disproof. Gesture as if brushing away a housefly and simply assert, “Oh, that’s been widely debunked.”
• Put on conservative airs and calmly report that unorthodox claims “appear not to accord with existing knowledge.”
• Assert that “investigations are ongoing, and are expected to reveal nothing out of the ordinary.”
• Practice debunkery-by-association. Lump together all phenomena popularly deemed unorthodox and suggest that their proponents and researchers speak with a single voice. In this way you can indiscriminately drag material across disciplinary lines or from one case to another to support your views as needed. For example, if a claim having some superficial similarity to the one at hand has been (or is popularly assumed to have been) exposed as fraudulent, cite it as if it were an appropriate example. Then put on a gloating smile, lean back in your armchair and calmly say, “I rest my case.”
• At every opportunity invoke the unassailability of cold logic. Ignore the fact that logic, however watertight, can never be more true or useful than the unconscious assumptions and fudged data underlying its application.
• Keep an arsenal of scientistic buzzwords at the tip of your tongue. So armed, you can effortlessly explain away even the most firmly acknowledged mysteries with a few impressive phrases and a wave of your hand. For example, the undeniable but incomprehensible facts of animal migration may be definitively ascribed to a “biological spatio-temporal vector-navigation program.” Likewise, you may call upon such quasi-substantial conceptual conveniences as “biological clock,” “self-organization” and “cellular memory” to deflate any suggestion that orthodox science may lack satisfactory explanations for intractably puzzling phenomena.
• Establish a crusading “Scientific Truth Foundation” staffed and funded by a hive of fawning acolytes. Then purport to offer a million-dollar reward to anyone who can repeatably demonstrate a paranormal phenomenon. Set the bar for paranormality nowhere in particular. Set the bar for repeatability at a “generous” 98%, safely ensuring that even normal scientific studies that demand a mere preponderance of evidence, or average results above chance, would fail to qualify for the prize. Should someone actually meet or exceed your criteria you can effortlessly dismiss their claim by pointing out that they’d just proven the phenomenon to be perfectly normal!
• Having established the “Scientific Truth Prize,” discontinue it — with great fanfare — on grounds that it would be pointless. After all, since nobody had claimed the prize, the paranormal must be bunk!
• When confronted with the notion that openmindedness may be a good thing, declare that “you don’t want your mind to be so open that your brains fall out!” If anyone should point out that it is the skull, not the mind, that encloses the brain, or that an open mind would make things fall IN, not out, put on a dyspeptic scowl and bark “oh, come on, let’s lighten up!”
• Learn to psychologize meaninglessly: You can always don an apparent cloak of wisdom by regurgitating such obvious, universal truths as “Of course, people always see what they’re looking for.” Never let on that, by definition, universal truths also apply to oneself.
• Use the word “imagination” as an epithet that applies only to seeing what’s not there, and not to denying what is there. For example, accuse people of “imagining they see UFOs,” while you, of course, imagine that they don’t.
• If a significant number of people agree that they have observed something that violates the consensus reality, simply ascribe it to “mass hallucination.” Avoid addressing the possibility that the consensus reality might itself constitute a mass hallucination.
• If ten teams of scientists at independent laboratories have successfully replicated an unorthodox phenomenon, complain that the work of those ten teams, taken together, “has not been replicated!”
• When applying the term “controversial,” do so with a wink, a half-smile, and an undertone of belittling dismissal.
• Invoke the names of famous people. For example, in response to an opponent’s cogent argument you may reply with annoyance, “My God, have you never read Nietzsche?” (If someone should remind you that Nietzsche routinely excoriated cowardly rationalizers of the status-quo, deftly co-opt the situation by retorting, “My point, exactly!”)
• Accuse investigators of unusual phenomena of believing in “invisible forces and extrasensory realities!” If they should point out that the physical sciences routinely deal with both of these (Gravity? Electromagnetism? Subtle chemistry? Nuclear phenomena? Quantum effects?) respond with a condescending chuckle that this is “a naive interpretation of the facts.”
• Label any poorly understood phenomenon “occult,” “fringe,” “metaphysical,” “mystical,” “weird,” “supernatural,” “paranormal” or “new-age.” This will get most mainstream scientists off the case immediately on purely emotional grounds. If you’re lucky, this may delay any responsible investigation of such phenomena by decades or even centuries!
• Characterize any phenomenon as “paranormal” whose actual degree of normalcy cannot be gauged in the first place due to perverse social taboos that effectively prohibit its open discussion and systematic investigation. For example, if half the population talked to their deceased great uncles twice a week, it would be considered normal, not paranormal. But how can we possibly determine whether they do or they don’t?
• Imply that mainstream religion is the only philosophical alternative to materialistic science. Therefore, anyone researching nonmaterial aspects of reality must believe in an anthropomorphic Judaeo-Christian God.
• Declare that since nature’s laws appear to be fixed and eternal, one’s understandings and interpretations of nature’s laws must be correspondingly fixed and eternal.
• When a rigorous parapsychology experiment shows only chance results, accept it as conclusive disproof of psychic functioning. When it shows well above chance, attribute it definitively to “cherry-picking the evidence.”
• If there is anything especially brazen you wish to assert but for considerations of scientific protocol or civil law, just say “it is widely believed that …” — a universally handy phrase that lets you say just about anything without fear of criticism, contradiction or legal jeopardy.
• When nailed for your abysmal ignorance of the subject at hand, declare that “everyone is entitled to their opinion!”
• Your diligence in debunkery must reflect your constant awareness that you are working at a disadvantage. After all, the facts must adhere to your theories 100% of the time without fail, while researchers of the unorthodox only have to get it right once. So hedge your bets by pigeonholing resistant cases as “leftovers” or “residue”. This will imply that they are just a small, expectable percentage of anomalies that existing theories will explain sooner or later.
VI. CALLING THE KETTLE BLACK
• Keep your opponents’ positions from being heard and understood by vigorous finger-pointing and by mounting an impenetrable barrage of meaningless rhetorical invective such as “Not even wrong!,” “Junk science!,” “Mere speculation!,” “Snake oil!” and so forth. To avoid betraying your own de-facto contempt for the scientific method, pound athletically on the arm of your chair and vociferously condemn “pseudoscience!!”
• Wield the term “pseudoscience” indiscriminately — for example, to attack claims that never purported to be scientific in the first place (i.e., empirical observations not yet ensconced in theory or tested scientifically) as well as claims arrived at by perfectly scientific means but which remain debatable or unresolved.
• Direct your most vociferous accusations of pseudoscience against those fields in which occasional fraud has in fact been perpetrated. Do this despite the fact that most such fraud has been exposed by insiders, not outside critics, and that such revelations say more about the effectiveness of measures against fraud within those fields than about their weakness.
VII. RIDICULE TO THE RESCUE!
• If reasoned argument is unavailable to you, or if you have been shamed for your unscientific behavior, you can always fall back on the single most chillingly effective weapon in the war against discovery and innovation: Ridicule! Ridicule has the unique power to make those unfamiliar with the facts go completely unconscious in a twinkling. It fails to sway only those few who are well enough informed, or of sufficiently independent mind, not to buy into the kind of emotional consensus that ridicule provides.
• By appropriate innuendo and example, imply that ridicule constitutes an essential feature of the scientific method that can raise the level of objectivity and dispassionateness with which any investigation is conducted.
• Bear in mind that sufficiently persistent ridicule can push its victims over the edge into bitterness, anger, homicidal insanity and a colorful spectrum of sociopathic behaviors guaranteed to discredit their views.
VIII. GETTING TECHNICAL
• Employ “TCP”: Technically Correct Pseudo-refutation; i.e., if someone remarks that all great truths began as blasphemies, respond immediately that not all blasphemies have become great truths. Because your response was technically correct, no one will notice that it did not really refute the original remark.
• With a wave of your hand, declare that “people get taken in by all kinds of unfounded beliefs!” The technical truth of this statement will effectively mask the fact that it does not necessarily apply to the situation at hand, or that it may just as well apply to your own inestimable capacity for discernment.
IX. SLEIGHT OF MIND
• Engage the services of a professional stage magician who can appear to mimic the phenomena in question; for example, ESP, psychokinesis or levitation. This will convince the public that the original witnesses to such phenomena must have been duped by talented conjurors who happened to be passing through that day and hoaxed the original phenomena in precisely the same way.
• Always consider eyewitness testimony regarding anomalous events inadmissibly “anecdotal” no matter the caliber of the witnesses, how mutually independent their observations, or how firmly they agree on what they saw.
• When a witness or claimant states something in a manner that is not 100% scientifically perfect, treat this as if it were not scientific at all. If the claimant is not a credentialed scientist, argue that his or her perceptions cannot possibly be accurate, intelligent or authoritative. The sole exceptions would be the professional illusionist and fellow debunkers, whose views may always be deemed objective in any field regardless of their actual degree of relevant expertise.
• If independent investigators verify or successfully replicate an unorthodox claim, insist that “they must have been in collusion with the claimants!” If called upon to justify your certainty, reply that it was “self-evident, due to the nature of the claim!”
• Find a prosaic phenomenon that, to the uninitiated, resembles the claimed phenomenon. Then suggest that the existence of the commonplace look-alike logically forbids the existence of the genuine article. For example, imply that since people often see “faces” in rocks, clouds and oatmeal, the enigmatic faces on Mars must be similar illusions and are therefore unworthy of investigation.
• Use “smoke and mirrors,” i.e., obfuscation and illusion. Never forget that a slippery mixture of fact, opinion, innuendo, irrelevant information and outright lies will fool most of the people most of the time. As little as one part fact to ten parts B.S. will usually do the trick. (Some veteran debunkers use homeopathic dilutions of fact with remarkable success!) Cultivate the art of slipping back and forth between fact and fiction so undetectably that the flimsiest foundation of truth will always appear to firmly support your entire edifice of opinion.
• Remember that you can easily appear to refute anyone’s claims by building “straw men” to demolish. One way to do this is to misquote them while preserving a convincing grain of truth; for example, by acting as if they have intended the extreme of any position they’ve taken. Another effective strategy with a long history of success is simply to mis-replicate their experiments, or to avoid replicating them at all on grounds that to do so would be “ridiculous” or “fruitless.” To make the whole process even easier, respond not to their actual claims but to their claims as reported by the media, or as propagated in popular myth.
• Deploy the “just because” argument: First find an internet posting that supports a particular unorthodox view. Then, while carefully ignoring the substantive evidence for it, accuse people of believing it “just because they read about it on the internet.”
• Insist that such-and-such unorthodox claim is not scientifically testable because no self-respecting grant-making organization would fund such ridiculous tests!
• Equate the apparent discrediting of claimants with actual disproof of their claims.
X. USING QUESTIONS AS WEAPONS
• Use a question as negative proof. Example: “There can be no extraterrestrial visitors because how would they get here fast enough across light-years of space?”
• Ask questions that appear to contain generally-assumed knowledge that supports your views; for example, “why do no military brass, police officers, air traffic controllers or psychiatrists report UFOs?” If someone points out that they have in fact done so for years, insist that they must all be mentally unstable.
• Ask unanswerable questions based on arbitrary criteria of proof. For example, “if this claim were true, why haven’t we seen it on TV?” or “in this or that scientific journal?” Never forget the mother of all such questions: “If UFOs are extraterrestrial, why haven’t they landed on the White House lawn?”
XI. HARNESSING THE MEDIA
• Shield your views from the possibility of effective rebuttal by expressing them exclusively in the popular media. Avoid peer-reviewed scientific journals, which demand informed discourse and typically allow those criticized to respond.
• Arrange to have your opinions echoed in the popular media by political, academic or cultural icons. The degree to which you can stretch the truth is directly proportional to the prestige of your mouthpiece.
• At the slightest suggestion that the light of science may be shone into previously forbidden territory, make yourself available to media producers who seek “fair and balanced” reporting of unorthodox views. But agree to participate only in those presentations whose time constraints and editorial policies preclude such luxuries as discussion, debate, and systematic presentation of evidence.
• Hold claimants responsible for the production values, editorial tastes and audience-demographics of any media or press that reports their claim. If an unusual or inexplicable event is reported in a sensationalized manner, hold this as proof that the event itself must have been without substance or worth.
• Co-opt the cluelessness of mainstream publications: Make an example of the Scientific American, which for three years refused to report on the Wright Brothers’ first successful powered flight. Characterize this historic gaffe as a “textbook example of prudent journalistic conservatism.”
• Remember that most people have insufficient time or expertise for careful discrimination, and tend to accept or reject the whole of an unfamiliar situation. So discredit the whole story by attempting to discredit part of the story. Here’s how: a) take one element of a case completely out of context; b) find something prosaic that hypothetically could explain just this element; c) declare that therefore this one element has been explained; d) book the National Press Club, invite the media, and announce to the world that the entire case has been explained!
XII. GETTING PERSONAL
• If you’re unable to attack the facts of the case, attack the participants — or the journalists who reported the case. Ad-hominem arguments, or personality attacks, are among the most effective ways of swaying the public and avoiding the issue. For example, if investigators of the unorthodox have profited financially from activities connected with their research, accuse them of “profiting financially from activities connected with their research!” If their research, publishing, speaking tours and so forth, constitute their normal line of work or sole means of support, hold that fact up as “conclusive proof that income is being realized from such activities!” If they have labored long and hard to achieve recognition for their work, you may safely characterize them as “publicity seekers.”
• Label any serious investigator of the unorthodox a “buff” or “freak,” or as “self-styled”– the media’s favorite code-word for “bogus.” In a pinch, “conspiracy theorist” will cover just about anyone expressing any unorthodox view whatsoever.
• Contact a major university and arrange to stage a debate there between yourself and researchers of unorthodox phenomena. Put up posters exhorting professors to “bring your students and expose them to science vs. pseudoscience!” Since such inflammatory language is not conducive to dispassionate debate, said researchers are likely to decline to participate, leaving them open to accusations of having “shrunk from the challenge!” The effectiveness of this strategy presupposes that those wily researchers do not counter-propose a debate whose posters read “bring your students and expose them to a potentially historic confrontation between courageous, paradigm-busting researchers armed with indisputable evidence vs. cowardly, brain-dead, party-line pedants and officious, dogmatic buffoons who have been smoked out of their ivory towers onto a level playing field.”
XIII. HARNESSING THE POWER OF BELIEF
• Characterize leading-edge researchers as “true believers.” Avoid betraying the fact that, virtually by definition, debunkers are themselves world-class true believers, albeit in the status quo.
• Imply that making mere reference to, or expressing interest in, an unorthodox view equals blind belief and absolute advocacy. Then demand that all such “zealots” know all the answers to their most puzzling questions in complete detail ahead of time.
• Switch on the charm. Convince people of your own “sincerity” by reassuring them that you yourself would “love to believe in these fantastic phenomena.” Carefully sidestep the fact that science is not about believing or disbelieving, but about finding out.
• Diligent research that has been forced underground by the scientific establishment’s attitudes, and is therefore unfamiliar or inaccessible to the general public, is easy to debunk. Simply insist, with a patronizing smirk, that such “alleged research” consists solely of “beliefs.”
XIV. THE JOY OF FABRICATION
• Fabricate supportive expertise as needed by quoting the opinions of those in fields popularly assumed to include the necessary knowledge. Astronomers, for example, may be trotted out as experts on the UFO question, although studies in ufology have never been a prerequisite for a degree in astronomy.
• Fabricate confessions. If a phenomenon stubbornly refuses to go away, hire a couple of colorful old geezers to claim they hoaxed it. The press and the public will always tend to view confessions as sincerely motivated, and will promptly abandon their critical faculties. After all, nobody wants to appear to lack compassion for self-confessed sinners.
• Fabricate sources of disinformation. Claim that you’ve “found the person who started the rumor that such a phenomenon exists!”
• Fabricate entire research projects. Declare that “these claims have been thoroughly discredited by the top experts in the field!” Do this whether or not such experts have ever actually studied the claims, or, for that matter, even exist.
XV. DEBUNKING UNORTHODOX HEALING PRACTICES
• If an unorthodox healing practice has failed to reverse a case of terminal illness you may deem it worthless — while taking care to avoid mentioning any similar failures of conventional medicine.
• If an unorthodox healing practice does appear to have successfully reversed a case of terminal illness, you may summarily attribute it to “chance” — or to that useful catch-all, “spontaneous remission.” After all, conventional medicine, which always has the last word, had already thrown up its hands. So what, besides “chance,” could possibly have turned this lucky patient around?
• Declare homeopathy and acupuncture dangerous superstitions because the principles of allopathic medicine cannot explain them. Equate their successes with the placebo effect, while carefully avoiding any allusions to their successful application in veterinary and pediatric medicine.
• Ignore the fact that the placebo effect itself, whose reality is fully acknowledged by modern medical science, can no more be explained in conventional terms than can homeopathy or acupuncture.
• Insist that there is “no credible evidence” for the efficacy of unorthodox healing methods. In this way you may retain the appearance of scientific integrity while rejecting all supportive evidence because it is, to your mind, “not credible”
XVI. DEBUNKING ASTROLOGY
• Point out that astrologers have failed to design research protocols and run controlled tests to provide evidence for the validity of their art that would meet your personal standards. Ignore the problem of acquiring research funds in fields toward which the academic community has consistently expressed such outright hostility as to make any such fundraising impossible.
• Dismiss as a “fluke” the results of the “Mars-effect” research that does appear to support certain aspects of astrology on mainstream science’s own terms.
• Although competing views are considered a sign of healthy debate in science, and doctors earn a respectable income providing second opinions, assert that there is “disagreement among astrologers on how certain celestial configurations are to be interpreted.”
• Just as you might invoke Dear Abby to discredit the entire field of psychology, invoke newspaper horoscopes as the paradigm example of astrology. Then ask sarcastically “Oh, come on. What is the likelihood that one twelfth of the world’s population is having the same kind of day?”
• Ask “If astrologers are effective, why aren’t they filthy, stinking rich?” — as if astrologers envied the status of the rich and sought to adopt their attitudes and emulate their lifestyle.
• Although astrology contends that conditions change over time, insist that should science ever evaluate it, it should do so on the “time-honored” basis of randomly timed samples. In that way, the changes that might otherwise have been predictable by the astrologer can be dismissed as “mere statistical noise.”
• Declare that astrology must be bogus because it was long practiced before the discovery of the three outermost planets and various asteroids. Ignore the fact that astronomy was also long practiced before the discovery of those same planets and asteroids.
XVII. DEBUNKING “FREE ENERGY” AND “COLD FUSION”
• Although “free-energy” researchers tend to claim only that their processes convert one form of energy to another, always accuse them of naively believing that they’re “getting something for nothing!”
• If someone announces a working “free-energy” device, avoid actually testing it on grounds that doing so would be a “waste of time.” Declare it fraudulent a-priori on the basis of its appearing to violate 19th-century laws of thermodynamics. Ignore the fact that ordinary nuclear reactors blatantly violate 19th-century laws of thermodynamics by producing massive amounts of heat from stone-cold fuel rods.
• Declare that permanent magnets cannot possibly power a motor, just as surely as the north wind blows all things southward. Diligently avoid the fact that even relatively simple devices can do “impossible” things when properly configured; for example, sailboats — which can sail into the wind.
• Trumpet the obvious fact that free-energy devices would not themselves be free of cost — though no free-energy advocate has ever claimed they would be.
• Despite multiple confirmations at independent, university and government labs in many countries (including the US Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center) over several decades, insist that Low-Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR), popularly known as “cold fusion,” has never been confirmed because “everyone knows it’s a joke!”
• Publish a book titled “Cold Fusion – The Scientific Fiasco of the Century.” The mere title may then be trotted out in lieu of actual disconfirming evidence.
• Claim that “nuclear fusion at room temperature would be contrary to current understanding and would require the discovery of entirely new processes.” Dismiss the fact that science routinely learns things that are contrary to current understanding and involve the discovery of entirely new processes.
XVIII. DEBUNKING EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE
• Point out that an “unidentified” flying object is just that, and cannot automatically be assumed to be an alien spacecraft. Do this whether or not anyone involved has assumed it to be an alien spacecraft.
• Label all concepts such as antigravity or interdimensional mobility as “mere flights of fancy” because “phenomena having no conventional explanation cannot possibly exist.” Then if an anomalous craft is reported to have hovered silently, made right-angle turns at supersonic speeds or appeared and disappeared instantly, you may summarily dismiss the report.
• Declare that there is no proof that life can exist in outer space. Since most people still behave as if the Earth were the center of the universe, you may safely ignore the fact that Earth, which is already in outer space, has abundant life.
• Concede that life elsewhere in the universe is statistically probable, but that if it existed it couldn’t possibly get here from there because we can’t get there from here.
• Point out that the SETI program (which believes ET civilizations communicate via Earth’s 20th-century radio technology, and which listens fruitlessly for such signals from deep space) assumes in advance that extraterrestrial intelligence can only exist light-years away from Earth. Equate this faith-based assumption with conclusive proof; then insist that this invalidates all terrestrial reports of ET contact.
• If compelling evidence is presented for a UFO crash or some similar event, provide thousands of pages of detailed information about a formerly secret military project that might conceivably account for it. The more voluminous the information, the less the need to demonstrate any actual connection between the reported event and the military project.
• When someone produces purported physical evidence of alien technology, declare that no analysis can prove that its origin was extraterrestrial; after all, it might be the product of some perfectly ordinary, ultra-secret underground government lab. The only possible exception would be evidence obtained from a landing on the White House lawn — the sole circumstance universally agreed upon by generations of debunkers as conclusively certifying extraterrestrial origin!
• If crack military pilots flying state-of-the-art aircraft report having closely pursued or radar-tracked UFOs, assert that in most cases they must have seen Venus or Jupiter, and that pilot incompetence and poor equipment must have accounted for the rest. If one of these objects was confirmed to have hovered motionlessly for a matter of minutes before taking off at blinding speed, attribute it to a “government missile test gone wrong.”
• If photographs or videos depicting anomalous aerial phenomena have been presented, argue that since images can now be digitally manipulated they prove nothing. Assert this regardless of the vintage of the material or the circumstances of its acquisition. Insist that the better the quality of a UFO photo, the greater the likelihood of fraud. Photos that have passed every known test may therefore be held to be the most perfectly fraudulent of all!
• Declare that “95 percent of all UFO sightings have been explained, and the remaining five percent are probably cases of mistaken identity.” This will get people arguing about the remaining five percent, effectively heading off any embarrassing questions about the actual grounds upon which the claimed 95 percent might originally have been “explained.”
• Argue that all reports of humanoid extraterrestrials must be bogus because the evolution of the humanoid form on Earth is the result of an infinite number of accidents in a genetically isolated environment. Avoid addressing the logical proposition that if alien visitations have occurred, Earth cannot be considered genetically isolated in the first place.
• Insist that extraterrestrials would or wouldn’t, should or shouldn’t, can or can’t behave in certain ways because such behavior would or wouldn’t be logical. Base your notions of logic on how terrestrials would or wouldn’t behave. Since terrestrials behave in all kinds of ways you can theorize whatever kind of extraterrestrial behavior suits your arguments!
• Stereotype contact claims according to simplistic scenarios already well established in the popular imagination. If a reported ET contact appears to have had no negative consequences, sarcastically accuse the claimant of believing devoutly that “benevolent ETs have come to magically save us from destroying ourselves!” If someone claims to have been traumatized by an alien contact, brush it aside as “a classic case of hysteria.” If contactees stress the essential humanness and limitations of certain ETs they claim to have met, ask “why haven’t these omnipotent beings offered to solve all our problems for us?”
• When reluctant encounter witnesses step forward, accuse them of “seeking the limelight with their outlandish stories!”
• Ask why alleged contactees and abductees haven’t received alien infections. Reject as “preposterous” all medical evidence suggesting that such may in fact have occurred. Categorize as “pure science-fiction” the notion that alien understandings of immunology might be in advance of our own, or that sufficiently alien microorganisms might be limited in their ability to interact with our biological systems. Above all, dismiss anything that might result in an actual investigation of the matter.
• Travel to an isolated, indigenous village in the heart of the Amazonian jungle. Upon returning, report that “nobody there told me they had seen any UFOs.” Insist that this proves no UFOs are reported outside cultures whose populations are overexposed to trashy science fiction.
• Though hypnotic regression by a multitude of therapists and researchers has yielded consistent contactee testimony in widespread and completely independent cases, declare that hypnosis is unreliable at the best of times and is always worthless in the hands of non-credentialed practitioners. Be sure to add that the subjects must have been steeped in the ET-contact literature, and that, regardless of their skills, credentials and codes of ethics, the hypnotists involved must have been asking leading questions.
• Avoid mentioning the many contact and abduction cases in which the experiencers’ memories were readily recalled, with no need for hypnosis.
• If someone claims to have been emotionally impacted by a sighting or contact experience, point out that strong emotions can alter perceptions. Therefore the claimant’s recollections must be entirely untrustworthy.
• Maintain that there cannot possibly be a government coverup of the ET question . . . but that it exists for legitimate reasons of national security!
• When government agencies, with their state-of-the-art security measures, multiple clearance levels, impenetrable compartmentalization and so forth, are accused of a UFO coverup, insist that a coverup is impossible because “everyone knows the government can’t keep secrets!” Ignore the legacy of the Manhattan Project, any number of other top-secret military and intelligence operations , and the entirety of those incalculably costly, utterly opaque activities funded by the United States Congress’ Black Budget.
• Accuse conspiracy theorists of being conspiracy theorists and of believing in the existence of conspiracies! Insist that only accidentalist theories can possibly account for repeated, organized patterns of suppression, denial and disinformational activity.
• If you represent the military, assure the public that the military doesn’t study UFOs because “it’s been determined that UFOs are not a threat to national security.” Sidestep the questions of how in heaven’s name such a determination could even have been made, and why the military, which has always been first in line to diligently analyze advanced foreign technology, has abandoned all curiosity and is now diligently looking the other way.
XIX. IF ALL ELSE FAILS…
• If all else fails and your audience is gullible enough, simply waving your arms and shouting “You are wrong!” enough times might pull your bacon out of the fire.
• If things get a bit too hot, announce your long-awaited retirement. Then leave at once for the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, or the South Pacific.
• Since you don’t want to be seen as the last fool to finally get the picture, be prepared to turn on a dime. For example, should the presence of extraterrestrial life suddenly be acknowledged by mainstream science as a global mystery of millennial proportions, simply hail this as a “victory for the scientific method!” and declare dismissively, “Well, everyone knows this is a monumentally significant issue. As a matter of fact, my colleagues and I have been remarking on it for years!”
Daniel Drasin is a writer, media producer and award-winning documentary filmmaker based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He extends his profuse thanks to those like-minded colleagues from whom, in composing this essay, he has shamelessly borrowed some enviable turns of phrase.
From: Zen … and the Art of Debunkery, revised and expanded edition, v.3.6.
© 2014 by Daniel Drasin. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced wholly or partly in any form without express permission from the author at email@example.com
By Alex Tsakiris, Anomalist Books, 2014.
Foreword by Rupert Sheldrake
I have known him since he first started his Skeptiko podcast and he has interviewed me several times for it. What struck me right from the outset was that he wanted to hear both sides of every argument. For example he wanted to hear what I had to say, and he wanted to hear what my critics had to say, and he wanted to find out how valid their criticisms were. He dug deeper until he could find out the reasons for our differences.
In this book, which contains highlights from his investigations on Skeptiko, he explores a range of controversial phenomena, looking both at what investigators of these phenomena claim and also at what the skeptics say.
When Alex started his enquiries, he expected that the leaders of organized skepticism would have strong and persuasive arguments, but he soon found they did not. The weakness of their case shows up very strongly in this book.
Of course, they provide a useful service in exposing frauds and charlatans, but a strong ideological commitment forces them to deny all evidence that does not fit into their worldview. If outright denial does not work, then they have to muddy the water and create confusion rather than clarity.
I found this book compelling reading, a page-turner. I particularly enjoy the way Alex followed his enquiries wherever they led, including working with the skeptic Ben Radford on an enquiry into information from psychics that helped to solve crimes. When Ben questioned some of the evidence, Alex called the detectives who had been handling the cases, so that he and Ben could together clear the point up by speaking to them directly.
In spite of my appreciation of Alex’s investigative skills, and his bravery and commitment to truth, I think the title of this book goes too far. Science is not wrong about almost everything; it is right about a great many things, or right enough.
Everyone is appropriately impressed by computers, smartphones, the internet, jet planes, hip replacement surgery, antibiotics, solar panels, and many other technological inventions that enrich and sustain our lives. Science is right about the existence of galaxies beyond our own, about the structures of molecules, about the existence of fossils, about low-temperature superconductivity, and many, many other things.
What it’s seriously wrong about is the nature of life and consciousness. The materialist theory cannot account for the existence of minds, and also, in my view, gives a very inadequate understanding the nature of life. It would have been better to call this book “Why Science Is Wrong About Consciousness”, or “Why Science Is Wrong About Life and Consciousness”. I told Alex so, but he wanted to stick to his original title.
Alex and his interviewees deal with deep questions at the very frontiers of scientific understanding, in areas where the sciences are being inhibited by fear, dogmatism, and disinformation. I hope this book will serve to clear the ground and lead to a more productive discussion of important questions that rightly interest many people.
– Rupert Sheldrake, London, October 2014
Dean Radin Faces His Critics
The pause is brief, only a second or so, but I’m panicking. I’m sitting in the patio next to my kitchen—a wonderfully calming space I’ve converted into a studio for the science-themed podcast I’m recording. But I’m not calm right now. I’ve asked my question and my mind is racing as I wait for an answer. This could get ugly.
Dr. Dean Radin is on the other end of the recorded Skype call. He’s one of the world’s leading parapsychology researchers, and rather than offer up polite banter about his bestselling books, I’ve pressed him with a tough question about his competence as a researcher.
I’m not a professional scientist. I have no training as a broadcaster. And to be honest, I haven’t gotten all the way through Radin’s book, Entangled Minds. But none of that matters now. I’ve asked Radin to respond to some specific claims by one of his harshest critics. I have to see where this goes.
Radin begins in a soft-spoken, measured tone: “It’s interesting; he claims I do a lot of studies and don’t repeat them, and the very next thing he says is that I repeated the presentiment experiment a number of times.”
Radin is responding to claims made by University of Oregon psychologist Dr. Ray Hyman, a respected scientist with a stellar academic background and long list of peer-reviewed publications. Hyman attacked Radin during an interview with Yale neurologist and self-proclaimed “skeptic” Dr. Steven Novella.
They were discussing Radin’s peer-reviewed research into the nature of time and consciousness. Radin’s research posed a fundamental question: When do we know what we know? What Radin suspected, and what the data ended up revealing, is we sometimes know things are going to happen before they occur.
Radin discovered this by asking test subjects to stare at a blank screen and wait for an image to be displayed. During this time he measured their physiological response to the image. Sometimes he measured galvanic skin response, other times he measured pupil dilation or brain activity. But the goal was always to see if there was a detectable physiological reaction before the image appeared. Surprisingly, he did find such a reaction, particularly when troubling or extremely stimulating images were displayed.*
Radin had published his results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. He had also replicated his work by repeating the experiment a number of times to make sure his results were consistent. He even collaborated with other independent researchers in labs throughout the world who were interested in replicating his results (as of this writing Radin’s presentiment experiments have been successfully replicated over 25 times in 7 different laboratories). But during the interview with fellow skeptic Steve Novella, Hyman seemed unwilling to even consider such research.
And, he saved his sharpest punches for Radin himself. Hyman snickered at Radin’s competence and charged Radin with making basic mistakes in collecting and interpreting his data. He even went so far as to say that Radin was “changing his corrections” in order to “get what [he] wanted from the data.” …
Hyman is shamefully wrong (see Appendix A below), and Radin’s research remains unchallenged.
– Alex Tsakiris
* Citation: Radin, Dean. Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality, Paraview Pocketbooks, 2006.
APPENDIX A: Dr. Dean Radin’s Meta-Analysis of Presentiment
When parapsychologist Dr. Dean Radin appeared on Skeptiko in 2007 (Skeptiko #2), he was asked to respond to the following quote from University of Oregon psychology professor Dr. Ray Hyman:
“What’s fascinating about Radin is that he comes through as being very sophisticated… I’ve gone back and looked at a lot of other stuff he’s done in the ESP-field, and everything he does he has some new, novel application of technology, the latest in computer sophistication, and so on. And yet he gets results and then he never repeats that; that’s dropped and he goes on to other stuff. And as a cynic you wonder, well why? What happened here? Why isn’t he able to follow up on his own ‘great work,’ right?
“Then I found out some other things. When I went through his presentiment work, I found—it took me a while to find it—that he’s done three experiments, each replicated the other. But when I go down to the fancy way that he was correcting for baselines and stuff like that, the correction was one way in one experiment. The second experiment was a different correction. The third experiment was a different correction.
“Then I realized…I did some simulations, and the corrections from the first experiment and the ones from the second experiment would cancel each other out. In other words, it would give a different result. And why was he always changing his corrections? [Laughter] And I’m realizing that this is a subtle, kind of, maybe unconscious, not conscious so much, way of making sure you’re going to get what you want from the data.”
Hyman starts out with some unfounded personal attacks, then hits hard with charges of academic dishonesty by claiming Radin was “changing his corrections.” To be specific, Hyman claims Radin is fiddling with the “baseline.” This deserves an explanation. The research in question has to do with an unusual phenomenon known as “presentiment.” Dr. Radin suspected human beings might possess the innate ability to sense an event is going to happen before it actually happens. He then carried out a series of experiments to test the validity of this hypothesis.
Radin asked test subjects to stare at a blank screen and wait for an image to be displayed. All the while, Radin measured how far, and at what times, their physiological responses deviated from the “baseline” measurements. The baseline condition can be thought of as a participant’s “normal” physiological state (i.e. physical, mental, emotional, etc.) when no experimental variable or stimulus has yet been applied to the test subject. As the experimental variable or stimuli is applied, the participant’s responses continue to be carefully monitored.
This procedure is well tested and commonplace in the field of psychology. It allows experimenters to observe behavior before, during, and after applying stimuli, and lets them gauge how far from the baseline condition test subjects deviate during an experiment. Radin would measure the patient’s response over thousands of trials, compare it to their baseline, and assess whether there was a significant, above-chance effect going on.
Hyman accuses Radin of adjusting the baseline measurements of his test subjects to distort, or amplify, the results. He accuses Radin of data-mining or “cherry-picking” data in an effort to make results appear more statistically significant.
But Radin has a powerful counter to this claim—his meta-analysis. After completing each of his three carefully controlled, lengthy (each took over a year to complete) presentiment experiments, Radin analyzed his data. Each time he sought to improve the statistical analysis of the results. As mentioned prior, Radin is a highly competent researcher with a proven track record in academia as well as with some of the world’s leading commercial laboratories. He knows his stuff.
After the third experiment, Radin used his latest and most refined methods of data analysis to re-analyze the data from all the experiments taken together. This combining of data from different experiments is called meta-analysis. And while such work can sometimes be complicated, in this case, because the experiments were so similar, and because Radin had run each one, the positive results of the meta-analysis were very revealing. They showed that the effect was robust and is present in all three of Radin’s experiments.
Radin’s “mini” meta-analysis across his presentiment experiments obliterates Hyman’s charge. Applying one method of determining the baseline to all trials, across all experiments, rules out any possibility of tweaking parameters from experiment to experiment in an effort to produce misleading results.
If anyone is data-mining or cherry-picking, it is Hyman. But perhaps we should not be surprised, as Dr. Hyman is one of the founding members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (aka CSICOP, or CSI), an organization known for over-the-top theatrics in defense of status quo science.
Alex Tsakiris’ interview with Radin exposed Hyman’s nonsense, but Hyman was never willing to acknowledge his mistake and/or apologize to Radin for slandering him. Dr. Steven Novella, who interviewed Hyman, and published the interview, was urged to make a public correction on his show, but he never did.
Alex is a successful entrepreneur turned science podcaster. In 2007 he founded Skeptiko, which has become the #1 podcast covering the science of human consciousness.
A Path of Personal Discovery
Why Science Is Wrong… About Almost Everything
Biologist and author best known for his hypothesis of morphic resonance. At Cambridge University he worked in developmental biology as a Fellow of Clare College.
From: Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011
“Almost all the people who have attacked me as a result of the research with animals described in this book have been fellows of CSICOP, militant atheists, or career skeptics, not professionals who actually know about animals: researchers in animal behaviour, animal trainers, or vets.”
– Rupert Sheldrake
Some members of the scientific community regard the topics discussed in this book as taboo.
The very idea of telepathy, or an unexplained sense of direction, or premonitions, or precognitions arouse skepticism, if not hostility.
My research has led me into a series of intense controversies. People with no experience of professional science may imagine that it is all about the open-minded exploration of the unknown, but this is rarely the case. Science works within frameworks of belief, or models of reality. Whatever does not fit in is denied or ignored; it is anomalous. The historian of science Thomas Kuhn called these thought-patterns paradigms. During periods of what he called normal science scientists work within the dominant paradigm, and ignore or deny anomalies.
by Guy Lyon Playfair
For more than thirty years since the Enfield events ended, Janet, the (then) twelve-year-old who was the focus for much (but not all) of the activity, has done her best to avoid publicity, taking part in just one TV interview and one with a journalist. So I was quite surprised to learn that she had agreed to appear on ITV’s This Morning (February 23, 2012), but only on condition that I also took part which otherwise I would have refused.
It could have been worse. Janet was clearly not at ease in a TV studio, but interviewer Phillip Schofield treated her very gently and let her have her say, after which I had mine. Then, inevitably, it was time for the ‘sceptic’ of the day to have the last word, as they always do, and assure viewers that there was a rational explanation for everything they had just heard. This is known in TV-speak as ‘balance’.
Today’s duty debunker was Deborah Hyde, editor of the CSI (formerly CSICOP) backed The Skeptic, whose day job is makeup artist for the film industry. Thus she has experience in creating artificial reality, which she put to good use on this occasion.
Rather than commenting on any of the actual evidence or bothering to question Janet or me about anything at all, she embarked on a Platonic monologue on the nature of human fallibility.
Here she goes:
“Human beings are remarkably bad at remembering things, and seeing things accurately. We see things that aren’t there, we don’t see things that are there. It’s very easy to impose top-down processing – ideas that you already have about the world get imposed on what you’re seeing… It’s very difficult to say this happened or that happened…”
…and so on. But how about the evidence?
A skilled make-up artist has no problem covering that up. After running out of vague generalisations, she resorted to outright misformation:
“It’s a fascinating story, but we forget all the people who disagreed – Graham Morris had issues with it, Mary Rose Barrington from the SPR [Society for Psychical Research] had her issues with it. There was a subsequent study by the SPR that concluded that the girls were faking it…”
Eh? Wait a minute. Let’s look at our primary source material, starting with what photographer Graham Morris actually said on the most accurate of the many documentaries about the Enfield case, the Antix programme produced by Tom O’Connor for the Paranormal Channel. Graham’s opinion was based on numerous visits to the house, initially for The Daily Mirror and subsequently in his own free time.
Graham managed to take a number of sequences on his Nikon motor-drive that show such hard-to-explain phenomena as pillows moving on their own, a curtain twisting itself into a tight spiral, bedclothes pulling themselves back and Janet rising into the air without her bedclothes being pulled back, in full view of her mother. His overall opinion of the Enfield case, based on his considerable first-hand experience of it:
“To me it was easily the most fascinating thing that’s ever happened in my life, beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was fascinating to be a witness of the whole thing.”
So much for his ‘issues’. How about those of Mary Rose Barrington, a solicitor and longtime SPR Council member with considerable experience of both careful examination of evidence and the investigation of spontaneous cases, including poltergeists?
With three colleagues, Peter Hallson, Dr. Hugh Pincott and the late John Stiles she carried out a meticulous follow-up study of the whole case including interviews with almost every witness to the events, including the girls’ mother, whom she found ‘perfectly sane’ and questioned at length, obtaining ‘some very clear testimony’ which she found ‘impressive’.
And did she conclude that the girls were faking it all? No, she didn’t. Here is her actual conclusion, which Deborah Hyde seems to have missed:
“There is every reason to think that there was poltergeist activity in the house.”
To her credit, Deborah Hyde did allow her to elaborate as follows in the Summer 2012 issue of The Skeptic:
“It is fashionable to invoke ‘fallibility of observation’ to repudiate attested facts that are unwelcome. But all knowledge rests on testimony, and it behoves listeners to exercise judgment and make a rational assessment of its reliability, not to dismiss it with empty generalisations. There is in fact nothing clever or scientific about making a blanket decision to reject testimony that does not fit with one’s beliefs as to what is possible.”
Another well informed commentator was Alan Murdie, also both a council member of the SPR and a lawyer with plenty of experience of collecting and evaluating evidence and presenting it in court. As a member of the society’s Spontaneous Case Committee, he regularly investigates reports of ghosts, haunted houses, poltergeists and assorted anomalies.
Writing in Fortean Times (No. 288, 2012), he noted that Deborah Hyde “avoided any detailed challenge to either witness, preferring to speak in general terms about the fallibilities in human testimony… As a result, the chance to test the credibility and reliability of two key witnesses in Britain’s most famous 20th century poltergeist case was lost.” And here’s his conclusion:
“This case is not mere folklore or tradition but one with evidence and witnesses, together with recordings and contemporaneous documentation available to be assessed. However, judged by its performance so far, organised ‘skepticism’ … is never going to convincingly explain the Enfield poltergeist, certainly if its critics are not acquainted with the facts, do not question the original witnesses and never make even a cursory examination of the collected evidence.”
It’s the same old story. Don’t bother trying to explain or even mention the evidence, when throwing the baby out with the bathwater is less demanding on your powers of reasoning. All in the cause of ‘scepticism’, which to the Ancient Greeks meant questioning and examining. I’m sure Plato would have had ‘issues’ with this dismal display of vacuous pseudoscepticism.
The Art of Cherry-Picking
by Guy Lyon Playfair
‘As a magician experienced in the dynamics of trickery, I have carefully examined Playfair’s lengthy account of the disturbances at Enfield and have concluded that they are best explained as children’s pranks.’
This weighty pronouncement comes from CSI (formerly CSICOP)’s chief hit-man and serial cherry-picker Joe Nickell, in whose opinion I am a ‘crank author on paranormal subjects’ who ‘ignores any skeptical literature’.
If that were true, I wouldn’t be commenting on his piece in the Skeptical Inquirer (2012, 36 (4)) which I will now do – briefly – as it doesn’t deserve discussing at much length.
The art of cherry-picking involves selecting such evidence as suits your case and either dismissing or just ignoring all the rest. Nickell has collected quite a basket of unripe and rotten cherries from his ‘careful examination’ of This House is Haunted, while leaving all the ripe ones on the tree, waving his magic wand and making them all disappear. Among many items and incidents he makes no attempt to explain away or even mention, here are just ten:
• The photo taken by Graham Morris at the moment he was hit on the forehead by a piece of Lego thrown hard enough to give him a nasty bruise on his forehead, his photo showing clearly that nobody (visible) had thrown it.
• A sequence on Graham’s motor-drive Nikon showing a curtain twisting itself into a tight spiral and apparently being blown into the room although the window behind it was closed, and another sequence clearly showing bedclothes moving untouched by any incarnate human hand.
• Several photos showing Janet seemingly levitating with outstretched legs and without her bedclothes having been pulled back, as directly witnessed on one occasion by her mother.
• The built-in gas fireplace (luckily disconnected) which weighed about 20 kilos being wrenched out of the wall, bending the connecting brass pipe.
• The large cushion appearing instantaneously on the roof in full view of the tradesman walking towards the house, an experience from which he had not recovered thirty years later.
• The lollipop lady’s clear account, frequently repeated, of seeing Janet levitating to a height of at least two feet and floating around in circles. Again, this was in her direct line of sight, from her post at the school crossing directly in front of the house.
• The book transported into the house next door, which was locked and unoccupied at the time, there being no conceivable normal explanation as to how it got there.
• The laryngograph evidence that the male bass voice repeatedly heard coming out of Janet’s mouth was produced by her plica ventricularis (false vocal folds), which cannot be kept up for long even by trained actors without getting a very sore throat. This was witnessed by a professional speech therapist who was unable to explain it.
• The evidence produced by the ‘Voice’ that nobody in the family knew, such as the fact that the previous occupant went blind and died in a chair downstairs, as was only confirmed many years after the end of the case.
• The anomalous malfunctions of the Pye Newvicon video camera, the BBC’s Uher reel tape recorder, and Graham Morris’s flashguns, none of which could be explained by the experienced professionals concerned.
I could go on, but I think you get the message. As for ‘experienced magician’ Joe Nickell’s comment on Janet’s frequently repeated admission that she and her sister played a few tricks ‘just to see if Mr Grosse and Mr Playfair would catch us, and they always did’, estimating that they amounted to ‘I’d say two percent’ of the incidents we recorded, Nickell spins this into ‘the evidence suggests that this figure is closer to 100 percent.’
What evidence? Oh, never mind. There’s no need for evidence when a sweeping generalization will do, especially if it is unsourced. I see from Nickell’s entry on the site misleadingly called Rational Wiki that his interests include ‘the investigation of bullshit claims.’
Which does not seem to have stopped him making such claims himself.