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A Path of Personal Discovery

by Alex Tsakiris

Science philanthropist Alex Tsakiris looked back at over thirty episodes of [his podcast] Skeptiko to examine what he learned from his interviews with skeptics Michael Shermer, Steven Novella, James Alcock and James Randi.

He outlined the three biggest failings of the skeptical community and how their inability to successfully handle new research into human consciousness has limited scientific progress. He took a critical look at the skeptical community and its impact on controversial science research.

Tsakiris explained how his opinion of the skeptical community has evolved:

“I started this journey expecting genuine debate, a battle of ideas, a war over the evidence, but that’s not what I found. I found a lot of frustrated researchers who were facing a well-organized, aggressive skeptical community that’s managed to change the rules of the game when it comes to how certain kinds of controversial science research is done.”

Tsakiris also offered a challenge to skeptics who are doubtful of psychic medium research, like the work being done by Dr. Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona; Tsakiris offered to pay for a skeptic to follow Schwartz’s research protocol and then join him on the Skeptiko Podcast.

The 2007 interview is available for download free here.

About Skeptiko

Skeptiko is the first scientifically oriented Podcast exploring new research in controversial areas of science such as telepathy, psi, parapsychology, near-death-experience, reincarnation, and after-life encounters. Each episode features open, honest debate on new scientific discoveries. The show includes interviews with top research scientists and their critics.

Also See: Interview with Alex Tsakiris at Mind-Energy.net

Suppressed Science on Skeptics

Many who loudly advertise themselves as “skeptics” are actually “disbelievers”.

Properly, a skeptic is a nonbeliever, a person who refuses to jump to conclusions based on inconclusive evidence. A disbeliever, on the other hand, is characterized by an a priori belief that a certain idea is wrong and will not be swayed by any amount of empirical evidence to the contrary. Since disbelievers usually fancy themselves skeptics, I will follow Truzzi and call them pseudoskeptics, and their opinions pseudoskepticism.

Organized (Pseudo-)Skepticism

The more belligerent pseudoskeptics have their own organizations and publications. In Germany, there is an organization called the Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften e.V., or GWUP, ( “society for the scientific evaluation of parasciences”) which publishes a magazine called Der Skeptiker (“the Skeptic”). In the United States, there is the so-called “Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal”, or short, CSICOP. The name suggests a serious, unbiased institute or think tank whose mission is to advance human knowledge by sorting out true anomalous discoveries from erroneous or fraudulent ones. Indeed, that was what some of the original members of CSICOP envisioned when they founded the organization in 1976. But in the very same year, CSICOP faced an internal crisis, a power struggle between the genuine skeptics and the disbelieving pseudoskeptics that was to tilt the balance in favor of the latter.

At issue was the Mars Effect, an extraordinary claim made by French statistician and psychologist Michel Gauquelin. Gauquelin had discovered an apparent statistical correlation between the position of Mars in the sky at the moment of birth of a person with the odds of that person becoming a sports champion, producing a genuine piece of empirical evidence that astrology might not be nonsense after all. This dismayed the pseudoskeptics, who until them had been comfortable dismissing astrology on purely theoretical grounds and were unwilling to even entertain the hypothesis that Gauquelin’s analysis might be correct. In 1976, in an attempt to make this embarrassment go away once and for all, Harvard professor of biostatistics and CSICOP fellow Marvin Zelen proposed a simplified version of the original Gauquelin study which he subsequently performed with the assistance of CSICOP chairman and professor of philosophy Paul Kurtz and George Abell, a UCLA astronomer. In order to get the result they wanted, the trio had to commit a total of six statistical blunders, which are discussed in detail in the article The True Disbelievers: Mars Effect Drives Skeptics to Irrationality by former CSICOP fellow Richard Kammann. Proper analysis showed that the new study actually supported the Gauquelin effect.

But Kurtz and his fellow pseudoskeptics had never been interested in performing proper science. Their minds had been made up long before the study was performed, and they adamantly refused to admit their mistake in public. This lead to the resignation of many fair-minded CSICOP members, among them Richard Kammann and co-founder Marcello Truzzi. Truzzi wrote about his experience in Reflections On The Reception Of Unconventional Claims In Science:

“Originally I was invited to be a co-chairman of CSICOP by Paul Kurtz. I helped to write the bylaws and edited their journal. I found myself attacked by the Committee members and board, who considered me to be too soft on the paranormalists. My position was not to treat protoscientists as adversaries, but to look to the best of them and ask them for their best scientific evidence. I found that the Committee was much more interested in attacking the most publicly visible claimants such as the “National Enquirer”. The major interest of the Committee was not inquiry but to serve as an advocacy body, a public relations group for scientific orthodoxy. The Committee has made many mistakes. My main objection to the Committee, and the reason I chose to leave it, was that it was taking the public position that it represented the scientific community, serving as gatekeepers on maverick claims, whereas I felt they were simply unqualified to act as judge and jury when they were simply lawyers.”

After the true skeptics had been purged from the committee, CSICOP and its magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, degenerated into little more than a propaganda outlet for the systematic ridicule of anything unconventional. Led by a small, but highly aggressive group of fundamentalist pseudoskeptics such as chairman and humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz, science writer and magician Martin Gardner and magician James Randi, CSICOP sees science not as a dispassionate, objective search for the truth, whatever it might be, but as holy war of the ideology of materialism against “a rising tide of irrationality, superstition and nonsense”. Kurtz and his fellows are fundamentalist materialists. They hold the nonexistence of paranormal phenomena as an article of faith, and they cling to that belief just as fervently and irrationally as a devout catholic believes in the Virgin Mary. They are fighting a no holds barred war against belief in the paranormal, and they see genuine research into such matters as a mortal threat to their belief system. Since genuine scientific study has the danger that the desired outcome is not guaranteed, CSICOP wisely no longer conducts scientific research of its own (such would be a waste of time and money for an entity that already has all the answers), and instead largely relies on the misrepresentation or intentional omission of existing research and the ad-hominem – smear, slander, and ridicule.

Eugene Mallove, editor of Infinite Energy Magazine, relates the following telling episode in Issue 23, 1999 of his magazine:

“On the morning of July 14, 1998, I called Skeptical Inquirer’s editor, Kendrick Frazier, to ask him, among other things, what research or literature search he had done on cold fusion. He rebuffed me, saying that he was too busy to talk, because he was on deadline on an editorial project. We spoke briefly; he was transparently irritated. He said, ‘I know who you are.’ He said that he did not want to talk to me because, ‘We would have diametrically opposed views.’ I said, ‘Oh, what research have you done to come to your conclusions about cold fusion.’ I had thought that the careful investigation of ‘diametrically opposed views’ was part of the work of CSICOP. Perhaps I was mistaken. Frazier said, ‘I’m not an investigator, I’m an editor.’ The conversation ended with Frazier stating that he had nothing further to say.” [The entire article here: CSICOP: “Science Cops” at War with Cold Fusion.]

Even though it is largely run by scientific lay people, and its practices are anathema to true science, CSICOP has enjoyed the support of a number of highly prestigious scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould, the late Carl Sagan, Glenn T. Seaborg, Leon Lederman and Murray Gell-Mann. This support has enabled it to project an image of scientific authority to the opinion shapers in the media and the general public.

For a detailed study of pseudo-skepticism in general, and CSICOP in particular, I refer the reader to George P. Hansen’s article CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview (published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research), in which CSICOP’s history, goals, tactics and membership structure are discussed in some detail. In his conclusions, Hansen finds that:

“CSICOP’s message has often been well received, particularly among scientific leaders. The growth of CSICOP, the circulation figures of “SI”, and the academic credentials of its readership prove that there is wide interest in the paranormal among the most highly educated members of our society. Many readers of ‘SI’ undoubtedly assume that CSICOP presents the best available scientific evidence. The readers are rarely told of the existence of refereed scientific journals that cover parapsychology. The effect of CSICOP’s activities is to create a climate of hostility toward the investigation of paranormal claims; indeed, at one CSICOP conference, the announcement of the closing of several parapsychology laboratories was greeted with cheers.”


The remainder of this text is devoted to a detailed discussion of pseudoskeptical arguments and debating tactics.

“If it was true, there is no way that science could have missed it!”

This is a variation of the end of science argument – since science already knows everything, and does not recognize the unconventional phenomenon, it cannot be real. Besides being based on a mere belief – that science has discovered everything there is to know – this argument ignores the nature of human perception. Even scientists tend to see only what they want to see, and that is how phenomena that we find completely obvious today, such as Wegener’s plate tectonics – look how South America fits into Africa! – went unnoticed for a long time, and were violently opposed when they were finally pointed out. As Arthur C. Clarke put it:

“It is really quite amazing by what margins competent but conservative scientists and engineers can miss the mark, when they start with the preconceived idea that what they are investigating is impossible. When this happens, the most well-informed men become blinded by their prejudices and are unable to see what lies directly ahead of them.”

True skeptics appreciate that the principal flaw of human perception – seeing what one wants to see – can afflict conventional as well as unconventional scientists. Their opinions are moderated by the humbling realization that today’s scientific orthodoxy began as yesterday’s scientific heresy; as the the December 2002 editorial of Scientific American puts it:

“All scientific knowledge is provisional. Everything that science ‘knows’, even the most mundane facts and long-established theories, is subject to reexamination as new information comes in.”

Confusing Assumptions with Findings

Pseudoskeptics like to claim that the assumptions underlying modern science are empirical facts that science has proved. For example, the foundational assumption of neuroscience, that the functioning of the brain (and, therefore, the mind) is explainable in terms of classical physics as the interaction of neurons, is said to be a scientific fact that is proved by neuroscience, despite the embarrassing and long-standing failure of this assumption to explain the anomaly of consciousness.

In a recent BBC program on homeopathy Walter Stewart (the same one who was part of the Nature team that visited Benveniste in his laboratory in 1988) is quoted on the subject of homeophatic dilutions:

“Science has through many, many different experiments shown that when a drug works it’s always through the way the molecule interacts with the body and, so the discovery that there’s no molecules means absolutely there’s no effect.”

But science has shown no such thing. That the functioning of biological organisms is reducible to the physical interaction of molecules is not the result of decades of bio-molecular research, it is the assumption underlying this research. The fact that homeopathy confounds that assumption refutes the latter, not the former.

“Debate Closed” Mentality

Since Pseudoskeptics have by their nature made up their minds on any question long before the evidence is in, they are not interested in participating in what could become an involved, drawn-out debate. On the contrary, their concern is with preserving their own understanding of how nature works, so discordant evidence has to be disposed of as quickly as possible. When sound evidence to that end is unavailable, anything that sufficiently resembles it will suffice. Pseudoskeptics like to jump to conclusions quickly – when the conclusion is their own, preconceived one. Once the pseudoskeptical community has agreed on an “explanation” that is thought to debunk claim X, that explanation then becomes enshrined in pseudoskeptical lore and is repeated ad infinitum and ad nauseam in the pseudoskeptical literature. Subsequent rebuttals are ignored, as is new data that support claims X.

Examples are legion:

  • Gurwich’s 1932 discovery of mitogenetic radiation is still derided by pseudoskeptics as a classical example of “pathological science” (Irving Langmuir, who coined the term, used it as an example), even though it has been vindicated by three decades of biophoton research.
  • Pseudoskeptics continue their ridicule of Cold Fusion as a mistake, even use “cold fusion” as a metaphor to refer to what they deem pathological science in general, ignoring a full decade of successful replication of the effect.
  • Parapsychology continues to be attacked by the hard-core pseudoskeptics with criticisms that were addressed and resolved long ago, leading Radin to remark that “…skeptics who continue to repeat the same old assertions that parapsychology is a pseudoscience, or that there are no repeatable experiments, are uninformed not only about the state of parapsychology, but also about the current state of skepticism!”

Overreaching and Armchair Quarterbacking

Faced with contradictory or inconclusive evidence, the skeptic will only say that the claim has not been proved at this time, and give the claimant the benefit of the doubt. The pseudoskeptic will make the (incorrect) counter-claim that the original claim has been disproved by the evidence (and usually follow up with generous amounts of name-calling and other extra-scientific arguments discussed below).

This distinction between simply not accepting a claim and making a counter-claim is important because it shifts the burden of proof. The true skeptic does not have to prove anything, because she is simply unconvinced of the validity of an extraordinary claim. Pseudoskeptics, on the other hand, making the claim that the extraordinary phenomenon only appears to be extraordinary, and has a conventional explanation, have to bear a burden of proof of their own. Do they? The general answer is no. Most of the professional pseudoskeptics engage in mere ‘armchair quarterbacking’, conducting no research of their own. As far as parapsychology is concerned, Radin sums this situation up as follows, “The fact that most skeptics do not conduct counter studies to prove their claims is often ignored.”

For example, in 1983 the well-known skeptic Martin Gardner wrote:

“How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology’s perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming in from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming in from a much larger group of skeptics.”

As Honorton points out:

“Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction. Look for the skeptic’s experiments and see what you find.” In addition, there is no “larger group of skeptics.” Perhaps ten or fifteen skeptics have accounted for the vast bulk of the published criticisms.”

Assuming False Scientific Authority

Many high-profile pseudoskeptics pass judgement based on scientific expertise they don’t have. James Randi, for example, shares the following tirade in a July 13, 2001 commentary on his web site:

“Just so that you can see how pseudoscience and ignorance have taken over the Internet merchandising business, I suggest that you visit [the “Hydrate for Life” website] and try to follow the totally false and misleading pitch that the vendors make for this product, magically-prepared ‘Penta’ water that will ‘hydrate’ your body miraculously. A grade-school education will equip you to recognize the falsity of this claim, but it’s obvious that the purveyors are cashing in on ignorance and carelessness. Just read this as an example of pure techno-claptrap:

Normally, the water you drink is in large clusters of H20 [sic] molecules. That’s because its [sic] been affected by air, heat, and modern civilization. PentaTM is water that, through physics, has been reduced to its purest state in nature — smaller clusters of H2O [sic] molecules. These smaller clusters move through your body more quickly than other water, penetrating your cell membranes more easily. This means PentaTM is absorbed into your system faster and more completely. When you drink PentaTM, you’re drinking the essence of water. You get hydrated faster, more efficiently, and more completely than with any other water on earth.

“Folks, water is water. It’s burned hydrogen, no more, no less. The molecules of H2O — not ‘H2O’ as these quacks write — do not ‘cluster’, under any influence of the dreadful ‘air, heat, and modern civilization’ that you’re cautioned to fear. True, water exhibits surface tension, and the molecules do ‘line up’ to an extent, though almost any foreign substance in there disturbs this effect — soap/detergent ‘wets’ it readily. But water molecules in ‘clusters’? No way! The illustrations you see here are totally wrong and fictitious. There’s no such thing as ‘essence of water’, by any stretch of scientific reasoning, or imagination. This is total, unmitigated nonsense, a pack of lies designed to swindle and cheat, to steal money, and to rob the consumer. And ‘through physics’ has nothing to do with it. I await objections to the above statements. There will be none, because the sellers of ‘Penta’ know they’re lying, they do it purposefully, and they know they can get away with it because of the incredible inertia of the Federal agencies that should be protecting us against such deception and thievery. Those agencies just can’t do the job, and they bumble about endlessly while the public continues to pay through the nose. But notice: the Penta people, on their web page, beneath a family picture of the founders, clearly assert that: At first, [the Penta engineers] tested Penta on plants. They discovered that test seeds would germinate in half the time as the control seeds. Bingo! Hallelujah! We have the means for a test! A simple, inexpensive, clearly demonstrative, test! Such a demonstration would clearly establish the claim these folks are making. Ah, but will PentaTM apply for the million-dollar prize? Dear reader, with your experience of Tice, DKL, Quadro, Josephson, Edward, and all the parade of others who have declined to be tested, I think that you expect, as I do, that PentaTM will apply as promptly as Sylvia Browne did. The PentaTM page advises us to ‘Penta-hydrate – be fluid.’ Translation: ‘Believe this — be stupid.'”

Randi could not be more wrong. Water is not simply “water- burned hydrogen, no more no less”. It is a highly anomalous substance, and its fundamental properties are still the subject of basic research. Admittedly, the claims made for “Penta-Water” are scientifically extravagant. But can they be dismissed out of hand? Contrary to what Randi asserts with such rhetoric force and finality, water clusters are discussed in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The interested reader may want to visit Martin Chaplin’s web site for an overview of scientific work on water clustering. Chaplin is not a stage magician, but a Professor of Applied Science at South Bank University, London and holds a degree in chemistry. He is also an active researcher in the field of water clustering, and concludes that:

“…there is a sufficient and broad evidential base for it’s existence (the existence of the icosahedral water cluster), including the ability to explain all the ‘anomalous’ properties of water.”

The existence of scientific evidence for water clusters does of course not imply that “Penta” and similar products have any merit, but it does caution against outright dismissal of these kinds of product. Randi’s sweeping negative statements betray lack of knowledge on the subject and qualify him as a blundering pseudo-scientist. His petty, adolescent criticism of a simple typographic inaccuracy on the “Hydrate for Life” web site and his use of ridicule (he asserts that “Penta” is “magically-prepared” and works “miraculously” while the manufacturer simply states that the process is “proprietary”) support that impression. And yet, Randi rhetorically assumes an air of scientific authority, even infallibility.

Pseudoskeptic Michael Shermer makes the following ignorant argument in “Baloney Detection” (Scientific American 11/2001, p. 36):

“The biggest problem with the cold fusion debacle, for instance, was not that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman were wrong. It was that they announced their spectacular discovery at a press conference before other laboratories verified it. Worse, when cold fusion was not replicated, they continued to cling to their claim. Outside verification is crucial to good science.”

The argument against “science by press conference” is a good one, but it would be more credible if Shermer applied it to accepted science too. A prime example is Robert Gallo’s announcement of the discovery of the “probable cause of AIDS” in a press conference in 1984 that preceeded publication of his research in Science and secured a political commitment to his alleged facts before critical scientific discussion could take place.

What makes Shermer’s argument ignorant is his use of cold fusion as an example. Real scientists who have actually studied the evidence for cold fusion have come to very different conclusions. In February 2002, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center of the United State Navy in San Diego released a 310 page report titled Thermal and Nuclear Aspects of the Pd/D2O System that discusses the overwhelming experimental evidence that the cold fusion effect indeed exists. Dr. Frank E. Gordon, the head of the center’s Navigation and Applied Sciences Department, writes in the foreword:

“We do not know if Cold Fusion will be the answer to future energy needs, but we do know the existence of Cold Fusion phenomenon through repeated observations by scientists throughout the world. It is time that this phenomenon be investigated so that we can reap whatever benefits accrue from additional scientific understanding. It is time for government funding organizations to invest in this research.”

Yet Shermer, a psychologist by trade, feels called upon to pass summary negative judgment on this field of research.

Double Standards of Acceptable Proof and Ad-Hoc Hypotheses

The true skeptic will apply her skepticism equally to conventional and unconventional claims, and even to skepticism itself. In particular, the true skeptic recognizes an ad-hoc hypothesis regardless of the source. The pseudoskeptic, on the other hand, reserves her critical facilities for unconventional claims only.

William R. Corliss, the author of The Sourcebook Project (a comprehensive collection of anomalies and unexplained phenomena reported in scientific journals) gives a salient example of that kind of behavior in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol. 16, 3, p. 446):

“One would expect a lively interface between the Sourcebook Project and the several groups of skeptics, as typified by the Committee for the [Scientific] Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). After all, my catalogs do challenge those paradigms the skeptics defend so ferociously. Actually, there has been no traffic whatsoever. While mainstream Nature has reviewed five of my books, the skeptics have shown no interest in evaluating any of the Sourcebook publications. The skeptics, it seems, are never skeptical of established paradigms, only those observations that threaten to disestablish them.”

The Skeptic’s Dictionary, a leading pseudoskeptical online resource, gives us a great example of this selective blindness. Under the heading “ad hoc hypothesis”, we find the following definition:

“An ad hoc hypothesis is one created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory. Ad hoc hypotheses are common in paranormal research and in the work of pseudoscientists.”

What Todd Caroll, the author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary does not see fit to share with his readers is that some of the most celebrated “discoveries” of mainstream science are mere ad hoc hypotheses designed to cover the failure of theories to agree with observational evidence. Some of these ad hoc hypotheses, such as the hypothesis that almost all of the matter and energy of the universe exists in a form undetectable by the instruments of science, that there is a particle that causes mass (the Higgs Boson), and that people who fail to improve on AIDS drugs must be infected with a resistant mutation of HIV, are then taken as facts, with the strongest evidence for the existence being that accepted theory requires them! And yet, you will search skeptical publications in vain for truly skeptical discussion of these subjects (as opposed to ones that agree with the mainstream consensus). “The Mainstream Consensus Is Always Right” seems to be the motto.

The following is an anecdotal example of an ad-hoc theory in established science. In its June 2002 issue, Scientific American ran an article on AIDS that contained a chart titled “World AIDS Snapshot” (p. 41). Combining the absolute numbers of people who are HIV positive with population figures from the CIA world factbook, I found that in Australia/New Zealand, only one person in 1548 was HIV positive, while in North America (Mexico counts under Latin America, according to the UNAIDS website), 1 person in 329 was. Given that the predominant strain of HIV is the same in both regions (clade B), how can the rate of infection be almost 5 times higher in North America than in Australia/New Zealand? Sexual (mis)behavior in both regions is comparable, as evidenced by the fact that incidence rates for classical STDs are virtually identical (according to WHO figures for 1999):

STD

North America

Australia/New Zealand

Gonorrhea:

1 in 196

1 in 192

Trichomoniasis, men

1 in 78

1 in 79

Trichomoniasis, women

1 in 71

1 in 72

Chlamydia:

1 in 78

1 in 77

HIV (prevalence)

1 in 329

1 in 1548

I emailed Sciam staff writer Carol Ezzell and inquired what the cause of this discrepancy could be. I received the following reply:

“Our statistics come from the UNAIDS [Website]. Australia/New Zealand has a 0.1 percent adult prevalence rate, whereas North America has a rate of 0.6 percent. Most of the cases of HIV infection in Australia/New Zealand occur in men who have sex with men. A key tipping point in the broadening of HIV infection occurs when the virus rages through IV drug abusers and then enters people (men and women) who have sex with those drug abusers. For whatever reason, this hasn’t happened in A./N.Z.”

Actually, the alleged broadening of HIV infection into a general epidemic that affects large numbers of heterosexuals has not happened anywhere in the developed world, even though it was widely predicted by experts in the 1980s. The claim that it somehow exists nonetheless, and, for some unknown reason, more so in North America than in Australia/New Zealand, is a perfect example of “a hypothesis created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory”. Skepticism towards the prevailing view of “HIV/AIDS” seems to be called for, but you will find none in the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer and other “skeptical” publications.

Skeptic has published an article on this subject titled “The Aids Heresies – A Case Study in Skepticism Taken Too Far” (vol. 3, no. 2, 1995) by Steven B. Harris, M.D. that seeks to affirm the correctness of the conventional viewpoint and, in typical pseudoskeptical fashion, ignores at least one key argument of the AIDS critics. That is the argument that HIV tests are completely invalid. The Perth Group had already made that case in 1993 in a paper published in Bio/Technology (Vol.11 June 1993). Their claims were reported in a headline story on June 1, 1993 in the Sunday Times of London. Yet, over one year later, Dr. Harris does not even mention this critical component in the skeptical case against the conventional theory of HIV/AIDS in his article. Instead, he misleads his readers into believing that AIDS skeptics recognize the validity of HIV tests in the first place by stating that “critics of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis have had to struggle to keep up with sensitivity increases in HIV testing”.

To discuss an example in physics: University of Michigan physicist Gordon Kane writes about the Higgs Boson on the Scientific American Website under the heading “Ask the Experts”:

“There are currently two pieces of evidence that a Higgs boson does exist. The first is indirect. According to quantum field theory, all particles spend a little time as combinations of all other particles, including the Higgs boson. This changes their properties a little in ways that we know how to calculate and that have been well verified. Studies of the effect the Higgs boson has on other particles reveal that experiment and theory are consistent only if the Higgs boson exists and is lighter than around 170 giga electron volts (GeV), or about 180 proton masses. Because this is an indirect result, it is not rigorous proof. More concrete evidence of the Higgs came from an experiment conducted at the European laboratory for particle physics (CERN) using the Large Electron Positron (LEP) collider in its final days of operation. That research revealed a possible direct signal of a Higgs boson with mass of about 115 GeV and all the expected properties. Together these make a very convincing – although not yet definitive – case that the Higgs boson does indeed exist.”

A researcher making that kind of case for an unconventional phenomenon would be laughed out of town. A single sighting, so the skeptics would say, is anecdotal evidence and proves nothing. And that a theory requires it merely means that the scientists saw what they wanted to see. But particle physics is conventional science, hence different (i.e. much less stringent) standards of proof apply. Results are accepted, even said to be “convincing”, based on relatively weak and purely indirect evidence, and because a handful of experts vouch for their accuracy.

Another example of established science that should not be so established is the neutrino. Neutrinos are ghostlike particles that were introduced by Pauli as an ad-hoc hypothesis to save the relativistic law of energy conservation (which fails to correctly describe radioactive beta decay otherwise). Neutrinos can not be detected directly, and require giant detectors for indirect (statistical) detection. Decades of neutrino detection experiments have failed to detect the correct number of solar neutrinos. To account for the discrepancy, physicists have come up with the idea of neutrino oscillations. In other words, the neutrino meets several of Langmuir’s criteria of pathological science: the maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, the effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results and criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses. Maybe there is no neutrino, and the relativistic law of energy conservation is simply wrong? Autodynamics is a proposed theoretical alternative to relativity that correctly describes beta decay without a neutrino, but you won’t find it mentioned in physics journals or the pseudoskeptical literature.

So pseudoskeptics often fail to apply their skepticism to conventional wisdom. But worse yet, when confronted with evidence of unusual phenomena, pseudoskepticism itself will take refuge to outrageously arbitrary ad hoc hypotheses: swamp gas, duck butts and temperature inversions can create the appearance of flying vehicles in the sky, pranksters are able to produce elaborate geometrical designs in crops within seconds, in complete darkness, and without leaving footprints (but somehow changing the microscopic structure of the crops in a manner consistent with microwave heating), and shadows can conspire to make a mesa on Mars look like a face, an illusion that persists under different viewing angles and lighting conditions.

Critics of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (such as self-appointed “quackwatcher” Stephen Barrett) habitually employ this double standard. They will piously denounce alternative medical procedures for not having 100% cure rates, but ignore the fact that the side effects of conventional drugs kill over 100,000 in the US alone each year. They will condescendingly point to a lack of proper (i.e. double-blind) scientific studies supporting certain alternative procedures, and simultaneously ignore the fact that many conventional surgical procedures and drug protocols are equally unproven by the same standard. Worse yet, they will hold alternative medicine responsible for every case of malpractice that has ever been committed in its name, but they would not dream of applying the same standard to conventional medical practice.

The May 14, 2004 edition of Robert Park’s What’s New column contains the following gem:

“‘Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (eCAM) is a new international journal that seeks to encourage rigorous research in this new, yet ancient world of complementary and alternative medicine… particularly traditional Asian healing systems.’ So begins an Oxford University Press announcement. All eCAM papers are available online at no cost and without subscription. Unlike other open-access journals there are no author submission fees. Who pays, skeptics might ask? The ‘generous support of Ishikawa Natural Medicinal Products Research Center, co-owner of the journal with OUP.’ Yes, it’s the ancient-wisdom scam. … Other industries might be equally generous. Perhaps the Journal of Gambling Studies, which deals with gambling addiction, could cut a deal with the slot-machine industry. And perhaps Join Together Online, which opposes gun violence, could team up with the National Rifle Association. On the other hand, maybe not.”

Park’s double standard with respect to medical ethics boggles the mind. Corruption and violation of scientific ethics is endemic in the maintream medical system. Drug companies are permitted to write their own studies or to pay allegedly independent researchers to produce results, and to suppress results that are not favourable to their products. Medical journals receive significant funding from the pharmaceutical industry through advertising. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published on August 9, 2004, Marcia Angell, a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, made the following statement:

“Research is biased in favor of the drugs and drug makers. The pharmaceutical industry spends a great deal to influence people in academic medicine and professional societies. It does a super job of making sure [that] nearly every important person they can find in academic medicine [who] is involved in any way with drugs is hired as a consultant, as a speaker, is placed on an advisory board — and is paid generous amounts of money. Conflicts of interest are rampant. When The New England Journal of Medicine published a study of antidepressants, we didn’t have room to print all the authors’ conflict-of- interest disclosures. We had to refer people to the website. I wrote an editorial for the journal, titled ‘Is Academic Medicine for Sale?’ Someone wrote a letter to the editor that answered the question, ‘No. The current owner is very happy with it.’ That sums up the situation nicely.”

Dr. Park has evidently heard of Dr. Angell, because he mentions her as a skeptic of CAM in his May 11, 2001 column. But when the same person makes public statements that confirm that conventional medicine is suffering from a large-scale epidemic of the very same disease that Park finds intolerable in the field of CAM, he shows no interest, at least not in his What’s New column. If CAM studies are invalid because of financial conflicts of interests, should not the same ethical standard be applied to mainstream medicine? They should, but Dr. Park is apparently more interested in making a system of medicine he doesn’t like look bad than in applying ethical standards even-handedly and dispassionately.

Marcello Truzzi, one of the original founders of CSICOP, deftly exposes the hypocrisy of pseudoskepticism when he writes:

“Those who leap to call parapsychology a pseudoscience might do well to look more closely at the social sciences in general. Those who laugh at the implausibility of a possible plesiosaur in Loch Ness should take a close look at the arguments and evidence put forward for the Big Bang or black holes. Those who think it unreasonable to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects might do well to look carefully at the arguments and evidence of those who promote current attempts at contacting extraterrestrial intelligence allegedly present in other solar systems. Those who complain about the unscientific status quo of psychic counselors should be willing to examine the scientific status of orthodox psychotherapy and make truly scientific comparisons. Those who sneer at phony prophets in our midst might also do well to look at the prognosticators in economics and sociology who hold official positions as ‘scientific forecasters’. Those who concern themselves about newspaper horoscopes and their influence might do well to look at what the ‘real’ so-called helping professions are doing. The scientist who claims to be a skeptic, a zetetic, is willing to investigate empirically the claims of the American Medical Association as well as those of the faith healer; and, more important, he should be willing to compare the empirical results for both before defending one and condemning the other.”

Cremo and Thompson, in Forbidden Archeology, p. 24, write under the heading “The Phenomenon of Suppression”:

“One prominent feature in the treatment of anomalous evidence is what we could call the double standard. All paleoanthropological evidence tends to be complex and uncertain. Practically any evidence in this field can be challenged, for if nothing else, one can always raise charges of fraud. What happens in practice is that evidence agreeing with a prevailing theory tends to be treated very leniently. Even if it has grave defects, these tend to be overlooked. In contrast, evidence that goes against an accepted theory tends to be subjected to intense critical scrutiny, and it is expected to meet a very high standard of proof.”

Skeptics, both of the genuine and the pseudo variety, have elevated this double standard to a principle of science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence! But this principle does not hold up to logical scrutiny, because a claim is only ordinary or extraordinary in relation to a theory. For the sake of making this point, let us assume a scenario in a hypothetical new science in which there are two pieces of evidence to be discovered, A and B, each equally credible, each one suggesting an obvious, but incorrect explanation (call them (1) and (2)). (1) and (2) are mutually incompatible, and a third, highly non obvious explanation (3) that accounts for both A and B is actually correct.

As chance would have it, one of the two pieces of evidence A,B will be discovered first. Let A be that piece of evidence, and further suppose that the scientists working in that hypothetical field all subscribe to the principle of the double standard. After the discovery of A, they will adopt explanation (1) as the accepted theory of their field. At a later time, when B is discovered, it will be dismissed because it contradicts (1), and because A and B are equally credible, but A is ordinary relative to (1) and B is extraordinary.

The end result is that our hypothetical science has failed to self-correct. The incorrect explanation (1) has been accepted, and the correct explanation (3) was never found, because B was rejected. I therefore submit that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is not suitable as a guiding principle for sound scientific research. All evidence, whether it supports accepted theories or not, should be given the same level of critical scrutiny.

Pseudoskeptics of course would argue that they simply do not have the resources to be skeptical about everything, so they have to concentrate on the obvious targets. But that doesn’t get them off the hook. Pseudoskeptics apply the “extraordinary evidence” standard only selectively to controversial phenomena- namely, precisely when they fit their ideological preconceptions! When Doug Bower and David Chorley made the extraordinary claim that they had created all of the thousands of crop circles that had appeared in English fields between 1978 and 1991 (some of which had appeared on the same night in different regions of the country), there were no armies of skeptics loudly insisting that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Apparently, as long as the extraordinary claim is one that agrees with what the pseudoskeptics have “known” all along, it does not even require ordinary evidence. Bower and Chorley were never able to substantiate their claim, let alone prove it, but the “skeptical” community accepted it on faith – and without a trace of skepticism.

Responding to Claims that Were Not Made

(Demolishing Straw Men)

Benveniste (who showed that ultradilutions, i.e. homeopathic preparations not containing a single molecule of the original substance can still have a biological effect) was attacked by Nature editor John Maddox with the argument that dilutions of the kind used by Benveniste can simply not exist because they would require “1074 world oceans” (that is more water than contained in the entire universe) to manufacture. That is correct, if the definition of “dilution” requires that at least one molecule remain, but Benveniste (and generations of homeopaths) have readily conceded that very point! Everyone agrees that high homeopathic dilutions do not contain a single active molecule, so Maddox’s argument is nothing but the ritual dissection of a straw man. He is not alone – “skeptical” discussions of homeopathy invariably spend a lot of time making this completely uncontested point.

Our favourite resource for invalid criticisms, the Skeptic’s Dictionary, tries to downplay the important of the Gauquelin data by stressing that correlation does not imply causation. But astrologers do not claim causation! Both adherents and skeptics agree that astrology is a branch of magic, and as such is based on the principle of correspondences. This principle claims that nature exhibits meaningful, not necessarily causally mediated analogous behavior on all levels. The Gauquelin data shows correlation between the movements of the planets and certain aspects of human behavior; nothing more is claimed by astrology.

In a personal note published on James Randi’s Website, Robert Park makes the following statement about the “Motionless Electromagnetic Generator”, a claimed free energy device:

“I’ve been following the MEG claim since Patent 6,362,718 was issued in the spring (What’s New, April 4, 2002). The claim, of course, is preposterous. It is a clear violation of the conservation of energy.”

But Park is only demolishing a straw man. The first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of a closed system is conserved. But the inventors of the MEG claim that their device takes energy from the zero-point field of the vacuum, thereby conserving the energy of the total system (which in this case would be the MEG and the surrounding vacuum). Whether it can actually do that is an open question. But the existence of the Casimir force proves that in principle such extraction of energy from the vacuum is possible (even though the potential energy gained from the Casimir force between two plates is negligible). Therefore, one cannot dismiss claims for free energy devices such as the MEG on a priori grounds of energy conservation. Since Park is a physicists, he could not possibly be unaware of this. By making this argument, he is therefore intentionally misrepresenting the claims of the MEG inventors. They do not claim to have found a way around the first law; they merely claim to have accessed a source of energy not previously accessible to human technology.

(Note: The author is aware of no legitimate scientific evidence that the MEG works as claimed. The purpose of this example is not to suggest that it is a legitimate “free energy” device, but simply to point out the invalid nature of some of the arguments against it.)

Technically Correct Pseudo-Refutation

(credit for the term goes to Daniel Drasin)

Pseudoskeptics are fond of arguing that hundreds of respectable scientists believe that a certain idea is bunk, and therefore, it must be. When one points out to them that many scientific breakthroughs were ridiculed and dismissed by the scientific establishment of the time, they retort that not every idea that has been ridiculed or dismissed turned out to be correct. Correct, but completely irrelevant, because it responds to an argument that was not made. The argument was not that ridicule or dismissal by scientific experts is sufficient grounds for accepting an unorthodox claim, simply that it is insufficient grounds for rejecting it.

Robert T. Carroll, a Professor of Philosophy at the Sacramento City College no less, falls into this logical trap when he writes in his Skeptic’s Dictionary about what he calls “selective thinking”:

“Let’s begin with his version of the ‘they laughed at Galileo, so I must be right’ fallacy, a non sequitur variation of selective thinking.

“In his book Alternative Science, and on his web site under what he calls Skeptics who declared discoveries and inventions impossible, Milton lists a number of inventors and scientists who struggled to get their ideas accepted. Many were ridiculed along the way. But, like many others who commit this fallacy, Milton omits some important, relevant data. He does not mention that there are also a great number of inventors, scientists and thinkers who were laughed at and whose ideas have never been accepted. Many people accused of being crackpots turned out to be crackpots. Some did not. Thus, being ridiculed and rejected for one’s ideas is not a sign that one is correct. It is not a sign of anything important about the idea which is being rejected. Thus, finding large numbers of skeptics who reject ideas as being ‘crackpot ideas’ does not strengthen the likelihood of those ideas being correct. The number of skeptics who reject an idea is completely irrelevant to the truth of the idea. Ideas such as alien abduction, homeopathy, psychokinesis, orgone energy, ESP, free energy, spontaneous human combustion, and the rejection of evolution – all favored by Milton – are not supported in the least by the fact that these ideas are trashed by thousands of skeptics.”

True, but irrelevant! Milton’s argument shows precisely what it is supposed to show: that the skeptic’s knee-jerk dismissal of unorthodox claimants as “pseudo-scientists”, “fringe-scientists” and “crackpots” simply carries no evidentiary weight one way or another. In his skeptical zeal to convict Milton of blundering in the realm of logic, Carroll commits a much more elementary error than selective reasoning: he responds to an argument that is not being made. Milton’s argument is not “they laughed at Galileo, therefore every unconventional claimant is right”, it is merely “they laughed at Galileo, therefore unconventional claimants cannot be presumed wrong.”

Carroll’s attempt to hold Milton responsible for an argument not made is a variation of the popular pseudoskeptical technique of Demolishing Straw Men.

Making Criticisms that Apply Equally to Conventional

and Unconventional Research

It should be obvious that a criticism is invalid if it applies just as well to established science as it applies to an unconventional claim (such a criticism is called uncontrolled). But pseudoskeptics get away with using this technique anyway. What follows are some common examples of uncontrolled and therefore invalid criticisms.

Demanding an Unreasonable Degree of Reproducibility

Reproducibility means that a phenomenon can be demonstrated on demand, anywhere, at any time. Pseudoskeptics believe that an unconventional phenomenon can safely be considered nonexistent unless it is reproducible in this sense. But the same standard of evidence would invalidate much of accepted science. Discoveries in archeology are by their nature unique, non reproducible. Astronomy and geology are not reproducible in the strictest sense – astronomers cannot produce a supernova on demand, nor can geologists an earthquake. Even physics, the “hardest” of all sciences, is less and less reproducible in practice. Cutting-edge discoveries of high-energy physics, such as the discovery of the top quark are accepted by the physical community and then the public largely on faith, because no one else has the facilities to replicate them. The top quark is simply one of those discoveries whose experimental verification is beyond amateur science.

Similarly, the complete inability of ordinary humans to influence macroscopic systems with their minds alone, even in the slightest, strongly suggests that mind-matter interaction, if it exists, will be hard to demonstrate experimentally. A skeptic who rejects the conclusion of statistically sound meta-analysis of decades of mind-matter experiments because she feels that the phenomenon should be proven directly, by producing a person who can consistently, say, levitate objects, should similarly reject the discovery of the top quark until such time as a demonstration kit be made available that allows any physics high school teacher to produce said particle on the kitchen top. Either demand is unreasonable and denies the difficult nature of the subject matter.

Profit Motive

Pseudoskeptics try to invalidate unconventional claims by pointing out that the claimants derive financial support from their research (through books, newsletters or speaking engagements), blithely ignoring that conventional scientists derive their livelihood from their work as well. If a cold fusion researcher who is trying to commercialize his discoveries is a priori suspect, should not by the same token the hot fusion physicist’s 1989 dismissal of the cold fusion discovery be viewed with extreme suspicion, since their very livelihood depends on the continued flow of billions of federal research dollars into their field, a field that has produced no tangible results, despite 50 years of research?

To mention an anecdotal example, I have personally observed skeptics of the claim of adverse biological effects from microwave radiation produced by cellular devices having the gall to argue that critics of cellular technology cannot possibly be taken seriously because they make money from publishing their criticisms, while the same skeptics do not find fault with studies funded and written by the multi-billion-dollar cellular industry!

“Statistics can prove anything!”

Such is essentially the argument that the spokesman of the American Physical Society, Robert L. Park, makes against psychokinetic research in his book Voodoo Science (p. 199). In the context of a discussion of an obviously pseudoscientific Good Morning America report on anomalous phenomena (debunkery by association: as if TV shows were the principal outlet for reporting the results of psi research!), Park writes:

“Why, you may wonder, all this business of random machines? Jahn has studied random number generators, water fountains in which the subject tries to urge drops to greater heights, all sorts of machines. But it is not clear that any of these machines are truly random. Indeed, it is generally believed that there are no truly random machines. It may be, therefore, that the lack of randomness only begins to show up after many trials. Besides, if the mind can influence inanimate objects, why not simply measure the static force the mind can exert? Modern ultramicrobalances can routinely measure a force of much less than a billionth of an ounce. Why not just use your psychokinetic powers to deflect a microbalance? It’s sensitive, simple, even quantitative, with no need for any dubious statistical analysis.”

There are many things wrong with this statement, and I refer the reader to my review of Park’s book for details. For the purpose of this argument, I am interested in Park’s assessment that effects that are only indirectly detected, by statistical analysis, are suspect. Where does that leave conventional science? Deprived of one of its most powerful tools of analysis. The cherished 1992 COBE discovery of minute fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation would have to be thrown out, since it was entirely statistical in nature, and therefore by Park’s argument, ‘dubious’. The most celebrated discoveries of particle physics, such as the 1995 discovery of the top quark, or the results of neutrino detection experiments, or the synthesis of superheavy, extremely short-lived elements, would have to be thrown out, since they, too, are indirect and statistical in nature. Modern medicine would have to be invalidated as well because it relies on statistical analysis (of double-blind trials) to prove the efficacy of drugs.

For comparison: the American Institute of Physics’s Bulletin of Physics News (216; March 3, 1995) gives the odds against chance for the top quark discovery as a million to one. A 1987 meta-analysis performed by Dean Radin and Roger Nelson of RNG (random number generator) experiments between 1959 and 1987 , on the other hand, shows the existence of an anomalous deviation from chance with odds against chance exceeding one trillion to one (see Radin, The Conscious Universe, p. 140).

Park’s argument is the quintessential uncontrolled criticism: accepted scientific methods that constitute the backbone of modern science suddenly become questionable when they are used on phenomena that don’t fit his ideological predilections.

“Fraud cannot be ruled out!”

The pseudoskeptical argument of last resort. If a body of research supporting an unconventional claim is airtight, the pseudoskeptic will argue that since the conclusion contradicts established theories of nature (she will call them “facts”), and all other alternative explanations have been exhausted, the results must therefore be due to fraud. Of course, such an argument from theory turns the scientific method on its head (unless the skeptic can prove that fraud has actually been committed) , but what is more important, the same argument can be made for any research. Indeed, when funding or scientific prestige are at stake, results are frequently faked in the conventional sciences, probably much more frequently than in, say, parapsychology where skeptical scrutiny is intense.

“It’s Unsafe!” (In Medicine)

A favorite argument of the professional “quackbusters” like Stephen Barret is that an alternative procedure is unsafe. On the Acupuncture page of his site, Barret states that:

“Improperly performed acupuncture can cause fainting, local hematoma (due to bleeding from a punctured blood vessel), pneumothorax (punctured lung), convulsions, local infections, hepatitis B (from unsterile needles), bacterial endocarditis, contact dermatitis, and nerve damage.”

…missing the mark of controlled criticism by a wide margin. Why not similarly list the dangers of improperly performed surgery and then denounce the whole field as quackery?

Accusations of Selective Reporting

(File Drawer Effect)

One of the standard criticisms levered by pseudoskeptics against unconventional research that relies on statistics (primarily parapsychology) is that only successful experiments were reported and the unsuccessful ones were suppressed (by burying them in the “file drawer”). Unlike the previous criticisms, the file drawer criticism is valid in principle, but I mention it in this list anyway because pseudoskeptics obsess only about the (largely imaginary) file drawers of the parapsychologists while ignoring the large file drawers of suppressed conventional science.

To cite just a few examples of what has been buried in those file drawers: fundamental criticisms of relativity are a priori ineligible for publication in the mainstream scientific journals. That’s why most physicists are not aware of experimental evidence that apparently refutes special relativity. Positive results on cold fusion are similarly banned from publication, as are papers that radically question the accepted time line of human evolution. Cremo and Thompson’s Forbidden Archeology contains several hundred pages of archeological discoveries that have been left to be forgotten in that particular file drawer. Veteran astronomer Halton Arp, who has been made a persona non grata in astronomy due to his discovery that modern cosmology is catastrophically wrong, describes how most of his own papers ended up in the astronomical “file drawer” instead of the astronomical journals as follows (Arp, Seeing Red, 1998):

“In the beginning there was an unspoken covenant that observations were so important that they should be published and archived with only a minimum of interpretation at the end of the paper. Gradually this practice eroded as authors began making and reporting only observations which agreed with their starting premises. The next step was that these same authors, as referees, tried to force the conclusions to support their own and then finally, rejected the papers when they did not. As a result more and more important observational results are simply not being published at the journals in which one would habitually look for such results. The referees themselves, with the aid of compliant editors, have turned what was originally a helpful system into a chaotic and mostly unprincipled form of censorship.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the file-drawer of medical and other profit-oriented research that has been suppressed due to economic conflicts of interest is at least as thick as the body of published research. The tobacco industry had suppressed evidence that smoking causes cancer for decades, and the chemical industry has likewise suppressed evidence of public-health risks caused by its products. Examples of manipulated drug trials in medicine are legion. On July 25, 2002 The Nation published a special report titled Big Pharma, Bad Science that gives the following devastating assessment of the quality of modern medical research:

“In June, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most respected medical journals, made a startling announcement. The editors declared that they were dropping their policy stipulating that authors of review articles of medical studies could not have financial ties to drug companies whose medicines were being analyzed. The reason? The journal could no longer find enough independent experts. Drug company gifts and “consulting fees” are so pervasive that in any given field, you cannot find an expert who has not been paid off in some way by the industry. So the journal settled for a new standard: Their reviewers can have received no more than $10,000 from companies whose work they judge. Isn’t that comforting? This announcement by the New England Journal of Medicine is just the tip of the iceberg of a scientific establishment that has been pervasively corrupted by conflicts of interest and bias, throwing doubt on almost all scientific claims made in the biomedical field.

“Unknown to many readers is the fact that the data being discussed was often collected and analyzed by the maker of the drug involved in the test. An independent 1996 study found that 98 percent of scientific papers based on research sponsored by corporations promoted the effectiveness of a company’s drug. By comparison, 79 percent of independent studies found that a new drug was effective. This corruption reaches from the doctors prescribing a drug to government review boards to university research centers.

“Increasingly, the industry has converted academic research centers into subsidiaries of the companies. The billions of dollars of academic government funding essentially pays to flush out negative results, while private industry gets to profit from any successful result.

And the results are expensive and sometimes tragic for the public. Experimental clinical drug trials are hazardous to participants and, more broadly, critical to those with life threatening conditions who need to know which treatments are fruitless to pursue. Yet researchers on industry payrolls end up pressured to suppress negative results. At the most basic level, researchers who defy their corporate sponsors know they may lose their funding.”

Writer John Anthony West and geologist Robert M. Schoch have uncovered commanding geological evidence that the Egyptian Sphinx is thousands of years older than conventionally assumed, but their data has been, and is still being ignored by conventional Egyptology. When confronted with this research, Egyptologists have no explanation for it, but they insist that it cannot possibly be correct, because it contradicts their theories.

This site contains many more examples of suppressed and ignored discoveries spanning virtually the entire spectrum of human sciences. By the standards set by the pseudoskeptics themselves, therefore, almost all of science would have to be invalid. Pseudoskeptic Michael Shermer writes in “Baloney Detection” (Scientific American 11/2001, p. 36):

“Watch out for a pattern of fringe thinking that consistently ignores or distorts data.”

But “consistently ignoring and distorting data” is pervasive in physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, psychology, archeology and paleoanthropology. The “file drawer effect”, while not uncontrolled per se is therefore in practice an uncontrolled criticism. Due to the broken peer review system and massive conflicts of interest in commercial science, it applies to and invalidates much of accepted science.

Trying to End the Race when Their Side is Ahead

In any scientific controversy, there will be confirming evidence from some scientists and disconfirming evidence from others. Otherwise, there would not be a controversy. Resolving such controversies takes many iterations of new and better experiments, publication and criticism. In a head-to-head race, the lead will change often. Sometimes, the confirming evidence will gain the upper hand, and then the disconfirming evidence is ahead again. Pseudoskeptics are always trying to end the race prematurely, when they’re ahead, and declare victory. As an example, consider Randi’s never-ending tirades against homeopathy. If you study his website, you will see that all he ever quotes is disconfirming medical studies, while the ones that confirm homeopathy are conveniently ignored.

Try it yourself. Use Google to search Randi’s website for Madeleine Ennis homeopathy and see how many hits you get. One. And that one just mentions Ennis’ name in the context of discussing a disconfirming study, and calls her a “pharmacist from Belfast.” Relying solely on Randi’s site, a reader would never know that the woman is a professor of Immunopharmacology at Queen’s University, Belfast, and that she and others have produced a ground-breaking replication of Benveniste’s seminal work on ultradilutions.

This kind of biased, selective reporting of evidence cannot be excused by ignorance. It is indicative of malice and constitutes intellectual fraud.

Theory Overrides Evidence

The pseudoskeptic holds a firm belief that certain phenomena are a priori impossible, regardless of the evidence. This belief is contrary to the scientific method were theory always yields to the primacy of observation. A theory that is contradicted by evidence must be modified or discarded, no matter how aesthetically pleasing or prestigious it is. If an observation is made that cannot be accounted for by any existing theory, then the observation must be carefully checked and double-checked for errors. If no errors are found, then the observation must enter into the canon of scientific fact, regardless of whether it is explained by theory.

Most pseudoskeptics operate on assumptions about science that are precisely contrary to this principle. Carroll makes a typical argument when he writes about homeopathy:

“The known laws of physics and chemistry would have to be completely revamped if a tonic from which every molecule of the “active” ingredient were removed could be shown to nevertheless to be effective.”

Indeed they would. This process is known as science, as opposed to the pseudoscientific dogmatizing of the fact-resistant pseudoskeptics.

In his August 6, 2004 What’s New column, Robert L. Park delivers the following example of theory-over-evidence reasoning:

“COINCIDENCE: IS YOUR RANDOM NUMBER GENERATOR SPEAKING ARABIC? If it is, you may want to take cover, or seek professional help. In the August issue of Psychology Today, parapsychologist Dean Radin is quoted as claiming random number generators (RNGs) were uncharacteristically coherent in the hours just before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and again before Madrid. Coincidences like that don’t just happen; ‘events with worldwide impact focus consciousness and that influences the functioning of machines’. Radin heads the Global Consciousness Project, with 75 totally deluded researchers around the world monitoring RNGs to see if they predict terrorist attacks. Are RNGs the only machines that act up? What about elevators and missile launchers? This is scary. No, not the machines, the fact that there are that many researchers that haven’t got a clue about how things are, and people with money willing to fund them.”

The argument is simple. Theologist Park just knows “how things are”, and no amount of empirical evidence to the contrary can sway him. His argument consists solely of the application of ridicule and the ad-hominem, and is entirely devoid of scientific reasoning.

The pseudoskeptical principle of theory overrides evidence was spelled out explicitly in an article titled “Natural Laws” in the September/October 2000 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer. It concedes that “some [natural] laws are still ‘under construction’-being debated by the scientific community”. But then it confidently asserts:

“Fortunately, in the macroscopic (‘real’) world, the subject of this article, physics has revealed to us definite rules by which nature always operates-rules for establishing what is physically possible and for eliminating the impossible. We have confidence in these laws because with all the observations and experiments that have been (and continue to be) performed, no exception to them has yet come to light; that is, they constitute the best explanation of the natural world available to us today.”

This argument is breathtaking in its sheer ignorance and circularity. Mountains of anomalous evidence produced by 100 years of parapsychological and other kinds of heterodox research are ignored or rejected by the skeptic because these results “contradict the laws of nature”, and because the laws of nature are assumed to be complete, and the completeness of the known laws of nature is in turn justified by the absence of evidence to the contrary! This thinking is so manifestly irrational, it can only be explained as the psychological condition of denial.

Misapplying Occam’s Razor

In science, the simplest explanation tends to be the best. Pseudoskeptics usually insist that this heuristic rule of thumb is an immutable law of nature! In addition, they usually confuse simplicity with familiarity, and explanation with rationalization. For example, given that for over 50 years, observers from all walks of life including university professors, airline pilots, military personnel, policemen, Senators and US presidents have witnessed unidentified flying objects with operational characteristics that far surpass current aircraft designs (such as ability to make right-angle turns at high velocities), that many of these unexplained sightings are backed up by radar observations, photographic, video or physical evidence, and given that UFO pseudoskeptics have to resort to far-fetched logical contortions, highly improbable coincidences and laughable ad-hoc hypotheses to explain away these observations (such as the idea that swamp gas can create the appearance of flying objects in the sky), one must conclude that the hypothesis that some UFOs represent real flying objects is the simplest explanation. The complicated ad-hoc “explanations” (really rationalizations) of the UFO pseudoskeptics cannot compete with the unified explanatory power of that simple hypothesis.

Dislike of the Consequences

Sometimes, pseudoskeptics will make the argument that a certain phenomenon cannot be actually occurring because the consequences would be too unsettling. For example, on CNN’s Larry King Live, UFO Skeptic Philip Klass once responded to an argument that the alien abduction phenomenon is real by stating that “if these things were true, the social consequences would be intolerable!”

Park’s argument quoted above is another example. He finds the research generated by the Global Consciousness Project wholly unpalatable because it scares him. The claim that the correct functioning of sensitive equipment that we entrust our lives to is subject to subtle mental effects is indeed frightening. But that does not refute the claim.

Refusal to see the totality of the evidence: any single case of an anomalous phenomenon, no matter how strong, can always be disposed of by claiming that the observer involved is a fraud, or was suffering from hallucination. But when there are hundreds, or thousands of similar cases, this explanation clearly becomes inadequate. There is a low, but nonzero probability that any single UFO sighting is fraudulent, but the combined probability that thousands and thousands of UFO sightings by credible, highly educated observers over five decades are all bogus is next to zero. There is a low, but nonzero probability that a single paranormal researcher might be a fraud, and reporting the results of fictional experiments, but the probability that there is a global conspiracy of scientists who spend whole lives counterfeiting research, which has been going on for over a century, is clearly next to zero.

The pseudoskeptic strictly refuses to appreciate the evidence as a whole. Every time she dismisses a case on the grounds that the evidence is not strong enough (because the probability of chance or fraud is technically nonzero), the pseudoskeptic forgets all about it and approaches the next, similar case as if there was no precedent. Or worse yet, the skeptic dismisses a new case solely on the ground that she has dismissed similar cases in the past! The pseudoskeptical case against cold fusion seems to rest almost entirely on this kind of attitude these days.

Allen Hynek wrote about this pseudoskeptical fallacy:

“Probabilities, of course, can never prove a thing. When, however, in the course of UFO investigations one encounters many cases, each having a fairly high probability that “a genuinely new empirical observation” was involved, the probability that a new phenomenon was not observed becomes very small, and it gets smaller still as the number of cases increases. The chances, then, that something really new is involved are very great, and any gambler given such odds would not hesitate for a moment to place a large bet… Any one UFO case, if taken by itself without regard to the accumulated worldwide data … can almost always be dismissed by assuming that in that particular case a very unusual set of circumstances occurred, of low probability … But when cases of this sort accumulate in noticeable numbers, it no longer is scientifically correct to apply the reasoning one applies to a single isolated case.”

F.C.S. Schiller remarked on the same subject:

“A mind unwilling to believe or even undesirous to be instructed, our weightiest evidence must ever fail to impress. It will insist on taking that evidence in bits and rejecting item by item. As all the facts come singly, anyone who dismisses them one by one is destroying the condition under which the conviction of a new truth could ever arise in the mind.”

Setting Arbitrary Standards of Proof and Moving the Goalposts

That is to say, changing previously agreed upon standards of evidence when those standards have been met.

This is how pseudoskeptics have been able to say with a straight face that there is not a shred of evidence for extraterrestrial visitation for almost six decades. When there were only eyewitness reports, they wanted credible eyewitnesses, such as university professors, doctors or law enforcement officers. When they got that, they wanted photos. When they got photos, they wanted videos and physical evidence. When they got both, they reverted to the safe demand of the landing on the White House lawn.

What is wrong with that demand? Every hypothesis must be tested on its own predictions. If a hypothesis requires a certain event to happen, and that event is not observed, then the hypothesis is falsified. But there is no logical basis for the conclusion that if extraterrestrials exist, they would want to make their presence generally known. Extrapolating from the way that human zoologists use stealth to observe wild animals, we would tend to expect extraterrestrials to behave in the same fashion towards us. The “White House Test” for ETs is therefore illogical, because the ET hypothesis does not predict this event to happen. That the ET hypothesis has so far failed this arbitrary and unreasonable test means nothing.

Park’s demand for a psychokinetic who can deflect a microbalance (in Voodoo Science) is of a similarly arbitrary nature. Even if it were met, ample historical precedent teaches us that the skeptics would dismiss this ability as a stage magician’s trick, or as anecdotal evidence that proves nothing. The pseudoskeptics would, in other words, move the goalposts.

Former Nature editor John Maddox “moved the goalposts” in an attempt to get rid of Benveniste’s paper. Even though Benveniste’s research was solid, he would not publish it until it had been replicated by three independent laboratories. But when that condition had unexpectedly been satisfied, and Maddox had been forced to publish it, he remained convinced of the invalidity of the research and abused his position of power to discredit it.

Debunkery by Association

If paranormal phenomena are real, then we might just as well believe in werewolves, fairies and unicorns! To rhetorically imply, by means of direct suggestion or innuendo, that attempts at serious research into anomalous phenomena are no more credible than psychic hot lines, tabloid reports of miracles and newspaper horoscopes. James Randi is very fond of this rhetorical technique, as he uses it ad nauseam and beyond:

“… cold fusion is a dead duck, the earth is not flat, and the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Effectively, Randi is suggesting that there is some kind of connection between research into anomalous energy production associated with hydrogen and astrology and the belief that the earth is flat. A variation of this technique is to associate serious unconventional research with mass media outlets that report on it – Park’s grotesque discussion of parapsychological phenomena as reported by a sensationalist, unscientific ABC program in his book Voodoo Science (p. 195-200) was already mentioned above.

Another variation on this theme is to associate an unconventional claimant with convicted frauds who are associated with the field. Of course, there is incompetence and fraud in every profession. There are surgeons who cut off a wrong leg and scientists who falsify data, but that does not lead skeptics to conclude that every surgeon is a quack and all of science is bogus. But exactly that kind of wild, slanderous generalization is commonly employed by pseudoskeptics to discredit unconventional fields of inquiry. When it comes to free energy, they discuss free energy con-man Dennis Lee. To discredit parapsychology, they devote much time and effort to Uri Geller, Miss Cleo and John Edward. To ridicule UFO research, they keep going back to Adamski and his claims of arian dream women from Venus. To discredit crop circles, they emphasize stories of crop circle researchers who were fooled by hoaxers, as if that somehow forbade the existence of the real thing. The possibility of health benefits from magnetic fields is repudiated by emphasizing obviously worthless charms and bracelets advertised in the yellow press. Acupuncture is dismissed as unsafe because it has lead to serious injury in the hands of unqualified practitioners.

To illustrate, here comes an excerpt from Robert L. Park’s What’s New column of Friday, April 5, 2002. Under the title “Free Energy: Perpetual Motion Scams Are At An All-Time High”, Park attempts to discredit the Motionless Electromagnetic Generator by associating it with Dennis Lee:

“In 1999, I went to Columbus, Ohio for ABC News to witness Dennis Lee demonstrate a permanent-magnet motor that was ‘more than 200% efficient.’ Actually, he didn’t really demonstrate it. He stuck a magnet on the side of a steel file cabinet; turning to the audience he asked, ‘How long do you think that magnet will stay there?’ He answered his own question, ‘Forever. That’s infinite energy.’ Don’t laugh, this week, Patent 6,362,718 was issued for a ‘Motionless Electromagnetic Generator’ that ‘extracts energy from a permanent magnet with energy-replenishing from the active vacuum’.”

The truly skeptical reader might wonder why Lee’s 1999 “demonstration” is “new” on April 5, 2002. The answer, of course, is that it isn’t. It just needed to be exhumed because the MEG is too difficult to ridicule, given that (unlike Lee) its team of creators are physicists, its function is described in the peer-reviewed literature (Foundation of Physics Letters, 2001), that it has apparently been independently replicated by French inventor Jean-Louis Naudin and that no attempts are being made to solicit investments from individuals. To still effectively discredit the MEG (which Park, of course, has never examined in person), he talks about a known free-energy scam-artist in order to get the reader into a suitably dismissive mood, and then switches the target of his criticism at the last second, coupled with an appeal to emotional consensus implied in the phrase “don’t laugh”. (For clarification: I do not claim to possess any knowledge or evidence that the MEG actually works as claimed, or that the theory behind it has any merit whatsoever. My point is to illustrate the nature of Park’s merely rhetorical dismissal of the MEG.

Yet another outfit of scientific arrogance that practices debunkery by association to ridicule unconventional research is IG Nobel, an organization that awards its “IG Nobel Prize” annually for “achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced”. Browsing through the list of past winners, we find a long list of recipients who were more than deserving of this dubious honor. In 1991, Dan Quayle, “consumer of time and occupier of space”, is being recommended for demonstrating “the need for science education”, and Edward Teller “for his lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it”. But the same year also sees Jacques Benveniste attacked and ridiculed for what future historians of science will come to recognize as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, the experimental proof that water can carry information. The precise phrasing of the award also uses other pseudoskeptical techniques such as the ad-hominem (“prolific proseletizer”) and misinterpretation of the actual claim (Benveniste never claimed that water is “intelligent”).

Dismissing Claims Because of Their Philosophical Pedigree

Where debunkery by association seeks to discredit claims by linking them with similar, but unrelated, claims, this technique seeks to discredit ideas by discounting their empirical merits in favor of their philosophical origins. The Skeptic’s Dictionary gives us once again a prime example. Under the heading “alternative health practices”, we find the following definition:

“Health or medical practices are called ‘alternative’ if they are based on untested, untraditional or unscientific principles, methods, treatments or knowledge. ‘Alternative’ medicine is often based upon metaphysical beliefs and is frequently anti-scientific.”

But doctors of alternative medicine are frequently more scientific than their conventional colleagues. While the former employ modalities whose safety and efficacy has been demonstrated by decades (nutrition), centuries (homeopathy) or millennia (acupuncture) of clinical practice, the latter frequently derive their “scientific” knowledge from biased information and rigged drug studies communicated by pharma lobbyists. Death from alternative medicine is practically unheard of, but side-effects of conventional treatments are estimated to kill 100,000 people in the United States every year. It is therefore hard to dismiss alternative medicine on empirical grounds.

Yet for the pseudoskeptics, alternative medicine remains “unscientific”, even “anti-scientific”, because much of it is inspired by ancient beliefs and metaphysical ideas, such as the notion of a vital energy that animates the body, or the idea that thoughts create physical reality, not the other way. Pseudoskeptics find the notion that ancient civilizations could have known things that are still beyond the understanding of our current civilization deeply offensive. As rationalists, they believe that our ancestors were without exception superstitious, ignorant savages, and that our current understanding of nature represents the highest level of scientific knowledge that has ever existed on this planet. They are therefore categorically unwilling to entertain the notion that there could be any truth or validity to medical practices that were not developed by mechanistic, reductionist Western medicine. Whether or not alternative medicine has any merit is not at all a scientific question for them – it’s personal.

Truly scientific thinking, of course, accepts truth based on evidence alone, regardless of the philosophies and beliefs of the messenger. To a scientific mind, the question of why Samuel Hahnemann came up with the idea of curing people with medicines that are so highly diluted that little or no trace remains of the original substance, has no bearing on the question of whether homeopathy has therapeutic value.

Another example of “dismissing claims because of their philosophical pedigree” is how academic paleoanthropology reacted to the challenge posed by Cremo and Thompson’s Forbidden Archeology. Critics like to point out that the authors are “Hindu creationists” as if that somehow implied that their scholarly achievement was without merit. But from a logical point of view, the value of the arguments made and evidence presented by Cremo and Thompson is completely independent of the religious beliefs that motivated the research in the first place, just like the big bang theory is not automatically false because it is compatible with the Christian religious belief that our universe was created.

Slurs and Ridicule

The true skeptic refrains from ad hominem attacks and name calling while the pseudoskeptic elevates them to an art form. Examples abound in pseudoskeptical books and periodicals.

I conclude this little phenomenology of pseudoskepticism with an extensive quotation that reads like a compendium of invalid criticisms. It is taken from The Memory of Water, an account of the scientific witch hunt against Jacques Benveniste. Its author, French biologist Michel Schiff gives a list of phrases directed by scientists at Benveniste and his research, which I quote in its entirety:

“A ‘bizarre new theory’, a ‘unicorn in a back yard’, a ‘Catch-22-situation’, ‘some form of energy hitherto unknown in physics’, ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’, ‘unbelievable research results’, ‘sticking to old paradigms’, ‘defying the rules of physics’, a ‘hypothesis as unnecessary as it is fanciful’, ‘data that did not seem to make sense’, ‘ discouraging fantasy’, ‘unbelievable circumstances’, ‘circus atmosphere’, ‘spurious science’, ‘magical properties of attenuated solutions’, ‘unbelievable results’, the ‘product of careless enthusiasm’, a ‘200-year-old brand of medicine that most Western physicians consider to be harmless quackery at best’,’dilutions of grandeur’, the ‘egotism and folly of this man who rushes into print with a claim so staggering that if true would revolutionize physics and medicine’, ‘mystical powers’, ‘magic’, ‘quackery’, ‘charlatanism’, a ‘therapy without scientific rationale’,’unicorns revisited’, an ‘explanation beloved of modern homeopaths’, a ‘circus atmosphere’, ‘spurious science’, ‘belief in the magical properties of attenuated solutions’, ‘what seems to be an aberration’, ‘results that could not be explained by current theory’, ‘respectful disbelief of Nobel prizewinner Jean-Marie Lehn’, the ‘cavalier interpretation of results made by Benveniste’, ‘interpretations out of proportion with the facts’, ‘magic results’, ‘high-dilution experiments and much of homeopathy with their notions of alchemy’, ‘revolutionary nature of this finding’, ‘generally efficient physicochemical laws being broken’, ‘ throwing away our intellectual heritage’, ‘how James Bond could distinguish Martinis that have been shaken or stirred’, a ‘delusion about the interpretation of the data’, the ‘extraordinary claims made in the interpretation’, ‘Cheshire cat phenomenon’, ‘no basis for concluding that the chemical data accumulated over two centuries are in error’, the ‘circus atmosphere engendered by the publication of the original paper’, the ‘fact that it still takes a full teaspoon of sugar to sweeten our tea’,’existing scientific paradigms’, ‘throwing away the Law of Mass Action or Avogadro’s number’, ‘original research requiring a general science background sufficient to recognize nonsense’, ‘reports of unicorns needing to be checked with particular care’, ‘not believing that no-more existent molecules can leave an imprint in water’, ‘the first issue of New Approaches to Truly Unbelievable and Ridiculous Enigmas’, ‘speculating why water can remember something on some occasions and forget it on others’, ‘outlandish claims’, ‘not publishing papers dealing with nonsense theories’, ‘data grossly conflicting with vast amounts of earlier well-documented and easily replicated data’, ‘extraordinary claims’, ‘shattering the laws of chemistry’,’ divine intervention being probably about as likely’,’findings that contravene the physicochemical laws known to science’,’data that purport to contravene a couple of centuries of chemical data’, a ‘whole load of crap’,’1074 oceans like those of the Earth needed to contain only one molecule of the original substance’, the ‘usual rules of interactions in biology or in physical chemistry where the molecule is the basic vector of information’, the ‘failure of fundamental principles’, ‘defying all laws of physical chemistry and of biology’, ‘unbelievable results’, ‘observations without any objective basis’, one prominent scientist pointedly not reading Benveniste’s paper ‘because it would be a waste of his time’, ‘standard theory offering no explanation for such a result’ and ‘a priest stating during mass that water keeps the memory of God’.”

The anger and outrage these scientists are feeling as they are trying to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance generated by the Benveniste results is palatable. Gone are sweet logic and reason, and gone is the scientific method that says that evidence can never be dismissed on theoretical grounds. The gut feeling that such results are simply ‘unbelievable’, no matter what, dominates the response. The existing physical models are confused with eternal laws of nature, and their apparent inability to account for the results is taken as a personal insult. The church fathers who refused to look through Galilei’s telescope could hardly have been any more irrational than the highly educated scientists who produced these outbursts of scientific bigotry.

Other online references that might be of interest are:

Online Articles by George P. Hansen

Distinctions Between Intellectuals And Pseudo-Intellectuals

(Sydney Harris)

On Pseudo-Skepticism

(Article by original CSICOP co-founder Marcello Truzzi)

Extraordinary Claim? Move the Goal Posts

sTARBABY article by Dennis Rawlins

Myths of Skepticism

Folklore and the Rise of Moderation Among Organized Skeptics

CSICOP Scare!

Debunking the Debunkers

CSICOP Takes Stock of the Media

True Disbelievers: Mars Effect Drives Skeptics to Irrationality

CSICOP: The Paradigm Police

The Right Man Syndrome: Skepticism and Alternative Medicine

Cognitive Processes and the Suppression of Sound Scientific Ideas

Symptoms of Pathological skepticism

The Logical Trickery of the UFO Skeptic

The Skeptical Inquirer Smears Wilhelm Reich (Again): A Rebuttal

* The website “Suppressed Science” is no longer extant.

Matt Colborn

SPR’s Study Day on Skeptics

London, October 25, 2008

Recently, the doyens of scientism have been having a media-field day, damning and blasting the “Enemies of Reason” in a manner somewhat reminiscent of McCarthyism. So perhaps it was inevitable that the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) would turn its attentions to the skeptics.

The SPR was founded by a group of learned Victorian Gentlemen in 1882, to “examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognized hypothesis.” This is quoted in the front cover of their Journal, whose editors go on to say that “In keeping with most scientific bodies, the Society holds no corporate views….”

Bearing this in mind, I must admit to being a little disturbed to see a study day where there would be three talks criticizing skepticism, and that Dr. Chris French, a leading Skeptic in the UK, would only be “invited to comment” on talks and “join with the speakers in leading the general discussion.” This seemed a little unbalanced.

The study day was held at St. Philip’s church on Earl’s Court Road, in a special conference room on the first floor. The room had some rather nice stained glass, including a circular one of a crucified Jesus overlooking the proceedings. The day was reasonably well attended; there was the usual SPR crowd, a contingent from the College of Psychic Studies, and at least one student from the Parapsychology unit at Northampton. There seemed, however, to be rather few skeptics.

The Chair, Mary Rose Barrington, introduced the day, commenting that the focus would be on the more extreme skeptics and their unreasonable comments. (The day was subtitled ‘perspectives on Psi-denial.’) This seemed to be a little more discriminating than I’d feared, but still rather one sided.

Guy Lyon Playfair kicked off with a history of the US leading Skeptical organization CSICOP. CSICOP, or the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, has a reasonably high public profile and publishes a magazine called the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s recently rebranded itself as the CSI, presumably after the TV show. CSI stands for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Even ‘Skeptics’ sometimes acknowledge that CSICOP has a rather notorious past. The group was founded in reaction to an upsurge in interest in the ‘occult’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The philosopher, Paul Kurtz, initiated a campaign against astrology and obtained signatures from 186 scientists for a manifesto titled “Objections to Astrology,” which was published in the Humanist in 1975. The Humanist was the magazine of the American Humanist Association (AHA), and was edited by Kurtz. CSICOP was formed at a meeting of the AHA in 1976, in the wake of this campaign and was initially sponsored by the AHA. Its journal was to be the Zetetic, a magazine already in existence and edited by the sociologist Marcello Truzzi. After this meeting, Paul Kurtz became co-editor of the Zetetic with Truzzi.

It didn’t take long for ideological chasms to form, because Truzzi wanted a publication devoted to dialogue and debate where both sides of the argument were presented, whereas the rest of the committee wanted a more adversarial approach. Truzzi resigned in 1977, and Kendrick Frasier took over editorship of the publication, which was renamed the Skeptical Inquirer. This publication had a far more aggressive, debunking tone which often mocked those who took paranormal claims seriously.

Playfair then came to the infamous debate over the ‘Mars Effect.’ The French psychologist and statistician Michel Gauquelin claimed that sports champions tend to be born when the planet Mars is either rising or culminating in the sky more often than it does for ordinary people. This effect seemed highly significant, and Kurtz et al. could hardly ignore it, having spearheaded a campaign against Astrology.

However, the committee member Dennis Rawlins conducted the data analysis and found that his research supported Gauquelin’s work; the link between Mars and sports ability appeared to be confirmed!

This result was of course unacceptable to those who’d suggested that newspaper astrology columns should include health warnings. After some rather acrimonious debate, Rawlins resigned from CSICOP and wrote a long “Star Baby” article for the paranormal magazine Fate accusing CSICOP of covering up results that appeared to support an astrological influence. The same month CSICOP instituted a policy of not conducting research itself. The irony of all this was no doubt lost on the committee….

This, however, wasn’t the only piece of irony operating in my vicinity. A prime, somewhat justified, complaint of the speaker was that CSI was an advocacy group that was more interested in propagating propaganda about ‘Science’ and ‘Reason’ than any genuine investigation of the facts. However, an outsider might say the same thing about a study day where only one side of a controversy was presented.

This was picked up by Chris French, the token skeptic, who was invited to comment on the talk. He agreed that no-one came out of the “Star Baby” incident very well, but pointed out that many of the criticisms of extreme skepticism (inflexibility, selective presentation of facts, lack of interest in alternative points of view, etc.) could also be leveled at extreme ‘Believers’ in the paranormal. He compared this ‘mirroring’ effect with cold-war psychology, where American students saw Russian students as underhand, rotten, dishonest liars without the guts to see the truth and Russian students saw American students as underhand, rotten, dishonest liars without the guts to see the truth.

This situation is probably best illustrated by Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy cartoon, drawn by Antonio Prohias, which has a black and a white spy constantly trying to maim each other by a variety of cunning schemes. After a significant period of reading these cartoons, one comes to realise that (1) There’s NO difference between the two spies except that one’s black and the other’s white and that (2) The tactics they use are also identical.

French went on to say that the ‘Skeptical’ movement was actually very diverse, and that he personally had more in common with moderate ‘advocates’ than he did with either extreme believers or skeptics. After he said this, I wanted to know more about this diversity, and realized that here was a missed opportunity to get a more realistic picture of the skeptical movement as a whole. After all, many very intelligent people define themselves as ‘skeptics,’ and it cannot just be because they’re cowards and weaklings without the guts to see the truth….

The second speaker of the day was Robert McLuhan on The psychology of the skeptic: what militant skeptics feel and how they think. McLuhan also has a blog titled Paranormalia.

McLuhan began with a rundown of the labels that Skeptics have used to describe ‘believers.’ James Randi called parapsychologists ‘Woo-woo peddlers’ and ‘Psi-Nuts,’ Alcock called them ‘Mystagogues in search of a soul,’ David Marks’ labelled advocates ‘shamans.’ (Although somewhat bizarrely, Michael Shermer, a leading Skeptic, once wrote a column for the Scientific American entitled ‘the Shamans of Scientism’ not only praising ‘the scientific equivalent of a deity’ (Steven Hawking), but labeling [respectable] scientists Shamans! (Shermer, 2002))

This name-calling was justified by Martin Gardner in light of a phrase of H.L. Mencken’s, that “a horse-laugh is worth more than a thousand syllogisms.” In Gardner’s view, the ideas of parapsychologists are so far-out and ridiculous that it’s not worth arguing or engaging with them, and better to use ridicule.

This stance is justified because some skeptics see themselves as part of a bastion against a rising tide of superstition and darkness that threaten to overwhelm ‘science’ and ‘reason.’ Carl Sagan feared that we’d end up ‘clutching at crystals’ as civilization fell back into ‘superstition and darkness’. (Sagan, 1997.)

McLuhan said that many books about superstitions treat skepticism as normal and believers as a bit special; he listed some book titles to make his point; The Psychology of the Psychic, the Psychology of Anomalous Experience and Why people believe weird things.

He then acknowledged that there were different types of skepticism, and that ‘skeptic’ comes from the Greek Skepsis, which means examination and doubt, and not denial. More moderate skeptics, like Ray Hyman and Carl Sagan, have acknowledged that it’s better for critics to respond with constructive criticism and in a spirit of fair play than with ridicule.

McLuhan suggested that extreme skepticism, or denial, was actually a natural human reaction to unpalatable new facts. He called it a psychological ‘gag reaction.’

This sort of reaction can be seen beyond parapsychology. For example, in the 1990s, UK ‘Euroskeptics’ emerged who rejected European integration. There still exist a significant numbers of scientists who deny climate change. A third example would be creationists, who are skeptical of evolution. And even more extreme are those who deny the holocaust.

He suggested that such denial comes about through anxiety, and that this can be witnessed in many skeptical works; for instance the psychologist D.H. Rawcliffe wrote of the ‘insidious effects of Superstition’ in 1952. One of the best surveys of this sort of reaction to the paranormal is Walter Franklin Prince’s The Enchanted Boundary. This book’s a catalogue of many of the extreme and rather loopy things some critical scientists said about the field in its early years (1820 – 1930). Prince demonstrated repeatedly that when otherwise sane critics crossed over into the ‘enchanted’ realm of the paranormal, they lost their common sense and good judgment. Like most of McLuhan’s arguments, this could be said to go both ways, of course; many advocates have also lost their good sense in favour of uncritical belief.

Past examples of this sort of skepticism can be hilarious. McLuhan cited the example of the local newspaper editor who couldn’t be bothered to send out a reporter to investigate the Wright Brother’s flying machine because it was impossible. This was despite the fact that train passengers had regularly sighted the brothers flying their aeroplane. In 1879, Edison staged a public demonstration of his electric light, which didn’t stop a ‘skeptic’ (who wasn’t there) commenting that the light was “a complete failure.”

McLuhan claimed that such comments could be compared to those of psi-deniers. Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer (2008) chronicled how a remote dowser had located a lost harp for her. Mayer was a psychologist, and the incident severely challenged what she’d learned in her scientific education. She was far from alone in this; McLuhan quoted a comment from an engineering magazine that “it’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t believe in even if it were true.”

Early Researchers like Charles Richet and Everard Fielding (who co-authored a report on the medium Eusapia Palladino) also noted that, given time after the event, one tends to minimize or deny personal, apparently paranormal experiences. This is something I’ve experienced myself; the rational mind tends to reject evidence of the apparently irrational. Part of this might be due to ‘cognitive dissonance,’ that is the “uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously (Wikipedia.)” In this case, the clash comes from observing something your education tells you is impossible.

At the talk’s conclusion, Chris French was once more invited to comment, and the first thing he did was to acknowledge that not enough work had been done on the psychology of skepticism. In fact, his accompanying Ph.D. student was about to embark on a series of studies on this very topic.

Secondly, he said that skeptics were often placed in a double bind that wasn’t appreciated by advocates. Skeptics are often accused of ignoring or suppressing evidence of psi, but quite often when they try and test claims of psychic ability, they get nothing but negative results. French himself had done a number of experiments, and these had pretty much invariably turned out negative. This is often explained by psi advocates as the experimenter effect, which from French’s point of view is understandably fishy. As he said; open ‘skeptics’ are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

In addition, the charge of cognitive dissonance could also be levelled at psi-advocates; James Alcock noted that the lack of acceptance by mainstream science “no doubt creates cognitive dissonance on the part of the parapsychologists who are convinced they do have real phenomena. This dissonance can be resolved either by assuming that the exclusion from the halls of mainstream science is unfair and unjustified, or that there is some reason other than lack of persuasive data that justifies the rejection” (Alcock, 2003, p. 48.) An uncharitable observer might interpret a day focusing on ‘psi-deniers’ as an example of parapsychologists looking for these ‘other reasons.’

That said, there was much in McLuhan’s talk that I agreed with. That wasn’t hard, because I find many of the less informed outpourings of uninformed skeptics just as annoying as he does. But the feeling of unease with which I’d begun the day remained.

Way back in 1980, Robert Anton Wilson wrote a satirical essay on a ‘Science and Pseudoscience’ meeting entitled “The Persecution and Assassination of the Parapsychologists by the Inmates of the American Association for the Advancement of Science under the direction of the Amazing Randi.” This meeting, as the title suggests, featured a situation that was the reverse of the Study day. A panel of five ‘skeptics’ spent a considerable period of time denouncing parapsychology and other forms of ‘pseudoscience,’ and then the ‘heretics’ were allowed a few minutes at the end to defend themselves. Even though this meeting wasn’t quite that bad, it was getting on that way; French was one of notably few skeptics at the meeting.

One issue Wilson raised was that the advocates of a particular position tend to use the ‘sociology of knowledge’ to analyze their opponents ideas; “The sociology of knowledge, objectively pursued, seeks to determine why people believe what they believe. It is seldom pursued in that objective way; it is more often used to invalidate an opponent by showing that he or she has ulterior motives.” (Wilson, 1982, p. 79.)

As McLuhan showed, skeptics have long done this to ‘advocates,’ and this study day was evidence that ‘advocates’ also do this to skeptics. I’m unsure about how constructive this development actually is.

Rupert Sheldrake’s talk was entitled “How Skeptics Work: Some Case Studies”, but it might as well have been called “All the s**t I’ve had to put up since I came out as a scientific heretic”. The talk was a summary of some of the ill-informed, ignorant and even libelous statements that Sheldrake’s work has prompted from skeptics and pillars of the scientific community.

In 1981, Sheldrake published his first book on his highly heretical theory of Morphic Resonance. A New Science of Life prompted a furious editorial from the then editor of Nature, John Maddox in which he commented that it was “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.” (Nature, 24 September 1981.) He reiterated this condemnation in 1994 on the BBC TV show Heretics.

Sheldrake began his talk by suggesting that the data of parapsychology induced taboo reactions in a number of scientists, who adhered to a materialist, reductionist view of nature. Taboos were defined as “strong social prohibition (or ban) against words, objects, actions, or discussions that are considered undesirable or offensive by a group, culture, society, or community. Breaking a taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent”. (Wikipedia)

The second point, about the abhorrence of breaking a taboo, was especially germane to Sheldrake, as the example of Maddox shows. Paul Feyerabend (1975) made a similar point when he said that amongst scientists; “scepticism [about established science] is at a minimum; it is directed against the view of opposition and against minor ramifications of one’s own basic ideas, never against the basic ideas themselves. Attacking the basic ideas evokes taboo reactions which are no weaker than are taboo reactions in so-called primitive societies (p. 298).” In other words, despite priding ourselves that we’re more ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ than ignorant superstitious savages, we’re really very similar and tend to be critical mainly of the ideas of other people.

Sheldrake suggested that parapsychological ideas were taboo because they were closely associated with the ‘supernatural’ and with religion. He suggested that Skepticism was part of an ‘Enlightenment agenda’ where the power of reason battled the darkness of superstition. This meant that educated, ‘rational’ people were not supposed to give any credence to ostensibly paranormal phenomena because only uneducated and ignorant people believed that sort of thing. This class divide can be seen in the UK newspapers, where ‘low-brow’ rags like the Sun publish uncritical material on the paranormal, whereas papers like the Times, Guardian or Independent tend to take a skeptical line.

Next, Sheldrake provided some personal examples of his clashes with the skeptics, many of which are fully detailed on his website.

In 1994, the then leading media skeptic Richard Wiseman was called to comment on Sheldrake’s experiments with the dog Jaytee. Sheldrake had conducted experiments with Jaytee that suggested he knew when his owner was coming home even if the owner was several miles away. With the dog owner’s permission, Wiseman conducted four experiments with Jaytee. Sheldrake claimed that these experiments essentially replicated the pattern of his own initial experiments, and he showed graphs to demonstrate this. He was therefore astonished when Wiseman began claiming at lectures and on TV that he’d debunked the ‘psychic dog.’ His reason was that the dog’s behaviour had failed to meet a criterion set by Wiseman.

Later, these conclusions were published in the British Journal of Psychology. Sheldrake wrote a reply in the Journal of the Society for Psychic Research in 1999, and Wiseman et al. (2000) later replied to his reply.

The ins and outs of this controversy are rather difficult to follow, in part because both parties give significantly different accounts of what happened and use different criteria with which to judge events. Wiseman et al. said that they became interested in Jaytee after December 1994, when the Science Unit of Austrian Television conducted “one of the first formal experiments with Jaytee.” (Wiseman et al., 2000.) This resulted in considerable media attention in the UK. They also claim that their experiments “set out to test the claim that Jaytee clearly signalled [his owner’s] journey home by going to her parents’ porch for no apparent reason (op. cit.),” and so looking for patterns in the data was unnecessary. They also say that Sheldrake’s description of their experiments in his book is misleading. In their own eyes, Wiseman et al. see themselves as reacting to favourable but misleading claims of a psychic dog that gained to them unwarranted media coverage. People should plough through the controversy themselves before making a judgment.

Wiseman’s work resulted in some very negative publicity for Sheldrake. For example, The Daily Telegraph reported that ‘Psychic Pets were clearly exposed as a myth’ (Irwin, 1998). Wiseman himself gained a lot of publicity from this debunking, and it’s very hard to interpret Wiseman’s behaviour in an entirely favourable way. If the primary intent was constructive, scientific criticism, why was so much publicity made of a small number of experiments that could not really compare with the larger body of Sheldrake’s work?

An especially bad example of ill-informed debunking happened when the National Geographic channel essentially made a TV programme on false pretenses. The show attempted to debunk Sheldrake’s work on the psychic parrot, N’kisi and featured the (largely unqualified) skeptic Tony Youens. As a result, Sheldrake filed a complaint with the British Government Office of Communications, Ofcom, which upheld two out of three of Rupert’s complaints. This dispute later went to court, at which a Judge ruled in favour of Sheldrake, but the channel still showed the programme in the US, stating that rulings in the UK didn’t count.

One of the more interesting dialogues Sheldrake has had was in January 2004, with Lewis Wolpert, a professor of anatomy at the University College London and a vigorous opponent of paranormal claims. This was conducted at the Royal Society of Arts, and a recording and full transcript is available. The transcript shows that Wolpert’s arguments were very general, and that a belief in telepathy is compared to angels and fairies. He called the evidence for psychic phenomena ‘poor,’ but in his initial talk never gives any specific examples, or much evidence that he’s read any of the experimental studies. He also contradicts himself; at one point he acknowledges there’s weak evidence for psychic phenomena, and then says there’s ‘zero evidence!’

Later, when Sheldrake was showing a video of his experiments, Wolpert couldn’t even be bothered to look at the screen. Afterwards, he mentioned two papers co-written by Wiseman, one of which is the Jaytee work and the second of which did raise a significant challenge. This was Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman’s (1999); “meta-analysis of mass media tests of extrasensory perception, a meta-analysis of the sort of thing that Rupert’s been talking about, looking at all the studies, and representing one point … we like using big numbers, showing, or 1.5 million trials. The analysis shows there’s nothing there (Quote by Wolpert in the transcript.)”

Replicability of apparently psychic effects is indeed a significant problem for advocates, and although the Milton & Wiseman study was by no means definitive, this issue remains important and tends to be not to be studied enough by parapsychologists. A big problem is that, given that a psychic effect exists, we remain very ignorant of its nature. That means that we can’t reliably predict the conditions in which it might occur. If we did understand how to produce a psychic ability on tap, a million negative results wouldn’t matter, so long as parapsychologists could predict and produce positive results in the right conditions. Unless and until parapsychologists can do this, some scepticism of their results remains justified. A big problem with the rather authoritarian nature of many skeptical pronouncements, including Wolpert’s, is that they tend to draw attention away from valid criticisms of the parapsychology field.

One of Sheldrake’s central points was that it was very easy for a skeptic to make an ill-informed comment that would be repeated ad nauseam in the media and thus discredit years of careful work. For example, Michael Shermer wrote a very negative review of a book of Sheldrake’s, but finally admitted that he’d never read it!

Other negative publicity has been orchestrated by skeptically inclined journalists. A recent example was the media fuss over Sheldrake’s appearance at the BA Festival of Science at Norwich in September 2006. Prof Peter Atkins, a chemist at Oxford University, was quoted in the Times as saying, “There is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan’s fantasy”. (Quoted in Henderson, 2006.) Atkins later admitted that he had not studied any of the evidence, and felt no need to do so!

Other statements were more reasonable, but not really well informed. Lord Winston, fertility specialist and former president of the BA, was reported as saying; “I know of no serious, properly done studies which make me feel that this is anything other than nonsense. It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields”. (op.cit) The problem is that if a topic is excluded from the mainstream, then it’s hard to see where ‘serious’ (i.e. mainstream approved) studies could be done. This issue also cropped up in the Wolpert debate, where he stated that he’d take the research more seriously if it were published in ‘respectable’ journals. The logic behind this seems rather circular; it suggests that research on a topic won’t be taken seriously until it’s in the ‘respectable’ journals, who at the same time refuse to publish papers on topics not considered respectable!

It transpired that many of these statements were prompted by Mark Henderson and other journalists, who had heard that parapsychological subjects were to be discussed at the conference, and were not happy at reporting this. Interestingly, the Times editorial seemed to disagree with their science writer, stating that “It goes without saying that telepathy works!”

One can’t help admiring Sheldrake’s bravery in the light of this continuing skeptical onslaught. He regularly has a ‘skeptic’ complaining about him when he lectures at Universities in the UK and US. He made the important point that one needs no real qualifications to be a ‘skeptic;’ he even quoted from a piece of CSI literature that advised its members to have a high media profile, and said that they would be accepted as an expert if they claimed they were.

The abiding theme of the lecture was that mud sticks, and that skeptics have helped make it extremely hard to carry out research in controversial areas of science. I would agree with this, and also that ‘skeptics’ need to be made more accountable for their statements. Finally, I do think it’s appalling that anyone, no matter how ignorant, can call themselves a ‘skeptic’ on TV, but should point out that anyone can also call themselves a ‘parapsychologist’ or ‘paranormal expert’ on the same programmes. This situation is symptomatic of the topic’s exclusion from mainstream science.

After Sheldrake’s talk, Chris French joined the speakers at the table for the general discussion. One questioner had read Sheldrake’s books, and found the evidence presented convincing. He asked French why, in the light of this, he remained doubtful of the existence of telepathy. French referred him to the debate he’d had with Sheldrake in November 2006, which can be also be heard on Sheldrake’s website. Briefly, French was still worried about replication issues, and also thought that there were one or two modifications that were still to be done to the experiments to ensure they were error-free.

A member of the College of Psychic Studies stood up and mentioned the importance of motivation in the production of psychic phenomena. She was a medium, and apparently only received communications from the other side when there was a pressing need.

Then Donald West made some very important points that I thought had been previously neglected. The reasonably consistent results that early pioneers like J.B. Rhine had reported were not found to be replicable elsewhere, especially in the UK. If you look in the Journals of the SPR of the 1940s and 1950s, you’ll find that most of the experimental results were negative. This remains a significant problem; whilst some workers persistently get results, they are often surrounded by ‘dead zones’ of those who only get negative results.

In 2000, the late great parapsychologist Bob Morris suggested six strategies for parapsychology in the 21st century. One was that we need to learn more from our negative results (Morris, 2000);

“Much of what we now appear to know is how not to conduct research. We should examine those procedures that have very small effect sizes and identify their common characteristics so that we can learn what we can from them and stop attempting to use them as measures of psi.” (op.cit., p.133)

Mary Rose Barrington said that even if one got negative results, then it was possible to become convinced in the reality of psi phenomena by reading the literature. This, I think, represents a genuine point of difference between committed advocates and skeptics. Advocates, after all, have looked at the data and been convinced; why can’t a skeptic do the same thing? And if a skeptic claims to have looked at the data and been unconvinced, well they must just be bloody-minded. It’s the polar opposite of a skeptic looking at data they find unconvincing and deciding that the only reason anyone could accept it is ‘faith.’ Both views reveal a lack of understanding of the other’s point of view.

One way of resolving these dilemmas is to appreciate the perhaps obvious point that in some respects the world-views of the advocate and counter-advocate are incompatible. Second, it should be understood that ‘conversions’ from one world-view to another only partly hinge on the evidence. The reason for this is that each group has wildly differing preconceptions of what is possible (and impossible), and often wildly differing views on what good evidence for psychic abilities is and should be. This means that an ‘obvious’ truth in one camp will not wash in another.

Back in the 1980s, sociologists of science Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch (1982) made a study of the paranormal metal bending craze, initiated by Uri Geller. They spent time with scientists studying the metal benders, and also with skeptics’ groups. They noted that quite often, there was sufficient ambiguity in the experimental results that both sides could continue to interpret the experimental results in their own way.

Another factor they noticed was the social effect of spending significant amounts of time with ‘skeptics’ and then ‘believers;’

“Our beliefs tended to change as a function of the nature of the latest period of prolonged exposure to scientists. Long exposure to critics made their point of view seem to be the only sensible one, and seemed to make the believers appear hopeless cranks and even charlatans. On the other hand, prolonged exposure to believers… made paranormal phenomena seem the obvious fact of everyday experience.” (op. cit., p. 23.)

This tendency, in my view, shows how important a level playing field is in the discussion of controversial science. Too often, the tactic has been to shout down the opposition, gain dominance and effectively smother the minority view. In Western culture, the skeptical point of view is orthodoxy amongst the social and scientific elites, and it’s far easier for skeptics to launch an attack that effectively silences the minority view than vice versa. (Of course, this only holds in elite culture; in popular culture, the situation is reversed, and the ‘skeptic’ is the minority as far as paranormal claims are concerned. But the elite view counts as far as science is concerned, simply because that’s where the power and the money lie to enable or disable certain kinds of research.)

However, two wrongs do not make a right. As the day closed, I heard someone complain that Chris French had been given the last word. I must admit to being puzzled at this; French was one of the only skeptics there, surrounded by people who were basically mostly advocates. This, again, is hardly a level playing field. I remain troubled by any tendency to want to silence the opposition, simply because this is undemocratic. And if parapsychologists demand a level playing field, then they should do everything they can to maintain it.

On the whole, an interesting, and sometimes shocking, day. Given how vociferous the opposition has become, it’s understandable that a need was felt to restore the balance. However, I still think that it’s a mistake to pathologise the opposition. Let’s not sink to the level of some of the more extreme examples on display today.

Find Rupert Sheldrake’s talk “How Skeptics Work” on streaming audio here (MP3 file, about 1 hour).

References:

Alcock, J. (2003). Give the null hypothesis a chance: reasons to remain doubtful about the existence of psi. [In Alcock, J.; Burns, J.; Freeman, A. (2003) Psi Wars: getting to grips with the paranormal. Mark Henderson (Science Editor), Imprint Academic: Charlottesville, VA.]

Irwin, A. (1998). Psychic pets are exposed as a myth. The Daily Telegraph, 27 August 1998.

Collins, H.M. & Pinch, T.J. (1982). Frames of meaning: the social construction of extraordinary science. RKP: London.

Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against method. Verso: London.

Hanson, G.P. (1992). CSICOP and the Skeptics: an Overview. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. 86: 19-63.

Henderson, M. (2006). Theories of telepathy and afterlife cause uproar at top science forum.

The Times, September 6, 2006.

Mayer, E. L. (2008). Extraordinary Knowing Bantam: London.

Milton, J.; Wiseman, R. (1999). A meta-analysis of mass media ESP testing. British Journal of Psychology, 90, 235-240.

Morris, R. (2000) Parapsychology in the 21st century. Journal of Parapsychology, 64: 123–137.

Sagan, C. (1997). The Demon-Haunted World. Headline: London.

Sheldrake, R. (1999). Commentary on a paper by Wiseman, Smith and Milton on the ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 63, 306-311.

Shermer, M. (2002). The Shamans of Scientism.

Scientific American, May 2002.

Wilson, R.A. (1982). Right Where You are Sitting Now: further tales of the Illuminati Ronin: Berkeley, CA.

Wiseman, R.; Smith, M; Milton, J. (1998). Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon. British Journal of Psychology 89, 453-462.

Wiseman, Smith and Milton (2000). Reply to Sheldrake. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, p. 46-49.

Bertrand Russell and Mnemic Causation

by Ted Dace

“It often turns out important to the progress of science,” writes Bertrand Russell, “to remember hypotheses which have previously seemed improbable.”1

If only he’d been true to his word.

On the brink of a genuinely scientific account of the mind, he cobbled together a straw-man substitute and promptly set it alight. His rejection of “mnemic causation,” the influence of the deep past over the present, was intended to clear the way to a materialist concept of mind.

A series of lectures published in 1921, Russell’s Analysis of Mind is geared around the proposal that the mind has no existence apart from sense data. “All psychic phenomena are built up out of sensations and images alone,” he writes.2 “Beliefs, desires, volitions, and so on” turn out to be “sensations and images variously interrelated.”3 Images may seem more mental than tangible, but according to Russell they “have a causal connection with physical objects, through the fact that they are copies of past sensations.”4 Images reduce to sensations, which in turn reduce to the meeting of nerve endings with the external world. From mind to matter in a few easy steps.

Recognizing that modern physics renders the concept of matter as mysterious as mind, Russell asserts that both terms ultimately reduce to a deeper “neutral” substance. Given his caution as a philosopher, it’s no surprise he never completely forecloses on the possibility of mnemic causation.5 Despite the window dressing, however, Analysis of Mind amounts to an attack on the idea that mentality is intrinsically real.

Russell denies that an animal’s search for food can be ascribed to its “mental state, which we cannot observe,” arguing that its apparent hunger is only an “observable trait in the bodily behavior … not some possibly mythical and certainly unknowable ingredient of the animal’s mind.”6 To say animals want to eat is akin to saying “rivers ‘desire’ the sea.” As in the case of water flowing downhill, “if we knew more about animals, we might equally cease to attribute desire to them, since we might find physical and chemical reactions sufficient to account for their behavior.”7 People fare no better in his analysis. “We may regard a human being as an instrument, which makes various responses to various stimuli.”8 Will, he says, is a mirage generated by the “kinesthetic sensations” that accompany muscular movements.9

With self-existence reduced to mechanics, psychology differs from physics only insofar as physics deals with “a given object from different places,” while psychology concerns “different objects from a given place.”10 That place is of course the brain, the location of our subjectivity, though he also locates this phenomenon in “the photographic plate.”11 Russell might have done well to take another look at psychology, as anyone who reduces emotion to a “confused perception” clearly has some inner work to do.12

The chief threat to Russell’s reduction of mind to matter came from his arch rival, Henri Bergson. In his 1911 book, Matter and Memory, Bergson asks why, if images are faded copies of prior sensations, we never confuse the recollection of a loud noise with the sensation of a soft one.13 Unable to answer Bergson’s question, Russell can only observe that we have a “belief-feeling” that a remembered image relates to the past.14 On what basis do we arrive at this belief-feeling? Russell cannot say. How do we acquire our sense of pastness?

The job of the brain, according to Bergson, is to calculate possible actions in response to sensory data.15 Inputs are converted in the most efficient possible way to outputs. That’s all there is to it. Within those cerebral folds, you will find no representations of the world, no emotions, no thoughts, no desires, no psyche. For Bergson, locating the qualities of mind in the brain amounts to a kind of neural mysticism. Is the brain so special as to simultaneously participate in the physical world and yet step outside it to represent it?16

Rather than construct images of the world, says Bergson, our brains merely facilitate our perception of it. Because the brain does its job, we apprehend (roughly) what is around us. Just as we see the world itself rather than a neural reconstruction of it, Bergson argues that in memory we perceive the past, if only in outline. But how can we perceive something that’s no longer there?

“The past has not ceased to exist; it has only ceased to be useful.”17 Bergsonian time is unbroken duration that conveys into the present all that preceded it. “Our most distant past adheres to our present and constitutes with it a single and identical uninterrupted change.”18

The continuous time of the quantum, as expressed in Schrödinger’s wave function, is disrupted via interactions with the local environment. From this we surmise that large-scale existence lies beyond the continuity of the enduring present. As a macroscopic object, the brain is indeed limited to the current moment. By contrast, the mind reflects time as it is, in which past (memory) adheres to presence (consciousness). Because the mind is absolute presence filtered through eons of physical and biological evolution, we possess the power of memory, to take an event no longer materialized and re-present it.

Unable to pinpoint where Bergson’s proposal went wrong, Russell conjured mnemic causation, not quite what Bergson actually said but close enough that in refuting it, he would seem to have shaken off his nemesis without even mentioning him by name. Alluding to the work of German zoologist Richard Semon, Russell explains his idea. “Whenever the effect resulting from a stimulus to an organism differs according to the past history of the organism, without our being able actually to detect any relevant difference in its present structure, we will speak of ‘mnemic causation.'”19

A child who has been burned, says Russell, reacts differently to fire than a child with no such experience. If the memory of being burned leaves no trace in the brain, but the child nonetheless reacts to fire in accord with prior experience, this indicates the direct influence of the remote past over the present with no material intermediary.20

By proposing that mnemic causation is indicated by the absence of any neural change reflecting a prior event, Russell rigged the results in advance. As we now know, and as Russell surely anticipated, the brain harbors “memory traces” correlated with past events. By materialist assumption, these neural configurations record the past. It may not work exactly like magnetic tape, but the result is the same.

A logician by training, Russell should have realized that mnemic influence in no way implies the absence of “any relevant difference” in brain structure. This is the inverse of the fact that the brain’s necessity for the act of recall falls short of sufficiency. Russell makes this point himself, observing that our dependence on brains for memory doesn’t prove that recollection is a strictly neural process or that memories are stored in brain tissue.22 So too the action of the distant past on the present, even if necessary to account for memory, still leaves a role for the brain.

Russell’s plan seems to have been to dispose of Bergson’s past-within-a-present so as to arrive at Semon’s concept of the engram as the only possible explanation of memory. A kind of neural engraving, the engram is the change in the brain’s resting state following an event such as being burned. It’s the engram that makes the child more alert and therefore less likely to be burned again.22 Semon’s explicit denial that engrams could be regarded as “immaterial or metaphysical” must have been music to Russell’s positivist ears.23

By attributing “mnemic phenomena” exclusively to the engram, Russell could fully incorporate memory into neurophysiology. Like knowledge, images and habits, memories exist only when aroused from the brain by the appropriate stimulus.24 As opposed to a mind obeying the laws of mnemic causation, we have a brain governed by “causation of the ordinary physical sort.”25

Semon, as it happens, wrote the book on mnemic phenomena (taking his cue from Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the muses). As he writes in The Mneme, “Already existing engrams are never remolded but remain as they were first imprinted.”26 The engram’s defining trait, stability over time, not only accounts for memory but helps explain the general stability of the organism in the face of the dominant tendencies of transformation and evolution.27

Yet it’s precisely their stability that makes engrams wholly unlike anything neuroscientists have actually uncovered. Every time someone remembers an event, the relevant memory trace loses its structure and must be “reconsolidated” from scratch. As John McCrone explains in New Scientist, “Resurrecting a memory trace appears to render it completely fluid, as pliable and unstable as the moment it was first formed, and in need of fixing once again into the brain’s circuitry.”28 If something interferes with reconsolidation, such as high voltage current or a protein-blocking drug, the memory can never be accessed again. This finding, which has been consistently replicated, baffles researchers since it means a memory, once recalled, is lost to the brain and must be re-established on the basis of nothing more than the actual recall, however cloudy, of the past event itself. Just when we become conscious of it, the memory is irreducible to information encoded in the brain. How can this be?

Regardless of how hard scientists try to impress memory into gray matter, it pops back up, bobbing on the ethereal sea of mind. Though facilitating recollection, the brain does so without storing and retrieving information about the past. And why should it? After all, the whole point of remembering something is that you don’t have to look it up. To construe the brain as an organic reference library is to banish memory and replace it with mere information storage. The fact that recollection may indeed revitalize past perception is only a problem for the materialist outlook.

Semon proposed another concept, known as mnemic homophony, that accounts for memory far better than the engram. Russell praises Semon for this ingenious idea, not for its application to habits and recollections but its explanation of how the richness of experience is rendered into abstractions, a process that befuddled philosophers as diverse as Berkeley and Hume.29

Semon compares the emergence of abstraction to the process of composite photography, in which the same frame of film is repeatedly exposed to different scenes.30 So long as they’re close enough in form, mental images in succession generate a fuzzy general image. Each time you see an oak tree, for instance, it calls to mind all the other times you’ve seen one, and this new image is superimposed on the rest, producing a composite picture you think of as “oak tree.”

Neither Russell nor Semon saw the contradiction between mnemic homophony and the engram. As material structures, engrams cannot simply blend into each other to form vague composites. While mental images may exhibit vagueness or fuzziness, matter always conforms to the principle of identity: x = x. An object is exactly itself, no more and no less. A vague object would lose this exact relation, being only somewhat itself and somewhat not. Of course, composite photographs always look a little fuzzy, but the picture itself, as a material object, cannot help but be precisely itself, its “fuzziness” solely in our interpretation of the picture.

The coexistence of successive perceptions in a single generalized perception cannot give the brain the ability to construct generalized bits of gray matter. Mnemic homophony was Russell’s worst fear realized, for it revealed where mind fails to fit into matter.

Semon and Russell’s resistance to the irretrievably immaterial nature of mnemic homophony placed them at odds with modern physics. Why base a theory of reality on matter when matter turns out to be some kind of space-stuff called fields? Descartes’s reduction of causation to contact mechanics went out with Newton, a fact confirmed in the nineteenth century with the onset of electromagnetic field theory.

Mnemic homophony gives us memory without the need for neural engravings. Semon always thinks of Capri when he smells a particular cooking oil because he once happened to catch a whiff of it from a nearby restaurant as he gazed at Capri across the Bay of Naples.31 No information storage is required, only the principle that any given mental state is influenced by similar previous states. Rather than encoding information about past events, the memory trace only matches whatever pattern of synaptic transmission took place during the original event, serving as a marker or sign that facilitates recall, re-establishing in consciousness a sense of the prior event much as radio antennae monitor the long-range influence of electromagnetism.

Recent neural research confirms that memory involves similarity between past and present patterns of brain activity. During the act of learning, neurons establish connections with each other. When we remember the moment the learning took place, something like the original pattern of connections is reinstated. However, as University of California researcher Jeff Johnson reports in Neuron, reinstatement of prior neural patterns takes place even when recall is limited to the learned information itself, without any details about the moment it was acquired.32

Like Russell, Johnson wants to know how the brain accounts for our sense of pastness. Since reinstatement applies not only to memory but knowledge, which is devoid of any sense of the past, neural similarity alone can’t provide an answer. If recall is more than just synaptic rearrangement but the actual revitalization of past experience, the problem dissolves. We sense a depth to time precisely in the act of plumbing it.

Recall is often a struggle. Instead of arriving all at once, the memory creeps in. First we get the general sense of it, and gradually the details emerge like the tissues of an embryonic organ. Though not at all what we’d expect from a data storage system, this is exactly what we’d expect from a tuning system. The signal is first captured and then strengthened.

Whereas episodic memory involves conscious recall, habit-memory is the unconscious cumulative effect of past behaviors on current behavior. Semon illustrates the role of mnemic homophony in habit with a game of fetch. Each time his owner cocks his arm, the dog understands he’s going to throw the stick. Even if he doesn’t actually toss it but only pretends, the dog chases the chimera because his owner’s gesture has awakened its memory of when he actually did toss the stick. Of course, this works only so many times. Before long the dog refuses to run until it has perfect homophony between the new stimulus and the old stimulus, i.e. when it actually sees the stick emerge from the hand. Habitual behaviors are activated by mnemic homophony, whether rough or perfect, between current and past circumstances.33

When musician Kristin Hersh and her band recorded for the first time in a “fancy” studio, she found herself unable to reproduce her usual vocal intensity because, as she explained to the engineer, when she performed live or in her usual practice space, she was relaxed enough to let go and allow the song to sing itself. In contrast to the song’s voice, her own voice was self-conscious and forced. The recording engineer’s first adjustment was to remove her voice from her headphones so she wouldn’t be screaming in her ears, but the intensity of the song’s voice remained elusive. What finally worked was simply to let her play guitar while singing, completing the homophony of her current performance with the abstracted essence of prior performances. Only then did Throwing Muses roar to life.34

We all know we usually have to repeat a newly learned procedure before it becomes “automatic.” But if the instruction is inscribed on neural tissue, why isn’t once enough? Stored information is a digital phenomenon; the data’s either encoded or it’s not. Semon’s memory is analogue, each performance of a procedure increasing the odds of it coming to mind with the relevant stimulus.

Like Darwin before him, Semon found the idea of evolution implausible without the ability of organisms to inherit and build upon the behavioral and bodily modifications implemented by forerunners.35 Otherwise, ongoing adaptations to changing conditions play no role in evolution. This is why, in The Mneme, he reports on salamanders coaxed into either holding their young in utero longer than usual or releasing them early, in both cases their progeny carrying on the newly-altered behavior.36 He also reports on trees transplanted from temperate to tropical regions and vice versa, either way their new adaptations cropping up in offspring.37 Echoing Darwin’s observations on farm animals, he observes that praying mantis populations grow more tame with each generation in captivity despite the absence of selection for this trait.38

Austrian theorist August Weismann tried to refute a plethora of such claims by cutting off the tails of hundreds of mice and noting the continued growth of tails in their offspring.39 Yet experiments demonstrating inheritance of acquired traits succeeded precisely because researchers induced organisms to make the changes themselves, just as the environment, rather than mechanically imposing new behaviors, prods creatures into actively adapting.

This debate has long since been superseded by the sheer weight of evidence. We now know that when fertilizers tinker with the growth cycle of a crop, the new pattern of growth continues appearing for generations.40 Defensive spines built up by Daphnia water flea in the vicinity of predators continue emerging in offspring never exposed to this threat.41 A Dutch study has found reduced lifespan among people whose grandparents, in their youth, gorged themselves during rare seasons of overabundance.42

The question is no longer whether adaptations are inherited but how. Since none of these examples involve genetic changes, biologists refer to the phenomenon as “epigenetic inheritance,” whereby newly acquired traits are passed on via modifications of chromosomes or even cytoplasm. Semon’s belief that migrating engrams transmit traits by altering germ cells may not be so far-fetched after all. But mnemic homophony gives us another option. If past and present can be connected on the basis of similarity within an individual lifespan, why not across generations as well?

You would never suspect, reading Russell, that Semon insists on the inheritance of adaptations or that he denies the reduction of memory to a machine-like process. With his “law of ecphory,” Semon contends that in contrast to machinery, which requires a complete input to produce a complete output, a memory can be fully realized even when the trigger, such as the smell of cooking oil, contains only a hint of the original event.43 He notes that embryos, again in stark contrast to machines, can weather “large and arbitrary subtractions” of their tissues and resume normal development as if nothing happened.44

Russell was too committed to establishing Semon’s materialist credentials to notice where he and Bergson overlapped. Many years later the task of synthesizing Semon and Bergson fell to a young biologist in training at Cambridge University, a theoretical nonconformist who took a year off from his laboratory work to study philosophy at Harvard. Unlike Russell, whose reading of Bergson was colored by professional rivalry, Rupert Sheldrake was captivated by Bergson’s radical take on time and its implication for memory. By coupling Bergson’s enduring present with Semon’s mnemic homophony, Sheldrake obtained the basis for a scientific theory of mentality, the very prize Russell sought in his Analysis of Mind.

Designed to explain organic development from egg to maturity, Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance is based on his Bergsonian reading of Semon. Where “mnemic” emphasizes the emergence of organic form as a memory-based process, Sheldrake’s use of “morphic” turns it the other way around, highlighting the proposition that nature’s inherent memory operates on the basis of form. The more similar a current organic form to a previous form, the more it resonates with that form.

Sheldrake extended the mnemic principle beyond the brain to the whole organism, including all levels of structure comprising it, such that every organ, every tissue, every cell and organelle reproduces the actions it undertook in previous similar situations. The body-memory that maintains the adult on the basis of its personal past is no different, fundamentally, from the species-memory that guides embryogenesis.

In applying morphic resonance to the embryo, Sheldrake reconfigured memory into a property of species as much as individuals. Thus human embryos develop along the same lines as previous human embryos whereas chimpanzee eggs divide and grow along the lines of previous chimpanzee eggs. Like reciting text from memory, at each passage the embryo simply replicates the actions of its ancestors when they reached that stage. Just as a recollection is associated with a neural memory trace, development from the egg is routed correctly via genetic markers. In neither case, whether neural or genetic, does the marker contain the memory itself.

Morphic resonance is revealed wherever successive generations of a given species improve at a given task without guidance from their parents. The best-documented spontaneous case of this phenomenon concerns birds in Western Europe that learned to open milk bottles. The technique was first observed in 1921 in Southampton, England among blue tits and spread primarily through simple imitation. However, since blue tits rarely travel more than a few miles, it’s unlikely imitation could account for the appearance of this habit in Sweden, Denmark and Holland. “The Dutch records are particularly interesting,” writes Sheldrake. “Milk bottles practically disappeared during the war, and became reasonably common again only in 1947 or 1948. Few if any tits that had learned the habit before the war could have survived to this date, but nevertheless attacks on bottles began again rapidly.”45

Of course, postwar birds may have learned the process again from scratch. For this reason William McDougall’s experiment on learning in rats provides a more compelling example. One of many scientists around the turn of the twentieth century to have demonstrated the inheritance of acquired traits, McDougall placed rats in a water maze and found that each generation solved the maze more quickly than its predecessor. Like Semon, he assumed the animals’ genes were somehow incorporating and transmitting the acquired ability. But when the experiment was replicated, first in England and then Australia with rats unrelated to McDougall’s, the tendency for improvement continued as before, an outcome inexplicable except in light of species-memory via morphic resonance.46

Long-range memory has also been revealed in tests on human subjects, for instance non-Japanese speakers who were better able to memorize authentic Japanese nursery rhymes than rearranged nonsensical versions.47 According to Sheldrake this result follows from the fact that untold millions of people have already learned the rhymes, and anyone trying to memorize the correct versions is influenced by their cumulative experience. When subjects of another experiment were shown Persian words for ten seconds, some real and some only Persian-like fakes, and then asked to recall the words, they fared significantly better at reproducing the real words.48

Flabbergasted by Sheldrake’s audacious proposal, neuroscientist Steven Rose designed an experiment that would surely dispose of it once and for all. The experiment involved day-old chicks divided into two groups, test chicks allowed to peck at yellow diodes and control chicks that pecked at chrome beads. After pecking the diodes, the test chicks were injected with lithium chloride, a toxic substance that made them mildly nauseous, while control chicks were injected with a harmless saline solution. The same procedure was followed for 37 days with a new batch of chicks each day. The data indicated that successive batches of test chicks became gradually more hesitant to peck relative to control chicks.

While this finding indicated the influence of previous experience, the most compelling result concerned control chicks given the choice of pecking at either the yellow diodes or the chrome beads. Over the course of the experiment, successive batches of these chicks became increasingly reluctant to peck at the diodes, suggesting that they were influenced by the cumulative experience of chicks that had pecked at the diodes and then been injected with lithium chloride. After stalling for months, Rose reneged on his agreement to write up the results with Sheldrake for publication.49

Needless to say, a handful of anecdotes and unrepeated experiments falls short of proof. While interesting, Sheldrake’s theory remains largely untested. But at least it has the potential to explain development from the egg. The same cannot be said of the quaint notion that DNA is a blueprint or recipe for building an organism.

Around the time he was mutilating mice in a misguided effort to refute the inheritance of adaptations, August Weismann proposed that organisms develop from the egg on the basis of information transmitted from parents via “determinants” (now known as genes).50 Though subsequent research seemed to confirm this idea, the gains in molecular biology that fleshed out Weismann’s theory would ultimately abolish it.

A theory is scientific insofar as it reduces a complex phenomenon, such as the organization of a living body, to something simple like information stored in DNA. At the core of Weismann’s proposal was the assumption that genes are relatively simple static structures that generate the developmental machinery which, in turn, produces the immensely complicated systems that comprise the organism.51 Different species are differently formed because each kind has a unique set of genes and therefore a unique developmental pathway.

Neither Weismann nor any of his intellectual descendants anticipated that developmental or “homeobox” genes would turn out to be virtually identical in species ranging from insects to people. As we learn from the field of “evo-devo,” what changes in the course of evolution is not so much the genes themselves but the regulatory DNA that switches them on and off to ensure that development is species-appropriate.

Usually adjacent to the homeobox genes they regulate, epigenetic tags or “switches” operate at blinding speed. According to molecular biologist Sean Carroll, typical developmental processes involve “tens of thousands of switches being thrown in sequence and in parallel.”52 The operation of switches is so complex that they can be analyzed only with combinatorial logic. “Because the combination of inputs determines the output of a switch, and the potential combinations of inputs increase exponentially with each additional input, the potential outputs of switches are virtually endless.”53 Every switch position and associated pattern of protein production is but a snapshot, a single frame in “one hell of a movie with nonstop action.”54

Imagine a forest overflowing with lightning bugs except that this forest is actually produced by the incomprehensibly complex and ever changing patterns of lightning bug flashes. Altering this pattern alters the shape of the forest. This, according to molecular biology, is how our bodies develop.

Whether we’re looking at cycling networks of proteins in a cell or webs of feedback loops governing everything from immune response to patterns of neurotransmission, the number of possible outcomes stemming from any given input is virtually infinite, blocking the way to successful physical analysis. Genes were supposed to be the exception, something we could bring within our orbit of comprehension. Now we find that the computation of genetic activity escalates infinitely, leaving us with the absurdity of reducing one complexity to another.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a given set of complex genetic operations does lead, in a purely mechanical fashion, to a given bodily form. The problem here is that we’ve only pushed the question back a step: what gives rise to the complex pattern of gene activity in the first place? We’re back to morphic resonance, except that now, instead of newly developing organs resonating with previous organs under similar conditions, current genetic expression resonates with prior genetic expression. Whether or not the whole reduces to the gene, the organism is still explained by resonance and not genetics. It’s a reduction alright but to the past rather than the small.

In light of mnemic reduction, there’s no longer a compelling reason to characterize the organism in terms of its genes. Instead, both gene expression and organ development are informed by similar past activities. Rather than construct higher-level structure, the genetic level does just what it appears to do, pumping out the proteins required by cells to carry out their tasks. That certain proteins are necessary for the emergence of certain phenotypic traits in no way implies gene-protein sufficiency in the shaping of the organism.

Despite having captivated generations of biologists, Weismann’s proposal has no potential as an explanatory theory. Sheldrake, on the other hand, reduces the body’s stupendous complexity to an elementary property of nature, a kind of inertia of organic form. With the demise of the DNA-based theory, morphic resonance is the only game in town.

Since we don’t feel like machines, it’s odd that Russell had such faith in the reduction of organisms to mechanized assemblages of atoms. The most compelling data in opposition to this belief are generated daily by that ongoing half-baked experiment we call life. Unlike materialism, the mnemic theory makes room for the mind as a thing in itself, the seat of self-existence. We appear to be thinking, feeling, freely acting people – and not genetically programmed organic robots – because we are in fact people leading meaningful lives.

Russell clung to materialism like a child to his mother. By contrast Bergson and Sheldrake realized it’s precisely against matter that memory is defined. With memory freed from the smothering embrace of matter, mind is at last made sensible.

So long as it’s restricted to the brain, the mind can be dismissed as mere shadow play. Only when extended throughout the body does it find its home. Mentality is associated with every organ, guiding development and maintaining form via resonance with similar previous forms. The brain differs from other organs only insofar as it’s attached to sense organs and therefore involves awareness. Where brain-mind is at least partly conscious, gut-mind operates entirely in the dark.

“Mind and body” is more phrase than reality. We have two words for the same thing because we see body-mind from two perspectives, one in terms of space and the other in terms of time. As the body is the spatialized surface of the mind, the mind is the temporal depths of the body. Accordingly, death is where the body loses its mind, where matter and memory cease to be united.

What the ancients called soul or spirit has been translated in modern consciousness as the immaterial element of life. But we don’t have to define organic memory in the negative, any more than body-mind must be defined as the unconscious. The immaterial element is simply the influence of the remote past on the present. Previous actions undertaken in situations most resembling the current situation are the ones most likely to materialize.

The abstract image of “oak tree” in human thought is only a faded reflection of the deeper biological process whereby former explications of growing oaks overlap into a developmental map accessible to every sprouting acorn. Whereas the individual mind is the seat of imagination, species-mind is the seat of living formation.

Wedded to the dual reduction of the world to tangible matter and timeless law, Russell missed the message of the mind, which is neither one nor the other. In the end he got it wrong because he just had to be right.

References:

  1. Russell, Bertrand, The Analysis of Mind, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1921, p 92
  2. Ibid, p 279
  3. Ibid, p 300
  4. Ibid, p 110
  5. Ibid, p 89
  6. Ibid, p 63
  7. Ibid, p 64
  8. Ibid, p 255
  9. Ibid, p 285
  10. Ibid, p 105
  11. Ibid, p 130
  12. Ibid, pp 283-284
  13. Bergson, Henri, Matter and Memory, London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1911, pp 318-319
  14. Russell, p 159
  15. Bergson, p 20
  16. Ibid, p 11
  17. Ibid, p 193
  18. Bergson, Henri, The Creative Mind, New York: Philosophical Library, 1946, pp 180-181
  19. Russell, p 86
  20. Ibid, p 77
  21. Ibid, p 91
  22. Ibid, pp 79-83
  23. Semon, Richard, The Mneme, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1921, p 275
  24. Russell, p 88
  25. Ibid, p 90
  26. Semon, p 240
  27. Ibid, p 14
  28. McCrone, John, ‘Not-so total recall,’ New Scientist, May 3, 2003, p 27
  29. Russell, pp 218-219
  30. Semon, p 164
  31. Ibid, p 92
  32. Johnson, Jeffrey D, et al, ‘Recollection, Familiarity, and Cortical Reinstatement: A Multivoxel Pattern Analysis,’ Neuron, 63, 2009, pp 697-708
  33. Semon, p 156
  34. Hersh, Kristin, Rat Girl, New York: Penguin, 2010, pp 288-291, 308-310
  35. Semon, p 290
  36. Ibid, pp 58-60
  37. Ibid, p 64
  38. Ibid, p 133
  39. Gould, Stephen Jay, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002, p 201
  40. Durrant, Alan , ‘The association of induced changes in flax,’ Heredity, 32, 1974, pp 133-143
  41. Young, Emma, ‘Rewriting Darwin: the new non-genetic inheritance,’ New Scientist, July 9, 2008, pp 28-33
  42. Cloud, John, “Why DNA Isn’t Your Destiny,” Time, January 18, 2010, p 50
  43. Semon, p 124
  44. Ibid, p 177
  45. Sheldrake, Rupert, The Presence of the Past, New York: Times Books, 1988, p 178
  46. Ibid, p 175
  47. Ibid, p 189-190
  48. Ibid, p 192
  49. Sheldrake, Rupert, ‘An Experimental Test of the Hypothesis of Formative Causation,’ Rivista di Biologia – Biology Forum, 86, 1992, pp 431-44. Available from: http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/morphic/formative.html (Accessed Jan 2 2014)
  50. Gould, p 207
  51. Bertalanffy, Ludwig, Modern Theories of Development: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology, London: Oxford, 1933, pp 32-33
  52. Carroll, Sean B, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005, p 114
  53. Ibid, p 124
  54. Ibid, p 128

Good Skeptics / Bad Skeptics

Part 1: Good Skeptic Ian Wilson on Nostradamus
by Guy Lyon Playfair

There can be few whose writings have been quoted, misquoted, debunked and even faked so often and so long after their death as those of the French physician, astrologer and prophet Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566), better known by his Latinised surname of Nostradamus.

Whenever there is a momentous event such as the death of President Kennedy or Princess Diana or the destruction of the World Trade Center, we can be sure that one of his numerous supposedly precognitive quatrains will be resurrected as evidence that he saw it all coming nearly 500 years ago.

There are all kinds of problems facing the critic who attempts to come up with a fair and balanced assessment of this enigmatic prognosticator. His ‘prophecies’ tended to avoid specific names, places and dates, and a sceptical critic can reasonably claim that he made so many of them (942, no less) that sooner or later one of them would be bound to correspond to something that happened somewhere or other even centuries later.

Then there is the question of primary sources, which is what professional historians like to work with. These are not always easy to find in this case. The most important sources are the annual almanacs Nostradamus published until shortly before his death, some of which only exist today in single copies scattered around several European libraries or in inaccessible private hands. These have to be distinguished from the many fake almanacs that appeared under his name even during his lifetime, and continued to appear well after it.

There are also the horoscopes he did for his wealthy patrons, some still unpublished, and who knows what might yet emerge from the attic of the former home of some member of the 16th century great and good? There were several of them who were sufficiently convinced by Nostradamus’ abilities to contribute to his considerable fortune.

To make sense of the Nostradamian muddle calls for the skills of a proper historian who approaches the subject with an open mind and knows how to separate wheat from chaff after trawling through the available primary sources. Ian Wilson, an Oxford graduate in Modern History, has done this very convincingly in his Nostradamus – The Evidence (2002). He makes his position clear in his Preface:

“Books about Nostradamus are mostly written by so-called ‘Nostradamians’ convinced that [he] had a genuine prophetic gift. Or by born-again sceptics like James Randi utterly determined to rubbish that idea. I belong to neither camp.”

His own book came to be written after his publisher wrote, a few days after the events of September 11th, 2001, complaining that he couldn’t find ‘a book on Nostradamus which looks objectively at the man, his times, his books, his prophecies and the psychology of why his prophecies are still rolled out (witness the last few days…)’ and asked if this was ‘something that might attract you?’

His initial reaction was a firm ‘No’, as he was reluctant to enter what he considered ‘crank territory’. But a commission is something only very rich authors can afford to ignore, so Wilson embarked on ‘a highly intensive period of getting to know Nostradamus’ with a wide-open mind. What he discovered was proof of Kepler’s claim, in his Tertius Interveniens (1610) that ‘the diligent hen will find the golden kernel in the rotting dunghill’ and should not ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’.

Wilson has little time for much of the Nostradamian dunghill which is a pile of misquotations, false associations, unwarranted assumptions and wild speculations, yet he also gives Randi’s venture into historical and literary criticism, The Mask of Nostradamus (1990) fairly short shrift. For example, Randi’s claim, on the basis of an anonymous article he supposedly found in the New York Public Library, that no copy of the 1555 Prophecies exists, is ‘blown to smithereens’ by the fact that at least two copies have survived, in libraries in Vienna and Albi. A photo of the title page of the Albi copy on page 81 of Wilson’s book settles that argument. Wilson gives other examples of how Randi’s ‘supposedly myth-busting’ book introduced ‘myths entirely of his own making’.

He also gives examples of well-sourced ‘golden kernel’ prophecies that unquestionably did come true, such as those of the death of King Henri II in a jousting contest, the Great Fire of London (1666) and perhaps most persuasively of all, those contained in the lengthy and detailed horoscope that Nostradamus did for mining magnate Hans Rosenberger. Wilson rates this as ‘uncannily accurate’ even down to such details as his prediction that his client’s miners would meet a ghost in the mine which would scare them stiff which, Rosenberger confirmed, indeed they did.

This is sceptical investigation as it should be, and it reminds us that while there are plenty of bad sceptics around, there are also good ones with no axes to grind who reach their conclusions only after careful examination of the evidence.

See Part 2 Below:

Skeptics Concede Evidence for Psi

 

Concessions on the Evidence for Psi Phenomena

by The Editors

 


 
Does Telepathy Conflict With Science?
Chris Carter, The Epoch Times, March 26, 2012
Wiseman et al. concede on ESP: Journalist Stephen Volk reports that Richard Wiseman has admitted that the evidence for telepathy is so good that “by the standards of any other area of science, [telepathy] is proven”. Even more incredibly, another leading skeptic, Chris French, agrees with him.

The following extracts are from the website Subversive Thinking:

“I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that
remote viewing is proven.”
Richard Wiseman on remote viewing research.   See More

“It is a slight misquote, because I was using the term in the more
general sense of ESP – that is, I was not talking about remote viewing
per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc., as well. I think that they meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for
an extraordinary claim.”
Richard Wiseman’s clarification of his previous citation on remote viewing. Emphasis in blue added.   See More

“The SAIC experiments are well-designed and the investigators have taken pains to eliminate the known weaknesses in previous parapsychological research. In addition, I cannot provide suitable candidates for what flaws, if any, might be present.
Ray Hyman on SAIC experiments on remote viewing.   See Paper

“The other major challenge to the skeptic’s position is, of course, the fact that opposing positive evidence exists in the parapsychological literature. I couldn’t dismiss it all.”
Susan Blackmore Confessions of a Parapsychologist (p.74). In: The Fringes of Reason, Ed. T. Schultz (Harmony, 1989).

“Human beings are not built to have open minds. If they try to have open minds they experience cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger first used the term. He argued that people strive to make their beliefs and actions consistent and when there is inconsistency they experience this unpleasant state of ‘cognitive dissonance’, and they then use lots of ploys to reduce it. I have to admit I have become rather familiar with some of them.
Susan Blackmore in The Elusive Open Mind (p. 250-1). Emphasis in blue added.

“I am glad to be able to agree with his final conclusion – ‘that drawing any conclusion, positive or negative, about the reality of psi that are based on the Blackmore psi experiments must be considered unwarranted’.”
Susan Blackmore’s reply to Rick Berger’s critical examination of her psi experiments in Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, vol. 83, April 1989, p. 152.

“Why do we not accept ESP as a psychological fact? Rhine has offered enough evidence to have convinced us on almost any other issue…. Personally, I do not accept ESP for a moment, because it does not make sense. My external criteria, both of physics and of physiology, say that ESP is not a fact despite the behavioural evidence that has been reported . I cannot see what other basis my colleagues have for rejecting it… Rhine may still turn out to be right, improbable as I think that is, and my own rejection of his view is, in the literal sense,
prejudice.
Donald Hebb

Hebb’s concession that his own personal rejection of psi evidence (which he considered Rhine has offered sufficient evidence to have convinced us in almost any other issue) is, in the literal sense,
a prejudice.

At least, we should congratulate Hebb by his honesty in explicitly
accepting that his pseudskeptical position is not based on science
or evidence, but in pure personal prejudice.

You won’t see this level of intellectual honesty in most professional
pseudoskeptics, because their job consists precisely in creating
the public illusion that they’re talking in the name of science and
reason, and not in defense of their personal prejudices rooted in
psychological and ideological (i.e. materialistic, atheistic and
naturalistic) motives.

If a first-rate, highly competent professional scientist like Hebb
cannot escape from the materialistic prejudice against psi evidence
(and he had the courage to concedes it explicitly), what would you
expect from the normal, common, ordinary, intellectually mediocre
materialistic pseudo-skeptic?

 
 
 
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© 2014 The Association for Skeptical Investigation. All rights reserved.

 

Chris Carter

Psi’s Threat to Skeptics

Bob Ginsberg:

As you point out in Science and Psychic Phenomena, skeptics often totally ignore the significant scientific evidence of psychic phenomena. Why is the existence of such phenomena so threatening to the skeptics?

Chris Carter:

If this were any other field of inquiry, the controversy would have been settled by the data decades ago. However, parapsychology is not like any other field of inquiry. The data of parapsychology challenge deeply held worldviews, worldviews that are concerned not only with science, but also with religious and philosophical issues. As such, the evidence arouses strong passions, and for many, a strong desire to dismiss it. Briefly, the so-called skeptics find the evidence threatening because any evidence for the existence of psychic abilities such as telepathy threatens the materialistic worldview. This of course, raises the question as to why the so-called skeptics cherish the doctrine of materialism, and go to such extreme lengths to defend it against evidence that proves it false.

Continue reading Chris Carter

Graham Nicholls

The Amazing Meeting
October 16-17, 2010, London, UK

Graham Nicholls
Graham Nicholls

“The Amazing Meeting” in London 2010 was the second London counterpart to the well established “Amazing Meetings” held in the U.S. by the James Randi Educational Foundation, an organisation figureheaded by James Randi, a magician focused on debunking paranormal claims.

Billed by their website as “a world-class fundraising conference” TAM London now attracts an audience of over a thousand supporters to the Hilton London Metropole and boasts speakers such as Richard Dawkins and Alan Moore.

As I took my seat at TAM London I couldn’t help but wonder if amongst the many attendees waiting excitedly to see their idols there were others like myself who have followed the skeptical community for many years, but who remain unconvinced by their devotion to what appears to be a rather limited understanding of science. I sympathise with much of what they stand for and agree that we should champion critical thinking, yet somehow the attitudes and ideas expressed at TAM do not look or feel like critical thinking as I’ve come to understand it. While I enjoy the work of many of the most respected skeptics such as in the clarity of the work of the late Carl Sagan or the poetry that Richard Dawkins can sometimes evoke, I become hesitant when their tone turns to one of certainty and conviction. The first person to speak at TAM was James Randi, he took the podium to welcome everyone and say how happy he was that he could make it to this year’s event, as last year his poor health had prevented him from attending. The crowd seemed overjoyed by his presence and gave him a standing ovation almost as soon as he appeared. It is clear that Randi is seen as a true hero within this community, with several speakers describing themselves as “unworthy” in his presence (including Stephen Fry). Something that, as I will explain, I find more than a little misguided.

Susan Blackmore

Next it was Sue Blackmore’s turn to give the first lecture of the conference. I remember many years ago seeing Blackmore featured in countless documentaries looking at the question of life after physical death, the possibility of ESP and other areas of the so called paranormal. Blackmore would offer possible physiological explanations for near death experiences or attempt to refute the findings of scientists researching psi. My reaction to her was not to dismiss her views, in fact it was Blackmore’s appearances that introduced me to the world of organised skepticism and encouraged me to question my own assumptions. Yet she also led me to question many of the skeptical assumptions that she was drawing from.

When Blackmore took the stage at TAM within the first few moments I knew the lecture she was going to give, it was much the same as the one she gave a couple of years before at the James Randi and friends meeting, which I also attended, but this time she expressed what appeared to be a quite genuine anger. She despairingly exclaimed that people will ‘hate you’ for saying that life after death does not exist or that psychic powers are not real. I could really sympathise with her feelings of frustration and hurt and why she would now want to distance herself from the world of parapsychology. I also don’t doubt her integrity, I simply doubt her conclusions and the ideology that now informs them. But it also occurred to me that while she showed her despair at the attitudes of who she refers to as ‘true believers’, I couldn’t help but feel that this same anger and vitriol was expressed throughout TAM towards those who do believe in the existence of psi or other phenomena. It seems to me that we need greater respect from both sides when dealing with these issues, I believe the skeptical position when fair and reasoned is valid and healthy, but I also believe that the pro-psi position is an important area of scientific inquiry when empirically driven and controlled, and that anything that hinders that inquiry is damaging not just to parapsychology but to the progress of science.

Even if I did find Sue Blackmore’s claims compelling it would naturally be unscientific of me to accept the views of one person on these important issues. Science works by replication and consensus and it seems to me that active researchers doing experiments in the field of parapsychology are getting overwhelmingly consistent results. Dean Radin’s overview of the field of parapsychology entitled ‘Entangled Minds’ offers an array of evidence from many different sources for that. Even many skeptics will admit when forced to engage with an informed proponent that psi is well established by the standards of any area of science. Richard Wiseman, the host of TAM, for example has stated this on more than one occasion. Yet many skeptics continue to say more research is needed, which seems little more than a way to avoid having to support psi, despite huge odds in favour of its existence. Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson has stated that in his opinion the ‘evidence for psi is overwhelming’.

So why the hostility? It seems to me that the answer to this question is partly that people want to be right, they don’t want to look foolish or be categorised as one of those ‘new age believers’, especially when they are scientists. There is also the history of science to contend with, since the enlightenment psychic abilities have been considered in the same category as religion and superstition leading many scientists to overlook the subject. Then there are the areas of the paranormal that are easily dismissed under scientific scrutiny, which leads some to conclude that the entire area is little more than the imaginings of credulous people. The result of these factors is a blanket and often intolerant dismissal of anything even remotely related to psi. This is a very sad situation and leads me to believe that the scientific method is the most important tool we have, without it we are lost in a battle of egos and opinion, what is really the key to getting to the truth of this issue is the data.

Blackmore was also first to make reference to Carl Sagan’s ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’, a quote constantly repeated by skeptics but few engage with the history of this quote. It seems that Sagan actually reworked the quote from Marcello Truzzi’s ‘When such claims are extraordinary, that is, revolutionary in their implications for established scientific generalizations already accumulated and verified, we must demand extraordinary proof.’

Truzzi was a founding member of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, yet despite his being immersed in the skeptical community he later became critical of their methods. He went on to coin the term ‘psuedoskeptic’ to refer to the largely unscientific tactics of those around him. He went on to say in relation to parapsychology that when a skeptic claims that ‘a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact, he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof.’ This is something that the modern skeptical movement would do well to remember.

Scientists who dare to explore theories of the extended mind or other aspects of consciousness possibly being non-local in nature are attacked and dismissed. A recent article by Blackmore on Rupert Sheldrake is an example and Sheldrake’s experience with Richard Dawkins underlines this still further. Dawkins declined to discuss evidence and blindly refused to engage with the research Sheldrake has done over many years during the filming of ‘The Enemies of Reason’ documentary. When faced with these kinds of situations it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are actually dealing with Truzzi’s pseudoskeptics, motivated not by science but by ideology.

As Blackmore continued through the story of her investigations into psi abilities, such as telepathy, and described the experiments she has done over the years she asked the audience if they had had any involvement with parapsychological experiments. To my surprise only three people put up their hands, one of whom as far as I could see was me. To put this in perspective I was sitting in a room of approximately one thousand people virtually all of whom proclaim disbelief in all psi phenomena, and some actively attack anything purporting to the paranormal in any form, yet only two of them had actually been involved in doing scientific experiments on the subject in any form. This again made me wonder what skepticism in this form is really championing? If you take the numbers having ever researched parapsychological phenomena seriously then it is clearly championing personal opinion over empirical research.

In conclusion, Blackmore underlined her disillusionment with parapsychology and how for 15 years she has had very little to do with it.

Richard Dawkins

The atmosphere changed as Richard Dawkins, biologist and author of The God Delusion, took the stage. A hush of anticipation seemed to fall over the hall. I would guess that many in the audience had come to see the hero of the new atheist movement in the flesh. As everyone focused on the stage I watched intently as Dawkins attempted to evoke in the audience an almost spiritual reverence for evolution and the genius of Charles Darwin. I could clearly see his frustration at the gulf between the layman and his own passion for science and I considered the impact that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species must have had on his life. In that moment I contemplated the impact that science has had on my own life, and a realisation came to me. It is not that science does not factor in the lives of average persons, or that they cannot see great beauty in much of what science has to offer. I believe it is the lack of a relevant usable approach and an engagement with the public’s fears and concerns in the way science is often communicated that leaves many unengaged or suspicious. Some writers and educators are realising this, but unfortunately divisive and arrogant proclamations from anti-theists such as Dawkins just alienate and inspire retaliation from the very people he claims he is trying to reach.

At TAM Dawkins made repeated attacks on Islam calling it the most ’evil’ of religions and the greatest threat. The crowd seemed to relish his statements, but I wonder would we overlook this kind of attitude if it were coming from a person on the street without the eloquent language and pretence that these views have something to do with science? I can imagine the impact this statement would have had on the Muslim community I grew up alongside in central London. They would have been outraged, angered and would have no doubt felt targeted as scapegoats. Dawkins speaks very effectively to a certain cultural class, but he seems ill equipped to understand the subtleties of human experience beyond this clique.

Dawkins’ talk at TAM entitled ‘Evolution: The New Classics’ seemed awkward, almost out of touch with contemporary society. He argued for the study of evolution to take the place once occupied by the classics in educational systems such as the one he attended. I can only be glad that the focus during my schooling was on understanding the religious and cultural heritage of the many diverse pupils around me through subjects such as humanities and STAS (Science, Technology and Society). An approach that I believe has been of great value in my life and helped to foster a deeper appreciation for other world views. Dawkins seems angrily opposed to this kind of approach, instead advocating a vision of science and society that imposes a limited ideology on its young people. His claim that he simply wants to instill critical thinking and a greater understanding of evolution is clearly not true when we hear his attacks on relativism and championing of utilitarianism. Evolution while of key importance to the understanding of our origins as a species cannot be the educational focus in places where the diverse cultures, among which Islam is one, dominate. Fostering understanding and awareness of each other is the first and most urgent step. In many schools overcoming language barriers, economic issues and alienation are real factors that define the landscape of the young people Dawkins wishes to convince of the importance of evolution.

Magicians

It seems that the skeptical community represented at TAM creates a division between the public and science. They champion a form of science that bares little resemblance to the free inquiry that I have been so inspired by. In fact actual science was hardly mentioned during the conference, it was clear that what was being championed here was activism aimed at fighting the religious, alternative or credulous. A group of once professional magicians whose views have now been coloured by their understanding of deception. Indeed magic played a role throughout the proceedings with magician and psychologist Richard Wiseman doing a great job of entertaining the audience as the hours rolled on. But the issue of magic is an important one when considering the skeptical movement, it defines the thinking of many of the prominent names, especially those featured regularly on television such as James Randi, Derren Brown, Penn & Teller and skeptics such as Richard Wiseman, who offer their views on documentaries.

Shortly before James Randi, the most well known of the skeptical magicians took the stage I got the chance to exchange a few words with him. He was light hearted and avoided any questions of a deeper nature before disappearing into a press conference. I must say that I do genuinely sympathise with his goal on some levels; I was moved as his voice broke on stage during an interview as he described a boy whose medical condition had been exploited by the fake evangelical faith healer Peter Popoff. Individuals such as Popoff operate by exploiting the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us for pure profit and Randi is of course right to use his knowledge of stage magic to expose them. Yet I also look at Randi with an equally genuine sense of mistrust. I am well aware of him misleading the public with regard to the work of Rupert Sheldrake. He claimed that he had repeated Sheldrake’s experiments and found no evidence of telepathy in animals. Yet when Sheldrake became suspicious of this claim and challenged him to prove it he made excuses and failed to show the experiments he claimed he had done making it seem highly likely that they never existed. This is far from the behaviour we might expect from a real supporter of science, at the very least we expect fairness and honesty.

The more I’ve heard Randi speak at events and on television the more it seems as if his emotional passion, his sheer desire to expose charlatans makes him willing to blur the facts in favour of his agenda. This certainly seems to be the case with his claims about Sheldrake’s experiments, and it makes me wonder how many other situations there are like this one where the actual evidence is conveniently absent. Even his famous million dollar challenge has many critics and it is obvious to me that any genuine scientist or informed individual with psi abilities could never work with someone like Randi. Those I know who have tried have never managed to even have a fair and balanced discussion with him.

Conclusions

One of the few moments of actual scientific interest at TAM was Marcus Chown’s entertaining talk about his view of the strangest facts about the universe. It was a welcome highlight to the weekend, after so many offhanded remarks about religion and little of any substance, his lecture although humorous was full of interesting and intriguing pieces of information. Another talk of interest was by Karen James, Director of Science at the HMS Beagle Trust, an organisation seeking to build a replica of the original ship in which the young Charles Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Islands. She gave an impassioned speech about the importance of this project and how it will allow children and adults to walk in the foot steps of Darwin, yet with the advantages of the latest scientific understandings and equipment. These talks were highlights, moments when rather than focusing on mocking or attacking those outside of this community, the attention was on the joy of scientific discovery and learning.

Before I arrived at TAM I had imagined that the headliner of the event would be someone who has furthered scientific understanding or done something to champion critical thinking, so I was very surprised to hear that Alan Moore was the final speaker. It seemed he felt the same sense of confusion about why he was there, in fact the last time I saw Alan Moore speak live more than a decade ago he was championing magic (in the sense of witchcraft and the occult) and ideas that I can’t imagine would have gone down very well at TAM. He is a strange mix of poet, anarchist and philosopher. He obviously has a genuine interest in the margins of the mind and consciousness, but where he fits into the world of skepticism is a mystery. I felt that during his talk with Moore, the interviewer kept away from really asking him about his views on magic or the fact he says he worships an ancient snake deity.

So in conclusion it seems that TAM is in dubious territory, as one skeptical blogger at Skeptobot.com pointed out, it is not an outreach event or an academic conference, ’so that leaves the fact that it is a show. A piece of entertainment’. He goes on to say ‘A 1,500 seater venue of skeptic celebrities preaching to the converted whilst raising money for their organisation of choice is a church. And not a British church, but an American one, with American sensibilities. A Megachurch.’

Caspian Jago made the same criticism using the term ’The TAM Mega Church’, although he did actually attend and found many points about the line up either misplaced or simply unconnected to science or critical thinking. His conclusion was ’much as I am delighted that a skeptical conference can now herd a thousand skeptical minds into one hotel, I just felt there was something missing.’I felt the same way, there was indeed a lack of the real substance and engagement with what makes science and genuine critical thinking such a powerful part of life.

TAM was an event of bravado, childish prejudice and hollow generalisation, with a few moments of genuine sincerity, but with tickets costing from £208 a time, there was a sense that the real grassroots supporters of Randi’s vision were simply priced out of the event. But with over 1,000 attendees, it must have succeeded in its money-raising goal: £208 x 1,000 = £208,000! Even after deducting costs like the hire of the hall and speakers’ expenses, and allowing for complimentary tickets and concessions, James Randi must have gone home with well over £170,000 for his foundation. It is little wonder that much of the most cutting criticism of this event has come from within the skeptical movement itself. I can only hope that skepticism as a movement takes a deeper look at what it stands for and in the future seeks to champion inquiry and science instead of this circus-like celebration of disbelief.

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Deepak Chopra

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.

Deepak Chopra
Dr. Deepak Chopra

Skeptics in the Media: Gadflies Without a Sting

We live in a society where the worst humiliation, apparently, is to be duped. If Skeptic magazine’s table of contents reflects the world, we are buried up to our necks in charlatans, pseudoscientists, scam artists, and the self-deluded.

I cannot otherwise explain why being skeptical, without any additional positive contribution, is considered somehow admirable. I dislike skepticism when it sits by the road and shoots down any traveler trying to take a different way. I oppose skepticism when it turns destructive, using disdainful dismissiveness as its chief tactic.

Let me speak personally here as a target of skeptical critiques:

I have rarely met a skeptic who didn’t use ad hominem attacks.

1.   Skeptics generally leap to the conclusion that I am naive, self-deluded, or simply unread in the sciences.

2.   Skeptics rarely examine the shaky assumptions of their own position.

3.   Skeptics believe that doubt is a positive attribute. (Skeptics in person can be appealing, usually in a kind of quirky misanthropic way, although most come off as self-important petty naysayers who try everyone’s patience.)

4.   Worst of all, skeptics take pride in defending the status quo and condemn the kind of open-minded inquiry that peers into the unknown.

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