Category Archives: Richard Milton
The Undergrowth of Science
Review of skeptic Walter Grazer’s book The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-deception and Human Frailty, Oxford University Press, 2000
In the film ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ there is a famous scene where religious fundamentalists (actually women wearing false beards) gather eagerly to stone to death a blasphemer who has profaned holy law.
The further I got into The Undergrowth of Science by Walter Gratzer, the more I was reminded of those women.
Today’s mob are scientific fundamentalists, acting in the name of reason to save science from blasphemers. The fake beards are a grotesquely distorted form of scientific rationalism.
Mercifully, the weapons are no longer rocks but merely unreflecting insults, malicious ridicule and scorn. They can nevertheless be deeply damaging to the careers of dedicated scientists, as several of this book’s targets discovered to their cost.
Had this book been written by one of the rabid pseudoskeptics who infest the Internet it would not even merit a response. But Walter Gratzer is professor emeritus of Biophysical Chemistry at King’s College London and hence someone you might expect to be careful with facts.
The first, and meatiest part, of the book is a familiar homage to Irving Langmuir, the Nobel Laureate who worked in the US General Electric’s laboratory and who coined the term ‘pathological science’. In 1953 he gave a lecture on self-deluding research to his colleagues. The transcript of this lecture was published in 1989 in the magazine Physics Today with the object of deriding Fleischmann and Pons for their announcement of cold fusion.
Gratzer recounts the cases from Langmuir’s lecture: Blondlot and his imaginary N-Rays; Davis and Barnes’s ‘electron capture’ experiments; and Fred Allison’s magneto-optical method of analysis. Like Langmuir he agrees that each and every case is one of self-delusion and the effects studied non-existent.
And he rehearses approvingly Langmuir’s list of diagnostic criteria for detecting ‘pathological science’
1. The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity.
2. The effect is near the threshold of visibility or the threshold of any other sense used to detect it, or many, many measurements are needed because of the very low statistical significance of results.
3. There are claims of great accuracy, great sensitivity, or great specifity.
4. Fantastic theories contrary to experience are suggested.
5. Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
6. The ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50 per cent and then falls gradually to oblivion.
He also follows Langmuir in another important way: he fails to bring forward any scientific evidence to show precisely why and how all these cases are ‘pathological’ or delusory. Because Blondlot was obviously barmy we are invited to conclude that all the other scientists mentioned must be guilty of self-delusion too. In reality, the first five of Langmuir’s criteria can be found in many key pieces of scientific research which today are universally accepted.
One of the best examples is Robert Millikan’s measurement of the charge on the electron by the oil-drop method — the laborious inspection of thousands of minute drops through a microscope, at the threshold of detection, and the statistical study of results. Indeed, Millikan’s notebooks reveal that he also selected his data to prove the desired conclusion — yet his method and his value are today accepted as underpinning the whole of atomic science, not decried as delusory.
Langmuir’s sixth criterion is as neat a piece of self-delusion as one could hope to find anywhere in the real undergrowth of science for it is true only in selected cases, and hence not diagnostic. Langmuir and Gratzer themselves cite cases they claim to be delusory science but where research still continues years or decades later.
Finally, they neglect to mention that pseudoskeptics like themselves are often instrumental in ending the research – not some natural loss of interest. For example, Langmuir himself admits that he wrote to Niels Bohr to ‘head off’ any further research into Davis and Barnes ‘electron capture’ and he and other chemists urged publications such as Physical Review to reject further papers by Allison — a policy that was adopted.
Both Langmuir and Gratzer also fail to explain how, if Allison’s magneto-optical apparatus was self-delusion, scientists using it were able correctly to identify a series of unknown inorganic substances in solution with 100% accuracy in blind tests, with a probability of their results being due to chance of 1 in 7560.
Superficially, Gratzer’s book appears well-researched but whenever he gets onto a subject with which I am familiar it becomes plain that he has made a number of errors in his reporting. Moreover, these errors assist the case he is trying to make rather than undermining it.
The colleagues of cold fusion researcher Dr John Bockris, at Texas A&M University did not ‘finally manage to have him removed’ as Gratzer claims. Bockris is now Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M simply because he is now 78 years old and hence retired! Before he retired, in December 1993, a number of Bockris’s scientific colleagues petitioned the provost to have him removed from his post because of his cold fusion work but, to their credit, the Board of Regents at Texas A&M defended his right to conduct chemistry research as he saw fit and rejected this attempt at witch-hunting.
Gratzer describes research into ‘cold fusion’ as ‘The most recent and globally spectacular outbreak of self-delusion — the triumph of desire over reason.’ One of his scientific reasons for saying so is the absence of an expected product of fusion — tritium (the heaviest isotope of hydrogen.) In fact Dr Edmund Storms and colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory conducted 250 cold fusion experiments over a year. They found 13 Palladium electrodes containing excess tritium but Gratzer ignores these findings (and indeed almost every other replication of Fleischmann and Pons).
In a historical discursion, Gratzer follows the usual line of dismissing Anton Mesmer as a charlatan and says, ‘Messmer’s [sic] reputation could not survive this unequivocal judgement [of the Royal Commission] and he departed hastily for Austria, never to return.’ In fact the Royal Commission reported in 1784 and its malediction had no effect at all on Mesmer who remained in Paris and continued to practice. It was the French revolution five years later in 1789 which caused Mesmer to flee to the safety of England.
Many other such careless examples can be found.
Gratzer acknowledges in passing that scientists who pursue research that is considered unsound by their conservative colleagues are unlikely to get published and unlikely to receive funding grants. Yet he fails to connect this phenomenon with the fact that most people in charge of peer review committees and research funding committees are conservative pseudoskeptics like Langmuir and himself. It is yet another diagnostic criterion that in reality is no more than a self-fulfilling prejudice.
Gratzer relates accounts of several notable wrong turnings taken by scientists; ‘polywater’, memory transfer through RNA injections, monkey glands, unnecessary surgical removal of organs — all good knockabout stuff. And there are warnings of what happens when politicians attempt to interfere with science, illustrated by the failed policies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
But buried in the heart of this book is a contradiction that Gratzer makes no serious attempt to resolve. It is this. He piles example upon example of delusory science, with the aim of building in his reader’s minds an unambiguous and categorical distinction between ‘real’ science, acceptable science, of the kind that he and his ‘real’ scientific colleagues practice, and the self-deluding science that is practised by fools and charlatans on the fringes.
But he does not attempt to analyse or define this distinction, and the only tools he offers us to tell which science is delusory and which is real prove to be illusory themselves. Langmuir’s criteria turn out to be subjective and just as applicable to ‘real’ science like Millikan’s. This raises the question how does Gratzer himself know which science is delusory and which real?
Surely the whole of science proceeds by precisely this kind of trial and error process? Theories are proposed, tested, criticised and, sooner or later, accepted or rejected. The failed theories are no less ‘real’ than the successful ones. Of course the process is often far more complex. In many cases ambiguous phenomena continue to be argued about for years or decades, or the experiments continue for years or decades — sometimes longer than they should. But who is qualified to say which cases are which? Take hot fusion for example, which Gratzer holds up as an example of real science. It was first experimented with in the 1950s, there have been numerous false dawns and disappointments, and millions continue to be spent each year, still with no practical results. Hot fusion is as far from reality or commercial exploitation today as it was fifty years ago, yet no-one calls hot fusion self-deluding science. So why not exactly?
To my mind this is the question that Gratzer should be addressing. What — precisely what — is the difference between experiments with hot fusion and those with cold fusion such that the former is respectable and the latter is not?
It is not until the closing chapter of the book that Gratzer finally recognises the problem and asks, ‘How then are we to recognise what I have called (after Irving Langmuir) ‘pathological science’ and distinguish it from an authentic conceptual leap that transcends the wisdom of the day?’
Alas, the question remains unanswered. Gratzer puts forward several suggestions but, finally, recognises that they are inadequate. He again offers us Langmuir’s rules on the grounds of their ‘quite remarkable generality’ but fails to notice their shortcomings because he makes no serious scientific attempt to evaluate them – even though he is a scientist writing about scientific issues.
In a section devoted to science under the Nazis, Gratzer describes Heinrich Himmler thus; ‘Himmler was a man of severely limited intelligence and had no notion of the nature of scientific enquiry. He believed, in particular, that truth was vouchsafed through the imagination and that the task of science was to gather proof of revealed propositions . . .’
This may very well be an accurate description of Himmler’s outlook, but it can equally be applied to some professional scientists. How for instance did Irving Langmuir know that Allison’s method was ‘pathological’? How does Gratzer himself know so clearly that cold fusion is self-delusion? It isn’t experimental evidence because the evidence can be interpreted either way. What is left? Only some kind of ‘truth’ vouchsafed by rationalist intuition alone.
Gratzer’s identity parade of suspects whom he invites us to convict is nothing more than a selective look at some of the normal failures of science with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, a post hoc rationalisation. He simply omits to mention the many other scientific failures which did not raise his hackles at the time.
My sister in law earned a postgraduate degree in nuclear physics by spending several years at CERN looking for a particle which proved probably not to exist. The search for this particle involved many scientists and probably cost millions. But such routine negative results as this do not attract Gratzer’s wrath because it is unimportant to him whether the ‘X’ meson exists or not. But it is very important to him whether cold fusion is real or whether homeopathic dilute solutions are real or whether there is such a thing as a biological form of energy – important enough to write a book denouncing them.
The trouble is that telling us exactly why such subjects are important to him – the one admission that could make this book useful or interesting – is the one thing he avoids revealing to us, as though he would be showing us some fatal weakness in his case.
Review of skeptic Robert L. Park’s book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford University Press, 2001
“Even if you showed me the evidence … I still wouldn’t believe it.”
– Dr. Jonathan Miller
Dr. Robert Park, author of Voodoo Science, is professor of physics at the University of Maryland. He also runs the Washington office of the American Physical Society and is a regular contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post. His views on science are thus of public interest.
In Voodoo Science Robert Park brings an indictment against what he sees as a modern tendency towards junk science and New Age crackpot thinking. He detects this tendency in the media, in advertising and commerce, in medicine and in science itself.
Park brings forward a score of examples of such beliefs and presents them in an entertaining way. His book has been a hit in some sections of the scientific community, especially with commentators like Richard Dawkins, who says, ‘Professor Park does more than debunk, he crucifies. . . You’ll never again waste time or your money on astrologers, ‘quantum healers’, homeopaths, spoonbenders, perpetual motion merchants, or alien abduction fantasists.’
In each of the book’s ten chapters, Robert Park reviews in some detail a case of junk science or pseudoscience that is so preposterous that anyone can see the perpetrator is either a fool or a knave. But he then generalises his findings from this undoubted case of charlatanism to cases in the same field of research but about which much remains unknown, and asserts that these must be equally false — without troubling to offer any scientific evidence as to why these other cases are equivalent to the case he has demolished.
Take for example, the chapter entitled ‘Placebos have side effects.’ Park begins with a salutary tale of a US laboratory that advertised ‘Vitamin O’ capsules for $20 a phial. What is ‘Vitamin O’? The adverts claimed they were ‘stabilised oxygen molecules in a solution of distilled water and sodium chloride’ — simple salt water. Through Park’s intervention, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in, stopped the advertising campaign, and compelled the laboratory to return customers’ money.
Most people would agree that this advertising was a scientific abuse and that Park’s intervention was welcome. But having established his credentials as a White Knight in the murky field of alternative medicine, Park then turns his lance on homeopathy. It is worth studying his analytical methods in some detail, because they are the same methods employed throughout the book. (I should add here that I have no personal interest in or connection with homeopathy other than as a writer on science).
Park gives a brief biography of homeopathy’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann, and describes the ideas of treating like with like, and of extreme dilution of homeopathic treatments. He then brings the story up to date with an account of Jacques Benveniste, who he writes off as ‘a French homeopath’ (Dr. Benveniste is, in fact, a molecular biologist who was head of research at France’s National Institute for Health & Medical Research, and an international expert on immunology, and thus might be expected to be better informed on this subject than Dr. Park, a crystallographer).
Park ridicules Benveniste’s research saying, ‘Homeopathists, however, continue to cite Benveniste’s paper as proof of the law of infinitesimals and to concoct vague theories to account for this amazing result.’
Park concludes his survey of homeopathy by remarking, ‘If the infinite-dilution concept held up, it would force a reexamination of the very foundations of science. Meanwhile, there is no credible evidence that homeopathic remedies have any effect beyond that of a placebo.’
This statement is inexplicable if Dr. Park’s book really is a scientific survey of its subjects because it means that Dr. Park did not trouble himself to make even the most superficial search of the scientific literature on homeopathy. Had he done so he would have discovered the paper published in the British Medical Journal in 1991 by Dr. Paul Knipschild, professor of epidemiology at Limburg University (BMJ 302:316-323). Limburg University is Holland’s centre for control of epidemic diseases (equivalent to Atlanta or Porton Down) and Knipschild is its director.
Homeopathy is widely practised in Holland and the Dutch government came under pressure from adherents to make homeopathic remedies available under the Dutch National Health Service. Dutch skeptics vocally opposed any such use of public funds on what they regarded as quackery.
To settle the question, the Dutch government commissioned a study of clinical trials of homeopathy by medical scientists at the department of epidemiology and health care at Limburg. Their task was to analyse clinical trials that had been done on homeopathy and say whether the investment of public money was justified by the evidence.
The team analysed 105 published studies. They found that 81 trials demonstrated positive results compared to a placebo, while 24 showed no positive effects, and concluded that ‘there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homeopathy, but only by means of well-performed trials.’
Further evaluation, however, is not what Dr. Park has in mind for homeopathy. It seems to me that the case of homeopathy is a particularly interesting one because it also illustrates how scientific intolerance can result simply from a failure of scientific imagination — even when the facts are visible to all.
Dr. Park, like many scientific rationalists, dismisses homeopathy because he cannot see how a liquid such as water can ‘remember’ having dissolved an active ingredient once it has been diluted so much that not even a single molecule of the solute remains. He says, ‘The reputed “memory” of water is only the first of a string of miracles that would be necessary for the law of infinitesimals to be valid.’
Yet Dr. Brian Josephson, Nobel Laureate and professor of experimental physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, pointed out in the New Scientist that:
‘ . . . criticisms centred around the vanishingly small number of solute molecules present in a solution after it has been repeatedly diluted are beside the point, since advocates of homeopathic remedies attribute their effects not to molecules present in the water, but to modifications of the water’s structure.’
‘Simple-minded analysis may suggest that water, being a fluid, cannot have a structure of the kind that such a picture would demand. But cases such as that of liquid crystals, which while flowing like an ordinary fluid can maintain an ordered structure over macroscopic distances, show the limitations of such ways of thinking. There have not, to the best of my knowledge, been any refutations of homeopathy that remain valid after this particular point is taken into account.’
More simply, anyone who has ever used a mobile phone or laptop computer with a liquid crystal display has already seen concrete evidence of the ‘memory of liquids’ in their everyday lives. This presumably includes Dr. Park, (whose field is crystals) yet, like the rest of us, he fails to connect this everyday experience with an anomalous phenomenon until the obvious is pointed out to him by an investigator with a truly open mind.
What is true for homeopathy is true for many other fields of anomalous study. Park rounds up the usual suspects: cold fusion, over-unity devices, zero-point energy, and sets out to debunk them.
Park reserves his greatest scorn for Drs. Fleischmann and Pons who he depicts as beaten and depressed at the failure of their cold fusion experiment to be replicated by any respectable institution. He also cites the usual objection of lack of fusion products (excess helium, neutron emission, tritium) as evidence of failure.
What Park failed to say was that more then 100 institutions in the United States and Japan have reported successful replication of Fleischmann and Pons’s original experiment, once the correct experimental conditions were established. Dr. Michael McKubre and his team at Stanford Research Institute say they have confirmed Fleischmann-Pons and indeed say they can now produce excess heat experimentally at will. Other U.S. Laboratories reporting positive results include the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, (these were the two U.S. research establishments most closely involved in developing the atomic bomb) Naval Research Laboratory, Naval Weapons Centre at China Lake, Naval Ocean Systems Centre and Texas A & M University.
Dr. Robert Bush and his colleagues at California Polytechnic Institute have recorded the highest levels of power density for cold fusion, with almost three kilowatts per cubic centimetre. This is 30 times greater than the power density of fuel rods in a typical nuclear fission reactor. Overseas organisations include Japan’s Hokkaido National University, Osaka National University, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Nippon Telephone and Telegraph corporation. What Park also failed to say is that all the expected fusion products have now been detected in the expected quantities.
Selection or omission of crucial evidence is not the only cause for concern. The level of debate to which Park sometimes descends would be worrying in an undergraduate. In a professor of physics it is alarming. After castigating those responsible for what he considers to be ‘voodo science’ for their lack of rigour, dependence on anecdotal evidence, and generalising from a single example, he tells us why belief in UFOs is pathological. Park explains how, as a young Air Force Officer, in 1954, while driving near Roswell, he saw what he took to be a flying disc. He stopped his car and found the disc was no more than a reflection of his own car headlights. The implication is clear: because he was once mistaken, it follows that all other reports of flying discs are also mistaken. No scientific investigation is needed. Park has settled the matter.
One question remains in all this, and it seems to me to be an important one for science. Dr. Park is a distinguished scientist, a leading member of his profession. His integrity is unassailable and no-one doubts his motives. Yet despite this pedigree and his obvious intellectual gifts, Dr. Park has permitted his views of certain phenomena to be informed not by evidence (such as Dr. Knipschild’s) but by something else which he values even more highly. The question is: what is this something else? Whatever it is, it takes precedence over all Dr. Park’s scientific training and a lifetime of experience as a physicist. The something else, it seems to me, is a philosophical commitment to scientific rationalism as a principle in its own right: a way of looking at the world.
To understand the origin and meaning of a book like Dr. Park’s, one has to understand the significance of a single word. When Dr. Park, and those who think like him, say ‘. . . there is no credible evidence that homeopathic remedies have any effect beyond that of a placebo.’ the crucial word is ‘credible’. When confronted by evidence and experiment, it remains possible for Dr. Park to retain his scientific integrity while, at the same time, rejecting the evidence of the laboratory because it is to his mind ‘not credible’. Dr. Park thus joins many other ‘skeptics’, like Dr. Jonathan Miller, who was so incautious as to say on Channel Four TV, ‘Even if you showed me the evidence for homeopathy, I still wouldn’t believe it’.
The importance of this book, therefore, is that it is likely in future to become a classic psychology text for students of cognitive dissonance in gifted minds.
Dr. Marcello Truzzi, co-founder of CSICOP, coined the handy term ‘pseudoskepticism’ to denote what is becoming an increasingly common form of scientific fundamentalism and vigilantism.
‘Parkism’ could well become an even more useful shorthand for this same phenomenon.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Review of skeptic Robert Todd Carroll’s book The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions, John Wiley and Sons, 2003
Robert Todd Carroll is one of a growing band of non-scientists – he teaches philosophy – who believe they are qualified to tell us what we should and shouldn’t believe scientifically. That Robert Todd Carroll has no scientific qualifications, or training, or professional experience does not deter him from his conviction that he is an authority on science.
In The Skeptic’s Dictionary he sets out to tell us ordinary people what we may and may not legitimately think.
This bogus-guru stance should be warning enough of what is to follow, but once he warms to his subject Carroll’s inhibitions disappear completely and he veers from the dogmatic to the preposterous in a hilarious display of scientific ignorance and prejudice.
From a mountain of mistakes and misunderstandings, here are a few of his more entertaining errors.
Carroll says; “Scientific research . . . has failed to demonstrate that acupuncture is effective against any disease.”
Except for the scientific research that has demonstrated acupuncture is effective against some diseases and was published in peer-reviewed scientific journals more than a decade ago, such as Dundee, J.W., 1988, in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dundee, J.W., 1987, in British Journal of Anaesthesia, 59, p 1322. And Fry, E.N.S., 1986, in Anaesthesia, 41: 661-2.
Had Carroll made even the slightest attempt to search the scientific literature he would have found these and many other references to well-conducted double-blind trials in which patients experienced measurable benefits in comparison with the placebo group.
‘The Skeptic’s Dictionary’ tells us that; “Since cryptozoologists spend most of their energy trying to establish the existence of creatures, rather than examining actual animals, they are more akin to PSI researchers than to zoologists. Expertise in zoology, however, is asserted to be a necessity for work in cryptozoology, according to Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, who coined the term . . .”
Had he read Dr Heuvelmans’ book, Carroll would have learned that the discovery of new species is normal science and many are discovered each year. New species number hundreds amongst insects, and dozens among small mammals and reptiles. Discovery of large unknown mammals and reptiles is unusual but certainly not unknown or even rare.
In 2002, for example, respected primatologist Dr Shelly Williams of the prestigious Jane Goodall Institute in Maryland, tracked and came face to face with a previously unknown species of great ape at Bili in the Congo, deep in the African jungle. The creatures stand some 6 feet tall and weigh up to 225 pounds. Dr Williams reported in New Scientist, “Four suddenly came rushing out of the bush towards me. These guys were huge and they were coming in for the kill. As soon as they saw my face, they stopped and disappeared.”
Carroll says; “Dermo-optical perception (DOP) is the alleged ability to ‘see’ without using the eyes. DOP is a conjurer’s trick, often involving elaborate blindfolding rituals, but always leaving a pathway (usually down the side of the nose), which allows for unobstructed vision.”
The scientific view; Dr Yvonne Duplessis was appointed director of a committee to investigate Dermo-optical sensitivity. Her conclusion is, ‘Controlled studies indicate support for the theory of dermo-optical sensitivity and perception.’
Dr Duplessis’s experiments have even led to a possible perfectly natural explanation. In her conclusions, she says, ‘Thus these different methods show that the thermal feelings induced by visible colors are not subjective, as it is generally admitted, and that the infrared radiations, situated in a far infrared range. are acting on every part of the body. This gives us possible grounds for concluding that also during ordinary visual perception of colored surfaces a human eye reacts not only to rays of the visible spectrum but also to infrared radiation emitted by these surfaces.’
More simply, Dr Duplessis’s experiments appear to show that coloured surfaces reflect energy as heat as well as light and that the eye (like other parts of the human body) is to some extent sensitive to heat as well as to light — a very much simpler explanation than Carroll’s baseless inventions.
Extraterrestrials (UFOs, Flying Saucers)
Carroll says “Edward U. Condon was the head of a scientific research team which was contracted to the University of Colorado to examine the UFO issue. His report concluded that ‘nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge … further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby’.”
Carroll adds, “So far . . . nothing has been positively identified as an alien spacecraft in a way required by common sense and science. That is, there has been no recurring identical UFO experience and there is no physical evidence in support of either a UFO flyby or landing.”
Had Carroll troubled to actually read Condon’s report he would have found this conclusion regarding photographs identified by the report as ‘Case 46’:
‘This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses.’
It is perfectly true that Edward Condon concluded that ‘further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified’ but the reason he gave is that it is not possible to study fruitfully a phenomenon that occurs at random. He and his team emphatically did NOT conclude that “there is no physical evidence in support of either a UFO flyby or landing” – that is the conclusion of Carroll alone, and it is based purely on ignorance of the real facts as stated in Dr Condon’s report.
Carroll says; “[Jung’s] notion of synchronicity is that there is an acausal principle that links events having a similar meaning by their coincidence in time rather than sequentially. . . What evidence is there for synchronicity? None.”
Carroll carefully neglects to mention that the theory of synchronicity was proposed not by Jung alone but jointly with Wolfgang Pauli, who was Professor of Theoretical Physics at Princeton, a member of Niels Bohr’s team that laid the foundations of Quantum Theory and who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945. There thus exists a reasonable probability that the originator of synchronicity theory knew somewhat more about science than Carroll does. Asking ‘what evidence is there?’ for an explanatory theory that has been advanced specifically to account for previously unexplained evidence is a question even Homer Simpson would blush to ask.
Carroll says; “Legions of parapsychologists, led by such generals as Charles Tart and Dean Radin, have also appealed to statistical anomalies as proof of ESP.” But, “Skeptics are unimpressed with occult statistics that assert improbabilities for what has already happened.”
Carroll’s scientific illiteracy finally comes out into the open here. Even his fellow ‘skeptics’ in CSICOP would hesitate to assert that science may only cite statistics on probability in connection with events that have not yet happened!
Probability theory deals with the mathematical calculation of the chances of an event taking place — regardless of whether the event has taken place or not. The probability that a tossed coin will land heads is 50-50 or P=0.5. This is as true for a coin that has already been tossed as it is for one yet to be tossed. If someone were to toss 100 heads in a row having declared in advance their intention to make this happen, then the odds against such a series happening normally are so high as to merit scientific investigation to attempt to determine a cause other than chance.
In the case of the experiments reported by Dean Radin in the respected physics journal Foundations of Physics, the odds against the results obtained in the Princeton Engineering Laboratory coming about by chance alone are one in 10 to the power of 35 (1 in 1035). For Carroll to ignore improbabilities of this magnitude is not being “skeptical” — it is being in denial.
Carroll says; “The CIA and the U.S. Army thought enough of remote viewing to spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars on research in a program referred to as ‘Stargate’.”
Carroll scorns such trials because of the inaccuracy of some statements made by the subjects but, scientifically, the question is not how consistently accurate is remote viewing, but does it exist at all? There is unequivocal evidence that it does.
A recently declassified CIA document details a remarkably accurate example, under controlled conditions, of remote viewing of a top secret Russian base by Pat Price in 1974. Although Price made a lot of incorrect guesses about the target he was able to produce, with startling accuracy, engineering grade drawings of a unique 150-foot high gantry crane with six foot high wheels running into an underground entrance. The existence of this massive structure, exactly as described, was later confirmed through satellite photography.
Spontaneous Human Combustion
Carroll says; “While no one has ever witnessed SHC, several deaths involving fire have been attributed to SHC by investigators and storytellers.”
The slightest research would have revealed to Carroll that many cases of possible SHC were independently witnessed by reliable people. In some cases, the victims themselves survived to tell about their experiences.
Cases include London Fire Brigade Commander John Stacey and his fire crew who reached the scene of a burning man within 5 minutes of receiving a emergency call, and the case of Agnes Phillips who burst into flames in a parked car in a Sydney suburb in 1998 and was pulled out by a passer-by.
Many more similar examples of ignorance and prejudice could be quoted from ‘The Skeptic’s Dictionary’, but would serve little purpose. It is already abundantly clear that Carroll’s book is no dictionary but a private agenda, and that he himself is no skeptic but a knee-jerk reactionary to the new, the unexpected, the ambiguous and the anomalous.
Robert Todd Carroll is a perfect example of the reason for this site’s existence. Some academic professionals who are meticulously careful of fact in their normal professional life, suddenly throw off all reasoned restraint when it comes to so-called “debunking” of what they consider to be new age nonsense and feel justified in making as many careless and inaccurate statements as they please because they mistakenly imagine they are defending science against weirdos. The reality is that their irrational reaction arises from their own inability to deal scientifically with the new and ambivalent, even when (as in the case of dermo-optical perception) there is probably a simple natural explanation, or when (as in the case of the new Congo primate) it is simply unexpected and previously unknown to science.
This book is a stark warning to every student of science, logic and philosophy of what can happen when an otherwise rational person goes off on a personal crusade motivated by his own self-deluding prejudices.