Category Archives: Topics

Topics

Consciousness

“If the conscious self is an illusion – who is it that’s being fooled?” * “What the deniers do not acknowledge is that paradigms do change, and that it is theories, and the experiments that test them, that create paradigms … in this context consciousness researchers such as parapsychologists are simply early-adapters.”– Stephan A. Schwartz,...

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Anomalistics

The term “anomalistics” refers to the study of scientific anomalies, alleged extraordinary events unexplained by currently accepted scientific theory. Anomalistics deals with empirical claims of the extraordinary – it is not concerned with alleged metaphysical, theological, or supernatural phenomena. Anomalistics recognizes that unexplained phenomena exist, but does not presume these are unexplainable. It seeks to...

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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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Cosmology

  Funding Denied for Plasma Cosmology Research by The Editors     A group of cosmologists, other scientists and engineers published an open letter in New Scientist on May 22, 2004. Their purpose was to draw attention to the current policy on research funding which seems to be governed by dogmatism and prejudice in favour...

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Energy

  Energy   Attacks on Research Funding for New Energy Alternatives to Oil and Nuclear Fission Energy Generation by The Editors     In a 2006 issue of Nature (Volume 442, pp. 230-231, 20 July 2006) Eugenie Samuel Reich reported S. Putterman’s belief that Rusi Taleyarkhan, leader of the group that developed the bubble fusion...

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Evolution

  The Rise and Fall of the Peppered Moth   “A riotous story of ambition and deceit.” – Dava Sobel by the Editors   The cornerstone of Darwinian natural selection is crumbling. The peppered moth, biston betularia, is a species of moth familiar to anyone who has studied biology, for this ordinary moth provided evidence...

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Psychic Phenomena

  Psychic Phenomena   The Great Divide by Guy Lyon Playfair   Why Proponents and Deniers of Psi Are Never Likely to Agree   Debating Psychic Experience, edited by Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), deserves to become required reading for sociologists, historians of contemporary science, and anybody involved in any...

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Scientific Objectivity

  Bias and Fraud in Science by the Editors   The problems in science today – and what needs to change.   NIH Disclosure Rules Falter Sara Reardon, Nature News, 15 September 2015 “Still, [former U.S. Senate staffer Paul] Thacker says, there is a clear need for closer scrutiny. This is backed up by evidence...

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Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Guy Lyon Playfair: “Complementary Healing Works”

  Patients Healed through Alternative Medicine by Guy Lyon Playfair   Reaction from the GPs was revealing. Three were generous enough to admit that there might be something in this alternative stuff after all and yes, they would consider using it again.   “The most disastrous result of belief in the paranormal.” That is how...

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Richard Hardwick: “Pseudoscience, Alternative Medicine, and the Media”

  12th European Skeptics Congress Brussels, October 13-16, 2005 by Dr. Richard Hardwick   The 12th European Skeptical Congress was billed as “an exceptional occasion, right in the middle of the capital of Europe, to share experiences and build a platform of rationality. Skeptics, scientists and journalists from all over Europe will gather to explore...

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Beata Bishop: “To CAM or Not to CAM?”

  Review of:   Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. by Beata Bishop     Not for the first time, Professor Ernst has launched a full frontal attack on alternative medicine which, he claims, includes complementary therapies as well. The most...

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Some Unfair Practices Towards Claims of the Paranormal

 

Discrediting “Extraordinary” Claims

by Marcello Truzzi

 


This article was published in slightly edited form in:

Oxymoron: Annual Thematic Anthology of the Arts and Sciences
Vol.2: The Fringe

Edward Binkowski, Editor
New York: Oxymoron Media, Inc., 1998


 
The reception of unconventional or extraordinary claims in science has come under increasing attention by sociologists and historians.

Scientific anomalies have sparked scientific revolutions, but such claims have had to fight prejudices within science. This essay offers scattered reflections on the adjudication process confronted by protoscientists (science “wannabes”) wishing admission into the scientific mainstream. My comments here are not intended in support of proponents of the paranormal (for I remain a skeptic, as defined below) but to help produce a more level playing field and a greater fairness that might help all scientists.

Equilibrium in Science

Philosopher Paul Feyerabend asserted that in a free society, science is too important to be left entirely to scientists. He had a point, for institutionalized Big Science has brought with it increased vested interests, some of which may threaten scientific growth itself. Though many historians and philosophers of science remind us that science needs to remain a tentative and open system, both fallible and probabilistic, science may, as do other human institution, develop orthodoxies and even dogmas.

Historian Thomas Kuhn spoke of the “essential tension” in science between its conservative need to accumulate a body of tested knowledge and its progressive need for innovations from theory and data that might lead to new paradigms. So, a successful scientist performs like a circus wire-walker, engaged in a balancing act with closed minded arrogance weighted at one end of the balancing pole and open minded credulity weighted at the other. If either end pulls too far, a fall may follow.

Today, I think the balance has shifted too far towards arrogance. The emergence of a new and quasi-religious dogmatism, usually termed Scientism, has been examined and criticized from diverse standpoints in recent years, particularly those of Tom Sorell, Mary Midgley and Bryan Appleyard. Though some critics of Scientism take an anti-science stance, we need not go so far to recognize some current excesses. And though some postmodernists and others question the basic epistemology of science, my concern here is only with metaphysical debates over what phenomena science should judge to be “real,” especially controversial claims for the reality of anomalies (ranging from alleged processes like extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis – the claims of the parasciences – to bizarre physical things like bigfoot and UFOs – the claims of the cryptosciences). My complaints here, then, are only with scientists’ violations of their own professed method; in fact, I agree with those who contend that science fundamentally IS its method rather than its tentative substantive content.

On Impossibilities and Errors

In their “Introduction” to No Way: The Nature of the Impossible, mathematician Philip J. Davis and physicist David Park concluded that although we may have conceptions of the impossible, we cannot have absolute knowledge of it, for “There is no criterion of impossibility.” In line with this, philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce earlier argued that our first obligation must be to do nothing that might block inquiry. Yet, some, claiming to speak in the name of science now demand doors be closed on many subjects. Although science can only assert that extraordinary events are highly improbable, some critics speak of “laws of denial” as though we can prejudge some empirical events impossible so unnecessary to investigate. Such defenders of the status quo often engage in ridicule and sarcastic rhetoric that is deemed uncivil in normal scientific discourse, and sociologists of science Harry M. Collins and Trevor J. Pinch have gone so far as to characterize some such activities as scientific “vigilantism.”

Such defenses of orthodoxy are not surprising, and they typically stem from an honest desire to avoid mistakenly thinking something special is happening when it really is not (what statisticians have termed a Type I Error). This error is embodied in the aphorism “all that glitter is not gold.” However, proponents of esoteric claims are often more concerned with avoiding the mistake of thinking nothing special is going on when it actually is (the statistician’s Type II Error). Their attitude is exemplified by the folk maxim that we “should not throw the baby out with the bath water.” These contrasting types of error, and our need to follow a path avoiding both, are central to Kuhn’s “essential tension” in science; and I think much of the difference between proponents and critics of extraordinary claims in science may center on which of these two types of error is designated as the more dangerous. The Chinese character for “crisis” consists of combining the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” Such is the case with the paradigm crisis inherent in an extraordinary science claim, usually consisting of an alleged anomaly (a fact in search of theory). Conservatives in science typically view anomalies as dangers (threats to currently accepted theories) whereas progressives (proponents) of such claims see them as “opportunities” (stimulants for theory reconstruction).

On Heresy, Scientism and Discrediting the Paranormal

As conservative science confronts the threat of anomalies, it may defend itself with excessive zeal. So much so that some organized critics of anomalies have even been characterized as a “New Inquisition” seeking to stamp out the heresies against an orthodoxy of Scientism. Ironically, since he was himself a prominent critic of many anomaly claims, Isaac Asimov distinguished between “exoheretics” (outsiders to a field)) versus “endoheretics” (insiders or professional colleagues) in science. Endoheretics are usually accorded greater courtesy than are exoheretics. Thus, I have found, endoheretics are more likely to be described as “cranks” (tenacious) and as making “errors,” while exoheretics are openly called “crackpots” (crazy) and are accused of “fraud.” The strongest pejorative labels such as “pseudoscience” and “pathology” tend to be ascribed to the claims and methods of exoheretics.

In the effort to discredit anomaly claims, critics often characterized them as “miracles,” and any connections with past religious or occult support tends to get them labelled “supernatural” or “magical.” This is particularly unfortunate, because terms like “paranormal” were originally introduced to naturalize the supernatural. Protoscientific proponents of the paranormal insist that the paranormal is part of the natural order and consists of anomalies amenable to scientific investigation and possible verification. While occultists and theologians have recognized this difference between the paranormal and the supernatural, many “scientific” critics merely lump them together as “transcendental nonsense.” Because of this, many critics of the paranormal mistakenly invoke David Hume’s famous argument against miracles when dealing with claims of the paranormal. In fact, Hume distinguished between merely extraordinary events and miracles (which must involve divine volition and a suspension of the laws of nature). Most critics of the paranormal seem unaware of the voluminous literature distinguishing “marvels” (anomalies of nature) from “miracles.” A major practical consequence of such semantic confusion is the false impression that anomalies can largely be discredited a priori so need no further investigation. Such rhetoric thus blocks inquiry.

As psychologist Ray Hyman has noted, many scientists may be more interested in discrediting than in disproving claims of the extraordinary. This can lead to poor scholarship and methods below normal professional standards, and it also results in ad hominem attacks and rhetorical tricks rather than solid falsification. Hyman noted it can also lead to the use of “hit men” (nonscientists such as journalists or even magicians) encouraged to discredit the claimants. Such nonscientists have argued about the need to “fight fire with fire” and the advantages of “horselaughs” over arguments and evidence. Such counterattacks themselves constitute a form of pathology within science. As philosopher (and critic of the paranormal) Mario Bunge put it: “the occasional pressure to suppress it [dissent] in the name of the orthodoxy of the day is even more injurious to science than all the forms of pseudoscience put together.”

Skeptics or Scoffers?

Perhaps the most insidious rhetorical trick has been the misappropriation of the label “skeptic” to describe what are actually scoffers . As sociologist Robert K. Merton pointed out, organized skepticism is a fundamental norm in science. However, the term skepticism is properly defined as doubt, not denial. It is a position of agnosticism, of nonbelief rather than disbelief. The true skeptic (a doubter) asserts no claim, so has no burden of proof. However, the scoffer (denier) asserts a negative claim, so the burden of proof science places on any claimant must apply. When scoffers misrepresent their position as a form of “hard-line” skepticism, they really seek escape from their burden to prove a negative position.

Perhaps the greatest confusion related to the needed distinction between skeptics and scoffers concerns their different reactions to the failure by a claimant to support an anomaly claim. The skeptics’ attitude towards extraordinary claims (for example, those of parapsychology) where proponents have so far produced inadequate evidence to convince most scientists that their hypotheses about anomalies are true is characterized as a case not proven. A skeptic contends that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The scoffer, on the other hand, sees the failure of proponents as evidence that an anomaly claim has been disproved. The perspective of the scoffer, as with most dogmatists, tends to distinguish only black from white and fails to acknowledge gray areas. (Our criminal justice system may likewise be too dichotomous. Thus, similar reasoning led some citizens to conclude that the murder acquittal of O.J. Simpson meant he was judged innocent when he was merely found to be not guilty. Science might better follow the path of Scottish Law which allows for three possible judgements: guilty, not guilty or innocent, and not proven.) Scoffers use a similar foreshortening towards issues of evidence. It is common to hear statements to the effect that “there is no evidence supporting a claim” when in fact it is merely inadequate evidence that has been presented. Evidence is always a matter of degree, some being extremely weak; but even weak evidence can mount up (as shown by meta-analysis) to produce a stronger case. Weak evidence (most commonly anecdotal rather than systematic and experimental evidence) is often discounted, however, by assertions that it falls below some threshold of what science should consider evidence at all. This, of course, eliminates the evidential basis for most of clinical medicine and the social sciences, but that seems to hold no terror for the scoffer who invokes such criteria.

Shifting Goal Posts and Rubber Rulers

As proponents of anomalies produce stronger evidence, critics have sometimes moved the goal posts further away. This is especially clear in the case of parapsychology. To convince scientists of what had been merely been supported by widespread but weak anecdotal evidence, parapsychologists moved psychical research into the laboratory. When experimental results were presented, designs were criticized. When protocols were improved, a “fraud proof” or “critical experiment” was demanded. When those were put forward, replications were demanded. When those were produced, critics argued that new forms of error might be the cause (such as the “file drawer” error that could result from unpublished negative studies). When meta-analyses were presented to counter that issue, these were discounted as controversial, and ESP was reduced to being some present but unspecified “error some place” in the form of what Ray Hyman called the “dirty test tube argument” (claiming dirt was in the tube making the seeming psi result a mere artifact). And in one instance, when the scoffer found no counter-explanations, he described the result as a “mere anomaly” not to be taken seriously so just belonging on a puzzle page. The goal posts have now been moved into a zone where some critics hold unfalsifiable positions. Scoffers are typically quick to demand good methodology when dealing with extraordinary claims, insisting on such things as replications, control groups, double-blind experiments, and the rule of parsimony (Ockham’s Razor). They often write of the cognitive fallacies committed by paranormalists. In the process, however, they overlook the same need for rigor in many areas they defend. Thus, alternative medicine is denounced for its failure to demonstrate claims with proper experiments, ignoring the absence of experimental evidence in many areas of orthodox medicine (for example, in surgery). And scoffers denounce “psychic” counsellors but don’t bother to do controlled experiments comparing them to orthodox advisors such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and social workers.

Psychologists who complain about inadequate replication levels in parapsychology seem unaware of the dismal record of replication with conventional psychology. They also fail to note that what constitutes a replication is itself often a matter of controversy, and, as Harry Collins has shown, often involves social negotiation.

Astronomers who inveigh against neo-astrology seem unbothered by the nonfalsifiability of many current fashions in their own cosmological theories, and they seem to have forgotten that gravity was once rejected by Newton’s fellow scientists over the assertion that there could be “action at a distance.” Scoffers seem to assume a unity in science, forgetting that history reveals many disagreement among science’s branches, such as physicist Lord Kelvin’s (then reasonable) arguments against Darwin’s theory of evolution since the sun was too young to allow the time Darwin’s theory required (fusion had not yet been discovered).

The rule of parsimony asserts that the simplest adequate theory should be preferred, but, as Mario Bunge has shown in his book on the subject, the concept of simplicity is far from a simple matter. In addition, the presumption that conventional explanations adequately cover extraordinary claims is usually the very issue at hand, so invoking parsimony can sometimes beg the question. When criticizing the paranormal, scientists who are scoffers usually fail to bring the same professional standards expected of them in their own fields. This is particularly evident when one looks at their praise for articles reporting experiments on the paranormal that obtained negative results. Some of these articles contain questionable methods and conclusions and probably would never have passed peer review had they shown positive results.

Extraordinary Claims versus Extraordinary Proof

In his famous 1748 essay ‘Of Miracles’, the great skeptic David Hume asserted that “A wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence,”and he said of testimony for extraordinary claims that “the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more unusual.” A similar statement was made by Laplace, and many other later writers. I turned it into the now popular phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” (which Carl Sagan popularized into what is almost the war cry of some scoffers). As anomalistic psychologists Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones observed, this demand “may be not only used but misused to the point where no amount of evidence of a paranormal claim will avail against a skeptic who has already prejudged the issue.” The central problem however lies in the fact that “extraordinary” must be relative to some things “ordinary.” and as our theories change, what was once extraordinary may become ordinary (best seen in now accepted quantum effects that earlier were viewed as “impossible”). Many now extraordinary claims may become more acceptable not when they are replicated but when theoretical contexts change to make them more welcome.

A Catch-22 in the Burden of Proof?

In criminal law, the burden of proof is assigned to the prosecution; in the court of science, it is placed on the defender of the deviant science claim. Whereas, in our British-based legal system, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, in science the maverick scientist is presumed “guilty” (of error) until proven “innocent.” This is appropriate since science must basically be conservative in its own defense against myriad would-be invaders. But it is important to remember that the proponent of the paranormal has an uphill battle from the start. The chips are stacked against him, so his assault is not so threatening to the fabric of science as scoffers often characterize it. In a sense, conservative science has “the law” on its side. In law, we find three varieties in the weight of burden of proof:

1. Proof by preponderance of evidence
2. Clear and convincing proof
3. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt (in criminal law)

In conventional science, we usually use (1), but when dealing with extraordinary claims, critics often seem to demand (3) since they demand all alternative explanations must be eliminated before the maverick claim is acceptable. This demand sometimes becomes unreasonable and may even make the scoffer’s position unfalsifiable. Since the anomaly proponent is already saddled with a presumption of “guilt,” it would seem to me that (2), clear and convincing proof, might be the best standard, though proponents may reasonably wonder why standard (1) should always be denied them.

A Recommendation

In addition to recognizing and working through the issues I have raised above, we need scaled terms to deal with levels of evidence for the best of the extraordinary claims put forth by protoscientists. Scientists might well distinguish between extraordinary claims that are: suggestive, meaning interesting and worthy of attention but generally of low priority; compelling, meaning the evidence is strongly supportive and argues for assigning a higher scientific priority for greater investigation; and convincing, meaning most reasonable scientists examining the evidence would agree at least a preponderance of evidence supports the claim. Using such graded language might help us turn from our present debates, with room only for winners and losers, into dialogues between peers, all of whom should want to see science judiciously progress. We can all be winners.

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

 

Academic Pride and Prejudice

Dogmatic Skepticism in Academia
by Stephen Braude

Stephen Braude

I began serious study of the parapsychological literature in the mid 1970s.

Something else began shortly thereafter: [my] growing disenchantment with the intellectual community.

Before I began to investigate the evidence of parapsychology, I still believed that intelligence was a weapon in the war against evil, that my colleagues in academia (especially in philosophy and science) were committed to discovering the truth, and that intellectuals would be pleased to learn they had been mistaken, provided the revelation brought them closer to this goal.

I now realize how thoroughly naïve I was.

Since dipping into the data of parapsychology, I have encountered more examples of intellectual cowardice and dishonesty than I had previously thought possible.

I have seen how prominent scholars marshal their considerable intellectual gifts and skills to avoid honest inquiry.

I have seen how intelligence can be as much a liability as a virtue in particular, how it sometimes affords little more than complicated ways of making mistakes, entrenching people in views or opinions they are afraid to scrutinize or abandon.

I have seen, in effect, how intelligence often expands, rather than limits, a person’s repertoire of possible errors.

I have also come to realize that members of academic and other professions tend to be strikingly deficient in the virtue that, ideally, characterizes their field.

I have seen how scientists are not objective, how philosophers are not wise, how psychologists are not perceptive, how histo­rians lack perspective, not to mention (while I’m at it), how physicians are not healers, attorneys are not committed to justice, psychiatrists are crazy, artists lack taste, etc.

Some of my revelations (however long overdue they may be) spring from personal experiences. I have observed with amazement, and, I suppose, ill-concealed disdain how academics proclaim confidently that the evidence of parapsychology is insubstantial, and then display that they don’t even know what the evidence is a lacuna about which they could hardly have been unaware.

I have seen college professors and a now famous, ambitious and (I believe) thoroughly unscrupulous magician move from relative obscurity to considerable notoriety by cultivating reputa­tions as debunkers and defenders of clear-headedness in large part through their sedulous avoidance of evidence they know they cannot explain. More disappointing still, I have discovered from my investigations of nineteenth century mediumship that none of this is new, and that prominent intellectuals have been behaving in these dishonest ways all along.

I must add, however, that there is a further and somewhat embarrassing personal reason for the present clarity of my perceptions. Frankly, I cannot pretend always to have achieved the sublimity of thought whose absence I criticize in my colleagues. Some of what I now understand about the varieties of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice I owe to having observed them in myself; they are demons with whom I am intimately acquainted.

For many years, I was content to dismiss reports of ostensibly paranormal phenomena as, at best, the result of confusions or delusions of various sorts. Of course, I hadn’t bothered actually to read any of the evidence and assess it for myself. My opinions were fashioned after those of my mentors, who (I later learned) were equally ignorant of the evidence, but with regard to whom I was too insecure and intimidated to display much independence of thought (especially on a matter that so easily provoked their derision).

Even after I became tenured and finally began to study the experimental evidence of parapsychology I continued to accept uncritically the received view that laboratory evidence was inherently cleaner and more reliable than non-experimental evidence.

Admittedly, I had no idea at the time how few of those who promulgated this wisdom had bothered to examine the latter body of evidence with any care. In fact, only recently have I come to appreciate how few parapsychologists are familiar with the material.

But at no point along the way was my ignorance benign; it was, in fact, a lazy and craven expedient. For one thing, it facilitated the disgracefully scornful attitude I occasionally adopted, initially toward parapsychology in general, and then later toward those who defended the non-experimental evidence. For another, it simply reinforced the complacency with which I held my beliefs.

Even after I began to study the evidence of parapsychology and develop a respect for the field and its data, it allowed me to remain smugly comfortable with my moderate radicalism. I made no effort to examine the non-experimental evidence for myself. I was content not to have to admit into my universe, phenomena that seemed to me bizarre and frightening (both personally and professionally).

Of course, in my heart, I knew what I was doing. But at that stage in my career I lacked the courage to challenge, not only an increasing number of orthodox academicians, but also the majority of active parapsychologists. Because of my sympathetic interest in parapsychology, my alliance with the former was in a state of flux, collapsing in some places and solidifying in others, and I was insecure about its future. And my alliance with the latter was new and presumably fragile.

I have now spent nearly twenty years carefully studying the non-experimental evidence of parapsychology, in fact, just that portion of it which is most contemptuously and adamantly dismissed by those academics who all along have been blithely ignorant of the facts. I started with the expectation that the received wisdom would be supported and that my belief in the relative worthlessness of the material would merely be better informed.

But the evidence bowled me over. The more I learned about it, the weaker the traditional skeptical counter hypotheses seemed, and the more clearly I realized to what extent skepticism may be fueled by ignorance. I was forced to confront the fact that I could find no decent reasons for doubting a great deal of strange testimony. It became clear to me that the primary source of my reluctance to embrace the evidence was my discomfort with it. I knew that I had to accept the evidence or else admit that my avowed philosophical commitment to the truth was a sham.

I am hardly comfortable about announcing to my academic colleagues that I believe, for example, that accordions can float in mid-air playing melodies, or that hands may materialize, move objects, and then dissolve or disappear. I have taken abuse and ridicule for the far more modest opinions expressed in my first book on parapsychology, ESP and Psychokinesis. But I have reached my present position only after satisfying myself that no reasonable options remain.

Actually, I find that my discomfort tends to diminish as I discern more clearly how little the most derisive and condescending skeptics really know about the evidence and how their apparent confidence in their opinions is little more than posturing and dishonest bluffing. In fact, I am less comfortable about stating my present views on parapsychology than I am about confessing how my intellectual independence was won, in part, through learning not to respect my colleagues.

So it was no accident that my second book The Limits of Influence and various articles written thereafter have occasionally taken a polemical and antagonistic tone. In the past, those who defended the evidence for large scale psychokinesis have too easily allowed themselves to be put on the defensive. In my opinion, they have responded too timidly, or graciously, to their most vocal opponents, especially to those motivated more by the love of publicity than by the love of knowledge.

However, I believe that the skeptic must be put on the defensive. The more evangelical of the lot inveigh against the forces of irrationalism. But I believe that their greatest enemies might be full information and an open mind.

It is a simple (and often profitable) matter to be a professional skeptic about parapsychology, especially when one suppresses the best cases and perpetuates misconceptions among those who know even less about the field. I hope, therefore, that my writings (especially Limits) have managed to inject some relevant data and clear reasoning into a debate where those commodities have been in short supply.

I believe that the evidence I’ve presented will seem respectable, if not coercive, to anyone without a scientific or metaphysical axe to grind. And I hope that my discussions of the evidence will make it more difficult for the self styled debunker to dismiss that evidence with feigned confidence, bogus or irrelevant facts, and facile arguments.

More Information

Parapsychology Researcher Dr. Stephen Braude Battles Against “Sleazy Arguments”
Alex Tsakiris, Skeptiko Podcast #111

Stephen Braude’s Website

Key Features of Anomalistics

 

Key Features of Anomalistics

 

The Perspective of Anomalistics

by Marcello Truzzi
Center for Scientific Anomalies Research
© Copyright 1998 by Marcello Truzzi

 


“In their most extreme form, scoffers represent a form of quasi-religious Scientism that treats minority or deviant viewpoints in science as heresies.”

Marcello Truzzi


 
What is Anomalistics?

The term “anomalistics” was coined by anthropologist Roger W. Wescott (1973 and 1980) and refers to the emerging interdisciplinary study of scientific anomalies (alleged extraordinary events unexplained by currently accepted scientific theory). The approach is today loosely represented by a number of independent organizations and publications, most notably: the Society for Scientific Exploration and its journal, founded by astrophysicist Peter Sturrock; science writer William Corliss’s multi-volume The Sourcebook Project; sociologist Marcello Truzzi’s Center for Scientific Anomalies Research and its journal Zetetic Scholar; editor Steve Moore’s Fortean Studies, and science writers Patrick Huyghe’s and Dennis Stacy’s journal The Anomalist. Those who take this approach are called “anomalists.”

Anomalistics has two central features. First, its concerns are purely scientific. It deals only with empirical claims of the extraordinary and is not concerned with alleged metaphysical, theological or supernatural phenomena. As such, it insists on the testability of claims (including both verifiability and falsifiability), seeks parsimonious explanations, places the burden of proof on the claimant, and expects evidence of a claim to be commensurate with its degree of extraordinariness (anomalousness). Though it recognizes that unexplained phenomena exist, it does not presume these are unexplainable but seeks to discover old or to develop new appropriate scientific explanations.

As a scientific enterprise, anomalistics is normatively skeptical and demands inquiry prior to judgement, but skepticism means doubt rather than denial (which is itself a claim, a negative one, for which science also demands proof). Though claims without adequate evidence are usually unproved, this is not confused with evidence of disproof. As methodologists have noted, an absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence. Since science must remain an open system capable of modification with new evidence, anomalistics seeks to keep the door ajar even for the most radical claimants willing to engage in scientific discourse. This approach recognizes the need to avoid both the Type I error – thinking something special is happening when it really is not – and the Type II error – thinking nothing special is happening when something special, perhaps rare, actually occurs (Truzzi, 1979a and 1981). While recognizing that a legitimate anomaly may constitute a crisis for conventional theories in science, anomalistics also sees them as an opportunity for progressive change in science. Thus, anomalies are viewed not as nuisances but as welcome discoveries that may lead to the expansion of our scientific understanding (Truzzi, 1979b).

The second key feature of anomalistics is that it is interdisciplinary. It is so in two ways:

1. A reported anomaly is not presumed to have its ultimate explanation in a particular branch of science. Once all conventional scientific explanations have been rejected, the eventual explanation for an anomaly may turn out to be something new but in an unexpected field. For example, data reporting experiments suggesting telepathy may eventually be best explained by a revision in our assumptions about statistics; or some reports of UFOs might eventually be best explained in terms of neurophysiology rather than astronomy or meteorology.

2. Anomalistics is also interdisciplinary in that it seeks an understanding of scientific adjudication across disciplines. This often involves not only the physical and social sciences, but also the philosophy of science.

Anomalists search for patterns in the acceptance and rejection of new scientific ideas, and this may involve the history, sociology, and psychology of science as well as the scientific fields themselves.

What Anomalistics Is Not

Anomalistics may best be understood by comparing it with some of the alternative approaches to anomalies. These would include three major organized groups: proponents, mystery mongers, and scoffers. Proponents of anomaly claims range from those involved with the occult and mystical to those who seek scientific legitimacy and are what I have termed protoscientific (Truzzi, 1972). Anomalistics is primarily concerned with the claims of protoscientists, for they seek entry into the scientific community and agree to play by the rules of scientific method. Perhaps the most advanced of the protosciences is parapsychology since it, unlike cryptozoology or ufology has obtained an affiliation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Protoscientific proponents are concerned with specific areas of anomalies and usually champion their significance for a single science (e.g., parapsychologists see themselves as revisionists of psychology), whereas anomalists may be interested in the same specific anomaly but frame it in a broader context and recognize that the anomaly examined may ultimately best be explained by another branch of science (for example, the data of parapsychology may turn out to be understood best in terms of quantum physics rather than psychology). Anomalistics attempts an integrative overview of all the protosciences and their relations with the accepted sciences.

Going further than the proponents, some who claim anomalies can correctly be described as mystery mongers. Many students of anomalies, such as those associated with Fortean groups (followers of the writer Charles Fort who catalogued what he called the “damned facts” that science dogmatically ignores) fit into this category. These claimants enjoy calling attention to what seem to be unexplained phenomena that show the limitations of science. Their writings give the distinct impression that even if a radically new scientific explanation could be found for these phenomena, it would produce disappointment rather than celebration. At their most extreme, their attitude is fundamentally anti-scientific, for such mystery mongers want to embarrass rather than advance science. Unlike anomalists, who see anomalies as a wake-up call that tells us of a need for new, improved and more comprehensive scientific theories, mystery mongers seek the extraordinary for its own sake. The mystery monger mainly wants to be entertained by nature’s “freak show” which stands outside the main entrance to science’s central “circus.”

In diametric opposition to the mystery mongers, who love things unexplained, there are the scoffers who seem to loath a mystery. Though many in this category who dismiss and ridicule anomaly claims call themselves “skeptics,” they often are really “pseudo-skeptics” because they deny rather than doubt anomaly claims (Truzzi, 1987b). While taking a skeptical view towards anomaly claims, they seem less inclined to take the same critical stance towards orthodox theories. For example, they may attack alternative methods in medicine (e.g., for a lack of double-blind studies) while ignoring that similar criticisms can be levelled against much conventional medicine (e.g., these scoffers rarely complain about the absence of double-blind tests for the results of surgery).

Many claims of anomalies are bunk and deserve proper debunking, so anomalists may engage in legitimate debunking. However, those I term scoffers often make judgements without full inquiry, and they may be more interested in discrediting an anomaly claim than in dispassionately investigating it (Hyman, 1980). Since scoffers sometimes manage to discredit anomaly claims (e.g., through ridicule or ad hominem attacks) without presenting any solid disproof, such activities really constitute pseudo-debunking.

A characteristic of many scoffers is their pejorative characterization of proponents as “promoters” and sometimes even the most protoscientific anomaly claimants are labelled as “pseudoscientists” or practitioners of “pathological science.” In their most extreme form, scoffers represent a form of quasi-religious Scientism that treats minority or deviant viewpoints in science as heresies (Truzzi, 1996).

What Anomalists Do: The Four Functions Of Anomalistics

1. Anomalistics seeks to aid in the evaluation of a wide variety of anomaly claims proposed by both scientists and protoscientists. It seeks to bring historical and sociological perspective to the issues, calling attention to non-rational factors and sources of bias often present among both proponents and their critics. It acts as a watchdog for violations of scientific rigor by all parties involved in the “litigations” over anomaly claims. Anomalists recognize that most anomaly claims are probably mistaken and stresses distinguishing between anomalies merely alleged and those validated. It recognizes, too, that evidence always varies in quality and degree, and it seeks to assess the weight of all evidence without the complete dismissal of weak evidence (such as anecdotal or experiential reports) that many scientists too often simply reject as totally inadmissable.

2. Anomalistics seeks to better understand the process of scientific adjudication and to make that process both more just and rational. A valid anomaly is just a fact in search of theory to explain it. And an anomaly is extraordinary only relative to what we view as ordinary. Anomalistics therefore recognizes that a claim can only be considered anomalous in the context of a specific scientific theory. An anomaly for which we can specify a theory that should be able to house or accommodate it but does not, is termed a nested anomaly (Westrum and Truzzi, 1978). Nested anomalies seem to contradict some accepted theories’ expectations and so may be denied by those theories. For example, a valid case of clairvoyance would be a nested anomaly because it violates currently accepted perception theory in psychology. It is important to recognize that a nested anomaly in the context of one area of theory in science may be considered less extraordinary in the framework of some other area of scientific theory. For example, clairvoyance, viewed as a non-local information transfer, may seem more tenable (less anomalous) to a scientist working within quantum physics. There are also unnested anomalies, those that do not contradict any accepted scientific theory but only appear bizarre and unexpected. For example, the discovery of a unicorn (here meaning merely a normal horse with a single horn) may be highly improbable, but such an animal would violate no accepted laws in zoology (as might a centaur). Since unnested anomalies seem strange or weird merely in terms of our psychological expectations, their degree of scientific anomolousness (extraordinariness) has been exaggerated by both the mystery mongers and the scoffers who dispute them.

3. Anomalistics attempts to build a rational conceptual framework both for categorizing and assessing anomaly claims. It examines the various approaches to extraordinary claims and differentiates those that stem from scientific, non-scientific and anti-scientific perspectives (Truzzi, 1972 and 1996). It gives much attention to developing a typology of anomalies and “unpacking” many of the concepts routinely used in discussing them. Anomalistics distinguishes extraordinary events from extraordinary theories about events. In looking at the former, it separates issues over the credibility of the narrator, the plausibility of the narrative, and the probability/extraordinariness of the event (Truzzi, 1978a). It clarifies terms commonly confused such as the supernatural, the natural, the preternatural, the abnormal and the paranormal (Truzzi 1977 and 1978b). And, perhaps most significantly, anomalistics distinguishes between cryptoscientific and parascientific anomalies (Truzzi, 1987a). Cryptoscientific claims refer to extraordinary things or objects (e.g., a yeti or a UFO), whereas parascientific claims refer to extraordinary processes or relationships between what may be quite ordinary things (e.g., a claim of mental telepathy or of a planetary influence on human personality). Such categorizations have important implications for our understanding of the assessment of anomaly claims. For example, a cryptoscientific claim is at least theoretically easy to validate (for one need capture and produce only a single giant sea serpent to establish its existence), but it may be difficult to falsify (for the thing may be avoiding detection or be elsewhere in the world); whereas a parascientific claim may theoretically be easy to falsify (e.g., an hypothesized relationship may not appear in an experiment), but it may be difficult to validate (for alternative explanations must be rejected and replication is usually demanded).

4. Anomalistics seeks to act in the role of an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) to the scientific community in its process of adjudication. Because anomalistics has no vested interest in either to the existence or nonexistence of any claimed anomaly, it is possible for it to concentrate on inquiry and the search for empirical truth rather than upon advocacy. Whereas other groups concerned with anomalies should properly act as attorneys for or against the claims, they sometimes improperly try to take the roles of judge and jury, too. Anomalists more modestly try to stand somewhat outside the disputes and examine the adjudication process itself. Their position is comparable to role of an amicus curiae in the legal system. In effect, anomalists file independent briefs to help the “court” (in this case the scientific community at large) arrive at better judgements. For example, anomalists may shed light on issues like how much and what sort of evidence should be necessary to prove what sort of anomaly, and whether the burden of proof science demands should merely be for a preponderance of evidence or (as is too often and perhaps even unfalsifiably demanded) proof beyond any reasonable doubt. It also can help us ascertain when evidence for or against an anomaly is either merely suggestive (interesting), or compelling (appears significant and likely), or convincing (appears to be valid.)

 
References:

Hyman, Ray, 1980. “Pathological Science: Towards a Proper Diagnosis and Remedy,” Zetetic Scholar, No. 6, 31-43.

Truzzi, Marcello, 1972. “Definitions and Dimensions of the Occult: Towards a Sociological Perspective,” Journal of Popular Culture, 5, 635-646.

—, 1977. “From the Editor: Parameters of the Paranormal,” The Zetetic [now The Skeptical Inquirer ], 1, 2, 4-8.

—, 1978a. “On the Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification,” Zetetic Scholar, No. 1, 11-19.

—, 1978b. “Editorial: A Word on Terminology,” Zetetic Scholar, No.2, 64-65.

—, 1979a. “Editorial [re Type I and Type II errors and the paranormal],” Zetetic Scholar, No. 3/4, 2.

—, 1979b. “Discussion: On the Reception of Unconventional Scientific Claims,” in Seymour M. Mauskopf, editor, The Reception of Unconventional Science [AAAS Selected Symposium 25]. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

—, 1981. “Editorial [Extra-scientific factors and Type II error],” Zetetic Scholar, No. 8, 3-4.

—, 1987a. “Zetetic Ruminations on Skepticism and Anomalies in Science,” Zetetic Scholar, No. 12/13, 7-20.

—, 1987b. “Editorial: On Pseudo-Skepticism,” Zetetic Scholar, No. 12/13, 3-4.

—, 1996. “Pseudoscience,” in Gordon Stein, editor, Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books. Pp. 560-575.

Wescott, Roger W., 1973. “Anomalistics: The Outline of an Emerging Area of Investigation,” Paper prepared for Interface Learning Systems.

—, 1980. “Introducing Anomalistics: A New Field of Interdisciplinary Study,” Kronos, 5, 36-50.

Westrum, Ron, and Truzzi, Marcello, 1978. “Anomalies: A Bibliographic Introduction with Some Cautionary Remarks, Zetetic Scholar, No. 2, 69-78.

 
 
 
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Refusing to Look at the Scientific Evidence for Psi Phenomena

 

Closing One’s Eyes, Plugging One’s Ears,
and Shouting “La la la la la!”

by the Editors

 


The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, by Dean I. Radin (Harper, San Francisco, 1997), is a forceful presentation of the scientific evidence for psi phenomena.

Faced with this book, why don’t the skeptics simply give up and admit the reality of psi?

There are two possible reasons.

First, Radin limits himself to the experimental side of parapsychology. There are no spirit visitations or poltergeists, no near-death or out-of -body experiences, no alien visitors. But because these topics can be conveniently lumped together with serious laboratory research, the whole subject of parapsychology remains vulnerable to skeptical attack.

Secondly, there is the nature of skepticism itself.

In his chapter “A Field Guide to Skepticism”, Radin examines skepticism, its history, tactics and possible motivation. The following is a summary.


 
Skeptical comment on psi research tends to be of an extreme nature, based on the conviction that psi is impossible.

Academic interest has been affected by skeptical treatment of the research in the literature. It is clear, however that almost all the skeptical arguments against psi have become untenable in the face of overwhelming positive evidence.

Doubt is indispensable to science. No scientific claim can be taken seriously unless it is backed by substantial reliable and repeatable evidence. The process of peer review is one of science’s foundations. But the popular of view of science as a logical, analytical and impersonal discipline can be misplaced. It is also adversarial, and when unusual claims are involved, frequently emotional. Scientists engaged in psi research apply the full rigour of scientific doubt. Nonetheless, Radin is speaking from experience when he says that sometimes the extreme reactions of skeptics have inhibited further research.

The results of key experiments have been replicated repeatedly in laboratories around the world. But the myth persists that there is no valid evidence that psi phenomena exist at all. It has even been suggested, that, whereas ‘naïve’ scientists might be hoodwinked, professional magicians would know better. In fact, the evidence is that the majority accept that psi is probably real.

For many years it was claimed that experimental psi evidence was due to chance or fraud. Advances in the design of experiments have disposed of such criticisms. The methods in use today satisfy the most rigorous skeptical requirements. It is no longer possible that outcomes of modern experiments are due to chance.

This has led the hard core to fall back on old arguments. Usually these involve the claim that after 100 years, parapsychology has failed to provide convincing evidence for psi phenomena. It is proposed that whilst the results are real and unexplainable, they could not possibly be due to psi . Therefore parapsychology is a failure.

In the normal way, the peer review process in science takes place amongst researchers working in related areas. The psi controversy is different. Here, whilst skeptics write about the plausibility of alternative hypotheses, they almost never test their ideas. This is in the nature of a religious dispute. It is not science.

Beyond the “century of failure” argument, some skeptics insist that parapsychology is not a “real science.” In fact some skeptics have assisted the development of progressively stronger evidence by identifying design loop-holes, and by insisting upon stronger empirical evidence.

Because skeptics can no longer propose tenable alternative explanations, they have been forced to fall back on the defence of a priori beliefs. Extreme skeptics have deployed a repertoire of techniques to show that all psi experiments are flawed. These include accusations that even if real, psi effects are trivial, statements of frank prejudice, scientifically invalid criticisms, and distorted descriptions of psi experiments which make psi researchers appear to be incompetent.

Some skeptics reluctantly accepted that psi effects may be genuine. But then they attempted to suggest that psi is too weak to be interesting. On the contrary any genuine psi effect, weak or strong, is a revolution for our understanding of the natural world.

Prejudice continues to haunt psi researchers. It is assumed that psi is incompatible with physics. Some critics have acknowledged that they simply do not wish to believe the evidence, because psi was clearly impossible.

Fraud is the best, and really the only remaining explanation for psi effects. It is more convenient to believe that parapsychologists cheat than that ESP is real. The skeptical philosopher David Hume argued that since we know that people sometimes lie, but we have no independent evidence of miracles, then it is more reasonable to believe that claims of miracles are based on lies than that miracles actually occurred.

In 1987, the National Research Council published a study commissioned by the U. S. Army Research Institute evaluating a variety of unconventional training techniques. These included amongst others, parapsychology. Announcing the results it was stated that the The Committee found no scientific justification for the existence of parapsychological phenomena. On examination of the final report it was found that the Committee had been unable to offer any plausible explanations to the research it surveyed. Further it was recommended that the Army continue to monitor psi research in the United States and the former Soviet Union, even proposing specific experiments to be conducted. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the conflict between the public announcement of the report and the actual contents had to do with political expediency.

Only one allegation about laboratory psi research is valid in terms of the criteria for scientific criticism, have independent, successful replications been achieved? We now know that the answer is yes, so the criticisms should stop here. Other arguments against psi research fail because they do not meet the criteria.

Parapsychology is the victim of constant distortions. Those in the popular press commonly assert that “claims in other fringe realms, such as telepathy and psychokinesis, are credible only if you ignore a couple or three centuries of established science.” These critics never specify which laws of nature are meant, or why they are fixed absolutes. It is difficult to deal adequately with complex subjects within the space constraints of the press. Some distortions are to be expected. A more thorough and neutral treatment might be expected in academic textbooks. This is not always the case.

There are many examples of introductory psychology textbooks which present flawed descriptions of psi experiments. Not infrequently it is implied that fraud was the likely explanation. A recent survey shows that a large minority of psychology texts do not mention parapsychology.

Skeptics like to suggest that psi researchers are influenced by a desire to justify their spiritual convictions. There must therefore be “something wrong” with parapsychology. Apart from the researchers, how do skeptics account for the widespread public belief in parapsychology? If there is no scientific evidence that psi exists, it must be mass delusion. A majority of American adults, regardless of religious conviction reported psychic experiences in a 1987 survey. But there was no evidence that they were unconsciously creating hallucinations to confirm their prior beliefs. Their persistence in the face of all the evidence prompts the question of what drives the skeptics themselves in their attempts to discredit the results of psi research, perhaps hostility to spirituality in general, or a fear that psi might be real.

 
 
 
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A Spectrum of Belief

 

Belief Systems, Categorized

by William S. Moulton

 


Adapted from a circa 1990 paper.


 
There is a wide spectrum of levels of consensus and belief, and of the conditions required to achieve them.

For example, a situation may be:

Assumed
When it is “common knowledge,” accepted on a default basis, and no evidence to the contrary has been presented or recognized.

Certain, True or Proven
When evidence is conclusive or compelling.

Believed
In law, when there is a credible and reliable informant who is a witness.

Likely
In law, when the summary of evidence is in favor.

Probable
When at least one item of direct, verifiable evidence exists.

Plausible
When consensus-logic arguments “for” are stronger than those “against”.

Uncertain
When evidence and arguments “for” and “against” seem equally plausible.

Doubted
In law, if the existence of a competing or mutually- exclusive situation is suspected.

Unlikely
In law, when the summary of evidence disfavors it.

Improbable
When direct or indirect, verifiable evidence is missing.

Implausible
When arguments “against” are stronger than those “for,” or where consensus logic cannot ascertain consistency or cause and effect.

Suspected
In law, when not believed, but there is some suggested evidence or argument to support it.

Possible
Where no necessary conditions “for” are violated.

Disbelieved
In law, when a credible and reliable informant is a witness to direct contrary evidence.

Impossible, False or Disproven
When all necessary conditions for belief are violated or disallowed by conclusive evidence.

Not Suspected
Not considered, or there exists some generally-accepted reason to deny it.

 
 
 
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Evolution

 

The Rise and Fall of the Peppered Moth

 

by the Editors

 


Peppered Mothpeppered_fc

The cornerstone of Darwinian
natural selection is crumbling.

The peppered moth, biston betularia, is a species of moth familiar to anyone who has studied biology, for this ordinary moth provided evidence which proved Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

That’s what everyone thought.


 
In Darwin’s time, the word evolution implied a pre-existing, presumably a divine plan, and this is just what Darwin wanted to rule out. He pointed out that organisms vary spontaneously, offspring tend to inherit the characteristics of their parents, and in the competition for survival, the unfit are eliminated by natural selection. Thus natural selection could account for both the adaptations to their environment shown by plants and animals and the progressive development of new forms of life. This concept was summarized in the title of his most famous book, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

The problem with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is that it occurs over thousands of years, and is therefore difficult to prove empirically. What was needed was an example of rapid environmental change, forcing organisms to adapt quickly.

In 1848, a black or melanic form of the peppered moth appeared in Manchester. At the time, industrial areas in England were subjected to high levels of atmospheric pollution. These deposits killed the lichens on tree bark, and in 1896 this was linked with the decline of the normal form of the moth. In polluted areas the black moths were better camouflaged against the dark tree trunks, and so less likely to be eaten by birds, a perfect demonstration of the survival of the fittest.

Where was the evidence? In the 1950’s Bernard Kettlewell of Oxford University made a study of peppered moths in polluted woodland near Birmingham.3 His results showed that black moths were twice as likely to avoid being eaten by birds in the polluted environment. Kettlewell’s experiment was what scientists had been waiting for: direct proof of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

The peppered moth became the classic example of the phenomenon of industrial melanism, where all-dark individuals became the dominant form. The fact that, in later years, as industrial pollution began to decline, so did the melanic form f. carbonaria, was taken as supporting evidence.

The reign of the peppered moth was to prove short. Twenty years later the American lepidopterist Ted Sargent reported problems with Kettlewell’s experiment.5 Sargent’s criticisms received little attention at the time. But in 1998, Michael Majerus in his book Melanism: Evolution in Action strongly supported Sargent’s conclusions. 1,4 For example, the famous photos of moths on tree trunks were actually posed, using dead moths arranged on a log. Peppered moths do not alight on tree trunks long enough to be eaten, preferring the shady undersides of branches. It is even doubtful whether birds actually eat moths on tree trunks. Kettlewell’s evidence on the preference of birds for light coloured moths was clearly contrived. Alternative explanations for the appearance and subsequent decline of the melanic form are now available.

The journalist Judith Hooper, in Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy and the Peppered Moth,2 puts the question of how such a flawed piece of research could become a cornerstone of evolutionary biology, presenting creationists with an unexpected gift.6

The implication is that scientists are just as prone as other humans to believe what they want to hear, and every bit as reluctant to accept inconvenient evidence to the contrary.

 
References:

1.   Jerry A. Coyne, ‘Not Black and White’, Nature, Vol. 396, Nov. 5, 1998, pp 35-36.

2.   Judith Hooper, Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy and the Peppered Moth, Fourth Estate.

3.   H. Kettlewell, ‘Darwin’s missing evidence’ (1959), Evolution and the fossil record, readings from Scientific American, W.H. Freeman and Co., San Francisco, 1978, p. 23.

4.   Michael E. N. Majerus, Melanism: Evolution in Action, Oxford University Press, 1998.

5.   Sargent T.R. et al., in M. K. Hecht et al., Evolutionary Biology, 30:299-322, Plenum Press, New York, 1998.

6.   Wayne R. Spencer, Creation Education Materials.

 
See also on this website:

Second Thoughts About Peppered Moths
Jonathan Wells, Ph.D., Department of Molecular Cell Biology
University of California, Berkeley

 
More Information:

The attempt to reclaim the peppered moth for Darwinism has not been an unqualified success.

Revenge of the Peppered Moths?
Jonathan Wells, Evolution News, February 12, 2012

Darwinism in a Flutter
Peter D. Smith, The Guardian, 10 May 2002.
“Did a moth show evolution in action? Peter D. Smith searches for answers in Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy & the Peppered Moth by Judith Hooper.”

 
 
 
 
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Psychic Phenomena

 

Psychic Phenomena

 

The Great Divide

by Guy Lyon Playfair

 


Why Proponents and Deniers of Psi Are Never Likely to Agree


 
Debating Psychic Experience, edited by Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), deserves to become required reading for sociologists, historians of contemporary science, and anybody involved in any kind of psi research.

While reading it, I was constantly reminded of the story told about that lovable wit Rev. Sydney Smith, who was strolling along a narrow street around 1800 with a colleague when they heard two women leaning out of their opposite windows and screaming insults at each other.

‘These two ladies will never agree,’ Smith commented, as the debate raged over his head, ‘for they are arguing from different premises’.

The debate featured in this book may be quieter and more polite, yet one cannot help reaching a similar conclusion. On one side of this street we have such champions of psi research as Chris Carter, Dean Radin, and Stephan Schwartz, their neighbours on the other side including veteran sceptics James Alcock, Ray Hyman, Chris French, Richard Wiseman and Michael Shermer. The former reckon, with considerable justification, that phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis, generally lumped together under the heading of psi have been shown to exist, to have a solid statistical base, and to be regularly experienced by millions all over the world, as numerous polls have shown. For the latter, however, psi is simply impossible, so any claims for its existence must be wrong. For them, end of story.

However, their walls of disbelief are built on some very wobbly foundations. Here, for just one example, is Richard Wiseman’s spin on the early days of psychical research:

“Around the turn of the century a small band of pioneering researchers initiated the first program of systematic scientific research into the possible existence of psychic ability. They assumed, quite reasonably, that if psi did exist it would probably be most apparent in those claiming to possess significant psychic abilities. Unfortunately, their investigations into the best-known claimant mediums and psychic claimants of the day revealed that many of these alleged abilities were actually the result of either fraud or self-delusion.” (p. 170)

This seemingly innocuous paragraph is notable for the amount of disinformation, misdirection, half-truths and no-truths Wiseman has managed to pack into less than a hundred words. For a start, he gives no references and names no names. He also seems unaware of, or is deliberately misrepresenting, what that ‘small band’ (presumably the Society for Psychical Research) had actually achieved by the year 1900.

True, the SPR did come across fakery – Myers described some choice examples of what he called ‘resolute credulity’ in Vol. 11 of the SPR Proceedings – as it still does. Wiseman forgets to mention that it also found plenty of evidence for genuine phenomena. In 1900 the fifteenth volume of the Proceedings was published, containing among other things a discussion of the ‘alleged’ abilities of the American medium Leonora Piper, which had already been described in great detail in previous articles by such experts as William James, Richard Hodgson, Frederic Myers and Sir Oliver Lodge, none of whom made any reference to either fraud or self-delusion. Nor did Myers in his investigations of the mediumship of the Rev. W. Stainton Moses (Vols. 9 and 11) or of Rosina Thompson, who even impressed the SPR’s house sceptic Frank Podmore, and with whom Myers had well over a hundred sittings in 1898-9 (Vol. 16). Nor did Andrew Lang in his study of the voices heard by Joan of Arc (Vol. 11). Nor did Sir William Crookes, who had twenty-nine sessions in his own house with ‘claimant’ medium D.D. Home over a three-year period in which he recorded a vast amount of evidence (Vol.6) for just about every psi phenomenon on record.

Wiseman alleges that the SPR founders believed that if psi did exist, it would ‘probably be most apparent in those claiming to possess significant psychic abilities’. Again, we are given no reference to support this allegation, nor any mention of the fact that early SPR research was largely inspired by the hundreds of ordinary members of the public whose experiences were thoroughly researched and meticulously recorded in Phantasms of the Living (1886), The Census of Hallucinations (1894) and in Myers’s monumental 1,360-page Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). Few if any of those who provided the evidence for psi claimed to have any kind of psychic abilities at all.

Another example of the sceptics’ casual attitude to research is provided by Chris French, who describes himself correctly as a ‘relatively moderate sceptic’. Yet he too has not done his homework. He complains (p.149) that Radin ‘completely fails to mention that two of the three Fox sisters publicly confessed that their alleged communications with the spirit world were fraudulent.’ He in turn completely fails to mention that this ‘confession’ was soon retracted and the reasons why it was made in the first place have been fully explored and explained. And can he produce a 12-year-old girl who can produce poltergeist-type raps by cracking her toe joints? If so, bring her on and invite the press.

There are many reasons why those who argue from different premises will never agree. One is the constant suppression of positive evidence by the media and even by academia. Co-editor Friedman, a Research Professor at the University of Florida with impressive academic qualifications including editorship of two psychology journals, describes (p.201) having ‘found strong evidence for telepathy in a study of U.S. pre-teens’ and written it up. So did he publish it? Well, actually no. He explains:

“If I had found a similarly strong result within a mainstream research area, I would have unhesitatingly published it. However, because of various factors (e.g. my then mentor warning me that publishing this investigation would be a career ender for me as a budding academic), this study was relegated to the file drawer. (I know of another recent case of this kind of censorship but will not give details, at least not yet, to avoid possibly ending another career). I’m glad to add that Friedman’s article was finally published in the excellent journal Explore (6:3, 2010).”

When the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research published Barrie Colvin’s report on his analysis of poltergeist raps (two of them recorded by me) in its April 2010 issue, which showed convincingly, with numerous examples, that such raps have an entirely different acoustic signature to any kind of normal percussive sound, a press release with a copy of the article was sent to some 35 media outlets. Here was instrumentally recorded evidence for an as yet unexplained anomaly. Were the media interested? Not very. Only two of the 35 even mentioned the report. So the general public is denied access to positive information about psi matters, whereas any negative information invariably gets wide coverage and approval. Not exactly a level playing field with immovable goalposts.

Finally, how you have any kind of serious debate with somebody who can write this kind of stuff, as Alcock does (pp 39-40), sounding like a born-again behaviourist who is several decades behind the times?:

“The parapsychological quest is motivated not by scientific theory, nor by anomalous data produced in the course of mainstream science. Rather, it is motivated by deeply-held beliefs on the part of the researchers – belief that the mind is more than an epiphenomenal reflection of the physical brain, belief that it is capable of transcending the physical limits normally imposed by time and space. It is this belief in the possibility of such impossible things that sustains parapsychology and leaves it relatively undaunted by the slings and arrows of (yes, sometimes outrageous) criticism. And it is this belief that all too often blinds researchers to the possibility that extrasensory perception, psychokinesis and other paranormal phenomena perhaps really are impossible after all.”

Yet again, no names, no references, no citations, not a micro-shred of evidence to support this patronising, tendentious and (yes, as so often, outrageous) nonsense. Has he actually asked any parapsychologists what motivates them or what they believe in?

Of course not. He might risk having his made-up mind confused by facts.

It’s time to restate [Arthur C.] Clarke’s Law: ‘When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong’.

It’s also time to remember Russell Targ’s observation that people are not interested in manifestations of psi phenomena because they have read about them, but because they are having them.

Let Sydney Smith have the last word, which seems relevant to the present discussion and might well be addressed to the psi deniers mentioned above: ‘What you don’t know would fill a book.’

It would indeed, and it has – this one.

 
 
 
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Anomalistics

The term “anomalistics” refers to the study of scientific anomalies, alleged extraordinary events unexplained by currently accepted scientific theory.

Anomalistics deals with empirical claims of the extraordinary – it is not concerned with alleged metaphysical, theological, or supernatural phenomena.

Anomalistics recognizes that unexplained phenomena exist, but does not presume these are unexplainable. It seeks to discover old or to develop appropriate new scientific explanations.

As a scientific enterprise, anomalistics is normatively skeptical and demands inquiry prior to judgement, but skepticism means doubt rather than denial. While recognizing that a legitimate anomaly may constitute a crisis for conventional theories in science, anomalistics also sees them as an opportunity for progressive change in science. Thus, anomalies are viewed not as nuisances but as welcome discoveries that may lead to the expansion of our scientific understanding.

The second key feature of anomalistics is that it is interdisciplinary. A reported anomaly is not presumed to have its ultimate explanation in a particular branch of science. The eventual explanation for an anomaly may turn out to be something new but in an unexpected field. Anomalistics is also interdisciplinary in that it seeks an understanding of scientific adjudication across disciplines. This often involves not only the physical and social sciences, but also the philosophy of science.

Some Unfair Practices Towards Claims of the Paranormal

  Discrediting “Extraordinary” Claims by Marcello Truzzi   This article was published in slightly edited form in: Oxymoron: Annual Thematic Anthology of the Arts and Sciences Vol.2: The Fringe Edward Binkowski, Editor New York: Oxymoron Media, Inc., 1998   The reception of unconventional or extraordinary claims in science has come under increasing attention by sociologists...

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Refusing to Look at the Scientific Evidence for Psi Phenomena

  Closing One’s Eyes, Plugging One’s Ears, and Shouting “La la la la la!” by the Editors   The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, by Dean I. Radin (Harper, San Francisco, 1997), is a forceful presentation of the scientific evidence for psi phenomena. Faced with this book, why don’t the skeptics simply...

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A Spectrum of Belief

  Belief Systems, Categorized by William S. Moulton   Adapted from a circa 1990 paper.   There is a wide spectrum of levels of consensus and belief, and of the conditions required to achieve them. For example, a situation may be: Assumed When it is “common knowledge,” accepted on a default basis, and no evidence...

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Academic Pride and Prejudice

Dogmatic Skepticism in Academia by Stephen Braude From the Preface to: The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis and the Philosophy of Science, University Press of America, Lanham; Revised edition (1997). I began serious study of the parapsychological literature in the mid 1970s. Something else began shortly thereafter: [my] growing disenchantment with the intellectual community. Before I...

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Key Features of Anomalistics

  Key Features of Anomalistics   The Perspective of Anomalistics by Marcello Truzzi Center for Scientific Anomalies Research © Copyright 1998 by Marcello Truzzi   “In their most extreme form, scoffers represent a form of quasi-religious Scientism that treats minority or deviant viewpoints in science as heresies.” Marcello Truzzi   What is Anomalistics? The term...

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